Jess Manning parked her rented Ford Escape along the side of the now deserted road and stepped out into Georgia’s stifling July heat. She pulled a baseball cap over her head and secured her bright orange messenger bag as well as her camera across her shoulder, then made her way over the rocky path to slip beneath the yellow police tape that cordoned off the area.
New Hope’s dam had failed two weeks ago, wiping out an entire neighborhood and killing three people: two civilians and one FBI agent. Ben Sanders had been that agent. He had also been her superior as well as her friend and mentor.
She took in the area, the debris all around, the remnants of the homes that were lost. This tiny town had made all the news stations with the tragedy, but seeing as how three deaths and eleven homes hardly counted these days, it was also quickly forgotten. Which served her purposes even though it made her mad as hell.
It was late afternoon and the water glistened with the sun’s rays, almost inviting her to swim, wash away some of the sweat that covered her. But not today. She looked up at the dam, at the portion of the wall that remained standing.
That part of her investigation would have to wait until later. Having taken a leave of absence from her post at the FBI with the excuse that she needed to mourn her friend’s death, she had some time in the town of New Hope, and today, she wanted to have a good look around for any evidence of foul play the breaking dam hadn’t washed away. It would be a long shot but it was a starting point.
* * *
Jackson Montgomery studied the pictures on his desk for the hundredth time. He rubbed his tired eyes and leaned back in his chair, closing the file. Something smelled rotten; he just couldn’t put his finger on what.
The door opened and Carl, his deputy, walked in.
Jackson looked up, rubbing his jaw, preoccupied. “Hey, Carl.” Carl was a good guy and the more experienced of the two deputies of New Hope.
“Afternoon, Sheriff,” Carl said.
Jackson checked his watch. It was later than he had thought. They made small talk for a few moments before Jackson stood. He picked up the file and replaced his gun in its holster. “I’m going to go back up to the site, see if there’s anything we might have overlooked.”
Carl nodded, his expression one of patience, as if to say he knew there wouldn’t be anything to find.
Jackson took his hat from where it hung by the door. “You know if you need anything…”
“Yes, sir, I do, but I doubt I’ll be needing anything at all. All the excitement’s died down now, huh?”
“Yes it has and thank goodness for that,” Jackson said. Damage from the dam failure had been catastrophic for the small town. At least catastrophic where Jackson was concerned. Three lives were lost, two of them local residents, retirees who had lived here all their lives. The third was an undercover FBI agent.
That was what had boggled his mind. What was an FBI agent doing undercover in a town like New Hope? Well, it didn’t quite boggle his mind. He had some idea—or better, the agent’s presence confirmed some of Jackson’s suspicions and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
He had a feeling the story got as much coverage as it did because of the leak that an FBI agent was among the casualties. New Hope had been crawling with reporters, newspaper crew and cameramen, for a full three days. The FBI only sent out three agents, which had seemed strange to Jackson, especially considering one of those agents was Assistant Deputy Director Wayne Hanson.
“You have a good evening, sir,” Carl said as Jackson walked out the door. Although it was approaching early evening, the sun was still hig
h and the humidity soaked you through as soon as you stepped outside. Jackson looked up and down Main Street. All was back to normal, except for those eleven families who were now homeless as a result of the dam failure, not to mention those who were homeless and mourning the death of a loved one.
He climbed into his truck and started the engine. Hot air blew from the vents as the air conditioning got going and he turned the car onto the road, heading up to the site of the old neighborhood once again. He had been there every day since the accident looking for any missed evidence, anything that could give him a lead. He had been unlucky so far, but something felt different today.
* * *
Jess drained her bottle of what was now lukewarm water, took off her baseball cap and wiped her forehead. She pulled her ponytail loose and rewound the mass of chestnut curls into a tighter bind at the back of her head. She approached the edge of the river and considered dipping her hat inside it, washing off some of the sweat of the afternoon, but she couldn’t do that. That was the reason she was here, after all. That was why Ben had been here two weeks ago. And it was where she would have been had she not been called home with a family emergency. That thought still rattled her. She was supposed to have been here with Ben the day the dam had failed and killed him. There would have been not three but four casualties had she not received her sister’s call that morning.
She shook off some dirt and headed to another pile of debris and began to pull away some of the planks of wood. Here, she found more of what she had been finding all along: little scraps of clothing, a mangled pot, or a child’s teddy bear. Evidence of normal life being lived before the dam break.
It was when she was halfway through this pile that she spotted something familiar. She smiled, energized again, feeling that her efforts had been rewarded by this small discovery. She worked quickly, pushing off debris, ignoring the pain as cuts covered her hands and wrists.
It was his hat; she had found Ben’s hat. She would recognize it anywhere. She pulled at the one last plank of heavy wood that stood between her and the hat, but it came away too quickly, much more easily than she expected and brought with it a pile of debris she was not anticipating, sending her to the ground, one hand gripping the hat as debris now fell over her legs.
“Crap!” she cursed when she tried to pull free and something sharp cut through her thigh. “Ow, shit!” She leaned forward, finding the heavy plank that contained the thick, rusty nail now lodged in her leg.
That was when she heard the tires of a car on the rocky road behind her. She turned to find a truck approaching the site. It slowed when it neared her rental car, then parked alongside it. The man inside spotted her instantly. Not that she would be hard to spot sitting in the middle of a pile of rock and wood and other debris.
This was the second to last thing she needed, the first being the nail that sliced through her leg every time she moved.
She watched the dust settle slowly behind the tires. The door opened and a man stepped out, his eyes on her the entire time he did. He pulled a hat onto his head and closed the door.
“You have got to be kidding me,” she said, watching him approach, his sheriff’s uniform clear as day even from the haze at this distance.
She watched as he came closer, the story she had prepared just in case anyone came upon her while she was looking for evidence failing her because she hadn’t expected the sheriff of New Hope to be the one she’d run into.
And he certainly did not look like what she imagined a small town sheriff would look like. He was no Andy Griffith of Mayberry. Quite the opposite in fact. He was at least 6′5″ tall and big with wide shoulders and powerful arms thick beneath his tight-fitting uniform. As he got closer she got a look at his face, his steely blue eyes standing out against tanned skin and dark brown hair. A hint of rough stubble covered his face, his jaw. When he stopped a few feet from her, he took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead, then leaned down next to her, setting it on the ground. He looked her over, stopping when he saw the dark red blood running down one leg. When his eyes returned to hers, she had to lean back a little, her own eyes growing wider.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
“I…” she began with her made-up excuse but realized quickly she just needed his help right now. “No.”
“Don’t move,” he said, lifting a corner of the plank.
“Oh! Stop!” she said, reaching with one hand to stop him from moving the plank farther. She sucked in a breath with the pain. “There’s a nail.”
He held that plank steady and pushed the debris from the top of it off. “M-hm,” he said, peering beneath the plank. “This is going to hurt.”
“Ow!” she called out when he moved it, freeing her of the plank and the nail without a moment’s warning. “Ow, crap, crap, crap!” She sat up, pulling her leg back, watching the blood pour from the thick wound.
The sheriff held up the plank, showing her the nail, its sharp point covered in her blood. He then gave her a stern look. “The yellow tape means you stay on the other side of it. This is exactly the reason for that tape, ma’am.” He shook his head. “Damn reporters.”
“I’m not a reporter,” she said, feeling the need to defend herself. She imagined the type of reporters he must have been dealing with when the tragedy occurred. She had watched them on the news herself, amazed at their callous behavior.
She flinched when he touched a tender spot near her wound.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” he asked, reaching to her other leg, his big hand hot on her thigh.
“No. I’m fine, I just need a bandage.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You need more than a bandage,” he said, rising to stand, replacing his hat on his head. “I’m thinking some stitches and a tetanus shot.” Without a word he reached down to pick her up.
“Ow. Let me down, I can stand on my own,” she said, pushing against him while trying to keep her leg still, but finding she needed his support to right
herself. When she put weight on her wounded leg though, she almost fell over. “Crap.” This was not going to be easy.
He shook his head again and without another word, picked her up once more.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “I can walk.”
“No, you can’t,” he said, carrying her back toward his truck. “I’m going to get you to the doctor to stitch you up and once that’s done, you can tell me what you were doing here.”
“My purse is back there,” she said, realizing she still held Ben’s hat.
He opened the passenger door of the truck and set her inside it. He eyed the hat. “Souvenir?” he asked, trying to take it from her.
“It belonged to a friend!” she said, tugging it back, angry now even as she chastised herself for reacting. No one knew she was here. Certainly not the FBI. And she couldn’t have them find out.
He let it go and looked at her. She could see the questions in his eyes. She reached to pull the baseball cap off her head and wiped her forehead, the tiniest movement of her leg causing her to flinch. The sheriff reached around her and picked up the bottle of water there. He twisted the lid off and handed it to her. “It’s lukewarm by now but you’d better have a sip,” he said.
After a moment, she took it from him, grateful for the opportunity not to have to hold his gaze as she drank the contents of the bottle down. He watched her all the while. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he said, opening the glove compartment and taking out the first aid kit. “I’m just going to put a light bandage over it until we get you to the doctor.”
“It hurts.” She flinched again when he wiped away some of the drying blood before placing a gauze bandage over the wound that was deeper than she had at first realized.
“I imagine it does,” he said. “Where’s your bag?”
She turned, spotting her bright orange messenger bag and pointing. “There.”
He nodded and went to get it. She watched him while he retrieved the bag and brought it back to her.
“Can I see some ID?” he asked.
* * *
Jackson watched her. She was most definitely from out of state; everything about her screamed big city.
So she wasn’t a reporter. Actually, he would have guessed it after talking with her for a few minutes. She didn’t have the personality of a reporter, at least not the ones he had been dealing with last week. She was small, but then again, so were most women compared to him. She wasn’t more than about 5′4″ tall. And she was definitely not used to this weather. Sweat had matted light brown curls against her forehead and her cheeks were red with color. Her face looked to be clean of makeup except for the mascara that accentuated her pretty dark green eyes.
“I haven’t introduced myself,” he began. “I’m Jackson Montgomery, sheriff of New Hope,” he said. She was growing nervous, he could see it in her eyes and he wanted to know why. “You are?”
“Jessica Manning,” she said.
“And you have some ID on you, Jessica?”
“Just Jess.” She reached into her bag and pulled out her wallet. She then opened it and took out her driver’s license, handing it to him.
Jessica Manning, age twenty-six and he was right on the big city: Washington D.C.
He handed it back to her. “Thank you,” he said. He put a hand on her thigh and pushed her legs into the cabin. “Strap in.”
“My car…” she said.
“I’ll have my deputy pick it up, Ms. Manning.”
“I can drive myself. Just tell me where the doctor is.”
“I don’t think so, ma’am,” he said, drawing the seatbelt across her chest himself when she didn’t do it. “I’m curious what you were doing out here and I’m even more curious about your friend,” he said, gesturing toward the hat. “Strap in.”
She looked down at the hat while he waited, the seatbelt at the center of her chest. It was a moment before she took the belt from his hand and clasped it in its place. He closed her door, walked around the front of the car and climbed into the driver’s seat. He navigated the narrow road toward town.
“You know you’re lucky you weren’t hurt more badly,” he began, glancing at her.
She didn’t speak; instead, her mouth tightened.
“So tell me about your friend.”
She turned to him. “Look, Sheriff, I appreciate you helping me and I realize now that I should not have gone beyond the police tape…”
“Ms. Manning,” he began, “I’m not a stupid man.” He put on his blinker and when the light changed, he turned off onto the side street and parked in front of the doctor’s office before looking back at her. “If I hadn’t come when I had, you’d likely still be up there trying to dig yourself out from under that pile with a rusty nail lodged in your leg.”
She had the decency to drop her gaze to her lap. At least momentarily.
“I realize compared to our nation’s capital, New Hope, Georgia is a small, backwards town, but people lost their lives here a couple of weeks ago and eleven families are now homeless. You claim that hat belonged to a friend. That ‘friend’ was an FBI agent. You can imagine my curiosity, can’t you, given where I found you today?”
She opened her mouth to speak but he put up a hand.
“Let’s get you inside and stitched up. We’ll have a nice long talk afterwards.”
“Afterwards,” he said, coming around to her side of the car. She had already opened the door and was climbing out, but he lifted her once again in his arms. She left the hat in the car but brought her purse in with her.
“What have you got here?” Janey, the assistant, asked as soon as the door opened.
“Ms. Manning had an accident with a rusty nail. I think she’s going to need stitches,” he said.
“I can walk, if you’ll just put me down,” Jess said. “It’s not that bad.”
They both ignored her as the nurse led the way to the examining room and Jackson set her down on the table. The doctor came over and pulled the bandage back afte
r introducing himself.
“Ouch,” she muttered.
The three of them made a face when they looked at the wound.
“I’ll get her stitched up, Sheriff,” the doctor said.
“I’ll be waiting for her inside,” Jackson said, taking her purse from her and walking out into the waiting room.
“My bag…” she began as the nurse pushed her to lie back and the doctor prepared a needle.
Jackson just closed the door behind him and took a seat. He unzipped her bag and pulled it open, intending to find her car keys and send Carl to pick up her car. His eyes narrowed though when he glimpsed the shiny badge and the barrel of a gun. He pulled out the badge and had a closer look, shaking his head. The woman was FBI.