(Faces of Evil #3)
Agent Jess Harris is back in another thrilling installment of Debra Webb's Faces of Evil series.
Jess is ready to start the next chapter in her life as the new deputy chief of Birmingham's major crimes division. But with her first love, Chief of Police Dan Burnett, acting as her new boss, it looks like Jess won't be able to put the past behind her that easily.
Jess has decided to focus all of her attention on work when a celebrated ballet instructor is found dead by one of her students. Though Jess's instincts tell her otherwise, the death is ruled an accident, and the case is assigned to another division. Still, Jess can't shake the feeling that there's more to the story, and her investigation leads her into the worlds of Birmingham's gang culture and its powerful elite.
Now Jess's investigation has dug a little too deep, and there's a target painted on her own forehead. Will she be able to solve the crime before her own life is in jeopardy?
Cotton Avenue, Birmingham, Alabama
Monday, July 26, 2:45 p.m.
I need an estimate on time of death as soon as possible."
The young doctor who Jess suspected was new to Jefferson County's coroner's office shot her a look from his kneeling position next to the victim. "Chief Harris, I just got here. There's an order to the steps I'm required to take."Definitely new. Once he'd played his part at enough crime scenes he would understand that there was nothing orderly about murder.
Jess rearranged her lips into a smile that was as far from patient as the harried expression on the inexperienced ME's face. "I'm well aware of those steps, Doctor, but"—she glanced down the long center hall to ensure herself that Sergeant Harper was successfully keeping the potential witnesses away from the French doors and windows that overlooked the mansion's palatial gardens—"I have six little girls out back who are in various stages of hysteria and their mothers are chomping at the bit to take them home. I need time of death so I can question them with some reasonable grasp on the timeline we're dealing with here."Before their mothers got any antsier and decided to lawyer up, Jess kept to herself.
The fact was she had heard enough rumors about the typical dance mom mentality to understand that once the shock of this tragedy wore off, things would change. Not only would lawyers be called in but the ladies would close ranks to protect whatever secrets they felt compelled to keep, particularly if those secrets carried any ramifications whatsoever on their daughters' placement on the food chain of this exclusive dance studio.Technically, Jess was supposed to ask if they wanted to have their attorneys present during questioning, but mere technicalities had never hampered her before. With the level of panic among the girls as well as their mothers when Jess first arrived, who would be surprised if she failed to ask if one or more wanted their attorney present?
Unmoved by Jess's explanation, Doctor What's-his-name shifted his attention back to the victim sprawled in an unnatural manner on the unforgiving marble floor. "Like I said, there are steps. I'll get to that one momentarily."
Jess pressed her lips together to prevent saying something she would regret. What was it about this younger generation that prompted such flagrant disrespect? She hitched her bag higher on her shoulder. When she was his age, early thirties she guessed, Jess would never have sassed her elders. She wouldn't do that now, for pity's sake. The notion that she was nearly a decade older than the ME was considerably depressing, but it was a reality she'd learned to deal with since whizzing past the dreaded forty milestone.
Whoever said that sixty was the new thirty was so very full of crap. Forty wasn't even the new thirty.
Well—she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose—there wasn't a thing she could do about getting older. The insolence, however, she refused to stand for. Just because the still-wet-behind-the-ears ME was cute didn't mean she intended to ignore his attitude. "Excuse me ..." He gazed up at her with egregious reluctance. She lifted her eyebrows in question. "Doctor ...?""Schrader. Dr. Harlan Schrader."
"Well, Dr. Schrader, I understand you have steps, but if you would kindly just get your little thermometer out of your nifty bag and give me an approximate time of death I promise I'll be out of your way." She propped her lips into a smile she hoped wasn't too blatantly forged and added the perfunctory magic word, "Please."
"Okay." He held up his gloved hands in a show of dramatic surrender. "I'll do that right now."
"Thank you, Dr. Schrader."
Jess stepped to the door and surveyed the activity beyond the official vehicles cluttering the cobblestoned drive that encircled the massive fountain in front of the house. The historic mansion sat in the middle of seven elegant and rare acres. With any luck the towering oak and pecan trees with their low-slung branches prevented street traffic from identifying the official vehicles ominously gathered. At the street, BPD uniforms guarded the gated entrance to the property in an effort to keep the curious and the newshounds at bay once word hit the airwaves. Having the press show up in droves, and in this posh neighborhood they definitely would, complicated any investigation. Frankly, she was surprised the impressive residence didn't come with its own private security team. Oddly, there was no security, not even at the ornate, towering entry gate, and no housekeeping staff—at least not today.
The crime scene techs had already documented the scene with photographs and video. Prints and trace materials were being collected now in hopes of discovering some sort of usable evidence. Sergeant Harper had gotten the call from BPD's finest at one forty-eight. He and Lieutenant Prescott had rushed over without mentioning that as of today they were no longer assigned to Crimes Against Persons. Suited Jess just fine. Sitting on her laurels until a case was assigned to her new SPU, Special Problems Unit, wasn't how she'd wanted to start off her first week in the department.Then again, foul play had not been established in this case as of yet. Jess considered the position of the body in the foyer next to the grand staircase. It appeared the victim, Darcy Chandler, had fallen over the upstairs railing to her death. Or she'd jumped. Either way, her death was, to their knowledge thus far, unaccompanied and obviously of a violent nature. An investigation was standard protocol.
When she first arrived Jess had followed the techs up the stairs and checked the landing. Her attention wandered there now. The hardwood floor was clear of debris and substances that might have posed a trip hazard or made it slippery. The railing didn't meet the height criteria for current building codes, but with historic homes, and this one dated back to the mid-1800s, features like the railing were grandfathered in. A good thing for those who appreciated history, not so good for Ms. Chandler.
The only odd aspect of the scene Jess had noted so far was that Ms. Chandler's very expensive fuchsia-colored Gucci pumps, which exactly matched the elegant sheath she wore, sat next to the railing on the second floor. The careful placement gave the appearance that she had removed the shoes and positioned them just so as if she feared scarring her favorite pair of designer shoes while taking her fatal dive. Judging by the meticulous organization of her closets as well as the pristine condition of the house in general, the victim was unquestionably a perfectionist to some degree. That could very well explain the decision to remove and set aside her shoes. Maybe. But in Jess's opinion the shoes merited a closer look."I would estimate time of death," Dr. Schrader announced, drawing Jess's attention back to him as he checked his wristwatch, "at between twelve noon and one."
Less than two hours before the arrival of the BPD. "Thank you, Dr. Schrader."
The glance he cast her way advised that her gratitude was not appreciated any more than her pushy approach had been. She'd have to find a way to get back in his good graces another time. Maybe a gift certificate from one of the trendy shops in the Galleria would do the trick since the polo, sports jacket, and stone-washed jeans he wore could have been stripped right off the mannequins adorning the storefronts of said shops.Right now, however, a woman was dead and that was Jess's top priority. She could make nice with Dr. I'm-Too-Sexy-for-Manners later.
Armed with the vital piece of information she needed, she headed for the French doors at the end of the long hall that cut through the center of one of Birmingham's oldest and grandest homes. She squared her shoulders, cleared her throat, and exited to the terrace that flowed out into the gardens designed by some master gardener who hailed from England. And who, according to a bronze plaque that boasted the bragging rights, descended from the gardener of the royal family.
Only the rich and self-proclaimed fabulous would display the pedigree of the guy who cut the grass and watered the roses. Where Jess lived she was lucky if the guys who wielded the lawn mowers and weed whackers spoke English much less shared their pedigrees. That information would likely get them deported. Not that Jess minded one way or the other as long as the job was done properly. Considering she spent the better part of her formative years in a carousel of foster homes, she wasn't one to judge.
Sergeant Chet Harper met Jess just outside the grand doors. "I don't know how much longer Lieutenant Prescott can keep the girls calm and their mothers compliant. One's already demanded to know if they're suspects."
Jess resisted the urge to groan. "Thank you, Sergeant."
Prescott, the girls, and their mothers were seated in the butterfly garden. As soon as Harper had called, Jess had instructed him to see that the girls did not discuss the incident among themselves or with anyone else. Not an easy task. Particularly once the mothers had started to arrive and to demand to see their children. The girls all had cell phones and had called their mothers while the assistant teacher called 911.
Guess who showed up first? Not the police or EMS. Which guaranteed the scene had been contaminated repeatedly by little fingers and feet as well as curious and horrified mothers.God, she didn't want to think about it. Whether a murder had occurred or not, the scene should be handled with the same vigilant protocol.
"FYI," Harper added with a knowing glance above his stylish Ray-Bans, "Andrea insisted on calling the chief."
Jess did groan this time. Andrea Denton, Chief of Police Daniel Burnett's stepdaughter from his last failed marriage and a survivor from the first case Jess had worked with the Birmingham Police Department scarcely two weeks ago. Funny, this was the third case Jess had supported since returning to her hometown and Andrea had been a part of all three. The poor girl apparently had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."I suppose he's coming," Jess commented, trying valiantly not to show her disappointment. There was nothing like having the boss watching over her shoulder on her first official case as a deputy chief. Even if the boss was Dan—a man with whom she had a difficult-to-define off-duty relationship. Leaving the bureau and returning to her hometown was supposed to have uncomplicated her life. Not.
Clearly she had been delusional to believe for one second that she could exist in the same city, much less department, with Dan and avoid complications.
Marvelous. "Any luck locating the husband?" Darcy Chandler, the one and only daughter of one of the city's most noteworthy families, was married to some apparently equally famous Russian dancer, now retired and teaching ballet classes to the children of Birmingham's who's who. "What's his name again?""Alexander Mayakovsky," Harper reminded her. "Haven't located him yet. His cell still goes straight to voice mail."
"Since this is where he works, he's obviously not at work." Frustration and impatience creased Jess's brow. She consciously forced the lines away. She had enough wrinkles, all of which had taken up residence in all the wrong places on her face. Not that there was a right place, she amended. What she didn't have was the vic's husband. The worst part of working an unattended death, whether accidental, suicide, or homicide, was informing the next of kin.
"Go to the vic's parents. Maybe they'll have some idea where he is. Get as much information as you can before you give them the bad news." As coldhearted as that tactic sounded, it was the only way to glean coherent information in a timely manner. And when a person died some way other than by natural causes, he or she deserved a timely investigation. Since Darcy's parents hadn't shown up, there was reason to believe unofficial word hadn't reached them yet.
That would change very soon.
Harper went on his way and Jess steeled herself for entering foreign territory. "You can do this," she murmured.
As she approached the mothers, their prepubescent daughters clinging to their bosoms, all six women started talking at once.
Jess had interviewed every manner of witness and person of interest, including more than her share of sociopaths and a handful of psychopaths, but she'd never dreaded conducting interviews more than she did at this very moment.
Children absolutely, completely, and utterly unnerved her. Give her a run-of-the-mill serial killer any day of the week.
Debra Webb was born in Scottsboro, Alabama, to parents who taught her that anything is possible if you want it badly enough. She loved telling stories and began writing at age nine.
You can buy a copy of Power from these bookstores
(March 26, 2013)