Sheriff Bowman, a big graying man about her sister's age, nodded in acknowledgement and crossed the room, extending both hands in greeting.
"Crystal." His warm hands engulfed hers. His eyes seemed sad as he asked in a low voice, "What have you heard about Iris?"
Considering the way he had argued with Iris the night Mama died, his present show of concern surprised Crystal. Now he seemed caring, comforting, even protective. She fought against a surge of childlike trust, reminding herself he was the adversary; she couldn't let her guard down at every little show of sympathy. "Nothing yet," she said in answer to his question.
He let go of her hand and lightly touched the back of her shoulder. "We have the paramedic's report."
The slight pressure of the sheriff's hand on her shoulder guided her deeper into the room. He talked in a low voice as they walked. "We've searched outside for signs of a struggle or forced entry into the house. All we found was the window you broke to get in. What happened?"
Against her better judgment, she responded to his sympathetic demeanor. "I arrived at Iris's a little after four and knocked on the front door several times. When Iris didn't answer, I tried the door, but she keeps it locked, so I went around back and knocked. When she still didn't answer, I looked in the kitchen window and saw her lying on the floor." The memory of the awful things she had been saying and thinking about her sister just before she saw Iris on the floor came flooding back.
Her throat constricted and she blinked back tears. Then she felt the appraising eyes of the men on her and forced herself to go on. "She didn't move. That's when I broke the window and—"
Fred interrupted. "That window's stuck, and we can't get through the frame. It's too small." He scowled at her as though that were somehow her fault.
Ben shot a frown in Fred's direction before turning his attention back to her. "Go on," he said.
She fingered the black smudge on the skirt of her ruined dress, focusing on the spot until her emotions calmed. "I thought she'd had a stroke. I called for an ambulance, and then did what the man on the phone told me to do. That's when I saw the marks on her neck, the ones the paramedic said looked like rope burns."
Fred's eyebrows shot up. "He said you—"
Ben raised his hand in warning. "I want to hear Crystal's view of these events."
Not accepting Ben's attempt to silence him, Fred continued, "Could she talk? Did she say anything?"
Crystal shuddered. Fred's eyebrows grew across his nose in a straight line, giving his face a feral expression that made her stomach churn. He was the predator; she, the prey. A sour taste filled her mouth, and she fought down the nausea. "No. Iris's eyes were open, but glassy, staring, like she didn't see anything. Her breathing was raspy and labored—" She broke off, overwhelmed again by the memory of those moments of discovery and fear for Iris's life.
Fred leaned toward her, relentless in his questioning. "Did you see anyone leave?"
"And the doors were all locked?" Fred continued.
"Yes." She bit back a caustic remark about Fred's apparent faulty memory. They had covered this ground. What was this jackal up to? She looked at Carter. The way he leaned forward, eagerly awaiting the next question, made her think he knew where Fred was heading.
"Fred's trying to figure out how someone could have gotten out and left the house locked," Ben explained. "Can the lock be set from the inside so the door will lock when you pull it shut?"
"The front door, yes. You need a key for the back."
Fred's eyes gleamed triumphantly. "You have a key, don't you?" he asked, his voice thick with insinuation.
Her head began to throb. "Of course, I have a key, but I don't carry it with me. Iris is always home." She pressed her fingertips to her temples. Dear God, it wasn't suicide Fred suspected; he thought someone had attacked Iris—and not just any someone—Hers was probably the first and only name on his list.
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