Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

There's Something in the Woods

Eloise Chance

Where the red leaves fall, the bodies of three young women have been found. The picturesque town of Angel Hollow is set on edge once again as residents recall the mysterious, brutal killing of another family ten years ago in the same fabled woods. As Sheriff Jack Tanner investigates, he soon realizes there may be more to the urban legends that draw autumn crowds to his town. He has to wonder, just what is lurking in those woods?

Age Rating: 18+ (Violent Death)

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There's Something in the Woods - Book cover
Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

There's Something in the Woods

Eloise Chance

Where the red leaves fall, the bodies of three young women have been found. The picturesque town of Angel Hollow is set on edge once again as residents recall the mysterious, brutal killing of another family ten years ago in the same fabled woods. As Sheriff Jack Tanner investigates, he soon realizes there may be more to the urban legends that draw autumn crowds to his town. He has to wonder, just what is lurking in those woods?

Age Rating: 18+ (Violent Death)

1: Chapter 1: Hanging Dolls

Jack

Morning broke in Piper Woods in an unusual way.

The birds were subdued in their daylight chatter, and a putrid smell overrode the sweet scents of ripening autumn fruits. The white ghostly whisper of a morning mist still hid the dewy damp ground from view.

The sun, slow to rise in autumn, could only manage to send a few shards of weak, lemon-tinged light through the towering pine and gnarly oak trees, leaving everything still in partial shadow.

It added a grotesque glimmer to the crimson leaves of the red maples that gave the name to the trail where the bodies hung.

Red Maple Road, trodden down over the years, functioned as a walking trail in the forest. Despite its name, the trail was narrow and bumpy, impossible for vehicles to pass on and ill-suited for horses.

Thirty minutes on foot from Forest Park’s north parking lot, give or take for fitness, age, and a desire to walk, it had meant a brief trek for the sheriff’s department to the bodies.

Sheriff Jack Tanner felt grateful for the heavy navy coat he’d worn knowing that the morning was going to be a cold one. He looked at the bodies swinging from the branches, scanning them carefully with his electric-blue gaze.

There were three in total among six strung-up dolls. They were all females somewhere in their teens, rigid with rigor mortis, their eyes dried up in the night and turned glassy with the cold.

Their exposed flesh was pallid as blood had stopped pumping, and they bore some resemblance to the dolls swinging with them. They had all died open-mouthed and wide-eyed, screaming terror in the night, something no doll could do.

Their cause of death could not be hanging.

The heavy smell of pine, mingled with the sweetness of the maples and dampened with morning dew, could not detract from the odor of dead flesh and dried blood.

It sent an unpleasant wrinkle through Jack’s nose as he appreciated the small mercy of it being a cool autumnal morning, knowing how much worse the smell would be if it were a sticky summer’s afternoon.

“What do you think?”

The question came from behind Jack, asked with intrigue by his son, Supervising Forest Park Ranger Matt Tanner. Matt had called in the case after a hysterical jogger had informed him about the bodies.

Jack glanced over his shoulder at the younger man. His blue gaze brightened with pride seeing the calm his son had mustered for the scene. He could sense Matt’s fear budding beneath the facade of placidness.

There was the constant dipping of his head to keep his view of the bodies at bay, the continuous fidgeting of his hands with any object that came to them, and a sour odor of nervous sweat that hung faintly in the air.

The ranger hung back, pleased to have made it this close to the bodies without losing his breakfast. Like everyone else at the scene, he hadn’t been expecting this.

The jogger, a local by the name of Louie Jackson, had come crashing and wailing into the ranger’s station earlier that morning, making more noise than Matt had ever heard from him.

All Matt had managed to catch from Louie was wild pointing in the direction of the trail he’d come up and screeching about dead bodies.

Matt had figured he would be better investigating with an officer just in case, so he’d put the call through to the local sheriff, his dad, and waited for his arrival.

“I don’t know yet,” Jack replied. “I’ll need more officers, that’s for sure.”

Jack had shown the same healthy skepticism as Matt when the ranger had called him. He had moved with haste as protocol dictated but brought only one man with him, envisioning some bear-mangled deer.

But then he’d heard the rattle of porcelain as the wind rocked the dolls.

Jack looked back at the deceased trio, watching as Officer Rufus Quill started to take photos with hyped-up movements.

The cluster of dead red leaves pooling in the shade of the bodies created an unpleasant illusion of large bloodstains on the ground.

A frown crossed Jack’s fair face, pulling down the grooves at his cheeks. He took a step forward toward the bodies, causing the leaves to crinkle under his boots. He halted before the central body.

The figure moved very slowly, turning slightly as wind shifted the rope supporting it. Jack almost reached out a hand to stop it but resisted, knowing that he would be guilty of tampering with the evidence if he touched it.

“Considering their wounds, there should be more blood on the ground,” Jack remarked grimly.

“I don’t know them.” Matt made his gaze dart up to the three faces of the deceased and take them in.

The girl on the left hung upside down, strung up by rope knotted around both ankles. The girl on the right was suspended by a rope around her waist, leaving her partially doubled over like a broken marionette.

The central girl had the rope around her neck. Her half-spilled intestines made it clear that she had not died from the rope.

The ranger’s face filled with heat as his stomach hardened, and for a moment he wondered if he might be treated to a mashup of the porridge and orange juice coming up his esophagus. He swallowed hard and leaned forward slightly.

Jack turned back to the younger man and gave him a look of sympathy. Matt’s face had turned a chalky white, and his pupils were a little out of focus.

“Breathe, son,” Jack advised gently.

Matt frowned. He knew his father wanted to be empathetic, but now the pangs of humiliation were washing over him with an urge to vomit. Matt made himself stand upright and forced his misty blue gaze back to the bodies.

He couldn’t look at their faces again and kept his stubborn stare on their torsos instead. Even that took effort; one girl had wide, bloody rips across her chest deep enough to expose the bones of her ribcage.

“None of them should be here,” Matt muttered. “I got no record of them being in the area.”

“Well, teenagers sneaking into the woods at night is nothing new,” Jack grumbled as he resumed staring at the bodies. “Especially these woods.”

The central figure dominated Jack’s focus: her long legs seemed grotesquely gangly as they dangled before him, smeared with patches of muck up to the knees, feet bare.

She wore a gray tartan skirt, what appeared to have been a silk white shirt before it had been torn and stained with blood, and a gray cardigan that hung thin and open, ill-suited for the autumn chill.

Jack thought it could almost be a school uniform, private, but he knew of no private school in town and had no clue what the nearest one was. He also could see no emblems, but perhaps they might be on a missing blazer.

But then he had to wonder about the shirt and what kind of school would opt for silk over cotton. And the skirt appeared inappropriately short for a uniform. Jack contemplated a seedy alternative as he looked up to her face.

She seemed young. Too young.

A light breeze slipped through the trees, causing an echo of creaks as the ropes swayed in it. The six strings shook, sending their eerie porcelain burdens dancing through the branches.

“Aw shit,” Matt complained as he glanced at the dolls in revulsion, shuddering.

The movement had caused the heavy eyelids of some of the dolls to flutter up and down, creating the illusion that they were blinking on their own.

They looked worn, one with faded features, another with tattered clothes, and a third with thin, uneven hair.

“I signed on for rogue bears and confused campers, not this.”

Jack looked at the ranger again and allowed an ill-suited smile to slip out, grateful to Matt for bringing some unintentional relief to their grim surroundings.

“I don’t think anyone expected damn dolls this morning,” Jack murmured. “I’m going to radio for more support. You need to do the same—get the other rangers up here and search the area.

“I doubt these girls came here barefoot or so poorly clothed. The cold crept in fast last night. Hell, I doubt they died here; there’s not enough bloodstains.”

Matt nodded in agreement. “I’ll go back to the cabin and call them in.”

“Good, and will you help me tell your sister about it later?” Jack’s face tightened with worry.

“These girls look around her age. She’ll need to be on guard, and given where and when this happened”—he gestured outward with his hands—“well, she ain’t gonna take this well, Matty. And…”

He bowed his head slightly and rubbed his neck with one hand. “She’ll probably get herself upset, and you’re better with the cryin’ stuff.”

Matt almost smiled at the awkwardness the sheriff displayed, but the morbid topic kept him from showing any kind of mirth.

The Matty had won him over, even though he felt a shared reluctance with his father at the thought of broaching the topic with his sister.

“Sure, Dad,” he consented. “You’re right, though, she isn’t going to take this well. Who in the hell would murder three young girls and string them up like this?”

Jack turned back to the corpses with a frown. “Someone who wanted them found.”

It took until almost ten o’clock before any real action happened around the bodies. Most people just hadn’t believed the seriousness of the calls that went out from the ranger’s station and the sheriff’s radio.

The town of Angel Hollow did not lack crime nor was it immune to sudden bouts of violence. But the last incident with such a high body count had been around a decade ago.

For most people, Angel Hollow existed as a typical town of the forgotten.

It had its moment of glory during the fall, when tourists came for the pagan pumpkin parties and fall festivals, and then it shifted back into just another pass-through town barely noted on the map.

Piper Woods served as the main attraction of Angel Hollow. A forest of fables, it was well-known for its natural beauty and oddities that couldn’t be explained.

The urban legends and unsolved mysteries seemed to attract rather than repel visitors.

Talk of broken bridges and twisting trails to nowhere, stories of ruins with no known origin, and rumors of ghosts and goblins drifted through the town and the tourists, drawing people to it.

The exaggeration of its wonders expanded with each year that passed.

For Sheriff Tanner, the ordinarily ignorable appeal of the town acted as a double-edged sword. For the moment, it meant he could keep the bodies quiet from the public and press.

But when the story blew up—and it would—it would be an explosion of media precisely because things like this just did not happen in Angel Hollow.

The sheriff, knowing the storm that was coming, had already prepared for it and called for assistance. He had dealt with many homicides in his past life in a metropolis where murder had turned mundane from commonness.

There he had the resources that came from a city’s taxes behind him; out here in a town where the population equaled less than anyone gave a shit about, resources weren’t a thing.

A small population equaled little funding, which meant everything that was required now—security, staff, supplies—was lacking for Jack. The government didn’t think decent police resources were necessary if the cash didn’t exist.

The crime scene tape had been put out, although Officer Rory Jespen had struggled to find it.

Fluttering awkwardly in the breeze and crinkled from being rolled up for so long, it appeared more like a Halloween prop than the real thing.

Jack figured it was functioning as a prop right now, as no public was up here to be kept from the bodies. And didn’t crime scene tape just attract gawkers rather than repel them?

The local medical examiner had been rendered silent and pale at the sight of the deceased. Her smooth-skinned face and stunned gaze gave her a youthful appearance.

She was new, just three months’ in, replacing the retiring medical examiner, Craig Redriver. Jack considered it a pity; Craig at least had dealt with murder before. Jack knew that for a fact because he had been present for it.

Craig knew gore and shock, but this new medical examiner, Amy Suarez, didn’t appear to have dealt firsthand with anything other than natural causes.

As Jack watched Amy avoid staring at the hanging corpses and miss the query if they could move the bodies, he made a mental note to look up Craig and see if he could assist this one time.

Jack figured the state would offer an alternative to Amy; with something as crazy as this they had to send aid.

He knew a couple of forensics people were on their way, but by the time they got here they’d be dealing with contamination from footfall, time, and weather.

He had asked Officer Basil Black to try and secure the evidence with unofficial assistance from Ranger Kuriyama.

Koji Kuriyama’s qualifications for helping with the crime scene were that he knew the area and therefore could identify something out of place quicker than most cops, and he had a notable intelligence.

The latter trait gave him an advantage over Officer Jespen in Jack’s view. Plus he wasn’t squeamish, which as far as Jack was concerned, made Koji more than qualified to help out.

“Miss Suarez,” Jack addressed the medical examiner again, “can we get these bodies down yet?”

Amy Suarez glanced up at the sheriff with startled brown eyes, like a rabbit looking into a gun muzzle, tensing as if that would somehow help her evade fate.

“There’s no transport here yet,” she answered quietly.

Jack stared down at her in exasperation, wondering if she’d even left the town before now.

The woman reeked of antiseptic, and he pondered if she had overdone sanitizing her hands just a little as his eyes almost watered with the burning scent of cleanliness.

“No vehicle is coming up this far. They’ll stop at the main parking lot, same as you did.”

Amy looked puzzled as she tried to digest Jack’s words. Jack wondered cynically if he should dumb it down, wave his arms in the form of an X, and state, “Cars no go.”

“Means we gotta take the bodies to them,” Jack advised. “We’ll get some body bags and trolleys.”

“Right. I… Normally they can come to them. I mean, sure, we’ve had to remove them from houses, but only to the door.”

Amy paused to rub under her eyes with her right arm and shield her mouth as a sneeze escaped her.

Jack stared at her stonily. “Allergies?”

“Yes.” She sniffed but avoided rubbing her nose.

Jack figured it had to be some dark joke sending an allergy-prone medical examiner out to a forest. With his luck, she’d probably sneeze again and contaminate something.

Amy turned her attention back to the bodies. “Well, I’ll wrap up then. When the…bags…are here you can cut them down. I’ll know more when I get them back to the morgue.”

“Any sign that they had a chance to fight back?”

As a precaution, Amy tugged off her gloves and exchanged them for a fresh pair from her bag. She freed them from the plastic and fidgeted with pulling them on before she stepped closer to the corpses.

She reached out with a gloved hand to the middle body, turning a stiff hand slightly.

“This one has what could be specks of blood under her nails and defensive marks on her knuckles. The bruising appears fresh, indicating a recent struggle.”

Jack watched as the medical examiner took a swab from under the girl’s nails, then labeled and bagged it. He wanted Craig; with Amy, he seemed to have to push her to do her job, as if she had forgotten half her duties.

Just a few feet away, off the trail and standing in the wilderness of the woods, Koji was searching for anything out of the ordinary.

The young ranger considered the task laughable: the entire appeal of Piper Woods was that so much of it seemed out of the ordinary.

He had already marked a shiny nickel on the ground, a loose strap of leather, a tarnished, pale-green-blue stone that had probably slipped off a pendant or bracelet, and a small cluster of trail mix.

He used numbered yellow cards that Officer Black had given him to tag these items. They could just be trash from previous trail tourists, but how could one be sure?

Koji glanced to the right where a steep slope started and then turned a wide stare over to Matt.

“Isn’t this—”

“Yes.”

“And it’s been ten years.”

Matt gave a blunt nod as he glanced up from the crushed leaves to his coworker. “It’s not the same,” he said quietly.

Matt’s breath escaped in a faint puff of white wisps, and he wondered if the morning would warm any.

He looked about the trees and grimaced. The sunlight pierced through their leaves, which acted as artificial bulbs and cast a crimson glow onto the ground.

People came from miles to photograph the effect, but now Matt found it uneasy, as to him it gave the illusion of a ground splashed with blood.

Koji hooked his fingers into the belt loops at his hips as he looked back at Matt curiously. “Still pretty strange. What are you telling Cassie?”

Matt’s skin paled again as he thought about his sister. His mouth turned down into a grimace, and a sigh slipped out as a faded white mist.

“I don’t know. The truth. It’ll be all over the news soon anyway.”

Koji nodded and looked over in the direction of the bodies. Calm dominated his brown stare. The initial shock of seeing the corpses had faded, and now he could look at them without flinching.

While the bodies were nameless, Koji didn’t feel much for them. They had no history, no personalities. But for Matt it was the opposite: the possibilities of their personas were endless, and he mourned for their lost potential.

“Think it’s going to be bad for the tourism or bring us more?” Koji asked casually as he turned back to face Matt.

Matt’s frown deepened at the question, and he gave his coworker a scolding look.

Koji shrugged, unfazed by the pale-blue glower. “I know it’s morbid, Matt, but am I wrong?”

“Probably not,” Matt conceded quietly.

“Well, I could do with some overtime,” Koji commented cheerfully.

***

Jack glanced at his watch; the cracked face showed that it had just turned six. He figured he should add at least an extra five minutes to the time because he knew the watch was slow. He just wasn’t sure how slow.

He had stayed in the woods until about forty minutes ago. He could do no more at the moment, except show his face. But tiredness was pulling at his muscles and burning the edges of his eyes.

The bodies were long gone to the morgue. Everyone Jack could call he had called, many of them multiple times.

All necessary photographs, and some unnecessary ones, had been taken by Officer Jespen, who didn’t seem to know a pine cone from his own shoe. All suspicious-looking items had been tagged, bagged, and removed.

Things had been sent on a slow trip to the city lab to be relabeled and left to a long queue. The area had been sealed off, and now all that could be done was to wait.

Wait for the medical examiner’s report, wait for the labs to work through the more important city cases, wait for help, and wait for the press explosion.

Jack hated waiting, but he was good at it nonetheless. He’d had a lot of practice in an earlier life as an undercover detective.

He glanced up at the small, dimly lit parking lot for the sheriff’s department. His dark eyebrows arched slightly at the Mustang preventing him from pulling his marked vehicle into the only space assigned to him in town.

The Mustang had dents and scratches in several places. It gleamed a dark-emerald green under the bloody beams of a setting crimson sun.

Jack had to park two spaces from his reserved sheriff’s spot, as the deputy’s space had been taken. He got out and stepped up to the car, glancing through its windows for clues to an owner.

Several polystyrene coffee cups cluttered the passenger floor, while three books lay abandoned on the passenger seat.

In the fading light of the cooling sun, Jack made out the cover of one book. He glimpsed a cheesy illustration of an alligator ready to devour a screaming woman.

Unsure who the intruder could be, Jack stepped back from the car and glanced quickly about his surroundings. He saw no one loitering about, so either the Mustang’s owner was waiting for him in the station or had wandered off.

Jack headed slowly up to the station, reluctant to deal with another problem. He knew his daughter would be home from school and wondering about dinner.

He’d told Matt to head home and knew he should too, so he could be there to help Matt tell her about this morning’s murders.

Angel Hollow’s Sheriff’s office building appeared entirely unremarkable, blending in with the rest of the town’s mix of brick and timber buildings.

Advertising itself in aged brass letters, the terminology of office highlighted it as neither a well-staffed nor sizeable building. Brick columns framed the doors, which supported more bricks that jutted out to hold the sign.

The building looked unthreatening, even welcoming, and Jack doubted any criminals ever feared being brought to its domain.

Jack stepped up to the dark pine and glass doors, squinting as the dull yellow of a streetlight bounced off the glass and prevented him from seeing much within.

Hand at his holster just in case, Jack stepped through the doors to the main foyer and found his visitor standing in the center, stance casual as if she belonged there.

A sweet floral scent hit Jack’s nostrils and had him wondering woefully why women seemed to overdo it on the perfume lately. His gaze shifted then to Officer Julia Milton, and he wondered which of the two was the worse offender.

Julia was on post at what served as the main desk. A part-time officer in her early thirties, she showed no ambitions with her job.

She seemed satisfied with it as a source of entertainment, rather than an opportunity to provide safety to the town. Jack considered her an idle hand, but she had a pretty smile and presented a welcoming front to tourists.

She could calm the rowdy, drunken, testosterone-riled males with a suggestion that she’d rather have them buy her breakfast than serve it to them in jail.

Julia gave Jack a slightly apologetic glance as she stood up from her slightly battered-looking office chair, exposing her svelte frame.

“Hi, Sheriff,” Julia greeted chirpily. “This is—”

“Detective Moon,” the standing woman replied in an accent that held a hint of the no-nonsense city life of New York. “Riviona Moon.”

Jack eyed her up quickly, taking in a petite and thin form exposed by the loose fit of a pale brown suit. Her cream shirt bore coffee stains underneath an unflattering, loosely knotted turquoise-and-bronze tie of knock-off silk.

Visible through the open collar of her shirt was a pewter necklace of charms depicting a howling canine, feathers, a crescent moon, and a tiny fir tree.

Her gold detective’s shield rested at her hip on a brown belt, and her gun sat stoically in a holster on the opposing hip, half hidden by the ends of her blazer.

She was clutching a deep-blue cup marked “Angel Hollow Sheriff Dept” in yellow font. The cup expelled steam, and Jack could smell a strong odor of tea from it.

It had him a little puzzled as to why anyone would opt for tea over coffee. He also wondered where in the hell the tea had even come from. He was certain the station didn’t stock it.

Jack nodded back at the woman in a calm show of politeness. “I’m Sheriff Jack Tanner. How may I be of assistance, Detective?”

He could guess at her presence here, and his heart sank just a little as he wondered if the state thought so little of him and his three murders.

“’I’m in homicide,” Riviona explained. “I’m here to assist you.”

“Where are you from?”

“NYPD.” Her gray-brown gaze started to bud with a hint of irritation.

Jack sensed something amiss. She didn’t come from any nearby city, nor had she the rank of state police or federal.

“That’s a long trip to take alone.” He expressed a casual calm as he surveyed her.

“It was,” Riviona’s response was blunt even as she tried to match Jack’s calm.

Her youth had her lacking Jack’s experience when it came to a good poker face. Her mouth was rigid, and the annoyance remained in her eyes, emphasized by a slight dip in her thin, pale eyebrows.

Jack got straight to the point. “Why are you here? I called the city and the state. They surely have homicide detectives closer than you.”

Riviona gave a slight frown as she let her annoyance bleed into her stare. “Unusual homicides are my specialty.”

Jack’s dark eyebrows rose slightly at this. He brought his hands up to rest lightly on his hips as he waited for an explanation.

Julia gaped at the detective, marveling at her with wide, blue eyes from behind the desk. Her small mouth parted into an O as she let out a low whistle.

Riviona glanced over at Julia in surprise, folding her arms and frowning as she interpreted the whistle as mockery.

Jack fought back a grin with ease, choosing to maintain his indifferent show of tranquility, figuring it would be unprofessional to show his amusement at Julia’s display of a sideshow gawker.

“How does that become a specialty?”

“It just does.” Riviona turned a hostile stare on Jack.

“Did they really send you alone?”

“Yes.”

“Who’s your superior?”

“Sergeant Wilkes, then Lieutenant Holly. Ring them if you’d like. I don’t know if they’re sending anyone else,” she said bluntly.

“Lieutenant Holly just told me to get here ASAP. He said you had three unknown schoolgirls found torn up and hanging in the woods with dolls swinging alongside them and you had asked for help.”

Jack studied the young woman again. He knew she had to be hiding something, but he couldn’t quite figure out what it could be.

It angered him as he wondered if the state had viewed his call for help as some kind of knock-knock joke, with Detective Moon serving as the bad punchline they had answered with.

“Detective Moon, I know I’m a middle-of-nowhere sheriff, but I wasn’t always. I know homicides like this deserve more attention.”

Jack tried to keep his rising irritation from his voice, letting his stare stay calm as he faced her down.

Riviona shrugged. “Tell someone else.”

She took a sip from her cup and glanced about the premises with a look of displeasure. “I’ll need a desk; then you can catch me up to speed with the coroner’s and the forensic team’s findings.”

“No forensics folk here.”

Jack gave her a small grin when she looked at him in surprise and pointed at himself. “What we’ve got is myself, one deputy, two full-time officers, two part-time, four rangers, one seasonal, and an ME who’s green on the job.”

Riviona’s anger returned to her dirty-topaz eyes, and she made a point of taking a deep gulp from the cup as if to stop herself from saying something.

“All right, well, give me all you’ve got so far,” she remarked in a forcibly calm tone as she lowered the cup. “And the local hotel. I’ll need a room.”

“It’ll be booked out; fall season is beginning here. It’s when we get the tourists. Starts in September, hypes up by Halloween.”

“Right, didn’t think I’d be dealing with that again. Well, I’ll find somewhere.”

Jack wondered at her reply but resisted the urge to ask what “that” was, figuring if she’d wanted him to know she wouldn’t be playing the pronoun game in the first place. He sighed and rubbed his dark hair.

“You probably won’t. Nowhere good anyway.”

Jack knew her walls were up, but if he tried a different tactic he might get more answers from her.

“Look,” he addressed her tranquilly as he lowered his hand, “you’ve traveled a long way, so I’m guessing you’re hungry. Why don’t you follow me to my house?”

He offered a small, friendly smile. “I’ll get you a decent dinner and accommodation, at least for the evening.”

Riviona looked surprised at the offer, as did Julia. She cocked her head slightly as she studied Jack, as if trying to find some tell in his expression.

Julia gaped from one to the other, still wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as if an exciting drama on television was playing out live before her.

Jack knew that courtesy of Julia, it’d be around town by midnight that the local sheriff had invited a stranger to his house for the evening.

“That’s a generous offer. What’s the catch?” said Riviona.

Jack’s smile widened as he allowed some warmth to slip into his face, adding a charming show of laughter lines at his cheeks and a brightness to his electric-blue gaze.

“It’ll get you out of my parking spot,” he answered cheerfully.

To her credit, Riviona did not look embarrassed at the comment. “All right, Sheriff,” she said, raising her cup. “Let me wash this and then you can lead on.”

“Julia can take care of that.”

Riviona shook her head. “I don’t believe in letting others clean my mess,” she said darkly.

Noticing the quizzical expression that flitted across the sheriff’s face, she added hastily in a more neutral tone, “And since I’m working here, I should learn where things are, like the break room.”

“All right.” Jack gave in as he glanced at his watch. “I’ll show you the break room, but the rest of the tour can wait until tomorrow.”

He stepped past the woman to lead the way back through the office. He caught a strong odor of sweetness, almost like honey mixed with floral scents he couldn’t pinpoint.

He wrinkled his nose in irritation before continuing on, figuring a compliment on her perfume would be a pointless lie, while a comment on its overuse would be an undeserved insult.

Jack paced quickly through the corridors to the break room, not bothering to point out the display of history on the walls: plaques noting sheriffs and officers past and plexiglass-protected photographs and newspaper cutouts.

He had no interest in them. At the mayor’s insistence, the ones that mentioned his deeds were on the walls of the main foyer, but Jack had hidden them beneath flyers looking for lost cats.

“Here it is,” Jack murmured as he pushed open a door bearing a small rectangular black sign with white imprinted font indicating the B eak Room, thanks to a faded r.

Jack stepped inside and gestured to the steel sink, as well as the filter coffee machine and microwave on the counter beside it. A toaster sat on the opposite side, with a small fridge humming under the counter it rested on.

The only other features were a small TV resting precariously on a wonky steel shelf high on the left corner wall, a stained round table with four chairs pushed against it, and a sorry-looking plant by a window with no real view.

The bizarre collection of beaked masks dangling from a corkboard on the wall drew immediate attention. Riviona looked at them with unease and mild confusion.

“There’s a waffle iron in one of the cupboards,” Jack advised as he ignored her gawking. “Officer Jespen brought it. Man can’t complete reports correctly, but he makes one hell of a bacon and waffle breakfast.”

Riviona stared warily at the sheriff as she tried to work out if he was joking or not. When he offered a blank smile that confirmed nothing, she gave him a frown in response before charging up to the sink.

“Who has the sense of humor?” she queried as she scrubbed.

“Huh?”

“The beaked masks for the beak room.”

Jack watched as she made a point of scrubbing the cup thoroughly with steaming hot water and a generous dollop of washing up liquid.

His mouth twitched as he felt another grin budding when she dried it off with the straggly tea towel until it actually started squeaking.

“Oh.” Jack glanced at the masks and then back at the detective. “That would be Deputy Daniel Lupino. Best not to comment on it, it just encourages him.”

“Which cupboard?”

Riviona held up the now shiny cup without looking at Jack. She glanced up to the veneer cupboards built in above the toaster and then down to the ones under the coffee maker and microwave.

Her eyes then darted over to the pin board and its collection of dangling masks before Jack responded.

“Top one.”

Riviona’s frown returned as she opened the top cupboard and saw the few cups in there resting on the top of two shelves. The height of the shelves forced her to rise up to her tiptoes to place the cup.

A small spark of amusement budded in her gaze when she spied a white cup with blue font stating, “Donut give me shit,” complete with the obligatory cartoon image of a donut with pink icing and colorful sprinkles.

She closed the cupboard and looked back to Jack expectantly. “So, Sheriff, your house next? Should I offer to buy dinner or pay rent or something? I didn’t really expect the local law to put me up.”

“You’re the guest, so I’ll provide the dinner. And I wasn’t expecting visitors, so it’s not gonna be much, don’t worry.”

He turned and headed out of the room, glancing back in surprise when he heard Riviona’s heels scrape on the tiles as she turned off the light and moved after him quickly.

He saw her pull the door of the break room shut abruptly, as if making certain to shut something up within it. The young detective had the grace to look sheepish when she caught the sheriff’s prying eyes upon her.

Her strong show of calm faded as fatigue started to take over, and when her stomach let out a small growl she couldn’t withhold her grimace.

“Hungry?” Jack smiled at her.

“A little peckish, maybe.”

“Well, let’s get going then.”

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