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Too Close to HomeA NOVEL
By LYNETTE EASON
Revell BooksCopyright © 2010 Lynette Eason
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Wake up, partner," the voice rumbled in his ear as Connor Wolfe's sleep-drugged mind struggled to keep up. "We've found another body. In a dumpster behind the BI-LO off East Main."
He shifted the phone and glanced at the clock.
The number 2:08 glared at him. Great. Just the way he wanted to start his Monday morning.
"Be right there." He hung up and closed his eyes for a brief moment before gathering the energy to swing his feet to the floor. Two hours of sleep. Well, he'd gone with less. However, at the age of forty-two, he seemed to feel the lack a lot more than he did ten years ago. Shaking his head to fling off the fog of interrupted sleep, he headed for the shower, wondering if he should wake up Jenna, his sixteen-year-old daughter, or just hope she slept through the rest of the night.
He settled on leaving her a note. Fifteen minutes later, hair still damp, he directed his unmarked Ford toward the crime scene. His partner, Andrew West, would meet him there.
First a cop, then a homicide detective with SLED, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Connor had seen a lot in relation to crime, but this case had him by the throat and wouldn't let go. Six disappearances and now three dead bodies-and very limited evidence. The first girl disappeared sixteen months ago. When the second victim disappeared two months later, speculation ran rampant. Were the vanishings related?
Then the third girl, Leslie Sanders, disappeared five weeks after that, and SLED had taken over the case. Connor had been the lead detective assigned to it, not only because it was his hometown, but because he'd also requested it. He had a lot of contacts-and he hoped he'd be able to spend more time with Jenna if they were living in the same city for an extended period of time. Since accepting the position as a detective for SLED in Columbia a year ago, Connor had lived there and Jenna had stayed behind with her grandparents against Connor's better judgment. But he had to make a living, and SLED operatives were required to live within a fifty-mile radius of the state's capital. However, as long as he was working the case, he could reside in the city where the investigation took place. And be near Jenna so he could work on repairing a relationship he was afraid was beyond help.
On the plus side, he'd been paired up with Andrew West, a new detective working his first case with SLED, but Connor's closest friend for many years. A man he considered the brother he'd never had. The match had been perfect.
Connor knew in his gut the girls' deaths were connected-he just couldn't prove it. The first two crime scenes didn't even connect the two girls except for one thing. They'd both had a baby.
If this third dead girl showed evidence of giving birth, Connor would know without a doubt they had a serial killer on their hands. He hoped he was wrong.
Was pretty sure he wasn't.
It was why he and Andrew had been called in on this case. Sheriff Chesterfield usually hesitated about calling in outside help, but was professional enough to admit he needed their help and resources.
Dead girls and terrified parents. Not a pretty combination. Add gullible kids who thought bad things only happened to other people, and he had a potentially explosive situation on his hands. The attorney general's office and the governor demanded answers he didn't have, the media wouldn't let it go, and the mayor had resorted to threats.
Unfortunately, Connor had no idea what to tell them.
And very little to show. A fiber here, a hair there, but nothing that matched up with anything or anyone in the criminal database. Witnesses whose stories conflicted left them with nothing solid. And even the similarities in the witnesses' stories hadn't panned out. The killer was so good it was terrifying.
And then there was Jenna.
Connor's angry sixteen-year-old daughter defied him at every opportunity. When her mother died four years ago in a car wreck, it turned his little family's world upside down-and dropped him and his daughter into the midst of a battle of the wills.
Flashing lights and a yellow tape barrier ahead demanded his attention. Right now, he had another murder to solve-and at least three more missing girls to find.
Connor wheeled to a stop and hopped out of the vehicle. Even in the wee hours of the morning, a small crowd had formed to gawk at the sight of a crime scene. Quiet murmurs and speculation filled the air as yellow crime scene tape flapped in the occasional gust.
He pushed his way through and flashed his badge to the uniformed officer on the other side of the tape. "Detective Connor Wolfe."
The man handed Connor a paper suit and booties for Connor to don in order to protect the crime scene, then wrote Connor's name, badge number, and time of arrival down in the logbook. Connor ducked under and paused for a moment to get a feel for the place. A light breeze held the smells from the various fast-food restaurants, cigarette smoke-and the unmistakable odor of a dead body.
Crime scene investigators worked the area. Serena Hopkins, the medical examiner, hunched awkwardly over the side of the dumpster. She looked up and saluted Connor when he approached, then went back to her scrutiny of the body that lay very near the top. She spoke with her back to him. "Hey there, Connor. Good thing she was discovered when she was. The truck comes first thing in the morning to empty this particular bin. I'll be finished in a minute and you can come up and have a look."
"Thanks, Serena." He shook his head as he did every time he saw the woman in action. Tall, willowy, with straight as a stick, raven-colored hair and ice blue eyes, she was runway model perfect-with a mind so quick Connor finally quit trying to match wits with her.
Never in a million years would he have picked this job for her, but after getting to know her and working with her over the past year, he couldn't see her doing anything else.
Connor walked closer. The stench in the air grew stronger.
Jake Hollister, thirty-five years old with gray-streaked blond hair, efficiently led the crime scene unit. He knelt easily, examining the asphalt about six feet away from the dumpster. Connor had worked with him in the past. From their first case together, he'd quickly grown to respect and appreciate Jake as a professional who took his job seriously. They often met at the gym for a game of one-on-one basketball.
Connor stuffed his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. "Hey, Jake. Is it Leslie Sanders?"
Jake looked up and nodded, his eyes shadowed. "Yep."
"Found anything in common with the other two?"
Jake bagged something that might be evidence, tagged it, and tossed it in his collections bag. He stood to face Connor, his frustration obvious. "I found a folded piece of paper, but it's so ratty, I'm afraid it'll fall apart if I do anything with it here. The lab might be able to figure out what it is. Other than that, there's nothing much on the surface. I'll know more later today." He sighed and used the back of his wrist to rub his nose. "The only thing that tells me these three murders are linked is the gender and age of the victims-and my gut. According to Serena, this one was shot. They've all died differently, but when we get her back to the morgue, I'll bet Serena'll find she's recently had a baby."
"You know, Jake, this guy is really starting to get under my skin."
"Yeah, join the club."
"We've been working every medical facility within a thirty-mile radius and nothing. Not a sign these pregnant girls have ever seen a doctor. I don't get it."
His phone rang. Frowning, he pulled it out of the clip to check out the caller ID.
Jenna? He gave Jake a sign to hang on and stepped away to answer. "Jenna, are you all right?"
"Dad? Dad? Where are you?"
"I'm at a crime scene, honey. I left you a note on the counter. Are you okay?"
Sniffling. "Yeah, yeah, I'm okay. I didn't see your note. I ... um ... woke up to go to the bathroom and you weren't in your bed and it ... I didn't know ..." A frustrated sigh echoed in his ear. "I had to make sure you were okay. When are you coming home?"
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Why do you have to be a cop? Why can't you have a nice boring, safe job?" she whined.
Frustration had him shoving a hand through his slowly drying hair. "Jenna, darling, I can't get into this right now." He glanced at Jake who shot him a sympathetic look.
"Right. Sorry I bothered you."
She'd already hung up.
Connor sighed and scrubbed the stubble on his chin. Guilt pressed hard on his chest. He knew he let work consume him. At first it was to escape the pain of losing Julia, the wife he'd loved-yet seemed to battle with incessantly.
But now, if he were honest with himself, work was his escape from the stress of constant fighting with a stubborn sixteen-year-old.
When he'd gotten assigned to this case, he leased an apartment so he wouldn't have to disturb his parents with his crazy hours, and he'd hoped Jenna could stay with him as often as possible. But those crazy hours meant that Jenna ended up staying more with her grandparents than with him, simply so she would have more stability in her life-especially during the school year.
This last week had been a little slower than usual, and Connor was trying to spend some quality time with Jenna. Like last night he'd picked her up from a friend's house and taken her out to eat. She'd come to the apartment and fallen asleep watching a movie.
Unfortunately, it looked like Jenna wouldn't be spending any more nights with him. Instead, she was going to have to go back to her grandparents' for a while. A fact she'd fight him on, but if she couldn't handle waking up and finding him gone ...
And she shouldn't have to handle it. It wasn't fair to her.
But not much was these days. Poor Jenna.
He sighed and, not for the first time, wished he'd never become a cop. Then again, if he wasn't a cop, he didn't know who he would be.
In the confines of his pocket, Connor balled his hand into a fist, resisting the urge to hit something. Slipping the phone back in his clip, he said to Jake, "Guess I'll have to talk to her tomorrow ... er ... later today." And call his parents in the morning. He turned to the dumpster. "Hey, Serena, can I come up now?"
Serena shoved herself back from the edge of the bin with a grunt. "Sure, Connor, I think I've got everything I need. Harley got the pictures so I'm sure he'll be emailing them to you." She looked down into the dumpster, a sad look crossing her face before she could clear it. "I guess she's yours for now. After we get her to the morgue, I'll be able to tell you a lot more."
Serena made her way down the strategically placed step ladder and allowed Connor to replace her. He climbed up and peered over the edge. The smell assaulted him and he turned his head away for a moment. She'd been here for at least a day, although, in the steamy, southern, September heat, it was hard for him to tell exactly how long. And she could have been dead somewhere else for a period of time before landing here. He'd leave that speculation to Serena.
Leslie had disappeared a little over a year ago. Now this.
Dear God, why?
It was the only thought he'd allow to pass through his mind before professionalism took over. "Blonde, eighteen years old. A hundred pounds or so." Ignoring the stench, Connor spoke into his voice-activated recorder to register the details. Later, he would write out the transcript to study.
Connor continued his assessment. "Face up, arms above her head, gunshot wound to the chest. Fully dressed, jewelry on both hands, bracelets, earrings. Miniskirt and sandals. Cuts and bruises on both knees."
He turned and looked down at Jake. "Who found her?"
"Guy over there in the car."
Connor's gaze followed Jake's pointing finger. "Homeless and looking for something to eat?"
"Yep. Guy's crazy as a loon. Kept saying something about the black monster who was going to eat him."
Jake shrugged. "Like I said, he's nuts."
"Let's see if there are any cameras around here that might have caught something," he said, and motioned to the guy who worked with Serena. Johnny St. James, late fifties, gray hair, and a potbelly. One of the nicest guys Connor knew. After all this guy had seen on his job, he still managed to enjoy living.
Johnny arrived, gurney in tow, and Connor shook hands with him. "Good to see you again, Johnny. Sorry it has to be this way."
Johnny nodded and stepped over to the dumpster. "Yeah, me too. Crying shame. Where are the parents of these kids anyway?"
"Wish I knew, John."
Guilt stabbed him again as he thought about Jenna. Parents, himself included, had to work and couldn't keep an eye on a teenager 24/7. Still ...
Connor walked over to greet the detective standing beside the police car. "Hey there, partner. Heck of a way to start a Monday. You get any sleep?"
Andrew heaved a long-suffering sigh. "About two hours."
"Yeah, me too. How's Angie?"
"Whew. That's not good."
"Tell me about it." Andrew slapped a manila folder on the hood of the car. "Here are the photos from the other two crime scenes. Wanna take a look?"
"Yeah, I guess."
Pulling the photos from the folder, Andrew spread them out. Connor separated the pictures, his gut twisting at the sight of the ugly deaths these girls had suffered.
Again he thought about Jenna. Just the thought of her ending up like those girls.
He shuddered. Somehow he had to figure out a way to be there for her more.
"All right, let's talk through it." Andrew pointed to Amanda Sheridan. "Sixteen years old, strangled, had a baby."
Connor tag teamed with Andrew, bouncing facts and ideas off of each other helped keep everything straight in his mind-and helped solve more than one case. "She was found in a ditch off the side of I-85 approximately two days after she was killed. Scared that poor trucker to death."
"Bet he'll use rest areas from now on."
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Connor ignored the sweat running down his back and looked over at the dumpster. "The second girl, Bethany Whitehouse, she was drowned."
"Yeah, the marks around her neck show the guy held her with her back facing him. Thumbs pressed against the back of her neck."
"No prints, though. He wore gloves."
"Uh huh. Couldn't make it easy for us."
Connor stepped away, then walked back and looked at the pictures once more. "I don't get it. What's the connection? There's got to be something to link these girls and we're not seeing it-I mean besides the baby angle. This dumpster is in a really busy area, fully visible to passing traffic. The side of the road, also in plain sight. But the girl who drowned washed up on a man-made beach at Lake Bowen twenty miles out of town."
Andrew rubbed his eyes. "If there's a link, it's subtle."
"Or something we just haven't even come across yet." Connor gathered the photos back and stuffed them in the folder. They called out to him, demanding justice. "Go make nice with Angie and I'll see you in the morning."
"It is morning, but I got you. She's just gotten over being mad at me from the last time I had to get up and leave. Now, I get to start all over again." He slapped Connor on the back. "No, Angie can wait. You go handle the parents, I'll hang around here and see what else I can come up with."
Excerpted from Too Close to Home by LYNETTE EASON Copyright © 2010 by Lynette Eason. Excerpted by permission.
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