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"If I die, it won't be an accident."
At the time, Lilly Burkstrom brushed aside her ex-husband's words. Then he dies—"accidentally"—in a convenience store robbery, and she starts to wonder. Turning to the police doesn't help. They don't see the danger closing in on her, not even when someone breaks into her house and her ex-husband's apartment. Only Detective Jonathan Littledeer understands her fears, having lost his own family. He's determined to keep the single mom safe. He's not going to let another "accident"...
"If I die, it won't be an accident."
At the time, Lilly Burkstrom brushed aside her ex-husband's words. Then he dies—"accidentally"—in a convenience store robbery, and she starts to wonder. Turning to the police doesn't help. They don't see the danger closing in on her, not even when someone breaks into her house and her ex-husband's apartment. Only Detective Jonathan Littledeer understands her fears, having lost his own family. He's determined to keep the single mom safe. He's not going to let another "accident" claim Lilly or her daughter before he can bring the killer's guarded secrets to light.
The door stood ajar, and panic raced through her veins. She'd locked her ex-husband's apartment door after retrieving his clothes for the funeral.
"Mom, did you forget to lock the door? You know Daddy always made me—" Tears clogged Penny's throat.
Lilly Burkstrom pulled her daughter into her arms.
"I don't understand, Mom," Penny sobbed into her mother's waist. "Why did Daddy have to die?"
It was a question Lilly asked herself. Peter had been murdered in a convenience store robbery gone bad.
It didn't make much sense to her, a twenty-nine-year-old woman, so how could she expect her eight-year-old daughter to understand it?
"I don't know, sweetie. I know you miss him. I do, too."
Penny hugged her with a desperate intensity. "You won't leave me, will you?" She looked up, her huge brown eyes glistening with tears.
Lilly's heart broke. She wiped the wetness from
her daughter's cheeks. "No, I won't." Although she and Peter had been divorced almost since Penny's birth, they had come to terms with their failed marriage and had become friends. Peter's recent salvation had changed all their lives. "I can take you home and do this by myself."
Penny wiped away her tears and stepped back. "I want to help."
Lilly pushed the door all the way open and peered inside. The condition of the apartment shocked her.
Penny gasped. "Mom, what happened?"
Lilly's gaze swept the living room, dining room and kitchen. It looked as if a tornado had ripped through the place, throwing things everywhere. Chairs and end tables had been tossed on their sides. The sofa had been turned over, and the cushions rippedand thrown around the room. The kitchen cabinets stood open; boxes of cereal and spaghetti spilled out from the shelves. Broken dishes and glasses littered the coun-tertops and floor.
"I don't know." Three days ago, when she'd been inside this apartment to get one of Peter's suits for the funeral, everything had been fine.
"I wonder if Dad's bedroom is this way." Penny started down the short hall.
A loud noise came from the bedroom.
Penny froze. When she turned her head, her frightened gaze met Lilly's.
Lilly motioned for her daughter to come toward her. Penny turned and ran to her mother. Lilly rushed them
out of the apartment and down the stairs. They retreated to Lilly's car, and Lilly whipped out her cell phone.
"Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?"
"I need to report a burglary."
Detective Jonathan Littledeer greeted Lilly outside Peter's apartment door.
"Ms. Burkstrom, can you tell me what happened here?"
She recognized the Albuquerque police detective and his partner, David Sandoval. They'd come and told her about Peter's death. Had it only been two weeks since that happened? It seemed like it was yesterday when they announced the grim news.
Stepping inside the apartment, Detective Littledeer stopped and scanned the area between the front door and the living room.
"Someone did a job on this place," Detective Sandoval murmured, walking around the living room.
Detective Littledeer looked around the living room and kitchen. "It looks like they did a thorough search. What do you think they were looking for?"
Detective Sandoval nodded. "Good question. I'll take a look in the bedroom." He disappeared into the bedroom.
"Where's your daughter?" Detective Littledeer asked Lilly, who was standing in the doorway.
"She left with my cousin. She didn't need to be here. It upset her." Lilly had called her cousin Allison and asked her to come and pick Penny up. Allison
was one of the few family members left in town after her parents moved to Florida. Alison had a child younger than Penny. They'd been friends all their lives, and Penny needed a friend to help her redirect her thoughts.
Spying a digital picture frame on the floor, Lilly picked it up. "Peter bought this for Penny so she could see pictures of the two of them having fun." She placed the frame on the coffee table.
"Can you think of why anyone would do this to your ex-husband's apartment?"
"A couple of months ago, when Peter dropped off Penny, he told me that if anything happened to him, it wouldn't be an accident."
"Did he tell you what he meant by that?" Detective Littledeer asked, pressing her.
"Later, when I tried to question him about it, he simply shook his head, kissed my forehead and asked me to pray for him." She looked down at the floor. "I tried to get him to explain a couple of times after that, asking him exactly what he meant, but he wouldn't tell me anything. He acted like I had imagined it."
"The bedroom's in the same shape as the rest of the place," Detective Sandoval informed them as he joined them in the living room.
"Was someone in there?" Lilly asked.
Detective Sandoval glanced at Detective Littledeer before turning to her. "Yeah."
She stumbled to the sofa. "Penny almost went in that room."
Detective Littledeer squatted in front of Lilly. "But you didn't let her, did you?"
"No. I didn't," she replied.
He covered her hand with his. When she looked at him, he smiled. "A mother's wisdom is from above." He stood. "Ms. Burkstrom might have an angle on this," Detective Littledeer told his partner.
"What's that?" Detective Sandoval asked.
"Her ex had been threatened."
Detective Littledeer motioned Lilly toward the kitchen table as the crime-scene people arrived and started taking prints. "Is there anything you can think of that your ex-husband was involved with that was risky?"
Lilly tried to come up with something suspect that Peter could've been involved with. "I really don't know of anything. After we divorced, he started drinking and running around. He'd show up sporadically at the house and want to see Penny, and then he would disappear again for six months.
"About four years ago, he found a job and seemed to straighten up his life. He saw Penny regularly and paid his child support. Eighteen months ago, he started coming to church again and gave his life to Christ. He seemed very happy until—"
"Until when?" Detective Littledeer quizzed.
"It was last April. I remember when because it was right after tax time. He'd glanced at my tax return and got a funny look on his face. He turned to me and gave me that warning."
Detective Sandoval walked into the kitchen and sat down next to Detective Littledeer. "The evidence team's finding lots of prints."
"How will you know if they are Pete's or someone else's?" asked Lilly.
The detectives looked at each other. Detective Little-deer met her eyes. "Your husband's prints are on file."
"It was a drunk driving charge from four years ago," he explained.
Lilly wondered if they were telling her everything. "Is that all?"
"Also, the company he was working for at the time of his death requires prints of all its employees," Detective Sandoval added.
Frowning, Lilly asked, "Why would they do that?"
"Armored car personnel have to have their prints on file," Detective Littledeer explained.
"We'll also need your fingerprints," Detective Sandoval added.
Her heart raced. "Why?"
Detective Littledeer frowned at his partner, but he turned to her. "Simply as a process of elimination. Also, bring your daughter with you so she can be fingerprinted. You can tell her that it is just a precaution. Schools now like to have the kids fingerprinted."
He didn't say why, but Lilly knew the sad reality of missing children. One of the women who worked with her at the church and the community garden had a child who'd gone missing.
"I'll bring Penny by tomorrow and we both can have our prints taken."
"What's going on here?"
They looked up and saw a man standing in the doorway. In his early fifties, he stood with a military pre-ciseness and his hair was cut in a burr.
"And you are?" Detective Littledeer asked.
"Mark Rodgers, the owner and manager of these apartments." He glanced around the room. "What happened here?"
After informing the owner who they were and why they were there, Detective Littledeer asked, "Did anyone ask to see this apartment in recent days?"
"No. No one has been by to ask anything. Since Mr. Burkstrom's lease was up at the end of the month, I wanted this place cleaned out so I could paint and recarpet. He bought a new condo off of Rio Grande Boulevard."
"When was the last time you were in this apartment?" Detective Sandoval asked.
"I came by when this lady here got her husband's clothes. I told her then when the lease was up." The owner looked around at the mess. "This place wasn't this way the last time I was here."
"Did you see someone leave here in the last half hour?" Detective Littledeer asked.
"No. I just got back from a trip into Santa Fe. When I saw all the cop cars parked out front, I came up to see what was wrong." He continued to look around. "You say it was a break-in?"
"I'll keep an eye out. I don't want my tenants put in any danger." The owner shook his head. "When am I going to be able to rent this place?"
Both detectives glared at the man. He backed up and raised his hand. "Hey, I'll give the lady until the end of the month." He disappeared out the door.
The detectives turned to her. "How did you get in here?" Detective Sandoval asked.
"My daughter has a key. When I got Peter's things from the cops, his car keys and his house key weren't among them. His wallet was also missing," said Lilly.
Detective Littledeer's eyes darkened. "I'll go back over the incident report and see if I can locate those keys."
"Detectives, we're done here," one of the evidence techs informed them.
"I can now go through Pete's things?" asked Lilly.
"You can. If you find anything you think would shed light on what happened, call." Detective Little-deer gave her his business card.
"Thanks," she said as the detectives filed out the door behind the techs.
Once alone in the apartment, Lilly scanned the mess. "Oh, Lord, what was Peter into?"
After spending a few hours trying to restore order in Peter's apartment, Lilly drove to her little house a block from San Mateo Street Community Church. Having a job so close to home was a blessing because
Penny could walk to the church after school and help her with the garden. She was the secretary, manager and community gardener for their parish. The garden had started with the pastor wanting to reach out to the community. They'd only had a few of the church ladies help with the planting that first year. Since then it had taken off. This season they'd tripled the amount they harvested from the garden.
She hit the remote for the garage door and waited for the door to open. She would be sure to gather some flowers from her garden to thank Allison for keeping Penny overnight. Allison would probably spoil both the girls with hot-fudge sundaes and let them stay up until nine-thirty. Penny needed spoiling. It had been a rough week for both of them. Once school started next week, hopefully life could return to some semblance of normal. Lilly had hoped the time Penny spent with her would reassure her daughter that she wouldn't leave, too.
Lilly had called her parents in Florida, letting them know what had happened. Her dad hadn't been too sympathetic. Her father never forgave Peter for abandoning his daughter.
Gathering her purse, she got out of the car. She'd boxed Peter's shoes, clothes and dishes. She could give some of the things to several needy families in the church. Opening the door that led into the kitchen, she put her purse on the table and flipped on the light.
She gasped as she looked at the mess in her kitchen. Someone had been in here, searching for… what?
Grabbing her purse, she looked for Jonathan Little-deer's business card. She found it and dialed the number.
"Detective, this is Lilly Burkstrom. I just walked into my house. It looks like my husband's apartment wasn't the only place ransacked."
"Your house was broken into?"
A crash from the bedroom made her gasp.
"I heard something."
"Get out. Go next door and call 911."
She turned and ran out the garage.