Noah chuckled. “It wasn’t too bad. I don’t get to run full out much, so I got to blow my car out a little on the way.” He flashed a smile at me as he said it. “You alright, Chloe?”

I nodded. “I’m good. Just a little shook up.”

“Show me what you found, alright?”

I took him outside, Brandon hovering at my back the whole time. He took pictures of the ring where it hung, the surrounding area, and then used tweezers to pull the ring from the branch and put it in a bag.

“You and I both know that this is going to come back with his prints on it, especially since you can ID the ring as something you wore once. I’ll do what I can, standard procedure and all, but there’s not much we can do with this unless we knew where he was. We’ve already been looking for him and you’ve got the CPO against him, which he’s already broken.” Noah looked apologetic.

“It’s okay, Noah. I know that and completely understand. I just wish that he’d be found so I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder. I don’t know why I started feeling secure…I guess it was when they said they’d had reports of him in Texas.” I shrugged again, feeling helpless about the whole situation.

“Is this the first time you’ve been out here in a while?” Noah asked me.

“Since last weekend when we mowed and weed-eated. I didn’t get out here to pull weeds, though, so I couldn’t tell you when he put that there.” I paused, a thought crystalizing in my mind. “You know, that night that Emma went to the hospital when she was in labor with Everly, something happened that night. I mean, not really something, but definitely something. I took the dogs outside after Brandon called to tell me the baby was here. It was maybe, I don’t know, two or three a.m.? I could look on my phone and tell you exactly if I needed to. Anyway, Doug and the pups were here and Doug started acting weird, put his head down and growled at the fence, all the hair on his back up on end. The pups did it, too.”

That got Brandon’s attention. “And you’re just mentioning this now?” he asked me incredulously.

“I’m sorry, but it kind of slipped my mind with all the babies and everything.” I turned back to Noah. “I didn’t see anything. It was dark and the fence is six feet high, but…I don’t know. I had shivers go down my spine when the dogs growled because they acted like they knew something was wrong. It felt like something was wrong. I went in and locked everything down, set the alarm again, and checked the windows to see if I saw anything or anyone, but there was nothing.”

Noah jerked his chin towards the backyard. “Show me where the dogs were going crazy.”

I took him through the house and the screened in patio, showing him where I was standing and then where the dogs had been when they’d gone off. He checked around a bit and then asked to go around the back of the fence. Brandon took him back there, but he asked me to stay where the dogs were so he could line it up from the other side of the fence.

I heard their muffled footsteps on the backside of the fence and then the silence was broken by Brandon.

“Mother fucker!”

I heard Noah’s voice but I couldn’t make out his words. Then I heard Brandon again.

“Chloe, come out here, please.”

I swallowed hard as a frisson of fear sent chills over my skin, even in the summer heat. I unlocked the gate at the side of the house and rounded the fence to the back. The house butted up to a creek about fifty feet back, and then there were a bunch of trees. The neighbors’ yards on either side of the house weren’t fenced in, so there was easy access to the back of my property behind the fence.

“Yeah?” I asked them, trying to keep calm. My voice only shook a little, which I prided myself on.

“He was out here, baby,” Brandon said. His words came out on a growl and I could see that he was trying to keep his anger in check.

I looked at Noah for confirmation, not that I really needed it. “He was?”

“He was, or someone was, at least. The grass back here is all trampled. You didn’t notice when you mowed the last couple of times?” he asked.

Brandon answered. “No, she wouldn’t have because I mowed and I didn’t even pay attention. I generally mow first and then weed-eat, and that close to the fence I’m usually more worried about not running into it rather than anything else. Damnit!”

“Hey, it’s okay, man. You didn’t know. But it looks like the grass is freshly crushed, like he’s been here recently. And that’s not all.” He knelt and pulled up a small square of paper that was half buried in the grass.

He glanced at me with a worried look, waiting for me to nod at him before he continued. “I’m getting tired of waiting. Let the games begin. I spy with my little eye…something red.” He looked up at me, eyebrows raised in question. “Does that make any sense to you?”

“No…I don’t know what he means, unless…I don’t know. Maybe I was wearing a red shirt that night I was standing out here? Or since then, maybe?” I threw my hands up in frustration. “I just want this to be over! Why the hell did they let him out on probation anyway?”

Brandon grabbed me and hugged me to his chest, murmuring soothingly to me. Noah reached out and patted my shoulder.

“We’ll figure it out, Chloe. Somehow.” Noah sounded sure, but I could hear the worry behind it. “I’m gonna take this with me and write it all up. I’m also gonna have patrols stepped up around this area, especially around your house. If I can swing it, too, I’m gonna get tech out here to install some hidden cameras behind the fence to see if we can catch him back here, or at least to see where he’s coming from. Okay?”

Brandon and I both nodded.

We made our way around front and said our goodbyes, Noah promising to get back with us and let us know something as soon as he could.

We weren’t sure what he could let us know about, other than whether or not they were going to do the cameras. He pulled away and left us standing in the driveway. Brandon grabbed my arm and pulled me into the house, locking the door and setting the alarm behind us.

I slouched into the armchair and pulled my legs up, hugging my knees to my chest as I watched Brandon pace back and forth in front of me. He kept rubbing the back of his head with his hand over and over again which, if I didn’t already know that was his tell, would have let me know he was extremely agitated.

He stopped suddenly, his gaze zeroing in on me and I could see the wheels turning in his mind. He confirmed it when he said, “What if we go away?”

“What?” I asked him, confused.

“You and I could just go away for a couple of weeks.”

He said it decisively, nodding his head like it was a done deal. I shook my head ‘no’ at him. He quirked a brow at me and frowned.

“What do you mean no?”

“I mean no because I’m not running from him. I want him caught. He’s here, he’s going to come back around, obviously, because he’s trying to rattle me. He wants to catch me off guard so he can get me back, even though it’s never going to happen. But that means, if I’m here, he’s accessible. I’m not here, he’s not here. No one knows where he’d be. Get me?” I asked it gently.