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Out of the Bag

Hours after the gun went off, the animals finally quieted. The dogs stopped barking, although Red Rover, one of the older puppies, kept up a low, rumbling growl. The kittens licked themselves as though they had not a care in the world, but kept to the very backs of their cages, and a certain twitching in their tails betrayed their unease. It was impossible to relax with the tang of blood heavy in the air.

Buddy, a large yellow lab whose oversized paws indicated he would grow more still, clawed at the door of his cage. He had been doing this for hours to no avail, but that didn’t deter him; he had no understanding of the concept of “hours” anyway. The human that had left, reeking of blood and sweat and fear, was not his human. His human had gone into the other room and hadn’t emerged. Buddy was determined to find out if he was the source of the smell. Across the room, the Persian Miss Daizy watched him with irritation and disdain. She could smell the rot of death; the human was beyond saving. She would tell Buddy that, but dogs never trusted those outside their stupid little packs. He would still want to see the human’s body for himself. She curled up and tried to go back to sleep.

None of them knew how much time had passed, but the summer sun had finally set before another human entered. The dogs began barking again in earnest, talking over one another almost unintelligibly. It was Rona, the human who understood. She could help. Buddy threw himself against the cage door, demanding that she release him.

But she ignored the cacophony of their demands. She might have tried to quiet them, but they couldn’t hear her over the sound of their own voices. She followed the smell of blood to the office. Buddy ordered the rest of the dogs to quiet; they didn’t, but they did lower their voices. His ears perked up and he listened for Rona.

“Holy shit.”

While thirty-nine was by no means old, on days like today, Detective Tisha Wiles wished that she was in her early twenties again. She had gotten just three hours of sleep after a twelve hour shift, and her body was not shy in showing its displeasure. She stopped by the 7-11 to pick up a large cup of coffee, and then the Safeway next door to get some more plastic gloves and baggies. Her boyfriend Jay had raided her stash for one of his class’ science projects, and there was a good chance that David had forgotten to restock his own supply.

Out of the Bag

Between these two stops, she was running later to the scene of the crime than she would like, which only worsened her mood.

At least the crime scene had a parking lot. Finding street parking in Towson was a pain in the ass.

She gulped down the last of her now tepid coffee before getting out the car and pulling her police kit out of the back. Time to put on your game face, Tisha.

She gave the uniforms her trademark tight-lipped smile as she flashed her badge and they let her through the tape.

Officer Roy Dwartman loomed just outside the pet shop, his muscular bulk seeming out of place. His cranky scowl was a stark contrast to the cheerful cartoon puppy welcoming you to “YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND.”

“Caught in traffic?” he asked.

“Something like,” she told him. “Shouldn’t you be inside?”

“I was looking out for you.”

She arched an eyebrow.

He sulked. “There’re animals in there. I don’t like animals.”

“Do you like your job?” she asked. Scowling, he opened the door and followed her inside.

They were immediately greeted with a chorus of angry barks and the sounds of cages shaking.

“Are those things gonna hold?” Roy asked the nearest uniform.

“Where’s the body?” Tisha asked.

“In the back office,” the uniform said, answering the only question he could guarantee an answer to. “Dr. Holdren is examining it.”

“Who found it?”

The uniform pointed. “Over by the toys.”

Tisha glanced across the room. A woman towered over Officer David Park, dwarfing his not-inconsiderable height. The good-natured detective’s posture radiated calm and comfort, but from the way the woman crushed the plastic football in her hands, he wasn’t succeeding.

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It took only a few steps to bring Tisha to them. Hearing her footsteps, David turned and - while the woman couldn’t see him - mouthed “thank you.”

“Detective!” he said. “Ms. Mendoza, this is Detective Tisha Wiles. Detective, this is Rona Mendoza.”

“Ms. Mendoza,” she said, extending her hand. “I know -“

“Officer,” Rona said, squeezing the toy in her hand. Squeak.

“I’m sorry?” Tisha asked.

“It’s Officer Mendoza,” Rona repeated, and punctuated it with another squeak. Tisha belatedly noticed the uniform. It wasn’t one she recognized. “With the Maryland Humane Society,” Rona elaborated.

Behind her, Roy snorted. “Animal cop.” Tisha watched Rona’s eyes narrow.

“Officer, why don’t you help the uniforms sweep the scene,” Tisha said.

Roy looked like he was about to protest, so she added, quietly: “That wasn’t a suggestion.”

David clapped his friend on the back. “C’mon, let’s go.” He turned back to Rona and smiled sheepishly. “Do you have-“

Tisha had already pulled out the gloves. David grabbed them with a murmured ‘thank you’ and hustled his partner away.

Tisha turned back to Rona.

“Do you mind I I ask you a few questions?”

Squeak. “I’ve already given the other officer my statement.”

Tisha smiled sympathetically. “It helps to go over the story multiple times. Sometimes you remember a detail in the second telling that you didn’t the first time.”

“There’s nothing to remember.” Except for a certain peevishness, Mendoza’s face was expressionless. Squeak. “The store was empty when I arrived. I went into his office and found him dead.”

“What time did you find the body?” Tisha asked.

“11 PM.”

“Was the door open when you got here?”

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“Yes.”

“Store closes at 9,” Tisha said. “Didn’t you find that strange?”

Squeak. “No. Patrick was expecting me.”

Tisha wrote that in her notebook. The plastic football in Mendoza’s hands let out another pained yelp.

“You knew the victim?” Tisha asked.

“He was involved in one of my cases,” the other officer said. “I came here because he said he had a lead for me.” She clutched the plastic toy again. A strange popping sound accompanied its final squeak, for which Tisha was grateful.

“He couldn’t give it to you over the phone?” she asked.

“Well I guess so,” Mendoza said. “I can’t claim to speak for the dead, but I assume if he could’ve given it over the phone, he would have. Look, how much longer do you need me here?”

“Why, got somewhere to be?” Tisha asked.

“I have ten cruelty complaints I need to investigate tomorrow. I’d like to be

awake for them.”

Tisha took a moment to study her. The plastic toy wheezed with distress, but Mendoza met her gaze steadily.

“Of course,” Tisha said. “Do you have a card?” The officer handed one over, and Tisha walked her to the front door. “We’ll be in touch tomorrow with more questions.”

Mendoza nodded and pulled the door open.

“Officer.” Mendoza tensed and turned around slowly. “The football.”

A moment of incomprehension, then Mendoza looked down. “Shit. Uh -“

Tisha took pity on her. “Never mind. Don’t worry about it.”

Mendoza nodded and hurried out the door. Tisha watched her get into a monstrous blue truck and pull away.

“I don’t like her,” Roy said, coming up behind her.

“You don’t like anyone,” Tisha muttered absently, and walked into the office.

Out of the Bag

David squatted by Dr. Danny Holdren, the medical examiner.

“Where’s Frank?” Tisha asked. David caught Danny’s attention and gestured to Tisha; she signed “hello” (one of the few phrases she knew).

“Big exam tomorrow morning. Danny didn’t want to wake him.” Frank was Danny’s translator, and a med student studying to be a medical examiner.

“That’s nice of him,” Tisha said dryly. “So what are we going to do?”

Danny pulled out a notepad and held it up. He had already written on it:

Three steps ahead of you. Tisha nodded.

“I’m assuming those holes in his chest are the cause of death,” she said. “So what’s the time of death?”

Danny gestured 5 to 9.

“That’s a pretty big window,” Tisha said. Danny scribbled in the pad. It’s the best you’re gonna get here. I’ll have more for you post-autopsy.

“Is there anything else you can give me?” Tisha asked, and Danny grinned widely and pointed to his smile. David tried unsuccessfully to suppress a chuckle; Tisha just gave him a deadpan look.

Danny scribbled. No obvious physical evidence from the perp. Only thing I can give you right now is advice - go home. Sleep. Trust me, I’m a doctor.

“A doctor for dead people,” Tisha said. It took a moment for Danny to interpret what she said; he shrugged.

“He’s got a point,” David said.

“Of course he does,” Tisha said. “Have you done a grid search of this room?”

“Inch by inch,” David said. “We got the bullet cases, but nothing else.”

“Out there too,” Roy said, poking his head in. “Nada and nothing. Promising, at least.”

“Lovely,” Tisha said. “Send uniforms to canvass the neighborhood for witnesses.”

“There’s not gonna be any around right now,” Roy pointed out.

“Tomorrow, then,” Tisha said. “Let’s get this evidence back to the station.”

Out of the Bag

Rona pulled into an empty parking lot a few blocks away and rested her head on the wheel. Then she leaned back, banging her head against the headrest and pulling her hair. Her nerves screamed, and it took all her effort to not claw at her skin, to try and breathe. But every fresh breath reminded her of Patrick’s blood, cloying the air of his tiny office. She was no stranger to dead bodies, even human ones. She didn’t have trouble with the stench of death and decay. So much blood. She rolled down her window and stuck her head outside. She spent a few minutes just breathing deeply, city smog cleaning out the reek of blood. Finally her nerves calmed and her vision cleared enough for her to - very carefully - finish the drive home. It was 1:30 AM by the time she unlocked the front door. To her surprise,

her roommate Karen was still awake, curled up on the couch with a book in one hand and their cat Grizzly in her lap. “How did it go?” she asked. Rona stared at her blankly, belatedly remembering that she had mentioned Patrick’s call. Evidently she took too long to answer. Karen put down the book and gently dislodged the cat. “What’s wrong?” she asked. It took Rona a few moments to find the words, trying to find something that seemed right. But there was no right way to say it, so she settled for blunt.

“He’s dead.” She collapsed onto the couch. “And no, I didn’t do it.” It felt strangely important to say that, to forestall the jokes that Karen wouldn’t have made anyway.

“Shit,” Karen breathed. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Rona said. “I mean, it was murder. But the dogs didn’t recognize who did it.” She leaned back and groaned.

“Are you all right?” Karen asked softly.

“The least he could’ve done was left me a note or something,” Rona said. “He was my only lead.”

She had deliberately dodged Karen’s real question, and was glad when her roommate didn’t call her on it.

“Maybe the murder investigation will turn up something,” she said.

Out of the Bag

“Maybe,” Rona said. Their cat Grizzly jumped into her lap and began kneading, her claws digging into Rona’s skin. The attempt at comfort was sweet, if painful. Such was life with cats.

“Go to bed,” Karen told her. “Things will look better in the morning.”

“A man is dead, Karen,” Rona said. “How exactly is that gonna look better?” Karen didn’t deign to respond to the admittedly petulant question, and Rona sighed.

Though she curled up in bed, Grizzly lying on her side and Rebel and Dusk, their two dogs, lying around her, sleep did not come.

Tisha had successfully managed to enter the apartment without awaking her parrot, Yarr, who had no concept of daytime and nighttime voices. The greater challenge was slipping into the bedroom without waking Jay. Ever so carefully, she crept through the doorway and slid under the covers, not bothering to fumble for her pajamas in the dark. “You keep. The worst hours.” She winced. Failure. “Sorry hon.” She gave him an apologetic kiss on the cheek. Jay rolled over onto his side and propped up his head. His coal-black blended in with the darkness; all she could really see was the flash of his teeth when he spoke. “So what was the emergency?” he asked. Tisha sighed. “A murder,” she answered. “Jesus Christ,” Jay breathed. “Who?” “Nobody you know,” she told him. “You know I can’t talk about it.” He wrapped his arm around her and she snuggled in close. “This is the last I’m gonna see of ya for awhile, isn’t it?” “Probably,” Tisha agreed. “I’ll be working some long shifts until this is done.” She moaned and buried her head in the crook of his shoulder. “I’m too old to work on this little sleep.” “You could always quit.” He kept his voice light, a little joking, but Tisha knew how seriously he felt about it. They had been talking about it for months. “My school could always use another security guard.”

Out of the Bag

“Mmm, yes,” she said. “Those first graders of yours are a real public menace.” “I don’t trust ‘em,” Jay said. “I’d feel much safer with you around.” “I bet you would,” she chuckled. When Jay next spoke, his voice was serious. “Promise me you’ll think about it?” he asked. “Right now, the only thing I want to think about is sleep,” Tisha said. She could feel his disapproval, and sighed. “I’ll think about it. Just let me get through this investigation.” “I’m gonna hold you to that,” he said. “You do that,” she said. “Now shut up and let me sleep.”

The coffee in the MHS break room actually wasn’t half bad, although everybody complained about it simply on principle. Rona cooled hers with some milk and then chugged it down, trying to force herself awake. Jeremy, one of the secretaries, poked his head inside while she was pouring herself another cup. “Oh good, you’re here!” he said. “Cap’n wants to see you.” She stifled a groan. “What for?” she asked. Jeremy looked around the hallway to make sure no one was listening. “Is it true you found a dead body last night?” he asked in a loud whisper. “How the hell do you know about that?” Rona snapped. “The Cap’n,” Jeremy said. “That’s why he wants to see you.” “How the hell does he know about it?” she asked. Jeremy shrugged. “I think he has an army of ninja spies,” he said, his special way of saying I don’t know. “You might wanna hurry,” he added. “He’s flipping tables.” She really hoped Jeremy didn’t mean that literally. Taking a long sip of her coffee, she followed him to Captain Wascomb’s office. Captain Wascomb was a former military man, and it showed in every aspect of his bearing, from his shaved head to the way he sat ramrod straight. He didn’t look up from his papers as Jeremy knocked on the door and told him Officer Mendoza was here to see him. “Have a seat, Officer,” he said. Only when she had settled down did he

Out of the Bag

finally look up. “I’ve heard you had a rough night.” How was she supposed to answer that? “Yes, sir,” she said slowly, almost like it was a question. “It’s not easy, finding a dead body,” the captain continued. “Especially when the death was violent. Believe me, I know.” He stopped as though waiting for some kind of response, but Rona had no idea what that was supposed to be. Finally he continued. “Why were you at Patrick McGovern’s store last night?” She took a breath. “I was there to follow a lead, sir.” “Despite explicit orders to make no contact with him?” Rona was surprised that his desk didn’t go flying at the sudden anger in his voice. “He contacted me, sir!” she said defensively. “He said he had a lead for me.” “Why didn’t you call it in?” Captain Wascomb asked. “Another officer could have followed up with him. “With all due respect, sir, no other officer knows Patrick like I do,” Rona said. “He may not like me, but he trusts me.” “Trusted you,” the captain corrected her. “He’s dead. Do you have an alibi?” “You don’t think I-“ “Of course I don’t!” he snapped, cutting off her indignant protest. “But the cops are going to find out about this, and it won’t look good for you. You need to be prepared.” He pulled out a business card and handed it to her. “I want you to meet with our attorney this afternoon.” Rona took the card reluctantly. “Is this really necessary?” she asked. “This is a murder investigation,” the captain said. “Nobody’s going to cut you any breaks. It’s your responsibility to look after yourself and the reputation of this institution. Is that understood?” “Yes, sir,” she said. Captain Wascomb nodded. “Dismissed.” She hurried out of his office, passing by Jeremy’s desk. “Your meeting’s at four,” the young secretary said. “Need me to rearrange anything on your schedule?”

Out of the Bag

Rona harrumphed. “I’d rather push the meeting back,” she said. “No can do,” Jeremy said. “She’s a lawyer. Unfortunately, lawyer trumps officer. Like I said, need me to take anything off your plate?” Rona shook her head. “I’ll make it work,” she said. “All right, if you’re sure,” Jeremy said. “Call me if you change your mind, okay?” “I will,” she promised. “Good.” The young man smiled. “Now you better hustle. You have to be in Haggerstown in an hour.” Rona cursed and ran out the door.

As they drove down Dulaney Valley Road, Tisha stared out the passenger seat window, examining the houses they passed and tuning out David’s prattle about the latest crime-fighting gadget he thought the department needed to buy. The homes were small, quaint little affairs, ensconced in trees that seemed incongruous with the vast stretches of open land that separated house from house. Jay wanted to move out here, saying the schools were better and it would be nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. She could appreciate the romantic appeal of the area; it straddled the fine line between suburbia and truly rural Maryland. But she could only imagine how much a home here would cost, especially as they got further down the road and the houses grew increasingly bigger.

They pulled into a development and up the McGovern driveway. “Nice house,” she commented as they got out.

“Cows and millionaires,” David said. “Welcome to Long Green Valley. Named for the long green money.”

Not the kind of money a cop and a middle school teacher had, she reflected as they headed for the front door, David lagging a little behind.

The front door opened almost before Tisha could knock; Mrs. McGovern had clearly seen their car pull up. She gave them a strained smile.

“Can I help you, officers?”

Tisha pulled out her badge. “Ma’am, my name is Detective Tisha Wiles, and

Out of the Bag

this is my associate Officer David Park. I’m afraid we have some bad news.”

Mrs. McGovern hesitated, as though if she denied them entry, she could make whatever they had to say not true. Then she stepped aside.

“Please, come in,” she said. The moment they stepped inside, she closed the door, almost grazing David. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea? Water? A soda?”

“We’re fine, thank you,” Tisha said. The house seemed smaller on the inside, the antique furniture oversized. The faded wallpaper was decorated with old black and white portraits from the 1800’s; there were no family photos, nothing in color.

“Have you had breakfast?” Mrs. McGovern asked. “I still have some scrambled eggs and bacon. Or some biscuits, if you prefer. I can make you up a plate.”

“Why don’t we have a seat somewhere,” Tisha said gently.

“If you’re sure,” Mrs. McGovern said reluctantly. “The living room is this way.”

Tisha had to sit on the very edge of the overstuffed couch to avoid drowning in it; wisely, David opted for the stiff wooden chair. They gave Mrs. McGovern a chance to settle in her seat before speaking. “Mrs. McGovern, there was an incident at your husband’s store last night. Your husband was killed.”

Mrs. McGovern did not cry. She did not speak, either. Tisha watched her struggle to keep the tears at bay, as though making sure that they did not see her cry was more important than finding out what happened.

“We don’t know yet what happened,” she continued. “It doesn’t appear to have been a robbery. There were no signs of forced entry. Did your husband have any enemies? Anyone who wanted to hurt him?”

Mrs. McGovern spoke slowly, her voice thick. “It was those animal maniacs. They did this.”

“Who?” Tisha asked.

“Animal rights activists, they call themselves,” Mrs. McGovern said. “They’re adoption zealots. They hate all pet stores. They hated my husband for running a successful business.”

“Were there any threats?” Tisha asked.

Out of the Bag

“I don’t know,” Mrs. McGovern said. “They put him on some kind of ‘wall of shame’, and they often stopped by his store to argue with him. But… he didn’t really talk about work with me.”

“Did he have any enemies among his competitors?” Tisha asked. “Any disgruntled former employees?”

“A few years back he had to close two stores,” Mrs. McGovern said. “He laid a lot of people off. But that was years ago. And he didn’t really have any competitors. I mean, there’s Petsmart on York Road, but they’re a national chain. He’s a small business owner.”

“Is there anything else you can think of?” Tisha asked.

Mrs. McGovern shook her head.

“We’ll need you to come with us to identify the body,” David said.

Mrs. McGovern shook her head again, emphatically.

“Bobby,” she said. “My son. He needs to know.”

Tisha glanced at David. “Would you like us to tell him?”

She nodded.

Tisha gave Mrs. McGovern her card, offered her condolences, and she and David left the house.

David shook his head as he slid into the passengers seat and handed her the keys. “Her husband’s gone all night; next morning two cops show up at her door and instead of asking if he’s all right, she asks if she can help us.”

“Not a very happy marriage,” Tisha agreed, starting up the car. “I wonder if there’s a history of abuse.”

“Want me to check his record when we get back?”

“I doubt there’d be any kind of record,” she said. She looked around the McMansions. Every one the same; every one perfectly maintained. Problems were handled behind closed doors so as to avoid making a fuss. Any abuse would be kept safely locked away. In suburbia, no one can hear you scream.

“But sure,” she said. “Also look into those ‘animal maniacs,’ see if he filed a complaint against anyone in particular. It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s killed over an animal.”

Out of the Bag

The long, lonely drives between farms gave Rona far too much time to obsess. What had he called her to the shop to say? Who had put that look of terror on Patrick’s face? Who could have possibly hated him that much?

It was pointless to wonder about these things. She should be trying to figure out what her next move in the puppy mill investigation. Patrick had been her one connection to a mill she was certain sold animals to stores all over the tristate area. She could go after other store owners, but they were spread all over Maryland. Patrick had been close to the area she was responsible for; it had been an easy matter to get on his case while still attending to her official duties. Once you got closer to the eastern seaboard, it would be a lot harder to justify to her superior officers, and even harder to hide. She didn’t yet have enough evidence to make this an official investigation. She couldn’t exactly submit the testimony of Patrick’s animals as evidence.

If only Patrick hadn’t been murdered. If he had just told her whatever he needed to tell her over the phone. He had probably been afraid that the mill owners had tapped his phone and would go after him for his betrayal. Oops.

At least if he had told her, his death could have meant something.

Mrs. Swartz’s cats swarmed around her feet as she opened the front door. She said hello to the old woman and told the cats to back off so she wouldn’t fall. Considering she was carrying a bag of food, they didn’t really care if she fell. Most of the woman’s twenty-three cats were feral to some degree. They found Rona intriguing, because she fed them and she could understand what they said, but they felt no obligation to listen to her in turn.

She needed to talk to the animals again. When she was waiting for the police, they were too upset to tell her anything coherent. Now that some time had passed, they might be able to think more reasonably. But she had to do it quickly. Domestic animal memory existed, but it was even less reliable than human memory. When would they release the crime scene? They couldn’t hold it for long…it was a business with employees and live animals. But what if one of the animals were purchased before she could talk to them?

T.C., one of the more domestic cats, rubbed affectionately against her leg as she cleaned the litter box.

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How much do you remember? Rona asked her. T.C. blinked lazily.

Many things, the cat answered. The streets are cold and hungry. The human used to care for us but now she does not. I have had seven litters of kittens.

Do you remember yesterday? Rona asked.

T.C. yawned, casually baring her fangs. No, she said. Nothing interesting happened.

That was pretty much the answer Rona expected. She really couldn’t afford to wait to talk to the animals again. If she had any hope of getting something out of them, she would have to do it soon. Tonight.

Stoicism seemed to run in the McGovern family. Danny pulled back the cloth covering Patrick McGovern’s face and his son Bobby, a short, stocky young man whose bulk was primarily muscle, didn’t blink. Tisha had a trash can on hand in case he needed to throw up, but the young man only turned a little green.

“Yeah,” he said thickly. “That’s my dad.”

Danny, who had been watching Bobby’s face intently, quickly covered Patrick again. Tisha led Bobby to the chairs outside the morgue. He collapsed bonelessly into one, and she settled next to him.

“What happened to him?” Bobby asked.

“He was shot twice in the chest,” Tisha said as gently as she could.

“By who?” Bobby asked.

“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Tisha said. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

Bobby shook his head. “I don’t think I can tell you anything,” he said. “My dad and I weren’t exactly close.”

“Did you have a falling out?” Tisha asked.

“No, no, nothing like that,” Bobby said quickly. “We just… he just wasn’t the kind of person you could get close to. Anyone. He played things really close to the chest.”

“Did he have any enemies?” she asked.

“What? No!” He laughed, an edge of hysteria in his voice. “He was a

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freaking pet shop owner!”

“Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to hurt him?” Tisha pressed.

He shook his head. “No. Wait. Maybe. Yes. He was the target of a bunch of animal rights freaks. You know, PETA types. Because he sells puppies.” He shrugged. “Evidently that’s a thing.”

“Was there anyone in particular who targeted him?”

“No,” Bobby said. “I mean, I don’t know. Like I said, we didn’t talk much.”

Tisha made a mental note of that. “When was the last time you spoke with him?”

“I dunno…week, week and a half ago?” He shrugged. “Me and my girlfriend went up to the house for dinner.”

“Did he seemed upset or worried about anything?”

“My dad didn’t get upset.” There was a sharpness in his voice, a blade hidden between two sheets of paper.

“Is there anything else you can think of?” she asked. “Anything. Even if you don’t think it’s relevant.”

He shook his head. “Nothing.”

Tisha handed him her card. “If you think of something, please call me. At any time.”

Bobby took the card. “Thanks.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she added, and he nodded. She walked him down the hall to the exit, then headed back to the morgue.

“Man, sucks to be that guy,” Frank said when she entered. Tisha glared at him. Frank translated as Danny signed “I keep Frank around because of his tact.”

“And this is why we keep you with the corpses,” she said.

“Corpses have an excellent sense of humor. They’re brilliantly deadpan.” Tisha arched an eyebrow and Frank pointed to Danny. “Hey, I’m just the messenger.”

“Well, if you’re done with your comedy act,” Tisha said, “maybe we can get on with this autopsy.” Before they could even try, Roy poked his head inside.

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“Guess we don’t have to pay you overtime,” Tisha sighed.

“Oughta pay me extra for wasting my time,” Roy retorted. “Nobody saw nothin’. Nobody heard nothin’.”

“I’m assuming there’s another reason you’re interrupting my autopsy,” Tisha said, ignoring Frank’s - Danny’s? - protests.

“You know that research you were having David do?” Roy asked.

Tisha just waited for him to continue.

“Well guess who’s had not one, not two, not three -“

“Get to the point, Roy,” Tisha said.

“SEVEN complaints in the past two years?” Roy finished.

“Officer Rona Mendoza,” Tisha said.

Roy pouted. “I wanted to say it.”

“Sorry,” Tisha said.

“She’s got a real reputation among the animal nuts at MHS,” he continued. “A coconut among walnuts, you might say. They say she talks to animals.”

“Like Dr. Dolittle?” Frank asked.

“Exactly,” Roy said.

Tisha was less than impressed. Every institution had rumors like that about somebody, especially in the high-stakes ones. Every cop she knew had some kind of “lucky” token, and rumors had been swirling around for years that Bennie in the other division could read minds. Life and death situations bred superstition. What exactly was life and death about investigating animals, she didn’t know, but they claimed to be cops, so she figured it worked the same way.

She turned back to Danny and Frank. “Do you think you’re gonna find anything interesting?”

“Doubt it,” Danny answered. “Double gunshot wound is pretty simple.”

“Have you seen CSI?” Roy asked.

“We’re not that kind of story,” Danny responded. “If we were, you’d be much, much prettier.” Frank giggled a little as he translated.

Tisha rolled her eyes. “In that case, I’ll leave you two with your corpse and

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his deadpan humor.”

Rona tapped her foot nervously on the floor of her truck as her phone rang. Pick up pick up pick up pick up pick up. If Karen didn’t answer, she was screwed. There was only so long she could linger by the side of the road before somebody either pulled over to ask if she needed help or, more likely, reported her behavior as suspicious.

“There is now horse poop on my jeans and my phone. You get to do my laundry tonight.”

“Karen!” Rona ignored her roommate’s grumping. “Look, I need you to do me a favor.”

Horse poop, Rona.” The other woman huffed in irritation. “What is it?”

“I need you to cover for me tonight.” Hopefully Karen wouldn’t -

“Why?”

- ask any questions. Rona struggled to come up with an answer that wouldn’t get her in trouble. If she told Karen the truth, Karen would try to talk her out of it. If she told Karen that she couldn’t say, then Karen would know it was something she would disapprove of and try to talk her out of it anyway.

Evidently her silence went on too long. “This is about Patrick McGovern, isn’t it?” Karen said. It wasn’t really a question.

Life would be so much easier if her roommate didn’t know her quite so well. “I’ve got a possible lead,” Rona said.

“Did Detective Wiles find something?”

“I can’t talk about it,” Rona said, hoping Karen would assume that the detective had given her a gag order.

“So what do you need me to do?” Rona breathed a quiet thank you to the heavens.

“You know the Miller farm? I was supposed to swing by and check the fencing. Can you do it for me?”

“That’s an hour out of my way,” Karen protested. Rona held her breath. Finally, her roommate sighed. “You owe me a week of laundry.”

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“I will give you two,” Rona told her. “You’re the best.”

“I’m gonna get that in writing,” Karen said, and Rona chuckled a bit as they hung up.

Her evening was covered. With Karen covering her official case, and Mindy the operator agreeing to say that she had gone out on a new call if anybody asked, her superiors had no reason to wonder where she was, or why she was clocking out late. She glanced at the clock. At this time of night, it would take her about forty minutes to get to Your New Best Friend. If the crime scene was still closed, she could talk the cop in charge into letting her in. If they had opened up, then it would be locked shut and she was screwed.

Remember what Rebel always said, she remind herself. Think positive. The Rhodesian Ridgeback had picked up the phrase from hours and hours of watching Dr. Phil with his previous owner; it had served him well when his owner had died and he had bounced from foster home to foster home until he finally landed in Rona’s care. Rona herself was skeptical of the power of positive thinking, but at this moment, it was all she had.

So she thought positive with all her might and turned her truck to Towson.

David leaned back and kicked his feet up on the desk as Tisha and Roy walked into the pen.

“Guess what I found?” he asked.

“Mendoza’s been stalking our victim,” Tisha said. “I got it.”

“Nope!” David said. “While Roy has been off delivering my news, I have not been resting on my laurels. I went through the backup we made of the vic’s computer. Our boy spent a lot of time on Craigs List…and he wasn’t looking for couches.”

He pulled up the relevant files, and Tisha and Roy read them off his shoulder. Roy quickly looked away, making a face.

“People are disgusting,” he muttered.

“That’s what makes it fun to be human,” David said. “And from the looks of it, Patrick was having quite a bit of fun. There’s no way Mrs. McGovern didn’t know about this. Who wants to bet she got sick of being cuckolded and decided to do something about it?”

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“Do you have any records of responses?” she asked.

“Quite a few,” David said. “He seemed to be going for quantity rather than quality.”

She nodded. “Get as much contact information for these women as you can. I want to talk to them.”

“You don’t think one of them did it?” Roy asked. “I mean, there are some nutters on Craigs List, but we’ve already got a suspect.”

“We’ve got two,” Tisha said. “If Mrs. McGovern found out about her husband’s affairs, she might have tried to confront one of these women. They might know something.”

Roy snorted. “Fine. But dollars to donuts, that animal loony did it.”

“No way,” David said. “It’s gotta be the woman scorned.”

“What is it with you and married people?” Roy asked. “You and Terry had a perfectly amicable divorce. Y’all met for lunch just last week!”

Tisha cut in before they could continue. “David, get the contact information for those women, then you and Roy talk with them. I’m going to talk with Officer Mendoza. We will get to Mrs. McGovern,” she said over David’s protest. “But I want to cover these bases first before I confront a possibly grieving widow.”

David mock saluted. “Got it, boss.”

Rona was halfway to Your New Best Friend when she remembered her appointment with the lawyer. Cursing, she pulled over again and quickly dialed the number on the card. It picked up on the second ring. “Carrie Lindhal,” a woman’s high pitched voice chirped. “Hi, this is Officer Rona Mendoza. Is Ms. Lindhal available?” Rona asked. “Seek and ye shall find, honey, that’s me,” Carrie said cheerfully. “You havin’ trouble finding my office?” This was the department’s lawyer? She sounded like she was twelve! “Uh, no,” Rona said. “Actually, I need to reschedule. Something’s come up.”

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“Something, huh?” Carrie said. “Can’t you get one of your fellow officers to handle it?” “I’m afraid not,” Rona said. “I’m really sorry.” She held her breath, wondering if the lawyer would call her on it. “How does tomorrow at one sound?” Carrie asked finally. “Think you can make it then?” “Yeah, sure,” Rona said, relieved. “Thanks. I’m really sorry for the inconvenience.” “Yeah, well, life of a lawyer,” Carrie said. “I’ll see you tomorrow at one. No more rescheduling.” “No more rescheduling,” Rona promised.

Tisha didn’t often get out this far into the countryside. She didn’t consider herself a city girl, but there was something eerie about the wide expanses, and she found herself missing the city crowds. In a city, people may ignore your screams, but out here, who could even hear you? She checked her gas tank periodically to make sure it wasn’t getting low. The last thing she wanted to be was stranded out here.

At the end of the rough dirt road, she finally reached the farmhouse where the MHS lieutenant told her she could find Officer Mendoza. She wasn’t at home or answering her cellphone. Before getting out of the car, she checked her gun, and then immediately felt silly. What kind of trouble was she expecting? But its weight on her hip still comforted her as she got out of the car and knocked on the front door.

“Mrs. Miller?” she asked of the woman who opened the front door. “Is Officer Mendoza still here?”

“You mean Officer Beaudry?” Mrs. Miller asked. “She’s out in the fields with Eddie.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not here with some new complaint? Because my Eddie - “

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Miller,” Tisha interrupted. “I had been told Officer Mendoza would be here.”

“That’s what I thought too,” Mrs. Miller said. “But Officer Beaudry said she wasn’t able to make it and she’d be taking over. Who’re you?”

Tisha pulled out her badge. “Detective Tisha Wiles, BCPD. Do you know

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when they’ll be back?”

“Shouldn’t be but a minute,” Mrs. Miller said. “Eddie worked real hard to fix up those fences. Is Officer Mendoza in some kind of trouble?” From the tone of her voice, Tisha could tell that the woman wouldn’t mind if the answer was yes.

“I just have some questions for her about an ongoing investigation,” she said.

Mrs. Miller opened her mouth to further interrogate her, but something caught her attention. Mr. Miller and another officer - presumably Beaudry - were coming up the drive. “There they are! Eddie! This is Detective Wiles. She’s looking for Mendoza.”

“Is she in trouble?” There was clearly no love lost between Mendoza and the Millers. Tisha noticed that they didn’t seem to care much for Officer Beaudry either. Legitimate grievance, or were they just upset about being in trouble themselves?

“I just have some questions for her,” she said again. “Officer Beaudry, can we speak in private?”

“Sure,” the other cop said. “Mr. Miller, Mrs. Miller, the fence looks great. Maintain its current condition and you will never have to see me again.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Mr. Miller grumbled. Beaudry tactfully ignored him and bid the couple good night. The two officers walked out to the parked cars.

“So what can I do for you, Detective?” Beaudry asked amiably.

“Your superior told me I could find Officer Mendoza here.”

“I took this case for her,” Beaudry said. “She said she was following a lead.”

“A lead?” Tisha asked.

“The puppy mill case,” Beaudry said, and frowned. “I thought she had gotten it from you.”

“Officer Mendoza and I have not been in contact,” Tisha said. “I’m not in the habit of sharing leads with suspects.”

“She’s a suspect?” Beaudry clearly regretted saying anything. “You’re kidding me. She would never!”

“Are you aware that Patrick McGovern had filed seven complaints against her in the past two years?” Tisha asked.

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“Yes, I was.” Beaudry’s tone was closed, guarded. “Many of the people we investigate try to file complaints to deflect the investigation.”

“Was Patrick McGovern under investigation?”

“Is this an official questioning?” Beaudry asked. “If so, I would like to do it at the station, with my lawyer present.”

“Just tell me where I can find Officer Mendoza,” Tisha said. “That’s all I want to know.”

“She didn’t tell me,” Beaudry said. “She just said she was following a lead.”

“And you have no idea what that lead was?” Tisha pressed.

“I’m not going to say anything else without a lawyer,” Beaudry said firmly.

Time to try a different tack. “Look, Beaudry. Cop to cop. I’m not out to get her. I just need to talk to her so I can eliminate her as a suspect. You gotta realize this doesn’t look good for her.”

Beaudry didn’t seem impressed with her heartfelt plea.

“Fine,” Tisha said. “I guess you’re coming with me down to the station for an official questioning. Go ahead and call that lawyer of yours.” She was fairly certain that the lawyer tactic had been a bluff.

But Beaudry pulled out her cellphone. “Can I drive myself there?” she asked.

Tisha felt like she was caught in some strange game of chicken. “Of course,” she said. “Once I write down your license plate number.” She walked over to the other woman’s car, writing down the plate number and trying surreptitiously to listen in on her conversation. Either she and Mendoza were talking in code, or she really was talking to her lawyer. Ballsy.

She gave Beaudry the station address to put in her GPS and slid into her own vehicle. She quickly dialed David.

“What’s up?”

“I need you to put an APB on Mendoza,” she said. “And if you could somehow make sure Roy doesn’t find out and crow too loudly, that’d be great.”

“Is she our guy?”

Tisha sighed. “Nothing’s certain yet. But she’s not at home or answering her phone, and she lied to her boss about her location. I think she might have fled.”

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“Roy’ll be thrilled.”

“That’s why I said keep it from him as long as possible. I’m in the middle of nowhere right now. I’ll be back in about an hour, hour and a half.”

She was about to hang up when David said: “Hey! What about the crime scene?”

“What about it?” she asked.

“Chief wants to know if we’re ready to release it.”

Tisha wanted to say no, but they couldn’t afford to keep it closed. The cost of feeding the animals alone was extraordinary.

“Tomorrow morning,” she said. “I want to give it one last pass tonight.” She rubbed her forehead. “I’m sending a person of interest your way. One of Mendoza’s fellow officers, who covered for her absence. Can you continue the questioning while I check out the crime scene?”

“Can do,” David said.

“She’s a tough nut,” Tisha warned him. “And she’s gonna be lawyered up.”

“Already? Jesus Christ. Don’t worry about it. We can handle it.”

“Thanks.” Tisha snapped her phone shut and started up the car.

The officer they had babysitting the crime scene looked young enough to need a babysitter himself. He leaned against the store wall, tracing patterns on the sidewalk with his flashlight. His youth would either make him easy to intimidate, or his boredom would make him pugnacious.

Rona parked her truck at the other end of the parking lot and adjusted her spare uniform, like a cat puffing up its fur to look bigger and more intimidating.

The heels of her work boots clacked loudly against the pavement. The officer quickly swung his flashlight at her, directly into her eyes. She cursed and held up her hand.

“Watch where you point that thing, Officer!” she snapped.

He lowered it just enough to get it out of her eyes. “Who are you?”

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“Officer Rona Mendoza, MHSPD.” She reached for her badge, and he reached for his taser. “Jesus, put that thing away! We’re not in some kind of cop movie!”

Abashed, he re-holstered the taser and took the proffered badge. “What brings you here, Officer?”

“I’m here to inspect the animals,” she said. “And to ensure that they have been adequately cared for.”

“I water them every hour!” the young officer protested. “And I make sure they always have food.”

She smiled tightly at him. “You understand that I can’t just take your word for that. Please unlock the door.”

She felt a flush of victory as, scowling, he complied and gestured for her to enter. She stepped inside…and he followed her.

“As you can see,” he grumbled, “the animals are all fine.”

“Shouldn’t you be standing guard outside?” she asked him.

“It’s my job to guard this crime scene,” he said. “I can’t let you walk around it unsupervised.”

In other words, she had pissed him off and this was his revenge.

Red Rover had begun barking the moment they walked in. The cops had changed his food and he didn’t like it at all. The cats, who generally refused to agree with the dogs on anything, agreed that the food provided was substandard. It gave poor Miss Daizy diarrhea. Rona squatted down and scratched Red Rover under his chin. Your humans will be back tomorrow.

When’s tomorrow? Red Rover asked.

Soon, she promised.

“How’s the inspection going?” The young officer’s arms were crossed tightly against his chest. Rona shot him a glare.

“I didn’t get your name,” she said.

“Wilkins,” he said slowly.

Officer Wilkins.” She turned her attention to the Buddy, who whined piteously in the next cage. “Animals need more than just food and water. They

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need exercise and affection. These animals, especially, have suffered a traumatic event -“

He snorted derisively.

“They were the only ones here when your victim was murdered,” she snapped at him. “God only knows how many hours they were left here, trapped with the smell of his dead body. They deserve your compassion.”

Wilkins failed to be impressed. Rona clenched her jaw, and Buddy reached a paw through the mesh of his cage, trying to soothe her. She scratched behind his ears, and reminded herself to concentrate on the task at hand.

Who came to visit the alpha last night? she asked.

A stranger, Buddy answered. This wasn’t particularly helpful. There was a fairly quick turnover for all the puppies; whoever came could have been a store regular that simply hadn’t stopped by while any of the pups had been here.

Angry! Red Rover supplied, sensing Rona’s disappointment. It was very angry.

Now that was interesting. If the puppy mill had sent someone after Patrick, it would probably be a professional. Why would a professional be angry?

Was it male or female? she asked. The dogs looked at each other and whined helplessly.

Miss Daizy yawned loudly, showing all her teeth with clear disdain.

Male, she informed Rona haughtily. Her superior position in relation to Patrick’s office had given her a scent advantage. And not a stranger. I’ve smelled him before.

You know him? Rona asked eagerly.

Miss Daizy narrowed her eyes, the very picture of lazy disinterest. I’ve smelled him before, she said again. That was clearly the extent of her knowledge.

Rona rocked back on her heels and thought. Could it have been one of the animal terrorists? Patrick had been a target for plenty of them. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t help her case at all.

But she needed to be sure that his death had nothing to do with the mill.

Could you smell dog on him? she asked Miss Daizy.

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I smell dog everywhere, the cat sniffed. She licked her paw as Rona glared. But no, not especially.

What about cat?

He smelled like dirt, Miss Daizy said. Dirt and oil and sweat.

Who didn’t spend any time with animals, who would be angry enough with Patrick McGovern to kill him?

Did anything else stand out? she asked.

Red Rover barked excitedly. Back back back back back!

Rona whirled around, thinking that the killer was back.

“D-detective!” Officer Wilkins stammered.

Detective Tisha Wiles stood in the doorway, her hand not far from her holster.

“What are you doing at my crime scene?”

Tisha poured herself a fresh of coffee. Instead of sipping it, she just held it in her hands.

“You look tired.” She looked and found Frank and Danny eating a late dinner at one of the tables. She had managed to walk into the break room and right past them without noticing.

“Which of you said that?” she asked.

Danny grinned and pointed to himself. Frank added: “I noticed it too.” He gestured for her to pull up a chair at their table.

“Thanks…I think.” She took a long sip of her drink. She found it easy to relax with the two medical examiners. She wasn’t their boss; she could let appearances slip, just a little. “What are you two doing here? Don’t you have kids to be tucking in?”

“They’re hanging out with Grandmama,” Danny said. “I agreed to help Dr. Frankenstein here cram for his next exam.” Frank shot Danny a glare as he translated.

“What about you?” Frank asked. “Shouldn’t your shift be over?”

“Shifts are meaningless during a murder investigation,” she said.

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Danny pushed over his tray of fries. “Yet another reason I became an ME instead of a cop,” he said. “I get to go home at night. Any good leads?”

“Maybe,” Tisha said, nibbling on a fry. “I have a potential suspect in the interrogation room right now, but she came pre-lawyered.”

“That Mendoza chick?” Frank asked.

“Officer Mendoza, yes,” Tisha corrected gently. “They’re talking right now.”

“Have you had a break today?” Danny asked as Tisha massaged the back of her neck.

“Does a three hour drive two and from Frederick count?” Tisha asked.

“Not really,” Danny said. “Finish your coffee and go nap on the couch for 15 minutes.” At Tisha’s look, he explained: “The sleep will give your body a chance to rest. By the time you wake up, the caffeine will have made its way through your system. It’ll keep you going for a little longer. Sleep in tomorrow morning. Doctor’s orders.”

“I can’t -“ Tisha protested.

“This isn’t tv, Mac,” Danny said, the sharpness in Frank’s voice a perfect complement to Danny’s emphatic gestures. “Burn-out isn’t the sign of a heroic cop. If you keep up like this, you’ll never be able to cash in on your retirement.”

“I’ve got another 30 years before I have to worry about that,” Tisha said.

“Not if you don’t start taking care of yourself,” Danny insisted. “Tired cops become dead cops. Finish your damn coffee and get some sleep.”

Carrie Lindhal was a small, portly woman who looked ten years too young to be an attorney. She bustled into the interrogation room like a medieval innkeeper, all smiles and good cheer. “I thought I told you no more rescheduling,” she joked, reaching out to shake Rona’s hand. “Sorry about that,” Rona mumbled. “I was just kidding,” Carrie said. “Can I call you Rona?” At her nod,

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“Well, Rona, before our good friend Detective Wiles comes back, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened.”

“I wasn’t doing anything illegal,” Rona protested, though she wasn’t quite

certain that was true. “You’re a murder suspect who bluffed her way into an active crime scene,” Carrie said. “That’s probable cause.” Rona crossed her arms and leaned back in her seat. With a soft sigh, Carrie leaned forward. “I’m not the police,” she said gently. “And I’m not your boss. You’re not

going to get in trouble for telling me anything. I’m here to look out for you.” Rona didn’t know what to tell her. She couldn’t explain her real purpose without sounding like a lunatic, department rumors notwithstanding.

“I just wanted to check on the animals,” she said.

“Is that one of your assigned duties?” Carrie asked, and Rona shook her head. “I heard from your captain that you’re running your own little unofficial investigation. Was this part of that?” “Yes,” Rona said.

A knock on the door preceded Detective Wiles’ return.

“Just keep quiet like you’re doing and you’ll be fine,” Carrie reassured her

quietly. “I’ll get you out of here in a jiffy."

Tisha smiled and put the cups of coffee in front of Carrie and Mendoza.

“How kind, thank you,” Carrie said.

“Thanks.” It was the first word Tisha had gotten out of Mendoza since putting her in the back of her car. She didn’t miss the warning glance Carrie sent her to remain silent.

“So,” Tisha said, settling herself. “Tell me more about that investigation you’re conducting. That you claim brought you to my crime scene.”

“There’s no need for mind games, Detective,” Carrie said pleasantly. “You can’t guilt my client into talking by making her feel she violated your property.”

“She did break the law,” Tisha said.

“In service of her own case.” Carrie smiled. “She is under no obligation to

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divulge the details of an ongoing investigation. I’m sure you understand.”

“From what I’ve heard, it’s not an official one.” Tisha said. She leaned forward, focusing her attention on Mendoza. “Look, Rona, cop to cop -“

“That line only works if you’ve treated her with the respect you’d give another cop,” Carrie interrupted. “Respect goes both ways, Detective.”

Tisha barreled through. “I’m not out to put you behind bars. But you have to realize how bad this looks for you. A man who has filed seven complaints against you in the past two years is found dead. By you. Not only that, but you lie to your boss about where you are so you can sneak into an active crime scene - which is illegal, whether or not she’s a cop -“ For Carrie’s benefit. “I just want to get to the truth. All I’m asking is that you tell me the truth. What were you doing at the crime scene?”

Mendoza held up a hand to stop Carrie from answering for her, and Tisha felt a flash of hope.

“Like I told you before, Detective.” The scorn in the other woman’s voice dashed that hope. “I was working on my own investigation into illegal puppy mills.”

“What were you hoping to find?” Tisha asked.

“Rona, you don’t have to say anything,” Carrie reminded her client.

Mendoza didn’t seem inclined to say anything further anyway. Frustrated, Tisha snapped “Where were you the night of Patrick McGovern’s death?” She smiled tightly. “Before finding his body, I mean. Between the 7:30 and 9 PM.”

“Working.”

“Where?”

“I-95.” Mendoza offered Tisha a tight smile of her own. “I was returning to the office from an investigation into inhumane treatment of horses.”

“Can anyone verify that?”

“Mr. Boyd can verify I left his farm at 7 PM.”

“That’s still plenty of time to get to Towson and murder Patrick McGovern.”

“Not from Bowie, it isn’t,” Mendoza snorted. “And traffic was terrible that night.”

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“Does that satisfy you, Detective?” Carrie asked.

“Not really,” Tisha said.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Do you have any hard evidence linking my client to your crime?”

“Other than finding her with the body?”

Carrie smiled. “I said hard evidence, Detective, not circumstantial.” Tisha’s silence betrayed her, and Carrie stood, Mendoza quickly following suit. “In that case, you have no reason to hold her any longer.”

“Don’t leave the area,” Tisha said.

“I work all over the state,” Mendoza snapped.

“She promises not to leave the state,” Carrie said.

Tisha nodded. “If you lie to your boss again about where you are, I will lock you up,” she warned. “If I have any more questions, I need to be able to locate you.”

“Good night, Detective,” Carrie said.

The silence in the car was stifling. Rona kept her mouth shut, waiting for Karen to speak. She had learned the hard way over the years that if you interrupted her while she was processing, her normally laid back and understanding friend would lash out like a pit fight dog.

“You lied to me.” Karen held up a silencing hand. “Don’t say a word until I’m done, all right? If I start yelling, I might crash the car. You deliberately misled me. You let me believe that you were working with the police instead of behind their backs. You put my career in danger. You put me in danger. If they decide you’re guilty, they could charge me as accessory after the fact. Did you consider that? Just say yes or no.”

“No,” Rona said meekly, trying not to melt down in her seat. She had been so busy thinking about the animals, she hadn’t thought about the human laws or possible consequences.

“You didn’t give me a choice in the matter. You used me. And the worst part of it is, I would have helped you. If you had just talked to me about it, I would’ve helped you, damn the consequences. But that’s my decision. I get to choose. I’m

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your friend, not your pawn.”

The silence stretched out for several minutes before Rona mustered the courage to say “I’m sorry.”

“Good. Stay that way.” Rona thought that would be the end of all conversation for the next few hours, but Karen surprised her. “So what did you tell Detective Wiles?”

“Not much,” Rona said cautiously. “Just that I was there for the puppy mill investigation.”

“Did you get any information from the animals?”

“Some.” Rona leaned back. “The killer is a male who doesn’t spend time around animals.”

“Why didn’t you tell the detective about that?” Karen asked. “You could’ve pretended you were the witness.”

“And say what?” Rona asked. “Officer, you’re looking for a man. I can’t give you his coloring, his height, what he was wearing, nothing, but I can tell you that he doesn’t work with animals. Animals don’t notice the same things we do. You can’t dress them up and pretend they’re human witnesses.”

Karen sighed. “Fair enough. So. What do we do now?”

“We?” Rona asked.

Karen shrugged. “You dragged me into this, but I would’ve gone with you anyway. So what now?”

“I don’t know,” Rona said. “Patrick’s death is the closest thing I’ve got to a lead, and I don’t even know if it’s related. If it is, I can call in the big guns. I can get people to take this seriously.”

Karen chewed on her lip. “It doesn’t make sense, though,” she said. “Why kill? Wouldn’t it be easier and safer to just move operations? That’s what other mills have done.”

“I don’t know,” Rona said.

“And why now?” Karen asked. “You’ve been hounding him for two years. What brought this change of heart now?”

“I don’t know,” Rona said, frustration mounting. She tried to keep it out of her voice; Karen was the last person who deserved to be her target right now. The

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quick glance Karen shot her showed that she had failed. “I guess we’ll just see what the cops do next,” she said.

Tisha leaned back in her seat and stared at the cork board she had hanging in front of her desk. Index cards with the suspects and clues found thus far were pinned to it; she found it easier to shuffle them around as new evidence came to light than writing a timeline on a whiteboard. Unfortunately, neither timeline nor whiteboard could solve this case for her. It had been almost a week since Patrick’s murder. In Baltimore or DC, a week was pretty much the blink of an eye in a murder investigation, but this was Baltimore County. There was the illusion of safety to protect. David rapped on her doorframe. “Please make it good news,” she said. “We finally found that Noah guy Bobby told us about,” David said. “Does that count?” “Have you brought him in yet?” Tisha asked. “He’s in the interrogation room. Roy’s going at him,” David answered. “That’ll do.” Tisha stood. “Does he have a lawyer?” David grinned. “Turned one down.” Tisha permitted herself a brief smile. “Now, officer, you have made my day.”

Noah couldn’t be any older than 22. He had a scraggly beard and the lean, hungry look of a zealot. Something Roy said had clearly upset him, as Tisha and David walked in to find him slamming his fist on the table. Roy was unfazed. “Quite the temper you got there, sport,” he said. “Yeah, well, I don’t have any patience for assholes,” Noah snapped. “Or for pet shop owners, it seems,” Roy said. “Patrick McGovern’s got a long list of complaints against you.” Noah snorted and crossed his arms. “Patrick McGovern is the ultimate asshole.” “Is that why you killed him?” Noah groaned. “For the millionth time already, I didn’t touch him!”

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“You threatened to,” Roy pointed out. He pulled out some print outs and pushed them across the table. “Recognize these?” Noah gave them a cursory glance. “I was just trying to make him understand how serious it is,” he said. “Free speech isn’t a crime.” “Threats aren’t protected by the first amendment.” “Threats?” Noah laughed. “Are you gonna arrest Sarah Palin now too? ‘Cause this is just the type of language she uses. Please, PLEASE do. It would make my fucking day.” “I’m pretty sure Sarah Palin didn’t threaten to put rat poison in people’s food so they could ‘understand the suffering that these fatally ill factory-bred puppies endure’,” Roy responded. “Did he die by rat poison?” Noah asked. “No.” “Then clearly that was just an empty threat.” The young man sounded pleased with himself. “So you admit it was a threat.” “What? No!” Noah shouted. “Stop twisting my words!” “I feel like I’m watching a cat eating a bunny rabbit,” Tisha murmured to David. “One of those Monty Python rabbits, maybe,” he said. Back in the interrogation room, Roy looked unimpressed. “Where were you between 7:30 and 9 PM on the night Patrick McGovern was murdered?” he asked. “I was at a party in DC,” Noah grumbled. “Did anybody see you there?” “What, do you think I have some kind of fucking cloak of invisibility?” Noah asked. “There were hundreds of people there! Pretty much all of them saw me.” “Would any of those hundreds remember you?” Roy asked pointedly, and Noah wilted slightly. “I danced with a few chicks,” he said, but he didn’t sound nearly as confident anymore. “Get any phone numbers?” Roy asked. Noah shook his head. “Any of these chicks have a name?”

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“Names weren’t exactly high on my priority list,” Noah said. “Kinda sleazy, dancing with a girl and not even getting her name,” Roy said. “Below the belt,” Tisha muttered. “I always get the name of my partners,” David said. “Never know when you’ll need an alibi.” “Can you tell me where this party was?” Roy continued. “Some abandoned building downtown,” Noah said. “It was a word of mouth kinda thing.” “Well, you better hope I can track down some of those mouths,” Roy said. “‘Cause I’m telling you, it’s not looking good, buddy. You might as well come clean with me now.” “I’ve told you everything I know!” Noah insisted. “I hope you did, sport.” Roy stood. “You’re free to go, but don’t go far. You don’t want me chasing you.” Noah booked it out of the room, not dignifying Roy with a response. The officer ambled out after him and leaned against the doorway. “Y’all catch that?” “Could certainly be him,” Tisha said. “Young, idealistic kid with a hot temper. What do you think?” Roy rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe,” he said. “But kids also say some dumb shit. Exaggerate. They don’t get the difference between threats and just talk.” “So we’re still where we started,” Tisha sighed. “But we know more than we did this morning,” David said. “That’s progress!” Roy snorted. “Sometimes I wanna take your optimism and shove it down your throat.” He clapped his friend on the shoulder. “And that’s just talk."

Captain Wascomb’s mysterious spy network had been working overtime. Jeremy met them both at the front door when they walked in the next morning. “Captain wants to see you,” he said. “What kind of roses do you want on your graves?”

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Karen shot Rona a dirty look. “Thanks, Jeremy,” she said. Rona followed a step behind her roommate into Captain Wascomb’s office. As usual, he did not look up when they entered. “Close the door behind you, please,” he said. Rona did, and reached to pull up a chair. “You will remain standing.” He looked up, and there was a cold fury in his gaze. “Officer Mendoza, did you or did you not have an appointment with our lawyer yesterday afternoon?” “I did, sir.” “And did you or did you not reschedule that appointment under false pretenses?” he continued. Rona took a breath. “I did reschedule the appointment, sir.” “Is checking on the animals at Your New Best Friend one of your assigned duties?” he asked, his eyes boring into her. She looked down. “No, sir.” “Did we not just talk yesterday about how you are, in fact, forbidden from going there?” “We did, sir.” “Then kindly explain to me why you deemed it necessary to disobey my direct orders and break into an active crime scene.” “We believed that Mr. McGovern may have left the evidence he wanted to give to Officer Mendoza in his office,” Karen said before Rona could speak. Captain Wascomb finally directed his piercing gaze on her. “You were a witting part of this?” he asked. “Yes, sir,” Karen said firmly. “You are aware that, once certain facts are known, Officer Mendoza will be considered a prime suspect,” he said. “And that stunts such as will only strengthen the case against her.” “We believed it was a necessary risk.” “Then why didn’t you go, Officer Beaudry?” Captain Wascomb asked. “You at least would have seemed marginally less suspicious.” “I was closer to Towson, sir,” Rona said quickly. “It was more efficient for me to go and Karen to cover my other appointment.” “Efficient.” Captain Wascomb broke down and rubbed the bridge of his

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nose. “It is not my policy to try to talk sense into imbeciles, so let me put this as plainly as I can. If you involve yourselves in Patrick McGovern’s murder investigation in any way, you will be suspended indefinitely without pay. I hope you will consider the reputation of this institution, and your own safety.” “Yes, sir,” the women said quietly. “Dismissed.”

Before heading to lunch, Tisha swung by David and Roy’s desks. She found David with his feet propped up on his desk, trying to catch cheese puffs with his mouth. The moment he caught sight of her, he nearly fell backwards in his attempt to straighten himself.

She tactfully ignored the display. “Anything new?” she asked.

“Oh, yeah!” Roy rolled his eyes as David dug through his desk. “Ballistics came back on the murder weapon.” He found the file and handed it over with a smile.

“That’s great!” Tisha said.

“Gun was the vic’s.” Roy ruined the moment.

She resisted the urge to sigh. “So basically, we’re still nowhere.”

“No, we’re somewhere,” David said. “Just not sure…where yet.”

“Very helpful, Detective,” Tisha said dryly.

“But we can be pretty sure that the killer either knew the victim pretty well or didn’t come to the shop intending to kill him,” David said.

Tisha sat up. “Explain.”

“Well, the gun is a recent acquisition. He only bought it in the last six months, and he was pretty quiet about it. The killer couldn’t plan to kill him with his own gun unless they were close enough to him to know about it.”

Tisha tugged her ear and considered this. “I’m not entirely sold on the logic,” she said slowly.

“Also, the signs of struggle,” David added. “If the killer came armed, he could’ve killed McGovern before he could pull out his own weapon.”

“It’s worth keeping in mind,” Tisha said. “Roy, I want you to look into

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Mendoza’s alibi. Get in touch with a farmer in Bowie named Boyd, confirm that she left his farm at 7, and that I-95 traffic was backed up. Any luck with the Craigs List women?”

“Nope,” Roy said. “None of ‘em saw him more than twice. Kinky bastard. He wasn’t the kind to…keep it in the bedroom, you might say.”

“There’s still plenty more to get through,” David said.

“That does increase the chance that Mrs. McGovern could find out about it,” Tisha said.

“And the humiliation,” David added. “It’s one thing for your husband to have

a string of casual encounters in the privacy of his own love nest. But out in pubic, where all the neighbors might see? That’d piss me off.”

“I think it’s time to have another talk with the wife,” Tisha agreed. “And the son, too. Defending mom’s honor.”

“Doubt it,” Roy said. “Bobby’s been working construction down near D.C. for the past six months.”

“He was working Lutherville when we talked to him,” Tisha said.

“His first day, remember?” Roy said. “’S’not impossible that he found out about it, but there’s no way he ran across his dad getting blown at the local cafe during lunch.”

“Unnecessarily colorful,” Tisha said, “but you have a point.” Her jaw popped as she yawned. “Sorry. Right. So Roy, tomorrow you’ll look into Mendoza’s alibi and continue interviewing Craigs List girls. David, you talk to the wife.”

“What about you?” Roy asked.

“Paperwork,” Tisha said. “Anybody want to trade?” She chuckled a little at the dead silence. “That’s what I thought.”

If their offices were better staffed, Rona and Karen both would have been

suspended - or at least assigned desk duty - for the previous night’s incident. As

it was, they were simply given an official reprimand that would go on their service records.

“One bullet dodged,” Karen muttered as they left Captain Wascomb’s office. “What’s on your docket today?”

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“Nothing in particular,” Rona said. “Standing by, waiting for the operators to call.”

“You’ll be drowning soon enough,” Karen said. Rona was one of the detectives who could not say no to any case, no matter how implausible sounding, and the operators knew that. Any time there was a case that was not a clear and obvious sign of abuse, they directed it her way.

“I’ve got more horses today,” Karen continued. Karen was not generally one for small talk; Rona wondered if her roommate was trying to signal that all was forgiven. “Sometimes I wish I lived in a state with fewer equines.”

“Do you want to move to Florida and deal with alligators?” Rona asked.

Karen shrugged. “It’d be a change of pace,” she said.

One of the other officers, Eric, walked past them, eating a carrot in an eerily rabbit-like manor.

“Hey Mendoza, you’ve got a visitor at your desk,” he said.

“How’s that for a change of pace?” Rona asked.

Karen, the taller of the two, stood on tiptoe and peered across the room at Rona’s desk. A quip died on her lips.

“It’s Bobby.”

Rona wasn’t sure if she had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, or if she was jumping from the fire back into the frying pan. Either way, she was burning.

“Does he look upset?”

Karen shot her friend a look.

“He looks like his dad was just murdered.”

“Let me rephrase - does he look like he’s going to blow up at me?”

“I’m an animal cop, not a bomb technician,” Karen said, and shoved Rona lightly forward. Rona hated her friend at that moment, but was also grateful that Karen didn’t leave.

“Bobby,” she said at they approached her desk. Her mind blanked on what she was supposed to say next.

“We’re sorry for your loss,” Karen said, bumping Rona lightly. She offered her

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hand to Bobby. “I’m Karen Beaudry, Rona’s partner.”

“Did you know my dad too?” Bobby asked. His tone seemed calm enough, but Rona couldn’t relax. She and Bobby had gotten along well enough before; she had enlisted his help in trying to get his father to assist in the puppy mill investigation. But they were hardly friends, and even the closest friendship would have been rocked by her being a suspect in his father’s murder.

Karen shook her head.

“What are you doing here, Bobby?” Rona asked, and winced at how accusatory she sounded. “I mean —“

“It’s okay,” Bobby said.

She gestured for him to take a seat. Karen discretely pulled up a chair to the side, listening in unobtrusively.

Bobby perched on the edge of the chair and tugged anxiously on his fingers. “I heard you were the one who found my father’s body,” he said.

That surprised Rona. The detective had told him that she had found the body, but not that she was a suspect? For safety reasons, it made sense that she wouldn’t mention that Rona was a suspect; technically they shouldn’t have given him any details on the investigation, but things always slipped. It just seemed like an odd thing to slip.

“Your dad told me he had a lead for me,” she said.

“Do you think that’s why he was killed?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know,” Rona said. “But I’m sure Detective Wiles is following every lead.”

The tugging on his fingers increased, and Rona was a little afraid he would dislocate something.

“He went to visit the puppy mill,” he blurted out.

This made Rona jump. “What?”

“I’d been pressuring him for awhile,” Bobby said, “and he finally gave in.”

Rona leaned forward. “Did he give you any details? What did he find?”

Bobby shook his head. “He didn’t say anything about it,” he said. “But whatever he saw really spooked him.” He pulled a GPS out of his pocket and

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slid it across her desk.

“What’s this?” Rona asked.

“My dad’s GPS,” Bobby said. “I thought maybe you could use it to figure out where the mill is.”

Rona turned it on, and was dismayed to find a large number of trips in the recent history. She hid it as best she could; it was better than nothing.

“Thank you,” she said.

Bobby shrugged. “I didn’t want it to ruin everything.”

“Did your dad keep any kind of appointment book?” Karen asked. “Something we could use to figure out which of these trips was to the mill.”

“In his office,” Bobby said.

Damn, Rona thought. That would have been claimed as evidence in the investigation. There was no way she could get her hands on it, not as a murder suspect.

Bobby waited a moment to see if they had any more questions. “I wish there was something more I could do to help,” he said, standing.

“No, this is wonderful,” Rona said. “Thank you. I really am sorry for your loss.”

He shrugged uncomfortably and left. Rona sat back down and spun her chair to face Karen.

“So what are we going to do?” she asked.

“You have to take this to the cops,” Karen said firmly.

“What? No! This is my lead!” Rona protested.

“You need that appointment book,” Karen said.

“There’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to figure out the address, even with the appointment book,” Rona said.

“But you’ll definitely never figure it out without it,” Karen said. “Besides, if he was murdered because of what he found at the mill, you could be charged with withholding evidence.”

Rona leaned back in her seat, metaphorically digging in her heels. But she

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knew Karen was right, and Karen knew that she knew. Her roommate stood. “I’ve got horses to stable. I’ll see you tonight.” She left Rona to her conscience.

Tisha closed her eyes and took a moment to just massage her forehead. The computer screen was swimming before her eyes, but she couldn’t close up and go home just yet. The smell of french fries and something meaty caused her to open her eyes. Jay leaned against the doorway, holding up a bag of food. “Thought you might be hungry,” he said. “So I slayed you a wooly mammoth.” “You are my hero,” Tisha breathed, reaching out for the bag. “You gonna clear some space on that desk so we can eat?” Jay asked, pulling up a chair. Tisha almost said “screw it,” but some of those documents were going to the state’s attorney. She quickly gathered them together and set them aside, far from the food. Jay handed her a sandwich as reward. “How’s the case going?” he asked, munching on his fries. Tisha had just taken a bit bite of her food; he chuckled a little as she tried to swallow it. “Sorry.” She shook her head. “It’s fine.” “The case?” Jay asked. Tisha sighed. “We haven’t caught anyone yet. I’m afraid I’ve got a lot more late nights ahead of me.” “I guess I’ll be bringing a lot more dinners,” Jay said. “You don’t have to,” Tisha told him. “How else am I gonna get to see ya?” Jay asked. “You know,” he continued when she didn’t answer. “Word on the street is BMA is looking for a new chief of security.” Tisha snorted. “Since when is the Baltimore Museum of Art the talk of the street?” she asked. He ignored her. “You should look into it. It sounds right up your alley.” “How’s that?” Tisha asked.

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“You were an art history major, weren’t you?” Jay said. Tisha laughed. “For a year. Then I switched to engineering, then finance. And then I graduated and went to the Academy.” “That’s a lotta switching,” Jay said, and she shrugged. “It was my twenties,” she said. “Well maybe it’s time to start switching things up again,” he said. Tisha sighed, her headache coming back full force. “Do we really have to talk about this now?” she asked. “I’ve already told you I’ll think about it once the investigation is over.” “And how long is that going to take?” Jay asked. “Longer than five days,” she said. “This isn’t an hour drama.” “What if you don’t solve it?” Jay asked. “What if this becomes one of those cold cases and you get moved to something else? Will it have to wait until that is over too?” Tisha pushed the remains of her sandwich away, no longer hungry. “I don’t want to fight about this right now.” “I’m not trying to start a fight,” Jay said. “You succeeded anyway,” she snapped. She softened her voice apologetically. “I won’t be much longer. I’ll see you at home.” Jay tossed the rest of his food into the trash can. “I’ll be holding you to that too,” he said.

Rona jiggled her leg. She wanted to pace, but she didn’t want to draw the attention of the drug addict on the other side of the reception area. She glanced at her watch. It had only been five minutes since she asked the receptionist to page Detective Wiles. She groaned under her breath. She just wanted to get the information in the address book and get out of here. “Officer Mendoza?” Rona jumped up gratefully. It was Officer whatshisname, from that night. She held out her hand, and he smiled as he shook it. “David Park,” he said, as though reading her mind. “I’m afraid Detective Wiles isn’t available right now. What can I do for you?” “Is there someplace we can talk?” she asked.

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“Of course,” he said, and led her down the hall to an empty office. “Have a seat,” he told her as he sat behind the desk. “What did you want to tell me?” Rona took a deep breath. “You’re aware of the investigation I’m conducting?” Officer Park nodded. “You’re trying to locate a puppy mill,” he said. “Our vic said he had evidence for you.” She nodded. “This morning his son came to see me. Evidently he went to see the mill a week before he died. I have a possible lead on its location, but in order to confirm it, I need to see something you have in evidence.” The other cop shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t just hand you evidence,” he said.

“Of course I don’t expect you to do that,” Rona snapped. “I just want a photocopy of his appointment book.”

“You think he would put a visit to an illegal puppy mill in his day planner?” Officer Park asked.

Rona hesitated. She didn’t want to tip her hand. But she remembered what Karen had said. With a small sigh, she pulled the GPS out of her pocket.

“His GPS,” she said. “If I can cross-reference the appointments in his planner with the addresses in the GPS, I can narrow down the possible locations.”

“Where did you get this?” Officer Park asked.

“Bobby.” At the cop’s skeptical look, she explained: “Bobby helped me encourage his dad to turn in the mill after my superior forbid me to speak to him. We’re always gotten along.

“Look, I could have kept this to myself,” she continued. “I’m bringing it here to you in good faith. The mill might be the reason he was murdered.”

Officer Park reached out to take the GPS, and she yanked it back. “But I need your promise. We’ll work together to figure out where the mill is, and then we’ll go together. The mill is my investigation.”

“It’s not even an official investigation,” Officer Park said. “And, with all due respect, we are conducting a murder investigation. That takes priority.”

Rona scowled, and he sighed. “Look,” he said. “We will look into the mill location. If it turns out to be the reason he died, they will have the full force of the law rained down upon them. If it’s not the reason, we will turn over any

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evidence that might lead you to the mill once our investigation is complete. That’s the best I can do.”

With great reluctance, Rona handed him the GPS.

Tisha sat at her desk and scrolled through the recent searches on the GPS. Patrick McGovern had quite the traveler; the GPS had addresses from all over Maryland. But what they meant, she didn’t know. Were they directions to lovers’ trysts? The location to an illegal puppy mill? Was the killer’s address somewhere in this device? “I think you’re supposed to use that in a car,” Danny said. Frank gave her a little wave. “Thanks for the helpful advice,” she said dryly. Danny plunked himself down in the guest chair, and Frank perched on the corner of her desk. “So what is this, early Christmas present?” Danny asked. “Possible clue,” Tisha said. “In that case, shouldn’t you look a bit more excited?” Tisha leaned back in her chair. “It’s a long-shot lead from a questionable source,” she said. “And my team is busy enough as it is.” “You’re not asking them to drive to every destination there, are you?” Danny asked. “Of course not,” Tisha said. “Then they’ve got the time,” Danny said. “Unless there’s some other reason you don’t want to follow this lead.” Tisha sighed, and pondered her answer. “I really don’t think this lead is going to get us anywhere,” she said. “At best, our source is trying to trick us into using our resources to do her own work for her. At worst, she’s trying to frame someone else.” “You’re forgetting one possibility,” Danny said. “Which is that it’s a good lead.” “I really doubt it,” Tisha said. Danny shrugged. “I’m not saying you should chase down every lead you get,” he said. “But if you’re dead in the water, every push helps.”

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Tisha quirked a grin. “You’ve got a point.” She put the GPS in her desk and stood. “Walk me to the door?”

Rona knew that the GPS would be low on Detective Wiles’ priority list, and that “I’ll be in touch” really meant “You’ll never hear from me again.” But she couldn’t go back to work, wondering if they had found the mill location and had left without her.

So she called out sick and parked herself at the sleazy diner across the street from the station. Captain Wascomb would probably see through the ruse the moment he heard about it, but she didn’t care. Once she proved that the mill was real and shut it down, he’d forgive her.

Five hours passed. She finished her pancakes in the first thirty minutes; after an hour and a half, the glares from the waitress prompted her to order a veggie burger and several plates of fries. A squirrel outside the window did its best to entertain her, but she was too distracted to translate properly. She rarely interacted with with wild animals; they didn’t generally care for humans, even ones that could inexplicably speak their language. The squirrel soon gave up on having a meaningful conversation and scampered off to eat.

Rona had just finished the last of her now-cold fries and was on the verge of ordering another plate to justify her continued presence when her phone rang. Detective Wiles? In her eagerness, she picked it up without checking the caller ID.

“Officer Mendoza, are you lying at death’s door?”

Captain Wascomb. Rona had thought herself prepared for his inevitable anger, but something about the cold wrath in his even tone made her feel like a chastened puppy.

“I’m just a little under the weather, sir,” she said. “I didn’t want to spread anything around the department.”

“Don’t lie to me, Mendoza,” Captain Wascomb snapped.

Rona didn’t take back her words, but she didn’t protest her honesty either.

“Well, Mendoza, I hope you feel better soon,” the captain continued. “But don’t bother coming back to work. You are suspended without pay until further notice. Is that understood?”

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Rent’s due Thursday. Shit. “Yes, sir.”

The call ended without any farewells. Rona pocketed her phone, fighting a sick sense of dread. What if this was it? What if they finally fired her?

She had to find that mill. She could fix everything if she just found that mill.

She ordered another plate of fries to soothe her ruffled spirits and resumed her watch of the station with renewed determination.

“26 Appletree Grove.” David poked his head into Tisha’s office and delivered this announcement without preamble. Tisha stared blankly at him until the gears in her mind finally clicked. “The so-called mill site?” “Ding ding ding,” he said. “And Dr. Does Little might be onto something after all. Property owner is one Mickey Rogers. Charged but never convicted with possession, dealing, and assault.” Tisha leaned back in her seat. “What’s a fine upstanding business man like Patrick McGovern doing visiting a guy like that?” “Wanna go ask him?” David asked. Tisha glanced at the clock. “How long’s the drive?” “GPS says -“ David checked. “About forty minutes.” “So about an hour with traffic.” She thought for a moment, then grabbed her coat. “Let’s go.”

They had been driving for 15 minutes when Tisha noticed that they were being followed. “Does that truck look familiar to you?” she asked. David turned his head slightly, as though making conversation, and glanced behind them with the corner of his eye. “Wasn’t it parked outside the crime scene?” he asked. “I think so.” Tisha slowed to a stop and flicked on the lights. She kept the ignition on until the truck stopped a few yards behind them. “Stay here and keep an eye out,” she told David before getting out of the car. She made sure that her gun was easily accessible as she approached the

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truck. The driver rolled down the window. “Officer Mendoza,” Tisha said. “Please don’t try to tell me this is a coincidence.” To her credit, Mendoza didn’t. “Officer Park was supposed to tell me when you located the mill.” “Officer Park told you that he would be in touch,” Tisha said. “May I remind you that we are not working together on this case.” “You tellin’ me that cop to cop?” Mendoza asked sarcastically. Tisha leaned forward. “Cop to cop, you are a person of interest in my murder investigation. And right now? You’re really not doing yourself any favors.” “Look, Detective,” Mendoza said. “You have your investigation, and I have mine. Right now the only thing I care about is tracking down this mill. You wanna slap me in cuffs and throw me into the back seat? Go for it. I won’t raise a fuss. Just let me go with you to the mill.” “We don’t know that it’s a mill site,” Tisha warned her. “Would you be wasting your time driving there if you weren’t sure?” Mendoza countered. “And if it is, there might be a lot of hungry, abused, sick animals there. Do you have the supplies to take care of them in your car?” Tisha chewed this over. “Wait here,” she said. Back at her car, she told David: “Go ride with Mendoza and follow me. And watch her like a hawk.” “Yes ma’am,” David said. Through the rearview mirror, she watched him get into the truck and wondered if she had made the right choice. “We’ll see,” she muttered to herself and started the engine.

The GPS led them deep into the countryside. Tisha spent most of her time in urban and suburban areas, and she was a little amazed that so much open space still existed, alternating between gently rolling hills covered with grazing cattle to flat stretches of land carpeted with corn. Eventually she turned down a bumpy dirt road and, teeth chattering, they arrived at a broken down farmhouse.

She got out of the car and looked around. The only other sounds were the crunch of gravel as Mendoza and David approached.

“Does this seem quiet to you?” she asked. She put her hand on her gun, reassuring herself. This place gave her the creeps.

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“You won’t need that,” Mendoza said. “They’re gone.”

Tisha felt a surprising urge to comfort the other woman. There was a world of devastation in that monotone.

“They could be kept in the barn house, right?” David asked.

Mendoza shook her head. “It’s too quiet,” she said. “An operation like this… it’s impossible to keep the animals silent.”

“Well maybe we’ll catch someone cleaning up evidence,” Tisha said with forced enthusiasm. “Let’s go.”

They headed towards the barn. Mendoza opened the rickety door, and Tisha recoiled at the stench. Coco’s cage could get pretty disgusting when she and Jay were too busy to clean it regularly, but this was a thousand times worse, like someone had collected all the dog droppings from pet owners in Baltimore and stored them here.

But the barn was empty. No cages, no droppings and, much to her relief, no puppy corpses. She glanced at Mendoza. The other woman didn’t look surprised, but she was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her disappointment.

“I’m sorry,” Tisha said, reaching for Mendoza’s shoulder.

But Mendoza had caught sight of something, and without warning strode over to the other side of the barn.

“What do you see?” Tisha asked, and that’s when she saw the cat. It was an orange tabby, clearly feral, starving, or both. Tisha wasn’t sure what was so interesting about the creature, unless you analyzed the stomach contents and found it had been eating abused puppies, but Mendoza was fixated on it. She knelt in front of it and…

Tisha wasn’t sure. The cat didn’t run away, to her surprise. It and Mendoza sniffed each other, and then just looked at each other. The cat’s ears and tails twitched, and Mendoza almost seemed to twitch in response. It was like watching Danny and Frank converse in sign language. It was the most eerie thing Tisha had ever seen.

“Is the cat a witness?” David asked, sounding uneasy. Mendoza ignored him.

The cat yawned and stretched, and then strolled out of the barn. Mendoza followed.

“Hey!” Tisha shouted, and jogged after them. She grabbed Mendoza’s

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shoulder. “What’s going on?”

“I might have a lead,” Mendoza said.

“What, from the cat?” Tisha snapped.

The cat didn’t look back at them, but its ears rotated backwards, and Tisha got the disconcerting impression that it was checking to make sure they still followed.

“Just trust me,” Mendoza said.

Tisha glanced back at David, and he shrugged.

They headed down the hill (following the cat?) and towards the bank of a medium sized stream. The cat sat by a mottled brown rock and licked its paw, occasionally batting at the bugs that buzzed around it.

“…Shit,” Tisha breathed. That wasn’t a rock.

“Do you have plastic gloves?” Mendoza asked. Tisha pulled a pair out of her pouch and handed them wordlessly to the other woman. Mendoza pulled them on and knelt by the corpse. She turned the body over, frightening hundreds of bugs into flight. Even in the open air, the stench was terrible; it was hard to believe a little body could smell that badly.

Tisha pulled on her own pair of gloves and came closer. Even with decomposition, it was easy to see that the puppy had been born badly deformed.

“This is how mills work.” Mendoza’s voice was detached, almost conversational. “A dog bred by a responsible breeder will give birth maybe four times in her entire life. Mothers in a mill will give birth almost three times as often. The moment they give birth, they’re inseminated again. The strain on their bodies is so great, they are literally bred to death. The pups that they produce are almost all diseased. The ones with hidden illnesses are sold to pet stores. The ones whose defects are apparent are killed.”

“This one wasn’t pet store material,” Tisha said quietly.

Mendoza stood. “No. Let’s check a little further down the bank.”

They found eight bodies. Each a puppy, each in some way badly deformed. The stream’s current hadn’t been strong enough to move their bodies, little as

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they were. They did a grid search on the banks, but no other evidence was found. Mendoza pulled out her cellphone and called it in.

“What did they say?” Tisha asked after Mendoza hung up.

“They’ll call in a vet to do the autopsy,” Mendoza said. “But they don’t have anyone to help us examine the scene. I don’t think there’s much more to find, anyway.”

“Will the vet come here to pick up the bodies?” David asked.

Mendoza shook her head. “That’s our job too.”

“Do you have some kind of body bag?” David asked.

“Nothing special,” Mendoza said.

“I think I have some plastic bags big enough,” Tisha said. “I’ll get them from the car.”

She came back ten minutes later with large Ziploc airtight freezer bags. There was something tragically comical about putting the little bodies into kitchen bags.

“How did you know to come here?” Tisha asked when they made their way back to the first body. The orange tabby was curled up a few yards away, basking in the sun.

Mendoza answered with a shrug.

“Have you been here before?” Tisha persisted. “I didn’t see this stream on the GPS.”

“It was just a hunch,” Mendoza said.

The orange tabby lifted its head to look at them, and the tip of its tail twitched in a manner that seemed distinctly annoyed.

“A pretty lucky hunch,” Tisha said.

“What, you think this proves I killed Patrick?” Mendoza asked irritably.

The orange tabby stood, stretched, and made its way over, winding around Tisha’s ankles and rubbing insistently against her.

“It’s just strange,” Tisha said. “I don’t like strange.”

Mendoza snorted with an amusement Tisha didn’t understand.

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“You might want to stay out of my life, then,” she said.

The tabby cat rubbed even more insistently against Tisha’s ankles, mewing some kind of complaint.

“Shoo!” Tisha said, but the feline wasn’t listening.

Something hissed softly, and the cat lazily strolled away, as though it had been planning to do so all along.

“What was that?” Tisha asked. She didn’t see any other animal around.

“What was what?” Mendoza asked.

“Something hissed,” Tisha said.

“The bitchy cat at your feet, maybe?” David suggested, and Tisha shook her head.

“Something else.”

Mendoza shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Something told Tisha that the other cop was lying, but why? Why lie about something so little and strange?

They split the bodies between them and carried them carefully back up to the truck. The tabby cat strolled behind them. They placed the bodies in carrier in the back of Mendoza’s truck, where they’d be out of the sunlight.

Mendoza turned back to the tabby cat, and Tisha once again got the same feeling as though she were watching Danny and Frank conversing in a language she didn’t know.

“The cat have something interesting to say?” she asked.

Mendoza shot her a startled look that surprised her.

“What?” the cop asked.

“It was just a question,” Tisha said, confused.

Mendoza studied her for far too long. The tabby cat, in the meantime, jumped into the truck and curled up on Tisha’s seat.

“Let’s go,” Mendoza said, and got into the truck. David shrugged and followed her. Tisha gave her a considering look, then shook her head and got into her car.

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Had the detective figured it out?

Rona kept her eyes on the road, resisting the urge to shoot questioning glances at the other cop, who had opted to ride with her this time, and studiously ignoring the tabby complaining loudly about his captivity.

She wasn’t afraid of the detective knowing. People, like Karen, who knew and believed were fine. But if she didn’t believe - if Wiles thought she was just delusional - then Rona would be in big trouble. She’d go from hard-ass animal cop to psychotic animal lunatic, and they would stop looking for other suspects. Rona didn’t much fancy her chances in court.

The crackle of the radio broke her out of her thoughts. She picked it up.

“Mendoza.”

“The vet’s not going to be available for a week.”

“None of them?” she asked incredulously. “They’re all working 24 hours a day for the next week?”

“Those that were able weren’t willing, and those that were willing weren’t able,” the operator said.

“And these people claim to love animals!” Rona snarled.

Wiles took the radio from her hand.

“This is Detective Tisha Wiles of the Baltimore County Police Department,” she said. “Do the vets require any specialized training to perform the autopsies?”

“I don’t think so,” the operator said.

“Would it be all right if I had my medical examiner autopsy them, then?”

Rona shot the detective a surprised look.

“I- I don’t see why not,” the operator said, equally surprised. “For us, at least. Are you sure it’s okay with your department?”

“It will be fine, thank you,” Detective Wiles said. “We’ll take them directly to our station, then.”

“Are you sure?” Rona asked as Detective Wiles hung up the radio.

“If Patrick McGovern was killed because of the mill, then these bodies count

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as evidence,” the detective said.

“Will your ME mind?” Rona asked.

“It’ll give him a chance to make McCoy jokes,” the detective said. “He’ll be fine.”

“Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a veterinarian!”

Tisha shot Mendoza an “I told you so look” before turning back to Frank and Danny.

“Can you do the autopsies?” she asked.

“You of all people should know we operate on a very tight schedule,” Danny said. “But lucky for you, today is a light day, and I like puppies. What exactly are you hoping to learn?”

Tisha deferred this to Mendoza.

“Cause of death,” she said. “If they were poisoned, we might be able to connect the property owners to their deaths. So they can’t claim somebody else just dumped the bodies there.”

Danny glanced at Tisha. “This is related to your long-shot lead?” he asked.

“It’s still a long shot,” Tisha said, glaring at him for bringing it up in front of Mendoza. “But it’s worth looking into.”

“Do you want to observe?” Frank asked as he pulled on his gloves.

“No thanks,” Tisha said before Mendoza could speak. “Just let me know when you have the results.” Call her a control freak, but she wanted to vet any information her team found before passing it on to a woman who was still on the suspect list, though she seemed more and more like an unlikely candidate.

“I’ll call you when I get the results,” she promised Mendoza as they walked back to the front of the station.

“Thank you, Detective,” Mendoza said. “I really appreciate this.”

“Hey, I’m doing this for my case,” Tisha said. “At the moment, our interests just align.”

“Fair enough,” Mendoza said.

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“But seriously,” Tisha said, stopping before Mendoza could walk out of the station. “How did you know about the stream?”

“I told you, it was a hunch. A lucky guess.” Mendoza shoved her hands into her pockets, ostensibly to pull out her car keys. “Unless you’d like to interrogate me, I should get back to my paid job.” She picked up the cat carrier from the receptionist, and the orange tabby took this as a sign to begin loudly complaining about its confinement.

“Of course,” Tisha said. “Like I said, I’ll be in touch.” She watched as the other woman hurried away.

It wasn’t that the hunch about the stream was strange. Tisha had seen much more surreal lucky guesses in her years on the force. It was how defensive Mendoza was about it. Like the “hunch” wasn’t an explanation, but a shield. What was the other officer trying to hide?

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Rona hurried out of the station, one indignant tabby cat in tow. She didn’t want to push her luck with the detective any further today. “Rona?” She turned around, and Bobby McGovern jogged over to meet her. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I was talking to Detective Wiles about the lead you gave me.”

“The mill?” Bobby asked. “That’s why you think he was killed?”

“It’s a possibility,” Rona said.

“So there are other suspects?” Bobby asked.

Me. “If you want information,” she told him, “you really should talk to Detective Wiles.”

“I guess.” He ran his hand through his hair and sighed. “It’s stupid, but she kinda scares me, you know? And I guess I just want to talk to a friendly face. So did she mention anything else at all?” he pressed.

“Like I said, you’ll have to talk to Detective Wiles,” she told him.

“Come on,” he pleaded. “We’re friends, right?”

They had been allies, not friends. His determination set off alarm bells in the back of her mind. Why was he pressing her so hard? Why wouldn’t he just talk to Detective Wiles?

“Look, I’ve got a dinner date tonight and I need to go pick up some supplies for our latest addition.” She held up the tabby cat’s carrier. “I was going to get it from your dad’s store.” Her voice sounded so fake in her ears, but there was no trace of suspicion in Bobby’s eyes. “Why don’t you meet me there? I’ll tell you what I know while getting my shopping done.”

Suddenly he was all reluctance. “Isn’t that kinda outta your way?” he asked. “You hate my dad’s store.”

“I hate that he sold puppies,” she said. “His pet supplies are perfectly fine. I thought it’d be a nice gesture of respect. Your dad was a businessman; I figure he’d appreciate a sale more than flowers.”

Bobby snorted. “You’ve got a point there,” he said.

“So you’ll meet me there?” she asked.

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He hesitated, then said “Sure.”

She forced a smile. “Great. I’ll see ya in a few.”

She quickly loaded the tabby into her truck and drove off before he could try to talk her into something else.

Please let me be wrong, she begged. Please.

She forced herself to casually browse the cat supplies while she waited for him to arrive. Everything needed to seem normal. How did undercover cops manage to work like this? She had always thought herself a fair liar, but now she felt like her every move screamed I know you killed him.

The front door jingled, and the store suddenly erupted into a chorus of angry barks. IT’S HIM! IT’S HIM IT’S HIM IT’S HIM! She could make out Buddy’s voice, howling with rage.

Her heart sank into the pit of her stomach. What do I do?

Somehow she forced a smile on her face while he approached. “You certainly caused an uproar,” she said, trying not to feel ill. How could he have done it?

He chuckled ruefully, all innocence. “I love animals, but I’m afraid they don’t love me,” he admitted. “So, what can you tell me?”

She focused on the cat toys so she wouldn’t have to look him in the eye. “They like the mill owner for it,” she said. On sudden inspiration, she grabbed a cloth toy and handed it to him. “Can you hold onto this? My hands are gonna be full with food.”

“Sure,” he said distractedly. “So they’re going to arrest him?”

She picked up the biggest bag of cat food she could carry and headed towards the register. “Probably. It seems he has a history of violence.”

“What are they waiting for then?” he demanded. “They should pick him up right now!”

“They have to make sure their case is rock solid before they make a move,” Rona told him. The cat food and toy went onto the counter to be rung up. “They want to make sure they can get a conviction.”

“It seems tight enough to me,” Bobby grumped.

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“I don’t need a bag,” Rona told the cashier quickly, before he could touch the toy. She grabbed it and stuck it in her purse. “It’s better for them to take their time arresting him and make sure they have a case than to arrest him quickly and have him acquitted,” she said.

“I guess.” Before, Rona would have attributed the disappointment in his voice to frustrated vengeance. Now, of course, she knew better.

“They’ll catch him.” She tried to sound reassuring. “I’m sorry, but I have to run now. I don’t want to be late for my thing.”

“Thanks for everything,” Bobby said, painfully sincere.

She tried not to be sick. “Of course.”

“I think we’ve cracked this case.” Roy tossed a folder onto Tisha’s desk. “Both the wife and the animal nutcase have alibied out,” he said. “The misses was having a late dinner with the neighbors, and the nutcase was caught on film getting totally wasted at the party. Which leaves us with only one suspect.” “What about Micky Rogers?” Tisha asked and Roy snorted. “I know you like Mendoza for it,” she continued. “But he’s got a violent history and a motive for wanting Patrick dead.” Roy shook his head. “That’s assuming Mendoza wasn’t lying about why she was at the shop that night,” he said. We don’t know why he called her; all we have is her word for it. She has a history of harassment, a motive for killing him, and she’s the only one whose alibi we can’t verify. You know what they say about the simplest explanation.” Tisha sighed. He had a point. “Okay then,” she said. “Let’s bring her in.”

When Karen got home that night, Rona told her everything, ending the tale with an almost plaintive “What the fuck do I do?” Karen considered the question as she brushed the burrs out of the tabby cat’s fur. “Honestly?” she asked. “I don’t think there’s anything you can do.” “He killed Patrick!” Rona protested.

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“You don’t have any proof,” Karen pointed out. “Even if you could admit their statements as testimony, I doubt animal eye witnesses are any more reliable than human ones. Maybe one of the dogs made a mistake, and all the others got excited because he did.” “They didn’t make a mistake!” Rona said defensively. “He’s been trying to use me to stalk the investigation. That’s what criminals do.” “So have you!” Karen finally let the struggling tabby cat free. “Rona, right now you’re probably their top suspect. If you try to pin it on the grieving son, it’ll make it seem like you’re trying to deflect blame. The best thing you can do is back the hell off. Don’t make yourself the easy target.” Rona sighed and waved the cloth toy in front of Rebel. The dog butted it with his nose and sniffed deeply. Who’s this? he asked. A bad man, she told him. If you smell him, you tell me. Rebel took another deep whiff and growled his agreement. “Did you hear me?” Karen asked. “I can’t have you going to jail. I can’t feed this herd of critters on my own.” Her teasing tone was belied by the current of fear running beneath it. There was a knock on the door. “I’ll give it my best,” Rona said over her shoulder as she answered the door. The asshole detective was on the other side, and he looked entirely too happy to see her. “Rona Mendoza,” he said smugly, “you are under arrest for the murder of Patrick McGovern.”

It had been determined that David would interrogate Mendoza; of the three of them, he had the least antagonistic relationship. The next morning, Tisha got in early so she could start putting together the paperwork to submit to the state’s attorney. Frank knocked on her door. “Hey Detective.” He held up a folder. “Danny asked me to give you the results of yesterday’s autopsy. The dogs died around the same time as your vic, give or take a day. And that Mendoza chick was right - they were poisoned. Rat poison, which is pretty common. Don’t know if

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that helps your case any.” “Thanks, Frank,” Tisha quickly cut into his nervous babble. “But that won’t be necessary. We’ve made our arrest.” “The mill guy?” Tisha shook her head, and his face fell. “Shit, Mendoza? But she was cool. I mean, we didn’t talk much, but…” “You can be a character witness, then,” Tisha said dryly. “So what’s gonna happen to the puppies?” Frank asked. Tisha shrugged. “Not my case,” she said. “B-but puppies!” Frank protested. “Is there anything else?” she asked. Frank caught the reprimand in her tone. “No ma’am,” he said, disappointed. Tisha sighed and held out her hand. “Give me the report,” she said. “I’ll make sure someone at MHS gets it. Maybe they can open up an investigation.” Frank lit up and passed her the file. “Thanks, Detective,” he said. She shooed him away, but any hope of peace was dashed by David’s arrival. “You ready?” he asked. Tisha shut down her computer. “Let’s go,” she said.

Rona wanted to pace around the room, to throw herself against the walls of her cage and howl her outrage. But instead she held completely still, and treated Officer Park to a stony glare. “I’m not talking without my lawyer,” she told him. “You are certainly entitled to do so,” the cop said with maddening calm. “But at this point, it’s in your best interest to talk.” “Not really, no.” She rolled her eyes. “Officer.” The use of her title was an empty gesture of respect, meant only to pacify her. “I’m your friend here. My partner and my boss, they both think you did it. I’m the only one who doesn’t.” Rona leaned forward and looked him square in the eye. “You can drop the whole ‘I’m only trying to help’ act,” she said. “It didn’t work for your boss either.” She didn’t look away. To break eye contact was to submit, to surrender, to

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acknowledge the other superior. The cops might have had the power of life and death over her, but she’d be damned if she bowed to them. Officer Park was the first to look away, and she felt a surge of satisfaction at the pointless victory. “Where were you between the hours of 7:30 and 9 on the night that Patrick McGovern was murdered?” he asked. “I told you, I’m not saying another word without my lawyer."

Mendoza wasn’t going to confess. David pressed on gamely, but Tisha could tell that the woman wasn’t going to break. Once Carrie arrived, it would be even harder to get her to talk.

The door opened. Tisha expected the young lawyer to enter, but it was just Roy. He closed the door quietly and spoke in a whisper. “I think I just broke the case.”

Tisha shot him a look. “We’ve already got your suspect,” she said.

Roy shook his head. “It’s not her. C’mon. You’re not gonna believe this.”

Tisha glanced at David and Mendoza in the other room. They’d be fine. “All right,” she said.

Roy led her to one of the conference rooms. “You made a good call, contacting the Craigs List girls,” he told her.

“One of them did it?” she asked, unconvinced.

“Nothing so clean-cut and all-American,” Roy said. “Just wait ’til you hear it.” He opened the door and gestured for her to enter.

“Ms. Shastri,” he said, “this is my superior officer, Detective Wiles. Detective, this is Tej Shastri.”

Tej Shastri was a young Indian woman, barely out of her college years. From where Tisha stood, she looked very small and very scared.

“Thanks for coming, Ms. Shastri,” Tisha told her kindly. “We really appreciate your time.”

Tej smiled weakly. “I guess you want me to go through my story again?” she asked Roy.

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“Please,” Roy said.

The three of them sat again, and Tej took a deep breath.

“I’ve been seeing both Patrick and Bobby.”

Tisha couldn’t help staring. The young woman’s cheeks burned with humiliation.

“Not intentionally,” she said. “I’ve been seeing a lot of people. A few. I’m not exclusive with anyone.”

“How did you find out?” Tisha asked, trying to sound reassuring.

Tej nervously tugged on the ends of her hair. “Bobby had talked me into meeting his parents for dinner,” she said.

“Ouch,” Tisha said. “I bet that was awkward.”

Tej nodded. “We didn’t say anything. I debated for days whether or not I should say anything. He took our relationship…a lot more seriously than I did.”

“He thought you two were actually dating?”

Tej nodded. “I tried to explain to him that we weren’t a couple, that we were just having fun together, but he never really seemed to hear me. He can be really stubborn.”

“But you did tell him,” Tisha said.

“I had to,” Tej said. “I’ve never lied to him. Whether or not he acknowledges the truth,” she added, a little bitterly.

“How did he react?” Tisha asked.

“He went really quiet,” Tej said. “I was afraid he would explode at me or something, but he just went quiet. And then he stormed out.”

“Was this the night Patrick died?” Tisha already knew the answer, and Tej just nodded. “Why didn’t you come to us sooner?”

“I didn’t know,” Tej said. “After telling Bobby, I decided that I would go back to San Francisco to see my parents. I wanted to get out of town for awhile. I turned off my mobile because I didn’t want him to call me. I just…wanted to get away from it all. I didn’t get Detective Dwartman’s message until this morning.”

“Do you think he killed his father?” Tisha asked.

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It took Tej a long moment to answer. “Bobby is…the nicest guy you will ever meet. But he’s got really strong ideas about the way things should be. He can be super intense.”

“Intense enough to kill?” Tisha pressed.

“I didn’t think so,” but the fear in the young woman’s voice said yes.

Tisha reached out and squeezed her hand reassuringly. “Thank you,” she said. “You’ve been a big help.”

“Can I go now?” Tej asked, sounding younger than ever.

“I’ll need you to sign a sworn statement,” Tisha said. “It won’t take long, I promise. Did you take the bus here?” Tej nodded. “I’ll have Officer Dwartman drive you home.”

Tej didn’t look thrilled by the idea idea, and Tisha hastened to reassure her:

“It’s a plain clothes car. Nobody will know you got a ride from the police unless you tell them.”

Roy came back with a piece of paper and a pen, and the two officers stepped out to give her some space.

“Do you really think she’s in danger?” Roy asked.

“Better safe than sorry,” Tisha said. “While she’s writing, call Bobby’s work, find out if he’s there. I’ll put an APB on his car. I want him in the next two hours.”

Rona trailed behind one of the officers - the rude asshole - and a young woman. She must be the one who turned Bobby in, she thought. She wondered who the girl was. Karen waited for her outside the station, along with Rebel, who had stuck his head outside the window. He barked happily when he caught sight of Rona. SAFE SAFE SAFE SAFE SAFE! Rona gasped as Karen pulled her into a tight hug. “Is it over?” her roommate asked. Hesitantly, Rona returned the embrace. “For us,” she said. Somebody turned Bobby in,” she said, pulling back. “I think they’re going to find him now.”

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“Good,” Karen said. “I’m so ready to put this behind us.” “Me too,” Rona said. She scratched Rebel behind the ears. Yes, I’m safe. You need to be quiet. But instead Rebel’s bark only got more fierce. DANGER! DANGER! DANGER! Where? Rona asked as she looked around. “What’s going on?” Karen asked. Him! Rebel growled. Rona followed the direction of his gaze across the street, to where Bobby was getting into his car. “Shit,” she breathed. “Gimme the keys.” “Why?” Karen asked, even as she handed them over. “Bobby.” Rona slid into the driver’s seat and turned on the ignition. “Go into the station and get Detective Wiles,” she continued. “Tell her Bobby’s been watching the station. I’m Shastrigoing to follow him.” Karen looked like she wanted to protest, but she bit her tongue and ran into the station. Cars honked as Rona roared out of the parking space, nearly running into someone. “Let’s go."

“He’s not at work,” David said, hanging up the phone. “Damn it.” Tisha ran her hand through her hair. “I’ve put an APB on his car. Call his mother, see if he’s gone to see her.” “He might be long gone,” David warned. “He hasn’t been at work since his father died.” “Let’s hope for the best,” Tisha said. “Nothing else we can do.” David nodded and picked up the phone again. “Detective!” the receptionist called out. “Not a good time, Cindy!” Tisha said without looking up. “It’s Bobby.” That grabbed Tisha’s interest. Mendoza’s partner, Beaudry, stood with the receptionist, and she looked scared. “What about him?” Tisha asked. “He was outside the police station,” Beaudry said. “He drove away when Rona got out. She’s following him.” “He must have seen Tej,” David said. He started dialing a number.

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Fuck!” Tisha took a deep breath. “Cindy, did you get Tej Shastri’s address before she left?” The receptionist shook her head apologetically. “She gave it directly to Officer Dwartman,” she said. “Find it,” Tisha said. “David, call Roy.” “Already did,” he said. “It went straight to voicemail.” “Did we get Tej’s number?” “Home, not cell,” Cindy mumbled, almost sinking into herself. Beaudry put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “You can radio the police car, right?” she asked. Tisha gestured for David to go do that. “Cindy, find Tej’s address. When you find it, order back-up.” “Aren’t you going after them yourself?” Beaudry asked indignantly. “Of course I am,” Tisha said. “But if there’s help closer, I want them to have it. Now tell me -“ She sat, and gestured for Beaudry to join her. “How exactly did you know that Bobby McGovern is our suspect?"

He was gone. Rona had managed to keep on his tail until he parked and started walking. She had parked as quickly as she could, but the street was too crowded. You remember his smell? she asked asked Rebel. He chuffed an affirmative, but added I don’t smell him. Rona cursed and looked around desperately. She caught sight of a pigeon, preening itself on a porch ledge. Did you notice a man walk by? she asked. Short, stocky, dark hair… She trailed off as the pigeon simply tilted its head and stared at her. It was hard to tell if it was confused by a human speaking its language, or if it had no idea what she was talking about. She tried to remember how pigeons observed the world. Predator, Rebel yipped helpfully. Predator! Rona said. Did you see a human predator come by? Nothing was hunting me, the pigeon said. He would have been hunting a human, Rona explained. The pigeon considered this. Someone dangerous did pass by. It hopped a few steps to the left to indicate

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direction. It wasn’t hunting me. Thank you, Rona said. She really hoped only one murderer was walking the streets this morning. About a block to the left, Rebel barked that he had picked up the scent again. Rona reached into her pocket to call Karen and ask if she had gotten through to Detective Wiles, but it wasn’t there. She must have left it in the car. It’s just you and me, she told Rebel. He nudged her hand reassuringly and they ran. The scent trail led them to an apartment complex. It ended in front of the elevators. “Shit shit shit shit shit!” Rebel whined apologetically. There was no reception desk, nobody she could ask about Bobby. “The hell are you doing here?” It was the asshole officer. Rona almost melted with relief as he approached. “Bobby followed you here,” she blurted. It took the officer a moment to process it - she could see the cogs turning as confusion, suspicion, and then concern flash across his face. He slammed on the up button. “How the hell do you know about Bobby?” he asked as the elevator doors opened. “It’s a long story.” Before he could protest, she and Rebel followed him into the elevator. He pushed repeatedly on the 9 th button. “You’re gonna stay behind me,” he said. “And when all this is over, you’re gonna explain it to me.” “Sure,” she said, hoping she wouldn’t have to. The moment the doors opened, the officer was running down the hall. Rona and Rebel chased after him as he kicked aside the open door. “BOBBY DON’T!"

“You should stay behind,” Tisha told Beaudry as they hurried into Tej’s apartment building.

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“I’m a cop too,” Beaudry told her. “I’ve got all the training you have.” They got into the elevator. “How many murderers have you confronted?” Tisha asked. “Depends on how you define a murderer.” They were met outside the elevator by an older woman. “Oh thank goodness!” she said. “You’re here about the shooting?” Tisha watched the other cop’s face go pale. “Close and lock your door, ma’am,” Tisha said quickly. “We’ll let you know when it’s safe.” And then suddenly Beaudry was running down the hall, shouting “RONA!” Muttering a curse under her breath, Tisha chased after her, but the other cop kept ahead of her easily. She stopped at the end of the hall, and Tisha almost barreled into her. She looked inside the apartment. Roy knelt over the unconscious body of Bobby McGovern, cuffing his hands behind his back. Pieces of a broken lamp littered the floor. Mendoza stood with a horrified Tej, awkwardly patting her as a dog nuzzled her comfortingly. “What the hell happened?” she asked. Roy looked up. “You’re gonna wanna call a paramedic,” he said amiably. “I-I didn’t kill him, did I?” Tej asked fearfully. “He’ll be fine,” Roy reassured her. “He’s fit to be tried.” He chuckled a little at his own joke. “There was a gunshot,” Beaudry said weakly. “He had a gun,” Tej stammered. “He had a gun and he was going to shoot.” “He was gonna get me from behind,” Roy explained. “That damn dog charged him and knocked off his aim. When he attacked me again, Miss Shastri here whacked him with a lamp.” “You know your cellphone is dead, right?” Tisha asked. “Sorry about that, Detective,” Roy said. “I’m just glad everyone’s all right.” She stepped off to a corner and pulled out her phone. As she dialed the paramedics, she watched Beaudry carefully walk over to Mendoza and Tej. She reached for Mendoza’s hand and squeezed it before wrapping her arms around the upset young grad student.

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Rona slept for almost the entirety of the next day. When Karen came home from work, she found Rona dozing on the couch, Rebel spread on top of her like he thought he was a much smaller dog.

“How can you even breath like that?” Karen asked.

“With great difficulty.” Rona’s voice was muffled by Rebel’s fur.

“Git, Johnny Reb.” The dog reluctantly jumped off Rona as Karen gestured. “Tonight we are having a proper hero celebration.” She held up a large paper bag. “I have tacos for our heroine, and a big juicy steak for our noble hero.”

STEEEEEEEEAAAAAAK! Rebel howled excitedly. Dusk quickly joined in, with a chorus of STEAK! STEAK! STEAK STEAK STEAK!

The as-yet-unnamed tabby hesitantly peeked out of the closet. I don’t see what he did to deserve steak, I complained to Rona.

Shut up, Grizzly snapped. Though she herself was not pleased with Rebel’s special treatment, she was determined to disagree with everything the intruder said. It was going to be a long acclimation process.

There was a knock on the door. “I’ll get it,” Rona said, and rolled off the couch to answer.

Detective Wiles stood on the other side.

“What’s wrong?” Rona asked immediately.

“What she means to say,” Karen interrupted, “is Detective Wiles, how nice to see you, please come inside. NO!” This was snapped to the dogs, who were on their hind legs, sniffing suspiciously close to the bag of food.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude,” Wiles said, stepping inside. “I just came to give you this.” She handed Rona a folder. “It’s the autopsy results from the puppies, as well as the information we found about the property owner. Hopefully this will help your case.”

Rona quickly skimmed through the file. It would have taken her ages to gather all this information.

“Thank you, Detective,” Karen said, elbowing Rona. “That’s very kind of you.”

Out of the Bag

“It’s the least I could do, after everything,” Wiles said. She looked around the apartment. “Lively place.”

“We’re having a hero party,” Karen said. “Would you like to join us? I bought plenty of tacos.”

Wiles shook her head. “I don’t want to intrude.”

“Please.” Rona was surprised to hear herself speak. “We’d love to have you.” She held up the file. “You might’ve just cracked my case.”

Wiles grinned, her entire face changing. “You helped me crack mine, so fair’s fair, I guess.” She took a breath. “Tacos sound great.”

“I hope you don’t mind animals, Detective,” Rona added.

Wiles held out her hand. “Call me Tisha,” she said.

Rona hesitated, then took it. “Rona.”