Authors: Mary Hiker
An Avery Barks Dog Mystery
By Mary Hiker
Copyright © 2015
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced in any format, by any means, electronic or otherwise, without prior consent from the copyright owner and publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously.
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I’m so tired, but it was so worth it
My head rested on the wood slab table as I dozed off out of pure exhaustion. I had spent a long night kneeling on some prickly hay to stay warm while I watched the local veterinarian help a cow birth a beautiful brown calf. It was the first time I’d ever watched the miracle of birth and it was something I would never forget. I witnessed the little guy stand for the first time on wobbly legs and learn how to get his first drink of milk. I looked forward to watching him grow up.
Right now though, I just wanted to cuddle with my dog and get some sleep in my soft warm bed. That wasn’t going to happen. It was already five in the morning, and I only had time for a quick pick-me-up nap before going back to the animal sanctuary to finish my morning chores.
I drifted off to sleep at my table in the diner, until a crying two year old child on the other side of the otherwise quiet restaurant jolted me awake. A mother’s high pitched voice demanded the kid to “be quiet and eat,” but it didn’t work. Nothing like fighting over cereal choices to bond a family, I thought.
The comforting smell of farm animals hung on my clothes and mixed with the aroma of steak and eggs. I slowly raised my head, made a ponytail out of my wavy brown hair and slipped it through the back of my dark green ball cap. There had been no reason to get cleaned up or put on make-up, since I would be headed straight back to the sanctuary to help feed our animals.
I covered my sour dough French toast with sweet Vermont maple syrup and dug in. Two large diet colas disappeared from my glass almost as soon as they arrived, and the remaining ice cubes reflected the soft lighting from the rustic fixtures that decorated the local diner. It wouldn’t be too long until the false energy of the sugar and caffeine would give me a second wind.
I felt at home in this place and came here often since I started working for Ben at the small animal rescue barn a few miles down the road. The strong wooden beams and solid wood furniture felt like a cabin and the staff treated me as family. The nature pictures on the wall were soothing, and the place was always clean and the floor swept, even though most customers came in directly from working some type of outdoor job.
The peaceful place was still being disturbed this morning by some outsiders. The unfamiliar woman criticized the man after tiring of battling with the child. I needed out of this toxic bickering, the family’s fighting started to make my own back tense. I left my money on the table and thanked the staff as I got up to leave.
As I made my way to the door, I glanced over my shoulder toward the table of people who shouted their misery to world. I gasped as I recognized my ex-boyfriend sitting with a crying toddler on his lap. It had been about five years since I last saw him, but it looked like he had aged ten during that time. His brown curly hair was now cut short, the blue jeans he used to wear were replaced with business attire, and his face looked pale and tired.
When he looked up, his eyes caught mine and his posture stiffened when he realized who I was. His eyes quickly lowered toward the table and he bounced the toddler on his knee. A wedding band on his left hand broadcasted his current marital status. A beautiful and thin bleached blonde woman, dressed like she just stepped out of a fashion magazine, continued badgering him as she shook her long slender finger in anger.
A wave of sadness flooded over me when I saw such a drastic change in his demeanor. My memories of Travis Biltmore were filled with his laughter and sense of adventure. But in this moment, laughter was nowhere in sight. I stepped forward to give a warm greeting, but thought better of it and turned on my heel. No reason to give his wife another reason to be angry with him.
I deliberately turned my back on their strife and pushed the heavy wooden door of the café open and stepped out into the fresh morning air. As I heard the slight breeze rustle the few leaves left on the trees, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that my immediate family consisted of only myself and my loving dog, Chevy. My golden retriever and I were a small family, but at least we were a peaceful one. We hardly ever argued.
Joy filled my heart as it always did when I pulled onto the gravel road that led into the mini animal sanctuary. My headlights lit up the front of new foster dog center as I turned in to park. It wouldn’t be long until the grounds were filled with dogs; we already had a good start by saving two beagles our first week.
My golden retriever, Chevy bounded out of the truck and over to the play area, to join the other the two dogs in a game of chase, while I cleaned out the doggie sleeping rooms. As far as animal rescue goes, this was a small place with an even smaller staff, but we had some great volunteers who planned to give countless hours to help the animals. Our goal was to foster dogs for a larger animal rescue group in the city, and let a few other animals stay here when needed, like the cow and her new calf.
I mainly trained the dogs and coordinated the schedule for volunteers, but today we were short staffed so I helped out with the morning feeding and cleaning. The chores were quickly finished, and I was ready to head back home for some much needed sleep when my cell phone rang.
“Avery, we’re having some problems out at a search mission. I’m hoping you can come out and give me some help,” a familiar voice said.
It was my friend, Deputy Don Donaldson. I could hear the frustration in his voice.
Don and his trained black Labrador, Ace, were members of our local volunteer Search and Rescue team. Don wouldn’t have called me unless he was in a real bind, since I normally didn’t go out on search missions anymore. My role with search and rescue was to help train the SAR dogs and their handlers.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“We’ve been searching all night for a seventy-year-old male who’s been missing since last night. He’s diabetic so it’s a life-threatening situation and the dogs are all getting stuck at the same spot.” Don blew out a long, tired breath. “I’m at a loss.”
“Where are you?”
“We’re out on Old Harnett Road, near the Pisgah County line. You’ll see the emergency vehicles out in front of the house.” His voice was tense, as if he was grinding his teeth as he talked.
Every muscle in my body was crying for some rest, but I knew my answer before I said it.
“I’ll swing by.”
Twenty minutes later, I arrived on the search scene and parked my truck along the side of the country road about a hundred yards from the victim’s house. Chevy was already napping in his crate in the back of my covered truck, so I left him with a bowl of fresh water and a dog treat. I grabbed my hip pack and walked briskly down the road toward the residence, I passed a parked County Emergency Management truck, some law enforcement cars and a couple fire trucks. The sun was just coming up, and I noticed there weren’t many homes in this area. The lost man could have walked in most any direction and not have been noticed.
A makeshift command post was set up in the neighbor’s garage, with key search command staff hovering over maps and laptop computers as they accessed the situation and planned where to assign the ground search teams for the next few hours. Both the victim’s and the neighbor’s front yards were illuminated with bright floodlights, courtesy of the local volunteer fire department.
I was relieved that the Incident Command team kept the command post away from the lost person’s actual residence. It’s a lot easier for the search dogs to catch a victim’s scent trail near the home without having a bunch of random people trampling over the area.
I made my way to the sign-in table, and looked across the yard at the lost person’s home as I checked in. A small group of adults sat in lawn chairs out in front of the victim’s home, cooking burgers on a grill and carrying on like they were at a family reunion. By the number of beer cans scattered on the dead grass around them, it appeared that they had been sitting out there all night.
Two women under the influence were judging which of the two over-sized men had the loudest truck, biggest muscles and best military tattoo. A young man sporting baggy black clothes from head to toe furiously drew pictures of the entire scene in a notebook. I frowned at them all, thinking it was a blatant disregard for the lost man and the people trying to find him.
I fantasized about marching over to command and asking they be removed from the scene, but thought better of it and chose to meet up with the folks from my SAR team instead. We had a job to do, whether these people cared about finding the victim or not.
Don walked up to me, dressed in his SAR Dog Handler attire: Dark blue BDU work pants with lots of pockets, a K9 Handler team sweatshirt, navy blue ball cap, a black chest harness that held his radio and a leather dog leash hanging over his shoulder. He looked pretty well awake, considering he’d been working his dog all night.
“What have you gotten so far?” I asked.
“Three dogs have worked, and all of them have ended up across the road behind that small shed over there.” Don lifted his arm and pointed across a field to an old wooden shed that was covered with vines.
He continued, “There’s an old beat up truck parked behind it. The dogs all worked to the front bumper of that truck, then stopped.”
“Well, it means something. We just don’t know what that something is, yet.”
Don nodded his head in agreement.
“Could someone have driven back there and picked him up?” I asked.
“Maybe, but I doubt it. The only people he spends any time with are family, and most of them are sitting over in those chairs.” Don grimaced as he looked over at the old man’s front lawn.
“Yeah, I noticed the family barbeque,” I said with another frown. What’s up with that?”
“Mr. Leeder owns most of the land around here. He doesn’t have a big bank account, but his land is worth at least four million. The two big guys over there are his money grubbing sons from Harrison County. They‘ve been trying to get him to sell off the land, but the old man would have no part of it. He told them the land would be sold only ‘over his dead body’.”
I shook my head and muttered. “Probably what they’re waiting for.
“They brought their girlfriends over here like they’re on some kind of a date,” Don said with a scowl.
“That’s really bad,” I said. I felt sorry for the old man.
“Let’s focus on finding Mr. Leeder,” Don said, as we walked over to his truck, the smell of grilling burgers lingering in the air. “Then we can work on the who-done-it part.”
He pulled out a large aerial photo of the search area and spread it across the cold hood of the pick-up. Don’s SAR dog, Ace, rested in the back seat as we studied the landscape from a bird’s eye view with an aerial photo.
“Show me the areas you’ve worked so far,” I said.
Don ran his finger along part of the photograph. “Ace started from the house and caught scent right away. He worked down this grass road, along this field, then stopped behind the shed like I told you.”
“What did the other dogs do?” I asked, still focused on the photo in front of me.
“Two other dogs worked in the wooded areas on the far side of the shed,” he said and used a pen to outline the two sections of woods that had been searched. “Both dogs caught scent in the air and followed it back to the same spot.”
“And you looked in the vehicle and shed?” I asked and ignored his ‘of course I did’ stare.
“Yeah, two separate ground teams looked it over real well. All they found were some tools and a wheelbarrow,” he finally answered.
“Something’s off, Don,” I said. “It’s time to start over with the basics and keep an open mind.”
One of the hardest things to do in search and rescue is to keep from assuming ANYTHING. False assumptions can lead a search in the wrong direction in a hurry.
“Let’s go back inside the home and start from scratch,” I said. “Are there any kids inside?”
Most of my best leads had been obtained from kids. They absorb information like a sponge and are often overlooked by adults. They tend to speak honestly if they feel comfortable with the person asking questions. Often times, they’re a lot more comfortable talking to a non-uniformed searcher then they are a deputy.
“Yes, the missing person’s daughter and granddaughter are inside.” Don flipped open his small notebook and read out loud, “The daughter’s name is Brenda and the granddaughter’s name is Anna. They live with the victim.”
Don waved to a couple of deputies leaning on the side of his truck. After a brief radio conversation with command, they accompanied Don and me across the victim’s yard and past the partiers to the front of the single story brick home. The white wooden door opened before I even had a chance to knock. A female deputy stuck her head out the door, and smiled as we made our way into the home.
I tried to make a quick observation of the home’s interior, but was distracted by a dark haired woman in her thirties pacing back and forth. She wiped some sweat from her brow and apologized for having such a messy kitchen. The place looked spotless to me.
My eyes followed the sound of cartoons playing on the TV, and I noticed a young girl about seven or eight years old sitting in a tan and blue oversized chair that about swallowed her up. She held a stuffed toy dog and her feet dangled from the end of the cushion as she looked up at us with big brown eyes.
The woman from the kitchen followed us and fretted about the living room, folding up newspapers and plumping pillows. When the deputy asked her to relax, she sat on the edge of the tan couch with tears in her eyes.
The little girl’s mouth dropped open when she saw Don and his K9 Handler gear. She scooted up and sat on the arm of the stuffed chair as her wide eyes fixated on the dog leash slung across his shoulder. I immediately recognized a fellow dog lover and broke into a smile.
“Do you like dogs?” I asked her.
She nodded her head excitedly.
I turned to Don and asked, “Where did you collect the scent articles for the dogs?”
Don walked down a narrow hallway to the first bedroom on the right. “Right here, in Mr. Leeder’s bedroom. We put 4 x 4 pieces of gauze in his jeans and let them collect the scent for a good twenty minutes. Then the 4 x 4’s were put in zip-lock bags, so each dog handler had his own scent article.”
I followed him into the bedroom and noticed a pair of old jeans lying across the bed. The room was very tidy and the smell of potpourri filled the room. The bed was freshly made and was covered with a bright yellow comforter with pink flowers. I guessed the woman had cleaned this room from top to bottom and changed the bedding before the dog handlers arrived.
I put on a pair of latex gloves and picked up the jeans.
“Why are ya doing that?” a tiny voice asked.
The little girl’s face peeked from around the bedroom door.
“You know how dogs have a really good sense of smell?”
She nodded and wiggled her nose as if she were demonstrating her understanding.
“We want the search dogs to have something to smell so they know who to look for,” I continued. “It’s important to use these medical gloves when I touch the scent article so a dog doesn’t get the wrong smell when we show it to him.”
She had a slight frown on her face as she slowly stepped into the room.
“Do you understand?” I asked.
“Aren’t you looking for my Papa?” she asked, her eyes narrowed in confusion as she looked me in the eye.
The deputy that stood behind her, nodded.
“Yes.” I said.
“That’s not Papa’s pants,” the girl said, and tilted her head to the side.
I froze and held my breath. A million thoughts raced through my mind as I stared blankly at the deputy. I gathered myself together and turned back to the little girl.
“Is this Papa’s bed?” I asked her calmly.
“Nope,” she said.
Her mom stuttered from hallway, “He, he, he sleeps in here, Anna.”
“Just sometimes, Mama,” the girl answered innocently.
I gave a hard look at the mother and Don gave her a death stare. The female deputy promptly gripped the woman’s arm and warned her to keep quiet.
“Do you know whose pants these are, Anna?” I asked.
“My cousin, Austin’s. He slept over.”
Don’s face was crimson and he whispered angrily, “That’s just great. We’ve had the dogs searching for the wrong person all freaking night.”
The mother quietly slipped out of view down the hallway and Don paced back and forth.
“Where does Papa sleep most of the time?” I asked, forcing my voice to be bright and cheery.
The young girl walked back down the hallway to the basement door. “In here,” she said as her hand turned the knob.
The door creaked softly as she opened it, and I followed Anna down the stairs with Don and a deputy right behind me. The basement was set up like a small basic apartment with a single bed, a small table, a TV, and a recliner. It was not nearly as tidy as the bedroom we just left.
“Is Papa the only one that sleeps in this bed?” I asked the girl.
“Yes,” she replied, not realizing the importance of our conversation.
A gleam of morning light caught the corner of my eye, and I followed the source to a crack in a door at the far corner of the basement. The house sat on a sloped piece of land and the ground at the back of the building was lower than the front. The landscape allowed for a door at the lower level in the rear of the home. The old man could easily have walked out that door and straight to the back yard.
“Where do you think your Papa went?” I asked.
“To get fire wood down the path,” she said, looking me right in the eye.
“Can you point out to me where the path is?” I kept my voice calm.
Anna’s sandy hair bounced as she ran out the basement level door into the corner of the back yard and pointed toward a four-foot wide path that lead into the woods.
“Anna, you are so brave to help your Papa, and it was so good to meet you,” I said.
Don disappeared back up the stairs to get his dog as I prepared a good scent article for Ace. I hurriedly slipped on a fresh pair of latex gloves and cut a good sized portion of cloth from the used pillow case, placing it in a fresh zip-lock bag.
I burst out the basement level door and found Don and Ace waiting for me in the back yard. His black Labrador was whining and ready to go back to work. Don grabbed the zip-lock bag out of my gloved hand and opened the bag in front of Ace’s nose, giving him a whiff of the assigned scent. The dog bobbed his nose near the bag a couple times and immediately went into action.
As the search dog left the back yard and worked the old man’s scent trail down the path, I looked back toward the house and noticed the young girl’s face pressed against the dining room window as she watched our every move. I gave her a little wave as we set off to find her grandfather, hoping it wasn’t too late.