Valley of the Lost
By Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2009 Vicki Delany
All right reserved.
The setting sun had slipped behind the mountains, and in the bottom of the valley, long ago carved out of ancient rock by the swift-moving river, the summer's night was hot and close. The scent of cedar and pine, decaying undergrowth, rich earth filled the air, and further up the street a pack of young people, sounding as if they'd already hit the bars, laughed at nothing at all.
Lucy Smith, known to everyone as Lucky, stood at the back door of the Trafalgar Women's Support Center enjoying a rare moment of peace before walking to her car. It had been a long, hectic day, but a good one, and she was pleased with herself. Today she'd accomplished something. For once, the women seemed to be paying attention to what she'd been trying to teach them.
Lucky drove an ancient Pontiac Firefly. It was parked at the back, in a small gravel clearing chopped out of wild grass and weeds up against the bottom of the mountain. As she unlocked the car door, a soft cry came from the bushes. A cat? Lucky climbed into her car, paying it no further attention. The heat of the day still clung to the worn seats, and as she put the key into the ignition, she rolled down the window to try to catch a bit of a breeze. She was about to turn the key, to start up the engine, when she heard it again.
Definitely not a cat.
It sounded like a baby. How odd.
Lucky reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a flashlight. She flicked the light on as she stepped out of the car, and pointed it into the dense brush beyond the parking area. The thin beam illuminated dead leaves, broken branches, gray and white rocks. A single black sock. A blue can of Kokanee beer shone in the light.
And a small yellow package, lying on the ground about ten yards inside the woods.
Lucky tried to focus; the bundle shifted, and cried out.
She pushed her way through the undergrowth, heedless of branches reaching for her face and scratching at her bare arms. She dropped to her knees, pushing a sharp stone into her flesh. She shifted to get off the rock, and shone her light into the folds of the yellow blanket. A scrunched up white face blinked back at her, trying to shut out the sudden brightness. Tiny fists waved in the air.
"Oh, my heavens. You poor thing." Lucky stuffed the flashlight into the elastic waistband of her short, baggy pants and reached for the baby. "What are you doing out here all by yourself?" She peeled back the blanket. The baby was small, no more than a few months old. He, Lucky guessed it was a he as it was dressed in a blue sleeper, opened his mouth and yelled. He was clean and at first glance appeared to be healthy. His clear eyes were dark blue, his cheeks pink and chubby, his head bald, and his cry lusty.
"We'd better get you inside. They call me Lucky, but you're the lucky one. Good thing I found you, and not a bear or a cougar. Where's your mom?"
Lucky gathered the baby into her arms, and stood up. The flashlight dropped to the ground and rolled over, throwing its light deeper into the woods, touching the edges of a dark shape underneath a large red cedar. With a pounding heart, Lucky scooped the flashlight up. She clutched the baby, now screaming with gusto, to her chest and took a few hesitant steps forward.
A woman lay on her back. Her eyes were open wide, but she wasn't looking at the branches swaying overhead or the stars barely visible through the thick canopy of branches, leaves, and needles. Shifting the baby in her right arm, Lucky crouched down and touched the base of the woman's neck. Her skin was cold, and nothing moved under Lucky's shaking fingers.
* * *
Constable Molly Smith's boot slipped in a puddle of vomit. Instinctively her head jerked back to help her keep her balance and the man's fist connected with her mouth. Her head spun, and she tasted hot sweet blood, but she managed to keep her footing. She ducked in case a second blow was coming. Dave Evans grabbed the man from behind and wrenched his arms back. "That's enough of that."
The man was big, about six foot three with the weight to match, and arms bulging with muscle and tattoos. His hair was long, thin, gray, and greasy. The moment Evans touched him, all the aggression fled. "Hey, I'm sorry, buddy. I didn't mean to hit the lady. It was an accident, right? Can't we forget all about it?"
"I don't think so," Evans said, snapping handcuffs on meaty wrists. "You okay, Constable Smith?"
She touched her lip. Her fingers came away streaked with blood. "No harm done," she said, inwardly seething. Nothing Evans would like more than to think he'd saved her from the big bad guy.
The crowd shifted and, sensing that the fun was over, those at the back began to move away. Flashing blue and red lights washed over them, making it look as though they'd all gathered for a party.
Smith and Evans had been called to the Bishop and the Nun, a cheap faux-English pub on Pine Street. Not even nine o'clock, but on a hot Thursday evening in Trafalgar, British Columbia, the bars were filling up fast and plenty of the patrons had begun the night's drinking in the middle of the afternoon.
Two men had been thrown out of the bar, told to take their fight outside. When they did a crowd gathered quickly, eager for excitement. At first the fight consisted of nothing other than a lot of obscenities, a bit of pushing and shoving, verbal threats and aggressive posturing. But as the police car rounded the far corner, colored lights flashing and siren on, one of the bystanders had broken away from the crowd, staggered toward the antagonists, and vomited all over the smaller guy's shoes. He took offense to that, and sent the bewildered drunk to the sidewalk with a strong right hook. One of the man's friends, or maybe just a stranger happy at the opportunity to instigate a good street brawl, ran forward, and the fight began in earnest.
The police rushed in to break it up. Whereupon Smith slipped and the big man punched her in the face.
Everyone stepped back. Once a police officer was involved, the crowd seemed to think, the fight was no longer harmless fun. Someone helped the vomiter up off the sidewalk, and the tattooed man tried to make his apologies.
"Save it for the judge," Evans said.
They stuffed the big man into the back of the car. His original opponent, the guy who'd thrown the first punch, had melted into the long shadows between the buildings the moment the police car came to a halt.
Evans took their prisoner, still expressing his regrets, downstairs to be processed into custody, while Smith went to the women's washroom to check her face.
A thin line of blood ran from the left corner of her mouth down her chin, making her look like Dracula's bride after a feast at the castle. She put her hat on the counter and scrubbed the blood off her face. It didn't look too bad, she thought, studying herself in the mirror, but her lip would be sporting a sizeable lump tomorrow.
She ran her fingers through her short blond hair.
She'd worn her hair long until a few weeks ago, tied into a French braid when she was in uniform.
Graham had liked her hair long; he liked to play with it, wrap it around his fingers, put the ends in his mouth and pretend to chew. She'd kept it long after he'd died, but recently she decided she needed a more professional looking haircut, so she'd ordered the hairdresser to chop it all off.
After which, she'd gone home and cried.
Her radio crackled. "911 call from 317 Cottonwood Street. Lady says she found a body. VSA." Vital signs absent.
Smith put her hat back on her head, and dried her hands on the seat of her pants as she ran out the door.
* * *
Most of the clients of the Trafalgar Women's Support Center were young mothers. The center kept stores of supplies for anything a child might need. Lucky had placed the crying baby in a blanket-lined laundry basket, put the kettle on to boil to make up a bottle of formula, and was searching through the storage cupboard for disposable diapers when she heard the siren.
She'd called 911 from her cell phone, unlocked the back door of the center, and carried the baby inside. The face of the woman lying so still in the woods was unmarked, and Lucky had recognized it. Ashley. Lucky couldn't remember Ashley's last name, nor the name of the baby. Something old-fashioned, yet trendy at the same time.
Red lights flashed through the narrow front windows. The siren cut off in mid-note.
Lucky picked up the crying baby and went to the door.
Her own baby was climbing the stairs, talking into the radio at her shoulder. One hand rested on the ugly black Glock at her hip, and the other carried a big flashlight. A street light caught the blue stripe running down the uniform pant leg.
"Mom?" Constable Molly Smith said. "Did you call 911?"
"What I found ... It's ... she's out back. I told them to send an ambulance, but there's no need. She's in no hurry, now, poor dear."
"Show me what you found."
"Have you been in an accident? There's a cut on your lip."
"Never mind me, Mom. Where's the body?"
Lucky led the way through the center, and out the back door. The day had been hot and humid, but welcome night breezes were flowing down off the mountains. A skunk had defended itself while she was inside, leaving its scent on the night air. She pointed into the woods, beyond the edge of the parking lot. "Through there. She's dead. I checked, Moonlight."
Another siren cut the silence of the residential streets.
"That's the ambulance. Go and meet them, Mom. Tell them to follow me." The strong flashlight threw a circle of yellow light toward the woods.
Lucky watched as Moonlight stepped off the grass into the trees. She tried to act tough, but she was a very new police officer, still on probation, and Lucky knew it couldn't be easy for her coming across dead bodies. Moonlight had never talked about it, but she'd had a hard time dealing with finding Reginald Montgomery last month in a back alley with his head bashed in.
No time to worry about that now. Lucky met the paramedics at the door and sent them out the back. Knowing that more people would soon follow, she left the door open. She changed the baby's diaper, it was a boy all right, and fixed a bottle. While waiting for the formula to cool, she stood at the back door, bouncing the infant in her arms and watching the activity in the woods. The paramedics hadn't come rushing out, bearing a laden stretcher, and Lucky knew she'd been right—Ashley was dead.
She was settling down at the kitchen table, baby cradled in one arm, bottle in hand, when John Winters walked through the door. He wore a pair of loose-fitting jeans, colorful shirt, and black jacket. His brown eyes opened fractionally wider and his neatly-trimmed silver mustache twitched as he recognized her.
"They're all out back," Lucky said, with a nod toward the door. The baby latched onto the bottle's nipple and began sucking for all he was worth.
"Were you the one who called us, Lucky?"
"I have to ask you to stay until I've had a look round and talked to Molly."
"Nice baby," he said.
"I'll be back."
Lucky smiled down at the baby. His eyes were closed and he was sucking hard.
* * *
Sergeant John Winters left Lucky Smith nursing a baby and walked outside. Constable Brad Noseworthy was setting up lights at the point where the mountain met the gravel and grass of the woman's center. The RCMP had been contacted and Winters knew they were on their way. He'd left Dave Evans on the street, stringing up crime scene tape and telling the neighbors, politely, to mind their own business.
Molly Smith stood to one side, holding a lamp while Noseworthy decided where to place it. He was the Trafalgar City Police's only qualified crime-scene investigator, but he'd step back when the RCMP forensic team arrived.
"Show me what you have, Molly," Winters said.
She handed Noseworthy his lamp and ducked into the trees. About fifteen yards in, a small clearing gleamed under strong white lights as if ready for its Broadway debut. A body lay on the ground. It was on its back, looking up. Winters crouched down. He felt Smith standing behind him.
"Move anything, Molly?" he asked, his eyes running across the dead woman's body. She wore a sleeveless red cotton tank-top over a multi-colored skirt, and black ballet-type shoes. The clothes appeared to be undisturbed, the skirt folded across her bare legs as if she'd taken a moment to rest before continuing on her way. She was short, probably not more than five foot one or two, and very, very thin. Colorful beads were woven through the strands of her long dark hair. A red and black tattoo of a dragon curled around her right ankle.
The remains of old scars dotted her bare arms. Beside her, a needle lay in the dry, brown bed of leaves.
"Drugs," he said. "Did you move anything, Molly?"
"Nope. Just touched her neck looking for a pulse. She's getting cold. The paramedics came right after me and checked her out, but they didn't move her much. Didn't have to."
"Your mother called it in. She found the body?"
Winters' right knee cracked as got to his feet.
"Recognize her?" he asked. It wasn't a strange question. In a town the size of Trafalgar the police knew almost everyone, particularly the modern-day hippies, like this girl, who hung around Big Eddie's Coffee Emporium, the corners of Front Street, or the bars on Pine Street.
"I think I've seen her. Just around town. Never in any trouble, far as I know. Do you, um, have any idea what happened here, John?"
"I do. But I'm not going to speculate. And neither should you."
Her face tightened and he stifled a grin. Molly Smith had the potential to become a good police officer. But she was sometimes too quick to forget she was very young and very inexperienced. He hadn't liked her when he'd first met her, mistaking her enthusiasm for ineptitude. She'd proven herself. Once. But she still had a long way to go.
"What happened to your face?"
"I hope the other guy looks worse."
"No. But he's spending the night in the cells contemplating the error of his ways."
It was fully dark now. Headlights turned into the parking area behind the center. Doors slammed and men spoke and shapes passed in front of the lights.
Corporal Ron Gavin of the RCMP strode over; he and Winters shook hands. The Mountie nodded at Smith. "Coroner's right behind me," he said. "Saw her in my rear view mirror."
"I'm going inside," Winters said. "To talk to the witness." He gestured to Smith to follow him out of the woods. Gavin needed room to work.
Smith pulled off her hat and rubbed at her head. Winters didn't care much for the new short haircut. It was cut about two or three inches long, all over, and either stood out from her head in spikes or was flattened by the hat. She was pretty, tall and lean and fair, with wide blue eyes and hair the color of summer corn. The new hair style made her look even younger, and more vulnerable, than the neat braid. Like the sort of London street urchin Charles Dickens wrote about.
"Is your mother looking after one of her grandkids?" Winters asked.
"My mother? No. It certainly isn't mine and to the best of my knowledge my brother hasn't spawned lately. I assume it belongs to one of the clients. That's what the center's for, mostly. They teach new mothers how to care for their babies, and help them access resources and stuff."
"But they're closed." The sign beside the front door had given the hours and an emergency phone number.
"Someone left it behind, maybe?" Smith said, sounding not too interested.
"Don't make assumptions, Molly. Your mother found a dead woman, and now she's minding a baby. She seems calm about all of this."
"I figured she was busy with the baby."
"Has anyone contacted your father?"
"Not me. Should I?" "I think your mother needs some care, Molly. She found a body in the woods and she's showing as much emotion as if it had been an abandoned shoe."
Smith pulled out her cell phone.
"Take Dave's place on the street, and tell him to come inside and join Mrs. Smith and me."
Excerpted from Valley of the Lost by Vicki Delany Copyright © 2009 by Vicki Delany. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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