Cops and firefighters were already swarming the scene, ruining any chance we had at gathering untainted evidence. Not that I was expecting any evidence. It was probably a gas leak. Tragic, but just an accident. Case closed.
I pulled up to a house on the opposite side of the street and put my unmarked Dodge Charger in park. There wasn’t anything to be done except wait until the fire was under control. I was drawing close to the end of a twelve-hour shift, and this mess would be better handed off to someone who wasn’t dead on his feet. Or the cops could just handle it. There was no point in sitting here counting down the minutes.
“Think the captain will care if we leave it to the night shift?” I asked and turned to my partner.
“She was the one that requested we get our asses over here,” Damien said. “So I’m guessing yes.”
Fair enough. I drummed my thumbs on the wheel. It took me a minute to realize that the song stuck in my head had played the first night I had met Julie. I remembered dipping her in my arms and her smile making it impossible to stare at anyone but her. I used to be able to look forward to going home to a warm bed after a long shift. Until I realized that I wasn’t the only one she’d been sharing our bed with. My hands tightened on the wheel.
“You have to stop thinking about Julie,” Damien said.
“You were.” He put his feet up on the dash. “She sure as hell isn’t thinking about you, though, so why are you wasting your time?”
I ignored him.
“When was the last time you got laid?”
“Recently enough.” It was a lie. It had been four months since I broke it off with Julie. And I hadn’t found anyone else I was interested in. I didn’t have time to date anyway.
“You’ve been hard to work with ever since the two of you split.”
“You’ve been hard to work with ever since we got paired up.”
Damien put his hands over his heart. “That hurts, man.” But then he immediately smiled. “Not that I believe it for a second. I’m the best thing that ever happened to you.”
I shook my head. “It’s questionable that you think another man in your life is the best thing that ever happened to you.”
“You’re switching my words around. I said that I was the best thing that ever happened to you.”
“Let’s hit the bar after this. Get you out of your slump.”
“I’m not in a slump.”
“So you have gotten laid since your split?”
It wasn’t worth the time lying to him. We could both sense a liar a mile away. It was part of the training.
“Tucker.” He drew out my name in a weird seductive way. And I was worried that he was right. If I thought him saying my name was seductive, I was most definitely in a slump.
“Four months isn’t that long,” I said instead of giving in. I was too tired to have this conversation with him right now.
“Um…yes. Yes, it is. As soon as we get the all clear from the goddess, we’re going out.”
I wasn’t sure whether to focus on the fact that he had just called our captain the goddess or the fact that I was 100 percent not going to a bar with him tonight. If I was in denial about my lack of a sex life, he was certainly in denial of his chances with the boss. But before I could respond, his phone bleeped in this hand.
“Speak of the sexy devil. I’ll put on my charm and plead our case to get out early. Don’t see any reason for us to be here when the officers clearly have it covered. You know she can’t resist me. Torres speaking,” he said as he opened the door and stepped out into the cool night. He slammed the door, leaving me alone in the car.
I let go of the wheel and sighed. Damien was right. I needed to move on. But this town didn’t exactly have a high population of bachelorettes. It was filled with suburban housewives like the women who resided in this neighborhood. I stared out the window at the fire. Two covered gurneys were being ushered away from the flames. Shit.
I was hoping for an easy case. That was impossible now. It would be elevated to a homicide investigation. I was about to open up the door to get filled in by the local cops when the printer beside me whirred to life.
I lifted up the first page. It was a file about Benjamin Harlow. I scanned the page. Not a civilian. He was a detective like me. There were only three reasons his file would be coming out of the printer. Either he was a suspect, he was dead, or he was injured. Detectives didn't tend to do much arson, and based on those gurneys and half of the house literally being blown to bits, I was worried that he wasn't just injured.
Suddenly I wasn't tired anymore. Not only had this arsonist blown up a house, but they'd possibly killed a detective. That meant this case was a top priority. Which meant solving it would help get the captain off my back about my recent uh...less than stellar job performance.
I grabbed the paper and stepped out into the cool night.
Damien was still talking on the phone. I ducked under the caution tape and flashed my badge at the nearest cop. “Any idea what happened here?”
“Arsonist. Took out two of our own.” He shook his head.
Two? Damn. I'd go from narrowly avoiding suspension to being the hero of the department if I solved this one. “You sure it was arson?” I thought he might have a few guesses, but he seemed pretty sure.
“Don’t you smell that, detective?”
I took a deep breath. Despite the smell of smoke, there was one more pungent scent in the air. “Kerosene?”
“The house was doused in it. A trip-wire was attached to the front door. We didn’t stand a chance.”
I wasn’t expecting him to say that. I thought they had arrived on the scene after the explosion. “Cops were here before the explosion?”
“Yeah, we were called in as backup to an ongoing investigation.”
“What ongoing investigation?”
The cop laughed. "It's above my pay grade. Guess it's above yours too.” He turned his head. “Ma’am, you have to stay on the other side of the tape.”
There was an older woman in a housecoat wrestling with the yellow caution tape. She ignored his request. He put his hand on his gun and started to walk towards her, but I put my arm out to stop him.
"I got this," I said.
He laughed again. "You don't have the case file and now you're helping with crowd control? No wonder more cases don't get solved around here."
I ignored him. Damien would fill me in on all the details when he was done flirting with the captain, but for now, I figured I might get some valuable intel from the neighborhood gossip. Or I'd end up driving an Alzheimer's patient back to their house. It could go either way.
"Ma'am, you really can't come any closer. This is an active crime scene. And that house could blow again any second."
The woman proceeded to stomp on the tape dividing us. “But I know who did it. I knew that woman wasn’t quite right in the head. I knew it. I told everyone so. I have a great eye for this sorta thing.”
"I want to hear all about her, but first we need to move to a safer location." I guided her over to my car.
“I think her husband was beating her. She must have finally snapped and blown the place up.”
“What woman blew the place up?” I asked.
“The one who lived here.”
Lived. In the past tense. It would be fitting if the woman responsible was killed in her own death trap. “What did you say your name was?” I asked.
“Sally. Sally Bennett. I know everything that goes on in this neighborhood. And she was having an affair with her gardener. Who just so happens to live right down the street.”
“And how is it that you know all this, Ms. Bennett?”
“Mrs. Bennett.” She held her head up a little higher. “People like to tell me things.”
“The woman who lived here told you she was having an affair?”
“No, but it was so obvious. She and Ben were always together. It was as clear as day. Don’t know how her husband didn’t know. Or maybe he did. Oh! Maybe he was the one who set off the explosion!" She seemed so excited by the prospect of such juicy gossip.
“What did you say this woman’s name was?”
“Aren’t you supposed to know that? By the way, I'd be happy to identify the body...bodies?”
I bet you would. She was totally fishing for information. “Yeah…I…” I looked down at the papers.
“Adeline Bell is her name. Oh and that right there is her gardener.” She pointed to the paper in my hand.
“Benjamin Harlow?” I lifted up the picture of the detective.
She shook her head. “You have the last name wrong. His name is Ben Jones. Such a gentleman. But yes, that’s definitely him. My God. Did he have a secret family? He did, didn't he? It's always the ones you least suspect.” She shook her head.
I rubbed my eyes. It would have been hard to pick out the truth from this woman's gossip when I was fresh. It was nearly impossible after a twelve-hour shift. By the morning she would probably have everyone in the neighborhood believing that Mr. Bell had blown up his cheating wife and that Ben Jones was a polygamist. “What did Adeline look like?”
“Long blonde hair. She was quite beautiful. If you ask me, she could have been a model in her prime.”
“And you think she died in the explosion? You said that she lived here. Not lives.”
“Oh, no. I just meant I doubt she’ll be coming back anytime soon. I wouldn’t come back if I was her. And there isn’t much to come back to." She gestured towards the still-burning shell of a house. "Her house is basically dust. And she took off so fast…”
“Wait, you saw her?”
“I’ve been trying to tell the cops, but they haven’t been listening. She took off in the woods a few minutes ago. Saw her with my own eyes.” She pointed towards the woods.
I glanced over at Damien still flirting on the phone. And all the cops were just standing around. I could easily catch up to the culprit if she only had a few minutes head start. This was my big chance. “Thanks for the tip, Sally.”
“Any time, officer.”
I didn’t have time to correct her. I was a detective. Not a beat cop. And I was about to prove it to her and Officer Prick. I folded up the picture of Ben Harlow or Ben Jones or whoever he was and shoved it into my pocket. The guilty woman would crack over a picture of her dead lover. Not that there were going to be many beautiful blondes who smelled like kerosene out in the woods on a cold night like tonight. I shoved the rest of the printouts into Damien’s hand as I ran past him.
“Where are you going?!” he yelled from behind me.
I ignored him as I ran toward where Sally had pointed. It didn't take long to find the trail. It had rained earlier, and there were clear shoeprints in the muddy, crunchy leaves. I turned my phone's flashlight on and ran into the woods.
Gotcha. The house was clearly abandoned. Paint was chipping off every visible service. There were dozens of cracked boards on the porch. It was practically as dilapidated as the house that was on fire. Yet, the lights were on in one of the rooms upstairs. And I could see the silhouette of someone walking around inside.
The trail from the crime scene had led straight here. It was like she was begging to get caught. In a lot of ways that aligned with what Sally had said. This woman could be lovesick. Dying to be caught after her regrettable decisions killed the man she was having an affair with. I looked over my shoulder and noticed how good the vantage point of this house was. It was located on top of a hill that looked down on the woods surrounding it. But it also gave a damn good view of the neighborhood where the fire was still being fought.
I paused by the rundown pickup truck and pulled out my gun. Maybe this situation wasn’t so black and white. It felt sinister up here. A chill ran down my spine and I tried to ignore the feeling. I was tired. I needed to wrap this up so that I could go home. To my cold bed. Get a grip.
I lifted my gun and tried to quietly walk up the decrepit porch steps. Each creak echoed in the quiet night. I should have told Damien to have my back. As far as I knew, he was still on the phone with the captain, though. I was out here all alone. All my backup down the hill was at least ten minutes away. I should have called in a bomb squad. But then they'd get all the credit. If I got blown up...well, the odds of that were pretty small. She wouldn't have trip-wired two houses. Right?
Before I could lose my nerve, I banged on the door. "Police! Open up!"
Of course. The arsonist wasn't just going to invite me into her lair. I lowered my gun and was about to kick down the door when it squeaked open.
A woman stood there with her gaze trained on the ground as she pulled the silk sash closed around her robe.
“I’m Detective Reed,” I said, keeping both hands on my gun instead of offering a handshake.
She didn’t respond. Instead, the silence stretched between us as she tied the sash three times. Not that the sash being tight hid a damn thing. Her thin, silk robe didn’t leave much to the imagination. My eyes snapped back up to her face.
She was staring at me staring at her. And even though the accusing expression on her face should have made me look away, I just couldn’t. She was indeed beautiful. High cheekbones, full kissable lips, a perfect pale complexion with rosy cheeks. But her hair was brown, not blonde. And I felt myself breathe a sigh of relief.
“Can I help you?” she asked. I thought her voice would be filled with indignation based on how she was staring at me. But it wasn’t at all. She sounded timid. Scared.
I realized I was probably terrifying her. I slid my gun back in its holster. “What are you doing out here?” In the middle of the woods? In a robe?
“I live here.”
I wanted to laugh. But it didn’t look like she was joking. And she was…wet. Her damp hair was piled on top of her head in a messy bun. And there were splotches on her robe like she had thrown it on instead of taking the time to dry off properly after a shower. A very recent shower. Here in this house. She really lived here? “You live out here in the middle of the woods?”
“In a house. Why is that so strange?” She stared at me.
“It’s literally falling apart.” I tapped one of the broken floorboards with my heel. “This must violate all sorts of codes.”
She stood up a little straighter. “I’ve been fixing it up. I’m not breaking any codes.” But she didn’t sound very sure of herself.
If this was fixed up I didn’t want to think about what it had looked like before she got her hands on it. Or maybe she was just the worst house flipper on the planet.
“Is there something I can help you with, Detective Reed?” She put her hand on the doorknob. “If you don’t mind, it’s getting rather late and I…”
It was pretty clear she was trying to get rid of me. “I have a few questions for you.”
“For me?” She didn’t look surprised. She looked like she was expecting it. Only a guilty person expected questioning.
I cleared my throat as I pulled the paper out of my pocket. “Do you know this man?” I unfolded it and held it up for her.
She leaned forward slightly to get a better look. “No, I’ve never seen him.”
“Are you sure?” She didn’t look back at the page. Instead, her gaze met mine.
“Positive. I’ve never seen him in my life.”
“Maybe you know him as Ben Jones?”
“I don’t know him at all.”
“What about the name Adeline Bell?”
“Doesn’t ring any bells.” She laughed awkwardly at her own joke for just a second and then pressed her lips back together. “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
I folded the paper back up and slipped it into my pocket. Either she wasn’t sorry at all about his death or she really didn’t know him. But I couldn’t read her at all. And usually I could read strangers like the back of my hand. “Have you seen any suspicious activity outside tonight?”
“There was an explosion in the neighborhood down the hill. Windy Park. You should look into that instead of tramping around my property.”
“That is what I’m looking into.”
She stared at me. “And you’re here because…”
“A trail from the house on fire led me right to you.”
“Do you go following every path you see? There's a sidewalk out front of that house that blew up. Why not follow that around the neighborhood?”
“So you didn’t see anyone outside your house? A blonde woman perhaps?”
It was a lie. There was only one reason to lie. She was somehow involved in all this. I looked back up at her wet hair. Was it wet with water, or wet with dye? It was the only thing that didn’t fit Sally’s description.
“You’re sure?” I asked. “No one? Nothing unusual at all?”
“Nope. Absolutely nothing.”
Absolutely a lie. “Would you mind letting me take a look around…”
Her hand shot to the doorjamb, blocking any view I had inside of her home. “Yes, I mind. This is private property.”
Damn. I really wished cop shows didn't make it so clear that people can refuse to let law enforcement in. “Fair enough,” I said. For just a moment my eyes traveled down her body again. I silently cursed. Maybe Damien was right. I needed to get laid so that I’d stop ogling murder suspects.
She cleared her throat.
I snapped my attention back to her face. “You really shouldn’t live out here all alone.” I couldn’t help it. No one that looked the way she did should be alone period. And now a murder suspect was loose in these words. Or maybe she was the suspect.
“I never said that I was alone,” she said. It should have sounded harsh, but her voice was timid again. Like there was something more hidden in her words.
But it didn’t matter what she meant. It was clear she wasn't going to give me any more information. “I’m sorry to have bothered you. If you hear or see anything, though, let me know.” I handed her one of my business cards.
She took it from me, grabbing it with the tip of her index finger and thumb like she was worried our hands might touch.
“And be careful out here, Mrs…” I waited for her to give me her last name but she didn’t. Instead she slammed the door in my face.
END OF CHAPTER 2
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