“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
—Carrie Fisher, American writer & actress
Francesca Moretti thought she couldn’t be seeing what she was seeing. So much junk cluttered the salvage yard that it could be any number of different things, right? She wasn’t that close. And it was wrapped in a painter’s tarp and partially hidden behind some wood pallets, sawhorses and stacks of roofing material. But the longer she examined the size and dimensions of that shape, the more convinced she became. That was a human body.
Filled with revulsion, she shrank back into the shade of the closest outbuilding. The blazing July sun, bouncing off the sea of car carcasses, bent bicycle frames, even obsolete farm equipment, made her feel as if she was trapped in an oven instead of running down a lead on a ten-acre parcel of land on the outskirts of Prescott, Arizona. But it was panic and not heat that threatened to suffocate her.
Could this really be happening? Again? In her last big case, she’d located what was left of the missing wife and mother she’d been hired to find. The discovery had made national headlines; Janice Grey’s murder probably would’ve gone unsolved without Francesca. She provided the missing piece of the puzzle that confirmed a murder had taken place, which allowed investigators to go ahead and prosecute their prime suspect. But this type of thing didn’t happen very often and certainly not to the same private investigator. Francesca had pretty much decided it would never happen again. Not to her, anyway. And then…this.
Trying to ignore the Doberman that’d started barking like crazy the moment she set foot in the yard—a dog which, fortunately, was chained up to the back of the house–she stared at what appeared to be a shock of brown hair spilling out from under that paint-speckled tarp. She wanted to identify the body, make sure it was her client’s sister, as she thought.
But that could wait. She preferred to avoid the sickly sweet scent that accompanied decomposition, especially decomposition in such heat. And, judging by the stiffness of the corpse, apparent from the odd angles that refused to let the tarp lie flat, the body was in full rigor. There was no reason to gaze upon a sight any more gruesome than the one of dark promise she was seeing now. The memory would only keep her up at night. Better to let the county homicide investigator she’d met with earlier handle the situation from here.
Yes, get help. That was what she needed to do. Immediately. She wouldn’t want to ruin any forensic evidence linking April Bonner to the man who’d killed her, right?
Hands shaking, she fumbled in the purse she carried across her body, searching for her iPhone. She was breathing again, shallowly. Try as she might she couldn’t override her body’s autonomic nervous system, which was giving her hell.
Calm down. You’re okay. Everything will be fine. You’re the one who wanted to add missing persons to your list of services. You craved the challenge, remember? You wanted a chance to solve the difficult to impossible.
But that was just it. Locating people who’d gone missing wasn’t supposed to be this easy. And the goal was to find them alive.
Finally, her fingers encountered her iPhone. She was scrolling through her address book for Investigator Finch’s phone number when she heard approaching footsteps—the purposeful stride of a man wearing boots from the sound of it—and brought her head up, fast. She wasn’t alone? There’d been no answer when she knocked at the old wood-frame house facing the road, and she hadn’t heard a vehicle. But that didn’t mean anything. This was a big property.
So weak she doubted she could run even if she had to, she peered around the corner of the building. She couldn’t see whoever approached.
Sweat, rolling from her hairline, dripped into her eyes. She blinked to clear her vision and prayed for a burst of adrenaline to stop her knees from turning to jelly. What was wrong with her? In her line of work, the threat of physical injury or death came with the territory. She’d known that from the beginning. But she’d always imagined herself being so much tougher, so much calmer in the face of danger. She hadn’t reacted like this when she’d been a cop, or when she’d found Janice’s remains scattered in that gully, had she?
No. But she’d worked property crimes when she was with Phoenix PD and, after that, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. And the day she found Janice, she’d been with a group of search and rescue guys she’d hired to scour land the police had decided was too far out. They’d stumbled across bones, which put more time and emotional distance between the violence that’d taken Janice’s life and the harsh truth of what’d happened.
This was different. Francesca had just discovered a recent kill. She was alone in a rather remote location. And no one else could say where that location was. She’d driven from her home in Chandler two hours to the south and didn’t know anyone in the area.
“Who’s there? And what do you want?”
It was a man all right, and he didn’t sound pleased to have a visitor. The harsh sound of his voice set the dog barking at a far more feverish pitch.
Unwilling to answer, and afraid to poke her head around the shed again for fear she’d be spotted and draw the man right to her, she pressed her back against the wood of the building. The bartender at The Pour House had told her he’d spotted a woman resembling April getting into a truck driven by the guy who owned this salvage yard: Butch Vaughn. She’d come out here hoping to speak to Vaughn. But after finding the figure beneath the tarp, she knew it wasn’t the time or the place to confront a possible killer. Especially a killer with a Doberman that could easily be released. The police could deal with it.
“I know you’re there,” he said. “Demon’s making sure of it.”
Demon had to be the dog. What an appropriate name….
“What are you doin’ trespassin’ on my property?” His footsteps had grown far less decisive. He wasn’t quite sure where she was. “Don’t you have any manners?”
Her actions said more about her nerve than her manners. Pushing, even when others didn’t want to be pushed, and looking, even when others didn’t want certain things to be seen, was part of her job. Although she hadn’t always been so assertive, her desire to succeed had forced her to overcome her natural reluctance to pry. Timid private investigators had little chance of helping anyone. If the owner of this property hadn’t been seen with April, who’d been missing for three days, Francesca would never have considered intruding on his privacy.
Glancing behind her, she wondered if she should make a break for her car. Could she get around the house and all the way to the road before he caught her? If her heart wasn’t already threatening to pound out of her chest, she thought she might have a chance. Five years ago, she’d taken up long distance running as a way to relieve stress and stay in shape. She prided herself on her athletic ability. But a quarter mile had never seemed as far as it did in this moment. And she had no illusion that she could out-sprint a man who was in top physical condition. She’d seen this guy’s profile on the dating Web site where April had first encountered him. If Harry Statham was really Butch Vaughn, as she’d begun to suspect, and the muscular picture he’d posted was anywhere close to accurate, he was definitely fit….
“What’s the matter?” he called out. “Cat got your tongue?”
Her other option was pepper spray. Just after she’d been accepted to the police academy, her father had accidentally been shot by his own partner during a drug bust and had been confined to a wheelchair. Seeing him struggle with his lost mobility day after day, year after year left an impression she wasn’t likely to forget. As soon as she quit the force to open her own investigative agency, she’d quit carrying a gun. She no longer even owned one. But she needed some protection.
“I want to know why you’re snooping around,” he said.
Was this Butch? It had to be. He’d said my property. Did he realize what she’d found? He had to at least suspect, didn’t he?
Unsure of her ability to outrun him, she reached into her purse. He was coming up on the other side of the building as if he’d guessed where she was hiding. The crunch of his soles striking the rocky desert soil ratcheted up the tension thrumming through her as if he had an external crank that stretched every nerve taut and tightened every muscle. Especially when she couldn’t lay hold of her pepper spray.
Where was it? Had she lost it? She’d never really had to spray anyone. She kept it with her more as a precaution….
Shit! It wasn’t there.
She still had her phone in her hand. She dialed 9-1-1 but dared not speak into the receiver. He’d be on her before she could say two words. Whatever was going to happen would be over by the time the dispatcher could send a squad car. She had to run.
As she pivoted, her hand finally touched the cool metal of the canister. It’d merely been lost in the jumble of her belongings.
Thank God. Anticipating the confrontation to come, she withdrew her pepper spray and held it ready. But he didn’t walk around the corner as she expected.
His steps had stopped completely. Was it possible that he didn’t know where she was, after all?
Swallowing hard, she held her breath and listened closer. Where was he? What was he doing?
She didn’t have to wonder for long. Thanks to the dirty window at her elbow, she caught a brief glimpse of movement inside the building and realized it was actually an office and he was coming through it. There was an exit right next to her!
Whipping around, she jumped out of range of the door he flung open and sprayed him. At least, she tried to spray him. Nothing came out. Why, she had no idea. Her actions made him flinch and throw up his arms to protect his face; that was all the pepper spray afforded her. But seeing him up close confirmed her suspicions—Harry Statham was indeed Butch Vaugh. The man pictured on that dating profile corresponded with the owner of this salvage yard—the last person, as far as she’d been able to determine, to see April alive.
Throwing the can at him instead, she heard it hit but didn’t pause to see where. She was too intent on running. But no matter how hard her arms and legs pumped, she could hear him gaining on her.
The dog barked and yelped and growled as it strained at its leash. She tried to ignore it. As dangerous as that animal sounded, it couldn’t hurt her as long as it remained chained up.
A second later, the dog became her last concern as Butch grabbed hold of her purse, which was flapping behind her, and used it to jerk her to a stop. Yanking back, she fell when the strap broke. Then her iPhone dropped and bounced out of reach and, thanks to the sudden release of tension, he fell, too.
“Who are you? What the hell are you doing here?” Grabbing her by the ankle, he dragged her toward him.
The hot dirt burned her bare arms and legs. A sleeveless blouse and skirt were probably the worst things she could’ve worn. He was dressed in blue jeans and a muscle shirt, which protected him, to a degree.
“Answer me!” His voice grated amid the scrabble of rocks as they rolled around–she wrestling for her freedom; he trying to subdue her—but she was breathing too hard to respond. All she could think about was escape. She had to keep fighting regardless of the scrapes, the bruises and the burn of a surface hot enough to fry an egg.
It wasn’t long before he managed to pin her. He had a hold of her left wrist, but before he could grab her right, she sank her nails into his cheek, gouging him as deeply as possible. She knew she’d gotten him good when he cursed and drew back.
His sudden recoil made it possible for her to scramble out from underneath him. She grabbed her purse but, realizing that she was about to escape, he caught it, too. She had to let go. It fell away, spilling, as she found her feet and darted around the house.
Although her BMW sat benignly on the road in front of her, her car keys were either in her purse or on the ground with her cell. She couldn’t drive anywhere, but she ran for her car anyway.
Her sandals popped as they slapped her heels, and the smooth hard soles caused her to skid here and there, so it was a miracle she reached the front yard. Once she did, she hoped to flag down a car, but the road was empty. And Butch didn’t have any neighbors. The only thing she had going for her was the fact that she’d done more damage with her nails than she’d expected. When she glanced over her shoulder, she could see Butch coming after her, but he wasn’t moving too fast. He staggered, wiping at the blood dripping from his left eye and cheek.
She’d hurt him, which only scared her worse. Fury rolled off him in waves.
Her breath rattled in her throat as she fought to make her shaky limbs continue to follow her brain’s commands. If he caught her, she was dead. An unmistakable steel resolve set in as he shook off the pain and started to jog.
Thank heaven she’d left her car unlocked. It was a bad habit but she could only be grateful in this particular moment. Wrenching open the passenger door, which was closest, she got in and slammed it just as he reached out to stop her. He had to yank his hand away to avoid having his fingers crushed, and did so just in time. Then he went for the door handle.
Lock! Lock! Lock! Frantically, Francesca swiped at the console and the upholstery, searching for the button that would secure the doors. In her panic, she couldn’t remember where the damn thing was–but she managed to hit it before he lifted the latch. She’d never heard a sound more comforting than the thunk of the locks snapping into place or the ineffective catch of the lever as he pulled it to no avail.
Closing her eyes, she gulped for air and would’ve been relieved, except that he was more enraged than ever. Glaring down at her, he banged on the window. “Hey!”
Frozen with terror, she stared up at him. If he managed to get in, it would be over in minutes. She didn’t even have her iPhone, couldn’t so much as make a call….
Had emergency services ever answered? Were they sending help? Or had they assumed her call had been a misdial or a crank?
“What the hell’s wrong with you, lady?” he yelled. “I just want to talk. I want to know why you’re here.”
He knew she’d found the body. She could see it in his eyes. He was trying to convince her that she hadn’t really seen what she’d seen, that it was safe to trust in the trappings that surrounded them—the swing set in the front yard, the kiddie pool off to the side, the hand-painted welcome sign on the door. But she wasn’t that easily fooled. As much as the domesticity of the scene tempted her to think she might’ve leapt to the wrong conclusion, especially when viewing the wounds she’d inflicted on his cheek, she knew killers often looked like the most mundane of dads and husbands. Thanks to her line of work, she’d studied them a great deal. Rarely was it apparent that they were monsters.
Rocking forward, she covered her head. He was so close. He had only to break the glass. There was no one else around, no one to hear the window shatter or her cry for help.
“Go away!” she sobbed.
Suddenly, he stopped banging.
She sat up to find him using the bottom of his shirt to clean the sweat and blood from his face. Then he checked behind him as if searching for something and stalked off toward the only tree in the yard. A bat leaned against the trunk next to a ball and glove. Hefting it, he came toward her as if he intended to break the window, as she feared. Before he could take a swing, however, the sound of a car engine drew their attention to the road. An old Impala chugged up from behind.
Determined to get the driver to help her, Francesca crawled into the other seat and laid on the horn, but the effort proved unnecessary. The woman behind the wheel looked as if she’d been planning on stopping here all along. Slowing, she turned in and parked as if she owned the place.
Obviously torn, Butch glanced between Francesca and the driver of that car. A little boy also sat in the Impala. Window down, round face sweaty, he waved and yelled from his car seat, excited enough that even Francesca could hear him. “Daddy! Daddy! We’re home!”
Butch’s expression changed instantly. Dropping the bat, he strode over to the Impala.
Now! Francesca let herself out on the side facing the road. It wasn’t as if she could expect the Impala driver to come to her assistance, as she’d originally hoped. Not if this was Butch’s wife. Francesca had to act as if she was still on her own, because chances were she really was.
Locating her spare key beneath the back bumper, she grabbed it. At the same time, the child got himself out of his car seat and demanded Butch pull him through the window.
The woman rushed around to join father and son. As Francesca darted back to the driver’s seat, she heard, “What’s going on? What happened to your face?”
Butch’s reply was too low for Francesca to make out, but the woman’s next question carried easily on air already pregnant with heat and threat and panic. “What? But why? Who is she?”
This had to be Butch’s wife, as she’d guessed. The timing of her return home had most likely saved Francesca’s life. But Francesca wasn’t planning on sticking around long enough to thank her or tell her about the body stashed amid the junk in the salvage yard. She was getting out of here while she could.
Climbing behind the wheel, she tossed the magnetic container that’d held her spare into the passenger seat, started her engine and punched the gas pedal.