"How did your counselor friends find this guy?" Kelly whispered to Jayleen as they entered a corridor.
"My friend, Jerry, is director of the program that helps bring in the vagrants who're trying to put their lives back together. Jerry met with some of them yesterday, on Sunday, and straight out asked if anyone remembered seeing a young blonde girl wandering the river trail a couple of weeks ago. This morning, one of the guys came up to Jerry and admitted he'd seen someone that night. A young blonde girl."
"Wow, that's great news." Kelly glanced through the doors as they walked along the corridor.
"Here we are," Jayleen indicated. "Now, better hold back and let him tell his story. He's kind of skittish. He's one of the ones who's been out on his own for a while. Only this last year has he started wanting to make some changes, Jerry said." She opened a metal office door and motioned Kelly to enter.
A small man sat in a grey padded office chair beside a desk, holding a coffee mug. He could have been anywhere from forty to seventy years ago, judging from the lines and wrinkles Kelly saw on his weather-beaten face. His hair was black and gray and shaggy and grew down his neck. A tall slender balding man stood beside him.
"Jerry, Malcolm," Jayleen said, nodding to the tall balding man then to the seated one. "This is Kelly. She's a family friend of the young girl who died."
Kelly played along with Jayleen's exaggeration. "Thanks for inviting me."
"Hey, Kelly, I'm glad you could join us," Jerry said. "Malcolm, here, told us that he'd actually seen a young blonde girl on the trail one night. Do you want to tell Kelly the story you told me earlier, Malcolm?" Jerry sat in a desk chair beside the older man who was dressed in a red and black checked flannel shirt, faded work pants, and work boots. "Do you need a re-fill of coffee?" Jerry pointed to the ceramic mug in Malcolm's hand.
Malcolm glanced up at Kelly. She gave him her friendliest smile. Malcolm looked back at Jerry. "No, I'm okay. Did you find out what they're having for dinner tonight?"
Jerry's broad face spread with a smile. "I sure did. It's elk stew. One of our local hunters donated his share of a bull elk from last fall's hunting season. We've been parceling it out slowly because it's so good."
"Best thing you'll ever taste, next to prime beef," Jayleen decreed as she sank into a chair beside Jerry. She caught Kelly's eye and motioned to an empty chair.
"Damn right," Malcolm agreed, then drained his coffee.
He glanced at Kelly again. "You that girl's sister or something?"
Kelly settled into the chair Jayleen indicated and quickly searched for something plausible to answer. "No, I'm just a close friend of the family. They're all broken up over Holly's death, and I'm trying to find out anything I can that might bring them some peace of mind."
"Holly. That's the girl's name?" Malcolm asked.
Kelly nodded, noticing Malcolm's watery blue eyes.
"Why don't you tell Kelly what you saw along the trail that night," Jerry suggested, leaning over, clasped hands between his knees.
Malcolm shrugged then put his empty mug on a nearby office table. "Don't know if it'll be any help, but I'll tell you anyway." He crossed his arms and sank back into his chair. "It was Friday night before last. The Mission was filled with families, so some of us single men in line volunteered to sleep outside. Hell, we've been doing it for years. Plus, weather's still good. The cold hasn't settled in yet. So, I took my bedroll and headed down to a section of the trail that's kind of secluded and quiet. Lots of trees there beside the river, so you can bed down under the trees and nobody's the wiser."
"What part of the trail was that, Malcolm?" Jerry asked. "How close to the golf course were you?"
"Ohhhhh, right next to it. During daylight you can see the golf course through the trees on that side of the trail."
"You slept on the river side, right?"
"Yep. I have some favorite spots beneath the trees. Nobody can see you from the trail, because of the leaves and brush. Anyway, I bedded down and went to sleep."
"About what time was that, Malcolm?" Jerry continued.
"Ohhhhh, about ten o'clock or so. It was pretty warm that night so I went right to sleep."
"What woke you up?"
"It was that girl's voice," Malcolm said. "You get used to the sounds of traffic at night, but you're not used to other sounds. You know, high pitched voices like that girl's."
"What'd she say?" Kelly couldn't help asking.
Malcolm shrugged again. "Couldn't tell. All it did was wake me up. That's when I looked over my shoulder and saw them."
That word jumped out at Kelly. "Them? You mean she wasn't alone?"
"Nope. A man was with her. Looked like he was helping her walk down the trail. She wasn't too steady on her feet. I figured she was drunk. They were coming from the other end of the trail, near the crossroads."
Kelly recognized that as the crossroads of the avenue that ran beside the knitting shop and golf course and the large main east-west thoroughfare that ran through Fort Connor. The river trail ran underneath the intersection itself and came to a parking lot on the other side of the street.
"Could you see what the man looked like?" Kelly asked, leaning forward.
Malcolm shook his head. "Nope. He was wearing a dark jacket with the hood up. He was tall, that's all I noticed."
"You saw them walk along the trail and then what?" Jerry probed.
"The man walked the girl over to a rock and set her down on it. Then he walked back the way he came. Left the girl on the rock."
Kelly caught Jayleen's questioning gaze. "What'd the girl do? Did she call out or anything? Did she follow him?"
Malcolm shook his head. "She tried to. She got up off the rock and started walking a couple of steps then fell right down on the ground. She lay real still, so I figured she was passed out. I rolled over and went back to sleep."
"The man didn't come back for her?"
Again, he shrugged. "If he did, I didn't see him."
"Was the girl still there in the morning when you woke up?" Jerry asked.
This time, Malcolm looked down and shifted in his seat. "Yeah, she was. Some guys were standin' over her, talkin' real loud. One of them saw me and asked who she was. I played dumb and said I'd never seen her before. I didn't want them to think I was involved. That's why I never said nothing to anybody until now. I don't want no trouble with the cops. No, sir!" He gave an emphatic shake of his head.
Kelly watched Malcolm. His apprehensive glance darted from Jerry to Jayleen to her. She couldn't tell if he was telling the truth or not, but Jerry and Jayleen seemed confident he was. And they both had a lot more experience with people who've been on the skids in life. Kelly bowed to their opinions.
Jerry reached over and gave a reassuring pat on Malcolm's back. "That's really good of you to come forward, Malcolm. Now, maybe, the police can find out who the guy was that left Holly on the trail that night."
Malcolm visibly flinched. "Damn. I hate talkin' to the cops. Can you stay with me, Jerry? I start to break out in a sweat when I see a uniform. They'll think I had something to do with her dying."
His comment made Kelly curious. "Were you still there when the ambulance came?"
Malcolm looked at her like she had two heads. "Hell, no! They'd have taken me in for questioning. We all skedaddled out of there. Joe went over to the Mission and told them a girl was lying passed out on the trail."
Jerry put his hand on Malcolm's shoulder. "Don't worry, Malcolm. I'll stay with you whenever someone comes to question you. I promise."
Malcolm looked at him with obvious relief. "Thanks, Jerry. Have you called them yet?"
"I'll call them now. I wanted to wait until Kelly had a chance to hear your story first. That way, she can let her family know if she thinks it'll help them." Jerry looked at Kelly, his doubt evident.
"Thank you, Malcolm," Kelly said as she stood up. "I really appreciate your telling me this. At least I have something to help explain how Holly got down there on the trail."
"That took some guts, Malcolm," Jayleen added as she rose. "Gotta hand it to you."
Malcolm dropped his gaze to the floor and shrugged. "Well, you guys have always been straight with me. Thought I'd return the favor."
"You done good, Malcolm," Jerry said, clapping him on the shoulder.