The night I found Nick’s brutalized body, I broke a heel on my new slingback pumps. I was rushing to the restaurant where we’d meet for dinner. As I limped across the parking lot toward the entrance, I cursed my husband out in my head. I promised myself to remind him for the rest of his life how his hyper punctuality had stressed me out so much I’d tripped and destroyed my expensive shoes.
I will always regret those furious, petty thoughts burning a trajectory in my mind that evening.
As I got into the Santa Monica seafood restaurant, the hostess told me my date had yet to arrive but that I was welcome to have a seat at our table. In my distressed state, I was grateful of course and took the offer. Moments later, I was sitting behind a white-clothed table by the window waiting for Nick to arrive. I checked the time. Two minutes past eight, the hour we had settled on.
Ha, I thought. This time he will be the one who’s late and I can give him jazz about it. While he was always on the dot, I was almost pathologically late. Not by much, usually only by five, max seven minutes. He never made a big deal about it, just smiled and shook his head at me like I was a mildly frustrating child. Still, it annoyed me to no end, so today I had gone out of my way to show him that I, too, could be exactly on time. It was a bad habit I needed to fix, though I didn’t know if sacrificing my brand new, three-hundred dollar shoes had been worth it.
At fifteen past eight I was getting a little worried. I kept looking out the window and around the restaurant, hoping to spot Nick somewhere, coming toward the table, an apologetic smile on his ruggedly handsome face.
Where is he?
I checked my phone again for a text from him, explaining that he was stuck in traffic or something similar. Still nothing.
I frowned. Very weird. I pressed the speed-dial button to get him on the line, but all I got was his voicemail.
“Hey, baby, it’s me,” I said into my phone. “Where are you? Call me. I’m at Shutters at a table waiting for you.”
I waited another twenty minutes, anxiously checking my phone and my surroundings, hoping to spot Nick somewhere. This was so not like him. Finally I couldn’t take the sense of rapidly spreading unease in my stomach any longer.
Something wasn’t right.
I got up from the table and limped out to my car, holding my phone all the while in case Nick tried to reach me. I wasn’t sure where to go, what to do, only that something was wrong and that I needed to find my husband. The idea of just sitting at the table while waiting for him to maybe show up eventually wasn’t something I could handle. Patience had never been one of my strengths; besides, the increasing tightness in my stomach suggested that wasn’t what I should be doing anyway. If Nick wasn’t contacting me, something must have happened to him and I’d better find out right away what that could be.
I would start by going home and change into more comfortable shoes.
Driving far above the legal speed limit, I was at our apartment building in West Hollywood a lot faster than I usually got there. The knot in my stomach had doubled in intensity as my phone still contained no texts or calls from Nick, nor had he picked up any of the times I’d tried to reach him again.
Something was very, very wrong. It was a feeling that completely permeated me.
I parked my car at the curb and rushed across the sidewalk toward the two-story, pastel green building that contained our one-bedroom apartment. My heart was pounding wildly as I entered the hallway. It picked up more speed when I noted that our front door wasn’t fully closed.
Neither Nick nor I ever left our door open. Both of us being LAPD detectives, there were too many people who wanted to see us dead for us to be that negligent.
Loud rock music poured out from our place.
I was in front of our apartment door in three giant strides and pushed it open all the way. By now I was hyperventilating, I was so freaked out by that powerful sense of impending doom in my chest and stomach. Cold sweat coated the skin on my face.
Oh, God, let this just be my nerves playing a cruel joke on me. Let everything be okay. Let it be me just overreacting. Please make it so that Nick is all right.
But it wasn’t just me overreacting. Everything was not okay. And I discovered that it couldn’t be more wrong when I stepped into our bedroom. It would never again be okay either.
Halfway inside the room, I spotted a bloody, lifeless man splayed across the hardwood floor. It was Nick, so brutally beaten and tortured I didn’t recognize him at first.
The hours that followed my horrible discovery were a nightmarish blur of pain and confusion.
After I’d gotten over the initial, paralyzing shock of finding my husband in such a state, I called 911 to get an ambulance to come get him as quickly as possible to a hospital. I did this even though I knew on a visceral level he was already dead. No one in his butchered condition could be alive still, but I refused to accept this fact in the beginning. Then I got my boss, Captain Brady, on the line and managed to tell him what had happened. He and two squad cars were at our house within minutes. After embracing me, Brady dragged me out of the bedroom and our apartment; at that point I’d gone from hysteria to catatonia and actually let Brady take charge of me, remove me from Nick.
Wrapped in a blanket and standing on the street with my boss, I watched out of the corner of my eye as the ambulance came and then left without Nick. A car from the coroner’s office picked him up instead.
Brady took me to my parents’ house in Brentwood. My hysteria returned with a vengeance there. I spent hours crying and pacing the living room floor while trembling violently. I punched and kicked the walls, threw things. I yelled nasty phrases. Finally, my parents made me swallow heavy-duty sleeping pills to knock me out. I slept for eighteen hours straight before I came to again, thinking I was still asleep and having the worst nightmare of my life.
But I wasn’t; it was all true. Something so horrible could indeed be true.
Nick was dead. Oh, God, my husband was dead…
When I accepted this fact at last, I went back to my catatonic state, unable to feel a thing. I didn’t dare letting myself feel anything. If I did, I didn’t think I would be able to ever again stop crying. So I made myself become a robot in order to function. It was the only way to control the pain in my body that was threatening to tear me apart from the inside. I needed to find out not only who had done this to Nick, but when I had, I needed to make them pay for it.
Make them suffer the way they had made Nick suffer.
Judging from the words carved directly into my husband’s wide, naked back, I had my idea who was behind it all:
Rats always get what they deserve.
It must have something to do with the Cardoza cartel Nick and I had been instrumental in bringing down. My husband had spent more than five years undercover in this cartel, ending up becoming one of the notorious drug lord Felipe Cardoza’s most trusted men, while I had gone undercover at the fancy New York health club where Cardoza had been a member. The idea had been for me to become Cardoza’s trainer and thereby get the information needed to once and for all destroy his powerful cartel. Nick’s involvement hadn’t been enough.
I did eventually become his trainer and I did get the information needed to take down the Mexican who pretended to make his living solely through real estate developments. Nick’s undercover work had still been crucial to make this happen, so Cardoza’s fall wasn’t only due to my efforts.
Nick and I had known each other while working this case—engaged in a physical relationship—but neither of us had known of the other’s true purpose. It had been the best of times and the worst of times for both of us as we had slowly but surely fallen in love. While riding the highs of passion, I kept worrying about getting too close to the enemy on my first major case; he about involving an innocent girl in his sordid life with Cardoza.
I was obviously not supposed to be sleeping with Nick, but it had been impossible for me to resist his considerable charms. In the end, I did the right thing and managed to stop seeing him, though.
It hadn’t been easy knowing that I, in the process of bringing down Cardoza, would also put the man I loved in jail for the rest of his life. Then, right as I found out that Nick was just another undercover cop, he was shot to death in a very public fashion during our sting operation.
It turned out that Nick’s death had been staged in an effort to protect his true identity. If everyone including other cops thought that Nick—or Paul Medina as he had called himself while undercover—had died, he wouldn’t have to go into the Witness Protection Program and instead was free to do whatever he wanted. Well, more or less. He still needed to disappear to a place faraway or people would soon realize he wasn’t really dead. His boss at the NYPD wanted him to go somewhere no one would ever suspect him of going—like moving to Los Angeles, a city everyone who’d known Nick knew he detested. So that was the perfect place for him to relocate to. The fact that I was from L.A. was a major reason he had chosen to go there and start working for the LAPD as a detective, I later found out. He had loved me as much as I had loved him all along, so how could he not?
My own return back to my real identity had been much smoother. In preparation for my undercover assignment, I had gone from a wavy-haired, brunette Latina with chocolate brown eyes to a platinum-blond, straight-haired Swede with blue eyes. The very different hair and eyes combined with the fake Swedish accent I’d learned to speak with made me appear radically different. Being a light-skinned Latina helped to convince people I was of Nordic descent.
Nick and I reconnected in L.A. soon after my return from New York and got married a few months later. We had spent the last year blissfully happy and never worried very much that anyone would find out about us and take revenge. The more time that passed, the less we thought about it, though of course we were always careful, not taking any unnecessary risks and always carrying our guns on us. Even when we slept, we kept them nearby.
Armed or not, we’d felt confident we were safe from any retributions on Cardoza’s part.
Now it certainly looked like we had been wrong to jump to this conclusion.
Judging not only from the bloody words on Nick’s body but from the sheer methods used to kill him, it spoke strongly of someone from the Cardoza cartel being involved. They were big on torture. The white cloth stuffed into Nick’s mouth kept in place with a rope tied around his head combined with the loud rock music had allowed them to do it without drawing attention from our neighbors. Cardoza himself was in prison and would remain so for the rest of his life, but he had plenty of relatives and business connections who would be happy to avenge him, either of their own accord or if he gave the word. Both scenarios would require the perpetrators knowing of at least Nick’s existence in Los Angeles. Because I was still alive, I didn’t think they had figured out who I was. If they had wanted to see us both dead, it would have been much smarter to take care of me at the same time as Nick.
After taking a shower and having a quick bite—not because I was hungry, only because my body needed nourishment in order to function so I forced myself—I went down to the station. There, I waited until Captain Brady arrived for the day. It was only five in the morning, but I was well aware that my boss liked to come in at the crack of dawn, so I wouldn’t have to wait for long.
I was correct; he arrived only forty-five minutes later upon which I told him about my suspicions regarding Nick’s murder.
“I agree it looks like it’s connected to the Cardoza cartel,” Brady said after having gotten over the initial surprise of finding me seated in his dark office; I’d blurted out my thoughts without greeting him first. Switching on the light, the graying man gazed at me kindly. “How are you holding up? What are you doing here so early in the morning? After what happened, you shouldn’t be at work.”
“I want to be part of the investigation into his death,” I said with determination, ignoring Brady’s concerned questions.
Brady sighed and removed his coat, hung it over his desk chair. “You know that’s not possible, Longoria. I can understand how much you want to and you’re a great cop, but the fact of the matter is that you’re too close to the victim. It’s impossible for you to be objective.”
I clenched my teeth and sucked in a breath to calm the fury surging through me so I wouldn’t snarl at my boss; it wouldn’t do any good. “I know that, but can’t you make an exception in this case? I had what it took the first time despite being a complete rookie. I have what it takes to take care of this situation too. You need me to find his killer.”
“No, you need to find his killer. Again, I can completely understand why you want to be on the case, but it doesn’t change the fact that you can’t. It’s as simple as that.”
“Please make an exception.” I leaned toward him where he stood behind his desk and placed my hands on the table top. “I have great instincts—you told me so yourself—and inside knowledge of Cardoza. Those are two things that’ll be crucial to learn who did this to Nick.”
“You do have great instincts and inside knowledge, but it still doesn’t matter. This is not something I can assign you to, period. It’s completely against department policy. My hands are tied, Longoria.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Besides, if this is in fact the Cardoza cartel’s doing, you may not be safe any longer. Did you consider that?”
“I think that if they had figured out who I was, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you right now. Why not kill both of us right away? It doesn’t make sense to kill Nick first as it puts me on high alert.”
Brady shrugged. “It’s true that it doesn’t quite make sense, but I wouldn’t completely discount the possibility that you could be next. If I were you, I would go for a nice, long vacation somewhere and not tell anyone where you’ve gone. In fact, I insist that you go and will put you on paid leave as of today. You need to deal with what has happened. Take your time to mourn Nick. I can’t imagine how much you must be hurting.”
I struggled not to glare at my boss, this man I respected and admired so much. But what he was telling me was the last thing I wanted to hear. I needed to be on this case and I didn’t care if it put me in danger. I only cared about making sure whoever had done these horrible things to Nick were caught and paid the price. If it killed me in the process, so be it. I didn’t think I wanted to go on living without Nick anyway. How would I ever get over what had been done to him? How would I be able to live without him?
But glaring at Brady would be counterproductive. I was much better off trying to use logic with him instead. So I willed my face to assume a more neutral expression.
“Everyone mourns in their own way,” I said demurely. “For me it would not be effective to lounge on a beach somewhere. I’m a doer. You know that. The only thing that would make me feel better is to make sure the monsters who did this to my husband are caught. Please help me make that happen. I surprised everyone with my skills the first time I dealt with the Cardoza cartel and I’ll surprise everyone even more this time. I’m a stellar detective.”
Brady exhaled and shook his head. “Longoria, for the last time, I cannot put you on this case! You need to take some time off. Go somewhere far away where no one can find you. Go climb the Himalayas. Explore Africa. I beg of you. Don’t stick around L.A. and keep trying to be part of the investigation. It won’t happen.”
He walked up to me and grabbed my arms, gazing at me intently with his watery blue eyes. “Gabi, I don’t want to see you dead too.”
My begging Brady was clearly not going to get me what I wanted. What I needed. Craved. Thankfully, there were other ways. I made myself give him a sad, defeated grimace.
“Fine. I won’t.” I straightened, ran my palms over my face, and sighed. “You’re probably right in that I need to get away from here, deal with what has happened. Chasing Nick’s killer won’t fill the huge hole in my chest. Remove my pain.”
Brady looked relieved and embraced me, patting me fatherly on the back.
“I know how you must long for revenge, Gabi. But believe me when I tell you—it won’t make you feel any better in the long run. It’ll eat you alive. Leave this to us and we’ll take care of it for you. We’ll get the bastards who did this to Nick. We’ll make them pay.”
“Thank you, Brady,” I mumbled into his shoulder. I took another beat and then I removed myself from him. “Can you at least promise to tell me how it’s going? If I check in with you every now and then?”
“Of course, Longoria. Of course. Now go home and book a ticket somewhere. Don’t tell anyone where you’re going and I’ll take care of your paperwork.”
I nodded demurely. “Okay, will do. Thank you.”
We exchanged a few more details regarding how I should go about booking my ticket using a fake name so I couldn’t be traced and so on. Then Brady gave me a kiss on the cheek and said goodbye for now.
I smiled and said goodbye too. Then I went out to my car to contact my friend and former coworker, Dante, a successful health club owner who also happened to have significant contacts in the criminal underworld due to having been a gang member for ten years.
If Brady wouldn’t let me be part of the investigation to find Nick’s killer, I’d have to do my own.
(Get the rest of the book here.)