“No.” They’d met halfway between vehicles. “Should I be?”
She flashed a triumphant grin. “We found something good.” Her gaze went past him and narrowed in interest. “Is that Maddie Dubeau?”
He turned to see that Nell had followed, but hung back a good fifteen feet, as if being careful not to intrude. “Yeah, this is Maddie. I was showing her...” He jerked his head toward the woods.
Vahalik’s eyes widened and a soft “oh” emerged.
“Maddie,” he said, “come meet one of my detectives.”
Searching his face and then Jane’s, she approached. Her “hi” was soft.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Vahalik said. “You’ve made us all believe in happy endings.”
Nell smiled more genuinely than she had back in the woods. “I’m glad if my miraculous return inspired you. Um, you must have business. I’ll wait for you....”
He took her arm. “No, it’s okay. What’s up, Jane?”
“We found a backpack.” Her voice was electrified.
“You’re sure it’s his?”
“Can’t be a hundred percent, but yeah. We found, er...” She apparently remembered Nell’s presence. “Some more remains with it.”
“Bones,” he clarified, not wanting Nell to imagine anything more gruesome. He couldn’t remember if he’d told her during one of those phone conversations about the discovery here in the park.
“Ribs and clavicle. I wish it wasn’t so slow,” Vahalik said in exasperation. “We don’t dare work faster, though.”
Speed shouldn’t matter. This victim had died a long time ago. He knew this edgy feeling in his gut was there only because of the location of this grave site.
Nell was listening—wide-eyed, he saw—and he knew he’d have to explain. For now, he focused his attention on Vahalik.
“Nothing to identify him yet?”
She shook her head. “It’s a day pack, and in better shape than you’d expect.” She shrugged. “Synthetic fabric. The kind of stuff that plugs up our landfills, but lucky for us. Canvas would have rotted into nothing but rusted metal buckles. This—” her grin broke free again “—protected the contents. It’s all congealed into a giant glob right now, but Linda says she has her ways.” Linda Nishimura was a gifted crime scene tech Colin had so far persuaded to stay in Angel Butte. “I could tell there was a wad of papers. If she can dry it enough to peel layers back...”
“Hail Mary.” Damn, he couldn’t help grinning, too. “She’s taking it back to the lab?”
“Yes, leaving the rest of us to our labors.”
“I was just going to grab a thermos of coffee,” she said, waving toward the GMC Yukon he knew she drove.
He nodded. “Good job.” Nell was still watching Jane when he turned back to her.
“She’s a detective? She seems young.”
“Not so young. Close to my age, I think.” He grunted. “We’re so shorthanded, we’re promoting guys who barely shave to detective. You should see her current trainee.”
“You told me how worried you are about not being able to boost hiring after the annexation.” She frowned as they started back to his 4Runner. “Which part was annexed?”
He’d forgotten how much he’d talked about during those lengthy phone conversations. “We doubled the size of Angel Butte. The business strip with the Walmart and the Staples and the Home Depot and all the rest of it was county. Now it’s ours. There’d been a lot of residential construction beyond the city limits, too. I told you how the area has boomed. All that’s our responsibility now, too.”
“Did the city council not realize how much the extra services would cost?”
The throbbing in his right temple was becoming an unavoidable response to a subject that infuriated him.
“No, I don’t think they did do the planning they should have. They were relieved when Chief Bystrom assured them the department could handle the additional patrols. The city council loves their police chief.” By the end, he sounded as if he were chewing on a porous pierce of cinder. His mouth tasted as if he had, too.
His movements were jerky when he opened the passenger-side door for Nell.
“So he implied you were overstaffed before,” she said thoughtfully. “That must make him pretty unpopular with the rank and file in the department.”
“That’s safe to say.” And even more unpopular with the two captains who spent more time with their fingers stuck in holes in the dike than they did doing the job they’d been hired for.