Muggy air wrapped around Ainsley as they walked to the crime scene. Air so thick you could stir it with a spoon. She couldn’t wait to get back to the mountains in Tennessee where she’d lived for the past four years. Before that, it’d been a new park almost every year.
As it was, she barely kept pace with the district ranger as they hiked to the old Methodist church. Right now Sam was a good thirty feet ahead of her and had barely broken a sweat, whereas perspiration rolled down Ainsley’s face.
He stopped and waited for her. “Forgot you’re not used to the heat.”
It wasn’t the heat that slowed her down. “I’ll have to get acclimated to breathing water again,” she said, catching her breath.
He chuckled. “Yeah, it’s not the heat that kills you—it’s the humidity.”
Standard joke in the South. “Absolutely. Has a time of death been established?”
“Unofficially, the ME estimates Hannah died sometime between eleven and three. When I get the report, I’ll send it to you.”
She was glad he used the girl’s name. Let her know he viewed her death on a personal level.
They left the road for a narrow, graveled path. Sam pointed to the dirt beside the path. “Before the storm last night, you could see footprints in the mud. It’d rained Monday and she was barefoot. You could tell she was running, and in a few places closer to the church, you could see a bigger shoe print. The man was running as well,” he said. “Photos are in that folder, and you can see the casts at the Port Gibson office.”
They stopped under a huge live oak at the base of a hill, and she flipped through the pictures. Whoever took the photos had done a good job, zeroing in on the deep prints of the front of her bare foot and the even deeper ones of her pursuer. They both were definitely running. “Looks like he was wearing boots.”
“Yeah, but we haven’t identified the shoe tread.”
Ainsley looked up from the photos as Linc joined them. “Get lost?”
“Nope. Ran into a kid who was here that night. Said he heard a motorbike either late Tuesday night or maybe in the early hours of Wednesday morning.” She listened as he recounted his talk with the boy. “I told him to hang around, that you’d want to speak to him.”
“Thanks. I’d like to speak with his parents too.” Ainsley turned to Sam. “How much farther to the crime scene?”
“Just up the hill,” Sam replied. “If you look close, you can see the church through the trees. Her body was found right over here.”
Before she looked at the actual crime scene, Ainsley peered through the leaves, making out glimpses of a brick building. Looked like Hannah may have been running toward the church. Did she think she could hide there? Steeling herself, Ainsley flipped to the photos of Hannah and compared them to the area where tape fluttered from a huge oak growing at the edge of an overhang, its exposed roots grasping the eroded ground below like a three-foot claw. Almost cave-like.
Hannah had been running from someone. Did the girl crawl inside the roots to hide and the killer found her? Or had the footprints been innocent? The girl was pregnant . . . the area was isolated. Was she meeting the baby’s father and they argued?
It was also a perfect place to do drugs. “Were any needles or drug paraphernalia found at the scene?” she asked.
“When do you expect to get the toxicology report back?” One look at the district ranger’s face gave her the answer. “Backlogged again?”
Ainsley used her phone to snap photos and hoped the last thing Hannah saw wasn’t the grotesque tree roots. She pocketed her phone, and they walked closer to the site. All three of them removed their flat hats and stood silently for a minute. Ainsley never visited a murder scene without thinking about the life lost and the family left behind. Hannah Dyson had her whole life ahead of her until someone took it away. Lord, help me find whoever did this.
The prayer caught her by surprise. It’d been more than ten years since she’d last uttered any kind of prayer. Not since . . . She shook her thoughts off. Solving this crime was up to her.
She turned to Sam. “Were there any shoe prints leaving the area?”
“Not that we could find. Either he—and judging by the size and type of the shoe, it was a he—returned by way of the gravel path or walked to the Old Trace and left that way.”
“How about on the other side of the church?” Linc asked.
“That’s a possibility, as well. Could’ve cut through the cemetery to a hiking trail,” Sam said. “There are several of those around here.”
So many ways he could have left after he killed Hannah. “Is the church open?”
“I’ve never found it locked,” Sam replied.
Ainsley tilted her head. “What do you say we split up. I’ll take the church and cemetery.”
Sam nodded. “I’ll take the Old Trace and meet up with you back at our vehicles.”
Ainsley glanced at Linc, and the expression on his face indicated he didn’t like her idea. “Problem?”
He didn’t answer right away but instead turned and scanned the area.
“Linc,” she said impatiently.
“It’s nothing, I guess. Just a gut feeling someone’s watching us.”
“Have you seen anyone?”
“Just the boy.” He shook his head. “Probably my overactive imagination. I’ll check out the cemetery with you and then hike the trail on the other side that leads back to where we’re parked.”
Sam walked toward the Old Trace while Ainsley and Linc walked the short distance to the opening in the chain-link fence around the cemetery.
“To save time, why don’t you go ahead and check out the church while I look around here,” Linc said. “Then we can walk back to the truck together.”
She agreed and checked the names on the tombstones as she walked to the brick building. Proof people had lived here once. Barrett, Harrison, Lum, Powers, Winters . . . it was so hard to imagine a town in this overgrown wilderness. She paused a minute under the towering trees, their limbs draping Spanish moss like gray streamers.
It was peaceful here, but she wasn’t here to relax. She kept her attention on the ground, looking for signs the murderer had passed this way. When she reached the edge of the cemetery, she strode to the front of the building, stopping to read the sign between the two entrances. The church had been built in 1837. Ainsley climbed the steps on the right and tried the front door. Like Sam said, it was unlocked. A shiver ran down her back, and she looked over her shoulder to see where Linc was. Maybe he would like to search the building with her.
Where did that thought come from? Ainsley shrugged it off and entered the church, the coolness surprising her. The musty odor did not. She paused to take stock of her surroundings. Three sections of wooden pews. Two aisles. At the front, a white altar and pulpit. Exits on either side matched the entrance doors. It was much like the old country church where she’d gone to homecomings with her grandmother and aunt every spring.
Ainsley didn’t detect any movement signifying anyone was here, and she wandered farther inside. Had Hannah ever been here before? If so, maybe the familiarity was what drew her to the church? Otherwise why hadn’t she run to the families who were camped at Rocky Springs?
Ainsley paused in front of the altar. The peace she’d felt in the cemetery wasn’t here. Instead, a heavy atmosphere weighted her down. A sense she wasn’t alone stood the hair on her arms on end.
Someone was here.
Ainsley unsnapped her holster and pulled her gun, holding it with two hands as she turned and scanned the room. “I know you’re here. Show yourself.”
Her voice echoed in the empty room. Had she imagined someone was here? If so, why did she still feel as though her heart would jump out of her body? Keeping her gun raised, she slowly walked toward the entrance she’d come in.
A blow struck her from behind. She stumbled and caught herself.
Linc! She had to get his attention.
Ainsley squeezed the trigger, the report echoing in her head. Another blow to her arm, and her Sig skittered across the floor. A sweaty arm snaked around her throat and held her fast, blocking her airway.
She kicked at her assailant’s legs, and he lifted her off the floor. Ainsley elbowed his ribs.
He swore and squeezed tighter. She kicked the back of a pew, but the more she moved, the less air she had. Black dots filled her line of vision.
Ainsley fought the blackness encroaching her brain. No! She would not die this way. She let her body go limp. His grunt was one of surprise as she slipped out of his grip. Before he could clamp back down, she jerked back and headbutted him.
Her assailant bellowed and yanked her in the crook of his arm again. “You’ll pay for that.” The guttural voice didn’t even sound human.
Ainsley struggled to get loose. Lack of oxygen to her muscles drained her strength, but she kept fighting him. Once, she thought Linc called her name. Then again.
It was the last thing she heard before pain shot through her head and she blacked out.
(c) Patricia Bradley, Crosshairs, Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021. Used by permission.
Natchez Trace Park Rangers Book #3
Investigative Services Branch (ISB) ranger Ainsley Beaumont arrives in her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, to investigate the murder of a three-month-pregnant teenager. While she wishes the visit was under better circumstances, she never imagined that she would become the killer's next target--nor that she'd have to work alongside an old flame.
After he almost killed a child, former FBI sniper Lincoln Steele couldn't bring himself to fire a gun, which had deadly and unforeseen consequences for his best friend. Crushed beneath a load of guilt, Linc is working at Melrose Estate as an interpretive ranger. But as danger closes in on Ainsley during her murder investigation, Linc will have to find the courage to protect her. The only question is, will it be too little, too late?
Award-winning author Patricia Bradley continues her Natchez Trace Park Rangers series with a story about how good must prevail when evil just won't quit.
Inspirational Mystery | Romance Suspense [Revell, On Sale: November 2, 2021, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9780800735753 / ]
Winner of an Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award in Suspense, Patricia Bradley lives in North Mississippi with her rescue kitty, Suzy, and loves to write suspense with a twist of romance. Her Logan Point series is available at all on-line retailers and major bookstores.
Her workshops on writing include online courses with American Christian Fiction Writers, workshops at the Mid-South Christian Writer’s Conference, ACFW Minnesota NICE and Memphis ACFW. When she has time, she likes to throw mud on a wheel and see what happens.
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