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Even with the windows of her car rolled up, Jodie could smell the bayou. Heavy moist air with a bite of decay to it. Not as bad as it got in the heat of the summer but bad enough to make her nose wrinkle. Or maybe it was disgust that was doing that. There were plenty of places she'd imagined the FBI might send her, but back to Loomis wasn't one of them. Here she was, returning to the one place she'd been determined never to visit again.
She turned onto a narrow dirt driveway that wound uphill and away from the bayou, braking lightly as she neared a neglected farmhouse that stood in the center of an overgrown clearing near the swamp. Abandoned decades ago, it had been vacant for more years than Jodie had been alive. A tunnel dug beneath the house led to a room that had once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Later it had served other, less altruistic purposesas a storage place for moonshine during prohibition, a drug den for hippies in the sixties. Eventually, the town council voted to have the tunnel and the house boarded up.
What the missing woman, Leah Farley, had been doing there, Jodie didn't know. She planned to find out, though. And quickly. The sooner she helped Sam Pierce solve the case, the sooner she could wipe the Loomis dirt off her feet and get back to her life.
Rain drizzled from the sky as Jodie climbed out of her car and started across the yard. Despite her misgivings about being back in Loomis, anticipation hummed through her. Working for the FBI had been her dream for as long as she could remember. Solving cases, putting bad guys behind bars, was what she was meant to do. Even if she had to do it in Loomis.
"Agent Gilmore, glad you could make it to the party." A tall, dark-haired man she recognized stepped out onto the porch, and Jodie smiled a greeting as she picked her way up dry-rotted porch stairs.
"It's good to be included, Agent Pierce."
"How about I call you Jodie and you call me Sam? It'll make things easier." He smiled, and Jodie could see why so many women in the New Orleans office had set their sights on the handsome agent. Recently, rumors had been circulating that he'd gotten engaged to a child psychologist in Loomis. True or not, it wasn't any of Jodie's concern. She didn't waste time on men and relationships. Not anymore.
"Whatever you say, Sam. Did you find anything in the house?"
"No. And no evidence that she's been inside."
"So what did you find?" Curious, Jodie followed Sam into the musty foyer, her mind racing with possibilities. Ransom note. Clothing. Forensic evidence. Any of those could help bring the case to a successful end.
"We found two bodies."
"Two bodies?" She glanced around the dust-covered foyer, half expecting to see the remains lying nearby.
"Skeletons, to be more accurate. They're in a hidden room down in the basement. They've been there for a while. Decades probably."
"Did they have identification?"
"Not that we could see, but the sheriff agreed not to let anyone touch the remains yet. I've got a man coming in from New Orleans to do that. A forensic anthropologist."
"When will he get here?"
"Shouldn't be long. I called him an hour ago."
"Do you mind if I take a look at the scene while we wait?" Now that she was in Loomis, Jodie wanted out of it. Waiting for someone to come along and help make that happen didn't work for her.
"Sure. It's this way."
Half-rotted boards creaked beneath her feet as Jodie followed Sam into the basement. The sound shivered along her spine, reminding her of all the stories she'd heard about the house when she was a kid, stories about spooks and haunts and things that went bump in the night. Jodie had always known them for what they werea perfect way to keep kids from exploring a house that might not be structurally sound. Still, she had to admit the place was creepy, its shadowy corners concealing more than they revealed.
"Careful on these stairs, Jodie. Some of them are completely rotted through." Sam led her into a basement lit by electric torches and gestured to a hole in the far wall. "There's the tunnel. There were boards covering it, but it looked like they'd been taken down and replaced quickly. We've already got them tagged as evidence."
Several uniformed officers were standing in the room, none of them familiar to Jodie. She had to admit she was relieved. Eventually she'd have to face people from her past, but she'd rather it be later than sooner.
She crossed the room and surveyed the opening. Five feet high. Maybe three feet wide. "It would be a tight squeeze for someone carrying a body."
"But not so tight it would be impossible. Especially not if the body was being dragged. After so long, there isn't evidence to indicate that's what happened, but we can't say it didn't, either. Hopefully Cahill will shed some light on things."
"The forensic anthropologist I told you about. He'll recreate the scene based on what he finds, then work to identify our victims. Come on in, but watch your head." He stooped down and walked into the tunnel.
Jodie borrowed a flashlight one of the officers offered and followed. "Our victims? Isn't the case a local matter?"
"It should be, but since we were in here following up on the Leah Farley case, the sheriff asked if we'd be willing to help with victim identification. I agreed."
"Who's the sheriff around here now?" She hoped not the same one who'd been sheriff when Jodie was growing up.
Of course it was the same sheriff. Otherwise things, would have been a little too comfortable. "I remember him."
"Good. The Leah Farley case may be connected to the murders that have occurred in town. Getting along with the local PD is imperative."
Then you shouldn't have called me in to help.
Jodie didn't say what she was thinking. There was no way she wanted to explain her teenage years. The subtle rebellions that had, more often than not, gotten her in trouble.
The scent of damp earth filled her nose, and cool, moist air settled on her skin as she stepped into a cavernous room. Her flashlight beam bobbed across a dirt floor littered with years of debris. Cloth. Plastic. A few old bottles. Near the far wall, a pile of rotted clothes lay amidst the other rubble. Even without getting closer, Jodie could make out the subtle shapes of the bones beneath. Two skulls lay side by side in the dirt, smooth and dingy yellow.
She moved closer, doing her best to stay detached and unaffected as she surveyed the remains. Stale air, ripe with the remnant of something putrid and old, filled her lungs. She ignored it, crouching down to get a better look. A fleshless skull stared up at her, its empty eye sockets and grinning teeth a macabre reminder of the life that had once been. The other skull was facedown, a two-centimeter sliver of bone missing from the base. Closer to the top of the skull, the bone was cracked.
"It would take a lot of force to crack a skull like that." She spoke the thought out loud, wanting to pick the skull up and examine it more closely but knowing she couldn't.
"A lot of force or a lot of rage."
"Any sign of the weapon?"
"Nothing. From the looks of the injury, we could be searching for anything. Baseball bat, butt of a gun, a club."
"Maybe something metal. A pipe?" Jodie responded by rote, her gaze riveted to a pile that lay beside the skulls. It looked as if a rodent had made a nest there, creating it from faded cloth and long strands of fine hair. Blond hair, from the looks of it. Even time and dirt couldn't quite hide the fact. More tufts of it were visible beneath the facedown skull. These were even easier to identify. Long. Straight.
If so, they were the same color as Jodie's. The same color her mother's had been. She shuddered, leaning in a little closer, trying to see more of what remained.
"You're getting a little close to the remains, ma'am. Maybe you should back up before you disturb something." The words were gruff and loud, and Jodie whirled toward the speaker, her flashlight illuminating a tall, dark-haired man who stood beside Sam.
"I'm not in the habit of disturbing crime scenes."
"Good to know." He strode across the room, his movements as lithe and graceful as a jungle cat's, his gaze so intense Jodie was tempted to look away.
"I take it you're the forensic anthropologist." She stood, careful not to step any closer to the skeletons.
"Harrison Cahill." His eyes were oddly light in a craggy face, his lips turned down in a scowl.
"I take it you're the agent working with Sam? And a fairly new one, right?" He said it almost absently as he moved up beside Jodie, his gaze moving from her to the mounds of cloth and bones.
"Does it matter?"
"I guess we'll find out." He met her eyes for a moment, then crouched down next to the skeletons, dismissing her with an abruptness that bordered on rude.
"Don't mind Cahill. He's like that with everyone." Sam moved in close, his voice filled with humor that spoke of familiarity.
"But more so with people who pull me away from big weekend plans," Harrison complained as he pulled out a digital camera and began taking pictures.
"Big weekend plans?"
"I've got six cases I'm working on for the New Orleans police."
"Then I'm doubly appreciative of your efforts here. Hopefully we can a get quick resolution." Sam crouched down next to Harrison, and the two men began discussing the remains. Male. Female. Early thirties.
Jodie watched silently, feeling useless. Completely unnecessary. Obviously not needed. The feeling was a bitter echo of the way she'd felt as a child when her father had pursued one woman after another and she'd been left alone, desperate to belong.
She shoved the feeling and the memories aside, refusing to acknowledge them. She was an accomplished professional, not an insecure kid. To prove it, she squatted down next to Sam, watching as Harrison snapped more pictures.
Harrison shot a look in her direction, his eyes telling her to back off.
She ignored him, focusing her attention on the dusty cloth that lay over the skeletons. A blanket of some kind? As the camera flashed, she saw other things. Bits of fabric printed with what might have been tiny flowers. A silver wedding band. The camera flashed again, and Jodie caught sight of something lying near the wall. Half-covered by dirt, the dull piece of metal could have been just about anything but looked like something very familiar.
She trained her light on it, squinting to get a better look. "Is that a bullet?"
Harrison shifted his attention from the scene he was documenting and looked in the direction the female agent's light was shining.
Jodie, she'd said her name was.
A young-sounding name for a very young-looking woman. Too young. Too inexperienced. Too much invading his space. He liked to take his time when he worked a scene, documenting it slowly, making sure he had a visual record of everything before anything was moved. He did not like people standing over his shoulder, distracting him from his methodical approach. "Looks like it. Now if we can find the weapon that fractured our victims' skulls, we'll have an even clearer idea of what went on here."
"And if we can't find the weapon?" The woman's voice was husky rather than sweet, and it didn't at all match her delicate looks.
"Then we'll figure out what happened other ways."
"Look." He lowered his camera and met Jodie's eyes. "I know you're new to the job and gung ho to know everything there is to know about everything, but I don't have the time or patience to explain my methods to you."
"I wasn't going to ask for an explanation of your methods, Mr. Cahill. I was going to ask what I could do to help." To her credit, she didn't sound defensive or offended by his blunt comment.
"Call me Harrison. And I appreciate the offer of help, but I prefer to work alone."
"This case is part of an ongoing investigation, so you'd better get used to having Jodie and me around. Mind if I grab that bullet?" Sam stepped toward the wall where the bullet lay, and Harrison was tempted to tell him that he did mind. He didn't want anything touched or moved until he was good and ready for it to be. And he wasn't ready.
Unfortunately, he wasn't the one calling the shots. The FBI was paying for him to be here. They'd want to have a say in how things were handled.
"Let me just snap a few more photos. Have you got a weapon you want to try and match it to?"
"No weapon, but we've got three other murder victims. Two were hit over the head and then shot."
"Then it isn't likely the cases are connected. These two have been here for a long time." Harrison took the photos and then stepped back, bumping into something warm, soft and most definitely female. He didn't have to turn around to picture Jodiewhite-blond hair, heart-shaped face and wide, sad eyes.
"Sorry about that." He stepped quietly to the side, inhaling spring rain and summer flowers, his heart jumping in acknowledgment.
If Jodie heard his apology, she didn't acknowledge it or him. "What caliber is it, Sam?"
"Looks like a nine-millimeter."
"Does it match the caliber used to kill Dylan Renault and Earl Farley?"
"Yes, but a matching caliber doesn't mean a matching weapon." Sam placed the bullet in an evidence bag and moved toward the tunnel that led out of the room. "I'm going to take this out. See if I can get expedited ballistics testing on it. If the weapons are the same, we may be looking at the work of a serial killer."
"Seems like a long time between victims." Harrison leaned forward, gently lifting the blanket that covered the remains and folding it into an evidence bag.
"Yeah, it does. But maybe there are other victims we don't know about." Sam's words were grim, and he walked into the tunnel, his footsteps fading away.
Jodie remained in the room, and Harrison braced himself for the questions he was sure she'd ask. Instead of speaking, she watched silently. Harrison could feel her tension mounting as he began the process of cataloging and bagging one bone after another.
Was she upset by the bodies and caught up in imagining the victims' last moments? It happened sometimes, but not usually at scenes like this.
Finally, he couldn't ignore it any longer and turned from the tangle of long hair he was examining. "Are you okay?"