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Michelle Harris sat at the stoplight on Old Hickory and Highway 100, grinding her teeth. She was late. Corinne hated when she was late. She wouldn't bitch at her, wouldn't chastise her, would just glance at the clock on the stove, the digital readout that always, always ran three minutes ahead of time so Corinne could have a cushion, and a little line would appear between her perfectly groomed eyebrows.
Their match was in an hour. They had plenty of time, but Corinne would need to drop Hayden at the nursery and have a protein smoothie before stretching in preparation for their game. Michelle and Corinne had been partners in tennis doubles for ages, and they were two matches from taking it all. Their yearly run at the Richland club championship was almost a foregone conclusion; they'd won seven years in a row.
Tapping the fingers of her right hand on the wheel, she used her left to pull her ponytail around the curve of her neck, a comfort gesture she'd adopted in childhood. Corinne hadn't needed any comfort. She was always the strong one. Even as a young child, when Michelle pulled that ponytail around her neck, the unruly curls winding around her ear, Corinne would get that little line between her brows to show her displeasure at her elder sister's weakness.
Remembering, Michelle flipped the hair back over her shoulder with disgust. The light turned green and she gunned it, foot hard on the pedal. She hated being late for Corinne.
Michelle took the turn off Jocelyn Hollow Road and followed the sedate, meandering asphalt into her sister's cul-de-sac. The dogwood tree in the Wolffs' front yard was just beginning to bud. Michelle smiled. Spring was coming. Nashville had been in the grip of a difficult winter for months, but at last the frigid clutch showed signs of breaking. New life stirred at the edges of the forests, calves were dropping in the fields. The chirping of the wrens and cardinals had taken on a higher pitch, avian mommies and daddies awaiting the arrival of their young. Corinne herself was ripe with a new life, seven months into an easy pregnancybarely looking four months along. Her activity level kept the usual baby weight off, and she was determined to play tennis up to the birth, just like she'd done with Hayden.
Not fair. Michelle didn't have any children, didn't have a husband for that matter. She just hadn't met the right guy. The consolation was Hayden. With a niece as adorable and precocious as hers, she didn't need her own child. Not just yet.
She pulled into the Wolffs' maple-lined driveway and cut the engine on her Volvo. Corinne's black BMW 535i sat in front of the garage door. The wrought iron lantern lights that flanked the front doors were on. Michelle frowned. It wasn't like Corinne to forget to turn those lights off. She remembered the argument Corinne and Todd, her husband, had gotten into about them. Todd wanted the kind that came on at dark and went off in the morning automatically. Corinne insisted they could turn the switch themselves with no problem. They'd gone back and forth, Todd arguing for the security, Corinne insisting that the look of the dusk-to-dawns were cheesy and wouldn't fit their home. She'd won, in the end. She always did.
Corinne always turned off the lights first thing in the morning. Like clockwork.
The hair rose on the back of Michelle's neck. This wasn't right.
She stepped out of the Volvo, didn't shut the door all the way behind her. The path to her sister's front door was a brick loggia pattern, the nooks and crannies filled with sand to anchor the Chilhowies. Ridiculously expensive designer brick from a tiny centuries-old sandpit in Virginia, if Michelle remembered correctly. She followed the path and came to the front porch. The door was unlocked, but that was typical. Michelle told Corinne time and again to keep that door locked at night. But Corinne always felt safe, didn't see the need. Michelle eased the door open.
Oh, my God.
Michelle ran back to her car and retrieved her cell phone. As she dialed 911, she rushed back to the porch and burst through the front door.
The phone was ringing in her ear now, ringing, ringing. She registered the footprints, did a quick lap around the bottom floor and seeing no one, took the steps two at a time. She was breathing hard when she hit the top, took a left and went down the hall.
A voice rang in her ear, and she tried to comprehend the simple language as she took in the scene before her.
"911, what is your emergency?"
She couldn't answer. Oh God, Corinne. On the floor, face down. Blood, everywhere.
"911, what is your emergency?"
The tears came freely. The words left her mouth before she realized they'd been spoken aloud.
"I think my sister is dead. Oh, my God."
"Can you repeat that, ma'am?"
Could she? Could she actually bring her larynx to life without throwing up on her dead sister's body? She touched her fingers to Corinne's neck. Remarkable how chilled the dead flesh felt. Oh, God, the poor baby. She ran out of the room, frenzied. Hayden, where was Hayden? Michelle turned in a tight circle, seeing more footprints. No sign of the little girl. She was yelling again, heard the words fly from her mouth as if they came from another's tongue.
"There's blood, oh, my God, there's blood everywhere. And there are footprints
Hayden?" Michelle was screaming, frantic. She tore back into the bedroom. Something in her mind snapped, she couldn't seem to get it together.
The 911 operator was yelling in her ear, but she didn't respond, couldn't respond. "Ma'am? Ma'am? Who is dead?"
Where was that precious little girl? A strawberry-blond head appeared from around the edge of the king-sized sleigh bed. It took a moment to register
Hayden, with red hair? She was a towhead, so blond it was almost white, no, that wasn't right.
"Hayden, oh, dear sweet Jesus, you're covered in blood. Come here. How did you get out of your crib?" She gathered the little girl in her arms. Hayden was frozen, immobile, unable or unwilling to move for the longest moment, then she wrapped her arms around her aunt's shoulders with an empty embrace of inevitability. Pieces of the toddler's hair, stiff and hard with blood, poked into her neck. Michelle felt a piece of her core shift.
"Ma'am? Ma'am, what is your location?"
The operator's voice forced her to look away from Corinne's broken form. She raised herself, holding tight to Hayden. Get her out of here. She can't see this anymore.
"Yes, I'm here. It's 4589 Jocelyn Hollow Court. My sister
" They were on the stairs now, moving down, and Michelle could see the whispers of blood trailing up and down the carpet.
The operator was still trying to sort through the details. "Hayden is your sister?"
"Hayden is her daughter. Oh, God."
As Michelle reached the bottom of the stairs, the child shifted on her shoulder, reaching a hand behind her, looking up toward the second floor.
"Mama hurt," she said in a voice that made her sound like a broken-down forty-year-old, not a coy, eighteen-month-old sprite. Mama hurt. She doesn't anymore, darlin'.
They were out the front door and on the porch now, Michelle drawing in huge gulps of air, Hayden crying silently into her shoulder, a hand still pointing back toward the house.
"Who is dead, ma'am?" the operator asked, more kindly now.
"My sister, Corinne Wolff. Oh, Corinne. She's
Michelle couldn't hold it in anymore. She heard the operator say they were sending the police. She walked down those damnable bricks and set Hayden in the front seat of the Volvo.
Then she turned and lost her battle with the nausea, vomiting out her very soul at the base of the delicate budding dogwood.
Instead of lounging in bed, luxuriating in the crisp sheets and getting irritated with the Tennessean, Metro Nashville homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson was squinting at the ceiling in her living room, a small flutter of panic moving through her chest.
"Baldwin?" she called, stepping closer to the fireplace. "Baldwin!"
"What?" A voice floated down the stairs, tinged with impatience.
"You need to see this. I think the ceiling is wet."
The clatter of footsteps on the stairs assured Taylor that her fiancé was making the trek from their bedroom on the second floor down to her, in the room directly below, posthaste. He appeared at her side, joined her in craning his head toward the living room ceiling. A dark gray stain was moving across the joint, treading a thin line of damp. As they stared, a small drop of water beaded up from the end of the discoloration. Neither of them moved as it grew, larger and larger, then broke off and fell with a muffled plop onto Baldwin's shoulder.
They sprang into action, no words needed. Baldwin sprinted back upstairs toward the bathroom to turn off the water. Taylor went to the kitchen and came back with a spaghetti pot. She stood under the dribble, catching droplets of water as they rushed through the surface of the drywall and fell to earth.
God, what next?
Baldwin came back to the living room with a step-ladder. "This house is built on an Indian burial ground, Taylor. I swear it. I turned the water off. We can set the pot on this. It might help keep the carpet dry." He positioned the ladder under the leak and took the container from Taylor, setting it on the top. A happy plink rewarded his efforts.
They shared an exasperated laugh. In the month they'd been home from their pseudo-honeymoon, everything that could go wrong with their relatively new house had. A fitting metaphor for their life. No matter what they planned, how they tried, they couldn't seem to get onto the right page and make it official. Taylor was content to remain unmarried. Baldwin was starting to come around to her way of thinking.
"Who do you want me to call? The home warranty place?" He started for the kitchen.
"Yeah. The number is in the folder in the server. They're going to have to send out a plumber now, we can't wait."
He opened the drawer and pulled out an overstuffed file folder. "Okay, I'll make the call. But I've got to finish packing. My flight leaves at ten-thirty."
Taylor gave the ceiling a last hard stare, then joined Baldwin.
"Here, give me that. I'll call. You go on and finish packing. Besides, the plane leaves when you tell it to. Director."
He shot her a look. "I'm not the Director. I'm the Acting Director while Garrett has this stupid surgery. That just means I get to push his pencils around his desk and pretend to look important for two weeks. Seriously, I'd rather stay here, fight with the plumber."
Garrett Woods, director of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit and Baldwin's boss, had called the previous evening. He'd gone for his routine yearly physical and ended up hospitalized, scheduled for a triple bypass. He needed someone he trusted to hold down the fort. Baldwin was the obvious choice. Taylor hoped it wasn't a play to get him to come back and run the BSU permanently. There'd been quite a shake-up while Taylor and Baldwin were in Italy, celebrating what should have been their honeymoon. The man who'd been leading the BSU, Stuart Evans, had been summarily fired after aper-sonnel issue made headlines. The Bureau wasn't a big fan of having their personal laundry aired in the media. Garrett Woods took the position again, leaving his number three in the bureau spot. He hadn't been happy working at that level anyway, was thrilled to return to the BSU and make things right with his investigative divisions and behavioral analysis unit profilers.
"You need to go tend to Garrett's cases. And make sure he listens to the doctors. I can't believe he's so sick."
"Me neither. He seems so indestructible to me, always has. So you think you can handle this?"
She kissed him, then pulled back and raised an eyebrow. "Uh, yeah. It's just a little leak."
"Okay, then. I'm going to finish packing." With a pat on her rear, he left the kitchen. She smiled after him. God, what a goof she'd become. Fools in love
And their love nest was falling in around their ears. This would be the fourth time she'd had to call for service since they'd moved in two months ago. There had been contractors crawling all over the place for silly little issuesa broken fan blade on the heater, a squirrel who'd nested in the crawlspace and chewed through some electrical wiring, a faulty thermostat on the freezer. Now a leak in the master bath. They were making their bones with the warranty company. She got the plumber's name and number, left them a message, then went upstairs, determined to make Acting Director Dr. John Baldwin regret that he was leaving for two weeks and prove her point. The Gulf-stream couldn't exactly leave without him.
The phone rang as she hit the second stair. What now? She backtracked, went to the kitchen and saw the number on the caller ID.
"Hi, Fitz," she answered.
Sergeant Peter Fitzgerald, her second in command, greeted her brusquely. "I know it's your day off, but you need to come in. We've got a murder that's going to have fleas."
"Some sweet little mother out in Hillwood. I'm hearing words like Laci and Peterson"