Authors: Robert Dugoni
Tags: #Romance, #Mystery, #Contemporary, #Thriller, #Suspense
Tracy took the familiar exit, made a left at the “Stop” sign, and a minute later turned onto Market Street. She stopped at downtown Cedar Grove’s one and only traffic light and contemplated what had once been her hometown, but which now looked so tired and worn that it was foreign to her.
Tracy stuffed her change into the front pocket of her jeans, grabbed her popcorn and Coke from the counter, and looked about the theater lobby, but she didn’t see Sarah.
Saturday mornings when Hutchins’ Theater had a new movie, their mother gave Tracy six dollars, three dollars each for her and Sarah. The movie was $1.50, which left change for popcorn and a drink, or to buy an ice cream at the mercantile store after the show.
“Where’s Sarah?” Tracy asked. At eleven, Tracy was responsible for Sarah, though she’d recently relented to Sarah’s desire to carry her own movie money. Tracy had noticed that Sarah had not bought popcorn or a drink and had pocketed the extra $1.50. Now she was nowhere to be seen, which was not untypical.
Dan O’Leary pushed thick, black-framed glasses back onto the bridge of his nose, a persistent habit. “I don’t know,” he said, looking about the lobby. “She was just here.”
“Who cares?” Sunnie Witherspoon had her popcorn and was waiting by the swinging doors to enter the darkened theater. “She always does this. Let’s go. We’re going to miss the previews.”
Tracy liked to say Sunnie and Sarah had a love-hate relationship. Sarah loved to bug Sunnie and Sunnie hated it. “I can’t just leave her, Sunnie.” She asked Dan, “Did she go to the bathroom?”
“I can go look.” Dan took two steps before the realization hit. “Wait. No, I can’t.”
Mr. Hutchins leaned his forearms on the counter. “I’ll tell her you all went in and send her in, Tracy. You kids go on in so you don’t miss the previews. I got the trailer for
“Come on, Tracy,” Sunnie whined.
Tracy took a final look about the lobby. It would be just like Sarah to miss the previews. Maybe she’d learn a lesson. “Okay, thanks, Mr. Hutchins.”
“I can carry your soda,” Dan said. His hands were empty. His parents only gave him enough money for the movie.
Tracy handed him the drink and used her free hand to cup the popcorn and keep it from spilling as she walked. Mr. Hutchins always filled her and Sarah’s boxes until they overflowed. Tracy knew it had something to do with her father taking care of Mrs. Hutchins, who had lots of medical problems on account of her diabetes.
“It’s about time,” Sunnie said. “I’ll bet all the good seats are taken.”
Sunnie used her back to push open the swinging door and Tracy and Dan followed her in. The lights were out, and when the door shut, Tracy had to pause to let her eyes adjust to the dark. She heard kids already in their seats laughing and calling out names, eager for Mr. Hutchins to climb into the booth and start the projector. A couple parents were trying unsuccessfully to shush them. Tracy loved everything about Saturdays at Hutchins’ Theater, from the smell of the butter-flavored popcorn to its maroon carpet and velvet seats with the threadbare armrests.
Sunnie was halfway down the aisle when Tracy saw the shadow lurking behind a row of seats, too late to warn her before Sarah sprang her surprise.
Sunnie let loose a bloodcurdling scream that silenced the theater. What followed was an equally recognizable laugh.
“Sarah!” Tracy yelled.
“What is wrong with you!” Sunnie shouted.
The lights in the theater burst on, bringing a chorus of booing. Mr. Hutchins hurried down the aisle, looking worried. Popcorn littered the worn carpet alongside Sunnie’s discarded red-and-white-striped box.
“It was Sarah,” Sunnie said. “She scared me on purpose.”
“No, I didn’t,” Sarah said. “You just didn’t see me.”
“She was hiding, Mr. Hutchins. And she did it on purpose. She always does this.”
“I do not,” Sarah said.
Mr. Hutchins looked to Sarah, but rather than get mad, Tracy thought he looked like he was trying not to smile. “Sunnie, why don’t you go back up and ask Mrs. Hutchins for another box of popcorn?” He raised his hands. “Sorry folks, just a bit of a delay while I get the sweeper. Only take a minute.”
“No, Mr. Hutchins.” Tracy looked to Sarah. “Sarah, you get the sweeper and clean it up.”
“Why do I have to clean it up?”
“Because you made the mess.”
“Uh-uh, Sunnie did.”
“You clean it up.”
“You’re not the boss of me.”
“Mom put me in charge. So you clean it up, or I’ll tell Mom and Dad that you’ve been keeping the money Mom gives you for popcorn and ice cream.”
Sarah scrunched her nose and shook her face. “Fine.” She turned to go, stopped, and said, “Sorry, Mr. Hutchins. I’ll clean it fast.” Then she ran up the aisle and shoved open the door. “Hey, Mrs. Hutchins, I need the sweeper!”
“Sorry, Mr. Hutchins,” Tracy said. “I’ll tell my mom and dad what she did.”
“No need to do that, Tracy,” he said. “I think you handled it very maturely, and I think Sarah learned her lesson. That’s just our Sarah, right? She does keep things interesting around here.”
“Sometimes too interesting,” Tracy said. “We’re trying to get her to stop.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “It’s what makes Sarah, Sarah.”
A horn honked. Tracy glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a man in the cab of a weathered truck pointing at the overhead signal. The light had turned green.
She drove past the movie theater, but the marquee was now pocked with rock holes and the windows that had advertised the feature attraction and upcoming movies boarded over with plywood. A breeze swirled newspaper and debris in the recessed area behind the ticket booth. The rest of the one- and two-story brick and stone buildings of downtown Cedar Grove were in similar distress. “For Lease” signs filled half the windows. In another, a Chinese buffet, which had replaced the Five ‘n’ Dime, advertised a $6.00 lunch special on a piece of cardboard. A thrift store had replaced Fred Digasparro’s barbershop, though the red-and-white spiral pole remained fixed to the wall. A café advertised espresso drinks beneath faded letters whitewashed across the brick façade of what had been Kaufman’s Mercantile Store.
Tracy turned right onto Second Avenue. Halfway up the block, she pulled into the parking lot. The black stenciled letters on the glass door to the Cedar Grove Sheriff’s Office had not changed or faded, but she had no illusions about this homecoming.
racy showed her badge to the deputy seated at the desk inside the glass doors and told him she was with the group from Seattle. He did not hesitate to direct her to the conference room down the hall.
“I know the way,” she said.
When she opened the door to the windowless room, the conversation abruptly stopped. A uniformed deputy stood at the head of the wooden table, marker in hand, topographical map pinned to a cork board behind him. Roy Calloway sat closest to the door, eyebrows inched together and looking worried. On the opposite side of the table, Kelly Rosa, a forensic anthropologist from Seattle, sat along with Bert Stanley and Anna Coles, volunteers from the Washington State Patrol’s Crime Scene Response Team. Tracy had worked multiple homicides with them.
Tracy didn’t wait for an invitation to enter, knowing it wouldn’t come. “Chief,” she said, which was what everyone in Cedar Grove called Calloway, though technically he was the sheriff.
Calloway stood from the table as Tracy stepped past his chair and slipped off her corduroy jacket, revealing her shoulder holster and the badge clipped to her belt. “What do you think you’re doing?”
She draped her jacket over the back of a chair. “Let’s not do this dance, Roy.”
He stepped toward her, straightening to his full height. Intimidation had always been his staple. To a young girl, Roy Calloway could be terrifying, but Tracy was no longer young or easily intimidated.
“I agree, let’s
do this. So, if you’re here on police business, you’re out of your jurisdiction. If—”
“I’m not here as a police officer,” she said. “But I’d appreciate a professional courtesy.”
“Can’t do it.”
“Roy, you know I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the integrity of a crime scene.”
Calloway shook his head. “You’re not going to get that chance.”
The others looked on, uncertainty etched on their faces.
“Then I’m asking you for a favor . . . as a friend of my father’s.”
Calloway’s blue eyes narrowed. His brow furrowed. Tracy knew she’d struck a deep wound, one that had never healed. Calloway and her father had hunted and fished together, and her father had cared for Calloway’s aging parents before they died. The two men had also borne the guilt and the burden of being unable to find Sarah.
Calloway pointed a finger at her like he’d done when she was a kid riding her bike on the sidewalk. “You’ll stay out of the way. If I tell you to leave, you will leave. Do we understand one another?”
Tracy was in no position to tell him she’d investigated more murders in a year than he’d investigated his entire career. “We do.”
Calloway gave her a lingering glare before returning his attention to his deputy. “Go on, Finlay,” he said, and retook his seat.
The deputy, whose badge read “Armstrong,” took a moment to regain his train of thought before returning his attention to the topographical map. “This is where they found the body.” He drew an
where the two hunters had apparently stumbled across the remains.
“That can’t be,” Tracy said.
Armstrong turned from the map, looking uncertain. He glanced at Calloway.
“I said, go on, Finlay.”
“There’s an access road here,” Armstrong continued. “It was cut for a development.”
Tracy said, “That’s the old Cascadia property.”
Calloway’s jaw muscles tensed. “Continue, Finlay.”
“The site is about half a mile from the access road,” Finlay said, sounding less certain. “We’ve set a perimeter here.” He drew another small
The grave itself is shallow, maybe a couple feet. Now—”
“Wait,” Rosa said, lifting her head from taking notes. “Hold on. Did you say the grave was
“Well, the foot wasn’t very deep.”
“And the grave looked to you otherwise undisturbed?” Rosa asked. “I mean other than where the dog had dug.”
“Looked that way; I suppose it could just be a leg and foot.”
“Why do you ask?” Calloway asked.
“The glacial till in the Pacific Northwest is rock hard,” Rosa said. “It makes digging a grave very difficult, particularly in this type of terrain, which I’m assuming has an extensive root system. I’m not surprised the grave is shallow. What is surprising is that no other animals have disturbed it before now.”
Tracy spoke to Rosa. “That area was just starting to be developed into a golf and tennis resort to be called Cascadia. They’d cleared some of the trees and brought in temporary trailers to use as a sales office to pre-sell the lots. You remember that body we found out in Maple Valley a few years back?”
Rosa nodded and directed her question to Armstrong. “Could the body have been buried in a hole created from a tree uprooted during the development?”
“I don’t know,” Armstrong said, shaking his head and looking confused.
“What difference does that make?” Calloway asked.
“For one, it could be indicative of a premeditated act,” Tracy said. “If someone knew the area was being developed, they could have planned to use the hole.”
“Why would a killer use a hole in a place that he knew was going to be developed?” Rosa asked.
“Because he also knew the development was never going to be built,” Tracy said. “It was a big story around here. The resort was going to have a big impact on the local economy and make Cedar Grove a vacation destination. The developer submitted land use applications for a golf course and tennis resort, but shortly thereafter the Federal Energy Commission approved the construction of three hydroelectric dams across the Cascade River.” Tracy stood, walked to the front of the room, and held out her hand for Finlay’s marker. The deputy hesitated before handing it to her. She drew a line. “Cascade Falls was the last dam to go online. That was mid-October, 1993. When it did, the river backed up and the lake’s perimeter expanded.” She drew the lake’s new perimeter. “It flooded that area.”