Special Agent Ava Trent took a slow turn around Room 125 of the Mountain View Motor Lodge, studying everything, even though the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had already given the place a thorough once-over that morning before the locals had called in the FBI. She doubted there was much they'd missed, but she liked to walk through a crime scene while it was still relatively fresh.
She wasn't going to pretend she could put herself in the head of either the victims or the perpetratorshe'd leave the hocus-pocus to the Investigative Services Unit. She just wanted to get a good look at the setup. Get a picture of it in her head. Most people in law enforcement had their own rituals. Taking a good, long look around a crime scene was hers.
Unmade queen-size bed. Suitcases open, partially unpacked, on the luggage stand helpfully supplied by the Mountain View Motor Lodge. Two toothbrushes in the bathroom.
Blotches of blood on the torn green comforter hanging off the bed.
"Married couple. Gabe and Alicia Cooper." Cade Landry, the agent assigned to investigate the possible kidnapping with her, strode up to her, all broad shoulders, square chin and no nonsense. He was new to the Johnson City, Tennessee, resident agency and, if his gruff demeanor was anything to go by, he wasn't going to turn out to be a favorite among the other agents.
She didn't care herself. She wasn't looking to have her hand held, and if she wanted conversation, she could call up her mother or her sister and get all she could handle. And unlike the female support staff at the resident agency, who all found Landry's rock-hewn features and sweet molasses drawl irresistible, she certainly wasn't in the market for a romantic entanglement, especially not with a fellow agent.
"Plenty of signs of a struggle, but not serious injury," Landry continued. "Blood on the bedspread looks incidental. Bloody nose, maybe. Busted lip in a fight. If the Coopers are deceased, it didn't happen here."
"Why were they here in Poe Creek?" she asked.
"Three-year wedding anniversary, according to the motel staff," Landry answered.
"An anniversary trip to Poe Creek?" She took another look around the motel room and shook her head.
"The husband's a pro fisherman. Seems his idea of an anniversary trip included fishing on Douglas Lake," Landry explained, referring to a lake northeast of Knox-ville, Tennessee. It was a fifteen-minute drive from Poe Creek, depending on where they'd planned to put their boat in the water.
"Where can I get me a romantic man like that?" she murmured.
It might have been her imagination, but she thought she spotted a hint of a smile flicker over Landry's stony features. Just a hint, then it was gone. "Not an angler?" he asked as he followed her on her circuit of the room.
"Actually, I'm a very good angler," she answered. "But I don't reckon scaling fish ranks high on my list of things to do on an anniversary trip." Not that she'd ever had an anniversary to celebrate. Unless you counted six years with the FBI.
"Maybe he does all the fish-cleaning. A woman might find that romantic." Pulling out a pen, Landry nudged a piece of paper lying on the bedside table. It was a note, written in a lazy scrawl. "'225 Mulberry Road.'"
"Locals already checked it out. It's a bait-and-tackle shop on the way to Douglas Lake. They're getting the security video for us, in case the Coopers made it there."
"May have nothing to do with their disappearance." Landry's tone of voice was one big shrug. She was beginning to wonder if anything interested him at all.
But not enough to ask him about it. Taciturn and antisocial was just fine with her. She wasn't exactly Susie Sunshine herself.
"We don't have a lot of time before the family shows up," Landry warned a few minutes later when they emerged from the small motel room into the late afternoon gloom. An early fall storm was rolling in from the west, advancing twilight despite the early hour. Rain would be on them soon, making the drive back to Johnson City a gloomy prospect.
"The family?" she asked.
"The Coopers. As in Cooper Security. Ever heard of it?"
"Oh. Of course." Anyone in law enforcement around these parts had heard of Cooper Security, the private agency that had brought down a major-league global conspiracy involving some of the previous administration's top people. "I thought you said this Cooper was a fisherman, though."
"He was. But Mrs. Cooper works for Cooper Security.
They'd have been informed by now, and they have access to helicopters, hell, maybe even private jets, which means they can be up in these mountains before you can say 'civilian interference in an official investigation.' No way will they stay out of this, not with both an employee and one of their own cousins gone missing."
She tried to gauge whether Landry found the thought disturbing or not. For her part, she didn't like the idea of civilians, however skilled and resourceful they might be, getting up in her business on a case. It cramped her style, if nothing else.
"Why don't we see if we can get a couple of rooms and stay here for the night?" Landry suggested, surprising her. She slanted a sharp look his way. "Territorial rights," he added with another ghost of a smile.
She smiled back. "Stake our claim?"
"Somebody's gotta do it. Might as well be us."
First sign of life she'd seen in Landry since they'd arrived. She wasn't sure if she liked it or not, but at least it suited her own intentions.
She called the resident agency and talked to Pete Chang, the Special Agent in Charge. "Do you think the case will benefit from your staying in town instead of commuting?" he asked.
"I do," she answered with more confidence than she felt.
"Approved. Just do the paperwork."
She hung up and nodded to Landry. "Go take care of getting the rooms."
His eyebrows lifted slightly. "Where are you going?"
"Just want a look around." She wandered across the parking lot, where a crowd had gathered in the deepening gloom. Onlookers were ubiquitous at any crime scene, though in a town this small, the crowd wasn't as large as it might have been in a bigger place.
She let her gaze run across the crowd, just out of habit. It had surely taken more than one person to overpower and abduct two able-bodied people, especially if one of those people was a Cooper and the other one worked for Cooper Security. Not likely they could spare someone to see what was going on at the crime scene.
But it wouldn't hurt to give the onlookers a little extra scrutiny.
Most of the people in the crowd came across as tourists rather than locals, though Ava couldn't put her finger on what, exactly, gave her that impression. She wasn't a local herself, though she was close. Her hometown was Bridal Falls, Kentucky, not far across the state line up near Jel-lico, Tennessee. She knew her way around the mountains.
Some of the people in this crowd weren't dressed for the mountain climatetoo many clothes or not enough, depending on where they came from, she supposed. Some wore socks with sandals, which every self-respecting Southerner knew to be a big, flashing sign of an outsider. As she wandered closer to the gathered crowd, she heard a few northeastern and Midwestern accents as well, mingling with the Southern drawls.
Apparently, Landry had followed her, for his deep drawl...