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The first in a gripping new series by Paula Munier, A Borrowing of Bones is full of complex twists, introducing a wonderful new voice for mystery readers and dog lovers.
Grief and guilt are the ghosts that haunt you when you survive what others do not….
After their last deployment, when she got shot, her fiancé Martinez got killed and his bomb-sniffing dog Elvis got depressed, soldier Mercy Carr and Elvis were both sent home, her late lover’s last words ringing in her ears: “Take care of my partner.”
Together the two former military police—one twenty-nine-year-old two-legged female with wounds deeper than skin and one handsome five-year-old four-legged Malinois with canine PTSD—march off their grief mile after mile in the beautiful remote Vermont wilderness.
Even on the Fourth of July weekend, when all of Northshire celebrates with fun and frolic and fireworks, it’s just another walk in the woods for Mercy and Elvis—until the dog alerts to explosives and they find a squalling baby abandoned near a shallow grave filled with what appear to be human bones.
U.S. Game Warden Troy Warner and his search and rescue Newfoundland Susie Bear respond to Mercy’s 911 call, and the four must work together to track down a missing mother, solve a cold-case murder, and keep the citizens of Northshire safe on potentially the most incendiary Independence Day since the American Revolution.
It’s a call to action Mercy and Elvis cannot ignore, no matter what the cost.
About the Author
Paula Munier is the author of the bestselling Plot Perfect, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, Writing with Quiet Hands, and Fixing Freddie: A True Story of a Boy, a Mom, and a Very, Very Bad Beagle. She was inspired to write A Borrowing of Bones, the first Mercy and Elvis mystery, by the hero working dogs she met through MissionK9Rescue, her own Newfoundland retriever mix rescue Bear, and a lifelong passion for crime fiction. She lives in New Hampshire with her family, Bear, and a torbie tabby named Ursula.
Read an Excerpt
Grief and guilt are the ghosts that haunt you when you survive what other's do not. Mercy Carr survived, and so did Sergeant Martinez's dog. Nearly a year after her best friend died in Afghanistan, she rose at dawn and took Elvis on another long hike through the Vermont woods. A tired dog was a good dog. At least that's what the sergeant used to say.
Good was a relative term. Mercy was not Martinez, and Elvis knew it. The bomb-sniffing Belgian shepherd missed his handler and his mission. Just as she did. Every morning they marched off their grief mile after mile in the mountains, where the cool greens of the forest could chase away the dark ghosts of the desert, at least until night fell.
But not today. Today the wilderness held a hush that unnerved her, the same sort of hush that Martinez always called a disturbance in the Force when they went out on patrol. Bad things usually followed.
The dog didn't seem to notice. He raced ahead of her and plunged through a swollen stream, a streak of damp camel-colored fur disappearing into a thicket of small spruce. Mercy considered going after him, but like most soldiers she preferred her feet dry. She hoped he'd circle back to her shortly, as he'd been trained to do. And would have done for his sergeant, no problem.
She sighed. They'd hiked nearly a third of the way up to Lye Brook Falls, following the old bed of a logging railroad, which rose along a steady incline for some two and a half miles up to the falls. The woods were blessedly calm and empty of people so early in the day. Towering birches, beeches, and maples in full leaf draped the trail in shade. A downpour the night before had left muddy puddles in its wake, and her boots were smudged with dirt. She tramped on, dodging the worst of the mud and taking care not to slip on the wet rocks, her eyes on the slick stone-ridden path and her mind off her future, which loomed ahead of her with no clear goal in sight.
After that last deployment, the one where Martinez got killed and she got shot and Elvis got depressed, Mercy and the dog were both sent home. Still, even though Martinez's last words to her had been "Take care of Elvis," she'd spent six months pulling strings to persuade the private defense contractor into letting her adopt the dog. In the end she prevailed, and they entered retirement together. Two former military police — one twenty-nine-year-old two-legged female Vermonter with an exit wound scar blighting her once perfect ass and one handsome five-year-old four-legged male Malinois with canine PTSD — reclaiming themselves in the backwoods one hike at a time.
The terrain grew rougher, steeper, tougher. She adjusted her pack, which at less than fifteen pounds barely registered on her body, once burdened by nearly one hundred pounds of gear. She whistled.
In Afghanistan, Elvis's job had been to walk in front of his sergeant and their unit, scouting ahead and alerting them to danger. The only dangers here in the southern Green Mountains were the ubiquitous clouds of biting deerflies — and the occasional bear. Still, after about a quarter of a mile, she paused to listen for the sound of a lively dog diving into the scrub, scampering over downed trees, racing up the rocky trail — but all she heard was the rush of the nearby brook, the warble of wood thrushes, and the skittering of red squirrels.
She stopped and closed her eyes, remembering one of Martinez's many stories from his parents' native Mezquital Valley in Mexico. This one was about a devout monk who lived in a cave and drew murals of saints and sinners on the walls. One day he painted a picture of the serpent Satan that seemed so real it literally scared him to death, the whisper of El Salvador on his dying lips. "Don't let your demons scare you," the sergeant told her. "Wait for the real devil."
Wait for the real devil. Mercy whistled again and waited.
The Belgian shepherd darted out of the scrub onto the path, his fawn fur stippled with dark splotches of sludge, his black muzzle muddy. Even dirty he was a pretty dog, a standard-bearer of his breed, far sleeker and smarter than any German shepherd, according to Martinez.
Elvis skidded to a stop right in front of her and jangled his head. In his mouth he held what looked like one of his squeaky toys.
"Drop it." She held out her hand.
The dog obliged, releasing the canary-yellow object into her open palm, his bright eyes on Mercy and his new plaything. She held it up and examined it in the light filtering through the trees.
"I think it's a baby teether," she told him. About five inches long, the teether was shaped like a plastic daisy with a thick stem, the better for a baby's grip, and a flower-shaped lion's head blooming at the top. Apart from dog drool, the little lion toy was clean, so it wasn't something that had been abandoned in the woods for long. She bent over toward Elvis, holding the teether out to him. "Where did you get this?"
Elvis pushed at her hand with a cold nose and whined. With another quick yelp he leapt back into the underbrush. Mercy tucked the baby toy into one of her cargo pockets and followed the dog, as he obviously meant her to do. She cursed under her breath as she sank into a marshy patch, mud seeping into the tops of her boots as she stomped through the mire after him.
Sometimes Elvis behaved erratically. Over the past few months, she'd learned to anticipate his triggers — slamming doors, thunderstorms, fireworks — at least most of the time. At other times, like today, the triggers eluded her; they were scents, sounds, and situations known only to the dog. But baby teethers had never been among them.
He barreled through the tangle of bracken and brushwood to a stream that paralleled the trail, a fast tumbling of water over a bed of rocks. He jumped, clearing the six-foot-wide current easily. Mercy splashed after him, not willing to risk breaking a leg or twisting an ankle in a poorly landed leap. The cold water came up to her knees. Elvis waited for her, his triangular ears perked and his dark eyes on her.
She clambered out of the brook and stumbled over the stones into a thick copse of young birch trees. There he dropped down on his haunches in the middle of a large blowdown area littered with tree limbs. This was his alert position, the posture he assumed when he sniffed out weapons or explosives. IEDs were his specialty.
"What you got there, buddy?" She squatted down next to him. Elvis looked at her as if to say, Okay, my job here is done. Where's my reward?
But Mercy wasn't sure if he'd earned it. She examined the ground in front of his paws. The forest floor was thick with dead leaves and twigs and pine needles, as well as mushrooms and moss and ferns and what looked like poison oak. No evidence of trespass here. No evidence of explosives. As far as she knew, Elvis wasn't trained to alert for babies — not that there was any evidence of a baby here, either. They'd glimpsed babies on the trail before, bouncing along on their parents' backs like giggling bags of potatoes, but not this morning.
On the other hand, the sniffer dog had an excellent track record. Martinez bragged that Elvis's was the best nose of any dog he'd ever met, either in training or in action. Elvis had rarely been wrong before. What were the odds he was wrong now?
"Good boy," she said, scratching that favorite spot between his ears. She slipped a treat out of her pocket and held it in her open palm, and Elvis licked it up.
If they'd been on a mission, the sergeant would have called in the team responsible for bomb disposal. He and Elvis never touched anything; the Explosive Ordnance Disposal techs took it from there. But here there was no team trailing them; they weren't wearing flak or body armor. Mercy wasn't even sure Elvis had alerted to explosives. Who would plant explosives in a forest?
Or maybe the shepherd had alerted to fireworks. It was the week of the Fourth of July holiday, after all. Apart from sparklers, fireworks were illegal in Vermont. Even supervised public fireworks displays required a permit. But if someone had bothered to bury fireworks in the woods, surely they would have dug them up by now.
Mercy rose to her feet and stood in the middle of the blowdown, wondering what to do. Elvis leaped ahead of her and darted into the brush. She headed out after him.
And that's when she heard it. A thin cry. Followed by another. And another, growing in volume with each wail. Sounded like her mother's cat Sabrina back in Boston, meowing for breakfast.
But she knew it was no cat.CHAPTER 2
Elvis bellowed, accompanied by a burst of bawling. She broke through the leatherleaf and bog laurel and came into a small glade. There in the middle sat a squalling baby in a blue backpack-style infant carrier.
A baby girl, if her pink cap and Hello Kitty long-sleeved onesie were any indication. A red-faced, cherub-cheeked baby girl, chubby arms and legs flailing against an assault of deerflies.
Mercy hurried over and fell to her knees in front of the pack, swatting away at the swarm. The baby appeared to be about six months old, but that was hardly an educated guess. Everything she knew about babies was based on her brother's toddler, Toby, whose infancy she'd mostly missed, and the injured infants she'd seen in theater.
This little one seemed okay, but her tiny neck and face and fingers were dotted with angry red marks left by the mean bites of deerflies. Mercy reached for her pack and the bug spray but then thought better of it. Nothing with DEET in it could be any good for babies.
The baby kept on screaming, and the dog kept on barking.
"Quiet," she ordered, but only the dog obeyed. She looked around, but there was no mom in sight.
The baby continued to cry, an escalation of shrieks.
"Okay, okay." She unbuckled the straps on the carrier and pulled out the wailing child. The baby lifted up her small head, and Mercy stared into round, slate-blue eyes rimmed in tears and deerfly bites.
"'Though she be but little, she is fierce,'" Mercy quoted, and the baby scrunched up her face as if to screech again, but hiccupped instead.
Maybe Shakespeare calms her the way he calms me, she thought. Mercy cradled the little girl in her arms and stood, holding her against her chest as she pulled the ends of her hoodie together under the baby's bottom and zipped it up around her as protection against the flies.
Mercy bobbed her up and down until her sobs subsided. Within minutes the baby was asleep.
"Now what?" She looked at Elvis, but he just stood there looking back at her, head cocked, ears up, waiting for their next move.
One of the rules of the universe should be: Wherever there's a baby, there's a mother close by. But Mercy had seen plenty of babies without mothers.
"Where's your mommy?" she asked the sleeping child. Maybe she'd gone off behind some bushes to pee. "Hello," she called. "Hello."
The last time she'd held a baby over there, the child had died in her arms. But this was no time to think about that. She shook off the memory, and kept on rocking the baby and calling for her mother. The little one gurgled into her shoulder. Maybe her mother had fallen or hurt herself somehow. Mercy walked around the clearing, eyes on the ground.
She could see the trail they'd left behind as she and Elvis had barreled into the glade from the south. But leading out in the opposite direction, she saw broken branches and rustled leaves and faint boot prints tamped in the mud. Mercy was a good tracker; Martinez used to say she was part dog. Which part? she'd ask. One of their little jokes.
Mercy and Elvis followed the markings into a denser area of forest thick with maples and beeches in full leaf and hiked through the wood. The traces ended abruptly at a rushing stream some ten yards wide. Too wooded and winding to see much on the other side. Too far to jump across. Too fast-moving to ford holding a baby.
She yelled again. The dog barked. She listened for the sounds of humans, but all she heard were the sounds of the water and the trees and the creatures that truly belonged here. The baby stirred against her chest. She'd be hungry soon and tired and cold and wet. And those nasty deerfly bites had to hurt. Mercy was torn; she wanted to find the mother or whoever brought the little girl out here. But she knew the baby needed more care than she could provide deep in the woods. And she'd need it sooner rather than later.
"We're going back." She shifted her weight onto her left hip, holding the baby tightly with her left arm, and pulled her cell phone out of her pocket with her right hand. She turned it on.
No bars. Coverage was spotty up here. She'd have to try again when they were closer to the trail. At least she could still use the camera.
Together she and Elvis retraced their steps, Mercy snapping photographs of the footprints and other traces along the route as they went. When they reached the baby carrier, she carefully strapped the dozing child into it. She looked so sweet that Mercy took some shots of the baby as well. There was a large zippered compartment on the back of the carrier; she rifled through the baby bottles and formula and diapers and wipes and extra set of clothes to pull out one of the baby blankets, covering the infant lightly in what was probably a futile effort to keep away the flies.
Mercy slipped off her own small pack, tying it to the big one with the baby. She hoisted the carrier up onto her shoulders. The fit was good. The baby couldn't weigh much more than fifteen pounds. Piece of cake.
If you didn't count the squirming.
"She's waking up," she told Elvis. "Home."
Now there was a command the dog actually obeyed every time. She never had to tell him twice to go where his bowl and bed were. He set the pace, blazing back the way they came. She stepped carefully in his wake to avoid jostling her dozing cargo. They headed for the Lye Brook Falls Trail, where she hoped her cell phone would work and she could contact the authorities.
Mercy wasn't exactly comfortable taking the baby, not knowing where her mother was. But she couldn't leave the child there, as someone else had obviously done. How or why anyone would do such a thing was beyond her. She knew that people were capable of all manner of cruelty. She just tried not to think about it these days.
They came to the blowdown where she'd first heard the child. Elvis trotted over to the very same place where he'd alerted before and dropped into his alert position.
"Again?" Mercy didn't know why he seemed fixated on this spot. Maybe he detected explosives there, or maybe that was where he found the baby teether. Maybe he was just confused, his PTSD kicking in. Or not. Either way, she couldn't bet against Elvis and his nose. Martinez would never forgive her. And if he truly was now in that heaven he had believed in so much, he'd be watching.
Mercy took more photos with her phone. Then she unhooked her small pack from the baby carrier and pulled out the duct tape and her Swiss Army knife, the two tools she never left home without. She used the duct tape to rope off a crescent around the area Elvis had targeted, using birch saplings as posts.
"Better safe than sorry," she told him.
Elvis vaulted ahead, steering them out of the forest. When they reached the trail, Mercy taped the spot where they'd gone into the woods. She checked her phone again for service. Still no bars. They'd have to trek down to the trailhead for a stronger signal.
"Back to civilization," Mercy said with a sigh.
The shepherd took the lead. As they began their descent, a cloud of deerflies fell upon them. The baby woke up with a start, and the wailing began again. Mercy swatted away at the miserable flying beasts, quickening her pace. Elvis stayed up front but close by.
They had a long walk ahead of them, and the deerflies seemed to know it.CHAPTER 3
Vermont fish and wildlife Game Warden Troy Warner hated national holidays. Holidays brought the most uninformed and inexperienced nature lovers to the southern Green Mountains. If the term nature lovers could really be applied to city people whose idea of a hike was stumbling inebriated through the woods high on hot dogs and beer in the hope of finding a moose or a bear to pose with them for a quick selfie before cannonballing naked into Stratton Pond.
The long Fourth of July weekend brought out the most determined of these amateurs, along with the smattering of seasoned hikers and birders willing to fight the hordes of tourists and deerflies to climb to the top of the fire tower on Stratton Mountain, where they could gaze east out on the lovely Green Mountains that gave Vermont its name — and the White Mountains to the northeast, the Berkshires to the south, and the Adirondacks to the west.
So when the dispatcher Delphine Dupree called him about an abandoned baby, Troy was intrigued as well as concerned. He expected the lost hikers (usually found), the snakebites (usually nonlethal), the poachers (usually long gone), but a baby ... well, that was a first.
"The hiker who called it in says the child seems okay," she said. "But who leaves a baby alone in the wilderness?"
"Sounds like a story out of the Old Testament," said Troy.
"Moses or Abraham?" Delphine was a good French Catholic who sang in the choir at Our Lady of the Lake in Northshire at the ten o'clock Mass every Sunday.
"Either way it worries me. We can't get a helicopter or a truck in there," said Troy.
"The hiker found her off-trail," Delphine told him. "So she's carrying her down to the trail to meet you. Just as well. There's a big pileup on Route 313 down by Arlington, overturned semi, lots of folks injured. Most everyone who's available has gone down there. That plus all the holiday nonsense means you're on your own."
"I'm on it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Borrowing of Bones"
Copyright © 2018 Paula Munier.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Thursday: July 1,
Friday: July 2,
Saturday: July 3,
Sunday: Independence Day July 4,
Monday: July 5,
Five Days Later,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A good read with no sex or faul language but plenty of action. I hope the author continues on with a series and expands the relationship between Mercy and her game warden. LOVED Elvis and Susie Bear.