Dr. Annabelle Schwartzman has finally found a place to belong. As the medical examiner for the San Francisco Police Department, working alongside homicide detective Hal Harris, she uncovers the tales the dead can't tell about their final moments. It is a job that gives her purpose-and a safe haven from her former life at the hands of an abusive husband. Although it's been seven years since she escaped that ordeal, she still checks over her shoulder to make sure no one is behind her.
Schwartzman's latest case is deeply troubling: the victim bears an eerie resemblance to herself. What's more, a shocking piece of evidence suggests that the killer's business is far from over-and that Schwartzman may be in danger. In this pulse-pounding thriller from award-winning writer Danielle Girard, a woman must face her worst nightmare to catch a killer.
Release date: October 1, 2016
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Print pages: 401
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San Francisco, California
Dr. Annabelle Schwartzman threaded her half-circle number-five suture needle, the kind normally used in orthopedic surgery. Pinching together the edges of the Y-incision she’d made an hour earlier, she began the process of closing the victim’s chest.
The chest and torso had been badly burned, and the fire left the skin fragile. Since there wasn’t going to be an open casket, the standard protocol was to use staples to close the incision. Schwartzman preferred sutures. Staples were effective but seemed too industrial. The sutures were slower, and she enjoyed these last minutes with the victim, the time to fully process the death before contacting the investigator.
Both the intensity and the reward of the medical examiner’s job were in being the final voice for a victim. Schwartzman was the last person to have access to the body, the one who decided if death was from natural causes or at the hand of another. It was intense and quiet work, the hours spent studying each piece in a puzzle that needed to be worked out.
In medical school, many of her peers chose specialties in order to interact with patients—gynecology for the joys of birth, or pediatrics for the children.
But those jobs came with sadness, too. Fetuses didn’t always make it to full term. Children developed diseases and died.
As an ME, Schwartzman interacted with patients in the most intimate way—limitless in the depths she could go to diagnose a death. For many, forensic pathology would seem like an impossible choice. For her, it was the only one. People chose medicine for the heroics—to cure disease, save lives. In forensic pathology, there were no heroics. Just unanswered questions.
The overhead light shut off. She waved her arm in the air to trigger the motion sensor. After 7:00 p.m., the lights automatically turned off after ten minutes. The halogen in the corner crackled angrily as it flickered on and off before settling into a solid glow. The hallways were dark, the room silent.
Some of the department’s other medical examiners worked with loud music, but Schwartzman appreciated the silence. One reason she enjoyed being in the morgue at odd hours.
She had been heading home from a dinner with some women from the police force when the morgue called to her, left her energized, ready for work.
She didn’t go to the morgue because there was work—the work was always there. What she loved about the morgue was the space. The smell of the grapefruit lotion she used after she’d washed up and before she donned gloves, the vinegar scent of the clean instruments and table.
She always smelled these before the body.
The girls’ night out with her coworkers on the force had given her a chance to talk to Homicide Inspector Hailey Wyatt, to get to know her away from the crime scenes they had worked together. Schwartzman had surprised herself by opening up about Spencer.
How long since she had done that?
Melanie in the last year of medical school—six and a half years ago—that was the last time she’d allowed herself to get close to someone.
Her phone buzzed. A text from Hailey. Glad u came tonight. See u tmrrw.
Schwartzman smiled. She had felt a growing closeness. They might become friends.
Spencer kept her isolated, certainly while they were married but even after she’d escaped. He had planted the notion that he was always close—confiding in someone was offering a key that might be used against her.
Dinner hadn’t felt that way at all. It was a relief to get her truth out there—a man she hadn’t seen in more than seven years was stalking her. He’d made her believe her mother was in the hospital. Had managed to elude building security at her apartment and deliver a bouquet of yellow flowers. A color Spencer loved and she despised.
But he was a fool to think he could get to her.
She was with the police department. That bouquet of flowers was being processed by Roger Sampers—the head of the Crime Scene Unit himself. In only six months, San Francisco had started to feel like home. Here, for the first time, she had her own space. She was in charge of her own work, which gave her the opportunity to give it the focus it deserved and to excel at something she loved.
Because she was good; she was appreciated. She had the support of her peers. She had . . . friends. A ridiculous thought for a thirty-six-year-old woman, but there it was. She liked it here.
Seattle had always been temporary. The first city away from Spencer, a place to regroup, finish her training. Seattle was perfect for that period of her life.
She was a doctor now, ready to begin her career, put down roots. She had spent long enough looking over one shoulder. She was determined to stay in San Francisco, even more so after the evening with those women.
She made her final notes and signed off on the work. Her phone buzzed in her pocket as she was sliding the body back into the drawer. She snapped off her gloves and pulled the phone from her lab coat. Hal.
“You’re psychic,” she said in lieu of hello.
“Oh yeah?” Homicide Investigator Hal Harris said. In the six months they had worked together, she and Hal had created a comfortable banter that made cases with him her favorites.
“I just finished our burn victim.”
“And?” Hal asked.
“Autopsy showed massive bilateral pulmonary thromboembolism with pulmonary infarction.”
Hal groaned. “English, Schwartzman.”
“Natural causes,” she said. “He died of massive blood clots in his lungs.”
“Guy dies of natural causes, then drops a cigarette in bed and torches his own house.” Hal had a knack for pointing out the ironies of their job, but they were always relieved when the autopsy revealed a death was due to natural causes.
“Yep. You want me to call Hailey?”
“No. I’ll tell her,” Hal said. “You ready for another one?”
“Sure,” Schwartzman said. She was always game for another case. Lost in a case at the morgue, home alone with a book or occasionally an old black-and-white movie—usually one her father had loved—those were her best moments.
The distractions were all the more important now that Spencer had found her again. The phone calls, the creepy bouquet of yellow flowers that had appeared outside her apartment door. Worse was the fact that no one in the heavily secured building could explain how the deliveryman gained access to her floor. Seven years and five months since she’d left, and he would not give up.
“I’ll text the address and send over a picture from Dispatch,” Hal said. “I’m about five minutes out.”
“I’ll try to leave here in the next ten.”
“Great,” Hal said. “See you then.”
She was ready to end the call when he said, “Hey, Schwartzman?”
“Nice work on that last one.”
She smiled. Hal was good at praising his peers—herself, the crime scene techs, the patrol officers. It was another of his endearing qualities. “Thanks, Hal.”
She ended the call and removed her lab coat, hanging it in her narrow locker. After exchanging the orange Crocs she wore in the lab for her street shoes, she packed up her case for the scene. Her phone buzzed with the address Hal had sent. She double-clicked on the attached image. Waited as it loaded.
The image came into focus.
A woman. About Schwartzman’s age. Wavy, brunette hair. Laid out on her bed. Shivers rippled across Schwartzman’s skin like aftershocks. Someone had already put a sheet over her legs and stomach, as though she’d been found nude, but a thin stripe of her clothing was visible above her waist. Other than the pale color of her skin, she might have been sleeping.
In her hands was a small bouquet of yellow flowers.
San Francisco, California
Schwartzman studied the flashing lights of the patrol car parked on the curb. In between the rotating bursts of blue, her vision was stained the color of blooming daffodils. She couldn’t shake the image of the flowers she’d found outside her door. No call from the front desk to tell her she had a delivery. The sole alert had been the sound of the bell right outside her door. Through the peephole, she’d seen an empty hallway. Then she’d opened the door and found the huge bouquet beside the door. Pale- and bright-yellow roses, calla lilies, freesia, mums.
She clenched her fists, fought off the fear.
On the street, the lights painted shadows across the front of the stucco building and washed the undersides of leaves on the small oak trees that lined the boulevard, giving everything the appearance of being underwater.
Neighbors stood along the sidewalk, jackets closed over pajamas or sweats to ward off the chill in the San Francisco night air. They huddled in small groups, arms crossed, watching. Waiting for answers. This was not the kind of neighborhood where people were murdered. They looked cold and frightened. Schwartzman felt the same.
She would not give in to it. She didn’t know that Spencer was behind this death. Rule one of forensic pathology: never expect an outcome. Something she appreciated about the job. Shortcuts didn’t work.
She emerged from the car and popped the trunk to remove a hard-sided black case. Focused, she crossed the sidewalk to the building, showed her credentials at the door, and stepped over the threshold.
Ken Macy was the patrol officer at the door. “Evening, Doc.”
Schwartzman smiled at the friendly face. “Evening, Ken. I didn’t expect to see you on tonight.” She removed her short black boots and slid into the pair of navy Crocs she used for indoor scenes.
“Traded a shift for Hardy. He got tickets to the Warriors tonight, taking the family.”
“Lucky him,” she said, enjoying the moment of banter.
“I know, right?”
Schwartzman stretched blue booties over the Crocs. “Any new restaurants to add to my list?”
“Did you try that Lebanese place I recommended?” he asked.
“Mazzat,” she confirmed. “Yes. I did. Last week. I meant to e-mail you. I had the kafta. It was amazing.”
Ken smiled. “That’s one of my favorites, too. That and the bamia.”
Ken had a seemingly endless list of the best spots for ethnic takeout in the city. “I’m ready for a new one.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ll have something for you when you come back out.”
“Perfect. I’m sure I’ll be starving.” One of the things she’d noticed about her new life in San Francisco was how her appetite had grown. Seattle had amazing restaurants, but her time there had been intense and focused. Stressed by Spencer and by school, she’d rarely eaten out, and the food she did pick up had been for sustenance rather than enjoyment.
Now, living in a new city, out from under some of that weight, her appetite was rejuvenated. It wasn’t unusual for her to have a second dinner after a late crime scene. She picked up her bag and turned her attention to the building, shifting into work mode. She glanced into the foyer, unsure where she was headed.
“Oh right,” Ken said, shaking his head. “Sorry. Take the elevator on up to four. It’s real clean. No blood at all.”
“Thanks, Ken,” Schwartzman said, carrying her case into the foyer.
The building was probably built in the 1940s. Narrow entry, large marble tiles in the pinkish salmon that was popular then. She passed a woman in pajamas and stepped into the empty elevator just as the doors were closing. The elevator bumped and shook slightly as it rose. Schwartzman was grateful for the lift anyway. She was not a fan of stairs, especially not with the case.
The interior of the victim’s apartment had been recently remodeled. Wide-plank hardwood floors throughout. Walls finished in a concrete-like texture that she recognized as American Clay. Sage green. Two large oils hung on the biggest walls. Both rustic scenes, one of a river and a mill, the other an old barn. A tasteful chenille couch with silk floral throw pillows.
Despite the decor, dark undertones were palpable. The room was too bright. Too perfect. Pictures framed on the table, set at perfect angles to one another. Nothing out of place.
Someone used to controlling things.
Or making it look that way.
Her first thought was domestic murder. People assumed domestic murders were committed by alcoholics and druggies, but a perfect home was as clear a sign of dysfunction as a slovenly one.
Under all the illusion of perfection, something ugly was often at play.
In Spencer’s house, everything had its place. Down to the white porcelain cup where the toothbrush lived when it wasn’t being used. The way the towels were folded in the towel rings, the direction in which the toilet paper unrolled. Her towels were never folded now. Not in more than seven years. She wondered which way the roll in her bathroom faced. She hadn’t noticed. Progress.
Hailey Wyatt was on the far side of the living room with one of the crime scene analysts, working intently. Like herself, Hailey still wore the clothes she’d had on at dinner. Not wanting to interrupt, Schwartzman passed the kitchen. A single wineglass with an inch of red wine sat on the counter next to a dark-wood cutting board with an inlaid bamboo center. A thin knife lay across its edge, the blade jutting off the side as though, at any moment, it might fall. Crumbs. Dinner perhaps. Wine and cheese with bread. Schwartzman’s favorite meal.
Three doors opened off a short hallway. The rooms were tidy and feminine, similar in style to the living room. No sign of a second inhabitant. She paused at the office door. Nothing out of place there either. A desk with an open book. A yellow bookmark lay between the two pages. No computer, no papers. Tidy. Too tidy. She moved on.
The body would be in the next room.
The dead did not spook her. Skin slippage, blistering, the blackness of putrefaction—those were all natural parts of death. Even the smell had lost its sharp edges and grown manageable. Especially when the body was discovered early, as it had been here.
The room smelled faintly of a candle that had been lit. Something earthy with a slight spice. Perhaps sandalwood.
Homicide Inspector Hal Harris stood by the bed, staring down at the victim as Schwartzman entered the room. Detectives in San Francisco were still referred to as inspectors, though she had yet to find someone who knew exactly why.
Even in the large room, he took up a sizable chunk of real estate. An imposing figure at six four and somewhere north of 220, Hal had flawless dark skin that made his hazel eyes look green, especially in bright light. His expression stern, he gave off the impression of being someone not to mess with. Behind the facade, Hal was both easygoing and extremely kind.
She was particularly glad that he and Hailey had caught this case. She had seen them solve a couple of tough cases since her arrival in San Francisco. A combination of smarts and determination. Those flowers unnerved her, and she felt calmer knowing that they were here.
He didn’t bombard her when she walked into the scene. As usual, he didn’t say a word.
It was a grand bedroom, particularly for an apartment in a city whose square feet sold for a multiple of hundreds of dollars each. As she did in every case, Schwartzman studied the space before the body. Often the surroundings gave context to the body. What she saw here was more of the same. A single, generic painting on the wall of a meadow, tall wheat bent in the wind.
There were several photographs in small frames on the coffee table in the living room, but none in the bedroom. Nothing personal at all.
The body was arranged on the neatly made-up bed. The sheet that had covered her in the image from Dispatch had been removed. She was not nude. The victim wore a lightly patterned yellow dress.
Schwartzman was reminded of the matching outfits from Lilly Pulitzer that Spencer so loved. Christmas, Easter, even the Fourth of July were occasions marked with a new dress for her and a matching button-down for him. Like they were children dressed by a wealthy housewife.
There wasn’t a spot of yellow in her closet. In her house.
The victim’s yellow dress had been fanned out and smoothed across the duvet. Gold flats. Tory Burch. Schwartzman could see the familiar emblem on the soles.
And the yellow flowers.
They were not the same as in the bouquet she had received from Spencer. That had been formal, almost a wedding-style bouquet, while these were more like wildflowers, long greens with tiny blossoms, the bunch held together by a piece of white string like cooking twine. Altogether different. Two different bouquets of yellow flowers. A coincidence.
Everything did not tie to Spencer.
He only wanted her to think that.
She set her bag on the ground and opened it up for a fresh Tyvek suit, reining in her thoughts.
The victim had been found in her bedroom. Affluent, white, early to midthirties. In a secured building.
Schwartzman stepped into the suit and raised the plastic-like fabric up over her dark slacks. It was warm in the apartment. With the suit at her waist, she unbuttoned her gray cashmere sweater, removed it, and placed it in her scene kit beside the box of gloves before pulling the suit up over her tank top. She hated the feeling of the fabric on her arms, but the room was too hot. Sweating under the Tyvek was distracting. She needed to be comfortable enough to give the scene her full attention.
She checked that her kit was open, made a mental note of her thermometer and the notebook where she would record her initial findings.
“What do we know?” she asked, snapping on her gloves as she crossed to the victim.
“The sister called it in,” Hal said. “Came for a visit from Southern California and found her like this.”
Schwartzman pressed her fingers into the skin. Lividity was apparent on the right side of her arm. “She’s been moved.”
“I agree. It’s too clean to be the original crime scene.”
Schwartzman examined the skin for early signs of bruising, checked the eyes for petechiae and found none. She fingered the victim’s rib cage, then her neck. “Not strangled. No obvious trauma. I’ll have to get her to the morgue to find cause of death.”
“I figured,” Hal said. “What about drugs?”
With a penlight, Schwartzman checked the victim’s nose and mouth. The passages were clear. She leaned in to smell the victim’s mouth. A little halitosis but no hint of drugs. “It’s possible. But I wouldn’t guess overdose. I don’t see any residue in the nose and mouth.” She pulled off one of her gloves. “There’s a wineglass in the kitchen.”
“I’ve asked Roger’s team to collect it.” Head of the Crime Scene Unit, Roger Sampers was extremely thorough. Somehow Hal managed to have Roger at most of his scenes, a testament to how much people respected the inspector. Roger was meticulous, comfortable with his own intelligence. Humor came easily to him, and, while he was often self-deprecating, he was careful not to make jokes at the expense of others.
“Good.” Her skin was hot and her hands cold and clammy. Coming down with something maybe. “What do we know about her?”
“Victoria Stein. Lived alone. The sister wasn’t aware of a current boyfriend. According to the sister, Stein divorced a couple of years ago. Moved to San Francisco and bought this place.”
Schwartzman replaced the gloves with fresh ones and raised the victim’s top, pointed to the lividity. “Appears she died on her side. Makes the overdose possibility less likely. OD tends to result in death by aspiration.”
“Could she aspirate if she was on her side?”
“They can,” she said. “But it’s not common.” She examined the victim’s scalp for signs of contusion. “You said she’s not from California?”
“From somewhere down south.”
“Oh yeah? You know where?” The skull was normal. No trauma to indicate cause of death there either.
He checked his notebook. “Here it is . . . Spartanburg. The victim’s sister said it’s close to—”
“Greenville,” Schwartzman finished for him. One town over from her own hometown.
“You know it?” Hal asked, surprised.
The victim’s earlobes were pierced, but she was not wearing earrings. No jewelry visible on the dresser. “The sister mention if there was any jewelry missing?”
“No. Stein didn’t wear any, I guess.”
A bit unusual. In her experience, most women wore jewelry. The more affluent the woman, the nicer the jewelry. There were exceptions, of course. She herself was one. Schwartzman had gone so long without earrings, her holes had closed up.
Spencer didn’t like earrings. Lobes were to be bare.
One of his rules. Something always reminded her of him. Maybe one day it wouldn’t. She hoped.
Schwartzman raised the victim’s hands, studying the palms for defensive wounds.
“You seeing anything?”
“Not yet,” she admitted. “Victim’s nails are pretty short, so it’s possible we wouldn’t see breakage with defensive wounds.” She studied the underside of the nails. “But I don’t see any tissue underneath.” She flipped the hand back over and studied the fingers for the telltale indentation or sun mark that would indicate a ring. None.
No earrings, no ring. Could be skin allergies.
She shifted the neckline of the victim’s dress and found a thin gold chain. She pulled it free of the dress to see the pendant. A gold cross. On the right side was a small hole, about the size of a pinhead. Like the kind jewelers used to let light through to gems. After laying the cross in her gloved palm, Schwartzman used her free hand to flip it over.
Embedded in the gold of the right cross beam was a Star of David.
“Oh, God.” She dropped the pendant, pedaled away from the body. Snapped the gloves off and let them fall to the floor.
“What is it?” Hal said, crossing to her.
His hands gripped her shoulders. The pressure was reassuring, settling the waves of panic that made it hard to stand. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
“Schwartzman,” he said firmly. “Talk to me. Are you okay?”
She leaned into his hands, shook her head slowly.
“What happened?” Hailey Wyatt appeared in the doorway.
Just hours earlier they had been talking about Spencer. She had opened up to Hailey and the others about Spencer. She’d told Hailey about being trapped in that marriage. And now . . . Schwartzman hugged herself to fight the shaking.
“My God, you look like you’ve seen a ghost, Schwartzman,” Hailey said. “Are you okay?”
If only Spencer were a ghost. But he was all too real. The victim’s dress was yellow. She wore no jewelry. These were just coincidences.
“Shit. Did you know her?”
“No. It’s not her—” She pressed her palm to her chest. Hers was there. She felt suddenly exposed. As though by speaking of Spencer at dinner, she had conjured him into being right here. She had allowed herself to open up about him, and here he was.
“Why would you think she’d know the victim?” Hal asked.
“I don’t know, but they look alike,” Hailey said. “The wavy hair, the shape of the face, the nose. It must have freaked her out.”
They did look alike. God, how had he managed to find a woman who looked like her? She wasn’t imagining it. The lack of jewelry, the dress, the flowers. It was all him.
“No,” Hal said. “She didn’t freak out until she saw the necklace.”
Schwartzman remained against the wall. Her bare hands pressed to the skin on her neck. It was icy cold and also slick, like a body coming out of the morgue refrigeration unit after being washed down.
“It’s a cross with the Star of David on it,” Hailey said. “And a little gemstone in the star.”
Would they think she was crazy when she showed them? She had spent months building up their trust. It took so little to break it.
What choice did she have? She couldn’t hide the pendant from them.
Schwartzman forced herself to lower her hands. “It’s a Christian cross with a Star of David on it,” she said, struggling to get the words out. “The Star of David is placed exactly where the heart would be if the cross were a woman. A tiny diamond in the center of the star.”
Schwartzman fingered the chain on her neck, located the pendant under her tank. To celebrate their first wedding anniversary, her father had designed a pendant for her mother.
The room tipped, and Schwartzman closed her eyes.
A pendant identical to the one on the dead woman.
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