I inhaled the delicious smell of my favorite coffee. The man certainly knew how to come bearing gifts first thing in the morning. But then it dawned on me. We’d never had coffee together, so how did he know this was my favorite? Lucky guess?
Taking it from him, I asked, “How did you know how to get it?"
Alexander gave me a sly smile that somehow made him even more attractive. “I’m a detective. It’s my job to know things like that.”
Oh, he was entirely too confident.
I offered him a seat at my kitchen table and took a drink of the dark roast coffee made exactly as I liked it—two sugars, three creamers, and ice. In fact, the temperature told me he’d gotten the number of ice cubes right too. Three. But how?
“So Mr. I’m a Detective, how did you know to get it just the right temperature and exactly the way I take it? I’m a pretty particular coffee drinker.”
Another smile, but this one was slow to spread across his face and so charming I almost looked away, worried I might blush at any moment. Almost. I didn’t look away, though, because I wanted the answer to my question.
“I pay attention to what goes on around me. I was sitting in The Grounds one morning when you came in and ordered that very particular cup of coffee. It stayed with me from that day.”
Still quite shocked at his even being there in my kitchen, I leveled my gaze on him and tried to determine if he was telling the truth or just trying to charm me. “So you’re telling me that you remembered the exact way I take my coffee, even though you didn’t know me from a can of paint…when did you hear this anyway?”
“A week or so ago.”
“From a week ago, when I was a perfect stranger to you and simply some person ordering a coffee, you remembered that this morning and got me my coffee just like I like it?”
He chuckled. “Yes, and the girl behind the counter knew how you took your coffee when I told her it was for you. I’d forgotten how many ice cubes, if we’re being honest.”
I took another sip of coffee and couldn’t help but smile. He probably charmed the pants off Jennie. And he probably didn’t have to remember anything about how I took my coffee because he just told her it was for me.
“So what are you doing here, Alexander?”
The smile slowly faded, and after taking a drink from his cup, he lowered his head slightly and looked me directly in the eyes. “I came to apologize for what happened last night.”
This guy had the most delicious brown eyes I’d ever seen. Brown like expensive milk chocolate, and at that moment, I felt myself getting lost in those eyes.
Snap out of it, Poppy! This isn’t some high school date. If he’s willing to make peace, maybe you can get his help on the case, so get your head out of the clouds and say something!
I turned away to break our shared gaze and then looked back at him. “I guess I should apologize too. I should have handled that differently. I’m sorry.”
“I am too. I shouldn’t have pulled my gun on you, and for that, I’m truly sorry. I have no excuse.”
Something in those eyes of his told me he did have an excuse but he wasn’t going to tell me. All the better because I sensed hurt lay behind how he acted.
Extending my hand, I offered my own olive branch. “No harm, no foul. Maybe if we pretend like we’re meeting for the first time we can put those other times behind us. Hi, I’m Poppy. Nice to meet you.”
That slow smile returned, and he took my hand in his to shake it. “Hi, Poppy. I’m Alexander, but my friends call me Alex.”
And with those two words, everything between us changed.
I found Alex standing in Room 307 with the coroner discussing the man hunched over the desk on the far wall with a kitchen knife sticking out of his back. The room looked orderly, other than the fact that a dead man was the focal point of it. The bed with its green and yellow geometric print bedspread neatly stretched across it looked as if no one had slept in it recently, and the victim’s single piece of luggage sat open and neatly packed on the stand near the closet just inside the door.
All in all, if there wasn’t a murder victim sitting there, the entire scene would look perfectly normal, albeit a bit too OCD for my taste. After spending months learning from my partner, though, I knew by the intense expression he wore as his eyes scanned the room that what surrounded the man with the knife in his back was anything but normal.
The coroner, an older man named Donny, smiled at me as he returned to examining the victim. Alex walked over to where I stood in the doorway, and in his usual calm way asked, “What took you so long?”
As I reached into my bag for a pair of gloves, I explained, “My boss. He’s a talker, so I couldn’t get here any sooner. Sorry.”
He smiled and nodded toward the coroner as he flipped through an empty brown wallet. “No problem, but I had to ask Donny to drag his feet since I wanted you to see this before he carted the victim off to the morgue.”
“Sorry, Donny. So what do we know?”
Alex thumbed through his little notebook and began reading. “As the victim sat at the desk doing work, the murderer stabbed him in the back with a knife from his room service tray he’d had delivered earlier last night around seven, according to the hotel. He was also stabbed about a dozen times more, all on various locations on his back. He was found by housekeeping at ten this morning when they came by to clean the room and didn’t see a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. We’ve dusted for prints, and I’ll be waiting to hear from the lab about them.”
“That’s a lot of stabbing. Seems like overkill.”
Looking up from his notes, he gave me a look that told me my flippant remark wasn’t helping. “So what do you think happened to Mr. Canton Walters here?”
I slipped on the same kind of blue latex gloves Alex wore and moved across the room. Looking over the thin man with curly blond hair and a knife in his back, I said the first thing that came to my mind. “I think this guy had at least one enemy who finally took that last step last night. Maybe something he did pushed them over the line. If I had to take a guess, I’d say a female.”
I turned back to face Alex and knew he was quizzing me in his own way, so I took the challenge. “Men are more forthright and aggressive. There’s something sneaky to stabbing someone in the back as they sit at a desk doing work. That screams a woman to me.”
Donny lifted his head at my explanation and gave me a skeptical look. “She’d have to be a pretty strong woman. It takes some power to get a knife of any kind through muscles, and this knife is in there deep.”
“Well, I amend my statement then. A big woman. Maybe there’s a female weightlifting team staying in the area?”
Alex guided me toward the windows and out of the way of Donny and his men as they prepared to cart the body out. “I’ve never been to this place until today. You’re my resident historian on this town, so what can you tell me about it?”
“Think midnight rendezvous between secret lovers. Remember Dominick told us that he and Geneva used to meet at a hotel? It’s that kind of place. I’ve only been here once, but I can tell you it looks pretty much the same as when I was here years ago.”
“Have you really?” he asked, his dark eyes wide with interest as he stared down at me.
As I reached the three men, I took a deep breath of that heady dead leaf smell and exhaled, surprised at how winded that short walk had left me.
“Whew. I need to get into shape, it seems. No more danishes from The Grounds from this point on,” I joked as Alex and Craig chuckled in response.
“At least you’re in better shape than this poor guy,” Alex said in a somber voice. “No more anything for him.”
I looked down at the ground and saw a man lying face down on his stomach about five feet away. Dressed in jeans, he also wore a dark sport coat with an unmistakable bullet hole and bloodstain through the center right between his shoulder blades. A white bullseye drawn around the hole directed my gaze to it immediately.
Turning to look at Alex, I asked, “Someone think we needed help figuring out what killed him? I’m feeling like we should be insulted.”
He gave me a tiny smile as he tried to remain more professional. “I think the killer had something else in mind. This is Lee Reynolds.”
My head pivoted back to look at the dead man in front of us and I stared down to see something familiar in the body. Lee Reynolds had been the local version of a morning shock jock on AM 790 WXSN for the past five or so years. Offending people on a daily basis had become his trademark. Now the bullseye made sense.
“Wow, I didn’t realize that before now. Did you ever listen to his show?”
Craig leaned around Alex and raised his hand. “I did every morning. It was pretty addictive, actually. I didn’t even agree with most of his opinions on anything, but after the first couple shows, I couldn’t stop myself from listening.”
Looking over at Craig and then over at me, Alex mumbled, “Yeah, like a verbal train wreck. It looks like we’re supposed to believe one of those people he angered with his opinions finally got to him.”
He stood silently looking down at our latest victim and shrugged. “I believe nothing right now other than Lee Reynolds is dead and someone shot him. Until I hear anything more, that’s all I can believe.”
Donny looked up from where he crouched next to the dead man and said, “Well, I can tell you it was a .38 that killed him and the murderer drew around the wound with what looks like regular sidewalk chalk like kids use to draw with.”
“Did we find the piece of chalk he used?” Alex asked no one in particular.
Craig shook his head. “Nope, not yet. There’s a lot of brush and leaves here, so it might take us a little while.”
“Search this entire area within a few hundred yards. Our murderer may have thought they were smart and threw it as they ran away, assuming they threw it at all.”
“Got it. I’ll let you know what I find,” Craig chirped as he switched on his flashlight and took off to begin his search.
“Can you tell us anything else, Donny?” I asked, hoping some kind of forensic evidence might help us start our investigation.
Even though he didn’t have to answer to me, the coroner for Sunset Ridge always did and always with a smile. “I’m guessing he’s been dead for a couple hours.”
“Hello?” I groggily mumbled, silently asking why they’d interrupted my sleep.
“Poppy, it’s Derek. I’m sorry to wake you, but something’s happened.”
Hearing his deep voice instead of my father’s or Alex’s surprised me. Pulling the phone from my ear, I looked at the time. 4:17. Why was Derek calling me at four o’clock in the morning?
“What do you mean something’s happened?” I asked as my brain tried to recover from sleep mode.
“I need you to get down to the apartment building across the street from The Eagle. Hurry, okay?”
“What? What are you talking about?” I asked, slowly coming out of my fog, but it was no use. He was gone already.
I hopped out of bed and quickly dressed as my mind kicked into full panic mode and questions exploded one after another. Why was the police chief of Sunset Ridge calling me about something happening in the early hours of the morning? He had officers who handled the overnight shifts and hadn’t worked one since becoming chief nearly a year ago. What awful event had roused him from bed before his usual nine AM arrival at the station?
Then a horrible thought tore through my brain and made tears fill my eyes. Derek would only call me if something had happened to my father. Nothing else would make him involve me in one of his cases.
As I raced down the stairs to head out to my car, I called my father but it went directly to voicemail. That wasn’t normal. My father’s phone was always left on. He was one of those people who never let his phone run out of a charge. Over and over, I called and every time my heart sank a little lower when his comforting voice intoned that same voicemail message he’d had for as long as I could remember.
I backed out of my driveway like a bat out of hell and tore down the road toward the apartment building on Main Street where Derek waited to break the news that I’d lost my father. I wiped the tears rolling down my cheeks, warming the ice cold steering wheel with them. What had happened to him? Why would he have been at that building instead of at his place over the bar? My father hadn’t told me about anyone new in his life recently. Had he met someone at McGuire’s and gone back to her house?
A million ideas flashed through my mind. He’d been told by his doctor right before the holidays that he needed to lower his blood pressure, but his love of salt had continued unabated through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Had he had a heart attack and been found dead?
The last words I said to him echoed in my head as I parked my car a block away because of the police barrier. He’d called right before nine to remind me to turn on my humidifier since the heat had been running in my house and it tended to make it almost unbearably dry. I’d brushed him off because I was thinking of something Alex had mentioned about going to Baltimore for dinner one night this week and told him I’d be sure to get the humidifier running, the idea leaving me as soon as the words left my mouth. I’d then said goodbye and that I loved him, but it had been more rote than anything real and full of feeling.
How could I have been so thoughtless? My last words to him and they’d been nothing more than a daughter’s dismissiveness to the only real family she had left.
I wiped the tears from my cheeks and steeled myself for what Derek had to tell me. Craig stood in the middle of the street redirecting curious onlookers away from the apartment building about a block away and smiled at me when I approached him, but it wasn’t his usual happy smile. His face told me this wasn’t just some crime scene like usual.
And then he spoke and I knew it was bad.
Anina Collins has always loved a good mystery. From Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective Sherlock Holmes to Dan Brown's intrepid Professor Robert Langdon, she's spent some of her favorite reading times with mystery novels. When she's not writing her favorite mystery couple, she can be found watching entirely too much Supernatural and dreaming about the beach.
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