Save Her Soul – Lisa Regan

Rain lashed against Detective Josie Quinn’s face. Strands of her black hair had escaped her ponytail and now stuck to her skin, snaking from beneath the helmet she wore. The Achilles inflatable rescue boat bobbed along in the churning floodwaters, causing a knot of nausea in her stomach. She looked behind her to see her colleague, Detective Gretchen Palmer, holding tightly to one of the ropes affixed to the sides of the boat. Her face had taken on a pale green hue. “You okay?” Josie asked, hollering to be heard over the motor and the rush of water. Gretchen nodded and waved a hand in the air to indicate they should keep going. Behind Gretchen sat Mitch Brownlow, a member of the Denton City Emergency Services Department. Mitch was in his sixties, grizzled but spry, and he’d been carrying out water rescues for the last forty years. He didn’t spare either of them a glance as he steered the boat further into the flood zone on the east side of Denton. A large tree branch floated on the water, flying toward them with frightening speed. Josie braced for impact, but Brownlow steered them expertly around it, his determined but calm expression never wavering. It wasn’t normally within the Denton Police Department’s purview to assist in flood rescues but the city—and a large portion of the county—had been hit hard by some of the worst flooding in its history in the past few days. Denton was a small city in central Pennsylvania, nestled among several tall mountains. A majority of its residents and businesses were concentrated in the valley, near the banks of a branch of the Susquehanna River.

The rest of the city’s residents were spread out along the twisty mountain roads. In its entirety, Denton spanned twenty-five square miles, although most of that was mountainous wooded areas. An extremely warm winter, followed by an extended rainy season, had left the land waterlogged and soft. Then came several days of heavy rain and thunderstorms. The Susquehanna and its tributaries had swelled at an alarming rate, swallowing up most of the city proper. Many of the residents had been displaced and were now living in makeshift shelters in the city’s high school auditoriums. Just when emergency crews seemed to be getting a handle on the flooding, more rain would dump from the sky, and the flood waters would devour even more areas of the city. Perhaps the only thing Denton had going for it during this disaster was the warm weather. It hadn’t fallen below seventy in weeks, and May was nearly over. Denton’s police department was stretched thin trying to assist the city’s emergency department.

It was an all-hands-on-deck situation. The patrol officers were already working double and triple overtime to try to help the residents, protect evacuated homes, and keep people from entering flood zones. With so many houses and businesses underwater, the flooded areas were filled not just with debris but also with harmful contaminants. Josie and her colleagues on the investigative unit—Detective Gretchen Palmer, Detective Finn Mettner, and Lieutenant Noah Fraley—had also filled in wherever they were needed. With so much of the city underwater, there wasn’t much crime to investigate. After the horrific flooding in 2011, Mayor Tara Charleston had spent a good deal of the city’s budget on equipment for future flood response. Denton was better prepared than most flood-prone areas of Pennsylvania. A few years earlier, after the Mayor’s new budget allocation had been expanded to include flood rescue training for police officers, Josie and Noah had taken a swiftwater rescue course. Mettner was already qualified. For once, Josie agreed with a decision the Mayor had made.

Gretchen had been hired long after that. She was the only one on the team who didn’t have water rescue experience, but after disclosing that she did have experience whitewater rafting, Brownlow had insisted she come along. “She can help lift people into the boat, can’t she?” he had said. “Besides, she’ll be tethered.” Someone had found her a dry suit and helmet to wear from the city’s stock, and off they went. Today they were needed to rescue an elderly woman trapped on her porch in northeast Denton. A radio squawked on Josie’s shoulder. “Boat two nine two en route to Hempstead Road.” Brownlow answered, “Roger that. Boat three seven one already en route.

ETA five minutes.” “Meet you there,” the other man’s voice chirped back. Hempstead Road was on the fringe of the city, a block of old houses that sat at the bottom of a small hill. Two blocks to the east was Kettlewell Creek, a small fishing tributary that rarely overflowed its banks. However, that morning, Denton had received several inches of rain in only a few hours, causing flash flooding that extended all the way to the single homes along Hempstead. All but one of the residents had self-evacuated. That resident was an elderly woman by the name of Evelyn Bassett who hadn’t been able to make it to safety before the flood. Her frantic call had come in moments ago to 911. A reporter flying overhead in a news helicopter had called in to report her distress as well, advising that she was on her porch, but the water was rising quickly. All the other rescue boats were out on missions elsewhere in the city, which left Brownlow, Josie, and Gretchen to come to Mrs.

Bassett’s rescue. Evidently, boat 292 had finished up its rescue activity elsewhere just in time to assist them. “Look out!” Gretchen yelled. She pointed straight ahead where a large clump of debris had gathered in an eddy between two trees. Pieces of it broke off and sailed away in the current, flashes of red, white, and blue. “Damn signs!” Brownlow said. “Hard right!” Josie and Gretchen pitched themselves to the right side of the boat as Brownlow steered hard around the detritus. Josie watched as they narrowly avoided a bunch of Dutton for Mayor signs, followed by a series of Charleston for Mayor signs. She breathed a sigh of relief when they were out of the way. With a mayoral primary coming up in two weeks, Denton had been besieged with yard signs from the only two candidates: incumbent Tara Charleston, and her opponent—who was also her neighbor—Kurt Dutton of Dutton Enterprises, a commercial real estate development company.

The buzz around the city was that Dutton was dangerously close to ousting Charleston, who had held the position as Mayor for nearly a decade. The issue with the yard signs in flooding was that the signs themselves were attached to galvanized nine-gauge steel stakes which, in swift current, could prove dangerous to inflatable rescue crafts and any person who found themselves in the water. They followed the sounds of the rotors chopping the air overhead, the boat dropping precipitously as Brownlow steered them onto Hempstead Road. The green and white sign announcing the name of the street was only two feet from being overtaken by the water. More debris rushed past them—tree branches, sticks, household items, and what looked like the roof of a car. “It’s really bad down here,” Gretchen said as the last few houses on Hempstead came into view. Beyond them was more rushing water. Josie knew that there had been a wooded area there before. Now only a few treetops reached up from the water, their spindly arms straining toward the gray, swollen sky overhead. Josie blinked moisture from her eyes and stared at the abyss once more.

Would there be anything left when the water receded? she wondered. The rotor wash from the news helicopter above them caused a flattening in the current of the water. Josie felt a sense of heaviness; the air was pressing down on her in the boat. She looked up to see the black helicopter looming, the letters WYEP stenciled in bright yellow letters on its side. She motioned with one hand for them to back off and a few seconds later, the helicopter ascended a little. Gretchen muscled up beside Josie and pointed to their right. “There,” she shouted. The flood had overtaken the front yards and porches of the houses. The last house was a two-story prefab with tan siding, its porch roof held up by thin, square white pillars made of PVC. Several mayoral candidate signs had become stuck on one of the pillars.

Evelyn Bassett’s scrawny arms were wrapped tightly around another one of them. Her thin face was gray, her white hair pasted to her skull. The water rushed past her, already up to her armpits. Brownlow maneuvered the boat as close to her as he dared, but her arms were already slipping. “She ain’t gonna be able to hold on much longer,” he hollered to Josie. “Get the throw bag!” Josie’s hands scrambled to find the heavy red bag on the metal floor of the boat. It was filled with fifty feet of bright yellow floating rescue rope. Quickly, Josie uncinched the bag and pulled out several feet of rope, coiling it in her non-throwing hand. As she worked, Brownlow steered the boat downstream and away from Mrs. Bassett, anticipating that she’d be swept downstream soon.

Brownlow was right. Mrs. Bassett’s arms tore away from the pillar, and the current rocketed her away. Josie stood, spreading her feet apart for balance, throw bag in her right hand. “Remember,” Brownlow shouted. “To and through. Don’t miss.” “To and through,” she mumbled to herself. Her heart thundered in her chest as she watched the water practically consume the elderly woman. With an underhanded throw, she tossed the bag toward Mrs.

Bassett, aiming past—or through—her but also directly into her path so she could grab the line as soon as it reached her. The bag landed perfectly, a few feet above her head, the bright yellow line falling across her shoulder. As the current carried her past the boat, one of her hands reached up and grabbed onto the rope. Quickly, Josie wrapped her end of the rope behind her waist. Brownlow yelled, “Give the end to Palmer! She’ll be the anchor.” Handing the end of the line to Gretchen, Josie got on her knees and leaned over the edge of the boat for stability, working to pull Mrs. Bassett toward them. The woman’s head bobbed up and then down, under the water. Gretchen hollered, “She’s not going to be able to hold on.” Josie looked at Brownlow and in an instant saw that he agreed with her—the current was going too fast, and Mrs.

Bassett was too weak to hold on to the line long enough for them to pull her into the boat. “Get in there, Quinn!” he told her. Josie checked the line that tethered her to the boat via her life vest and stood, wobbling as the boat rocked beneath her. She dove into the water, paddling after Mrs. Bassett. The woman’s arms flailed, the rope gone. Her head tipped back, mouth open, sucking in air. “He—help me,” Mrs. Bassett choked as Josie got within a few feet of her. Josie swam as fast as she could, grateful to be moving downstream because she didn’t have to fight the current.

She extended her hand as she got closer. Mrs. Bassett reached for it, fingers closing around Josie’s wrist just as a large tree branch shot past them. It knocked into Josie’s shoulder and ricocheted off Mrs. Bassett’s head. She slipped under the water. Josie lunged forward, fingers searching for anything she could grab onto. This woman was not going to die right in front of her. Something hard and bony brushed against Josie’s fingers and she seized it. It was a shoulder, Josie realized, as her own body was slammed against Mrs.

Bassett’s by the current propelling them both downstream. Working by feel, Josie slipped her arms under Mrs. Bassett’s armpits and leaned back, pulling her out of the water. Mrs. Bassett’s back rested against Josie’s chest, Josie’s life jacket keeping them both afloat. She held as tightly to the woman as she could. Relief flooded through Josie when she heard her cough. “Just relax,” Josie told her. “I’ve got you.” Turning her head, she saw Gretchen pulling her tether back toward the boat.

The news helicopter had lowered again, a man hanging out the side in a harness, his camera pointed in their direction. The air was punishing, beating down on them. Josie was vaguely aware of a new sound, a noisier boat motor coming from the opposite direction to where Brownlow had brought them in from—traveling upstream toward them. This boat was metal and much larger than Brownlow’s inflatable rescue vessel. It was blue instead of the bright red rescue boats the city of Denton owned, which meant it was owned by one of the surrounding towns in the county. It fought the current, dodging the treetops as it approached. It had to be Boat 292. As it neared, drawing parallel with Brownlow’s boat but closer to Josie, a life preserver on a line flew overboard, landing inches from Josie and Mrs. Bassett. Holding Mrs.

Bassett with one arm, Josie used the other to hook through the center of the life preserver. A man leaned over the side of the boat and roped them in, hand over hand. Josie didn’t recognize him, but he wore a Dalrymple Township Emergency Services uniform with the name ‘Hayes’ affixed to his left breast. “Glad to see you,” Josie told him as he took hold of Mrs. Bassett’s shoulders. He pulled her upper body as Josie pushed her lower body up until she was safely in the boat. Immediately, Hayes turned away from Josie and fitted a life jacket onto Mrs. Bassett while the other man in the boat manned the motor. It squealed as it fought the current to stay in place. Once Mrs.

Bassett was secure, the motor revved and the boat took off upstream, back toward the houses. Gretchen pulled Josie’s tether until she was close enough to climb back inside the boat. Brownlow made another hard turn and steered his boat back upstream, drawing closer to Hayes’s boat until they were side by side. Mrs. Bassett’s house came back into view, then those on the rest of the street. “Nice save,” Brownlow yelled to Josie. She was about to answer when a series of cracks shattered the air. All their heads turned, searching for the source of the sound. “Was that thunder?” Gretchen asked. “Don’t think so,” Brownlow answered.

The sound came again as a new surge of water roared toward them. With a sickening sense of dread, Josie realized the sound was caused by one of the nearby houses shifting and breaking away from its foundation. “It’s one of the houses!” she shouted. They all watched the row of houses on Hempstead, the porches now fully submerged. More cracks and pops sounded, then Mrs. Bassett’s house started to slide, listing toward the left in slow motion. One side of the house slumped. The porch roof splintered. “It’s going,” Hayes yelled. He made a circular motion in the air with one of his hands, and both boats began to move away from the house as it slid completely off its foundation.

Sagging, it tumbled face down into the water and floated away. It moved strangely slowly, given the force of the current. Hayes looked down at Mrs. Bassett, who was drawn in on herself, arms wrapped around her knees. Josie thought she heard him say, “Sorry about your house, ma’am.” A hysterical laugh bubbled from Mrs. Bassett’s diaphragm. Josie couldn’t hear it over all the noise around them, but she could tell by the woman’s face and the way her shoulders shook, dwarfed by the life vest. They all stared at her, but her laughter continued unabated. Josie recognized it as the kind of strange and inappropriate laughter that erupted occasionally after someone experienced a trauma.

Josie had dealt with countless victims of traumatic events. In rare instances, people got so overwhelmed, they laughed instead of breaking down in tears. Finally, Mrs. Bassett stopped. It was difficult to tell if she was crying with the rain pouring from the sky, but she wiped at her eyes. Josie couldn’t hear what she said to Hayes. The boats bobbed violently in the current, still fighting to get upstream. Everyone paused for a somber moment, watching nature’s breathtaking savagery all around them. Where the house had been was now churning brown water swirling with debris, creating a momentary whirlpool as the water rushed into the gap created by the missing house. A large chunk of concrete popped up and floated away, followed by several smaller pieces.

Josie spotted what looked like a washer or dryer and pieces of pipes rising from the water and being carried away by the current. As the floodwater rushed past where the house had been and dislodged more of the house’s foundation, something bright blue emerged. At first it just looked like a piece of fabric flapping in the current, held in place by something beneath the water. Then another large chunk of concrete sprang up and floated downstream, and the unseen part of the fabric bobbed to the water’s surface, revealing that the fabric was part of something larger. Much larger. Human-sized. “What the hell is that?” Brownlow yelled as the object came into relief, the pounding current cleansing it. “A body!” Josie and Gretchen both answered loudly. The blue fabric was a large plastic tarp, wrapped tightly around its contents which Josie estimated to be no longer than six feet and no wider than two feet. Duct tape wound round the tarp in four separate places.

Josie got up onto her knees and met Gretchen’s eyes. Gretchen gave her a nod and turned to Brownlow. “Get over there!” He raised a brow. “You crazy?” Josie stood, bracing herself on the boat’s edge. “We have to get it. It’s going to come loose any second.” “What are you doing?” Hayes hollered over the radio. “Let’s go!” Brownlow spoke into his own radio, tucked safely in its waterproof pouch, “She’s going after it.” “You can’t! It’s too dangerous. We have to go!” Josie tugged on her tether and spoke into her own radio.

“I’ll grab it and Gretchen can pull me in.” “The kid is right,” Brownlow told her. “It’s too dangerous.” From the other boat, Hayes watched them. Brownlow added, “You don’t even know that’s a body. It’s just a tarp, for all you know.” “That’s a body,” Josie said firmly. “I’m sure of it.” “It could be anything.” Josie thought of all the human remains she’d uncovered in her career.

All the murder victims she’d seen, the makeshift graves she’d stood beside. “No,” she said firmly. “It’s definitely a body.” Hayes’ voice came over the radio again. “This is a rescue operation, not a recovery operation.” “We can’t leave it behind,” Josie snapped back into her own radio. She watched as the rolled tarp began to shift. It must have been buried beneath the foundation of the house. Normal people didn’t bury their dead in their basements. Whoever was wrapped in the tarp was a murder victim.

Josie’s instincts rarely failed her. She knew that, given the speed of the current and the unpredictability of the flooding, it could take weeks to find the body if they let it wash away. Not only that, but what if someone besides first responders came upon it before it was found? “I have to get it,” Josie said into her radio. The tarp was knocked loose by a large branch shooting past it. Josie spread her feet wide to keep her balance. She put one foot on the edge of the boat’s side. More mayoral candidate signs rushed by, barely missing the rescue vessel’s puffy side. Brownlow hollered, “Stay in this boat, Quinn!” Pushing against the side of the boat with her foot, Josie jumped back into the water and began paddling toward the tarp, dimly aware of the shouting behind her and over the radio at her shoulder. The current churned around her, making it difficult for her to stay on course. The rotor wash of the helicopter pressed down again, slowing the current long enough for her to get closer.

Every muscle in her body burned with the effort. Her life jacket kept her afloat, but its bulk made swimming more difficult. Finally, she got close enough to grab a handful of blue plastic material. She pulled it closer to her, wrapping both arms around it. A moment later, Hayes’ boat bumped against her shoulder, trapping her in place as Brownlow’s vessel got closer. Gretchen leaned over, pulling at Josie’s tether until only the rolled tarp was between them. Paddling in place, Josie handed it off to her. With great effort, Gretchen pulled it into the boat and came back to help Josie. Once they were safely in the boat with the body between them, Josie looked around, but the other boat was long gone. Brownlow shook his head at her, and wordlessly, turned the boat and sped away.

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