Authors: Lynette Eason
Tags: #FIC042060, #FIC042040, #FIC027110
THURSDAY, 6:15 P.M.
“It's time,” he breathed. “Are you ready?”
An anxious longing twisted inside the listener. “I'm ready. I've waited a long time for this. But why now?”
“Doesn't matter why now.” Then he laughed and rhymed, “I've missed the game, it's time to play, I have the name, you pick the day.”
“What are the names?”
“Leslie Stanton and Kelly Popour.”
He reeled off the street addresses. “Call me when it's done.”
SUNDAY, 10:45 A.M.
Leslie's hand shook as she stared down the barrel.
Kelly Popour sat at the table, arms shackled at the biceps, effectively holding her in place. She pleaded, “Don't, Leslie, don't!”
But Leslie didn't have a choice. Not if she wanted to live. Her heart shuddered as she looked to the left. To the person who'd brought this nightmare down on them.
“Why?” she whispered. “Why?”
An insane giggle reached her and she knew her life would never be the same. If she even had a life after tonight.
“It's your turn, Leslie,” the voice singsonged. “You lost the hand.”
Leslie looked at the cards scattered across the table. Nausea welled up, gagging her. The bullet in her shoulder caused it to burn like someone had touched a blowtorch to it.
She couldn't do it. She simply couldn't. Her mind scrambled for a plan, a way to escape. And the only way to do that was to end the life of the person who'd snatched her from her home two days ago.
But she couldn't turn the gun on her captor either. The steel bar attached to the table ensured the gun would point in only one direction.
Toward her best friend, Kelly.
And Leslie had been warned. If she didn't pull the trigger, she would die.
The only way to live was to pull the trigger. “God! Help me!”
Her finger tightened and Kelly flinched, screaming as she ducked her head into her shoulder. “Don't! Don't!” The shackles kept Kelly bound to her chair.
Leslie felt the bite of her handcuffs. The ones around her ankle, binding her to her own steel chair that had been bolted to the floor. No shackles this time. The shooter didn't have shackles.
A sharp pain sliced through her shoulder, and her arm convulsed.
“Do it, Leslie. Kelly pulled the trigger on you, didn't she? What's keeping you from doing the same?”
She couldn't do it. Glancing at the one who was now in control of whether she lived or died, Leslie suddenly knew without a doubt she wasn't going to live much longer.
With a deep breath, she set her jaw, determination sliding through to push the terror aside a fraction. If she was going to die, she wouldn't die a murderer.
She dropped her arms, heard the gun clatter to the table as the steel bar fell over. “I won't do it.”
She felt something slam into her forehead and knew no more.
MONDAY, 7:02 A.M.
Dead, dark eyes stared up at her, and Medical Examiner Serena Hopkins suppressed the shiver that slid over her. The feeling was unwelcomeâand unexpectedâsince she saw dead bodies on a daily basis.
Ignoring her odd reaction, Serena leaned in and examined a small package with a bright red bow. It lay on the woman's midsection with her rigid hands grasping it. If she didn't know the woman was dead, Serena would think she was lying there, stretched out on the bench, taking a short nap while waiting on someone to wake her.
Only this woman would never again wake up.
Serena let her gaze move down the body, taking note of the pink hoodie jogging jacket over a white T-shirt, matching pink jogging shorts, skinned knees, and bare feet.
Detective Katie Isaacs cleared her throat. “Well?”
Serena watched as the bomb squad van pulled away. It hadn't taken them long to examine the package and declare it nonexplosive. But Serena wouldn't open it. CSU, the crime scene unit, would take care of that. Her job was the body. “I would say she's been dead anywhere from eight to thirty-six hours. She's cold and stiff. From the hole in her forehead, I'll make a wild guess and say that
was the cause of death. But until I do the autopsy, I won't know for sure. I can say for certain that she wasn't killed here, though.”
“Not enough blood,” Katie stated.
Serena nodded. Head wounds bleed profusely, but this womanÂ .Â .Â . “Not
blood. At least none that I can see.” Serena pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes on the woman's head. “Something's just not rightÂ .Â .Â .”
Straight dark hair, slender, tall, athletic.
But there was something familiarÂ .Â .Â .
“I don't want to move her until Mickey gets here.” Mickey Black, the CSU photographer, would get the pictures from every conceivable angle before Serena would move the body. And then he would take more pictures. But she could take in as much information as possible while she waited on him.
As she continued to study the woman's face, recognition finally came like a punch to the gut. “I know her.” Stunned, Serena straightened and looked at Katie. “Her name's Leslie Stanton. She was in my graduating class in high school. You were a senior when we were freshmen.”
Katie took another look, then shook her head. “She doesn't look the slightest bit familiar to me.”
Serena lifted a brow. “Death has a way of messing with a person's looks. I'm sure she would prefer the yearbook picture.” She paused. “Where's your partner?” Serena had no idea how Hunter Graham worked with Katie Isaacs. The woman could be crass and downright rude, but she and Hunter had developed a relationship that worked for them.
And Serena had to admit Katie seemed to have mellowed a bit since being shot a few weeks ago.
Katie said, “He and Alexia took a little trip trying to track down her father.”
Hunter Graham and Alexia Allen, two of Serena's closest friends, needed the break from the trauma they'd just lived through four
weeks ago. Someone had been after Alexia and almost succeeded in killing her.
Fortunately, she'd escaped and Hunter was determined to stick close while she searched for the father she hadn't seen in ten years.
Katie shielded her eyes with her hand and looked at the crowd behind the tape. “Chad's here working with some of the other officers asking questions, trying to find someone who saw something.”
Detective Chad Graham, Hunter's brother and a bit of a loose cannon. But likable enough and a good detective. He was going through a nasty divorce, but Serena noticed he was learning to leave his personal life at home while he focused on the job.
Another man caught her attention. Tall, with broad shoulders and reddish blond hair, he was an all-around good-looking man. “Hey, isn't that Colton Brady? What's he doing here?”
Katie looked over her shoulder. “Yes. He was transferred to our department two weeks ago. Word's out that he has his eye on the captain position when Captain Murdoch retires in a few months.”
Serena bit her lip. “Huh.” She watched him move through the crowd, stop to speak to officers, and then engage in conversation with Chad. He had an air of authority around him. It would be interesting to see if he got the captain's job.
Mickey arrived and, after briefly greeting them, got to work.
Serena stepped back, tilted her head toward Katie, and refocused on her news. “So they found Alexia's father?”
“They think so. With all the feelers they put out, they finally got some hits. A homeless shelter director in Charlotte, North Carolina, said he thinks the man's been staying there for the past week.”
Serena continued her observations, making notes and studying the area around Leslie.
When Mickey finished snapping, he said, “We can turn her now. I'll snap while you move her.”
After positioning the gurney next to the bench, Serena motioned for one of the CSU members to help her. Together, they hefted
Leslie onto the body bag, placing her facedown. Serena stepped forward and moved the woman's head. The condition of the back of Leslie's head brought Serena up short.
“Bullet went through the back,” she muttered to herself. “And he cleaned her up.”
“What?” Katie looked up from her notepad.
“Look. The bullet went out the back of her skull, but there's no blood, brain matter, nothing. And her hair's clean, freshly washedâand not by her, I can tell you that.”
“Now that's just .Â .Â . weird.” Katie's nose wrinkled as she waited for Serena to continue.
“Sure is.” Serena frowned. “Do you find this kind of creepy?”
“Creepy?” Katie lifted a brow. “You're a medical examiner and you find a dead body creepy?”
Smirking, Serena said, “Cute.” Then her frown returned. “By creepy, I mean this is the second classmate to be murdered in the last month.” From the corner of her eye, she saw Rick Shelton climb from the white CSU van. It had taken him long enough to get here.
“You're talking about Devin being the first?” Katie asked. Devin Wickham had been killed a little over four weeks ago, starting a weeklong reign of terror for Alexia. When Serena nodded, Katie said, “But Devin's killer was caught.”
“True.” Serena's mind continued to turn over the possibilities as she gathered evidence and placed it in bags to be delivered to the lab. She would handle the body; CSU would cover everything else.
Rick walked up and Serena asked, “What are you doing here? Don't you have a lab to run?”
Head of the crime lab, Rick didn't go out into the field much anymore. He rolled his eyes. “When you're short staffed, you do what you gotta do. That was one reason it took me awhile to get over here. Had to pull people out of bed. Third-shift workers don't like first shift, so some may be a little grumpy. Just ignore it.” He started issuing orders to his team and Serena turned back to the detective.
Looking puzzled, Katie chewed her bottom lip. Walking forward, she stood next to Serena and studied the gift they'd removed from the dead woman's hands.
Serena noticed Katie wince as she moved her left arm. “You're back at work a little soon after being shot, aren't you?”
The detective shrugged with her good shoulder. “Can't stand sitting around doing nothing. I'm on light duty for the next couple of weeks. But I can go to a death scene, write reports, and do a little investigating. I leave when I get tired.”
Katie had been shot protecting Alexia from the person who'd murdered Devin and eventually grabbed Alexia. But the shooter had been killed in jail and couldn't have been responsible for this new death.
“What's up with this present? Who is it for? Is it hers? Did someone give it to her? Or was she going to deliver it?” Katie machine-gunned the questions and made Serena blink.
“I don't know,” she answered. A chilled sensation crawled up the back of her neck and a sense of foreboding surrounded her. Her eyes scanned the crowd, probing, seeking. Was the killer here, watching her work? Reveling in the chaos he'd created?
Nobody looked out of place. The crime scene photographer snapped shots of the crowd. The cops held the growing masses back, trying to give Leslie the dignity she deserved. Unfortunately, she had been placed on a park bench right along the jogging path. In full view of the gawkers.
And the news media. The Channel 7 news van pulled up followed by Channel 10, and Serena winced. Just what they needed. Fortunately, more police arrived at that moment and would help keep the media and their cameras away. They'd tried to make the crime scene area large enough to keep the body out of range of sight, but the layout of the park made it impossible. They would just have to deal with it.
Turning back to Leslie, she gathered every last scrap of evidence from the poor woman's body and handed everything over to Rick.
He curled his fingers around the handle of the evidence bag. “I'll get this to the lab and see what I can get for you, but until you find the original crime scene, it's going to be a tough one.”
“I know. And unless someone tips the cops off,” she shrugged, “you know as well as I do that finding where she was killed is a shot in the dark.”
Rick nodded and looked at the present Serena had immediately tagged and bagged to avoid any kind of contamination of evidence that might be on the outside of the package. “Want me to take that now?”
His eyes gleamed. “I'll let Christine take care of this one.”
Serena bit her lip to hide a smile. Alexia had told her that Rick was in love with Hunter and Chad's sister, Christine Graham. Christine worked in the lab with Rick. “I'm sure she would appreciate that.” She tilted her head. “How is Christine doing with taking over the high school reunion planning?”
For a moment Rick's eyes blanked at the change of subject, then he shrugged. “Fine. I think she's enjoying it in spite of Lori dying.” Lori, the committee's former leader, had killed Devin Wickham and then kidnapped Alexia. “The committee thought about canceling it but then decided they didn't want to let murder be the theme of their ten-year reunion. If they don't go through with the plans for itÂ .Â .Â .” He shook his head. “What are you going to think of whenever anyone mentions their ten-year reunion?”
Serena realized Christine was right. They needed to have the reunion.
Katie and Chad walked up together. Chad said, “We're going to inform Leslie's family and see if they can answer a few questions for us. We need a timeline of her whereabouts for the last few hours. Maybe if we can figure out who saw her last, we'll find her killer.”
“Sounds like a good idea. I'll be at the morgue. Just let me know when they're ready to see her.”
Chad nodded and, together, he and Katie left.
Serena noticed the frown on Rick's face as he looked to the black and silver package, then back to Leslie. “What is it?” she asked.
His eyes continued their perusal. “I'm not sure. There's something vaguely familiar about this whole scene.”
“What do you mean?”
The frown deepened. “Again, I'm not sure. I'll have to think about it, but it's like this crime is ringing some sort of bell for me.”
“Something you worked on before?”
“Nope.” He shook his head. “Something I read. Maybe. Or heard in a lecture.” He shrugged. “It'll come to me. If you get anything else, bag it and bring it to me.”
Rick left and Serena turned back to Leslie. Sorrow swept over her and she firmed her jaw. Leslie had been a quiet girl who kept to herself but was friendly and smart. To see her now made Serena furious, sadâeven a little shocked. The same way she'd felt when she'd been called to Devin's murder.
Swallowing her emotions, she zipped the bag, stopping at the woman's face. Staring down at the life cut short, she felt sorrow seize her.
“I'm sorry, Leslie,” she whispered. “I'm going to find who did this to you.”
“Still talking to the dead?”
The quiet voice behind her made her freeze. And her heart gave a startled thud before settling back into a faster than normal rhythm. She finished zipping the bag. “Almost every day.”
“Do they ever talk back?” Dominic Allen stepped into her peripheral vision and pushed his sunglasses to the top of the short red curls that lay tight around his head.
“All the time.” Serena kept her voice even, hoping the sudden tremor in her hands wasn't noticeable as Dominic took one end of the gurney without her asking. Together, they pushed it to the back of the vehicle where Serena opened the door. “What are you doing here?”
“I've got two more days of medical leave. Supposed to be recovering from my surgery.”
Serena knew from Alexia about Dominic's surgery. He'd been a bone marrow donor for his mother, who suffered from aplastic anemia. “Glad to see you're feeling better.”
“Pretty much back to 100 percent.” A smile crossed his lips. “I'm not here officially. Hunter knew I've been climbing the walls from sheer boredom, so when he got this call, he sent me a text. I'll fill him in once he gets back in town.”
She eyed him. “And that's the only reason you're here?”
He paused. “You got me. He said you'd be here and I need to talk to you.”
“Jillian Carter.” Dominic's smile faded. “He wants me to quietly look into Jillian's disappearance. I have access to resources he doesn't have.”
Serena felt the tremor ease, but a ball of ice formed in her gut. “Really? Why?”
“Because we want to find the man who got away. The person behind Alexia's kidnapping is still out there and she's not truly safe until he's caught. His main concern seemed to be finding Jillian. When he had Alexia, he questioned her at length about how to find Jillian. When she finally convinced him she didn't know, he left orders for Lori to kill her. Thankfully, Alexia got away. But .Â .Â . we still need to find the person behind everything. So .Â .Â . we find Jillian, we find our mystery man.”