Bella and Katie were stretched out on the couch, still wearing their princess dresses and watching Wall-E when Katie’s phone buzzed. Katie glanced down at the caller ID, hoping it wasn’t Brandon again. If it was, he was going to get a piece of her mind, Bella or no. She was relieved to see Rebecca’s name pop up.
“Bella, I need to take this. Can we pause the movie?”
“Of course.” She smiled. “I’m going to brush my teeth and put my pajamas on. You do the same,” she playfully commanded then skipped off to the bathroom.
Katie headed to the bedroom, shut the door, and answered the phone. “Hey, Becca! How are my best friend and future niece or nephew doing?” She asked.
“We’re both fine. It’s been a strange couple of weeks. The baby’s kicking is getting harder. I’m not going to lie, it’s a strange feeling.” Rebecca laughed.
“I can imagine. So, what’s up?”
“Do you have time to talk?” Rebecca’s tone turned serious.
“I’m watching Bella tonight, but I can spare a few minutes,” she replied. “What’s wrong?”
“Well, spit it out,” Katie said.
“You haven’t answered Brandon’s calls.”
“Look, if you called to talk about Brandon I’m hanging up,” Katie angrily whispered. She didn’t want Bella to hear her yell. “He and I are done. He made that perfectly clear last year.”
“Hey, I’m not calling to plead his case. He was an ass, he deserves your anger. But Katie, he’s hurting. He regrets that call. I want you to understand that.”
“Good, I’m glad he’s hurting. It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for me—especially the last few days. Honestly, I was just starting to get over him and he starts calling. No doubt he wants to beg for my forgiveness. Well I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood.
You go ahead and pass that message on for me.”
Rebecca sighed. “I will, but Katie, that’s not why he’s been calling.”
“What other reason could there be? It’s not like I’m his press contact anymore.”
“It’s about a case, Katie,” Rebecca stated solemnly. Katie inhaled. Rebecca sounded serious—grave, even.
Apparently this was a big deal. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” “I’m fine,” she replied.
“Is Brandon okay?” The question slipped out before she could censor herself. Damn, now she’s going to know I still care.
“Brandon’s fine. It’s you we’re worried about.”
“Me? What could a Columbia case have to do with me? I’m in New York.”
“Katie, there was a murder.”
“A murder? Was it someone I know?”
“No, it was a student at the University. I highly doubt your paths ever crossed.”
“Can you give me a name?”
Rebecca was silent for a moment. “This is off the record, understand?”
“Her name’s Alaina Watson. She was a senior studying Literature. That’s really all I know.”
“You know more. You did the autopsy. Can you tell me more?”
“Katie, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to discuss that over the phone. I’ll send you my report and photos. Just don’t open it with a kid in your place.”
“Okay, I won’t.”
“As far as the investigation goes, Brandon’s in charge.
You’ll need to talk to him.”
“Rebecca, what makes you think this has to do with me?” “Call Brandon. He can tell you more,” she answered. “Katie, can we start the movie again?” Bella called from the other room. “I’m wearing my pajamas and I brushed my teeth.” “Rebecca, I’ve got to go. I’m being summoned. I’ll call you tomorrow?”
“Okay. But Katie?” “Yes.”
“Talk to Brandon,” Rebecca said then hung up the phone.
Katie quickly changed out of her dress and into her pajamas then went into the living room. Bella was sitting on the couch, an open photo album in her lap.
“Now what are you looking at?” Katie smiled. Bella rolled her eyes. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Katie chuckled. “Bella, you are far too young to be sarcastic.”
“Never mind. I’ll explain when you’re older.”
Bella frowned. “Why do I always have to wait until I’m older?”
Katie smiled but ignored the question. “So, any particular pictures you like?”
“I like this one.” She giggled and placed her little finger on a photo.
Katie took the album from her lap and stared at the picture.
It was a photo from the graduation party Brandon’s parents had thrown for her. Katie was wearing a black strapless dress and the diamond studs Brandon had given her as a graduation gift.
Subconsciously, Katie rubbed her ear. She still wore them. In the photo, Brandon was pulling her close. They were both smiling brightly. Katie remembered the moment this picture was taken. They were so happy, so in love.
“Who’s that man? He’s handsome. Is he your Prince Charming?”
“He was,” Katie whispered, admiring Brandon’s wide smile, straight teeth, and mesmerizing blue eyes. A tear fell down her face and she quickly wiped it away. Apparently it hadn’t been quick enough.
“Don’t cry Katie! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry,” Bella said in her sweet voice.
“No, it’s okay.”
“Okay. Can I ask you one more question about him? Then we’ll be done. I promise.”
Katie was about to say no, but the pleading look in Bella’s eyes convinced her otherwise. “Of course. What do you want to know?”
“Why isn’t he your Prince Charming anymore? Don’t you love him anymore?”
Katie thought for a bit. Of course she still loved him. But it was complicated. She searched for the words to explain her situation to a five-year-old.
“Sorry. Yes, I still love him.” Another tear escaped her eye. “But our jobs got in the way. I moved out here and he didn’t. We just couldn’t make it work.”
“Oh Katie, you adults always make things hard.” Bella sighed. “As long as there’s love, then everything else will work out. You all just need to accept that. Like the song says, ‘all you need is love’.” Bella set the album aside. She was completely unaware of the wisdom of her words. “Now, let’s finish our movie.”
“Okay,” Katie replied, hiding her pain. She pulled out a large throw blanket and placed it over them. Bella snuggled close to her.
“I love you Katie. I know you miss your Prince Charming, but I’m glad you came here.”
Katie smiled. “I love you too.” She gave Bella a quick kiss on her forehead then pressed play.
Columbia, MO 2:00 A.M.
Brandon’s phone woke him from a fitful sleep. He checked the clock. It was two in the morning. Calls this early could only mean trouble. Without lifting his head, he fumbled for the phone and answered. “Hughes.”
“Hi, Brandon. Sorry for calling so late. Rebecca said we needed to talk.”
Brandon started. He had not expected to hear Katie’s voice on the other end of the line. Still, he was glad she called. “Katie, hi. It’s good to hear your voice,” he mumbled. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” she whispered. “Busy but okay. How about you?”
Miserable without you, he wanted to say. “The same.” “Good. So, why have you been calling these last couple of days?” she whispered once again.
Brandon could hear the irritation in her voice. He knew this wasn’t a pleasant conversation for her. “Why are you whispering?” he asked, ignoring her question.
“I don’t want to wake Bella.” She sighed.
“My next-door neighbor’s daughter. We’re having a princess party sleepover.”
Brandon smiled. Katie had always loved kids. He could just picture her walking around the house in a fancy dress, dancing along to music. He wished he could be there to join them.
Katie’s voice interrupted his fantasy. “Sorry. I’m still half asleep,” he lied.
“So, why did you call? Rebecca said it had something to do with a case.”
“Well, there was a murder on campus the other night. It was particularly brutal,” he explained.
“I’m sorry. Rebecca told me about the victim. I know college students are especially difficult for you,” Katie whispered.
“Thanks. I feel bad for her parents. No parent should ever have to bury a child.” He felt the familiar tug at his heart.
“So, what does this murder have to do with me?”
“Well the victim…” Brandon stumbled. There was no easy way to say this.
“Well, she looked almost exactly like you.”
Katie sighed. “Brandon, there are lots of tall girls with brown hair and blue eyes. It’s probably just a coincidence.”
“No, Katie, that’s not all. There’s more.”
Katie could hear the fear in his voice. It made her skin crawl. “Yes?” she whispered. She was terrified to hear what he had to say.
“The victim was found on the bench by the Journalism School—the one you used all the time. And Kate...”
Katie held her breath. Brandon only called her Kate when something was wrong. “Yes.”
“Her ID had your name written on it.”
New York City, NY 9:00 A.M.
At nine o’clock in the morning, Jane knocked on Katie’s door to claim Bella.
“Did you get some sleep, love?” She smiled at Bella.
“Of course, Mom. Katie is really good about sticking to a bedtime.”
Jane laughed. “Of course she is. What is that you have in your hand?” Jane asked, pointing to the picture.
“Oh, Katie gave me this. It’s her Prince Charming.” She smiled.
“Oh,” Jane replied then looked at Katie. Jane knew about Brandon. They had spoken several months ago.
“She found it last night while I was changing into my pajamas. I didn’t realize I still had it,” Katie explained.
“Isn’t he handsome, Mama?”
“Yes, he’s very handsome,” she stated. It was true. He was tall and had a swimmer’s muscular build. His sandy blonde hair complimented his sky-blue eyes. He and Katie certainly made a good-looking couple.
“Are you sure it’s okay that she keeps it?” Jane asked. She didn’t want to take a memory from Katie.
“Of course. I don’t need it anymore.” “Well, if you’re sure.”
“I am.” Katie tried to hide the tears gathering in her eyes.
“Okay. Well, thanks so much for letting her stay last night.” “Oh, it was no problem. We had a great time. We took lots of pictures. I’ll send them to you.” Katie smiled.
“I look forward to it.” Jane smiled back. “Now let’s go, Bella. Katie has to get to work.”
Bella nodded and wrapped her arms around Katie. “I love you, Katie.”
“Love you too, pretty princess.” Katie smiled then waved as they went into their apartment.
Katie’s eyes teared up as she stepped onto the street and headed towards work. Fortunately, her fellow pedestrians were far too busy to notice her sad state. She marveled at the simple wisdom of the words Bella had said the night before. As long as there’s love, then everything else will work out. Still, it only worked if both people loved each other. Brandon had firmly rejected her after she’d moved to New York. Actually, it had begun before that. In all honesty, she should have seen the breakup coming.
Things started going downhill after his dad died. Brandon became moody and even mean at times. At first she hadn’t thought much of it. She knew it was hard losing a loved one. She had lost her grandmother when she was in high school and the loss had been devastating. She knew she’d been a pain to be around, but eventually she got back to normal. She theorized that the same would happen with Brandon, but he’d continued down his dark path. In the first few weeks he’d cried in the dark. Katie would hold him and soothe him to sleep. After that he snapped at everyone, including her and his brother. Katie made sure to call him out on it, to remind him that she was not his verbal whipping post. He’d eventually moved on from that stage to just being depressed all the time.
Frankly, getting a job offer from The Times had been just what she needed. She thought, with just a little time away from each other, things would smooth out. Besides, he enthusiastically encouraged her to take the job, so she had. Never once had they discussed ending the relationship. On the contrary, she had made it clear she wanted to stay together. She just assumed he was on board. But the day she moved all that changed. She called him when she got into her new apartment to let him know she arrived safely. Instead of the relief she expected to hear, he had told her that the distance thing would just not work for him and that he wanted to take a break. Katie had pleaded with him to reconsider, but he refused and hung up on her. Sure, last night he’d sounded sincere. And he had left that voicemail saying that he missed her, but Katie was not quite ready to forgive him.
Katie pushed the unpleasant memories out of her head as she sat down at her desk and checked her email. Just as promised, Rebecca had sent her several attachments. Most were pictures; the other was the official autopsy report. Katie debated as to which she should check first. No doubt both would be disturbing. Eventually she decided on the autopsy report.
Katie clicked on the attachment then began reading. About halfway through, she felt like she would puke. The poor girl had been tortured and raped. Rebecca suspected a cattle prod was used to violate her. Katie cringed. Whoever had done this was human in name only, for surely they had no soul. She considered saving the photos for later but changed her mind. Better to get it done with all at once. The longer she prolonged it, the worse it would get.
She spent the morning scanning through the photos.
Brandon was right: she did look a lot like her. To a casual observer, it would be easy to misidentify her as Katie. Fortunately, both Rebecca and Brandon always looked deeper. By the time she finished viewing the crime scene and autopsy photos, the initial shock of the crime had worn off. Now, instead of being filled with fear and disgust, Katie’s mind began to work like an investigative reporter. She reopened the crime scene photos and studied them; she did the same to the autopsy photos. By lunchtime she had a list of distinct characteristics, right down to the two square inches of skin removed right above the victim’s right hip. The position of it sent a shiver down Katie’s spine. It was in almost the exact same spot as the tattoo she had gotten when she graduated.
Katie pushed the unpleasant thoughts from her head then put the information into ViCAP—essentially the FBI’s version of Google. You could type in different search terms and the site would provide you with a list of similar reported crimes. Katie was shocked when a list of nine other nearly identical crimes popped up. All of the murders took place on March 27th and had started ten years ago. All of the victims had brown hair and blue eyes, just like Katie. Alaina, the most recent victim, was the only woman who hadn’t been a prostitute. Katie made a note of that. It was a deviation from the norm for this killer, which meant it was important. By one o’clock, Katie was sure they had a serial killer on their hands; a serial killer focused on her. She was just about to call Rebecca when Ken, the new intern who was in charge of mail delivery, stopped at her desk.
“Good afternoon, Katie,” he said, slightly less than cheerful. In all honesty the man looked like he was suffering from a particularly epic hangover.
“Good afternoon Ken. Wild night last night?” Katie attempted to hide her smile. She had experienced plenty of those nights, although she was usually smart enough to wait until the weekend.
“You could say that,” he mumbled. “I have an envelope for
“Thanks,” she said then took the mail. Ken gave her a half- hearted wave then continued down the corridor. Katie shook her head then opened her mail.
At first she thought the envelope was empty. When she looked in she saw nothing. Why would anyone send an empty envelope? Perplexed, she turned the envelope upside down and shook. Seconds later, a single photograph floated onto her desk. Katie flipped the picture over and screamed.