Authors: Colleen Coble
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Suspense, #Mystery, #Adult, #ebook
“Great kids,” Bree said. She opened the hatch and grabbed her backpack then slung it on. “Emily about talked my leg off.”
“Mine, too. I stopped by the hospital first, but the doctor had released her so I went by the house. Have you been there?”
She shook her head. “I thought I’d stop over later in the week.”
He grimaced. “It’s a mess. I think young Emily has tried to be caretaker for the whole family since her mother ran off. She was trying to fix supper when I got there. Donovan invited me to eat with them. Lukewarm hot dogs and potato chips. There was a mountain of laundry on the back porch.”
“I’ve known Donovan a long time,” Naomi added. “He seems overwhelmed.”
“Poor kids,” Bree said. “Hey, maybe Naomi and I could stop over and get the place in order.”
“I’ve got a day off tomorrow. Could you use some help?”
Bree’s eyes widened. A man who wasn’t too proud to do house-work? Now that was an unusual fellow. She took another look at Kade. Broad-shouldered with a face weathered by the sun and wind, he seemed the type to be more at home in the garage than the kitchen. There must be more to the man than met the eye.
“How about we meet at the house after school, say, three o’clock? I don’t want to go in while Donovan is home. He seems to be as proud as Midas, though hardly as rich. I hear the hardware store is ailing. That’s probably why he hasn’t hired someone to help out.”
“He’s doing the best he can,” Naomi put in.
Naomi’s voice was a bit truculent, and Bree hid a grin. Her friend had it bad. She turned back to Kade. “Donovan seems pretty harried at the store.” Bree felt an unexpected wave of protectiveness toward Emily come over her. Bree remembered only too well the defeat she’d felt as a child trying to keep up with the housework when her mother was gone to the bars all night, and the shame she’d felt when someone from school would stop by.
“We’ll meet you at three then,” she told him. “Ready to find her, boys?” she asked the dogs. Twilight was coming, and she couldn’t wait any longer for Mason. Besides, Kade was here.
Samson barked at Bree as if to ask whom he was looking for. “Here, boys.” She opened the sack and held it under the dogs’ noses so they could sniff it. “Search!” she told them. The dogs bounded off toward a steep hill covered with vines and the small trunks of new-growth pine and birch.
Bree, Naomi, and Kade followed, trying to keep the dogs in sight. Bree loved to watch the dogs work. Samson paused in the meadow at the top of the hill and worked by zigzagging in a circle with his nose held high as he tried to catch the scent cone. He was focused and intent. Charley raced back and forth across the area in straight lines with his tail wagging, pausing occasionally to sniff out a rabbit. She could tell the moment they both caught the scent, and her heart sank.
Samson gave a little stiff-legged jump before tucking his tail between his legs. He raised his muzzle to the sky and howled, a mournful sound that raised the hair on the back of Bree’s neck. Charley hung his head and whimpered then urinated on the leaves. Both dogs trotted toward the scent, but their reluctance was obvious.
Bree looked at Naomi, whose eyes were wide with shock. “They’re wrong this time,” Bree said. “There’s always a first time.”
“What’s wrong?” Kade asked.
Bree didn’t answer. Adrenaline surging through her body, she followed the dogs through the tangle of overgrowth and brambles,
the wind driving the thorns against her legs. Eagle Rock was that direction. Even from here she could see the dark walls of the cliff jutting against the leaden sky. A creek ran through a thicket, and Bree splashed across the water. As she reached the other side, she heard Samson’s whimper turn into a howl. Then Charley’s howl joined Samson’s, and the mournful chorus confirmed what Bree and Naomi already knew. They wouldn’t find Fay Asters alive.
Stepping into the clearing at the foot of the cliff, Bree’s gaze swept the scene then reluctantly came to rest on the crumpled body at the cliff base. Her head twisted at an odd angle, Fay Asters lay on the ground, her purple jacket a bright splash of color on the drab rocks.
ason and his deputy arrived minutes after Fay’s body was discovered, and they immediately secured the scene. Kade left to report to headquarters. Bree studied the rocky ground as high up the side of the cliff as she could see. From here there didn’t seem to be any pitons in the rock face, but it was getting too dark to see. Moving closer caused bile to rise in her throat. No matter how many times she came face-to-face with death, it never failed to shock her. The strobe of the searchers’ lights cast a strange glow over the tragic picture. Something about Fay’s posture struck a wrong chord in Bree, but it was probably just the surreal experience of seeing Fay lying there when she’d been so alive this morning.
Bree kept her eyes downcast. What had Kade Matthews been doing out here? She told herself not to be ridiculous. This wasn’t murder; Fay had just slipped. And even if there were more to it than that, Kade wouldn’t have had anything to do with it. The sight of Fay’s sprawled body was enough to bring gruesome thoughts to anyone’s mind.
“Anything?” Naomi came up behind her. Both dogs trotted at her side.
“Not that I can see. I’m sure Mason will come back in the morning and look around when there’s more light. Not that I expect him to find anything. Fay evidently just slipped. I don’t see her backpack though.”
“Maybe wild animals dragged it off.”
Bree nodded then laid a hand on Samson’s head. “We should play with the dogs for a few minutes before we go back. They seem a little depressed.”
Naomi nodded. “You want to hide, or you want me to?”
“I will.” Bree gave Samson a final pat and hurried away to the path that led through the woods to the road. She hadn’t always played hide-and-seek with her dogs after a tragic ending to a search, but she found that Samson grew depressed if he lacked the feeling that he had succeeded. Now she or Naomi would hide a few times and let the dogs think they had found and rescued a live victim. Too bad such tricks couldn’t help Bree’s own growing sense of failure.
There were never guarantees at the end of any search, only hope. And too often that hope became twisted like a ship in the grip of a nor’easter until it broke apart in the waves of self-incriminating failure. But Bree determinedly clung to the hope of finding Davy’s body, having the peace of knowing he was not alone in the wilderness.
Spying a clump of thick brush near the road, she hurried over to hide in it. The dogs would find her soon, but that was the point. Once they were happy again, they could go home. Maybe she could watch some TV or read a book—something to forget the failure that mentally flogged her.
She heard the dogs scramble along the path, and only a few minutes later, both dogs began to bark and lick her face. Bree laughed and threw her arms around Samson’s neck.
“Good dog! You saved me.” But who would save her from herself? Anu and Naomi would say God, but that was a vain hope.
Naomi reached her and held out a hand to help Bree to her feet. Bree stood and brushed away the bits of twigs and mud clinging to her pants’ leg. “I’m beat. Let’s head for home. The dogs seem fine, and the sheriff can take care of everything else.”
Naomi nodded. “Popcorn and TV in front of the fire sound good to me. I’m freezing. You want to come over?”
Bree shook her head. “I wouldn’t be fit company. Besides, Lily and Palmer are keeping dinner warm for me.”
Naomi studied her face. “This isn’t your fault or responsibility, Bree. God will carry Steve through this.”
There it was, Naomi’s answer to every problem—a too-simple answer for Bree. If He cared so much, why was there war and death and deadly disease? Why did children like Davy die?
Bree hunched her shoulders and turned away. “Let’s go. I’m freezing.”
“Bree—” Naomi began.
Both dogs began to howl, then they slunk toward the road. Bree’s head came up, and she wheeled to look. This didn’t sound good. She ran after her dog. Samson neared the pavement then veered to the right. Giving a stiff-legged jump, he began to howl then crouched in the leaves. Bree’s breath came fast. The full moon illuminated the clearing a bit, and she hurried to join her dog. Charley was piddling on the leaves again too, his head down.
“What is it, boy?” Bree put a calming hand on the dog’s head, but Samson continued to howl, a mournful sound in the cold air. There was a death scent here too, but Fay lay clear over by the cliffs. How was this possible? The moon glimmered around her, and she noticed the dim light reflected on a large rock. Was that something wet? Kneeling beside Samson, she touched the patch of moisture. It was sticky. Raising her fingers closer to her face, she peered at the substance clinging to her fingertips. The coppery odor told her it was blood.
“What is it?” Naomi knelt beside her.
Bree wordlessly held out her hand. Naomi stared then sucked in her breath. She stood and went to the bottom of the cliff. “Sheriff! Over here!”
Bree frowned. Opening her ready-pack, she dug out a flashlight and flicked it on. The powerful beam probed the darkness, and she focused the light on the rock. Her frown deepened. Was that hair? She
started to touch it but drew back. The sheriff would have her hide if she mucked up the investigation.
“You find something?” Huffing from his run, Mason hurried toward them.
Bree pointed to the rock. “Looks like hair and blood. And both dogs gave a death response.”
Mason’s mouth gaped, then he shut it with a snap. “A death response? What’s that mean?”
“This is Fay’s hair and blood. Her dead body lay here at some time.”
The sheriff’s professionalism slipped into place. “Back away from the site.” He turned and cupped his hand to his mouth. “Montgomery, come here. And bring Rollo with you.” He shone his flashlight on the rock. “Focus your beam here too, Bree. I want to get a good look at this. We can’t be going off half-cocked. Let’s think about this a minute, eh?”
She aimed her flashlight beam at the rock. Naomi did the same. It sure looked like hair and blood to her. She looked away. Samson was still distressed, whining and fidgeting to get away. He had begun to eat grass as well, and Bree knew he was nauseated.
Doug Montgomery, one of Rock Harbor’s deputies, came lumbering up the trail. He was a big man, though he wore his weight well, and most people stepped out of the way when he approached. Rollo Wilson, the county coroner, followed him. About forty, Rollo always wore an expression of perpetual surprise, as though life was not what he’d expected. But he was good at his job.
Rollo grunted. “Looks like hair and blood,” he said.
“Bree says the dogs gave a death response here.”
Rollo’s eyebrows went even higher. “What’s that mean?”
“The dogs say this evidence was left by Fay’s dead body.”
A ghost of a grin crossed Rollo’s face. “I didn’t know they could talk.”
Bree didn’t laugh. “They can talk, all right. Just look at them.”
She gestured toward Samson and Charley. The muzzles of both dogs drooped nearly to the ground, and they were still whimpering with their tails tucked between their hind legs.
Rollo snorted. “I think we’ll see what science has to say before we accept such nonsense.” He took a plastic bag from his coat pocket and tweezed off some hair then applied the blood to glass slides. “My lab will tell the real story.”
Bree gritted her teeth. Rollo was just ignorant of how sensitive these dogs were. She turned to Mason. “This makes no sense.”
“Something sure doesn’t smell right,” Mason admitted.
The silence between them stretched out. There was only one answer, but Bree didn’t want to be the first to voice it. She shuddered.
Rollo sat back then stood. “Explain this to me, Bree. Tell me how these dogs work.”
Bree’s gaze wandered to the dark woods. “Every human scent is different. The skin gives off dead skin cells called rafts. We each shed about forty thousand of them per minute. Every tiny raft has its own bacteria and releases its own vapor that makes up the unique scent each of us carries. When the body is dead, the scent is the same, but it has the scent of decay mixed in. That’s what the dogs smell. They can’t lie; they just report what they smell. Fay lay here dead at some point.”
Rollo snorted again. “This hair and blood could very well be that of a deer or some other animal.” He gathered up the evidence and walked toward the parking lot. “I’ll have some results in a few days. In the meantime, I would suggest you don’t go running around town talking about some murderer loose on the streets of Rock Harbor. We don’t want a panic.”
He was right about that, even if he was wrong about the hair and blood. The dogs wouldn’t react like this to an animal’s remains. Samson didn’t know how to lie, and Bree trusted her dog’s nose. He was reacting to the search scent, not a dead animal.
They all trooped single-file down the path. Fay’s body had been
removed, and the parking lot held only their cars—and Fay’s. The sheriff’s bubble-gum lights were still flashing, and Bree was glad for that bit of light. There was a murderer out there, no matter what the coroner said.
What was Kade doing out here?
Bree wondered again. He was a ranger, after all. What was so suspicious about him being in the woods? Still, it seemed too coincidental for him to appear just before they found the body.
She put her hand on Mason’s arm. “Um, just so you know, Kade Matthews was here poking around in the bush when we arrived. He is a ranger and all, so that shouldn’t make him an automatic suspect, but I thought you should know.”
Mason’s gaze grew thoughtful. “I see. I’ve known Kade a long time. I can’t see him doing something like this. Besides, let’s not jump to conclusions. It’s probably a climbing accident.”
Bree knew it was hard for others to trust the dogs as she did. She didn’t try to argue with him. Dropping her arm, she started to get in her Jeep.
Mason stopped her. “I could use some help telling the family,” he said.
Bree put up a hand and leaned against the Cherokee. “I’m no good at that, Mason. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end. Take Naomi.”