Jeff Miner stirred as he heard his son cry out. A moment later, he called out again, a little louder, “Mommy!” Jeff groaned and rolled over to look at the clock—two am. As he heard Robbie fuss again, he swung his feet over and sat up, blearily rubbing his eyes. Pam would only have been asleep for an hour and a half at the most, so he didn’t want to wake her. As he got to his feet, he glanced over at her and then froze. Her side of the bed was empty. Then he relaxed. She must have already been on her way to Robbie; she did have that mommy radar. He thought about stretching back out on the bed and then decided that would be just a little on the inconsiderate side.
But when he walked into Robbie’s room, there was nobody there but his restless son. He soothed him back into sleep and covered him up, then went to look for his wife. But the rest of the house was empty. Now he was wide awake and beginning to get worried; she always called when she was going to be late. He hurried back to the bedroom and checked his phone, but there were no calls since they had talked during her supper break. He went out into the kitchen and opened the door to the garage while he dialed her. There was no car on her side of the garage and her phone rang until it went to voicemail. Jeff told himself to relax as he dialed the hospital, punching in the extension for Pam’s floor. A minute later, he was on his way to being scared. She had left on time and her car wasn’t in its spot in the lot. Trying to relax, he dialed the sheriff’s department and got Gary Tackett on the line.
“Don’t worry, Jeff, I’ll drive out to the hospital and retrace her path. Maybe she’s out of gas or broken down. Just sit tight and I’ll call you in a half hour or so.” Gary put his jacket on and left the office, radioing the next deputy on call to let him know what was going on.
An hour and a half later, there were three Birch Bend Sheriff’s Department vehicles, lights flashing, at a sharp curve in the road that Pam traveled between her house and work. There were flashlights bobbing off the edge of the road as they searched for Pam or any sign of her. The car was empty, her purse still lying on the passenger seat, and the only thing that Sheriff Cam Loudon knew for sure was missing was her phone and her keys. There was a sharp squeal of tires as Jeff skidded to a stop and jumped out of his truck.
The sheriff met him before he reached the car. “Jeff, hold on, take it easy.”
“Take it easy, my ass! Where the hell is my wife?”
Cam had hold of his shoulders and he said soothingly, “We don’t know yet, but there’s nothing suspicious looking here. She may have walked somewhere if she had a car problem. Her keys and phone are gone. Do you have keys to her car?”
“Yeah, yeah. Right here. Everything looks okay in the car?”
“It does. Where’s Robbie?”
“Barb came over to stay with him. He woke up and was crying for Pam; that’s what woke me up in the first place. Dammit, Cam, where could she have gone?”
“Does she know anybody who lives right near here?” Cam asked, taking the keys.
“Everybody knows everybody around here. You know. The nearest house to this spot is how far, a mile?”
“Yeah, pretty near. That would be Ben’s place. Mac stopped down there; he hasn’t seen her. The only other place would be Dinah Fish’s cabin and I don’t think Dinah’s there yet. She’s been visiting with her daughter in Lansing. But I’ll send Gary over there to take a look around. I called Victor and he’s bringing out his dog. Mac!” the sheriff called out to his second-in-command.
Mackenzie “Mac” Fleming strode over to the two of them, her fiery red ponytail swinging behind her. She was average height, compact and fit, and most of the men who lived in the area wouldn’t welcome coming up against her in a disagreement. She was smart and fair, and knew her business well enough to have earned the respect of the community a long time ago.
“Jeff, I’d appreciate it if you’d go sit with Mac in the squad car for a little bit and she’ll ask you some questions. We’ll get an official statement later if we need it, but for now we just need a little information.”
Jeff stared at him, obviously shaken, and when Mac gently took his arm, he followed her without a word.
Cam watched them go before he turned to the car and leaned in to try to start it. Sure enough, it started right up and purred like a kitten. He had a damn bad feeling about this, the kind of feeling that he’d only had before in larger cities. Birch Bend was a mostly rural area in a remote part of the U.P. of Michigan, with a tiny town that had two traffic lights and a scattering of businesses to go along with the usual town buildings. The worst things that usually happened in Birch Bend were a little vandalism, drunk driving, an occasional drunken fistfight, or a jerk getting too physical with his wife. Eight years ago, Tommy Kiefer had tried to steal Ed Nash’s new fishing boat, but he hadn’t known enough after a sixpack of his dad’s beer to figure out how to get out of the cove Ed was docked in. He heaved a sigh as he watched Victor pull to a stop in his old pickup and climb down to join the sheriff.
“This don’t look good,” Victor said.
“No, and it doesn’t feel good, either. Her purse is in the car; keys and phone are gone but the car starts fine. Jeff had a set of keys. There’s no sign of a struggle that I can see until we get to do a better search. Mac checked with Ben and he hasn’t seen her. The only other place within walking distance is Dinah Fish’s cabin and I’m pretty sure she’s still at her daughter’s.”
“Maybe she had someone on the side and decided she’d had enough of Birch Bend.”
“Never say never, but it’d seem way out of character to me. She’s a nurse, she and Jeff seem happy, their boy is three, and they’ve been talking about trying for a girl.”
Victor said, “Well, we’ll see what the dog can sniff up.”
In a few minutes he was ready to go. He had a backpack on and a powerful flashlight in hand, and he let his dog sniff a pair of gloves from the car that Jeff confirmed were Pam’s. Victor’s dog was on the scent almost immediately and he nodded to Cam as he set off with his dog, radio on his hip. They went immediately off the road and cross country, headed toward the woods, and Cam watched until they were out of sight. Sometime later, the radio crackled and Victor let him know that the trail had ended cold. He gave his coordinates to the sheriff and Cam and Mac started hiking to him. Victor had marked the spot where the scent just seemed to vanish and there was no trace of which way she had gone or how.
Finally, Cam said, “Well, we’re going to have to come back out here when it gets light; we’ve seen all we can without daylight. Where’s Jeff?”
Mac said, “I told Gary to take him to the office and get him making a list of friends and family to call. He’s probably been calling them to see if they’ve seen her or heard from her.”
“Good. Let’s head in there ourselves. I’ve got to make some calls, get us some more help, and you can fire up that computer and look for anything that might offer some hints about what happened to Pam. We’ll need to talk to her co-workers at the hospital too.”
“Will do. See you back there.” Mac got into her county SUV and pulled away.
The little sheriff’s department buzzed with activity for the next few days. The locals showed up daily to search, but they never found a single trace of her after the end of the trail the dog had sniffed out. They finally had to call off the search, and although Mac kept combing the airwaves and social media, looking for any kind of clue, they had nothing. Jeff hung posters all around Birch Bend and the surrounding communities, but there was nothing.
Gradually, the little community returned to normal, as much as they could, until a cold November day nearly two months after Pam’s disappearance. Mindy Dawson, a cheerleader at the area high school and a senior, left cheerleading practice late one evening and never showed up at home. Her mother was frantic; she had called her daughter’s best friend, who confirmed that she had seen Mindy pull out of the school parking lot and turn toward home. She said Mindy had planned on going straight home, knowing her mother had a pot of her favorite chili simmering.
“Cam, we’ve got trouble.” Mac was on duty and took the call from Mindy’s hysterical mother. She filled the sheriff in on the little she knew.
“Shit, shit, shit. I’ll be there in ten minutes. Get everybody in. Maybe we’ve got a better chance; she hasn’t been missing long.” He was pulling on his jacket as he spoke.
They found Mindy’s car not more than two hours after she should have been home. Just like in Pam’s case, the only things that were missing were her keys and phone. And just like in Pam’s case, her trail went cold a quarter mile into the woods. Once again, the community banded together to search, to no avail. There were vigils and prayer groups, searches and posters. The stories were in all the papers and on all the news programs; they even got a spot on the national news, begging for information.
The whole community was spooked. Women and girls didn’t go anywhere alone and doors were locked that had never been locked before. Men cleaned their guns and gun sales went drastically up. The buddy system was employed at places like the hospital, where women had to work late and some husbands wouldn’t even let their wives drive themselves back and forth to their jobs. Teenage girls were scared enough that they didn’t argue with their overprotective parents for once. Cam contacted the FBI and let them know he would welcome their help if it was offered. They went over the two cases’ paperwork, but without anything to go on, they didn’t send agents to Birch Bend. But they did devote a few hours to searching their databases for similar events in other little towns. There was a deep sense of unease over the area as Christmas approached with two families feeling the kind of loss that most of the people around there had only read about or seen on TV.
Christmas day dawned, cold and still, with a steady snow falling. It was Mac’s turn to take calls for the day and her work phone rang at ten in the morning. It was a local man, Sam Evans, who had gone out with his rabbit dog for a little Christmas hunting.
“Mac, it’s Sam. I found something… shit, I think I found Pam Miner. I was rabbit hunting. Aw, shit, Mac, she’s dead and just lying out in the snow.”
Mac swore under her breath and got Sam’s location, promising to be there quickly. She called Cam and jumped into her truck, getting to the spot just minutes before Cam pulled up. They followed Sam off the road and to the spot where he’d found the body, careful not to trample the ground around her. The young mother was lying on her back, fully dressed and with her hands crossed on her belly. Her throat had been slit from ear to ear, but there was no blood around her. She had clearly been killed somewhere else and brought there to be found.
“Son of a bitch,” Cam said heavily. “I knew it was going to be bad. This isn’t supposed to happen here.”
There wasn’t much evidence to gather and they got what they could, putting a call in to Cam’s contact at the FBI and another to the coroner. They took all the pictures they needed and then Cam gave the okay to move the body to the hospital morgue. Then he had to go talk to Jeff Miner.
“You want me to go with you?” Mac asked.
“I wouldn’t say no. Maybe you can be of some help. Hell, he might not even be home; he could be at Barb’s.” Barb was Pam’s mother.
“Well, we know where she lives. Let’s try Jeff’s house first.”
It turned out that Barb was at Jeff’s house to have Christmas with her little grandson. When Cam and Mac went to the door, Jeff opened it and the knowledge immediately rushed over his face. “Oh, no,” he whispered.
“I’m sorry, Jeff,” the sheriff said. “I’d give anything not to be here.”
Barb came out of the other room and began to weep silently as she saw who was at the door. Mac went to her and put an arm around her, supporting her as she sagged. “I’m sorry, Barb, so sorry.”
“Oh, poor Robbie,” the heartbroken woman sobbed.
As they left the Miner home, Cam looked like he had aged ten years. “Merry fucking Christmas,” he said bitterly.
“We’re going to get the son of a bitch,” Mac said with quiet determination.
“We sure as hell are. It’s all we can do now. I’m going into the office and call that guy at the FBI. We need any help we can get.”
“I can do that for you. I’d like to dig into the computer a little now that I’ve got more to look for.”
“Hell, Mac, it’s Christmas. You don’t have to go in now.”
She gave him a wintry little smile. “I wasn’t doing anything anyway.”
“Well, you ought to be,” Cam chided her.
She shrugged. “It’s just not in the cards right now.” Her family consisted of a mother who had moved to Florida several years before and a brother who lived with his family in Nevada, and her Christmas celebration normally consisted of a couple of phone calls and a promise to try to get together the next year. Later, she would throw a thick steak on the grill outside her back door and toss a salad and splurge with two beers instead of one.
“I don’t know why you won’t ever say yes when we invite you to Christmas.”
“Christmas is for family, Cam. I’m fine just where I am.”
“You’re turning into a damn hermit. It wouldn’t hurt you to spend a little time socializing.”
Mac chuckled. “I just don’t need it. I’ve got a stack of books to catch up on and a good steak for later. That’s all the Christmas I want.”
Cam shook his head. “For now, okay, but it’s got to come to an end someday.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Go home. I know your wife is cooking up a real Christmas dinner. Tell everybody Merry Christmas for me.”
Cam grunted. “Yeah, the kids should be getting there about now. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow. Make sure you call me if there’s anything to tell.”
“I will. Go have Christmas.” Mac ended up spending a couple of hours combing the computer after she left a message with the FBI and finally went home when she realized that she was starving and that steak was calling to her. She ate her dinner and then fell asleep on the couch, halfway through her second beer.
Mac woke abruptly, dreaming that Mindy was somewhere out of sight and calling for help. She was breathing hard and sat up, waiting for her heart to slow. She brushed her teeth and washed her face and crawled into bed, but it was a long time before she fell asleep, and when she did, she dreamed of Mindy again, calling and calling for help, but she could never find her. Her sleep was troubled and restless and there were tears on her face even though she was sound asleep when the dream finally left her in peace.