Kitty set Phinney’s cabin on fire with his own Zippo. The battered lighter flared up on the first try, and she held it to the hem of the curtains. The fire caught, licking its way up the faded red and white plaid, growing as it went. It fed on the cooking oil Kitty had soaked into the threadbare cotton. Already, the heat made her cheeks tingle. She had to get out fast. The old cabin was as dry as sun-baked driftwood. Once the flames hit the wooden window frame and walls, things would get dicey. She scanned the countertops. Nothing out of place, nothing incriminating.
Phinney’s dented hot plate sat near the window, power switch flicked to on. Hopefully, anybody investigating the fire would assume the old man had forgotten to turn it off. That happened, didn’t it? Somebody left a pot on the stove or forgot to turn the oven off? It showed up all the time on TV, which meant it probably never happened at all. Still, it was all she had. He’d said burn the place, and she was going to.
Grabbing the plastic bottle of canola from the counter, Kitty started for the door, splashing the oil behind her as she went. Once the house heated up, the liquid would act as an accelerant. The two rickety kitchen chairs still lay tipped over near the window. Phinney’s chair had flown backward as he morphed into a werewolf and launched himself at her. Her own had been driven over by her reflex attempt to get away.
She grabbed the straps of the duffle bag and hauled it toward the porch. Even half full, it was still heavy. The hike into the woods to hide it would seem a lot longer with the extra weight on her back. Her skin prickled with the growing heat, and there was a soft whump as the flames grew exponentially. But those chairs bothered her. If the fire went out immediately after she left, which she doubted very much but say it did, those chairs made it look like something violent had happened in that corner. They didn’t fit the scene of an old man forgetting to shut off his hot
plate after making supper.
Kitty lugged the olive green bag closer to the steps. Those chairs. Gritting her teeth in frustration, she dropped the duffle and swung around. He said do it smart. That didn’t mean leaving kitchen chairs tipped over in the living room like a cyclone had gone through. She sucked in a deep breath of the night air and pushed her head in. Why hadn’t she moved them before she started the fire? Pulling her T-shirt up over her mouth and nose, she slipped into the room, keeping close to the outside wall. A glint of silver on the floor between the legs of the chair closest to the door caught her eye.
The flames were spreading faster than she’d thought, and the whole kitchen blazed. It had been stupid to come back inside. There was no way she’d be able to put the chairs right. The heat stung her skin even this far away. Forget the chairs, she thought, and started to turn away. But the flask? Images of Phinney whipped through her head—on the porch in his shellback chair, leaning against a tree in their safe zone, hovering over the maps spread out on the kitchen table. The flask showed up in every picture. She couldn’t bear to leave it. It would be a talisman to protect her—something to keep her sane when the hard memories came.
Her eyes watered and stung from the smoke, and she squinted into the flickering light. Reaching out a hand, she dove toward the container on the floor.
The tips of her fingers grazed it. Kitty could feel it, smooth and hard, right before the force of her impact sent it skittering under the couch. Smoke hung thick in the air, and she could barely open her eyes. She needed to get out. Doing it smart meant not dying alongside him.
On hands and knees, she crawled back toward the door, a dark rectangle in the smoke. The night air hit her aching lungs like a balm. She pushed blindly ahead, eyes watering with pain. Her outstretched hand hit the duffle and she shoved, feeling it tip and topple down the stairs in front of her. She slid down the stairs on her belly, landing face first against the rough cloth of the bag. Here, six feet below the flames, the air felt cool against her skin, and she sucked in long breaths. A sharp crack of breaking wood from inside the cabin brought her to her senses. She could just as easily die here if she didn’t move.
Scrambling onto her knees, Kitty pulled the straps of the Army-issue duffle over her shoulders. The breath huffed out of her. How could two guns, bullet-making equipment, and some paperwork weigh this much? She wrapped a hand around the base of the stair railing and pulled herself to her feet.
The moon silvered the entire meadow, and between that and the orange cast of the flames, the field lit up like it was mid-day. Her feet found the path and she trudged head down toward the trees.
She stopped at the tree line, the place she always paused to look up at the cabin when coming through the woods. Turning, she faced the building on the knoll. The windows glowed brilliant, then pale as the flames leapt up and fell back. Smoke boiled out near the eaves in phantasmic gray waves.
Phinney wasn’t in there. He’d slipped through her hands, a fine dust whirled away on the night air. It had all happened so fast. She’d tried to hold him and he’d slipped away before she’d even had time to say the words.
“Goodbye.” Her voice rasped up her smoke-irritated throat, so quiet she barely heard it. She tried again. “Goodbye, Phinney.” That was better. It pushed out into the dark—maybe even loud enough that he heard it—wherever it was he’d melted away to. She raised her hand to her head. He deserved it, didn’t he?
Kitty Irish saluted Sergeant Daniel Phinney.
Facing back toward the woods, she tried to sort out her situation. Right now, she had to figure out what to do with this duffle. Phinney had said to bury it, but that was when they had both thought he was the last werewolf. The fact that he’d withered away into dust—that and the howling scream outside the door after the old man was gone—proved he wasn’t.
Put it in her room? In the barn? The trunk of the car? Kitty couldn’t think, couldn’t focus beyond moving her feet one step at a time. She swung the duffle from her shoulders. The .45 had slid to the bottom and she pawed through the plastic-wrapped contents to find it. A fat manila envelope sat near the top with Phinney’s block handwriting on it, “IN CASE YOU NEED IT.”
Maybe she wouldn’t. In her memory, the wolf outside Phinney’s cabin howled again. She thrust the sound along with the envelope aside. It was possible—wasn’t it?—that she wouldn’t need it.
Her hand brushed against the rough grip of the handgun, and she pulled it out. Experience told her that it was too far past midnight, that the werewolves would be moving out of the woods, changing back to their human skins, but it wouldn’t hurt to have it along. Zipping the bag shut, she hoisted it up on her back and started for the place where Phinney had told her to bury the equipment.
Kitty had reached the clearing in the woods with the granite outcropping when she heard the thin screech. It spiraled upward and for a heartbeat she thought it was the scream of a wolf. But then it settled into a pulsing rhythm and she recognized it. Sirens. Somebody must have seen the light of the flames and called the fire department.
The rock outcropping lay in front of her, and Kitty planted her hand against it, trying to draw some strength out of the rough surface. Phinney had saved her life here at the beginning of the summer. The entrenching tool—another of the veteran’s World War II relics—lay where he’d said it would be, tucked up near the base of the stone.
Kitty backed away a few steps and dropped the duffle off her shoulders where it landed with a thump. Placing the .45 on top of the bag, she picked up the tiny folded shovel and moved in closer to the rock, scraping at the mulch, trying to expose enough dirt to dig. The tip of the shovel snagged on something under a pile of leaves and she knelt down to examine it. A canvas tarp rolled into a tight shroud was half buried in the ground, half covered with deadfall. It contained the punji sticks—silver-tipped spears Phinney had made for extra protection from the werewolves. So he’d thought of that too. She covered it over again and backed up a few steps to find room to bury the bag.
Checking her watch, she saw it was already close to two. She needed to hurry but it wasn’t because of the werewolves. They wouldn’t be out prowling for another month. She needed to get home.
The dirt next to the rock was crisscrossed with roots and packed with smaller rocks. No wonder Phinney had only half-dug the punji sticks in. Sweat started trickling down the back of Kitty’s neck within minutes. She pried at a rock with the tip of the crappy little shovel. “I’m not digging some foxhole in France. Couldn’t you have picked a better spot?”
She quit griping after only a few minutes. It took too much energy. She needed everything going to her mouth rerouted to her arms and back. The hole got deeper by fractions.
Kitty smelled it when she was almost through digging the hole. For the last fifteen minutes, she’d breathed in only the rich earth smell of newly turned dirt, the smoke on her clothes, and the sweat she’d raised shoveling. Now, the stench of decaying meat filled her nostrils and she gagged.
Only one thing had a smell like that.
She spun around, pressing her back against the rock, raising the entrenching tool.
A huge werewolf stood in the middle of the clearing, watching her. Time slowed as she waited for it to charge. In the moonlight, a sickle-shaped patch of white fur arching above its left eye nearly glowed. Its lips pulled back over long curved fangs and the razor-sharp edges glinted.
Kitty tightened her grip on the entrenching tool. Phinney tipped everything with silver, but she didn’t think he’d done the shovel. Slacker. Rust was the only thing on the blade now. She lowered one hand to feel at her hips even though she knew it was useless. She’d set the .45 down on top of the duffle, and the Army bag was at least three feet away. What was she doing? Phinney had taught her to think—she was going to die before she could even use what he had passed on.
Carried on the night wind, a wail came faintly into the clearing. Kitty couldn’t tell what made it. Human, wolf, siren—her fear and shock-fogged brain couldn’t process it. The wolf could. It cocked its shaggy head and the small motion sent another wave of the horrific odor over Kitty. She struggled not to breathe any more of it in than she had to. It took one step forward, sending out a growl so low it seemed to vibrate her bones. Then it turned and in three leaps was out of the clearing.
Kitty made a grab for the .45, collapsing into the leaves and clasping it tightly between her shaking hands. Never again. It had been a one in a million chance—that something would call the wolf right at her weakest moment.
She couldn’t afford to be weak again.
She ran through the options in her head. The .45 was easy enough to hide, but she couldn’t bring the equipment in the bag home. Not tonight. Too much going on. Too big of a chance that her mother had been woken up by the sirens and had already realized she was missing. Kitty needed to figure out how and where and when. Think—the way Phinney taught her.
Scooting forward on her butt and using her feet, she thrust the duffle into the hole she’d dug. It slumped sideways and she raised a foot and mashed it in. She kicked dirt and leaves over it, too afraid to let go of the pistol. Kitty could feel something rising inside her—something that threatened to tear her apart. She had to get somewhere safe before she disintegrated.
Rolling to her hands and knees, Kitty pushed a few more leaves over the jumble in front of her. She didn’t know how well the duffle was buried. She stumbled up and out of the clearing and down the path, throwing the shovel away from her into a small concavity under a fallen limb. It was only as she neared the end of the trail that she realized what she’d done. She’d taken the wrong fork out of the clearing and she was back at the cabin, not home.
Staying under the shadows of the trees, Kitty checked the fire. The roof was down and seemed to be smothering the worst of it, but flames around the periphery still reached at least six feet high. Strobe lights from a police car pulsed, making her dizzy. Another car pulled up, flames reflecting off dark paint, and a tall black man got out.
Even in her stupor, she recognized him. He was one of two detectives with the Oakmont Sheriff’s Department. He looked at the conflagration for a minute then turned in a slow circle. As he swung her direction, he stopped.
Kitty drew back even farther into the shadows. He couldn’t see her. The detective took one step forward.
He resumed his circle and Kitty took a deep breath.
She was going to be fine. There was nothing at the cabin that would point anywhere. She was fine.
As fine as she could be considering she was the one who had just killed Phinney.
At least a dozen cars were parked to either side of Phinney’s Lane. Kitty’s head sagged back against the seat and she let it flop to the right, staring out at the troop of Boy Scouts walking by. They left footprints in the rain-darkened gravel.
“Why are they mounting a search for him?” Kitty asked as Anne pulled in behind the last car in line. “Didn’t he die in the fire?”
Her mother shrugged. “I guess they have reason to think he didn’t.” She grabbed a water bottle from the seat next to her and pulled the door handle. “C’mon. You need more community service for the honor society.”
Kitty nearly snorted. She’d been doing plenty of community service.
Sam jumped out of the backseat, slamming his door. “See you up there,” he yelled over his shoulder as he bolted in the direction of the Scouts. A dirt clod flew off the heel of his shoe and banged into Kitty’s side of the car.
“Lord,” her mother said, reaching over the seat and picking up Sam’s uniform scarf. “Good thing the Scouts are only running the food table. It would be a disaster if one of those boys found that poor man.”
“It probably will be fine, Mom. I mean, what are the odds?” Kitty knew the odds. Nobody was going to find Phinney. No search party in the world could find a man who had withered into dust and blown away on the night wind.
Kitty slid out of the car, pulling the door in close to make room for a van attempting to squeeze up the alley between the parked cars. Her mother chose to slip between the cars and the trees and after a minute Kitty followed her. Ducking her head beneath small branches, she focused on Anne’s hiking boots moving in front of her, putting her feet down in the same places. She didn’t want to see the ruins of Phinney’s cabin, didn’t want to be within a hundred miles of this place.
She never thought they’d mount a search of the national forest for Phinney. That hadn’t entered the scenario when she torched the place. She and Phinney had agreed—the police would look at the cabin, pronounce him dead, and that would be the end of it. Unfortunately, the police had consulted neither Kitty nor Phinney before they came up with the scheme that included ten eager Boy Scouts handing out bags of chips and Kitty and her mom combing the recesses of the Manistee National Forest for a man who wasn’t there.
The view at the top of the rise hit Kitty like a fist to the gut. The wreckage sat twisted and charred off to the right, surrounded by sagging yellow police tape. Even with last night’s rain, the smell of smoke lingered. The foundation was streaked with soot but still upright. Part of the rear wall balanced precariously on top of it, but the rest of the place was down in crazy lumps of fallen timber and strips of sheet metal. The porch steps ascended into nowhere.
Kitty’s heart gave a hard twist. No more sun tea on the porch.
Why had she agreed to come? She could have refused—should have refused—and her mother would have chalked it up to some teenage attitude. Kitty scanned the tree line. Out in those woods was a tarp filled with punji sticks and a duffle bag full of equipment. She’d been a mess the night she’d hidden it, and as a result the bag was barely covered. She needed it to stay out of sight—if only for a little while longer. Freshly turned earth would scream something was buried there, probably a body. When they dug it, they’d come up—not with a corpse—but with guns and bullets and maps spotted with dates and locations of werewolf kills. They’d also find a letter with Kitty’s name on it. It only took one overzealous searcher to tip the scales against her.
Thank God Phinney hadn’t been well liked in this town, and the turnout would be slim.
Then she looked at the meadow, and her eyes filled with tears.
Half the town of Oakmont must have been there. The ladies from the quilting store huddled next to a group of old guys who looked like they’d sprung themselves out of the VA home. The cross-country team clustered in the opposite corner. The Boy Scouts were setting up behind a plastic table covered with coffee thermoses and cookies.
Kitty scrubbed at her nose, which had suddenly begun to run. She didn’t know if she was crying because she was in such trouble or because everyone had shown up for Phinney, who had spent the last twenty-six years guarding them from something they couldn’t even name. If only
he could see what they were doing for him. Kitty smiled into her hand as her vision blurred and made the crowd size double. He would have hated it.
Anne patted her shoulder. “I know,” she said. “Amazing how everybody pulls together when they have to.”
A canopy staked between the crowd and the rubble billowed in the humid morning breeze then sucked in, jerking at its ropes. Underneath it the local hiking club in matching khaki shorts and green t-shirts manned long tables covered with maps.
“I gotta go find Sam,” Anne said, flapping her son’s neck scarf.
Kitty angled away from her mother and cut between the tent and the main bulk of the crowd. She needed to make sure she got the section with the granite overhang to search. Common sense said they would assign that to the group from the VA home—it was the closest, barely down the slope a quarter mile or so. She could outrun them—get out in front and rebury it. Maybe all the old guys had cataracts, and they wouldn’t see the disturbance. If worse came to worse, she could enlist them to be her brothers in arms. She could hope, couldn’t she?
Three dogs came from the direction of the lane with handlers next to them, and any hope she’d been conjuring up disintegrated. Kitty didn’t know if they were cadaver dogs or arson dogs or search and rescue—maybe one of each. A German shepherd and two Labs, and all of them looked like they could find a dead mouse in a full dumpster.
Kitty spun around. Jenna stood two feet from her, chewing on her bottom lip. Her sequined navy and pink “Peace, Love and Dance” tank top stood out in sharp relief against the beige tones the other searchers wore.
“Hey,” Kitty said. “Honor society?”
Jenna nodded and looked at the ground. No wonder her old friend was uncomfortable. The fight they’d had the last time they’d seen each other—over Kitty’s summer friendship with Phinney and her moodiness since her dad deployed to Iraq—had been a doozy. Kitty had always deferred to Jenna, but she’d finally refused. She hadn’t spoken to Jenna since the day she walked away from that fight.
Jenna rocked back and forth on her feet for a few seconds. “Sorry,” she said finally. “I know he was your friend.”
Yeah, he was. “Thanks.” Kitty’s gaze flicked to the cabin, and when she looked back,
Jenna was gone, fading away to a patch of color in a sea of bland. That was it? She supposed it was as good a start as any.
Kitty faced the table under the tent. She could see the maps from here—topographic maps like she and Phinney had used. All she had to do was choose the section with the duffle bag in it and volunteer to cover it. If she were first in line, the veterans might get assigned a different section. Kitty stepped under the canopy and one of the hikers looked up.
“We’re not starting yet,” he said.
Kitty nodded. “I want to be first in line. I have a date this afternoon.”
The hiker pursed his lips in disapproval, and Kitty smiled and shrugged. She sounded like an idiot, but it was all for a good cause.
The big detective Kitty had seen the night of the fire approached the tent from the other side. Seeing him again made Kitty feel faintly nauseous and she fought the urge to run. Knowing the adversary was half the battle. The man had been tall enough from far away. Up close he looked huge. His thick hair was cropped close to his skull and he was dressed for a stroll downtown, not a hike in the woods. One stick across the toe of his polished wingtips and that shine was history. Even in the muggy heat of late summer, his dark suit coat was buttoned shut. He extended a hand to the dog’s handlers.
“Why dogs?” One of the green-shirted hikers behind the table whispered. “Isn’t it a little late, especially with that rain washing all the scent away?”
Kitty was too far away to eavesdrop on the detective so she took the next best conversation. She bent to tie her shoe, leaning forward a foot closer to the two volunteers.
“Melville assumed he was in the fire. They had some bone person from the university come down to search the scene along with the crime lab and didn’t find any remains. I think the dogs are a last hope sort of thing.”
The dogs pulled at their leashes, eager to get to the job, but their handlers made them sit. Kitty swallowed her unease. The cabin wasn’t a problem, but the woods might be a different story. The duffle smelled mostly like her. She had practically lain on it when she rolled down the steps. Between that, the sweat, and the smoke, it might go undetected. Phinney had buried the punji sticks and that would work against her. How many weeks ago had he buried them? She had a time window of full moon-to-full moon. If he’d moved fast, which an eighty-five-year-old didn’t always do, she had four weeks for the scent to fade. If he’d waited until the last minute, she had four days. That and a rain.
Two of the handlers started walking the German shepherd and one of the Labs up the hill. Melville trailed behind them. Trying to get closer, Kitty walked down the table toward the side nearest the cabin. She noticed the hiking club all had the same map. They hadn’t known Phinney very well. The old man was different in the woods—sucking some power out of the very trees. He might have been old and tired on the porch, but put him in the woods and he left her behind. If he had really been out there, they would need to throw a wider net than that.
One of the handlers knelt next to her dog, stroking it. She stood and the dog kept his eyes on her. The woman spoke a few words and they entered the wreckage. Kitty tried to orient herself. They’d entered at the far back corner where Kitty guessed the old man’s bedroom had been. She’d never actually been in that section of the cabin. The dog put its nose down and started working. Most of the crowd quieted, watching. Working from one end of the wreckage to the other, the handler and the dog scrambled over the hillocks of debris. The second dog went in after the first had made two sweeps.
The dogs worked the rectangle for a few minutes, passing each other as they walked back and forth on their sweeps. They got closer to the front edge of the cabin and the knotted muscles in Kitty’s shoulders eased. They were going to go all the way through it. Of course they would; there were no remains there to smell.
Kitty leaned over the table and put a finger on one of the volunteer’s maps. “Can I take this grid? I’m—”
The German shepherd reacted first. It stopped dead, nose down hard against the junk littering the ground. The hair on its shoulders and along the ridge of his back rose, and he began to growl. He paced out a circle, hunkering down as if to attack.
Kitty pulled her finger back as the hiker stood to watch the commotion.
The shepherd’s handler yanked hard on the leash. “Watson. Stand down.” The dog continued to pace.
“What’s going on?” A low hum started in the crowd behind Kitty.
The shepherd’s handler flapped her hand at the Lab, and the second trainer brought the dog over. The response was immediate. The second dog whined, put its tail between its legs and ran. Stumbling through the piles as the dog pulled, the woman went to her knees in the rubble and dropped the leash. The dog vaulted the foundation wall and disappeared in the direction of the parked cars.
“Beginner dogs. What is this?” The buzz of voices over her shoulder grew louder.
Detective Melville jabbed a finger toward the last dog, crooked it, and the handler brought it at a trot.
The third dog hit the patch of suspect earth and started digging, barking violently. As the ash turned, it backed up, afraid of the scent it released. Its rump hit the shepherd who snarled and lunged forward.
“What is that?” The hiker closest to Kitty asked. “Is that a hit?”
It was a hit alright. A hit on the last place a werewolf had gone down.
Melville sent the dogs home. Too panicked to work the woods anyway, they were useless. The crowd and volunteers seemed a little dispirited after the professionals’ failure, and Kitty got the feeling everyone was just going through the motions. That worked to her advantage. A sloppy search increased her chances of getting home free.
She managed to be first in line at her end of the table. “That grid,” she said, pointing to it on the volunteer’s map. “Can I search that one?”
The man looked up at her questioningly.
“I live around the bend from the end of the lane.” Kitty made a half-circle with her finger to show where around the bend was. “I know that section pretty well. If anything looks out of place, I’d know it.” She nodded, trying to look earnest.
He was unimpressed. Kitty could read his face. The first person in line and already there were problems. “I’m not assigning that part of the map. Check at the other end of the table.”
Crud. So much for her plan. Kitty got out of line. The line was mercifully short at the other end, and Kitty jumped behind the last person. While she waited, she checked positions on all the people she knew. Her mother had been roped into first aid duty and Sam handed out cookies. She squinted toward the tree line. She wasn’t sure but that might have been Jenna disappearing north. That worked. She’d be south of everyone who had reason to watch her.
The throat clearing in front of her brought her to attention. A gap of five feet stood between her and the table. She jumped forward. “Hi.” For the third time that morning, she planted a finger on the little square. “I live near here, and I know this section pretty well. Can I have it?”
The woman checked a list next to the map. “That section’s already been assigned. To a J. Zublowski and the group from the VA.”
Kitty’s stomach dropped. She’d known the VA would get it—it was downhill. But that other name… “Wait…who?”
The woman squinted at the paper again. “J. Zubonewich,” she sounded out.
She’d butchered it, but Kitty managed to decipher the name. “Zubowicz?” As in Joe. “Could you just put me with that group? I know them.”
The hiker ran down her list again. “I suppose,” she said. “All the rest of the sections are pretty well manned. We had a bigger turnout than we expected.” She paused, tapping her pencil. Coming to a decision, she said, “Sure, hon. What’d you say your name was?”
Kitty checked over her shoulder. The meadow was emptying fast. Joe and five elderly guys stood near the tree line. “K. Irish. Thanks.” She jogged off before the woman could reply.
“‘Bout time you got here,” Joe said as she approached. “Me and the boys been waiting for you.”
Kitty nodded. “You and the boys?”
“Sure. This is Bud.” Joe gestured around the semi-circle. “Earl’s over there, Clarence, Frank and Jimmy.”
Kitty lifted a hand. “Hey guys.”
Joe inclined his head toward the white-haired crowd. “The boys here said they’d take this end of the section. You and I get further in.” He dropped his voice. “That way they don’t have to walk so far.”
Kitty gave a thumbs up and followed Joe into the woods. “How’d you know?” she asked, keeping her voice low so the one behind her—Clarence or was it Earl?—wouldn’t hear.
“Know what?” Joe asked sweetly.
Kitty’s glare could have scorched earth.
“Ah,” Joe said, waving a forefinger at her. “You’re not the only one who can hear a conversation at ten paces.”
“What?” Kitty stopped.
Joe grabbed her wrist and tugged her along, glancing sideways at her and grinning. “You spent an awful lot of time underneath that tent up there.”
Kitty understood. While she’d been keeping her eyes on Melville, Joe had been keeping his eyes on her. She didn’t know whether to hug him or slug him.
They followed the path—the same one Kitty had stumbled down after burying the duffle—about halfway to the granite overhang. To the east a faint voice called and it repeated further north, rising and falling with the cadence of Phinney’s name. No one in Kitty’s group bothered. The veterans knew the chances of an eighty-five-year-old still being alive out here after four days, and Kitty knew the truth.
Joe opened his mouth and sucked in a deep breath. Kitty cut in before he could call. She didn’t want to hear her friend’s name echoing off the trees. “Why don’t you guys spread out and search from here back to the meadow? Joe and I’ll go on until we meet the next group, then come back this way.”
Clarence nodded and the boys immediately broke apart and spread out. They were men of few words—they must have come up with this plan on the way over. Watching the line of them fade away into the trees made Kitty’s heart ache. With their slow frail movements, they weren’t anything like her Phinney, but seeing them here was enough to make her eyes swim with tears. Putting her head down, she trudged down the path. For a few steps it was silent behind her, then she heard the rush of footsteps as Joe caught up.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Joe asked.
Kitty didn’t answer. She didn’t know what Joe was looking for. She was looking for a way to get rid of him so she could hide that damn duffle.
On her right a fallen limb the size of a construction worker’s arm and nearly as knobby arched over a small depression in the ground. Don’t look at it, don’t bring any attention to it, she told herself. The entrenching tool lay half hidden in the shadows, and if Joe….
Twigs and leaves crackled as Joe dropped to his knees and crawled halfway under the branch. “What is that?”
Kitty stopped in the middle of the path and took a deep breath before she faced his direction. “What?” Her voice came out flat, not excited the way it should. She should be fired up, as if Joe had found Phinney curled up in there or something equally amazing that would help bring him home.
Joe scuttled backward onto the path using two knees and an arm for support. The other arm held the shovel curled in tight against his chest. He scrambled to his feet and held it out to her. “What do you think? It’s one of those old army e-tools. Back before ‘e’ meant electronic.”
Kitty wrapped a hand around the seamed and pitted handle, picking at the rust dotting the blade with a fingernail. “Looks old enough, but it also looks like it’s been out here awhile.”
Joe’s face fell. “So you don’t think it’s anything?”
“I think we’re supposed to be looking for footprints or scraps of cloth caught on the bushes…stuff lost people leave behind.” Kitty shrugged. “I don’t think he’d be out here burying something, do you?”
Joe’s face grew dark. “What makes you think he was burying something? What if somebody was burying him?”
Kitty’s stomach flipped. Had the police mentioned foul play? She’d assumed they had thought Phinney had gone a little Alzheimer’s and wandered off. “Fine. I’ll bring it along.” She about-faced on the trail. She needed to regroup. This wasn’t such a bad development. At least she had the shovel now.
Ahead of them the path forked, but they were coming at it from the wrong side. The trail they were on continued forward to the clearing while the other angled back toward where the VA boys searched. When Kitty had missed the way home and ended up back at Phinney’s meadow that had been the path she should have taken.
Kitty stopped at the vee. “Joe, why don’t you go that way? I’ll go straight and finish the back end of this section.”
He glanced down the trail. “That way heads back toward the boys.”
Kitty pointed. The trail bent to the right a short way down.