Katie groaned at her desk as she popped two ibuprofens into her mouth and washed them down with lukewarm coffee. “I am never drinking again,” she said to no one in particular.
“Oh shut your mouth,” Nicole’s high pitched voice chirped through the cubicle partition. “You know it’s not true,” she continued, popping her head over the wall.
“No, this time I mean it,” Katie grumbled. She had arrived home at midnight—two long hours’ past her original planned departure time. Dick had monopolized the evening, talking about his fantastic travels in London. It was all Katie could do not to call him out on his crap. Every description he made of the city was epically wrong. She would know: she had spent a month there in high school then gone again in college. In order to distract herself, Katie had drunk much more wine than she intended. Finally, at 11:00, the bartender announced last call. Katie downed her last glass of wine, paid her tab, and hustled out of the bar with a false promise to catch up with Dick later.
“Just drink some more coffee. You’ll be fine.” Nicole smiled.
Katie gave a half smile in reply. “Okay, Doctor Irvine,” she grumbled then shoved her earbuds in and got back to work.
Columbia, MO 8:00 A.M.
Rebecca finished typing the final autopsy report. It was cold, clinical, and quite honestly largely devoid of any useful information. She had determined the various types of weapons used on Alaina, but they were all so common that Brandon would have a hard time definitively pinning them to one person. The cuts were made by a relatively small knife—most likely a steel hunting knife. The bruises were made by a combination of fists and baseball bat or something similar. The electrical burns were created by a cattle prod.
With the report finished, Rebecca printed a copy for the physical files then sent the digital file to both Brandon and his boss. Once she completed that task, she walked upstairs to the forensics lab, maybe they had found more than she had.
Brandon studied the couple sitting in front of him. James and Denise Watson were huddled together on one side of the conference table. Denise’s thin, pale hand, grasped her husband’s strong one. James had a long, oval shaped face, brown eyes, and brown hair that was graying at the temples. Denise was petite with tawny hair. Her eyes, which he determined to be a greenish-blue, appeared crystalline due to the amount of tears she had shed. Her smooth skin was marred by red splotches from the seemingly unending tears. She’d already gone through an entire box of tissues and Brandon hadn’t even started asking questions yet. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said genuinely. “I understand this is a difficult time for you. I just have a few questions to ask, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. Anything we can do to help,” Mr. Watson declared. “And please, call me James.”
“Thank you. James, could you tell me when you last heard from Alaina?”
“She called Sunday afternoon around noon. She said she was on her way to a coffee shop to study for a bit, then she’d head home,” he answered.
“Did she happen to mention what coffee shop?” “No, I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. There are a few downtown that the students frequent. I’ll check those out,” Brandon said. “Could you tell me if Alaina had any personal issues she was dealing with? Maybe a boyfriend or ex-boyfriend?”
“N-n-o.” Mrs. Watson sniffled. “Alaina didn’t date much.
She was focusing on school. She was supposed to graduate in May. She’s already been accepted to grad school in New York. It’s starting in the fall. She and her best friend were going to Europe this summer to tour libraries,” the middle-aged woman sobbed.
James wrapped one of his arms around his wife and pulled her close.
“Thank you for that information. I appreciate it,” Brandon said tenderly. “Where was Alaina living?”
“She and her best friend shared a duplex off of Rock Quarry Road,” James answered.
“I searched property records and her name wasn’t anywhere. Was the lease in someone else’s name?”
“Yes. The lease is under my name,” James said “Alaina didn’t have a job. We wanted her to focus on school. We signed the lease so she’d have a place to live. You know how landlords are.” He shrugged “I can give you the address if you’d like.”
Brandon nodded his understanding. Landlords were not fans of renting a place to someone that didn’t have at least a part time job. He’d had the same problem while he was in school. “Yes, I understand and I would appreciate the address.”
James nodded. “Do you have a paper and pen?” Brandon supplied the requested items then watched as
James printed an address on the paper. “Here you go. Feel free to search it. I’m sure my Alaina has nothing to hide. Even if she did, it doesn’t matter now.” His voice wavered for the first time.
“Thank you, sir,” he said to James then addressed the couple. ” You wouldn’t happen to know the names of any of Alaina’s friends, would you?”
“Well, there’s Kelsey Harlow, her best friend and roommate. There are a couple of other acquaintances from class. You’d have to ask Kelsey for those names. She’d know better than we do.”
“I will, thank you. I have one final question then you’re free to go,” Brandon assured them.
“Do you or your wife have any enemies? Anyone that might want to harm you in any way?” Brandon figured the answer to the question was no. He had checked into their background once he found out they were coming. James Watson, Alaina’s father, owned a small but extremely successful printing business in Glendale. No major complaints, either from customers or staff, had appeared in his search. “I know this question seems painful, but I have to ask.”
James nodded. “I understand. I appreciate your thoroughness. The answer is no, we have not received any type of threat or complaint. My business is small but thriving. We have a high rate of return on our clientele and a low rate of turnover among our staff. In fact, I’ve only had one person leave in the past five years. Her name is Patsy Wilson. She left voluntarily to spend more time with her young children.”
“Thank you, sir. That’s all I have for now. Is there anything you’d like to ask?”
“Do you know when we’ll be able to take her home?” Denise sniffed.
“I’m not sure when the ME will release her body. If you can wait a few minutes I’ll call and check.”
“We’d appreciate it, if you don’t mind.”
“It’s no problem. I’ll be right back.” Brandon left the conference room and headed for his desk. He had not shared all of the details of Alaina’s death with her parents. They did not need to hear the graphic details. The details referencing Katie were also being kept quiet for investigative purposes.
Once he reached his desk he made a quick call to the ME’s office. While he was waiting to be transferred he checked his watch.
“Hey, Rebecca. It’s Brandon. I have Alaina Watson’s parents here. They want to know when her body is going to be released.”
“She’ll be ready tomorrow morning,” she replied.
“Thanks,” Brandon said then hung up the phone and headed back to the conference room.
Mr. and Mrs. Watson gazed at him expectantly. “Well, what did they say?”
“Her body will be released tomorrow. We can put you up in a hotel for the night if you would like.”
“Thanks for the offer, but we already have one,” Denise answered.
“Is there anything else you need from us, Detective Hughes,” James asked.
“No. That’s all. Once again, thank you for your help and I’m truly sorry for your loss.”
“You’ll let us know if there is any new information.” Mr.
Watson’s question was more of a statement.
“Of course, sir.” Brandon escorted them out of the conference room to the lobby. He gave them the contact information for the ME then sent them on their way. He felt for the couple. He had lost loved ones before, but never in such a violent manner. The fact that Alaina was their child only compounded that pain—that he was sure of. He only hoped that he would never feel that type of pain.
New York City, NY 6:00 P.M.
A loud knock sounded on Katie’s door at precisely six o’clock. Katie rushed to the door and pulled it open. Bella put on a bright smile then entered the apartment, Jane followed not far behind her, carrying the young child’s overnight bag.
“Are you sure you’re up for this? She’s full of energy and you, my dear, look exhausted.” Jane frowned.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine. Looks can be deceiving.” The statement was true. She was actually wide awake right now. She had started to perk up after lunch. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
“Well, we can’t thank you enough for this.”
“Hey, it’s my pleasure. Now go, have a good time.” Katie smiled. “We’ll get on with our,” Katie turned and glanced at Bella, who was wearing her most detailed princess dress, “pretty princess party I’m guessing.”
Jane chuckled. “You guessed right. Be prepared—she wants you to dress up too. I hope you have something long and sparkly.”
“I’m not sure about sparkly, but I think I can pull off long.” Katie laughed. “Now go, you and Andrew enjoy your night alone. We’ll see you in the morning.”
“Of course. What time do you need us to get her tomorrow?”
“Around nine if you don’t mind. I told my boss I’d be in by ten.”
“Of course. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Hey Bella,” Katie called out, “come say goodbye to your mom.”
Bella walked gracefully over to the door then stood on her tiptoes. “Goodbye, Mama. I love you.”
“Goodbye, Bella. I love you too. Now, you mind Katie and don’t stay up too late.” Jane instructed then left.
Katie shut the door and locked it behind her. “Now, what are we going to do?”
“Well, I think we should have a princess party tonight.” The young girl smiled. “Do you like my dress? It’s new. I was saving it just for tonight,” she bragged then gave a dramatic twirl.
“Oh my,” Katie exaggerated, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful princess!”
Bella gave a genuinely wide smile. “Well thank you.” She curtsied. “We need to find you a princess dress.” She frowned while she studied Katie’s dark skinny jeans and loose fitting button down shirt. “Princesses don’t wear pants.”
“Princesses can wear whatever they want,” Katie declared, “but seeing as this is a formal princess party, I guess I’d better find something more fitting to wear.”
Bella’s face lit up. “Of course,” she exclaimed then grabbed Katie’s hand. “Let’s look in your closet. I’m sure you have something pretty in there.”
Bella was dragging her across the living room towards the bedroom before Katie could respond. Once they were in there, Katie flipped on the lights and Bella ran to the closet, where she began inspecting Katie’s wardrobe. Thirty minutes later, Katie was dressed in a sapphire blue, strapless silk gown and her Prada peep- toe pumps. She had bought both items a few months ago to wear to a charity gala thrown by a prominent contributor to the paper.
Looking at herself in the mirror, Katie once again thanked God that the paper was paying her rent because the outfit had cost a small fortune.
“Wow! You look beautiful, Katie!” Bella’s violet eyes were aglow with wonder. “When I grow up I want to be as pretty as you!”
“Oh stop, Bella. You’re already as beautiful as me. Even more beautiful.” Katie smiled and gave the sweet girl a hug. “Well, now that we both look like the princesses we are, how about we feast on a royal banquet of pizza, soda, and ice cream?”
“Oh yes. A most appropriate royal feast,” Bella agreed.
Katie pulled out her phone and ordered the pizza. As soon as she hung up, Bella grabbed her hand once again and dragged her out into the living room then demanded that Katie give her a proper dancing lesson. Katie laughed then turned on some music and showed Bella how to waltz.
Columbia, MO 6:30 P.M.
“How’s the chicken, dear?” Rebecca asked, giving her husband a kiss.
“Fabulous as always.” He smiled as he placed his hand on her rounded belly. They were expecting their first child in May. “What do you think, Brandon? Aren’t you hungry?”
Brandon stared down at his mostly full plate. Usually he was starving, but tonight he could feel nothing but worry. “Of course. It tastes great, Becca,” he commented then forced himself to eat a few bites.
“Something’s bugging you,” Rebecca stated. “Spit it out.”
Brandon remained silent. He had no doubt Rebecca didn’t want to hear him lament over Katie. They agreed over a year ago after that disastrous call that they would not discuss his and Katie’s relationship. So far he had kept his word, but lately it was getting harder and harder.
“Yo. Earth to Brandon.” Rebecca waved her hand in front of his face, interrupting his thoughts. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on in that pretty boy head?”
Brandon sighed. He hated when she called him a pretty boy, but it got his attention. “I can’t get a hold of Katie. She’s ignoring my calls.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Well of course she is. Can you blame her?”
Brandon shook his head. He couldn’t. Hell, he would probably do the same if the roles were reversed. For the thousandth time he chastised his utter callousness and stupidity. His actions had been moronic. “She needs to know.”
“I know. I’ll call her tonight and talk to her. Stop stressing, she’ll know,” Rebecca assured him. “Now eat your dinner. You’re such a pain to be around when you’re hungry.”
Brandon glanced at his brother, silently asking for help.
Callum shook his head. “You’re on your own this time, big brother. Everything she’s saying is right—as usual.” He chuckled, his bright green eyes dancing with laughter.
“Thanks, you’re a big help,” Brandon muttered then dug into his food.
While he ate, Brandon watched his brother and sister-in- law interact. He found himself envying their relationship since Katie left. Callum ran the family winery. Technically both he and Callum were co-owners. Their father, Sean Hughes, had bequeathed it to them when he died three years ago. Callum currently ran the day-to-day activities of the winery, but Brandon helped out when he could.
Brandon had been a rookie detective when his father passed. He knew about the bequeath—his dad had told him about it right after he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Although he gave half the business to Brandon, his father had encouraged him to stay with the police. He knew Brandon loved it. His philosophy was the winery would be there if he ever decided to leave the force.
His father’s cancer moved fast and hard. A little over a month after his diagnosis, Sean died in the ICU of the University Hospital. The next few months had been hard. Brandon found himself going towards a dark place. He was angry all the time, snapping at whoever got in his way. Despite all that, Katie had stayed with him.
Katie had been his rock through that whole ordeal. She set him straight when he acted unfairly, both to her and others. She held him as he cried and comforted his inner aching. Eventually, with her help, he had pulled himself out of that darkness; but still, he had not fully recovered. He could still be moody and temperamental. He suspected that was part of the reason Katie had gone to New York. It wasn’t the main reason, but it was definitely a contributor, even if it was only a subconscious one.
Once they finished dinner, Brandon helped Callum clean the kitchen while Rebecca sat down and turned the TV to the excitement that was March Madness.
“You definitely lucked out, Callum. Not many women live for college basketball,” Brandon commented.
“Yeah. I knew she was a keeper when she suggested comparing brackets.” Callum smiled then looked into Brandon’s blue eyes. “Don’t worry, Brandon. Things will work out for you. I can feel it.”
Brandon nodded. “I should go,” he said once the dishes were done. “You and Rebecca deserve some privacy.”
“Brandon, you’re always welcome. You’re family,” Callum argued.
“No, I need to leave. I have a lot of work to do. I need to figure out an interview list and schedule for tomorrow.”
“Well, okay. Just promise me you won’t go home and sulk in the dark. It’s not good for you.”
“I don’t sulk,” Brandon grumbled.
“You sulk,” Callum replied. “Now promise me.” “Okay, I promise I won’t do something I never do,” he
Callum rolled his eyes. “Good.”
Brandon nodded then headed to the couch and gave Rebecca a kiss on her cheek. “You promise to call Katie tonight.”
“Cross my heart.” She smiled.
“Okay. Tell her I say hi,” he said then walked out the front door and made his way to his off-duty vehicle. Two minutes later, he and his vintage Mustang were speeding down the road to his house.