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Something was wrong. Goose bumps pimpled on Marianna Santino's suddenly chilled flesh as she walked up her driveway. The door to her small home stood open. That in and of itself didn't bother her. The open door combined with the facts that it was January and slightly below freezing didn't bode well. And where was Twister, her large German shepherd, who normally bounded out to greet her?
Her internal fear alarm screeched. Adrenaline rushed.
Run. Get away.
She turned to runand paused. But what about Suzanne?
Investigate or flee? What if Suzanne, her roommate, needed her? What if she was hurt?
What if whoever broke in was still in there?
Jamming her right hand into her coat pocket, she pulled out her Blackberry and punched in 911. When the screen lit, indicating the call was connected, she put the device to her ear to hear someone speaking. Unable to make out the words, she spoke softly into the phone. "Someone broke into my house." She gave the address and clicked off to wait. No doubt the dispatcher was probably yelling at her about hanging up, but it wouldn't do any good to stay on a phone with a person she couldn't hear.
Marianna scanned the house again. Her hearing aids picked up nothing out of the ordinary, just the wind whipping all around her, causing a whooshing sound to rumble in her ears. Other than that, all was quiet. Silent. Like a tomb.
Was the person still in there? Did Suzanne need help? Again the questions swirled in her brain, worry agitating her. Please God, don't let anything be wrong. Maybe the wind blew the door open.
But that didn't explain Twister's absence. And Suzanne, who always arrived home before Marianna, would have shut the door immediately.
Her eyes darted to the street. No police yet. Fear for her friend finally overrode her concern for her own safety. Slowly, she walked forward until she reached the front porch steps that led up to the door. The stain on the step stopped her.
In the form of a shoe print. Leading out of the house.
She was beyond fear. Now she was terrified.
Desperately, she strained for any sound that would penetrate the shroud of silence she lived with on a daily basis. With a shaking finger, she bumped up the volume on her hearing aid. Slowly, she stepped toward the door once more. The footprint led away from the house. That was good, right? Whoever had been there was now gone.
Glancing over her shoulder, she scanned the quiet street. After school normally meant children on bicycles and neighbors walking dogs. But the frigid weather had everyone inside. The street was deserted. Suddenly, the windows seemed ominous, staring back at her like empty eyes.
Where were the police?
Shivering, she stepped closer, avoided the bloody print and slipped inside the door. Looked down. Another print. A blast of warm air from the vent above her blew a lock of raven-colored hair across her eyes. Pushing it aside, she swallowed hard and made a concerted effort to control her fear-induced ragged breathing.
She continued on.
The kitchen to her right. Peered in. Nothing but an empty mug on the counter.
The den to her left. Again, nothing seemed out of place.
That left the three bedrooms down the hall. And the trail of bloody footprints leading to the room at the end.
With nerves taut, the hairs on her neck standing straight up, she took another deep breath and stepped into the hall, doing her best to avoid smudging the prints, which grew darker with each step.
Was she destroying evidence the police might need?
Hesitating, she chewed her lip. Her instincts screamed at her to get out. To leave.
But Suzanne might be hurt. What if she needed immediate medical help?
Those thoughts kept her going, ignoring the raging fear flowing with every heartbeat.
A noise, caught by her hearing aid, pulled her to the left as did the prints. Suzanne's bedroom. The door was shut.
Reaching out, she almost touched the knob. Stopped. Every crime show she'd ever watched seemed to replay through her mind in a five-second span. She caught the edge of her shirt, gripped it with her thumb and pointer finger, and twisted the knob to open the door. No sense in marring any fingerprints that might be there.
No, you're just possibly wiping them off.
But Suzanne was her priority.
Another muffled sound. What was that? Run!
The knot in her throat grew tighter as the door swung inward. A bloody smudge marred the hardwood floor. And another one just behind it. The room lay trashed, items broken and strewn about.
Oh, please, Jesus, let the police get here soon.
Another sound. From the closet. Slowly, she walked toward it. Using her shirt again, she grasped the knob and turned it.
The door exploded open, pushing her backward to land on her rear. She let out a little scream, then groaned.
Twister. Licking her face, he expressed gratitude for his freedom.
"Get off. Down," she ordered.
Immediately, he dropped to his haunches, ears perked, brown eyes gleaming. Cocking his head, he whined, seemed restless, his attention on something beyond her bed.
She whirled, rounded the bed and stopped.
"No!" she screamed and dropped to her knees.
Suzanne lay faceup, eyes fixated, unseeing, on the ceiling above her. Beneath her dark hair, a pool of blood soaked into the light brown carpet.
As Ethan O'Hara approached the house, the scream reverberated from within. The wide-open door and the brown bloody footprint on the front porch told him that the 911 hang up call signified real trouble. Definitely not a prank. Catelyn, his partner, pulled her gun and gave him the nod; he entered the house, his own weapon held ready in his right hand. They'd been passing by the neighborhood when the scanner went off. When Catelyn heard the address, she gasped, "That's Marianna's house, I think."
"You know her?"
"I'm better friends with her sister, Alissa, but I've met Marianna a couple of times."
Instead of waiting for a unit from the county, he and Catelyn had simply made a right turn into the subdivision, calling in that they would handle it.
She followed behind him, covering his back. Silently, senses on high alert, he tracked the prints.
Again he heard, "No!" coming from the back bedroom on his left.
Not wanting to call out and possibly alert the perpetrator who could still be around, he controlled his breathing, felt the familiar rush of adrenaline he always had going into a potentially dangerous situation and stepped into the bedroom.
The bed sat centered on the opposite wall. Sobs came from the right of it. He took in the debris-littered room. Someone had put up a violent fight. Catelyn came up behind him indicating the rest of the house was clean.
Lowering his gun to his side, he met her eyes, then turned back to see a woman lying on the floor beside the bed, her head resting in a stain of red. The crying came from the other woman who knelt at the figure's side, long dark hair hiding her face.
"Ma'am?" He touched her shoulder.
She jerked, screamed and scrambled sideways. Movement to his right brought him around and face-to-face with a German shepherd, whose sharp teeth, bared in a snarl, looked capable of tearing Ethan's throat out.
"Easy, boy," he soothed, backing up a step, flashing his badge to the scared woman trembling just out of reach.
"Twister, no. Sit," the woman commanded, her voice clogged with tears.
The snarling stopped. The dog sat, popped a yawn, then, with his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, grinned up at Ethan.
Breathing a little easier, Ethan was able to turn his attention back to the body on the floor
and the woman whose liquid ebony eyes flicked between him and Catelyn. Catelyn moved over to see the action this side of the bed. In a gentle tone, she said, "Marianna, it's me, Catelyn, Alissa's friend. This is my partner, Ethan O'Hara. What happened?"
Marianna blinked, swiped a few stray tears and gave a shuddering sigh. "Oh, Catelyn. I
I don't know. I just
came home from work and found
her. The front door was open and
I called 911, but couldn't wait for help. I had to make sure she was all right, but
Another muffled sob, more silent tears.
No, the woman definitely wasn't all right. The coroner would need to make a trip out here. Ethan asked, "Who is she, your sister?" They looked enough alike.
A negative shake caused her hair to shimmer, a few strands stuck to the salty tracks on her cheeks. She brushed them aside. "My roommate. Suzanne Miller."
Twister crawled over to rest his head on his mistress's knee. Her slender fingers buried themselves in the animal's silky fur.
"Who are you?" he asked.
He knew Catelyn could fill him in, but he wanted to know now. He told himself his wanting to know was strictly professional and had nothing to do with the fact that she was probably the most gorgeous woman he'd ever laid eyes on. He blinked, forcing himself to focus on her words, not her looks. Or the sound of her voice, which had an accent he couldn't quite place.
Marianna glanced at Catelyn, then looked back at him. She said, "I'm Marianna Santino. I teach at the Palmetto State School for the Deaf across the street."
The deaf school. He'd refused to acknowledge it as they'd passed it on their way to this subdivision. His sister had gone to school there for many years. It held a mixture of bittersweet and painful memories for him.
Looking straight at her, he said, "I hate to tell you this, Ms. Santino, but it looks like your roommate either surprised the perp
or he was after her and caught her." He looked around, then motioned to Catelyn. "We need to get out of here. This scene's been contaminated enough. Call it in and secure the area, will you?"
Catelyn went to do as he requested. Ethan held his hand out to the woman.
"But everyone loves Suzanne," Marianna protested even as she accepted his helping hand. Twister stayed right beside his mistress. "She teaches kindergarten at Pine Wood Elementary School."
"Well, it looks like she made someone really mad about something."
Marianna missed that last part; he'd turned his head and she'd not been able to read his lips. Something about someone being mad. But who?
She followed him from the room, down the hall and out the door. What had Suzanne stumbled upon? Had she been up there all day, or had she come home early from work?
A hand on her arm brought her attention back to the man before her. His concerned blue-gray gaze narrowed, zoomed in on her. For some reason she noticed the touch of gray at his temples. "Oh, I'm sorry. You said something. I was thinking, picturing poor Suzanne
" She bit her lip. He didn't need her to break down again. He needed her help.
"Are you with me here?"
"Yes, yes, I'm sorry." She really needed to stop apologizing. None of this was her fault. "I'm almost deaf and need you to face me when you talk to me so I can read your lips, all right?"
Understanding flashed across his rugged features. The flicker of pain she glimpsed on his face confused her, but then it was gone and he was all business. "I need to ask you some questions, all right?"
Marianna nodded. Probably the same questions she had running through her mind. They walked to the curb, Twister trotting beside her.
Ethan asked, "Does Suzanne have any enemies?"
"No, like I said, she teaches
"A fight with a boyfriend?"
"She doesn't have a boyfriend right now. She recently broke up with a guy named Bryson James, but it was amicable."
He jotted something in the small notebook he had pulled out. When he looked up, his electric gray-blue gaze connected with hers again and she felt a pull, sensed comfort, strength
a hidden pain?
She jolted, not wanting to feel anything right now or notice the good-looking cop sitting on her couch. Suzanne was dead, and the police needed her full attention to help solve her murder.
Marianna rubbed her hand across her forehead, swallowing another wave of grief. She whispered, "Her parents live here in town. They'll be devastated." He shifted next to her. She stared helplessly at him. "What can I do? How do I help?"
His big calloused hand reached over to take hers, his gaze intense as he said, "You're helping in just answering the questions. Don't leave anything out, tell me everything you know about her. The smallest detail could wind up being the biggest clue, okay? Then we're going to have to find you a place to stay for a couple of days until we can release the scene" he cleared his throat "um, your house, back to you."
Marianna nodded and sucked in a fortifying breath, and for the next hour and a half, while officers, a CSI unit, the medical examiner and the coroner paraded through her home and Suzanne's privacy, she did her best to give Ethan O'Hara something to work with to enable him to find Suzanne's killer.
Ethan waited while Marianna sent a text message to her parents that she would be coming to stay for a couple of nights. He was glad texting was such an in thing these days, since it made communication so much easier for the deaf. His sister would have loved the technology. Instead of dwelling on the past, however, he focused on what the crime scene investigator was saying.
"The medical examiner ruled out suicide. Ms. Miller was killed when she cracked her head on the corner of the bedside table. Blunt force trauma, if you want the official term. The M.E. said she'd do an autopsy to be sure, but she doubted she'd find anything else."
"I'll talk to her later. Thanks for the help and let me know if you find anything else, will you?"
"You bet, Ethan."
Marianna walked toward him, her beauty not one bit diminished by her puffy eyes, red nose and blotchy cheeks. The grief stamped on her face pierced him. Why was it always the good ones? The ones who didn't deserve to have their lives shattered this way? Not that anyone deserved to come face-to-face with murder, but
Melancholy thoughts would haunt his after-hours work tonight. He smirked at that thought. What after-hours? As a homicide detective, he lived his job twenty-four/seven. Maybe if he had a family, someone to go home to at night, he'd make more of an effort to work less and spend time at home.
He smiled at her and noted the well-trained Twister at her side. Ethan commented, "He reminds me of the dogs on the K-9 squad."
Tilting her head, she grinned. His heart slammed against his chest, and his breath whooshed from suddenly constricted lungs. Wow. Twin dimples flashed at him as her eyes crinkled at the corners. "Twister is a special dog, specially trained to be my ears. I don't know what I'd do without him."