The sheriff looked out over the crowded backyard. People were frantically searching everywhere: sheriff's deputies, crime scene technicians, even file clerks and secretaries from the Warren County Sheriff's Department whose hearts had been touched by the news. Everyone wanted to help: friends, neighbors, church members, even total strangers from as far away as Front Royal who had heard about the missing three-year-old boy and had driven over to lend a hand with the search.
But there was no sign of the boy anywhere.
It was late now, well after midnight, and the sheriff was privately beginning to lose hope. He kept up a bold front for the sake of the frantic mother, but he had worked kidnappings and child abductions before, and he knew that the first twenty-four hours were critical. Unfortunately, this was the second day of the search, and the boy's odds of survival were diminishing fast.
"Is there anything new you can tell me? Anything at all?"
The sheriff turned to the woman; her face was contorted by fear and exhaustion, and her panic-stricken eyes stared up at him from sunken gray pools. "I told you I'd tell you the minute we know anything."
"That was an hour ago."
"That was ten minutes ago. We'll find your boy, Mrs. Coleman-it just takes time."
"It seems to be taking longer than it should."
"Not at all," the sheriff lied. "Look at all these people pitching in-if your boy's anywhere around here, they'll find him."
"What if he's not around here? Has Mark told you anything else?"
"I'm afraid your husband has decided not to cooperate."
"Maybe I should try talking to him again."
"I don't think that will help, and it'll only make you feel worse. Right now you need to keep your hopes up and let us do our work. I'll keep you posted-I promise."
"Then I'll help search."
"You'll only slow us down, Mrs. Coleman-people keep stopping to take care of you instead of searching. If you want something to do, go back and pitch in at the refreshment table."
"That's a good idea," she mumbled. "Everyone's working so hard-they'll be hungry ..." Her voice trailed off as she turned away.
Just then a sheriff's deputy approached and nodded a greeting.
"Where have you been, Elgin?" the sheriff asked. "You've been gone for hours."
"I went to find her, just like you told me. She lives way up on top of the mountain above Endor, y'know-thought I'd like to never find her."
"Well, did you?"
"Eventually. It's like a prison up there-she's got the whole place surrounded by a chain-link fence and she keeps the gate chained shut. She don't have no phone-I had to just sit there and lay on the horn until she finally came to the gate. Any news here?"
"Nothing. We've looked everywhere we can think of."
"The crawl space?"
"Checked it twice. Checked the attic too, but he wasn't there, thank the Lord-the boy wouldn't have lasted an hour up there in this heat. I had the city engineers bring maps of all the storm drains and culverts-nothing. We searched the woods over there-been over it twice, but we're looking again. A bunch of the neighbors walked that cornfield hand in hand but they didn't find him there. Did you fetch her down?"
"She wouldn't come with me-insisted on drivin' herself. Creepiest thing I ever saw, Gus; I'm layin' on the horn and three big dogs come walkin' up to the gate. Biggest mutts I ever saw-they just stood there and looked me over-I swear I thought they were black bears at first. Then the woman comes walkin' up nice and slow, wearin' a long white robe with her black hair hangin' all around. And there's another dog walkin' beside her-a mangy old gray mongrel-and the thing's only got three legs. Three legs! What about the husband-has he said anything more?"
"Nothing. He took the boy, no doubt about it-but he's not about to tell us where he put him."
"Just to spite his ex-wife?"
"He's got a knife in her heart and he's just gonna twist it-a woman he used to be married to. We've tried all we can-threatened him with everything from hell to high water, but he's not talking. The fool's willing to let his own boy die just to cause the woman pain. You know, people can be mean as snakes sometimes. You say she wouldn't come with you-but she is coming, right?"
"She's already here. Get this, Gus: She walks right up to the gate and looks at me with one eye-then she snaps her fingers like this and all four dogs sit down at the same time. Never said a word to 'em-it's like the dogs could read her mind. I don't mind tellin' you, it made my skin crawl."
The sheriff shook his head. "She's as weird as her old man was."
"I don't mind 'weird'-hey, I'm weird-but this is somethin' else. Know what she said to me? 'Who dares to invade my privacy?' I'm tellin' you, Gus, it's true what people say about her: The woman is a witch."
"I don't care if she's the Ghost of Christmas Past, as long as she can help us find that boy. Where is she now?"
"Right over there-you can't miss her."
The sheriff looked; standing on a small berm at the far edge of the property was a woman in her midtwenties dressed in a flowing white gown. Her hair was long and straight, and she kept her head down so that the hair hung in front of her face. Beside her was a dog: mottled gray, lean and angular-and it had only three legs. Standing atop the berm, the two of them were almost silhouetted against the new moon-and the sheriff had to admit, the image was definitely eerie.
He walked over to her. She did not look up as he approached.
"Are you Alena Savard?" he asked.
The woman cocked her head to one side and slowly raised it until her hair parted slightly, exposing a pale sliver of flesh and one emerald eye that glared up at the sheriff. "I am."
"Can you help us, Ms. Savard?"
"What is it you require?"
"We've got a missing boy here, about three years old. It's a domestic dispute. There was an ugly divorce and a custody battle, and the husband lost. First he threatened to take the boy away, then he threatened to harm him-it looks like he might have done both."
"Why didn't you stop him?"
"Because you can't arrest a man for a crime he hasn't committed yet. I don't like it either, but that's the law. The wife got a restraining order, but it didn't much matter-a man who's willing to let his own boy die won't be stopped by a piece of paper."
"You people," she said. "My dogs are more human than you."
"Right now I'm inclined to agree with you. We've got the husband in custody, but he refuses to talk to us; the boy's been missing for almost two days now, and we're hoping we can find him before-"
"I find the dead."
"Well, we're hoping he's still alive."
"I find the dead-only the dead."
"Keep your voice down, will you? The mother is right over there, and she's about out of her mind already."
"Why did you send for me?"
"I've heard about your father-I thought maybe you could help."
"If the boy is alive, I'll be of no use to you. You think the boy is dead, or you wouldn't have sent for me."
"I think he might be dead-it's an option we have to consider. We need to know if we should keep looking, and you might be able to tell us. Will you help?"
Alena paused. "I will help-under the following conditions: No one is to speak to me or come near; the moment I finish I will leave-I will answer no further questions; and if anyone attempts to approach my dog in any way I will leave immediately. Do you agree to these conditions?"
"Agreed. What do you need me to do?"
"Nothing. Just leave me alone."
"One thing," the sheriff said. "That woman over there is the boy's mother. Try to stay clear of her; it's best if she doesn't know you're here."
He walked back to the house and turned to watch.
The woman seemed to do nothing at first-then she slowly raised both arms and looked up into the night sky. She lowered her head again and swung it slowly from side to side, as if she were mopping a table with her long black hair. She shook both arms loosely, like a pitcher limbering up, then began to walk around in small circles.
Everyone in the yard stopped and stared.
She knelt down in front of her dog and took a brightly colored bandanna from around her neck. She showed it to the dog as if she were asking for its approval; then she slipped the bandanna around the dog's neck and straightened it.
The entire yard fell silent.
She stood up again and snapped her fingers; the dog immediately circled her once and sat down at her side. She snapped her fingers a second time and made a tossing motion with her right hand; the dog jumped to its feet and began to zigzag across the yard with its nose quivering just above the ground.
The mother approached the sheriff from behind and tugged on his sleeve. "Who is that woman?" she asked.
"Never you mind," the sheriff said. "She's here to help us find your boy."
"How can she help?"
"We can use all the help we can get right now, Mrs. Coleman."
"But-what is she doing? It looks so strange."
"I don't know, exactly."
"You already tried a search-and-rescue dog-it couldn't find him."
"This is a different kind of dog. We're hoping it'll have better luck."
The dog quickly worked its way across the berm and around the backyard with the woman following close behind; she made no eye contact with anyone as they worked, and the other volunteers all nervously stepped back and gave them a wide berth wherever they turned.
When they reached the edge of the woods the dog suddenly stopped; it swung its head back and forth over an area no larger than a frying pan-and then it lay down. The woman knelt down in front of the dog and looked into its eyes; she made a shrugging motion and looked again. The dog just lay still and stared up at her.
The woman stood up and looked across the yard at the sheriff. She pointed to the ground near the trunk of an old beech tree.
The mother grabbed the sheriff's arm. "Why is she doing that? Why is she pointing at the ground?"
The sheriff didn't answer.
"What does that mean? Tell me!"
"Keep her here," the sheriff said to Elgin, then started toward the woman and the dog.
He called out to Alena as he approached. "Are you sure?"
The sheriff tested the spot with the toe of his shoe; the soil was loose. He turned to one of his deputies and called back, "Bring me a shovel."
The mother let out a shriek and twisted out of Elgin's hands.
Alena knelt down in front of her dog again and flashed it a beaming grin, then rolled onto her back as the two of them began to wrestle together in the grass.
The mother ran to the beech tree and threw herself in front of it. "It's not him!" she shouted. "He isn't dead!"
"We'll know in a minute," the sheriff said, readying the shovel above the ground-but the mother grabbed the handle with both hands and stopped him.
"Don't!" she screamed. "If you find him here, they'll stop looking for him!"
The mother released the shovel and turned on Alena. "Who are you?" she demanded.
Alena scrambled awkwardly to her feet.
"Who told you to come here anyway? I didn't ask you to! I don't want you here!"
Alena lowered her head until her black hair covered her eyes.
"I know who you are-you're the witch, come to take my boy! He was alive until you came here! He was-"
Her voice failed midsentence, and she collapsed to the ground sobbing.
Alena turned without a word and hurried away.
Donovan approached the fluttering yellow crime scene tape and held up his FBI credentials to the officer, a sheriff's deputy from the Warren County Sheriff's Department. The deputy took the leather folder from his hand and began to read it carefully.
"We don't get many of you FBI fellas out here in Warren County," the deputy said.
"No kidding." Donovan took his credentials from the deputy's hand, and the man flashed a disappointed look, as though Donovan had taken away a book before he had finished reading it.
"My name's Elgin Tate," he said, and then added almost as an afterthought, "Deputy Elgin Tate." He grinned and extended his hand and Donovan took it.
"Special Agent Nathan Donovan."
The deputy let out a low, "Hoooo-ee!"
Donovan pointed to the tape. "Mind if I come in and take a look around?"
"Why ask me?"
"Weren't you guys the first ones on the scene?"
"Yes, sir. We got the call from the medical examiner's office yesterday afternoon."
"Then this is your crime scene, Deputy-you've got jurisdiction here, and I can't enter the crime scene until you give me permission."
The deputy took on a look of renewed importance. "Come right on in, Mr. Donovan."
Donovan swung one leg over the tape just as the deputy hoisted it high overhead and held it there. Donovan turned and looked at him. "I already flossed this morning."
"Sorry." The deputy released the tape and took a step back.
"Gonna be a hot one," the deputy observed.
"It's getting there."
"Too hot for June. Too hot for this time of morning."
"Right on both counts."
"They tell me you boys are gonna be in charge here."
"That depends on what we find. Where are these graves?"
"Right over there."
Donovan looked across the field but saw nothing. Until a month ago this area of rural Virginia had been thick virgin woodland-but now the area had been scraped clean for two hundred yards on all sides, leaving nothing but featureless brown loam littered with gray-green rock as far as the eye could see. Masses of bulldozed trees lay in twisted piles, awaiting an endless caravan of trucks that would haul them off to paper mills farther to the south; red flags fluttered atop pillars of soil that stood like castle parapets, marking the level of the original surface before excavation had begun.
"Want me to show you?" the deputy offered.
"Just point. If you don't mind, I like to get my own first impressions."
Fifty yards ahead Donovan came to a ridge where four rectangular holes lay side by side in the earth, each just a few yards from the next. There were no headstones, but a crude wooden cross made of two-byfours had been hammered into the ground to mark the head of each grave. The land around the crosses had not yet been disturbed by the excavators and bulldozers, but at the foot of each grave the ground suddenly dropped off, forming a short vertical cliff that exposed the end of each grave as if a four-toothed giant had taken a bite from the hillside.
Donovan could see at a glance what had happened: Some hapless construction worker had sunk the teeth of his backhoe into the rocky Virginia hillside, unaware that he was about to discover the location of a long-forgotten graveyard. It was a fairly common occurrence these days, especially in areas like rural Virginia where people had been living and dying for four hundred years. Survivors moved westward, towns expanded in unpredictable directions, and old graveyards like this one were gradually covered over and forgotten, awaiting the day-sometimes centuries later-when some unfortunate builder would stick a shovel in the ground and find a skull staring back at him. It was just bad luck, that's all, hard on the nerves and even harder on the checkbook-because every time it happened, the builder was required by law to stop construction until every single grave was identified and carefully moved to a new location. Heaven help you if the graveyard turned out to be sizable, and even heaven couldn't help you if somebody famous turned out to be buried there-because then the historic preservation people got involved, and that's when things really got expensive.
But that's the law, Donovan thought, and it didn't matter to the law whether your intended building project was just a new backyard septic tank or a project the size of this one-a thousand-acre super-regional mall and entertainment complex that would eventually include hotels, a water park, office condominiums, and a million and a half square feet of prime retail space predicted to attract "destination shoppers" from everywhere east of the Mississippi.
Excerpted from less than Dead by TIM DOWNS Copyright © 2008 by Tim Downs. Excerpted by permission.
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