California Schemin’ Sneak Peak

Chapter one

She was falling, plummeting toward the river, her skirt billowing and then wrapping around her as she tumbled. I watched her through the viewfinder. An unnaturally pink anomaly in sharp focus against the grey background of the bridge. I’d never be able to look at that color again without feeling the horror of seeing a woman plummet from the Foresthill Bridge. Half my brain followed her descent with my camera while the other half was in a blind screaming panic.

“No!” I tossed the camera into my camp chair and sprinted upriver.

The riverbank was rocky, stone ledge mixed with pumpkin sized boulders and pebble beaches. I slipped and teetered, skidding over the smooth surfaces, tripping over loose stones. I scanned the river as I ran, watching for a splash of pink. Twice I stopped myself from falling by steadying myself on rocks and my hands were stinging from the abuse. I sucked air and held the stitch that developed in my side as I made my way up stream. The fall was horrific but there was a chance she’d survived.

My name is Bella Bree MacGowan. I’m called Bree by my friends, and I’m not exactly a stranger to dead bodies. It hadn’t even been six months since I found my boss dead. I’d come to California to “recover” from the experience and here I was chasing down another emergency. I hoped I’d be able to pull her from the water when I did find her. I’m only five foot six and don’t have too much heft to me. Luckily I’m strong. With brown hair and eyes I like to tell people I look like Rachael Ray without the benefit of a stylist.

I was giving up hope when I saw her floating toward me on the current, face down in the water, the pink skirt dark and clinging to her legs. I waded into the water and grabbed the back of her shirt, towing her out of the current into a calm shallows at the shore. I needed to get her face out of the water but I knew I wasn’t strong enough to lift her. Blood mingled with the blond hair feathering around her head in the slow water. A fresh adrenaline rush flooded my brain and I began to panic. I had to get her air and stop the bleeding.

Reaching across her body I grabbed the shoulder of her sleeveless blouse. I was able to pull her body part way out of the water but the fabric slipped from my grasp and she was face down again. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. Use two hands, Bree, I told myself, you can do it if you use two hands. Then it hit me that I might have better luck if tried to roll her from underneath. I slid my hand through the water feeling for her arm. I caught what felt like her elbow and tugged. She floated into me. I pushed up on her near shoulder as I used her arm to pull her underside up. The movement of her shoulder started her rotating and she flipped.

I saw I needn’t have bothered. A hole in her temple oozed blood into her hair. I lurched form the river and lost my breakfast in the trees lining the riverbank.

My last dead body had thrown me for a loop, but it hadn’t been nearly as bad as this. Maybe it was because I didn’t actually see Vera die, but discovered her afterward, that I was able to keep my stomach under control. Somehow this was different. The fall combined with the bullet hole was more than I wanted to deal with. I looked over to where her blond hair drifted on the water. The blood was still mixing with the river water. Had she already been dead when she fell?

I waded back into the water and pulled her part way onto the shore, then hefted a couple of rocks onto the woman’s skirt. I didn’t want her floating away when I went to call for help. The sun was warm and I pulled off my soaking hoody as I scrambled back to where I’d left my stuff. I pulled the cell from my pack and punched 911. Unlike in Vermont, I always had cell service in California. Even out here at the bottom of a canyon, I could see the cell tower on the rise above the bridge.

I finished the call and made my way back up the river to the body. I sat on a fallen tree where I could see her, but didn’t have to look at her. Closing her eyes crossed my mind but the last time I’d touched a dead body I’d ended up as the only suspect in a murder investigation. Bree, you’ve already touched her, it wouldn’t hurt to close her eyes. Yes. Yes it would. My fingerprints would be on her eyelids. That’s just creepy. Besides, I don’t want to lose what’s left of my lunch.

It would’ve been peaceful by the river if it weren’t for the body. I turned so I wouldn’t see her staring at the sky, but I felt like she was staring at me. Feeling ghoulish and creeped out, I slid down the side of the fallen tree until I was sitting on the ground. I knew it was childish but there it was. Not even dead people could look through trees.

I flipped open my phone again and dialed Meg. Meg had been my friend forever and my boss for slightly less than that. She was also my current boyfriend’s sister-in-law. She was married to his brother, Vermont Trooper, Captain Tom Maverick. The three hour time difference between Vermont and California worked in my favor. If I knew Meg, she would have been at work for a couple of hours already.

“I did it again,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady and failing miserably.

“Well hello to you too. What did you do again?”

“Found a dead body.”

“I thought you went to California to get away from dead bodies. Silly me. Tell me.”

“There’s this really high bridge here. A thousand feet or something like that. I saw a woman fall.”

“Wait. Where were you?”

“I was on the river bank taking pictures. I thought maybe the river was deep enough that she could survive the fall, but she’d been shot.”

“Bree, wait. I’m lost here. Start over from the beginning. Like what you had for breakfast.”

I took a breath, let the smell of Eucalyptus and the damp air of the river help calm me. Then I told Meg that I had two eggs, over-easy for breakfast. And coffee.

Half way through my narration I was interrupted by crashing in the undergrowth. I was wishing it could have been the sheriff but it was too soon, and coming from the wrong direction. The trail-head was a good five minutes downstream from where I sat.

I got to my feet, panicked. A wild animal or murderer, I didn’t want to see either one. I shoved my cell phone into my pocket without bothering to close it, ran for the nearest oak tree and jumped to grab a branch. My hands stung but I dragged myself up as quietly as I could and climbed as high as I dared, while trying to listen and watch to see what was coming.

A bear ambled onto the rocks near the river. Wild animal not murderer, but what if it mauled the body? Jumping down didn’t seem like a wise idea and I didn’t have anything to throw at the creature. I pulled my phone from my pocket and miraculously, Meg was still there.

“What is going on? You scared the bejesus out of me. All that running and crashing around.”

“A bear,” I panted. “A dang bear came out of the woods. I’m afraid it’ll maul the body. What should I do if it goes for the body?”

“Where are you now?” The stress levels in Meg’s voice were ramping up.

“Up a tree. I climbed it when the crashing around started. That’s what you heard.”

“Let me get this straight. You are up a tree, talking to me on the phone?”

“Well if you’re going to put it like that. Yes. I’m sitting in a tree talking to you on the phone while a bear rambles around deciding if it wants to maul a dead body. But hey, what else could happen?” Oh man, as soon as the words were out I knew I was jinxing myself.

Check out the trailer, here.

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