Table of Contents
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First published in 2009 by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Alane Ferguson, 2009
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
The dying breath : a forensic mystery / by Alane Ferguson. p. cm.
Summary: When her ex-boyfriend starts stalking her, seventeen-year-old Cameryn must use her knowledge of forensic sciences to protect herself.
eISBN : 978-1-101-16272-9
[1. Stalking—Fiction. 2. Forensic sciences—Fiction. 3. Coroners—Fiction.
4. Interpersonal relations—Fiction. 5. Mystery and detective stories.] I. Title.
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To Brent Safer, who gave me Ireland, and his beautiful wife, Kathy, my true SL!
“THERE’S NO WAY
I can let you in that house with the remains,” Sheriff Jacobs told Cameryn. A small man, the sheriff leaned his hip against the porch’s wooden railing, his expression obscured by the sun’s reflection on his glasses. He took a long drag from his cigarette, sending a plume into the frigid February air, then lazily flicked the ashes onto the snow-encrusted bushes below. “Sorry to smoke in front of you—I wouldn’t do it ’cept it cuts the smell. There’s not another odor in this world like the stench of a decaying human and I, for one, can’t stand it.” Another drag, and then, “And I’d appreciate it if you stopped rolling your eyes at me, Cameryn Mahoney. I know you’re assistant to the coroner, but you’re only seventeen and your father, the real coroner, ain’t here yet, which means
the one in charge. We’re not breaking in until Pat gets here.”
“Except you’re not listening. We don’t have to break anything!” Cameryn protested.
The sheriff cut her off. “Dream on. Leather Ed keeps this dump locked up tighter than a drum.” Jacobs waved his cigarette toward the metal bars that wept trails of orange rust onto the home’s weathered siding. “Bars on the windows, deadbolts on the doors, all to protect stuff that isn’t even worth stealing. Soon as my deputy gets here he’ll bust us in, and then we’ll go inside,
, to see what’s what. Afterwards you can take your pictures of the dead.” He pinched the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, taking a long drag. “You know, I’ll never understand why a pretty girl like you . . .” His voice trailed off, but Cameryn no longer listened because her mind was focused on other things.
The answer, she knew, was in the door itself. She peeled off her thick coat and dropped it next to a pile of trash Leather Ed had stacked against the siding, a stack that had grown to a height of almost three feet. Squatting, she examined the dog-door flap, darkened to black from years of grime. Leather Ed owned an emaciated German shepherd that had already been removed by a worried neighbor, a man who had called the police, who had, in turn, called the coroner’s office, who’d sent a text to her. Death had its protocol.
Studying the frame around the dog door, Cameryn mentally took its dimensions; then with a tentative swipe she kicked the weathered plastic. The panel swung back and forth like a metronome, revealing a patch of dirty floor and a crumpled edge of a paper plate. Difficult, yes, but she could clear it, with or without Jacobs’s consent. She got on her knees and began to back in feet first, her hair falling into her face in a dark curtain. It was a tight fit. As she moved she tried not to picture the filthy linoleum her jeans would scrape against or notice the fresh wave of odor that wound around her like a pungent scarf. The metal lip of the dog door dug into her backside and she was just tilting onto her hip when she felt hands yanking her beneath her armpits. The sheriff pulled her to her feet with so much force she almost cried out.
?” Jacobs’s expression was the same one everyone in Silverton wore whenever they looked at her now. Lines of worry, and inside that, real fear. “Your father would skin me alive if I let you out of my sight.” His hand sliced through the air as he talked over her protests. “No, Cameryn, not even for a single moment. No, no,
“Come on, I only want to go a few feet inside so I can unlock the door—that’s all!” she cried. “Let me do my job, Sheriff. I’m not an infant.”
“No, what you are is a target.” Leaning close, Jacobs dropped his cigarette onto the porch. With a slow, sure motion, he ground the stub beneath the heel of his boot. “No one knows what’s in that house. Probably nothing but the body of the town eccentric. But the fact is, Kyle O’Neil’s got you in his crosshairs and right now you’re on my watch. I’m not taking any chances.” He paused for a moment, for effect, Cameryn guessed, but she wouldn’t let him see how his words had hit home. The verbal punch to her heart—she had learned to take the hit without flinching where outsiders could see. She forced her eyes to meet his, which were cold and wintry gray. Raising her chin, she said, “That’s ridiculous. Kyle’s gone.”
“How do you know that?” Jacobs tapped his finger to his temple. “Huh? Use that famous brain of yours. There ain’t no body.”
“But nothing. I know everyone in town is saying that psycho got lost in those mountains and froze hisself to death, and I hope to the good Lord they’re right. Maybe come spring we find his sorry carcass frozen in some creek. But you need to think about this: if that boy had enough smarts to kill his teacher, he’s smart enough to keep hisself alive, even in February.” He jabbed his forefinger at Cameryn. “Until we find him, I say you’re in danger, which means you’re staying right here by my side. Understand?”
There was nothing to say. Looking past him, she focused on a hermit thrush perched on the rim of a toppled bird feeder, its claws as fine as thread. It was a trick she’d begun to master, a mental dodge she used when people insisted on pressing themselves into her life: stare at something else, concentrate on the detail of the thing. Let their words pass over like water.
“I’ll take your silence as a yes,” Jacobs told her. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna call my deputy. He shoulda been here by now.” Jacobs stomped down the rickety porch steps and turned his back toward her, one finger screwed into his ear while he pressed the phone into the other.
Cameryn was aware of the cold creeping through her too-thin shirt, grateful that it cooled the heat of her frustration. Overhead, above a mountain peak, the palest moon shimmered, a golden coin floating in a blue water sky. In the past, her beloved mountains had felt protective. Now, they’d become walls. Walls that echoed the word that had come to define her.
It was the perfect word for what she’d become. She was no longer Cameryn Mahoney, senior at Silverton High, straight-A student, science geek, and forensic guru. When she walked the hallways at school whispers followed, marking her new identity:
The Victim. The Hunted. Prey.
She had almost loved him once. Kyle O’Neil, the boy who, with terrible precision, had tried to kill her. Before the police arrived he’d vanished into the mountains, and Cameryn had believed the FBI when they announced he’d been spotted in Mexico. And yet, as Silverton glittered beneath strings of Christmas lights, Cameryn had received a message on her bedroom computer.
I see you. Come out and play. Move your curtain and look out. By the trees. I’m waiting.
She’d pulled back her curtain. There, illuminated by moonlight, stood Kyle. Even in the half-light she’d recognized his muscled frame, his square jaw, the yellow hair glinting like dandelion fluff, his legs thick as tree trunks rooted into the ground. His face had been too deep in shadow for her to make out his eyes, but she could see the curve of the mouth. He was smiling.