LONE WOLF by Sara Driscoll
Tracking Canine: A search dog that will follow the ground scent of a person who has passed through an area where the dog is searching.
Tuesday, April 11, 8:02 am
Monocacy National Battlefield
The world whipped by in a blur of color.
The nearly translucent green of new spring lined the path. Sunlight trickled through the canopy, dappling the barely visible path beneath her pounding feet, while bursts of blue and pink flowers spotted the underbrush. To her right, the Monocacy River shimmered in the sun, water tumbling over shallow rapids as it ran toward the Potomac.
Megan Jennings ignored the water squelching noisily in her soggy hiking boots and focused instead on the black Labrador running ahead. Hawk ran with his nose skimming the ground, his thick tail held stiff and high. The chase was on, and he was in his element. Pausing briefly, he pushed through the broken underbrush, following a path that meandered through the trees, a path that nearly wasn’t, unless you knew what to look for.
They were looking for a killer.
Meg swallowed hard, thinking of the body she’d left behind only minutes before with the crime scene techs. Partially buried in the soft river mud, the girl had been young, maybe only thirteen or fourteen. All fair hair and gangly limbs, still with that layer of baby fat all teenage girls swear they’ll never lose, but often do in a rush of maturity that leaves them with curves in all the right places. Sadly, this girl would never reach that age.
Cases involving children were the worst. In all her time doing scent identification and tracking, it was the children—missing, or worse, dead—that tore at Meg the most. All that promise, cut brutally short; a life gone in an instant of misadventure or cruelty.
Her gaze flicked across the wide expanse of the Monocacy. About a hundred feet upstream, the navy of Brian’s standard-issue FBI windbreaker was barely visible through the trees where he jogged behind his German shepherd, Lacey.
The call to the FBI K-9 unit had come at just the right time, Meg reflected. In fact, it was only the day before that Brian had perched on the corner of her desk while she was finalizing the report from her last case. Playing with anything he could lay hands on and generally interrupting her concentration, he’d complained for ten solid minutes that Lacey was bored. She cast a glance once again across the river at Brian’s bobbing head. Lacey wasn’t bored. He was bored. More than that, he needed a fix. Search and rescue was their addiction, and saving lives their drug of choice. She understood his pain—she also wanted to be out there. Besides, when cases followed in quick succession, it kept the dogs on their game.
So when a body was discovered on federal land by a predawn dog walker, both teams had been raring to go. Not their case of choice—no life would be saved here—but a part of their job. The body’s location away from any convenient place to park a car, paired with faint boot prints leading into and away from the scene, gave the investigating agents hope that the killer had come and gone on foot, a perfect scenario for overland tracking. Lacey and Hawk were trained search and rescue dogs, but excelled equally at the kind of scent work required to track both criminal suspects and lost innocents.
The dogs executed a spiral search originating at the center of the scene before locating the outbound scent trail. Meg and Brian unleashed their dogs and the animals didn’t hesitate. To their surprise, Lacey immediately trotted east down the wide dirt path hugging the river’s edge, while Hawk headed toward the muddy bank. Without pausing, he plunged into the rocky rapids separating the south bank from the diminutive island that obstructed most of the channel under the I-270 bridge. Meg met Brian’s eyes briefly before jumping knee deep into the water after her dog. They knew exactly what this meant: either they had two suspects on their hands who had fled in different directions, or a single perp had returned using a different path to revisit his kill.
The frigid spring water was a shock to Meg’s system, and the murky, rocky bottom was treacherous underfoot, but she gamely waded after her dog. Hawk nimbly sprang forward, a water dog naturally at home in his surroundings. He scrambled onto the opposite shore, stopping briefly for an enthusiastic shake.
Meg raised a hand to shield her face from flying droplets as she clambered out onto dry land. She only had a few seconds to catch her breath, lost during the icy plunge, before Hawk had the scent and was off.
They’d followed the scent ever since, hugging the riverbank. But now Hawk abruptly stopped, giving his characteristic whine indicating he’d lost the trail. Meg jogged up behind him, hanging back a few feet to give him room to work. “Hawk, find it,” she encouraged. “Find it.”
Huge soulful brown eyes gazed up at her—a bond reestablished, a purpose cemented—then he started rooting through the underbrush surrounding a towering white sycamore, its tiny yellowish green flowers draping in delicate chains through young leaves. Suddenly his body stiffened as he focused on an area to the left of the path, leading away from the river. Meg balanced on the balls of her feet. She knew this moment: this was when Hawk would take off in a leap of renewed energy on a fresh path and she’d have to strain to keep up.
As expected, Hawk bounded straight up the hill, tearing into a newly plowed field. Loose dirt slipping beneath her hiking boots, Meg glanced at the white, two-story farmhouse to her left, sending up a silent apology to the absent worker who was in the midst of planting this year’s crop, only to have a woman and her dog jogging through his freshly tilled soil. She had visited this local battlefield with family previously, so she identified the farmhouse: the Best Farm, overrun by Union and Confederate soldiers alike on July 9, 1864. She and Hawk were ruining the efforts of some National Park Service employee who worked the land to recreate the look of that one-hundred-fifty-year-old tragedy.
Hawk made a beeline toward the 14th New Jersey Monument, gathered himself, and then sailed over the low rail fence separating the memorial from the plowed field. “Hawk, wait!” The dog froze and glanced back at his handler. Meg scrambled over the fence and jumped down onto neatly clipped green grass. “Good boy. Free. Find it!” Hawk darted across the lawn toward a stand of trees on the far side.
Shielding her eyes, Meg glanced up at the memorial. Wearing the traditional slouched kepi hat and full Union blues, the soldier atop the tall squared column leaned casually on the stock of his rifle while his free hand dug into the pouch on his right hip. The soldier’s presence reminded Meg that the victim at the riverbank wasn’t the only person to have met a bloody end on this land.
Hawk was gaining speed now, as if the scent was stronger, allowing him the luxury of a faster pace without losing the trail. Her heart pounding, Meg paced herself, thankful those very painful jogging sessions with her dog at 5 am were paying off. It was inhumane to jog before the sun came up and, more importantly, before she’d had at least two coffees. But, because of the habit, she and Hawk were fit and ready to take on any terrain for any length of time.
The radio at her belt crackled and Brian’s voice broke through a haze of static. “Meg, we’ve just gone under the Urbana Pike and are still heading east. I’ve lost visual; what’s your location?”
Meg tugged the radio off her belt as she and Hawk slipped into the cool shade of a stand of trees. “We’re north of you, almost at the pike ourselves.” She paused to drag air into her oxygen-starved lungs. “Looks like we’re headed for the railroad track and the junction. Will keep you apprised.”
“Roger that. Same here.” A final click and the radio went silent.
Hawk scrabbled over the loose rocks lining the incline leading up to the sun-swept rail line. “Hawk, wait.” Meg clipped her radio back onto her belt and studied the train tracks. The shiny metal of the rails told her this line was still in use. They could proceed but it had to be with caution. “Hawk, slow. Find it, but slow.”
Hawk didn’t try to cross the rails; instead, he hugged the edge of the track bed at a healthy distance from danger. Almost immediately, the track split at a switch, forking in different directions, but Hawk continued along the right-hand spur, heading south again. This was the Monocacy rail junction, one of the reasons the Confederate Army had wanted to seize the town—he who commanded the rail lines in that war held the upper hand.
In less than a minute, as they followed the curving track to the right, their next challenge came into view. “Oh, hell. Hawk, stop.” The dog halted, but restlessly shifted his weight from paw to paw. He whined and looked up at Meg. She reached down and stroked his silky fur. “I know, bub, I know. He went that way. But give me a second here.”
Ahead of them was the single-track trestle traversing the Monocacy River. Not a difficult crossing, unless a train came while they were stranded far above the water. Then there would be nowhere to go but straight down. Way, way down. This early in spring, the banks were near to overflowing and the river was a rushing torrent; if the fall didn’t kill them, drowning would be a very real possibility.
She pulled the radio off her belt. “Brian, we have a problem.”
“What’s wrong?” Brian’s words came hard through gasping breaths. He and Lacey were still on the move.
“The trail is leading us back to your side, but over the train trestle.”
“Is it safe?”
“As long as we don’t meet a train.” She glanced back up the track. The fork Hawk had not taken stretched beyond them to the north, but the track they’d followed from the west disappeared from view into the trees. South of them, the track curved away into the forest. “I can’t see the far side of the river. Hear any trains coming?”
“Lacey, stop.” For a moment, all Meg could hear was Brian’s labored breathing. “I don’t hear anything. If I do, I’ll warn you. And I’ll call in our location to the railroad to tell them we’re on the tracks.”
“Okay. We’re on our way; let me know if you hear anything. I bet we’ll be over and clear before you even hear back.” She eyed the narrow expanse of track. “But if there is a train, or if you don’t hear from me inside of ten minutes, have a team scour the riverbanks downstream. In case we went over.”
“Are you sure about this? I know how you feel about heights.”
A vision of the young girl filled her mind—waxy skin, clouded, staring eyes, and brutally torn flesh. Meg owed it to that girl to give her best. Their best. She set her jaw. “Oh yeah, I know. Doesn’t matter. We need to keep going. I’ll contact you after we cross. Meg out.”
She cut contact. “Gonna need it,” she mumbled.
One more quick look in both directions, one more moment of stillness with only the sounds of her dog panting and her own heavy breathing filling her ears. It was now or never. “Let’s go, Hawk. Slow.” There would be time to find the trail again on the far side; for now what mattered was getting across.
Hawk went first, picking his way carefully along the west side of the trestle where the offset track allowed extra room to walk. Meg was very conscious that while there was enough room to exit a disabled locomotive, were a train to speed by, the vortex of air produced would knock them from the narrow span and send them spinning into the abyss below.
A series of railroad ties over a steel base and stone pilings spanned the bridge, but the gap between the ties was easily five to six inches. Through the empty space, water rushed by forty feet below at dizzying speed. It was mesmerizing, that tumbling, swirling water, enough to make Meg’s head swim. So far below. So very, very far . . .
With effort, Meg forced her gaze up toward the thick trees on the far bank. You know the deal: you ignore the fact that heights freak you the hell out, and you get to enjoy a lovely walk on a rickety old bridge. She took a deep breath and eased forward, placing her feet carefully to navigate the gaps. Eyes ahead. Just think of it as a nice walk over the boards of the back porch. She focused on Hawk and let his swaying back end guide her. Ten feet. Fifteen. Doing great.
Ahead, Hawk’s paw slid on a creosote-coated railroad tie, still damp and slick from last night’s rain, and he stumbled, all four feet scrabbling for purchase. Meg’s fear of heights vaporized. She lunged forward to help him, but tripped over the raised edge of an uneven railroad tie. She landed hard on her knees and one hand, the other hand shooting through the gap between the ties and scraping a layer of skin off the inside of her wrist when the sleeve of her FBI windbreaker snagged on the upper surface of the wood. “Jesus Christ, Meg,” she admonished, grasping her aching wrist. “Pay. Attention.”
Two sounds struck at once—the piercing screech of the train whistle from the far side of the bridge and Brian’s frantic voice bursting from her radio. “Meg! Meg! Train headed right for you. Get off the track!”
Her head snapped toward the sound of the whistle as her heart stuttered. No train yet—it was still buried in the trees—but the faint chug of the engine was swiftly growing louder. A frantic glance backward showed the north bank was closer to her, but Hawk had progressed enough that the south bank was closer to him. She lunged to her feet and started to run toward him. Right for the train. “Talon, go. Go!”
Years of training that demanded instant and unquestioning obedience in response to his “don’t mess with me” name on top of an instinctive reaction to the panic lacing Meg’s voice had Hawk bolting along the trestle, somehow keeping his feet firmly beneath him. Breath sawing, Meg pelted after him. One hundred feet. Adrenaline flooded her veins, making her feet fly. Her ears roared with the sound of her own raging blood. Eighty feet to go.
The whistle blew again. The grind of wheels against the rails sliced the air. Sixty feet. The tracks beneath her shook violently. It was nearly upon them.
The locomotive barreled around the bend, a black monster snaking along the track, followed by tanker cars and loads of lumber. Death on wheels. And they were headed right for it.
“Run!” Even though Hawk was pulling away from her, she screamed to spur him on. But as the whistle blasted again and the squeal of wheels grew louder, she wasn’t sure he could hear her.
Hawk leapt off the trestle, his lithe body stretching long and graceful as he hurtled into the tall grass on the far bank. Meg put on a final burst of speed, spurred by raw fear, the intense effort ripping a scream of agony from her lips as she dove for safety a second before the engine thundered past. She hit the ground with a cry, air slamming from her lungs. She tumbled over and over, through long grass and thorns and sharp fallen branches until she came to rest on her back, blinking up at the sunlight sifting through the leaves. The trailing cars flew past with a screech of wheels on steel, whipping the tall grasses into a wild frenzy over her head while the ground shuddered beneath her. Her eyes fluttered shut, sudden exhaustion overtaking her.
She was conscious first of Hawk’s whine, then the warm lap of his tongue on her cheek. She slowly became aware of Brian’s bellows through the radio. “Meg! Meg, are you all right?”
She reached for her dog, burying her face in the softness of his fur and glorying in the heavy beat of her heart nearly banging through her rib cage. She was still alive, and so was Hawk. But it had been close. Too close.
She fumbled at her radio. With a groan, she pulled it off her belt, still feeling the imprint of the case in her bruised skin. “Meg—” Her voice was a raspy croak, so she cleared her throat and tried again. “Meg here.”
“Oh, thank God. You scared the life out of me.”
“I scared it out of me too. That was way too close. Like fractions of a second too close.” She pushed up on her elbow to see Hawk already searching the area. He gave a sharp bark and looked back toward her. She could practically hear his thoughts: Come on, already. What are you waiting for? “Hawk’s got the scent again and is ready to rock n’ roll.” The last car whizzed by, the rhythmic clacking of wheels on the track fading. “And we’re clear.”
“You up to finishing this?”
Meg rolled to her knees. Bracing one foot on the trampled grass, she lurched upright to stand, swaying for a second while she got her bearings. “Affirmative. We’re on the move again. Meg out.”
Pulling the hair tie from her now lopsided ponytail, she gathered up the long, dark strands with an experienced hand, tying them back once again. “Okay, Hawk. Find it.”
Meg tried not to wince as she ordered her battered body to follow Hawk across the now empty track to reenter the forest. After a few minutes’ jog over a faint path, she stopped at the tree line, squinting in the morning sunlight. On the far side of the wide clearing, a brick bungalow nestled into a clump of pines. A late model sedan sat in the driveway.
To her right, Brian and Lacey broke through the trees halfway around the clearing, Lacey bounding over some low scrub and Brian stumbling through with considerably less grace. He quickly took in the house and grounds.
Meg pulled the leash from her pocket, snapping it on Hawk’s vest. They melted back into the trees, Brian following her lead to meet just inside the tree line.
“Two separate paths leading back to the same place,” Meg said. “What do you think the chances are that this isn’t the perp?”
“Exceedingly small.” Brian squinted through the trees. “Car’s in the driveway. No guarantee, of course, but the perp could be home. We need to see if there’s a back door. Then we need backup. Don’t know if anyone is armed in there and we can’t risk the dogs.”
“No way, no how.” Meg unholstered her Glock 19, grateful for the FBI’s requirement that the Human Scent Evidence Teams carry firearms in case of danger from a suspect while out tracking. She indicated the rear of the house. “Let’s check it out.”
Brian palmed his own gun and led the way, Lacey trotting at his heels. Staying deep inside the tree line, they circled to the back of the bungalow. They hunkered down behind a clump of leafy bushes to study the residence.
A large picture window framed with yellow gingham curtains looked out into a backyard scattered with children’s toys. Smaller, bedroom-style windows dotted one end of the house, while wide, sliding glass doors led out to a concrete patio on the other end.
“Kids.” Meg frowned at the toddler toys. “Young enough to be home at this time of day too. We definitely need backup. This can’t go south with children around.” She holstered her weapon and pulled out her cell phone to call for additional agents, outlining the location based on their current GPS coordinates and trail activity.
Meg pulled a compact pair of binoculars out of a jacket pocket. She scanned the back of the house, moving from the kitchen window to the glass doors. She was just about to scan back when a movement caught her eye. “Wait.”
“See something?” Brian leaned in closer, as if he could look through the lenses with her.
Meg squinted in silence. Come on, come on . . . Then she spotted it again. “Yes! There’s a guy sitting in an armchair on the far side of the couch. Maybe watching TV.” She dropped the glasses. “Let’s split up. I’ll go back toward the road, intercept the incoming agents. You stay here and keep an eye on our guy. Make sure he doesn’t rabbit out the back.” She handed him the binoculars. “Let me know the second he moves.”
“Will do.” Brian took the glasses and settled onto his knees. He located and focused on their target. “Got him. Go.”
“Hawk, come.” Hawk shot to his feet, matching his pace to hers exactly as they slipped through the forest like shadows. Shadows intent on catching a killer.
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Sara Driscoll is the pen name of Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan, authors of the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries. Jen is an infectious disease researcher at a cutting edge Canadian university near Toronto, but loves to spend her free time writing the thrilling and mysterious. Ann lives in central Texas with five rescued pit bulls, including Kane, now a certified therapy dog. She also trains with Kane for competitive nose work. You can follow the latest news on the FBI K-9 Mysteries at saradriscollauthor.com.