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Crime-scene investigator Shanna Dawson paused on the threshold to gather her bearings. The dilapidated four-room house reeked of stale beer, cigarette smoke, greasy fast food and the rancid horror of death. As a CSI, she was more accustomed to the latter than the former.
The interior of the house, located a few blocks from Carlyle University, a private college outside of Chicago, was a pigsty; fast-food containers, smelly clothes, dirty dishes and empty beer cans were strewn everywhere. Talk about a CSI's nightmare.
For a moment she imagined the kids who lived there. The victim, Brady Wallace, was a young college student who shared the place with three other guys. Yet despite the mess, she imagined this was the type of place the so-called popular kids would gravitate to for parties. A college student's version of fun and excitement.
Not hers, though. During her four years of college she'd never been invited to student gatherings. The party scene had never appealed to her. She was too serious, too introspective to indulge in lighthearted activities.
Fun hadn't been a part of her world in a long time.
Suppressing a sigh, she got to work. There was so much evidence to collect, she'd easily be here for hours. As she walked through the foyer and into the living room, she overheard two cops arguing.
"This is a homicide investigation, Murphy. Campus police don't have jurisdiction over homicides."
"I know. But this incident occurred on my turf. Give me a break, Nelson. The victim is my brother."
"Half brother," the detective corrected.
"Brother just the same." The campus cop, Murphy, was stubborn. After a long moment where it seemed the homicide cop wasn't going to give in, Murphy sighed and scrubbed a hand along his bristly jaw. "At least give me the courtesy of keeping me informed of the details of your investigation."
Murphy snagged her attention, mostly because he was the victim's half brother and because he didn't look much like the local campus cops she was used to. And not just because of his tall, broad-shouldered good looks. His body appeared to be pure muscle, and he wore his wheat-blond hair military short. His face wasn't handsome in the traditional sense but bore deeply worn grooves of experience, as if he'd carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. His green eyes held the shadows of a deep pain she could relate to. She was inexplicably drawn to him, as if he might be a kindred soul, but she forced herself to turn away, examining the crime scene.
Brady Wallace's body was lying on the floor, in the walkway between the living room and the kitchen. His bright red hair was matted with blood, the left side of his skull concave where it had been crushed. A heavy marble rugby trophy was lying on the floor beside him, the four-by-four-inch base covered with hair and blood. She imagined microscopic evidence would confirm the blood and tissue matched the victim's scalp.
The position of the body was distinctive. Why was he lying on the floor, in the walkway between the living room and kitchen? Had he run from his attacker? Or had he been on his way to the kitchen for something to eat when someone clubbed him from behind?
And who could hate a college student enough to kill him?
Brady was young, barely twenty. The callous waste of a young life always upset her. She'd grown up believing in God, but over the years had drifted away from the church and her faith. And at times like this, when she faced the hard edge of death, she really couldn't understand God's plan. What had this kid done to deserve death? She couldn't imagine. Feeling slightly sick, she glanced back over at the two cops who'd fallen silent as they'd registered her presence. She forced a professional expression on her face as she faced their curious stares. "Who found the body?"
"One of his roommates, Kyle Ryker." Murphy's face was bleak as he scanned the room. "Four boys live herethe victim, Brady Wallace, and three othersKyle Ryker, Dennis Green and Mark Pickard."
"They must have had a party last night," she murmured with a wry sigh. Saturday nights were big party nights, so she shouldn't be surprised. "I'd hate to think the place always looks like this."
Murphy grimaced and lifted a shoulder. "It's not much better on any other day. But you're rightthey did have a party, one that apparently lasted until the wee hours of the morning. According to Kyle, Brady was alive at four in the morning, when Kyle went upstairs to crash for what was left of the night. When Kyle came down to get something to eat from the kitchen about nine-thirty, he tripped over Brady's body."
As Brady's half brother, Murphy obviously had a personal stake in solving this crime. She felt a tug of sympathy. She knew better than anyone how difficult it was to deal with the violent aftermath of a crime that hit too close to home.
"I'm Detective Hank Nelson." The older cop, wearing the ill-fitting polyester suit coat, quickly introduced himself. "And this is University Campus Police Officer Quinn Murphy. I'll be taking the lead on this homicide investigation."
She understood the implied order and gave both men a brief nod. "Shanna Dawson, crime-scene investigator. My boss, Eric Turner, will be joining me shortly. If you gentlemen wouldn't mind stepping outside, I'd like to get to work."
The two cops exchanged a long look as if debating their right to stay, but in the end they both turned and headed for the door.
"Officer Murphy?" she called, before they could both disappear.
He turned toward her, his eyebrow raised questioningly. "Yes?"
"I'd like to talk to you later, if you have time." She knew Detective Hank Nelson would do the full investigation into all aspects of Brady's life, but she was curious to know more about Brady. Her methods might be somewhat unorthodox, but the more she understood the victim, the better job she'd do with her investigation. As the victim's brother, Murphy would be a great source of information.
"Of course." He came over to hand her his campus police business card. "Call me when you're finished processing things here."
"I will." She pocketed the card and watched him leave. When she was alone, she picked up the camera around her neck and began to record the initial evidence of the crime scene.
Quinn Murphy would mourn his half brother's passing, but at least he had the comfort of knowing what happened. Maybe not the who or the why, but the rest. All some families knew was that a loved one had disappeared. They never knew if their loved one was dead or alive, at peace or living in some awful situation, praying for salvation and longing for home.
Shanna took a deep breath and let it out slowly, shaking off the painful memories of the past. She'd made it her mission over the years to bring families closure. To bring the comfort of knowledge. The peace of acceptance. Today she'd collect every possible clue, piece together as much of the puzzle as she could until she discovered who killed Brady Wallace and why. She'd do whatever was possible to help Brady's family begin to heal.
Even though there were many wounds that never could.
"It's going to take us forever to dust for prints," her boss pointed out in exasperation. "The kids had a party on Saturday night, and there were probably at least fifty people in and out of this place. How on earth are we going to isolate anything useful?"
Eric was rightthis was a long shot for sure. "The police are interviewing the roommates, trying to get a list of party attendees together. I believe this is personal, likely someone with a grudge against Brady."
She glanced around the filthy room, imagining how the events might have played out. "I have a hunch this kid knew his attacker. To have this happen after a party doesn't come across as premeditated, but more like a crime of opportunity, as if Brady was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Using the trophy to bash in his head could have been a simple act of rage or revenge. I'd like to start by dusting Brady's bedroom and the living room for prints."
Eric let out another sigh. "It just seems like a lot of effort for very little payoff. But you're right, the logical place to start is the bedroom and crime scene."
She nodded and went back to work. Her back ached from being hunched over for the past several hours, but she ignored the discomfort, concentrating on finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.
As she worked, her mind drifted to Quinn Murphy. Had he broken the distressing news of Brady's death to the rest of his family? Considering Brady had a different last name than him, she assumed they shared a mother rather than a father. Did Brady have other siblings? Were they huddled close right now, drawing love and support from each other?
She dragged her mind from things that didn't concern her, satisfied when she managed to find a few isolated prints on the rugby trophy, as well as other parts of the room. She did better up in Brady's room, where there was less clutter. Her boss grimaced but helped her collect the beer cans to check for prints. By the time they were finished, they'd probably have more suspects than they'd know what to do with.
Suspects that may or may not lead to the identity of the killer, since there was no guarantee Brady's murderer had left prints at the scene. Still, they didn't have much else to work from. Hair fibers were as much of a nightmare as dusting for prints because of the number of people who'd been in the house, not to mention that Dennis Green's cat shed like crazy in a house that had rarely if ever seen a vacuum.
Running all the fingerprints and hair fibers would take time, so she sent the strips and samples off to the lab for the techs to start working on, prioritizing the ones from the trophy and Brady's room. At the very least, they'd discover if any of the partygoers had criminal records.
Outside, she paused at her car, glancing down at Quinn Murphy's card, debating whether to talk to him now or to go home first to shower and change. She was hungry, having worked the crime scene for almost eight hours straight.
Home first, she decided. Then she'd contact Quinn.
She pulled up to her house, pausing at the mailbox on her way into the driveway. Sometimes she became so lost in her active cases that she forgot to pick up her mail. Today was Sunday, but had she picked it up yesterday? She didn't think so. When she opened the box, she found it was jammed full. As she pulled everything out, a small white envelope with her name printed on the outside, with no postage stamp or return address, made her heart pound heavily in her chest.
Another note. The third in the past two weeks.
She stared at it for a long minute, wishing it was nothing more than a figment of her imagination. But of course it wasn't. She headed inside the house. Even though she was tired and hungry, she used her own kit to dust for prints. She wasn't surprised not to find any.
She hadn't found prints on the previous two notes, either.
Trepidation burned as she opened the envelope flap. Slowly she withdrew the single piece of paper. The message was brief: "I'm coming for you."
Four little words. She dropped the card, struggling to breathe normally as fear clogged her throat. So far, each of the notes she'd received bore a different message.
Guilty as charged.
I'm watching you.
I'm coming for you.
Her knees went weak and she sank into a kitchen chair, struggling not to let fear overwhelm her. Who was doing this? And why? She wanted to think it was some person's strange idea of a joke, but the sinister tone of the notes wasn't easily shrugged off.
Which is exactly what the creep intended. He wanted to scare her. He wanted her to panic. Only a coward would send anonymous notes in the first place. And since she didn't have any men in her life, hadn't so much as had one significant long-term relationship, this had to be connected to her job.
She'd gone through all of her most recent cases, trying to figure out which one may have caused someone to fixate on her. The most likely case was one that had wrapped up two weeks ago, garnering her some media attention. Shanna usually preferred to work behind the scenes, but in this case, the investigation of a well-known cardiac surgeon's murder had cast her reluctantly into the limelight.
The trial had been difficult but her evidence had been solid, and in the end her testimony had caused the jury to find the surgeon's ex-wife, Jessica Markoviack, guilty of murder. But Jessica couldn't be the stalker, since she was currently serving a life sentence in an all-female state prison.
A friend of Jessica's, perhaps? If she remembered right, Jessica had a boyfriend, a guy named Clay Allen who hadn't been involved in the murder, at least according to the evidence. But that didn't mean he wasn't capable of doing the deed. She needed to go back through her case notes, to refresh her memory of the guy's background. He was a viable suspect, someone who had a reason to carry a grudge against her.
Fear gave way to anger as she rose to her feet. Maybe it was time to bring the police into this. The first two notes had been creepy but not outright threatening.
I'm coming for you.
She ground her teeth and turned her back on the note. She'd call the police, even though she knew there was little they could do. Hadn't she already tried to trace the origin of the white cards herself? There was nothing special about them, they were commonly stocked in every office supply store in the area.
Leaving the white card smudged with dark fingerprint powder on the table, she headed down the hall to the bathroom. First she'd shower, and then scrounge around for something to eat. It was only seven-thirty, and she still wanted to interview Quinn.
Focusing her attention on Brady's death would help her to ignore the eerie feeling of someone watching her, no doubt already planning his next move.