Scent of Murder

Cynthia G. Alwyn

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

CHAPTER 1
“ARE WE LOST?” Jett asked.
Lightning dissolved the night.
“Wow.” Brenna squinted and shifted her gaze to the dark floorboard. “That made my eyes ache.”
Thunder boomed, deep and heavy. The rain’s raps on the Suburban turned into a drumroll. “Chattanooga Choo Choo” blared from the radio, the peppy beat syncopating with the swipe of the windshield wipers. From the cargo area of the truck came a softer thumping, out of sync.
“Can you see the street sign?” Jett asked.
She wiped a peephole in the fogged window and peered out. “No, I can’t see anything.”
“Neither can I.”
Even at high speed, the windshield wipers couldn’t open a visibility hole.
Lightning blinded her again; thunder bellowed. A flash of yellow skidded sideways in front of them. Jett jerked the steering wheel to avoid hitting the other car, but the Suburban continued forward instead of turning.
Brenna braced herself against the dashboard, held her breath, and glanced at Jett. He sat rigid, his hands fused to the steering wheel.
The two vehicles sped past each other without touching.
She exhaled a shaky breath and then realized she was sweating. With a sticky hand, she turned off the radio.
“Jett …” she said, softly.
“I know.”
A few moments later, he veered into a dry cleaner’s parking lot. She watched him peel his fingers off the steering wheel and then grimace, as if they ached. Only then did she notice the marks of her fingernails in her own palms.
Jett leaned back, sighed, and rubbed his eyes.
The rain blasted the truck in waves.
He turned toward her and smiled. “Don’t worry, Irish. This downpour won’t last long.”
She looked at the green digits on the dashboard clock: 1:43.
The worst of the storm had passed through Seattle and its suburbs twenty minutes earlier, leaving downed tree branches and scattered power outages. Emergency crews were already out, their yellow lights flashing in the night. But this sudden deluge had sent even those brave souls dashing for cover.
When lightning flashed again, Brenna glanced at the bruised, swollen clouds. “This is the wrong night for a little girl to run away from home.”
“If it keeps raining, you may not have to look far.” He twisted and set his right foot on the hump between the front floorboards. “Okay, Miss Navigator, do you know where we are?”
Brenna smiled at her boss. During high school, twenty-odd years ago, she and Jett had been friends. Then he moved to California, and she ended up as a schoolteacher in Texas, taking care of her grandmother. Years later, she began working with a renowned dog trainer. When Aaron told her a private investigator was arriving one afternoon to pick up two dogs to work narcotics detection for his new business, she was amazed to find the man was Jett. They renewed their friendship. After both her grandmother and Aaron died, Jett offered her a job as his administrative assistant. She’d needed a change and accepted.
“The next time somebody wakes you up in the middle of the night to give you directions, print.”
“Very funny.”
He tried to hide a grin, but she saw it. Good-natured teasing peppered their relationship, easing the tension and slowing the adrenaline that a callout raised.
“Let me see those directions,” he said. “Maybe I can decipher them.” He turned on the interior lamp, highlighting his neatly trimmed reddish-blond hair, ruddy complexion, and moss green eyes. Right now those eyes were squinting at the words.
“Want to borrow my reading glasses?” Brenna asked.
“I don’t need them,” he said, holding the paper to the light.
She laughed and handed them over. “Here, Mr. Magoo.”
He sighed and slipped the glasses on without looking at her. “You know, this has to be our little secret.”
“It’ll cost you.”
Brenna’s black-and-tan German Shepherd hung her head over the seat and gently bumped Brenna’s jaw with her long muzzle.
“Take it easy, Brie,” Brenna said. “We’re almost there.”
Sabrina’s long tail thumped against a red backpack. She leaned over to Jett and licked his ear.
Brenna laughed and stroked the dog’s muzzle. “Leave him alone, Funny Face. Come pester me, if you must.”
Jett peered through the windshield. “I think I see a McDonald’s farther down.” He glanced at her. “We’re on the right street.”
“I hope the kid holes up somewhere until the rain stops.”
“We got an early call on this one,” he said. “There’s a good chance we’ll find her.”
As quickly as the torrent began, it stopped. Jett drove out of the parking lot, and, two turns later, found Stanford Circle.
Brenna didn’t need to double-check the address: two police cars and a sheriff’s unit sat in front of a one-story redbrick ranch with white shutters and a deep front porch.
The entire neighborhood was dark; no streetlights or yard lamps glowed.
“The power’s out in this section,” she said.
Jett parked on the street behind the sheriff’s cruiser. “I’ll start the report,” he said. “Meet me on the porch.” He cut across the yard to the house.
Brenna scratched the dog’s ears and patted her nose. “Are you ready?” Brie wagged her tail and perked her ears.
Raindrops freckled the windshield. Thunder grumbled. As Brenna opened the passenger door, the sprinkles became a shower, dumping another wash on the saturated ground. She slammed the passenger door and glanced at her watch.
Brie nudged her and rested her head on Brenna’s shoulder.
She patted the dog’s head. “Me, too.”
Three minutes later, the rain hitched a ride on the wind and drifted east. As Brenna opened the door, a police car drove past. Tires hissed on wet pavement. Water coursed in rivulets along curbs and gurgled into storm drains.
Brenna got out of the truck and walked to the back; Brie was pawing at the tailgate. This dog lived to search. When she found her “victims”—those searched for—she wiggled all over and tickled them with doggy kisses.
“Do you want out, Funny Face?”
The dog stretched her neck and bumped her nose against Brenna’s chin.
Brenna lowered the tailgate; Brie stepped forward, anxious but awaiting her owner’s command. When it came, she jumped to the ground and began sniffing for an appropriate place to relieve herself. Meanwhile Brenna studied the neighborhood.
Spots of light dotted the darkness between houses and in an open space where the street curved out of sight. At least a few people were out with flashlights.
Most of the older brick homes had yard lampposts and trimmed lawns. The police cars sat in front of a ranch house with limp daffodils and tulips in the front flower bed.
A tall black man stepped between the sheriff’s car and the Suburban. Without his law-enforcement equipment belt, he always reminded her of a ruler, straight up and down.
“Is that you, String Bean?” she asked.
“Rob Garrett at your service, ma’am.” He placed a huge, scarred hand on the side of her face and planted a kiss on her forehead. “Jett said you were out here.”
“Hey, big guy.” She slipped her arm around his waist and gave him a hug. “I expected to see you this afternoon.”
“I’d planned to come, but Yvonne had a honey-do list with my name on it.”
“How’s the family?”
“Reggie’s great; Yvonne and I have our good days and bad days.” He stepped back and glanced at the street. “Who else is coming?”
“Adam is flying up Marco and Connie.”
Garrett shook his head. “The ex-cop brigade. Adam and Jett.”
“And you.”
“Not quite the same,” he said. “Now Adam is a big financier with his own plane, and Jett runs his own company.”
Brie trotted over to them; Garrett squatted and spread open his arms. “Come here, you beautiful girl.” He hugged the dog and then gently rubbed her ears. “Are you still digging in the garbage?”
“Yes, she is,” Brenna said. “If I don’t watch her, she pulls everything out of the trash and sets it in a line across the kitchen floor. Then she wags her tail and perks her ears. I think she expects a reward.”
Garrett laughed and hugged the dog again. “I sure have missed you.”
“I’ve got a second dog now, named Feather. A Bouvier des Flandres.”
“She look like a Giant Schnauzer? That kind?”
She nodded. “Stockier, though. A longer coat. From a distance, she reminds me of a bear.” Brenna smiled. “You should see the two of them. She and Brie play tag and Catch the Paw and a dozen other games. They’re so funny.”
“Why didn’t you bring her?”
“She pulled a leg muscle. Better for her to stay home this time.”
When Brenna clapped her hands, Brie tore away from Garrett, jumped into the Suburban, and lay down.
“I thought you were working for Seattle PD,” she said.
“Being a sheriff’s deputy for King County keeps me plenty busy.”
“Is this place under county jurisdiction?”
“The city limit is just over there.” He pointed toward the end of the street. “City and county work together when it’s this close to the line. You’ll like these guys, Bren. They’re easy to work with.”
She nodded toward the house. “What’s the story? I know the little girl ran away.”
“Four years old.”
“Why did she leave?”
He shrugged. “No one knows.”
“There has to be a reason.” Brenna glanced toward the house. “Isn’t four a little young to run away?”
“The family has a new baby. I suspect sibling rivalry played a big part in Zoe’s decision to take a hike.”
“Zoe.” The name created an image in her mind: short, dark hair, fair skin, dark eyes. She wondered if the mental picture would resemble the child. “Did they have an argument?”
“Dad says no.”
“Both parents here?”
“Yep.”
“How long has she been gone?”
“Best we can tell, about half an hour or so. A big clap of thunder woke everyone up just after one.”
Brenna glanced at her watch: 1:47
“Mr. Hendricks went to check on Zoe and found her gone,” Garrett said. “Would you talk to him?”
“Jett’s taking the preliminary report.”
“But your first impressions of people have been dead-on. I’d like to know what you think of this guy.”
“Why?”
He grinned. “Humor me. I’ll have Evan stay with Brie.”
Garrett spoke into his radio; Brenna took the opportunity to kiss Brie on the nose.
A sandy-haired young man came out of the house, carrying a lit hurricane lamp. He set it on the wicker porch table. Then he removed a pink towel from around his neck, draped it over the arm of the wooden porch swing, and jogged toward Garrett.
“He’s soaked to the skin,” she said. “Been out in the rain?”
“He fell in the creek.”
“What creek?” She turned and scanned the area.
Garrett pointed past the houses. “Over there, behind the park.”
Evan stopped in front of Garrett. “Yes, sir?”
Brenna thought Evan looked young, maybe twenty-two: a babe compared with her thirty-nine years. He stood rigid, ready for action.
“Stay with Brie until we get back,” Garrett said, indicating the dog.
Evan glanced at the truck. “But—it’s a dog, sir.”
“A very special dog,” Garrett said.
The young deputy snapped to attention. “Yes, sir.”
Brenna started toward the house.
“Uh, ma’am … shouldn’t I put the tailgate up to keep the dog in the truck?”
“No need; she’ll stay right where I left her.” Brenna smiled. “Brie won’t bite, Deputy. Give her a pat.”
As Brenna and Garrett walked up the driveway toward the house, she touched the hood of the black Seville parked in front of the garage. It felt hot.
A police officer came onto the porch and held the front door open for them. Brenna paused in the foyer. Hurricane lamps burned in every room; another police officer bent over a map spread on top of the table in the dining room to her right; a short brunette paced the hallway, a crying baby in her arms.
Garrett directed Brenna into the living room.
“Brenna Scott,” Jett said, rising from a white couch. “This is Tom Hendricks, Zoe’s father.” A dark-haired man in a wet gray jogging suit extended his hand.
She noticed his long fingers, manicured nails, and soft skin. These were not a workingman’s hands. But he looked like the average guy. Medium height. Medium weight. Silver-framed glasses resting on a narrow nose. Dark eyes that alternated between dazed stares and frantic blinking.
“And this is Gary Brown,” Jett said.
The other man in the room, wearing jeans and a red golf shirt, nodded.
Jett handed her the clipboard and his small flashlight. “I think we have all the information we need to get you started on a hasty search.”
Tom Hendricks’s hands opened and closed as if he were doing finger exercises. “Can your dog find my little girl?”
“We’ll try,” she said.
“Try?”
“I never make promises,” she said. “I can’t.”
“Don’t you have more than one dog?” Gary Brown stood. “Zoe could have gone anywhere.”
“The rest of our team will be here soon.” She smiled at him. “Are you part of the family, Mr. Brown?”
“No,” Tom Hendricks said. “Gary works with me and lives close by, and I called him to help me look for Zoe.”
“How close?” she asked.
“Ten minutes.”
She turned to Tom Hendricks. “May I bring my search dog into the house?”
“We’ve looked everywhere,” he said. “She isn’t in the house and her Pooh Bear is gone … Winnie-the-Pooh. I looked outside, ran up and down the—” His voice broke. He cleared his throat and started again. “Gary drove all the streets in the neighborhood.”
She turned to Gary Brown. “Do you have children? Might Zoe head for your house?”
He wilted and shook his head. “We hadn’t thought of that.”
Tom Hendricks said to Jett, “When you asked if Zoe had a favorite place or if she had a special friend, I never thought of Gary’s Amy. Our families spend a lot of time together, but I—I didn’t think about the girls as friends.”
“How old is Amy?” Jett asked.
“Five.”
“May I bring in my dog?” Brenna asked again.
“Of course.” Tom Hendricks hurried toward his wife in the hallway. “Honey, she might be on her way to Amy’s.”
Brenna returned to the Suburban and found Evan sitting on the tailgate, his arm looped around Brie’s neck. The dog pawed his leg, demanding another pat.
When Evan saw Brenna, he jumped to his feet. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“Fine with me,” she said. “Brie loves attention.”
“Friendly dog,” he said. “Are you going to breed her?”
“No, she’s got flat feet.”
She scooted onto the tailgate, flipped on the rear overhead light, and scanned the information Jett had written on the Missing Persons form. Physical description, personality, fears. Zoe’s father had discovered her missing shortly after one o’clock. She’d gone to bed at nine-thirty. Last seen wearing Tigger pajamas. On no medication—
“This license tag says California,” Evan said. “How’d you get here so fast?”
Brenna glanced up. “I was in town anyway. We gave a presentation on search dogs to the Emergency Management Conference in Seattle this afternoon.”
She looked at the report again. The family had eaten dinner around seven … except for the usual reluctance to go to bed, the little girl—
The truck says “Culpepper Investigations.” Evan said. “What does a private investigator have to do with search dogs?”
“He works base camp for us. Communications, maps. Jett’s dispatcher answers the telephone for our volunteer group twenty-four hours a day.” She flipped the page and read as she talked. “We use his office as our callout number.”
Brie wiggled her head under Brenna’s arm, laid her chin on her owner’s leg, and sighed.
“Then how did he get involved with your group?” Evan asked.
“When Jett offered me a job as his administrative assistant, the six years of search work I’d done in Texas came with me. Now, a number of Jett’s employees are on our volunteer search team.” She smiled. “I run the team, and he goes to presentations with me to help with the slide show and make new contacts for his business.”
Brie sat up, her ears perked. She looked at Brenna, stretching her neck forward the way she always did when something unusual interested her.
Brenna followed the dog’s gaze. In the darkness, something moved. A few seconds later, the form took the shape of a man sloshing across a front yard several houses down.
“Do you recognize that guy?” she asked.
He watched the figure a few seconds. “Looks like Mosser. He said his flashlight was on the blink.” When Evan called out, the man waved.
“Brenna,” Garrett called, “you ready?”
She slid off the tailgate, stepped onto the curb, and waved at him. Then she tied her shoulder-length dark hair into a ponytail, smiled at Evan, and clipped a leash onto Brie’s collar. “Come on, girl.”
The dog jumped out of the truck, moved to Brenna’s left side, and trotted beside her to the front porch. When they reached the foyer, Tom Hendricks picked up a hurricane lamp and led them to Zoe’s bedroom.
SCENT OF MURDER. Copyright © 2001 by Cynthia G. Alwyn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.