Kate George’s California Schemin’:
The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:
She was falling, plummeting toward the river. Her skirt billowed then wrapped around her as she tumbled. I watched her through the viewfinder. An unnaturally pink anomaly in sharp focus against the grey background of the bridge. I’d never be able to look at that color again without feeling the horror of seeing a woman plunging from the Foresthill Bridge. Half my brain followed her descent with my camera while the other half was in a blind screaming panic.
“No!” I tossed the camera into my camp chair and sprinted upriver.
The riverbank was rocky, stone ledge mixed with large rocks, boulders and pebble beaches. My heart pounded as I slipped and teetered, skidding over the smooth surfaces, tripping over loose stones. I scanned the river as I ran, watching for a splash of pink. Twice I stopped myself from falling by steadying myself on rocks and my hands were stinging. I sucked air and held the stitch that developed in my side as I made my way up stream. The fall appeared horrific, could she have survived? Please, let her be alive.
I was forcing down panic when I saw her floating toward me on the current. She was face down in the water, the pink skirt dark and clinging to her legs. I waded waist deep into the water and grabbed the back of her shirt as she floated by, towing her out of the rapids into a calm shallows at the shore. I needed to get her face out of the water but I knew I wasn’t strong enough to lift her. Blood mingled with the blonde hair feathering around her head in the slow water. A fresh adrenaline rush flooded my brain and I began to panic. I had to get her air and stop the bleeding.
Reaching across her body I grabbed the shoulder of her sleeveless blouse. I was able to pull her body part way out of the water but the fabric slipped from my grasp and she was face down again. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. Use two hands, Bree; I told myself, you can do it if you use two hands. Then it hit me that I might have better luck rolling her from underneath. I slid my hand under her, feeling for her arm. I caught what felt like her elbow and tugged. She floated into me. I pushed up on her near shoulder as I used her arm to pull her underside up. The movement of her shoulder started her rotating and she flipped.
I saw I needn’t have bothered. A hole in her temple oozed blood into her hair. Drowning had been the least of her problems and the best I could hope for now was to get her out of the water so she wouldn’t float away. I lurched from the river and lost my breakfast in the trees lining the riverbank. Another dang dead body.
My name is Bella Bree MacGowan and I like to tell people I’d look like Rachael Ray if I could get hold of her stylist. I’m called Bree by my friends, and I’m not exactly a stranger to dead bodies. Less than six months ago I found my boss stone cold in a pool of blood. I’d come to California to “recover” from the experience and here I was chasing down another emergency. I hoped I’d be able to pull the falling woman from the water when I did find her. I’m only five foot six and don’t have too much heft to me. Luckily I’m strong.
The fall combined with the bullet hole was more than I wanted to deal with. I looked over to where her blonde hair drifted on the water. The blood was still mixing with the river water. Had she already been dead when she fell? I glanced up to where she’d fallen and saw the glint of reflection off glass. Someone was watching.
A chill went down my spine, but I waded back into the water anyway and pulled her to the shore. I hefted a couple of rocks onto her skirt. I didn’t want her floating away when I went to call for help. The sun was warm and I pulled off my soaking hoody as I scrambled back to where I’d left my stuff. I pulled the cell from my pack and punched 911. Unlike in Vermont, I always had cell service in California. Even out here at the bottom of a canyon, I could see the cell tower on the rise above the bridge.
I finished the call and made my way back up the river to be near the body. I sat on a fallen tree where I could see her, but didn’t have to actually look. Closing her eyes crossed my mind but the last time I’d touched a dead body I’d ended up as the only suspect in a murder investigation. Bree, you’ve already touched her, it wouldn’t hurt to close her eyes. Yes. Yes it would. My fingerprints would be on her eyelids. That’s just creepy.
It would’ve been peaceful by the river if it weren’t for the body. I turned so I wouldn’t see her staring at the sky, but I felt like she was staring at me. Feeling ghoulish and creeped out, I slid down the side of the fallen tree until I was sitting on the ground. I knew it was childish but there it was. Not even dead people could look through trees.
I flipped open my phone again and dialed by best friend, Meg. The three hour difference between Vermont and California worked in my favor. If I knew Meg, she would have been at work for a couple of hours already.
“I did it again,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady and failing miserably.
“Well hello to you too. What did you do again?” I could hear the smile in her voice. “If you are talking about sex with my brother-in-law I don’t want any details.”
“God, I wish. I found another body.” Adrenaline had kicked in and I was shaking.
The silence grew on the line until I was about to ask if she was still there.
“You’re kidding. Right?” Her voice was grim.
“No. I saw her fall from the tallest bloody bridge I’ve ever seen.”
“What did you do?”
“I threw up.”
“That’s not what I meant. Tell me what happened.”
“I was on the river bank taking pictures. I thought maybe the river was deep enough that she could survive the fall, I pulled her to shore to do CPR but she’d been shot.”
“Bree, wait. I’m lost here. Start over from the beginning. Go back to what you had for breakfast.”
I took a breath, let the feel of the sun and the sound of the river help calm me. Then I told Meg that I had two eggs, over-easy for breakfast. And coffee.
Half way through my narration I was interrupted by crashing in the undergrowth. I was wishing it could have been the sheriff but it was too soon, and coming from the wrong direction. The trail-head was a good five minutes downstream from where I sat.
I got to my feet, panicked. A wild animal or murderer – I didn’t want to see either one. I shoved my cell phone into my pocket without bothering to close it and looked around for a place to hide. I would have climbed a tree but the trees here were all stunted. I didn’t see anything I thought could hide me so I ran for the river, sliding my phone from my pocket holding it clear of the river while I slid into the water behind a rock down stream from the dead woman.
A bear ambled onto the rocks near the river. Wild animal – not murderer, but what if it mauled the body? Splashing didn’t seem like it would scare a bear and I didn’t have anything to throw at the creature. I heard Meg’s voice coming from the phone.
“Wait a sec,” I said. I slid deeper into the water around the backside of the rock so the bear wouldn’t smell me.
“What is going on? You scared the bejesus out of me. All that running and water sounds.”
“A bear,” I whispered. “A dang bear came out of the woods. I’m afraid it’ll maul the body. What should I do if it goes for the body?”
“Where are you now?” The stress level in Meg’s voice was ramped up.
“In the river. I would have climbed a tree but the trees around here are all tiny.”
“Let me get this straight. You are in the river, talking to me on the phone?”
“Well if you’re going to put it like that. Yes. I’m in the river talking to you on the phone while a bear rambles around deciding if it wants to maul a dead body. But hey, what else could happen?” Oh man, as soon as the words were out I knew I was jinxing myself. “Don’t answer that! I’m going to yell at the bear and see if I can get it to go away. I’ll call you back.”
Meg called my name but I’d already snapped the phone shut by the time it registered in my brain. The bear was sniffing the ground, not doing much of anything. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy bear or a girl bear and I was hoping boy, because if it was a momma bear I could be in real trouble. The jinx kicked in and before I could pick up a stone to throw, a man came crashing into the clearing.
He was clearly not a country boy. His shoes were black and shiny. He wore a suit. The only signs that he was aware of the lack of cement were the tie hanging out of his pocket and the open collar of his dress shirt. He seemed unaware of the bear, his attention riveted by the blond lying in the water. I opened my mouth to warn him but he pulled a gun out of a shoulder harness. Of course I’d missed that in my initial assessment, and my mouth snapped shut. As much as I didn’t want to watch anyone get mauled by a bear, I didn’t want to end up dead even more. If this was the guy who killed the blond then there wasn’t much keeping him from killing me.
I was having a holey-crap-what-am-I-going-to-do moment when the cops showed. City boy ducked into the woods and took off running which startled the bear. The bear saw the cops and ran splashing up the river. A fifty-ish Placer County Sheriff with a military style brush cut that was thinning on top appeared in time to watch the bear take his leave. The cop was on the heavy side, breathing hard from coming down the hill. Behind him came two crime scene guys, significantly younger and more attractive. They headed straight for the body and started unpacking their bags of paraphernalia.
I stood up and started out of the river, my phone rang and the older cop made straight for me. Is stopped knee deep in the river and held my hands up so he could see all I was carrying was a phone. Meg’s husband is a captain in the Vermont state police and I know most cops aren’t trigger happy, but there was a dead body with a bullet hole not fifteen feet from me and I really didn’t want to get shot.
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” he asked me.
“Oh sure.” I flipped open the phone. “Meg, I’ve got to call you back. The sheriff is here.” Meg started to protest but I cut her off. “Give me a break, I’m fine. It’ll wait.”
I turned back to the Sheriff, knowing I was going to sound like a nut job. “Before you got here there was a man. A guy in a suit. He came out of the woods and went straight for the body. He heard you coming up the trail before you could see him and he took off through there.” I raised a hand to indicate where the guy had gone.
With a flick of the wrist he sent one of his crime scene guys after the suit. I heard him crashing around in the undergrowth for a while, but before long he was back. He shrugged at his boss and joined the other crime scene tech at the edge of the river.
“I take it you are the young lady who found the body? What in God’s name are you doing in the river? Come out of there.”
I waded the rest of the way out of the water and sat on a fallen tree. He squatted in front of me and pulled his badge, a small notebook and a chewed pencil from his pocket.
“Sheriff Lawrence Fogel. Most people call me Larry.”
“I was in the river because of the bear. Didn’t you see it?” I pointed to where the bear was still visible, standing on two feet a ways upriver.
He looked and noted the bear on his pad.
“You have blood on your hands, young lady. You touch the body?”
I looked down at my hands. I hadn’t realized they were bleeding.
“I grabbed her shirt and her arm, but it’s not her blood. I scraped my hands on the rocks.”
“While you were in the river?”
I nodded to where the two officers were now examining the body.
“No. I saw her fall from the bridge through my camera,” I said. In my head I was thinking: young lady? Who does he think he’s kidding? “I ran upstream to see if I could help her, but she’d been shot in the head.”
“Probably dead before she hit the water.” He scratched at the thinning hair on his head. “The question is, was she dead before she left the bridge.”
“She was still bleeding when I pulled her to shore.”
“Let’s back up here. Why don’t you tell me exactly what you saw? Start with-”
“I know – what I had for breakfast.” I hadn’t meant to cut him off, but it was out of my mouth before I could control it.
“Not quite that far back. How about your name and why you’re up here today.”
“Bella Bree MacGowan. Bree. I’m here – well in California, because my boyfriend is doing some masonry work. He asked me to come, which is nice, except there isn’t much for me to do. I’ve been taking photos of the area for something to do. That’s what I was doing today.”
A cool breeze rippled down the canyon as afternoon turned to evening. Shadows crept up the sides of the canyon walls on the east side of the river. The air smelled clean, sweet even, but I was wet from being in the river. I shivered.
“We came here a couple of weeks ago and I thought I’d come back and take some pictures. I was shooting birds when a bright spot on the bridge caught my eye…”
“Wait.” Sheriff Fogel broke in. “You were taking pictures? Where’s your camera now?”
“Down the river. I left my stuff near that old bridge.”
“Come with me. We’ll go retrieve it. Digital or film?” he asked as we walked.
He led me down the river and stopped at the flat spot where I’d left my stuff. I picked up my camera and clicked it on. I set the LCD display to review and handed him the camera. Fogel stepped into the shade so he could see the screen better and I stood behind him so I could see what he was looking at. I’d taken the pictures, but I didn’t know just what I’d captured. He flipped through photos until he got to the bridge shots.
The images were too small and too far away for me to be able to see any detail, but I had snapped the crucial moment when she began her plummet from the bridge and several shots of the fall. I didn’t even remember my finger being on the button.
“Gather up your stuff. I want to get you out of here.”
Sheriff Fogel walked me down to the road before they brought the body down. He got an army blanket out of the trunk of his car and handed it to me.
“Use that to dry off some,” he said. Then he took my camera and ejected the memory card and put it in his pocket.
I took my camera and stowed it with my pack and camp chair in the rear seat. Shock was setting in and I was having trouble keeping the images of the dead woman out of my mind. I was shaking and it wasn’t all from the cold. Here we go again, I thought. Thirty minutes of shaking and crying and I’ll be perfectly all right.
Sheriff Fogel put his hand on my arm as I went to get in the driver’s seat.
“Is there anyone at home?” His blue eyes scanned my face.
“My boyfriend should be home soon.” I pulled my phone out of my damp jeans pocket and flipped it open to see the time. “Probably before I get there anyway.”
“It’ll be better for you if you aren’t alone. Dead bodies have a way of preying on people’s minds.” He patted my shoulder and I wondered if he had a daughter of his own.
I didn’t tell him this wasn’t my first body and I knew the drill. If I reacted the same as before half way home I’d be shaking so hard I couldn’t drive. I’d pull over for a while. Then I’d be fine.
Beau was sitting on the rustic porch swing when I drove up. We were living in a log cabin in the woods up hwy 49, north of Auburn. It had a covered porch across the front with a porch swing and flower baskets hanging from the ceiling beams. The other three sides of the cabin were surrounded by deck. The logs had been treated so they wouldn’t weather with age, and it was a beautiful light red wood. I liked the windows best. They graced almost every vacant wall.
I climbed the steps and sat beside Beau on the swing. He dropped his arm around my shoulder and tugged me to him.
“Only if you count watching a woman fall a thousand feet from a bridge. I pulled her out of the water, but she had a bullet hole in her head. I couldn’t save her.”
“Oh babe. Come here.” He wrapped his arms around me and I leaned into him. His chest was like a warm and yielding brick wall. He didn’t smell bad either. I leaned back and looked up at him.
“You must have been home a while. You smell like soap.”
“Jumped in the shower. Figured I might as a well get cleaned up before you got home. He ran his hand across my cheek. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. I thought I could help, you know. I didn’t know she’d been shot.”
“That’s a big drop, and the river’s kind of shallow. I doubt she could have survived it.” He slid his arm off my shoulders and got up. “Come on. I’m making dinner.” He held his hand out to me and I let him lead me into the cabin.
Beau served me burgers at the burlwood table next to a window overlooking the deck along the back of the house. We could watch the wildlife while we ate, which normally made me happy, but today the woods seemed oppressive and made me miss the open fields of home.
“I did something exciting today,” Beau said as he swallowed the last of his burger.
“What’s that? Did you complete that spectacular fireplace you’ve been building?”
“Nope. Remember how I told you this cabin’s up for sale?’
“Yeah.” Unease started to gnaw at my belly. Please don’t tell me that you bought it.
“I bought it.”
“You bought it. To live in all the time?” My voice was low and flat. And somewhere in my head I knew I should be trying to drum up some enthusiasm, but it took a while for my internal censor to kick in.
“Yeah, to live in all the time. There’s plenty of work out here. I love the weather. No relatives, although I will miss Tom’s kids. But they can come visit me here.” He looked at me and I knew dismay was registering on my face. “What? I’m asking you to live here with me Bree. Stay and enjoy being a Californian.”
“Beau, I don’t want to be a Californian. I don’t think you could wring the Vermont out of me.”
“I thought you’d be thrilled to get away. Think about it Bree. Here you get a fresh start. No one knew you in kindergarten or saw you skinny-dipping in the river. It’s all new.”
“I like that everyone knows me. I like the people in our town.”
“What about how they treated you when Vera was murdered? All those dirty looks and whispers behind your back. You want to go back to that?”
“Almost everyone apologized.” I looked down at the food left on the plate. The burger had lost its appeal and the fries were cold. I dipped my fork in the pool of dressing I had on my plate and stabbed a few lettuce leaves. I looked at my laden fork for a moment and set it back down. I wasn’t hungry anymore.
“Beau, I love that you brought me to California, but we’ve already been here two weeks longer than you said we would be. I’m writing articles and interviewing people long distance. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair to Meg that I took on the job of staff reporter and then skipped town. And I’m missing my animals. A lot. I want to go home.”
“Why am I so surprised by this? You’ve always been a homebody. I guess somehow I thought that me being here would be enough to get you to stay. Well shit.”
I got up from the table and walked out onto the deck. The sun was dropping over the mountains and the air felt cool on my skin. Somehow I’d had the impression California was warm all the time. Maybe San Diego was warm all the time, but the sierra foothills were cold in November.
I walked to the railing and looked into the woods surrounding the clearing we called our yard. Birds and small animals were hanging out in the trees. Sometimes at this time of day, deer would wander across the clearing and munch on the flowers.
I liked Beau. A lot. Enough to leave my whole life behind? Probably not. It was so dang unlikely that we’d actually last. I didn’t have the best track record with relationships. Things inevitably went wrong. I didn’t want to be three thousand miles away from home when that happened.
I heard the sliding door open and Beau came to stand beside me at the rail.
“I should have asked you first, shouldn’t I?” He slid his arm across my shoulder and pulled me to him.
“I don’t know. Probably wouldn’t have made any difference. You would have bought the cabin anyway and I would have eventually gone home. The outcome’s the same.” I rested my head on his shoulder. “So. What are you going to do with your house in South Royalton?”
“I’ll keep it. I’ll have my own space when I go back to visit. I’ll get old Jamison to keep an eye on it for me.” Beau paused for a moment. “What if we shipped Lucky and the dogs out here?”
“I don’t know. Let me think about it.” I knew in my heart the answer was no, but didn’t want to disappoint him. “I’m not sure I’m the California type.”
“Bree, there isn’t a mold that would hold you.” One bark of laughter escaped him. “You are completely unique. I’m pretty sure you could adapt to any place you wanted to.”
I smiled at him, thinking he’d put me in a difficult position. If I didn’t stay it meant I didn’t want to try. At least to him.
“Stop looking so gloomy.” He took my right hand in both of his, turned it palm up and examined the abrasions. “It’s not as bad as all that. I bet I can make you forget all about today.”
“I bet you can.” I smiled up at him. Then a memory struck. “Do you know that the last guy who said that to me broke up with me just a few days later?”
“That dickhead, Jim?” Beau laughed. “You were better off without him. Come on. I bet I can make you forget better than he could.”
“I bet you can.”
He bent and kissed me. My fingers curled into his shirt as he wrapped his arms around my waist and held me to him. He broke of the kiss and I took a quick step back to keep from falling over. He took my hand and led me toward the house.
“Come on sweet cakes I got something to show you.”
“Something new? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it all before.” I grinned up at him as he slid the sliding door closed.
He slid his hand under my chin and kissed me lightly.
“You know I can’t resist a challenge.”
“I know.” I broke free and ran down the hall hearing his foot falls behind me. He caught me in a heart beat and all thoughts of the day were forgotten.
The next day I had an email from Sheriff Fogel.
Ms. MacGowan, It may be quite a while before we are able to return your photo disk, but I thought you’d appreciate having the pictures that were on it. I’m not able to send the photos that are pertinent to our case, but the others are attached.
I scrolled through the photos and noticed he’d made a mistake. There were two photos of the bridge before the woman fell. She was visible as a bright pink spot. I squinted. A bright pink spot flanked by a couple of dark figures. I should enlarge these. Are you out of your mind? The less you know the better.
I shut down my laptop and stashed it under the bed. I felt kind of silly, but those pictures bothered me. I could have deleted them, but nothing is ever truly deleted. At least that’s what I’m told. I’m only tech savvy enough to be dangerous.
Beau had one of his crew take him to work in the morning so I could have the car. I drove into town to pick up chips and beer. The road into Auburn was beautiful and the weather was perfect for driving, so instead of stopping at the store I kept going down highway 49 past the grocery, merged west on I-80 and headed toward Sacramento. Past Auburn the valley flattens and the highway widens as the farmland gives way to residential subdivisions, industrial buildings and shopping centers. The closer I got to Sacramento the more congested the freeway became. Cities are not my favorite places. I’m used to open space and sparse population but there was something I wanted to do. I took the off-ramp at Madison Blvd., pulled into a shopping center, parked and made for the pet store. It was one of those cavernous box stores with rows and rows of pet supplies stacked to the ceiling. It was bright and antiseptic, except at the front where an area had been created with low ceilings and soft couches facing rows of glass fronted cages showcasing puppies. I sat on a red overstuffed sofa, asked the attendant to bring me a puppy and soaked in the affection.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against men, but if you’re looking for total devotion and unconditional love, go for a dog every time. Your dog will never ask you to move three thousand miles from home. In fact, your dog will follow you anywhere, and be quite happy. They may resent you for leaving them in a kennel for a week, but they’ll get over even that in a day or two. Guys are not quite so forgiving.
I spent an hour playing with puppies. They crawled on me, licked my face, attacked my fingers and slept in my lap. When the attendant finally whisked the last one away I felt much better. I still missed my dogs, but my heart felt lighter. I left the pet shop and zipped down the mall to the Safeway grocery store.
The drive home, while still an hour, seemed to fly by. I had the radio blasting and the windows open. I’d seen the Vermont weather on the internet and they were in the midst of a “wintery mix.” I did love being in the sunshine. At least temporarily.
The 4 x 50 air conditioner was whipping my hair around as I turned up the one lane road that led to Beau’s cabin. Sometime during the day it had become Beau’s in my mind. I wasn’t surprised he’d bought it. The place suited him. The isolation, if anything, suited him more.
A quarter mile from the house I could see the commotion. There were a couple of cop cars and a pickup in the drive. Three officers were standing at the foot of the stairs talking to Beau, and a fourth was just coming out the door.
I parked on the side of the road and gathered up an armful of groceries and started up the drive. Beau and the cops noticed me and the whole group headed in my direction.
“Here, let me take these.” Beau took the groceries from me and set them in the bed of the pickup.
“There’re more.” I started back toward the car. I knew there had to be a good reason for the sheriff to be at the house, but I really didn’t want to know what it was.
“Wait. Don’t bring those up yet. I’m not sure we can go in.” Beau glanced at the officer standing beside him.
I sighed and turned around. He was short-circuiting my efforts to ignore whatever crisis had befallen us now. I was supposed to be in California resting up from disaster. I wasn’t all that keen on the fact that it followed me here.
“Okay,” I said. “Lay it on me. What happened while I was gone?”
“Unfortunately,” a brown haired officer broke in. “The cabin door was forced and it looks as though your husband’s computer was stolen. The place was searched. Any idea what they were looking for?”
I let the “husband” slide without comment, led them into the house and dragged my computer and camera out from under the bed.
“You’d better call Sheriff Fogel. I saw a woman fall off the Foresthill Bridge yesterday. They may have been looking for the camera I had with me. They must know that any pictures could have been downloaded. That’s probably why they took Beau’s computer. What they don’t know is that I gave the photo disk to the Sheriff already. There isn’t any point in stealing it from me.”
The cops took off, leaving Beau and me to clean up the glass from the window that was smashed out of the door. Beau was quiet and I didn’t know what to say. Without meaning to I’d gotten back into trouble, and this time I’d dragged him in with me.
The house had been tossed. I put the cold stuff away but let the non-perishables wait. Whoever tossed the house either hadn’t thought to look under the bed or they hadn’t gotten to it before they had to leave. Or maybe they thought they’d gotten what they needed when they nabbed Beau’s computer. No, his computer was in plain sight. They wouldn’t have had to search the house if they thought that was all they needed.
I went to stand with Beau, who’d finished nailing a board over the broken window in the door.
“Do you think they’ll come back?” I scanned his face for signs of stress. Life with Beau was generally easy. He was laid back. An affectionate and fun loving guy. But this was something out of his comfort zone. Strangers in his house.
“What makes you ask that?”
“They didn’t find my camera or laptop. They don’t know about my computer, they could have seen my camera. I think that’s what they were looking for.”
“That depends on how badly they want to see those pictures. It’s possible they’ll try again. Tomorrow you’re coming to work with me. I’m not taking any chances on them finding you alone.” He wrapped his arms around me and kissed my forehead. “I don’t care how determined they are, you are mine and they can’t have you.”
“Better be careful, they’ll be marking ‘doesn’t share well with others’ on your report card.” I was thinking that taking me to work was over the top, but I knew better than to try and argue with him when he was worried about me.
“Let ‘em. I don’t think ‘shares well with others’ was ever my strong point. Plays well with others, maybe in the right circumstances. Come on,” Beau smiled at me “I’m taking you into town for dinner.”
The next morning as we were getting ready to leave, I rummaged around for a Sharpie and wrote a note on a piece of paper. It read: The Camera is at the Sheriff’s Department. I taped it on the door.
Beau looked at my handy work and laughed. “They’ll think you’re bluffing.”
“Well I’m taking both the camera and the computer with me so tossing the house again isn’t going to help them. I’m just trying to save us the trouble of cleaning up again. It’s worth a try.”
He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close to him as we walked to the truck.
“Did you hear the phone ring this morning?” he asked.
“Yeah, what was that all about?”
“I’ve got some bad news.” He slid into the driver seat. “Michael likes what I’ve done so far and he wants me to do some more stone work at the house. It’ll be at least a couple more weeks before I’m done.
“How’s that bad news?” I asked. I walked around and climbed into the truck.
“You told me yesterday you’re ready to go home.”
“Yeah, but you aren’t. More work is a good thing.” I hoped I was pulling off the appropriate empathetic tone, but my heart was sinking.
Beau smiled and dropped his hand on my thigh, so I guessed I was doing a good job with the whole supportive girlfriend thing.
The day passed peacefully. I sat in the sun reading and surfing the net while Beau pieced the stonework on the outside of the chimney. He packed up as the sun dropped behind the trees and we headed into Nevada City for dinner and a movie.
We ate at Dave’s Burgers and walked along the old-world streets lit with street lamps and twinkle lights to the theater. The three original Star Wars movies were playing. We bought candy and sat through one and two before I started to drift off.
“Bree,” Beau whispered and shook my shoulder. “Let’s get out of here before the next one starts.”
“Okay.” I stretched and gathered my coat and candy wrappers.
Out on the street Beau put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. We walked down the hill looking in shop windows.
“Such a pretty town,” I said looking at the brick buildings and the lights. The windows were filled with paintings and funky clothes, candy and stuffed toys. “It’s like Disneyland.”
“Only better,” said Beau. “We didn’t have to pay to get in.”
We turned into the dark side street where the truck was parked. Both passenger side tires were flat. We walked up the road. I was thinking we must have driven over a beer bottle.
“Shit,” Beau said. “Someone broke into the truck.”
We walked to the passenger door and I noticed the window had been busted. I looked through the window and swore. The glove compartment had been forced open and my camera was gone.
I checked under the seat. My computer was still there. I turned to Beau.
“They didn’t find the computer, but why slash our tires?”
Beau shrugged. We were stranded until a tow truck could get us out of here. I was mad about losing my camera, but slashing the tires felt personal.
I dialed AAA on my cell and we sat on a bench overlooking the river waiting for them to arrive. After sitting for an hour, a Nevada County cruiser pulled in behind the truck. A Placer County cruiser drove up a second later and parked behind the first sheriff. Fogel got out of the second vehicle and walked down to where we sat.
“Heard you’re getting a little unwelcome attention.” He looked up at the truck. “Anything missing?”
“My camera. That’s all. Except why’d they have to slash the tires? Kind of mean.”
“Probably just making sure you couldn’t follow them if you showed while they were doing a B&E on your truck. Nothing personal.”
“Seems like a warning to me.” Beau scowled at Fogel. “Warning us to stay out of it.”
“It feels personal to me. I liked that camera,” I said.
“Did you see anything?” Fogel asked.
“Nope. We were out to dinner.”
“Why didn’t you take your camera with you?” He wasn’t looking at me like I was dumb, so much. More like I was an alien with four eyes or something.
“Didn’t occur to me that they would look for us here.”
Fogel nodded. “I hate to say this, but I have to. You need to be more careful. House got busted into, tires got slashed. Sooner or later they may decide they need to talk to you, and the minute you see someone’s face you’ll be a liability to them. They take killing women in stride.”
“Did you find out who she is?”
“Not yet. I probably wouldn’t tell you if I did know. You know too much already. I don’t have the manpower to keep an eye on you and find the killer too. So stay out of trouble.” He went over to talk to the Nevada County Sheriff who was making notes.
“Yes, boss.” I felt like sticking out my tongue, or rolling my eyes at him. But I didn’t. The fact that we had two slashed tires was a little too disturbing to make fun of the idea I was in danger.
A flatbed tow truck came, replaced the flats with a couple of those little donut tires and loaded the truck. He took us to the twenty-four hour service station which thankfully was also a tire shop. He dumped the truck and took my AAA information, before he disappeared. By the time the shop replaced the tires, and took my money, it was late. Beau was starving again, so we hit a drive through for a burger in a box and went home.
Beau parked, got out and sat down on the porch steps, looking up into the star filled sky. “You know this means they followed you, don’t you? Someone is watching you.”
“Well, they could have been driving by and recognized the truck.” I didn’t believe that for a minute. I knew they had to be watching. I was all bravado. Bolstering myself up so I wouldn’t look scared.
“Bree, I’m sending you home. You witnessed a murder; our home was burgled; now they’re following you. And who knows what they’ll find on the camera. What if they enlarge one of those photos and see something? I don’t want you to be the next one over the bridge.”
“I gave the disk to Fogel. I don’t think there are any photos on there for them to find.”
“Then they are going to want to ask you what you saw. Or, God forbid, they’ll decide they are safer with you permanently off the scene. As in six feet under, not across the country.”
“What are you saying? I have no choice but to go home? What if I don’t want to go home? What if they follow me home?” This was my problem. I wanted to go home until someone told me I had to go home and then I didn’t want to anymore. I don’t like people telling me what to do.
“Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tell everyone you went home to Virginia. When they say ‘I thought it was Vermont’ I’ll say ‘You must have heard it wrong. I’m from Vermont, Bree’s from Virginia.’ That’ll confuse things. I’ll tell Tom what’s happened and he can keep an eye on you. And you have all those dogs; they’ll alert you if anyone strange shows up.”
He stood up and took my hand.
“Come on. Let’s get you packed.”
“Wait.” I resisted the pull on my hand. “What if me leaving puts you in danger? What if they come after you instead?”
“I’ll be fine. There’s no reason for anyone to come after me. I didn’t see anything.”
That’s how I found myself laying in the back seat of the car, hiding from prying eyes, heading for the airport an hour before midnight.
“I’m not happy about this,” I said. Beau was in the front seat driving.
“What?” He turned the radio down.
“I don’t like this. I feel like a fugitive.” I pushed off the blanket he’d thrown over me and sat up.
“You are a fugitive. Lie back down for God’s sake. Fogel said it was a good idea to hide you.” He turned the radio back up.
“He didn’t say I had to stay hidden all the way to the airport.” I shouted over the radio. “We’re on the freeway now and nobody followed us out of town.”
He turned the radio down midway through my sentence.
“You don’t have to shout. I can hear you perfectly well. And just because I didn’t see anybody doesn’t mean there wasn’t anyone.”
“I was only shouting because you had the radio turned up. It’s dark Beau, how could anyone tell I was in here if they were following us?”
“They could see the shape of your head and surmise that you’re in here. So lay back down.”
“How about if I just slide down so my head isn’t visible.”
“Whatever, Bree. I’m tired of arguing with you.” Then under his breath “It’s not like I’m trying to save your life or anything.”