Authors: Danica St. Como
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Danica St. Como
Cover art by Tibbs Design
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work, in whole or in part, in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.
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Danica St. Como
It’s my favorite shirt. Why did I wear my favorite shirt? The blood stains will never wash out
Theo didn’t try to hide the light blue button-down shirt among his personal belongings. One never knew when one might be stopped for traffic violations, even bogus violations. That’s how stupid people got caught. He glanced around the burger joint’s empty parking lot then snuck behind the building. He lifted the filled-to-the-top refuse container lid, checked out the contents, chose a likely candidate.
Since the shirt is ruined, might as well use it to wipe the blade clean
Once the waxed paper and cardboard containers were emptied from a grease-laden burger bag, he folded and rolled the shirt so the blood was on the inside of the cotton bundle, then carefully slid it into the bag. He did the same with his bloody Latex gloves, but stuffed that bag deep in the opposite corner of the refuse container. He’d scoped out the Dumpsters in the area, checked out when the trash was picked up and how early in the morning, prior to the restaurant opening for business. Before anyone would think to file a missing person report.
People are so stupid. They always wait to make the missing person call. They always believe the person will show up, late and apologetic, and no one wants to be embarrassed. The police won’t let concerned family or friends file a report immediately, for the same reason. It all works for me. Every delay means I’m further removed from the situation. No association, whatsoever
He returned to his vehicle, pulled another pale blue button-down shirt from his luggage. It was his blue day, after all, mustn’t interfere with the proper order of his life. After he’d fastened the last button, he tucked in the tails properly, took a deep, calming breath, and settled into the driver’s seat. He counted to five. Assuring himself that all the doors were locked and the seatbelt was correctly fastened, he counted to five again then moved the gear selector into
No one could see him, but he smiled nonetheless.
I love it when a plan comes together
The universe conspired to piss off Wallis Gardner. Her men were still on assignment. Not only did she miss them, but she was left to struggle with the goddamned mail from the goddamned mailbox. Several days’ worth of letters and one parcel were spread all over the ground as evidence, as she tried to balance on her goddamned crutches. The fiberglass cast, reaching from mid-thigh to mid-calf, acted as an awkward anchor, which didn’t help her current frame of mind.
Where are Michael and Austin when I need them
It didn’t matter that the perp who shot up her leg was dead. The bastard had done enough damage before his demise. Her Kevlar vest hadn’t helped. The guy’s first .9mm round snapped her right tibia and fibula; the second bullet shattered her right knee.
As least the asswipe only took out one leg, not both
. When the hail of returned gunfire came to an end, “suicide by cop” was the unofficial verdict.
It would have been justifiable homicide by Wallis, if he hadn’t taken me out first, and if the SWAT guys hadn’t taken him out, second
She pictured her men tramping through the goddamned woods in goddamned upstate New York—blond, blue-eyed Austin Cooper, second of their
ménage a trois
, partner to dark-haired, grizzly bear Michael Gallo, their third. Actually, second and third positions were interchangeable.
Members of the elite Bureau of Criminal Investigation in upstate New York, the specialized detectives had been called out, again.
Everyone was busy tracking down leads on the most recent missing woman, the third in three months. Maggie Stowe, a young mother with a toddler, had gone missing in broad daylight. She’d never returned after leaving home to do her grocery shopping.
At least the baby had been home with her granny
. The color photo in the news of the little blonde, blue-eyed girl, dressed in frilly pink, absolutely broke Wallis’s heart.
In the middle of the day, and no one saw anything. How is that possible
? Wallis shook her head.
The other two victims had been taken at night—one after her four-to-midnight nursing shift ended, the other on her way home from a club after she and her friends closed the place. All within a radius of thirty miles. Ever cautious, the authorities didn’t mention that the cases
be connected, that the auburn, the red, the strawberry blonde hair color
be coincidence. The posing of the bodies
have been accidental. The other abuse to the victims—well, the investigators would keep
Wallis’s gut told her, and her men agreed, the cases were
connected. Just as her gut told her the latest missing woman was already dead. Austin had learned from the grandmother that the victim’s husband was currently deployed in Afghanistan.
What a nightmare waits for the poor guy at home, while he’s on foreign soil, in a foreign country, risking his life and limb to protect our freedom—so shit like this doesn’t happen. His wife and child should be safe
. She couldn’t imagine what would happen to her if one of her men went missing. Or was killed, even in the line of duty. Her heart bounced under her rib cage like a tennis ball at the thought. Independent as she was, the three of them belonged together, were so much a part of each other’s lives. The thought of losing either man had chills racing up and down her spine.
A Chevy Traverse in gunmetal gray rolled up as Wallis took another swing at her mailbox with one of her crutches. The mailbox was bolted to an arrangement of pipes that swiveled, so it could swing 360 degrees. The idea, as she’d learned as a child, was to prevent the box from being torn out of the ground by giant-bladed snow plows during the winter. The otherwise efficient arrangement was aggravating the pure livin’ hell out of her.
The passenger window slid down, and the driver leaned across the front seat toward her. “Ma’am, I’ll hold the mailbox if you want to beat it to death.”
“That would be lovely, thanks. I can’t pick up the mail and still balance on these goddamned crutches. The stupid box keeps swinging away from me. The results…” she pointed to the ground, “…are obvious.”
With no traffic in sight, the man parked in the middle of the farm road, walked around the front of the small SUV to the mailbox. A plastic grocery store bag hung from his fingers. He retrieved catalogues, sale flyers, letters, and a small, flat box imprinted with a smiley grin from where they lay scattered on the ground. He took the rest of the mail from inside the box, neatly arranged the items in the bag then held the handles open so she could slide her arm through.
Well, isn’t he the gentleman
? “Thanks. I’d be here all fucking day trying to pick it all up,
I killed the fucking mailbox.”
“I was going to stop, anyway.” He reached into his shirt pocket, took out a precisely folded sheet of paper, and shook it open. “I’m looking for Primrose Lane, just past the main Gardner farmhouse. Since there’s a shortage of street signs in this part of the country, I wonder if you could point me in the right direction.”
“Are you Theodore Carroll?”
He cocked his head, looked surprised. “Theo, please. Theodore sounds so formal.”
She nodded, directed a thumb over her shoulder. “Gardner House, behind me. I’m Wallis Gardner, your neighbor. Make a right turn into that gravel drive, which is Primrose Lane. The cottage is behind those trees. The realtor asked me to keep an eye out for anyone who looked lost and confused.”
Wallis maneuvered the crutches, balanced on her good leg and held out her hand.
He looked at her hand for a moment, acted unsure about making physical contact, but finally shook it. “That’s,
, awfully friendly.”
“You’re in farm country. Not many neighbors, so we kinda-sorta watch out for each other.”
Well now, that was a limp-wristed hello. What do I have, girl cooties? No need for him to know I’m his landlady. That’s what the realtor is paid to do, take care of all the rental arrangements. Less aggravation for me
“Good to know. I’m a city boy. Never lived this far from town before.”
She gave the once-over to his short, sandy hair, trendy, tortoise-shell eyeglass frames, light yellow button-down shirt, khaki Dockers, and brown loafers. It appeared that his socks matched his shirt. He had the whole Justin-Timberlake-as-the-guy-next-door appearance under total control.
“That could be a problem, if you plan on hanging out through the winter. Central upstate weather is no joke. It gets harsh up here. Are you planning to stay?”
His expression suddenly changed, and his gaze darted around. Fidgeting, he didn’t directly respond to her look. “
, not sure yet. Sorta depends on my research, I guess.”
His uneasiness didn’t abate as he shifted from one foot to the other. “I’m a math and science tutor, elementary grades. Saved up my pennies, decided not to teach through the summer.”
“I see. A budding Hemmingway?”
Oh, goody, an academic pain in the ass. All brain, no doubt, with little or no common sense
He shuffled, gave a wan smile. “Nothing quite so grand, I’m afraid. Apparently I’m distantly related to the English author, Lewis Carroll, y’know, the whole
Alice in Wonderland
thing. I thought I might research the connection, maybe write a book on my findings.”
“Well, good luck. Surprisingly, we have high-speed internet out here, thanks to a communications tower just a couple of hills away. Otherwise, we’d still be using two soup cans connected by a waxed string. There’s a Wi-Fi router at the cottage. So, if you have a laptop, you’re good to go.”
“I do. Thanks.”
“Yep. Well, thanks again for the help. Catch you later.”
Even with her casted leg suspended between the crutches, her wrecked knee shot bolts of pain up her body, killing any desire to be more sociable. She waved goodbye, leaving Mr. Carroll to find his own way to the cottage.
Wallis turned toward the long line of stone pavers that led to the big Federal-style residence, the clapboard siding done in soft butter with cream trim. She still had a problem calling the ten-bedroom monstrosity a farmhouse. But, in truth, it anchored the two-thousand-acre farm parcel, which included several small cottages for managers and farm hands, in addition to the barns and outbuildings. Mr. Carroll would inhabit one of the cottages, just a couple of hundred yards from the main house.