Trail of Dead (Scarlett Bernard #2)(4)

by Melissa F. Olson

I went back to the bloodstain and crouched down, automatically tucking the bottom of my jacket against my body so it wouldn’t drift into the blood. There was just something wrong with the bloodstain, and in spite of the hour and the travel and the cryptic detective beside me, I was getting interested. I ran through a grisly list of injuries in my head, things I’d seen or heard about: gunshot, stabbing, decapitation, dismemberment, throat cutting. Nothing seemed to fit. If Erin had died from straightforward blood loss—a stab wound, for example—there would be a smeared end where the body had lain, and then the rest of the stain would be circular, if the floor was even, or all misshapen and wispy on carpeting like Erin’s. If she’d died from a cut artery, there would be blood spray everywhere. This wasn’t right. I looked up at Jesse. “It’s too…neat.”

He nodded, and his voice had an edge. “Techs said the blood is nearly the same depth over the whole stain.”

Huh. “What causes that?”

“My crime-scene people had one theory, but only in a half-joking kind of way, because it was so out there.”

I froze.

“They said it looked like she’d been crushed. Slowly.” He gave me a pointed look, and I finally understood why I was here. It wasn’t for my expert opinion. It was an accusation.

The crime scene had been cleaned. Professionally.

Chapter 2

“I don’t know anything about it, Jesse. I just got off a plane, remember?” As I said it, I was really wishing that I’d gotten a chance to check my messages before Jesse had grabbed me in baggage claim. Eli, my apprentice/former sex buddy, had been in charge of the cleanup business while I was in New York. He would definitely have called about a complete body; those were rare. Jesse didn’t know that Eli was the one covering for me, though, and since what we do is technically illegal, I wasn’t about to tell him.

He took another step toward me, looking angry. “I know you did. But someone was filling in for you while you were out of town, right? I mean, the Old World doesn’t stop making messes just because you aren’t here to clean them up. Look around—someone tampered with this room.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re right. No human being could stack books that way.”

He didn’t smile. “This is serious, Scarlett,” he snapped. “Ordinary murders don’t look like this. And the only reason to take the body but leave the blood is to hide what was done to the body, which just screams Old World. So who cleaned the room?”

Now I was starting to get mad. “Are you kidding me? You of all people should understand that even if this is an Old World thing—which I have absolutely no idea about, by the way, because I just got here—there’s no way the police can get involved.”

“Look where you are right now,” he hissed, not backing down an inch. “This room belongs to a twenty-year-old kid whose roommate is devastated. Her parents are catching the first flight out of Michigan, and I have to tell them something when they get here. Maybe you don’t know—yet. But you’re involved, or you’re going to be. So who’s been covering for you?”

Dammit. Jesse hadn’t just grabbed me at the airport to get to the crime scene faster: he had picked me up instead of calling or coming to my house because he hadn’t wanted to give me a chance to get my story straight with someone. That was so…cop-like. I rubbed my eyes, which were stinging with tiredness, and thought about it for a second. If Jesse knew that Eli worked for me, it would put Eli in legal danger and be yet another way for Jesse to mess around in Old World affairs. Dangerous for everyone. “I can’t, Jesse. But if I hear anything that I think would be useful to you, I’ll pass it on.”

“That’s not good enough,” he said heatedly, switching tactics. “What if I just go over your head? I could stop at that bar and ask the werewolves. Hell, I know where Dashiell lives. How about I go knock on his door and see what he says?”

Jesse started to push past me, toward the door, and I skittered sideways, trying to block his path and still avoid the blood. “Stop! Are you trying to get dead? You know better than to screw around with these people, Jesse. You don’t want to so much as remind Dashiell that you’re alive, much less start poking around in Old World business again. Last time you almost got—” I stopped, but we both knew what I had been about to say: got yourself killed. Dashiell had threatened Jesse’s life, and only his good behavior and silence had kept him alive. And it hadn’t hurt that I’d just saved Dashiell’s wife, Beatrice, from being killed for good.

“So help me.” He folded his arms and stared at me defiantly.

My mouth dropped open. “This is your plan? You’re going to bet your life that I care enough about you to keep you from getting killed? You’re an idiot.”

He took the last step toward me, the one that put him all the way in my personal space and forced me to turn my head up to see him. His dark eyes searched my own, and I felt heat flutter in my stomach. “I’m still right, though, aren’t I?” he said quietly.

I glared at him. “I hate you.” I took a step back, putting more space between us. “You could have just asked for my help, you know.”

His smile turned sad. “I was hoping that when you saw her room…you’d offer.”

Ah. I’d failed another of his little morality tests. I felt the old gulf between us settle back into place. Jesse still believed in always doing the right thing. I believed in survival on whatever terms necessary. I wouldn’t say that there were no lines I wouldn’t cross, but in Jesse’s eyes I was willing to do a lot of things that were neither legal nor ethical. Like not get involved with this case. Jesse, on the other hand, still practically radiated integrity and goodness. Maybe it was proof that I was just a soft touch, but I would get involved for him. And he knew it, the bastard.

“I’ll make a couple of calls,” I allowed.

He smiled at me, for the first time that night. Then the smile faded, and he cleared his throat. “Listen, um…there’s something else I should tell you. I’m sort of seeing someone.”

I blinked. “Oh,” I said stupidly. I don’t know why I was surprised. Jesse was a kind, cheerful, gorgeous man living in Los Angeles. Women had to be throwing themselves at him every day. I tried to keep the sting off my face.