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Prologue

 

Florida, mid-1970s.

 

Shaken and confused, Rose stared at the dead parakeet lying in her open palm. What had begun as an ordinary day had taken an unexpected turn, a turn that threatened to skew her perfect life. Her mind raced over the impossibilities, the fears crowding her thoughts. Reflecting back on it, there’d been nothing particularly unusual about her afternoon. Before she’d found the bird, it had been just another day of routine cleaning.

 

* * *

 

Cleaning the Florida room was her last chore for the day. The sunny little den was her favorite room in the house, and she couldn’t resist taking a moment to stand at the wall of jalousie windows and look out over the back yard. Florida could be distractingly beautiful, and she was finding it difficult to stay indoors. She’d much rather be out in the garden, tending to her roses. It gave her such pleasure to watch them flourish under her careful hand. But they would have to wait. Her husband would be home soon, and she needed to finish cleaning so she could start his dinner.

Resolved, she was just about to turn away when a movement in the yard caught her eye. A blue ball arced gracefully through the air and then slanted back to earth to land lightly in the thick bed of bitter-blue that carpeted the back yard. Her son was right behind it, laughing as he chased after the ball. She smiled at the sight of him. Of all the things in life, her son gave her the deepest sense of accomplishment.

Wanting to share in his enjoyment, she leaned forward and tapped the glass to get his attention. He turned quickly and peered in her direction, but he did not return her smile. He looked startled to see her there, almost guilty, though she couldn’t fathom why. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, just playing like all boys did.

She lifted a hand to wave, but he had already jerked up the ball and was running back around the side of the house and out of sight. She frowned. That was odd. It almost seemed like he wanted to get away from her. He’d never done that before. Honestly, she didn’t know what had gotten into him these days. He seemed so closed up lately.

She sighed. It was probably nothing to worry about. He was just being a typical boy. He was growing up. His body was changing, his needs were changing. It was all part of the process. She might as well get used to the idea that he wouldn’t be a boy forever.

Lord, how the years were flying by. He was already seven. It was hard to believe so much time had passed. It seemed like only yesterday that her husband had rushed her to the hospital and she’d given birth to the most beautiful child ever born. If only there were some way to slow things down so she could enjoy his childhood a little longer. But that was just the futile desire of a doting mother. She knew she couldn’t stop all the years of change to come. Peer pressures, new friends, raging hormones, a new beard, college, girlfriends, and then adulthood. With each phase of his childhood, he would draw away, little by little, maturing into an independent man. He wouldn’t be her baby anymore. He would start a life of his own, a life where he didn’t need her so much. Maybe not even at all. And it would all happen in a wink.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. She loved him so much, and she’d gotten so accustomed to having this little person solely depending on her for everything he needed that it would seem odd not to have him around. Of course, it was inevitable. She only hoped that the bond she’d worked so hard to build between them would be strong enough to survive all those changes. No matter what was to come, at some point in his life he might need her again. And she would be there, her arms open. She would always be there.

Determined not to give her son’s rejection another thought, she turned to survey the room. As usual, the birdcage was looking a mess. Seed was scattered all over the floor beneath the cage, small curls of newspaper interspersed throughout. The parakeet had been busy again. He seemed so bored since they’d moved him out of their son’s room, and, besides flinging seed as far as he could throw it, tearing the paper that lined the bottom of his cage was his favorite thing to do. That and his early morning chirping had been the very thing that had gotten the little feather-duster banished to the den in the first place.

She sighed heavily. Might as well tackle it first. It was always the hardest to clean, anyway.

“I swear, Petey,” she murmured, as she crossed the room. “I think you’re more trouble than your wor—”

She faltered when she realized the parakeet wasn’t on his perch. Perplexed, she pulled the cage off its hook in the ceiling and put it down on the coffee table so she could get a closer look. But it was empty.

Odd. The door wasn’t open. There were no gaps in the bars big enough for him to squeeze through. The little bird was simply gone.

She stared thoughtfully at the cage, wondering if the bird’s disappearance might have something to do with her son’s behavior. Perhaps that’s why he was avoiding her. He might have inadvertently let the bird get out, and now he had a guilty conscience. He was probably afraid to face her, scared he’d be in big trouble. It wouldn’t be surprising, considering that nothing like this had ever happened to him before. Poor boy. She would have to talk to him, help ease his worry. Accidents happened often enough, to everyone, not just little boys.

Eager to mother her boy, she stepped out the back door and started across the yard, her sandals sinking into the thick grass as she made her way around to the side of the house. Just as she’d suspected, she found her son playing in the side-yard.

“Honey?”

He glanced up, a worried expression on his little round face. “Yes, mom?”

“Have you seen Petey? I was going to clean his cage, but he isn’t there.”

He looked down at the ground, his lower lip already beginning to quiver. It was precisely as she had imagined. He was afraid to tell her.

Feeling sorry for him, she crouched down beside him and put a hand under his chin in an effort to get him to look at her. “Honey, what happened?”

A tear trembled on his lashes and then dropped off to slowly roll down one surprisingly clean cheek. Her heart aching for him, she rubbed the tear away with her thumb.

“It’s okay. You can tell me.”

“I t-took him out of his cage,” he sniffled. “I thought I could p-play with him outside. But...he f-flew away.”

Another tear made its inevitable journey down his cheek, and his chin trembled as he tried valiantly to keep from crying.

“Oh, sweetie,” she murmured, automatically drawing him into her arms.

“I’m s-sorry, mom. I didn’t mean to let him go.”

“Sh, sh,” she murmured, rocking him back and forth. “It’s alright. It’s not your fault. Sometimes we have to learn the hard way. That’s just life.”

She drew away to look down at him. He was gazing up at her so hopefully that she felt tears prick her own eyes. It broke her heart to see him suffering even the slightest little bit. If only she could shield him from the pain of life for the rest of his days. It was every mother’s wish, but it simply couldn’t be done. Like everyone else, he would have to experience life in all its facets, even the harsher realities. That was the way of things.

“Am I in trouble?”

“Of course not. I would never punish you for something so silly. You didn’t know he’d fly away.”

He started to wipe his nose with the back of his hand, then stopped himself. She laughed a little and reached into the pocket of her apron for the tissue she always carried there. Her son, such a neat little boy, so conscientious and clean. He made her so proud.

“Your father will be home in about an hour,” she told him, stroking his silken hair while he wiped his nose with the tissue. “I have to start dinner. You think you can manage alone for a little while?”

He smiled, that big, beautiful smile of his, and nodded.

She kissed the top of his head and then stood up.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for not being mad.”

She smiled. “Honey, don’t ever forget, you always have someone to talk to when you need it. It’s not good to bottle things up inside. It can make you sick. I’ll always listen. I promise. Will you remember that for me?”

He nodded again.

“Good.”

Leaving him to his play, she returned to the den. Although the loss of Petey was sad for all of them, she went back to her cleaning with a feeling of satisfaction. She’d handled the situation well enough. It hadn’t been such an unbearable crisis. She could break the news to her husband after dinner, when they were alone. Maybe they would discuss a new pet. Perhaps a dog. They’d never had a dog before. Her son was certainly old enough to have one, and she was sure she could persuade her husband that a puppy would be just the thing to help ease the boy through this transition. It would be a nice change. He would like having a dog to sleep with.

She was almost finished with the den. Just one more thing to do and then she could start on dinner. Maybe she would prepare something special tonight.

She started to move a potted plant from the side table, but an odd little flutter made her pause. Something had fallen to the floor. The pot forgotten, she bent down to see what it was. Not sure her eyes weren’t deceiving her, she picked it up, and was mortified when she recognized the little bundle of blue and white feathers, the familiar head that hung limply over her fingers. It was Petey! And he was quite dead.

She sucked in a sharp breath of horror, already starting to tremble a little from the shock of what she was seeing. My God, what did it mean? The implication was almost too much to bear. She couldn’t believe it, could scarcely think it. Her son had always been honest with her. And yet...clearly he had lied. He’d told her that he’d taken the parakeet outside, but he hadn’t. Petey was here, in the den. Dead.

She squeezed her eyes shut and clasped her hands to her chest, the little bird carefully folded in her palms. Oh God, she couldn’t tell her husband. She couldn’t tell anyone. She could barely admit it to herself. Maybe he’d played too roughly with the bird. Perhaps he’d let it out of its cage, and it had died of fright. Or maybe he’d found it already dead and hadn’t known what else to do with it so he’d hidden it inside the pot. There were any number of possibilities. But all of them paled beside the one tiny voice that rose above everything else, nagging and ugly, a question that presented itself despite her efforts to ignore it. Could her son have killed the little bird, his pet no less, and then very deliberately lied about it? Was that why he hadn’t wanted to face her?

But what would make a little boy do such a thing?

She vehemently shook her head. No. No! She refused to believe it. He’d been genuinely upset. There was no doubt about that. It must have been an accident. It just had to be. It was the only logical explanation, the only explanation she would accept. And she wouldn’t traumatize her son by asking him any more questions about it. It was done now. She couldn’t change that one simple fact. She would just have to....

Rose opened her eyes slowly and stared down at the bird, her mind racing. She knew what she would do. She wouldn’t tell anyone that she’d found Petey. Not her son. Not even her husband. When he asked, she would simply stick to the story she’d been told. The bird had flown away, that’s all. Clean the cage, put it in the garage and forget about it. That’s what she would do. But first she had to get rid of the evidence.

Resolved, she got to her feet and left the den, her steps hurried as she crossed the living room. She flew out the front door and almost ran down the drive, eager to get the little bird out of her sight. The garbage cans were already at the curb, waiting for pick-up the next morning. It seemed the simplest solution. She rushed toward them, pushed the lid back from one of the cans and tore open the top bag. There was no hesitation in her actions, just a cold determination as she pressed the lifeless little body of her son’s pet deep into the bottom, hiding it beneath all the trash inside and hoping she would never have to see it again.

She was shaking as she replaced the lid on the garbage can, and there were traces of tears on her cheeks. She took a deep breath and brushed them away. As difficult as it seemed, somehow she had to compose herself. Her husband would be home soon, and it would only take one look at her face for him to know that something was terribly wrong. And, oh God, if he knew....

But he wouldn’t. She would do everything in her power to make sure of that.

She took several deep breaths. In from the abdomen, then releasing slowly. Yes, that was much better. She lifted her chin, took another breath, then turned and slowly made her way back up the drive. She could do this. She was certain of it now. She would be strong for all of them. Whatever had really happened...she simply didn’t need to know. No one need ever know.

A horn sounded behind her, startling her. She hadn’t heard the car. She knew without looking that it was her husband pulling into the driveway. Pasting a bright smile to her face, she turned and waved. Just in the nick of time. If he’d been a few minutes earlier....

But no. She wasn’t going to think of that, was she? Not now. Not ever again.

 


 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Twenty-eight years later—Big Scrub, Ocala National Forest

 

Lloyd Mitchell was hunched over, nurturing the flames of the best campfire he’d ever built when he suddenly heard his kid off in the distance screaming like he’d been stuck by a wild boar-hog. He instantly straightened and glanced around the small clearing. Shit, they hadn’t even had breakfast yet, and there was already trouble. Was there no hope for that boy?

“Jimmy? Jimmy where the hell are ya’?” he hollered into the morning mist.

“Dad! Come quick!”

“Dammit, boy! Where the hell are ya’?”

He heard a scrambling noise in the woods behind him and nervously spun around, instinctively reaching for the shotgun he always kept close at hand. He was halfway to his feet when his son bolted out of the nearby scrub, running straight for him. The minute they made eye contact, the kid started screaming again, tears pouring down his reddened face. Lloyd hardly had time to set the shotgun down before the kid threw himself into his arms, mumbling and wailing all at the same time so that Lloyd couldn’t understand a friggin’ word of it.

“Calm down, boy. Just try to calm down, so’s I can make sense of what yer saying.”

“Daddy, daddy,” he mumbled, pressing his face hard into his father’s chest.

“What the devil’s got into you, son? Speak up, boy. Tell me what happened.”

Christ, he’d never seen his kid so scared. If he’d known hunting would have such a terrible effect on the boy, he would’ve left him at home. It was Jimmy’s first hunting trip ever, what a roughened old Florida Cracker like himself had thought was every twelve-year-old boy’s dream, but the kid hadn’t taken to the idea. He liked the camping well enough, and the guns. It was the killing that bothered him. But he seemed to like exploring the woods, so Lloyd had decided to stay on for a few days, let the boy enjoy himself a little.

Jimmy was muttering unintelligibly, his fists rubbing at his eyes like he was trying to grind them out of the sockets. Lloyd couldn’t make a damn bit of sense out of none of it.

After a few more hiccupping attempts on Jimmy’s part, Lloyd finally pulled the kid’s hands away from his face. “Try again, son. What happened?”

Jimmy looked up at him, his eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot, full of fear. “We gotta get outa’ here, Dad. There’s a body out there in the scrub.”

Lloyd frowned in incomprehension. “What do you mean a body?”

“I wanna go home! What if the killer comes back?”

“Killer? What the hell you talkin’ ‘bout, boy? What kind of body? Was it an animal—”

“No! It’s a person! There’s a dead person out there in the woods!”

“Jesus H. Christ! Show me.”

Jimmy started to shake his head. “I can’t.”

Lloyd grabbed him a little too roughly by the shoulders and stared hard into his son’s face. The boy was big for twelve but not so big that he couldn’t snatch some logic into his fool head. “Dammit, son! You got to show me! You understand? This ain’t nothin’ to joke about.”

“I ain’t joking. I swear I ain’t.”

“Then show me!”

“Out there! It’s out there!” Jimmy hollered, jerking his head toward the woods.

It wasn’t much help. They were deep in the remote Big Scrub area of the Forest, surrounded by miles of nothing but pine.

“Boy!” Lloyd thundered. “I’m only gonna tell you one more time to show me where that body is.”

Prodded by the tone in his father’s voice, Jimmy stood up and, clutching Lloyd’s hand, led him out of the clearing. Lloyd hated to be stern with him, especially considering how scared Jimmy was, but he wasn’t about to call the Sheriff out there over something the boy thought was a body. It might turn out to be nothing more than an old decaying log laying in the woods. How the hell was he to know until he saw it with his own eyes?

Ten minutes from the campsite, the grip on Lloyd’s hand tightened and Jimmy suddenly came to a dead standstill.

“Don’t make me go no further, Dad. Please don’t make me go no further.”

“Are we close?”

The boy nodded.

“You just point in the right direction, and I won’t make you go no further.”

“It’s there, in those bushes.” Jimmy jabbed a finger toward a tight cluster of palmetto bushes, and then turned his face away.

Lloyd started to pull his hand out of his son’s death grip, intent on investigating, but a sharp gasp from the boy made him pause for a second.

“Don’t leave me here, Dad,” Jimmy wailed, an expression of betrayal on his face. “Don’t leave me here alone.”

“It’s less than forty feet away, boy. You’ll be awright. Just stay here, and don’t move. I’ll be right over there, right in hollering distance. You ain’t got nothin’ to be afraid of.”

Lloyd extracted his hand and searched the ground for a good-sized stick to use for poking around in the bushes. He didn’t really expect to come across any rattlesnakes—they usually weren’t too active in the Fall—but it didn’t hurt to be on the safe side.

Stick in hand, he moved off toward the bushes. It didn’t take him long to find the body. He didn’t even have to look hard. It was just stretched out there in the leaves, barely even shaded by the fronds of the palmettos surrounding it.

“God awmighty,” he swore, staring in revulsion.

The body had obviously been there for some time because it was little more than a skeleton. The skull was crowned in a hallo of fuzzy hair, the eye sockets sunken and empty, the face a glaring death-mask, baring teeth that didn’t seem to fit. Even the clothes still clung to the bony corpse. It reminded him of those shrunken heads that used to be such a big thing. The idea gave him the willies. No wonder the kid had been so scared. It was enough to turn the stomach of a few adults, too.

 

* * *

 

Case Agent Dewey Thomson arrived a few hours later followed by several deputies and a photographer who worked for the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. Even as he parked the cruiser and got out, he was already assessing the situation. He paused by the car long enough to hitch his trousers back up over the slight paunch he’d developed over the years. There’d been a time when that paunch had bothered him, but he didn’t really think about it these days. In fact, he was almost defensive of it. He was forty-five years old and had a very long, rather unglorified career in law enforcement behind him. He deserved a few beers after work, maybe even an extra helping or two of spicy chicken wings from his favorite restaurant. Besides, he didn’t particularly give a shit what he looked like lately, not since his wife had moved out on him. Hell, even the kids were gone now, off to college. The whole damn thing had left him with only a fraction of what had once been a decent salary. And a very empty existence. A beer-belly was the least of his concerns.

Dewey shifted his hat and headed for the motley group that had watched him pull up. Several forest rangers stood around an old beat-up tent, looking useless. A man, presumably the one who’d made the call to the department, waited nearby, his hand on the shoulder of a boy who appeared to be his son. Dewey gave a barely perceptible nod to the kid, briefly touching the rim of his hat as he came to stand in front of the man.

“Investigator Thomson. And you are?”

“Lloyd Mitchell.” He shrugged, as if he didn’t quite know what to do, and then nervously stuck out a hand.

Dewey immediately switched the clipboard he carried to his left hand and grasped the other man’s palm in a firm shake. “You the one who made the call?”

“Yessir.”

Dewey nodded again as he pulled a pen from his pocket and snapped it under the big clip part of the clipboard. “Awright. Well then, you can start by showing me the body.”

The kid glanced nervously at his father. “I don’t have to go back there, do I, Dad?”

Dewey gave the boy a reassuring smile. “You can stay here with the rangers.”

The boy relaxed, obviously relieved, but most of the rangers looked pissed off. Dewey wasn’t surprised. He’d already pegged them for the F.B.I. wannabees they were. They fancied themselves among the ranks, probably wanted to tag along to the scene, stand over the body and swap shoptalk and speculation. Dewey didn’t have time for it. Snagging poachers and running teenagers out of the Forest for fucking wasn’t in the same realm as a murder investigation, and he wasn’t about to play to their egos. More than likely, they’d already seen enough of the body, anyway. It would be a damn miracle if he found a pure crime scene after these guys had tramped through it.

After he got a good gander at the body, he realized it didn’t much matter. It must have been lying out there for a year, maybe more. Incredibly, the body had gone through an entire hunting season without detection. Either that or no one had wanted to report it until now.

Weighing the probabilities, Dewey examined the scene from every angle. A long dry season had stunted the growth of the palmettos, and the corpse—if it could still be called a corpse—was relatively visible to anyone standing close enough. If the killer had even bothered to cover it when he’d dumped it, he couldn’t have used any more than a few old fronds, easily dislodged by animals. The only thing that kept the body from being starkly visible now was the three or four palmetto bushes that extended their fronds over it. From a distance, it might have escaped notice for some time. But it was still pretty amazing that no one had found it any sooner.

Already armed with a few forensic necessities, Dewey skirted around the photographer who was snapping away at a furious rate, and waded into the bushes. Careful not to get in the way of the deputy who was gathering forensic evidence, he prodded at the victim with a pair of long tweezers. There was nothing much to see that was of any real use to him. The body had lain there so long that even the clothing had become brittle from the elements. It would be a miracle if forensics could extract anything of value from such an old scene. There couldn’t have been much left in the way of workable samples.

Dewey was just about to call it quits when he found a gold bracelet still attached to the victim’s bony wrist. Curious, he used the tweezers to twist it around for a better look. There was an inscription etched onto it, but he couldn’t quite make it out without his reading glasses. Cursing the damn things, he pulled the glasses out of his shirt pocket and perched them on the end of his nose, peering closely at the bracelet. It read simply ‘Claudia.’

That was all he needed to see. Almost relieved that he hadn’t had to do much more than take a few pokes at the body, he stood up and scribbled the name on a notepad. At the very least, he could do a missing persons search, maybe come up with a Claudia in the area.

Leaving the forensic team to finish their meticulous work, Dewey rejoined Lloyd Mitchell, who’d been waiting some distance away, and the two men headed back to the campsite.

For the past hour, Lloyd had been wishing he’d kept his redneck nose out of it. This business of being a good citizen wasn’t as simple as it looked. He’d like nothing more than to pack his tent and get the hell out of there, but it was too late for that now. He would just have to ride it out, get it over with.

Dewey paused beside the cruiser, put the clipboard down on the hood, and clicked open his pen. “I’ll need a full statement.”

The feeling in Lloyd’s gut worsened. Jesus, why had he even bothered to call? Why hadn’t he just thrown his kid into the truck and gone home just as fast as his tired old truck could carry them?

“I’ll need your driver’s license and your hunting license.”

Just what Lloyd had been afraid of. “They’re in the truck,” he hedged.

Thomson scratched a few notes onto the form stuck in his clipboard, obviously waiting for Lloyd to retrieve them.

Lloyd trudged off reluctantly and returned a few minutes later with the licenses, watching rather uncomfortably as Thomson examined them. The officer jotted down some information from the driver’s license, and, after a short pause, handed it back. But he kept the hunting license and the Wildlife Management Area Stamp. Lloyd didn’t need to ask why.

“Your hunting license is expired. It should’ve been renewed this year.”

Lloyd brushed a clinging pine needle from his red flannel shirt, carefully avoiding Thomson’s gaze as he muttered, “I didn’t notice. It was a five year license.”

Dewey didn’t miss a beat. “You realize there’s a fine.”

Lloyd cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything.

“Your boy. He looks to be about thirteen.”

“Twelve,” Lloyd supplied for him.

“Does he have a Hunter’s Education Graduate Card?”

Lloyd shook his head.

Dewey peered past the man’s shoulder for a moment. He didn’t really want to fine him, not after reporting a body like he had. But he took hunting season as seriously as he took any other arm of law enforcement. If someone didn’t police the damn forest, these hunters would shoot just about anything and everything that moved, including each other. Just a bunch of jackasses with big guns!

“You know that’s serious, don’t you?”

“Yessir, officer.”

“It isn’t exactly my jurisdiction, so I won’t report it.”

Lloyd was grateful for the officer’s leniency. He’d been down on his luck with money lately—Crescent City wasn’t exactly the job capital of the world—and a fine would have hurt.

“However, I will inform the deputies in the area to keep an eye on you. You need to get that license. I don’t know how you got past the rangers....”

Lloyd shifted from one foot to the other. He wasn’t about to tell him about how his friend at the Ranger Station had let him slide just this once, just since it was his kid’s first time.

“I’ll be sure and get that license, sir.”

Dewey had no doubt. “You live in Crescent City?”

Lloyd nodded, then answered “yessir” when he realized Thomson wasn’t looking at him.

“You came all the way down here to hunt?”

“Yessir. Just yer reg’lar huntin’ trip.”

“You have no clue as to who this woman is?” It was a stupid question, considering how old the corpse was. But it was department policy, and he had to go by the book.

Lloyd stared at him as if he’d lost his marbles. “Course not.”

“I understand, but I have to ask. How long have you been here?”

“Two days.”

Dewey nodded and made another note on the form. It wouldn’t do any good to ask Mr. Mitchell if he’d seen anything else out of the ordinary. The body had been there too long. Although some killers did return to the scene, the odds were against it, especially if it had been a whim killing.

“How did you stumble across the...uh...victim?”

“My boy found it. Scared the daylights out of him.”

Dewey released a slow sigh. It was going to be a long day. He pinched the flesh between his eyebrows and massaged it for a moment. Jesus, he hated examining a witness. It was always a damn pain in the ass. “Tell me everything, every detail you remember.”

An hour later, he was just putting his clipboard back into the cruiser when the news van pulled up.

“Shit!” he swore. Another delay. “Who the hell let them back here?” he barked to no one in particular. “Isn’t anyone doing their fucking job today?” he muttered to himself.

 

* * *

 

Phoebe Chase anxiously leaned forward in her seat as the van drove into the clearing, her eyes already sweeping the gathering of law enforcement officers. “Yep. What did I tell you, Mike? Something’s going on here. Something big. Have I got the nose or what?”

The driver grinned at her from over his shoulder. “Lucky for us that morning appointment cancelled, huh?”

She gave a little snort of disgust. She was still pissed about that. “It would be nice to have both, the interview and this.”

She’d known something was going on the minute she’d seen all the sheriff’s cruisers heading into the Forest. Mike was right. It was a lucky thing they’d been in the neighborhood and had stumbled across the activity. And, wonder of wonders, they were the first crew on the scene. It was breaking news. It couldn’t get any better than that. She’d score points with this one for sure.

She didn’t waste a second of time. She was out of the van before it even stopped moving, already heading for the man nearest her, a tall sheriff’s officer, who could have been described as lanky were it not for the slightly bulging belly, a man who seemed vaguely familiar to her.

“Officer, I’m Phoebe Chase with Eye-on-the-News. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Dewey felt his hackles rise. She didn’t have to introduce herself. He’d recognized her the minute she’d stepped out of the van. He remembered her from the last case he’d taken, that convenience store shooting. She’d been so tenacious she’d practically given him an ulcer. The lady was no lady. She was a friggin’ bulldog.

“I’m busy,” he growled, jerking his head in the direction of one of the rangers, indicating that she should go speak with them. It was almost a sure bet they’d be of no help to her.

Phoebe sighed in frustration. What a rotten day this was turning out to be. His unwillingness to cooperate had jogged her memory, and she suddenly recalled where she’d seen him before. It hadn’t been any easier getting a statement out of him then, either. In fact, he’d made her life downright miserable for several months, feeding her misinformation just to toy with her.

She glanced at the rangers, only briefly entertaining the idea of talking to them. She knew the difference between a plebe and a case agent, and she would only use the rangers as a last resort. “Look, it’s my job to report the news. You can make this hard, or you can make it quick.”

Dewey ignored the microphone under his nose. “And it’s my job to keep your damn cameras away from the crime scene, so’s they don’t destroy evidence.”

“I know procedure. We’ll stay well away. I’m just asking for a statement.” Lord, it was the first really interesting story she’d had in a long time, and there was all that pressure from the station. If she could just be the first one to get the dirt. If this asshole would only answer a few questions.

Irritated, Dewey repositioned his hat and wiped a bead of sweat off his brow. Despite the Fall chill, the damn thing could get pretty hot. “A very brief statement,” he finally conceded. Might as well get it over with. It was inevitable, anyway.

She smiled, relieved that she wouldn’t have to badger him as much as she had expected. Pleased with herself, she signaled for the cameraman to come in closer. But in light of the disappointing statement Thomson gave her, she needn’t have let her hopes soar. She’d been wrong to presume he’d loosened up any. Thomson was a true veteran, and he knew how to dodge her questions. All she really understood from him was that a body had been found and there was nothing else forthcoming.

Dewey ended on a mumbled, “That’s all we know at this point.”

Phoebe wasn’t exactly an amateur at this game, either. She was blonde and blue-eyed, a knockout even at thirty-five, but that didn’t mean she was a bimbo. She’d been a field reporter for ten years now—unfortunately with the same goddamn station. She’d become hardened over the years, had learned not to let people intimidate her, and she wasn’t about to be put off.

“Does the body fit any missing persons description?”

Dewey was suddenly guarded. He wasn’t about to tell her about the bracelet, or the name. It was too soon, and he didn’t need the media monkeying up his case. It was bad enough that she was here at all. Who the hell had called her out, anyway?

“At this point, the body doesn’t fit any description at all. It can’t even be considered a body anymore.”

Resigned to the fact that she wasn’t going to get anywhere with him, Phoebe dropped the mike away from his face. If he was telling the truth, there wasn’t much to go on at the moment, anyway. Too early in the day, so to speak. She glanced around the campsite, already wracking her brain for another interesting angle to the story. Maybe she could make something out of nothing.

There was a man standing amongst the rangers, looking like a true hick in his red flannel shirt. He stuck out like a sore thumb. She smiled to herself. He was precisely what she was looking for. “Who’s the guy?”

Dewey followed her gaze. He didn’t really like the idea of her talking to Mitchell, but he couldn’t exactly stop her, either. “He’s the one who found the body.”

Phoebe didn’t waste another breath with Thomson. She just motioned for her cameraman to follow her, and headed straight for the man in question. She was going to get a damn story today if it killed her. But judging by the way the guy was watching her with guarded caution, she would have to use every ounce of feminine charm she possessed.

She was suddenly feeling premenstrual. It was going to be a long day. And she hadn’t even had lunch yet.


 


Copyright: Cassandra D. Blizzard

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