Cross Her Heart – Melinda Leigh

Grey’s Hollow, New York, January 1993 “911. What is your emergency?” the lady asked. Bree was shaking so hard. She could barely hold the phone to her ear. “Mommy and Daddy are fighting.” A slap sounded down the hall, and Bree flinched. “Would you send the police?” “The police are coming,” the lady said. “I’m going to talk with you until they arrive.” “OK.” Bree sniffed and wiped her nose with her sleeve. Snot was running down her face. She hated to cry in front of Daddy. It just made him madder, but she couldn’t help it. “What’s your name?” “Bree,” she said in a small voice. She didn’t think Daddy would hear her, but if he did, then Bree would get the same as Mommy.

She looked down the hall. Her parents’ door was open, and Daddy was yelling. She couldn’t hear all the words, but she knew he was saying mean things and calling Mommy names. She heard another smacking sound and her mother started to sob. “He’s hitting Mommy.” “Where are they?” “In their bedroom.” Erin came out into the hall. She held her stuffed bunny by one ear and dragged him as she walked toward Mommy and Daddy’s room. “Erin, don’t go in there!” Bree called as loud as she dared, but it came out as a whisper. She didn’t want Daddy to hear.

“Who is Erin?” the lady asked. “My little sister,” Bree answered. “Erin, come here!” “How old is she?” “Four. I’m eight. I have to look after her. Mommy said so.” “You’re eight years old.” The lady coughed. Bree went down the hall toward her sister, but the phone cord wasn’t long enough. “I can’t reach her.

” She held the phone tight. She didn’t want to put it down. She yelled, “Erin!” Her sister turned her head. Erin wasn’t crying, but her eyes were real big, and she’d wet her pajamas. When her sister turned around and walked toward her, the air whooshed from Bree’s chest, and stars danced in front of her eyes. She pulled Erin down the hall and into the kitchen with her. “I got her,” Bree said to the lady. In the third bedroom, the baby began to scream. His doorway was right across from Mommy and Daddy’s. His crying made Bree’s tummy hurt.

Daddy would get madder. “Is that your sister crying?” the lady asked. “No. I got a baby brother.” Bree didn’t want Daddy in the room with Mommy, but she didn’t want him to come out either. “I have to go get him. I have to make him be quiet.” Bree turned to her sister. “Stay here.” Before she could go to the baby’s room, Daddy came into the hall.

His face was red, and his eyes were small and mean. Mommy was right behind him. Her mouth was bleeding, and her neck had red marks all around it. “Stop.” Mommy grabbed Daddy by the arm. “I’ll get him.” Daddy spun and slapped her across the face. Bree yelled, “Stop hitting Mommy!” But he didn’t. He smacked her again. The baby screamed, and Daddy turned toward his room.

“What’s happening, Bree?” the lady asked. “Daddy’s gonna get the baby.” Bree didn’t know what to do. She was so scared, her belly cramped, and her legs shook. Her sister crawled under the kitchen table. “Please send the police.” “They’re coming, Bree,” the lady said. “It’s going to be OK.” “Stop it!” Mommy jumped on Daddy’s back and started hitting him. “Don’t you touch him.

” Daddy spun real fast, knocking Mommy into the wall. She fell off his back onto the hallway floor. He turned away from the baby’s doorway. His face was dark, madder than Bree had ever seen him. He lunged toward Mommy, his fingers curling around her arm and yanking her to her feet. Then he dragged her back into their room. “I have to go. I have to get the baby now.” Bree put the phone down. She could hear the lady talking as she tiptoed into the baby’s room.

Red-faced and screaming, her baby brother stood in his crib, his little hands hooked over the top rail. “Shhh.” Bree picked him up and put him on her hip. “You got to be quiet.” As she carried him out, she looked into her parents’ room. Daddy held Mommy against the wall with one hand. In the other, he held a gun. Bree froze for a second. Her whole body went cold, and she almost peed her pants. Then she backed away and ran down the hall as fast as she could.

The baby stopped crying as he bounced on her hip. He buried his face in her shoulder and hiccupped. She hurried past the phone on the floor. The lady was calling her name, but Bree didn’t have time to talk to her. She stopped next to the kitchen table and called Erin. Her sister crawled out from under the table. “Bree?” “Come on,” Bree whispered. “We got to hide.” “I’m scared,” Erin said. “I know where to go.

It’ll be OK.” Bree grabbed Erin by the arm and pulled her out the kitchen door. Erin resisted. “Promise?” Shifting the baby aside, Bree drew a tiny X in the middle of her own chest. “Cross my heart.” She turned toward the door again. This time Erin didn’t resist. It was dark in the backyard, and the porch was icy under her bare feet. The wind blew right through her pajamas. But she kept going, down the steps and around to the loose board under the porch.

She pulled it back and held it while Erin wiggled through the hole. Then she pushed the baby into the darkness and crawled in after him. Bree pulled the board back into place. She’d hidden here before plenty of times when Mommy and Daddy were fighting. Under the porch, they were out of the wind, but it was still cold. Bree looked between the boards at the dark yard. In the shadow of the barn, Daddy’s dogs barked from the kennel. The lady had said the police were coming. The wind came through the spaces between the boards. Bree couldn’t hear Mommy and Daddy fighting anymore.

What’s Daddy doing? “I’m cold.” Erin’s teeth chattered. Bree pulled her sister closer and shushed her. The baby shivered in her arms and whimpered. His face scrunched up, like he was gettin’ ready to cry. If he did, Daddy might hear. He might find them. Bree wrapped her arms around his little body and rocked him. “Shhh.” A door slammed, and Bree jumped.

Heavy boots stomped overhead. She couldn’t tell if the footsteps were inside the house or on the back porch. Had the police come? Maybe it was gonna be OK. Just like the lady said. A gunshot blasted. Bree jumped. Mommy! Her hands tightened on the baby, and he began to cry. Another door slammed. Bree wanted to run to the sound, but she was too afraid. She heard more footsteps, more yelling, then another gunshot.

Bree closed her eyes. Even without seeing what happened, she knew that nothing would ever be OK again. CHAPTER TWO “This is the building.” Bree Taggert pointed to a line of brick rowhouses occupying a North Philadelphia block. “We’re looking for twenty-year-old Ronnie Marin.” Fellow homicide detective Dana Romano slowed the vehicle and coughed into her fist. At fifty, Dana was long and lean. A few gray streaks highlighted her short, messy blonde hair. Crow’sfeet deepened as she squinted through the car window. “Is this his place?” Bree checked her notes.

“No. Ronnie’s aunt lives here. The last time he was arrested, she bailed him out. Then he skipped on his bail, and she was out a thousand dollars. I’m hoping she knows where he is and holds a grudge.” The previous week, a nurse had been beaten, raped, and strangled on her way home from the night shift in the ICU. A Laundromat surveillance camera had caught the killer dragging his victim into the alley where her body had been found. In less than twenty-four hours, the killer had been ID’d as Ronnie Marin from North Philly. Ronnie had a rap sheet as long as the Schuylkill Expressway. Bree had been working her way through Ronnie’s known contacts.

So far, she’d found no sign of Ronnie, and no one had admitted to seeing him. Dana had been out sick for the past week and was catching up with the investigation. She pulled the blue Crown Vic to the curb behind a pile of snow as tall as the vehicle. “Remind me what Ronnie’s last offense was?” “Robbery.” Bree scanned the dark street but saw nothing alive. In the trash alley that ran next to the home, black ice shone in the glare of a streetlamp. “He did eighteen months. Before that, vandalism and simple assault. He’s only been out for two months.” Bree turned the dashboard computer to show her Ronnie’s mug shot.

“A quick progression to murder,” Dana said. “Nothing teaches a criminal to be a better criminal like going to prison.” “Maybe Ronnie left town.” “I doubt it. All his connections are here. This is his turf, and he’s worked hard to be a BFD in his neighborhood.” Dana shrugged. “What do we know about the aunt?” “Ronnie’s aunt is fifty-seven. She’s worked for the same commercial cleaning company for the past eighteen years and has no criminal record.” “Can’t pick your family.

” Dana paused, her face reddening. “I’m sorry, Bree. I didn’t mean anything by that.” In the four years they’d worked together, Dana had never brought up Bree’s parents’ deaths, though Bree had heard plenty of whispers behind her back from other cops in the division. But then, when your father murdered your mother and then killed himself, you had to expect people to talk about it. “It’s all right. I know it.” And Bree had mostly come to terms with her own family’s past long ago, at least as much as anyone could under the circumstances. She’d also made tragedy and violence a permanent part of her life when she’d become a cop. Whatever.

She’d had more than enough therapy as a kid. She was done with it. After she’d turned eighteen, she’d decided to stop analyzing herself. Some damage left a permanent mark. There was no changing that. She’d shoved her childhood into a dark corner of her memory and moved on. At thirty-five, the last thing Bree wanted was to drag those memories into the light. She stepped out of the vehicle. Frigid wind whipped along the icy street and stung her cheeks. Despite the cold, she unbuttoned her black peacoat for better access to her weapon.

Coughing, Dana joined her on the cracked sidewalk. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her knee-length parka. “Damn, it’s cold.” Just after the new year arrived, an Arctic blast had frozen Philadelphia solid. The cold snap had persisted, nothing had melted, and the week-old snow had grown gray and dingy. But then, city snow was pretty only until the following rush hour. Bree skirted a patch of shiny black ice. “You should go home when we’re done here. You sound like a dying seal.” “No way.

I can’t stare at the walls of my crappy apartment for another day.” Dana cleared her throat, then pulled a cough drop from her pocket, unwrapped it, and popped it into her mouth. “My mother keeps stopping by. Hovering and shoving soup at me all damned day. I’ve been taking the meds, and the doc says I’m no longer contagious. It’s time to get off my butt and back to work.” “What are you going to do after you retire next month?” “I don’t know. My cousin wants me to work night security for his flooring store.” Dana paused on the sidewalk to hack. “Because everyone wants to work the graveyard shift in their retirement.

” “Right?” Dana coughed again. Sighing, Bree waited for Dana to catch her breath. When she’d finished, Bree led the way up three cracked concrete steps. A white wrought iron railing edged the stairs and stoop. Bree and Dana automatically flanked the doorway as best they could to avoid standing dead center and knocked on the door. When no one responded, Bree knocked louder. Footsteps sounded inside, and a tiny middle-aged woman answered. Bree recognized Ronnie’s aunt, Maria Marin, from her driver’s license photo. Her complexion was sallow and wrinkled, and she wore her dark brown hair scraped into an unforgiving bun. At eight o’clock on a Tuesday evening, most people would be settling in for the night.

Mrs. Marin would be getting ready for work. Bree lifted the badge she wore on a lanyard around her neck. “I’m Detective Taggert, and this is Detective Romano.” Dana nodded. “Ma’am.” Mrs. Marin’s dark eyes went wide, and her mouth puckered before she smoothed out her features. Fear? The skin between Bree’s shoulder blades itched. Dana shot Bree a side-eye.

She’d seen it. Is Ronnie inside? Or is Mrs. Marin simply afraid to talk to the police? Bree glanced over Mrs. Marin’s shoulder but didn’t see anyone. “We’d like to talk to you about your nephew, Ronnie.” Bree lowered her voice in case the neighborhood had ears. “May we come inside?” “No.” Mrs. Marin shook her head, fear flashing into her eyes again. Her gaze shifted hard to one side, as if she was trying to see behind her without turning her head.

Is Ronnie listening? Bree persisted. “Have you seen Ronnie in the past few days?” “I don’t have to talk to you.” Mrs. Marin took a step backward and prepared to close the door. “No, ma’am, you don’t, but your nephew killed a woman.” Bree wasn’t giving anything away. Ronnie’s photograph had been shown on the news the previous night. “Every officer in the city is looking for him. It would be better for Ronnie if he came in with me willingly.” Bree let the implication hang that surrendering to her would be safer for Ronnie’s health.

Ronnie had committed a vicious murder. His face had been caught on a surveillance video. Clearly, he was no criminal mastermind. The PPD was going to find him. Given his established stupidity, Ronnie would resist and/or run. Mrs. Marin hesitated for two seconds, then shut the door in their faces. Dana stepped off the stoop. Rock salt crunched under her boots. She coughed, covering her mouth.

“He’s in there.” “Yep.” Without looking back, Bree walked toward the car. Dana paused on the sidewalk. “We can’t prove he’s inside.” “Nope.” Bree inhaled. The cold air bit into her sinus passages. “Let’s pull around the corner and see if we can get a line of sight on the back door. Knowing we found him is going to make Ronnie want to bolt ASAP.

” “We’ll need another unit to watch the front door.” They stepped into the vehicle and called for backup. Then Dana drove around the corner and parked alongside an overgrown hedge at the mouth of the alley that bisected the block. The alley was full of shadows, but they could see straight down the middle. Each rowhome had a tiny cement patio enclosed with various types of fencing. Chain link was prominent. But each back door was raised three steps high, and Bree had a clear visual of each rear exit. Most units had lights above their doors. Mrs. Marin’s home was the third from the corner.

Bree had barely located her unit when the back door opened, and a head poked out. Ronnie surveyed the neighborhood. “And there he is.” She slid lower in her seat, waiting for Ronnie to step out of the house. “We should wait for backup.” “No. I’m not letting him go.” Dana gave her The Look. “Don’t. You saw what he did.

I want him off the street where he can’t hurt anyone else.” Bree reached for the door handle as Ronnie came out of the house and closed the door behind him. “I’ll do the running. You head him off in the car.” “I don’t like you going off on your own.” Dana shifted into drive. “You will be right behind me. You just had bronchitis. You won’t be able to keep up.” They both knew that Dana could never keep up with Bree anyway.

Dana grumbled in agreement. “When you get a newbie to train, make them do all the running.” Bree didn’t want to think about taking on a new partner. Trust didn’t come easily to her. Dana sobered. “Be careful, Bree. Ronnie is a dangerous little shitbag.” “Yep.” Bree slipped out of the car. Dana drove away to circle the block.

Bree peered around the hedge. Ronnie was heading up the alley. As if he knew she was behind him, he broke into a hard run. Shit! Bree sprinted after him, but he reached the end of the alley, turned right, and disappeared behind a wooden fence. Fearing an ambush, Bree stopped at the corner and put her back to the fence. Drawing her weapon, she rounded the corner gun-first. Her heart hammered against her breastbone. Despite the cold, sweat ran down the center of her back, soaking her shirt. But Ronnie wasn’t in sight. Emerging on the next street, she caught her breath and scanned the surrounding brick rowhomes for her suspect.

Where is that little bastard? “Bree!” Just ahead, Dana had angled the Crown Vic across the intersection. She pointed out the open vehicle window to the alley on the next block. “That way!” Following her partner’s direction, Bree pivoted on a patch of ice and ran. Behind her, she heard the peel of tires as Dana turned the car. She’d try to cut off Ronnie’s escape on the next block, and she’d call for more backup. No doubt there were additional units in the area. Bree slogged through a snow bank and ran past a dumpster just in time to see her suspect climbing over a six-foot chain-link fence. She bolted forward. “Stop! Police!” As she expected, Ronnie ignored her and kept running. Bree didn’t bother to yell at him again.

She’d save her breath for the chase. In her peripheral vision, she caught the swirl of red-and-blue lights as a black-and-white unit passed the intersection. Her black athletic shoes skidded on the salt-dusted blacktop. She jumped onto the fence, and it rattled under the impact. Hooking her hands at the top, she hoisted herself over and dropped to the asphalt on the other side. Spying Ronnie just twenty feet ahead of her, near where the alley dumped onto the main street, Bree stayed on him. She ran three days a week. The initial sprint had been painful for her cold lungs and muscles, but now she was warming up. Her stride lengthened, and she gained on Ronnie. Dana should be at the other end of the alley to block his escape.

But Ronnie looked over his shoulder, saw Bree right on his tail, and made a hard right, jumping onto a square bin next to a rickety wooden fence, poising to leap over it. Bree was barely five feet behind him. She lunged forward and reached for the back of his jacket. Almost. Ronnie’s hands hit the top of the fence. She grabbed his hood just as he gathered his muscles to vault over the top. A heavy body hit the wood on the other side. The deep bark of a large dog echoed. Ronnie couldn’t stop his momentum in time, but Bree’s grip on his hood clotheslined him. Grabbing at the fabric at his throat, he fell to his knees and hit the fence face-first.

Bree slammed into the fence next to him. Her cheek smacked the top board. The giant head of a white pit bull appeared as the dog leaped a second time. Its powerful jaws snapped inches from her eye. She felt the dog’s breath on the side of her face, and dog spit splattered her cheek before the big beast hit the ground again. A memory intruded, teeth sinking into her flesh, the phantom pain bright and sharp as if thirty years had not passed. Terror jolted her heart, and she flung her body backward off the fence. She slipped off the bin and landed on her ass in six inches of snow. Ronnie fell on top of her in a pile of sprawled limbs. Something jammed hard into Bree’s gut, knocking the wind from her.

But she barely registered the ache in her ribs. Where’s the dog? The pit bull hit the fence again. The weak boards rattled, creaked, and shifted as the dog threatened to break through. Bree heard low growling and heavy breathing. Dog tags jingled as the animal raced back and forth along its side of the fence. Approaching footsteps pounded on the pavement. Backup was here. But Bree’s adrenal system didn’t believe the danger had passed. Her pulse pounded through her veins. She fought to catch her breath and stem the panic scrambling through her chest, gathering momentum like an eighteen-wheeler barreling down the PA Turnpike.

The fence will hold. But Bree couldn’t breathe. She tried to roll to her side, but Ronnie’s heavier body pinned her to the ground. A pair of big, black cop shoes appeared next to her face, and the weight was lifted off her. Still her lungs were locked up, and she gasped for air. “I got him, Detective Taggert,” a voice said. “You can let go now.” Bree inhaled, her lungs inflating, her eyes focusing. The shoes belonged to a beefy uniformed cop. A second patrol officer appeared next to the first.

The dog huffed, but it was safely behind the fence. “Bree!” Dana’s voice jolted her. “Let. Go.” Bree blinked down at her hand. Her knuckles were scraped and raw from the impact with the fence, but her fingers were still clenched tightly in Ronnie’s hood. The fabric pressed against his windpipe, and his head was craned backward at an unnatural angle. She opened her fist and released him. “Shit, Taggert,” Cop Number Two said. “You ran him down.

” The two uniforms flipped Ronnie onto his face, handcuffed him, and hauled him away. Another black-and-white parked behind the first. Dana extended a hand. “You OK?” Nodding, Bree let her partner pull her to her feet. Her knees trembled, but she sucked it up and forced them to straighten. The other cops would blame her breathlessness on the chase. She hoped. Dana’s face was serious as she raked her eyes over Bree. “You’re sure you’re not hurt?” Bree glanced around, aware that the other cops were watching her. Their scrutiny felt hot on her face. She rubbed her solar plexus. “Got the wind knocked out of me. I’ll be fine in a couple of minutes.” “OK.” Dana steered her out of the alley to where she’d parked the car and opened the passenger door for her. “Sit down and catch your breath.” Bree sat sideways, her feet in the street, and sipped from a water bottle she’d left in the car. Then she wiped her clammy palms on her thighs. Now that the incident was over, impending bruises were making themselves known. Her tailbone throbbed with every beat of her heart. But it wasn’t the aches and pains that rattled her, and it wouldn’t be the killer she’d chased that gave her nightmares. It was the dog and the memories its snapping teeth evoked. She shuddered, then took three deep breaths and did what she did best. She compartmentalized. She shoved that horror show back into the deep, dark hole where it needed to stay. She’d just gotten her heart rate and breathing under control when the phone on her belt vibrated. Bree looked at the screen. She’d missed a call while she was chasing Ronnie. She read the voice mail notification, and her heart did a double tap. Erin? “What’s wrong?” Dana narrowed blue eyes at Bree. Bree stared at her phone. “My sister called.” “When was the last time you talked to her?” “A couple of weeks ago. You know my family is . ” Bree searched for the word. “Complicated.” “Uh-huh.” Dana was more than a coworker. She was Bree’s closest friend. “We talk on the phone, but I haven’t seen her since she brought the kids to Philly last summer.” The last time Bree had visited Grey’s Hollow had been for Erin’s wedding four years before. “I remember.” Dana was a history geek. When Erin and the kids came to town, she’d played tour guide, walking them through the Constitution Center, Independence Hall, and other sites. “Did she leave a voice mail?” “Yes.” Bree’s finger hesitated over the “Play” button. She should wait until she got home to listen to her sister’s message. Unexpected news from Grey’s Hollow was never good. Bree’s heart began to thud again, fresh sweat gathered on her palms, and all her careful compartmentalizing went to hell. “Could you give me a minute, Dana?” “Sure. No problem.” She turned and walked back to the cluster of cops at the alley entrance. Planting her feet firmly on the pavement, Bree stabbed the “Play” button. Her sister’s voice was breathless and hurried. “Bree? I’m in trouble. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to give you the details in a message, but I need your help. Please call me back as soon as you get this.” Worried, Bree pressed the “Call Back” button. Her sister’s line rang three times and connected to voice mail. Bree left a message. “It’s Bree. Sorry I missed you. Call me back.” She lowered the phone and stared at it. She’d missed her sister’s call by only a few minutes. Where could Erin be? Bree played the message again. Her sister’s rushed words knotted in her belly. Frowning, Dana walked over. “Everything OK?” “She’s not answering her phone.” Bree called her brother, Adam, but the call went immediately to voice mail. She left him a message. Next, she dialed the salon where her sister worked, but the receptionist said Erin was off tonight. “Try her later,” Dana suggested. “She could be in the shower.” Bree drank some water and called Erin again. Still no answer. She replayed the message, tilting the phone so Dana could hear. Dana’s blonde eyebrows lowered. “Your sister doesn’t seem like the type who gets in trouble.” “She isn’t. Erin’s a head down, go to work, raise her kids kind of person. She doesn’t have time for trouble.” Bree rubbed the edge of her phone with her thumb. “But just her calling me for help means it’s something major. We’re not as close as I’d like.” “Not your fault or hers that you weren’t raised together.” Erin and Adam had been reared by their grandmother in Grey’s Hollow. Bree had been farmed out to a cousin in Philadelphia. “My childhood isn’t my fault.” Bree tapped her phone screen and stared at the lack of notifications. “But the decisions I’ve made since reaching adulthood are one hundred percent my responsibility.” “What are you going to do?” As children, Bree and her siblings had survived a nightmare together. Despite the three hundred miles between them, they would always have a special connection. They were particularly tuned in to trouble, and Bree could sense from Erin’s voice that something was wrong. Really wrong. Erin’s tone wasn’t I’m late with the mortgage payment. She had sounded scared. There was only one thing Bree could do. She finished her water and stood. “I’m going home.” CHAPTER THREE With a flicker of apprehension, Matthew Flynn rang his friend’s doorbell a second time. Once again, chimes sounded inside the small ranch-style home. But no footsteps approached the door. Justin should be home. He should be expecting Matt to pick him up for his Narcotics Anonymous meeting, as he had every Tuesday night for months. At Matt’s side, his German shepherd, Brody, whined. Matt glanced down at the dog. Brody’s ears were up and his posture stiff. “What is it, boy?” Brody whined again and pawed at the concrete stoop. A former sheriff’s department K-9, Brody had sharp instincts honed by years of training and practice. The dog barked once. Normally, he was happy and excited to see Justin. His tail should be wagging. His posture should be relaxed. Something was wrong. Matt might not understand the signals, but he trusted his dog. Brody’s senses of smell and hearing were far superior to any human’s. And he always seemed to have a sixth sense as well. When they’d been a working K-9 team with the sheriff’s department, Brody had saved Matt’s ass more times than he could count. Matt had learned the hard way that he could trust the dog more than he could most people. He swallowed a lump of pure bitterness. Three years ago, a shooting had ended both their careers. Matt wished the way his future had been ripped out from under him could be described as simply as it had been summed up in the press release. The reality had been anything but. He knew he had to let go of his anger. The sheriff had sent Matt and Brody through the wrong door of a warehouse, and they’d been caught in friendly fire when deputies exchanged shots with a drug dealer. Whether the former sheriff’s actions had been deliberate or accidental didn’t matter anymore. The man was dead. But letting go of his resentment was proving harder than Matt anticipated. He opened the storm door and tried the wooden door, but it was locked. Backing away from the door, he scanned the front of the house. Justin’s Ford Escape sat in the driveway. A FOR SALE sign was displayed in the windshield. Justin would not be driving for a long time. Four months before, he’d been arrested for driving while ability impaired by drugs. As a second DWAI offense, the charge was a class E felony in New York State. Justin’s wife had asked him to move out. Since then, Justin said he was committed to staying sober and earning back her trust, but there were days when all he talked about were his failures. He battled depression along with his addiction. Concerned, Matt backed away from the door, his breath fogging in the freezing January night. The exterior and interior lights were on. Justin was on a tight budget. If he wasn’t home, the house would be dark. Matt pulled out his phone. Twenty minutes ago, he’d sent Justin a text, letting him know he was on the way. Matt had been running a few minutes late and hadn’t waited for an answer before leaving his house, but now the lack of one felt wrong. Justin usually sent back a thumbs-up. Matt sent a new message. I’M OUTSIDE. A minute ticked away with no response. There was only one thing to do. Matt had to go in. He’d known Justin since they were kids. His friend had been on a downward spiral, set off by a car accident, chronic back pain, and a subsequent addiction to OxyContin. Justin had fallen apart, but he seemed determined to get his life together. Matt would do everything he could to help, including driving him to NA meetings and breaking into his house if there was even a slight chance that his friend could be in trouble. Possible scenarios ran through Matt’s head. Addiction relapse and suicide were among them. “Come on,” he said to the dog as he turned away from the house, but Brody didn’t immediately follow. The dog focused on the door and whined again. The sound he made was plaintive, highpitched, and barely audible. “We’ll try another door.” Obedient but clearly reluctant, Brody followed him around the side of the house. Their footsteps crunched in the ice-crusted snow. The patio door was a glass slider, and it was open. Matt stuck his head inside. The den and kitchen were at the back of the house. The kitchen was empty but brightly lit. Two open cans of Coke sat on the counter next to a pizza box. In the den, a couch and coffee table faced the TV. Light flickered from the TV mounted on the wall. A local news station played on the screen. Where is Justin? Worry snowballed in Matt’s gut. As if channeling his master’s anxiety, Brody dug into the snow that had drifted against the base of the slider. “Yeah, no worries, buddy. We’re going in.” Matt pulled a leash from his pocket and snapped it onto the dog’s collar. Then he stepped into the kitchen. A few clumps of snow fell from his boots. He wiped his feet on the mat and led Brody inside, leaving the door open behind them. The shepherd panted and paced at the end of his leash. Matt brought him to heel with a single German command. “Fuss.” “Justin?” he called. Nothing moved. The tiny house felt eerily still. Brody pulled toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms. Matt held him back as he strained at the end of his leash. The dog whined again. Matt flipped a light switch in the hall. The laundry room and bathroom were empty. Matt peered into the spare bedroom, which contained only a stack of boxes Justin refused to unpack, claiming the move was temporary. Brody pulled harder. “Fuss.” Matt repeated the command. Brody obeyed but his body posture remained tense. He was acting as if he were back on active duty in a high-stress situation. The master bedroom lay ahead. Matt debated taking the dog back to his vehicle, but he wasn’t armed. On the remote chance there was an intruder in the house, Brody would know, and the dog would have his back. Matt listened for a few seconds, but the only sounds were the low voices of the news anchors on the TV in the den. Brody wasn’t acting as if there was a threat, but the dog was agitated, whining and shifting his weight from side to side in lieu of pacing. His head bobbed and weaved like a professional boxer. “Justin?” Matt called out, hesitant to invade the privacy of his friend’s bedroom. But Justin’s depression made him walk down the hall. The room was lit only by a small bedside lamp, but it was bright enough that he could see what lay in the middle of the room. A dead body and a lake of blood. Matt flinched. He didn’t need to feel for a pulse. From the size of the deep-red stain on the carpet, he knew the person was dead. No one could survive that much blood loss. The body was too small to be Justin. Matt used the flashlight app on his phone to better illuminate the body. Shock washed over him. It was a woman. She wore boots, jeans, and a sweater. Long, dark hair streamed out from under a knit cap. He moved a few steps to the side and shone the light on her face. Matt inhaled sharply. Justin’s wife, Erin, stared back at him with empty hazel eyes. What is she doing here? Brody whined, a thin, plaintive sound. Matt put a reassuring hand on the top of the dog’s head as he called 911 on his cell phone. In rural areas, deputies wore multiple professional hats. Several deputies, including the current chief, also served on the county search-and-rescue team. Others were on the dive team. Several were volunteer firefighters. Matt had been an investigator and, later, a K-9 officer. As he gave the dispatcher the address, he put aside his emotions and viewed the scene like the detective he’d been. Erin was on her side, her body curled around itself. From the size of the wound, Matt suspected she’d been shot. Blood covered her hands, which were near the wound in her chest. She hadn’t died immediately. She’d known she was bleeding out. She’d clutched the wound, maybe even tried to stem the bleeding. The heart stops beating at death, and it had taken a minute or so to pump a fatal volume out of her body. It must have seemed both a long and short minute to her. Matt took in the size of the bloodstain. It had been a futile effort. He hoped she’d lost consciousness quickly. An image from their wedding flashed into his mind. Justin and Erin posing for a photo with her two kids. He closed his eyes for a second. Justin had mentioned that the kids hadn’t seen their father in years. No one even knew where he was or if he was alive. They could be orphans. The 911 operator gave a response time of four minutes. Matt took two minutes to snap pictures of the rest of the room with his cell phone camera. He was no longer a deputy. Since the former sheriff’s death and the airing of the corruption in the department, many other deputies had left. There were a number of new hires, and of the longtime deputies, Matt didn’t know who he could trust. How many had known of the former sheriff’s crimes? He was certain of only one thing. This would be his only chance to record the crime scene. Justin hadn’t planned to live here long and hadn’t invested in much furniture. The bedroom held a bed, a chair, and a nightstand with a lamp. A purple puffy coat lay across the chair. It looked too small and feminine to be Justin’s. Erin’s? He snapped a picture, then took photos of a dark red smear on the doorframe and another on the wall. On the floor in front of the bathroom door lay a towel. Matt stooped and touched the corner. Damp. Matt ducked into the bathroom. Another damp towel hung over a rod mounted on the wall. He used the sleeve of his jacket to open the medicine chest, noting the extra toothpaste, a tube of mascara, and a lipstick on the glass shelf. In the cabinet beneath the sink, he found a hairdryer, a round hairbrush, and a box of feminine hygiene products. As he photographed everything, he wondered if the female items belonged to Erin or another woman. A siren approached. “Time to go.” He led Brody back out the way they had come into the house, taking more pictures on his way out. He followed his own tracks back to the sidewalk and waited, noting and filing details in his head. The front door had been locked. The back slider had been open, as if someone had rushed out of the house. Who killed Erin? And where is Justin? Two hours later, emergency vehicles clogged the street. Swirling red-and-blue lights reflected on the snow. A county CSI van was parked behind the sheriff’s department vehicles. The medical examiner had been the last to arrive. Uniformed men hustled back and forth from the house to their vehicles. Each doing his job, focused on a specific task. At the base of the driveway, a rookie manned the crime scene log, recording every person who set foot on the scene. Standing on the sidewalk next to his SUV, Matt had never felt like more of an outsider. Grey’s Hollow Chief Deputy Todd Harvey approached. Before the shooting, Matt had worked with Todd for years and was 80 percent sure he was trustworthy. Todd stopped in front of Matt and crouched to pet the dog. “How’s retirement, Brody?” Brody leaned in for a scratch behind the ear. With a final pat, Todd straightened. “How long have you known Justin?” “We went to grade school together.” “You knew the victim too?” Matt nodded. “But not as well.” “Since he lives here, and her address is a rural route outside town, can I assume they were separated?” “Yes.” Matt took a deep breath. The facts were the facts. “Justin and Erin married four years ago. I was the best man in their wedding.” “Did they have any kids?” “She has two, but they aren’t Justin’s.” Matt’s stomach cramped with pity. Todd scraped a hand across his jaw. “Shit.” Yeah. Shit. Grief choked Matt as he pictured the children. “How old are they?” Todd asked. Matt cleared his throat. “Luke is in high school. Kayla is still in grade school.” Todd pulled a small notepad from his pocket. “I’ll loop in social services. I also have to notify next of kin. Do you know who that might be?” “Erin’s parents are dead.” Matt remembered Erin’s family from the wedding. The story of her parents’ deaths stuck with him. “She has a brother and a sister. The sister lives in Philadelphia, but the brother is local. Erin kept her maiden name, so you should be able to find him.” Todd made a note. “How long has Justin lived here?” “Four months, since his second DWAI.” Matt suppressed a pang of guilt. Todd would already have Justin’s record, but Matt still felt disloyal giving him the information. “Was their breakup volatile?” Todd was definitely focused on Justin as a suspect. The spouse was always on the list, but a good detective didn’t go into an investigation with any preconceived notions that could influence how he viewed the scene and evidence. Then again, most of Todd’s experience was as a patrol officer and supervisor. He’d never been an investigator. How many murders had he handled? “No.” Matt shook his head. “Erin didn’t want the drugs in the house with her kids. He didn’t blame her.” “So, he wasn’t angry at all after his wife kicked him out of his house?” Todd sounded incredulous. “It’s her house, not his.” Todd pressed his lips together. “Do you know why she was here this evening?” “No.” Matt’s gut twisted. “I talked to Justin yesterday. He didn’t mention it.” “OK.” Todd turned as the medical examiner gestured from the doorway of the house. “I need to get back to it. I’ll probably be here all night. I need you to come to the station in the morning and sign a statement.” “Sure.” Matt’s fingers stroked Brody’s head. The dog leaned against his legs, his weight nearly buckling Matt’s knees. He leaned into the dog to counter the pressure. Todd turned away. Matt pictured the scene. Questions about Erin’s presence ran through his head. What had she been doing there? “Did you find her cell phone?” Matt called after him. Todd walked away without answering. Would he shut Matt out of the case? Matt looked down at Brody. As usual, the shepherd’s brown eyes looked right through him. Brody whined again. “I know. I’m worried about Justin too.” As a friend, he worried that Justin could be in serious trouble. As a former investigator, he knew that Justin would be a primary suspect, and as a former deputy, he worried about the chief deputy’s lack of investigative experience and Matt’s 20 percent uncertainty about his honesty. With or without the chief deputy’s cooperation, Matt would find out what had happened.

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