“You want to see the body first or talk to the coach?” Stella asked Brody.
The officer lowered his voice. “Mr. Taggert’s pretty shook up. The puddle of vomit next to the dugout is his. The EMTs wanted to take him to the hospital, but he declined.”
Brody cast the man a sympathetic glance. “Normally I’d like to see the body first, but this heat is brutal. Let’s get the poor man out of here.”
They skirted a puddle and crossed the asphalt.
“You take the lead on this one,” Brody said. “You’re ready, and with Hannah’s father barely hanging on, I’ll probably be taking some personal leave in the next week or so.” Brody checked his phone.
“I’m sorry to hear about Hannah’s dad.” Stella thoroughly approved of Brody’s girlfriend, Hannah Barrett, and the thought of her losing her father brought back a wave of sorrow. Fifteen years after her own dad’s death, sudden reminders could still make Stella’s grief feel impossibly raw.
Brody nodded. “Thanks. He’s been sick a long time, but his death will still be hard on her.”
“I’m sure it will.”
The death of Hannah’s father would surely bring her younger brother back to town. The last Stella had heard, Mac Barrett was in Brazil. Not that she was keeping track of him. OK. She was. But thoughts of Mac, his lean body, and the clear blue eyes that spoke more than he did had no business at a death scene. Why couldn’t she be distracted by a man who didn’t spend half his time in South America?
The first time they’d met, back in November, the Scarlet Falls PD had been in the middle of a desperate search for a killer—a killer Stella could have stopped if her aim had been truer in a shootout earlier that day. But he’d escaped and embarked on a terrible spree of violence. Brody and Hannah had nearly lost their lives, and two cops had died. Two families had opened their doors to uniformed chaplains on their doorsteps. Stella’s stomach cringed at the memory of her own mother opening their front door fifteen years before and collapsing the instant she’d seen the chief and chaplain standing on the stoop. Her mother had known her father was dead before either man had said a word.
Stella put the past away and focused on Mac.
Last fall, he’d been invaluable in tracking down the killer. He’d saved lives. So when others were quick to write him off as scattered, Stella knew better. There was more to Mac Barrett than a handsome face. Much more.
“Earth to Stella.” Brody’s voice pulled her back to the job at hand. “I was asking how you felt about taking the lead.”
“Good,” she said, faking confidence while nerves gathered in her belly. Their small police force had only two detectives to work everything from burglary to homicide. Since her promotion, she’d worked plenty of cases alongside Brody, but this would be the first time she’d be lead on a major crime. The responsibility weighed on her. All she’d wanted for her whole life was to be a good cop.
Brody stopped and caught her gaze. “You can handle this.”
“I know,” she said without hesitation. She was meant to be a detective. It was in her genes. Her father had been killed in the line of duty, her grandfather was a retired NYPD detective, and her siblings were all involved in law enforcement.
Mr. Taggert looked up as Stella and Brody stopped in front of him. The man was in his mid-fifties. His face was pasty, and the hands clenched between his knees trembled.
“I’m Detective Dane and this is Detective McNamara,” Stella said. “Are you sure you don’t need to go to the hospital?”
Mr. Taggert swallowed. His eyes flickered to the dugout and back. “I just want to go home.”
“We’ll get you out of here shortly.” Stella began, “Can you tell us what happened?”
“We’re supposed to have practice in a couple of hours. But after yesterday’s thunderstorms, I wanted to check the field and make sure it wasn’t too muddy. That’s when I smelled it. At first I thought an animal had gotten into the dugout and died. But when I looked inside . . .” His eyes closed, his lips flattened, and he breathed through his nose for a few seconds. “Well, I could tell right away that she was dead.”
“Do you recognize her?” Stella asked.
He shook his head.
“Did you touch the body?”
He closed his eyes and swallowed. “God. No.”
“Where are the rest of the kids?” she asked. The only nonemergency vehicle in view was Taggert’s minivan.
“I called everyone and canceled tonight’s practice right after I called nine-one-one.” He drank from the water bottle.
Stella scanned the empty fields. “Do you know when this field was used last?”
“Games usually run until nine or ten Saturday night. Yesterday was a washout.” Taggert screwed the cap back on.
But the facility wasn’t fenced. Anyone could have wandered in.
“Did you see any other people or vehicles in the area?” Stella asked.
Stella considered the wet ground. “We’ll need to borrow your shoes.”
Mr. Taggert followed her gaze and began unlacing his muddy cleats. “Sure. I have my work boots in the car.”
“Thanks for your help. We’ll call you if we have any further questions.” Stella led the way toward the ball field. Brody followed.
A tall chain-link fence ran behind home plate and angled off toward first and third bases. Bleachers fanned out on either side. They turned toward the yellow crime scene tape that fluttered around one of the dugouts. Mud sucked at their shoes as they walked across ten feet of sopping grass.
Stella studied the spongy ground between the parking area and the field. “Two sets of footprints. Forensics will have to match the treads, but let’s assume those are Taggert’s.” She pointed to a line of footprints that ended next to the vomit. The second set stopped a few feet earlier. “And those belong to the uniform.”
Brody studied the ground. “If the victim or anyone else walked back here after yesterday’s storms, we’d definitely see footprints.”
“So she’s been here since before the rain,” Stella said. “But probably not until late Saturday night, after the games were finished.”
The thick, humid air intensified the odor as they neared the entrance to the dugout. The almost sweet, metallic scent seeped past Stella’s sinuses and penetrated her taste buds. She clamped her mouth closed and breathed through her nose. Didn’t help much. Next to her, Brody exhaled as they faced the body.
In damp jeans and a long-sleeved blouse, a woman was sprawled on the aluminum bench. Long hair spilled across her face in a brown curtain, and a pale blue silk scarf was knotted loosely around her neck. Flies buzzed around her head. One hand trailed off into a mud puddle, and animals had found the corpse. Stella spotted a hypodermic needle in the mud under the bench and a brown leather purse on the bench.
She turned in a circle. “The back of the dugout shielded her from view of the street or parking lot.”
Frank came around the dugout and stood next to Stella. He put on gloves as he scanned the scene. “What do we know?”
“Little League coach found her about an hour ago.” Stella gave him a summary while the forensic photographer snapped long-range, medium, and close-up shots from varying angles. When the photographs were complete, Frank moved closer. He lifted the victim’s hair. Bruises trailed down the left side of her face. “Insects have been busy, and it looks like someone used her as a punching bag.”
Stella’s legs weakened as she studied the women’s face.
It couldn’t be.
Brody touched her arm. “What’s wrong?”
Even with the bruising and insect activity, the woman looked familiar. Too familiar.
Stella’s stomach did a slow tumble. “I think I know her.”
Frank raised an eyebrow.
Hoping she was wrong, Stella moved toward the woman’s purse. With unsteady, gloved hands, she drew the zipper, pulled out a wallet, and opened it to view the woman’s driver’s license. Shock slid over her in a clammy wave. “Her name is Missy Green. We graduated high school together.”
“She was a friend?” Brody asked.
“Yes, but I haven’t seen her in a long time.” Stella noted her address was not the house where her parents had lived, but then, not many people still lived at home at thirty. Except Stella. “There’s thirty dollars cash in here, so she wasn’t robbed.”
“Is there a cell phone in her purse?” Brody asked.
Stella looked past the usual tissues, tampons, and lipstick and found a cheap cell. “Yes. Battery’s dead.”
“No obvious cause of death on initial inspection.” Frank lifted the woman’s arm. The limb moved with no resistance. “Rigor’s come and gone.” His gaze moved over the dugout. “The heat and moisture would have accelerated decomposition.” He frowned at the body. “She’s been dead at least thirty-six hours.” Frank tapped his assistant on the arm. “I doubt she’s been dead longer than three days, but I want live and dead maggots just in case.”
Stella breathed. The bugs always got to her.
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