Where Readers & Writers Connect
(#3 in the First Responders series from Abingdon Press)
Dusty stifled a yawn and deployed the Harley’s kickstand.
The handlebar clock said five-fifteen, and beside it, the temperature gauge registered seventy-two muggy degrees. He shook his head and hoped weatherman Marty Bass was wrong about thunderstorms in the forecast, because if he wasn’t, more than this morning’s search and rescue mission—SAR for short— were in jeopardy. It meant he’d have to put off fixing the roof.
Again. And that meant new mattresses for the boys who called The Last Chance their home.
Grumbling under his breath, he stowed his helmet, and after squeezing rain from his ponytail, pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt, soaked clean through by the deluge that had chased him halfway around the Baltimore Beltway.
Dusty shouldered his way through the tunnel of waterlogged branches that canopied the footpath. If he’d stopped for a sack of burgers from the twenty-four-hour McDonald’s on North Howard, his stomach wouldn’t be groaning now. But then, he wouldn’t have beaten the morning gridlock, either. Tradeoffs.
Lately, they seemed to dominate every facet of his life.
A fat raindrop oozed from a leaf and landed on the tip of his nose, then slid to the blacktopped footpath where it gleamed like a new dime. Up ahead, the blue and red strobes of emergency vehicles sliced through the gray mist, and the whoop of sirens silenced the usual chirp of tree frogs and crickets. If that didn’t lend gritty balance to the postcard-pretty sight, Dusty didn’t know what did.
He passed two stern-faced cops, interviewing a guy in a baggy orange jogging suit. “Shadow is the best-behaved dog I’ve ever owned,” he heard the guy say, “but he spotted something over there. . . .” The man pointed to a break in the tree line. “. . . and went completely off his nut.”
Dusty took note of the German shepherd’s stance—ears pricked forward and tail straight out—as it stared at the spot, some twenty yards away.
“Probably just a squirrel or something,” the owner said, “but with the story of that young girl, I figured—”
“We appreciate the tip, sir,” the tallest officer said. He tucked a tablet into his shirt pocket while his partner returned the guy’s driver’s license. “Don’t worry, if we need anything more, we know how to get in touch.” He gave the pocket flap a pat.
In other words, Dusty thought, hit the road, dude, so we can get to work. The jogger took the hint and led his dog across the parking lot as Dusty joined the small circle of SAR workers already assembled. Jones, this mission’s Operation Leader, quickly brought them up to speed: Melissa Logan, age sixteen, hadn’t been home since the night of her prom. Last seen a few miles west of the park, her disappearance had sparked an intensive dawn-to-dusk manhunt that left everyone scratching their heads. And when the jogger’s shepherd started acting spooky, the dominos began to fall, starting with its owner’s 9-1-1 call and ending with another search, here.
“It’s been nearly a week since she went missing,” Jones warned, “so prepare yourselves.”
Meaning, dead or alive, Melissa Logan wouldn’t look very pretty, even in her fancy prom gown.
They all knew the drill, but Jones went over it, anyway.
“Let’s try not to make too big a mess, stomping through the underbrush, shall we?”
Because the cops will need every scrap of evidence to catch the animal who did this.
Next, came the OL’s reminder to double-check field packs for standard equipment: Compass, knife, matches and rope, sterile dressing and bandages, bottled water, space blanket and metal mirror. Memory of the time he’d needed the snakebite kit faded as the sound of surgical gloves, snapping into place, went around the circle.
The team field tested their radios and counted off, starting with Dusty and ending with Honor Mackenzie, the best rescue dog trainer he’d ever worked with. Today, she’d brought Rerun, instead of the more experienced Rowdy. His gut—and those dark circles under Honor’s sad eyes—told him something bad had happened to the personable Golden Retriever that had earned awards, a fan page on Facebook, and the respect of every team member, two-legged and four. Maybe later he’d ask her about that . . . .
“You volunteers,” Jones said, “pair up with somebody who’s wearing a pack.”
Technically, they were all volunteers, but SAR personnel had earned their certs by putting in long, grueling hours of training, while the rest—friends and family of the girl, mostly— had probably never done anything like this before.
“And you with packs,” Jones continued, “double-check to make sure your partners are wearing gloves, too.” He met Dusty’s eyes. “Parker, you want to start us off with a prayer?”
As chaplain of the local fire department, he was expected to ask God’s blessing on the mission, and Dusty had never let them down.
Today? He couldn’t think of a single thing to say, and he didn’t have a clue why. Didn’t need to open his eyes, either, to know that the team—even guys who weren’t particularly religious— needed to find the right words to fit this circumstance.
Two empty seconds ticked by: Zero.
Four seconds: Zip.
And because they continued to stand there, waiting in the prickly silence, Dusty launched into a bland, one-size-fits-all-occasions petition. “Father,” he began, “we ask your blessing on those assembled. Show us, Lord, the signs that will lead to Melissa. Let us find her alive, suffering only exhaustion and exposure. And if. . . .”
He paused, searching his mind for words that would help them cope when they found something more ominous, instead.
No one could read his thoughts, so why had he chosen if rather than when?
When the answer refused to materialize, Dusty lifted his head and exhaled a deep breath. “And now, if you’ll join me in reciting the first responders’ prayer. . . .”
“‘Father in Heaven,’” they said together, “‘please make me strong when others are weak, brave with others are afraid, and vigilant when others are distracted by chaos. Provide comfort and companionship to my family when I must be away. Serve beside me and protect me as I seek to protect others.’”
A dozen “Amens” echoed around the tight circle, followed by a few “Thank-yous” and “Good job, Dustys.” Then, nodding and muttering, the crew marched forward, some poking at the ground with sticks, others employing a slow slide-kick method to keep from stepping on evidence that might lead to the missing girl.
A few minutes into the search, a soft voice near Dusty’s elbow said, “Mind if I follow you?”
Young and wide-eyed, her expression told him she belonged with the “never did anything like this before” group. He had a notion to ask, “Why do I get stuck with all the newbies?”
Instead, he said, “Does Jones have your contact info?”
He gave her a quick once-over. Wasn’t likely she’d keep up with him on legs that short, but even if she did, her to-the-point answer gave him hope that she wouldn’t hammer him with inane chatter.
“Move slowly and steadily, and stay a yard behind me and to my right.” So I can keep an eye on you. “And if you see anything, point it out to me and do not touch it.”
There was something in her trembly tone, in her worried eyes, that told him she had a link to the missing girl. He started to ask about the connection when the toe of his boot tapped against something. One hand up to stop her, he took a knee and parted the weeds . . .
. . . and revealed a glittery high-heeled shoe. Six inches to its left, he saw the mate, and a few yards ahead of that, the once-pretty young woman who’d worn them to her prom.
Rising slowly, he radioed his location, then backpedaled, taking care to match every footfall to the boot print he’d left in the damp grass. He’d almost forgotten his tiny, human shadow, until she stepped up beside him.
“Oh, God,” came her shaky whisper. “Oh, no. . . .”
# # #
With more than 3,000,000 4- and 5-star books in circulation, reviewers and readers alike have called best-selling author Loree Lough “a gifted storyteller whose novels touch hearts and change lives.” Her 9/11 novel Honor Redeemed (#2 in the First Responders series) hit bookshelves this February. Loree lives near Baltimore and loves spending time at her little cabin in the Allegheny Mountains, where she loves to show off her knack for correctly identifying “critter tracks.” She loves to hear from readers (who can email her via http://www.loreelough.com) and answers every letter, personally.