Why? Why, of all the houses in the county, did it have to be that house? Had Ben believed in karma, he’d say this was her way of screwing him over after all this time.
Lucky for him, all he believed in was the existence of evil people. And numerical statistics. Statistically, it was only a matter of time until evil found its way to 4253 Iris Lane.
But, statistics or no, it sucked big ones that he’d been the detective to get the call.
He had a 2011 Charger – dark blue and rear wheel drive for police practicality – and the radio knob had snapped off two days before; he couldn’t adjust the volume or turn the thing off. Short of unscrewing the antennae – which he was about ten minutes from pulling over and doing – he was stuck shuffling through channels. “Sympathy for the Devil” seemed too ironic for words, so he flipped to the pop station and settled for some chart-topping British boy band shit that was slightly more tolerable than rap or hipster elevator music garbage. He wanted to turn the damn thing off – take a moment to collect his thoughts before he hit his partner’s drive and launched the two of them full-tilt into this new case – but in a way, maybe the noise was a good thing. Maybe collecting his thoughts was a piss-poor idea because once dread took hold of him, he wasn’t sure he could be objective when he arrived at the house on Iris Lane.
Instead – prepubescent boys singing shrilly about love they could only pretend to understand in the background – he went back to the statistics. They were comforting.
Unlike a few choice members of the Homicide unit, Ben had never viewed his job as something finite. There was no clock-in/clock-out; no deserved “me” time, as someone had put it in the break room one day. There were murders, and there were solves, and the cases that unfolded in between were liquid: he worked them, as hard as he could, to the best of his ability, until he had grounds for an arrest, and if that involved all-nighters and bad takeout pizza for three straight months, so be it. He was a perfectionist. He was maybe a little OCD. And he didn’t believe in shutting off his phone or taking two-week vacations just to “get away from it all.” His phone was always on and he was always ready to drop whatever meager scraps of a personal life he had left when a detective was needed on a scene. He’d heard the other guys say – behind his back – that he was long overdue for a meltdown or a burnout. He was a Marine – neither of those things was coming. And his on-the-job attitude was something he was trying to pass along to his new partner.
Not always with success.
Trey Kaiden rented a room in an old farmhouse owned by two of his high school friends on the other side of the mountain from their newest crime scene. Ben tried to forgive his frat boy lifestyle – he was only twenty-seven and the economic downswing had left all of them scrambling for lodging – but he had certain expectations. When he swung into the crowded gravel drive – Hondas and Toyotas were clustered together under a stand of trees and covered in bird droppings – and didn’t see his partner ready and waiting for him, it sent an aggressive surge of irritation through him. It didn’t help that he was already keyed up about Iris Lane.
He blew the horn twice. A moment later, the front door slammed open and Trey jogged down the end of the porch, struggling into a windbreaker, sneakers unlaced.
“Jesus,” Ben said to himself.
He wasn’t a bad kid: attractive in an easy sort of way, friendly, non-confrontational. He looked like he’d been a popped-collar prep at one point, and had decided to go for “cool” now that he was on the force and didn’t want to be ribbed by the other guys. Women – witnesses and suspects alike – responded well to him, and most men couldn’t find anything too coppish about him that set off their alarm bells. Ben wasn’t sure he’d ever make a great detective, but in Cobb County, he didn’t think that was ever going to be an issue.
“I gave you a twenty minute heads up,” he said by way of greeting as Trey fell into the passenger seat and pulled the door shut. “And you didn’t have your shoes tied? You have to be ready faster than that.”
“Yeah.” Trey pitched forward in the seat to lace his Nikes as Ben threw the Charger in reverse. “Sorry about that. I had a date.”
It wasn’t even nine and the date had already progressed to the state of undress: had to give the guy credit for that.
“What’s with this?” Trey gestured toward the radio; he chuckled. “Research for the next time you try to pick up an eighteen-year-old?”
Ben toed the gas and heard the thump of the kid’s head hitting the glove box.
Trey didn’t respond – he was smart enough to never be indignant – but sat back, changed the station back to classic rock (the Stones were done and Free was on) and asked, “So what’s the case?”
This was the part that had caught Ben’s heart in his throat; for a handful of seconds, before the victim’s age had registered in his mind and he’d realized she was too old to be Clara, he’d felt something he never had before. A great sweeping riptide of emotion, spicy and nauseating, had flooded his every nerve, leaving him dumbstruck and breathless on his brother’s patio. What if it’s her? he’d thought, and his lungs had seized and he’d choked on cigar smoke. Then “eleven” had struck home and, just as quickly as it had come, the tide went surging back out again, leaving him weak as a baby. In those few, desperate seconds, his very worst fear had been confirmed: he had a weakness. A strong one. Crippling, actually. He’d decided to put it out of his mind…at least until they reached the crime scene.
“Eleven-year-old white female,” he said, and heard Trey’s snatch of breath; no cop liked working child murders. “Found on the neighbor’s property. First responders found what looks like vomit around her mouth, but we won’t know anything till the medical examiner shows up.”
“Shit,” Trey said, voice quavering.
“Get the nerves outta your system now,” Ben told him. “Uniforms said the mother’s hysterical and the neighbors are pretty shook up. There’s a pack of Marlboros and a Snickers in the glove box if you need it.”
He stole a sideways glance as he drove and saw Trey’s fast grimace of disgust in the dash lights; Ben smiled to himself. So newbie didn’t like the thought of being too rattled to handle the scene – another point in his favor.
“What’s the address?”
Ben told him.
“Iris…Isn’t that a farm? Don’t they give riding lessons there or something?”
“How would you know?”
“My little sister’s been bugging my mom about learning – she had a flier taped up on her wall. It’s called Castle or something. Cadbury?”
“Canterbury,” Ben supplied, and felt Trey’s eyes on him. He didn’t offer to explain.
By the time they’d navigated the side streets off Burnt Hickory – at least four deer streaking in front of the car in the headlights, diving into the national park grounds – Trey had managed to tie both shoes and was watching out the window like an excited puppy. They had to drive past the victim’s house on the way into the farm and Ben took note: a brown ranch with a yard in need of a makeover, lights blazing in the windows. And then the sign for Canterbury Farm reared up on his left, stacked stone and stucco with a solar light that illuminated the glossy stylized lettering. There was a gate – tubular steel painted black to emulate iron – and it stood open, black board fence flanking a drive shaded by oaks that bore scars from the Civil War. In the daylight, it was picturesque; at night, it looked like the entrance to some medieval house of torture, and in a way, he supposed that’s what it was. For him.
“Nice place,” Trey observed as they swept up the slow curve toward the house. It stood – flat-roofed and glittering with lit windows – on a hill landscaped to perfection, more solar lights giving glimpses of manicure beds and trees, a swingset in the front yard for Clara. It was midcentury – brick and dark wood siding, too many windows and two-story on the back half, flanked by skinny cedars at the north and south ends.
Ben knew it well: the feel – polished brick and wood and leather – the taste of the air and the smell of things cooking undercut by furniture polish. He knew what the view from the living room back toward the barn looked like, the gentle roll of pasture. He knew which stairs creaked. He knew the dry warmth of the sunken family room when a fire was roaring on the stone hearth and snow flurries were swirling past the windows. Even if he hadn’t been there often, the place had stamped itself across his senses, an image of what might have been, like an alternate reality he got to step inside every few months.
Why? he thought again. Of all the houses, why did it have to be this one?
There was a small crowd down by the barn, just within reach of the arena lights, the civilians clustered tightly together, apart from the bright blue tarp that shielded the corpse. Techs in dark uniforms were moving over the sand, throwing long, distorted shadows, placing markers and taking pictures; their camera flashes seemed almost alien from a distance. Ben had been at this so long that the thought of a body sprawled and waiting for him didn’t touch his nerves; it was the thought of who might be standing at the fence that tightened his gut and flexed his fingers. In the detached, professional part of his brain, he took stock of the white medical examiner’s and CSI’s vans and the white-and-blue patrol car, the two uniforms walking up to meet them. But there was a rebellious spot in his mind that was fixated wholly on the civilians – one in particular. He hadn’t told Trey yet, and didn’t plan on it unless something forced his hand.
“Detectives,” one of them called, and Ben recognized him as Ortiz by voice alone, which meant the other was his partner, Myers. “Doctor Harding,” he said of the county ME, “has already examined the body. He’s waiting to give you an overview and the CSIs are doing their thing.”
“Good.” Ben paused beneath the inky shadow of an oak and fished his notebook from his back pocket, already flipped to a fresh page. Ortiz and Myers drew to a halt in front of them and it was too dark to make out their faces. “Who found the body?”
“Farm owner,” Myers said, and Ben cursed inwardly. “Jade Donovan. She was leaving the house around eight – with one of the other witnesses, Asher McMahon, on a date or some such – when they saw the body and went down to see what it was. McMahon was the one who called 911.”
Ben blinked, then nodded, though they couldn’t see him. “Who’s down there?”
“Donovan and McMahon,” Ortiz said. “A second farm owner – Carver – and the vic’s mother, Alicia Latham.”
The mother: that was a pleasant thought.
“She’s in bad shape?” Trey asked.
Myers snorted. “What do you think?”
“Try not to say anything that stupid when we get down there,” Ben chastised. To the uniforms, he said, “Thanks,” and started toward the barn. When they left the shadows, and there was enough ambient light to see, he scribbled names in his pad: McMahon, Carver, Latham, and then Jade – just Jade.
Dr. Harding met them at the gate. “Detective Haley.” He was a man of few words: nothing but the essentials. Ben liked him.
“Doc. Do you mind walking my partner through it while I talk to the witnesses?”
Harding flicked a glance toward the bystanders – a woman, obviously the mother, was weeping in great shuddering sobs, murmuring, “My baby,” over and over; someone held her, and Ben figured he knew who – and lifted one shoulder in what might have been a shrug. “Good luck with that.” He flicked his fingers. “Come along, Kaiden. I’ve got vomit to show you.”
“Thanks,” Trey muttered as he climbed over the fence.
In truth, Ben would have rather licked the vomit than do what he was about to. But it was important he not allow himself to be swayed by personal discomfort; this case had to be worked like any other, despite whose arena in which their body had been found. And, heartless though it seemed, he wanted to question the mother while she was still raw; he wanted to get a sense of her true reaction to the loss of her child before she had a chance to compose herself and started thinking about what she should say rather than what she couldn’t keep from saying. It was a cruel truth: in child murders, the parents were always under suspicion. When it came to passionate crimes, no one was more passionate than a parent.
His witnesses were at the rail, the fence between them and the body, where the light was just strong enough to cast long black shadows down their faces. The mother was obvious: pinned-up hair and baggy sweats, shattered breathing, heaving sobs, thin fingers clenched round the arm supporting her. She was the picture of every grieving mother he’d come across; it was the girl – the woman – holding her that sent gooseflesh down his spine.
She was twenty-eight now, but still leggy, still crowned with a waterfall of dark coffee hair, pale face still delicate and refined. Her lips were pressed in a tight, white line, and her head was bowed, free hand between Alicia Latham’s shoulder blades in a touch meant to be soothing. She glanced up at the sound of his approach, mouth forming an O of surprise, eyes wide and bright and tear-filled. Shock crashed through her – he could see it – before she smoothed her expression and her gaze went skidding away from his, out toward the arena and the place where Harding and Trey crouched. Her profile was something from a painting; the deep, rattled breath she took sent a half-dozen memories cartwheeling through his head.
“Alicia,” Jade said, gently, “the detectives are here.”
While the woman disengaged her wet face from the front of Jade’s sweater, Ben took note of the other two. One he didn’t recognize; McMahon, he supposed. But the other was Jeremy Carver. Tall, ballet thin, dark-headed and pretty enough to be almost feminine, Jade’s gay best friend was the closest thing she had to a brother; Clara thought of him as an uncle. He had his hands in the pockets of his high-necked jacket, face too pale, gaze somehow able to do disapproving as it fell over him and moved away. The other guy – Jade’s date – looked like he either had, or was about to puke.
Standard reactions all around; no alarms went off in his head.
“Mrs. Latham,” Ben said.
She was mopping at her face with a sleeve and cut a glance up at him from under gummy lashes. She had blunt, unremarkable features going soft with age and hair an unnatural shade of red-brown. Trauma did ugly things to women’s faces, and hers was wrecked: lined, puckered, sagging and bloated from crying.
“Mrs. Latham,” he said again.
Her eyes pinged in crazy leaps over his face, her mouth opened, and for a moment, Ben thought she meant to respond. But she dissolved into tears again, a desperate sound catching in her throat.
“Detective,” Jade said, her voice tight, “can’t this wait?”
Over the top of Alicia Latham’s head, her expression was all too familiar, loaded with revulsion. Ben twitched a non-smile. “I’m afraid not; it has to be tonight.”
Jade kicked her chin up and wound a protective arm around the weeping woman’s shoulders. “We’re going up to the house while your people…” her eyes went to the arena and the picture-snapping techs. “You can come up and talk to us there.”