Blue eyes bored into her skull. “And Greer is in charge? He’s a good man. But he is getting up there in age,” Vina said, watching Emily closely.
Emily nodded and blindly reached for the back door handle, her eyes wet.
“You were married to a police officer,” said Vina. “I bet you spotted more details about the deaths than Greer did.”
Emily’s sorrow turned off like a faucet at the mention of her ex-husband. He would have been furious that she had gone behind the sheriff’s back, insisting it wasn’t her place to call the FBI.
He had a lot of opinions about what wasn’t Emily’s place.
Emily had never held back her thoughts about his opinions.
It was part of the reason they were divorced.
Emily turned back to Vina, for once biting her tongue. She was too tired for a discussion and didn’t want to add to the gossip chain. The news that the FBI was investigating would spread soon enough. “I’m sure we’ll hear what happened,” she said noncommittally. “I need to get to work.”
Vina nodded, sympathy in her gaze. “Your staff is going to be crushed about Lindsay.”
Emily’s stomach twisted.
She nodded at Vina and left.
I can’t tell them about the horror that was done to Lindsay. Or Sean.
The sheriff had been right; the Barton Diner resembled a gigantic cabin. Zander paused before he opened the door, examining the huge logs that formed the outer walls. Just like a kid, he ran his hand over the timber. The round wood appeared too symmetrical to be real, but his fingers told him it was authentic. He was in logging country. He’d passed three log trucks with full loads as he’d driven to the diner, bringing back memories of when he was a kid and would see the big trucks on the highway towing one huge tree trunk that filled the entire trailer.
Inside the diner a bald cook with a long goatee and a white apron appeared to be both waiting tables and filling the orders in the nearly empty restaurant. The older man paused midstride when Zander asked for Emily Mills. Pain flashed in the cook’s eyes, and he said she was probably at home.
“Do you know the address?” Zander asked the burly man as he deftly delivered two burgers and two salads to an elderly couple and then topped off their coffee. His name tag said LEO.
“Google Barton Mansion. Can’t miss it.” Leo walked away without glancing back.
Mansion? Zander entered the words into his phone and saw the home was minutes away. Everything was close in Bartonville.
His GPS directed him uphill. Bartonville was built on a slope, and many of the homes had an amazing view of where the Pacific Ocean met the wide Columbia River, which separated Oregon and Washington. The town’s businesses were at the bottom of the hills where the land was flat, adjacent to the docks and beaches. The streets led up and across the hills in a basic grid on which homes with steep peaked roofs and roomy porches sat on close lots. Most of the homes needed attention. Missing paint, crumbling stairs, bare lawns.
The sky was gray, and the clouds were low, obscuring part of the river and the coastline of Washington on its other side. On a day with blue skies, the views had to be stunning. The northern Oregon coast was known for its rugged beauty, but living in the small coastal towns was often depressing in the fall, winter, and spring.
Gray skies. Frequent drizzle. Howling wind. Few people.
Most of the coast and river towns squeaked by on a tourist-based economy that slowed to a crawl during the cooler months. Fishing and logging were the other local economy cornerstones, but they waxed and waned with the unpredictable whims of weather and politics.
Zander parked, stared at a house, and then double-checked the address. Sure enough, the gigantic home that nearly filled the city block was his destination.
The massive three-level house had a turret that extended up another two levels, no doubt giving a marvelous view of the water. A huge wraparound porch, tons of big windows, multiple gables, and elaborate finishes added to the grandeur. Steep stairs led up to the porch and large double doors. A few towering firs were in odd spots on the large lot, looking like sentinels guarding the house.
He stepped out of his vehicle and looked closer. As with several of the smaller homes he’d passed, the paint was faded and flaking. A few of the porch rail’s spindles were missing. The lawn was lumpy and spotted, and many bushes had grown wild.
He couldn’t imagine the cost of the upkeep for the home. Mansion.
A plaque on a metal stand next to the sidewalk caught his eye.
BUILT IN 1895 BY GEORGE BARTON, OWNER AND FOUNDER OF BARTON LOGGING AND LUMBER.
Zander climbed the stairs to the wide porch and knocked on the door. The oval window in the huge double doors gave a rippled view of the interior. Old glass. Everything on the outside of the mansion looked old, and he wondered how much was original. He tried not to stare through the glass as a woman approached and opened the door.
He estimated she was well into her seventies. She stood stiffly with her chin up, and her pale-blue eyes scanned him from shoes to hair. “The mansion isn’t open for tours today,” she announced. “Only the second Tuesday of each month.”
Zander held out his ID. “I’m looking for Emily Mills.”
The woman’s eyes cleared in understanding. “This is about the Fitch couple?”
“You just missed her. She’s headed to the Barton Diner.”
Zander grimaced. “I just came from there. They sent me here.”
“Well, fiddlesticks. You must have crossed paths.” She pressed her lips together. “She’s pretty shook up.”
“Are you her . . . mother?” Zander felt unprepared, a rare sensation. He hadn’t taken the time to research his first witness. He knew she was gutsy enough to go behind the sheriff’s back and contact the FBI, and that her father had also been hanged. Not just anyone would hold his boss hostage on the phone until he agreed to send an agent. Especially not after discovering two dead friends.
That was the extent of his facts on Emily Mills.
“You flatter me. I’m her great-aunt.” The woman paused, and her nostrils flared several times. “Do you smell something?”
He sniffed, smelling nothing but sea air and the faint odor of wood polish that had emerged when she opened the door. “I don’t.”
“Blood. And worse.” The woman stepped out, forcing Zander to back out of her way.
“Ah . . .” He glanced at his pants and shoes, wondering if she could smell the crime scene from his clothing. Certain bad scents clung to clothes and hair no matter what protective equipment was used.
She had followed the wide porch to the corner of the house before he determined there was no visible blood on his shoes. She turned the corner and recoiled, her hands covering her mouth as she gasped.
Zander was instantly at her side and spotted the mangled, bloody animal on the porch in front of a side door. The tail indicated it had been a raccoon.
“If you’ll tell me where to find a shovel and bag, I’ll take care of that,” he offered.
The woman continued to stare at the corpse, anger flashing in her eyes. “Crud bucket.”
If the sight wasn’t so disconcerting, her remark would have made him smile. “A dog must have left it—unless you have other predators around here.” He suspected bears or cougars lived in the hilly forests adjacent to Bartonville. The animals even wandered into the Portland area.
“I’ll call my nephew Rod to clean it up,” she answered. She looked away, not meeting his gaze. “It happens occasionally—like you said—predators.” Her fingers fluttered as she lowered her hands, and her face had paled several shades.
“I’ll handle it,” Zander said firmly. She directed him to a small shed at the back of the home, where he found a shovel and black plastic garbage bags. He suggested she make some coffee, and then he went to clean up the mess.
Breathing through his mouth, he noticed the raccoon’s head was barely attached to the rest of its body. He pushed the fur out of the way with his shovel, bending over to take a closer look. The cut looked nearly precise to him. Not like the mangled damage from an animal’s bite. He awkwardly maneuvered the corpse into the bag and stopped.
A small hole in its shoulder.
He prodded the injury with the shovel, wishing he’d kept an extra pair of gloves from earlier.
The animal had definitely been shot.
He tied the bag and grabbed a nearby hose to clean off the porch. Uncertain where to take the remains, he left the black bag at the corner of the house.
After scrubbing his hands, he was seated at a table in a run-down kitchen with a cup of coffee at his fingertips. He’d expected a large, modern kitchen with all the bells and whistles to match the outside splendor of the mansion. Instead the room was small and the appliances were old. Again he wondered about the cost of maintaining the gigantic home.
His hostess’s name was Vina, and she sat across from him drinking tea. Her color was better, and her hands had been confident as she passed him his cup, but she appeared distracted.
After a few moments of polite small talk, her countenance changed and her eyes narrowed. “Can I be honest with you, Agent Wells? I don’t think an animal left that creature on our porch.”