A Taste of... Cold hunt
His girlfriend’s terrified voice woke Ben Brooks from a dreamless sleep.
Pain shot through his back muscles, and he cursed the hardness of his mattress.
Flinching his fingers, which scraped along dusty dirt, he didn’t need to inhale the rank smell to remember.
He wasn’t on his mattress at home. He wasn’t on a mattress anywhere. Only the thin shirt he was wearing protected him from the cold dirt floor digging into his back.
Stretching, he frowned as something even colder and harder pressed against his shoulder. He forced heavy eyelids open, wincing at the aches in his body, the dryness in his mouth, to discover what was causing the additional discomfort.
A chain-link fence separated him from his girlfriend.
Her hand was delicate, just thin enough to reach through the gap. Her slender fingers clutched the front of his shirt in sleep, though she’d lost the fight with exhaustion hours ago.
The stench of terror and human waste permeated, a scent he couldn’t rid his nose of, but he focused on her, the woman he wanted to marry, have kids with, sit in the rocking chairs on the front porch with. Her sweet face was slack with sleep, framed with dark hair that usually shone but was now dull. Her long lashes cast shadows on her cheeks from the pale glow of the security light that found its way between the boards nailed to the windows.
She whimpered, and he pressed his fingers through the wires, stroking her forehead, shushing and speaking in quiet tones to soothe her. Her lips softened into a slight smile, her nose crinkling at the splash of freckles across the bridge as she sighed.
Her smile gave him hope against the cold that seeped through his filthy clothes and into his bones. Hope was all he had left.
He was freezing in short sleeves, but it was worth it to see her draped in his jacket, with one sleeve tucked under her cheek to keep her face off the packed earth serving as a floor. This was the only comfort he could offer her.
Behind him, several of the other captives moaned or coughed as they huddled in little groups for warmth. The men were in one cage, the women in another. Even in the near darkness, he could make out the dozens of cages that were capable of holding about six captives each. The staggering possibilities filled him with dread.
Some still had the cement that had once floored all the cages, and those had a drain in the center. From what little he could see, he assumed the place had once been a dog pound. But he was sure there hadn’t been a dog within these walls for some time, and he found himself wondering just how many people had passed through this horrible place.
And were they still alive?
He didn’t know when he dozed off, but he awakened with a start when his girlfriend’s clenched fist pulled away so fast that she ripped a few hairs from his chest.
“No!” she screamed, her voice muffled by the heavy sack placed over her head by a shadowy figure, who tied it in place.
He jumped to his feet, ready to fight through the chain-link, but a blow to his back stunned him long enough for his hands to be wrapped in rope and yanked together viciously. A sack was pulled over his head before he could resist.
“Va—!” Calling out earned him another blow that made stars appear in the darkness. He clenched his teeth rather than making a sound, unwilling to give his captors the satisfaction of knowing they were causing him pain.
He was shoved forward and barely stayed on his feet, but he took solace in the footsteps he could hear in front and behind him. From the best he could tell, there were at least ten people, if not more. That meant the captives were all being led out of the cages.
He dragged his feet as much as he could, hoping to hold up their progress. He needed to think. He needed to get out of there, but he wasn’t leaving without the love of his life.
A few minutes later, the burlap sack scratched across his face as it was suddenly ripped from his head. Blinding light made his eyes water. Blinking back the tears, the blurry images around him grew sharper each time he opened his eyes. Until the dozen other captives lined up near him came into focus, all in the same state of shock as him.
First in line, he was led up a few steps and onto a small stage. Dread gripped his stomach with icy fingers.
He looked back at the others. Everyone he’d been held captive with for the past day and a half were also in the warehouse, each one showing signs of fighting back at one point or another. But none of the marks were enough to cause a swollen eye or a split lip, a realization that made his stomach twist into knots.
They want us to look good, he thought with sickening certainty. The question of why still remained, but he didn’t have time to worry on it before he was shoved into the center of the room.
An even brighter light shone in his face, blinding him.
He jumped when an excited voice started talking at a fast clip. “Here we have the perfect specimen of a man. The picture of youth. In his early twenties. Fit. Let’s see those abs.”
A hand reached out and pulled up his shirt.
He yanked away, squinting into the glare. His skin crawled, and he felt as if millions of eyes were raking over his body. He shuddered, stepping back and stumbling until rough hands on his shoulders shoved him back into the brightly lit circle.
“Look into the camera.”
He blinked against the light that stung his eyes, shocked to see that the space in front of him was empty except for a camera on a tripod and a person who held a flashlight in one hand and a microphone in the other. Ben tried to focus on the man, tried to see his face, but the mix of shadows and bright lights disrupted his vision.
“Do I hear fifteen?” the man asked in an auctioneer’s tempo. “Fifteen! Do I hear sixteen for this fine specimen?”
They were bidding on something, he realized.
Large hands clamped down on his shoulders and spun him in a circle.
His stomach dropped. They weren’t just bidding on something; they were bidding on him.
“He’s certified in good health with strong legs and shoulders. Good teeth, clear skin. I hear sixteen and…” The auctioneer gasped. “Thirty! We have a bid for thirty. Do I hear thirty-one?”
Frantic, Ben glanced through the group of people behind him, locking eyes with his girlfriend just as the man shouted, “And sold! For thirty thousand dollars to user ‘huntnbag.’”
“No!” his sweetheart shouted, rushing toward him, her hands bound in front of her.
He took a step in her direction but was yanked backward. Hard fingers dug painfully into the flesh of his upper arm, but he remained focused on her.
She mouthed, “I love you.” Her blue eyes were sad, defeated, and stood out starkly against her pale skin, her dark hair scraggly around her face.
He repeated the words back to her as he tried to rip free from the guard’s grasp.
Finally ripping his arm from the man’s grip, he ran straight toward his girlfriend. A sizzle filled the air just as sharp barbs sank into his skin. His body froze in place as pain filled every cell before he dropped to the ground.
Still, he held her gaze until darkness consumed him.
He had to. He was sure his true love would be the last sight he ever saw.
* * *
His own moaning woke Ben up before he could drag his eyes open.
Even without a clock, he could tell by the light on his eyelids that it was morning. Keeping his eyes closed, he remained still and tried to keep his breathing even, intently listening to the room around him for any hint of what he would find. But there was only the sweet song of the birds outside and a gentle breeze coming through an open window.
Opening one eye, he was surprised to see the cloud of white fluffy bedding wrapped around him. When he moved, the mattress beneath him was soft as a cloud. Had he died and gone to heaven? But where was his girlfriend?
On closer inspection, the rest of the room was just as sterile. White and tan, without a single personal photo. Like a room straight out of a magazine, the brown accents gave it a masculine feel.
He sat up quietly, eyeing the open door that led to a narrow hallway.
His body protested when he moved at first, then his joints began to listen to his commands, and the urgent need for a bathroom overrode everything else. Dragging himself out of the large, comfortable bed, he went to the doorway near the window where a bird sat perched on a limb, chirping loudly. When he stepped through the doorway, he was overwhelmingly thankful that it was an actual bathroom. The warehouse they’d been held in had possessed nothing but a bucket in the middle of the cage for—
His eyes widened as everything came flooding back all at once.
A mysterious bidder on the other side of the camera.
Had it all been a dream? And where was he?
“Feelin’ any better?” a male voice with a southern drawl inquired from behind him.
He froze, scanning the tiny bathroom for something to use as a weapon.
“Yer safe for now.” A man more than a decade older than him stepped into the bedroom from the hallway, smiling warmly. “I’m sorry they had to stun-gun you. If I’d had my say, it wouldna happened.”
“Where’s my girlfriend?”
Farmer Brown shook his head. “Not sure. You hungry? I made pancakes.”
Ben eyed the stranger, who was on the short side and slender, though he was obviously well-muscled beneath his clothes. He wondered if he had purchased him for a sex slave, but he pushed the thought aside. The older man was slight enough that he could fend off any unwelcome advances with ease, so he was no real threat. Knowing that, he shifted his entire focus to his girlfriend and her whereabouts. She was in danger, and he needed to convince this man to let him find her.
“How long was I out?” Ben asked the older man instead of answering the question.
“All night. They sedated you yesterday, brought you here in a hell of a state. I hope you don’t mind I cleaned you up some. You…soiled yourself when they shocked you, didn’t think it kind to leave you in filth. I’m sure the conditions they kept you in were abhorrent, but I have no say in all that.”
He noticed the new clothing for the first time, blinking at the stiff, pristine running shoes. He frowned. Wasn’t it odd that they’d been put on his feet as he’d slept? The black track suit fit well and sported the requisite white stripes down the legs, and the fitted black tee was made of the sweat-wicking fabric he knew cost quite a bit. He shuffled at a vague sense of discomfort, knowing he’d been naked in front of this stranger while unconscious, but that was minor compared to his other worries.
“I think they gave you too much sedative.” The shorter man’s smile was soft, reassuring, his hazel eyes sweeping over him. “I’m sure this is all very confusin’, but let me set your mind to ease, as long as you’re in this house, you’re safe.”
“I need to find my girlfriend.”
“You can’t do nothin’ if you don’t get a good meal in your belly.” Farmer Brown grinned and held out a hand. “I can help you down the stairs, ifin you like.”
Ben shook his head. “I can walk.”
“Glad ta hear it. Now, do you want eggs and bacon too? I made both, and biscuits and gravy from scratch.” The man ducked his head, suddenly appearing to be bashful. “I may have gone a bit overboard, but it’s yer only meal since you’ve been here, and I wanted it to be fillin’.”
Ben nodded. “Thank you for that.” Running his hands through his hair, he sighed and shook away the cobwebs. “I still feel so foggy. I do appreciate your kindness. I’m just so worried about her.”
“Course you are. Let’s fuel our bodies now so this day is a little easier. You’ll need your strength.”
He nodded again, and after taking care of business in the bathroom, followed his odd host down the stairs in a haze.
This is like a bad dream.
Beautiful stained boards lined the walls of the house, the wood grain shining. It was obviously a cabin-style home, a full two stories with at least two bedrooms. Every detail was gorgeous, right down to the sanded and stained knots in the wood that made up the handrailing.
“Orange or apple juice?”
“Orange.” Ben’s stomach growled. “Do you know what could’ve happened to her?”
“I don’t, but it’s really early, so there’s nothin’ to be done right now.”
Why would the time matter? Police stations were open twenty-four-seven.
“What time is it?”
“Just after five in the mornin’.”
“Oh.” Ben stopped, distracted by the view of thick trees through the window, grateful for the full moon giving him a little light. “Is that a forest at the edge of your yard? Where are we?”
“Bartlett Woods, just outside Charleston proper.”
“I’ve never heard of it.” Some of the tension melted away. This man clearly didn’t intend to hold Ben captive if he was allowed to roam the house untied, and he’d even told him where they were.
I lucked out. He hoped his girlfriend had been so lucky. I’ll convince him to buy her too, he amended, already thinking of ways to convince this man to invest in a second person. How many had this stranger already rescued from the clutches of the monsters who had kidnapped them?
“Most haven’t heard of this place. The forest isn’t large; just several hundred acres of an old farm left to grow over when the last of the Charleston Bartletts passed away. It’s mostly wild now, with a few houses here and there.”
“What am I doing here?” Ben took the plate the man handed to him, and realizing how ravenous he was, picked up a pancake with his bare hand and took a bite. “These are delicious, thank you.”
“Yer here to recover from captivity before I set you free.” He winked, flashing a smile, his hazel eyes catching the light and seeming to turn a strange shade of yellow.
He swallowed the barely chewed pancake in his mouth, coughing before it went down the right way. “That’s it? You bought me to turn me loose?”
“Think of it as an act of mercy.”
After all he’d been through, the kindness of this man made him forget even his hunger. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t worry about it. I saw somethin’ in you that I couldn’t let go.” His nose wrinkled, and he scowled. “You could’ve ended up with one of those sex perverts. You’re very lucky.”
The food stuck in Ben’s throat. “What if my girlfriend wasn’t as lucky?”
“You need yer strength. Eat up, then worry about everythin’ else while that there food is digestin’.”
He nodded, sitting at the table and shoveling food into his mouth with gusto. “I don’t know how to thank you for saving me. When I woke up in the pens with five other men, tied up and shackled, I didn’t know how I would get away. And I couldn’t leave my girlfriend behind. I’ve heard about human trafficking before, but you never think it will happen to you, you know?”
“I’m sure you never considered it affectin’ your life.”
“Hopefully, you can use your resources to help me find my girlfriend. I’m sure she’s terrified.” The food in his stomach congealed and turned into a hard lump.
“Have y’all been together long?”
Ben shook his head. “Actually, just a few months. We met on one of those singles excursions. I wanted to do something good, and maybe meet someone, and she was there, digging irrigation ditches alongside me while a lot of the others did their best to avoid the hardest work. When we returned home, it was like we were meant to be.”
“What a lovely story,” the man said warmly as he gestured at his plate. “Have you had your fill?”
“Yes, thank you.” He pushed the empty plate away as his host sat in front of him. “You’re a very good cook.”
“Yer not the first to say so, but I thank ya. Tell me, how did they manage to catch you? You seem like a strong, capable man. I’m sure it was quite a fight.”
When the older man complimented his physique with a wide grin on his face, Ben pushed aside the discomfort that welled-up inside him. He got the impression that Farmer Brown didn’t spend much time with strangers. The man’s word choice was awkward at times, but Ben chalked that up to his solitary life.
Eager to win the man’s favor in hopes of saving his girlfriend before she went through too much, he told the story of how they were captured. “We worked at a soup kitchen one night, and when we were leaving, we were ambushed. The last thing I remember was her commenting about the alley we were being led through.” He took a sip of the juice and cleared his throat. “We wouldn’t have even been walking if our car service wasn’t horribly late, but I got impatient. Next thing I know, we’re in cages with dirt floors. Then our heads were covered, and we were led to a stage.”
The older man’s elbow rested on the polished wood, his chin in his hand as he listened intently. “Isn’t it strange how events can lead us in completely different directions in an instant?”
Lifting a shoulder that still felt too heavy, Ben frowned. “Yes, I guess it is.”
“And you never had an inkling that you were in danger before you were taken?”
He took another sip of the juice, willing his hands to stop trembling. A chill passed through him, and he hurried to explain it away.
But his host held up his hand. “They gave you ketamine mixed with a few other things. No tellin’ what, but as it’s been leaving your system, you’ve been shakin’ quite a bit. It seems to be completely normal and shouldn’t stop you from being able to run.”
The one word walked up Ben’s spine like a spider.
“Run, walk, jump, whatever.” The man cackled. “The side effects won’t stop you from movin’ freely.”
He’s so odd.
“That’s good to know. I feel a lot better now that breakfast is settling in my stomach, and it’s nice to be clean after being kept in that cage.” Ben felt the heat rise up his neck to heat his cheeks. “I’m embarrassed that you had to clean me up and dress me while I was passed out, but I appreciate you taking care of me and providing me with clean clothes.”
“I consider it a necessary part of carin’ for my fellow human, so don’t give it another thought. There was nothin’ to it.” Farmer Brown grinned and stuck a toothpick between his teeth. “Do you think you can move around freely now?”
“Yes, I can.” Ben tilted his head at the other man’s odd choice of words. “Do you know where my girlfriend might be?”
Golden eyes fixed on him, the odd man shrugged, the toothpick moving up and down. “I think I’ve been mighty clear that I haven’t a clue where she is, but I’m sure she’s fulfillin’ her purpose, wherever she ended up.”
Another chill shot through him, and his stomach clenched. He couldn’t place it, but something was wrong with this man. Panic grew in his chest. Every fiber of his being screamed at him to run away.
It could be the medicine, he thought, but the explanation was thin, even in his weakened state.
“I’m glad you’re feelin’ good. You’ve had a rough time of it, so I’m givin’ you a head start.”
Ben’s mouth went dry. “Head start?”
His host stood and took a rifle from a rack nearby, grinning wider. “Out that door behind you. You’ve got five minutes.”
His breath caught in his throat as his heart thundered in his ears. “For what?”
“It’s huntin’ season, and you’re up next.”
Ben stared at the man, trying to make the words make sense. “I don’t understand.” He couldn’t mean the horrible thing that was starting to sink in.
But the gun-toting man only smiled back at him, the toothpick tipping up like an erection. “Time’s a wastin’. Four minutes now. I suggest you run.”
Horror and understanding cracked through Ben simultaneously. This man was serious. He had been saved for this man’s pleasure. For his prey.
Without another word or thought, Ben shot to his feet and took off, knocking the chair over in the process. The crack of wood on wood sounded behind him even as he wrested open the door.
The trees. He would make it to the trees.
Hope swelled in his chest as he leaped off the porch.
A few strides later, he nearly took a tumble down a hill, but his girlfriend’s lovely face in his mind’s eye gave him strength. Speed.
His legs pumped, feeling heavy at first, no doubt from the drugs he’d been given, and gradually obeying his command. He was halfway to the trees already. He was going to be okay, and he would find her, rescue her.
Ben counted the seconds in his head, the time flying by faster than his feet could eat up the expanse of ground between him and safety.
Three minutes left.
The unmistakable click of a rifle hammer sounding behind him send a shock through his body that had his muscles freezing up.
Farmer Brown had lied. He wasn’t being given a head start. He was only target practice.
Pushing his feet faster across the uneven ground, he knew even before the laugh rang out behind him…
He was a dead man.
Detective Ellie Kline sat at the table in the evidence locker with her laptop balanced on her knee.
At the other end of the long table, Jillian Reed typed on her own laptop, case files lined up between them. Next to each file sat an evidence box, the best picture of the victim available in the evidence propped against it. Near Jillian, a gray scanner was silent for the first time in over an hour as it finally finished uploading the last picture into the database.
“What’ve you got for the case number?” Ellie leaned over to scan Jillian’s notes, whose fingers were still poised over the keyboard.
“She could be one of three missing people in the right demographic,” the evidence clerk said, pointing to the screen. “Lily Tanner, brown hair, green eyes, twenty-one. Harriet Spiel, blonde hair, blue eyes, twenty-three. Or Angela Long, hazel eyes, no natural hair color listed.”
Ellie frowned. “No natural hair color?” She craned her neck to see the photo of the woman with purplish hair and nodded. “I see.”
Jillian shook her head, fluttering her stick-straight blonde hair and running two fingers down a lock. “No. But as thin as her hair is, I’d lay my money on a natural blonde. Even if it was dyed right before she was kidnapped, you’d be able to see how thin it was compared to a natural brunette.”
“Makes sense.” Ellie sighed and bit her lip. “Too bad the detective didn’t note the condition of the hair at the time of discovery, but I’m not surprised. If I asked Nick basic questions about dyeing hair and the different hair textures, he wouldn’t have a clue.”
Ellie smiled as she thought of her boyfriend, Nick Greene. As wonderful as he was, he was as clueless as the next man about things like that.
“Understandable, but shouldn’t a detective be a little more observant than that, regardless of how much personal hair dyeing knowledge he has?”
“He should, but there’s not much that can be done after the fact.”
Jillian twisted her brightly painted red lips to the side and rolled her hazel eyes. “Let me guess…Jones again.”
“Yeah, it’s him.” Ellie could grit her teeth every time the man’s name was mentioned. Detective Roy Jones retired on a glamourous case while leaving others to grow cold. And now she was cleaning up his mess.
“He sure did catch a lot of cases.”
“I thought the same thing, but Fortis told me that Jones was one of only three lead detectives working violent crimes at the time. He’s bound to be on a lot of these.”
Jillian snorted, turning her nose up. She might have been of short stature, but Jillian wasn’t one to bow to authority. “No wonder the man was burned out by the time he retired.”
“I was thinking the same thing. His partner took early retirement several years before him, and they had one detective out on medical leave for almost a year, and another on sabbatical for undisclosed reasons.” Jillian cupped her hand and threw her head back as if she were drinking from a cup, and Ellie nodded. “He wouldn’t be the first detective to spend an extra long stint in rehab. That’s three detectives with rookie partners working the entire greater Charleston area for more than a year. It’s no surprise the caseload was huge.”
“I don’t think I could do it,” Jillian said. “I bet they hardly saw their families.”
“If they saw them at all.” Ellie scanned the three women’s faces Jillian had arranged. Lillian, Harriet, and Angela. The crime scene photos they were comparing the face shots to were grainy. “I wish the quality on these was better. And what about that one?” She pointed to the picture lying on the table of a young woman whose face was turned to the side. “How did this come up as a match with half her face obscured? Does she look like any of the Jane Does to you?”
Jillian glanced at the photo and to the photos in front of the boxes, shrugging. “It’s really hard to tell from the angle. It’s frustrating.”
“Think how technology has improved in just the years since these cases. I can’t imagine the mess Jones was working with.”
“I don’t want to. This is bad enough. Half of the results we’re getting aren’t even close.” Jillian squinted at the computer screen and groaned. “Cell phone pictures were so awful just a few years ago. I can’t believe I thought they were good back then.”
“Same.” Ellie let out an exasperated breath. “Every new cell phone seemed like it was years beyond the one before, but pictures I took just two phones ago are horrendous.”
“It’s a wonder we’ve identified any of these women.” Jillian pushed her chair backward until she was balancing on two legs and turned her laptop so Ellie could see the screen. “What do you think about this one with our Jane Doe? It looks like her.”
Ellie compared the photos, eyes narrowed as she took in every detail. She shook her head, pointing at one of the identified women. “I think our Jane Doe is this woman, Angela.”
Jillian leaned closer to the picture and arched her eyebrows. “How do you figure that? I can’t tell anything from this picture except that they have the same nose and the same basic eye shape.”
“See her pinky finger? The last joint is crooked, just like this Jane Doe.”
“Don’t a lot of people have that?”
“Yes, and it tends to run in families, but it’s still something we can base a preliminary identification off of.” Ellie pointed at a picture from Angela’s missing persons kit, a photo of her standing with her family. “Her brother has the same bent joint on the same hand, and so does their mother. It’s not enough to make a positive ID from a picture, but it is enough to ask for a DNA comparison.”
“I see it.” Jillian nodded, her smile growing wide. “Ellie, you’re a genius.”
Ellie laughed, wishing her family thought so. She’d wanted to be a detective since she was kidnapped when she was fifteen, and her parents had been fighting her professional decisions, even after her dream finally came true last fall. But her parents had finally settled down about it a little, after her father’d had the life-saving heart transplant he’d needed since his combination stroke and heart attack the night he’d discovered she’d been abducted.
She shook her head. “Just observant. It was a skill I perfected to survive, constantly being in the public eye. You have no idea how boring those charity dinners can get. And it wasn’t like I could whip out a tablet and entertain myself when I was a kid, so I studied everyone at the events and made up a backstory for them. I did it for so long I got really good at cataloging everything that made a person stand out, even while introductions were still being made. When I was old enough to leave the dining area unsupervised, I would search the house top to bottom for ‘clues.’”
“I bet they called you a ‘handful’ a time or two.”
“I earned a lot of creative euphemisms when I was a kid, much to my mother’s mortification. I thought the expressions were wonderful, and I used to brag about how ‘insatiable’ my curiosity was. Little did I know that was code for ‘nosey.’” Ellie shrugged. “I’m not sure why anyone was surprised that I went after a career in law enforcement at Charleston PD. I pretty much skipped playing cops and robbers and went straight to detective work.”
“It sounds like you had an awesome childhood.”
“I was a handful.” She pulled the corner of her lip between her teeth and smiled. “At least it wasn’t boring.”
“There is that.” Jillian wrote Angela’s name and missing persons case file number on a sticky note and fixed it on the outside of the evidence box they were working to match to a missing person. “Why am I surprised that that’s all you did?”
Ellie shrugged. “I had to find a way to amuse myself. Acting like a fool was Wes’s thing.”
“I can imagine.”
Ellie glanced at the files spread across the table and blew out a heavy breath. “I can’t believe we’ve made so much headway this month, but at the same time, it’s like every discovery just uncovers more work.”
“Because it does.”
“At least we’re getting closer finally. I feel like we could get all the Jane Does connected to Steve Garret and Eddie Bower identified by the end of the year.”
Ellie’s very first case as detective had been a simple looking box that housed what little evidence remained of a girl who’d been murdered in a grizzly and somewhat puzzling fashion. That girl had led to another, then other horrendous truths.
Once she’d realized that there was more, much more, to the human trafficking ring than just a couple of men, there had been hope that they could solve many of the cold cases the evidence locker housed.
“It’s only February, Ellie. You can’t expect to solve all these so soon.”
Ellie frowned at the rows of boxes. “I know, but the sooner in the year we get these wrapped up, the better. It’s one less year to come and go without answers for the families, and that’s why we’re doing this. I know this isn’t the outcome they’re hoping for, but at least they’ll have closure. If we give them nothing else, we can give them that.”
“There are so many of them.” Jillian gestured around the space. “I don’t know how it’s possible for one person to inform them all, and who would want to? That’s a lot of grieving families to visit.”
Ellie lifted one shoulder and let it fall, pursing her lips. “I don’t know how Fortis’ll run it. It would be cold to send out a certified letter in the place of an actual detective, but at the same time, some of these families live out of state.”
“We send official letters through email and have the local PD run the notifications to the house personally.” Lead Homicide Detective Harold Fortis stood in the doorway, lips tight, clearly trying not to laugh when Ellie jumped and turned around. The gray at his temples stood out from his wavy brown hair, showing his age, in his mid-forties. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was going to ask you how you liked your new space, but your new desk is still empty. I came down here on a hunch, and I was right. Is there any particular reason you haven’t moved your things yet?”
“I like it here.” Ellie rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “And there’s no reason for me to be up in Violent Crimes with ‘the boys,’” she held her fingers up in air quotes and wrinkled her nose, “if I’m working cold cases by myself.”
“You can’t build camaraderie if you refuse to work side by side with your peers,” Fortis pointed out, though his tone held no malice. The overhead light glinted off his hazel eyes, making them even more dazzling than usual next to his tanned skin and dark brown coarse curls. “But you stay down here if you want to. I’m bringing in another detective to help us clear our caseload, and I’ll just use the desk you’ve abandoned for them instead.”
“Not sure how I abandoned a desk I never sat at, but okay.” Ellie cringed at her own snarkiness, but it was true. She’d been stuffed in the basement when she’d first come on as detective and discovered that she and File Clerk Reed worked so great together that she hadn’t wanted to leave. Besides, upstairs was a man’s world. She’d never let that stop her, but she wasn’t here to make friends.
Fortis scowled but chuckled in spite of the glare. “I’m glad you two are making headway, but I need you to work on my list. I’ve added another, so the Coggins case takes second place now.”
He handed her a typed list with file numbers, year the case was opened, and grid location in the evidence locker.
Ellie glanced over it and frowned, reluctant to put aside the cases they’d been digging through. She caught herself before she rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t hide the exasperation in her voice when she pointed out what she was sure was obvious. “I’m not sure why it matters which cold cases I clear first. I’ll get to them all eventually, right?”
“It doesn’t matter per se, but you know that’s not how office politics work. These cases either have family members making a stink online because the cases aren’t solved yet, or they’re something the chief himself wants cleared out for whatever reason.”
Ellie frowned at the mention of Marcus Johnson, Charleston’s Chief of Police. “I didn’t realize Chief took a personal interest in what goes on in cold cases.”
“There are three that he put on the list as priorities.” Fortis pointed out the second through fourth cases on the list, all with asterisks beside them. “Then there’s the ones I selected myself. Like this one on the top. That is your number one priority from this point on.”
Ellie read the one-sentence description that followed the file number. “It was already ruled an accident. Why is it even in cold cases to start with?”
“People don’t like it when high-profile victims are left unidentified.” He motioned to the files spread across the table. “This should be right up your alley, right? Dead man found in the woods, no name, no suspect.”
“People get shot during hunting season all the time.” Ellie turned her palms up, even as she realized other detectives wouldn’t be arguing with their commanding officer. But she wasn’t like other detectives. And she wanted closure for the women. Last fall’s case had hit too close to home for her. Discovering that her own kidnapping had been part of the ever widening human trafficking case had her working herself to the bone to make sure that horror never happened to another woman. “Isn’t that, like a yearly thing? What makes this case so special?”
“Usually, hunters get shot accidentally during hunting season. This guy was wearing running clothes, we couldn’t find him on any local missing person’s database, and there was no bullet recovered.”
Ellie blinked and checked the file location on the list. She patted her chest for a pen—where her uniform pocket had been for all of her three-year-long career as a beat cop on the street—before remembering that she didn’t wear a uniform anymore.
She caught sight of Fortis’s pocket, complete with pocket protector and a handful of pens. Her hand shot out quick as a snake striking, grabbing a pen and jotting the numbers down on her palm. She returned the pen almost as fast, and smiled, fluttering her eyelashes at her boss.
Fortis’s returning smile was blinding. “I see your interest is piqued now. Good. I need this man identified. Without a bullet, we might never know where the stray shot came from, but identifying this guy so his family can be notified should be an easy one for super sleuths like you and detective Reed over here.”
Jillian’s shoulders stiffened at the dig, but Fortis’s attention was on Ellie, so he missed it. Eager to get started, Ellie gathered the file and evidence box, bringing them to an empty table so she could unpack without the risk of cross-contamination with the others.
Fortis gave her a nod of approval. “I’ll leave you to it.” He walked out of the room without another word.
Jillian started packing up the files they’d been working on, her face pinched. “I guess I should get back to work. My real work. Not that I have a lot going on, but I do need to get through some requests and get my queue cleared out.”
“I’ll let you know if I need help.” Ellie frowned down at the file, thinking out loud. “I wonder why there wasn’t a bullet.”
Jillian picked up a white evidence box and stopped by Ellie’s table on her way to the shelf where it would reside a bit longer. She gestured at the pictures Ellie had already arranged carefully on the table. “Looks like his remains were scavenged. You ever seen a wild animal eat a corpse? One of them probably swallowed it.”
Ellie’s mouth dropped open, eyes popping wide with surprise that this dainty little blonde woman would know such a thing. “No, I haven’t. Have you?”
“Not a human corpse, but my dad used to take me hunting when I was a teenager.”
“I didn’t know you were into hunting.”
“I wasn’t, but my dad wanted a boy so bad, and it was quality time alone with him. I craved that more than I wanted to stay home in my warm bed.” Jillian’s eyes got a faraway look in them that had nothing to do with cold cases. “Hunting with him meant cold, dreary mornings and waiting for so many hours for the perfect buck to show up that my butt would fall asleep in the stand. But when the moment came, and he shook me awake with his finger to his lips, it was all worth it. You should’ve seen how his face lit up as I lined up my scope and took a deep breath before I pulled the trigger. It was worth every bit of the watching and waiting. And the venison stew was amazing.”
“I bet it was.” Ellie tried to keep the grimace off her face, having a hard time imagining the small woman holding a big gun.
“I learned so much from those times. Like this.” Jillian waved her hand across the table. “Sometimes a novice hunter will shoot a deer, and it won’t go down with one shot. It’ll wander the forest for a while before bleeding out or dying from infection. Then the scavengers find it.”
Ellie grimaced. “Yeah, buzzards and coyotes can do a number on anything they come across.”
Jillian nodded. “We came across a carcass once, something I’ll never forget. The buzzards were like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy. My dad stood between me and them, just in case they got too excited and went rogue, as he put it. I can see why there wasn’t a bullet. It could have either been eaten and expelled at another location, or the…mania could have been so rough that the bullet was flung loose and lost in the woods.” She cringed, giving Ellie a look like she was sorry she had to relay that bit of info. “I hope he was dead when the scavengers found him. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
A shudder passed through Ellie as she tried to blink away the scene of carnage that had played out in her mind. “Thanks for that image.”
Jillian beamed and cocked one hip to the side. “You asked.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t ask for the in-depth description.” Ellie shook her head, as if shaking off bad juju. “It’s good to know I can still count on you to take things to the next level, though.”
“Any time you need a stomach-turning description of something that happens in the animal kingdom, I’m your girl.” Jillian winked. “Now, hurry up and get to work so we can get back to the Garret-Bower case. You know Fortis won’t get off your back until you have this hunting accident solved.”
Ellie rolled her eyes and went back to work. “You have no idea how right you are,” she muttered, but Jillian was already halfway back to her desk outside the evidence room.
Then she got to work. Ellie was on her own, and this John Doe wasn’t going to identify himself.
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