Riley Thorn and the Corpse in the Closet
11:47 a.m., Tuesday, August 18
This was not how she was going to die, Riley decided. Not sitting on a concrete floor in a musty TV studio surrounded by idiots.
The helmet-headed blonde on her right was muttering under her breath about lawsuits. On her left, Riley’s ex-husband, Griffin Gentry, rocked in place and whimpered about the dry-cleaning fees for his mohair suit.
Neither of them was smart enough to realize just how much trouble they were all in.
But Riley knew that, barring a miracle, none of them would be walking out of Channel 50 alive.
“How long are we going to have to stay like this?” the blonde demanded. “This lighting is giving me a headache, and I need to make four dozen cupcakes for the marching band bake sale tomorrow.”
“That’s my chair,” Griffin complained when the gunman sat down behind the anchor desk.
“Let the man with the gun sit in your chair,” Riley advised.
“Just great,” he whined when the gunman lowered the seat. “It’s going to take me forever to get it back to the right height.”
“Oh, please,” Valerie hissed from her position between Cameras 1 and 2. “You put it as high as it goes, and we all pretend you’re a normal-sized human.”
“Let’s focus on the real problem here,” Riley said. “That guy has killed several people so far, and he has more on his list.”
“No one wants to kill me! Everyone loves me,” Griffin insisted.
“Have you continued to devolve, or was I really that stupid when I married you?” she wondered.
“Personally, I think it was a combination of both,” the Camera 1 operator at her feet chimed in.
“Hey, Don,” she whispered. “Long time, no see.”
“How’s it going?” the hefty, mustachioed man asked.
“So what’s he going to do after he’s done messing up my chair?” Griffin hissed, tugging at his collar. “You don’t think he’ll do something terrible like—”
“Kill you? Anything could happen at this point,” Riley said.
“Kill me?” he croaked. “I was going to say make me look silly on the air.”
Her ex-husband had gone from indignantly inconvenienced to anxious. Beads of sweat appeared on his spackled forehead.
Griffin was a nervous sweater. And he was very, very nervous. He looked as if he’d been hosed down.
“Look. He’s one guy with a gun. There’s sixteen of us in here. If we attack him in order of least important person to most important person, most of us will survive,” the blonde said.
“Obviously, I’m the most important,” Griffin said, latching on to her idea.
“You read things from a teleprompter and wear makeup,” the woman scoffed. “I’m a mother. I’m raising the future of our country.”
“Your kids are in college,” Riley pointed out.
“And they still need their mother! I’m last. Griffin can be next to last,” she conceded.
“Bella should be next to next to last,” Griffin decided.
On cue, Bella Goodshine, perky weather girl and his new fiancée, popped up next to him and held out a hand to Riley. “Hi! I’m Bella!”
“I know who you are!” Riley yelled.
The gunman spun around in his chair to glare at her.
“Sorry,” Riley said. “But she keeps introducing herself to me!”
“Didn’t she steal your husband?” the blonde asked.
“She sure did,” Griffin said. He was still sweating.
“This must be really awkward for you,” the blonde observed.
“It’s not great.”
“Don’t mind Bella,” Griffin said, reaching for Riley’s hand. She snatched it away. “She has female face blindness.”
“Female face blindness?” Riley repeated.
Griffin nodded. “She only recognizes men. It’s a medical condition.”
Riley blinked slowly, then shook her head. “I’m not dying here with you people.”
“So who should be first in line to attack this guy?” Griffin asked. “I never cared for Armand. I don’t like his urinal cake placement.”
“Fine. He’ll go first,” the blonde decided. “Then maybe that guy over there by the bagels. I don’t like his shirt.”
“That’s Rose. She didn’t sign my birthday card this year. Maybe she should go first?”
“You people can’t just decide who lives and who dies,” Riley hissed. This was what was wrong with the world. People like Griffin, who had overinflated senses of importance, wielding power over others.
Nick was going to kill her. That is, if she survived her own murder.
Six Days Earlier
11:47 a.m., Wednesday, August 12
“Abso-fucking-lutely not,” snarled Nick Santiago, dimpled private investigator and barely reformed bad boy as he fisted his hands in the cop’s shirt and bared his teeth.
Life could go from blissful summer day to bonkers in a very short period of time, Riley realized as she clung to her boyfriend’s back. Not ten minutes ago, she—Riley “Middle Name Unacknowledged” Thorn—had officially moved in with him. But before they could christen the new king-sized bed, everything had, of course, gone straight to hell.
She blamed her batty mother’s tarot prediction for copious amounts of strife and turmoil.
The universe waited all of twenty seconds before delivering said strife and turmoil in the form of a surprise visit from Riley’s formidable grandmother. Elanora Basil, president of the North American Psychics Guild, had proceeded to cast a pall of judgmental disdain that could be felt throughout the entire rundown mansion and large portions of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
It had gone downhill from there.
Now Nick was assaulting a cop. Not just any cop. His ex-partner and frenemy Detective Kellen Weber.
“Calm the hell down,” Riley demanded through gritted teeth as she tried to pry Nick off the detective.
“Do you require my assistance?” The deep baritone came from the large, impossibly muscular Black man in the doorway.
“Stay out of this, Empire State Building,” Nick snarled.
“I got it, Gabe,” she promised her part-time spiritual guide and full-time friend. “But thanks.”
“I am always available for punching Nick in the face if necessary,” Gabe promised. After the briefest of hesitations, he gracefully dodged the melee in the kitchen and helped himself to a frozen Snickers, which he devoured in two bites before squaring his massive shoulders and disappearing again.
Elanora had that effect on people.
“Don’t make me arrest you, Santiago,” Kellen rasped from his prone position on the kitchen table.
Nick growled in response. The pony-sized dog at their feet mistook the noise for a game and barked joyfully.
“Not now, Burt,” Riley told the dog as she landed a series of slaps to Nick’s hands.
Finally, he released the detective.
“The last time she got involved with an investigation, she got shot,” Nick snarled. “The answer is no. She’s not doing your job for you.”
Detective Weber stood and straightened his tie. He was an attractive man, always dressed as if he was ready to take a disapproving in-law to the Olive Garden after church. “Assaulting an officer is against the law, dick,” he reminded Nick.
“Pretty sure a jury would make an exception for you, assface.”
She slid off Nick’s back. “Can you two idiots keep it down? If my grandmother hears—”
“This is precisely why I am here.”
The mint green kitchen suddenly seemed very small and very cold as Elanora, terrifying matriarch and nationally known psychic medium, stepped into the room. Her sniff was full of derision.
She was petite with ramrod posture and looked as if she wore a coat hanger under her layers of flowing black. With her pinched frown and sterling hair swept back from her face with bird feathers, she reminded her granddaughter of an old, disappointed Stevie Nicks.
Briefly, Riley wondered if her grandmother had murdered the bird that donated the feathers. Nothing seemed out of the realm of possibility when it came to Elanora.
“Your behavior is positively unseemly. My granddaughter is most certainly not getting involved in another homicide,” Elanora announced briskly, glancing at the case file Kellen left on the table. “She is dangerously untrained, and I have absolutely no faith in her ability to control even the most basic of powers. Look at the two of you. One minute alone in a room with her, and you’re behaving like children.”
Riley rolled her eyes. “Thanks, Grandma.” Elanora preferred Grandmother. Riley preferred to mess with her just a little bit.
Nick pointed in Elanora’s direction as he leaned into Riley. “Listen to your scary grandma. You’re not doing it.”
He was lucky he was hot even when his dimples weren’t on full display. He was also lucky that Riley was a patient woman. He was new at this boyfriend thing. So she could ignore the occasional gung-ho alpha blunders and tolerate the adorable macho over-protectiveness. Because deep down she knew he was still tied up in knots over their recent adventure in taking down the city’s mayor, his communications director, and a few bad cops.
Both she and Nick had walked away with a bullet hole apiece as souvenirs. While she’d moved on, he was still stewing about it and—like a good girlfriend—she was giving him the space to stew about it.
Elanora gave Nick an imperious glance followed by a stiff nod. “Perhaps you’re not as useless and uneducated as you appear to be, Nicholas.”
It was practically a gold star.
“Thanks?” he said.
“While I appreciate you all feeling as if you have the right to make decisions for me, you don’t,” Riley announced. “None of you do.”
“That’s right. This is Riley’s decision,” Kellen said smugly.
“Kiss-ass,” Nick snapped.
“You two, out.” She nudged her grandmother and boyfriend toward the door.
Burt barked and cocked his gigantic head.
“You can stay. You trust my judgment,” she told the dog.
Elanora’s eyes narrowed. “I did not come here to be ignored while you continue to make a mockery of the guild.”
“No, but you did arrive unannounced. You can’t expect us to drop everything and entertain you.”
“Entertain me?” Elanora scoffed. “My daughter and granddaughters are blessed with psychic gifts that should have foretold my arrival.”
“Yeah, well, they didn’t. So you can’t expect me to drop everything right now. Go home with my parents. Drive them nuts. You like doing that. We’ll catch up soon.”
The disapproving lines on her grandmother’s forehead deepened. “I am very disappointed—”
“In me. And everyone else. And life in general. I got it, and I’m not saying you’re wrong. We’ll deal with it later, Grandmother.”
“We most certainly will.”
Elanora swept from the room in a huff, and Riley turned to face Nick. “And you,” she said.
“Me?” He pointed at himself and produced both dimples. Weapons of mass devastation.
“Yeah, you. You’re the one who said you could handle dating a psychic.” She didn’t exactly choke on the word, but she did cough.
“Thorn, this has nothing to do with you talking to dead people and reading minds. I don’t give a shit about your psychic training. You haven’t been trained to defend yourself. You barely survived the last time you got tangled up in a case. Hell, you threw a gun at the bad guy. You can’t expect me to pat you on the back and tell you to get back out there and bring home a win.”
“You really do need to teach her to shoot,” Kellen cut in.
“I don’t if she stays away from murderers.”
“Oh, come on. You’re being dramatic,” she complained. “One measly bullet hole in a love handle didn’t put me anywhere near death’s doorstep.”
“Don’t tell me it was one ‘measly bullet hole’ when you almost let a madman drown you in the goddamn capitol fountain.”
“Nick.” She crossed her arms over her chest. He was putting on a front, but underneath it, she could sense the fear that kept him up at night.
Not again. I can’t lose her.
She slammed the metaphorical garage door shut in her head. As a psychic girlfriend, she tried very hard to give Nick and his inner monologue privacy.
“Riley.” He mirrored her posture hiding his inner turmoil under a cocky, sexy facade.
“Let me hear Detective Weber out,” she said gently. “Looking over a case file isn’t going to put me in mortal danger.” At least, she hoped it wouldn’t. “You have to trust me.”
His jaw clenched under his sexy stubble, making his dimples pop again. “For the record, I don’t like it. And you,” he said, turning on Kellen. “If she ends up in trouble or gets hurt, I will personally choke you to death with your stupid tie collection.”
“Nick.” She sighed.
“I’m not leaving,” he insisted, pulling out a chair from the table and attacking one of the banana muffins Gabe had baked that morning. The man was an angel in the kitchen. Burt trotted over and put his head in Nick’s lap so he could inhale muffin crumbs.
The problem was, Riley didn’t really want to consult on a case. Especially not another murder. Especially not when, as her grandmother so meanly pointed out, her powers were not exactly under her control at all times. Which technically was her own fault for denying their existence for the past thirty-four years.
However, she’d also spent the last several years doing what she’d been told in both a dead-end job and her deader-end marriage. She was due for a rebellion.
“Look, I don’t know if I want to get involved,” she told Kellen. Nick’s smug grin had her adding, “But I’ll hear you out.”
They both took a seat at the table. She picked up a muffin and gestured for Kellen to help himself.
“It’s been a week, and we’ve got nothing,” he explained, opening the file and laying out a series of photos of the body.
Muffin lodged in her throat.
The victim was a woman of indeterminate age due to obvious and extensive plastic surgery. She could have been in her forties or her sixties. She had a deep, orange-hued tan, swollen duck lips, unnaturally rounded cheeks, and a frozen forehead. Both her hair and her lashes were longer and thicker than those found in nature.
The body was face-up on plush white carpet with what was most likely a look of surprise. However, given the enhancements, the overall effect was that of a life-sized sex doll.
Thankfully, there was no blood or obvious cause of death.
Riley found it Alanis Morissette “Ironic” that the victim had fought aging tooth and nail only to meet an early end.
Her nose twitched, and somewhere in her head, she thought she heard the echo of a laugh. A practiced, insincere, nasally giggle.
She shivered and picked up a photo of the body taken from a distance. The woman was sprawled on the floor of a large walk-in closet. The kind featured on reality shows set in L.A. There was a tufted velvet hassock in the corner. Floor-to-ceiling shelves housed shoes most with skyscraper high heels. Luxury label purses, jeans, and tops hung in precisely spaced intervals and organized by color.
She whistled. “Someone with a closet like that lives in Harrisburg?”
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, wasn’t exactly Los Angeles. If there was a family tree of U.S. cities, Harrisburg would have been a bumpkin third cousin who kept getting divorced. But with several large health systems in the area as well as a nearby candy fortune, local pockets of money still existed.
“Her name is Bianca Hornberger. She was forty-four. A stay-at-home mother of two kids. The husband is a software engineer,” Kellen explained.
Nick wiped the last of the muffin crumbs onto the floor where Burt expertly hoovered them up. “You look at the husband?”
Kellen shot his ex-partner a bland look. “No. It never occurred to me to look at the spouse. Let me go ask him for an alibi.”
“Don’t be a dick. I’m sorry for messing up your fancy shirt and tie.”
Riley shook her head. Men’s ability to be infuriated one second and then trading good-natured insults the next fascinated her.
“Yes, I looked at the spouse,” Kellen said. “His alibi is airtight. He was at work in meetings with dozens of witnesses all day. Didn’t get home until eight and called 911 within minutes of walking in the door.”
There was a tightness in her chest, almost as if she couldn’t catch her breath. Her nose twitched again.
“Cause of death?” Nick asked.
“Suffocation,” she said quietly.
Both men looked at her.
Nick got up and squeezed her shoulder before moving to the sink to fill a glass of water. He put it in front of her and sat back down, dragging her chair closer until his body crowded hers. He might have been new at this boyfriend thing, but the man was a natural.
Kellen met her gaze. “That’s right. Medical examiner found signs of asphyxiation.”
Riley’s head was slowly filling with puffy pink and blue clouds, but she couldn’t see through them. “There’s something else,” she guessed, squinting at the table.
Kellen’s mouth tightened. “Yeah. This stays between us. This detail hasn’t been made public. But the coroner found a fancy pair of underwear lodged in her throat.”
“She choked on her own underwear?” Nick asked.
The clouds stayed too thick for her to see more than glimpses. She shook her head. “No. I think there was a bag over her head.”
The look the detective gave her was triumphant. “There was a plastic bag, with only her prints on it found next to the body. Coroner thinks the thong down the throat happened post-mortem.”
“That’s just creepy,” she said as the clouds dissipated.
“I need your help with this one,” Kellen said. “So far the investigation has turned up no leads, and my gut says this wasn’t random.”
Riley blew out a breath. “I’ll think about it and get back to you,” she told him. “You do get that my grandmother isn’t wrong, don’t you? I’m not very good at this whole psychic thing.”
“You were good enough to save your best friend and this son of a bitch here.”
“Technically, I saved her,” Nick cut in. His grip tightened comfortingly on her shoulder.
“If you want to get technical, I saved both your lives,” Kellen added. “You owe me. So I’m calling in the favor. I need your help with this one. Otherwise, a murderer is going to walk free.”
Ugh. The last time she’d allowed herself to get involved in an investigation, she’d ended up at the bottom of the capitol complex fountain with a bullet hole.
The media circus that had made her life a living hell was only now beginning to calm down. The last thing she needed was more attention. She had two bins upstairs full of emails and letters from strangers begging for her to find lost items, contact dead relatives, and deliver predictions on future sporting events.
“I need to think about it,” she said.
“I’ll take whatever help you can give me,” Kellen said, ignoring Nick’s scowl. “The longer this case goes without a lead, the colder the trail gets. I need to give this family some answers.”
“Answer’s no,” Nick announced. “Not happening. Take your muffin and go.”