Rookie Detective Karen Sykes is out to prove she is good at her job, finding justice for the darkness in her past through law enforcement.
She gets her first chance to shine with a case that hits a little too close to home. Like her younger sister, a four-year-old boy, has been brutally murdered. The case pairs her with Mike Connelly, an attractive crime scene technician, and sparks fly between the two of them. Mike resists the attraction and only adds more emotional conflict to the case.
When her partner becomes the latest victim and ends up in the hospital near death, Karen sets out to find the murderer before he hurts anyone else. Only the case gets trickier when the murder suspect ends up dead, leaving new clues to the real killer. Finding comfort in Mike's support, their relationship heats up, but so does the investigation. The killer has a plan. One that involves a Cat and Mouse game of hide and seek inside the hospital, where her partner struggles for his life.
Karen discovers it takes more than catching a killer to make the pain of her past go away. It also takes opening her heart and learning to trust in others.
Award winning author, Vicki M. Taylor writes dramatic stories with strong women as her main characters. A prolific writer of both novel length and short stories, she brings her characters to life in the real world.
When she's not writing, you can find her lurking about the many writing boards dispensing and receiving little pearls of wisdom from her computer in Tampa, Florida where she lives with her husband their dog, Jack and their parrot, Bailey. To find out more about Vicki and her writing, visit her website at http://www.vickimtaylor.com
The boy knew he shouldn’t wander too far away from the campsite, but it was too tempting. Not a baby anymore but a big boy of four years old, he fought the urge, but in the end curiosity won out. He followed the large white bird as it ambled and picked its way up the beach. The sleek curved line of its long white neck silhouetted in the sky.
The voices of his mother and sisters grew fainter in the wind as it whipped along the shore. Small waves crashed into the sandy beach strewn with broken shells and seaweed.
He left his shoes next to the pile of shells he’d collected for his mom. He tried hard to remember to pick them up on his way back because he knew his mom would be upset if he lost them. Never had he seen such a big bird on the ground before; he would follow for a little while longer.
Careful where he placed his little bare feet, the boy skipped along to keep up with the bird. Ignoring him, it appeared more intent on finding bugs to eat and unconcerned with the antics of one small boy.
The sun was setting and the shadows were long. Bird and shadow mingled together.
The boy had no trouble keeping up, until a quick movement in the small brush near the trees caught his eye. Another animal. Smaller. Quick footed. The boy knew the name of this animal. Squirrel. The bird forgotten like an abandoned, used toy, the boy ventured closer to the chattering brown squirrel.
The light from the setting sun didn’t reach far into the trees. The boy’s sun kissed skin shivered in the cooler shade, a small breeze making its way through the tall branches, whistling noises among the tops of the trees. With only his short bib overalls and no shirt, he wasn’t dressed for a trek through the woods. Branches from the low-lying brush and kudzu vines grabbed at his skin and scratched his arms and back.
A small voice in his head told him he’d better turn back and return to the campsite. At the same time, he heard louder voices just beyond a large rock covered with green vines. The voices sounded interesting. The squirrel forgotten, he moved a little closer. There, he could see who was talking.
He stepped on a stick that broke beneath his foot. The sharp end punctured his tender skin and he cried out in pain.
The voices stopped.
Suddenly realizing he had gone too far, the boy turned only to find himself tangled and confused in the kudzu vines and low branches. He shivered again. This time not from the coolness of the woods.
Long forgotten, the big white bird ambled its way down the beach, toward tastier prospects and away from the humans.
Karen Sykes pushed some stray hairs behind her left ear. Her short brown hair lay damp against her neck, stuck to her skin in the thickening humid heat that was Tampa, Florida. Heat waves rose from the hot basketball court where she’d been taking challenges for the last forty minutes. Standing with her feet spread apart, she put her hands on her hips and asked, “Are we gonna go through this again?” She tucked her yellow t-shirt back into the top of her jeans.
A rare cool breeze stirred the treetops overhead. For a second, she closed her eyes and imagined a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade. Then she opened her eyes and made a face at the man she’d been calling partner for only short time. His gray hair stood on end in a short brush cut. He’d run his hands through it so many times during their basketball game, it now stood out at various angles. He was in reasonable shape for a man in his fifties, but too many days sitting behind a desk had given him a small paunch he swore on a daily basis wasn’t there yesterday.
With his shirtsleeves rolled up and his shirttail untucked, he looked a bit frazzled. They’d been playing hard and Karen knew he was about to call the game even if he wasn’t losing.
“Come on, old man, throw in the towel, she’s got you beat,” a voice called from the small crowd of onlookers and recent losers of Karen’s earlier challenges.
It had been a slow morning at the Warehouse, the loosely affectionate term the detectives gave to the large county building that housed their offices along with the rest of the Hillsborough County Sheriff department, and they didn’t want to waste any of the good weather that temporarily graced them.
Throughout her thirty-odd years, she’d led a competitive life. Girls against boys. Karen against everyone else. Karen dribbled the ball, looked up at the basket, then back down to the ball. She set her feet and bent her knees. She held her breath, ready to push off with her arms.
“Sykes, Anderson. Get in here.”
Karen hissed a sigh. “Damn, I had it too.” She wiped at the sweat rolling down the side of her temple. She didn’t like leaving anything half finished. Even if it was a friendly game of basketball.
Sam walked over and patted her on the shoulder as they headed into the office. “Good game.”
“You too, Sam.”
Lieutenant Santiago waited for them in the main room. “I need you to check out a new case. Over in the Hamilton Davis Park Campground.”
Back inside, the air-conditioned air felt cold and refreshing. “Sure, no problem, Lieutenant.” Karen accepted the folder the lieutenant held out. She grabbed her dark blue blazer from the back of a chair and shrugged into it.
“Hey, wait a minute,” the lieutenant said.
“Yeah?” Sam hesitated then turned around while Karen stood expectantly.
“It’s a kid.”
Eyes widened, Karen’s throat tightened. She swallowed hard to work past the lump that suddenly developed. This was it. She’d waited more than two years for this moment. Her first homicide case. Already, their lightheartedness on the basketball court faded into a distant memory. Real life had a way of crowding in and changing moods.
“Shit,” Sam swore. “All right. Thanks for the heads up, Lieutenant.”
Karen could feel Lieutenant Santiago’s eyes watching her as she headed out the door. He probably thought Sam competent enough to handle the case. But what did he think about her? She was tough. She had to be, growing up with parents that barely recognized her existence. It wasn’t their fault. The blame lay with her and what happened a long time ago. She lived with the guilt for more than twenty-five years. The guilt kept her company and almost felt like a familiar, comfortable sweater on a chilly night.
Following Sam out of the Warehouse to the parking lot, Karen knew he would help her along with her first homicide case. She couldn’t have a better teacher than Sam. She’d been told that plenty of times from the other detectives. She trusted his judgment. If he figured she was ready then damn it, she’d show everyone how ready she could be.
Karen rubbed her sweaty palms on her jeans before letting her fingers splay across her thigh near her knee. She shifted in her seat on the passenger side of the car. She had a thousand questions to ask and didn’t know where to start. She knew the case was serious. Any case that involved a child was, and that whatever she did between now and when the case closed could affect the lives of the victim’s family members and the killer himself. It was up to her and Sam to get it right. Something Sam would be good at, while he kept Karen from screwing up. She didn’t know whether to sit quietly and let Sam think while he drove or to let loose with a barrage of questions.
One of the stipulations Sam had when she was assigned to him was that he drove. From what Karen could figure out, he hated to be a passenger. Sam needed to be in control. That was cool with her. Glad to let him take the wheel, it gave her more time to think about the case and where they were going. She wanted to review all the procedures in her head and make sure she left nothing out.
Heading west on 580, Sam drove toward Oldsmar. Karen figured the campground must be close to the Pinellas/Hillsborough county border and right on Tampa Bay. She couldn’t remember ever seeing a sign for the place, but remembered a lot of undeveloped land out that way. The area wasn’t as built up as most, but getting close. Looking out the window, watching the palmettos race by, she hoped that the big housing developments continued to bypass this area. More nature and less development.
Having never been to the campground she didn’t know what to expect. She imagined thick brush, oak trees, sandy beaches, and lots of palm trees. She turned to her partner. “Ever been to this campground?”
“Once or twice, when the kids were young.” Sam didn’t take his eyes off the road. “It’s an older place, attracts mostly families.”
Karen stole a quick glance at her homicide partner. Sam never would tell her his exact age, preferring to tell people he was older than dirt. She knew he had a wife. He kept a picture of her in his office. The only personal thing on his desk. Karen wondered if he had grandchildren. She hoped he did. She pictured him rolling on the floor with a few little ones tumbling around, climbing all over him.
Pushing her hair back behind one ear reminded Karen that she needed to get a haircut soon. She’d been pushing the lengthy pieces behind her ear long enough. Shifting in her seat, she tried to keep her voice casual. “How many kids have you done?”
Sam didn’t ask her to explain. “More than I’d like to remember. Not enough to throw a number at it.” He rubbed at his face with one hand in a weary sort of way. “Not all of these missing kid cases end up with a happy ending. Every Amber Alert that comes across our desk needs to be solved as quickly as possible. Every minute we’re not working the case gives crazy sickos like this one a chance to snatch a kid and do God knows what to them before they end up killing them.”
Sam glanced over at Karen. His eyes widened. She realized her face must have given away the strained feeling his words caused. With a little effort, she got herself back under control in time to hear Sam continue.
“Don’t worry about a thing. Just stick close to me. If you need to barf, remember to do it away from the scene, okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” Karen shifted in her seat. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” She gave her head a little shake. “There’s a first for everything, right?” The bravado in her voice did little to help alleviate her jitters.
Sam sighed. “These kinds of firsts we could do without.”
Karen made a fist with her left hand and used her nails to scratch at the inside of her palm. She wasn’t really nervous. More anticipatory. She didn’t want to be the girl who couldn’t hack it in Homicide. She didn’t want to let anyone down.
She wasn’t exactly sure what to expect and didn’t know how to ask without looking like a total idiot. What the hell, it was Sam after all. If she couldn’t ask her partner and teacher, whom could she ask? “So, what can I expect?”
“A crowd. We won’t be the first on scene.”
Karen let out an inward sigh of relief.
“The Crime Scene Techs will be there.” He paused. “Stay out of their way.” Sam cast a quick glance at her, his eyes serious. “And don’t touch anything.” His voice lowered. “We want to nail the son of a bitch who did this, so nothing gets compromised. Got it?”
Throwing a salute with her right hand, Karen said, “Yes, sir!” When she saw Sam’s face frown, her smirk disappeared. “Don’t worry, Sam, I’ll be fine. I’m just getting out some nervous energy right now. This is my first, you know, and I want to—”
“I know, Sykes.” Sam sighed. “I know.”
Signaling to turn left, Sam waited for the traffic to clear. Cars along the busy road that usually sped by at sixty plus miles per hour now slowed to a crawl to get a good look at the police cars parked along the side of the road.
Karen glanced at the entrance to the campground. The heavy pine sign to the right of the entrance had the name of the campground burned into the wood. The owners must have been from up north; she thought it had a northern folksy kind of air about it. The kind of places her parents used to take her before they moved to Florida and her world turned upside down.
Police cars flanked both sides of the entrance and uniformed officers directed traffic away from the road that led into the campground. Not so long ago, she would have been one of the uniformed; directing traffic, keeping the curious and media hounds out, doing the grunt work for the detectives. Now, here she was, on her way to her first homicide. Please don’t let me screw anything up, she pleaded silently.
Sam slowly maneuvered the car forward until the officer stopped them. They showed their badges and ID. The officer told them to follow the road to the left, deep into the campground, take the third right and follow the flashing lights.
Large straight pine trees and a thick canopy of oak trees created a dark ceiling that kept out most of the sun’s intense glare. Karen rolled down her window and took a deep breath. The humid air smelled earthy, almost musty. She took another breath and caught a crisper scent, tinged with the faint odor of drying seaweed. The bay. It was so close she could nearly make out the faint sound of waves lapping at the shore. At another time, this might have been a pleasant new experience. Instead, Karen knew only tragedy awaited her.
Sam pulled his sedan into a space between a county sheriff’s patrol car and a black SUV. “Looks like Connelly and Parker are already here. That’s their truck.”
“Who?” Karen looked around. She saw emblems from state, county, and city police cars. It looked like everyone showed up.
“Crime Scene Techs.”
“Oh, gotcha.” Karen pushed open her car door, stretched, then closed the door behind her. The area was abuzz with activity. Cops in various uniforms and civilian clothes gathered into groups of three or four and stood around talking in low voices. Karen heard crying and looked in that direction. Without being told, she knew this was the family of the child. She nudged Sam. “Guess we start with the family?”
Karen watched the faces in the subdued group. Grief emanated from those gathered to console the family with anguish on their faces, reflecting in those around them. Two women supported a crying woman who collapsed in their arms. They hugged and soothed her. Was she the mother?
The air practically suffocated Karen with misery. Already the heat index climbed past the eighties and into the nineties. The once cool breeze of the morning all but disappeared in the thick woods, leaving a stifling humidity that built upon her skin like a second layer. Underneath her lightweight blazer, her t-shirt stuck to the space between her shoulder blades. Moisture gathered at her forehead and between her breasts. Memories of another summer day, dense with suffering and anguish gathered at the back of her mind, attempting to break through and force her to confront them. Karen closed her eyes, forced her mind to clear, then looked up at the sky. She couldn’t see them, but she knew clouds were forming on the horizon.
Hurricane Season in Florida. The day’s summer shower hadn’t arrived yet. Everyone at the scene would work against time to finish before the afternoon rains brought a slight reprieve to the intense heat and washed away any evidence.
Karen liked summer, even if it meant destructive hurricanes lined up in the Atlantic to take their shot at Florida. She wouldn’t forget the summer several hit, and knew she wouldn’t forget today either.
Sam pulled her to the side and motioned her toward two people walking their way from a trail that led into the oak trees. He waved and they headed in their direction.
“Connelly. Parker. Good to see you two on the case,” Sam said.
“Thanks, man. Not my favorite kind of case, though.” The powerfully built, younger man pushed a pen into his front shirt pocket and slid a notebook in after it.
Blonde hair and good looks aside, Karen noted an air of confidence radiating from him. His attitude meant business. Probably uptight. He didn’t even have the good manners to sweat like the rest of them.
“Hi, I’m Susan Parker.” The dark, tall woman stripped off a purple latex glove and stretched out a hand to Karen. Looking up, Karen met kind dark brown eyes. The woman was muscular, her skin dark like Godiva’s best chocolate, the surface slightly slick with sweat. She had a strong grip. Her dark, curly hair, cut short to the scalp, had a leaf caught in it. Making a motion with her hand, Karen pointed it out to her and received a murmured ‘thanks’ from Susan.
“Oh, right. Introductions.” Sam pointed. “Mike Connelly. Susan Parker. Meet my new partner, Karen Sykes.” They shook hands and exchanged cards.
“Hey,” Mike said barely glancing at her. Then he took a slower, more appraising look.
Karen bristled at his obvious review. “Hey, yourself,” she threw back at him. Where did he think he was? A local bar during happy hour? She gave his handsome good looks and deep blue eyes a brief glance, then focused back to what Sam was asking Susan.
“What do we have?”
Susan flipped back a few pages in her notepad. “Male, age four, appears to be asphyxiated by strangulation. Scratches on the skin appear to be from local vegetation; no other visible signs of stress.”
Without looking at her, Sam motioned for Karen to take out her notepad and start writing. Karen waved the pad that was already in her hand, in front of his face. He gave her the thumbs up sign and went back to asking questions.
“Where were the parents?”
Susan checked her notes. “According to the officers first on the scene, the father claims he was fishing, the mother says she was at the campsite. The parents reported the boy missing late last night, somewhere around midnight. Search and Rescue covered the area, then ZCI brought in Jake and they started again. Jake found the body this morning approximately three miles from the parent’s campsite, just on the other side of that trail, mostly hidden by leaves and brush.”
Karen sent a questioning look to her partner. He explained about Jake. “Jake is a Bloodhound from the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution’s tracking unit. They offer a free community service when searching for missing kids. He’s got a great success rate.”
“The way the body was hidden, we might not have found it so quickly and could have lost valuable evidence,” Mike said with a look to Karen that said volumes. Karen felt small and insignificant under his stare. Did he think her incompetent because she didn’t know about the search dog, Jake?
Sam clapped his hands together. “Well, let’s get over there and take a look at the scene.”
“We haven’t removed anything yet, wanted to wait for you to check it out first,” Susan said.
Karen walked with the others down the trail through big oaks and tall pine trees. Dried pine needles and small, brown, oval oak leaves from last season crunched beneath their feet.
The air was cooler here; the sun not as intense, but the humidity was the same—stifling. She tried to quell the butterflies in her stomach. This was her job. This was what she trained the last two years for. She knew she could do it. She just needed to convince her stomach. Willing the queasiness to settle down, she lengthened her stride to keep up with the others.
Bright yellow and black tape wrapped around several trees surrounding the crime scene. Mike lifted a section and they all ducked under it. He gave Karen a long searching look before she took her turn. If he was wondering whether she could do her job, she would show him.
For some reason, Karen felt that Mike disliked her and she didn’t know why. Maybe because she was a woman or she was new, but she got the overall impression that he didn’t approve of her. He judged her abilities before she could prove herself. That irked her. Besides, she was a likable person. Damn it.
Susan drew on a fresh pair of gloves then pointed out to Karen how she was putting the boy’s hands in paper bags and securing them. “We want to preserve as much evidence as possible. If the kid put up any kind of fight, he could have skin, fibers, or hair under his nails.”
Karen smiled politely, not sure if she should explain to Susan that she knew this from her classes. Looking at the boy’s body lying on the ground, she fought against another image floating up from the recesses of her memory. This isn’t the same thing, she told herself. Get a grip. Although able to quiet her mind, she couldn’t ignore the tug at her heart. Such a little boy. So young.
Susan moved on to the second hand. “We’ll scrape the fingers at the medical examiner’s office, then take any evidence we find back to the lab with us.”
Karen looked down as she moved to the side and saw a small section of rope laid out around what appeared to be a footprint. Making sure to step away from the rope, she looked around for a safe place to stand out of the way.
“Hey,” Mike called out. “Watch where you’re stepping. We have a good footprint there and we don’t want to lose it.”
Fire burned in Karen’s cheeks. She clenched her teeth and choked back a curt reply. She wouldn’t embarrass Sam and say anything.
She wasn’t going to step on the footprint. She wasn’t that stupid; she paid attention. If Mike asked, she even knew how to make a plaster mold of the print to protect it. Although Karen doubted he’d be asking her to do anything involved with this case. Apparently, she wasn’t good enough.
Looking back over her shoulder, she studied Mike Connelly. What was it about her that rubbed him the wrong way? Or was he always this charming? Why did she even care? She shouldn’t. A small voice inside vowed to prove she could handle the job despite the tiny spark of curiosity that piqued her interest about Mike Connelly.
Having taken all the notes she could think of and not sure what else to do at the moment, Karen watched Parker and Connelly help the medical examiner. They laid out a white sheet and gently lifted the boy’s body onto it. The bit of sun that did make it through the trees glinted off the shiny metal snap of his overalls.
“Wait,” Karen said thinking aloud. “Those snaps on his overalls. Has anyone checked them for prints?” Just as quickly as she spoke, she wondered if she should have voiced her thought, but it was too late to take it back now.
“It’s a long shot, Sykes,” said Connelly.
“Well, I was thinking that if the killer picked him up at any time to carry him, then he might have left a print. I mean, this place is what? Three miles from the boy’s camp, right? Do you think he walked the whole way?” Karen pointed out. “It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?”
Susan must have thought so too because she hurried to get out her fingerprinting kit and kneeled down next to the boy’s body, making sure not to touch any other part.
“She’s right,” Susan said after dusting the snap. “I found a print.”
“Yes,” Karen whispered to herself.
“We’ll see what kind of a match we get,” said Connelly looking at Karen as if he just swallowed something bitter. “It’s more than likely the mother’s print from dressing him.”
“Have you printed the parents yet?” Sam asked moving closer to Karen. “Nice catch, Sykes,” he whispered for her ears only.
“Thanks, Sam.” Karen’s face flushed with pride. She’d saved valuable evidence. Even the high and mighty Mike Connelly couldn’t deprive her of that fact.
“We’re printing the parents after we finish up here.” Susan stood up to stretch while backing away from the body. “By the way, Karen, nice save on the snaps.” She packed up her crime scene case. “I’m sure we would have caught it and printed it back in the lab, but by then, it could have been smudged. Out here we got a clean print.” She looked over at her partner. “Mike might be right, it could be one of the parent’s print. But we have to cover all our bases. We could get lucky on this one. We’ll compare it to the parents’ prints, then we’ll run it through our local database and then with the FBI’s AFIS if we have to. We’ll let you know if we come up with anything.”
Karen lowered her voice and closed the gap between Susan and her. “So, what’s up with Mike? Is he always this pleasant?”
“That’s Mike. Straightforward and ready to doubt at the drop of a hat. I wouldn’t put much stock in his growls, he doesn’t usually make a good first impression,” whispered Susan. “He doesn’t like anyone telling him how to do his job.”
“Or even making suggestions. What about you?”
“Me? I just go with the flow, girlfriend. Just go with the flow.” Susan smiled. “Mike and I have a good working relationship. I respect him and he respects me. But, it wasn’t always like that. We had our moments.”
“He sure isn’t shy about his feelings.”
“Sure he is. He definitely doesn’t like mixing business with pleasure.”
“What do you mean?”
“Honey. Mike has just come across a new puzzle. You.”
“Yup. You, darlin’, are going to cause Mr. Connelly a few sleepless nights. I can guarantee it.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Mike, interested in her? He didn’t even like her. Besides, he wasn’t her type. Too sure of himself. But, something deep inside stirred.
“Nope. Not a bit. If I know anything, I know my partner. He’s intrigued.” Susan laughed quickly then motioned to where Mike folded a white sheet carefully over the body.
“See how he keeps everything turned in, toward the body? That’s so any evidence on the body that falls off will catch in the sheet.”
Karen smiled at Susan. “Yeah, they taught us that in class too.”
“Sorry, it’s the teacher in me.”
They watched Mike zip the little body into a black bag and help the medical examiner lift it and carry it across the leaf covered ground to place it onto the gurney for the bumpy ride over the trail to the waiting van.
“Where does the body go from here?”
“Mike goes with the body to the medical examiner’s office. I’ll finish up here.”
“Got it.” Karen was glad the boy’s body wouldn’t be alone.
“Hey,” Susan called after Karen as she and Sam headed toward the first group of witnesses and the parents of the murdered little boy.
“Want to get together sometime for a cup of coffee or something?”
“That’d be great.” Karen smiled. It would be nice to have a new friend in the business. “I have your card. I’ll call you.” Susan might even be able to shed some more light on the complicated Mike Connelly. Curiosity simmered. He wasn’t the only one intrigued about their encounter