I am late posting today because I was hosting an author party on a Facebook group I am moderating. Regular readers here know I despise Facebook but a couple of months ago I joined again so I could be part of a readers’ group on there. I stumbled on to this other group as well and they needed a new administrator. I volunteered to help, but at the last minute the other person said they didn’t want to help, so there I was with a group to help run on my own. On a platform I despise. So I go on FB to post there and the other group and briefly on my author page and leave.
Anyhow, here is chapter 24. Regular readers know the drill, where the links are for past chapters, etc., etc.. I won’t bore you with all those links again. Let me know what you think the comments, as always. Also, sorry for another cliffhanger.
Jason fell into the water on his hands and knees, trying to see the rest of the back seat and under the car. Maybe her body was trapped there, under the hood or roof or trunk. The car seemed to be smashed firmly into the muck and mud of the creek, though, not enough room for a body. Unless. . . he choked down the panic burning his throat, looked around behind him, searching the water and bank frantically.
Could she have been thrown from the car? He looked at the windshield under the water and it was cracked but not shattered.
He stood again, his clothes clinging to him, and shielded his eyes, looking downstream.
“Could she have —” He swallowed hard. “Been swept downstream?”
Denny shook his head. “I don’t see how. This creek’s not deep enough and there’s no current.
Jason pivoted in the water, facing them. “Then where is she?”
Denny raked a hand through his hair. “We’ll need to get a wrecker down here, something to flip this car over and be sure —”
“I don’t think she’s there,” Cody said abruptly.
Denny clutched his hair and blew out a breath. “I don’t want to think that way either, but she could be. We have to be realistic.”
Cody turned toward Denny, lowered his voice. “I’m not trying to be morbid, but I think we’d see some sign that she’s under there.”
Denny looked at the water, nodding. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”
“What about a bear? Could a bear have —”
“Kyle!” Cody’s voice was sharp as he jerked his head toward Jason who was still looking from one side of the bank to the other.
“Bears don’t usually eat cadavers.” The authoritative voice of the coroner silenced the group. Clint O’Malley tripped over a few stones on his way to the car but managed to stay upright. He stood calf deep in water next to Cody, frowning. “Are you boys telling me you called me out here without an actual person for me to declare dead?”
Cody placed his hands on his hips and cleared his throat, looking down at the water then glancing back up at Jason before he looked at Clint. “Ellie Lambert is missing.”
Clint looked at Jason standing a few feet away from him with a dazed expression on his face and blew out a quick breath, following it up with a curse word.
He nodded at Cody. “Understand. What are our options here? Could she have survived and left the scene?”
Kyle, Denny, and Cody looked at each other and fell silent. Finally, Cody spoke. “Yeah, I think that’s a real possibility. We have to explore it at least.”
Clint looked at the car again. “You should also lift this car up and see what you find underneath it. Just to be sure.”
Jason’s chest constricted and his stomach burned. The idea of her pinned down by two tons of metal, her body mangled beyond recognition left him cold, even as the humidity was rising. Dark clouds hovered along the horizon, visible through the trees. If a storm wasn’t coming, there was at least going to be a shower. Rain would wash away any clues if Ellie had somehow walked away.
“Cody!” Tucker Everly’s voice echoed into the ravine. “We have a possible witness and survivor up here.”
Jason’s head jerked up, his brow furrowed as he looked up at Tucker, who’d been among the volunteers he’d trained with the most when he’d started with the department a few months ago.
“Luke found Brad Tanner along the road about a mile up. He has a gash on his head and his face is a mess. He can’t remember anything about last night but woke up along the bank by the creek this morning. He says he vaguely remembers being in the car with Ellie last night.”
All the men’s eyes were on Jason again.
“I drove him home last night,” Jason said, more to himself than anyone else. “I don’t understand. Why would he be in Ellie’s car?”
He stood and started climbing the bank toward the road, confusion and anger rising with each step. “Where is he?”
Tucker grabbed his hand and helped him the last few steps, then nodded toward a maroon pickup pulling in.
“Luke just pulled in with him.”
By the time Jason reached the passenger side of the truck at a full on jog, his mood had reached a dangerous level of rage. Brad opened the door, and he didn’t even wait for him to climb out. He grabbed the front of his cousin’s shirt and dragged him out, slamming him hard against the side of the truck. “Where is she?” the question hissed out of Jason between clenched teeth. “What happened?”
Brad held his hands up, palms out, shaking his head. “Jason, I don’t know. I can’t remem—”
Jason slammed his back hard against the truck again. “Tell me what happened or I swear I’ll —”
“Jason!” Luke grabbed his arms, pulled him back. “He wreaks of booze and shows all the signs of a concussion. He’s not going to be any help in this shape. The EMTs need to look at him.”
Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s shirt, breathing hard, jaw tight, eyes focused on Brad’s scrunched up face, his eyes squeezed tight as if waiting for Jason to punch him. Jason slammed Brad back against the truck again “They can look at him after I finish with him.”
“Jason!” Alex’s voice behind Jason distracted him long enough for one of the EMTs to grab one of his arms while Alex grabbed the other. “This isn’t helping.”
Alex and the EMT pulled until Jason let go of Brad’s shirt. Alex pressed a hand against Jason’s chest. “You need to calm down.”
Jason shook them both off with a jerk of his arms and walked to the side of the road, sitting on a stump next to a tree. He propped his arms on his knees and clenched his fists in front of him as Alex walked over and stood above him.
“When did you get here?” he asked Alex.
“Maybe ten minutes ago. Cody filled me in. I was on my way down the bank when I saw you coming up.” He knelt next to Jason, propped on his own knee. “Walt called your dad. He heard the chatter on the scanner.”
Jason’s head jerked up. “Did they say Ellie’s name on the scanner?”
Alex shook his head. “No. Just that there was a car in the water. Walt thought it might be Brad. He didn’t come home last night, but no one thought much of it. He’s been doing that a lot since he got back.” He placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder, his voice low. “They’re going to start a search, spread out and walk in a circle about a mile away to see if they can find any sign of her. They’ve also got a team coming in from Wyoming County to walk the creek with them and another water search and rescue crew.”
Jason looked at the ground, nodding. After a few seconds of silence, he stood abruptly. “Okay. I’m going to head out then. Can you call her parents, fill in Molly and Mom?”
Alex stood. “Yeah, but I’m going with you.”
Jason nodded. “That’s fine. I’m not waiting for the search teams, though. You’ve got five minutes to meet me on the other side of the creek.”
He pivoted and started down the embankment, not giving Alex any time to respond.
The way Clint squeezed his shoulder on his way back to his truck left a hard lump of dread in Jason’s gut.
“Call me if I’m needed,” he said softly.
God, please, don’t let us need him, Jason prayed as he collected gear from his truck and headed down the embankment toward the creek.
“Where are you going, Jase?”
He ignored Cody’s question, kept walking through the creek, past the wreckage of the car, and toward the embankment on the other side.
“Just keep your phone on you in case you need us, or we need you,” Cody called after him.
Alex fell in step with him when he reached the top of the bank on the other side of the wreckage and started toward a more wooded area.
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think she went looking for help? If so, why didn’t she just go on the road?”
“I don’t know.”
“She should have had a cell on her —”
“I don’t know.”
Alex fell silent and they continued to walk, sweat beading on their skin and soaking their backs.
“It just needs to rain already,” Alex mumbled.
“If it rains, I won’t be able to find her tracks.” He didn’t add, “If there are any,” because he didn’t want to think there wouldn’t be.
The humidity sucked air from his lungs with each breath and a crack of thunder signaled they should seek shelter rather than keep walking, but he wasn’t about to stop. If Ellie was alive, he was going to find her. If she wasn’t alive, he still needed to find her. Her family needed closure. He’d hurt them so much already. He couldn’t hurt them again.
At the top of the hill the woods faded into a wide open field. Jason stopped walking and bent over, hands on knees, catching his breath, chest burning.
Alex did the same. “How can we both be in such good shape, yet that hill almost kill us?”
“The humidity isn’t helping.”
“How much further should we walk? If she was injured she —”
“I don’t know.”
There was a lot he didn’t know.
Fire still burned through his chest when he stood up and started walking again.
God, please. Help me find her.
In twenty minutes, they had walked the length of the field, down over a hill, and back up another one. Jason turned and looked behind him, estimating they had already walked a mile and a half from the accident scene. She couldn’t have walked this far, could she have? Maybe she hadn’t been able to walk. Dear God, maybe she was under that car. Maybe the wrecker had come, helped overturn the car and her body was lifeless in that creek bed. He clasped his hands behind his head, breathing hard. Pressing his arms against his head, he intertwined his fingers, and choked back a sob.
“God,” he hit his knees, pressed his hands into the dirt in front of him, bowing his head toward the ground. “Please, please don’t take Ellie from me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my stubbornness. For all my mistakes. Please, give me a second chance with her.”
In a few minutes, after sobbing until his chest and back ached, he became aware of Alex kneeling beside him, his hand on his back. They stayed that way for several minutes and when Jason sat back, he noticed Alex’s face was damp as well.
Alex shook his head, dragging a hand across his cheeks, and stood. “We’re not giving up. Come on. Maybe she tried to take a shortcut over this hill to get to the Bradley farm and call for help.”
Jason dragged his hand across his face and stood slowly. “That sounds like something she’d do. Go to get help for even a moron like Brad.” He brushed the dirt off his jeans and spit at the ground. “He better have some answers for me when I get back.”
“We can think about that later.” Alex started down the hill. Jason started to follow him when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the caller ID, but answered it anyhow, hoping it was a member of the fire department, telling him they had found her. Alive.
“Jason, have you found her?”
“No. Not yet.”
Judi’s voice broke. “They flipped her car over and she’s not there. Where is she? Where is my sister?”
“I don’t know, Judi. I’ll keep looking. Are you with your parents?”
Judi’s sobs came through the phone. “Yes. I’m at their house. Jason, if you find her, however you find her, you have to tell her I’m sorry. We had a big fight the other night and I told her I hated her and that I hated being her sister —” Her voice faded to a tearful whisper. “Oh God. I don’t hate her. God, please don’t let her be dead.”
He wanted to offer her encouragement, but he wasn’t sure how, when his heart felt as hopeless as hers at the moment. “Judi.” His voice broke and he tried again. “Judi, I want you to pray. If you can’t pray, ask your parents to pray with you. As soon as I know anything I’ll call you. Keep your phone next to you, okay?”
He could almost see Judi in his mind nodding as he heard her crying. “Okay. I will.” She took a deep breath. “Jason?”
He looked out over the farmland in front of him, red barns, cows in fences, fields being planted with sileage to feed the cows in winter. “Yeah.”
“She loves you so much. I don’t know why she’s being so stubborn right now, but she’s always loved you and I know she still loves you.”
He swallowed hard, tears blurring his vision. The way she referred to Ellie in the present tense made his heart ache with a glimmer of hope that she still was in the present tense. “Thank you, Judi. Keep the phone next to you.”
He’d lost sight of Alex, but now he could hear him shouting from somewhere on the other side of the hill.
He took off in the direction of the voice, almost catching his foot in a groundhog hole as he ran. Alex was running toward him, his face flushed. “I found her.”