When veterinarian Rachel Goddard and Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger take teenagers on an outing to clean up roadside trash in rural Mason County, Virginia, they make a grisly discovery: the plastic-wrapped body of a young woman. One teen peers at the face through the plastic and screams. The dead girl is her sister, Shelley, a law student who has been missing for a month.
As Tom launches a murder investigation, Rachel copes with a visit from her own sister, Michelle, who is terrified that a man is stalking her. Michelle insists she’s receiving threatening calls and someone has invaded her office in the Washington, DC, area. Her own husband doubts her. Although Michelle is a psychologist, she has always been emotionally fragile, and she reverts to her childhood dependence on Rachel, stirring up memories Rachel wants to forget. Soon it becomes clear that the mysterious stalker is real and dangerous and has followed Michelle to Mason County. Now he’s turning his attention to Rachel too.
Tom pursues the stalker at the same time he investigates Shelley’s murder. Was it random, or was she killed because she was working to prove that a Mason County man was wrongly convicted of murder? Relatives of his supposed victim were enraged by Shelley’s efforts to free a man they believe is guilty. Did they kill her to stop her? But what if she was right? If an innocent man was convicted, one person would have the strongest motive to silence Shelley: the real murderer.
As Tom closes in on Shelley’s killer, the stalker makes his move against Rachel.
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About the Author
Sandra Parshall grew up in South Carolina and has worked as a reporter on newspapers in South Carolina, West Virginia, and Baltimore. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a long-time Washington journalist, and three cats.
Read an Excerpt
A Rachel Goddard Mystery
By Sandra Parshall
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2012 Sandra Parshall
All rights reserved.
Two dozen teenagers tumbled out of the school bus and charged after Tom Bridger along the shoulder of the road, brandishing their litter spikes like warriors' spears.
Rachel Goddard parked her Range Rover behind the bus and walked up to wait for the last student to emerge. A blast of chilly wind whipped her auburn hair across her eyes and prompted her to zip her fleece jacket and tug the collar around her neck. They'd started three hours ago with a perfect April morning, but now clouds towered overhead, dragging their dark shadows across the mountain that rose on one side of the road.
The silver-haired bus driver gestured to hurry his tardy passenger. After a moment, seventeen-year-old Megan Beecher emerged from the bus. Clutching a plastic trash bag in one hand, she dangled her litter spike from the other so that it banged against the steps as she descended. While the other kids disturbed the peace with a chorus of some abominable rap song, Megan's pale face remained expressionless, her blue eyes blank.
"Are you okay?" Rachel laid a hand on her shoulder. Megan was a slight girl, several inches shorter than Rachel, and she'd lost so much weight in the last month that Rachel could feel her bones through her sweater. "I'll drive you home right now if you're ready to quit."
Megan shook her head without meeting Rachel's gaze. A long blond strand had worked loose from her hair band and fallen forward over one eye, but she seemed not to notice. Rachel almost raised a hand to tuck it back into place but caught herself in time to suppress the urge.
Why had she pushed the girl to join the litter cleanup? Megan, who planned to become a veterinarian, wanted to go to her Saturday morning job at Rachel's animal hospital as usual, but Rachel had insisted that she get outdoors and take part in the annual civics project with other Mason County High School students. She'd seemed okay when they started, but she'd been fading all morning. Now, at their third stop, she had retreated so far into herself that she barely seemed aware of her surroundings.
As Rachel and Megan caught up, Tom halted and faced the group. Even when he was out of his deputy sheriff's uniform and dressed in old jeans and a worn denim jacket, he looked like a cop, confident and authoritative. The boys treated him with respect. The girls, though ... Rachel hadn't missed the way they ran their eyes over Tom's six-feet-plus of lean muscle, his strong features and olive skin, his thick black hair. He was trying so damned hard to ignore their flirtatious looks and smiles that Rachel didn't know whether to laugh or feel sorry for him. If he had the vanity to match his looks, she thought, he would be impossible to live with.
Tom waved a hand at the trash-strewn ravine that dropped down from the road. "Let's see who can fill up a bag first before the rain starts. The winner gets a free burger for lunch."
"What, no fries?" a gangly, freckle-faced boy asked. He flapped his trash bag until it caught the breeze and inflated like a balloon. "And how about something to drink?"
Tom laughed. "Negotiated like the son of a lawyer, Ansel. Okay, a free burger with fries and the drink of your choice."
All the kids except Megan swarmed down the slope, whooping and yelling as they slid and stumbled, alternately using their poles for balance and for spearing trash they spotted on the way.
"Don't they ever get tired?" Rachel said to Tom. She'd begun to think longingly of lunch and a place to sit down while she ate. "I hope all this exercise counteracts the cholesterol overload they're headed for at lunchtime."
"What, you don't think they'd be eating junk without my encouragement?" They both watched Megan begin a slow descent, placing her feet with care and using her spike to steady herself. "Poor kid," Tom said. "I thought this outing might do her some good."
"I should have left her alone and let her go to work today. At least she enjoys that." Rachel shook her head. "I can't even imagine what it's like for that family. Not knowing must be torture."
"It's been a month. They know." Tom patted her back as if she were the one who needed consoling. "But without any proof, it's hard to move on."
The Beechers needed a body to bury, Rachel thought. They needed certainty, and a way to say goodbye to Megan's older sister. A beautiful young woman, her adult life just beginning. Vanished.
A single raindrop landed on Rachel's forehead and ran down her nose. Swiping it away, she said, "We'd better get busy."
She and Tom pulled disposable gloves from their jacket pockets and tugged them on as they set off down the slope.
Rachel joined Megan and deposited the trash she picked up in Megan's bag. The girl kept her distance from the other kids, who spread out under the darkening sky to harvest the bonanza of litter, racing each other to stab debris on the ground and tug plastic shopping bags from among the fresh new leaves on tree branches. They stomped on beer and soft drink cans and bottles to flatten them before tossing them into bags. Birds in the surrounding trees, silenced by the students' noisy arrival, soon accepted their presence and resumed a spring chorus of chirps and whistles. A pair of large pileated woodpeckers swooped past the group at eye level, startling the teenagers into a very uncool fit of giggles. All except Megan, who didn't bother to look up to see what caused the reaction.
A tall, skinny boy named Jarrett stood a few yards from Megan and Rachel, poking an old mattress with his spike. "Hey, Dr. Goddard," he said with a grin, "want to help me wrestle this into my bag?"
Rachel shook her head in disgust. "Why on earth would anybody throw a mattress off the side of the road?"
"So they don't have to pay at the landfill," Jarrett said, as if pointing out what should be obvious. He frowned when something caught his attention. He leaned down for a closer look.
"Leave it alone," Rachel told him. "It's filthy. The guys on the county truck can pick it up when they come to collect our trash bags."
Thunder rumbled in the distance and a few drops of rain struck her hair and shoulders. They would have to wrap it up soon. For now, she went back to work, plucking trash out of the leaf litter and tangled vines on the floor of the ravine.
"Oh, Captain Bridger," one of the girls called out.
Her teasing tone made Rachel look around. A pretty girl with curly brown hair held up a campaign sign that read Tom Bridger for Sheriff. She smiled at Tom, twenty feet away. "Is this trash too?"
The kids nearby laughed.
"I guess my competition's been down this road," Tom said. "Now I know where all my signs are disappearing to."
"Why don't you take it home with you," a smirking boy said to the girl, "and hang it on the wall next to your bed?"
"Well, I just might do that."
The boys snickered. Rachel saw Tom roll his eyes in exasperation before he bent to pick up a couple of beer bottles.
Suppressing a smile, Rachel told the girl, "I'm sure we can give you a new one that hasn't been lying out —"
"Dr. Goddard?" Jarrett called, his voice rising to an urgent pitch. "Captain?"
Rachel and Tom spun around. Using his litter pole, Jarrett had levered one edge of the mattress several inches off the ground. "There's something real weird under there."
Rachel and Tom exchanged a glance. Teenagers and drama. "What?" Rachel said. "Another dead possum?" The last one they'd stumbled across had set the girls to shrieking as if they'd come face to face with E.T. You'd think these kids, growing up in a rural mountain community, would be used to seeing the rotting carcasses of wild animals.
"I don't think so." Jarrett pushed the mattress up a couple more inches. "Oh, man. What is that? It's too big to be an animal. And it's got plastic around it."
That brought the other boys running. Most of the girls followed, converging around the mattress.
Rachel edged through the clump of kids, expecting to find a dead pet or farm animal somebody had dumped out here. She crouched to examine the partially exposed object.
For a moment her mind went blank, refusing to register what lay before her. Then with a shock she realized what she was seeing. Her throat tightened with nausea and she felt the blood drain from her head. She wobbled and had to brace herself with a hand flat on the ground. Unable to look away, she called out, "Tom? Where are you?"
"I'm right here." He'd moved close enough to startle her.
Rachel rose and stumbled back as Tom peered under the mattress. Jarrett still held it up, but his pole trembled in his hands.
"Jesus Christ." Tom caught the side of the mattress and shoved it off to reveal a body wrapped in plastic sheeting.
Gasps and strangled cries escaped from the gathered teenagers.
Fat raindrops splattered the plastic.
Oh my god, no, Rachel thought. She couldn't let Megan see this. She jerked her head around, searching for the girl.
"Okay, you're done here," Tom told the teenagers. "Get back up to the road."
Nobody moved. Riveted by the scene in front of them, the kids didn't seem to hear a word he said.
"Go," Tom said. "Now." He stepped forward, gesturing, forcing them to shuffle away.
When Megan Beecher slipped past the retreating students, Rachel grabbed her. "No, Megan, don't. Stay back."
Megan strained against Rachel's grip, her eyes pinned on the thing lying at their feet. Her hands curled into fists. Her cry began as a low moan, torn from deep inside her, and it rose and swelled into a wail that echoed through the ravine. The other teens froze, their faces contorted by fear and horror at what they were witnessing.
Megan sagged into Rachel's arms, gulped and burst into sobs. "Shelley," she gasped. "It's Shelley. It's my sister."CHAPTER 2
When they heard Shelley's name, the students crowded around again, mouths agape. Suddenly half a dozen were holding cell phones aloft as they jostled each other to get the best angles for pictures of the body in its plastic cocoon.
Tom swore under his breath. "Get back up to the road and on your bus," he ordered. "I need this area cleared. No pictures, for god's sake."
Megan sobbed in Rachel's arms. Some of the other girls began crying, their litter spikes abandoned on the ground.
"It's really her, isn't it?" Jarrett stared, pale-faced, at what he'd uncovered. "She must have been murdered, right?"
"What's she doing here?" the freckle-faced son of a lawyer asked. "I mean, she disappeared in Fairfax County, didn't she? Do you think —"
"What I think is that you need to show a little consideration for Megan," Tom said.
The boy glanced at Megan and ducked his head. "Sorry," he mumbled.
"Now go on," Tom said. "All of you."
They moved off reluctantly, glancing back over their shoulders as they climbed the slope. When thunder cracked directly overhead and the sparse raindrops turned to a steady drizzle, they picked up speed and scrambled for the shelter of the bus.
"I need to go up to the road to call in," Tom told Rachel. "I can't get a cell signal down here. I'll have to wait for backup before I can take Megan home and talk to her parents. Why don't the two of you get out of the rain?" All he needed was a storm, washing away trace evidence, reducing the crime scene to a muddy mess.
"Come on," Rachel said to Megan. "Let's go wait for Tom in my car." Rachel looked shaken, but she kept her voice steady and Tom knew he could count on her to stay calm for the girl's sake.
"No!" Megan tried to squirm free. "I can't leave Shelley down here all by herself."
Rachel held on, both arms around Megan. "We have to let the police do their job. And we have to take you home to your mom and dad. You need to be with them now."
Tom helped Rachel get the girl up the slope. One on each side, they kept her on her feet when she stumbled over rocks and roots and tugged her forward when she tried to turn back to her sister.
The students had boarded the bus, but half of them clustered on the side overlooking the ravine, some sticking their cell phones through open windows to snap more pictures. The driver stood in the doorway, looking confused. "What am I supposed to do?" he asked when he spotted Tom.
"Get them out of here." Tom was sure they were spreading news of the discovery by text and e-mail, and he was afraid Shelley's parents would find out through gossip before he was able to talk to them face to face.
"Settle down, you guys!" the driver yelled at the students. He slammed the door shut, slid behind the wheel and revved the engine.
While Rachel guided Megan into the back seat of her Range Rover, Tom dug his cell phone out of his shirt pocket. He ordered dispatch to call in all off-duty deputies. He made a second call to Sergeant Dennis Murray, asking him to pick up Daniel Beecher from his job at the McKendrick horse farm and drive him home. Next Tom phoned Dr. Gretchen Lauter, the county's medical examiner, and finally the State Police, to request a crime scene investigator.
With the necessary calls made, the school bus gone, and Megan slumped against Rachel's shoulder in the Range Rover, Tom had time to take a deep breath and think about what was happening. He stood at the top of the ravine, letting the drizzle soak his hair, staring down at the old mattress and the body it had concealed. He'd recognized Shelley Beecher instantly, even though slight bloating distorted the oval shape of her face. Long blond hair draped her shoulders, and the outfit on the body matched the description of what she was wearing when last seen: short blue jacket over a pink sweater, jeans, athletic shoes.
Tom had believed Shelley was dead since the day she disappeared in Northern Virginia, where she was a first year law student. So did the Fairfax County detective on the case. But she didn't look as if she'd been dead a month. Bloating and decomposition were noticeable but not advanced. The plastic was still clean. If she wasn't killed immediately after her abduction, where had she been for the last month? And, as one of the boys had asked, why did her body turn up here in her home county in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, hours away from the place where she went missing?
The sound of approaching vehicles broke into his thoughts. More deputies had arrived to secure the scene. Now Tom had to take Megan home to her parents and tell them their older daughter was lying dead in a ravine.
* * *
The Beechers' two-story white house seemed eerily quiet and lonely when Tom turned Rachel's Range Rover into the driveway. After weeks of friends and neighbors streaming in to comfort Dan and Sarah, people had run out of things to say and turned back to their own everyday lives.
The house sat on a quarter-acre lot carved out of a patch of pine woods. In the flower beds along the front of the house, dozens of gold and white daffodils bobbed in the light rain. A broad yellow ribbon circled a maple tree, its bow drenched and drooping. Only Sarah's mini-van sat in the driveway. Dennis Murray hadn't arrived with Dan yet.
The last thing Tom wanted to do was give Sarah the news without her husband by her side, but he had no choice.
The second Tom braked, Megan burst from the back seat and sprinted for the house. The family's yellow Lab, Scout, rose from the porch, his tail wagging.
"Megan, wait!" Rachel pleaded, scrambling after her.
Climbing out of the vehicle, Tom called, "Megan, let me tell your mother —"
But she was already up the steps, wrenching the door open, screaming, "Mom! Mom, it's Shelley!"
Tom and Rachel hurried after her. When they stepped into the living room, Sarah was coming down the stairs. She halted, her gaze falling first on Megan's anguished face, then shifting to Tom and Rachel. A hollow-eyed waif, thin arms hanging at her sides, Sarah looked twenty years older than she had a month ago. Messy blond hair hung around her face. A stain that looked like egg yolk streaked her white t-shirt and the waistband of her jeans.
"I need to talk to you, Sarah," Tom said. "Let's sit down."
Megan bolted up the stairs and almost knocked Sarah over when she threw herself into her mother's arms.
Over Megan's head, Sarah's eyes met Tom's. "She's dead." A flat statement.
"I'm afraid so. I'm sorry, Sarah." He had nothing to say that would soften the blow. Every word he spoke would feel like a knife in her heart.
Sarah sank onto a step, pulling Megan down with her.
Excerpted from Bleeding Through by Sandra Parshall. Copyright © 2012 Sandra Parshall. 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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