The Disappearance


      Gladys Collins could not possibly have walked very far in a few hours, her husband Frank thought: At 74, she was afflicted with arthritis, using a cane or walker to minimize the pain. Also, he said, she was showing some early signs of dementia. He thought someone must have picked her up, and taken the walker, too.

Merritt Wilson had been chief of security at Harmony Acres only four months, but had made a point of recognizing – well enough to call them by name – most of the 300-some residents of the retirement community. He remembered Mrs. Collins as petite, pretty, well-dressed – not frowsy like some older women – and white-haired, like almost everyone here. Slight enough that a man of ordinary strength could hoist her on a shoulder, or carry her piggyback – or cram her into a car.
But early on a summer morning? Who would have wanted to spirit her away? And would she have gone willingly? Wouldn’t she have made a pyrotechnic fuss if forced into a car? Could she be distant enough from reality to be flattered by attention?
      At the apartment, Mr. Collins showed him a recent portrait photo. Yes, that was the lady he remembered. A regular participant in fitness classes, the husband said, and swam almost every day.
      “Forgive my asking, sir, but how far has the dementia gone?”
      “Quite all right. I understand. She’s been more forgetful the last few weeks.”
      “Did she have a handbag with her?”
      “I don’t think so. The one she always uses is here still.” He picked up a small black metallic-mesh clutch and thumbed through it. “Coin purse. Wallet with credit cards, COVID-shot card, ATM. Near as I can tell, she’s taken with her nothing to access money.”
      “And you’ve had nothing like a ransom demand?”
      “Not so far, at least.”
      “Not by phone, email, text message?”
      “Up to half an hour ago. Wait, let me check again.” He took his cellphone from the pocket of an old-fashioned vest that was only half buttoned. “No, nothing new.”

      Merritt Wilson had taken this job with a background and experience managing maintenance of retirement communities like Harmony Acres; director of security had seemed like a minor add-on assignment. He never expected to deal with what police call crimes-against-person, let alone encountering a missing-person case. He would need help.
      The anguished-sounding call from Mr. Collins had come just before eight. 7:51, to be exact. Merritt had just been arriving; Mike Alban, at the security desk, had the quick wit to get him patched in to hear the call. The husband said he’d wakened to find his wife missing.
      “I thought at first she was in the bathroom,” he said on that initial phone call. “But I didn’t hear water running. After a few minutes I called out. She didn’t answer, so I got up and looked around the apartment. Realized the walker was gone. Went out in the hall. Shouted her name. Nothing.”
      Merritt hurried to the apartment, a big fifth-floor unit right next to an elevator. “Do you know what she was wearing?” And more important: “Was she wearing her alert pendant?” All residents were supposed to wear an electronic pendant button with which they could summon help. It would also detect a fall – and had a geolocator capacity, which might prove a godsend.
      Mr. Collins had to go look about the pendant. He came back to say she wore it 24-7 except when showering, and it wasn’t in the bathroom where she usually hung it while bathing, so he assumed she was wearing it. Good.
      He was less helpful about her clothing. He didn’t look his age – a big strapping man, handsome, bushy head of gray hair, no beard or moustache, might pass for late-60s. But he was a typical many-years-married male, paying little attention to his wife’s appearance.
      She always laid out slacks and a blouse and shoes on a chair when she went to bed, he said, but he hardly took notice and couldn’t remember details. Dark slacks, he thought. Blouse? Flowery, maybe. The kind of shoes – black? – that she could slip into while standing up, because bending over made her dizzy. But comfortable; maybe loafers.
      Merritt already had Mike Alban and another security guy, Peter Kilduff, out scouring the corridors near the Collins apartment, then going on to canvass all the hallways and commons rooms, and poke around the walks and gardens outside. Now he phoned Pierre, the IT guy, to have him do whatever would save all the video the security cameras had recorded in the last 12 hours.
      “Pierre, we have cameras at the two places where a vehicle enters or leaves the campus, right? . . . . How hard is it to skim through those to see if there’s been any unusual traffic since dawn today? . . . . Well, yes, our own employees going off shift or coming on. But I’m interested in any vehicle that arrives and then leaves not long after. . . . . Good, do it please.”
      The poor husband was hearing all this, probably only half-understanding. “Sorry, sir. Just looking for any clues that might demand early attention.”
      “I surmised as much. Thank you.” Mr. Collins went back to buttoning that vest; its half-buttoning had been mis-aligned and he’d had to unbutton it all and start again, poor worried fellow.
      Mike Alban phoned. There were only a few residents up and about yet, and none of them had seen Mrs. Collins – or any strangers. Merritt told him to go back to the office, look up the number of her alert pendant and have Pierre initiate a signal to identify where it was.
      Meanwhile, he phoned the town police department. He’d made a point of getting to know Deputy Chief Charles Kline, who headed the detective bureau, and had generously come out one day for a get-acquainted lunch. They’d liked each other.
      He was in. “Can you come over, Charlie? I have a missing person, possibly. Maybe a kidnaping; I definitely need help. Thanks. Come to the front entrance. I’ll have someone bring you up. Apartment 5217.” He phoned Millie Goodwin, who was holding down the security desk, to watch for the Chief.
      Meanwhile, he should try to get an orderly narrative out of the husband. His early calm had deteriorated; he was visibly distraught, more discombobulated than you’d expect of a mature man who must have some executive experience. Having finished his buttoning, he’d apparently been phoning their children while Merritt got his search organized. He now seemed close to tears, unexpected in such a fit-looking man. But even Tarzan might weep if Jane mysteriously disappeared, right?
Merritt took Mr. Collins into the kitchenette to make a cup of instant coffee and get it creamed and sugared to his taste, calming him down. Then after a bit he led him back to the little living room, seating him on the sofa with a nice, serene view out a big picture window toward the forest and meadows of The Reserve. The sky already had a brassy look; it was going to be a hot August day.
      They’d hardly settled down when Millie brought Charlie Kline up. “Thank you for coming so quickly, Chief.”
      “Charlie will do, Merritt. Glad to come. Sounds like every minute may count.”
      “Mr. Collins was just beginning to offer an organized narrative, explaining that his wife is an earlier riser than he is. I’ll be glad to have you take over.”
      “Fair enough. Sir, if your wife is up early, she must be abed early, too?”
      “Yes, she is.” . . . . How early, sir? . . . . “Say ten o’clock.” . . . . And you? . . . . “I’m a night owl. I watch the late news, and then look for a movie.” . . . . So you don’t get to bed until? . . . . “After two, most nights.”. . . She doesn’t waken when you come to bed?. . . “Oh, no, we have separate bedrooms. Have for years. Used to be romantic when I tiptoed in with a kiss, y’know, but not nowadays.” . . . . So she’s up before you most mornings? . . . . “Absolutely, every morning. By dawn’s early light, so to speak. By six, I’ll bet.”. . . . And you?. . . . “A bit before 8, usually, like today; sometimes 9 or even 10.”
      Merritt’s phone interrupted. Mike Alban, reporting on Pierre’s effort to ping Mrs. Collins’ pendant. “Not found, the display read, boss. I tried it twice. It’s either turned off or out of range.”
      “Damn.” If she was wearing the gadget, and it was working, she had to be well off the campus. “All right, Mike, stand down while we do some planning up here.”
      He shared that news, then encouraged a return to the narrative. So she’s up at 6, the Chief prompted. Any idea what she does while you’re sleeping? . . . . “Time was she went bird-watching. She was good; could identify a lot of them just by song.” . . . . So she’d go out into The Reserve? . . . . “Out there every day, back then.”
      Merritt reminded Chief Kline: Harmony Acres adjoined a huge tract of wild-grass-and-weed meadows and nondescript forest that everyone called The Reserve. It had been diked in the 1950s into a flood control reservoir. In heavy, sustained rain like last week’s, it became a string of ponds that released the impounded water slowly, averting downstream flooding. Most of the year it was dry. Harmony Acres volunteers had built a network of paths that were favorites for walks.
      Chief Kline put his pen down, looking up. Merritt didn’t need to wait for the question. “Chief, we haven’t searched out there yet.”
      “Would her alert pendant have responded from the Reserve?”
      The husband tried to intervene. “No point!”
      Merritt shushed him. “I don’t think so. Let me ask my guy.” He dialed the security office again, murmured into the phone, listened, hung up. “Apparently not. Mike says they’ve tested. They lose the signal even before the gadget reaches the first trees.”
      Chief Kline: “Mr. Collins, is there any chance your wife might have gone for a walk in The Reserve, and maybe fell down out there, couldn’t get up?”
      “Not a chance. That’s what I was trying to tell you! No point in wasting resources. She had . . . . she has trouble walking in a level hallway these days. On those paths, she’d be flat on her face in no time. And often, even in the hallway, she couldn’t actually roll her walker; she’d have to lift it up and down, like years ago, before they had wheels.”
      The Chief scowled, his forehead creased under the bill of his uniform cap. Time for Merritt to take the lead in pressing the husband. “You sure? She must have left the apartment on her own this morning, right? Maybe she just went down to the end of the paved sidewalk to hear the birds. You say you sleep pretty soundly.”
      “Pretty unlikely. Nowadays she has a little breakfast, gets the paper that’s been delivered out in the hall, reads the news, tries the crossword. When I get up, I put her dishes in the machine, collect the sections of the paper she’s scattered, check the puzzle.”
      “How does she do?”
      “Terrible. She used to do crosswords in ink, y’know? She uses a pencil now, one with an eraser. There are usually only a few words filled in when I find it.”
      “Had she done any of that this morning?”
      “Nope. The paper was on the hallway floor just outside the door. I wonder if someone was waiting in the hall to grab her.”
      Chief Kline took charge again. “Merritt, it’s time we go downstairs and see what we can learn from the security cameras. But first, Mr. Collins, may I borrow that photograph of your wife? I’m going to get out a missing-person bulletin. Is that a pretty good likeness? Recent?”
      “Spot on. Less than a year ago. Do you need to take it out of the frame? I . . . .” he swallowed. “I want to have it, if you know what I mean.”
      “Not even going to take it away.” The Chief took out his smartphone, tinkered with placement to avoid reflections, and snapped a few photos. “There you go,” and handed it back. “Wait a minute, now.” He thumbed the phone. “On its way to headquarters. They’ll have it broadcast in a few minutes. Every cop within ten miles keeping an eye out for her.”
      “You going to be all right if we leave you for a bit?” Merritt asked Mr. Collins solicitously.
      “The kids are coming over to keep me company, thanks. And there’s a neighbor down the hall, a younger woman, who kind of took my wife under her wing. She may drop in. I’ll be okay.”
      They paused at the doorway, where a tall, widemouthed ceramic jug on the floor held, among other things, a half-dozen canes. “Quite a collection,” Merritt observed. “Looks like a real ivory handle on that one.”
      “Some of them are hand-me-downs,” Mr. Collins explained. “The ivory-handled was my dad’s, late in his life. Two were mine when I had a knee replaced. Every cane is a little different, y’know? You have to find what works for you. My wife tried several before she found one that was really comfortable.”
      “Is that one here now?”
      “Good question. Let me look. It’s one that folds up so she can take it along when she uses the walker. No, I don’t see it.”
      “And what’s this tall thing? As tall as my shoulder!”
      What Merritt would remember later as an awkward smile, almost forced. “Oh, that! A light bulb changer, for ceiling lights. It . . . uh . . . she got it for me years ago, so I wouldn’t be tempted to do something stupid like climb up on a chair to change a ceiling light. We brought it from the house when we moved here five years ago.”
      “But our maintenance crews change bulbs for people, just so – as you said – you won’t do stupid things.”
      “You’re right. I’ve never used it here. Keep it just in case, though, y’know? No point in throwing away an expensive toy that might come in handy some day.”
      “Got it. Well, thanks for your time. We’ll be back.”

      “What do you think, Merritt?” Charlie Kline hardly let the apartment door shut before he began comparing notes; good police work, Merritt thought, assuring that every detail was remembered.
      “I think he doesn’t want us poking around in The Reserve. Which I find strange.”
      “Understood. So far, there are no clues pointing in any other direction. But he made a pretty convincing case that she’d find that damned near impossible. And if she’s been abducted, that’s an unlikely direction for an attacker to take her.”
      “But still. She could be out there with a broken leg, pestered by mosquitoes and wondering why her husband hasn’t come looking for her.”
      “If she in fact got out there by herself. And is still alive. Wait a minute!” Charlie went down on one knee to peer at the carpet. He seemed fixed on a square clod of what looked like half-dried mud, no bigger than a pencil eraser. “How often does your housekeeping staff vacuum the hallways, Merritt?”
      “Every day.”
      “Which means this chunk of moist mud is relatively fresh.” The Chief took a small plastic box out of his briefcase and scooped up the tiny clod. The box had a fluff of cotton ball so the specimen wouldn’t rattle around. “I’ll tell you about that in a minute.”
      “Okay. Here’s the elevator. Let’s go find out what my guys have learned from the cameras.”
      “Or maybe phone them? This is your turf, and you can visualize it, but I can’t. I’d like to see where she probably left the building.”
      Part of the architectural charm of Harmony Acres was that it was built on a rolling hillside, so that Floor 1 was ground level at the far side, foot of the hill, whereas here, near the top of the hill – it would be a dozen steps from the elevator to the outside door – ground level was at Floor 3. One elevator stop further down would have put them in the underground garage.
      Both men squinted as they stepped out that door into achingly bright sunshine, and turned instinctively to look away from that solar onslaught.
“Door 23. Driveway ten steps ahead,” the Chief observed out loud, obviously reinforcing his remembering. “Then across the drive and another maybe twenty yards – no, call it thirty – gets you into the first trees. Is that where the paved sidewalk stops?”
      “Maybe a few yards into the woods, then unpaved. It’s relatively smooth as you get into the forest, but after that it’s all just hardened earth, uneven; tough on anyone who doesn’t walk well.”
      “Hardened? How far until you step into some mud?”
      “Been a while since I walked this part of The Reserve, but my guess is not very far. We’ve had a devil of a lot of rain this summer; for a while we were close to having all the little ponds out there coalesce into one big lake. The water’s receding now, but we still encourage people not to walk alone.”
      “So a man might help his wife walk to the edge of the forest, and then let her climb up piggyback to go deeper in to hear a bird?”
      “Charlie, you have a hypothesis already. I wasn’t ready for that.”
      “No, just one of several possibilities to keep in mind. A bit short of a working hypothesis. Where’s the security camera for this section?”
      Merritt turned to look up and point. “Right there, maybe a yard over the door.”
      “Pretty far up. Tell me, Merritt, what did you make of his bulb-changer gadget?”
      “I used to have one of those. The early versions were not much more than a rubber basket on a wooden stick. His has to be recent: It had a couple of sophisticated grabber heads.”
      “I had the same thought. Howzabout we phone your guys now to see if they’ve learned anything?”
      Merritt took out his phone, had it dial, then put it on speakerphone.

      Howard Smith, the overnight security guard, had gone off shift, but Mike Alban had looked up his log entries.
      “Funny thing. Here’s what Howie wrote at 4:15.” Mike read aloud: Just noticed. View from Door 23 camera obscured. Can’t see a thing. Almost like that bird’s nest last year. Day shift should have a look.”
      Merritt explained to the Chief: “We had an incident a few years ago when a robin built a nest on a doorway camera. After a while it began falling apart and obscured the lens.”
      Mike in the security office had more to report: “At 7:15 Peter Kilduff, first in on the day shift, wrote this: Howie mentioned a camera problem at Door 23, but when I looked it was clear. Maybe nest fell off.”
       “Then at 8:30,” Mike pressed on, “Peter logged this: Checked Door 23 camera on my rounds. No sign of any bird’s nest. Camera looked unobscured.”
       “Chief, I’m getting antsy. Shouldn’t we get out there and look for her?”
       “Right. Can you deploy a search party?”
       “Yes,” Merritt said, and into the phone: “Mike, go over to Robbie in maintenance and ask to borrow two of his guys to go out and look for Mrs. Collins. There are some general-use rubber boots in the equipment room.”
       “Tell them not to forge ahead of us without asking,” Charlie said. “How’s about you and I go look for evidence before they walk all over it? I’ve got some galosh things in my trunk. Can I park here, near . . . . Door 23? . . . . I’ll go get my car and meet you back here.”

      He was back in only a few minutes, flimsy-looking clear plastic booties over his shoes, briefcase in hand. Crossing the wide road, they both noticed a few tiny dirt clods on the pavement, on the far side. “They look just like that one you picked up in the hallway,” Merritt said. “Check them on the way back, maybe?”
      “Better now, before a car tire demolishes them. If someone stepped down hard off the curb, the jolt would have jarred those loose,” Charlie said. He had another plastic evidence box to retrieve a few.
       “That’s enough to support a search warrant,” he said. “If you’ll wait a minute, I’ll phone the office.” Without waiting for an answer, the Chief had his phone out and was dialing:
       “Peter? This is Chief Kline. I want to dictate material for you to apply for a search warrant. You listen and take notes, but I want you to get Mary Barnes on the line, taking shorthand; she’s a good steno. Yeah, I’ll wait. . . . ”
      “Both there. Good. I want a warrant to search Apartment 5217 at Harmony Acres. the apartment of Frank Collins. I want to see if clods of mud found outdoors and also in his hallway match a pair of rubber boots in his apartment. I want to examine the kitchen sink trap looking for residue if any mud that might have been washed off those boots, and see if it matches the clods. I want to examine his bedroom alarm clock to see when it may have wakened him, and also his cell phone, same purpose.
      “That ought to be enough. I want that warrant ASAP. And by the way, send me a tech who’s good with plaster casts. Tell him to find me on the trails, but to watch for pink flags where I want casts made. Clear? . . . . Thanks.” He folded up the phone.
      “Wow!” Merritt said. “I hadn’t noticed the boots.”
      “They were on a newspaper, on the floor under the kitchen table; looked to be shiny clean. There was a good print of a cleated boot back there that I marked to be cast. I’ll bet a cookie that tread pattern matches the boots up in his kitchen, if they’re still there.”
      “I’d never bet against that, Chief. How about a flag over here, too? Looks to me like the wheel of a walker being half-rolled, half-picked-up.”
      Charlie took a photo and planted a flag. “It’s hot already,” he said. “Steamy. Going to be an August scorcher.” Twenty yards further on, at another muddy patch, he stopped with a low whistle. “Look at that!”
      Merritt peered down. “Just like that other, but look at that heel! At least an inch deeper than the toe. Almost two inches. Must have a weight on his back. He’s carrying her!”
      “Piggyback. No force involved,” the Chief murmured, thinking out loud again. “She’s happy for the ride, at least so far. Her husband is taking her birdwatching. Maybe they’re even hearing a bird calling.”
      “A cardinal,” Merritt added. “One of the few calls I know: Cheer, cheer!”
      “Not for long, that cheer.” Kline took a photo and planted a flag. “If we have to go to court, a plaster cast of that will impress a jury. We’d better keep going; I think I hear your search team coming.”
      In another thirty yards the path dipped toward a slight hollow, with a long muddy stretch before water ran over it. “Aha!” Merritt said. “Footprints in both directions.”
      “Hey there, boss! Hello again, Chief Kline! I’ll bet those are your pink flags we saw!” Mike Alban had two other men with them, all in sturdy rubber boots.
      “I hope you walked around them carefully. They’re marking evidence.”
      “We figured that, Chief. One of your guys was there making a plaster cast, looked like of a footprint. We tiptoed around your markers as dainty as we could, given our footwear.” Mike grinned as he looked down at his boots.
      “Listen, Mike,” Merritt said. “I want you to go ahead of us. But be careful; even wade into the water if you have to. We want you to avoid mixing your footprints with what’s already there.”
      “Got it, boss.”
      “This path splits into three ways just ahead. You all know it?”
      “Right. The left goes all the way around, maybe a mile. Middle straight ahead, maybe a quarter-mile, then splits again. To the right, by the way, is a short stretch down to the dam and flume, not leveled or cleared, not really a path, hard walking. No one goes there.”
      “All right. You guys follow the three usable paths. And sing out if you see anything, so we’ll know which one of you to follow.”
      “Got it.” They waded carefully ahead.
      “I’m no Indian scout, Charlie,” Merritt said. “This is confusing. Looks to me like that treaded boot goes back and forth twice.”
      “You’re right.” Charlie was busy with his phone, photographing from one angle and then another. “And he wasn’t taking pains to preserve the telltale first set, like we are. But look here.” He squatted.
      Merritt squatted with him. “I’ll be damned. This set tells the whole story!”
      “Right. Those deep heel prints going forward, but flat-footed coming back.”
      “So he carried her in and left her.”
      “And then the second set of tracks, flat-footed both ways, say that he went back toward the road to get the walker. I’ll bet we find it up near her.” He turned to face back toward Harmony Acres and raised his voice. “Hey Russ!”
      A not-too-distant reply: “Yes, Chief?”
      “Can you leave your stuff there and come up here for a minute?”
      In a moment a thin young man in plainclothes appeared. “What can I do, Chief?”
      “Russ Branigan, Merritt Wilson. He’s chief of security here, Russ.”
      “Good to meet you, sir.” He looked down at the tracks. “That’s a lot to cast, Chief.”
      “That’s why I had you come up. You see right here, a foot outbound with the heel weighted into the mud, and right next to it the same foot flat-footed? Can you get those?”
      “Yes, sir. Just put a couple of flags down to help me find them again.”
      “Right.” The Chief turned to Merritt. “Now all we need is to find the wife. Hard to bring a murder charge without a corpus delicti. Nothing from your guys?”
Right, Merritt thought. Somebody should have found her by now.

      He shouted. “Hey team! Come back and tell us what you’re finding!”
      The voices drifted back: “Nothing!” “No boot tracks here!” “Nada!” “Coming back!”
      In a few minutes they were all back; none had seen even recent boot impressions.”
      The Chief: “How about that non-track you mentioned? Off to the right, you said?”
      Mike Alban: “I looked as we went by it. A bit of high ground right there, no boot tracks at all.”
      “Go muscle your way down there.”
      They all waited while Mike went forward. Out of sight. A few minutes’ uncertainty. Then the shout came. “Found her, boss! Looks like drowned!” It sounded like Mike’s voice.
      “Don’t touch her!” Charlie Kline shouted back. “We’re coming!”
      They had to wade gingerly through a dozen yards of shallow water, then onto dry ground. A right turn took them on a dry path that led alongside a deepening pond up to what looked almost like a concrete dam.
      “That’s the flood control flume to downstream,” Merritt said. “Water’s always deepest behind it.”
      “And there’s the walker, on its side, and . . .”
      As they grew closer, both men saw the slight figure, face down in the water.
      “Don’t touch anything, please.” Charlie Kline had his phone out, clicking away. “I don’t want that body moved until I get the coroner here to establish cause of death. Drowning, sure, but did he hit her in the head and throw her in?”
      “And either way,” Merritt said, “he then went back for the walker, to make it look as though she stumbled and fell. Your hypothesis was spot on.”
      Charlie used his phone to make a few calls, and at that moment Merritt’s phone rang. A smile as big as a rainbow spread over his face. At last he punched the phone off and turned to Mike and to Charlie, who had finished his calls.
      “That was Pierre in IT, who’s been reviewing security camera files. No early-morning traffic. And when he got to the camera over Door 23, he tells me, it went black at 4:15 this morning, and resumed normal functioning at 7:15.”
      “And did the camera show who was covering it and uncovering it?” Charlie asked.
      “Not well. Most cameras can’t see in the dark. Ours have some sort of infrared technology that enables a pretty good picture even before sunrise. Shows a stick-like gadget waving around with a piece of cloth. The operator of that stick not visible in the pre-dawn dark, but a glimpse of him later when the cloth was removed.”
      “And the picture was of . . . ?”
      A huge smile. “You had it right, Charlie. Even with his bulb gadget, the operator had to try three times before he finally got some piece of black cloth over the camera. When that cloth came off three hours later, the bulb gadget was in the hands of Frank Collins.”
      “Tell Pierre many thanks from the town police department.”
      “I will.”
      “I guess we can go back,” Charlie said. “I’ve sent for a couple men of men with an ambulance litter to get the body out as intact as possible. Maybe your guys with proper boots can guide them and the coroner back in.”
      Mike called to the others, and they all slogged back, passing Branigan and leaving him to finish his plaster-casting. The workmen searchers went back to their day jobs, leaving Merritt and Charlie at Door 23.
      “You want to go up and arrest him now?”
      “In a minute. I have a uniformed officer coming to serve the search warrant. Just to leave no stone unturned, we’ll establish that the bootprints we’ve been following must have been made by his boots. If he washed the mud off in the sink, there will be some residue in the sink trap. Then my officer will put him in cuffs and take him to be booked.”
      “Charlie, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so elaborate a scheme. Must have been planned for weeks. Maybe held in abeyance until there was enough rainwater to make drowning believable.”
      “Agreed. But even the smartest criminals leave a few holes in the story, Merritt, and a few inadvertent clues.”
There was a silence, both men pondering the last few hours. Then:
      “Charlie, he’d staged that scene at the flood control barrier so elaborately; why the hell do you think he didn’t want us out there today?”
      “My guess is two reasons. The first is simple: after a few days there might’ve been some ordinary hikers on those paths who didn’t go down the dead-end path to the concrete dam, but would on the main paths obliterate any tracks left in the mud. The second possible reason will turn your stomach.”
      “Try me.”
      “There’s a lot of wildlife out there, right? Coyotes, bobcats, even a bear or two. If any of the feral critters found that poor woman’s body before we did, there wouldn’t have been much for the coroner to work with in determining cause of death.”
      “Monstrous!” Merritt thought for a moment his stomach was indeed going to turn. Happily for his pride, he was distracted by the arrival at that moment of a police cruiser, whose uniformed officer would finish the job begun earlier that morning.