Page 64 of Killer Secrets

With the windows rolled down and the air conditioner blasting, he drove the short distance to Mila’s house, parked out front and heaved a sigh as he crossed the front garden to the porch.

He was digging her keys from his pocket when he was struck by the quiet. No frantic barking came from inside, no scrabbling of claws on wood as Poppy tried to get through the door. Maybe she was asleep, but… No. She was far too excitable to miss the sound of footsteps on the porch. Oh, God, if the bastard had done something to Poppy…

With the hairs on his neck standing on end and a chill sweeping over him, Sam drew his gun, gingerly touched the knob with two fingers and twisted it.

The door swung open.

The house was eerily still. Remaining in the doorway, he pulled out his cell phone and punched in 911. “Hey, Morwenna, it’s Sam. Get hold of Daniel and tell him to meet me at Mila Ramirez’s house. Send a couple of uniforms, too.”

Without waiting for her response, he put the phone away and took one cautious step inside, his gaze sweeping the room. Nothing was missing, except the eighty pounds of happy dog bouncing off the walls. He listened for a whine, a whimper, a snuffle, anything to indicate Poppy was in one of the rooms, maybe injured, maybe restrained by the man who had tried to kill Mila. He heard nothing beyond the rapid pounding of his own heart.

Small cities were great in one respect: a police officer on an emergency call could get anywhere quickly. He hadn’t yet reached the dining room when he heard sirens drawing near, had just checked the kitchen when footsteps thudded on the porch.

“Chief?”

He gestured the officers, both with guns drawn, into the house. “Mila Ramirez lives here. You know someone tried to kill her this morning. They also broke in here. Her dog, Poppy, was home alone, and I haven’t found her yet. Brady, check the backyard. Carla, come with me.”

He took the lead, moving into the hallway, taking a glance in the bedroom, just enough to see broken glass and no big furry yellow body. While Carla took a closer look, he turned to the left, checked the bathroom, then approached the door to the front bedroom. When he’d been here Thursday night, that door had been closed, and the hall light had glinted off a relatively new-looking dead bolt. Now it stood halfway open.

He eased it open with his foot, but the door stuck partway. A person hiding back there? Poppy, in no condition to greet him?

His stomach roiling, he ducked around the door, leading with his pistol. Relief washed over him. Nothing was blocking the door but the bed. Small as it was, it filled the tiny room.

Thank God Poppy wasn’t here dead, but where the hell was she?

The only way Mila’s attacker could have struck her in a more vulnerable place was by going after Jessica. That silly, goofy dog meant the world to Mila, and Sam would break in half anyone evil enough to hurt the animal.

“Chief, there’s no dog here,” Carla said from the hallway, and behind her Brady shook his head. “No blood, no signs of a struggle. Just that broken window.”

“Talk to the neighbors, find out if anyone has seen Poppy today, if they saw someone over here, if they heard anything. She’s a big yellow Lab mix, about two years old.”

As they left, he turned back to the second bedroom. It was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the house. He figured no one but Jessica had ever spent the night there, unless Mila used it for an occasional retreat. The dead bolt indicated a security issue, but there was nothing of obvious value unless…

He opened the closet. She used it for storage: a couple of boxes, some file folders, a pile of loose papers, notebooks, a photo album. The hard-copy stuff that everyone had to deal with in life.

His fingers itched to pick up the photo album. It was old, worn, its pages stuffed so full that they strained at their binding. It leaned against the wall, a depression in the carpet showing it had stood there a long time. Maybe that was her treasure, the valuable thing that made her lock an unused room.

But the intruder hadn’t cared enough to take it. It didn’t look as if it had been touched in ages. Unless Sam had a cop-ly reason for thumbing through it, it would be a violation of her privacy and the trust that she found so hard to give.

“Chief?” The call came from the living room, Daniel’s voice. Sam met him in the dining room, where he stood sweaty, dirty, his hair on end, his jeans muddy and ripped.

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