Authors: Trish Milburn
Published by Trish Milburn at Amazon.com
Copyright 2011 Trish Milburn
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Sydney Blackburn headed down the hill toward the lakeshore and the Metro patrolman guarding the body below. She carefully followed the same path the officer had, disturbing the crime scene as little as possible.
As she drew closer, she noted the officer’s youth and jittery stance. She didn’t blame him for being creeped out by being alone in the woods with a dead body. But if he proved as green in experience as appearance, she might glean some useful information from him before the detectives showed up and shooed her behind an outer perimeter.
She glanced beyond the officer to where the body lay obscured from the road above and the lake below by stands of trees and scattered bushes. The gorge rose in her throat, forcing her to swallow against it. No matter how many corpses she saw it never got easier – no matter what the cops said. Ensuring justice was done required strong determination and an even stronger stomach.
At least it was a cool October morning and not a sweltering July day. If she’d smelled the body as well as seen it, she knew from experience that she wouldn’t be able to move this close to the scene. She aimed to make a difference with her writing, but she had physical limits she’d learned to accept.
"Crap," she muttered as she slipped for the third time on the frosty leaves covering the ground.
The officer’s eyes widened as Sydney righted herself and met his gaze.
"Ma’am, don’t come any closer. This is a crime scene." He increased the distance between his feet and shifted so his right side and his holstered Glock faced slightly away from her.
Sydney tried to smile to reassure him. "Hello, Officer..." She paused and squinted to read his name. "Officer Curtis, I’m Sydney Blackburn with
The Nashville Courier
." She nodded toward the figure cloaked in shadows and fallen leaves. "How long ago was the body discovered?"
"You’ll have to talk to the detectives when they get here," he said.
"Okay." Ignoring her revolting stomach, she strained her eyes to discern as much about the scene behind the officer as she could before those no-nonsense detectives showed up. "Female, right?"
He hesitated. "Yes, ma’am."
"How was she killed?"
"The detectives or the medical examiner will need to answer that."
"You’re right, of course. Who found her?"
A car door slammed at the top of the hill, followed by another. Damn, the cavalry had arrived. She wouldn’t be able to squeeze so much as a breath out of the patrolman once the suits reached them. She flipped open her reporter’s notebook to scribble down details.
Body well hidden. Remnants of fog creeping back toward the shore of Percy Priest Lake from among the sycamores, oaks and maples. The faint slapping of the waves against the shore.
Heavy footfalls sounded on the hill above her, slipping in those same wet leaves. Blue curses scorched the air as those footsteps descended toward her.
She continued to write as fast as she could without looking over her shoulder.
Corps of Engineers property. Body appears nude. Blonde.
Her heart hitched. Was the victim Maggie Field, the missing young woman she’d written about the week before?
"Damn it. Why the hell is she down here?"
Sydney turned to face the irritated detective. Though she’d only been at the
for a month, she’d been a reporter enough years to know she wasn’t who he wanted to see when he arrived at the scene of a death.
But whatever question she’d been about to ask Mr. Homicide Detective died somewhere between her brain and lips. She swallowed against the dryness invading her mouth. Nope. She’d never met this detective. No way would she forget such a brain-melting specimen of tall, tanned and sinfully handsome male.
Six-feet-four if he was an inch. Cop-short hair the color of bittersweet chocolate, eyes so brown they almost shone black, a fine physique filling out his navy sport coat and khaki slacks.
"She just arrived. I was keeping the scene secure," Officer Curtis said.
"Well, you’re not doing a very good job of it," the detective said. "Get her out of here before she contaminates the scene any more than she already has."
That comment snapped Sydney out of her daze. "I’ll stay out of the way."
"You’re right. You will."
He moved past her without so much as a second glance.
"I’d like to stay nearby, observe the evidence collection process," she said, trying to keep her voice as friendly as possible. She wasn’t invading his space just for a sensational story, but he had no way of knowing that. He could be a good cop, but she didn’t know that.
"Wait for the press release like everyone else."
Heat rushed to Sydney’s face. What a jerk. To heck with friendly.
"Well, I see they hired you for your fine public persona," she muttered as she slapped her notebook shut.
He turned toward her, then directed those intense eyes straight at hers. She nearly choked on her own breath.
His slow, precise response seemed a front for barely contained anger. "They hired me because I’m good at catching the bad guys — at least when I have a half decent crime scene to work with."
As abruptly as he’d faced her, he turned away and moved toward the body.
Officer Curtis stepped to her side. "Ma’am."
"I’m going." With her knees oddly shaky, she climbed the hill. Officer Curtis followed to ensure her complete exit from the scene. Or maybe he wanted to put distance between himself and Detective Charm. His reason didn’t matter, but the result remained the same. She’d gathered about one sentence of information more than she’d had when the call had come over the police scanner.
How could she help the family of the dead woman find the answers they would need if she couldn’t see the story firsthand and had to depend on the distilled details the police released? And they always held back important information. No one knew that better than her.
When Sydney reached the road where she’d left her car, she found it blocked by the detective’s department-issue Chevy. Channel 10's Donna Fratella and her cameraman nearly leapt from their van. Donna walked over to where Sydney leaned against her car.
"How’d you get here so quickly?" Donna asked, a bit of snarky suspicion lacing her question.
"I heard the call on my way to work. I was only a couple of miles from here."
"Find out anything?"
"Nope." Not that she would share much. She liked Donna okay, but in the short time she’d been in Nashville Sydney had concluded they had different philosophies about the purpose of a free press. Sydney used journalism as a tool to protect the public. Donna used it to generate airtime and ratings.
"I was afraid of that when I saw Super Cop headed down the hill."
Sydney’s curiosity won out over her innate desire not to be one-upped by another journalist, especially not a television reporter. "Super Cop?"
"Yeah. Jake Radley. Beautiful to look at, pain in the rear to interview." Donna turned her attention from Officer Curtis standing at the edge of the hill. "You’ve met Radley before, haven’t you?"
"Guess they send me the less-than-super cops. But you’re right about the pain part. He pitched me out of there like I’d been dancing an Irish jig on top of the body."
"He takes his job seriously, very seriously. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it makes my life more difficult."
If it produced results, Sydney might forgive Radley’s superior attitude. But she wasn’t banking on it.
Donna nodded toward Officer Curtis. "How about this guy? He talking?"
Sydney crossed her arms. "Let’s just say Super Cop scared him straight."
"Well, hell." Donna turned to head back toward the TV van.
Sydney smiled at the response, mild for Donna. Thousands of viewers throughout Nashville knew Donna as a petite brunette with an angelic smile. What they didn’t know was that she could cuss the hair off a dog. That Sydney had learned the first time they’d both shown up on the scene of a shooting and the officer in charge told Donna to turn the TV camera off or he was going to toss it in the Cumberland River.
Within minutes, two more patrol cars and three additional news vans clogged the side of the road. Still, no one got any farther than the edge of the pavement.
Sydney leaned against her car and let her mind wander. Now that she couldn’t see the dead woman, her stomach had calmed and she was able to wonder about the victim. Was it Maggie Field? If not, who? How old was she? Did she have family? Had she been reported missing? Had she been murdered?
With so little to go on, Sydney put the brakes on her questions. When she did, she realized the hunger she’d felt prior to arriving at the crime scene had returned. She leaned halfway into her car and scrounged in her traveling bag of snacks, a necessity for long hours on crime scenes. She picked a candy bar, then pushed herself up to sit on the trunk of the car.
Even if she wanted to leave, she couldn’t with the detective’s car blocking hers. She wondered whether his parking spot might have been by design. Sure, she was a reporter, but she wasn’t the stereotype. She cared about a great deal more than readership, and it irked her that Radley hadn’t given her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were even — he didn’t trust her to keep her mouth shut, and she didn’t trust him to open his.
Sydney shook her head. Typical that such a heart-stoppingly attractive man had to be paired with a thorny disposition. Not that she was looking for a man.
She slipped the last bite of her candy bar into her mouth just as the evidence guys showed up.
The morning progressed with no word from beyond Officer Curtis and his two assistants. Sydney called the paper to tell Bill, her editor, she would miss the morning staff meeting. She also placed a fruitless call to the Corps of Engineers. With nothing left to do but wait, she leaned back against the rear window of her car. The gradually warming sun soaked into her, making her drowsy. Another slice in the oh-so-glamorous life of a police beat reporter.
When she closed her eyes, Detective Radley’s face materialized. Super Cop, huh? He might be a good detective, but super she doubted. Super hinted at perfect, and no cop was perfect. Sometimes the bad guys got away.
Radley’s image faded only to be replaced by her mother’s, as clear as it’d been that last morning more than twenty years before. A chill ran down Sydney’s spine, propelling her to a sitting position. She stared at the cluster of police officials standing at the crest of the hill, imagined the I.D. team combing the scene beyond. Maybe they’d find what they needed to ensure that this time a killer didn’t go free.
And if they didn’t, somehow she would.
Jake stepped carefully toward the nude body, searching the ground for clues as he moved. When he reached her side, he noted the chocolate candy placed on her slightly parted lips.
Despite her pale, lifeless face, Jake pictured Maggie Field as the smiling young woman in the photo her parents had given police when they’d discovered her missing three weeks before.
Kevin O’Malley, one of his fellow Murder Squad detectives, stepped up beside him. "Oh, hell. Please tell me I’m not seeing what I’m seeing."
"No such luck." Jake crouched beside Maggie’s body. "Same signature as Stephanie Mortimer."
"Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, and we have ourselves a serial killer."
The evidence collection team arrived then dived immediately into combing the scene for fibers, shoeprints, blood, anything that might point toward Maggie’s killer.
Kevin indicated the chocolate. "You think Sydney saw that?"
"Sydney Blackburn, the reporter you ran off."
"I don’t know. Hope not. The last thing I need is a nosey reporter running her mouth and ruining what chance we might have to catch this guy."
"I hear she’s persistent. Better make a mad dash for the car when you get up there."
"She’s the least of my worries."
Jake stood back while the evidence team made the most of what their mystery killer had left behind. They scoured each leaf near the body while Harry Prewitt, the medical examiner, took temperature and humidity readings to better determine Maggie’s time of death.
"So, what’s the verdict, Harry?"
"Nothing for sure until the autopsy, but it looks like she was strangled from the front. The killer used his hands."
"Just like Stephanie Mortimer."
The morning passed as Metro’s finest scrutinized every inch of the scene. Jake glanced at Maggie’s face again before they lifted her into a body bag. Though she’d been dead at least several hours, her beauty hadn’t totally faded. She, like Stephanie Mortimer four months earlier, possessed youth, a luscious body and golden blond hair. And like Stephanie, Maggie had been violated, strangled and posed after her death. A distinctive piece of chocolate had been placed on her lips when they’d still held enough warmth to melt the chocolate the merest bit.
Jake’s empty stomach rolled. Damn sick bastard.
With the scene wrapped up, he called the office on his cell. "Radley here. Is the fisherman who discovered this 10-64 still there?"
"Yep, he’s here and as white as rice."
A surge of movement beyond the patrol officers roused Sydney. The medical examiner and the evidence team emerged from the forest. The TV reporters converged on them, desperate for any scraps of information they could film for the noon newscasts. The department’s public information officer ran interference, placing herself between the reporters and the professionals leaving the scene. Sydney ambled up behind them, then flipped open her notebook.
She harbored no illusions that the press conference would divulge anything of great consequence. Just the basics. Sydney scribbled key facts.
White female. Mid- to late twenties. Found by a fisherman at approximately 5:30 a.m. The fisherman’s name would not be available until after he’d been questioned by the detectives.
"Who’s the lead detective in this case?" Donna asked.
"Will we be able to speak to Detective Radley?" a reporter from Channel 3 asked.