Book excerpt

Blood Orange

A Mystery

A Jaymie Zarlin Mystery

Karen Keskinen

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

Lili Molina was alone in the dressing room, the last to finish, taking her time. She slipped on the elbow-length gloves with their fingers of leaves and bent twigs. Daphne’s fingers, a sign of the Greek nymph’s transformation from girl into tree. A living death, horrible really. Yet only Lili seemed to see it that way.
A drum out in the central workroom rapped a call to attention. She stepped from behind the screen and paused before the tall mirror, captivated by the beauty of the young woman gazing back at her. For the first time in many hours, Lili smiled.
Streams of bright copper twined through her dark hair. Her brown skin shimmered with gold dust, and layers of silver diaphanous netting floated over her apparently naked body. Underneath the netting Lili wore an opaque body stocking, but you could hardly tell. Her figure—ordinary in real life, she thought—looked stunning in the costume, all its imperfections somehow transformed.
More drums joined the summons. Lili’s spirits warmed, then flared like red roses. She flounced the netting, flicked her hair over her shoulders, and skipped out to the hall.
Everyone gathered in the cavernous workroom—the dancers, tailors, makeup artists and float builders—burst into applause as she entered. She stepped up to join Jared, now dressed as Apollo, on the float platform. The mambo beat surged faster and louder. Lili kissed two fingertips and held them to her medallion, the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, resting as always in the hollow of her throat.
Then the big double doors burst open, and the magnificent Apollo Guild float trundled out under a fierce solstice sun. It was high noon.
*   *   *
The sun had scorched a path westward by the time Lili recrossed the pavement on foot, inserted her key in the lock, and tugged open one of the heavy doors. Now the Guild workshop was still and semi-dark, lit only by light sifting down from the high clerestory windows. Behind her, the door thudded shut.
So many happy hours spent here. Six months working on the float and costumes, singing and dancing and ordering in pizza. And three weeks ago, right here in this room, the announcement was made: Lili was selected to be Daphne, exactly the way she’d dreamed. Smiling at the memory, she began to thread her way through the tables and sawhorses scattered about the dim open space, heading for the dressing room in the east wing. Then she heard something.
A tapping sound was coming from one of the cell-like rooms in the back. Lili halted and held her breath, listening. Who would be working during Solstice, with the party in full swing up at Alameda Park?
But then she understood. It was Danny, of course. It could only be Danny Armenta. Relieved, she turned and entered the narrow hall on her right.
“Danny?” she called. “It’s me, Lili. Danny, are you here?” She reminded herself not to startle him—he was so easily frightened these days.
When she arrived at Danny’s tiny work space, he was looking expectantly at the open doorway. But confusion clouded his expression when he saw her. It was her makeup, Lili realized, the gold skin paint, sequins, and glitter.
“It’s me, Danny—Lili. Just me in my costume, OK?” She wagged a leafy hand at him playfully. “I came back to change.”
Danny’s expression cleared. “Hi Lili.”
“Guess you didn’t see me when I got on the float. Otherwise you’d’ve of known it was me.”
“No, I…” He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I stayed in here.”
Danny was still cute. Still had that reddish-brown hair and those light hazel eyes. He was heavier now—probably from the meds he had to take—but it didn’t totally wreck his looks.
“What are you doing?” She nodded at the hammer in his hand.
Danny looked at a pastel chalk drawing tacked to the wall. “Hanging that up.”
“Wow—is that … me?”
He studied the portrait. “Yeah,” he said softly. “It’s you.”
“It’s way too beautiful.”
He squinted at her, obviously puzzled. “But that’s—that’s what you look like.”
“I wish.” Lili laughed. “But thanks. Thanks for drawing me and making me look so pretty.”
“I worked on it when nobody was around. For about two weeks.” Danny tugged at his old baseball cap. Santa Barbara High School Dons. Once maroon, it was nearly gray now. The brim was caked in grease where he’d lifted it, maybe a thousand times.
Lili had never seen him without his cap. He’d played first base, and some guy told her once that Danny Armenta was the best hitter the Dons ever had. But that was two years ago.
Danny had abruptly dropped out of school in his senior year. He’d seemed really confused for nearly six months, and then—at eighteen—he’d totally lost it. Mental, all the kids whispered.
Mental. A scary word. A word that didn’t fit him, as far as Lili was concerned. And never would.
“I gotta go change out of my costume. But then, do you want to go back up to the park with me? There’s music and food and tons of people.…” But she saw Danny’s face tighten. Noise and tons of people—not what he liked, she realized, not at all.
“Um … I just want to stay here.” He picked up a stick of pumpkin-colored chalk and rubbed it fretfully on the back of his hand. “OK?”
“Sure it’s OK. Listen, I’m going to the dressing room. When I’m finished I’ll come and say bye.” Then Lili did something she’d never done before: she planted a sisterly kiss on Danny’s cheek.
He took a step back and averted his gaze. But she didn’t take it personally. She understood it bothered him a little to be touched, even just a hand on his arm.
*   *   *
The dressing room door cried its usual suffering sound when Lili opened it. The high-ceilinged space seemed ghostly this afternoon, the open alcoves bulging with costumes from past solstice celebrations. The lone window, frosted glass over wire netting, was shoved open, and a whisper of a breeze flowed into the room, stirring the air. A good idea, she thought: the dressing room always smelled so funky.
Lili closed the door behind her, then stood before the mirror one last time. Daphne … She admired once more her silky gold skin, flashing eyes. For nearly a year she’d secretly longed to be Daphne. And then, the unbelievable miracle: she was chosen. From that moment on, everything was perfect … except for last night.
She turned away from the mirror. Hurry up and change, then go back to the park and have fun, she ordered herself. This is your time, don’t let anything spoil it.
Lili lifted her street clothes from her locker, carried them behind the folding screen, and set them on an old wooden chair. For the last time, she slipped out of the leafy gloves and draped them over the chair back. Then, carefully, Lili raised the layers of silver netting over her head. She folded the netting, placed it under the gloves, and began to peel the body stocking from her arms, first the left, then the right.
The spandex was tight and she worked slowly, taking care not to snag the knit fabric on her sparkly gold fingernails. Lili rolled the stocking down to her waist, over her hips to her knees.
She reached out a hand to the chair to steady herself—and halted at the sound of a sharp click.
“Hello? Who’s there?” Her voice quavered.
No one answered, and Lili felt foolish. The old building was heating up in the sun, that was all. She bent down again and reached to her calf.
Lili was seized from behind by strong arms. She screamed, and something rough was forced in her mouth. She bit down hard, closed on coarse filthy leather.
“You dirty slut.”
Lili grew limp with fright and in that instant she was smashed face-first to the concrete floor. Her nose crumpled, erupting in a gush of blood. She gasped to breathe, sucked in blood and choked on it. Then she gathered her strength and forced the leather from her mouth, screaming once more. But as she struggled to rise to her knees, the full weight of his body dropped down on her back.
Now Lili fought with every ounce of her strength. But both her legs were trapped in the stocking and the smothering weight pressing down on her was much greater than her own. Something slithered around her neck and slowly tightened— No—no—she did not want to—did not want to— Please help me, dear God!
“Feel that? Do what I say or I’ll kill you,” he hissed in her ear. “Now keep your filthy mouth shut.” His breath was hot on her cheek.
So, it was him. It was him after all. Petrified, stunned, Lili grew still. She knew he would rape her. But she would live, she would live. She heard him breathe thickly as he fumbled with his pants—
Dear God, did she hear someone knocking at the window?
She tried to scream, but the cord bit into her neck. Only a gurgle came from her throat.
Again she heard the soft knock. She listened hard and prayed … tried to call out … and the knocking grew faint.
“Didn’t I tell you, shut up? Didn’t I say, do what I tell you or die?” He whispered in her ear, whispered like a lover from hell as the ligature tightened.

Copyright © 2013 by Karen Keskinen

KAREN KESKINEN was born in Salinas, California. She has also lived in California’s San Joaquin Valley and in Wellington, New Zealand. She now resides in Santa Barbara where she is a full-time writer.