The scene was chaos as I pulled into the Stop N’ Shop parking lot. The store was already roped off with “Crime Scene: Do Not Enter” tape, and there was a group of women standing outside with Officer Nelson. The sounds of sobs and pandemonium echoed through the wind. I nodded at Will as he parked his Charger next to my SUV.
“Good mornin’ Lieutenant.” Will handed me a warm cup of coffee while taking a sip from his own cup.
“It’s mornin’, but wouldn’t call it much of a good one.” I sighed and skimmed our surroundings, pointing my chin toward the store. “We got two bodies in there. You ready for this?”
Will Cipriano wasn’t only my partner. He was my brother-in-law, and I’d known and loved him for the entirety of his life. At twenty-one years old, he was fresh on the Homicide Unit. I’d had to pull more strings than I can count to get him on my team. I knew he’d make a hell of a detective once he got past his young naivete.
“I’m ready.” Will nodded his head nervously. “It’s not like this is my first investigation.” He pursed his lips together and lifted one of his perfectly trimmed eyebrows. Will fancied himself a pretty boy.
“Will. This is your first investigation.”
Will and I ducked under the crime-scene tape and walked into the store with our eyes fixed in front of us. Matthews, one of the analysts saw me looking around. “The bodies are in the cooler.” He pointed to a small stock room that had a metal door on its far wall, propped open.
I walked to the cooler, with Will at my heels. My body tensed with disbelief when I laid eyes on the gruesomeness in front of me. Two women lay on the floor of that beer cooler, with plastic bags wrapped around their heads. Each head was meticulously placed between the other women’s thighs. Both women were completely naked, and each of them had blood smeared across her chest. I knew instantly that we were dealing with a sadistic mother fucker.
Matthews’ voice broke my concentration. “So, it’s obvious how their lives came to an end. This dude has some serious issues.” He pushed his nineties-model glasses up the bridge of his nose. “He put these bags over their heads and sealed them around the necks with duct tape. He poked holes through the bags over their mouths, then put duct tape over that. These young ladies died a slow, painful death.”
“Sounds like suffocation is gonna be our cause,” Will said, rubbing his goatee and nodding, proud of himself. I stared at him sideways and shook my head.
“What we figured is that he walks in, sees the girls, and comes over to the cooler,” Matthews said. “One of the girls walks into the cooler to stock it, while another one was over at the fountain machine stocking cups. There was a stack of cups on the ground. He must’ve followed the first girl into the cooler and got her, then came back and caught the other one off guard.”
My mind visualized the scene Matthews had just described. “Look how close the fountain machine is to the cooler. How would the one stocking cups not have heard the struggle?”
“Maybe there wasn’t one?” Will asked.
“I doubt that. If someone walks up behind you and throws a plastic bag over your head, your fight or flight’s gonna kick in. She had to have screamed or something,” I said.
“Maybe he snapped her neck,” Matthews shrugged.
“Then what’s the point of the bag and the duct tape?” Will knelt next to the bodies and closed his eyes.
“We’re going to have to figure all that out, Will. They’re naked. You guys find any clothes for these poor girls?”
“Not yet,” Matthews said, looking around.
“Well cover ’em up at least. Now.”
“I’m guessing this was a sexually motivated crime,” Will said.
“Most definitely. I mean, look how he posed them. Lieutenant,” Matthews cleared his throat, kneeling next to the bodies, “he also took trophies.”
“Trophies?” Will asked.
Matthews rested his hand on the girl who was on top and carefully rolled her over. “Trophies.” He pointed to her blood-soaked breasts.
Will jumped up and stepped back clutching his chest. “He to—He took their nipples!” Tears poured out of Will’s face as he began to gag.
“Will? You okay?” I studied his face and could tell he was going to be sick. “Go outside. I’ll meet you out there in a few.”
“There’s one more thing you should see, Drew.” Matthews said, standing and sliding a baggy from his pocket.
I snatched the baggy from his hand, pulling out the piece of paper that was folded neatly inside it. It was a handwritten letter. The handwriting was sloppy, as though it had been written in a hurry.
I happened upon this store by chance, as I felt I needed a drink and a snack. My exertions from the few prior days still had my body engulfed in exhaustion and hunger. The two women employed by this establishment were so beautiful. With their shiny black hair, and the one with her bright green eyes. I couldn’t resist them, although they tried to resist me, only feeding my urges. They’d seen my face, and I wasn’t prepared to keep them, thus I was made to let them go with haste. Good luck in your endeavors. We’ll talk soon.
My skin turned hot, and my jaw clenched as rage filled inside my body. “This guy’s a mother fucker. Where was this?!”
“We found it taped right there,” Matthews said, pointing to a spot just above one of the bodies.
I handed the paper back to Matthews. “Predator X,” I huffed. “Sorry son of a bitch. I’m gonna go check on Will and talk to the ladies. Let me know what else you find.”
Nelson walked over to me, with his fingers flipping through the pages of his mini notepad. “Hey.” Nelson was old, grey-haired, and on the verge of retirement. “The ladies are a little shaken up, but I think they’ll be able to answer your questions. The short, older one’s the one that found ‘em.”
“Did anybody see anything last night?”
“Yea. The guy over there by my car says he a saw a man getting into a black Ford truck and speeding off.”
“Good,” I said. “Where’s Will?”
“Over there on the side of the building. Poor kid’s heavin’ so much I think his balls are caught in his throat.”
“I’m gonna check on him, then we’ll talk to the witnesses.”
I walked to the side of the building and found Will, clutching his stomach with one hand and holding himself up against the fence with the other.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I’m good,” he groaned. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. This one’s hard to digest. Get yourself together. I’m gonna interview the lady who found the victims, and I need you to talk to the kid over there who says he saw somethin’.”
“I’m ready,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I’m good.”
Questioning witnesses was my least favorite part of the job. Sometimes they were so emotional it was hard to get a conclusive answer from them. I sipped from my coffee cup and made my way to the group of ladies as Will approached our potential witness.
“Good morning ladies.” Their eyes all jumped in my direction and they looked like deer caught in headlights. “I’m sorry about your friends. Which of you found the girls this morning?”
“I did.” A little five foot nothing woman with brown hair whimpered through the crowd.
“Okay. What’s your name ma’am?”
“Okay, Ms. Hough—”
“Shawna, please.” The little forty-something woman’s face was absorbed in some type of emotion I don’t think I’ve ever seen.
Raising an eyebrow and clearing my throat to show my annoyance for being interrupted, I continued. “Ms. Hough, tell me what happened when you got to work this morning. Can you do that?”
“Ok.” She inhaled a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I walked in, and nothing looked out of place, except the alarm wasn’t set. I didn’t think nothin’ of it.” I just figured the girls forgot to set it. Night crew’s always in such a rush to get out of here. I went about my business and turned everything on. Then I went in the offi—”
“Tell her how you found Joanne’s purse!” one of the women interrupted.
“I’m gettin’ there, Mandy!” Shawna snapped. “I went to the office to grab my cash till, and I seen Joanne’s purse sittin’ on the desk. I figured she must’ve forgotten it. So I went up front and put my till in the register. Then I had to go in the cooler to grab some sausage to cook.” Her eyes flinched, and she blinked them open. Her voice got tighter as tears ran down her face. “That’s when I saw the girls. Who would do such a thing?”
Though I always empathize with people when I see the hurt radiating off them, I struggle with showing it. In this line of work, you can’t let people see you crack. “Can you tell me the names of the girls, Ms. Hough?”
“Joanne Patrick, and Michelle Warren. They’ve been best friends for a decade. Oh, my God. Those poor girls.”
“Thank you, Ms. Hough. You did a great job.” I rested my hand on her shoulder and showed her my warmest of smiles. “You can go back over there with Officer Nelson and your friends.” As I was about to turn and walk to Will and the boy he was questioning, my eyes caught sight of a camera hanging from the corner of the building. “Your cameras. Do they work?”
“No Ma’am,” Ms. Hough said. “Them are just dummy cameras. They ain’t worked in years.
Back at the precinct, Will and I sat at our desks across from one another, trying to piece together evidence. Will was shaken from having to notify the families of the victims. One of the mothers had fallen into his arms sobbing, and the other had been taken to the hospital in shock.
We’d found no DNA evidence or finger prints at the scene. All we had to go on was a note, a partial vehicle description, and a vague suspect description.
“He was a white guy,” the witness had told Will. “Old. Like in his late thirties or forties. Tatted up. Dude’s probably a convict or some shit.”
I bounced my eyes from the pictures of the women on my board, to the copy of the letter I’d received at the scene. “Predator X, you mother fucker. I’m comin’ for your ass.”
My phone chimed beneath the stack of papers on my desk, knocking me out of my trance. It was a text from my Annie.
“I love you. Will you be home soon?” My face reddened at the image that accompanied the text. Annie was lying in the tub with a smirk on her face.
“I love you, too, crazy! I’ll be home soon enough if you promise to look like that when I get there. Where’s Spence?”
“Your dad picked her up an hour ago, so we could have some mommy time. On a more serious note, how’s your day?”
“Two victims over at the Stop N’ Shop. Not a whole lot to go on.”
“Dammit! Have you eaten? Want me to bring you something? I made pizza.”
“I don’t remember if I’ve eaten. LOL. I’m not hungry, though. I’ll be home soon. I love you more than anything!”
“And I love you more than that!”
When my phone screen went black, I caught a glimpse of the corny smile on my face in the reflection from the screen, and I noticed Will was laughing at me.
“Was that the wife?” Will asked, looking up from his state of sadness.
“Sure was. She’s ready for me to come home.”
“How is my sister?”
“Beautiful as always,” I said, shuffling my paperwork into a neat stack. “Let’s get out of here. Dawson can handle this tomorrow.”