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"Yes, I know it'll be difficult to go back to your apartment, Ms. Cortino, but you could have information that we need. I've advised one of my officers that you're on your way home now. He'll meet you there. You have our deepest sympathies on the loss of your roommate."
Margo McBride hung up the phone for what had to be the tenth time since their dispatcher went to the diner for takeout, then propped her elbows on her desk and massaged the tension headache over her eyebrows. She was about to reach for her cold coffee when the door to the Charity, Pennsylvania, police department opened… and an awkward, uncomfortable pall fell over the room. Her side of it, at least.
The tall, broad-shouldered man wearing jeans and a collarless white knit shirt didn't seem uneasy at all. He was through the low, spindled gate dividing the reception area from the office proper before Margo could blink away a sting of tears.
Cole Blackburn's wind-tossed brown hair topped rugged features and dark eyes that wanted answers.
Why today, God? Margo thought, feeling her heart break all over again. Why today, when she'd been up since 3:00 a.m. and her nerves were already raw? Then she remembered that she and God were no longer speaking, and braced herself for what was coming.
She knew why her ex-fiancé had come back.
And it wasn't for her.
Cole crossed to the gray steel desk where she'd been scanning the old Gold Star files, and spoke grimly. "Why didn't you tell me? I know it's been a long time since we spoke, but you had to realize I'd want to know about this. Why did I have to hear it on the morning news?"
Events she'd prayed would never be repeated moved through his dark eyes…a time of tragic crime photos, tearful parents and two-inch-high headlines.
"The reporter was careful not to utter the words 'serial killer,'" Cole went on, "but gold stars and strangulation tells me it's the same freak. There was a silk scarf around her neck, wasn't there? But it wasn't hers."
With a squeak of wheels, Margo rolled her swivel chair away from the desk and stood. She worked to keep her voice even and polite. "You know I can't talk about an active investigation."
"Yes, I do. But in a town of barely six thousand people, I only have to walk into the diner across the street or the convenience store down the block and I'll hear everything. Gossip flows like water around here. Unfortunately, the facts would be distorted—unintentionally, but distorted just the same. I'd rather hear the truth from you."
Maybe it was lack of sleep, or last night's horror, or his seemingly unaffected demeanor that shoved professionalism to the side. Or maybe she just needed to remind him that he wasn't the only one who'd been hurt eleven months ago. For whatever reason, she said softly, but pointedly, "And if I told you the truth? Today you'd believe me?"
Everything in Cole seemed to still as memories of their last day together stretched between them like a damaged bridge too fragile to cross. It all came back to Margo now…the bone-deep sorrow and futility of that day, the angry words. The love she'd tried so hard to preserve until she'd finally realized that the best thing she could do for the two of them was give back his ring.
Cole broke their eye contact first. Then he sighed, jammed his hands in his pockets and wandered a few feet away to regroup. His gaze skipped from the white floor tiles, to the filing cabinets and office machines, to the barely audible TV and wood-paneled walls. Margo knew what he saw there: more memories. The Officer Bill and D.A.R.E. posters taped to the paneling had hung there when Cole was part of their tiny police force. Then his dark gaze rested on the second desk in the room, and Margo felt that clawing hurt again. Once they'd shared that desk, some days sharing secret smiles, other days poring over files and desperately looking for anything that would lead them to a killer.
It hurt him to look at it, too. She could see it. But not because he missed those days with her. It hurt because the job wasn't his anymore.
Ambling back to her, he broke the heavy silence. "Who was she, Margo?" he asked quietly. "Is there someone I need to see? Someone who'd expect my condolences? I made some friends while I lived here."
Yes, he had, and she'd been one of them. His best friend, he used to say. Reluctantly, Margo walked around the desk to him. The sooner she answered his questions and he left, the sooner she could get on with the business of patching the new hole in her heart. She would not think about summer nights sitting on the tailgate of his truck, picking out constellations, or sack races at the department's picnics, or weekends cuddled together naming the babies they hoped to have one day. The past was the past. The tenderness in his dark eyes was for someone else now.
"You didn't know her. Her name was Leanne Hudson, and she was walking home from a volleyball game at the park when it happened. She was a med student who'd recently moved here with her family…small, blonde and pretty, just like the first two girls. And yes," she said, since practically every detail of the murders was already out, thanks to the teenage boys who found the body. "There was a scarf around her neck."
"But it was window dressing, wasn't it? He used his hands. And there were no defensive wounds, which suggests—as we'd thought with the other girls—that she knew her attacker or for some reason wasn't afraid of him."
"That I can't discuss." Margo drew a breath, then let it out. "There is something I can tell you, though, since you'll hear it on the street anyway. There were four gold stars on her forehead."
Shock splintered through his rugged features. "Four? There was no report of a third murder. I would've heard."
"There was no third murder. Not in this jurisdiction, anyway. We're scouring all the databases for number three, but so far—nothing."
The phone rang, and Margo murmured a polite, "Sorry, I have to take this," before she picked up the receiver.
Cole moved away to give her some privacy, his obsession with the case and his raw emotions both urgently vying for his attention. It was a close contest, but raw emotion won out. He knew it would be uncomfortable seeing her again, but he hadn't expected to feel anything beyond that. He'd been wrong. From the moment he'd walked in, memories had flown at him from every corner, making him tense and short and loading him up with guilt when he didn't have any reason to feel that way. She was the one who'd pulled the plug on their relationship, not him, and he refused to take the blame for it.
Cole forced himself to shift his focus—center on the killer he hadn't been able to stop, and the high-school girls who'd lost their lives in Woodland Park two years ago. Trista Morgan had been marked with one star; Missy Kennicott, two. Now he could add a third name: Leanne Hudson.
Twenty-four months ago, they'd done everything they could to nail the star-flinging freak, but with the department's limited resources, the case had dragged on for months. He'd argued repeatedly with Chief of Police John Wilcox that they needed to look elsewhere for the killer—not center solely on two carnival workers. They'd questioned and released the carneys so many times it had bordered on police harassment. But Wilcox had refused and, finally—against Margo's nervous insistence that Cole back off—he'd told Wilcox to holster his ego and bring in the Pennsylvania State Police.
Cole felt a nerve leap in his jaw and his stomach clenched. Three days later, Wilcox—with the mayor and town council's blessing—had dismissed him for insubordination, and blackballed him in surrounding counties.
Losing his job had been humiliating—life changing. Somehow he'd known even then that there would be a domino effect of trouble ahead. That's when he'd asked God to make things right again. He was the son of a deeply Christian mother and not-quite-devout dad who, nevertheless, kept a St. Michael medal on his key ring— St. Michael, patron saint of cops. But he'd been more like his dad in his beliefs, and apparently the Lord had picked up on that. It had taken him a long time to realize that he couldn't keep treating God like some benevolent Santa Claus when he needed a favor, then basically ignore His existence until he needed Him again.
"So where's Wilcox?" he asked, making his way back to Margo when she'd hung up the phone. He had a hard time keeping the disdain out of his voice. "Out glad-handing everybody? Assuring them that he's only minutes away from an arrest?"
He regretted his sarcasm the moment Margo's features softened and her gaze slid away. He knew that look. Something had happened.
"No," she replied. "John died eight days ago of a massive heart attack."
Despite the bad blood between them, once John had been a friend. Before the murders, he'd even been a good cop. "I'm sorry to hear that," Cole said honestly. "How's Adam doing?"
"As well as can be expected for a kid who just lost his only remaining parent. I told him to contact me if he needed anything." She nodded at the ceramic Hail to the Chief coffee mug on the desk, jammed with pens and pencils. "I still have to box up his dad's personal things and take them to the house. I'm hoping he'll want to go back to school soon. Classes started a few days ago for the fall term. But…"
"Yeah. College has to be the last thing on his mind right now." Cole nodded at the seat she'd vacated—John Wilcox's padded leather chair. "You're the senior officer. I guess you're the acting chief?"
Then the investigation was her headache now.
Cole released a ragged breath, finally noticing that her black-and-gray uniform was slightly rumpled, finally realizing that the wispy bangs and auburn tendrils that had escaped her loose bun weren't an attempt at fashion. Finally seeing the weary circles under her beautiful green eyes.
He was about to ask if she'd requested help from the state guys when Sarah French bustled inside, her bright red pageboy frizzing from the late-August humidity. The plump middle-aged dispatcher wore a short-sleeved, neon-green pantsuit and looked as frazzled as her hairdo.
"Margo, there's a—" She stopped abruptly, and a smile stretched her chubby cheeks. "Cole! You're back!"
Before he could offer a greeting or say he wouldn't be staying, Sarah dropped a takeout bag on her desk, raised a just-a-minute index finger and addressed Margo again. "I was leaving the diner when I saw the van pull in, so I hotfooted it over here before they barged inside. I told them to stay right where they were."
Margo sighed. "Now who's out there?"
"Channel 29 News from Johnstown—a cameraman and a pushy woman reporter."
Cole walked to the room divider. "She got pushy with you?"
Sarah slid a funky giraffe-head purse off her shoulder and set it beside her lunch. "Well…maybe I just didn't like her black eyeliner." She reached across the low barrier to hug him. "Good to see you again, honey."
"You, too, Sarah," he said, returning her hug. She'd been a staunch supporter and voice of outrage when Wilcox had fired him. He'd always appreciated that.
Sarah released him and stood back, beaming. "How's the P.I. business?"
"Like anything else. Hectic one day, slow the next."
He shrugged. "It's a paycheck."
"A paycheck's good," she returned, clearly annoyed. "But you should be earning it here."
"Thanks, but it was time for me to move on."
The air beside him stirred as Margo strode past him, tucking those wispy strays back into her bun on her way to the door. Suddenly he found himself feeling sorry for her—another wrinkle he hadn't expected. And for some reason he couldn't fathom, he wanted to help. "Want me to tell them you'll have a statement later?"
She registered surprise, but only for an instant. "Thanks, but they're just doing their jobs. Every newspaper, radio and TV station within a two-hundred-mile radius has called this morning. It was only a matter of time before the vans showed up."
The phone rang again. Snatching up the receiver, Sarah spoke in a melodic singsong. "Charity Police Department. How can I direct your call?"
"Lousy way to start a new job," Cole said in an undertone.
"Yes," Margo replied.
Sarah raised a hand to stop Margo from leaving, then thanked the caller and hung up. "C.O.D.'s official," she said somberly. "The Hudson girl's hyoid bone was broken. Death by asphyxiation."
"Thanks, Sarah," Margo murmured.
Then Cole watched her square her shoulders, take a breath and go out to meet her interrogators.
Margo barely had time to adjust to the bright sunlight before a reporter in crisp white slacks and a navy blazer thrust a microphone at her. The woman's smooth chin-length hair was as black as her eyeliner.
"Chief McBride? Nancy Talbot, Channel 29 News. What can you tell us about the murder? Are there any leads?"
"First of all, it's still Officer McBride. Second, this investigation is in its infancy. It's too early for me to com ment on anything. We've contacted the Pennsylvania State Police, and they're handling the evidence we've collected."
"What kind of evidence?"
"Evidence it wouldn't be prudent to share at this time."
Talbot pressed on, her voice rising. Sarah's "pushy" comment had been right on the money. "The teenage boys who found the body in the park said the victim had been strangled with a scarf. They also said there were four gold stars on her forehead. Two years ago, two young women were killed in the same park in the same way, and marked with one, then two gold stars. Does that tell us there was a third murder? Are you looking for a serial killer, ma'am?"
Great. It wasn't bad enough that the kids had blabbed; they'd blabbed to a reporter. "As I said, I'm not at liberty to answer your questions right now. I'll be releasing a statement later today."
"I appreciate your position, but the public does need answers—if for no other reason than to maintain their own safety. Some of the young women we've interviewed are frightened. The earlier victims, Missy Kennicott and Trista Morgan, were both blondes. Leanne Hudson was blonde. Shouldn't you be warning young blonde women to be extremely cautious when they walk your streets?" She thrust the mic at Margo again.
A thin crowd had begun to form outside the stone-and-timber police station, interested onlookers who'd been attracted by the news van. Across the street near the diner and municipal parking lot, people were taking their time getting into their cars.
"Ms. Talbot, we're cautioning all women who travel the streets after dark to be cautious. We've suggested that they walk with a friend until the situation's resolved."