IT WASN'T HIS FIRST DEAD BODY. AND IT MIGHT NOT BE HIS LAST.
Barely twenty-four hours after arriving in Broken Bones, Arizona, Eric Santellis discovered a body in his shed. Luckily, he had an alibi: he'd been in prison when the lady had taken her last breath.
Then a second corpse turned up and, surprise, surprise, it was a cop. Instead of being blamed for a murder-or two-Eric began helping the lovely Ruth Atkins investigate her husband's death. But the killer could be closer than they realized. And fi nding him might be their biggest test of faith yet.
Pamela Tracy, a writer from Arizona, has written more than twenty books. Her first Love Inspired Suspense, Pursuit of Justice, was a 2008 RITA finalist. Her third Love Inspired Suspense, Broken Lullaby, won the ACFW Carol award in 2009. Her devotional, Promises and Prayers for Teachers, reached number two on the Christian Booksellers Association’s bestseller list. Pamela is a past president of CWOW, Christian Writers of the West.
It wasn't his first dead body. Or even his second.
In truth, if Eric Santellis needed to, he could, off the top of his head, remember standing over roughly four, no five, corpses.All died violently. One had been his best friend. Two had been relatives. Two had been strangers who'd had the bad luck and bad judgment to mess with one of his brothers.
But this dead body scared him more than all the others—even though there was no way he could be fingered for her death.
Nope, Eric figured this woman had been dead awhile and he had an airtight alibi courtesy of Florence Prison. And her discovery guaranteed him a spot on the front page of every major newspaper—again.
Unable to stand the stench any longer, Eric stumbled across the shed's uneven flooring. In places, the boards had given in to age, neglect, and some spots were little more than earth. He tripped up the two narrow steps leading outside and to fresh air, sunlight and wide-open spaces. A moment later, he thought there might not be enough fresh air in the world to rid his nostrils of the stench of his discovery. Once he could breathe again, he flipped open his cell phone and started searching for a location that might allow a signal. Reception, here in the middle of nowhere, was hit-and-miss.
He found a spot and soon connected with the local authorities and a dispatcher. "Sheriff's Office. How can I help you?" She sounded all of twelve years old.
"Yes, I'm at 723 Prospector's Way. I've just discovered a body in my shed."
"Are you sure the person is deceased?"
"Your name please?"
His family had helped establish this small town more than a hundred years ago. His last name often rendered the good people of Broken Bones speechless. Otherwise, he'd have mistaken the silence for a lost connection.
The dispatcher finally cleared her throat. "Did you say Santellis?"
"Yes, I'm at my cabin. There's a body in my shed. It's been there awhile. It's in pretty bad shape and—"
"I'll get a deputy out there immediately."
The silence returned, but this time he could legitimately blame a lost connection. He returned the phone to his pocket, and with nothing else to do but wait, stared at the cabin that had been in his family forever.
Family. That word should conjure up good memories and a lifetime of nurturing. It didn't. But, then, good memories and nurturing were not the stuff the Santellis clan was known for. His grandfather, who'd left him the land and falling-down buildings, had been a bitter old man. Eric had been more than surprised twenty years ago when he'd inherited this place.
It was Eric's last piece of the Santellis fortune. When he'd entered Florence Prison, his net worth probably figured in the millions if you considered his family's fortune. When he'd left prison just three months ago, he no longer had family; they no longer had a fortune. His two older brothers were dead, his father had advanced Alzheimer's and his sister and younger brother had disappeared. Without anyone standing guard, the misbegotten gains of the Santellis crime family fell victim to his sisters-in-law's lawyers and to the government. Eric would have turned it all over without an argument.
The empire was a legacy paid for with blood—starting with that of his ancestor who'd built this cabin more than a hundred years ago. This land, this cabin, was one of the few Santellis holdings the government hadn't claimed.
Of course, that all might change now that a deceased female had taken up residence in his shed.
Sirens echoed in the distance and a cloud of dust appeared. Eric headed for his porch and sat to await chaos and suspicion. Three vehicles arrived. First came the sheriff's SUV. It quickly bumped over the dirt driveway that led to Eric's porch and skidded to a stop. A few minutes later, and taking the bumps at a precarious speed, a sedan bearing the same logo pulled in behind the sheriff. The deputies parked near the cabin and jumped out—the dispatcher probably hadn't understood what Eric meant when he said the body had been in his shed 'awhile.' Hurrying was unnecessary. Then, surprise, surprise, came a third vehicle, a Cadillac not from the sheriff's department. It carefully moved up the driveway, parked close to the porch, and a tall, white-haired man climbed out.
The deputies stayed huddled by the sheriff, but the older man came on the porch and said, "James Winters. Call me 'Doc', everyone does. I'm the local doctor, retired, but in a pinch, I'm all they have. I hear you've found a dead body."
So the twelve-year-old had gotten something right. "Very dead."
"I believe you, son."
The sheriff slammed the door of his SUV. The noise echoed in the silence of the forsaken land Eric now called home. The deputies followed as the sheriff ambled toward Eric. The sheriff, older, chubby, dark-haired and balding didn't bother to introduce himself or show a badge. He snarled, "Did you touch anything?"
"Yes," Eric admitted. "I thought I had a dead animal in there. While I was looking for it, I moved some boxes and stacks of junk. I was tossing old clothes into a laundry basket when I accidentally took hold of the arm. Of course, I didn't know it was an arm at first. That's when whatever was covering her dislodged, and I saw a skull and realized what I was holding."
"You might want to call a lawyer," the doctor advised.
"Before you say anything else."
"No need," he said wryly. "There's no way they can pin this on me. I'm guessing she took her last breath at least six months ago, and back then I was a guest of the Arizona penal system."
"No kidding," said the doctor, clearly surprised.
"Your second day here and you've already got trouble." The sheriff stared at Eric before slowly taking a small notebook out of his shirt pocket and writing down a few things. Then, he added, "Well, let's take a look."
"I smelled decay yesterday." Eric headed for the shed.
"At first, I figured a cat or something."
He'd been wrong. Dead wrong. "This morning, I couldn't take the smell anymore." That the shed was in one piece was nothing short of astounding. It had actually been built before the main cabin, and Eric's ancestors had lived in it while they finished building their permanent residence. The sheriff opened the door and started to take a tentative step. The putrid odor caused him to pause, and then he took a rubber glove from his pocket, held it to his nose and entered. Boards creaked in protest. They creaked even louder after the two deputies, sans the rubber gloves, joined their boss. Eric and the doctor waited a moment.
"I thought I read you got out of jail almost six months ago?" Doc said.
"No, that's when the paperwork started. It took about three months to get it through the system."
"System's a joke," Doc said, and headed for the shed. Eric's lantern still hung from a nail. Its glow, inadequate for the task, simply made the room look spooky. Eric lit a second lantern, and both deputies pulled out flashlights. One immediately started gagging and headed for the door. The doctor applied vapor rub under his nose and handed the jar to Eric. Then, he took out his flashlight and moved toward the far wall and the body. Bending down, he made a careful perusal of the area. Taking out a minirecorder, he said, "First assessment. Remains appear to be of a woman between the age of thirty and fifty. She's been discovered in a shed and exposed to carnivores."
The sheriff moved closer and started taking pictures. He glanced at Eric. "What made you think she'd been dead about six months?"
"I have a degree in criminal justice. Finished it while in prison. Plus, I've seen dead bodies."
"Not a bad guess, but you forgot to allow for the heat." Winters returned to his recorder. "Based on the level of deterioration, the female has already started "
Eric left the room. He didn't need to hear any more. While the body was badly decomposed, it didn't take a scientist to judge it female, since it was wearing a faded pink polyester pantsuit. Still, Eric would have blown his assessment of the corpse's age, putting her in her seventies or thereabouts based on the style of clothes.
He headed back to his front porch and sat, waiting. Doc Winters was soon replaced by the coroner. Soon, another law enforcement officer arrived. This one had a bigger camera. The man didn't meet Eric's eyes and didn't bother to introduce himself.
But then, the sheriff hadn't offered a name, either. But Eric knew who he was. Rich Mallery. His family had settled the area, alongside Eric's family. Rich's family stayed in the area and went into law enforcement, politics and land speculation. Eric's family left for the city and kept law enforcement busy, paid off politicians and watched as blood soaked the land.
Eric's family demanded attention; Eric wanted none of it. He'd been at the cabin two days without a single visitor, a dream come true.
Trust his family to ruin everything.
He wondered which brother, or brother-in-law, was responsible for the Jane Doe in the shed.
* * *
"This is the sixth cop in ten years. It's a cruel world and the good die young."
Ruth Atkins tried not to listen to the words. She also tried not to turn around and stare at the speaker.
"I mean," the woman continued, "I wouldn't let my boy be a cop."
Finally, Ruth recognized the speaker and understood the shrill speculation. Her boy, Ruth knew, was unemployed and lived at home, at the age of fifty.
"And, I can't believe that now they allow women to be police officers. Why, in my day "
Ruth turned around and glared.
The older woman smirked. "Well, let's just say that if I needed someone to protect me, I'd sure expect the cop who showed up to at least be taller than I am."
A swoosh of air escaped from between Ruth's teeth as she turned back to face the minister and listen to his eulogy. Eventually, her breathing returned to normal. She'd attended more than one anger-management session during the two years since she joined the police department. The department would be relieved to know the time had been well spent.
Once she had her breathing under control, Ruth stood, made her way to the aisle of the church and headed for the ladies'restroom where she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. The sixth cop in ten years. The fourth in the last two years.
Jose Santos, a veteran of the police force for twenty-five years, beloved father of five, had hesitated when faced with shooting the car thief who palled around with his only daughter.
Two families destroyed: Jose's and the single mother who raised the shooter—a fifteen-year-old boy.
Jose's wife was burying her husband. Ruth was still looking for hers. In Ruth's case, there was no closure. Dustin was still listed as missing. No justice. Gracia Santos, Jose's wife, knew the murderer, could look the boy in the face and cry for justice.
But instead, Gracia, a Christian, cried for both her husband and the teenager.
Ruth had no compassion for the family of those who murdered her husband. She blamed the Santellises, and they were evil. Ruth would not, could not, shed a tear for the death of the two Santellis boys she blamed for Dustin's disappearance. They'd been shot just a year ago on the front steps of a Phoenix jail, and Ruth had been glad.
Nothing would change Ruth's mind about that, not even the sound of "Amazing Grace" reverberating from the main auditorium. She opened her eyes hearing the bathroom door open. A face peeked around the corner.
"You okay?" Rosa Packard asked.
"I just need a moment. Really."
Rosa nodded before retreating, the way a best friend should.
Walking to the sink, Ruth grabbed a few hand towels and dabbed at her eyes. Fine time to have a pity party. The whole world, well, at least everyone at the Fifth Street Church, would know she'd been crying in the bathroom.
Last time she'd cried in this bathroom had been eight years ago. At only twenty, and with only twenty minutes to go until she walked down the aisle and said "I Do" to the love of her life, she'd stood in this very place and wept.
Not because she was sad, oh, no, but because she was about to enter the fairy-tale life she'd dreamed of. She was marrying a good man; she was going to have a good life.
And she had, for five years.