The Surviving Girls

By: Katee Robert

CHAPTER ONE

Lei Zhang had never trusted the woods. Not from the first time her parents dragged her on a camping trip when she was seven in an effort to do what normal people did. Certainly not now, when she knew all too well what the evil forests were capable of hiding. The trees had a way of closing a person off from the rest of the world, even a few hundred yards from a well-traveled road. Out here, one could almost believe their actions didn’t have consequences—that nothing they did would ever be discovered.

Secrets. The forest is full of secrets.

It was her job to help uncover those secrets.

Penance, some called it. Lei just called it her job—her purpose.

She forced herself to drag her attention away from the lake her German Shepherd–Great Pyrenees mix, Saul, had led her to. He’d found something, which meant it was time for his reward. Saul was smarter than any dog had a right to be, but that didn’t mean he cared about the conflicting feelings that rose in her with every search they did.

A successful search meant there was a body at the end of it.

She crouched down and stroked Saul’s dark fur. “You did good, boy.” Because of him and Lei, there would be a family who got closure. She didn’t have to wait to see what the divers would find to know that. Saul was never wrong.

Lei, on the other hand, was wrong far too often.

Not this time.

She threw the ball for him; the joyous wiggle his big body gave lightened her mood a little bit. It didn’t quite make her forget the divers slipping into the water or the uneasy murmur of the cops gathered on the shoreline, but her search was over. Right now, her only priority was rewarding her dog for a job well done. He didn’t care that a successful hunt meant someone had been brutally murdered and had their body dumped. For Saul, the joy was the search—and playing with his ball afterward.

He dropped the bright-red globe at her feet and turned in a quick circle, a doggy grin on his face. Lei picked it up and tossed it again, careful to aim well away from the lake and the path she and Saul had taken here.

Evidence.

Technically, she could leave at any time—her report would be filed later—but she needed to confirm they brought up a body. Needed to know the job was fulfilled. Needed to bear witness.

Sometimes it felt like she’d been bearing witness for twelve long years, ever since she opened that window . . .

Saul whined, and Lei gave herself a sharp shake. “You’re right. No use thinking about that. Not now.” Not when they had a hike back down the trail ahead of them. It would take less time to hike out than it had to hike in because Saul wasn’t tracking.

The sheriff strode over, looking ten years older than when he’d initially contacted Lei for her help. He yanked off his wide-brimmed hat and scrubbed a hand over his thinning gray hair. “That girl deserved better than this.”

“They always do.”

He frowned at her, as if trying to decide if she was joking. Seeming satisfied she wasn’t out of line, he hooked his fingers into a belt almost hidden by his overflowing stomach and huffed out a strained laugh. “Figure you’re used to it by now, huh?”

Lei tensed. It never failed; someone always brought up her past during these searches. Cops had long memories, longer by far than the even more dogged media cycle or true-crime fan. She worked hard to ensure that the legacy she left behind wasn’t that of a victim. It seemed like every time she turned around, she faced down some mention of the night her life had taken a hard right turn into a nightmare there was no escaping.

But she had escaped.

She hadn’t let that bastard win. She hadn’t curled up in a ball and let life go on without her, or slipped into a drugged haze and become a living zombie. She’d lived.

She was a goddamn survivor.

But then the sheriff’s words processed, and she forced herself to relax. He’s not talking about that past. He’s talking about Saul. “It is what we do.” Find the lost ones. Give closure. Do their part to battle the evil that seemed to crop up in the most unexpected places.

Like a cute fraternity boy . . .

Stop it.

He replaced his hat, still looking uneasy. “You’re going to want to head back to the road. It’ll be dark before long.”