A Taste of... Shadow's Deadline

Chapter One

Bryson Gilroy hunched over next to a longleaf pine tree, using its trunk to stabilize himself. He took a few deep breaths, hoping to keep his stomach contents down. He wasn’t drunk. Not exactly. Not anymore. But a massive hangover was in his very near future.

Swiping beads of sweat from his temple, Bryson stood and continued his walk of shame.

Couldn’t the bastards have taken me all the way home?

Some “club” they were. He didn’t feel special at all.

Though the humidity was like a weight pressing on his chest, at least it wasn’t boiling hot, since the sun hadn’t yet risen. Storm clouds lay thick and heavy over the ocean, creeping toward land and cooling the air a few merciful degrees.

It wouldn’t last, he knew.

The mounting barometric pressure did nothing to help his growing hangover. With a shudder, he took another swig from the beer bottle he’d somehow managed not to drop.

Hair of the dog, right? Isn’t that what Coach used to say? Bryson gritted his teeth as his mind conjured up an image of the man who’d ruined his life.

“Don’t think about him.”

He needed to get home so he could collapse on his bed. After zigzagging across the beach, he’d headed for the park, a shortcut. Time was of the essence. Who knew how much longer his stomach could hold onto its contents? Plus, he didn’t want to be seen by anyone in his current condition, and the sun would be rising soon.

“One foot in front of the other.”

He ran his hand through his hair, the oily residue of his gel melting in the humidity. Wiping his hand down his long-sleeved, button-down pink shirt, half of which was untucked, he longed to feel clean again. Maybe he’d take a shower before crawling into bed. The idea of hot water streaming down his neck and shoulders was almost enough to get him to walk faster.

Almost.

It had been another night of doing what everyone had come to expect of him. Partying, drinking, networking, and banging. Unconsciously, he scratched at his crotch where remnants of his sexual encounter had dried and taken hold.

Yeah, I need a shower.

Bryson took another swig of beer as he tried to forget the face of the girl he’d taken into a cabin on the lower level of the yacht. He actually cared about her. Gabriella. In truth, he was devastated to see her come aboard. And so, he’d snuck her off to a seldomly used room so the other men wouldn’t mess with her.

It hadn’t worked.

One of the “boys” had come bursting into the cabin, telling Bryson to join him in the hall. After assuring Gabriella he’d be right back, he had. It wasn’t like he had a choice, after all…

“You gonna do her or what?”

Bryson hated this creep most of all. Almost. Hal was what everyone called him. Bryson didn’t know his full name and didn’t want to.

“Uh, yeah. Of course.” Bryson did his best to seem cocky. In truth, he wanted to cry, scream, punch something.

This was Gabriella. The girl he’d liked for years. The girl who was way too good for him, even now.

“Then do it.” Hal pressed Bryson into the wall, holding him by the throat. “Or I will.”

He would, Bryson knew. He couldn’t let that happen.

Bryson swallowed against the pressure still on his neck. “I will.”

The hand dropped away. “Make it a good show. Not just missionary either. Doggy. Sixty-nine. Your last show was less than stellar.”

So Bryson had.

Humiliated and disgusted with himself, he stumbled through the park.

His tears had mingled with Gabriella’s as he’d climaxed. It should have been different with her. Special. But once again, his happiness had been stolen, controlled by someone else.

Bryson’s life was not his own.

Had it ever been?

Yes. But that was before. The day his coach took a special interest in him, life as Bryson knew it had ended. And he’d barely been sixteen.

He paused to take a long pull on the bottle in his hand. Funny how the drinking couldn’t wash away the memories of all those encounters. Or the drugs. Temporary relief at best.

If he was honest with himself, or anyone for that matter, he knew he needed help. Real help. But asking for it was out of the question. His high and mighty father would never allow it.

Weak. That’s what he’d say. And the man would want to know why. And that was a secret Bryson would just as soon take to his grave.

He sighed as his shoulders sank.

What’s my life even worth?

It was that bastard’s fault. The perv who couldn’t keep it in his pants. The way he’d place an arm on Bryson’s shoulder after a game and let it linger there. The way his fingers brushed against his skin.

His stomach turned, and he had no idea if it was from the memories of Coach or his drinking binge.

It’s Coach.

All those extra special practices when Bryson had to stay longer than everyone else. As soon as his last teammate left, that man would do unspeakable things no shower could ever cleanse.

He shook his head and regretted it immediately as the trees listed from side to side. He’d entered the park as a shortcut to his home, or rather, his father’s home with his new wife. What was she? Ten years older than Bryson?

She could be my damn sister!

Again, he shook his head and was angry for forgetting the state of his alcohol-soaked brain. At this early hour, he was the only one on this trail, so he was alone with the scars of his past and present.

Realizing he was actually on a trail, Bryson paused and looked around. The tall shagbark hickories and rosebushes blocked his view, and his heavy eyelids didn’t help.

Wiping his hand over his face, he checked the bottle in his hand. Half full. He could grab another when he got home before hopping into the shower. His privates were starting to itch, and he pondered if he’d contracted an STD.

No, he knew he’d been Gabriella’s first. He hated himself for that. Maybe they could’ve had something. Bryson chuckled a mirthless laugh. His father would say she was below his social standing, and that would be the end of that.

His mind was awash with self-disgust. And Bryson’s memories, both old and recent, refused to abate in this self-inflicted, weakened state.

Coach watching him in the locker room. Coming up behind him. Pinning him against his locker, pressing the full length of himself against him. Into…

He broke into a light jog until his inebriated brain sent the message that it couldn’t handle all the bouncing. Nope. He could never tell dear old dad what happened that day, or the others that followed. Somehow, it would turn into his fault.

Not strong enough. I was asking for it. Queer.

It wasn’t Bryson’s choice to live with his father and stepmom. He supposed most people would envy the various creature comforts, complete with an ever-present waitstaff. But that was only because they had no idea what a prison it was. The price his soul paid by staying there. He had no independence. No freedom. No sense of self. The on-site caretakers might as well have been prison guards.

Everything was orchestrated by his father and the others to maintain control. Except for one thing.

Bryson had begun drinking and using after he’d been repeatedly violated by his coach. And guess who’d provided the illicit drugs and drink? Yep, Coach himself. The man had been intent on screwing Bryson in every possible way.

The only thing that freed him from the perv’s clutches was graduation day. It should have been a day of celebration. But he’d traded one prison for another when the tassel was moved to the other side of his mortarboard.

The night before graduation, his father had dropped the bomb. Bryson’s “behavior” had proven he couldn’t be trusted to go off to college. He would live under his father’s roof and be given a position at his father’s company while one of the assistants monitored his progress in obtaining an online degree. If he refused, he’d be cut off financially…forever.

At that point, nothing mattered except for the next pill.

And doing whatever the bastards told him to do.

Oh sure, Bryson had a title at his dad’s company, but the salary was basically a glorified allowance.

Trying to be optimistic, Bryson had rationalized that the job might bring him closer to his father. A way to connect. But then dear ole Dad had killed that pipe dream by refusing to let him do any meaningful work. It was a slap in the face. Once again, the great Albert Gilroy had made it clear that he had no respect for his only son. The stares from his coworkers and the whispered insults were more salt in a wound that ran soul-deep.

Could he blame them?

He spit to free himself of the bile rising in his throat. Everyone always told him how lucky he was, but they had no idea. The booze, drugs, and girls never made him feel any better. Worse, actually. It was all an act. A house of cards.

“Bry…son.”

What the hell was that? It’s official. I’m losing it…

“Bry…son.”

Bryson whirled to his left, trying to locate the source of the whisper. Adrenaline punched through his system, fight warring with flight enough to tangle his legs. He nearly tripped over his own feet but managed to stay upright.

Coach? Shit. It can’t be. Can it?

Steeling all his nerves, he willed his tired eyes to search the surrounding trees. There was nothing on the trail or in the woods. He picked up his pace, careful not to upset his intoxicated mind.

“Bry…son.”

The whisper came from the right this time. Or had he just gotten turned around? Was he going back the way he’d come?

“Bry…son.”

He whirled around and stumbled over a tree stump in his path.

Where the hell did that come from? Jesus, get control of yourself.

He grunted with frustration, wondering how he’d gotten so far off course. He’d come this way countless times, and he’d never passed that stump before.

Chicken. Baby.

“Bry…son.”

As he swiveled, his brain sloshed against the inside of his skull. Had he seen something move in the trees? In the predawn shadows, he couldn’t make anything out.

Reorienting himself toward the direction of home, he stumbled toward the path, lurching over the soft, sandy soil.

He walked into a couple of branches before getting back on the open trail. With a few scratches on his face, he finally began to make some headway.

“Bry…son.”

This time the whisper was closer.

His face pressed against his locker. The scent of stale sweat.

Raising his beer bottle into the air like a club, Bryson charged toward his tormentor hiding in the trees, ready to fight. Bursting through the tree line, he did his best warrior impersonation. “Come on out, you fucking coward!”

There was movement on the ground, and then an explosion.

White wings flashed and swirled around Bryson’s spinning head. Orange beaks and feet streaked his vision, flying wildly away. The flock of seagulls assaulted Bryson’s senses, and he winced from the pain their cries caused. He’d interrupted their breakfast, and they were enraged, exacting their revenge as they flew away.

As their angry rant diminished, Bryson realized his right arm was wet. His rolled-up sleeve was soaked, drenched in lukewarm beer that was dripping off his elbow.

“Just perfect. Story of my damn li—”

A plastic bag slid over Bryson’s head, wrapping and twisting around his face and neck, cinching tight. He filled his lungs to scream but only managed to suck the bag into his gaping mouth.

Swinging wildly, Bryson lashed out with the empty beer bottle, smashing it against something. The grip slackened on the bag, and Bryson wrenched himself free.

Sprinting away with his only weapon, he fumbled with the bag around his neck using his free hand. His exhalation reeked of beer and clouded his vision. But the inhalation was worse. He was suffocating, sucking in the moist plastic bag and not much oxygen. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get the bag off. It was knotted around his neck.

Through the fog, he could make out a figure. A head, arms, shoulders. Approaching. Unwavering.

His lungs screamed for air, desperate to expand. He dug his fingers up under the front of the bag and sucked in what little air was available with a strange, high-pitched whistle. He could feel his pulse pounding in his ears. Running blind and out of breath, he tripped and crashed to the ground, only throwing his hands out at the last second.

The bottle he’d been carrying shattered on a rock. Pain tore into his palm. Unable to clearly see, he pushed to his feet. His heart raced as his lungs futilely gasped for even a mouthful of air.

With both hands free, Bryson clawed at the strings wrapped tightly around his neck. A desperate fire burned in his lungs as if he’d been underwater for too long as the plastic, once again, was suctioned up his nose and into his mouth.

He tried biting through it, but then he was yanked backward by the collar of his shirt.

The plastic pressed tighter against his face, further blurring his vision and choking off the last remnants of oxygen. Tumbling back, Bryson slammed into something hard. Stars danced in his vision from the impact of his head against what had to be one of the many trees in the park.

A shadow fell over him. His assailant. As he tried to sit up, thick leathery hands came down around his neck, crushing Bryson’s larynx. He was pressed against rough bark. He needed to get his coach’s hands off him.

Stop touching me!

Bryson clawed at the gloved hands, but his arms betrayed him, growing weaker from the effort. They were tingling. He could barely feel them.

“Bry…son.”

A face pressed against his.

Not Coach.

Heat radiated off his attacker’s forehead as he pressed it hard against Bryson’s.

Bryson’s pleas for mercy dwindled to whimpers and then became unspoken altogether as darkness overcame him.

I’m sorry, Gabriella.

He was sorry for all the others too. All the girls he’d forced into the spider’s web.

Bryson’s arms fell limp at his sides, his distorted features became lax and still behind his mask, and the world faded away with each thud of his heart…until that was gone too.

Chapter Two

Shadow Island Interim Sheriff Rebecca West drummed her fingers on the steering wheel of the cruiser while she waited for Senior Deputy Hoyt Frost to join her. She still couldn’t believe it.

Another dead body on this peaceful little island?

Found on the day the island’s previous sheriff was laid to rest?

In fact, she’d only been at the oceanside post-funeral get-together a few minutes when they’d received the call.

Unbelievable.

Worse, she hadn’t even gotten a taste of Meg Darby’s famous peach cobbler.

Heaving out a long breath, Rebecca yanked her inner drama queen back into the far corner of her being. Not eating cobbler was certainly not worse than a dead body, but dammit…

Another case so soon after the last was as unexpected as it was unwelcome.

But here she was, waiting for her lead deputy to change into his uniform so they could head to Sand Dollar Park to investigate. When Hoyt folded his long legs into the SUV, he was still buttoning his shirt.

“Couldn’t find a telephone booth to change in, Clark Kent?”

The corners of Hoyt’s mouth turned up, deep wrinkles furrowing paths around his dark blue eyes and mouth. “Haven’t seen a phone booth since,” he frowned, “hell, I don’t know. Had to make do in the back seat of my truck.”

Rebecca glanced down at her trusty khakis and navy polo shirt and was glad that she’d gone home after the burial to change out of her dress. Since she was only supposed to have worked one case after the late sheriff had knocked on her door begging for help, she didn’t have a uniform. Only a cobbled-together duty belt given to her by Deputy Frost’s wife.

Speaking of Angie…

“Your lovely wife okay with you having to leave so quickly?”

Hoyt adjusted himself so he could tuck in his shirttail. “Yeah, she was fine, but Boomer was not.”

Rebecca smiled at the thought of the long-haired collie. “Pouting?”

“Full force.” Hoyt buckled his seat belt. “Those puppy eyes should be illegal.”

Thrusting the transmission into drive, Rebecca took off. She wasn’t only driving because Hoyt had to change. He was barely back on duty after an emergency appendectomy a couple of weeks back. She’d taken a bullet to the vest during their last case, and it’d left quite the bruise, but she was in less pain than her deputy.

Her duty belt wasn’t the only thing that was cobbled together. The sheriff’s department staff was too.

She was serving as the interim sheriff to a group of exactly four deputies. Hoyt, the most senior, still wasn’t allowed to drive per doctor’s orders. Darian Hudson, the youngest of the group, was supposed to be on paternity leave, cuddling his new baby girl. Like Hoyt, he’d come back after the death of his sheriff. Trent Locke…ugh.

Rebecca growled low in her throat just thinking of him. If she wasn’t so desperate for coverage, she’d use her interim powers to take him and his badge to the street.

That left Greg Abner, a sixty-one-year-old mostly retired deputy, to fill out their ranks. He was only supposed to work part-time, but since Rebecca had been on the island, he’d been pulling many more hours than that.

“Oh…you’re going to need to drop me back home since Angie needed my car.”

“I’m sorry about this, Frost.” She jerked her head in the direction of the gathering on the beach behind them. “I would’ve liked to hear more stories about Sheriff Wallace. And I hated to pull you away.”

“It appears we’re never gonna catch a break with all the crap going on around here. That means we’ll be working together a long time.”

She felt his gaze on the side of her face, clearly checking for her reaction. She offered a noncommittal “um” in response.

“Anyway, I have plenty of time to chew your ear off about Alden. And I think it’s time you start calling me Hoyt. ’Kay, Boss?”

“I’ll call you Hoyt if you’ll stop calling me Boss.”

“Chain of command, I’m afraid. Not gonna happen.” Hoyt’s smirk was so wide she could see it in her peripheral vision.

“Can you tell me what dispatch said? What are we walking into here?”

“I don’t know much. Melody said a witness is waiting for us at the park. Stated they think, emphasis on think, that they found a dead body at a picnic table.”

A dead body was never good news. But on the heels of finally laying the late Sheriff Alden Wallace to rest, it was almost too much to bear.

Rebecca’s stomach growled, and she briefly pondered if the person at the picnic table had died of starvation like she was sure to. To no fault of the witness, the interim sheriff and her senior deputy had been called away before either of them could try the homemade cobbler and barbecue being served at the wake.

Hoyt slumped in the passenger seat, gazing idly out the window, apparently unaware of her hunger pangs. Clearly, he was mourning. Having to delay burying the man so they could catch a kidnapper and stop a child sex trafficking ring had taken its toll on the whole sheriff’s department. But they’d saved three little girls and busted up the ring…for how long, she didn’t know. There was always another scumbag to replace the ones they took down.

Rebecca had been relaxing at the makeshift beach wake they’d held for Wallace. She was especially enjoying spending time with Boomer.

Maybe once I settle down, I can get a dog. Of course, I’m never home long enough. Not very fair to a loyal companion.

Refocusing on the task at hand, Rebecca pondered how calm Deputy Frost had been when he’d relayed the message about the corpse just a few minutes ago. Perhaps she needed to give him more credit than she had been.

She made a mental note to not only get the witness’s full statement but also their shoe prints and contact information. Hoyt’s deep sigh drew her back to the present.

“You okay?”

“I just can’t believe this shit.” Hoyt sat more upright, his hand moving to his healing side with the movement. “Can’t even put Wallace to rest, and we’ve got this to deal with. What the hell has happened to my idyllic home?”

“Ya know, I was just thinking the same thing. I remember Shadow Island being a sleepy little town where nothing much happened.”

The Yacht Club popped into Rebecca’s mind. The secretive organization of rich, elite men. Had they been operating here back when she was just a little girl playing on the beach?

She sighed. The beach.

Now the members would party on their yachts and make pit stops along the beach to pick up girls and drugs. And by girls, sadly, it was literally girls, not young women. Teenagers. So far, every local she’d spoken to knew something about it, but not much. Just the rumors they’d heard from other locals over the years.

All except one young woman who’d left town following the death of her best friend and her own subsequent assault. She had been to a few Yacht Club parties and knew faces and names. At least, she had said as much in the brief conversation Rebecca had been able to have with her. Once.

Serenity McCreedy had never come back in after giving her victim statement. Her father had said she needed to get away to heal and asked they respect her need for privacy. Rebecca wasn’t sure how much of that she believed, but she also wasn’t going to hound a barely legal teenage girl to get her to talk about one of the scariest moments of her life.

Especially when the Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney didn’t need her testimony, since Rebecca had gotten a full confession and three officers had witnessed Stacy McCreedy’s assault, which was the name on her birth certificate.

“We were a quiet little island. Alden handled most of the calls by himself, even. Of course, we’d still run the domestics, the property disputes, the kids caught stealing bikes, and typical tourist bullshit. But mostly, that was it. Nice and boring, just the way I like my job. And home every night twenty minutes after the end of my shift.” Hoyt threw a mischievous grin at her. “Hell, sometimes Alden would even finish up my paperwork so I could leave on time.”

Rebecca’s head bumped into the Explorer’s headrest with the force of her snort. “Lemme just stop you there. You’re going to do your own paperwork tonight, Deputy Frost.”

It was good to laugh and joke. It was what cops did to relieve the tension caused by their job. But part of her wondered if there really had been so few crimes. Or was it possible that Sheriff Alden Wallace had hidden most of it? Had the previous sheriff turned a blind eye, and the steady misdeeds over the last few weeks were the real norm? That was a terrifying thought.

Only a few days ago, they’d stopped three little girls from being sold after getting kidnapped. Had that happened here before without any reports being filed? The idea turned Rebecca’s stomach.

“Everything changes, even us. If things really are changing here, I’m glad you’re the one in charge of taking care of it.”

Rebecca glanced over at Hoyt, but he was focused outside his window. Was he goading her again?

“What makes you think I’m sticking around?”

“Well, you did rent that house for three months. I think we can win you over before that runs out.”

Rebecca groaned just thinking of the little Sand Dollar Shores cottage she’d barely spent any time in since her arrival on the island. It was the home her parents rented each year when she was little. Rebecca had chosen it to steep in the memories of her mom and dad and to just relax a little.

She snorted again. “I rented a vacation house. So I could take a vacation. Not so I could go back to work. I wanted to sit back and drink craft beer, get sunburned, eat some fish, and read some books. Then, and only then, did I plan to think about what I’d do next.”

“Still trying to figure out what you wanna be when you grow up?”

She flipped him the bird. “Funny.”

Why did he even want her to be sheriff? Most men his age would refuse to work for a younger person, especially a woman nearly twenty years his junior.

Her father had been sixty-one when he was brutally murdered, only a few years older than Hoyt now. She briefly wondered what her dad would be doing if he hadn’t been killed. Would he be on Shadow Island? This was the time of year they’d always vacationed. She’d still be with the FBI but would have joined them unless she was stuck on a case. Which meant she wouldn’t be acting sheriff now.

Deciding to get this out in the open, Rebecca cleared her throat to get Hoyt’s attention. “Why do you keep insisting I take on the role permanently?”

Hoyt turned to face her as much as his seat belt would allow. “Because I don’t want to stand in Alden’s shadow.” His blunt response mirrored his expression, one as serious as any she’d seen from him.

“Oh.”

“Alden was my best friend. A great guy. A great cop. And politically savvy. I was at his side for most of that. If I became sheriff, I’d always be compared to him. And always come up short. At my core, I’m a deputy. Not a leader. To be sheriff, you need to be both. That’s not me. It’s you.” He opened the glove box. “Besides, you’re the one who signed the paperwork when Alden died.”

Turning into the park’s entrance, Rebecca put the Explorer in park before throwing her hands up in frustration. “I was the only deputy not on leave. Someone had to sign it!”

Hoyt held his hands out in an open shrug. “Round here, we’d say that was God’s plan. So just accept it, Sheriff West.” He opened the door and slammed it shut, as if that settled the matter.

Rebecca was going to be sheriff whether she wanted the role or not.

She’d parked in the small lot, not wanting to disturb any potential evidence in an effort to get closer to where the caller had said they thought they’d seen a dead body. Until the scene could be investigated, Rebecca couldn’t be sure how wide any evidence might be scattered.

She slid out of the Explorer, her shoes sinking into the sandy soil. Sighing, she reached for the bag she’d recently begun storing behind her seat.

Tossing it on the floorboard, she unzipped it, and pulled out a pair of coveralls and old sneakers. Dropping the sneakers, she stepped out of her work shoes into the coveralls and wiggled her foot into the first sneaker. Repeating the process, she was covered and ready to work. She tossed her shoes into the back seat where they wouldn’t get ruined and hoisted her bag onto the driver’s seat.

She pulled out her modified utility belt. The sheriff’s office didn’t have one small enough to fit her, so two of the deputies’ wives had thoughtfully made one for her. It worked just fine, for now. If she was honest, she was growing rather attached to it.

Shrugging the coveralls into place over her shoulders, Rebecca zipped them up and walked around the SUV to meet her deputy while settling her belt into place.

Hoyt glanced over at her and grinned, transforming his stern expression into a charming one. “Are those hand-me-downs from your big brother?” He nodded at her outfit, lips pressed together in a clear effort not to laugh as she rolled up the too-long sleeves. She’d already taken a pair of scissors to the legs so she wouldn’t trip on them.

Rebecca lifted an eyebrow at her senior deputy but ignored how much her outfit was amusing him. “One of the good things about living close to so many bases in D.C. is all the secondhand gear you can get.” She held her hand out to him and waggled her fingers.

Hoyt passed over the crime scene camera they kept in the cruiser and shrugged. “Why are they shiny?”

“Waterproofing. It seems wherever I go on this island, I encounter something wet.” She let the word hang in the air, and Hoyt smiled.

Rebecca approached a ghostly pale man in red basketball shorts and a tie-dyed t-shirt who stood at the edge of the lot. She lifted her badge and introduced herself.

“I’m Sheriff West. Are you the citizen who called 911?”

The man nodded, his lips so deplete of blood flow, they were blue. “I’m Jeff Calhoun.” His dog tugged at his leash, and Mr. Calhoun leaned down to pet the miniature schnauzer. The dog rolled onto his back for more. Straightening back up, the witness looked from Rebecca to Hoyt and back. “I was just out walking Moose and wanted to refill my water bottle.” He held it up and shook it, indicating the task had gone unfulfilled. “We both get pretty thirsty in this heat.”

Rebecca was pleased Hoyt was recording the statement in his notepad. “What happened?”

“I knew there was a drinking fountain by the smaller picnic area, and so we headed that way.” Mr. Calhoun shuddered and inhaled an uneven breath.

“I know this can be upsetting. You’re doing a great job. Please tell me what you saw.”

“Thanks, yeah. Okay, so when we came into the clearing, I noticed someone sitting oddly at the picnic table. But I wasn’t even sure it was real because there was a bag streaked with red over the head. It almost seemed like a Halloween stunt.” He shook his head before sighing. Moose tugged at his leash again.

“What happened next?”

“I was going to move closer to inspect, but then Moose started whimpering. He backed away like he was scared. And I, I looked again at the table and…oh god—” Mr. Calhoun slapped a hand over his mouth and turned away.

Rebecca placed a hand on his back and patted gently. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

Their witness nodded, straightened, and wiped his arm across his mouth. “Sor-sorry. That’s basically it. Moose was freaking out, so we hightailed it away from there. I called 911, and she told me to wait until you got here.”

“Thank you for that. I know reliving that wasn’t easy.” Rebecca removed a business card from her breast pocket and handed it to Mr. Calhoun. “If you need someone to speak with, to help you deal with what you’ve seen, call the number on that card, the medical center.”

Mr. Calhoun glanced at the card before shoving it into the pocket of his shorts. The schnauzer was officially done and made it clear he had better places to be. Rebecca bent and petted the dog’s uncropped black and gray ears, giving one a slight tug. She wanted to put the man and his companion at ease. Kneeling next to the dog was less threatening.

“I just have a few more questions before you go. Can you tell me if you noticed anyone suspicious in the area while you were walking this little cutie?”

He shook his head. “No, no one.” He smiled down at Moose before shifting his gaze to her.

Rebecca ran through the rest of her questions with the same result. Nothing had seemed unusual or out of the ordinary until he’d stumbled upon the body.

“We’ll need to get an imprint of your shoe for exclusion purposes.” Rebecca gestured to one of the CSI techs who’d just pulled in. She recognized him as one of the attendants of the funeral. Lance Something-or-other. No wonder he’d gotten there so quickly.

“Oh, uh, sure. Can we make it fast? I don’t want Moose to get overheated.”

Standing, she extended her hand and shook Mr. Calhoun’s. “We appreciate your time and will work as quickly as possible.” She nodded at the CSI tech, who nodded his agreement. “Thank you for reporting this and waiting around to speak with me. Please don’t hesitate to call that number if you need it.”

Hoyt handed him another card. “Call if you think of anything.”

Once Mr. Calhoun’s shoe print had been obtained, he made his escape. He moved to the far side of the small parking lot, with Moose leading the way, and disappeared down the road from which they’d come in.

Rebecca exchanged a look with Hoyt. “No time like the present. Guess we should see what freaked out Mr. Calhoun so much he almost lost his lunch.”

They walked in the direction the witness had indicated and were soon gobbled up by the trees. It was at least ten degrees cooler in the shade. She almost missed the narrow trail that veered off from the one they’d been following.

“Sign’s down.” Hoyt indicated the Picnic Area sign hidden behind a bush.

When they stepped into the small clearing, they both stopped to survey the scene.

Propped up at a cement picnic table was a man in a pink dress shirt. He was seated in an unnatural position, his head lolled over his right shoulder. It was impossible to ID the vic because his head was completely encased in a blood-splattered plastic bag.

“I guess that’s technically a red bag.” Rebecca sighed. “Frost, tape off the perimeter, then call the M.E. Coordinate with the crime scene techs too. I have a bad feeling about this.”

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Shadow's Deadline by Mary Stone

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