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Eight years later
That's what any thought of Chad Robinson's muscular six-foot-two frame, copper hair and green eyes inspired. The sound of his deep voice with its down-home drawl inevitably notched lust up another level, pushing almost-nostalgic warmth in the direction of aching desire. Not a particularly good way to feel about a man I was determined not to fall back in love or in bed with.
So when I answered the phone on a hot, humid evening in mid-June and heard Chad's voice on the line, I kept my thoughts focused on the business at hand, not the memory of his hands. It was a good strategy for ex-lovers who were determined to remain friends.
In the time it had taken me to cross the kitchen and lift the cordless phone from its cradle, Chad had apparently been distracted from his call. When I put the phone to my ear, he was already speaking to someone in the background.
"Yeah. Good idea. The water gets pretty deep in those ditches. As soon as Brooke and her search dog are headed this way, I'll take the southbound stretch and do the same...."
"Hey there," I said by way of greeting, personal issues abruptly irrelevant as the snatch of conversation hinted at the reason for his call. "What's going on?"
Chad's attention returned to the phone. "We've got a missing toddler, Brooke. Family lives northwest of town. The forest is right in their backyard. I checked the map. The house is in Maryville jurisdiction."
As a deputy sheriff for Hardin County, Chad usually patrolled the southern Illinois towns of Humm Wye, Peters Creek, Iron Furnace and everything in between. When no cop was on duty in Maryville, his patrol looped a bit farthersouth to include the town where the two of us had grown up. Undoubtedly, that had happened tonight. Because, at the moment, Maryville's entire police force was off duty and standing barefoot in the middle of her kitchen, considering dinner possibilities.
Chad gave me directions that started at the intersection of two meandering county roads. From there, he described his location in tenths of a mile and natural landmarks.
"How fast can you and Possum get here?" he said. Away from the bluffs of the Ohio River, where the original town had been built, Maryville's ragged boundaries were created by fingers of human habitation jamming deep into the vast Shawnee National Forest. I lived at the tip of one of those fingers. The missing child's home was on another, in an area of expensive, very isolated homes. Even with four-wheel drive and a native's intimate knowledge of the area's back roads...
"I need half an hour," I said, then asked him for details. With the receiver held between my ear and shoulder, I listened to him talk as I walked halfway down the hall to my bedroom. There, I snatched a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved denim shirt from the closet. Though the T-shirt and cutoffs I'd changed into when I'd gone off duty were more appropriate to June's hot and humid weather, they were poor protection against branches and thorns. I wasn't even tempted to change back into my uniform. Maryville's budget paid for one replacement uniform annually. Not quite a year as a rookie cop in the town's newly created one-person department, and I was already out-of-pocket for two uniforms.
But uniform or not, and although Chad was the responding officer, the location of the house meant that I was not just a searcher, I was also the police officer in charge. So I began gathering the information I needed for both those roles as I exchanged shorts for jeans and slipped the long-sleeved shirt over my T-shirt. I clipped my shiny Maryville PD badge onto the shirt's breast pocket.
"When the call came in, I had dispatch contact the forest service and pull some rangers from the Elizabethtown district office," Chad said. "They're searching the immediate area."
"You've already searched the house?"
"Yep. First thing," Chad said matter-of-factly. "Every room, every closet, behind the furniture and under all the beds. I checked the garden shed and the garage, too."
I nodded, pleased by the information. All too often, cops and inexperienced searchers focused their attention on searching areas beyond the house right away, only later discovering a lost child fast asleep in a closet or in the backseat of the family car. Or, more tragically, overcome by heat in an attic crawl space.
"The parents are sure Tina's wandered off," Chad continued. "That's her name. Tina Fisher. Did I tell you she's four years old? The parents have been searching for her since sunset. Sure wish they'd of called us right away."
But they hadn't, which was typical.
Chad provided me with a few more sketchy details as I re-crossed the kitchen, snatched two bottles of lime-flavored Gatorade and a handful of granola bars--tonight's dinner--from refrigerator and pantry. Then I moved my shoulder to hold the phone more securely against my cheek as I sat down on a wooden bench by the back door and laced on a pair of oiled-leather hiking boots.
From his nearby cushion, my old German shepherd, Highball, wagged his tail and woofed twice, ever hopeful that when I put on boots it meant playtime for him. But Highball was too old for this kind of search. Too old, really, for any kind of search.
"Brooke? You still there?"
"Yeah," I said slowly. "Give me a minute...."
I spent that minute trying to figure out if I was seeking feedback from a cop far more experienced than I, one who'd been on the force for three years and in the military police before that. Or if I was simply looking for the kind of reassurance that only an old friend or an ex-lover can provide. In the end, I gave up on sorting it out and simply blurted out what was on my mind.
"What's your feeling on this one, Chad? Do you think she's really lost?"
It was his turn to hesitate. And I suspected that he, too, was recalling a cool day in early spring more than a year earlier.
Back when I was still a civilian, when the county police force knew me as that gal who helped out when folks got lost. Or maybe as the gal that Officer Robinson intended to marry, if only she'd get around to saying yes. Back then, I already suspected that the only possible answer I could give Chad was no. But I still hoped that when folks said that love conquered all, those conquests might include guilt and deception. The reality was, love couldn't stand up to either.
Anyway, on that particular spring day, Highball and I had been called in to look for another missing child. Possum was still more puppy than adult, and the older dog had always been a marvel at in-town searches, capable of ignoring the distractions of traffic and onlookers and the confusion of scents.
We found the body near a sagging post-and-wire fence that did a poor job of separating a run-down trailer court from a field that was shaggy with the remains of last year's corn crop. The two-year-old boy was wrapped in his favorite blanket and buried beneath a pile of damp, winter-rotted leaves nearly the same color as the blood that crusted his hair.
I helped Chad stretch yards of yellow plastic tape from one tree to the next. CRIME SCENE. DO NOT ENTER. Then I walked slowly back to the street where the little boy lived and stood on the curb, just watching, as the ambulance arrived.
Usually, when I found a missing person--living or dead--there was a moment of primitive glee, a flash of adrenaline-spurred triumph. But this time, as the paramedics loaded the tiny body into the ambulance, I could think only of the terrible loss. Then the rear doors were slammed shut and the ambulance pulled away without screaming sirens. Without haste.
The media was at the scene to cover the story of the missing toddler. Reporters and camera crews from papers and TV stations as far away as Evansville and Paducah trolled the crowd, hungry for one more detail, a unique angle, an award-winning photo, a bit of footage dramatic enough to make the national news. Desperate to avoid their prying eyes, I tugged Highball's leash and quickly walked away. When the tattered gray trunk of a century-old sycamore was between me and the media, I stopped, dropped to my knees and buried my face in the thick fur of my dog's ruff.
I thought I was safe, so I wept. But within moments, voices--urgent and demanding--surrounded me, and I feared that my private tears for a dead child would make someone's news story complete. Then, unexpectedly, Chad was there. He hunkered down beside Highball and me and wrapped his arms around both of us. His snarled commands had kept the reporters at bay.
Now, another young child was missing.
I stood by the back door, looking out its window, waiting for Chad's reply.
"I don't know, Brooke. I really don't. The parents seem real upset, but..."
His words trailed off as he left unspoken the reality we both understood. Upset parents didn't mean that one of them hadn't murdered their child.
I sighed, fingered my badge for a moment. My job no longer ended with the rescue or recovery of a victim. If Tina was dead, my responsibility was to find out how and who and maybe why. Any tears would have to wait.
"Finding Tina is a priority," I said. "But if you haven't already told them, would you please remind the rangers that we could be dealing with a crime? If they find the child dead, tell them not to move her body. I know they'll have to check for vitals. But after that, they need to back off and leave the scene as undisturbed as possible. And Chad, maybe assign one of the rangers to sit with the Fishers. Call it moral support, but don't let them do any cleaning up that might impede a murder investigation, okay?"
In all likelihood, Chad didn't need me to tell him any of that, either. And I understood that, whether they knew what to do or not, a lot of seasoned male cops would have resented taking direction from a female and a small town's rookie police officer. But Chad and I had never had a problem where our professional lives were concerned. When I'd first pinned on a badge, we'd worked out the ground rules. Almost a year later and, despite the recent upheaval in our personal relationship, those rules and our friendship still worked.
In this situation, the rule was simple. My jurisdiction. My responsibility. Chad apparently also remembered the rule and responded accordingly.
"Will do," he said. "Another county cop is on the way to back me up, so I'll have her keep an eye on the parents. Anything else?"
"I don't think so," I said, my tone inviting feedback. Apparently, Chad had no advice to give.
"Then see you soon," he said and disconnected.
Out in the kennel area and seemingly oblivious to the heat, Highball's replacement was bouncing around on the other side of a six-foot-tall chain-link fence and barking up a storm. The young dog's excitement was most likely prompted by one of his namesakes searching for grubs in the woodpile.
"He walks like an old fat possum," Gran had observed as my new German shepherd puppy waddled his way across the room to greet her. And though he'd grown up to be a graceful and athletic dog, the undignified nickname stuck. Possum.
I turned away from the window to pick up a powerful compact flashlight from the far corner of the kitchen counter.
Everything else I needed, including my webbing belt and its assortment of small packs, was already in the white SUV that doubled as Maryville's only squad car and my personal vehicle. That was a fairly standard arrangement for small-town police departments.
Customizing the SUV to accommodate a dog wasn't. But the city council members had observed that my volunteer work to locate the lost, complete with search-and-rescue dogs, was just as important to the citizens of Maryville as the job they'd now be paying me for. So the modifications to the SUV had been made, and I'd been grateful.
"Come on. Kennel time," I murmured to Highball.
His kennel area was outside, adjacent to Possum's, and going there always meant a meal. Or a treat. And a tennis ball to chew on. Highball raised his graying head, rose slowly to his feet and wagged his tail as he joined me at the back door.
I pulled a ball cap over my cropped brown curls, then reached into the stoneware bowl on the kitchen counter and snatched up the keys to my squad car.
I was ready to go.