“Do you plan to stay in town long?” Vanessa continued.


“I haven’t decided.”


“How long have you worked with the NSA?”


Was Vanessa interrogating her? Lilly gritted her teeth. “About six years.”


“Is that why Braden’s letting you watch all this?”


Lilly set her coffee on the table and leaned against the window so she could face the detective. “Are you worried about my credentials? I have a Master’s in criminology and I’ve teamed with the FBI, DEA and CIA on various cases across the globe.”


“Uh, I actually knew all that. Braden told us when you got involved with the case. Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be rude…My cousin has a thing for Braden and I was just wondering if you were planning to stay in town long.”


Lilly inwardly cursed herself. Since when did making normal conversation become such a hard thing for her? “I didn’t mean to get defensive. I actually don’t know how long I’ll be here, but…you can tell your cousin he’s taken.” The second the words were out of her mouth, she wanted to take them back, but it was too late.


Surprise flickered across her face, but Vanessa nodded. “I’ll make sure she knows.”


Gossip in this town spread like man-eating locusts, but hearing that someone else was interested in Braden made Lilly’s claws come out. She’d never been a jealous person, but she’d also never felt about anyone the way she did about Braden.


A sharp rap on the door had both her and Vanessa turning to the source of the noise. One of the officers—she couldn’t remember his name—poked his head in. “Hailey’s on the phone. Says it’s important,” he said to Vanessa.


“You want me to take the call since you’re monitoring them?” Lilly wasn’t on the taskforce but Braden was bending a few rules for her so she hoped the detective would do the same.


“Yeah, go ahead.” There was hesitation in Vanessa’s voice.


Lilly followed the officer down the hall, thankful for a reprieve from the suffocating room.


“You can take the call in Sheriff Donnelly’s office. Just press line two.” The young man held open the door for her, then disappeared down the hall.


She picked up the receiver as she sat. “This is Lilly.”


“Hey, Lilly. What’s going on over there? I’ve been trying to reach Braden on his cell.” Hailey’s voice was tight.


“He’s talking to a possible witness, but I’ll get a message to him.”


“What I’ve got to say might not be easy to hear, Lilly.”


“Is this about my aunt?”


“Yeah.”


Lilly raked a tired hand through her hair. “Whatever it is, I’m going to find out anyway. I’d rather hear it now.”


“I got the forensic results on the bat. There are small traces of Debra’s blood on it and the wood particles we found on her body are an exact match to the bat.”


“Any prints?”


“Just Abby’s.”


Lilly doubted Abby was involved, but maybe they could get her to turn on her husband. The woman already thought he was cheating. To some women, that was the only unforgivable sin. Hell, her husband beat her and she didn’t do anything about it.


“Thanks, Hailey. I’ll let everyone know.”


As soon as they disconnected, she headed back down the hall and found Vanessa shutting everything down. “They’re done?”


“Looks like it.” The detective nodded toward the window where Braden was leading the woman out of the room.


She quickly relayed what the medical examiner had told her.


“You need to wait in the sheriff’s office.” Vanessa checked her weapon.


“What are you going to do?” Lilly asked.


“Talk to Braden, and I’m sure he’s going to put out a warrant for Abby Murphy’s arrest.”


“You think she did it?” Lilly couldn’t mask her surprise


“No, but I think she knows where her husband is. The thought of going to jail might loosen her lips.”


Hopefully she was right. Lilly slipped into Braden’s office and shut the door behind her. Just as she settled onto the small couch, the door swung open.


“You okay?” Braden picked up his jacket and keys.


“Yeah.”


“Vanessa and I are headed over to the Murphys’ house. Hopefully we’ll catch Abby there. There are two officers here in case you need anything.”


“Don’t worry. I’m fine.”


He hovered by the door. “I don’t like leaving you.”


“I’m in a sheriff’s office surrounded by other officers. No one is going to try anything here. Seriously, I’ll be fine. Lock the door on your way out if it’ll make you feel better.”


Worry lines etched across his forehead, but at least he nodded. “I’ll be back soon.”


After he left, she leaned back against one of the cushions. Sandbags weighed on her eyelids. All the church ladies might be bringing food tomorrow, but she still needed to clean and straighten her aunt’s house before the hordes of people showed up. Dozens of thoughts raced through her mind as a wave of tiredness swept over her.


She tried to sit up, but her body refused to listen. The nightmares were the worst at night. A small catnap shouldn’t hurt. Closing her eyes, she let sleep engulf her.


Weapon drawn, Braden knocked twice on the Murphys’ front door. “Abby? It’s Sheriff Donnelly. Open the door.”


Silence.


He glanced at his two detectives. Perry had been busy checking with the various motel owners, trying to find a lead on Greg Murphy’s whereabouts when Braden had called him.


“Go around back,” he whispered to Perry.


The detective nodded, and disappeared around the corner of the house.


Braden knocked again, this time with more force. “Abby, open the door,” he shouted. Her car was in the driveway so they knew she was home.


When she still didn’t respond, he jiggled the handle. The door swung open with an eerie creak. “Stay close,” he ordered Vanessa.


It had been a while since he’d swept a building, but all his military training kicked in like he’d never left. Crouching, he entered the foyer, listening for any signs of life. The house was deadly silent.


When he spotted drops of blood, he motioned toward the splattering. The trail led toward the living room. The same room he’d been in not twenty-four hours ago. The place was still a wreck with glass and papers strewn everywhere. Today however, the couch was flipped on its side and covered with blood.


Careful not to step on any glass, he maneuvered around until he stood on the other side of the couch.


“Oh my God,” Vanessa muttered behind him.


Abby Murphy lay spread eagle and naked on her back. Her normally silky blond hair was caked in dried crimson clumps against her face and the carpet. The rest of her delicate body was covered in cuts and bruises. But no carvings. He wasn’t sure what to make of that.


“Stay here.” He headed out of the room without waiting for a response. First he let Perry in the back door, then together they swept and secured the rest of the downstairs rooms and the second story.


Vanessa was waiting by the entryway of the living room when they descended the stairs.


“You okay?” Braden asked.


Her face was pale but she nodded. “Yeah. I already called it in. I couldn’t stand there looking at her. She was a little crazy, but no one deserves to go out like that.”


“If you need to wait outside you can.”


She shook her head. “I’m fine.”


Braden looked back and forth between Vanessa and Perry. “We’re officially releasing Greg Murphy’s picture to the media.”


“In what capacity?” Vanessa asked.


“That he’s dangerous and wanted for multiple murders. We won’t release details, but the public needs to know about him.”


“I’ll call Jordan and have him get something together. When we get back, I’ll go over it and send everything out to the local news and radio stations,” Perry said.


“Sounds good.” Braden’s gaze strayed toward the grisly scene and he was thankful the fallen couch blocked most of his view.


This scene was more disturbing than the others, probably because of the violent nature of the rest of the room. The body obviously hadn’t been moved like the others. He scrubbed a hand over his short hair and let out a long sigh. When would this nightmare be over?


The rotting stench of flesh assaulted her as she choked and writhed on the dirty cement floor. She tried to move, but it was futile. Frayed rope cut into her wrists as she struggled. Her captors hadn’t returned, but it was only a matter of time.


She glanced at the floor, trying to look anywhere but at her dead friend. Through swollen eyelids, she stared at the charred remains. They didn’t even look human. Her stomach roiled and she dry heaved. The retching movements jolted her entire body, sending splinters of pain shooting through her broken ribs and legs. Unwanted tears rolled down her dirty cheeks.


Distant screams sounded somewhere nearby. They’d moved on to another cell. Equal doses of relief and guilt flooded her that she wasn’t the one being tortured.


Her door started to slowly open. She tried to move, but her bindings kept her in place. Not that it mattered. She couldn’t run if she wanted to.


Her body and mind desperately screamed for help. Instinct told her to curl into a ball but it was impossible. Her limbs wouldn’t obey. They couldn’t obey.


Footsteps pounded closer and closer until scuffed black boots were right in front of her face.


The man said something she couldn’t understand, but she understood his tone and she knew what he wanted. Twisting her head a few inches, she looked up at him.


Still hiding behind his mask, he grinned at her. This time there was no wooden plank in his hand. This time, he held a knife.


“Ready to play?” His broken English sent a wave of cold rushing over her body.

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