Home > Seconds to Live (Scarlet Falls #3)(3)

Seconds to Live (Scarlet Falls #3)(3)
Author: Melinda Leigh

Brody leaned close to her ear. “You can step away if you need to.”

She shook her head. “This is a small town. It isn’t the first time I’ve encountered someone I know.” Sadness clogged her throat as she corrected herself. “Knew.”

“Considering the hypodermic, overdose is a definite possibility,” Frank said.

“Did you look for track marks?” Stella asked.

“Her sleeves are snug. I don’t want to disturb her hands until after I’ve scraped under her nails.” Frank stepped back. “Not sure when I’ll get to her autopsy. We’re tied up with multiple victims from that residential house fire. I’ll call you.” Frank stood and signaled to his assistant.

“What do you think?” Brody asked, stepping back as the morgue assistant wheeled a gurney to the dugout. Arranging a white evidence sheet inside the black body bag, he and Frank transferred the body. Stella flinched as the bag closed over Missy’s face with a final zip.

Poor Missy.

“The needle indicates drugs, but someone beat her.” Stella turned back toward her car.

Brody fell into step beside her. “Drugs and violence often go hand-in-hand.”

“They do.”

Reporters swarmed her as she ducked under the crime scene tape. She raised a hand to block the microphone shoved in her face.

“Detective Dane, are you handling this case?”

She breathed through her first instinct, which was to tell the reporter to go away. Police Chief Horner was adamant about polite press-police relations. As long as Stella worked for the Scarlet Falls PD, she had to give the press her attention and company manners. “I’ll be working on this case, along with the rest of the Scarlet Falls Police Department.”

“What can you tell us about the victim?” Another reporter waved his mic at her. “How did she die?”

Stella leaned closer to a mic. “Cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner.”

“Can you identify the body?”

“The deceased’s identity will be publicized after next of kin are notified,” Stella said.

The shouts continued. “What can you tell us about the death? Was it murder?”

Stella held up her hand. “We’re just beginning our investigation. It’s too early for any assumptions. We’ll issue updates as information becomes available. Now you’ll have to excuse me.” Stella threaded her way through the throng to her vehicle. But the reporters’ questions hit home. She knew nothing about Missy’s adult life.

Stella and Brody got into the car, and she drove to the address listed on Missy’s driver’s license. Parking at the curb, she surveyed the one-story, gray house. “A 2004 blue Toyota Corolla is registered to Missy Green. I don’t see it here.”

“It wasn’t at the baseball field either.” Brody climbed out of the car.

“So how did she get there?” Stella followed him to the sidewalk.

Missy had lived in an apartment behind the house. Painted to match the house in front, the small unit appeared to be a converted workshop or storage building. A single cement step led to a tiny stoop and front door. They climbed the step, and Stella knocked. No one answered. Covering her eyes, she peered through the glass panes in the door.

“Can I help you?”

Stella turned. An elderly woman stood on the walkway. Her black polyester slacks swished as she pushed her four-wheeled walker forward.

“Yes, ma’am.” Stella moved her blazer to show the badge on her belt and introduced herself and Brody. “Could I have your name please?”

Under a poof of dyed brown hair, the woman’s penciled-on eyebrows rose in surprise. “I’m Mrs. Sterling. I own this property.”

“Missy is your tenant?”

“She is.” Mrs. Sterling’s wrinkled lips pressed flat. “Did something happen to her?”

“We’d like to ask you a few questions.” Stella evaded the question. Missy’s family deserved to hear the news first.

Mrs. Sterling splayed a hand above her saggy bosom. “She was that woman found at the baseball field, wasn’t she? I just saw it on the news. They didn’t give her name, but why else would two detectives be here?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Stella admitted.

“I knew there was a reason I hadn’t seen her for a few days.” Mrs. Sterling turned and sat on the padded seat of her walker. “I was hoping maybe she’d met someone.” Taking a tissue from the pocket of her sweater, she blotted her eyes. “Missy was a nice girl.”

“No trouble with her as a tenant?”

“No. None. Missy kept to herself. She worked two jobs, day shift as a cashier at the grocery store on Elm Street, and she cleaned offices at night. Didn’t leave her much time for trouble.”

“I guess not,” Stella said. “How long has she lived here?”

“Just a few months.”

“Do you know if she has any friends?”

“I’ve never seen any around, but I know her mother lives nearby. If you want to look in her apartment, I can get my key.” She rocked back and forth twice to gain enough momentum to shift to her feet.

“Did she live alone?” Stella asked.

“Of course. I specified no roommates when she signed the lease, and she was too busy working for any entertaining. My last tenant was a college student. He was a problem. Loud music and girls coming and going at all hours.” Mrs. Sterling’s mouth puckered. “But there were no parties or other shenanigans with Missy.”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“Let’s see.” Stuffing the tissue back in her pocket, she pressed a forefinger to the corner of her mouth. “I don’t remember exactly. A few days at least. Missy works a lot. Sometimes she’s gone before I get up and not home yet when I go to bed.” She shuffled up a cement path toward the house. “Let me get that key.”

“Mind if I look around?” Brody asked.

“Not at all,” Mrs. Sterling said over her shoulder. “How did she die?”

“We’re not sure,” Stella said.

Stella followed Mrs. Sterling to the back door and retrieved the key.

Missy’s apartment was small and Spartan, but a skylight in the center of the living room admitted plenty of light. A kitchen was visible through an archway, and a short hallway led to the bedroom and single bath. Missy’s furniture was limited to the basics. Stella walked down the corridor and peered into the bedroom. A full size mattress and box spring rested on the carpet. An overturned shipping crate served for a nightstand and a floor lamp was positioned next to the bed.

“This won’t take long,” Brody said.

Stella opened kitchen drawers and found the usual contents. Magnets affixed a few recent snapshots of Missy and her mom to the fridge. Below them, a paper listed phone numbers: two places of work, Mrs. Sterling, and a number labeled “Mom.”

“Do you know where her mother lives?” Brody asked.

“I know where she used to live.” And going there was the very last thing that Stella wanted to do. They didn’t find a laptop, but a calendar hung on the kitchen wall. The majority of the notations appeared to be work shifts, but a few abbreviations caught Stella’s eye. She took down the calendar, slid it into a yellow clasp envelope, and filled out the Evidence label.

They left the apartment and drove across town to a mature neighborhood. Tall oak trees lined the street. One-level box homes squatted on tiny lots defined by chain-link fences. Stella parked in front of a yellow house that seemed unchanged from high school. Peeling gold letters spelled Green in block print on the mailbox.

None of the scripts Stella had rehearsed in her head seemed to work. How did you tell a woman her daughter was dead?

“When I gave you this case, we didn’t know you’d been friends with the victim. It’s all right if you need to pass it back.” Brody put a hand on her shoulder. “Notifying next of kin is hard enough when it’s strangers.”

It was tempting to hand off the duty, but Stella shook her head and headed for the front gate. “It’ll be easier on Mrs. Green coming from me. That’s what’s important.”

Her hand lingered on the gate. How many times had she opened and closed it during her teen years? Mrs. Green had had a yappy little dog that had liked to chase cars, and she’d been vigilant about keeping the gate closed.

The air had gone still, and her blazer was stifling. Sweat broke out under her arms. She took a shaky breath and pressed the doorbell, half hoping that no one was home. But footsteps approached, and the door swung open. In her late-fifties, Mrs. Green was tall like her daughter had been. Her hair was cut in a chin-length bob and dyed medium brown. Her cheekbones and jawline had softened, but she’d aged well.

Mrs. Green tilted her head. “Stella? Stella Dane. I haven’t seen you in ages.” Smiling, she stepped back. “Come in.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Green.” Stella gestured to Brody. “This is Detective McNamara.”

“I heard you were a policewoman.” Mrs. Green’s smiled faded, as if she suddenly wondered why two police officers were standing on her doorstep.

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