Excerpt from Detection Mission by Margaret Daley, February 2013 (Love Inspired Suspense):
Who am I?
She bent over the bathroom sink in her hospital room, cupped her hands and splashed some cold water on her face. As though that would suddenly make her remember who she was. She studied herself in the mirror and didn’t recognize the person looking back at her. That revelation only intensified the panic she’d been struggling with ever since she woke up from a coma yesterday. Her fingers clenched the countertop.
Earlier, the nurse had brought her a few toiletries since she didn’t have any. After brushing her hair and putting it into a ponytail, she stared at the red gash, recently healed, above her eyebrow. She closed her eyes and tried to recall how it had happened. The screech of tires echoed through her mind. The sensation of gripping a steering wheel made her hands ache. She looked down at them, her knuckles white.
A car wreck?
A sound coming from the other room invaded the quiet. The sudden intrusion kicked up her heartbeat. She moved toward the door, putting her hand around the knob. But when two deep male voices drifted to her, she stopped and pressed her ear against the wood to listen.
“Where is she?”
“The patient who belongs in this room.”
“I don’t know. I’m here to clean her room. She wasn’t in here when I arrived.”
The sound of the two men talking about her sent her pulse racing even more. Why? It seemed innocent enough. But she couldn’t calm the pounding against her chest. Her breathing shortened. One of the voices was familiar. But how could that be? The only interactions she’d had since she’d regained consciousness were with women. She eased the door open an inch and had a pencil-narrow view into the room.
“I can come back another time. You’ll have to ask the nurse where the patient is.” The guy who was there to clean her room shifted back and forth while holding a plastic bag in one hand and a dry mop in the other.
The other man, just out of sight to the left, said, “I will.” That was the voice she’d heard somewhere before this. She wished she could see him.
Instead, she examined the features of the custodian with a beard and dark-slashing eyebrows over a piercing gray gaze. Although he was a complete stranger there was something about his frosty eyes that scared her. She eased the door shut and leaned against it.
Fear from somewhere deep inside her swelled to the surface. She couldn’t get a decent breath. She tried to search her mind for any clue to who she was, to the man with the familiar-sounding voice. A voice with a rough edge to it.
But what bothered her the most were the custodian’s gray eyes. Why? Did she know him? Someone from her past? Then why couldn’t she muster the strength to go out there and demand to know who she was?
Of course that conundrum led to lots of other baffling questions.
Like how did she end up in the hospital?
And were the police interested in her? The nurse last night had told her they would be glad she had awakened, that they needed to talk to her. Why? She knew nothing. At all. Her mind was a blank.
A suffocating pressure in her chest made it difficult to breathe. A sense of danger pressed in on her. According to Nurse Gail, the police had found her in the Lost Woods several weeks ago. She’d been hurt and disoriented. After she was brought here to the hospital she’d slipped into a coma from a head injury. No one knew how she’d received that wound.
But why hadn’t anyone reported her missing? Come forward to identify her?
Tears flooded her eyes. She squeezed them shut, refusing to give in to crying. From somewhere she sensed she’d given up doing that a long time ago.
A knock at the bathroom door caught her by surprise. She gasped, then went still, hoping the person went away.
“Are you all right in there?”
She stiffened at the sound of that familiar voice. Words jammed her throat.
“Ma’am? Are you okay? Should I call the nurse?”
“Who are you?” she finally managed to ask, her voice wobbly.
“I’m Lee Calloway with the K-9 Unit of the Sagebrush Police Department.” Something in his tone conveyed a concern, urging her to leave the relative safety of the bathroom. Was he the cop who found her? Was that why he sounded familiar to her?
Laying her trembling hand on the knob, she turned it and opened the door a few inches. “Sagebrush? Where is that?” The large muscular man, resplendent in a dark navy blue police uniform, stepped back. The sight of his badge riveted her attention. Sweat coated her forehead.
“In Texas, southwest of San Antonio.”
Texas? Did she live here? Maybe someone knew her, had come forward to identify her after all. “Who am I?”
The corner of his mouth hiked into a lopsided grin. “That, ma’am, is one of the questions I’m here to ask you.”
“One?” Again she stared at the badge for a long moment before she lifted her gaze to take in his face. For a few seconds, she lingered on his mouth curved in that smile. She tore her attention from his lips and tracked upward until she connected with his dark brown eyes. “You don’t know who I am, then?” She’d hoped that was why he was there.
“No, ma’am. When we apprehended you, you didn’t have any ID on you. At the time you kept babbling you didn’t know your name.”
“I still don’t,” she whispered more to herself, but he heard her.
“We ran your fingerprints, but there wasn’t a match in the database. And from our inquiries around Sagebrush, no one knows you here and you weren’t reported missing.”
She moved into her hospital room. Aware of its suddenly small dimensions, she kept herself near the door to the corridor. “You said you apprehended me. Am I under arrest?” As she asked that question, she couldn’t believe she would be. It didn’t feel right—in her gut. She couldn’t be a criminal, could she?
“As far as we know, you have done nothing wrong, but we found you in the Lost Woods running from someone or something. You couldn’t tell us anything about that. You were scared, had a nasty gash on your head, cuts and bruises all over you. You lost consciousness shortly after I found you. Do you remember anything about that?”
She took in his features—short, sandy-brown hair, piercing dark eyes with long lashes, a dimple in his left cheek when he smiled. A vague memory tugged at her. His face looming over her. “Did you chase me?” Behind her eyes a hammering sensation grew as if the stress of trying to remember was taking its toll on her.
“When you saw me, you ran, and I went after you.”
“Why did you chase me?” she asked.
“We believe you might be a witness to a crime that occurred in the Lost Woods.”
“I am?” Trying to think overloaded her mind, a blank one with only shadowy figures wavering, never staying long enough for her to really see them.
“We were looking for a seven-year-old, Brady Billows, who went missing.”
“I don’t know him. Did you find him?” The thought of a child in danger pushed all her problems into the background.
“Yes, he’s safely home with his mother now. That ended well.”
“That’s good,” she said with a sigh.
Exhaustion spread through her the longer she stood. The officer was between her and the bed. But if she didn’t sit down soon, she would collapse. She moved to the side, intending to skirt around him, when his cell phone rang.
He answered. “Calloway here.” His calm expression evolved into a frown that grooved lines into his forehead. “I’m on my way. I’ll meet you there.” He returned his cell to his pocket. “Sorry, there’s been a development in the Lost Woods. I’ll come back later.”
She flattened herself against the wall to allow him to pass her in the short hallway to the door. “A development? What?”
“Nothing you need to be worried about,” he said, and left the room.
Then why was she worried?
Lee Calloway drove toward the west end of the Lost Woods where the patrol officer and witness were waiting. From what the dispatcher had told him, there might be another crime committed in the woods on the outskirts of Sagebrush.
The same area where he found the woman in the hospital room several weeks ago, running as though someone was after her. As far as the police were concerned she was a Jane Doe. What had happened to her? Why was she running in the woods? Who was she running from? Did she know anything about the boy’s kidnapping?
He didn’t like mysteries. Probably why he became a cop in the first place. He was always trying to get to the bottom of things. Would he be able to with this beautiful, mysterious woman or would she remain an enigma? The doctor had said she could have amnesia when she woke up, and that certainly seemed to be the case. She might recover all her memory or part of it, but some people never did.
Had her head injury been the sole reason she couldn’t remember, or was it more than that? Some kind of psychological or physical trauma beyond the obvious wound she had sustained? The coma she slipped into was caused by the head injury, according to the doctor. But how and why did she receive it? Still no answer to that question.
Lee parked near the trailhead into the Lost Woods where the police officer and a young man dressed in a jogging suit waited. When Lee climbed from his SUV, he went to the back and lifted the door. Kip, his black-and-white border collie who worked as a cadaver dog, sat with his tail sweeping back and forth.
Lee rubbed him behind his ears, one of his favorite places to be scratched. “You ready to work?”
Lee hooked the leash to his dog’s halter. “Then let’s go.”
Kip jumped from the back of the vehicle and trotted next to Lee as he covered the distance to the patrol officer.
“What do we have here?” Lee asked, assessing the young man who kept darting glances toward the woods a few yards away.
The patrol officer started to say something, but the jogger interjected, “I decided to run in a different part of the forest today. I won’t do that again. In fact, I may never run here again.”
“What did you find?”
“Blood, lots of it. I tripped on a root, stumbled and fell. That’s when I saw it.”
The jogger shuffled his feet nervously. “It’s a ways in.”
“I’ll stay back. Another K-9 team is coming to help in a search if it’s needed,” the patrol officer said.
Lee nodded in agreement and then followed the young man on the path.
“These woods used to be safe. There was a shooting here not long ago. A kidnapped boy found here. What’s happening in Sagebrush?”
“That’s what I aim to find out.” As well as the whole Sagebrush special operations K-9 Unit. Their captain’s father had been beaten and was still in the hospital, unresponsive. On top of that, Captain Slade McNeal’s dog, Rio, was stolen at the same time and hadn’t turned up.
Something big was going down in here. According to Pauly Keevers, a snitch, a major crime syndicate was operating in town so low under the radar that no one knew who The Boss was or the second-in-command. Both used ruthless tactics to get their way.
“I fell over there.” The young man stopped on the path and stepped around some brush. “There’s the blood.”
Lee stooped to examine a pile of dead leaves caught against the trunk of a tree. Dried blood caked them. He peered up at the man. “Thanks. I’ll take it from here.”
“Do I have to stay? I need to get to work soon.”
“Does the officer have all your contact information?” Lee asked.
“Yes, he does.”
“Okay, then you’re free to go. Just let the officer know I’m setting up a search.”
As the young man jogged away, Lee rose and took Kip off his leash. If there was a body to be found, his cadaver dog would find it. And from the indication of the amount of blood loss, there very likely was a body somewhere. Kip put his nose to the ground and set out. Lee kept him in sight as his border collie went to work.
Ten minutes later, Kip stopped and barked. When Lee approached his dog, he stood next to a spot of disturbed ground, his head down, staring at the churned earth.
“What have you found?”
Kip barked again, his gaze still trained on the dirt.
Lee put on some latex gloves, stooped and began to dig carefully. From his dog’s behavior, something dead was buried here. When he saw a piece of blue fabric, he ceased.
“Good boy,” Lee said, as he always did whenever his cadaver dog found a body, then he scratched Kip’s favorite place before rising. “I’m calling this in.” He rotated in a slow circle, searching the area for any other signs of another grave.
Pulling out his cell, he placed a call to the station to report a body being found. Then while he waited for the crime-scene techs to show up, he checked the surrounding area in case there was another body. There were several low-level criminals missing, including Pauly Keevers who had assisted them recently. Was the body Kip discovered one of them? And could there be other graves in the woods?