Whispers of Fate
TAVEY WATCHED HER best man-trailing dog, Dixie, as she turned her head left and then right before continuing left, negating the right side of the trail. Tavey, alert to her dog’s behavior, followed her small bloodhound deeper into the woods on the side of a ravine. It was mid-May, early to be this hot out. The deep foliage above kept the temperature down, but it was still eighty degrees and her hair and shirt were soaked with sweat.
Tavey’s radio crackled; another handler reporting that his dog had seemed to lose the scent, and somewhere in the distance another dog howled.
Tavey ignored it, rolling her leash in her hand to decrease the slack as Dixie wriggled her way into the brush—she didn’t want them getting tangled during the search.
Dixie seemed to wander, but Tavey recognized the behavior; Dixie was disregarding directions in her search for a missing hiker, Jane Simmons.
“Come on, girl, get ’em,” she encouraged, knowing she had to keep the game fun for the dog even as she worried for the girl, who’d gotten lost on a family camping trip trying to find a signal on her cell phone. Tavey had been called in early this morning and had driven several hours into the Chattahoochee National Forest, at the end of the Appalachian Trail.
Dixie started climbing upward along a narrow ridge made from the roots of several trees above. Tavey, though in excellent shape, struggled to keep her breathing even as she clambered after her beloved canine.
After Tavey had inherited her grandfather’s estate when she was sixteen, she’d changed the breeding program of the hounds that her family had kept for generations. Instead of working to breed perfect show dogs, Tavey had begun breeding smaller-bodied, resilient hounds with less skin and more energy. She bred them for temperament as well, trying to make each generation eager for work and play, obedient, and friendly. Tavey had different ambitions than her grandfather. He’d liked showing off; she wanted to find people, whether they were dead or alive, so she bred dogs that were suited to that endeavor, and she selected the volunteer handlers with equal care.
She and Dixie were an excellent team, more successful than most, and this particular search was in her neck of the woods, only a few hours from her home.
“Good girl, Dixie, take me to the girl.”
Several hours earlier, the coordinators from the Union County, Georgia, Sheriff’s Office and the other volunteers had met at a base camp downwind of the family’s original campsite. A helicopter had been searching overhead at the time, something she’d trained Dixie to ignore. All the handlers had been given the girl’s scent, gathered onto gauze pads from the inside of her sleeping bag. Dixie had obediently sniffed inside the plastic bag containing the gauze pad, her body vibrating with eagerness between Tavey’s legs.
“Okay, girl, find ’em,” she’d cheered, still standing with the dog’s chest between her calves, giving the command to locate the scent. She wouldn’t release the dog until her next command, which was “Get ’em.”
Tavey looked up, making the rookie mistake of taking her attention off her dog, and caught Tyler’s gaze from across the campsite. She didn’t know what he was doing there, but he was standing next to a teenage girl with what looked like a Lab/shepherd mix—the dog was wearing a training harness.
She hadn’t seen Tyler in months, not since one of her best friends, Chris, had been targeted by a deranged killer, and he’d been involved in the investigation. They always seemed to meet over dead bodies, though she hoped that wouldn’t be the case this time.
It was stupid, but she missed him. She hadn’t missed him this much since he’d left Georgia to go to college in Texas. When he’d returned to work in the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office about ten years ago, he’d moved to Canton, a town about thirty minutes away. She’d seen him every now and again when her nonprofit organization, Once Was Lost, stumbled on a piece of information about a missing child, but she’d made an effort to stay out of his way. Their conversations weren’t as painful as they’d been when she was a teenager, but being near him, knowing he hated her, always put her in a bad mood. She’d seen him more often since he’d moved back to Fate; this morning’s encounter was just the latest.
When she’d looked at him this morning, standing with his eyes shaded beneath the brim of his hat and his hands on his hips, it was all she could do to pull her eyes away from his and direct her attention back to Dixie, releasing her with the command to start the search. She’d watched as the dog circled once before centering on the scent and taking off with Tavey following on the other end of the loose lead at a brisk jog, all thoughts of Tyler Downs buried beneath the urgency of the search.
He wasn’t gone completely, though; he never was. Thoughts of him lingered like the infinitesimally small particles that Dixie followed with her nose, small scent whispers, dropped ceaselessly day by day, distracting her from the tasks she set for herself.
Dixie chuffed, her tail wagging, and tugged Tavey toward a copse of trees. Tavey followed, praying silently.
“Please be alive. Please be alive.”
Dixie approached the trees, her tail wagging furiously, and she let out a joyous bark, dancing in place.
Usually she jumped up when she found someone, but this girl was on the ground, on her side in a fetal position, not moving. Tavey praised Dixie as she hurried to crouch beside the body, patting the dog as she tugged out a dried liver treat and held it out with one hand. She pulled out her radio and her GPS locator with the other.
“This is Collins. I’ve got her.” She bent to check the girl’s pulse as she rattled off the GPS location. “She appears unconscious. Checking for a pulse.” The girl’s skin was cold and clammy despite the heat, but Tavey let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding when she felt a small, faint pulse beneath her fingertips. The hiker was young, with a nose ring and pink-streaked blond hair.
“I’ve got a pulse. Y’all better get down here. Over.” She hooked her radio back on her belt and pulled her backpack around on one shoulder, digging for the small makeup mirror she kept for emergencies. She held it up to the girl’s mouth without moving her; she didn’t see any injuries, but she didn’t want to take any chances. A faint but detectable fog appeared on the mirror. She slid the mirror back in her bag.
Tavey tugged her radio off her belt again. “Collins here. Breathing is shallow, but steady. Over.”
She pulled a survival blanket out of her backpack and tucked it gently over the girl. Minutes later, she heard the tramp of boots on brush and the rhythmic thump of helicopter blades.
Tavey moved out of the way with Dixie, relieved to hand the girl’s care over to the paramedics who now swarmed the area, securing the girl and checking her vitals.
Tavey turned away and praised Dixie lavishly, kissing and petting her exuberantly while offering dried liver treats.
She fed them to Dixie while continuing to praise her. “That’s my good girl. I’m so proud of you.” She petted Dixie’s soft ears and the dog licked her face eagerly. Tavey couldn’t help but laugh and tried to turn her head away from the liver-scented love.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe what a bitch you can be,” a deep baritone muttered from several feet away.
Tavey jerked her head up to see Tyler standing a few yards behind Dixie, watching her kiss and pet the dog. He was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, his mouth bracketed by deep grooves. She knew what he meant by the comment, even though it seemed to come out of nowhere. She’d been calling him for months for more information regarding the investigation into the serial murders that had occurred last fall, and the message she’d left last week had been less than polite, perhaps even threatening. She was desperate to know more about what they’d found when they’d discovered her friend Christina and the three kidnapped teenagers at the abandoned Cherokee Paper Mill.
He hadn’t spoken loudly enough for any of the paramedics or the other search teams converging on the area to hear, but Tavey still looked around to make sure no one was listening, no one was paying attention to them.
She studied the tall, hard-muscled body of the man she’d loved since she was eight years old. He wasn’t on duty, obviously—he was wearing jeans and an untucked short-sleeve button-down shirt—but she’d bet Dixie he was carrying a weapon. Sheriff’s department officers were encouraged to wear their weapons at all times.
He’d grown more handsome over the years, his features becoming more defined, less pretty and more masculine. His hair was still blond, but he kept it cut short now. When they were in high school, he’d kept it long—enough that the ends stuck out of his helmet during football games, his cap during baseball games, and around his shoulders like a young Viking god otherwise.
Tavey considered her response. He hadn’t said anything quite so hurtful since they were both teenagers, but she understood where the venom came from. She’d come to expect it, the stab of pain accompanying her involuntary delight at the sight of him. He was her secret pain, her unwelcome obsession, her missing friend.
When she’d lost Summer, she’d lost him as well.
Tavey stood, dusting her hands on the legs of her pants. “Good afternoon, Tyler. What brings you to the woods?”
He shook his head. “Typical Tavey response. You know I hate that.”
She did. He hated it when she was polite—had since they were kids—which made absolutely no sense to her.
“Fine.” She dropped the coolly polite tone she adopted when she was nervous or speaking in public. “What are you doing here?”
Dixie wandered over to Tyler, wagging her tail at him. Tavey kept the lead loose, knowing that while Tyler might not like her, he had a soft spot for dogs. He’d completed training to work with the search dogs in the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and he’d once kept two German shepherds at his house just southeast of Fate. They’d died about a year ago of old age, within months of each other. Tavey knew all this by accident, more or less. The minute Tyler Downs divorced his wife and moved to Fate, gossipy tongues had started wagging, informing Tavey of his every move. She hadn’t gone to a great deal of effort to stop the flood of information, but she hoped she’d hidden her intense interest. Mrs. Carlyle and her friends—Tavey’s friend Chris called them the Four Senior Ladies of the Apocalypse—stopped her last week in the grocery store and voiced their concern that she was going to dry up and turn into an old maid, and didn’t Tyler Downs look just so handsome in his uniform.
He looks handsome in everything, she thought as he bent down and patted Dixie, rubbing her ears and crooning to her. Tavey felt a brief slash of jealousy and immediately chastised herself for it. She was not going to be jealous of a dog, and Dixie deserved as much affection as she wanted.
Around them milled other handlers and their dogs, some of them calling out greetings and congratulations to Tavey. She barely noticed them and just nodded absently in response.
Tyler stood, giving Dixie one last pat. “I’m here helping Christie, my stepdaughter. She thinks her dog, Grumbles, would make a good search-and-rescue dog.”
“I see.” She’d never met the girl, but she’d heard through the town grapevine that he’d stayed involved in Christie’s life even after his divorce from her mom, attending her soccer matches and helping her with college. He and Angela, the girl’s mother, hadn’t been married long and hadn’t had any children of their own. Tavey felt her hand twitch involuntarily toward her stomach. She’d never even come close. She’d been too busy with Once Was Lost, which included her search-and-rescue canines and the animal rescue she’d built on her property. Tavey and her two friends also actively searched for missing and exploited children, though her friend Chris did most of that work online.
“Where is she now?” Tavey asked Tyler.
He looked around. “She was just talking to—” He nodded to a group of people nearby, all with dogs on leads. Several collapsible water bowls had been set down around their feet, but most of the dogs had already had their fill and were lying on the ground, silently enjoying each other’s company.
The sight reminded Tavey that she needed to give Dixie some water. She swung her backpack around, pulling out a collapsible dish of her own and one of the many water bottles that she had lugged on the trail for hours. She unfolded the plastic dish that reminded her of the Barbie pool she’d had as a child and was pouring water in when Tyler spoke.
“I want you to stay away from my uncle.”
Tavey continued pouring, but her hand shook, just a little. Dixie, unwilling to wait, was lapping at the water as Tavey poured it out, spraying droplets on her tan hiking pants. With an effort, Tavey stopped her hand from shaking and finished filling the bowl for Dixie.
When Tavey stood, he was standing just a few feet away, and she realized that he moved as silently as ever. He’d also lowered his voice, probably to keep anyone from hearing their conversation, but to Tavey it sounded both intimate and threatening.
“I can’t do that.” She shifted her gaze away from his mouth, which had tightened with anger. She breathed in deeply through her nose, as her friend Chris had taught her during yoga class, and drew in the smell of overheated male and overturned earth. “You know as well as I do what they found.”
“Anyone could have written that.”
Tavey shook her head at his stubbornness. Several months ago, Chris had been kidnapped by a psychopath and taken to an abandoned paper mill deep in the woods. While searching the mill for evidence, the police had found several additional bodies in the millpond and an old book with Summer’s name written in the inside cover. The letters were shaky and awkward, as if Summer herself, who’d been blind since birth, had written her name with someone guiding her hand. Above her name, in a tight, spidery scrawl, had been a quote from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, stories about the Vietnam War. Tyler’s Uncle Abraham had served in the war. A slim connection, maybe, but it was enough to kindle the suspicion that had lingered in Tavey’s mind all these years. The forensic investigators hadn’t gotten any usable prints, and when the FBI and county sheriffs had interviewed him, Abraham had denied all knowledge of the book, but Tavey wanted to talk to him herself.
“You know it’s his book. It’s about the Vietnam War. He must have given it to her,” she accused.
“Why would he do that?” Tyler’s voice never broke a whisper. “The man did everything he could to avoid you girls. Why in God’s name would he write something for a girl who couldn’t even read it?”
Tavey stepped closer as well. “I don’t know. But he did. I just need a sample of his handwriting to prove it. That’s it.”
“And then what? So what if it’s his? What does that prove?”
“It proves he isn’t telling us something. Something about that time. Maybe he didn’t kill Summer, but he knows something.”
Tyler moved closer. “Leave. Him. The. Fuck. Alone.”
Tavey’s eyes snapped to his at the commanding tone and her chin lifted. “Or what? You’ll arrest me again for trespassing?” He’d arrested her three weeks ago when she’d attempted to get Abraham to talk to her. She’d been out before they’d even arrived at the station—the chief had seen to it.
“For starters, I’m thinking that my uncle is well within his rights to sue for harassment.”
She leaned even closer, feeling her heart race as she confronted him. God, he was beautiful. His eyes were bright blue with shots of white, like a husky’s. “Fine. You go ahead.”
Unlike most people, Tavey was not afraid of lawyers. Tavey had an army of lawyers at her disposal; she considered her easy access to them one of the main benefits of being from an absurdly wealthy family.
He gripped her upper arms, surprising her into jerking back, but he held her still, tightening his fingers just enough to hold but not to hurt. He smelled delicious, like the woods and sweat.
He didn’t say anything; his teeth were clenched around fury, and he wasn’t letting it go easily.
Tavey held herself stiffly in his arms, wondering what he was going to do. He’d touched her like this, with such intense ferocity, only once before, when they were teenagers. They’d been screaming at each other on the porch of Abraham’s house when he’d reached out and dragged her forward for a kiss that had ruined Tavey for life. Though full of fury, no other kiss had ever made her feel as if her soul was being lit up like mist at sunrise. Even now, she wanted to howl when he let her go and stepped away, his hands coming out to his sides as if in denial.
He slashed at the air in her direction, already turning away. “Just leave him be, Tavey. For once in your stubborn-ass life, let it rest. He’s . . . he’s dying.”
He stomped back over to where his stepdaughter waited, her head tilted curiously as she watched the two of them.
Tavey drew in a shuddering breath. Dying. No.
The old bastard couldn’t die. Not until he’d told her where to find Summer.