Don't you just love this library. I could get lost here...
Wade inserted the key into the deadbolt the same time he did every night. Only this time, the door glided open as though some unseen force had invited him inside. The house was quiet. Too quiet. Usually he’d hear the sound of the TV, a kitchen timer alerting that dinner was ready, or the constant boom from the stereo upstairs. But this evening, tomblike silence greeted him.
She’d threatened to leave; he just hadn’t believed her. After all, she’d been grumbling that same nonsense for twenty-two years. A romantic getaway for two would straighten her out.
Their only child was going off to grad school in a few weeks. So for the first time in their marriage, they’d be childless. His life had changed the night she told him she was pregnant two weeks away from high school graduation, but it hadn’t stopped him from working his butt off to accomplish his dreams. Yeah, he had to work two jobs, go to night school, and function without sleep, but they’d made it. They had a beautiful house in Edenbury, Pennsylvania, two stylish vehicles in the driveway, and their daughter was heading off to Harvard.
And as soon as he finalized the contract he’d been working on for the last year, Wade could take Vanessa on as many getaways as she wanted. He’d cashed the first check on his way home. Just the first installment was more than they’d made their first ten years of marriage. That’d get her eyes twinkling again.
Burnt meatloaf singed his nostrils as he ventured into the kitchen in search of his wife. She killed their dinner again. His wife would get so busy typing she’d forget everything around her.
He turned off the oven, but left the charcoaled mess inside. Last thing he needed was the new smoke detector he’d installed to go off, once again alerting the neighbors how often his wife nearly burned down their house.
Wade emptied his pockets of his money clip, keys, and receipts onto the credenza by the stairway, as his wife had always requested, then started upstairs. “Vanessa honey,” he called as he trudged up the wooden steps, knowing she wouldn’t hear him, but he tried anyway. He gripped onto the banister, pulling himself forward. He was too tired to climb stairs before eating. But since she always wore her headphones when she worked, she wouldn’t hear if he screamed at the top of his range.
Tugging at his tie, he pushed open their bedroom door. Maybe they could have a quick romp before dinner, get a taste of what it’ll be like to be empty nesters.
Not believing his eyes, he launched headfirst toward his wife. “No!” he screamed.
Out of his peripherals, he saw the long black rod, but it was too late to react. The light extinguished the moment the object made contact with his skull, leaving him in a pit of blackness, a nightmare he’d never escape.
Detective Mark Waters slammed the phone onto his desk after he hit ‘send’. He’d added a heart and smiley face, but he knew Ashlyn saw through him. No, he wasn’t happy that she’d gone to stay with her mother. Especially since the two of them didn’t even get along.
But what could he say. He wasn’t her husband. He wasn’t even her unborn child’s father. He wanted to be, though. He’d asked Ashlyn to marry him last week, and though she’d accepted his ring, she’d run off to her mother as soon as she’d gotten the time off work approved.
He understood she felt guilty that she was pregnant, blamed herself for the father’s death. But he’d told her a hundred times she was innocent, and he didn’t care that she was carrying another man’s child. Plain and simple, he loved her. He didn’t care about anything else. But for some reason, he couldn’t seem to convince Ashlyn.
Mark took a pull off the stuff the station called coffee, nearly gagging. He’d skipped picking up his normal brew in his urgency to pick up Ashlyn and take her to the train station. The last thing he wanted was her second-guessing how he felt about her, even though he was wondering if she returned his sentiment.
“Waters,” Captain Andrew Davis shouted before he even entered the detective’s division. Davis had such a booming voice he could have called from his office on the other side of the police station and Mark would have heard him.
Knowing how Davis demanded respect, Mark stood to greet him. “Yeah, Cap’n?”
“You got a stiff.”
Mark narrowed his eyes in confusion, wondering why Davis was delivering the report, not dispatch. But instead of questioning his superior, he waited for him to finish.
Captain ran his hand over his chin. “We’re going together. My wife called me. Said she found the body as she was opening for the day.”
“I’m sorry,” Mark said, knowing Mrs. Davis was probably freaking out about now. The older woman had always held a special place in his heart because of all the years he’d spent in the library when he was a child.
Mark grabbed his radio and keys off his desk, then knocked on the partition surrounding Tim Townsend’s cubicle. His partner seemed oblivious that the captain was even in the office, but then again, Tim was oblivious of most things. Well, except women. If a beautiful woman had walked in, he’d have been on his feet in seconds.
“Let’s go, Townsend,” Mark demanded, awakening his partner from his comatose-like state that he’d been in for the last week. Even when he was here, he was rarely present.
Tim dropped his newspaper, looking around as if he hadn’t realized he was at work. Based on his crumpled shirt and loose tie, and the fact that his wife had kicked him out again, he’d probably slept here. “What’s up?”
Mark cocked his head toward the captain, who’d remained by the door. His silence made it clear that he had no interest in talking with Townsend. Davis had warned Mark that Townsend was almost through. Tim used to be a good detective. Saw things no one else saw. Could pull a confession out of a witness or a guilty party. But he’d screwed up his personal life so badly he was barely fit to be a meter maid, as Mark always threatened.
“We got a dead guy at the library,” Mark said, then added in a lower voice, “Mrs. Davis found him.”
“Ohh…” Townsend mused in a breath that came out as a whistle. So Tim had a fraction of his wits left anyway. He obviously understood that the captain would expect them to handle this case swiftly and professionally.
Mrs. Davis loved her job as head librarian, and she loved the library. She wouldn’t tolerate anything tarnishing its reputation after she’d worked so diligently to get the landmark listed as a historical monument so the city wouldn’t bulldoze it.
Mark followed Captain Davis to the parking area with Townsend trailing behind him. The sound of the middle-aged detective munching on popcorn irritated him. And Mark knew, just as sure as he was walking, that Townsend would want to ride with him so he could spend the time tapping away on his iPhone, which would further grate on him.
Though the man was in his late forties, he spent most of the workday on his phone. Mark had a smart phone too, but he rarely played on it. Too many important things to do. Tim was addicted to surfing online dating sites, though, and when he wasn’t there, he’d play Angry Birds. Mark wouldn’t mind so much if he’d just turn off the volume. But he had to remind Tim that the non-stop squawking was nerve racking.
“You drivin’?” Townsend mumbled around a mouthful of popcorn as they approached their unmarked patrol cars. It wasn’t his vehicle, of course, but each detective had their own car, which they treated as though it were theirs. And unlike Townsend’s vehicle that smelled like day-old coffee and fried food, Mark kept his cruiser free of fast-food bags and it always smelled fresh.
“Not if you’re eating,” Mark barked over his shoulder. “It’ll take months for that smell to disappear.”
“Sheesh, Waters,” Townsend grumbled. “So cranky this morning. Had it out with the woman?” he snickered.
Mark ignored Townsend, but realized he was allowing his personal life to affect his attitude at work. Only twenty-nine and he sounded like an old man even to himself. Of course, having an eight-month-pregnant girlfriend who didn’t know what she wanted was enough to drive any man insane.
Ashlyn was beautiful and wonderful, though. One of the smartest women he’d ever dated. Even pregnant, she’d finished her bachelor’s degree and was interning at a publishing house. Her initial thought was that she’d wanted to run a business, but then a friend offered her a summer internship, and she fell in love with the idea of publishing. When they’d offered her a full-time position, even while pregnant, she’d decided immediately to start her new career.
His thoughts traveled to their time together this morning. He’d driven her to the train station as she’d requested, but he hadn’t wanted to let her go.
He’d heard her mother’s snide remarks when they’d visited her during a 4th of July cookout. Without him being there, she’d be free to spew her rubbish. Ashlyn’s mother had insisted that she could do so much better than attaching herself to “a cop”, as she’d so rudely insinuated.
It didn’t matter that he’d been running his own online business for years. He’d actually set up the website for his widowed mother as something to do in her spare time. But the couponing website had become so popular that he’d ended up having to manage it. His mother hunted down all the promotions, and he took care of everything else behind the scenes.
Of course, Ashlyn’s mother had the ridiculous idea that Ashlyn needed to marry a doctor or lawyer. The scorned woman couldn’t imagine that Ashlyn didn’t need a man to take care of her, even though she had one who wanted to with everything he had. If only Mark could make her mother see. Though he knew Ashlyn didn’t care about her mother’s opinion of him, he knew it’d be one less stress on her. He supposed the only way to convince her mother would be to wave his bank statement in front of her face.
Despite the fact that Ashlyn’s previous boyfriends had been ultra wealthy, she insisted that Mark was everything she wanted in a man. As well as Mark did financially, he couldn’t compete with their ultra-wealth, but at least he had some competition in the looks department.
Ashlyn had always told him how much she loved that he kept in shape but didn’t have the physique of a bodybuilder, just tall and lean. And she’d always commented on his green eyes and insisted on running her hands through his dark hair, which he’d let grow out a little for her benefit, but still kept it short enough that the cowlicks didn’t get out of control. She loved his curls; he of course, hated them, as most guys did.
And they enjoyed doing everything together, so what else did she want? Why would a woman say you were everything she’d ever wanted, but then run away days later? Granted, she’d accepted his ring, but she refused to discuss a wedding date, insisting she needed to take care of a few loose ends in her past first.
Forcing his attention back to his job, Mark parallel parked behind the captain’s police-issued Crown Vic. His eyes darted to the nineteenth-century structure you’d expect to see on a French countryside, not a Pennsylvania city founded on coal mining. He had an affinity for old buildings, but not as much as he used to after his last experience inside an old train station turned restaurant, something Ashlyn and he had promised never to speak of again.
He exited his cruiser and glanced up at the edifice with its high slanted roof and dormer gables straight out of the renaissance era. No gaudy colors, just soft gray limestone and medina stone. The old building emanated stateliness. The decorative trim over every door and window beckoned passersby to come in and discover its mysteries.
Pushing through the black-iron gate, Mark smiled as he remembered coming here when he was a young boy. Every Saturday morning, Mrs. Davis would gather the students around a massive marble fireplace for story time. But before she’d start reading, she’d pass the book around to the students. Each child had to inhale the pages, thereby infusing the scent and memory as one into their subconscious.
Mark recalled the scent as having the same rustic aroma of an oak tree after it had fallen in the woods, reminding him of the couple of times he’d sat next to his father while he’d hunted. When the breeze had blown just right, a sweet pungent smell of the rotting wood wafted into the tree stand.
As a boy, he’d thought the old books were slowly rotting away too, and now the two memories would forever share space in his heart and soul. He also distinctively remembered a delicate hint of jasmine. Then again, he’d sat so close to Mrs. Davis, anxious to receive every word, that it could have been her.
He’d recognized the scent since his mother had planted jasmine in the backyard. The rambling vine had spread across the patio and up the fence, filling his summer days with a memorable scent that would forever remind him of his mother and father sipping tea on the back porch before dinner.
Mark ran his hands down the smooth worn wood that framed the door as he entered the library, relishing in the intricate craftsmanship and design.
As soon as he stepped over the threshold, though, his phone buzzed. He glanced at the screen then shot a questioning look over his shoulder at Davis, holding his phone up as a request before answering her call. “Ashlyn’s traveling, and I’m a little worried. Do you mind?”
Davis waved him off. “Nah. Go ahead. The old man’s dead. He ain’t going anywhere.”
Mark cocked his head at Davis’ lackadaisical comment, but said, “Thanks” and clicked ‘answer’, strolling toward the walkway adjacent the library. “Hey, babe! Your mom picked you up already?”
“Not yet,” she said, her voice attempting to compete with the racket in the background.
Mark plugged his right ear so he could hear. “She on her way?”
“Yeah,” she said. “She texted me a couple seconds ago, saying she’d be here in a few minutes.”
He grumbled a half-hearted, “Great,” his blood boiling at her mother’s lack of concern for anyone other than herself. What woman leaves her eight-month-pregnant daughter waiting at a train station? He knew he should have talked her out of going.
“Mark,” she broke him out of his thoughts, “hang on. Let me get to some place quieter.” He heard her breaths, and then the noise seemed to lessen as if someone had turned off the volume with a twist of a knob. “I’m fine,” she finally said, and he could hear the echo. She must have gone in the restroom. “You really need to stop worrying about me. Okay?”
“That’s not going to happen anytime soon, Ash. It’s what I do.”
She laughed. “I know. Your mother warned me, said you’ve been worried about her since you were ten.”
“Well, I was the man of the house. It’s what was expected.”
“I’m fine. I just need to clear my head,” she said, touching on the subject she obviously knew really worried him.
They’d been dating for six months and everything seemed to be going well. Just the last month had been rough. He’d stop by her house and find her crying. When he asked, her answer was always, “nothing.” He’d done some research and had chalked it up to hormones until she’d suggested spending the last month of her pregnancy with her mother. Her announcement had floored him. She and her mother fought like cats and dogs. Nothing Ashlyn ever did was good enough for her mother.
“I understand…” he answered her, doing his utmost not to sound whiny. He hated guys who whined. Though really, he didn’t understand, since everything seemed to go sour after he’d proposed. He thought it was what she’d wanted. They’d spoken of marriage several times in the last few months. It shouldn’t have blindsided her, but apparently, she wanted to take care of issues created by her ex before she committed to a date. Whereas Mark thought it’d be good to be married before the baby was born. “I just wish you were—”
“Hey, babe,” Ashlyn cut in, “Mom just texted me that she’s pulling in, so I should go. I’ll call you tonight before I go to bed, okay?”
He gulped down his despair, wanting to give her all the space she needed, but also wanting to understand what more she wanted. “Sure. Love you. Oh, and, Ash…make sure she’s not texting while driving.”
“Okay, worrywart.” She laughed. “And I love you too, so stop worrying,” she replied, and then the line went quiet.
Mark closed his eyes and inhaled a deep breath, attempting to calm himself before going inside to do his job. The sweet scent of jasmine hit him and he inhaled again, turning to look for the source. He hadn’t seen the familiar vine around the entrance, and he didn’t suspect that he could smell Mrs. Davis from outside unless she’d suddenly started dousing herself in all sorts of jasmine products.
“Are you the detective?” A soft voice at his six startled him. Rarely was someone able to sneak up behind him.
Mark whipped around to see a stunning redhead at the end of the stone walkway. She was leaning against the wall as if she’d been standing there all morning, just waiting until he finished his phone call.
He thought back to his conversation, wondering if he should be embarrassed about anything he’d said. “Um…yeah. Mark Waters.” He always gave his entire name, which usually prompted the other person to do the same. “And you are…” He left his words dangling, hoping she’d fill in the blank.
“Jay. I volunteer here.”
He should have guessed she was a librarian by the button-to-the-top white blouse and black skirt, her scarlet hair clipped high on top of her head. The only thing that was missing was the glasses. But based on her age—he guessed her to be about twenty-two—she probably didn’t need them yet.
Not knowing where the man had died, he gestured to the front door. “Did you know the deceased?”
She nodded, then released a soft groan. “He was the sweetest old man. We started playing chess about six months ago, but sometimes I’d just listen as he talked about his family. Why would they kill him?”
“That was going to be my next question.” He took a step toward her, thinking she was a good person to start his investigation with, but in response, she stepped away. He stopped his forward momentum, and instead, mirrored her pose, crossing his arms over his chest. “You said ‘they’? Who’re ‘they’?”
Jay shrugged her shoulders. “Whoever did this.”
“What was the man’s name?”
“His friends called him Buck.”
“Friends?” Mark uncrossed his arms and sat on the edge of the brick wall, hoping she’d loosen up a bit. Normally when he crossed his arms in reaction to a witness’ pose and then uncrossed them, they’d follow suit. Jay remained where she was, however, her arms folded over her chest to protect her from anyone getting too close. If she were sitting, she’d have her legs crossed too, he suspected. “Did Buck belong to a book club?”
She bit down on her lip, her head lowering in her distress. “No. Buck was homeless. We have many homeless people who loiter around the library, especially as the temperature starts to drop. They stay as late as possible, then usually find a place to sleep for the night, and then are here waiting for us to unlock the doors in the morning.”
“Did you find him?” he asked, even though Davis had said his wife found the man.
“No. Mrs. Davis found him.”
“Do you remember anyone ever arguing with him?” He rephrased the question she’d answered before he’d asked her. Maybe she didn’t think someone would have wanted to kill the man, but maybe she’d seen something she’d forgotten.
She shrugged. “Not really. Only the normal stuff. Homeless people tend to ramble on to no one in particular, so most people don’t pay them any mind. As long as they’re not tarnishing their area. Then there are others like Buck. Buck was a good man; he didn’t belong here.”
Mark nodded, noticing the woman had a soft spot for the homeless community, evidently from the time spent with them. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a business card, offering it to her. “Here’s my number. Call me—”
The young woman refused the card, shaking her head. “I know how to find you. I don’t have any pockets, so I’d just lose it.”
He couldn’t help but smile at her remark, and though she struggled, her lips edged up for an instant and then fell again. Her amber-colored eyes filled with sorrow. Sad. She was beautiful. And too young to experience this kind of hurt, but he saw it all the time.
Her skin was a creamy ivory color with a flush of pink across her cheeks that counteracted the grief in her eyes. The young woman had a Gaelic look to her as Ashlyn did, except that she was shorter, more soft spoken. And instead of Ashlyn’s strawberry-blond hair, Jay had fiery red hair, a deep crimson shade that looked as if it might burst into flames at any moment.
Not that he was interested. He loved Ashlyn. But he still recognized a beautiful woman when he saw one. And even if Ashlyn ended their relationship tomorrow, he wouldn’t date a younger woman.
At twenty-three, Ashlyn was only six years younger than he was, but it was the furthest he was going. If Ashlyn were even a couple years older, she probably wouldn’t be thinking so much about setting a wedding date. They were a perfect couple. They enjoyed each other’s company, liked the same things, had similar goals and dreams. Or maybe Mark just thought they wanted the same things in life.
He turned his attention back to the woman in front of him, instead of the one who was hours away. “Can I get your phone number, then, in case I have a question?”
“I live in a dorm and I don’t have a phone.” She pushed herself away from the wall and walked toward the entrance. “As I said, I know where to find you.”
“Okay.” Mark knew better than to press a potential witness in public. Unless she was a suspect—and he had evidence proving she was a suspect—all he could do was hope that she’d cooperate. Behind closed doors, on the other hand, he’d get them to break, find out what they were hiding. Even if they weren’t guilty, witnesses tended to get scared, especially when it came to a murder investigation.
He watched for a couple of seconds as the young woman walked toward the entrance, and then turning away, lifted his phone to text Ashlyn. He just wanted to make sure she wasn’t sitting in the train station. Train stations were some of the scariest places for a single young woman to be alone. But being so far along in her pregnancy, she hadn’t wanted to take even the short flight to her mother’s house. At least it was better than a bus.
Ashlyn texted him back immediately: In the car with Mom. Love you, worrywart. :) <3
He sent back a smiley face and heart in response and made his way to the front door again.
“’Bout time,” Captain called, gesturing to the back doors. “Forensics is on the way. Everything good with Ash?”
“Yeah, she’s spending a few weeks with her mother before the baby comes,” Mark said as nonchalantly as he could muster, but Davis and Townsend raised their eyebrows in unison. A shadow of a smile crossed Townsend’s face, but Davis at least had the decency to look concerned.
It wasn’t as though Townsend and Mark hung out. The middle-aged man just liked to hear stories, and men in relationships didn’t talk about their women the way single men did. When a man loves a woman, he doesn’t share sweet or juicy details. The last thing a man wants is for another man to think about his woman in that way. Not that men wouldn’t anyway. He couldn’t imagine there was a man alive who would look at Ashlyn and not instantly fantasize about her.
With her long legs, perfectly proportioned curves, and flowing strawberry-blond hair, she was a walking pin-up girl. The kind of woman magazines hired to advertise crotch rockets and muscle cars. Not pregnant of course, but he hadn’t seen any fewer heads turn after she started showing. If anything, he swore she got more attention.
Mark shot a glance around the library for Jay, but she must have gone straight to work. Oh well, she didn’t sound as if she was ready to talk even if she did know something. He’d give her a couple of days and then show up unannounced. Mark followed the group out the rear doors to the patio area.
Although bits of mortar were yellowish and crumbling, the vine-covered brick wall surrounding the area stood tall and sturdy. And he found the source of the jasmine. For a moment, he’d wondered if it was Jay’s perfume.
Only one exit existed on the far right side of the courtyard. The shiny black-iron gate appeared to have recently received a fresh coat of spray paint and looked solid, so they must have left it unlocked.
He quickened his pace to catch up with Mrs. Davis. When he placed his hand on her forearm, she jumped. But the moment she made eye contact with him, she looked as though she wanted to collapse in his arms. Her eyes were bloodshot, but a gentle smile creased the corners of her lips and eyes.
“Markey,” she said through a sigh, giving him a sideways hug. “I don’t see enough of you, young man.”
He smiled at the woman and her sweet nickname for him. Few people called a six-four cop ‘Markey’ and got away with it, but she always would. He’d never understood why a woman like Margaret Davis had married Captain Davis. She was so mild mannered, and Davis had all the gentleness of a bull. Though, not around her. When Davis was with his wife, he was a different man, as though her kindness slayed the wild beast.
“I know, Mrs. Davis. I just can’t seem to fit story time into my schedule. I miss it though.” He inhaled deeply, thankful the cool September morning had preserved the dead guy enough that he hadn’t begun to smell yet.
Her smile grew. “I told you that you’d never forget. It’s calming, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is,” Mark agreed. “The scent takes me back. I can almost hear you reading James and the Giant Peach. I think I was seven at the time, but I can still recall the voices you used for each insect.”
Obviously remembering why he was here, Mrs. Davis leaned against him as they approached the homeless man.
Mark focused his eyes on the closed gate again and then scanned the rest of the patio. “Is the gate locked?”
“Yes. We usually open it in the morning and then lock it before we leave. That’s what I was coming out to do when I saw him.”
“But it was locked when you got here?”
Covering her mouth, she nodded her answer.
“And according to your husband, there’s a security system attached to all the doors and windows, but not the patio gate, right?”
“Yes,” she choked out.
“Is it possible someone locked two people out here, and they fought and then one slipped by you this morning?”
Mrs. Davis quickly moved her head back and forth. “I checked, Markey. I locked up last night, and I opened this morning. I may seem old, since you were a child when I’d read to you, but I’m only fifty-three, young man,” she tapped her temple, “and my mind is as sharp as it was when I was twenty-three. No one was on the patio either time.”
Mark inspected the walls again. Ten feet, he’d guess. Some people could scale them, but… Mark scrutinized the man on the ground. He appeared to be in his seventies. Long tattered overcoat, shabby work boots. His hands were tanned dark with years of dirt embedded under his fingernails. But there were no scratches on his hands from the vine, no dust from the crumbling brick.
He couldn’t envision this seventy-year-old homeless guy climbing the wall. Why would he? The patio held nothing special, no salvation from the elements, no fire pit to keep warm.
The brick-lined courtyard just had a few picnic tables and shrubbery. Marble chess pieces sat on a painted chessboard atop one of the concrete tables. That must have been where Jay and the old man had played chess.
How could someone have murdered the man inside the enclosure and then disappear? More than likely, Mrs. Davis had been mistaken about locking someone out here, but Mark would never challenge her assertion.
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