Cover image for Without a trace
Without a trace
Coble, Colleen.
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Publication Information:
Nashville, Tenn. : [Thomas Nelson], [2003]

Physical Description:
x, 289 pages ; 22 cm
A plane crash claimed the lives of her husband and son, but Bree Nichols and Samson, her search and rescue dog, won't rest until they've recovered the lost bodies-or combed every inch of the wilderness trying. Meanwhile, the quiet town of Rock Harbor is disturbed by a violent crime. Bree soon discovers a personal stake in the solving of the murder, and in the course of her investigation, discovers links to her husband's plane crash. Could solving the crime bring her peace with her own loss? Or, more incredibly, reunite her family?
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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
FICTION Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense

On Order



When a plane carrying Bree Nicholls' husband and son disappears, her life changes forever. Her relentless determination to find them starts an investigation that links their disappearance to a violent crime threatening to tear the peaceful town of Rock Harbor apart.

Mystery fans will love this exciting new series from best-selling author Colleen Coble. Set in the untamed beauty of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Rock Harbor Series is full of suspense and romance, drawing you into the life and operation of a canine search-and-rescue team as it unravels the secrets of an enchanting wilderness.

Author Notes

Colleen Cable is a Christian author of historical fiction and romance. She has written over thirty-five novels which have earned her several awards, including the Romance Writers of America RITA, the Holt Medallion, and the 2009 Best Books of Indiana-Fiction award. She was born and raised on a farm in Indiana. Her first books were historical romances set in Wyoming. It took her a year to write her first novel because she continued to work as a full-time receptionist. She writes the Rock Harbor Series, Mercy Falls Series, The Lonestar Series, an dthe Aloha Reef Series.

(Bowker Author Biography)



Chapter One It was days like this, when the sun bounced off Lake Superior with an eye-squinting brilliance, that Bree Nicholls forgot all her qualms about living where the Snow King ruled nine months of the year. There was no other place on earth like the U.P.-Michigan's Upper Peninsula. With Keweenaw Peninsula to the north and Ottawa National Forest to the south, there could be no more beautiful spot in the world. The cold, crystal-clear waters of the northernmost Great Lakes stretched to the horizon as far as she could see. But she'd never find those kids by focusing on the seascape. Pressing her foot to the accelerator, she left the lake behind as she urged her old Jeep Cherokee forward along the rutted dirt track. Bree's best friend, Naomi Heinonen, steadied herself against the door's armrest and looked over her shoulder at the two dogs still safely confined in their kennels. The Kitchigami Wilderness Preserve lay to the east, past Miser, a drive of only fifteen miles or so, but on this washboard road, it took longer than Bree liked. "Don't kill us getting there," Naomi shouted above the road noise. Bree didn't reply. These lost children weren't some vacationers without ties; they were residents of Rock Harbor, two of their own. And night would be here soon. If Naomi were driving, her foot would be heavy on the accelerator too. The preserve was a formidable tract that could swallow up two kids without a trace. The wind churned autumn's red and gold leaves in eddies and blew them across the road like brightly colored tumbleweeds. Equally colorful trees crowded the hills like giant banks of mums. The U.P. in autumn was Bree's favorite time, except when ever-shorter days put strangleholds on their search efforts. M-18 headed on east, but Bree made a sharp turn onto Pakkala Road, which would take them into a heavily forested area. In the spring, motor homes and SUVs pulling campers plied the road on their way to experience some of the last wilderness left in the Midwest. Today the road was practically empty. "Fill me in on what we know," Bree said. "Donovan O'Reilly reported Emily and Timmy missing three hours ago. They were on some outdoor nature thing with their school," Naomi said. Bree knew Donovan O'Reilly-he owned the local Ace Hardware store. His wife had left him and the kids nearly two years ago, and now his eyes had a haunted look, as though he wondered what fate would hand him next. Bree often stopped by Ace to pick up supplies for the ongoing renovation of her lighthouse home, and a friendship of sorts had developed between them. "One of the students said she heard Emily talk about seeing a raccoon," Naomi continued, "so that might be what caused the kids to wander off. It's not much to go on, but they've started searching." She chewed on her lip. "You remember Timmy has diabetes? I wonder when his shot is due." "I was thinking about that." Bree imagined Donovan was out of his mind with worry. "Donovan asked me out last week; did I tell you that?" she asked. She'd been tempted to tell him yes. Her lighthouse echoed with silence, but she had realized it wasn't fair to use someone like Donovan to ward off her loneliness. "I said no, of course." Naomi didn't reply, and Bree looked at her curiously. "What? You don't like him? Didn't he used to be your brother's best friend? You probably know him and the kids pretty well." A flush moved to Naomi's cheeks, and she looked out the window. "That was a long time ago. I only see him at the hardware store now, and I like him fine. Why did you say no?" "I'm not ready. Maybe I never will be." Bree tapped the steering wheel with impatient fingers, wishing the Jeep could go faster over the bumpy, rutted road. Instead, she slowed and turned onto the access road that would take her back to the campground parking lot. As she pulled in, Bree saw people fanning out in a search grid. There was an assortment of searchers, ranging from teenagers like Tommy Lempinen to professional types like Inetta Harris, who was still dressed in her business suit. When one of their own was threatened, Rock Harbor residents pulled together. Bree and Naomi got out, attached leashes to the dogs, and shrugged their arms into their ready-kit backpacks, fully outfitted with first-aid kit, small plastic tarp, energy bars, flashlight, flares, bug repellant, towelettes, compass, Swiss pocketknife, radio, topographic map of the area, canteen, sunglasses, sunscreen, and every other item one was likely to need on a search. A young woman in a brown National Park Service uniform was Bree's first target. "We're the Kitchigami K-9 Search and Rescue team," Bree told her, though that much was printed on the bright orange vests that both the women and the dogs wore. "I'm Bree Nicholls. Who's in charge?" The young woman pointed toward a group of people nearly hidden by a stand of sycamore. "The lead ranger is over there." Bree looked and recognized Donovan's ink-dark hair among them. Bree and Naomi headed toward the group. Donovan saw Bree and broke away. Pain contorted his handsome features. With his black hair and dark blue eyes, Bree had always thought he looked a bit like Pierce Brosnan, though today he was too upset and pale to carry off the James Bond sang-froid. "Please, you've got to find the kids!" His hands trembled as he thrust two small jackets toward her. "They don't even have their jackets on, and it's supposed to get to near freezing tonight." The torment in his eyes spoke of his fear of loss more clearly than his words. "Timmy's shot is overdue now." His voice quavered, and Bree put a comforting hand on his arm. She knew the anxiety he felt. "We'll find them, Donovan. The dogs are well trained, and Samson has a special radar for children." His head snapped up as if mounted on a spring. A dawning hope filled his face. "I'll come with you." How well Bree remembered that overwhelming desire to help. The waiting was the hard part. When her husband's plane went down, taking their son and all her hopes for their future with it, she had felt a crushing need to do something. In her case, there had been nothing to do but try to move on. With any luck, Donovan probably would not be in that situation. She shook her head as she took the jackets from his hand. "You have to stay close to base, Donovan. The kids will be scared when we find them, and you'll need to be in a position to get to them quickly when they're found. Try to stay calm. We still have several hours before sunset. We'll find them." Donovan nodded, but his gaze flickered from Bree to Naomi with a naked appeal in his eyes. "I want to do something." "Pray," Naomi advised. His eyes squeezed shut. "I started that as soon as I learned they were gone," he whispered. Naomi's answer to everything was prayer. Prayer had done little for Bree's own desperate pleas. What use was a God like that? "Let's go," Bree said. As they approached the tree line, a slim, feminine figure stepped out of a stand of jack pine and came toward them. Bree lifted a hand in greeting. She should have known her sister-in-law wouldn't be far from the action. She craved media attention the way the mine owners craved cheap workers. Hilary Kaleva pushed aside the branches barring her way into the clearing as though they were a personal affront. Hilary, Rock Harbor's mayor, was having the mother of all bad-hair days. Her hair, blond like her brother Rob's, was swept up in a formerly elegant French roll, but strands loosened by tree branches now clung damply to her neck. Streaks of mud marred her navy suit, and bits of pine needles clung to the fabric. "It's the poodle," Naomi muttered to Bree. "I'm out of here. I'll wait with the rangers." "Coward," Bree murmured. She wished she could laugh. Rob used to call Hilary his "poodle sister," which Hilary found less than amusing, but Bree and Naomi had always thought the description apt. Hilary could be sweet and loving one moment then turn and bite without provocation. And she talked until Bree grew weary of listening. But she could be just as endearing as a poodle when she wanted to be. From the expression on her face, today wasn't one of those days. Samson woofed at Hilary in greeting and strained at the leash to meet her. The mayor flinched at the sniffing dog, pulling away with a moue of distaste. As if sensing Hilary's animosity, Samson lurched toward Hilary then came alongside Bree and rubbed his nose against her knee. Bree tugged him farther away from her sister-in-law. No sense in upsetting her. Hilary's scowl eased when Bree pulled the dog a safe distance away. "What are you doing here? I thought you were searching the northeast quadrant today." Bree's smile faltered. Hilary always managed to drain her confidence with a relentless determination to bend her to her will. "I was home when the call came in. The brick is crumbling on the tower, and it seemed like a good day to repoint it. I was just about to mix the mortar when Mason called." Bree stopped and chided herself for babbling like a kid caught playing hooky. Maybe it was time they both realized Rob's plane might never be found. Not in the northeast quadrant or any other. The forest had swallowed the Bonanza Beechcraft like Superior could swallow a sinking ship. Hilary's eyes flashed. "You have more important things to do than to repoint the brick on your lighthouse. Let a professional do it." "The last time I checked, my bank balance was screaming for mercy, Hilary." Hilary sighed, and she gave a smile that seemed forced. "I'll pay for it. You promised you'd find them, Bree. It's been nearly a year. Rob's birthday is the day after Thanksgiving. I'm counting on giving him a decent burial by then." Bree wanted to run away from the admonishment. The graves at Rock Harbor Cemetery were as empty as her heart. Even if she found the bodies to fill those graves, it wouldn't change things, but at least maybe then she could bring herself to go there to mourn. Besides, Bree was tiring of Hilary's constant harping on her failure to find them. "Samson and I are doing the best we can, Hilary. But they could be anywhere. Here in the Kitchigami or maybe even down in Ottawa." "My patience is running out." Bree had trained her temper to stay on its leash when she was around Hilary, but some days were harder than others. "I want to find them just as much as you do, Hilary. But I'm not Superwoman." A muscle in Bree's jaw jerked. Hilary didn't understand how hard a task Bree had set up for herself. At least there was still a chance for Donovan's kids. "Look," she finally said, "I need to get on with the search for the O'Reilly children." She turned and rushed into the woods then hurried along the pine-needle path toward Naomi and the group of rangers under the trees. The rush of cool air soothed her hot cheeks. Would she never find them? Never, never, her footsteps answered. A dark-haired man was giving directions. About six feet tall and stocky, he gestured with broad hands that looked tanned and capable. When Bree approached, he stopped talking, and his gaze settled on her. Bree smiled and nodded a hello as she stepped forward with an outstretched hand. "You look like the man I need to see," she said. He looked vaguely familiar, and she wondered if she'd seen him around town. His brown park service uniform matched his hair, and his blue eyes were as keen and intelligent as an Australian shepherd's. She guessed him to be in his early thirties. "I'm Bree Nicholls with my dog, Samson, and this is Naomi Heinonen and her dog, Charley." The blue eyes narrowed when they saw the dogs. "Who called in the SAR?" "The sheriff did," one of the men said. The man pressed his lips together then nodded with obvious reluctance. "I'm Ranger Kade Matthews. I wouldn't have called you in yet, but since you're here we'll try to use you." Kade Matthews. Bree had heard talk of him at the coffee shop. Rumor said he'd given up a promotion that would have taken him to California when his mother died and left him as guardian of his sixteen-year-old sister. It was to his credit that he'd followed his mother's wishes to have his sister finish school here, though Bree pitied the poor girl. Who would want him as a guardian? She'd run into his kind before, law-enforcer types who wanted to run the show their way even if it cost lives. "Has anyone found a trail yet?" Bree's gaze wandered toward the gloom of the thickly wooded forest, and she shuffled her feet. The setup always took too long, in her opinion. While people stood around discussing where to start and how to begin, Samson could be homing in on the scent. She knew organization was important, but there was a limit. Ranger Matthews shook his head. "Not a hint of one. But we're down to the wire here. The little boy's diabetes is a bad case. I've divided the search area into quadrants. The board is over there." He pointed to the trailer set up as a command post. "You and your team can take quadrant two." "We find our dogs more effective if they're allowed to scent on an article of the victim's then follow where the scent leads. Donovan already gave us-" The ranger interrupted with another shake of his head. "It's not an efficient way to search. I need to know who's where." Bree hunched her shoulders and gave Naomi a helpless look. Why did she find it so impossible anymore to speak her mind? When she had first met Rob, her nickname at school was "Brassy Bree" because she had the nerve to do anything she was dared to do. Now she wavered when asked what she wanted to drink. She wanted to argue, but her mouth refused to open. "We've only got a few more hours of daylight left," Ranger Matthews said. "The sheriff is in the camper briefing the searchers. Please join them." Thank goodness Mason was here. Bree left the arrogant ranger and went to find her brother-in-law in the camp. Naomi trailed behind her, pausing to say something to Donovan, and Bree wondered at her friend's reluctance to leave him. The camper sat along the side of the parking lot. It hadn't been leveled and tilted heavily to the right. The silver siding bore scratches and gouges from its many brushes with tree branches and thorny shrubs. The door to the camper opened when as Bree approached and Mason stepped out. "Oh good, you're here," Mason said. Sheriff of Kitchigami County, Mason was thickly built and good-natured, a mellow, golden retriever sort of man instead of the pit bull some in Kitchigami County thought a sheriff ought to be. "Who's Attila the Hun?" Bree asked. Mason frowned. "Who?" "The ranger honcho. Kade Matthews." "He's a good man. You have a problem with him?" "He's insisting on a grid search. That will take forever," Bree said. Naomi joined her finally, and Bree thought she looked a little flushed. Mason shook his head. "I'll handle Kade. You two take this insulin for the boy and find those kids." He handed Bree a syringe. Bree took the insulin and tucked it into her ready-pack. The hormone was a stark reminder of the urgency of the search. Tomorrow wouldn't be good enough-they had to find those kids tonight. She knelt beside Samson and Charley and held the jackets Donovan had given her under their noses. The jackets had been contaminated with other scents, but Samson had worked under these kinds of adverse circumstances before, and she had confidence in her dog. To help the dogs, she had them sniff the insides of the jackets where there was a greater likelihood of strong scent untainted by handling. Samson whined and strained at the leash. Bree released his lead and dropped her arm. "Search!" she commanded. Samson bounded toward the trees. Charley plunged his nose into the jacket again then raised his muzzle and whined. Naomi unclipped Charley's leash, and he raced after Samson. Both dogs ran back and forth, their muzzles in the air. The dogs weren't bloodhounds but air scenters. They worked in a "Z" pattern, scenting the air until they could catch a hint of the one scent they sought. Samson's tail stiffened, and he turned and raced toward the creek. "He's caught it!" Bree said, running after her dog. Naomi followed Charley. Bree heard the ranger shout as he realized they were disobeying his instructions, but then the sounds of people and cars fell away as though they had slipped into another world. The forest engulfed them, and the rustling of the wind through the trees, the muffled sounds of insects and small animals, and the whispering scent of wet mud and leaf mold all welcomed Bree as though she'd never been away. In spite of their familiarity, Bree knew the welcome was just a facade. The North Woods still guarded its secrets from her. ~~~ After nearly two hours, Bree was hot and itchy. She started to sit on a fallen log, then the drone of honeybees inside alerted her, and she avoided it, choosing instead to rest on a tree stump to catch her breath. Though the bees were sluggish this time of year, she didn't want to take any chances. Naomi thrashed her way through the vegetation as she rushed to catch up with Bree and the dogs. Samson had lost the scent about ten minutes ago, and he crisscrossed the clearing, searching for the lost trail with his muzzle in the air. Bree unfastened a canteen from her belt and took a gulp of water. Though warm, the water washed the bitter taste of insect repellant from her tongue. She dropped her backpack onto the ground and pulled out a small bag of pistachios. Cracking the nuts, she tossed the shells onto the ground. She munched the salty nutmeats and took another swig of water. Naomi came up behind her, short of breath. "Anything?" She pushed away a lock of hair that had escaped her braid. Naomi was like a cocker spaniel with her soft brown hair and compassionate eyes-and like a spaniel, just as persistent. Her spirit never flagged, and she always managed to transfer her optimism to Bree. Bree shook her head and held out the bag of nuts to Naomi. "Want some?" Naomi wrinkled her nose. "I don't know how you can stand to eat those things. Give me walnuts or pecans, not those funny green things. You eat so many of them, we'd never need search dogs to find you; we'd just follow the shell trails." Bree grinned and put the bag of nuts back in her bag. She screwed the lid back onto the canteen and fastened it to the belt around her waist. "Time to get moving again." "Charley's lost the trail," Naomi said. Charley nosed aimlessly among a patch of wildflowers while Samson thrust his head into the stream running to their right. "Maybe the other searchers are having better luck." Bree snapped her fingers, and Samson came to her. He shook himself, and droplets of water sprayed her jeans. She knelt and took his shaggy head in her hands and stared into his dark eyes. "I know you're trying, buddy," she whispered. "But can you try just a little harder?" Samson's curly tail swished the air, and he licked her chin as if to say he'd do what he could. And Bree knew he would. As a search dog, Samson was in a class by himself. Bree knew dogs. From the time she could barely toddle, she'd had a dog. When she and Rob had lived in Oregon, she'd been introduced to K-9 Search and Rescue, and she knew it was what she was meant to do. Margie, her first dog, had been a pro too, but she'd had a stroke three years ago, about six months after Samson had come along. She'd never seen a dog with as much heart as Samson. His markings and size betrayed his German shepherd lineage, but his curly coat was all chow. Since the day she'd found him in a box by the river, barely alive and not yet four weeks old, his gaze had spoken to her more clearly than any human words could. When he'd turned his head that day and tried to lick her hand, she lost her heart. There was a special bond between her and Samson, and he loved search and rescue as much as she did. Together they'd been on search missions all over the country as part of the FEMA team. He whined and sniffed the air as if determined not to let her down. "If Samson can't find the kids, we might as well all go home," Naomi muttered. "He could find a flea in a hay field." Bree grinned. "The fleas seem to find him." But she knew Naomi was right. Samson was special. She wanted him to prove it today. Up ahead, Samson began to bark and then raced away. Bree's adrenaline kicked into overdrive. "He's found the scent again." Her fatigue forgotten, she followed the dogs. Excerpted from Without a Trace by Colleen Coble All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.