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The person who coined the phrase "you can't go home again" apparently forgot to tell Adam Morgan.
Sheriff Elizabeth Bradford tossed the remnants of her half-eaten sandwich to the ducks and wished she could figure out a way to avoid running into him. She'd rather have a root canal without Novocain, or break up a barroom brawl. She'd buried this chapter of her life. Was it too much to wish it would have stayed buried?
Liz watched the Missouri residents pass by from her spot on the park bench. Children played on swings and hung from monkey bars. Owners walked their dogs. People rested under trees reading books or they huddled together having quiet conversations. Everything appeared like any normal summer dayexcept it wasn't, was it?
Adam Morgan was back in town. Her stomach clenched.
This was crazy.
They broke up over fifteen years ago. She'd put it behind her and moved on, or at least that's what she kept telling herself.
The radio transmitter on Liz's shoulder crackled and the dispatcher's voice called out her personal identification code. "Bravo 24."
Liz rose and headed toward her patrol car. Putting her personal issues aside and, in full sheriff mode, she hit the transmit key on her shoulder.
"Bravo 24. Go ahead."
"Code 187. Location 145 Creek Trail."
She stopped abruptly. Her heart skipped a beat. Double homicides? Here? Nothing ever happened here. Nothing bad, that is.
Sure, they had some problems with drugs. All towns did. Their first drug-related homicide had happened just last week. A small-time dealer was murdered and his body left in an alley behind Smitty's bar. But, overall, Country Corners was a quiet, off-the-beaten-path kind of town.
Liz hit her transmit key. "Dispatch, give Darlene a call. I know it's her day off but I want all hands on deck. Send the rest of the team to the site. And don't forget to notify Matt."
"Team already dispatched, Sheriff, as well as the coroner. Sal handled it. He called Darlene in, too."
"Good. En route in five."
Code 187. Location 145 Creek Trail.
Liz knew this address. She knew these people. Kate Henderson sang in her church choir. Her husband, Dave, had done work for her at the station. Sliding behind the wheel of her patrol car, she washed a hand over her face and offered up a silent prayer.
Dear Lord, please be with me this day. Guide me. Strengthen me. Give me the wisdom and courage to face what lies ahead.
She was readyor as ready as she ever would be. With a sigh and a heavy heart, she turned the key, felt the powerful engine surge to life and pulled away from the curb.
Liz passed the post office, Ms. Willowby's general store, the pharmacy and Clancy's hardware store as she drove through the center of town. People bustled up and down the streetbusiness as usual.
How could this be happening here?
Almost everybody knew everybody. The town was like one big familydysfunctional at times, surebut still a family.
Liz chewed on her bottom lip. That's what was bothering her the most. She couldn't wrap her mind around the idea that one of their own might have been responsible for three murders.
She looked at her whitened knuckles and loosened her death grip on the steering wheel. As she reached the outskirts of town and drove into more rural territory, she tried to remember the conversation she'd had with Kate after church on Sunday. Kate had seemed preoccupied and Liz had asked if everything was all right. Kate said they had a big decision to make and asked Liz to say a prayer that they would make the right one. Now Kate's address was a murder scene.
The patrol car bucked and bumped as Liz turned off the highway and onto the dirt road leading to the Henderson house. She hugged the right side of the narrow road to let the coroner's van pass on its way back to town and breathed a sigh of relief. She wouldn't be human if she didn't admit she was grateful she was arriving here after the bodies had been removed.
Liz made a sharp right and drove down the graduated bend of the graveled circular driveway. It was hard not to catch your breath when the two-story house came into view. The white-clapboard pillared colonial rested at the top of the curve like a sentinel keeping watch on comings and goings. The black shutters and the deep burgundy front door provided a sharp contrast to the stark white. The house and property spoke money. Not rich, upper-crust money. Liz could count on one hand how many people in Country Corners filled that bill. But comfortable money, the kind that said, We 're living the American dream.
Look where that dream had gotten them.
She caught a glimpse of parked cars and bustling activity as she pulled her car to a stop.
Paul Baxter, her youngest deputy, called to her as she stepped from her vehicle. His slim build and fair complexion reminded her of her brother, Luke. Maybe that's why she carried a soft spot for him. His eyes darted back and forth between Liz and the house. His facial expression told her he'd rather be anywhere, even cleaning out sewers barefoot, than here. But she gave him credit. He was doing his best to remain calm and professional.
"Baxter." She strode past him, walking toward the house, and he fell in step behind.
"Matt carted the bodies to the morgue less than five minutes ago, ma'am."
"I know. I passed him on the road."
Paul caught up and matched his stride with hers. "We've cordoned off the crime scene."
More nervous, useless words since Liz could already see the yellow tape roping off the entire front porch. Pausing a second to take a good look at her deputy, she noted the pallor of his skin, the slight trembling of his fingers against his belt.
"Are you okay, Paul?"
When he looked at her, she was taken aback for a moment by the wetness glistening in his eyes.
"I've never seen anything like it, ma'am." He drew in a deep breath. "Who could do something like this?"
She placed a comforting hand on the young man's shoulder. "That's what we're going to find out, Paul. Now, why don't you head back to the office? The others can walk me through the crime scene. You start writing up your report and we'll talk later."
The deputy grabbed at that lifeline, turned and almost sprinted to his car. His reaction made Liz steel herself for what she was about to see.
"Hello, Tom." Liz ducked under the crime scene tape and greeted her most veteran officer, Tom Miller, near the front door. She looked at the ugly bruise on his cheek. "What happened to you?"
"Danny Trent had a few too many at Smitty's bar last night and took a swing at Ralph. I tried to stop it and my face got in the way."
Liz sighed. Danny Trent was becoming a regular customer at the jail these days. She'd had a couple of altercations with him herself. Even had to ticket him just last week for DUI. "Did you run him in?" Liz asked.
"Nah. Just booted his butt out the door. Told him to go home and sleep it off."
One look at the older man's bruised knuckles told Liz just how Tom had booted Danny out the door. She almost felt sorry for Danny almost.
The older man tilted his head. "Where's Paul going?"
"He looked a little green around the edges. I sent him back to the office."
"You baby him too much. Your father would've kicked his butt around the block. How else you gonna make a man out of him?"
Her father, Arthur Bradford, the former sheriff for over thirty years, controlled his town with an iron glove resulting in minimal crime activity and making Country Corners an ideal place to raise a family. But as much as she'd loved her father, she also knew he had bullied anyone different, creative or fragile. Liz had witnessed one too many times how officers like Tom and her father had toughened boys up. She wanted no part of it on her watch. She ignored Tom, adjusted her sunglasses and turned her attention to Detective Sal Rizzo, her right hand and best friend.
"What have we got?"
"We've got a slaughter, that's what we got." Tom spoke before Sal had a chance to answer. He lifted his hat and raked a hand through his gray hair. "I worked for your daddy for almost thirty years, Sheriff, and we ain't never seen the likes of this." He lowered his voice and whispered in a protective, almost fatherly way, "Are you gonna be all right? Nobody would fault you none if you decide not to do a walk-through on this one. I can tell you what you'd see inside and you can get the rest from pictures."
Ever since she'd stepped into her father's shoes as sheriff, she'd been trying to prove her own worth and not be seen as Bradford's kid. She knew her lithe figure, blond hair and blue eyes didn't paint a picture of a tough, mean, legal machine, but she could hold her own and then some.
Liz peered over the top of her sunglasses and stared at the man eyeball to eyeball. At times like these, she was grateful for her five-foot-eleven-inch height. "I'm going to accept those remarks as well-meaning concern, Deputy Miller, and not that you question my ability to do my job."
A flush rose on the officer's neck. "Course not, Sheriff. You're great at your job. Your daddy would be proud."
Liz sighed. She knew that was the best she was going to get out of Miller. He was from the old school. It was difficult for him to see women as cops and more difficult to have one as his bossparticularly one he'd tripped over for years as she crawled and romped under her daddy's feet.
Her radio crackled. "Bravo 24. Code 11715 Briar-crest Road, Apartment seven."
Code 117. Domestic dispute.
Danny Trent must have woken up with a hangover and decided to wipe the floor with his wife, Cathleenagain. This was turning out to be a busy morning.
"Tom, call it in. Since you've already had one run-in with Danny, you can have the pleasure of handling this one. Sal and I will finish processing the crime scene here."
"Suits me. I saw enough of that mess in there to last me a lifetime." The older man shuffled away, speaking into his mike as he went.
Sal escorted Liz the few remaining steps to the house, filling her in on the way. "The place has been ransacked top to bottom. Every drawer opened. Things tossed and smashed. But as far as I can see, it wasn't a robbery."
"How can you be sure?"
"The television and surround-sound system are still standing there large as life in the living room. The lady's purse is lying on the kitchen floor with about fifty dollars' cash still in it. A nice-size diamond ring was still on Mrs. Henderson's left hand when we found her. Mr. Henderson's wallet with cash and all his charge cards are still inside, too. If the family interrupted a burglar and it went bad, he would have at least scooped up that stuff before he took off."
"Makes sense. Let's take a look."
Sal opened the front door and stood to the side.
Liz slipped her hair inside a net. She accepted the paper booties that Sal handed her and put them over her shoes. With the use of DNA results in court, combined with advances in forensic testing, it was more important than ever to keep a clean crime scene. She was thankful that when she'd been elected to office she'd put those procedures into play and her investigation team honored them, even if they did have to ship things to state labs because they couldn't afford their own equipment.