A night. It felt like the first cool fingers of October; tasted like the last strawberry bite of July; fell somewhere in the middle with a smell of burning leaves.
Death walked into that night, dragging through the wood, rending the quiet with its inhuman hot breath: panting, poised and terrible.
Deer crashed through the underbrush; round yellow eyes watched. And Death left its offering on a bed of soft white sand, scalloped and pocked as beach dunes. Under the great black bowl of the sky, a face tipped to the stars, sightless and waiting, washed in light flickering with moth-dance, almost alive if you squinted, just sleeping.
Deep down, Ben had never expected to end up with a sister-in-law. His brother had been a non-restless, wholly satisfied bachelor for so long…right up until it hadn’t been enough. It had been sudden. Chris had gone from indifferent to invested in just a few short months, acquiring a stepkid and impregnating his honey before the rest of the family had even been introduced to her.
“Cheesecake, Ben?” Jess asked him from her kitchen counter. Her tone was a coolly polite, detached reminder that the two of them would never be friends; he couldn’t blame her, he guessed, after their first meeting. She turned to regard him over her shoulder, expression removed; she was in little white slip-on sneakers and a pretty blue cotton dress. It hugged her hips in just the right way; provided a backdrop for the thick spill of honey blonde hair down her back. The line of tension down her bicep made him think she could have used the knife in her hand for something more sinister than slicing cake if he gave her a reason.
“No.” He reached for his coffee and remembered his manners. “Thanks. But I should head out.”
“Here.” Chris rolled a cellophane-wrapped cigar across the table to him and stood. “Smoke before you go?”
Ben stood, shrugged into his jacket, and watched his brother go to the counter and settle a hand on his wife’s waist just low enough to be indecent. He kissed her temple and drew a diagram through the air with his finger of the giant slice of cheesecake he wanted; she smiled and her face softened, lit, and sparkled. She was a gorgeous girl when she wasn’t scowling. The way she looked at Chris almost made Ben think…
Nope. It didn’t make him think of anything.
“Bye, guys.” He offered a lame wave to Jess’s son Tyler and the baby in her high chair, Maddie. Tyler watched him like he didn’t trust him. And babies – with their unabashed staring and bi-polar mood swings – had always unnerved him; Maddie was no exception.
He followed Chris down the back steps off the kitchen to the paved patio. Chris was constantly improving the house – inn – where he and Jess lived, putting his contractor’s license to good use. The patio was a new addition; there was a fire pit and a low stone bench, a few white wicker chairs. Ben propped a boot on the bench and waited for Chris to finish with the lighter.
“How’s work?” Chris asked.
He took the lighter and clamped his cigar tight in his teeth, speaking around it. “You already asked me that.”
“Yeah.” Chris gave him a level look through the dim light cast by the backdoor’s coach lamps. “But I figure I got the kid-friendly version inside.”
“Oh, so I’m a liar?”
Chris grinned. “I renovate bathrooms for the Real Housewife crowd. You solve murders. Which one of us is more likely to need a PG cover story?”
“Dunno. I hear those Real Housewives like a little handyman action now and then.”
“Stop being an asshole.”
“Well that’s not gonna happen.” He turned and sat down on the low stone wall. Across the drive, the skeletal framework of the addition Chris was putting on the guest cottage gleamed white as bleached bone. Jess’s sister was having another kid and didn’t have a place to put it – or, it seemed, the will to move out and find a place of her own. Not only had Chris taken on a woman and kid, but a brother- and sister-in-law too, and their kids. “Why’s marriage turned you into the older brother?” he asked.
He sighed. “It’s been keeping me busy.” Chris’s brows twitched; for a homicide detective, “busy” was never a good thing. “Atlanta’s creeping into the ‘burbs,” Ben explained, “and with it comes coke and H and even more meth than the hillbillies are flooding into the high schools. Murder,” he said for emphasis, “is more common than most people in Cobb County want to think.”
A shadow moved across a curtained window of the cottage: a slight, feminine shape that must have been Joanna, Jess’s sister.
Chris murmured a note of agreement. “Well, if you ever need to get away from it, Jess always makes more food than we need.”
“The last thing your wife wants is me hanging around.”
“I don’t think…it’s just…okay, she doesn’t want you hanging around.”
Ben twitched a fast non-smile.
“She thinks your ‘evil’ is gonna rub off on the kids,” Chris admitted with a chuckle.
“She’s probably right.”
It was a cool night for early autumn; layered between the chirrups of insects, a sharp promise of frost crackled in the air, heady with the scent of faraway snow. It stood the fine hairs up on the back of Ben’s neck; sent a thrill humming along beneath his skin. “Nights like this,” someone had told him, not so long ago, “feel like the world’s waiting for something.” He was sure, in hindsight, that on that night on a back step with a shared bottle of grocery store Pinot Noir, the girl beside him had wanted the two of them to be that something special. She’d been breathless and flushed from kissing, eyes little moons set in the statue-perfect lines of her alabaster face; and she’d been fizzing from a magic he hadn’t understood or wanted to feel. Every time a night turned prickly and uncertain – waiting, as she’d said – he’d think of her, and that was never a welcome train of thought.
He took a fast, too-hard drag on his cigar and felt nausea ripple through him; he wasn’t a smoker by nature.
“The offer’s there all the same, though,” Chris said, which didn’t help his stomach.
Ben was forming another lame-ass jab at his little-brother-going-big-brother when his phone came to life in his jacket pocket.
If he’d only known what waited on the other end of the line, he would have let the damn thing go to voicemail.
“You look nice.”
Jade smoothed her hands down her hips, over the clinging black cotton/spandex of her skirt. She’d spent half the week planning her outfit for tonight, all the way down to her toenail polish – a drug store shade of pink called Get Juiced. “Nice?” She lifted her brows in question. “Just nice?”
Jeremy and Clara made for an adorable picture snuggled back in the corner of the love seat, draped in a chenille throw, yaupons dancing on the other side of the black window glass, Disney movie throwing leaping blue shadows across their faces. Clara was bundled in the crook of Jeremy’s arm, sucking her thumb, hugging her favorite stuffed rabbit, Oatmeal, around the neck. Jeremy had showered after his last lesson of the afternoon and not bothered to dry his hair; it was soft and sticking up in places
Jeremy grinned at her – a devastating flash of white teeth – and amended his previous statement. “You look hot, babe. Absolutely edible.”
“Thanks. Thank you for that in front of the K-I-D.”
Clara popped her thumb out of her mouth, staring at the TV as she said, “Kid. That spells kid.”
“Smart girl.” Jeremy gave her a squeeze.
Jade sighed. She was a smart girl, which made this whole Mommy-on-a-date thing so much more difficult. “Are you sure you two’ll be alright?” she asked and earned an eye roll for it. “I’m serious, Remy. I can call Asher and cancel.”
“Cancel?” Jeremy breathed a laugh. “And do what? Sit at home and watch Cinderella?”
“You’re just nervous. Understandable: Asher is the first adult human male you’ve been out with since…ever.”
She gave him a warning look and he grinned again.
“Go on your date. Have fun. Leave some sort of undergarment in the back of his car. Pixie Stick and I are going to princess it up and do night check. Right?”
Clara spared him a fast, adoring glance before the TV sucked her back in again. “Right.”
Jade opened her mouth for further protest…
And the doorbell rang.
Jeremy gave her his sternest look, one made less than threatening by the graceful Michelangelo lines of his brows. “Go.”
Her stomach rolled. “Fine.” She went to the sofa and dropped a kiss on her daughter’s warm cheek; raked her fingers through her very best friend’s hair, smiling when he ducked away. “I’ll call you.”
“Undergarment in the backseat,” Jeremy reminded.
They were in the den – one of those cozy, wood-paneled, stone fireplace numbers sunk down at the back of the midcentury farmhouse they’d called home the past five years; it had been some man’s trophy room in the past and Jeremy had helped her turn it into something tasteful and retro, with overstuffed furniture and subdued knickknacks. She spent the walk to the front door doing last minute adjustments: a nail through an eyebrow, a straightening of her top, a fluff of her hair. Warm beams from the porch light streamed in through the glass-paneled front door, falling across the glossy brick of the foyer floor, limning her date’s profile in gold.
You can do this, she reminded herself, and took one last deep, shivery breath before she opened the door.
Mid-thirties, sandy-haired, handsome in a soft, unathletic way, Asher McMahon had been reaching for a paint swatch in Home Depot alongside her. Their hands had brushed, Jade had pulled back, apologizing, and he’d grinned at her in a sweet, boyish way that had prompted her to ask about his painting project; Clara had been with her, but it had seemed a harmless enough topic. Discussing their living rooms had led to number-swapping, and his assertion that yes, he loved horses and, of course, he’d love to come take a lesson from her. Five minutes on top of Pokey – her aptly-named school horse – and he’d been forced to admit defeat: he was terrified of horses, but he’d love to take her out sometime if she’d let him. They’d been on four dates. This was their fifth and, for some reason she couldn’t name, their phone calls the last few days had smacked of expectation, on both their parts. It had been a long time, Jeremy had reminded, since she’d had any “action,” and Asher was sweet, and more than smitten.
He greeted her with one of those easy smiles she was beginning to think she could get used to. “Wow.” His eyes skipped from her face to her toes and back again. “You look amazing.”
He was in a tasteful checked shirt, khakis, navy blazer; she smiled. “You look good, too.”
Because it was starting to feel natural, she pressed her palms to his chest and stretched up for a kiss: a quick, open-mouthed peck that didn’t make any sound, fast, safe smiles traded afterward. Jade pulled the door to behind her, shouldered her purse, and slipped her arm through his offered one.
The night was crisp, the wind tossing the trees together with almost human sighs. The Liriope hadn’t died back yet and flapped in variegated tendrils over the terraced front walk. Jade suppressed a shudder and felt gooseflesh pebble her skin beneath her light jacket.
“Cold?” Asher asked.
If she was honest, there was something thrilling about a cold breeze on a date night. It pressed them together, two people seeking shelter against one another. It was a silly thought – one that hadn’t crossed her mind in years – and she chased it away with an internal headshake; she had no room for anything silly in her life anymore.
The sidewalk curled round the house and joined the drive where it forked; the right branch fed into the drive-under garage at the back of the house, and the other continued down the hill to the parking pad beside the barn. Security lights at the garage and down by the barn – around the arena and over the double front doors – anchored a property black with night and liquid with shifting shadows. It was eerie: long fingers of branches, bowing stalks of pompous grass, rattling of a loose chain somewhere.
Asher used his remote to unlock his 4-Runner and Jade stole one last moment to take visual inventory of the farm – what she could see of it – before she left. It was an old habit that she and Jeremy shared, this unending obsession with crossing Is and dotting Ts. Horses, she swore, made a person OCD. She checked that the garage doors were down and the water dish for the cats was full; she checked that the barn doors were open a crack and that the gate leading through the side paddock to the arena was closed; she looked –
Something was in her arena. A dog. A thin, lanky, fluffy-tailed thing snuffling along the ground. Not a dog – a coyote.
“Hey!” She shook her arm loose from Asher’s and took three long strides down the driveway, clapping her hands. “Get! Get outta here!”
Asher said, “What?”
The coyote lifted its head and went still; she could tell he was staring at her, even all this distance away. There was something else, she saw, something down at its feet: whatever it had been smelling.
She took another few steps, smacking her palms together. “Get lost!”
“Jade,” Asher said behind her, “what is – shit! Is that a wolf?”
Later, she would roll her eyes about him thinking there could possibly be a wolf in Georgia, but for the moment, she was riveted by the uneven shape in the middle of the arena. The coyote went flitting away, more light-footed than any dog, squeezing between the fence boards and disappearing in the woods. But his prey hadn’t stirred. It was too large to be a possum or rabbit, and not the right shape for a deer. His dinner? she wondered. Had he been eating…?
“Jade!” Asher called, and his voice sounded far away because she had, to her surprise, gone halfway down the drive and was closing in on the barn at a fast clip. Her pumps rapped against the asphalt, the sound echoing against the trunks of the old oaks that shaded the drive and played havoc on her depth perception as their shadows weaved together. Asher’s flat-soled loafers started down behind her.
For reasons she didn’t understand, curiosity had become too big to ignore inside her mind, and she had to know what poor thing lay under the lights on the arena sand. If it was a grisly coyote kill, she’d need to warn Jeremy; she didn’t want Clara seeing it when they went down for night check. If it was still alive – whatever it was – she’d need to put it out of its misery.
Her heels went through the turf like aerating spikes when she left the drive, so she walked on her tiptoes; felt the grass slap at her ankles. There was a pedestrian gate that accessed the paddock behind the barn and it squealed as she pushed it open. There was a path – a worn track in the grass where she and Jeremy and their students had passed hundreds of times.
Asher caught up to her. “Jade, what’s going on? What if that animal’s still down here?” He sounded more than a little frightened by the prospect. “You’re gonna ruin your shoes.”
The arena – 100x200 and filled with natural white sand – gleamed pale and eerie in the lamplight. Her eyes went straight to the center, to what she’d thought must be the coyote’s meal, and her brain registered the image before logic would allow her to believe it.
She’d seen this before – the outstretched arms, the sunken hollows of prepubescent hips and chest, the gangly legs curled – so many times in arenas: a child thrown from a horse, gathering their breath before they sat up, bawling over their most recent spill.
Only there was no horse.
There was an empty stretch of sand, a figure too still to be real, and all she heard was the thunderous leap of her own pulse cutting through the static whisper of the wind.
“Is that – ” Asher started.
Jade wet her lips and fought the panicky bile rising in her throat. “Call 9-1-1.”
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. 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, 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 a surge of annoyance 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 a puncture wound, but we won’t know anything till we talk to the medical examiner.”
“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 an open gate, and 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 manicured 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.
“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. 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 something – when they saw the body and went down to see what it was. McMahon was the one who called 9-1-1.”
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. He 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 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.”
“Nothing of interest,” the lead CSI, a guy with a generic name Ben could never remember – James, John, Jason, something – said as they passed one another in the arena. He was in department coveralls, paper mask dangling around his neck, in the process of snapping on a fresh pair of latex gloves. “This is obviously just the dump site, not the primary scene. We’re collecting trace, but this isn’t exactly the environment for prints.”
“Do what you can,” Ben said and moved past him where Harding was still crouched beside the body. Trey had the back of one hand pressed to his mouth, not looking much better than Jade’s date had.
“Your partner,” Harding said as Ben’s shadow fell across him, “doesn’t have the strongest stomach.” Not an insult, just an observation. “Watch my light.” Ben stepped out of it. “I guess you want caught up?”
“Heidi Latham, age eleven,” Harding began, shining his flashlight beam on the vic’s face.
She was a tiny thing. She lay on her back, arms flung to the sides, legs together and curled, hair fanning, dark and curly, around her head, looking black against the sand. If he squinted, it might have looked like she was in some dance pose, coiled and ready to leap back into the next movement. But he wasn’t squinting, and the blue flush under her white skin, the slits of her half-open eyes, the utter stillness of her, was obvious in the way of all victims. He’d talked to witnesses who’d mistaken bodies as only sleeping, but Ben didn’t see how that was possible. Death wasn’t peaceful; it was wretched, and shocking, and too bold to mistake for anything else.
Heidi Latham was no exception; the portrait of her against the sand was all the more hideous because she looked like she could have fit in the palm of his hand. Small for her age, she looked too thin: knobs of elbows and knees showing through her clothes, concave dip of her stomach, prominent ridges of her collar bones at the neck of her t-shirt. Her features were still round with childhood, but more delicate than her mother’s. No makeup. Natural eyebrows. Her t-shirt was navy and silk-screened with cartoon flowers; it and her jeans and dirty white sneakers seemed like typical rowdy kid gear, and none of it looked disturbed.
“The uniforms directed me to trace amounts of vomit when I arrived,” Harding said, aiming the flashlight beam on her small, blue mouth. “There are traces. But they were wrong in supposing poison. I won’t know any of that until I get her on the table, but I can hypothesize that isn’t the cause of death. And then, there’s this.”
He took the back of her head in one gloved hand – her hair rustled against the latex and Trey made a sick sound – and pointed the light to her throat. There was no blood, not so much as a trace of it on her slim white neck or in her hair or on her clothes. But there was a neat little hole in the side of her throat.
Ben felt his brows go leaping up his forehead. “Stabbed?”
Harding nodded. “Right through the carotid. And there’s no blood, which confirms what Jason said. She would have bled profusely.”
“She wasn’t killed here,” Ben said. “And the killer cleaned her and redressed her.”
“That’s sick,” Trey said. His voice was shaky. “That is sick shit.”
“Obviously, I won’t know anything else until post,” Harding said.
Trey turned away, hand still pressed to his mouth.
“But this” - Harding tapped the wound with a latex-covered finger - “is the cause of death. I’d bank on it.”
Ben nodded. “Thanks, Doc.” He took one last look at Heidi – her small hands open, palms facing the night sky, nails short and chewed – then laid a hand on Trey’s shoulder and steered him away, back toward the arena gate.
“I’m sorry, man.” Trey swallowed what was either a cough or a gag. “I didn’t mean – ”
“It’s fine.” Trey had doggedly watched Dr. Harding fish out a three-hundred pound four-day-old corpse’s stomach contents without flinching; but the guy had a kid sister. Clearly, dead kids were going to be his hang-up. “But get your shit together before we get up to the house,” Ben said. “The second you let a victim’s family see that you’re rattled is the second they start thinking about suing the department if you don’t get a solve.”
Ben knocked twice on the back door, the one off the kitchen, on the patio ringed by tidy flower beds and one gnarled crabapple. The lights were blazing; he could see them filtering through the translucent drapes.
Carver answered the door, and his mouth curled in a show of dramatic disgust. The queen: there was a murder investigation underway and he still had time for grudges. Ben was half convinced the guy would squeal like a girl if he hit him, and wanted to do it just to see. But one of the two of them had to be professional.
To prove his point, he pulled his badge and flashed it at Jeremy’s face. “Can we come in?”
Brows slanted and nostrils flared to show how much he didn’t like the thought, Jeremy stepped back and left the door wide; he went to the table to take up sentry behind Jade’s chair, leaving them to close the door for themselves.
The moment the latch clicked into place, Ben was slammed with something very much like panic. The kitchen came rushing up to meet him – the dark stain of the cabinets, sleek white countertops, the heavy clean lines of the white table and its stainless chairs, the light on over the cooktop, the crayon art on the fridge, the row of neon-colored mugs hanging beside the sink, the faint smell of sawdust they’d tracked in on their boots – like the time he’d leaned head-first into an electric fence and done a nosedive in the grass. Everything blurred and tilted…and snapped back; he’d come into this place before as Ben, but tonight, he was Detective Haley, and the collision of his personal and professional lives had him reeling. He blinked, and the haze cleared and the kitchen, in all its familiar coziness, came back in to focus; only now, he felt like an outsider. The looks he was getting weren’t helping.
On the far side of the table, facing him, Jade sat beside her mother, Shannon, one a twenty-years-older mirror image of the other. Their heads came up in unison, blue eyes sweeping over him with expressionless scrutiny, before shifting to Trey. Alicia Latham was in front of them, shoulders hunched, sniffling, both fists clenched tight around a soggy tissue. A steaming mug of something sat in front of all three women. Holding up one side of the fridge, McMahon had some of his color back; there was something of a depressed bulldog about his face.
Ben cleared his throat and decided there was no sense in pleasantries. There was also no sense tipping his hand to his partner that he knew three of the room’s occupants more than he should have. “I’m Detective Haley and this is Detective Kaiden,” he said, and saw Jeremy roll his eyes. “We need to take statements from all of you, individually if there’s a place for it.” He thought of the den, its paneling and super-deep sofa and the lingering scent of spilled brandy.
“None of us have anything to hide,” Shannon said, sliding her arm through her daughter’s, the mother bear protecting her cub. “We can answer your questions all together.”
Ben matched the stare she pinned on him. “Sorry, ma’am, but it doesn’t work that way.”
“Can’t you see how upset – ” Jade began, but Alicia Latham cut her off.
“It’s okay, honey,” she said, voice a clogged whisper. Over her shoulder, Ben saw her reach a hand across the table to Jade. Jade’s eyes went to the fistful of damp tissues before she patted the woman on the back of the wrist. “They’re just doing their job,” Alicia said. “And I need them to find whoever did this to my Heidi.”
Jade nodded and Alicia turned in her chair, her face swollen and wet and blotchy, but brave, in a way. She sniffed hard. “I-I’m ready.”
Ben looked to Jeremy, who frowned. “Dining room,” he offered, and pointed over his shoulder.
As discussed, Trey stepped up; his gentle bedside manner would be the better approach for a grief-stricken mother. “Mrs. Latham,” he said in a voice Ben couldn’t even hope to fake, “why don’t you go ahead and get settled and I’ll be in in just a sec.”
Shaking, she got to her feet, crammed her tissues in the pockets of her denim jacket, and shuffled toward the dining room like a drunk woman, all eyes following her progress. She was in sweatpants, Ben noted, that were tight in a bad way, and a man’s t-shirt under the faded denim jacket. She’d been at home, relaxing; she hadn’t expected this. Her hair looked damp, the fake red color brighter where it had air dried.
A sound caught his attention – a light brush of movement – and he glanced toward McMahon and the fridge, toward the back hall. Shit, he thought, the same moment relief flooded him. He hadn’t thought seeing Heidi Latham’s body had bothered him, but seeing Clara’s tousled little dark head peeping around the corner knocked the wind out of him. She was in a white nightgown that skimmed the floor, lace-edged and loose over her tiny bare toes. She was a miniature of Jade, soft and small and cherubic; four and already looking like her mama. But the eyes, the color of melted chocolate, those were her father’s. Those were his.
She clutched her stuffed rabbit tight under one arm and rubbed at her eyes; she’d been asleep. Her grandmother had probably been called to watch her. She glanced around the room at all the somber faces, and then she found his. In front of Trey, and Jade’s date, and the victim’s mother, she said, “Daddy,” and rushed him.