Read an Excerpt
The helicopter landed in the clearing with a bump, bounced once, before settling on the ground again for good. Ramsey Clark shouted her thanks to the pilot, shoved open the door and jumped lightly to the ground, her lone bag slung over one shoulder. She ran in a crouch to avoid the rotors, heard the whop-whop-whop behind her indicating the pilot taking off.
She scanned the cluster of four people waiting nearby as she jogged toward them. The three men wearing suits each held a hand over his tie to prevent them from dancing in the breeze generated by the chopper’s rotors. “Director Jeffries.” The hand she offered was engulfed in the older man’s pawlike grip and squeezed until she had to hide a wince. The chief of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation hadn’t changed much in the years since she’d left its ranks. His craggy face might be a little ruddier. His mop of white hair a bit shorter. But his six-foot frame was just as straight, just as firm as ever.
“Good to see you again, Clark. I hear you’ve been making quite a name for yourself with Raiker Forensics.”
Since the director wasn’t prone to flattery, and since he could only have heard it from Adam Raiker himself, Ramsey allowed herself to feel a small glow of satisfaction. “Thank you, sir. I think I’ve learned a lot.”
Jeffries turned to the two men flanking him. “TBI agents Glenn Matthews and Warden Powell. You’ll be assigned to their team. If you need more manpower give me a holler and I’ll talk to the boss.”
Ramsey nodded her appreciation. Jeffries had no superior at TBI so they were being given carte blanche. Raiker had told her to expect as much.
The director turned to the man in the sheriff’s uniform on her right. “I believe you know Sheriff Rollings.”
Frowning, she was about to deny it. Ramsey knew no one in Buffalo Springs, Tennessee. But the sheriff was taking off his hat and recognition struck her. “Mark Rollings?” She shook her former colleague’s hand with a sense of déjà vu. “I didn’t even know you’d left TBI.”
“Couple years ago now. Didn’t even know I was interested in moving back home until the position of sheriff was open.” Rollings’s pleasantly homely face was somber. “Have to say, tonight’s the first time I’ve regretted it.”
“I assume you’ve looked at the case file.”
Ramsey’s attention shifted back to Jeffries at the question. At her nod, he went on. “Rollings has his hands full here calming the local hysteria, and after a week we aren’t progressing fast enough to suit the governor’s office. The area is attracting every national media team in the country, and the coverage is playing hell with his tourism industry expansion plans.” The director’s voice was heavy with irony.
“I understand.” And she did. Being brought in as a special consultant to the TBI pacified a politically motivated governor and diminished some of the scrutiny that would follow the department throughout the investigation. If the case drew to a quick close, the TBI reaped the positive press. If it didn’t. . . The alternative didn’t bother her. Ramsey had served as shit deflector many times in the past in her capacity as forensic consultant. If the investigation grew lengthy or remained unsolved, she would be served as sacrificial lamb to the clamoring public. Or to the state attorney’s office, if someone there decided to lay the blame on Jeffries.
“Raiker promised a mobile lab.”
“It’ll be here tomorrow,” she promised the director. “But for certain types of evidence we may need access to the TBI facility on an expedited basis.”
“We’ll try to speed any tests through the Knoxville Regional Lab.” Jeffries beetled his brows. “Just help solve this thing, Clark. It’s causing a crapstorm and I don’t want a full fledged shit tornado on my hands.”
Ramsey smiled. She’d always appreciated Jeffries’ plainspeak. “I’ll do my best, sir.”
“Can’t recall a time that wasn’t good enough for me.” Clearly finished, he turned to his agents. “I’ll expected daily updates. And keep me abreast of any major developments.” Without waiting for the men’s nods he turned and strode briskly toward a road about a quarter mile in the distance. Ramsey could make out two vehicles parked alongside it.
“I’m guessing you’d like to get on into town, drop your stuff off in the room we lined up for you,” Mark was saying.
Ramsey shook her head. “I want to see the crime scene first.” Since diplomacy was often an afterthought for her, she added belatedly, “If that’s okay.”
The sheriff raised a shoulder. “It’s all right with me. What about you fellas? Want to come along?”
The two agents looked at each other and Powell shook his head. “We’ll head back into town.” He shifted his gaze to Ramsey. “We’re set up in the local motel on the outskirts of town. One room serves as our office. We got you a room there, too when Jeffries told us you were coming.”
And by not so much as a flicker of expression did he reveal his opinion on her being brought in on the case, Ramsey noted shrewdly. She’d have to tread carefully there, with both agents, until she was certain how her presence here affected them.
“I’ll check in with you when I get to town and you can bring me up to date on your notes so far.”
When the agents headed in the same direction Jeffries had gone, she turned to Rollings.
“Let me get that for you.” He reached for her bag, but she deflected the gesture.
“I’ve got it, thanks.” She fell into step beside him as they walked toward the tan jeep emblazoned with Spring County Sheriff in black lettering on a green background. “Tell me about the case.”
“Same ol’ Ramsey.” A corner of Rollings’s mouth pulled up. “Always with the small talk. Chatter chatter chatter.” His voice hitched up a notch as he launched into a pretend conversation. ‘Well, I’m just fine, Ms. Clark. And how have you been? How’s that new job of yours? The wife? Oh, she’s fine, too. Still adjustin’ to small town life, but the two little ones keep her pretty busy. What? You’d like to see pictures? Well, it just so happens I have a couple in my wallet. Got them taken at the local Wal-Mart just last month. . . .”
“I can play the game if I need to,” she replied, only half truthfully. “Didn’t figure I needed to with you.”
He stopped at the vehicle, his hand on the handle of the driver’s door, his face serious again. “No, you don’t gotta with me. Figure we go far ‘nough back that we can just pick up. But you’ll find you’ll get further with some folks in these parts if you put forth the effort. I know you never had much patience for mindless chitchat, but the pace is slower ‘round here.”
She was more familiar than he knew with the unwritten customs and tradition demanded by polite society in the rural south. Had, in fact, spent her adult life scrubbing away most of those memories.
Rather than tell him that, she gave him a nod across the roof of the car. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She opened the back door and tossed her bag on the seat behind the wire mesh used to separate prisoners from the law enforcement personnel. Then she slid into the front passenger seat.
He folded his tall lanky form inside and started up the Jeep while she was buckling in. Several minutes later he abruptly pulled off the road and began driving across a field. After the first couple of jolts, Ramsey braced herself with one hand on the dash and the other on the roof of the car.
“Sorry.” Rollings’s lean frame seemed to move seamlessly with each jar and bump. “It’d take half an hour for us to get there by road. The kids that found the body hiked across through the woods on the other side, but going in from this direction will be an easier walk, though I’m told it takes longer. Brought the body out this way.”
“Has the victim been ID’d yet?”
“Nope. White female, between the age of eighteen and twenty-four. Found nude so no help with the clothing.” A muscle jumped in Mark’s jaw. “Not from these parts, is all I know. No hits from National Missing Persons database, at least not yet.”
So a Jane Doe, at least for now. Ramsey felt a stab of sympathy for the unknown woman. She’d died alone and away from home. Was that worse than being murdered in familiar surroundings? Somehow it seemed so.
“How valuable have the wits been?”
“What, the kids?” Mark shot her a look. “Told us what they know, which didn’t turn out to be much. Both scared silly, of course. Spouting nonsense about red mist and screaming and dancing lights. . .tell you what I think.” The Jeep hit a rut with a bone jarring bounce that rattled Ramsey’s teeth. “I think half is fueled by that blasted legend folks ‘round here insist on feeding regularly.”
“Legend?” The case file contained only facts of the case. But when facts were in short supply, other details took on more importance.
Rollings face looked pained. “Guess you’ll be hearing it from ‘bout every person you talk to in town. I know I can count of you, out of anyone, not to be distracted by nonsense.” Still, it seemed to take him a few moments to choose his words. Or maybe he was saving his strength for wrestling the Jeep. Beneath the velvety spread of pasture, the terrain was wicked.
“We’ve got something of a local phenomena here called the Red Mist. Someone else could explain it better but it’s caused by some sort of reaction from some plants ‘round here coming in contact with iron oxide in stagnant water, coupled with contaminants in the air. . .once every blue moon the fog in low lying areas takes on a red tinge for a day or two. Nothing magical about it of course, ‘cept the way it makes folks ‘round here take leave of their senses.”
“So the kids that found the body saw this red mist?”
“That’s what they’re saying. And I do have others in these parts that claim they saw the same thing, so might’ve been true. But local legend has it that whenever the red mist appears, death follows.”
The Jeep hit a rut then that had Ramsey rapping her head smartly on the ceiling of the vehicle. With a grim smile, she repositioned herself more securely in her seat and waited for her internal organs to settle back into place. Then she shot the man beside her a look. “Well, all nonsense aside, Sheriff, so far it appears your local legend is more grounded in facts than you want to admit.”
Rollings brought the Jeep to a halt a few hundred yards shy of the first copse of trees. “Don’t even joke about that,” he advised grimly. “My office is spending too much of our time dealing with hysterical locals who set too much store by superstitious hogwash. The truth is, this is a quiet place. The crime we do have tends to be drunk and disorderlies after payday at the lumber mill, or the occasional domestic dispute. Once in a while we have a fire, or a bad accident to respond to. But violent crime is a stranger here. And when it appears, people don’t understand it. They get scared, and when folks get scared they search for meaning. This legend is just their way of getting a handle on how bad things can happen near their town.”
Ramsey got out of the car and stretched, avoiding, as long as possible, having to look at that expanse of woods ahead of them. “That’s down right philosophical, Mark. Didn’t learn that in the psych courses at TBI.”
He reached back into the car for the shotgun mounted above the dash, and straightened to shut the door, a ghost of a smile playing across his mouth. “You’re right there. I understand these people. Lived here most of my life. I know how they think. How they react. Don’t always agree with ‘em. But I can usually figure where they’re coming from.”
They headed for the woods, and Ramsey could feel her palms start to dampen. Her heart began to thud, the physical reaction annoying her. It was just trees, for godsakes. Each nothing but a mass of carbon dioxide. And she’d mastered this ridiculous fear—she had—years ago.
Deliberately, she quickened her step. “You hoping to go hunting while we’re here?” She cocked her head at the shotgun he carried.
“Not much of a hunter. But we do have some wildlife in these parts. Those kids were downright stupid to come in here at night. There’s feral pigs in these woods. An occasional bobcat. Seen enough copperheads around in my time to keep me wary.”
When her legs wanted to falter at his words, she kept them moving steadily forward. Felt the first cool shadows from the trees overhead slick over her skin like a demon’s kiss.
“Wish I could tell you there was much of a crime scene,” Mark was saying as he walked alongside her. “But apparently a bunch of kids dared eachother to come into the woods and bring back proof they’d been here. First ones back to town got bragging rights, I ‘spect. So they paired off and trooped out in this direction. Shortly after the two found the victim, a few other kids arrived on the scene. And then the whole thing became one big clusterfuck because we had tracks and prints all over the damn place.”
Ramsey felt a familiar surge of impatience. No one liked to have the scene contaminated but one of the few downsides to her job with Raiker Forensics was that she was rarely called to a fresh crime scene. By the time their services were requested, the crime could be days, or weeks old. She had to satisfy herself with case files, pictures of the scene and notes taken by the local law enforcement.
“The way Jeffries talked, you’ve gotten more than your share of unwanted media attention.” They stepped deeper into the woods now and the trees seemed to close in, sucking them in to shadowy interior. She resisted the urge to wipe her dampening palms on her pants leg. “Seems odd for national news to be interested in a homicide in rural Tennessee.”
“I suspect some local nutjob tipped them off. It’s the legend again.” Mark’s face was shiny with perspiration, but Ramsey was chilled. She would be until they stepped back out into the daylight again. “Every two or three decades there’s this Red Mist phenomena and a couple times in the past there’s been a homicide around the same time. The two circumstances get linked, and all of a sudden we have people jabbering about secret spells and century old curses and what have you.”
She made a noncommittal sound. Part of her attention was keeping a wary eye out for those copperheads he’d mentioned so matter-of-factly. But despite her impatience with idle chitchat, she was interested in all the details that would have been missing from the dried police-speak accounting of facts pertinent to the case so far. Evidence was in short supply. It was people who would solve this case. People who’d seen something. Knew something. The tiniest bit of information could end up being key to the homicide. And with no murder weapon and no suspects and little trace evidence, she’d take all the information she could get.
“We’re still trying to sort out tracks from the kids at the scene with any that may have been there earlier.”
“And you’ve eliminated each of the kids as the possible killer?”
“Shoot, Ramsey these kids are sixteen, seventeen years old!”
When she merely looked at him, brows raised, he had the grace to look abashed. “Yeah, I know what you’ve seen in your career. I’ve seen the same. But ‘round here we don’t have kids with the conscience of wild dogs. They all alibi each other for up to thirty minutes before the body’s discovery. Witnesses place the lot of them at Sody’s parking lot for the same time. Pretty unlikely a couple hightailed it into the woods, committed murder and dumped the body knowing more kids would be traipsing in any minute.”
Unlikely, yes. Impossible, no. But Ramsey kept her thoughts to herself. She was more anxious than ever to review all the notes on the case and hear what Agents Powell and Matthews had to say on the subject.
There was a rustle in the underbrush to her right, but it didn’t get her blood racing. No, that feat was accomplished by the trees themselves, looming like sinister sentinels above her. Hemming her in with their close proximity. She rubbed at her arms, where goose flesh prickled and shoved at the mental door of her mind to lock those memories away.
Some would have found the scene charming, with sun dappling the forest floor with brilliant slants of light, spearing through the shadow. They wouldn’t look at the scene and see danger behind every tree trunk. Wouldn’t feel terror lurking behind. Horror ahead.
The trail narrowed, forcing her to follow Rollings single file. “Whose property are we on?”
“Most of it belongs to the county. We’ve got little parcels that butt up against the land of property owners but we’re standing on county ground right now.” They walked in silence another fifteen minutes and Ramsey wondered anew at any kids foolish enough to make this trek at night.
Sixteen or seventeen, Mark had said they were. She knew firsthand just how naïve kids that age could be. How easily fooled. And how quickly things could go very wrong.
One moment they were deep in the forest the next they walked out into a clearing with a large pond. It was ringed with towering pines and massive oaks, their branches dripping with Spanish moss and curling vines. The water looked boggy at the edge closest to them, with clumps of rushes and wild grasses interspersed between the trees.
Ramsey’s gaze was drawn immediately to the crime scene tape still fluttering from the wooden stakes hammered into the ground. A plastic evidence marker poked partway out of the trampled weeds near the pond, overlooked by the investigators when they’d packed up.
And in the center of that tape, crouched at the water’s edge was a man repeatedly dunking something into the water and then holding it up to examine it before repeating the action yet again. A few yards away a jumble of equipment was piled on the ground.
She eyed Rollings. “One of yours?”
The sheriff looked pained as he shook his head. “Now, Ramsey,” he started, as she turned toward the stranger. “Better let me handle this.”
But she was already striding away. “Hey. Hey!”
The man raised a hand in a lazy salute, but it was clear he was much more interested in the reading on the instrument he held than he was in her. Ramsey waited until he’d lowered the tool to jot a notation down in the notebook open on his lap before he looked up, shot her a lazy grin. “Afternoon, ma’am.”
“Interesting thing about that yellow tape all around you,” she said with mock politeness. “It’s actually meant to keep people out of a crime scene, not invite them inside it.”
The sun at her back had the man squinting a bit at her, but the smile never left his face. And it was, for a man, an extraordinarily attractive face. His jaw was long and lean, his eyes a bright laser blue. The golden shade of his hair was usually found only on the very young or the very determined. Someone had broken his nose for him, and the slight bump in it was the only imperfection in a demeanor that was otherwise almost too flawless. Ramsey disliked him on sight just on principal.
“Well, fact is, ma’am, this isn’t an active crime scene anymore. Hey, Mark.” He called a friendly greeting to the man behind her. “Kendra May know you’re out walking pretty girls around the woods?”
“Dev. Thought you’d be finished up here by now.”
Ramsey caught the sheepish note in Rollings’s voice and arched a brow at him. The sheriff intercepted it and followed up with an introduction. “Ramsey Clark, this is my cousin, Devlin Stryker. He’s uh. . .just running some tests.”
“Your cousin,” she repeated carefully. “And does your cousin work for the department? If so, in what capacity?”
Rollings’s face reddened a little. “No. He’s a. . .well, he’s sort of a scientist, you could say.”
Stryker rose in one lithe motion and made his way carefully back to the rest of his belongings, which included, she noted, a large duffel bag with unfamiliar looking instruments strewn around it; a couple cameras, a night vision light source and. . .she blinked once. . .a neatly rolled up sleeping bag.
“Odd place to go camping.”
“Can’t say I used the sleeping bag much last night.” He unzipped the duffel and began placing his things inside it. “Too worried about snakes. I thought I’d stick around a while to compare last night’s readings with some from today.”
With quick neat movements he placed everything but the sleeping bag in the duffle and zipped it, standing up to sling its strap over his shoulder. “I’m done here for now, though.”
“Done with what, exactly?”
Devlin sent her an easy smile that carried just enough charm to have her defenses slamming firmly into place. “Well, let’s see. I used a thermal scanner to measure temperature changes. An EMF meter to guage electromagnetic fields. An ion detector to calculate the presence of negative ions. Then there’s the guassometer, which. . .”
Comprehension warring with disbelief, Ramsey swung back to face Rollings, her voice incredulous. “A ghosthunter? Are you kidding me? You let some paranormal quack compromise the crime scene?”