Behind the wheel of her official SUV, Sheriff Bree Taggert stared at the screen of her ringing cell phone with regret. At six thirty in the evening, she was almost home, but her deputies didn’t call her cell unless it was important. She answered, “Sheriff Taggert.”
“I’m sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but I have a situation.” Deputy Laurie Collins’s voice echoed through the Bluetooth speaker. “Approximately thirty minutes ago, I responded to a report of an abandoned car at the bridge on Dead Horse Road.” The deputy paused. “The car is not disabled in any way. There’s no sign of the driver, but her purse and cell phone are in the vehicle. I’m concerned the driver might have wandered away from the vehicle and gotten lost. Or worse.”
The hairs on the back of Bree’s neck quivered. She lifted her foot from the gas pedal, and her SUV slowed. Collins was a new hire, but she was hardly a rookie. She came with six years of patrol experience. She had good instincts, and Bree felt lucky to have hired her. If Collins was concerned, there was likely a reason.
Bree pulled over to the shoulder of the road. “That is strange. Are you still on scene?”
“On my way. ETA five minutes.” Bree ended the call.
She squinted through the windshield. She could see her sister’s farmhouse—now Bree’s home. A ball of emotion welled up in her throat. Four months after her sister had been murdered, grief still flared at random moments. Bree had taken charge of her sister’s two kids along with the farm. The kids sometimes needed more guidance than Bree felt capable of providing. She did her best, but in the real world, an “effort” grade was bullshit. Experience told her she’d be tied up with this call for the rest of the evening. She’d miss dinner with the kids and reading bedtime stories with Kayla.
But response time could be critical if the driver of the car was injured or lost. Early May in upstate New York meant thirty-degree temperature swings. The days were warming, but the nights still hovered near the freezing mark. Hypothermia was a real risk. The area around the bridge on Dead Horse Road was densely wooded. Bree didn’t really have a choice. She had to go.
When she’d been a homicide detective with the Philadelphia PD, Bree had used cases to blot out personal issues. Avoidance had always been her preferred coping mechanism. If compartmentalizing were an Olympic event, Bree would be the gold medalist. She was almost grateful that the sheriff’s department she’d been appointed to run three months ago was a total disaster. Between work and raising her niece and nephew, Bree had little time to dwell on her own loss.
Now, her priorities had changed. Her job was important, but there were days—like this one—when she resented its intrusion into family time. On the bright side, she had live-in childcare. So, that was one less worry.
She turned her vehicle around and punched the gas pedal, and her SUV raced down the road. She called the house to let her family know she’d be late, then turned her attention to the job. The back road and its namesake bridge were only a couple of miles away.
A few minutes later, Bree slowed down and turned onto a narrow county lane. Dead Horse Road had earned its name. Cutting through a thick section of old forest, it wound around massive trees and boulders. Bree crested a hill, eased down the steep decline, and navigated two final dogleg turns before the bridge appeared. She flipped down her visor to cut the direct glare of the sinking sun. At the base of the bridge, a small wooden cross decorated with a dead wreath marked the location of a vehicular accident fatality.
A Toyota Camry sat on the shoulder of the road. Deputy Collins had parked her patrol car behind the Toyota. Bree slowed her vehicle and pulled over. She climbed out of her SUV. Collins wasn’t in sight.
Fifty feet away, Deputy Collins emerged from the trees and scrambled up the embankment. Her face was flushed with exertion, and a few blonde hairs had escaped her neat bun.
Bree waited for the deputy to hurry closer.
Collins took two deep breaths. “A passing motorist called in the abandoned vehicle. He claimed he saw the car Friday evening on his commute home from work and again today on his way into work this morning. When it was still here tonight, he reported it.”
“Did he say what time he saw the car on Friday?” Bree asked.
Collins pulled a small notepad from her pocket and flipped it open. “Around seven o’clock.”
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