A/N: I don’t have a chapter of The Surgeon ready for you just yet, but I wanted to thank the two people who have donated to help keep the website up and running. I’m about 18% of the way there now! If you’d like to help make sure I can keep posting free stories for you guys, you can read the whole post here, and you can find donation links at the bottom of that page.
I’m hoping to get The Surgeon updated today as a thank you, but in the meantime, here’s the first chapter of a new crime book I started. Not sure if it’ll go anywhere, but we’ll see!
The morning rain hit the awning outside the window with a soft pitter patter. As the day wore on, the pitter patter would grow heavier, sounding more like hail than rain, but for now, the pitter patter was easy to tune out. It was only day two of an expected week-long storm, far from Atticus’s favorite event to see in the summer forecast. How some people liked heavy rain and thunderstorms always escaped him. There was nothing appealing to him about a dark, overcast sky, thundering booms, or strikes of lightning exploding bursts of light into the sky.
Atticus reached down and scratched the top of Benny’s head. The pitbull threw his head back only long enough to confirm the touch belonged to Atticus, his chin quickly returning to its place atop his outstretched front paws.
A heavy knock broke up the soft pitter patter behind him. He glanced up at the ceiling, waiting for the sky to finally break, but it didn’t. He cast a look out the open office door, gaze landing on the angled mirror in the hall. The door knob of the front door was still, and he couldn’t see a shadow in the frosted window, either. When no one called out and another knock didn’t sound, he shook his head and dismissed it as the house settling. His paranoia over visitors had increased greatly over the years, and it always worsened even further–if that was actually possible–in March, but the facts always remained the same. Atticus lived out in the middle of nowhere. He could count his unexpected visitors over the last twenty-something years on one hand.
His eyes drifted away from the door’s reflection, falling back to the coin held between his fingers. The shiny piece of metal–a perfect circle with one triangular chip in one edge–served as a smoking gun for him. It was proof that the Lost City of Z was out there somewhere in Brazil.
He had found precisely two treasures in his lifetime, coin aside, and he planned to make Z his third.
Another heavy knock interrupted the rain and his plans for the day. With a sigh, he flicked the coin out of his fingers and snatched it out of the air as he rose to his feet. There was one girl scout that came around a few times a year–a short blonde who dealt Thin Mints and Samoas like they were drugs–but she had never stopped by in the rain. Atticus didn’t see a reason why she’d start now. Surely she wasn’t that desperate to break ahead in the leaderboard.
Atticus nudged Benny’s shoulder with his foot. The dog lifted his head, hauling himself to his feet as soon as he saw his human had already done the same. He followed Atticus out of the office and through the hall, where Atticus signaled for him to sit and wait with a simple lift of his palm. Benny dropped to his haunches, that worried look in his eyes. Sometimes, Benny looked at him in a way that no dog–rescue or not–should be capable of. Atticus had decided more than once that Benny had been a human in an old life. Often, he wondered if Benny’s reincarnation had been a reward or a punishment.
His placement with Atticus seemed to lean toward the latter.
Benny nudged Atticus’s thigh.
“I know, bud,” Atticus whispered, the three words falling on deaf ears. He gave the top of the dog’s head a good scritch and headed for the front door. He cast one last look at the coin, at his plans for the day, and pocketed it. Z would still be there after his unwanted visitor left. Just as a third knock sounded, he pulled open the door.
The woman standing on his doorstep was most definitely not a girl scout. Her dark hair was soaked with rain, little water droplets forming at the tips of the tendrils that had fallen around her face. A droplet fell from her hair and raised down her cheek, falling to the bag she held to her chest.
Atticus lifted his eyes back to her face. “Can I… help you?”
She held the bag out to him. Well, that was being a bit too kind. She had shoved it into his chest hard enough that he’d grunted his response. But Atticus did his best to give her the benefit of the doubt on her aggression, on her strength. She didn’t look… well. The bags under her eyes seemed to carry luggage of their own, and the expression on her face was empty and simply… off.
“My son’s gone missing.”
Gently, Atticus pulled her hands from his chest and pushed them back toward her. “I don’t work with Missing Persons anymore. I’m just a—”
“An adventurer. A treasure hunter.” She nodded. “I know. That’s why I came to you.”
“I’m, umm… I’m not following.”
“The bastard who took my son has been sending these riddles to me. Riddles. The police haven’t gotten anywhere with them, and the public’s been no help through the tip line. But you found Forrest Fenn’s treasure using his riddles. Y-you found the Golden Owl using his riddles. You’re my last shot at finding my son alive.”
Atticus watched her for a moment, unable to stop his brow from furrowing. It was so damn specific, so manipulative. But there was no change in her expression. No ‘Oh gosh I can’t believe I said that’. No ‘Oh my god I’m so sorry’. The woman either had no shame, no guilt, or she just… didn’t know.
He cleared his throat. “Four days?”
“Yes, four days. And I already know what you’re gonna say, and I know. I’ve been told. The first twenty-four hours are the best hours for search and rescue, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. The police haven’t given up either, but they need help that no one else has been able to give them.” She shoved a wet, tangled tendril of hair back behind her ear. “They need you. My son needs you.”
Atticus bit back the initial response that sprung to the tip of his tongue. This woman and her son weren’t his problem. They weren’t his job anymore. They hadn’t been for a long damn time. But it was hard to say that to a worried mother, to a terrified father, to a grieving parent of any variety. It would always be hard. “Look, ma’am, I’m sorry about your son–I am–but solving riddles in poems and pictures doesn’t mean I can help find a missing child. I haven’t been a part of that for a long time.”
“I’m sure it’ll come back to you. Just like riding a bike.” Again, she held out the bag. “Please.”
Atticus stared down at the piece of plastic in her hands. It was a bag from the grocery store in town, the material so thin he could see the photocopied letters inside. He wondered if they had come individually wrapped in brown paper, each one tied off with a little bow of twine, or if they had arrived on her step in a box or a gift bag. Maybe they’d shown up in the damn plastic bag. Who the hell knew.
A part of him wanted to ask, wanted some answers, but the much larger part of him wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.
He let out a sigh and grabbed the bag. “I’ll look into it.”
“Thank you so much! Oh, my God.” She practically lunged into the house, throwing her arms around him. Atticus tensed, and Benny growled from the hall. It was low, barely audible to most people. Atticus held a hand out behind his back, palm extended toward the dog. With a heavy exhale, the growling subsided.
The woman stepped away. “My number’s in the bag. Everything you need is in there. Thank you so much.”
“Don’t… don’t get your hopes up. I’m not a miracle worker.”
She smiled. “I think you’re a lot more than you think you are. You’re a very kind man. Thank you.”
Before Atticus could throw out another reminder about the dangers of high hopes, she turned and ran for her car. Atticus closed the front door and dropped the wet bag to the floor. He looked down, peeling his rain-soaked shirt away from his skin.
A change of clothes before he ripped open an old wound seemed like the least he could do for himself.
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