A good day.
Silence filled the room as they were caught up in their own memories.
“Is that why you stayed up past one?” Madison asked. “To tell me not to be late for work?”
To see that you got home safely after a horrible day.
“Something like that.”
“I’m not going to sleep tonight.” Madison swayed on her feet. She turned away and put her hand on the doorknob.
“That makes two of us.” Emily’s mind had been racing from the moment she lay down. It showed no sign of slowing. The wilt in her sister’s usually perfect posture struck a chord in Emily’s chest. “I’m really sorry, Madison. I know how close you were to Lindsay.”
Her sister paused. “Maybe we weren’t as close as I thought,” she said softly. She opened the door and walked away, one hand on the wall to keep her balance.
Emily listened to her steps. Madison’s door opened and closed.
What does that mean?
“Weather report says there is a strong storm coming soon,” Ava commented as she met up with Zander in the diner parking lot the next morning. Zander wasn’t surprised. The wind had nearly whipped his SUV door into the car next to him as he stepped out. It wasn’t raining, but the air was heavy with salty, cold moisture.
The morning was gray and depressing again. Miserable. But a dozen vehicles were parked in the lot of the Barton Diner. He judged them to be local vehicles. Heavy-duty trucks and small older sedans that had been weathered by wind and salt. Zander was starving for food and warmth. The log cabin diner gave off a welcoming vibe and a promise of good coffee and hearty food. No doubt the locals came for the same reasons.
Inside he automatically looked for Emily, but he didn’t see her, and disappointment briefly flared. The restaurant was half-full, and the smell of bacon made his stomach rumble, returning his focus to food. Madison approached, a coffeepot in hand. Her black jeans were constructed of more holes than fabric, and her hot-pink satin top hurt his eyes. “Take a seat anywhere, and I’ll be right with you.” She handed them two menus and strode away in red spike heels.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ava’s brows shoot up. They took the closest booth, near a window, and opened their menus. Ava’s gaze followed Madison. “That can’t be the sister of our witness.”
“She looks nothing like her.” Ava studied the waitress. “But I like her hair. And confidence.”
Zander turned to look. He hadn’t noticed Madison’s hair, but now saw it was in a complex, messy knot at the nape of her neck. She poured coffee, cleared plates, and delivered an order without missing a stride in her heels.
“She’s got control of the floor,” Ava went on. “Misses nothing.”
“You waited tables?”
“College. And a bit after. It’s not an easy job.”
Watching Madison efficiently work, he wondered what her relationship with Emily was like. He’d learned a bit about Tara and Emily at the mansion yesterday, but not Madison.
He needed to focus on the murders, not the three sisters. “Did you talk with Sean Fitch’s relatives yesterday?” he asked Ava.
“The sheriff hadn’t contacted his family yet, so I requested that an agent from the Portland office visit and inform them in person. He gave them my number and told them to call when they were ready to talk. His father called me within a few hours. As you can imagine, they’re hurt and confused.”
Madison appeared at their table. “Coffee?”
“Please,” Zander and Ava answered in unison. Madison turned over the coffee cups on the table and poured.
“Do you know what you want?”
Zander ordered an egg-white omelet, and Ava asked for apple French toast with a side of eggs. He glanced at the menu and saw hers came with whipped cream and caramel sauce.
He immediately regretted his order.
Madison didn’t write anything down but gave a smile as she took their menus.
“That’s not breakfast,” Zander said after she left. “You ordered dessert.”
“That’s why I added the eggs. Any place can make an omelet. I judge a restaurant by their French toast. There are hundreds of ways to do it, and I like to see if places are lazy or unique.”
“I think you’re expecting too much from a rural diner.”
“We’ll see.” Her smile was smug.
“What did Sean’s father have to say?” Zander steered them back to the case.
Ava’s smile faded. “He was in shock, of course. Sean’s mother wasn’t ready to talk, but the father wanted answers.”
“Which you didn’t have.”
“The family is doubly stunned by the possibility that this is a hate crime. Actually, his father fully believes it is—not because Sean had told him there were issues, but because of the scene.”
“He knows how his son was found?”
“He does.” Ava lowered her gaze to her coffee and wrapped her hands around her mug as if they were cold. “I’ve never had a case like this,” she said softly.
“Me neither,” Zander admitted.
“The father said he’d told Sean not to marry Lindsay.”
“Christ. Because she was white?”
Ava nodded. “He liked Lindsay. He knew they were in love, but he didn’t want his son to deal with the additional stress that can come from a mixed-race marriage. He said life is tough enough.”
Zander swore under his breath.
They were both silent for a long second.
“He didn’t know who might hurt his son,” Ava went on. “Stated Sean was always an easygoing guy with a lot of friends. He hadn’t heard from Sean in several weeks, but he said that was normal. I want to talk to him face-to-face at some point. He did give me a few names of Sean’s friends, and I’ll try to contact them today.”
“What about Lindsay’s family?”
Ava looked out the window, frustration forming a line between her brows. “I can’t find much. Her mother died a few years ago, and she had divorced Lindsay’s father when Lindsay was a toddler. She never remarried. No other kids. I’m trying to find the father, but he’s been elusive.”
She grimaced. “I’ll have to use her old work history and contact her previous employers to find any personal information. Sean’s father wasn’t a big help. He said she had a few friends attend the wedding, but no family.”
“Maybe her father has passed.”
“Sean’s father was under the impression they were estranged in some way but wasn’t positive he was alive. Claims Sean said she didn’t like to talk about her family. It sounds like she didn’t keep in contact with anyone. I don’t know if we’ll find a lead in her background.”
Zander glanced at Madison, who was filling water glasses and chatting with a table of men in heavy work boots and coats. “Emily Mills says Madison was Lindsay’s closest friend.”
“Good to know. I’ll put her at the top of my list. I’m sure she can tell me who else Lindsay socialized with. What about the autopsies? Have you heard from the medical examiner?”
“Dr. Rutledge called me at six this morning.”
Ava’s eyes widened. “Let me guess. He was already at work.”
“Yep. Wanted to let me know he planned to perform both autopsies this morning.” Zander sighed. “I think I answered coherently.”
“And it’s too early to expect any news from the state crime lab.”
“Definitely. I did ask for priority processing on Sean’s laptop that was sent to our computer forensics lab in Portland.”
“Everybody wants priority,” Ava commented.
“True. And the manager’s big sigh when I asked for it didn’t give me a lot of hope.”
They both sipped their coffee. Forensic evidence took time. TV had taught the public that forensics could solve a crime in an hour, but more often it took months. Zander knew he could use the FBI lab back east if he needed a certain piece of evidence handled quickly, but he preferred to use it selectively instead of swamping it with every scrap of evidence from a scene. As the investigation went on, he’d narrow down which pieces of evidence took precedence.
Madison appeared with their order and efficiently set down their plates. Ava’s smile widened as she studied her French toast. Zander’s oversize omelet was stuffed with sautéed peppers and onions, and a parmesan cheese sauce oozed out the sides.
“Do you need anything else?” Madison asked.
“Looks perfect,” said Ava. She already had a fluffy bite on her fork, headed for her mouth. Her blissful expression after her bite reminded Zander why he’d once been half in love with her. He’d told her his feelings last fall during his once-a-year depressive alcohol binge, but it hadn’t affected their friendship or work relationship. The fact that her fiancé was a good guy and a close friend had smoothed the way once Zander had recovered from the acute embarrassment of sharing his deepest secrets at his lowest moment.
“Good?” he asked.
“Amazing. I don’t know what coats it, but the fried crunch is spot-on.” With a wink, she cut a slice in half and transferred it to his plate.