Cursing again, I scanned the room for said workbench but had no luck. I closed the door and spun around, wary of what I’d find behind door number two.
Hinges creaked as I inched the door open, the sound echoing in an unnatural way. Very little light entered the room, and in the thick shadows I could make out a shape that vaguely resembled a bench. There were other forms, things propped against the wall, others covered in cloth. Most likely more leftover props.
Feeling along the wall for a light switch, my hand sliced through a real cobweb. Squealing, I turned into a ninja as I flung the sticky material off my hand. Finally I found the switch and flipped it on.
The overhead light burst on brightly, and for a few moments everything in the room became visible—fake coffins with their lids closed propped against the wall, a very badly made vampire, more mummies, mannequins covered in soiled sheets, and the workbench, which had another prop tossed on it.
A flicker of white out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Air froze up in my lungs as I spun toward the mannequins or whatever the hell was under those sheets. Had one of them moved?
My heart kicked against my ribs.
Just your imagination, I told myself. Forcing air into my chest, I started toward the bench, clenching the tape measure until my knuckles ached as I glanced around the room nervously.
The overhead light blinked suddenly, erratically, and then dimmed to a yellow glow, the bulb probably minutes from burning out.
Just my luck.
Wanting to get this over with, I shuffled around the draped sheets crammed next to the workbench, my lip curling in disgust. I had no idea what was on the bench. The pitiful light didn’t reach this far across the room, and as thick as the shadows were around me, I’d be surprised if I could even read the measurements. I tugged out the tape measure—
Loose hairs at the nape of my neck stirred as icy fingers trailed across my skin.
Gasping, I spun around, causing the sheets to flutter around me. Dust flew into the air, clogging it. I stepped back, bumping into the workbench. Blood pounded through me as I stared at the sheets, watching them settle back into place.
I reached up and placed trembling fingers against the base of my neck. Cobwebs. Had to be cobwebs.
Throat dry, I turned back to the workbench and concentrated on my task. I had no idea what was on the bench. Wrapped in a dark blanket, its slender, stuffing filled legs were bound together with coarse rope, as were its arms. My gaze drifted over the length of the prop. It wasn’t nearly as tall as the mummy, maybe a little over five and a half feet, close to my height.
A weird smell mixed with a musky scent radiated from the prop. I leaned over the bench, trying to measure its width, but the legs were in the way.
Putting the tape measure down, I grabbed the legs, totally planning on rolling the whole thing right off the bench, but . . . the legs were heavy. Solid. I lifted them with a grunt, and the smell, the sickly-sweet smell increased. Apprehension grew in the pit of my stomach, rising through me like smoke.
At once, I found it hard to breathe as my gaze slowly traveled the form again. My throat closed up. The blanket had loosened at the top, and was now barely folded together. I squinted as I stared into the gap. Something . . . something like dark hair curled around the edges of the blanket.
Oh God . . .
There was something else—something blood red and feathered in the center of the opening.
I leaned forward, my brows knitting together as I reached out with one shaky hand. It’s just a prop. It’s fake. Totally fake. My fingers caught the edge of the blanket, and with my heart pounding, I pulled the coarse material to the side.
A scream rushed up my throat, slamming to a stop as horror seized me in its icy grip. Jerking back, I opened my mouth wide, but no sound came out. I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t look away from what lie unmoving on the bench.
Dull green eyes were fixed on the ceiling. Skin a ghastly shade of whitish-gray, all except the dark brown stain marring the corner of blue lips and the . . .
The head of a cardinal speared her lips, its small, feathered body disappearing into her grotesquely stretched mouth.
It wasn’t a dummy.
The scream finally broke free, shattering the silence, and I didn’t stop screaming. I couldn’t.
I’d found her—I’d found Vee Bartol.
Police swarmed the old farmhouse and barn. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but the medical examiner’s van had been parked there for a while and it seemed like forever ago that the officers had pulled me away from Linds and Ms. Reed, stashing me in the back of a cruiser.
People were questioned and then ordered off the property.
Yellow tape went up.
I’d given my statement to a trooper who appeared vaguely familiar and then to a deputy, who also appeared to be someone I felt like I should know. I’d heard enough to know this was being treated as a homicide, which became apparent from the moment I’d found Vee because people didn’t simply die like that normally.
About every ten minutes or so, an officer checked on me. Someone had given me an unopened bottle of water. After taking one drink, it rested beside me, untouched.
I remained in the back of the cruiser, and no matter how many deep breaths I took, I couldn’t get the scent of death out of my head. I pressed my hands to my face. Every so often, a tremor rocked me.
Vee was dead.
I hadn’t been close to her, but that didn’t lessen the shock or the horror seizing my insides in a tight, icy grip. She had been murdered. There was no doubt in my mind that was what had happened. She had been murdered and left there in the farmhouse to be found.
“How are you hanging in there?”
I looked up at the sound of the male voice. Dimly, my brain kicked on. “I know you.”
“Yes.” He knelt in the open door, watching me with steady, serious dark eyes. “You do know me.”
“You’re Deputy Shaw.” I blinked. Like he didn’t know who he was. “Sorry. My brain’s not working.”
“It’s understandable.” He reached into the car, squeezing my shoulder. “Just hang in there. We’ve called your mom to come get you. She’ll be here soon.”
“Thank you,” I whispered as I leaned back against the seat, running my palms over my bent knees. Over his shoulder, my gaze found the coroner’s van, still sitting there. “Is she still . . . ?”
“We can’t move the . . . her until we’ve collected all the evidence.” He squeezed my shoulder again. “That’s probably not something you need to think about right now.”
I nodded slowly. One image kept replaying over and over in my head, more often than the others. “There was a bird—a cardinal—shoved in her—”
“Now that’s something you really don’t want to think about, Ella.” His hand slid away as he rose. Bracing himself against the door jamb, he dipped his head. “I know it’s hard.”
I almost laughed, but stopped myself. If I started, I wasn’t sure I’d stop, and it would be the crazy kind of laughter. I glanced up at him, and it was like a memory unlocked itself from the depths of my mind. A bitter edged sensation of déjà vu slammed into me.
“I remember,” I whispered, throat dry.
He tilted his head to the side. “Remember what?”
“You had me in the back of the cruiser last time.” I knew the moment he got what I was saying because his eyes widened with understanding. “You waited with me until my parents showed up.”
A moment passed. “I did. Hopefully we don’t have to do that a third time.”
He didn’t say anything else but stood there like a silent sentry. How had I forgotten that was Deputy Shaw? Rattled by the realization, I sank back against the seat. I had seriously blocked out most of the details surrounding that night. That’s what Dr. Oliver had said.
My stomach twisted around the water I had swallowed, and I closed my eyes, counting until the nausea passed.
It wasn’t too long after that before Mom showed up. She parked her car near mine and then raced over to the cruiser. Shaw stepped aside as I climbed out. My legs shook as I took a step toward her.