Authors: Carrie Stuart Parks
She lay still. Her heart beat in time to the patter of water. Her head seemed full of dust, her thoughts whirling around and hard to form. She needed to hook one, pin it down. Gotta think. That man. Think about that man. Where was he? He knocked her out, but for how long? He must've hit her and thrown her . . . where?
Her stomach heaved and throat burned. Did that dirtbag poison her? Give her bad stuff? She struggled like a bird caught in a net until her bound ankles rapped sharply against something metal.
The pain all over her body made her gasp and squeeze her eyes shut, pinching out rare tears. Wheezing short puffs of air, she waited until she could catch her breath. Another drop tapped her eye, and she jerked.
Lay still! Think.
She forced her muddled brain to sort things out. Metal. Plastic. A smell she couldn't place. She was folded into a tiny area. Like a car trunk, but small. If she was in the trunk of a car, it wasn't moving.
Opening her mouth to scream for help, she froze, then clamped it shut and listened. Beyond the tapping above her head, there was a hissing sound like . . . yeah, rain on leaves. She couldn't hear any street noise. So she had to be somewhere outside of Missoula.
She took a deep breath. His trunk was dirty. Gritty sand and gravel bit into her bare arm. He'd partially covered her with a stinking tarp. Edging her feet forward, she nudged the metal again with the sole of her sandal, then used her big toe to explore the shape. Slightly curved, a point at one side . . . a shovel.
Her brain screeched the word as she lurched away. Another drip struck her ear, then slid in like a cold tongue.
She'd been so stupid. Everyone said she could always spot a crazy. How'd she get sucked in by this one?
She lifted her face and the tarp slid to her shoulders, allowing a gentle, cedar-scented breeze to flutter her hair. Blinking rapidly, she tried to see around her.
This wasn't the trunk of a car, more like some kind of compartment inside a car or truck, and the top was open. Did he make a mistake? She bent her legs and tried to roll over. The tarp slipped more, letting the rain splash down her back, soaking her flimsy top. She rocked back and forth again, pushing, straining, almost, almostâ
please, I gotta get up!
“Yes,” she whispered, then froze again to listen. Rain sliced through the leaves, water rushed to her left, making her want to pee, and frogs croaked in the distance.
Twisting to her knees, she scrabbled at the rope binding her ankle. It was so tight! She concentrated, exploring the knot, tugging at a different angle. It movedâa tiny bitâbut it moved.
Furrowing her brow, she clawed at the knot like a starving alley cat in a Dumpster. Sharp jabs from fingernails broken to the quick added to the burn of her arthritis. The blood and rain made the rope slippery.
The drizzle fused with hot tears.
Come on, comeâ
“I shouldn't have left you alone.”
She jumped and banged her head. Sparklers flashed in her brain. A brilliant light blinded her, and she closed her eyes against the onslaught. “Ah, ah, ah . . .” She tried to form words.
“I'm sorry.” His voice was deep and rich. “I should have told you.”
She cringed from the voice. Told her? He was a crazy. He'd played her like a pro.
He cleared his throat. “Look.”
Keeping her eyes shut, she shifted back farther.
“Look,” the voice insisted.
She cracked open an eye. He aimed the flashlight at his hand, holding a roll of cash. A hundred-dollar bill showed on top. The hand gently swayed from side to side.
Licking her lips, she watched, mesmerized.
“I should have told you I enjoy a little fantasy.” He turned the cash upward. More hundred-dollar bills.
Her tongue snaked over her uneven teeth, her gaze riveted on the money.
“I'm going to untie you now. I'll pay you very well for your, uh, discomfort.”
“Yeah, you should've told me,” she said, then flipped her hair off her face and gave him a let's-party smile. That was better. She'd make a bundle tonight.
Effortlessly he lifted her out and untied her hands and ankles. She swayed as the blood rushed to her feet. He gripped her upper arm and steadied her against him. Warmth seeped from his body, and it felt good. She shivered.
“You're cold.” He slipped off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. She pulled it close. It smelled of wood chips with a hint of cologne. Very male.
“Business first.” She held out her hand, and he placed the thick roll in her palm, folding her bent fingers around the money and squeezing slightly. It hurt, and her grin slipped. She struggled to replace it.
He let go, and she quickly slid the money into the pocket of her skirt. “So, whatcha want?”
“Oh, I've paid for quite a lot, don't you think? So let's not rush.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “How old are you . . . Sherry, is it?”
“Matâuh, Cherry. My name's Cherry. I'm twenty.” Just adding six years. She felt thirty.
“Twenty? Okay. If you say so.” He touched her hair. “Perfect.” Letting go, he nudged her toward a peeling shack, and she stumbled toward it on still-numb feet. At least they'd be out of the storm.
They passed through the doorway, the darkness ebbing from the probing flashlight revealing a blanket spread on the dirty floor. Crude for a guy with his kind of money. She stepped on the blanket and turned to him, then slowly opened the jacket. She knew he'd like the way the wet top clung to her.
She jumped and snatched the jacket closed.
“I usually enjoy more . . . uh . . . outdoor sport. But it's raining, you see. That changes everything.” He illuminated his hand, now holding a syringe loaded with a clear liquid. “We'll just have to have fun indoors.”
“I don't do H. Not anymore.” She stepped away.
“This is special. You'll love it.” His gentle voice soothed and caressed. “It makes you feel like you're floating. Nothing hurts; it's all good.” He offered the syringe again.
She slowly sank down, and he crouched next to her. He smelled good. She focused on his jaw. “Do I know you?”
He paused, then shook his head. “I don't think so.”
“You look familiar.”
He shrugged. “I look like a lot of people.” Placing the flashlight next to him on the floor, he touched her hair, then pulled out rubber tubing.
She held out her arm. She'd always been able to spot a crazy, never been wrong. Never.
He shifted, knocking against the flashlight and rotating the beam toward a rotting wall, plunging her into darkness.
A handcuff clamped on one wrist, then the other. She started to scream, but a viselike grip caught her throat and squeezed.
She opened her eyes
. I must have passed out
. Her throat felt raw, her body broken. What a nightmare . . .
Blinking her eyes, she tried to focus. She was lying on her side, both hands stretched in front of her on the floor.
“Are you awake?” His voice stirred the hair by her ears.
“Good. Remember the numberâ”
“Listen to me. Twenty-five, six.” The light glinted off the handcuffs and a metal shape.
She'd seen a shape like that before . . .
The shape moved and rose.
She recognized it just before the hammer smashed her fingers, one by one.
I WOKE WITH A START. A GAPING MOUTH LINED
with gleaming teeth was inches from my face. Foul, hot air blew over me. The tongue splashed burning drops of saliva on my arm.
I rolled over in bed and watched a glint of sunlight stream through the curtains. Something made today different. Drowsy, I slid my leg under the covers to the cool side of the mattress. That side of the bed was undisturbed for over a year and a half. Since my divorce.
Winston sniffed my hair
. Something about . . . the skull! I bounded from bed, startling the dog, and sprinted to the bathroom. I showered and dressed in record time. The stapled and taped paper sack waited on the table in my studio.
After slipping on latex gloves, I took a craft knife and sliced into the side of the bag and nudged the skull free. A long-legged spider dropped from the eye orbit.
I gagged and bolted away, then took off my shoe and annihilated the bug. That was probably a significant arachnid to a
forensic entomologist. I debated saving the squished remains, then scooped them up with a paper towel and tossed the bundled mess in the trash. Let the entomologist find his own bugs.
Moving to the floor-to-ceiling shelves filling the west wall of the studio, I retrieved a plastic container from the bottom shelf. I opened it and selected a packet filled with modeling clay. I propped the skull on a sculpting stand, a high, three-legged wooden structure resembling a stool with a rotating top. Using the clay, I arranged the skull into a Frankfort horizontal plane, the angle used to photograph and reconstruct faces. Adding an evidence ruler, I snapped several digital photos from different angles. “Smile. You look mahvalous, dahling.”
I'm talking to a skull.
After taking measurements of the nasal spine, I lowered my face until I was level with the skull and gently rotated the top of the stand in a clockwise circle. I should've studied to be a forensic anthropologist. They could look at just the skull and be eighty- to ninety-some percent sure of gender. What little I did know still made me think the remains looked female.
I sucked in a deep breath. So, where was the rest of the body?
Aynslee, wearing pink flannel pajama bottoms and a short T-shirt, drifted into the room. Her long, ginger-colored hair tangled below her slender shoulders.
“Shouldn't you be hitting the books?” I asked. “You have an English essay due.” I'd started homeschooling my daughter last fall.
“I don't know what to write.”
“Your online assignment was an analytical research paper.” I pulled out a sketchpad to jot some notes on the cranium. “You need to start by identifying the genre, topic, and audience. You
could start with the audience. If they are like you, what are you interested in?”
“I don't know. Boys. Vampires . . .”
“I was thinking more along the lines of academic topics,” I said dryly. “Literature? Politics? History?”
“Maybe crime?” Aynslee asked.
I blinked. “Crime?”
Aynslee grinned. “It's not so much that it's interesting. I figured with all the stuff you have around here, it'd be easier to write.”
“Could I write about one of your cases?”
“It would need to be an adjudicated one.” I pointed at a three-ring binder on my shelves. “You can check through the newspaper articles in there.”
“'Kay.” She wandered over, pulled out the binder, and placed it on my desk. After browsing through it for a few moments, she unsnapped several pages and held them up. “I've found a couple. Which one should I write about?”
“Leave them on the desk and I'll look them up.”
“Also, could you look up that priest case? The one you're supposed to get a subpoena on?”
“Sure, once it arrives. Why?” I moved around the skull.
“Just wanted to read about it.” Her mouth stretched into a jaw-cracking yawn. “Whatcha doing?”
Her eyes widened when she spotted the skull. “Is that real?”
“Yes. Winston found it.”
“Uck, gross. I'm never letting that dog lick me again.” She came closer. “What happened to him?”
“Her.” I pointed to the bullet hole. “She was shot. I was
just getting ready to have Winston show me where he discovered her.”
“That's just so gross.” She started to leave, then stopped. “Are you going to have to take that”âshe pointed at the skullâ“that thing to Missoula or anything?”
“I don't know. Why are you asking?”
“My birthday's coming up next week, and there's a movie marathon starting this weekend. I could stay with Dad.”
A hot flash rocketed up my neck and across my face. I took a quick breath and waited for it to end. Robert rented an apartment in Missoula while waiting for the completion of his new home. “I'll think about it. In the meantime, did you finish your chores?”
“Almost. Don't think about the movie thing too long or the marathon will be over.” Aynslee started to leave, then paused. “We've got ants.”
I froze. “Are you sure it's ants? Not spiders?”
“Yeah. They're coming from over there.” She pointed to the cupboard under the studio sink, then shuffled from the room.
I thought I'd fixed that
. I opened the cupboard. Sure enough, the temporary plywood shelf was still there from when a leak under the sink rotted the cabinet bottom. A line of ants paraded from the crawl space under the house. If ants could get in, so could spiders. Resisting the urge to slap at my clothing, I found a can of insect spray and emptied it under and around the cabinet.
Fumes from the spray filled the room.
Time to leave and find a body
. The thought cheered me up. Dave was right; I really did have a sick mind.
Reaching through the security bars on the windows, I opened a few to let the room air out. After placing the skull in a fresh
grocery bag, I folded the top closed and stapled it shut, this time adding two strips of tape to keep it closed.
Any walk in the woods required some kind of weapon. Chances were slim that an irate black bear or cougar would see me as a potential meal, but a startled moose could be in need of shooing off with a loud noise. Hopefully. As for a grizzly, well, I'd just have to pray I didn't have that problem. I debated between my SIG Sauer pistol and the .223 rifle, settling on the .223. The bullets were cheaper.