Lisa Black


The first book in the Theresa MacLean series, 2008

To Mom and Dad, the alpha and omega of my life



6: 42 A.M.

The sun had barely come up, and already it was too hot. Theresa MacLean felt the first prickles of sweat on the back of her neck as she stared down at the dead man, and wished she had left her lab coat in the car. Humidity kept both the dew and the man’s blood from drying, and scattered red spots gleamed against the spring grass. “He hasn’t been here long,” she told the detective.

The dead man’s tie flopped across his chest as he gazed up with sightless eyes, past her to the azure sky. The tiny sidewalk framed his shoulders, and his head rested in the mulch and grass below lush juniper bushes. Two or three heavy blows had caved in his skull; he had tried to defend himself with his bare hands and damaged his fingers in the process. The killer had swung the weapon used with enough force to cut knuckles and dent the man’s wedding ring.

“A lady walking to the bus stop saw the shoes sticking out past the bushes.” Homicide detective Paul Cleary sketched the scene as he spoke, frowning in concentration over his pad and pencil. The damp morning made his blond hair especially unruly. “He could have been here all night before that. The porch light isn’t on, so anyone driving by wouldn’t have seen him from the street. It’s a quiet neighborhood anyway.”

Despite the setting she took a moment just to look at Paul. They would be married in two months and thirteen days. Even her teenage daughter had overcome the instinctive reticence to a stepparent. But Theresa had something to tell him first, and she hadn’t yet figured out how.

“You’d think he’d be damper if he’d been out here all night,” Paul’s partner, veteran detective Frank Patrick, chimed in. He had been in the city all his years and with the police department for the past twenty, but he never tired of complaining about Ohio weather. “This friggin’ humidity soaks everything.”

Theresa prodded the man’s chin with a latex-clad hand; only tiny spatters along one cheek bespoke the damage to the back of his head. A tailored dress shirt held in his expanding girth. A few smears of blood crossed his stomach, probably swiped there by the cut fingers. “He’s cold, and his jaw and arms are pretty stiff. His stomach is still soft, though, so I’d guess between four and eight hours.” As a forensic scientist with the medical examiner’s office, she had learned a lot about rigor mortis, though one of the doctors on the staff would have to give them the official time-of-death frame. She looked up at the two-story Westlake Colonial. “He lives here?”

“Don’t know,” Frank said. “Whoever bashed his head in also took his wallet. The house is locked up, with no signs of forced entry, and no one answers. We don’t know if he belongs here or not.”

She frowned. “We’ve got significant damage to the skull but not a lot of blood spatter, not even a lot of blood soaked into the mulch. It could be lost in the grass or the bushes, washed off by dew, but I would expect to see at least some on this porch railing or the sidewalk.”

“You think he was killed inside and dragged out here?”

“Or dumped out of a passing car. He’s got some dirt on his shoulder, where the jacket is rumpled.” She scraped some particles onto a piece of glassine paper, folding it as a druggist would so none would be lost. “As if someone with dirty hands pulled him from the shoulders.”

Paul bent at the waist to examine the porch outside the front door. “I don’t see any drag marks, either in blood or in dirt.”

“Me neither. But I hate to think the rest of his family is inside, bludgeoned to death. Can’t we go in?”

“The search warrant is on its way to the judge right now.”

She stood up, stretched a crick out of her back. She loathed having to wait on search warrants. Finding a dead body in front of the place should be sufficient probable cause so far as she was concerned, but in these litigious times… “Who does the house belong to? Do we at least know that?”

Frank poked at the dead man’s pockets, producing a slight jingle, which proved to be a set of keys. “Mark Ludlow, white male, fifty-four. It could be him. So he pops out of the house on his way to work this morning and someone cracks him in the skull for the money in his wallet-”

“Leaving behind neither the weapon nor the cast-off blood patterns from swinging it.” Theresa looked around at the well-kept houses. “Besides, in this neighborhood? Not common.”

“-and then they leave this Lexus in the driveway.” He aimed the victim’s key fob at the sleek sedan in the drive and pushed a button. The car responded with a loud chirp. “It’s him.”

“No, it’s his car,” Theresa corrected. “This could be his girl-friend’s house. He stops by for breakfast, and girlfriend’s significant other number two doesn’t care to serve him coffee.”

Paul considered this theory. “And then killer and girlfriend hop over the body and take off, in their car? That’s pretty cold.”

“Or the killer kidnaps girlfriend,” Theresa said.

“Maybe girlfriend is the killer,” Frank put in. He and Theresa had been bouncing ideas off each other since she could talk; their mothers were sisters.

Theresa moved onto the porch. “Or another victim. I really want to get into this house.”

“You and me both,” Paul assured her. They turned as a patrol car pulled alongside the curb and stopped. A young man in uniform ducked under the ribbon of crime-scene tape and came up the twenty-foot driveway, sheaf of papers in hand.

“You get your wish, Tess,” Frank said before reading the search warrant to the empty house, a process required by law but absurd in practice. The cream-colored siding gave no sign of listening. While he spoke, Theresa crossed the grass to retrieve her small Maglite from the county station wagon and returned to the porch. The sun slanted from the rear of the house, throwing some areas into unexpected dimness.

Paul used the man’s keys to open the lock-no sense in breaking the door if it wasn’t necessary-and it cemented their theory that the deceased man was Mark Ludlow.

“Wait,” Theresa said before the three officers could step over the threshold.

“You were dying to get in here.”

“Just hold on a sec.” She crowded in beside them and aimed the f lashlight at the glossy wooden floor of the foyer. If a trail of blood lay there, she would make the officers go in the back door. But the inside floor appeared as clean as the concrete front porch. “Okay, go ahead.”

“Wait here,” Paul and Frank told her in unison.

“Count on it.” Prowling through rooms that could hold a murderous assailant was so not her job, and the whole situation had her nervous enough already. The police did not often call her to fresh crime scenes; usually the murder had occurred days before by the time she got there to spray luminol or collect items for DNA testing. Even if the body remained, the scenes felt empty-whatever destructive

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