The front door opened and her grandfather entered, fully dressed and carrying a camera rigged with a telephoto lens.
“You were working so late, I didn’t expect you to be up this early.” He kissed her cheek. Worried eyes scanned her face. It was impossible to hide anything from the retired NYPD homicide detective.
“I need to get to the station.” Stella had reviewed her case notes until she’d fallen asleep over the files.
“If you’re not going to sleep, you need to eat. Let me make you some breakfast.” Setting down his camera, Grandpa ignited a burner and set a frying pan on the stove. On cue, nails pattered on the tile as her sister’s French bulldog trotted into the room and sat at Grandpa’s feet, his oversize head cocked in expectation.
“What were you doing outside with the camera at this hour?” Stella leaned a hip on the counter. “Obviously you weren’t walking the dog.”
Snoozer wasn’t an early riser, unless there was food.
Grandpa added butter to the pan and retrieved a carton of eggs from the fridge. “Someone has been letting their dog crap on our lawn during the night. I’m going to find out who it is.”
Stella covered her grin by sipping from her mug.
“What? I still know how to conduct an investigation.” He pointed to the camera. “People should take responsibility. I’m tired of cleaning the kids’ shoes.”
“It’s probably a loose dog.”
“Then people should keep their dogs on leashes.” Grandpa cracked eggs into the pan one-handed. “I will find out who it is.”
“I don’t doubt you for a second.” Stella knew her grandfather would hunt their errant pooper like a bloodhound.
“You’d think three-acre lots would give people enough room for their animals on their own property.” He slid four slices of bread into the toaster. “You were late last night and now up early this morning. Tough case?”
“Several. Do you remember Missy Green?”
“Didn’t you hang around with her in high school?” He took two plates from the cabinet and poured Stella a glass of orange juice.
“Yes. She turned up dead on Monday.”
Grandpa paused, the carton in one veiny hand. “I’m sorry to hear that. She was a good kid.”
“She was tortured and killed. Then her body was dumped.” How many people could share that kind of information with a grandparent?
“It must be hard to work on a case when you knew the victim.” Grandpa loaded the toast and eggs onto two plates and carried them to the table. Snoozer followed, his bulgy eyes sticking with the plates.
Only at the Dane house was homicide a topic of breakfast conversation.
“I was lucky.” He tucked his napkin into the front of his shirt. “I worked in a big city department. I rarely ran into a homicide that wasn’t a stranger. Maybe I’d have to investigate the death of an informant or someone I’d arrested previously, but never a friend. If your former relationship with Missy prevents you from doing your job, there’s no shame in stepping away from the case.”
“You’re right, of course.” Stella sampled her breakfast. Heavy on the butter as usual but tasty. “But I get this feeling that something is off with the case, and I don’t know if I have enough experience to trust my gut.”
“Are you investigating all possible leads?”
“I am. I’m waiting for forensics and a toxicology report. Until then, I’m digging into her life.”
Grandpa dug into his breakfast. “That’s all you can do. Keep picking away. Everyone has secrets.”
“I also caught a missing persons case yesterday that I have a very bad feeling about. I have no evidence that the cases are linked, but something tells me they are. Is that ridiculous?”
“Not at all.” Grandpa put his hand over hers. “You might not have a lot of experience yet, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore your gut. Good instincts are genetic. You come from a long line of crack detectives.” He grinned.
“I do.” Stella smiled. “Thanks.”
“Anytime.” He salted his eggs, stopping with a frown when she caught his eye. “My blood pressure is fine.”
“Because you take a pill.”
Sighing, he set the saltshaker aside. “Do you think you can borrow a nighttime surveillance camera from the department?”
Stella laughed. “No. I don’t think I could get that requisition signed.”
“Damn.” He buttered a piece of toast, tore off a corner, and flipped it to the dog. Snoozer watched the food hit the floor, then shuffled over to eat it. “I might have to get creative.”
Stella finished her eggs and transferred her coffee into a travel mug. “I have to go. Thanks for the breakfast and the advice.”
“I love you.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Be careful.”
Grandpa carried the empty dishes to the sink. The dog took his cue that no more food was available and trotted to his bed in the corner. He rested his head on his paws, and his eyelids drooped instantly.
“You, too.” She grabbed her briefcase. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Grandpa snorted. “I make no promises.”
Stella left the house bolstered by food and love. The roads were dark and empty on her way to the station. The sky was barely gray when she parked in front of the municipal building. With blue clapboard and red shutters, the structure was quaint-pretty on the outside, industrial-ugly on the inside. The police station occupied the entire first floor. Upstairs housed the various township tax and zoning offices.
In her cubicle, she draped her blazer over her chair, sat, and booted up the computer. She typed up her reports from the day before as the station bustled through shift change. Chief Horner was in his office by seven, and the administrative staff started at eight.
She’d barely finished her reports when Brody came in. All typical cop. Boring tie. Nondescript suit. Sharp brown eyes.
“I have something to tell you,” Stella said.
“It’ll have to wait. The chief wants to see us in his office,” he gestured to the door at the other end of the room.
Stella hurried to catch up. “I’ve been here for hours. He didn’t say anything to me.”
“He called me at home an hour ago.” Brody frowned as if the chief’s personal summons had been an unwelcome intrusion.
“How is Hannah?” Stella asked.
“It was a rough night. She didn’t sleep. Between losing her father and worrying about Mac . . .”
Obviously Brody hadn’t slept either.
“Please tell her . . .” She couldn’t articulate her empathy. “I lost my dad when I was fifteen. Tell her I’m sorry.”
“I will. Thanks.” Brody knocked on the chief’s door.
“Come in.” The command reverberated through the wood.
Brody opened the door and they went inside. Chief Dave Horner sat behind his tidy desk. As usual, his dark blue uniform was heavy on the starch. His hair was perfect.
Staring at Stella, the chief jabbed a finger on a closed file on his desk. “You were due at the range for pistol qualification yesterday.”
“Sorry. I’ve been tied up with cases, and it totally slipped my mind,” she lied.
“You’ve missed your appointment twice.” The chief studied her face. “You’re an excellent shot, so why are you putting it off?”
Wishing she was better at concealing her emotions, Stella schooled her face. A muscle in her cheek twitched. Could the chief see that? “No reason. I’m focused on the investigations we’re running. I hate to take the time out so some administrator can check a box.”
Had she fooled him?
Damn it. She couldn’t tell. Unlike her, Horner had a great poker face, which was helpful in the frequent press conferences he favored. Just thinking about the firing range sent her blood pressure spiking and a bead of sweat running into her bra. She’d like to blame it on this morning’s flashback, but she hadn’t been able to perform well at the range since the shooting.
“It’s part of the job. Get it done.” He opened the file.
“Yes, sir. I will.” Somehow.
The chief waved a printout in his hand. “Now, what happened last night after you left the Miller’s house? I have a report of a one-vehicle accident and a vanishing body in the road?”
Stella swallowed a curse. She’d wanted to tell Brody privately. She gave a rundown of her evening with Mac, including the news about Mac’s involvement with the DEA.
“Hannah’s brother was a huge help last November,” Brody added.
“I remember.” The chief tapped a finger on his blotter. “Seems far-fetched that Dena Miller was lying across a road in the middle of the night and then vanished. But then, the whole story is unusual. You’re positive she didn’t leave on her own?”
“Not a hundred percent,” Stella said. “But it doesn’t seem likely.”
The chief’s fingers drummed.
“Mac Barrett would like to assist in the investigation,” Stella said. “The incident bothers him.”
“Understandable.” The chief rubbed his perfectly smooth chin. “I’ll have to check with his superior officer.”
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