Family Honor
134 pages
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134 pages
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Description

Bodies of dead women are piling up and Detective Melanie Curtis is doing everything she can to solve the ‘Cheerleader Slasher’ case. Surprised to discover her chief has requested help from the FBI, she’s even more shocked when she meets the sexy FBI special agent sent to assist her. SSA Nate Willis tracks serial killers for a living. The slasher case is a challenge, but nothing compared to the feisty police detective he finds leading the investigation. Their attraction is swift and mutual, but the killer is escalating and they need to solve the case before they can focus on their personal relationship. When the unthinkable happens and the investigation is turned upside down, is their chance for happiness also in jeopardy?

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Publié par
Date de parution 10 novembre 2015
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781772990041
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Family Honor
 A Cop in the Family – Book 3
B y Jamie Hill With Jude Pittman
 
Digital ISBNs:
EPUB 9781772990041
Kindle 978-1-77299-933-4
WEB 9781772990065 
Print ISBN 9781772990072
 

 
Copyright 2015 Jamie Hill
Cover Art by Michelle Lee
 
All rights reserved. Without limiting therights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publicationmay be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic,mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without theprior written permission of both the copyright owner and the abovepublisher of this book.
 
Chapter One
 
 
The body was strategically placed in thealley, posed carefully in the same manner as the previous twovictims. Knees bent to one side, arms crossed above her head, andher hands clutching a pair of cheap red pom poms. Her uniform skirtand matching vest had once been white and crisp, but were nowyellowed from age and blood-soaked. Just like theothers .
She might have looked retro chic, likesomething from the old American Graffiti movie, had it not been forthe fact that the woman was fifty if she was a day. That, and thedeep slash running from ear to ear, nearly decapitating her.Through the coagulated gore, the faint image of a small red birdwas still visible on the vest.
“My high school mascot was a cardinal.”Detective Melanie Curtis’ gaze took in the scene andsurroundings.
Her partner, Henry Stone, snapped pictures inquick succession as he circled the body. “I’ll bet you were acheerleader, too.”
“No way. I was a pom pom girl, on the pepsquad.”
He paused long enough to shoot her askeptical glance. “And how is that not the same thing?”
Mel shook her head in feigned disgust. “Notthe same at all. We did dance routines to music.” She saw his eyeslight up and before he could spout off something dirty, she shuthim down. “Focus, little dude. Get some pictures of her face. Myguess is she’s a hooker like the last two. We need to show theseshots to Skinny Sheila and some of the other girls in Oldtown. Ifshe turned tricks, someone there will recognize her.”
“Damn,” Stone muttered as he zoomed in on thewoman’s face. “She’s old enough to be my mother. Think she’s stillhooking?”
“Your mother is, isn’t she?” Mel stepped backto avoid the fake punch aimed at her, and grinned. “Just kidding.You know I love your Umma.”
“That’s right.” Stone straightened hisshoulders. “Besides, Korean women don’t turn tricks.” He seemed torethink his statement and shrugged. “Not since the war ended,anyway. Nowadays they spend their time keeping alive thecenturies-old tradition of making kimchee.”
Mel screwed up her face. “Fermented cabbage.Remind me not to invite your mom for the holidays again thisyear.”
“She’ll be there, and she’ll bring kimchee.”He studied the body for a moment, then turned to Mel. “Our man isleft-handed.”
“What?” She blinked, her mind alreadyfast-forwarding to another Christmas of her father bickering withStone’s mother, and celebrating with a bunch of cops that were theclosest thing to extended family any of them had. I’m alreadydreading the holidays that are still months away.
“Left-handed.” Stone drew her back to thepresent. “Our slasher. He’s a lefty. See how the mark is deeper onthat side of her neck? The knife went like this.” He motioned fromthe right side of her neck to the left.
Mel thought about that as she walked aroundand stood behind the woman’s head. “Unless he cut her from behind.”She made the same motion Stone had, using her right hand.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Writedown lefty.” He continued to snap photos.
“Whatever.” Mel did as he asked. Her partnerusually had a keen perception for that kind of stuff, but this timeshe wasn’t so sure.
Commotion behind Stone livened up thesealed-off alley. “Wake up kids, the grown-ups are here.”
Mel glanced up to see two crime sceneinvestigators from the Wichita Police Department arrive with theirfancy kits. She got along with most everybody in the cop shop, butthe CSIs had been hard to live with since the occupation had landedits own television show. “Hey Martin. Hey Zybowski.”
The taller of the two investigators toweredover height-challenged Stone by nearly a foot. “You know we’ll takepictures, Stone,” he said derisively.
“I know I’ll get my hands on them sooner if Itake my own, Zybowski.” Stone snapped a few more shots then steppedback. “But have at it. She’s all yours.”
Zybowski sneered at the woman. “Like we’dwant any of that.”
“Show some respect,” Mel snapped. “Everyvictim is somebody’s daughter. Maybe somebody’s mother. Try toremember that.”
“Yes, Detective. ” The investigator’stone remained snide. He knelt and opened his black bag.
She glanced at her watch. Nearly midnight. Too late to do any more tonight . They’d start fresh in themorning. “We’d appreciate your report as soon as you can get it tous tomorrow.”
Zybowski snorted.
“Let’s go, Stone.” Mel turned and walkedaway, knowing her partner would follow. As an afterthought shelooked back and added, “Check the direction of that slash mark,will you? See if you can tell if our guy was left orright-handed.”
“How could we possibly tell that?” Martinfrowned at her and got to work with his counterpart.
She turned around and kept walking. Sherolled her eyes at Stone who had caught up to her. “Think he’s thatstupid, or just being an ass?”
“Yes to both. Man, if I wassix-foot-something I’d give that moron Zybowski a piece of mymind.”
She smiled at him. “If you weresix-foot-anything you wouldn’t be the man we all know andlove.”
“Says the woman who’s nearly that tallherself. You don’t remember what it’s like to be five-six, do you?You probably passed right by that height in elementary school.”
“I’m sure I did. Left it back there with sizethree clothes. Can’t remember that long ago, little dude.”
At the end of the alley he lowered the yellowcrime scene tape and they stepped over it. “You know you’re theonly person who gets away with calling me ‘little dude’,right?”
“Right, and I promise not to do it in publicunless you piss me off.” She nodded to the uniformed officers whowere keeping tabs on the alley and stepped up to her sporty blackMurano. “You got your car?”
“Yep.” He nodded to his small electricVolt.
Mel bit back a comment about the tinypowder-blue vehicle. Stone loved his eco-friendly car and as muchas she enjoyed teasing him, she knew her limits. “See you brightand early.”
He waved his camera. “We’ll download thesepictures and get started.”
“Really looking forward to it.” Mel sighed asshe slid onto the leather seat and took a moment to inhale andslowly let it out. Ten years in Homicide had left her jaded, andhard to surprise. But with each dead body there was a moment whenshe let herself think about them—who they were, what they did, howthey felt during their last moments on earth. Then she walled offher emotions and systematically solved the cases, one right afteranother, leaving more closed than open on the books.
Her father had taught her how to do that.Thirty years on the force gave him license to teach her plentyabout the workings of the WPD. When he was injured in the line ofduty and retired at the rank of captain, Gene Curtis was muchbeloved by most in the department. Now he tended bar at the localcop hangout, Morgan’s, more to keep in touch with everyone than forthe pay. And he never let much time go by without reminding hisdaughter, “Every victim is somebody’s child. Maybe somebody’sparent. Try to remember that.”
“I remember, Cappie,” she said to her father,or more accurately to the windshield as she drove. “I alwaysremember.”
It was a short drive to her house, athree-bedroom ranch in a pleasant, older neighborhood with lots oftall trees. Two blocks from her father, who still lived in Mel’schildhood home, they lived mere minutes from the cop shop, afeature which appealed to them both. Mel pulled into her narrowgarage and pushed the button to lower the door.
Inside the house, she tossed her keys on thebuffet and secured her Glock 22 handgun in the top drawer. Afterleafing through the mail, a mixture of ads and credit card offers,she tossed the stack down and decided to deal with it later. Shewas suddenly very tired. A long day had become an even longernight. She glanced toward the kitchen where she’d been preparingsome casserole meals to freeze into smaller portions for her andher dad when the call came in. She’d already refrigerated the food,everything else could wait. Tired. She headed down thehall.
Mel pulled the ponytail holder from her long,light brown hair and tossed it on the bathroom counter. She took amoment to scrub the light layer of makeup from her face and brushher teeth. She peeled out of her clothes on the way to the bed,grabbing the oversized t-shirt she slept in and slipping it overher head.
The last thing she noticed before turning outthe light was the framed photo of her mom and dad on thenightstand. The poor victim’s face from the alley flashed throughher mind and she thought of her own mother, pictured in the photoas she liked to remember her—pretty and robust with dark brown hairworn in a shoulder-length bob. She’d lost her hair, most of herweight and all her energy when the pancreatic cancer zapped her.Cruel and efficient, the disease spread quickly and Frannie Curtislived only three months after the initial diagnosis. It’d been arough time for all of them, and even though it was eight years ago,Mel still thought of her mother daily. She knew her father did too.They talked about her often, and they were good memories now.
Mel yawned and drew the covers up to herneck. ‘Night Mama .
 
* * * *
 
Shortly before seven-thirty the next morning,Mel entered the WPD building and rode the elevator to the homicidedivision on the sixth floor. A latte in each hand, she butted thedoor open and nodded to the receptionist who was chatting withanother detective. Not one for small talk and even less for gossip,Mel kept walking. Everyone in the office knew she was barelycivilized in the morning until she’d polished off a caffeinatedbeverage of one type or another. This morning something lightseemed in order, and she’d texted Stone, “latte?”.
His to the point reply “k” was all sheneeded. When he texted back “fried roll?” she replied “k.” She hadn’t heard her text notification buzz again butwhen she set the cups on her desk and pulled her phone from herpocket she saw the red light flashing. Mel worked the buttons andread the message as someone approached from the side.
“What, were they out of fried rolls?” Sheasked as she read his latest text message. “Feebs.” Sheglanced up at him questioningly. “What?”
“Feebs are here,” he replied in a hushedtone.
Mel pocketed her phone and reached for herdrink, taking a sip before answering. “Henry, it’s been a shortnight and I’m slightly sleep deprived. What the hell are youtalking about?”
He nodded his head toward their boss’soffice.
Mel followed his motion and spotted a tallman in a black suit talking to their captain, Hank Reeder. “Feebs?”She raised her eyebrows at Stone.
“F-B-I.” He waggled his brows.
She took another sip and set her cup down.“You do realize it took more letters for you to text ‘feebs’ thanhad you just entered F-B-I.”
Stone reached for the other cup and punchedthe drinking spout in. “You’re totally missing the point here. He’sFBI and where there’s one, there are sure to be others. You thinkthey’ve been sent in to help with our cheerleader case?”
Mel wandered over to Stone’s desk and pulleda greasy fried roll and a napkin out of the sack she’d spottedthere. She took a bite, savored the fattening, sweet glaze, andwondered briefly how many bites she’d take before guilt got thebest of her and she tossed the thing out.
“It has to be our case, there’s nothing elsemuch happening right now,” Stone continued.
She eyed the dark headed stranger, whatlittle she could see of him from across the room, and shrugged.“Dunno.”
Stone’s eyebrows continued to dance. “Wonderif he’s got any cute, brunette special agents with him?”
Mel grinned. “Like Shemar Moore?”
He rolled his eyes. “I was actually thinkingfemale, thank you very much.”
The captain exited his office with the suitedman in tow, headed in their direction.
Mel sputtered and wadded the rest of her rollinto the napkin, tossing the whole mess in the trash can under herdesk.
“Hey!” Stone protested.
“I’ll pay you back.” Mel turned away from theapproaching men and checked her appearance in the small mirror shekept in her desk drawer. She bared her teeth and quickly scrubbedthem with a finger before replacing the mirror and spinningaround.
“You look fine,” Stone assured her.
“Shut up,” she muttered out the side of hermouth as her boss stopped in front of her.
“Curtis, Stone, apparently the chief thinkswe can use some help on the cheerleader case. He placed a call tothe FBI. This is Agent—” he glanced up at the man who had severalinches on him. “What did you say your name was?”
The agent trained his gaze on Mel.“Supervisory Special Agent Nathan Willis. Nate.” He extended hishand.
She shook his hand, startled by the strengthof his grip and, at the same time, the smoothness of his skin. Shestared into his bright brown eyes and for a moment, couldn’tspeak.
Stone cleared his throat and extended hishand. “This is Detective Melanie Curtis, and I’m Detective HenryStone.”
The agent seemed reluctant to withdraw hishand from Mel’s but finally did, and turned to Stone. “Pleasure tomeet you. I understand the two of you have been working the case. Athird victim showed up last night?”
Mel found her voice. “Yeah. It was late, soI’m not sure we have the report yet. But I’ve got pictures anddetails from the first two vics here on my desk.”
“I was just uploading the stuff from lastnight to my computer,” Stone added.
Willis nodded. “Do you have a room we canuse? A small conference room perhaps, with whiteboards or bulletinboards?”
“Sure.” Reeder pointed a couple doors downfrom his office. “Make yourself at home. Let Curtis know if youneed anything.”
Mel watched her boss retreat, his gaitwaddling, bald head reflecting the overhead fluorescent lights.
“Let’s take everything you have into the warroom and get it organized.” Willis looked at Stone. “If you couldprint out some pictures from last night that would be great. Dowhat you can, then bring them in.” He turned to Mel. “Can I helpyou carry anything?”
Still slightly flustered, she looked at herdesk. “Sure.” Scooping up an armload of folders, she handed themover. She grabbed her latte and smiled at him apologetically.“Sorry, I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“No problem. I’m used to lousy coffee. TheFBI doesn’t make it any different than the police do.”
Stone appeared shocked. “Whatchu talking‘bout Willis?”
Mel shook her head. “How long have you beenwaiting to say that?”
“Since the minute I heard his name.” Stonegrinned.
Willis stared at Stone coolly then finallylet him off the hook and smiled. “I bet you think I’ve never heardthat one before.”
Mel paused for a moment to admire the perfectsmile—straight, white teeth and lips that curled ever so slightly. I could definitely nibble on those lips. Horrified that shewas thinking such a thing about a fellow officer and hopingdesperately she wouldn’t say something outrageous, she tried toclear her head but her mind felt murky. Get a grip, girl! Shaking off the fog, she leaned in to the agent. “Sorry about that.Please, don’t let the lack of a pocket protector fool you. He’s afounding member of the Nerd Society.”
“And proud of it!” Stone nodded smugly. Henodded toward Mel. “And don’t let the recently lightened blondelocks fool you—her nickname around here is ‘Black Widow’. They sayshe kills after mating.”
Mel felt the blood drain from her face. How could he say such a thing? Didn’t he sense the sexualtension between her and the FBI hunk? She faced Stone and thebrotherly expression on his face answered her question. No, hedid not.
Sweet, sometimes naive, obliviousStone . He didn’t get caught up in the games people played, shewasn’t even sure he understood them. But his investigative skillswere top notch and she couldn’t think of anyone she’d rather havewatching her back. Letting him off the hook, she nudged his arm.“Moron.”
Stone’s self-satisfied grin widened.
Willis laughed. “Kills after mating, huh?” Heshifted the load of folders in his arms and turned toward theconference room. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he told Stone, andwinked at Mel before he walked off.
Mel knew her face flushed bright red, butthere was nothing she could do about it. He was gone, anyway. Forthe moment. As he retreated she couldn’t help thinking of the line“hate to see him go, but love to watch him leave”. His trimphysique looked damned fine in a suit. She wondered how he’d lookin a pair of tight jeans. Oh, I think I know . Once again,she had to shake her head to clear it.
“Shoot!” Stone sat at his desk and fired uphis computer. “I forgot to ask him if any more of his team arehere.”
She watched Willis turn the light on in theconference room and begin arranging the furniture. “He didn’t govery far. You can still ask.”
Stone nodded absently. “You know, he mightnot be so bad after all.”
Mel sipped her latte. “Smells like trouble tome.”
“Think so?” He inserted the memory card fromhis camera into the machine, and began uploading photos.
No, he smells like Aramis or some othermusky cologne I can never resist. Mel sighed, and headed intothe conference room.
Willis had dragged the bulletin boards andpositioned them next to the white board. He’d lined up a row oftables underneath, leaving one lone table in the middle with chairsaround it.
“Taking that ‘make yourself at home’ commentto heart, I see,” Mel said as she entered.
He glanced at her and smiled. “We have amethod that works pretty well. If you stick to an establishedroutine, you spend less time worrying about the logistics of thingsand can devote more energy to the task at hand.”
“I see.” She blinked, not sure she reallydid, but expecting she was going to find out.
He fanned her folders out on the lone tablewith chairs. “Have a seat over here, and hand me what you’ve got onvictim number one. Photos first, then I’ll ask you for someinformation.”
Mel did as directed.
Willis peeled off his suit coat and draped itover the back of a chair. He took the handful of pictures she heldout and spread them across his table. He chose the mug shot of thewoman and pinned it to the top row of the bulletin board. Below ithe displayed the shots of her body at the crime scene. He moved tothe white board and picked up a blue marker. “Name? Age?”
Mel had been so caught up watching him dartaround she wasn’t prepared with the answers. She leafed through thefiles while he stopped and looked at her.
“You don’t know your victim’s name?” heasked, sounding incredulous.
“Of course I do. It’s Rhonda something.” Sheshuffled papers and felt the heat of another blush creep up herchest, past her neck, to her face.
“Rhonda Something. Unusual last name.” Hisvoice was patronizing.
“Look.” Mel slapped her folder closed andcaught his gaze. “I wasn’t expecting this today. I was up ‘till allhours with number three last night—”
“I’m sorry.” Willis put his hands on hiships. “Maybe we should put a notice in the newspaper, asking thekiller to please do his dirty work earlier in the day because ourofficers are getting too tired.”
She stood to face him and realized they werevery close to the same height. He was slightly taller, and for asecond that threw her. Most of the men she worked with wereshorter, and she knew she intimidated them. Nathan Willis wasnowhere near intimidated. “Look, Agent, that’s not what Imeant.”
“Supervisory Special Agent,” hecorrected.
“Supervisory Special Ass ,” sheretorted. “Yesterday I was in charge of this case. Today,apparently, I’m playing second fiddle to you. Okay, fine, Iappreciate the help, I really do. If you could just show somemutual respect and departmental courtesy, it might go a long way.Because I have to tell you, when you say ‘Jump’, not everyonearound here is going to say ‘how high?’.”
Willis appeared taken aback. “You weren’texpecting me?”
“God no!” She nearly added you were thelast thing I ever expected , but she held back.
He inhaled and blew it out. “Okay, I’msurprised here. The Bureau has to be invited in on a case. Ourarrival is not usually a surprise.”
“My captain said something about the chief,so maybe he invited you. The field workers are apparently the lastto know.”
He nodded. “Apologies. I get a littleoverexcited at times. These cases really get under my skin. I’vetracked more serial murderers killing hookers than I care to thinkabout, you might say it’s my area of expertise.”
“Sounds gruesome.”
His brow wrinkled into a furrow. “It happensevery day, somewhere. Hookers are an easy target. Half the time noone reports them as being gone, because they were already missingfrom their regular life. The rest don’t have anyone who gives adamn about them. Which makes them what? An easy target.”
“Easy target,” Mel mouthed the words alongwith him. “Sad.”
“Yeah, it is sad. And when I get to a policedepartment and find that not everything humanly possible has beendone to find the killer, I get annoyed … and angry.”
“I assure you, that’s not the case here. Ihave the information you need. Let’s put whatever that was behindus and start over, shall we?”
His eyes flickered interest.
Before he could speak, Stone joined them.
“I have the photos of vic number three. Icalled Martin with the CSI and he should have a detailed report tous by ten.”
“Good enough.” Willis nodded. “If you’d liketo have a seat, Detective Curtis was preparing to fill me in on vicnumber one, Rhonda Something.”
“Jensen,” Stone supplied, and took achair.
A look of amusement passed between Mel andWillis. The tiniest hint of a smile creased the corner of hismouth. “I can see how you two complement each other.”
“We do.” She sat and opened her folder.“Rhonda Jensen, age forty-four.”
Willis wrote what she told him on thewhiteboard. “Last known location?” He glanced around. “Damn, we’regoing to need a map of the area.”
“Right here.” Stone shuffled through one ofthe folders and produced a folded map. “We’ve marked the lastknowns and body dumps on here.”
“Excellent!” Willis opened the map and pinnedit up. He looked at Stone. “You know Wichita better than me, canyou mark the last knowns with the red map tacks, and the dump siteswith the blues?”
“Sure.” Stone did as instructed.
Willis made notes on the board with all theinformation Mel offered him. “She was found wearing an oldcheerleading uniform, white with red trim, with a small cardinalmascot on it?”
“Yes.” Mel read through sheets ofinformation. “Polyester fabric popular in the seventies. Theuniform was homemade, no tags of any kind.”
Willis nodded as he wrote. Finally satisfied,he moved on to victim number two.
“Donna Leonard. Age forty-nine.” Mel readstatistics while Willis copied them down. “Blue and goldcheerleading uniform. Some type of tag in the skirt, but it was oldand faded. Fabric seems to be from the same era. She was also foundin an alley near Oldtown.”
Stone marked the location on the map.
“Which brings us to victim three.” Mel rifledthrough the photos Stone set before her. “Obviously we don’t have aname, yet. She’s approximately the same age as the other two.Another white uniform, red trim, another cardinal mascot.”
“Mel’s high school mascot was a cardinal,”Stone commented as he added a push pin for the location they’dfound the body last night.
“We’ll need to follow up on that.” Willissaid.
Mel folded her arms across her chest.“Already done. There are currently two cardinal mascots in thecity, one at a public elementary school and the other at a Catholicmiddle school.”
“Okay,” Willis nodded. “But we aren’t sointerested in ‘current’ as we are past history. What schools hadcardinal mascots when these uniforms were in vogue? Seventiesera?”
Mel shrugged. “That information is a littleharder to come by.”
He snapped his fingers. “And that’s exactlywhere I can help. We have one of the most sophisticated computersystems available, with a database that would blow your socksoff.”
“I knew it!” Stone exclaimed. “Complete withsuper-geeky, way smart technical analysts?”
Willis chuckled. “Not exactly like you see onTV. And it doesn’t happen as fast, either. But our analysts arecracker-jack. I’ll start feeding them information today. They’llhave information for us by tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is Saturday,” Stone commented.
Willis looked from him to Mel. “I suppose youtwo don’t work weekends?”
“Of course we do,” she piped up before Stonecould say anything, and made a mental note to talk to Reeder aboutallowing some overtime.
“Sure.” Stone shrugged, then added, “So areyou here alone? I thought you people usually worked in teams.”
“I supervise a team of agents,” Willisacknowledged. “I sent them to Tacoma after a missing child. Thisparticular case was right up my alley, so I volunteered to comehere.”
“Hence the title ‘Supervisory SpecialAgent’,” Mel teased. She thought she saw a slight flush to Willis’cheeks.
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “Sorry about that. As Isaid before, I tend to get a little overexcited. These cases makemy blood boil.”
“But not enough to enlist a whole team tohelp.” Stone mused. “I guess a missing kid in Tacoma outranks abunch of dead hookers in Wichita.”
“Not so.” Willis said firmly. “If you saw thesheer volume of cases that cross my desk you’d be amazed. Dozens ofpeople get killed or go missing each week, and the FBI has tochoose where we feel we can do the most good. As I was tellingDetective Curtis here, I seem to have developed the specialty forserial killers who prey on working girls. I don’t particularly likeit, but the cases generally share some similarities, and oftentimes I’m able to help.”
Stone seemed to mull over the information fora few moments until the geek in him resurfaced. “So, are you from Quantico?”
“ No, SanAntonio.”
“ San Antonio?” Meland Stone repeated at the same time. “I don’t hear a Texas accent,”she added.
“I didn’t say I was born and raised there. Igrew up running through the cornfields of Iowa. Did a stint in theservice which took me to Kosovo and Bosnia. Joined the FBI and didmy training at Quantico,” he nodded at Stone, “and now I go wherethey send me—wherever I’m needed.”
Stone stared at the white board with all theinformation Willis had compiled. “I think we need you here, SSAWillis. I know these women do.”
Mel followed his gaze. “Yeah. We appreciateany help you can give us on this case.”
Willis looked at each of them for a moment.“We’ll find this guy. I can feel it in my gut. He might think he’ssmart, but he’s making mistakes. And we’re smarter. We’ll get him.”To Mel he said, “What was your plan of action for today?”
“Go over the report when it comes in,obviously, then take the vic’s photos to Oldtown. The girls don’tstart working there until afternoon. If we don’t get a hit, moregirls show up in the evening. We can check back. I’d like toidentify this woman, see if anyone out there is missing her.”
Willis nodded. “What about Rhonda and Donna?Was anybody missing them?”
Stone spoke up. “Rhonda Jensen was homeless,living off and on in a shelter run by the Lutherans. She had anexpensive meth habit. One daughter, married with two sons, didn’tmuch want to hear about what happened. Said she tried to help hermother over and over again, but finally gave up when mom startedstealing money from her grandsons for drugs. Seemed sad when wetold her, but not overly so. I suspect she walled off thoseemotions years ago.”
Willis screwed up his face.
Mel added, “Donna Leonard is pretty much thesame story, except no drug habit—she was bipolar and wouldn’t stayon her meds. Daughter said they made her mom ‘feel funny’. She wasin and out of shelters, never in one place for long. The daughteris a lawyer, with a very nice lifestyle. She had mom committedseveral times and tried every service money could buy, but as soonas Donna got out of treatment she’d slipped back into her oldways.”
Stone shook his head. “You’d think with allthat money they could have hired someone to stay with her.”
Willis shrugged. “Can’t watch someone 24/7.If Donna didn’t want to be helped, she’d find a way to escape. Justtoo damned bad how things ended up for her.”
Mel said softly, “Maybe now that you’re here,we can keep this from happening to anyone else’s mother, SSAWillis.”
He nodded. “Please, you can drop theformalities. It’s just Willis. Or Nate.”
She smiled. “I’m Mel, though most of thepeople around here call me Curtis.”
“Or Black Widow.” Nate grinned.
She rolled her eyes.
Stone cleared his throat. “You can call me‘Detective Stone’. Everyone here does.”
Mel whispered, “Or little dude. He especiallylikes that.”
Nate’s laugh was deep and genuine. “Oh, I’llbet.”
She was still grinning at the way his facelit up, so it didn’t even bother her when Stone passed by, punchedher arm and muttered, “Beotch.”
Mel just smiled.
 
 
 
 
 
Chapter Two
 
 
Nate held on for dear life as Mel navigatedthe streets of Wichita at the upper end of the speed limit. Heusually preferred to drive and had a shiny black bureau-issued SUV,but Mel insisted she knew the town, and he couldn’t argue withthat. Didn’t want to argue with the gorgeous cop who matchedhim in stature as well as attitude. He’d seen lots of pretty women,dated a few dozen of them, but there was something different aboutthis one—a spark of some kind, a spirit too irresistible toignore.
He sighed. Five days . The chief hadgiven him five days in Kansas to solve what the press was nowcalling the Cheerleader Slasher case. And at the same time,unravel the mystery that was Melanie Curtis.
She screeched to a stop at the curb alongsidewhat appeared to be a shack with a sign that read ‘Fanny’s’.
“Hungry?” Mel glanced at him.
Surprised, he shrugged. They were supposed tobe headed to a place called Oldtown to interview working girls, butit was after one p.m. “I could eat.”
“Wait here.” She exited the vehicle andapproached a walk-up window at the shack.
He saw her talk to someone inside, hand oversome cash, and in just a few minutes she returned with two brownpaper sacks.
She climbed back in the Murano and handed thebags over. “Sliders. Best in town.” She buckled up and proceeded todrive.
“Okay.” Nate opened one of the bags andblinked. There were roughly a dozen small hamburgers, notindividually wrapped, just stacked on top of one another.“Hmmm.”
“Try one,” she encouraged, and held out herhand.
He passed her one and took one for himself.The first bite made him think of a cheesy, oniony little taste ofheaven. “Wow,” he murmured, licking oozing mustard from histhumb.
She chuckled. “Napkins in the glove box.”
He nodded and grabbed a couple for each ofthem. They were silent for the next few minutes as they eachhappily polished off three sliders. Nate offered the bag to heronce more.
Mel waved him off, wiping her hands for thelast time.
He rolled the half-full bag closed andcleaned up with his last napkin. “Not as hungry as youthought?”
Mel grinned again. “They weren’t all for us.Stone didn’t mind staying behind to work the evidence, but he wouldhave minded missing Fanny’s burgers. They’re amazing fresh out ofthe microwave, too.”
Nate settled the bags in the console betweenthem and looked at her. “I was going to ask you about that. I hopedhe wouldn’t feel left out, but since we just got the report on thethird vic, we really needed someone to go over it in depth and heseemed like the right choice.”
She nodded. “When you get to know Henry,you’ll find out he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He’s not one ofthose players, always ambling for the best assignment, working hisway up the food chain. He goes where he’s needed, does what he’sasked and more . He’s a good partner.”
Will I be here long enough to ‘get to knowHenry’? Nate exhaled, and the onions that had tasted so good onthe burgers came back to haunt him. “Ugh, onions.”
Mel laughed. “Sorry, but that’s what makesFanny’s burgers so special. Can’t get them without onions. Gum inthe glove box, somewhere underneath all those napkins.”
Nate chuckled and rummaged around until hefound some Double Mint gum. “The folks we’re going to talk to willthank you for this.” He handed Mel a stick and chewed onehimself.
She glanced sideways at him as she drove.“Most people would say ‘they’re just hookers’. Who cares aboutonion breath?”
He started to reply then stopped.
“What?” She pulled to the side of the roadand parked.
They’d apparently arrived at theirdestination, brick-lined streets, traditional lamp posts, and mostof the buildings looked to be converted warehouses. “This is…?” heasked.
“This area is called Oldtown. The city triedreal hard to fix this neighborhood up. Redid the building fronts,gave low interest loans to businesses, all that jazz.” She pointedup the block. “The farther you go in that direction, the nicer itgets. Really fancy shops, nightclubs, the works. But this littlestretch just never took off. This is where you come for a cheapbeer, some knockoff jewelry, or an escort for the evening—or anhour.”
Nate nodded. Every city hada similar spot.
She gazed at him. “What were you going to sayjust now?”
“Hmm?” He pretended he didn’t remember.
She replied patiently, “I told you that mostpeople would say these women are just hookers, so who cares aboutonion breath? You started to say something then stopped.”
He rubbed his chin, and realized he needed ashave. He liked the look of a two day beard growth, but after thatit got itchy. Gazing up at Mel, he smiled. “I was going to say,‘I’m not like most people.’ Then I realized that was the kitschiestpick-up line on the planet. So how about this. They’re not justhookers to me. Every one of them is somebody’s daughter, maybesomebody’s mother, or even sister. I’m always telling people toremember that.”
He watched with surprise as Mel raised a handto her heart. Her eyes grew misty and for a moment, she couldn’tmeet his gaze. When she did, he saw real emotion in her eyes.
“You couldn’t know this,” she leaned incloser to him, “but that’s the perfect pick-up line to use on me.”She offered a small smile, and batted her lashes.
Nate froze, uncertain what to do. Go forit. He moved forward, his face mere inches from hers. Theystared at each other.
“I was going to kiss you, but….” Mel trailedoff, their faces inches apart.
“I know.” He picked up on her thought. “Wework together, we have a case to solve, we should be focusingon—”
She pressed two fingers to his lips. “I wasgoing to say, ‘but I have onion breath’.” One more bat of herlashes, a quick smile, and she backed away. She grabbed one sack ofburgers and opened her door. “Come on.”
Too startled to do anything but comply, Natefollowed her lead. They approached three women standing on thecorner, obviously working girls. Two appeared young, pretty, withlong hair and nice figures. Both had good complexions and whiteteeth. Newbies. No visible battle scars. Not time-worn. Yet.
They eyed Nate and one made lewd gesturesabout getting together with him. He smiled and focused hisattention on the third woman. She had darker skin and short,bleached blonde curly hair. Definitely older, mid-forties perhaps,she looked more the type their killer went for. The woman flashed agrin at Mel and he could see a gold capped tooth in front.
“Hey Goldilocks! Seein’ you here never begood news.” Her accent rang out a combination of Jamaican andstreet slang.
Nate glanced at Mel. Goldilocks? Shehad some ‘splaining to do.
“Hia Sheila,” Mel acknowledged. “You’re rightabout that, and today’s no exception. Need you to eyeball a photofor me.”
“Cops,” Sheila shook her head.
The mere utterance of the word sent the twoyounger girls slinking into the shadows, evidently wanting nothingto do with police.
“It’s okay,” Sheila called to them. “These behomicide cops. The ones you gots to watch out for be vice cops.”She looked at Mel and grinned. “Except that Brady Marshall. He onefine man. That cutie patatootie can shake me down any day of ‘daweek.”
“Ah, Brady.” Mel agreed. “Know what you mean.But he’s a married man now, Sheila. Has twin baby daughters even. Areal family man these days.”
“Uh huh.” Sheila nodded knowingly. “You tellmy Brady if’n he ever needs some time away from that family to belookin’ me up. I give him a special rate.”
Mel laughed. “Living dangerously, Sheila. Hiswife has mob connections you know.”
“I’m just sayin’.” Sheila shrugged.
Mel handed over a cropped photo of the lastvictim’s face.
As Sheila studied it, Nate murmured, “A cop’swife with mob connections? How does that work?”
Mel chuckled again. “That’s a whole ‘notherstory. I’ll tell you about it sometime. You might even meet Brady.He’s a good guy.”
Sheila handed the photo back. “Never seenher.” She sniffed toward the sack in Mel’s hand. “What yougot?”
“Just came from Fanny’s.” Mel handed over thebag.
The woman peered inside and for a moment,seemed to savor the fragrant aroma. She pulled out a burger andinhaled it in three bites. The second went down just as quickly.She made a show of licking her fingers then held out her hand forthe photo again, and gave it another look.
Nate smiled at Mel’s acumen. She knew how toget through to street people. Food was often a good place tostart.
“I might’a seen her around. Might’a been withJuicy. You know Juicy, sweetie?”
Mel shook her head.
Sheila pulled out a small flip phone andspeed dialed a number. She turned her back to talk.
Mel raised her brows at Nate. “Alwayssurprises me when they have cell phones. I mean, if they can affordthat….”
He shrugged. “Sometimes the pimp pays for it.Maybe they’re throwaway phones and the user buys minutes. It’sactually a pretty good safety feature. Do we know if Rhonda orDonna had phones?”
“We don’t.” She screwed up her face. “Nevereven thought to check.”
“That’s okay. We’ll get on it when we getback. See, this is why bouncing ideas off each other is good.”
“Bouncing, yeah.” She allowed her gaze totravel down the length of his body and back up again. “Good.”
Nate had never considered himself a blusher,but he felt his face heat up and knew it was gaining color at thatmoment. From Mel’s satisfied expression, he could surmise that shenoticed, and rather enjoyed his discomfort. He turned from her andadjusted his belt. Gonna be a long five days.
Sheila ended her call and faced them. “She behere in a minute. Right ‘round ‘da corner.”
“Thanks.” Mel smiled at her. The mostbeautiful smile Nate had ever seen on anyone. Sweet, sincere, evenin these less than perfect circumstances. Beautiful .
He shook his head to clear it, and spotted ared-headed woman rounding the nearest corner. She approached with awary expression on her face. He studied her. Forty-something withskin that looked years older; this one either smoked or drankheavily. He could tell by the dull color of her complexion, eventhrough the thick layer of pancake.
“Juicy! Get oba here.” Sheila shoved the lastof the cheeseburgers in her mouth and tossed the sack into thewaste bin near the old-fashioned lamp post next to her.
“What’s up?” Juicy eyed Mel and Natesuspiciously.
“These be homicide in-vest-a-ga-tors,” Sheilapronounced the word haughtily. “Have a pitcher to show you. Anotherdead girl.”
Juicy scowled. “No, not another one.”
“I’m sorry.” Mel said softly. “I’m DetectiveCurtis and this is Agent Willis. If you wouldn’t mind just having alook at the photo. This woman has family and friends somewhere. I’dreally like to find out her name.”
The woman seemed to screw up her couragebefore nodding.
Mel handed over the photo.
Juicy looked quickly then handed it back. Herface belied no expression when she asked, “Got any gum? I likeJuicy Fruit.”
Mel nodded and shot Nate a look. “No JuicyFruit, but we have Double Mint. We have some cheeseburgers fromFanny’s too, if you’re hungry.”
Juicy gazed at her with dull eyes.
Nate understood the look. Duh. Streetpeople were always hungry. “I’ll get them,” he offered, and hurriedto the Murano. He grabbed the food and gum, and took them back toJuicy.
She grabbed with both hands and began eating,at the same time offering a small, “Thanks.”
“Sure.” Mel smiled again and waited forJuicy’s timeframe.
The second burger went down more frantically,and it was then that Nate could tell Juicy knew their victim. Hereyes welled up but she tried hard to fight the emotion. After she’dpolished off three burgers, she wrapped the others up and popped astick of gum in her mouth. “Her name is Linda. Was Linda.”
“Do you know her last name?” Mel proddedgently.
Juicy shook her head. “She stayed at SisterCatherine’s shelter a couple blocks over.” She nodded behind her.“The sister should know her name. Her and Linda were friendly.Anything she owned, you’ll prolly find it there.”
“Sister Catherine’s,” Mel repeated. “Did yousee Linda yesterday? Notice anyone she was with?”
“We was together until about three. Then Iwent to have my hair done. Never saw her again after that.”
Nate wondered what she had ‘done’ to thestraggly mop of hair, but didn’t voice his thoughts out loud.Instead, he asked, “Has anyone new been hanging around lately? Avehicle you might remember? A different man that caught yourattention?”
Both of them shook their heads.
“So you don’t have anything on him yet?”Juicy motioned toward the picture of Linda. “The guy who did that.No idea who he is?”
“Not yet,” Mel admitted. “But we’re workingvery hard on it. The case is the number one priority for myteam.”
Juicy scoffed. “We ain’t a priority fornobody. Who cares if a few hookers disappear? People prolly thinkthe guy’s doing the city a favor.”
Nate’s gut churned and he took a stepforward. “We don’t think that. We’re going to find theson-of-a-bitch who did that to Linda and the others, and make himpay. I promise you that. I guarantee it.”
Mel glanced at him, a look of surprise in hereyes.
He went on, “But the two of you need to facea hard fact. This guy isn’t singling out the teeny boppers thatwere here when we pulled up. He’s going after, shall we say, more mature women. Think about it for a minute. All three of thevictims have been your ages. Might be a good time for you to find anew line of work.”
That idea met with blank stares. “At leasttake a break from it,” he suggested.
Sheila chuckled. “Pipe dreamin’, my man.”
Frustration welled in his chest. “Then youboth need to be extra careful out here. Stay in pairs if you can.Watch each other’s backs.”
“Guys ‘round here don’t want to pay for notwo-fers. No way we be staying together, it just ain’t happening.“
“Make him think it’s happening,” Natesnapped. “Use the buddy system as long as you can. When one of youhas to leave, the other one should notice the man you’re goingwith. Remember his car. Look him in the eye.” He pointed twofingers at himself then turned them on Sheila in an ‘I’m watchingyou’ manner.
“Yeah, right.” Juicy snorted and looked atSheila. “Let him know you remember his face, so after he kills mehe can come back for you.”
They erupted in laughter.
Nate shook his head and took a step away. This conversation is going nowhere. “You ready?” he askedMel.
“Yeah.” She tucked a business card into eachwoman’s hand. “If you think of anything, or need anything, call me.I’ll do whatever I can.”
“You send that hansum Brady Marshall back ovato see me?” Sheila grinned, her gold tooth sparkling in thesunlight.
“I’ll mention you asked about him.” Melchuckled, glancing over her shoulder as she walked to her car.
Nate climbed in and buckled his seatbelt. Heheld in his frustration until she’d pulled away from the curb, thenit came bubbling out. “Damn it! It’s like a joke to them. Maybe weshouldn’t have cropped that picture so nicely. Let them see theslash marks across Linda’s neck. Let them see the all theblood.”
“Maybe.” Mel nodded. “I know it’saggravating, but you can’t take this so personally. Those womenmake their own choices every day. You warned them. It’s up to themwhat they choose to do with your information.”
“I’m not taking it personally.” His voicesounded petulant, even to his own ears. “I’m simply passionateabout what I do.”
She glanced at Nate sideways and smiled.“I’ll remember that. Sister Catherine’s should be just a ways uphere.” Mel turned onto the next side street and began studyingbuilding fronts. She pulled over in front of what appeared to be ashelter and stopped. “Pretty sure this is it.” She punched a fewbuttons on her smartphone and nodded. “Yep, this is it.”
Nate unbuckled and got out. They walked sideby side to the front door, and Mel rang the bell.
A small, blonde-haired girl threw the dooropen and stared up at them.
“Hi,” Mel offered.
The child just stared.
“Is Sister Catherine here?” Mel asked.
She turned her wide-eyed scrutiny onNate.
“I love kids,” he muttered through histeeth-gritting smile.
“Me too,” Mel added. “Isn’t sheprecious?”
“I was being sarcastic,” he explained.
“I could tell that,” Mel said in a sing-songvoice. She leaned forward and got nose to nose with the girl. “Youcould tell that too, couldn’t you sweetheart? Is your mommy here?Is the nice lady who runs the place in there?”
The girl stepped back and closed the door inMel’s face.
Mel straightened and exhaled upwards, thebreeze ruffling her hair. “Okay, so we try this again.” She pressedthe doorbell a second time.
It was answered immediately by a petite womansporting a closely cropped haircut, wearing jeans and a tank top.“Help you?” she asked pleasantly.
“We were looking for Sister Catherine,” Melreplied
“You found her.” The woman wiped her hands ona rag. “You’ll have to excuse me, we’re painting one of thebedrooms.”
Nate blinked. She didn’t look like any nunhe’d ever known. The ones from his short stint in Catholic schoolprobably didn’t own jeans and wouldn’t be caught dead in skimpytops. He could visualize them painting a room, still wearing theirlong black habits with crisp white wimples surrounding theirfaces.
“No problem.” Mel flashed her badge. “I’mDetective Curtis with the WPD, and this is Agent Willis. We’rehoping you can help us identify a woman from a photo we have.”
“Not Linda!” Sister Catherine clutched thedoor frame for support.
“Linda?” Mel asked.
She nodded. “Linda Mains. She never came homelast night. That’s not something she’d do. I’ve been worried sickall day.”
“Are you willing to look at a photo of ourvictim?” Mel held it upside down. “It’s not pleasant.”
“Yes, please! I have to know.”
Mel turned the photo over and the nuntightened her grasp on the jamb, sobbing. “No! Linda, no!”
“I’m so sorry.” Mel clutched the woman’s arm.“Can we help you inside?”
“No.” The sister heaved a few more deepbreaths then attempted to compose herself. “I’d rather not bringthis into the house. We’ve got children staying here.”
“I know.” Mel smiled. “Cute little blondething answered the door.”
“Sandy!” She scowled. “Doesn’t know astranger. I’m going to have to talk to her about that.”
Mel shrugged. “She wouldn’t let us in.”
Sister Catherine wiped her nose on the backof her hand. “That’s something I guess.” She glanced around thestill neighborhood. “It’s a different world out there now. Ifsomeone like Linda wasn’t safe….”
Nate had to speak up. “You know what Lindadid for money, don’t you?”
“Of course I know,” the woman snapped. “I’djust about gotten her talked into applying for a secretarial jobI’d heard about. We even found a nice, used dress for herinterview. But Linda wasn’t quite ready. Her husband used to beatthe crap out of her, you know. She had zero self-esteem left.”
“We didn’t know,” Mel replied. “But we’d liketo. It would really help us to hear anything at all you canremember about Linda. We need to see her things.”
The nun glanced over her shoulder at twochildren racing down the hall.
“We’ll keep it low key. They don’t even needto know we’re cops, if you prefer that.”
Sister Catherine chuckled bitterly. “Thesepeople will know you’re cops, you can believe that.” She inspectedNate. “Not you, in your fancy black suit. You’re somethingdifferent. Agent, did she say? Are you FBI?”
He peeled off his jacket, rolled up hissleeves and loosened his tie. “Don’t say that like it’s a badthing. You of all people should realize that I’m one of the goodguys. The more we can learn about our victims, the sooner we canget the killer off the street.”
With some reluctance, she stepped aside sothey could enter the house. As Nate passed her she muttered, “Thenpretty soon, another killer shows up. Maybe you’ll catch him too.But none of this is going to help Linda, is it?”
“It won’t bring her back,” he conceded. “Butto honor her memory, don’t we at least have to try?”
“Yes, we do,” the sister agreed. She inhaledand let out a slow, shuddering breath. “Thank you. Please, comethis way.”
He followed her down the hall, pausing onlyfor a moment when Mel squeezed his hand.
 
* * * *
 
Nate glanced at his watch as they entered thehomicide department bullpen later that afternoon. Almostfour-thirty . They’d spent a couple of hours at the shelterlooking through Linda’s things, before Mel started playing with twoof the children. The sister had enlisted his help moving two largepieces of furniture before they left. He didn’t mind, as far as hecould tell there were only women and children staying there. By thetime they left, the residents and Sister Catherine were pleasantand joking with them.
As he followed Mel into the war room, thethought crossed his mind that he’d been trailing her for a goodportion of the day and it was actually a pretty nice position to bein. She wasn’t bone skinny like most of the women they’dinterviewed. Mel had curves in all the right places and standingbehind her had its definite good points.
She tacked the picture of Linda up by theothers and looked at the white board where Stone had written inbold print Linda Mains .
He joined them in the small room. “I’ve doneas much digging on her as I could since you texted me. Haven’t comeup with much. Captain gave us Sam to help out. She’s been runningsimilarities on the three cases all afternoon.”
“Good.” Mel nodded and looked at Nate.“Samantha Becker is one of our newer detectives but she’s a hardworker and gets things done.”
“Fine. I’ve been feeding info to the FBItechnical analysts too. They’ll let us know if they getanything.”

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