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On Christmas morning, reporter Kate Richards studied the old Federal-style brick house as she approached it, letting her compact car roll slowly down the street behind police captain Connor Larson's forest-green Explorer. This was going to be a huge story. She could feel it.
Connor pulled into the sloping driveway and parked behind a black pickup truck and a marked squad car. A second police car was parked on the street, ahead of Kate. Connor, the head of a special detective unit for the Portland Police Department, got out of his SUV and walked back to where she'd pulled to the curb.
Kate lowered her window. Connor leaned down to talk to her.
"That's Neil's truck."
"Great." She bit her lip. Was she ready to meet Neil Alexander again?
She pulled out a smile she didn't feel. "Sure."
Connor inhaled slowly. "I shouldn't have brought you, Kate. You know that."
"Oh, come on, Connor. I promise I'll do whatever you say."
"Because I'm your brother-in-law?"
"No, because you're the officer in charge of this investigation. I told you I'd wait out here until you came and told me I could come closer. I brought my laptop, and I'll do some work while I wait." She was new on the job at the biggest newspaper in Maine, and this weekend she was on call for breaking stories, even though it was a holiday. She'd gone ahead with her Christmas plans to visit Connor and her sister, Adrienne, but she was never far from her cell phone and laptop, just in case. When the call came in telling of a possible homicide, she'd begged her brother-in-law to give her access to the scene.
Now, Connor looked her in the eye for a long moment, nodded and walked up thedriveway through the new snow. He made an impressive figure in his dark overcoat. Tall, broad-shouldered, with short, crisp hair and glasses. He looked the way a captain of police detectives should. One of these days, she would ask him if she could write a profile on him for the Sunday paper. He'd probably say no.
Kate caught her breath as a tall, dark-haired young man came down the steps and met Connor in the yard. Neil. She recalled her impression when she first met him six months ago: he couldn't possibly be a detective. A man that handsome could never blend in with a crowd for undercover work.
He never looked her way as he and Connor talked together in the driveway for a couple of minutes. Connor bent down and seemed to be looking hard at the steps. He straightened, and the two of them entered the house together.
Kate exhaled, took out her phone and keyed in the newspaper's number. The copy editor stuck with holiday duty answered.
"Hey, Darrin. This is Kate Richards again. I'm at the scene of the crime. The officer in charge says that if I wait, I'll get my story, so I'm waiting."
"I dunno, Kate." Darrin sounded sleepy or bored. "You're a rookie."
"I can do this."
"Maybe I should call John."
"No, don't do that." Kate straightened her shoulders, her mind racing. "The city editor would really hate it if you called him on Christmas morning. You know that, right?"
"Well we don't usually put newbies on a major crime story, especially a murder."
"Come on, Darrin. Nobody wants to come in to work today. I'm the reporter on call, and I got the tip. Don't pull this out from under me. Please."
"What's it worth to you?"
Kate gulped, cataloging her meager assets. A thought struck her that just might work. "Do you have New Year's Eve off?"
"I wish. You mean you'd take me to a party?"
"No. But I know something that might help you get the night off."
"Promise you won't put another reporter on this?"
After a short pause, he said, "Whatever."
"Stephanie Leigh told me as she was going out the door yesterday that her husband can't get New Year's Eve off. She said, 'I might as well work, too.' If she hasn't traded with anyone else yet, you might be able to make a deal."
"That's not much."
"Call her and ask."
"Okay, I will."
Darrin hung up. Kate felt none-too-secure in her position covering the murder case, but it was the best she could do on short notice. If she started to rough out the story, maybe that would help sway the editor. She rummaged in her oversize purse and came out with a small notebook and a pen. Looking at the brick house, she jotted impressions of the architecture, the neighborhood, the mood. Her first big story, maybe. If Darrin didn't yank it out from under her. With only a month under her belt at the Portland Press Herald, this might be just the break she needed to prove herself. She banished all thoughts of Neil from her mind. Time to think about him later.
She stretched to reach her leather computer case from the backseat. It was a long shot that she'd find anything pertinent, but it was worth a try. She brought up a search engine and typed in the address of the old brick house. Bingo. She smiled and scrolled down, reading with avid interest.
"Too bad so many people have been in and out of the house." Connor frowned at the footprints on the snowy steps.
"Yeah," Neil said. "When I got here, three cops had already gone in. I couldn't make out anything from the prints." He nodded to the uniformed officer stationed at the door, then said a quick prayer for the victim's family as he and Connor entered the house. Stairs rose from the small entry, with balsam fir branches woven along the banister. To the right, an arch opened into a formal living room. Greenery hung all around the room, and a clump of mistletoe dangled from the chandelier. Boughs and red candles graced the mantel, amid china figurines and a large case clock. A heap of wrapped presents lay mounded beneath a decorated spruce that nearly scraped the high ceiling. The ornaments on that tree could have stocked a small gift shop.
All of the decorations and the antique furniture were eclipsed by the body lying facedown on the Oriental rug. Patrol officer Elaine Bard was examining the murder victim but she stood when Connor and Neil walked in. Another officer knelt on the other side of the body, and a third patrolman stood talking to a white-haired man seated on an Empire-style sofa near the windows that overlooked Westbrook Road.
"Captain Larson," Elaine said, nodding toward Connor and Neil. "Your case?"
"Yes," said Connor, pulling on latex gloves. "What do we have?"
"Sixty-eight-year-old woman, Edna Riley, found here by her husband, Mr. Gerald Riley." She nodded toward the sofa. "He thought she was ill, but when he tried to turn her over, he discovered a chest wound. I've called the medical examiner."
"They're the only two in the house?"
"Yes, but Mr. Riley says he expects their son and his family any minute. They were going to spend the weekend here. Coming up from Dover, New Hampshire, this morning."
Neil and Connor knelt and looked at Mrs. Riley. Her thinning gray hair was curled tightly around her forehead. She was a little plump, not too heavy, just a grandmotherly sort of woman. Neil glanced over at Mr. Riley, and saw his calm desert him as reality set in. Tears streamed down his cheeks, and the other officer, Pete Downey, handed him a handkerchief.
Neil took pictures to document the position of the body. Connor slipped on gloves and carefully rolled Mrs. Riley onto her left side so he could examine the wound.
"No exit wound. Small-caliber pistol," he hazarded.
"Got her in the heart?" Neil asked.
"Powder burns on the front of her housecoat." Neil mulled that over. Someone had been standing within three feet of Mrs. Riley when he or she pulled the trigger. He asked Elaine Bard, "Any sign of the weapon?"
"I didn't find anything," she said. "I don't think it's under her."
Connor and Neil felt carefully along the length of the body and found nothing.
"Okay, Neil, Elaine and Joe, start looking for evidence. I'll speak to Mr. Riley." Connor took Mr. Riley and patrolman Pete Downey into another room.
As the ranking officer remaining, Neil took charge. "All right, we'll start right here. Bag and label anything you find." He, Elaine and Joe carefully examined every inch of the Oriental rug and the polished hardwood floor around the perimeter of the room. Joe shined his flashlight up the chimney.
After five minutes or so, the patrolman from outside came in.
"Where's the captain?" he asked.
Neil gestured across the hall.
Connor came out of the room opposite. "What is it, Kevin?"
"The son's here, with his wife and four kids."
Connor sighed. "Ask young Mr. Riley to come in alone, please, and show him into the family room."
Kevin nodded. "Oh, and that woman in the red car is still out there."
"Don't worry about her. She's fine."
Neil said nothing, but he glanced at Connor curiously.
When the patrolman went out, Connor said, "Mr. Riley doesn't think either his prints or his wife's are in the system. Get the kit from my Explorer and take Mr. Riley's prints. Check for powder burns, too." He tossed Neil his keys and went back into the side room.
"Will you take her prints?" Elaine asked, nodding toward the corpse.
"They'll get them at the morgue," Neil said.
He left Elaine and Joe to finish searching the room. Outside, he unlocked Connor's vehicle and lifted out the fingerprint kit. The red car that had followed Connor to the scene was still parked at the curb, the engine running. A striking brunette sat in the driver's seat, watching him.
His heart lurched. What was she doing here?
Neil was tempted to go over and speak to her, but decided against it. Their last meeting hadn't been cordial. He was sure Connor would enlighten him as to the reason for Kate's presence if he asked. He nodded in her direction without making eye contact again and went inside.
Gerald Riley was meek and cooperative as Neil fingerprinted him and tested his hands for gunshot residue. The old man's son was talking to Connor, a stricken look on his face that mirrored his father's. When Neil went back to the living room, Elaine and Joe were gingerly moving every package out from under the Christmas tree and piling them up carefully to one side. Neil helped them examine the area under the tree and then put them all back. The arrangement didn't look as good as it had before, and Elaine fussed about it, moving a box here and there.
Connor came back in as they finished. "The son and his family are going to a hotel. They'll take Mr. Riley with them for today and probably overnight. He didn't think they would want to sleep here, which will make things easier on us. What did you find?"
"Nothing, basically," Neil said. "No weapon in this room."
Kevin Dryer came to the door. "The M.E.'s here, sir."
"About time," said Connor.
Dr. McIntyre came in, muttering sourly, "Corpses on Christmas." He set his soft black bag down on the rug beside the body. "What happened here, Larson?"
Connor knelt on the other side of the body. "Looks like a small-caliber gunshot wound, sir."
"I don't suppose you found a gun?"
"Nothing as easy as that, eh? What time?"
"Her husband found her just before nine o'clockestimates five minutes to nine. He'd seen her fifteen minutes before, upstairs. She came down to start coffee for a late breakfast. When he came downstairs, she wasn't in the kitchen and didn't answer him, so he started looking around and found her like this."
"Did you move her?"
"Just lifted her a little to see where the wound was and if there was a weapon under her. That's the position she was in. My detective got photos."
McIntyre grunted and went on with his exam. After half a minute, Elaine started looking a little green and turned away. Connor took a call on his cell phone and walked over toward the windows.
"Excuse me." The son was in the archway.
Neil quickly moved to him. "I'm sorry, sir, it's better if you don't come in here."
"Of course." He looked down. "Is that the medical examiner?"
"Yes." Neil tried to stand where he would block the man's view.
"May I see my mother when he's finished?"
"It would be better if you wait. Let the funeral home take her. Do you and your father have a preference on where she should go?"
"I'll ask Dad."
"This is a preliminary exam," Neil explained. "The M.E. will probably take the body for a full autopsy. After that, he'll call the funeral home to come and get her."
"All right. I'll help my father pack a few things, and we'll go to the hotel," Riley said.
"I think that would be best," Neil told him.
Riley went back to the family room.
Connor ended his phone conversation and approached Neil.
"Did you ask young Mr. Riley about weapons?" Neil asked.
Connor nodded. "He says his father never owned a gun. Mr. Riley is a retired professor. Bookish man. Never hunted or anything."
"So you think someone came in from outside?"
"Could be. Gerald Riley says the front door was closed and locked when he discovered his wife's body, though. He had to flip the dead bolt to let the first officers in."
"So no one could have gone out the front door and locked it behind them without a key?"
"Right. You and Joe check all doors and windows. Unfortunately, a million people have gone in and out the front door in the last hour." Connor turned his piercing gaze on Elaine and Joe. "You were here first. Footprints in the snow on the steps?"
The two patrol officers looked at each other blankly.
"I'm not sure," Elaine said at last, and Joe shook his head.
"Sorry, Captain. The call came in originally as an unattended death. When we got here, I'm afraid we didn't worry about footprints on the walk."
Connor raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "Well, I'm banking on the shooter coming in the front door and leaving the same way."
A technician arrived to take more pictures, and it wasn't long before the hearse came for the body. The family was gone by then. Neil and Joe made the rounds downstairs, checking every window and door, finding no obvious point of entry. They went into the cellar, and Neil discovered that the bulkhead door was locked and the new snow outside undisturbed. Upstairs they found one window unlocked. Neil looked out critically and decided no one had left via that exit. The snow on the back porch roof below was melting, but signs of a human's going out that way would still be visible.
They went to report to Connor in the living room.
"Strange," said Connor. "Two old people alone in a house. No sign of an outsider coming in here, yet she's been shot. No weapon. He says he had none."
"You think he did it and stashed the gun?" Neil asked.
"You, Elaine and Joe go over this room again, please. Look for something beyond the obvious. I suppose you checked the fireplace?"