Scent of Murder: New Excerpt

Scent of Murder by James O. Born is a police procedural about Tim Hallett, a detective recently reassigned to a special K-9 unit (available April 7, 2015).

Two years after being tossed from the detective bureau for using questionable tactics while catching a child molester, deputy Tim Hallett's life is finally on track. Assigned to a special K-9 unit with the best partner in the world, a Belgian Malinois named Rocky, Hallett has finally learned to balance police work with his family life. But that all changes in the heat of a Florida sugarcane field.

While searching for a kidnapper, Rocky locks onto the scent of a predator unlike anyone has ever seen. Or have they? The more Hallett digs, the closer he comes to his old issues when the case that ended his career as a detective appears to be the key to a series of kidnappings.

When the trail turns to murder, Hallett risks everything to catch the killer, even if it means clearing the child molester who drove him to violence and ruined his career. Along the way, Hallett and his partners learn the true meaning of loyalty and courage as their canine companions take police work to a new level and show that instinct means more than training.

1

Very few cops, including Tim Hallett, ran away from a chance at seeing some excitement. Maybe after a few more years on the job he’d slow down, but he hadn’t become a sheriff’s deputy to let others have all the fun. He looked up for any sign of the helicopter as he maneuvered his Chevy Tahoe down a narrow, pockmarked, shell-rock road wedged between a Florida Water Management District canal and a sugarcane field near Belle Glade.

The Tahoe bounced violently, tossing his partner, Rocky, a Belgian Malinois police service dog, across the passenger seat. His biggest fear right now was catching a pothole wrong and careening into the canal. In his time on patrol, he’d pulled five bodies out of submerged cars from the crisscrossing canal system of southern Florida. He didn’t want some rookie deputy telling the story of how he pulled a K-9 cop and his dog out of the murky water.

Hallett grabbed a quick glimpse of his partner and said, “Sorry about that, Rocky.”

As usual, Rocky didn’t answer unless he had something important to express.

They were pushing the edge of safety to reach the other deputies who’d been called to the remote sugarcane field after a fisherman reported a possible abduction. To Hallett, the terrain looked much more like a third world country than Florida. The entire area around Lake Okeechobee was dotted with small towns and vast farms. The poor people were very poor, and the rich people didn’t give two shits about them.

As the big SUV bumped along the canal’s edge, Hallett said, “This is the kind of stuff we signed on for, isn’t it, Rock?” He gritted his teeth against another hard bounce and added, “If everyone gets their shit together, maybe we can clear this up quickly.” He didn’t mind his coworker’s silence. Rocky was the best partner, human or nonhuman, he’d worked with in his eight years at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. It was unlike any other relationship he’d ever had with a colleague, or with anyone else. He looked across the space between them, then reached over with his right hand and ruffled Rocky’s brown hair.

He cleared a line of pine trees, which acted as a windbreak for the sugarcane, and saw the other patrol cars parked along the edge of the canal with uniformed deputies getting their gear together. As he slowed the SUV, Hallett leaned across the console and pressed his forehead against Rocky’s, in his normal ritual to psych both of them up for whatever assignment awaited them. Then he planted a kiss almost between Rocky’s eyes.

Hallett said, “Time to get to work.” He opened the door and slid onto the rough road. Rocky climbed across the console, let out a short bark, and landed on all four feet with the grace of a much smaller dog. Rocky looked like the classic Belgian Malinois, slightly smaller than a German Shepherd but the same shape, with a thick tan coat and dark muzzle. The sheriff’s policy dictated Rocky ride in the secure rear seat caged area, which had a hatch that opened to the passenger compartment, but whenever they had to drive for a long distance Hallett preferred to have his partner sitting next to him. Rocky enjoyed the freedom.

It only took a few seconds to open the tailgate of the Tahoe and pour some water into Rocky’s favorite dish, the one with Garfield on the bottom of the bowl, as if mocking the dog. Rocky’s sheer exuberance for life put him in a class of his own. He never walked when he could run. There was no such thing as easing them into a situation; the muscular Malinois had to jump in with all four feet, so to speak. Bred in Malines, Belgium, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Malinois was one of four Shepherd breeds from the area the American Kennel Club recognized in the 1950s. The only issue for the dog here in Florida was the heat. Hallett took his responsibilities to keep Rocky groomed and cool very seriously. The rear of his SUV was littered with Gatorade and water bottles he and Rocky had emptied during their long shifts. He’d brush out his partner for an hour after this job was done. It was tough keeping an eighty-five-pound dog cool in Florida.

As Rocky lapped at the water, Hallett got his gear in order, checking his tactical vest to make sure his flashlight, Gerber folding knife, and radio were all in place. He knew that whatever the situation, the K-9 units would be at the very front of the effort. That’s why he had taken this assignment over three years ago.

He was happy to see Sergeant Helen Greene already directing the other deputies. It took him a second to recognize the detective sergeant. He’d heard she’d lost weight, but the woman in the slacks and white shirt organizing things hardly resembled the woman the other detectives had nicknamed “Mount St. Helen.” She turned toward him and gave him a quick smile and wink. St. Helen might not be mountainous anymore, but she really was a saint. She’d helped him when his career as a detective turned south, reminding the sheriff of the benefits of Hallett’s rash acts, and she was known for protecting others as well. After the brief, silent greeting, the sergeant was back to work pushing other deputies to get ready.

Hallett hooked a sixteen-foot leash, or lead, on Rocky’s harness and trotted toward the group of deputies. He kept chatting lightly to the dog, making everything they did a game. Every once in a while he would throw in Josh’s name and smile at the dog’s reaction. Hallett’s son, Josh, commanded the dog’s complete attention when they were all together.

Rocky was bounding forward, anxious to start their game and making some of the regular patrol deputies nervous.

The other two K-9 units from his special squad were on their way out from headquarters, but depending on how hard they pushed their own vehicles it could be another ten minutes before they reached the scene. There were three things a cop never hesitated to move on quickly: a missing child, a death notification, or a call for help from another cop. Hallett doubted Sergeant Greene would wait for the other K-9s if the information indicated there was really a kid at risk. Most times these calls were flawed and the witness had only seen a family argument or misinterpreted the entire situation, but no one wanted to risk a child’s safety, even on a bogus tip. No one wanted a family to hear about the death of a loved one from the media, and no cop hesitated to help another in trouble. The scariest radio call was 10-24, which meant send help but was usually associated with an officer down. Hallett knew if he was ever in the shit and called for help, every available cop would be on the way instantly.

If this call was legitimate, this was exactly the kind of activity Hallett needed to help him feel like he’d made the right choices in life. Lately they’d been hard for him to justify. He didn’t worry about any of that as Rocky strained at his lead and pulled Hallett toward the gathering deputies.

*   *   *

He took a moment to catch his breath after slogging through the drainage ditch between the two cane fields, each over six feet high. Somehow, the fields reminded him of growing up in Indiana. Sugarcane was like scratchy cornstalks with snakes and alligators. He was lucky it hadn’t been harvested yet or he might really be in trouble. As he scrambled up the other side of the drainage ditch he could almost hear his father yelling, “Move your fat ass, Junior. You’re never going to drop any of that weight if you don’t start getting some physical activity.” Twenty-one years later, everyone in Indiana still called him “Junior.” He hated that goddamn name.

The other name his father continued to call him was “the dickless wonder.” The sour old bastard called everyone by some derisive nickname, but “dickless wonder” implied Junior couldn’t take a chance or make a ballsy move. That wasn’t true. He was proving it at this very moment. Somehow, his siblings had escaped the old man’s wrath and attention. On some level, it comforted Junior to know he was the only one his father screamed at and berated. At least he was interested in Junior’s life. However, it also made him wonder how much the old man had affected him.

The old man had caused a lot of trouble since relocating to the Sunshine State, but he sure could pick some stocks. If things kept going like they were, Junior might be able to live off investments before he turned fifty.

So far, the day had not turned out like he had expected. He had such high hopes for it. In fact, he’d dreamed about it for weeks. Maybe not details like this cane field or cops chasing him, but more his encounter with the pretty blond girl named Katie. He had followed her to the Wellington Mall and waited. He knew where she would be. It was a lucky break to catch her in the parking lot so quickly. She had surprised him by being so quiet and compliant until she was out of the car. She’d been scared by the blindfold and being stuffed onto the floorboard of the beat-up Toyota Tercel he’d stolen from the parking lot of the Palm Beach Outlets Mall. But as soon as her feet felt solid ground, she’d managed to slip his grasp and then guessed the right direction, scurrying through the cane like a rabbit, and he would’ve still been chasing her if not for the canal. But now he was pretty certain the old fisherman had seen enough to call the cops. The old man had pretended to be focusing on his efforts to catch something on his three cane poles wedged between rocks on the edge of the canal, but Junior was sure he knew something was up. These isolated fields rarely saw any excitement, and the commotion would have caught the man’s attention.

Thank God the Tercel was parked on another access road fairly close. He’d already spent too much effort screwing around with this girl. He usually enjoyed his time with these young women, but today had been very unsatisfying. He needed to invent some new kind of blindfold, maybe use a burlap sack over their heads, but he enjoyed looking at their pretty faces even if they did have a rag and duct tape around their eyes. This girl had cheekbones like Christie Brinkley and thick, full lips. He’d seen her plenty of times without any obstructions on her face and knew so much about her that it hurt to be fleeing the scene without accomplishing everything he set out to.

Junior was lucky to have heard the old fisherman’s truck drive off down the access road to State Road 80. He had heard other vehicles coming back and had to assume they were police cars, but he never panicked. He prided himself on never panicking. No matter what.

Now, if he could make it to the beat-up Toyota, then back into West Palm Beach within forty-five minutes, everything would be cool.

The pistol stuffed in his pants felt awkward when he tried to run, but he was never built for running anyway. Too much jiggled.

Junior thought he heard a dog bark at the far side of the cane field and was glad he had crossed through a couple of drainage ditches in case they tried to track him. Dogs scared the holy crap out of him, and the idea they were chasing him like an animal was disturbing on a number of levels.

*   *   *

The western section of Palm Beach County was separated from the eastern section by a stretch of wilderness known as the Twenty Mile Bend. Tim Hallett could think of few places in America where twenty miles made so much difference. On the coast sat Palm Beach with its mansions and world-famous beach, but out here, a forty-minute drive away, it looked more like the Mississippi Delta. Wide plains of crops, hot, stagnant air, and alligators were the dominant features. When the cane fields were burned for harvesting, the smoke hung in the air like a noxious fog for days.

Now, as he stood in a wide semicircle with four other deputies, the air in the cane field was thick with humidity and sun-warm, but not unbearable. It was still a little early for the bugs to start eating them alive, but he knew there were plenty of them concealed out there.

Sergeant Helen Greene said, “We have a report of a man chasing a young girl at the edge of the field. An elderly cane fishermen thought it was a white man and a white girl, but he didn’t get a good look. This happened almost an hour ago because he didn’t have a cell phone and had to drive into town.” Her dark skin had a sheen of perspiration, and her light Glades accent made her seem natural in the setting.

The sergeant continued. “Looks like there was a scuffle in the cane field up ahead. We’re gonna send Tim and Rocky into that field and use the other two K-9s to check along the canal and the far cane fields.” Her dark eyes scanned the group of six deputies. Then she said, “If this info is right we’ve got a tough job ahead of us.”

Hallett took a moment to assess the situation like the detective he once was. He noticed the older black man sitting in the front seat of the sergeant’s car. The old man had done a great job going to get help, and now the sheriff’s office—or SO, as most people in the agency called it—had to live up to his expectations.

Just as he was about to start the search, his partners, Darren Mori and Claire Perkins, bumped down the shell-rock road in Chevy Tahoes similar to Hallett’s. The task force they were on was funded by the federal government, which had not only provided money to train the dogs in different disciplines but bought the deputies high-end cars, weapons, and other gear that generally made the average deputy jealous as hell. Cops love equipment, and the three K-9 officers had more than they could ever use.

Although he was impatient to get started, Hallett knew it was better to have all three dogs on scene and ready to go at the same time. It didn’t take long for Darren to get Brutus on his lead and, of course, Claire hopped out with Smarty ready to go on a sixteen-foot lead.

Hallett was the team leader. It was an odd, almost honorary rank within the sheriff’s office, and his authority was implied rather than specified. He did receive a small bump in pay, but he was not considered a sergeant and had no administrative duties. Instead, he made decisions on tactics and how to deploy resources during a callout. He also worked with Ruben Vasquez, the canine trainer who’d been assigned to the unit when they got the grant. The guy was a former army dog handler and smart as a private school math teacher, but Hallett recognized he didn’t have much experience in police work. It took a cop to know what was needed on the street in certain situations. It didn’t always require a dog willing to bite anyone in sight—although sometimes it did.

Being a team leader might have been a promotion, but it meant nothing if his partners didn’t accept him as the leader. Like a lot of things in police work, his authority was implied rather than specified. It was an easier path than dealing with liability and promotional exams. Luckily, both Darren and Claire appreciated his experience, and he had proven his ability to make decisions. Hallett had also proven that he wasn’t afraid to work long hours and do whatever it took to get the job done.

At five foot eight, Darren was constantly trying to prove his worth even though he was widely respected in the agency. Darren always had to be the first in a fight, the best possible shot, and the most eager to work. But his exotic good looks and athletic build, and the fact that he was the only Asian in town, made the twenty-six-year-old Japanese American popular among the women in Belle Glade. As Brutus pulled him along on the lead, he smiled at Darren’s annoyance about being issued a Golden Retriever instead of a traditionally more frightening Belgian Malinois or German Shepherd like Claire and Hallett worked with. It turned out Brutus was just about the smartest dog any of them had ever seen and had been trained in several disciplines, including article searches, bomb searches, and cadaver searches. If he had to, Brutus could be aggressive, but generally the snarls and barks coming from a Golden Retriever failed to instill the terror that Rocky could spread in an unruly crowd. Brutus wasn’t trained to apprehend suspects, or track them, but he could find a body or bomb with incredible skill. The way the unit was organized and trained, everyone chipped in when the others were working. Brutus could follow a scent, or at least look like he was.

Claire’s dog, Smarty, looked like he could pull her off her feet. A couple of inches shorter than Darren, with blond hair usually tied in a ponytail, she could pass for a pissed-off cheerleader. A number of shitheads had learned too late she was not the deputy to make stupid comments to. And despite his name, Smarty had a vicious streak that worried Hallett.

He gave his partners a quick rundown of what the sergeant had said. As usual, Claire just nodded and knew exactly what to do, while Darren had questions.

“Are we looking for a live girl or a dead girl?”

“We don’t know.”

“Any indication the suspect is armed?”

“No, but what do you say we just assume he is.”

Darren was about to ask another question when the sergeant shouted, “Let’s get the dogs moving. Now.”

Hallett waited a moment while Rocky sniffed the ground where the soil had been disturbed and the old man said he thought he’d seen a scuffle. As was his unique custom, Rocky froze for one second as he picked up the scent. Just that momentary pause in the action thrilled Hallett because he knew they were about to do the job only they were trained for. Then the dog pulled him directly into the cane field, and Hallett lost sight of him just a few feet ahead. The heat brought out just enough perspiration to make his skin tacky, so tiny bits of the scratchy sugarcane stalks stuck to his bare forearms.

He knew Darren would be taking Brutus along the canal to the south and Claire would take Smarty into the next cane field. The other uniformed deputies fanned out behind each dog team, cutting lines into the fields. If one of the sheriff’s office helicopters had been available, the pilot would’ve seen a design like an ant farm as the search teams spread out, but the sergeant had said the nearest helicopter was at least forty-five minutes out due to a search for survivors of an airboat crash near the Arthur Marshall Wildlife Refuge at the entrance to the Everglades.

Now he had a moment to think about what he and Rocky might discover. Rocky was definitely onto something, which meant the old man was right about the scuffle. Dread seeped into his consciousness as he pictured finding a girl dead in the middle of the cane field. He had to block it out and focus on this task. His right hand reached back and touched the handle of his .40 caliber Glock on his gun belt. His lightweight combat boots protected his ankles from the rough base of the sugarcane stalks. The late September Florida heat was amplified by his ballistic vest and the effort it took to move through the sugarcane as his heart rate picked up from the physical activity and excitement of the chase.

Hallett was monitoring the radio, and he could hear detectives arriving on the scene and calling out. He’d been one of those detectives. It was a good assignment for the two and a half years he was in the D-bureau, but there was something about working with Rocky that brought him more satisfaction. He’d found missing kids with his new partner, tracked down a dozen robbery suspects, and was even occasionally asked to speak at schools. It made his job with the sheriff’s office more fulfilling. Even if his mom and ex-girlfriend completely disagreed with his career choice.

Rocky pulled him through a break in the cane and paused as he sniffed in each direction carefully for a few seconds. They had managed to lose the deputies behind them, and suddenly Hallett realized how alone they were. Rocky tugged him toward a drainage ditch with a few feet of skanky water at the bottom.

A Florida snapping turtle the size of a hubcap was sunning himself on the edge of the ditch. Rocky paid no attention to him at first, focusing on his task instead, but the turtle twisted his head and opened his mouth. These turtles, which filled the canals and lakes of Palm Beach County, were one of the more underrated risks to dogs. Maybe they weren’t as fast as an alligator, but they were just as aggressive and rarely backed down from a curious pet. Finally Rocky growled at the turtle, regarding it as a threat until it twisted and flopped into the water and disappeared under the murky film of the surface.

Now Rocky pulled him along the edge of the drainage ditch, and Hallett sensed they were getting closer. He used his left hand to hold Rocky’s lead and instinctively pulled his pistol. Hallett looked over his shoulder, but there was no one even close for backup. Picturing an injured girl who needed his help, he knew he couldn’t wait for the other deputies and started to trot as Rocky pulled harder and harder in the same direction.

Rocky froze again and emitted a low growl. From experience, Hallett knew something was about to happen. He crouched slightly and held his pistol up until Rocky pulled him into the next field of sugarcane, then through another drainage ditch. Hallett tried to jump over the shallow water, but his boots sank in the mud on the far side. It only took Rocky a moment to find the scent again, and he was off.

That sixth sense every good cop possessed told Hallett they were about to find something, but he had no idea what.

*   *   *

Rocky tried not to tug and pull Tim’s hand, because this was his favorite game in this place with the tall grass that he liked more than anything. The only way this could be better was if Tim just let him run free to find the man who had someone else with him. The bad man who had someone else with him. Those were the only people he and Tim ever chased.

Rocky felt that Tim held him back too much sometimes. Rocky knew the difference between good people and bad people, and he knew how to handle the bad people that Tim chased. All he had to do was bite them. Hard. They were bad people. He could sense just how bad some people were. It was so simple to him. There were good people and bad people. He knew he should bite the bad people, but Tim rarely let him follow his heart. Tim always pulled back on the lead or ordered him not to bite people.

It didn’t matter if Tim was wrong. Rocky still loved Tim. And someone had to watch out for him. Especially when he didn’t know how to deal with bad people.

Rocky stuck his nose to the ground again. There were two clear scents mixed together. One of them was fear, and the other was something he had never really smelled before. It was almost like a predator going after prey. It was the oddest odor he had ever sniffed, and it was making his brain tingle. He knew this was what Tim wanted him to find. And waiting while Tim and the other people communicated only made him want to chase whatever left the smell more.

Once in a while Tim would let him run free in this tall grass and he would chase rabbits or other swift creatures because it seemed natural to him. He liked running in front of Tim because it felt right to take the scent and not worry what was ahead in the tall grass. He could find anything.

Rocky didn’t really care what he was doing as long Tim was with him. He liked seeing his other friends who played with their own people. But nothing really compared to seeing Tim and Josh at the same time. The stimulation was too much, and he played until he just had to lie down. Those were the times when nothing else mattered. Not food, not water, and not sleep. Just Josh and Tim.

In the early morning, when Rocky was still asleep, he remembered being a puppy with his mother and three siblings. It was a special time with nice people that fed him and kids that named him Rocky. It was a different place than here. It was wet, swampy, and warm. It seemed like there were endless days where he would play and play until the day he saw Tim. A lot of people had been nice to him, especially after his mother had been killed. He had been lonely and lost after that evening when his mother tried to protect the other dogs from a predator who had come from the water. But the day Tim came, Rocky knew they were meant to be together. Somehow, when he saw Tim walking across the wide lawn, Rocky understood he had to protect him.

Tim and Josh made losing his mom a little easier.

Sometimes Rocky wished he understood more of how people communicated. Their grunts and growls held no clue, just certain sounds like his name and the names of others around him. Then there were the words Tim used in his games. Sometimes he wanted Rocky to find the bags with funny smells, sometimes he wanted him to run after people. Sometimes Rocky was supposed to bite people if they didn’t lie on the ground. And a few times, Rocky had to protect Tim. Usually Rocky sensed the danger long before Tim did. And if Tim would let him, Rocky could handle it before Tim was ever at risk.

But this game, where he would follow the scent while Tim hung on to him, this was one of the most fun games. Sometimes it didn’t seem like Tim had as much fun on these games. This was one of those times. Rocky tried to control how fast he ran, but excitement pushed him hard and Tim struggled to keep up. It had to be hard with only two legs.

Suddenly, Rocky could tell a difference in the scent trail. Something had happened. At first the two scents were not together. They were close and crossed each other, but they were no longer tied to each other. It was confusing and made him stop for a moment. When he glanced back at Tim, he saw his friend holding the thing that made loud noises. It sounded like thunder and used to scare him, but they played so many games with the noise all around him that it no longer was frightening. At least not when Tim did it.

In the distance, he could hear the distinct bark of his other friends. One was on each side of him. He knew their people friends would be with them, too, all playing the same game, and all hoping to get their treat when they were done.

People did things that confused him all the time. They gave off a smell of fear, but still played games. Sometimes, they would shout at Tim, but he wouldn’t react and just stayed calm. Rocky didn’t smell Tim’s fear very often. But he could smell the fear of other people when Tim talked to them. It seemed like there were only a few people who ever made sense to him. Tim and little Josh were two of them.

Now Rocky had a scent and followed it down to a low, wet area. He followed so closely that he barely noticed the turtle that rolled off a log and plopped into the water. He tried to remember where this place was because he had to come back and explore that turtle more closely.

He sometimes was afraid of swampy areas. They reminded him of where he was born. He would think of his mother and what happened to her in a low, wet place just like this.

Then he heard Tim making the game sound. It wasn’t clear, like some of the sounds Rocky had learned, it was just an idea that Tim wanted him to find what they were looking for. Rocky moved along the wet ground.

Something was close.

 

2

 

Claire Perkins rarely needed to communicate verbally with Smarty. They had a connection unlike any other dog handler and canine. The brawny German Shepherd could easily have yanked her unmercifully across the rough ground. Smarty, at 110 pounds, only weighed five less than Claire, but he understood her limits just as she understood his. The connection was immediate, and it developed through training and their home life.

Two years ago, Smarty was raw, or, as the dog trainers would say, “green.” He was also high-energy, and when he was about thirteen months old, Smarty had wrecked Claire’s townhouse. Furniture was chewed, couch cushions shredded. It looked like a crime scene. The dog raised hell until Claire was forced to get tough. It was a learning experience for both of them. Claire pulled the old “alpha dog” maneuver by flipping Smarty onto his back, then going face-to-face with him to explain who was boss. It hadn’t taken long for Smarty to calm down and show some respect. It was a lot like raising a kid. Not like how Claire’s father had raised her, but more like how she intended to raise her own children once she started having them.

There was almost nothing she enjoyed more than playing with Smarty at home. He was the real constant in her life right now, and she was happy to have someone so fun-loving and reliable. Still, she needed to find a human counterpart. Maybe someone who understood the stress of police work and would tolerate another male in her life. Even if the male was American Kennel Club certified.

Once they got home, Claire would shower Smarty with all the affection he wanted, but in this man’s world of law enforcement, she didn’t think it was professional to be rubbing his head and planting kisses on him no matter how much she loved the dog. Tim Hallett was another story. He could get away with it because of his tall, muscular frame and rugged good looks. He was always hugging Rocky and talking to him like they were best buds. It just seemed natural to him. Then again, Tim was clueless on certain issues. He had no idea how the faded scar above his left eyebrow set off his blue eyes and probably attracted more attention from women than his uniform.

Even Darren Mori could show affection to Brutus because the dog was a Golden Retriever and everyone thought he was cute. She knew it burned Darren up that he got stuck with a cute Retriever while she had a badass-looking attack dog.

Claire had heard Brutus bark a couple of times in the distance as she and Smarty pushed through the sugarcane, with two large detectives struggling to keep up. The Golden Retriever had a tendency to shout out for joy at being involved in a job like this. Technically, Brutus was a cadaver and explosives dog, but he could follow a track, and their unit, the Canine Assist Team, had to be adaptable. The federal trainer, Ruben Vasquez, didn’t want them to decline any assignment.

She focused on Smarty, who was moving at a decent pace but hadn’t seemed to pick up any particular track. From what the sergeant had said, Claire knew the most important issue was finding the girl. The suspect was secondary.

Smarty suddenly picked up the scent of something and turned, waiting for Claire to make the turn with him instead of jerking her along. She thought they were probably about to come out of the cane and be facing another drainage ditch. It was easy to forget how vast and confusing these fields could be, especially the ones that bordered pine patches.

This was exactly why she had signed on to be a dog handler. If she didn’t have Smarty, too many other deputies would say something like “Leave the cute chick to watch the cars.” She didn’t have to put up with that shit in K-9.

Claire loved working in this specialized unit. They had all benefited from Tim Hallett’s example. The veteran cop, who had been on patrol as well as a respected detective, had taught her as much about life as he had about dogs. She wondered how Tim was faring as two large deputies tried to keep up with her and Smarty. Tim had said, “Never let the male cops know you care what they think of you or how you’re doing your job. Being snotty is better than being sorry.” Her favorite hobby was making men who underestimated her feel like assholes.

*   *   *

Junior tried to control his breathing as he realized he was disoriented and not sure exactly where his car was parked. Everywhere he looked was sugarcane. He’d run to a row of pine trees where he thought he’d left the car, then realize he’d gotten turned around while chasing the girl.

He heard a dog bark again in the distance. A few minutes earlier, he had heard the unmistakable sound of a voice over a radio. There were definitely cops in the area. He pulled the 9 mm Beretta hidden in his waistband. Experience had taught him it never hurt to have insurance when dealing with volatile young women like the ones he was interested in. But he’d never fired at a human being. He held the pistol up in his shaking hand and pointed it at the closest row of sugarcane, imagining what he would do if the cop burst out right in front of him. Satisfied he’d be able to pull the trigger, Junior yanked out a rag he kept in his pocket to wipe down the cars he stole, blotted the sweat out of his eyes, and worked up enough energy to start trotting toward the next line of trees, away from the sounds of his pursuers.

As he started to jog away, his side hurting from a cramp, Junior wondered if they had found the girl yet. His only hope was to get out of the area. Fast.

*   *   *

Tim Hallett read Rocky’s subtle moves and pauses. This same sort of behavior had befuddled him before Ruben Vasquez had taught the team the art of dog handling. The wily army vet had turned the process into a Zen-like exercise. Now Hallett felt he could communicate with his dog better than he ever communicated with his ex-girlfriend. Four-year-old Josh had picked up the talent without ever attending class.

Hallett knew Rocky was very close to a discovery. The muscular Malinois would pause, then shuttle forward, nose to the ground, then up in the air, searching for the exact track. This was definitely something. Hallett glanced over his shoulder, hoping there were other deputies close by, but he and Rocky were still alone. They scrambled through the thick cane field, and Rocky started to strain on the lead. Hallett pulled him closer, in case what was ahead was a suspect with a weapon. He still had his pistol in his hand.

Rocky burst out of the sugarcane into an open space. Hallett felt the slack in the lead as the dog came to an abrupt stop. A second later, Hallett fought through the last few stalks of sugarcane and froze next to Rocky.

This was not what he had expected to find. Rocky, sensing the same delicate circumstance, immediately sat in place. The overheated dog started to pant loudly.

Hallett holstered his pistol.

Curled on the ground in front of him, quietly sobbing, was a teenage girl with long blond hair. Twigs and torn stalks of sugarcane were stuck on her shirt and in her hair. She tugged her knees tight into her chest and let her eyes move from Rocky up to Hallett.

He said in a soft voice, “It’s all right. You’re safe now.” He couldn’t keep from scanning the open area in the rows between the sugarcane stalks for any threat. He kneeled down, careful not to come too close and upset her more. “Which way did the man go?”

All the girl could do was shake her head and sob more intensely.

Hallett started to feel the familiar anger course through his body at the thought of someone abusing a sweet young girl like this. He didn’t think he was radiating his emotions until Rocky nuzzled up next to him in an obvious attempt to calm him down.

No matter what Rocky thought, Hallett knew somebody was going to pay for this shit.

*   *   *

Rocky turned toward the scent he smelled most clearly. It was fear. More than the scent, he could hear something ahead of him in the tall grass. It wasn’t a threat, and it didn’t sound dangerous to Tim. He pulled his friend in that direction and worked his way through the tall grass, but he slowed slightly.

As soon as his head poked through the grass into the open area, he saw a person sitting on the ground and making a sad noise. He had heard it before and knew that it didn’t represent a danger.

Rocky felt Tim pause behind him and glanced over his shoulder at his friend, who still had the loud thing in his hand. Then Tim made some soft noises directed at the person on the ground. That’s when Rocky knew for sure the person was no threat.

He eased forward, smelling the ground and trying not to upset the person sitting down. He realized it was a female and she had rolled herself into a ball. He placed his nose next to her and pushed, hoping she would rub his head or scratch under his mouth the way he liked. She didn’t respond, and Tim stepped forward and told Rocky to back away.

Rocky knew to just sit quietly, but he stayed alert, wondering if the person who made the other scent would come this way. He knew that was a bad person. And that was his special game.

He loved to catch bad people with Tim.

*   *   *

Junior was panting and sweating from the combination of fear and exertion. At last he saw the goddamn car parked up ahead. He’d be able to drive out on the rear access road and with any luck avoid having to explain himself to the cops. He had a feeling he’d be able to talk his way past them anyway, but it was better to avoid them altogether.

His legs felt wobbly, and he knew this wasn’t over. He’d never had something like this go so bad. He dreaded the evening, when he could think about what happened and obsess over how to fix it.

As he approached the vehicle, he wiped his face again with his rag. It was a good thing he had the torn-up towel, because a handkerchief wouldn’t have been enough to soak up his sweat.

Then he heard another bark. This one was close. Closer than he thought they’d ever make it. Just before he reached the car he slipped in the muddy soil and landed hard on his butt.

“Shit,” was all he said as he struggled to lift his girth and make it to the car. The damn dog barked again.

He started the car by crossing the exposed wires and resisted the urge to stomp the gas. He wanted to ease out of the area.

As he pulled away, his eye caught something on the ground. A dog barked again. He looked down at his white rag on the rough dirt near the road and calculated that it was more important to leave the area than to pick it up. They couldn’t link him to the rag. They couldn’t link him to anything.

He was invincible.

*   *   *

Rocky felt they were close to their prey. Whatever had made this odd scent had been by here, and now it had changed and added a tinge of fear to the scent. Tim urged him on, and Rocky knew it was important to find what had made this smell.

A rabbit ran off to his side, but he didn’t even look up. He smelled something dead, but quickly saw it was a bird that was lying directly in front of him. It had nothing to do with the scent they were following. The scent almost hurt his nose and made him want to whimper and put his paw on it. It was the oddest thing he had ever followed, and now he had to know what it was.

He paused and listened ahead of him to see if he could pick up the sounds of whatever was fleeing. But there was a lot of noise around. The sound of other people behind him. The barks of the other dogs. Birds that made noise in the trees and the loud birds that floated on water. He tried to block them all out and focus the way he knew Tim wanted him to.

It was hopeless. The only thing he could do now was follow the scent. The scent that had changed to a nasty combination of odors that were completely unnatural.

Rocky had decided this was a very bad person.

Copyright © 2015 James O. Born.

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James O. Born is an award-winning author who has published articles on history and Florida. He is a former US Drug Enforcement Agent and is currently a Special Agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

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