At Close Range
Everything about this felt wrong, and Tessa couldn’t believe she was here as they bumped along the gravel road, their headlights cutting through the tunnel of trees. When they reached the clearing, James rolled to a stop and shoved the car into park.
Tessa gazed straight ahead at the moonlight shimmering off the inky lake.
“This okay?” he asked.
He turned off the music, and she listened to the drone of the cicadas and the guttural croak of bullfrogs outside. An electronic chirp sounded from her purse. Crickets, her sister’s ringtone. Tessa silenced the phone and dropped it into the cup holder.
“Who is it?” he asked.
The car got quiet again and James reached for her, pulling her across the seat and sliding his warm hand under her shirt.
“Wait. Maybe we should talk first.”
“We don’t have much time.” He squeezed her breast.
“James, I mean it.”
He leaned back and sighed. “Talk about what?”
His face was shadowed, but still she could see the heat in his eyes as his hand glided up her thigh.
“So talk.” He kissed her neck, and she inhaled the musky scent of his skin—the scent that drew her to him in the most primal way, in a way she’d never been able to resist no matter what the consequences. She responded to this man on a molecular level, with every cell in her body.
He kissed her mouth, softly at first, then harder. He pulled her close, shifting her until she was almost in his lap.
“I can’t stop thinking about you.” His breath was warm against her throat, and whatever she’d wanted to talk about was gone now. He slid his hand over her shirt, deftly popping open the buttons one by one. Then the fabric was off her shoulders, and air wafted over her skin. She reached for his belt buckle.
A sudden flash of light made her jump. She squinted over her shoulder at the blinding white as a car pulled up behind them.
James went rigid. “Damn it, a cop.”
The car’s door opened. She hurriedly pulled her shirt on and darted a look at James.
“Don’t talk,” he said.
A light beamed into the driver’s side, and she shrank back against the door as James buzzed down the window.
“This your vehicle, sir?”
“Yes, it is.”
The flashlight beam moved to Tessa’s face, then dipped lower. She tugged the sides of her shirt together and looked away.
“Step out of the car, sir.”
James gave her a warning look and pushed open his door.
She sank down in the seat. Perfect. This was just what they needed. Could they be charged with something? Trespassing? Or public lewdness, maybe? Her cheeks burned and she glanced back at the cop.
Pervert. He probably staked out this lakeside park every weekend and waited for couples to pull in. He probably got a sick thrill from embarrassing people.
The noise rocked the car and she lurched against the window, shrieking. Terror seized her as she gaped at the open door.
He’s shooting. He’s shooting. He’s—
The flashlight shifted. Tessa scrambled for the door handle. She shoved open the door and lunged from the car, landing hard on her hands and knees.
The sound reverberated through her brain, her universe. She clawed at the grass and stumbled to her feet. Adrenaline spurted through her veins as she raced for the woods.
He was behind her, right behind her. She sprinted for the cover of the trees, screaming so loud her throat burned.
No one can hear you. You’re all alone.
An icy wave of panic crashed over her, and her cries became a shrill wail. Her heart pounded as she ran and ran, waiting for the bite of a bullet.
Hide, hide, hide!
She plunged into the woods, choking back her screams as she swiped madly at the branches. Thorns
tore at her skin, her clothes, but she surged forward. It was dark. So dark. Maybe he wouldn’t see her in the thicket.
He killed James. He killed him killed him killed him. The words flashed through her mind as she swatted at the branches.
She had to get out of here. She had to get help. But she was miles away from anyone, stumbling blindly through the darkness. Branches lashed her cheeks and they were wet with blood or tears or both as she plunged through razor-sharp brush and her breath came in shallow gasps.
She tripped and crashed to her knees. Pain zinged up her legs, but she pushed to her feet and kept going, deeper and deeper into the woods. No one was out here to help her. Her only chance was to hide.
She smacked hard into a tree. She swayed backward, then caught herself and ducked behind the trunk, forcing her feet to still, even though her pulse was racing.
No noise. Nothing.
Only the whisper of wind through the branches and the wild thudding of her heart. She dug her nails into the bark as she strained to listen. She couldn’t breathe. It felt like someone was squeezing her lungs in a big fist. She shut her eyes and tried to be utterly still as she fused herself against the tree and waited.
In the distance, a soft rustle. She turned toward the sound and felt a swell of relief. Had she lost him?
Please, God. Please, please, please . . .
A faint snick behind her, and Tessa’s heart convulsed. She hadn’t lost him at all.
• • •
Dani Harper steered her pickup down the narrow road toward the whir of lights. She reached the clearing and pulled up beside a white van, surveying the scene through the mist. A pair of uniforms stood off to the side. Beyond a line of haphazardly parked vehicles, swags of yellow tape cordoned off a silver sedan.
She glanced at the logo on the van and her nerves fluttered. The Delphi Center. Her boss must have called them. The lieutenant didn’t like using outside help, but San Marcos PD didn’t have the resources to handle a scene like this.
Dani reached for the poncho she kept in back, then thought better of it. It would be hot as a trash bag, and she was already sweaty from her yoga class. She pushed aside the grocery sack containing the frozen dinner she wouldn’t be eating anytime soon and grabbed a baseball cap, settling it on her head and pulling her ponytail through the back as she got out. Her cross-trainers sank into the muck.
One of the uniforms trudged over, and Dani recognized him as he passed under the light of a portable scene lamp. Jasper Miller. Six-three, 250. He was a rookie out of Houston, barely six months on the job.
“Hey, Dani.” He smiled, catching her off guard again with those boyish dimples that seemed at odds with his huge build.
“Tell me you didn’t touch anything.” She pulled a pair of gloves from the box she kept in the back of her truck.
“I didn’t touch anything.”
She tugged the latex over her hands and took out a mini-flashlight. She picked her way across the damp grass, careful not to step on any sort of evidence.
“When did you get here?” She ducked under the scene tape.
“Oh, about”—he checked his watch—“twenty minutes ago? Not long after the first responder. Old lady that lives off the highway thought she heard someone shooting off fireworks here in the park.”
“And them?” She nodded at the two crime-scene technicians crouched behind the sedan, examining something. A tire impression, maybe? Whatever it was, they’d erected a little tent over it in case it started to rain again.
“They showed up five minutes ago,” Jasper said.
The car was a late-model Honda Accord, squeaky-clean right down to the hubcaps. It must have arrived before the rain. The driver’s-side door stood open, and Dani’s stomach tightened with dread as she walked around the front, sidestepping a numbered evidence marker. She halted and stared.
The victim lay sprawled in the grass. Khaki pants, button-down shirt, short haircut. He had a bullet hole just below his neck, and flies were already buzzing around it, making themselves right at home. They hovered below his belt, too, where the front of his pants was dark with blood.
Dani felt a wave of dizziness. Then it was gone.
She stepped closer, glancing up at the blue tarp someone had thoughtfully erected over the body. She switched on her flashlight and crouched down for a closer look. On the victim’s left hand was a wedding ring, and Dani’s heart squeezed.
Some woman’s whole world would be shattered tonight. It was shattered already—she just didn’t know it yet.
She glanced up at Jasper. He looked nervous and eager for something to do.
“I’ve got a portable scene lamp in the back of my truck,” she said. “You mind?”
He trekked off, and she focused on the victim again. Given the location at this park, she’d expected a teenager, but he looked more like an accountant. She studied his face carefully. His eyes were half-shut and wire-rimmed glasses sat crooked on his nose. A determined line of ants had already formed a trail into his mouth.
Dani aimed her flashlight inside the vehicle.
No wallet, no cell phone, no computer case. The wallet was likely in his pocket, but no one could touch him until the ME’s van arrived. She skimmed her flashlight over the car’s interior, paying close attention to the floorboards and cup holders.
Jasper returned with the lamp and started setting up.
“Was this other door closed when you got here?” she asked.
“I told you, I didn’t touch anything.”
She looked back at the CSIs pouring quick-dry plaster into an impression on the ground. Roland Delgado glanced up at her.
“Hey, there, Dani Girl.”
“Hey. Who else is here?”
“Another one of your uniforms.” Roland nodded at the trees near the lake where flashlights continued to flicker. “He’s combing the woods with Travis Cullen.”
Travis Cullen. So no Scott tonight. Dani felt a twinge of relief as she stood up.
She leaned into the car and popped open the glove compartment. The insurance card was sitting right on top inside a protective plastic sleeve.
She stepped away from the Accord and turned her back on the victim as she dialed Ric Santos. He answered on the first ring.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“On my way. What do we got?”
“White male, thirty to forty, gunshot wound to the chest and groin, point-blank range.”
“Damn. What else?”
A low grumble had her turning toward the road. Her nerves skittered as a gunmetal-gray Dodge pickup pulled into the clearing and glided to a stop beside the crime-scene van.
“No ID yet,” she told Ric. “But there’s an insurance card inside the vehicle. James Matthew Ayers, 422 Clear Brook Drive.”
“That’s near the university.”
“There’s a hangtag on the mirror. A university parking permit.”
Scott Black slid from his pickup and slammed the door. He reached into the truck bed to unlatch the shiny chrome toolbox. He pulled out his evidence kit and glanced up.
Their gazes locked.
“Dani?” Ric asked.
She turned away. “What’s that?”
“The permit. Is it A or B?”
“B. Faculty parking.”
“What’s your ETA?”
“Five minutes,” Ric said.
“You’ll probably beat the ME.”
She ended the call and closed her eyes briefly. Raindrops dampened her face and water trickled between her breasts. She was in yoga pants and a tank top, and she wished she’d had time to change into something better suited for detective work because it was going to be a long night.
She took a deep breath and made a mental list. She had to interview the first responder. And she had to get a K-9 team out here. She sent her lieutenant a text coded 911 for urgent.
Roland and the female CSI were still crouched behind the car, and the woman was snapping pictures. She had to be the Delphi Center crime-scene photographer, but Dani had never met her.
Scott stood beside the Accord now, his back to the victim as he skimmed his flashlight over the ground. The firearms expert was tall and broad shouldered, with the super-ripped body of a former Navy SEAL. Instead of his usual tactical pants and combat boots, he wore jeans and a leather jacket tonight, so maybe he’d been out when he’d gotten the call. Dani knew from experience that his jacket had nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the Sig Sauer he carried concealed at his hip.
Something glinted in the grass, and Scott crouched down to tag it with a numbered marker. Two minutes on the scene and already he’d discovered a piece of evidence. He stood and squared his shoulders, and Dani felt a pang deep inside her as he approached.
He stopped and towered over her, and for a moment they just stared at each other.
“Was the passenger door closed when you got here?” he asked.
“Where’s the girl?”
“No sign of her.” Dani nodded at the woods. “One of our officers is searching near the lake with Travis.”
Jasper joined them by the car. “How do you know there’s a girl?”
Scott knelt beside the body. “He didn’t come all the way out here to jerk off.” Scott looked at Dani. “You have an ID yet?”
He watched her for a moment with those cool blue eyes. His gaze shifted to the woods. “You need a K-9 team.”
She bristled. “I know.”
He strode over to his truck and opened the toolbox again. He took out a metal detector, which would help him locate shell casings or bullets, and maybe even the second victim if she was wearing jewelry or a belt.
Then again, the killer might have taken her somewhere else. Dani glanced back at the road and got a queasy feeling in her stomach. Where was she?
She turned her attention to the lake, visible just beyond the trees. It was a scenic spot, usually—a tranquil little oasis for couples. But not tonight.
She glanced at Scott again, and he was watching her closely—so closely it made her wonder what he was thinking.
“You coming?” he asked.
She nodded at the body. “I’ll stay with him until the ME shows.”
Scott walked off, and Dani let her gaze follow him until he disappeared into the woods.
The medical examiner’s van rolled up, followed closely
by Ric, and Dani’s stomach tightened as she thought of everything she didn’t like about this case. And it wasn’t even an hour old yet.
Ric walked over, his expression grim as he took in the scene. “The media has it.”
“That didn’t take long.”
“It was all over the scanner,” he told her. “I give us ten minutes, tops, before they roll in here with their cameras. We need to barricade the road.”
She turned toward the sound of Scott’s deep voice calling her from the woods. He was a tall silhouette at the edge of the trees, and from his tone Dani knew it was bad.
“What is it?” she yelled back.
“I found her.”