The Detective’s Dilemma by Karen McCullough

The Detective's Dilemma by Karen McCullough

The Detective’s Dilemma

by Karen McCullough

Kensington

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61650-651-3
Print ISBN: 978-1616506520

[ Romantic Suspense, MF ]

Although Sarah Anne Martin admits to pulling the trigger, she swears someone forced her to kill her lover. Homicide detective Jay Christianson is skeptical, but enough ambiguous evidence exists to make her story plausible. If he gives her enough freedom, she’ll either incriminate herself or draw out the real killers.

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Chapter One


The crash of something hitting the floor jerked her awake.

Sarah lay for a moment, listening, wondering what might have fallen, but not yet alarmed enough to drag herself out of bed and investigate.

An even louder thunk shook the house. She jolted upright in bed. Something had hit the floor again–something heavy. She reached for the bedside clock and pressed the button to illuminate the face. One-thirty. Vince might still be up. Maybe he’d bumped into something. She hoped it was nothing worse. She kept telling him to follow the doctor’s orders and lose weight. At fifty-three, he already had heart problems.

The thought of him lying on the floor after a heart attack or stroke goaded her up and out of bed.

She snagged her robe off the chair and rushed out of her bedroom. A light shone at the opposite end of the hall that ran nearly the entire length of the house. In the past year, Vince had been having more trouble sleeping and often stayed in his study, working or watching television into the early hours of the morning.

The door to the room stood open, but she didn’t see him at first when she rushed in. Papers lay scattered across the floor, drawers hung open from the desk, and one sat on its side on the floor as well.

“Vince?”

“Over here. I–” His voice wavered and broke.

She spotted him on the far side of the room from the door. He was on his feet and two men flanked him. Hoods concealed their features, and they both wore dark, nondescript clothes. Each held a gun, one pointed at Vince’s head, the other turned in her direction.

Sarah froze. Her breath stuck in her throat, and her stomach clenched into a tight knot. “What–? What’s going on? Vince?”

His normally florid complexion had a gray cast, and his shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry, my dear. These gentlemen have–”

“Shut up,” one of the two ordered.

She didn’t realize there was a third man in the room until he stood beside her. Sarah backed away, but he grabbed her arm and held her in place. He squeezed the arm so tightly it hurt when she tried to wrench it away.

“Shut up.” He lifted her arm from her side to chest height and pushed his gun into her right palm. Strong, square, latex-gloved hands flanked hers, holding her fingers around the gun’s butt, pointing it toward Vince.

When she didn’t put her index finger on the trigger, he tried to jam it into position.

“No.”

She wriggled and twisted, but he kept such tight hold on her, she couldn’t get free. Her stomach churned.

“What are you–?”

The hand on hers squeezed, pulling backward on the finger just touching the gun’s trigger, then tugged again and again. Three shots exploded in rapid succession, one blast right after the other. The recoil pushed her back against the assailant’s body, but he held her steady so that all three bullets found their target.

Vince jerked after each shot. Red splotches exploded on his stomach, his shoulder, and the side of his face. At a distance of no more than eight feet, even the assailant’s shaky aim hadn’t missed.

The echoes of the shots rang in her ears and shivered through her body. Her own screams blended with them as she scratched at her captor’s sleeve with her free hand, struggling to get loose. A frenzy of panic robbed her of all clear thought and reason. The man let go and shoved her forward. She dropped the gun, stumbled to her knees, and dove across the room, expecting the impact of a bullet any second.

She scrambled behind Vince’s desk and waited, her breath heaving in and out on harsh pants, but no one came for her. Footsteps retreated down the hall and a door slammed. Then quiet reigned, broken only by a low, rattling groan, which she heard even over the continued ringing in her ears.

As she crawled across the floor to Vince, her hand landed on a sticky spot, one of several spreading patches of blood staining the pale gray carpet.

He lay on his side.

“Vince?”

He opened his eyes. “Sarah? You’re…?”

“I’m okay.” The words came out on a sob. “I need to– Oh my God! Hold on. I need to call 911.”

“Wait. Need to…tell you. You have the key. You–”

He gasped on a series of shallow breaths and then closed his eyes and lay still.

She shook him. A sob tried to push its way out of her tight throat. “Vince!”

No response. She crawled back through the mushy blood-soaked spots on the carpet to the desk, where she levered herself up and grabbed the phone. Her hands trembled so badly she misdialed the first time. By the time the operator asked how she could help, Sarah could barely speak. Nausea roiled her stomach and waves of cold rushed up and down her spine. When words finally came, they poured out in an incoherent rush.

“Be calm, ma’am,” the voice on the other end implored.

Sarah was beyond listening. She slid down the side of the desk, the phone receiver cradled in her trembling hands, until she heard the sirens approaching.

* * * *

Detective Jay Christianson surveyed the crime scene from just inside the door of the room. On the far side of a spacious office, the body of a bald, heavy-set man rested in a pool of red that soaked the plush carpet beneath and around him. The victim wore a navy polo shirt, khakis, and loafers. Blood spattered the far wall in two main blotches with sprays of smaller drops surrounding them. The smaller patches had started to dry to a rusty brown at the edges while more heavily drenched areas remained fresh and dark red. Dark spots disfigured the gold brocade drapes of the nearest window. A gun–the murder weapon, he presumed–lay on the floor to his left, near an immense desk of dark wood. A couple of overturned drawers lay beside it and papers littered much of the floor. He wrinkled his nose. A faint tang of gunpowder still hung in the air, beneath the nauseating smell that suggested one of the bullets had ripped an intestine.

The combination of money and violence guaranteed this case a high profile. Looked like he wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight. “Messy,” he said.

Jay’s partner, Sam Hennesy, shook his head. “Yeah.”

While the evidence specialists took photographs and videotaped, the medical examiner waited his turn, along with the detectives.

The first cop on the scene stood at the side of the room, his complexion a bit green, but his eyes steady and serious. He was young, but he’d done the right things and was holding together. He’d do.

“You want to talk to the girlfriend while we wait?” Sam asked.

Jay didn’t take his gaze off the body. “Where is she?”

“Next room,” the young officer said.

“She saw the crime?” Jay asked. “She said so?”

“More than that. She said she did it. She shot him, but she said she was forced to. It’s…bizarre.” The officer shrugged.

“Go write it up. Right now, please,” Sam said. “Her exact words to you.”

The cop nodded. He led them to the next room down the hall, some kind of den, and then left without shutting the door. A young woman huddled in a chair. She was barefoot, with long, tangled dark hair, wearing a blood-stained robe. She looked young, early twenties maybe, pale, shaky, and very attractive, even with her hair a mess and no makeup on her tear-streaked face. Her dark eyes, wide but glazed, tracked them as they crossed the room.

“Ma’am?” Sam said.

Her eyes widened and her gaze focused on Sam. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Jay glanced at Sam, who nodded.

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry,” Sam said.

She drew in a sharp breath, and a single tear slid down her cheek. She wiped it away, leaving a pink smudge, and looked up at them, her glance moving from one to the other. “You’re police officers?”

“Detectives, ma’am,” Sam said. He introduced himself and then Jay. “And you are?”

“Sarah Martin.”

“Are you a relative of the deceased?”

“Vince. His name was Vince. No.”

“You live here?”

She nodded. “I’m his– Was his…companion.”

“Companion? What does that mean?” Jay asked.

She looked up at him and shrugged but didn’t say anything.

She’s either in shock, none too intelligent, or very clever indeed. Jay’s mental antennae began to vibrate. She’s certainly pretty and knows it.

His hormones knew it, too. Even though she might well be a murderer. Christ. He suppressed the surge of anger along with the message from his groin.

As he met her gaze, though, something else inside him responded. She looked dazed, confused, and helpless. The stupid, gallant part of him that had failed to rescue Theresa woke, suggesting he had another opportunity to rescue someone in need.

No way. He wouldn’t go there again. Not in this lifetime. He needed to focus on the case.

“Can you tell us what happened?” Sam asked.

She stared at them for a couple of moments, her gaze flicking between them. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I was asleep. A noise woke me. I thought Vince might have… He had heart problems, you know. Anyway, he doesn’t always sleep well, so I went to see if he was okay, and… There were men in the room with him. They had masks on, but they had guns. Another one came over to me and shoved the gun into my hand. He held it there, and then he pushed my finger onto the trigger and squeezed. The bullets… They hit Vince. The gun kept bouncing up, but the guy holding me dragged it back down. The noise… My ears are still… And the blood, the blood, everywhere. I crawled through it. I thought they would shoot me, too. I guess I panicked. I went to him and he tried to talk, but then he just went still. I guess he… He…” She shook herself and closed her eyes. Tears leaked out from beneath her lids, and she drew her knees closer to her chest. Her bare feet poked out from below the edge of the robe. A smear of crimson stained her toes.

Only her sob broke the silence that fell after she stopped talking. Jay looked at his partner, and the older man stared back at him. Sam shrugged. It was a damned far-fetched story, but it had the ring of truth. Of course, she might be one hell of an actress. He’d met some good liars.

“One of them pushed a gun into your hand and put your finger on the trigger?” Jay didn’t quite succeed in masking his disbelief. “Why would he do that?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know why any of it happened. Why did someone want to kill Vince?”

“You don’t have any idea?” Jay tried to force his tone to neutral and failed. The harshness remained.

She frowned. “He… His business, maybe. Some of it was…”

“Illegal?”

“I don’t know about illegal. Maybe on the edge, though.”

Jay turned to Sam again, checking for his reaction.

The other man’s eyebrows rose. “What kinds of things–?”

A cop stuck his head in the door. “Detectives?”

The photographers must have finished. Jay told the officer at the door to stay with Sarah while he and Sam looked at the scene.

“What do you think?” Sam asked as they walked down the hall.

“Wildest story I’ve heard since that kid on the Ridge claimed his gun went off in his pocket and just accidentally killed three people.”

“Still, she’d have to be a hell of an actress to bring it off.”

“And who’s to say she isn’t?” Jay said. “Pretty young woman, ‘companion’ to a wealthy middle-aged guy… I bet she’s been doing some acting.”

“Open mind,” Sam reminded him.

“Brain hasn’t fallen out yet.”

The medical examiner and an evidence specialist talked near the door of the blood-spattered office but looked up as Sam and Jay entered.

“What do you know?” Sam pulled a notebook and pencil from his pocket.

The medical examiner glanced down at the body before answering. “White male, late forties, early fifties, three entrance wounds, two exit wounds. Matching holes in the wall behind him. Won’t be sure until the autopsy, but I’m guessing two of the three shots could have been fatal, one in the head, one in the abdomen. Third shot through the upper arm. Angle of the head wound says death would have been quick, if not immediate.”

“How long ago?” Sam asked.

“Hard to be exact at this point. No livor mortis yet and very little cooling. I’d guess within the last couple of hours, but you know better than to hold me to anything at this point.”

Jay nodded and turned to the evidence specialist.

“Got three shell casings and the gun, of course,” the woman said. “Ten millimeter Glock. Eyeball says the casings match the gun. Blood spatter consistent with placement of bullets in him. Lots of blood on the floor, too, and a stream on the clothes suggests he didn’t die right away but bled heavily for a few more minutes after he fell. There’s a series of handprints going through the blood toward the body and then away, with some smearing, possibly from cloth dragging through it. And there’s this.” She moved to the left and pointed at the largest pool of blood near the body.

Jay stared down at the plush blood-splotched carpet but didn’t immediately see what she meant.

“Right here on the edge.” She indicated a fainter stain closer to the door. “It looks like someone might have stepped in the blood. And…” She moved a few steps over. “Traces of bloody footsteps going to the door.” A rust-colored print in the shape of the back half of a shoe stained the gray carpet.

“Anyone here stepped in it?” Sam asked.

She shrugged. “No one admits to it. You’ll want to check it out, but the pattern looks like a running shoe to me, size eleven or twelve most likely, and no one here’s wearing them.”

Jay did a quick footwear scan. He wore loafers, Sam wingtips, the M.E. deck shoes, and the other cops all had on uniform footwear.

“Do a shoe check on everyone who’s been in the room since the call came in,” Jay said.

She nodded. “Another thing. It gets fainter, but there are more traces in the hall, and they lead to a back door, not the one any of our people have used.”

“Show me.”

Sam snapped on a pair of latex gloves. “I’m going to look through the desk while you go.”

Jay nodded and followed the evidence specialist. The blood trail grew fainter as they went, but unmistakably led toward a side door out of the house. “You’ll need to check the knob, locks and around the outside.”

“Got a couple of guys on it already. I know my job.”

“Sorry. Murder puts me in a bad mood.”

She nodded. “Working all night does it for me.”

He studied the knob and lock without touching it. “Locked, but the deadbolt’s not thrown. Get a picture. Any sign of a break-in on the other side?”

“Not that we could tell. Be easier by daylight tomorrow.”

“We’ll want that report ASAP. I’m going to take a look at the body.”

“Right.”

“I’ll need you to get the clothes from the girl and check her out. You swabbed her hands?”

The woman nodded. “Before you got here.”

“Plenty of blood on her robe. Stay with her while she changes clothes?”

“You’re taking her downtown.”

“Of course.” He went back to the office. Sam had gathered up some of the scattered papers and put them in a box. “Find anything?” Jay asked.

“Lots of homework. Name was Vincent Capelli, and–legally or not–he did pretty well. He wrote a monthly check for five grand to Sarah Anne Martin. The rest will take more digging.”

Jay gestured toward the victim. Sam came around the desk to join him. They stepped carefully, avoiding patches of bloody carpet.

The body didn’t tell them anything the medical examiner and evidence specialist hadn’t already. The man had carried a lot of weight on a frame that probably stood only five eight or nine. Balding, jowly, with big ears and a large nose.

“Anything jump out at you?” Sam asked.

“It wasn’t his looks that kept Sarah Anne Martin with him.”

Sam’s harsh laugh was half wry humor and half agreement. “I guess we’re going to have to have a long talk with the lady.”

Jay drew a deep breath and sighed. “Looks like a long night.”

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