MY PALMS STARTED TO SWEAT as soon as I turned the corner and saw cars packed in the driveway and lining both sides of the street in front of my parents’ house. I didn’t need to be a detective to know this wasn’t the casual family dinner my mom led me to believe. Leaning against the hood of my truck and using my best John McClane Die Hard impersonation, I whispered, “Come over to the house, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”
Pushing upright, I muttered under my breath, “Right, Mom.”
I bit at my lower lip and frowned. I’m not comfortable with large groups of people I barely know. Honestly, sometimes not with small ones either.
Laughter followed a wisp of smoke drifting over the tall cedar fence separating the front and back yards. The tantalizing aroma of grilled meat meant Dad had the barbeque fired up and my stomach growled in anticipation. Resistance was futile.
Gathering resolve, I stopped on the top step at the front door. I glanced down at my faded blue Wranglers and worn not-so-white Skechers. I also didn’t need to be a psychic to know Mom would voice her opinion of my wardrobe choices.
The minute I walked through the door, I knew I was right.
Meeting me in the foyer, Mom’s over-the-top smile faltered just for a flash before the twinkle returned to her blue eyes. She smoothed the waist of her teal-and-purple sweater that went perfectly with her turquoise pants. Impeccable as always, not a single blond hair was out of place. “Kallie, honey, come in. Everyone’s out back.”
“Yeah, I saw that. There’s quite the parking lot out front. You didn’t tell me all your friends and half the neighborhood would be here. What’s going on?”
“Sweetheart, can’t I invite my beautiful, talented daughter to dinner and show her off without you questioning my motives? Not everyone has a doctor in the family.”
“A veterinarian, Mom.” I smiled. “You need to be clear on that. When people find out, they react”—I grimaced—“like they’re startled.”
Waving her hand, Mom dismissed the issue. She ushered me into the bright, airy kitchen and turned me to face her. Hands on my shoulders, she eyed me up and down. “Why must you always dress like ...” Her tongue clicked out a disapproving tempo. She tugged at the sleeve of my Star Wars T-shirt. “What happened to that lovely green top I got you last week? It went so well with your hair.” She sighed. “And jeans. Must you always wear jeans and dirty tennis shoes? I bought you such precious outfits growing up.” Her voice quieted. “Enough said.” Taking my arm, she tried to aim me toward the patio.
Resisting her, I didn’t budge. “Mom, I’m on call starting in ...” I glanced at the Mickey Mouse watch on my wrist. “Two hours.” I smiled and lifted my hands. “I couldn’t exactly pull a calf or stitch up a horse that ran through a fence in a precious outfit.”
“At least let me do something with your hair.” Mom stepped behind me and pulled at the black scrunchie, freeing my ponytail. She ran her fingers through to the ends, fluffing the long strands. In a wistful tone so full of love, she said, “You inherited your grandmother’s hair—all red and curly.”
Even standing behind me, I could feel her smile. “I know, Mom. But I also got her freckles.”
“Angel kisses,” she sang. “You got your father’s eyes, though. That dark blue—sparkly and bright, like a sapphire.”
“You’re stalling.” Spinning around to face her, my arms crossed, I took in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “Come clean. You’ve set me up again, haven’t you?”
She shrugged and looked away. “We thought it would be nice to have a barbeque with a few of the neighbors.” Meeting my gaze, she said, “Okay. Yes. It’s Lynn’s nephew. He’s visiting from Eugene. Since you and Eddie are about the same age, I said I’d invite you.” In that sing-song voice she added, “Perfectly harmless.”
“A few of the neighbors?” I glanced at her sideways and chuckled.
Smiling, her eyes wide, she feigned innocence. “Just our closest friends.”
Laughing, I asked, “Is Dani here?” My married and pregnant-with-her- second-child younger sister often acts as my advocate in these situations, championing my life path. Mom means well, but sometimes she just has trouble acknowledging Dani and I are very different people.
“One of Katie’s little friends from preschool had a birthday party this afternoon. Danielle said they’d stop by after.” Mom gestured toward the patio.
Glancing outside, I nodded, biting my lower lip. “Fine. I’ll meet him.” I only had to stay a couple hours before I’d need to leave, check in at work, and get a company truck. I can do this.
“I think you’ll like him. You should have lots to talk about. He recently passed the bar.”
“A lawyer? What could we possibly have to—”
Before I could finish my protest, she placed her hand on my lower back and propelled me out the open French doors and onto the sunny brick patio. “Just go meet him. You never know.”
“Hey, sweetie. Glad you could come,” Dad called, one hand holding a spatula and the other waving away a sudden blast of smoke from the grill. Tilting my head, I wiggled my fingers in his direction. “Thanks, Dad.”
Lynn rushed Eddie over. He had that same deer-in-the-headlights look I knew I did. And even though he wasn’t wearing a suit and tie right then, he might as well have been. I could see it in his manner, the way he carried himself—all businesslike and stiff.
“Hi, Eddie. And it’s Kallie.”
“Oh. Sorry.” He nodded. “Kallie. That’s pretty.”
“Thanks.” The awkward general niceties out of the way, I searched my
blank mind for something to say while checking for an opening in the tall cedar fence, or an unlatched gate. No such luck.
“Lynn, could you help me with the salads?” Mom and her buddy slipped away on false pretenses, leaving Eddie and me alone.
“So you’re a doctor.” He gestured with his beer bottle in my general direction.
My smile vacillated between a grin and grimace. “Yeah. I’m a vet.” “Cool.” He tipped his head. “Good. Well, thank you for your service.” I almost laughed. “No. Not that kind. A veterinarian—an animal
Face wrinkling, he took a step back. “Animals?”
Mom had done it again. “Yes. Dogs, cats, horses, sheep, cows.” I
shrugged one shoulder. “Whatever.”
“That must be, umm ... interesting.” He took a long drink and scanned
the backyard. It was his turn to look for an opening to retreat.
I recognized the panic in his eyes. I’d seen that look before. Eddie needed an out, freeing both of us from this disaster. My voice raised in excitement and I nodded with enthusiasm. “Yes, it is. Last week I pulled a calf from a heifer. Let me tell you, she was not happy. I had my arm inside
“Whoa,” Eddie cried. He held up a hand and scowled. “TMI.”
Lynn appeared balancing three bags of chips atop a large bowl of potato
Eddie saw his escape. “Aunt Lynn, let me help you.” With a momentary
glance in my direction, he murmured a terse, “Excuse me.” He hurried over, took the bowl from her, and walked toward the long table set up on the freshly mowed lawn—away from me.
“Works every time,” I mumbled. With an overwhelming sense of relief, I relaxed and headed to the grill. “Hey, Dad. Could you cook me a burger to go?”
He frowned. “Why don’t you stay? Eat with us. Dani will be here later.”
My phone vibrated, alerting me to an incoming text. I pulled it from my hip pocket and glanced at the screen. Work summoned. “Sorry. Gotta go. Duty calls.” I think my attempt at not sounding too cheerful failed.
Dad pulled a bun from a large pack, tossed it on a paper plate, and handed it to me. “I’ll have your burger ready in a minute—to go.”
I stood on tiptoes and kissed his smooth cheek. “Thanks, Dad.”
Holding my burger and shifting with one hand, steering wheel in the other, I drove the ten miles to the Crater Emergency Animal Hospital. Moaning with pleasure, I stuffed the last smoky, cheesy, barbequey bite into my mouth and killed the engine. The driver’s door of my beat-up old truck squeaked as I opened it and squealed in protest when I slammed it shut. Wiping my lips with the back of my hand and brushing crumbs from my jeans, I pushed through the front entrance’s double doors.
The empty waiting area was quiet except for the canned music. Glancing down the long hall, I noticed that all the exam room doors were open. I slowed, stopping at the front desk. “Eric, what’s up?”
Looking at me over the tall counter, he held up one finger, furiously chewing a bite of his sandwich. He swallowed. “Sorry to bother you. I know you’re not officially on until five, but Sanders just left for a call in Prospect. It’ll take him almost an hour just to get there.” He ripped a sheet off the pink message pad, handing it to me. “This sounds urgent.”
I frowned. “Yeah. Okay. What—”
“Just read it. It’s all I got. Detective B. Jacobson didn’t go into much detail.” He shook his head, his eyebrows rising.
I looked at the note.
Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, requesting a vet. ASAP. See Det. B. Jacobson at scene.
An address followed. “Eagle Point.” I glanced up at Eric. “Is an animal injured? Why are the police involved?”
“Don’t know. They’re requesting assistance. A-S-A-P. And like I said, that’s all I got.” The phone rang and Eric picked it up. “Crater Emergency Animal Hospital.”
I hurried down the hall to the back of the large building, grabbed a key hanging from a peg at the rear door, and pushed out into the parking lot. After unlocking a company truck, complete with everything I’d need in the utility bed to care for an injured or sick animal, I climbed inside and programmed the address into the GPS.
Twenty minutes later, after the “your destination is on the right” and “arrived” prompts from the sultry female GPS voice, I turned onto a long gravel driveway.
One green-and-white sheriff’s vehicle, a shiny black unmarked Dodge Charger, and a dark-blue Oregon State Police cruiser, engines quiet and emergency lights off, sat parked just outside a well-kept two-story farmhouse.
A deputy sheriff hurried over to my truck, his hand up to stop me.
I rolled my window down, hoping I wouldn’t need to go into a lengthy explanation. Holding the pink note ready, I opened my mouth. But before I could say anything—
“I’m sorry, miss. You’re going to have to leave.” The deputy motioned for me to turn around. Then he did a double take, his eyes stopping on the utility bed of my truck. “Wait. Are you the vet?”
“Yes.” I nodded, waving the pink note out the window. “I’m Dr. Collins. I’m supposed to meet with Detective Jacobson.”
“Glad you’re here. Ben’s getting impatient. Park over there.” He pointed next to the sheriff’s vehicle. “I’ll let him know you’re here, Dr. Collins.” Keying the mic attached to his shoulder epaulet, he turned away.
“Impatient?” I frowned, butterflies fluttering in my stomach. “That doesn’t sound good. Hope I’m in time.” I parked and switched off the engine.
“Come on. I’ll take you to Ben.”
Scrambling out of the truck, I ran to catch him. The butterflies abandoned their fluttering for somersaults, and I burped barbeque. Good thing I’d popped a breath mint on the way. “Wait. What do I need? Is there an injured animal or ... what exactly?”
Glancing back at me, he gestured to the barn. “Ben will explain everything to you.”
He led me past the house and through the long breezeway. Warm air swept inside, stirring the scent of damp earth, fresh hay, and that sweet, musky aroma of horses. My pulse ramped up, pounding in my ears. I’d graduated in the top ten of my class and was going on six months in practice, and even when I knew what I was walking into, the thought of a sick or injured animal made me nervous. I guess that’s a good thing. A life counted on me to make the right decisions. I took a deep breath, held it for a beat, and then released the air through pursed lips. Give me wisdom and guidance, Lord.
We continued beyond an open gate into a grassy field fenced by green five-foot-tall T-posts, three feet of woven wire, and a double strand of barbed wire on top. Halfway inside the field, maybe a hundred yards from me, a man in a dark-gray suit stood about twenty-five feet from a massive old oak tree. I squinted, searching for the form of a horse or cow lying in the grass. Nothing. Could this be some kind of drive-by shooting? Of animals? Possibilities flashed. My heart skipped with dread at what might await me.
Approaching the man, Detective B. Jacobson I presumed, I spotted a small brown lump in the grass under the tree. Well, it was small compared to a cow or horse. At the far end, another sheriff’s deputy, a woman, and the state patrolman walked the edge of the fence.
“Hey, Ben. The doc’s here.”
Without turning, Detective Jacobson responded, “Thanks, Brent. Could you go back out front and wait for the CSU? Show them in?”
“Sure thing, Ben.” Brent tipped his head as he passed me. “If there’s anything I can do, Doc, tell Ben. He can radio me.”
I managed a weak smile. “Thanks.”
Detective Jacobson turned, his serious expression slipping. Mouth open, he straightened, his crossed arms dropping to his sides. “Oh.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting someone ...” He rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry. I guess I expected someone older.”
So had I. I had more of a Columbo type pictured, not this young man. “And maybe someone with a Y chromosome.” I chuckled.
His face reddened and he smiled, creating dimples in his cheeks. He slipped off his sunglasses, revealing piercing green eyes. “No. Nooo ...” He sighed. “Okay. Maybe. Again. I am sorry.” He held out his hand. “I’m Detective Jacobson. Thank you for coming so quickly.”
He really was trying to apologize. That it embarrassed him was, well, kinda cute. “I’m Doctor Collins.” I stepped forward and took his offered hand, but the shake was fleeting. I looked toward the furry form under the tree. Glancing back at the detective, I grinned. “At least you didn’t work ‘little lady’ into your apology.”
“Ouch.” His eyes narrowed. “Have people actually said that to you?”
“Oh, yes. More than you would imagine.” I walked past him, toward what I then saw was a big dog—lots of long brown, tan and black fur, floppy ears twitching whenever a fly tickled. He looked uninjured, eyes bright and alert. His head rested on something long and whitish-brown held under enormous paws.
“I wouldn’t get too close.”
Ignoring his warning, I stopped about ten feet away and knelt. “Hi, buddy. What’s up?”
His tail thumped the ground, churning up a small dust storm. “Whatcha got there? Can I see?” I crept a little closer.
“It’s a bone. We suspect human. Every time we get near, he growls—
shows his teeth. The people who live here don’t know who the dog belongs to. I ... well, I thought maybe if you had a tranq gun—I’d hate to have to shoot him.”
I jumped up and spun toward him. “You were going to shoot him?”
He held up his hands. “Like I said, I don’t want to, but I need that bone.”
“He doesn’t need to be shot ... or drugged.” I relaxed. “Just give me a minute.”
He backed away, nodding. “Please. Take your time.”
Kneeling again, I sat cross-legged in the grass. My thoughts quieted, and I tuned out the soft voices of the two officers across the field. Taking in a deep breath, I looked at the dog. “Where, buddy?” Images played in my mind. The bone under his paws. Fresh churned earth. More bones protruding from dark soil.
From the dog, answers in the form of images and sensations raced into my mind. Pictures flashed. Warm sunshine. Insects buzzing. Sweet grass. The scent of fresh turned soil. Another field. Not here, but close. Cool water running in a ditch, eroding an area. Bones—a human skull.
“Okay,” I whispered and envisioned more of my own images. Him giving me the bone. Scratching behind his ears. Me following him to the other bones—the skull.
Snatching the bone into his mouth, he sprang up. The tags on his collar jangled as he trotted over and dropped the bone in my lap. “Thanks.”
Standing, I let the human bone fall to the grass. I didn’t want to touch it. And that wasn’t just because, well, it was once a person. It would be evidence, and I didn’t want to mess with that. As promised, I scratched behind his soft furry ears.
Detective Jacobson crept toward the bone at my feet. He pulled a glove from a pocket, ready to pick it up. “He’s not going to, uh, bite me, is he?”
Hooking my fingers under the dog’s collar, I led him a couple feet away. A brass plate attached to the collar was engraved with “Stanley”. “His name is Stanley, and he’s fine. He’s not the one with a gun.” I tipped my head. “I’m sorry. Look, he’ll show us where the rest of the bones are when you’re ready. And by the way, it is human.”
“Stanley will?” His pinched expression hardened. “Do I need to ask how you know it is in fact human and why you know where to find more, Dr. Collins?” Frowning, Detective Jacobson waved the other two over.
“I don’t. Stanley does.”
“You expect me to believe ... what? That Stanley told you all this?” “Hold on.” I scowled at him. Dimples or not, I wasn’t going to let him
mock me or Stanley. “You called for my help. Remember? I didn’t come here on my own. And, yes, in a way he did.”
“Right.” Even when he sneered, his dimples showed.
“It’s not that weird. Lots of people can do this. I took a class a few years ago on animal communication—learned how to listen and respond to them.” I shook my head, dismissing his skepticism. “It’s all about images and being open and receptive, and believing what comes through.” Looking up into his intense green eyes, I bit at my lower lip. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”
Still glaring at me, he nodded. “Okay. For now. Where? How far?”
“Just a minute.” Making that connection with Stanley again, I pictured fields and fences.
Stanley twisted to the left, and the images came. Three fields about this size, fences, jump a ditch, one more field and fence. Another ditch. Bones.
I sighed out a long breath. “Maybe half a mile.” I pointed. “That direction.”
Detective Jacobson pressed a button on the side of a walkie he’d taken from another pocket. “Brent, bring me an evidence bag and contact the CSU. Let them know this isn’t the primary crime scene. We’ll give them an update when we have the location.
Brent’s voice came back, static scraping at his words. “Copy. Since I didn’t hear a shot, I take it the doc was successful?”
Glancing at me sideways, Detective Jacobson pushed the button again. “Affirmative.” He tucked the walkie away again.
Hands on hips, I frowned at him.
At my side, Stanley barked out one short accusing “Woof.”