Skin Deep

**This story immediately follows "Spark of Insanity".**

CHAPTER 1

"Alright, you can open your eyes now." CJ looked at Matt's face and wasn't disappointed when she saw his reaction to the truck. "WHOO HOO!" He walked over to it, and ran his hand down the side, then opened the driver's side door and checked it out. Looking back over at CJ he said, "It's exactly the same. How did you manage to do that?"

"Well, the day I went to get my replacement Navigator I talked to the salesman that took care of you when you ordered the first truck. He still had the paperwork with all of the specifics, so he just ordered the same thing again." She was thrilled to finally get to give him the truck. It had been a long six weeks of recovery for Matt after he was nearly killed when his ex-fiancé had hired someone to put a bomb under his "dream truck" as he had called it. After suffering with a broken leg, concussion, and an arm that was broken in two places and required pins, he was now free from the cast on his leg, but still had a couple of more weeks to go on the arm. He had the cast on his leg removed the day before and had been itching to go to the dealership to order another truck. CJ's Navigator had been parked right next to his truck in the parking garage and had been destroyed as well.

Matt walked back over to CJ, taking her into his arms and giving her a kiss that was sure to be memorable. When the pair finally came up for air, he brushed her hair from her face and smiled. "Thanks, babe, it's absolutely perfect."

"So when are we going for a ride?" She dangled the keys in front of him.

"How about now?" He took her by the hand and went around the truck to open the passenger door for her and then jumped in the driver's side. He looked over at her and grinned as he started the engine.

Luis Sanchez stuck his head into Lt. Michael Hoyt's office. "Sir, I hate to bother you…"

"What?! What is it this time, Sanchez? How am I ever supposed to get all of this paperwork done…?" Hoyt stopped himself, closed his eyes, and counted to ten. He looked back up at the young officer. "Sorry, this stupid budget paperwork has me going crazy. What did you need?"

"There's a call for you on line one – there's been another truck stop murder." He ducked back out of the door before Hoyt had a chance to respond. He dreaded the onslaught of paperwork that the lieutenant was forced to fill out every year, trying to justify his division's budget.

Hoyt picked up the phone. "Lt. Hoyt. Where is it? Same as the other three?" He sighed. "Okay, I'll be there as soon as I can. What does that mean?! It means as soon as I can get there!" He hung up, picked up his coat, and headed out the door. On his way to the parking garage he thought about Houston. He was supposed to have gotten the cast off of his leg yesterday. He wondered if the private investigator was able to take a case now or at least consult on one. As he got into his car, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed Matt's number. He could sure use some help. The call he had just received made the fourth murder of a truck driver in the last two weeks, each one killed in the same way. Houston answered his phone.

"Hey, Hoyt! How's it goin'?" Matt seemed to be in a really good mood, and Hoyt hated to ruin that for him but was desperate for help.

"Not worth a damn. Did you get the cast off of your leg?" He was praying that the answer was yes.

"Yeah, sure did. And guess what? CJ got me another truck, just like the one that got blown up. We're out for a spin right now." Houston sounded as happy as a teenager with his first car. Michael couldn't help but smile. The man had been through a lot in the last couple of months but you would never know it from the sound of his voice.

"Good. Do you feel up to taking a spin up to the Little Bison Truck Stop off of the 405? I could use some help if you do." God, he hoped he felt like it.

"Sure. It'll be about thirty minutes or so, is that okay?" Matt looked over at CJ who nodded.

"That's great. I really appreciate it. See you there." The weary police detective was counting himself as fortunate. Houston had helped the department out many times over the years and had a well-deserved reputation as the best detective around bar none. He also happened to be Michael Hoyt's best friend, although that hadn't come easily. They had several disagreements and altercations before Hoyt decided to back off and give the man a chance to prove his reputation with the department was well-earned. He depended on Matt a lot these days, just as his predecessor, Vince Novelli had during his time at the department. Novelli had been injured in the line of duty while working on a case with Houston. Due to his injuries, he was forced to retire and had moved to Hawaii with his family to start an Italian restaurant with his mother Rosa. He had recently worked with Hoyt and Roy Houston, Matt's uncle, to discover and catch the person responsible for the bombing of Houston's truck and the injuries that resulted. Novelli and Hoyt were now good friends and had Houston to thank for it.

The lieutenant pulled into the truck stop and walked over to the crime scene: an 18-wheeler that was surrounded by the familiar yellow tape. There were three officers there preserving the scene. He heard the honk of a horn, and looked over his shoulder at Houston who had just pulled into the parking lot. As he and CJ made their way over to Hoyt he was all smiles. Matt, dressed in faded blue jeans, a t-shirt, baseball cap, and cowboy boots didn't look like the millionaire that he was. "Sorry to take you two away from a joy ride, but I need some help. This is the fourth truck driver who has been found murdered in two weeks."

"Yeah, I heard about that on the news." Matt pulled a leather glove out of his back pocket and carefully stepped under the crime scene tape right behind Hoyt who was putting on a pair of gloves. CJ stayed where she was. The two men walked over to the truck as Matt put the glove on his left hand – he couldn't put one on the right because of the cast that was still on his arm. He reached up and carefully opened the passenger door of the semi. There was blood on the driver's seat. After looking carefully to make sure he wouldn't damage any evidence, he swung up into the cab, careful not to touch anything with his right hand. He looked back at the sleeper compartment. "Ohhhh, boy. Not good." He stepped toward the driver's seat and stuck out his left hand to Michael, who looked somewhat awkward about getting up in the cab. "No, I don't want to hurt you…" He tried to swing up like Houston had, but ended up busting his butt on the pavement. "You alright?" Matt stepped to the edge of the cab and held out his hand again. "You're not going to hurt me, Michael, come on up." The policeman reluctantly took the offered hand and was surprised at the strength of the pull that followed. Then he turned and saw what Matt had seen.

"Okay, the first thing that comes to my mind is that this took some time." Matt looked at Hoyt who appeared ready to vomit.

"My God, how can anyone do something like that? You would think that after all of these years I would get used to it."

Matt shook his head and said, "If you ever do, that's the time to quit." The lieutenant looked at the carnage in the cramped sleeper compartment. There on the mattress was a man, or what was left of him. He had literally been skinned, just like an animal. The muscles had been cut away and laid to the side to reveal the skeleton and his internal organs had been removed and laid out around the body, much like the frame of a photograph. "I'm thinking that this person probably has some knowledge of hunting in order to be able to skin him like that."

Hoyt nodded. "I'll take your word for that; I've never been hunting in my life."

They continued to look around but didn't see any sign of a weapon. "They must have taken the knife with them, I don't see one." Matt had ducked down to look under the mattress. Everything in the storage bins underneath it was covered in blood that stood a couple of inches deep. He stood back up and looked at the ceiling of the compartment. "All this padding in here is a noise barrier. With the combination of that and the engines that are constantly idling here, I doubt if anyone heard anything." He turned and looked at the front of the cab and noticed the key chain that dangled from the ignition. "Now that's nasty." Hoyt turned to see what he was looking at and saw the keychain, complete with a left ear hanging from it. "I didn't hear anything about THAT on the news." He looked at Hoyt for an answer.

"The department didn't want to give out that piece of information – just in case some nut came forward and tried to take credit for it."

Matt nodded, then crouched down for a better look. He stood back up and looked at the left side of the victim's head. "Just one problem though: the ear on the keychain doesn't belong to this guy. He's got a lighter complexion."

Hoyt nodded. "The killer has been leaving the ear from his previous victim at the next crime scene, so this should belong to Arturo Montevideo, the last victim."

Matt took another look around. "I'm not seeing anything else, how about you?"

Hoyt moved toward the door of the cab and carefully lowered himself down to the parking lot and watched as Matt swung down using only his left hand on the grab bar. "You look like you've done that a time or two."

The private investigator smiled and replied, "Yep, many, many moons ago. Used to help out with the tanker trucks some when I was in college." Matt's dad had owned an oil company as had he in later years.

"So you actually drove something this big?" Hoyt was surprised that the heir to an estate worth millions had worked at such a job.

"Yep, Daddy would put me to work wherever help was needed. Of course some of the combines we used in the corn fields were bigger than this." He grinned at Hoyt who had never set foot on anything approaching a farm until he visited Houston's ranch. The two men went back under the crime scene tape. Matt put his arm around CJ. "Do you want me to come on up to your office and look at the rest of the files?"

Hoyt looked up to see the CSI's pulling into the lot. "I would sure appreciate your help, Houston. I'm buried under bureaucratic bull- er, budget mess and I'm not sure if I'll ever get done with it."

"Alright then, CJ do you want to go back to the house or do you want to come along?" He put the glove back in his pocket.

"Oh, I guess I'll tag along and see if I can help you out." She started walking toward the truck.

"By the way, thanks for helping me out back there. Landing on that blacktop didn't feel too good." The police detective rubbed his back.

"Well thanks for not making a Michael Jackson joke about my one glove." He winked at Hoyt as he walked toward the truck. "See ya there."