Excerpt From Killer Heat
by Brenda Novak
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Francesca Moretti thought she couldn’t be seeing what she was seeing. So much junk cluttered the salvage yard that it could be any number of different things, right? She wasn’t that close. And it was wrapped in a painters tarp and partially hidden behind some wood pallets, sawhorses and stacks of roofing material. But the longer she examined the size and dimensions of that shape, the more convinced she became. That was a human body.
Filled with revulsion, she shrank back into the shade of the closest outbuilding. The blazing July sun, bouncing off the sea of car carcasses, bent bicycle frames, even obsolete farm equipment, made her feel as if she was trapped in an oven instead of running down a lead on a ten-acre parcel of land on the outskirts of Prescott, Arizona. But it was panic and not heat that threatened to suffocate her.
Could this really be happening? Again? In her last big case, shed located what was left of the missing wife and mother shed been hired to find. The discovery had made national headlines; Janice Greys murder probably wouldve gone unsolved without Francesca. She provided the missing piece of the puzzle that confirmed a murder had taken place, which allowed investigators to go ahead and prosecute their prime suspect. But this type of thing didnt happen very often and certainly not to the same private investigator. Francesca had pretty much decided it would never happen again. Not to her, anyway. And then…this.
Trying to ignore the Doberman thatd started barking like crazy the moment she set foot in the yard–a dog which, fortunately, was chained up to the back of the house–she stared at what appeared to be a shock of brown hair spilling out from under that paint-speckled tarp. She wanted to identify the body, make sure it was her clients sister, as she thought.
But that could wait. She preferred to avoid the sickly sweet scent that accompanied decomposition, especially decomposition in such heat. And, judging by the stiffness of the corpse, apparent from the odd angles that refused to let the tarp lie flat, the body was in full rigor. There was no reason to gaze upon a sight any more gruesome than the one of dark promise she was seeing now. The memory would only keep her up at night. Better to let the county homicide investigator shed met with earlier handle the situation from here.
Yes, get help. That was what she needed to do. Immediately. She wouldnt want to ruin any forensic evidence linking April Bonner to the man whod killed her, right?
Hands shaking, she fumbled in the purse she carried across her body, searching for her iPhone. She was breathing again, shallowly. Try as she might she couldnt override her bodys autonomic nervous system, which was giving her hell.
Calm down. Youre okay. Everything will be fine. Youre the one who wanted to add missing persons to your list of services. You craved the challenge, remember? You wanted a chance to solve the difficult to impossible.
But that was just it. Locating people whod gone missing wasnt supposed to be this easy. And the goal was to find them alive.
Finally, her fingers encountered her iPhone. She was scrolling through her address book for Investigator Finchs phone number when she heard approaching footsteps–the purposeful stride of a man wearing boots from the sound of it–and brought her head up, fast. She wasnt alone? Thered been no answer when she knocked at the old wood-frame house facing the road, and she hadnt heard a vehicle. But that didnt mean anything. This was a big property.
So weak she doubted she could run even if she had to, she peered around the corner of the building. She couldnt see whoever approached.
Sweat, rolling from her hairline, dripped into her eyes. She blinked to clear her vision and prayed for a burst of adrenaline to stop her knees from turning to jelly. What was wrong with her? In her line of work, the threat of physical injury or death came with the territory. Shed known that from the beginning. But shed always imagined herself being so much tougher, so much calmer in the face of danger. She hadnt reacted like this when shed been a cop, or when shed found Janices remains scattered in that gully, had she?
No. But shed worked property crimes when she was with Phoenix PD and, after that, the Maricopa County Sheriffs Office. And the day she found Janice, shed been with a group of search and rescue guys shed hired to scour land the police had decided was too far out. Theyd stumbled across bones, which put more time and emotional distance between the violence thatd taken Janices life and the harsh truth of whatd happened.
This was different. Francesca had just discovered a recent kill. She was alone in a rather remote location. And no one else could say where that location was. Shed driven from her home in Chandler two hours to the south and didnt know anyone in the area.
Whos there? And what do you want?
It was a man all right, and he didnt sound pleased to have a visitor. The harsh sound of his voice set the dog barking at a far more feverish pitch.
Unwilling to answer, and afraid to poke her head around the shed again for fear shed be spotted and draw the man right to her, she pressed her back against the wood of the building. The bartender at The Pour House had told her hed spotted a woman resembling April getting into a truck driven by the guy who owned this salvage yard: Butch Vaughn. Shed come out here hoping to speak to Vaughn. But after finding the figure beneath the tarp, she knew it wasnt the time or the place to confront a possible killer. Especially a killer with a Doberman that could easily be released. The police could deal with it.
I know youre there, he said. Demons making sure of it.
Demon had to be the dog. What an appropriate name….
What are you doin trespassin on my property? His footsteps had grown far less decisive. He wasnt quite sure where she was. Dont you have any manners?
Her actions said more about her nerve than her manners. Pushing, even when others didnt want to be pushed, and looking, even when others didnt want certain things to be seen, was part of her job. Although she hadnt always been so assertive, her desire to succeed had forced her to overcome her natural reluctance to pry. Timid private investigators had little chance of helping anyone. If the owner of this property hadnt been seen with April, whod been missing for three days, Francesca would never have considered intruding on his privacy.
Glancing behind her, she wondered if she should make a break for her car. Could she get around the house and all the way to the road before he caught her? If her heart wasnt already threatening to pound out of her chest, she thought she might have a chance. Five years ago, shed taken up long distance running as a way to relieve stress and stay in shape. She prided herself on her athletic ability. But a quarter mile had never seemed as far as it did in this moment. And she had no illusion that she could out-sprint a man who was in top physical condition. Shed seen this guys profile on the dating Web site where April had first encountered him. If Harry Statham was really Butch Vaughn, as shed begun to suspect, and the muscular picture hed posted was anywhere close to accurate, he was definitely fit….
Whats the matter? he called out. Cat got your tongue?
Her other option was pepper spray. Just after shed been accepted to the police academy, her father had accidentally been shot by his own partner during a drug bust and had been confined to a wheelchair. Seeing him struggle with his lost mobility day after day, year after year left an impression she wasn’t likely to forget. As soon as she quit the force to open her own investigative agency, shed quit carrying a gun. She no longer even owned one. But she needed some protection.
I want to know why you’re snooping around, he said.
Was this Butch? It had to be. He’d said my property. Did he realize what she’d found? He had to at least suspect, didnt he?
Unsure of her ability to outrun him, she reached into her purse. He was coming up on the other side of the building as if hed guessed where she was hiding. The crunch of his soles striking the rocky desert soil ratcheted up the tension thrumming through her as if he had an external crank that stretched every nerve taut and tightened every muscle. Especially when she couldnt lay hold of her pepper spray.
Where was it? Had she lost it? Shed never really had to spray anyone. She kept it with her more as a precaution…
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