Taken to the Grave
“No bones about it, this is an excellent crime thriller… I could not stop turning the pages of this book… For once, I wasn’t able to figure out who the killer was early on.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Fireflies and Free Kicks Book Reviews
From USA Today and Amazon Charts bestselling author, M.M. Chouinard.
In a town full of secrets, the truth won’t stay buried…
It’s a sleepy morning in suburbia when Britney Ratliffe’s body is discovered by a running trail in the town of Oakhurst. Local detective Jo is shocked to the core. Because Britney is the second innocent victim to turn up dead in three days. And just like the first, a tarot card has been left by the body. The meaning of the card: betrayal.
Jo soon discovers that the girl was a student at the local college, the same college where the first victim, Professor Michael Whorton, taught. When Jo uncovers a secret affair between Britney and Michael, her suspicions immediately fall upon Michael’s wife, Camilla. Camilla’s suffered the ultimate betrayal, and her motive for killing the couple is strong.
But then a third body is found and Jo’s theory unravels. The victim is a sweet and vulnerable woman, who Camilla clearly liked. Why would anyone want to kill her? Jo knows she’s running out of time to crack the code and bring the killer to justice, and she knows how it feels to lose someone. Her failure to protect her fiancé on the night he was murdered has always haunted her, and she’ll do whatever it takes to stop more innocent lives being lost.
Can Jo find the twisted murderer sending the town into a panic before another life is lost? Or this time, will the dangerous killer find her first?
A completely addictive detective thriller that will keep you guessing into the early hours of the morning.
If you love Kendra Elliot, Melinda Leigh and Lisa Regan you’ll love Taken to the Grave.
Discover more Detective Jo Fournier thrillers.
Each book can be read as a standalone:
1. The Dancing Girls
2. Taken to the Grave
3.Her Daughter’s Cry
Release date: September 19, 2019
Print pages: 314
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Taken to the Grave
“You know, you never explained to me why you quit the lieutenant job,” Bob Arnett said over the lid of his coffee.
“I didn’t think I had to,” Jo Fournier answered.
Jo’s glance flicked to the unrelenting inquisition in Arnett’s brown eyes, then looked back to the rainbow of leaves swirling over the colonial-lined street. She’d known him for nearly twenty years—wow, that was a mental slap to the face—since she first became a detective, and hoped their years of partnering had pushed them past the need for this discussion. If they managed to pick up the smallest shifts in each other’s expressions and use them as road signs during interrogations, why couldn’t he pick up on her cues now?
Answer: he was ignoring them.
“Get a haircut,” she said.
“Which one?” He laughed. The joke was almost as old as the partnership. His hair, black when they’d first met, was more salt than pepper now, and always managed to look just a bit scruffy. “But seriously.”
“Did it occur to you that I missed our partnership too much? That I couldn’t face the day without your engaging wit?” Subconsciously motivated by the hank of hair sticking out above his ear, she tucked a chestnut lock behind her own.
“No.” His eyes bored into her.
“You’re smarter than you look.” She laughed. “The job just wasn’t for me. Why’s that so hard for everyone to understand?”
“Because people don’t walk away from upgrades in money and power.”
She sighed mentally, and shifted in her seat. “Why’s this coming up now all of a sudden after all this time? Boring weekend?”
“Partly because I waited, nice and polite, for you to tell me yourself, and it never happened. But mostly because Garber just quit and the position’s open yet again. Rockney asked me if I thought you’d consider it.”
Jo braked her turn onto Oakhurst University Ave for a pedestrian, and used the pause as an excuse to delay. He wouldn’t like part of the answer, and wouldn’t understand the rest. Hell, she didn’t fully understand it.
“Part of it was the politics. I’m not like you, my friend. I mind being hated.”
He chuckled. “And the rest of it?”
She returned the pedestrian’s wave and resumed the turn. “Rockney promised I’d be able to keep my boots on the ground, but that was a pipe dream. The Jeanine Hammond case confirmed what I worried about all along. Profiling behind closed doors when we could squeeze out a minute here and there? That’s not what I went to the academy for.”
“I knew you never let that one go.” He shook his head and chugged his coffee.
She bristled. Partly from annoyance, but mostly because he was right, she hadn’t let it go. They’d closed the case, which had involved at least six murdered women, but only because the killer had shown up dead on the other side of the country, purportedly a suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge. Although everyone told her she was crazy for looking a gift horse in the mouth, she’d been convinced at the time that there was more to the case, and she was convinced of it still. She’d learned everything she could about the killer’s past, and requested reports on all Golden Gate Bridge suicides several times a year. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but analyzed them until she went cross-eyed, certain something would eventually emerge.
But she wasn’t going to admit that to Arnett. “It just brought my issues with the job to a head. Anyway, enough about me. Laura’s shingles any better?”
He narrowed his eyes at her, but turned back around. “Yeah, it looks like they’ll be gone for good shortly. We were supposed to go on a romantic camping trip this coming weekend to celebrate, but apparently Kylie’s moving back in, and Laura wants to be there to help.”
Jo resisted the urge to comment on Laura’s propensity to over-accommodate, a sore spot for Arnett that had contributed to on-going problems in their relationship. “Have I mentioned lately how glad I am I don’t have kids?”
“Uh-huh. And you’ll keep mentioning it until your mother lays down another guilt trip, and then I’ll catch you googling how-to-freeze-your-eggs again.” He smiled.
Jo laughed and rolled her eyes. “Something go wrong with Kylie’s job?”
“Depends what you mean by wrong. Turns out writing dialogue for video games isn’t the be-all-end-all she hoped it would be.”
Jo shook her head in a show of solidarity. The younger of Arnett’s two daughters, Kylie, drove him batty. She’d dropped out of university—the very one they were approaching—after her freshman year, convinced that real-world experience was the path to success. The problem was, she wasn’t sure what type of real-world experience. This was the death of her third fledgling career, in less than two years. “Patience. She’s finding herself.”
“So Laura keeps telling me. What the hell does that even mean?”
“Damned if I know. But then, I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a cop.” Jo pulled up behind the two campus police vehicles and the Oakhurst PD squad car framing the entrance to Dyer Hall, which housed the biology department. “Huh. I don’t think we’ve been here since they built this.”
Oakhurst University had undergone a recent renaissance. The founder of UniversalApps, a software giant, had bequeathed a hundred million dollars to his alma mater six years before. That caliber of donation catapulted a university’s raison d’être, because it was the kind of money you invested rather than spent and then lived off the yielded interest in perpetuity. So, since then, the university set about redefining itself as a top-tier research school. That meant new programs, new priorities, and more than a few new buildings.
Jo and Arnett strode past a crowd of students held back by caution tape, and stared up at the structure.
“Yeah, well. I hope the vic’s the guy who designed it,” Arnett said.
Jo considered the glass-and-cement planes, discordant among the surrounding red-brick federal buildings. “It’s intended to be quote-unquote green. To let in as much natural light as possible. And the cement and metal don’t need paint, so there’s no toxic run-off into the environment.”
“Ugly as hell.”
She bobbed her head from side to side, trying to find the beauty in it. “You’re not wrong.”
They took the elevator to the third floor, and spotted more caution tape as they stepped out. As they strode toward it, the office in question came into view, door open and forensics team inside. A completely filled sign-up sheet for today’s office hours, Tuesday 1 p.m.–3 p.m., hung under the nameplate.
They stopped in front of the uniformed officer guarding the tape, whose badge identified him as M. Sheehan. Young, possibly right out of the academy, with a muscular frame and a blond buzz cut. He eyed Jo up and down, and she shoved down a flash of annoyance. Even in a progressive New England university town like Oakhurst, she regularly ran into people who were nonplussed by a female detective. Admittedly, her five-six, one-hundred-ten-pound frame didn’t cut an impressive figure, but she’d been told one too many times that her green eyes and wide smile were too pretty for a policewoman, so her solution was to head off the bullshit before it got started.
She met his eye without blinking. “I’m Detective Josette Fournier, and this is Detective Bob Arnett. We have a stabbing?”
His face flicked to Arnett’s and back, then shifted to a professional blank. “Yes, ma’am. Professor Michael Whorton. A student showed up for office hours and found the door closed, with blood seeping out from under it.” He pointed to the coagulating mess.
“The student’s name?” Jo asked.
Sheehan consulted his notes. “Rosanna Trenton.”
“Where is she now?” Jo asked.
“Department offices on the first floor, being treated for shock.”
“Has the next of kin been notified?”
“Yes, ma’am. The vic’s wife is somewhere in Maine on a business trip. They notified her. She’s finishing up there and driving back as soon as she can, sometime tomorrow.”
Arnett was incredulous. “Finishing up?”
Sheehan shrugged. “Garcia talked to her. He didn’t get the sense she was all that broken up.”
Jo peered into the office. Small, about ten feet by ten. The door was made entirely of glass, but Michael Whorton had plastered the inside with copy paper to occlude visibility. Between the two medicolegals working the scene she caught glimpses of walls lined with bookshelves, and a U-shaped desk that lined the back and right walls then jutted out to bisect the room. A laptop sat open on the desk displaying a stock shot of the Grand Canyon on the screen, next to stacks of papers and a briefcase. Shades covered the solitary window.
She recognized one of the individuals through the hazmat-esque scrubs. “How’d the tournament go, Janet?”
Janet Marzillo turned and shook her head. Her current obsession was Texas Hold ’Em, and she spent a fair amount of time in free online games. She’d taken her first shot at the real thing in Atlantic City a few weeks before. “Almost too easy. First time out, and I made it to the final table. Then I got flustered and overcommitted, and had to bluff my way through a mediocre hand that rapidly turned to guano. But, I placed high enough to win back more than my entry fee, so there’s that. How’s that new boyfriend of yours?”
“Boyfriend? I’ve been dating him three weeks.” Jo rolled her eyes.
“Two more than usual,” she said.
Arnett choked back a laugh, and covered by craning his neck to examine the room.
Jo smiled, but changed the subject. “Any information for us yet?”
“We still have quite a bit to do. You want to kit yourselves out and join, or wait?”
“We don’t want to get in your way, and I can see most of it clearly from here. Just give us the short version for now,” Jo answered.
Marzillo’s sassy smile rearranged into focused concentration. “Vic was stabbed first in the side, then at the base of the skull, which almost certainly resulted in instantaneous death. Which is strange, because if you have the sort of savvy for a kill like that, why bother to stab the man in the side first? As best I can tell, the killer had a clear shot—looks like the vic was on the phone, back to the door, and the killer came up behind him.” She pointed first to the landline dangling over the side of the back desk, then to a bloody handprint. “My guess is he tried to stand up after the first strike, then fell down before the attacker stabbed him in the neck, because there’s no blood flow down the back, only sideways onto the floor. And based on the blood patterns, there wasn’t much of a struggle.”
“Time of death?” Arnett asked.
“We got here at one forty-five. He’s been dead no longer than an hour before that.”
Jo checked her watch, then stepped to her left to see the entire figure. Michael Whorton was sprawled partially out of the desk’s U, lying awkwardly on his stomach, hunched slightly toward the door. His black slacks and pale green shirt were well cut, and made from quality material. One blood-covered hand jutted out from under him, and the other lay palm-down on the floor. His eyes were open, gazing up toward the ceiling. The position and the face reminded her of something, but she couldn’t remember what. She bent down to look more directly at the eyes, and the memory prodded her, but didn’t come. “There’s fear in his eyes, but something else, too. Can you see it?”
Arnett and Marzillo looked at his face, and Arnett nodded. “Like he was doing some sort of calculation.”
“I think that might just be because he’s looking up,” Marzillo said.
“Fear and calculation, yes, but also something else.” She shook her head and stood up. “Do we have time to do an interview before you’re finished?”
“At least that, I’d say. I’ll text you when we’re done and walk you through the rest.”
“Much appreciated.” Jo turned to Arnett. “Rosanna Trenton first?”
Rosanna Trenton didn’t have much to tell them. She’d shown up for Michael Whorton’s scheduled office hours at one p.m., and knocked to be sure he wasn’t inside. She figured he was running late and settled in to wait, seated on the floor reading a textbook. When she looked up ten minutes later to check the time, she noticed something dark seeping out from the office threshold. Concerned, she called campus police. She claimed she had lunch with two friends in the dining commons next door, right before her appointment time. Her shock seemed real enough, and if her alibi held up, she’d have to be a very cool customer to risk killing him in a ten-minute window before the next student scheduled for office hours appeared.
Jo and Arnett told the officers she was free to go, then headed through the short corridor that separated the student services section of the departmental offices from the administrative section. This opened into a single, small alcove with security cameras perched above a second door at the opposite end. On the left, a large redwood desk ran almost the full-length of the room, and faced a row of four chairs on the right. The woman behind the desk wore her silver hair in a severe bob, and wore a cream button-down silk blouse over pristine black slacks. Her gold jewelry was deceptively simple, elegant, and timeless.
An image of a Siberian husky flashed through Jo’s mind when the ice-blue eyes met hers.
“You’re the detectives, I assume?” the woman asked.
“Detective Josette Fournier, and this is Detective Bob Arnett. We’re here for Roger Latimer.”
She glared at them. “Finally. He’s been waiting for you since we got word, canceling appointments along the way. He needs this over as quickly as possible so he can keep the rest of his schedule.”
Translation: Dean Latimer was busy and important, they were not, and her job was to make certain they knew it.
A rare snarky response bubbled up in Jo, probably borne from the blunt, New England half of her upbringing. But the southern half, whose on-demand butter-doesn’t-melt approach had finessed more mover-and-shaker egos than she could count, tamped it back down. She pasted on an apologetic smile. “We appreciate his cooperation. This shouldn’t take much more of his time. Thank you—?” She waited pointedly for the woman’s name.
“Ruth Henderson, executive assistant to the dean.”
“Thank you, Ruth.”
Ruth picked up the phone, announced their arrival, and listened to a reply before hanging up. She typed something into the monitor in front of her, and the red light above the far door’s handle turned green. “Go all the way to the back, then turn left. The dean’s office will be in front of you.”
Arnett stepped forward and pushed the door open, revealing a rectangular maze with six-foot high cubicles in the center and fancy offices lining both sides. Stares followed them as they strode past. Jo watched Arnett surreptitiously eye the nameplates, knowing he’d remember them with near-perfect precision should they become relevant.
They turned left when they hit the dead end, then crossed behind the final cubicles. Two closed offices flanked either side of an unattended open-air reception area.
Jo glanced back and forth between them, flummoxed. “Any guesses which is the dean’s?”
“Flip a coin?” Arnett’s jaw tensed.
Jo knocked on the closer of the two, and got no answer. She stepped over to the other door. It opened just as she raised her fist, revealing a tall, thin man with a long face, ditchwater hair and eyes, and a suit that hung a little too loosely. “I wondered where you’d got to,” he grunted.
Jo made a quick decision. She didn’t want to alienate the man, and knew all too well that the academic ego was a fiercely overinflated, fragile thing. But the power display had gone on long enough. “The doors back here have no nameplates. I’m surprised any visitors find you amid the labyrinth.”
His eyes flashed to the door, then back up. “Yes, well. Security.”
“From who? The students, or the professors?” Arnett asked.
Roger Latimer’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he didn’t respond. He turned back into the office, then sat behind his large mahogany desk, and gestured them into the two chairs facing it. “What happened to Dr. Whorton?”
“Our techs are still processing the scene. Tell me about him,” Jo said.
“He was a biology professor who did neurobiology research on stem cells. Married, no children.”
“I was hoping you’d go a little deeper.”
“If you want answers, we need to know who might want to kill him. Was he a good teacher? Liked by his students? By his colleagues?”
“His teaching evaluations were standard for the department. I don’t know that he’s either liked or disliked generally by his students. But, there was an incident last semester, involving a student he failed. The student filed a discrimination claim against him.”
“Racial discrimination? Sexual?” Jo asked.
Roger cleared his throat. “None of that. He just decided Michael had taken a dislike to him. The student”—he pulled an open folder on his desk closer—“Greg Crawley, says Dr. Whorton failed him without justification. Michael wasn’t a fool, he kept copies of all relevant testing materials once Crawley started making trouble. Part of the coursework was graded on Scantron machines, so it’s just not possible for anyone to manipulate that. His scores on those sections weren’t failing, but they weren’t excellent, either. Michael provided us with rubrics for the essays, and wrote justifications for the points taken off. The difficulty was, while Crawley’s work was grammatically eloquent, the content was rambling and off-topic. That made assessing it difficult.”
“So you’re saying he deserved the grade he got?” Arnett asked.
Roger shifted in his chair. “I’m saying we didn’t find any reason to override Michael’s judgment. These issues can be subjective, and unless there’s clear reason to believe there’s bias, we’re not going to override a trusted professor. The Scantron results alone shed doubt on his claim.”
Jo was skeptical. Multiple-choice questions and essay questions were two different animals that required two different skill sets. Surely it was possible that a student could struggle with one and not the other? And, if he hadn’t failed the Scantron sections, was it fair to use them to justify a failing grade on the rest?
“I’m guessing Crawley didn’t agree with your assessment?” Arnett asked.
“No, he didn’t.”
Jo nodded. “And we’re talking just about a single class?”
“Unfortunately for Crawley, his D in that class dropped his GPA under the acceptable minimum to keep his financial aid.”
“Then he must have been flirting with the line to start with,” Jo said.
Roger leaned back in his seat. “Academic excellence didn’t come easy for him and he didn’t take responsibility for that. In my experience, such people aren’t likely to take responsibility for their other choices, either.”
Jo eyed the shift in body language. “We’ll need to speak with him. Any other problem students?”
“None that were brought to my attention. You can check with his current TA, but it’s only the third week of the semester.”
“Any other issues? Problems with colleagues or staff?” Jo asked.
“Four years ago a fellow professor filed a sexual harassment claim against him.”
Jo’s eyebrows shot up. “I’d say that’s burying the lede, Dr. Latimer. Please, continue.”
The dean pulled a second folder out from under the first, and opened it. “You understand, these reports are confidential, and anonymous.”
Jo kept her eyes on his face. “You don’t know who filed it?”
A very slight tinge of color touched his cheeks. “I’m saying nobody’s supposed to know who filed it, including, technically, me. I’m asking for your discretion.”
“We have no desire to make anyone’s life more difficult than can be avoided. But we can’t make any promises along those lines,” she said.
“And I’m sure you’ll get a warrant for the records regardless, so there’s no point drawing this out. The complaint was filed by Dr. Terrence Shawnessy, on behalf of another professor, Beth Morlinski. She went to Terry upset about inappropriate advances and pressure from Michael Whorton.”
“Is that common, for someone else to file the complaint?”
“It happens. We have a zero-tolerance policy against any sort of harassment, and a strict code of ethics. Once Dr. Morlinski told Dr. Shawnessy about the inappropriate conduct, he was required to report it. Had he failed to do so, he put himself at risk for liability.”
“What exactly did she allege?”
“That Michael made unwanted sexual advances toward her, and when she refused him, he threatened her tenure.”
“He had the power to do that?”
“No, but it’s not quite as simple as that. He was one of only three full professors in the department, which meant he’d be on her P&T committee. And he was department chair.”
“P&T committee?” Arnett asked.
“Privileges and Tenure.”
The implication hit Jo in the abdomen. “Was there an investigation?”
“No, because Dr. Morlinski left shortly after.”
Jo stared at him. “I don’t understand. Whether Dr. Morlinski was here or not, you had a potential sexual predator among your faculty. Surely you weren’t okay with that?”
Roger Latimer smiled condescendingly. “These situations are far more complex than you understand, Detective. As far as I knew, the entire incident was fabricated.”
Jo opened her mouth to respond, but Arnett spoke over her. “Where’s Dr. Morlinksi working now?” he asked, pencil hovering over his notepad.
Roger shifted in his chair. “I believe she went to teach at a liberal arts college, but I’m not certain where.”
“So she left because of the harassment?” Jo didn’t bother to keep the indignation out of her voice.
Roger gave a slight shake of his head. “She didn’t confide her reasons to me.”
“Pretty coincidental timing, don’t you think?” Arnett asked.
“I find that sort of speculation dangerous.”
I’m sure you do, Jo thought. “Four years ago. Any problems more recently?”
He broke eye contact. “Nothing serious that I’m aware of.”
Jo smiled, and tapped a nail on the arm of her chair. “Sounds like you’re hedging a bit.”
His eyes flashed back to hers. “I suppose I am. Academic politics are complicated and continual, Detective. Someone’s always annoyed at someone about something. I don’t have time to keep track of all the leaks around the water cooler.”
Jo leaned in, smile tight. “Your receptionist mentioned you have appointments you don’t want to cancel, Dr. Latimer. Shall we chase the subject around the room for a while, or would you prefer to keep your next meeting?”
Roger’s eyes narrowed again. Then, he seemed to make a decision. “Dr. Whorton had opinions about a direction for the biology department that weren’t universally popular. But,” he hurried to add when Jo’s eyebrows went up, “that describes someone in just about every department I’ve ever been associated with, especially when they’re in crucial growing phases.”
“But they’re not dead, and Michael Whorton is. As chair, I imagine his opinions had somewhat more sway than other people’s did?”
“He’s no longer chair, Arthur Kerland is. But yes, while he was chair, he had a fair amount of influence. And, frankly, he wasn’t the most adept at dealing with people.”
“He wasn’t well liked?” Arnett asked.
Roger opened and closed one hand. “I’d call it a bimodal distribution. He has loyal friends. But he tends to . . .
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