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"So they kicked you out," Tess Graver said into her cell phone, her breath labored from jogging.
Uncle Gordon sputtered, "I tell ya, I'm fine. And now that I got 'em to put a cast on my leg, I'll prove it. You didn't have to quit your fancy-pants job in Charlotte just to come babysit me."
Tess slowed; she'd run close to three miles. "Let's talk about that later. I'll see you after supper, once I've showered, and then tomorrow morning I'll spring you from the hospital."
After a few more "Hmphs!" Tess's great-uncle hung up. She'd have to tell him about the thefts at Magnusson's Department Stores soon enough, but not over the cell phone while jogging. The situation at her last job had affected her more than she would have thought. She'd been under suspicion for a few weeks. Even after she was cleared of all wrongdoing, her fellow workers had withdrawn, and the odd looks had kept on coming her way.
She could no longer manage the Finer Footwear department under those conditions. Uncle Gordon's accident had given her the push to quit the job she'd once loved, and come back home
Tess flew when a body hurtled out of the dense woods on the side of the road and crashed into her. She held her hands out to brace for the fall, then landed in a muddy patch, the ooze sliding between her fingers. "Hey, come back and help me up!"
Footsteps pounded down the road toward town.
Disgusted, Tess took stock. Nothing hurt more than what she could expect from the fall. The worst part of her predicament was the thick mud on her legs, belly, chest and hands. Fortunately, she'd kept her face up and only felt muck on her chin.
With slow, measured movements, she got to her knees. As she rose to her feet, she heard a rustling in the woods, more than the balmy, breezeless day warranted.
What was going on?
First a jerk had knocked her to the ground, and now now she heard what sounded like a whimper. A shiver ran through her.
Should she go check? She had no idea what she might walk into.
Should she call the police? She might look like a fool if the sound came from an injured squirrel or something? Did squirrels cry?
Another whimper. More thrashing leaves.
Something was there. Maybe the guy who'd hit her had dumped a dog.
Maybe a child was hurt.
Tess couldn't just walk away. She eyed the heavy layer of vines, fallen twigs, branches and last fall's blanket of leaves.
She shivered again. "Lord? If you could somehow manage it, can you make sure there's no poison ivy or worsea snakein there?"
Taking a deep breath for courage, she stepped over the ground cover and parted the tall weeds, then made her way toward what sounded like a whimpering pup.
But as Tess rounded a massive tree trunk, she stopped. "Oh, no!"
A woman lay sprawled against a fallen tree, her too-thin face shiny with perspiration. As Tess watched, the slender body went into a spasm, her arms and legs twitched and sweat poured off her face.
Tess cut off her question when a major seizure seemed to grip the stranger on the ground. She tried to remember anything and everything she'd heard about helping someone through a seizure. From the hazy, cobwebby depths of her memory, details of a college first-aid class floated up. The most important thing was to try and keep breathing passages unblocked.
Her heart pounded. Lord, help! I need you here now. Tess hurried over. "Easy," she murmured. "Let me help you."
When Tess went to roll the quaking body onto its side, another convulsion hit, and she had to dodge the flailing limbs. Determined to help, Tess grasped a shoulder and pushed, but as thin as the woman was, she proved to be unbelievably strong.
Tess wrestled to get her on her side, but between the convulsions and the superhuman strength, she came close to calling it quits. Sweating, her breath coming in short, frightened spurts, Tess wedged herself between the stranger's back and the soggy ground to keep her from flopping onto her back again.
And then the woman quit her fight.
Tess slumped, panting, and ran the back of her hand across her eyes to clear away the sweat. Silence. She glanced at the still body propped up against her arm and leg.
"Oh, no " She was still, completely still.
"No no, no, no!"
Tess scrambled onto her knees to check for a pulse. But before she took hold of her thin wrist, the woman's body rolled onto its back, and she knew there was nothing to check. The chest didn't move.
A scream ripped from Tess's lips. Bile rushed up her throat. She froze for a moment, but the horror propelled her to her feet. She grasped at a branch to get her balance, glanced at the corpse, then put a hand over her mouth to stop the next scream.
Stepping back on trembling legs, she couldn't look away from the woman on the ground. Abstractly she noticed how her pretty hairdo hid her face.
Life ground to slow motion. Fear rushed through Tess's limbs. Her pulse pounded in her ears, and her head spun. She realized she'd been holding her breath. Somewhere behind her, a car drove past.
A shudder racked her, followed by wave after wave of tremors. The urge to run, to hide overwhelmed her.
Despite the urgency of her instincts, Tess knew she couldn't leave. Not yet.
With a brief prayer for strength, she clutched her cell phone, forced her fingers to work and dialed 911. Her hands shook so hard she could barely hold the device to her ear. Relief flooded her when the dispatcher answered.
"Help!" she croaked.
The man on the other end asked for directions in a calm, measured voice.
"Don't know exactly," she said. "She's I think she's dead. In the woods off Ratner Road, just a little past the old Wilder Barn. Hurry, please!"
The dispatcher's voice had given her something to hang on to for a couple of seconds, enough to make her realize she should wait by the road. She could flag down the cruisers as they came.
On her way out of the woods, she prayed for help to arrive soon; for God's comfort; for His wisdom for all involved.
Most of all, she prayed for more of the peace she'd felt so keenly just a few brief minutes earlier.
Ethan Rogers wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. "It's way too hot for late May. And you're a slave driver, Art Reams."
The tall, thin pastor of Loganton Bible Church leaned against his shovel and sent Ethan a look of mock sorrow. "You wound me! I'm just doing my best to serve the Lord, and with the groundbreaking just two weeks away, we don't have the funds to hire someone to clear these weeds."
Ethan dropped the joking tone. "You are a servant, and I'm glad to help wherever I can. The new fellowship building's going to be greatespecially the gym. Kids need that kind of space." He wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. "But you and I need a break. How about some of that iced tea you stash in the church fridge?"
Art dropped the shovel and held out a hand. They shook on it. As they crossed the parking lot, Ethan's phone rang. He glanced at the LCD display.
"Hey, peanut," he said to his youngest cousin. "What's up?"
"Would you stop with that peanut stuff?" He grinned when he heard her effort to muffle her responseshe wasn't alone. "No one's going to listen to me if they hear you."
"What? You want me to call you Officer Lowe? Dunno if I can do that, kiddo."
"Well, you're going to have to." Her voice turned crisp, official. "I need your help. I'm out on a call, and it sounds like your specialty to me."
The disgust that had hovered in the back of his mind since the last drug bust he'd worked rushed to the fore-front. His muscles tensed, his stomach turned and his head began to pound. "Maggie "
"I know, I know. You left all that behind when you moved here, but Ethan, it's a death. We're a small-town department. We don't have much experience with stuff like this. You, though all those yearsI need you."
Ethan ran a hand over his face. He loved his youngest cousin like the sister he'd never had. They'd grown up close, living only two blocks apart. Over the years, he'd defended her against a bully, taught her to drive and convinced his aunt and uncle to let her go into law enforcement in spite of the danger.
He'd never been able to refuse her anything, but this came close.
Even though every fiber of his being screamed no, he said, "Where are you?"
Her sigh of relief told him she hadn't been as sure of his response as she probably should have been. "Come out west on Ratner Road.You can't miss the cruisers and the ambulance. We're in the woods, not fifty feet in."
Ethan slipped his phone into his pocket, fighting the urge to call her back and tell her no. It took all his determination to move toward his SUV.
Art placed an arm over Ethan's shoulders. "A call from Maggie that does this to you means bad news."
Ethan chuckled without humor. "My past doesn't seem ready to let me go. She's on a call, a woman's dead and she thinks it's drug related."
"It'll be hard," Art said, his voice compassionate, "but look at it from God's perspective. He had you trained, He had you gain a wealth of experience and knowledge and our Lord doesn't let things go to waste. I doubt He's done with that training of yours."
"Yeah, but I came to Loganton to get away from it all." Ethan pulled away to pace. "I had enoughmore than enough. The sixteen-year-old who took his last breath in my arms did it. I can't go back to that."
Pain, nausea and a sense of failure filled him. "You can't imagine what you find when you make a bust. The wasted lives, little kids who watch mom and dad doing drugs kids who'll live with those scars for the rest of their lives." He shuddered. "And no matter how hard you try to fight the good fight, there are more drugs on the street every day. I can't handle"
"But God can. I know how rough the last year has been for you. I know you still struggle with the memories and the nightmares, but God is greater than all that. He'll see you through even the worst momentsif you let Him."
The battle raging in Ethan was one he'd thought he'd packed away in the cobwebs of his subconscious. Evidently, he hadn't done that good a job.
Tess looked up at the petite police officer, then closed her eyes for a second. Images flew at her, fast and furious. Her heartbeat picked up steam again.
"I went for a jog," she said, her voice shaky. "On my way back, some jerk ran out of the woods and knocked me over." Tess scraped a smear of mud she'd missed on her right knee. "Then I heard a whimper in the woods. I thought the guy might have dumped a pup " She shuddered. "But I found her instead."
The officer pulled a pencil from behind her right ear and a small pad from her breast pocket. "Did you see anyone else come out of the woods? Before you went in? Or through the trees?"
"Can you describe the man who hit you?"
Tess shook her head. "I'd been on the phone with Uncle Gordon, and I didn't notice a thing. All I remember is falling face-first into the mud. Sorry."
"And then ?"
Tess breathed deeply. "Then I went to find who or what I'd heard. As soon as I saw her, I ran to help. She was shakinga seizure, I think." She remembered the struggle. "But she fought me she was strong. And then then she just quit. That's when I called 9-1-1."
"I'm glad you did." The officer smiled. "Your name ?"
With a deep breath, Tess tried to regain her composure. "Tess Graver, Gordon's niece, great-niece to be precise."
"I'm Maggie Lowe." She sat next to Tess on the scruffy grass at the edge of the road. "New in town?"
"No. I came to live with Uncle Gordon and Auntie Maude when my parents diedI was thirteen.After high school, I left for college, and then I worked in Charlotte for a few years after that. I'm back for good now, though. My uncle had an accident. He needs help, and he gave me a chance to leave a job that had become difficult."
"Did you know her?" Maggie dipped her head toward the woods.
"Never saw her before today."
The police officer put her hand on Tess's arm. "I know this is hard, but we need to go back over everything you remember. Why don't you start with your run. Any particular reason you came out this way?"
"It's beautiful. I used to run this route when I was on the cross-country team in high school. It's one of my favorite spots in town."
"And you were pushed down by a man you didn't see. Then you thought you heard a dog."
"That's right. I didn't want an abandoned puppy to die out here." Tears filled her eyes. "But instead of the pup"
A sob caught in her throat, cutting off her words.
"It must have been hard." Maggie Lowe gave her a gentle smile.
Tess squared her shoulders. "I've never seen anything like it. All I wanted was to save a dog. But I never got around to looking for it."
"I would have done the same thing." Then the officer's gray eyes turned serious again. "I know it's rotten to make you think about it over and over again, but I need you to describe exactly what you remember when you saw her in the woods."
The officer knew her stuff. It was hard, but after a quick prayer, Tess did as she'd asked.
Speaking with the police officer made the slow-motion sensation go away. Tess had never seen anything so horrible before, and she didn't know how to process her feelings, her response. She wished there was more she could say, some way she could help, but it was too late; there was nothing further to do. At least she could give as clear a recounting as possible.
After Tess had related everything she could remember, Maggie told her she'd have to sign a statement that summarized the answers she'd given, and to expect more questions even after that. At the moment, she was free to go home. The PD knew where to find her.
With the passing of time, Tess's breath resumed its normal pace. It became even and regular again, as did her heartbeat. Her anguish, however, didn't change.