Julie Miller
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Copyright ©2021 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Enterprises

Kansas City Crime Lab #1: A Holiday Romantic Suspense
He promised to keep her safe…
Without crossing any of his self-imposed lines.

​On sale October 26th (in print and digital formats)

“Way to make a difference, Callahan,” Lexi teased out loud, deciding to move the Advent calendar from the back of her office door, which she intended to leave open as much as possible, to the closet door, where she’d see it at least twice a day when she hung up or retrieved her coat. She was making some groundbreaking decisions on her first shift as supervisor in the nearly deserted lab complex. She reached into the box on her desk to unpack a colorful arrangement of frosted silk greenery and shiny red balls tucked into a mug painted like a snowman. “Now, where am I going to put this guy?”

The newsfeed from the mayor’s Plaza lighting ceremony that took place every Thanksgiving night played on her phone on her desk, drowning out the echo of crickets chirping in the empty hallways. She’d taken a break from filling out paperwork and reading the policy and procedure manual to decorate her office for the holidays.

She’d wanted this job, right? She’d finally decided that she could be a better friend to Chelsea, Khari, Gray, Ethan and the others by being an advocate rather than just a buddy who shared coffee in the lounge with them and commiserated over inclusive test results, evidence that didn’t make sense, or all the steps the department had to go through before giving Dennis Hunt his walking papers. She wanted to be good at her new position, to earn her team’s respect. But she was off to an inauspicious start.

While there were four squads of criminalists covering the CSIU 24/7 or were available on call over the holidays, administrators and specialists who worked mostly in the lab itself had the day off. These were the people who ran analysis tests and database searches for ongoing investigations. Lexi had kept herself busy for a few hours, but the loneliness was starting to bounce off the walls and close in on her. Not that she’d have any company at home, either. No family, no pet, no boyfriend—just work and home alone. Seemed like her personal life was about as exciting as work this evening. She needed to meet someone or join a group or activity where she could make friends outside of the lab. Maybe she should adopt a cat from one of the local shelters.

While she had Levi’s arrival just before Christmas to look forward to, it was still a long stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then, he’d be gone again right after the New Year, and she’d be all by herself again in that gorgeous rattletrap of a Craftsman home where she’d grown up.

Not that she’d had big plans for celebrating the holiday today, anyway. When she was younger, her parents had taken her and Levi, and then Aiden, too, down to the Plaza after a big Thanksgiving dinner every year. They’d wait with anticipation in the cold, with thousands of other Kansas Citians and tourists, for some local celebrity or lucky child to throw the switch and turn on over a million colorful lights strung along every storefront, roofline and dome in the historic J.C. Nichols Plaza shopping area south of downtown KC. After the decorations turned the shopping district into Christmas and the crowd cheered, they’d go for ice cream or hot chocolate, depending on the temperature. Then they’d walk around the shops to view their elaborate window displays. It wasn’t just a Kansas City holiday tradition, it was a Callahan family tradition.

But then Levi had enlisted after graduation, Aiden had gone to a community college and the police academy, and she’d become a teenager too cool to hang with her parents. And then her parents were gone. After that was college, and more college, and work. She never seemed to find her way back to the Plaza to see the lighting ceremony in person, to feel the excitement in the air, to connect with the rest of the crowd and be inspired to celebrate the holiday season. For a while with her ex, Kevin, she’d thought she was getting back to personal connections and family and meaningful celebrations.
But soon she could see that Kevin didn’t want the same things she did. Although they shared similar skill sets, she was a woman with a cause, and he wanted to go into the family pharmaceutical business and make money like his father. Even as they were drifting apart, she was fighting to make their relationship work. He wanted a business partner, or better yet, a trophy wife. She needed to feel more useful than that. She was a lab tech at heart. An investigator who liked piecing together clues and solving mysteries and making a difference—the way her parents had made a difference in the world, the way she made a difference here at the crime lab.

And finally, there was Kevin in bed with another woman in their new apartment, a slew of apologies, and a lame-ass marriage proposal complete with an impractical, gaudy diamond she wouldn’t be able to wear to work, and promises she could no longer believe. The relationship had ended with the realization that she didn’t know Kevin anymore, and maybe he’d never known the real Lexi at all.

So much for a family and a home and the holidays.

The snowman mug found a home on top of the file cabinet just as the countdown started on her phone. She sat on the corner of her desk to watch the live feed of the white, red, green and multicolored lights suddenly illuminating the Plaza landscape. She smiled at the festive beauty of it all, as well as the memories of Thanksgivings and Christmases past.
But just as the crowds started to disperse to visit a bar or restaurant, walk back to nearby hotel rooms or window-shop at the stores—there was no sense returning to their vehicles and driving home just yet, as the Plaza boulevards and side streets would be notoriously jammed with pedestrians and parked cars—the happy trip down memory lane faded and disappeared into the sterile white walls of her office. There might be thousands of people down on the Plaza, but she was alone in her office putting up a handful of Christmas decorations and waiting for something to happen.

Be careful what you wish for, Callahan.

The phone on her desk rang. After hours on a holiday meant only one thing. They’d caught a case. She quickly turned off the newsfeed on her cell and picked up the receiver. “Lexi Callahan. KCPD Crime Lab.”

“Lexi—?” Captain Stockman covered the phone and yelled at someone to turn down the game on the television before returning to the call. “First, Happy Thanksgiving.”

He seemed to need the greeting to cool his frustration and organize his thoughts. Lexi gave him that time. “Same to you, sir. I hope you and your family are enjoying the day.”

“Ate too much. My team’s losing. Doing great.” She smiled a moment at the older man’s deadpan delivery, but had her pen and notepad ready when he got down to business. “Who’s there with you?”

“It’s just me on site. But Ethan Wynn and Shane Duvall are on call.”

“Good. Call them. We’ve got a murder down on the Plaza. The Regal Hotel.” The prestigious historic brownstone was a name that she recognized. The Regal had played host to mobsters, politicians and celebrities throughout the years. Recently, it had been completely remodeled with every modern amenity, while keeping its historic charm. The pricey hotel had a gated entrance and parking lot, and boasted one of the best views of the city, with its floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side facing Brush Creek and the Plaza district down below. Those rooms didn’t come cheaply over the holidays, and they were booked years in advance to ensure a warm, elegant place to hang out while enjoying an unobstructed view of the festivities down below.

Not the sort of place where she’d expect to process such a violent crime. “You’re sure it’s murder?”

“Well, the maid who discovered the body was pretty hysterical, so we didn’t get much from her. But the first officers on the scene described indications of a fight and a ligature around the victim’s neck.”

“That’s the same MO of the scene I processed on Monday.” Although, the prostitute with fresh tracks in her arm and the by-the-hour room rental hardly compared to the clientele she’d expect to find at the Regal. “That’s curious.”

“That’s why I want you on the scene. That fleabag in No-Man’s Land and the Regal are two different worlds, so it may just be an unfortunate coincidence. But I want your eyes on it to see if anything else matches up. The last thing the department needs for the holidays is a serial killer.”

“Understood. I’ll call in my team and get to the scene ASAP.”

“The officers who responded to the call have blocked the door, so no one has been in there besides the maid that we know of. One of them will stay with the room, and the other will meet you in the lobby.”

“That’s good.” Lexi jotted down the pertinent information the captain was giving her. “Did anyone at the hotel file a noise complaint about the fight? It might narrow down the time of death.”

She heard a cheer from the crowd gathered at the police captain’s house. Not only had the team they must be rooting for scored, but it sounded like there were plenty of friends and loved ones to share the excitement with. And while that observation triggered a surge of melancholic longing, Lexi quickly buried the emotion and listened to the rest of Captain Stockman’s report. “There are a lot of parties going on in the city tonight. If anyone heard anything, they didn’t report it. I’ve alerted homicide and the ME’s office,” he added. “They can do a more thorough canvass of staff and guests. You focus on your job. Find us some clues.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll be out of the office until Monday. But call if you need anything. Good hunting.”

“Thanks.” Lexi tore off the paper with the information she needed and stuffed it into the pocket of her jeans. Then she grabbed her coat, kit, stocking cap and gloves, locked up her office and hurried down to the garage and CSIU van.

Lexi waved to the officer closing the garage door behind her and turned onto Brooklyn Avenue, heading south toward Thirty-fifth Street. Before she reached the turn, she had Ethan Wynn on the line. “Hey, Ethan. Sorry to take you away from your girlfriend and the game, but we caught a DB down at the Regal Hotel.”

“On the Plaza?”

“Yeah. It’s one of the brownstone high-rises south of Brush Creek.”

“I know where it is.” Ethan seemed to be moving, gathering his gear or pulling on his coat, perhaps, while they talked. “It’ll take me a while to get there with all the extra traffic in the area. And where are we going to park? Every spot on the streets for blocks in any direction will be taken."

She’d wondered that, too. “There’s a lot behind the hotel.”

“That’ll be full.”

“Well, if you can’t get into the circular drive in front of the hotel, or the parking lot, do the best you can.” The city road crews had done their job clearing snow off the streets, but since it was one of the busiest nights of the year for tourists and locals to pour into downtown KC, she was already running into a snarl of cars parked along every curb. “I’ll call ahead to see if traffic patrol can clear a spot for us.”

“Do you want me to drive to the lab and we can take the van together?”

She shook her head, as though he could see her through the phone she’d mounted on the dash. “I’m already en route. I want to get the scene taped off and under our control before the crowd on the Plaza breaks up, and guests start coming back to their rooms at the Regal. Who knows what evidence all that extra foot traffic could contaminate for us. Plus, I’d like to at least get pictures of the place undisturbed before the detectives start their walk-through.”

“I hear that.” A door closed in the background, though whether it was him leaving his house or climbing into his car, she couldn’t tell. “My kit’s in the trunk. I’ll drive straight to the crime scene and meet you there.”

“Sounds good. And would you call Shane in, too? Captain Stockman said it’s a mess. We can use the extra hands.”

“Yes, ma’am. Will do. I’ll see you there.”

“Ma’am?” Was that sarcasm or a genuine attempt at humor? Was having her give the orders going to be a problem for Ethan? “Watch it, Wynn. You’re older than me.”

“Not by that much.” He laughed. “It’s the gray hair. Relax. I know today is your first day as the boss. I’m just practicing what I’m supposed to call you now.”

“Well, knock it off. I’m still Lexi. Save your ma’ams for your grandmother.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Wise guy.” She grinned and shook her head. “Thanks, Ethan. I’ll start processing the scene. You and Shane get there as soon as you can.”

What should have been about a twelve-minute drive stretched into twenty-five by the time Lexi pulled into the parking lot behind the Regal Hotel. Between KCPD and the hotel management, an area near the back entrance had been cleared for the official vehicles with flashing lights and law enforcement markings to be hidden away from public view to reduce the number of curious onlookers, press and potentially panicked guests who had no idea this luxury boutique hotel was now a crime scene.

There was another ten minutes of introducing herself to homicide detectives Keir Watson and Hud Kramer who were just arriving on the scene, and listening to an initial report from Officer Olivo, who showed them upstairs to Room 920. She was glad to see the door was closed and yellow crime scene tape had been draped across the entrance to keep everyone out. Olivo’s partner, Officer Heming, assured them no one had been in or out of the room since their arrival. Once dismissed, the two officers went to help the hotel’s assistant manager move the other ninth-floor guests to a new location for the night.

“Booties, gentlemen.” Lexi set her kit on the floor outside the crime scene and opened it up to retrieve foot coverings for the two detectives and herself. Since they had their own sterile gloves, she dropped her coat onto the carpet beside her kit, adjusted the CSI cap on her head, and pulled on her gloves. Then she grabbed the flashlight and camera from her kit, reminded the officers not to touch the light switch until she could get it dusted, then swiped the key card and led the way into what had once been a beautifully appointed room.

It was a shambles now. A tabletop Christmas tree had been knocked to the floor, its glass ornaments shattered and strewn among crushed gift-wrapped boxes that had been stomped on or rolled over. There was an overturned chair and lamp. Pillows and bedding on the floor. A spilled bottle of champagne was soaking into the carpet. A dent and torn plaster in the wall that indicated where a fist or someone’s head had hit.

A raven-haired woman lay sprawled on the floor in the middle of it all, her sightless eyes staring up at the ceiling. One of the victim’s holly-shaped gold earrings, adorned with what Lexi guessed were real rubies, had been torn from her earlobe, and a length of drapery cord was cinched around her bruised neck.

Lexi sensed a lot of anger in this room. Had the victim been waiting for someone to celebrate Thanksgiving on the Plaza with her, but an intruder had broken in? Possibly an ex who was abusive and didn’t like her hooking up with someone new? Or did she and her lover have a fight that had gotten out of hand and had ended with her dead on the floor and the room tossed as though there had been a real brawl here?

Detective Kramer, a compact, muscular man, seemed to have a flair for dark humor. “Happy Holidays to her. I’m guessing the celebration didn’t go the way she’d planned.”

Detective Watson, wearing a suit and tie and long wool coat that were a dressy contrast to his partner’s casual leather jacket and jeans, agreed. “I think we can safely assume this is a homicide.”

After an initial look at the woman, who was probably about Lexi’s age, Watson and Kramer asked Lexi to pull the victim’s ID from her purse, which sat remarkably untouched on the bedside table. Lexi snapped a photograph of the purse before opening it. Jennifer Li was clearly expecting company, judging by the lacy underwear and silk robe she had on, as well as the expensive perfume still emanating from her skin. The drapes that hung at the bank of tall windows were all open, giving a spectacular view of the holiday lights down below.

Keir was studying the same open expanse. “I’m guessing at this height, none of those thousands of people out there saw anything.”

“Unless the witness was flying by in a helicopter.” Hud jotted the victim’s information into a notebook and tucked it back into his pocket without touching anything in the room. He glanced at the contents of the wallet Lexi showed him, letting him see several credit cards and a stack of hundred-dollar bills. “I doubt this was a robbery if the perp left that much cash here.”

Lexi agreed. “I wouldn’t state anything conclusive, but I’m guessing we’re looking at a crime of passion.”

Hud thanked her before she replaced the wallet and retrieved a bag to drop the entire purse and its contents inside. “We’ll back off and let you start processing the scene.”

“I’ll call my brother,” Keir stated, following Hud back to the hallway. Was that code for something? Reading the question in her expression, Keir Watson explained, “My brother, Dr. Niall Watson, is the ME on call this weekend.”

“Oh. Of course.” Keir was younger than the bespectacled doctor she knew, but she could see the family resemblance now. “I’ve worked with Niall before.”

Although the ME would determine the cause of death and collect any clues left on the body itself, Lexi could see that the woman had been strangled. Even without the cord around her neck, she’d recognized the dots of petechial hemorrhaging in and around Ms. Li’s frozen eyes.

Keir was already halfway to the elevator, on his cell phone to his brother. Hud peeled off his booties while Lexi sealed and labeled the evidence bag with the victim’s purse. “You’ll be okay up here on your own?” he asked.

While Lexi appreciated the protective offer, she nodded. “I’ve got plenty to process in there.”

“We’re keeping Olivo downstairs to translate for the maid, and Heming’s helping us make sure no one leaves the building until we get names and contact information on everyone. But if you’d feel more comfortable, I can send him back up here to keep an eye on you until the rest of your team arrives.”

“I’ll be fine on my own. I know you guys are short-staffed tonight, and the hotel is booked solid. Plus, with all the people coming and going with the holiday festivities, you’ll need Heming for crowd control. The floor is clear, right?”

Hud nodded. “I’ll run a double check myself before I leave you.”

Keir ended his call and pushed the button to the elevator doors. “I’ll head on down to the lobby to start the prelim interviews. We’ll send your men up as soon as they arrive.”


Hud backed down the hallway in the opposite direction, starting his sweep of the ninth floor. “You’ll coordinate with the ME and copy us on anything you find?”

“You bet.”

She knew another cop and his K-9 partner who shared Hud Kramer’s protective instincts. Lexi's thoughts strayed for a few moments, wondering how Aiden was spending his Thanksgiving. Although they saw each other nearly every day at work, they rarely spoke about their social lives. She had little interest in hearing about his latest conquest. Lexi knew Aiden dated—after all, what healthy, red-blooded woman could resist that sleeve of tats sliding over all those muscles, killer blue eyes and Irish charm? Although she would gladly face off against any woman who abused his feelings or took advantage of his generous, caring nature, she’d often wondered why he hadn’t turned those charms on her. She supposed the pseudo-sibling bond was too strong between them for him to see her as anything but a little sister. And after her relationship with Kevin Nelson had blown up in her face, Aiden’s hypercritical evaluations of anyone she tried to date made him seem more buttinsky brother than jealous lover when she talked about her social plans.

She imagined Aiden and Blue were in front of a televised football game with a pizza and a rawhide chew. She knew Aiden wouldn’t be drinking beer and feeling sorry for himself at spending the holiday alone. His father had been an abusive alcoholic who’d married three different women after the death of Aiden’s mother when he was just a baby. None of those marriages had lasted once his stepmothers realized they were either glorified babysitters or they became part of Patrick’s abuse. Even after his father had lost his parental rights and eventually gone to jail, Aiden never touched alcohol. She didn’t necessarily think that he believed the addiction was hereditary, but for as long as she’d known him, Aiden had avoided anything and anyone that could be remotely tied to the nightmarish memories he had of his childhood. He’d severed all ties with Patrick Murphy once her own parents had taken him in, both legally and emotionally.

For a moment Lexi’s heart ached for Aiden, as it always did. Unbidden came the admission that she ached for him in another way. The starving, broken boy she’d once known had grown into a strong, healthy, confident man. They shared such a close bond. And yet, they would never share the bond she’d often fantasized about. Their friendship was too precious to risk, his vow to her brother too strong to betray.

All the men out there in the world, and she had to want the one who would never want her.

“Really, Callahan?” Lexi chided herself out loud at the dangerous turn her thoughts had taken. She was the one who was feeling sorry for herself. It happened every time that damn loneliness crept in. “He’s probably a lousy kisser and leaves his dirty laundry all over the place. Probably forgets birthdays and anniversaries, too.”

She tugged her knit cap tight around her hair and shook her head. She had no proof that any of that was true, but this pity party was only making the holiday and her first day as squad supervisor worse. She had a job to do. She needed to focus on that, and on helping find justice for poor Jennifer Li, not bemoaning her own foolish fantasies.

Lexi tucked a handful of marking labels into one of the pockets of her CSI utility vest and pushed to her feet. She ducked beneath the crime scene tape and took several pictures of the entire scene, working her way across the room to capture the general details from every angle. She paused at the window, feeling the cold from the air outside permeating the glass and making her glad she’d layered up with boots and a sweater. She could hear muffled bits of traffic noise and music from the world below her. So many lights. So much tradition. So many people.

It wasn’t until Lexi turned and faced the room again that she shivered. She was alone with death and destruction while it looked like half the city was down on the Plaza celebrating the start of the Christmas season.

This was the job she was so good at, though, she had to remind herself. This was the work she loved. She was making a difference.

So she buried that crushing lonesomeness deep inside beside those useless feelings for Aiden Murphy and went back to work.

Lexi started at the broken tree and crushed gifts between the tall windows. She laid an evidence marker down beside the debris and snapped several pictures before picking up a package and reading the tag. “‘To B, Love, J.’” She took a photo of the tag itself. None of the gifts had full names written on them. “Not particularly helpful, but it’s a start.” The detectives would need to track down whoever “B” was.

Then Lexi looked beyond the wreckage of a romantic holiday celebration and surveyed the chaos around the hotel suite. She’d better get a complete overview of the scene before she got caught up in the individual details. Steeling herself against the tragic loss of life, she snapped a few pictures of the body, including a close-up of the ligature around the victim’s neck. She went back to the windows and searched beside each curtain until she found the one with the missing pull. She took a picture of that, too, and marked the rope for further investigation because it looked as though it had been cut with deliberation rather than torn from the window as a weapon of opportunity. Jackson Dobbs would be able to study the edge of the drapery pull and compare the cut pattern to his vast database of weaponry to determine what knife or other sharp instrument had been used to cut the cord.

Lexi watched her reflection in the window turn into a frown as a curious thought struck her. She slowly turned and scanned the room again. There were no sharp instruments here—no knives, no scissors, not even a letter opener. She turned her gaze to the open door of the adjoining bathroom. Would a pair of manicure scissors be heavy enough and sharp enough to cut the decorative cord? Jennifer Li seemed like a woman who cared enough about her appearance to pack a manicure set. But if manicure scissors were a weapon of opportunity—say the killer had dazed the victim enough to have the time to go cut the rope and then come back to strangle her—then how did he know where those scissors were? That indicated a very personal knowledge of the victim and her belongings. More likely, the killer had brought his own weapon. And that indicated premeditation. Both were significant possibilities that she needed to pass along to Detectives Watson and Kramer to explore further.

There was another possibility to this whole crime scene beyond the ideas of intimate knowledge of the victim or premeditation. It was one explanation for Jennifer Li’s death she was hesitant to even give voice to.

Lexi scrolled through the pictures on her camera back to the crime scene she’d processed on Monday. The victim that night had been a prostitute found strangled to death in a rent-by-the-hour hotel over in the seedy No-Man’s Land district of KC, where drugs and street crime were king.

Although the victim, Giselle Byrd, had fresh heroin tracks in her arm rather than gold and ruby earrings, and the setting had been nothing like the classy sophistication of the Regal Hotel, there were other details that were the same. The room there had been tossed, indicating evidence of a major struggle. And the victim had been strangled with a length of cord from the curtains there. The setting and victimology didn’t match at all. But the MO was the same.

Did they have a serial killer on their hands?

Lexi eased her breath out between pursed lips. No need to panic here. Her job was to collect and process evidence from the scene and present facts to the detectives working the case.

The emotional roller coaster she’d been on today—nerves at starting the new job, worries about changing friendships, forbidden thoughts about Aiden, this whole damn woe-is-me holiday thing that seemed to be hitting her extra hard this year—was affecting her ability to do her job. She was good at this because she could detach her emotions and stay focused on the task at hand. Observations about potential motives and crime scenarios were welcome; distractions that got in the way of doing her job were not.

With that resolve firmly in place again, Lexi became the supervising criminalist she was meant to be. She sent quick texts to Ethan and Shane, informing them that she was at the scene and had started processing. She warned them it would probably be a long night. When they got there, she’d divide the suite into grids and put them to work collecting and cataloging the extensive evidence without overwhelming any of them.

She received a quick thumbs-up from Shane and another Yes, ma’am from Ethan with a winking emoji. Lexi snickered at his immature stab at humor and tucked her phone into the back pocket of her jeans.

Just in case she could find a pair of manicure scissors or other sharp object for Jackson to compare to the cut marks on the drapery cord, Lexi moved her assessment into the adjoining bathroom. She mentally swore when she saw that the fight must have continued in here, too.

There were bloody fingerprints on the edge of the porcelain sink and chrome faucet. A larger pool of blood was smeared inside the sink and trickled down the drain. She’d sure like Grayson Malone’s opinion here. He’d be able to tell her if this was from the killer cleaning up, or from the victim, trying to doctor her own wounds before she expired. But since Gray wasn’t here, Lexi documented it all on her camera, then swabbed several samples and bagged and tagged them for Grayson to analyze in the lab.

Lexi closed the swab she’d taken from the sink trap and was labeling the plastic tube when she heard a whisper of sound from the main room. She paused where she knelt on the cold tile floor and listened for some other indicator that she had company. “Hello?”

When she got no reply, she wondered if the sound had come from the floor above or below her. She tucked the tube inside her kit next to the cubby where she’d stowed her camera and tried to pinpoint the source of the sound. She likened the soft, rustling noise to the sound of someone who was slightly winded—as if they’d just walked up a flight of stairs because the elevator to the ninth floor had been shut down until the medical examiner removed the body and the police cleared the scene.

Lexi released the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding and opened another swab tube to collect a blood sample from the floor. “Ethan? Shane? I’m in here.”

When she still got no response, she stopped working. Her imagination wasn’t so fanciful to imagine that Jennifer Li had sat up in the next room. Maybe Detective Watson had sent the uniformed officer back upstairs for some reason. “Officer Heming? Is that you?” No answer. “Detective Watson? Detective Kramer?”

Damn it. Either someone had an extreme case of rudeness, they were playing a practical joke she didn’t find particularly funny, or she had an intruder. Even if one of the guests had peeked into the room or, heaven forbid, a reporter had gotten past the police downstairs to take a picture, it was Lexi’s responsibility to get rid of that person before they contaminated her crime scene.

Pulling the lanyard with her ID card from inside her vest, she got up and headed into the main room. “I need you to identify yourself. I’m Supervisor Callahan with the Kansas City Police Department Crime Lab. You can’t be in here…”
There was no one in the room. No one hovering in the doorway.

But the drapes had been closed.

A chill of fear raised the tiny hairs at the nape of her neck and shuddered down her spine.

A spike of adrenaline followed quickly in its wake.

She had company.

Not wasting another moment, she made a quick sweep of the room. Dead body. Major struggle. Ruined holiday. All the same, except for the damn curtains.

Lexi pulled her phone from her jeans and punched in Ethan Wynn’s number as she stepped outside of the room and scanned up and down the hallway. No sign of her team. No Officer Heming. No one.

When that call went to voice mail, she disconnected and called Shane Duvall. She snapped into the phone the moment Shane picked up. “Where are you guys?”

“Well, hello to you, too. I’m stuck in traffic.”

“What’s your ETA?”

“I’m stuck.” His tone indicated he wanted to add a “duh” onto the end of that sentence.

But something was off enough that it was giving her the creeps, and she didn’t appreciate his sarcasm at the moment.

 “Did Ethan call you? You know to come to room 920?”

“Of course. Ethan's not there yet? He's probably stuck in this traffic mess, too.”

“Get here as soon as you can, okay?”

“Lexi, is everything—?”

But she had already disconnected and was scrolling through the numbers on her phone.

She needed backup.

She went straight to the A’s and pressed the familiar number.

“Lex!” When Aiden picked up, he launched into a silly, friendly chat. “I know you’re calling to invite me to Black Friday dinner since we both pulled shifts on Thanksgiving. I may have the bigger TV to watch football, but you’re the better cook. And I know my priorities—”

“Aiden. Stop talking. Something’s wrong.”

The teasing ended abruptly. “Talk to me.” He was all serious. All cop. All the protector she could ever ask for. “Lex?”

She slowly turned 360 degrees, scanning for any sign of movement, any door standing ajar, any sound of labored breathing she might not have imagined. “I’m at the Regal Hotel. Processing a murder in Room 920.”

She heard the instant response of the siren on his truck suddenly piercing the sounds of traffic in the background. She explained the creep factor and feeling she wasn’t alone, even though there was no one here but the dead body.

“Get out of there,” Aiden ordered. She heard Blue whining in the background, probably picking up on his partner’s alertness and the sound and speed of the two of them heading into action. “Tape it off and go back down to the lobby where there are people. Send the officers up to recheck the scene. Go now. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

Five minutes? She could do five minutes.

“Move, Lex. Now!”

Lexi couldn’t leave her kit unattended now that she’d cataloged evidence. She disconnected the call, hurried back to the bathroom, snapped it shut and ran for the door.

Five minutes would be too late.

The moment she set foot in the hallway again, a fist smashed against her cheekbone, knocking her into the doorjamb. As pain rang through her skull, her kit hit the floor and tumbled into the opposite wall. Before she could even think to fight or run, the leather-gloved hand palmed her face and smacked the back of her head into the steel doorframe. She crumpled to the floor, tried to crawl, but her attacker grabbed the collar of her vest and sweater to pull her up and toss her into the room where she landed hard, stinging her breasts and hip.

She tasted the coppery taint of blood in her mouth. It seemed she could literally hear ball bearings clanging around in her skull. Her stomach churned as she turned her head and got a glimpse of black swirling through her vision. Black pants. Black gloves. Black mask hiding the man’s features. It had to be a man, didn’t it? To pick her up like that?

Was this Jennifer Li’s killer? Returning to the scene of the crime?

Thinking she was down for the count, the attacker walked past her, intent on reaching something else in the room. Lexi rolled onto her side and kicked out. Her legs tangled with his, tripping him. She pushed herself up and kicked again, connecting with his knee and sending him sprawling. She rolled to her feet and staggered toward escape. But landing a blow only elicited a feral growl from her attacker.

Lexi lurched toward the door. But the man recovered faster. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and smashed her face into the wall until her knees buckled. The ball bearings went silent, and the world faded to black.

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