Read an Excerpt
Chapter One The uniformed park ranger looked up from his newspaper. "You're Lieutenant Richter," he said with a frown. "That's right," I said. "Except for the lieutenant part. I'm not with the sheriff's office anymore." The ranger gave me a stony look, as if this news somehow made my appearance there worse. "I'll tell her you're here," he said curtly. He got up from behind the visitors' information counter and walked over to an office door. He paused before opening it. "You're not exactly welcome up here, you know," he said. I just waited. The ranger gave me another hard look. I debated quailing in the presence of such ferocity, but yawned instead. He then went into the office, shutting the door behind him. Truth be told, I hadn't exactly expected a marching band and festive bunting upon my first visit to the Thirty Mile ranger station since the cat dancers case. But that had been two years ago, and I'd almost managed to bury those events in my moving-on box. Almost. The station hadn't changed a bit. The unfriendly park ranger was a new face, so whatever he knew about it he'd been told by others. They'd been furious then because I'd put Mary Ellen Goode in grave danger. Apparently they weren't over it. Nothing I could do about that. She had called me, not the other way around. Then she was standing there. Still remarkably pretty, although there were some dark circles under those blue eyes and a tinge of gray in her hair. Her smile seemed a bit forced. "Thanks for coming," she said. "Let's go back to my office." I followed her down a short hall. She's thinner, I thought. The sign on her door read m.e. goode, ph.d., park ecologist. "How's the arm?" she asked as we went into her office. "Better," I said. "I can hold it on the steering wheel for almost an hour now. How're things in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park these days?" She sat down behind a cluttered desk. "Comparatively quiet," she said with a rueful smile. "Until six weeks ago." I eased myself into a wooden chair and massaged my upper arm. What was left of it. "I've missed seeing you," I said, and meant it. She looked down at her desk for a moment before answering. "I'm sorry about going radio-silent," she said finally. "I--it's been--very difficult." She took a deep breath. "I've not been well." I leaned forward. "Hey? That wasn't an accusation. Just an observation. I have missed seeing you. Now, tell me: Am I going to get out of this station alive?" She smiled. "Don't mind them," she said. "You made them look bad. They'll get over it." "And how about you--are you getting over it?" "Are you really a private investigator now?" she asked, sidestepping my question. "After a fashion. I left the Manceford County Sheriff's Office after--well, after that incident at White Eye's cabin." I saw her flinch when I mentioned White Eye. I guess I had my answer. "I couldn't very well stay on in law enforcement once I refused to testify. So now I do investigative work for the district court system in Triboro. When I want to." She gave me an appraising look. "Sheriff Baggett explained that to me," she said. "Why you wouldn't testify. I don't believe I've ever thanked you for that." I shrugged and immediately regretted it. There were some things my left arm could do, but lifting suddenly wasn't one of them. "Well, it was my butt, too," I said. "Until we know we have them all, both of us would have been dreaming about crosshairs for the rest of our lives." "Dreaming of crosshairs," she said softly. "That's very well put. And are they working it?" "I think so," I said, rubbing my arm again. "But of course I'm on the outside now, so I don't really know." "And how about you--are you working it?" It was my turn to smile. "Oh, yes," I said. I'd formed a one-man-band consulting company when I left the sheriff's office, offering myself to handle investigative projects for various court offices. The Major Criminal Apprehension Team, or MCAT, leaderless after I left, had been disbanded, and the team members reassigned within the major crimes division. I'd offered moonlighting jobs to three of my ex-teammates, who all knew the real reasons behind my refusal to testify in the cat dancers case. Together we were quietly assembling a database of candidates for the as yet unapprehended cat dancers. She nodded, not quite looking at me. She seemed distracted, I thought. Remembering the cave and those big cats hunting them in the dark? My mother had been on antidepressant meds after my father died. She'd been like this. Wistful. Quick to drift. "You called?" I prompted. She pulled herself together. "Yes, I did. Did you read about the Park Service probationer who was beaten and raped up here in the park? About six weeks ago?" "Sorry, no," I said. "One of ours. New rangers are assigned to an experienced ranger as a mentor when they start their probationary year. Janey Howard was assigned to me. She'd been here almost three months. The chief sent her to one of the backcountry lakes to take water samples. She didn't come back that afternoon. Once it got dark and we couldn't raise her on the radio, we launched a search." "The local cops join in?" "Absolutely. Park Service. Carrigan County deputies. Volunteer firefighters from Marionburg. But we concentrated on where she was supposed to have gone. Found her vehicle there, so that's where we looked. Some hikers found her two days later, wandering down one of the trails, about ten miles from the lake. Wearing nothing but an old blanket. Barefoot. Dehydrated. Beat up. Among other things." "Did she get herself loose or did they dump her?" "No one knows. She doesn't know. She remembers nothing, which is probably a good thing. She's home, over in Cherokee County, in Murphy. Her parents are being--very protective." "They mad at the Park Service?" "'We trusted you to take care of her,'" she recited. "'She was supposed to be a park ranger, not a rape victim. Walking tours, nature hikes with the tourists, butterfly lectures, sweet bunny rabbits, bird watching. See Bambi run. That kind of thing. Instead you people sent her off into the deep woods and some twisted bastard got her. What was she doing out there all alone?'" "Her job, perhaps?" I said. Mary Ellen sighed. "It is a beautiful park. And we do all of those nice things. But you and I know that evil can get loose in the backcountry from time to time." "Do we ever," I murmured. She shot me a sideways look. "And," she continued, "Janey was working very close to Injun country." I raised my eyebrows at her. "Meaning?" "Meaning that she was working up on the edge of Robbins County." "Ah." I'd heard of Robbins County back when I'd been with the Manceford County Sheriff's Office. The Great Smokies Park extended into both Tennessee and North Carolina. Robbins County enveloped the southeastern boundary of the park on the Carolina side. It was a place where the hill people lived remote and were determined to keep themselves that way. It was also rumored to be the mother lode for methamphetamine in western North Carolina. The Robbins County Sheriff's Office was also reputed to be a really interesting organization. Their official motto was "Taking care of business." I'd heard they'd painted that right on the patrol cars. "Yes," she said. "Our local sheriff, Bill Hayes, apparently has to ask permission to operate in Robbins County. They were not exactly forthcoming." "The Park Service is federal--you don't have to ask permission." "Yes we do, outside of the park. Anyway, we got her back, but that's all we got. Which is why I called you." I leaned back in my chair. "The Park Service has sworn officers. And I would have guessed they'd get the Bureau into it, especially if you guys suspected criminal collusion from local law." She hesitated. "It's complicated," she said. "It seems our regional director is scared of starting some kind of feud with local mountain people. Send the FBI in and stir up a hornet's nest of hillbilly outlaws who would then come into the park for recreation involving the tourists. We're not staffed to cope with that kind of mess. The visitor count is down already because of what happened to Janey Howard." "And the visitor count is important?" I asked. "It determines the budget, among other things. Especially if it goes down because of bad publicity." "Does it have a bearing on other things--such as promotions, seniority, performance evaluations?" She nodded. "What can I say: We're a federal bureaucracy. Anyway, I thought perhaps you might have some ideas on how we can find out who did this." "What's Sheriff Hayes doing?" "The Carrigan County people got nowhere in Robbins County, whose sheriff maintains it didn't happen on his patch. And, of course, if it didn't happen in Robbins County, then it probably happened in the park." "Either way, technically not Hayes's problem, either." "Not his jurisdiction," she corrected. "He's mad as hell about it, and they did more than they had to. It's just--" "Right," I said. "Some cases are just no-win for anybody. So you guys want to hire me? Is that it?" She put a hand to her mouth in surprise. "Us? The Park Service? Oh, no, we can't do that. I mean--" I grinned at her. "I know that. I was just teasing. Besides, my name isn't exactly enshrined in a place of honor here. I thought I was going to have to call for the dogs, the way that ranger was looking at me." "You've brought them along?" "Don't go anywhere without them," I said. I saw the alarm flicker in her eyes again and mentally kicked myself. "Why don't we have dinner," I said. "We can talk about it some more. I may have some ideas for you." She appeared to think about it. "I don't know if that would be such a good idea," she said finally. "Marionburg is a very small town. And, well--" She stopped. And my being here has resurfaced some very bad memories, I thought. Which she was not, apparently, able to expunge. No wonder the rangers were still mad at me. Before the cat dancers case she had been the brightest object at the station. "Well," I said, getting up. "I'm assuming there's still only the one decent place to eat in Marionburg. I'll be there around eight if you change your mind. Otherwise, I'll check around a little and then give you a call. Okay?" She nodded quickly. Too quickly, I thought. I sensed that she wanted me out of there, and that now would be nice. Plus, she was probably embarrassed. I'd driven almost four hours from Triboro, and now she was probably thinking that her call had been a mistake. "Thank you," she said in a small voice, again not quite looking at me. "And I'm sorry for being such a drag." "Don't beat yourself up, Mary Ellen," I said gently. "It takes some time. You getting help?" She nodded. "And you?" she asked. This time she did look at me. The fear was still visible in her eyes. If anything, brighter. "Scotch at night, the gym during the day, and lots of quality time on the firing range. I'll be in touch. You stop worrying." *** As I headed out to my Suburban I heard a voice behind me calling my name. "Lieutenant Richter? A word, please?" I thought it was the hostile ranger I'd run into when I first arrived, so I turned around very quickly, ready to quash any more bullshit from the hired help. But this ranger was older, and the title on his nameplate read chief ranger. He stopped abruptly when I spun around. "Yes?" I said in as official a voice as I could muster. For the record, I'm six-one and I hadn't been kidding about spending much of the last two years in the gym. The older man had to look up to speak to me. "I'm Bob Parsons, chief of the station here. My people told me you'd come to see Mary Ellen Goode." "That's right," I said. I could see two sets of German shepherd ears outlined against the back window of my Suburban. The vehicle's windows were open and they'd heard my tone of voice. I was about to add that she had called me, but then decided against it. "My predecessor told me the story," Parsons said. "About what happened up here and what happened to Mary Ellen." He paused. "Look, Lieutenant--" "I'm not a lieutenant anymore," I said. "I took early retirement from the Manceford County Sheriff's Office. And I suspect you didn't get the whole story about what happened." Parsons nodded. "Right," he said quickly. "She said you were a private investigator now." He hesitated again. "Look," he said again. "I'm sure there's stuff I don't know, and probably don't need to know. But what I do know is that Mary Ellen is pretty fragile these days. Is it absolutely necessary for you to be here? Can maybe one of us help you instead?" I considered the question. The chief ranger sounded sincere. "That'll be up to her, Mr. Parsons," I said. "For the record, I'm intimately familiar with what she went through. I was there for part of it. And the last thing I want to do is to upset her." "Up to her?" Parsons asked, and then he understood. "Ah--she called you?" "That's right," I said. "Then this is about Janey Howard, isn't it." "Why don't you ask her, Mr. Parsons. Or you can wait for her to tell you. That actually might be the kinder course of action." Parsons shook his head. "The Howard case is complicated, Lieutenant. Very complicated. It involves more than just the Park Service." I pretended to be surprised. Parsons sighed. "We're not sure where the attack took place. Whether it was in the park or in Robbins County." "You are sure about the attack, though?" "Oh, yes. God, yes. That girl's lucky to be alive." "So. You jailed any bad guys for it?" Parsons frowned. I suspected he probably did that a lot. "Um, no," he said. "But that doesn't mean people have stopped trying." "People?" Parsons avoided the question. "Like I said, it's complicated. Politically sensitive within the Park Service. I guess what I'm trying to say is you'd be doing everyone a favor if you just went back east. Really, you would." "Nice to meet you, Chief Ranger Parsons," I said. I turned away from the ranger and walked to my vehicle. Parsons stood there for a moment, shook his head, frowned some more, and then walked back into the ranger station. I took my shepherds for a quick nature walk and then left to find my motel. I wondered how long it would take Parsons to get on the telephone to talk to those mysterious "people," and how long before they would get in touch with me. Copyright 2006 by P. T. Deutermann. All rights reserved.