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Loganton, North Carolina
"It looks even more ominous out there than it did fifteen minutes ago."
Pharmacist Stephanie Scott shuddered as she stared out the front window of her general store/pharmacy again. September could bring nasty weather into her mountainous corner of the Carolinas, and that purply black sky in the early evening meant nothing good.
She turned to Jimmy Miller, her stock clerk. "You can go ahead and leave. It's ready to storm."
The sixteen-year-old's freckled face brightened with a grin. "Cool, huh?"
"Only if I'm indoorswhich is where you better get going unless you want to become a lightning rod."
With a wave, Jimmy ran off, and Steph resumed her nightly routine. She tallied up the prescriptions she'd filled, crosschecked her computer list against her handwritten log and relaxed when everything matched up. She then locked her controlled-substances cabinet, brought down the metal grate over the counter, twisted the combination knob, left the pharmacy part of the store and then secured that door as well.
With her purse over her right shoulder and the night-deposit sack under her elbow, she latched the front of the store, set the alarm and slipped out the back. The satisfying snick of the dead bolt gave her a sense of security each and every night. She'd done everything she could to protect the community from drug thieves. That was a major source of concern and topic of discussion among pharmacists of late.
As she took the key from the regular door lock, an unexpected scritch sounded behind her.
Steph froze. Before she could turn, she was shoved off the back steps. She flew through the air, the key clutched tight in her fist. She landed on the filthy asphalt alley floor by the communal Dumpster, banging her right leg against the cold metal.
Pain stole her breath, but she knew what she had to do.
"Help!" Steph yelled, so loud her face throbbed from the effort.
A dark figure launched itself onto her back. The sharp blow from a knee to her spine took her breath away. Her attacker's weight on her middle flattened her against the ground; the upright position gave the mugger advantage over her.
"Give me the key," her attacker said in a guttural whisper.
Steph squirmed, tossed, bucked and kicked, all the time holding the key in her fist. She shoved her hand between her abdomen and the asphalt, out of the mugger's reach. The rough surface ground away at the skin on her knuckles. With each kick at her assailant, the knees of her pants ripped more. At no time did she stop screaming.
At no time did her assailant stop beating. Her shoulders and the back of her head felt each blow twice, once when her attacker struck and then again when she hit the alley floor.
Time, however, did stop. Steph registered pain, the heavy weight on her back, the dampness of rain, the stench of trash and something vaguely spicy and sweet laced in with the rot. Her fear-filled mind couldn't identify it, but she knew it was there, somehow familiar, just beyond her grasp, important but elusive.
And still the pounding continued.
In what felt like hours, but could only have been a handful of seconds, Steph sustained blows on the head, her back, her arm and both legs. The alley surface scraped her face each time it touched down.
"What's going on here?"
At the sound of local postmaster Andrew Cooper's deep bass voice, the person on Steph's back paused in his assault.
"Who are you?" Steph bucked one more time. "Why are you doing this?"
"Steph?" Mr. Cooper said. "Is that you?"
Her attacker stood.
Seconds later, footsteps pelted away as the first cold raindrops splashed on Steph's sore back.
"Who's there?" the postmaster called again, this time closer to Steph.
She rolled to her side. "Please call 911, Mr. Cooper. Someone tried to mug me."
The portly gentleman trotted up and knelt at her side, cell phone in hand. "You hurt, missy?"
"I don't think it's serious, but we do need the PD."
Dialing, Mr. Cooper tsk-tsked. "My first thought was about you." He put the device to his ear and waited for a response. "I'll have us someone here, pronto Yes," he said into the phone. "There's been a mugging behind Scott's Pharmacy "
With help on the horizon, Steph's eyes welled with tears.
Who would have done this? Loganton wasn't a particularly crime-prone town. Besides, it was no secret she didn't make a great deal of money.
On the other hand, her pharmacy was rich with drugs, which she kept under lock and key. True, her professional bias immediately brought that to mind, but for what other reason would she have been attacked? Even someone who didn't know her could verify with a minimum of effort how little cash she kept in the store. They could also watch her make the two deposits every day, one at lunchtime and the other after hours.
While Loganton was relatively clean by comparison to larger cities, in the past couple of years the town had experienced a scattering of drug overdoses, and last spring Ethan Rodgers and his fiancée, Tess Graver, had nearly died at the hands of a meth dealer.
Under the worsening rain, Steph unfurled her right hand. In her damp palm, within four half-moon indentations etched by her nails, lay the key to the door. "Thank you, Jesus," she whispered.
She'd kept the drugs where they belonged.
At six o'clock, Hal Benson slid into his usual booth at Granny Annie's Diner, the only eatery in Loganton. Even Pepper, his rescued greyhound, turned up her elegant nose at the cooking.
As he settled back against the puffy red vinyl seat, Karla, Granny Annie's youngest niece, skidded to a stop by his booth, glass of water, order pad and red ink pen in hand.
Hal grabbed for the water in self-defense.
"Hey, Sheriff Hal!" Karla's cheeks glowed pink, her brown eyes sparkled and her riot of black curls fought the restraints of the hairnet her part-time job forced her to wear. "You want the same as always?"
He took a drink as he thought for a minute. His frequent meat loaf, mashed potatoes and whatever vegetable Granny Annie offered that day didn't really appeal to him tonight. "What's the special?"
"Granny's got two. Spaghetti, salad and garlic bread's one, and the other's chicken potpie, biscuits or corn bread and spiced apples on the side."
"Hmm the chicken sure sounds good. Why don't you bring me some of that?"
"Is there anything else a man would want with his meal?"
Karla laughed. "Not this sheriff, I guess."
Hal took another sip of water then glanced out the window. The sky was ripe with the incoming thunderstorm. He hoped it would pass quickly; otherwise he was in for a drenching by the time he left the diner. Then he chuckled. If that was the worst thing he had to face that evening, he'd get off lightly.
Karla zipped off to the kitchen.
A flock of customers sailed in. The flurry of greetings inspired by their arrival filled the diner with the comfort of familiarity. Out of the corner of his eye, Hal saw Karla tear back out from behind the counter with her tray perched on a slender shoulder.
"Beep-beep!" She smiled at the newcomers in the aisle. "Beep-beep!"
Before the lively young waitress reached his booth, Hal's cell phone rang. "Sheriff Benson here."
"Hey, sir?" Patsy Anderson, his newest deputy, had a little-girl voice and the tenacity of a bulldog. "I'm not sure about this, but since you're already out there for supper, I thought you might want to know."
Hal held out a hand to slow Karla. "I want to know. What's up?"
"Well, sir, it seems when the pharmacist, Miss Scott, went to close up tonight, she got mugged"
"I'll be right there. And thanks, Patsy." He turned to Karla. "Can you have Granny hold my supper for me? I've got to go on a call."
Karla rolled her eyes. "As if this was new."
He sighed. Having Granny Annie hold his meal until after he'd taken care of whatever latest problem had erupted was not new. What was new this time was the victim.
Steph Scott had been mugged.
Hal hurried out, hopped into the cruiser, drove down Main Street, cut across River Run Road, then turned into the alley behind the pharmacy. He parked by the white Loganton PD car already there.
Veteran officer Wayne Donnelly and his rookie partner Maggie Lowe stood on one side of the back steps to the pharmacy, while Mr. Cooper, the postmaster, stood on the other. Steph sat on the top step, visibly shaken. All three were drenched by the now steady rain and blowing wind.
While Maggie smiled a greeting, Wayne frowned. Steph looked scared.
Hal tapped the brim of his hat, working to hold his concern at bay. "I was about to eat supper at Granny Annie's when my deputy called. She figured since I was close by, I might be interested in what happened. I know you guys have jurisdiction, so I'm not here officially, unless you want my help, that is. Just came to offer, since Granny Annie's is so close."
Steph glanced up at him, her gray eyes huge. "All help is welcome," she said, her voice low.
Hal shoved his hands in his pockets. That was that. It would now take an act of congress to budge him. "What happened?"
Maggie turned. "It sounds pretty typical. Steph was closing up shop when the mugger attacked. She fought him and was able to keep him from getting the key to the store."
Out of the corner of his eye, Hal saw Steph shiver. "Hang on."
He ran to his cruiser. There was no reason for her to be cold as well as hurt when he had an unused jacket in the car. The abrasions on her face were bad enough.
"Here." He held out the navy waterproof coat seconds later. "You need it more than my trunk does."
For a moment, he thought she'd argue. It wouldn't surprise him if she did. He'd watched Steph put everyone else's needs before hers for years now, even back when they'd both been in school. She'd always been the one to help rather than the one who received the help. This time, however, she was in need.
Hal was about to insist when she surprised him by reaching out and taking the jacket. Their fingers grazed in the exchange, and the electric shock of awareness that hit him took his breath away. From the startled look on Steph's face, it seemed she'd felt it, too.
For a moment, Hal wanted nothing more than to reach out, wrap his arms around her and promise her everything would be fine. But he couldn't do that, so he did the next best thing. He held out the coat for her.
As she slipped her arms into the sleeves, he said, "We're going to make sure we get the guy who did this to you."
Her silvery-gray gaze met his. "Thanks."
"Of course we will," Maggie added, giving Hal a curious look.
With a shrug, she turned back to Steph. "Don't suppose you have surveillance out here?"
Steph shook her head.
"Wouldn't be a bad idea. We might have caught the guy on film."
"I'll think about it."
"You do that," Maggie said. "Let's get back to what happened here. You're going to have to tell us everything you remember, every last detail. We never know what might be important in an investigation."
"I understand," Steph said. "I made sure everything inside was locked up as it should be before I walked out the back door. I took care of the dead bolt first, then the regular door lock. I was about to put my key chain into my purse, when "
Her words faded off into the rush of the wind, and shudders shook her. This time, Hal couldn't hold back. He reached an arm around her shoulders, offering the only thing he had to give right then: his comfort and support.
She met his gaze again, and he had the strongest urge to smooth the silky-blond bangs away from her eyes. But again, he couldn't do that. For right now, his arm around her shoulders had to be enough.
Then Steph took a deep breath. "I'm pretty sure he was after the key to the store. He didn't touch my purse. That wasn't a regular thief. I think he was after drugs."
Hal nodded. "Loganton's drug problem seems to be growing. But I'm determined to clean up the mess in my county."
Maggie chuckled. "Is that another one of those famous campaign promises, Sheriff Benson?"
Heat rushed into his cheeks. "Okay. So I am running for reelection. And, sure, I've made drugs a major plank in my campaign. But I hate the damage substance abuse brings down. And it's not just the abuser it hurts, but it's also the whole community that suffers. It's a real issue." He shook his head. "It's not just a campaign promise, Maggie. It's my personal commitment to shut down the drug trade that's wormed its way into my jurisdiction."
As he spoke, the sweet smile he liked so much brightened Steph's pale face. "I'm so glad to hear that, Sheriff Benson. I've been doing what I can to educate the kids for the past few years."
His heart kicked up its beat. "I can always use a partner in my camp."
She gave a quick nod. "You've got one. Let's get this creep."
Easy, Hal, easy. She's only promised to work with you to catch a mugger. But he was hungry for whatever he could get. He also knew if the Lord so willed, much could come from a tiny seed.
"Yes, let's catch this creep before he strikes again, Steph Scott."
The minute Hal uttered the words, a niggling thought crawled into the back of his mind and a hollow feeling into his gut. Just how did he plan to make good on his offer? He couldn't imagine there'd be clues in the alley or footprints on the wet asphalt surface. There wouldn't be fingerprints to lift since the mugger hadn't touched anything but Steph's back.
What if he couldn't catch him?
He had not only an election to lose, but he also stood to lose the chance to know Steph better. He'd first noticed Steph in school, in third or fourth grade. He'd been too shy all through their teen years to approach her, even though his interest in her had only grown. Now, after all that time he really wanted to help her. And maybe get to know her. What better way to do that than to catch the guy who'd mugged her?
But, of course, there was always the possibility he'd fail.
The creep might be long gone. Could he catch someone who'd left not a trace behind? Could he keep the light of trust in Steph Scott's eyes from burning out?
On Wednesday, the day after the mugging, Steph spent the morning preparing prescription refills for residents at The Pines, a nearby retirement community, between the orders that came in over the phone or as regular drop-offs.
At two fifteen, Chad Adams, the new driver and delivery-man for Pharmaceutical Suppliers and Mr. Cooper's much younger brother-in-law, came up to the counter and rapped his knuckles on the window.