The Dead Girl's Stilettos: A Bexley Squires Mystery
by Quinn Avery
Papaya Springs, California
The young woman wept as she staggered across the main deck of a super yacht anchored near Papaya Springs, playground for the rich and famous. She was naked except for a pair of high heels. The game was over—she was about to die. Pain radiated through her skull, and her forehead was covered with something warm that also saturated her eyes and blurred her vision. She swiped the sticky substance with a trembling hand. Blood coated her fingertips. Had someone hurt her? Did she have an accident? She remembered a fight…
Nausea sloshed through her stomach. She didn’t understand why her thoughts were so muddled. Had she taken something? Heart pounding an erratic beat; she scurried across the deck. Her lungs burned. Panic set in. Moonlight cast a sinister glow on the dark water surrounding the vessel. There was nowhere to hide.
She should yell for help. In the deepest depths of her cloudy memory, she knew no one would come to her rescue. They were after her. Then she saw him emerging from the shadows. She limped into his open arms. “I’m scared!” she cried. “What’s happening?”
Gentle hands caressed her back. Warm lips swept over her shoulder. His familiar scent instantly put her at ease. But there was something off. The woman sensed it with every nerve in her body.
“Shhh…there’s no need to cry,” he cooed. “Everything’s going to be okay.” The words were a contradiction to the sorrow wavering in his voice.
“Noooo...” She backed away until something was pressed against her shoulder blades. A railing. She was trapped. “Please…don’t do this.”
The woman’s cries came in agonizing howls. She wanted her mom and dad. She wanted to go home.
But his face was the last thing she would ever see.
Twenty-year-old Eric O’Neil sprinted across the sandy shore, his feet leaving deep indentations in the fine powder. Multimillion dollar yachts skimmed across the glittering Pacific Ocean less than a mile away, hulls sparkling like diamonds in the sweltering sun. Crisp sails snapped in the warm wind. Speakers blasted gangsta rap. Even on an early holiday afternoon, it was an opportunity for the wealthy to play in SoCal, exposing their sun kissed shoulders without a care in the world.
Only two types were known to be residents of the swanky community: those with money and those paid to serve them. It was common knowledge to locals that illegal drugs ran rampant, but everyone went out of their way to keep it a secret. It was rumored some establishments included luxurious secret rooms where the powerful could relax and get high. Eric hoped he’d come across one of those places, but he was merely stoked he’d scored primo weed from a high-end dispensary using his fake ID. They didn’t have anything like it back in Detroit. He was higher than the blue skies overhead.
He yelled over his shoulder to his girlfriend, “Try to keep up, babe!”
He was slated to be Papaya Springs College’s best baller this season, having broken his state’s high school records two seasons in a row for most points scored by one player. The moment he stepped on the basketball court he was a god, destined for a pro team after college. There had already been a handful of recruiters vying for his attention with under-the-table bribes of trips involving drugs and hordes of female companions.
It gave him an even greater sense of pride when Tehya Jensen—unquestionably the hottest and richest chick around—literally chased after him. Her parents owned a string of hotels all over the world, and they’d invited Eric to spend Thanksgiving at their $20 million condo. He never imagined he’d be privileged to that kind of lifestyle. His parents had teetered on the edge of poverty ever since the automotive plants began to shut down. He’d only been able to afford college because of the athletic scholarship.
“Seriously, my legs are too heavy for this!” Teyha whined from far away. “Slow down!”
Laughing manically, Eric rounded the corner, stumbling across a sand dune. He lost his footing, long limbs sprawled around him as he face-planted onto the beach. With a long grunt, he flipped around to his back and started to move his hands and legs at his sides.
“Look at me…I’m a sand angel,” he muttered before releasing a nasally chuckle.
Then the back of his arm connected with something firm, wet, and exceptionally clammy. Eric rolled to his side, blinking heavily at the sight before him. A naked woman with giant knockers was fast asleep where the tide recently receded in the sand. Dark, wet hair covered her face, and her arms and legs were spread out around her like she'd made angels in the sand too. In fact, one of her legs was crooked at an unusual angle. Wait, Eric thought to himself, she’s not naked. She’s wearing heels.
They weren’t just any pair of heels, either. They were luminescent gold with rhinestones—hell, maybe even diamonds. If the water hadn’t ruined them, they could be outrageously expensive. Since Eric didn’t have two spare pennies to rub together after covering expenses not included in his scholarship, creativity was key in finding someone as rich as Tehya an impressive Christmas present. He didn’t want to screw up the chance of getting invited back to her parents’ condo.
Eric peered over his shoulder, ensuring Tehya wasn’t close before he went to work in removing the woman’s shoes. The suction of her wet skin made removing them more difficult than anticipated. Either that or he was still tripping.
Tongue trapped between his teeth, Eric pulled and pulled until the unconscious woman’s feet gave up the fight.
Just as he was contemplating copping a quick feel of the woman’s perfect tits (he was dying to find out if they were real), Tehya’s muffled scream pierced the warm air. He twisted around to find his girlfriend holding both hands over her mouth, eyes as wide as a cartoon character’s. She wore a skimpy little dress that made her father’s face as red as a cherry when they came down from her room after a heated make out session. Warmth spread through Eric’s groin when he recalled how many times he’d violated that sweet little body in the condo with her parents nearby.
“Ohmygod! Eric, what are you doing?”
All at once remembering he was holding the woman’s shoes—Tehya’s present—he clumsily moved them behind his back. “It’s fine, babe. She’s sleeping.”
A funny little noise slipped from Tehya’s throat. “She does not look like she’s sleeping. Look at her head!”
Eric stretched back to the woman. Now that he paid a little closer attention, it did seem like there was something terribly wrong. Was that her brain peering back at him? He crawled backwards on his hands and feet in the sand like the crab they’d tried to give a hit to earlier while getting high. Eric laughed at the memory as he climbed back up to his feet.
“This isn’t funny!” Tehya scolded, her voice becoming even more annoying with every syllable. “Were you stealing her shoes?”
“If she’s actually dead, she’s not gonna need them anymore,” he insisted, lifting them in the air for emphasis. “They’d look hotter on you anyway.”
“No way I’m wearing shoes you stole off a corpse!”
Eric rolled his eyes. Women were never satisfied. He tossed them back by his feet. “Happy now?”
“You can’t leave them here! We have to call the police, and they’ll think we were somehow involved if they find your fingerprints! Ohmygod we’re totally going to jail! Our lives are over! They’re going to kick you off the team, and—”
“Babe, stop!” Eric demanded, bracing a hand over her warm lips. “The weed is making you paranoid. We’re not going to jail, and they’re not kicking me off the team. We’ll take the shoes with us, then we’ll call the cops from somewhere far away from here.”
Eric scooped the incriminating evidence off the sand before taking his girlfriend’s hand and leading her away. He wasn’t going to prison because of some stupid shoes. Besides, if they were as valuable as he suspected, then maybe there was a way they could bring in some money.
Brooklyn, New York
“Help me, Bex!”
The sight of her sister’s face covered in blood ripped Bexley Squires from a hard, deep sleep. The nightmare had been so real she would have sworn Cineste had been in her room.
It reminded her of the time Cineste had sliced the heel of her foot open on a metal drain grate. The sight of bone and a small river of blood had triggered a numbing terror in the pit of Bexley’s stomach. At the time, their mother had been too weak from chemotherapy to leave her bed, and their father was on deployment. It was up to Bexley. She had been convinced Cineste would die so she did the only sensible thing the mind of a twelve-year-old could think of, and stole the neighbor’s car.
Cineste’s unknown fate had consumed Bexley’s every waking thought since she received the fateful call from her father nearly two months prior. The conversation came back to her in bits and pieces.
“The Peachtrees hired her as a nanny…turns out she was involved with the Commander’s adult son…he held a gun to his father’s head…they absconded with all the Peachtrees’ cash.”
When Bexley pushed him to explain, he’d ended the conversation. She’d never forget the aggravation in his voice, or the way he announced he had washed his hands clean of both his daughters. He hadn’t called since, not even for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
She swiped a framed selfie off her nightstand that the sisters had taken when Cineste came for a visit last spring. They looked so much alike that they could almost pass for twins. They’d both inherited their mother’s thick mahogany locks, heart-shaped face, and freckled olive skin. Also like their mother, the sisters were petite and average height, although Cineste still had a full inch on Bexley. The only thing linking them to their father were their bright green eyes, sharp noses, and distaste for bullshit.
She ran her thumb over her sister’s image. Cineste’s safety was the only reason she'd agreed to meet with an anonymous source who wouldn’t offer any more information beyond a free flight and generous compensation.
She wasn’t completely surprised, considering she’d been in high demand since the piece she wrote on Richard Warren. But when the source requested to meet in Los Angeles, she was convinced fate was involved. She’d been planning to head out to California to re-trace her sister’s footsteps once she had more than a few hundred dollars to spare.
Her eyes skipped across her Brooklyn loft. After losing her last apartment to an attempt on her life, it had taken months to achieve the boho chic look she’d strived for within the exposed brick walls, patiently adding each detail whenever her tight budget would allow. A set of patterned Wingback chairs from an estate sale faced a 70s cigar-colored leather sofa from the thrift store down the street. In addition to a few thriving house plants, mismatched rugs in various shades of blue helped to brighten the effect of the refurbished walnut flooring. The print that hung over her kitchen table, taken by a local photographer, had been her only splurge. The remaining decor she’d either found while dumpster-diving, or had been gifted to her by a friend. The only effort Bexley made to celebrate the holidays involved a sad little spruce tree adorned with white lights and silver bulbs.
The square footage was barely enough for one resident, which proved to be true on the rare occasions Bexley brought an overnight guest. But it was in a family-friendly area with decent neighbors and friendly shop owners. And it was all hers.
Now she was terrified she would lose it. Her payout from the Warren article was depleted, and the odd jobs she’d taken—walking neighborhood dogs and bartending for the pub a few blocks down—weren’t enough to continue paying the rent. It was yet another reason she felt compelled to find out whether the offer she received was legit. Considering they’d followed through and sent her a gift card from an airline that more than covered the cost of her flight to L.A., Bexley wanted to believe.
She grabbed a shower inside the claw-foot tub in the corner of her loft, then threw three changes of clothes meant for warmer weather into her only carry-on. For a time, she’d been as close to Cineste as two sisters with an 7-year age gap could possibly become, then she’d left for New York without looking back.
It was plausible that Cineste ran away because the standard had been set by her big sister, proving there was only one way out. Bexley wasn’t going to let her little sister down like that ever again.
An extremely slender, beautiful young woman in a perfectly-tailored cocktail dress escorted Bexley to the back of the posh nightclub. The sharp clicks of the woman’s 4” heels against the polished floor were the only sounds to be heard, echoing around the empty space. Something about the unnatural quiet made Bexley uneasy.
Since first declaring journalism as a major her sophomore year at NYU, she'd learned to trust her instincts. The way her stomach rose and goosebumps broke out along her arms made her wonder if she’d made a mistake.
Although she was unsure what would take place at the meeting, Bexley certainly wasn’t expecting to find Dean Halliwell, Hollywood’s brightest and unquestionably most handsome star, waiting to meet her. For a dreadful second, she feared she’d stumble over her feet when he slid out from the large booth to shake her hand. Crowned “the sexiest man alive” by respected magazines and gossip sites alike, the golden hue of his completion was typical of a SoCal surfer, as well as his touchable sandy hair. As America’s highest paid film star, he even looked insanely wealthy. The platinum watch on his wrist was easily worth more than a year of rent, and Bexley suspected the jeans and button-down he wore were one-of-a-kind. Yet there was a small-town charm that came with his signature smile.
Even though he was nearing thirty, a slightly crooked front tooth and deep dimples gave him a deceptively youthful appearance—almost that of a high schooler. The five o’clock shadow that ran along his rugged jaw accentuated his signature bright green eyes surrounded by dark blond lashes.
Despite having grown up in one of the country’s wealthiest communities, it was the first time Bexley had met someone famous. She wasn’t prepared for the charisma Dean exuded in his every movement, and had to admit she felt intimidated. His involvement in anything was guaranteed to create a box-office hit, and he had received various awards for ground-breaking roles in recent years. They could stick him in a movie about a man locked in a bathroom stall, and it would become a worldwide box office sensation. She swore the air around them changed with his presence, giving off a degree of confidence that didn’t fit with someone accused of murder.
“Dean Halliwell,” he said, holding on to her hand. Her fingers disappeared in his warm grip as his eyes remained steady on hers. “Thank you for coming all this way to meet with me.”
Bexley raised a brow. “Now I understand the need for discretion.”
Dean’s smile slipped, and his expression became hesitant. “This needs to be said up front—if you believe everything they’re saying about me, this is a waste of your time and mine.”
Removing her hand from his, Bexley couldn’t help notice the irony in his comment. “I’m well aware of the manipulative nature of the media, Mr. Halliwell. I won’t be persuaded by anyone’s agenda.”
“That’s exactly why I’ve asked you to meet with me.” Dean motioned to the booth. “Have a seat. And please, call me Dean. Can I get you anything?”
Bexley shook her head as she sat on the plush cushion, briefly wondering what her sister would say if she could see her now. Cineste was infatuated with the rich and famous when she was younger, and was always on the lookout for celebrities wandering around town. She would’ve fallen over herself for a chance to be alone with Dean Halliwell. Bexley, on the other hand, was unimpressed by anyone who lived a charmed life simply by engaging in the adult version of make-believe.
“The article you wrote on Richard Warren caught my attention,” Dean began, holding Bexley’s curious gaze. There was a steadying calm about him that made her heart race. “Hell—it caught everyone’s attention. And it made a big impression on me. You aren’t afraid to go after the truth, no matter the cost. You brought down one of the most powerful men in the world.”
“I’m going to assume you didn’t fly me across the country merely to stroke my ego. Why am I really here?”
Jaw clenched, he bobbed his head. “They didn’t actually arrest me for killing that woman.”
“Considering we’re not divided by a sheet of Plexiglas, I had already suspected that.”
He chuckled before releasing a slow breath and running his fingers through his coiffed hair. A small section broke away and dangled over his eye in an appealing manner. Had he done that on purpose, or did being endearing come naturally after all the years he had spent in front of a camera?
“I was only brought in for questioning. The police received a tip claiming they’d seen me outside my property in Papaya Springs with the victim the day before she was found. But my security and staff in Papaya Springs all signed affidavits stating that I was not at that property at any point during that weekend. My agent also signed one stating she was with me at my condo in Malibu, and there wasn’t a lapse in time where I could’ve made the trip, nor would I have any reason to do so. I willingly volunteered my DNA—without being asked. They released me without being charged, despite the media’s claims that I spent a night in jail. This entire incident was handled carelessly from the beginning.”
Beyond what she’d heard in the news, that a naked woman had washed ashore in Bexley’s home town, she had been unaware of the details surrounding Dean’s involvement. Although it sounded like a solid alibi, it wouldn’t surprise her to learn his staff had covered for him. “What exactly are you asking of me, Mr. Halliwell?”
“It’s Dean,” he corrected her in a stern tone. “I’ve become a pariah in the industry since my arrest. I’ve been blackballed from parties and award shows. Producers and other actors refuse to work with me, ad agencies have terminated my contracts. I was fired from my current film even though I’ve already spent two weeks on set. The Papaya Springs PD apparently isn’t competent enough to find the killer, so it’s clearly up to me to find someone to finish the job.” With another long, drawn-out pause, he leaned closer to Bexley with a haunted look. “I’m asking that you uncover the truth behind what happened to that poor woman…expose her killer. I’ll pay you fifty thousand plus your expenses to start digging into the truth. If you’re able to reveal the real killer to the public, I’ll add another five hundred thousand.”
Heartbeat thrumming in her ears, Bexley’s throat constricted. The room suddenly became half its size as his offer repeated in her head.
Five hundred and fifty thousand.
It was more than she could hope to make in a decade of freelancing. More than enough to save Cineste from whatever mess she’d gotten herself into. “Could I please…get a water?”
She was vaguely aware when the actor motioned to the hostess lurking nearby. The amount he was proposing was outlandish. She was a journalist, not a cop. She had been able to expose the truth behind Richard Warren’s sex-trafficking ring through determination and dumb luck. Asking her to catch a murderer when the police couldn’t was like asking lightning to strike twice in the same spot.
Once the hostess set a glass of ice cold water on the table in front of her, Bexley threw it back like a shot of whiskey. Only then was she able to find her voice. “You must have me confused with Olivia Benson. I’m not a cop.”
Thick arms crossed over his chest, he peered at her down the bridge of his sharply angled nose. “From what I’d heard about you, I thought you’d have more confidence.”
That ruffled her feathers. Bexley sat taller, throwing him a hard look. “Before agreeing to this, I would need to speak with the detectives on the case…hear all the facts first-hand.”
He smiled. “I could arrange for that to happen right away.”
She fought the urge to drop her head on the table. Papaya Springs was the last place on earth she wanted to visit. From what she’d heard, it had evolved into the place to be for spoiled rich kids looking for creative ways to blow their daddy’s money.
“Do you have any siblings?” he asked.
“Younger or older?”
“Younger.” Bexley tensed. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“My little brother has always looked up to me. When we were little, he’d follow me around like a puppy. He’s always the first one to congratulate me when I’ve done something. Robby means everything to me. This thing…it’s put a strain on our relationship. My old man said Robby’s been skipping school and even got caught stealing. Neither one believes I’m innocent. No one does. Everyone who once had my back has turned away. I have no one in my corner.” The faint lines etched around his eyes deepened. “Help me make my brother believe in me again. You’re my only hope.”