Josie kept it brief, discussing only the basic facts of what she had seen that morning and nothing else. She figured she couldn’t possibly get herself in trouble by merely describing what a half dozen other Stop and Go patrons had also seen. She left Trinity pouting and drove down the mountain, still cursing herself for having gotten snagged in Trinity’s web. She was going to be furious when she realized that Josie had no intention of giving her an exclusive interview about the investigation involving the allegation against her, or anything else for that matter.
She slowed the car as she came to the turn-off to the Colemans’ home and made the left into the driveway. Halfway to the house she found a Denton police cruiser. In it, his head lolling, eyes closed, sat patrol officer Noah Fraley. Josie pulled up behind him and got out, her lower back protesting and her leg throbbing as she put weight on it again. As she approached, she could hear Noah snoring.
Leaning into the car window, the flutter of yellow crime scene tape in the tree line caught her eye. So, he was there to guard the scene. Gently, Josie nudged his shoulder and he jolted awake, confusion blanketing his face momentarily. As he registered her presence, a crimson flush stained his cheeks. “Jos— Detective Quinn,” he stammered. “What’re you doing here?”
Flustered by having
been caught sleeping on the job, his words came out fast, piling on top of one
another. When she smiled at him, the color in his cheeks deepened. He had
always had a crush on her. Noah wasn’t bad-looking, but it was impossible to
see him that way. He had no swagger. You had to have some degree
of confidence to be a cop. Even if
it was fake. Noah’s decided
lack of self-assurance was exactly the reason
he kept getting assignments like this—sitting in a car all day making sure no one went into the woods.
“Is that the crime scene?” she asked him.
He glanced over at the crime scene tape tied across the trees on the shoulder of the road and then back at her. She could see the hesitation in his face. “Uh, yeah, it’s through the woods there.”
The trees were thick and the woodland dense; there was no path that Josie could see. “Through the woods? How far from the road?”
Noah shrugged. “I don’t know. You have to go back a ways.”
She rested her forearms on the window’s edge and leaned closer. “Do you mind if I take a look?”
“I—uh, I can’t, you know, I’m not supposed to, I really shouldn’t—” “Noah,” she said, her tone conspiratorial. “I’m an experienced
investigator. You know I won’t disturb the scene.” “But the chief said no one except—”
“It’s already been processed, hasn’t it?”
“Well, yeah, but I still have to keep a log of everyone who comes in and out,” he said.
“You don’t even have to put me on the log. It will be like I was never here.”
“But the point of the log is so we know who was on the scene and when.”
She tried another tack. “Officer Fraley, am I or am I not your superior?”
He shifted uncomfortably, looking away from her. “But you’re not, you’re—you’re on suspension.”
“You don’t think the chief will call me back soon? I know you guys are running on empty. He’s got everyone on around the clock, doesn’t he?”
Noah nodded. He let out a long breath. “It’s been awful,” he admitted.
“And now with this shooting…” she added.
He met her eyes again. “I, uh, heard you were there. Glad you’re okay, by the way.”
“Me too,” she said. She was close enough to smell the stale scent of old sweat. He probably hadn’t been home to shower or change for a good three days. “Noah,” she tried again. “The chief is going to call me back any minute now. Ray told me so. When he does I’m going to need to be up to speed. You don’t have to tell anyone I was here, and I don’t have to tell anyone that you fell asleep at your post.”
He closed his eyes,
resignation and shame warring for dominance on his face. “Please, just be
She patted his shoulder and half-ran, half-hobbled off toward the woods before he could change his mind.
“Don’t leave your car here!” he shouted after her.
He was right. If someone from the department came while she was in the woods, there was no way he could explain away her vehicle. Of course, there weren’t many places she could leave her car without giving away the fact that she was nosing around the Coleman scene. She couldn’t park up near the house, so the best she could do was park along the shoulder of the main road about a half mile back. Anyone coming from town to the Coleman home would not pass her vehicle. If someone showed up while she was at the abduction scene, she could always find her way back to her car through the woods and take off with no one the wiser. She just had to hope no one on the force decided to pass the Coleman home and head toward Dirk Spencer’s development while she was at the scene.
By the time she got to the Colemans’ mailbox she was sweating pretty heavily, and the left side of her body had gone from a dull ache to an angry throb. She took off her jacket and tied it around her waist. As she passed the mailbox, she saw something bright and pink in the grass a few feet from it. A closer inspection revealed an acrylic nail: hot pink with yellow stripes. She snapped a few pictures of it with her phone before picking it up with a tissue and putting it in her pocket.
She knew the woods around the Colemans’ home had been searched extensively. They would have come to the edge of the road. They probably had even gone a few miles into the woods on the other side of the road, across from the mailbox. She was sure this nail would have been seen by someone already. It should have been taken into evidence, at least until they could determine whether or not it belonged to Isabelle. Unless it was from one of the searchers, which was entirely possible. Or perhaps Mrs. Coleman had stopped for the mail and lost it. Josie sighed as she trudged up the long driveway. This was the sort of thing that drove her crazy. There was no way to know whether or not it was important. If she hadn’t had to give up her badge, she would go right to Mrs. Coleman with it and ask if she recognized it. But she wasn’t a cop right now.
She nodded at Noah as
she stepped gingerly behind the crime scene tape. More yellow tape tied from
tree to tree formed a narrow path that led to the clearing. The ground was
covered with mud, decomposing leaves, and snapped-off tree branches. She estimated the scene was about
forty feet from the side of the driveway. It was just a small clearing with
a large stone to one side. There was nothing to it, really. All the evidence had been processed and removed.
Josie spun in a slow circle, taking in the scene.
“What the hell was she doing out here?” she muttered to herself.
There was nothing remarkable about the clearing at all. It was like a thousand other clearings in the Pennsylvania woods surrounding Denton and its neighboring towns. It wasn’t even necessarily a clearing so much as a slightly larger gap between trees. What had Isabelle been doing this deep in the woods? As Josie picked her way back toward the road, she wondered if the girl had been on the driveway and had run into the woods when she realized she was being pursued. Or perhaps there had been a struggle and she had escaped into the trees.
Josie didn’t have enough information. All she knew was what she could glean from Trinity Payne’s news reports. As far as anyone knew, Isabelle had been home alone when she disappeared. Nothing in her home was disturbed, and her cell phone had been missing.
At the driveway Josie waved a thank you at Noah, who looked considerably relieved to see her go. On the way back to her car, she fingered the wad of tissue holding the acrylic nail and wondered when the chief was going to call her to come back to work.