Monday, May 7, 8:45 a.m.
Detective Wade Jackson entered the hospital room, and his stomach clenched. His brother Derrick lay in the bed, pale and still. Jackson had never seen him like this. As a kid, Derrick had been a monkey boy, always running, climbing, and making trouble. He’d been a restless adult for most of his life too. Seeing him so lifeless, with IV lines snaking into his arms, was unsettling. His six-foot frame was now gaunt as well. Jackson walked over and whispered his name.
Derrick opened his eyes, and a funny smile played on his face. “Don’t worry, I’m not dying.”
“Damn. I wanted your comic book collection.” Jackson smiled, then shifted on his feet, not sure what to say next. “Have they figured this out yet?” Derrick had been in and out of the emergency room four times in the last six months. He’d had various symptoms, but mostly a lot of vomiting and gastrointestinal pain. The worrisome elements though were the occasional blood-pressure drops and irregular heartbeat. Yet after dozens of tests, the doctors were still mystified.
“Nope. But I’m feeling better and going home tomorrow.”
“Good news.” Jackson worried that his brother would lose his job. “Do you need a ride?”
“Thanks, but Nicky will pick me up.” Derrick raised his bed to a sitting position as he talked. “She’s been great through this whole thing.”
“I’m glad you have her.” Jackson laughed. “Because I’m not good with sick people.”
“That’s an understatement.”
His brother had met Nicky a year earlier, and they’d bonded quickly, unusual for Derrick. She’d moved in a few months after they got together, and Jackson was glad to see his brother finally settle down after having a dozen girlfriends. Nicky wasn’t his favorite, but she was fine, and he didn’t see her often because he and Derrick rarely socialized. They had a shaky past that included long periods without speaking.
Derrick chuckled. “I know you hate hospitals, so don’t feel like you have to stay.”
“I brought you something.” Jackson, suddenly embarrassed, reached into his satchel anyway. He pulled out a Butterfinger bar and handed it over. “You’d better hide it from the nurses.”
Derrick let out a moan of pleasure. “Awesome! I’ve had nothing but mashed potatoes and Jell-O for days.” He tore into the candy, grinning wildly.
Jackson felt a flush of pleasure. He vowed to make more of an effort to hang out with Derrick. His brother had finally matured in the last few years, especially once they’d resolved the issue of their deceased parents’ house. Most of Derrick’s problems had been rooted in the way their mother had spoiled him. God rest her soul. Derrick was a blond-and-blue-eyed version of himself, but better looking—and more charming. That was why he’d gotten away with everything.
“How are the kids?” Derrick asked, his voice still weak.
“Good. Mostly. Katie is about to graduate, and Benjie is in preschool and loving it.” His kids were more complicated than that, but he didn’t discuss their issues with anyone but his girlfriend.
“And Kera?” Derrick echoed his thoughts, worry in his eyes.
“Still grieving and caregiving.” She’d gone to Redding to take care of her sick parents months earlier, and her mother had recently died. Poor Kera was now caring for her father while dealing with her own loss. He was lonely without her, but he’d started to wonder if their relationship was meant to be. Jackson shifted again, wondering how long he had to stay.
“Either sit down and relax or move along,” Derrick said, laughing. “You’re making me nervous, standing there.”
As Jackson tried to make up his mind, Nicky walked in. She gave him a surprised smile. “Hey, Wade. It’s about time you stopped by.” Tall and pretty, with long dark hair, Nicky looked great, as always. She was ten years younger than Derrick and always wore fancy clothes and a little scarf around her neck. Jackson sensed she was high-maintenance. “Hey, Nicky. I hear Derrick is getting better.”
“Yeah, I was just talking to his doctor. He wants us to come back for more tests in a few weeks.”
Jackson glanced at Derrick, and his brother nodded. “I’m trying a new medication. So we need to see if it’s working.”
“That’s encouraging. What are they giving you?”
“It’s an ulcer treatment,” Nicky cut in. “And I doubt if it will help.”
Jackson’s phone rang, and he felt a flash of relief. He held up his hand to excuse himself and turned away to answer. The name on the screen was his boss. “Sergeant Lammers. It’s good to have you back.” She’d been suspended for a while over her medical marijuana use, but now that the substance was legal in Oregon, the department had backed off.
“You won’t think that in a minute.”
“What have we got?”
“A dead woman. We don’t know if it’s a homicide yet, but the patrol officer who responded is suspicious.”
“Give me a second.” Jackson turned back to Derrick. “I have a new case and need to go.”
Derrick held up a hand. “See ya. Thanks for the candy.”
Nicky gave a small wave too. “Bye.”
Jackson patted his brother’s arm. “Call me when you get home.” It seemed like the right thing to say. He hurried out of the room, glad to be on the move. Derrick probably wouldn’t contact him, but that was okay. With new assignments, Jackson tended to work around the clock and could barely stay in touch with his kids. Technically, he worked in the Violent Crimes Unit, but as the senior detective, he rarely handled anything but homicides. Assaults were for newbies.
“What else do we know?” He put in his earpiece and power-walked to the elevator.
“A news carrier spotted the body through the window, a house off West 15th.” Lammers gave him the address, then added, “She’s been down a day or so, and it’s not pretty.”
Dead bodies never were. “How did she die?” Jackson pushed the elevator button.
“We don’t know. There’s no apparent wound.”
“Call the team, please.”
“I’ll give you Schak and Evans to process the scene, but we don’t know yet if this is a homicide.”
If the patrol cop thought so, it probably was. Eugene, Oregon, the mid-sized college town where he’d lived his whole life, was becoming an easy place to get killed.
The dead woman lived on a panhandle lot in a quiet, low-rent neighborhood not far from downtown. Jackson rolled down the long L-shaped driveway, parked behind two patrol units, and climbed out. Surprised by the landscape, he scanned the huge property. The front half had been turned into a lush garden, with flowers and vegetables growing side-by-side and ringed by fruit trees. Behind the small cottage, he spotted several structures, which he suspected were chicken coops, and a larger metal building that seemed to be a shop.
A uniformed officer came out of the house and walked toward him. Jackson had worked with her years earlier but struggled to remember her name.
“Officer Whitstone,” she offered. Forty-something and petite, the heavy gun, flashlight, and radio at her waist made her walk funny.
“I remember.” She gave him a quick smile. “I was the first responder here, and no one’s been in the house but me.”
Jackson glanced at the second patrol car.
“Officer Yates is around back,” Whitstone said. “It’s quite an operation the owner had going out there.”
Jackson assumed she was referring to the metal building. “A micro-brewery?” he guessed.
“Nope. A sausage factory.” Whitstone rolled her eyes. “If you can label anything made with tofu as sausage.”
“Huh?” The idea made no sense to him either. “Did you talk to the person who found the body?”
“No. It was a thirteen-year-old boy.” Whitstone glanced at her notes. “Conner Sarkin. According to dispatch, the carrier saw that the homeowner hadn’t picked up her paper from the day before. The kid thought it was unusual, so he rang her doorbell to see if she was all right. When Holden didn’t answer, he looked in the kitchen window and saw her on the floor, then called 911.” Whitstone gave him an amused look. “Then he finished his route and went to school.”
Jackson liked the boy already. “Did he go into the house?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him. But the side door to the kitchen was unlocked.”
“I’ll talk to the kid later, but I doubt he has much to add.” Jackson started toward the house, walking along a flagstone path flanked by ornamental moss that served as a lawn. “Tell me about the body.”
“No obvious trauma and starting to smell.”
“I meant the ID.”
“Oh, right.” Whitstone nodded. “Tayla Holden, age thirty-four. She appears to live alone here.”
Jackson realized Whitstone was the one who had reported the death as suspicious. “What makes you think she was murdered?”
The officer led him around the side of the house and opened the door. “I’ll show you.”
Jackson stepped in, bracing himself. The odor of decomposing flesh was matched by a potpourri of herbal smells. Lavender and mint were all he recognized, but there were more, some of which he associated with Italian food. The bizarre combination made him nauseated.
The woman was face down on the floor in a small dining area. She wore a loose-fitting purple housedress that had bunched up around her rear-end. His heart ached for her. She wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see or remember her like this. He turned to Whitstone. “Did you touch her in any way?”
“No, sir. I could tell by her color and smell that she was dead.” The officer stood next to him. “I haven’t stepped beyond this point.”
Jackson dug through his shoulder bag for a pair of paper booties and slipped them on. “It’s best you stay outside now. The ME will be here soon, and he’ll be upset enough that I’m near the body.” Rich Gunderson was the medical examiner and attended every death within the city limits, even if the deceased was a hundred-year-old woman who’d died in her sleep. With homicides, Gunderson didn’t want anyone interfering with the crime scene. But Jackson needed to see the victim up close, to visualize the moments right before her heart had stopped beating.
In this case, he saw Holden sitting at the small round table near the kitchen window, eating dinner from the plate that was still there. Had someone been with her? A deep-blue ceramic dish and an empty wine glass sat on the beige placemat. What had she eaten? Where was the fork or spoon? Had someone joined her but not had any food?
Whitstone cleared her throat behind him, so Jackson turned back.
“Look at the floor near her left hand.”
A fork lay partially under her fingers. Next to it, the pale-wood floor looked scratched. Jackson took three steps forward and squatted down, the familiar pain in his gut giving him a squeeze. He was due for another MRI, but hadn’t made an appointment yet. A closer look at the scratches revealed a crude letter K. What did that mean?
“I think it might be a message,” Whitstone called out. “Maybe the first letter in the word kill.”
Or the first letter in the name of the person who murdered her. He glanced back. “I thought you said you hadn’t been this far into the room.”
“I wasn’t. I can see the letter from here.”
Damn. Either she had freakishly good eyesight or he needed to start wearing glasses. Jackson pulled a penlight from his satchel and shone it on the letter. The scratch was fresh with no dirt in the grooves.
The rumble of an engine outside made them both turn toward the sound.
“Go see who that is,” Jackson commanded. “Nobody but the technicians are allowed in here.”
“Yes, sir.” Whitstone hurried out.
Jackson stared at the dead woman, whose arms and legs were bare. No bruises or abrasions. The half of her face he could see looked pink, but he suspected it was simply a sunburn. The last few days had been unseasonably warm for early May, and the people of Eugene had gone outside in droves to enjoy it. He’d mowed his lawn over the weekend and could feel the burn on the back of his neck.
Even dead, it was obvious the woman had been pretty in a Morticia sort of way. Jet-black silky hair, a narrow face, and naturally red lips. Another stab of pain in his gut. He could never look at a dead woman without imagining how he would feel if it were Kera. Or Evans. Jackson shook it off, pulled out his camera, and started taking photos. The crime-scene techs would document everything for the official files, but he liked to have his own set. He picked up Holden’s hand to see if there were more markings, surprised by how stiff she was. That meant she’d died at least twenty-four hours ago, maybe even Saturday night.
Behind him, a deep voice barked, “Step away from the body.”