Home > The Last Sister (Columbia River #1)(5)

The Last Sister (Columbia River #1)(5)
Author: Kendra Elliot

The idea had crossed Emily’s mind more than once. She looked from Isaac to Madison. “Your thoughts?” The two stared miserably at each other.

“I’d rather stay busy,” Isaac mumbled. “I don’t want to sit around at home and think about it.” He wiped a hand across his face.

The bell on the front entrance sounded. Customers. Madison’s distraught expression vanished. “I’ve got it.” She spun and hit the swinging door hard with her palm to open it.

Emily froze and then went after her, concerned with Madison’s emotions at the moment.

“Madison!” A child’s shout sounded from the front lobby. A small girl dashed over and stopped in front of Emily’s sister, admiring the tulle skirt and crown. “You’re so pretty today,” the child sighed, her rapturous gaze studying Madison from head to toe.

Madison bent over and smiled, meeting the child’s eyes. “Bethany. I love your boots.” The girl grinned and squirmed in pleasure, lifting a pink-rubber-booted foot into the air.

Emily held her breath. The upset Madison from the kitchen had been abruptly replaced with a caring waitress.

Emily glanced at Bethany’s mother and father. He held the door open for his wife, gesturing her ahead of him. She didn’t recognize the attractive couple. Or the little girl. Not locals.

Clearly Madison had made a new friend.

Madison took Bethany’s hand and tipped her head at the mother. “I’ve got a great table ready for you.” She and Bethany led the way, talking nonstop, the mother following.

Bethany’s father didn’t trail after his family. Instead he turned his serious gaze on Emily.

“I swear Madison isn’t crazy,” Emily told him, her mouth still dry from the bleak minutes in the kitchen. “She just has an odd sense of style.”

He glanced after the trio but made no move to join his wife. “I like the tiara. You don’t see that every day.” He turned his attention to Emily. “I’m looking for Emily Mills.”

Emily looked at the mother and girl, now deep in discussion with Madison at a table near the toasty fireplace.

The corners of his lips lifted in a small smile. “Not my family. I just held the door.”

“You looked like a family,” Emily stated, sizing him up. The three of them could have graced the cover of a parenting magazine. “She could easily pass as your daughter.” They had the same shade of light-brown hair and gray eyes.

An odd expression flashed over his face, and he pressed his lips together.

Emily felt as if she’d made a faux pas. “What do you need with Emily?” she quickly asked, unwilling to announce her identity to a stranger.

He pulled identification out of his coat’s inner pocket and opened it for her. “I have some questions for her about this morning.”

Special Agent Zander Wells. The FBI had arrived.

Her call had been taken seriously. She offered her hand. “Emily Mills. I’m glad you’re here.”

The FBI agent sat across from Emily in her tiny office. She’d started to lead him to a table in the diner and then realized they needed absolute privacy. Her office was cramped—and that was describing it nicely. Her tiny desk was pushed into a corner, barely leaving room for two chairs and a filing cabinet. Her walls were covered with shelves, packed with three-ring binders of paperwork for the restaurant and a few framed old photographs. Agent Wells focused on one. She followed his gaze.

“That’s my sisters and me. I was about ten years old, so that means Madison was seven and Tara fifteen.” The three girls were posed in front of the big Barton Diner sign with pots of colorful flowers at their feet. They all wore shorts and squinted in the sunlight.

A good day.

“The restaurant has always been in your family?” Agent Wells asked.

“Yes. My grandfather opened it in 1978.” She wondered how long the agent would engage in small talk. His eyes were sharp as he took in the rest of the office, giving her a few moments to silently take his measure. She estimated he was around forty. When he’d first entered with the woman and girl, she would have guessed closer to her own age of thirty-four. But now, close up, she could see there were lines at the corners of his eyes and the faint start of silver at his temples. His calm gaze returned to her, and she searched his face for a hint of his thoughts. He was unreadable.

She didn’t like it.

“Do you mind if I record this?” he asked.

“Go ahead.” She frowned. “When Sheriff Greer talked to me, he didn’t even write anything down. Of course, it only took two minutes.”

Agent Wells started to record. “Some people have good memories. Now . . . you were here at the restaurant when Lindsay was supposed to start her shift?”

“Yes. She was to be here at seven. Leo stuck his head in the office at five minutes after to tell me she was late. That’s when I first called her. She didn’t answer her cell phone, and I left a message.”

“Leo is your cook? Has he worked here long?”

“Leo is an original employee. He was a busboy when the place first opened.” She smiled, imagining the large cook as a teen. “I don’t think he was older than thirteen. My grandfather paid him under the table for years.”

“What did you do when Lindsay didn’t answer her phone?”

“I waited a few minutes, called again, waited a little more, and called a third time. That’s when I dug out her employment application and looked up Sean’s number. No answer on his phone either.”

Agent Wells nodded, his calm eyes locked on hers.

“I decided to drive over. It’s only a few minutes. I told Leo I was leaving—there were only four people eating in the diner at that time, so I knew he could handle everything for a few minutes.” She took a breath. “I fully expected that Lindsay had overslept.”

“And when you got to her home?”

“I noticed two vehicles were parked in the driveway and rang the doorbell. I waited and then rang again, very surprised that no one was answering. I called her cell from the front door, and I heard it ring inside. That’s when I tried the door handle.” She looked down at her hands, her fingers digging into her thighs. She folded them in her lap, feeling as if she were in church.

“The door was unlocked?”

“Yes. I pushed it open and called out for both of them—I didn’t want to startle anyone. As soon as I stepped inside, I knew something was wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“I could feel it. The air felt thick inside—I don’t know how to explain it. It felt . . . wrong.” She looked up and spotted a brief flash of recognition in the agent’s eyes.

He knows what I mean.

“And I could smell it. The blood. I could smell the blood.” The words stuck to her tongue as she remembered how much blood she had seen in the bedroom and how hard her heart had pounded, making her entire body vibrate.

“I saw a dark trail that led from the bedroom and down the hall toward the kitchen.”

“You’d been in her home before?” he asked.

“Yes. A few times. Even though she was my employee, we were friends. We often watched Game of Thrones together, and I’d help her on the nights she fed the football team.”

“The football team?”

“Sean coached the high school’s football team along with teaching history. He’d have everyone over for dinner a couple times a month.”

“All of them?”

“It’s not a big school,” Emily pointed out. “Maybe twenty or twenty-five kids would come. Lindsay loved it. She’d plan all week to make burgers or pizza or spaghetti. Those players can eat a lot.”

“I imagine.” The agent looked slightly stunned.

“She and Sean really loved those kids,” Emily said quietly, remembering how happy the little home had felt when it overflowed with hungry teenage bodies. A contrast to how still and stagnant it had been that morning.

“This couple was popular.” It wasn’t a question.

“They were,” Emily said. “They both put out a lot of positive energy that made people feel good. Everyone liked them.”

The two seconds of silence that followed her words seemed to stretch forever.

Someone didn’t like them.

Emily Mills was a good witness, Zander admitted.

She was calm and seemed to have clear memories of the morning. Not only had she painted a consistent picture of the crime scene; she’d also given insight into the victims’ lives.

After she’d determined that Lindsay was dead, she’d followed the blood trail out of the house and spotted Sean. That’s when she called 911. A single deputy arrived first, and she waited out front as he cleared the home.

“I couldn’t believe it when I realized the deputy had cut the rope.” Emily briefly closed her eyes. “He’d taken so long inside the house, I went to check on him and found him in the backyard, essentially having a panic attack. That’s when more officers showed up. It was a bit of a mess after that. No one seemed to know what to do.”

“You sound like you were very calm about a horrific situation.”

“Trust me, I was screaming inside. But during emergencies my brain focuses on what needs to be done next. I guess I compartmentalize to get through them.”

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