Shadow Island Series: Book Nine
No good deed goes unpunished.Reeling from guilt and haunted by the recent loss of one of her deputies, Sheriff Rebecca West doesn’t have time to recover before Shadow Island delivers yet another blow. The island’s most beloved teacher has mysteriously disappeared on the night of her retirement party, her wallet, keys, and cell phone still in her unlocked car. If Rebecca doesn’t want the missing woman to join the island’s growing list of corpses, she’s got to focus on the present.
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It was only a few days until school started again, and for the first time in three decades, Amy Washington wouldn’t be there to greet the year’s new batch of students. It was both sad and exciting as she looked around the school’s gymnasium where her former colleagues had gathered to say farewell.
Her party had been pushed to late summer since many of her fellow teachers had scheduled professional development classes and seminars to keep their licensing current. She understood that all too well. That was definitely one aspect of the position she wouldn’t miss.
As she peered around the room with its balloons and crepe paper bunting, her gaze landed on her dear husband of twenty-five years. Richard—or Buzz as he’d been dubbed by his parents as a child—seemed desperate to escape a conversation with the very talkative Pamela Radcliffe.
Buzz scanned the room, searching for a way out.
Amy’s heart clenched as she realized she needed to intercept their interaction before it was too late. Almost a year ago, Buzz was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It was the reason she was retiring, and it was a secret she held close.
Of course, her coworkers were under the impression Amy and Buzz were about to embark on a grand adventure, crossing off all the items on their shared bucket list. Lying to her friends had been difficult, but protecting Buzz’s pride was Amy’s priority.
After all, it was going to be an adventure. Just not the one she’d described. There would be no Fijian bungalow rental, no trip to explore their English roots in the UK, no Alaskan cruise. At best, she hoped for long walks with Buzz and spending time with their sons while he still knew who they were.
With her years of service to the school, Amy had been able to retire with her full pension at only fifty-two years of age. Many of her colleagues chose to retire as soon as they were eligible. They often cited unruly students, impossible helicopter parents, or onerous, short-sighted state mandates as the main reasons for running for the door. But that hadn’t been Amy’s experience.
She loved teaching and adored her students almost as much as she did her two adult sons. Although the students could create problems, they were all good at their core.
Amy knew many kids had struggles that were bigger than school and their latest assignments. Some of them were dealing with dysfunctional families, cyberbullying, sexual identity issues, and intrusive peer pressure. The issues facing kids today were more complex than many of her colleagues seemed to understand.
Which was what made walking away so difficult. Her kids needed her understanding ear and open-door policy. They needed an adult who tried to offer perspective and wisdom instead of judgment and generalizations about how lazy their generation was. Sometimes, they just needed a hug and a shoulder to cry on.
But as much as those kids needed someone like Amy on their side, Buzz needed her more. At just fifty-five, Buzz’s early-onset diagnosis was grim, and his symptoms had become increasingly concerning. Just last night, he’d grown agitated when he couldn’t find either of their boys in their room.
He’d searched the house, frantically calling their names. It had taken Amy more than an hour to convince him that the boys didn’t live there anymore and were actually adults. The pictures she’d shown him of their oldest son’s wedding had been knocked out of her hand in anger.
Finally, well after midnight, he’d fallen asleep. These challenging nights were becoming increasingly normal.
Yes, Buzz needed her more than the students, and she was going to be there for him. She’d already made arrangements with a very nice care center on the mainland. The house on Shadow Island would soon be listed for sale, and Amy would move into an apartment near the facility so she could be close to her husband.
So, yes…a new adventure. Just not one she ever expected.
After opening her gift basket filled with thoughtful presents for her “Bucket List Adventure,” as they’d called it—gifts she didn’t have the heart to tell them she and Buzz would probably never use—the partygoers began excusing themselves.
Principal Hill had steadfastly refused to allow any alcohol at the celebration, so many of the teachers, despite it being after nine, were headed to Pamela’s home to continue the party without the wet blanket administrator dampening their fun.
With Buzz safely at her side, Amy lingered behind the last of her colleagues streaming out the double doors of the gym.
“They’re going to miss you here. You’re one of a kind, you know?” Buzz slipped an arm around her waist.
Amy leaned against his shoulder, taking in one final glance around the empty bleachers. “Spending every moment with you is the best retirement gift I could get.” She lifted the oversize gift basket off the table, but Buzz took the heavy package from her.
He kissed her forehead before taking a step toward the exit doors. “Why don’t you turn off the lights, and I’ll put this out in the car? I’ll give you a moment to tell this old building goodbye.”
Buzz always understood her. They’d been high school sweethearts and married only a few years after she’d begun teaching in this very school.
Heaving a big sigh, Amy spun in a small circle. She could almost swear she smelled the faint aroma of burnt popcorn sold by the pep club. Her years here had included chaperoning dances in this gym, watching countless students compete in various sports, and participating in thirty graduation ceremonies. She could almost hear the girls’ heels as they clomped across the varnished hardwood of the gymnasium floor and onto the stage to snag their diplomas—their whole lives laid out before them.
She shook her head as she made her way to the metallic box that served as the light switch for the whole gym. When she inserted her key and flipped the switch down, the room fell into an eerie darkness. She pocketed the key and rushed toward the illuminated exit sign to join Buzz outside.
The night was dark and quiet with only the stars watching her. Even the moon was hiding, the barest sliver faint in the sky.
Crossing into the employee parking lot for the last time, Amy spied her faded green Civic. Since she’d come with Buzz, she hadn’t parked near a light. Of course, after decades of experience, she knew every bump and dip of asphalt as she passed the vehicles of her friends and coworkers to reach hers. They’d all walked to the after-party at Pamela’s home just down the street, so the lot was still rather full.
Amy’s hand lifted to her neck and lightly tapped the delightful locket she’d received, dangling from a rope chain. On one side was her first yearbook photo. On the other was the one taken this past year, her last one. Her entire career was encompassed in those two pictures.
She’d stared at the first picture, almost unable to recognize herself. Her smile was still white and beaming. But seeing the two faces side by side was a stark reminder of how much had changed. Buzz had always reassured her that her wrinkles were evidence of a life well lived, and he loved every single one of them.
The locket had been hers for only a few hours, but she already knew she’d cherish this gift from her colleagues for the rest of her years. It signified the chapter of her life as a devoted teacher. And now, Amy could turn the page and devote herself to being a wife to her beloved husband. With his failing memory fueling her guilt, she regretted not being there for him more throughout their marriage.
Tomorrow was the last weekday of the summer before classes began on Monday. It was an optional workday for her former colleagues, but not for her. That idea put a skip in her step, and she giggled a little. Her laughter fell silent as she reached her car and realized Buzz wasn’t there.
Amy scanned the parking lot, searching for her husband. “Buzz, honey, where are you? I’m here now. Place is all locked up.”
Her voice drifted out over the isolated expanse with no reply.
Sweat began to bead on her forehead despite the slight coolness of the evening air. Glancing inside her car, she noticed her lovely gift basket resting on the passenger seat. On the floor was the spare set of keys Buzz had used to open the door.
“Okay, think. He obviously made it to the car and put the basket inside. That shows cognition. Where would he have gone after that?”
Panic rose in her chest, and she tried desperately to squelch it.
“It’s fine. His episodes don’t last long. If I just keep calling his name, he’ll return once he comes to his senses.”
But what if he doesn’t?
Maybe the excitement of the party had been too much for him. Amy probably shouldn’t have dragged him along. Now he could be wandering the streets, getting injured or lost.
“Richard Buzz Washington, you answer me right now!” Her voice cracked as she shouted her command, silencing the crickets.
Think, dammit, think. Where would he go?
And then it hit her. As classmates at this very school, Buzz and Amy had often cut through the dune grasses at the end of the parking lot to gaze out at the ocean together. Sometimes, they’d sit on the shore and study the distant mainland, discussing their dreams for the future. If Buzz was anywhere, it was on that shore.
Worried about sand or water ruining her cell phone, she dropped the device on top of the basket, knowing she could still get to it if she needed.
Please don’t need it.
Grasping onto that sliver of hope, she headed toward the tiny path that led into the grassy dunes that rose up behind the school grounds.
This was the same path she’d led her students down innumerable times, inspired by her trips down it with Buzz. She might even have been the reason that trampled trail existed among the thick, wild grasses and rushes that grew tall enough to brush her shoulders.
The beautiful weather that came with spring was normally hard on her students. She’d learned early in her career that taking them outside to enjoy the sunny days was a better way to get them to focus than forcing them to stay inside while they all stared out the window.
And every time, even as she trudged outside with a stack of blankets, she swore that going out was only for her students, allowing them a chance to relax and refocus in the much-needed sunshine after the rainy, dreary days of winter. Taking them to the beach would’ve been frowned upon, but there were plenty of sandy hills covered in tall grasses where they could sit as she taught the day’s lessons. So long as they didn’t “get caught” by the administration, no one minded. It was the worst-kept secret of the school, but harmless.
There was no warm sunshine this evening, though. No students to teach, no Buzz by her side as she stepped onto the sandy trail.
The tiniest rustle of dried grass in the faint breeze was the only sound aside from her calling out to her husband. As the sand ate up her fervent pleas, she worried that Buzz couldn’t hear her even if he was in his right mind.
Amy searched the familiar path for his footprints or anything to indicate he’d come this way. For a moment, she debated going back for her phone. The flashlight would’ve been a useful tool. But a silvery crescent moon was reflecting off the waves, making the world brighter than it should’ve been after nine at night. Her eyes adjusted easily to the shadows.
Her inspection was cut short when she hung a right on the trail and met a pair of shoes facing her on the path.
“Buzz…oh!” She jolted to a halt, her hand still stroking her locket. The man, a shadow standing near a thick bundle of rush, didn’t move or speak, causing shivers to run down her spine. “I’m sorry. I was looking for my husband. Did you happen to see anyone else pass this way?”
Amy waited, but the man didn’t reply. Worried about how much time had passed since she’d last seen Buzz, she tried to step around the stranger, but he moved in front of her again.
She tittered nervously as her heart beat loudly in her ears. “Sorry about that. Just trying to get around and continue my search.” She stepped the other way, and he, yet again, moved with her. “I’m…” Peering closer at his face in the dim light, she recognized the man before her, though his name wasn’t as quick to follow.
He was glaring at her, though, which was odd.
“What are…how have…” Amy’s mind raced as she tried to remember his name. It was no use. Every one of her thoughts was devoted toward finding her husband. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to get out of your way. Just let me get around you, and I’ll be on my way.”
She stepped left.
The man’s hand shot out for her throat before she could utter another word. She was so startled she jerked back. Her brand-new necklace snapped.
“What are…?” The words lodged in her throat as her silver chain swung from his fingers, the same hand wielding a long metal blade.
He lifted the charm to his face, and the knife glinted in the moonlight. She froze.
“Scream, and I’ll make this so much worse for you.” He pried open the locket, sneering at the pictures inside.
The familiar voice from Amy’s past was one etched into her memory like her first day of teaching. She strove to keep her voice calm. “What do you—”
“Don’t talk to me.”
Like lightning, he threw the locket over her head. It glinted in the starlight and was gone. He grabbed her upper arm. His grip was like a vice.
Before she could even try to twist away, a terrible burning sensation seared across her neck. Her knees weakened as warmth trickled down her chest. She tried to raise her hand, to touch her throat, but her arms hung uselessly at her sides. What little air she had in her lungs seemed desperate to leave her, and when she tried to call to Buzz, she couldn’t form the words. The ground rushed up to catch her as she fell, collapsing into the tall, dry grass.
Why was this happening?
Even as life drained from her body, her biggest concern wasn’t for herself.
Oh, Buzz. Where did you go? Who will look after you? I’m so sorry, honey. I promised I’d take care of you, and now I’m leaving you alone.
She looked down at the blood saturating her blouse.
As life slipped from her grasp, Amy Washington remembered the young man’s name.
And she also remembered why he wanted her dead.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The old adage played on repeat through Sheriff Rebecca West’s mind as she stared at the phone in her hand. She’d only just returned home after visiting Arlington Cemetery, where Deputy Darian Hudson had been laid to rest. She hadn’t even managed to reach the front door of her rental and unlock it before receiving a call from the office.
Instead of going inside and collapsing on her bed like she desperately wanted to, she cleared her throat to steady her voice and answered. “Hello?”
“Sheriff West…” It was Melody from dispatch, her voice soft and hesitant.
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“I’m calling your cell instead of radioing out because I wasn’t sure if…well, if you were working today. And I knew you’d want to hear about this either way.”
That doesn’t sound good.
“What’s going on?”
“We have a report of a possible missing person at the Shadow Island School.”
Rebecca pressed her fingers to one temple. Please don’t be a child.
“What are the details?”
“Amy Washington, fifty-two-year-old retired teacher. Last seen at the school last evening for a retirement party.”
And just like that, instead of having time to decompress after the long and emotional drive, she had to investigate a possible missing person at the local K-12 school.
“I’m on my way.” Rebecca hung up, giving a small thanks that this time it wasn’t a missing child.
Maybe it was because she was emotional, maybe it was because she was still racked with guilt and grief, but she couldn’t stop second-guessing her decision to stay on Shadow Island.
Is Darian dead because of me?
Since she’d woken in the hospital two weeks ago, she’d been questioning all her decisions. The long, quiet days of her recovery had given her plenty of time to think and rethink every decision that had led to where she was today.
Going against the FBI to find her parents’ killers. Leaving DC to come to the island for vacation. Agreeing to help the local sheriff search for a missing teenager, then staying after he’d been killed in the line of duty. Taking on a high-powered organized crime group called the Yacht Club. Going up against a couple of local politicians time and again in the search for justice while digging up old cases and solving new ones.
And letting a good man get killed.
Bracing herself, she stepped off her porch and climbed into her SUV. It was white and tan with Sheriff emblazoned across the side of it in big, shiny letters. An honor, to be sure, except when it felt like a cage. Or like today, when it was more like the sword of Damocles.
It was because of Rebecca that she and her small band of deputies had been on that island, trying to take down a drug ring. In the end, they’d won the battle. The war, though?
We lost that…and so much more.
She had an assortment of injuries she was still recovering from, but she didn’t care about herself. Images of Ryker, a civilian caught in the cross fire, floated through her mind. Deputy Trent Locke had been shot in the thigh. And Darian…
Tears burned her eyes for the thousandth time that day as images of the young deputy flashed through her mind.
Darian had been hit in the lung, a freak shot that went in through the armpit hole of his bulletproof vest. Rebecca learned about his death when she’d gain consciousness in the hospital, and the pain of his loss hurt more than any of her physical wounds ever could.
Lilian Hudson was a widow now, and three-month-old Mallory would have to grow up without ever getting to know her amazing father.
It isn’t fair.
At first, it looked like everyone might be safe when Ryker Sawyer brought his small boat out to retrieve them. Ryker, the man she’d confessed to loving mere hours before the shoot-out, ended up getting shot as well, leaving him in a coma for days. So many people were hurt that night.
Because of me.
And it was all because Rebecca had been hell-bent on getting justice for a small-time drug mule who’d nearly been killed by a cartel for trying to get an “in” around the island.
Rebecca glanced down at her right arm as she turned off her street and merged with the crush of late-summer afternoon traffic. Her newest scars were visible below the short sleeve of her newly acquired uniform. Ryker and the deputies weren’t the only ones shot.
During the standoff, a bullet went straight through her bicep, leaving her nearly helpless against a man determined to give her a painful death. He was the leader of the group that’d laid in ambush, waiting for her. And she’d led her men—her friends—right into that trap.
His plan, and that of whoever had paid him, hadn’t succeeded. Instead, she’d managed to get all her men off the island while she stayed behind to hold off the shooters, ensuring the others could reach safety and medical care.
It had been a close call. So close, in fact, that when she’d passed out trying to bandage her wounds, she was certain she would die. She remembered it so clearly…
The night faded away as her body grew cold and heavy, her heart slowing as the blood drained from her body. Surrounded by dead enemies, alone and covered in blood, she succumbed to darkness with no strength left to fight back.
As her body twitched and cramped in pain, her only source of comfort was knowing she’d told Ryker how she felt. And it hadn’t been a heat-of-the-battle declaration. They’d both been safe and clearheaded. Even better, he loved her too. That memory was the only warmth she could cling to as her limbs went numb from blood loss.
Except she hadn’t died. Instead, she’d been saved, only to wake up to an even more painful reality.
One where she had to live every day knowing Darian’s death and the injuries to those she’d grown close to were all on her. She’d put her people between two warring groups—the Yacht Club and the Amado Cartel. While the cartel had effectively been neutralized, she figured the Yacht Club still had a grip on local drug running and human trafficking. One threat had been taken out, but the other remained a thorn in her aching side.
She pulled into the parking lot of the school, grinding her back teeth together as turning the wheel put additional strain on her healing ribs.
The shooting pain in her rib cage and the pounding in her fractured cheek and eye socket were a welcome distraction compared to the emotional pain. Two and a half weeks of healing wasn’t enough to allow the bones to fully knit back into place, though.
Hell, a solid blow to her chest might still be able to kill her if it landed right. Because of the locations of the breaks, she couldn’t even rely on casts or braces. A competent tape job of the area seemed mostly like placebo-effect bandaging at best.
The stitches from the knife wound in her side had come out two days ago. Now she only had the wound glue holding the inner part of it closed. One more reason for her to move slowly and carefully, so the pain wouldn’t send her to her knees and the cut wouldn’t tear back open.
She’d been cleared to go back to work only because she’d lied to her doctor about her pain levels. Sitting at home with nothing to do but think about everything had been a new kind of hell. The first few days, she’d relied on pain pills to get her through. They’d knocked her out both physically and mentally.
But they were a grim reminder of how easy it could be to fall into the trap of addiction with the garbage she was going through. Dependency on a narcotic wasn’t something she wanted to manage on top of everything else. After that realization, she tossed the pills and relied on over-the-counter painkillers.
Rebecca checked her face in the rearview mirror. The skin around her eyes was still slightly puffy and discolored from the beating she’d taken. ’Most every resident of this small town knew exactly what had happened to her. If, by some miracle, they didn’t, the fading bruises on her face and stiff movements would clue them in pretty quickly.
In the back parking lot, Hoyt and Viviane watched her as they waited beside an old faded-green Honda Civic. On the sidewalk that wrapped around the building, a woman dressed in leggings and a tank top paced while talking on her phone.
Rebecca pulled in a few spaces away from her deputies and opened the door. Taking a deep breath and holding it, she spun on her butt in her seat—keeping her back straight—and slid out of the Explorer. The air in her lungs was supposed to cushion any jolts to her body, but a twang of pain thrummed up and down her torso as her feet hit the ground. Thankfully, the broken bone in her foot was minor and barely caused her any pain.
There had to be a less agonizing way to get out of her cruiser, but she hadn’t found it yet. Stretching one leg down at a time pulled even more viciously at the new scar across her side. Releasing her breath slowly, she shifted her feet to turn and face her two deputies, careful to control her breathing with the exercises her doctor had recommended to help her heal.
“Hey, Boss.” Viviane smiled, fresh-faced and entirely too chipper. “We’re looking pretty snazzy in our new uniforms, aren’t we?” She eyed Rebecca up and down while twisting back and forth to show off their nearly matching, starched-stiff garb and gear. Rebecca even had the hat, but rarely wore it since it wasn’t required, per the dress code.
Despair filled Rebecca instead of the joy she usually experienced seeing her friend.
Fresh meat for the grinder. But Rebecca knew nothing that’d happened would be enough to make Vi reconsider taking on the deputy sheriff role.
Not even all my new bruises and scars could talk her out of this. How can I protect her when she’s out here with us?
Darian’s face as he crumpled after being shot flashed through Rebecca’s mind, blinding her to the two living people standing in front of her.
Come on. Get your shit together.
She took a deep, fast breath and winced as the pain of her expanding ribs drove away the last of the flashback. Her recovery time was over, no matter what decision she made in the future. She was on the job now and had to act like it.
“What do we have, Frost?” She ensured her blond hair was secured in her low ponytail.
Hoyt shook his head and nodded toward Viviane, arms crossed. He possessed the demeanor of a drill sergeant or a school principal, waiting for the student to mess up. As far as hazing went, it was minor. Still, Viviane gulped as her two superior officers waited for her to give the report.
“Miss Washington, age fifty-two, had her retirement party last night.” Viviane pointed at the car they were standing beside. “This is her Honda Civic, and she hasn’t been seen since last night. The woman who reported it, Marjorie Lamb over there, has already called everyone who was here last night to ask if anyone has seen Miss Washington since or knows where she might’ve gone. So far, nothing. We’ve checked the whole building. It’s clear.”
“Has anyone checked her house yet?” Rebecca peered into the car through the closed window. She noted that Viviane had addressed the woman as most people did with their teachers. Regardless of their age or marital status, students and parents tended to refer to them as miss or mister.
“Marjorie did before she called us. She spoke with the husband, and he thought she must’ve gotten up early to run errands before coming here for a meeting.” Viviane checked her notes. “Marjorie wasn’t sure why he’d say that, though, because Miss Washington’s not working at the school anymore. He told her the kinds of places she frequents, so we called around, but Miss Washington isn’t there either. We even patrolled the streets near here, asking if anyone had seen her. It was a no-go. That’s about where we’re at now. And you can see why we didn’t bother calling her cell phone.”
A basket filled with tissue paper and small gifts sat in the passenger seat with a set of keys on the floorboard and a cell phone on top of the basket. On the cell phone case was a sticker that read, Making a Difference, One Student at a Time.
Rebecca glanced around, surprised the car was still there. It was a car thief’s wet dream. Keys, phone, and even a present, all sitting there for the taking.
“The car isn’t locked, correct?” She reached for her gloves even as she asked.
“It’s unlocked. I checked. We’ve only been out here a bit longer than you.” Viviane moved her hand close to the glass but stopped before touching it so as not to taint any potential evidence. She might be new to the position of deputy, but she’d worked with the police and been around them since she was a girl. Hopefully, that meant she wouldn’t make a lot of the rookie mistakes so many first-years did.
Rebecca pulled on her gloves and opened the car door to check inside, noting that Viviane copied her action and donned her own gloves as well.
Exhaustion etched into Hoyt’s face like a second set of fine wrinkles. “We called her house phone. No answer. Washington didn’t answer that call either. Marjorie Lamb, our witness, confirms that’s Amy’s cell phone sitting on the basket there. She recognized it by the sticker.”
As the only one on the force who wasn’t wounded in the island ambush, the poor man had been forced to cover all the shifts for the first few days, with only Rhonda Lettinger and her force from the state police in Norfolk helping out as they could. Locke had come back after the first week, the gunshot wound in his leg—life-threatening at the time—having healed quickly enough once the wound was stitched closed.
Viviane had gotten her promotion and was sworn in last week. Rebecca had managed to drag herself in for that, since all she had to do was stand there and look pretty in her brand-new dress uniform, which had come in at the same time as Viviane’s. As the sheriff, she was there only as part of the backdrop, not wanting to mess up the pictures with her extra-colorful face.
She’d only succeeded in being presentable thanks to Meg Darby, Viviane’s mother. The older woman had been her ride and showed up two hours early to help her get ready with a color palette specifically designed to hide bruises. The ones on her face had faded to that horrid yellow-purple combination by then and were ultimately impossible to conceal.
Wesley Garrett, the man who’d been paid to kill her, had focused on her head and face during their fight. And he’d been an expert at inflicting suffering. His hands had been as hard as rocks, slamming into her cheeks and eyes. The crack of her orbital bone still echoed in her mind.
Dammit, woman! Get your head in the game. Garrett is dead. Darian is dead. Ryker is healing. You’re healing. Stop focusing on the past and focus on making sure Amy Washington doesn’t join the growing list of corpses.
Rebecca jerked her focus back to the job at hand. Viviane was going to be out on her own all too soon. And Rebecca would make damn sure she had everything she needed to stay alive and as safe as possible.
She attempted to take a breath without drawing attention to the wince on her face. “There are no obvious signs of a struggle. But she could’ve been forced to leave her things behind. Or left them of her own volition. We need to keep both possibilities in mind as we move forward. Did you already take pictures?”
Viviane nodded vigorously. Behind her, Hoyt gave a single nod. Rebecca started to lean into the car but stopped as the strain hit her healing bones, forcing out a wheezing groan.
“Let me get that for you, Boss.” Viviane darted forward, and Rebecca gladly stepped out of the way.
“Still hurting?” Hoyt eyed her up and down, a knowing and suspicious gleam in his eye. “Did your doctor really sign off on you coming back to work?”
“Yes, to both.” Rebecca didn’t look at him as he sighed gustily.
“You lied to him, didn’t you?” His tone was dour but had a tiny hint of amusement too.
Knowing she wasn’t going to get away with another lie while he was studying her face, she ignored the question completely. It didn’t matter if she’d lied to get released. She was on the job now. “Viviane, what did you find?”
“Cell phone’s dead. The keys fit the ignition, so they’re for this car. The gift basket has a bunch of gift cards, a bottle of wine, a coffee mug, an apple, some art supplies, and an empty jewelry box.” Viviane lifted everything from the vehicle and showed them, stacking the items in the basket that she held up.
“We gave her the gift basket last night.” An unfamiliar voice reached Rebecca from the other side of the car. “The art supplies were because she planned on taking up painting for her retirement.”
Rebecca peered over the roof at Marjorie Lamb as she joined them. “Did you find anyone who saw Amy after the party?”
“No.” The woman shook her head while scowling at the phone in her hand. “I tried calling her house again too. This time, her husband didn’t answer.”
Hoyt nodded. “Same when I called him a few minutes ago. But we have the contact information for Amy and Buzz, so we can try the house again later.”
Rebecca took a slow turn around the car, looking for signs of forced entry. “Can you please walk me through what happened last night that led to your discovery of her car today?”
“Amy retired at the end of the last school year, and we had a pretty big to-do for her last night.” Marjorie tossed her phone back and forth between her hands. “She’d been a teacher here for thirty years. All of us showed up. The teachers and admin, at least. It was the usual, watching a slideshow, sharing stories…we gave her that basket, she gave a speech. But we called it just after dark. We spend enough unpaid hours in this place. I can get the list of everyone who came, if you want.”
“That would be useful. Thank you. What time did the party end?”
“Around nine. Then most of us went over to Pamela Radcliffe’s house for a few drinks afterward. We’re not allowed to drink on campus, no matter the time of year. Some of the staff still party when they have an excuse.”
“Was Amy’s car still here when you left?” Rebecca poked through the items in the basket. It would’ve been more useful if the phone was still charged, but they could plug it in back at the station if they needed to. Maybe an elderly schoolteacher wouldn’t have bothered with little things like passcodes or facial identity.
Marjorie frowned and glanced around. “Yes, I’m pretty sure it was. I remember seeing Buzz walk past Pam’s house and thought maybe Amy and Buzz had changed their minds about joining us. But Amy wasn’t with him, so I guessed she wanted to hang out at the school a bit longer.”
“He was walking alone?” Rebecca confirmed. “Not in a vehicle?”
The teacher nodded to no one in particular. “Yeah, he was walking alone. And I’m sure the car must have been here when we left. Pam lives down the street, so I walked over. So did most of the others. I had my husband pick me up, since I’d had a few drinks.”
That put another wrinkle in things. Why didn’t Amy and Buzz drive home together?
There was no telling yet if Amy had left the school last night after Buzz had decided to walk home and then simply come back earlier today. She could have left the gift in the car for any number of reasons. None of the contents seemed to be perishable. Other than that, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the car.
“Is there a chance she came back for some reason? Perhaps to go to her old classroom? Maybe she was missing the school more than she thought and decided to visit while everyone set up their rooms?”
“Not too many people would’ve been working early today after the party. It’s an optional extra workday if we’re behind in setting up, so I doubt she’d come by for that. I don’t even know why I got out of bed to get here today.” Marjorie gave a rueful smile. “Besides, a few of the other teachers walked back here after Pam’s party and mentioned they’d seen Amy’s car in the lot.”
“Do you have any pictures from last night of Amy? Preferably where we can see what she was wearing?”
“Of course. I can text you one.” Marjorie lifted her phone and typed in the number Rebecca gave her, then turned her screen around to show them the picture. “She’s even wearing the necklace we got her. It was in the basket, but she put it on right away. We all chipped in for it.” She zoomed in on the picture of the woman beaming with pride next to her husband, showing off the jewelry she’d mentioned. A silver oval hanging from a matching rope chain necklace.
The phone in Rebecca’s pocket buzzed, indicating she’d received the picture. “I can see the security camera for the parking lot. Can you tell us who could get us access to that footage?”
“It only covers the entrance, so I’m not sure it’ll help. But I can ask the principal for it.”
Rebecca nodded. “Please do.” She watched as Marjorie headed for the building.
Viviane shifted uneasily. “Are we waiting for something?”
“Yup.” Hoyt nodded, then moved to the back of Amy’s car, pulling on his own set of gloves. “We’re waiting for her to get out of earshot.”
“Why?” Viviane dropped her voice to barely above a whisper and sidled closer to Hoyt.
Rebecca knelt and popped the trunk release. “So she won’t have to see what might be hidden in the back.”
The trunk swung open. Hoyt caught it partway and carefully raised it. “It’s clear. She’s not in here. Nothing is. Not even a jack.”
“You were worried someone had stuffed Miss Washington in there?” Viviane swallowed hard.
“Or she fell in there. Both were possible. Especially when the keys are sitting in the car like these were. In cases of falling, the sudden weight drop can cause the trunks on older cars to drop and close, trapping people inside. Always check the trunks.”
“She used to take us on excursions into the field during the spring.” Viviane blushed. “Miss Washington was one of my favorite teachers when I was in school.”
Considering Viviane’s age and how long Amy Washington had worked at the school, that made sense.
“She was a great teacher. All the kids loved her.” At Rebecca’s frown, Hoyt explained. “Miss Washington taught my boys. They liked her too.”
“Since you two are familiar with her habits and this location, go check if she went for a walk. I’ll swing by her residence and see if she’s there.”
Hopefully, this would turn out to be a silly misunderstanding. Rebecca could go for a nice simple case to ease her back into the job. And it would be good for Viviane’s first time too.
But something nagged at her, a whisper in her mind that refused to be silenced. The haunting doubt lingered, casting a shadow over what should be a straightforward investigation.
Something felt terribly wrong.
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