Close to the Bone – Kendra Elliot

“I’ve been hauling people out to Ruby’s Island all night,” Dick Jacobs told FBI Special Agent Cate Wilde. It was two in the morning, and Cate tightened the knit scarf around her neck, thankful the night was clear and there was no wind. But the speed of the small boat made the temperature feel much colder than its thirty-five degrees. The fifteen minutes to motor from Washington State’s Widow’s Island to Ruby’s Island was fourteen minutes too long in the cold. Cate had been summoned because human bones had been found on Ruby’s Island. “Who else needed a ride?” Cate asked the gray-haired driver. Dick had driven an unofficial water taxi around the islands since Cate was a child. When someone needed a ride and didn’t have a boat available, they called Dick. He charged twenty bucks, a twelve-pack of beer, or a fifth of vodka. Cate paid cash. His thirty-year-old son, Adam, accompanied him these days and stared at Cate in a way that gave her the creeps. She stared back, and Adam finally had the grace to look away. Cate decided she’d never ride with Adam when he took over for his father in the future. “I brought over Dr. Powers,” answered Dick.

“He’s the one who said to call the FBI. Kurt Olson from the sheriff’s office and a new deputy, Bruce Taylor, were already there.” Dick glanced over his shoulder at Cate. “You met Bruce or Dr. Powers yet?” “No.” She only knew Kurt. He’d been a deputy on Widow’s Island forever. “Bruce is young. Only been here a few months. From southern Oregon.

Haven’t made up my mind about him yet,” Dick said, pulling at his beard. “Dr. Powers is a good guy. We’ve needed a doctor on the island since Dr. Hardy died three years ago. Tessa Black from the sheriff’s department shared his ride. Didn’t you two run around together when you were young? You know she’s a county deputy now, right?” “Yes.” Tessa had been like a sister to Cate while growing up. After nearly ten years of being a Seattle police officer and detective, Tessa had returned to Widow’s Island about a year and a half ago and joined the sheriff’s office. Cate had been back on the island for five days and still hadn’t contacted her good friend.

Her grandmother had repeatedly pushed her to call Tessa, but Cate had dragged her feet, stating she needed more rest, and had firmly ordered her grandmother to keep this visit to the island under her hat. Cate wasn’t ready to face people. But tonight’s discovery gave her no choice. Trespassing teenage lovebirds had found the bones. The coroner—the new Dr. Powers— believed they belonged to a teenage female. Two years ago the FBI had conducted an investigation of a missing local girl, Becca Conan, with no results. Fourteen-year-old Becca was the daughter of Rex Conan, sole resident and current owner of Ruby’s Island. Now the FBI—meaning Cate—was back to see if the bones belonged to Becca. An old memory struggled to the forefront of Cate’s brain, and she shut it down.

The odds say this will be Becca. Dick pulled up to the tiny dock. The county sheriff’s boat gently rocked on the other side, and Adam jumped out to tie Dick’s boat. Cate remembered how the dock had nearly crumbled into the water when she was a teenager. Now it sported fresh boards and ropes, and she assumed the new owner of Ruby’s Island had repaired it. Rex Conan isn’t really new. He’s been here for years. But to people born on the island—like Cate—everyone else was new. What is it like to live alone on an island after your daughter disappears? Adam held out a hand to help her out of the boat. She hesitated but held her breath, took his hand, and stepped out of the boat.

Pain shot from her shoulder, and she gasped. Adam gave her a strange look. “Something shocked me,” she lied as she rushed past him, not wanting to share that she’d been injured on the job three weeks ago. Cate looked up the island’s rugged slope to the lighthouse. Tiny Ruby’s Island sat in the center of Widow’s Island’s huge horseshoe-shaped bay. Five thousand residents lived on Widow’s Island, but only one person lived on Ruby’s. Besides the lighthouse, there was nothing on the island except the mansion on the north side. Ruby’s Island was not for tourists; it was for the owner. “The lighthouse looks different,” she said to Adam. “Yeah, the coast guard updated it.

Now it’s solar powered and flashes an LED light instead of the sweeping beacon.” He shrugged. “No one likes it. They say it’s obnoxious.” Cate agreed. “Is it still haunted?” she jokingly asked. “Yes.” Adam’s scowl was deadly serious. “The new light didn’t chase her away.” Cate bit her tongue.

As a teen she had believed the story of the haunted lighthouse. She’d done her share of sneaking onto the island’s south beach with friends at night, ignoring the NO TRESPASSING signs. Everyone wanted to see Ruby’s ghost, who was rumored to haunt the island’s woods and lighthouse. Cate swore she’d seen Ruby a few times. Each time it’d been a white wisp. A cloud of cold when the air was warm. An electric tickle in her spine. She’d never told anyone. “Everyone’s up that way. Follow the lights.

” Adam pointed to the left and up the slope to the start of the woods. A hint of artificial light peeked through from deep in the forest. “Those lights were a bitch to transport,” Adam muttered. Cate understood. The big ferry system of the Puget Sound area didn’t stop at Ruby’s Island. All supplies were delivered by smaller boats. She thanked Dick and Adam and headed for the woods, glad she’d worn her heaviest boots. The ground was soft from the recent November rains. Cate’s boss had called her in the middle of the night, well aware she was on leave for six weeks. “The ferry from the mainland to Widow’s Island is down, and we need an agent on the scene immediately,” he’d told her.

“I hate to ask you, but I’m also relieved that you’re already there.” “I’m on leave,” she’d muttered into the phone, knowing it didn’t matter. When children were lost, the FBI got involved. “I’ll get another agent out there as soon as the ferry is running again.” Cate had sighed. Widow’s Island was small and distant from the more popular San Juan and Puget Sound Islands. Seattle commuters didn’t live in this area; only island locals lived here. Sometimes the ferry was unavailable for days because Widow’s Island was low on the priority list. She hiked up the slope, the pain in her shoulder reminding her that she was on medical leave. Not tonight.

After following the lights through the woods for several minutes, Cate spotted a group. Three men and one woman. Happiness bubbled up in Cate’s chest at the sight of the woman’s profile. The group turned to see who was approaching, and Tessa Black’s jaw dropped open. “Cate!” Tessa launched herself at Cate and nearly knocked her over with a big hug. “Hey, Tessa.” Cate returned her old friend’s hug, joyful tears burning in her eyes. I should have told her days ago that I was visiting. Tessa pulled back, her gaze searching Cate. “You’re the FBI agent they sent?” “Yes.

” Cate wasn’t ready to explain. “It’s so good to see you. It’s been forever.” Tessa squeezed Cate’s hand, her smile nearly as wide as her face. “It feels good,” Cate agreed. “I’ve missed you,” she added softly, stealing a glance at the curious group of men watching the two of them. Cate nodded at Kurt, the deputy she recognized. She looked back at Tessa and swallowed hard, searching for the nerve to ask a painful question. Tessa’s blue eyes suddenly filled with sympathy. “I wondered the same,” her friend whispered in a shaking voice.

“Could it be?” asked Cate. “Maybe.” Becca Conan wasn’t the only young teenager who had vanished from the islands. Samantha Bishop, the third member of Cate and Tessa’s tight teenage trio, had vanished nearly twenty years ago. 2 Dr. Henry Powers watched the two women emotionally greet each other. Clearly the dark-haired woman was not the FBI agent Deputy Black had expected. “Cate and Tessa have been friends since they were tiny,” Deputy Kurt Olson informed Henry and the other deputy. “Cate’s been gone for . ” Kurt screwed up his gray-stubbled face as he thought.

“Must be over fifteen years now. She visits occasionally. Her grandmother still lives on the island.” “Looks like a happy reunion,” Henry commented. But then both women’s faces fell, and they lowered their voices. They looked ready to cry. Maybe not so happy. They drew apart, their faces still solemn, and Tessa introduced the FBI agent to the group. Cate Wilde looked cold even though she was bundled up in a coat and scarf. An island breeze had started and frequently blew her long black hair across her face.

She’d brush it away impatiently. Henry shook Cate’s hand, wondering what had abruptly depressed the women’s reunion. As he met her gaze, the discomfort in her blue eyes startled him. She’s in physical pain. He’d seen enough in his years as a doctor to instantly recognize it. Cate smiled for the introduction, but it appeared forced. “I understand you took over for Dr. Hardy,” she said. “He delivered me and was the only doctor I ever saw until I left for college.” “I think a few dozen people have told me the same story,” Henry replied, pleased to see his comment created a real smile on Cate’s face.

“That doesn’t surprise me one bit.” It was true. Ninety percent of the people he’d met during his six weeks on Widow’s Island had informed him of their history with his predecessor. It’d been interesting the first few times, but most of the stories included criticism of what Henry did differently from the old doctor. The islanders weren’t receptive to change. Will they tell stories about me one day? If I stick it out. The job had brought a few surprises. Tonight he’d learned that he’d inherited the title of county coroner. The midnight phone call from the sheriff’s office had caught him off guard. “You’re the only doctor around, aren’t you?” the sleepy, gruff voice had asked.

“Yes.” “Then you’re the coroner, just like Dr. Hardy was before you.” “I guess I can tell when a person is dead.” Henry had seen his share of murder victims. And attempted murder victims. A dismal perk of working in a busy Los Angeles emergency room. “How many deaths a year do you get around here?” “Not many. Mostly old-age deaths. The occasional tourist who climbs over the fence at the Widow’s Walk doing that selfie thing with their phone.

” Henry wasn’t a medical examiner. Depending on the state and county, either a medical examiner who had well over a decade of medical education or a coroner investigated deaths. Oftentimes a medical degree wasn’t required to be a coroner. Henry had heard of rural counties where the mayor or sheriff filled the role. The body was fully skeletal. The deputies had told him the teenagers had been trying to dislodge a jacket buried in the dirt when they’d discovered the bones. The jacket had been wrapped around the skull. The deputies had responded, uncovered torso bones, and then asked for the coroner. Henry’s stomach had roiled when he’d spotted the braces on the skull’s teeth. Young.

But adults have braces too. He had carefully moved the rest of the dirt from around the skull and taken a closer look at the teeth. Years ago he’d dated a dentist who had taught him some basics about tooth eruption. The second set of molars had barely erupted on this skull, something that typically happened as a teenager, give or take a few years. The jacket had looked like something a teenage girl would wear, and the skull had delicate female characteristics. Deputy Kurt Olson had informed him that fourteen-year-old Becca Conan disappeared two years ago, and the FBI had been involved in the investigation. “Get the FBI back out here,” Henry had told him. “There’s a possibility their case has been solved.” He quickly scanned the visible bones and the skull, searching for a clue that could point to cause of death. Like cracks on the skull that suggested hard blows, nicks in the bones that indicated the stab of a knife, or a crushed hyoid that suggested strangulation.

Nothing obvious caught his eye as he knelt in the dirt. Now the FBI agent stood in front of him, looking upset to be responding to the death of someone quite young. Henry understood and wished his first case as a coroner hadn’t been a child. Why wasn’t it a senior citizen who died asleep in bed? Their life fully lived. Not a child hidden in the dirt. “I’d like to take a look,” said the agent. “Over here, Special Agent Wilde.” Henry led her a few yards to the scene. “Call me Cate, please, Doctor.” “Henry,” he responded.

Cate squatted next to the skull. “Braces?” She immediately looked to Tessa, who nodded. The two women looked nauseated. “What is it?” Henry asked. “Oh jeez,” said Kurt, rubbing a hand over his bald scalp, looking from one woman to the other. “I didn’t think of her.” The other deputy, Bruce, exchanged a confused glance with Henry. “Becca Conan isn’t the only missing teen girl from this area,” said Cate in a hollow voice. “Our friend Samantha Bishop disappeared when we were fourteen. She had braces at the time.

” “But so did Becca,” Kurt added. “Excuse me.” The three deputies whirled around at the sound of the new voice, their hands hovering over their weapons. A young man with a flashlight had appeared from the woods and held up his hand at the deputies’ reactions. “Whoa. I didn’t mean to startle you.” “This is a police investigation,” announced Tessa. “Please leave the island.” The young man twisted his lips. “Well, I live on the island.

And my uncle sent me to find out what happened. Your lights are making a glow that we can see above the woods from our side.” “You’re Rex Conan’s nephew?” Cate asked, placing herself between the young man and the skull. “Dustin.” Henry pegged Dustin to be in his midtwenties and wondered why the deputies hadn’t recognized him. Everyone knew everybody on the islands. “Why didn’t Rex come himself?” Cate frowned. Dustin shrugged. “That’s my job. I’m the caretaker of the mansion and island, and I do whatever else Rex needs.

” “Since when?” asked Kurt. “I hadn’t heard that someone lived with Rex.” Kurt’s aggrieved tone made Henry hide a small smile. The deputy had taken it personally that he wasn’t informed. “About six months.” Dustin stepped aside and craned his neck to look past Cate. “Is that a skull?” His mouth formed an O as his eyes widened. The group looked from one to another. We can’t deny it. “Yes,” said Cate.

“It was discovered tonight. You can go inform your uncle that we’re conducting an investigation.” “Is that Becca?” Dustin backed up a few steps, shock on his face. “We don’t know,” Henry said in a firm voice. “It’s too early to tell.” “I need to go tell Rex,” Dustin said as he started to turn. “He’ll want to see this.” “Wait!” Cate dashed forward and caught Dustin’s sleeve, earnestly meeting his gaze. “Let’s not upset Rex until we have some facts. This could be someone else.

” Dustin jerked his arm from her grip, annoyance replacing his shock. “He deserves to know a skull has been found on his property . and you didn’t ask permission to be here.” “I’m recommending the remains go to the medical examiner on the mainland,” Henry stated. “That’s how we’ll get facts. They’ll have a forensic anthropologist determine who this is.” “How many people have gone missing from Ruby’s Island?” Dustin snapped. “There’s only one, as far as I’ve heard. Becca.” The young man paled.

“Oh, dear Lord. She’s been this close all this time. This is going to kill my uncle—his health isn’t good.” “We don’t know—” Cate started. “Your uncle is ill?” Henry cut in. Dustin blew out a breath. “He hasn’t written a word in two years, and I swear he’s aged two decades since she disappeared.” Kurt nodded in agreement. “I rarely see him on Widow’s anymore.” “I’ve read most of his books.

I hadn’t realized he stopped writing,” Henry admitted. Rex Conan was one of the top ten mystery authors in the world. Henry had lived on the island for four weeks before someone casually mentioned the author. When Henry had asked if she meant the Rex Conan, the islander had looked down her nose at Henry. “He’s been here a decade. Just because he writes some books doesn’t make him different than anyone else.” Henry had gotten the message. And he’d learned islanders didn’t talk about their occupations —it was bad manners. A local quirk. His Realtor had told him not to tell people he was the new doctor in town.

“But how will they know a doctor is finally here?” he’d asked. “Don’t worry. They’ll know,” she’d assured him. Sure enough. When his office had opened for business, he’d had a steady flow of patients— without a cent paid for advertising. “Would you like me to come with you to tell your uncle?” Henry asked. He preferred to be present if Rex went into cardiac arrest. Indecision filled Dustin’s face. “I’ll come too,” said Cate, making the decision for the nephew. “I’d like to know more about Becca’s case.

” “Shouldn’t you already know?” retorted Dustin. “The FBI crawled all through his house two years ago. They interviewed my uncle over and over. They thought he’d done something to her.” “It’s standard to rule out family first,” Henry answered before Cate could reply. “With any law enforcement agency.” How many times have I seen family members hurt their own flesh and blood? Countless. “You said you’d lived here six months,” stated Cate. “How do you know what happened during the investigation?” Henry admired her cool tone. Fury had risen in his throat as the nephew had lashed out against the FBI.

“My parents and I flew out immediately when Becca vanished. I’d visited dozens of times before Rex asked me to stay.” Dustin’s voice was calm, but his eyes sparked in anger. “Ruling out family again, are you?” “It’s step one,” Cate said simply. She turned to Henry, her expression flat. “How much more time do you need here?” “I’m not sure.” He looked at the exposed bones. I can’t mess this up. “I know the proper way to remove them and protect the scene,” Tessa said, giving Henry a confident nod. “We have to be our own crime scene team on the islands.

Bruce and Kurt will help me.” “Okay.” Henry looked at Cate again. “Give me ten more minutes to look things over.” “Great.” She pointed at Dustin. “Don’t move. We’re going with you.” Henry studied Cate out of the corner of his eye. Could this be her missing friend?



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