Excerpt

The Janes

Louisa Luna

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Janes, by Louisa Luna. When two young women are found dead in the backwaters of San Diego, their identities remain a mystery. They have no ID, and no one is looking for people fitting their descriptions. The FBI then reaches out to PI Alice Vega to figure out who these women are, what has happened to them, and if anyone else will be next.

The temperature on cap’s dashboard read 84, but the high dew point was the real killer, the thickness in the air. Everything was sticking—his shirt to his back, pant legs to thighs, drops of sweat on his scalp threading through his hair.

But once the car cooled from the AC, he had an urge to turn it back off and open all the windows. The air was still hot and still wet, but he suddenly wanted to feel all of it, let his skin get slick as a tropical plant leaf. So he did, stuck his head out the window like a dog and even opened his mouth to feel the condensation bud on his tongue.

Then his phone buzzed.

“Ralz cell,” announced the Bluetooth lady.

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Cap squinted at the name on the screen, thought what reason could Detective Brad Ralz have to call him.

Cap squinted at the name on the screen, thought what reason could Detective Brad Ralz have to call him. They’d parted ways after the Brandt case with a mutual respect they’d never fostered as colleagues at the police department, but Cap wouldn’t call what they had a friendship, exactly. Must have been a misdial. He let it ring out, drop to voicemail.

He tilted his head again toward the window. He thought about Vera and her offer and tried to make sense of what he was feeling, his tepid response. allergic to success blinked an off-ramp motel sign in his head. He wasn’t sure where he heard that; it sounded like something Jules might have said in one of her more passive-aggressive moments, or a book title by a celebrity shrink.

But he wasn’t, he hadn’t been—the last sixteen months he had embraced the work and the respect and the money. No bad reaction to any of it, no rash, no itchy eyes. Then what, he thought.

Again, the phone buzzed.

Again, the Bluetooth lady: “Ralz cell.”

“Goddammit,” Cap muttered.

He tapped the Call Answer button on the screen. “Ralz,” he said loudly. “Stop calling me.”

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“Cap, that you?”

“Yeah?” Cap said, confused. He had been sure the phone had been in Ralz’s pocket. “Uh, how’re you doing?”

“Okay. You going to be home soon?”

“Yeah, about five minutes away. What’s going on, Ralz?”

“It can wait five minutes. See you then.”

“What? Where?” said Cap, but Ralz had hung up.

“Call Ralz cell,” Cap said to the Bluetooth lady.

It rang once, then straight to voice mail. Cap had a bad feeling, shook his head. He let up on the brake and sped up a little. Slowed when he took the corner to his block, and as he got closer to his house, he knew he wasn’t imagining what he was seeing in his driveway, but still the picture didn’t make sense.

It was definitely Brad Ralz, leaning on his car, and the person he was talking to was definitely Cap’s daughter, Nell, in front of the permanently loaned hatchback from Jules’s parents. She stood in what Cap considered a standard teenager pose, arms crossed, the knee of one leg bent to the side, slightly bored expression. When she saw Cap approaching, though, she stood up straight.

Cap felt a surge of panic but talked himself down quickly. She’s right in front of you, safe, breathing, uninjured. Cap parked across the street from his house and stepped out. Ralz lifted his hand in a wave.

“Hi,” said Cap, crossing the street. “What’s happening?”

He shook Ralz’s hand and kept his eyes on Nell, who looked away. “That roundabout off Highway 30,” Ralz began. “I noticed this car

taking it a little quick, so I tailed. Then down Lowell I had to go forty to keep up, so I pulled her over.”

Cap felt his heart rate spike and took an aggressive breath through his nose. He stared at Nell while Ralz continued.

“I didn’t recognize her at first,” said Ralz. “Then I saw her name on the license.”

Nell still wasn’t looking at Cap, gazing over the roof of her car. She’d cut her own hair and dyed it black a few months ago, in the downstairs bathroom. Now it was short, just below the ears, the strands splitting off in different directions like falling fireworks. And her personal dress code had changed too; instead of the sportswear that used to be her uniform—khakis and baggy hoodies—now it was jeans with gaping holes in the knees and fitted tank tops or T-shirts, also with jaggedly ripped seams and edges. Winehouse-black makeup on the eyelids. Cap didn’t have a problem with her dressing more maturely (or so he liked to tell himself) but was periodically disturbed at the signals her fashion choices were sending about her mental state: shredded into strips and pieces.

“I said no harm in a warning,” said Ralz.

Cap’s mouth was too dry to form a proper thanks so he put on a tight smile and nodded.

“I just escorted her here so I could tell you face-to-face.”

Cap swallowed and finally spoke: “How much would the ticket be?”

“Street speeding?” said Ralz.

“It’s one fifty.”

Cap glanced back at Nell. She was still doing the freeze-out thing, looking straight ahead.

“Issue it,” said Cap.

That got a reaction from her. She jumped back from the car like it was hot and stared at Cap, shocked.

“What’s that now?” said Ralz.

“Issue the ticket,” Cap said, slower.

He and Nell kept their eyes fixed on each other. The same eyes, really, acorn brown with an amber glint in the light.

“Dad,” Nell began.

Cap held out a hand to stop her. “Don’t,” he said.

They were all quiet but it didn’t last. Ralz looked from Nell back to Cap and spoke.

“I’m not going to do that, Cap,” he said. “Nell and I had a talk. It’s a warning this time.”

“Thanks, Detective,” Nell said calmly. Then, as if she were the parent making an excuse for Cap, she added, “Sorry about all this.”

“It’s okay,” said Ralz, even keel. “Just make friends with your brake.”

She nodded quickly, hiked her backpack from her hand to her shoulder, and hustled up the stairs into the house.

Cap let out a breath and pinched the sweat from his upper lip. “I couldn’t give your kid a ticket. Sorry, Cap,” said Ralz.

Cap shook his head, said, “I appreciate it. I just wanted to make her sweat for a second.”

“She was real polite,” added Ralz helpfully.

“Yeah, she can be,” said Cap, looking toward the house. Ralz put his hand out to shake Cap’s.

“Take care, Cap,” he said. “Thanks.”

Ralz got in his car and pulled out of the driveway, drove away. Cap flexed his fists, open and closed, and said aloud to himself, “Watch it, watch it.” He walked up the stairs to the porch and then went inside the house, felt the wave of AC douse him.

Nell was in the kitchen, leaning into the fridge. She emerged a moment later holding a slice of leftover pizza and glanced at Cap before heading for the stairs.

Cap summoned whatever scraps of patience he could gather so he wouldn’t yell.

“Nell,” he said quietly.

She stopped and turned, had a look that reminded Cap of Jules: it was the I’m-too-exhausted-by-the-day’s-events-to-be-annoyed look.

“Can you tell me what happened, please?” he said. She sighed undramatically.

“It was just like Ralz said, Dad,” she said. “I didn’t realize how fast I was going.”

“That’s not good enough,” said Cap. “There’s Jonas Middle on Lowell, do you realize that?”

“There were no kids around; school hasn’t started yet,” she said.

“That’s not the point,” said Cap, his voice rising. “You can’t speed ever. Ever. It’s not just about you. There’s a whole world of people you could hurt.”

“But I didn’t hurt any of them,” said Nell, still calm but growing defensive.

“No, see, that’s the problem—you get cocky and think, I’ll never hurt anyone, I’ll never get hurt—”

He realized too late what he’d said, and Nell stared at him, her eyes glassy, perhaps with tears.

“I said I was sorry,” she said, almost whispering.

Cap got quieter as well but still struggled to keep it together. “That’s not enough,” he said.

All the features on Nell’s face flared.

“What’s enough then, Dad? You want me to send written apologies to all the middle schoolers I didn’t hit?”

“Let’s watch the tone.”

Nell made a sound of frustration, somewhere between an “ugh” and a scream.

“You know what?” she said through locked teeth. “I’ve had about a half a beer in my life and a puff of one cigarette. Never tried weed.” She cast her eyes down and added, “Never had sex.”

Cap was shamed by her honesty. He felt himself begin to calm down. She was fine. She was alive. The evening would turn peaceful, and they might watch some TV. Then there would be tomorrow and the next day. She would not die before him.

“It felt good to punch the accelerator today,” she said. “So maybe you can give me a little break and let me off with a warning like Ralz.”

He didn’t know what to say, so he nodded.

Nell turned and loped up the stairs, and Cap felt like a bunch of shit. When Brad Ralz, who had never been a model of restraint, was the voice of reason, it gave one pause.

Cap went to the kitchen, got a can of beer from the fridge, and trudged to his office, feeling like he’d been awake for a couple of days.

The AC was weaker in his office—to save money he’d shut the room off from the central air in the rest of house and used an old window unit instead. He felt fresh sweat gather on the back of his neck and cranked up the AC to ten.

He went to his desk and sat, finally took the tie off over his head and threw it on top of some papers. He opened the beer and sipped the foam off the top. He tapped the keyboard on his desktop; his computer woke up. He saw that it was 3:22 and could not believe the day wasn’t almost over. He knew he had to wait a little bit before he approached Nell again, figured he would go up at 4:00. For now, just email.

Eleven new emails since this morning. He squinted to see clearly, trying to remember where he left the reading glasses that Nell had finally convinced him to buy, decided his eyes were just fine without them, and scooted his chair back another inch so he could see the type on the screen.

Mostly junk. One from Vera with the subject “Great speaking with you.” Cap skipped over it, put a mental bookmark on it. Another from Nell, obviously sent before she’d been pulled over, forwarding him an article from the Denville Tribune about the increase in hate crimes. And then one with a time stamp of 2:54 p.m. from A. Vega. Subject: “Job.”

Alice Vega, his partner in the Brandt case. The elusive, the conundrum, the deviously lovely. Right after she’d left town she’d communicated through a steady flow of emails for about a month as they cleaned up details, filled out paperwork, answered the FBI’s questions, made statement after statement. But since then, not much, or more accurately, hardly anything at all.

Every once in a while Cap sent her an email out of desperation for some contact with her, anything, to hear her voice if only in his head as he read the words in front of him. His messages to her were lame ducks, links to stories about missing or found persons, cases that ended unexpectedly or cold cases finally solved.

MaxCaplan74 thought you might be interested in this story. Cap never knew what to write and usually just added, “Thought you’d like this. Cap.” Her response was always the same. Just “Thanks.”

But here it was. A. Vega. Job. Double-click.

Cap didn’t realize he wasn’t breathing until his vision began to cloud and then he took a quick inhale and began to read:

“Hi. Got a job here in San Diego for you. 10K to start. Let me know if you can make it.

—Vega.”

Cap read it a couple of times, then stood up and read it again from a standing position. Then he read it aloud. If he’d known another language, he might have translated it and read it aloud in that language. He started to laugh, then covered his mouth as if he didn’t want to wake anyone.

He took a large sip of beer.

Then he clicked print on the message and grabbed the sheet of paper from the printer, left his office, went upstairs, and knocked on Nell’s bedroom door. She didn’t answer at first, and he knew she had her earbuds in. He pounded with his fist.

She opened the door and appeared annoyed, one of the earbud wires thrown over her shoulder. She held a rind of pizza crust in her hand.

“Hi,” said Cap. “I know we’re arguing, but I really need to talk to you.” She raised her eyebrows, her face brightening up.

“I just got this,” he said, handing her the paper with Vega’s message.

Nell read it, chewed on the pizza crust. She turned the paper over to see if there was any more.

“I don’t know if I should do it,” said Cap.

“Sure you should,” said Nell, holding the crust in the corner of her mouth like a squirrel. “It’s Alice.”

“Vera Quinn also offered me a permanent position.” Nell gaped at him.

“When?”

“Today.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“We’ve been a little preoccupied.”

Nell almost allowed a smile, then said, “What do you think you’re going to do?”

Cap thought for a moment.

“Vera’s offering a good job with health insurance.”

“No way,” said Nell.

“Oh yeah,” said Cap. “Everything. Benefits, vacation, sick days, probably some kind of retirement plan.”

Nell’s eyes searched the wall behind Cap as she thought.

“I gotta get some water,” she said, walking past him. “And Alice is offering what—ten K? How long?”

Cap followed her down the stairs. “You read it. She’s not big on details.”

In the kitchen Nell pulled a bottle of water from the fridge.

“You should probably call and ask her,” she said, pointing the bottle at him. “And then you should probably take it.”

“I have no idea how long I’d be gone,” he said. Nell shrugged.

“How long do her cases usually last?” she asked before offering her own answer. “A month?”

“Something like that,” said Cap. “What about you?”

“I can stay with Mom. She’ll be thrilled.”

Cap knew she was not being completely cheeky. Jules actually would be thrilled to keep closer tabs on their daughter, a luxury she couldn’t afford the days Nell was at Cap’s.

“She won’t be thrilled with me,” said Cap.

“What else is new?” said Nell, unimpressed by his argument. “Tell you what, I’ll handle Mom if we can maybe keep the speeding thing between us.”

Cap’s mouth fell open and then he laughed.

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “Can we just play out that scenario? I don’t tell Mom, and you don’t tell Mom, and then one day she runs into Brad Ralz—”

“Where the hell would that happen?” Nell interrupted. “Your scenario doesn’t have legs!”

“Immaterial,” said Cap. “She runs into Brad Ralz somewhere,” he enunciated. “He says, ‘How’s Nell? Still speeding?’ ”

“So unrealistic,” muttered Nell. “Brad Ralz doesn’t talk like that.” “Are you aware of the storm of shit that will rain down on me?” Cap said, running his hands through his hair as if to stretch out his scalp. “They do not make a big enough umbrella.

Nell was quiet, tapped her toe against the base of the counter. “Withholding information isn’t as bad as lying,” she offered. “So not true.”

“But it will just worry her to death, and you know it,” said Nell.

Cap knew she was right. But he also knew he and Jules had maintained a relatively congenial relationship since the divorce. He’d seen and heard of so much worse—ugly custody battles, long-term harassment. What a bit of good luck it was that he and Jules just naturally agreed to stay out of each other’s way. But it was a tenuous accord, which had been rattled by the Brandt case the previous year, and every small fracture since felt like a rift in the earth.

“I’m not trying to snake out of it,” said Nell. “I swear.” Cap shook his head, felt himself running out of gas.

“I can’t keep it from her,” he said. “And besides, that never works. I’m the king of It’ll-just-worry-her-so-don’t-tell-her.”

Nell looked at him skeptically, knew she was winning a little. “Yeah, but you were never good at it. You could never hide it. I’m good at it,” she said.

“Goddammit, you’re right,” Cap said weakly, rubbing his eyes. “Okay, Bug, just this once I will not tell your mother.”

Nell smiled now, wide as a lake.

“But just because I’m not squealing doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.

We still have to talk about consequences from today.”

Nell’s smile dissipated and she furrowed her eyebrows, confused. “You mean, like a punishment?”

“Yeah, like a punishment,” said Cap, sounding unsure of himself.

“What, like, ground me?” she said, before erupting in laughter. Cap felt disarmed.

“What’s so funny?” he said loudly, over her. “I could ground you. It’s within my rights as a father.”

“Dad, you’ve never grounded me, ever. I don’t think you’d even know how to do it.”

“Sure I do. Don’t I just say, ‘You’re grounded’?”

“Yeah,” said Nell, wiping her eyes. “I think you have to add, ‘Young lady.’ ”

“Okay, now you’re just making fun of me.”

“Little bit,” said Nell. Then she breathed deeply through her nose. “How about if I just say I won’t do it again ever-ever?”

Cap looked at her face. No combination of cop training and dad training would lead him to find a lie in her earnest eyes.

“I honestly feel like shit about it,” she said. “I wish I could just replay the whole day, you know?”

Cap nodded. He knew. Wanting to replay the day was a ritual of at least a third of his days.

Then Nell hugged him around the neck and kissed him on the cheek.

She smelled like the oregano from the pizza. “Call Alice. Then you should go to California.”

She let go and went up the stairs, shut her bedroom door gently. Cap was cold suddenly, the sweat cooled on his forehead and back.

He went back to his office, sat at his desk, tapped the keyboard.

The message from Vega was still there; it had not evaporated. A thin line pulsed horizontally through the letters in her name. Cap knew it was because the screen was old, something to do with the monitor’s magnetic field, but it made the word look alive, like it had a shaky little heart.

__________________________________

From The Janes by Louisa Luna. Used with the permission of the publisher, Doubleday. Copyright © 2020 by by Louisa Luna.




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