Page 31

Zander fought back the instinct to yell at the boys. They don’t understand.

“A teaching moment,” Ava said quietly. She raised her voice. “Hey, kids? Can you get away from the tree and come over here for a minute?”

Four startled faces spun their way. “It’s the cops!” The boys froze and then scrambled, each darting in a different direction. The boy in the tree shot down the trunk quicker than an angry bear and took off, the red hood of his jacket flapping behind him.

Zander took a few rapid steps after one and halted, glancing back at Ava. Her hands were on her hips, acceptance in her expression.

There was no point.

“We could wait by the bikes,” he suggested.

“What for? I suspect we scared them enough to stay away, and I doubt they would listen to the lecture I was ready to give.”

“How’d they know we were law enforcement?”

She gave him a droll look. “You ooze law and order in your stance alone. Even if you weren’t FBI, they’d struggle to look you in the eye.”

“‘Ooze’? Is that a compliment?”

“I think so.”

Zander wasn’t so sure. “They probably saw us here the other day. No doubt spying from a distance.”

“Possibly.” Ava exhaled, scanned the backyard clearing, and eyed the dense forest that started beyond the police tape. “How do you want to do this?”

“We should have more people.”

“In a perfect world. But it’s you and me.” She spread out her arms, stepping away from Zander. “Fingertip-to-fingertip distance. We’ll start by that big fir and pace a grid. Keep an eye out for anything that a watcher could have left behind . . . trash . . . footprints.”

They spent the next half hour attempting to walk in straight lines while stepping around thick trunks and underbrush, sweeping every inch of the ground with their lights. Every few feet Zander looked up, tracing his beam up the bark and branches of the firs and trying to avoid being poked in the eye by falling pine needles. The gigantic trees creaked and slowly swayed in the wind.

“The ground’s fucking moving,” Ava said.

Zander had noticed it too. “The dirt is so wet and saturated, the wind is making the roots lift.”

She looked up. “If one starts to fall, it will probably hit ten others before crashing down. We should have time to get out of the way.”

“They won’t fall. Aren’t roots supposed to keep the trees in place?”

“You ever seen the roots of a fir?” she asked. “They make a ball. Totally out of proportion to the weight and height of the rest of the tree.”

They searched in silence for several more minutes, methodically moving flashlights right and left and kicking leaves out of the way. He was glad he’d grabbed the lights; a thorough search would have been impossible without them. He swung his beam of light forward and choked.


He gaped at the older woman in front of him and sought to catch his breath. She stood fifteen feet away, her empty hands at her sides and her happy smile on display. His brain registered that she posed no immediate threat, but he slowly unzipped his heavy jacket.

“Can we help you?” Ava asked. She’d gasped when Zander swore and moved so her left hip was toward the woman, her weapon hand free and her light on the woman’s face.

“Oh, no, I’m just watching.” Her young voice didn’t match the gray hair and lined face. Her long coat was a blotchy dark tan that was possibly a result of its having never been washed, and her rubber boots were muddy.

He wondered if she was homeless.

“What have you been watching?” Ava asked. Zander stayed silent. Ava had an unusual low, mellow voice that could calm anyone—including him—but his heart was still trying to beat its way out of his chest.

“You two looking around. Saw those boys.” The woman frowned, deep grooves forming between her brows. “They shouldn’t be here,” she added in a serious tone.

“Why not?”

Her chin came up and her eyes flashed. “They just shouldn’t. This isn’t a place for kids.”

Zander didn’t disagree.

“What’s your name? I’m Ava. This is Zander.”

“Alice. I know who you are.”

Ava tilted her head to one side. “You were at the meeting last night, weren’t you?”

Zander searched the instant image of the people at the meeting that popped up in his memory. It was mostly the backs of heads.

“I was. I know you’re with the FBI. You’re trying to help that young couple.”

“The Fitches, yes.” Ava paused. “Do you know what happened to them?”

“Everyone knows what happened to them.”

Zander started. Everyone knows?

“I mean, do you know who hurt them?” Ava clarified.

Disappointment rocked through him. Alice had taken Ava’s question literally. The woman’s eyes seemed very alert, intelligence in their depths, but clearly something wasn’t quite right about her.

Alice shoved her hands in her pockets, and Zander tensed, hyperaware of his weapon at his ribs.

“Can you keep your hands out of your pockets?” Ava asked. “I’m more comfortable when I can see them.”

Confusion flashed on Alice’s face, but she did as asked, and Zander’s spine relaxed. “I didn’t hurt Sean or Lindsay.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Do you know who did?”


It was worth a try.

“Do you live nearby?” Zander asked. Alice focused on him and blinked several times.

“No. I’m just visiting a friend.”

“Where does your friend live?”

She frowned, turning her head a bit as if she hadn’t heard him quite right. “I don’t know.”

He repeated the question in a louder voice.

That earned him a scowl. “I said I didn’t know.”

“Can we take you home?” Ava asked, her voice infused with kindness. Zander’s lips twitched. Ava’s fiancé claimed no one could refuse Ava when she used her smoky voice.

“I haven’t visited my friend yet.”

Apparently Alice could refuse.

“How about we go with you to make sure you get there all right,” Ava suggested. “This wind is getting worse.”

Zander agreed. The wind had penetrated their work space below the trees, making his jacket flap. Alice had demonstrated some confusion, and they couldn’t abandon her in the woods.

“Fine.” Alice turned and headed south.

Ava raised a brow at Zander, who raised his hands. Might as well.

Zander took a mental picture of where they had stopped their grid search and followed in Alice’s wake. She was slow, her steps shuffling on the forest floor.

After a few minutes, he leaned close to Ava’s ear. “I’m concerned she doesn’t know where she’s going.”

Alice humphed. “I know where I’m going.”

Mirth shone in Ava’s eyes, and she pressed her lips together. Zander decided to keep his mouth shut. Several yards later they came across a fallen tree. Ava was right. The roots were a ball, disproportionate to the grandeur and length of the trunk.

Their guide stepped over a few of the fallen tree’s roots, grabbing another for balance. Zander lunged forward and took her arm, helping her navigate the rough ground. She thanked him politely. They rounded the roots and started to walk along the toppled tree.

Alice stopped. “Here we go.”

Zander glanced around. “Where—”

“Right here.” Alice pulled her arm from Zander’s hand and squatted, gazing under the trunk. She brushed aside a heavy layer of pine needles, stirring up the scent of damp musty dirt. “She’s safe here, you know.”

The empty eye sockets of a skull gaped at him.


Zander and Ava were rattled by the discovery of the skull and several other bones of Alice’s “friend.”

“I don’t like how close the remains are to the Fitch scene,” he quietly told her.

“But they’re completely skeletal—this body has been here a long time. It can’t have anything to do with the Fitches.”

“I know.” But he couldn’t shake the feeling that it did. “I want the best person out here to remove them. Not some county deputy or local crime scene tech.”

“Dr. Victoria Peres is your person,” Ava immediately replied. “I’ll call Seth to see if she’s available.”

The medical examiner agreed to send the state’s forensic anthropologist—his wife.

Zander called Sheriff Greer to report the remains and then waited for him in the cold woods with Alice and Ava.

Alice turned out to be quite chatty. Her side of the conversation had a tendency to ramble in odd directions, and her eyes had moments of clarity that ebbed and flowed.

“What’s her name?” Ava asked with a gesture toward the skull.

The older woman leaned her weight against the fallen trunk, willing to wait now that Zander had explained they were getting help for her friend. “I don’t know,” Alice said thoughtfully. “But I call her Cindy.”

“Do you know how long she’s been here?” asked Zander.