When Rachel Goddard turned onto Ben Hern’s property, she couldn’t see the other car barreling toward hers down the long, curving driveway. All she saw up ahead were the massive rhododendrons and trees in summer leaf that formed a screen on both sides. Even Ben’s house was invisible from this angle.
Rachel was good-naturedly teasing Holly Turner, her young veterinary assistant. “I’ve never seen anybody so excited about meeting a dog and a cat. Don’t you see enough pets at the clinic every day?”
“I know it’s silly.” Holly flashed her megawatt smile. “But his cat and dog are like celebrities, bein’ in a comic strip and on TV.” She paused for a fraction of a second before adding, “It’s so excitin’ to have somebody famous like Mr. Hern comin’ to live right here in Mason County. And to think you grew up with him!”
Rachel glanced at Holly, watched her tuck her black hair behind her ears, change her mind and let it drop against her cheeks again. Acting as if she were on her way to a date and nervous about how she looked. Maybe bringing her along on this house call hadn’t been a good idea. “You know, Ben is—”
Rachel swung her gaze back to the road, saw the blue car flying around the curve toward them. She wrenched the steering wheel hard to the right. Tires screeching, her SUV bumped off the driveway and crashed into a wall of greenery. Branches cracked, leaves slapped the windshield, Rachel and Holly bounced in their seats.
Rachel floored the brake. When the vehicle stopped, they seemed to be inside a shrub. Big rubbery leaves pressed against the windshield and windows.
“Oh my god,” Rachel gasped. Her heart banged against her ribs, the beat echoing in her temples. She saw everything through a screen of her own auburn hair, fallen forward over her eyes. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah—” Holly paused to gulp. “I’m okay.”
Rachel slumped forward against the steering wheel and blew out a long breath. “Was that Cam Taylor?”
“I think so. He went by so fast.”
Rachel’s mind had snapped a picture as the other car raced past and now produced it in surprising detail—the battered Ford with one front fender a different shade of blue than the rest of the car, the driver’s hands clenched around the steering wheel, his hair whipped into a fright wig by the blowback through open windows. “Has he lost his mind? For god’s sake, he could have killed us.”
With trembling fingers, Rachel pushed her hair out of her eyes. She looked around and tried to orient herself. All she saw was vegetation. She shifted the vehicle into reverse and began backing out slowly.
“Why do you suppose he was here?” Holly asked. “What business would he have with Mr. Hern?”
“Probably the same business he had with you and me. Begging for money. I guess he didn’t get it from Ben either.” The tires bumped over roots and rocks.
Rachel gave the vehicle more gas. Abruptly it popped free of its leafy trap and lurched back onto the driveway, throwing both of them forward against their seat belts. Holly yelped. Rachel struggled with the steering wheel, couldn’t straighten the tires fast enough, and slammed on the brakes just in time to stop the SUV from sailing off the driveway on the other side.
She sat still for a moment, clutching the wheel and willing her heart to slow down. Her mouth was so dry her lips stuck to her teeth.
Turning onto the road, Rachel wondered again where Ben had gone. Something about this situation gave her the creeps. To distract herself as much as Holly, she said, “I’ll tell you a secret—Frank’s going to be in Furballs, starting about a month from now.”
“Oh, wow!” Holly exclaimed. “Frank’s gonna be a star!”
Rachel smiled at the thought of her battered one-eared cat, rescued from a Dumpster, transformed into a celebrity. “He’d better not let it go to his head. If he develops a taste for caviar, he’s out of luck.”
As Rachel drove toward Mountainview, where her vet clinic was located, Holly chattered on about possible storylines for Frank’s fictional life. Rachel tried to listen, but she couldn’t stop thinking about Ben, and she hoped to see him drive past any minute, on his way home.
Holly’s voice trailed off when they approached an old blue car in the middle of the road.
“That’s Cam Taylor’s car,” Rachel said. “Maybe he had a breakdown.”
“I sure hope we don’t have to give him a ride back to town.”
When Rachel pulled up behind the car, she realized it wasn’t occupied. The driver’s door hung open several inches. “What on earth? Do you see him anywhere?”
They glanced around at the woods on both sides. Nothing but trees.
“He might’ve gone lookin’ for help,” Holly said.
“If he has a cell phone, he could have called.”
“Maybe he’s back in the woods,” Holly said, “you know, answerin’ a call of nature. But why wouldn’t he pull over, instead of…”
Rachel stared at the empty car, the open door, and full-blown dread seized her. She swung around Taylor’s car and parked on the gravel berm. “You stay here,” she told Holly. “I just want to take a look around.”
She got out and jumped over the drainage ditch, her pants legs brushing against the Queen Anne’s lace blooming there. A strip of land about ten feet deep, thick with weeds and wildflowers and vines, separated the road from the woods. Spotting a patch of poison ivy, Rachel hesitated to wade farther through the vegetation. She paused, pulled off her sunglasses, and squinted into the gloom under the trees.
A movement snagged her attention. She caught a glimpse of color, no more than a hundred feet in, before it vanished behind a tree. Light blue. The faded shirt Cam Taylor was wearing. Relief washed through her, and she opened her mouth to call out and ask if he was okay, but stopped herself. Of course he was okay. He was probably peeing against a tree and wouldn’t welcome her intrusion.
Taylor came into view again—his back, his hair, one gesticulating hand. Although Rachel couldn’t see another person, she heard two voices now, rising and falling. Taylor’s was the only one she recognized. The other remained so indistinct that she couldn’t have said whether it was a man or a woman. Only a few of Taylor’s words carried clearly. “…don’t have the nerve… dare you.” He was arguing with someone. Why here? Why in the woods?
Taylor moved, and she lost sight of him among the trees.
Rachel didn’t want to get involved in this.Sliding her sunglasses back on, she turned toward the road and her vehicle.
The crack of a gunshot made her spin around. Another shot rang out. Rachel dropped to her knees, ducked her head and covered it with her arms.
She waited, her heart thudding, her mouth dry. The birds had gone silent. Over the sound of her own raspy breath, she heard a thrashing noise, like somebody running through the undergrowth. A squirrel chittered furiously. Then she heard a car start somewhere in the distance.
A touch on Rachel’s shoulder made her flinch.
“You okay?” Holly crouched beside Rachel, her eyes wide with alarm. “Did somebody shoot at you?”
“No, not at me. Get back in the car,” Rachel said. “Call 911. Call Tom.”
“You call him.” Holly stood. “Come on. We need to leave here right now.”
Rachel scanned the woods as she rose, trying to pick out the light blue of Taylor’s shirt in the forest of green and brown. He could be lying on the ground, bleeding to death. “I think somebody shot Cam Taylor,” she said. “I have to see if I can help him.”
“No!” Holly gripped Rachel’s arm with both hands and tried to pull her away. “You’re not goin’ in there with somebody that’s got a gun!”
Rachel twisted her arm free. “Whoever did it is gone.”
“You don’t know that. You can’t be—”
“I heard him leaving. Holly, go back to the car. Call Tom. Tell him to send an ambulance. Right now!”
Rachel set off into the woods.
The tree canopy closed over her, shutting out the sun. She stuffed her sunglasses into her shirt pocket and pushed on. Slapping aside drooping vines, stumbling over fallen tree branches, she felt like a walking target.
He’s gone, she told herself. The shooter’s gone.
Please, God, let him be gone.
Why hadn’t she listened to Holly? She didn’t even like Cam Taylor. It was nuts to risk her safety for him.
He’s hurt, bleeding, he needs me.
She found Taylor on the ground under an oak tree. He’d collapsed at an odd angle, coming to rest with his right leg twisted under him, his left arm flung up over his face. Blood soaked the front of his shirt.
Feeling exposed and vulnerable, Rachel pivoted in a circle, searching for movement among the trees. She saw no one lurking in the woods, no sign anyone else had been there except for a path of trampled vegetation leading away.
Rachel bent over Taylor, but the stench of fresh blood and feces and urine made her gag and draw back. Flies already buzzed over the body, drawn by the odors. Rachel waved them away. They didn’t disperse, but rose to circle above Cam Taylor, waiting, like tiny planes in a holding pattern.
If there was any chance he was alive, that she could help him, she had to try. Holding her breath, Rachel knelt beside him. Pressing her fingertips to one side of his neck, then the other, she searched for a pulse.
He felt warm to her touch, as warm as life, and as still as death.