Two dozen teenagers tumbled out of the school bus and charged after Tom Bridger along the shoulder of the road, brandishing their litter spikes like warriors’ spears.
Rachel Goddard parked her Range Rover behind the bus and walked up to wait for the last student to emerge. A blast of chilly wind whipped her auburn hair across her eyes and prompted her to zip her fleece jacket and tug the collar around her neck. They’d started three hours ago with a perfect April morning, but now clouds towered overhead, dragging their dark shadows across the mountain that rose on one side of the road.
The silver-haired bus driver gestured to hurry his tardy passenger. After a moment, seventeen-year-old Megan Beecher emerged from the bus. Clutching a plastic trash bag in one hand, she dangled her litter spike from the other so that it banged against the steps as she descended. While the other kids disturbed the peace with a chorus of some abominable rap song, Megan’s pale face remained expressionless, her blue eyes blank. “Are you okay?” Rachel laid a hand on her shoulder. Megan was a slight girl, several inches shorter than Rachel, and she’d lost so much weight in the last month that Rachel could feel her bones through her sweater. “I’ll drive you home right now if you’re ready to quit.”
Megan shook her head without meeting Rachel’s gaze. A long blond strand had worked loose from her hair band and fallen forward over one eye, but she seemed not to notice. Rachel almost raised a hand to tuck it back into place but caught herself in time to suppress the urge.
Why had she pushed the girl to join the litter cleanup? Megan, who planned to become a veterinarian, wanted to go to her Saturday morning job at Rachel’s animal hospital as usual, but Rachel had insisted that she get outdoors and take part in the annual civics project with other Mason County High School students. She’d seemed okay when they started, but she’d been fading all morning. Now, at their third stop, she had retreated so far into herself that she barely seemed aware of her surroundings. As Rachel and Megan caught up, Tom halted and faced the group. Even when he was out of his deputy sheriff ’s uniform and dressed in old jeans and a worn denim jacket, he looked like a cop, confident and authoritative. The boys treated him with respect. The girls, though…Rachel hadn’t missed the way they ran their eyes over Tom’s six-feet-plus of lean muscle, his strong features and olive skin, his thick black hair. He was trying so damned hard to ignore their flirtatious looks and smiles that Rachel didn’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for him. If he had the vanity to match his looks, she thought, he would be impossible to live with.
Tom waved a hand at the trash-strewn ravine that dropped down from the road. “Let’s see who can fill up a bag first before the rain starts. The winner gets a free burger for lunch.”
“What, no fries?” a gangly, freckle-faced boy asked. He flapped his trash bag until it caught the breeze and inflated like a balloon. “And how about something to drink?”
Tom laughed. “Negotiated like the son of a lawyer, Ansel.
Okay, a free burger with fries and the drink of your choice.” All the kids except Megan swarmed down the slope, whooping and yelling as they slid and stumbled, alternately using their poles for balance and for spearing trash they spotted on the way. “Don’t they ever get tired?” Rachel said to Tom. She’d begun to think longingly of lunch and a place to sit down while she ate. “I hope all this exercise counteracts the cholesterol overload they’re headed for at lunchtime.”
“What, you don’t think they’d be eating junk without my encouragement?” They both watched Megan begin a slow descent, placing her feet with care and using her spike to steady herself. “Poor kid,” Tom said. “I thought this outing might do her some good.”
“I should have left her alone and let her go to work today. At least she enjoys that.” Rachel shook her head. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like for that family. Not knowing must be torture.” “It’s been a month. They know.” Tom patted her back as if she were the one who needed consoling. “But without any proof, it’s hard to move on.”
The Beechers needed a body to bury, Rachel thought. They needed certainty, and a way to say goodbye to Megan’s older sister. A beautiful young woman, her adult life just beginning. Vanished.
A single raindrop landed on Rachel’s forehead and ran down her nose. Swiping it away, she said, “We’d better get busy.”
She and Tom pulled disposable gloves from their jacket pockets and tugged them on as they set off down the slope.
Rachel joined Megan and deposited the trash she picked up in Megan’s bag. The girl kept her distance from the other kids, who spread out under the darkening sky to harvest the bonanza of litter, racing each other to stab debris on the ground and tug plastic shopping bags from among the fresh new leaves on tree branches. They stomped on beer and soft drink cans and bottles to flatten them before tossing them into bags. Birds in the surrounding trees, silenced by the students’ noisy arrival, soon accepted their presence and resumed a spring chorus of chirps and whistles. A pair of large pileated woodpeckers swooped past the group at eye level, startling the teenagers into a very uncool fit of giggles. All except Megan, who didn’t bother to look up to see what caused the reaction.
A tall, skinny boy named Jarrett stood a few yards from Megan and Rachel, poking an old mattress with his spike. “Hey, Dr. Goddard,” he said with a grin, “want to help me wrestle this into my bag?”
Rachel shook her head in disgust. “Why on earth would anybody throw a mattress off the side of the road?”
“So they don’t have to pay at the landfill,” Jarrett said, as if pointing out what should be obvious. He frowned when something caught his attention. He leaned down for a closer look.
“Leave it alone,” Rachel told him. “It’s filthy. The guys on the county truck can pick it up when they come to collect our trash bags.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance and a few drops of rain struck her hair and shoulders. They would have to wrap it up soon. For now, she went back to work, plucking trash out of the leaf litter and tangled vines on the floor of the ravine.
“Oh, Captain Bridger,” one of the girls called out.
Her teasing tone made Rachel look around. A pretty girl with curly brown hair held up a campaign sign that read Tom Bridger for Sheriff. She smiled at Tom, twenty feet away. “Is this trash too?”
The kids nearby laughed.
“I guess my competition’s been down this road,” Tom said. “Now I know where all my signs are disappearing to.”
“Why don’t you take it home with you,” a smirking boy said to the girl, “and hang it on the wall next to your bed?”
“Well, I just might do that.”
The boys snickered. Rachel saw Tom roll his eyes in exasperation before he bent to pick up a couple of beer bottles.
Suppressing a smile, Rachel told the girl, “I’m sure we can give you a new one that hasn’t been lying out—”
“Dr. Goddard?” Jarrett called, his voice rising to an urgent pitch. “Captain?”
Rachel and Tom spun around. Using his litter pole, Jarrett had levered one edge of the mattress several inches off the ground. “There’s something real weird under there.”
Rachel and Tom exchanged a glance. Teenagers and drama. “What?” Rachel said. “Another dead possum?” The last one they’d stumbled across had set the girls to shrieking as if they’d come face to face with E.T. You’d think these kids, growing up in a rural mountain community, would be used to seeing the rotting carcasses of wild animals.
“I don’t think so.” Jarrett pushed the mattress up a couple more inches. “Oh, man. What is that? It’s too big to be an animal. And it’s got plastic around it.”
That brought the other boys running. Most of the girls followed, converging around the mattress.
Rachel edged through the clump of kids, expecting to find a dead pet or farm animal somebody had dumped out here. She crouched to examine the partially exposed object.
For a moment her mind went blank, refusing to register what lay before her. Then with a shock she realized what she was seeing. Her throat tightened with nausea and she felt the blood drain from her head. She wobbled and had to brace herself with a hand flat on the ground. Unable to look away, she called out, “Tom? Where are you?”
“I’m right here.” He’d moved close enough to startle her. Rachel rose and stumbled back as Tom peered under the mattress. Jarrett still held it up, but his pole trembled in his hands. “Jesus Christ.” Tom caught the side of the mattress and shoved it off to reveal a body wrapped in plastic sheeting.
Gasps and strangled cries escaped from the gathered teenagers. Fat raindrops splattered the plastic.
Oh my god, no, Rachel thought. She couldn’t let Megan see this. She jerked her head around, searching for the girl.
“Okay, you’re done here,” Tom told the teenagers. “Get back up to the road.”
Nobody moved. Riveted by the scene in front of them, the kids didn’t seem to hear a word he said.
“Go,” Tom said. “Now.” He stepped forward, gesturing, forcing them to shuffle away.
When Megan Beecher slipped past the retreating students, Rachel grabbed her. “No, Megan, don’t. Stay back.”
Megan strained against Rachel’s grip, her eyes pinned on the thing lying at their feet. Her hands curled into fists. Her cry began as a low moan, torn from deep inside her, and it rose and swelled into a wail that echoed through the ravine. The other teens froze, their faces contorted by fear and horror at what they were witnessing.
Megan sagged into Rachel’s arms, gulped and burst into sobs. “Shelley,” she gasped. “It’s Shelley. It’s my sister.”