The late spring sun beat down on Holden bringing with it the promise of summer, the heat sticking his dress shirt to his back. He had ditched his suit jacket and kept the sunglasses, but they were the only concessions to the Texas weather. He looked behind him at the behemoth oil drills in the distance and ahead to the I-45. “So close to civilization, but a million miles away,” he said.
“Yep,” the detective beside them agreed. “Cry for help, no one's going to hear you, and there's no where to run to. We've been turning up bodies here for nearly a decade now.”
“And no one knew the victim was missing?” Bill asked.
“She got herself pregnant, and her parents kicked her out. She was a troubled kid, and they finally drew a line in the sand. I'm sure they never expected her to turn up as a murder victim. Once things cooled off, she probably would have ended up back at home again. Her body hadn't been here long – no more than a week.”
Insects whirred in the brush and somewhere a small animal called out. Holden found it a lonely place, and it was all too easy to see why it might become a favorite kill and body dump site for whatever psychopaths were passing through. “Do you think she's the victim of a serial murderer?”
“Possibly, yes,” Detective Hanley said. “It's likely a number of the bodies found here are, but there's no way to know for sure. It could be someone who knew about this place's reputation and decided to take advantage.”
“With this much area, you're lucky to have found her in a week.” Like Holden, Bill was taking in the empty, desolate landscape.
Roughly twenty five acres where a serial murderer can do his business uninterrupted. Holden wondered idly how many other places such as this existed around the US. Little empty pockets scattered here and there, close enough to civilization to be accessible, but isolated enough that no one would ever know.
“A couple of people were letting their dogs run off leash. The dogs found the body.”
Bill squinted against the midday sun just passing its peak as the day moved into afternoon. “We'd like to speak to the family – just to make sure we aren't missing anything.”
“That shouldn't be a problem. They're good folks. Most of the community knows them, half the officers go to church with them. It's one of the reasons we really want to get this solved. Not that we wouldn't anyway, but when it's people you know...it makes it that much harder.”
“I completely understand,” Bill agreed, walking over to stand near Holden. “What do you think?”
Holden glanced at his mate. That kicking out your pregnant, 17 year old daughter doesn't make you a good person. “That we need to compare the method the killer used against the other bodies found here. There could be a connection, and most of those murders are still unsolved. As a young woman, she fits the demographic of the other bodies. As a teenager on her own, she was likely an easy target.”
Back at the police station, Bill spread out the photos from the crime scene across the desk they had been given for the duration of their stay. They began going through the files for the other victims recovered from that area.
“She wasn't bound like these two,” Holden said. “And several of the remains were skeletal – there was no way to know if there had been soft tissue damage.” He thought for a few moments. “It doesn't seem like there was anything methodical about Beth Ann's killing. It was brutal, and messy, not cold and calculated.”
“Personal,” Bill agreed.
“Yes. If feels that way. Someone got her pregnant, and it's possible they weren't happy about the idea of a baby.”
“And they decided to take care of things.” Bill sighed. “The thought crossed my mind as well. Supposedly no one here knows who the father is, but someone has to have some idea. We need to talk to the family. Maybe someone will remember something.”
* * *
“We told the police everything we know, which unfortunately wasn't much. We didn't have any contact with Beth Ann in nearly two months.” Richard smiled, but the expression seemed confined to his mouth. There was a wariness around his eyes. His wife sat on the sofa, gaze casts downward next to the uncle who sat silent and impassive.
“When you kicked her out?” Holden asked, and Bill couldn't tell if his mate didn't realize how that sounded, or if it was intentional. Chastin stiffened and eyed Holden with disapproval.
“My partner is just trying to ascertain the facts. We realize you've been through this already, but we want to make sure we aren't missing anything. And sometimes going through it all again can help jog memories,” Bill cut in smoothly. “This shouldn't take too much time.”
“Of course, won't you have a seat?” He gestured to the two arm chairs as he took a seat between his wife and brother. This left Chastin standing, and Bill wasn't sure he enjoyed the sensation of the officer looming behind them.
Holden pulled out a notebook and pen, ready to take notes. “So you last had contact with your daughter when?” He asked, voice and manner polite.
“It would have been the middle of March. The seventeenth.” Richard answered.
“And you didn't receive any phone calls after that? Any communication at all?”
“No sir. We assumed she had been staying with friends.” The way he said 'friend' made it clear he thought them anything but.
“Do you know who her friends were? How they might be contacted?” Bill asked, glancing at the other two silent family members.
Richard sighed. “She hung with a rough crowd, not the type of people you invite over for dinner, if you know what I mean.”
Bill noticed Holden glance towards the door to the kitchen where the little girl had disappeared. “Can you think of anyone at all that might have spoken to her since she left home?”
When Richard sighed and shrugged, Holden cut in. “We were told that she was pregnant at the time of her death. Do you know who the father was?” The atmosphere in the room became tense, and Bill wasn't sure if it was because they knew who the father was, or if the very question offended their sensibilities.
“I'm afraid we don't.” Betty Crawford answered before her husband could speak for the little group. “Unfortunately, she was never very open with us, and she knew we'd disapprove.”
She probably knew you'd throw her out on the street. Bill thought to himself, unimpressed. He didn't know what to make of the family. Nothing they said or did was overtly suspicious, but their manner didn't seem quite right. Then again, they were estranged from their daughter. That has to create some complex feelings.
“There is one character you could try. Uh, James...James Gruden. Bad boy type, been in and out of trouble since forever. Pretty sure she got drugs from him.” The uncle had been so silent, that it almost surprised Bill to hear him speak. “I don't know how much they had to do with each other, but we caught her with weed before, and he's the one locals go to for that kind of thing.”
Holden jotted down the name. “Thank you, that could prove helpful.”
Betty dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “I know we weren't on good terms, but we had hoped with some tough love, she might pull herself together. We never expected...this.” Richard reached out and grasped his wife's hand.
“No one does, ma'am,” Bill replied. “You've hinted that she's been in trouble before. What can you tell us about her? It might help us figure out who she was with.”
Richard sighed. “Willful, got worse as she got older. Talked back, lied, snuck out, her grades fell. We'd get calls from the school saying she wasn't in class. We tried to get her more involved with the church, but she had no interest. Eventually our worst fear came to pass – she got herself pregnant.” He looked downcast, but there was little emotion in his voice. “We have another daughter, and we didn't want Beth Ann influencing her. So we asked her to leave. Made it clear she would be welcome back, if she cleaned up and followed our rules.”
Betty sniffled at that, and the uncle's gaze flicked away. Bill made a mental note to ask around at the high school, if the drug dealer didn't have the answers they needed. He didn't voice this, however. Something felt off, and he decided it might be safer if they held their cards close to their chest.
* * *
“I'm trying to imagine what it must feel like to be pregnant and having to face your parents, but it's not quite the same. Most people just assume omegas can't control themselves, so we're more likely to get a pass.”
Bill leaned forward to brush his lip's against Holden's. “You really can't help it.” The chance of conceiving a child during heat was high, and an omega in heat wasn't going to be able to say 'no.'
“But if the omega made the decision to expose himself to an alpha knowing he was going into heat?”
“Then the omega in question would have greater responsibility in the outcome. But unsuppressed heat is hard on omegas, it's more understandable. Omegas have a harder time than average beta teenagers. I know you're aware of this.” Bill gently stroked his mate's face. “Omega's have a higher mating drive than teenage girls do.”
Holden's eyes closed at his touch. “I do know that, but at the same time...” His voice trailed off as he searched for the right words.
“For what it's worth, I agree with you. I would never throw my kid out of the house to fend for themselves, because they made a mistake that's all too easy for hormonal teens to make.” He leaned forward again, pressing his mouth against Holden's. “You're a good father to Brian.” Seeing family situations like the Crawford's, made him realize just how lucky he had been in his choice of mate.
Holden smiled at that. “He's a good kid.” His expression sobered. “I don't like Beth Ann's parents. They say all the right things, but something's not right. You'd think they'd be desperate to catch their daughter's killer, but they didn't want us there. They were tense and uneasy.”
Bill thought back to the interview. “Maybe, but the relationship with their daughter was strained before she turned up dead. That might be affecting their behavior. It's also not uncommon for a man to kill his girlfriend over an unwanted pregnancy,” he reminded Holden before he got too wrapped up in his own theories regarding her parents.
“I'm not saying we shouldn't look into that, but I'm not ready to exclude the family either. They could see Beth Ann's behavior as a threat to their standing in the community.”
“We'll talk to her drug dealer tomorrow. Maybe he's the father, or at least, maybe he knows who she's been hanging around with.”
“That was strange too. Her parents aren't going to know everyone she interacts with, but you'd think they'd be able to give us information on at least some of her friends. Maybe the sister? She's younger, but Beth Ann might have told her things that she didn't tell her parents,” Holden suggested.
“That's not a bad idea. We'll start with the drug dealer and go from there. If he doesn't work out, we should check out the school. Her teachers should have some idea who she liked to hang around with.”
* * *
“We aren't here about recreational substances,” Bill said. “We heard that you knew a girl named Beth Ann Crawford.”
“Beth? I've seen her around before. She showed up at parties sometimes, but we were never close. I haven't seen her in, oh, two months or so.” Tension bled from James' frame. Whatever he had been worried about, it wasn't Beth.
“Beth's body was found a week ago.” Holden placed the crime scene photo down in front of a surprised looking James. “She was found not far from the Calder Oil Field.”
“What was she doing back here? She had been heading off to Houston, the last time I saw her.”
“Why Houston?” Bill asked.
James shrugged. “It's a bigger city. She thought she could make some money there, and she didn't give the impression that she liked it here much. Some trouble with her folks, I think. But again, I never knew her that well. She was hardly going to spill out all her secrets to me.”
“It's possible she never made it that far,” Holden pointed out. “She didn't have a car.”
James hesitated, and at that moment, Holden knew he was holding something back. “Do you know something about where she went, or who she was with?”
James seemed to come to some kind of decision. He sat forward, hands clasped loosely in front of him on the table. “If I tell you what I know, can you do something for me? I have a trial coming up, and I could use a good word. It's not like I'm public enemy number one.”
“No, just some low life selling drugs to kids.” Bill snorted.
“Well, you can think what you like, but if you want me to scratch your back, you'll have to scratch mine.” He sat back again attempting to look haughty.
“We can let the DA's office know you've been cooperative. Besides, it's in your best interest to tell us what you know. Otherwise people might start to suspect that you had something to do with her death.” Holden's tone was earnest.
“Now wait a minute, I didn't kill that girl. Why would I? What lunatic murders his customers? Someone who wants to go broke, that's who. Besides, she didn't hurt nobody.”
“Then let's get this all cleared up,” Bill encouraged.
James sighed. “I know she made it to Houston, because I drove her there. I was going that way myself, my brother lives there. You can call and check, if you like. In return for the ride, we had a little adult fun time in the back seat.” Bill rolled his eyes at that. “She was alive and well when I left her. She had a backpack and small duffle bag with her. I never heard from her or saw her after that. As I said, we weren't that close.”
“Were you aware she was pregnant at the time?”
“What? Beth? No. Look, we didn't sleep together regular. The ride to Houston was the only time aside from a little fooling around once. We weren't dating or nothing. I'm not sure who she was with, honestly. I never saw her with a boy, but that doesn't mean anything. She had kind of a reputation, but I don't think she stayed with any one guy long.”
“He seemed genuinely surprised when I showed him the photograph.” Holden said, as they stood outside the interview room. Officer Chastin stood with them, arms folded across his chest. Part of Holden's awareness remained on the alpha, something about his scent was off...nervous or on edge, and between Holden and Bill, he was a little too focused on Holden for the omega's comfort.
“His rap sheet doesn't include anything violent aside from a bar brawl. It's mostly possession, and it looks like he broke into a car when he was younger. I don't know that I see him murdering someone with so much brute force,” Bill agreed. “He's a loser, but not a killer.”
“If he could beat up someone in a bar fight, why couldn't he beat to death some poor girl. She's a lot smaller than some angry drunk guy,” Chastin pointed out after a pause. Again, something in his manner felt off to Holden. He might not as readily have noticed it, if Chastin had been a beta, but Holden was better at reading alpha body language and scent cues. He tucked away that knowledge for later, deciding he didn't fully trust the officer.
“There's a difference between engaging in a drunken fight with another man, and abducting and beating a girl to death.” Holden replied. “That level of brutality suggests that the murder was personal in some way. Gruden didn't seem to be that personally involved with her.”
“We need to find out who the baby's father was,” Bill said. “The victim had to have friends, people she told things too.”
“It's strange that no one knows who they are. I can understand Gruden not wanting to potentially turn in his customers, and he didn't know her that well,” Holden mused out loud. “You'd think her family would be able to give us at least a few names.” Chastin shifted his weight, leaning slightly closer to Holden. A small gesture, it didn't have to mean anything, but Holden had the sense of being loomed over. Or he might have, had he been average height for an omega. Holden's longer frame diminished the effect considerably, but he had the sense that Chastin was attempting to subtly intimidate him. Consciously, or unconsciously? What's been getting him worked up? Is it just the idea of an omega in law enforcement, or is he nervous about something? He definitely wants Gruden to be the killer. Holden was used to working around alphas, and he was well practiced when it came to ignoring his instincts to back down or submit, so he declined to react.
Bill seemed to sense that something was going on, as a look of concern briefly passed over his face, and he stood straighter. Chastin seemed to take the hint and took a step back, removing himself from Holden's space. It was all a subtle interplay of scent and body language that most betas would miss, if they weren't paying close attention.
“We should check in with Gruden's brother just to make sure he was in Houston when he said he was,” Bill said, not verbally acknowledging Chastin's behavior. “Then we need to find out why she came back here.”
“Maybe she came back for the baby's father,” Holden suggested as they turned to walk back to their work space. “She could have tried hitchhiking back, and got in the car with the wrong person.” He kept a half an eye on Chastin who seemed to relax again. Interesting.
“That would make sense,” Bill agreed. “We need to track down someone who knows more about her personal life.”