He saw Elliott’s car just after he pulled up. He was thinking of the snakes, big cats, and occasional black bear that might be around the lake. Animal attacks were rare, but they were a possibility.
He grabbed a handheld radio and popped the trunk to get a rifle. After checking to see if it was loaded, he pocketed some extra rounds, shouldered his backpack, and headed toward the car. He knew Millie Powers had been inside it looking for a clue as to who owned it, but he looked inside to satisfy himself before striking out. After circling the car a couple of times, he finally found a set of tracks leading along the shore and followed them.
About two hundred yards from the car, he found his first clue. It was a tube of oil paint—burnt umber. That was when he remembered that Elliot was an accomplished artist, so he took a picture of the tube of paint, put up a marker to indicate where he found it, then dropped the paint tube in an evidence bag and kept moving.
Lon paused a moment along the shore to look around and slowly became aware of what might have led Elliot out here. The views from any direction were stunning. He turned back to the footprints and kept walking. About fifty yards farther, the land began to slope upward, forming a cliff about thirty feet from the water below. It was the high point at the lake, and the place people referred to as the overlook.
He started up the slope in long strides and, only seconds after breaching the crest, saw a folding easel on its side, a canvas lying in the grass, and a little folding chair still sitting in its upright position. Elliot was flat on his back on the ground beside the chair.
“Oh no,” Lon muttered, and started running. The moment he reached the body, he dropped to his knees, all but certain Elliot was dead.
But when he checked for a pulse, to his great relief he felt one. However, having been faceup with the sun beaming down on him all day yesterday, and no water to drink, the old man was in bad shape. His eyelids were burned and crusted shut. His skin was red and blistered, and his lips were swollen and cracked to the point of bleeding and peeling. Lon began to check for injuries and almost immediately found a bad wound on the back of Elliot’s head, but nothing to explain how he’d gotten it.
Elliot could have had health issues that caused him to lose consciousness and fall onto a rock, but there was nothing anywhere close to him that could have caused that wound, which made him suspicious. If there were no rocks behind him, then passing out and falling backward would not cause this huge wound on the back of his head.
Lon reached for his radio to call it in, then changed his mind. The fewer people who heard this call, the better for all concerned, so he used his cell phone instead and called the dispatcher.
Avery answered on the first ring.
“Dispatch. Avery speaking.”
“Avery! I found Elliot Graham. Notify County to go due north along the shore past his car. He’s on the ridge, he’s alive, and I need a Medi-Lift chopper, ASAP.”
“Will do, Chief. Anything else?”
“Tell them to hurry,” he said, then shrugged off the backpack.
Before he moved anything at the scene, he needed to record it as he found it, so he began taking pictures. When he saw the canvas with a hole punched right in the middle of it, his skin suddenly crawled. Elliot saw something he wasn’t supposed to see and it nearly got him killed. He took pictures of that, and then the entire area around his body before he set his camera aside and grabbed a couple of water bottles from his pack.
“Elliot, can you hear me? It’s Chief Pittman. I have water.”
Because of the wound on Elliot’s head, Lon was afraid to move him, so to keep him from choking, he dug through his pack again, found a clean bandanna, soaked it with water, then squeezed the tiniest bit between Elliot’s lips. He repeated that several times, then switched to Elliot’s face and poured a small but steady stream across his forehead, letting it run across his burned and crusted eyelids. As he did, Elliot moaned.
The sound was encouraging. “Elliot! This is Chief Pittman. I have water. Can you open your mouth a little?”
Elliot tried, then cried out in pain when movement made the cracks in his lips begin to bleed.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Lon said. “I’ll squeeze some more between your lips. I won’t let you choke. You’re safe now. A medical chopper is on the way. We’ll get you to the hospital ASAP.”
Elliot moaned and lost consciousness again.
Lon continued to pour water on his face and around his eyes. He found some Vaseline in his backpack and rubbed a tiny bit on the cracked and bleeding places on the old man’s lips. By the time he was beginning to hear the voices of the county officers, he also heard the sound of an approaching helicopter.
“Elliot! Can you hear that chopper? Help is coming,” Lon said, then looked up.
County officers Butler and Treat were coming up the slope on the run. Lon knew both of them.
“Chopper’s here!” Butler said, pointing as he ran, but the warning was unnecessary. The downdraft from the rotors was stirring up everything loose on the forest floor around them.
“They’re sending down a litter and a medic,” Treat added.
Lon looked down at Elliot and checked his pulse again, reassured by the faint throb of a heartbeat.
In less than fifteen minutes, the medic had assessed Elliot’s condition and stabilized him enough to be moved.
Lon and the officers watched, unable to take their eyes off that basket swinging in midair until Elliot and the medic were safely inside the chopper.
As soon as the chopper headed back to Blessings, Lon grabbed his backpack.
“I’ll leave the scene to you guys. I assume you’ll be treating it as a crime scene, considering the hole someone punched in the canvas and the wound on the back of his head. Note that he’s lying in nothing but grass and dirt, so there’s nothing here that would have caused that wound had he fallen. Oh, I found this tube of paint on the trail, and I took a picture and left a marker before I bagged and tagged it for you. I also took photos of the scene as I found it before I tended to Elliot. I’ll email those to the sheriff’s office when I get back to the precinct.”
“Yes, sir. All scenes are crime scenes until proven otherwise. It’s protocol. We’ll enter the tube of paint into evidence and tell Sheriff Ryman to look for the photos. If I learn anything new, you’ll be notified, and by the same token, a copy of whatever information Mr. Graham is able to share will be appreciated.”
“Of course,” Lon said, and headed off down the slope as fast as he could go, then ran all the way back to his cruiser.
The first thing he did was send Mercy a text. If it hadn’t been for her, Elliot Graham would surely have died.
Mercy was up to her elbows in piecrusts when she heard the phone in her pocket signal a text. Lon had promised to let her know what was up, and she quickly cleaned her hands before reading it. Her reaction was one of pure shock.
“Oh my God!”
Lovey was on her way back into the dining area when she heard Mercy. She stopped and turned around.
“Honey! What’s wrong?” Lovey asked.
Mercy was shaking. “Lon found Elliot unconscious at the lake. He’d been there since yesterday. He’s in bad shape, and his injuries don’t add up to an accident. They’re bringing him into the ER here by chopper.”
“What on earth?” Lovey asked.
“I don’t know,” Mercy said, but she was in tears. “Lon will keep me updated. All I can do is pray.”
Elvis, the fry cook, was frowning. “Can’t imagine anyone hurting an old man like that, but there’s no accounting for how people behave these days.”
Mercy shuddered. “I can’t bear to think of him being attacked in some way!”
“Keep me updated,” Lovey said.
Mercy nodded, then sent a text back to Lon to keep her informed of what was happening before going back to work.
The news quickly spread from Granny’s to the rest of the Blessings residents. They were horrified, thinking of Elliot out there alone overnight, the victim of an attack.
(C) Sharon Sala, Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2019
Every storm they’ve weathered…has led them to each other
Dan Amos lost his wife and son years ago, when they inadvertently got in the way of a death threat meant for him. He’s never had eyes for anyone since, and he doesn’t want to. But fellow Blessings resident Alice Conroy sparks something inside him…
Newly widowed, Alice was disillusioned by marriage and isn’t looking to fall in love anytime soon. Then a tropical storm blazes a path straight for the Georgia coast, and as the town prepares for the worst, Dan opens his heart and his home. The tempest is raging, but Alice and Dan are learning to find shelter…in each other.
Learn more at Romance Reads!
Romance Contemporary [Sourcebooks Casablanca, On Sale: February 26, 2019, Mass Market Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9781492663539 / eISBN: 9781492663546]
About Sharon Sala
SHARON SALA has over one hundred books in print and has published in five different genres. She is an eight-time RITA finalist, five-time Career Achievement winner from RT Book Reviews, and five-time winner of the National Reader’s Choice Award. Writing changed her life, her world, and her fate. She lives in Norman, Oklahoma. Visit her on the web at sharonsala.net.