Twisted Cedars Mysteries, Book 3
Release Date:

May 8, 2024

ISBN:

978-0-9878613-5-1

More From CJ →

Exposed

by

CJ Carmichael

A serial killer comes home. A missing boy. A shocking revelation.

Charlotte Hammond wasn’t prepared to be the guardian of her murdered sister’s children. But when her brother-in-law is arrested for the murder, she has no choice.

When nine-year-old Chester doesn’t return home from school, Charlotte fears the worst.

True crime writer Dougal Lachlan is hiding his own secrets. He believes he holds the key to solving the thirty-year-old murders of five librarians, but if he’s right, the killer may be closer than anyone thinks.

Local sheriff Wade MacKay doesn’t want to believe there’s a serial killer in Twisted Cedars, but with a nine-year-old boy missing, he’s forced to confront the chilling possibility.

As the town grapples with the unsettling events of past and present, Charlotte, Dougal, and Wade must confront their own demons and work together to uncover the truth before more lives are lost to the darkness lurking within Twisted Cedars.

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chapter one

Charlotte Hammond had been legal guardian of her dead sister’s children, nine-year-old twins Chester and Cory Quinpool, for less than two months when her worst nightmare came true.

It happened in September, the first week of the new school term. The twins had started fourth grade, time was marching on, and they’d be turning ten this November.

No doubt the past year would be one they’d happily put behind them. Only that summer they’d found out their mentally ill mother—Charlotte’s sister, Daisy—hadn’t deserted them as originally thought but instead had been killed and illegally buried near an old family cottage.

Less than a month after that shocker, their father, Kyle Quinpool, had been arrested on charges of fraud and criminally negligent homicide. Rather than put his children through the stress of a trial—or so he’d claimed—he’d chosen to plead guilty and serve his sentence.

So…it had been a tough summer.

And now Chester had gone missing somewhere between school and the babysitter’s house. The disappearance began with only a mildly concerning phone call from Nola Thompson, the woman who was supposed to be minding the twins for the hour and a half between school and the closing of the public library where Charlotte worked.

“All the kids have been home for fifteen minutes,” Nola said without preamble. “Still no sign of Chester.”

Charlotte began closing windows on her computer. Her nephew had ridden his bike today, so if anything, he should have made it to the Thompson house first. “Does Cory know where he is?”

“Nope. Anyway, if he made plans to go to one of his friend’s houses, I’m the one who needs to be told. I have enough on my hands without worrying about him.” Nola sounded more annoyed than worried.

“He didn’t say anything about his plans to me, either,” Charlotte admitted, getting up from her desk and moving down the mystery aisle so Zoey, shelving books just a few feet from Charlotte’s desk, wouldn’t hear.

Zoey made a perfectly fine librarian assistant, but since Charlotte had taken custody of the twins, the married mother of three made a point of second-guessing every parenting decision Charlotte made. Given her experience, Zoey probably felt entitled. But Charlotte had seen Zoey with her children, and her hardline approach was not one Charlotte wanted to emulate.

“He’s getting to be a real handful,” Nola continued, and Charlotte knew it was true.

Earlier that summer she’d sent the kids back to summer camp so they could avoid the local gossip about their parents. But now that school was in session, she couldn’t protect them anymore. Cory reacted to the teasing and bullying by being super sweet and accommodating—as if she had to apologize and atone for every one of her parents’ sins.

Chester, on the other hand, retaliated with his fists.

Complicating the situation, Nola’s oldest child, Bruce, was among the worst of the bullies, so he and Chester were always at odds.

“I’ll go looking for him,” Charlotte said. “Meanwhile, if he does show up please call me right away.”

“Fine. But this is the last straw. I’m not going to be able to provide after-school care for Chester anymore. Cory, yes. She’s an angel. But that brother of hers…”

“Got it.” If she sounded short, Charlotte didn’t care. It was past time she made alternate arrangements for the twins. Nola Thompson had never been intended to be more than a stopgap solution.

Charlotte grabbed her purse from the bottom drawer of her desk, aware of Zoey hovering nearby.

“I have to leave early. Do you mind locking up?” Charlotte hated to ask the favor, as she knew Zoey would take this as yet another sign of her parental incompetency.

“Sure. Is it Chester again? If you ask me, that boy is going to turn out just like his father unless you take a firm hand.”

Charlotte didn’t answer, just made her way outside.

She didn’t believe Zoey had the answer for how to deal with Chester. But neither did she. Single and twenty-eight years old, Charlotte was learning how to parent on the fly.

If the twins had been younger, she might have been more equipped. She had no trouble connecting with the three- and four-year-olds who attended her preschool reading circle every week.

But she had less experience with older children. Her boyfriend, true-crime writer Dougal Lachlan, was even more hopeless.

Not that she’d seen much of him lately. Since the twins had moved in, he’d become increasingly reclusive. Given the issues he had with his own father, she guessed he wasn’t keen on stepping into any sort of parental role himself.

Or maybe he was just getting tired of her.

Outside Charlotte slipped on her sunglasses. September was often one of the nicest weather months for coastal Oregon, and today was a perfect example. Sunny, hot, almost no wind. Since she lived only a few blocks from the library she never drove to work, which meant she had to walk home to get her car. She hurried along the Ocean Way walking path, barely managing a smile as she passed by the mother of one of her favorite teenaged patrons.

When she reached the gracious three-story home where she’d grown up, her first instinct was to check the garage for Chester’s bike. It wasn’t there. She went through the mudroom into the house.

“Chester? Are you home?” She ran through the entire house, checking every room, including the bedroom that had once been Daisy’s and was now the twins’. She suspected Chester had agreed to share the room with his sister because he knew she was afraid to be alone.

What would Cory do if they didn’t find her brother? If he—?

No. She couldn’t let herself think that way.

After she’d searched the house, Charlotte checked the yard, then the beach that stretched out on either side of her property. It was deserted.

Where else would he go? He hadn’t been keen on hanging out with his friends lately. Maybe the park by the school? Or the public beach?

Surely he wouldn’t dare go near the bluffs…?

Fear slammed into her, causing her to freeze in one instant, then start running to her car the next.

Charlotte backed out of the driveway, shifted gears, then hit the gas a little too hard, throwing up bits of gravel and causing her body to lurch forward, then abruptly back. She gripped the steering wheel like it was a throw line and she was a drowning swimmer, and pushed her speed beyond the town limit.

In less than thirty seconds she was at the park. The manicured green space led to a public beach on the other side of the sand dunes. Closer to the main road, screened off by shrubbery and a chain-link fence from the danger of traffic, the ocean, and the bluffs was a playground. The children clambering on the monkey bars and swings were all much younger than Chester, but Charlotte approached one of the mothers sitting on a nearby bench who was scrolling on her mobile phone.

“Hi! I’m looking for my nephew. He’s nine years old, sandy-colored hair, and wearing a dark green T-shirt and jeans. Have you seen anyone like that?”

The woman, who was cute and looked twenty, if that, gave her a blank stare. Then she shook her head. “Sorry. I haven’t.”

“Right. Thanks anyway.” Charlotte dashed through a gate to the dunes to check the beach next. Though going near the ocean without adult supervision was strictly forbidden, at this point she would have been relieved to spot Chester on the expansive sandy shoreline.

Quickly she scanned the scattering of people out enjoying the beautiful day. No children close to Chester’s age here, either. She stopped to ask a mother of toddlers if she’d seen anyone who looked like her nephew.

“We’ve been here for over an hour, and there’s been no one like that,” the young mom said.

God. Where was he?

Her gaze flashed up to the bluffs. All she could see were trees. Knowing it was possible Chester was purposefully hiding, she attacked the steep incline, taking longer than she wanted to finally gain the summit.

But Chester wasn’t here, either.

Terrible possibilities swamped her mind. Had he been hurt or worse in a terrible accident? Been approached by a sick child molester?

No. Please no.

Charlotte skidded and slid her way down from the bluffs.

There were still other places to look.

She’d start at the school. It seemed doubtful he was still there, but she ought to check. Plus she needed a list of his classmates. Perhaps Nola was right and he’d gone home with one of the other kids.

Since the school was only a short walk from the park, Charlotte didn’t bother with her car. She ran across the road, her pulse a loud, rapid-fire beat above the rasping of her breathing. She grasped and tugged at the main doors, only to find they were locked.

She left the paved sidewalk and jogged across the freshly mown lawn that ran down the side of the three-story brick structure, hoping for an open window and someone nearby to hear her call out.

Within seconds she heard the faint sound of a woman speaking, her tone lecturing, though no words were distinguishable. Charlotte traced the sound to an open window, which she guessed—having spent a lot of time in the school the past two weeks—was the staff room.

“Hello!” She was tall and had no trouble looking into the window. About eight women and a couple of men were seated throughout a room furnished with two round tables, a sofa, and several armchairs. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but my nephew, Chester Quinpool, didn’t come home from school today.”

As she spoke, she focused one by one on the teachers’ faces. Most were familiar to her. The school lacked funding for a proper library and so often made use of the public one which was, after all, only a ten-minute walk away.

“Charlotte?” Olivia Young, the twins’ teacher, came to the window. “Weren’t Cory and Chester supposed to go to the Thompsons’ after school today?”

Olivia was in her early thirties, newly married, and, if Charlotte wasn’t mistaken, newly pregnant as well. They’d had several meetings already to discuss the twins and how to best help them transition into the new school year after the trauma of having their father imprisoned for their mother’s homicide.

“Cory did. But Chester still hasn’t shown up.” Charlotte glanced at her phone to make sure she hadn’t missed an update from Nola. “I’ve looked for him at home, at the park, and the beach. I even climbed up the bluffs, but I’ve seen no sign of him.”

The school principal, Gabrielle Hodges, an athletic, handsome woman in her late fifties, stepped closer to the window. Gabrielle had been Charlotte’s fourth-grade teacher way back when, and she had a comforting aura of authority as she weighed in. “I’m sure we’ll find him, Charlotte. We’ll search the school thoroughly and call all his classmates. There’s a good chance he went home to play with one of them.”

“Maybe.” But Chester hadn’t seemed to be on good terms with any of the other children these days. This past week he’d been spending most of his free time alone in his bedroom.

“Why don’t you come inside?” Gabrielle invited. “I’ll go unlock the front door for you.”

“I have to keep looking for Chester.”

“Okay. You do that. We’ll make sure he isn’t hiding somewhere on school property.”

“And I’ll call everyone on the class list,” Olivia promised.

“Thank you.” Focusing on Olivia, she added, “Can you think of any incident that came up today, something involving Chester, that might help explain where he’s gone?”

Olivia’s brow furrowed. “He did seem troubled. But I’m afraid that’s not unusual.”

No, sadly, it was not.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” Gabrielle said. “He’s probably gone to a friend’s house or something. But I’m going to call 911.”

Adrenaline jolted through Charlotte’s system, tightening every muscle while turning her stomach—and her world—upside down. Alerting the authorities elevated the situation from worrisome to catastrophic. Possibilities that had seemed remote at first, possibilities like an accident or a kidnapping, could no longer be pushed to the back of her mind.

She glanced at her watch. Chester had now been missing for forty minutes.

“Yes. Call 911.”

Charlotte left her cell phone number with them, then jogged back to the sidewalk, trying to push through her panic and think rationally.

Though it was a possibility that had to be crossed off the list, she didn’t think they’d find Chester hiding on school property or at one of his classmates’ homes. Where else could she look?

She supposed she could randomly drive up and down the main streets of town in the hopes of spotting him or his bike.

Then inspiration struck. Maybe Chester had gone to see his grandfather, Jim Quinpool. For a few years Jim and Muriel had lived with Kyle and the twins. If Chester was upset, his grandfather was an obvious person to run to.

As she hurried back to her car, she called Jim. The phone rang and rang on the other end, but there was no answer. That didn’t mean Jim wasn’t home. He’d wanted custody of the twins after his son went to prison, and he’d been ticked off when the court appointed her instead. Possibly he’d seen her name on the call display and had refused to answer out of spite.

So she’d just have to go flush him out. On the drive to Jim’s place—he now lived in an apartment above the Realtor business he’d once run with Kyle—she tried Wade McKay, the Curry County sheriff and a personal friend.

The 911 call would be routed through his office. But she wanted to speak to him personally.

Wade answered after the first ring. “Charlotte. We just got the call from Gabrielle Hodges. Where are you?”

“In my car, on my way to J-Jim’s house.” She swallowed. At the first sound of Wade’s voice, she’d had a sudden urge to cry.

But she couldn’t break down now. She had to be strong and hope for the best—that she would find Chester soon and he’d be fine.

“I’ve already checked the park across from the school and the beach. Chester’s teacher is calling everyone in his class, and the rest of the staff are searching the school.”

“That’s good. Drive carefully, Charlotte. Try to stay calm. I’m sending out every available vehicle to comb this town. Chances are good we’ll find him in the next half an hour or so.”

Even as he said that, Charlotte passed a black and white SUV with Sheriff Curry County stenciled on the side panel. The driver, Deputy Dunne, gave her a wave and a nod, as if to say, Don’t worry, ma’am. We’re on this.

Before Dougal moved back to Twisted Cedars, she and Wade had dated. He’d even asked her to marry him once—though she was pretty sure he hadn’t loved her at the time. For sure he didn’t love her now. But she was grateful he wasn’t the sort of man to hold a grudge.

“Thanks, Wade. I just—thank you.”

“Of course. We’ll be in touch.”

Charlotte ended the call but kept a tight hold on her phone. Please ring. Please be Nola, reporting that Chester has finally shown up. Or Olivia, saying Chester is fine, he’d gone home with a school friend…

But her phone remained silent.

She wished desperately that she had a way to reach Chester directly. The twins owned iPads, which they weren’t allowed to bring to school. But they didn’t have phones. Their father had said they had to wait until they turned thirteen—a rule that had seemed reasonable to Charlotte once.

Now she swore that as soon as they found Chester, she would go out and get them not just phones but possibly GPS tracking devices she’d strap to their ankles.

Charlotte turned onto Driftwood Lane, the town’s main drag, grateful that August was over and there was plenty of available parking. She was able to pull into a space right outside Quinpool Realty. The business was closed. It had been since Kyle’s arrest.

She rushed out of her car, glancing around, hoping to see if not Chester, then at least his bike. But neither one was in sight. She opened the door to the left of the glass door to Quinpool Realty and then climbed a narrow, steep flight of stairs to the upper apartment.

With each step her heart thumped harder. Sweat rose on her hands, filming against the phone and keys she was carrying. She put both into her pockets, then rubbed her palms on the light wool blend of her skirt.

At the top of the stairs was a small landing and a wooden door with a peephole and a slot for mail. She listened, straining for the sound of Chester’s voice within, but all she could hear was the faint drone of a television.

She rapped on the door, waiting less than ten seconds before repeating.

“Jim?” she called out. “It’s Charlotte. I’m looking for Chester.”

Finally he opened. Behind him was a dimly lit room with a sofa and television. The room had a foul, stale, alcoholic odor. And so did Jim.

He looked rough. Unshaven, clothes rumpled as if he’d slept in them—for more than one night, hair that had gone too long without a wash or a cut. Considering he’d been one of the better dressed men in town once, it was a long fall.

The man obviously needed help, but she couldn’t worry about that right now.

“Is Chester here?” She scanned the room as she asked this. When she tried to step forward, Jim blocked her.

“No, he isn’t. What the hell is going on?”

Charlotte wished she had an answer for him. She would have given anything to see her nephew sitting on that disgusting couch, eating junk food and watching sitcom reruns with his grandfather.

But he wasn’t here.

He wasn’t at Nola’s or at home or the school or the park or any of the normal places he liked to hang out.

So where was he?

Charlotte’s mind went blank as a terrible fear took grip of her body and soul.

Dougal had warned her that the horror that had gripped their town the past few months wasn’t over. Kyle Quinpool may have been arrested. Her sister’s death was being avenged. But there was a bigger evil lurking in Twisted Cedars.

She didn’t want to believe it. But it seemed there was a very good chance Chester’s disappearance was linked to that.

chapter two

“Are you sure this is the right place?”

Jamie Lachlan didn’t answer her brother’s question. Instead, she slid out of the passenger side of his SUV into tall wild grass that tickled the backs of her calves exposed by her capri jeans.

They were at the far end of a gravel road that followed the Elk River into the Grassy Knob Wilderness. All around were giant trees, wild grasses, and tangles of vine maples. The last sign of civilization, a rundown cabin, had been a few miles back. Even cell-phone coverage didn’t reach this far.

“Jamie? Is this the place?”

She heard the driver’s-side door slam shut and the sound of his footsteps swishing through the grass. But she couldn’t stop staring at the two-story home in front of her.

About a month ago she’d met a man here. Brian Greenway had contacted the CPA firm where she worked looking for tax advice for his extensive investment portfolio. The amount of money involved had been significant enough that her bosses had sent her out here to meet him—and get his signature on a letter of engagement.

She’d been so excited at the time. Being sent to sign up a new client—especially an important new client like Brian Greenway—seemed to be, had felt like a vote of confidence in her work. Not to mention an indicator that one day she would be invited to be a partner at Howard & Mason.

But shortly after she’d obtained Greenway’s John Henry, he’d disappeared.

According to the property management firm that handled this place, rent was paid up for six months. They had no idea Greenway wasn’t using the place anymore.

But he so obviously wasn’t.

Hard to believe that in just one month a property could come to look so neglected. But this one, with the overgrown lawn and curtained windows, did. All the patio furniture, including the stuff from the adjacent gazebo, was gone. As was the black pickup truck that had been parked here last time.

Only when Dougal put a hand on her shoulder did Jamie come out of her trance and remember his question.

“Yes. This is the place where I met with Brian Greenway.”

Dougal’s dark eyes narrowed. At thirty-four her brother had six years on her, and the gap had always been a distancing one. The years he’d spent working as a true-crime author in New York City hadn’t made them any closer. Nor had his almost violent opposition to her marriage to Kyle Quinpool last June.

Time had proven Dougal right on that one, since Kyle was now in prison and their marriage was in the process of being annulled.

But that didn’t mean he was right about everything.

Even as she had the thought, Jamie recognized the petulance behind it.

“Tell me what happened that day. Walk me through it.”

She sighed, annoyed that he’d insisted on driving all this way when she’d already told him every detail three times over. Training her eyes on the front door, she recalled the heat of the July day when she’d been here last. A chickadee had been singing when she’d stepped out of her car. “I parked just about where you did now. Greenway came to the door a moment later.”

“Describe him.”

Since Dougal was walking toward the house, she followed so she wouldn’t have to shout.

“He was an inch or two shorter than you. Slender. He looked about sixty, I’d say. His hair was gray and short. Oh, he had a beard—it looked freshly trimmed.”

Dougal tried the main door, which was locked, then attempted to peer into the windows, but the curtains effectively blocked his view. “How about his eyes? Are you sure you didn’t see them?”

“He wore sunglasses the entire time.”

“You didn’t get even a quick glance?”

“I’ve told you all of this already. Why do you insist on going over it and over it?”

Earlier that week Dougal had helped her settle into the new house she’d purchased on Horizon Hill Road. He’d moved her sofa from one wall to the other until she figured out where it looked best. He’d helped her connect her TV and internet and had shown her how to program the fancy thermostat for the gas furnace.

It was only because he’d been so nice that she’d finally given in to his demand to show her this place and to go over—yet again—her encounter with Brian Greenway in July.

“I’m hoping you’ll remember something—a detail, a sentence, a word—that will help me prove my theory.” Dougal paused to look back at her. “I didn’t complain when you made me move that heavy sofa to six different places before we pushed it back to the original spot, did I?”

“Fine. No, I didn’t get even a glance at his eyes. He claimed he was very sensitive to the sun. He had his sunglasses on the whole time.”

“What about his voice? Did it sound familiar?”

She paused. A breeze rippled through the grass, over her skin, through her hair. It had been dead calm the last time she was here. In her mind a voice echoed. Call me Brian… Hope you didn’t mind the drive.

“I did have the feeling I’d heard his before. Which was strange because our meeting had been set up by Colin.”

Dougal looked at her sharply. “Did it—sound like mine?”

She could feel the pain behind the question. Dougal begrudged any resemblance between himself and their father. And that was who he believed Brian Greenway really was. Their dad, Edward Lachlan, a man Jamie had never met—unless Dougal was correct and she’d spoken to him last July, in this very spot.

“Maybe. I’m not sure.” When Dougal turned away in disappointment, she felt compelled to apologize. “I’m sorry. It was a while ago, okay?”

“I didn’t mean to pressure you. What happened next?”

“He suggested we talk in the gazebo.” She glanced at the cedar structure about thirty feet from the house.

“Let’s check it out.”

Again Jamie followed her brother, pausing as he opened the screen door. When the hinges screeched in protest, she couldn’t remember if it had done so before. Inside cobwebs festooned the rafters like holiday garland and a layer of grit had settled on the plank flooring.

“There was a table here before. And cushioned chairs. He’d set out lemonade and snacks.”

But now the space was empty. She traced a circle with her steps while Dougal stood and watched.

“What did you talk about?”

“He told me he’d been living here about a month, and then he asked a bunch of questions about my background, including where I’d gone to college. I thought he was vetting me to see if I was qualified to handle his tax returns.”

Was it possible she’d been talking to her father that day without realizing it? Jamie found it almost impossible to believe she wouldn’t have felt some sort of connection if it were true.

All her life people had been protecting her from Edward Lachlan. They told her he was a man with a dangerous temper, capable of great violence. It was why her mother, Katie, had kicked him out when she did, not even telling him she was pregnant with Jamie.

The idea was that he would never even know he had a daughter.

Years later, when Edward was imprisoned for killing his second wife, Katie’s caution was vindicated.

Not exactly Daddy of the Year material.

And, according to Dougal, he’d done worse. Much worse.

“Did this Greenway actually show you his portfolio?”

She nodded.

“And is he wealthy?”

Again she nodded, wondering if by so doing she was breaking client confidentiality, if indeed Greenway could still be considered one. He’d paid a significant retainer, but he’d also stopped answering phone calls and emails shortly after her visit. If Dougal’s theory was correct, his only purpose in approaching Howard & Mason had been to meet her. Now that he had, they’d never hear from him again.

Despite the warm air, she shivered. “We talked about some of his tax issues, and then he asked if I’d like to walk down to the river.”

“And you said yes,” Dougal continued, moving the script forward. “Show me where you went.”

They left the gazebo, and as Jamie picked out the faint trail through the forest to the river, she remembered more trivia from that day. “He talked about the salmon spawning in the drainage of Dry Creek. I asked if he was a fisherman. He said he didn’t have the patience.”

The sound of rushing water grew louder as she made her way through the trees, her sandals crunching over small twigs and scattered pine cones. When she pushed aside the branch of a thick spruce tree, a squirrel came rushing down the trunk to scold her before dashing back to safety.

Jamie stopped when she came to the river bank. What a beautiful, magical place. The river spanned about twenty-five feet, disappearing from view as it curved to the right. “There’s a big waterfall beyond that curve, but you have to walk along these rocks to see it.”

The river was shallow on this bank, so clear you could see perfectly to the pebbled floor. As Jamie stepped cautiously from one big rock to the next, the chattering of the river became a dull roar. She stopped well back from the ledge where the land abruptly gave way to a twenty-foot drop.

Even as she was doing so, Dougal grabbed her arm. “Careful! You’re too close to the edge.”

“Brian Greenway warned me to be careful that day,” she recalled. “I remember I leaned too far forward and almost lost my balance. But then he pulled me back.”

That brief moment of physical contact between them—it had passed so quickly. She’d felt nothing, no special bond to suggest she was being touched by her father.

“Shit, Jamie. Are you sure he wasn’t the reason you almost fell?”

She started to deny it, then stopped. Memory was a funny thing. Now that Dougal had planted the idea in her head, she almost believed that yes, it had happened that way.

“You’re trembling. Let’s sit down for a bit.” Dougal pointed to a log a few yards back from the ledge.

Jamie sank down gratefully, stretching out her legs but folding her arms over her chest. Even from this distance she could feel a deliciously cool mist from the cascading river.

“If Brian Greenway was our father, why would he have pulled a stunt like that?”

“He meant it as a message for me.” Dougal sat beside her, staring out at the river, his expression stony. “He killed our half sister, Joelle, and her baby for the same reason. He wants me to write a book about his killing spree in the seventies.”

“Or else what—he’ll kill me next?” She tried to sound incredulous. Because it was unbelievable. And yet so many awful things had happened the past four months.

When Dougal didn’t respond, she had to concede. “Maybe you’re right. God knows you were right about Kyle.”

Dougal was thirty minutes into the drive back to Twisted Cedars with his sister when the phone he’d tossed into his cup holder let out a series of chirps.

Jamie’s phone was doing the same thing.

“Guess we’re back in cell-phone range.” Jamie fished her phone out of her purse. A moment later she said, “Oh, crap. No. No way.”

“What is it?” Foreboding, cold as a rogue wave in December, washed over him. The call could be about anything. Maybe she’d missed an important meeting at work. But his fear was confirmed with her next words.

“It’s Chester. He’s missing.”

Icy fear slid down Dougal’s spine. He tried to push it away with reason. Kids broke rules sometimes. Maybe that was all this was. “How long? Fifteen minutes? Half an hour?”

“No one’s seen him since school let out at three thirty.”

The dash on the car taunted them with the current time, which was two hours later.

Dougal swore, then glanced at his sister, who was still hunched over her phone.

“Charlotte’s left me about five text messages, asking if I’ve seen him. I’ve got three voicemails from her, too. I’m going to—Hang on, I think she’s calling me now.”

Dougal pushed his speed to the brink of safety, calculating in his mind the distance to Twisted Cedars. Another hour and a half at least.

“Charlotte!” Jamie’s voice changed, grew louder and urgent. “I’m with Dou—”

Her explanation was cut off by a torrent of words from the other end of the line. Dougal missed the first few seconds while Jamie turned on the Bluetooth. And then Charlotte’s voice came through, clear but frantic.

“—been everywhere! The park, the school, the beach, all his friends! But we just can’t find him!”

“Charlotte. Dougal here. Have you called 911?”

“Yes. Wade’s at my house right now. I’ve given him pictures and a video clip of Chester I had on my phone. They’ve called an Amber Alert. Everyone’s looking for him. Everyone! So why can’t we find him? He had his bike, but how far can a nine-year-old get on a bike? Oh my God, I just can’t believe this.”

“Is Cory alright?” Jamie’s face had turned a pasty white.

“Yes. She’s home with me.”

“Can you put her on speakerphone?”

Dougal gave his sister’s shoulder a quick squeeze. Legally she was still the twins’ stepmother. Although that bond would soon be rescinded with the annulment of her marriage to their father, he knew she still cared deeply about the kids.

“J-Jamie?” Cory’s voice sounded shattered.

“Honey. Are you okay?”

“Sort of.”

“Dougal and I are on our way back to Twisted Cedars right now. We’ll be there before seven, I hope. We’ll come straight to your house.”

“I’m at Aunt Charlotte’s.”

Jamie glanced at him, her eyes soft with empathy. Moving houses in order to live with their aunt had been one of many adjustment forced upon the twins in the past few months.

“Right. Your aunt Charlotte’s place. We’ll see you as soon as we can get there. Hang tight, honey. I love you.” She ended the call, then drew in a long, shaky breath. “Those poor kids.”

Dougal glanced at his sister after she ended the call. “You okay?”

“I suppose…but is Chester? The past few months have been hell for that kid. He hero-worshipped Kyle. Having his father thrown into prison was terrible. And facing the kids at school must be a constant reminder.”

“I can imagine.” Actually, he didn’t need to. He’d been twelve, three years older than Chester, when his father was convicted for killing his second wife and sent to prison. Though Ed had been out of their lives for years, the news had somehow spread through town, and the schoolyard taunts had been brutal.

But the inner shame had proven the more lasting torment.

Jamie drummed her fingers restlessly on her thighs. “I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Chester’s run away.”

Dougal didn’t dare tell her that was a best-case scenario here. His top two fears were first that Chester could have drowned in the ocean or the mighty Rogue River. Or—and this one was just as bad—that somehow Ed Lachlan had gotten his hands on the boy.

“Suppose he did run away,” Dougal said. “Where would he go?”

“Somewhere far away. Maybe his grandmother’s place in Sacramento?”

Dougal nodded. Kyle’s mother had moved there after she divorced her husband, Jim. “That’s a long way for a nine-year-old to travel.”

“True. Another place he loves is Wolf Creek Camp.”

Charlotte had enrolled the kids at the outdoor-living camp for most of the summer, at their request. The wilderness setting had protected them from the media circus that followed the discovery of their mother’s body.

“At least that’s in the right state. But it’s a long car ride to Wolf Creek—I can’t see him getting there on a bike. He’d have been picked up by a patrol car for sure if he tried.”

“Do you think he’d try the Librarian Cottage?”

The rustic A-frame he was renting from Charlotte had been in the Hammond family for decades. Chester definitely would know how to get there. And the distance—about five miles—was something he could manage relatively quickly on a bike.

Dougal was happy to snatch at this hope, however faint. “Let’s check it out on the way to Charlotte’s.”

End of Excerpt

Exposed is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-0-9878613-5-1

May 8, 2024

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