The Power of Love and Murder

Prologue

Thirteen Years Earlier

As she drove onto her street for home, Jianna Ricci’s thoughts were on the unexpected afterschool meeting with her counselor. The news Ms. Saleg had given her had her bubbly with giddiness. She couldn’t wait to tell her parents that her counselor had taken a personal interest in her and sent letters of recommendation to five top schools. One of them: Oxford.

Her imagination took flight as her cell chimed a text message. She tipped the sunglasses up on her head and glanced at the phone. John, her brother.

The smile on her face turned to stone as she read the two-letter code.

GU

A cold chill prickled her spine as she snapped her gaze back to the road. GU. Go under. Her stomach swam with nausea and sweat dampened the whole of her body. She focused ahead to the middle of the block, spotted her house and the black sedan parked in the driveway, and eased her foot off the gas. Confusion added to her dismay. There had to be a mistake.

But she couldn’t risk it.

While increasing her speed to the posted limit, she punched the photo button on her phone with a shaky hand, then turned her attention back to the road ahead. As she drove by her home, she held the camera to the side window and snapped a picture, capturing the car with government plates parked in the driveway.

Attention still on the road, heart pounding, she tossed the phone on the passenger seat and sped past the lake and out the gate of the Rock Springs Country Club community. By the time the eastside of the parking lot at the Red Rock Mall came into view, three miles away, her hands still shook. She stopped precisely where her father had directed, where the security camera on the corner of the roof couldn’t quite reach, opened the glove box, and removed the pre-paid phone. As she turned on the cell, a silent plea to her family left her lips.

Please call. Tell me it’s a false alarm.

Pings and lights held her attention as the phone came to life. For a moment, she stared at the cell, but when the hoped for tone of a message didn’t come, she shoved it into her leather hobo bag along with her own phone.

Jianna grabbed her corduroy jacket and lifted her backpack to the front seat. From the side pocket, she plucked a bracelet stowed there yesterday, an early Christmas present from her mother. No sense taking anything else from the pack. A survey of the parking lot showed holiday shoppers bustling in and out of the mall, so there was a good chance no one would notice her. She eased open her door, set her feet on the black top, and as a dusty wind ruffled her hair, stood.

When the door clicked shut it was as if some part of her life had ended. Her knees gave way, and she fell back against the car. The Spring Mountains rose above the rooftop of the one level shopping mall. While gazing on the familiar sight, she wanted to rest a second, make some sense of the last several minutes. But the need to act quickly spurred her on. After two deep breaths, she slipped into her jacket, slung her bag over her shoulder, and strode across the lot, all the time darting glances side to side and behind her.

A green, metal trash barrel stood beside a No-Parking sign at the edge of the sidewalk. She took her cell out of her bag, removed the SIM card, and dropped the phone through the swinging lid. As she walked, she unzipped an inside suede compartment in the bag and deposited the card.

At the far end of the mall and across the parking lot, The Mohave Bank of Nevada anchored the corners of Fifth Street and Main. The mushiness in her legs had firmed by the time she pulled open the glass door and shivered against the air-conditioned assault still blowing in defense of a warmer than usual December in Red Rock, Nevada.

She cleared her throat and with a deep swallow, strode to the safety deposit counter. “Hi. I’d like to get into my box. Number fourteen twenty.”

“Uhm, sure.” The elderly lady gave her a quick once over. Maybe teenagers didn’t normally have safety deposit boxes.

Jianna dug in her wallet for ID. “It’s our family box, and you’ll see I have permission.”

The woman consulted a screen on the desk. “Oh, yes. Of course, Miss Ricci.”

Alone in the closet-sized room, she wasted no time. Her father had versed all of them, repeatedly, on what to do if the code came. Do first. Think later. Get the job done. She removed her driver’s license and high school ID from her wallet, then skimmed through a side pocket and slipped out her Dillard’s charge card, Eddie Bauer rewards card, and zoo membership ID, and set them beside the metal box.

She opened the box, stared at the contents for a moment, and tightened her stomach muscles to still the flutters. The family’s new future glared back. Her father’s instructions played in her head, causing her palms to sweat and her breath to come faster. When any one of them received the code, they were to follow his instructions to the letter, regardless of what they felt. He’d warned that if the safety deposit box should be breached, no evidence of the new life could be left for someone else to find.

Their lives depended on it. Whoever survived.

Now, staring at the contents, Jianna had to remove everything except for a portion of the money. After a deep breath, she lifted out the four passports, drivers’ licenses, and Social Security cards. When the rest of the family could escape whatever obstacle they’d encountered that necessitated the code, they would come to the bank, leave their identification, and take the money to help with joining together in Flagstaff, Arizona. She would be waiting with their new identities.

Stop thinking.

After wiping her palms on her jeans, she took the remaining items, four Visa cards, and five of the stacks of banded one hundred dollar bills, leaving three in the box…for her family. She had to believe they would follow.

She stashed all of the contents in the main compartment of the hobo bag, and in their place she deposited her ID and the other cards from her wallet then closed the metal box on Jianna Ricci.

Once the bank aide had assisted her in replacing and locking the box, she stepped from the vault, scanned the interior of the bank to make sure no one took undue notice, and made a straight line to the exit. Her hands didn’t shake, her knees didn’t buckle, and the plan she’d put in motion numbed her to all but what she had to do. Jianna Ricci, a senior girl in high school with a bright future, had entered The Mohave 

Bank of Nevada on a December day, but twenty-one-year-old Penny Sparks with uncertain days ahead was the woman who exited through the glass and chrome door.

Chapter One

Present Day

Jake Winters climbed into the cab of his oxidized green Dodge truck, and his knees ached with the effort. He scooped his cell phone from the dashboard and scraped a knuckle on the crack in the sun-hardened vinyl.

“Son of a…” A weary sigh escaped as he punched in Grier’s number.

“Grier Construction.” The gravelly voice of the owner couldn’t be mistaken.

He slumped against the seat, raking his free hand through his short-cropped beard. “It’s Jake, Sam.”

“Hey, Jake, how’s it going there?”

“I’m finished.” He unbuckled the kneepads and dropped them on the floorboard of the passenger side.

“They like the color okay?”

“They did after I convinced them it’s what they meant to order. And truthfully, in a bathroom that small, the tile they wanted would’ve been obnoxious.”

“You saved my ass on that one, Jake. Don’t know how we ended up with the wrong color.” Sam’s voice sounded uneven as if he paced the floor. “Must’ve been that airhead at Sack Tile. I’ve had trouble with her before.”

Jake didn’t believe his story for one minute. Grier could screw up colors on a paint-by-number drawing.

“That little repair job in Payson tomorrow shouldn’t take you but a couple of hours. Give me a call when you get back to Phoenix.” His boss talked faster than his normal speed.

“I need to get paid, Sam.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure. Come by the office on Monday and we’ll settle up.”

The office was in Phoenix, two hundred miles from Winslow, and Monday was five days away. Hell, he didn’t have enough gas in his truck to make it to the valley or enough money in the bank to last until Monday.

“That wasn’t what we discussed.” His free hand fisted on his thigh. “I need to get paid today. You said you’d put the money in my bank so I could withdraw it here in Winslow.”

“Don’t know what the hell I was thinking.” The shyster chuckled. “Since you just finished the job in Winslow today, I haven’t even gotten my money yet.”

“Then how about the last job?” His face heated in spite of the forty-degree temperature outside. “You still owe me half for the job in Black Canyon City.”

“Hey, Jake. Lighten up. That BCC job still hasn’t paid me. I did you a favor giving you half. In fact, on a commercial job like that, I’ll be lucky to get my money before the end of the month.”

“What the hell, Sam? You didn’t mention that.”

“My hands are tied.”

Fatigue forgotten, he sat straighter and glared out the window. “Cut the crap. You said when I finished this job you’d catch me up. Well, I’m—”

“My other phone’s ringing. Give me a call tomorrow, and I’ll see what I can do. Might have another job for you.” Grier hung up.

Jake dropped the phone onto the passenger seat, wiped a hand across his grimy forehead, and bumped a palm against the steering wheel. “You’re still hooking up with assholes, Winters.” Getting paid under the table, off the books, should’ve told him something. The higher pay could’ve helped pay for his own license, but if you couldn’t get paid, it didn’t really matter. He stared at the failing daylight over the treetops and simmered in the anger for a while until he took a deep breath and let it go. When the emotion vacated his body, the ache in his shoulders and knees quickly returned.

He turned the key in the ignition, listened to the old engine grind, and shut it off. Counting to ten, he cranked it again. This time, the engine coughed then started. The fuel gauge registered just over a quarter tank.

“Bugger.”

He could make his way to Payson, spend the night, and rattle Grier’s cage in the morning. This time, he’d be more forceful. Threaten bodily harm? Sam probably wouldn’t believe he could follow through any more than Jake believed he could carry it out. Then again, he was getting pretty damned sick of being broke.

Payson was a ninety-mile drive, halfway to Phoenix and home. Pulling away from the curb, he caught a glimpse of the sun sinking into the snow-sprinkled branches of a pine, and left the residential street for Highway 87, one of the most scenic roads in the state. He liked northern Arizona. He liked that he could enjoy the simple pleasure of a drive through pine covered, mountain terrain. Two years ago, he hadn’t liked much of anything besides the next high. His idiot days were over. He might be thirty-nine and broke, friendless, and drive a beater, but the air he breathed was crystal clear and new music played in his head again. He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel with his latest tune. For now, until he was not only planted but growing solid in a sober world, his music would entertain only him.

****

Penny slumped onto the worn leather office chair behind the front desk counter of the Grand View Hotel in Flagstaff. Wednesday nights were the slowest. With nothing to do and the heavy funk she’d been in all day, her mind wandered down paths she didn’t care to tread—paths that led nowhere and ended in emptiness. She missed her family more than ever during the holidays. Her mother had loved Christmas. Besides all of the traditions with Secret Santa Week, the twelve days of Christmas, and holiday music playing every night at dinner, she’d decorate the entire house. Penny fingered the always-present bracelet on her left wrist, a Christmas present from her mother, and glanced overhead. With Thanksgiving over, Christmas decorations adorned the hotel. The holiday adornments didn’t cheer her.

But more than the holidays, it was December—she hated December.

Her purse stood open on the shelf beneath the counter and the sight of the corner of the newspaper tucked inside the inner pocket invited further melancholy. A weight settled on her chest as she slipped out the paper. With lace-gloved fingers, she gently opened the folds of the article from a December day, thirteen years ago. The paper was old and weary with handling over the years. The top half of the cut-out story was stained brown from the coffee she’d spilled the first time she’d read it; she could still feel the crush of the Styrofoam and the burn of the coffee over her hand.

Three Family Members Shot: Executed.

She didn’t need to read the article—unfortunately, she could recite every word. Having a photographic memory was a curse, not a gift, no matter what her mother had told her so long ago. But seeing her parents’ and her brother’s names in print helped to make them real. “Larenz Ricci. Myah Ricci. John Ricci.”

“I thought you were on the phone, but it looks like you’re talking to yourself, Penny.”

As if hauled from the depths of a dark cavern, she blinked to clear her vision and become accustomed to the hotel lighting. The smiling, green eyes of Lacy Meadowlark greeted her.

“I didn’t realize…” Rapidly refolding the news article, she palmed the paper against the lower shelf as she stood. “Was I talking out loud?” She forced a smile and a chirp of a giggle.

“I think so. You’re so small you practically disappear when you sit behind the counter, but I did hear some mumbling.”

At five two, Penny didn’t rise too high above the front desk even when she stood. “I guess I was thinking out loud. My head’s a bit fuzzy. Didn’t sleep too well last night.”

The sheriff’s wife set her to-go mug on the counter and leaned on her elbows with clasped hands. “I don’t envy you working when it’s slow and boring and you’re tired. I think it’s going to be a long night for you.”

“I think you’re right.” She pushed the article toward her purse and brought both hands to rest beside Lacy’s.

“Pink?” The woman stared at the lace gloves on her hands. “How can I possibly call you the Black Fairy if you’re going to start wearing pink?”

Penny chuckled. “Wouldn’t you know my white lace gloves got mixed in the laundry with Mandy’s panties and bras.”

“Now, there’s something I would never have guessed. I didn’t think you two wore anything but black and white.”

Her smile brought delicate laugh lines around her mouth and eyes. Penny wasn’t sure she’d turned fifty yet, but Lacy was as vibrant and lovely as the day they’d met.

“We have similar tastes.” She adjusted the black tiara that pinched the left side of her head and winked at her friend. “I don’t go for the full-on black Goth thing anymore, unless I’m working. You know. Haunted hotel and all. Don’t tell Mandy I told you, but her undies are quite colorful.”

Lacy laughed, then grew serious. “How’s it going for her? I heard her divorce was anything but amicable.”

“She’s doing okay. And I love being her roommate again. Especially since her house is much bigger than the apartment I lived in.”

“Again? You’ve lived together before?”

Talking with Lacy lifted a little of the heaviness, until the mention of the first time she’d lived with Mandy. Flagstaff had been the destination point to meet up with her family…but they hadn’t met her. Mandy had been her life preserver.

“Way back. Mandy got me a job at the Depot as a server when I first came to Flagstaff. And we shared an apartment until she married Pete.”

“You’ve come full circle. Only now, you’re the evening manager of a famous hotel.”

“What are you doing here tonight?”

“Chance is across the street at The White Wolf Spirit talking to Chief. Looking for another Navajo rug. While they gab, I popped in to get a chai at the Rendezvous.” Her friend loved the chai at the coffee café and nighttime martini bar of the Grand View.

“I called August the other day.” Lacy’s daughter had become a good friend, too. “You probably know she’s taken up skiing now that Hans is out of diapers.” She missed August, who had married an Austrian police inspector when the mother and daughter duo had gone to the country to meet Lacy’s grandfather—a trip over four years ago that ended with disaster and happiness.

Lacy patted her hand. “You need to visit them again. Soon.”

“I will. She said you and Sheriff Meadowlark are going to visit in the summer.”

“If I can get Chance to take time off work. We need to see that grandson again. And right now, I better go drag my husband away from Chief or we’ll be eating a late dinner.” She shrugged into a teal-colored down jacket, lifting her long, ebony hair to clear the collar then picked up her cup. “Say hi to Mandy, and I hope your shift doesn’t drag too painfully long. We might get snow later tonight, so be careful when you head home.”

“Thanks. Give the sheriff a hug for me.”

As Lacy exited the hotel, Penny slumped onto the chair and stared at the hotel computer screen. Her personal possessions didn’t include a computer or even a cell phone. In the beginning, when her single existence was forced upon her, she’d shunned all means of virtual connection. Her father had impressed upon them the importance of getting lost to the world, the safest way to live. He’d impressed it upon her all right. Scared her to the point of avoiding any form of communication outside of face-to-face. Slowly, she embraced a lifestyle she’d come to think of as basic.

On rare occasions, and only in the last year, she used her housemate’s computer to look up movies or Google recipes. Touching a few keys brought up Mandy’s Gmail account on the hotel computer. No reply from her aunt in Las Vegas whom she’d sent a note to three days ago. She’d managed to hold back and not try to contact anyone from her other life for all these years. The fear overwhelmed her, yet the yearning got the best of her this December. Maybe her aunt didn’t understand the cryptic message from a stranger named Mandy. Maybe she didn’t have the same addy any longer. Or maybe she’d died. Her dad’s sister was older, but she couldn’t remember exactly how old.

What a stupid thing to do anyway. That was another life…long gone. The ache surged just below her breastbone, and her breath grew shallow as she struggled to shake an ever-increasing sadness.

Enough.

With a finger, she depressed the mouse, closing Google. She had a new family now. Mandy was like a sister, and she loved her dearly. Lacy was like an aunt. August…a cousin who lived in a foreign country.

At least she was safe, alive, and Dad would be proud.

****

In spite of his fleece-lined jean jacket, Jake shivered when he got out of his truck. He pulled his duffle from behind the seat and set it on the floorboard under the steering wheel. From the bed of the truck, he transferred a tile cutter and a couple of other expensive tools to the cab. With the duffle slung over his shoulder, and his sack of dollar menu food in hand, he locked the truck.

As he walked toward his room, a neon sign in the window of the bar across the street drew his gaze. Red, yellow, green. Liquor, beer, wine. He rolled his shoulders, lifted the sack of food close to his face, and sniffed. Greasy fries would be his relaxer tonight.

At room number four, he unlocked the door and wrinkled his nose at the smell of mildew and stale cigarette smoke.

What do I expect for $44.95?

His boot sole caught on the carpet, bunched and torn at the doorjamb, and sent him on a stutter-step to keep his balance. “Damn.” The genuine fake leather upper had pulled away from the sole on his left boot.

He felt around on the wall and flipped on the overhead light. The bulb flickered for a moment, long enough to see the bedside table lamp, and went dark. He threw his bag on the mattress, turned on the lamp, and plopped down on the lumpy, squeaky bed. His stomach growled. After turning on the wall heater, he settled down to eat.

The TV sat lopsided on the scarred bureau. When a glance around the room didn’t give up a remote, he reached out, without rising from the foot of the bed, and turned it on. Static greeted him on the three local channels available. Maybe he should change rooms.

“Bugger that.”

It probably wouldn’t matter anyway. He’d read. What he needed was a good night’s sleep. A full stomach and a shower should help secure one. He vowed not to look at the bedding too closely when he pulled back the cover.

In a half-hour, naked, he slipped into bed, opened his book, and closed his mind to money woes as he began his ten-minute meditation. Relaxed, he focused on the book.

Sometime later, he jerked awake and knocked the book from his chest. He was freezing. Pulling the sheet and blanket over his head didn’t stop the chill that reached all the way to his toes. Silence. No click, click, bonk noise of the heater. He slid one arm out, brought his cell under the covers, and pushed a button. Four twelve a.m.

Reluctantly, he turned on the lamp, shivered out of bed, and padded three feet to the heater. He leaned over and shut it off then turned it on. Punched low, high, and fan-only buttons over and over, then pounded on the plastic top.

“Son of a…”

Switching off and on once more got no results. His toes were iced by the outside air flowing under the door. He grabbed his jeans off the chair and stuffed them along the bottom of the door then climbed back under the covers.

The thin blanket and sheet were no match for the drop in temperature. After fifteen minutes of trying to think warm, he had an idea. Out of bed, he jogged to the bathroom and turned the shower to hot, full blast. Immediately, the air around him warmed. The chill on his skin subsided before he headed back to bed and yanked off the sheet, blanket, and pillow. He slipped on his shirt and underwear and carried the bedding back to the bathroom. The floor looked kind of nasty, but the sheet, doubled over next to the shower, covered the old linoleum. Wrapping the blanket around him, he settled on top, bumped his knees on the wall, and hunched his shoulders to fit. Good thing he wasn’t a particularly big man. His legs were long on his five-foot ten frame and difficult to fold small enough, like a stork squeezing into a wren’s nest. Hopefully, the running, hot water would keep him warm enough to get a few more hours of sleep.

“Ass wipe.” The curse, directed at his shyster boss, muffled into his pillow.

Another curse at himself for all the wrong decisions he’d made that landed him in this position didn’t fully form on his lips. Instead, he recited Step Ten. Continue the personal inventory. What the hell…this might be a crummy hotel, and he was cold and tired, but he felt every shivering, crappy moment of it. Not that a shot of Chopin Vodka to warm him didn’t cross his mind. He would’ve had several and a few snorts this time last year. And wouldn’t have felt the cold…or the hard floor…or much of anything else.

Thoughts of a few nights in crummy hotels when his band, Flash Theory, struggled to make a name for themselves played in his head. That brought him wondering about Ian, the English drummer who shared his arrest date.

“Bugger you, Ian.” The profanity he’d adopted from the Englishman rolled over his tongue with a smile. He hadn’t contacted his favorite band mate and best friend since sobriety. They weren’t a good influence on each other. Maybe one of these days…

About an hour and a half later, Jake woke, cold again and his legs cramping. He pulled his knees to his chest and rolled toward the bathroom door, glancing at the ceiling.

“What the…”

Strips of paint hung like confetti from a New Year’s Eve party. Had the ceiling looked like that last night? He scrambled to his feet, tangled in the blanket, and tripped on the sheet bunching on the floor. Catching himself on the back of the toilet, his hip hit the bar on the shower door. “Ow!”

After turning off the now cold shower water, he extricated his legs from the bedding and surveyed the ceiling again.

“Ah, man.”

Surely he hadn’t caused that. The place was a dump. Yeah, probably already peeling long before he turned on the shower.

The time had come to flee the motel from hell.

After throwing the blanket and sheet on the bed, he brushed his teeth, and smoothed his beard with a comb. He ran a brush through his hair as he squinted into the cloudy mirror above the sink. Dark curls fell onto his forehead in spite of his effort, and he shrugged, turning from the poor excuse of a mirror. He stuffed his toiletries in the duffle, then loped to the door and retrieved his jeans from the floor. His frozen jeans.

Damp air combined with below freezing wind from under the door had rendered his pants stiff.

He slumped back on the bed and laughed. “You know, Winters, if you weren’t so pitiful, you’d be amusing.”

A hard shake straightened the denim. This job should’ve been an easy two-day, one-night stay, and the repair job in Payson no more than a rest stop on his way to Phoenix. This was the only pair of jeans with him. He put them under the covers and lay on top. After fifteen minutes, using the time to consider what he’d do if Sam wouldn’t deposit some money, the jeans were wearable. He kicked aside the worthless work boots and pulled his old Doc Martens from the duffle. With a rub of a palm across the toe, he huffed in resignation. The age-worn leather couldn’t be restored to charcoal gray that easily.

After a few minutes of letting his truck run with the heater blowing lukewarm air, the heat of the convenience store and gas station a block away beckoned. He browsed the aisles as if searching for something while blood returned to his arms and legs. When the cold finally wore off and he could relax his shoulders, he stopped in a back corner and punched Grier’s number into his cell. No answer. After three more tries, hoping to wear the jerk down, he poked the End Call light, jammed the cell into his pocket, fisted hands at his sides, and glanced around. The cold beer case glared brightly.

What is this? A test?

Without a second glance at the refrigerated section, he rubbed a hand over his face and strode to the front of the store. Damned if he’d do the repair job here in Payson.

All right then. The lump in his throat went down with a hard swallow along with pride and disappointment. He hadn’t wanted to go to his family until he’d entered the real world, successfully, without anyone’s help. Three years since he’d had contact with his parents. And the last time he’d seen his sister was shortly before his arrest, over a year ago. He could’ve contacted her after his stint in rehab. They’d always been close. She topped his list of needed amends. But when his manager bled him of all his money and Flash Theory fell to pieces and scattered in every direction, he was afraid she’d think he only came around for a handout.

Well, that’s what he needed now.

But Mandy was an angel—his Dark Angel. Did she still favor black clothes or had her Goth phase been left behind?

She’d understand. He’d been out and working for almost six months. Still…he didn’t want to be broke and in need of anything from her.

No choice, Winters. Suck it up.

It took most of the funds in his account to gas up and get a coffee and a doughnut. Hopefully, Pete wouldn’t be there when he got to her house in Flagstaff. He didn’t really remember much about his sister’s husband since he’d been stoned mindless most of the times they’d met. But he’d guess Pete didn’t think much of him. Why would he?

The engine started on the first try—had to be a good sign—for a two-hour drive to Flagstaff, if he stayed off the Interstate. He’d take 87 to Lake Mary Road through pine-topped mountains called rim country as the road wound farther north. The cold but clear day boasted icy blue skies and sun-soaked evergreens. Instead of anxiety at seeing Mandy, given his current situation, a smile came to his mouth and spread deep inside. He couldn’t wait to hug his little sister, his Dark Angel.