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"I didn't complain when I was a private. I didn't complain while serving three tours in Afghanistan. These guys have no clue how to make life miserable for someone like me. I can take a few icy sidewalks and midnight shifts."
Jake Craig skidded on the slushy cement. Digging his steel-toed boots into the ice, he balanced on the slippery incline before he embarrassed himself by slamming to the ground. His partnersitting in the nice warm carprobably had his smartphone ready, just waiting for him to fall flat on his butt so he could record it all.
The cold of the early morning felt good compared to the many long, hot desert memories he had from six years of war. North Texas cold didn't compare to the bitter mountain freezing when he thought he'd lose his toes. Yeah, he could take his turn walking in the cold. At least this time he didn't have seventy pounds of gear to carry.
On the Dallas P.D. a little over a year, he'd recently transferred to the homicide division. The promotion raised more than a few eyebrows when he jumped from rookie to detectiveskipping everything in between, including the right to do so. Not too amazing for former military personnel. His fellow P.D. officers knew about department politics where qualified ex-military got bumped to the head of the list. It didn't keep them from resenting him or make being the butt of their jokes any easier.
Just like now when he'd been directed to search for a dead body. An anonymous 911 call claimed there was a dead woman at the lake moving around in the bushes. He'd asked dispatch to repeat and again the claim was that a dead woman was moving around in the bushes.
"You go see if you can find that ghost," his partner had ordered when they'd arrived. He'd leaned his head against the headrest and shut his eyes. "I'm going to keep the heater running on these old bones, partner. You love the cold, don't cha, partner?"
"Sure, Owens. I could stay out here all freakin' day." Okay, maybe his reply had been a slight exaggeration. Then again, he hadn't actually replied, just mumbled after he'd left the car. He would continue to accept the late shifts, practical jokes and crank calls, just like he had this morning.
"I'm a freakin' machine." No one could break down the machine at work.
The ghost was probably a drunk trying to get out of the snowfall, but it had to be checked out. What if the call was just a staged joke? Could Owens have arranged for a "ghost" to be at the spillway?
It was the perfect setup. Someone could pop out of the bushes, try to surprise him, and he might even lose his footing. "I will not fall and have that humiliation blasted across the internet. I'll never hear the end of it." Those guys knew he'd be the one out here verifying ghosts don't exist. And he wouldn't put it past any of them to have cooked up this entire charade.
As long as they dished it out, he'd take it. The cold, searching for a ghost, whatever, he'd keep at the job. He wanted the job. He had nothing else but the job. He wouldn't let it slip through his fingers like the rest of his life.
An early morning search of the underbrush around White Rock Lake beat picking up Friday-night drunks from Deep Ellum any night of the week. Homicide detectives wore civilian clothes, a definite improvement from the street cops. Man, he was glad to be out of a uniform. Any uniform.
His years as a marine MP didn't seem to make a difference to his coworkers. Maybe they thought he was more qualified to deal with drunks than legitimate homicides. If they only knew what he wanted to forget.
The beam from the flashlight reflected off a pair of red eyes. The animal didn't bolt. Jake took a step closer to the fence and heard the low whine of a dog.
A black Labrador was under the brush on the other side of the six-foot security fence. Located just below a large yellow-andorange danger sign, warning that the lake's spillway was nearby.
The leash must have tangled around a limb, pinning the dog to the cold February ground. The pup yelped, whining louder, visibly shaking from the cold. He dropped back to the ground, obviously tired from his struggle for freedom.
"Hang on, now. How'd you get over there?" Just to his right the section of fence was raised off the ground, easy enough for a dog or person to crawl under.
Jake clicked off the light and dropped it in his pocket. Going over the icy fence was a lot cleaner than crawling under like the dog had. He shook the chain-link fence, verifying it could hold his weight, and scaled it in a few seconds, landing on the spillway side with both feet firm in the melting snow.
"So you're the ghost those drunks reported?" He knelt and offered his hand for the Lab to sniff. It quickly licked his fingers. "You're friendly enough. What are you caught on?"
The stubborn dog refused to budge even with encouragement and a gentle tug on his collar. His young bark did some tugging of its own on Jake's hearthe hadn't thought he had one leftearning a smile from a jaded soldier.
He pushed farther into the bushes, conceding that the only way to get the dog loose was to get wet himself. The poor mutt shivered hard enough to knock his tags together. Jake could relate, having been there a time or two.
Working his tall frame closer, his slacks were soaked as the slush seeped through the cloth. The snow that dropped on the back of his neck quickly melted from his body heat and dampened his skin. He slipped his hand around the dog collar and tugged again, receiving a louder howl and whimper.
"Are you hurt, boy? Is that why you can't move? All right, then. I might as well send my coat to the cleaners, too." He stretched onto his belly, sliding forward until he could reach the hindquarters of the dog, which had gone completely still. "What's wrong besides me calling you a boy when you're clearly a girl?"
Nothing felt out of place or broken. The pup's whine was consistent. The harder he pulled her toward freedom, the more the dog pressed backward.
The leash was caught on something or the pup was injured. He pulled hard and he still couldn't get the leash free. Blindly he followed the leather to an icy death grip of fingers, causing him to instantly retreat. His jerky reaction scared the dog, causing her to struggle harder in the dark.
"It's okay, sweetheart. Take it easy and I'll get you out of here." Jake kept a firm grip on the collar, snagged the flashlight from his pocket and flipped the switch to take a closer look at the body.
The glassy look of the dead took him back to Afghanistan. He'd experienced that look more than once in his military career. Male or female, it always twisted his gut.
Then it hit him. The smell of death. Faint, most likely because of the cold, but there wafting into his brain and triggering more memories that he wanted to forget. Once experienced, he could never forget.
The call hadn't been a prank. The woman's coat was covered in white. She'd been there all night. He'd flattened the crime scene getting to the dang dog, which wouldn't or couldn't leave her side.
"Hold on there, girl. I'm not going to hurt you. Give me a second here." He couldn't remove the leash from the body. So he'd have to disconnect the dog.
Expensive leash with a word etched into the wet leather. "Dallas? That your name or just a souvenir?" He kept a grip on the Lab with his left hand and unsnapped the leash from the dog harness with his right.
He crooned, attempting to calm the shivering mass of fur. He peeled his jacket off in the cramped space, the sharp broken twigs poking him with every shrug. He draped Dallas and shoved his coat under the dog's legs. He took one last look into the frozen face. There was something about her, or the situation.
Something he couldn't put a name to. Or maybe just a habit he'd started with the first investigation he'd had as a military cop. He didn't want to make the vow. He had a clean slate but couldn't stop the words. "Whoever did this won't get away. And I'll take care of your pup, ma'am. That's a promise."
Unable to move, Dallas didn't struggle much covered in his jacket. Jake pulled her free, shimmying under the fence instead of scaling it, dragging the pup under after. Then he sat on a fallen tree, holding Dallas in his lap. He began to feel the cold as the wind whipped through the secluded jogging path that viewed the spillway overlook and hit his wet clothes.
Dallas made a unique noise halfway between a howl and whine.
"It'll be okay, girl. We'll find you another owner before too long." He stroked the pup's head and she quieted just a bit. Her tags indicated a rabies vaccination and that she'd been chipped, but they'd need Animal Control to access the information.
Jake tried his radio. Nothing. He took his cell from its carrier on his hip. Nothing. He moved up the hill until he had reception and dialed.
"Dallas 911. What's your emergency?"
"This is Detective Jake Craig, badge 5942. I have an expired subject. Bus required at Garland and Winstead parking lot WTR 114 marker."
"An ambulance has been dispatched to your location. Do you need me to connect you to Homicide?" the dispatcher asked.
"Thanks, but we're already here."
"Understood, Detective Craig."
Protocol required him to ask for an ambulance, but he knew it wasn't necessary. The woman frozen to the ground a couple of feet away was dead and had been most of the night. He'd seen the dead before. Many times over and under too many circumstances to remember them all. He didn't want to remember.
Life was easier when he didn't.
The pup tipped her soggy face up at him, and then rested on his thigh. Jake looked around the crushed crime scene as he dialed his partner's cell. "I don't know about you, Dallas, but it's going to be a helluva long day."
This murder should have been Jake's. He'd discovered that bodyand ruined the crime scene. No one razed him or admonished him for being so stupid.
All of the men thought the dog was great. But it was still his job to control itnot an easy task without a leash. He'd found a silver emergency blanket in the trunk and had fashioned a makeshift rope by slicing the end off.
No words saying he should have left the pup there. Nothing except "four black coffees, Craig," turning him into a glorified errand boy. He had to remember that it was the appropriate place for the rookie team member. He walked to the car with a few laughs and snickers behind his back. His partner hadn't offered the keys. No way he was going to beg, but he could keep the pup warm inside the car while he walked across the street.
A local diner was on the opposite corner. He could handle the errands and understood they came with being the newest team member. He'd dumped enough rookies into the same position himself over the years. He was just ready to move forward, to investigate. He hated being stuck with unimportant things. It gave him too much time to think about the life he'd wanted while in Afghanistan that seemed so far out of his reach.
The tremor he'd forgotten started his hand twitching.
He fisted his fingers and shoved it in his pocket. Out of sight, out of his thoughts. Right along with the dreams he'd had from another time.
"Man alive, it's cold out here." A man waited on the corner to cross Gaston Boulevard, jumping in place to keep warm. "You a cop?"
Jake gave a short nod, not in the mood for curious onlookers. Even those dressed all in black, sturdy shoes and expensive leather gloves. Why was this guy walking anywhere in this weather? Not everyone's a suspect, he said, to quiet the suspicions forming in his head.
This wasn't the Middle East, where he couldn't trust a kid crossing the street or even a middle-aged man dressed in black. The light turned red, the walk light blinked on and they both crossed. The man continued to the convenience store next to the diner, probably after cigarettes, since he'd reeked of nicotine.
Jake entered the old-fashioned diner and stuffed his gloves in his pockets. The place was basically empty except for a pretty raven-haired woman in the back booth. As soon as he looked in her direction, she dropped her lips to the edge of the mug and blew, gingerly sipping and not making eye contact.
Nothing suspicious in a young woman wanting to be left alone by a man covered in mud.
A robust man dressed in a bright red-and-black shirt hurried out of the kitchen. He only needed a white beard to look exactly like an off-duty Santa Claus. "Have a seat anywhere," he said, wiping his hands on the bottom of his flannel plaid shirt.
"I just need five coffees to go, Carl." The Santa named Carl looked surprised to hear his name until Jake pointed at his dangling nameplate stuck on his sleeve. "Don't lose that in someone's breakfast."
The woman in the corner laughed, barely, but it was a sweet sound compared to the silent razing he'd been taking for wrecking the murder scene. Sweet, and it brought a smile to his frozen face.
"I was wonderin' how you knew." Carl reached for the cups and coffeepot. "You want cream or sugar?"
"Blacks all round. Thanks."
"Hey, you with the cops at the lake? A guy came in earlier and said you found a body by the dam."
"Detective Jake Craig, Dallas P.D.," Jake acknowledged, trying to dissuade him from asking more questions. It didn't work.
"So was it a woman, like they say? Was she really all in white? Murdered? Froze to death?"
Everyone, including himself, wanted those answers.
"How long have you been at work today?" he asked. If the counter guy wanted to be chatty, might as well point him in the right direction.
"Been here since 'bout midnight, I think. Took a while in this weather with the roads the way they were. I skidded through two different red lights. Glad you weren't around then."
"How about her?" Jake asked about the woman in the corner.
"Bree? She's been here since I came on board."
"That's a long time to nurse a cup of java."
"Nah, happens all the time. And I think that's her fourth or fifth hot chocolate. She nods off every once in a while."
There was a rolling suitcase against the wall next to her. "She homeless?"
"Naw, nothin' like that. Lost her car, broke down a couple of months back, and she walks everywhere. Does jobs for people in Lakewood, picks up an extra shift around here sometimes. Manager don't mind her sitting there when we ain't busy."
"You said she's been here since midnight?" His victim had already been killed by then.
"Yeah, let me get you a carrier for these. I got a new box of 'em in the back," Carl said, putting the last lid on a large cup.
"How much do I owe you?"
"On the house for cops."
After leaving a five, Jake put his wallet away and leaned against the counter, watching the busy intersection. Predawn joggers, walkers with dogs, people driving by and going about their ordinary day. Busy, yet not a single witness. He took the lid off one cup and poured a good amount of sugar in. He'd need the extra calories today.
While he sipped, he watched, honing his skills, making mental notes. Passing the time like he had for so many years.