The day had taken a turn for the worse. Dread filled US Forest Service Special Agent Terra Connors as she hiked through the thick woods with Officer Case Haymaker, a uniformed forest service law enforcement officer. Terra loved the outdoors, especially in the Gallatin National Forest, the geographic region for which she conducted investigations. But days like today reminded her that imminent danger waited around every corner, and even the most beautiful, captivating scenery could give way to a harsh, jagged-edged landscape. Other, more sinister hazards could wait in the shadows.
She'd joined the callout to search for missing twins. While the SAR team celebrated that the girls had been found safe and sound, tragedy had also struck.
Finding a body was a huge blow to them all.
She hopped over the pristine stream—the normally soothing rush of the water unable to compete with the unease in her gut- and caught up with Case. The incident commander, Deputy Sarnes, had asked for their assistance. As it turned out, she and Case had been searching for the twins near the same region in which someone believed they had seen a body. Volunteer SAR members had been dismissed because the twins—the reason for today's callout—had been discovered.
As she and Case neared where the forest met the five-hundred-foot granite cliff, she spotted movement. "Looks like someone's rappelling."
"Must be the deputy who spotted the body." Case stepped around the thick underbrush and swiped his arm across his forehead.
Like Terra, he was probably ready to drop his pack and pour water over his head. The record-high summer temperatures seemed to want to hang on as the season shifted to fall.
She hoped the report about a body being spotted from the clifftop was a mistake. How could someone get a good look from the top of that cliff, especially when looking down into the dense woods below?
"We should almost be on...um...the body, shouldn't we?" she asked.
Case paused and put his hands on his hips. "Maybe. I don't want to trip over it. And I don't want to walk all over a crime scene if there was foul play."
"Sarnes didn't say anything about foul play." She studied Case, detecting a hint of concern.
"He didn't." Case dipped his chin.
Good. "You're right to be cautious. We can tread slowly and carefully now." And hope this wasn't foul play, translated...murder.
She and Case each grabbed water bottles from their packs and drank, then began their search again.
A hawk screeched above them.
Case clapped his hands loudly to scare animals away from the area. Terra had received her training at FLETC, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, in Georgia, as all federal law enforcement agents did, but that didn't mean she had grown accustomed to the sight of death or, in the forest, what animals could do to a body.
Case signaled for her to stop, though he still crept forward.
"What is it, Case?"
"Up ahead, just past that white pine. I see jeans and a pair of boots."
Dread churned in her gut. "We'll skirt around until we can get a good look from a distance."
Sarnes had asked for their assistance to secure the area and body—protect it from animals if needed- but nothing more. As a special agent, Terra was responsible for complex investigations—crimes against natural or archaeological resources—but crimes against persons, such as homicide or property crimes, fell to local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies.
She and Case made their way through the trees to get a closer look.
"I assume the deputy who called this in had his reasons for relaying that we're looking for a body rather than someone who was simply injured or unconscious," Case said. "But how does he know the person is deceased?"
"You want us to check, is that it?" she asked.
Case suddenly stopped, and she nearly bumped into him.
From where they stood, she saw the bent form. "Okay, then."
"I could still check for a pulse." He eyed Terra. "Stranger things have happened."
Terra wasn't so sure. She removed her sunglasses and took in the broken form. She didn't want to think too hard about just how broken.
Case crept closer to the body.