About The BookOn edge after a two-week mandatory leave, Homicide Detective Kate Springer is blindsided when she discovers she shares a link with Tampa’s newest murder victim. A troubled teen found strangled and dumped in a remote part of town. The bond between them threatens to expose Detective Springer’s past—a past she’s been hell bent on keeping secret. When the killer finally emerges from the shadows, Kate’s secrets aren’t the only thing on the line. So is her life.
Dead Like Me was named a runner up in The Kindle Book Review’s 2013 Best Indie Book Award competition. The second book in the DetectiveKate Springer series, Deadly Fantasiescame out December 2013.
Get Up To SpeedThis is the beginning of the story, so we’ll dive right in!
Taking a deep breath, I ducked under the yellow crime scene tape strung between two ancient oaks. Early this morning a call came in from Thonotosassa, a small city bordering Tampa on the northeast side. Just on the fringe of our jurisdiction. Apparently, a neighbor walking his dog had discovered the body of a young Caucasian female.
Following the dirt driveway, I arrived at a vacant, single-story house. Scratch that. Make that a rotting, vacant house. The weather’s so different in Florida compared to where I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Up north the drastic temperature changes make paint peel away from the houses. Down here the paint stays intact, but left unchecked, a black mold can devour a home. The end result was a place looking like the one in front of me—as if some disease ate away at it from the inside out. I estimated the house stood on two acres of land. Although there were neighbors on either side of the property, the trees surrounding it gave it a secluded feel.
“Welcome back, Detective Springer,” a chipper voice called from behind me.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw my partner of two years, jogging to catch up.
“Yeah. Great welcome present. You really shouldn’t have.” Snapping on my latex gloves, I wondered how much worse this day could get.
“Glad to see the shrink cleared you for duty.”
“Finished my last session this morning.” I assumed Dr. Grace would authorize my return to work today, but I’d stormed out of her office before I could work out the details. “A case is just what I need. Maybe I’ll finally be able to work the smell of bleach off my hands. I don’t think my bathtub can survive my staying home one more day.”
Detective Patrick Jessup chuckled and flashed a boyish grin. Probably trying to envision a domestic Kate Springer.
I hit the lottery in partner assignments. When I moved to Tampa, it took seven years of busting my ass before I saw a promotion. There were plenty of detectives who didn’t want a woman watching their back. Patrick wasn’t one of them. He had six sisters and often joked he was most comfortable in a room full of estrogen.
At thirty-five, Patrick still had that “all-American” boy next door look. His unassuming presence lent itself well to his profession. On more than one occasion, perps had underestimated Detective Jessup only to find themselves caged behind two-inch steel bars. With his good looks and chiseled physique, I used to tease he was probably the high school quarterback who married the prom queen. Got it half right. He was a star ball player at the University of South Florida until a defensive end cut his career short with a blitz that shattered his right kneecap.
It sounded like all the action was at the back of the property. Patrick and I walked around the house to the rear tree line where crime scene tech Lucy James was hunched over photographing a small mound. It was partially covered with sticks, brush, and decomposing leaves.
“A neighbor found the body before work this morning,” Lucy said. “Actually, his dog is the one who found it.”
Lucy stepped back and lowered her camera. I squatted to get a closer look. The leaves surrounding the girl’s right arm had been trampled. Her right hand lay exposed, palm side up. Her wrist revealed a jagged, double heart-shaped birthmark. Teeth marks surrounded her thumb, likely made by the dog who found her. With all the barking I’d heard since I arrived, I was surprised a whole pack of mutts hadn’t sniffed the body out.
The stench of death smacked me full in the face as the wind suddenly shifted. After all these years, I still hadn’t become accustomed to the smell. It was like taking a whiff from a partially sealed milk jug, one sitting outside in the direct sunlight for two weeks.
Lucy knelt beside me, bagging debris that would later be tested for trace evidence. Most of the leaves on and surrounding the face had been scattered from either the wind or the dog. I could tell the victim was female, but I waited for Lucy to finish gathering the last few stray pieces before the girl’s features could be seen.
Stifling a quick gasp with a fake cough, I lurched up and stepped away. “Sorry . . . I don’t want to contaminate . . . the evidence.” It was a weak excuse but all I could come up with.
After steadying myself, I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I’d seen correctly. Lying on the ground, face towards the sky was me at the age of thirteen.
Okay, so it wasn’t really me, but the child on the ground was definitely a dead ringer for the young girl I used to be—except the hair. More than two decades later, I’d expect better taste than what we had in the ’80s. I tried to make light of the situation, anything to get my mind off what I’d seen. But my vision blurred. I leaned against a nearby tree, praying no one noticed it was the only thing keeping me upright.
Patrick appeared at my side and in a hushed tone asked, “Are you alright, Kate?”
No way in hell was I going to tell my partner this small discarded child was the spitting image of me at that age. At least not until I got a handle on what it all meant.
“I’m fine,” I said, avoiding those concerned eyes that could read me all too easily. “I think I just swallowed a damn lovebug.”
I lead the way back to the body, feeling Patrick’s questioning stare burn into my back. Harry Ellis, the Medical Examiner, was checking the victim’s internal temperature to estimate time of death.
Lucy looked up at me and mouthed, “Are you alright?”
What was I, an open book today? To be fair though, Lucy was my best friend and could read me pretty well. Although, if I were being painfully honest, she was my only female friend. I’ve never been much into bff’s, sleepovers, and painting each other’s toenails.
Lucy James was one of the first people I met after moving to Tampa. We had a case where some truly ingenious thinking on her part turned up a knitting needle during a search of a townhouse. The discovery of the murder weapon led me directly to the killer. Since then, we’ve been pretty tight.
I gave a slight nod to my friend and looked down at the girl lying on the ground. She wore all black—shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. Her only jewelry was cheap tarnished hoops in her ears. Lucy carefully removed the long strands of jet-black hair that had become tousled on the victim’s forehead.
I turned my attention back to the medical examiner, kneeling over the body. “Figured out time of death yet?” I noticed the gruffness in my voice and reminded myself to play nice.
“As you know,” Harry Ellis said, “estimating the time of death is not an exact science. This extended period of extreme heat we’ve been experiencing definitely speeds up the rate of decomposition. She’s in full rigor and has a body temp of 82 degrees. Taking the variables into consideration, I’d estimate she’s been dead between ten and fourteen hours. That puts time of death Monday evening somewhere between 7 – 11 p.m.”
Ellis collected some of the insects feasting on the body then gently lifted the victim’s shoulder off the ground. “From the purplish bruising on her backside, it looks like she was left in that position after being strangled. I’m not sure if the perp killed her at this location or somewhere else before dumping her body here.”
“Yes. The bruising on her neck is consistent with manual strangulation. And her eyes show petechial hemorrhaging. Of course, I can’t say for certain until I open her up, but that’s the preliminary cause of death. It should get you started anyway.”
I looked closer at the bruising on the victim’s neck. “Do you know what she was strangled with?”
“Good old fashioned hands. The deep purple discoloration and outline of thumbs on either side of the wind pipe indicates the killer was facing the victim while strangling her.”
“So she saw it coming,” Patrick said. “There’s a good chance the victim fought back against her attacker. Maybe we’ll find some skin cells underneath her fingernails.”
“One can only hope,” Ellis agreed. “I’ll bag her hands to make sure any evidence isn’t contaminated.”
“Can you estimate her age?” I asked. Focus, Springer. Focus.
“Gauging from her bone structure, I’d guess somewhere in the range of eleven to fourteen.”
“What about identification on the body?”
“Nope. Nothing in her pockets—no ID, keys, or cell.”
“Any sign of sexual trauma?” Patrick made no effort to mask the disgust in his voice.
“No immediate signs. However, the button from her jeans is missing,” Ellis said, pointing just above the zipper of his own pants.
“How soon can you autopsy the body?” Patrick asked.
“Not until tomorrow. I’ll try and get you my final report by Friday.”
“Friday?” I threw up my hands. “Are you serious?”
Patrick grabbed my elbow and pulled me aside. “What’s wrong with you, Kate? Are you intentionally trying to piss Ellis off? You know these things take time. It’s not like ours is the only body in the morgue. Keep dishing out this attitude and our Jane Doe will end up last on his list.”
“It’s just . . .” I jerked my arm away from him. “Fine. You’re right.”
“Now if you think you can stay out of trouble, I’m going next door to interview Eric Steele, the dog owner. Maybe he can give me some information about this house and who owns it. I also want to get a timeline on his whereabouts last night.”
“Fine. I’m going to head out to the street. Take a fresh look around.” I was in no mood to talk to anyone right now anyway. Thoughts were all jumbled in my head, swirling as if on a Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair.
Realizing my fists were clinched so tightly they ached, I took a few deep breaths and slowly opened my fingers. First my counseling session with Dr. Grace, now a look-alike murder victim. The hits just kept coming.
As I saw it, there were two ways this could play out. First, my resemblance to the dead girl was a coincidence. Maybe my imagination was running in overdrive. The other option—the victim was somehow linked to me. I know I’d never seen her before, so until we could identify the body, I’d have to put that supposition on hold. If I let myself, I could go round and round until I drove myself crazy.
Get it together, Springer. There’s a little girl counting on you to bring her killer to justice. Couldn’t do that if my own problems were taking center stage. After a few more breaths, I did what came naturally. I pictured myself stuffing my emotions into a box and shoving it high on a shelf. I’d get back to them later. I knew from experience, they wouldn’t be ignored for long. For now, I needed to calmly and objectively look at the scene before me.
Once I reached the street, I felt steadier. I looked around to get a feel for the area. Why this piece of property? What made the killer pick this house? I already knew the person who murdered the victim cared about her because he, or I guess she, took the time to cover the body. It showed remorse. In most cases, I’d find a blanket covering the victim. But with the dogs barking, the killer might have been worried about detection. Instead, he covered the girl with whatever was lying around. I still wondered why the killer dumped the body where it was relatively easy to find. Why not bury her at a quieter location?
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The main road was well-traveled, at least during rush hour. Many commuters tried to bypass the gridlock on I-75 by taking the more scenic route of Morris Bridge Road. Across the street was wooded, but on this side of the road, the houses in the area were mostly camouflaged. Even the black mailboxes seemed to blend into their surroundings.
The neighbor who discovered the body, Eric Steele, lived on the left side of the crime scene’s property. A dark colored wooden fence obstructed the view of his driveway. Stenciled across the middle was a crude skull and crossbones, turned a dingy white color. Lovely. I’m sure Patrick was enjoying his interview with the dog owner.
This property had no gate covering it. Instead a rusted sign stood sentry at the front of the driveway. It dangled on one hook and looked as if it were about to be devoured by the trees. I yanked off the leaves obscuring the words and realized it was an advertisement for the sale of the property. I jotted down the bank’s name and contact information, and punched their number into my phone. We needed their permission to search the house. We couldn’t prove a crime had been committed inside, so we had no probable cause for a search.
After numerous transfers and waiting on hold listening to mind numbing Muzack, I rethought my decision on getting a warrant. Might have been quicker after all. Finally, I got clearance from all the necessary parties and a promise they’d send me the names of the previous owners. I headed back towards the house, walking in the grass parallel to the dirt driveway.
“Hey, Russo.” I gestured over to the newest crime scene tech in the division. “Come here for a minute. Looks like we’ve got tire treads from a single vehicle. Can you take some photos?” The faint marks were scattered along the entire length of the driveway.
Russo removed the lens cap from his camera. “They don’t look composed enough to get a decent cast impression.”
“I’m thankful we haven’t had rain these past two days. Pretty unheard of during rainy season. Our crime scene could have been a complete washout.”
At the end of the driveway, there were foot impressions, but again too wind scattered. Drag marks began where the tire treads stopped. Definite dump job.
Before going to examine the inside of the house, I coordinated with the technicians intending to search the surrounding wooded area for evidence. We decided a grid search would be the best option. I didn’t envy them the task at hand. Oak and pine trees jostled for position making a very dense search area. Avoiding all the prickly plants no matter how careful they were looked impossible. The techs would be picking tiny thorns out of their clothes for a week.
After Russo finished cataloging the tracks, I dragged him into the house to begin our search. If the place chose today to crumble to the ground, at least I wouldn’t be alone.
Finally finished searching the house, I stood on its dilapidated porch while the sweat beading up on my neck poured down my back. My short sleeved blouse clung to my skin. A tickle on my forearm caught my attention, and I grabbed a rogue lovebug, throwing him to the ground. Lovebugs were lightning bugs minus the light. The damn things were attracted to the hottest thing they could find. Unfortunately now, that was me.
I looked up and saw Patrick squeeze through the trees that acted as a natural boundary line between this property and Steele’s. Patrick’s lips were pursed, and I doubted his red face had anything to do with the heat as he swiped at the pine needles sticking to his khakis. Wrinkles, stains—it was enough to ruin his whole day. Odd how it contradicted his easy-going personality. Though not vain, Patrick had some serious pet peeves. His clothes were one of them.
Unlike Patrick, I accepted the fact when I worked an outdoor crime scene, I’d be a crumpled mess. Later, I’d grab some extra clothes from my trunk and change back at the precinct. For now, I reached up and pulled out the simple ponytail holder working overtime to keep my hair together. I put the band around my wrist and used my fingers to smooth out my straight hair. The Florida sunshine had brought out the blond highlights in my normally light brown hair. Unfortunately, the sun also made freckles pop out on and around my nose. Cute as a button was not a description any detective liked to hear. At least I’d been able to keep the crow’s feet away. I’d just turned thirty-seven, but my friends said I could easily pass for ten years younger. Then again, all my friends were cops, and they’re notorious liars.
“I’ve got a new one for you, Patrick.” I grinned and looked down at the cuticle I’d been picking at since I discarded my latex gloves. “What’s the name of the newspaper where Peter Parker got a job in the comic book Spider-man?”
Sometime during the past couple of years, Patrick and I had started asking each other trivia questions. Who knew how it started? We’d shoot them back and forth when there was a lag in the investigation or the tension needed cut. We each tried to come up with some forgotten little fact to stump the other. Although by unspoken agreement, it couldn’t be too archaic a question. Patrick asked more television and movie related questions, while I quizzed him on history and other boy topics.
“That’s the best you’ve got?” he shot back.
“The Daily Bugle.” A smile spread across his face.
An easy one, I’ll admit, but at least I got his mind off his pants.
“Did you find anything useful in the house?” Patrick asked.
“Not unless you call crushed beer cans and roaches the size of your fist useful. From the amount of cobwebs hanging in the house, it looks like it’s been empty for years. Russo is processing a few things inside, but I think it’s a dead end. I doubt the killer even went in the house. Smart move,” I said, looking back at the place. “The bank gave us permission to search the house. They took it over in March 2009 and have yet to unload it. When I get back to the precinct, I’m hoping I’ll have the names of the previous owners waiting for me. Did you have fun with Steele?”
Patrick groaned. “Loads. Besides working for one of those home helper companies doing repair jobs for little old ladies, Steele’s a dog breeder.” Patrick looked down at his pants again, angrily brushing at the black hairs clinging to the material. “He reported last night around 1 a.m. his Labradors were causing a commotion. I could tell Steele felt bad that he didn’t go check it out, but in the past, he’d drag himself out of bed only to find a raccoon or armadillo scurrying past the pens.”
“Let’s look at the timeline. The victim could have been killed as early as 7 p.m. on Monday night. Then dumped here around 1 a.m. this morning and discovered later at 7:30 a.m. Where was Steele last night?”
“He looks solid. Monday he was at the lanes with his bowling league. He’s divorced so he usually stays late hanging out with his buddies at the bar. Steele didn’t get home until approximately 12:30 a.m., and he’d just hit the sack when he heard the dogs. That’s why he didn’t want to get up again. I’ll check his story out later, but I think we can cross him off our list.”
“Does he know who used to own this house?” I asked.
“No. Steele’s only lived next door for the past year. He bought the place right after he married wife number two. She’s not in the picture anymore, but Steele said the house next door was vacant when they moved in. I’m going to talk to the responding officer who canvassed the neighborhood and see if I can find out anything else.”
“I’ll go back to the precinct and start checking missing persons. Try to get an ID on our girl. Then I’ll follow the paper trail on the house.”
“Good. You’re so much better at all that computer stuff.” Patrick batted his eyelashes. Definitely not pulling off sweet and demure.
“Are you trying to butter me up, Detective Jessup?” I played along even though I knew better. Once upon a time Patrick had considered getting an undergraduate degree in computer science. He’s a real whiz with a keyboard. He changed his mind because he couldn’t stand being cooped up all day. Whenever the option presented itself, he chose interviewing witnesses or searching for suspects.
Walking towards us, Lucy James interjected. “Most people think because the saying ‘butter up’ means to thickly lay on the flattery it comes from how smoothly butter spreads on bread. Not true. There’s an ancient custom where Indians would throw butterballs of ghee at the statues of the gods to seek favor.”
When Patrick raised his eyebrows, Lucy added, “Ghee is clarified butter Indians commonly used in their cooking.”
“Oh, of course . . . ghee.” Patrick tried to remain straight-faced.
I just made a big show of rolling my eyes and told Lucy I’d call her later. Too bad I didn’t have some ghee and a statue. I could use some favor about now.
Patrick walked me back to my car. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked. “I mean the inquiry cleared you of any wrong doing in the shooting. I know it was only the second time you’ve ever had to pull your gun, but you have to remember, it was self-defense.”
Patrick thought my moodiness was due to the officer-involved shooting investigation. If only. “Really. I’m fine, Patrick.”
Patrick looked down at the ground, knocking a few pebbles into the grass. “Sorry I only called once while you were on leave. It’s been a hell of a time for me too. Alina and I finally put her mother in a residential care facility. Her Alzheimer’s has progressed too rapidly. She can’t stay at home by herself anymore.”
I placed my hand lightly on Patrick’s forearm. “I am so sorry, Patrick. Make sure you tell your wife my thoughts are with her.” He said he would and turned to leave.
Back in my car, I rested my forehead against the steering wheel. Strands of hair fell forward fanning around the wheel. I was being a self-centered bitch not offering Patrick more than a lame I’m sorry, but right now I couldn’t handle anyone else’s problems. I could barely deal with my own.
What the hell was I doing keeping vital information from my partner? If Patrick held back a detail on a case, no matter how insignificant, I’d never forgive him. Not disclosing the fact I resembled our Jane Doe, whether it was important or not, could forever damage our relationship.
What would Dr. Grace think of this new development? Finally alone, I couldn’t help but replay the last fifteen minutes of my counseling session. It was like a movie seared into my brain. One that couldn’t be turned off with a flick of a remote.
I could hear Dr. Nina Grace asking me, “Why didn’t you share this when we first met after the shooting?”
“Don’t take this personally, Doc,” I said avoiding her intense gaze, “but I don’t make a habit of getting all gushy with complete strangers.”
“What made you decide to tell me today? There has to be some serious stressors in your life to make you open up now, thirty years after it all started.” Dr. Grace sat with her hands folded together, resting underneath her chin as if in prayer.
When I didn’t answer, she added, “Most victims don’t disclose about their abuse until they’re in crisis. What’s going on with you, Kate?”
Fidgeting in my chair, my body instantly stilled when I heard the word victim. “First of all Dr. Grace, I am nobody’s victim. I haven’t been that frightened little girl in a long time.” Once I got the words out, I unclenched my jaw, took a calming breath, and tried to get more comfortable in my overstuffed seat. Impossible. “And secondly, you’re not the only person I’ve talked to about this. It’s just . . .”
What was I doing? Only a few minutes left on the clock, and here I was baring my soul. All I had to do was get through this last session, and I could be done with these weekly heart-to-hearts. The department had put me on paid leave and forced me to visit the good doctor’s office after shooting a suspect in a kidnapping case gone bad. Well, gone bad for the kidnapper that was for sure, since he was now six feet under in a long wooden box. I’d put him there, which landed me in this damned uncomfortable chair.
Finishing my thought, I repeated, “It’s just talking to you about this case these past couple of weeks . . . I guess it hit too close to home. The kidnapper was the little girl’s grandfather. He’d molested her for years before he snatched and murdered her. There were too many similarities to my own story. Why? Are you surprised I was molested as a child?” I scanned Dr. Grace’s face, looking for signs of disgust or even worse, pity.
“No. From what you’ve said in previous sessions, I suspected there may have been some sexual trauma in your past.”
“Some sexual trauma,” I smirked. “That’s a nice way to put it, Doc. But how about we call it what it really was. Six years of living hell! Six years of weekends and summer vacations at the mercy of a sick bastard who liked to touch little girls.” During my tirade, I realized I’d wrapped my hands so tightly around the ends of the chair my knuckles were turning white. Slowly, I unpeeled each finger, allowing blood to flow back into them.
Dr. Grace sat across from me in her high backed chair staring, willing me with those big brown all-seeing eyes to go on. She must have understood the need to purge the toxic thoughts running through my head.
“And do you know who it was pretending to care so much about me during the day but whose mask came off at night to reveal the real monster? Robert White.”
One second fuming and full of anger, now I could barely say his name above a whisper. “Robert White. My babysitter. The man my mother had entrusted to take care of me. I was only seven. He was old enough to be my grandfather. He . . . no . . . I can’t.”
Abruptly I stood, knocking over the vase of flowers sitting on the table next to my chair. I barely registered the water tumbling out onto the floor as I ran from the room.
I heard a distant honking of a car horn and raised my head up off the steering wheel, looking blankly out the dusty windshield. Was I really so overwhelmed with my abuse memories I was projecting the face of my thirteen-year-old self onto this unknown victim? Dammit! Why couldn’t I put the past behind me? I’d seen the shrinks, talked until I had no words left. But every few years, the emotions rolled over me like a tidal wave.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I grabbed my phone and punched in Dr. Grace’s number. My shaky fingers kept hitting an 8 instead of a 9, forcing me to redial twice. I had to leave a message. “Dr. Grace, this is Kate Springer. Can we talk . . . soon? I know today was supposed to be our last session but something happened at my crime scene this morning, and well . . . I’m going to be swamped these next few days with the investigation, but I’m sure I can get away for a few minutes later today or this evening. Just call me . . . and thanks.”
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