In the middle of a late summertime heatwave, a woman Poppy interviewed for an article on paganism is found with a dagger buried in her chest in the woods out near Alex's house. Initially, Stephen and Craig are given the case, but when Derek determines that this murder shouldn't be their first big case together, Alex and Poppy are brought in to help.
But Stephen has never liked Poppy, and tensions quickly begin to run high between the two sets of partners. The Sunset Ridge police force can't afford to have infighting if they want to solve this case before a fear of witches takes hold in town.
It doesn't take long before everyone reaches their breaking point and Alex wonders if he will be a Sunset Ridge police officer for much longer. Life is about to change for him and Poppy, but will that change mean the end of his time in town?
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Craig waited for us as we pulled up to take us to where the body lay. One glance at his expression and I thought he looked like the dictionary definition of worried.
“Thanks for coming out, you guys,” he said as he hurried over to the car to greet us. “Stephen and the Chief are waiting for us, so follow me.”
Alex and I walked behind him over the barely worn path through the trees, and in a minute, we reached the spot in a clearing. Derek smiled over at us as Alex joked, “This looks like we're having a shift meeting.”
Chuckling, the Chief of the Sunset Ridge Police rolled his eyes. “Yeah. This one shows how committed you are since it's definitely what I'd call off the beaten path.”
On the ground, surrounded by what looked like nine pieces of coal of varying shapes and four white candles, lay a woman I recognized from a story I wrote on paganism for the paper right after I started. She wore a long white peasant dress with red and blue embroidered flowers around the neck. Her long blond hair lay spread out around her head, giving her an angelic look, but a deep red bloodstain around the dagger in her chest showed what had happened to her was pure evil.
Amy Perkins had been sweet to interview, so willing to share her beliefs openly with me, and when I had to break the bad news to her that my editor refused to run the story because it might upset the paper's readers, she had been completely understanding. I'd never forgotten that. To see her lying there dead made me sad because she had been so full of life and genuinely kind.
Stephen crouched near the body writing in a small notebook and looked up at the three of us, one eyebrow arched. “I'm sure Donny will disagree, but I'm guessing she's dead at least two hours.”
As Alex and I exchanged glances at his assumption since my partner would never jump to that conclusion, and even I might hesitate to venture into the coroner's area of expertise, Craig turned toward a bush behind him and began to retch.
Derek quickly challenged Stephen's assertion. “I'll bite. What makes you think you can pinpoint the time of death?”
Standing, Stephen waved his pen around the body. “Those candles look like they've burned for at least a couple hours. Hence, she's been dead that long. I'm betting some kind of witchcraft ritual.”
I wanted to jump in and ask how he knew the candles surrounding the victim's body had been new when they were placed around her and then lit, but I kept my mouth shut for the time being in an attempt to foster a sort of peace with Stephen. I also wanted to say I knew Amy wasn't a witch and ask how he knew they'd been lit after she'd been killed. But I silently thought that at any rate, he sounded ridiculous and wished one of the other detectives standing beside me would let him know.
As if he read my mind, Alex said in a low voice, “That's possible, but we have no proof that these candles were new when the murderer placed them around her, assuming he or she even did that.”
Derek added, “And we have no idea if she lit them herself before the murderer came into the picture. I don't think we can jump to any conclusions, other than this woman is dead.”
Stephen drew in his eyebrows and mumbled under his breath, “Not even that she died from being stabbed in the heart?”
Derek looked down at the body and sighed. “Well, I'll give you that one. Feel free to run with that conclusion.”
“Do we have anything else to go with?” Alex asked as he began to walk around the body. “Like who this poor woman is?”
The other three men looked at one another and shook their heads. Stephen immediately spoke up and said, “There was no identification on her. I checked.”
They all looked at him and then at the body as I spoke up and explained who our victim was. “Her name is Amy Perkins. I interviewed her for a story a while back. She was very nice and kept to herself, for the most part,” I said sadly.
Alex moved around the body to stand next to me as Derek made a sound that said he recognized Amy. “Huh. I should have noticed who she was, but she looks different than the last time I saw her.”
The sound of Craig retching in the bushes again punctuated Derek's comments on our victim, and Alex quietly asked, “Was she someone you knew, Chief?”
I understood exactly what he meant by the word knew. Derek had dated virtually every woman of Amy's age in town, so it wasn't an outrageous question. She hadn't exactly been his type since he didn't usually prefer to date the spiritual kind of female, but Amy was pretty with long blond hair and dark blue eyes that gave the impression she knew more than she'd experienced in our small town. For that alone, Derek may have given her a second look.
The Chief shook his head and frowned. “No. I helped her once when her car broke down on Main Street. When the tow truck took her car to Jerry's, I gave her a ride home. She seemed like a nice lady. She had darker hair then, though. That's why I didn't know who she was at first.”
I knew Amy wore a brunette wig when she read cards, so his description made sense. She'd told me she felt people didn't take her tarot readings as seriously when she did them with blond hair. When she began to wear a darker wig, she felt she got more respect, so by the time I interviewed her, she regularly read the cards as a brunette.
Craig stopped throwing up long enough to rejoin us, and as he stood on the edge of the group looking pale, he asked, “Shouldn't we be doing something else other than talking about her?”
Derek grimaced at the unintentional reproach from his most junior officer and walked over to stand next to him. “I know you're eager, rookie, but this is the way it works. Until Donny gets here, we need to protect the body and investigate the scene. Did you find any clues in the bushes while you were doubled over in front of them?”
Not usually so sly with his insults, Derek nonetheless made his point to poor Craig, who looked like he was going to start throwing up again. Blowing the air out of his lungs with a frustrated whoosh, he shook his head.
“No, I didn't see a thing.”
“Well, let's see what we can find over there away from that pile of puke,” the Chief said as he guided Craig toward the other side of the crime scene.
Alex turned to me and smiled. “Poor kid. I remember seeing my first dead body. I felt like I wanted to lose my lunch too.”
“Yeah,” I quietly answered, not really interested in discussing the urge to throw up at that moment as poor Amy lay dead in front of me.
He touched my arm softly and turned us away from Stephen so he couldn't hear what he had to say. “Hey, you okay? You look a little like Craig there, but that's not your style. What's wrong?”
Hanging my head, I quietly answered, “I knew Amy. Or maybe it would be better to say I had worked with her. I interviewed her once about a story I was writing about paganism in the area. I had heard she read tarot cards and asked her if I could speak to her about her beliefs. She was really nice. I came away from that interview with respect for her and her beliefs.”
“She was a witch?” he asked.
“No. She called herself a Druid. She said there were distinct differences, but we didn't focus on them for the interview, so I'm not sure what they are.”
“Did she get any blowback after the article ran?” Alex asked from his unique perspective as technically a Sunset Ridge outsider, even now after years of living in town.
I remembered Howard killing the story before I even got a chance to really pitch it to him. It had been so easy for his narrow mind to not be interested.
“It never ran. Howard said it was too controversial and The Eagle‘s readers wouldn't want to read that kind of thing in the local paper. He thought they'd be offended. God forbid anyone in town got a different perspective other than the perfectly engineered one he thought should be forced on them daily.”
Turning my head, I glanced down at Amy's dead body. “I bet he'd like it well enough now. He'd probably run it next to the headline about her death. Or worse yet, next to her obituary.”
From behind us, Derek asked, “Anything you two would like to share with the class?”
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