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Killing Secrets

When she gets the call, Nan Vining responds as a mother first and a detective second. Her daughter, Emily, has made a gruesome discovery in a secluded section of a Pasadena park: a pretty, popular young teacher from Emily’s high school and a bright yet troubled transfer student—both dead and bloody in a copse of trees. But the crime scene isn’t the only thing that seems off to Detective Vining. There’s also the cocky classmate who was with Emily in the park—the boyfriend she never knew about. What else doesn’t she know about her daughter?

As she attempts to channel both her maternal and investigative instincts into one single point of focus, Vining’s superiors at the Pasadena Police Department are moving at lightning speed. Before the evidence has even been processed, the case is closed as a clear-cut murder/suicide: a disturbed teenager murders his teacher, then himself. Vining doesn’t buy it. Now she’s chasing dangerous, powerful people with secrets they would kill for—and taking them down means risking her own flesh and blood.

Killing Secrets is diabolically good … a top-notch murder mystery. Nan Vining is a heroine you’ll love.”  Allison Brennan, New York Times bestselling author of Compulsion

“Emley masterfully twists, turns, and shocks.”
— Tess Gerritsen

“A complex, challenging and engaging mystery for Vining to unravel . . . Readers will love tagging along for the ride.”The Florida Times-Union
 
“A suspenseful thriller . . . that will surprise readers with its stunning conclusion.”Kings River Life Magazine
 
“I would strongly recommend Killing Secrets to anyone who likes a good mystery/crime novel—especially one with a strong, intelligent female lead character.”—A Book Geek
 
“Five out of five . . . I didn’t want to put it down.”—Bewitched Bookworms
 

Chapter 1

Emily Vining laughed as she ran through moonlit shadows in the park with Ashton McCarthy, a boy she knew her mother wouldn’t like. Ashton let go of her hand and ran ahead, turning to snap photos of her as he jogged backward, stumbling on the uneven ground, looking cute and sexy. She took photos of him taking photos of her. Minutes ago, he’d kissed her beneath the rising, full moon and it had been a slice of heaven. Each kiss seemed like their first. It was all brand new. Emily thought this might be the most perfect day of her life until they saw the bodies.

It took her a minute to catch up with Ashton who’d stopped at the crest of a knoll where he was standing frozen, looking down into a small ravine on the other side. He turned on his cell phone flashlight to better see what he’d glimpsed in the moonlight. Emily inhaled sharply, clamped both hands over her mouth, and turned away from the two bloody corpses on the patchy spring grass near the sprawling branches of a sycamore tree.

Emily was still turned away, blinking at the image that was seared into her mind, when Ashton said, “Is that…?” and began moving forward. She thrush out her hand and grabbed his arm to keep him from going down there. “Don’t. You’ll contaminate the crime scene.”

He glared at her hand on his arm and anger flashed in his eyes. “Said like the daughter of a homicide detective.”

His comment stung but Emily couldn’t address it right now. She released him at the same time he pulled his arm away from her. She took her cell phone from her jeans pocket. The screen said NO SERVICE. They were in a remote area of Pasadena’s Lower Arroyo Seco Park.

Ashton walked down a few yards into the ravine. He moved his cell phone flashlight beam over the brutalized bodies of the young woman and teenage boy lying on the opposite slope. “It’s Mrs. Keller.”

Holding her phone in her hand, Emily went to stand beside Ashton, needing to confirm what she’d instinctively felt from that first horrible glimpse. One of the dead people was her favorite teacher, Erica Keller.

The pretty, young woman was on her back. Her slim, raspberry-colored jeans and lacy pink panties had been pulled down past her knees. Her right leg was bent to the side and her left leg was straight. Her paisley-print blouse had been torn open and her pink bra was pushed up, exposing her breasts. Her right arm was bent with her hand by her head and her left arm was by her side. Her torso and clothes were drenched with blood.

“What’s that guy’s name? That dork.” Ashton shone the flashlight onto the face of a teenage boy a few feet from Mrs. Keller, his back propped against the trunk of a sycamore tree. He was tall and lanky, wearing an open plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up over a red T-shirt that had white printing on it. His hands were palms up on the ground beside him. Blood had drained from what looked like cuts in both wrists and had seeped into the dry earth. “I’ve seen him at Coopersmith.”

“It’s Jared.” Emily blinked back tears. “Jared Hayword. He’s a senior. Just transferred this year. Mrs. Keller helped him.” She let out a sob. “Look what he did to her.”

She took deep breaths and tried to calm down. She looked at her cell phone, her hand trembling, grateful to now find a single bar of reception. She blinked away tears as she called the Pasadena Police Department emergency line, which she had on speed-dial. “Hello. My friend and I… My friend… Dang.” The call broke up and then cut off. She headed back up the hill to try to get better reception. “Ashton.” She looked back and saw him leaning forward, peering toward the bodies. She again speed-dialed the police.

“Hello…. Hello? This is Emily Vining. My mom is Detective Nan Vining. Hello?” She went down the other side of the hill where she finally got better reception but lost sight of Ashton.

Chapter 2

The full moon was high by the time Pasadena Police Detective Nan Vining arrived at Lower Arroyo Seco Park. The sprawling park comprised one section of the twenty-five-mile-long Arroyo Seco watershed, which began in the San Gabriel Mountains and wound south and west across several cities and neighborhoods before merging with the L.A. River. The 150-acre Lower Arroyo Seco Park lay near the city’s western edge and had a fly-casting pond, archery range, hiking trails, and acres of tranquil, secluded woods with native sycamores and coastal live oaks.

Nan drove her personal car on South Arroyo Boulevard, which ran along an edge of the park. She stopped at a police barricade at Norwood Drive and tipped her chin up toward the uniformed officers there who moved the wooden barrier to allow her to pass. She turned down a small road that led into the park, passing black-and-white PPD cruisers and dark-colored Crown Victorias that were parked along the sides or pulled onto the patchy grass. Reaching a parking area, her expression was stern as she pulled behind a white, late model BMW coupe. The car belonged to her daughter Emily. It had been a gift for the girl’s sixteenth birthday six months ago from Em’s dad, Wes, and his wife, Kaitlyn. Nan had argued against buying the luxury vehicle as Em’s first car and had lost that battle. Kaitlyn hadn’t stated her true motivation, which was that she saw Emily as a reflection of herself and wanted Em to fit into her and Wes’s nouveau riche, status-conscious world. Wes signed the checks and did whatever made Kaitlyn happy.

Nan’s misgivings about what the car represented had come true. Tooling around Pasadena in the BMW had given Emily a certain arrogance that Nan didn’t like. She felt it had somehow influenced her daughter’s decision to drive a classmate, some kid named Ashton whom Nan hadn’t heard of before, to this remote section of the Arroyo at dusk.

Nan cut the engine of her Ford Escape. She grabbed her purse from the passenger seat and took out her flat badge. There was no good place to affix the shield on her V-neck sweater. She again rummaged in her purse, found a breakaway chain, threaded the badge case through it, and draped it around her neck.

She had been in the middle of taking her American history midterm at nearby Cal State, L.A., where she was finally pursuing her dream of getting a college degree, when her cell phone had buzzed with an incoming call from Sergeant Kendra Early, Nan’s commanding officer. Nan’s professor and several classmates had given her dirty looks when she’d answered her phone and slipped from the room. None of them knew about her day job, although her professor would soon learn when Nan explained why she’d had to leave.

On the phone, Early summarized what had happened so far and said, “Caspers is working the scene. Emily’s okay, just shaken up, but I’m sure you don’t want her driving herself home.”

“No. Of course not. Thanks for looking after her.”

“Hey. That’s what we do, right? Here she is.”

After a pause, Emily came on. “Mom,” she wailed. “I can’t believe it. Mrs. Keller… It’s so awful.”

“I know, sweet pea.”

“I’ll never get seeing her like that out of my head. And that idiot, Jared…” Emily’s speech deteriorated into incomprehensible sobbing.

“You’re okay, Em. Take a deep breath. Try to calm down. All right?” Nan heard Emily trying to take deep breaths. “Why were you in the Arroyo?”

“I texted you that I was going to the park to work on my photography homework with my friend from class. You texted Okay.”

Nan had assumed Emily was going to the more popular and accessible Brookside Park, which would have been full of people—the crowded jogging trail around the Rose Bowl, the Aquatics Center buzzing with kids taking swimming lessons, and the golf course, which was busy year-round. She hadn’t imagined Emily would go to the rugged and isolated southern portion. “How did you end up in the Arroyo?”

“Ashton–that’s my friend–said he knew a great place to take pictures of moody shadows. There’re some cool old stone walls here, like ruins and stuff, and big trees, and the full moon is making awesome moody shadows. That was our assignment. That’s how we ended up here.”

“I haven’t heard you mention Ashton before.”

“He’s a guy in my class, Mom.”

“What’s his last name?”

“McCarthy. Mom, do you have to do the third degree now? I mean, really?”

Nan could tell that Emily wasn’t being completely honest by her hesitancy and the way her voice rose at the end of her sentences. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Let me talk to Sergeant Early again, please.”

Early got back on the line. “I’ll stay with Emily until you get here, Nan.”

“Thanks, Sarge. This is tough. Em adored Mrs. Keller. I met her at the open house last fall. She was great. Really connected with her students.”

“It’s a horrible scene. She was stabbed multiple times. Possibly sexually assaulted.”

“Damn. What about the boy?”

“Jared Hayword. Almost eighteen. New to Coopersmith. Emily and Ashton said he was a smart kid but a quiet loner type. Ashton said he was a ‘creepy dork.’ Emily was kinder, describing Jared as awkward and nerdy, but polite and nice. He was a target of bullies, who called him ‘Haywire’ and played practical jokes on him. Mrs. Keller had taken him under her wing. Emily says that Jared was in Mrs. Keller’s classroom all the time. That he was obsessed with her. It appears he slashed his wrists with the same knife he used to stab Mrs. Keller. Looks like a clear-cut murder-suicide.”

Nan said, “Even if the case turns out to be straightforward, it’s going to make headlines. The media scrutiny will be fierce. I was looking forward to my days off, but I’ll reschedule and dig in as soon as I get to the scene.”

Early hesitated. “Umm… No need to change your plans. It’s been covered.”

That surprised Nan. She was the senior investigator in Homicide/Assault. The unit had been short-handed since Jim Kissick, her work partner and lover, had been promoted and was in Washington, D.C., on a special assignment. One of the other longtime investigators, Doug Sproul, was on a cruise with his wife. That left Louis Jones, who was highly capable, and Alex Caspers, who wasn’t nearly as callow as when he’d joined the unit but he still had a lot to learn. “Sarge, this will be a high-profile investigation and we’ll need all our resources. No disrespect to Louis or Alex, but neither of them has been the lead on a case of this magnitude before.”

“Caspers is taking the lead and Lydia Narayan is working with him.”

“Lydia Narayan?” Nan didn’t mean for her tone to sound as dismissive as it had. “She just started in… what? Auto theft?” The face of the cute, young detective who wore her clothes too tight flashed in Nan’s mind. “And I like Alex, but he’s not qualified to spearhead a case this big.”

“Lieutenant Beltran and I want to give Alex a chance to step into a leadership role and to cross train Lydia. You were able to fill Jim Kissick’s shoes after he was promoted, but if you’re out of commission for some reason, we’ll be in a bad situation. Lydia Narayan has worked gangs and sex crimes. She’s attracted the attention of the brass and they want to move her along. What happened here is a horrible tragedy, but the investigation will be straightforward. A popular teacher was murdered by a troubled student she took an interest in who then killed himself.”

Vining had worked with Early for a long time and sensed that she wasn’t on-board and that the decision had been solely Beltran’s. Who knew what was motivating him? Maybe he thought Vining had gotten too much attention for closing a series of notorious cases.

Early continued. “Plus, Mrs. Keller was your daughter’s teacher. You knew her. And Emily and her friend discovered the bodies. I don’t want it coming back that our investigator’s objectivity was compromised.”

“Sarge, I knew Mrs. Keller slightly. This is Pasadena. Everyone knows one other. And, all due respect, but we can’t assume this is a murder-suicide. With every death investigation, even if it’s an elderly woman who appears to have died at home in her sleep, we assume homicide until we can prove differently. You taught me that.”

“That’s generally the situation. To your point, there is a fact in this case that may cause controversy. Erica Keller was married to Ryan Keller.”

“Our Ryan Keller?” Nan took a moment to process that information. Ryan Keller was a sergeant with the Pasadena Police Department and was friendly with Lieutenant Beltran. Keller and Beltran had often been on the PPD’s team in the Baker to Vegas Relay, an annual law enforcement running tradition. “I thought I heard about trouble between Ryan and his wife. A domestic disturbance.”

“Erica had filed for divorce and got a restraining order against Ryan. He’s currently on administrative leave because of an incident involving his wife.”

“Domestic violence. Law enforcement’s dirty secret,” Nan said. “Sarge, is somebody higher up intentionally keeping me off this case?”

“I have no information about that.” Early’s tone was measured. “That’s an interesting idea. Still, the evidence is clear-cut and points to murder-suicide. Let’s take this one step at a time. Come and get your daughter and maybe we’ll have more information by then. I’ll keep Emily company until you get here.”

Nan had interpreted Early’s statements to mean that somebody higher up than both of them was pulling strings to influence the investigation. There was nothing clear-cut about this case at all.

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