Stella Knox Series: Book Six
One wrong note can lead to murder.FBI Special Agent Stella Knox’s search for her father’s murderer is put on hold when three bodies are discovered seated in a wealthy Tennessee suburb. It’s strange. The victims seem to be placed in front of a grand piano like an unwilling audience. Stranger still, the killer stopped to eat, taking the plates and silverware with them.
read an excerpt
Jeremy Deem rested his head against the back of the chair. Despite his intentions to remain still and unresponsive, he swayed with the cadence of the allegro maestoso.
His Steinway grand had never sounded so good. The warm timbre of the notes resonated against the walls. This was what his instrument had been created for.
Chopin. The composer’s Piano Concerto no. 1, with all its unusual modulations, was so beautiful Jeremy could almost ignore the fact that he was tied to a chair.
He’d been warned of serious consequences if he allowed his attention to stray from the concert that had been forced upon him.
To shift his mind away from the rope cutting off his circulation, Jeremy studied the music and the musician. If he were to criticize the playing, Jeremy might say the pianist was more precise than passionate, more technical than touched. This movement was an allegro not a presto.
The tempo is there, but where’s the joy? Where’s the heart?
Not that Jeremy had any right to criticize. The playing was far more accomplished than anything his own clumsy plink-plonking could have achieved. And yet, something was off. The music missed affection. There was no feeling, no understanding of the composer’s emotional journey. For all the pianist’s shoulder jerks and frantic key bashing, the playing was cold and distant.
The pianist bent over the Steinway, seemingly oblivious of his “captive” audience. His long fingers plucked at the black and white keys. The performer’s morning suit was old-fashioned, a pastiche of how musicians were supposed to dress for performances. The long sleeves of his dinner jacket were scrunched almost to his elbows. His lusterless shoes, probably once polished to a high sheen, pumped at the pedals.
Jeremy imagined the pianist’s expression would be the definition of concentration, but he couldn’t see the player’s face.
Only the rabbit mask.
The large costume piece had seen better days. The pink material inside the long, erect ears was faded. Two of the whiskers were missing from the left side of the rabbit’s nose, while a whisker on the right was bent and folded, appearing less like an animal’s sensors and more like a bolt of lightning exploding out of a nostril.
Unwilling to study the mask any longer, Jeremy’s attention drifted from the musician to the summer sunset framed in the living room’s full-length windows. Wispy clouds darkened into shades of pink, purple, and crimson, a beautiful contrast to his estate’s green lawn.
The shifting colors helped. Watching the sunset, ignoring his immediate surroundings, Jeremy might have even enjoyed the performance, if he could only move his arms or stretch his legs.
Or call for help.
But he could do none of those things. He was bound tightly to one of his own dining room chairs. His wife sat next to him. Penny’s dark brown eyes were open wide and as serious as he’d ever seen them. Penny didn’t often worry. All the lines around her eyes were from smiling. Everything about Penny was simple, including her comfortable clothes. Witnessing her fear and confusion softened his heart.
Now, the woman on the other side of Penny? That hardened his heart back up.
Where his wife was soft and tender like a newborn lamb, his mother-in-law was about as flexible as an iron ax. Margaret’s steel-gray hair, cut close and curly against her scalp, wouldn’t budge in a hurricane.
Nor would she. Jeremy had tied them himself, using the rope the pianist had supplied. With a gun aimed at the back of his head, he’d been forced to do the job well.
When he was done, when he’d pulled the knot tight and gazed into his wife’s teary eyes, Jeremy sank into the last seat. He’d trembled as the pianist wound the coarse, scratchy rope around his chest, securing his arms to his sides.
His numb, throbbing fingers kept distracting him from the music. The gun that had been pressed into the base of his skull sat atop the black grand piano. Just the sight of it marred the instrument’s pristine surface. A pair of tattered white gloves, the fingertips worn and gray, lay next to the gun.
All of it was distracting, but the pianist’s appearance threw this stranger-than-fiction scenario into uncharted territory.
Jeremy didn’t understand how he could see anything through the giant rabbit head. Of all the masks this madman could’ve chosen…
And why us?
Jeremy cursed himself for the hundredth time for not being more vigilant before opening his front door. But why would he? They’d been expecting his son and granddaughter. When he’d heard a knock and swung the door open with excitement about an hour ago, the sight of the rabbit’s face was so unexpected, so shocking, he hadn’t even noticed the gun dangling from a gloved hand.
Fear ate at his sanity as worry for Jem and little Ellie caused a fresh wave of panic.
Where are they?
Had they been delayed, or had the rabbit delayed them? Were they also tied up right now somewhere else? Or worse?
As worry hummed through Jeremy’s system, the pianist played on, moving from the allegro maestoso to the romanze movement. Chopin himself wrote that the romanze should call forth a thousand happy memories. Instead, that movement would be the soundtrack of his nightmares for the rest of Jeremy Deem’s life.
If he had a life left once the bunny took his leave.
The pianist thumped out the last chords and raised his right arm from the instrument, hand aloft in triumph.
Jeremy would have applauded if he’d been able. Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 wasn’t an easy piece, and Jeremy had detected no mistakes. This performer’s technical skills were quite impeccable.
Maybe if they applauded loudly enough, this rabbit-faced intruder would decide he’d had enough and leave them alone. But Jeremy could barely wriggle his fingers.
“Wonderful, wonderful,” he choked through a mouth so dry it could barely form the words. “Well done. Bravo.”
“Yes, yes. Very…very good.” Though her voice was reedy and thin, Penny did her best to help.
Jeremy glanced at her from the corner of his eye.
Come on, hun. You can do better.
His wife so often depended on him for guidance. She usually waited for him to express an opinion before daring to say anything herself, and then she’d only speak in agreement. Jeremy shouldn’t have to tell her—in this stressed-out, intense moment—to be more passionate in her praise. He raised his volume, hoping to encourage her to do the same.
Anything to get this lunatic out of their house.
The rabbit lowered his arm. He shifted in his seat, facing his captive audience. “Why, thank you. You’re too kind. Far too kind.”
“That’s for sure.” Margaret spat the words like darts at a target.
Penny’s mother was never one to hide her feelings or apply praise when it wasn’t deserved.
Or even when it was.
“Shut up,” Jeremy hissed. “She doesn’t mean that—”
“I mean every word.” It sounded like she was gargling gravel. “Worst rendition of Chopin I’ve heard in more than half a century. You’re all fingers and no feeling. Like listening to a music box. Now, if you’re done murdering a masterpiece, it’s time to leave. Go on, you loon. Get out.”
“Mom! Please.” Penny’s eyes were flooded with terror.
Margaret ignored her daughter. It wasn’t the first time she’d neglected to listen to her child—and Jeremy hoped it wouldn’t be the last. “I’m not scared of this idiot. I’m eighty-six years old. There’s nothing this fool can do to me that nature and bad luck haven’t already done.” She jutted her chin toward the front door. “Now, go on. Get. You fat-fingered lunatic.”
Penny trembled so badly the legs of the chair rattled on the parquet floor. “Mommy, no! Please.”
The pianist’s silence was more disturbing than any alternative reaction he could’ve had. Slowly, delicately, he lifted one white glove and slid it over the long, pale fingers of his right hand.
Jeremy held his breath.
“That’s perfectly fine, Mrs. Taylor.” His voice was high and restrained, though muffled through the rabbit mask, making the words sound distant, like a child speaking from under a blanket. “If one can’t take criticism, one shouldn’t pursue the arts. I shall take a short break now. I’ll return in short order.”
The pianist removed a phone from the inner pocket of his jacket and placed it on the stool beside him. When he touched the screen, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3 sounded through the device’s tinny speaker.
“You may enjoy this little recording while I take my break.” His right hand then strayed to the top of the piano, moving to where the pistol rested. He lifted the gun, turned, and aimed it at Margaret. The weapon seemed impossibly large, the muzzle darker than a starless sky. “Whoever falls asleep gets their brains blown out.”
The pianist pulled on his other glove and crossed to the French doors at the end of the living room. With both hands, he threw the glass doors that led to the dining room open, leaving his arms extended as though accepting the applause of a thousand fans.
Margaret looked ready to follow the rabbit into the dining room, chair and all. “Bastard.”
“Mother, stop.” Penny’s voice had taken on a whiney edge. “But doesn’t he seem familiar? Something about the way he plays…”
“He plays like a sloth.”
The bound trio fell silent.
Jeremy gritted his teeth, letting his frustration show now that the intruder wasn’t staring straight at him.
This was his house. Jeremy had paid over fifteen million dollars for this estate. For that kind of money, his security systems should have kept this crazed musician or kidnapper or whatever he was out. But there the madman was, walking around freely like he owned the place.
And I let him in.
The pianist strode through the double doors into the dining room.
Until a couple of years ago, that room had rarely been used. Before Margaret moved in, he and Penny were content to eat their meals on the island in the kitchen. If he worked late, or was out meeting a client, Penny would eat alone on the sofa, a tray on her lap, a rerun of Law and Order on the television.
Since Penny’s mother came to live with them, she’d insisted evening meals be eaten in the formal dining room. Food was served on their best china, brought to the table under polished silver cloches, and eaten beneath the stormy clouds of Albert Bierstadt’s Buffalo Trail. The nineteenth-century western landscape threw a dark pall over the family dinner.
At least Jeremy had kept his place at the head of the table, consigning Margaret to the seat next to him. This was his house, dammit. But, apparently, mothers-in-law and rabbit-faced criminals didn’t understand how home ownership worked.
Earlier tonight, the trio had been sitting at the table, unrolling their napkins, when the doorbell rang. The table was still set with meals they’d barely touched. The cloches had most likely created sweat rings that would need to be buffed out of the wood.
Penny had sprung to her feet as the bell echoed through the house, her eyes wide with anxiety. “They’re early. I wasn’t expecting them for dinner.”
Jeremy had waved her down, promising to order takeout if needed. “It’ll be fine, dear.”
It hadn’t been their son and granddaughter on the porch when Jeremy opened the door, though. And it wasn’t fine. Not at all.
Hatred boiled through Jeremy’s veins as he watched the pianist take his seat at the dining table. He laid the gun on the table and lifted the cloche. The smell of salmon and asparagus, of butter sauce and parsley, drifted Jeremy’s way on the breeze from the air conditioner.
Jeremy pulled at the ropes.
The pianist slid up the bottom of his mask, revealing a smooth chin and narrow, thin lips. He took up the silver knife and fork. With delicate movements, he cut into the salmon and chewed, his head swaying with the concerto playing on his phone.
That’s my dinner, dammit!
“I hope you choke on it, you—”
Penny screamed as a bullet whistled past Jeremy’s face and embedded itself into the Darwin Rhodell original hanging above the sectional in the living room. The side of the frame cracked, pulling a strip of snakeskin, representing the outline of the sunset, loose. The painting was worth twenty thousand dollars—an eighty percent jump in valuation since the artist had been arrested for multiple murders.
“You shoot like you play,” Margaret shouted. “With hands like those, I’m glad you didn’t do my hip replacement. You’d have taken out my ovaries.”
“Shh.” The pianist set the gun back on the table. “Listen to the music. Or the next shot will go through someone’s ear.” He helped himself to another piece of salmon.
Jeremy breathed out slowly, trying to calm his pounding heart. If he’d bought a smaller house with less extensive grounds, maybe someone would have heard that shot and be calling the police. But he’d picked this place specifically for the seclusion granted by the long private drive and five acres of land. They were entirely alone.
The pianist finished his meal and wiped his mouth on the napkin. Then he rolled the cutlery back into the creamy-white cloth napkin and set them on the plate. Readjusting his mask, he stood.
He picked up the gun and returned through the French doors to the music room. In one smooth motion, the rabbit lifted the phone, stopped the music, and slipped it back into his pocket. “How are we all doing? No one’s fallen asleep, I hope.”
Pacing, the rabbit stopped in front of Jeremy. Somewhere behind the creature’s oversized black eyes were the pianist’s eyes. But even as the bewhiskered mask crept closer until they were nose to nose, Jeremy couldn’t see through any part of it.
The rabbit shook his head. “No, you’re awake.”
He moved on to Penny. “And you’re wide awake. Good, good.”
Penny nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes. I’m not sleeping. I’ll never sleep again. I swear to God.”
The rabbit stopped in front of Margaret. “And you haven’t—”
“No, I haven’t fallen asleep, you idiot. You think I’d miss this? Watching a giant rabbit eat my son-in-law’s below-average dinner was the most fun I’ve had in years.”
The rabbit straightened. “Good. Then you’ll live to hear another piece.”
“Wasn’t that much fun,” Margaret muttered.
The pianist flicked out the tail of his morning coat before sinking back onto the stool. He set down the gun and peeled off his gloves. For a moment, he sat there, fingers flexed. Jeremy wondered what he was waiting for. Then, without warning, he launched into the opening movement of Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto op. 44 no. 4 in C Minor.
Jeremy raised his eyebrows. As much as he hated the lunatic in the fancy pants, he respected his technical expertise. Saint-Saëns’s piece wasn’t played often and for good reason. Without the right care and emotional input, the tune could come across as simple and uninteresting.
A few bars into the piece, however, Jeremy discovered a problem.
The rabbit’s care and emotional input were sorely lacking.
All Jeremy heard was a flow of notes with little to connect them. Several minutes in, it was everything he could do to keep from yawning. He leaned back against the chair. The piece was close to half an hour long. Maybe they’d be set free after that.
The house was full of valuables. Jewelry. Cash. Heck, there was about five hundred thousand dollars’ worth of watches in a drawer in his walk-in closet alone. Jeremy would joyfully slip every one of them onto the rabbit’s wrists if he would just leave.
But the freak remained, playing one obscure piano concerto after another with emotionless precision.
This went on for hours.
Liszt, Ravel, Bach, Beethoven, back to Ravel. Every classical composer who’d ever written a piece for a piano came from Jeremy Deem’s piano.
The hands on the carriage clock at the end of the room ticked on. Midnight. One. Two. Still the music came, one concerto after another. Half the night they’d been sitting there, strapped in place, and still, the playing continued.
Next to Jeremy, Penny shifted in her seat. His wife couldn’t normally sit still. Even when they took a private jet to Europe, she’d spend twenty minutes of every hour on her feet.
She must be in agony.
Finally, the rabbit banged out the last note of an allegro and lifted his hands in the air.
“Marvelous.” Jeremy spoke but was unable to summon any enthusiasm. His hands and feet were numb. His jaw ached from keeping his face on the pleasant side of neutral. “You play magnificently. Now, please. Just go.”
“Still awake then? Why, yes, you are. Wonderful. Such a polite audience. But I couldn’t possibly abandon you now. How about a little Rachmaninoff?”
Margaret sighed deeply. “How about you Rachmaninoff outta here? It’s past my bedtime.” She shifted as much as her bindings would allow. “I need to pee.”
Margaret. Direct as always.
“I can’t. When you get to my age, you won’t be able to either.”
“Then don’t hold it.” The pianist cracked his fingers. “I don’t care.”
“You son of—”
Rachmaninoff’s Romance in A Minor drowned out the elderly woman’s rant.
Jeremy sighed. It was little more than juvenilia. Without the violin accompaniment, the piano sounded lost and alone, but the pianist didn’t seem to care. He played on, returning to Chopin without a break, then murdering Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor before shifting to Vivaldi, as though he were playing in the finals of the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition and wanted to show the judges the breadth of his abilities.
He played on, insulting Grieg, then bashing Shostakovich until they were in their eighth hour without moving.
Jeremy rolled his neck. He had to do something. “Mister, why don’t you—?”
The pianist’s fingers didn’t slow. “I’ll be done when I say I’m done. And not before. And remember, no sleeping. Or you die.”
He played on.
How much longer can this lunatic go on? Surely he can’t know many more pieces.
But the rabbit seemed to be an encyclopedia of music.
Jeremy closed his eyes but remembered the warning and snapped them open. The carriage clock chimed. Two thirty. A loud snore rumbled from Margaret’s chair.
The playing stopped instantly. The pianist’s fingers hung frozen over the keyboard.
For the first time in hours, since he’d eaten Jeremy’s dinner, the house was absent of music.
The air-conditioning unit hummed. The clock ticked. And Margaret snored.
Slowly, the pianist swiveled on his stool. He pulled on his gloves again, one at a time.
Jeremy lowered his head, hoping a display of respect might serve them well. “Please, whatever you want, just take—”
Jeremy’s head jerked up as Penny’s scream drowned out the bullet’s echo. The gun smoked in the rabbit’s hand.
Margaret’s head rolled back.
For a moment, Jeremy thought his mother-in-law was still sleeping. Her chin was pointed up, with the top of the chair serving as a headrest.
But blood dripped from the back of her skull, landing with soft plops on the wooden floor.
Penny’s face swiveled toward Jeremy. Dark red blood inched across her forehead, oozing in a thick line from the hole above her eyebrow to the bridge of her nose and into her eye. It turned pink as it mixed with a river of tears and continued down her face.
Jeremy watched her kind, gentle light fade away.
“No. Penny. No!” Jeremy tried to shove the chair back, pushing himself out of reach. “No, no. Please, no.”
The rabbit lowered the gun. He slipped the weapon into the pocket of his morning coat. “Don’t worry. I won’t shoot you.”
Jeremy couldn’t focus on anything except his wife. Her eyes were still so wide. He waited for her to blink, but she’d never blink again.
Penny. Oh, Penny.
The rabbit reached into his other pocket and pulled out a short coil of piano wire. “I’ve got something special for you, sleepyhead.”
It’s another weird one.
FBI Special Agent Stella Knox contemplated her boss’s words as she rested her gloved hands on her hips and studied the crime scene she’d been called to less than an hour ago.
She’d gone from enjoying a free Sunday of brunching and visiting friends to yet another murder, this one in the upscale Nashville suburb of Kentwood.
Standing in the spacious home of one Jeremy Deem, she was dressed from head to toe in Tyvek, examining three dead bodies. The cloying, coppery smell of dried blood permeated her N90 mask.
The hood on her white forensic suit bulged over her dark ponytail, pulling the elastic tight against the top of her forehead. She sighed.
A part of her hated wearing the suits, but a bigger part understood why the wise local medical examiner had implemented the policy. Sure, the gear protected humans, but more than that, it protected crime scenes from human error. It saved the crime scene unit time and resources by reducing the need to separate trace evidence that belonged to the scene from evidence brought in by the team.
Still, the red line above her eyebrows would last for hours.
Better than a bullet to the skull, so quit complaining and do your job.
Sufficiently self-scolded, Stella cast a critical gaze at her surroundings.
To her right, a forensic tech ran a brush over the keys of a piano that probably cost more than she made annually. As she watched, the tech shook his head.
“Nothing?” she asked.
“It’s been wiped, but I’ll check every inch.”
She shot him a thumbs-up and turned her attention to another tech examining a painting that appeared to have taken a bullet to the canvas.
Stella shuddered as she studied the artwork. A Darwin Rhodell. She’d recognize those broad, colorful strokes with Rhodell’s “creative” add-ons in her sleep. A strip of snakeskin dangled free from the canvas. His art had initially included nature elements—tree bark, flower petals. At some point, he’d escalated to animal pieces like fur and snakeskin. Finally, he’d included human parts.
For all the supposed beauty in Rhodell’s art, the only things Stella saw were dismembered corpses, a bleeding colleague, and the gallery basement where he’d held her and another young woman captive. Somehow, those events had driven up the price of his work. If anything, it seemed strangely appropriate that Rhodell’s art would be at the scene of another horrific crime.
“Did you find the bullet?”
The tech held up an evidence bag. “Got a single 9mm.”
Terrific. A 9mm bullet single was the most popular handgun cartridge in the world. That little bit of knowledge wouldn’t help them narrow down the type of gun used to shoot it.
A flash made her blink. She turned. The forensic photographer snapped two pictures of the piano stool before shifting focus to three dark fragments of brain matter drying on the floor.
Stella stayed out of the way as the photographer worked. He would need to take a lot of pictures in this room. Everything about it was wrong.
Three chairs were arranged in a line, facing the piano. These were the unsub’s audience members, Stella theorized. Front-row seats, giving him…or her…their full attention.
Two victims, both women, had received a single bullet to the brain. The way they rested—the older woman with her head rolled back and the younger woman with hers turned to the side—they could have been sleeping. Only the blood streaked across their faces and the sticky red puddles beneath the chairs showed they would never wake from this nightmare.
The third victim, a man who appeared to be in his early sixties, had suffered a much more painful death.
The medical examiner would provide definitive answers. But judging by the deep red line around the man’s neck, his blood-soaked collar, and the way his eyes bulged out of his blue-gray face, he’d been garroted.
“It’s weird, right?” Special Agent Ander Bennett’s deep, confident voice sounded muffled as he came up behind Stella.
Even with white coveralls covering his blond curls and his face hidden behind a mask, Stella recognized her colleague’s large frame. He was a tall man with broad shoulders. His strong chin and easy smile got him free desserts and winks from waitresses. And, sometimes, a phone number on the back of the receipt. Stella had seen that in action a handful of times.
“Not a normal Sunday, that’s for sure. You just get here?”
“About two minutes ago. Slade is in the garden with the local police chief, and the others are on the way. Except for Mac and Dani, of course.”
Stella took a deep breath and pressed a hand to her stomach at the mention of her friends and colleagues. “Of course.”
An hour ago, she’d had the entire day planned out. After sleeping late, she was going to enjoy a leisurely brunch at the little café below her apartment. Once her tank was filled, she’d visit Special Agents Mackenzie Drake and Danielle Jameson to see if they were better or worse than when she’d left them at three that morning.
She still couldn’t believe it.
Dani and Mac had been abducted during their last case and tortured for several hours before Stella and the team managed to find and free them. Mac had been held in a crate and waterboarded, and that was after she’d survived a car wreck. She would need some time to recover, mentally and physically.
Dani, at eight months pregnant, had survived the same car wreck and fought hand-to-hand combat with the perpetrator. She was heading straight into maternity leave now. She wouldn’t be back for a while. Stella hoped that holding her baby and staring into the face of the future would help the past fade away faster.
Ander stepped toward the dead trio and crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you make of this?”
Chewing her bottom lip, Stella considered her initial impression of the scene. “I get the two shootings. But if you’re going to torture someone, I’d expect to see additional abuse on the male victim.”
“Abuse? You think he was tortured? For what? To talk?”
“That was my initial impression up until I got closer. Now…” She shook her head.
Ander came around and stood next to her, taking in the victims. He rocked on his heels. “I see your thinking. Killer asks for the combination to the safe. Victim tells him to get lost. Killer pops one of the captives to show he means business, but the victim still doesn’t hand over the combination. Killer pops the other one and still, the victim says nothing. So the killer garrotes him?”
Stella bent forward. Resting her hands on her knees, she examined the man. He still had all his fingers and fingernails. There were no cuts on his face or burn marks on his neck. Even his thin, gray hair was barely out of place.
“Doesn’t work, though, does it? He’s not going to say much with a cut larynx.”
“Maybe he talked before he was garroted?”
Stella straightened. Apart from the three chairs, the victims, the damaged painting, and the blood-splattered floor, nothing else in the room appeared out of place. The overpriced, overstuffed sofa on the other side of the room was undisturbed. The sheepskin rug was unblemished. Even the glass cabinet was unscratched, its carriage clock and antique ivory carvings in showroom condition.
“I don’t know. I’d expect to see more damage here, you know? Drawers open. Stuff smashed. It’s like the killer didn’t even bother searching for anything before he moved on to shooting people. And why do it in front of the piano? It’s all too…clean.”
“That reminds me. Check this out.”
Ander headed toward an open pair of double doors. Stella followed him into a large dining room dominated by an exquisite table long enough to seat twelve. Three chairs were missing from the foot of the table. At the head, three places had been laid.
He stood at the foot of the table and gestured to the empty spaces. “Looks like he took the chairs from here.”
Stella frowned. The elastic in her hood slid up against her forehead. Irritated, she pushed it back into place. “He could have killed them all here if he’d wanted to. But he took them over to the piano before he did the deed.”
Ander headed toward the other end of the table. “Maybe if he’d killed them here, it would have ruined his dinner. Check it out.”
Stella joined him at the head of the table. On two of the three places, a silver dome rested next to polished cutlery and a white cloth napkin, revealing a plate with only a few bites missing. The third setting contained only a placemat. The silver dome stood to one side, the plate, napkin, and silverware missing.
She lifted a hand to her ear. Her gloved fingers didn’t find the gold stud her father had given her as a teenager, but the scrunchy material of the forensic hood. She dropped her hand. Stella couldn’t wait to take that suit off. “Has forensics gone through this yet?”
Ander nodded. “Preliminarily. I already asked. Salmon and asparagus in what looks like butter and parsley sauce. Might have been nice once. Kinda congealed now. They don’t recommend it.”
Stella’s hand drifted toward her ear again. She reversed course and set her hands on her hips. “If the meal was cooked last night and they were killed before they could eat very much, that should help us with a timeline. It’s coming up on midday now, so not more than seventeen, eighteen hours ago.”
Ander leaned over the dining room table, examining the setup. “Right. But why only two place settings?”
“The killer stopped to eat. Took the plates and silverware with him.”
Ander’s eyebrows shot toward his curly hairline, now smushed down by his suit’s hood. “How do you know?”
Stella held a latex-clad finger above the side of a silver dome. A gray crescent as light as a salt stain decorated the table next to its edge. “See the residue? That’s a water stain, the reason you put coasters on your coffee table. The dome caught the steam from the food and condensed, then, voila, water stain.”
“You put coasters on your coffee table? Hagen would be impressed.”
Stella laughed. Hagen’s fastidiousness and her own style didn’t really mesh. “Not me. But people like Hagen who have nice things normally do.”
Nice was an understatement when it came to the Deems’ possessions. The expensive-looking dining table was next level. Even the chairs gleamed. No dust lingered on frames or sideboards. Back in the music area, the piano’s black body shined like a polished mirror.
Ander’s breath rasped against the inside of his mask. “You think the killer popped his victims then sat down and tucked into one of their dinners? Then he took a knife, fork, spoon, and plate with him to make sure he didn’t leave any DNA? That’s cold.”
“Or he killed one and took a dinner break before he got back to work. Or he ate and then killed. Nothing’s certain, but I think it’s a pretty good guess the salmon and asparagus are now in the belly of our killer.”
“Like I said, cold.”
Stella leaned closer to the silver dome on one of the plates. Her reflection, with its white hood, stretched out before her. She looked like a scientist on an alien planet. “However he did it, he thought this thing through. There aren’t too many killers who take their dishes. Weirdly enough, plenty who eat. Apparently, killing triggers a healthy appetite.”
Beyond her own reflection in the cloche, two more Tyvek-clad figures entered the crime scene. The rustle of material sounded incongruous in front of the polished grand piano, as though someone had blown their nose in the middle of a performance.
The smaller of the new arrivals lifted a gloved hand in greeting. Special Agent Chloe Foster was unmistakable. Her normally all-black ensemble was covered in white. At five-four, she was a couple of inches shorter than Stella. But the way she squared her hips and shoulders as she walked was reminiscent of a pit bull and made her appear taller. Especially now that her arm was no longer in a sling.
She’d been injured a few weeks ago, but Chloe Foster wasn’t one to let a little bullet keep her from the job.
Chloe stopped short in front of the damaged Rhodell painting. For a moment, she stood there, staring at the image, now crooked and destroyed. “Someone shoulda shot this thing twice.”
“Maybe three or four times.” Hagen Yates was almost as tall as Ander, slimmer but equally toned. As he strode toward the dining room, his dark green eyes passed from Ander, who he greeted with a short nod, to Stella, where his attention remained.
Supervisory Special Agent Slade’s call hadn’t been the first she’d received that day.
As Stella had been in the process of tucking into her brunch, Hagen’s name had appeared on her screen. He’d seemed nervous, almost agitated when he’d said he needed to tell her about something. Stella wasn’t sure exactly what that something was—Slade’s call had interrupted them—but she was certain it concerned her father. And probably his too.
Both their fathers had been murdered. Stella’s dad, a Memphis cop, was killed in the line of duty when Stella was fourteen.
Hagen’s dad had been a defense lawyer, killed on the courthouse steps by the kinds of people her dad usually arrested.
Now Hagen was helping Stella find the dirty cops who’d killed her father. They’d already found her dad’s former partner. Despite allegedly being killed over a decade back, he was alive and well, living in Atlanta under witness protection.
Stella appreciated the help she’d gotten so far in her investigation. But exactly why Hagen was helping her, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know whether his motivation was professional or personal in that he saw her as an avenue to answers. And, until she knew, she couldn’t entirely trust him, not outside the job anyway.
They needed to talk. But that talk would have to wait.
SSA Slade stepped into the dining room behind her.
Alongside him was a second figure, a woman. The temples of her wide-framed glasses were tucked into the hood of her forensic suit, but otherwise, Stella couldn’t get a good grasp on her features. She shifted uncomfortably. The Tyvek on her arms rubbed noisily against her hips.
“This is Chief Jean Gray. She’s in charge of law enforcement in Kentwood. She’s been filling me in on the victims here.”
Chief Gray lifted a hand in greeting but said nothing.
Ander greeted Slade and the chief with a slight nod. “Boss, are Caleb and Martin on this case?”
“Nope. Martin’s still assisting on that drug case while Caleb’s tied up on the bank fraud. I might be able to call them in for limited assistance. With Mac and Dani out, we’re officially two down. Without Martin and Caleb, that takes it to four down. So you’ll have to work twice as hard.”
Chloe shifted, and her suit made a rude noise. “Great. If we add a couple of hours to the day and a couple of days to the week, we should be fine.”
Slade ignored Chloe’s complaint. “As you can see, we’ve got three victims. The male is Jeremy Deem. He owns a finance company.”
“That explains the twenty-thousand-dollar criminal artwork, I guess.”
Slade ignored Chloe yet again. “The other two victims are his wife, Penny, and her mother, Margaret. They were found this morning by the housekeeper, Candice Diaz. Forensics is packing up the computers and phones, but nothing appears to have been taken. Chief Gray, however, has a lead. Chief?”
Chief Gray blinked twice, her overly mascaraed eyelashes sweeping the lenses of her glasses. “Hm?”
Stella couldn’t tell if the chief was having a hard time hearing because of the suit hood or if she wasn’t paying attention. Maybe she was in shock?
“The footage?” Slade prompted.
“The…oh. Yes. Of course.” She pulled a phone out of the pocket of her coveralls and ran a finger over the screen. Nothing happened. “Oh, damn these things. Never did like them.” She peeled off one glove and dropped it onto the table. Stella swiped it up, not wanting anything but evidence on the surface. Chief Gray didn’t appear to notice. She brought her phone screen to life and opened the video player. “This is from the security company. It’s the camera above the front door.”
She set the phone on the table. Stella picked that up as well, and the others gathered around her.
The front porch stretched across each side of the screen, the wide-angle lens bending the pillars until they resembled the ribs of a whale.
A figure approached the door, tote bag slung over an arm.
At first, it seemed like a tall shadow with a head stretching longer than humanly possible. Then the figure stepped into the light.
Stella jolted at the sight of a giant rabbit head staring into the camera. The eyes were huge black holes. Long ears wobbled in the evening breeze. A buck-toothed half-grin smiled eerily. There were even whiskers and bits of fur.
For a moment, Stella couldn’t quite sort out what she was seeing. Dark clothing, definitely. Black shoes were scuffed to the point of almost appearing gray. Black pants stretched beneath a morning coat with a tail reaching down the back of the figure’s thighs. All of that was normal enough.
Then there were the pale elements. A white shirt looked a bit worn. White gloves poked out beneath the black jacket sleeves.
Chloe asked the million-dollar question. “What the hell is that?”
“A rabbit?” Stella barely heard herself answer as she watched the strangeness unfold.
The rabbit rang the doorbell.
As the visitor waited, he reached one gloved hand into the jacket’s right pocket.
The door opened, and the rabbit pulled out a gun. Instead of pointing it at the person still off camera, he held the weapon loosely by his side. He must have said something, but the video had no sound. Then he passed under the camera, one rabbit ear tip brushing the lens, before he disappeared into the house.
Chloe blew out a breath. The release rasped through her mask. “The lineup will be tricky. We’re going to need a fox, a chicken, a dog, and a cat.”
“Right.” Ander’s laugh seemed strained. “Maybe Bugs—”
Slade held up a hand. “No Bugs Bunny or Roger Rabbit comments, please.”
Ander’s teeth clicked shut.
Stella shook her head, trying to process the chain of events. “Why did they even answer the door? They’ve got security cameras.” Stella waved at the proof in her hand.
“Once we have someone to interview, we can hopefully answer that. At the moment, this freak is all we’ve got.” As Stella handed the phone back to Chief Gray, Slade began barking out assignments. “Stella, Ander, I want you to stay here and search the house. It doesn’t look like our unsub took anything obvious, but we need to see if any unobvious items are missing. Chloe, Hagen, you take Jeremy Deem’s office. See if anything is out of place there. Jeremy’s executive assistant, Karen Neuglass, will meet you there.”
Neuglass…glass…looking glass…Alice in Wonderland…White Rabbit…I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.
Was that why the Deems opened the door? They were expecting visitors?
Slade cast his gaze from one team member to another. “This is a strange one, which means the killer’s unpredictable. We have to find him.”
Stella thought of the dead, and how little their investigation would help them now.
“How long is forever?” Alice asked.
“Sometimes, just one second.”
The White Rabbit was right. Forever for the Deem family hadn’t been nearly long enough.