Finding Answers, book 2 in my new Rescue Alaska Paranormal Mystery series, will launch on May 29th. A preview of chapter 1 is included below.
About the book:
Rescue Alaska is the eighth series by USA Today Bestselling Author Kathi Daley. It is a fast moving mystery series with a paranormal twist.
Rescue Alaska is a small town in northern Alaska where visitors come to hike and ski. Harmony Carson is a lifelong resident who volunteers as a member of the local search and rescue team. Harmony has a unique gift which she often considers a curse. She is able to ‘see’ the individuals she is meant to help rescue, and more often than not she can feel their fear and their pain as well. When she isn’t aiding in a rescue, Harmony works at Neverland – the bar owned by her brother in law Jake, and volunteers at the local animal shelter. Harmony lives in a rustic cabin with six dogs, four cats, six kittens, eight rabbits, and a blind mule named Homer.
In the second book in the series, Jake and Harmony are in the process of training a new search and rescue dog when they get a call that a four year old boy has gone missing from the cabin his family rented while on vacation. They join the search and rescue team, along with the local police, in the hope of finding the child before it is too late. Along the way they discover the freshly dumped body of an important member of the community. The police are stumped as to why this popular town resident would have been murdered, until a second community member goes missing and a disturbing pattern begins to emerge.
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Monday, June 18
He watched the boy skipping rocks across the clear, still water. From the cover of dense forest, he listened to the childish squeals of delight as the flat, hard surface of the stone met the firm, unyielding force of the lake. Each hop resulted in an ever-widening web of rings, each ring larger yet less intense than the one that came before. Life, he mused, was like those rings. The farther you traveled from the point of origin, the wider your reach, but the less intense the effect. He’d spent a lifetime struggling to affect change in the larger rings, but now, he’d decided, it was time to avenge the iniquities of his past, to claim the inner ring as his own.
Vinnie Truman had been missing for just over an hour. The four-year-old with the sandy blond hair, big green eyes, and a smattering of freckles had been playing with his eight-year-old brother, Kip, and six-year-old sister, Cammie, in the yard of the cabin his parents, Jim and Joan, had rented for their summer vacation. No one saw Vinnie wander away. No one could explain why he would have.
Both Jim and Joan swore they’d been keeping an eye on their children as they grilled burgers on the deck just off the kitchen. When we walked in, Joan had been telling Officer Houston that she’d only looked away for a minute and had no idea how Vinnie could simply have disappeared.
“She’s lying,” I whispered to my partner, Jake Cartwright, the Rescue, Alaska Search and Rescue captain.
“Why do you say that?” Jake asked, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the room, seemingly taking in the climate around us.
I looked toward the short blond woman who was wringing her hands in distress as she clung to the sturdy arm of the uniformed officer she was speaking to. “Her blouse is buttoned wrong, her feet are bare, and her hair is mussed. There may have been grilling going on, but it wasn’t in the kitchen, and they weren’t focused on their children.”
Jake snorted, I was sure, to suppress a chuckle. “Play nice,” he whispered as he stepped forward to greet the officer in charge.
“You got here fast,” Hank Houston, a tall, broad-shouldered man with chiseled features, dark hair, dark eyes, and a serious way about him, commented as he reached out to Jake.
“We were in the area,” Jake responded as he shook the man’s hand.
“This is Jim and Joan Truman,” Houston introduced the obviously distressed couple. “And this is Jake Cartwright from Rescue, Alaska.”
“Don’t worry. We’re going to do everything we can to find your boy,” Jake said, his voice gentle. He turned and gestured to me and the two dogs with us. “This is my teammate, Harmony Carson, and our canine helpers, Sitka and Yukon.”
“Officer Houston said he called for the search-and-rescue team,” Joan said through her tears. “There are only two of you.” I could see the woman was on the verge of hysteria, which could only serve to make the situation worse. “He’s just a little boy. He could be injured and is probably scared. Two just won’t do.”
“There are a half dozen police officers looking for your boy,” Houston assured her. “The search-and-rescue squad is well trained and familiar with the area. They can cover a lot of ground with just a few people and are here to lend a hand. I can assure you, ma’am, we’re doing everything we can to find Vinnie.”
Jake turned and looked at Joan. I watched the hard lines of his face soften as he took her hand in his. He’d been doing this a long time. He knew what to do: offer hope but get what you needed. “Harmony and I were running training exercises in the area when the call came in, so we came straight over, but we have four other highly trained members of our team in transit. We’ll do everything in our power to find your boy.”
Joan’s face softened slightly as I imagined her clinging to that promise. I watched as she smiled slightly at Jake and then looked doubtfully toward the dogs. “Can they find him? That one looks so young.”
Jake’s hand visibly tightened on Joan’s. “Yukon is still a puppy, but he’s been doing very well with his training, and Sitka is a veteran search-and-rescue dog. He has dozens of rescues under his belt. He’s one of the best at what he does, and I know he’ll do his very best to find your boy. We’re going to need your help, however. The most important thing you can do now is to stay strong. Can you do that?”
The woman nodded.
“Okay, good.” Jake shot her a look of approval. That seemed to calm her somewhat. “First, I’ll need a recent photo of Vinnie.”
The man Houston had introduced as Vinnie’s father handed Jake a photo he’d been holding since we’d arrived. Jake looked at it, then handed it to me. I tried to ignore the noise in the room and focus on the curious eyes and crooked grin of the boy we’d been tasked to find.
“I’ll need a couple of pieces of clothing Vinnie’s worn,” Jake added. “The more recently they were worn, the better. Perhaps his pajamas.”
“I’ll get them,” Vinnie’s dad said, seeming grateful for something to do.
Jake nodded at him, then turned his attention back to Vinnie’s mother. “How long have you been staying at this cabin?”
“Almost a week.” She ran a hand over her face.
“And I understand Vinnie has been missing about an hour?” Jake continued.
Vinnie’s mother nodded. “Yes. We tried looking for him ourselves for a while before we called the police.”
Jake continued. “Is there anywhere you’ve walked in the past week that seemed to fascinate Vinnie? Anywhere he might want to return to?”
Vinnie’s mother shook her head. “No. He was supposed to stay in the yard. I only looked away for a minute.”
Jake looked at me. “Are you picking up anything?”
I shook my head. “Not yet.” Jake didn’t bother to explain to Jim and Joan that I was often able to connect with people I was destined to help rescue. It certainly wasn’t an exact science, and I wasn’t always able to do it, but I felt as emotionally connected to the child in the photo as I felt irritated by the woman who’d been canoodling with her husband rather than watching her children.
“Where was the last place you saw your son, ma’am?” I asked as I tried to get a visual image that could help me to get a read on the boy.
“I don’t know. I can’t remember. It happened so suddenly.” The woman was gesturing wildly with her hands, as if to make me, to make us all, understand. “One minute he was there and the next he was gone.” A fresh stream of tears started down the woman’s face. “I only looked away for a minute.”
“So you’ve said,” I responded as I glanced down at the photo once again. I know it isn’t my job to judge the actions of the people we’re tasked to help, and I didn’t have children, so I wasn’t an expert when it came to the supervision of the under-ten crowd, but what I did know was that if I ever did have a child, which was highly unlikely, I wouldn’t leave him or her unattended in the Alaskan wilderness.
“You’ll find my boy?” Vinnie’s mother pleaded after I glanced up from the photo.
“We’ll try,” I answered. The team I belonged to was one of the best anywhere, our survival record unmatched. Still, I’d learned at an early age that when you’re battling Mother Nature, even the best teams occasionally came out on the losing end. I looked at Jake. “I’m going to head outside with the dogs. I might have better luck in a quiet environment.”
After leaving the house, I sat down on a bench and instructed both dogs to sit at my feet. Sitka was an old pro at this sort of thing and waited patiently for the hunt to begin, while Yukon, sensing that something important was up, danced around on the end of his lead. I scratched him behind the ears before instructing him, again, to sit and wait. Thankfully, he did. Yukon had so much raw talent, I was certain he was going to be as good a search-and-rescue dog as Sitka eventually, but he was less than a year old and, at times, still easily distracted.
Once Yukon settled into the wait position next to Sitka, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’m not sure why I’m able to connect psychically with those I’m meant to rescue. It isn’t that I can feel the pain of everyone who’s suffering; it seems to be only those we’re meant to help that find their way onto my radar. I’m not entirely sure where the ability comes from, but I know when I acquired it. When I was seventeen, my sister Val, who was also my legal guardian after our parents’ death in a car accident, went out on a rescue. She got lost in a storm, and although the team tried to find her, they came up with nothing but dead ends. I remember sitting at the command post, praying harder than I ever had. I wanted so much to have the chance to tell Val how much I loved her and, suddenly, there she was, in my head. I could feel her pain, but I also felt the prayer in her heart. I knew she was dying, but I could feel her love for me as her life slipped away. I’d tried to tell the others I knew where she was, but they’d thought my ramblings were those of an emotionally distraught teenager dealing with the fallout of shock and despair. When the team eventually found Val’s body exactly where and how I’d told them they would, they began to believe I’d made a connection with the only family I’d had left in the world.
Since then, I’ve used my gift to locate and rescue dozens of people. I couldn’t save them all, but today, I was determined that our search for Vinnie would result in a check in the Save column. I tried to focus on the image of the child with the mischievous grin. I sensed water and was picking up the feeling of curiosity rather than fear. That was good. Chances are, as I suspected, the boy had wandered off chasing a rabbit or some other small creature and hadn’t even realized he was lost yet. It was a warm day, and Vinnie’s mother had assured us that he wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a hooded sweatshirt, so at least we didn’t have the elements to worry about, as we did with so many of the winter rescues on which we were called out.
I heard Yukon begin to whine. I opened my eyes and saw team members Wyatt Forrester, Dani Matthews, Landon Stanford, and Austin Brown walking toward us. Yukon stood up, preparing to greet some of his favorite people.
“Sit and wait,” I reminded the pup.
He plopped his butt on the ground but continued to wag his tail. Beside him, Sitka thumped his tail without having moved an inch.
The group stopped several feet short of the dogs. The animals were working, so playful scratches and enthusiastic kisses would have to wait.
“Any news?” Dani asked.
“Jake is inside, talking to the parents. I’m sure he’ll be out soon. I haven’t been able to establish a clear connection to the boy, but I sense water near his current location. I don’t think he realizes he’s lost. I sense curiosity but not fear.”
Wyatt was about to say something when Jake walked out of the house with two plastic bags, each containing a piece of clothing Vinnie had worn.
“Anything?” Jake asked me.
I told him what I’d just told the others.
“There are two bodies of water nearby,” Jake said. “Eagle Lake is about a half mile up the mountain and Glacier Lake is about a half mile down the mountain from here.” Jake looked around, as if sizing up the situation. “The family has hiked in both directions within the past twenty-four hours. It’s likely the dogs will pick up the boy’s scent in either direction, at least initially. We’ll divide into two groups. I’ll take Sitka, Dani, and Austin and head up the mountain. Harmony and Yukon can work with Wyatt and Landon and head toward the lower lake.” Jake looked at me. “If Yukon picks up a strong scent, radio and we can discuss a strategy. If you make a stronger connection to Vinnie, or are able to pick up anything more specific, let us know.”
Jake, as Sitka’s handler, and me, as Yukon’s, each took a plastic bag. Once we’d cleared the yard, we let our dogs sniff the piece of clothing, telling them repeatedly, “This is Vinnie; find Vinnie.” When the dogs seemed to understand what it was we were asking, we took them off their leads, then followed. I trailed directly behind Yukon, while Wyatt walked parallel to my route to the right and Landon paralleled to the left.
Once Sitka had a scent, he was usually very focused on the task at hand, so the odds of Jake and his team finding Vinnie if he had traveled up the mountain were great. Yukon, on the other hand, was pretty green. He had been abandoned on my doorstep five months earlier, and I, as I always did, had taken him in. Over the course of the next month, I’d worked to teach him the house rules. During his training, I’d noticed what I felt was an innate ability to find whatever it was I sent him to look for. I spoke to Jake, and he agreed to help me train him for search and rescue. We’d discussed needing a second dog. Yukon caught on to the training like a fish to water, and although he’d only been training for a few months, he’d already been successful in locating the victim in five different simulations. Of course, a real rescue was a lot more intense than a simulation for both dog and handler, and this was the first time he’d participated in a real rescue without Sitka by his side to show him how it was done.
Yukon headed into the dense foliage of the nearby forest and I followed. I glanced at Wyatt, who was perhaps fifty yards to my right, and then Landon, who was fifty yards to my left. They nodded, letting me know they were able to follow despite the rough terrain. I glanced at Yukon, who sniffed the air and headed deeper into the forest. While we searched, I kept an eye on him, but basically let him do his thing. After several minutes, he alerted, showing interest where a fallen tree blocked the path. “Did you find something?” Yukon sniffed the log and wagged his tail. “Good boy.” I looked around and called Vinnie’s name. Nothing. I stood perfectly still and closed my eyes. I waited for a vision to appear. I could sense the boy, and, as before, he didn’t seem frightened. But there was something. Something dark. Something menacing. I tried to hone in on it, but I couldn’t get a clear reading, so I tied a flag to a tree branch to mark the spot, then took the pajama top out of the bag. I once again held it under Yukon’s nose. “This is Vinnie. Find Vinnie.” Yukon set off down the trail. I went after him.
I knew once Vinnie realized he was lost, fear would overcome him. That would help me to connect with him, yet I hoped for his sake we’d find him before he became terrified. The forest was thick with evergreens and underbrush. Yukon had left the trail after we’d come across the fallen log, which meant Vinnie most likely had left the trail as well. The area was home to a variety of wildlife, including grizzlies, wolves, and cougars. It was dangerous for anyone to veer off the established trail, but it was especially dangerous for little boys who had no idea that danger lurked in the dark places beyond the clearing.
It wasn’t easy to both follow Yukon and focus on Vinnie. If we didn’t either hear from Jake or find him in the next few minutes, I’d call to the dog to take a break.
As we approached the lake, Yukon alerted again. As before, I stopped and looked around. I called for Vinnie and then listened. I closed my eyes and tried desperately to make a connection. This time, the vision was a bit clearer. Vinnie had stopped what he was doing to look around. He must have realized he was lost and, as predicted, curiosity had been replaced by fear.
“Harmony to Jake,” I said through the radio.
“I have a vision. He’s near Glacier Lake.”
“We’re on our way.”
I closed my eyes and focused again. He was terrified. Fear and panic fueled the boy as he ran through the underbrush. I cringed as I saw him trip over something. Pain. Now the fear was mingled with pain. He got up and tried to run, but the pain was too much. When he fell again, he simply sat on the ground, clutching his ankle and screaming for help. I took a deep breath. There was something else. Darkness. Danger.
I opened my eyes and looked at Yukon. “Find Vinnie. We need to find Vinnie.” I gave him another sniff of the pajama top and waited. He sniffed the air, then took off at a run. I tried unsuccessfully to keep up with him and was about to call him back when I heard three sharp barks.
“Vinnie,” I called as loudly as I could.
“Here. I’m here.”
I headed down the trail as quickly as I could manage. Sprawled on the ground was a terrified little boy with his arms around Yukon, who gently licked the tears from his face.
“Good boy,” I said to Yukon. I knelt next to Vinnie. “Are you hurt?”
“My ankle. I hurt my ankle.”
I radioed Jake to let him know I’d found Vinnie. He would need to be carried back to the cabin, so I waited for Wyatt and Landon to catch up.
“Other than your ankle, do you hurt anywhere?” I asked.
The boy shook his head. He was smiling now that Yukon had settled in next to him. “I was lost. I was on the trail, but then I looked around and nothing looked right. I was so scared. I ran as fast as I could. I wanted to get home, but then I fell.”
I looked back the way Vinnie had traveled. “Did you trip on a log?”
Vinny wiped the tears from his dirt-streaked face. “I don’t know. I didn’t see.”
“Help is on the way. We’ll get you home in no time. You’re safe now.”
“Mama will be mad. I’m not supposed to leave the yard.” The boy began to sob. “I’m going to get a time-out. I hate time-outs.”
I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and used it to wipe away the boy’s tears. “I can’t say for certain, but I think your mom will be so happy to see you that she might forget to be mad. Still, the rule about staying in the yard is a good one. You could have been in real trouble if Yukon hadn’t found you. There are all sorts of things out here that can hurt a little boy.”
I nodded. “Yes, like bears. And cougars, and wolves, and all sorts of animals that might be lurking nearby, waiting to attack.”
The boy began to sob hysterically. Yukon began to lick his face frantically to offer comfort. Okay, so maybe I oversold the danger angle. I didn’t mean to traumatize the kid; I just wanted him to understand the potential consequences of his actions.
“What’s wrong?” Wyatt said, arriving in the nick of time as far as I was concerned. He bent down and picked the boy up in his arms. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” The boy began to hiccup from hysteria.
“So why all the tears?”
“I was bad and a bear might have ate me.”
Wyatt looked at me and raised a brow.
I lifted a shoulder. “It’s not like I have experience talking to kids. Dogs are more my thing.”
Wyatt winked at me. “You did good. Yukon too. Let’s get this scared little boy back to his parents.”
“Wait,” I said as Wyatt turned to head back to the cabin. I stood up and slowly scanned the forest as Landon arrived. I could still sense the darkness I’d picked up before. I couldn’t identify what I was feeling, but an iciness settled into my chest. I felt pain and hopelessness and death. “There’s someone else. Someone near death.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated. The image of a man’s face filtered through my mind, but it was blurry and out of focus. It was as if the man was passing in and out of consciousness, letting me in and then pushing me out. “Oh God,” I whispered.
“What is it?” Wyatt asked. “What do you see?”
I glanced at Vinnie, who looked scared to death. I tried to level my voice despite the intense grief that had gripped my body. “Go ahead and take Vinnie back to his parents. Landon, Yukon, and I will try to find the source of my vision.”
Wyatt looked uncertain, but he didn’t argue. He nodded and began walking back toward the cabin. When he was out of sight, I closed my eyes and tried to see the face of the man again. Landon stood quietly next to me, holding Yukon’s lead. He took my hand in his free one and held on tight. He’d been with me long enough to know how draining this was for me.
“Anything?” Landon asked in a voice so soft I barely heard him.
“It isn’t focused. It’s a man. I can’t see his face. He’s hurt. His image is fading in and out. He doesn’t want to let me in.” My breath caught as I connected just in time to experience what I was sure was the man’s last breath. I shook my head, then opened my eyes. “He’s gone.”
I looked through the dense forest. “I don’t know. I wasn’t linked for more than a few seconds. He was resisting, but I managed to connect right at the end, when his only choice was to surrender. Now that he’s dead I can’t sense him.” I looked around at the thick trees. “We’ll need help to find him.” I radioed Jake and informed him of the situation, then Landon, Yukon, and I began to search for the man I had seen in my mind.
Jake’s dog, Sitka, had been trained to find missing people as well as those who had already passed on. Yukon was training to follow a specific scent, as we’d just done with Vinnie, but he had no training as a cadaver dog. Our best bet at finding the man whose death I had just experienced was to force myself to remember everything about that moment. Everything I had seen, heard, smelled, and felt.
“The man was lying on the ground,” I said in a soft voice. “He was cold. Weak. Wet, perhaps. He was partially covered, but the purpose of the cover wasn’t to provide warmth but camouflage.”
“You said wet? Is he near the water?” Landon asked.
“Maybe. It’s dark. The trees in the area are dense.” I opened my eyes and scanned the area. I could remember the pain, the fear, the urge to fight, and then the peace that came with the decision to give in and float away from the world toward whatever came next.
“Are you okay?” Landon asked.
Landon used his thumb to wipe a tear from my cheek. “I know it’s painful.”
“It’s okay. I’m okay,” I assured him. There are times I want to run from the images and feelings that threaten to overwhelm and destroy me, but I know embracing the pain and the fear is my only path to the answers I seek. “In the last moment of his life, there was fear, anger, and pain, but something else as well.” I focused harder.
“Acceptance and,” I tried to remember, “penance. He was sorry for something he did and with his last breath was seeking forgiveness.”
“From whom?” Landon asked.
I opened my eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe God. Maybe himself. Maybe someone he’d wronged.” I continued to scan the forest, looking for something familiar. The only thing I could see in my vision was trees, which didn’t help me a bit because there were trees everywhere.
“Do you remember anything from your vision that will help us know where to look?” Landon asked again. “Anything at all that will help us narrow things down?”
“There were trees and it was dark.” I took a breath and forced my mind to calm and focus. “The ground was gently sloped and covered with wild grass.” I bit my lip as I tried to get a feeling for direction. “There.” I pointed into the distance.
Landon set off in the direction I indicated with Yukon at his side. I followed closely behind. Shortly after we’d entered the densest part of the forest, Yukon began to whine.
“Do you have the scent?”
Yukon barked three times.
“Let him go,” I instructed Landon. “He may not be trained to retrieve those who have passed on, but he’s a dog and better able to pick up scent than either of us.”
It didn’t take long. No longer, really, than it took to take a breath for Yukon to find the body. I felt my knees weaken and my stomach lurch. “It’s Pastor Brown.” I gasped as Landon bent down and took a closer look at the man who was partially covered by the thick underbrush.
“If only we’d been a few minutes sooner,” I said to Landon as he pulled away the vines and ferns that someone seemed to have arranged from the man’s body. He knelt and felt for a pulse, then shook his head. The pastor’s throat had been slit and he had a piece of duct tape across his mouth.
“He couldn’t even scream,” I said, as if that somehow made it worse.
“I wonder how he got here,” Landon said.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Yukon began to growl from deep in his chest as I scanned our surroundings. I didn’t see or hear anything, but my intuition told me that Pastor Brown’s killer was still nearby. “Someone brought him here. Someone who’s still here.”
Landon stood up and looked around. “I don’t see anything. Are you sure you sense a second person?”
“I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I do sense someone. I don’t feel as if he’s a threat to us, though. I’ll call Jake to have him fill Officer Houston in on what we’ve found.”
I made the call, then returned my attention to Landon, who was still standing over the body. We both knew not to touch him because we could destroy evidence, but in that moment not touching was very difficult indeed. I’d felt the man’s life leave his body. There was a voice in my head that demanded I do something better than simply stand there.
“It looks like he’d been swimming,” I said. He was soaking wet, but he was fully dressed, and it was much too cold to have gone swimming in a lake whose source was melting snow, so the idea was probably ridiculous.
“I doubt that, but he is wet,” Landon replied. He nodded to the pastor’s bloody wrists without touching him. “It looks like he was bound at some point, though there are no signs of any ropes here.”
“Maybe he was tossed from a boat and swam to shore,” I suggested. “Once he made it to land, the cold-blooded killer who dumped him in the water slit his throat and left him to die.”
“Maybe,” Landon replied. “Someone tried to camouflage the body. I’m guessing he’d passed out before he died. Maybe he was tossed from a boat and swam to shore before he was killed.” Landon paused and turned his head. “It sounds like the others are almost here.”