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On the heels of AT THE RIVER’S EDGE and BUTCHER ROAD, my next fast-paced murder mystery set in the Blue Ridge Mountains is FALLEN FROM SIGHT. The third book in the series will be published on January 1, 2020 and is available for Pre-order through December 31st.
The opening pages of FALLEN FROM SIGHT are below. Let me know what you think!
– Day 1 –
The Search Begins
FLORESCENT LIGHTS burned bright in the windowless interrogation room,
Like a hawk hovering over a field mouse, Detective John Phillips peered down his angular nose at the young suspect seated across the small metal table. The white-haired veteran of the Parsons Creek Police Department (PCPD) wore a wrinkled dress shirt with his narrow tie pulled loose. Sgt. Mitch Williams was seated beside him in a khaki uniform with a gold badge stuck to his barrel chest, his high and tight haircut adding to his no-nonsense appearance.
“Tell us again,” Phillips ordered. “Where and when did you last see Sarah Campbell?”
Ryan Nelson rubbed his face and took a deep breath, his weary eyes showing anger and frustration. The two-hour interview was taking its toll.
“I’ve already told you. We watched a movie at my place Friday night. I gave her a goodnight kiss on the front porch around midnight and then she drove away.”
“And that was the last time you saw her?” Phillips asked.
“That’s right. She wanted to go hiking the next morning, but I had to work.”
“Did she say if she had plans to go with anyone else?”
“No. We usually hike alone. Sometimes she brings Patches.”
“Yeah, her springer spaniel. I found him at her house after she didn’t call or come by on Saturday night. He’s at my place now.”
“How would you describe your relationship with Ms. Campbell? Any recent disagreements or arguments?”
Ryan’s jaw clenched as he raked his hand over his thick dark hair.
“We’ve dated more than a year, and we rarely argue about anything.”
“Rarely?” Phillips asked, leaning forward.
“Do you ever have disagreements with your wife, detective?” Ryan shot back.
“My wife isn’t missing!” Phillips shouted.
Ryan exhaled and leaned back.
“Listen, I want to find Sarah more than anyone. You keep asking the same questions, over and over. I have no reason to hide anything from you or anyone else.”
“You were the last one to see Ms. Campbell, and we have little else to go on. You claim to have driven to Boone on Saturday, but no one can verify your whereabouts during the day.”
“Stop with the bullshit!” Ryan shouted, twisting in his chair. “I told you I picked up building supplies and then drove straight back to a job site. It only took a couple hours. You act like I’m some drifter passing through town. I’m the one who reported her missing Saturday night, for crying out loud!”
“Okay. Just relax,” Phillips said. “We’re trying to make sure we don’t overlook anything.”
The detective paused, giving the twenty-eight-year-old boyfriend of the missing woman a chance to cool down.
“A hiker found Sarah’s grey scarf on the cliff’s edge at Jefferson Peak yesterday,” Phillips said. “It was clinging to a shrub just below the lookout point. What do you make of this?”
“She must’ve dropped it,” Nelson replied, “or it could have blown off in the wind. Her car was at the base of the trail, so she probably walked to the top. It’s a hike we make several times a month.”
“Do you ever climb that cliff?”
“We’d never climb Jefferson Peak. It’s five hundred feet of slick granite. Besides, she wouldn’t go climbing alone.”
“Was Ms. Campbell depressed, or are you aware of anyone who’d want her harmed?”
Ryan grimaced, shaking his head. “Everyone likes Sarah. You won’t find a more upbeat, kindhearted person in Parsons Creek.”
“Didn’t she move here from Charlotte a few years ago?”
“That’s right. Her real estate company relocated her to sell retirement property up on Jakes Mill Road. I met her while working on condos up there.”
“Did she ever mention any controversy from her past?”
“No, and if you knew her, you’d realize how ridiculous you sound,” Nelson replied, standing. “Now, unless you plan to arrest me, I need to get home.”
Detective Phillips and Sgt. Williams exchanged glances. Williams shook his head, indicating he had nothing to add.
“That’s all for now,” Phillips said. “We’ll stay in touch.”
“I’m sure you will,” Nelson replied, turning and stepping from the room.
As the door closed, Sgt. Williams turned to Detective Phillips. “What do you think?” he asked.
“Husbands and boyfriends are usually the most likely suspects, but I think the kid is clean.”
“I’m not so sure,” Williams replied, frowning.
THE FALL SKY was a brilliant orange behind the grey-smoked mountains as Ryan pulled into his driveway. He didn’t notice.
The past two days had been the most agonizing of his life. He feared the worst, but held out hope. Initial searches at Jefferson Peak and at the base of the cliff had produced nothing. Park rangers and police were to begin again at daylight.
Patches barked wildly as Ryan cracked open the garage door into the house. The eager spaniel ran to him and circled his legs several times before plopping sphinxlike at his feet, staring upward. Ryan glanced at a wall clock. It was 7:15, two hours past the dog’s feeding.
Ryan scooped a cupful of dry food from a forty-pound bag into Patches’ bowl. The spaniel’s tail whipped the air as Ryan bent down to place the bowl on the floor.
He stepped to the living room and flopped into his recliner.
She was here two nights ago, he thought.
He turned to a picture of Sarah on the side table and picked it up. The photo was taken the prior spring at the finish line of a 10K charity run benefitting the local animal shelter. Patches accompanied her during the race.
Even after running the six-plus miles, Sarah appeared as fresh and crisp as that early spring morning. Twenty-seven years old, she could pass for seventeen. She possessed timeless features: warm brown eyes, thick auburn hair, and a calming smile that made strangers like her before she said a word.
Ryan’s cellphone chirped in his pocket. He set the photo back on the table, pulled out the phone, and looked down to see a familiar number. It was Sarah’s twin sister, Beth.
“Any news?” she asked.
“Nothing. I just came from the police station. Detective Phillips and that bulldog-faced sergeant spent a couple hours grilling me.”
“They think you’re a suspect?”
“They’re just grasping at straws. Like all of us,” Ryan said, sighing.
“I’ve got a bit of good news,” Beth said. “I’ve rounded up about twenty volunteers to search the park tomorrow. Most of them are hiking and climbing friends from Charlotte and a few from my law office.”
“They’ll need to be experienced hikers. It’s rough terrain around where Sarah disappeared,” Ryan replied.
“I’m afraid of what we’ll discover,” Beth said. “But I have to know where she is.”
“I walked the trail from where they found her car to the top this morning, but I found nothing.”
“Do you think she fell from the peak?” Beth asked.
“The winds can be fierce up there, but I doubt she fell. Not by accident, anyway.”
“I can’t believe anyone would harm her.”
“There are crazies everywhere, even up here,” Ryan replied, staring across the room at Patches, nosing his bowl, looking for more food.
“You don’t have to tell me about crazies. Being a paralegal in a criminal law office, I see plenty of them,” she added.
“Then you know what I mean.”
“I’m glad Mom and Dad aren’t here,” Beth said, her voice cracking. “This would rip them apart.”
“There’s still a good chance she’s okay,” Ryan said. “Maybe she sprained an ankle and was too hurt to hike back to her car. There’s no cell service on that side of Jefferson Peak, so she’d have no way to contact anyone.”
“I try to think of good outcomes, but it’s not like Sarah to disappear like this,” Beth said, pacing the floor of her uptown condo. “She and I have talked every night for as long as I can remember. We finish each other’s thoughts and sentences. She has to be okay. Losing her would be like losing half of myself.”
“We’ll find her,” Ryan said. “She’s an experienced hiker and knows these woods as well as anyone.”
“My friends and I are caravanning from Charlotte in the morning, and if all goes as planned, we’ll arrive around nine. Where should we meet?” Beth asked.
“Stay clear of downtown Parsons Creek. The news crews are arriving, and you’ll attract attention.”
“There’s a ranger station inside Jefferson Park about six miles off Route 421 on Murdock Road. We can spread out and walk toward the base of the peak from there.”
“Okay. See you then,” Beth replied. “Oh. I almost forgot.”
“One of the guys coming tomorrow is an old flame of Sarah’s. His name’s Guy Fletcher. They dated her first two years at App State. He insisted on helping.”
“She actually dated someone named Guy?” he asked sarcastically.
“Sarah hasn’t talked to him in more than six years. I would know.”
“What does he do now?”
“He’s a musician. Plays gigs mainly in Charlotte and the Carolina coastal towns. He seemed concerned and was able to get several of his friends to join the search. I hope you’re okay with him coming.”
with it,” he lied. “We all just want to find Sarah. See you in the morning.”
– Day 2 –
A CARAVAN OF vehicles turned off Murdock Road, their headlights burning holes through the morning mountain fog. After feeling their way down the gravel lane toward the ranger station, they filed in at the far end of the lot.
Ryan had arrived thirty minutes earlier and sat waiting on the wraparound porch of the rustic log building. Sarah’s spaniel was at his side. Spotting Beth in the lead sedan, Ryan rose from an Adirondack chair and stepped quickly down the steps.
He greeted Beth with a hug as the two dozen volunteers began retrieving gear stowed in the rear of each vehicle. Denim jackets and jeans were the attire for the cool autumn morning.
Beth had her thick auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. Looking into her dark brown eyes, it was as if Sarah was standing beside him. Ryan took a deep breath but didn’t say anything.
“I’m sorry we’re a little late, but the fog slowed us down,” Beth said, bending down to give Patches a head rub.
“I’m glad you made it safely,” Ryan replied. “The rangers and police have already begun searching. The head ranger gave me these maps. Police Chief Adkins recommended we cover the areas marked. He also left instructions to relay to the volunteers. Could you call everyone closer?”
“Listen up!” Beth shouted. “This is Ryan Nelson, a close friend of Sarah’s and a longtime resident of Parsons Creek. Before we begin searching, he has some instructions from the police department.”
The volunteers quieted and gathered nearby. Ryan leapt onto the bed of a nearby pickup and surveyed the small crowd. The group was mostly men, and all appeared well-equipped with backpacks and hiking gear.
“First of all, thanks for taking time to help search for Sarah. We’ll be covering the area from this ranger station up toward the base of Jefferson Peak.”
Ryan turned and pointed to the granite summit to the east. Ten square miles of rugged hills, ravines, and woods stretched between where the volunteers stood and the base of the cliff, rising more than five hundred feet toward the clouds.
“The police chief asked that we keep our eyes open for anything that appears out of place. If you find an item that might belong to Sarah, don’t touch it. Just tag a nearby tree or shrub and the police will retrieve it. I have rolls of bright yellow tape for tagging.
“We should work in two or three-person teams. Each team will be assigned a section noted on the maps that I’ll hand out. Take your time and pay particular attention to the areas around the trails. I know many of you are experienced hikers and climbers, but don’t take unnecessary risks. If you see something out of reach, wait for assistance. Cellphone service is poor in this area, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to phone for help.
“If you didn’t bring sufficient water or food, supplies are inside the ranger station. Help yourself to what you need before we leave.
“Plan to meet back here before seven p.m. Report to a ranger when you return so we’ll know who’s back and who isn’t.
“Are there any questions before I assign search areas to the teams?”
A tall man resembling Ross from Friends and dressed for an REI commercial shot his hand into the air.
“Yes,” Ryan said, pointing toward him.
“Could you assign search areas based on ability? I’m an experienced climber and prepared to go just about anywhere.”
Ryan glanced at Beth. She nodded with a sheepish look. It didn’t take long for Guy Fletcher to surface.
“All of this territory is pretty rugged, but the areas to the north will be the most challenging,” Ryan replied. “I’ll save one of these for you if you want.”
“Thanks, Bro. I just want to make sure I can help in the best way possible.”
“Anything else?” Ryan asked, scanning the volunteers.
“Yeah. Does anyone know what Sarah was wearing when she disappeared?” The question came from a woman standing next to Fletcher.
Ryan paused, thinking of Sarah and what she might have worn. His solemn face silenced the crowd.
“No one saw Sarah on Saturday, the day she disappeared,” he finally replied. “She often wore a green sweater and jeans when hiking on cool days, and she would likely have her tan canvas backpack. These items are also missing from her home.”
He waited, but there were no more questions.
“Go ahead and pick up your supplies, and then meet me back here to get a map and an assigned area.”
Ryan stepped down from the pickup and stood beside Beth as the volunteers dispersed. He looked up to see Guy Fletcher approaching.
“Hi. I’m Guy Fletcher,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m an old college friend of Sarah’s. When I found out she was missing, I had to find some way to help.”
“Thanks for coming,” Ryan replied. “It’s rough terrain out here, and we’ll need all the help we can get to find her.”
“Is this your dog?” Guy asked, bending to pet Patches.
“No. He belongs to Sarah,” Ryan replied. “He’ll be with me and Beth today.”
“Sarah and I had a dog in college,” Guy said, staring down at Patches. “Riley was a shepherd mix, and he was as loveable as the day was long. He was really Sarah’s dog, but he stayed at my apartment after Sarah moved in.”
Ryan gave Beth a what’s-with-this-guy stare.
“I don’t know what happened,” Guy continued. “It was always the three of us back then, and now this.”
“Say, if you and your partner are ready,” Beth interrupted, “Ryan will give you a map and you can get started.”
“Sure. I’m ready,” Guy replied. “I’ll be teamed with Liz Kline. She’s a singer with my band and an outdoor freak like me. She just ran to get a couple bottles of water.”
“Here’s the section to the north I mentioned,” Ryan explained, unfolding the map and pointing to the area. “Beth and I will be covering the area a few hundred yards below you. Call out if you need anything.”
“We’ll be fine, Bro,” Guy said, snatching the map. “See you back here at seven.”
Guy stepped toward Jefferson Peak and studied the map as he waited for his search partner.
“Bro? What’s up with that?” Ryan asked with a smirk.
Beth shrugged and smiled. “He’s a little intense,” she said, “but I think he’s well-meaning.”
“He’s more spooky than intense if you ask me.”
As volunteers filed back, Ryan assigned search areas and handed out maps. In less than fifteen minutes, everyone spread out and headed toward the wooded expanse at the base of Jefferson Peak. Beth and Ryan trailed to the rear with Patches, his nose to the ground, darting from bush to bush.
THE MORNING FOG began to burn off as the sun rose in the southeastern autumn sky.
Ryan and Beth continued to search on and around trails that crisscrossed their assigned section. The paths cut through dense woods, climbed over jagged rocks, and crossed over clear running streams. Patches loped along at their sides as if it was a normal weekend hike. So far, nothing appeared out of the ordinary.
“This seems so futile,” Beth said. “Is this an area that Sarah would normally hike?”
“Jefferson Park is over twenty square miles, and we’ve hiked most of it, including this area,” Ryan replied, “but I can’t recall her ever coming down here alone.”
“Shouldn’t we focus on the area where her car was found?” she asked.
“The police combed the area from her car to the summit where her scarf was discovered. The trails from Jefferson Peak lead down here, so this is the next logical place she would have come.”
“I can’t bear to think about her out here alone the past several nights,” Beth said, pausing to scan the shadowy, damp surroundings. “Do you think she could survive this long if she was hurt?”
“Sarah always packs water. Even if she was hurt and unable to move, she could survive days on a bottle of water,” Ryan explained. “It also rained Sunday night. She knows how to gather water from leaves and rocks.”
“How much further before we get to the base of the cliff?”
“We’re less than a quarter mile away. The trail will get steeper and rockier the closer we get. Maybe now would be a good time to take a break,” Ryan suggested.
“Fine with me,” Beth replied. “I just want to make sure we have time to search our area and get back by seven.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem. It will be quicker going back,” Ryan said, unhitching his backpack and setting it on the needle-covered trail. Beth felt for a dry spot on a nearby log before removing her pack and taking a seat.
“Help! We need help!”
The screeching voice of a woman called out in the distance. Patches’ ears perked and his head turned toward the screams.
“It came from over there,” Ryan said, pointing.
“That’s Fletcher’s section!” Beth replied, jumping back to her feet.