Home > Obsession (Natchez Trace Park Rangers #2)

Obsession (Natchez Trace Park Rangers #2)
Author: Patricia Bradley



The January warm spell had definitely ended in South Mississippi. Emma Winters zipped her National Park Service jacket against the biting north wind as she hiked the quarter mile from the gate to the Mount Locust Visitor Center on the Natchez Trace. A hike that wouldn’t have been necessary if she hadn’t forgotten the gate key. Or the folder she needed to finish a report due by midnight.

Forgetting things wasn’t like her, but her mother’s resistance to tracking down her brother had Emma off-center. Her cell phone broke the silence, and she checked her caller ID. She wasn’t sure she was ready for her mother’s reaction to the email she’d sent and let two more rings go by. In fact, she was tempted to not answer her mother’s call at all because she just didn’t want to hear her objections. But just before it went to voicemail, Emma punched the answer button. “Hello,” she said, forcing a cheery note in her voice.

“Oh, good, I caught you,” her mother said. “I received the flyer you emailed.”

“And? What did you think?”

“Honey, I think you’ll get a lot of nutcases if you send it out. Like you did before when you offered money for information on Ryan.”

“But someone might know some—”

“Your brother’s choices in life are his. I hate to see you throw good money after bad.”

“It’s my money,” she muttered. As each year passed, finding her twin brother pressed deeper into her heart, but she should have known her mother would kick up about the flyer. If she knew the whole story . . .

“What are you doing? You’re breaking up.”

“Walking to my office.”

“You’re . . . Mount Locust . . . night?”

“Mom, we have a bad connection,” she said. “I’ll call you when I get home.”

Emma ended the call and shrugged off the sense of failure that seeped into every fiber of her body whenever she thought of Ryan. But it wasn’t so easily shrugged off. She glanced toward the sky just as a pale sliver of moon broke through the clouds, giving off enough light to cast eerie shadows on the ground.

A shiver ran over her body. Maybe next time she would ask someone to come with her. Or bring a gun. Not likely. She’d never desired to be a law enforcement ranger and was quite satisfied being on the interpretive side of the National Park Service.

In spite of that, the hair on the back of her neck rose as she approached the stone and wood building. Come on. Don’t get all spooked. She worked here, and Mount Locust was as familiar as the backyard where she’d grown up. And it wasn’t like being here after dark was something new. From November until the days got longer, she locked up every day in the dark. Besides, she’d never been afraid of the dark. Even so, she scanned the area, trying to shake the sense she wasn’t alone.

Nothing moved as she scanned the grounds, her gaze stopping at the lighted maintenance building a quarter mile away and visible through the bare trees before moving to the tractor shed a few yards away. Probably should check on the ground penetrating radar machine that had arrived earlier today. Tomorrow she was supposed to begin the preliminary mapping of the historic quarters and the adjoining cemetery.

She’d left word for the new district law enforcement ranger on the Natchez Trace to have someone swing by every few hours to check for trespassers. Now would be a good time for a ranger to arrive . . . as long as it wasn’t Samuel Ryker. Emma hadn’t seen her once-upon-a-time fiancé since he returned to Natchez and had avoided talking directly to him on the call for assistance. But eventually she would have to face him, and she might as well make peace with it.

Something rustled to her right. Emma froze with her hand on the doorknob. She turned just as a bottle rolled from the open passageway separating the office from the restrooms.

“Who’s there?” She tried for commanding, but the tremor in her voice destroyed the effect.

A bedraggled gray-and-white tabby walked around the corner and sat down, its doleful stare almost as pitiful as its meow. Emma released the breath caught in her chest and leaned against the door. “Where did you come from?”

The cat couldn’t be over three or four months old. It stretched and then rubbed against her leg, and Emma stooped to pick it up. She could count the poor thing’s ribs. With it still in her arms, she turned and unlocked the door. There was half of a roast beef sandwich in the mini refrigerator she’d recently purchased so she could eat at her desk when she worked alone at the visitor center. Maybe the cat could eat the meat.

As she bent to retrieve the beef, Emma spotted the file she’d come for. Beside it, the landline blinked with a message. She would feed the cat first, then listen to the voicemail. Emma shredded the meat and set it on the floor. The cat sniffed the food, then tore into it, making little growling noises as it ate. When it finished, the cat sat down and looked up at Emma as if to say, “Where’s the rest?”

“That’s all I have,” she said. Funny how having another living thing with her made the place seem less scary. “I’ll bring you something in the morning—how about that?” she asked and punched the play button on the phone. “Or maybe I’ll take you home with me tonight.”

The cat wound around her ankles as a voice that belonged on the radio echoed in the empty room.

“Emma, where are you? You’re not answering your cell phone. Give me a call before you begin your excavation.”

She groaned. Corey Chandler would be the death of her. Not the attorney exactly, but his client, whoever that might be. Corey wouldn’t tell who objected to the excavation of the slave quarters and the survey of the cemetery. Emma straightened her shoulders. It would take more than a phone call to stop the project. Besides, it wasn’t like she was going to dig up the cemetery. That was the purpose of the GPR machine—to locate and determine once and for all the number of graves there.

Conflicting reports had abounded for years that bodies had been missed in the research project conducted in 2000, and that bothered Emma. Her goal was to find every grave and make sure each person received the dignity and recognition that had eluded them in life.

It was hard to understand why anyone objected to the research project anyway, but she didn’t have time to worry about Corey’s client tonight. “Come on, Suzy,” she said, deciding the tabby was female, and then grabbed the folder and stuffed it in her backpack.

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