Authors: Melinda Leigh
ALSO BY MELINDA LEIGH
She Can Series
She Can Run
She Can Tell
She Can Scream
She Can Hide
He Can Fall
(A Short Story)
Scarlet Falls Novels
Hour of Need
Minutes to Kill
Rogue River Novellas
Gone to Her Grave
Walking on Her Grave
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Melinda Leigh
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by Marc J. Cohen
eath never took a holiday.
Rogue County Special Investigator Seth Harding parked his cruiser and stepped out into the gravel lane that led to the recreation area. A light snowfall the night before had coated the region in an inch of white powder. Snow clung to fir trees and covered dormant grass. Like most of southwestern Oregon, the scenery was postcard beautiful—except for the small group of uniforms gathered around the dead body.
The parking area and the open space between the lot and the body were marked off with cones and crime scene tape. Seth walked past the medical examiner’s van and a half-dozen patrol vehicles lined up along the lane. Tires grated as a county forensics van pulled in behind Seth’s cruiser. He preferred to be one of the first on scene, but the forty-five-minute drive from his small town of Solitude to the crime scene in the county seat of Hannon had set him back.
Standing next to his patrol vehicle, Deputy Phil Harrison waved him over. “Seth! Good to have you back.” In his late twenties, Phil was a hard worker with ambition. A snowflake landed on the wide brim of his campaign hat.
“Thanks.” Despite the tragic nature of the case, Seth was glad to be back in the Major Crimes division. He’d spent most of the previous year on an interagency drug task force. The assignment had been good experience, but he’d missed investigating his own cases. In his soul he was a cop, not an administrator. Being a liaison had given him a headache, and the insane hours had been rough on his marriage. Seth and his wife had reconciled in September after a seven-month separation. Now that he had her back in his life, he wouldn’t let anything come between them again.
“What can you tell me, Phil?” Seth asked as they headed toward the remains.
“At seven thirty this morning, those three teenage boys were hotdogging on their ATVs when they spotted the dead woman.” Phil gestured toward the other side of the small park, where a public boat ramp provided access to the Rogue River. A deputy sat at a picnic table with three teenage boys dressed in orange and camouflage winter gear. Their ATVs were circled like wagons next to the Porta-John. Behind them the river flowed, moody and dark under a heavy gray sky. Seth’s temper matched the gloomy weather.
No one should die two days before Christmas. No one.
“It’s the first day of winter vacation, and they wanted to get out before the snow melted,” Phil continued.
Seth nodded. When he left the house, his seven-year-old daughter, Brianna, had already been suiting up to go outside, determined to scrape enough snow together to build a snowman. Snow in this region was a rare event and didn’t last long. Kids tried to make the most of it. He scanned the area. “Looks like they had a hell of a good time before they found her.”
To avoid destroying any more footprints, they skirted the open area. Overlapping circles of tire tracks crisscrossed the ground, obliterating the layer of snow. The sliding, knobby treads had torn up the grass and dirt, and a cluster of footprints leading toward the trees suggested the kids had dismounted to take a closer look at the body.
“Tire tracks and footprints will be a problem,” Phil said.
“Could it be Samantha Lyle?” Seth asked. The twenty-one-year-old waitress had gone missing after an argument with her boyfriend two months before. The most common hypothesis in the sheriff’s office was that her boyfriend had killed her but had been clever about disposing of her body.
“I doubt it,” Phil said. “This woman hasn’t been dead long.”
They approached the huddle of uniforms at the edge of the trees. Seth signed in with the deputy in charge of the logbook. Then he and Phil ducked under the yellow crime scene tape strung between the trees. People parted to give them room. A deputy was snapping pictures of the body from varying angles and distances. The Rogue County medical examiner crouched next to the remains, a folded black body bag and his field kit on the ground within reach.
Seth’s gaze dropped to the victim.
Barely ten feet into the winter-bare woods, she lay facedown in the dirt under the spreading branches of an evergreen. A red jacket and a thin layer of snow made her look like an obscene package stuffed under a Christmas tree. Dead leaves and twigs matted long, dark hair that reminded Seth far too much of his wife. The gender of his victim shouldn’t make a difference, but it did to Seth. Violent crime always felt more offensive when women or children were involved.
“Hank?” Seth called to the ME.
Hank, sixtyish and built like Santa, glanced over his shoulder. Just under the band of a navy-blue knit cap, a snowflake stuck to one bushy black-and-gray eyebrow. “There you are, Seth. Been waiting for you.”
“I appreciate that.” A vague sense of disquiet fell over Seth as he studied the victim. She was petite. Her body and clothing looked youthful. Snow dusted the back of her head, jacket, and jeans, indicating she’d been on the ground before or during the previous night’s light snowfall. There was something about her that was raising the hairs on the back of Seth’s neck. Something he couldn’t quite pinpoint but instinctively knew was important.
What is it?
“What can you tell me?” he asked the ME.
“She’s fresh.” Hank waved toward her torso. “I’ll give you a tighter window after the autopsy, but it appears she’s been dead less than twelve hours, but probably more than six.”
Seth did the math in his head. “So she died between eight o’clock last night and two o’clock this morning.” The estimate correlated with the previous night’s weather. The storm had started around ten, and light snow had fallen on and off until dawn, with some flurries since. “Any identification on the body?”
Hank shook his head. “Her pockets are empty, except for a ChapStick and a lollipop in her jacket.”
“No sign of a purse yet,” Phil said.
Hank shifted his soft bulk and lifted her hair. Bruises circled her neck. “Manual strangulation is a strong contender for cause of death.”
Seth leaned in to examine her hands. “Looks like she resisted. She has a couple of broken nails. Let’s hope she got a chunk of DNA under one of them.”
Straightening, he took in the empty area. Except for the three boys, there was no one in sight but law enforcement personnel. Whoever dumped her had probably assumed the park would be empty. The boat ramp didn’t get much use this time of year. If the teens hadn’t been so pumped up to do doughnuts in the snow, weeks could have passed before anyone made the gruesome discovery.
“Was she killed here?” Seth asked.
Hank lifted the hem of her jacket and pointed to purple stains that colored the skin close to where it rested on the ground. “From what I can see, lividity suggests she’s been in this position since she died.” When the heart stopped pumping, blood settled in the lowest parts of the body and turned the skin purple. “If she wasn’t killed in this location, she was dumped here soon after death.”
“When can you do the autopsy?” Seth asked.
“I’ll try to get it done today.” Hank looked up at the photographer. “Are you finished with the preliminary pictures?”
The cop nodded.
“Then let’s get her to the morgue.” Hank unfolded the body bag next to the corpse and slipped paper bags over the hands to preserve the evidence that might be lodged under the fingernails. “Want to give me a hand turning her over, Seth?”
But Seth crouched next to the body and helped the older ME gently roll her over onto the open bag. Shock snapped his head back. Instead of sightless brown eyes and white-as-frost skin, Seth was seeing a pretty brunette standing in his mother-in-law’s kitchen. He placed his hands on his knees and stared, disbelief and horror swirling in his gut. “I know her.”
“How?” Phil asked with a surprised lift to one eyebrow.
Seth stood, his mind reeling. “Her name is Amber Lynn Cooper, and she’s my brother-in-law Bruce’s girlfriend.”
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Stepping back, Seth dialed Bruce’s cell phone number, but the call went directly to voice mail. He left a message asking Bruce to call him immediately. He rubbed the back of his neck, a bad feeling churning in his belly.
Damn it, Bruce. Where are you?
Twenty-three-year-old Bruce Taylor still lived with his mother on the family farm. Seth, his wife, and their daughter also lived on the property, but in a separate small guest cabin. Seth worked long hours and so did his wife, Carly, a social worker. Having a grandmother on hand 24-7 to babysit had taken some of the stress off Carly and Seth’s marriage.
Seth called home. When no one answered, he dialed Carly’s cell number. But she didn’t pick up. He left a message for her too. He glanced back at Amber’s body, and his insides twisted.
“Was Bruce with her last night?” Phil asked.
“I don’t know,” Seth said. “Bruce plays guitar in a band. They don’t usually perform on weekdays, but they got a few extra gigs over the holidays. Sometimes Amber sings with them too, when she can get a babysitter.”
“She has a kid?” Phil’s mouth flattened.
“Yes. Single mom.” Seth turned back toward his cruiser. “I need to get to Amber’s place. I could use backup.” The county was experiencing the usual holiday surge of thefts, suicides, and violent crimes. Investigators were stretched thin.
They jogged to their cars. Phil waited next to the open door of Seth’s cruiser while Seth used his dashboard-mounted laptop to obtain Amber’s address. She lived in an apartment on the other side of Hannon. Seth led the way. In ten minutes they were parked outside a low-budget apartment complex. Three tan brick buildings edged a weedy courtyard. The parking lot formed the fourth side of the square. Seth scanned the cracked asphalt but didn’t see Bruce’s van.
Amber Lynn had lived in a one-bedroom unit on the first floor. A wreath adorned the door, and a single strand of colored Christmas lights bordered the window that faced the parking lot. Standing aside, Seth knocked on the door. No one answered. He knocked again. “Police! Is anyone inside?”
A door six units down the row opened, and an older woman stepped out onto the concrete. She took in Phil’s uniform, and concern lowered her gray brows. “Are you looking for Amber Lynn?”
Seth and Phil walked to her apartment door.
“Do you know her?” Seth asked.
“I’m Ethel Kaminsky. I babysit for Amber Lynn.” She opened her door and let them into a small living room. In one corner an artificial Christmas tree stood behind a baby gate barricade. A dark-eyed toddler knelt in front of a plastic barn. One chubby hand gripped a toy sheep. She turned big, brown eyes on Seth, and his heart ached.
“Do you live here alone, ma’am?” Seth asked.
She nodded. “I lost my husband twenty years ago.”
“Can we talk in the other room?” Seth asked.
Mrs. Kaminsky glanced at the baby and sniffed. “Of course.”
Seth tapped Phil on the arm. “Keep an eye on the baby.”
Phil squatted next to the child and picked up a fist-size plastic cow.
Mrs. Kaminsky led Seth into the kitchen. She angled her body to keep the baby within sight through the doorway. No frail old lady, she was tall and stout, with short white hair. Hard lines pulled at the corners of her mouth, as if she already knew what had happened. Her eyes were bleak. “Tell me.”
Seth did, using a quiet voice even though he knew the child in the next room couldn’t understand what he was saying.
“Oh no.” The news seemed to take Mrs. Kaminsky’s breath away. “I knew something was wrong when Amber Lynn wasn’t here bright and early to pick up Charlotte.” She eased into a chair.
“Are you all right, ma’am?”
“Was it typical for you to keep the baby all night?”
“Only when Amber Lynn sang with the band. There was no point in waking the little one, or me, after midnight.” Mrs. Kaminsky pressed her fingertips to her brow. “Oh my goodness. That poor baby.”
Phil cleared his throat from the doorway. “She doesn’t want to stay in the other room.”
The baby tottered across the carpet to Seth and raised her hands in the air. “Up.”
“Hello, princess.” Seth lifted her onto his hip.
Mrs. Kaminsky tilted her head. “Do you have children?”
“I have a daughter, and Charlotte and I have met.” Seth winced as the baby grabbed hold of his ear and pulled. “Amber Lynn was dating my brother-in-law. He brought them both to a couple of family dinners.”
“What’s going to happen to her?” Mrs. Kaminsky asked.
“For now, I’ll call social services.” But Seth couldn’t bear to pass the child off to a stranger. Maybe Carly could take charge of Charlotte. He shouldn’t call his wife into the case. They were both making an effort to prioritize their marriage, and increasing her workload was only going to undermine their efforts. But as the baby played with the lapel of his jacket, Seth knew he didn’t really have a choice. “Do you know if Amber Lynn had any family close by?”
Mrs. Kaminsky frowned. “She actively avoided her parents. From the few things she told me, I got the impression they were worse than useless.”
“Can you watch Charlotte for a little while longer?” Seth asked. “I have to get the super to let us into Amber Lynn’s apartment.”
“I have a key, if that helps.” Mrs. Kaminsky crossed the vinyl floor and opened a kitchen drawer. Handing the key to Seth, she took the baby. “In case I needed anything for Charlotte.”
“Thanks. We’ll be back.”
“All right.” Mrs. Kaminsky hugged the baby close as they left.
Seth and Phil donned gloves before they opened the door to Amber Lynn’s apartment. The door swung open into the living room, with the kitchen visible through a doorway. The floor plan echoed that of Mrs. Kaminsky’s unit. Seth and Phil hung back as they viewed the damage. The couch cushions had been slashed, the kitchen drawers pulled out, and the furniture upended.
The apartment had been ransacked.
“Call for a county forensics team,” Seth said to Phil. Trying not to disturb the debris, Seth took a quick turn around the rooms. No Bruce. “We need to put a BOLO alert out on Bruce’s van and expand the search around the park.”