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A Trace of Hope

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A Trace of Hope



Blake Pierce

Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes twelve books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising eight books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising six books; and of the KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising four books (and counting).

An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit to learn more and stay in touch.

Copyright © 2018 by Blake Pierce. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright Coka, used under license from


WATCHING (Book #1)


ONCE GONE (Book #1)

ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)


ONCE LURED (Book #4)


ONCE PINED (Book #6)


ONCE COLD (Book #8)


ONCE LOST (Book #10)

ONCE BURIED (Book #11)

ONCE BOUND (Book #12)














CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)












When Detective Keri Locke opened her eyes, she immediately knew something was off. First of all, she didn’t feel as if she had been asleep for long. Her heart was racing and she felt clammy all over. It was more like she’d passed out than been sleeping for a long time.

Second, she wasn’t in bed. Instead, she was flat on her back on the couch in her apartment living room and Detective Ray Sands, her partner and, as of late, her boyfriend, was leaning over her with a concerned expression on his face.

She tried to speak, to ask him what was wrong, but her mouth was dry and nothing came out but a hoarse crack. She couldn’t remember how she got here or what had happened before she lost consciousness. But it must have been something huge for her to react that way.

She saw in Ray’s eyes that he wasn’t sure what to say. That wasn’t like him. He wasn’t one to beat around the bush. A six-foot-four African-American LAPD cop and former professional boxer who’d lost his left eye in a fight, he was direct in almost everything he did.

Keri tried to push up on her arms to get to a more elevated position but Ray stopped her, gently resting a hand on her shoulder and shaking his head.

“Give yourself a moment,” he said. “You still look a little unsteady.”

“How long was I out?” Keri croaked.

“Not quite a minute,” he answered.

Why was I out?” she asked.

Ray’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth to reply but stopped, clearly at a loss.

“What is it?”

“You don’t remember?” he asked incredulously.

Keri shook her head. She thought she heard a buzzing in her ears but then realized that it was another voice. She glanced over to the coffee table and saw her phone resting there. It was on and someone was speaking.

“Who’s on the phone?” she asked.

“Oh, you dropped it when you collapsed and I put it there until I could revive you.”

“Who is it?” Keri asked again, noting that he had avoided her question.

“It’s Susan,” he said reluctantly. “Susan Granger.”

Susan Granger was a fifteen-year-old prostitute whom Keri had rescued from her pimp last year and gotten placed in a girls’ home. Since then, the two had become close, with Keri acting as a kind of mentor for the damaged but spirited young girl.

“Why is Susan calli – ?”

And then the memory hit her like a wave crashing down on her entire body. Susan had called to tell Keri that her own daughter, Evie, who had been abducted six years ago, was to be the central participant in a grotesque ceremony.

Susan had learned that tomorrow night at a house somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, Evie was going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, who would be allowed to have his way with her sexually before killing her in some sort of ritualistic sacrifice.

That’s why I passed out.

“Hand me the phone,” she ordered Ray.

“I’m not sure you’re up for this yet,” he said, obviously sensing that she could now remember everything.

“Give me the goddamn phone, Ray.”

He handed it over without another word.

“Susan, are you still there?” she said.

“What happened?” Susan demanded, her voice borderline panicky. “One minute you were there and then nothing. I could hear something happening but you didn’t answer.”

“I passed out,” Keri admitted. “It took me a moment to regroup.”

“Oh,” Susan said quietly. “I’m sorry I did that to you.”

“It’s not your fault, Susan. I was just taken by surprise. It’s a lot to process at once, especially when I’m not feeling a hundred percent.”

“How are you doing?” Susan asked, the concern in her voice almost palpable.

She was referring to Keri’s injuries, sustained in a life-and-death fight with a child abductor only two days ago. She had only been released from the hospital yesterday morning.

The doctors had determined that the bruises on her face, where the abductor had punched her twice, along with a badly bruised chest and swollen knee, weren’t enough to keep her another day.

The abductor, a deranged zealot named Jason Petrossian, had gotten the worst of it. He was still hospitalized under armed guard. The girl he’d kidnapped, twelve-year-old Jessica Rainey, was recovering at home with her family.

“I’ll be okay,” Keri said reassuringly. “Just some bumps and bruises. I’m glad you called, Susan. No matter how bad the news, knowing this is better than not knowing. Now I can try to do something about it.”

“What can you do, Detective Locke?” Susan said, her voice rising as the words tumbled out of her. “Like I said, I know Evie is the Blood Prize at the Vista. But I don’t where it’s happening.”

“Slow down, Susan,” Keri said firmly as she pulled herself to a sitting position. Her head felt a little dizzy and she didn’t protest as Ray put a steadying hand on her back as he sat down beside her on the couch. “We’ll figure out how to find her. But first I need you to tell me everything you know about this whole Vista thing. Don’t worry about repeating yourself. I want every detail you can recall.”

“Are you sure?” Susan asked hesitantly.

“Don’t worry. I’m okay now. I just needed a moment to take all this in. But I’m a Missing Persons detective. This is what I do. Just because I’m looking for my own daughter doesn’t change the job. So tell me everything.”

She pushed the speakerphone button so Ray could listen too.

“Okay,” Susan said. “As I told you before, there’s a club of rich johns who have pop-up sex parties in the Hollywood Hills. They call them Hill House Parties. The house is filled with girls, almost all underage prostitutes like I was. They usually have them every few months and most of the time, they only give a few hours’ notice, usually via text. Am I making sense?”

“Absolutely,” Keri said. “I remember you telling me about this. So remind me about the Vista event.”

“The Vista is like their biggest party of all. It only happens once a year and no one knows when. They like to give a little more notice for that one because no one wants to miss it. That’s probably why my friend heard about it already even though it’s not until tomorrow night.”

“And the Vista is different from the other Hill House Parties, right?” Keri prodded, knowing Susan was reluctant to revisit the particulars and giving her permission to do it.

“Yeah. At all the other parties, the john pays for whatever girl he likes and just does whatever he wants with her. Guys can be with anyone they want and a girl can be used all night by anyone. But the Vista is different. On that night the organizers pick one girl – she’s usually special in some way – and make her the Blood Prize.”

She stopped talking and Keri could sense she didn’t want to continue, didn’t want to hurt the woman who’d rescued her and helped her see a future for herself.


“It’s okay, Susan,” Keri insisted. “Go on. I need to know everything.”

She heard the girl give a deep sigh on the other end of the line before continuing.

“So the event starts around nine at night. For a while it’s just like a regular Hill House party. But then they bring in the girl who has been chosen as the Blood Prize. Like I said, there’s usually something different about her. Maybe she’s a virgin. Maybe she was just abducted that day so she’s been on the news. Once it was former child star who got hooked on drugs and ended up on the streets.”

“And this year it’s Evie,” Keri prodded.

“Yeah, there’s a girl named Lupita from my hooking days in Venice who I keep in touch with. She still works the streets and she overheard some guys talking about how they were using the lady cop’s daughter this year. They’re using the nickname ‘mini-pig’ to describe her.”

“Very creative,” Keri muttered bitterly. “And you said they picked her because I’m getting too close?”

“Right,” Susan confirmed. “The powers that be were tired of moving her around. They said she’s become a liability with you constantly on the hunt for her. They just want to finish her off and dump her body somewhere, so you know she’s dead and will stop looking. I’m so sorry, Detective.”

“Go on,” Keri said. Her body was numb and her voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere far away, outside of herself.

“So it’s basically an auction. All the big spenders will bid on her. Sometimes it gets into the hundreds of thousands. These guys are competitive. Plus there’s the fact that by punishing her, it’s like they’re reaching out and hurting you. I’m sure that’ll up the cost. And I think they’re all turned on by how it ends.”

“Remind me of that part,” Keri asked, closing her eyes in preparation. She sensed Susan’s hesitation but didn’t press, letting the girl gather herself to say what had to be said. Ray edged a little closer to her on the couch and moved his arm from her back, wrapping it around her shoulder.

“Whoever wins the auction is taken to a separate room while the Blood Prize is prepared. She’s bathed and put in a fancy dress. Someone does her makeup, movie-star style. Then she’s taken to a room where the guy gets to have his way with her. The only rule is he can’t hurt her face.”

Keri noticed that Susan’s voice had grown hard, as if she was turning off the part of herself that felt emotion so she could get through this. Keri didn’t blame her. The girl went on.

“I mean, he can do things to her, you know. He just can’t hit her or slap her above the neck. She’s got to look right for the big event later. They don’t mind if her mascara is streaky because she’s been crying. That adds to the drama. Just no bruises.”

“What happens next?”

“The guy has to be finished a little bit before midnight because that’s when the final sacrifice happens. They put her in a fresh dress and strap her down so she can’t move too much. She can wriggle a little. They like that. But not too much.”

Despite her eyes being closed, Keri sensed Ray stiffening beside her. He seemed to be holding his breath. She realized she was doing the same thing and forced herself to exhale when she heard Susan pause to swallow.

“The guy puts on a black robe and a hood to hide his identity,” she continued. “That’s because the thing is shown on TV in the main room where everyone else is. I think it’s recorded too. Obviously none of these guys want video evidence of them murdering a teenage girl.

“When they’re both prepped, the guy comes in and stands behind her. He delivers some prepared line, I don’t know what. Then he’s handed a knife and, right at the stroke of midnight, he slits her throat. She dies, right there on camera. Everybody recites something. Then they turn the TV off and the party resumes. That’s pretty much it.”

Keri finally opened her eyes. She felt a tear trickle down her cheek but refused to wipe it away. She liked the way it almost burned her skin, like a wet flame.

As long as she could keep that flame of righteous fury alive in her heart, she was sure she could keep Evie alive too.


For a long time, no one spoke. Keri didn’t think she could. Instead, she let the rising tide of rage fill her up, making her blood boil and her fingers tingle.

Finally Ray cleared his throat.

“Susan, this is Detective Locke’s partner, Ray Sands. Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course, Detective.”

“How do you know all this? I mean, were you at one of these parties?”

“Like I told Detective Locke, I was taken to a Hill House Party once when I was about eleven. I was never brought back but I know girls who have been. One of my friends was taken twice. And you can imagine how word spreads. Any girl who’s been in the life in LA knows all the details about the Vista. It’s become almost an urban legend. Pimps sometimes use it to keep their girls in line. ‘Talk back and you might be the Blood Prize this year.’ Only this legend is actually true.”

Something in Susan’s tone – the mix of fear and sadness – snapped Keri out of her silence. This young girl had made so much progress in recent months. But Keri feared that asking her to return, even just in memory, to the dark place she’d inhabited for years was unfair and cruel. Susan had shared everything she could, at the cost of her own emotional well-being. It was time to let her try to be a kid again.

The adults had to take over now.

“Susan,” she said, “thank you so much for telling me all this. I know it wasn’t easy for you. With the information you’ve given us, I think we’ve got a great start at finding Evie. I don’t want you to worry about this anymore, okay?”

“I could check around some more,” the girl insisted.

“No. You’ve done enough. It’s time to get back to your new life. I promise to check in with you. But for now I need you to focus on schoolwork. Maybe read a new Nancy Drew book we can talk about next week. We’ve got it from here, kiddo.”

They said goodbye and Keri hung up. She looked over at Ray.

“You think we’ve got a great start at finding Evie?” he asked skeptically.

“No, but I couldn’t tell her that. Besides, it may not be great. But it’s a start.”


Keri and Ray sat in Ronnie’s Diner, both lost in thought. The morning rush at the nondescript joint in Marina del Rey had ended and most of the customers in the place were enjoying a leisurely breakfast.

Ray had insisted they leave the apartment and Keri had agreed. She had dressed more casually than usual, in a long-sleeved shirt and faded jeans, with a light jacket to protect against the crisp January morning.

She wore a baseball cap, pulled down low over the top half of her face. She let her dirty-blonde hair, normally pulled back in a professional ponytail, intentionally hang loose to swallow her face and hide the bruises she knew would make others stare.

She hunched down in their booth as she sipped coffee, further hiding her already modest frame. Keri, almost thirty-six years old, was an unimposing five foot six. Recently, she’d taken to wearing more form-fitting attire, as she’d cut down on the drinking and gotten back into solid shape. But not today. This morning, she was hoping to go unnoticed.

It was nice just to get out after two days of doctor-ordered bed rest. But Keri was also hoping that a change of scenery would give her a fresh perspective on how to find Evie. And it had worked to some degree.

By the time their food arrived they’d agreed not to formally involve their team, the Missing Persons Unit of LAPD’s West Los Angeles Pacific Division, in the search. The unit had been helping Keri look for her daughter on and off for years, to no avail. There was no reason to assume the outcome would be any different without new evidence to go on.

But there was another reason to keep a low profile. This was truly Keri’s last chance to find her daughter. She knew the exact time that Evie would be in a certain part of LA – the Hollywood Hills at midnight tomorrow – even if she didn’t have the specific location yet.

But if the team started poking around and word got out that they knew about the Vista event, the people who had Evie might cancel the event or just kill her early to avoid complications. Keri needed to keep things quiet.

Unspoken but understood between the partners and new couple was another wrinkle. They couldn’t be sure they weren’t being monitored by the person they most needed to keep in the dark – Jackson Cave.

Last year Keri had taken down a serial child abductor named Alan Jack Pachanga, ultimately killing him while rescuing a teenage girl. And while Pachanga was no longer a problem, his lawyer was.

Jackson Cave, the man’s attorney, was a big-time corporate lawyer with a fancy downtown high-rise office. But he had also made something of a career of representing the dregs of society. He seemed to have a particular affinity for child predators. He claimed much of it was pro bono work and that even the worst among us deserved quality representation.

But Keri had uncovered information that seemed to link him to a vast network of child abductors, a network she suspected he was profiting from and helping to direct. One of the abductors in the network was a man who went by the title of the Collector.

Last fall, when Keri learned that the Collector was Evie’s abductor, she lured him into a meeting. But the Collector, whose real name was Brian Wickwire, discovered her ruse and attacked her. She ended up killing him in their fight, but not before he swore she would never find Evie.

Unfortunately, she had no evidence that could prove Jackson Cave’s connection to the man who’d taken her daughter or the larger network he seemed to run. At least none that she’d obtained legally.

In desperation, she’d once broken into his office and found a coded file that had proven helpful. But the fact that she’d stolen it made it inadmissible in court. Besides that, the connections between Cave and the network were so well-hidden and tenuous that proving his involvement would be nearly impossible. He hadn’t reached his position of power atop the Los Angeles legal world by being sloppy or careless.

She even tried to convince her ex-husband, Stephen, a wealthy Hollywood talent agent, to help pay for a private investigator to follow Cave. A good investigator was well beyond her means alone. But Stephen refused, essentially saying he thought Evie was dead and Keri was delusional.

Of course Jackson Cave had no such financial limitations. And once he realized that Keri was on to him, he started having her surveilled. Both she and Ray had found bugs in their homes and cars. Each of them now did regular bug sweeps of everything from their clothes to their phones to their shoes before discussing anything sensitive. They also suspected even their LAPD office was monitored and acted accordingly.

That’s why they sat in a loud diner, wearing clothes they’d swept for recording devices, making sure no one at nearby tables seemed to be listening in, as they formulated their plan. If there was one person they didn’t want to know they were aware of Vista, it was Jackson Cave.

In her multiple verbal confrontations with him, it had become clear to Keri that something had changed in Cave. He may have originally viewed her as merely a threat to his business, another obstacle to overcome. But no longer.

After all, she’d killed two of his biggest earners, stolen files from his office, cracked codes, and put his business, and perhaps his freedom, at risk. Of course, she was doing it all to find her daughter.

But she sensed that Cave had come to see her as more than merely an opponent, some chick cop desperate to find her kid. He seemed to consider her almost as his nemesis, as some sort of mortal enemy. He didn’t just want to defeat her anymore. He wanted to destroy her.

Keri was sure that was why Evie was to be the Blood Prize at the Vista. She doubted that Cave knew where Evie was being held or who was holding her. But he surely knew the people who knew the people who knew those things. And he had almost certainly instructed, at least indirectly, that Evie be the sacrifice at tomorrow’s party as a way to break Keri beyond repair.

There was no point in tailing him or formally interrogating him. He was far too clever and careful to make any mistakes, especially since he knew she was on to him. But he was behind all of it – of that Keri was certain. She’d just have to find another way to solve this.


With a renewed sense of resolve she looked up to find that Ray was watching her closely.

“How long have you been staring at me?” she asked.

“A couple of minutes, at least. I didn’t want to interrupt. You looked like you were doing some seriously deep thinking. Have any epiphanies?”

“Not really,” she admitted. “We both know who’s behind this but I don’t think that helps us much. I need to start fresh and hope to track down some new leads.”

“You mean ‘we,’ right?” Ray said.

“Don’t you have to go in to work today? You’ve been off for a while taking care of me.”

“You’ve got to be kidding, Tinker Bell,” he said with a smile, alluding to their massive size disparity. “You think I’m just going to go into the office with everything going on? I’ll use every sick, personal, and vacation day I have if it comes to that.”

Keri felt her entire chest warm over with delight but tried to hide it.

“I appreciate that, Godzilla,” she said. “But with me still being on suspension because of the IA investigation, we might need you to take advantage of some of those official police resources you have access to.”

Keri was technically on suspension while Internal Affairs investigated the circumstances surrounding her killing of Brian “The Collector” Wickwire. Their supervisor, Lieutenant Cole Hillman, had indicated that it would likely be wrapped up soon in her favor. But until then, Keri had no badge, no department-issued weapon, no formal authority, and no access to police resources.

“Was there something particular you thought I should be looking into?” Ray asked.

“Actually, yes. Susan mentioned that one of the past Blood Prize girls was a former child actress who became an addict and ended up on the streets. If she was raped and murdered, especially by having her throat slit, there should be a record of it, right? I don’t remember it being on the news but maybe I missed it. If you could track that down, maybe the forensic workup included DNA from the semen of the man who assaulted her.”

“It’s possible no one ever thought to even check for DNA,” Ray added. “If they found this girl dead with her throat cut, they might not have felt the need to do anything further. If we can figure out who she was, maybe we can have more testing done, put a rush on it and ID who she was with.”

“Exactly,” Keri agreed. “Just remember to be discreet. Involve as few people as possible. We don’t know how many ears our lawyer friend has in the building.”

“Understood. So what do you plan to do while I pore over old records of murdered teenage girls?”

“I’m going to interview a possible witness.”

“Who’s that?” Ray asked.

“Susan’s prostitute friend, Lupita – the one who said she overheard those guys talking about the Vista. Maybe she’ll remember more with a little help.”

“Okay, Keri, but remember to go a little easy. That area of Venice is rough and you’re still not at full strength. Besides, at least for now, you’re not even a cop.”

“Thanks for the concern, Ray. But I think you know by now. Going easy just isn’t my style.”

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