SOMEONE had been trying for the perfect shade of red—a blend of crimson and cadmium speckled the floor in a careless array.
Bianca envisioned one of her students rushing into the supply room, oblivious to the paint dripping from a hastily sealed container. Understandable that cleaning up wasn’t a first priority. A college student’s life is led by a higher power—hormones.
She moved into the storage room to fish through a bin of rags, squinting in the dim light. All she wanted was a little more light, not a studio renovation. It was an ongoing battle with Chet, the custodian. He’d flicked her a requisition form, his standard rebuttal, and she’d filled it out, twice. If he didn’t change the burned-out bulb tomorrow, there was always Miller’s Hardware.
Back to the mess at hand, she squatted, rag suspended. But upon closer examination, this wasn’t paint. The odor was cloying. Familiar. She followed a trail snaking from under the supply cart, nudged the cart aside, and gasped.
A woman sat slumped against a stack of canvasses, head lolled back, legs extended like a large doll, arms reaching out in an unsettling symmetry.
Lifeless eyes frozen in horror.
Bianca’s gaze slid over the woman’s gray uniform, the splattered blood. Terror built, a scream that wouldn’t come. She scrambled to her feet, lost her footing, and toppled against the shelves. A basket of yarn slammed down, and she clawed through the unraveling skeins, tangling them in her hair.
Her voice returned in the form of a low keening.
She had one foot out the door, but a sound, a muted gurgle, drew her back. Moving closer, she placed shaky fingers along the woman’s neck. A pulse—thready, but there. Or was that her own pulse vibrating through her fingertips? Bianca held her breath, checked again. Her heart climbed up her throat and lodged there as she positioned the body for CPR. Please, oh please, help me remember how.
She tilted the woman’s head back and saw the source of all that blood, her right temple. Pressure. Apply pressure. She clamped the rag over the wound, pinched the nostrils to start mouth to mouth, stopped. Hadn’t they changed the rules? What were they now? Compression only? Placing her palms on the woman’s chest, she pushed. Twenty? Thirty? With each compression, her voice cracked in a whispered demand, “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe!”
In an instant of suspended time, Bianca realized the futility of her efforts, but she couldn’t pull herself away. Again, her fingers reached for the neck. Nothing. Damn it. Nothing!
Her cell. She bolted to her feet, slapped her pockets. Where . . . ? A tendril of ice seized her spine. Something rooted her in place as a thunderclap of self-preservation boomed.
Whoever did this has a gun.
A new crop of chills surfaced. Go! The thought propelled her forward, but she had a sense of being dragged backward.
She spun around. Her cell was on her desk. Across the room, yet miles away. Bianca willed her legs to comply, to move in tandem with her thoughts, but a noise froze her in place. A door opening? Closing? She raced for her phone and dove under the desk.
“911. What’s your emergency?”
“I need help.” Bianca’s voice was reedy, high-pitched.
“I can’t hear you, hon. You need to speak up.”
Calm down. Steady. She struggled to match the operator’s tone. “I need help.”
“Is this an emergency?”
“Okay, honey. Tell me where you are.”
“Room 108, the Weaver Fine Arts Building at Brookefield College.” Tears welled, spilled down her cheeks. “A woman’s been . . . she’s dead.”
The last word loomed above her in three dimensions, heavy and defined, the way she instructed students to sketch tree trunks and bowls of fruit.
“You’re sure she’s not breathing?”
“Are you alone?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” Bianca opened a drawer, grabbed scissors, and curled back underneath the desk.
“I’m going to stay with you, okay? I won’t hang up until the police get there.”
Bianca’s eyes fell to her hands, now covered in blood. She scrubbed them over her pants in desperate swipes. A roil of nausea festered through her as she huddled deeper, tried to escape into herself. Her skin crawled. If only she could shed these clothes. And shoes. She toed them off and dropped them into the waste basket with a thud.
A flurry of activity transformed the once quiet studio. Men and women in uniform measured and scraped, photographed and bagged. One man personified composure and self-assurance—Chief Carmichael, lime-scented cologne clinging to him like an efficient assistant, still pristine at 8:00 p.m. in suit and tie.
“Did you know Ms. Divac?” His tone, his body language delivered a clear message: he was still furious with her about what had happened two years ago.
Bianca stared past him at a Dali print on the wall. Butterflies. Lizards. Fluttering wings and flicking tongues intertwined. A print she loved for its systematic confusion and ability to transport her to another plane.
But now the tongues were daggers.
“Lisette Divac.” Carmichael’s voice yanked her back. “The cleaning woman?”
Lisette. Knowing her name somehow made it worse. “She must have been filling in.”
The commotion, people spinning through the studio, along with Carmichael’s imposing form, and the unspoken history between them, made her dizzy. She searched for a stabilizing focal point and spotted Tucker Baranski. He dipped his chin, throwing her a visual lifeline. She’d known him for years. A gentle giant in police-issue blues, a sharp contrast to Carmichael’s bristly dictator in wingtips.
“Chief, Channel 8 and a bunch of gawkers are sniffing around outside,” Tucker said.
“Don’t let them cross that tape.”
“Trying, but we don’t have the manpower. Want me to call over to Whistler for reinforcements?”
“Roger that.” Tucker turned and collided with a man who kept hiking his pants as if they might otherwise fall down. The reporter fumbled with his notepad and craned his neck around Tucker. “Chief Carmichael, can I have a moment?”
“I’d think you’d have a better command of the English language,” Carmichael barked. “It’s may I have a moment, and the answer is, no, you may not.”
“Come on, Chief. A shooting in the Peak and you’re shutting us out?”
“You’ll get your story when I call a press conference. Not before. And tell your clones if anyone else crosses that tape, they’ll be writing about what it’s like to spend a night in my jail.” Carmichael jerked his head toward the door. “Sergeant, get him out of here.”
Tucker moved for the door with a look that said he wouldn’t hesitate to bulldoze anything in his path, including the pants-hiking reporter.
“Why were you in the storage room?” Carmichael asked Bianca as if they hadn’t been interrupted.
“I usually check things,” she said. “Before I leave.”
Bianca eyed the half-eaten sandwich on her desk. She started to sweep it into a trash can, but Carmichael slammed his hand down, blocking her. “This is a crime scene, Ms. James.” He edged onto a drawing table, balancing a Montblanc pen between his fingers like a cigarette. “Where were you before you went into the storage room?”
“I’ve been here since my last class.”
“Which was what time?”
“It ended at 4:30.”
He squinted in disbelief. “So, you’re saying you’ve been in this room the entire time?”
“In the building.”
He unbuttoned his suit coat, rolled his head from side to side. “Tell me again the state of Ms. Divac when you found her.”
Bianca did a slow pivot to the storage room. “I thought I felt a pulse. I started CPR, but—”
“When did you call 911?”
“After. When I realized—”
“You have medical training, do you?”
She crossed her arms.
“Well, obviously you think you’re skilled enough to determine time of death.”
“Chief Carmichael, I used my best judgment. Nothing I was doing was helping, so I called 911. Is there another question?”
“How much time passed between finding her and making the call?”
“It all happened so fast.”
Carmichael turned his pen end over end, brought it down hard, and scratched something on his notepad. “Ms. James, I need you to be very specific regarding your whereabouts tonight.”
Bianca squared her shoulders and forced herself to rise above the current of tension in the room. “I was across the hall in the lounge for a bit, had some tea, and then brought my sandwich back here.” She winced as “Hollywood’s Best & Worst Dressed” paraded across her mind from the time-suck posing as a magazine.
“How long is a bit, Ms. James?” Carmichael’s gaze riveted on the seductively posed, life-sized skeleton adorned with satin push-up bra, thong, and red sandals that laced up the tibias.
Is everything here on trial? “I didn’t check my watch.” When he continued to gawk at the scantily clad skeleton, Bianca added, “It’s for a bypassing technique, a light approach to drawing the human figure.”
Carmichael flexed his jaw, projecting judgment before he crossed the room to walk along the row of windows. “Anyone else here tonight?”
“Ralph from Campus Security usually makes rounds. But I haven’t seen him.”
“Ralph’s last name?”
“Monroe.” If Carmichael asked for more, she’d give the abridged version, editing out Ralph’s penchant for napping in Weaver’s basement.
Carmichael lifted a blind with his pen and peered out. “Why is this one closed?” Without turning he snapped, “Baranski, will this room get measured sometime before I retire?”
Tucker rose from where he was squirreling along the baseboards and moved to the storage room, thumping a corner cabinet along the way.
“I close them when the sun goes down,” Bianca said. “I didn’t get to all—”
“And you’re the only one here?” Carmichael interrupted yet again. “At night? Alone?”
If you’d let me finish. “I like the quiet.”
He ran a finger over his precisely groomed, pewter-colored mustache. “You’re not with Dylan Tierny anymore, are you?”
So she’d been right. His animosity, treating her like a suspect, was about Dylan.
“I don’t have to tell you you’re better off,” Carmichael continued past her silence. For a moment his face shifted in a tiny, subtle way, and she saw what she thought was a hint of mercy. “So, no other teachers here tonight? Students? You’re the only one in the building?”
The reality grabbed and twisted as his questions, the equivalent of an index finger, pointed to the solitary state of her life.
“As you know, Chief Carmichael, this is a small college. It’s not uncommon for the campus to be dead on a Friday night.” Oh, God. “I mean deserted.”
“Any idea why Ms. Divac was in the storage room?”
“I suppose she wandered in by mistake.” Or was chased in by a gun-wielding psycho. “I told you, she’s a fill-in . . . was a fill-in.” Bianca pondered the tense shift. A life whisked from present to past in a blink. She looked beyond the window into the soupy gray. Why are you grilling me? Whoever did this is out there!
Carmichael pulled something from his pocket. “You don’t know this woman?”
Lisette Divac smiled from the plastic ID badge. Young, blond, gap-toothed grin, shimmering with anticipation, eager to unwrap each day to see what it held, and—
The classroom door swung wide. A woman in a strapless gown, hair braided in an elaborate updo, rushed in clutching a black medical bag. A man shuffled behind her, bald head reflecting the studio lights. Bianca didn’t know what she expected the medical examiner to look like, but it wasn’t Queen Latifah—a modern Botticelli with walnut skin.
“Fundraising event.” The ME glanced at Bianca and pointed to her own outfit with a look that said she’d prefer a power suit. “What do we have, Chief?”
As if pulled from a trance, he sidled close, updated her, then shifted to Bianca. “Ms. James, that’s all for now. I’ll be in touch. Bear in mind, we’ll need to cordon off the area. No classes until I say so. And if you remember anything else, call me.” He handed her a card with a dismissive wave.
Bianca pressed a fresh line of teeth marks into her tongue to block the comeback crawling up her throat.
The ME studied her with the sympathy Carmichael lacked. “You found her?”
“I tried to revive her, but . . .”
“This must be difficult,” the ME said. “Do you need someone to drive you home?”
Carmichael straightened, rebuttoned his suit coat. “Of course. I’ll have an officer—”
“That won’t be necessary,” Bianca said.
“Necessary or not, I’d prefer it.” He spoke into his radio. “Need you inside. Now.” And to Bianca, “Have a seat.”
Ignoring his directive, she instead turned her attention to the buckle digging into her ankle and propped her foot on the rung of a stool to adjust it. The shoes were strappy and high-heeled, a pair she kept in her desk drawer for . . . well, she didn’t wear them often. She glanced at the trash can where she’d tossed her clogs, started to remind herself to buy another pair, but swatted the thought away. Worrying about shoes made her feel small.
The noise in the studio faded to white, stained intermittently by somber metallic riffs coming from the storage room.
Click click. Click click.
While the bald one snapped pictures from every angle, the ME swept her gown aside and crouched near the body. She pulled tweezers from her case, lifted something off Lisette’s sneaker, dropped it into an evidence bag, and handed it to Carmichael. “You missed something.” She rose, a glimpse of leg peeking from cascading folds of chiffon, camera flashing, adoring fan soaking it in.
Like a photo shoot. A macabre photo shoot.
The scene blurred until Bianca could no longer make out the contours, only movements. She closed her eyes and replayed the last few hours. Was she across the hall eating her sandwich as Lisette lay in the storage room dying? Did her music drown out cries for help? If she’d been there a minute sooner, could she have saved her?
Or would her lifeless body be laid out next to Lisette’s?
The chaos in the room continued to churn while Bianca took long swallows of air, desperate slurps of oxygen. She hazarded a step, and when her legs didn’t betray her, she grabbed her purse and headed for the door. “I don’t need an escort.”
Before the chief could object, she left without a backward glance.
She raced from Weaver, only aware she’d left her coat when the cold air hit like a slap. Going back wasn’t an option, so head down, cupping an elbow in each palm, she forged ahead. As she whipped around a corner, she slammed into someone with such force it nearly knocked her down.
“Sorry, I . . .” A puddle of light from a street lamp fell across his face. So much like his brother, firm jaw, the same lacerating charisma. “Finn Tierny!” She rested her hands against his chest for the space of a heartbeat, then snatched them away.
He splayed his arms in a ta-da gesture. “I’m back.”
She took him in, tried to parse out what had changed. Maybe it was the exaggerated breadth of his shoulders. Time on the force had certainly bulked him up, added a layer of maturity. Was it four years now or five since he’d left? And the uniform—such a contrast to the faded T-shirts and ripped jeans he’d worn to class as her student.
Finn touched her shoulder. “Chief Carmichael radioed, a couple of times actually. He wants me to see you home.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I’ve got orders.”
“I have my car.” She pointed to the parking lot. The area always seemed well lit, but now . . .
“You can get it tomorrow.”
“I’m capable of driving,” she snapped. Carmichael’s inquisition had illuminated all the mistakes she’d made tonight. A strobe light flashing: Fail. Fail. Fail. Now Finn had her tied to railroad tracks in a black and white movie with a train barreling toward her.
She started for her car, ignoring his objections, ignoring him behind her. When they reached her Pathfinder, he opened the door.
“I’ll follow you then,” Finn said.
Bianca allowed her eyes to trail him to his cruiser. Something moved in her periphery, streaking through her field of vision. She slammed the door, ducked, but when she ventured another look, it was gone.
She chided herself. Her mind was playing tricks. Like the Dali painting, butterflies and lizards intertwined, creating tension and confusion between the real and unreal.
She looked down at her shirt, and her eyes ran from one bloodied badge to the next.
This was real.
END OF CHAPTER