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Hidden Moon (Chapter 27)

I considered ignoring the bell, but at this hour the summons had to be important.

"I'll be right back." I tugged on my robe as I hurried downstairs.

Oprah wound her body around the newel post, purring so loudly I swear the floor vibrated. She hadn't been so happy to see me in… forever.

I glanced through the peephole, and the reason for Oprah's joy became apparent. Grace stood on the porch.

"Claire?" she called. "I know you're there."

I frowned. How could she know?

"Your stairs creak," she said, "and I can see your shadow at the peephole. You might also want to get this window" – she rapped at the glass next to the door, which was covered with a thin white drape – "frosted."

I opened the door.

She looked me up and down. "I woke you?"

"What the hell time is it?"

"Six a.m."

I rubbed my forehead. "What do you think?"

"Sorry." She bent to pick up Oprah, who was snaking through Grace's ankles and yowling for attention. The cat put her nose right up to Grace's and rubbed.

"What is it with you and that cat?" I asked.

"Soul mates," Grace said, and stepped into the house, crowding me backward.

"What's so important that you're ringing my bell at this ungodly hour?"

"Balthazar's still missing."

"Hopefully forever."

Grace set Oprah on the floor. "You need to watch what you say."

"I was joking. You said almost the same thing yesterday."

"I know. But – "

"But what? You're queen of the ha-ha sarcasm, so I can't be?"

"People on your shit list are disappearing, Claire. First Josh, then Balthazar."

"You think I disappeared them?"

"No."

"Then what?"

"Have you seen Cartwright?"

I fought not to betray the truth by glancing upward. "Why?"

Grace made an aggravated sound deep in her throat. "Why do you think? He had altercations with both men right before they disappeared. I have to talk to him. But I went to the lake, and he wasn't there." She scowled. "Though with them, who knows? He might be, and they were just covering for him. They're wiggy around cops."

"They probably have good reason to be."

"I didn't say they didn't, but they're making my life hard. Just makes me want to return the favor."

The steps creaked. Malachi stood at the top, fully dressed. But since his hair was a mess, his clothes were crumpled, and he'd obviously just come out of my room, clothes didn't mean much.

Grace gave me a stoic stare. "Were you going to tell me?"

I shrugged. I wasn't sure what I'd been going to do.

"What did you hear?" Grace asked as Malachi descended the stairs.

"All of it."

"I need to take you to the station."

"Grace – ," I began.

She held up her hand. "I know what I'm doing. It won't help him, or you, if I give him special privileges at this stage of the game."

"Me? I thought we'd established that I had nothing to do with this."

"We established that I didn't think you had anything to do with it. But that was before I understood that you'd been playing hide the salami with the chief suspect."

"So?"

"Men who've hurt you, physically and professionally, have disappeared."

She said it slowly, so I'd understand, but I didn't.

"Did you hire him?" Grace asked.

"To sleep with me?"

"To disappear those guys."

"What? No! Why would I do that?"

"You didn't want Josh to disappear?"

I opened my mouth, then shut it again. Had I said as much to Grace at one time? I couldn't recall.

"I wanted him to," Grace said.

"Then suspect yourself. I was handling things. I didn't need anyone to help me, and I especially didn't need anyone to kill for me."

Her perfectly arched brows lifted. "Who said anything about killing?"

A half an hour later, all three of us walked into the sheriff's department. I'd insisted on coming along, and Grace hadn't argued. I had a feeling I was going to get a turn in the interrogation room as soon as she was done with Malachi.

I glanced at my watch. If she was ever done with Malachi.

I'd left a message for Joyce saying I was at the sheriff's department and she should contact me only in case of an emergency. So far, none had arisen, though I didn't hold out much hope for the rest of the day.

The door to the interrogation room opened at last, and Grace stepped out. She motioned to one of her officers, and he slipped in. Her gaze went straight to me. I knew immediately that something was wrong.

"What is it?" I asked.

"A body's been found."

I'd expected her to say Malachi had confessed. And why had I expected that? I didn't believe he'd killed anyone.

Though while I'd been waiting I had gone over and over the expression on his face right before he'd popped Josh in the nose. Malachi had looked murderous. Then he'd followed Josh, and no one had seen the other man since.

As for Balthazar, he'd disappeared after their altercation, too. Sure, Balthazar had gone into the woods looking for Grace, or so his minion had said, but she had an alibi in the men of her hunting party. If Balthazar had annoyed her and she'd whacked him, someone would have noticed.

I kept hearing the things Mal had said to both men, threatening things when taken in a certain light. I also recalled Mal promising that no one would hurt me again. Wishful thinking, or had he known?

I shook my head to make all the frantic, unproductive thoughts go away.

"Who did they find?" I asked.

"We'll see."

"We?"

"I've got three missing people." Grace held up one finger. "Hiking tourist." She put up a second. "Josh Logan." Then a third. "Balthazar Monahan."

"And?"

"Our emergency personnel would know Balthazar. Which leaves Josh and our bitten tourist, Ryan Freestone. My money's on the latter. But if it's the former, I want you there to identify him."

"Swell," I muttered, and followed her through the parking lot to the funeral home.

The morgue at the hospital wasn't able to provide the type of isolation needed to preserve evidence, so the funeral home doubled as a forensics lab.

"Did you call Bradleyville?" I asked.

Lake Bluff shared a medical examiner with the next closest town. Neither one of us needed a full-time specialist of that magnitude.

"Someone called from the scene. Doc's been there, and he's on his way here."

"Where did they find the body?"

"In a ravine near Brasstown Bald."

Brasstown Bald was the highest peak in these parts. Coincidentally, or maybe not so much, it was part of a larger section of the mountains known as Wolfspen Ridge.

"Who found it?"

"Hiker. It's that time of year."

Another of Grace's officers stood guard at the door – standard procedure for cases like this. Although I couldn't recall the last time there'd been an unexplained death or murder in Lake Bluff.

"Ever have to handle a questionable death before?" I asked.

Grace slid me a look. "I'm more than qualified for this, ma'am."

"Are you insinuating that I'm not?"

"You're a goddamn suspect!"

"You're the one who wanted me to come along. If I killed the guy, or asked someone to do it for me, I probably shouldn't be here at all."

Grace stopped. "Hell."

"Oh yeah," I said, and shoved open the door to the temporary lab, "more than qualified."

Before she could stop me I strode to the tarp-shrouded body in the center of the room and yanked it back. It was Josh all right. Although how I could tell for certain through the blood, I couldn't say.

I swayed. Grace was there instantly, pulling the tarp up, then shoving a chair beneath my legs and my head between my knees.

"Girl," she muttered with just enough force to be an insult.

"You're a girl," I managed.

"I don't faint at the sight of blood."

"I didn't faint."

"Close enough," she muttered, and the door opened behind us.

"Doc," she greeted him. "Thanks for coming."

I sat up, blinking as black spots threatened to converge in front of my eyes and make the whole world go away.

The medical examiner from Bradleyville, Dr. William Cavet, Doc Bill to everyone who knew him, had been a physician for over fifty years. He'd spent most of them as a GP, back when GP was what they were called. Soon after GPs became FPs and the health insurance system went to hell in a handbasket, he'd become the ME.

"You okay?" He shot me a quick glance from beneath bushy white eyebrows that reminded me of woolly caterpillars.

I was dizzy, as much from the horror as the conflict of emotions. I'd wanted Josh dead, dreamed of it, too, but now that he was, I wasn't sure what to feel.

"Fine." I swallowed thickly as Doc went straight to the tarp and threw it down.

"I've been to the scene." Doc wasted no time. One of the many things I liked about him. "Body was dragged to the edge of a ravine and tossed in."

"I'm going to have to detain your boyfriend," Grace muttered.

"That'll ruin the show."

"I can't let a murderer walk around just so the show can go on."

"Lake Bluff needs the money," I said.

"Do you ever think about anything else, Mayor?"

"That's what I was hired to think about, Sheriff."

"Children, could you put a sock in it?"

Grace and I scowled at each other but didn't answer.

Doc Bill snapped disposable plastic gloves onto his hands, then began to poke and prod Josh's still form. Soon those gloves were soaked in blood and I had to turn my head.

"There's no need to detain anyone."

"What?" Grace asked.

"Why?" I added.

"See this?" He pointed to Josh's throat, pulling the head back until the wound made a disgusting sucking sound. I bit my lip as the swirling black dots returned.

"What about it?" Grace bent over to get a better look.

"Jagged, more ripped than cleanly cut." He pulled off his gloves and covered Josh again with the tarp. "This man wasn't killed by a human but an animal. Canine most likely. A big one."

Grace and I exchanged glances. We'd been here before.

"Except animals don't usually toss their kills over a cliff," the doctor mused. "Although they might bury them to feed on later."

I made a choked sound, which both of them ignored.

"What does toss its kills into a ravine?" Grace asked.

"Man."

"So a canine killed him, then a man tossed him into a hole? Why?"

"An excellent question, Sheriff."

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