Copyright © 2023 by Declan James Books
She was dead the moment the killer reached for the doorknob and turned it. He knew. This was going to be the hardest part. The unknown. If he’d had to break one of the panes of glass to get to the lock, she might have heard it. She would have known what it was. Her instincts would have kicked in.
But everything happened the way it was supposed to. The way he’d trained and imagined, choreographed in his mind.
At least up to that point.
He slowly opened the door with his left hand, keeping a vice-grip on the knife, holding it flat against his chest.
He took the last step up into her kitchen. A galley kitchen, the realtors called it. Long and narrow. She had new tiled floors and white granite countertops. Those had been expensive. An extravagance. Something she had to have but hadn’t been grateful enough when she got them, probably.
She was a taker. A narcissist. The worst kind of woman who had no idea how her actions impacted other people. Tonight, she would learn the consequences of them. She had taken the last thing that didn’t belong to her.
The killer made a sharp turn from the kitchen down the bedroom hallway. Hers was closed. He heard the shower running, just like he was supposed to. A sliver of light from under the door spilled out onto the white carpet runner in the hallway. Everything else was in shadow. Including him.
She was singing. Bright. Cheery. She had a good voice. A rich alto with a smokey quality. She probably fancied herself the star of every karaoke night at the local hillbilly bar. Yes. She’d be the type. The one who wore cowgirl boots, tank tops that barely covered anything, and too short skirts then got indignant when men ogled her.
He waited. Steadied his breath. The water shut off. He pressed his back against the wall staying in the shadows as he crossed into the living room. From there, she’d have to pass by him as she came down the hall. There was nowhere else to go.
Sweat dripped down the back of his neck. His leather gloves creaked as he squeezed the knife tighter to his chest. He turned, looking out toward the front of the house. She had a big bay window there tucked under her arched ceilings.
There was nobody out there tonight. By morning, they were calling for up to a foot of snow. It was already starting to come down. In another hour, any tracks he’d made coming in or out the back door would be obliterated. It was as if God Himself were willing to cover his tracks.
He heard the soft whir of a blowdryer. It was nine o’clock at night. Was she styling her hair before she went to bed?
His blood turned cold. Or was she expecting somebody? A late evening tryst to add to the sins she’d already committed.
Then the dryer stopped. He heard a drawer shut. The light changed. Footsteps. She was heading out into the hall.
He took a breath. Let it out. He wondered if he’d get scared just before. It wasn’t like that though. Instead, it was a rush. A primal power he’d never known he had.
The bedroom door opened. In the shadows as he was, she couldn’t see him. She kept right on singing as she vigorously rubbed her half-dried hair with her towel. She wore a pink robe tied loosely. He could see the curve of her breasts.
She reached the end of the hallway and felt along the wall, maybe looking for the light switch.
It happened so fast. Instinctively. Almost easily.
One step. One swing of his arm and the knife cut into her back on the right side. Not soft like butter. Sharp as the blade was, skin, muscle, tendons, they’re tougher than you think they are. But he struck out, snakelike, then pulled the knife out. Before she could turn. Before she could really even react, he struck again. Almost the exact same spot on her back on the left side.
It would have been enough. He wouldn’t know until later, but his initial blows had punctured both of her lungs.
She never even got a chance to scream. She turned then, facing him. Her eyes filled with shock. Confusion. He wondered if she even had a chance to feel the pain. A moment later, he knew she did.
She staggered forward, reaching for him. He sidestepped her, not letting her touch him. She clutched her chest, then grabbed the wall, digging her nails into the plaster, smearing her own blood across it in a wide arc.
She made the most awful sound. Gasping for air that wouldn’t easily flow. Her lungs betrayed her. She couldn’t fill them. She couldn’t scream.
And that was the point.
He existed outside himself for a moment. Curious. Almost welcoming her fight. Then he realized what she was after. The bedroom. Her nightstand. It’s where she would keep her service weapon.
He reached out and grabbed a fistful of her hair, dragging her back into the living room. She flailed her arms, trying to get to him. A surge of strength came to her.
He let go of her and raised the knife again. This time, she faced him as he brought it down. She got her arms up in time. His blow went wild, cutting into her forearms. She made a guttural sound. Eyes wild, she lunged at him. With strength she shouldn’t have, she came at him, using the only weapon she had, her entire body. She managed to drive her shoulder into his chest. He put his arms around her and flung her off of him, tackling her. They went down together, crashing into her glass coffee table, shattering it into a thousand pieces.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. He was losing control. She clawed at him, trying to remove his ski mask. Her nails stung his flesh, ripping into his neck. He grabbed her wrists and wrenched them high above her head. Her robe fell open. She was covered in blood. Now so was he.
Her bottle of wine rolled on the floor, spilling yellow liquid and mixing with her blood.
She tried to reach for her cell phone. He kicked it away with his foot. When he turned back to her, she had the bottle in her hand. “No!” he shouted.
She swung her arm wildly, backhanding him in the jaw with it. The blow rattled his teeth. He tasted his own blood. His ears rang and for a moment, he couldn’t see as blood ran into his eyes.
When he got his bearings, she was gone. Her phone was gone. But that sound.
Her ragged, rattling breaths as she tried to draw air that wouldn’t come. He got to his feet. He took a step forward.
She would go to the bedroom. Of course she would. Even now. He took a slow step forward.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he said through clenched teeth.
She crawled down the hallway, dragging herself forward with her elbows.
A fighter, he thought. He could respect that. That’s when he saw the cell phone in her hand. New adrenaline rushed through him. Had she managed to use it? How could he be so stupid? So careless. It was all slipping away.
She stopped moving. Whatever adrenaline she had began to drain along with the last of her blood. He was careful not to step in it. He’d been so careful of everything. Down to the paper booties he wore over his shoes.
She reached her bedroom door and tried to drag herself over the threshold. Part of him wanted to let her. Let her get an inch from the thing she sought so desperately. Her gun. But he’d been careless one too many times.
“I don’t think so, honey,” he said. He reached down and grabbed her by the ankles. She no longer had the strength to kick. She just stretched her fingers out and tried to dig them into the floor as he pulled her back into the living room.
He flipped her over onto her back and straddled her.
“Shhh,” he said. “It’s almost over. I know it hurts. It won’t for very much longer.”
She was still pretty to him. Dark hair. Big green eyes. Perfect skin.
“I’ll stay,” he said. “Just a few minutes more.”
She let him see his eyes through the mask. He’d like to think they were an odd comfort to her. No matter what brought them to this, he understood what it meant to take a life. She had to die, but maybe not alone.
He thought it made a difference there for a moment. Peace came into her expression. Her eyes softened. He even thought she was trying to smile.
“That’s it,” he said. “You can let go. I’m right here.”
That’s when she betrayed him. Her face turned hard. She swung at him, digging her nails into his neck. She pulled at his mask. Got a fistful of his hair.
He staggered back. Shocked. Then he remembered the knife.
Rage poured through him. He raised his arm one last time and delivered the final blow. He slashed her across the neck, just deep enough to sever her right jugular vein. He tore the cell phone from her other hand. She was still there. Still watching. He smiled at her then smashed the phone against the wall, shattering it.
Even after all of it, he would have stayed with her. But light flooded the living room, blinding him.
Headlights. Someone had turned into the driveway?
He called her a vile name. A four-letter word even he didn’t like to say. But she deserved it. It’s what she was.
She convulsed. Tried to stop the blood. It was too late. It had been too late the moment he walked in. The last he saw of her, she was clawing at the ground. He was right though, it wouldn’t be long. Her pain would soon end.
He left her there and ran back through the kitchen, out the door and into the snowy night.
He felt guilty for just that one moment. He really hadn’t meant for her to die alone. But she’d given him no choice. As the newly falling snow covered his tracks, he disappeared into the night.
“Let’s go! Let’s pick it up!”
Jake clapped his hands together as three of his sophomore wrestlers jogged by him on their second lap of stairs. He had them running through the gym then up and down the stairs on either side of the second floor behind the bleachers. Twenty laps. Half of them were wearing plastics trying to sweat off the pounds they’d gained from overindulging at Christmas.
He felt for them. He did. But he was glad it wasn’t him anymore. He still had nightmares about cutting weight, sleepwalking into the kitchen and Grandpa Max finding him there stuffing his face with cake.
One by one the wrestlers ran by him, sweat dripping down their faces. His nephew Ryan led the pack. In three weeks, he’d turn eighteen. In six weeks, he’d wrestle his final state championship tournament. If he made it that far.
Jake stopped and let the kids run by him while he leaned down to tie his shoe. They were worn. Some of the plastic piping on the sides had cracked off. But twenty years ago, he’d worn the same ones when he won his own state championship ring. He had a newer pair of wrestling shoes at home. This close to the state tournament, it felt like bad luck to wear them though. Even if it wasn’t his time anymore.
“They’re too slow.” Out of breath, red-faced and drenched with sweat, Ryan rounded the corner and stood by Jake’s side. He slapped each of his teammates on the back as they ran by.
“How many more?” Ryan asked.
“Five more laps,” Jake said. “Then a cooldown. St. Iz might outwrestle some of them, but none of my guys are gonna get winded in the third period.”
“None of your TEAM, Coach Jake!” Ashley Polhemus whizzed by. At 106 pounds, she was a contender for a state title herself.
“Sorry, Ash,” Jake said. Ashley was currently running circles around the lower classmen.
“How are you feeling?” Jake said to Ryan. Over the summer, Ryan had his right knee scoped to fix some torn cartilage.
“Strong,” he said. He thumped his abs. Ryan had put on ten pounds of muscle in the off season. He currently wrestled at 144 but wanted to bounce up a weight class so he could face Blake McManus again, the kid from St. Iz who’d beat him two years in a row. But that was an argument for another day.
“How much longer?” Toby Bugg, one of the freshmen, whined as he dragged himself up the steps.
“Twenty more laps if you ask again!” Ryan yelled.
“Is this even legal?” Toby asked. “It’s a snow day, Coach Jake.”
A withering look from Ryan, his team captain, and Toby kept on running.
“Come on,” Jake said. “Let’s head downstairs. Make sure we don’t have any stragglers. I haven’t seen Travis or Kirby in a few laps.”
“Oh I’ll kill Trav if he’s slacking off.”
Jake and Ryan waited for three more wrestlers to race by before heading down the stairs. As they made it to the lobby in front of the gym entrance, the doors swung open letting in a cold blast of air and swirls of snow.
A trick of the wind, maybe. Jake went to the storm doors to shut them. Deputy Dan Tuttle walked in. He didn’t immediately see Jake, but something was wrong. Tuttle looked like he’d been crying.
“Tuttle?” Jake called out.
Tuttle turned. His face went slack when he saw Jake. He practically lunged for him. Jake got his arms up just in time. Tuttle seemed ready to collapse.
“Is he okay?” Ryan asked.
“Tuttle, what’s up?”
“Jake,” Tuttle sputtered. “Detective Cashen. Um. They’ve been trying to get a hold of you. For over an hour. I went to your house. Your grandpa told me you were here. You weren’t answering your phone.”
“I’m off today,” Jake said, though instinct told him in about five seconds, that would be irrelevant. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
“My phone’s in the locker room,” Jake said.
Tuttle nodded. “You gotta come. We’ve got…Hammer’s not…we aren’t…”
“Tuttle, get a hold of yourself,” Jake said. “What’s the matter with Sergeant Hammer?”
“Nothing,” Tuttle said. “It’s…God. Jake, it’s Mary. You’ve gotta come. They’re securing the scene, but you gotta come.”
“Tuttle, I’m off duty today. Detective Rathburn is on. Is she trying to get a hold of me?”
Tuttle shook his head. If it was possible, his face turned even whiter. “No. Jake. No. You don’t understand. Mary’s the one…she’s…Jake…God. She’s dead, Jake. She’s dead. Somebody killed her.”
Jake felt a whoosh inside of his head. Time seemed to slow down. Tuttle wasn’t making sense. Mary Rathburn had just been hired into the detective bureau. He was still training her. She was…
“Uncle Jake?” Ryan said.
Jake turned to Ryan, adrenaline coursing through him. Tuttle’s disjointed words coursing through him. Mary. Dead. Crime scene.
“I have to go,” he told his nephew. “You take over. You finish practice.”
“He’s saying Mary Rathburn is dead?” Ryan asked.
“Never mind,” Jake said. “Not a word of what you heard. You understand?”
Ryan nodded. Jake handed Ryan the keys to his truck. Then he followed Deputy Dan Tuttle out into the snow.
The plows had been out early, but six fresh inches of snow had fallen since Jake started practice this morning at seven a.m. Mary Rathburn lived in the western part of the county at the end of a long street. It was quiet out here. Jake had picked her up a couple of times when her car wouldn’t start. In the country like this, she had no neighbors close by. Just three at the other end of her street.
Tuttle drove skillfully through the snow and ice. Two patrol cars blocked the end of Mary’s road. Jake recognized deputies Stuckey and Bundy. They each gave him a solemn nod as Tuttle drove slowly past.
“Nobody’s been in or out since…” Tuttle started. “Since Sergeant Hammer called.”
Two more patrol cars parked at an angle in front of Mary’s driveway. He saw their tire tracks in the snow. Nothing else. With the rate of snowfall, Jake already recognized one major problem.
Tuttle parked. As he got out, Jake saw Sergeant Jeff Hammer sitting on Mary Rathburn’s front porch step, the overhang protecting him from the snow. Beside him, Lieutenant John Beverly patted him on the back.
“You found her?” Jake said to Hammer.
Hammer started to get up. He didn’t make it. Instead he keeled over sideways and dry heaved. That’s when Jake noticed a melted patch in the snow where Hammer must have lost his breakfast earlier.
A tremor ran through Jake. Jeff Hammer was a seasoned cop. Whatever happened in that house, it was by no means his first crime scene.
“She drives that piece of crap car,” Hammer said. “It’s not reliable in this kind of weather. I told her I’d pick her up.”
“We all take turns picking her up,” Jake said, more to himself than Hammer.
“I knocked,” Hammer said. “I called her and told her when I was leaving. She didn’t answer. I sat in the driveway. Called her when I got here. She didn’t pick up. So I came up here and knocked. Nothing. Then I opened the front door.”
“It was unlocked?” Jake asked.
“Who’s inside?” Jake asked.
“Nobody,” Lieutenant Beverly said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Good.” Jake reached into his pocket. Tuttle had gloves and booties in his kit in the car. Jake put them on. He steeled himself, then walked through Detective Mary Rathburn’s front door.
The smell hit him immediately. That metallic tang of blood. Sickly sweet death. Whatever happened, the body had been lying there for a while.
The house was a hundred years old. A one and a half story, craftsman style home. She had a dining room off to the right side. In front of him was Mary’s living room. She had two couches along the north wall and a glass-topped coffee table in the center. Shattered. Shards of glass were everywhere. Jake spotted a broken wine glass halfway under one of the couches.
He took a step forward, cautious about going any further. He saw her then. His heart lurched.
Mary Rathburn. Young. Pretty. At thirty, she was going to be one of the youngest deputies to ever make detective. The only woman, too. Jake had handpicked her after she’d proven herself invaluable in two separate investigations.
She lay on her side in a loose fetal position. Barefeet. Smeared with blood. Blood streaked the hallway leading into the back bedrooms. It pooled beneath her. From here, Jake could already see what was likely the mortal wound. A slash across her neck. She’d bled out. Her robe might have been white or pink originally. Now, it was dark crimson, soaked with blood.
“God,” Jake said. His stomach roiled. He knew how Hammer must have felt.
He wanted to go to her. His protective instincts kicked in even though rationally, he knew she was dead. But this wasn’t some random victim. This was his colleague. His friend. He took a breath. Closed his eyes. Said a quick prayer. When he opened his eyes again, she was no longer any of those things. Neither was he. He was Detective Jake Cashen of the Worthington County Sheriff’s Department. Former Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Whatever Mary Rathburn had been to him, now, he knew what she needed.
“Jake?” Beverly came in behind him.
“Nobody else comes in or out,” Jake said. “I need to talk to Hammer. Has anyone searched the bedrooms? Mary’s got a little boy. Kevin. He’s four years old.”
“Nobody else was in the house,” Beverly said. “She’s alone.”
Jake nodded. He stepped closer, careful not to contaminate the scene. He put a hand out, cautioning Beverly to stay where he was.
Mary’s eyes had pearled over. She stared at the wall. Her left hand was curled beneath her, her right arm stretched out and curved into a claw as if she’d been scratching at the ground.
She fought, Jake thought. The shattered table. The broken wine bottle. The streaks of blood running along the wall and down the hallway.
Jake knelt down getting as close to Mary’s body as he dared. He wouldn’t touch her.
“I need BCI out here,” he said. “Now. I need two more deputies blocking the road from the other end. Has anyone tried to talk to her neighbors down the street?”
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Beverly said again. “We’ve been trying to call you, Jake.”
He nodded. As he was about to rise, something caught his eye. There was a pattern in the blood on the floor. Jake pulled his small flashlight out of his pocket.
“Christ,” Beverly said. “What is that?”
Jake shone the light in the space at the tip of Mary Rathburn’s outstretched hand.
Letters, perhaps. A number? Mary Rathburn had fought for her life. But as she lay dying, she’d tried to write something. A message. It hit Jake like a thunderbolt, nearly knocking him backward off his feet.
She knew. Of course she knew Jake would be the one to read it. In her last moments on earth, Mary Rathburn had written him a message using the only weapon she had left. Her own blood.