It was reckless to be driving.
Sheriff Claire Wilson gripped the steering wheel of her patrol truck. Pre-dawn darkness coated the country road, broken only by her headlights. It was below freezing. Last night’s thunderstorm had left ice crystals on the trees. The local emergency alert advised people to shelter in place until temperatures rose. Unfortunately, Claire didn’t have that luxury. She had a missing person to find.
Using the built-in navigation on her dashboard, Claire dialed Faye Hansen’s cell phone. It rang. And rang. Faye didn’t answer for the second time in twenty minutes. Her sister—Mary Ellen Hansen—was on a business trip and hadn’t been able to reach her sister last night either. Mary Ellen had phoned Claire in the early morning hours, worried. Her concern was something Claire shared. Faye was one of her best friends. It wasn’t like her to ignore phone calls.
Claire pressed the gas pedal as much as she dared. Back roads, like this one, weren’t salted. Had Faye been in an accident on her way home from work? It was entirely possible. She co-owned a bakery in town, but lived in a small house near Lake Hudson. Cell service in this area was spotty, and the road was rarely used since there weren’t many homes nearby.
Then again, maybe Claire was overreacting. She tended toward worst-case scenarios, an occupational hazard after a decade in law enforcement. Faye’s phone could simply be on silent.
Claire’s dash lit up with an incoming call. Her heart skipped a beat as she glanced at the name flashing on the screen, but it wasn’t Faye. It was Claire’s mother.
She answered, using a button on her steering wheel. “Good morning, Mom.”
“Morning, honey.” Lindsey’s voice spilled from the speakers. “I saw your note on the table. I didn’t know if you were aware, but there’s another wave of rain heading our way. Your daddy’s worried about you driving on the icy roads.”
Claire nearly smiled. She was closing in on thirty-five and a trained law enforcement officer, but her parents still fretted over her as if she was a child. There had been a time it bothered her. Having her son, Jacob, changed that. Claire was intimately familiar with the constant worry of parenthood. It was like having her heart walking on the outside of her body, packaged in a sweet toddler with curly blond hair and a freckled nose.
“I promised to be extra careful.” Claire eyed the sky, but there was no hint of the sunrise. Probably hidden behind a wall of thunderclouds. “Days like these, the department needs every set of hands. People don’t always listen to the weather advisory.”
Even without the phone call from Faye’s sister, Claire would’ve been up and out of the house early. Traffic accidents were common when the roads were icy and the incoming thunderstorm made things worse. She sighed. “Call me when Jacob wakes up, would you? I was supposed to be off today. He was looking forward to baking cookies together and now…he’s going to be disappointed.”
Guilt prickled Claire. As sheriff, her job was mostly administrative. But there were times, like this one, when she needed to be hands-on. As a single mom, it was difficult to balance raising Jacob with a full-time job.
“Don’t worry about Jacob, honey. I’ll explain you had to go to work. He and I can bake a cake instead. That way he can still help make a dessert and then y’all can bake cookies when you have time off.”
Claire’s thumb absently rubbed over the third finger on her hand. The indention from the wedding ring wasn’t there anymore. Not surprising. It’d been two years since her divorce. The marriage hadn’t been a happy one, but it’d given Claire the best little boy ever. Moving back home and taking over as sheriff of Fulton County had been a blessing. She was fortunate to have her parents’ help in raising Jacob.
She readjusted her hold on the steering wheel. “I’ll try to make it home for dinner tonight, but no promises.”
“I know. Stay safe, sweetheart. Love you.”
Her mother’s words came out garbled. Cell coverage in this area was spotty. Claire said “I love you” back, but wasn’t sure her mother heard it before the call dropped. Never mind. Claire would call her again later.
The road curved, and she slowed to a crawl. Claire wouldn’t be of help to anyone if she was in an accident herself. The tires slipped on black ice but quickly gained traction thanks to her reduced speed. Claire’s headlights flashed on a vehicle on the road ahead. An SUV was pulled onto the shoulder, one of the rear tires completely deflated.
Her heart skipped a beat. She knew that car. It belonged to Faye.
Claire flipped on her turret lights and radioed in her location to dispatch before pulling over to the side of the road behind Faye’s SUV. Her friend wasn’t visible. Maybe she was inside the vehicle, keeping warm. With no cell coverage, it would be impossible to call for a tow truck.
Biting wind ruffled Claire’s ponytail as she exited the truck. Goose bumps formed along the delicate skin on the back of her neck. She flipped up the collar of her jacket to ward off the chill. Somewhere, an owl hooted.
“Faye.” Claire's boots were silent against the pavement as she rounded the vehicle to the driver’s side. “Faye?”
Empty. Faye wasn’t in the front seat. Ice covered the windshield and most of the windows, making it almost impossible to see inside the vehicle. Claire frowned. Had a neighbor stopped and picked Faye up already? Taken her home? But then why wasn’t she answering her cell phone? Dread slithered through Claire’s insides, instinctual and hard to explain. Something about this was off. Wrong.
She hurried back to her vehicle. An ice scraper and a flashlight rested in the side panel of her truck. Claire grabbed both.
Claire circled Faye’s vehicle, her gaze sweeping the area, following the path of her flashlight. Nothing littered the ground or seemed out of place. She scraped some ice off the driver’s side window and shone the light inside the SUV. Faye’s purse sat on the floorboard and her cell phone, connected to the charger, rested in the cup holder. The knot of worry and concern inside Claire’s stomach grew. Pulling on a set of gloves, she opened the door, touching as little as possible.
She shone the light into the interior of the SUV. Faye wasn’t in the back seat. Her wallet was open, the contents spilled across the interior carpeting. The sight heightened Claire’s anxiety. She backed away and trailed her flashlight beam along the side of the vehicle. Nothing.
She circled around the front of the vehicle. Her heart stuttered as the beam flashed across the front bumper.
It was a dark smear on the chrome. More droplets sprinkled the pavement. Claire followed the trail to the edge of the road. A woman’s black ballerina shoe lay on the grass. Another was several feet away. The ditch swelled with rain water. A culvert acted as a makeshift bridge to the forest. Claire ran across, her flashlight beam bouncing with every step. “Faye!”
Silence. Claire scanned the tree line. A short distance away, something pale caught her attention. A bare foot stuck out from the underbrush.
The blood roared in Claire’s ears. She wanted to run away. Duty and a sliver of hope kept her moving forward. Please, Lord. Please don’t let it be true.
Grass crunched under Claire’s boots. A biting chill that had nothing to do with the frigid weather settled over her. Into her. The flashlight passed over the woman’s chest. Blood stained the blouse. A lot of blood. Too much blood.
“Faye!” Claire bolted to her friend’s side and dropped to her knees. Icy water seeped through the fabric of her uniform, but she barely felt it. She tore one of her gloves off. It fell to the ground. Faye’s skin was as pale as snow, her eyes closed. If she was breathing, it wasn’t evident.
With shaking fingers, tears streaming unbidden down her face, Claire reached a trembling hand toward Faye’s neck, praying with every cell in her body that she’d find a pulse.