“Morning, Birdie.” Jaci stepped aside as the older woman efficiently began to place the muffins on a large glass tray that would be set on the counter next to the cash register. Many of the diners liked to have a cup of coffee and muffin once they were done with breakfast.
“Thank God you’re here.”
“I’m sorry I’m late. The electricity didn’t come on until almost five.”
Finishing, Birdie grabbed the tray and bustled across the kitchen to hand it to her assistant.
“Take this to the counter,” Birdie commanded before turning back to Jaci with a roll of her eyes. “The natives have been threatening to revolt without their favorite muffins.”
Jaci smiled, pleased by Birdie’s words. She’d learned to bake at her grandmother’s side, but it wasn’t until she’d inherited her grandparents’ farm that she’d considered using her skills to help her make ends meet.
Leaning to the side, she glanced through the large, open space where the food was passed through to the waitresses.
The place hadn’t changed in the past ten years. The walls were covered with faded paneling that was decorated with old license plates and a mounted fish caught from the nearby river. The floor was linoleum and the drop ceiling was lit with fluorescent lights.
There were a half dozen tables arranged around the square room with one long table at the back where a group of farmers showed up daily to drink coffee and share the local gossip.
At the moment, every seat was filled with patrons wearing buff coveralls, camo jackets, and Cardinal baseball hats.
Jaci released a slow whistle. “Damn, woman. That’s quite a crowd,” she said, a rueful smile touching her lips. The rains meant that no one was able to get into the fields. “At least someone can benefit from this latest downpour.”
“Benefit?” Birdie sucked in a sharp breath, her hands landing on her generous hips. “I hope you’re not suggesting that I’m the sort of person who enjoys benefiting from a tragedy, Jaci Patterson,” she chastised. “People want to get together to discuss what’s happened and I have the local spot for them to gather.”
Jaci blinked, caught off guard by her friend’s sharp reprimand. Then, absorbing the older woman’s words, she stiffened in concern.
“Tragedy?” she breathed.
Birdie’s features softened. “You haven’t heard?”
Jaci felt a tremor of unease. She’d already lost her father to a drunk driver before she was even born, and then her grandmother when she was seventeen. Her grandfather had passed just two years ago. She was still raw from their deaths.
“No, I haven’t heard anything. Like I said, the electric-ity went out last night and as soon as it came back on I started baking. Has someone died?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“No one knows for sure yet,” Birdie told her.
Jaci blinked in confusion. “How could they not know?” “The levee broke in the middle of the night.”
“Yeah, I figured that out when I discovered that the road was closed. . . . Oh hell.” She tensed as her unease became sharp-edged fear. The levee had broken before and flooded fields, but the neighbor to her south had recently built a new house much closer to the river. “It didn’t reach Frank’s home, did it?”
Birdie shook her head. “Just the back pasture.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“When Frank went to check on the breach, he saw something floating in the middle of his field.”
Jaci cringed. Poor Frank. He must have been shocked out of his mind.
“Oh my God. It was a dead person?”
“Yep. A woman.”
“He didn’t recognize her?”
Birdie leaned forward and lowered her voice, as if anyone could hear over the noise from the customers, not to mention the usual kitchen clatter.
“He said it was impossible to know if she was familiar or not.”
“I don’t suppose he wanted to look too close,” Jaci said. If she’d spotted a body in her flooded field she would have jumped into her Jeep and driven away like a maniac.
“It wasn’t that. He claimed the woman was too . . .” Birdie hesitated, as if she was searching for a more deli-cate way to express what Frank had said. “Decomposed to make out her features.”
“Decomposed?” A strange chill inched down Jaci’s spine.
“That’s what he’s saying.”
Jaci absently glanced through the opening into the outer room where she could see Frank surrounded by a group of avid listeners.
When Birdie had said a body, she’d assumed it had been someone who’d been caught in the flood. Maybe she’d fallen in when she was walking along the bank. Or her car might have been swept away when she tried to cross a road with high water.
But she wouldn’t be decomposed, would she?
“I’ve heard that water does strange things to a body,” Jaci at last said.
Birdie tugged Jaci toward the back door as her assistant moved to open the fridge. Clearly there was more to the story.
“The body wasn’t all that Frank discovered.”
Jaci stilled. “There was more?”
“Yep.” Birdie whispered, as if it was a big secret. Which was ridiculous. There were no such things as secrets in a town the size of Heron. “Frank called the sheriff, and while he was waiting for Mike to arrive he swears he caught sight of a human skull stuck in the mud at the edge of the road.” Birdie gave a horrified shudder. “Can you imagine? Two dead people virtually in his backyard? Gives me the creeps just thinking about it.”
Jaci’s mouth went dry. “Did Frank say anything else?”
Birdie shrugged. “Just that the sheriff told him to leave and not to talk about what he found.” Birdie snorted. “Like anyone wouldn’t feel the need to share the fact they found a dead body and a skull in their field.”
A familiar dread curdled in the pit of Jaci’s stomach.
She was being an idiot. Of course she was. This had nothing to do with her past. Or the mysterious stalker who had made her life hell.
Still . . .
She couldn’t shake the sudden premonition that slith-ered down her spine.
“Is Mike still out at Frank’s?” she abruptly demanded, referring to the sheriff, Mike O’Brien.
“Yeah.” Birdie sent her a curious glance. “I think he was waiting for the Corps of Engineers to get out there so they could discuss how long it would take for the field to drain.” She wrinkled her nose. “I suppose they need to make sure there aren’t any other bodies.”
A fierce urgency pounded through her. She might be overreacting, but she wasn’t going to be satisfied until she spoke to Mike.
“I need to go.”
“You haven’t had your coffee,” Birdie protested.
“Not this morning, thanks, Birdie.”
“Okay.” The older woman stepped back. “I’ll get your money and—”
“I’ll stop by later to get it.” Jaci turned to pull open the back door.
Instantly a chilled blast of air swept around them.
“What’s your rush?” Birdie demanded.
“I have some questions that need answers,” she said.
“With who?” Birdie demanded, making a sound of impatience as Jaci darted into the alley and jogged toward her waiting Jeep. “Jaci?”
Not bothering to answer, Jaci jumped into the vehicle and put it in gear. Water trickled down her neck from her wet hair, but when she’d gone into the diner she’d left the engine running with the heater blasting at full steam.
Which meant she was a damp mess, but she wasn’t completely miserable.
Angling the vent in a futile effort to dry her soggy sweatshirt, Jaci stomped on the accelerator and headed back toward her house. This time, however, she swerved around the barrier that blocked the road, squishing her way through the muddy path that led along the edge of Frank’s property.
It was less than ten miles, but by the time she was pulling her vehicle to a halt, her stomach had managed to clench into a tight ball of nerves.
It didn’t matter how many times she told herself that this had nothing to do with the past, she couldn’t dismiss her rising tide of fear.