An excerpt of Zero-Degree Murder, the first book in the Gracie Kinkaid Search and Rescue Mystery series by M. L. Rowland (available January 7, 2014).
Search and rescue expert Gracie Kinkaid risks her life on a daily basis to save strangers. But going up against a coldhearted murderer is one kind of danger she’s not prepared for
As a volunteer for Timber Creek Search and Rescue, missing out on holiday festivities is nothing new to Gracie. After all, disasters don’t stop happening because of a cooked turkey. So when Gracie is called out on Thanksgiving for four hikers missing in the wilderness of Southern California, she packs up her gear and heads out to find them.
The mission quickly goes from routine to deadly. An early season blizzard sets in. The one missing person the team does find, famous actor Rob Christian, remembers being attacked by someone else on the trail, someone trying to kill him. And Gracie’s partner leaves to get backup, taking the radio—their only link to the outside world—with him.
Alone in the mountains, Gracie will have to use all her expertise to keep Rob alive. But with an unknown killer lurking somewhere in the dark, even that might not be enough to save them
Where the hell is Cashman?
It was after two o’clock in the morning. He had been gone for more than three hours.
Up the slope behind Gracie, Rob lay within the shelter, warm and, she assumed, sleeping.
As she waited for Cashman to return, she had wrapped herself in an emergency space blanket the thickness of a sheet of cheap paper and sat down with her back to a pine tree, knees pulled in to her chest. “I wish I had a rad-i-o,” she whispered, tapping a syncopated rhythm with her feet. “Next time I’ll keep the rad-i-o. Next time I’ll bring my own.”
Not that a radio would have been of the least bit use to her at the moment, but it was like a hard and heavy security blanket, offering succor even in times of canyons and dead spots and things that go bump in the night.
Gracie leaned back against the uncomfortable knobbly bark of the pine. She had turned off her headlamp, telling herself it was to save batteries and allow her eyes to grow accustomed to the dark, and not that sitting with her headlamp turned on allowed anyone creeping about in the darkness to see her without being seen.
While she waited, she examined more fully what Rob had told her about seeing someone die and that someone had tried to kill him. Head injury often manifested itself in confusion of facts. But the combination of his story with the presence of blood on the outcropping was too serious to be ignored.
If a murder or accidental killing had occurred and Rob had been attacked, who had done it and where was that person now?
Could the group have met someone else on the trail? Gracie had read about hikers who had been murdered—gruesome, horrific murders. What if there was a psycho killer wandering around the wilderness area?
She looked around, eyes wide. She held her breath to listen, but the heavy thud thud thud of her heart overrode all other sound.
Quit scaring yourself, dope. Take a deep breath. She inhaled deeply, filling her lungs to capacity, then slowly blew it out.
The probability that someone was out there attacking innocent hikers was so remote as to be ludicrous. And besides, there had been no new tracks up on the trail. The only other option was that it was one of the hiking group itself. Who was the killer, Mr. X? Tristan? Tristan the Psycho Killer? She snorted out loud.
Had Tristan killed Joseph and then tried to kill Rob? Could Carlos have done it? Or Joseph?
And what about Cristina? Or Diana? Gracie had almost dismissed both women as the attacker out of hand. But since not considering either one simply because they were women seemed way too much like reverse sexism, she reconsidered both women as the potential killer.
From the description Gracie had received of Diana, she knew the woman was only about five feet tall and weighed less than a hundred pounds. Cristina was a string bean, taller than Gracie by three inches, but weighing twenty pounds less. Unless either woman was a black-belt in karate, chances were pretty slim she had taken out Carlos, Tristan and/or Joseph and then had tried to kill Rob.
Except if she—Ms. X—had a weapon of some kind—a gun, even a knife. Any garden-variety kitchen knife was a potential weapon. And guns were as easy to get in L.A as. . . . guns. A gun or knife would certainly tip the scales in a woman’s favor—or anyone’s for that matter. If Rob had no weapon with which to defend himself, he might have had no choice but to run. And very possibly the only direction for him to run had been down.
Was the killing an accident? Or was it intentional?
Gracie decided there were too many possibilities of who had done what to whom, accidentally or purposely, and turned to what she should be thinking about, which was where Mr. or Ms. X and the others might be.
Maybe she had missed something on the way down from the trail. She had been so busy trying to keep from falling on her face that she hadn’t really been keeping much of any eye out for clues or evidence of any kind. Maybe Mr. X was hiding from them when they had come by. Maybe that was why they hadn’t found him.
What if Mr. X came down into the canyon looking for Rob? What if he had seen her and Steve hiking the trail and had been tracking the trackers? What if, at this very minute, he was watching her, waiting for his chance to pounce?
Suddenly every sound of the night was a foot stepping on a stick, every whisper of wind the brushing of fabric against a branch, every shadow a man leering out from behind a tree. Or bush. Or boulder.
Gracie wasn’t law enforcement and so carried no firearm. Ice axe. Crampons. Trekking poles. Any potential substantial weapon was strapped to her pack currently posing as the shelter door. Gracie pulled up her jacket, ripped open the sheath attached to her belt and pulled out a four-inch hunting knife. Not that she had the slightest clue of what to do with a knife in a fight. And even if she did know, the thought of sticking it into someone’s flesh made her skin crawl. Pretty much useless then, she decided, not quite sure whether she was referring to the knife or herself.
I wish Ralphie were here, she thought and immediately felt better, the thought of him acting as a balm on her frazzled psyche. “The ballast in my stupid-ass, rudderless life,” she said out loud.
Gracie crashed back to earth, belatedly and with no small amount of guilt thinking of Cashman. He was out there somewhere actively looking for the MisPers. Maybe that was why he was late. Maybe Mr. X got him. Maybe at this very moment he was lying on his back with his throat cut, sightless eyes staring up at the—
Cashman would be very hard to take out, Gracie assured herself. Plus the chances were slim that Mr. X would attack someone wearing Sheriff’s Department patches on his neon orange parka and helmet.
A branch breaking on the hillside below sounded like a rifle shot in the dark. Adrenaline sizzled like a jolt of electricity all the way to Gracie’s fingertips.
Someone was stealthily climbing up from the creek.
Gracie froze, her breathing shallow. She prayed that Rob would make no sound inside the shelter. The hand that gripped the knife’s handle was slippery with sweat inside its glove.
Leaves rustled. A footstep. Then another. Closer.
She held her breath.
Copyright © 2014 by M. L. Rowland.
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A former search and rescue worker for over a decade, M. L. Rowland lives with her family on the Arkansas River in Colorado.