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"Goddamn, son of a bitch."
Ivor Hicks usually didn't mind the cold, but he didn't like the thought that he was being forced to hike in this section of the mountains after the recent blizzard. For the love of God, there could be an avalanche if he coughed too hard, and he was liable to 'cause his lungs felt heavy, as if he might be coming down with something.
Probably from the damned aliens, he decided, though he quickly rid himself of the thought. Criminy, no one wanted to believe that he'd been abducted in the late seventies, used for an experiment that involved his lungs, blood and testicles. The blasted ETs had left his drained and exhausted body in a snowbank two miles from his mountain home. When he'd come out of the drug-induced coma, he'd found himself half frozen, lying in his jockey shorts, an empty bottle of rye whiskey on the other side of a hollowed-out log that was home to a porcupine and beetles. But not one of them damned law enforcement boys wanted to listen to him.
At the time, the deputy he'd complained to, a smartass kid of about thirty, hadn't even bothered to swallow his smile of disbelief. He just took a quick statement, then hauled Ivor to the local clinic for treatment of frostbite and exposure. Doc Norwood hadn't been so outwardly disbelieving, but when he'd sent Ivor to the hospital in Missoula he'd suggested psychiatric testing.
They'd all just played into the aliens' hands. Crytor, the leader of the pod, who had teleported him into their mother ship, was probably still laughing at the earthlings' simpleton explanation of alcohol, dehydration and hallucinations that the doctors were sure had been the cause of his "confusion."
Well, they were just dumb asses all around.
Using a walking stick, Ivor trudged up Cross Creek Pass, his hiking boots crunching in the snow, the sky as wide and blue as an ocean, not that he'd ever really seen one, but he'd seen himself Flathead Lake, which was one big-ass lake. Must be the same, only much, much larger, if those televised fishing excursions on the Fish and Game Channel could be believed.
Breathing heavily, he trudged up the trail, winding through an outcropping of snow-dusted boulders and ancient hemlocks with branches that appeared to scrape the sky. He stopped to catch his breath, watching it fog and cursing the aliens who had forced him up the mountain trail when his arthritis was acting up. The pain now was exacerbated, he was certain, by the experiments they'd done on him and the invisible chip they'd slipped into his body.
"I'm goin', I'm goin'," he said when he felt that little pinch at his temple, the prod they used to urge him on, the one that had pushed him out of bed before the sun climbed over the mountain crest. Hell, he hadn't even had a swallow of coffee, much less a sip of Jim Beam. Crytor, damn his orange reptilian hide, was a more intense taskmaster than Lila had been, God rest her soul. He made the sign of the cross over his chest in memory of his dead wife, though he was not a Catholic, never had been and had no intention of becoming one. It just seemed like the right, reverent thing to do.
Even Crytor didn't seem to mind.
Through a stand of fir he noticed elk tracks and dung in the snow and wished he'd brought his rifle, though it wasn't hunting season. Who would ever find out?
Well, besides Crytor.
Rounding a bend in the path, he caught a glimpse of the valley below.
And he stopped short, nearly slipping.
His seventy-six-year-old heart almost quit on him as his gaze, as good as it ever was, focused on a solitary pine tree and the naked woman lashed to the trunk.
"Holy Mother Mary," he whispered and headed faster down the hillside, his walking stick digging deep through the snow to the frozen ground below as he hurried downward.
No wonder the aliens had wanted him to see this.
They'd probably abducted her, did what they wanted and left her here in this frigid, unpopulated valley. That's what they did, you know.
He wished he had a cell phone, though he thought he'd heard that the damned things didn't work up here. Too remote. No towers. He slid and caught himself, moving quickly along the familiar trail. She was probably still alive. Just stunned into submission. He could wrap her in his jacket, and hike back and get help.
Digging his stick deep and fast into the snow, he descended rapidly, hurrying down the switchbacks to the valley floor, where a snow owl hooted softly in an otherwise eerily quiet canyon.
"Hey!" he cried, half-running, nearly out of breath. "Hey!" But before he reached the woman strapped to the tree, he stopped short and froze.
This was no return of a body from an alien ship.
This was the work of the very devil.
The hairs on the back of his wrinkled neck lifted.
This woman, an Asian woman, was as dead as dead can be. Her skin was blue, snow dusting her dark, shiny hair, her eyes staring without life. Blood lay on her skin, dark and frozen. A gag covered her lips. The bindings strapping her to the tree had cut deep bruises and welts into her arms and chest and waist. Not quite hog-tied. But close enough.
Somewhere a tree branch groaned with the weight of snow and Ivor felt as if unseen eyes might be watching.
He'd never felt more fear in his life.
Not even as Crytor's prisoner.
Again, wishing he had his hunting rifle, he stepped backward slowly, easing out the way he'd come, until, at the edge of the mountain trail, he turned and started running as fast as his legs dared carry him.
Who or whatever had done this to the woman was the purest and deadliest form of evil.
And it lingered.
God in heaven, it was still here.
Detective Selena Alvarez dropped into the chair at her desk. It wasn't yet seven, but she had piles of paperwork to sift through, and the unsolved case of the two dead women found nearly a month apart, linked by the way their bodies had been left in the snow, was uppermost in her mind.
The images of those bodies — naked, tied to trees, gagged and left in the snow to die — chilled her to her bones. For years any dead bodies discovered in and around Pinewood County were few and far between, usually the result of hunting, fishing, skiing or hiking accidents. One time a jogger was mauled nearly to death by a cougar, and there had always been the domestic disputes gone bad, fueled by alcohol or drugs, a firearm or other weapon in handy reach. But murder had never been common in this part of the country. Multiple murders rarer still. A serial killer in this neck of the woods? Unheard of.
But one was here.
She had only to look on her computer screen and see the dead bodies of Theresa Charleton and Nina Salvadore, two women with little in common, to know that a psychopath was either nearby or had passed through.
She clicked her mouse and the dead body of the first victim, Theresa Charleton, came into view on her monitor. A few more clicks and she split the screen with several images: the woman's driver's license picture, procured from the Idaho DMV; a photo of the wrecked green Ford Eclipse, labeled Crime Scene One; and another shot of a lonely hemlock tree in a snowy valley with the woman lashed to the trunk, tagged as Crime Scene Two. The final image was of the note left nailed above the woman's head: her initials, T C, in block letters, written below a star that had been not only drawn on the white paper but also carved into the bole of the tree about five inches above her head. The lab had found traces of blood in the carving, blood belonging to the victim.
Alvarez's jaw tightened as she stared at what had been left of the schoolteacher from Boise. She'd had no known enemies. Married for two years, no children, the husband devastated. He'd claimed she'd been visiting her parents in Whitefish and his story had checked out. The victim's parents and brother were beside themselves with grief and anger. Her brother had insisted the police "find the monster who did this!" "We're working on it," Alvarez said to herself as she opened a file and saw a copy of the note.
The star, similar to the one cut into the tree over the victim's head, had been drawn high over the letters:
Why? Alvarez wondered. What did it mean to the killer? The sheriff's department had checked on the people who had seen her last and come up with nothing so far. They'd thought the incident was a single murder — until the next victim had been found in an identical situation.
Again Alvarez clicked her mouse and another image, so similar to the first that it turned her blood to ice, flickered onto the screen. A naked woman with long dark hair was bound to the trunk of a fir tree. Different location, but eerily similar.
Victim number two was Nina Salvadore, a single mother and computer programmer from Redding, California. She, too, had been found tied to a tree in a tiny valley within the wilds of the Bitterroots. Her body had been two miles from her vehicle, a Ford Focus wrecked into a nearly unidentifiable crush of red paint, metal and plastic, found several weeks earlier.
The star cut into the tree over Salvadore's body was located in a slightly different position in relation to her body, and the note that had been left at the scene was slightly different as well. This time, though the star had been drawn on a standard-size piece of printer paper, new letters had been written on it. It appeared that both sets of the victims' initials had been interwoven:
T SC N
Was the killer playing with them? Trying to communicate? If he wanted credit for both killings, why not write T C N S, the order of the women's first and last names? Why mix the initials up?
Alvarez narrowed her eyes. She was a computer wizard and had run several programs trying to find out if the four letters meant anything. So far, she'd come up dry.
"Bastard," she muttered, trying to imagine what kind of monster would do something so brutal and cruel as to leave a woman to freeze in the wilds of Montana in the winter.
Interviews with those closest to Nina Salvadore had provided no additional clues. She'd been on her way back to California, though she'd planned to meet up with friends in Oregon first, and had driven from Helena, Montana, where she'd been visiting her sister. The missing persons report had been filed in Oregon first, when she hadn't arrived in the small town of Seaside and had been missing for twenty-four hours. In Helena, Nina's sister had filed a similar report that same day.
Despite combing the crime scenes, bodies and wrecked cars, and working with police in the hometowns where the women had lived, the department had no suspects.
Or victims who had been targeted and stalked?
Alvarez bit her lip and found no answers.
After staring at the screen for a few minutes, she gave up, left her cubicle and made her way down a long hallway. She veered to the left and through a doorway to the lunchroom, a windowless area complete with small kitchen and a few scattered tables.
A glass pot of congealing coffee sat on a warmer. Left over from the night shift. Selena dumped the dark liquid and the pre-measured packet of grounds and started over, rinsing the pot, filling the reservoir with water and finding a fresh package of dark roast in a drawer.
All the while the coffee machine sputtered, dripped and brewed, she considered the bizarre killings. The lab had found traces of bark in both victims' hair. The wood splinters matched those of the trees to which they had been lashed. The bruises and contusions on their bodies had been consistent with being tethered to the trees, and they each had a cut or two from a knife, nothing deep, just a quick little slice, or prick, as if whoever had been urging them to their ultimate place of death had prodded them along.
But other wounds had begun to heal, according to the autopsies. Injuries consistent with what had been sustained in their car wrecks had begun to heal: broken metacarpals, cracked ribs and a fractured radius in Theresa Charleton's case; a broken clavicle and dislocated knee for Nina Salvadore. Each woman's bones appeared to have been set, her abrasions tended to. Salvadore even appeared to have had recent stitches on her right cheek and an area of scalp where some hair had been shaved away.
Where had he kept them?
Why bring them somewhat back to health only to leave their naked bodies out in the weather? Why heal them only to let them die?
According to the ME, neither woman had been sexually molested.
The case was odd. Nerve-wracking. And Alvarez had spent dozens of hours of overtime trying to get into the killer's head. To no avail.
The FBI was being consulted. Field agents from Salt Lake City had come and left again.
On the kitchen counter the coffee machine gurgled and sputtered its last drops just about the same time Joelle Fisher, secretary and receptionist for the department, breezed in.
"Oh, you already made the coffee. That's my job, you know," she said with one of her ever-present smiles. Nearing sixty, Joelle looked ten years younger except for the fact that she insisted upon wearing her platinum hair in some kind of teased hairdo reminiscent of the fifties screen sirens Alvarez remembered from watching old movies with her mother.
"Yeah, I know."
Joelle's pretty face squinched up as she quickly picked up some old napkins and stir sticks left on one of the tables, then wiped the surface. "You'll get me in trouble with the sheriff."
Pouring herself a cup, Selena didn't think Dan Grayson gave a flying fig about who made the coffee, but she kept her views to herself. Joelle's smug self-satisfaction about all things domestic was no big deal. If she considered the kitchen her little kingdom, so be it.
"Hey!" Cort Brewster, the undersheriff, strode in with a newspaper tucked under his arm.
"How's it going?" Alvarez asked, offering him just a hint of a smile. Brewster was a good guy, happily married, the father of four, but there was something about him that put her on edge a bit. A glint in his eye, maybe, or the way his smile didn't always meet his gaze. Or maybe she was being supersensitive. Brewster had never done anything untoward to her, or to anyone else in the department as far as she knew.
"If the coffee's not to your liking, I'm sorry," Joelle said, flinging up her hands in resignation. "It was, er, already brewing when I got here." Her perfect little pink-tinged lips puckered a bit and her eyebrows shot up as if she were a schoolmarm pointing out that little Timmy had been playing with himself under the table.
"My fault if the coffee tastes like sewer sludge," Alvarez admitted. "I made it."
Brewster laughed as he found a ceramic mug in the cupboard and poured himself a tall cup.
Joelle, miffed, strutted out of the kitchen, her high heels tapping indignantly down the hallway.
"Looks like you stepped on someone's toes this morning," Brewster observed.
"It's every morning." Selena poured herself a cup. "Working here should be considered hazardous duty."
"Meeeow," Brewster murmured into his cup.
"Comes with the territory." She shrugged and headed to her desk. Her shift wasn't due to start for another forty-five minutes, but a few of the night crew were trading stories and packing up.
Her phone rang and she answered it with a grunt of acknowledgment as she sat down.
"Alvarez? This is Peggy Florence in dispatch. I've got a call I think you should hear."
From the tone of the dispatcher's voice, Selena guessed what was coming and braced herself.
"Came in two minutes ago. From Ivor Hicks. If he can be believed, we've got ourselves another one."
"... and it's another sub-zero-degree day in this part of Montana, blizzard conditions on the roads and another storm rolling in this afternoon." The radio announcer sounded way too chipper considering the news he was delivering. "Coming up after this, we've got an extensive road report and school-closure list, so stay with us at KKAR at ninety-seven point six on your FM dial."
He segued into the first notes of "Winter Wonderland."
Regan Pescoli buried her face into her pillow and groaned at the thought of rousing. Bing Crosby crooning about the joys of snow wasn't exactly what she wanted to hear, not this morning. Her head was thundering, her mouth tasted like garbage and the last thing she needed was to roll out of a nice warm bed and head to the sheriff's department office where all hell was surely breaking loose with this last storm.
Besides, it was still only November. There was still a lotta time before Christmas.
She slapped at the damned radio without opening her eyes, missed and realized belatedly that she wasn't in her own bed. Holy crap! Lifting an eyelid, she focused on her surroundings only to recognize the scarred, shabby furniture of room seven at the North Shore, a small, local motel where she stayed overnight with her sometime lover. Never mind that the low-slung concrete-block motel was situated at the south end of town, near the county line, and there was no shore, no river, no lake and certainly no ocean for miles.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Alvarez & Pescoli Series"
Copyright © 2011 Susan Lisa Jackson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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