A knock sounded on his door, and Reilly opened it. “Your next patient is here.”
“Thanks, Reilly.” Josh got to his feet.
“Thank you so much for your help with this case.” Stella stood and offered him her hand.
Josh held it too long for Mac’s liking, and the doctor’s eyes showed definite interest. Mac got up and stuck his hand out. Josh released Stella, but reluctance was clear on his face.
Stella and Mac returned to the car.
“What did you think of Randolph?” Climbing into the passenger seat, Mac shook his coffee cup. Empty.
“I appreciated his candor.” She turned the wheel. Gravel crunched under the tires as the car circled the parking area and nosed onto the long driveway.
“He appreciated you, that’s for sure,” Mac grumbled.
Stella lifted her brows in surprise. “Did that bother you?”
She grinned. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I was just trying to butter him up. He’s not my type.”
“Really?” Mac perked up.
“Really.” She glanced over at him. “Why?”
Mac caught her gaze and held it. “Maybe I want it to be my business.”
“Josh Randolph is intelligent and good-looking, but he’s too passive for me. I come from three generations of cops. Men I date tend to be less . . . beta.” She brought the car to a stop at the intersection with the main road. “Not that I’ve dated anyone recently.”
Blood warming, Mac reached over the computer mounted on the dashboard. He hooked a hand behind her neck and pulled her closer. Their lips met, but a quick taste of her wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. He tightened his grip, cupping the back of her head and tilting it for a better angle. Her mouth opened, and her tongue played with his. The soft moan in her throat made him want to drag her over the console and into his lap.
There was nothing passive about Stella. She met him quip for quip, heat for heat. When she lifted her hand and rested it on the center of his chest, right over his thudding heart, desire speared him to his core.
He wanted her.
Mac eased his mouth off hers. She licked her lips, and he wanted to do the same. The intensity of his desire for her sent a wave of uncertainty through him. His longing for Stella wasn’t just sex. He liked talking to her. He liked sitting in comfortable silence with her. Simply being in her presence soothed him.
He’d never imagined having what Grant had with Ellie. Mac had always assumed he’d be a lifelong bachelor. Being part of a couple required trust, a give-and-take he’d never considered possible.
Now he wondered.
But would it be fair to Stella? He was a work-in-progress who was supposed to be heading back to a job in Brazil.
Stella’s phone buzzed, breaking the connection between them. Clearing her throat, she answered the call, “Detective Dane.”
Her hand curled into a fist and thudded on the steering wheel. “Where? OK. I’m on my way. ETA fifteen minutes.”
She turned to Mac; anger, frustration, and tears shone in her eyes. “A dog walker just found Dena Miller in Bridge Park. She’s dead.”
Stella drove past the public library and over a rise. As her cruiser topped the hill, the park came into view. From the top of the hill, a stone bridge arched high over the rushing water. Recent heavy rains had left the river deep and the current swift. Nestled at the base of the bridge, a bronze monument depicted three Revolutionary War soldiers firing muskets. On the near side, three wooden benches faced the water. A dozen wild geese waddled across the grass. On the opposite bank, woods provided a deep green backdrop.
Except for the geese and a pair of ducks cooling off in the shallows, the park was empty and quiet on a hot summer day.
Flashing strobe lights on three patrol vehicles parked at the curb destroyed the tranquility.
Stella drove down the embankment and parked behind the patrol vehicles. Three uniforms and an elderly man waited in the shade of a lone oak tree. A yellow lab was stretched out at the man’s feet. A hot wind blew across the field as she and Mac got out of the car.
Fifty feet beyond the police cruisers, a woman appeared to be sitting on the center bench, her head tipped to one side as if she were dozing. The seat and back of the bench were solid wood. Below it, Stella could see two bare feet. The back of the woman’s bare shoulders and a curly head of dark hair were visible above.
From a distance, the woman could have been watching the birds, but Stella already knew she was dead.
Lance approached. His limp was barely noticeable, but he was clearly working to keep it to a minimum. “The old man and his dog found her.”
“Have you called the ME?” Stella’s eyes strayed to the bench. The detective in her was anxious to see the body, but her human side recoiled at the thought.
“Yes.” Lance nodded. “He’ll be here any minute, and I see the forensics teams pulling in now. Brody’s coming, too.”
“It’s that bad?”
He paled. “You’ll see.”
Apprehension coiled in Stella’s belly. Banishing it, she took a pair of gloves from her pocket. “Did you touch her?”
His face went greener. “No. I could see that she was dead from ten feet away. I didn’t want to compromise the scene.”
“Is that the man who found her?” Stella nodded toward the old man.
“Did he touch her?”
“He said no.” Lance squinted at Mac, who stood behind Stella. “Do I know you?”
Mac introduced himself. “We might have met last year.”
“Barrett. Your brother was murdered. I’m sorry.” Lance’s voice went tight.
Stella turned to Mac as she opened the trunk and exchanged her shoes for boots. “You might want to stay behind the tape. Any closer and you’ll be listed on the crime scene log.”
“Then I’ll wait here.” He leaned on the car, and crossed his arms over his chest. He might have to stay away from the body, but she had no doubt he’d notice everything about the scene.
Stella took a few minutes to verify the dog walker’s story before getting his contact information and releasing him. He didn’t look as shaken as the man who’d found Missy Green.
She spotted a long rut in the mud leading from the parking area toward the bench. Strange, flat footprints followed the line. The impressions had been marked off with orange cones and crime scene tape.
“What do you think left that?” she asked Lance. “It’s too wide for a regular bicycle tire. Some sort of off-road bike?”
He shook his head. “Wheelbarrow. He put her in a wheelbarrow and walked her down to the bench.”
She shielded her eyes from the sun and stared toward the bench. “Because of the way the hill lays out, you can’t see the park until you drive over the hill. This isn’t a through street. There’s no reason to drive over the hill unless you’re coming to the park. No one would see him unless they were coming here.” The park was a seemingly isolated spot right behind town.
“Even if he did it in the dark, it’s still a ballsy move,” Lance said.
“No bolder than abducting her from her house in broad daylight.”
“The footprints have no tread.”
“He covered them.” Stella stared at the tracks. “We’ll still get them cast. At least we can get his shoe size.”
A minivan emblazoned with the county medical examiner logo pulled into the lot. A few minutes later, a coverall-clad Frank walked to her side.
The ground was soft from recent rains. Water squished under Stella’s boots as she walked toward the bench. She tracked the long, single furrow that ran from the street, down the hill, to the bench.
Keeping clear of the rut, she and Frank walked toward the bench and circled around to get a full, frontal view of the body.
Frank whistled. “Fuck. Me.”
Dena Miller sat upright, her head lolling to one side. Nylon rope had been used to secure her shoulders to the bench. Her legs were crossed and tied together. Around her neck was a pale blue scarf. Below it, in the center of her nude belly, he’d carved the number 2.
Stella pictured Missy’s body on the autopsy table. “That single cut in Missy’s stomach was a number 1.”
Frank nodded. “Looks like.”
The sun beat down on the top of Stella’s head, but the pit of her belly went ice cold. Her gaze skimmed over the body, stopping on the hands folded in the victim’s lap. They were mangled. “Her fingers.”
Frank exhaled sharply. “All broken.”
That wasn’t the kind of injury that could happen by accident. Dena had been tortured.
A black satchel-type purse sat on the bench next to her. Just like Missy, bruises colored the left side of Dena’s face. More purple marks were visible on the pale, pale skin of her body. She sat upright, but the skin along her back was stained purple. Before being positioned on the bench, she’d laid on her back long enough for lividity to set in. “She didn’t die here.”
She’d been positioned after death, just like Missy.
Frank moved closer. He pointed to her wrists. Under the nylon rope, bruises darkened her skin. “She was restrained.” He bent low to squint at her battered hands. “Do we know who she is?”
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