Death and Her Devotion

By: Kendra Elliot

CHAPTER ONE


“Stevie?” Sheila’s voice came over the police radio. “We’ve got a body out at the Crying Indian Campground.”

Stevie pulled a neat U-turn in her patrol vehicle to head in the campground’s direction and picked up her mic. “Accidental drowning?” The Crying Indian site backed up to the Rogue River near a calm eddy, and with the July heat, people were venturing into any water to cool off—people who didn’t know how to swim.

“Not a drowning. Ralph, the campground host, called me. Said the body’s in the woods, and it looks like he was murdered.”

Damn it. Solitude hadn’t had a murder since December, when the police discovered a killer with a penchant for abusing and then permanently disposing of young women. In Stevie’s opinion, there had been enough deaths that month to last Solitude through the next decade.

“I’ll be there in five.”

“Zane and Kenny will be there as soon as they can.”

She floored the accelerator and sped down the empty two-lane highway. Seven a.m. was early for a dead body, and she yawned, cursing her late night.

It wasn’t my fault.

Her mother and her brother Bruce had kept her up half the night discussing the music selections for her wedding and reception this coming weekend. When Stevie finally blurted that she didn’t care what was played, her musical family blew up. To them, music was as important as food.

She understood. Music was part of her soul, but she was tired of deliberating every available option for her wedding and making decisions.

Food. Location. Decor. Table settings. Her dress. Bridesmaids’ dresses. Flower girl dress. Tuxes. Flowers. Cake.

While driving to work this morning, she’d grown deliriously happy as she realized she could avoid all wedding talk for the next ten hours.

Is this normal for a bride?

But the minute she’d entered the police department, her fiancé, Zane, had asked if she’d picked out the song for “our dance.”

At the look on her face, he’d taken a step back and asked if she’d like more coffee.

She pulled into the Crying Indian Campground and parked next to the host’s ancient trailer. Ralph had lived at the campground as long as she could remember, and she suspected the tires of his trailer hadn’t driven on blacktop in decades. Pinecones and pollen covered the tarp over his huge wood stack. FIREWOOD $5/BUNDLE read the sign.

Ralph came jogging up the narrow campground road, waving his old fishing hat at her. The short man’s legs were severely bowed, and Stevie’s knees hurt as she watched him run.

“It’s this way,” he huffed at her, spinning around and heading back the way he’d come. She got out and followed at a slow jog.

“What happened?”

“Dunno.” Ralph gasped for breath, his legs taking twice as many strides as her long ones. “One of his friends came and beat on my door this morning, saying their friend was dead. I took a look, felt for a pulse, and then called Sheila. They wanted to call 911, but I told them calling Sheila direct would get faster results out here.”

Sadly, it was true.

“Nice bunch of guys. Quiet and didn’t cause any problems,” Ralph said. “They said they didn’t want to make a scene this morning and asked me to not wake up any other campers.”

Stevie noticed that every campsite they passed contained a tent or trailer, but no curious faces peered out. An unusual sight for an emergency. The next dozen campsites they passed were empty, but on each site’s post hung a RESERVED tag. A hundred feet ahead, at the end of the campground, she saw four identical tents. “Why are all these sites empty?”

“This group of guys bought them all for the week even though they didn’t use them. Said they wanted some privacy.”

She was instantly annoyed; the group must have kept several families from finding a place to camp. The big black Hummer parked next to the new, bright-blue tents increased her annoyance. Out-of-towners.

Campsite rental was cheap. But for some families it was the only affordable means of vacationing.

Two guys stood by the Hummer, deep in conversation as she approached. A child’s face peered out of one of the vehicle’s lowered windows. “They’ve got kids with them?” Stevie asked Ralph in a low voice.

“Just the one boy. I believe the dead man was his uncle.”

Pity shot through her. He’ll never forget this camping trip.

The shorter of the two men stepped forward and held out his hand as Stevie arrived. “Thank you for coming.” His hand was damp, and his green eyes were rimmed in red. He’d pulled on a cap over his bleached, spiky hair. A tall, skinny man stayed at the truck, holding the boy’s hand through the window. Both men wore spotless, expensive sneakers and Apple Watches. The one at the truck had both of his ears pierced.