Touch of Red
It was like any other Wednesday night. Until it wasn’t.
Samantha Bonner had just finished sweeping up. She’d emptied the dustpan and sanitized the sink and wiped down the pastry case. The burned smell of coffee beans hung thick in the air, overpowering the vinegar solution she’d run through the machines. But it was quiet. She stood for a moment and let the silence surround her, glad to be free of the acoustic-guitar music that had been looping through her head all day.
Sam grabbed her purse and locked up. Crossing the rain-slicked parking lot to her car, she darted a look into all the dark corners. It was a safe neighborhood, but you never knew.
She pulled out of the lot, relieved to be on her way home after pulling a double shift. Raindrops pitter-pattered on her windshield as she made her way through downtown. She switched the wipers to low, and her phone lit up with an incoming call. Amy.
Sam stared down at the phone a moment. Then she put the call on speaker.
“Sam? Can you talk?” Amy sounded undone. More than usual.
“It’s Jared. He wants to move back in.”
“He called you?”
“He came by to drop off Aiden. I didn’t let him in or anything.”
Sam didn’t respond as she pulled up to a stoplight. In most areas, Amy wasn’t a pushover. But her two-year-old boy missed his daddy, and his daddy knew it. He used the kid as leverage.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Amy said now. “And I just want to talk through it, figure out what I’m going to tell him. Can you come over for a bit? I can make us some coffee.”
The mere thought of coffee made Sam want to retch. “Sure,” she said anyway. Amy was sniffling now, and Sam didn’t have the heart to say no.
“Or we could talk on the phone,” Amy said. “You’re probably busy. Tonight’s your night off, isn’t it?”
“No, I closed up.”
Sam slowed for a bend in the road. Stately oak trees and manicured lawns soon gave way to weeds and chain-link fences. Then came the railroad tracks. White-collar to blue in less than a mile. The people in Sam’s neighborhood commuted to work at all hours and didn’t stop for lattes on the way.
“I’ll be over in a little.” Sam turned onto her street. “Give me twenty minutes.”
“Are you sure?” Another sniffle.
“I’m sure.” Sam pulled into her driveway and rolled to a stop in the glow of her back-porch light.
“Thanks, Sam. I mean it. I just need to hash this out. I mean, what if he’s legit this time? I owe it to Aiden to at least think about it.”
Sam kept her skepticism to herself. For now. She slid from her car and noticed the white bike propped against her back deck as she walked up the driveway.
“Sam? You there?”
She mounted the steps and spotted a blur of movement. Pain exploded at the base of her skull.
Sam dropped to her knees and pitched forward. A big arm wrapped around her neck, hauling her back. The smell of tobacco registered in her brain, filling her with bone-deep fear as the arm clamped around her windpipe.
“Sam?” Amy’s voice was far away.
Pain roared through Sam’s skull. She struggled to move, to breathe. A glove-covered hand tipped her head back, exposing her neck.
Sam clawed at the arm, trying desperately to buck, to kick, to scream for help. No, no, no! From the corner of her eye, she spied her phone on the ground. She tried to call out but the cries died in her throat.
“Sam, are you there?”
Fear became panic as she saw the glint of a blade.
• • •
Brooke Porter beat the detectives, which surprised her. But then again, she’d made good time. When the message had come in coded 911, she’d dropped what she was doing and rushed straight over.
She parked beside a police unit and grabbed her evidence kit from the trunk as she surveyed the location. It was a small bungalow, like every other house on the block. In contrast to its neighbors, this home had a fresh coat of paint and looked to be in decent repair. Potted chrysanthemums lined the front stoop, where a uniformed officer stood taking shelter from the cold drizzle.
Brooke darted up the sidewalk and ducked under the overhang. The officer was big. Huge. Brooke had met him before, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember his name.
“Jasper Miller,” he provided, handing her a clipboard. “Your photographer just got here.”
So, he knew she was with the Delphi Center. The San Marcos Police Department typically called Brooke’s lab in to help with their big cases.
Brooke scribbled her name into the scene log. “You the first responder?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded at the driveway. “Victim’s around back. Looks like she was coming home from someplace, and he surprised her at the door.”
Brooke eyed the little white Kia parked in the driveway. She wanted to see things for herself and draw her own conclusions.
“Medical examiner’s people got here about five minutes ago,” Jasper added.
“And the detectives?”
“On their way.”
She handed back the clipboard. “Thanks.”
Brooke picked her way across the stepping-stones in the grass, trying not to mar anything useful—although the rain had already done a pretty good job of that. At the top of the driveway several uniforms stood under a blue Delphi Center tent that had been erected beside the back porch.
Brooke’s stomach tightened with nerves as she lifted the crime-scene tape and walked up the drive. She noted the chain-link fence, the thick shrubbery, the trash cans tucked against the one-car garage. Plenty of places for someone to hide.
A camera flashed as she reached the tent. The Delphi
Center photographer had already set up lights and started documenting the scene. Brooke unloaded some supplies from her kit. She zipped into coveralls and pulled booties over her shoes, then tugged on thick purple gloves as the uniforms looked on silently.
Beat cops thought she was an oddity. She showed up at death scenes with her tweezers and her flashlights and her big orange goggles. She plucked bits of evidence from obscure places and then scuttled back to the lab to do her thing . . . whatever that was.
The detectives got her. Well, maybe not totally. But they’d at least learned to appreciate what she could do for them. Which ones had been assigned to this case? And where the hell were they?
Brooke pulled her long dark hair into a ponytail. She picked up her evidence kit and sucked in a deep breath to brace herself before ducking under the tent to take her first look.
Blood was everywhere.
“Holy God,” she murmured.
A woman lay crumpled at the back door, her neck slashed open to the bone. Her hair, her clothes, even the wooden decking beneath her, were saturated. Dark rivulets had dripped down the stairs and were now coagulating in little pools on the lower slats.
“Watch your step.” She glanced up at the ME’s assistant crouched beside the body. He was reading a thermometer and making notes on a pad. “It’s slippery.”
Brooked walked up the stairs and eased around him, taking care not to step in any puddles. Maddie Callahan stood beside the door, photographing a scarlet arc against the white siding.
She lowered her camera and glanced at Brooke. “The detectives here?”
The breeze shifted, and Brooke got a whiff of blood, strong and metallic. She glanced again at the gaping wound and stepped back to grab the wooden railing.
Maddie looked at her. “You okay?”
Brooke should be immune to this stuff by now. But that neck.
She steadied herself and looked around. A set of blood-spattered car keys lay near the victim’s hand. Brooke glanced at the woman’s face, partially visible beneath blood-matted blond hair. Brooke didn’t see a weapon near the body. Any trail the killer might have left as he’d fled the scene had likely been obscured by rain. The back door stood ajar. Had he fled through the house?
She turned to the ME’s assistant. “Was this door open like this when you arrived?”
He glanced up, looking annoyed. “Yes. We haven’t been inside.”
Brooke turned to the victim again. Her head lolled weirdly to the side, and flies were already hovering despite the cool temperature. Brooke stepped past the ME’s assistant and slipped into the house.
She found herself in a dark utility room that smelled of fabric softener. The room was small but clean, without so much as a scrap of laundry on the floor. She switched on her flashlight and swept it around. No footprints.
She stepped into the kitchen, maneuvering around an open pantry door.
“Was this open, too?” she asked Maddie.
“That’s right. And I haven’t shot the kitchen yet, so don’t move anything.”
Brooke stood still, giving herself a few moments to absorb the scene. She always tried to put herself in the perpetrator’s shoes. Had he been in here? If so, what had he touched?
The kitchen was dim except for a light above the sink. Using the end of her flashlight, Brooke flipped a switch beside the door, and an overhead fixture came on.
No dirty dishes on the counter or food sitting out. Eighties-era appliances. A drying rack beside the sink contained a glass, a plate, and a fork. On the counter beside a microwave was a loose key and a stack of mail. She stepped over to read the name on the top envelope. Samantha Bonner.
Brooke zeroed in on the key. It was bronze. Shiny. Unremarkable, except that it was sitting there all by itself.
In the breakfast nook, a small wooden table was pushed up against a window. A brown bottle of root beer sat on the table unopened. Just below room temperature, judging from the condensation.
Brooke returned her attention to the pantry. Soup, soup, and more soup, all Campbell’s brand. It was like looking at an Andy Warhol painting. Chicken. Tomato. Cream of mushroom. The shelf above the soup was stocked with paper goods. The bottom shelf was filled with healthy cereals and gluten-free crackers and a package of those pink and white animal cookies with the colored sprinkles.
“Yeah?” She leaned her head out to look at Maddie.
“Just finished shooting the back door if you want it.”
“I definitely want it.” Brooke returned to the utility room. She put on her orange goggles and switched her flashlight to ultraviolet, searching the floor for any fluids that might not be visible to the naked eye.
She examined the knob a moment, then selected a powder from her kit. On the porch outside, the ME’s assistant was busy covering the victim’s hands with paper bags for transport back to the morgue.
Brooke glanced back at the kitchen, her attention drawn to the key again. It looked like a house key, and she wanted to know if it fit this door. But she couldn’t touch it until Maddie finished her photos.
Brooke opened the jar of powder and tapped some into a plastic tray. Using her softest brush, she loaded the bristles and then gently dusted the knob. She worked slowly, methodically. When she finished dusting, she cast her light over the fluorescent powder and was pleased to see a pristine thumbprint on the side of the knob.
“Maddie, can you get this for me?”
Maddie stepped over and photographed the knob from several angles. When she finished, she moved into the kitchen with her camera.
Brooked took out a strip of clear polyethylene tape and carefully lifted the thumbprint off the curved surface, taking care not to smudge it. She picked out a black card for contrast and gently placed the tape against the card.
One lift done, probably a hundred to go. She closed her eyes a moment and inhaled deeply. When she got laser focused, she sometimes forgot to breathe.
Brooke heard the detectives before she saw them—two
low male voices at the front of the house exchanging clipped police jargon.
Sean Byrne and Ric Santos. She’d know them anywhere.
Brooke labeled the card and tucked it into her evidence kit. So, Sean and Ric on this one. They were experienced and observant. Sean noticed everything she did, even when he seemed to be interviewing witnesses or talking to other cops. He observed where she spent her time and how, and if she lingered in a particular spot, he always asked about it later.
Brooke noticed him, too. With his athletic build and sly smile, it was hard not to. But mostly she noticed his attitude. He had an easygoing confidence she found attractive. Nothing ever seemed to rattle him.
Of course, being a cop, he also had an ego.
The voices grew louder as the detectives neared the kitchen. Brooke didn’t look up, but she felt a jolt of awareness as Sean stepped into the room. His conversation stalled, and she could practically feel his gaze on her.
• • •
Sean watched Brooke for a moment, then turned to Jasper.
“You say the neighbor found her?”
“That’s right. Lady let her dog out, and he started barking like crazy, so she went outside to see what was going on and spotted the victim in a pool of blood there on the porch. Name’s Samantha Bonner. She works at a coffee shop.”
Sean raked his hand through his damp hair, scattering water on the floor. “Married? Kids?”
Jasper shook his head. “Neighbor says she lives alone.”
Sean unzipped his SMPD Windbreaker and glanced at Brooke again. She was on her knees by the back door, lifting fingerprints. Just beyond her was the victim, and the ME’s people were already unzipping the body bag.
Sean was accustomed to seeing Brooke surrounded by blood and gore, but this was bad. He studied the victim, noting the position of the body, the clothing.
Brooke closed her evidence kit and got to her feet as Sean approached.
“Hi.” She looked him up and down. “Where were you guys?”
“Got stuck behind an accident near the bridge. Tow truck’s blocking the road, so we had to hoof it.” Sean ran his hand through his hair again.
“Don’t drip water all over my crime scene.”
He smiled. “Yours?”
For a moment they just looked at each other, and Sean tried to read her expression.
“Detective? Can we bag her?”
Brooke shot a blistering look at the ME’s assistant, clearly not liking his glib tone.
Sean stepped into the utility room to take a look at the back porch. The whole area was a bloodbath.
“Jesus,” Ric said, coming up beside him. “You get all this, Maddie?”
“Yes, I’m finished with the porch,” the photographer called from the kitchen.
The ME’s guy looked at Sean again. “Detective?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
Sean turned around. Brooke was watching him now,
her evidence kit clutched at her side. He motioned for her to follow him into the living room.
Brooke was short and slender, with pale skin and a plump pink mouth he’d always wondered about. As she looked up at him, he noticed the worry line between her brows.
Her eyebrows shot up. “You mean besides the fact that this woman was practically decapitated on her doorstep?”
She took a deep breath and glanced around. “This crime scene bugs me.”
“Look at it. See for yourself.”
Without another word, she stepped around him and went back into the kitchen to crouch beside the pantry door.
Sean pulled some latex gloves from his pocket and tugged them on as he surveyed the kitchen. It was clean and uncluttered, except for a stack of mail on the counter beside a key. He studied the key for a moment, but resisted the urge to pick it up.
He opened the fridge. Yogurt, salad kit, pomegranate juice. On the lower shelf was a six-pack of root beer with a bottle missing from the carton. That was the bottle Maddie was snapping a picture of now as it sat on the breakfast table.
Sean glanced through the open back door as the ME’s people started loading the body bag onto a gurney. The victim’s clothes had been intact, and she’d shown no obvious sign of sexual assault. At first glance, it looked like the killer had grabbed her from behind and slit her throat. Given the lack of blood inside the
house, Sean figured the attacker had fled down the driveway to the street or maybe hopped the back fence.
Ric stepped into the kitchen again. “Her purse is on the back porch. Wallet’s inside, but no cell phone.”
“You check the car?” Sean asked.
“Not yet. Let’s walk through the house first.”
“Don’t move anything,” Maddie said. “I haven’t been back there yet.”
After another look at Brooke, Sean led the way back. The simple layout had rooms off a central hallway. Sean flipped on a light in the first room. It had a wooden desk and a metal folding chair. On the desk was a notebook computer, closed and powered off. On the far side of the room stood a shelving unit crammed with books.
“Looks like a home office,” Sean said, moving on to the bathroom. He paid close attention to the floor as he went, but saw no blood or footprints or even dust bunnies.
The bathroom smelled like ammonia. Sean switched on the light.
“House is squeaky-clean,” Ric observed.
The pedestal sink gleamed. Sean opened the medicine cabinet. Toothpaste, cough drops, tampons. Ric eased back the shower curtain to reveal a shiny tub with several bottles of hair products lined up on the side.
They moved on to the bedroom, where they found a neatly made queen bed with a light blue comforter and two pillows in standard pink pillowcases that matched the sheets.
“Not a lot of pillows,” Sean said.
“Pillows. Most women put a lot on the bed, don’t they?”
“I don’t know. My wife does.”
Sean studied the room. It smelled like vanilla. On the dresser were several plastic trays of makeup and one of those bottles of liquid air freshener with the sticks poking up. Sean spied a sticky note attached to the mirror and leaned closer to read the feminine handwriting: One day, one breath.
Was it a poem? A song lyric? Maybe Samantha’s own words?
The closet door was ajar, and Sean nudged it open. Six pairs of jeans, all on hangers. A couple dozen T-shirts, also hanging.
Ric whistled. “Damn. You know anyone who arranges their T-shirts by color?”
“Nope.” Sean looked around the bedroom again. “Pretty basic. Not a lot here.”
He walked back through the house, noting a conspicuous absence of anything that would indicate a male presence. No razors on the sink or man-size shoes kicking around. No beer in the fridge. The living room was simply furnished with a sofa, a coffee table, and a smallish TV.
“Looks to me like she lives alone.” Ric turned to Jasper. “You say she works at a restaurant?”
“Coffee shop, according to the neighbor lady.” Jasper took out a spiral pad and consulted his notes. “Java House over on Elm Street.”
“I’ve never been in there.” Ric looked at Sean. “You?”
Sean glanced around the living room, which was devoid of clutter. Maybe the victim didn’t have a lot of money for extras, but even so, most women tended
to decorate their homes more than this. Sean hadn’t spotted a single framed photograph in the entire place.
The strobe of a camera flash drew his attention to the kitchen again. Brooke was right. This scene seemed odd. Sean had worked a lot of homicides over the years, and most boiled down to money, drugs, or sex.
Sean had seen no sign of sexual assault. No drugs or drug paraphernalia or even alcohol. No hint of illegal activity. No evidence of a boyfriend.
A remote control sat on the coffee table. Sean had watched Brooke in action enough to know it would be one of the first items she collected to dust for prints.
“I don’t see any blood trails or signs of struggle inside,” Ric said. “Doesn’t feel like the assailant was in the house.”
“I’m not getting a read on motive.”
“I know.” Ric shook his head. “Doesn’t look like a rape or a robbery. No cash or drugs around.”
“We need her phone. I want to search her car and the surrounding area.”
“I’ll go check the car,” Ric said.
He exited the front, and Sean returned to the kitchen. Brooke wasn’t there. Maddie knelt in the pantry with her camera, and Sean noticed the pantry door was missing.
“What happened to the door?”
She glanced at him. “Brooke took it.”
“Took it where?”
“Back to the lab.”
Sean stared at her. “You mean she’s gone?”
“She needed to test something. She said it was urgent.”
“Yo, Sean, come here,” Ric called from outside.
Sean walked out the front, glancing at his watch.
Why had she left already? This scene would take hours to process and they were just getting started.
Ric was in the driveway near the Kia. Another Delphi CSI in gray coveralls crouched beside the car.
Ric glanced up at Sean. “Jackpot.”