But, however green behind the ears he’d been, he knew better. The prickles on the back of his neck said otherwise. Something bad had happened to this girl.
Now in the SUV he grunted, still staring ahead unseeing through the windshield, and remembered the chill when he found out her maternal uncle was a cop, a detective. The department had thrown everything they had at the case, but in twelve years, they had never found a trace of Maddie Dubeau. Unless, today, it was her bones that were wrenched from the earth along with the tree roots.
Shaking his head, he finally backed out and turned onto the street heading north toward the far end of the park.
Traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, was nothing like what it would be in another few weeks once ski season opened. Angel Butte brimmed with tourists during the summer and again when winter arrived. Right now was a lull, when locals took advantage of the chance to dine out or stop by one of the brew pubs without long waits.
Ten minutes later, he left his 4Runner behind a line of other police vehicles on the street and strode along the bulldozed road carved between the stand of woods and the fenced backyards of the nearest homes.
This was early November, with a bite to the air as the thermometer hovered just above freezing. The snow level on the jagged peaks of the Three Sisters and the greater bulk of Mount Bachelor to the north had dropped, a harbinger of the months to come. Colin had substituted a parka he kept in his SUV for his suit jacket. The pungent scent of pine was more powerful than usual, after chain saws and dozers had downed a dozen tall, ancient ponderosas, scarring what had been untouched forest. His every step kicked up the red-dirt legacy of the area’s volcanic past, coating his dress shoes.
He wasn’t thinking about the dust or the smell or the yellow equipment or the voices he heard. He was still caught in his memories of that night, and turned his head to orient himself. Just before he’d parked, Colin had noticed where the trail emerged. He was passing near enough to where he’d found the bike to hit the place with a well-thrown stone.
A chill traveled up his spine. What if Madeline—Maddie to her friends and family—had lain here all these years, waiting? So damn close?
What he couldn’t figure was why he was surprised that they might, at last, be finding her body. He’d expected that someday she’d turn up. After twelve years, dead was a lot likelier than alive.
“Damn,” he said softly, and kept walking. By the time he reached the crowd, he had made sure his face was expressionless.
Heads turned his way, some wearing hard hats. Others he knew: Duane, of course, and two detectives, Jane Vahalik and Ronnie Orr. Vahalik was good. Experienced, despite being only in her early thirties. She’d spent time on the Drug Enforcement Team and been a detective in Criminal Investigations for...he thought three years. Maybe four. Orr had moved over from patrol just a month ago and been assigned to her for training.
He nodded at all of them. Then, hiding his reluctance, he looked toward the vast root ball of the tree and the gaping hole left below it. Not a usual crime scene. The ground had been bulldozed and trampled beyond any hope of combing the top layers of soil for clothing or jewelry or, hell, a cigarette wrapper that might still hold fingerprints. The top feet of soil were heaped where the dozer had pushed them.
Some lucky folks were now going to be assigned the task of sifting through that pile of dirt and needles and branches.
Duane was already standing beside the bones that had been thus far uncovered. Colin joined him and crouched to see better. The pitiful collection was stained red by the soil. Flashes of ivory showed where some had been snapped apart by the violence of their unearthing. Most were unidentifiable to Colin, but he could make out a long bone in multiple pieces, a pelvis, half a dozen shattered ribs and the jaw with a couple of dental fillings.
“Those look too large to be Maddie’s.” He wanted to feel relief, to be sure, but couldn’t.
Beside him, Duane grunted. “I think you’re right. Assuming those pieces are part of a femur.”
Colin was studying the jaw. “Only a couple of small fillings. Molars are all in, but the wisdom teeth aren’t completely.” He glanced up. “Do you know about Maddie’s?”
“No idea. I don’t even know when they’re supposed to come in.”
“I think it varies. Sixteen? Seventeen?”
“A kid, then.” Duane paused. “Maddie was almost sixteen.”
Still feeling apprehension, Colin nodded.
He’d wanted a definitive answer. He had wanted to be told right here, right now, that this wasn’t Maddie Dubeau. Why, he couldn’t have said. Some kid, maybe a young adult, had died and been buried here. It wasn’t as if any good news was in the offing—say that this skeleton would turn out to belong to a scumbag drug dealer who would be unmourned. If—no, when—they figured out whose bones these were, a mother and father, a girlfriend, sisters or brothers, someone was going to be hit with the worst of all possible news. The end of hope. If not the Dubeaus, someone else.