Life was good. Especially that morning. A gentle breeze caressed his body, nature’s fan against the growing warmth of the day. Paul Rigby brushed sweat from his forehead and upped his speed as he entered the canopy of leaves lining the south end of the lake. One last sprint before he returned home to Becca and the half-finished nursery walls.
He skirted patches of mud, a tell-tale reminder of one of the wettest Mays on record, occasionally following in the footsteps of those who’d gone before him but mostly his own that he’d created on his previous laps around the lake.
The absence of fellow runners surprised him. Given it was the first dry day in a week he’d imagined the trail would be busy, the parking lot full. But he’d arrived to find the lot almost empty and he’d caught glimpses of only two or three other like-minded souls ahead of him and passed no more than six.
He slowed to a jog for the open stretch back to the parking lot. Here the path was a little firmer, the going surer. He shifted his gaze from the ground to the clumps of vibrant wildflowers near the water’s edge. No matter how many times he’d run this path, and there had been many, he’d always been struck by the surrounding beauty.
He stopped at the turn-off to the lot, leaned against a tree to catch his breath and enjoy the solitude for a few more minutes. He gazed out over the shimmering water, sapphire blue in the morning sunlight, and smiled. A perfect summer’s day, even if it wasn’t yet officially summer. His smile widened. And a powerful sense of wellbeing derived from a much-needed work-out in one of his favorite locations and the knowledge Becca waited for him at home, her stomach swelling with their unborn child. Life was good. Even if those nursery walls wouldn’t finish themselves.
He strolled to the car. Nodded a cursory good morning at an older man who’d parked in the spot next to his, a man he recognized from previous runs. There were several more cars, one or two of them familiar to him as his would probably be to their owners. Out of habit, he scanned the lot. If Becca were there, she’d laugh at him, tell him to relax, he wasn’t on duty, but the instinct to search for anything out of the ordinary was ingrained.
Fortunately, all looked well. The prognosis for his first full weekend off since Chief of Police Jim Pearson’s accident was favorable. For forty-eight hours he could forget about crooks and crimes and concentrate on his other role as father-to-be. And make up to Becca for all the long days and broken commitments.
The house was empty when he got home. He stood in the doorway to the living room and surveyed the mess. The television lay screen down on the floor. One table lamp had been toppled, another’s shade knocked askew. Books, coasters and remotes littered the carpet. A glass had been overturned, the orange stain nearby proof it hadn’t been empty when the rampage had taken place.
There was no sign of the culprit.
Rigby glanced over his shoulder. The doors to the other rooms were all closed except for the kitchen. He dreaded to think what he’d find in there, but at least for once the closed doors offered reassurance rather than threat.
He picked up the television and put it back on its stand, grateful to see the screen had survived the tumble intact. He could only hope the inner workings had too. He’d planned to watch the game that evening. He straightened the lamps, restored the other items to the table tops. Apart from the stain the room looked much as he’d left it that morning. Too bad about the orange juice. He might have got away without telling Becca what had happened but removing the dried evidence of the spill from the carpet was way beyond his abilities.
He hesitated. He could pretend he’d knocked the glass over. Save Becca any guilt over having left the door open. She must have been called out on an emergency, in her haste had likely forgotten to check. It was easily done. It was such a recent addition to their daily routine.
There was still the kitchen to consider however. A place with the potential for unlimited damage. He braced for what he was about to see. Then mentally berated himself—he was a detective, given what he’d seen on the job, how bad could it be?
The lack of noise didn’t help. He should have heard something by now, the patter of little feet or the beginnings of the raucous welcome home.
Damn, he hoped he wasn’t going to find bloodshed.
He peered around the kitchen door. Exhaled hard as his visual sweep of the room failed to find any evidence of physical injury. A lucky break given the shards of glass from a broken beer bottle scattered across the floor near the sink. A bottle he should have discarded the previous evening, except he’d been too tired to bother. One consolation, it had been empty.
Something under the table caught his eye. A sneaker, white with red trim. One of his. Almost brand new. Or at least it had been. And it certainly hadn’t been under the table when he left.
He crossed to the mud room between the kitchen and the back door. Cursed at the sight of all the other shoes still neatly lined up on the shoe rack. So many to choose from and it had to be one of the newest.
He only had himself to blame. He was the one who’d brought Cocoa into the family. He’d always had a dog when he was growing up. Didn’t remember them being anywhere near as much trouble. But his mother was probably the one who’d dealt with the aftermath of the puppy’s mischief. Much as she’d dealt with the mayhem he’d occasionally caused as a child.
He’d had a happy childhood and dogs had been an integral part of it. He wanted the same for his child so when Becca announced she was pregnant not long after he’d rescued the only surviving pup of an abandoned Labrador that had died giving birth, he’d taken it as a sign he should offer it a home. And Becca had fallen in love with it the moment she set eyes on it. The dog almost got more attention from her than he did.
Is that why the dog had picked his shoe rather than one of hers?
He glanced across at the dog crate in the corner of the kitchen. His heart skipped a beat. It was empty.
His call went unanswered.
He checked the back door. It was locked. He called again. Listened hard. Nothing. No apologetic whimper, no slither of paws on the wood flooring.
The dog had to be somewhere.
He yanked on the door of the lower cabinet next to the sink, the one they kept the dog food in. It was one of many on his list to fix. Some days it required brute force to open it, others it almost opened itself. The contents were undisturbed from that morning. He shook the bag of treats, a sound which usually brought Cocoa running.
He rattled the hefty old key in the back door lock, another of Cocoa’s favorite sounds, opened the door and waited.
The good mood of the morning started to dissipate. No Becca. No dog. He’d imagined a leisurely breakfast before they got to work on the nursery. Now all he could think of was whether he could find Cocoa before Becca returned, save her from the anguish of one moment’s forgetfulness. The pup had to be somewhere in the house. The trail of destruction was evidence Cocoa hadn’t somehow got outside but had used the opportunity of unexpected freedom to burn off some of his boundless energy indoors.
Rigby heaved a sigh. He should be thankful the damage wasn’t a lot worse.
He checked the living room again. Behind the sofa, under the chairs, any space a tiny dog might have squeezed into, even those it couldn’t possibly have got into. He gave the other rooms a cursory check in case the doors had been open when Becca left and Cocoa had somehow shut himself in. Fortunately, the bedrooms were intact and the painting equipment, in what would be the nursery, undisturbed.
He checked his watch. Wondered how long Becca had been gone. How long until her return? He had to find Cocoa before she got back. He spent his days tracking down people who usually didn’t want to be found. Surely he could find a small dog in what was basically a locked room scenario.
He stood in the middle of the kitchen, eyed the room for potential hiding places. He opened and closed all the lower cabinet doors in case Cocoa had got trapped inside. He even checked in the oven. Stupid, he knew, but he was running out of ideas. He went back to the mudroom, rifled through the recycling bin. Nothing.
Where could the damn dog be? He checked the washer and the drier. Both were empty. As he straightened up he heard a faint snuffle. It seemed to come from the laundry basket on a shelf above the washing machine. He eased it down, knowing there was no way the pup could have got up there.
Except Cocoa had. And had made a bed among the freshly washed towels and was sleeping off the morning’s exertions unaware of the anxiety he’d caused.
All Rigby’s frustrations, his annoyance over the mayhem, disappeared at the sight of the dog. It was impossible to stay angry for long. The dog had wormed its way into his affection from the day he’d rescued it. He’d forgive it for anything, even his chewed sneaker.
He smiled as he scooped up the top towel with the still sleeping dog on and carried it across to the crate.
No doubt this was how it worked with babies too.
Becca arrived home half an hour later. She’d been called to the scene of a fire in a multi-family home. Fortunately, there’d only been one family there when the fire broke out and they’d all escaped uninjured so Becca’s crew hadn’t been needed after all, but Rigby could tell by the way she hugged him she’d been shaken by what she’d seen.
He held her without speaking. She’d tell him soon enough. Her ability to remain calm under the pressure of an emergency came at the cost of an emotional fallout after a major event.
“The woman was pregnant.” Becca raised her head from his chest, blinked back tears. “Due any day. The other families, all relations, had gone away for the weekend, but she hadn’t wanted to go. The fire was ferocious. Can you imagine coming home to find everything you own gone?”
She shuddered, clutched him tighter.
“At least they’re all alive.” Rigby stroked her back. “Who knows what might have happened if they had all been home. They might have all still been in bed.”
“They were in their pajamas. That’s all they had. A baby due any day and all they’ve got are their nightclothes.” Becca’s voice cracked. “And the little girl’s teddy which fortunately she had with her when her father swept her into his arms and fled.”
She sank her face back into his chest, her tears seeping into his t-shirt. A surge of protectiveness overcame him. He wanted to tell her to give up the job, at least until she had the baby, but he knew she wouldn’t. She was adamant she’d work as long as feasible. What else would she do? Sit around the house all day, counting down the days? Besides, they needed the money.
Everything she said made sense, but Rigby worried about the effect her job was having on their unborn child. Most pregnant women didn’t have such a stressful job, weren’t a regular witness to emergencies. And Becca was definitely more emotional since becoming pregnant.
“Have you eaten?” he asked when he sensed her tears had subsided.
She shook her head.
“Sit down. Let me make breakfast.”
She sat down, a sign of how overcome she was. His cooking skills had improved since he’d met her but weekend breakfasts were her specialty. His tended toward the cereal and toast options but maybe if he attempted a cooked breakfast his feeble efforts would distract her from more morbid thoughts. He might even manage to make her laugh.
He inspected the refrigerator for possible ingredients. There was no shortage of choice. Where once it had been a receptacle for beer and take-out containers, now the shelves were loaded with all kinds of produce, some of which he had no idea what you were supposed to do with.
“Why’s Cocoa sleeping on a good towel?”
Rigby grinned. Of course, he could distract her with the tale of Cocoa’s antics instead. He grabbed a box of eggs and slammed the refrigerator door shut. Scrambled eggs on toast, he couldn’t go too wrong with that.
He cracked the eggs into the pan as he recounted his discovery on arriving home. He elaborated his reaction, pretending he’d only realized who the culprit was when he found his chewed sneaker under the table, and then had to hunt high and low for the mutt. It worked. By the time he admitted he’d even checked the oven, Becca was smiling again.
What was he thinking? How could the dog possibly have got in the oven? Rigby was about to point out he had no idea how Cocoa had got into the laundry basket, when the phone rang.
Surely not another emergency call out.
Becca answered it. Handed the phone across to him. “It’s Turner.”
Rigby grimaced. Turner was the detective on duty that day. He knew how much Rigby had been looking forward to his weekend off. He wouldn’t call unless it was important.
“Just thought I’d give you a heads up. I’m on my way to the reservoir. A jogger found a badly beaten woman near the trail. The paramedics are on the way too, but it’s going to take some time to get to her, the jogger reckons they’re about a mile from the parking lot.”
“How bad are the injuries?”
“Hard to say. Gaines is the responding officer. He’s the closest to the scene, but he won’t have got there yet.”
Especially if he had to cover the last mile on foot. Rigby kept that thought to himself although it was no secret that Gaines was the least fit of all the men in the department. Chances were, Turner would get there before Gaines. Hopefully the paramedics too.
He glanced at Becca, grateful she was home, not running toward a victim and then having to help carry them out on a stretcher. It was only luck she wasn’t on duty that morning.
“The caller said the woman was barely conscious and bleeding from the head,” Turner continued.
“Could she have tripped and fell?”
“And had multiple bruises.”
“So not an accident?”
“Unfortunately not. And she wasn’t on the trail either.”
“Don’t tell me a dog found her.” It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
“No. The jogger heard what he thought was a loud groan. Fortunately, he decided not to ignore it or who knows how long it would have been before she was found.”
Or depending on her injuries, whether she’d have been found alive.
“You want me to come out?”
Becca let out an exasperated sigh.
Turner’s response was an emphatic “no.”
“Believe it or not,” he continued, “we can manage without you. I’m only calling because as acting chief you should know about this before the press does. Depending on what we find, you may have to give a press briefing.”
Rigby recoiled at the thought. The last briefing he’d given—his first—hadn’t gone off too well. He’d rather go to the dentist than face the press again.
Could he persuade Pearson to set aside his convalescence for an hour or so and rise to the occasion? After all, Pearson had insisted on being kept fully briefed on what was going on in the department during his absence. And if it wasn’t for his wife Molly, Pearson would surely be back at work anyhow. Though what was worse? Facing the press or Molly’s wrath if he raised the possibility? He was already treading a fine line in trying to keep Pearson in the know against her wishes.
Whatever, that was his problem not Turner’s. And maybe it wouldn’t come to that. Maybe there’d be a quick resolution of the investigation, the woman would name her attacker, the matter could be dealt with quietly and there’d be no reason to cause fear in the community about the safety of one of the area’s most popular recreational spots.
“I’ll let you know what we find,” Turner said. The line went dead.
Rigby stared down at the eggs he’d been mindlessly stirring, a good portion of which was burnt on to the bottom of the pan.
It was obviously going to be one of those days.