He wanted the skull.
Captain Tom Bridger and the deputies under his command had been gathering bones on the wooded mountaintop for three hours, but snow was rapidly burying the search area and they still didn’t have a complete skeleton.
Tom crouched under the trees and pawed through brush and weeds and leaf litter. Without the skull and teeth they might never put a human name to the bones. If this was Pauline McClure’s skeleton they were reassembling, he had to know.
He couldn’t see a damned thing anymore. At one in the afternoon, the January day was dim as twilight and Tom was afraid the team might overlook dirt-encrusted bones in the deep shadows among the trees. Unhooking his flashlight from his utility belt, he stood and yelled to the other ten deputies in the woods, “Use your flashlights, guys, so you don’t miss anything. Another half-hour, then you can quit.”
From somewhere nearby he heard a groan, loud and drawn-out.
Dennis Murray, a lanky sergeant working six yards from Tom, said, “That’s the sound of a man freezing his balls off.”
“Hang in there, guys,” Tom called. “I’ll buy a steak dinner for the man who finds the skull.” Tom’s own fingers and toes had gone numb an hour ago, but he wanted that skull more than he wanted to be warm. Hell, I’m young and strong, he told himself grimly. I’ll survive a little frostbite.
As if to test his resolve, a gust rattled bare tree limbs above him and dumped snow on his head. His high-crowned, flat-brimmed deputy’s hat made Tom feel like Dudley Do-Right, but at the moment he was grateful for its protection. He shook off the snow and settled the hat back over his thick black hair.
“You think it’s her, don’t you?” Dennis asked. “The doc was sure that pelvis we found is a woman’s.”
“It could be anybody.” Tom tugged up the collar of his uniform jacket to keep melting snow from snaking down his neck. “Maybe a hiker who didn’t know the area and got lost.” Dropping to a crouch again, he dug through an inch of snow to a fresh patch of ground. The search had begun that morning, after tree-cutters clearing the mountaintop for construction discovered the skeleton of a human hand and alerted the Sheriff’s Department.
“If a hiker got lost anywhere in the mountains,” Dennis said, “we’d know about it. Besides, these bones are old and all chewed up. They’ve been here for years. And we’ve only got one outstanding missing person case.”
“Let’s just wait and see, Denny.” But he was right. Mason County, small and rural and tucked into the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, had a single enduring mystery, the subject of gossip and speculation ten years after the fact: What happened to Pauline McClure? A beautiful, wealthy widow in her forties, she’d vanished from her country estate and no clue to her fate had ever turned up.
Tom glanced over to find Dennis watching him through the falling snow.
“I’d think you’d be real excited about finding her.” Dennis swiped flakes off the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses. “Considering how long your dad spent on the case.”
Dennis had worked with Tom’s father, John Bridger, but probably had no idea what a toll the unsolved McClure case had taken on him and his family. “Whoever it is,” Tom said, “our job’s the same—find out how she ended up dead on top of a mountain.”
He bent to his work again, scraping away snow and lifting decayed leaves layer by layer. His gloved fingers brushed something solid.
He kept digging, carefully, a little at a time. Definitely something there.
Leaning closer to the ground, he focused the flashlight beam and pushed aside bits of crumbling leaf matter. A set of human teeth grinned up at him.
Rachel Goddard adjusted her stethoscope and leaned into the cage to check the bulldog’s heart and lungs. She got a sloppy lick on the chin in greeting. “Oh, yeah,” she said, laughing, “I think you’ve fully recovered, lover boy.”
Tom Bridger’s English bulldog, Billy Bob, was ready to go home after his teeth cleaning, but Tom hadn’t kept his pickup appointment. Delayed at work, Rachel assumed. Clients had been telling her all day that something mysterious was happening on Indian Mountain north of town and the whole Sheriff’s Department was up there. Couldn’t be a lost child—thank God—because if it were, the whole county would have been alerted and half the adults would be helping with the search. What, then? A dead body? A murder victim? With a shudder, Rachel shook the thought away.
“Dr. Goddard?” Shannon, the chubby young receptionist, stood in the doorway. “You’ve got a call. A woman named Leslie Ryan. She said it’s urgent.”
Aware of her suddenly racing heartbeat, Rachel gave the bulldog a quick scratch on the head and closed his cage. What on earth could Leslie be calling her about? She strode up the rear hallway to her office, and as she walked she brushed her auburn hair off her cheeks and smoothed her lab coat, almost unconsciously putting herself in order to face bad news.
In the office, she stood for a moment looking out the window, her attention caught by the procession of deputies’ cruisers moving up Main Street in the snow. Whatever had happened, it must be over now. She would find out what was going on when Tom picked up Billy Bob.
She was procrastinating. Pick up the phone and find out what this is about. She ran her tongue over dry lips and lifted the receiver. “Leslie?”
“Hello, Rachel. How are you? How are things going at the new animal hospital?”
Definitely bad news, if the straightforward assistant prosecutor couldn’t bring herself to get right to the point. Rachel envisioned Leslie in her spartan office in Fairfax City, clad in a plain suit, her blonde hair restrained in a severe twist at the nape of her neck. “I’m very busy,” Rachel said. “Most of my staff’s out with the flu. But you didn’t call to ask how I am. Tell me what’s wrong.”
She heard Leslie sigh. “Perry Nelson is petitioning for unsupervised weekends with his family, and his doctors are supporting the request. The hearing is week after next.”
The news hit Rachel like a kick in the gut and left her breathless, light-headed. “My God, he’s only been there seven months. They can’t turn him loose. He could go anywhere, do anything.”
“My reaction exactly,” Leslie said. “It’s absurd. The doctors claim that trips outside the hospital are essential to his recovery, but the man is a menace to society in general and to you in particular. I wanted you to know that I’ll go before the judge and oppose the request in the strongest possible terms.”
Rachel sank into her desk chair and closed her eyes for a second while she breathed deeply. It couldn’t happen. The thug who’d nearly killed her had no right to walk free again. But Nelson was a good enough actor to persuade a jury he hadn’t been responsible for his actions when he’d shot her. Now he’d apparently conned the doctors at the state hospital into believing he was no longer a danger. He might be able to win over the judge. He might get out. Then he would come after Rachel.