Voted Best Kindle Book of 2013 by Digital Books Today
She'd been "the sick girl" for most of her life. She refused to go straight to "the weird girl". Heart-transplant recipient Sophie Curtis has been in her own antiseptic bubble for so long, she just might not be able to venture out into the real world again. Her spooky body memories are scary enough, but then she finds herself in the cross hairs of a killer.
Love was blind, people said. But lust was blind, deaf, and reckless. When lust took the reins, people set aside their best judgment and took risky chances, Broslin PD Captain Ethan Bing thought as he strode around the blood-soaked patch of dirt, notebook in hand, scribbling.
The spring woods around him, budding life everywhere, stood in stark contrast to the gruesome vignette of death inside the vehicle his two officers were processing. Another one of his men stood at the edge of the clearing, talking to the teenagers who’d found the vic.
In Philadelphia or Wilmington, the nearest big cities, they would have had three times this many cops at a murder scene, but Broslin was a small town of mushroom growers and Amish farmers in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the police department anything but overstaffed and fancy.
The body was several days old, but she’d been pretty in life, they could still see that. Big blue eyes, long auburn hair, tall and slim. She wore makeup. Her top matched the purse on the passenger seat next to her. A woman took that much care over her appearance, chances were she’d done it for a man.
She’d come for love, or lust, and had found death instead.
Officer Joe Kessler, ex-football player slash small-town hero, looked up from dusting for fingerprints. Not a smudge of powder on his crisp uniform, or mud on his shoes, either. He liked to keep himself in pristine condition for the ladies. “You think you’ll make it to that Flyer’s game, Captain?”
Bing blinked at him. He’d forgotten the game. Murder had a way of throwing off schedules. And the weather wasn’t too accommodating either, threatening to wash away their crime scene in a quick noon shower. He glanced up at the sky. “Let’s get this done before the rain hits.”
Broslin Creek rushed along twenty or so yards behind the light blue SUV, the trees resplendent with their shiny new leaves, birdsong in the air. Sunshine sparkled on everything even as clouds were beginning to move in. A spring shower was gathering. Inside the car, the body lay draped over the blood-soaked steering wheel, the young woman’s head turned as if she’d simply lain down to take a nap.
Doors closed but not locked. Bing stepped closer, recording in his notepad the mood and feel of the scene, and his own impressions and intuitions, the kinds of things the crime scene photos wouldn’t. He was the captain, and a killer who needed to be brought to justice walked somewhere in his town.
His plans for his Saturday afternoon aside, they’d caught a murder case. He liked hockey and the Flyers in particular, the game would have been fun, but this was where he wanted to be. Nothing mattered more than the job.
“There’s only one reason people come to these pretty little clearings this side of the creek,” Joe remarked, and he would know. He went on more dates than all the rest of the Broslin PD combined.
Next to them, Officer Mike McMorris, a round, redheaded Irish kid two years out of police academy, snapped his phone closed. “Vehicle registration checks out.” He shoved the phone into his pocket and yanked on rubber gloves. “Like we thought, Kristine Haynes.”
Bing nodded. Although the face was somewhat distorted, they’d recognized her without trouble. Her photo had been on TV and plastered on flyers.
Married for ten years. Husband, Brian Haynes. Two kids, twin girls. Working mom. She’d been a part-time accountant at Anselm-Gnamm Pharmaceuticals, one of the largest companies in the area.
The missing person report had been filed five days ago, and half the town had been out looking for her since. But the search teams hadn’t gone this far into the woods, this far up the creek. She’d disappeared on the other side of Broslin, so most of the search area had been marked out there, the teams going through the endless stretch of the pine barrens.
The question was, how did she end up all the way out here in the woods, with her throat cut?
Mike cleared his throat. “If you want to go notify the husband”—he hunched up his shoulders—“we can finish up here, Captain.”
Joe busied himself with the last door handle, suddenly too engrossed to even look up.
Bing shoved his notebook into his pocket. They’d been casting concerned glances at him since they’d gotten here. They thought the body, coming on the two-year anniversary of his discovery of his wife’s body, murdered in their home, might bring back too many memories. If it did…
He was a cop, dammit. He could handle it. “I want to have a closer look before I leave.”
Joe set aside the fingerprint kit. “Done with the outside.”
He’d already photographed the crime scene but picked up the camera again, ready for the interior shots, first with, then without the body.
Bing stepped closer to help as Mike opened the door. Since the body hadn’t been supported by it, the vic didn’t fall out. Definitely a good thing. The sweet, cloying smell of decomposition hit them, and they all took shorter breaths until they acclimated. Could have been worse. It could have been full summer heat instead of the soft warmth of spring.
He scanned her now that he could see more of her, noting the discoloration of skin. “Looks like she was killed at about the same time she was reported missing.”
Mike began talking into his recorder, continuing the report he’d started when they’d arrived on the scene. “Victim’s fully clothed, wearing black pumps, black dress slacks, patterned silk blouse, and a yellow sweater. Her clothes appear undisturbed. No sign of struggle inside the vehicle. No weapons visible…”
Joe kept snapping pictures, without measurement guides first. He would set those out next and shoot another set of pics before moving on to video.
Since Bing knew the process would take a while, he left his men to their work and strode over to the two teenagers at the edge of the woods who were giving their statements about finding the body. Detective Chase Merritt was nodding at them patiently. He was a mild guy, in his mid-thirties, laidback and easygoing. Half the time he could defuse a fight just by bringing his mellow energy into the conflict. He was the perfect person to be talking to the kids.
Bing kept himself between the SUV and the kids as he walked, blocking as much as he could. They didn’t need to see more than they already had.
The boy, around fourteen, was white around the gills, the girl, same age, clinging to his arm, to the one-size-too-big varsity jacket he wore. He worked part-time at the gas station. What was his name? Brett something. The girl didn’t look familiar, but Chase would have the personal details recorded already.
“What were you doing out here?” Bing asked as he caught up to them.
They both looked away.
Then Brett shrugged. “Just looking for a place to talk,” he said to the ground at his feet.
Color crept up the girl’s face.
They’d probably been in search of a quiet place to neck.
“You come here a lot?”
Brett shook his head, his gaze meeting Bing’s again. “No. Not this far up the creek. We got a little lost.”
“Did you touch anything?”
“We didn’t go that close. We could tell that she was…” The kid swallowed and turned another shade paler. Nothing in his expression indicated that he was lying.
“I appreciate your help. You’ve done everything right by calling us and not approaching the vehicle.” Bing glanced at Chase. “We have everything we need here?”
The boy’s Adam’s apple bobbed. He pulled the girl closer. “You think you’ll figure out who killed her?”
“We’ll do our level best. If you can’t think of anything else right now, Detective Merritt here will take you home,” Bing told them, and left Chase to it.
He didn’t want those kids to still be here when the news crew arrived, and he didn’t want them stumbling miles through the woods right now either. If the investigation came up with more questions for them later, they could always be called down to the station.
He strode to his cruiser he’d left at some distance so it wouldn’t disturb any possible tire tracks closer to the crime scene, and brought up Kristine Haynes’s file on his laptop.
Reported missing by her husband, Brian Haynes. Age 39. Height/Weight/Race. Clothes worn prior to disappearance. A match to current. No medical conditions. No known enemies. No history of erratic behavior. Soccer mom with twin girls: Kelley and Dakota. Occupation: part-time accountant, Anselm-Gnamm Pharmaceuticals.
The pharma companies in Philly and Wilmington were the big employers in the area. Bing’s wife had actually worked at AGP too. He pushed that thought away and focused on the case, staring at the screen until the image in his mind—Stacy lying in her own blood at the top of the stairs—faded enough so he could see Kristine Haynes.
The database photo was fairly recent and clearly matched the vic. So did the vehicle registration.
Step one accomplished. They had positive ID.
He knew the report by heart, but he read it over all the way to the end anyway.
Kristine Haynes had dropped off the kids at school Monday morning; then she was supposed to take the family hamster to the vet. Except she’d never arrived at the vet’s office. The younger girl, Dakota, called the father when Kristine didn’t pick her up after school. The man had been looked at for the disappearance, but he’d been at work all day at a small accounting firm, with dozens of witnesses. Until now, there’d been no other leads. Finding the body changed everything.
Bing closed the file and rolled all that information around in his head as he hurried back to the crime scene, glancing at the sky. They had minutes, but Joe and Mike were making good progress.
Joe paused the video camera for a second. “What do you think, Captain?”
Evidence markers waved in the breeze, the little orange flags ringing the spot in front of the car where Kristine Haynes’s blood had soaked into the ground. “She was killed outside the vehicle, obviously. We’ll have to dig up all this dirt and take it in, have it lab-tested to see if the blood is all hers.”
He scanned the inside of the car once again, trying out different scenarios. Just because his instinct said love affair gone bad, it didn’t mean he was going to leave all the other stones unturned.
“Doesn’t seem like a robbery. Her purse is on the seat next to her. The car wasn’t taken.” He rubbed his chin. “Doesn’t feel like a random crime.”
“That’d be good.” Joe nodded. “Those are the hardest to solve. Then again, half the fun is in the challenge.” He flashed a grin. Like Mike, he was new enough to the job to find even setbacks exciting.
Bing examined the victim’s face, frozen in death. “Whoever cut her throat put her back into the car and closed the door, made sure no animals got to her, kept her out of the weather. The killer cared about her.”
He squatted by her side and scanned her hands. “Fingertips black and bloodied. Could be her own blood, could be the killer’s. We might catch a break there.”
Mike, who’d been standing behind the car and quietly talking into his recorder, now stepped closer to look. “We’ll know when the lab work comes back.” He cracked his neck. “What if it is a random crime? What if she was kidnapped and brought here?”
“I’d say she came of her own free will.” Bing pointed inside the vehicle. “Her purse is on the passenger seat. Shoebox in the back. I don’t think there was anyone in the car with her.” His gaze settled on the empty box, its lid half-off.
Joe caught him looking. “The missing person report didn’t mention valuables. You think she was killed for whatever was in there?”
Not likely. One particular line of the report popped into Bing’s head and he lurched forward. “Watch the door. I think we have a loose pet. She was taking the kids’ hamster to the vet.”
He leaned forward to peer around the vic’s feet but found nothing, so he closed the driver’s side door. He hurried around, pulled on gloves, and opened the door on the passenger side carefully to check the floor there. He did a thorough visual search of the back of the car next. Nothing moving around back there either.
“Make sure it doesn’t get out, if it hasn’t gotten out already.” House pets didn’t do well on their own in the woods. He squatted and reached under the front seat from the back, and pulled out some garbage and a handful of broken crayons.
Then he saw something that made him catch his breath. A simple pen. But a pen with a familiar logo on it: a crimson staircase with a golden door on top.
For a moment, he could no longer hear the creek or the men around him, only the rushing blood in his ears. He’d seen that logo before, on a folder when he’d searched through his wife’s things after her murder.
“Need an evidence bag.” He barked the words as a million questions slammed into him. “I want this dusted for prints. Make it a priority.”
He snapped a photo with his cell phone before he dropped the pen into the bag Joe brought over. Then he reached back under the seat, his mind spinning.
His searching fingers swept the small space, but this time he came up empty-handed. He plunged back again, dropping his head onto the floor between the front seat and the back, all the way down to the carpet, every muscle taut.
Other than cookie crumbs, he could see nothing.
Disappointment rose in a dark wave. He swallowed it. Keep focus. Keep a clear mind. He closed the door and hurried over to the other side, checked under the driver’s seat, looking at everything differently now.
Where had the pen come from? What did the logo mean? What was it doing in Kristine Haynes’s SUV? What was the connection to Stacy?
The two women had worked for the same company. Was that the connection? Was there a connection at all, or was he just grasping at straws here?
The junk he pulled from under the driver’s seat next gave him no answers. “Save everything,” he said anyway as he carefully pushed aside the wadded-up burger wrappers. “I want everything tagged and preserved, down to the last speck of dirt.”
On the second sweep, he finally felt something small and furry. “Here we go.”
His fingertips reached the animal wedged into the far corner. Then sharp teeth sank into his skin the next second. “Hey!” He yanked his hand back, but then eased it forward again. “I’m trying to help here.”
But the hamster bit and scratched him bloody by the time he tugged it free.
Mike had a goofy grin on his face as he came over. “Can’t believe it’s still alive.” He had a bottle of water in his pocket—trying to lose some weight, swearing off soft drinks—and he poured some into the cap, then held it out so the hamster could drink. The poor critter lapped it up in greedy gulps.
The three of them looked at each other for a second, some of the tension easing in their shoulders—a time-out. Finding life at a murder scene was nice for a change, to still be able to save something. It made all of them feel a little better.
Bing slipped the hamster into his jacket pocket, then pulled up the zipper, leaving room for air but not for escape. Then he turned his mind to the murder again, while the other two documented every last detail.
Kristine Haynes. He was pretty sure he’d never heard of her before the missing person report had come in. Did she and Stacy know each other?
“I don’t like the method of murder,” he said after a minute, backing away from the car for a wider perspective. “Crimes of passion, when a knife is involved, tend to end with the knife through the heart.”
“A cut throat is more organized-crime MO,” Joe put in.
He was right. Sliced throats usually had to do with “silencing” people. They saw those cases coming out of the nearest big cities, not in their small rural town of Broslin.
Mike brought the body bag over. Bing helped him roll it out and opened it as his two officers gently lifted the body from the car and laid her on the plastic. She was somebody’s daughter. Somebody’s wife. Somebody’s mother.
“So two idiots are driving down the road, drinking beer,” Mike said as they worked. “They see a cop car. One says, ‘Oh man, we’re busted.’ The other one says, ‘Just pull the labels off, we’ll stick them on our foreheads and toss the bottles under the seat.’ So the cop stops them, looks in and asks, ‘Have you been drinking?’ The driver says, ‘No, sir, we’re on the patch.’”
They straightened, and Joe grabbed his camera again. “Jesus, that’s a bad joke.” But he laughed.
And so did Bing, even as he shook his head. More jokes popped around a crime scene than anywhere else—a way to deal with all the darkness.
Mike pulled a piece of paper from the dashboard. “Bank receipt for the twenty bucks she took out the morning she went missing. Not enough to be killed for, that’s for sure.” He bagged it.
“Probably lunch money for the kids,” Bing said. “We’ll check the bank again, see if anyone remembered anything more about that trip to the bank.”
Joe started taking pictures of the victim again, now that the fatal injury was more fully visible. Mike inspected the seat and the steering wheel, swabbing them for DNA. They had everything well in hand, the processing of the crime scene almost finished.
Bing wanted more, another clue, but it didn’t look like he’d get that here. He shook off the frustration that clenched his muscles. “I’ll go and notify the family. You dig up that bloody dirt before the rain hits.” The inside of the car could be processed later.
He wanted to notify the husband before the media could splash the news all over TV. He’d go talk to Brian Haynes, then drive back to the station and call a news conference. In a small town, nothing stayed a secret. He’d probably have news vans waiting for him by the time he got back to his office.
He glanced at his watch, then back at Joe. “Your shift was over half an hour ago.”
“I’ll see this through.”
Bing nodded. He got lucky with the people he worked with, he thought as he pulled the Flyers ticket from his pocket and held it out. “If the coroner comes from West Chester for the body in time so you can still make the game, go ahead.”
Joe’s eyes lit up, his grin showing every last one of his teeth as he reached for the slip of paper. “Thanks, Captain.”
He left his men to their work, strode back to his car, and drove into town. He didn’t stop when he passed by the cemetery, just glanced at the wilted bouquet of flowers on the passenger seat.
His hands tightened on the steering wheel. Two years, and all he had to bring her were flowers. Not a conviction. Stacy deserved more than a handful of carnations. She deserved justice, dammit.
He’d meant to stop by the grave earlier, but then the call about the body in the woods had come in. He would come back before the day was out. And maybe someday soon he would be bringing answers instead of flowers.
The staircase with the golden door on top. He’d seen that logo on an empty folder among Stacy’s belongings when he’d searched through her desk at home after the murder. There were no words, no initials, and an Internet search turned up absolutely nothing. The folder had gone into his box of possible clues that all had led to dead ends. He hadn’t even been sure if it was important, if it had anything to do with the murder.
Except now he had another dead woman, and here was that damned logo showing up again. But what did it mean?
Maybe the husband would know: Brian Haynes, CPA, forty-two, no criminal record. Bing thought of the man, how in just a few minutes the poor bastard’s life would fall apart.
As captain, he could tell him the department would do whatever they could to bring the killer to justice. But he couldn’t make promises. They couldn’t solve every case. Sometimes there were no answers to be had. He knew that firsthand, lived with it every day.
His gut tightened as images of Stacy filled his brain, as he’d found her when he’d come home from work. She’d lain in a pool of blood at the top of the stairs. Shot to death. He remembered the feeling—as if someone had yanked his spine right out of his body.
Not falling next to her on his knees, not gathering her to him had taken every ounce of strength and willpower. But he’d held it all in, even as the emotions tore him apart. He didn’t contaminate the evidence. And yet, they’d never found her killer. They hadn’t even found the murder weapon.
His jaw tightened until his teeth hurt. He’d do whatever he could to give Haynes resolution, not only because it was his job, but because he knew damn well what it was like to live without it.
The hamster moved around in his jacket pocket. That was good, at least. He was grateful for even the slightest good news he’d be able to give to the Haynes twins. It wouldn’t make up for the loss of their mother, but it would be something.
But when he got to the house, the kids weren’t home—probably better that way—just Haynes.
He was middle-aged, a few inches shorter than Bing and a few inches rounder, balding on top, looking five years older than when he’d initially come in to report his wife’s disappearance. The first words out of his mouth were, “Did you find her?”
“Why don’t we go inside?”
“Of course.” He wrung his hands and moved back through the spacious foyer, into an airy kitchen, high-end but well-used, crayon art everywhere.
“I’m sorry.” Bing filled his lungs. “We found your wife’s body earlier today.” And then he gave some of the details while Haynes stared at him dazed, shaking his head over and over.
“Are you sure it’s her?”
Bing pulled the hamster from his pocket and held it out, but Haynes didn’t reach for it, just blinked rapidly. He didn’t seem to be able to lift his hands. An empty cage stood at the end of the counter behind him. Bing walked over, gently placed the animal inside, noting the food in the tray, then locked the wire door.
“She was identified from the photo you provided. The vehicle was also confirmed as hers,” he said as he moved back to Haynes.
The man’s haunted eyes begged for a different answer as he slumped onto a kitchen chair like a cast-aside puppet, as if whatever had been moving him, been giving him life, had been taken away.
The hamster rattled the cage as it attacked the food, stuffing his mouth full, running around, then going back to his bowl again and again. Takeout boxes cluttered the counter around the cage, the sink piled with dishes—a house where the heart of the home, the mother, had gone missing.
It would look like this for a while before the family’s definition of normal changed, chores got reassigned, and a different, stilted rhythm of life was adopted at last. Moving forward was possible, even if limping.
Bing looked back at the man. “You’ll be asked to come in for formal identification later today. You might want a friend to drive you.”
He hated to push for information now, but he had to. And as much as he sympathized with the man, he would double check his alibi later. Alibis could be faked. “Do you have any idea what she might have been doing in the woods by Broslin Creek?”
Haynes took off his wire-rim glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Kristine wasn’t the nature-lover type. She liked high heels and nice dresses.” His voice broke for a second. “I can’t see her ambling along in the woods. Do you think she could have been lured there?”
“It’s a possibility we’re looking into.” Bing paused. “Any enemies? Arguments with neighbors? Old boyfriends?” The questions had been asked at the time of the victim’s disappearance, but they had to be asked again.
The man shook his head, and a tear broke loose and rolled down his face. “She was driven. When she wanted something, she went for it. But I don’t think people resented her. She just wanted to be successful in every way, the best that she could be.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a minute. “She was the love of my life.”
Which didn’t mean that he was the love of hers, Bing thought.
“She had no trouble with anyone at work?” He wouldn’t bring up the possibility of an affair, not today. It’d kill the guy right now. And they didn’t have any evidence in that direction, anyway, beyond their cop instincts. Better see where a few days of investigating would take things.
The man rubbed his eyes, fighting more tears, then losing the battle. “She never said anything. She liked working there. I think they liked her.”
Stacy had worked in human resources. “I need dates of employment, immediate supervisor, who her friends were at work, everything you can tell me.” He waited, notebook and pen ready.
Seconds passed before Haynes finally lined up his thoughts. “She started two years ago, around Memorial Day. Her supervisor can tell you the exact dates. Bill Rosci.”
Bing noted down the name, the wheels in his head spinning. Stacy had been killed in April. Kristine was hired a month later. Different departments. And the two women never overlapped, probably never met. Disappointment smacked hope back.
Of course, the connection was tenuous to begin with. One victim had been found at home, the other one in the woods, different methods of murder. Yet there were links between the two.
Bing pulled his cell phone and clicked over to the image of the pen, the odd logo on it. He held up the screen to Haynes. “Do you know where your wife might have gotten this? Do you know what the logo means?”
The man inspected the photo carefully before shaking his head. “Never seen it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Maybe she got it at the library. She went there all the time. Doctor’s office? Maybe some local store?”
“Hmmm.” Unlikely. Anything like that would have their name, phone number, or website on their promo items—the whole point being to gain new customers. Still, he was going to check around town again.
Haynes clasped his hands in front of him. “You said she was killed. How did sh—”
It’d taken him the better part of an hour to be able to ask the question, and Bing didn’t want to drag out the pain, so he gave it to him straight. “Knife wound.”
The man went as white as the kitchen cabinets behind him and swallowed hard. Then he pushed out another question, just as painfully as the first. “Had she been—”
“You’ll get the final report from the coroner’s office.” Bing headed him off so Haynes wouldn’t have to finish. “But I can tell you that her clothes hadn’t been disturbed. Doesn’t look like she was raped.”
A small mercy, he thought, but it was more than he’d received with Stacy.