Excerpt of "Whispers of Redemption"

Hugo parked the patrol car outside of the manufacturing company’s main entrance. It was a sprawling building with tall, faded brick walls. The two officers got out and walked beneath the portico to the front door that had a security pad beside it. There was a faint beep as Hugo pressed the intercom button.

A feminine voice came over the speaker. “Yes?”

“We’re officers Hugo Garcia and Wade Riley from the Whispering Pines Police Department,” Hugo said. “We need to speak with the manager in charge of this facility.”

Seconds later, the door buzzed and they opened it, stepping inside the building reception area. The young woman who’d let them in sat behind a sleek, curved reception desk. A door behind her popped open to emit a rotund, perspiring man with wire-rimmed glasses. He had an anxious expression on his face as he hurried toward them. “Good afternoon, officers. I’m Jeff Greenway, the general manager. What can I help you with?”

Hugo said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Greenway. We’re investigating a robbery that occurred yesterday. We suspect that one of the vehicles involved was a black Ford pickup truck registered to your business.”

Wade watched the man closely. His eyes widened at Hugo’s words, and his jaw dropped slightly, telltale signs of legitimate surprise.

“We do have a black pickup truck,” Jeff said. “It’s parked out back. But as far as I know, nobody has driven it for weeks.”

“May we take a look at it?” Hugo asked.

“Certainly,” Jeff said. “Follow me.”

He led them through the building and out a door leading to the back. Wood pallets lay stacked up all along the back exterior wall, and beyond the lot, an unkempt open field stretched out before them. Off to one side was a small parking lot with a few cars in it, including a mud-spattered, black pickup truck.

Wade and Hugo walked slowly around the exterior of the truck, examining it closely.

“The license plate is right,” Hugo said, standing at the back end. “And mud is covering the last three characters, just like Cassie described.”

“That window wasn’t like that before,” Jeff commented.

Wade looked at the driver’s side window. The glass was slightly lowered and sat at an angle, indicating it had somehow been rocked off its track. “Do you have a key?”

Jeff fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a ring of multiple keys. He flipped through them until he found the one he wanted, then handed it to Wade, who pulled a pair of rubber gloves from his duty belt and put them on, using the key to unlock the driver’s side door.

“Does anyone else have a key?” Wade asked, handing it back to him.

Jeff shook his head. “I keep both keys with me on this key ring,” he said, jangling it. “Unless I give one to someone who’s going to drive it. But like I said, nobody’s driven it for weeks.”

Hugo also put on gloves and opened the passenger side. Then he and Wade carefully examined the floor and interior of the truck.

“We’ll arrange for our evidence tech to come dust for prints,” Wade said, pulling his head out from inside the truck to address Jeff. Just then, a movement and brief flash of color at the side of the manufacturing building caught his eye.

“Hang on,” he said quietly to Hugo. Wade strode swiftly to the back of the building, then edged along the brick wall before suddenly stepping around the corner and surprising Cassie.

She gave a startled cry and put a hand over her heart. “You scared me!” she said in an accusatory tone. She stood there with Angel beside her on her pink leash. The fluffy white dog immediately trotted over and began sniffing Wade’s shoes. He took a step back.

“What are you doing here?” he said.

Cassie’s heart-shaped face blushed a deep red.

“Wait a minute. Are you following us?” he asked, incredulous.

“Maybe,” she said, quickly regaining her composure. “Why, is that a problem?”

“Yes, it’s a problem!” Wade said.

“Why? It’s not illegal,” Cassie said quickly.

For a moment, Wade was at a loss for words. She was right. It wasn’t illegal. But somehow, it still felt wrong.

“Besides,” she added, lifting her chin, “I just wanted to make sure you followed up on the clues I gave you guys.” She stepped away from the building to look into the parking lot where Hugo and Jeff Greenway stood. “It looks like you found the truck. You’re welcome,” she added.

He was annoyed at how smug she sounded, and he could feel himself beginning to lose it again. Her attitude toward him, combined with her complete disregard for following any kind of rules, was making him crazy.

Wade took a deep breath, fighting to master his emotions. “Look, Cassie, you need to stop this. Just let us do our job.”

She smiled.

“What are you smiling about?”

“You finally called me Cassie.”

He just stared at her for a long moment, then without another word, he turned on his heel and walked back toward the truck. But he could hear her footsteps crunching on the gravel behind him.

“Yup, that’s definitely the truck I saw in the robbery,” Cassie said, coming up to stand beside him. Angel sat down next to her.

Jeff Greenway looked worried. “I don’t understand!”

“Was the key ever out of your possession yesterday?” asked Wade.

“No, the keys are always with me. But I have an alibi,” he said in a rush. “I was here at work until about three-thirty yesterday, then I left to go watch my oldest son’s baseball game.”

“Nobody is accusing you of anything, sir,” Hugo said. “Do you keep a record of the vehicle’s mileage?”

“Yes, it’s in my office.”

“Can you please get it for us?” Hugo said.

While Jeff Greenway hurried off, Cassie poked her head inside the van on the passenger side.

“Don’t touch anything!” Wade said.

“I just want to check something. Do you have an extra pair of gloves?” Cassie asked.

“What do you want to check?” Hugo said.

“I was just wondering if there was a spare key inside the car.”

“Mr. Greenway already told us he has the only keys,” Wade said, annoyed.

Suddenly, Angel hopped up into the cab of the truck and began sniffing around the floor mats.

“Get her out of there!” Wade commanded. “She’s interfering with potential evidence.”

Angel began pawing at the passenger-side floor mat. Her little paws worked in rapid succession until she suddenly pushed her tiny snout down and came up with a small, black object gripped between her teeth.

“What is that?” Wade asked.

“Release!” Cassie said, mimicking Hugo from the other day.

Angel immediately dropped the item and Hugo reached over to pick it up. The object was rectangular with a hard, plastic loop at one end. He pulled on it and a thin object slid out from the outer casing. “It’s a plastic key,” he said, holding it up.

“Sometimes cars have a valet key that car owners don’t even know they have,” Cassie said. “They’re a common way for car thieves to steal cars. It might have originally been in the glove box, or maybe inside the owner’s manual.”

“We know all about valet keys,” Wade said, sounding huffy. In truth, he had forgotten about that possibility. What was it about this woman that flustered him so completely?

Hugo turned the key over between his gloved fingers. “Maybe we can get a print off it,” he said.

“Doubtful,” Cassie said, and they both looked at her. “Oh, um…I may have forgotten to mention that the thief was wearing gloves.”

Wade rolled his eyes and Hugo sighed. But he still zipped the key up in a small evidence bag.

Jeff returned with the mileage records, and Wade looked at them. They showed a thirty-one-mile discrepancy between the last recorded mileage and the odometer reading.

“I don’t understand,” Jeff said again. “How is that possible?”

“I suspect someone stole your truck yesterday afternoon, used it for the theft, and then returned it,” Wade said, making notes in his notebook. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Cassie typing into her cell phone.

Jeff’s face went pale.

“You may want to consider installing a steering wheel lock or ignition immobilizer so this can’t happen again,” Cassie said. “By the way, do you have any cameras covering your lot?”

Wade shot her a look, but she just grinned back at him, amusement gleaming in the depths of her eyes.

“Uh…no, I’m sorry we don’t,” he replied.

“Sir, would it be possible for us to speak to any of your staff who were here between three thirty and when you close up shop?” Hugo asked. “Just to see if anybody saw anything.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he said, and led the way back toward the building. At the door, Jeff and Hugo passed through, but Wade paused, turning to block Cassie. “I need to ask you to leave now.”

“Are you sure you don’t want more of my help?” Cassie asked, arching a delicate brow at him. She was sassy. And beautiful, as she stood there boldly meeting his gaze. Aside from some of the criminals he’d arrested, he’d never met anyone with so little regard for authority.

“Admit it,” she added, “you wouldn’t be nearly as far in your investigation if it wasn’t for me.”

“That may be true,” he said. “But as I said before, it’s not appropriate for you to be involved in this case. Hugo and I will take it from here. Have a nice day.” And he let the door close in her face.

When Wade and Hugo eventually exited the building, Cassie was waiting.

Ugh. The woman was relentless. Could he arrest her for unnecessary butting in?

“What did they say? Did anyone see anything?” Cassie asked as she and Angel fell into step beside them.

“Unfortunately, no,” Hugo said.

“Hmmm…” she mused, walking with them toward their patrol car. “So, I’m guessing this was clearly premeditated then. I mean, the thief took the time to steal a vehicle and then return it. No ordinary car thief would do that.”

“Really? Are you speaking from personal experience?” Wade shot her a suspicious look.

Cassie ignored his comment and continued. “And this place is so close to PCS.” She waved her hand in the direction of the courier service that was only a block up the road. “That made it easy for him to follow me to Olga’s.” The reality of her last statement appeared to strike her. She stopped walking and shivered.

Wade noticed, and regardless of how annoying she’d been up to that moment, the expression on her face gave him a strong urge to wrap a protective arm around her.

He turned to face her then. Her rich, auburn hair glowed like flame in the sunlight, her teeth gnawed unconsciously at her full lower lip. He realized he was staring at it and cleared his throat, pulling himself up straight. “Listen, Cassie,” he said, his voice more gentle than it had been, “I understand how important this is to you, and we promise to keep you posted on our progress. But you need to go home now.”

She met his eyes and held them. And rather than making her usual argument, she nodded slowly. “All right,” she said quietly. She turned to walk back toward her own car, Angel trotting alongside. She was a few paces away when, without stopping, she called back over her shoulder, “At least for now.”

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