A Dirty Job – Liliana Hart

“Where did the screams come from, ma’am?” Deputy Tessa Black stood under the porch overhang. The night wind whipped dead leaves around her boots. “Over there.” In the open doorway, Mrs. Driver lifted one hand from her walker and pointed behind Tessa. Tessa glanced over her shoulder. On the other side of a quarter-acre field, the thick forest of the state park abutted Mrs. Driver’s property. Lights shining from the house couldn’t penetrate the darkness. Everything beyond the tree line was inky black. Tessa cocked her head and listened intently, but all she heard was the wind rustling through branches. “What time did you hear them?” Tessa asked. “Twenty minutes ago.” Mrs. Driver’s eyes narrowed with reproach.

“I called you immediately.” The What took you so long? was implied. Tessa had been on call, not on duty, when the complaint had come in. She’d been on the road in less than three minutes. But navigating tight switchbacks in the dark had taken time. Slow emergency response time was a part of life that every resident of Widow’s Island well knew. But that fact never stopped anyone from complaining. An owl screeched, the high-pitched sound startling Tessa. She blew out a breath. “Could you have heard an animal?” Mrs.

Driver lifted an indignant chin. Despite standing barely five feet tall, including her fluffy white curls, the old woman managed to look down her nose. “I’ve lived on this island all my life. I know what I heard. It was no animal. It was a person screaming.” She pursed her lips, concentrating. “A man, I think.” She nodded. “Yes.

I’m almost certain it was a man.” Could she have heard teenagers? The state park beach, a popular hangout spot, was close by. “Have you seen or heard anything else tonight?” Tessa asked. “Motorcycles or quads?” “No.” With a shudder, Mrs. Driver lowered her hand and clutched the edges of her blue robe together. “But I heard more than a single yell. The screaming went on for a full minute or two. It sounded so . terrible.

” She paused, her lips puckering with wrinkles as she pressed them together. “Bloodcurdling.” Goose bumps lifted on Tessa’s arms. “I’ll check it out. Be sure to lock your door, ma’am.” “Yes. I will. Thank you,” Mrs. Driver said solemnly. Then she shuffled her walker backward and closed the door.

Tessa turned away from the house. As she stepped off the porch, she heard the dead bolt slide home with a metallic scrape. She walked to her county-issued SUV in the driveway. Across the street, a spotlight shone on the wooden arch that marked the entrance to Bishop State Park. Beyond it, the forest was murky and black. Tessa had no desire to traipse through it alone in the dark. Three deputies lived on Widow’s Island, including Tessa. Veteran deputy Kurt Olson was off the island tonight. His daughter had had a baby earlier in the day at the mainland hospital. Bruce Taylor, a new hire from Oregon, was on duty, but he had been tied up with a vehicle accident when Mrs.

Driver’s call had come in. There would be no backup for Tessa from the sheriff’s department. Other than the tiny satellite sheriff’s station, the only other emergency service unit located on Widow’s Island was a two-bay fire station manned entirely by volunteers. There was no hospital, no urgent care, and no ambulance. The community had only recently replaced the doctor who had died ages ago. The sheriff’s deputies served as first responders to any situation one of the five thousand island residents considered urgent. Since Tessa had left the Seattle PD eighteen months before and joined the local sheriff’s department, she’d handled everything from loose sheep to drug overdoses to domestic violence. Tessa eyed the woods again. She was no coward, but neither was she foolish. She slid into the SUV, took her phone out of her pocket, and called state park ranger Logan Wilde.

The ranger’s station sat near the park entrance, with the ranger’s residence just behind it. At nearly midnight, Logan would likely be in his cabin. “Logan, it’s Tessa.” She explained about Mrs. Driver’s report of a man screaming. “Did you hear anything strange around eleven thirty?” “I don’t know.” His voice sounded rough. “Maybe.” Maybe? She wanted to press him for an explanation, but the harshness of his tone stopped her, and she wished she could read his face and body language. Her interrogation experience had taught her that some questions were better left to in-person discussions.

He cleared his throat. “It was probably kids. If they’re not drinking on the beach, they’re parking in the woods or ripping up the trails on their quads. I can’t run them out of the park fast enough.” “Especially on a warm night.” Widow’s Island was located in the same sun belt as the San Juan Islands. Shielded by the Olympic Mountains, it received about half the precipitation of Seattle. But even for the temperate island, early December had been unusually warm and pleasant. “Yes,” Logan agreed. “I’ll check out the most likely spots and let you know if I see anyone.

” Tessa remembered Mrs. Driver’s shudder. The older woman was not a frequent complainer. She had definitely heard something. “I’m going with you. I’ll meet you at the clearing.” She dropped the phone on the console, backed out of the driveway, and headed toward the park. Fog crawled across the road as she drove under the arch. A half mile down the tract, Tessa turned into a small gravel parking lot and lifted her foot off the gas pedal. A familiar Jetta sat near the entrance to the trail.

Tessa backed into a parking spot across the lot from the old car so that her headlights shone on the license plate. She recognized the MAY THE FOREST BE WITH YOU bumper sticker. The Jetta belonged to Jerry Hooper, the owner of the local pot shop and a lifelong friend of her mother’s. The car was older than Tessa, but Jerry didn’t drive it often. Worry twisted in Tessa’s belly. Since her mother’s dementia had accelerated, Jerry had ridden his mountain bike to the house weekly to deliver new holistic treatment options. He was a nice man. A little weird, but nice. She pulled out her cell phone and called his house, but he didn’t answer, which wasn’t unusual. Jerry believed constant connectivity was killing mankind.

He also refused to put a cell phone anywhere near his brain. The park closed at dusk. What would he be doing out here in the middle of the night? Like Tessa’s mom, Jerry was a nature-loving, crunchy, hippie type. Maybe his vehicle had broken down earlier and he’d left it to retrieve the next day. Tessa hoped the screaming Mrs. Driver had reported hadn’t come from Jerry. Don’t jump to conclusions. Chances were that Jerry was just fine. Who knew what Mrs. Driver had heard? Tessa stepped out of her SUV and opened the rear cargo door.

She opened the backpack she kept in her vehicle and checked the contents. She kept it loaded with everything from protein bars to Mylar emergency blankets and evidence collection bags. After zipping the pack closed, she grabbed warm gloves and slid a camera into her pocket. She wasn’t planning on a long hike, but one did not go into the five-thousand-acre park without being prepared. Headlights swept across the parking area, and a dented Range Rover slid into the next space. Logan climbed out of his vehicle and walked toward her. Tall and rangy, he wore dark cargo pants, hiking boots, and a dark-green jacket with the Washington State Forest Ranger patch on the bicep. He entered the pool of light cast by her vehicle. He was the older brother of her best friend, Cate. A former army ranger, he’d left the military and returned home two months ago.

Tessa had known him for most of her life. She’d even had a crush on him as a teen. But this wasn’t the same man who had left the island a decade before to join the army. Logan’s once-shaggy black hair was shorn close to his head, and his body had toughened, leaving his tanned face looking almost gaunt. But it wasn’t the physical changes that stood out for Tessa. It was the absence of his easy smile. This Logan was darker, the expression in his blue eyes harder in a way she couldn’t quite define. But then, her life had taken unexpected, unwanted turns as well. Logan gestured toward the Jetta. “Someone’s here.

” “It’s Jerry Hooper’s vehicle.” Tessa switched on her flashlight. “Let’s see if we can find him.” Logan started toward the entrance to the trail that led to the beach. Tessa stopped at the edge of the gravel and directed her light on the ground. “The ground is too dry for footprints.” Tessa and Logan walked in silence down the trail, pausing when it opened onto Broad Beach. Moonlight shimmered on the water and brightened the sand. Tessa lowered her flashlight and scanned the beach, but she saw no one. Logan pointed ahead.

“Let’s try the picnic area.” He turned left and walked parallel to the shoreline. Tessa followed him, her ears straining for sounds over the roll of surf in the darkness. The wind blew off the water, shifting the sea spray into her face. Every footstep that brought her closer to the picnic area also lifted the hairs on the back of her neck. Something was wrong. She could feel it. Under her uniform, her skin felt more sensitive, prickling. Her bones hummed with warning, as if every cell of her body sensed danger. They walked past a curved rock outcropping that formed a small cove.

The quieter waters hosted a public boat ramp and dock. Just before the tree line, the picnic area faced the cove. Branches arced over the sand, casting deep shadows. They approached the wooden picnic tables. The wind shifted, and Tessa caught an alarming scent. Her steps hesitated, and her brain screamed, Turn around! It was a wet, raw smell. Like fresh meat. She swept her flashlight in a slow semicircle. Her beam fell upon a pair of boots. Tessa raised the flashlight and nearly dropped it.

She almost didn’t believe what was right in front of her. For her last couple of years with the Seattle PD, she’d been a detective. She’d seen dead bodies. But this . Her stomach lurched. This was nothing like she’d ever seen in her eleven-year law enforcement career. Logan said something unintelligible, and his voice dropped off with a choking sound. Tessa’s throat went too dry to speak. Directly ahead of her, on the sign that listed the items prohibited in the park, the body of a man had been impaled by a harpoon. She and Logan simply stared for a few heartbeats, the beam of her light locked on the bloodsoaked jacket and the spear protruding from the middle of the victim’s torso.

Then Tessa shook off her shock. She approached the body and pressed two fingers to the side of the neck. No pulse, not that she had expected one. But she had to be sure. She took two steps back. She wouldn’t touch the body again until after the coroner had seen him. Tessa shone her light on the victim’s face. “That’s not Jerry,” Logan said. “Do you know who it is?” “Yes,” Tessa answered, her stomach turning. Widow’s Island was a small community.

Outside of the tourist season, newcomers were noticed. Heck, everyone and everything was noticed and noted. She opened her mouth to answer. A twig snapped in the forest, the sound seeming as loud as a gunshot. Adrenaline shot through Tessa’s bloodstream. Sweat rushed from her pores and dampened her chilled skin. She drew her sidearm. Next to her, Logan pulled his weapon from its holster. Tessa held her flashlight in one hand and her gun in the other. Logan positioned himself at her left flank.

As a unit, they moved out of the open and into the trees. Tessa skimmed her flashlight over the dark woods, scanning for a human form. The foliage rustled. Tessa pivoted. She aimed her gun and flashlight at the noise. Her heart sprinted, the beats echoing in her ears and drowning out the sounds of the forest. The beam of her light gleamed on three pairs of eyeballs. Three tiny black-tailed deer spun away and bounded through the trees. Tessa breathed. Her lungs felt as tight as spandex.

Logan exhaled. “Damn deer.” They swept a semicircle around the picnic area, then returned to the body. “Whoever did this is probably long gone.” But Logan did not immediately holster his weapon. Neither did Tessa. They stood back to back, as if Logan was also thinking that the killer could still be out there in the dark. It was not possible to search the entire area, not without substantial backup, and the small satellite sheriff’s station didn’t possess enough portable lights. If she had still been in Seattle, Tessa would have called in a forensic unit, a dozen uniforms, and a K-9 team. But this was Widow’s Island.

Assistance was hours away, available only via ferry, private boat, or helicopter. But the death did need to be reported and investigated. Tessa would start with the coroner. She pulled her phone from her pocket. “I’ll call Henry.” Dr. Henry Powers was the new doctor on Widow’s Island. Much to his surprise, he’d inherited the job of coroner along with the family practice he’d taken over. She woke Henry and gave him the location and details of the death. Then she called the sheriff on the mainland.

Widow’s Island was remote, and the deputies on the island had learned to function independently. His line went to voice mail, and Tessa left a message. “Henry is on his way.” She turned her attention back to the body. Her light traveled over the victim. He wore a puffy down jacket in pale blue and dark skinny jeans. A camera case lay on the ground at his feet. His heeled boots were more fashion than function. They belonged in the city, not in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. But then, so did he.

Sadness filled her as she studied his face. He’d been handsome—pretty, even—with a long, slim face and tousled hair that fell just below his ears. “His name is Dante,” she said. “I don’t remember his last name. He hasn’t lived on the island long, less than a year.” “Has he been in any trouble?” Logan asked. “No.” Tessa shook her head. “He is—was an artist. He painted landscapes of the island and sold them in Rachel Abbott’s shop in town.

He lived in the converted barn behind Jerry’s house. He must have borrowed Jerry’s Jetta. He seemed friendly enough with Rachel and Jerry. I’ve never heard any complaints about him from anyone else either.” So why would someone drive a harpoon into his chest?

.

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