Home > Seconds to Live (Scarlet Falls #3)(7)

Seconds to Live (Scarlet Falls #3)(7)
Author: Melinda Leigh

A call from Brody interrupted her thoughts. “We have a possible break-in and missing woman. Can you pick me up at the station?”

Brody was waiting outside when she pulled up. He slid into the passenger seat and gave her the address.

As she drove, she updated him with Missy’s autopsy results. “She was tortured and killed. Either we have a sadistic killer roaming Scarlet Falls or Missy made someone very angry.”

“So our simple overdose is a murder investigation.” Brody’s voice rang with surprise. “This is a good reminder not to make assumptions about a case.”

A few minutes later, Stella parked at the curb in front of a white bungalow on a quiet street on the outskirts of town. The houses on both sides sat close, but mature trees and a line of tall hedges created privacy. A potential intruder would be shielded from any neighbor’s sight.

They climbed out of the car and headed toward the front porch. In addition to the patrol car at the curb, two vehicles occupied the driveway: a powder-blue Prius and a red Infiniti sedan. The front door stood open. Stella went up the three steps onto the stoop. Cool air chilled her skin as she stepped over the threshold.

Patrol Officer Lance Kruger met them in the foyer. This was Lance’s first week back on the job after taking a bullet in the November shoot-out. Stella would never forget the sound of the bullet hitting his flesh or the sight of him pale, shaking, and bleeding out on the grass. She shuddered and blocked the memory to give him a quick once-over. He was a little leaner and buffer. She saw no sign of a limp as he crossed the foyer and gestured toward the stairs. Lots of physical therapy, he’d said.

“The mess is in the master bath. The missing woman’s name is Dena Miller, age thirty-two.” Lance lowered his voice as he offered them the crime scene log. “The husband called it in. Says he came home from the golf course and found the master bathroom trashed and his wife missing.”

Stella took the clipboard. The call had come into the 911 dispatcher at two fifty-six p.m. She checked her watch. It was now three forty-five.

“Where is the husband?” Stella signed the log and handed the clipboard to Brody.

“Adam Miller is in the kitchen.” Lance showed her a snapshot of a painfully thin woman with a head of short, dark curls. “Dena Miller. Five-six. Brown hair and eyes.”

In the photo, she was sitting behind a birthday cake, candles ablaze. The smile on her face was robotic, as if her birthday hadn’t been a happy one.

“Do you want to talk to him or check out the scene first?” Lance asked.

“We’ll have a look upstairs.” She pulled gloves from her pocket and headed for the stairway. She wanted to see the scene before any conversation with the husband affected her initial impressions. Brody followed her up the steps.

A floorboard creaked underfoot as they stepped onto the second-floor landing. The master bedroom was mid-sized, with off-white carpeting and a queen-size bed. A jewelry box occupied the center of a dark wood dresser. With a gloved fingertip, Brody lifted the lid. Metal and stones sparkled against navy-blue velvet.

“There’s an iPad on the nightstand, too.” Stella peered over his shoulder. “I’m no jeweler, but it looks like she has a few nice pieces. Those studs look like diamonds.”

“Definitely not a robbery.” Brody eased the lid closed.

Stella crossed the carpet to the entrance of the master bath. Blood spattered the tiles and walls. Gold-colored glass shards littered the tile floor, and the room reeked of perfume. The glass door to the shower was open. The hamper was overturned, and the bathmat shoved against the wall. But Stella’s gaze lingered on the crimson trail on the white tile.

“The blood drops are dry, but they look fresh.” The drops would darken as they aged due to oxidation of iron in the blood. “It couldn’t have happened too long before the husband called it in. Maybe she was showering when someone surprised her.” Stella let her gaze sweep the room. She suppressed a shudder as she imagined standing in the shower, naked, vulnerable. The shower door opening. Terror washing over her as she saw the stranger in her bathroom. She envisioned her wet feet slipping on the tile, perhaps gaining her footing for a few seconds and reaching for the vanity. A man grabbing her, dragging her toward the door.

“You ready to talk to the husband?” Brody asked.

“Yes.” Shivering, Stella headed for the stairs with Brody on her heels.

At the foot of the steps, they walked down a short hall and into a living room open to the kitchen. The downstairs appeared undisturbed. There was the normal amount of daily living clutter: some mail on the hall table, a pair of athletic shoes half tucked under the sofa, two glasses in the sink, but nothing that indicated a struggle.

Adam Miller sat at the kitchen table. In his early thirties, he was clean-cut and dressed in my-daddy’s-a-lawyer attire: basic salmon-colored shorts and a white polo shirt. He blinked up at them as they walked into the room. His eyes were empty and stunned.

Stella turned a chair to face the husband, sat, and then introduced herself and Brody. “Mr. Miller, can you tell us what happened?”

His gaze dropped to his clenched hands. “I came home from the golf course to change. The door was open. It’s never open. Dena always keeps the doors locked when she’s home alone.”

“Was the door wide open?” Stella nudged him back on track.

“No. Less than an inch. Not enough for me to notice until I tried to put my key in the lock.”

“What did you do?”

“I went into the kitchen.” He rubbed the back of his hand under his nose. “She wasn’t there, but her phone was on the counter where she usually leaves it to charge.” Adam nodded toward a flat expanse of counter where a cell phone was plugged into the wall. “I thought she must be upstairs. Maybe her hands had been full and she’d forgotten to shut the door. But when I got up there and saw the mess . . .” He paused, squeezing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

“Do you recognize the broken glass?” Stella asked.

“Yes. Dena keeps several bottles of perfume on the vanity.” Adam’s chest heaved. “I can’t believe it. Everything was finally going good for her. For us.”

“Does Dena work?”

“No. She’s on disability,” he said. “She fell down the stairs four years ago and broke a bone in her neck.”

“Is she able to walk and drive?”

He nodded. “She’s doing really well lately. She found a good physical therapist and is making progress.”

“What do you do for a living?” Stella asked.

“I’m an accountant.” Miller clenched his fist, uncurled the fingers, and tightened them again.

“You were playing golf today?”

He nodded. “I’ve been trying to land this new client. A round of golf guarantees four solid hours to make a subtle pitch.”

“What time did you get home?” Stella prompted.

“I left the course about two thirty, after a long lunch.” Adam’s voice was quiet and unsteady. “I wanted to drop off my clubs, shower, and change before heading back to the office.” He dropped his hand, raised his chin, and met Stella’s gaze. His brown eyes radiated pain and confusion. “Where is my wife?” His voice broke.

“That’s what we want to find out,” Stella said.

He sniffed, a ragged breath shaking him.

Stella gave him a few seconds to compose himself. “Does she have any close family or friends?”

He shook his head. “No. Since her accident, she doesn’t go out much. She’s an only child and her parents are dead.”

“Do you know what your wife’s plans were for today?”

“She was scheduled to see her physical therapist this morning and then get a massage at one o’clock. I expected her to be home when I got here.”

“Do you know if she made it to either appointment?” Stella took a small notebook from her jacket pocket.

Adam jumped to his feet, his hand patting his pocket and pulling out a cell phone. “No. I was so upset when I saw the broken glass and the blood in the bathroom, I wasn’t thinking. Let me call them now.”

“We’ll call.” Stella made a note of the phone numbers as he read them to her. “Did she mention anything unusual this week? Was she upset or did she display any odd behavior?”

“No.” His chin snapped up. “You’re not going to write her off as not worth your time, are you? Or make me wait forty-eight hours before you start looking for her?”

“No, Mr. Miller. We want to start looking for your wife right away,” Stella assured him. The forty-eight hour rule only applied to TV shows. The sooner they started looking for Dena, the better. “Which golf course did you say you played this morning?”

Adam shot her a sharp glance.

“Routine.” Stella smiled. “The more information you give us, the better.”

“I’ll give you anything you want if it’ll help you find her,” Adam said.

“Financial records would be helpful as well,” Brody added from where he’d been leaning on the wall.

Adam’s head whipped around. “Why would you need those?”

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