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By GREGG OLSEN
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2013 Gregg Olsen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe teenagers had been waiting for the mother and her two children, a towheaded boy and girl, both of whom had found a million things to cry about all afternoon, to finally leave. It was after six and the sun was beginning to dip downward in the late summer sky. Across from Point Defiance, where Samantha Maxwell and Brant Logan were sitting in a tangle of driftwood, they watched the sun as it inched lower to the tops of the craggy Olympic Mountain range, the western-most reaches of the United States. They'd been drinking beer smuggled from Samantha's father's supposedly secret stash in the garage refrigerator. It was better beer than they were used to, and there was no denying they were feeling the effects of the alcohol.
"I thought they'd never go," Brant said, running his fingertips along Samantha's inner thigh. He grinned at her in that dopey way that he did when he'd been drinking.
Samantha pushed his hand away. "Hey," she said, "I'm not that drunk."
"But you look so unbelievably hot," said Brant, a lanky six-footer, said, rolling on his side on the blanket, throwing his leg over hers. "And I've been good all day."
"You're gonna have to do better than that," Samantha said, pulling away, and applying the last bit of coconut-smelling lotion to her lightly browned skin. She pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail and got up. "I'm going in," she announced, getting up and starting toward the cold blue water.
Brant rolled his eyes in a very dramatic manner. "You're crazy. Freaking cold out there," he said.
"Then you should come with me," Samantha said, turning back to look at him. The sun framed her head like a halo. "You need to cool off."
"Oh, I do, do I?" he said, his brow arched as he shielded his eyes from the sun. "You really want me to cool off?"
By then Samantha was already halfway to the water's edge.
"Last one in's a rotten egg," she said, laughing at the absurdity of the statement. Why a rotten egg? Who but my mother comes up with these dorky sayings?
Brant watched his girlfriend step into the clear, cold Puget Sound, but with the sun in his eyes, he turned away and put his head back on the blanket. He put his earbuds in and turned up the volume on his iPod. Soon his feet were twitching as he listened to Nickelback's newest music. Not classic. But good enough, he thought.
Good enough, he'd later think, to lose track of the time.
About an hour later, Brant sat up with a start. He'd drifted off to sleep. He looked at the spot on the blanket next him, but Samantha wasn't there.
He looked toward the water. "Sam?" he called out, getting up to see where she'd gone. "Where the hell are you, babe?"
He looked south, then north. The pebbled stretch of the beach was deserted. Maybe she'd gone off to the restroom? Brant slipped a T-shirt over his head and started walking up the beach toward the restrooms. He called out Sam's name several more times, but there was no answer. His eyes scanned the shore. There was no one to ask if he or she had seen Samantha. There was no reason to worry, really, but he did anyway. Later, he would say he'd just "had a feeling" that something was very wrong. He couldn't explain it; it just was something deep inside telling him over and over that Samantha was gone.
Where is she?
The restroom by the parking lot was smelly and empty. Adrenaline and beer made him feel anxious and woozy. He planted himself in front of the urinal, reading graffiti and wondering where Sam went. A second later, he was out the door and back where they'd spent the day. He told himself that she'd be back any minute. By the time the sun started to slide behind the Olympics, however, Brant's worry increased tenfold.
He picked up his phone. No messages. No calls. He dialed Sam's number, and her phone, still in her purse, rang next to him. He told himself he wouldn't mention that he'd left her purse unattended.
Sam wouldn't have gone off somewhere without her phone. Brant knew that. The phone was almost a part of her. Next, he pressed those three digits, in that sequence that sends a palpable wave of anxiety through the phone lines. It was the number no one ever wants to need to call.
"My girlfriend is missing," he said to the 911 operator, after giving his name.
"Okay," the operator said, "missing. What do you mean by that?"
"Samantha is gone. I can't find her."
"You two have a fight?"
"No," he said, suddenly feeling defensive. "I fell asleep. I'm kind of worried about her."
"Did she go off with someone?"
Why is she saying that? Sam would never. We're in love. Have been since we were sixteen.
Brant bristled a little. "She would not do that. That's not Sam."
The operator kept on questioning Brant. Her tone cool and clinical. Brant wondered if she would act that same way if a caller was inside a burning house. Didn't the operator grasp the urgency of the situation? Sam was gone!
"When was the last time you saw her, exactly?" she asked.
Brant continued to scan the beach. "I can't say for sure. Maybe an hour or two hours ago? She went swimming in the sound. Like I said, I fell asleep and when I woke up she was gone."
"Are you sure she just didn't leave, Brant?"
Again, why was the operator acting like that?
"Without her purse? Without her phone? Not Samantha. No way. What girl would?"
"All right. Sit tight. Police are on the way."
A half hour later, a team of first responders arrived at the beach to mount a search-and-rescue effort. It had turned to dusk by then and a helicopter hovered along the shoreline with a searchlight punching through the thickening air. Someone gave Brant a blanket and he wrapped it around his shoulders. As he watched everyone, he thought to himself that it was like some kind of scene out of a movie. Not real. Just pretend. No one used the words "possible drowning," but all of them figured that was likely what had happened. To their credit, the searchers showed no sign of fatigue. Even as the stars replaced the pink hue of sunset, they gamely continued doing what most all of them knew was futile.
If Brant's story was true, Samantha had been yanked from the shore by the swift water.
No one needed to point out the obvious. Ten feet from where the teens had put their blanket and pilfered beer was a sign: Danger! No Swimming! Rip Currents!
Every day for the five years since her husband left her for their dog sitter, Abby, Colette Robinson had walked a stretch of beach along the southern end of Puget Sound. Low tide. High tide. When the shore was pelted with raindrops the size of dimes. Or, the best of all, when the sun lit up the edges of the water like a fuse. It didn't matter what time of year, there was always something to stick into her bag. Colette collected bits of beach glass that she'd used to fill four mason jars in the window of her bathroom. She'd recovered enough fishing floats to string a garland over the fireplace in the living room, too. Every time she ambled over the rocky shoreline near Tacoma, Colette found at least one thing that got her blood pumping with the excitement of discovery.
That day her eyes caught an out-of-place hue a few yards down the beach. It was a fragment of pink and white, absolutely not colors evocative of the Pacific Northwest, a brooding landscape fashioned of grays, blues, greens, and blacks. This was a spray of light against the dingy, dark backdrop of a cliff.
What was it?
She turned away from the water's foamy brink and started toward the base of the cliff. As she drew closer, she set down her Albertsons plastic grocery bag of sea glass and bone-white sand dollars. This is special. She'd read in the paper how the flotsam and jetsam of the tragic Japanese tsunami was headed for Washington's coast. Among the silver mass of driftwood that barricaded the cliff from the water, Colette saw the arm of what she was all but convinced was a doll. She ventured a bit closer. Not a mannequin, smaller, maybe a doll. It was white with amber-colored fingernails. Pretty, but creepy. Twenty feet away from what she was all but certain was the find of the day—find of the week even—Colette stopped and screamed. It wasn't just an arm. The arm was attached to a body. A girl's body. Nearly out of breath, she dug her phone from her pocket and called 911.
Colette Robinson had found Samantha Maxwell. That wasn't all she discovered. Colette didn't know it at the time, of course, but Samantha wasn't alone. She had company.
* * *
Tacoma Police Detective Grace Alexander braced herself against the suddenly very cold wind coming off Puget Sound. Summer was over. The weather had turned nasty in the afternoon in the way that it does in Washington whenever a rare sunny day managed to sneak in to bring sunburns and happy memories. The sky looked more silver than gray, but make no mistake about it, rain was coming. Rain had always been the price for the green surroundings and everyone who lived there knew that all too well. Grace was an attractive woman, small in stature, but with the kind of open face that invited people into her brown eyes. She had the eyes of someone who had seen a lot, more than most, but still invited people inside. Her ability to remain open was her greatest gift when interviewing witnesses.
She brought empathy. With empathy, came trust.
The petite brunette detective bent down, setting her right knee on the driftwood log that had caught the girl's other arm and kept her body from being pulled away by the outgoing tide.
The victim was wearing a bright yellow one-piece bathing suit that had somehow managed to stay in nearly pristine condition in the tides that had carried her away, then brought her back. Neither detective touched the body, but it was clear by its position tucked in among the logs that rigor had come and gone. She was not a floater, or bloater, a puffed-up figure, a kind of gas-filled balloon that a body becomes when left out in the elements. She looked like a young, albeit slightly blue and white, teenager. It was as if she'd been tossed there and then fallen asleep.
"Drowning vic," she said to her partner, Paul Bateman, a skyscraper of a man with pointed eyebrows that always made him look slightly perturbed, even when he wasn't. "Samantha Maxwell, nineteen. Missing for four days."
Paul studied the body, face down, the dead girl's dark hair melding with scraggly bits of seaweed. A crab crawled out from under her slackened curls. It was disgusting, but both detectives had seen far, far worse. Neither gave it a second thought.
"How can you be positive it's her?" Paul asked.
"The ink," Grace said, "here." She pointed to the small four-leaf clover on Samantha's right shoulder. "Don't you ever read the paperwork? It's in the report."
Paul turned up his jacket collar to ward off the breeze. "She wasn't all that lucky," he said.
"Understatement of the year."
Grace got up and looked around, scanning the lonely section of beach. She knew that the area wasn't a crime scene per se, only the sad site of the discovery of a dead girl.
"Accidental drowning?" Paul asked, as the coroner's techs made their way over the rocks and logs to collect the body. A seagull screamed overhead. A little more rain fell. The detectives took a few steps back to let the others do their work.
"Autopsy will determine what happened," Grace said. "Nothing to suggest anything other than an accident, at least nothing I've read in the missing persons report. Boyfriend said she was drinking a little and went toward the water to swim. Never saw her again."
"Not going to see her now," Paul said, pulling away from the putrid odor that rose up from Samantha's remains as the coroner's team cocooned the body in a bright blue neoprene bag. It zipped silently with the kind of closure found on a sandwich bag.
"Beachcomber over there found her," Grace said, indicating the woman who was sitting on a log clutching her plastic bag of shells and glass. "Officers are getting her information."
Paul walked a few yards down the beach toward the base of a cliff.
Grace called over to him. "You coming?" She repeated her question, but Detective Bateman didn't say anything.
She let out a sigh and followed him.
He was on one knee, looking at something.
"What is it?" she asked.
Paul looked up. "Not sure," he said, his eyes staying locked on hers. "Looks like a femur."
She shook her head. "Driftwood," she said. "Not a bone."
"Really," he said. "I think so."
"Human?" she asked, now joining him on her knees to get a closer view. Neither touched the bone. If it was human, it was evidence of a possible crime. It was likely that it had been dragged there by an animal, far from where it had been hidden. That is, if it had been hidden at all.
And if it was human.
"Not sure," Paul said. "But I think so. Been out here a while."
Grace got up and went a couple more yards west of the femur and, almost immediately, found another bone, a rib.
"It is human, isn't it?" she asked, feeling that mix of excitement and horror that comes every time discoveries like bones on a beach were made.
"A woman? A child, maybe."
Grace stepped back and studied the outcropping above the breach. A cedar and a fir had sloughed off the top of the cliff and lodged themselves in a ledge about fifty feet above where Paul had seen the first bone. If the bones had once been concealed in a grave, it was a good bet they had literally come from above.
Samantha Maxwell had been the victim of a tragic accident. There was no doubt about that. She was a dead girl. A teenager. A daughter. But she was something else in that moment.
Samantha had been a messenger.
"It was like she led us here," Grace said.
Paul didn't care for that kind of woo-woo sentimentality, but he let Grace go on about her "feelings" and intuition. She'd been more right than wrong when it came to moving a possibility into something real, turning a "what-if" into a scenario that made sense—and helped solve crimes.
"I guess so," he said.
"We're going to need some techs over here," Grace said, calling across the windy rocky beach to the investigators who'd come to collect Samantha's remains. Samantha Maxwell wasn't going home alone.
She had company.
Grace wouldn't have told anyone—not her partner, her husband, even her mother—that it passed through her mind, as the bones were recovered amid the seaweed and silver-colored driftwood that had also cradled the remains of Samantha Maxwell. The it was like the grandfather clock in her parent's Tacoma home, always ticking, always there. The it was like a kind of leech that had planted itself on her skin and just never let go. She drew a deep breath as she tried to put it out of her mind. While Samantha Maxwell's case was never considered foul play, only a terrible accident, the scene had to be processed with the skill and decorum befitting the tragedy that had stolen the pretty young teenager's life.
The clouds had darkened and rain began to fall through a tear in the sky. The techs were dressed in dark blue rain gear as they methodically worked over an area that had been cordoned off with bright yellow tape. No telling how long the bones had been there. One young cop suggested they wait out the rain.
"Not like this is a fresh kill and there's any evidence to be had," he said.
"Are you an idiot or is your brain running low on fuel because you skipped a meal?" Grace asked. "We don't wait for the weather when we find a body."
The tech turned defensive. "You don't have to get all high and mighty with me. I'm just saying the obvious. Bones that old probably belong to an Indian or something."
Grace held her tongue. She could have reminded him that "Native American" was the preferred term, but there was no point in coming off as a bitch.
Or high and mighty, as the twerp put it.
By the end of the day, the bones recovered—nine of them—were tagged and bundled in a plastic lidded box of the same kind many home owners use to store their Christmas decorations. The femur had been the largest bone; ribs and fragments of a pelvis were also recovered from the beach. Techs moved up to the top of the cliff, at Grace's request.
"No telling what happened," she said, "but if those bones are from a homicide victim I'd say it was a good bet that the body was buried up there."
The cliff had sloughed off a van-sized chunk of earth.
Paul Bateman nodded.
"We don't even know if the remains are human, you know. And don't you go thinking that it's her."
Grace nodded. Her partner knew her so well.
"Hadn't even crossed my mind," she lied.
Excerpted from FEAR COLLECTOR by GREGG OLSEN Copyright © 2013 by Gregg Olsen. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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