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Authors: Melinda Leigh

She Can Scream (24 page)

BOOK: She Can Scream
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A faint smell teased her nostrils. Cloying. Raw. Familiar. Brooke froze. The hair on her nape lifted, and the pit of her belly went icy. The ginger chicken and dumplings did a slow, uneasy roll.

Something was wrong. Air passed over her skin. A wave of goose bumps followed. Looking for its source, she scanned the room. Her gaze zeroed in on the small, rectangular window at the top of one cinder block wall. Open.

Panic washed through her, pushing cold sweat through her pores.

Someone had broken in. Had he left or was he still here? She wanted to shout for Luke, but fear closed around her throat like a garrote.

Heart pounding, she scanned the shadows of the basement. The punching bag cast a long shadow from the bare bulb behind it. Lots of junk down here to hide behind. Why couldn’t she be organized like her brother?

She should run back upstairs and get Luke. But the smell… It pulled at her, the same as it had one night a long time ago. She shuffled forward. Her toe caught on the edge of the mat. Her knee twisted. The pain that zinged up her leg felt far away, as if it were emanating from someone else’s body. Numbness blanketed her. She welcomed it. She moved past the washer and dryer. Her eyes riveted on a sheet-draped lump in the corner. Her lungs locked up.

No.

It couldn’t be.

One of the kids had to have left something there.

Lightheaded, she shuffled forward, heart pounding in her chest, pulse echoing in her ears. Her hand reached for the edge of the sheet. Nausea rippled through her belly as she peeled it down.

She sprang backward and fell on her ass on the cement. Pain zinged up her spine from her tailbone to the base of her skull. The world spun. Her lungs constricted with shock as if she was drowning in memories.

Under a fall of dark brown hair, a bloody face stared back at her.

Appetite squashed, Luke gathered up the leftover Chinese and stacked the containers in the fridge. He returned to the den. Sunshine was licking rice off the carpet. Whatever. Luke ignored her and paced the room. The ceiling creaked as Brooke moved around in her bedroom.

Damn it.

You really fucked that one up.

Floorboards groaned in the hall. A door squeaked in the kitchen.

When Wade suggested Luke might be interested in his sister, mauling her was probably not what he had in mind. Luke took another turn around the small room. He watched in disbelief as Sunshine moved to the couch and shoved her nose between the cushions to look for stray crumbs.

He turned away. How could he criticize Brooke for living in a disorganized house and letting her dog be the vacuum cleaner? Luke’s apartment might be spotless, but that was because no one lived in it. He had a service that took care of just about everything. And seriously, his emotional state was a fucking mess. What were cluttered closets in comparison?

Luke rubbed his temples. The dog snuffed and licked her way back into the kitchen.

A scream ripped through the house.

Panic grabbed Luke by the heart. He ran for the kitchen. The basement door was open. He tore down the stairs, his boots sliding on the cement as he hit the bottom. Brooke sat on the floor.
Hugging her knees and rocking, she stared straight ahead, her eyes glassy. Luke tracked her line of sight to the dim corner behind the washing machine. A woman, partially concealed under a sheet, was crumpled against the cinder blocks. He jolted, his mind briefly superimposing Sherry’s face on the huddled figure. He shook the false image from his head.

Sherry wasn’t here.

And something about the body’s position didn’t look right.

He walked closer. It took his brain a minute to register the disjointed limbs, the shiny plastic instead of skin, the featureless face beneath the red smears and long brown hair.

A mannequin.

What the fuck?

He scanned the room, felt the shift of air, and spotted the open window.

Guilt almost knocked him off his feet. He didn’t go through the house tonight when they got home. They’d been gone more than five hours. He did a quick sweep of the basement. It was empty.

Brooke’s erratic breathing spun him around. He went to her and squatted down. He took her hands. They were cold as the slab under his feet.

He moved his head until she couldn’t look around him. “Brooke, it isn’t real.”

She didn’t respond. Her eyes were bleak and lost.

“It’s a mannequin.”

She blinked.

“In a brown wig.”

Her chest expanded in a huge breath. Her eyes met his, and confusion wrinkled her forehead. “It’s not Maddie?”

“No.”

Her muscles gave out. She collapsed forward into his arms. He picked up her shaking body and carried her upstairs. In the den, he set her on the couch. Her teeth chattered. The blanket was folded on a chair. He wrapped it around her. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to call the police and check the rest of the house. Stay here.”

He went into the kitchen and picked up the cordless phone. As he dialed, anger bled through his guilt. Someone had broken into Brooke’s house. The dispatcher promised a quick response.

Luke hung up and checked the rest of the house. Except for the prank in the basement, nothing else looked out of place. Back in the kitchen, he grabbed a tumbler from the cabinet. Where had he seen that bottle of liquor? He opened a lower cabinet next to the refrigerator. Ah, there it was. A bottle of brandy was visible through the glass jar of a blender. He poured a long shot into the glass and returned to the den.

Brooke hadn’t changed position, but Sunshine had crawled up onto the sofa and rested her head in her mistress’s lap. Empathy poured from the canine eyes as she gave Luke a quick glance. Brooke’s hand stroked the dog’s head in an automatic motion.

Luke sat on Brooke’s opposite side. He pushed the glass of liquor into her hand. “Take a sip.”

She raised the glass, sniffed the contents, and wrinkled her nose before setting it on the table. “The wig was meant to look like Maddie.” Brooke’s voice broke.

Luke wrapped an arm around her shaking shoulders. “I know.”

“But he set her up just like Karen.”

Luke picked up the brandy and tossed it back. The intruder knew Brooke well enough to exploit her biggest weaknesses.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Luke looked through the sidelight. Through the distorted glass, he saw a powerfully built man of about forty leaning heavily on a pair of crutches. Luke opened the door.

The visitor was dressed in khaki trousers and a light blue oxford shirt. A police badge was affixed to his belt. His skin was ruddy-Irish, his red hair was gray at the temples, and his nose had been broken at least once. In the driveway was the police cruiser driven by the officer who had arrived a half hour ago. Behind it sat an SUV with a circular emblem on the door.

“Police Chief Mike O’Connell.” He held out a beefy hand. “Call me Mike.”

“Luke Holloway.” Luke shook it, then stepped back to admit him to the foyer.

The chief limped in with a grimace. “How’s your grandmother?”

“OK, except for a cold. Thanks for asking.”

O’Connell frowned. “I need to ask Brooke some questions.”

“Of course. She’s in the kitchen.” Luke turned. “Gran didn’t know if you were back on duty.”

The chief followed. “Officially, I’m not, but I wanted to see this personally.”

Luke led him back to the kitchen. Brooke sat at the table, a cup of steaming tea clutched between both hands. Sunshine had
followed her from the den. The dog sat next to Brooke’s chair. The big head pressed against her mistress’s hip.

Brooke’s eyes were locked on the basement door. Ethan was downstairs taking pictures and collecting evidence.

“Hey, Brooke. I’m going to take a look downstairs. We’ll talk in a few minutes.” The chief walked to the doorway and began a slow and obviously painful descent, crutches in his left hand, the handrail gripped firmly with the right.

Luke followed him down. His boots hit the concrete. The chief went to the center of the room. His blue eyes scrutinized every inch of the space.

“What do you think?” Luke hung back, out of the way.

“I think whoever did this is ballsy, and that makes me uncomfortable.” Mike moved toward the window, where the black-haired officer was taking close-ups of the neatly cut glass pane. “Find anything, Ethan?”

“Some fibers caught in the window frame.” The flash went off as Ethan snapped a photo. “He cut the glass, then reached through to unlock and open the window.”

Simple and efficient. Discomfort stirred in Luke’s chest. “Can’t be fat or unfit if he came in through that window.”

“Or big. I sure as hell wouldn’t fit.” The chief looked back at Luke. “But you could squeeze through it.”

“He had to be strong enough to get that mannequin in here too,” Luke said.

“Get big-picture shots too, Ethan, from every angle.” O’Connell walked over to the corner and stared at the mannequin. “How much do you think it weighs?”

Luke considered. “Forty pounds, maybe, but the arms and legs only bend at the shoulders and hips. It wouldn’t be easy to maneuver.”

The chief leaned closer. “Looks like real blood.”

“Smells real too.” Unfortunately, Luke’s nose recognized its raw stench.

“We’ll find out for sure. And see if we can figure out where the mannequin came from. That’s not something most people would have lying around.” Mike gave Ethan additional instructions, then headed back to the stairs. Luke hung back, not rushing him.

The chief made a slow ascent back to the kitchen. He sank into a kitchen chair and let out a hard breath. “When was the last time someone was in the basement?”

“I went through the whole house when I brought Brooke and the kids home this afternoon.
That
wasn’t down there.” Luke bit back his guilt. “I didn’t check it when we returned home about ninety minutes ago.”

“So it was put there this evening.” Mike studied Brooke. “Does it look like what I think it looks like?”

Brooke stared into her cup. A wispy swirl of steam rose from her mug. “Yes. The setup is just like how Karen was left.”

“You found her, right?” Mike asked in a quiet voice.

Still studying her drink, Brooke nodded. A tremor surged through her frame, and Luke’s heart cracked. He’d known Karen was killed but not that Brooke had been the one to find the body. No wonder she’d never gotten over it.

“How many people know about Karen?” the chief asked.

“Everyone. You know I tell her story ever time I teach a women’s self-defense class.” Brooke’s voice was flat, disturbingly unemotional. “And the media rehashed the story on the news Wednesday morning.”

The chief pulled a small notebook from the chest pocket of his button-down shirt. “Karen’s case was closed, right?”

“Yes, her ex-boyfriend was convicted of her murder. He’s still in prison.” Brooke fingered her mug.

“Does he have any special reason to hold a grudge against you?” Mike asked.

“I testified about the argument he had with Karen the night she was killed.” Brooke heaved a defeated sigh. “And I appeared with Karen’s parents at his parole hearing two years ago.”

The chief made a note. “OK. I’ll verify Karen’s killer is still in prison and see if he’s had any interesting visitors or letters lately. It wouldn’t be the first time a convict arranged criminal activity from inside prison.”

“I doubt it’s him.” Brooke set her mug down and leveled a gaze at the police chief. “He’s up for parole again next year. Why would he do anything to jeopardize that?”

The man had already committed murder. A bold threat didn’t seem like much of a stretch to Luke. “Maybe he doesn’t want people to protest at his next parole hearing.”

“That’s what I was thinking.” Mike nodded. “And if it isn’t him, then we’re looking at someone who is doing this to torment Brooke.”

Luke leaned back on the kitchen counter and crossed his arms over his chest. “Do you think it was Maddie’s attacker?”

“That’s another possibility.” The chief rubbed his temple.

“What happened with the security cameras at the hospital?” Luke’s cell phone vibrated in his back pocket. He pulled it out, glanced at the display, and shoved it back into his pocket. He had enough on his plate without past trauma adding to the mix.

“Not a damned thing,” the chief said. “We couldn’t find a single frame of anyone messing with the dinner trays.”

“What about Joe Verdi?” Luke’s phone buzzed once, indicating a voice message that Luke knew he would delete without listening to.

“Do you really think Joe would do something this calculated?” Brooke asked.

“Who knows what he’s capable of when he’s sober,” Luke said.

“We’re going to find out where Joe was tonight.” The chief nodded. “Is there anyone else who might have a grudge against you? You have an ex-husband, right?”

“We split up two years ago. Nothing has changed since then. Our divorce was as amicable as any.” She stopped, let out a breath. “It was Ian who left me. He has a whole new life and seems content. Plus, he was in Philadelphia when this happened.” She gestured toward the basement door.

“Was he around when your roommate was killed?”

BOOK: She Can Scream
5.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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