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January in the north was bitter cold.
Homicide Detective Ellie MacIntosh stepped off the plane from Florida and walked with a queue of other passengers up a generic ramp and reminded herself that while she loved her mother, it was okay to be glad she was back in Wisconsin.
There was a four-below wind chill outside on the snow-dusted tarmac according to the announcement during their arrival. That was fine with her. She'd just spent ten days in paradise, and apparently, she didn't appreciate sunshine and white beaches as much as the frozen tundra of her natural environment.
To each his own.
It wasn't until she'd managed to grab her bag off the carousel and was rolling it through the airport toward the shuttle that would take her to long-term parking that she noticed all the people on their phones and remembered hers was still off.
Not that it was a big deal. She'd connected through Atlanta and checked it during the layover just two and a half hours ago.
Sixteen missed messages.
She stopped walking and stared at the display. Four of them were from Chief Metzger, her boss. People streamed by, talking and laughing, as she rapidly checked the other numbers and decided in what hierarchy to answer the flood.
At the end of it all, she called her partner first.
"Where the hell are you?" he asked instead of offering an actual greeting. Since that was typical of Jason Santiago's style, she didn't even blink.
"My trip was nice, thank you for asking," she replied. "Mind telling me what's up? I'm still at the airport right now." The wheels of her bag clattered across the floor and a speaker somewhere announced the arrival of another flight, making it almost impossible to hear.
"We have a second murder a lot like the one that happened a month ago. Male victim, multiple stab wounds, vicious lacerations to the face in particular."
"Metzger says yes, since it looks so similar and we still have the first one open. Happy birthday."
"You pick out the nicest gifts. My birthday, for the record, is in June." A blast of cold air hit her as the automatic doors swooshed open, the breeze laced with a drift of snow and a hint of jet fuel. The sky was the color of burnished steel.
"I'm still at the crime scene. I'll text you the address."
He hung up at that point without saying anything else, and that didn't surprise her either. In resignation she slipped her phone back into her pocket, thought longingly of the glass of Merlot she'd planned on having in front of a warm fire, and boarded the shuttle. Hopefully Santiago would take the time to call Metzger and tell the chief of the Milwaukee Police Department she was on her way, but her partner was about as predictable as a pop-up thunderstorm. How he managed to be even semi-likable was a mystery, but there was no doubt he was an excellent cop.
In their first big case together, he'd saved her life. The second big case, she'd saved his, or he might right now be resting on the bottom of Lake Michigan. They were even, at least in her mind, in the deadly peril department, but it did prove they worked fairly well together.
Her car turned over very slowly after sitting in frigid temps for ten days, but at least it finally stirred to life. While it warmed up she made a call, watching the crystals on the windshield dissolve, her breath gradually no longer sending puffs into the air.
Bryce answered on the third ring. "Hi. Your plane must have been on time. How was the flight?"
He was one of the few who hadn't left her a message. "Fine. Listen, I know you were going to fix a special dinner, but I'm going to be late tonight. We have another murder that is apparently similar in some ways to the one Santiago and I worked last month. I'm heading straight to the scene."
There was the briefest of silences, and then he said dryly, "And to think I lingered in the produce aisle for a good fifteen minutes trying to decide on which heirloom tomatoes to buy for the salad. Call me when you are actually on your way home, okay?"
"I will," she promised, but didn't apologize. No one knew better than Bryce Grantham what her job entailed, especially as they'd met when she had investigated him in a serial murder case. "See you later."
Quickly checking the text that had already beeped in, she programmed it into her GPS and twenty-five minutes later pulled up to a row of faded houses that sat like tired old men on a bench, most of them showing the slump of neglect. Not precisely tenements, Ellie thought, pulling on her gloves, but built in the thirties or forties probably, identical, with sagging front porches, and neglected fall leaves scattered over postage stamp-sized front yards. It was a bleak image, not helped by the growing dusk and the light dusting of snow.
The house was easy enough to spot because it was the only one with the crime scene van in front of it, not to mention the bevy of police cars. Jason Santiago, hatless-he had to be freezing-stood talking to one of the techs, his hands thrust into the pockets of his coat, his curly blond hair catching the occasional flakes of snow. He didn't even acknowledge her presence as she walked up until the tech nodded and said, "Detective."
Her partner turned. "How come I always make it to a crime scene before you do?"
She shot back, "Because you don't have a life?"
"Ouch," the tech said with a grin, his nose a bright red from the cold. "She just got you. I'd better get back at it. We're wrapping it up."
Ellie stared at the house. She shivered and not just because of the frigid air. "This is a completely different kind of scene."
Santiago followed her gaze, his expression neutral. "True enough if you're talking about the setting. This is hardly the elite faculty parking lot of the University of Wisconsin's Milwaukee campus. It could still be the killer we've failed to catch so far because it is so similar. The body is on the front porch and only the medical examiner can say, but it looks like it has been there for a few days. In these temps, there's no real way to tell about decomposition, plus people aren't really enjoying the great outdoors, but a neighbor walks her dog and it seemed interested in that porch the past few days. Finally she went and took a look."
They walked up the cracked sidewalk together. It was almost too cold to snow, but not quite, since little white wisps floated by like tiny ghosts. Ellie asked, "We have a name?"
"Nope. No wallet, no other ID to pin down our victim. I think you'll see why using a picture isn't going to help identify him much."
There was a partial bloody footprint on the second-to-top step and she stopped to study it, and then glanced at the sad facade. The footprint was too compromised to tell much, but hopefully forensics would come through. "I can't imagine the person who lived here was also a college professor."
"Me either. The neighbor that called the body in said she wasn't sure just what he did. He just moved in a few weeks ago and she didn't even know the house had been rented. She's a bit older and all shaken up. Can't blame her. I'm no piker when it comes to dead bodies, and this is pretty gruesome. Just fair warning from me to you."
So much for what hadn't been all that much of a relaxing day anyway. She disliked flying and had been looking forward to a quiet evening. The emotional drain of the past week had left her hollow, like a fall leaf buffeted by a cold winter breeze. This really was not what she needed at the moment.
The screen door to the porch creaked on rusted hinges as Santiago opened it for her. "After you."
As much as she hated ever admitting he was right about anything, this time her often abrasive partner was absolutely correct. First of all, Ellie had never seen this much blood at any crime scene. The victim wasn't just white because of the temperature outside. The body was sprawled in a wide congealed pool of it, his coat and jeans were soaked, and his hair matted in a dark coating. The splatter was all over the front door and the wooden wall of the house.
Definitely the crime scene. Whatever had happened, it had been violent and occurred right on this spot.
She was immobile for a full minute as she took it in, and to his credit, Santiago said nothing. His wisecracks often got on her nerves, but then again, she now understood it was his way of dealing with a very stressful job. That he was quiet now, spoke volumes.
"I'm not the medical examiner but I can say with some certainty he bled out, which meant his heart was still pumping." Ellie took in a steadying breath. One of her fears when she was promoted to homicide was that she might become immune to the horror of what human beings could inflict upon one another. It hadn't happened yet apparently.
The victim's face was a disaster, slashed to pieces, nothing intact, his nose half missing, the eyes covered in blood. She wasn't even sure they were still there ...
"This is worse than the university murder," she observed, glad her voice sounded even and professional because her skin was suddenly clammy and she had to consciously swallow. If there was one thing a homicide detective did not do, it was get sick at the sight of a dead body.
But this ... this was the manifestation of a violence she found hard to comprehend.
"Look at his chest." Santiago, careful to not step in the blood pool, not easy considering the size of it, knelt and pointed. "This is what makes me sure we have a repeat offender. See the pattern?"
The victim's coat and shirt were ripped open. Unfortunately, she'd seen it before. Santiago was right. Same killer.
A cross. A series of stab wounds in the form of a perfect cross.
Ellie crouched down next to him, stripping off her winter gloves and shoving them into her pocket. She'd put on latex ones underneath in the car. "All the crime scene photos done?"
"Then let's take a little closer look."
* * *
Jason Santiago had to admire his partner's cool composure, but he'd seen the stunned expression on her face when she first realized the sheer viciousness of the attack. Ellie MacIntosh was an excellent detective, but part of that was because she processed a case on both an intellectual level and an emotional one. Truthfully, he'd been on the job longer than she had by a few years and he'd had a moment himself when he'd first seen the body.
This was a bad one.
The poor eighty-year-old lady next door was probably going to have nightmares for the rest of her natural life. While he waited for Ellie to arrive, he'd urged the woman to call her daughter and maybe spend the night somewhere else just until they caught the person who had done this to her neighbor.
Kind of a big promise.
More like if they caught him. They still had nothing on the other case.
Together they eased open the victim's open coat a little more, which wasn't all that easy to do since it was stiff with frozen blood. Underneath, his shirt had been unbuttoned and he'd been stabbed six times vertically, and four horizontally.
An exact match to the university murder.
Ellie stood. "Had to be postmortem. It's a signature of some kind."
His thoughts exactly. "Just like the last one." He rose too and inclined his head to the left. "I don't think there's much of a chance for a witness."
There was an abandoned school on the other side of the street. The windows were boarded up and the broken sign out front had once said: FRANKLIN ELEMENTARY. The city maintained the lawn obviously, since it had been neatly clipped at the end of the season, but it still held an unmistakable aura of disuse and desolation. That left the scenario of someone watching from across the street out of the picture.
He added, "Let's go check it out inside and see if we can get a handle on who and what this guy might be. Crime scene said they didn't really find much, but maybe we'll pick up on something. The door was unlocked and partially ajar when the first officer arrived."
Ellie said crisply, "If there were a witness someone isn't doing their civic duty because he's been here for a few days at least from the neighbor's timeline. By all means, let's go in."
She had blond hair that brushed her shoulders, with vivid hazel eyes that were disturbingly direct at times, delicate features, and a slender but athletic figure. When they'd first been assigned together he'd rejected the idea, knowing she didn't have his experience in homicide, but he'd eventually grudgingly accepted it because he hadn't been given a choice. Already he'd been skating on thin ice with the department, while she'd just solved a sensational serial murder case in northern Wisconsin.
So he'd taken the high road and not said much about it.
He was aware that she'd been assigned as his partner because not everyone wanted to work with him and she had been the new kid on the block. His smartass mouth frequently got him into trouble. On the other hand, they'd solved some pretty high-profile cases together already in less than a year.
There was no foyer, but that wasn't surprising considering the age of the house. The front door opened into the living room, and it was about as impressive as the outside. Dreary curtains on dreary windows that looked like they'd just been left behind when the last tenant moved out. No couch, nothing but a single plastic outdoor chair facing a small television in the corner.
MacIntosh looked around, her expression thoughtful. "Not a single picture on the walls to give us an idea of his personality."
He didn't have any either in his apartment, so Jason muttered, "Doesn't mean a thing besides that he didn't have much of an emotional investment in this place."
Ellie's red hat stuck out in the center of the room, a bright spot in a sea of ambiguity. As she swept the room with an assessing gaze, he recognized the analytical look on her face. "Three weeks and he really hadn't moved, that I can tell. Why?"
She was right, but she was frequently right. The house smelled like mildew and maybe old socks, and Jason thought gratefully of his apartment in a complex that might be generic, but was hardly anything like this place. Jason pointed out, "The television is new."
It was, sitting on what looked like an upended milk carton by the wall. They went to check the kitchen. The refrigerator held a quart of orange juice, three cans of Budweiser, and absolutely nothing else. Ellie mused, "He was staying here, not living here. Treading water, giving himself time."
It wasn't like he disagreed, so he didn't comment. "Upstairs?"
Gloom, more cold ... even he was starting to feel depressed, and Jason could have sworn he'd conquered that monster, but these cold, empty walls were a little hard to take as they went up the narrow staircase to the first bedroom.
Square room, unmade bed, small dresser. No curtains even though the house faced east. The occupant would also have to look at that damned abandoned school and for some reason that bothered Jason more than anything.
The thought of those echoing halls ... his ex-girlfriend had once told him he had too much imagination for this job, and while he scoffed at it-most of the department thought he was insensitive and irreverent-maybe Kate was right. He took one look out the window and turned his back. "Cozy, huh?"
Ellie prowled around and opened a few drawers-all empty-and didn't comment at once. The closet was small, and also empty. She frowned, looking perplexed. "Not hardly. What is going on here?"
Copyright © 2015 by Katherine Smith