Cold Heart Creek – Lisa Regan

Josie wriggled beneath her mother’s weight, the cold of the tile floor seeping through her thin nightgown. The knife in Lila’s hand flashed in the overhead light of the trailer kitchen, and fear stopped Josie’s heart for a long second and then snapped it back into a gallop. “Mommy, no!” Josie choked out. Lila’s blue eyes flashed, and Josie knew at once that her mother was past the point of reason, past the point where Josie’s screams could reach her. When she got angry like this, there was no stopping her. She was a storm, and there was nowhere for Josie to hide. Lila used her free hand to press the left side of Josie’s face into the floor. The knife came closer. “Mommmmeeeee,” Josie wailed. Her limbs shook. She felt a loosening in her lower body, like she might wet herself. “Shut up,” Lila snarled. From the corner of her eye, Josie watched the silver tip of the blade puncture the skin where her ear met her cheek. Then, with steady pressure, Lila sliced downward. Searing pain shot all the way down Josie’s jawline to her chin.

She blinked the hot blood from her right eye and screamed, “Mommmmmeee nooooo! Stop! Stop!” But Lila didn’t stop. She never stopped. “Your daddy thinks you’re so damn special,” Lila said, taking the knife away to admire her handiwork. A satisfied smile curved her lips. “You ain’t so special. You bleed just like everyone else. He thinks he can just leave me? He thinks he can take you with him and just dump me? Leave me behind? He thinks you’re more important?” “Mommy, please stop,” Josie whimpered. “Please.” Lila brought the knife closer, touching it to the bottom of Josie’s chin where she had left off. “I’ll show him.

We’ll see how special he thinks you are after I destroy this pretty little face of yours.” A hand clamped down on Josie’s arm. “Josie,” said a man’s voice. As Lila began to slice again, Josie drew in a deep breath and howled in pain. Suddenly, Lila was gone, and everything went pitch black. A new terror took hold. She blinked but the darkness was complete. Nothing penetrated it. Squirming, Josie felt the scratchy carpet of the closet floor against her bloodied face. “No!” she cried.

“Not the closet. You promised, Mommy! Not the closet!” The man’s voice came again. “Josie!” She stood and pounded against the closet door. “I’m here! I’m in here. Please let me out!” But the door didn’t open. It never opened. Not until Lila said so. Salty tears streamed down Josie’s face, stinging the place where Lila had sliced her. “Please,” she begged. “Please let me out.

” “Josie. Josie, wake up!” She shot straight up to a sitting position, arms and legs flailing. Punching and kicking the air around her. Terror tore from her lungs. Her entire body was slick with sweat, wicking her nightshirt to her skin. As her surroundings came into focus, she realized she wasn’t in the trailer. She wasn’t six anymore. This was her bedroom. She was a grown woman. Lila was in prison, and Josie’s boyfriend, Noah, was beside her in bed, reaching tentatively for her.

Josie fought the urge to slap his hand away as the last vestiges of the nightmare left her gasping for breath. It’s just Noah, she reminded herself. She blinked rapidly and looked around the room. Noah had turned on the light on his nightstand, and it cast a soft glow across their king-sized bed. The covers lay twisted at the bottom of the bed. Josie’s pillow lay on the floor. Noah sat next to her, bare-chested, his brown hair in disarray and his hazel eyes dark with worry. Josie reached up and traced the thin scar that ran down the right side of her face. It had been a nightmare, but also a memory. One of the worst from her childhood with Lila Jensen.

She closed her eyes, trying to slow her breathing. Noah stroked her back. “What was it?” he asked softly. Without opening her eyes, she shook her head. He already knew the story. She didn’t want to talk about it. “Just a bad dream,” she said. Noah chuckled softly. “Yeah, I figured that part out.” She opened her eyes and looked at him again, disarmed by his smile.

She was safe, she reminded herself. That particular horror was in her past. Noah said, “What can I do?” “Nothing,” Josie said. “I’m going to shower. I’m soaked.” He sighed, put his hands behind his head, and laid back on his own pillow. The clock on his bedside stand read three thirty-two a.m. In the bathroom, she peeled off her damp nightshirt and underwear and dropped them in the hamper. She ran the water in the shower and studied her pale face in the mirror while it warmed up.

It wasn’t fair, she thought. She had had to live through Lila Jensen’s abuse once; she should not have to revisit it over and over again. But ever since the calls, and Lila’s impending— “No,” she said to the woman in the mirror. She wasn’t going there. Not now. But her mind went there anyway because the moment you told your brain not to think of something, that was precisely what it conjured. Josie needed to forget. To lose herself. To give her brain something else to wrap around. Something that would leave little room for bad memories and future worries.

Back in the bedroom, Noah was still awake, staring at the ceiling. He sat up abruptly when he saw her standing naked in the doorway. “Actually, there’s something you can do for me,” she told him. He didn’t hesitate. In two steps she was wrapped in his arms, every conscious thought subdued by his deep kiss. TWO Coffee dripped from the kitchen ceiling. Josie swore under her breath, tore some paper towels from the dispenser over the sink and started mopping up the floor first, then the cabinets, and finally the counter. Then she pulled a chair over and climbed on top of it, trying to reach the ceiling. Noah’s voice startled her, and she nearly toppled off the chair. “Did you say something about the ‘damn toaster oven’?” he asked.

She glared at him. “I did. I told you we don’t need a toaster oven. We have a toaster, that’s good enough.” He stepped further into the kitchen, and she noted his T-shirt and boxer shorts. “You’re not even ready,” she pointed out. He motioned toward the brown spots on her white ceiling. “What’s going on here?” Josie got down from the chair and tossed the wad of paper towels into the trash bin. Looking down at her clothes, she decided she could get through the day just fine. Luckily the coffee had only splashed onto her shoes and the bottoms of her khaki pants.

No one would be looking at her feet anyway. “What’s going on,” she answered him, “is that I made myself a cup of coffee, and then I turned away from the counter and my wrist bumped that unnecessarily huge toaster oven you insisted on bringing, my mug broke, and coffee went everywhere. Literally everywhere. We’re going to have to paint the ceiling.” She saw his smile and pointed a finger at him. “Don’t you dare laugh.” He covered his mouth with one hand. She stomped past him, out to the foyer. “I’ll get coffee at Komorrah’s on the way in. Now go get ready.

I don’t want to be late for work on our first day back from vacation.” Noah stood at the bottom of the steps. “You could shower with me. We could have a repeat of last night. It will make you feel better.” He was right, sex would make her feel better, but they didn’t have time. “The Chief will be all over both our asses if we’re late,” she said. “That’s the last thing I need today.” The two of them worked for the city of Denton, Pennsylvania’s police department— Josie as a detective and Noah as a lieutenant. Their small team did its best to cover roughly twenty-five square miles across the untamed mountains of central Pennsylvania with one-lane winding roads, dense woods, and rural residences spread out like carelessly thrown confetti.

The population was edging over thirty thousand—even more than that when Denton University was in Fall or Spring session—just a large enough population to keep their department consistently busy. Josie and Noah had been dating for about a year and a half and had only moved in together a month earlier. It had been more of an adjustment than Josie had thought it would be. She had lived alone for several years now and although she regularly entertained friends and family, living with Noah on a permanent basis required more compromise than she had anticipated. Ten minutes later, Noah slid into the passenger’s seat of Josie’s vehicle, the sight of his still-damp, tousled brown hair softening her mood. For a moment, her mind flashed back to the hours they’d spent in bed on vacation—every bit as passionate as last night’s activities—and she wished they were back at the beach. With a sigh, she backed the car out of her driveway as Noah buttoned up his Denton PD polo shirt and said, “You know, a toaster oven does a lot more than just a regular toaster.” Josie groaned. “It’s too big. It takes up so much counter space.

” “Counter space you use for what? All the cooking you do?” He was being sarcastic but not malicious. Josie swatted his shoulder with the back of her right hand. “Touché,” she said. “I lost the bed argument. You have to give me the toaster oven.” Josie shot him a raised-brow look. “It wasn’t an argument. My bed is bigger and newer than yours. It just made sense to keep it and get rid of yours.” They pulled up in front of Kommorah’s Koffee and Noah opened his door.

“I’ll get the coffee,” he said. “Then you’ll forgive me and agree to keep the toaster oven.” Josie laughed. “Get Gretchen some pecan croissants while you’re in there, and I’ll think about letting you keep the ginormous toaster oven that does not fit into my kitchen.” “Our kitchen,” Noah said as he shut the door and jogged into the café. Ten minutes later, Josie deposited a brown paper bag filled with pecan croissants in front of Detective Gretchen Palmer, who sat at her desk in the Denton PD’s bullpen—a collection of desks in the center of the large room on the second floor where officers did paperwork, made calls, and conducted research. Josie, Noah, Detective Gretchen Palmer and their newest Detective, Finn Mettner, had permanent desks, whereas the other desks were shared by the rest of the officers. The receiver of Gretchen’s desk phone was pressed to her ear. Her face lit up at the sight of the Komorrah’s bag. To the person on the phone, she said, “Can you hold on just a second?” She pressed the hold button.

As she looked up, Josie noticed the deep circles under her eyes. Josie said, “Have you guys been busy?” Gretchen nodded. “I think this August heat is making everyone crazy. Lots of domestics, a few bar brawls, and some stolen cars. What I’ve got on the phone is a lot more complicated. You guys want it?” Noah took a seat at his desk which faced Gretchen’s diagonally. “What is it?” “Couple of bodies in the woods,” Gretchen replied. “We’ll take it,” Josie said. Noah laughed. “Not so fast, Quinn.

Let’s hear more.” Josie said, “Gretchen’s been here all night. If she takes it, she’ll be here all day too.” “I know,” Noah said. “I was joking. Have some more coffee and let’s hear the rundown.” Gretchen nodded toward her phone. “The game commission officers have been out inspecting the woods in anticipation of hunting season which starts soon.” Josie said, “State gameland is to the south of us, though. That’s Lenore County, not Alcott.

” “Right,” Gretchen said. “Initially, the wildlife officer assumed it was Lenore County jurisdiction but when he called the Lenore sheriff’s office out to the scene, they said it’s Alcott County. Guy says where they found the bodies is actually part of Denton.” Josie felt her phone vibrate in the pocket of her jeans. She ignored it, letting it go to voicemail as Gretchen turned her computer monitor so both Josie and Noah could view it. She pointed to a thin ribbon of road snaking through miles of forest marked as State Route 9227. It was a largely rural route that skirted the edge of Denton proper, running north to south through the city into Lenore County below. Gretchen said, “He says it’s right here, a couple of miles from where this route intersects with…” Gretchen put her reading glasses on and leaned closer to the screen. “Otto Road.” “Not sure about the jurisdiction there, but we can figure that out once we see where the actual scene is located,” said Josie.

“Homicide?” Noah asked. Gretchen shook her head. “They’re not sure. That’s why they want someone to go down there and have a look. I’m on the phone now with the sheriff’s deputy from Lenore County. His name’s Josh Moore. He says it looks like a couple were camping out in the woods and passed away. He said it’s an unusual scene but wouldn’t elaborate.” “Hmm,” Josie said, studying the screen as the vibration in her pocket started up again. Behind her, Noah said, “I think your phone is ringing.

” Josie pulled out her cell just as the call ended. Her stomach rolled. She knew what number she would see when she brought the notification up. Two missed calls from State Correctional Institute, Muncy. The state’s women’s prison. “You okay?” Noah asked as Josie clutched the phone to her chest so he wouldn’t see. “Fine,” she said. She pointed to Gretchen’s desk phone where one of the buttons blinked orange, indicating that Deputy Moore was still on hold. “Give him my cell phone number. Tell him we’ll meet him where Route 9227 meets Otto Road.

Then he can walk us out to the scene. Noah, grab some handheld GPS units. We’re going to need them to navigate that deep in the woods.” THREE Josie picked her way around the edges of the small campsite, Noah in tow. Behind him, Lenore sheriff’s deputy Josh Moore stood watching. She stopped next to a large red maple tree and wiped the sweat from her brow. Insects crowded her face and she waved them away. Glancing back at Moore, she was surprised to see he wasn’t sweating nearly as much as she and Noah were. He was in his mid-forties, Josie guessed, tall and thick like a tree trunk, but obviously fit since he hadn’t had any trouble leading them nearly two miles through the forest to this small campsite. Noah fiddled with the buttons on his handheld GPS device, attempting to zoom out.

The device took several seconds to power on and load. Noah grunted in frustration and said, “How far are we from the county line?” Moore shrugged. “Hard to say. Maybe a half mile. I do believe this is Denton, though.” Josie’s GPS unit worked more quickly. She studied the screen and agreed, “It is, technically. We’re maybe a quarter mile from the county line. This is our jurisdiction. You were right to call.

” Moore said, “Great. I’ll be on my way then.” Noah said, “You have something more pressing than two dead bodies?” Moore gave a humorless laugh. “This isn’t my jurisdiction.” Noah pointed toward the other side of the campsite. “You heard Detective Quinn. A quarter mile in that direction is your jurisdiction.” “But the bodies are here. In Denton.” Josie said, “Deputy Moore, I know you have to return to your duties in Lenore County, but could you just give us a few minutes to assess what’s happened here in case we need your assistance?” He gave a slight eye-roll.

Noah opened his mouth to speak, but Josie stopped him with a look. “A few minutes,” she said to them both and turned back toward the site. From the treeline, Josie studied the scene. A small blue tent had been erected to her right. One of its flaps had been tied open. From where Josie stood, it looked unoccupied. Several feet away from it, directly across from her, lay the remnants of a campfire: a ring of stones with smoldering wood and ash inside it. Against one of the opposite trees lay a rolled sleeping bag. All around the clearing lay various camping supplies, as though someone had walked around the site with their backpack hanging open, spilling items haphazardly, most of which appeared to be clothing. She could see a pair of bodies in the dirt, a man and a woman, positioned so their feet were near the campfire.

Josie took a step closer, her heart taking a couple of uneven beats in her chest. Walking up beside her, Noah murmured, “They almost look like they’re sleeping.” The bodies lay side by side on their backs, their hands clasped together. Josie saw a chunky gold band on the man’s wedding finger. They were young, probably not thirty yet. Both were dressed in khaki shorts. The man wore a blue T-shirt with the Nike swoosh logo emblazoned across it and the woman a tight-fitting purple tank top. Their lithe frames and well-worn hiking boots indicated they spent a lot of time outdoors. They hadn’t been dead long. Out in the middle of the Pennsylvania woods in the thick August heat, they would have started to smell a lot worse if they had been.

Josie snapped on a pair of gloves and stepped closer to the bodies, kneeling beside the woman’s head. She pointed to the woman’s mouth. “You can see signs of cyanosis— their lips are blue—and it looks like dried froth on their chins.” Moore took a tentative step from the trees into the campsite. “How long do you think they’ve been dead?” “Not long,” Josie said. “They haven’t even started to bloat yet. In this heat, decomposition would be fast.” Gently, she prodded the woman’s arm. It was stiff and unyielding. “They’re still in rigor mortis.

” She looked over toward the man and pointed to a blister on his cheek. “Maybe three to six hours?” Noah looked at his watch. “It’s eight fifteen now. So they died early this morning.” Josie sighed and stood up, panning the campsite again. “I’m thinking maybe they ingested something. I don’t see any signs of violence. No cuts, scrapes, or bruises. No stab or bullet wounds. No torn clothing.

” Noah motioned toward the trail of clothing and toiletries. “What about that?” “Not sure it indicates a struggle. It could have been one of them looking for something.” Moore’s voice came from the trees behind the tent. “Looks like we’ve got something over here.” Josie and Noah followed the sound of his voice several feet into the woods. Moore covered his nose and mouth with one hand, his eyes fixed on something on the ground. As the smell of vomit reached her, Josie identified several large piles of it scattered among the trees. Noah said, “Looks like whatever they ingested made them pretty damn sick before it killed them.” Josie looked at Moore.

“Can you take another look around the campsite, see if you find any more of this?” Moore raised a brow. “I shouldn’t even be here. I’ve got work to do in my own county.” Josie smiled tightly. “How about you search below the Lenore County line then? Will that work?” With a heavy sigh, Moore trudged off into the woods. Josie and Noah went back to the campers. “If they were sick,” Noah asked, “why didn’t they just go for help?” Josie said, “It’s at least a two-mile walk from here to any sign of civilization. Maybe they were too ill to move far.” She took out her cell phone and tapped in her passcode to bring up the home screen only to see another voicemail notification. She didn’t need to listen to it to know it was from Muncy.

A flash of her nightmare from the night before rushed at her. She didn’t realize she was swaying until she heard Noah’s voice. “You okay?” Josie looked up to see him staring at her with a quizzical look. She braced herself against a nearby tree and willed her mind and body to obey. This was work. She needed to focus. “Fine.” She held her phone up in the air. “I’ve only got one bar. Cell service isn’t great out here.

” “You think maybe they tried to call for help, but their phones didn’t work?” She nodded. Noah stepped toward the tent, leaning over and peering inside. “We should try to find their phones.” “Wait,” Josie told him. “I want to call Hummel and have the Evidence Response Team come out before we start moving things around.” He turned back toward her. “You think this is a homicide?” “I think it’s suspicious.” Noah looked back toward the bodies. “If they were that sick, they would have gone into the tent, not laid down on the ground to die.” He hooked a thumb back toward the tent.

“I saw one of those portable ceiling fans for tents in there. It probably would have been more comfortable for them in there, as sick as they were.” “That’s what I’m thinking,” Josie said. She pushed off the tree, testing her own steadiness. “Maybe it was some kind of suicide pact,” Noah suggested. “Maybe. Or maybe someone poisoned them and staged their bodies like this.” Noah frowned. “Not sure I’m sold on that, but we don’t know enough to make that determination.” “Exactly,” Josie said.

Phone still in hand, she punched in Hummel’s cell phone number. He picked up on the fourth ring and she briefed him as quickly as she could, then gave him the approximate location. “Noah will go back out to the road and wait for you,” she told him. “I don’t have great service out here so call the medical examiner before you leave.” She looked back toward the couple. Noah stood at their feet like a sentry. His face was flushed, a sheen of sweat covering his skin. Josie knew that the forecast called for a ninety-degree day. Very soon, the bodies would enter a more advanced stage of decomposition and it would not be pretty. “I want to get these people out of the woods as soon as possible,” she added.

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