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Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal

Tags: #Cozy Mystery

Salvaged to Death

BOOK: Salvaged to Death
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Table of Contents
 Prologue
 

“Fine, I won’t go.”

“Do what you want. It’s your life.”

“If only that were true.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know exactly what it means, Victoria. You’re not content unless you’re controlling me.”

“Content? Content? Oh, that’s great, Gideon. Great word. Yes, I’m really
content
with my husband running off to the middle of nowhere every weekend.”

“I invited you along,” Gideon said.

Victoria snorted. “Because you knew I wouldn’t come. Why would I want to sleep in the middle of the woods and fish all day?”

“Sadie likes it,” Gideon said.

“Of course she does because she knows nothing different.”

“I said I wouldn’t go,” Gideon snapped, his tone terse.

“What does it matter if you go this weekend or not? You’ll still find some way to shove a fishing pole or gun into her hands. I have no chance with her. You’ve ruined her.”

“It’s not my fault that Sadie hates dolls and dresses,” Gideon said.

“It’s exactly your fault! I have more chance of making Luke a girl than I do Sadie. I just wanted a little girl to do things with, and you’ve taken that away from me, along with everything else.”

“What would make you happy, Victoria? To dress Sadie up in one of those poufy dresses she hates, stick a doll in her hands, and make her stare at you adoringly all day?”

“No. You know what would make me happy? If you cut a hole in your vest tomorrow and died, Gideon.”

Sadie couldn’t take anymore. Her parents suffered under the delusion that the walls and doors in their house were soundproof, but she heard every word. Always. They were like warring rattlesnakes, constantly searching for a vulnerable underbelly to strike. She eased out of bed and through the window, not bothering to disguise her absence. If they checked on her, they would know where she went.

The Sawyers kept a bucket on the back porch. Sadie retrieved it, climbed up, and opened Luke’s window. The front door was unlocked, but she never used it at night. Lately the grownups had been making noise about no more sleepovers. Luke didn’t understand why. Sadie was starting to, and she was horrified by the implications.

Luke was asleep, his lips making a puffing sound as air escaped. She stood over him for a moment, envious of his peaceful rest. He sensed her staring and jolted awake.

“Sadie?” he said, his voice thick with sleep.

“No, it’s the tooth fairy. I’m running out of teeth and I’ve come to take some by force.”

He blinked up at her, his brown eyes rounded with confusion and worry. “What’s wrong?”

“You’ve been having bad dreams,” she said.

His eyes widened farther. “How did you know?”

She shrugged, but it was a sure bet Luke always had bad dreams. While he was awake, he worried about everything. Those anxious thoughts wouldn’t end when he was unconscious. “I thought I would come over and keep them away.”

“All right,” he said and watched while she retrieved his sleeping bag and spread it on the floor. “You want Mr. Twinkles?” He held out his favorite stuffed animal to her, a star he’d had since birth.

“Nah, I’ll take Bangles.” She reached for his stuffed dog. He didn’t actually like the toy, but he slept with it every night, nonetheless. In fact he slept with all his stuffed animals out of fear that he would hurt their feelings by excluding them. Unlike Sadie who stuffed her creepy doll collection in the closet. Her mother insisted on buying the pricy porcelain things, but Sadie always felt like they were staring at her.

She lay down and clutched the dog close. Tears rushed to her eyes. She pressed them back. They pricked at her eyelids, trying to burn their way to freedom. She wouldn’t give in. Aunt Abby said strong women didn’t cry; they handled their problems. They didn’t wait for someone to rescue them; they rescued themselves. Sadie wanted to be strong; she wanted to prove to everyone that she was tough. She counted to a hundred, forcing the tears back a step with every number.

“Sadie,” Luke whispered after a few minutes.

“What?”

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what?”

“I don’t know. I’m just afraid.”

“Do you want me to come up there?” Sadie asked.

“Our parents don’t want us to,” Luke reminded her.

“That’s because they think we’re going to kiss,” Sadie said.

He sprang up from the bed, his hair in disarray. “What? That’s disgusting. Why would they think that?”

Sadie shrugged as she stood and shoved him aside. “I don’t know. Apparently that’s what grownups do when they’re left alone together for more than five minutes.”

“My parents don’t.”

“That’s because they’re married. It doesn’t happen after you’re married, only before.”

“Yuck, I’m never doing that,” Luke said. He scooted close to the wall and gave Mr. Twinkles a furious hug.

“You probably will,” Sadie said. “It happens to everyone.”

“Not with you,” he said.

“No, not with me. Ew. Don’t make me throw up in your bed.”

“Who do you think?”

“Who do I think what?”

“Who do you think I’ll have to kiss?” Luke asked. He sounded worried. “Because I don’t want to have to kiss any of the girls in our class, either.”

“Maybe it’ll be someone you don’t know,” Sadie said.

“Well, whoever it is, I’m going to make her brush her teeth first.”

“Probably a good idea,” Sadie said. Luke was obsessed with germs. He yawned, and a few minutes later he was asleep. Once again Sadie envied him. And once again the tears came unbidden. She pressed them back. One broke free. She sniffled and squeezed her eyes tightly together. She wouldn’t cry. She
wouldn’t
.

Then an amazing thing happened. In his sleep, Luke turned and slung an arm over her waist. In normal circumstances, Sadie would have shoved him off. Before she could jab him for crossing the invisible line, she realized that her tears were gone. They had evaporated, as if by magic. Not only were her tears gone, but she felt better—good, even. She turned to stare at Luke. What had just happened? Between them, she was the strong one, the comforter, the leader. She took care of him; that’s the way it was, the way it had always been. He wasn’t a crybaby, but he cried more than she did. And she always comforted him, always. She was the only person who could make him laugh in the midst of tears. She prided herself on that, on being the strong one. She was nine and brave; this wasn’t how things were supposed to work.

After a moment of holding herself stiffly away from him, resenting his unconscious soothing, she relaxed. Luke had no idea she was upset, no idea she was crying, no idea he was helping in some magical way. What if she allowed it just for tonight? What if she stopped being brave and strong and let him be the comforter, just this once? He would never know.

She tested the new situation by resting her head against his shoulder. It felt safe, like sitting on Gideon’s lap. A few tears leaked out, and she let them. She wouldn’t sob and blubber, but maybe she could cry a little, maybe she could relieve some of the constant pressure that ached her chest. Just this once, just tonight she would pretend Luke could make everything okay. Tomorrow she would be strong again. She turned toward Luke and nestled closer. A few minutes later, she was asleep.

Chapter 1
 

 

“You did this on purpose.”

“I didn’t.”

“You did, Sadie. I told you not to try to fix the duct yourself, and you wouldn’t listen.”

“The sound has been driving me crazy,” Sadie said. “I fit in here perfectly; the plan was flawless.”

“Then why are we stuffed in here like biscuits in a can?” Luke asked.

“Don’t talk about food. I’m starving.”

“You should have thought about that before you shimmied in here.” The duct over her office had lost a bolt and squeaked every time the air flowed. Sadie had been convinced she could slide in and secure it. She probably would have been successful if her hair hadn’t become stuck. The plan had been for Luke to scoot in and untangle her. In his quest to reach her, he had reached farther and farther until they both became hopelessly wedged in the small space.

“Please lecture me while you’re crushing the air from my lungs, Luke. It’s so much fun.”

He became tired of trying to hold his head up and let it drop onto her shoulder. “Shut up.”

“Good comeback.”

“Do you think there are spiders in here?”

“Do spiders like dark, dusty spaces?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said, shuddering.

“Take comfort in the fact that you’re sweating so much that they’ve probably all drowned,” Sadie said. She squinted as another drop of sweat rolled off his forehead and plopped onto hers. “It’s too bad we’ve taken kissing off the table. It would be the perfect boredom buster for this situation when there’s nothing else to do. It’s the perfect time to practice.”

“Practice,” he repeated. “Why would anyone practice kissing?”

“Kissing is a skill that requires practice, like anything else.”

“I don’t believe in kissing a woman I’m not attached to,” Luke said.

“We’re fairly attached right now,” she mused.

“That’s so funny my girlfriend forgot to laugh.”

“Maybe she forgot to laugh, but she didn’t forget how to pound jalapeno poppers,” Sadie said. Vaslilssa had recently discovered a deep love for American junk food—the more oil and fat, the better.

“Don’t start,” he said.

“I’m just saying that it’s a good thing she’s so freakishly tall because she’ll have plenty of places to store the inevitable popper pounds,” Sadie said.

“You’re jealous,” he accused.

“Of course I am. I eat one popper and have to double my workouts. She decimates the jalapeno population of the southwest and can still easily fit into her size fourteen shoes.”


Sadie.


Luke.
” She imitated his tone and turned her head when another sweat droplet plopped onto her face. “You know, if you worked out once in a while, you might not sweat to the point of dehydration from lying still.”

“Don’t be cranky with me. If you didn’t insist on getting me wedged in a metal box, I probably wouldn’t sweat at all.”

They lay in silence a few minutes. Sadie
was
cranky, and not just because she was hungry and stuck in a duct. She couldn’t put a finger on the reason for her bad mood lately, and that annoyed her even more. She wasn’t normally a mopey, angry person. By all rights, she should have been happy. She loved living with Abby and Luke. Work was going well—not enough to make her rich, but enough to pay most of the bills. For the first time in a long time, she was energized by her job. There was nothing she liked better than sinking her teeth into investigations, even the little ones. Things with her father were holding steady, but Sadie still wasn’t happy. Why?

“You got another letter, didn’t you?” Luke asked.

“Don’t be crazy,” Sadie said. She tried to squirm away, but there was nowhere to go.

“Sade, I’m three centimeters from your face. Don’t lie to me. You got another letter from Ben.”

“Yes, I got another letter and, yes, I turned it over to the attorney. He’ll get another slap on the wrist and even more time for violating the protection order. It’s not that big of a deal, Luke.”

“A psychotic serial killer is writing you love letters; it’s a huge deal.”

“I know this is difficult for you to comprehend, but the letters make me feel secure. They mean I know where he is. The worst he can do to me is to send me a few notes now. Who cares? They’re not even scary. He talks about the weather and literature. No biggie.”

“I don’t care what’s in them, and I don’t care that you’re brave. They freak me out and always will.” He pressed his face to her neck.

“What are you doing?”

“Comforting you.”

“With your lips?” she asked.

“They’re the only part of me that’s mobile for the moment,” he said.

“You licked me.”

“It was an accident,” he said.

“You are a liar and a hypocrite, Lucas Sawyer, but your lips are delightful.”

His delightful lips curved into a smile on her neck. “Sadie Cooper, ladies and gentlemen, queen of the backhanded compliment.”

“Lucas Sawyer, ladies and gentlemen, his girlfriend can eat her body weight in fried cheese.”

“Leave Vaslilssa out of this.”

“I wish I could,” Sadie said and
ping!
She finally understood her bad mood of late. She groaned. Luke’s frown changed imperceptibly from irritation to concern.

“What is it? Does something hurt? Are you numb?”

No, I’m jealous.
He occasionally accused her of being jealous, but she had never believed it. Now the ugly truth was staring at her; she was jealous of Vaslilssa. How humiliating.

“What is wrong with you?” Luke tried again.

Maybe she should tell him. Maybe she should blurt the truth of her jealousy and increasingly complex feelings for him. What if he was in the same place? What if he broke up with Vaslilssa and they were together? Was she ready for that? Were they ready for that? She swallowed past her painfully dry throat. “Luke, I…”

“Hello? Sadie? Luke?”

“Hal,” Sadie and Luke chorused together. His voice grew closer as he entered the office.

“God? You sound amazingly like my best friends,” Hal said. He must be standing directly beneath them now, but they were wedged so far in the duct that they weren’t visible.

“We’re in the heating duct,” Luke said.

“Luke, you’re not supposed to tell the seeker where you’re hiding. That ruins the game,” Hal said.

“I think I find you more amusing when my diaphragm isn’t compressed,” Luke said.

“No you don’t,” Hal replied. “Hold on—I’ll climb in and get you guys.”

“No, you’ll get stuck, too!” Luke yelled. Sadie rolled her eyes. It was uncanny to her that Hal and Luke had been friends for so long and yet Luke still didn’t get Hal’s sense of humor. She had gotten it from their first meeting.

“He’s joking,” Sadie said.

“That looks cozy,” Hal said, his voice echoing around them as his head popped through the hole of the duct. “Are you sure you want me to get you out? Maybe Luke could come out and I could come in as his replacement, sort of a tag team thing.”

“Or maybe you could stand there and make jokes while my lower extremities slowly die,” Luke said.

“Heating duct Luke is even more serious than vertical Luke. I didn’t think that was possible,” Hal said. He grabbed Luke’s leg and gave it a mighty yank.

“Why do I have the sudden craving for sausage links?” Hal muttered as he eased Luke through the tight opening.

Luke grunted as he was slowly pulled off Sadie. Soon he and Hal were both gone and she was alone. She felt oddly empty without Luke’s weight on her anymore.

“Sadie, honey, everything okay in there?” Hal asked. “You haven’t made an inappropriate joke since I arrived. I’m starting to freak out a little here.”

“I’m coming,” Sadie said. She scooted down to the opening until her feet dangled. Hal grabbed them and pulled her out.

“You make an adorable dust mop,” he said as he began brushing her hair and shoulders.

Sadie pressed her face to his chest and hugged him tightly. “You make a handy rescuer.”

“I rescued you first,” Luke protested.

“I rescued her better,” Hal said, patting Sadie’s back.

They would have bickered further, but the front door opened and closed. A minute later, a woman stood in the entryway to the office, surveying them.

“I let myself in,” she explained unnecessarily. She had an accent Sadie couldn’t at first identify so that “myself” ended up sounding like “muhself.”

Sadie, Hal, and Luke stared at her, dumbstruck. She was a tall, large-boned woman with close-cropped hair, big, work-hewn hands, and masculine features. She might have been a man except for two prominent appendages so large Sadie wondered how she walked without tipping. As a woman, Sadie knew her back must be in constant pain. As if to prove the theory, she walked to Sadie’s desk and sat, sighing as she propped her massive bust on the desk for support.

“May I help you?” Sadie asked, tearing her eyes north to the woman’s face with effort.

“I’d like to talk to you about my giant pumpkins.”

It wasn’t often that Sadie was speechless; now was one of those times. “Uh,” she stammered. Hal interrupted whatever she was going to say by holding up a hand.

“Shh, I want to see where she’s going with this. Go ahead, ma’am.”

“Someone’s been messin’ with my pumpkins, and I think I know who,” she said.

Sadie sat in her chair and folded her hands on the desk to strike a more professional pose. The effect was probably ruined by the fine layer of dust all over her body, but she didn’t give her appearance a thought as she struggled to understand. “I’m afraid you’ve lost me. What pumpkins?”

“I grow giant pumpkins for the fair,” the woman explained. “This year I’m set to win, to go to state, and win there, too. No one’s pumpkins are bigger than mine.” The woman thumped the table. Sadie dared not look at Hal; she could only imagine the puns running through his mind—visual confirmation would cause her to lose what slim control she had over her laughter.

“What makes you think someone has been tampering with your pumpkins?” Sadie asked. Hal eased into her line of vision, trying to catch her eye. She shifted away from his gaze. In the corner, Luke sat and propped his ankle on his knee, a visual cue that he was interested in the woman’s story but pretending not to be.

“Footprints in my garden, night sounds, and…” she paused, too choked up momentarily to speak. “Marge’s stem was cut. She died.”

“Was Marge your prizewinner?” Sadie guessed.

“She was one of them. I had a good crop this year. Out of a hundred and fifty, nearly a dozen have made it large enough to be contenders. Marge is gone; I only have eleven left. With the fair drawing near, I want to make sure the rest survive. If that rascal wins again this year, I may just kill him.”

“That rascal?” Sadie prompted.

“My ex-husband. He’s the one that’s been doing the tampering, but I can’t catch him at it. I should have listened to my mama. Tomkins blood is no good.”

“Why do you think it’s your ex-husband?” Sadie asked.

“Because I got the pumpkins in the divorce and he’s never gotten over it. He started his own patch on his own piece of land, and he’s had some winners, but we’ve put years of work into this patch. He’s so jealous of my ladies this year that he can’t see straight.”

“Have you tried a wildlife camera?” Sadie said.

“Of course, but the sneaky so-and-so dismantled it. I need professional help.”

Behind her, Hal nodded solemnly. Sadie flicked her fingers to ward him away. “What would you like me to do?”

“I want you to guard my pumpkins, and I want you to catch him in the act so I can take his sorry behind to court,” the woman declared.

“That sounds doable,” Sadie said.

“There’s one problem,” the woman continued. “I live in Bateman.”

Sadie’s glance slid to Luke. He was staring at her. He shook his head, his lips pressed tightly together. Not being a local, Hal was clueless over the weight of this pronouncement.

“Where’s Bateman?” he asked.

“It’s on the mountain,” the woman said. She turned to Sadie. “You’d have to stay with me a while to do a proper job. I’ve got some spare rooms, and you’d have your own toilet. I’m real clean, and I keep to myself. I’d expect the same from you.”

Luke shifted, leaning forward as he cleared his throat. “Sadie, can I talk to you in the hall a minute?”

Sadie turned to him again. His hands were clasped between his knees, his face earnest and serious. She knew what he would say. She played both sides of the debate in her head, needing no help to know Luke’s side. His thoughts were as clear to her as her own. He would tell her to stay. He would list all the reasons she shouldn’t go. She might capitulate; after all, Bateman wasn’t a hotspot vacation place. She didn’t want to go. But if she stayed, she would be here, mired in confusion, jealousy, and pain. If she went, she might have a chance to breathe, to clear her head, to figure out her next move, to purge some of Luke from her heart and mind.

The front door burst open again and Vaslilssa galloped in, a box of Ding Dongs held aloft. “Lucas, I have won eBay auction for Twinkies!” She shook the box, her joyous smile fading as she scanned the room of serious faces. “Is wrong timing now?”

Sadie noted with pain the way Luke’s eyes lit and warmed at his girlfriend’s arrival. “No, your timing is fine,” she decreed before turning back to the woman and offering her hand. “I’ll take the job. When can I start?”

 

His shoes couldn’t find traction in the dirt and gravel. He ran like a hamster in a wheel, never getting anywhere. He fell, scrambled to his feet, and fell again. When the command came, it was like something from his worst nightmare.

“Stop and put your hands up.”

He complied, pushing his hands into the air. Maybe he could talk his way out of it. That had worked before. “You can have it,” he said. “I swear, I was just about to get it.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not, I swear. I promise.”

“On your knees.”

He wasn’t above begging. “No, please, don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. I’ll give you what you want, I mean it this time. Please.” He scanned the crowded salvage lot. Surely there had to be some form of help among the twisted piles of metal. All he needed was one chance to land a blow, once chance to get free. “Let’s talk.”

The gun poked the base of his skull, but he still believed he could talk his way free. The gun clicked, and he went to his grave believing in the power of words.

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