267 Primrose Court
Caldwell, New York
No, not this one. This one is not for you.”
As Detective Treyvon Abscott stepped in the path of Detective Erika Saunders, she stopped. Then again, that was what you did when you hit a brick wall. Her partner was a former college football player, an honorably discharged Marine, and at least four inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than she was. But even with all that going for him, he still braced his weight and put both palms out in front of himself, as if he were protecting his end zone against the likes of a Mack truck.
“Dispatch sent me here.” Erika crossed her arms over her chest. “So I know you’re not standing in my way right now. You’re just really not.”
Behind her colleague, a run-of-the mill two-story house with an attached two-car garage was strobe-lit in blue, the flashing lights of the squad cars parked in front of the driveway reflecting off the storm windows, turning a family’s home into a disco ball of tragedy.
“I don’t care what dispatch said.” Trey’s voice was quiet, but I’m-not-fucking-around deep. “I told you on the phone. I got this on my own.”
Erika frowned. “FYI, your detective of the month award could get revoked for this kind of scene hoarding—”
“Go home, Erika. I’m telling you, as a friend—”
“Of course, I”—she indicated herself —“have never gotten a collegial award. You want to know why?”
“Wait, what?” her partner said. Like she was speaking a different language.
She dodged around him and spoke over her shoulder as he stumbled over his own feet to turn around. “I’m not a good listener and I don’t like people in my way. That’s why I never get awards.”
Marching up the walkway, she heard cursing in her wake, but Trey was going to have to get over himself—and she was surprised by the territoriality. Usually, the two of them got along great. They’d been assigned together since January, after his first partner, Jose de la Cruz, retired following a long and distinguished career. She had no idea what kind of hair Trey had across his ass about this particular—
“Hey, Andy,” she said to the uniformed cop at the door.
—scene, but she wasn’t going to worry about it.
“Detective.” The uniformed officer shifted to the side so she could pass. “You need booties?”
“Got ’em.” As she slipped a set on over her street shoes, she noted that the hedges around the entrance were all trimmed and a little Easter flag was pastel’ing itself on a pole off to the left. “Thanks.”
The second she entered a shallow foyer, she smelled both vanilla-scented candles and fresh blood—and her brain went to a hypothetical episode of Cupcake Wars where one of the contestants got their hand stuck in a mixer.
Care for some plasma with your Victoria sponge?
Wait, that would be The Great British Bake Off, wouldn’t it.
While her brain played chew toy with all kinds of stupid connections, she let it warm itself up and glanced to the right. The disrupted living room was what she expected in terms of furnishings and decor. Everything was solidly middle class, especially all the framed pictures of two parents and a daughter in the bookshelves, everybody aging up through the years, the kid getting taller and more mature, the parents getting grayer and thicker around the middle.
Those photographs were her first clue as to why Trey had tried to put his foot down.
Well actually… there had been a couple of others when she’d been getting basic details from dispatch.
Ignoring the alarm bells that started to ring in her head, she stepped around a broken lamp. In spite of all the homey-homey, the place looked like a bar fight had gone down in front of the electric fireplace: The flowered couch was out of alignment and its cushions scattered on the rug, one armchair was knocked over, and the cheap glass coffee table was shattered.
There was blood splatter on the gray walls and the low-nap carpet.
The facedown body in the center of the sixteen-by-twelve-foot room was that of an older white male, the bald spot on the back of the head identifying him as the father according to one of the candids taken at a field hockey game. He had one arm up, the other down by his side, and his clothes were vaguely office, a button-down shirt, it looked like, tucked into polyester-blend slacks. No belt. Shoes were still on.
Two long steps brought her in close, and her knees popped as she dropped onto her haunches. The knife sticking out of his back had done quite a bit of work before before being left deep inside his rib cage: There were a good four to five other stab wounds, going by the holes in the shirt and the bloodstains on the cotton fabric.
As she took a deep breath, she had a thought that half the oxygen in Caldwell had mysteriously disappeared.
Her name was said with an exhaustion she was familiar with. She’d heard that special brand of tired in a lot of people’s voices when they were trying to talk sense into her.
“Frenzied attack.” She indicated the pattern of stabbings, even though it wasn’t like there was any confusion about what she was addressing. “By someone strong. While this victim was trying to run away after they’d scuffled.”
Erika rose up and went farther into the house. As she passed through an archway that opened into a kitchen, she was careful not to step on any bloodstains. The second body was faceup on the wood laminate flooring in front of the stove, the wife and mother sprawled in a pool of her own blood. The victim had extensive head and neck trauma, her facial features totally unidentifiable, the bones all broken, the flesh pulverized. So much blood covered the front of her that it was hard to make out the pattern on her t-shirt, but the leggings had to be LuLaRoe, given the garish repeat of peaches against a bright blue background.
Above her on the cooktop, a glass-lidded saucepan full of what appeared to be homemade Bolognese had boiled over, a black-and-brown halo of the stuff toasted around the heating element’s coil. Behind it, a big pot filled with only two inches of water sat on the largest of the burners, and next to the mess, on the counter, an unopened box of generic-brand spaghetti was beside a cutting board that had half a diced onion on it.
The woman had had no clue as she’d chopped the onion, browned the beef, and filled the boiling pot that it was the last meal she’d ever cook for her family.
Bile rose into the back of Erika’s throat as she glanced across at the open cellar door, the stairwell lit by an overhead feature mounted to the side wall.
“The killer had two weapons,” she said to no one in particular. Mostly so she could get her goiter to calm down. “The knife used on the father and a hammer used here. Or maybe it was a crowbar.”
“Hammer,” Trey interjected grimly. “It’s upstairs in the hall.”
“She started the water boiling.” Erika went over to the basement steps and breathed in deep. “Then she went down there to the washing machine—which explains the vanilla fragrance. It’s not scented candles. It’s Suavitel laundry detergent. My college roommate, Alejandra, used it all the time.”
“She hears the commotion upstairs. Runs up to see what’s going on. By the time she’s on this floor, her husband is dead or in the process of dying and the killer is on her with that hammer.” Erika met Trey’s dark eyes. “There was no damage on the front door so the father let the killer in. Do we have a Ring?”
“Where are the other two bodies—upstairs?”
Trey nodded. “But listen, Erika, you don’t need to go—”
“You’re on my last nerve saying my name like that. Anytime you want to cut out the pity, I’m ready to be treated like the adult I am instead of the child I was.”
She went back out through the living room and took the carpeted steps to the second floor. As soon as she got to the top landing, all she had to do was look down the dim, narrow hallway. At the far end, in a bedroom that was the color of Pepto-Bismol, two bodies were in full view, one on the bed, the other propped up against the wall on the floor.
Erika blinked. Blinked again.
And then she couldn’t move any part of herself. She wasn’t even breathing.
“Let’s go back downstairs,” Trey said softly, right by her ear.
When her colleague took her arm, she pulled free of the compassion and went forward. She stopped when she got to the open doorway. The body on the bed was half naked, a t-shirt shoved up above her pink-and-white bra, her black Lululemon leggings yanked down and hanging off of one foot. She had dark hair, just like both her parents, and it was long and pretty, curling at the ends. In her right hand… was a gun. A nine millimeter.
For some reason, the pink polish on the fingernails on the grip stood out. There were no chips in the finish, and as Erika glanced over at the cluttered top of the dresser, there was a little bottle of OPI in the exact shade. The girl had probably done them earlier in the day, or at least very recently.
Right next to the nail polish on the bureau was a framed picture. The girl who was now dead was standing next to a young man who was a good head taller than she was. She was looking into the camera with a wide smile. He was looking at her.
Erika’s eyes shifted over to the second body. The teenage boy in the photo was propped up against the pink wall, his legs straight out in front of him like he was a scarecrow that had fallen off its pole-mount. He had the muscularity of an athlete, with broad shoulders and a thick neck, and he was handsome in the way of a quintessential jock, square-jawed with deep-set eyes. There was a big patch of blood on the front of his Lincoln H.S. Football shirt and some splatter up his throat as well as under his chin. His hands were stained red, likely from when he’d killed the mother by beating her face in with the hammer.
His jeans were open at the fly.
Focusing on the gunshot wound, she noticed a second one, lower down, just under the diaphragm.
You got him twice in the torso, Erika thought numbly. Attagirl.
As she took a step forward, she noticed that the door to the room was busted in. Between one blink and the next, she heard the pounding, the crying, the screaming, as he’d broken the thing down after the daughter had locked herself inside, after her parents were murdered right under her—
Erika covered her ears as they began to ring.
“It’s fine,” she mumbled as Trey stepped in front of her again. “I’m fine.”
“I’ll walk you out.”
“The hell you will.”
Leaning to the side, Erika looked at the girl’s face. She was staring at the ceiling, the makeup around her now-vacant eyes smudged, the sooty rivers down her cheeks and smeared lipstick making a clown mask out of what had no doubt been very expertly applied, given the amount of brushes and compacts on that dresser top.
There was one other mark on her visage, but it wasn’t from MAC or NARS or whatever. The bullet hole at her temple was a circular penetration, and the entry wound was relatively neat, just some powder residue around a small pink-and-red extrusion of flesh. It was what was on the other side of her skull that was more gruesome, the bone, blood, and brain matter splattering across her pink duvet.
“He came with three weapons,” Erika heard herself say. “The knife, the hammer… and this gun.”
Had she gotten the nine millimeter away from him as he’d attacked her? Yes, that was how it had to have gone down. He had broken in here after he’d killed both her parents, and he’d gotten on her… and she’d somehow disarmed him… maybe because she’d pretended to go along with the sex?
She must have listened to the slaughter downstairs, heard her parents’ panic and pain. At least one of the pair of them, probably both, had no doubt yelled up at her to lock herself in and call for help—
“The parents don’t know yet,” Trey said. “His, I mean. We just sent a squad car over to the address.”
“Who found them all?” she asked roughly.
“We did. She called nine-one-one before she shot herself.”
Erika’s eyes quickly scanned the bed—there it was. A cell phone was on the bloodstained duvet cover, right by her.
The girl had held on to the nine millimeter, but not the phone.
“The operator who took the call heard the gun go off.” Trey went over and knelt by the boy’s body. “The girl was crying so hard, she could barely speak. But she managed to give his name, and tell the operator that he’d broken in and killed her parents. Then she provided her own address and… pulled the trigger a third time.”
“But it wasn’t her fault,” Erika whispered as she leaned across the bed to meet that vacant stare. “It wasn’t your fault, sweetheart. I promise you.”
As her voice broke, she cleared her throat. And cleared it again.
Without conscious thought, her hand went to a spot below her left collarbone. Through her jacket, she couldn’t feel the scars, but they were there.
Surrounded by the black-hole stillness of death, Erika’s own past came on her like a mugger, stealing reality from her, sucking her back to the one night she never wanted to relive and always did. Always. She had fought back, too, during the worst moments of her family’s life. And God knew, there had been so many times in the last fourteen years that she had wished she had killed herself—or could.
Trying to control the urge to vomit, she listened to a surge of voices down below by the front door. Some more people were entering the scene. No doubt the photographer. Maybe it was CSI already.
Erika looked at her partner, focusing on him properly for the first time. As always, Trey was military-trim in his trademark CPD fleece, his fade sharp as always, his clean-shaven jaw the kind of thing Superman would have envied. As he stared back at her, his dark eyes were hooded and his lips drawn tight.
“It’s okay,” Erika said. “I can handle this. But I appreciate you… you know, looking out for me.”
“If you want to go, no one will blame you.”
She looked back down to the bed, to the beautiful young girl whose life had been cut so short. All those family photographs in the living room? All those pictures that had been consciously and carefully taken to record her growing up with her loving parents?
No more pictures. Of any of them—
Out in the stairwell, steps creaked as someone ascended.
Actually, that wasn’t correct, Erika thought. There would be one more set of images, taken by somebody trained in forensics, to record the way they had all died.
“I can handle this,” Erika said to her partner.
And also to herself.
She didn’t believe the words at all.