It felt different to Audrey when she parked her car in almost the same spot. She’d come to comfort Pope the first time. Now she was here to do her job.
Two completely different mindsets. And she wasn’t sure how to make the switch, especially with Pope already chomping at the bit about this alleged suspect while suffering from shock.
Her eyes narrowed. Unless the guy was in cuffs—something she thought unlikely—he was there voluntarily, whatever Pope said about him being ‘the guy.’
She took a deep breath and let it out while trying to get past the emotions of the moment. She’d listened to the news on the way over, thinking she might pick up useful information but hadn’t learned anything new. The radio was now reporting Rachel Pope’s name, something they didn’t have before. The reporter didn’t say how they knew, and Audrey just hoped the source didn’t lead back to her son Chuck.
It was unlikely, but she’d have to be more careful from here on out. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume journalists would approach her family, looking for a scoop, hoping Audrey had let something slip.
Audrey prided herself on her professionalism, but she’d have to take it up a notch on this one. She wanted to be beyond reproach, however the case went.
It also didn’t help that she was filled with mixed emotions because she’d just been called up to the big leagues. She wasn’t sure she was ready. She was currently handling several low-profile murder cases, including the case she’d just ordered the psych eval on today, but all were likely to plea out before trial.
They don’t teach you how to deal with these conflicting emotions in law school.
Audrey hesitated and then opened her briefcase, pulling out a small yellow notepad and two pens. She left everything else in her car, including her cell phone. If she missed any calls, she could wait until later to call them back. This case would require her full focus. She couldn’t allow herself to be distracted by anything else.
What am I going to say to Jim?
He was so relieved when he thought she wouldn’t have this case. She’d leave him in ignorance a little longer. He would stress about it. Better to spare him all she could.
With another deep breath, she opened the door and stepped out.
“Back so soon?” Kennedy McClellan asked as Audrey pushed her way through the crowd again and up the trail to where the tape was affixed to the metal handrails above the stairs. “How was Rachel Pope killed? Was she stabbed or shot? Do you know who did this?”
Kennedy looked as if she expected to get something this time, but Audrey didn’t say anything. She barely made eye contact as she slid past.
“This isn’t how you treat a member of the press. Someday you’re gonna need something from me, and you’re going to regret your silence.”
Audrey hesitated and turned back with a tight-lipped frown. “No comment.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
Audrey didn’t look back again as she stepped underneath the police crime scene tape, walked down the stairs, passed the same officer from before at the bridge who dutifully recorded her presence, and found Gregory Pope coming out to meet her.
“Finally. Glad you’re here.”
“Who’s the suspect?” Audrey asked.
“Parker Johnson.” Gregory Pope said the name with such disdain that it was clear his mind was already made up that this man was the killer. Audrey thought it unlikely the perp would be apprehended so quickly right by the crime scene, but stranger things had happened.
It was more likely somebody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the cops needed to offer someone up to Gregory Pope to turn the man’s attention off them so that they could do their job.
“Parker’s his first name?” Audrey frowned. Something in Pope’s demeanor told her he knew the guy. “How do you know him?”
Pope grimaced as he nodded. “He dated Rachel in high school. Surprised it’s him, to be honest, but…” Pope trailed off, and his anger bubbled up. “I can see him doing it. I can totally see him doing it.”
Easy there, papa bear.
“Where is he?”
“He’s this way.” A cruel smirk crossed Pope’s lips. “They took him back to the crime scene, and they’re interviewing him there.”
“Is Rachel’s… Is Rachel gone?”
Pope nodded. “They just took her.” His voice faltered as he spoke, but it became stronger as he went on. The man was like a missile zeroing in on its target.
Audrey had a bad feeling.
I should’ve said no, she thought. I should’ve said no. Perhaps Pope would come to his senses and put a seasoned prosecutor on the case, one who could easily handle Pope. Maybe she should make another push for Pope to appoint an independent counsel or ask a neighboring county’s District Attorney to handle it.
“What evidence is there he did this?”
“It’s an awful strange coincidence he’s here.”
Audrey stopped, wondering how to broach the topic, but she decided just to spit it out. “Is that all we have, a coincidence?” She didn’t hide her skepticism.
Pope turned. “What more do you need?” For a moment, Audrey thought he was about to grab the lapels of her suit, but he stepped back and kept his hands at his side.
“Evidence. For us to put somebody away for Rachel’s murder, we must have evidence. We can’t work off a gut instinct. We can’t just take the first guy we pick—”
“It’s not the first guy!”
“There’s somebody else?”
“They’ve talked to other people who’ve been in the park today, but he’s the first who turned up with a connection to her. He has a motive.”
“And what exactly is his motive?”
“Revenge. Rachel dumped him.”
“Wasn’t that like four or five years ago? Why wait so long?”
“Whose side are you on?”
Audrey looked up at the big, angry man, stiffened her back, planted her feet, and reminded herself of her job interview.
“The side of truth.” Audrey didn’t blink as he took in several deep breaths.
“I recognize I’m a little involved here.”
“That’s why you asked me to do it. You need to take a step back if I’m going to do my job.”
Pope nodded. “I will, promise.”
She didn’t wait as she pushed past Pope, feeling like she’d just taken the bull by the horns as she headed toward the crime scene.
The detectives had Parker standing by the second bridge, in view of the second line of police tape. They were positioned so that Parker had to look either at them or right in between at the river hawthorn tree where Rachel’s body had been discovered.
The man was pale, and his eyes kept going everywhere. Audrey’s first instinct was there was no way he could have done this. He looked like some kid who’d just come from a college class or just got off work at a local fast-food joint and had taken a nature walk on his way home.
He didn’t look like a murderer, somebody capable of stabbing another human being. He didn’t look like the type of person who would stick the knife in the ground to taunt Gregory Pope.
Normally, she would have tried to suppress her instincts, but she didn’t because of Pope’s overbearing manner. She hoped each would cancel out the other in her subconscious so she could be unbiased.
She approached until she could hear the conversation.
“I tell you again,” Parker stammered as he tried to figure a way out of the situation. “I didn’t even know she was here today. I was just out for a walk, taking a break from class, decided to study, and—”
“Tell us about your prior relationship with Rachel Pope,” demanded a female detective, who was several inches taller than Audrey. “What was it like?”
Audrey frowned as she tried to remember the woman’s name.
Detective Mary Ramirez.
Parker shook his head in frustration. “Again? We dated. In high school. I mean, it was four years ago. I’ve hardly said a word to her since.”
“How did it end?” Ramirez asked. “She dump you?”
“No, as a matter-of-fact, I dumped her!”
“That’s a lie!”
Audrey hadn’t expected Gregory Pope to follow, and she turned now to see the man red in the face, marching up the trail toward Parker.
“Stop!” Audrey said, holding up a hand like she was a traffic cop. “Stop right there!”
Pope didn’t appear to hear her and didn’t even glance at her as he barreled on past. She ran until she got ahead of him, forcing her way into his path, putting both hands up in front of her, hoping he wouldn’t just run over her on his way to attack Parker. “Remember, we don’t know who did this yet. Just take a step back.”
“Oh, we know!” Pope jabbed a finger at Parker. “It was him! Rachel dumped him, and he never got over it. He was always pining after her every time I saw him.”
“That’s not true,” Parker said slowly. The detectives were now on either side of him. Audrey couldn’t decide if they were looking to keep him from escaping or thinking of stepping in to protect him from Gregory Pope. After another look at their faces, she decided it was more to keep him from running away. Gregory Pope was an intimidating man, and she didn’t think they would stand in the way of anything he wanted.
Audrey took Pope by the arm. “I think you should wait over there.” She nodded back down the trail.
“I’ll wait wherever I want to wait!”
Audrey grabbed his arm and gave a solid tug. It barely drew the man’s attention. She glanced over at a nearby officer and jerked her head toward Pope, but the man shook his head and didn’t move. She looked back at the detectives. Neither made a move toward her either.
She was on her own.
Audrey got in Pope’s face and lowered her voice. “You have a rope somewhere? Should we hang him on that tree behind you? Is that what it takes to solve this problem?”
It appeared Gregory Pope was giving the sarcastic suggestion serious thought until he looked down at Audrey.
Pope’s eyes narrowed. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“That you’re too involved? I know this is your daughter. It wounds me deeply you have to go through this, that she died like this, but we have to remember—”
“You’re right. You’re right.” Pope took a deep breath, looked at Parker like he was going to say something more, and then stalked off.
“I’m screwed,” Parker muttered.
“Is that a confession?” Detective Mary Ramirez asked. Besides being taller than Audrey, she was muscular and looked like she could take Parker down by herself if necessary. Audrey worked out regularly, but she’d never look like that, even if she were to work out all day, every day. She’d never be able to stand beside Parker, almost hoping he ran so she could chase after him in the way Ramirez was poised to do.
“No! He’s just going to bury me. I didn’t do this. I promise you.”
“Walk us through again what you were doing here,” the other detective said. He was a couple of inches over six feet with a full head of black hair. He was younger than Ramirez by a decade or more, and he, too, looked like he spent time at the gym. His suit coat was tight on him. He didn’t look hopeful Parker would split so they could chase after.
Audrey had dropped her notepad while trying to stop Pope from attacking Parker. She picked it up and slipped it between her elbow and side before folding her arms while studying the situation.
“Is what Mr. Pope says true?” Ramirez challenged Parker again. “Did she dump you?”
“Maybe I misspoke.” Parker took note of Ramirez’s face and hastened to add, “I didn’t lie, but relationships are more complicated than people want to make them out to be, aren’t they? That’s how it was for us, too.”
Ramirez frowned. “It’s never good to lie to a detective.”
“I didn’t. At the time, I thought it was a mutual breakup, but I heard later she’d told others she’d dumped me. I never challenged it because why would I? There was no need. It was over. There was no use airing old dirty laundry. I just wanted to move on. And I wanted the same for her.” He shook his head. “Sheesh! I mean, come on, we were juniors in high school. We were kids. That has no relevance to this.”
“What’s relevant is you’re here,” Ramirez said, “studying, not even a couple of hundred feet away from where she was killed. You currently have a girlfriend?”
“No, I don’t.”
Audrey didn’t like how they were handling the potential suspect. Ramirez was trying to get under this guy’s skin, and she didn’t think that was the right approach. The other detective appeared to be hanging back. Audrey suspected they were playing good cop, bad cop. She wasn’t sure that would be fruitful either.
Audrey stepped forward. “Do you mind if I ask a question?”
Ramirez looked like she was about to ask for identification and then glanced at Gregory Pope, who stood thirty feet back, hands curled into fists, glaring daggers at Parker.
“No, I don’t mind.”
It was clear she did, but Audrey approached anyway.
“I’m Audrey Spencer. I work at the District Attorney’s Office.” She said this more for the benefit of Ramirez than Parker. It looked like the detective needed the reminder.
He paled. “Are you charging me already?”
“Nothing like that,” Audrey said, shaking her head slightly. “As you can see, emotions are running hot. Rachel is a beloved daughter of a formidable prosecutor. As you can imagine, everybody’s tense right now.”
“I just want to make sure I understand exactly what you’re doing here today. Okay?”
“Do I need a lawyer?”
Audrey glanced at the detectives. The man gave a slight shake of his head. Ramirez looked on with fiery eyes.
“I don’t know,” Audrey said honestly. “Maybe.”
“Anything I tell you will be held against me, is that it?”
“Perhaps. Did you guys read him his rights?”
“No, Parker is here voluntarily.” Ramirez had such a straight face that Audrey had a hard time not asking what made it voluntary but kept her thoughts to herself.
This kid probably felt like he’d had no choice when the detectives invited him to the crime scene to talk about the death of an old high school flame.
“You haven’t been charged with anything,” Audrey said reassuringly, hoping the repetition might calm him down, “and as near as I can tell, we don’t have any physical evidence that points to you.”
“You mean I’m free to go?” Parker turned to leave, drawing an angry look from Ramirez.
“Yes, you can go,” Audrey said agreeably, “but I recommend you at least stay for a couple more questions. You don’t want to look guilty, not to say you are, but I think if you cooperate and help us understand why you’re here, you can hopefully put this matter behind you. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for your presence in this park, and I, for one, would like to hear it.”
Parker stopped. “I’ll talk to you, but neither of them and only if Mr. Pope doesn’t get in my face again.”
“That’s fine. I can agree to that.” Audrey glanced at the female detective, who now looked ready to spit fire. “Is that okay?” She hated to ask for permission, but she also needed to calm Ramirez. Sometimes, asking did more than demanding, though she’d never say it out loud to any of her colleagues. The trick was to know which to use. “Can I talk to him by myself for just a moment?”
“Knock yourself out,” Ramirez said as she stalked off, heading toward Pope.
Audrey watched her go, wondering if there was a connection between Ramirez and Gregory Pope that she wasn’t aware of. Ramirez’s display of emotion was concerning, especially considering how there was not yet any physical evidence tying Parker to the crime scene. There were many reasons he could be here today. They needed to cross each off the list before considering him a suspect in Rachel’s murder. He was merely a person of interest at this point and might never go beyond that.
The male detective was slower to move.
“I’ll just be over there,” he finally said, grimacing. Audrey couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the man was embarrassed about how the interrogation had been playing out. He appeared to be an alpha male type, so she was surprised he wasn’t trying to step in to take control.
What’s up with that? Audrey wondered.
She stepped forward once the detectives were out of earshot.
“I know you,” Parker said, “you’re Chuck’s mom.”
Audrey gave the kid what she hoped was a pleasant smile. “You know him?”
“Not well, but I know who he is.” Parker frowned, his eyes turning to slits. “He used to have a thing for Rachel Pope too.” Parker made Audrey think of a rat trying to claw its way out of a box by grabbing anything for leverage.
Audrey nodded. “It was many years ago. I think even several years before you and Rachel were a thing, junior high if I’m not mistaken.” She paused. “I don’t think it would be right to call what they had a thing.”
“Doesn’t it give you a conflict of interest or something?”
Audrey broke into an easy smile. “I know where my son has been for the last three hours. While it is not likely he had anything to do with this, if he somehow becomes involved, even tangentially, yes, I would step aside.” She gave the young man her best querying look. “Did you see him here?”
“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry, I’m just getting defensive.”
Audrey nodded and even managed a small snort. “Don’t know why.” She took a step closer. “I know it’s been a long day. Please think about Gregory Pope over there—looking past his accusation—and everything his family is going through right now. You seem like you’re a good boy. And you don’t seem like the guy who did this. You have two choices. You can put up your back, lawyer up, and make it difficult for me to learn what you know, or you can tell me what you know, and I can cross you off the list and work on finding the actual person who did this.”
“You really don’t think I did this?”
“To be honest, no. I don’t. But that’s just my instincts. It’s also just a natural response when I see people jumping to a conclusion without evidence. From what I know, there isn’t anything tying you to this crime. Nothing that we’re aware of, at least. The only thing you’re guilty of is proximity to the crime scene. Once we get this tidied up, you’re going to be just fine. Are you going to help me?”
Parker studied her as if trying to decide whether she was serious. He finally nodded. “Anything to get out of this.”
“So, just because it’s become an issue of concern for others around me, not for me necessarily, but for the other people, can you tell me about your relationship with Rachel Pope back in the day?” She could tell Parker didn’t want to say anything more, so she quickly went on. “Just humor me. I don’t believe it has any relevance, but a lot of investigative work is more about crossing things off. I just want to know about the nature of the relationship, if there were any problems, specifically if there was any conflict between you two.”
“Sure, I get it. We dated for like six months. It was our junior year of high school. I think she was prom queen during one of the dances. I mean, it was foolish. We were young. We thought we were in love, but what did we know? We were just stupid kids.”
Audrey gave him an appraising look. As far as she was concerned, he was still young. Any relationship he might become involved in would still be two kids in love, but she chose not to voice her thoughts.
“Did you ever hit her?”
“No!” Parker backed up as if he was thinking of leaving. “Why would you accuse me of such a thing?”
She paused, waiting until he made eye contact, and then gave him a tolerant smile. “Remember, this is about crossing things off. I don’t actually believe you’re a violent person. I think it’s likely you’re telling the truth. I just need to know everything I can about your past relationship, so I can cross you off my list.”
“No, I never got violent. We got angry, but who doesn’t in a relationship, right?”
Audrey nodded. “Of course. I have to ask. Did she ever get violent with you?”
“No, nothing that was serious.”
“What do you mean?”
“Girls sometimes hit playfully.”
“I’m not talking about that. I just want to be sure nothing violent ever happened.”
Parker shook his head.
“Did she ever threaten you or anything like that?”
“Did you threaten her?”
Audrey studied the boy and then finally nodded. “I believe you.”
“Thanks.” He nodded at Gregory Pope. “Convince him.”
“Why did you guys break up?”
“I wanted to date somebody else.”
“Janet Lanni. You know her?”
“I don’t. I’m sure my son would recognize the name.”
Parker nodded agreeably. “You can ask him. She and I dated right after Rachel. Some people told me I moved on too quickly. I got the feeling others were saying that, too, behind my back. He might have heard something. Doesn’t that crush any motive for why I might have killed her?”
“It helps, possibly.” The detectives had either read the situation wrong or were just placating Pope by drilling the kid.
“So, let’s come now to the present. How often have you gotten together with Rachel since you broke up with her?”
“Have you been to any of the same parties or other social gatherings?”
“No, not in years.”
Audrey nodded as she stared at Parker’s bag.
“Do you have schoolbooks in there?”
“Can I take a peek?”
“Do I have to?”
“It’s completely at your option.”
“I prefer not to show you.”
Audrey nodded. “I’m only asking because those detectives are trying to think of a way to detain you. They could get a warrant or find probable cause to search your stuff. I can assure them there is nothing of interest if you show me, and you can probably be on your way a little faster.”
She nodded. “It’s up to you. I’m trying to make this as easy as possible.” Parker hesitated and then took off his backpack and tried to hand it to her.
Audrey hadn’t expected this to work, and she immediately recognized she’d better not contaminate any potential evidence. “If you could just hold it open and move things around at my direction, that would be great.”
Parker did as she asked. It wasn’t long before he was slipping the backpack over his shoulder. Audrey had found nothing of consequence. A hat. A statistics textbook. An anatomy lab workbook. A tablet.
“You believe me?”
Audrey nodded. “Yes.”
“So can I go?”
“Yes, but could you stay? I have a few more questions still. Can you tell me more about what you’re doing here today?”
“I was just taking a break from school. I like this park. I come here to think.”
Audrey frowned. She was convinced this was not the whole truth.
A thought occurred to her.
“Have you seen Rachel in this park before?”
Bingo. He still has a thing for her.
“Yes,” he said guardedly.
“Did you come to see her?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“You’re not denying it.”
“I’m not admitting it.”
Audrey nodded. “Stalking is not murder, Parker.”
“You think I was stalking her?”
The boy was getting defensive. Audrey was confident she was on to something. She just didn’t think it would take her to the murderer.
“That’s insane. I was just… I wasn’t stalking her.”
“Are you currently seeing anybody?”
Parker looked like he didn’t want to answer. “No.”
“Did you want to get back together with Rachel?”
Parker thought about it, and from what Audrey could tell, he was giving the question serious thought.
“I don’t think so,” he said at last. “The relationship we had was just okay. I’ve had better relationships. Not to speak ill of the dead, I certainly wouldn’t say anything bad about her. She just wasn’t a good fit for me. I wasn’t a good fit for her.”
“Were you interested in a fling?”
The boy hesitated again, and she knew she had it figured out.
“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? A fling, not a relationship.”
Parker closed his eyes. “She’s an attractive woman, okay?”
“How bad did you want her?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you ever try to force yourself on her?”
Audrey was back to believing the boy. She was certain now that she’d ferreted out the thing he’d wanted to hide.
“Did you see anybody else you know here today?”
Parker shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Have you seen anybody she might know?”
“I doubt it.”
“What time did you get here?”
“I don’t know, just after noon.”
“Where did you set up?”
“Over that way.” He pointed at some trees. “There’s some picnic tables on the south side by the parking lot. I set up there, eating a hamburger and drinking a Coke.”
“Did you hear screams?”
Parker paused. “No, I don’t think so. I was listening to music.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pair of headphones. “Noise-canceling. Best on the market. Set me back three hundred bucks. I was wearing these.”
“So you were hoping to run into Rachel, correct?”
Parker nodded. “Yes.”
“How often have you been coming here?”
“I don’t know, several weeks.”
“Did you approach her?”
“No, I came wanting somehow to run into her accidentally. I wanted it to be natural. I wasn’t trying to force it.”
“So, if Rachel screamed, you wouldn’t hear her?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You were just listening to music and watching the trail, hoping she ran by?”
“Actually, I was studying. I just kept hoping she might see me and stop. So far, she hadn’t noticed me.”
“What were you studying?”
“Statistics.” He pointed to the backpack. “You saw the book.”
“How did you become aware Rachel was dead?”
“Those detectives showed up. They asked for my name and if I knew Rachel Pope. I told them who I was and then said I knew her. They asked me to come with them.”
“Can I ask them over to confirm this?”
Audrey waved to the detectives, who approached. She confirmed Parker’s story and also learned Gregory Pope had followed behind them and recognized Parker.
“Can I get your contact information?” Audrey asked, giving him a friendly smile while pulling out her notepad, which she handed to him with a pen. He wrote his name and information.
“Here you go.”
Audrey reached for the pen and took it by the bottom and the notepad by the top. She was careful to keep them from touching anything else. Parker’s eyes narrowed when he saw how carefully she held the pen and paper. He looked like he might be worried about it but then gave a small shrug as if telling himself he had nothing to hide.
“Am I free to go?”
“Yes, thank you for cooperating. I appreciate it.”
Audrey waited until Parker was gone before turning to Ramirez while holding out the pen and paper. “I don’t know if that’s enough, but get it dusted to see if you get some prints.”
Ramirez was not impressed. “You’re just gonna let him walk away?”
Audrey nodded. “Can you think of a reason to hold him?”
“What was in his backpack?”
“Textbooks. A tablet computer. A phone. Some chewing gum. He also had some headphones in his pocket. No knives. No drugs. No weapons. Nothing sinister.” She thought about it. “I also didn’t see blood on him or his bag. It’s quite unlikely he could have stabbed Rachel without getting anything on him.” She nodded back at the blood on the trail where they’d found Rachel. It wasn’t as visible now that it had had time to dry. “The perp dragged her under that tree. I have a hard time believing Parker did that while remaining clean.”