Among the Departed
A Constable Molly Smith Novel
By Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2011 Vicki Delany
All right reserved.
Adam Tocek held a match to a pile of crumpled newspaper and twigs. With a soft whoosh the kindling ignited, filling the room with an orange glow. He poked at the fire and placed a birch log on top. The scraps of newspaper burned quickly, and the fire jumped from stick to stick, chewing at the dry white bark. He placed a larger log on top of the growing inferno and settled back on his heels to admire his handwork.
"Am I getting old," the woman on the floor said, "or do we start using the fireplace earlier and earlier every year?"
"You're getting old."
"This place is at a much higher elevation than down in town and the nights get cold early."
He dropped down beside her and nuzzled her neck. She handed him a glass, and red liquid danced in the light of the flames.
The remains of their supper, barbecued ribs, potato salad, fresh greens, were on the coffee table in front of them. The big dog sniffed at the fire and made several circles on the rug before collapsing with a happy groan in front of it.
Tocek massaged the back of her neck. The woman sighed with as much pleasure as had the dog and settled back into his fingers. "Nice," she murmured.
His hand drifted down, down her neck, across her shoulders, down her upper back. His fingers found the clips of her bra. He put his wine glass down and brought his other hand up. The bra sprang free and she turned her face. Her blue eyes were soft and moist in the firelight, her lips open, the tip of her pink tongue trapped between her white teeth.
He leaned into the kiss, and then broke away to lift her T-shirt over her head. Her fingers moved toward the buckle on his shorts.
His phone rang.
Constable Adam Tocek was with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the dog handler for the Mid-Kootenay area of British Columbia. He was on call tonight, and so had restricted himself to one glass of wine with dinner.
He could not ignore his work cell phone.
He stretched out a finger toward the dark nipple, flushed and hard with the anticipation of pleasure.
But she was a cop too, and Molly Smith pulled away with a laugh. She slithered to her feet and reached across the table for the phone. Her body was long and lean. Her breasts, small and round above a taut belly, moved and he almost said to heck with duty.
She handed him the phone.
He listened for a moment before getting to his feet and snatching a scrap of paper off the table. "Got it," he said, making a note. "Kid missing from a campsite at Koola Park."
By the time he turned around, Molly Smith had her bra fastened and was pulling her shirt over her head.
"Come on, Norman," she said, giving the dog a nudge with her bare toe. "You've got work to do."
She glanced outside. Rain spattered against the windows and it was fully dark. The timbers of the house shuddered in the wind. "Want company?"
He pulled on a pair of jeans and his uniform shirt and jacket and got his gun out of the safe. By the time he was ready, Smith had Norman's orange search and rescue vest on him and was loading the excited dog into the back of the truck. Unlike Tocek, Norman was always happy to be going to work.
She got into the passenger seat; Adam started the truck and pulled onto the gravel road. This far out of town, high in the mountains beyond the range of the motion detector lights over the garage and shed, the dark was total.
"How old?" she asked.
"The kid? Five."
"Less than an hour."
"That's good, right?"
"Who knows, Molly. It's dangerous out there. Little guy, big woods, big animals. Fast-moving rivers, steep cliffs. We won't know 'til we get there, but it sounds as if they called soon as they noticed him missing. Every second counts."
He pulled onto the highway and sped toward Koola Provincial Park.
The rain had stopped by the time they slowed to enter the park. Tocek flashed his lights at the waiting RCMP patrol car, and it shifted into gear and led the way.
"I haven't been here for a few years," Smith said quietly. "The park's changed. Looks more civilized somehow."
The campground was quiet, less than a quarter of the sites taken. Summer was over, most vacationers back at school or work. Days remained warm, but temperatures dropped sharply at night.
They followed the RCMP car down the dark, winding, narrow trail and soon came in sight of bright lights and groups of people standing in nervous clusters. Norman was edgy in the back; he knew work was ahead.
A van and a four-person tent in cheerful yellow were lit up as though for their Broadway debut. A park-issue picnic table holding the remains of the family's washing up, covered with a tea towel, was in the center of the clearing, a group of folding chairs loosely scattered around. The remains of the campfire, dark and wet, still emitted little curls of smoke. Large trees, heavy with lichen, crowded around the patch of civilization, waiting for the humans to pack up and return to where they belonged.
A man ran up to meet them, followed by a second Mountie, as soon asTocek pulled the truck to a stop. He was bald-headed, with a square body to which his head, arms and legs seemed to have been attached by afterthought.
He thrust his hand out and Tocek shook it while Smith led Norman out of the truck. "Nigel Paulson. Thank God, you got here so quickly." His accent was working-class English, swallowing about half the words.
"I'm ConstableTocek and that's Constable Smith. What have you done since your boy went missing?"
The man pulled at his hair. He spoke to Tocek but his eyes darted from side to side, seeking a glimpse of his son lurking outside the circle of light. "I sent my wife up to the highway with the cell phone to contact you people, and my daughter and I have been up and down the road calling and calling, checking the other campsites." He gave them a small, tight smile. "I'm a copper myself, back home in London. I know too many people can ruin things for the dog."
"Good man," Tocek said. He took Norman's lead from Smith.
"My wife started into the woods, but I told her not to. I hope that was the right thing to do. I warned her not to venture much further than the edge of the campsite. It's dark and we don't know these woods at all. You don't want to be searching for us as well."
"It was the right thing to do," Tocek assured him. "When did you notice your son missing?"
"Ten, a few minutes after ten. I checked my watch."
"When had you seen him last?"
"Two hours before, maybe. He was cheeky to his mum so she sent him to the tent. About ten minutes later she went to tell him he could come out for hot chocolate. He'd stuffed his blanket and toy elephant into the bag so it looked like he was in it. We watched a movie a couple of weeks ago where someone did that, and I guess he remembered. Too damn smart for his own good sometimes." Paulson wiped at his eyes. "Emily called his name, and when he didn't answer she assumed he'd fallen asleep and left him. It was only when Poppy, our daughter, went to bed she realized Jamie wasn't there."
He looked down at Norman, sitting by Tocek's leg. "Looks like a good dog. He'll find my son, right?"
Tocek spoke to the Mountie standing with the family. "Where have you searched?"
"All the other campsites. No one's seen him. We went down to the river. I know not to disturb the scent, but," he glanced at Paulson, "couldn't chance the boy having fallen in and be stranded on a rock or the far bank."
Molly Smith wasn't here to do anything more than stand out of the way. She wouldn't have normally been allowed to come along to watch Adam and Norman at work, but as an officer with the Trafalgar City Police she was well known to the area's Mounties, and no introductions had been necessary.
The mother, a delicate fine-boned blonde, stood off to one side beside the dead campfire, her arm around her daughter.
Smith went over to the women and introduced herself. "Your son hasn't been gone long. That's good."
The woman nodded, unable to smile. Her eyes and nose were red and her pale face pinched with fear. She clutched a stuffed pink elephant to her chest. "I'm Emily, and this is my daughter Poppy." She spoke with the same accent as her husband.
The girl had a startling shock of purple hair, cut very short with one long section hanging over her right eye, but her skin was good and she'd avoided, so far, piercings any more outlandish than through her earlobes. Both arms were wrapped around her mother.
"What's Jamie wearing?" Smith asked.
"Long brown trousers and a white jumper. A sweater," Emily said. "It's not a heavy jumper. He'll be cold."
"Red's good," Smith said. "The color'll stand out in the woods."
They watched Tocek and Norman walk around the campground, Norman's nose moving across the ground. People had gathered, attracted by the commotion and the police cars. Norman started to move into the woods.
"That's the trail to the river," Nigel Paulson said. "Jamie wouldn't have gone that way. Poppy and I were getting water when he must of snuck away."
"We checked there already," the Mountie added.
"I'd like to see what Norman's interested in. If you'll stay here, sir. The less activity the better for the dog." Tocek glanced behind him. "Constable Smith?"
Pleased to be asked, she started to walk toward him. Then she turned back to Emily and Poppy. "Would you mind?" She gestured to the elephant. "Jamie will be lost and frightened. If ... I mean, when we find him, it would be nice to have something familiar."
The woman gave her a ghost of a smile. "What a lovely idea." She held the pink bundle close for a heartbeat and passed it over.
"He's been taught," Paulson called after Tocek, "over and over, if he's lost he's to stand still and wait for us to come for him." His voice broke. "Please God, he hasn't forgotten."
A Mountie handed Smith a flashlight and, armed with a pink elephant, she followed Tocek and Norman into the woods.
Almost instantly the light and sounds from the campsite faded away. Up ahead they could hear the creek running over stones and splashing against the bank. Clouds drifted across the sky, but a thin line of white light from the waxing moon shone through the trees.
"Poor kid," Smith said, "he must be terrified."
"Shush," Adam said in reply.
They soon reached the creek and Norman cast around, following who-knows-what. Tocek said nothing, and Smith stood out of the way, watching, holding the light.
Finding nothing of interest, the big dog abruptly turned and headed back to the campsite.
Smith could see the look of hope flash across the Paulson family's faces, and then die when they saw the boy wasn't with them. The girl, Poppy, gave a low sob and her mother gathered her close.
Again, Norman sniffed the ground. He spent a lot of time at the tent entrance. He was a German shepherd, a big one, with ears the size of satellite dishes, a long sweeping tail, and he walked with a lope, hips low to the ground. Norman was six years old and had lived and worked with Adam Tocek for five.
Molly Smith knew Adam loved her, but she sometimes thought if it came down to a choice between her and Norman, the dog would win. She smiled at the thought.
Everyone else, family, police officers, onlookers stood quietly and watched. They'd let the dog try first, and only if he didn't come up with anything would police begin an organized search.
No one but the dog could do much until light.
Norman, Smith knew, didn't follow a specific scent. No shirt or socks waved under the dog's nose and a dash straight for the missing child. That was TV fantasy. He'd cast around, in larger and larger circles, seeking something that didn't fit, following the freshest trail, a scent that broke away from all the others.
Which was why it was so important that everyone and their proverbial dog hadn't rushed into the wilderness in search of Jamie. With numerous trials to follow, all crossing back and forth over each other, Norman wouldn't have a chance of picking out the scent of one small boy.
"Good man, Paulson," Tocek mumbled, in answer to her thoughts. "Kept his head and helped his wife keep hers."
Norman plunged into the woods. Tocek and Smith followed, flicking on their flashlights. Fortunately, the Paulson family campsite was situated at the edge of the campground, the last one on this road, before the dark forest closed in. Not too much foot traffic would have come through here in the last couple of days.
"Call his name," Tocek said. "Keep calling it. I figure a child's more likely to find a woman's voice unthreatening. It's sexist, I know, but that's why I brought you along."
"I'm good with that," she replied. She raised her voice. "Jamie!"
Norman had a scent now. He didn't hesitate but moved forward at a steady loping clip. Tocek and Smith jogged behind him. She tried to keep her eyes on the ground and at the same time peer into the woods for any sign of the child. This was not a trail; the forest floor was rough, covered with broken branches and rocks, thick with undergrowth. No one needed a sprained ankle right now. Light caught the reflective strips on Norman's vest, making him look like something otherworldly moving through the black night.
Jamie must have been lost from the moment he stepped into the woods. A couple more steps and he wouldn't have been able to see the light from his family's fire or the other campsites. Frightened and disoriented, he would have panicked, blundering further and further into the forest. It was getting noticeably colder. All Smith wore was a sweater; she hadn't planned on going for a walk in the night woods. Jamie, according to his mother, wasn't wearing much more. If Norman couldn't find him the child would spend the night out here. A more effective search would have to wait until morning.
He couldn't have gone far, she told herself, not in the dark, with no path to follow, on short five-year-old legs.
Norman moved quickly, not having to cast about for traces of the scent. That was good. Wasn't it?
She could only hope he was following Jamie Paulson, not a hiker who'd been out this afternoon and was now resting at home, feet up, beer in hand, watching cop shows on T.V.
As a police dog, Norman took the same approach when following a suspect, but the communication between Adam and Norman was such the man would have let the dog know that when they found the little boy he was not to be treated as if he were an armed criminal.
Norman stopped so suddenly Smith almost crashed into Adam. The dog barked, just once, and turned his head to look at his handler. Smith might have seen a satisfied smile cross the animal's face. "Jamie," she called. "Jamie, where are you? Your mom and dad sent us to look for you. The dog's very friendly, he won't hurt you."
Tocek patted the Norman's flank and whispered something. Norman walked around a large Western Red Cedar and barked once more.
Smith heard a sob and saw a flash of white.
A little boy was crouched at the base of the old cedar, his arms wrapped around the dog's head and his face buried in the soft fur.
Smith squatted in front of him. "Hi, Jamie. I'm Molly and this is Norman. Look what I brought you."
He lifted his head. A scratch on his cheek leaked blood. Tracks of tears flowed through the dirt, blood, and snot covering his face. The right knee of his pants was torn, the cloth streaked with blood. He'd lost one shoe and had holes in his sock. She held out the pink elephant and he grabbed it, the other hand still clutching Norman's fur.
"I wanted to see a bear," he said, in a very soft voice and a cute English accent. "I'm sorry I ran away."
"You're lucky Norman found you and not a bear," Adam said. "Can you carry him, Molly?"
"Sure I can. Come on, little buddy, let's get you up and back to your mom and dad."
The tree's huge roots had carved a depression in the forest floor and time had filled it with leaves, needles, branches, and small stones. The ground was muddy from the earlier rain. As Smith shifted her weight to stand and pick up the child, her foot, clad only in running shoes, slipped. She fell backwards, crashing hard to the ground, giving a startled cry.
Tocek dropped the dog's leash and ran to her. "You okay, Mol?"
"Just startled. Help me up, will you?" She held out her hand and he hauled her to her feet. They smiled at each other.
Excerpted from Among the Departed by Vicki Delany Copyright © 2011 by Vicki Delany. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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