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The memory keeper, p.21
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       The Memory Keeper, p.21

           Lisa Stowe
 

  Chapter 21

  “Turn here,” Rivers said, pointing to a road that cut off before Wallace. “This is Thompson Pass. I’ll tell you where to go when we get to the top.”

  “Is there a town?” Cody wanted to fly, wanted speed to catch her up to Matt. But the rough, narrow road with climbing snakelike turns held her back.

  “No. Jake’s place is off a couple logging roads. It’s bounded on all sides by forest service land, and they’d love to get it back but Jake won’t let go of it. Can’t say as I blame him. It’s been in his family for generations. Plus it’s just plain beautiful. I’ve coveted his place for a long time.”

  “So no electricity?" Cody tried to look over at Rivers but the rough road demanded her full attention.

  “No,” Rivers said.

  As the road climbed, the pines and tamaracks gave way to an open view high above Wallace. There were no guard rails and barely enough room between mountain and edge for her car.

  “Cody, you’re so tense it feels like you’re going to pull that steering wheel right out of the column,” Rivers said, patting Cody’s arm. “There’s nothing we can do to change whatever is happening. So try some deep breathing.”

  “Deep breathing. Right. I’ve never found that to do anything.”

  “Neither have I but it sounds good." Rivers pointed. “See that break in the trees there on the right? By that corner? That’s the first logging road we’re going to take. Go slow as the road gets rough from here on out.”

  “I thought it already was.”

  “Yeah, but we had pavement. And by the way, scotch works.”

  “What?" Cody took the corner cautiously, the Subaru bouncing over a washboard of dirt.

  “Scotch. Instead of deep breathing. That’s what relaxes me. I do yoga, tai chi, but when I’m really stressed, scared, angry, I need a little scotch. A fine one, like a Lagavulin sixteen year old.”

  “Sounds expensive.” The road forced Cody to slow down and a cramp knocked on her calf muscle, as if trying to force her to take her foot off the brake.

  “Which is why I try not to stress too often. There, take that turn." Rivers reached out and braced one hand against the dashboard. “God, I hate this road. At least when I’m in a hurry. I’m trying to distract you with all my yammering but I don’t think it’s working. So tell me where you are with your grandfather.”

  “I appreciate the yammering, really,” Cody said as her knuckles cracked with tension. “With Charles, nowhere, I guess. I need to see if I can find a copy of his birth certificate." The car splashed through a tiny creek slowly eating the road. “I’m not sure what I’ll be able to finish with my mom here.”

  “Your mother. That’s right. I’d like to meet her. Do you see that old leaning tamarack? Right beyond it there’s a very narrow track. That’s Jake’s driveway. In the old days his family used horses to get in and out." Rivers was leaning forward now as if her body could propel the car faster.

  “Looks like there haven’t been any road improvements since then." The tires dipped into more potholes and the steering wheel jerked in her hands.

  “Jake likes change about as much as he likes company.”

  Cody rounded a couple switchbacks and then without warning the road was exposed, as the trees and mountain dropped away on one side to a high expanse of mountaintops and sky. Vertigo washed through Cody like the wind washed up the cliff face. She wanted to slam on the brakes and freeze, but forced herself to inch the car slowly along the narrow track. Cody was vaguely aware of the far reaching vista, but she was too afraid to look away from the road. A faint buzzing in her ears shocked her into realizing she was holding her breath. She sucked in air and inched the car as far from the edge as she could manage.

  “I’ve always loved it up here,” Rivers said.

  Cody’s mouth was dry, her palms sweaty, and she could only hope casual conversation would hide her fear. “Can’t see why at the moment. Have you known Jake long?”

  “Since he was a teenager. He’s too prickly to be called a close friend, but I respect him. I knew his father better.”

  “What was his father like?” Cody asked, desperate for any distraction from imagining what was happening up ahead.

  “Prickly,” Rivers said, and laughed, but her laugh sounded as forced as Cody’s words.

  “Hailey thinks he killed Kelly,” Cody said, prodding Rivers into more conversation. “Do you think he could kill someone? I mean, he’s only been nice to me.”

  “Oh, I imagine Jake could do something like that." Rivers turned slightly to face Cody. “But with Jake it would be an accident, in that temper of his. Not cold blooded the way Kelly and Nate were.”

  “And you’re not afraid of Jake?” Cody wondered if she could be so calm if she had a friend with Jake’s anger.

  “Oh no. You have to look beyond that armor he wears.”

  It sounded good coming from Rivers, but Cody wondered how idealistic that was. Maybe Jake was capable of more than his friends realized.

  They rounded one more corner and the road descended back into woods and solid ground, heading inland to the darker forest canopy where late morning light barely penetrated. But instead of being relieved to leave the cliff, Cody’s anxiety ratcheted up as she saw several vehicles parked in a line, including two forest service Broncos. She pulled in and parked behind one.

  “Now we follow that footpath,” Rivers said, and fumbled open the passenger door.

  The short trail cut through trees to a small clearing visible from Cody’s car. A cabin with a steeply pitched roof stood in the center of the clearing, and people clustered around its front door. Hailey’s blond curls and short stature made her easy to pick out in the crowd. It was just as easy to pick out Jake as he came out of the cabin, shoved through the crowd, and headed in their direction. Cody scanned the crowd for Matt as she shut the car door then rubbed her thumbs across her fingers.

  “There’s Jess talking to Hailey,” Rivers said, buttoning her brightly striped coat against the damp air. There was distinct relief in her voice.

  “Jake doesn’t seem to like Hailey. The way he lives out here, is he kind of antisocial?” Cody asked, watching him cross the rough ground with the long strides of someone more used to walking land than pavement.

  “Rough all the way through,” Rivers said. “But most women seem to like him. Well, not counting Hailey I guess. I’ve decided Jake’s a man who attracts three kinds of women. Women who lust, women who dream of redeeming, and women who fear his masculinity.”

  “Which are you?” Cody asked, knowing she would fall into the fearful group.

  “I’m the fourth kind,” she said, and her gentle smile with its upturned corners spelled secrets.

  “What the hell’s going on?” Jake said, nearing them. “This is private property. Not some place for a damn forest ranger picnic. Yet everyone’s showing up and not telling me a damn thing.”

  “Jake,” Rivers said, holding out her hands, palms up. “This isn’t the time for rough edges.”

  Hailey separated from the crowd and jogged toward them.

  “What am I supposed to have done now?” Jake asked, fists going to hips.

  “Jess called,” Cody said tentatively. “She said there’s a body up here. Jake, where’s Matt?”

  “Matt? I don’t know. He’s probably sucked into the crowd with all the trespassers." He looked over his shoulder at Hailey bearing down on them. “Ah shit. Help me out here Rivers. Keep that gnat away from me.”

  Hailey reached them before Rivers could respond, and kept coming, until she stood, back to Cody and up on tiptoes facing Jake. Her fists were on her hips, too, and if she’d been any closer her breasts would have been brushing Jake’s stomach.

  “I told you I’d get you,” she said, her words coming out staccato. “I told you, and I’ve done it.”

  “Back off,” Jake said.

  “You thought you could get away with murder because no one comes up here,” Hailey said, her fa
ce flushing. “But I found the body. Me. Doing the job the way it’s supposed to be done.”

  “So you found a body. What’s that got to do with me?” Jake said.

  “You’ve been pushing against the law for a long time Jake, and this time I’m pushing back and you can’t do anything about it.”

  Cody caught sight of Matt coming out of the trees and crossed her arms over her chest, gripping her elbows, trying to contain the sudden relief at seeing him. He came up behind Jake and Hailey, nodding only briefly at Cody over Jake’s shoulder.

  “Hailey,” Jake said, losing their stare-down. “You’re nuts." He grabbed her around the waist, picked her up, and swung her into Matt.

  “Here Tanner, do something with her.”

  “Jake,” Matt said in response, patting Hailey on the shoulder as he moved past her. Even Cody could see the fury resonating through each and every blonde curl as Hailey homed in on Jake again.

  “What’s this about a body?” Jake asked, as if Hailey had ceased to exist.

  “Jess just filled me in,” Matt said. He kept his hands loose at his sides, nonthreatening, his voice even. “Hailey found a body in the Honey Do mine east of your place.”

  “No,” Rivers said, and ran to Matt. “Do you know who it is? It’s not Jim is it? Please Matt, tell me it’s not Jim.”

  “I saw Jim just a couple days ago,” Matt said. “This guy’s been there a lot longer.”

  “Thank the goddess,” Rivers said, resting her forehead on Matt’s shoulder. “I sent him to Honey Do for a core sample.”

  Cody looked at the ground, feeling like an interloper as Matt hushed Rivers by rubbing her shoulders. Hailey unexpectedly shoved past Matt, grabbed Jake’s wrists, jerked his arms behind him and slapped on handcuffs.

  “What the hell?” Jake shouted, twisting around.

  “You’re under arrest.” The ratcheting sound of tightening cuffs was like a parenthesis around Hailey’s voice.

  “For what?” Jake’s voice was more like a growl now, as he circled with Hailey as if locked onto a target.

  “Murder." Hailey’s eyes were radiant. “And don’t you ever, ever touch me again.”

  “Stay away from me and I won’t have to.” Jake tossed his hair out of his eyes and lowered his chin as if about to charge.

  “Hailey, take the cuffs off,” Matt said, holding Jake back with a hand to his chest. “At this point we don’t even know if the person was murdered or died of natural causes. All we have is a body that’s been out here in the woods for some time. We could be looking at some hiker who had a heart attack.”

  “And another thing,” Jake said, struggling against the cuffs. “The body is in the mine. The mine isn’t inside my cabin. So get these cuffs the hell off me and get the hell off my place.”

  Hailey’s smile illuminated her face. She opened her dainty hand, the cuff key resting in her palm. Bringing it to her lips, she kissed the key, watching Jake over her fingers. And then she threw the key high and arcing out into the woods.

  “You’re getting into Jess’s car and spending the night in jail,” she said. “Because Matt is wrong. The person was very obviously murdered. And yes, the mine isn’t on your property. But considering you’re the only one up here, I’d say you’re it.”

  “That’s not happening,” Jess said. She had come up on them so quietly no one had noticed. “And that was a stupid gesture." She reached behind her to where her handcuff case was fastened to her belt and palmed the key. “All you’ve done is create paperwork for yourself, explaining how you lost your key. They’re universal Hailey.”

  “You can’t release him,” Hailey said. “I told you this is a murder and the Forest Service has jurisdiction.”

  “We don’t arrest people simply because they are in the proximity of a crime,” Jess said. “And neither does the Forest Service. You know that. This isn’t happening.”

  Jess moved to release Jake, and Hailey jumped forward as if she was about to tackle Jess. Matt caught Hailey’s arm, staying her lunge forward as Jess unlocked the cuffs.

  “Hailey, get some control,” he said. “Let go of this thing with Jake or he’ll be within his rights to accuse you of harassment.”

  “Matt, you know Jake. You can’t for an instant think he’s the innocent victim here." Hailey made no visible effort to calm down, quivering so tightly it was as if the slightest touch would shatter her into spiraling blonde shards.

  “Jake’s rarely innocent, I’ll give you that,” Matt said, smiling as if trying to ease the tension. He dropped his shoulders, bending slightly as if to give their talk more of a conversational feel and Cody recognized the movements as his attempt to diffuse Hailey.

  Hailey sucked in a deep breath, her hands fisted tightly on her hips. “So what, just let him go home?”

  “Forget him. Concentrate on what you do best, gathering evidence, tallying facts, sifting the story." Matt pulled out a notepad and flipped through some pages. “I’d say, from what we have here, you might want to head back up to the mine with the evidence team. You’re the one who’s most up to date on new forensics. Make sure nothing’s overlooked. We don’t want anything compromised in taking the body out.”

  “Right. You’re right. I can do that. I know what to look for." Hailey was already looking beyond Matt, into the woods surrounding the cabin. She started forward, only to have her path blocked by Jake.

  “Not on my land, midget." He turned to Matt. “I want all of you out of here. Now.”

  “I understand.” Jess stepped forward, placing a hand on Jake’s arm. “Unfortunately this is the only access road. We’ll have to have our vehicles here. That’s why we were up at your cabin. We were hoping to get permission to cross your place. But I totally get your frustration.”

  Jake blew out an expressive breath of air and raked fingers through is hair. “Okay Jess. You and your guilt trips. You and your team can cross. But not Hailey. She comes on my land again, she comes near me again, and I’m going for a restraining order and harassment charges.”

  Rivers laughed, and to Cody the sound was as fresh as birdsong, dissipating everyone’s tension. “Oh Jake. I’m sorry, but I just pictured you and Hailey standing in front of a judge with you, the tough mountain man, explaining why you need protection from the little Shirley Temple doll.”

  “Yeah, yeah,” Jake said, his scowl easing, dark eyebrows returning to their normal slant. “Go ahead and laugh.”

  “All right, here’s the plan,” Jess said, pulling out a radio. “We’ll need the evidence teams, one in the mine, one for the perimeter. I want you, Matt, overseeing the outer work. Hailey-”

  But Hailey was already across the clearing and jogging quickly away from them.

  “Finally,” Jess said. “Dramatics gone. We can get some work done.”

  Cody shifted, with the intention of telling them goodbye and getting out of the way, but Jess and Matt had pulled out radios and were already talking on them, and Jake left, heading to his cabin. Rivers caught her arm, and tilted her chin toward Cody’s car. As Cody nodded her agreement, a sharp snapping sound back in the trees made both of them swing toward the sound.

  Jess freed a long sigh, as if all her stress breathed out to join the chilly mountain air, and stumbled back against Rivers before slumping.

  Matt tackled Cody, taking her to the ground and onto her injured hip. She rolled away from the pain, but Matt’s hand between her shoulder blades kept her pinned while he yanked Rivers down at the same time.

  “Jess!” Rivers wouldn’t stay down, crawling forward, her voice the sound of heartbreak.

  “Don’t move!” Matt yelled, grabbing for Rivers.

  Cody twisted away from Matt and heard another shot fired, heard the thwack of it hitting a car, heard the sprinkle of glass falling. Terror demanded that she move. She pushed up on fear-slick hands, with the urge to run, to survive, like a tidal wave flooding her thoughts. But she saw Jess lying on her side, knees drawn up where she had crumpled. The front o
f her uniform shirt darkened, as if night fell over her heart.

  “There’s so much blood! Help me!” Rivers pulled at Jess’s buttons.

  Cody’s knees were numb and tingling for escape, but she squirmed away from Matt and crept forward.

  “Officer down!” Matt yelled into his radio, as he yanked open the Bronco door and pulled out a rifle. “Cody, get your damn head down! Rivers, it’s her neck. Direct pressure. Neck, Rivers, neck!”

  Rivers still tugged at buttons. Cody reached Jess, catching her collar and pulling it down. A long cut bisected the base of Jess’s throat. Blood swelled and flowed and pooled. Jess’s eyes were fixed on Rivers but Cody could see her trying to reach for her gun.

  “Shot came from the northeast,” Matt said to the radio. “I need a medivac chopper now! I need ground teams after the shooter!”

  “Matt,” Cody said, but what came out sounded more like horror than a word. She couldn’t look away from her hands, the freckles disappearing under the darkening flood. “The blood won’t stop.”

  “More pressure,” he said, his words as staccato as the gunshots cutting the air to their right. “Just don’t cut off her breathing.”

  Rivers smoothed back Jess’s hair. “Jess hates her hair a mess. This beautiful hair and she imprisons it in this braid.”

  Cody darted a quick glance at Rivers, startled by the calmness of her words. Rivers hunched over Jess, shielding her with odd, unfocused eyes, as if deep in the nightmare.

  Blood thickened between Cody’s fingers, gluing them. She could feel the rapid flutter of Jess’s pulse under her palms, as if she’d captured a fragile moth. She saw the blood soaking into the cuff of her fleece, merging and freshening the dark stain of Nate’s death. More blood for her to carry.

  Jess raised her hand to cover Cody’s. “Get…”

  “Get help,” Cody said, with a horrible flashback to Nate’s last words. Her breath came fast and light and jittery, like a dying leaf in rushing whitewater. “Matt’s taking care of that.”

  “No. Get Rivers away." Jess’s voice was a hoarse whisper, a choking that drowned the words.

  “I’m not going,” Rivers said, bending lower.

  “Yeah, you are,” Matt said, grabbing Rivers. “You and Cody both. Right now.”

  “No!” Rivers tried to pull away from Matt but he hung on. “I’m going with her.”

  “Not going to happen,” Matt said. “I need you both out of here now. Medivac will be here any second. They’ll airlift Jess to the hospital. Cody will get you there.”

  A ranger Cody didn’t know dropped down next to her. He had a first aid kit already open, trauma dressings in hand.

  “Where’s Jake?” Rivers asked. “He needs to be here. He’ll want to know. He’s her friend.”

  “Someone will find him,” Matt said. “Get in the car. Cody, get out of here. Follow that ranger Bronco. Don’t stop for anyone, just head for pavement.”

  More gunfire from the woods made Cody flinch downward as Matt lifted Rivers to her feet and pulled her toward Cody’s car. Cody didn’t think her muscles worked anymore. There was no way they could support her. But she put a hand on the ground and managed to push upward, pushed against the need to stay low and scuttle for shelter like a spider before the shoe drops.

  Matt caught Cody’s arm, helping her up and staying between her and the direction of gunshots. He guided her into the driver’s seat, reached across her and turned the key.

  “George, get that Bronco turned around! I want these two out of here now.”

  “I’m so cold,” Rivers said. “So cold.”

  Cody thought about turning the heat up, but she shook too hard and had to hang onto the steering wheel for control. She backed up and turned, aiming for the Bronco that was to lead them out, the drying blood gluing her hands to the wheel. But even as her car covered the rough ground, her eyes were on the rearview mirror watching Matt and the other ranger bending to Jess, still and unmoving on her forest bed.

  The Bronco ahead of them drove fast, spitting gravel against Cody’s car. She hung on, kept her foot on the gas, stayed close, afraid to look at anything but the bumper in front of her. As they came out of the trees, she heard the sound of a helicopter, like a heartbeat of the sky.

  “So much blood,” Rivers said, and her voice was suddenly thick, as if the words were muted under water.

  They hit a pothole so hard Cody lost her grip on the steering wheel. It spun alone for a moment before she caught it.

  “I’m going to rip his throat out.” Rivers gripped her seatbelt in one hand, pushing against the dashboard with the other.

  “Who?” Cody asked, for a moment totally clueless as her mind tried to catch up with what was happening.

  “The person who did this to Jess. If she dies, I’m going to kill him.”

  The peaceful, graceful environmentalist was gone. She’d been possessed by pure fury, a cold darkness that froze words and covered any emotion that might have thawed her dark eyes.

  “I hear you,” Cody said. “But don’t give up on her.”

  “She can’t die,” Rivers said, and her voice thinned now, watered with tears. “She’s my life partner and doesn’t know it yet.”

  The Bronco turned on to pavement, and brake lights lit up as it swerved to the road edge. Cody pulled up even with it and rolled her window down.

  “You should be good from here,” the ranger said. “You know how to get to the hospital?”

  “Yes,” Cody said, knowing Rivers would get her there.

  The ranger nodded and cranked the Bronco around, leaving them as fast as he’d deposited them.

  “Which way do I go?” Cody asked, pulling out again. “Wallace?”

  Rivers was silent, her thumbs running over the drying blood on her hands.

  “Rivers. The hospital. Where is it?”

  “Oh Cody, what am I supposed to do?”

  “Give me directions. Get me there. That’s your first step.”

  The second step was getting Rivers out of the car once they reached the hospital. She clung to Cody, shaking so hard she could barely move forward.

  “Come on Rivers, here’s the emergency entrance.”

  Somewhere on River’s body an odd chiming sounded, like muffled church bells or gongs.

  “Oh, my cell,” Rivers said. “Where is it? Is that what I heard?" She patted down her sides as she walked unsteadily toward the glass doors. “Here it is.”

  Cody watched Rivers pull out the small cell and then stare at it as if she had no idea what to do with it. Gently, Cody took it from her and flipped it open.

  “Hello?” She saw the dried blood flaking off her fingers and her stomach turned.

  “Cody? That you? It’s Matt. Tell me how Rivers is.”

  “Distraught of course. Confused.”

  “Have an ER doc check her out. She looked like she was headed into shock.”

  “I will.”

  “Your voice sounds shaky.”

  “I’m okay. Have you found anything?" Cody pushed the automatic door opener with her elbow and supported Rivers into the lobby.

  “Not enough." Matt’s words were clipped. “I’ll check in later.”

  Cody could hear Hailey’s voice in the background as the call ended, but was unable to make out the shouted words. She closed the phone, pocketed it, and aimed Rivers for the admitting desk. First she had to get Rivers taken care of and then she had to get clean.

 
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