Bred in the Bone – Kendra Elliot

“What kind of person doesn’t stop?” muttered Cate. “The kind who was too impaired to notice or too scared to face the consequences of killing a man,” answered Tessa as she watched Henry kneel beside the hit-and-run victim. FBI special agent Cate Wilde looked away from the dead man, fighting to keep her stomach calm and her anger in check. County deputy Tessa Black appeared composed and centered as she and two other deputies handled the death scene in the middle of the rural island road. The victim had been struck by a vehicle and either knocked or dragged thirty feet from his mangled bicycle. Deputy Bruce Taylor was taking dozens of photos while Tessa and Deputy Kurt Olson analyzed the scene. Cate and Henry had been enjoying a chilly but romantic hike up to the Crone Mountain lookout when Henry had been called to the accident. As Widow’s Island’s only doctor, Henry Powers was also the coroner—a position he hadn’t expected when he’d bought the medical practice on the island earlier that year. “There are no skid marks,” continued Tessa. “To me that means an impaired driver is more likely the cause. And since there are no more ferries today, the vehicle is still on the island.” Wrapping her coat tighter against the cold, Cate glanced at the lowering December sun. They’d soon be out of light to search for the deadly vehicle. Not my case. It wasn’t.

She had accompanied Henry as an observer. This death was firmly in the county sheriff’s department’s hands. “Anyone know him?” Henry asked as he checked the victim’s limbs for ease of movement. “Brad Gill,” Kurt stated simultaneously with Tessa. Everyone knew everyone on the sparsely populated island in the Pacific Northwest. Kurt, Tessa, and Cate had all been raised on Widow’s Island. Henry was the newcomer from Southern California, and Bruce was a recent transplant from Oregon. “Why would he ride a bike on a winding road with no shoulder?” asked Henry. “Lost his license,” said Kurt. “I can’t tell you how many times he’s been brought in for DUI.

Looks like following the rules cost him his life this time.” The graying deputy was grim. The irony made Cate wince. “He wasn’t the nicest guy,” Kurt said, earning a curious raised brow from Henry. “You’re being kind,” said Tessa. “He was a jerk. The type who enjoyed pissing off everyone. Most people avoided him.” “The accident was recent,” Henry said quickly. Cate suspected he was tactfully changing the conversation’s direction.

“Some of the blood is still wet, and there’s no sign that rigor has started.” “This road is very quiet,” said Cate. “But it does have some traffic.” “Clearly.” Kurt’s tone was flat. “I’ll have Bruce check the vehicles leaving on tomorrow’s ferry. The damage caused by this accident should be obvious.” “Someone is going to have a shitty Christmas in a couple weeks,” Henry said. He’d stood but continued to study Brad Gill’s contorted body. Cate saw Tessa and Kurt exchange a look at Henry’s comment.

“What is it?” she asked. “Brad was estranged from his father,” Kurt said. “There are no other relatives around that I know of. The two of them had words every time they bumped into each other in town. We were called to separate them several times.” “What was the issue?” asked Henry. “That basically Brad was a lousy excuse for a human being,” said Tessa. “A lotta anger between them.” She sighed. “Jon Gill’s home will be my first visit.

” “Wait a minute.” The name had set off bells in Cate’s brain. “Jon Gill is the guy we wanted to talk to about Samantha. He used to own the orchard where her necklace was found.” Tessa blinked as a dozen emotions flickered across her face, and she touched the small pendant at her neck. Twenty years ago the third member of Cate and Tessa’s teenage trio, Samantha Bishop, had vanished, her coat left at the top of the deadly Widow’s Walk. The police investigation had never determined if she’d jumped from the high cliff, been kidnapped, or simply left the island. But Cate and Tessa knew their best friend would have never disappeared on purpose without telling them first. A few days ago, Tessa had found Samantha’s necklace in the orchard’s pump house. Cate’s grandmother had given the three girls each a necklace with a portion of a heart that said “Sisters” on the back.

Cate and Tessa had already decided to take another look into the cold case of Samantha’s disappearance, but the discovery of the necklace had opened up a fresh lead in their personal investigation. Had Samantha been held in the pump house decades ago? How many people could access the pump house back then? Jon Gill was at the top of Cate and Tessa’s interview list. “Our hit-and-run victim is the son of the man you want to interview?” Henry asked Cate, a wrinkle forming between his brows. “You can’t question him about Samantha’s disappearance. His son just died.” Henry was right. Cate pressed her lips into a tight line. She’d been playing phone tag with Jon Gill, trying to set up an interview. She hadn’t specified what she wanted to speak to him about, but now Samantha’s case would go on the back burner until his son’s murder was solved. “Jon might surprise you,” said Kurt.

“He’s a straight shooter. Will want to help if he can.” She gave the older deputy a grateful glance. Guilt had swamped her for thinking about her friend instead of the victim at their feet. Today was about Brad Gill. And finding his killer. “Bruce and I can finish up here if you’ll go break the news to Jon,” Kurt told Tessa. Cate studied her friend. Tessa’s eyes were reluctant but determined as she considered how to handle the horrible job of delivering the news of Brad’s death. “I’ll come,” Cate offered.

“We’ll talk to him about Samantha another day.” “I’ll stay until the body is picked up,” Henry said. He gave Cate a quick kiss and squeezed her hand, holding her gaze. Her heart warmed at the support in his eyes. They’d been dating for a few months, ever since she returned to the island for medical leave from her FBI job. They saw each other nearly every day, and he was burrowing deeper and deeper into her heart. Henry made it hard to think about returning to her job on the mainland. Her medical leave was almost up. She needed to make a decision. “What are you going to do?” Tessa asked Cate pointedly as she drove to Jon Gill’s home.

The deputy had reached Jon on the phone, explaining that she needed to see him about a police matter, and he’d agreed to meet. “About what?” “Henry.” Cate was silent. It’d been on her mind nonstop. Her time off was finished at the end of the month. Could the two of them handle a long-distance relationship? Her office was in Bellingham, and it was a good ninety minutes to Widow’s Island by ferry. When the ferries were running. She didn’t want long distance. She couldn’t ask Henry to leave his medical practice. He was the only doctor on the island, he clearly loved it here, and the island had embraced him.

That didn’t happen to everyone. “I don’t know.” The silence stretched in the SUV. The island had been poking and prodding at Cate’s heart over the past month, almost a physical sensation. Cate had left long ago to attend college and start work, intending to only come back for visits. Her grandmother had always asserted that Cate would return for good one day. Jane knew things. She’d said the same thing about Cate’s brother, Logan, who had returned after a long time away. He’d found a job and was now seeing Tessa. Logan had firmly dug his roots back into Widow’s Island.

Jane’s foresight was eerie. Is she right about me? Cate loved her job. She enjoyed the people she worked with, and her days were never the same. She’d worked hard to get into the FBI. She couldn’t give that up. Could she? “Three people have asked me about Samantha’s necklace,” Tessa said into the silence. “What?” Cate blinked. “Who told? I thought you’d kept the necklace discovery confidential.” Tessa gave her a knowing glance, making Cate realize her question had been ridiculous. Gossip ran rampant on Widow’s.

There was no stopping it or tracing the offenders. It was simply part of rural island life. Cate tried to put a positive spin on the rumor mill. “Maybe someone will come forward with information.” “It’s been twenty years.” “Don’t I know it.” She looked out the window as Tessa turned off the country road onto a gravel drive. Ahead was a long row of single-level apartments. The white brick walls were in need of paint, and the roof seemed too low, making Cate wonder if she’d have to duck to step inside. Old sedans and pickups were parked haphazardly in the dirt out front.

The farthest apartment had been a party spot when Cate was in high school. It’d been uninhabited, but kids had broken in no matter how many times the apartment complex owner had boarded up the doors and windows. Beer, pot, sex. The usual. Cate hadn’t attended, but she suspected her brother, Logan, had gone a few times. She didn’t want to know where the teens hung out now. Island life was slow, and people took their entertainment where they could find it. Sadly a lot of that entertainment involved drug addiction. The monotony was more bearable if you were stoned. Cate had always loved island life.

She loved the earthy and salty scents, the steep green hills, and the endless ocean views. People came from around the world to visit Widow’s and its neighboring islands. Some tried to stay, craving the silence or seeking nature’s therapy for broken hearts, ill health, and battered psyches. Something about the island offered comfort and healing to many in need. To Cate it was a piece of quiet paradise that happened to be invaded by tourists during the summer. But by the time she had finished high school, Cate had been ready to leave and join the real world. “This place hasn’t changed,” Tessa said in a low voice. “We have a call here every other week. Usually domestics.” She parked and then rested her hands on the wheel, staring at the apartment.

“Damn, I hate this part.” “How many times have you delivered this kind of news?” Cate was glad she’d never had the experience. “Only once. It sticks with you, though.” Tessa threw open her door and immediately stepped out as if avoiding more questions. Cate followed the deputy to the third squatty apartment, keeping Tessa between herself and the door. Tessa wore a ballistic vest; Cate did not. Her focus centered on the door, and the rest of the world fell away as sweat started under her arms. Two months ago Cate had been shot on the job as she waited for someone to answer her knock; the agent with her didn’t survive. Jon Gill’s door opened when they were ten feet away, making her heart rate skyrocket.

His hands were empty, and Cate sucked in deep breaths to slow the beating in her chest. How can I return to my job if I can’t knock on a door? Jon Gill appeared to be in his seventies. White tufts of hair surrounded a bald crown. The thick lenses of his glasses distorted his eyes as they looked from Tessa to Cate. He scowled at her. “Who’s that?” “I’m Cate Wilde, Mr. Gill. I left a few messages for you last week.” His face cleared. “Ah.

Jane’s granddaughter. You’re the FBI agent that was shot. She talks nonstop about you and Logan.” Cate didn’t know what to say. Thank you? “Can we come in, Jon?” Tessa asked. He stepped back and waved them in, and they sat gingerly on an ancient couch in the tiny living room. He took a seat in a wooden rocking chair and crossed his legs. His scowl had returned, a look of suspicion in his magnified eyes. “What’s going on? First the FBI calls me last week, and today it’s you.” He glared at Tessa.

“This isn’t related to Cate’s calls last week,” Tessa began, her voice steady. “Brad was in a bad accident a few hours ago, Jon. I’m sorry, but he didn’t survive.” The man went very still, his face instantly pale, but no emotion appeared. “What happened?” he asked in a flat voice. “It appears he was hit by a car while on his bike.” Tessa paused. “It was a hit and run.” She leaned forward, holding Jon’s gaze. “We’ll find who did it,” she said emphatically.

“The island isn’t that big.” Cate let out the breath she’d held since Tessa started to talk. She watched Jon closely, expecting signs of distress. They didn’t appear. “I didn’t do it,” he stated firmly. Cate stopped her jaw from dropping open. How bad was his relationship with his son? Tessa flinched. “I . I appreciate that, Jon. I didn’t come here to make accusations; I’m here to bring you the news.

” “You can check my truck. There would be evidence, right?” His gaze jumped between the women several times. Tessa looked at Cate, her eyes wide. The deputy was speechless. “If you’d like, we can look at your truck,” said Cate. Might as well address his concerns. He was out of his chair before she finished speaking. Cate and Tessa were slow to stand but followed him outside and over to a small Toyota pickup. They dutifully circled the truck and examined the front. Tessa snapped a few photos.

Jon watched, his arms crossed on his chest. “I might not get along—have gotten along with Brad, but I wouldn’t run him over.” His eyes had reddened and were wet. “I always knew he’d come to a bad end.” He slowly shook his head, his gaze on the ground. “Had demons, you know? Tried to get clean a few times, but it never stuck.” “I’m very sorry, Jon.” Tessa touched his arm. “Let’s go back inside.” They took their original seats.

“When was the last time you saw him?” asked Tessa. Jon scratched his chin, his face screwed up in thought. “Must be close to a month. Ran into him at the Black Tail. He mouthed off, and I left without getting my coffee. He was stoned, of course.” “You knew he lost his license.” “Yep.” “Do you know where he was going a couple of hours ago on Samuel’s Road?” asked Tessa. “Nope.

” He tipped his head and eagle eyed Cate. “Why are you here? You wanted something last week—you couldn’t have known this was going to happen.” He paused, alarm crossing his face. “Or did you? Was Brad mixed up in something bad?” “I didn’t know anything about Brad last week, Mr. Gill. I was calling about a different matter.” “Oh. What was it?” Cate and Tessa exchanged a look. “I don’t think this is the appropriate—” He grunted. “You two told me the son who I considered dead ten years ago has actually died.

Don’t try to tiptoe around my feelings. My heart scabbed over decades ago. What’d you want to ask me about?” She believed him. “It’s about the orchard property you used to own.” “It’s a cursed piece of land. I heard that fancy developer who was building a hotel on the land was arrested for murder. No good comes to anyone associated with it.” “You ran it successfully for decades,” Cate pointed out. “Until I didn’t. Had to walk away fifteen years ago.

Bank took it.” He looked broken. “Got nothing to show for decades of work.” “I’m sorry,” Cate said, his words about a curse echoing in her head. “Can you tell me who worked for you or had access to the property twenty years ago?” “You’re going to have to be more precise about the date than that.” She told him the month and year of Sam’s disappearance. “I know this is out of the blue, but maybe you have employment records—” “I know exactly who was working for me back then. My son and Arlie Babcock. I don’t hire seasonal labor until later in the year.” Arlie Babcock’s name was faintly familiar.

Cate raised a brow at Tessa. “Arlie lives with his mother just outside of North Sound,” Tessa supplied. “He’s probably in his fifties now. His mother keeps to herself.” Translation: not part of the knitting and activist circle like many of the older women on the island. “Why do you ask?” Jon questioned. “The date I asked about was when Samantha Bishop disappeared,” said Cate. “Last week some of her jewelry was found in the old pump house by the orchard.” Jon looked stunned. “The pump house? How do you know the jewelry was hers?” “Trust us on that one.

It’s been verified by two reputable sources.” Tessa and me. “Would both Brad and Arlie have had access to the pump house?” “Of course. Wasn’t like I locked it up.” “Could it have been locked?” asked Cate. The pump house door had shown no evidence of a lock. “Sure. There was always a chain with a lock on the outside. We never locked it because there was no point.” “So anyone could have access to the inside?” “I guess.

” His thick eyebrows came together. “Are you saying that girl was locked in there? She was never found, right? I remember the big to-do when she went missing.” “It’s a possibility. We’re not sure how else her jewelry could have ended up there unless she had been inside at one point.” Embarrassment crossed his face. “I know teenagers sometimes used it for . well, you know.” Sex? Drugs? Drinking? “I didn’t care that much. Occasionally cleaned out a few beer bottles. No one ever caused any damage.

I remember what it was like to need a place to get out from under your parent’s eye.” “She could have partied there, is what you’re saying,” Tessa said. He shrugged. “It’s possible.” She would have dragged us along or at least told us if she partied there. Tessa looked at Cate, her eyes reflecting the same thought. If Samantha had gone to the farm without them, it wouldn’t have been willingly. “Did Brad party with high school girls?” Cate asked bluntly. “He would have been around twenty at the time.” Jon lifted his hands.

“I have no idea. He came home to sleep. Sometimes not even for that. Was irresponsible in showing up to work when I wanted him to—of course, then he’d be pissed he had no paycheck. It never sunk in that the amount of effort he put into a job equaled how big his paycheck was.” “Then why’d you give him a job?” “He was my son,” Jon said simply. “No one else would hire him. For my own peace of mind, I had to at least give him the opportunity to prove himself. Never happened.” “Where is Brad’s mother these days? Would she remember anything from back then?” He snorted.

“Hell no. She took off when he was five. Said she couldn’t handle the isolation of the island. She’s been living in eastern Washington since then—in a fucking very isolated town—and has remarried twice since she left.” The island has a way of expelling the people who aren’t meant to be here. The room was silent for a long moment, and the women exchanged a glance. They were done. Both stood. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Gill,” Tessa said, and Cate echoed the words.

“We’re very sorry for your loss.” Jon appeared to shrink in his chair, but he took a deep breath and stood to give them firm handshakes. “Hope you find some answers,” he told them. The sun had set by the time they pulled away from the apartments, and Tessa’s relief about the successful encounter was nearly palpable inside the vehicle. “Remember how Samantha bragged about having pot that night . and she had a ride with someone,” said Cate. “I always had the impression it was someone older. Could it have been Brad Gill?” “Can’t ask him,” Tessa said sourly. Have we hit a dead end already? “I want to check in with Samantha’s mother, and we need to talk to Arlie Babcock,” Cate went on. “What’s he like?” “I don’t know.

Haven’t had any encounters with him, so I guess that’s a good sign. If he works, I don’t know where.” “Tessa.” Cate’s heart stopped at an abrupt thought. “Do we need to bring in ground-penetrating radar to check around the pump house and farm?” Tessa’s knuckles whitened, her grip tight on the steering wheel. “Jesus. Why didn’t I think of that?” “Because we didn’t want to consider that she could be . ” In Cate’s head, Samantha was alive somewhere, and now this personal belief had affected her investigation process. A rookie mistake that they’d both made. “We can’t afford equipment like that,” Tessa stated.

“I’m sure the bureau has access to one.” “But Samantha’s case isn’t active.” “Missing children cases are always active. The necklace might be a strong-enough reason to get a GPR to the island.” “There’s too much physical ground to cover. The orchard is huge, and just scanning the pump house won’t be sufficient. We need more evidence.” Cate knew she was right. “It’s something to keep in mind.” “Let’s find out what Arlie has to say first.

There’s no rush.” Translation: if Samantha was dead, it made no difference if they found her remains now or later. Except for their own peace of mind.

.

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