Home > Secrets Never Die (Morgan Dane #5)(6)

Secrets Never Die (Morgan Dane #5)(6)
Author: Melinda Leigh

A fat drop of water landed on Lance’s head. “Won’t take much to reach flood stage.”

More rain pattered on the pavement.

“We’d better get moving.” Harvey stowed the electronic tablet in the car and grabbed his own Go Bag. He led the way around the side of the house. The neighbor’s rear yard was not fenced, and they walked through it to reach the area behind the white vinyl fence that enclosed the Knoxes’ backyard. A fifty-feet-wide swath of tall weeds and grass separated the fence from the forest. A floodlight had been set up at the base of the fence, where the two clearest footprints had been found. Under a tarp strung up to protect the area from the rain, two crime scene techs were casting the prints. Closer to the woods, two deputies searched the weedy ground with high-powered flashlights.

Lance scanned the ground, tracking a line of smashed grass and weeds that led from the fence to the woods. Along the same path, three yellow evidence flags poked above the grass.

“Those flags mark partial shoe treads.” Harvey pointed. “All the tread marks look like they were made by Converse shoes, men’s size 13, which Mrs. Knox confirmed is Evan’s shoe size.”

“No second set of footprints?” Lance asked, thinking of the shooter.

“No. There are no additional tracks to suggest someone followed the boy.” Harvey walked toward the woods, parallel to Evan’s tracks.

Rogers hefted his AR-15 and gestured for Lance to go next. Rogers brought up the rear. They trudged through the wet, knee-high weeds and entered the forest. Once they were under the canopy, overhead branches provided some cover from the drizzle, but they all knew they had to move fast. The light rain falling now would soon become a downpour.

Thick, dense summer foliage also blocked some of the wind. The air became muggy, oppressive. Beneath his body armor, sweat broke out between Lance’s shoulder blades and dripped down his back. He continually scanned the surrounding forest, looking for signs that they weren’t alone and ignoring the swarms of gnats buzzing around his face. He listened for sounds of movement under the patter of rain on leaves.

Rogers bent to study the soft earth, eyeing the distance between tread marks. “He’s moving fast. Running through here at top speed. Not concerned with anything except putting distance between him and whatever he thinks is chasing him.”

Evan had run in a straight line for the woods during the initial stage of his flight.

Lance let Rogers and Harvey study the ground while he continued to watch the woods. The trees were dense, and the darkness pressed in on the men from all sides. Lance moved a few feet away from Harvey and Rogers. Instead of using his flashlight, which would show him only a small section of forest at a time, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the dimness.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the forest. In the split second of brightness, Lance scanned their surroundings. The woods were green from recent heavy rains. The lushness would provide plenty of cover for a shooter who had already proven himself capable of committing an execution-style murder.

Just because they hadn’t seen the killer’s tracks didn’t mean he hadn’t been there. Or hadn’t circled around in an attempt to intercept the teenager.

A person capable of executing an experienced cop might also be skilled enough not to leave a trail of footprints through the woods.

Rogers straightened, and they moved forward. It was impossible to move silently through the dense underbrush. Prickly plants snagged at Lance’s pants legs, and twigs snapped underfoot. For the first half mile, they were able to follow Evan’s flight by tracking freshly broken foliage and the occasional partial shoe tread in the earth.

They emerged from the underbrush onto a game trail.

Rogers crouched to study three shoe prints. “Looks like he took the trail from here. These prints are still far apart. And see the way he’s digging in with the balls of his feet? He’s still running at top speed.”

Lance hoped that meant the teen wasn’t injured too seriously, but he knew adrenaline could mask pain. Evan would be in panic mode. His bloodstream would be flooded with it.

Rogers stood, and they moved on. The trail was wide enough to open the canopy above their heads and expose them to the storm. The rain increased, now falling in a steady sheet. Wind whipped through the woods, blowing water droplets into Lance’s face. Each gust held a fresh chill as the temperature dropped. Soon, the storm would wash away all traces of Evan’s flight. On the game trail, there was no clear path of damaged underbrush, and his route was harder to track.

A road bisected the trail. Rogers surveyed the muddy shoulder and found a few broken twigs and one deep footprint in some thick mud on the opposite side of the road. “Looks like he stuck to the trail instead of taking the road.”

They picked up their pace. The rain became a downpour, hitting the ground faster than the already saturated soil could absorb it. Water puddled under their feet, washing away any remaining footprints that might have been in the earth. There would be no more tracks to follow. Lance hoped that the teen had stuck to the trail. Since they were no longer looking for tracks, they were able to move faster. Lance broke into a jog, his boots splashing in the mud, the rain lashing his face.

Rogers and Harvey wore brimmed hats, which gave their eyes some protection from the torrential rain. Lance was bareheaded. He didn’t raise the hood of his jacket. He didn’t want the nylon to impede his hearing. Water invaded his collar, ran around his neck, and trickled down his back.

They kept moving. The wind howled, its force pushing against Lance’s body. He leaned into it and pressed on. The rain shifted to hail, the hard beads stinging his face. He gave up trying to hear anything, raised his hood, and tightened the chin strap to keep the wind from blowing it off his head. The short brim provided his eyes some protection from the ice pellets peppering his face.

Where was Evan? Had he found shelter? Visions of the teenager, bleeding and shivering, the violent storm raging around him, flashed through Lance’s mind. Worry fueled his steps, and he plowed forward.

As long as the trail was passable, he would not give up. Neither Rogers nor Harvey showed any signs of wanting to stop either.

Lightning flashed, the thunder booming while the sky was still flickering. The trees swayed, branches whipping and waving as the wind thrashed around them, but they kept going, moving as quickly as the slippery ground and poor visibility would allow. A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky. The thunder was deafening and felt like it was right over Lance’s head. The next gust of wind nearly took him off his feet.

Crack!

The sound of wood splitting echoed over the noise of hail and wind. Lance caught movement in his peripheral vision—a tree, crashing toward them.

“Look out!” He reached out, grabbed Rogers’s and Harvey’s arms, and hauled them backward.

The three men fell onto their asses in the mud. A huge oak tree crashed to the earth a few feet in front of them. The ground shook with the impact.

Lance climbed to his feet and shone his flashlight on the felled tree. On either side of him, Rogers and Harvey stood. The mature oak lay over the trail. Its trunk was too wide for Lance’s arms to reach around it.

Heart hammering, Lance climbed over the downed tree. He checked his watch. They’d been on Evan’s trail for nearly two hours, but Lance estimated they’d covered barely a few miles. Evan had a significant lead on them, but maybe they could catch him if the boy had taken shelter from the storm.

Gradually, the wind and downpour eased, allowing the men to pick up the pace. The storm broke with the dawn. The rain tapered off, and the sky brightened. Lance and the two cops emerged from the forest at the abandoned campground at Deer Lake. A run-down, rickety dock extended out over the water. Broken branches, leaves, and other storm debris littered the ground and the sandy beach that edged the lake.

“Maybe he holed up in one of the buildings.” Harvey shook the water from his jacket and unzipped it.

Lance did the same. “We’ll have to search each building.”

Which would take time.

Rogers walked in circles, scanning the ground. “Any tracks the boy might have left are long gone.”

Lance surveyed the old campground. A campfire ring ten feet in diameter occupied the center of a large open space. A dented canoe lay in the middle of the ring, as if dropped there by the storm. Cabins surrounded the clearing. A few squat cinder block buildings were nestled in the trees. He spotted restrooms, shower facilities, and a main office. Closer to the water was a boathouse with a hole in its shingled roof.

“Let’s start clearing buildings,” Harvey said to Rogers, then pointed at Lance. “Stay behind us.”

Weapons drawn, the deputies moved toward the cabins, entering doorways and securing cabins as a well-drilled team. Lance drew his gun and watched their backs. Most of the wooden doors were broken or hanging on their hinges. The cabin interiors were in ruins. Beneath collapsed roofs, dead leaves and animal feces were piled in corners. They moved from the cabins to the bath facilities. More substantially constructed of cinder block and metal roofs, they stood intact, but all were empty. Hypodermic needles, empty cans, and other trash littered the concrete floors.

As they emerged from the final restroom, they approached the boathouse near the lakeshore. The door stood open, revealing a dented aluminum canoe and a fiberglass kayak with a hole in its hull.

“Looks like blood.” Harvey pointed to a few dark spots on the floor. “I’ll have the sheriff bring the K-9 team to the campground.” Harvey lifted his handheld radio. “Maybe the dog will be able to pick up the boy’s trail from here.” He turned and walked away.

The clouds broke apart, exposing the sunrise. Light poured over the treetops and onto the lake, its reflection flowing across the surface like spilled blood. Lance walked out onto the beach.

Where are you?

The lake was long and narrow. He could see the opposite shore a hundred yards away, but to the south, the lake doglegged to the right and disappeared behind thick forest. Beyond the bend, the lake fed the Deer River. Looking for a better view, he crossed the sand and walked onto the old dock. The weathered boards creaked under his weight.

   
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