Book 4 in Pike, Wisconsin
In Pike, Wisconsin, a small town full of deadly secrets, a woman searches for the truth about a long-ago night, while a killer prepares to silence her forever, in New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Ivy’s chilling tale of romantic suspense.
WILL SHE FIND THE ANSWER
Teenager Lia Porter shouldn’t have been anywhere near the railroad bridge that night. Sneaking home after a party in the fields outside Pike, Wisconsin, she glimpsed a woman in a leather jacket, running in terror. Lia puts the incident from her mind—until a body is found near the same spot fifteen years later, wearing the same jacket. The police rule it a suicide. Lia knows different. The woman she saw was trying to save her own life, not end it. But whatever she was fleeing from found her first…
BEFORE THE KILLER
The stranger who arrives at Lia’s store shares her suspicions. Hollywood stunt driver Kaden Vaughn has come home to Wisconsin to learn the truth about what happened to his brother’s fiancée years ago. The leather jacket, the timing—he believes the dead woman is Vanna, and that Lia may be the only person who can help. Together they retrace Vanna’s steps, but the more they dig, the darker the secrets become.
The killer is still out there, stalking the streets of Pike again, willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the truth locked in mystery. One by one, all those who know something about that night must be silenced, until there is no one left to tell…
Praise for Don’t Look
“Exciting. . . . Once the pieces fall into place, the novel settles into an engaging rhythm.” —Publishers Weekly
“Readers will still eagerly turn the pages to see if their suspicions about the killer’s identity are correct.” —Library Journal
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Series: Pike, Wisconsin, Book 4
Characters: Kaden Vaughn Lia Porter
Read an Excerpt
Listen to a Clip from the Audio Edition →
December 14th, 2007
Tugging her coat tight around her shivering body, Lia Porter scurried down the dark pathway. It was past midnight, and the late December air was cold enough to burn her lungs as she sucked in deep breaths. This was so stupid. She should never have crept out of her house to attend the party. Even at fifteen years old she knew that a gathering of kids in an old barn in the middle of winter was a lame idea. Some of her friends might enjoy shivering around a small fire, listening to country music and drinking cheap beer, but she’d been bored out of her mind.
So why had she allowed herself to be cajoled into going?
Lia wrinkled her nose. She’d told herself that she was tired of being called Lia-Killjoy by her classmates. Okay. She liked to follow the rules. She wasn’t a maverick. Or a risk taker. She didn’t cheat on tests or skip classes. She didn’t even go skinny dipping at the local lake. In fact, if she wasn’t at school, she was helping her mother at the family-owned grocery store in the center of town. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t have a good time, right?
But deep in her heart she knew that wasn’t why she spent an hour straightening her strawberry blond hair until it fell in a smooth curtain down her back. Or added a layer of mascara to her long lashes that framed her green eyes. Or why she’d climbed out of her window and trudged two miles to the middle of the frozen field.
She’d been hoping to attract the attention of Chuck Moore, the guy she’d nursed a secret crush on for an entire year. He wasn’t the most popular boy in class. Or the cutest. He had frizzy black hair and an overbite that was prominent despite his braces. But he was one of the few guys who at least pretended to listen when she spoke. That was far more attractive to a girl who’d spent her school life in the shadows than perfect features or bulging muscles.
Unfortunately, she’d had to wait until her mother was asleep before sneaking out. They lived above the store and she couldn’t just climb out a bedroom window. She had to creep down the squeaky stairs at the back of the two-story brick building. By the time she arrived at the barn, the party was in full swing, and Chuck was already in the hayloft with her best friend, Karen Cranford.
Calling herself an idiot, she’d forced herself to stay long enough to drink a beer and pretend to laugh at the antics of the guys who thought it was a great idea to try and push each other into the fire. As if nursing second-degree burns was a hilarious way to spend the evening. Then, assuring herself that she’d proved whatever stupid point she’d come there to make, she’d slipped out the door and headed across the dark field.
Lia muttered a bad word as she slipped on a patch of ice. Pike, Wisconsin wasn’t the best location to take a midnight stroll. Especially in the middle of winter. If she fell and broke a leg, she was going to be in so much trouble.
The thought of her mother made Lia grimace. Trina Porter had only been sixteen when she’d given birth to Lia. That had been tough enough, but Lia’s father had disappeared just months after she’d been born, and her grandparents had died in a tragic car accident eight years later. Trina was forced to work endless hours to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table. She’d sacrificed everything to give her child a warm and loving home.
Lia felt the constant weight of those sacrifices pressing down on her like an anchor. If she knowingly added to her mom’s daily struggle, she would never forgive herself.
Rounding a bend in the pathway, Lia breathed a sigh of relief. Ahead she could see the soft glow of streetlights. Soon she would be back in her room, tucked in her warm bed with one of the books she’d borrowed from the library. Exactly where she wanted to be.
Lost in the fantasy of being curled beneath her thick comforter with a cup of hot cocoa, Lia came to an abrupt halt. She heard a sound in the distance. Not a car. Or an animal. It sounded like…like running footsteps.
More curious than alarmed, Lia watched as a shadowed form appeared from the shadows. It didn’t occur to her that she might be in danger. This was Pike. Nothing bad ever happened. The figure neared, moving down the path toward her. As she grew closer, Lia could make out the delicate features of a woman with long black hair that flowed behind her. She was wearing a heavy leather jacket and pants that looked like some kind of uniform. Lia could also see the glitter of gold in the moonlight. The woman had a large gold badge pinned to the upper shoulder of her jacket. Like a cop.
Lia sucked in a sharp breath. Had her mother awakened and found her missing? Had she called the sheriff’s office? No. She sternly squashed the urge to panic. She would recognize anyone local. Pike was too small to have strangers. This woman was from somewhere else.
So why was she running from town in the middle of the night?
It was a question that was to haunt Lia for the next fifteen years as the woman suddenly spotted her standing in the middle of the pathway. She’d just reached the bridge that spanned the railroad tracks.
A scream was ripped from her throat, as if Lia was a monster not a fifteen-year-old girl sneaking home from a party. Then, with a shocking speed, the woman turned toward the edge of the bridge, climbing onto the stone guardrail.
What the heck was she doing? Lia took a startled step forward, lifting her hand as the woman wobbled. It was at least twelve feet to the tracks below. Not even the local boys were stupid enough to jump from there.
“Wait!” she called out, but she was too late.
With a last terrified glance toward Lia, the woman leaned forward and disappeared into the darkness.
It was mid-December and the town of Pike, Wisconsin looked like an image off a postcard. The ground was coated in pristine layer of snow and the trees sparkled with Christmas lights. The town square was draped in garland that filled the crisp air with a scent of pine. There was even a miniature North Pole set up in the park where Santa perched on a chair from six to seven in the evenings for the kids to take pictures.
The downside to the winter wonderland, however, was the brutal windchill that whipped through the narrow streets despite the clear blue skies and bright morning sunlight. The cold kept most sensible people snuggled in the warmth of their homes. A shame for the local businesses who depended on the holiday season to pad their yearly income, but for Lia Porter the quiet was welcomed. The grocery store was never a hotspot in town, not even during Christmas, but she was there alone and she didn’t want to be disturbed.
Seated at her desk in the private office she’d had claimed at the back of the building, Lia kept one eye on her computer and the other on the surveillance monitor that kept guard on the front store. She wasn’t afraid of shoplifters. The four short aisles with wooden shelves were stocked with basic supplies. Flour, sugar, bread, and canned goods. There was also a cooler with dairy products and a section for frozen foods. If someone was desperate enough to steal food, then she would be happy to hand it over to them. She just wanted to keep watch in case a customer entered and needed her help.
Something that wouldn’t be necessary if Wayne had arrived on time. With a sigh, Lia returned her attention to the computer screen where she’d downloaded the portfolio of an online retailer who was trying to attract new investors. Lia was interested. She preferred putting her capital in businesses just starting out. Getting in on the ground floor meant she would make the most profit. But she was still reviewing the business model and debt-to-equity ratio before she agreed to meet with the founder.
High risk/high return didn’t mean recklessly tossing her money around. She devoted weeks and sometimes months of research before she agreed to invest. That had been her motto since she’d taken the trust fund, she’d inherited from her grandparents at the age of twenty-one and invested it in a local carpenter who wanted to flip houses. Her mother had been horrified, but soon she was making a profit, and she’d taken that money to invest in another company. And then another.
Within five years, she had tripled her trust fund and proved that she could not only support herself, but she could build a large enough nest egg that she didn’t have to worry about her future. It’d also given her mother the opportunity to concentrate on her own life. Within a few months the older woman had married a man who’d loved her for years and whisked her away to a secluded cabin in Colorado.
Lia had been delighted that her mom could find happiness, and she hadn’t minded taking over the store that had been in their family for over a hundred years. It was as much a part of Pike as the surrounding dairy farms and the stone courthouse down the street. It rarely made a profit, but the store wasn’t about creating money. It was keeping the tradition that her great-great-great grandfather had started as well as providing much-needed provisions for the older citizens who didn’t feel comfortable driving to the larger town of Grange. Not to mention offering the necessities during the winter months when the roads could be closed for days at a time.
Scribbling a few notes that she wanted to double-check before continuing her interest in the potential investment, Lia heard the familiar tinkle of a bell. Someone had pushed open the front door. She glanced toward the monitor, watching the tall, lanky boy with short rust-brown hair and a narrow face enter the store.
Wayne Neilson was a seventeen-year-old boy who’d asked for a job the previous summer. Lia already had a part-time helper who’d been there for forty years, but Della was getting older and her health wasn’t always the best so Lia had agreed to give Wayne an opportunity. He was being raised by a single mother just like she had been. She understood the need to earn extra money.
He’d proven to be remarkably dependable, arriving right after school to put in a couple of hours and on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Until this Saturday morning.
Rising from the desk, Lia headed out of the office and firmly shut the door. Only her mother knew about her investment skills. And that’s how she wanted to keep it. Pike was a small town where everyone was always snooping into everyone’s business. It was even worse for someone like her. She’d always been different. She didn’t have a father. She didn’t mix easily with the other kids. And now she vaulted past her scary thirtieth birthday with no marriage proposal in sight. It made people study her as if she was a puzzle that needed to be solved. Or maybe fixed.
She wanted something that was just for herself.
She entered the main part of the store and walked toward the front counter where Wayne was hanging his heavy parka on a hook drilled into the paneled wall.
“Hey, Ms. Porter. Sorry about being late,” he said, his narrow face flushed and his blue eyes sparkling with an intense emotion.
“Is everything okay?”
“Fine.” He shifted from foot to foot, as if he was having trouble standing still. “At least for me.”
Lia studied him with a mounting concern. Usually he was shy and subdued to the point she could barely get more than two words out of him. This excitement was completely out of character.
“What’s going on?”
He glanced around the store, as if making sure that it was empty. Then, he sucked in a deep breath.
“Drew and Cord found a body.”
“A body of what?”
Wayne leaned toward her; his voice lowered to a harsh whisper. “A human body.” He grimaced. “Or at least a skeleton.”
Lia snorted. She knew both Drew Hurst and Cord Walsh. They were known around Pike as the local bullies. Cliched, but true. And their favorite target was usually Wayne.
“Are you sure they weren’t messing with you?”
Wayne grimaced, no doubt recalling a thousand different insults, humiliations, and even physical blows he’d endured over the years.
“Yeah. They’re usually being jerks. Especially to me,” he conceded. “But they aren’t smart enough to set up an actual prank. They just shove people into lockers and steal stuff out of backpacks.” He shrugged, the bones of his thin shoulders visible beneath T-shirt. “Besides, they couldn’t fake looking pale as ghosts when they climbed over the bridge railing. Or Drew puking up his guts when he told me what they’d seen. For real I thought he was going to pass out.”
Lia jerked, as if she’d just touched a live wire. And that was what it felt like as the shock zigzagged through her.
“What bridge railing?” She had to force the words past her stiff lips.
Wayne was thankfully oblivious to her tension. Like any teenage boy he rarely noticed anything that didn’t affect him directly.
“The one over the railroad tracks.”
“The railroad bridge,” she breathed, battling back the image that had haunted her for the past fifteen years. “I thought the whole area was closed off while they put in new railway tracks?”
“It is. That’s why they were there. It’s a perfect time to sled down that steep hill without worrying about a train coming by and squashing them.”
Lia shook her head. Both Drew and Cord had to be eighteen, or close to it. They were seniors, after all. But neither bothered to use their brains. Assuming they had one.
“So what happened?”
“Drew said that he hit an icy patch the threw him off his sled and he rolled into a ditch next to the tracks. That’s when he saw something under a bunch of old branches.”
Lia shoved away her opinion of Drew and Cord. Right now, nothing mattered but the wild claim they’d made.
“And you’re absolutely certain they found a body?”
“I can show you.”
Lia took an instinctive step backwards, as if he was about to pull a rotting corpse out of his pocket.
Wayne held up the phone that was a constant fixture in his hand. “I had to see for myself.”
“You went down to look at the body?”
“Of course.” He swiped his finger over the screen, seemingly searching for something. “Nothing ever happens in this town. I wasn’t going to miss the one nano-second of excitement.” He turned the phone around, a hint of pride on his narrow face. “Even if it was a little gruesome.”
Lia glanced at the screen, realizing that he’d pulled up a photo. She sent him a sharp glance.
“You took pictures?”
“Yep. And I posted them on my Instagram. I’m hoping they’ll go viral.”
He hunched his shoulders in a defensive motion. “Like I said. It’s my one nano-second of excitement. And it’s not hurting anyone. Whoever the skeleton belongs to is dead and gone.” He continued to hold out the phone. “Look.”
Lia didn’t want to look. She wanted to scurry back to her office and shut the door. Maybe then she could pretend that it was just another day. A regular, boring day like every other regular, boring day.
A strange compulsion, however, had her leaning forward, studying the image that Wayne had enlarged. Her gaze went immediately to the skull that peeked out of a layer of ice. It didn’t look real. Instead it appeared to have been carved from aged ivory with empty eyes sockets that were shadowed, as if hiding unbearable secrets, and perfectly intact teeth that appeared too large and weirdly threatening. With a shudder, Lia forced her gaze to take in the rest of the skeleton. Or at least what was visible.
The upper torso was covered by what appeared to be a weathered leather jacket. She hissed, enlarging the picture until she could see the gold badge that had dulled over the years, but remained unmistakable.
“Oh my God.” Lia pressed a hand to her heaving stomach. Any hope of returning to her office and acting as if everything was normal was replaced with a burning urgency to take some sort of action. She just didn’t know exactly what that action was going to be, but she couldn’t sit around and do nothing. “I need you to cover the store for an hour or so,” she muttered.
“Okay.” Wayne climbed onto the stool behind the cash register. “But if you want to take a look at the skeleton it’s too late. The mayor is there and he won’t let anyone near the place. He’s such a jerk.”
Lia bit her lip. The mention of the mayor jolted her sluggish brain. That’s what she needed to do. Speak with a law official. Unfortunately, Zac Evans, who’d proven to be an outstanding sheriff, had left Pike a week ago to take his wife for an overdue honeymoon. He refused to tell them where he was going, only that it involved a cruise ship and that he was shutting off his phone and refusing to think about work until after the holidays.
Good news for him. Awful news for her.
For now Pike was without a full-time sheriff and until Zac returned, the local mayor was filling the position. Tate Erickson was barely capable of performing his duties as mayor, let alone taking on the sheriff’s job.
Still, what choice did she have?
“I’ll be back later.” She scurried to the back of the narrow building, using the private staircase to head up to the apartment above the store.
It was a wide-open space arranged with a living room and kitchen and bedroom with an attached bathroom. The furniture hadn’t changed since her mother had moved out. The leather couch and chairs were worn and sagging in places, but they were comfortable and that was all that mattered. Grabbing her purse, Lia slid a heavy parka over her casual jeans and bright red sweater before pulling on a thick stocking hat. She’d cut her strawberry blond hair into a short, pixie style that was easy to take care of, but did nothing to keep her warm. Then, heading back down the narrow staircase, she left the building to climb into the SUV with PORTER GROCERIES painted on the side. Once a month she delivered groceries to the customers who were housebound.
Driving out of the alley, she turned away from the center square and headed toward the outer road. The streets were slick from the most recent snowfall, but she was too impatient to creep along at a cautious pace. She slid past the old drive-in where the framework of bare wood from the old screen had managed to survive. Next to it was an indoor skating rink that hadn’t been so lucky. It’d collapsed years ago. Further on was the bowling alley that had been converted into a charity stop.
At last, she turned onto a narrow path that led toward the rolling fields that surrounded Pike and drove until she’d reached a curve in the road. She parked the SUV and switched off the engine. Ahead she could see the barricades that had been put up along with glowing yellow police tape. A shiver raced through her as she watched the thin plastic flap in the stiff breeze.
Climbing out of the vehicle, Lia headed toward the short, heavyset man in a brown uniform standing guard against the gathering crowd.
Anthony was the same age as Lia and had been a sheriff’s deputy for several years. He’d never been overly ambitious in school. He was the kid who sat in the back so he could sleep. At least when he bothered to show up for school. Most days he skipped to go hunting or fishing. But she assumed that he was decent at his job.
She halted directly in front of the man. “Hey, Anthony. Is the mayor here?”
“Unfortunately.” He nodded toward the steep bank behind him that led down to the railroad tracks. “He’s down there.”
“I need to talk to him.”
“Can’t. He’s busy right now.”
“This is important.”
“Sorry, but it’s going to have to wait.”
The deputy held up a pudgy hand, interrupting her protest. “Trust me, Lia, this isn’t the time.” He glanced over his shoulder, making sure that the mayor wasn’t lurking behind him. “Erickson’s been pissy since he became a fill-in for the sheriff, but today he’s off the charts. He’s been storming and stomping around ever since he caught sight of the skeleton. I assume he finally realized that being sheriff is more than getting free coffee at the diner.”
Lia ground her teeth, not bothering to argue. Anthony might not have displayed ambition when he was young, but he’d always been stubborn as a mule. There was no point in beating her head against a brick wall.
Turning away from the barrier, Lia stepped off the pathway and headed toward the snow-packed ridgeline. There was more than one way to get down to the tracks.
Lia halted at the sound of her name being called out, glancing to the side to see a woman hurrying toward her.
Bailey Evans was Lia’s best friend, and the sheriff’s cousin. She was thin with brown hair pulled into a messy bun on top of her head. She was currently wearing a thick coat, but as usual she’d forgotten a hat and her gloves. Bailey was a fantastic caregiver at the local nursing home, but she could be remarkably absentminded. As if she was so occupied with tending to others that she didn’t have time to worry about herself.
“Did you hear the news?” Bailey asked, halting next to Lia.
“Just that they found a skeleton.”
“It’s thrilling, isn’t it? Horrible, of course.” The flecks of gold in Bailey’s dark eyes sparkled with eager curiosity, her cheeks flushed. “But absolutely thrilling.”
Lia hid her grimace. She couldn’t blame Bailey for being excited. Although Pike had endured more than its fair share of murders over the past five years, there was something morbidly intriguing about a mysterious death.
“Do they know who it is?”
“I don’t think so.” Bailey wrinkled her nose. “Tate is being more of an ass than usual. I miss Zac.”
Lia sighed. “Who doesn’t? He was the only decent sheriff we’ve had since Rupert retired.” Lia had still been in school when Rupert Jansen had been forced to leave his position after being shot on the job, but everyone knew that he’d been legendary. “Did Tate say anything?”
“He told me to keep my nose out of his business.” Bailey made a sound of disgust. “Idiot. I’m the town gossip. My nose belongs in everyone’s business.” She glanced toward the nearby field that was crammed with emergency vehicles. “I did hear one of the EMT people call it a ‘her’ when they loaded the body bag into the ambulance. Other than that, it’s a complete mystery.”
“A woman,” Lia breathed.
“I’ve been trying to imagine who it could be.” Bailey reached up to push back her thick hair that was being tossed by the breeze. “I don’t know any missing women. Not unless you count my Aunt Misty who traveled to Paris thirty years ago and never came home. Really, who could blame her? Sipping Café au Lait in a cute little bistro certainly beats sucking down a cup of joe in a local dive, am I right?”
Usually Lia would have smiled at Bailey’s chatter. The fact that they were complete opposites was what made their relationship so much fun. This morning, however, she was too tense to appreciate her friend’s humor.
“It could be one of Jude’s victims,” she pointed out.
Bailey’s amusement died at the mention of the monster who’d lived in Pike nearly thirty years ago.
“That was my first thought as well. There’s always a chance that one slipped through the cracks,” she agreed, her tone doubtful. “But Zac was pretty certain they’d located all of them. Otherwise, he would never have left town.”
It did seem doubtful. Zac had spent endless months searching through the stacks of evidence left behind by the serial killer. If there’d been any hint of a missing victim, he would never have closed the case.
Which meant, the woman she’d seen that night hadn’t been fleeing a madman. At least not a madman who’d already faced justice. Honestly, that only made things worse.
“I need to talk to Tate,” she muttered.
Without warning, Bailey reached out to grasp her arm. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”
“He not only snapped at me. The jerk.” Her jaw tightened at the memory. “He’s been on a rampage with everyone including the deputies. Last I heard he was screaming about crime scenes and preservation of clues. I’m guessing he’s been watching re-runs of Law and Order. Or more likely, Andy Griffith. He certainly has a Barney Fife-vibe.”
Lia bit her lower lip. She hated confrontations. It didn’t mean she didn’t have a spine. She could be ruthless when necessary. But she preferred to avoid messy arguments. Maybe she should wait until…
No. Lia squared her shoulders. The last time she’d decided to avoid revealing what she’d seen, a woman had obviously ended up dead. She wasn’t going to risk letting anything bad happen again. Not if revealing the truth could prevent it.
“He’ll just have to scream,” she said in grim tones. “I need to talk to him.”
“Fine.” Bailey nodded, easily sensing Lia’s determination. Still, she kept a tight grip on her arm. “Don’t forget we’re having a Friends of Pike meeting Tuesday night. We need to discuss the Fourth of July festival. Jolene already sent me an email.” Bailey rolled her eyes. Jolene was married to Tate Erickson. Her position as the mayor’s wife meant that she considered herself an authority on everything “Pike”. Or what she envisioned Pike should be. And while Tate possessed a brash sort of charm that had allowed him to get re-elected for the past twenty years, Jolene was just the opposite. She was a soft-spoken woman with deep dimples and cloud of blond hair. But in her own way she was just as ruthless. She used her supposedly fragile health to avoid unpleasant confrontations or to manipulate others into giving into her every demand.
“Now what does she want?” Lia asked.
“She suggested that we replace the greased pig run with an afternoon tea and cake walk. She’s afraid that we might get in trouble with the PETA people.” Bailey did more eye rolling. “As if anyone would know what’s happening in Pike. We can barely interest the locals to notice the events, let alone attract the attention of anyone else.”
“I doubt PETA would be showing up to complain,” Lia agreed. “But then again, I’m not opposed to getting rid of the greased pig. It’s kind of disgusting.”
“Agreed, but it’s been a part of the Fourth of July celebrations for a hundred years. The rest of the committee is going to have a cow.” Bailey heaved a sigh. “Greased pigs and cows. That’s my life.”
Lia managed a small smile of encouragement. “I’ll be there.”
“Thanks, Lia.” Bailey gave Lia’s arm a squeeze before dropping her hand and stepping back. “I can always depend on you.”
Lia swallowed a sigh as she turned away. That was her. Dependable Lia.
Tate was frantically pulling aside the dead branches and chunks of frozen snow that were piled near the skeleton. He ignored the destruction of his expensive leather gloves. Jolene was going to bitch when he went home and saw them, but what the hell? If it wasn’t his gloves, then she’d find something else to bitch about. She was nothing if not consistent. And right now, he didn’t have time to worry about anything except making sure there was nothing around that he didn’t want found.
When he’d first gotten the call that a bunch of boys had found a skeleton by the railroad tracks, he’d been more annoyed than concerned. This sheriff thing was a short-term gig. Just until Zac Evans returned to Pike. He assumed it would be an easy way to add an accomplishment to his resume as mayor. It was never too early to start thinking about his re-election. And claiming he’d stepped in as sheriff to keep his citizens safe was going to be a great headline. He hadn’t anticipated having to climb through the ice and snow to look at a bunch of stupid bones. And certainly not on his day off.
Reluctantly, he’d wrangled into layers of thick clothing and pulled on a pair of heavy boots. Then, driving to the location, he’d slipped and cursed his way down the steep incline to where a group of gawkers were gathered around the bones.
He’d been on the point of ordering one of his deputies to take charge of removing the skeleton when he’d caught a glimpse of gold on the faded leather jacket.
It was a badge. One that he recognized.
His chest had tightened, and his mouth went dry, and just for a horrifying second, he’d feared that he was having a heart attack. This couldn’t be happening. Not after all these years.
Forcing himself to step forward, Tate had ordered everyone to leave, including his own deputies. Unfortunately, the police photographer had continued taking pictures of the scene while the EMTs fussed and argued over the best means of removing the bones without disturbing evidence. Tate had been ready to scream in frustration before he was finally alone.
Now he searched for a purse or briefcase or a computer memory stick that might have survived. Anything that might reveal why the woman had been in Pike.
Rolling aside a large rock, Tate was abruptly interrupted by the sound of boots crunching through the thin layer of ice. Muttering a curse, he spun around to confront the young woman who was closer than he’d expected. Dammit. Had she seen him scrambling through the brush?
“No one is allowed down here,” he barked out. “How many damned times do I have to say it?”
Lia Porter acted as if she hadn’t heard him, continuing forward until she was standing just a few inches from where the body had been found.
“I have some information.”
Tate frowned. Lia had to be in her late twenties or early thirties. Too young to have any actual information, right?
“I don’t care if you have the Holy Grail,” he retorted, his tone harsh. “Not now.”
“It’s about the skeleton you found.”
A small niggle of concern wormed its way through Tate’s heart. Maybe he should find out what she knew.
“Make it quick.”
Lia licked her lips. “I think I saw her the night she died.”
Tate hissed in shock. “What?”
Lia glanced up the steep hill, her gaze locked on the nearby bridge.
“Fifteen years ago I was walking home from a party in the middle of the night and I saw a woman up there.”
Tate forced himself to take a deep breath. No need to panic. “You risked contaminating my crime scene to tell me that you stumbled home drunk in the middle of the night fifteen years ago and thought that you’d seen something in the pitch dark?”
Her green eyes flashed with outrage. “I wasn’t drunk, and there was enough moonlight to know that it was a woman.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“No. When she caught sight of me, she turned and jumped off the railing.”
Tate’s momentary urge to throw up vanished at her clipped words. She knew nothing.
“Sounds like a figment of your imagination.”
“I know what I saw.”
Tate clicked his tongue, not having to fake his surge of impatience. “Even if it wasn’t a drunken illusion, we don’t know if this woman jumped off the bridge or off a passing train or was wandering along the tracks and tripped over and broke her neck. We don’t even know how long she’s been here. She could have died a hundred years ago. So, if you don’t mind…”
“I recognize the badge.”
The nausea returned. “What?”
“The woman I saw jump from the bridge was wearing a leather jacket with a gold badge pinned on the front.” She pointed to a place over her left breast. “Right here.”
Tate’s brows snapped together. “How do you know about the jacket?”
“Wayne Neilson showed me a photo of the skeleton.”
“Shit.” Tate had known those stupid kids were going to be trouble as soon as he’d caught sight of the skeleton. “I told those boys to erase any pictures they took.”
Lia shrugged. “By now they’re being shared around social media.”
She was right, of course. And worse, was the knowledge that once the pictures started circulating the local interest story would quickly become a shitshow.
“Damned internet,” he muttered.
“Do you want to hear what I saw that night,” the woman stubbornly demanded.
“Not now Lia,” he snapped. “If you want to make some sort of formal report you can come to the office on Monday. Right now, I’m too busy.”
“This is ridiculous.”
She threw her hands up in the air but thank God she turned to climb up the steep incline. He couldn’t deal with Lia Porter. Not now.
Waiting until she was out of sight, Tate pulled his cellphone out of the pocket of his coat. He’d sent a quick text the moment he’d recognized who had been found. Now he needed to share that this was going to be more than a passing inconvenience.
He pressed a familiar number and grimaced when his call was answered with a sharp demand to know where he was.
“I’m still at the scene,” he said. “The EMTs just took away the body.” He listened a second. “Of course, I’m sure. There wasn’t any identification, but she had the badge on her jacket. It has to be her.” Another pause. “No. I couldn’t destroy it. Those dumbass kids had already taken pictures. You don’t think people would ask questions if it magically disappeared?” He blew out a heavy breath, the puff of icy vapor reminding him that he was freezing off his ass. “And it gets worse. Lia Porter came charging down here claiming she’d seen the woman on the night she died.” He flinched as a sharp reprimand drilled into his ear, as if he was somehow responsible for Lia being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I don’t know. She was babbling about a woman jumping off the bridge and recognizing the jacket. She’d seen a picture one of those inbred brats took. I told her I’d talk to her later.” He made a sound of impatience as the reprimand continued. “How was I supposed to distract her? I’m cold, I’m tired, and I’m done playing sheriff for the day. I’ll deal with Lia after I’ve made sure there’s nothing out here that can point back to us.” He held the phone in front of his face, his tone sarcastic. “Oh, and you’re welcome. Once again I’m stuck trying to clean up your mess.”