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.”
“Ah-ha.” He gave a knowing nod of his square bronzed chin. “The truth comes out.”
Mandy’s parents had been killed in a car accident the summer before her senior year of high school. So after Rob’s mother finished gushing over the news of their engagement, she offered to help Mandy plan the wedding.
“At first I was really glad to have her help, because I know a lot more about planning a rafting trip,” Mandy swept an arm toward the pile of supplies, “than a wedding. But, sheesh, all the details are driving me crazy. The colors, the cake, the bridesmaid dresses and gifts, the meanings of the damn flowers—”
Rob stopped her with a kiss, which deepened into a long, savoring smooch that warmed her to her toes. She couldn’t help but respond in kind. Finally he pulled back but kept his arms around her, his hands caressing her back. “Mama is so excited. She hasn’t planned a wedding before.”
“But your sister was married.” Before divorcing her abusive husband.
“I must’ve never told you that they eloped,” Rob said with a frown. “They robbed Mama of what she views as a mother’s God-given right. She sees our wedding as a way to make up for that.”
“I guess that explains some of her mania …”
“And Catholic Hispanic mamas live for weddings,” Rob added with a laugh. “Mama’s the star of her neighborhood in Pueblo. The other ladies gather around her every Sunday after church to hear about the plans. She’s in the spotlight and loving every minute.”
Mandy tilted her head and grinned playfully. “Maybe we should elope!”
“No way, José. And don’t ever joke about that to Mama. She’d have a heart attack.” His brow furrowed. “You know she’s going to be a big part of our lives after we’re married. Are you going to be able to get along with her?”
“I’m sure it’s just the wedding that’s making us both crazy now. I think your mom’s great, Rob, and she’s been wonderful, really, about welcoming me into the family. We won’t have any issues after we’re married.” At least, Mandy hoped so.
She had a thought, and with a laugh, changed the subject. “I wonder how she’s getting along with Lucky right now.” Rob’s mom had volunteered to let Mandy’s golden retriever stay with her during the trip. “He’s a good dog, but he can be rambunctious.”
Rob smiled. “She loves dogs. You may have a problem making her give up Lucky when we get back.”
Kendra Lee, their second-best rafting guide, walked into the room. She stopped and put a hand on a jutted-out hip. Her eyes twinkled and a broad grin split her beautiful ebony face. “The first clients have arrived. Can you keep your hands off each other long enough to check them in?”
Rob released Mandy and yanked her blond ponytail. “Got your happy face on?”
Mandy flashed him a bright, perky smile. “Yes, now that I’ve realized your mom won’t be able to reach me for five whole days. In a way I’m glad there’s no cell phone service on the river and we can only radio out from a few locations. I’m sure your mom doesn’t like it, but I’m really looking forward to a break in wedding planning.”
Rob glanced at the radio transceivers. “Since the radio is really just for emergencies, hopefully we won’t have to make any calls on it.”
Mandy stepped into the front room of the building with Rob, leaving Kendra in the back room to deal with packing the food. They were borrowing the building of a Moab-based outfitter that had closed up shop in the middle of September. Mandy and Rob’s own business, RM Outdoor Adventures, was based in Salida, Colorado. The RM stood for both Rocky Mountains and Rob and Mandy. Along with renting the other outfitter’s building to check in clients and gear, they were able to run their trip under the other company’s Utah rafting license because they had hired their expert climbing guide to come along.
Like most of those who worked in the adventure travel field, Mandy and Rob juggled multiple jobs. Besides their joint business, Mandy worked as a seasonal river ranger on the Arkansas River in the summer and as a ski patroller at Monarch Mountain in the winter. Rob stitched together a patchwork of construction and carpentry jobs during the off-seasons. And, he was extending their outfitting business into the shoulder spring and fall seasons by adding fly-fishing, horseback riding, and other trips that were not dependent on Colorado’s summer snow melt that kept its white-water rivers gushing.
This climbing and rafting trip was one of those experiments. It was taking place during early October when most of the outfitters had already shuttered their doors. Mandy flashed Rob a crossedfingers-for-good-luck sign behind her back as the two of them stepped up to the counter. Hopefully the experiment would work.
Two women stood at the other side of the counter. They both had tightly curled hair, though the younger one’s was a lighter brown and longer than the older one’s. Their similar heart-shaped faces and features showed they were related. Probably mother and daughter, Mandy surmised. The mother’s leathery skin and smattering of wrinkles and sun spots indicated she was a middle-aged outdoorswoman. In marked contrast with her daughter’s loose T-shirt, the mother wore a V-necked stretch top that clung to her curves and showed some cleavage.
“Hello, ladies.” Rob held out a hand. “I presume you’re here for our Cataract Canyon rafting and climbing trip.”
The older woman shook his hand and eyed him up and down. “I must say I’m looking forward to the scenery.” She shot an amused grin at her daughter, who rolled her eyes.
Rob just smiled and said, “I’m Rob Juarez and this is my partner and fiancée, Mandy Tanner. We’ll be your lead guides on the trip.”
While Mandy shook the women’s hands, she thought, thank goodness he likes using that word fiancée so much. She bet Rob couldn’t wait until they were married and he started calling her his wife. Her independent streak had not quite reconciled itself to that term, but she had to admit that she liked the idea of staking her own claim on Rob by calling him her husband.
The women introduced themselves as Elsa Norton, the mother, and Tina Norton, the daughter. Mandy remembered that Tina, a college junior majoring in elementary education at the University of Wyoming, had booked the trip. She had been a little worried about missing classes for it.
“I remember taking your call,” Mandy said to Tina. “Were your professors okay with you taking this trip?”
Tina nodded.“It worked out great. I’m only missing three classes and a lab, and I can make up the lab after I get back on Friday.”
“As a professor at the university myself,” Elsa added, “I was ready to jump in and make some calls for Tina if I had to. Missing one or two classes is nothing compared to the experiences this trip will allow her to share with her future students.”
Rob cocked his head as he slid release forms into two clipboards. “What do you teach?”
“Geology,” Elsa replied.
“You’ll find gobs of cool formations in the Canyonlands.” Mandy checked the trip roster. “We have three of you signed up.Where’s—?”
“Three?” Elsa raised an eyebrow at Tina.
Tina fidgeted, glanced at the wall clock, then back at her mother. “I told you I wanted this to be a family trip, since I’ll be busy student-teaching soon and I don’t know when we’ll have the time later on.”
“Family? Who else did you invite? Your cousin Kathy?”
“No.” Tina rubbed her hands on her jeans, took a deep breath, and faced her mother. “Dad.”
Elsa’s eyes bugged out. “Your father? You invited Paul on this trip? When were you going to tell me?”
Mandy turned to Rob, and a meaningful glance flashed between them. Trouble.
Tina’s chin quivered. “I kept trying to bring it up, but I could never find the right time. I figured it would all work out once he appeared.” She burrowed her head into her shoulders like a frightened turtle.
Elsa finally seemed to realize that Rob and Mandy were watching the argument. She turned to them. “Tina’s father and I have been divorced for a year. For good reason.” She glared at Tina. “How could you do this to me? To him? Do you know how miserable the two of us will be?”
Mandy nudged Rob and pointed at the trip roster, which also listed tent assignments. They had allocated two 4-man tents and five 2-man tents to the trip, thinking the two families would occupy the larger tents. The Nortons were one of those families.
A man walked into the room. He was of medium height and medium build, with graying, mousy-brown hair and bifocal glasses. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the lack of sunshine. Mandy was struck with the thought that mousy was an appropriate description for the whole man—his nondescript clothing, pallid skin, withdrawn demeanor, and thin-fingered hands all fit. All he lacked were twitching long whiskers on his clean-shaven cheeks.
Then a smile lit up his face. “Tina!” He held out his arms.
“Dad!” Tina ran into his embrace.
Elsa Norton crossed her arms, murder in her gaze.
Paul Norton glanced at his ex-wife, then at Tina. “When did you tell her I was coming?”
Tina cringed. “Just now.”
“Cripes.” Paul looked up at the ceiling, then squared his shoulders and walked toward the counter, Tina tucked under one arm. He stopped in front of Elsa. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew and were okay with this.”
“No, I’m not okay with this,” Elsa said between clenched teeth. “But I can’t back out now. I’ve already taken the leave and arranged for a sub. And I’m sure these good people aren’t going to give me a refund at this late date.” She swept a hand in Mandy’s and Rob’s direction.
Paul touched her shoulder, but when she flinched, he quickly removed his hand. “For Tina’s sake, we can make this work. We’ve already done enough arguing for a lifetime. Let’s just try to have a fun vacation.”
Elsa glanced at Tina, who looked hopefully from her father to her mother. Elsa exhaled, unclenched her arms, and held up her hands. “For Tina’s sake, I’ll try to be civil, but I’m not sharing a raft with you—or a tent either.” She raised an eyebrow at Mandy.
Mandy took her cue. “It’s no problem. We’ll put you and your daughter in a 2-man tent and Mister Norton in another 2-man tent.” How she was going to reshuffle the other tent assignments, she had no idea.
Elsa nodded. “Good.”
“It’s probably best for me to be in my own tent, anyway,” Paul said, “because I snore like the dickens.”
“Does he!” Elsa covered her ears with her hands. “I had to wear earplugs to bed when we were married.”
Paul’s assumption he could have a tent to himself was a leap. The trip instructions had explicitly said that all tents would be shared because of the tight space on the rafts. But Mandy decided to wait until she had juggled tent assignments before she said anything to him. Maybe she really could put him by himself and spare some other guy a bunch of sleepless nights.
Paul sniffed. “The snoring’s probably related to my allergies. So I should pitch my tent away from the others each night.”
“We’ll keep that in mind when we arrange the campsites,” Rob said glibly.
While Rob went over the release forms and packing lists with the Nortons, Mandy scanned the roster and tried to think. Besides the Nortons, there was the six-person Anderson family—two parents and three grown children, one of whom was married—and three women from different parts of California. She had allocated a 4-man and a 2-man tent to the Anderson family and had assigned 2-man tents to herself and Rob and Gonzo and the climbing guide. She would now have to put Kendra and the three women clients in what would have been the Norton family’s 4-man tent. Could the four strangers all get along?
Mandy and Rob said their goodbyes to the Nortons after inviting them to join the group for a pre-trip meet-and-greet dinner at Milt’s Stop & Eat. The local burger and shakes joint had been recommended to them by the owner of the building they were using. He had told Rob that it set a tone of informality for clients and helped them to start shedding their business-suit personalities prior to getting on the river.
Just as Mandy was going to fill Rob in on the tent shuffle, three women walked in, giggling and chatting with each other. They all looked to be in their thirties and were a variety of races—white, Hispanic, and black. They stepped up to the counter, and after a few more snippets of chattering, turned as a group and looked expectantly at Rob and Mandy.
“Hi, gals,” Rob said. “Here to check in for the Cataract Canyon rafting and climbing trip?”
“You bet your sweet cojones we are!” the Hispanic woman said, tossing her long black hair over one shoulder and eyeing Rob’s athletic build.
Rob, however, took it in stride and went into his spiel. “I’m Rob Juarez, and this is my partner and fiancée, Mandy Tanner.” He put an arm around Mandy’s shoulder. “We’ll be your lead guides on the trip.”
“Damn, ladies, he’s taken.” While her companions laughed, the Hispanic woman winked at Mandy. “Don’t worry, honey, we’re just having some fun. We’re all happily married, but this is our annual gal-pal escape from the hubbies and munchkins. I’m Vivian Davis, but you can call me Viv.” She held out a hand to Mandy.
Mandy smiled and shook it, then looked at the other two. “And you are…?”
“Maureen Heedles,” said the petite blond-haired white woman, shaking Rob’s and her hands, “but call me Mo.”
“Betsy Saunders,” said the black woman, also shaking their hands.
“I hadn’t realized you three knew each other,” Mandy said, “since you live in different California cities.”
“We all attended high school and community college together in LA,” Mo replied. “We go way back. And, as you can tell, we’re a real mixed bag.”
Betsy grinned. “Our husbands are, too. Viv’s is black, Mo’s is Asian, and mine is white, so our kids are all hybrids.”
“Too bad they don’t run on electricity. Our grocery bills would be a lot lower,” Viv quipped, causing all three to laugh. They started comparing notes on what their hapless hubbies were planning to cook, or take-out, while they were gone, which set them to laughing again.
Once they had quieted, Rob slid release forms on clipboards to them across the counter and asked them to read and sign them.
Mo looked up from hers at Mandy. “Is it possible for the three of us to share a tent? We plan to do a lot of catching up with each other while we’re on this trip.”
Relieved, Mandy said, “Sure, we can arrange that.”
But she needed to break the news that they would have to share with Kendra. She took a deep breath and plunged in. “We’re tight on space in the rafts, though, and can only bring so many tents. We can’t afford to have any bed space in a tent go empty. You’ll be in a 4-man tent. Do you mind sharing with our other female rafting guide? Her name is Kendra Lee.”
The three women looked at each other and nodded. “No problem,” Betsy said. “Is she here? Can we meet her?”
“She’s in back organizing gear. I’ll bring her out.” Mandy went into the back room.
When Mandy entered, Kendra looked up expectantly from her checklist of food items. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by boxes, bags, and cans of food. “What’s up?”
“I had to shuffle tent assignments when I found out the Nortons really aren’t a family,” Mandy said. “The father and mother are divorced. So, I need to put you in a 4-man tent with the three solo female clients. Turns out they really aren’t solo and they all know each other—call each other gal-pals.”
Kendra grimaced. “So I’ll be the odd gal out.”
“They seem really nice and said they didn’t mind having you. They want to meet you.”
“I was going to talk to you about tent assignments.” Kendra rose to her feet and flashed a sheepish smile at Mandy. “See, Gonzo and I have started seeing each other.”
“Get out!” Mandy slapped Kendra on the back. “That’s great. How’d you keep it from all of us?”
“We wanted to make sure it was going to work out before we spilled the beans. I didn’t say anything when you told me a couple weeks ago that you were planning to have me share a tent with a female client, because Gonzo and I weren’t, you know, doing the sleeping bag samba yet.” Kendra grinned happily.
Mandy returned Kendra’s smile. “Glad to know you’ve found a compatible dance partner.” She studied the roster in her hand. “I don’t think I can swing putting you two together, though. I’ve got Gonzo in a tent with Tom O’Day, the climbing guide, and if I put you in that tent instead, there’s nowhere for Tom to sleep. Paul Norton’s in a tent by himself now, because he said he snores like the dickens. I’d hate to subject Tom to that. And I certainly can’t put him in with the women.”
“Maybe Tom snores, too.” Kendra looked hopeful.
“I’ll ask him when he shows up,” Mandy said, “but I still want to introduce you to these women. Sorry to say it, but you’ll most likely end up bunking with them.”
Kendra sighed. “Okay. It’s only for a few nights anyway.”
Mandy gave her an elbow nudge. “As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe Rob and I can swap places with you and Gonzo one night.”
Mandy led Kendra out of the room and made the introductions. Before long the three pals were chatting with Kendra, asking her questions about the upcoming trip.
“Will we see many birds?” Viv asked. “I’m a bird watcher, and I want to add some Utah species to my list.”
“What about animals?” Betsy pulled a book for identifying animal tracks out of her backpack. “My hobby is identifying wildlife prints.”
“And I’m hoping to see some fall-blooming wildflowers,” Mo said. “That’s my thing.” She held up a camera. “I’ve got a whole wall of my kitchen plastered with wildflower photos, and I want to add to my gallery.”
By the time Kendra had fielded all of their questions, she was smiling. “This trip is perfect for you three.”
“We always pick an outdoor-oriented trip for our getaway,” Mo replied. “The last one was a four-day horseback ride in Oregon.”
Betsy rubbed her rump. “It took weeks for my butt to recover from that one.”
All four women laughed.
Viv waved her arm toward the door. “Time to pack our dry bags, gals.”
Mandy walked them to the door. “Remember our meet-andgreet dinner at six.”
The last one out, Betsy, turned and whispered to Mandy, “Thanks for putting Kendra in our tent. We’re going to love having an expert’s brain to pick.”
Mandy smiled. Another problem solved. After the women left, she faced Kendra. “You okay with this?”
Kendra nodded. “Yeah, they all seem pretty nice. Not sure how much sleep I’m going to get, though.”
“More than you would get with Gonzo,” Mandy shot back with a wink.
Laughing, Kendra retreated to the back room.
Returning to her position behind the counter next to Rob, Mandy said, “We may need to rescue Kendra from those chatterboxes. We can’t have a sleepy rafting guide, especially in Cataract Canyon.”
Rob shrugged. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If need be, she can sleep with you one night, and I’ll bed down outside.”
Mandy leaned on her elbows and looked at the roster. “You know, when we were planning this trip, I imagined all sorts of things going wrong. I never dreamed that tent assignments were going to be such a challenge.” She wondered if this tent shuffle was a sign of more client issues to come.
With a laugh, Rob said, “Hopefully the Anderson family will be okay with theirs.”
“We can’t do anything about it if they aren’t!”
Fatal Descent by Beth Groundwater © 2013 Midnight Ink, an imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd. 2143 Wooddale Drive, Woodbury, MN 55125. All rights reserved, used by permission.
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Bestselling mystery author Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner, who lives in Salida, Colorado, and patrols the upper Arkansas River. Beth enjoys Colorado’s many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs. Please visit her website: http://bethgroundwater.com/