An Excerpt from Mary Burton’s New Morgan Family Novel, VULNERABLE
“I should be more careful when I ask for extra work.” She scooped up a handful of nuts from a bowl on the bar and popped them in her mouth. “It’s taken me weeks to read through the files.”
“Deke tells me Dalton Marlowe is putting the squeeze on everyone.”
Dalton Marlowe was a very rich man whose son was one of three teens who went into Percy Warner Park five years ago. The students, from an exclusive high school called St. Vincent, went hiking in the southwest Nashville park that covered twenty-six hundred acres of wooded land crisscrossed by a dozen backroad trails, bike paths, and dead end roads. Their plan was to collect data for a science project and return home by dark.
When the teens had not reported in that night, search crews had been dispatched. At the end of the second day, volunteers found one of the kids, Amber Ryder, at the bottom of a ravine. Her arm was badly broken and she suffered a head injury. When she woke up in the hospital the next day, she swore she had no memory of what had happened in the woods. Search crews continued to look for weeks but the two other students, Bethany Reed and Mike Marlowe, were never found.
Mr. Marlowe has been pressing the Missing Persons Unit relentlessly for answers. This year, he again made a sizable donation to the police foundation, a kind of gesture that expects a return. Marlowe was clear that he didn’t want to hear any more bullshit theories about his son Mike and Bethany running off like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.
“So Deke’s balls are in a vise with the mayor?”
She shrugged. “He’s getting a hell of a lot of pressure from City Hall, but it doesn’t look like it’s fazed him. He hopes to kill two birds with one stone. Give me a cold case that I’ve been clamoring for and pacify the powers that be. It’s a win all the way around.”
“I was still on the job then. But because the case was considered a missing persons investigation, I never got a crack at it. I think they pulled Buddy in once.”
“Well, it’s now being investigated as a homicide.”
“Too bad your old man and I didn’t get a real crack at it.”
“I wish you had. So far, I’ve got eighty hours invested in reading witness statements, search crew reports, interviews, and examining the forensic data.”
Dark eyes sharpened as they did when he’d been on a homicide investigation. “What about that kid that survived?”
“Amber Ryder. I tracked down her number through her mother, Tracy. The woman wasn’t thrilled to see me or talk but she gave me a phone number. I’ve called it a couple of times but so far no return calls.”
A tall waitress with dark brown hair signaled KC she had an order. He filled three steins with beer and set them in front of her. As he moved back toward Georgia, he faced the register and punched in the order. “You working the case alone?”
Georgia swirled her drink in the cup. “No, as luck would have it, Deke has assigned Jake Bishop to the case with me.”
“He’s a solid cop.”
He shook his head, understanding that stubborn ran as deep in Georgia as it did in her brothers and her late father. “So, what now? You don’t want to share?”
“Not that. Jake irritates me.”
Amusement tweaked the edges of his lips. “How so?”
She leaned forward. “Started flirting with me in the last year. Hell, I stayed off his radar just fine and then suddenly I’m right in the middle after he caught one of my shows here.”
“That so bad?”
She held up a finger as if reading her lists of cons. “He’s a cop and I’ve always made it a policy not to date cops.”
“My late wife never had any issues with being married to a cop.”
“Well, Deb was a saint and we both know I’m not. I watched Mom do it with Dad and I don’t want any part of that.”
He pulled a bar rag from his shoulder and wiped up the few peanut shells she’d dropped. “I don’t think he’s looking to put a ring on your finger.”
“No, he’s looking for a roll in the hay and I don’t need a quickie with a guy that will forget me before his pants are zipped.”
KC’s laughter rumbled. “Jesus, Georgia, ever thought that you might not be so easy to live with.”
She held up her hands in surrender. “No arguments here, KC. Not a one. Which is why I don’t need any more cops in my life.”
“You got him wrong, kid.”
She took a long sip of soda. When she was down to ice, she crunched a few pieces between her teeth. “Don’t care. My focus is the case and the case alone.”
“Have you found anything the old teams missed?”
“Nothing so far. They didn’t leave a stone unturned. And none of those guys gets any criticism from me. Hard to solve a case when you don’t have bodies, no suspects, and a witness with no memory.”
“You really think you can crack the case after all this time?”
She shrugged. “It’s only been five years. Maybe someone knows something and will talk. Maybe Amber Ryder will call me back and tell me she’s remembered something.”
Skepticism deepened the lines of his face. “Amber always said she never could recall a single detail about what happened in the woods.”
She fished through the nuts in the bowl searching for a cashew. “Her testimony was consistent throughout the police files.”
“She was a suspect, but her unwavering testimony won over a lot of cops.”
She tipped her glass up, drinking until she drained the last bit of liquid. “Could be as simple as she was telling the truth.”
Carrie, a tall, thin waitress, wore a tight red Rudy’s T-shirt and figure-hugging jeans, placed a drink order with KC. “Georgia, long time no see.”
“Looking good, Carrie. How’s the baby?”
“Fat and happy. Two months old now.”
“Time goes fast.” Georgia noticed the dark blue bruise ringing Carrie’s forearm. Last she heard from KC, Carrie had broken up with the boyfriend that liked to pepper her with bruises. “You still seeing Hal?”
Carrie turned so the bruise was no longer visible. “Yeah. He loves the baby.”
“So much he puts bruises on her mother.”
Carrie’s skin pinked with embarrassment. “It’s not like that. Got this from an accident.”
How many times had Georgia had this conversation with Carrie? Too tired to argue, Georgia grabbed a napkin and a pen from behind the bar and scrawled her name and cell phone number on it. “When you and the baby are ready to leave, call me. You can stay at my place.”
Carrie shook her head, her eyes wide with panic. “It’s not like that. Hal loves me.”
“Put the napkin in your pocket. One day you might decide that love doesn’t have to hurt like that.”
Carrie crushed the napkin, but she tucked it in her jeans pocket before arranging the beers on her tray.
Nodding, Georgia flattened her palms on the bar, wanting to scream at the woman but unwilling to repeat what she had said a dozen times before.
A frowning KC filled the order. “Go on and get those served.”
“Sure thing, KC.” She offered them both an apologetic smile before she hurried away.
“Damn it,” Georgia muttered.
©Mary Burton 2016