Dead of Winter
At first, she smiled, thinking the splash of red was a stand of sumac in its rusty fall glory. Then, Alexa spotted the dark shape in the center of the crimson splotch, and her smile faded. She jumped from her seat on the couch. With ragged breath, she turned to ask, "Did you guys see that?" When she glanced back to the television, the image was gone.
"Umm, not really. I'm helping Scotty here fix the Enterprise." Reese glanced up from the small drone he was holding.
"Say what?" Tyrell mumbled. Typical of him to go all-in on this new drone just like he did with each new cause. Sometimes his obsessions drove Alexa crazy.
"No joke. Look at this video." Alexa dove forward, scattering papers as she searched her coffee table for the remote. She gritted her teeth. Get two grown men together and suddenly they started acting like teenagers. "We came back here for lunch so we could watch the video from this morning."
Attaching a miniature camera to the underside of the quad-copter in Reese's hand, Tyrell shrugged. "We got distracted. Had to fix the camera. No wonder it came loose. You were crashing the Land Rover through field and stream like a Mad Max movie." He patted the side of the drone, as if it could feel his encouragement.
"You said off the beaten track," Alexa muttered as she ran a hand over the seat of the couch, still searching.
"That was tame compared to northern Kenya." With a flourish, Reese placed the drone onto the table, camera attached. Alexa felt her heart skip a beat as she watched his strong, tan hands cradle the delicate drone.
"Found it." Tyrell lifted the remote from the arm of the couch and waved it at Alexa.
"Yes." She plopped onto the couch, tapping her foot.
Tyrell pointed the remote at the TV. "Just chill a minute. How far back?"
"Maybe three minutes? A field — right past an old farmhouse."
Tyrell's short dreadlocks bobbed as he saluted with the device. "You got it, counselor."
Alexa felt tension build in the pit of her stomach. A voice in her head kept saying: It can't be. It can't be.
"Far enough?" Tyrell hit the play button.
The roof of an old farmhouse rolled onto the screen. "I think this is it." The picture blurred for a moment as the tin roof reflected scattered beams of sunlight. The edge of a silo slid into view.
"Now, watch as it flies over this field," she commanded. As if sensing her distress, Scout, Alexa's English mastiff, shuffled over and lay on her feet. Holding her breath, his mistress scowled as the scene zoomed out and everything on the screen shrank.
Tyrell commented. "I remember this. I caught sight of that silo and sent the drone up. A chance to play around with a higher altitude."
"Now. Look, now!" Alexa leaned forward to study the field that flowed into view.
"What the —? Pause it," Reese cried.
"Damn. I wish we had a closer shot." Tyrell's voice was subdued, his eyes glued to the image frozen on the monitor.
Alexa rose from her chair and strode to the TV for a closer look. The camera had captured a desolate field ringed by weathered fence posts and a thicket of dying weeds. The center section of the field was almost bare. Alexa's eyes went to the splash of red in the far end of the field. With the video stilled, it was clear that this was no stand of sumac. Dark crimson splattered the ground and a tall clump of weeds. Dead center, framed in a shaft of morning sunlight, lay a crumpled form.
"A deer?" Tyrell asked in a hopeful voice.
"Possible. Someone hunting out of season." Reese's doubtful tone belied his words.
Returning to her seat, Alexa nodded her head. "Could be a deer."
She paused to take in the somber looks on her companions' faces. "Yeah," she sighed. "It looks a lot like a body." Scout whined at her bleak tone and rested his head on Alexa's knee. Alexa's stomach fluttered. She couldn't believe she might have found another dead body. This had to be a deer or some other animal. Maybe a cow?
Tyrell jumped up and strode toward the phone. "I'll call 911."
"Wait." Alexa held up her hand. "Do either of you remember where this farmhouse was? We might have filmed this segment when we followed that long bumpy lane; a few miles after we left Mt. Holly. But it could have been on that other road, closer to the mountain."
"Do you know how to get to both spots?" Reese asked. "I lost track of where we were. We stopped, what, five times to send the drone up?"
"Only four," Tyrell interjected, hand on the phone.
"Right now, I wouldn't know exactly where to send the police."
Reese snapped his fingers. "Wait, doesn't the drone have GPS?"
"Maybe, but I didn't get to that chapter in the instruction manual yet. I haven't figured out all the different functions." Tyrell's voice tightened. "I'm no fan of cops, but shouldn't we call them? Like, now?"
Alexa shook her head. "We don't even know that it's a person. What if it's just a dead animal? First, let's try to figure out which farm this was."
"But what if that is really a person and he's still alive?"
Alexa and Reese exchanged a quick glance before he replied. "I'm pretty sure whoever, whatever is dead. That's an awful lot of blood. But the drone was so high on this shot, the detail sucks. I agree with Alexa. We should try to pin down where we took this part of the video."
Alexa added, "Then drive there and check this out ourselves. That way, we can be sure of what we're seeing and tell the police the exact location. I could retrace our steps to where we stopped each time we sent the drone up." Alexa continued to fidget. She flashed to the other bodies she'd found on the past. Elizabeth Nelson in the woods, Cecily Townes in her home, the senator who'd crashed to his death in the Capitol Rotunda. Death seemed to seek her out.
Reese put a steadying hand on her arm. "Alexa, your instinct is always to jump right in. What if the people who did this are still around? Even if it is an animal and not a human corpse, poachers can be dangerous."
Alexa shook her head, frustrated by the men's hesitation. "We can check the video again, but I didn't see any people around. And we took that a few hours ago. What's the chance they'd still be there now?" She paused. "Look, the last thing I want to do is involve the cops and find out it's not a body at all." She remembered how foolish she'd felt a few years back when she'd reported some guys for harassment. Turned out they were students working on a college project. She wasn't anxious for a repeat of that embarrassing episode. She might develop a reputation around the courthouse as the attorney who cried wolf.
Running a hand through his hair, Reese gave Alexa a long look. With a wry smile, he said, "You're right. Let's see what we're dealing with before we call in the police."
Tyrell shrugged his shoulders. "I defer to the experts. Reese, you've had police training, right? Girl, you're an attorney. You've been in situations like this before." With a sigh, he trudged to the couch and hit rewind.
Stunned by his words, Alexa wondered what wrong turn her life had taken to qualify her as an expert in dealing with dead bodies.
Less than a half hour later, Alexa gripped the steering wheel tightly as her old Land Rover Defender barreled down the road. The bubble of anxiety in her chest felt like it might explode.
This was supposed to have been a fun, carefree day. Her old love, Reese, had been back from Africa for a few months, and she wanted him to meet her friend, Tyrell. That was it. Flying a drone and spending a few hours together. Now they were rocketing across the valley to check outâ&8364;what? A corpse? She really didn't want this to be another dead body. The odds were against that, right?
She spied a road ahead to the left. "The terrain's pretty flat here. I think this might be it."
"Could be." Reese's tone was encouraging.
She downshifted and turned into a narrow dirt lane. "Let's try this it." They drove past two ranch homes, both with pick-ups in the driveway. A green ATV sat in the first yard with a tattered For Sale sign on the windshield. The second yard featured a life-size Styrofoam deer, its body peppered with holes.
Reese gestured toward the deer. "Those things are designed for archery practice. Check out how big chunks of foam are missing. Looks like someone got drunk and decided to use a rifle instead. The type of jerk we used to haul in for hunting violations."
Alexa noted the word we and wondered if Reese missed his days as a state park ranger. When he decided to leave for Africa, his life had moved away from the law enforcement aspect of that job for a focus on animal conservation. He'd been a good ranger but was passionate about Africa and wild animals. The conservation project he worked for now focused on saving the big cats of Africa.
In a flash, they left the ranch homes behind in a cloud of dust. But a few minutes later, Alexa had to slow the Rover as it lurched back and forth. The unpaved road was now rutted with bumps and potholes. Acres of bleak fields, their crops long since gone to harvest, stretched for miles on both sides of the lane.
Alexa glanced in the rearview mirror at Tyrell. He was gripping the seat, his eyes glued to the passing scene. With a scowl he said, "Now all we have to do is find the spot where we stopped."
Reese added, "And figure out how to follow the drone's path. We stood along the main road while you flew the quad copter all over the place. I'm not sure I actually saw the farmhouse."
Alexa noticed a faint dirt track on the left and screeched to an abrupt stop. "I remember this place." She rolled down the window and pointed a short distance down the track. A rickety gate sagged wide open. "Didn't we park here?"
Reese opened the door and unfolded his lanky body from the SUV. He walked a few feet, peered at some scuffmarks in the dirt, then scanned the area. "Yeah. I remember that fenced-in field and the gate." He pointed to the northwest. "Tyrell, you sent the drone out that way."
"I guess." Tyrell cast a bewildered-looking glance out the window as Reese climbed back in the car. "All these fields look the same to me. But you're just like that dude Leo plays in the movie, the one about the trapper in the wilderness. The Oscar one. If you say we were here, we were here."
Alexa gave a half-hearted laugh and squinted at Reese, trying to ignore the queasiness in her stomach. "OK, trapper dude. Should we keep driving and look for a farm on the left? This morning we headed straight back to the main road after we stopped here. Ahead is virgin territory."
"Makes sense. We should be able to spot the silo even if it's set back in." Reese nodded, drumming his fingers on one knee.
Keeping the speed low, Alexa moved forward. They hadn't passed another vehicle or seen any signs of life since those first two houses. As they searched for evidence of a farm, Tyrell's uneven breathing rose above the crunch of gravel in an unsettling syncopation. Alexa swept her eyes in a rhythmic pattern to the left and back to the road as she drove.
After several minutes, Reese shifted in his seat and asked, "How far can it be? There's a limit on the distance the drone can fly, right?"
"What's that over there?" Tyrell interrupted.
"An old windmill. It could mean we're close." Reese leaned forward to peer through the windshield.
As she looked for the windmill, Alexa let her attention stray from the road, and the Land Rover's front tire drifted into the field on the right. A flock of starlings, their iridescent coats gleaming blue-black, shot up from the field and flew across the car's path. Startled, Alexa gasped and slammed on the brakes.
"Whoa." Alexa put a hand over her pounding heart. "I'll pay attention to the road. You two look for the farmhouse."
"This could be it." Reese's tone was clipped as he pointed to a mailbox just up the road. Beyond it, a red silo rose above a cluster of trees, their withered leaves a pallid yellow. Alexa recognized this Reese from when they'd first met during the investigation of a homicide on state forest land. Focused. Direct.
"You were right, trapper man," Tyrell muttered when they reached the gravel lane. Surprised that her usually smooth and confident friend seemed so shaken, Alexa worried if he was going to fall apart on them.
"This place has seen better days." With a melancholy smile, Alexa gestured toward a large galvanized steel box, tilted at a right angle to the post. She wondered about the farmer who'd taken the time to paint the now-faded mailbox green, attaching wheels and a wooden cab to suggest a tractor.
"Looks like it's been abandoned for years," Reese agreed. "Go slow. The video didn't show anyone in the area. But let's be cautious."
"Given my dislike for law enforcement, this day's going down in history. Dudes, I'm all for calling the cops. Now." Tyrell glanced at his phone. "I've got reception; four bars."
"Let's just make sure this is the place," Alexa said as she turned down the lane.
"What? There's the house, the silo, the barn." Tyrell pointed ahead.
"Yeah. But all these old farms have houses, silos, and barns. We're here. Let's be absolutely sure before we call this in."
When they neared the parking area in front of the ramshackle farmhouse, Reese said, "Let's stop here. Can you turn around before we go investigate?"
Alexa was surprised how quickly Reese had slipped back into law enforcement mode. He hadn't been a park ranger for almost two years. She made a U-turn in a field thick with weeds and parked the Land Rover in the middle of the lane, facing toward the main road. Last out of the vehicle, she shivered as she joined Reese and Tyrell, who were studying the house.
"Looks deserted," Alexa whispered.
"Yeah, but let's take it slow," Reese replied, his voice pitched low.
Tyrell hissed, "All this whispering is creeping me out. I'm a social worker, not a cop. What if the killer's still around?"
"The Girl Scouts taught me to `Be Prepared,'" Alexa muttered.
"So, you have a gun. Good."
Alexa shook her head.
Tyrell looked at Reese, who opened his empty hands.
At Tyrell's look of dismay, Alexa whispered, "On RESIST business, you go into some of the roughest districts of Mumbai, Bangkok, and who knows where. This can't be any scarier than that."
Reese raised an eyebrow. "Proceed? Or call it in?"
Tyrell sighed. "Proceed."
"Maybe someone should stay with the car?" Alexa looked at Tyrell.
"Not me." He shook his head.
"Then let's do this." Alexa squared her shoulders and walked toward the house. White paint curled in uneven strips from the wood siding. The front door hung outward on one hinge, and glass pooled beneath a gaping front window on the weathered front porch.
As they approached the house, Reese motioned for a stop. Alert to any sounds of human activity, Alexa heard only the rustle of the wind through the leafless branches of a lilac bush and the creak of a loose shutter on an upper window.
"Let me take a quick look in the house. It seems empty. No vehicles, although this driveway has been used recently." Reese pointed to overlapping tire tracks in the dust. "Can you two check the barn?"
"OK." Alexa swallowed hard. "I think the body — what we think is a body — is out past the silo." She grabbed Tyrell's arm and steered him toward the larger structure.
The decaying barn sat on a limestone foundation. A faint trace of red clung to a few boards, but years of sun, rain, and snow had stripped most to a weathered gray. As they made their way up a grassy incline toward the huge double doors, Alexa said, "I'm surprised someone hasn't torn this baby down and sold off the wood for furniture or something. Barn wood décor is all the rage these days."
"We might run into a murderer any minute, and you're talking interior design?" Tyrell flashed a strained smile.
"They used better paint on the silo than the barn. Looks strange that it's still bright red, and all this has faded to gray. Growing up, I loved to play in my grandmother's barn." Alexa continued to babble as they approached the entrance. The tall door on the left stood ajar. She stopped a few feet short of the opening. Beyond the door was inky dark.
Tyrell's voice jarred Alexa from her thoughts. "Why don't I go in and you stay outside?"
"Let's just check it out from here first." The pair sidled up to the doorway together. Alexa stood on the threshold, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the gloom. She could sense Tyrell just behind, peering over her head into the interior. Murky daylight streamed into the dilapidated structure through a hole in the ceiling. The far wall was missing several boards in a random pattern. Several disintegrating bales of hay moldered in one corner.
Alexa wrinkled her nose at the dank, musty odor — a far cry from the pleasant smell of drying hay that she associated with her grandmother's barn. "Look. The floor's shot to hell. We don't want to fall through and break a leg. Or worse." Alexa pointed to a yawning black hole a few feet into the barn.
"Ain't no one home here. Even the animals are long gone." Tyrell sniffed in disdain and turned away from the door. With a nod of agreement, Alexa took one last glance and followed him down the slope.
Reese emerged from the back of the house just as they reached level ground. "Anything?" he asked.