A Broken Bone – Melinda Leigh

Deputy Tessa Black roared down the narrow dead-end street in her county-issued SUV, lights flashing and sirens blaring. A report of a possible explosion in the small town of North Sound was a true emergency. The volunteer fire company was also on the way, but in rural areas, deputies were usually the first responders to almost every call. What could have exploded in a residential neighborhood? Was someone cooking meth? The weather in May was gorgeous in the Pacific Northwest. Barely five thousand residents lived on Widow’s Island year round, but the busy season had begun. Tourists already crowded the island. With the influx came a corresponding increase in accidents and 911 calls. Maybe a propane tank from a barbecue grill had exploded. In the passenger seat, Logan Wilde, the local park ranger, scanned mailboxes as they passed. He wore boots, tan cargos, and a Washington State Forest Ranger T-shirt. He was tall and fit, his rigid posture and closely shorn black hair testifying to his military background. Tessa had known Logan her whole life. He was her best friend’s brother. Now, their relationship had grown into a romantic one. He’d been with her when the call had come in.

There were only three deputies on Widow’s Island. With one on vacation and another off duty, Logan had volunteered to be her backup. He pointed to a dilapidated bungalow with a FOR SALE sign staked in the middle of an overgrown front yard. “There it is. The last house on this side. It’s not on fire, and it still looks intact.” “Let’s see what’s up,” Tessa said. Across the street from the bungalow, a woman of about fifty watched from behind the screen door of a ranch-style house. A little boy of about three stood at her side, holding her hand. Tessa parked her SUV at the curb.

When she and Logan stepped out, the woman lifted the child onto her hip and hurried out to meet them in the street. She wore boots, jeans, and a sweatshirt with the Rolling Stones tongue logo on the chest. “Are you Gladys White?” Tessa asked. “I am. I called you.” Gladys gestured to the bungalow. “Johnnie and I were having our lunch when we heard a loud sound, like an explosion, and then someone screamed.” “I was scared.” Johnnie blinked innocent blue eyes at Tessa. Gladys shuddered and hugged him closer.

“That place has been empty for years. Someone bought it a couple years ago. He was fixing it up to sell but ran out of money. We had a drug addict camping there last summer. Who knows what could be going on with all the tourists running around the island? Whoever’s there is up to no good.” She shoved a few strands of short gray hair behind one ear. “Things go on in that house all the time.” Though an hour’s ride by ferry from the mainland of Washington State, Widow’s Island had its share of homelessness, and there seemed to be no place on earth remote enough to escape drug addiction and the crime that went along with it. Last year, the sheriff’s department had busted two meth labs. “Yes, ma’am,” agreed Tessa.

“Please take Johnnie inside, and lock your doors. I’ll let you know what we find.” Gladys turned and rushed back into her house. Tessa drew her service weapon. Logan did the same. Tessa squinted against the afternoon sun high overhead. The temperature was a comfortable sixty-five degrees, but beads of sweat dripped down her back and pooled under her body armor. “Hold on.” Tessa opened the cargo hold of her SUV and pulled out a Kevlar vest. “Here.

” Logan put it on. As a deputy, she wore a vest every day as part of her uniform. Logan’s job did not usually necessitate such measures. Since he’d helped Tessa with several cases lately, she now carried a spare vest in her vehicle. Logan squatted in the grass. “These footprints look fresh.” Rain the night before had left the soil damp and soggy in low-lying areas. The boot prints led from the sidewalk toward the front porch. They approached the house. The flaky bricks in the walkway crumbled under their feet.

They stopped short of the porch. The front door stood open. About ten feet beyond the entrance, a black, moldy spot on the ceiling indicated a water leak. Beneath it, Tessa could see a hole where the floor had collapsed into the basement. Logan pointed. “That looks recent. Very recent.” The frayed edges of the broken subfloor were fresh rather than weathered. “Gladys probably heard someone go through the floor,” she said. The wind shifted, and the faint but distinct odor of decomposition hit Tessa’s nostrils.

Logan sniffed. “Smell that?” “Something could have crawled into the basement and died.” Tessa glanced at a narrow window set low in the foundation. The odor was too foul to be fresh death. “Whatever it is, it didn’t die today.” And therefore was likely unrelated to today’s disturbance. But the hairs on the back of Tessa’s neck quivered. Was someone in the house with that smell—someone who was armed? If a shooter was inside, she didn’t want them to have advance notice of their movements. She leaned close to Logan’s ear and whispered, “Let’s go around back.” They crept through damp knee-high weeds and grass in the side yard until they reached the rear of the house.

Vines slithered up the foundation, and paint peeled from clapboards like bark on a birch trunk. Tessa peered around the corner. The property backed up to woods. She turned to scan the building. A narrow covered porch extended across the back of the structure. Tessa walked closer. Something scraped, like wood shifting. Tessa and Logan both startled. Shoulder to shoulder, they approached the bungalow. Unlike the front porch, which had looked rotted, the back porch and steps had clearly been replaced more recently.

“The steps look newer.” She tested the bottom step with her weight. It felt solid. She went up the stairs one by one until she reached the top. Logan followed. They split up and flanked the back door. Tessa peered through the glass panes in the top half of the door. Cracks, dirt, and cobwebs obscured the view. “I can’t see anything.” She tried the doorknob.

Unlocked, it turned in her hand. Hinges squeaked as she pushed it open. The kitchen floor was covered in empty beer cans and fast-food containers. In the center, someone had set up a card table. A couple of folding chairs were tucked under it. A few empty bottles of cheap liquor sat in a row along one wall, and cigarettes had been ground out on the tile floor. Had someone—maybe kids—been using the vacant house to party? She could see through a doorway into what seemed to be a family room. More trash was strewed throughout. She cleared the slice of the room that was visible, then peered around the doorframe to see more. Doorways were choke points in a search.

She moved through it quickly, stepping to the left corner and clearing the rest of the room. Logan followed, stepping right. She checked a closet—empty—and they went through a doorway one at a time into an adjoining living room. Again, they worked as a team. Tessa swept left while Logan went right. “Clear.” Tessa swept her weapon from corner to corner. A quarter of the room had been cleaned up. Tessa spotted a sleeping bag but no occupant. The living room was open to the foyer—and the giant hole.

“It looks like someone has been squatting here,” she said in a low voice. “Maybe he or she went through the floor.” “This is a prime spot for it.” Logan glanced up at the ceiling. “The roof leaked, and the floor rotted near the front door.” A moan sounded from what seemed like the basement. But they had to clear the first floor before moving downstairs. They moved forward toward another choke point, a hallway that opened off the living room. Four doorways lined the corridor. The two bedrooms and single bath were empty.

Tessa opened the last door. A set of stairs led down into a dank and dirty basement. Tessa didn’t like it, not one bit. As the officer with training, she went first. Stairways were called fatal funnels for a reason. Once she and Logan started down, there would be no cover and no concealment. She went down with sure movements, keeping her back to the wall and quickly clearing each visible slice of the room before moving to the next step. Threequarters of the way down the stairs, wood clunked, and fabric rustled. Another human groan floated up to them. “Who’s there?” The voice from the basement was female.

Tessa froze. “Sheriff’s department.” “Thank God,” the woman said. “I need help. I fell through the floor.” The cracks hadn’t been gunshots but the sound of the porch boards breaking. The voice was familiar. Tessa knew this woman. “Patsy? Patsy Taylor?” Patsy was Deputy Bruce Taylor’s mother, visiting from Oregon. “Yes,” Patsy said.

“Bruce’s mom?” Logan asked. Tessa nodded. “Patsy, are you alone?” “Yes,” she said. Tessa followed protocol and cleared the remainder of the basement. She was on the bottom step when she caught sight of Patsy lying in a pile of broken boards and dust. The rest of the basement was empty, except for large piles of debris. Tessa picked her way across the debris and knelt at Patsy’s side. “Where are you hurt?” “It feels like my ankle is broken, and my foot is stuck.” Patsy pointed at a large beam that rested across her ankle. “I hit my head too.

” “Let’s get that beam off your ankle.” Logan started removing boards and tossing them. He squatted and took hold of the beam, but it wouldn’t budge. “I’m going to remove your shoe. Maybe we can slide you out. This is probably going to hurt. I’m sorry.” He tugged on the laces and gently slipped the shoe from Patsy’s foot. Tessa glanced around the basement. Dirt, trash, and leaves lay in deep piles.

The smell was much stronger in the basement. Decomposition lay as thick as fog in the musty air. In the far corner, the buzzing of flies sounded like a lawn mower. She breathed through her mouth and fought her gag reflex. Logan set aside Patsy’s shoe and sock. Tessa slid her hands under Patsy’s arms and tried to tug her free. She wouldn’t budge. Patsy cried out in pain. “This isn’t going to work,” Tessa said. “The fire department should be here any minute, and I’ll call Bruce.

” Tessa straightened and checked her phone. Zero reception. “I need to go outside. I’ll be right back.” She hurried up the stairs, grateful for the fresh air flooding her nostrils. Outside, she called Bruce on her way to her vehicle. “Tessa?” Bruce answered. “What’s up?” “Your mom fell through the floor of an abandoned house.” Tessa summed up the situation. “What? Where is she?” Bruce exclaimed.

“Number twenty-seven Mimosa Street.” “That’s only a mile from my house. I’ll be right there.” Bruce ended the call. Tessa removed a blanket, a bottle of water, and a first aid kit from her vehicle. Across the street, Gladys looked out the window. Tessa waved to her, and Gladys opened her front door. “Everything is all right,” Tessa called. “Someone fell through the floor.” “Thank you.

” Gladys waved back. Tessa went back into the house and down the stairs. That smell . Logan crouched, pressing his fingers to the top of Patsy’s foot. Tessa already knew his combat experience had left him with excellent emergency first aid training. “Her pedal pulse is good, so I don’t think the beam is cutting off her circulation.” “That’s good.” Tessa wrapped the blanket around Patsy’s shoulders. “Thank you.” Patsy clutched the edges of the blanket together.

Tessa opened the water bottle and handed it to her. Patsy took a small sip. Tessa opened the first aid kit and massaged an ice pack until it felt cold. She handed it to Logan, who placed it on Patsy’s foot. Patsy flinched. “I’m sorry,” Logan said. “But I’d like to control the swelling as much as possible.” “Not your fault. This was all my doing.” Patsy licked her lips.

Her voice was rough, but she waved a hand toward her injured limb. “I’ll be all right. I raised four kids. I hate that you had to bother the fire department. I’m conscious, I’m not hemorrhaging, and nothing is on fire. It’s not a real emergency.” Tessa chuckled. Patsy was putting up a good front, but she was in pain. The ankle was either badly sprained or broken. “Does anything else hurt?” Tessa asked.

“My head, but just a little. I’m sure I have a few cuts and bruises, but none feel major.” “I want you to hold still anyway, just in case.” Tessa took Patsy’s pulse. It felt steady but maybe a little weak. “Did you lose consciousness?” “I don’t think so.” Think? Not good. Emergencies could turn deadly fast on the island. Widow’s had one doctor, Henry Powers, who had upgraded his practice to a full-fledged urgent care center over the previous winter. Patsy could have a neck, spine, or other serious injury she wasn’t aware of.

There was no hospital, and the closest thing they had to an ambulance was the funeral home’s hearse. “I dropped my phone somewhere. I tried looking for it.” Patsy glanced around and winced. “But moving around turned out to be a bad idea.” She sniffed, and her face scrunched. “It’s probably a bad idea for other reasons. It smells like something died down here.” “It does,” Tessa agreed. “I’m going to check on the fire crew’s ETA.

” Logan stood and hurried toward the stairs. He returned in less than a minute. “About two more minutes.” The firemen needed to drive to the station before heading out on the call. Patsy’s face was pale. Tessa shone the flashlight on her head. “Is your head bleeding?” “I don’t think so.” Patsy didn’t sound sure. Tessa didn’t like the fatigue in her voice. Normally, Patsy had a very strong personality.

“I’m going to check your head.” “Okay.” Tessa probed Patsy’s scalp. “The good news is I don’t feel any blood. The bad news is that I found a nice goose egg.” “Do you need me to call Henry?” Logan asked. Tessa scanned Patsy. She was moving her head and coherent, but Tessa was no doctor. If she asked Patsy, she’d undoubtedly say she was fine. “Henry is the doctor, right?” Patsy said.

She didn’t wait for an answer. “You don’t have to drag him all the way over here. Bruce can drive me to the clinic when he gets here.” Tessa looked up at Logan. “Not now. If we need him, he’s only a few minutes away.” “My back and neck are fine.” Patsy demonstrated by turning her head and moving her shoulders. Tessa sighed. “How did you get down here?” “I was walking this morning—I walk three miles every day.

Anyway, I saw this house. You know Bruce is looking for a fixer-upper.” “Is he?” Tessa hadn’t known. The young deputy was recently engaged. His fiancée was a nurse who worked at the urgent care center. “The location is nice. At first, I was only going to peek in the window.” Patsy swallowed. “But the front door was open, and I went inside. Obviously, that wasn’t the best idea.

The floor seemed okay until I stepped on it. Then it just collapsed.” “That smell didn’t keep you away?” Tessa pressed a knuckle to her nose. “It wasn’t so bad until I went through the floor.” “Probably a dead animal.” Tessa went to a narrow window high on the wall. Standing on a cinder block, she pushed open the window, creating a cross breeze for ventilation. She walked a few feet away, taking care to step only between the piles of debris. “When I was a kid, a skunk crawled under our chicken coop and died. The smell was horrible.

” The odor grew stronger as she approached the north corner. She picked up a stick and moved aside some dead leaves. Flies rose in a swirling black cloud. The odor intensified, coating Tessa’s mouth and clogging her throat. She swallowed bile. Probably a raccoon. But the hairs on the back of her neck were waving danger flags. She moved a few more leaves and startled. “What is it?” Patsy asked. “Nothing.

” “Bull. I spent most of my life married to a cop. You found a body, didn’t you?” “Yes, ma’am.” Tessa stared at a human hand. She moved a few more leaves. The hand was connected to a partially decomposed corpse.

.

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