Mary Burton THE DOLLMAKER cover image

Virginia State Police Agent Dakota Sharp, leaving the scene of a bizarre homicide, is surprised by a call from his estranged wife, pathologist Tessa McGowan.

Back at his car, Sharp slid behind the wheel and turned on the engine. He clicked the heater to high, anxious to drive the bone-deep chill from his body. For a moment he sat in the silence, watching as the body-removal team arrived and worked their stretcher through the tall grass toward the creek.

He reached for his phone to check messages. The first two were on existing cases. A witness had called the station and wanted to talk. Another was from the commonwealth’s attorney regarding another case. And the third—for a moment he sat still, staring at the name. Tessa McGowan. His wife, or more accurately, his estranged wife, had called a half hour ago. No doubt she was finally ready to file papers.

He fished out a cigarette and a silver lighter from his pocket. He lit the tip. Scents of tobacco mingled with trepidation. He inhaled twice before he played back the message.

“Dakota, this is Tessa. Hey, I’m back in Richmond, and I’d like to see you. Maybe we could meet for coffee. You’ve got my number. Thanks.”

Her tone held a tentative edge, betraying a nervousness that told him she was uncomfortable making the call. Shit, in the early days of their relationship, they’d been totally at ease with each other. Back then, if either were restless, it was because they wanted to get the other naked and into bed.

But the detachment that enabled him to deal with death had made him a shitty husband. When he withdrew, Tessa had tried to talk to him, but he never could bring himself to open up. Toward the end, she was all but begging him to communicate.

He stared at the glowing tip of his cigarette, suddenly irritated by the strain and distance in her voice. He listened to the message again as he opened his car door and stubbed the cigarette into the dirt.

At least she had called rather than texted. Anyone who texted tough conversations was a chickenshit.

Drawing in a breath, he called her. On the third ring, his call landed in her voice mail. “This is Tessa. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

Bubbly, upbeat, and no signs of stress in the recording. That tone fit the memories of the woman he’d once loved. Hell, still loved. He missed that voice. That Tessa.

At the beep he spoke succinctly. “Tessa. It’s Dakota. I can meet you today at the coffeehouse next to the station. Two o’clock.”

He ended the call giving her no room to negotiate. If she really wanted to talk to him about filing divorce papers—the only reason he attributed to the call—she would do it at his convenience. He’d made it easy for her to leave him, but right now he didn’t feel like making this easy.

He started the car and was backing out onto the road when his phone pinged with a text. It was from Tessa. See you then.

The typed response must underscore her dread. She’d known that this time when she called, the probability of him answering was high. She needed to communicate, but she wasn’t eager to talk.

As much as Sharp wanted to bust Tessa for the text, he couldn’t, because he didn’t want to discuss the final stages of their marriage either.

He put the car in drive and texted: Understood.

Copyright ©Mary Burton 2016