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Francesca Moretti thought she couldn't be seeing what she was seeing. So much junk cluttered the salvage yard that it could be any number of things, right? She wasn't that close. And it was wrapped in a painter's tarp and partially hidden behind some wood pallets, sawhorses and stacks of roofing material. But the longer she examined the size and dimensions of that shape, the more convinced she became. It was a human body.
Filled with revulsion, she shrank back into the shade of the closest outbuilding. The blazing July sun, bouncing off the sea of car carcasses, bent bicycle frames, even obsolete farm equipment, made her feel as if she was trapped in an oven instead of running down a lead on the outskirts of Prescott, Arizona. But it was panic and not heat that threatened to suffocate her.
Could this really be happening? Again? In her last big case, she'd located what was left of the missing wife and mother she'd been hired to find. The discovery had made national headlines; Janice Grey's murder probably would've gone unsolved without Francesca. She'd provided the missing piece of the puzzle that confirmed a murder had taken place, which allowed investigators to go ahead and prosecute their prime suspect. But that type of thing didn't happen very often and certainly not to the same private investigator. Francesca had pretty much decided it would never happen again. Not to her, anyway. And then this.
Trying to ignore the Doberman who'd started barking like crazy the moment she set foot in the yard fortunately, the dog was chained to the back of the houseshe stared at what appeared to be a shock of brown hair spilling out from under that paint-speckled tarp. She wanted to identify the body, make sure it was her client's sister, as she suspected.
But that could wait. She thought she smelled decomposition. And, judging by the stiffness of the corpse, apparent from the odd angles underneath the tarp, the body was in full rigor. There was no reason to look any more closely; the memory would only keep her up at night. Better to let the county homicide investigator handle the situation from here on.
Yes, get help. That was what she needed to do. Immediately. She didn't want to ruin any forensic evidence linking April Bonner to the man who'd killed her.
Hands shaking, she fumbled in the purse slung across her body, searching for her iPhone. She was breathing shallowly. Try as she might she couldn't override her body's automatic response.
Calm down. You're okay. Everything will be fine. You wanted to add missing persons to your list of services, remember?
She'd wanted to solve some difficult cases.
But that was just it. Locating people who'd gone missing wasn't supposed to be this easy. And the goal was to find them alive.
Finally, her fingers encountered the phone. She was scrolling through her address book for Investigator Finch's phone number when she heard footstepsthe purposeful stride of a man wearing boots from the sound of itand brought her head up fast. She wasn't alone? There'd been no answer when she knocked at the old wood-frame house facing the road, and she hadn't heard a vehicle. But that didn't mean anything. This was a big property, ten acres.
So weak she doubted she could run even if she had to, she peered around the corner of the building. She couldn't see whoever was approaching.
Sweat, rolling from her hairline, dripped into her eyes. She blinked to clear her vision and prayed for a burst of adrenaline to stop her knees from turning to jelly. What was wrong with her? In her line of work, the threat of physical injuryor deathcame with the territory. She'd known that from the beginning. But she'd always imagined herself as so much tougher, so much calmer in the face of danger. She hadn't reacted like this when she was a cop, or when she'd found Janice's remains scattered in that gully, had she?
No. But she'd worked property crimes when she was with Phoenix P.D. and, after that, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. And the day she found Janice, she'd been with a group of search-and-rescue guys she'd hired to scour land the police had decided was too far out. They'd stumbled across bones, which distanced her from the violence that had taken Janice's life.
This was different. Francesca had just discovered a recent kill. She was alone in a relatively remote location. And no one else had any idea where she was. She hadn't even notified Heather, her assistant, other than to say she'd be out most of the day running down leads. She'd driven from her home in Chandler two hours to the south and didn't know anyone in the area.
"Who's there? And what do you want?"
It was a man, all right, and he didn't sound pleased to have a visitor. His harsh voice set the dog barking at a far more feverish pitch.
Unwilling to answer, and afraid to poke her head around the shed again for fear he'd see her, she pressed her back against the rough wood of the building. The bartender at the Pour House had told her he'd spotted a woman resembling April getting into a truck driven by the guy who owned this salvage yard: Butch Vaughn. She'd come out here hoping to speak to Vaughn. But after finding the figure beneath the tarp, she knew it wasn't the time or the place to confront a possible killer. Especially a killer with a Doberman that could easily be released. The police could deal with it.
"I know you're there," he said. "Demon's making damn sure of it."
Demon had to be the dog. What an appropriate name
"What are you doing trespassing on my property?" His footsteps had grown less decisive. He wasn't quite sure where she was. "Don't you have any manners?"
Her actions said more about her nerve than her manners. Pushing, even when others didn't want to be pushed, and looking, even when they didn't want certain things to be seen, was part of her job. Although she hadn't always been so assertive, her desire to succeed had forced her to overcome her natural reluctance to pry. Timid private investigators weren't going to help anyone. If the owner of this property hadn't been seen with April, who'd been missing for three days, Francesca would never have considered intruding on his privacy.
Glancing behind her, she wondered if she should make a break for her car. Could she get around the house and all the way to the road before he caught her?
If her heart wasn't already racing, she thought she might have a chance. Five years ago, she'd taken up running as a way to relieve stress and stay in shape. She prided herself on her athletic ability. But a quarter mile had never seemed as far as it did at this moment. And she had no illusion that she could outsprint a man who was in top physical condition. She'd seen this guy's profile on the dating Web site where April had first come across him. If Harry Statham was really Butch Vaughn, as she now believed, and the muscular picture he'd posted was anywhere close to accurate, he was definitely fit .
"What's the matter?" he called out. "Cat got your tongue?"
Her other option was pepper spray. Just after she'd been accepted into the police academy, her father had accidentally been shot by his own partner during a drug bust and been confined to a wheelchair ever since. Seeing him struggle with the loss of his mobility day after day, year after year, left an impression she wasn't likely to forget. As soon as she quit the force to open her own investigative agency, she'd stopped carrying a gun. She no longer even owned one. But she needed some protection.
"I want to know why you're snooping around," he called out.
Was this Butch? It had to be. He'd said "my property." Did he realize what she'd found? He had to at least suspect, didn't he?
Doubting she'd be able to outrun him, she thrust a hand into her purse. He was coming up on the other side of the building; he must have guessed where she was hiding. The crunch of his soles striking the rocky desert soil ratcheted up her tension as if he had an external crank that stretched every nerve taut and tightened every muscle.
Where was her pepper spray? Had she lost it? She'd never really had to use it. She kept it with her as a precaution
Shit! It wasn't there.
She still had her phone in her hand. She dialed 911 but dared not speak into the receiver. He'd be on her before she could say two words. Whatever was going to happen would be over by the time the dispatcher could send a squad car. She had to run.
As she pivoted, her hand finally touched the cool metal of the canister. It'd been lost in the jumble of her belongings.
Thank God. Preparing for the confrontation to come, she withdrew her pepper spray and held it ready. But he didn't walk around the corner as she expected.
She couldn't hear his steps anymore. Was it possible that he didn't know where she was, after all?
Swallowing hard, she held her breath and listened carefully. Where was he? What was he doing?
She didn't have to wonder for long. Thanks to the dirty window at her elbow, she caught a brief glimpse of movement inside the building and realized it was actually an office and he was coming through it. There was an exit right next to her!
Whipping around, she jumped out of range of the door he flung open and sprayed him. At least, she tried to spray him. Nothing came out. Why, she had no idea. Her actions made him flinch and throw up his arms to protect his face and that was it. But seeing him up close confirmed her suspicionsHarry Statham was indeed Butch Vaughn. The man pictured on that dating profile looked identical to the owner of this salvage yardthe last person, as far as she could determine, who'd seen April alive.
Throwing the can, she heard it hit him but didn't pause to see where. She was too intent on running. But no matter how hard her arms and legs pumped, she could hear him gaining on her.
The dog barked and yelped and growled as it pulled at its chain. She tried to ignore it. As dangerous as that animal sounded, it couldn't hurt her. For now
A second later, the dog became her last concern as Butch grabbed her purse, which was flapping behind her, and used it to jerk her to a stop. Yanking back, she fell when the strap broke. Then she dropped her phone, which bounced out of reach, and because of the sudden release of tension, he fell, too.
"Who are you? What the hell are you doing here?" Gripping her by the ankle, he dragged her toward him.
The hot dirt burned her bare arms and legs. A sleeveless blouse and skirt were probably the worst things she could've worn. He was dressed in blue jeans and a muscle shirt, which protected him, to some degree.
"Answer me!" he grated as they rolled aroundshe wrestling for her freedom, he trying to subdue herbut she was breathing too hard to respond. All she could think about was escape. She had to keep fighting regardless of the scrapes, the bruises and the burning ground.
It wasn't long before he managed to pin her down. He had her left wrist, but before he could grab her right, she sank her nails into his cheek, gouging him deeply. She knew she'd gotten him good when he cursed and drew back.
His sudden recoil made it possible for her to scramble out from under him. She got hold of her purse but he obviously realized she was about to escape and caught it, too. She had to let go. It fell away, spilling, as she found her feet and darted around the house.
Although her BMW waited on the road ahead of her, her car keys were either in her purse or on the ground with her cell. She couldn't drive anywhere, but she ran for her car, anyway.
Her sandals slapped her heels, and the smooth hard soles made her skid here and there, so it was a miracle she reached the front yard. Once she did, she hoped to flag down a car, but the road was empty. And Butch didn't have any neighbors. Her one advantage was the fact that she'd done more damage with her nails than she'd expected. When she glanced over her shoulder, she could see Butch coming after her, but he wasn't moving too fast. He staggered, wiping at the blood that dripped from his left eye and cheek.
She'd hurt him, which scared her even more. Fury rolled off him in waves.
Her breath rattled in her throat as she fought to make her shaky limbs follow her brain's commands. If he caught her, she was dead. She could see a steely resolve set in as he shook off the pain and started to jog.
Thank heaven she'd left her car unlocked. It was a bad habit but she could only be grateful in this particular moment. Wrenching open the passenger door, which was closest, she got in and slammed it just as he stretched out his hand to stop her. He had to yank it away to avoid having his fingers crushed. Then he went for the door handle.
Lock! Lock! Lock! Frantically, Francesca swiped at the console and the upholstery, searching for the button that would secure the doors. In her panic, she couldn't remember where the damn thing wasbut she managed to hit it before he could open the door. She'd never heard a sound more comforting than the thunk of the locks snapping into place or the ineffective catch of the lever as he pulled it to no avail.
Closing her eyes, she gulped for air and would've been relieved, except that he was more enraged than ever. Glaring down at her, he banged on the window. "Hey!"
Frozen with terror, she stared up at him. If he got in, it would be over in minutes. She didn't even have her iPhone.
Had emergency services received any indication that she'd tried to call? Were they sending help? Or had they assumed her call had been a misdial or a crank?
"What the hell's wrong with you, lady?" he yelled. "I just want to talk. I want to know why you're here."