Perfect fall day. That was the problem. Boston Sergeant Detective D. D. Warren knew from past experience that perfect days were never to be trusted. And yet, with her five-year-old son, Jack, giggling excitedly as he pulled on his sweatshirt, and her crime scene expert husband, Alex, all smiles as he dug out an L.L.Bean canvas bag, it was hard not to get into the spirit of things. Apple picking. One of those crazy domestic things other families did, and now she and her family would do. Apple picking first thing this bright, crisp morning, to be followed by a long-awaited visit to the humane society.
With a capital D.
Jack had been begging for one since he could talk. In the past six months, Alex had suddenly taken his side.
“Pets are good for kids,” he’d explained patiently to D.D. “They teach responsibility.”
“We’re never home. How responsible can we be if we’re never home?”
“Correction. You are never home. Jack and I, on the other hand…”
Low blow, D.D. had thought at the time. Though the truth was often like that. So: Project Dog. For her over- the- moon beautiful little boy. And her quite charming and still-had-the-moves husband. Fine print: They all had to agree on the mutt in question.
Personally, D.D. had no interest in a cute, squirmy puppy that would eat everything in sight. A mature, solemn-eyed pit bull, however…
She admired their loyalty and fierce spirit. A female pit bull, two to three years of age, she’d already decided. Young enough to play with Jack and bond with the family, old enough to understand her immediate responsibilities to serve and protect. D.D. pictured herself and this theoretical pit bull reaching a silent agreement on how to guard the boy at all times.
Perfect fall day. Apple picking to be followed by Dog adoption to be followed by complete madness and mayhem, which was about exactly right for a family with a five-year-old boy.
Meaning, she’d no sooner reached for her favorite caramel-colored leather jacket than her BPD-issued cell phone sounded. Then her personal one. She glanced at her department issue first, then her private mobile.
“Sh—” She caught herself. “Shrimp.”
Jack stilled in their tiny foyer, lower lip already jutting out mutinously. Alex’s look was more sympathetic.
“Red ball,” she mouthed to him. The text on her professional phone – homicide-speak for all hands on deck. As in, whatever bad thing had happened at the address already being transmitted to her cell required every single Boston homicide detective in immediate attendance.
In this day and age, her first thought was terrorism. Her onetime squad mate and now reporting detective Phil, however, had sent a corresponding text to her personal phone. A note of warning and empathy from one parent to another.
Domestic, he’d typed. Then, more pertinently: Kids.
Perfect fall day.
She should’ve known better.
D.D. sent Alex and Jack off to do the apple picking, Dog selecting. Which, of course, would now be one more addition to a family that was never quite hers. Because even after falling in love and then, surprise of surprises, giving birth, she remained at heart the woman she’d always been: a homicide detective, wedded first and foremost to her job.
Alex, older and wiser when they’d met, swore he understood. Claimed to love her just the same. Little boys, D.D. was coming to learn, were harder to convince. Jack didn’t have years of experience to fall back on. He was five, he loved his mother, he hated it when she left.
The promise of Dog had headed off most of his tantrum, which should’ve made D.D. feel better but only made her feel worse. That she could be replaced so easily. That this Saturday would be yet one more day her husband and son would experience together, while she got to view the photos later.
Whoever said you couldn’t have it all had been telling the truth.
Yet she felt her pulse quickening as she headed, lights on, straight into Brighton, Mass. There was dread, yes, because now that she was a mom, anything involving kids was that much harder to take. But it was a red ball. A call demanding all hands on deck, meaning by definition it had to involve more than just a potential family annihilation or murder-suicide, whatever phrase the criminologists were using. Red ball meant large scope, urgent deadline. A crisis still in the making.
She couldn’t help herself. As Alex understood and appreciated, she lived for this shit.
Saturday traffic in Boston was notoriously thick. Exiting the Mass Pike onto the winding streets of densely populated Brighton required gratuitous use of her horn and flashing lights to get anyone to budge. Even then, several of the other drivers (Massholes, they were rightly called) flipped her off.
D.D. worked her way past street after street of tightly packed row houses and apartment buildings. Brighton had once been known as the Little Cambridge of Boston. Even now, it was mostly white, fairly young, and well educated. And yet, like all overcrowded urban environments, it was also a microclimate of winners and losers. From tree-lined streets of restored town houses that went for seven figures to dilapidated triple-deckers, sagging on their foundations and sliced into tiny apartments that still probably went for two to three times D.D.’s mortgage out in the burbs.
The heart of the area was St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, which D.D drove toward now. One more left turn and then the pileup of police cruisers and detectives’ vehicles marked her destination. She didn’t even bother to turn down the narrow street. A uniformed patrol officer was already standing in the intersection, directing traffic. She pulled up, flashed her shield.
“Next block over,” he advised. “Take any available sidewalk space.”
D.D. nodded. Sidewalk parking was a time-honored tradition for Boston cops.
She hit the next street, wedged in between two police cruisers, then took one last moment. Deep breath in, deep breath out.
Whatever she was about to see, it was not her job to feel. It was her job to fix.
She popped open her door and got on with it.
The house in question was easy to find, the yellow crime scene tape being one hint. The ME’s vehicle parked directly in front being the other. In the winners-and-losers department, the house wasn’t coming out on top. A small two-story, with faded green vinyl siding, it was dwarfed on both sides by more impressive homes. The property was hemmed in by chain link, a rarity in these parts given the microscopic yards. The fence featured multiple signs declaring Beware of Dog.
Great, she thought; now her day had a theme.
She had to wade through a crowd of milling gawkers, then presented her credentials a second time to the uniformed patrol officer standing outside the rusted chain link. He dutifully logged her into the murder book. Phil was already waiting for her, standing just inside the open front door.
“Family of five,” he announced the second she was close enough to him for her to hear. “Two adults, three kids, two dogs. Call came in shortly after nine, reports of shots fired. Responding officers found four bodies. Oldest kid, a sixteen-year-old female, and two dogs still unaccounted for.”
“Maybe the girl took the dogs for a walk?” D.D asked with an arched brow. “That’s why they’re missing?”
“Possible, though it’s now been a bit for a girl and two dogs to be taking a stroll. I issued a BOLO for the girl, Roxanna Baez, five one, Hispanic, long dark brown hair. And what the hell, the dogs, as well, two elderly Brittany spaniels, which, just to keep things interesting, are both reported to be blind.”
D.D. blinked. “Okay.” She glanced at her watch. Nearly ten a.m. now, almost an hour since the initial call of shots fired. Did seem a long time for a teenager and two old blind dogs to be walking. Plus, you’d think all the police cruisers and flashing lights might catch the girl’s attention.
“Uniforms are canvassing the streets,” Phil continued, “looking for the girl and dogs, while all detectives have been assigned to door‑to‑door sweeps. You know how it goes.”
D.D. did. In a situation like this one, with a missing youth who might have simply stepped out or might have been abducted, they had to cover all bases as quickly as possible. The uniforms would be their foot soldiers on the ground, looking for a teenager who might be walking her dogs, might be hanging with friends, or might be whatever. While the detectives had the trickier job of knocking on doors and politely but firmly demanding entrance for a quick visual search. Anyone who refused would be marked for further investigation later. Assuming, of course, the girl didn’t magically reappear, wondering what the police were doing in her home.
And D.D.’s job in this madness? To assess and strategize. Did they have a contained situation, where four members of a family had been tragically murdered while the fifth luckily escaped? Or did they have an ongoing crisis, four dead, one abducted—in which case Phil’s “Be on the Lookout” would be escalated to a full Amber Alert, with every law enforcement agent in New England joining the fray?
The scene was an hour old. Meaning D.D. was already sixty minutes behind.
She followed Phil into the home. The foyer was five feet deep and crowded with a dark red bench covered in a pile of coats and shoes. More coats hung on the wall, while a high shelf held wicker baskets most likely filled with hats and gloves. Small home for such a large family, and the entryway looked it. She had to step over a pair of kids’ sneakers, navy blue, with the blinky lights on the side. Jack would love those sneakers.
Not the kind of thing to think about now.
They stepped into a larger sitting area straight ahead. D.D. noted gleaming hardwood floors—obviously recently refinished—a fairly new flat-screen TV, and a dark gray L‑shaped sectional dotted with bright red accent pillows. Sitting on the sofa was a middle-aged male, head slumped forward, three blooms of red across his chest in macabre coordination with the decorative pillows.
A crime scene photographer stood to their left, snapping away. D.D. raised a hand in greeting. The photographer nodded once, kept working.
“Charlie Boyd,” Phil informed her, gesturing toward the body. “Forty-five, local contractor, and current homeowner. According to the neighbors, he bought the place a couple of years ago and has been fixing it up.”
“Explains the floors,” D.D. said. She approached close enough to inspect for signs of powder burns around the wounds while trying to keep out of the photographer’s way. No speckling on the skin, no handgun conveniently dangling from the dead man’s fingers. Though last she knew, it was pretty hard to commit suicide by shooting yourself three times in the chest.
Phil kept walking; she kept following. They passed through a cutout to a tiny kitchen, big on white-painted cabinets and short on counter space. They had to squeeze their way around a rectangular table that was definitely too big for the kitchen and probably too small for a family of five. The table was currently covered in a vibrant floral tablecloth and mounds of groceries.
Which brought them to body number two. Middle-aged female, gunned down to the left of the table, just before an open cabinet. She’d fallen on her side, a can of cream of mushroom soup inches from her fingers. Also multiple entry wounds, also no sign of powder burns, so the shooting hadn’t been up close and personal.
“Juanita Baez, thirty-eight, worked as a night nurse at St. Elizabeth’s,” Phil rattled off. “Moved in with Charlie last year. Mom to the three kids.”
D.D. nodded. She noted an assortment of details in no particular order. That, even dead, Juanita Baez had the kind of glossy black hair and fine bone structure that marked her as a looker. That the house had a half-windowed back door with a bolt lock, currently undone. That Juanita’s gunshot wounds were to her chest, not to her back, as if at the last minute she’d turned away from the open cabinet, can of soup in hand, and faced her killer.
Also that the woman’s black leather purse sat next to the collection of groceries, zipped up tight and presumably untouched. Much like the collection of high-end electronics in the family room.
Phil gestured to their right, where a flight of stairs led up to the second floor. They resumed their tour.
“At one point,” he informed her, as they hiked up, “the residence was split into two one-bedroom apartments, one up, one down. Apparently, first thing Boyd did was convert it back to a single unit. Handy, given that he then hooked up with a woman with three kids.”
D.D. nodded. She had to breathe through her mouth now, the smell stronger as they crested the stairs. And not just blood, which was thick and cloying, but a tinge of ammonia, as well. Urine. Because when people said things like I was scared enough to pee my pants, they weren’t kidding. D.D. had worked enough crime scenes to know.
More activity up here. The sound of low voices from a back bedroom: the medical examiner, Ben Whitely; or Phil’s squad mates, Neil and Carol; or miscellaneous evidence techs. The scene was quiet, all things considered, though D.D. suspected that had taken no small effort on Phil’s part. In a space this tight, with four bodies and countless time-sensitive questions, it was tempting to throw everything and everyone at it—which inevitably led to issues with possible cross contamination later on.
The first open doorway revealed a queen-sized bed covered in a mound of blankets, bed lamps beside it, an overcrowded bureau across from it. The parents’ bedroom, D.D. figured, given the fact that Phil didn’t linger.
Next, a modest bath, also recently refinished, then two more doorways. The sound of voices grew louder. A woman’s voice. Detective Carol Manley, D.D. guessed, who’d taken D.D.’s place on the three-person squad when D.D. had been wounded on the job and relegated to management. D.D.’s left arm throbbed at the memory, and she felt her jaw tighten reflexively. Manley was a perfectly good detective. And yet, given the circumstances, D.D. knew she’d never like her.
Phil bypassed the doorway on the right. D.D. took a quick peek: twin bed, jumbled blue comforter, clothes, and toy cars.
Then, end of the hall. Larger room, obviously shared by two girls, with one narrow bed pushed against a pink wall to the right and one narrow bed pushed against a purple wall to the left. The smell of blood and urine was strongest in here.
Neil looked up when D.D. entered. Carol raised a hand in greeting. No one spoke.
At first D.D. didn’t get it. Where were the remaining two bodies? Then she noticed what appeared to be laundry at the foot of the pink bed. Except it wasn’t a pile of clothes, but one body folded around another.
A girl, young, wrapped around a boy, even younger.
“Lola Baez, thirteen,” Phil said quietly. “Manny Baez, nine.”
“We’re waiting for the photographer,” Neil said. “We didn’t want to move them till then. Ben’s already been up to assess. He’s trying to figure the best way to remove the bodies without inciting a media circus.”
D.D. nodded. Given the nature of the crime and the crowd of gawkers outside, the ME’s job wouldn’t be an easy one. Nothing about this case, she already had a feeling, would be easy.
Carol cleared her throat. “Other half of the room belongs to sixteen-year-old Roxanna Baez.” She gestured to the purple side, where the wall had a poster featuring the Amazing World of Books and a dog calendar. Brittany spaniels, D.D. would presume, based on the featured dog’s shaggy white-and-brown-spotted coat.
In contrast, Lola Baez’s pink-painted wall was covered in theater posters, everything from Wicked to Romeo and Juliet to Annie.
“There’s a laptop on the desk,” Neil said. “Not password protected. Browser history shows Instagram, Tumblr, the usual. Last person to log on used it around eight thirty this morning to watch videos on YouTube. No recent messages from family or friends. Certainly nothing inviting Roxanna to a meeting.”
“Cell phone?” D.D. asked.
“There’s one cell phone on the desk, but it requires a passcode. Not sure yet if it belongs to Roxanna or her younger sister, Lola. Should be easy enough to figure out which carrier, put in a request for records.”
D.D. nodded. In this day and age, it seemed that all kids had phones, meaning she’d expect two phones for two girls. Given only one was present, maybe Roxanna had taken her phone with her. If only they’d be so lucky.
“Where’s the dog stuff?” she asked. “You said two elderly, blind dogs. Brittanys aren’t that small. Seems there should be beds, bowls, leashes.”
“We found dog bowls on the back stoop. Looks like they fed them out there,” Carol offered.
The three detectives shrugged.
“In other words,” D.D. thought out loud, “Roxanna could have taken the leashes. She really is out walking the dogs.”
Phil glanced at his watch. “An hour and fifteen minutes later?” he asked softly. “And still out of sight of dozens of patrol officers?”
He was right. D.D. didn’t like it either.
“Dogs could’ve run off,” Neil suggested. “Spooked by the shooting. Being blind and all, maybe they’re hunkered down under someone’s front porch, hiding.”
“And the sixteen-year-old?” D.D. asked.
Once again, no one had an answer.
“All right.” D.D. looked around the space. Still assessing. Still trying to understand. “Eight times out of ten in a case like this, it’s a domestic situation gone wrong. The father-figure murders the wife and kids, then shoots himself. Given the three shots to the chest, however, I think we can safely rule out Charlie Boyd as a suicide.”
The detectives nodded.
“In the ninth instance, it’s a stranger crime. Say, a perpetrator caught breaking and entering, shoots the family to cover his tracks. But nothing appears missing.”
“Plus, no sign of forced entry,” Phil added. “Responding officers discovered the front door unlocked, same with the rear entrance. Though the neighbors claim they never saw anyone exiting the property after the sound of gunshots. So it’s a good bet that even if the shooter entered through the front, he exited through the back.”
“Drugs?” D.D. asked. “Any rumors, evidence that Charlie Boyd or Juanita Baez were into illegal activities?”
“Juanita has a history of DUIs, and court-mandated rehab five years back. Alcohol,” Neil said. “Charlie Boyd’s record is clean.”
“No hidden stash of drugs or cash,” Carol added. “Also, no alcohol in the kitchen, which would indicate Juanita was still on the wagon.”
D.D. sighed, glanced at her watch again. Time to make a decision.
“There is another scenario,” she said. “Not as common, but it happens. Whole family is murdered; teenage daughter goes missing. Sometimes, that means the daughter is the target—the perpetrator murders the family so he can kidnap the girl.”
“And other times?” Neil asked.
“The daughter is the perpetrator,” D.D. said bluntly. “Abused, pissed off, doesn’t really matter. But the girl decides the only solution is to kill them all and run away.”
Unbidden, their gazes turned to the sad remains of Lola and Manny Baez, the older girl still cradling her younger brother’s lifeless form.
Phil, father of four, cleared his throat roughly. D.D. understood.
“Either way,” she stated quietly, “the key to this puzzle is Roxanna Baez. We find her, we get our answers. Issue the Amber Alert. Then prepare for the madness. Case like this, the media is gonna go insane!”