Holden Whitlow could have done without that grim utterance from his sergeant re-entering his life. He exhaled, wishing the hot, summer sun would dissolve some of the unease weighing him down. But the scorching rays cutting through the windshield only left him hot and sticky, prompting his sunglasses to slide down his nose and his shirt to plaster against his back. The discomfort, however, didn't best the miserable prospect of walking onto a crime scene and confronting the fourth murder victim of his short career.
Two years ago, a stalker turned murderer and took three local women as victims. The cases remained unsolved. Holden had been sopping wet behind the ears at the time, but his inexperience landed him a top-notch partner in Greg Martin, the lead detective who since retired. Although the whole Barrier Shoals PD had, at some point, worked the stalker case—Martin even checking in from his living room—guilt led Holden to carry the weight of the unsolved murders solo. It dug deep under his skin, and whether or not his cold case had just been set ablaze, the heat was on.
He wasn't a math guy, but oh-for-four rang in his ears like nails on a chalkboard.
This murderer wouldn't get away.
Spying the convenience store marking the crime scene, Holden steered his Crown Vic into the lot and parked on the far edge, intending to close the last sixty feet on foot. There was no reason to hurry or risk driving over evidence. The girl was dead.
Holden's partner had beat him there, a faux pas the older detective would never let Holden live down. Detective John "Bear" Barrett surveyed the surroundings, fingers splayed on his hips, one hand in the vicinity of his badge and the other in close quarters with a Glock.
"You're late," he said, not bothering to look up as Holden neared.
Holden snorted. "I thought you were on vacation."
"Was. I came back for the show."
"I'm sure our vic appreciates your dedication to the cause," Holden said, not feeling the edge of his own humor. He cast a cursory glance around the defunct Quik-Stop. Dented gas pumps stretched in a forlorn line, islands in a sea of broken glass. Thin lines of grass snaked over the lot, marking cracks in the pavement. Holden smelled the stench of abandonment, felt the pulse of death. "Where's the body?"
Holden consulted his phone for the time. A quarter hour had passed since the call. A couple of techs had their noses to the pavement, plucking at the scattered, nearly microscopic debris of the abandoned lot with tweezers, but the coroner, David Frankel, was nowhere in sight. Short of disavowing protocol and shoving the body in his trunk, there was no way he could clear a scene in fifteen minutes. "The morgue? Already?"
Bear knelt, balancing on the balls of his feet, and cocked his head, studying the ground. Shifting his sunglasses away from his eyes, he raised an arm and motioned over a young woman from forensics.
"Make sure you catch this trail," he said, pointing first to his feet, then in a line toward the building. Without waiting for her response, he righted himself and returned the shades to his nose. "I said hospital, Whitlow. Not morgue. Considering the victim is still breathing—but barely—I don't think she'd take kindly to a tour of the basement."
Bear paced the twenty feet to the painted brick corner of the store. A metal door on the side hung slightly ajar, the word "JON" displayed with crooked, stuck-on letters. He nudged open the door wider with his foot. Seconds later, his head jerked to the side as if the stench had reached out and slapped him.
Laughing, Holden edged closer. "I could have told you not to breathe, Detective."
He pulled a penlight from his pocket and directed it inside the stall, pressing his mouth in a thin line to suppress his gag reflex. Questionable patches in various shades of brown smeared the floors, and the toilet held what appeared to be a solid mass of waste he didn't care to investigate. His quick sweep of the room came to an abrupt end at the sink, where dark crimson marred the already stained porcelain.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Holden asked, glancing to Bear, who had joined him in the doorway.
"Looks like blood to me." Bear shook his head. "I'd sure hate to be the guy sopping up DNA out of that shit hole."
Holden scratched the back of his neck, surveying the handful of officers and forensic techs scattered over the scene. "I can't imagine why anyone would want to go in there, criminal or otherwise."
That particular restroom had never been golden. When he was at the tender, scheming age of fourteen, he and his buddy, Bridger Jansen, used to buy cigarettes from an elderly—and half blind—cashier and hide in the bathroom to smoke. Fully functioning, it hadn't smelled much better than it did now.
Bear covered his nose and mouth with his forearm.
"Well, someone wanted in, and recently," he said, his voice muffled. "See a rookie due for a hazing?"
With a rueful glance through the open doorway, Holden shook his head. "That's why I don't work forensics."
"Yeah," Bear said, walking away from the building. "Someone else does the grunt work, and we get the glory. Cushy job, huh?"
Glory. Not much of that in three unsolved murders. Holden joined Bear by the curb where he stood—his foot propped on the concrete—and shook off a squirrely sense of déjà vu. No. This one was different. "She's alive, you say?"
"Catch up, Whitlow. Unconscious when they found her, but breathing. Who told you she was dead?"
Holden mentally wheeled back through the phone call from his sergeant. He hadn't specifically said the woman was dead, but the implication had been there. Another one.
"The victim, where was she?" Only a few rushed footprints disturbed the grime and . . . stuff on the bathroom floor. The victim couldn't have been there in a state of failing consciousness, which begged three questions: Where had the blood come from? Whose blood was in the bathroom . . . and how did it get there?
Pointing to a cluster of uniforms, Bear said, "Victim was balled up over there on the pavement. Kid in the jeans called it in. Said he thought he saw her breathing but was afraid to get too close. Didn't want the breeze blowing his DNA on her or something."
Holden followed Bear's gesture, pegging the kid at the other end of it for about fifteen. He was tall and scrawny, with the height of a man but none of the bulk. Head down and sans his shoes, he toed the end of a skateboard, causing it to clack against the pavement. Long, blond bangs obscured his face. "Did he see anything?"
"A lump out of the corner of his eye. He was cruising down the sidewalk when he noticed her. He came over to investigate. When he realized the object was human, he freaked and dialed 9-1-1 from his cell phone. Or that's his story, anyway."
Holden's jaw clenched. He didn't like getting his information secondhand. Bear had a good eight years of police experience over him, though, and his work was meticulous. Whatever information he had would be good. "You don't believe him?"
"It's the scene of the crime, Whitlow. I don't believe anyone yet."
Holden set his jaw. "Do you have a reason—?"
Bear grinned, and then leaned closer. "Between you and me, he's about to piss himself. Did I mention the kid was bleeding? Nice little gash on his hand. I bet my badge that blood in the bathroom is his."
"Yeah," Holden grumbled. "Empty wager. You just like toying with me."
"I'm a high stakes man." Bear grinned and cocked his head toward the restroom. "What do you want to believe he stepped in something?"
That would certainly explain why the boy was standing there in his socks. Nothing to ruin an afternoon like having your shoes hijacked as evidence. Holden tried to imagine how that excuse would have flown with his own mother, fast deciding it wouldn't. He hoped the kid was as innocent as he looked. Holden turned to Bear. "Hey, how did you get here so fast? You're making me look bad."
"Eh. My wife dragged me to the gallery around the corner for some watercolor exhibit. I drew the line at an hour-long session on interpretation, so she cut me loose to grab some coffee. I was right across the street when the call came." He held up a paper cup in mock salute.
Holden hadn't even noticed Bear's car was absent. Some detective. "I don't guess you saw anything?"
"Nope, not a thing. Everything was quiet until the sirens started blaring. I got here about the time the ambulance did. Cramer was the first uniform on the scene, but not by much. I watched him pull in. It's pretty quiet around here—especially for a Saturday afternoon."
That it was, especially for tourist season. A quaint resort town alongside the Atlantic Ocean, Barrier Shoals usually hosted tourists from May through September, and this morning shouldn't have been an exception. But other than a small crowd drawn by the police presence, the lonely corner now felt . . . dead.
Holden winced at the thought.
Bear crossed his arms and fixed his sunglass-covered stare on Holden. "You've still got your head in your ass over those murders a few years back."
"No . . . yeah." Holden blew a sharp breath and planted his hands on his head. "Hell, Barrett, I don't know. It's hard sitting on a case you never solved. The guilt doesn’t go away just because you close the file."
"Wouldn't know about that. My closure rate is pristine."
Holden rolled his eyes, dropping his hands to his hips. "If you're so smart, work the cold case. You find the guy."
"In due time, partner. We've got a hot one, so how about we stick to the living victims for now?" Bear's cell phone chirped. He consulted the screen, and then held up a finger signaling he needed a minute. Lifting the device to his ear, he said, "Barrett."
Turning to allow Bear a modicum of privacy, Holden rolled his shoulders and cocked his head, popping his neck. He was off his game, unable to shake the discord that arrived on the heels of the initial call. Another one. Clearly, Holden wasn't the only one haunted by the past. His sergeant's tone had carried the same wariness now lumped in Holden's chest. The question was, why?
What was it about this call that had set off eerie alarm bells in both their minds? The vic wasn't dead. Nothing about this scene seemed remotely connected to the others—and yet . . . Barrier Shoals was a small town. Most of the crime he handled was the minor break-ins and purse snatchings that seemed to plague the tourist season. A murder. An assault. These were rare. Rare enough to raise the sergeant's hackles. And after all the dead ends he'd been finding lately, Holden was on edge, as well.
Behind him, Bear cleared his throat. "You want to go talk to the vic? I can handle things here."
Holden turned, looking at Bear in surprise. "Me? It's not like you to give up a bedside encounter with a woman."
Bear dropped his cell phone in his pocket and shrugged, his self-proclaimed lady-killing grin in a lazy sprawl across his face. "You have a point there, but I'm not into sloppy seconds."
The dig worked. Holden froze. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You got me, Whitlow, but our vic is awake. Seems the lovely Julia Cohen is asking for you by name."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah and her husband of almost fifteen what he calls "long, long" years live on the mid-Atlantic coast with their six young children, all of whom are perfectly adorable when they're asleep. She often jokes that she writes to be around people who will listen to her, but her characters aren't much better than her kids. Fortunately, her husband is quite supportive, having generously offered to help her research "the good parts" . . . and she's never had to ask twice.