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She was home.
He could see the lights, but she’d be at the back, probably in the kitchen at this time of the evening, because no one knew better than he did she worked long hours. He could picture her shining hair, the slight curve of her lips, the smoothness of her fair skin …
The air smelled like spring, like the lilacs of his childhood, and the cool breeze moved his hair. He edged around the building, pausing when he stepped on an old branch from last year that cracked loudly. He knew full well it was there but had forgotten, and the sound almost startled him out of his fantasy.
He wanted to look in the window but fought the impulse. He’d taken a chance and done it twice before, and she hadn’t been aware of him staring through the glass, out there, just watching her.
It had occurred to him to give her a gift.
He knew just what she’d like.
* * *
Jason Santiago walked up to Detective Ellie MacIntosh’s desk without his usual sardonic grin in place. She glanced at him, registered the unhappy expression, clicked a key to save the document she was wrapping up on her computer, and asked bluntly, “What? You have that look on your face.”
“Hammett wants to see us in the morgue. Man, I hate that damn place.”
That wasn’t new information. Her partner started to sweat about two feet inside the door. The same man who could canvas a murder scene and not skip a beat couldn’t stomach the sterile quiet.
It wasn’t like Ellie was fond of the morgue either, but she handled it better than he did. “We don’t even have a case down there right now. What’s up?”
He shook his head, and curly blond hair that was about as long as department regulations would allow—and pushing the edge of that envelope—brushed his neck. “No idea.”
“She didn’t say?”
“Nope. She sounded funny, though.”
“Funny is a high-tech remark in law enforcement, right?” She got up, because Santiago was a lot of things, but not an idiot—far from it—so if Dr. Hammett seemed off-key to him, Ellie believed it. As a homicide investigator, what a medical examiner had to say was important.
“Okay, I guess let’s go.” She checked her phone and shut it off. Hammett did not like interruptions.
They took the stairs. Santiago also didn’t like elevators. An elevator to the morgue was the stuff of his nightmares as far as she could tell. Fine with her; she’d been writing reports all morning and could probably use the exercise. Paperwork was not her favorite part of the job.
Dr. Hammett was a composed woman, with a sense of humor that was sometimes hard to catch, and always businesslike. Dark haired and slender, she was professional, efficient, and no-nonsense.
“Detectives. I’d say it was nice to see you, but you don’t want to see me either. We rarely meet under pleasant circumstances, so let’s just not go there. I called because I have a Jane Doe that might interest you. There was no immediate suspicion of foul play, nothing for homicide to handle on the scene, but I’ve determined that’s not true. Take a look.”
Ellie wasn’t squeamish—but she wasn’t hardened either. It was her private opinion that when you reached that point, maybe you should look for another job. So when the ME pulled back the sheet, she braced herself, and just saw a young woman who looked like she was asleep except for the autopsy scars. She was even still pretty.
It always bothered her more than she let on, because she experienced a startling moment of self-introspection that included her own mortality. If she had to guess, the woman on that cold steel table was about her age and had similar coloring. Ellie dealt with death on a regular basis—in her job that was unavoidable—but ever since her father’s sudden heart attack and her mother’s battle with cancer began, she’d felt a personal connection with loss that didn’t involve justice being done, because sometimes there wasn’t any justice.
Immediately, Ellie tried to put the emotional part of it aside and said, “Her nails are done.”
“Our victim was also nicely dressed.”
“Where was she found?”
“By the lake on a bench, just sitting there. But from the lividity, I’d say she was put there. There was no assault. Toxicology will let me know if she overdosed. I’m still weighing several possibilities for cause of death, but that really isn’t what bothered me enough to call you. Look at this.”
She then turned over the young woman’s wrist.
Written in black ink on the pallid skin was: What do you think?
Whatever Ellie expected when she got up that morning, it wasn’t a message written on a corpse.
The ME covered the body back up. She didn’t mince words, but then she never did. “Any ideas?”
Not a single explanation came to mind. It was … for lack of a better word, Ellie thought, macabre.
Santiago scratched his jaw. “That’s weird as shit…” He hastily amended because he actually tried to behave in front of Hammett, which said something. “I mean hell. Weird as hell.”
How he thought one swear word was better than another one was a mystery, but trying to understand his thought processes was something Ellie had found a useless endeavor since the first day they’d met. Santiago grew on you, but she’d come to the conclusion it really took some time.
Hammett was used to him anyway. “It was written postmortem, in my official opinion, and I will put that in my report. As soon as I figure out just how this young woman died, I’ll be in touch. For now, I consider it a suspicious death.”
Unfortunately, Ellie didn’t disagree.
They left—more stairs—and both of them were already thinking out loud. He said, “I have a friend who writes his grocery list on his palm. Says he loses a piece of paper in about five seconds or leaves it behind on the counter at home and doesn’t have it when he gets to the store. His hand is always with him. That’s his logic. He could get out his phone, but then he’d start checking his messages, and he hates the grocery store in the first place, so his hand works perfectly to make the whole thing simple.”
At least one good thing came out of their trips to the “underworld”—she wouldn’t have to go to the gym later. Santiago’s elevator phobia was good for her thighs and cardio health. “The most astonishing thing about that revelation is that you actually have a friend.”
He gave her a look she might have deserved for that remark, but Santiago, while he had his good traits, wasn’t everyone’s cup o’ tea, as her grandmother would say. Good-looking but abrasive, and smart enough to know he should tone it down, but just not of the mindset to do so. He was a bad-boy cop, not corrupt in any way, but he had a tendency to think regulations were suggestions. She’d been grateful for that a time or two during their association, but it would help his career a lot if he could dial it back sometimes. He was often blunt to a fault.
He opened the door at the top of the stairwell for her. “My point is that maybe the victim wrote it herself.”
Possible. But it bothered her—a lot—that the ME thought it was postmortem. “You’re already calling her a victim.”
“What are you thinking?”
The same thing. Hands down.
“I’m thinking we are about to have a close encounter with missing person reports.”
“Yeah.” He narrowed his eyes. “What if she was at a bar or somewhere, anywhere, and met a guy or was introduced to him, and she was with a friend and the friend wrote that on her wrist? It is at least plausible.”
It was except for one thing. “Postmortem? I think I saw a horror movie like that once.”
“Hammett said she just thinks so.”
“Someone moved the body. How blood pools does not lie.”
“There’s that,” he conceded as they walked down the hall. Things were busy, phones ringing, and Santiago nodded at another detective who passed by. “I’d define it as a possible homicide to probable homicide.”
Ellie didn’t disagree, haunted by the vision of the young woman’s face.
She wasn’t a doctor, but Ellie guessed if the writing happened right after the victim died, it would be hard to tell. “Obviously she’s not a homeless person no one will miss. Her hair was nicely cut and clean and the nails said it all. She’s someone that will be reported.”
“I think so too.”
They agreed at times, and really didn’t at others, but this was one where they saw eye to eye. “He moved her. Had to be a he, because though she wasn’t big, I doubt a woman could do that. Not dead weight.”
“Dead weight? Nice way of phrasing it.” Ellie eyed him. He loved challenging cases like this and was already getting geared up. The ordinary didn’t interest him nearly as much. “He drugged her somewhere and set her there? That’s what you’re thinking?”
“I’m not sure. There was no sexual assault. We both agree opportunity is more important than motive usually, at least when it comes down to solving a case. It could have been two people.”
She wasn’t convinced. “Or an accident. What if she was at a party and simply overdosed and they panicked and put her body in the park? I want the tox report first.”
Her partner said, “I don’t disagree with that, but this doesn’t look like an accident to me. I’m interested.”
Dryly, Ellie observed, “And tired of catching up on paperwork.”
Santiago was Santiago. His grin was unrepentant. No denial or apology. Neither of those were his style. “Exactly. Hey, I didn’t wish her dead, but now that she is, I’d like figuring out how, why, and who; a lot better than filling out those damn forms. I bet she’d appreciate that.”
* * *
The report came directly to him, which was the one perk he had of seniority over Ellie MacIntosh. Jason had been in homicide longer. She’d started out working for a small county sheriff’s department in northern Wisconsin before drawing national attention by solving a series of brutal murders and getting the job offer in Milwaukee. But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. She’d been stuck with him, and he’d been stuck with a virtual rookie.
Instant dislike on both sides.
Not a match made in heaven, except they’d saved each other’s lives a couple of times now. The dislike had changed to the conclusion that maybe he was with the right partner who might not like everything about him, but at least understood how he operated.
His problem was he liked her more than he should, and there was just not a damn thing he could do about the sexual attraction. It was there, it existed, and he just tried to funnel his energy in other directions.
Hammett’s report was a good example.
The toxicology was clean for drugs, but the blood alcohol level was very high. Cause of death was listed as asphyxiation unrelated to the drinking.
Manner of death?
Hammett agreed with him on this one. Probable homicide was her decision.
He printed it out and slapped it down in front of Ellie at her desk. She was sipping coffee out of a cup with a Badgers logo and looking no happier than he was about doing the backlog of reports. He stated, “Looks like my bar theory might be a pretty good guess. Odds on the chief handing it to us?”
“I’ll take that bet. Everyone else has cases right now.” She looped her blond hair over her ear as she read it, and he was used to that mannerism. “This is disturbing. All of it. So she drank too much and someone suffocated her?” She tapped the paper with an accusing finger. “No marks on her throat. They just waited for her to pass out?”
“Looks like it. We need to find out who she is first of all.” He dropped into a chair in a careless sprawl. Too much beer and ESPN last night. He had his vices, and hey, it was still pro basketball season.
She frowned. “I’m not having any luck so far. No one that looks like her has been reported.”
Of course she’d been at work on it. That’s who she was. Focused and determined. Everything was about the job. He was guilty of that as well. Maybe that was why every relationship he’d ever had had gone south. “Let’s go interview the person that found her. Maybe look around for more witnesses.”
“We haven’t even been assigned to the case yet.”
“Well, here we go.”
As if on cue, Chief Joe Metzger, big and burly, an ex-military man who took succinct to a whole new level, walked up. He pointed at them. “Jane Doe is yours.”
Jason watched him walk away. “That is a man of few words.”
“If those were your words, they’d all be profanity. I actually prefer it when he doesn’t talk to me that much.” Ellie got up and reached for her coat. “I can’t believe it’s snowing. Whatever happened to spring?”
“I think it took a vacation on a tropical beach with a bunch of college students and is wearing a bikini and sipping a beer.” He slung his coat over his shoulder with one finger. “Let’s go.”
“I want to see where he put her.”
She didn’t disagree. “He was making a point. Sure he was.”
“Had to be familiar territory.”
And that was Jason’s one gift. He always felt it. He was a dedicated detective, he knew that, but his calling really was that he could tell a bad case from minute one when the investigation started.
He said to Ellie, “I think we have real trouble.”
Copyright © 2018 by Katherine Smith