I'll Never Let You Go (Morgans of Nashville), page 13
Alex parked at the medical examiner’s office minutes after eight. Deke had stopped at the TBI and promised to meet Alex there within minutes for their scheduled meeting with Miriam Heller to discuss Deidre’s autopsy.
He pushed through the glass door, welcoming the rush of heat from the lobby. He unwound the thick dark scarf from around his neck and unbuttoned his overcoat. At the front window, he showed his badge to the receptionist and told her he was there for Dr. Heller.
He fought the urge to pace the lobby, his body a hive of energy. He’d never been good sitting or waiting, and today was proving to be worse than usual. Just as Dr. Heller appeared at the locked door that led to the exam rooms, the front doors whooshed open to admit Deke.
His brother wore his suit jacket open, clearly unmindful of the cold. He crossed the lobby in long hurried strides.
Dr. Heller made a shivering motion as she looked at him. “How can you stand the cold?”
Deke grinned. “Ice in the blood.”
Alex slid off his overcoat and neatly draped it over his arm. He found the exchange frustrating but had learned the value of small talk. It broke the ice, allowed everyone to get their minds around the grim task to come.
Dr. Heller shook her head. “The warm weather is why I moved here. I grew up in Maine, but I never liked the cold. If I ever pick up stakes and move, it’ll be farther south.” Reading the impatience on Alex’s face, she said, “Come on back, gentlemen, to my office. I’m running a little behind today. We had an infant brought in today. I put all work aside when that happens.”
Alex couldn’t help but ask, “What happened to the baby?”
“SIDS,” Dr. Heller said. “She stopped breathing. A tragedy that befell a very nice set of parents.”
He’d never imagined himself with children. In fact, none of the Morgan offspring spoke about having children. He wasn’t sure if they were late bloomers or simply not destined to be parents.
“You’re sure you want to be present?” Dr. Heller asked.
“It’s not about what I want,” Alex said. He turned to Deke. “But you don’t need to be here.”
Deke grimaced. “I said I would be, and I will.”
“But you worked with her.”
“And I’ll handle this.”
Be careful, Alex wanted to warn. Click off the emotions once too often and they might not return. “Okay.”
The trio made their way to the entrance of Exam Room Two. Her hand on the door, Dr. Heller paused. “Give me about five minutes. Gown up and meet me inside.”
“Sure,” Alex said.
Dr. Heller vanished behind the swinging door and both agents donned gowns, gloves, and eye protection.
Deke tugged on the cuff of his surgical gown. “Have you ever attended the autopsy of a fellow officer?”
“No,” Alex said.
“Only once before for me. It can’t be explained.”
“I would imagine you’re right.” A part of him moved to a deeper corner of his soul. Dangerous to live life at a distance, but it was the only way to do this job. Even if Deidre had been dirty, she’d done good work, and that mattered.
The brothers entered the exam room. Directly in their line of sight was the sheet-draped body of Deidre Jones. A ripple of tension washed over them both. Deke cracked his knuckles and flexed. Alex sunk even deeper into the shadowed places in his mind.
Dr. Heller stood at the head of the stainless-steel table. She wore a gown, gloves, a cap, and clear goggles. Normally, she exposed the entire body so the agents or detectives could view all the injuries. This time, she kept Deidre’s face and slashed throat covered and exposed the right arm, marred with five gashes, bloodless and gaping. “She sustained injuries on her right side, as you can see, and her palm has a slice down the center. That’s a defensive wound.”
Alex pictured Leah’s scar. Who the hell had stabbed her? What had begun as mild curiosity grew stronger each time he saw her or she crossed his mind.
Dr. Heller rolled back the sheet a little farther and then moved the body—not Deidre—to its left side. A deep gash marred the flesh above the kidney. “This was the killing cut. It lacerated her kidney and the inferior vena cava, a major blood vein. She would have bled out in a matter of minutes.”
“The cut to her throat wasn’t enough to kill her?” Alex asked.
“It was nasty but no; she might have survived that wound.”
“How many wounds were there in total?”
“Twenty-three.” She laid the body back on its side. “This first blow would have brought her to her knees, then I’m guessing she fell to the floor and rolled on her back. All the remaining cuts came at her from above.”
That fit the crime scene.
She covered the arm with the sheet and glanced at an open file on the worktable. “Deidre Jones, age forty-two, appeared to have been in excellent health. Cause of death, as I just showed you, was a knife thrust into her kidneys and through the inferior vena cava. Even if rescue crews had been on hand, there’d have been no saving her.”
Alex shifted his stance. “So why the extra wounds?”
She shrugged. “Several of the wounds on her arms and legs don’t appear to have bled much, which leads me to believe her heart had already stopped pumping.” She pulled off her glasses. “The killer overkilled, for lack of a better word.”
“Anger, rage, drugs could all be factors,” Deke said.
She moved her magnifying glass closer to the body and, with tweezers, plucked several blond hairs from one of the wounds. She dropped the hair in a bag and handed it to Alex. He held it up to the light, examining the strands of hair. “Get these to Forensics.”
“Maybe you got lucky.”
The external exam and mapping of the wounds continued as both officers stood back and observed. Several times Deke looked away, his frown deepening, though he was still listening.
Alex understood. He didn’t like standing there witnessing this final indignity either.
Dr. Heller quietly made the Y incision into the victim’s chest, working steadily and professionally as she catalogued her findings. An hour later, as her assistant stitched up the incision, the doctor faced the men. “Before you arrived, I did a preliminary exam and can tell you there were no signs of sexual assault. No vaginal bruising. No tearing. She’d had sex in the last forty-eight hours of her life, but that appears to have been consensual.”
“You’ll get me a DNA sample?” Alex asked.
“By the way, gentlemen, I have an update on the John Doe.”
She turned toward a computer screen and, pulling off her gloves, punched a few keys. “After some of my magic tricks, I discovered that one of his tattoos was an eagle and the other was a woman’s face, though that part of the body was so badly burned I could only make out an outline.” She scrolled down the page. “There were needle marks on the arms. I’ve run toxicology screens, but they won’t be back for a couple of weeks. I’ve also pulled DNA and have plugged it into the system. Maybe we’ll get lucky and get a hit.”
The men thanked the doctor and walked out into the hallway, where they stripped off the disposable gowns and gloves and dumped them in a bin.
“One stab to the back is effective, even lethal, but not very dramatic,” Deke said. “Twenty-three cuts would be unforgettable. What the hell do the two victims have in common?”
“It will come together soon. Just let it play out.”
He sat in the coffee shop in front of a steaming cup of coffee and a half-eaten Danish on a paper plate. Flecks of white powdered sugar dusted the faux wood tabletop and his jeans. He took a sip, savoring the heat as he leaned back in his chair. It felt good to be off his feet and out of the cold morning.
He tapped his toe on the brown tile floor as he reached in his pocket for his phone. He typed in the four-digit security code and chose the photo app. He took another bite of the Danish and scrolled through the images until
He scrolled through more pictures of her. Running. Shopping for shoes. Laughing with a friend over coffee. Cooking in the kitchen.
He couldn’t get enough of her. He thought about her every waking moment and dreamed about her in his sleep.
His little bird had balked at his endless attention, and the harder he squeezed, the farther and farther from him she’d grown. She’d tried to tell him he was too much. That he needed to relax. But he couldn’t.
He traced her face with the tip of a callused finger. Tears welled in his eyes. She’d betrayed him, left him, and God help him, he still loved her. Why do you make me hurt you? You know how much I hate to hurt you.
The thin sliver of moon did little to cut the night’s inky black that shrouded Leah as she arrived at the old Victorian-style home. It had been hard finding street parking, and she’d been forced to circle the block a few times before she’d found a spot across the street. By the time she climbed the wide brick front steps, the cold air stung her lungs and nipped at her face.
She reached for the brass doorknob and pushed open the heavy door. Warm air greeted her, and she allowed its embrace to envelope her as she shrugged off her jacket. She smiled to the receptionist, a redhead in her late forties with ruddy cheeks and freckles.
“Hi, Frances,” Leah said.
Frances stood, hands on her wide hips. “It’s been a few weeks.”
“I was busy at work. I kept meaning to come, but I could never get my act together.”
“Hey, no worries. We’re here all the time, ready to help whether you need us or not.”
Leah had joined a support group days after moving back to Nashville. The people in this group had survived an attack from a loved one. When she’d been here last, she’d spoken with such confidence to her counselor. “I’ve finally taken a giant step toward getting on with my life.” But since finding Deidre, all the hard-won territory had surrendered to fear. “Group still tonight?”
“Six P.M. like always. Go on in; they haven’t started yet.”
Leah slid open the pocket doors that led to what must have been a formal parlor when this house had originally been built as a private home. A circle of chairs, half full, were in the center of what was now a meeting room. A coffeepot on a side table gurgled beside a plate of chocolate chip cookies. There were a few cooks in the group who brought baked goods when they’d had a bad week. Many apologized for the confections, saying cooking was preferable to sitting and worrying. Judging by the spread, it had been a rough week.
She draped her coat over an empty chair and set her purse on it before moving to the refreshment table. She filled a cup with coffee and took a seat nearby. She always chose a chair that faced the back wall and gave her a clear view of the door. Nervous habit.
As Leah sipped her coffee, she scanned the group and realized she didn’t recognize the women. They ranged in age from late teens to early sixties. A couple of the older women looked as if they had money. A few others looked middle income. They came from all walks of life.
The facilitator, Sierra, was a short woman in her early thirties. She had a round face, olive skin, and salt-and-pepper hair that brushed her shoulders. She carried a mug that read Number One Mom. Sierra had a master’s in psychology and had opened her counseling center, Homestead, ten years before, after she’d nearly died in a car accident caused by her ex-husband.
“Welcome, Leah,” Sierra said as she sat down next to her. “How’s it been going?”
“Crazy at work. But all good.” She’d uttered the last statement from reflex. It hadn’t been all good. In fact, not good one bit.
Sierra nodded, sipping her own coffee. She recognized the not-ready-to-talk smile but let it pass. “Cold night.”
“I can’t wait for spring.”
Sierra’s gaze roamed the room. “I see familiar faces and some new ones. We always begin the meeting with introductions.” She nodded to a slim woman who wore an expensive dark sweater, jeans, and her thick silver hair twisted into a chignon.
The woman grinned. “My name is Ester. I joined the group seven years ago. I haven’t been here in a while, but I joined because I was in a plane crash eight years ago. My husband and son were killed. My husband was the pilot, and he intentionally crashed the plane because he knew I wanted a divorce.”
Heads nodded before Sierra turned to the next woman. In all, there were six, a few joining after the meeting started. All had different experiences. One woman had been beaten nearly to death by a boyfriend. Another had survived a car accident caused by a lover. Another a near drowning.
“Want to finish up the introductions, Leah?” Sierra asked.
Leah glanced at Sierra, knowing the counselor had called her out on purpose. Leah had a bad habit of hiding, allowing the conversations to swirl around her. “My name is Leah. I was nearly stabbed to death by my ex-husband four years ago.”
A hush ran through the room. They’d all suffered violence at the hand of a loved one.
“Leah, you also have an anniversary coming up, correct?”
Leah had only shared her details once, a few months earlier. It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision that had left her feeling stripped bare and vulnerable. Since then, when she came, she spoke little, but it seemed tonight Sierra wasn’t going to let her ride for free.
“I used to be very outgoing and happy,” Leah said. “Now, I’m a bit of a mess. Especially this time of year. January twenty-fifth was our wedding anniversary, and I always get extra nervous this time of year.” She wasn’t sure if she could talk about finding Deidre this morning without crying so she opted to keep that information to herself. Maybe one day she would talk about it, but she didn’t think she could do it today.
“Why?” Sierra asked.
“My ex-husband attacked me on our anniversary.”
Since the attack, Leah had felt isolated from most people who’d never endured what she had. Hearing about evil versus experiencing it were very different things. Theirs was a sisterhood of the broken. Here, she didn’t feel so alone.
A young woman with dark brown hair shared the story of a boyfriend who’d nearly strangled her to death. He was in jail now, awaiting his trial. “So, what’s it like knowing he died and you never got justice?”
Leah dug her fingernail into the side of her cup. “I can’t think about that. It would eat me alive.”
“Are you still journaling?” Sierra asked.
“Yes.” She glanced into the black depths of her coffee, knowing the caffeine would ensure she wouldn’t sleep well tonight. “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a little obsessive about the journaling. I sit down each night and make detailed notes on my day. It goes back to when my husband was stalking me. The police said they could prove the case if they had evidence of a pattern.”
“But he’s dead,” the young woman said.
Leah nodded. “I know. It’s a little OCD on my part. But I can’t seem to stop. Perhaps it’s therapeutic.”
“So what happened to bring you here tonight?” Sierra asked.
A knot in Leah’s chest wouldn’t let her draw in a full breath. “A friend of mine was killed last night. I found her this morning. She’d been murdered.”
A gasp swept the room. All eyes focused on Leah, and she knew there was no going back. “She was stabbed. Like me.”
The silver-haired woman rose and came up behind Leah. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and hugged her close. “I’m sorry, honey.”
Leah closed her eyes and allowed the embrace. “Thanks.”
The woman patted Leah on the shoulder and returned to her seat.
“Finding your friend made you relive your attack?” Sierra asked.
“Made me wonder if I’d be
“You don’t blame yourself, I hope. Replaying the scene with different scenarios never works.”
“I know. I do.”
“But . . .”
Leah shrugged. “It’s hard not to wonder where I’d be or where she’d be if the timing had been just a little different.”
A sigh leaked over her clenched teeth. “My life can be divided into before and after the attack. Before I had friends. Most scattered after the attack. My roommate moved all her stuff out of our apartment. I never saw her again. That made me angry for a long time, but I realize now she was scared.”
“People are scared of us,” a young woman said. “It’s almost as if we were at fault.”
“I lost a lot of friends while my ex-husband was stalking me,” another woman said. “And when he was finally arrested, he couldn’t stop apologizing. Said he didn’t want to hurt me. Said he hated it. Said I made him hurt me.” Bitterness twisted around the last words.
A heavy silence settled over the room, and for a moment no one spoke. Finally, Sierra broke the silence. “You said your husband is dead?”
“He got away from the cops the night of the attack and made it as far as South Carolina. He was in a car accident. His ID was found at the scene and the body identified.” Her hold on her coffee cup tightened. “Since I found my friend, my ex-husband is all I can think about.”
“So do they have a suspect in your friend’s murder?” Sierra asked.
“If the police do, they’re not telling me.”
“Did you tell them about your past?”
“No,” Leah said. “If my ex-husband were alive, I’d have said something. Philip never did like it when I had friends, and it would be like him to target one. But he’s gone.” She picked at a thread on her pants. “I called the detective who oversaw the identification of his body. Left her a voice mail, and I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m crazy, calling after all this time.”
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