She was cold. Shivering. Her body reacted to every sound in the creaky old house. The wind was rising, whistling through the eaves, and the old birches outside groaned and protested in a primal whine.
The one board in the parlor always complained when stepped on just right and she made that mistake, the protest loud and damning.
The floor was chilly, but she was freezing already, so it didn’t matter.
This wasn’t perfect, but she didn’t want perfect, she just wanted it over. Lies were tiresome, there was just no two ways about it. A burden, something to cart around with you all day and take to bed at night. Her mother had always said so, and she was beginning to agree.
Around the corner there was an oak sideboard, massive, with pretty dishes and an engraved silver coffee urn, looming in the filtered light. There was an old sofa, a carriage lamp, and the smell of roses lingered from a vase full of blooms from the garden, but the flowers were starting to wither, so the sweet odor was tinged with decay. Accidentally she bumped the table and a few of the petals fell, whispering against the polished wood.
The knife was in her hand. Not heavy—a lightweight steel made for fileting fish, curved, the blade Finnish, something she’d gotten actually from her father, inherited when he died. There was a hint of rust along the edge because she didn’t oil it like he had, but it was still as sharp as death.
And death was part of this chill night.
SEPTEMBER, PRESENT DAY, ONEIDA COUNTY
The day was cold and Detective Ellie MacIntosh winced and adjusted her collar in the mist. Raindrops were even gathering on her lashes. So much for Indian summer. The entire week before it had been in the seventies, but that party seemed to be over. The leaves were starting to take on just enough color to indicate summer was going to fade before long. It looked like it might be an early fall.
“What is it I need to see again?” The question was reasonable because it was hardly the right weather for a stroll through the woods. Damp, too cool, the pine needles underfoot slippery, the trees dripping.
“A hole.” Her grandfather stopped as if he wasn’t entirely sure where he was going, and then veered off a little to the left. “Over here.”
That didn’t really fill in the blanks. She carefully stepped over a fallen log with fungus the size and shape of human ears on the side. “Excuse me, but, we are out in this to look at a hole? Can you be a shade more specific?”
He glanced back. His face was reddened by the crisp breeze and his pale eyes direct. The cold wind ruffled his white hair. As usual, he wore a plaid shirt, a tan coat over it, and his jeans were so worn they must have been three shades lighter than when he originally bought them. His boots were covered in mud, but it was wet out. “Just follow me, Eleanor.”
She disliked her given name, but could hardly tell him that since she’d been named after his mother, so she instead glanced around the wooded hill. At the bottom of the slope there was the same lake she’d swam in as a child so many times, and right now it held a flotilla of fallen maple leaves, starting to gather in a circle thanks to the wind, the water swirling. The trees were turning early, not a good sign. It had been awhile since they’d had a truly frigid winter by Wisconsin standards.
Mystified, she watched her grandfather tramp between a ridge of white pines and slender birches and followed.
What is this?
Her first glimmer of what was really happening made her stumble over a small rock. She was no longer paying attention to the terrain, her foot sliding on the hill before she caught her balance with one hand behind her, skidding on the fragrant pine needles.
What was in front of her was not a hole. Well, it was, but it was roughly square and reminiscent of something grimmer than that generic label.
The partially revealed outline in the moist soil was of a human skull, and one fragile, broken hand didn’t help the situation. The grinning skull had a missing tooth, and a wash of horror swept through her despite a career in law enforcement and experience with more than a few gruesome sights.
Not a hole.
“What the hell?” She hadn’t meant to blurt that out, especially in front of a man she revered, so the question was quickly amended. Her grandfather was more than a little old-fashioned. “I meant: What on earth? When did you find this?”
“This morning. And I didn’t find it.”
Her grandfather was breathing heavily enough that she felt a flicker of worry. “Are you all right?”
The nod he gave was curt. “The storm must have washed it out. That rain came through like a runaway locomotive.”
No doubt a correct conclusion. When the front swept in, it had arrived with a vengeance as the temperature plummeted a good forty degrees. It would warm up again, but not today.
She certainly felt cold through and through. A frigid droplet trickled down her neck.
“It looks old to me.” He stared at the skeleton, but stood a few feet away.
If he meant those brittle bones, it looked 100 percent, extremely dead to her. The age would probably have to be determined by a forensic anthropologist, but impossible to gauge on a wet hillside half covered in dirt.
But definitely in the dead category.
“It obviously isn’t new, but old is a relative term. At a glance a buried skeleton is not in your provenance of expertise or mine either, for that matter.”
That was putting it mildly. He leaned on a walking stick he often carried but never used. “So, what now?”
The phone call that had summoned her up north hadn’t exactly prepared her for this, but he had never been a talkative man, which was why she had dropped everything and made the drive from Wausau where she’d been visiting her sister. Jody had agreed. If Robert MacIntosh called, it was urgent. That he’d specifically asked Ellie to come alone made sense now. If he wanted help, he needed it, and this seemed to bear out that conviction. She managed to ask calmly, “Have you called the police?”
“I called you.”
“Not quite the same.”
He looked at her, his face not precisely amused, but still the corner of his mouth lifted. “You are still a detective for the Milwaukee police, right? Big-city law enforcement. The only person I know who has shot more than one man. So who else should I call? You are the police. So technically, I have called them.”
The testiness in his voice was a surprise, but maybe he was more rattled than he cared to admit. The reference to two recent cases and the way they’d been handled made her experience a moment of chagrin, but it had been all over the television so she knew he’d heard about it. She didn’t really think he was being critical as much as asking for her help in a roundabout way.
It was a little interesting to her they had never discussed what happened. How was that conversation supposed to go anyway? Hey, Grandpa, did you hear about me shooting a serial killer?
Not her style, and actually, not really his style either. They were politely close, if such a thing were possible. She adored him, but the affection was implied since he didn’t wish to talk about it, so she didn’t bring it up.
It was hardly as if she’d never seen a dead body, but the outline of the half-turned skull got to her. It was maybe more the lonely spot and the bleak, gray day. “I am a detective, but this is not my jurisdiction either. How about 911? Lots of people use it, especially when they find the evidence of a crime.”
“Do I have evidence of a crime?” The shrug he gave was pragmatic, but she thought he looked a little pale except for his cheeks being reddened by the sharp breeze. “Make them all rush out here for what? There is no one to be saved and it seems to me time doesn’t really matter much to those old bones. Waste of tax dollars to have everyone come with screaming ambulances when it is obvious whoever is buried here can’t be helped.”
There was validity to that logic—though she didn’t agree completely. Her job as a homicide detective was to help, even if it was to only obtain justice for the victim. They both stood for a few moments staring at the half-exposed skeleton. “No, he or she can’t be saved. I’ll concede that.”
The trees wept, her coat was soaked, and this situation was beyond the scope of her experience, even as a law-enforcement officer. She was far too used to blood and death, but this was not her usual kind of case.
Not her case at all, in fact.
Ellie let out a slow breath and reminded herself that he was eighty-plus years old and maybe he didn’t realize that since she now worked in Milwaukee this was not going to be her investigation. She unclipped her phone from her pocket. “Let me get the sheriff’s office and they will have someone here as soon as possible. It will probably be just a deputy at first and then the coroner as soon as he can respond. At that point, they can decide what to do next. I can’t really do more than that.”
It took two transfers but she finally got through to the correct department once she explained the situation, and the dispatcher promised to send out an officer. Since it wasn’t exactly an emergency, Ellie just gently pushed the button on her phone when the call was done and moved a few steps closer. “Any ideas?”
“Who it is?”
Crouching down, her grandfather frowned at the skull as if he could possibly recognize the person, his face pallid in the late afternoon light. “Don’t think so. This is land our family has owned for many, many years.”
Ellie glanced around and immediately started processing the scene in her mind. It seemed like a strange place to bury a body. On a steep hillside? The slope was at least at a thirty-degree angle. Then again, it wasn’t easy to walk on either, so discovery would be unlikely. “You said you didn’t find it. Who did?”
“Kid fishing on the lake in a canoe stumbled across the skeleton trying to get off the water as the storm rolled through. Roger Bridges. You’ve met his parents. Stepped right on it, or so he says. Scared him half to death.”
Human remains had a way of doing that to you. She winced inwardly. She believed the part about him taking refuge on the shore, but that Roger had contaminated the scene would not help forensics when the team came in. It looked like maybe he’d cleared away some of the dirt with his hands too, probably because he couldn’t quite believe it. “Why didn’t he call the sheriff’s department?”
As if it made perfect sense, her grandfather explained, “Because it is on my property. His folks have a place across the lake. If it hadn’t started to rain so hard so fast, he would have gone back to their dock. This is closer. Roger came to the house, and when he told me about it, I really didn’t believe him at first either. Told him it must have been a dead deer or something. Once the weather settled down, I came out to look. Then I called you. I knew you would have a handle on how to take care of it.”
Exasperated, she searched for something respectful to say. Take care of it? That answer was easy. Try calling for local law enforcement, which is what should have been done in the first place.
Her grandfather straightened. “Should we go back to the house? Kind of wet here and I could make a pot of coffee while we wait on them.”
She stopped in the middle of her sentence. Something wasn’t quite right.
Just the two of them. The wind eerily rustling the leaves, the water silver and rippling, and a very dead silence.
Ellie thought uneasily: You aren’t surprised enough.
It wasn’t anything in particular, but she knew Robert Lawrence MacIntosh, and she felt it. Part of her job was reading people and it was just there.
Whoever lay in that grave, he just wasn’t surprised. Felt the need to report it because this kid knew, but really hadn’t wanted to call it in.
What the hell?
He stood there, this strong, kind man she’d known ever since the day she was born, his gaze averted as he turned, a lock of white hair blowing across his brow.
Were it anyone—anyone—else, she would start a rapid-fire litany of questions, but she found she didn’t want to ask them.
“You are a police officer,” he said it as if it gave him some sort of anchor. “A detective. When something like this turns up, what happens next?”
The breeze made her shiver almost as much as the sight of those bleached, deserted bones. “When the deputy arrives he’ll ask about the victim. Do you know who it could be, that sort of thing.”
“Thought that might be it. Then what?”
“They’ll exhume the body from the makeshift grave. I predict there will be crime scene techs all over as they look for clues, but it also looks to me, from an inexpert view because I am not a medical examiner, that this body has been there a long, long time, so I doubt they’ll find anything. Most of the evidence will have deteriorated.”
She stopped, took in a breath. Because she was a police officer, and because this was not just her job but a sudden immediate problem she had never seen popping up on her horizon but was still there, staring her in the face, she weighed her next words. She tended to try to meet problems head on. “As I said, they are going to ask you, so let me ask first. Do you know who this might be?”
“I can’t say that I do.”
But he didn’t look her directly in the eye as he spoke. Instead he gazed out over the rippling water of the gray lake.
Dear God, one of the people she respected most in the world was lying to her.
She remarked very quietly, “I would love a cup of coffee.”
* * *
Detective Jason Santiago had been out of uniform for years now, but the rhythm of it came back naturally.
Officer Danni Crawford got the message from dispatch just as she was pulling out of the parking lot where she’d answered her last call, which proved to be simply a report on an unruly customer at a pharmacy. The man could not get his Schedule 2 meds filled for a few days and was starting to feel the pangs of withdrawal from a very strong narcotic if his erratic behavior was an indication. A few words with him and looking into those bloodshot eyes, Jason was reminded how little he liked the ramifications of addiction. The unruly customer was convinced finally that screaming at the pharmacist was not going to get him anywhere but into a jail cell and he’d left peacefully enough.
Job done. Problem solved, at least to the extent that Crawford did not have to haul anyone off in cuffs. Jason, just along for the ride because he was still officially on medical leave, was amused when she pleasantly asked the manager of the store—who was hovering uneasily and was the one who had called the police—who the hell thought twenty-four-hour places that could dispense narcotics were a good idea?
Corporate, he’d answered. Truthfully, he looked tired with his rumpled shirt and askew tie. Then he added, “And I couldn’t agree more with you, Officer.”
She wasn’t enthusiastic about her reassignment to this late shift, but beggars really couldn’t afford to be choosers she told Jason as they went out to get back into the squad car. Promotions required sacrifice.
“Don’t I know it.” Recently he’d taken two bullets in the line of duty.
Danni shot him a sidelong look as she started the vehicle. “Yeah, I guess you do.”
She was pretty enough, brown hair, pulled back at the moment in a no-nonsense ponytail because she was on the job. Danni was a little overweight, but there was nothing wrong with something a man could hold on to was always his attitude. Besides, though he doubted many people would believe it, he valued personality above physical beauty and she was, in short, a nice girl and a good cop.
Her radio sputtered and she answered.
The dispatcher said urgently without a hint of the usual boredom, “We’ve got a shooting and we think there’s possibly an officer down. The phones are lighting up. How close are you to KK?”
KK meant Kinnickinnic Avenue. Jason’s heart rate shot up. Officer down. Close, but it was a fairly long street … officer down?
“Minutes away,” Crawford said, her voice catching. “What do we have?”
“Shots fired at what seems like a routine traffic stop. We aren’t sure what happened, but we need as many officers to respond as quickly as possible.”
It was a Saturday, and the street would be busy. “Give me the address. I’m close. I’m already driving.”
Maybe it was just as well Jason had asked, out of sheer boredom, if he could ride along.
KK had recently become retro chic and there were nice but quirky restaurants and little shops where tourists and locals browsed. The sound of sirens shrieked everywhere as they sped along and it wasn’t hard to figure out exactly where they needed to be.
The man sprawled in the street in a spreading pool of blood was definitely in uniform, his hat lying a few feet away, one arm flung out, the other limp at his side. His patrol car was parked, but the door was still open.
“Oh God.” Danni’s voice echoed horror. “Jason, oh God. I think it’s Chad.”
She didn’t quite get the car in park before she was out and running. He did it for her, feeling the jerk as the transmission locked, a chill creeping over his skin.
She shouldered her way through the crowd, Jason following, and knelt by the side of the fallen officer. With shaking hands she sought a pulse as the sirens neared.
Jason also recognized him with a shock that froze his muscles.
No ambulance with even the most skilled emergency personnel was going to save him, he realized, looking down at his still face. The man was dead.
And Chad Brown and Danni had dated, for what? Four years now?
Jason reached down and touched her shoulder. “Hey.”
Danni started trembling uncontrollably. She crawled to the curb and vomited, her body reacting to her emotions so powerfully she couldn’t help it.
This is not happening, Jason thought numbly.
Chad Brown. Jesus, it was Chad.
Danni and Chad had never said they were serious, but Jason had seen firsthand how comfortable they were with each other. Lovers, friends, colleagues …
As she dropped her head, probably to keep from passing out, in the distance, someone said, “Ma’am—Officer—you okay?”
“I’ve got this.” Jason’s voice was curt but he was hurting too, in shock, a little paralyzed by what had happened. “Hey, hold on. Come on, Danni, he’d want you to keep it together.”
“I know.” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and sat up, but she was starkly pale and trembling.
Definitely not fit to be in charge. He said quietly, “Stay here. This is a homicide anyway. Let me handle it. Right?”
He did. Producing his badge—no one needed to know he wasn’t officially on duty—firing off questions about witnesses, directing the other officers arriving on the scene to look for casings in the street, ostensibly taking over even though he really didn’t have the authority at the moment, but someone needed to besides the pale-faced officer who had just emptied her stomach into the gutter.
She crawled back to the body and touched Chad’s face.
When she looked up, her face was streaked with tears. “I’ve been trying to drop the weight, you know? I kept telling him no engagement until I lose twenty pounds. He always said he loved me just the way I am. To stop worrying about it so much. Why did I worry?”
Man, if there was anything he was bad at, it was a moment like this. Jason crouched down next to her and said the most profound thing he could think of.
“Whoever did this is fucking going down.”
Copyright © 2014 by Katherine Smith