Cooper climbed out of the shower and towel-dried his long, lean body. A second later, his skin was damp again. His disturbed thoughts prompted every pore in his body to release beads of sweat. He patted at the moisture and tried to calm his mind, but the police officer’s questions, and his answers from all those years before, played over and over, taking him back to the worst day of his life. The day his sister was murdered.
Your parents said you gave your sister a ride to school this morning. Is that true?
Did you see her enter the school building?
Was there anyone in the area you didn’t recognize, who seemed out of place?
Three questions and three one-word responses. He hoped once, in the million times he relived those moments, something would spark his memory of what happened after he stopped the car in front of his sister’s school. But it never changed. It was the same brief conversation that dead-ended against a brick wall.
Cooper’s mind touched on the time he awoke with someone’s blood on his hands and had no memory of how it got there, then jumped to the present. It seemed an impossibility that Riley, his only friend in Rubicon, the one who reminded him of his sister Cissy, had suffered the same fate as she did. He had to find out if he was a link that connected the two deaths, or if the awful crimes were an unlikely coincidence.
His drying efforts were futile. He hung his towel on a hook in the bathroom and walked mechanically to the bedroom in search of clothes. He dressed in tan chino pants and an off-white linen shirt, wondering if he would ever adjust to the summer desert heat.
“You won’t have to worry about it much longer if they throw you in jail,” he told his reflection as he finished buttoning his shirt in front of the mirror.
Cooper slipped into walking sandals then went to the kitchen to locate the supplies he’d need. He pulled a few small baggies from their box and a metal tablespoon from the mix of measuring spoons in a utensil drawer. He stuffed them in his pocket and headed out on his self-directed assignment. He was a man on a mission to uncover the truth.
As he passed the McKenzie house, he heard a man’s voice raised in anger. He couldn’t hear the words clearly, but he made out “scared” and cryin.’” Cooper stopped to listen. He bent over, pretending to adjust the buckle on his sandal in case a nosy neighbor was watching and wondered why he was standing there for no good reason.
Riley had mentioned Dylan told her he had some sort of medical condition that caused him bruise easily. Maybe there was more to it than that. Cooper heard what sounded like a door slamming, then someone rattling it. Should he go up to their house and ring the doorbell? Intervene? Call 911?
The noise stopped, but there were a few more words from the man. Cooper hadn’t heard Dylan’s voice at all. Maybe the man was yelling at someone on the phone, hung up, slammed the door in anger, then uttered a few last words.
He listened for another few minutes, re-buckling his other sandal. There were no detectable sounds coming from the McKenzie household. He couldn’t think of a creative reason to give McKenzie for his visit. “Hi, I heard loud noises and thought I’d check to see if everything’s okay,” was the best he came up with. If McKenzie was abusing his son, Cooper might be a more effective observer if McKenzie didn’t know he was watching him.
He started back on his journey to the desert. He wasn’t sure where to begin looking, but thought the police had probably cordoned off the area where Riley was found. He met two women he didn’t recognize chatting on the sidewalk and nodded at them. They stopped talking and nodded back.
“He’s cute,” one of them said when he was a few feet past them. “So what were you saying? That little girl’s body was stuffed in an old abandoned TV in the desert?”
“Isn’t that the worst thing you’ve ever heard?”
Cooper almost turned around to ask if that was true, but he knew his guilty expression would raise suspicions. He remembered waking up on his couch the morning after his nighttime desert wanderings thinking there was something about a television and Riley he should remember.
And Riley was found in a television? Why? Had she tried to escape an attacker and found refuge there, only to die from her injuries?
Television—the thing her parents kept her away from in life had cradled her in death.
He had planned to stop by the Peterson’s house to introduce himself and offer his condolences, but he was starting to feel like the prime suspect. If it turned out he was the monster who killed Riley, they would think he was the biggest hypocrite in the world on top of it all, visiting them to pay his respects. They’d think he only did that to keep suspicions away from himself. On the other hand, he might subconsciously give them reasons to suspect him of the crime.
This was the nightmare of all nightmares.
Cooper forced himself to keep moving, to see for himself if the television in question was the one he woke up by the night Riley died. He made his way up the path to the dreaded spot. It was one and the same, all right. The television was gone and there was a mess of footprints and tire tracks near the scene. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking. It seemed simple in his plan: find the scene and get some sand samples. But where would he start now? It appeared the authorities had scraped the top layer of sand around the area where the television had lain. No doubt to sift though it for any forensic evidence.
He’d watched crime shows where the investigators compared soil samples found on suspects with the soil at crime scenes. He should have known they’d collect as much evidence as possible. Cooper withdrew the tablespoon and a baggie and carefully approached the former resting spot of the television. He scooped some sand from next to the edge of where it had been scraped and dropped it in the plastic bag.
Maybe all the sand in the area was the same. Maybe some spots had different mineral counts than others. If the samples from under his fingernails matched the samples from the spot Riley’s body was found, that in itself was not conclusive, but it was physical evidence. If the investigators found a strand of his hair in the sand they collected, it would clearly put him at the scene.
Cooper placed the bag of sand and tablespoon in his pants pocket, then bowed his head and wept. For his sister. For his little friend. And because he had might have been responsible for their deaths. When his final tears spilled, he raised his head and took a final look at the scene.
There were a few empty tables at the small café. Cooper nodded at a middle-aged, bleached blonde waitress who needed a uniform at least one size bigger than the one she wore. He’d been there a few times, but had never seen her before.
The waitress studied him a moment. “Sit wherever you please.”
Cooper nodded and headed for the nearest table. Then—from across the room—he saw a slender arm raise, followed by a wave of her hand.
Lieutenant Frio half-stood. “Over here, professor.”
She may be the one arresting him in the near future, but for the immediate future, dining with her was a welcomed diversion.
“Midget had to stand me up, and I hate to eat alone,” she explained.
“You call your partner Midget?”
“That’s his name.” Frio smiled, and Cooper fell illogically in lust.
“Ah, a male partner.” He cleared his throat. “Personal or professional?”
“What? Oh. Professional. But that’s the only personal question I’m answering. No offense. One of my rules. When I’m in uniform, I don’t think of myself as Rosaria. I’m a Rojo Duro County Sheriff’s Department lieutenant.”
The blonde waitress who had greeted him at the door squeezed her way through the tables and stopped at theirs. “Sorry that I’m too busy for chit-chat, Lieutenant and company. What’ll you have?”
“Chicken sandwich and a milk,” Frio decided.
Cooper hadn’t looked at the menu. “The same.”
“Okay.” The waitress snatched up the menus and was gone.
Cooper weighed his words. “Lieutenant, I have some concerns about the young McKenzie boy.”
Frio leveled her eyes on him. “Why?”
Cooper told him what Riley had said and what he heard when he walked by their house earlier.
Frio nodded. “Let’s just say I’m looking into that myself, and leave it at that.”
Cooper drew his eyebrows together. “Any closer to finding out what happened to Riley?” He couldn’t say “Riley’s killer” out loud.
“Afraid not. And we got ourselves another body. Found out in the desert, too.”
Cooper’s pores prickled. “Another child?”
“No. Adult male.” Frio shook her head. “Used to be a quiet community.”
Before I moved here?
Frio’s cell phone rang. “Lieutenant Frio . . . Yes, sir. On my way.” She closed her phone and stood. “I hope you’re hungry enough to eat two sandwiches. Catcha later.” And she was off.
When his meal arrived, Cooper mechanically ate while he thought of his next move. He had to seek professional help. He had no choice.
A short, serious woman opened her door and stared at Cooper long enough for him to wonder if she was reading his mind, or trying to figure out who he was.
“Hello, I’m Cooper Dahlsing.”
“I know who you are. I’m Mary Sinclair. But you know that, don’t you?”
“Yes. May I come in?”
She hesitated, and Cooper thought she was going to say no, but she stepped back and waved him in.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“It’s about Riley.”
Sinclair looked down and shook her head. “An awful thing.”
“She told me you were helping her.”
“Unofficially. I’m no longer licensed.” Sinclair’s expression was unreadable.
Cooper didn’t know that she wasn’t licensed, but nodded anyway. “Did she tell you she was afraid of anyone?”
“Let’s get something straight. Whatever Riley, or anyone else has told me is confidential.”
Cooper persisted. “She never told me she was adopted. I don’t think she knew.”
Moody blinked a few times, like she was surprised, then reverted to her poker face.
“I think she was kidnapped as an infant in Minnesota. I’m from Wisconsin, but it was big regional news. I remember the case. And the woman I believe is her birth mother has been on television, begging for her return.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“I’m trying to get some answers and I’m not ready to go to the police yet.”
“The police? What for?”
Cooper pulled out his wallet and withdrew a one hundred dollar bill. “I’d like to hire you.”
“I can’t accept any money. I told you, I’m not licensed.”
“Okay, then. Will you give me the same terms you gave Riley?”
“Because we both want to find out who killed her.”
“And how will we do that?”
“Will you keep this confidential?”
“I have somnambulism. I go to bed and sometimes wake up in unusual places. The night Riley died I woke up in the desert in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine that I could have hurt her, but we need to find out for sure.”
Sinclair’s frowned slightly. “And how can you—we—do that?”
“You’ll need to hypnotize me.”
Doctor Mary Sinclair stared at Cooper. “You want me to do what?”
“Hypnotize me,” he repeated.
She frowned slightly. “Let’s go into my office.”
Cooper followed Sinclair into the inner room and sat down in the stuffed chair she indicated. She sat down in the one angled toward his. The arrangement of the chairs gave them the options of either turning toward each other for more face to face contact, or away from each other to avoid it.
Dr. Sinclair explained, “We’ve just met. I’d need to know you better, know something of your history. And on the other hand, you’d need to completely trust me before I’d be comfortable hypnotizing you.”
Cooper Dahlsing mulled the psychologist’s words over and over, processing them. Did he completely trust anyone, including himself? Especially himself? He knew he was asking a great deal from Sinclair in light of the fact they had spoken for the first time that day, but he was hopeful. And desperate.
“Why is that?” he asked.
“Doctor,” he automatically corrected her, then wondered why it mattered. “Cooper.”