“Don’t run off. I don’t need two bodies to recover.”
She chuckled. Based on his trail-breaking skills, she was more likely to make it out of the underbrush long before he would.
“Don’t worry, city boy, I won’t leave you again if you’re scared,” she teased.
He wiped at his cheek. “All right, I had that coming, but seriously...”
She waved him off as she started moving. “Got it, Agent Lawrence.”
“And quit calling me Agent. Only tourists call me that. I’d like to think that since you let me tag along on this one, we’re at least kind of friends.”
Kind of friends... She smiled at the thought.
In truth, she had been glad when he’d called and, due to the proximity to the International Border, they had decided to work this case together. For the first time since she had started working here, she had been looking forward to the end of the main season so she could find a little more distance from the tension between her and her ex. Until then, this cowboy and their kinda friendship could be her perfect distraction.
There was a scurry of movement as a small brown animal sprinted through the underbrush. Her body tensed as she stopped and tried to see the animal, but it had disappeared through a line of bushes. It could have been a pine marten or any number of other small mammals, but the unexpected movement made her even more wary than she had been before.
There had to be a body around here somewhere if the smaller animals were scavenging. No doubt bears, mountain lions and wolves were in the area. The scent of death would have brought every hungry mouth from miles around. She turned to warn Casper but stopped. He had a gun in his hand; it was half-raised.
“Little jumpy, eh? You can put the gun away, Casper,” she said. “If that had been a bear, it wouldn’t have done you much good anyway.”
“Hey now, I’m a good shot,” he said, sheepishly dropping the gun back into its holster.
“I doubt that,” she said, thinking back to the days she had spent plinking cans off the tops of fence rails at her family’s ranch. Back at home in the Bitterroot Valley, everyone knew her family—and her history. It was nice to meet someone who couldn’t judge her for her faults.
She moved toward the brush where the animal had first appeared. There, tucked under the branches, was a man’s REI hiking boot. Its sole was worn where the ball of the foot would have been.
“I got it,” she called.
Casper stepped carefully, avoiding the dried twigs that littered the ground in what she had to assume was his attempt to be quiet. He stopped beside her. “What is it?”
“See for yourself.” She lifted the branch so he could see the man’s boot.
“Do you think someone just left it behind?” he asked. “Maybe it dropped out of their pack or something.”
“No one just leaves behind their hiking boots, not here. Not when they still have a few miles to get back to the nearest trailhead.”
She took a few pictures to document the scene and then gingerly pulled the shoe out by its well-worn laces. The boot’s leather had dark brown stains over the toe and around the ankle to the heel. She flipped it up.
Her breath hitched in her throat.
Inside the shoe was the mucky white color of bone and dried dark red strings of chewed tendons and eviscerated flesh.
Whoever had put this shoe on was still wearing it.
She let go of the laces and stepped back from the gruesome object. She’d seen plenty of dead bodies, but nothing quite like this. It was so deformed and mutilated that, if it hadn’t been in a shoe, she almost wouldn’t have believed it had once belonged to a person.
“What do you think happened to this guy?” she whispered, out of some instinctual response to being around the dead.
“I have no idea,” Casper said, shaking his head. “But we have a place to start finding out.”
“How’s that?” she asked, looking up at him.
“We know the guy didn’t hike out.” Casper ran his hand over the stubble that riddled his jaw. “Now we just have to find the rest of his body.”
The Flathead Emergency Aviation Resources, or FEAR, helicopter touched down near the lake, its blades chopping at the air and making white caps on the crystal-blue water. Casper always hated this moment, the instant when the chain of command shifted and their team lost some of its control. Most times, he could find his best evidence and the most answers before a mess of officers showed up. Yet this time, he had to admit it was different. This was a death in which the only witnesses were the animals who had feasted on the remains and the two wayward hikers who had found the body. With an incident like this, they needed extra hands on deck—no matter how badly he wished it could just be him...and Alexis Finch.
It had been nice following her up that trail, her tight green pants stretching over hips and her full, round curves. It had made the brutal hike a little more bearable—and he’d found a new love for standard-issue forest service pants.
Alexis stood beside him, lifting her hand to shield her eyes from the dust the chopper’s blades kicked up. She squinted as she glanced over at him. “Let the party start,” she said with a cynical smile that made his gut clench.
He forced himself to look away from her full lips and the way the fine lines collected around the corners of her eyes when she glanced over at him.
He had to focus on their case.
It was only out of sheer luck that the hikers had come to him and he’d convinced his boss that he was vital to the investigation. His boss had only let him go when he’d lied and told him that there was some evidence that the hiker may have crossed the border—which landed the case squarely in their lap. If they screwed this investigation up his boss had, in no uncertain terms, told him he would be out.
This was his last chance.
His next stop on the career line was a desk job at a DMV somewhere—if he was lucky. Then again, he’d already been sent to the Siberia of the contiguous United States: a tiny stand-alone border crossing station on the side of a lake only accessible by ferry or foot. It was the CBP’s equivalent of exile.
Things couldn’t get much worse.
The coroner bent down out of the rudder wash and hurried toward them. The man was pale, but when he straightened up as he neared them, Casper noticed the telltale spider veins and reddened nose of a major alcoholic.
“Where’re the remains?” the man yelled above the sound of the slowing motor.
Alexis motioned for him to follow her.
As they drew near, Casper stared at the blood-covered leather boot. It was strange, but it looked exactly like one he had bought at REI earlier that summer. He wondered if somewhere along the way the man who’d worn this one had stood beside him in the store, passing the boot from one hand to the other as he decided if it was really the right one for him—just as Casper had done.
He pushed the thought from his mind. He had to remain detached.
It was the moment when things became real that emotions came into play, and emotions had been what had gotten him into trouble with the FBI. They had wanted the Robo-Cop—the man who could run through the blood and muck and then stand there and eat a sandwich without thinking about the residue of life that stained his footprints and constantly filled his reality.
If only he was better at disconnecting his head from his heart—life