Culver City, a suburb of Los Angeles
Twelve Years Earlier
“So you’re not coming home tonight, is that what
you’re getting at?” Jennifer Bentz sat on the edge of
the bed, phone pressed to her ear as she tried to ignore that all
too familiar guilty noose of monogamy that was strangling her even
as it frayed.
Ever the great communicator, her ex wasn’t about to
Not that she really blamed him. Theirs was a tenuous, if
sometimes passionate relationship. And she was forever “the
bad one” as she thought of herself, “the
adulteress.” Even now, the scent of recent sex teased her
nostrils in the too-warm bedroom, reminding her of her sins. Two
half-full martini glasses stood next to a sweating shaker on the
bedside table, evidence that she hadn’t been alone.
“When, then?” she asked. “When will you show
“Tomorrow. Maybe.” Rick was on his cell in a squad
car. She heard the sounds of traffic in the background, knew he was
being evasive and tightlipped because his partner was driving and
could overhear at least one side of the stilted conversation.
She tried again. Lowered her voice. “Would it help if I
said I miss you?”
No response. Of course. God, she hated this. Being the pathetic,
whining woman, begging for him to see her. It just wasn’t her
style. Not her style at all. Men, they were the ones who usually
begged. And she got off on it.
Somewhere in the back of her consciousness she heard a soft
“I heard you.”
Her cheeks burned and she glanced at the bed sheets twisted and
turned, falling into a pool of pastel, wrinkled cotton at the foot
of the bed.
Oh, God. He knows. The metallic taste of betrayal was
on her lips, but she had to play the game, feign innocence. Surely
he wouldn’t suspect that she’d been with another man,
not so close on the heels of the last time. Geez, she’d even
There was a chance he was bluffing.
She shuddered as she imagined his rage. She played her trump
card. “Kristi will wonder why you’re not home.
She’s already asking questions.”
“And what do you tell her? The truth?” That her
mother can’t keep her legs closed? He didn’t say
it, but the condemnation was there, hanging between them. Hell, she
hated this. If it weren’t for her daughter, their
“I’m not sure how long the stake-out will
A convenient lie. Her blood began a slow, steady boil.
“You and I both know that the department doesn’t work
its detectives around the clock.”
“You and I both know a lot of things.”
In her mind’s eye she saw him as he had been in the
bedroom doorway, his face twisted in silent accusation as she lay
in their bed. Sweaty, naked, she lay in the arms of another man,
the same man with whom she’d had an affair earlier.
Kristi’s biological father. Rick had reached for his gun, the
pistol strapped in his shoulder-holster, and for a second Jennifer
had known real fear. Icy, cold terror.
“Get out,” he’d ordered staring with deadly
calm at the two of them. “Jesus H. Christ, get the hell out
of my house and don’t come back. Both of you.”
He’d turned then, walked down the stairs and left without
so much as slamming the door. But his rage had been real. Palpable.
Jennifer had escaped with her life, but she hadn’t left. She
Rick hadn’t returned. They hadn’t even fought about
it again. He’d just left.
Refused to answer her calls.
By then it had been too late.
She’d already met her lover again. As much out of
retribution as desire. Fuck it. No one was going to run her life,
not even Rick-effin’-Bentz, super hero cop. So she’d
met the man who was forever in her blood.
The words were her own. She closed her eyes and hung her head,
feeling lost. Confused. Never had she planned to cheat on Rick.
Never. But she’d been weak; temptation strong. She shook her
head and felt black to the bottom of her soul. Who was she so
intent on punishing? Him? Or herself? Hadn’t one of her
shrinks told her she didn’t think she deserved him? That she
What a load of crap. “I just don’t know what you
want,” she whispered weakly.
“Neither do I. Not anymore.”
She saw an inch of liquid remaining in one martini glass and
drank it down. The noose tightened a notch, even as it unraveled.
God, why couldn’t it be easy with him? Why couldn’t she
remain faithful? “I’m trying, Rick,” she
whispered, gritting her teeth. It wasn’t a lie. The problem
was that she was trying and failing.
She thought she heard a muffled footstep from downstairs and she
went on alert, then decided the noise might have been the echo in
the phone. Or from outside. Wasn’t there a window open?
“You’re trying?” Rick snorted. “At
So there it was. He did know. Probably was having someone tail
her, having the house watched. Or worse yet, he had been parked up
the street in a car she didn’t recognize and had been
watching the house himself. She glanced up at the ceiling to the
light fixture, smoke alarm and slow-moving paddle fan as it pushed
the hot air around. Were there tiny cameras hidden inside? Had he
filmed her recent tryst? Witnessed her as she’d writhed and
moaned on the bed she shared with him? Observed her as she’d
taken command and run her tongue down her lover’s abdomen and
lower? Seen her laughing? Teasing? Seducing?
Jesus, how twisted was he?
She closed her eyes. Mortified. “You sick son of a
“I hate you.” Her temper was rising.
“I know. I just wasn’t sure you could admit it.
Leave, Jennifer. It’s over.”
“Maybe if you didn’t get off bustin’ perps and
playing the super-hero, ace detective, maybe if you paid a little
attention to your wife and kid, this wouldn’t
“You’re not my wife.”
He hung up.
“Bastard!” She threw the phone onto the bed as her
head began to pound. You did this Jennifer. You yourself. You
knew you’d get caught but you pushed away everything you
wanted and loved, including Kristi and a chance with your
ex-husband, because you’re a freak. You just can’t help
yourself. She felt a tear slither down her cheek and slapped
it away. This was no time for tears or self pity.
Hadn’t she told herself that reconciliation with Rick was
impossible? And yet she’d returned to this house, this home
they’d shared together, knowing full well it was a mistake of
monumental proportions. Just as it had been when she’d first
said “I do,” years before.
“Fool!” She swore under her breath on her way to the
bathroom where she saw her reflection in the mirror over the
“Not pretty,” she said, splashing water over her
face. But that really wasn’t the truth. She wasn’t too
far into her thirties and her dark hair was still thick and wavy as
it fell below her shoulders. Her skin was still smooth, her lips
full, her eyes a shade of blue-green men seemed to find
fascinating. All the wrong men, she reminded herself. Men who were
forbidden and taboo. And she loved their attention. Craved it.
She opened the medicine cabinet, found her bottle of Valium and
popped a couple, just to take the edge off and push the threatening
migraine away. Kristi was going to a friend’s house after
swim practice; Rick wasn’t coming home until God knew when,
so Jennifer had the house and the rest of the evening to herself.
She wasn’t leaving. Yet.
An unlikely noise traveled up the staircase from the floor
The sound of air moving? A door opening? A window ajar?
What the hell was going on? She paused, listening, her senses on
alert, the hairs on the back of her arms lifting.
What if Rick were nearby?
What if he’d been lying on the phone and was really on his
way home again, just like the other day? The son of a bitch might
just have been playing her for a fool.
The “stake-out” could well be fake, or if he really
was going to spend all night watching someone, it was probably her,
his own wife.
Ex-wife. Jennifer Bentz stared at her reflection in the
mirror and frowned at the tiny little lines visible between her
eyebrows. When had those wrinkles first appeared? Last year?
Earlier? Or just in the last week?
It was hard to say.
But there they were, reminding her all too vividly that she
wasn’t getting any younger.
With so many men who had wanted her, how had she ended up
marrying, divorcing and then living with a cop in his small, all
too middle class little house? Their attempt to get back together
was just a trial. It hadn’t been going on long and now...
well, she was pretty damned sure it was over for good.
Because she just couldn’t be faithful to any one man. Even
one she loved.
Dear God, what was she going to do? She’d thought about
taking her own life. More than once. And she’d already
written her daughter a letter to be delivered upon her death:
I’m so sorry, honey. Believe me when I tell you that I
love you more than life itself. But I’ve been involved with
the man who is really your father again and I’m afraid
it’s going to break Rick’s heart.
And blah, blah, blah...
What a bunch of melodramatic crap.
Again she thought she heard something... the sound of a footstep
on the floor downstairs…
She started to call out, then held her tongue. Padding quietly
to the top of the stairs, she held onto the railing and listened.
Over the smooth rotation of the fan in her bedroom she heard
another noise, something faint and clicking.
Her skin crawled.
She barely dared breathe. Her heart pounded in her ears.
Just your imagination -- the guilt that’s eating at
Or the neighbor’s cat. That’s it, the scraggly
thing that’s always rooting around in the garbage cans or
searching for mice in the garage.
On stealthy footsteps she hurried to the bedroom window and
peered through the glass, seeing nothing out of the ordinary on
this gray day in L.A. where the air was foggy, dusty and thick.
Even the sun, a reddish disc hanging low in the sky over miles and
miles of rooftops, appeared distorted by the smog.
Not the breath of a breeze from the ocean today, nothing
stirring to make any kind of noise. No cat slinking beneath the dry
bushes, no bicyclist on the street. Not even a car passing.
Just a case of nerves.
She poured the remains of the shaker into her glass and took a
sip on her way to the bathroom. But in the doorway she caught sight
of her reflection and felt another stab of guilt.
“Bottoms up,” she whispered and then, seeing her own
reflection and the glass lifted to her lips, she cringed. This
wasn’t what she wanted for her life. For her daughter.
“Stupid, stupid bitch!” The woman in the mirror seemed
to laugh at her. Taunt her. Without thinking, Jennifer hurled her
drink at her smirking reflection. The glass slammed into the
Slowly, the mirror cracked, a spider web of flaws crawling over
the slivered glass. Shards slipped into the sink.
What the hell have you done?
She tried to pick up one of the larger pieces and sliced the tip
of her finger, blood dripping from her hand, drizzling into the
sink. Quickly she found a single, loose Band-aid on the shelf in
the cabinet. She had trouble as her fingers weren’t working
as they should, but she managed to pull off the backing and wrap
her index finger. But she couldn’t quite staunch the flow.
Blood swelled beneath the tiny scrap of plastic and gauze.
“Damn it all to hell,” she muttered and caught a
glimpse of her face in one of the remaining jagged bits of
“Seven years of bad luck,” she whispered, just as
Nana Nichols had foretold when she’d broken her
grandmother’s favorite looking glass at the age of three.
“You’ll be cursed until you’re ten, Jenny, and
who knows how much longer after that!” Nana, usually kind,
had looked like a monster, all yellow teeth and bloodless lips
twisted in disgust.
But how right the old woman had been. Bad luck seemed to follow
her around, even to this day.
Spying her face, now distorted and cleaved in the shards of
glass that remained, Jennifer saw herself as an old woman -- a
lonely old woman.
God, what a day, she thought thickly.
Heading for the broom and dustpan, she started downstairs,
nearly stumbling on the landing. She caught herself, made her way
to the first floor and stepped into the laundry room.
Where the door stood ajar.
She hadn’t left it open; she was sure of it. And when her
lover had left, he’d gone through the garage. So... ? Had
Kristi, on her way to school, not pulled it shut? The damned thing
was hard to latch, but...
She felt a frisson of fear skitter down her spine. Hadn’t
she heard someone down here earlier? Or was that just the gin
talking? She was a little confused, her head thick, but...
Steadying herself on the counter, she paused, straining to hear,
trying to remember. Good God, she was more than a little out of it.
She walked into the kitchen, poured herself a glass of water and
noticed the hint of cigarette smoke in the air. No doubt from her
ex-husband. How many times did she have to tell him to take his
foul habit and smoke outside? Way outside. Not just out on the back
porch where the damned tobacco odor sifted through the screen
But Rick hasn’t been here in two days...
She froze, her gaze traveling upward to the ceiling. Nothing...
and then... a floorboard creaked overhead. The crunch of glass.
Oh, God, no.
This time it wasn’t a guess.
This time she was certain.
Someone was in the house.
Someone who didn’t want her to know he was there.
Someone who wanted to do her harm.
The smell of cigarette smoke teased at her nostrils again.
Oh, Jesus. This wasn’t Rick.
She slid on silent footsteps toward the counter where the knives
were kept and slowly slid a long-bladed weapon from its slot. As
she did she thought of all the cases Rick had solved, of all the
criminals who had channeled their wrath toward him and his family
when they’d been arrested or sentenced. Many of them had
vowed to get back at Detective Bentz in the most painful ways
He’d never told her of the threats, but she’d
learned from other cops on the force who had gladly repeated
various criminals’ promises to seek revenge.
And now someone was in the house.
The back of her throat turned desert dry.
Holding her breath, she eased into the garage and nearly tripped
on the single step when she realized that the garage door was wide
open to the driveway, a blatant invitation. One the intruder had
She didn’t think twice and slid behind the wheel where the
keys were in the ignition.
She twisted on the keys.
The engine sparked.
She threw the gear into reverse and gunned it, tearing out of
the driveway, nearly hitting the neighbor’s miserable cat and
just missing the mailbox.
She glanced up to the master bedroom window as she crammed the
van into drive.
Her heart froze.
A dark figure stood behind the panes, a man with a cruel,
The light shifted on the blinds and the image was gone -- maybe
just a figment of her imagination.
Or was it?
She didn’t wait to find out, just hit the gas pedal,
racing down the street as old Mr. Van Pelt decided to back his
ancient tank of a Buick into the street. Jennifer hit the brakes,
her tires screeched, and then once past the startled old man, she
“There was no man in the window. You know that,” she
tried to convince herself. “No one was there.”
Driving with one hand, she searched the passenger seat for her
purse and cell, which, she now remembered, sat in the bedroom where
she’d seen the dark figure of a man.
“Just your imagination,” she said over and over as
she drove out of the subdivision and onto the main highway, melding
into traffic. Her heart pounded and her head throbbed. Blood from
her hand smeared the steering wheel. She checked her rear-view
often, searching for a vehicle following her, looking through the
sea of cars for one that seemed intent on chasing her down. Metal
glinted in the sunlight and she cursed herself for not having her
sunglasses with her.
Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Tons of cars heading east:
silver, white, black sedans and sports cars, trucks and SUVs... at
least she thought that was the direction she was going. She
wasn’t sure. She hadn’t paid a lot of attention and she
was starting to relax, starting to think she’d eluded whoever
had been after her. If anyone really had.
Just another Southern California day. She spied a dark blue SUV
coming up fast and her heart jumped, but it sped by, along with a
white BMW on its tail.
She flipped on the radio, tried to steady her nerves, but she
was sweating, her finger still bleeding. The miles passed, nothing
happened and she started to relax... really relax. She drifted a
bit, nearly side-swiping a guy who hit the horn and flipped her
“Yeah, right, whatever,” she said, but realized she
shouldn’t be driving, not in all this traffic in her altered
state. At the next exit, she turned off... dear Lord, where was
she?... in the country? She didn’t recognize the area, the
sparseness of the homes, the stretches of brush and farmland. She
was inland somewhere and the Valium had kicked in big time.
Blinking against the sunlight, she looked in her side view mirror
and saw another big blue SUV bearing down on her.
The same one as before?
She yawned and the Explorer behaved, following her at a distance
on the two-lane road that led into the hills.
It was time to turn around.
She was so damned tired.
The road before her seemed to shift and she blinked. Her eyelids
were so heavy. She’d have to slow down and rest, try to clear
her head, maybe drink some coffee...
There was a chance no one had been in the house. Geez-God, the
way she was imagining things, the way her nerves were strung tight
as guy wires these days, the way guilt was eating at her, she was
probably letting her mind play tricks on her.Her thoughts swirled
and gnawed at her.
She saw the curve in the road and she braked, and as she did,
she noticed the dark Explorer riding her ass.
“So pass, you idiot,” she said, distracted, her eyes
on the rear-view mirror. The rig’s windows are tinted and
dark, but she caught a glimpse of the driver.
Her heart nearly stopped.
The driver stared straight at her. She bit back a scream. He was
the same intruder she’d seen in the upstairs window of her
Scared out of her wits, she tromped on the accelerator.
Who the hell was he?
Why was he following her?
She saw the corner and cut it, hoping to lose him, but her
judgment was off and one of the van’s tires caught on the
shoulder, hitting gravel. She yanked on the wheel, trying to
wrestle the car onto the road, but the van began to spin.
Totally out of control.
The van shuddered. Skidded.
And then began to roll.
In slow-motion certainty, Jennifer knew she was going to
More than that, she knew she was being murdered.
Probably set up by her damned ex-husband, Rick Bentz.
Excerpted from MALICE © Copyright 2011 by Lisa Jackson.
Reprinted with permission by Kensington Publishing Corporation. All