“How do you know her?” Vanessa spoke this time.
“We went out on a few dates. Nothing serious, but…Fuck!” He shook his head and looked at the coroner. “Got any extra gloves?”
She nodded and handed him a pair of latex gloves.
Crouching down, he lightly gripped the victim’s left shoulder and rolled her body on its side. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered.
“Same as all the others.” Hailey made a soft tsking sound.
“Do we have any idea yet what these burn marks are from?” he asked, indicating the double pronged markings down her backside.
Both women shook their heads, but Hailey answered. “I’ve researched the markings everywhere I can think of, but they don’t match any Tasers or stun-guns available on the market. Whatever this guy is using, it’s still a mystery. And boss, I won’t know for sure until I complete the autopsy, but it looks like he kept her alive longer than the others. See those marks along her neck? He might have been choking her until she passed out, then resuscitating her.”
“He’s getting cocky,” Detective Isaacs muttered.
Braden pushed up and forced himself to look away. “Finish up what you’re doing, Hailey.”
She nodded, then glanced back and forth between him and Detective Isaacs. “Can I talk to you for a sec in private?”
Vanessa raised her eyebrows but wordlessly strode across the patio.
When Hailey didn’t say anything, he gritted his teeth. “Damn it, Hailey. Just spit it out.”
“I’m sure you already know, but Lilly Carmichael should be arriving in town tonight.”
Lilly Carmichael. He hadn’t said that name aloud in years. Even thinking it caused his heart rate to increase. Of course he knew she was coming to town. Her aunt had raised her since she was five. Lilly wouldn’t miss the funeral. “Why are you telling me?”
She shrugged. “After tonight, it’s obvious this is personal. This guy is targeting women in your life. Your fifth grade teacher, your Sunday school teacher, your fencing coach for crying out loud. I know we weren’t completely sure before but after this…I don’t know. Maybe you should stop by her place and at least warn her about what’s going on.”
He’d already planned to, but he didn’t tell Hailey that. “I’ll take your advice under consideration.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t take that condescending tone with me, Sheriff.” Turning her back to him, she quietly resumed her assessment of their newest victim.
If their guy stuck to his pattern, there wouldn’t be any DNA to retrieve. No prints, no semen and only minimal fibers. Braden headed to where Detective Isaacs was talking to the only other officer present.
“Have you questioned the gardener?”
Vanessa shook her head. “No, but Jordan did.”
“All right. Scan the rest of the perimeter and I’ll work up all the information I’ve got on the victim. Have you talked to Perry?” Perry Bolinger was the only other detective they had on the Hudson Bay police force.
“No. He’s following up on the fire at Morgan’s Bakery.”
“I’ll call him and tell him to get down here. Call me on your way back to the station.”
She raked a shaky hand through her red hair and nodded before glancing back toward the grisly scene.
Braden gritted his teeth as he headed back to the car. He’d gotten out of the Marines because he was tired of dealing with death on a daily basis. He knew he was lucky having the team he did, but he hated that this was happening in his town and that his people were dealing with this shit.
As soon as he finished the paperwork and notified Charlotte P.D., he was heading over to Lilly’s. She might not be happy to see him, but that was too damn bad.
If this killer was going after people that Braden cared about, Lilly would be an obvious target for anyone who knew him. No matter what had passed between them, he wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
Lilly grabbed for her purse as the taxi driver slammed on the brakes. Holding her belongings in her lap, she pointed over the seat when the driver didn’t flip on his turn signal. “Left here.”
As soon as the driver pulled into the driveway of her aunt’s beach cottage, he jumped out before she’d even unstrapped her seatbelt. Placing a shaky hand on her abdomen, she tried to calm her nerves as she stepped onto the paved surface. The fresh salty air and the not so distant sound of crashing waves immediately enveloped her.
With her purse hooked over her shoulder, she fished her keys out and followed the man rolling her bags up the front walk.
After she paid him, he tore out of the driveway before she’d rolled her bags inside. Before she’d even flipped on the light in the foyer, she realized the gun she kept in her purse was clutched tightly in her hand. Immediately she tucked it back in her bag and cursed herself. For the past year she’d been using her gun as a crutch and it was time to get over it. If her training had taught her one thing, it was never to depend on a weapon.
She had to get over the feeling that the boogeyman was around every corner. As she shut the front door behind her, unexpected tears stung her eyes when she spied the stack of unopened mail. She still couldn’t believe her Aunt Debra was gone.
Lilly’s gaze flew to the stairs at the thought. Her aunt had lived in this house almost forty years. It seemed impossible that she’d fallen down the stairs and died in her own home.
A shiver snaked down Lilly’s spine, but she brushed it away. Leaving her belongings in the foyer, she headed for the kitchen. Everything was the same in the bright room. White, vintage style cabinets with clear glass doors displayed the beach-themed plates her aunt had collected over the years.
What was she going to do with all this stuff? This house? Selling it seemed wrong, but she wasn’t sure that she wanted to keep it. Maybe she’d use it as a vacation house?
Shaking her head, she grabbed a plastic tumbler from the cupboard and filled it with water from the refrigerator. She needed a hot bath and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Then she’d be able to think about the future. She flipped off the light and was halfway through the door when a scratching sound stopped her.
She paused in the archway, afraid to turn around. Her right leg ached as vivid memories assaulted her. There is no one here. I have nothing to be scared of. She repeated the words over in her head like a mantra.
Turning around, she scanned the quiet kitchen and let out a sigh of relief until her gaze fell on the small window by the sink. An invisible vise around her throat tightened, making it almost impossible to breathe.
A man wearing a black ski mask stood behind the window, staring at her. She blinked once, hoping he’d disappear but he was still there when she opened her eyes. In the moonlight she could make out his dark eyes and…his smile. He was smiling at her.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
A black haze blurred her vision. She tried to take a step back but her body refused to obey. Numbness slowly slid over her, wrapping icy hands around her ankles and legs.
Find a weapon.
Her brain screamed that she needed to protect herself, but she stood there like a mime. It was just like Africa all over again. The man’s grin grew wider, revealing a perfect row of white teeth. He reminded her of something. Someone. The man was familiar, but not. She closed her eyes again and took a deep breath.
A hand clamped on her shoulder, and a wild, animalistic scream tore from her throat. Adrenaline and training kicked in. She dropped the tumbler in her hand and whirled with her elbow already bent and ready to strike.
“Damn, Lil, it’s me. The door was unlocked.” The deep familiar voice stopped her midswing.
She tripped over her feet as she refrained from attacking him, but blast-from-the-past Braden Donnelly steadied her with two firm hands around her waist.
“Braden? What are you doing…” Her voice trailed off as she took in his attire. “You’re a cop?” She should be asking what he was doing there scaring the daylights out of her. Instead she stared dumbly at him, not quite believing what she was seeing. The feel of that strong grip on her was way too familiar. For an instant she wanted to lean into him. Use his strength and wrap her own arms around him.
He ignored her question as his eyes searched her face. “Are you okay?”
His question made her step back. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Good lord, how many times had she said those words over the past year? She turned back to the window but the masked man was gone. If he had ever been there at all. She pressed a hand to her chest. “Did you see anything by the window?”
“No.” He frowned at her, then flipped the lights back on.
Lilly started to tell Braden what she’d seen but kept her mouth shut. Her counselor had told her that getting over PTSD wouldn’t happen overnight. If ever. It might be something she had to live with her entire life. Constantly worrying about flashbacks. She’d been dealing with it over the past year. The scene at the window was different than anything she’d experienced so far, but waking nightmares were part of the symptoms she’d been warned about so it wasn’t a total surprise. Actually having one, however, was more terrifying than she’d imagined. What did she expect? She was in her dead aunt’s house. It was only natural that she’d be jittery.
“That was some scream.” Braden’s familiar, espresso-colored eyes filled with worry as he continued to stare at her.
Any response she came up with seemed inappropriate—or worse, crazy—so she shrugged and cleared her throat. She hadn’t seen the man in a decade and she didn’t want him to think she should be locked in the loony bin. “Uh, would you like something to drink? I was about to put on some tea.” It was a lie, but she needed to keep her hands busy. If she was really honest, she didn’t want to be alone right now. Braden wouldn’t have been her first or even second choice as company but she’d take what she could get.
“If you’re sure it’s no trouble.” When she nodded, he motioned toward the trail of water on the tile. “I’ll clean this up.”
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