She glanced over at him, and her frown reappeared. “If there’s an animal up there, it means there might be more of the body. We need to look.”
He paused. The last thing he wanted to do was end up like the victim they were trying to identify, but he didn’t want to come off like a coward to the sexy, dark-haired Alexis. “I’ll take point. Watch my six,” he said, trying not to think about the job he’d volunteered for as he followed the deep gouges up the hillside in the direction of the terrifying noise.
On a small patch of melting snow a square of army-green cloth caught his eye. He moved toward the object, unsure of whether or not the thing was really something worth looking at or just another green splotch in nature’s underbelly.
Moving closer, he knelt down so he could make out the square lines and straps of a backpack, the kind that could be found at any of a million surplus supply stores. There was a smear of blood on the bag, near the right shoulder strap. Before he touched it, he motioned for Alexis to take photos. She snapped a few, carefully documenting the scene.
She stuffed the camera back into her pocket and knelt down beside him just as his knees started to grow damp in the snow. She gingerly picked the pack up by its straps and set it upright.
Opening up the bag’s top flap, the bag was filled with clear, square packages of drugs. She took out the bricks and one by one laid them on the only dry spot she could find, a downed log, and took pictures of each item with a scale.
“Holy...” he whispered. “How many bricks are there?”
“Ten,” Alexis said. “You have any idea about what kind of drugs these are?”
He leaned in closer, and through the cloudy plastic he could make out hundreds of blue pills. “Without a drug test kit I can’t be a hundred percent sure, but I know they ain’t Viagra.” His face flamed as he realized what he had said to her, and he instinctively glanced to the hand he had held.
She giggled, like she had been able to read his thoughts, and the heat rose higher in his face.
He held his head low, fearing that if he looked in her direction she would be able to see how embarrassed he was, but instead of studying him, she reached in the bag and pulled out the last brick and documented it.
She flipped the bag over. At the bottom was a wad of cash, at least a thousand dollars, held together by a thick rubber band.
“How do you think the bag got up here? You think the bears stole it?” she asked with a slight laugh at her twisted joke.
“You know of any bears that need a thousand bucks and some drugs?”
She laughed again, the sound fluttering through the air like a rare butterfly, and just as quickly as it had come, it disappeared.
“But really, either the guy dropped it when he was running or...” He picked up the bag and showed her the claw marks. He flipped it so she could see the dark bloodstains that were speckled over its surface. “This is definitely arterial spray. Which means this guy must have been carrying this when he was mauled.”
She shrugged. “It definitely could have been a mauling. It wouldn’t be the first and I doubt it will be the last, but something about this whole thing—maybe it’s the drugs—it just doesn’t feel right. There has to be something more, something we’re missing.”
He felt it, too, the strange charge in the air that came with a great case. “Do you think someone murdered this guy, Alexis?”
“Call me Lex,” she said, interrupting him. “My friends...they call me Lex.” A faint tinge of pink rose in her cheeks.
He smiled. So they were friends, just as he had hoped.
“Anyway...what were you saying?” she asked, her voice soft and coy.
That place deep inside him—that place in his heart he often pushed aside for logic and reason—reawakened.
“I...I guess I was just saying that you might be right was all... I mean, if I was a killer and I wanted to hide a body, this is one heck of a place to do it. It’s late in the season. It would be easy enough to bring a person up here, shoot them and leave them to be reabsorbed by nature. Another few days and no one would have been back up here until next year. It could have been a nearly perfect attempt at a murder and cover-up.”
She nibbled her bottom lip, and it made him wonder what it felt like to kiss those lips. They were so perfect, pink and full, even a little suntanned from all her hours hiking. He ran his tongue over his lip and gave it a slight suck as his mind wandered to more sultry thoughts of all the places of hers he would like to kiss.
“How do you know that’s arterial blood?” she asked, motioning toward the stain on the bag.
He forced himself to look away from her mouth. “Arterial blood spatter tends to have a redder color, and the droplets are small or medium because they are expelled from the body at a higher speed.”
Her face pulled into a tight pucker and she looked up the mountain. “You thinking it could be from a bullet?”
He shrugged. “Without having the medical examiner go over the foot, and without more of the body...well, it’s hard to say exactly what might have happened. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if we go get Travis and the other guys.”
“No,” she clipped. “We don’t need Travis. We’ll be fine.”
There was definitely something between her and this Travis guy. Jealousy zinged through him.
She snapped another quick picture of the drugs and the money, and stuffed everything back into the bag before she stood up. “Let’s keep moving up the mountain. Maybe we’ll find the rest of whomever this belongs to. If we do, it’s possible we can get a few more questions answered.”
Maybe it was selfish, or adolescent, or whatever his therapist would’ve called it, but what he really wanted more than to find this body—and open whatever can of questions it would entail—was to spend more time with Lex. Their time together was the first real human contact he’d had all summer. Sure, he’d seen hikers and tourists, but their interactions had been little beyond looking at passports and the normal small talk.
In the deepening shadows, they picked their way up the hill into larger and larger clumps of snow, which made their tracking easier. A squirrel chirped overhead, making him jump.
“There,” she said, pointing toward a reddish patch on the snow. “Look...”
There, half-buried in the snow, was a yellow patch of bone. On its surface were smears of blood. His stomach dropped. Hopefully he’d been wrong about this being a murder. Hopefully this was nothing more than a mauling. A death was always a terrible thing, but if this was a murder the ramifications would play out until the case was solved, and the deeper the investigation would go, the deeper he would be forced to go into his former world—a world he had promised to leave behind.
Alexis carefully snapped a picture and documented the scene. She pulled on a pair of latex gloves, and reached down and picked up the bone that was buried in the snow. The bone was round and, where it wasn’t tacky with blood, it was oily from fat.
It could have been his years of seeing the dead, but as he watched her work to gently move the heavy, wet remains from the ice that had formed around it, he wasn’t thinking about the life that this bit of flesh had once belonged to; rather, all he could think about was Lex and the way her face had paled the second her fingers had touched the bone.
“You don’t have to stay, Lex. You can go get the guys,” he offered. “I can handle this.”
She shook her head and wiped the back of her sleeve over her forehead.
“Seriously, Lex. You don’t have to do this.”
“No. I’m fine,” she said, but her voice was weaker than what he was sure she had intended it to be. “This is my job. I got it.”
Ever so gently, he reached over and took