The Last Sister Page 2

Zander caught the subtext. The FBI isn’t needed.

“What kind of suspect first came to mind when you saw this scene, Sheriff?” Ava asked politely. Zander recognized the tone. She was angry. He’d worked with Ava for more than five years and knew her every mood. He admired her; she was relentless and sharp.

The sheriff pulled at the skin under his chin as he thought. “Dunno. We have our share of idiots and drunks and meth heads, but I can’t imagine this kind of violence from any of them. Probably wasn’t a local.”

“You said the Fitches had only lived here a year?” Zander asked, hoping the protectiveness the sheriff showed for his residents and deputies wasn’t affecting his ability to conduct the investigation. His reluctance to consider that the murders were homegrown was the equivalent of viewing the case through a peephole.

“About that long. I believe they moved here because Sean got a position teaching history at the high school. Lindsay’s a waitress.”

“I’d like to talk to your responding deputy,” Ava stated.

Zander instantly pitied the deputy. Ava’s good looks and dark-blue eyes didn’t reveal that she was a ferocious interrogator. The man wouldn’t see it coming.

“After I questioned him,” said the sheriff, “I sent him back to the department to get started on his paperwork while the events were fresh in his head. He knows he screwed up. Feels bad about it. I suspect he’s gone home by now.”

“Where can I find Emily Mills for an interview?” Zander asked. He and Ava had already decided to split up the interviews to cover ground quickly. Ms. Mills had discovered the murder scene when she arrived at the house early that morning because Lindsay Fitch was late for her waitressing shift and hadn’t answered her phone.

Ms. Mills was the resident who had personally called the Portland FBI after Sheriff Greer had brushed aside her concerns that the crime could be racially motivated. She had refused to hang up until Zander’s supervisor gave her his word that he’d send an investigator to the coast that day.

Zander doubted Ms. Mills was the sheriff’s favorite person at the moment. A flicker of annoyance in the sheriff’s eyes confirmed his thought.

“Emily works at Barton’s Diner in Bartonville,” he said with a dull tone. “Big place that looks like a log cabin. It’s on the main road. Can’t miss it.” The sheriff frowned and looked past Zander and Ava into the bedroom. “I was a deputy when Emily’s father was murdered a couple of decades ago.” Sheriff Greer glanced back to the agents, his eyes wary. “We haven’t had a hanging in this county since his.”

Tiny hairs stood up on the back of Zander’s neck.

“Wait!” Ava exclaimed. “You’ve had hangings here before? And you just mention this now?”

The sheriff’s mouth flattened into a thin, pale line. “Did you hear me say ‘decades ago’? His killer has probably died in prison. Can’t be relevant.”

“But the person who found Sean Fitch hanged in a tree is the daughter of a man who was hanged?” said Zander. “You don’t find that the slightest bit unlikely?”

Exasperation crossed the gaunt face. “This is a tiny community. Everyone knows everybody. You can’t kick someone without finding out their sister or uncle went to school with you or married your cousin. When I heard Emily found the bodies, I felt bad for her but wasn’t surprised by the coincidence.”

Ava and Zander looked at each other, each easily reading the other’s thoughts.

Neither of them believed in coincidences.


Emily Mills’s hands shook as she snapped photos of her outfit and stared into the ancient full-length mirror in her bedroom. She zoomed in on her shoes and took another picture. She slipped them off and dropped the tennis shoes in the paper grocery bag on the floor, wincing as she saw a dark-red smear on the side of one.

Lindsay’s blood. Or was it Sean’s?

She stripped off her jeans and sweater and added them to the bag, her stomach in knots.

She’d never get the sight of the brutalized young couple out of her mind.

The amount of blood in the bedroom.

Her brain knew the human body held around five quarts of blood, but the sight of it spread throughout that bedroom had made her drop to her knees, clutching at the doorframe to stay upright.

She’d known instantly that Lindsay was dead. No one could survive that.

Her shaking fingers had touched the woman’s cheek. Lindsay was cold, her eyes sightless.

Shuddering at the memory, Emily slipped on a faded University of Oregon sweatshirt and a clean pair of jeans.

Emily had spent several hours waiting and watching outside Lindsay’s home as deputies came and went. Her interview with the sheriff had felt short, too short, but he had asked her to stick around for the state police evidence technicians to arrive. Two techs had finally arrived, unpacked their equipment, and photographed everything out front before they moved into the house.

Eventually one had returned and taken prints of the soles of her work shoes.

She’d been surprised they hadn’t requested her clothes or taken her shoes, but she knew someone later might want to examine every shred of evidence, including the clothing and shoes of the person who had discovered the bodies in the double murder.

Emily had known Sheriff Greer’s initial suggestion that Sean and Lindsay had died in a murder-suicide was wrong and had bluntly told him so. He’d taken a step back, his gaze startled at her insistence, but had tried to mollify her by stating he’d take a look at the evidence when the crime scene team was finished. Sheriff Greer was a fossil—a kind fossil, but he was a bit behind the times. He had his job because he was solid and dependable—sort of like the ancient refrigerators that never break down. Unlike the cheap ones manufactured today.

The call from the FBI had stunned the sheriff. He’d marched out to her car, where she patiently waited, to ask if she’d actually gone behind his back. Emily had nodded, looking directly into his shocked eyes. He didn’t intimidate her. Few people did. She would always say and do what she thought was right.

Sean didn’t hang himself.

Sean didn’t carve the Klan symbol into his own forehead.

The sheriff was dense if he couldn’t see those facts.

She rubbed a hand across her eyes as the cold numbed her fingers, and her vision slightly tunneled.

Not now.

The sensation wasn’t a surprise. As soon as she’d seen Sean, she’d known she’d be haunted by dreams and panic attacks as she had been in her teen years.

Emily tore out of her house, knowing something was very, very wrong. Outside she looked up and shivered. It was dark and cold, and the heavy winds whipped her nightgown around her bare legs. Behind her the flames crackled and grew, and the smoke burned her eyes. She strained to see the shape in the dark. A flash from the fire lit up her father’s face as he dangled from the tree branch.

Breathing deeply through her nose to fight the panic, Emily shoved the dream away as she dug in her minuscule closet for clean boots. The images had tormented her dreams for nearly two decades, growing less frequent year after year. She’d thought she’d conquered it for good. Rattled, she shoved her feet into the boots. The old nightmare about her father would invade her nights—and days—for weeks. Maybe months.

Without another glance at the paper bag, Emily left her bedroom and jogged down the ancient stairs, the old varnished wood creaking in protest, and headed for the kitchen. The timeworn Queen Anne mansion was from a different era, built by her great-great-grandfather in the late 1800s. Emily and her two sisters had been raised in the mansion after the death of their parents, and Emily had returned when her marriage disintegrated.

“Emily, you’re not going back to work, are you?”

Emily slowly turned around, her breath stuck in her throat.

I don’t want to talk about it.

Aunt Vina stood in the hall, her hands on her hips. Her great-aunt was tall and sturdily built, with white hair and piercing blue eyes that could see into her nieces’ brains and instantly spot a lie. Aunt Vina’s two sisters had the same skill and also lived in the mansion with Emily and Madison.

The trio of interfering great-aunts had good intentions but often exasperated Emily. Vina, Thea, and Dory. The three older women were social leaders in the tiny town, a role they took very seriously since the town carried their last name: Barton.

“Yes, I’m headed back to the restaurant. I’m sure they need me.”

Vina raised a brow. “Can you tell me what happened at Lindsay’s home?” Her eyes softened. “Such a lovely young couple. I’m so sorry, my dear.”

Clearly her aunt had heard about the deaths.

Emily exhaled.

Avoiding the aunts, she had sneaked into the mansion to change her clothes after the sheriff said she could leave. She hadn’t wanted to talk about the horror she’d discovered that morning. But the high-speed gossip chain must have already swept through Bartonville. Aunts Thea and Dory were noticeably missing at the moment—usually they were present in the kitchen at this hour. No doubt the two women were out gathering intel and keeping Aunt Vina in the loop.

“Lindsay and Sean are both dead, but it’s unclear what happened.” Emily choked out the words.

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