An excerpt of Sinister by Lisa Jackson, with Nancy Bush and Rosalind Noonan, a thriller featuring a cold case and a serial arsonist (available November 26, 2013).
Twenty years ago, a fire ravaged the Dillinger family's old homestead, killing Judd Dillinger and crippling his girlfriend. Most people blamed a serial arsonist who'd been around town. But strange things are happening in Prairie Creek, Wyoming, again. Ira Dillinger, the family's wealthy patriarch, has summoned his children home for his upcoming wedding. Eldest son, Colton, and his siblings don't approve of their father's gold-digging bride-to-be. But someone is making his displeasure felt in terrifying ways, setting fires just like in the past. Only this time, there will be no survivors. As fear and distrust spread through Prairie Creek, all the Dillingers and those closest to them are targets and suspects. A killer has been honing his skill, feeding his fury, and waiting for the moment when the Dillingers come home—to die.
God, it was cold. As in hovering just under freezing. But then, what could you expect in western Wyoming in the dead of winter? Amber’s thoughts swirled like the snow coming down in front of her headlights, thousands of tiny flakes dancing in the twin beams that cut through the rugged countryside.
Man, this place was a black hole, but according to her GPS, there was a town in the valley ahead somewhere. Less than five miles, thank God, and hopefully she would find a twenty-four-hour service station to take a break and fill up. Her gas gauge still showed a quarter tank, but you had to be careful out here in the middle of nowhere. Miles of nothing but darkness—that was her impression of Wyoming. Amber hated the feeling of isolation; it made her nervous as hell.
Then again, everything made her nervous these days, not the least of all being Robert’s parents. She’d met them once before, of course, during the summer, and they’d traded a few barbs. But this time, a visit of three freakin’ days with the whole family in attendance for Thanksgiving, Frankie and Philip Petrocelli had been at each other’s throats. From the moment Phil had sliced into the turkey incorrectly until midnight, when Frankie had stumbled on the stairs from “one too many” Manhattans, they’d shown their absolute abhorrence for each other.
And to think she was considering marrying into that bunch of lunatics. “Smarten up,” she said, glancing in her rearview mirror. Robert was usually such a sweetie, the exact opposite of his bitter, venomous parents. But this visit had shown her a different side of her fiancé. For most of her stay, he had withdrawn to a near zombielike state in the wake of his parents’ vitriol. Really, the only time he’d snapped out of his daze had been when his ex-girlfriend Joy “hap-pened” to drop in. Only Joy had been able to pull him out of his dark shell.
Although she had planned to stay till Monday and drive back with Robert, when Robert’s parents had started arguing again over something at lunchtime, she’d been glad to zip up her suitcase and tell those crazy Petrocellis adios, sayonara, au revoir and good riddance.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she said aloud as she fumbled with the radio’s dial. She found a station but could barely hear Adele’s voice over the static, so she switched it off, only making her already bad mood worse.
Maybe she should rethink the whole “till death do us part” thing. Maybe her whole future with Robert wasn’t meant to be. The story of her life. In all of her twenty-six years not one man had turned out to be even near “the one.” While her high school and college friends were busy planning weddings and putting the final touches on their nurseries, here she was, contemplating breaking up with the only guy who had ever seriously talked about marriage.
“Big deal,” she said sourly as she squinted through the windshield. Already Robert was mad at her for cutting out early. She didn’t know if she could patch things over, and she didn’t know if she really cared to.
The glass was beginning to fog despite the struggling heater that barely warmed the interior of the car. These mountains were ghastly cold—a no-man’s-land.
Reaching across the seat to her purse, she fumbled for her pack of cigarettes and found there was only one left. Great. Though she had sworn she would quit, another one of Robert’s ideas, she didn’t plan to put an end to her nicotine habit until New Year’s Day. That gave her the next six weeks to enjoy smoking as much as she wanted. Then at the stroke of midnight, she would quit cold turkey.
As she saw the neon sign for a diner come into view, she lit up and even dared crack the window just a smidgen so that the smoke could get sucked out. Not enough to put her hand outside, not in this cold, but just enough space to keep the smoke from filling up the car.
God, she missed California. Another fifteen hours to go to reach Sacramento, depending on the weather and road conditions and how long she could stand it. She’d come a long way from Billings already, over the Montana state line and clear across the state of Wyoming. She wondered how much longer she’d be in this big-ass state.
As she signaled to turn off the highway, she saw that the diner was also a bar. Big Bart’s restaurant also housed the Buffalo Lounge, where one could hear live music every Saturday night, according to the backlit sign posted high overhead.
Finally! The night was starting to hold some promise! Instead of getting a hot cup of coffee and a hamburger, she decided she’d splurge and order a drink . . . oooh, maybe even an Irish coffee. Yeah, that sounded good. With whipped cream and, if she could talk the bartender into it, a drizzle of crème de menthe for the holidays. Mmmmm.
Her stomach rumbled in anticipation as she pulled into the near-empty lot of the roadside establishment. She hit a pothole disguised by a layer of snow and it jarred the car, probably nearly taking out the front axle of her fifteen-year- old Honda in the process.
“Shit!” she muttered under her breath. Fortunately the Civic was tough and had made it through more than its share of abuse in the four years her brother had driven it before selling the little sedan to her.
Grabbing her purse, she slid outside, locked the door, then braved the snow to reach the double glass doors framed by a half-lit string of Christmas lights. Oh, yeah. Right. Merry effin’ Christmas!
As she stepped inside, a wall of heat hit her head-on. At last. She hoped to thaw her toes before starting back out again. The hallway led to a landing, and then split. Amber paused to check her reflection in the mirror at the landing. Even though her eyes were a little tired and puffy, her black hair, with its blue tint henna, shone in the dim light. Fabulous. It was worth every penny Andre had charged. Turning away from the well-lit dining area, she headed toward the lounge, where the sound of country-western music bounced against the walls.
She took an empty seat at the end of the bar and ordered her Irish coffee from a tall, thin bartender with a gold tooth that glimmered when he smiled.
“ID?” he asked.
Amber sighed as she rummaged through her purse, annoyed that she kept getting carded when she was so over twenty-one. Locating her driver’s license, she thrust it over to the bartender.
“One Irish coffee comin’ your way, Amber.” He winked at her as he handed it back over, which only aggravated her further.
As she waited for her drink, she noticed there were two other patrons at the bar, and a few couples at the tables sprin- kled around a small dance floor located in front of a stage. Apparently, she had missed the Saturday-night crowd. If there had been a band, it was long-gone, the stage empty, aside from a couple of mics shoved toward the back wall.
The drink came with the requested green drizzle and a complimentary if pathetic Irish accent from the gold-toothed barkeep. “Here ye be, missy!”
Amber perused a bar menu, half listening to a Randy Travis ballad that oozed through hidden speakers. As she sipped her drink, the tension in her shoulders and neck muscles eased up, and she decided to give herself a break. To hell with her diet. So what if she needed to drop five pounds? It wasn’t as if she was going to try and squeeze into a wedding dress anytime soon. So thinking, she ordered chicken strips and fries then finished her drink.
Nearby, a group that had been drinking beer scraped back their chairs, then took up pool cues at the billiards table near the far wall.
Pool balls began clicking loudly, the two couples laughing, bantering and placing bets as an upbeat country tune she didn’t recognize filled the room. Her toes had stopped tingling as her order came and she dipped a greasy fry into a paper cup of ranch dressing. Yep, her blood had begun flowing again. When the bartender asked her if she’d like another drink, she nodded. She was already feeling the effects of the first, but that would change once the food hit.
For the first time she noticed the guy at the corner of the L-shaped bar. A cowboy from the looks of him. Wearing a black Stetson dipped low over his forehead. He was a big guy, tall with broad shoulders. Just her type. She’d always liked tall guys, something she’d never mentioned to Robert, who was only a few inches taller than she was. But this cowboy? Yup. Hmmmm.
He’d been staring at her, not directly, but through the mirror behind the bar. When she met his gaze in the reflective glass, he looked away quickly, but only for an instant.
Then he was back again, his eyes intent. He smiled slightly, lifted his glass and took a big swallow from his beer.
She did, too. It wasn’t really flirting, just an unspoken “hi” to a fellow patron of the good old Buffalo Lounge. Along with his Stetson, he was wearing a heavy jacket and jeans, which seemed to be the uniform of all the male patrons around these parts.
Don’t do it, Amber. Don’t toy with a man you don’t know. Think of Robert, and for God’s sake, be careful. So he’s hot. So what? Be smart. For once in your life, don’t do something just for the hell of it, for the adventure. You know it’s never worth it.
She exchanged a few more glances as she delved into her second drink. A few minutes later, she caught his eyes on her again. He touched the tip of his hat, then left a few bills on the bar and slid off his stool. With one last look, direct this time, not through the glass, he nodded, as if acknowledging their silent conversation, then headed toward the back of the building, either to hit the bathrooms or take the rear exit.
Dang. A part of her felt ridiculously disappointed as she watched him disappear into a darkened hallway. Maybe she was being stupid. The Irish whiskey had muddled her brain a bit and the best thing she could do was get over it. After all, she was unofficially engaged (no ring, mind you) to Robert, and when he returned to Sacramento she was going to have it out with him. Either there was a sizeable diamond under the tree this year or he was getting a big kick in the backside on New Year’s Day. Cigarettes weren’t the only thing she’d be giving up for her New Year’s resolution. She was swearing off loser men who couldn’t commit.
Leaving half of her overcooked chicken strips in the basket with a few fries, she accepted a third drink from the bartender. She nursed it, along with a glass of water, for another half hour. By the time she paid her bill, Amber’s head was a little fuzzy. Hmm. Maybe she wasn’t in the best shape for driving . . . but she couldn’t stay here.
Even though the roads were pretty much empty at this time of night, she knew she couldn’t make it to Sacramento. Even Salt Lake City would be a stretch. Elbow on the bar, she rested her head on her fist, sorting her weary thoughts.
Find a motel—that was the only option.
Gathering her purse and zipping her jacket, she decided she’d just drive a little farther down the road and stop at the first motel she came to. She could flop for the night. In the morning, she would set out fresh and make it all the way to Sacramento.
“Sounds like a plan,” she said as she walked through the frigid night toward her car. Clouds covered the moon and snow was still falling, drifting against the buildings. Shivering, she made her way to her Honda, then stopped short. Her front end was listing badly. The tire she’d hit on the pothole earlier had totally deflated.
“Crap!” she muttered under her breath, her heart sinking. She didn’t have Triple A, and though her father had taught her how to change a tire back when she’d learned to drive, she wasn’t sure that her spare was functional or if she had a jack or whatever the hell it was she needed to change the flat.
She could go inside, ask for help, or take a cab to . . . where? Shit. Whether she liked it or not, she’d have to depend on the kindness of strangers. The bitter wind that roared through the valley cut through her coat and stung her eyes. No one would last out here for long.
“Need help?” a rough voice asked.
She turned to find the guy in the black Stetson walking across the parking lot.
Relief swept across her worried mind. “It’s my tire. Flat as a pancake.”
“Let me take a look.” He walked to the driver’s side and crouched down near the front wheel well. “Yep. It’s bad. See here?” He pointed to the tire and moved back, so she could see the damage. Though she really didn’t need to lean down to see the damage, she did it just to appease him.
Wasn’t it funny how some things just worked out? That the tall cowboy from the bar would turn out to be her savior, her Good Samaritan—maybe a friend and a lover if things developed right. You couldn’t fight destiny.
“Doesn’t look like I can drive—” Her eyes were trained on the wheel when he moved sharply, startling her.
Before she could get away, he yanked her body hard against his.
“Hey!” she said, half-scared, half-intrigued, until he shoved something over her mouth, his hand thickened by a leather glove that muffled her cry.
Panic shot through her. What the hell was going on?
Her mind raced through all the horrible stories she’d heard about rapes and abductions. Oh, no! Not her. She had to stop him. Someone had to stop him . . . someone leaving the bar . . .
She struggled in his arms, kicking against his legs, but he was unflinching. A tall pillar of a man.
“Be a good girl, and you won’t get hurt,” he whispered into her ear, his voice sizzling with malice.
Oh, Jesus. Talk some sense into him. Stand tough! Wasn’t that how you were supposed to deal with a potential rapist?
Her gaze combed the parking lot and the building, willing the door to open and someone to rush to her rescue. Please . . . open that door!
She felt him shift, one of his hands lifting, and she used that moment to kick and writhe and try to beat him off. She bit hard on the glove, tasting dust and dirt and old suede.
He didn’t so much as flinch.
She threw her weight against him, and his rumbling laugh, deep and throaty, convinced her that her struggles were useless.
Think, Amber. Somehow you have to outwit this son of a bitch!
In the slight pause she saw the knife in his free hand. The long, sharp blade glinting in the weak glow of a security lamp. Oh, dear God . . .
This time, when she tried to jerk away, he lifted her off her feet and dragged her, wiggling and twisting, to a dank patch of snow behind the Dumpster. No one from the bar would see them back here. No one!
“Let me go!” Her words were muted by his hand, but in the next second—a dark spiral of hope—she gasped as he flung her down.
It was her last clear thought before her head hit the frozen ground, sending an explosion crackling through her vision. Pain and fear shot into her system, but through the misery something called to her.
Get up! Escape! Now!
Her head ached and her bones felt heavy as she tried to pull herself onto her feet. Confused, she thought she might get away . . . but when she opened her eyes, he was on top of her, a heavy weight crushing her chest, pressing into her throat.
“I said, be good!”
In the weak light, she could only make out the glint in his eyes. A sickening glimmer of pure evil that chilled her very soul.
“You’re hurting me,” she croaked out. “Why are you hurting me?”
His voice was a knowing whisper as his lips curled into a cold grin. “Practice makes perfect.”
Then he lifted the knife again. And in that last fragile instant, while snowflakes fell around her and the faint hum of music from inside the bar reached her ears, Amber Barstow realized she would never make it home to California.
* * *
Standing outside the entrance to the cave, the killer watched snow fall on the valley below. From up here, through the haze of white, it was possible to see the river, a dark snake winding toward the smattering of lights, hundreds of bulbs illuminating the snow-blanketed streets of Prairie Creek, Wyoming.
A night owl screeched, and then there was quiet.
He wiped the blood from the blade of his knife on his worn jeans and thought about what the future would bring. As he cleaned the sharp steel, a ghost of a smile crawled across his lips and the pleasant hiss of anticipation buzzed in his ears.
No one knew.
No one suspected.
The girl had been dead a week and not a soul anywhere around was looking at him.
Wind whistled through the canyon, rattling snow from branches, churning up white clouds, bringing the cold from the north. Good, he thought as he ducked between rocks to the hidden entrance of his cave where a campfire was already burning, black smoke billowing upward near the skinned carcass of a coyote dripping wetly against the rocky floor.
This was a good kill.
A kill accomplished with only his bare hands and his knife. He relived the f irst thrust of his blade through the coyote’s shaggy hide. Listened again to its howl of agony, its snapping teeth going still. That was it. The rush of the kill, the feeling of flesh surrendering, the life struggle that was about to come to an end, the shudder of death.
He’d hunted animals for years, he thought over the hiss of the fire. But they were easy prey. Easily outwitted.
Humans, though? They were the ultimate test, the supreme target.
His thumb stroked the hilt of the knife as he recalled taking the woman. He ran his tongue over his lips at the memory: the suddenly limp body in his arms, blood flowing from her neck, shock in her eyes as she let out her last gurgling breath. Now he felt an erection begin to rise. She’d been so naïve: a bleating little lamb to the slaughter. Killing her had been child’s play. Disabling her car and luring her in, waiting for just the right moment for her to lean forward, her balance off, the way she’d fought him and then later, the smooth feel of the knife plunging through and running beneath her skin.
Remembering brought a shudder to his large frame, but she was, of course, just a rehearsal for the main event.
He’d hidden her body well. He’d gutted her atop a tarp, long after throwing her in his car, leaving no trace of blood in the parking lot. No one suspected. No one even seemed to know that she was missing. Poor Amber. That was her name, according to the California driver’s license he’d found in her purse.
But now it was time to go to the next level. That’s why he was here. That’s what he’d come for. The Dillingers . . . their ranch spread out below him . . . their souls black . . . their time near.
He had to be extracareful now. Every kill had to count. Holding the knife above his head with both hands, he felt the power that came from the killing enter him, uplift him, send him to a higher plane.
Do you feel me? he silently asked them, his prey.
I’m coming for you.
Sabrina’s hands were full as she shouldered open the glass door of the Prairie Creek Animal Clinic. This morning she balanced a cup of coffee she’d grabbed at Molly’s Diner, her purse, computer case and the business mail she’d picked up from the P.O. box.
“Oh, good, Dr. Delaney, you brought the mail,” Renee called. “Look what I found yesterday!” Waving an envelope from behind her desk, earbud already in place so she could answer the phones wirelessly, the clinic’s receptionist was already rearranging the pamphlets and business cards on the counter. Though it was a good ten minutes before the clinic officially opened, Renee’s computer monitor with the day’s schedule was glowing as Sabrina slipped inside.
Sabrina paused on the mat to stomp the snow from her boots as the scents of antiseptic and disinfectant greeted her. Padded benches lined the walls, and the floor was scratched from thousands of anxious paws that had crossed the threshold, but now this veterinary clinic was half hers. That had been a big personal goal—to work in her own practice and stay in Prairie Creek. Every day she thanked her lucky stars that she could check that big one off her bucket list.
Well . . . almost every day, she thought as she put her coffee down in exchange for the fat parchment envelope that Renee was waving.
“Looks like a wedding invitation!” Renee said cheerfully. “That it does.” It was an invitation she had thought she’d dodged. Practically everyone else the Dillingers knew had gotten one, and she’d wondered, hoped maybe, that she’d been overlooked. As Sabrina noticed that the postmark was dated six weeks earlier, Renee’s smile fell a bit.
“I know. My bad,” Renee said before Sabrina could say a word. “I, uh, it . . . I think it got shuffled into the junk mail and recycling somehow and then . . . wow, I don’t know, I saw it poking out of an old magazine, so I pulled it out and saw that it was for you. Sorry.”
“Okay,” Sabrina said. “But—”
“I promise I’ll be more careful with the mail. I really don’t know how it happened.” She blinked behind her glasses as if she might break down into tears.
“It’s f ine. Truly.” And it was. Renee Aaronson was usually reliable, and she had a charming way with the customers. She was able to juggle several phone calls, all the while dealing with a yapping Chihuahua or a freaked-out Siamese or, worse yet, their overly worried owners. Sabrina almost admitted to Renee that she would prefer the invitation should go back in the recycle box, but she didn’t want to dump her life story on the young woman.
“Seriously, Dr. Delaney, it won’t happen again.”
“Good. So,” she said, to change the subject, “are we busy today?”
“Swamped.” Renee glanced at the computer monitor. “Wow. Yeah. Appointments back-to-back. And that’s before the emergencies.”
“I’d better get at it then,” Sabrina said, already pushing open the short swinging door to the back of the clinic with her hips. Quickly, she made her way down the short aisle to her cubbyhole of an office, where she peeled off her jacket, slipped on a purple lab coat and exchanged her boots for shoes.
A quick check in the mirror behind the door showed her honey-blond hair still in place, swept back into a braid that usually held through most of her hectic day. Frowning, she assessed herself with cold eyes. Her face was still smooth, and her amber eyes softened the sharp line of her high cheekbones and nose. Not quite the same girl who’d fallen in love with Colton Dillinger almost twenty years earlier, but all in all she’d held up pretty well.
“It’s all that talking with the animals,” she said aloud, recalling how her sister, after observing her treating a lame horse, had dubbed her Dr. Doolittle.
Once behind her desk, she slit open the envelope. She knew what it was of course: an invitation to the nuptials of Pilar Larson and Ira Dillinger, to be held the weekend before Christmas.
She wondered if Colt would be at the wedding too, and what he would think of her if they came face to face. Looking at the engraved script on the invitation, she shook her head. What was wrong with her that she could let a romance nearly two decades old still get to her?
“Perfect,” she said, noticing the enclosed RSVP card, the date for responding long past due. She thought about making up an excuse and not attending the event, but since the Dillingers were the best customers of the clinic, that seemed like poor form. Davis Featherstone, the Rocking D’s ranch foreman, already knew that she was on duty that week as Antonia was going to be out of town. “So I can’t even lie my way out of it.”
“Lie about what?” came a voice from the doorway. She turned to see Antonia herself walk in. Her shiny dark hair was swept back in a twist that only a few women could pull off without looking schoolmarmish. Toni was one. “Talking to yourself. Am I interrupting some morning affirmations?”
Sabrina tapped the heavy stock card against her desk. “My invitation came. A little late, but it’s here.”
She snatched it away for a closer look. “You must have been on the B-list.” At thirty-four, an ex–beauty pageant finalist, she was as smart as she was good-looking.
“Just lost in the mail. But now it’s a problem because I don’t want to offend our biggest client, but there’s no way I can go.”
“Colt could be there.”
“So, that’s why every relationship you’ve had since has been lukewarm. Now I get it!” She shrugged; then, no longer teasing, added, “Look, you’ve both moved on, right? He has a family and bought a ranch up in Montana.”
“Had a family,” Sabrina corrected a little too quickly. Colton had lost his wife and daughter in a terrible automobile accident.
“That’s right.” Toni sucked her breath through her teeth. “That was tough, but it’s been a while. “The point is he does have a life, one without you.”
“And you, you’ve got this fantastic clinic with an even more fantastic partner.”
Sabrina rolled her eyes, but the point was well taken. Her romance with Colton was ages ago. There was lots of water under that particular bridge. She pushed the reply card away on her desk. “You’re right.”
“Scuttlebutt on the street is that Colton refuses to attend the wedding anyway. Besides, a big bash like this hits Prairie Creek once in a century. You can’t sit home just because you don’t want to run into an old boyfriend. Do you know that statistically, ninety percent of all childhood sweethearts don’t last?”
“You’re making that up. And it’s easy for you to push me out there. You’ve already got a husband.”
Antonia grabbed a pen from her pocket and leaned over the desk, turning the RSVP card her way. “You would think I was signing you up for the wet T-shirt contest in Jackson Hole.” She checked off a box, tucked the card into the small envelope and licked it. “Done. Now you’re committed, and you’re going to have a blast.”
“Not likely.” Sabrina reached for the small envelope. “I’ll come up with an excuse.”
“Nope.” Antonia scurried toward the door with the invi- tation behind her back. “Do it for our clinic. Think of the animals who need you to keep the peace with Ira Dillinger.”
“That’s not fair.” Sabrina folded her arms.
“It’s good business,” she said with a smile.
“I’m telling you, I’m not going. I’ll get the flu.”
Antonia held the envelope high. “Oh, Renee? I’ve got something that needs to go out in the mail today,” she called, disappearing down the hall.
Sabrina made a sound of exasperation. Was she overreacting? Colton Dillinger had been out of her life for a lot longer than he’d been in it. He’d moved on long ago, and she sure as hell had tried to, though it had been something of a losing proposition.
“But it doesn’t matter anymore,” she said aloud. Colton Dillinger was out of her life. Forever. He’d proved that well enough. And she’d moved on. After all, it had been eighteen years. Too long a time to carry a torch or hold a grudge.
She heard the buzzer at the front door and looked up to see one of her patients—a corgi/beagle/God-knew-what-else mix of a dog and as bad-tempered a little beast as they came—being carried in by its owner.
Pasting on a smile, she dropped the invitation from her mind, then headed down the hallway and into an examination room.
“Hey, there,” she said to the dog, which promptly pulled its black lips into a snarl and, with wildly rolling eyes, started barking loud enough to raise the dead.
* * *
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Colton Dillinger told the cattle as he closed the door of the holding pen. The wind was howling outside, rattling the roof and walls, nearly obliterating his words, and some of the cows were complaining, lowing loudly, their hooves shuffling in the straw. For a moment he thought of the person who had convinced him that it was healthy to talk to your cattle.
He smiled. He’d heard Sabrina was a vet these days. Made sense. She knew her way around animals of all kinds.
Colton had been rounding up his livestock these past few days with Cub Jenkins, his foreman, and some of the other hired hands, needing to get the herd under cover before the next blizzard came barreling down from Canada and hit Montana. Cattle weren’t given much to panic in the snow, but the wind, sometimes, if it was fierce enough it could send them searching for cover, often right into obstructions that killed them. During one blizzard when Colton was a kid, some stray cattle had bunched together at a fence to get out of the wind and suffocated each other. And everyone had heard tales of the huge number of cattle lost during the blizzard of 1949.
Sure, the storm currently ripping through this part of Montana in a frigid Arctic blast was probably just a little howler compared to the whiteout of ’49, but Colton knew what had to be done to secure his stock. Latching the door to the pen, he pulled his scarf up over his nose and stepped into the blast of snow and ice. A few minutes in this stuff and he’d be a dead man. He mounted Mojave, a Kiger gelding that was his main workhorse, able to change gears and get the job done in the blistering wind and snow.
If only some ranch hands could be as reliable. He snorted, his steamy breath warming the center of the frosted scarf.
Inside the stables, he gave Mojave a well-deserved brushdown, then braved the wind one last time. According to the forecast, the weather was about to break. “’Bout time,” he muttered under his breath. His livestock were secure, safe and tucked into the barns and sheds of the ranch, but they were starting to get restless, and he couldn’t blame them.
The warmth of the house seemed to melt his face as Colt kicked off his boots then hung his jacket on a hook by the door. He strode past the bacon grease congealed in a cast-iron skillet on the stove. It’d keep till morning.
In the den he dropped down at the fireplace and stoked the fire. Another log and some old paper would do it. He reached into the paper bin and his hand closed over the fat parchment envelope.
He slipped out the engraved card and read it one last time. It had arrived weeks ago, a creamy envelope that was the harbinger of bad news.
The honor of your presence is requested . . .
Like hell. Big family wedding, his old man tying the knot.
His sister Ricki had been bugging him about making an appearance, and much as he’d like to see all his sisters, there was no way Colton could be in the same room with the bride, Pilar Larson, a gold digger of the first order.
He tossed the invitation into the fire and rocked back on his heels to watch his father’s latest decree curl and burn in the licking flames. He didn’t want to see Ira, he didn’t want to see the Rocking D, he didn’t want to see Pilar, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to see Sabrina because even though it had been a long time ago, they hadn’t left on the best of terms.
Whatever the hell was happening in Prairie Creek, he wanted no part of it.
* * *
On a clearing near the treed area of the Rocking D known as Copper Woods, Davis Featherstone slid a shovel from the back of his truck and spotted the boss’s Dodge Ram in the distance, purring up over the ridge. Wet snow gave way under his boots as he went over to the men who waited astride their horses, all ready to herd the near-grown calves back to shelter. Winter coats shaggy, the mix of black Angus and white-faced Herefords had strayed earlier, but they were complacent now.
Probably hungry and thirsty, Davis thought. Even with all this snow around, cows couldn’t figure out how to get a drink. He’d heard of them dying of thirst in the snow.
Not that he’d let that happen to Dillinger steers. Not yet thirty, he may have been young for a ranch foreman, but he was a cattleman. He could have run this ranch blindfolded.
Except for the dead coyote.
The slaughtered animal had thrown them all for a loop. It wasn’t just the place of esteem that coyote had in Shoshone stories of creation; it was the way the creature had been mutilated. Sliced and carved.
“Will you dig a hole?” Davis asked the men.
The two men, both Shoshone, exchanged a cautious look. “We’ll dig,” Mick Ramhorn said. “I don’t mind being part of a proper burial. But I won’t touch it.”
Davis held up the shovel. “Might as well get started. The boss will have to do the grunt work this time.”
The men got off their horses and began searching for a good burial spot, a tall task in the deepening snow. Lou started digging while Mick retraced his path through the snow to the truck for a pickaxe.
Turning away from them, Davis looked back once again toward the tree where the coyote lay. In just the past few minutes, snow had collected on the carcass. If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just a boulder at the base of the tree.
If you didn’t know.
Wind stung his face as the scene washed over him again. He closed his eyes, but it was still there, last night’s vision of a thin, lithe spirit dancing in the snow, a dark shadow waving pine branches like feathers as she twirled and circled the dark mound at the foot of the tree.
A snow spirit dancing in the night.
Standing at the trail’s end at the edge of the woods, he had thought the snow and cold were messing with his mind. As he watched and waited, however, he realized he recognized the snow sprite: Kit Dillinger.
He had left her to her snow ritual, thinking it was the harmless dance of a woman whose only home was out here in the valley, away from houses and people and the problems they caused. But he had thought wrong. When he’d returned this morning on his way to search for strays, he’d brushed snow from the mound. As he’d removed the branches, alarm had shot through him at the sight.
A dead coyote, half-skinned and mutilated.
“I hope you’ve got a good reason for calling me out here.” Ira Dillinger slammed the door of his truck and stomped over. He was a tall man, and a force to be reckoned with. “Because some of these snowdrifts are taller than a damned elephant.” He trudged up to Davis and demanded, “What the hell is that?” as he stared at the mutilated carcass at his ranch foreman’s feet.
“A dead coyote.”
“What the hell happened to it?” Keeping his distance, Ira crouched down for a better view.
Davis looked away, able to see it all in his mind. Chunks of fur and flesh were gone; blood covered the rest, the coyote’s head nearly severed from its spine, legs sliced at the joint, at least one tooth missing. No wild animal had feasted on the dead cur. No jagged bite wounds were evident, but it was hideously carved. Not the killing of any hunter Davis had ever seen.
Ira scowled. “It’s like a mad butcher had at it.”
Davis nodded. This was no cougar or wolf attack. “Someone stripped him with a knife.”
Scanning the horizon, as if he could f ind the culprit hiding in the stands of snow-covered aspen that rimmed this valley before it gave way to white mountains, Ira frowned. “I don’t like it.”
Davis nodded. “I thought you’d want to see it. That’s why I radioed you.” The ranch hands used walkie-talkies since cell phone use in the area was spotty at best.
“You know I got no love of coyotes,” Ira admitted. “The only good coyote is a dead one.”
That was cattle ranching. Most ranchers shot coyotes to keep them from attacking young calves. That was different. A quick, clean shot was the way of the West, but no one, at least no one he worked with, advocated torture.
“But this is weird. Some sicko playing survivalist?” He spat a stream of tobacco juice onto the snow.
Davis said, “The men are spooked.”
“Well, they’ll feel better once they clean it up and we’ll call it done.”
Davis Featherstone shook his head. “None of the men will touch it. That’s why I called you.”
Ira’s face flushed red. “It’s a dead coyote. You can leave it until the snow stops, but after that, have someone cover it with dirt and bury it.”
“Coyote is a part of Shoshone legend. A real trickster, but responsible for the creation of the Shoshone people. Messing with a coyote, that’s what you call bad karma.” Davis nodded toward the men on the other side of their horses, where a mound of dirty snow was growing. “They won’t go near it. It’s like a bad totem to have a hand in the evil.”
“Of all the pansy-ass . . .” He took off his Stetson and slapped it against his thigh, bits of snow flying, to reveal a head of thinning gray hair. “Don’t act like a damned dead varmint is the work of some higher power.”
“It’s not God’s work we’re afraid of. It’s the devil.” Davis’s arms were folded across his chest, solid and intractable.
“And you don’t have hands around that aren’t Shoshone?” “Not too many wanted to travel in the blizzard.”
“Fine. Get me a tarp and a shovel. Everything’s damn near frozen, but I’m not about to leave that corpse out here to attract cougars and wolves.” They were the enemies of a cattleman, and he’d be a fool to leave bait sitting out here.
In the meantime the men had carved out an impressive ditch in the nearly frozen-solid ground. By the time Ira dragged the carcass over, the pit was deep enough for a burial. Davis sent the other men on their way and took a shovel to cover the poor creature with dirt.
Ira stared across the fields. “You think one of the Kincaids is behind this?” he asked suspiciously, mentioning the rival family with a ranch down the road a piece. Ira always thought the Kincaids were behind everything bad that hap- pened.
Davis kept his own counsel and didn’t say what he was thinking: that the dead coyote was a bad omen, and that he’d seen one of Ira’s own flesh and blood literally dancing on the animal’s grave. But then, Ira hadn’t seen what he had.
“Just keep a cool head about it,” Ira said as they finished up. “And keep this to yourself.”
“I don’t share business with Sam, if that’s what you mean.” Davis’s brother, Sam Featherstone, was the sheriff of Prairie Creek.
“Well, good. And tell the other men to shut up about it if they want to keep their jobs here. We don’t need anyone poking around at the Rocking D, looking into my family’s business.”
Although the slain creature was under the dirt now, covered with dignity, a knot of dread was still lodged in Davis’s throat. He shouldn’t be afraid of a seventeen-year-old girl who was skinning animals on the ranch. Kit Dillinger, he could handle her.
The real fear was the thing that drove the rage . . . the lust to kill and deface the victims. If Kit was possessed by a bad spirit, he would see to it that she got help. He would take her to rehab personally. Shit, he knew plenty of people there.
And if it wasn’t Kit doing these things, and a big part of him hoped that it wasn’t, well, God help them all. There was true evil among them.
* * *
Run, old man, the killer thought, dropping his binoculars to stare at the disappearing vehicles of Dillinger and the foreman. The other men had led the stray cattle off a few minutes ago, but these two had lingered to bury the kill.
An amusing sight, watching grown men dig in the midst of all the snow. Poor bastards. Little did they know that this was just beginning. If they were going to serve old Ira, then they’d be busy indeed.
Taillights winked as Ira Dillinger hit the brakes before turning and driving over the ridge. The killer smiled to himself and dropped a hand into the pocket of his cargo pants. There he ran his finger over the sharp fang he’d pulled from the coyote’s jaw. It rattled against the molar he’d taken from the California girl before hiding her body. Just a little memento, to help relive it.
Jangling with the thrill of it. He licked suddenly dry lips.
The wind slapped him in the face and he backed away from the cover of scrub oak and pine, inching his way toward his cave. He’d have to move soon, find a new place to hide out. Especially since he knew his message had been delivered. But he’d expected as much.
He would need to back off, stay out of sight. He couldn’t always have this bird’s-eye view of their torment, though there were plenty of other ridges around the valley that would give him a good vantage point.
And it was just so damned good to see the old man squirm.
Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Jackson, LLC, Nancy Bush, and Rosalind Noonan
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Lisa Jackson is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than seventy-five novels. She has over twenty-million copies of her books in print in nineteen languages. She lives with her family and a rambunctious pug in the Pacific Northwest. Readers can vbecome her friend on Facebook, and check out her blog.