Fatal Descent by Beth Groundwater is the third in the traditional Outdoor Mysteries series featuring guides Mandy Tanner and Rob Juarez (available June 8, 2013).
Mandy Tanner and her fiancé Rob are leading an offseason rafting-climbing trip in Utah’s remote Canyonlands. Experienced guides, Mandy and Rob know they have to keep their cool after one of their group, Alex Anderson, appears to have become bear bait. Walled off from the outside world with eleven shell-shocked clients and miles of Colorado River whitewater ahead, Mandy’s nerves threaten to unravel when she learns that Alex’s death was not the work of a homicidal grizzly. Whether it was a crime of passion or the random act of a psychopath, Mandy fears that if they don’t root out the river rat among them, another camper will be running the rapids in a body bag.
“I could kill him.”
With hands on her hips, Mandy Tanner surveyed the pile of gear heaped in the back room of the outfitter’s building. The rafts, oars and paddles, sleeping bags, mats, and tents were all there, as were the kitchen supplies, water jugs, coolers, portable toilet, first-aid kit, handheld radio transceiver, and myriad other supplies needed for a multi-day rafting trip. But Gonzo, one of the guides and their provisioner, had forgotten to bring some vital equipment—camping lanterns to light their campsites in the evenings.
Mandy swallowed to tamp down the frustration threatening to clog her throat. That meant the only light they would have at night would be thin beams cast by flashlights or headlamps. Could they make do? No, dammit. They had to have at least two lanterns, and preferably a third for backup.
Mandy’s fiancé and business partner, Rob Juarez, gave a shrug. “Gonzo will find some.”
How could Rob be so nonchalant? She gazed at his infuriatingly calm and handsome face. “The clients will start arriving any minute, and I was counting on Gonzo’s jokes to put everyone in a good mood. He’s supposed to be here to meet and greet them instead of running around Moab trying to beg lanterns off another outfitter. With so many outfitters closed for the season, it’ll be tough finding them.”
Contrary to her better judgment, Mandy and Rob had assigned Gonzo Gordon, their best rafting guide, to provision this expedition, their first outside of Colorado. She would have preferred to let Gonzo learn the ropes on a local trip that was less complicated. But Rob had suggested it to show their support of and trust in Gonzo, who was making good progress in his alcohol rehabilitation program. And Gonzo had assured her—multiple times—that he could handle being the “Quartermaster,” as he had dubbed himself.
“‘No problemo’, he kept telling me,” Mandy said as she stared at the equipment pile, “and now look where we are.”
Rob put a firm hand on each of her shoulders and turned her to face him. His puppy-dog brown eyes crinkled with worry as his gaze searched her face. “Yes. Look where we are. We are in Moab, Utah, ready to embark on our first combo rafting and climbing trip. We have twelve paying clients and all the gear we need except for two lousy lanterns.” He cocked his head. “You don’t usually get this stressed out by trip snafus. What’s got mi querida wound up so tight?”
While he waited for an explanation, he massaged her tight shoulders, easing the tension out of them. “Take a deep breath.”
Mandy did, inhaling Rob’s familiar aroma of leather, soap, and the grassy outdoors, and blew the breath out slowly. This was no way to start out. She needed to be relaxed and cheerful for the clients to make sure they felt excited and confident about taking the five-day, hundred-mile trip down the Colorado River. They would travel along the placid waters of Meander Canyon, the whitewater rapids of Cataract Canyon, and a finger of Lake Powell that had flooded lower Cataract Canyon before they took out at Hite Marina. She couldn’t let her own worries cloud the clients’ perceptions of the upcoming adventure.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s not Gonzo’s fault. It’s mine for not going over the manifest with him. I’ve been too distracted to manage the setup for this trip as well as I should have.”
“This is the way it’s going to be as our business grows, Mandy,” Rob responded with frustrating reasonableness. “You’ll have to trust our employees to do their jobs. You can’t do everything. And what’s been distracting you?” He grinned lasciviously. “The handsome hunk you’re going to marry in a few months?”
Mandy finally smiled. She playfully slapped the standing waves tattoo on one of his muscular biceps. “Sure, I can’t keep my hands off your bodacious bod.”
Rob turned his face to show her his profile. “More like bashed-up bod.”
She traced a gentle finger down his crooked nose, accidentally broken by one of his best friends when Rob tried to break up a fist fight between fishermen. “The bashes just make you look more hot, my macho mountain man. No, the problem is the handsome hunk’s mother, who has to talk to me every single bleeding day about the wedding plans.”
[Read the full excerpt of Fatal Descent by Beth Groundwater]