I know where you are. I bet you thought I forgot about you and what you did to me. You’ll be sorry. It’s only a matter of time. I’m coming for you all. Watch your back. Of course, it won’t do any good. I was always smarter than you. This is really going to be fun.
Caleb Forest swallowed hard and bit back a sharp retort. No, he did not want a tagalong while he investigated a murder. No, he did not want some dorky author writing down everything he said about police procedure. And no, he especially didn’t want some female, some yakkety-yak riding in his car. Was he going to tell his captain that? No. He kept his expression blank as the captain talked on.
“Ya got that, Forest? Me and the little lady’s grandpa go way back. Don’tcha let nothin’ happen to her.”
Caleb nodded. “Yes, sir. You can count on me. How long do you think the uh…little lady will want to accompany me…an hour…two?”
“Don’t be a smart mouth. Her name’s Destiny Knox, and she’ll be riding with you ’til ya solve the new murder.”
“Cap’n, please. I just got that case…what? Two hours ago? It could be weeks…even months before we make an arrest!”
“Whithersoever, Forest, whithersoever.” Captain Jonas smiled without mirth and leaned his chair back so far Caleb thought he might flip it. “Now get outta here. The coroner’s waitin’ for you ta take a gander at that stiff so he can bag it. And Forest…Destiny’s sitting in the corridor. Ferry her along with you.”
Caleb turned and quietly closed the door behind him. What had he done to deserve this? On Homicide for just over a month, and he was sure to knock heads with the Captain. And, for what? Some old bag with a macabre desire to see a murder scene.
His feet dragged across the fading linoleum as he approached the chairs lining the wall of the precinct. Three women waited, along with two disreputable-looking young men with more tats showing than skin. Of the three females, Caleb discounted the youngest. Though her luxurious brown hair might have been attractive if not teased and streaked with pink glitter, the tight black mini and stilettos bespoke a career in prostitution. She completely ignored him as she filed her long nails. Was she really so jaded at her age? Thank God, he didn’t work Vice.
Caleb tamped remorse and shifted to the other women. Which of the two would hound his heels over the coming days?
“Detective Forest?” The prostitute vaulted out of her chair and held out a hand. “Destiny Knox. I’m so pleased to meet you.”
Caleb’s mouth opened and closed several times before words issued forth. “Uh, yes. Detective Caleb Forest.” He continued to stare, taking in her clear green eyes, heavily painted lids, and her unblemished skin.
She pumped his hand as she chattered on. “I can’t thank you enough for allowing me to ride along on your rounds. The desk sergeant said you just got a new murder. How thrilling! Let me get my notebook. I don’t want to overlook one detail.”
She abruptly twisted away and sashayed back to retrieve a notebook and jacket off the chair she’d vacated. How in the world did she walk in heels that high? She had lovely legs and a very nicely rounded…
Caleb closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and raised his gaze to the teased mass of curls on her head. This was going to be a greater trial that he’d thought. He held out a hand and pointed at the side door. “Over here, Miss Knox.”
The portly desk sergeant smirked as Caleb walked past. He ignored the affront. He’d be doing that a lot if this case dragged, particularly if Miss Knox’ choice of attire remained so visually stimulating. Their elbows bumped, and he looked down then just as quickly glanced away. It wasn’t that her clothes revealed anything. The dress wasn’t particularly low-cut. Miss Knox just happened to be well-endowed, extremely well-endowed. Caleb thought of a few choice words he’d like to say to his new captain. Words he’d never utter.
“…so I thought a first-hand view would give me a better chance of writing something believable.” Bright trusting eyes gazed up at him.
Caleb pasted on a polite smile and reached for the door handle of his dark blue sedan. He had no clue what Miss Knox had just communicated. If he didn’t want the captain to have a few choice words for him, he’d better start listening.
“Oh, thank you, Detective, but you don’t have to open the door for me. I know you’ve much more important things to worry about.”
Seriously? “Please get in the car, Miss Knox, or I won’t be able to see to those important things.”
She giggled like a schoolgirl and climbed in. “Of course.”
Caleb walked around the back of the car. Thus far, he didn’t see how Destiny Knox had the brains to write a believable mystery. Maybe she was penning a true crime novel. Either way, he didn’t particularly care. He slid into his seat and started the engine, already focused on what he’d find at the scene. A young woman, dead.
Miss Knox pulled on her seatbelt then twisted to face him. “So, Detective. You have a plain car.”
“It’s got all the bells and whistles if I need them. Let me know if you get cold, I’ll turn on the heat.”
“I’m fine. I like that gun in your shoulder strap. Can I hold it?”
“Can I see it?”
“No.” From the dancing humor of her eyes, she was laughing at him. He really didn’t want to indulge her.
“Ok. How long have you worked homicide?”
“About a month.”
“Ahh, a newbie. You know much?”
“More than you, apparently.”
Miss Knox giggled again and pulled out her notebook. “Touché. What did you do before?”
“Before I became a cop or before I made detective?”
“You did something else before you became a cop?”
“Ok…let’s go with what you did before you became a detective.”
“I guess you’ve seen your share of gang war, drugs, and hookers.”
He grinned over at her. “Yeah. You look just like one. Was that your intent?”
“I didn’t want to stand out at a crime scene.”
“Didn’t want to stand…Where did you think we were going? A brothel?”
“Sorry. Guess I didn’t think that through.”
“We’re visiting a residential area…the victim’s home, and you look like…” He glanced at her bowed head and relented. “Tomorrow, please wear something with a little less…color.”
Her head jerked up. “But this is black.”
With one look, he quailed whatever else she’d been about to say. She nodded. “Yes, sir. Something with less…color. Jeans and a t-shirt?”
She turned away from him to gaze out the window. She seemed a small, forlorn figure compared to the bubbly young woman who’d gotten into his car. Already her exotic perfume had filled the air. Eventually, he’d have to open a window. When another five minutes passed in utter silence, he sighed. “Ask your questions.”
She fastened on him, eyes hopeful again, then clicked her pen. “What is the system for investigating a murder?”
“System? That’s a misnomer if ever I heard one. There’s no system in place, and we have more than 3,000 jurisdictions in our country.”
“Sheesh! Three thousand? If everybody does it differently, how do criminals ever get caught?”
“There are basic protocols and procedures, but it will make more sense once you see it in action. Essentially, when we get there, the scene will be locked down. No one goes in or out without going on the list and no one touches anything until the entire area is photographed. That should already be in progress.” He slowed as he approached a long line of parked vehicles with flashing lights. “And here we are.” He glanced at her one last time. “Try to stay…Just write your questions and ask me later…please.”
Caleb rolled down his window and a rush of cool, fresh air wafted in the car. He flashed his badge at the uniformed officer blocking their advance. “Detective Forest.”
The unie nodded and pointed. “They’re waiting for you, Detective.”
Caleb parked the car and turned to Miss Knox. “Put this on and don’t take it off.”
She reached for the lanyard he held out, slid it over her head, then lifted the plastic I.D. to study it. “Visitor. Trent City Police Department.”
With a nod, Caleb grabbed his voice recorder and camera then climbed out, not waiting to see if Miss Knox followed. When he reached the yellow taped-off line, he held up his badge again. “Detective Caleb Forest and Destiny Knox. Miss Knox, please show your driver’s license to the officer.”
The young man copied their information and allowed them to pass. Caleb clipped his badge at his waist and lifted the yellow tape for Miss Knox. Briefly, he studied the faces in the crowd, the usual nosy old lady, an elderly couple, some housewives…just who you’d expect to see home at ten in the morning. Any one of whom could be a suspect or a curious onlooker. He snapped pictures of each. From the corner of his eye, he noted Miss Knox open her mouth, but she raised her notebook instead and wrote something. He hid a smile.
Zack Pemberly strode toward him and gestured at Miss Knox, his blond brows raised in question. Caleb rolled his eyes. He was never going to live this down.
“What have you got, Pemberly?”
“Coroner’s ready to cart the body away whenever you’re done. Seems a mail carrier showed up a couple hours ago with a package that needed a signature, found the front door open, announced herself, peered inside and sighted the victim on the floor. She called it in.”
“She still here?”
“Yeah. Over there.” He pointed at the ambulance. “She lost her breakfast, but she’s fine.”
Caleb scowled. “Was the scene compromised?”
“Not by her. Says she never went inside, but with the door open, anything could have blown in…or out.”
“Make sure she comes by the station later to sign her statement.”
They’d reached the front of the house, and Caleb paused to take more pictures, of the ground, the sidewalk, the doorway, the driveway, then he turned suddenly and took another shot of the crowd. Only then did he face Pemberly. “You got a cast of all the footprints?”
“On it. If you and your…” He looked at Miss Knox pointedly.
“This is Destiny Knox,” Caleb said. “She’s a friend of the captain, and she’ll be with us for the duration.”
Pemberly offered Miss Knox a wide smile, which she reciprocated. “How do you do, Miss Knox? I’m Detective Zack Pemberly.”
“Call me Destiny.” Her lashes fluttered several times, and Caleb choked on a laugh when Pemberly’s smile turned idiotic. Was his partner developing a crush already?
“Sure. I’m Zack,” Pemberly said, taking Miss Knox by the hand. “If you’ll just allow me to get a shoe impression, Destiny, you can join Detective Forest in the house.”
Caleb followed at a slower pace, giving Pemberly plenty of opportunity to make a fool of himself as he held Destiny stable, managing to put his arm around her trim waist, while she made impressions with her shoes. Not that stilettos offered much in the way of prints. Caleb repeated the process with his own shoes, and the trio stepped in the doorway.
Pemberly helped Miss Knox put on a pair of gloves, put hospital booties on her shoes, which looked ridiculous, then placed a mask over her face. Finally, they were ready to visit the scene.
Barely three steps in the door, and Caleb recognized the chill, damp air from outside had inundated the house. Probably a result of the door being left open all night. Why had the murderer left the door open?
He took picture after picture of every object in the room before he approached the body. Although he could see the Medical Examiner drumming his fingers on his medical bag, Caleb thought Miss Knox might need a few moments to prepare herself for a deceased body. It was a shock to anyone, but a first-time civilian…
At last, he stood over the corpse, taking even more pictures. The M. E. rolled his eyes and shook his head. Pemberly pointed at a tech on the other side of the room. “We did that already, you know.”
Caleb nodded. Snapping photos was his own way of dealing with the stress of seeing a dead woman on the floor, a dead woman with a lot of blood pooled around her face and clothes.
“Umm, why are you taking more photographs with that ruler and leaning like that?” Miss Knox asked.
“It just helps me see what’s here. I lean because you need a 90 degree angle from the surface of the blood stains, and the ruler provides scale so I can tell the size of the drops in the pictures.” Caleb turned to the M. E. “What have you got, Dr. Green?”
“Victim Penny Weathers. She’s been dead approximately 14-16 hours. The back of her head’s been bashed in…probable cause of death, but the killer didn’t stop there.”
“Her tongue is gone.”
Caleb heard a gasp and turned to Miss Knox. Her face was so pale it appeared as if she’d been the one to bleed out on the floor. She held a fist over the mask on her mouth and clamped her notebook against her chest. Her tortured eyes met his.
“Do you need to go outside, Miss Knox?”
She shook her head. Caleb turned back to the murder victim and gently probed open her mouth. “Post-mortem, Dr. Green?”
“Definitely after she died.”
“Pemberly, did you check under the body?”
“Nah. Waited for you.”
Caleb gestured at the woman’s shoulder and Pemberly carefully lifted. After a few quick camera shots of the head wound, Caleb studied the floor underneath. Nothing. But the camera sometimes picked up things he didn’t. He looked across the body at Pemberly. “Any sign of a weapon?”
Caleb focused on the M. E. “You got any ideas?”
“Not really. Something with a blunt edge, not very wide.”
“Ok, bag her and tag her.”
“There’s more.” Pemberly pointed at the hall. “In the kitchen. The killer left a message…probably used the tongue as a paintbrush of sorts.”
They reached the kitchen doorway, and Caleb pulled up short. Against the white cabinets, the trail of bloody letters stood out like something from a horror movie. He focused on the words. Ran her mouth.
A loud gasp sounded beside him, and he studied Miss Knox. Her wide eyes had filled with tears and she looked afraid, really afraid, but she wasn’t looking at the cabinets. She was staring at a partial shoe print on the floor. He patted her awkwardly on the back. She didn’t seem well. Maybe he wouldn’t be stuck with her for long.
Caleb pulled his camera up and photographed the scene, gingerly stepping around the partial print. Once he’d captured several vantage points, he jerked a finger toward the back door. “You check that, Pemberly?”
“It wasn’t forced, and there aren’t any footprints leading to or away from the house. Musta taken his shoes off.”
“Or the killer left that print on purpose, but I don’t think it’s a man.”
He heard a swift intake of breath from Miss Knox, but she failed to meet his eyes.
“You think it’s a woman?” Pemberly asked.
“Small shoe size. Could be a woman or a very small man. But remember this, the doors aren’t forced. Either the vic knew her assailant, or she let the person in. Women don’t usually let strange men in their houses after dark. Fourteen to sixteen hours ago puts it between 6-8 p.m.”
Pemberly nodded. “So, we’re searching for a woman.”
“Maybe. It takes a lot of force to put a hole that size in a skull. That’s another thing…the angle of the blow.”
“The perp was right-handed and slightly above the vic. I just don’t see it. How did a short man or woman get the victim to bend down so they could bash in her head? It had to be someone she trusted.”
“Seems that way. Is there a spouse, any family members, a boyfriend?”
“No spouse. Parents are dead. We’re investigating next of kin. No sign of a boyfriend. No photos or clothes in the closets belonging to a man.”
“All right. I’ll start the measurements and you canvass the neighbors. Maybe somebody observed something.” Caleb put a hand on Miss Knox’ shoulder, and she jumped. “Sorry. Would you like to assist me?”
She nodded and followed him back to the living room. The body was gone, but the blood and taped-out shape on the sand-colored carpet was a stark reminder of what they’d just seen.
Caleb retrieved a crime unit duffle and pulled out a measuring tape. Miss Knox had been unusually quiet. Then again, perhaps not, considering she’d just seen her first stiff.
“All right, Miss Knox. I’m the victim.” He squatted slightly. “She was about five-eight and facing away from her assailant. Not much blood spatter, but what there is went in that direction so the killer must have been…Come stand behind me.”
Miss Knox dutifully walked behind him, giving a wide berth to the white tape and blood. “Why did you say there wasn’t much blood? It’s…all over the floor.”
He stopped what he was doing to look directly at her. “The blow to the head knocked her to the floor and dazed her. It was probably the killing blow, but there wasn’t much blood for spatter because no artery was severed. No pooling of blood in the wound. If she’d been hit again, there would be more spatter.”
“Oh…ok. Is this where you want me?”
“Perfect. Now, if I’m Penny Weathers, why did I turn my back? Was I walking toward the couch?”
“If the murderer is short like you said, the angle is wrong.” Her voice sounded weak and muffled through the mask.
“Very good, Miss Knox. From the placement of the body and the spatter, the victim had to be facing this direction. Swing at my head as if you’re the murderer.”
She stared for several seconds then stepped closer. After raising her fist over him, she swung down in slow motion. Caleb squatted lower and lower until Miss Knox could reach the proper perspective.
“There we go,” he said. “We don’t know the height of the perp but this should give us an idea. How tall are you…without the stilettos?”
“Good enough.” He looked back at the numbered evidence markers. “Where were we? Come on, Penny Weathers, talk to me. What were you doing when you got your head bashed in?”
Caleb studied every object from that vantage. The victim couldn’t have reached the couch or the coffee table, which left the end table. He glanced back at Miss Knox. “What do you think?”
“That’s all there is.”
“I agree.” Caleb slid open the single front drawer. “Ahh.” He added an evidence marker, raised the camera, and took a picture. “Blood spatter. This drawer was open when Miss Weathers got conked.”
“What’s in it?”
“Nothing…now, but she wouldn’t have reached for an empty drawer.”
“Unless she meant to put something in, not take something out.”
“True, but why would you put something away when you had a visitor standing behind you? If it had been something the killer just handed her, she would have placed it on the coffee table or set it on the couch. She probably wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to immediately hide something away. No…she was taking something out or putting something back.”
Caleb faced Miss Knox. “Where is it now? The killer would have had to take it.”
“They took the tongue.”
“We’ll check gun registry and question the neighbors and co-workers to see if she owned a gun.”
Another man approached them from the kitchen, and Caleb took Miss Knox by the elbow. “It’s time to leave. The tech is here to fingerprint the rooms.” He nodded at the man. “Make sure you check that small drawer. It was open.”
When they reached the yard, Caleb pulled off his mask and took a deep breath. The clotting smell of blood was repugnant whether or not the corpse had begun to rot. He clapped Miss Knox on the back. “You can take that off. Got any questions?”
“About a hundred…or more.”
“Can it wait until we speak with the neighbors?”
“Yes, of course.”
Caleb paused a moment to consider his new scintillating partner in crime. Miss Knox was hot, even with her hair teased in a pouf and enough eye make-up for two, or even three, women. From the sideways looks she’d been getting from male members of his crew, he wasn’t the only one to think so. She appeared oblivious. A dead body can do that to you.
“Do you always wear that much make-up?”
“Look, I get it, Detective. Less color. Can we just move on?”
He held out a hand to the line of people still gawking at the yellow tape. “Be my guest.”
Though Caleb had urged Miss Knox forward, somehow he found himself facing the crowd of neighbors alone. He took a deep breath, gave her a hard stare that said, ‘Get your butt over here,’ then waited for her to comply. Very slowly, she moved toward him then stopped just behind him. For a woman who said she wanted to be part of his investigation, she certainly was reluctant.
Instead of grinding his teeth, Caleb turned to the blue-haired matron that radiated ‘busy-body.’ “I’m Detective Forest. I’d like to ask you some questions, ma’am.”
Her eyes lit with interest. “Absolutely. Is she dead? The girl? Was it murder?”
“And your name is…”
“Caroline Morris. 2231 Applewood.”
“You live next door to the victim.”
“Aren’t you going to write that down?”
Caleb smiled and patted his pocket. “Verbal notes, ma’am, and I’ve uh…got a secretary.” He nudged Miss Knox forward, who peeked up from her notebook then returned to her note-taking.
“You seem familiar.” The old lady’s eyes narrowed as she peered at Miss Knox. “Have we met?”
“This is Destiny Knox, the author. Perhaps you’ve seen her photo somewhere, Ms. Morris. Did you notice anyone entering the premises of the deceased, say, yesterday evening?”
“Didn’t see anyone all night, but there was someone yesterday.”
“Man or woman? Anyone you recognize?”
“A woman…about Penny’s age. I’d definitely know her if I saw her. Cute little thing. Dark brown hair to the shoulder.” She leaned toward Miss Knox again. “Are you sure we haven’t met?”
“Positive.” Miss Knox offered the woman a polite smile. “When you say little, do you mean short?”
“Well, shorter than you, honey. Course, she had on tennis shoes.”
Caleb frowned. “Why would you notice tennis shoes?”
“They were bright pink, kind of neon, really. Couldn’t miss them.”
“Did she go inside? Did she and Penny appear to know one another?”
“Oh, yeah. They hugged at the door, though Penny seemed surprised to see her. Her face lit up like a Christmas tree.”
“So, they were friends. And what time was this?”
Ms. Morris heaved a sigh and wrinkled up her face. “Way before lunch, ’cause my soaps wasn’t on yet.” She snapped her fingers. “It was about 10:30. That’s when Gladys called, and I was holding the phone when I looked out the window. Gladys always calls at 10:30. Her soap starts at 11, and she don’t like to be interrupted.”
Caleb nodded. “That’s very helpful. Do you know if Penny had any boyfriends…any regular callers?”
“No. The only guy that ever came round was that accountant fella. Kinda bookish if you ask me. Penny sure didn’t take to him, but I think he was more interested than her.”
“Why do you think Penny didn’t like him?”
“Body language. Isn’t that what they call it now? He was always leanin’ in, and she was always leanin’ back. Don’t get me wrong, she didn’t dislike him. She just wasn’t…interested.”
“I don’t suppose you’d know his name?” Caleb practically held his breath as he waited. As much as it seemed like a woman had been involved, the brutality of the crime bespoke a man.
“Uhhh, let me think. Jared, maybe? Jonathan?” She gasped. “Wait. I’ve got his business card. When he first came to visit, Penny didn’t want me to think anything was going on, so she gave me his card. Not that I would ever assume that.”
“The card, Ms. Morris? Could I escort you home?” Caleb reached for her elbow, and the old bag smiled with self-satisfied pride. He glanced back at Miss Knox. “I’ll meet you at the car.”
She nodded briefly then tottered away on her stilts. Caleb turned his attention to Ms. Morris. “Would you say this accountant was a regular visitor?”
“Not really. He came by a few times around tax time, but Penny didn’t have a lot of money, so I guess she didn’t have much need of an accountant.”
“What did Miss Weathers do for a living?”
“Physical therapist at a spa. I guess you’ll want to know which one. It was Tonic Town.” She shook her head, and blue-grey curls fell over her forehead. “No, that was their café, like a coffee shop. She used to bring me sandwiches until I told her I really couldn’t stomach any more tofu. The spa was called…Tonics and Tones.”
“For the body, you know. That’s what Penny did, massage and body toning.”
They reached a tidy single floor dwelling of a non-descript faded blue color. Caleb paused on the porch, but Ms. Morris waved him in. “Come on, come on. Won’t be a minute.”
While she fished through a drawer in a side table, Caleb surveyed her cluttered home. Just like his grandmother’s, littered with family memorabilia and knick-knacks on every surface. It smelled different, though. More like menthol and eucalyptus than his grandmother’s lavender, and stifling hot. Ms. Morris had her heater cranked on high.
Caleb stepped closer to the open door and hauled out his phone to pull up a picture of Destiny Knox from the internet. She looked completely different with her hair down…and not coated with pink glitter. She had really lovely green eyes, too, when they weren’t painted several shades of blue.
He glanced up as Ms. Morris held out a small card.
“That’s her,” she said. “Yes, that’s Penny’s friend who came by yesterday.”
Caleb stared at Ms. Morris then he scanned the face on his phone. Thank goodness, he had such a large screen, or Ms. Morris might not have noticed that Destiny Knox was his murder victim’s mysterious caller yesterday. He flipped it shut and reached for the business card. “By the way, did Penny own a gun?”
“Absolutely not. After her grandma died, she sold that old thing of her grandfather’s. Said she didn’t want a gun in the house.”
“What kind of gun was it?”
“Thank you very much, Ms. Morris. We’ll be in touch.”
He walked out of the house in a daze. Why hadn’t Miss Knox informed him she knew Penny? Why hadn’t she mentioned she was here the day before? Most important, what was her true motive for asking to join the murder detail?
This put a whole new spin on her appearance. It now seemed more like a disguise, one that almost worked. How did he play this? Should he tell the captain that his old friend’s granddaughter was a person of interest?
Caleb’s feet ground into gravel as he marched toward his vehicle. In this particular instance, it might be safer to keep Miss Knox on the investigation so he could maintain an eye on her. He didn’t have anything incriminating yet. Her visit to the deceased was hours before the murder. Yes, he would keep her around. He grinned as he reached her side. This could get interesting.
“Ready, Miss Knox?” He opened her door and waited for her to climb in. “I hope you gleaned sufficient material for your book.”
“It’s definitely coming along. How about you? Did you get the name of the victim’s male friend?”
He hadn’t even bothered to read it. “I did.”
He started the car then passed the card her way. A little intake of breath was the only indication that she might recognize the name.
“Jeffrey Seymour. CPA. Looks like Penny was telling the truth about needing an accountant.”
“Maybe, but I’ll still have to question him. She saw him last about two months ago. It may not have ended well.”
“Why are we leaving? Aren’t you going to question any more neighbors?”
“I’m going to let Pemberly handle it. We’re gonna track down Jeffrey Seymour. Is that all right?”
She twisted her hands together. “Sure. Will you call him and have him meet you at the station?”
“I thought we’d go straight to his office. I’d like to catch him before anyone else has a chance to speak to him.”
She gawked at her dress.
“Something wrong, Miss Knox?”
“I was thinking about what you said…less color. Perhaps I should change.”
Caleb almost laughed. Yes, this could definitely get interesting. Apparently, Miss Knox knew Jeffrey Seymour as well.