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The black skid marks on the highway ended abruptly at a shattered guardrail. There was only empty space beyond.
Sheriff Mandy Scott maneuvered her white SUV to a stop before the break and mentally prepared herself for what lay over the edge.
It wouldn't be good.
Someone had found one of the worst spots in Morrison County to run his or her car off the road.
Mandy silenced her siren but left the light bar flashing. Grasping the radio mic, she reported in. "Dispatch, I'm on the scene."
Donna Clareborn, the county dispatcher, replied, "Copy that, Sheriff. Was Mr. Tobin right? Is there a fatality?"
"I don't know yet."
The accident had been called in by an elderly local rancher. Mandy saw his green pickup truck sitting a dozen yards down the highway, but Emmett was nowhere in sight.
"Fire rescue and EMS are on the way." A slight quiver in Donna's normally professional voice revealed her apprehension.
Mandy felt the same way. In a small community like Timber Wells, the victim could easily be someone they knew.
Grabbing her first-aid kit and fire extinguisher, Mandy left her vehicle. The early morning wind greeted her with the fresh scent of prairie grass and spring wildflowers before the stench of burning oil overpowered it. Mandy looked over the broken railing into the ravine.
Thirty feet below, a crumpled red car rested upside down in the dry creek bed. Spirals of gray smoke rose from the mangled front end.
Emmett Tobin sat in the grass a few feet from the vehicle. His gray head was bowed, his shoulders slumped. He held his sweat-stained Stetson between his hands.
Mandy sucked in a steadying breath, then made her way down the steep rocky slope.
Emmett lookedup at her approach. "She's gone, Sheriff. There weren't nothing I could do."
Mandy laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "You stayed with her, Emmett. That's something. I'll take it from here."
She didn't doubt his findings, but she had to check for herself. Leaving him, she approached the car. The air near the vehicle reeked of gasoline, burned rubber and hot oil. She cast a worried glance at the smoke curling out of the engine block.
Moving around the car, Mandy found the driver's side door had been flung open. A woman with short blond hair lay sprawled on her back beside it. She wore jeans and a bloodstained yellow shirt.
Kneeling beside the body, Mandy checked for a pulse and found none.
"Sheriff, you'd better get away from that car," Emmett called out sharply.
Mandy glanced up to see the smoke from the engine had become a thick black column with flames flickering at the base. It was then she heard a whimpera tiny cry almost lost in the wind.
Was there someone still inside?
Mandy aimed her extinguisher at the burning engine. "Emmett, I need your help!"
Hurrying to her side, Emmett accepted the red canister Mandy thrust at him. Leaving him to deal with the flames, she knelt and peered inside the crushed vehicle. All she saw was a wadded-up blanket behind the passenger's seat, but she heard another muffled cry.
The driver's body was blocking Mandy's way. Slipping her hands under the woman's arms, Mandy dragged the body a few feet away. She could hear sirens now. The fire truck was almost here.
Emmett continued aiming bursts of CO at the engine. The flames leaped higher. One extinguisher wouldn't be enough. The whole car could go up any second.
Breathing a quick prayer, Mandy ducked inside and began wiggling across the ceiling of the upside-down vehicle.
"Sheriff, what are you doing?" Emmett yelled. "I looked in. I didn't see nobody else."
"I hear crying. It sounds like a baby."
Broken glass covered everything. It bit into Mandy's elbows and stomach as she crawled. She could feel the heat of the fire. Smoke stung her eyes and scorched her lungs with each breath she was forced to take.
Behind the passenger's seat, she pushed aside a patchwork quilt and discovered a baby buckled into a car seat that had come loose. The child whimpered pitifully.
"You need to get out of there," Emmett shouted.
Barely able to move in the tight space, Mandy worked frantically to unbuckle the remaining straps holding the child in the seat. Fear made her fingers clumsy.
Don't think about the fire. Get this child out.
The hiss and pop of the flames grew louder. The metal in the roof supports groaned as the weight of the car compressed them. If they crumpled a few more inches she would be trapped.
Tugging again at the fastener, she wished she had a knife, anything to cut the nylon straps.
God, please let me save this child.
Finally, the reluctant buckle clicked open. As Mandy pulled the baby loose, he cried out in pain.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, swaddling the blanket over him to protect him from the smoke. Cradling him close, she began to wiggle backward.
The heat of the engine fire singed her face and neck. She knew the smell of scorched cotton was coming from her uniform. With a loud metallic snap, the car settled lower.
The baby stopped crying, but she didn't dare unwrap him to see if he was okay. They were almost out of time.
"Please, God, only a little bit more."
She had her legs out when suddenly she felt hands grabbing her boots. An instant later, someone was pulling her free.
Emmett, having abandoned the empty extinguisher, helped her to her feet. They both turned and ran. With a deafening boom, the gas tank exploded and the flames engulfed the vehicle.
When they reached a safe distance, Mandy sank to her knees in the grass and stared at the blazing car.
"That was a near thing," Emmett wheezed beside her, bracing his hands on his knees.
"Much too close."
She looked down at the child she held and uncovered his face. To her relief he was still breathing. She sent a silent prayer of thanks.
The county fire department truck had arrived on the highway above followed by an ambulance and her undersheriff, Fred Lindholm. The fire crew quickly sprayed a thick layer of white foam over the burning vehicle. After a few tense minutes, the flames were beaten down.
Mandy sat rocking the baby while the EMS crew checked the driver. The men exchanged pointed looks and gave a brief shake of their heads.
Looking down at the child she held, Mandy's heart went out to him. Poor little baby. Was the woman his mother? Where was his father? Did he have anyone in the world to care for him?
Dressed in a blue-and-white sleeper, he looked to be a little boy maybe four or five months old. She combed her fingers through the silky fine blond curls on his head. "I wish I could have saved her, too."
Fred, a burly man in his late fifties, arrived at her side huffing with exertion. "I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw you crawling out of that burning car. Talk about a stupid stunt!"
Fred rarely missed a chance to criticize her, but she was too emotionally spent to defend her actions.
"You're bleeding," he pointed out, his tone softening slightly.
Glancing down, she saw blood on her sleeves. "I must have cut myself on the glass."
One of the EMS crew came to check the baby. Mandy bit her lower lip, reluctant to give him up. Holding the child kept her hands from shaking.
It was hard not to think about how easily they both could have died.
At the paramedic's gentle coaxing, she gave the child over, but noticed how empty her arms felt without his weight. She clasped her hands around her knees to disguise their trembling.
After rolling up Mandy's sleeves, a second paramedic cleaned her cuts, wound a roll of gauze around both her elbows and secured them with tape. She listened to his instructions on keeping the wounds clean and dry without comment. When he was done, Mandy rose to her feet, happy to find her legs were steady enough to stand.
She needed to get to work. There was an accident to investigate, reports to file, next of kin to be notified. Keeping busy was the best way to keep her mind off her close call.
Turning to her undersheriff, she said, "Get started with the scene, Fred. I want to know how fast she was going when she hit that railing. I'm going to take Emmett's statement."
She climbed the rocky slope to where the rancher was sitting in his pickup. When she reached him, she offered her hand. "Thanks for all your help, Emmett. I need to ask you a few questions for my accident report, but it shouldn't take long. Then you'll be free to go."
"It wasn't an accident, Sheriff."
That got her full attention. "What do you mean?"
He pointed to a hilltop off to the west of the road. "I was in the pasture, putting out protein blocks for my cows. I heard a crash, and when I looked this way, I saw a dark pickup flying down the road beside that car. Plain as day, he hit her again, and that was when she went off the road."
"You're saying it was deliberate? Did you get a license plate number?"
"They were too far away. The truck stopped and a fella got out. He walked back and looked down at her, then he ran to his truck and took off."
Mandy pulled a gray notebook from her hip pocket and flipped it open. "You said a dark pickup. Was it black, blue? What model? Ford, Chevy?"
"My eyes aren't as good as they used to be. It wasn't light enough for me to see the color clear. I think it was a black Ford, but I can't be sure."
"Can you describe the man you saw?"
"He was a white guy. Tallish. He had on a dark cowboy hat."
Tallish with a cowboy hat. Emmett had just described two-thirds of the men in her county. Cowboys were as common as fleas at a dog park here in the Kansas Flint Hills where ranching was the main occupation. And ninety-nine percent of the men drove pickups.
"Which way did he go?"
Fred drew her attention with a shout. He held up a black purse. Mandy excused herself and walked over to her officer.
Fred handed her the pocketbook. "This must have been thrown out of the car. The vehicle has Sedgwick County plates. I'm having Donna run them now."
Inside the cheap vinyl handbag, Mandy found a few cosmetics, a tan wallet and a date book. Opening the wallet, she located a driver's license. The photo matched the dead driver. Her name was Judy Bowen, age twenty-five.
Only two years younger than I am.
The license listed a Wichita address. Mandy hoped it was a current one. It would make it easier to notify next of kin.
Also in the wallet were two pictures of the baby. Mandy turned one over. Colin, four weeks old, was written on the back. She glanced toward the ambulance. So his name was Colin. It was a good strong name.
Other than thirty-three dollars and some change, there was nothing else of interest in the wallet. Mandy pulled out the date book, opening it to today's date.
A notation said, Meet Garrett at the ranch.
Mandy had lived in Timber Wells for the past eight months, but Fred had lived here all his life and he'd worked for the previous sheriff. She held out the book. "It appears the driver was Judy Bowen. Does the name Garrett ring a bell?"
Fred's eyebrows shot up. "Sure. Garrett Bowen lives about ten miles on the other side of town. She's his ex-wife. She left him about a year ago."
An interesting bit of information. "Did you know her?"
"I picked her up for possession of meth right after she moved out of his place. She pleaded out for community service, never did any time. She left town after that. I never heard anything more about her."
"What about the ex-husband?"
"I seem to recall they were both busted on drug charges down in Oklahoma a few years ago. I'd have to look it up. He hasn't stepped out of line in this countythat I know of but I never did trust him."
"He's got a funny way of looking at you. Like he's looking through you. It ain't right."
"Emmett says the car was deliberately run off the road."
Fred handed back the book. "According to those skid marks she was heading away from his ranch not toward it. Maybe her visit with her ex didn't go so well."
"I'm thinking the same thing. What else do you know about him?"
"Not much. He lives by himself. I see his truck and trailer going through town at least once a week."
"He doesn't happen to drive a dark-colored Ford, does he?"
Fred nodded. "Come to think of it, he does.
Mandy watched as the coroner's hearse pulled up behind the squad cars. "Fred, notify the Highway Patrol. I'd like them to process the car."
"You think I can't do it? I've been working accidents since before you were born."
Rather than take offense, she chose to mollify him. "That's why I want you to stay and see that it gets done right. You know as well as I do we'll get the crime scene reports back faster if we let the KHP assist us on this."
"And what are you gonna to be doing?"
"I'm going to get cleaned up, then I'm going to pay Mr. Bowen a visit. He wouldn't be the first ex-husband to settle a marital score with murder."
Mandy knew that all to well.
Garrett pulled a bent nail from the pouch at his waist and laid it on top of the wooden fence post. With careful taps of his hammer, he straightened it. Using his elbow to brace the next board against the post, he hit the nail, hoping it wouldn't bend. It went in straight and sure.
"See that, Wiley? All it takes is finesse." He glanced at the shaggy black-and-white mutt sitting near his feet. Wiley cocked his head to one side and wagged his crooked tail.
Garrett straightened another rusty nail, but it bent like a wet noodle when he tried to hammer it in. He tossed it into a nearby bucket of similar failures. The dog dashed over to nose the contents.
"Laugh at me, Wiley, and you'll go to bed without supper."
The dog leaped to his hind legs and pawed the air as he turned in an excited circle and yipped. The words breakfast, lunch or supper all brought about the same reaction. Wiley had a thing about food.
"Just kidding, buddy." Having suffered that punishment more times than he could count as a boy, Garrett would never inflict it on Wiley. He and the little stray had a lot in common. They both knew what it was to be beaten, hungry and abandoned.
"I may not have enough money for new lumber, but I reckon I can afford kibble."