Brody didn’t miss a beat. “Credit card statements are very helpful in tracking a person’s movements.”
“Oh.” But Adam’s eyes narrowed in distrust.
Stella scanned the countertops. “Have you seen your wife’s purse?”
He shook his head, confusion knotting his brows. “No. It’s usually on the dresser.”
Stella would look again, but she didn’t remember seeing it in the bedroom. “What about her calendar and contact information?”
“In her cell phone.” Adam gave Stella the passcode and the phone. “Take anything else you need.”
“A current picture of your wife would be helpful,” Brody added.
“Of course.” Adam crossed the room to a unit of shelves and selected a framed photo.
Stella pictured the broken glass and the blood in the bedroom. The absence of Dena’s purse was odd. “Is it possible she cut herself and called a friend to take her to the ER?”
“No.” Adam lifted his chin. “She would have called me. There’s no one in her life closer to her.” With a stifled sob, he closed his eyes and pressed his fingertips to his forehead.
Brody called for additional support, and two more patrol officers arrived to help knock on doors and question neighbors. Hours later, they had little information. None of the neighbors had seen any unusual activity. A search of the grounds and neighborhood turned up nothing. No one by the name of Dena Miller had been admitted to the local hospital, and the morgue didn’t have any unclaimed bodies meeting her description. Dena didn’t use social media, and she had no chronic health conditions other than her neck injury.
Standing on the covered front porch, Stella stared out at the rain. Thunder boomed across the quiet neighborhood. On the porch, purple petunias rioted in hanging pots, and a pair of wicker rocking chairs invited guests to have a glass of iced tea. Small but cheerful, it was the sort of house young married couples purchased as a starter home. While it wasn’t a ritzy area, the neighborhood was mature and solid. People took care of their homes. Kids played in the street. Homeowners mowed their lawns on Saturday mornings.
Brody came out of the house, pulling the door closed behind him. “I’m catching a ride with Lance to the nursing home. Hannah called. She needs me there. Can you handle things here?”
“Sure.” Stella was waiting for the forensics techs to finish collecting evidence. “Do you think it’s coincidental that we have one woman kidnapped, tortured, and killed and another gone missing just a few days apart?”
Brody shook his head. “I don’t like coincidences, but it’s too early for assumptions. Missy Green’s apartment showed no signs of a struggle.”
“True, but we don’t know where or how she was abducted.” Stella took a step back, out of the rain’s reach. “But both women have dark hair. They’re close in age.”
“Maybe we’ll find a link.” Brody nodded. “Go home and get a few hours of sleep.”
Stella had called the physical therapist and the spa. Dena had attended both appointments, and had left the spa at one p.m. “I’ll go through her calendar and contacts and get background checks on Mr. and Mrs. Miller.”
“What did you think of the husband?” Brody asked.
“I don’t know.” Stella glanced back at the house. “The spouse is always the first suspect.”
“I’ll take their financial statements home with me, and I’ll focus on Adam. We could get a call tonight that she turned up safe and sound. That’s what usually happens.”
Most missing people turned up within a day or two. But Stella didn’t think that was going to be the case. Too much blood was splattered all over the Millers’ bathroom. No matter how Stella tried to explain it away, she knew deep in her gut that Dena Miller didn’t leave her house under her own steam.
Someone took her.
Wednesday, June 22, 9 p.m., Scarlet Falls, NY
Mac pulled into the lot of the nursing home and parked his beat-up Jeep. A glance in the rearview mirror told him he looked ragged. He heaved his battered body out of the vehicle. Every inch of him ached. He ran a hand through his rain-dampened hair but knew he still could pass for a guy who lived in a cardboard box under the bridge.
But what could he do? He’d concentrated on not dying and getting home as quickly as possible.
Two villagers had driven him—and Cheryl’s body—to the hospital in Tabatinga. Returning her remains to her family was small consolation. She shouldn’t have died.
Mac had been lucky. The bullet had merely grazed him, and the wound had been shallow. Thirty stitches and a truckload of antibiotics had been followed by a painful discussion with Mac’s boss and a grueling session with the local polícia. As far as they were concerned, Americans should stay out of the jungle, the traffickers were dead, and justice had been served.
After he’d been patched up, he’d embarked on a series of planes, trains, and automobiles. A three-hour layover in Manaus provided enough time to shower and change, and he’d managed to doze off a few times on the flight to LaGuardia. But sleeping in economy class with a bullet wound in his side had proved challenging, and he felt like he’d been dragged behind the train from New York City to Albany instead of riding in the business-class car.
The sliding glass doors of the nursing home opened with a whoosh. After the intense heat and humidity of the jungle, the air-conditioning felt like a refrigerator. He fought his instant claustrophobia. His feet wanted to turn and run out of the building. He’d take the Adirondacks, the jungle, the frigging Arctic Circle, anything to avoid being trapped in a medical facility. With every breath, the scents of disinfectant and human waste flooded his nose. The olfactory representation of human misery—and his childhood—closed in on him.
He signed in at the registration desk just as a young nurse locked the main door. She rounded the desk and sat down, her blond ponytail bobbing as she glanced up at him. “Visiting hours just ended.”
“I know. I’m here to see Colonel Barrett.” Official hours didn’t matter when death was imminent.
“Of course,” she said with sympathy. “Do you need me to show you to his room?”
“No. I know the way.” And Mac didn’t want any company.
At least he was still alive.
In the hallway, commercial gray carpet silenced his trail runners. Open doors along the corridor made him feel as if he was intruding on the patients’ privacy, so he kept his eyes forward as he walked. Next to his father’s room, he stopped for a breath before poking his head through the doorway.
Grant and Hannah were on either side of the bed, each holding one of the Colonel’s hands. At the foot of the bed, Grant’s fiancée, Ellie, and Hannah’s cop boyfriend, Brody, stood in silent support.
“I’m sorry, Mac. He passed about ten minutes ago.” Grant gently placed the Colonel’s thin, veiny hand on the white sheet. Then he moved toward his brother.
Emotions steamrolled Mac. They hit him hard and fast and in such great variety he couldn’t distinguish disappointment from sorrow from relief. He backed out of the room. What did it matter? He hadn’t been here very often for the Colonel during his two-year stay at the nursing home.
Grant followed him into the hallway. “We’ll give you some privacy if you want to say good-bye.”
“No point now, is there?”
“Mac, don’t beat yourself up,” Grant said. “He’s been unconscious for days. He didn’t know who was here and who wasn’t.”
“But I do.”
“Just go in and see him. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”
Mac knew his brother was right. He nodded.
Grant herded him into the room and cleared everyone else out.
Hannah gave him a quick hug on her way to the door. Her blond cap of hair was longer and softer-looking than he remembered. A stray lock fell across her eye, and she shook it off her forehead. “We’ll be in the hall if you need us.” Before she left the room, Brody had an arm around her shoulders. Ellie held Grant’s hand.
And Mac stood alone.
He gathered his courage and approached the bed. His father didn’t even look like the Colonel he remembered. His face was gaunt and gray, his body withered. Mac had no memories of his father before he’d been paralyzed, but mental images from his childhood still evoked strength. At his core, the Colonel was a warrior. When his legs had failed him, he’d specially rigged an ATV into a four-wheeled warhorse to charge through the woods with his kids. Nothing could stop the Colonel from battling his way through, over, or around the obstacles in his path. But Fate had battered him with relentless determination. The bitch hadn’t been satisfied until she’d shattered not just his body but his soul.
Mac reached out to touch his father’s hand. The physical contact felt alien. Nerve damage had left the Colonel in constant pain, a cruel irony considering his paralyzed state. Even if he’d been a demonstrative person, which he hadn’t, physical displays of affection had been impossible.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Mac whispered, his eyes traveling over his father’s sunken face and body. The Colonel would have hated people seeing him like this. Mac had no doubt that the Colonel would have preferred the roadside bomb had blown him to the grave in Operation Desert Storm rather than left him in bits and pieces. But it hadn’t been in his nature to quit, no matter how much misery he’d had to endure.
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