Drown Her Sorrows – Melinda Leigh

Behind the wheel of her official SUV, Sheriff Bree Taggert stared at the screen of her ringing cell phone with regret. At six thirty in the evening, she was almost home, but her deputies didn’t call her cell unless it was important. She answered, “Sheriff Taggert.” “I’m sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but I have a situation.” Deputy Laurie Collins’s voice echoed through the Bluetooth speaker. “Approximately thirty minutes ago, I responded to a report of an abandoned car at the bridge on Dead Horse Road.” The deputy paused. “The car is not disabled in any way. There’s no sign of the driver, but her purse and cell phone are in the vehicle. I’m concerned the driver might have wandered away from the vehicle and gotten lost. Or worse.” The hairs on the back of Bree’s neck quivered. She lifted her foot from the gas pedal, and her SUV slowed. Collins was a new hire, but she was hardly a rookie. She came with six years of patrol experience.

She had good instincts, and Bree felt lucky to have hired her. If Collins was concerned, there was likely a reason. Bree pulled over to the shoulder of the road. “That is strange. Are you still on scene?” “Yes, ma’am.” “On my way. ETA five minutes.” Bree ended the call. She squinted through the windshield. She could see her sister’s farmhouse—now Bree’s home.

A ball of emotion welled up in her throat. Four months after her sister had been murdered, grief still flared at random moments. Bree had taken charge of her sister’s two kids along with the farm. The kids sometimes needed more guidance than Bree felt capable of providing. She did her best, but in the real world, an “effort” grade was bullshit. Experience told her she’d be tied up with this call for the rest of the evening. She’d miss dinner with the kids and reading bedtime stories with Kayla. But response time could be critical if the driver of the car was injured or lost. Early May in upstate New York meant thirty-degree temperature swings. The days were warming, but the nights still hovered near the freezing mark.

Hypothermia was a real risk. The area around the bridge on Dead Horse Road was densely wooded. Bree didn’t really have a choice. She had to go. When she’d been a homicide detective with the Philadelphia PD, Bree had used cases to blot out personal issues. Avoidance had always been her preferred coping mechanism. If compartmentalizing were an Olympic event, Bree would be the gold medalist. She was almost grateful that the sheriff’s department she’d been appointed to run three months ago was a total disaster. Between work and raising her niece and nephew, Bree had little time to dwell on her own loss. Now, her priorities had changed.

Her job was important, but there were days—like this one— when she resented its intrusion into family time. On the bright side, she had live-in childcare. So, that was one less worry. She turned her vehicle around and punched the gas pedal, and her SUV raced down the road. She called the house to let her family know she’d be late, then turned her attention to the job. The back road and its namesake bridge were only a couple of miles away. A few minutes later, Bree slowed down and turned onto a narrow county lane. Dead Horse Road had earned its name. Cutting through a thick section of old forest, it wound around massive trees and boulders. Bree crested a hill, eased down the steep decline, and navigated two final dogleg turns before the bridge appeared.

She flipped down her visor to cut the direct glare of the sinking sun. At the base of the bridge, a small wooden cross decorated with a dead wreath marked the location of a vehicular accident fatality. A Toyota Camry sat on the shoulder of the road. Deputy Collins had parked her patrol car behind the Toyota. Bree slowed her vehicle and pulled over. She climbed out of her SUV. Collins wasn’t in sight. “Sheriff!” Bree spun. Fifty feet away, Deputy Collins emerged from the trees and scrambled up the embankment. Her face was flushed with exertion, and a few blonde hairs had escaped her neat bun.

Bree waited for the deputy to hurry closer. Collins took two deep breaths. “A passing motorist called in the abandoned vehicle. He claimed he saw the car Friday evening on his commute home from work and again today on his way into work this morning. When it was still here tonight, he reported it.” “Did he say what time he saw the car on Friday?” Bree asked. Collins pulled a small notepad from her pocket and flipped it open. “Around seven o’clock.” Today was Monday. “So, the car has been here for at least three days,” Bree said.

Collins frowned at the Toyota. “The doors are unlocked. The key is inside. The tires are sound, the vehicle has plenty of gas, and the engine starts with no problem.” “What do you know about the driver?” “I ran the plates. The vehicle belongs to Holly Thorpe. She lives in Grey’s Hollow. Her registration is valid, and she has no outstanding tickets. Her driver’s license is in the purse.” “Have you called her residence?” “There’s no landline.

” Collins pointed down the embankment. “I searched the downhill slope in case she stepped out of her car for some reason and fell. The rain was heavy Friday night. The ground would have been slippery. I didn’t see any sign of her.” Bree’s gaze tracked to the car, then the bridge. “As a rule, a woman doesn’t leave her purse and cell phone behind.” “No. Her phone is passcode protected, but I could see that the battery still has a little power. It also has decent cell reception.

” Collins was methodically covering the bases. Bree scanned the area. On one side of the road, thick woods covered an upward slope. On the other, a steep wooded embankment sloped down to the river. Just ahead, the bridge arched over the Scarlet River. Bree’s instincts waved a red flag. Barring a breakdown or flat tire, there was no reason for a car to be parked here. No hiking trails. No park. The bridge was narrow, with no overlook.

This was a back road used mostly by locals. She walked to the car and peered in the driver’s window. A purse sat on the passenger seat, the top unzipped. A cell phone rested on the console. A wallet poked out from the top of the purse. “I opened her wallet to look at her ID,” Collins said. Bree donned gloves and opened the vehicle door. Leaning in, she tapped the cell phone’s screen. The Face ID lock screen appeared. A few seconds later, it shifted to request a passcode.

Bree touched the “Emergency” button on the bottom of the screen. “Owen Thorpe is her emergency contact.” “Yes, ma’am. I’m assuming he’s the husband. According to his motor vehicle records, he’s the same age as Holly, and he lives at the same address. He didn’t answer his phone. I left a message asking him to return my call.” Bree chewed on the information while her gut churned. There was a remote possibility Holly had become ill and called for a ride. Perhaps she was so sick, she forgot her purse and cell.

For three days? Seemed like a stretch. Bree surveyed the rest of the vehicle’s interior, then ducked out. The temperature was dropping with the sun. If Holly had wandered away—or had been taken—from her vehicle on Friday, she’d already been gone for three nights. There was no time to waste. “I’ll send a deputy to her residence,” Bree said. “If she’s not there and her husband doesn’t have information, we’ll call for a search party and put out a BOLO.” Bree accessed Holly’s social media accounts and clicked on “About” in one of her profiles. “She lists Beckett Construction as her employer. I know it’s late, but call the company and ask if they’ve seen Holly.

” “Yes, ma’am.” Collins returned to her patrol car. Bree went back to her vehicle and called dispatch to request a welfare check at Holly’s address. “Have the responding deputy call me on his cell phone instead of using the radio. I don’t want the situation made public just yet.” Reporters monitored police radio chatter via scanners. In the event the worst had happened, Bree didn’t want Holly’s next of kin learning of her status via the news. While she waited, Bree accessed Holly’s motor vehicle records and reviewed her driver’s license information. Holly Thorpe was thirty-four years old and five two. In her driver’s license photo, her shoulder-length hair was straight and blonde.

In a few minutes, Bree’s phone buzzed. She answered the call. “Sheriff Taggert.” “Deputy Oscar here. I just spoke with Owen Thorpe. He hasn’t seen his wife since Friday evening. They had a fight, and she walked out on him. He says he’s been drunk since, and he looks pretty rough. Seems I woke him up.” “Ask him if you can walk through the house to verify his wife is not there,” Bree said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Oscar responded. Over the connection, she heard the deputy asking and a man’s response of “Sure. Whatever.” “It’s a two-bedroom town house,” Oscar said to Bree. “This won’t take long.” “I’ll wait.” Bree listened to Deputy Oscar open and close doors for a few minutes. Then he said, “She’s not here.” “Does the husband remember what she was wearing when she left?” Bree asked. She heard Oscar repeat the question for Owen Thorpe.

Oscar said, “A blue blouse and jeans. Her raincoat is red. He doesn’t remember which shoes she was wearing.” “OK. Stay with the husband for now. Keep him away from the news. Just tell him we’re looking for his wife.” Bree’s mind was spinning when Deputy Collins rapped on the driver’s-side window. Bree stepped out of her vehicle. Collins shook her head.

“The construction company’s office is closed.” Bree lifted her phone. “I’ll call the chief deputy.” She made the call to Chief Deputy Todd Harvey, who was on the local search-and-rescue team. After speaking with Todd, Bree turned back to Collins. “His ETA is twenty minutes. Use your cell to request additional units. We need to do an immediate foot search of this area. I’m going to scout around.” While her deputy used her cell phone to contact dispatch, Bree stood on the road in front of Holly’s car and turned in a circle.

Trees and rocks made up most of the landscape. Why did Holly stop here? The rush of water over rocks caught Bree’s attention. Her gaze shifted to the bridge. Holly had fought with her husband. Their argument had been serious enough for her to walk out on him. She must have been upset, possibly despondent. Shit. Bree strode toward the bridge. An old iron structure, the bridge was less than a hundred and fifty feet long and probably should have been replaced years ago. But rural county budgets didn’t prioritize little-used bridges until they collapsed in a storm.

When Bree reached the middle, she looked over the railing. Thirty feet below, water rushed under the bridge. Was the drop high enough to be fatal? Bree eyed the water churning below. Recent heavy rains had flooded the river beyond its usual depth. She didn’t know if a jumper would die on impact, but they wouldn’t swim away without injury. The current was swift. Downstream, boulders dotted the white water. It was unlikely many people would be able to make it to shore. Bree followed the current. After passing under the bridge, the waterway turned to the east.

A small offshoot curved to the west, continued to bend, and disappeared behind the trees. She would have to send deputies downriver along both banks. She glanced at her watch. It was seven o’clock. The sun would set around eight. They had precious little daylight left. She strode back to where Deputy Collins stood next to her cruiser. “Three units responded,” Collins said. Bree inclined her head toward the river. “Did you walk all the way to the riverbank?” Collins shook her head.

“No, I just checked the bottom of this embankment in case she fell.” Bree started down the slope. “Stay here and wait for backup. Tell Todd I’m walking down to the river.” “Yes, ma’am.” Collins cast a glance over her shoulder at the bridge. “Do you think she jumped?” “I don’t know.” Bree didn’t like to make assumptions. Preconceived theories interfered with a good investigation. But why else would Holly have parked here? Bree scrambled down the rocky embankment and picked up a game trail.

She trod carefully. Long evening shadows obscured the footing. After about fifty yards, the ground sheared off, the trees growing at acute angles straight up. The path doubled backward for twenty feet, then turned around. It must zigzag down the steeper terrain. Bree navigated the first leg. Ahead, the skinny trail forked. One branch turned toward the river below. The other offshoot headed up the slope in the opposite direction. At the turn, she heard something large rustling in the underbrush ahead.

She stopped and pulled out her weapon. Her senses tingled, as if there was a predator nearby. Holly Thorpe’s killer? Or Bree’s imagination? Relax. It’s probably a deer. This was a game trail. Holly Thorpe’s car had been there for three days. If foul play had been involved in her disappearance, then the perpetrator would be long gone. But Bree’s instincts wouldn’t shut up. Ahead, a twig snapped. Sweat broke out between her shoulder blades.

Something was around the next bend. She squinted into the shadows down the trail, regripped her Glock, and aimed it toward the sound. She backed up a step, easing one athletic shoe onto the trail, wary of making any noise. Glancing to her left, she saw a fat tree trunk. Decent cover if necessary. More rustling headed up the trail—right for Bree. She held her breath as a dark shape rounded the bend and stepped into a ray of sunlight. A black bear. Bree froze. The bear stopped.

It was probably on the way to the river too, and she’d surprised it. Trying to be quiet had been the absolute worst thing she could have done. Black bears were shy. They didn’t like people. If she’d made plenty of noise coming down the trail, the bear would have likely gone in the opposite direction. This animal was lean, thin, possibly only a month out of hibernation. It would be hungry, but black bears were rarely aggressive unless they felt threatened. Or they had cubs. It’ll be fine. Two small black shapes moved at the bear’s feet.

Bree spared them a quick glance. Cubs. This was a mama bear, and Bree was only twenty-five feet away from her babies. Mama bear rose onto her back legs. Her nose lifted as she tested the air. The big head turned, and the animal sniffed in the direction of the river. She’d caught the scent of a competing odor. The area might be trying to become a suburb, but right in front of Bree was a sign that much of it was still untamed. This was not the first bear she’d seen. Until her parents had died when Bree was eight, she’d run half-wild in the woods of Grey’s Hollow.

She knew enough not to run now. Fleeing would engage the animal’s prey instinct. People who ran from bears got caught. But as much as her brain knew what she needed to do, her body was primed for a fight-orflight response. Unfortunately, both of those options sucked. Bree raised her hands and spread out her arms, trying to appear larger. She took a slow, easy step backward, and said in a loud, mostly calm voice, “Easy, there. I won’t hurt you or your babies.” Bree’s Glock felt like a peashooter, but it was all she had. Her can of bear spray was sitting uselessly in the back of her vehicle.

A black bear could charge at thirty miles per hour. Her chances of stopping the bear with well-placed, meaningful shots during that panicked nanosecond weren’t good. And she did not want to shoot this animal. Bree’s heart sprinted in her chest, but she forced her feet to move like molasses. She could hear little but the desperate pounding of her own pulse in her ears. The bear dropped to all fours, slapping the ground as her front paws landed. Huffing, the animal took two quick steps forward, then retreated. Bree slid one foot backward, then the other. The bear swung her head in a low arc. Bree took another step back, putting one more precious foot of space between her and the animal.

Above, she heard a siren approach. The bear heard it too and pivoted in the opposite direction. She retreated at a run, with her cubs at her heels. The breath left Bree’s lungs in one hard whoosh, making her light-headed. She’d been lucky. So lucky. On shaky legs, she turned to walk up the trail to the road. She’d wait for backup—and bear spray—before searching the riverbank. Rocks shifted under her feet. The ground gave way, and Bree plunged down the slope.

Struggling to keep her feet aimed downhill, she smacked into a sapling and slid between the trunks of two larger trees. She landed in a heap at the bottom of the slope. Loose dirt and small rocks settled around her. The rocky riverbank was just ahead. Bree got to her feet and brushed some dirt from her pants. An odor drifted toward her on the breeze, unsettling her stomach, and she knew what had attracted the bear. She walked onto the rocks that lined the waterway. She had a clear view of the entire bank all the way to the bridge high above. Ahead, something red peeked out from behind a boulder on the shoreline, then retreated. Her stomach knotted.

She quickened her steps. Rounding the big rock, she stared down. Knowing what she was going to find didn’t make the discovery easier. In the rocks and mud at the river’s edge was the body of a woman wearing a red rain jacket and jeans. The bear had picked up the scent. Black bears will eat anything from bugs to grass to berries—to bodies. She reached for her phone and called Deputy Collins. “I found her.” Bree approached the body. The victim lay on her side, wet hair swirling in the water around her face, the body limply shifting position as the current lapped around it.

Bree reached into her pocket and pulled out a pen. She used it to lift the hair off the victim’s face. She was small, blonde, and definitely dead.

.

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