Darkness in Appalachia

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Robyn Elmore has a secret. One that her family has kept for generations and that has taken the life of every member of her family. She is determined to make sure that it doesn't take anyone else. David Michel is a new officer of a small town police station. He is assigned to investigate the body of a child found on the property of a local hermit and he won't stop until he finds out what happened to her. They meet over the body of a child and begin a journey that threatens to expose her families deepest secrets and change his views of the world and the creatures that live in it.

Fantasy / Romance
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Vultures are a common sight in rural Tennessee. These birds told of the natural and not so natural deaths that occurred all over the mountains and the small towns littered throughout. Normally, you could expect to find some animal that they were picking over that had succumbed to old age or to a larger animal. That wasn’t the case this time, at least not according to Walker.

Robyn rushed through the woods, carrying her shotgun and dodging branches and brush as she followed several dogs and a hog to where Walker waited for her. She slowed down when the dogs did and moved carefully through the last several feet to the clearing where they were supposed to meet.

In the clearing, several police officers were standing around and kneeling next to a small body on the ground. She stepped into the area, her eyes immediately drawn to the corpse. It was small, too small to be way out here alone and Robyn could still see remnants of the clothes that they had worn, enough to guess that it was probably a girl judging by the abundance of pink. She stepped towards it, horrified and and drew the attention of one of the officers.

He stood towards the edge of the clearing and was observing everything, sharp blue eyes scanning for anything that might give a clue as to what had happened here, nostrils flaring as if he could detect the spoor of others like a hound and follow it back to the criminals. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw Robyn but only for a moment, then narrowed in suspicion as he drew his gun. “Police. Drop your weapon and put your hands on your head.”

The other police were a few seconds slower, taking a minute to look around and spot Robyn before pulling their guns and training them on her. She slowly raised her hands, waving her dogs back when they began to growl, and put the shotgun on the ground. One of the cops came towards her, making sure to stay out of the line of the others guns and pulled her hands behind her back, quickly and roughly cuffing her and patting her down before leading her to the first cop. Another cop secured her weapon and brought it over.

“She’s not carrying anything on her person. No ID or other weapons.”

He took the shotgun and cracked it open, unloading it and putting the rounds inside a plastic bag. “Thanks. I will take her from here. You can go back to checking the scene.” His voice was deep and sounded like gravel grinding together and his eyes regarded Robyn with a deep suspicion.

Robyn stood waiting, using the time to examine the scene she had walked into and the officer that stood in front of her. They were standing in a small clearing, probably two miles from the main road and surrounded by dense forest. The body lay off to one side and looked like someone or something had made an effort to push it into the underbrush. Two officers were with it and another two were working there way around the clearing looking for anything that might make the situation clearer. The officer in front of her stood at the far end of the clearing from the body and, while he didn’t appear to be physically examining anything, you got the feeling that he saw everything. He was an imposing figure and seemed to fit naturally into the landscape. Tall and lean, he stood as immovable as a tree and his face seemed to be carved out of the rocks that littered the forest and mountain area. Robyn couldn’t find even a glimpse of softness when he turned towards her and felt her stomach tighten in anxiety.

“So, you want to tell me who you are and what you are doing here?” Even his voice was hard.

Robyn breathed deeply, steeling herself for his disbelief, and read the name tag attached to his uniform. “Well, Officer... D. Michel, my name is Robyn Elmore and I own this property. I was out for a walk with my dogs and followed them here.”

His suspicion deepened as he looked her over, taking in the tie dyed shirt, worn jeans, dirty boots and unkempt black hair. Robyn raised an eyebrow as he met her green eyes, certain that she knew what was coming next.

“Robyn Elmore is a major landowner and, if you believe the rumors, is supposed to be richer than God. It might be easy to claim to be her since she’s also rarely seen and is considered to be a bit of a recluse but I can’t believe that someone like that would be out here in the middle of nowhere looking like that without ID.”

“If you’ve heard of me then you know that I have a house in this area and that this is my property. I didn’t see a reason to bring ID from the house to go for a walk,I left my diamonds and gowns at home so they wouldn’t get lost in the woods and it’s my hairdresser’s day off.” Sarcasm dripped from every word she spoke

His eyes narrowed. “ And the gun?”

Robyn rolled her shoulders, trying to relieve the tension from having her hands behind her back, “There are a lot of animals out here, some of which can be dangerous so I carry a gun loaded with rock salt. It also comes in handy for trespassers and hunters who don’t want to leave when they are asked to do so politely.”

He motioned towards the body. “Is that what she was? A trespasser or hunter?”

Robyn’s voice softened as she looked over her shoulder at the small body. “I don’t know who or what she was. I don’t believe I’ve ever found a child out here unless they were with their parents camping. And it has been a while since that happened.”

“When was the last time that happened and what did you do when you found them on your property?”

Robyn shrugged. “I would have to check the records back at the house. I keep detailed records and pictures of anyone that I catch in case I decide to press charges. Most of the time, I point out the no trespassing signs and escort them back to the road, making sure that they know if I catch them again I will press charges.”

Officer Michel hesitated, wanting to believe that there might be a record of the child but not willing yet to believe that she was who she claimed to be. “I would like to see those records, if they actually exist.”

“OK, let me run to the house and I will hand them over. They’re loaded on the computer so I can get you a hard copy or put them on a flash drive for you.”

His face hardened again, “I will consider that after we find out who you are. We can take you down to the station and get fingerprints. If you are who you say you are, I can bring you back and you can get me that information”

He reached for her arm, planning on leading her back to the road and taking her to town but she pulled away. “It’s at least a two mile walk back to any road where you could have parked your cruisers. My house is only 15 minutes away and I have a 4-wheeler parked on a trail just a couple of minutes from here to make the trip easier. It would make more sense to go to my house so that I can show you my driver’s license and get you the pictures than to drag me to town and waste both of our time with fingerprints.”

He grabbed her more firmly. “Waste of time or not it’s what I am going to do. There’s no way that I am following you to someplace in these woods without knowing who you are and verifying that you have a reason to be here.”

Robyn was about to argue some more when one of the other officers called out to Officer Michel.”Michel, could I speak to you for a minute?” He stood just a few feet away and had clearly overheard at least part of the conversation.

Robyn turned towards blondie as Michel walked over. He looked vaguely familiar but, then again, there were a lot of stocky, blond haired blue eyed people around.

They began talking in low voices but not low enough that she couldn’t hear.

“Did she say that she was Robyn Elmore?”

Michel looked at her and spoke, “Yeah, but she’s not carrying any identification so I can’t verify it. I’m going to take her in and check her out at the station.”

“That would be a bad idea. She looks a lot like the Robyn Elmore that I went to school with and, if she is, it could cause us a lot of problems if you take her in.”

“I’ve heard that Robyn Elmore and her family own most of the land in the area and a lot more all over the country. They have their fingers in all kinds of pies, including political.” He pointed at Robyn. “ Does that look like a wealthy mover and shaker to you?”

Blondie shrugged, “It’s true that the Elmore’s are well known in the area for those reasons but also because they tend to be reclusive. Especially Robyn after her family died. I haven’t seen her for years myself but I remember her from high school and I know that she has a house in this area. We are a small force, we can’t afford to piss off someone like that.”

“So what are you telling me to do? Let her go. What if it’s not Robyn Elmore and she knows something about this?”

“No, what I am saying is to go along with her.” Michel started to protest but Blondie put a hand up to stop him. “Keep her in the cuffs and let her take you to her home. If she is who she says she is, then I’m sure that she would understand the precautions. And if she isn’t, you should be able to handle a small woman in handcuffs.”

Michel’s voice was nearly a growl, “That is not the way that things are supposed to be done. Suspicious people should be taken into the station if they can’t verify their identities at a crime scene. Especially, something like a child murder.” He angrily gestured to the body on the ground.

Blondie kept calm, “And that makes a lot of sense if we knew for sure that this was a murder and if we weren’t in the middle of the backwoods 30 minutes from the nearest town. You aren’t from around here so you don’t know that sometimes we have to do things a little differently. She could shut down the entire department with just one phone call or get all of us reprimanded.” He put his hand on Michel’s shoulder in a calming gesture that seemed to do little good. “Just trust me on this.” When he looked like he was going to argue further he spoke again, his voice suddenly hard. “Don’t make me make this an order.”

Michel stiffened up and looked at Blondie’s face, searching for some sign that he could talk reason into him. Blondie met his eyes and the stubbornness there convinced him that he should just give up. He turned back towards Robyn, who was pretending that she didn’t just hear every word that was spoken, and stalked towards her. He grabbed her arm, rougher than necessary and jerked her into movement towards the path she had come in on.

“OK Take me to your house. But if you can’t show me proof when we get there, you will be going down to the station and will answer some questions there.”

They were almost to the tree line when the dogs stood and began to growl, seeming ready to attack at a moments notice. Michel noticed and released Robyn, his hand going to the butt of his gun as he stared them down.

“Call off your damn dogs or do I need to shoot them to get through.”

Robyn glared at him, almost daring him to try. She was getting a little tired of his attitude and, just for a second, considered letting him take his chances with the dogs. The thought that he might actually shoot one of them stopped her though.

She whistled to get their attention and gave them the command “Home.” They were well trained so they turned and left despite continuing to growl. Robyn watched to make sure that they had all slunk back into the woods, catching a small glimpse of the hog as it followed just a little slower than the others.

Michel seemed to have noticed it too, “Was that a pig with those dogs?” His look of confusion was enough to make Robyn giggle if the situation had been a little different. Instead, she just looked at him blankly and began walking. He caught up to her quickly and reached for her arm again, intending to make sure that she couldn’t get away from him in the woods by keeping hold of her.

She jerked away from him “It would be easier to walk in the woods with one of us in front of the other. The trail isn’t wide enough until further on for us to walk side by side.” She smirked at his look of distrust. “Don’t worry I will walk in front of you. If it looks like I am going to get away from you, you can just shoot me.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice and her eyes shot sparks at him.

He released her, realizing that she was speaking the truth and that, if the situation was different, he would find her very attractive. He bit back a smile as she turned her back to him and began picking her way through the woods and had to hold himself back from grabbing her again, just to piss her off. Instead, he followed close behind her, watching closely and not just to make sure that she wasn’t going to run.

The walk didn’t take long but it was a little difficult for Robyn with her hands behind her back. She didn’t realize how much she used her hands for balance on the uneven ground until she couldn’t use them anymore. She could feel Michel’s eyes boring into her back and was determined not to let him see her stumble. Instead, she took a great deal of pleasure listening to him grunt as he got smacked with tree limbs and tripped over roots and branches.

Just over five minutes later, they arrived at the path with the 4x4. Robyn stood beside it nearly tapping her foot as he looked it over.

“Have you ever driven one of these before? If not, maybe you should uncuff me and I will take you to the house.”

He didn’t even look her way, “I haven’t driven one before but it doesn’t look too difficult. How far is it to your house from here?”

She looked up the trail “On the 4x4, about ten minutes straight up the mountain. If we walk, it will take a lot longer. The path is rough and steep. And cutting through the woods would take even longer because the underbrush.”

“No choice then.” Michel climbed into the driver’s seat of the 4x4, trying to hide his eagerness and waited for her to get on.

Robyn stood on the passenger side “There’s no way that I am riding on this thing with you unless I can hold on.”

“So hold on on then.” He was impatient and it showed in his voice.

She shrugged her shoulders “How am I supposed to hold on with my hands behind my back. I can’t even sit comfortably in the seat like that. I need to be able to hold onto the bar in front. Otherwise, there’s a chance that I will get thrown off when you get to the rougher portions of the path.”

Michel studied her and the 4x4, trying to find something that would dispute what she said but unable to do so. He dismounted and came around to the passenger side, stopping just out of reach.

“Let’s make one thing clear. I will take the cuffs off but just for a second. I will then cuff you in the front so that you can hold onto the bar. Give me any trouble and I will keep them behind your back and you can just take the risk of falling.” He was still angry with having to go along with her and didn’t want to give even an inch further than he had to.

“Fine. Just get it done so that we can get on our way. The faster you get this done, the quicker we get to my house and the faster I can get rid of you.”

He grunted and came towards her, making quick work of the cuffs and helping her to get into the passenger seat before stalking back around to the driver’s side. Climbing back in, he started the machine and looked in her direction to make sure that she was stable before jerkily starting off.

He got the hang of the 4x4 within a minute or two and was soon enjoying the ride despite the rough terrain and was able to forget his frustration for the quick trip to her house. He pulled up in front, studying it carefully for any signs of life. It was a two story log cabin that looked like it had been renovated several times over the years. You could see clearly that it had started out small and it had grown over the years to its current state by the different types of construction. It still managed to look like it belonged here, despite the more modern updates. It was positioned in a clearing close to a cliff and large windows offered views of the valley below on the front of the house. He couldn’t see anything moving in or around the home which made him more suspicious than ever about the person riding with him.

Robyn climbed off the 4x4 as soon as it came to a complete stop and began walking to the front door. Michel moved slower, watching for anyone that might be around and the dogs that she had previously told to go home. He felt that there should be workers around caring for the house and grounds and it bothered him to find no one around. He followed Robyn around to a back door and through it, looking around carefully before stepping through the doorway.

Robyn walked into the mudroom of her house, not bothering to check if Michel was still behind here. Instead, she looked around for Puk, hoping that she would read the situation and not be seen. Behind her, Michel cursed under his breath as the door shut behind him, making him jump and look around for whoever else was there.

“Leave him alone, Puk. It’s OK.” Robyn whispered, hoping that Puk was close enough to hear her and that Michel wasn’t.

She hurried into the kitchen and pulled her wallet out of a drawer close to the door. Tossing it to him as he came through, still looking around like he could sense someone else was there.

“My driver’s license is in there. That should be enough to prove who I am, right?”

He barely caught the wallet and flipped it open to the middle section, pulling out her driver’s license and studying it carefully before putting it back. He came towards her, pulling out his cuff keys.

“Sorry for the misunderstanding Ms. Elmore. I’m sure that you understand that I had to be cautious in the situation. Let me get those cuffs off and maybe you would be willing to answer some questions and would let me see those files that you mentioned earlier.”

A large part of Robyn wanted to be petty and tell him that she wasn’t going to answer any questions without a lawyer present. Especially, since it really annoyed her how quickly his attitude changed when he realized that she really was an Elmore but that would mean that she would have to deal with him even longer and she wouldn’t be able to get any of her work done if she was dealing with him.

“Ask your questions while we head to the office. The files are in there and I can load them onto a thumb drive for you. Then, you can leave.”

“I will probably have to call for a ride and wait until someone shows up. I hope that won’t be too much of an imposition. Either that or get a ride back down to the scene on your 4x4.”

She turned and began leading the way through the house, “Go ahead and call them. See how long it will take for someone to come get you and, if it’s going to be too long, I will take you back down.”

He followed, biting back his own sarcastic words “OK. Well, is anyone else here that I might need to talk to?”

“It’s just me. I live alone and I don’t have anyone staff that work here. That’s what you mean, right?”

If he was surprised by her answer he didn’t show it. “That’s right. So it’s just you. Did you see anything that would give any idea as to what happened or who that child might be?”

Robyn had made it to her desk and sat down in a high backed office chair. “I don’t know how long she has been out there but I don’t believe anyone has been around here for at least a week. I haven’t found anyone on the property and Wal ….. the cameras haven’t picked anyone up either.” She almost told him that Walker hadn’t seen anyone but caught herself.

He didn’t let on that he had noticed the slip but made a mental note to find out who ‘Wal’ might refer to. “If you have security cameras around the property can I get a copy of the footage. Someone might have been around while you were out.” He placed a hand on the back of the chair and leaned in to look at the monitors, deliberately intruding into her space.

She moved through the screens easily, pulling up the footage and downloading the files he requested onto a thumb drive as she spoke. “The video cameras only cover the driveway and the front of the house. I don’t have a problem giving you the footage but I haven’t left the area in over a week. I work from home and only go into town for supplies.”

“How do you know if there’s someone in the area? You said that you frequently find people trespassing. How much of an area do you keep?”

“I have motion detectors on game trails in the woods. They trigger cameras that will let me see what tripped them. If it’s an animal, I leave it alone and, if it’s a person, I escort them off the property just like I told you earlier. There’s about twenty acres that I keep watch on around this house.”

“Twenty acres. That’s a lot for one person, isn’t it? Why would you be so worried about a couple of people coming out here?” His radar was telling him that there was something to find here. He leaned in closer, hoping that his proximity would cause her to trip up and reveal something. He didn’t really believe that she had killed that child but he felt that she knew more than she was telling or was hiding something important.

He was close enough that Robyn could smell him, sweaty with a mild pine or woodsy scent. It was a pleasant smell but served only to distract her from what she was doing. She sensed that that was his goal but had to keep catching herself from letting something slip that she would regret. “I like my privacy. Besides, it can be really dangerous in these mountains if you don’t know what you are doing and I don’t need it on my conscious when someone gets hurt. That and sometimes people come up to try and get a peek at this house and, in the past, we’ve even had people who tried to break in thinking that we keep something valuable up here. It’s best to just keep people away.” Her voice had softened, showing a loneliness that she didn’t acknowledge often and hoped that he wouldn’t pick up on. “The Elmore property is famous around these parts and it’s not unusual for people to show up pretending to be lost or hurt to get in.”

He was silent, feeling bad for just a second that he had suspected her but reminding himself that there was a child in the woods that needed answers. “And nothing like that has happened recently? Anyone suspicious showing up on the cameras or around the house?”

She sighed, regaining her sarcasm at the questions. “I already told you that no one has been here for at least a week. And no one has come up to the house like that in at least a year. There may have been people who made themselves a bother when my brother was here, but for the past three years I’ve been pretty much left alone.” She turned suddenly, holding out a thumb drive. “Here’s the pictures of the people I’ve seen in the last year. Do you think you need me to go back further?”

He had stumbled back in surprise when she turned and now had to step back towards her in order to take the thumb drive. She felt a small bit of triumph at seeing him stumble and had to hide her smile.

“A year should be fine. Is the video footage on here as well?”

“Yes, but not for the whole year.” And not from every camera she added silently. “I loaded the footage for the past two weeks. That should be good enough, right?”

His mind flashed back to the body in the woods. It hadn’t looked like it had been there for more than a couple of days but he wasn’t an expert. “It will depend on what the coroner says. If we need it from a longer period of time, I can come back to pick it up.”

Robyn turned back to the computer to put it into sleep mode, “If you have to wait for the coroner, then I won’t be seeing you for a bit. And, odds are, the state will be the ones making the return visit.”

He waited until she had stood up before speaking again. “What do you mean by that?”

She walked back through the house, intending to get him out as soon as she could. “There is no local police coroner or morgue. This area is too small to afford them. The body will go to the local hospital morgue and you will probably have to wait until the state can send someone out. Then, they will probably take over the case. They don’t normally trust the local yokels to handle anything major.”

He followed her, feeling annoyance well up inside him. “And you would know this why?”

She heard the change in his voice but didn’t react. “I donate a lot of money to the local police department and politicians. They keep me apprised of what my money is providing for. Even with my donations, this department is understaffed and can’t afford a proper morgue or coroner. Most of the time, there’s a doctor who can perform simple autopsies for the hospital or people that they believe died of natural causes but they call the state with anything else.”

In the kitchen, he stopped and waited for her to turn towards him. Frustration and annoyance making him feel like lashing out at the only person available. “Is that why you donate the money? So that they will keep you apprised of the situation and you know what’s going on? Doesn’t that mean that you always know what the locals are doing and how to get around them to do whatever you want? Why would a wealthy woman live way up here by herself like a hermit unless she has something to hide?”

Robyn bit her tongue, hoping that she would be able to avoid saying something she would regret and trying to maintain a calm tone. “Have you called for a ride yet?”

He stepped closer to her, once again invading her space but this time trying to intimidate her into confirming his suspicions. “I said that I would call a ride once you answered my questions and you haven’t answered them all.”

Robyn didn’t back down. She raised her face to his and continued to speak calmly, irritating him even more. “I said that I would answer your questions about the girl in the woods and I have done that. The questions that you are asking now are inappropriate and have nothing to do with the situation at hand.” She was beginning to get angry and knew that she had to maintain her cool. Puk was still around somewhere and could be unpredictable if she believed Robyn needed help.

“How did you know that it was a girl? And how did you know where she was? She has been dead for at least a couple of days so your motion detectors couldn’t have picked her up.”

“I assumed it was a girl because I saw all the pink that it had been wearing. Boys don’t tend to wear bright pink as a habit. And I already told you that I was following my dogs. They probably smelled either her or you and the other officers.”

“And what about the other stuff? Why do you want to know what the local police are doing? How do you know about the coroner and state and how long it will take before someone gets here? Why would you want that information unless you are doing something up here that you don’t want others to know about?”

Robyn snapped, pushing her face forward and making him step back, “I donate to the locals because they came to me asking for help providing safety gear and training for the local officers. I went to school with most of them and, even though we aren’t close, they were kind to me after my families’ deaths. I don’t want to see anything happen to them just because they couldn’t afford to protect themselves. I know about the situation because my lawyer keeps track of the money to make sure it’s spent where it’s intended. I keep away from everyone because I don’t have the patience to deal with people either kissing my ass or trying to take advantage of me since I’m the last fucking Elmore. I don’t want or need to know what the local police are doing but I was made aware of the situation when they asked for help and I was trying to determine how much to give.” She felt a ripple of pleasure when he stepped back, shock written on his face. “Oh, and FYI. I am also the reason that they decided to hire a big city cop to come here. Someone unbiased and with no connection to the locals so that there would be less chance of people getting off just because of who they know.”

They stood in the kitchen staring at each other. Her waiting for his next attack and him trying to decide if she was telling the truth. Robyn was the first to move, but only because she saw Puk behind his back, probably planning some mischief. She pushed past him, waving Puk off with her hand as soon as she was out of his side. Puk frowned but disappeared before he could turn around and see her.

She went to the counter, pretending that she had been planning on getting a cup down from the cabinets. “Now, I think that it’s time for you to call your ride and get them to come and get you.”

He had turned to watch her, confused by her sudden need for a drink, but he spoke into his handset, asking if they were nearly finished and how long it would take for someone to get to this location. The answer was quick in coming as the dispatcher informed him that they had finished up at the scene and that someone was already on the way to him. He continued to stand in the middle of the kitchen, watching Robyn as she poured herself a glass of tea and began sipping from it, seemingly determined to ignore him for the remainder of the time that he was there. He still had the feeling that she wasn’t telling him everything but he didn’t think he would get any further by pushing more. Instead, he studied her kitchen.

He had always believed that the kitchen was the heart of the home and could tell you a lot about the owners of a home. Robyn’s kitchen was well used and comfortable feeling but still neat. There were pictures on the fridge of people he assumed were her family and a large dog, mail was laid out on the counter, pots and pans hung over a large butcher block island that seemed to have battle scars carved into it from numerous generations of cooks, and he could see matching hand towels and oven mitts scattered here and there. He could imagine the kitchen filled with people as Robyn stood over the stove, laughter and conversation filling the room along with delicious smells. It made him feel nostalgic for his parents’ home where his mom would always cook large meals for him and his brothers. Everyone fighting and stealing food while his dad yelled for them to save some for him.

Outside, a car pulled up close to the house crunching over the gravel. A moment later, a car door slammed as whoever was driving got out. Robyn went to the door, planning on intercepting them before they got to the house. She didn’t feel like letting anyone else into her home today and having to play nice and chit chat while they looked around with curiosity. She could sense Michel behind her as she opened the door to find the blonde officer from earlier on her doorstep.

She had caught him with him hand raised about to knock and he nearly hit her in the face as he continued the movement for a moment before catching himself. He then assumed the classic yokel cop position with his thumbs tucked into his utility belt and rocking slightly on the balls of his feet.

“Well, hello Ms. Elmore. I came to pick up Officer Michel. I assume he’s inside waiting for me.” He attempted to look around her to the inside of the house either looking for Michel or out of idle curiosity.

Robyn smiled politely, automatically acting on a lifetime’s worth of training in southern hospitality and manners. “He’s right here, Officer.” She moved aside just enough for Michel to get past her and returned to her position blocking the doorway.

Blondie seemed in no hurry to leave, though. “I take it that you and he got things cleared up Ms. Elmore. I want to apologize on the department’s behalf for any trouble this may have caused you.”

Maintaining a polite smile, Robyn silently prayed that he would leave soon. “It’s fine, Officer. I understand and, if it helps you to find out what happened with that child, I am happy to help. No apology is needed.”

“Well, then.” He rocked back and forth for a moment, still trying to see around her into the house and trying to find something else to say that would extend his visit. His wife would kill him if he told her that he’d been out here and hadn’t even made it past the front door. “My wife has been asking about you. Wanted me to make sure that you were doing alright after everything that happened a few years ago. Losing your family that way must have been hard.”

Michel watched as Robyn’s face tightened and her eyes sharpened. She still maintained the polite smile but it had become slightly strained. “You let her know that I am doing just fine. It was hard at first but it’s gotten better over the past year or so.”

Blondie smiled broadly. “She will be happy to hear that.”

An awkward silence fell between the three of them and Michel could almost see the two train of thoughts going through their heads. Robyn was trying to figure out how to get rid of them without being impolite and Officer Blondie was trying to find a way to extend the visit without overstaying his welcome. He decided to hurry things along a little at Robyn’s expense.

“Ms. Elmore, is there any chance that I could get something to drink? We’ve been out here for a while and I left my water in the car.”

She glared at him and he smiled politely, knowing that her upbringing wouldn’t let her send him away without at least a glass of water. Inside, he was laughing just a bit at her discomfort.

Officer Blondie jumped at the chance, “I must admit that I am a bit thirsty myself. Would it be possible for me to get a drink as well?”

Robyn nearly growled, but kept the smile plastered on until she could turn away. “Of course. Why don’t I get you both go cups with some sweet tea? It will take me just a minute and then I really do need to get back to work.” She turned to go into the house, planning on shutting the door behind her and leaving them on the doorstep but Officer Blondie was too close behind her. He eagerly followed her through into the kitchen, looking at everything and not even trying to hide it. Michel followed slower, silently watching and beginning to understand the reason why Robyn kept herself so separate from the locals.

In the kitchen, Robyn made quick work of getting the two drinks ready and handing them off. She escorted them back to the door, maintaining her politeness but still managing to convey that they had definitely overstayed their welcome. Once outside, she quickly said her goodbyes and sent them on their way, closing the door firmly behind them.

Once in the car, Officer Blondie started asking questions. It should have been about whatever information Michel was able to get that might pertain to the case but seemed to be thinly veiled information gathering on Robyn herself. Michel had the feeling that everything he said would be local gossip by the end of the day and, for some reason, heard himself holding back. Pointedly keeping his answers to things that could be relevant, he drank his tea and thought about Robyn until they got back to town.

Inside, Robyn watched them leave through the window before turning around and speaking to the entity that waited for her. Upon turning around, she was faced with a skeletal figure that stood about four feet tall and wore a long hooded black cloak. She was saved from looked like a grim reaper by her purple eyes and the patches that covered the cloak suggesting that she had made the rounds of hippie festivals and concerts before coming to this house. She was a pukwudgie. A mischievous entity that normally wouldn’t be found in the south but had,for some reason, attached herself to Robyn’s family. She was also Robyn’s closest friend.

Her voice when she spoke had a lilting quality underneath the sound of grating bone. “Well, looks like you’ve had a good day. That was a fine man that you brought home.”

Robyn leaned against a counter and rested her head against the upper cabinets, “Which one? “ She knew playing innocent wouldn’t help but couldn’t seem to stop herself.

“You know damn well which one. Tall, dark and brooding. I wanted to take a bite out of him myself but you told me to leave him alone. It was all I could do not to pinch his hard little ass.”

“Really, Puk. At your age shouldn’t you be a little more mature. Besides, he was kinda an asshole.”

“A smart asshole. He knew that something wasn’t right up here and he wanted answers. Brains and looks are always a good combination. And as for being more mature, one of us needs to act alive. When was the last time that you got some girl?”

“None of your business, Puk. And he wouldn’t be a candidate even if it had been a little too long. He’s too stuck in the mud and doesn’t have the slightest sense of humor.”

Puk waved her bony fingers dismissively, “You just think that because of the situation that you were in. Though the handcuffs could be fun it didn’t seem like a situation where a sense of humor would have been a good thing. I’m telling you right now that the strong silent types are the best in the sack. Total dynamite.”

Robyn turned towards the door as a large dog came in through the doggie door, “Yeah, dynamite. He explodes and I’m left hanging.” Puk started laughing loudly and Robyn spoke over her. “Did you find anything out, Walker? I know that the cops have left the site already but there should still be a scent remaining, right?”

Walker wasn’t actually a dog. He was a skinwalker. An entity that could put on the skin of different animals and become that animal. His normal form was human but, because of an injury, he had found himself stuck in the skin of a wolf for several years now. His wolf form was able to manage an injury that would kill him if he switched to human form, even if it was just long enough to put on another skin. He had showed up at the Elmore property during Robyn’s father’s time and never left. Now, he helped Robyn by patrolling the area and speaking to the dogs for her, making sure that they knew what was needed of them. He had also become a close friend and routinely came into the house for dinner and conversation but it was important to remember that he was extremely proud and wouldn’t tolerate any disrespect, from her or anyone.

He climbed into one of the kitchen chairs and sat like a person, waiting to speak until Robyn had put an oversized coffee cup of water in front of him and he’d had a drink. His voice was low and just short of a growl, “There was still some scent there but I had already gotten a good sniff before the police got there.” He met Robyn’s eyes, “It wasn’t an animal or a person that killed that child. In fact, it’s like nothing that I’ve ever smelled. I managed to track it for a bit but it faded before it reached the barrier.”

Robyn had resumed her position at the counter, “So it wasn’t one of the entities from the reserve? I don’t believe anything new has come through the gate recently.”

Puk took a seat and shook her head. “Nothing has come through the gate. I would have signaled you like last time. That means that it’s something that has been here for a while. Maybe, it even comes from here.”

Walker shook his head, little droplets of water falling as he did so, “No, it didn’t smell like anything from here. It has been here for a while but underneath this world’s smells is another one. Something rank and rotten like.” He took a moment to think, wanting to explain in a way that they, without his sense of smell would understand, “It wasn’t like a dead thing but like something that lives with the dead. Blood, decay, and something else that I can’t describe.” He shook his head, wanting to forget the feelings that the smell had created. “I didn’t like it and don’t want to find whatever it is that makes that smell.”

Robyn rolled her shoulders, “Well, that’s my job. I need to find it and send it back through the gate.” She looked at Puk. “Do we still have those herbs that the shaman use? Or do I need to get some while I do my rounds today?”

“We still have some. At least, enough for one rite. What are you planning to do with them?” Her eyes brightened in anticipation.

“I think that I need to see that body. I can use the herbs to do the burial rites for her and maybe get a chance to speak with her soul before it leaves her body. If she can tell me what did that to her, it would make things a lot easier to find it.”

Walker’s growl cut in, “The police took the body away. Don’t tell me that you plan on going into town to perform the rite?′

Puk’s eyes lit up even more when Robyn answered, “I don’t think that I have much choice. Bobby still works in the morgue at the hospital and can get me in. If you and Puk help with some of the details then it wouldn’t be too difficult.”

Walker grumbled reluctant assent but Puk looked absolutely delighted. “This could be a lot of fun. I always like it when we get to go into town.” She became serious a moment later, “But, you know, you really should find yourself a partner. If you had one, you wouldn’t need to rely on me and Walker so much. The two of you would be able to manage an excursion like this with no problem. Especially, if it was that cop from earlier. I bet he could get you access without any problems.”

Walker nodded, “And I liked the way he smelled. Honest and intelligent. He would be a good partner for you.”

Robyn turned to leave the kitchen, “I’ve already told you both that I don’t want a partner. There are too many risks involved.”

Puk disappeared from the table and reappeared in front of her, “But guardians always have partners. It allows them to share their power and the burden of this life. You need another human to help you with this.”

Walker came up behind Robyn, hemming her in “No guardian has ever been this long without a partner and there’s a reason for that. It’s dangerous to try and do this alone. Your sister was a prime example of why that is. It’s even worse since you changed the contract and the entities that you protect don’t have to share their power with you.”

Robyn fought back annoyance at the old argument and tried to maintain calm, “Yes, Maria is a prime example of what happens to a lone guardian and Edward, my brother, is a prime example of what happens if you choose the wrong partner. I can go either way and you both know that.” She looked at both of them in turn, “You’ve told me that I am stronger than Maria and that’s why I’ve made it this long. There’s no reason to believe that I won’t be strong enough to continue on as I am. My family has guarded the gate and the entities that live on this reserve for generations and I’ve been doing it alone for the past three years. There’s absolutely no excuse to get someone else involved in this and risk them too.” Now she looked Puk hard in the eyes, “And Officer Michel wouldn’t be a good partner for this kind of work. Could you imagine telling someone that straitlaced about the entities. would think that I was insane or be driven insane if he saw them.”

Puk argued, “I don’t think so. I really believe that he knew I was here. He didn’t know what I was but I swear he looked directly at me several times as if he could sense me. He has a good intuition and is more attuned than you are giving him credit for.”

Walker spoke up too, “He did look back several times when I was following you in the woods. There’s a good chance that his instincts told him that I was there even though I made sure to keep out of sight. You don’t have to decide right now but it should be something that you are open to.”

“Well, it’s not and this conversation is over. I have things to do today and y’all are keeping me from getting them done. I need to check the barrier around the gate and on some of the entities. I also need to call Bobby and see what time would be good to show up and how he wants us to come in. Can you get the herbs ready Puk and we will meet back here at dinner?” She didn’t wait for an answer but walked past them and out of the house.

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