“Her name is Dena Miller.” Stella’s gaze traveled from Dena’s smashed fingers to the rope burns on her ankles and wrists. “She’s been missing since Wednesday afternoon.” Stella stared at the silk scarf. She kept her voice low. “This whole scene was carefully staged.”
“Yes.” Frank propped one hand on his hip and the other on the back of his head as he glared at the body. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
Stella stepped up to stand next to him. “This is exactly like Missy Green’s death.”
“Don’t say it.” Frank looked over his shoulder.
Stella followed his gaze to a news crew climbing out of their van. She signaled a uniform to keep them far away from the scene. He nodded and moved in, hands spread and palms out. A lollypop-thin brunette newswoman cocked a hip in irritation.
“Do not imply these two cases are related,” Frank warned. “The media will broadcast that Scarlet Falls has a you-know-what.”
Stella nodded, but anger surged in her veins. The news media shouldn’t dictate her discussion with the medical examiner. But Frank was absolutely right. If the press got any wind of any possible similarities between the deaths, the words serial killer would be scrolling across the next special bulletin. The chief would have a coronary, the mayor would implode, and Stella would be writing parking tickets for the rest of her career.
“The deaths have commonalities.” Frank prodded her with an elbow. “But let’s not jump to conclusions.”
Stella tilted her head and raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
Frank raised a palm. “I know. We know the truth, but we can’t tell everybody. Not yet.”
She stared at Dena. “The way he left her . . .” The careful planning, the positioning, the scarf. This hadn’t been a dump and run. “It took some time.”
Just like Missy’s body had originally been staged.
“More than the first, as if he didn’t get enough attention with the other.” Frank rubbed a hand across his head. “Christ, now you have me jumping to conclusions.” He frowned. “Let’s get her bagged and out of sight before the press gets a look at her fingers or that scarf. We don’t need any public speculation. I’ll move her autopsy to the top of my list. I’ll call you as soon as it’s done.”
“Can you give me any idea how long she’s been dead?” Stella asked.
Frank moved Dena’s arm, testing for the telltale stiffness that would indicate rigor mortis had set in. “Six to eighteen hours. I’ll be able to give you a tighter window when I get her on the table.”
Stella glanced at her watch. It was just past noon. If Frank was right about the time since death, then she’d died in the twelve hours between six p.m. Thursday night and six o’clock this morning. They’d picked up Spivak around nine o’clock the previous night. The window of opportunity for him to have killed her had just narrowed to the unlikely three-hour slice of daylight between six and nine p.m. Thursday night.
A brown mark on the inside of Dena’s forearm caught Stella’s attention. “What’s that?”
Frank rotated the arm, revealing more faint marks. “I’d say they’re track marks.”
“Like Missy’s.” Stella rocked back on her heels. Adam hadn’t mentioned that his wife had a drug habit. But if Dena had injected drugs, that gave her and Missy a real connection before they died. Was this the work of a serial killer or were the women murdered for personal reasons?
A door slammed. Carrying cameras and plastic field kits, three coverall-clad forensics techs followed the same path toward the pond.
Stella used a gloved finger to open the clasp on the purse. Inside, on top of Dena’s wallet and assorted female paraphernalia, a syringe rested on a bed of cotton batting. A pale blue ribbon was tied around the needle.
The same person had killed Dena Miller and Missy Green. His ritual was getting more complex, his staging more elaborate. Thoughts whirled in Stella’s head. She needed to talk to the chief and Brody, and she needed to question Adam Miller again.
Stella straightened, moving out of the way to give the forensic team room to work. Side by side, she and Frank watched the photographer capture the body from all angles and distances. When he’d finished, he stepped back and let the morgue attendants bring the gurney in.
Brody arrived. He was quiet as he surveyed the scene, but his grim expression agreed with Stella. “Mac wants to talk to you.”
He was still waiting by the car, leaning on the front fender, arms crossed over his chest.
She walked over. “I’m sorry. I’m going to be tied up, probably for a while.”
His gaze drifted over her shoulder to where the black-bagged body was being loaded into the medical examiner’s van. “It’s Dena?”
“Can you tell me anything?”
She glanced toward the news van. “Not here. Later.”
“All right. I wish I could help, but since there’s nothing I can do here, do you mind if I take off?”
Stella wished he could help, too. Only a short time had passed since he’d kissed her, but it felt like days.
“Not at all.” She didn’t move closer, but she wanted to. The news media was too present, too interested in her. Mac wouldn’t want to be caught in a sensationalized story.
“Do you need a ride?” she asked.
“No. I called Grant a few minutes ago. There he is.” He pushed off the vehicle.
Stella turned her head to see an oversize pickup truck parked on the road just beyond the cluster of emergency vehicles.
“Please call me later.”
With a regretful glance, he turned and walked away.
Stella turned to face a dozen reporters. The afternoon heat wilted her, but she sucked it up and braced for the media onslaught.
Six microphones were in her face in seconds.
“Is this case related to the woman who was found on Monday?”
Damn. Stella was too tired to think of a noncommittal response. She leveled the press with a serious look. “I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.”
“Two women were found dead in the same week. Does Scarlet Falls have a serial killer on the loose?”
The chief was going to have a fit.
“Speculation at this point is pointless and irresponsible.” Unable to summon a drop of politeness, she shot the offender a glare. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go earn my salary.”
Stella broke away. The forensics team was still crawling over the crime scene, but they’d be occupied for the rest of the afternoon.
She went back to Brody, grateful for his experience as they reviewed the scene with the forensic team. Typically a death warranted more than a few off-color remarks. But the gallows humor they used to cope with the horrors of their jobs was absent, and the team worked with an uncharacteristic gravity as they laid out a grid and began collecting evidence.
“This is not your average dead body, boys and girls,” Frank said in a low voice as he slipped paper bags over Dena’s mangled hands. “I know you always do your best work, but let’s take extra care with dotting i’s and crossing t’s. I have a bad feeling about this one.”
The same creepy-crawling sensation drifted over Stella’s skin.
This wasn’t just a dead body. It was a message.
Mac paced his cabin. When had it seemed so small and isolated? Never. Before this week, he’d craved solitude like a drug. Now, the silence around him sounded dead. He pivoted, took three strides, and crossed the living room again.
No matter what he did, he couldn’t get Stella out of his head. The defeated look in her eyes at the crime scene was permanently etched in his brain. He viewed Dena Miller’s death as a personal failure, and he knew that Stella did, too. But unlike him, Stella couldn’t escape the sight. She’d spend the afternoon studying the body and the scene. Even from a distance, the sight of Dena Miller posed on that bench had brought back images of Cheryl that left him shaken. Close up, the sight must’ve been horrifying, and Stella would see it for the rest of her life.
Mac strode for the front door. Grabbing his sunglasses and helmet from the counter, he retrieved his bike from the shed. The throaty rumble of the engine drowned out the quiet. He navigated the rutted lane that led to the main road. As soon as his tires hit blacktop, he opened up the throttle. The wind whipped at his clothes, and the vibrations under his body hummed in his bones, mirroring the fury coursing through his veins.
A prickly sensation drew his gaze to the mirror. He wasn’t surprised to see a black SUV hovering ten car lengths behind him.
He was being followed.
Son-of-a . . . He was not in the mood for this. Or maybe he was.
He turned off onto a narrow road that snaked through the woods to the Scarlet River. Two wooden tables occupied a picnic area near the water. A trail opened off the clearing. Mac parked his bike in plain sight and jogged twenty feet down the trail. Then he looped around through the underbrush and picked a spot at the bend in the road, right where a driver would see his parked Harley.
Mac waited behind the fat trunk of an oak tree.
The SUV came around the bend and slowed to a crawl, as if the driver was deciding whether or not to follow. If he was smart, he’d turn around.
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