March 21, 2021
Joyce Riddle huffed, raw mountain air burning her lungs with each breath. She sweated beneath the heavy brown parka and state trooper uniform. She managed to stop herself from stumbling and falling to the icy ground as a tiny stream runs swift like a river down the small of her back. Suspect’s a hundred yards ahead, increasing his lead with every step. Where the hell does he think he’s going in the middle of a white- out? How long does he think he can last wounded in this climate? Escaped mental patient? Tweeker?
She pulled the ski mask up exposing her face to frigid air. Breathe. A lock of damp dark hair fell from beneath the wool cap and brushed the tip of her wind-chapped nose. She squinted. Blowing snow stung her eyes, clouding her vision.
Losing him didn’t worry her. Bright-red-blood stood out in pure-driven-alabaster-white Rocky Mountain snow. Thank God one of the men in the motel parking lot got a shot off before being gunned down. She squeezed the grip of her sidearm and fingered the trigger. Preparation for confrontation. 9mm hollow points. “Take-down -rounds.” That’s what the squad leader at the Colorado State Police Academy called them. The memory reminded her that what she might have to do once she caught up to him needled her already raw nerves.
She’d only been in one other foot chase in her seven-years as a state trooper. “Roy the drunken hunter,” an easy catch, wearing orange and firing his deer rifle up at the man in the moon. The only threat he’d offered was a crude redneck remark about how “sweet” her ass looked in her curve hugging uniform.
Man ahead is no “Roy the hunter.” She’d be forced to shoot him if he resisted. Even if he’s unarmed, can’t risk a fight this winded. She tipped the scale at a sturdy one thirty, muscle mass outweighing body fat, at her last mandatory physical, but even through the blowing snow she estimated he had an easy forty pounds on her.
Is he armed? She assumed so. Had to. Procedure. But he hadn’t fired on her and only looked back in her direction once. He seemed indifferent to her presence. Not running from something, running to something. What possible destination? Both charged full steam down the middle of Dry Gulch, a dead river. Its waters dried up a century ago at the height of the gold rush, back when Cold Spring still commanded the nickname, Gold Spring, a title given by fever-riddled- prospectors.
The river’s banks grew taller, the deeper into the wild they tore a path, currently up to seven feet on each side. The bank shielded them from the blizzard’s stronger winds. He slowed near an enormous rock formation. She prayed he’d finally run out of wind and adrenalin. My tank’s empty. She closed the gap between them, raised her Glock, and aimed for the center of his back.
He ignored the order, darting into a cave at her right. A cave? Crazy son of-a-bitch is running into a cave? She spotted the rear rock wall beyond the cavern gloom. Dead end, Einstein.
“Stop! Don’t make me shoot!” The surge in adrenalin caused her heart to slam against her chest.
He fell down on his knees, panting and wheezing inside the cave mouth.
She inched closer. He held something in the palm of his right hand. Not a gun, too small. He wrapped his fingers around it.
“Open your hands and raise ’em above your head, so I can see them! Now!”
Again, he ignored her, digging in the snow between the rocks on the cave floor. He reminded her of a dog scrounging for food, eyes wild with hunger.
“It’s here! It’s here! I saw it! I swear! Let me dig! Maybe they buried it! I’ll split it! Please! Help me!”
“What the hell you talking about?” She stepped closer, keeping the gun trained on his torso, eyes on his hands.
He looked up and whispered, “Cold.”
Welcome to Colorado. “I’m cold too. Make this simple. You’re bleeding and suffering from exposure. Now raise--”
“Not cold! Gold! Gold!” He wailed, rocking back and fourth on his knees, nearly in tears. She noted a trifecta of injuries. Blood flowed from a flesh wound on his forehead, gunshot to the shoulder, and the corner of a freshly slit lip. Besides the bullet wound the guy’s been banged around by someone.
She cocked her head in disbelief. “Gold? You’re a hundred years too late.” He opened his right hand. Her eyes locked on to the glow, mystical in the way it caught and reflected the pale light falling down between the snow-covered branches of the high mountain pines. Licking her tongue across cracked lips, swallowing, she tried to say something but couldn’t get the words out. She turned her gaze from the gold piece and peered deep into his delirious green eyes.
“Gold.” He grinned and nodded. You feel it, don’t you?
“Gold,” she whispered.
The precious metal slipped from his hand, bouncing off rocks, landing on the frozen ground. The trance broke. She made a move to pick it up. What the hell you thinking? She sucked in a breath of cold air to clear her head. Get a grip! You got a job to do! He reached for the gold. She aimed the gun at his chest and ordered him, for the last time, to raise his hands. He stopped breathing and froze in mid-motion. She sensed he’d noticed her pistol for the first time, his face ash white with fear.
“Don’t be afraid. I promise…” She halted, speechless. Shock. The man she’d chased down the riverbed, the man she’d feared apprehending, the suspected killer, pissed his pants.
What the hell did I do to ignite this response? Guy’s scared out of his mind. Lowering the gun, she shifted her eyes from the wet stain spreading across the crotch of his jeans to the gold piece lying among the rocks, sucker-punched in the gut by a terrifying realization. Not rocks. She froze. Bones. He’d unearthed a wolf’s skull, stripped clean of flesh, white as the snow that swirled outside the cave mouth.
She looked to those delirious eyes once again. Not my gun firing his sudden panic attack and bladder. He peered over her right shoulder as she heard the familiar sound, a snort, thick, nasal. Her turn to stop breathing. The mass of flesh and muscle behind her moved, shifting its weight forward, shaking the ground beneath her feet. She knew the bigger males weighed half a ton. So close now she could smell the ripe, musky canine scent, stale from a season’s worth of hibernation.
Don’t panic. Keep your head clear. Too late. Images sparked by campfire horror stories strangled her thoughts. What the hell happened to Goldilocks in the fairy tale?
Exhale or black out. The mist released from her mouth clouded her view of the man kneeling in the snow. He managed to mumble the word, “monster,” before falling on his face, unconscious. That left only her, the beast, and three options. Spin, squeeze and pray. She could get one, maybe two, shots off before the attack, and it’d be over. One swipe of its massive paw would decapitate her. She glanced down at the suspect. What about him? Fuck him. He’d led her to this chamber of death. You’re on your own with your twisted, belated case of gold fever.
Spin and squeeze. A simple command, but the communication line between her brain and lower body had been short circuited by fear and fatigue. Her legs were still wobbly from the chase. She felt a tingle in her waist, but no movement. Then, in a delayed reaction, she spun, squeezed the trigger of her sidearm, and prayed.
She heard the shot ring out, echoing off the mountainsides, distant, dream-like. She managed a second shot, before opening her eyes in time to see it lunge.
She locked her jaw in defiance. Fuck you, too.
… two Mississippi, three Mississippi. Graham Lockhart frowned. Three seconds of visibility, between the time the wipers scraped away the last layer of snow before the blizzard covered the glass spelled disaster for a car with a broken defroster. Find a cheap motel.
He wiped his sleeve across the inside of the windshield, an attempt to resurrect the ’01 Dodge Dart’s heater. He shivered. The cold. Heater had choked an hour outside Denver, twenty minutes after the radio warbled its last tune. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” He glanced at his watch. Two A.M. Rocky Mountain Time. Geez. He twisted the controls, praying for a response. Nothing, only more dead weight in the dash.
She’s old, but dependable. On my mama’s grave, Chief. Grin and wink. He bit his lip from frustration and imagined pounding the slick-talking Tennessee car salesman, who sold him the p-o-s, senseless. The revenge fantasy diverted his attention from the road for only seconds.
The buck’s antlers appeared out of the blinding snow much like a shark’s dorsal fin pops up from an ocean wave before an unsuspecting swimmer’s frightened eyes. He slammed his foot on the brake.
The Dart spun right as the deer dashed out of sight up the mountain side to his left. Graham eased off the brakes, praying the rear wheels might discover traction in the next few seconds. No dice. Tail Spin. A 5000-foot drop beyond the guardrail meant one thing. He clenched his teeth and prepared for the inevitable death-plummet.
The Dart plunged into an enormous snowdrift in front of the guardrail buffering the impact. His head banged into the steering wheel as the nose of the car collided with the guardrail. The rusted rail bulged outward from the pressure but didn’t split apart.
He sat shaken and hypnotized by the empty black void beyond the cracked windshield. After regaining wind and senses, he glanced at his trembling hands. Blood free. His head fell back against the headrest. “Whew.”
He chuckled in disbelief. “Saved by a snow drift! Gotta be fuck’n kidding me! Lucky Bastard!”
Graham turned the ignition and stomped the gas. The car revved to life. He reconsidered the Dart’s reliability, maybe not so bad a buy for twelve Benjamins and some change from a seedy car lot.
He dropped the car in reverse. The rear wheels spun. No traction. He snorted. “Fucking ice.” No death from the crash. Don’t get moving… from exposure.
He knew the old standby, rev and push backward. He stomped the gas, opened the door, dropped his foot to the ground, and pushed. The car lurched backward the instant something snatched his attention. A light? Faint, dim, roughly fifty feet up the road. He stopped pushing and squinted. Taillight? Another stuck car? Got a shovel, Boss? Or sand? That’d help. He grabbed the flashlight from the glove box, jumped out of the car, and dashed toward it.
The car had spun off the road into an even larger snow bank, buried, lights on but fading fast.
“Anybody home?” Silence.
He brushed the snow away, attempting to peer in, but couldn’t see through the ice layer.
He dug his fingers into the snow, felt for the driver’s side handle, kicked at the icy coat, and the transparent sheet shattered at the door’s seam. He lifted the handle, opened the door, and fell down on his bad knee. Shock. A moment passed before he stood and shined the light inside the car’s frosty interior.
Graham couldn’t determine exactly how long the driver had been dead, just that it was long enough for his face to freeze to the deflated airbag. Frozen saliva ran down from his fat blue lips, across his thick dark beard, forming a tiny icicle at the tip of his chin.
He pointed the light past the man into the passenger and rear seats. Empty. He shifted the beam to the outside of the car. No tracks in any direction. He turned it back to the man’s face and let it trail down to his shoes. White, mid-forties, silk shirt, Italian loafers, showroom new BMW. Money. Lawyer? Broker? C.E.O.? Graham shrugged. Don’t matter now, Chief.
He glanced over his shoulder. He’d passed a Highway Patrol station a few miles back. Call and report? Nada. He could only afford a burner cell, and he’d used the last few purchased minutes back in Memphis. He looked to the running Dodge. It could be worth it to take a look inside. Bone chilling wind swept down the road around him, reminding him how important a factor time was in the equation.
What the hell? He released the seat lever and climbed in the back, rich leather seats hardened by subfreezing temperature. He closed his eyes. Sweet German engineering. He blinked. No time to play pretend. Get to it.
He opened the middle pocket and aimed the flashlight inside. The beam found forty-five cents in loose change and a bottle of Lortabs. Money headaches. He huffed, “Small price to pay. Rich bastard.”
The glove box held only an owner’s manual and registration. No cell. Probably in his pants pocket.
He spotted a gym bag on the passenger side floorboard. He snatched it and found an i-Phone, latest gen of course, a half bottle of scotch, expensive shit of course, a current issue of Playboy, and a Colorado hotel guide. He tossed the Playboy and bottle of scotch to the side and grinned. Keepers. Boner and buzz for my trouble. Something was off about the weight of the hotel guide. He opened it and the object tucked inside fell onto his lap. He jumped, startled.
“Gold.” Primal instinct, natural, voracious, lurched upward, closing his throat, jump-starting his heart. Pure gold. He could tell by the feel and gleam, almost supernatural.
He picked it up. Little bigger than a domino, much heavier. Graham didn’t recognize the lettering stamped in the metal. Not Asian. He knew this from his hitch in the Navy. Middle Eastern?
He gauged the weight with his hand.
“Five ounces. Maybe more.”
What had he heard over the news? Gold at an all-time high? A thousand dollars an ounce meant five thousand in the palm of his hand.
He looked to the dead driver. “Who the hell are you?”
He pressed the i-Phone’s wake button and the screen blinked faintly to life. The cold had taken its toll on the lithium. He knew if a person wanted to find out more information about someone this would be the starting point. His forefinger struck the video gallery tab by accident, and an image filled the screen. It had been shot inside a murky interior. Abandoned house? Cave. He recognized the rock walls as the image cleared. Two voices argued spurned with feverish urgency in the background.
“Shine the light in the direction I fucking tell you!”
“Okay. Okay, Boss. Reign in your horses. Can’t see two feet in front of me without the beam.” He spotted the image of a hand pointing to a darker area a few feet deeper inside the cave. The instant the light struck the thing that occupied the space the screen illuminated wildly from the reflection.
More gold. Not domino sized pieces, bricks large enough to build a fucking house. His eyes bulged as the frigid air caught in his throat again.
A fucking treasure, maybe hidden somewhere in the surrounding mountains, but how could he find it in the blizzard without direction? He dropped the phone, grabbed the hotel guide, and flipped through the pages. A tourist-trap motel called the Wild Frontier had been circled in black ink. Beside that someone had scrawled, ‘R 5, FB 7.’
He looked to the driver again. “Room five? Hidden directions? Fucking treasure map tucked inside a drawer beside the Gideon Bible?
Flash of light. Headlights. Car approaching slow in the storm. He rubbed a hand across his bare scalp and then through bristles of his red soul patch. The patrol station. Cops? They’d be up and over the hill in minutes. He glanced at his watch. Nearly 3 A.M.
Graham was out of breath by the time he reached the Dart. Sucking gulps of frigid air, he opened the driver’s side door, threw the sack with the magazines, whisky bottle, and i-Phone crammed inside onto the seat, and climbed in, gold piece tucked deep in his jean pocket.
He dropped the gearshift in reverse and slammed his foot on the pedal. Rev and rock. Come on traction, I know you’re hiding somewhere. He knew the drill. Out of the car! Spread ’em! How the hell’s a thirty-eight-year-old ex-con going to explain the dead body and gold?
Colorado State Trooper Joyce Riddle pulled her snowmobile beside her first-year-Rookie’s sled at the rear of the tiny patrol station. She killed the motor, looked up at the dark sky, and released a sigh of frustration. Blizzard. Not the best first day of Rocky Mountain spring scenario. It was times like this she reminisced about her home states dependably warm springs. Georgia on my mind.
She climbed off, trudged through the back door into the storage room, and noticed the army-green-cot folded out beneath the supply shelves and fresh pressed uniforms. Slept in. She smiled. Good men both Charlie Brown and Floating-Reed.
She slipped into the main office and spotted her first officer at his desk, reading a magazine and bopping his head to the beat flowing up to ears from his cell. She slipped out of her helmet, tread quietly across the floor until she was in reach, and snatched the ear buds from his ear. “Top of the morning, Floating-Reed!”
He jumped startled, nearly falling out of his chair, looked to her, and then his watch. “Wham, bam, and thank you Mam, scared the hell outa me, Kemosabe. Four A.M. Early.”
She grinned and hung her helmet on the hook by the door. She moved to the front window and peered out at the storm. “We got the typicals ahead of us with this thing. Snow began to blow in that familiar wicked way last night before I popped an Ambien and detoured into dreamland. Hoped and prayed it’d only be an early-spring-dusting and not a full-blown-monster.”
Charlie considered the scene outside the window. “Yeah, I stepped out last night, around midnight to gauge it. Could tell then, by the wind gusts, what’s coming.”
She turned away from the window, looked to him, and grinned. “Native-American-instinct?”
He returned the smile. “You watched too many westerns as a kid. Native-Coloradan-instincts.”
“Noticed the cot in the storage room.”
“Double shift day?
He nods. “Rocky Mountain surprises. Got to Love ’em.”
She grabbed a cup of coffee, sat at her desk, sipped, and grimaced.
“My bad Kemosabe. Last night’s. Haven’t brewed a fresh pot yet.”
“We gotta break down and pick up a Keurig. Heard if the state’s closed the road?”
“Hour ago,” he confirms.
She swiveled her chair and focused on the swirling snow. “It’s nearing white-out stage. It’s good the roads are already closed. No new stragglers or lost tourists looking for the ski-lodge in Sapp Town. My guess is we have a few trapped inside our jurisdiction, for sure a couple, or two, at the Wild Frontier.”
As if on cue Charlie sighed, closed the magazine, stood, and reached for his coat and helmet.”
She raised a hand and halted him. “Reopen your current issue of American Rock Climber and sit tight.”
“You volunteering to make the early rounds in this? Isn’t that a sign of the coming apocalypse?”
She reached for her helmet. “I have to feel this thing out. Keep the line open. If I need you I’ll radio.”
Before grabbing the magazine, he grinned. “Ears like a fox, always up and on alert, Kemosabe. I’ll leave the i-Tunes purchases quiet for now.”
She glanced at the coffee pot before leaving. “Have a fresh pot of caffeine ready by the time I return. Break out the Red Bull also. Need a stronger, tastier dose of eye-opener-juice.”
“Done and done. Keep the blades to the snow, Kemosabe.”
She waited a beat before leaving and turned to him. “You know you just started calling me that, instead of Joyce, since you finally gave in and watched the last Lone Ranger movie on DVD. Took you five years to work up the motivation?”
He snickered. “Come on Boss I mean I love Johnny Depp as a boozy swashbuckler as well as the rest of the free world, but my people are represented by a non-native-type sporting a dead bird on his head. Had to take something worthwhile from the experience.”
“Understood.” She winked and closed the door behind her.
“Why the jones for five? The eight are identical, Cowboy.”
Graham thought about the manger’s surprised reaction to his request as he jammed the key into the cabin lock and twisted. He had been too busy pondering the Dart’s tire tread’s miraculous discovery of traction before the approaching car topped the hill behind him to consider his curiosity. Know about the gold? No. His bloodshot brown eyes were more resentful, than suspicious for getting drug out of bed at this early hour. Prick reminded him of a bloated, unshaven, seriously-hung-over Dr.Phil.
Before opening the door, he did a quick visual scan of the row of eight connected cabins and other cars, partially covered Green VW Beetle in front of three, maroon Lincoln Navigator in front of seven, and a black and gold Mustang down at eight. He considered the Mustang before opening the door. He shook his head and grunted. Never owned a new car in my life.
He thought about the gold and grinned. “Maybe soon though.”
Inside, he locked the door, dumped the magazines and cell phone out of the sack onto the bed, and placed the whisky on top of the dresser. He flipped the tourist guide to the page with the writing, paced, and clung to the gold piece for inspiration.
Tear the room apart? Drawers? Closet? Nahh. Bad ideas. The letters stand for something specific.
“R five. Room five. FB seven? F for furniture?”
Even if he counted the phone, television and lamp as furniture, added to the bed, dresser, and nightstand that only equaled six pieces.
Damn. Think you frazzled bastard. Think!
“B for bathroom?” He peeked inside the tiny bathroom, stained sink- basin, cracked-mirror, filthy-red-shower-curtain, dripping -faucet, stench of body odor and cheap perfume. Tourist-trap motel standbys all accounted for but nothing else.
He sat on the side of the bed and rubbed his tired eyes. Sleep. No sleep with the gold on my mind. He glanced up at the tiled ceiling and then to the floor, attention focused on the muddy brown carpet.
He spotted a hole, about the size of a quarter, near the tip of his faded Converse and noted the wood floor beneath. Wood floor?
“FB seven. Floorboard seven,” he whispered.
He leapt to the corner of the room near the door, grabbed the carpet, and tugged. It pulled free of the floor with little effort. The floorboards ran parallel with the door.
He spotted scratch marks around the crack between slats six and seven. He fished his car keys from his pocket and shoved the tip between the crack. The board gave, but he needed something longer for leverage. He searched the drawers and found a screwdriver, wedged the tip into the slit, popped it out of place, grabbed the flashlight, and directed the beam between the boards. A cell? No. GPS. Not built for a car but a hand-held.
He flipped it over and found a piece of paper taped to the back and grinned. Old school treasure map. A series of three rectangles represented the motel, the post office, and the trooper station. A fourth rectangle, on the opposite side of the road, near the cop station, had been marked Medical Center.
Roughly two dozen tiny X’s dotted around the mountains marked the cabin homes of the permanent residents. A dark line ran from the motel across the road in between facing mountainsides. Beside this line someone had written: “½ mile to Dry Gulch.” A separate line ran down the middle of Dry Gulch. Beside this line were more directions. ‘One-mile down riverbed to cave, ten paces past rock formation. (40/7lb. Bs.) Click GPS to hone in on microchip.’
“Forty, seven-pound bricks?” Forty bricks, at seven pounds a brick, at sixteen ounces a pound, at nearly a thousand dollars an ounce? He attempted the end equation in his head.
“In the neighborhood of four million,” he whispered.
With the light, map and the GPS he could find the gold. Problem. How the hell was one person supposed to carry 280 pounds of gold all the way back without being noticed?
He opened the closet door, backpack. Smart. He’d be just another Rocky Mountain hiker lost in the storm. He unzipped the pack and gauged the width. Ten bricks.
One person can’t haul forty bricks out of the woods without the risk of multiple attention drawing trips. But one able body can haul seventy pounds of over the course of one and a half miles. Three more besides the dead guy. Here at the motel?
He jumped at the sound of a car revving to life. He moved to the window and spotted a couple teens, boy and girl, arguing inside the Mustang, before backing out of the lot. He slunk back to the bed and sat down. Young lover’s quarrel. Getting too skittish over the gold. Stay coo,l and focused, if you want to get through this. He put his head in his hands to calm himself before nearly following forward, nerves assaulted by urgent pounding at the door.
Riddle climbed off the snowmobile, placed her right hand over her sidearm, and approached the stalled car. She’d assured herself that once she’d made the force she wouldn’t turn into a “twitchy cop,” imagining a concealed weapon beneath every seat. Still she let her hand drop an inch closer to her pistol. Measured caution. Not fear. Measured caution. Besides, it’s early. Not quite daylight, not quite dark. Window’s covered in snow.
She wiped the snow off the shield of her helmet in order to view the car better and glanced up at the sky. Still in its infant stage. Terrible twos of the weather pattern. Bitch is shoving cars backward as they try to plow forward. Spurred by a few more hours of growth, it’d claim power and phone lines, cutting the town’s sparse fifty or so residents off from outside help. She needed the extra time to make the usual preparations. Not to preach to out of state motorists the dangers of driving up and down enormous mounds of earth in the middle of a blizzard. Why didn’t the state just close the roads twenty-four hours earlier and save her and Charlie the trouble?
She watched the rear tires spin, slinging dirty slush over her head. She sighed. Not going anywhere today, fella. She reached out and tapped the window. The driver opened the door. Wrong move. Something’s in his hand! Alarms sounded. She drew her weapon, spread her legs in shooting stance, and ordered him to stay put.
Didn’t hear or didn’t care? The skinny, wide-eyed kid leapt out the door of the tricked-out shiny black and gold Mustang. She braced herself and stepped forward. “Hands in the air!”
He held them out instead of up. Frustration. Not a good listener.
“It’s a cell phone! Please don’t shoot!”
Cell. She relaxed her stance and holstered her Glock. If she had fired the gun the headlines of the Denver Post flashed before her mind’s eye.: Do Black Lives Matter in the Rocky Mountains? Yes, they did. But it didn’t mater whether a person was black, white, Latino or a Syrian refugee you can’t jump like that out of a car with an object in your hand on an armed police officer, just can’t. Five A.M. Too early for this, kid.
“Been trying to call for help. Girlfriend’s missing! No fucking signal!”
She grabbed the hand with the phone and pushed it back down to his side. “Never. Never, jump out at a police officer!”
He looked down at his shoes. “Sorry. Scared.”
“Not very. We left the motel and got in a fight. She got out of the car. Said she’d open the door and jump if I didn’t stop and let her out. Love her, but she’s crazy right now.” His big browns widened as he spoke.
Scared eyes. Not lying. But a little buzzed. “Where?”
“Half mile that way.” He pointed down the road behind them. “I was pissed. Pretended to drive off. I was just gonna drive a little way out of sight. I swear I was going back to get her when the car got stuck. I got out and ran back, screaming her name. Didn’t see her. Got scared and ran to the car to call. Zero signal. No fucking cell towers round here?”
“What’s your name?”
“Jamie Pauly. He shivered, bouncing back and forth from one foot to the other. He wore basket-ball high-tops, jeans and a thin sweater pulled over a t-shirt. So damn young. Twenty… if a day. And so damn unprepared. “Okay Jordan, this is what I need you to do: get back in the car, sit tight and stay warm. I’m going to radio my second officer with your location. He’ll come and pick you up, take you to our station. I’ll go to where your girlfriend got out of the car. Soon as I locate her, I’ll notify him, and bring her back to the station to be with you.”
He shivered and nodded.
“Lean forward and wrap your arms around your chest. Keep your body heat contained.”
He jumped inside the car and heeded her advice. She turned, walked back to her snowmobile, and radioed Charlie.
“Charlie, you got a copy?”
“Go for it Kemosabe.”
“Need you for a pick-up and escort down around mile marker 24. Maybe three miles past the Wild Frontier.”
She heard him sigh over the radio speaker.
“Yuppies, kids, or old folks?”
“Kids. Boy named Jordan. He’s freezing his ass off in his Mustang.”
“Gonna be a hell of a lot colder on the back of my sled. Only one?”
“Two. Girlfriend’s missing.”
“Missing in a white-out? Oh hell. Want me to call H.Q.?”
She looked down the mountain road to where the boy pointed.
“Negative. Got a hunch. I’ll call headquarters myself if I don’t spot her in the next ten.”
“Ten-four. Your call. On my way.”
Graham peered through the frost covered motel window. Panic had wrapped its tentacles around him and tightened their grip with every passing minute. He pushed the map and GPS under the bed, tried to replace the board and carpet before the manager opened the door with the master key. The board slipped from his sweaty hands. He heard the lock click and leapt for the door.
“What the hell took you so long?”
“Sorry, sleeping. Hell-uva-day.”
The manager, only half convinced, pressed his scruff five ‘o’ clock shadow between the doorjamb and the door. Graham shoved his foot against the bottom, holding it open only a crack. Forgot to bolt the chain. The manager spotted the bed through the opening but couldn’t see the carpet and floorboard piled in the corner.
“Bed’s still made.”
Graham glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah. Fell on the bitch and was out. Long-grueling-day TKO. What can I do for you, Chief?” Graham looked at his watch and attempted to sound casual. “It’s four thirty. A.M., heavily emphasizing the ‘A.M.’ “Sleep and bed are calling, no make that screaming, if you don’t mind.” Be convincing. Avoid catastrophe.
“State’s closing the road leading in and out of town in a few hours. Heard it on the weather-band. If you’re staying, I’m going to need some money. Up front.”
Prick. Now he knew the kid’s reason blowing the place.
Graham, stifling his anger with a fake smile and eager to please nod, pulled out his wallet and handed the man the last of his cash. Five-o-clock shadow backed away from the door and counted the bills, then crammed them inside the pocket of his jeans.
Graham looked to the floor forehead crossed in frustration. He’d given the son-of-a-bitch all the money he had. What else was there? He peered into the manager’s bloodshot eyes, reminding him of his own court appointed AA Meetings. The whiskey. Takes one to know one, Chief.
He grabbed the bottle off the dresser and shoved it through the crack. The manager snatched the scotch, unscrewed the cap, and sniffed.
“Three hundred-dollar-a-bottle-hooch. At least half-full. That’s a hundred- and- fifty bucks more worth of the good stuff. Liquid gold, Boss.”
The manager replaced the cap and shoved the bottle inside his faded green army coat. “It’ll do.”
Graham grinned. “That it?”
The manager huffed. Don’t allow no out-of-town meth-heads and first whiff of a c-pipe and your ass is out in the storm. Clear?”
“Crystal.” Graham closed the door and hooked the chain. He noticed the corner of the map under the bed, picked it up, and scrutinized it. How had he missed the thin trail of red droplet stains spattered on the page, large spot behind the rectangle representing the Wild Frontier?
Last person to hold the map’s dead. Splitting the gold four ways ain’t as appealing as splitting it three. Only two more people involved.
A glow in the window got his attention. Graham flicked off the lights, peered between the blinds, and watched the midnight-blue four-door pull up to the office. He was sure it was the car behind him at the wreck.
The car door opened, and a slim white man, wearing a black topcoat and dark knit cap, stepped out. Graham squinted and spotted the silhouette of another passenger.
The manager opened the office door, a moment passed, he stumbled back to the mobile home parked behind the office, and the man climbed back into the idling car.
Graham ducked below the windowsill, as the Crown Vic pulled into the space next to his Dart. Both doors opened simultaneously. The taller and heavier of the two, the passenger, wore the same style of dark topcoat as the other man, blue New York Mets baseball cap, bill pulled low. His sharp green eyes shifted left and right as he walked past the window. Graham noticed the jagged, lightning bolt scar running down the side of the big man’s face and the crude diamond shaped tattoo on the smaller man’s left hand. Prison tat? The men moved with purpose. He heard the cabin door slam shut and the lock click.
Graham crept from the window to the wall and secured his ear against the cheap paneling. They spot the abandoned car? Finding a dead man would give them plenty to talk about. They probably reported it to the police.
No excited conversation. He only made out the sound of a toilet flush and television voice chatter, squeak of bedsprings. Graham backed away from the wall and sat down on the bed. He scratched his goatee. It didn’t make sense. What kind of people found a dead body and then went on like nothing extraordinary happened? Kind of people only interested in the whereabouts of millions in gold.
“Get a grip Graham. You’re paranoid.”
He heard the cabin door open and was off the bed, back at the window. The big man unlocked the car’s trunk, pulled out two hefty backpacks, flung them over his shoulder, and carried them inside the cabin.
Backpacks. Oh hell.
Graham’s gut churned like a washing machine and his hands shook more than after the wreck. He switched on the TV to calm his nerves. He heard a sound on the other side of the wall, jumped up, and looked around the little room for anything he could use to defend himself. Just in case.
Lamp’s the only thing that can be used as a weapon. Graham reached for it but stopped short of grabbing it. What the hell you thinking? Had the gold piece a little over an hour. Transformed the men in the next room into killers. So, they hadn’t talked endlessly about finding the body. Probably didn’t even notice the car. Maybe they’re dead tired and searching for rest and some sleep, just a couple of fellow travelers caught off guard by this Rocky-Mountain-shit-storm. And the backpacks? Backpacks aren’t exactly an uncommon accessory in this part of the country. Before long a clueless mountain cop will show up with a few questions the moment the body’s discovered. When the cop leaves, get the gold. Simple plan.
He replaced the floorboard and carpet, sat down on the bed, and yawned. Sleep did beckon as a Siren did its victims in Greek Mythology, but paranoia’s tentacles kept on squeezing as he managed to doze off for only a second before the shattering of the mountain silence and his fake sense of calm.
Riddle clipped the radio onto her belt and straddled the snowmobile, spun around and blazed in the direction the boy pointed. What emotional state drove a girl to step out the door of a car in the middle of a snowstorm? She sighed.
She was out of sight of the Mustang when she noticed the footprints in the snow. She pulled over alongside the guardrail, jumped off the sled and peered over the rail, down at the trees and rocks a thousand feet below, the view as majestic as it was deadly. Girl’s emotional, not suicidal.
Joyce followed the tracks down the side of the rail. They veered off and crossed the road a few yards ahead, disappearing into a cluster of pines running zig-zag through a tight valley. She pushed her way through the snow-heavy branches.
“Jamie! Jamie Pauly!” No answer but the lone mountain echo of her own voice. She moved a little further into the trees and placed her hand on her radio. What if my gut instinct’s wrong, and the girl’s in danger? Even if she called headquarters this instant, it would take hours for them to get here in the storm. She lifted her hand off the walkie-talkie, ducked under a limb, and proceeded forward. Need to handle the situation on my own, if possible. Her fellow officers were spread thin enough in the weather. Follow the tracks.
She trudged upon a clearing in the trees. Snow stood untouched here. The girl circumvented the spot, staying in the thick of the pines. But why? Hiding? Lost? It had become a wilderness setting cliché in the movies and on TV shows but, as if on cue by the grand director, she heard the howl of a lone wolf in the distance.
This time she got a response, a faint cry to her right. She turned and ran. The dark complected girl clung to a tree trunk, heaving and gagging. Riddle ran over to her and pulled her long dark hair back from her face.
She managed a quick, “uh-uh,” between heaves. “I’m--”
The girl looked up at her. “How’d you know? Jordan told you. He can rap and rap.”
“Not him. No mystery. Killer hormones. Morning sickness. Been there. Done that. Twice.”
The girl’s almond shaped brown eyes reminded Joyce of her oldest daughter’s. Little darker than Myra’s. Hispanic heritage? Maybe.
“Thanks for holding my hair.”
“Don’t mention it. You done? It’s best for both of us that you get it all out before you get on the back of my sled. No puke on my shoulder.” Riddle managed over the wind’s howl.
The girl nodded. “I’m better.”
Riddle stooped down and scooped up a hand full of snow. She rolled it into a tiny ball and handed it to the girl.
The girl took it and glanced up at her, unsure. Riddle looked deeper into her eyes. Hispanic mother. White Father. Or vice versa. She enjoyed determining heritages. So much information was in the eyes and face.
“Suck on it. Pure drift will help settle your stomach.”
The girl thanked her. Riddle led the girl by the hand through the wind driven trees to the snowmobile. She tossed the girl her helmet and wrapped her jacket around her shoulders.
The girl hesitated before climbing on. “Never been on one of these things.”
“Ever been on the back of a motorcycle?”
“Once or twice with my last boyfriend.”
“Same thing. Sort of. Keep your head down, hold tight to my body, and if you feel me lean, lean with me. The winds are kicking up, so if it gets a little choppy don’t stress.” She pulled her ski mask down over her face and slipped on her goggles.
“You taking me to jail?” A snow filled gust whipped around the girl. She shivered.
“No, the motel.”
“He’s at the station.”
“You going to arrest him? I mean he’s kind of a jerk, but--”
Riddle smiled. “No arrest. Maybe give him a time out. He’s been drinking.”
“You smell it?”
“No. His eyes and expression.”
The girl looked at her, confused.
“Poker,” she said.
“You know poker?” Riddle asked in disbelief.
“My dad played.”
Riddle thought of her own father. “Any good.”
“Not really. S’what killed him. The girl glanced down at the snow.
“It’s okay. Long time ago.”
Riddle nodded. “Understood”
The girl climbed on the back of the snowmobile, pulling close to the officer. Riddle kicked the snowmobile into gear, steering it in the direction of the motel.
Riddle slid to a stop a few feet from the motel entrance.
The girl loosened her grip, leaned and whispered in the trooper’s ear. “What’s going on? Why the sudden stop?
Riddle sat starring at the road ahead. Silent. Respectful.
“Thought you said we’re going to the motel… how come you… didn’t? She spoke louder this time, trying to get the trooper’s attention. No answer.
The girl opened her mouth to speak again. Before she delivered the words, Riddle raised her right hand off the sled’s accelerator, halting her.
The girl didn’t understand until she saw the gray-black shape lumber down off the mountainside into the middle of the road, near the motel.
“Oh shit!” The girl’s grip tightened, and she pulled closer to Riddle.
The wolf halted in its tracks and looked toward them, meeting their curious eyes with its majestic-pale-blues.
“Why’s he staring that way at us?” the girl asked.
“He heard you.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“The Spring’s been overrun with ’em since it was first built over a hundred years ago. Mostly harmless. We’ve learned to coincide with them. Last thing you wanna do is collide with a two-hundred-pound-male on a forty-mile-an- hour snowmobile trek.”
The girl whispered, “No shit.”
The wolf considered them a second or two longer, before tearing thru the snow to across the road and disappearing behind the motel.
“He’s just looking for food scraps left by travelers. You learn early to give them the respect owed them. Their home longer than ours.”
“How’d you know to stop? How did you see it?”
“Comes with the territory. You live around her for a few years, you get nature’s sixth sense. Felt his eyes on us about a hundred yards back. Beautiful eyes.”
“Yeah. I guess. Anything worse than wolves around here?”
“Bears, the occasional mountain lion. Not as social as the wolves.” She hit the accelerator and pulled the snowmobile into the motel lot.
“Home sweet home. At least temporarily.” Riddle glanced up at the solemn, chipped face of the weather beaten, twenty-foot fiberglass Indian Chief standing watch over the parking lot. She looked to the snow-covered cars parked in front of the four rooms. Brother wolf’s lucky today. Most business Sam’s seen all year. Thanks to the blizzard and not his hospitality.
The girl climbed off the snowmobile and handed Riddle the helmet and coat. “We don’t have much more money. Manger ran us off early this morning. Said they’re closing the roads, and if we couldn’t pay for the night in advance we had to leave. I didn’t want to, but Jordan said we had too ’cause we needed more gas.”
Riddle detected a southwestern slang. Okalahoma? Maybe. Not as good with accents as eyes. She considered the silver and black ramshackle mobile home behind the motel office.
“Sam’s way.” She looked back at the girl. “You tell him to give you the key to the room you were in. If he gives you any trouble, tell him to call me, Joyce, at the station.”
The girl seemed to shy away at the prospect of confronting the manger. Coltrane can be a little intimidating, like the wolf minus the nobility, especially hung over.
“It’ll be alright. Just tell him to call me.”
The girl glanced down at the snow and then back up at Riddle. “Okay.”
Riddle slipped into her coat and put on the helmet.
“Thanks for this. I mean it.”
“My job. Take care of yourself. Stay inside until the storm passes. I’ll have my officer bring Jordan here soon as I’m done with him.”
The girl hunkered fought the wind and trudged through the snow to the motel office. Riddle radioed Charlie and informed him she was on her way back to the station, leaned down close to the handlebars, and sped out of the parking lot.
“Sam, believe me, I sympathize, but I didn’t make the call. Riddle did. Hold on. You can rip-on her yourself.”
Charlie wasted zero time tossing Riddle the phone as she passed through the door into the station.
She laid the phone on her desk, hung her helmet, pulled off her coat and cap, rolled her eyes, and picked the phone back up.
“Yeah, Sam?” She grinned at Charlie and held the phone away from her head for a second. He could hear the gruff motel manager demanding money through the receiver. The boy sat in a metal folding chair in front of her oak top desk.
Riddle placed the phone to her ear.
“I know you’re not in the charity business, Sam. But I also know with the roads closed, the chances of any more paying customers passing through town in the next few days are pretty much nil. What’s the point of the room sitting empty? If they harm the room in any way, you got my word; I’ll take care of the damages….’
’Yes, technically they should have to pay. But then again, ‘technically’, you shouldn’t operate a snowmobile drunk. We offer generous citations for that. Technically….’
’Thank you, Sam. Your cooperation in this matter is greatly appreciated.” She glanced at Charlie. “Ever get the feeling it was one of Sam’s distant relatives that turned Mary and Joseph away in their time of need?”
She walked over to her desk and looked to the boy. “And then there’s you. Jordan.” The boy grimaced. “Stand up.” She led him to the tiny holding cell near the center of the room.
He blurted, “You’re arresting me?”
“Think of it as a mandatory time out.”
“Come on. This place looks more like a movie set than a real cop station.” He glanced around the cell and grinned. “And I ain’t talking about the new stuff. I’m talking those old black-n-whites you find playing late at night on those retro-cable-stations.”
Charlie attempted to muffle his chuckle. Joyce cut her eyes to him and he looked down a little embarrassed.
“You know the one’s I’m talking about? Bunch of tall white dudes in a saloon knocking back shots or rot-gut and wearing cowboy hats bigger than their heads and there ain’t no sign of a black people fur miles around.” He emphasized his pronunciation of the word ‘far’ with a bad country-western accent. His grin widened.
She shoved him inside the cell and slammed the door. “Clink of the steel door real enough for you?”
He placed his hands on the black iron bars. “What’re you arresting me for?”
“No arrest. Time out.”
“To think about the dumb-ass things you did.”
“Like drinking and driving up a ten-thousand-foot elevation in the middle of a blizzard with your pregnant girlfriend in the car and then losing her in the storm.”
He sat down on the side of the army cot at the rear of the cell.
“Where you headed? Wait. Let me guess. Vegas. We get a lot of that in March with spring break.”
“L.A.?” Charlie looked up from his magazine.
“Yeah. Trying to peddle my music demo.”
“So, your musical ambitions are more important than the safety of your pregnant girlfriend?” Riddle leaned against the bars.
The kid glanced down at his high-tops forehead crossed.
“Italian Stallions!” Charlie blurted and leapt up from his desk and moved to the cell, eyes focused on the sneakers.
The kid looked up at him eyes wide with excitement. “You know your shoes.”
Charlie grinned. “Classic Air Jordan number two. ’87’s?”
Riddle stood marveling at the fact that the kid and her first officer were referring to shoes as if they were a couple guys in a garage discussing vintage muscle cars.
“Where’d you find them?”
Kid shrugged. “Friend of mine came across a pallet full of new-old-stock in an abandoned shoe warehouse. Fronted me a sweet deal.”
She patted Charlie on the shoulder. “If I could work some law enforcement talk into the snearker conversation that would be great.”
Charlie nodded and made his way back to his desk.
“You’re a musician?” She questioned.
The kid turned his eyes his to her and Charlie suspiciously. “Bet you had me already labeled a gangster rapper.”
Charlie Shrugged, “no more than if you were about to request of me a rain dance.” Charlie glanced to the widow and the snow outside. “And don’t blame be didn’t dance for that.”
Joyce waited a beat before speaking. She could tell the kid was about to fill them in on his dream.
“I lean more towards old-style blues and integrating it with classic rap artists. Start point? Howl’n Wolf. And introduce that sound to classic Tu-Pac.”
“A lot of space between those two,” Charlie noted.
“Uncharted territory too,” the kid grinned. He had a wide tooth filled charmer of a grin that might help sell his demo if it were any good.
“She told me about the baby a week ago. I said we should still travel, ’cause we been planning it. She agreed. We blew Tulsa two days ago, but then slammed in to the tangle of mountains and blizzard and got tossed out of the motel. Storm shook her up. Told me to come off the money and pay the manager. Told her we needed it to buy enough gas to get us to LA. She was pissed. Said she’d walk back and plead with the manager. Had the fight and, yeah, I had a couple of beers.”
“I’m twenty-one. Jamie’s nineteen.”
“Sorry,” he said. “Got my grand loco river flowing with everything that’s been going on. I care about her and the baby. Minds been all scrambled since I found out, and I wasn’t thinking. We been planning this since I first met her. It’s all we talked about and then…”
She read his eyes. Big, brown, scared, confused, sincere. She pulled the cell key from her pocket and unlocked the door. He walked out of the cell, and she placed her hand on his shoulder.
“The two of you can stay at the motel til the storm passes. Enough money to pay for the gas to get back home?”
She handed him a helmet. “Go to the back of the station and wait where the snowmobiles are parked. We will get your car dug out once this thing passes.”
Riddle told Charlie to take the boy back to the Frontier. He stood and slipped into his coat.
“After you drop him off, stop over at the general and pick up some supplies for the two of them.”
“Yeah, Charlie. They’re kids. One’s pregnant. She needs to eat.”
“What do you want me to get?”
“Loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter, pop tarts, candy bars, a couple liters of cola. You know. Staff-of-life for their age. Better hurry before Liz secures the shutters.”
“Mine. Tell her to put it on my bill.”
“Riddle the philanthropist.”
She shrugged. “Got two of my own. Remember? If they were out in this kind of thing, I’d hope somebody would do the same for them.”
Before he walked out the door Charlie asked, “You ever get bored with it?”
“With the job. The routine. Weather, traffic control, wildlife, lost tourists. I mean, some days I do, and I’ve only been here a year. You’ve been here seven and counting.”
“When I applied for the position, I was a thirty-year-old divorcee with two girls in need of medical and dental. Solid pay, job security, and insurance hooked me. I like car chases and shootouts as well as the next person…on the movie screen. If you’re bored, I hear LAPD’s hiring.”
Charlie grinned. “Getting shot trumps boredom, Kemosabe. What can I say? I’m too damn pretty to take a bullet.”
She grinned. “How bout sledding your pretty self over to Mountain General before it gets the white-out-lock-down.
After Charlie left, Riddle poured a cup of coffee and turned on the radio. Rocky-Mountain-Classic-Rock 104.5. Robert Plant assured, “All that glitters isn’t gold.” She needed to check up on the locals before the storm got worse, but it could wait a little longer. Most of the permanent residents had lived in Cold Spring long enough to know what to expect from this, and she needed a couple minutes to clear her mind. She sat down at her desk, sipped coffee, and skimmed through the Denver Post’s headlines. Two days old.
She remembered the sudoku puzzle book she’d bought at the general a few days ago. The crosswords weren’t much of a challenge anymore. She dug the book from the bottom of a stack of papers and turned to the first page. How do You Sudoku? was the title. She chuckled. Who got paid to come up with this stuff?
She started reading. The radio sputtered. She closed the book and put the pen down. The locals? Restless already?
“Whats up? You get the boy to the motel?”
“Yeah. I was on my way back to the station and found something.”
“Another one? The roads are closed. Where the hell did it come from?”
“It’s been here a while, Joyce. Buried. We passed it. Looks like just a big drift from the road. I noticed a patch of black paint as I sped by. There’s something else.”
She stood out of shock. “Dead? You check his vitals?”
“Didn’t have to. Frozen to the airbag.”
“Yeah. Better get down here.”
“You call Alex?”
“Caught him off guard. Napping. He should be here soon.”
“I’m on my way.”
The wind knocked her left, then right. She fought to hold the blades steady, her hands trembling. Cold and nerves. She looked up at the low, dark clouds, fat with snow. The storm had dropped several feet in a few hours. More to come. She hated the spring storms. Too unpredictable. Old man winter’s last great act of defiance. Hell no! I won’t go!
Charlie leaned against the buried car to stabilize himself. She pulled alongside the mound and jumped off. Charlie always greeted her with a smile. Not this time. His sharp Native American features were set in stone. He waved a hand toward the car door. She opened it, eyes focusing on the body. She turned to Charlie.
“Geez, Charlie, you could’ve warned me. His eyes are open.”
“Sorry, Kemosabe. At least you knew about the body before the door open.”
She reached out and gave his shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. “Other passengers?”
“Uh-uh. If there’d been anybody else in the car, it would stand to reason they would’ve walked back to our station or to the Frontier. You call headquarters before you left?”
“Not yet. With the roads closed, they can’t offer anything better than over-the- phone advice. How long till Alex gets here?”
Charlie shrugged. “He radioed me just before you showed up. Ten. Fifteen, tops.”
She looked in the direction of the Wild Frontier. “While we’re waiting on Alex, I’ll visit the motel. Statements. Maybe somebody saw something. Can’t start an investigation till Alex shows anyway.”
“I doubt anybody saw anything. Pure coincidence that I did. Turned my head at the right time to see the spot of black paint.”
She climbed back on her snowmobile. “Has to be done. Formality. It’ll only take a few minutes.”
“I’ll do it,” he volunteered.
“As the commanding officer it’s more my duty than yours.” Bullshit, Joyce, and you know it.
“Yeah. Okay. I’ll be here.”
She felt guilty about lying. The statements could’ve waited. But she needed to get away, clear her mind. She’d been rocketed out of her comfort zone by the call from Charlie. Lost tourists, misplaced wildlife and a surprise blizzard’s the Spring’s norm, but a dead body? Alien territory. Talking to the lodgers would give her time to catch her breath before climbing in the car to begin the investigation.
Graham leapt out of bed, startled by the sound of a chainsaw cutting wood outside his door, followed by the same urgent knocking.
“Fucking manager,” he grumbled as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He jumped up and peered out the blinds, spotted the shiny gold star and polished blue sidearm. Not the manager. He looked back at the magazines and cell phone lying on the bed, nothing that would raise a suspicious eye. The knocking grew more urgent. He smoothed out the wrinkles in his clothes and opened the door.
“Good morning,..Mr…. Lockhart?” More question than greeting. She looked down at a yellow legal pad she held in her hands, from the motel office.
“Yeah.” He looked over her right shoulder at the black and chrome snowmobile parked in the corner of the lot. The chainsaw.
“Mr. Lockhart, I’m Officer Joyce Riddle, Colorado State Trooper Division.” The wind tugged a strand of brunette hair from the bun at the base of her neck. She swatted it clear of her sharp blues.
“Sorry for the intrusion. I need to ask a couple of questions,” the woman said above the wind. It howled, cutting a swath around the corners of the narrow building.
Graham nodded. Clueless mountain cop.
“From which direction were you traveling?”
“East, from Tennessee, Memphis.”
“Cold Spring your intended destination?”
“No, I have, uh, or had, a job interview in Pueblo.”
She wrote a quick notation in a small black notebook she’d fished from a pocket inside her coat. She juggled the legal pad around, pinning it between her ribs and bicep. It slipped twice before she finished writing. The restless wind played a mean game of take-away with her.
“Time of arrival?”
Graham scratched his head. “Around three. I was pretty beat, so I didn’t….”
“Understandable. Sam’s got it all recorded here. Just procedure.”
“Notice anything unusual on your way in?” Her eyes narrowed a little. Curiosity or suspicion?
Graham shook his head and rubbed the corner of his eye. He didn’t like the way she looked at him. He felt exposed, vulnerable. “Defroster died outside Denver. Could barely see the road.”
“I see.” She wrote again. “Nothing out of the ordinary?”
“I said no.” He shrugged and immediately regretted the sharp reply.
She snapped the notebook shut. “Okay then, Mr. Lockhart, thanks for your cooperation this morning. That’s all I’ll need from you for now. Apologies for the interruption Roads are close and we’re advising everyone to simply stay put till this thing passes.”
Her eyes were searching the room behind him as she spoke. Those damn eyes. “Of course.”
Most people with nothing to hide would be curious about what’s going on. The trooper turned to go. “What’s this about? You know the questions.”
She stopped and glanced back at him. “Official investigation. Not at liberty to talk about it with anybody but the professionals involved.”
It was the by-the-book reply he’d expected. He closed the door, moved over to the wall, and pressed his ear against the paneling. He heard the trooper knock once then greet one of the men with the same apology. She repeated the questions she’d asked him, if they’d noticed anything out of the ordinary on their way in.
He swallowed as the winter frost coating the inside of his stomach thickened. If they stopped at the wrecked Beamer, then they’d lied to the trooper, just as he had. He heard the cop apologize for her interruption and the door close.
He sat on the bed, head spinning with scenarios, all ending with the men snatching the GPS and map from his dead hands.
He jumped at the sound of the snowmobile being kick-started back to frantic life. He split the blinds and watched the trooper. His legs trembled, and he fell against the window, nearly crashing through before dropping down beneath the sill. If she’d noticed the fall, she gave no indication.
The trooper sped away, and Graham sprang back over to cheap paneling. Fox News going strong. The men spoke in whispers. He pressed his body close, straining to single out words and phrases. Thought he heard one man ask the other, “She knows?”
He wandered over to the bed, dropped down, and picked up the Playboy, thumbing through the pages to try and drop his nerve meter down a notch. After a minute, he tossed the magazine aside and picked up Car and Driver, then noticed the cell phone. He had an idea of how he could be sure about the men’s reason for being at the motel. He went back over to the wall and listened. Now CNN. Keeping his ear attached firmly to the wall, he pressed the redial button and heard the ringtone from next door.
The sound ignited bolted down his spine, and he dropped the phone. It slid across the dingy carpet, and Graham dove under the bed, slamming it to his ear.
“Welcome to the party.” He could hear the news reporter in the background, clearer than through the wall. “A car plowed into more than a dozen people in Germany….” He pressed the cell’s power button. He’d heard enough.
He ran to the window and looked out at the buried Dart. Even if he could get to the car before the men spotted him, he wasn’t going anywhere. Besides, to flee the room would be a dead giveaway. He prayed they didn’t know which room he was in. He had to get a grip to survive. Some kind of plan might help.
First, hide the evidence. He grabbed the GPS and map from under the bed and searched for a better hiding place. Loose ceiling tile? Not the most original or inconspicuous spot, but his options were limited in the tiny room. He jumped on the bed, tore down the tile, and shoved the GPS, map, and gold piece inside.
Now, the useless stuff. He dropped the cell to the floor and stomped. He tossed a handful of plastic shards and broken circuits in the bowl and hit the lever. Two flushes later, phone’s gone.
The magazines? He glanced at the dirty bowl. Nahh. The last thing he needed was an overflowing toilet. He rummaged through the dresser drawers. Gideon Bible, crumpled cigarette pack, ancient Bic. Hallelujah!
He tossed the magazines in the shower, flicked the Bic about a half dozen times, and watched the flame swallow up the glossy paper like a ravenous animal. He turned on the shower, and the ashes disappeared down the drain.
Graham stumbled over to the sink, splashed icy water over his face, and looked at his reflection in the cracked mirror. You can do this. Get away with the gold, and your life, if you stay focused. He’d nearly succeeded in convincing himself seconds before the sharp furious twist of the cabin door knob.
Riddle steered the sled out of the motel parking lot and considered the twitchy man in room five. He’d made a spastic, pathetic attempt to spy on her as she left the lot. She’d caught a glimpse of the frantic motion behind the blinds as she’d slipped on her helmet. Practically crashed through the window.
He was on edge. Eyes gave it away. She’d learned more about human psychology and behavior at the poker table than from any law enforcement training. There were other tells, but, in the end, it all came down to the eyes. Lockhart’s shady hazels popped with nervous energy. They moved from my badge to the gun to my face in rapid succession. He’d blinked and touched his chin when asked if he’d noticed anything out of the ordinary. Deception. Why? Maybe had outstanding warrants and didn’t want any engagements with local cops.
His kind passed through her patch of earth frequently on their way to parts unknown. Unless they caused some disturbance among the few permanent residents, they passed unmolested. He had no reason to fear her. Lockhart’s mistakes were somebody else’s worry. Best guess an inpatient ex-wife waiting on a shit-load of back child support.
The weather chased away thoughts of Lockhart’s character. It’s like riding a motorcycle in a hurricane, except with the added benefit of blinding snow. Thank God, Ben Makenzie, her former boss, had taught her how to operate a sled under these conditions before his sudden forced retirement.
Get to know the machine like a cowboy knows his horse, Joyce. It’s all you got when the light mountain lights go out.
She eased off the accelerator and slowed to a stop. Charlie and Alex Rodriquez, Cold Spring’s sole Rocky-Mountain- EMT, waited next to the Beamer.
Charlie sipped at a cup of coffee. Standing a lean six foot four, the Native American towered over the paunchy paramedic.
“Where’s the java?” Riddle asked.
Alex pointed to the ambulance. “Thermos’s on the front seat. Cups are in the floorboard.”
She considered the paramedic’s choice of attire. “Driving gloves, coveralls and a Denver Nuggets cap. Your best answer to the cold?”
Alex grinned beneath his bushy black mustache, bopping from one foot to the other. “Still on a Rocky Mountain learning curve, Joyce, baby.”
Charlie chuckled. “No blizzards south of the border?”
Alex grinned. “Careful where you tread Tonto.”
“ICE scares you more to you than ice since Trump stole office,” Charlie chuckled loudly punching the paramedic’s shoulder.
“You should look into stand-up ant the casinos,” Alex blurted.
If circumstances were different she might admonish the two for their immature banter, but she could tell by the undercurrent of tension flowing beneath the surface they were merely attempting to lighten the mood. She made her way past the two and opened the driver’s side door of the big truck. Alex had built the ambulance’s foundation from the body of a 4x4, retired from the monster truck circuit; it took some upper body effort to pull up inside the cab.
“Before you ask, it tastes like shit, but at least it’s hot,” Charlie yelled above the wind.
“Hey, if you don’t like it, you can always take your business to Starbucks. Oh wait. I forgot. The closest one’s nearly a hundred miles down mountain. Guess you’re stuck with my ca-ca flavored ja-va, Tonto.”
She poured herself a cup and snatched a sip. Charlie’s right. Taste’s awful. But it’s hot. Heat trumps taste. Behind the seat she spotted a compound bow and five arrows. Charlie had first taught her the ancient hunting art of his Navajo ancestors, and now he’d passed the skill to Alex. She wasn’t much on hunting for sport. But there was something inherently Zen about drawing the bow string taut and leveling a razor-sharp arrow tip at the deer shaped targets behind her cabin. She took a last sip of coffee and considered the Beamer. Procrastination. Get your ass out of the ambulance and into the car with the body. She tossed the empty paper cup in the floorboard, sighed, and jumped down from the ambulance.
“How long’s it gonna take? It ain’t getting any warmer.” Alex tightened his arms around his chest.
“Dress for the occasion next time, Cowboy,” Riddle said. “You remember to bring the digital, Charlie?”
He reached in his coat and handed her the camera.
“Good man.” She walked to the rear of the car, knelt, and scraped at the ice covering the license plate.
“Your home state, small world,” Charlie said.
“Fulton County, that’s Atlanta.” Alex added.
“How’d you know?” Joyce said.
“What? I’ve traveled past the Rio Grande.”
Charlie glanced at Joyce and grinned. She walked around to the driver’s side and opened the door. Nobody blinked.
Alex broke the silence. “His face’s frozen to the airbag. How?
“Got any tequila in the ambulance?” Riddle asked.
“Don’t screw with me Rodriguez. Not in the mood.”
“It’ll melt the ice, without damaging the facial tissue.”
“What is this stereo-type Hispanic day? No tequila only Jack in the black under the seat.”
Riddle moved close to the body, pulled a tape recorder from her jacket pocket.
“March twenty-first, 2018. 0700 hours. Colorado State Trooper Sergeant Joyce Riddle speaking, badge number 12712. Present also at scene, fellow officer Charles Floating-Reed. Badge number 17124 and also present Rocky-Mountain-Paramedic, Alex Rodriguez.
“Location: mile marker 17 on Colorado US 371. Driver of automobile discovered dead at scene by Trooper Floating-Reed at approximately 0600 hours. Vehicle’s a 2014 BMW 345I. Fulton County Georgia License Plate number ACL-147.
“Stated vehicle is the only automobile involved in the accident. Driver, only known passenger. Time of the accident, as well as time of death of driver, is, at this point in the investigation, undetermined.” Riddle clicked off the recorder and braced for a blast of West wind. Charlie and Alex hunkered together, managing to stay upright.
“Geez, I’m freezing.” Alex shook. “You two care if I go wait in the ambulance until you’re ready for me to pull him out?”
Joyce waved him away.
Alex ran to the ambulance and jumped in.
“Don’t forget to bring the bottle of Daniels to the party when you come back!” Charlie grinned. The paramedic smirked and offered him the middle finger of his right hand from the other side of the ambulance’s windshield.
Riddle knelt in the snow, consumed by the investigation. He squatted and asked what he could do.
She remained silent as she pulled the wallet from the dead man’s pocket. She opened it and read the license. “William Warren Hasting, 2217 South Hampton Street, Denver. Credit cards, Gym membership, work ID.” She read the work badge. “United Securities.”
“Pretty prestigious. Put my application in there before I was accepted to the academy. Said my creds wasn’t good enough. Passed the polygraph and everything,” Charlie said.
She handed him the wallet. “Bag it.”
“Bag it? Been spending the long winter days watching NCIS reruns?”
“Grow up.” She nudged his ribs.
He dropped the wallet into a zip lock bag. “Atlanta tags and Colorado license?”
“Probably moved recently, got the state license, but not the tags.”
“Didn’t want to fork over the wheel tax,” Charlie said. “Shame on you, William. Can’t say I blame you.”
“He looks like a Bill to me.” Joyce studied the dead man’s face.
“Pretty bad scars. Skin grafts?”
“Grew the beard to hide them. Third degree. Okay, Burned Bill, let’s see if we can figure out what happened to you.” She felt for broken bones in the neck and looked for head contusions.
“Shouldn’t Alex be doing this?”
“He will, once we get the body to the Med-Center. I have to do my own cursory investigation before we pull him out of the car.”
“Victim shows no outward signs of head or neck trauma. Airbags cushioned impact of body. Snow drift served as buffer between guardrail.” She clicked the recorder off.
“Damn lucky. I could be rappelling down to him right now,” Charlie said looking past the guardrail and shaking his head. “Not a good day for rappelling.”
She told Charlie to take pictures of the body and car from multiple angles, then pushed the seat forward and climbed into the back. She noticed traces of snow on the floor mats.
“You been in the car?”
He stopped snapping pictures. “Nah.”
“How many times you have the door open?”
“Once. Saw the body, nearly had a coronary, closed the door, and radioed you.”
“Front seats shoved forward and there’s snow on the floor mats.”
“Somebody been here besides us?”
She opened the glove box and spotted the manual and registration, then opened the compartment between the bucket seats. “Bottle of pain meds and some loose change.” Charlie was busy with the pictures. She stuffed the items in her coat, stepped out of the car, reached inside, and pulled the keys from the ignition.
“You check the trunk?”
“Uh-uh.” She reviewed the pics and gave her approval. She inserted the key and popped the trunk.
“What the hell’s that?” Charlie held his nose and backed away.
“Don’t know.” She shined her penlight inside the trunk. “Just a spare and a jack.”
“Smells like grilled road kill, with a hint of lemon air freshener.”
“Somebody tried to cover a stench but failed miserably.”
“Kind of like spraying a skunk with perfume,” Charlie said. “Just a sickly sweeter smelling funk.”
“No argument.” He slammed it closed.
“You figure out where he lost it?”
“Not easy in the snow. Best guess is thirty, thirty-five yards that way.” He pointed down the road in the direction of the station. “There’s something else.”
She followed him up the hill. “Found this while I was waiting for you to get back from the Frontier.” He showed her a partially demolished drift, nearly as big as the one the Beamer was buried in.
“Could be. This one made it out, though.” He pointed at nearly covered car tracks.
She looked up the road in the direction of the Wild Frontier. “Help Alex load the body and follow him back to the Medical Center. He’ll have to throw together a temporary morgue in one of the storage rooms. Take the evidence to the station and inform headquarters in Denver.”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“Twitchy guy at the motel. Probably nothing. But I better go have a second feel just to be sure. See you soon.”
Alex jumped out of the ambulance with the bottle of liquor in his hand. He and Charlie began pulling the body from the car as she started the snowmobile and headed for the motel.
Graham felt his heart pounding its furious frightened way out of his chest as the doorknob rotated and rattled. If not the manager or the cop? Worse. He tried to breathe. Fear gripped its icy fingers around his neck nearly paralyzing him.
He climbed across the bed and grabbed the lamp, ripped off the shade, and wrapped his fingers around the neck, holding it like a club. The two men would be armed. The thrift store lamp would be no match for a gun, but at least it gave him something to hold on to.
Clutching the lamp close, he crept over to the blinds and peeked out. Shocked and relieved, he saw no sign of the men, only a young girl.
A kid. She had on faded jeans and a baggy maroon hoody with bright pink Greek lettering on the front. Sorority girl. He wiped sweat from his eyes. Little Red Riding Hood.
He let the lamp slide from his hand to the floor. He scratched his head, unsure. The girl knocked and rattled the doorknob again. He had to do something, before she brought unwanted attention from the room next door. He clicked the dead-bolt and opened the door a few inches, leaving the chain hooked. He squinted, cold air blasting his face.
Keeping her head down and face half hidden by the hood she said, “Sorry to bother. Could I use your phone? Cell’s got no signal. Phone’s dead in my cabin.”
Before he had a chance to say no, she continued. “It wouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m supposed to meet some friends in Vegas. Spring break. Got caught in the storm. Blew Boulder yesterday. If I don’t show they’ll freak, probably call the police or, worse, my biologicals.”
Graham studied the girl. She shivered. Cold and afraid. Graham glanced around the lot. No sign of life.
“You the green VW?”
She confirmed, “That’s me.”
“Probably a phone in the office.”
The girl shrugged. “Manger’s gone and the door’s locked.”
The big bad drunken wolf. “You check the mobile home?”
“Yeah. I knocked and peeked in a couple of windows. No sign.”
“Where the hell could he be in this shit?”
The girl shrugged.
Graham scanned the lot again. Empty. He considered the girl, only a few years older than his daughter. Nineteen, maybe. She pulled a puff from a vape as she waited. His teenage daughter chewed gum, obsessively. He missed his kids, the only bright spot in his life, and the only reason he was here now. Job in Pueblo meant money for back child support. Only reason I broke down and came. He sighed.
“Come in. No guarantees mine’ll work.” He unbolted the chain and opened the door.
“Worth a try.” She walked in.
Graham tried to get a better look at her, but she kept her head down, shy.
The girl sat on the side of the bed, picked up the phone receiver and held it to her ear for a second, then placed it back on the hook.
The girl looked around the cabin. She noticed the lamp on the floor.
Graham nodded. “We’re lucky the heat works in this dump.”
He thought he saw her smile a little.
“Got a cell?”
Graham thought about the phone he’d flushed down the toilet. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Probably no signal like mine. Thanks, though,” she said, standing.
She made her way around the bed, halting at the lamp.
“How come your lamp’s on the floor?”
Graham held his hands in the air, at a loss for an explanation. She stepped over the lamp and out the door.
Graham shut and locked it and peered through the blinds, watching her walk into the parking lot.
Where the hell’s she going in this?
She’d made it nearly all the way across the parking lot when the door to room six opened and the two men stepped out.Graham grabbed the lamp. The man in the Mets cap was about to knock on his door, but the girl caught his attention. He nudged the other man.
The shorter, thinner guy in the knit cap yelled for her to stop. The wind howled louder than when he’d talked to the trooper. The girl turned. Graham relaxed a little as he watched the two approach her.
They moved slow, walking against the wind. Mets cap reached her first. He held the index finger of his right hand up as he spoke. The smaller man stood in silence, arms crossed, watching intently.
Knit cap grabbed the girl by the shoulder and spun her around to face him. He couldn’t hear what he said but attempted to read his lips. You know! And you’re going to fess up!
What the hell’s going on? She don’t know anything about the gold! The wind whipped around the three, blowing open Mets cap’s overcoat. Blue steel cradled in dark leather. The girl turned to run, but the smaller man grabbed her shoulder, pulling her back toward the motel. She struggled, and the bigger man caught her by the arm.
Graham backed away from the window and looked to where he’d hidden the map and GPS. He placed his hands behind his neck and paced the room. Nervous sweat from his trickled from forehead to eyes, a blinding, blurring river.
If they believe she knows anything about the gold, won’t just kill her. Torture her for information. Fess up you little bitch! He glanced up at the loose tile. The gold stash. Worth it? My soul? He’d never amounted to much. Deadbeat dad. In and out of jail most of his life. Drunk, adulterer and the deadly sin list went on. But could he sit and listen through thin walls at the muffled whimpers of an innocent girl, my daughter’s age, begging for her life? He looked out the window. Girl’s putting up a hell of a fight. But the men nearly had her back to the room. He thought about how much he needed the gold. Can I?
He looked to the terrified girl. Oh hell. One good thing before you die. Maybe there’s a way to save her, my soul, and get away with the gold.
He jumped up on the bed and snatcged the map and GPS. He shoved the gold piece in his pocket, unfolded the map, and scrambling, found paper and pen inside the nightstand drawer. He wrote down the GPS coordinates, then furiously ripped out the batteries and dropped it in the backpack.
He drew a split second sketch of the original map. Instead of a line running from the Wild Frontier to across the road, he drew a line leading up the road and then back in the opposite direction. He scribbled fake directions along the side of the line.
He tossed the phony map inside the backpack with the GPS and prayed the map and dead navigation system would fool them long enough for him and the girl to get away.
He crammed the original map in his pocket with the gold piece. He zipped the backpack closed and burst through the cabin door.
The girl looked up, and the two men turned. Inside the cabin, the hood hid the girl’s face. Now he looked her in the eye, something suddenly seemed different about her.
The two men seemed more stunned than vengeful. The girl used the opportunity to quickly twist from their grip. The big man reached for his gun and ordered Graham to drop the backpack, but she moved faster, pulling the automatic from behind her back in a stunningly lightning fast blur.
Her first shot drilled Mets cap in the back. He fell to the snow motionless. The second man reached for his sidearm, but the girl blasted a shot into the center of his forehead.
Graham looked from the smoking gun to the girl to the bodies, struck dumb from the bolt of shock. Finally he managed, “You….the gold…?
“Had a strong gut ’bout you.” She grinned and turned the gun on Graham.
“I-I don’t understand…you…”His voice quaked from cold and fear.
“Shut the fuck up and toss the backpack.”
He threw the satchel over to her, kept his hands raised and eyes on the gun.
She knelt, unzipped the pack, and reached in and pulled out the GPS. She tossed it back inside without giving it a second look. She yanked out the fake map and unfolded it, wadded it up and threw it in the air. The wind caught the paper and carried it up and out of sight.
She flipped the gun over in her hand, stepped forward, and whacked him in the mouth with the butt. His teeth rattled, and he doubled over. A thin spray of blood dropped to the snow from his torn lip. He considered moving on her. She had the gun pointed at his head before he could manage a step.
“Where’s the real map?” She chambered a round. “Three seconds.”
He screamed in frustration, “I was trying to help you!” and jammed his hand in his pocket. She snatched the map, backed away, unfolded it, and rolled up the sleeve of her right arm to the elbow. Graham noticed a gash in her forearm. She held the map beneath the fresh wound and looked to the trail of blood.
“Your blood,” he whispered.
Convinced of its authenticity, she refolded the map and tossed it into the backpack. She looked to him. “Smart white trash.”
She walked over to Mets cap and slipped his gun from the holster, stood, removed the silencer from her own weapon, and screwed it to the tip of the man’s pistol. She blasted a shot into Graham’s shoulder. The impact spun him around like a top before he fell forward to the snow. She fired a second shot at his head. He jerked to the left, and the bullet grazed his right temple. The snow turned crimson from the bleeding scalp wound. She raised the gun to fire again, but, noticing the blood, unscrewed the silencer, instead, and dropped the gun beside the big man’s body. She tossed her gun a few feet from where Graham lay, picked up the backpack, and turned to leave.
He lay perfectly still, praying the wound had bled out enough to fool her. After a moment, he raised his head a little. He caught a glimpse of her as she disappeared behind the motel.
He rolled over on his back and bit his lip in order to prevent howling in pain. Where’s she going? The line on the map pointed to across the road, between the mountainsides. A quarter mile straight ahead to Dry Gulch. ½ mile down riverbed past rock formation to cave on right. He repeated it over and over inside his head, his frenzied mantra.
He didn’t need a map. He had the GPS coordinates, and he knew the way. He grabbed his shoulder and placed his hand over the wound. He was losing blood, but the bullet had passed clean through. He scooped up a handful of snow and pressed it against the bullet hole, to slow the bleeding and numb the pain. He touched his temple. Hurts like hell. The shot had only grazed the tip of his ear and side of his head. Luck.
He tried to stand and fell back down in the snow, unconscious. He was only out a few seconds before he woke to sound of a snowmobile. The trooper. He didn’t have much time. He got up on one knee and nearly fell again. The image of the gold appeared in his overloaded mind and ignited an explosion of adrenalin. He couldn’t carry all the gold in his condition without a backpack, but if he could get to the cave before she did, he could get his hands on a few precious bricks. He heard the moan of a second snowmobile in the distance, stumbled over the bodies and limped across the road into the trees, icy branches swatting his face and slashing his eyes as he fled through.
W-T-F? The sudden, shocking image of the two dead men lying in the
motel lot caused Riddle to lose control of the snowmobile. She righted the
handlebars and slid to a shaky stop, seconds before slamming into Chief
She jumped off the sled, ran and fell to her knees next to the man in the blood soaked knit cap. So much blood. Stay calm. Check vitals. She ripped her glove off and placed her hand on his neck. Dead. She glanced over at the bigger man lying face down. Dead. She noticed a third impression a couple feet to her left. She stumbled over to it and spotted even more blood. A gun lay a few feet away. She picked it up. Still warm. Tracks and a blood trail led from the impression to across the road. She heard a bang and looked to the motel. The wind blew the door to cabin five open and closed.
She turned spotted a man lumbering and tearing through the trees across the road.
“Twitch Lockhart,” she whispered.
She had to act now or risk losing him. She shoved the pistol in her coat pocket, ripped her sidearm from the holster with her right hand and bolted across the road, snatched the radio off her belt with her free hand, and pressed it to her lips.
“Charlie! Charlie! You got a copy?”
“Get to the Wild Frontier! ASAP! Two dead in the parking lot! Call Alex and relay the order! One of you make sure everyone in the rooms are okay. Order them to stay inside!”
“You okay? What the hell’s happened now?”
“No time to explain! In pursuit!
“Just do it! Now!”
“On my way!”
Quarter mile to Dry River. The wounds in Lockhart’s shoulder and head squabbled with determination as to which one was more painful as he ran. He ignored the argument, thinking only of the gold, using the image to propel him forward. The gleam danced before his eyes like the plastic rabbit tempting the hungry greyhounds at the dog track in Memphis. Soon he slid down the bank into the riverbed, gave in to the pains arguing and cried out. He scrambled back to his feet and kept running. ½ mile down river. He heard something behind him, a gasp, then footfalls sinking into snow. He huffed from growing exhaustion and looked back. The woman was chasing him on foot. He saw the gun in her hand. Not the woman that shot me. Woman trooper.
He turned and saw the rock formation. No stopping now. Maybe he could reason with her. He would show her the gold. She had a gun. Together they could take the bitch that shot him. He spotted the cave and ran inside. Behind him the trooper caught up, raised her weapon, and barked the inevitable furious cop order.
He looked down at the ground and then at the rear wall. No gold. He fell on his knees and started digging. He’d seen the map and the image captured on the i-Phone.
“It’s here! It’s here! I saw it! I swear! Let me dig! Maybe they buried it! I’ll split it! Please! Help me!”
“What the hell you talking about?” She was closer, nearly standing over him. He looked up. “Gold.”
“I’m cold too. You’re shot and suffering from exposure. Now raise-”
“Not cold! Gold! Gold! He rocked backward, his eyes filling with tears of frustration. He felt blood mixed with sweat trailing down from his head and across his cheek like a wicked river.
“Gold? You’re a hundred years too late.”
He opened his hand and showed her. Her eyes sparked at the sight of it. After a moment she looked from it to him. He noted a chance that she could be lured from the convictions binding her to the fake gold pinned to her coat for the promise of the real thing.
“Gold.” He grinned. You feel it to. The pull. Don’t you?
“Gold,” she whispered.
He opened his mouth to plead his case, but the gold slipped from his numb fingers. He reached for the metal and witnessed the enormous thing lumber up behind her and he froze.
The woman blinked and raised the gun. “I’m ordering you, for the last time, to raise your hands.”
The threat of the gun meant as little to him now as the lure of the gold meant to the creature. Its marble black eyes were mad with a different hunger. He choked on his own breath and felt a sudden explosion of warmth around his groin.
The woman said something about not being afraid. She wasn’t afraid only because she hadn’t seen it yet. There was a name for it, a simple four-letter word he’d known since a kid. He tried to remember, to scream it, to warn her. She had a gun. Maybe she could stop it, slow it down. But the gun seemed small, insignificant now.
It made a sound, a kind of choked sneeze, and he spotted the fear in the woman’s eyes. She knew. A word flashed across the blank movie screen in his head. Not the word he’d searched for, but the only word that could describe what he saw, rearing up on two legs, towering over the woman trooper with the tiny gun in her hand.
“Monster,” he muttered, before darkness took him.
She opened her eyes on the second squeeze of the trigger, in time to see the grizzly move on her. She braced herself for the blow from its paw, the blow that would tear her in half. Closed Casket. Instinct and fear demanded she shrink, bow her head, and wait for execution. She refused. She looked it in the eye. Always look them in the eye. Her rule. Death was no different.
The bear’s paw swatted forward and halted a split second before ripping a ragged hole in the center of her chest. It twisted to the left, pawing at its right hind quarter. Something’s stuck there. A lean sliver of dark green protruding from thick dark fur. An arrow. She looked up and spotted Charlie kneeling several feet above them, at the top of the dry riverbank, bow drawn. The first shot was meant to gets its attention. It worked. The grizzly turned to face the new threat. The second arrow found its mark just below the pit of the bear’s left front limb, piercing the heart. She jumped back as the behemoth toppled in her direction. A half-ton of grizzly could crush limbs. She looked down at the enormous head, the wet black nose nearly touching the tip of her boot. It belched a last hot breath that filled the frigid air with the smell of rotting meat.
She spotted Charlie running for her, bow in hand. For an instant he looked less like her first-year rookie than an ancient Navajo warrior running to claim his winterkill. Before he reached her, her knees buckled, and she fell forward. She raised her arms and caught herself before falling face first to the ground. She gagged, and the morning’s coffee fell from her mouth, darkening the spot of snow beneath her face.
“You good Joyce?” Charlie asked, running over to her and reaching down to help her up.
She coughed, got to her feet, and looked at him. He became her first-year rookie again, face full of concern.
“Yeah. Thanks to your skills with that thing.”
He glanced at the bow and back to her. “It’s Alex’s. Lucky the winds are tamer down here. If not--”
She grabbed his wrist. “They were, and you did. Thanks.”
He nodded and smiled. “Sure you’re okay? You look pretty pale.”
She waved him off. “Nerves and adrenalin.”
She looked down at the bear. “Thought Wildlife Resources had tracked and micro-chipped most of the big males, to monitor their movements.”
Charlie knelt next to it and rubbed his hand through the fur. “Lot of gray here. He’s an old one. Learned how to live under the radar. Last week’s warm weather woke him up early. Pissed and hungry. We’re lucky none of the townies crossed his path before now.”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
He stood and looked over at the man lying in the snow. “Bear’s the least of our worries. Who’s he?”
“He responsible for the mess we got waiting on us back at the Frontier?”
She walked over and knelt beside the man. “Don’t know anything for sure, but right now he’s our only suspect. Help me get him up on his feet. He’s shot. Probably in shock. We need to get him to the Med-Center. ASAP. Where’s Alex?”
“Waiting for us at the Frontier with the bodies. Made it there before I did.” Charlie slid his hand beneath the man’s left shoulder and helped Riddle lift him to his feet. Lockhart’s head lolled to one side, and he mumbled something about finding gold.
“What’s he mumbling about?”
She glanced back at the cave mouth. “Delirious. Can you hold him up on your own for a sec?”
“Yeah. I got him.”
She turned to the cave and searched the ground for the gold piece. She spotted the tip protruding from a mound of snow, reached down, picked it up, and stuffed it in her coat pocket.
She still had her back to Charlie. Before answering him she wrapped her fingers around the gold bar. No need to tell Charlie everything, right now. No time. Explain it back at the station.
She turned. “It’s nothing, Charlie. Let’s get him to Alex and see if he can patch him up enough so we can talk to him.”
She grabbed Lockhart’s shoulder, and, with a sparce help from the wounded, they steered him toward the motel. Charlie knew of a low point in the river wall. It was several yards out of their way, but easier for them to lift Lockhart up and over. The Frontier soon appeared through the pines.
Alex stood near the rear of the ambulance, a few steps from the bodies. He spotted the blood on the front of Lockhart’s shirt as they approached, ran over and helped them get him inside the back of the vehicle.
“What the hell’s happening? I left East L.A. and came here to get away from this shit.”
“Never mind that. Can you help him?”
Alex examined the entry and exit wounds in Lockhart’s shoulder. “Bullet passed through. Clean. Seen worse.”
“What about the head?” Joyce pointed to the gash in Lockhart’s right temple.
Alex bent close and shook his head. “Graze wound. Bled out pretty good, but it’s superficial. He’s lost a lot of blood. We have an emergency supply at the center. I can give him blood, clean the wound, administer antibiotics, and shoot him up with morphine for the pain.”
“Do it. You check the bodies for ID?”
“Nah. Figured I better wait on you and Charlie for that. Checked their vitals. That’s all. Guess I don’t need to tell you they’re dead.”
She told Charlie to check their IDs.
The big trooper walked over and knelt next to the man lying closest to them. He slipped his hand inside the man’s coat, pulled a brown wallet from inside, and opened it. After a moment, he stood and handed the ID to Riddle. “Shit Joyce, you’re not gonna want to see this.”
“Special Agent Dwayne Sheridan, United States Federal Marshal.” She snapped the ID shut, looked up and saw Charlie kneeling over the second body, holding the other man’s ID wallet.
“Special Agent Frank McCauley.” He looked up at her.
She closed her eyes. A gust of west wind tore the ID from her grip. She jumped and snatched it up before the gale could carry it across the road and into the trees.
Alex slammed the ambulance’s rear doors closed. “He’s stable enough to get to the center. You want me to radio you when I get there?”
She looked up at him and then to Charlie, her head swirling with images. The blizzard. BMW. Dead marshals. The Chase. The bear…the gold. She felt dizzy and nearly toppled forward, like she had at the cave. She steadied herself. She looked at them, both capable men, but waiting for leadership. Her job.
“You look pale again. Sure you’re--” Charlie started.
She straightened. “I’m good. Alex, radio me as soon as you get Lockhart to the center. No need for details, just to let me know he’s doing okay.”
She turned to Charlie. “Follow Alex. Once Alex gives Lockhart the meds and blood, stay with the prisoner, while Alex comes back here to pick up the other two bodies.”
Then to Alex, “Place the departed on ice with our Beamer guy. Can you handle that?”
“How long before we can take Lockhart back to the station, maybe get something out of him?”
Alex shrugged. “Give me an hour or so, to get his body temp back up, administer the blood, and he should be good to go… if a little groggy.”
“Charlie, as soon as Alex gives the okay, transport Lockhart from the center to the station. Lock him in the cell and let him sleep while you contact H.Q. Inform them of the situation. Give them the marshals’ names and badge numbers. Get Lockhart’s driver’s license number and pass it along to them. Tell them the sooner they can get a few able boys up here in official hats, the better.”
Charlie nodded. “What about you?”
She looked to the motel. “I’m going to talk to the guests and then to Sam. Find out if anybody saw anything. As soon as I’m done here, I’ll be back to the station, to talk to Lockhart.”
Given their orders, Alex climbed in the ambulance, and Charlie straddled his snowmobile. She watched Charlie fall in behind the big ambulance as Alex steered out of the lot. She looked down at the dead man’s frozen expression and then up at the indifferent face of Chief Fiberglass. What the hell did I do to deserve this?
“Must’ve been pretty damn bad,” she whispered before slogging through the snow to the office.
Riddle held her head down standing outside the door to room three, frustrated by the lack of eyewitness testimonies at the motel.
She looked back at the office. Sam. The manager. Sleeping off last night’s whiskey. She sighed. Nothing surprising about that. She crossed his name off the list of possible witnesses.
Room two. Clark. Overweight, middle-aged ski equipment salesman from Idaho. Green VW Beetle. Hearing impaired. Electronic devices taken out of his ears and Advil PMs downed with a beer for sound rest. Reason?
“Long drive home once the storm lets up,” he’d told her. Eyes? Blue. Tired. Honest. She crossed his name off.
She thought about the coupled she’d just talked to. Room Three. Joyce, nice name, and Darren. Cute couple from Illinois. Late twenties, three small children, boy and two girls, and an annoying Toy Chihuahua dubbed Chico. Lincoln Navigator. Caught in the storm on way back home after their first family ski-trip to Aspen.
Sorry we can’t be of any help to you. He’d smiled sheepishly. Early morning hours with the kids asleep are golden for us these days. Glanced at his wife. She nodded in agreement, a little too shaken to smile. Popped in the earbuds to keep the noise down and kind of went at it hot and heavy til we lost conciseness. Little wine. He’d grinned, and then frowned, looking past her into the lot where the bodies had lain before Alex and Charlie hauled them away. Should we be worried with no way to leave? He looked at her, confused. Eyes? Deep Brown. Scared for the safety of his wife and kids.
“Just stay inside, out of the storm, until this is over. We have things under control. Suspect’s been caught and taken to the station for questioning. Call if you need anything for the kids. Medicine. Food. I’ll get it from the store and have my officer bring it to you. You’ll be able to travel in a day or two,” she’d assured them.
She leaned against the building and watched the blinding snow, wishing she could convince herself that everything would be all right. Not today.
She continued walking, stopping in front of five. Lockhart. She opened the door and glanced inside.
She made her way inside and opened drawers. Nothing but a Gideon Bible and crumpled pack of cigarettes. Closet. Empty. Bed made. She knelt and looked underneath. Screw driver. Flashlight. Why under the bed? She shoved both in her pocket. Evidence.
In the bathroom she sniffed. Usual motel odors. Strong underlying stench of smoke. She thought about the crumpled cigarette pack. Lockhart a smoker? Didn’t have a morning smoke in his hand this morning when I talked to him. She made a note to double-check when she interrogated him. She slid the shower curtain out of the way and looked inside. Soap, mildew stains. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Before turning she noticed dark residue around the drain. She bent close and ran her finger around it. Grime? No, ashes. She wiped a smear on her pants and left the bathroom. Gave the cabin one last look before returning to the cold.
She wiped the snow off the door to Lockhart’s car, opened it and slipped behind the driver seat. Glove box. Title and registration. No weapons. Seats, floorboards? Soft drink cans and junk food wrappers. No drugs. She got out and opened the trunk. Nothing. Not even a spare and jack.
She opened the door to room five. Did a quick search. Bare. Turned her attention to the bed. Slept in. Two opened backpacks sitting on the floor next to it. She picked them up. Both filled with toiletries. Shaving cream, toothpaste, razors, soap. She dropped them back by the bed and went into the bathroom. Empty, clueless as Lockharts.
She exited the room and climbed inside the Marshal’s Crown Vic. After a moment of searching she got out and slammed the door closed. Spotless as the room. She felt a wave of resentment circuit through her bones. She’d found nothing to point her in the direction of a possible motive. Why this? Today of all days. She looked toward the last cabin in the row of rooms. The kids.
She stood in front of eight and waited. After her third knock, Jordan opened the door. Unkempt and more afraid than when I found him this morning.
“S’up Officer Riddle.” He managed a smile.
She nodded. “Jordan. You and mother-to-be okay?”
He looked to the bathroom. “Little sick again. Got me kinda worried.”
Riddle peered over his shoulder at the bathroom door. “Fever?”
“Nahh, just the stomach I think. But still worried ’bout her with everything else, you know.”
Riddle understood. “Morning sickness comes with pregnancy. Keep an eye on her in case she needs any help.”
“Reason I came by is about the…
“Murders in the parking lot.”
“Yeah. Just taking statement to see if anybody might have noticed anything around the time it happened.”
“I sleep like a log. But Jamie sprang out of bed earlier, said something woke her.”
Riddle fished her notebook from her jacket pocket. “Go ask if she can talk to me.”
He went to the bathroom door and knocked. It opened a crack and he asked her if she could come out to talk to the trooper.
“Okay.” The girl stepped out looking pale and tired. She took the boy’s hand and he led her over to the door.
Riddle removed her glove and touched the girl’s face. A little warm. She pulled her hand away when the boy told her the trooper wanted to know what woke her.
The girl glanced down at the floor and shrugged. “Heard something outside. Could’ve been the wind howling. I got up to go look out but got sick and ended up in the bathroom for the next hour.”
“Remember what time?”
The girl leaned against Jordan. “Not sure. Around seven or so?”
Riddle recorded the time in her notebook and closed it. She noticed they still had most of the food Charlie brought them strewn around the room. “Stay inside and get some rest. Jordan keep a check on her temp. If she gets any warmer call the station. I’ll have Alex our paramedic come over and check on her. Okay?”
“Yeah. Okay.” He put his arm around the girl. “How long you think it’ll be before I can take her we can leave?”
“I hope in about a day or two but…” Her radio beeped. She snatched it off her belt and answered. “Riddle.”
“Go ahead, Charlie.”
“Got Lockhart at the station waiting on you.”
“Ten-four. On my way.” She jumped on her snowmobile and headed for the station.
Riddle sipped coffee and attempted to generate a sense of confidence. She’d taken a couple of run-of-the-mill statements in her time, but nothing close to interrogating a murder suspect.
She glanced down at the yellow number two pencil and bright red puzzle book at the center of her desk. How do you Sudoku? She was instantly reminded of the quiet moments before she got the call from Charlie. The quiet moments before her simple, safe world plummeted to hell in a hand basket. “There’s something else, Joyce. Driver’s dead.”
“The gold. What about the gold?” Lockhart mumbled, still groggy from the morphine.
The gold. She reached inside her coat pocket and brushed her fingers across it, so cool and smooth to the touch. She pulled her hand out of her coat. Not yet.
She took another drink and leaned across the desk.
“How you feeling, Mr. Lockhart?”
“Like shit. Hit by a truck.” He reached up and placed his cuffed right hand over the wound in his shoulder. A half-dollar sized blossom of red erupted in the center of the white gauze Alex wrapped it in. The paramedic bandaged his head also, covering his right ear.
“Consider yourself lucky. We’re cut off in the storm. Our paramedic is an Iraqi War vet who knows about treating gunshot wounds with limited resources.”
“Lucky?” He looked at her with the same delirious eyes he had back at the cave. He blinked. “Not lucky enough to find the gold. Don’t understand. I had the map. Saw it with my own eyes. Memorized it. Followed the directions. Found the cave. Where was it? Where was it…?” His voice trailed off, speech slurring.
She fingered the gold piece again. Not yet.
“Lets forget about the gold. For now.” His jittery eyes assured that wasn’t possible. She continued anyway. “Let’s talk about the men in the motel lot. The men that’d been shot to death. And why you ran away so quickly.”
“They were after the gold. Knew about it. They were gonna kill the girl in the parking lot. I ran out and stopped them. Wished I hadn’t now. She was in on it. Tried to kill me. Took the map and GPS before she shot them…and me.”
“Map? GPS? Woman? No sign of any of these things. Just the two bodies and this.” She slid the pistol she’d picked up in the parking lot across the desk in front of him. For a moment she felt like a detective on an episode of Law and Order. “Like I said, our resources are limited, but we have a fingerprint kit. Your prints are all over this gun. The same gun used to kill two United States Federal Marshals.” The last statement was a lie. They had no way to test ballistics. The gun would have to be shipped to Denver for that. But Lockhart didn’t know this. Sometimes the right bluff was better than a full house.
He looked to the gun and up at her. “Marshals?” He sobered some.
She nodded. “Marshals.”
“No way. I didn’t kill nobody! Much less some cops. The girl, she--”
Riddle held up her hand and leaned forward. “What girl, Mr. Lockhart? The only females at the motel are a pregnant girl and a married woman. Both in bed with boyfriend and husband. Iron clad alibis.”
He locked eyes with her. “I didn’t kill no cops. I swear!”
She held his stare, looking deep, searching for deception. She wasn’t a detective, but she was a poker player. Either he was telling the truth or gold lust had driven him so mad he didn’t remember killing the two men.
“Why would I kill a couple of cops?”
Now. She pulled the gold piece from her pocket and laid it down on the desk, next to the gun. It shimmered beneath the fluorescent lighting, contrasting sharply with the 9mm’s dull blue finish. Lockhart jumped and twitched in his seat, wrenching his hands. It’s like placing a vile of crack in front of a junkie.
Charlie stood up at his desk across the room, where he’d been sitting and listening to every word. He was up out of concern for her safety and out of curiosity at the sight of the gold. Riddle made a hand gesture, signal for him to stay put. Lockhart was chained to the chair with his feet and hands in cuffs. He posed little threat.
“Where’d you get this?”
Lockhart looked at her and bit at his lip. “In the car! By the side of the road!”
He nodded. “Yeah. Yeah.”
“You killed the driver for it?”
“Dead already. Frozen.”
“Strange, Mr. Lockhart, everywhere you go, there’s death. You gonna blame this mysterious woman for the dead driver, too?”
He leaned forward and grimaced. “I know it sounds crazy. You gotta believe me. I didn’t kill anybody. I went a little nuts, yeah--”
“You mentioned a map. A map to what? More gold?”
He leaned back. “Yeah. I spotted it on the cell phone I found in the car.”
“You have the phone?”
“Uh-uh. Flushed it.”
“Find anything else in the car?”
He narrowed his eyes and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. A couple of magazines and a bottle of liquor.”
“You still have any of these things to back up your story?”
“Burned the magazines. But the whiskey…yeah, the whiskey, I gave to the manager, collateral for the room.”
She picked up the pencil and wrote a note to ask Sam.
“Why did you get rid of the other items?”
“The men in the next room. Thought they were coming for me, to take the map and GPS. Had to get rid of evidence.”
Mental illness? Paranoid delusions? Escaped mental patient? She jotted this down in her notepad “Where’d you find the map?”
“Underneath the floorboards in room five. It was with the GPS.”
She kept writing. Without looking up, she asked, “This map and GPS, you say they were to lead to more gold?”
He nodded. “Yeah. In the cave.”
She stopped writing and looked at him. “Mr. Lockhart, I was at the cave when you ran into it. No gold. Just a hell of a big Grizzly that nearly killed both of us.”
He looked down at the desk and closed his eyes. “I saw the map. I remembered the directions. It don’t make sense. Everything was just how it was supposed to be. The dry river. The big rock. The cave. Everything but the gold. It had to be the right map. I saw her verify it with her blood.”
“Blood? Whose blood?”
He opened his eyes. “The girl that killed the men and shot me. Her blood was on the map. Drops running down the page…” He stopped and stared at her for a moment. She noticed his eyes more intent now. He was thinking, working through things in his mind. “She sped behind the motel,” he whispered. “L-Like the drops on the page.” He hesitated again, squirmed in his seat and shouted, “The blood! The blood! The blood’s the map! That’s why she went behind the motel! I heard the snowmobile start up. The same noise like yours made. The directions were fake! Whoever wrote them must’ve known about the bear!” He lunged forward, lifting the chair off the ground. “We have to go now! We have to get to it before she can carry it all from where it is really hidden!” He looked up at her. “You feel it to! I saw it in your eyes back at the cave. We can still get our share! Please! Help me!”
She stood, and Charlie jumped from his desk and made a move for Lockhart. The prisoner pulled out of the flimsy folding chair as far as he could and was shuffling toward the door, dragging it across the floor with long piercing scrapes. Charlie got a chokehold on him, and Lockhart yelped in pain as the trooper applied pressure to the gunshot wound.
“Settle down, Mr. Lockhart!” She placed her hand over her weapon. After a moment or two of fierce struggle, Lockhart went limp. He leaned forward in the chair and sobbed. Charlie relaxed his grip.
“Take him to the cell.”
Lockhart looked up at her in disbelief. “You’re locking me back up?”
She nodded. “No choice. You’re the main suspect in the shooting deaths of two United States Federal Marshals. What’d you think we were going to do?”
“What’s going to happen now?”
Charlie hesitated, waiting for Riddle’s answer.
“My hands are tied. Federal Marshals from Denver are prepping a chopper as we speak. They’re going to attempt to fly in. If successful, you’ll be transported to Denver for medical treatment and more questioning. Now’s the time for confession, Mr. Lockhart. With two of their own in body bags, the marshals won’t be as patient as we’ve been.”
“I’m not a killer. You know that. I can tell. Same way I could tell you felt the gold in your veins.”
“Mr. Lockhart, I don’t know anything about you--”
“But you know people. And you believe me, when I tell you I didn’t kill those men. Maybe you don’t believe everything I told you. But you believe that much of it. Please help me.”
Riddle looked up at Charlie. He shrugged.
“Try to relax, for now. Get some rest. Alex’ll be around in an hour or so to check your vitals and give you some more pain relief.”
Charlie knelt and unlocked the chain binding the man to the chair. She tensed, but Lockhart offered no resistance, a man defeated. He hung his head as Charlie led him over to the holding cell at the right of the room. The vertical iron bars grew upward out of the pine green floor tiles and ended at the dull gray ceiling. From her desk she could see the prisoner’s every move.
The cell had only been occupied two other times in the past seven years. Once, for a violent DUI offender Charlie arrested on New Years Day of 2013, and once for the purpose of housing a prisoner being transported from a Colorado State Penitentiary to a minimum-security prison outside of Salt Lake City. The two correctional officers and their charge were forced to spend the night, the result of a similar spring blizzard. The three had been overcome with joy, when she’d rounded up extra cots for them to bunk on and brought left over hamburger helper to the station for their supper.
“Gunsmoke. Marshal Dillon’s Office,” Donny, the younger, blonder of the two officers remarked between mouthfuls of helper. “Pop watched those reruns religiously.” Both prisoner and grayer officer nodded in agreement.
Ben ‘Mac’ McKenzie, her former boss, and lover of all things “Old West,” took the novelty of the station’s layout a step further, by decorating the interior with some of his very own donated cowboy memorabilia.
Five Winchester model ’73 lever action 30-30 rifles filled the handmade oak gun case on the wall to the right of her desk. Against the opposite wall, a few steps from the cell, stood a five-hundred-pound combination safe, relic from Cold Spring’s gold rush days. In the left corner of the room, next to Charlie’s desk, sat a hot plate and blue pewter antique coffee pot. Beneath the hotplate were a half dozen tin cups that would’ve looked at home in the chapped hands of dusty cowboys, sitting around a roaring red campfire. Brown leather gun holsters hung from the coat rack next to the front door, and authentic glass lanterns swung from hooks over the windows.
When she’d taken over, after McKenzie’s forced retirement, she’d considered moving the props to the back room, to tone down the Wild West motif. It all seemed so kitschy and unprofessional. Then one slow summer day, not long after Mac left, she took a photo of twin five-year-old boys standing in front of the holding cell, wearing wide toothy grins, holsters, and matching white department store cowboy hats. She opted to leave the memorabilia alone for the time being, and, along with her other duties, inherited the job of Wild West museum curator.
The phone rang, and she jumped to answer it. Before lifting the receiver, she transferred the call to Charlie’s desk.
“Intercept this one for me, will you? Need some time to digest what Lockhart said.”
Charlie was on his way over from the cell. He stopped midway between desks and turned to get the phone.
Looking over at Lockhart in the holding cell, lying on the cot, it was easy to imagine him as a paid actor, just another addition to the station’s theme.
“And this, ladies and gents, is the infamous Graham Lockhart, apprehended by Cold Spring’s very own Sheriff Joyce Riddle. The mangy varmint was caught red handed in a shootout with U.S. Marshals over at the hotel. Lockhart landed in the pokey and the marshals on Boot Hill.” Whose voice was that she heard recite the words? Clint Eastwood? John Wayne? Mac?
She leaned forward and examined the gun she’d found in the snow. No fake six-shooter, filled with blanks. 9mm. Same caliber she carried. She looked up from the gun to Lockhart, sprawled across the cot, asleep and snoring.
A part of her wanted, needed, to believe in her own instincts, but every shred of physical evidence pointed to Lockhart. Why did she feel a pang of unease sweep through her bones when she thought about the sincerity in Lockhart’s eyes? I’m not a killer. You know that.
She had no choice. When the marshals arrived, they’d take control of the prisoner and investigation. It’s out of my hands, Mr. Lockhart. Wasn’t that what she wanted? A return to her safe world? A world that didn’t include interrogations of murder suspects and investigations of bloody crime scenes. She just needed to ride the storm out, keep a lid on things, until the big dogs landed in their chopper. Simple. Or, maybe, it wasn’t.
She thought back to her first impression of Lockhart, when he’d open the door and found her waiting to question him at the motel. She’d always excelled at first impressions. It was part of her talent at the gaming table. It had won her a lot of pots in the past. She could always tell the winners from the losers and the posers and wanna-bes from the risk takers. The moment Lockhart opened the door to cabin five, she’d spotted a nervous loser, not a nervous killer.
Evidence be damned. There wasn’t one time that she could think of that she’d looked into Graham Lockhart’s eyes and seen a cold-blooded killer staring back at her.
She needed to know more about Lockhart and his past, to save her from her own conscience. The simple fact is, Joyce, at the end of the day, you got a responsibility to yourself, the two dead marshals, and to Lockhart, to do your damn job.
She glanced up to get Charlie’s attention and saw that he was still on the phone. He jotted something down on the back of a piece of junk mail before hanging up.
Before she could ask, he turned to her and said, “Feds.”
“What’s going on?” Lockhart woke, and moved close to the bars.
“Cavalry ain’t charging in today.”
She felt warring twinges of relief and apprehension in the pit of her stomach. The delay would give her time to do some digging.
“Chopper took off from Denver airport at 10:45, headed up mountain in our direction. Five miles in, the wind and ice buildup on the rotors forced the pilot to make an emergency landing in the middle of Highway 11, in Boulder. Some big damn mess that must be.”
“Anyway, they’re keeping an eye on any changes in pattern. Soon as they get a break, they’re gonna give it another shot. Meantime, they suggest we sit tight.”
Charlie walked over to her desk and plopped down in the metal folding chair Lockhart had been chained to. He leaned back and put his hands behind his head and glanced out the window at the blizzard. “Sounds like words to live by to me, Kemosabe.”
Tempting. Ride the storm out. You’re not a detective, despite all your poker talents. This isn’t a game. The stakes are different. Let the big boys handle it. She glanced down at the big red puzzle book. How do you Sudoku? She looked up at Lockhart, sitting on the edge of the cot with his head in his hands. There it was another twinge in her stomach. The main event: Apprehension vs Curiosity. Her heart beat faster and her throat tightened. The most alive she’d felt in seven years. Time to cross a line.
“Charlie, get on the phone and get hold of the Shelby County, Tennessee Sheriffs Department.”
He hesitated. “Why?”
“Memphis is in Shelby County. Lockhart’s from Memphis. Find out what you can. See if he’s got a criminal record there. If he does, have them fax it to us before the phone lines go down.”
“But the Feds said to--”
“I know what the Feds said, but we have a responsibility here, too.”
Charlie glanced over his shoulder at the prisoner. “To who? Him?”
“And the two dead marshals.”
He sat silent. Finally, he shrugged. “Okay. Why the sudden interest in paddling further down this river?”
“I don’t know. Something’s off.”
“Something’s off? Come on, Kemosabe.” He whispered, “We got this loser behind bars, fleeing from the scene with a bullet hole in his shoulder and a smoking gun with his fingerprints all over it.”
“This?” He reached out and snatched the gold piece from her desk. She grabbed one end. He pulled, and she pulled back, a childish game of tug of war.
He looked at her. “Riddle? What the hell? Let me have a look.”
She wanted to let go but couldn’t. Suddenly she came to her senses, just as she had back at the cave and let go. She peered into his eyes. He had the gold in his hands, but he was looking at her in a strange way.
She shrugged it off with an awkward smile. “Sorry, Charlie.” She shook her head. “Stress. Losing my mind, little by little today.”
After a moment he nodded. “Yeah. I see. Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
She looked from his deep brown curious eyes to the gold piece. “I don’t know. With everything else that’s going on, I figured it could wait. At least til we got back here.”
He shrugged. “I suppose.” He held the gold up in front of his eyes and whistled.
“At least five ounces of 24k. Purest of the pure.”
“You know gold?”
“Grandfather used to make jewelry and sell it in a little shop a few miles down the road from the reservation. Mostly cheap junk the tourists would buy up for souvenirs, along with the moccasins and fake tomahawks. Every now and then he’d get a special order in for something above and beyond the norm. 24 karat is rare, but you never forget it, once you’ve seen it. According to today’s prices, you got bout five thousand worth here.”
“You recognize the writing?”
“What’s it say?”
“It’s Navajo. Says something to the effect of, ‘Property of Navajo people. Please return to nearest tribe member.’” He made a move to shove the piece into his shirt pocket. She reached out and grabbed his hand. A reflex, like before when she’d tried to stop him from taking it from her desk. She felt his wrist tense under her grip before he broke into a wide smile.
“Relax, Kemosabe. Just kidding. You know, to relieve the stress.” He loosened his grip and let the piece fall back down on her desk.
She sighed and apologized. She placed her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes. They both chuckled. Beneath the laughter she could sense Charlie was a little hurt. She was more than a little embarrassed. What the hell was wrong with her? Ever since she’d first laid eyes on the gold, she’d been having trouble keeping her emotions in check in its presence.
She looked up at him. “What?”
“The writing. I think it’s Middle Eastern. You should let Alex take a look at it. He picked up some Arabic when he was over there.”
She nodded. “Good idea.” She grabbed the gold and searched the room. Her eyes fell on the antique safe. “For now, I think I’d feel better if it’s stored in a secure place.”
She got up, walked over, and knelt in front of safe. She twisted the knob a few times and opened the door.”
“That thing works?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah. Mac’s birthday. 03-02-45.” She slammed the door shut, spun the knob, and stood.
“Safe place, alright. It’d take a shit load of TNT to blow that monster open.”
She sat back down at her desk. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that.”
He nodded. “What you make of it? And more importantly, where’d he get it?”
“He says inside the BMW. Says there was supposed to be more hidden in the cave where you killed the bear.”
Charlie leaned across her desk and whispered again. “You believe him?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. But I don’t believe he’s a cold-blooded killer, either. I saw his eyes, Charlie. He was sure that there was gold in that cave. He’s telling the truth, or at least he’s crazy enough to believe he is.”
He looked back at Lockhart in the cell. “But there’s so much we don’t know. The guy could be a nut case.”
“That’s the point, Charlie. We don’t know. Besides, it’s not like we got anything else to do.”
“What about the storm? Power’s going soon. Then we’ll have the locals to deal with.”
“Uh-uh. Cop out. You know as well as I do, the locals know the drill. It’s not like they haven’t been through this before. We’ll need to look in on some of the older ones, Bill and Gloria Statum, for sure, but the rest will be routine.”
“If he’s innocent then I hope for his sake we find out before the marshals get here, or he’s toast, guilty or not.”
“After you get off the phone with Memphis, call the Marshal’s Office in Denver and see what you can find out about the dead. What were they working on? Why undercover? And why so secretive? They owe us that much, considering the river of shit we’re wading in right now.”
“What if they don’t want to talk?”
“The Justice end of the Federal Government employs over five hundred people in the greater Denver area. With your track record, you have to slept with at least one of the female population.”
“What’re you gonna be doing in the meantime?”
“Back to the Frontier. Dig around in the snow. Talk to Sam. See if I can find anything that will link what Lockhart’s telling us to fact.”
“I will. Keep the phone and fax lines hot. Find out as much as you can, before we’re snowed back to the Ice Age.” She stood and slipped into her coat.
Charlie got up and started for his desk. She put a hand on his shoulder, turning him back toward her.
She looked over at Lockhart and whispered, “Keep the phone conversations low in volume. Use my desk if you must. It’s further away from the cell. I don’t want him thinking we’re taking his side in this.”
“What was her name?”
“The one-nighter that works for the Fed.”
Charlie grinned. “You presume only one? Thought you knew me better than that, Kemosabe.”
She managed a smile, pushed past him to the storage room and through the back door to the snowmobiles.
Riddle steered the sled out of the station’s parking lot, headed north toward the Wild Frontier. She was less than a mile away when her walkie-talkie chirped. What now? She pulled the sled to the shoulder and answered Charlie.
“What’s up, Floating-Reed? Miss me already?”
Static. “You’re going to be checking on Bill and Gloria sooner than you thought.”
“Bill’s had another heart attack.”
She closed her eyes and cursed. Snow filled wind swept down the mountain road. The air’s frigid fingers reached inside her helmet, numbing her nose and lips. A Bill Statum heart attack was the last thing she needed. “Copy that, Charlie, I’m on my way.”
“Better you than me.”
Two miles from the motel, she turned right on a narrow road, marked only with a crudely made wooden sign. Hell’s River Road led upwards at a near seventy-degree angle, through some of the thickest brush in Cold Spring, before narrowing into a trail that allowed just enough room for a snowmobile to pass. It was a fight to steer the sled up the grade. But the trip back down’s always the test. One problem at a time.
The snowy trail ended a few yards from where Bill and Gloria’s one hundred and twenty-year-old, fully renovated, mountain cabin stood on a shelf of level ground. She pulled the sled under the adjacent metal and log canopy, parking it between Bill’s vintage 68’Harley Sportster and his snowmobile.
She raised her hand to knock on the door as Gloria opened it, ushering her inside, her narrow face frantic with worry. The woman grabbed Riddle by the hand and led her through the kitchen, down a short hallway to the bedroom.
“He’s on the bed. Please help him, Officer. I don’t know what I’d do without him. We’ve lived here together for so long. I just don’t think I could go on…” she started, before opening the door to the bedroom.
Joyce stood amazed. The exact words she’d spoken over five years ago.
She looked down at the bed. Bill Statum lay on his back, pale blue eyes half open, long gray hair, loose from its ponytail, hiding the pillow beneath his head. His bare, gaunt chest rose and fell with each breath.
“Should I call the ambulance?”
She put her hands on the seventy-year-old woman’s bony shoulders and looked her in the eye. They’d been blue once, like Bill’s, but were now dulled by dementia to the color of an overcast sky. It was hard to remember what she’d said to comfort Gloria back in 2013, when Bill had had a real heart attack, so she gave it her best shot.
“Gloria, Bill’s strong. Strong as a grizzly. And twice as stubborn. He’s going to pull through this just fine and, afterwards, when he’s all healed up, he’ll have a hell of a story to spin around the card table.”
She held her breath. The woman relaxed a little. It worked. For an instant, Riddle thought she saw a hint of the old Gloria, the one who could tell a dirty joke with twice the effect of her husband or any other man in the room. Then, just as quickly, it vanished.
Gloria nodded. “I’ll go to the kitchen and do the dishes.” She turned, trance like, and shuffled down the hallway.
Joyce looked down at Bill, shook her head, and sighed. Heart attack my ass. She knew the real reason for her old friend’s unnaturally sound sleep. Jack and Mary.
She put a hand on his shoulder.
“Bill! Bill! Wake up. Where’s Jack?”
He waved her off, rolled over, and turned his good ear away from her.
“Don’t make me use the ice water. I swear if you don’t…”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She left the room and returned with a glass of ice-cold tap water. She held it over his head a second, before letting it tip over, splashing into his face and eyes. He spat, gasped and coughed, before raising his head off the pillow.
“Why such a hard ass today, Joyce?”
“Sorry, Old Man River, but I’m up to my neck in shit and snow. Don’t have time to gently coax you back to reality.”
He glanced at the clock on the nightstand and rubbed his eyes. “What’s all the hubbub? Aint like we haven’t been down white-out road before.”
“Not your worry. You got enough up here to last you.”
He laid his head back down on the pillow. “Sorry bout the lapse in judgment, Darling. Guy’s gotta have a pressure relief valve.”
“You knew going in, it wasn’t going to be a picnic. Doctor Samyeed warned you how hard it would be taking care of an Alzheimer’s patient way the hell up here in the mountains by yourself. I was there. Remember?”
He nodded and looked out the window. “Yeah. I remember. I don’t, for one minute, regret rescuing her from the clutches of that nursing home. Concentration camp for the elderly and disabled, stench of piss and liniment. Wouldn’t have left a dog there, much less my wife and Harley Mama of the last thirty years.”
She was quiet a moment. She respected him for his sacrifice. With the divorce rate among married couples what it was today, it warmed her heart a little to know this kind of loyalty really existed. Her father had left her mother when she was twelve, and her own marriage went bust in less than a decade. Enough with the Hallmark moment. Like it or not, you gotta get down to business.
“You know I love you, Bill. And I’ll always be here if you need me. But, like I said, plate’s full today, and I don’t have time for this kind of foolishness. So I gotta ask, where you hiding Jack?”
He sighed. “Guess it wouldn’t do me much good to lie to you’re, too good a poker player.”
“Dresser. Bottom drawer. Under the jeans.”
She walked over, knelt by the dresser, and opened the drawer. After a moment of feeling beneath the soft-to-the-touch denim, her fingertips found the bottle’s cool surface. She stood, opened the window, and poured the whiskey out. Once the bottle was drained, she closed the window and dropped it in a metal trashcan by the bed.
She turned to him. “Mary?”
He looked at her, blue eyes pleading. “Come on, Joyce, have a heart. It’s both medicinal and currently legal now.”
He shrugged and smiled sheepishly.
She walked over to the nightstand and opened the top drawer. Inside she found a sandwich bag filled with a half-ounce of dark green pot. She noticed little patches of light brown smoking tobacco mixed in for flavor. Bill’s special blend. She held the bag above his head, just out of his reach.
He nodded. “Cross my heart.”
She dropped the bag down on his chest. “If I have to come up here one more time in the next forty-eight hours--”
“I know. Down the crapper.”
She took a second to judge his sincerity. He means it. Before turning to leave she asked, “Gas in the genny?”
“Filled her up a couple of days ago, when I saw what we were in for.”
“Good man. Remember. Moderation.” She closed the bedroom door and left the cabin.
The instant she stepped out of the cozy little shack, the cold wrapped its unforgiving arms around her, motivating her to move quickly as she put on her ski mask, helmet, and goggles. She started the snowmobile and mentally prepared for the descent down mountain.
Once the cabin was out of sight, she leaned close to the machine, using gravity and momentum as her accelerator. She clutched and down shifted to the lower gears at exactly the right times, weaving in between the rocks and trees with ease and swelling pride in her snowmobile prowess.
Retracing her descent, as she lay face up in the cold snow, her left foot trapped beneath the overturned snowmobile, she quickly homed in on the point where she’d made her mistake. She’d been acutely aware of the environment, as she wound her way through the trail’s narrow, more treacherous portion, but became over-confident as it widened. She’d let her mind wonder back to Lockhart, the gold, and the dead marshals.
Her front blades hit the triangular chunk of ice, hidden beneath the snow, a few yards from the path’s end, throwing her forward over the handlebars. Her helmet protected her head, and the snow, though hard packed, had prevented any broken bones. The sled flipped over and cleared her torso, before crashing down on her boot. Luckily, the heavily padded seat buffered the brunt of the overturned machine’s crushing weight.
She wiggled her toes inside her boot and moved her foot and ankle as much as she could between the ground and snowmobile. Nothing broken. At worst some bruising and next day soreness. On a scale of one to ten, she’d give the crash a three.
She pulled her leg and felt it give a little. With some effort she could free it, but she didn’t want to risk a strained muscle. Just radio Charlie. He could leave Lockhart alone long enough to help lift the sled off her leg. She could shake off the snow, pop an Advil, and be on her way to the Frontier.
She reached down for the walkie-talkie. Gone. She twisted her head and saw it lying in the snow a few feet up the hill. She stretched and reached for the shiny black cover. The tips of her gloves fell an inch short. She twisted further and felt a sharp pain run up her trapped leg to her spine.
No choice. She’d have to free the leg on her own. She moved her foot and pulled her leg up toward her torso. It gave, just not enough.
Unzip the boot and slide your leg out. She pushed up on her elbows to reach the zipper. She sank down in the snow, and her head fell back to the cold ground.
“What a day,” she muttered, before making another attempt to rise. She noted the low rumbling behind her and her blood froze.
The growl wasn’t threatening. It seemed more instinctual, like the deep hum of a finely tuned motor of a vintage muscle car, as it crept down the mountainside, the involuntary purr of a curious house cat. A hundred and eighty-pound house cat.
She eased her head down. Oh Lord, please, not twice in one day. Charlie’s words as he knelt beside the dead grizzly rang through her mind. Last week’s warm weather must’ve woke it up early. Pissed off and hungry. The bear wasn’t the only club member.
The occasional stray mountain lion was more a common occurrence in Cold Spring than the half-ton grizzly, and, under normal circumstances, not as much a threat. Often times, making one’s self bigger, by waving arms and yelling would prove sufficient to drive it away. Not normal circumstances. She lay helpless beneath the snowmobile, neck exposed.
The cougar’s growl deepened with growing confidence as it closed the gap between them. She needed to gage the distance between her and the animal. She tilted her head back. An inverted image of the big cat appeared as she looked up the mountainside. Maybe twenty yards.
It saw the slight movement of her head and hunkered low, lifting its rear haunches higher than its front. Keeping her eyes on the cat, she let her right hand drop to her side, slipped it out of the glove, unsnapped the holster, and wrapped her fingers around the grip. She brought the gun up to her torso and then up farther, until the cool steel rested against her cheek.
Sensing the movement to be a sign of aggression, the cat bolted down the slope, kicking up a spray of snow, as it thrust forward.
In one fluid movement, she shoved her right arm up and aimed. She squeezed the trigger three times. The first bullet grazed the cougar’s left ear, causing little, if any, pause in its fearsome descent. The second and third bullets struck just beneath the animals right and left front limbs, stopping it in its tracks. The creature tumbled down the mountainside, skidding to a halt, an arm’s length across from where she lay.
The cat lay on its side, head facing hers. It was male, young and stealthily built. It made a sudden jerky movement in her direction. Wind swept down the mountainside, blowing a cloud of misty snow up, enveloping her and the animal. The cougar growled again. The growl tapered to a low whimper as its eyes dulled with death. She let the gun fall to the ground and reached out and took its heavy paw in her hand. She felt the talons, deadly sharp beneath the soft fur. It seemed a sin to destroy such an incredibly beautiful and majestic animal, like the wolf she spotted earlier. Before letting go of its paw, she whispered, “Sorry,” and then ironically and quietly thanked God for the state-required, quarterly handgun qualifying tests at the shooting range in Denver.
She looked at her watch. It was nearly three-o-clock. What light there was, was starting to dim, as the temperature plummeted. She holstered her gun and reached down and unzipped the boot. After a moment of struggle, she pulled her foot free, slipped the boot from beneath the machine, and put it back on. Using the slope of the hill as leverage she righted the snowmobile, picked up the radio, and called Charlie.
“Charlie, you got a copy?”
After a moment of static, he answered. “Yeah. Go ahead, Kemosabe. Sorry. Took a minute. On the phone.”
“Copy that. Find out anything worth talking about?”
“Some. You want the 411?”
“Negative. Gotta get to the Frontier. Before we lose daylight.”
“Figured you to be there by now.”
“Took a spill coming down from Bill and Gloria’s.”
He chuckled. “Been a while since you lost it.”
“Give Bill a call. Tell him he owes me. Big time.”
“Okay. What happened?”
“Long story. No time. Fill you in when I get back. How’s Lockhart?”
“Alex came around and gave him more morphine. He’s down for the count.”
“Good. Best thing for him. See you in a couple of hours. Riddle out.”
Riddle examined the depressions left by the fallen men. Snow Angels. Bloody fucking snow angels. She stood and glanced up, for the second time today, into the big Indian statue’s face. If only you could talk, Chief. She looked to the office and thought about the whiskey bottle Lockhart claimed to have offered to the manager as pre-payment.
“Sam,” she whispered, before hanging her head and wrestling the wind to the office door. She needed to confirm Lockhart’s story. If she were to believe him, she had to find a seedling of truth to what he’d told her.
She tried the office door. Locked. Strange for this time of day. She rattled the knob and knocked on the window. No answer. She placed her face to the glass and peered in. No sign. She’d turned to check the mobile home, when he appeared, unlocked the door, and opened it a crack.
“Told you before, Joyce, I was in the mobile home. Asleep. Didn’t hear or see a damn thing. Don’t see how I can help you any more than that.”
“It’s about a bottle of whiskey you took from Lockhart.”
Recognition washed over his face, but he didn’t open the door any wider or invite her in. The word “whiskey” always got his attention. He scratched his chin and grunted. “Yeah. I remember.”
The wind blew between them, nearly ripping the knob from his grip. Snow flew through the crack inside the office.
She pushed closer to the door. “Mind if I come in? Cold as hell out here, Sam.”
He opened it and made an impatient motion with his hand. “Get on in! So, I can shut it already!”
She walked in, and he slammed the door. She pulled off her ski mask, shook her hair free and stuffed the cap in her coat pocket.
“Nothing wrong with trading whiskey for rent is there?”
She grinned. “Nah, Sam. Nice to know the barter system’s still alive and well in Cold Spring after all these years.”
He shrugged. “Guess so.”
She smiled. Didn’t get the joke.
He crossed his arms, leaned against the counter and nodded toward the window. “What’s some expensive hooch got to do with what happened out there?”
“Technically, nothing. I just need to confirm that Lockhart gave it to you.” She pulled out the notepad and scanned over the notes from the interrogation.
“He was short on cash.” Sam shook his head. “Could tell he was trouble from the get-go. But this wasn’t your average fifth of rock gut. Went down smooth. Like silk. Don’t know where a guy like him got his hands on a bottle like that. Probably stole it.”
“Maybe. You still have it?”
“Nah. Emptied and tossed it.”
She gave him a sharp look. “By tossing it you mean…?”
He looked down at the fake bearskin stretched across the hardwood and winced. “Threw it in the ravine behind the hotel.”
“Oh, hell, Sam.”
He’d been in trouble with her before over his nasty habit of using the ravine as his own personal landfill. Whiskey breath and drunken snowmobile driving she could tolerate. Trashing one of the country’s last great-untouched wildernesses? Uh-uh. She’d promised his next offence would warrant the usual thousand dollar fine, tripled in value. Lucky for him she had more pressing problems. Besides, the bottle wouldn’t prove much use to her now. His handling it would’ve smeared any fingerprints Charlie could’ve lifted off the glass.
“That it?” He looked up at her, bloodshot eyes filled with the hope of avoiding the fine.
She noticed he’d changed shirts since the last time they talked.
“Why the sudden loss of devotion for the home team?”
He looked at her, confused.
She pointed at the plain gray sweatshirt. “You had on a Bronco’s jersey before. Old-school-Ellway.”
He glanced down and shrugged. “Spilt coffee on it. Law against changing shirts in the middle of the day?”
She shook her head. “Course not. You take care to stay inside, Sam. Genny fueled and ready for the inevitable?”
“Yup. Mistake me for a fuck’n city dweller?”
“Never.” She winked, opened the door, and left the office.
She slipped the ski mask over her head and thought about Coltrane’s reaction to her questions. He’d been truthful with her about the bottle, looked her square in the eye, confirming Lockhart’s story. And he didn’t even bother to lie about the littering. So why did he get so defensive and lose eye contact with her when she’d asked him about the shirt change? Makes no sense. She’d only been curious.
But, then again, Sam was a harder read than most. She wasn’t sure why. Maybe it had to do with the fact he was usually either a little hung over, a little buzzed, or both, making his reaction time slower than the average bear’s.
Sam Coltrane’s a functioning alcoholic. Which simply meant he didn’t let his addiction get in the way of his day-to-day responsibilities at the motel. She thought about Alex and his bottle of Jack, Bill and his stash of Jack and Mary, even Charlie and his compulsive womanizing. Everybody in Cold Spring nurtured an addiction in some form. It was the perfect place to both hide, and hide from, your personal demons. She thought about her demon. She shook her head. No-way. Slayed that dragon before moving to the Spring. She refused to lump herself with the others.
Like it or not, you’re just as guilty. She’d learned to turn her head too easily over the past seven years. She found herself standing over the body cut outs again. Rocky Mountain snow covered a lot of sins, but not murder. No turning your head this time.
She tried to trace the footprints. Most of them were nearly covered with fresh snow. The time for determining their origins would’ve been before me, Charlie and Alex trampled over every square inch of the area. Hindsight. What a bitch.
She considered how she’d found the bodies. One face down, bullet in the back. The other face up, bullet to the head. She glanced back at cabin five and imagined Lockhart busting out the door, half mad with fear, screaming at the top of his lungs. If the men were already in the parking lot when he ran out of the cabin, they would’ve turned to face the threat. Both men should’ve been shot from the front. Why would one man turn his back on a gun, while the other stood facing it? These were highly trained, armed officers. How could a terrified slub like Lockhart manage to gun them down so quickly and efficiently? She pressed her fingers beneath the ski mask and rubbed her eyes. She’d let the shock of the scene and the overwhelming physical evidence prejudice her judgment.
The woman, she went behind the motel. I head the snowmobile start up.
Lockhart’s words. The only way a fourth person could’ve disappeared so quickly would be easy access to a strategically placed snowmobile. She turned and walked behind the narrow building.
Coltrane’s landfill lay thirty paces from the motel’s back wall. The bank of the ravine sloped down thirty feet and then leveled for roughly ten yards, before dropping off over a hundred feet straight down into a narrow river gorge.
Riddle stepped over and between a winter’s worth of empty beer and liquor bottles on her way down the first slope. She tripped over an empty 40 oz, catching the body of a sapling pine seconds before tumbling to the bottom. Damn you, Sam.
Beneath the canopy of trees, shading the bottom of the ravine the snow lay mostly undisturbed. She looked a few feet to her right and saw the footprints. Lockhart’s girl? She followed the single set of prints to an umbrella shaped spruce and discovered the snowmobile tracks.
The sled had wound around the side of the grade cutting a rough trail. She followed the path, figuring it’d lead her back up to the road.
Twenty yards down she saw movement in the branches and drew her weapon. The wind? She crouched. Using the trees as cover, she moved forward a few feet to the cliff’s edge and spotted the woman. Maroon hoody, stringy blonde hair, faded jeans. Lockhart’s girl hadn’t made it to the road after all.
Rock and a hard place. The man considered the woman trooper’s predicament through the cross hairs of the rifle’s scope. He squatted behind a patch of small cedars several feet up the mountain from where she lay trapped beneath the snowmobile. Fatal flaw with most cops. Failure to focus on one problem, while maintaining awareness of the dangers the rest of the environment has to offer.
His father, a bounty hunter, taught him that valuable lesson a long time ago. At the age of fourteen, his daddy had taken him on manhunts, kicking down doors to some of the sleaziest apartments and slum houses west of the Mississippi, in pursuit of “the scum of the earth.” Son, never, for a second, let yourself get to think’n the only man in the room with a gun pointed at your head’s the only man in the room with the means to kill you.
Right now, he was the only one with a gun aimed at the trooper’s head, but he wasn’t the only one with the means to kill her. He turned the gun’s sights from the trooper to the cougar, creeping down the mountain behind her.
He homed in on a point at the base of the big cat’s skull below the left ear. One shot. Even with wind and snow blowing from every direction, he was confident in his skills. Two tours in Vietnam as a Marine Sniper awarded him that. He also believed in the natural order of things. Don’t interfere unless your hand’s forced. Not one of his father’s rules, but his. He waited and watched through the scope.
Before long the trooper became frighteningly aware of the cat’s presence. Her next action would determine if she was a survivor. He squinted and refocused on the kill point beneath the animal’s skull and applied pressure to the trigger.
He relaxed his finger and lowered the gun. The big cat lay dead next to the woman. A survivor. He watched her pull her leg free of the snowmobile and struggle like hell to lift it to its rightful position. She picked up the walkie-talkie, spoke a few words, and straddled the machine. She headed east toward the motel.
The man slipped the rifle inside a leather case, slung it over his shoulder, and sauntered back to where he’d hidden his sled.
He sped down the mountain to the road and stopped. He pulled a pair of binoculars from his duster and watched the trooper kill the engine next to the big Indian. She stood over the spot where the men fell, before heading for the office. What the hell she think she’s doing? Playing mountain detective? The man lowered the binoculars, shook his head, and spat a stream of tobacco juice into the snow. “B.D.M.”
Soon the woman left the office, walked back into the parking lot, turned, and went behind the motel.
He started the machine and drove down the road to the Frontier. He pulled the sled into the lot, stopping in front of the office. The manager saw him from inside and nodded a hello. He tipped his hat and climbed off the snowmobile. He walked to where his two brothers had fallen, knelt, and scooped up a handful of snow. He considered the patches of red mixed in the flakes. He let it fall from his hand.
“Sheridan. McCauley. Big. Damn. Mess.”
He stood and drew the Colt .45 from the holster on his hip, released the chamber and spun it round. The butt end of six brass cartridges gleamed in the waning mountain light. He snapped the chamber back in place, re-holstered the weapon, and followed the trooper’s tracks behind the building. He made his way down the slope and found her looking down at the river, her back to him. Oblivious. Maybe not as much of a survivor as I thought.
He brushed the fingers of his right hand across the Colt’s ivory handle. He sighed and crept down the embankment. Time’s come to intrude on the natural order of things.
Riddle holstered her weapon, got a hold on a slim tree trunk near the cliff’s edge, and leaned forward, looking down at the frozen river. The demolished snowmobile’s jet-black fuel tank stood out against the white terrain, like a raven perched at the center of a crystal tree. The woman’s body lay a few feet from the machine, head turned in a direction altogether unnatural to human posture. She squinted and saw the pink Greek lettering on the front of the hoody. Something’s missing. No backpack. She pulled back up to level footing.
“Some bad business.”
She spun, drew her Glock, and aimed for the source of the husky male voice. He drew quicker. She tensed, then relaxed. Instead of looking down the barrel of a gun, she stood face to face with a photo ID. She held the gun on him until she finished reading.
“Jake Hart. United States Federal Marshal.”
He tipped his hat. “Better part of forty years.”
He seemed stunned when she snatched the wallet out of his hand, before he had time to put it back in his coat. She matched the headshot and physical description to the man beneath the brim of the worn-ragged-Stetson. Six four. Two hundred. Blue eyes. Bushy gray handlebar under a long, narrow nose. Face like a Texas road map etched in leather.
She nodded. “It’s you, alright.” She handed him the wallet, holstered her 9mm. and raised the ski mask over her face. “The hell’s your problem, Marshal? Got a death wish, sneaking up on me like that?”
“Apologies. Trooper Riddle is it?”
“Your man, Charlie, back at the station told me I could find you here. Saw your horse parked out front and followed your trail. Didn’t aim to spook you.”
Thanks for the heads-up, Floating-Reed. His deep Texas accent made her grin a little. “I don’t understand. Last report we got was you boys attempted a chopper flight and failed.”
“Yup. They did. Miserably.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Got here before the storm. Just not on official business.”
“Sorta. Semi-retired. If I’m on the clock these days, it’s usually in training and development. Don’t get my hands dirty much anymore. Spend a lot of down time up here.” He looked around and nodded. “God’s country. Hunt’n and fish’n. Few miles east. Up river. Son-in-law’s cabin.”
Riddle nodded. She knew the place.
“Got up this morning, turned on the police scanner, and heard tell about the hell that broke loose. The killings. And how you chased that fellow you got back at your station through the snow. Good work. Didn’t have time to sip a cup and piss it back out before H.Q. called.
“They’re put’n me back on the big payroll for this one. At least until they can get an army of full timer’s up here.” He shook his head, spat, and looked down at his faded brown snakeskins. “I helped train them two men. Sheridan, the older one, was a fish’n buddy. Hell, just last spring he came by the cabin and helped me pull several good sized trout from this very river.”
“You’re here to help?”
“No offence, Officer, but with two boys I had a hand in training dead, I’m here to get to the bottom of it, and, if need be, take that fella you got locked up at your station back down mountain to Denver, where we can really shine a light in his eyes.”
“I haven’t received official word to turn custody of the prisoner over to you. There’s more to this than--”
He brushed by, ignoring what she said. He bent and looked down at the body and wrecked sled.
“More importantly, how you going to get her up out of there?”
“Two of my men have rappelling experience.”
“Two of your men? There was only one man back at the station, and he seemed pretty tied up with the phones, far as I could tell.”
“Charlie can leave the station long enough to help get her up. Alex, our EMT, will go down with him.”
“Who’s going to stay with the prisoner?”
She shrugged. “Cell’s secure enough. Besides, with the blizzard and a bullet hole, he couldn’t get far. Be a death wish.”
“I don’t like it. But our options are limited. We need to get her out of there before dark. We’re working with two full hours of daylight. Tops. Call up your men and get them over here. Now.”
She reached for her radio, but hesitated. Everything he’d said was true. But it sounded too much like an order. She resented that. Who the hell does he think he is? This was her patch of earth. He could at least show a little respect. She shook her head. Not the time, or place, for a pissing contest. She could sort out the chain of command as soon as they pulled the body out of the river. Focus on the job. The man’s got valuable experience. Use it.
“What’re you wait’n on, Officer? Get to it.”
“Of course.” She raised the walkie-talkie to her lips. “Charlie, you got a copy?”
“Ten-four, Kempsabe. Go ahead.”
“Found Lockhart’s girl.”
“Behind the Frontier. Drove her sled over the cliff.”
“Yeah. You know how you said that today wasn’t a good day for rappelling?”
He sighed. “I’ll call Alex. Give us twenty, tops.”
“Ten-four. Riddle out.”
Before becoming a Trooper, Charlie volunteered and trained with The Rocky Mountain Area Search and Rescue Team. It’d been the strongest selling point on his resume. Alex, a former Marine, had rappelling experience as well.
The two pulled into the Frontier parking lot twenty minutes after she made the call. They’d loaded the monster ambulance with the necessary rescue equipment: cables, anchor hooks, a collapsible stretcher referred to as “the life basket” and a battery-powered hoist.
She and Hart met them in the lot and helped carry the stuff behind the motel to the cliff.
Charlie told Alex to secure the rappelling cables to a couple of thick pines growing a few feet from the cliff side. The paramedic looked at him but didn’t respond. “Hey, you with me, Rodriquez?”
Alex had been silent, avoiding looking down at the girl in the river, seemed distant, unfocused.
“Hey, Bro, don’t have all day,” Charlie said.
Alex looked up. “Huh? Sorry. Too many bodies in one day, I guess.”
“You alright, Cowboy?” Riddle glanced at the paramedic, concerned.
Alex stood over the cliff and shook his head. “In ideal conditions, it’d be cake. But in the middle of this shit? How important is it that we get her up out of there right now? Not like she’s going anywhere. She’s dead and I aint in no hurry to join her.”
“The sooner we get her out of there, the sooner I can sniff out who shot down two of my best men like a couple of dogs in the parking lot of that cheap motel,” Hart yelled over the wind. “Pretty damn important, Son.”
Alex and Charlie looked to Riddle. Good men looking for leadership. My job. She stood silent, more intimidated by Hart’s experience and dogged determination than she wanted to admit. She would receive official word to turn the investigation over to Hart the moment she returned to the station. One phone call. But until that time, she held the reins.
Hart glanced at Charlie. “What’re you waiting on? You got your orders, Officer Floating-Reed. Daylights dwindling.”
Charlie hesitated, before gathering the cables and equipment. He looked to Riddle. Hart took a step in her direction, daring her disobedience in the matter. She locked eyes with the Marshal. Hard, blue, color of frozen river water. She stood her ground. “Stay put, Charlie. You, too, Rodriquez.”
Hart closed in on her. Intimidation. Physically, he was about Charlie’s size, but the long duster and big Stetson, strapped tightly to his chin in order to secure it from the wind gusts, made him seem larger. He expected her to step back, to cower down. Instead, she took a step in his direction, meeting him. Surprise.
Who blinks first? She looked deeper into his eyes. Poker player. She tensed, trying not to reveal herself. Too late. By tensing, she already had. He took a last step and they were nose to nose. His breath stank of chewing tobacco and sour coffee.
“I made myself clear. This is a Federal matter now. My investigation. If you ain’t helping, you’re obstructing.”
She opened her mouth to argue but fought back the words. Two options. Conflict or diplomacy. Her heated emotions desired the former, but the latter would prove in her future’s best interest.
Charlie and Alex would remain loyal to her, no matter the circumstances. She had the power to call the mission off, but if she wielded it, out of defiance, it would come back to bite her in the ass, once they got back to the station. Hart would use his authority to force her out of the loop. Choose your words carefully and you win the first round.
“You’ve suffered the loss of two officers. I respect that. But these two men are my responsibility. It’d be a greater loss to lose one, or both, of them on the same day.”
His pupils shrank, and his expression softened. He looked to Charlie and Alex, then back at her. “Your call, Officer.”
Diplomacy. She turned to the paramedic. “Up to you, Rodriguez.”
He backed away from the cliff side. “I don’t know.”
“Come on, Bro. We can do it,” Charlie assured.
Charlie’s enthusiasm impressed her, but she couldn’t let the two of them go down, unless they were of one mind.
“I’ll go.” The words came out before she was sure of what she was saying.
“What?” Charlie turned.
“I’ll go.” This time she sounded surer.
Charlie shook his head. “Uh-uh. Can’t do it, Kemosabe. Me and Alex are the only ones with training. I don’t for a second doubt you got the chops but--”
“Don’t see the problem,” Hart spoke up. “You got the electric hoist. It should be a matter of hooking it to a body, letting them down, and then back up. How much skill could it take?”
“Not that simple,” Charlie shot back. “The hoist battery’s small. It has the power to lift the dead girl and two of us back up the cliff. But we’ll have to rappel down on our own, or there won’t be enough juice in the battery to bring us both back up.”
“And it’s a hell of lot easier to rappel down manually, than to try and climb back up that icy shit without the help of the hoist,” Alex noted.
Hart nodded. “Understood.”
“I could go alone.” Charlie turned to Riddle.
“Uh-uh. If something happens to you down there the problem multiplies.” She looked at Charlie. “I trust you’ll be able to guide me down. Besides, it’s only a hundred feet and some change.”
“No way, Joyce,” Alex protested. “Woke up with a bug or something this morning. Not myself. I’m better now. Punk’d for a second. No big deal. I’ll do it.”
She’d made up her mind. “You need to be a hundred percent, before trying something like this.” She pulled her glove off and felt his forehead. “Hot to the touch. Why don’t you go back to the ambulance and wait for us.”
The paramedic refused. “You’ll need me here to guide you down. I’ll crash when we’re done.”
“Fair enough. After this is over it’s half a bottle of Nyquil and a bed. Doctor Riddle’s orders.” She looked to Charlie. “You in?”
He stared at her, uncertain.
“Drastic times,” she said.
“Okay. But you do exactly as I say.”
“Lets get you harnessed up.”
Fitting her in the upper body harness and attaching the line and hook to the clasp at the center only took a couple minutes. She swapped her snowmobile boots for a pair of climbing shoes. Before she knew it, she was swinging by a thin cable a hundred feet above the frozen river.
“A hundred feet and some change, looks a little different from this perspective.”
Charlie swung over to double check her harness. “Sure you’re okay?”
She looked down at the dead girl. Answers. It was her job to bring them up to light. She glanced up at Hart. He wanted answers too. Maybe more than me. But she could tell he half expected her to break down and start crying, begging to be pulled back up to the safety of the ledge before going through with it.
She turned to Charlie, dangling in the wind beside her. “What the hell you waiting on, Floating-Reed?”
He grinned. “Let’s do it. Follow my lead. And don’t let yourself fall over an arm’s length below me.”
He pulled up by the cable and shoved his feet against the cliff. She tried and her feet slipped. Dangling again.
“Don’t tense your muscles. Stay limber and dig the balls of your feet into the ice. The metal teeth will catch, and you’ll find traction.”
She tried again, this time planting her feet firmly into the ice and rock. Charlie pushed off the wall and slid a couple feet down. He called to her.
Stay calm. You’re in good hands. Charlie’s a pro.
She pushed off the wall, glided down, and shoved her heels into the ice.
“You’re a natural!”
“Save it for when we’ve made it back up.”
“No time at all. I promise. Stay in synch with me. Normally, it’d take about seven long jumps to the bottom. Since you’re green, we’re taking baby steps. About fifteen. Give or take.”
“You’re the boss.”
“You don’t know how long I’ve waited to hear you say that.”
“Ready?” He shouted
“On three. One! Two! Three!”
She pushed and dropped about nine feet.
He looked over and nodded. “Good job!”
“Again. One! Two! Three!” Over confident, she jumped a split second too soon. The wind blew up from the river. Her right foot slipped and she fell, twisting. She searched for Charlie within the dizzying blur of snow and rock. She slammed against the wall. Charlie reached through the mist and grabbed her arm. He held on until she’d steadied herself.
“Blindsided!” Charlie shouted. “You okay?”
Alex bent over and called down to them. “All good?”
Charlie waited in silence, apprehensive.
She hadn’t shaken off the soreness of the snowmobile spill, yet and now this. Her right shoulder throbbed. She bit her lip to keep from crying out in pain. She looked up at Hart. Waiting for me to cry uncle? Too far down to stop. Besides, she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. She winced and gave Alex the thumbs up.
“You’re favoring your left leg. Sure, you’re okay?” Charlie asked.
“Point of no return. Let’s finish it.”
“Okay. One! Two! Three!”
Nine uninterrupted jumps later, they stood on the bank of the frozen river.
Charlie unfolded the collapsible stretcher as Joyce pulled the camera from her left pocket and prepped the digitals. Luckily, she’d hit the cliff wall with her right side, so the device was intact. She crept over the ice to the snowmobile wreckage and snapped shots from varying angles. She bent over the victim and took close ups of her bruised face and broken body. She noted the distance between the girl and the snowmobile.Something struck her as being out of place.
“Ready to drop her in the basket?”
“Just a sec, Charlie.” She walked from the girl to the wreckage and looked up the cliff wall. “What’s wrong with this picture?”
He shrugged. “You tell me.”
She pointed at the ledge. “She flies over the cliff, then the handlebars, landing in the River.”
“Sounds about right.”
“Following that trajectory, where should she be laying, in relation to the snowmobile?”
He considered her question. “In front of it.” He walked from the demolished sled to the body and looked back at her. “But she’s at the rear.”
“We made a mistake by letting the abundance of physical evidence cloud our judgment of the first crime scene. We need to look a little deeper here. Don’t want to make the same mistakes over again.”
“I appreciate that, Kemosabe. Believe me, I do.” He considered the fading light. “But daylight’s an even scarcer commodity down here, and I’m not sure if we have the time to play Sherlock and Watson much longer.”
She glanced up at the darkening clouds. “You’re right. I’ve got the pictures to re-examine, if needed.”
She helped him lift the body out of the ice and into the basket. She felt in the pockets of the girl’s sweatshirt for ID.
Charlie knelt next to Riddle. “Anything?”
Riddle pulled out a credit card and handed it to Charlie. “Just this.”
Charlie read the name on the card. “Jessica Reburn. Funny. She don’t look like a Jessica.”
Riddle rubbed the tip of her glove across the girl’s cheek. “I don’t think she is.”
“Hell of a layer of make-up,” Charlie noted.
“The make-up was applied to lighten her skin and hide her age, Hispanic.”
“Sorority hoody. Bleached hair. Half inch of pancake batter. Why was she trying to fool somebody into believing she was younger and Caucasian?”
Riddle shrugged. “You know as much as I do, my friend. If anything, it lends more credibility to our guest at the station’s story.”
He handed her the credit card and she slipped it insider her coat pocket. “You gonna show that to Hart?”
“In time Charlie. In time.” She bent closer, noticing the dark design on the woman’s lower forearm.
Riddle rolled the sleeve up past the spot and wiped away the dirt and snow.
“Two eights and an M with a slash over the top of each number and letter.” She looked at Charlie. “Know anything it could stand for?”
“Not a clue. But about that daylight…”
Charlie gave Alex the signal to throw down the cable and hooks from the hoist. They fell to the frozen river shattering the ice with a splash. Charlie attached a hook to each end of the basket. The two steadied it until it was out of their reach. They watched as the stretcher made its way up the cliff wall. Once Hart and Alex retrieved the body, they threw the hooks back down to the river.
Back on the ledge, Hart ordered Alex and Charlie to transport the body to the ambulance.
“Me and Trooper Riddle need to stay back to try and figure out what caused our girl to lose control of the sled.”
Riddle started to tell him what she discovered down in the river but stopped. If Hart expected her and Charlie to be at his beckon call, then he’d better be ready to trade something for the help. The barter system.
Hart walked to where the snowmobile tracks led over the ledge. “Over here, Trooper.” She stood her ground, refusing the order, arms crossed in defiance.
“Hard of hearing, Officer?”
He considered her stance and walked back over to where she stood. “I see. You want me to fill you in on the minute details, before we go any further. You figure I owe you as much, seeing as how I barge in and take control of your little neck of the woods, without even so much as asking permission or making nice with you first.”
“Something like that.”
“If I’ve offended you in some way, well, quite frankly, I don’t give a shit. I don’t owe you a damn thing. It’s the duty of you and your first officer to offer me all resources you have at your disposal, in my effort at getting to the bottom of who killed those two men. They’re the only ones I owe. I owe them the task of digging up the piece of shit that killed them, and to see to it he gets his and more.”
He paused. She opened her mouth to protest, but he continued.
“Having said that, I get where you’re coming from. I can’t stand being left out in the cold either, not to mention an outsider telling me how to squat and shit in my own outhouse. And though I don’t have time to go into every detail, I’m willing to offer a quick rundown. There’s no backtracking, so listen close the first time.”
“I’m a quick learner.”
“Agents McCauley and Sheridan were tracking a fugitive. Female. Most likely the one that took her the fatal swim in that river down there. During their surveillance of the subject, they made a connection to an armored car robbery that went down in Denver a couple of weeks ago.”
She looked at him, confused. “I read the Denver Post daily. Don’t remember anything about an armored car jacking.”
He nodded. “Cause it weren’t in the paper. Kept it hush-hush. This wasn’t just any armored car, full of bank money.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Hang tight and you will. This one was carrying a shipment of gold.”
“Gold?” She thought about what Lockhart said about seeing more gold on the cell he found in the car.
He nodded. “Iraqi gold. Forty, seven-pound bricks of the purest the Middle East has to offer.”
“How the hell do forty bricks of Iraqi gold wind up in an armored car in Denver?”
“The bricks were discovered by Army Special Forces, buried beneath the rubble of a suspected munitions bunker near Baghdad over a decade ago at the height of that conflict. With everything going on then it was secured, sealed and forgotten. It was unlocked from all the years of red-tape and shipped over here only a few weeks ago.”
She rubbed the back of her neck. “Wouldn’t the gold technically belong to the Iraqi government?”
He shrugged and looked down. “Besides the thousands of precious young lives that damn war demanded, it’s cost the American people nearly ten billion dollars a month when it started. Guess the army figured what the Iraqi government don’t know won’t hurt’ em.”
“Why ship it to Colorado? Shouldn’t it go to Fort Knox?”
“A shipment from Iraq to Fort Knox would draw too much attention, inviting trouble. Unlike cash, gold’s got a way of get’n under peoples skin.”
She nodded. No shit. She thought about the obsession in Lockhart’s eyes and her own emotions when around the gold piece.
“So they crated it up in a plain wood box and stamped it, ‘Found Munitions.’ They sent it to Fort Collins, nearby. From Fort Collins it was shipped to United Securities in Denver, where it was to be weighed, appraised, and transported to Fort Knox in Kentucky, under heavy guard from Military Police and F.B.I.”
“But it didn’t make it.”
He shook his head and spat. “Uh-uh.”
“Our Federal brothers, at the Bureau, suspect an insider, working for United. In a joint investigation with the FBI, the marshals agreed to back off the arrest in order to follow the fugitive, in hopes of her leading to the gold and the insider. The agents made a connection between the woman and a United tech with a high-level security clearance named Hasting. McCauley and Sheridan were undercover, posing as black-market gold merchants. Hasting was set to meet them at the motel to discuss a proposed deal to sell the gold.”
“He didn’t make it either.”
“We figure Hasting was on his way to your town for two reasons. First, to meet with the undercover agents and, second, to hook up with the rest of the crew to split the money.
“On their way to the motel, the agents found Hasting dead by the side of the road. All indications pointed to natural causes. Heart attack, maybe. In an attempt to maintain their cover, they left the body to be found by the locals, namely you and your man, Charlie, then made their way to the Wild Frontier to try and catch the others involved, before they could get away with the gold.”
“Lockhart had a gold piece on him when I apprehended him at the cave. It’s locked up at the station. Claims he found it in the BMW. Said he found a map to more at the motel. Swore the girl took the map and killed the marshals.”
Hart shook his head. “There’s a hell of a lot of shit to sort through, before we go and start making rash judgments about guilt and innocence. I’ll know more after I’ve had a talk with the prisoner. Anyway, now you know as much as I do about what’s going on. How’s your satisfaction meter?”
“It’s up but still a lot of unanswered questions.”
He looked over at the ledge. “How bout we see if we can find some answers.”
They walked over to the cliff side.
Hart pointed up the ravine. “It don’t make sense. How did she negotiate that first drop, in this weather, only to lose control down here where it flattens? From here to the road should’ve been smooth sledding.”
Riddle walked down the path a few feet and knelt beside the snowmobile tracks. “This is where she lost it.” She stood and visually scanned the area. She lifted a broken tree limb up out of the snow, examined the bark, and handed it to Hart.
“What’s that look like to you?”
Hart took the branch. “Blood.”
Hart nodded toward a big pine a few feet away from where they stood. He walked over and disappeared behind the wide trunk, then jumped out and made a swinging motion with the branch. “Ambushed.”
Riddle nodded. “Down in the river, I noticed the relation between where the girl landed and the snowmobile crashed.”
Hart’s face went red, a little embarrassed at having missed the clue. “I’m more bloodhound than detective, I’m afraid.”
“Don’t worry. I’m neither.”
He winked. “So the sub knocks her off the sled and sends it over the cliff. Then tosses the body over the side--”
“Landing her behind the wreck, instead of in front of it,” she finished.
“One thing you can always count on is that these sons-of-bitches are never as smart as they think they are.”
She pulled the credit card she found on the girl from her pocket and handed it to him. He took it and looked at her.
“Found that inside her sweatshirt. Nothing else. No ID, no cash, no personal items. Just that.”
He read the name on the card. “Jessica Reburn?”
“Doubt it’s her real name. Woman’s Hispanic. Went to a lot of trouble to hide age and ethnicity. Make-up and clothes.”
He shook his head. “Shit and snows getting deeper by the minute.” He slipped the card in his pocket. “I’ll run the name when I get back to my cabin. If it’s not our girl, then maybe whoever it is can tell us something about her. We’ll need to take a sample of the blood on the bark and dust the branch for prints. Probably wore gloves, but it’s worth a shot.” He looked around, surveying the area one last time. “Aint much else to keep us out in the cold. Where you got the bodies stored?”
“Alex’s got them in the back room of the Med-Center. We’re not really set up for this kind of thing,” she noted.
“Understood. I just need a place to get a closer look. Maybe your EMT can help with determining the causes of death.”
“He’ll do everything in his power. I promise.”
“Good to know.” She detected the slightest hint of mistrust in his voice. They hiked in silence, until the back of the building came into view.
Charlie met them, as they turned the corner. “What’s that?”
“Possible murder weapon.” She handed him the limb. “Wrap it up and put it in the back with the body.”
He slid the branch inside a trash bag Alex handed him from the back of the ambulance. Hart walked around and peeked in. The rear bumper came up to the center of the lanky Marshal’s chest.
“You moonlight on the monster truck circuit, Hombre?”
“Nah. Bought the frame from a guy who does though,” Alex said.
Hart nodded. Charlie closed the ambulance’s rear doors.
Hart slapped the back of the vehicle. “Let’s get her to the Medical Center.” Charlie climbed into the passenger side of the big ambulance. Riddle looked over at Hart.
“Don’t worry ’bout me. I brought my own horse.” He pointed to a red and black snowmobile parked in front of the office.
Riddle noticed the rifle case. “Came prepared.”
Hart shook his head. “My age, you better be ready for anything.”
Alex and Charlie pulled out of the Wild Frontier parking lot and she and Hart fell in behind them on the sleds, following them five miles down the mountain road to the Medical Center.
“It wasn’t built with the storage of the dead in mind, just as a halfway point between the mountains and the hospitals down mountain. I got stuff here to patch wounds and set broken bones from snowmobile and ski accidents but no morgue. Never had any use for one till today,” Alex explained as he wheeled the stretcher through the main doors and down the short hallway to the storage room at the back of the tiny cinder block building. Once all four of them were inside the space, there was little room to move around the bodies.
“Hope nobody’s claustrophobic,” Charlie muttered.
Hart looked at Alex. “Looks like you did an excellent job, working with what you have.”
“No big deal. Just a matter of moving some things around and cutting the heat to the room.”
Riddle moved in closer. “What can you tell us?”
“Not a coroner, just a humble EMT. You don’t need me to tell you how the two officers died. Pretty damn obvious.” He pulled the sheet back, revealing the first officer’s face. “Bullet to the head.” Everyone nodded in agreement. He returned the cover and pointed over to the next stretcher. “One to the back.” Unified nods. They followed him down the line to the girl. He stood silent a moment. Finally, he said, “Snowmobile girl. Easy answer’s the plunge, but then I noticed something when I loaded her into the ambulance. Take a look at this.” He held his finger over a deep gash, an inch above her right eye.
Hart leaned in and asked for tweezers. Alex dug in his pocket and pulled out a Swiss Army knife. “Wondered if this would ever come in handy.” He handed it across the body to Hart.
“Your hands are shaky. You sure you’re okay, Alex?” Riddle asked.
“Yeah. I’m good.”
The Marshal noticed the scar near the bend in his arm as he took the knife from the paramedic.
“Took some shrap over there,” Alex offered.
“You Corp?” Hart asked, opening the fat red knife.
“Four glorious years. Two of ’em spent in Hotel Baghdad.”
The Marshal tipped his hat. “Semper Fi.”
“Hoo-Ahh,” Alex whispered.
“I.E.D.?” Hart bent over the body.
Alex winced and looked down. “Homemade piece-of-shit. Took out the first Hummer in our convoy. I was riding shotgun. Second in line. Lucky this is my only souvenir.” He looked down again. “Sarge and two rear Gunners. Didn’t make it.”
Hart looked up. “Guess we both know a little something about the loss of good men.”
Alex looked over at the dead marshals. “Yeah.”
Hart used the knife’s tweezer blades to pull a tiny piece of bark from the wound over the woman’s eye. Holding it up close to the fluorescent light of the room’s low ceiling, he asked Riddle’s opinion.
She studied the splinter. “Bark from our branch.”
Charlie pulled a plastic baggie from his coat. Hart dropped the chip inside then grabbed the woman’s right hand and carefully wiped the dirt and moisture from her index finger. He asked Riddle for an ink pen and slip of paper. She pulled a pen from her pocket, and Alex handed him a sheet of printer paper. Hart snapped the ink pen in half and dabbed a spot of ink on the page. He pressed the tip of the woman’s finger in it.
“I’ll need a clear print to fax to the office in Denver.” Hart looked over at the last body in the row. “Hasting?”
“Yeah,” Riddle said.
Hart looked to Alex. “Any ideas?”
“Best guess, stroke.”
“Why not a heart attack?”
“Noticed discoloration around the neck and side of the face. Signs of muscle paralysis. Common side effect of stroke victims.”
Hart moved closer to the body. “Whatever it was, from the look on his face, it came as much as a surprise to him as the bastard who found him.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said, looking up at Hart. “It did.”
Hart glanced at the two dead marshals. “Both damned good men. Deserved a lot better,” he whispered to no one in particular.
Out of respect to the fallen officers, everyone in the room was quiet a moment.
Hart broke the silence. “I want everything you’ve got on Lockhart and I want to talk to him. Face to face. Soon as possible. And I’ll be needing to see that gold piece you found on him.”
“Of course. Gold piece is in the safe at the station. Don’t have much to offer you on Lockhart, I’m afraid.” Riddle shot Charlie a quick glance. He acknowledged the gesture with an uncertain wrinkle of his forehead.
Riddle, Charlie and Hart left Alex and the bodies at the Medical Center, filing out into the stormy mountain dusk. They heard banging from across the road. Riddle looked to the general store and saw Liz Manning, the owner, hammering down the ancient building’s storm shutters, her fifty-three-year-old, pencil thin body unrecognizable beneath the fat white parka and brown ski mask.
While Hart and Charlie talked shop by the sleds, Riddle sprinted across the road to the storefront.
“Everything okay, Liz? Genny primed and ready?”
“Yeah.” She looked up at the sky. “Real bastard, this one. I’m closing til the worst’s over. If some of the locals run low on gas for their gennys, or empty their cupboards, you have the spare key. Just open up and let ’em take what they need. I can settle up after the storm.”
Riddle patted the woman’s shoulder. “Thanks, Liz.”
She turned to go. Liz grabbed the trooper by the arm and spun her around to face her. “How ’bout you? You okay, with all that’s going on?” Liz shook her head and frowned in disbelief. “Four dead. Never thought I’d live to see the day in the Spring.”
“How did you--?”
“Bought a police scanner a many years ago at a Radio Shack in Denver. Good investment”
Liz was the community’s primary information source. Post office, general store, pharmacy, gossip central. Still, Riddle didn’t feel comfortable talking about the investigation with a citizen. She skirted the subject.
“I’m fine, Liz. Don’t worry ’bout me. Just get home and try to stay safe till this wolf gets done huffing and puffing.”
Liz, let down, sighed and gave Riddle’s arm a squeeze. “See you when this is over.” She grinned through the mouth hole of the ski mask and winked.
Riddle nodded, a little uncertain. If I make it out alive.
She turned and trudged back across the road to Hart and Charlie. Hart said he needed to stop by his cabin, before meeting them at the station to talk to Lockhart.
“Got to pick up some paperwork faxed from Denver. Provided the phone lines are still up. Shouldn’t take long.” He pulled an antique gold pocket watch from inside his duster and flipped it open. “Half hour?”
Riddle nodded. “We’ll be waiting.”
She and Charlie watched Hart start his snowmobile and steer it onto the road. She waited until he was out of sight, before turning to Charlie. “You able to dig up much on Lockhart?”
“Talked to the Shelby County Tennessee Sheriff’s Department. They faxed everything they had over to us. No stands outs. Couple DUI’s. A drug bust. Nothing major. Ounce of pot. Outstanding child support payments.”
“Not even a domestic.”
“Got a hold of my friend at the Fed. Sorry, but she clammed up pretty tight. Forgot to call her the next day.” He grinned, embarrassed. “Whatever they were investigating was top-secret stuff. Don’t think she really knew anything, anyway. All I could get out of her was something to do with an armored car.”
Riddle nodded. “I know about the armored car.”
“Hart gave it up.”
“How’d you manage that?”
“I been here long enough to know how to barter. There’s a lot more to it. Seems Lockhart’s telling the truth about the gold and the map.”
“Whoa. So there’s more 24k hidden somewhere around here?”
She nodded. “Helluva lot more. Whoever killed the girl has the map.”
“Shit. No wonder Lockhart had that look in his eye. Gold-fever.”
“Let’s keep everything we know about Lockhart on the down low, for now. Let Hart do his own detective work.”
“You don’t trust the Marlboro man?”
Riddle shook her head. “Don’t know. He’s got blood in his eye, Charlie. He wants a head to display on a silver platter. He’s smart, but I don’t think he can see everything as clearly as we can.”
“Objectivity.” He nodded. “You’ve gone all CSI on me all of a sudden.” He grinned and slipped on the helmet “And it aint such a bad thing.”
She straddled the snowmobile, put on her helmet, and shrugged. “Maybe.” She started the engine and sped down the mountain road toward the station. Charlie climbed on his sled and spun out of the parking lot behind her.
Charlie and Riddle walked into the station, brushing snow off their uniforms, just after six. The phone rang, and Riddle picked it up. Division Director Childs ordered her to hand control of the investigation over to Hart. Seconds after she hung up, Hart pulled up in a camouflage-green Hummvee. Perfect timing.
“Sweet Hummer,” Charlie looked out the front window at the 4x4.
Hart walked in. “That’s Betty. She’s fully loaded. Got an old Marine buddy, deals in military surplus. Gave me a hell of a deal. Still wasn’t cheap, mind you. Figured she’d pay off down the road.”
Riddle considered the behemoth truck, the perfect complement to Hart’s exaggerated persona. She looked up at him from her desk.
He nodded. “Let’s have a look at that gold, Officer.”
She got up, walked over to the safe, and kneeled. She spun the knob clockwise, counter clockwise, and back again. She opened it, took out the gold, and handed it to Hart. He held it up to the light, flipped it over, and examined the lettering stamped in the metal. “Yup. Small sample of the source of all our woes.”
She reached to take back the bar. He snatched his hand away and shoved the gold in his pocket. “Not so fast, Officer.”
She nearly grabbed his arm before coming to her senses, letting her hand fall to her side. “What the hell are you doing? That’s evidence. Chased a man a mile though snow for it. It should be kept here, in the safe.”
His eyes narrowed. “Thought you were in pursuit of a killer, not gold.”
“I am, but it’s just that--”
He shook his head. “Federal property, Officer. It’ll be plenty safe with me. I promise.”
Hart glanced over his shoulder at the cell. Lockhart peered through the bars at them.
“You want to talk to him now?” Riddle asked.
“Not yet. I want to look over what you dug up on him, before I yank his nervous chain.”
Riddle shot Charlie a glance. On cue, he went over to his desk and shuffled papers around. He looked at Hart and shrugged. “Couldn’t find out much. Lines to the fax are jammed. Weather.”
Hart arched his eyebrows, waiting for an explanation from the Riddle. She shrugged and threw her hands in the air. “Rocky Mountain weather is a bitch.”
“I think I understand. Is there somewhere we can talk in private, Officer?”
Riddle looked to Charlie and back at Hart, surprised by the sudden request. “Storage room in the back. It’s cramped, but enough space to speak.”
He followed her to the rear of the station. She pulled a brass key ring from her pocket and fingered through several keys, before finding the one that fit the lock. They entered, and she flipped the light switch. A bare bulb, swinging by a black cord, flickered to life, bathing the room in dim light.
The twelve-by-five space smelled like dust and old paper. Boxes of office supplies sat stacked on unpainted shelves, built into the wall to the right. Cleaned and pressed uniform pants and shirts hung from wire hangers against the opposite wall. In the center of the room, beneath the light, stood a card table, orbited by four metal folding chairs. At the table’s center sat a deck of playing cards, a pile of poker chips, and an ashtray.
“For the interrogation of suspects?” Hart picked the cards up and grinned.
“Nah. Long winter days.” She smiled. “Even longer nights.”
“I’ll bet. Texas Hold ’Em?”
“Mostly. Some black jack and five card. Better to warn you now. House always wins.”
“Had you pegged for a player.” He shuffled through the cards.
She folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the shelves. “Likewise.” She wondered where he was headed. Surely, he hadn’t brought her back here to talk poker.
He ordered her to take a seat at the table. She tensed. He kicked the leg of the chair nearest her with the tip of his boot. “Sit down, Officer.”
She swallowed hard. She’d had enough of his orders and condescending tone. Time to loose the kid gloves? To hell with diplomacy? She considered the conversation she’d just had with Director Childs. Federal Officer Hart is now the lead investigator in this pressing criminal investigation, and you, and your second in command, will offer any assistance he may request, that you have at your disposal.
Childs hadn’t liked her much since she’d sided with Mac over his forced retirement. Diplomacy had been her ace-in-the-hole behind the motel. Maybe it would prove the right road once again. She sighed and took her seat. Good girl.
He slammed the deck of cards down in front of her.
She jumped startled.
He leaned close. “Give me one good reason not to read you your rights for killing that woman!”
Fuck diplomacy! She made a move to stand, and he shoved her back down in the seat.
“Where is it, Officer? Better to tell me now, before I tear this place apart.”
“How dare you stomp your boots into my station and over my town on you high fucking horse and accuse me, you arrogant son-of-a-bitch!” She’d decided, if he placed another hand on her, he’d better be ready to wrestle her to the ground. “You were there with me when I found her!”
“Uh-uh. I arrived at the scene after the fact. You could’ve just finished splitting her head with that branch, as far as I know, Miss Riddle.”
“For the record, it’s Officer Riddle,” she spat. “Motive?”
He pulled the gold piece from his pocket and let it drop to the table in front of her, the same tactic she used to get a rise out of Lockhart.
She looked at the bar, then at him.
He smiled and nodded. “I saw the look in your eye when I took it from you. Done got under your skin, hadn’t it?”
She held his stare. “You’re insane.”
“Your ancestors from around here? Prospectors in your family tree? Was it always in your blood? Genetics?”
She shook her head. “Georgia. Born and raised, asshole. That’s the best you got?” She laughed and shook her head. “That’s my motive? Gold-fever?” She moved to stand. “I don’t have to listen to this shit.”
He pulled a slip of paper from his coat and handed it to her.
She stopped and looked at him. “What’s this?”
“One way to find out.”
She snatched it and skimmed down the page. She sat down as her confidence deflated and closed her eyes. “Where the hell did you get this?”
He sat down in the chair beside her. “We both know where I got it aint the important thing.” His tone had turned excruciatingly calm, voice of the upper hand. “The important thing is you lied on your application to the force. I speak from experience, when I say, no branch of law enforcement looks lightly on gambling debts of this size.”
She’d opened her mouth to argue as Charlie burst through the door. “Everything okay, Boss?”
Hart’s eyes remained fixed on her. She looked up at Charlie and nodded. “All good, Charlie. Heated discussion between me and the Marshal’s all.”
Charlie nodded and shut the door.
She looked to Hart. “I know it looks bad on paper, but--”
“Looks real bad, Officer.” He shook his head. “Over two hundred thousand dollars owed to one Ruben Martin, winner of the 2007 Dixie Star River Boat Casino Poker Tournament in Biloxi, Mississippi. That’s nearly a quarter million. This the reason your two girls live in Georgia with your ex-husband?”
“You leave them out of this!” She held the paperwork in front of his face. “This is all caught in legal red tape. The Dixie Star’s under investigation by the Mississippi Gaming Commission and the Feds. If the charges against them are proven, then this debt isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
They cheated me, Hart. Martin was a plant, connected with the Star. They had hidden surveillance. Eyes in the sky. Gaming Commission subpoenaed an employee who was going to testify to the fact, but he was killed in a car accident three days before the hearing. Coincidence? They attempted to turn other witnesses, but the owner of the Star got to them first, slid money under the table. It’s an ongoing investigation. Only a matter of time before the Star makes another play and they catch one with their hand in the jar. Then the nightmare will be over.”
Hart nodded. “I know about the Dixie Star investigation. But that doesn’t change the fact that right now you legally still owe the debt. And you lied on your application.”
She looked down at her hands, first they had trembled in anger but now apprehension. At a point in her life, just after her divorce, she’d birthed and nurtured an addiction. She’d always loved cards. Poker had been the one thing her daddy had taught her before he died. Like him, she’d been a natural, and, like him, she’d let her talent lead her down a dark and destructive road.
She hadn’t set out to cover it up. The State Police background check didn’t pick it up. She never knew why, exactly. Maybe it had something to do with the investigation into the Star. She considered coming clean but backed away at the thought of losing her job and any chance of ever seeing her two girls again. Besides, she’d slain the dragon. Since the Dixie Star days, she hadn’t played one hand of poker for anything other than worthless blue and red plastic poker chips. And still, she’d spent the last seven years panicking every time the phone rang, afraid it’d be Director Child’s stern voice on the other end. Found something that needs explaining, Officer. Big damn debt. Might want to take a trip down mountain to talk it out.
Hart placed his hand on her shoulder. “Relax, Trooper Riddle. I don’t suspect you of killing the girl and taking the map.” He snatched the paper from her hands and slipped it back inside his coat. “Least no more than I suspect anybody else in this hidden-mountain-town.”
She looked at him. “Then why put me through this ringer?” Hot tears of frustration rolled down her cheeks.
He leaned back in his seat and clasped his hands behind his head. “What kind of fool you take me for, Officer?”
He leaned forward, threw a hand in the air, and cut her off mid-sentence. “I’ve helped tracked and captured over two hundred fugitives in the past decade alone. The last three of which, hell, I weren’t even at my best. Been a marshal for forty plus years. Do the math, lady. And you thought I wouldn’t notice the cute little winks and nods between you and your first year rookie?
“Let’s get something straight, here and now.” He tapped his finger on the table and leaned in closer to her face. “As for your gambling debt, I could give a horse’s ass. Your problem. But I’ll pledge to you this, if you’re ever again in any way deceptive with me concerning this, my, investigation,” he patted his coat pocket, “I’ll personally hand deliver this document to the desk of your direct superior. Are we clear on this point, Officer Riddle?”
She looked him in the eye. “Crystal.” She stood, opened the door, and stuck her head out. She watched Charlie scramble to get back to his desk and sit down. He’d been standing near the door, eavesdropping. “Bring me what you got on Lockhart.”
Charlie opened his mouth to protest, but she stopped him. “No arguments Charlie.”
She’d confessed the gambling debt to Charlie late one night, a few months ago, over a game of blackjack and bottle of Jack. By that time, she’d determined she could trust him. He’d grown up around casinos and had seen the sickness firsthand. He’d promised to vouch for her if she ever decided to come clean. Anything he’d heard would be no earth shattering revelation.
He pulled the paper work out of the top drawer of his desk and took it over to her.
Charlie nodded and looked past her to Hart sitting at the table. “Sure, everything’s okay?”
“Yeah.” She took the paper, closed the door, and handed Hart the folder. Charlie reclaimed his spot outside the door.
Hart scanned over the rap sheet the sheriff’s office in Tennessee faxed to the station.
“Tell me something, Hart.”
He looked up from the file.
“You got a fax at your cabin and sources at the Federal Building in Denver. Why waste time blackmailing me for what my rookie was able to dig up?”
Hart cleared his throat and coughed. “Damn cancer sticks. Gave em up over a decade ago and they still come back to haunt me now and again.”
Riddle understood. She’d been a chain smoker, back when she was a slave to the gaming tables. She went cold turkey five years ago and hadn’t looked back since, but the stress of the last twenty-four hours had her, for the first time, reconsidering her hard-liner stance.
“I did my own research. And you’re right. I really didn’t need to see what you had on Lockhart, though, from what I can tell, it looks like your man did all right. I needed to know that I could trust you not to hold back on me.” He looked to the door and back at her. He knew Charlie was listening. Had the whole time. “Trust, as you may have already figured out, Officer, is a scarce commodity in our situation,” he whispered.
First he accuses me and now Charlie? She halted him. “Don’t even go there.”
He grinned. “You’re smart, Officer. I can tell.” He glanced back at her. “Same way you can tell things about people with those eyes of yours, well, so can I. Reckon it’s a gift we share. Problem is, you aint been around the block as many times as me. ’Cause if you had, you’d know.
He waved a finger in the air. “Never. Ever. Stop suspecting. The day an officer quits suspecting, is the day he oughta hang up his badge and gun and apply for a position down at Mega Mart, greeting blue hairs as they walk through the door to buy batteries, hair dye and heads of lettuce.”
She squared her shoulders and locked eyes with him. “Guess that makes you a suspect, too, Marshal.”
He scooted closer to her. Contempt flashed across his face. Can’t take the heat then… She tensed as he reached out and grabbed her arm. She tried to pull away, but felt his fingers tighten around her bicep, five miniature pythons. He was strong for his age. Old cowboy strong. She let her hand fall and brush against her gun. He bent down and leveled his eyes with hers. “Now, Officer Riddle, you’re starting to catch on.”
She exhaled as he released his grip and leaned back in his chair. She barely had time to catch her breath before he slid the Memphis file on Lockhart over to her.
“He a cold blooded killer?”
“Doesn’t add up. Nothing here suggests the capability for this kind of violence. He’s a loser and an alcoholic, but --”
“Lose the rose-colored lenses, Officer. Everybody’s got the capability. For some, it’s just a little easier to get to. Problem with your generation of cops is your heads been filled with ideas of models and profiles and patterns and all sorts of other psychological horseshit. You lose sight of the basic motivations. Lust. Greed. Desperation. No violence here. You’re right about that. But desperation?” He pointed to Lockhart’s police record. “Our boy stinks of it. Desperation’s the most dangerous motivator of all. The idea that your fate hinges on one last great act.”
She looked at the page and then at him. “I see your point, but still--”
“I’m not convinced of Lockhart’s involvement, either. Hell, I aint even talked to him one on one yet. But don’t let your mind get closed off to ideas of guilt or innocence over patterns, profiles and past histories. The hard truth is that sometimes people don’t fit into categories. Sometimes people just do bad shit.”
He slid Lockhart’s file out of the way and placed two others in front of her. Black and white mug shots of the woman she found at the bottom of the ravine and the man from the BMW stared up at her. She picked up the man’s file. Not a rap sheet. A United Securities Associate Profile.
“William Warren Hasting. Forty-seven. Armored Transport Route Specialist.” She looked to Hart.
He nodded. “Mapped out the most efficient and safest means of getting the trucks to each pick-up and delivery. He knew exactly where they’d be, at what time, on any given day. The Feds suspect he altered the route of the hijacked car. The driver turned into an alley before he realized it, seconds before the robbery. The sole guard that survived maintained the on-board navigation system led them there. Hasting uploaded the directions from his computer terminal the day before. The subs closed off the street, by blocking the only exit with an eighteen-wheeler. Other armed accomplishes were waiting in the abandoned buildings surrounding the alley. They climbed down fire escapes. Poor bastards inside the car never had a chance.”
“Hasting have any prior criminal history or arrests that could’ve alerted the company to this?” Riddle questioned.
Nothing major. “He’d been arrested a couple times, but for nothing that could predict a crime of this nature, underlining my point from before.”
“What’d he been arrested for?”
“ D.U.I. and prostitution charges.”
“Yup. Forget Hasting for a second and take a look at our girl, Lucy.”
She looked at the woman’s file. Hers was a police record with a long history of offences.
“Lucy Ramirez, aka Lucy Hill, aka Alexandria Lopez, aka Niki Rich.” Riddle skimmed down the page. “Drug possession with intent, armed robbery, identity theft--”
“Jessica Reburn.” Hart interrupted her. “I ran Jessica’s name in the system. College kid from Boulder. Had her identity stolen a few weeks ago. Police report claims she was in a local bar with friends. Remembers having a drink with a strange girl she didn’t recognize, who claimed to be in her sorority. Jessica passed out in the bar. I’m guessing she was drugged. When she woke up her credit cards, social security card, driver’s license, college ID… all gone.”
“The age deception makes sense now.”
Hart agreed. “Probably made a pretty decent living relieving oblivious, white upper-middle class college girls of their identities.”
Riddle proceeded reading the rap sheet. “Extortion, assault with a deadly weapon, prostitution.” She stopped and looked to Hart, making the connection. “Prostitution?”
He nodded. “Lust. That’s our trail to Mr. Beamer.”
Riddle ran her fingers through her hair. “Hasting’s prostitution charge was with--?”
“How long ago?”
“Couple weeks.” Hart tapped the file. “Ramirez found out, during their time together, about Hastings’s position at United. Probably filled his head with the idea of the heist. He had the inside advantage and she had the connections to manpower. Timing couldn’t have been better. Hasting had just received new from United about the gold shipment.”
“Ramirez had connection to manpower? What kind of connections does a hooker have to an army of bandits?”
“Our girl’s got strong ties with an East L.A. street gang. Lower 88 Mafia. Kind of an off-shoot of MS-13
“Figured you picked up on that one. The Lower 88’s ain’t your typical street thugs battling over drug turf. They’ve grown, over the years, into a highly organized crime syndicate. Their tentacles reach past East L.A.’s mean streets to well beyond the Mississippi. Even got agents working undercover in some major city’s police precincts. Ain’t your father’s gang bangers anymore, Officer.”
“You think Lockhart’s connected?”
“Probably not. Gang’s Latino based. He could be a hired gun, though. If he’s involved, he’s probably not even as high on the food chain as Ramirez.”
Riddle looked down at Hasting’s employee profile. “Something I’m not getting.”
Hart stroked his handle bar. “Shoot.”
“Hasting holds a top-level security clearance from one of the most prestigious security firms in the country. Why would these charges of prostitution and D.U.I. not be considered a serious breach of that contract and grounds for termination?”
“Good observation. I know how particular these firms can be. Since retirement, I’ve moonlighted as a consultant. United’s on my list as one of the tightest run operations.” He pointed to the bottom of Hasting’s file.
“Hasting transferred from United’s Atlanta office to Denver a brief time ago.” Riddle thought about the BMW’s Georgia tags.
“A month before the move, Hasting lost his wife of ten years in a car accident. He applied for the transfer a week after the funeral. An attempt to leave bad memories behind, I reckon. A week before he was scheduled to start his new job, the house he’d been living in, in Atlanta, burned to the ground. Gas line explosion. Nearly killed him.”
“The scars,” she whispered. “Hell of a run of bad luck.”
“No shit. Anyway, once he transferred to Denver, that’s when he got the D.U.I. and prostitution arrests. He’d been an exemplary employee up until that point. The powers that be chalked the behavior up to the loss of his wife and home. He agreed to counseling, and they agreed to not fire him.”
Riddle leaned back in her chair. “Loss leads to grief. Grief leads to drinking and paid companionship. Drinking and paid companionship leads to the daring theft of nearly four million dollars in gold?” She looked at Hart. “That’s a pretty long jump between hooker and gold.”
“Maybe. It’s my theory. And it’s backed by a hell of lot of fact. We’ve connected some dots here. Couple still missing, though.”
“Who ambushed Ramirez behind the motel, and how well do you know your people? The paramedic? The motel manager? The store owner? Locals?”
She shook her head in disbelief. “The store owner? Liz? She’s a fifty-three-year- old diabetic widow. Kind of stretching the “everybody’s a suspect” theory a little thin, aren’t you? Most of the people you just implicated are like family to me after seven years of service.”
Hart sniffed. “Didn’t you learn anything from our conversation?”
She leaned forward and placed her head in her hands.
“Those damn rose-colored lenses. More often than you imagine, fugitives on the run avoid big cities for towns like yours, to live off the grid, so to speak. They lay low. Sometimes for years. Some make an effort to go straight. Others see it as a way to hibernate, til it’s safe to resurface. Cold Spring strikes me as a real good place to hibernate, Officer.”
The grizzly. He’s an old one. Learned to live under the radar. Charlie’s words echoed through her tired mind. Besides the bear, had a different kind of predator taken up residence in her town?
“You call these people your family?” Hart said, yanking her from her thoughts. “Some, like your man on the door out there, you haven’t even known for more than a couple of football seasons.” He looked down at the files, then back at her. “Officer Riddle, in a town hiding stolen gold where everybody wears a ski mask, suspicion may be the only friend you’ve got.”
She opened her mouth about to argue the point but looked away.
He patted her on the shoulder and stood. “You chew on that, while I go out and rattle the monkey cage.”
She watched him leave the room and heard Charlie’s frantic footfalls trail back to his desk, seconds before Hart opened the door. Her head spun. Before Hart rattled Lockhart’s cage, he’d rattled hers, shaking the foundation of what she’d believed in for the past seven years.
Had she been so wrapped up in the mundane day-to-day that she’d fallen asleep at the wheel, while a wolf compromised her fold? A parade of faces zipped through her mind. She considered the ones who’d been around since before she came and the few that came after. No one stood out. That’s the point. To not stand out. Blend in.
She thought about the quaint little trooper station and the tourists. Children playing inside the jail cell. Dads leaning against the gunrack. Me taking their pictures, telling them to smile and say cheese. She hadn’t been an officer of the law for the past seven years, just a roadside museum curator with a license to carry a gun.
If Hart was right, then there was still time to redeem herself, by rooting out the wolf among her sheep. She’d have to do some digging on her own. Hart was an outsider. If he tried to approach anyone with this kind of accusation, it would surely raise suspicion and ignite a side order of panic, to go along with the main course of cabin fever.
She unsnapped her holster and drew her pistol. She inspected the barrel and noticed scars around the tip, from where she’d fired the shells that’d killed the cougar. She sniffed and smelled the faint sweet odor of burnt gunpowder. She released the clip, stood, and walked over to the shelves. She dug out a carton of cartridges between a box of paper clips and a broken radio.
She replaced the missing rounds and popped the clip back in the housing, then spread her legs in shooting stance and aimed. She turned until her eyes fell on the bulls-eye of a dusty dartboard, hanging to the right of the uniforms. Her hands remained steady until she thought about the possibility of shooting a friendly face. Bill Statum’s image popped up in the center of the board, then Liz ,Charlie, Alex. Her hands shook so badly she nearly dropped the pistol.
When and if the time came, would she be capable? We all have the capability, Officer. For some it’s just a little easier to get to. She holstered the weapon and exhaled. Please, Lord, don’t let it come down to that.
She looked to the door. Hart had had enough time to talk to Lockhart, and she needed to get busy digging. She opened the door, as Hart walked away from the cell. Lockhart sat on the edge of the cot, looking more terrified than after she’d interrogated him. Charlie was at his desk, pretending to read over paperwork.
Charlie stood as Hart walked by and made a motion for them to follow him out of the prisoner’s earshot. The three gathered in front of Riddle’s oak top desk. Riddle sat down. Charlie and Hart stood facing her, backs to Lockhart.
Hart lifted his Stetson and ran his fingers through his thick gray hair. “Our boy’s shaky. Not sure ’bout his guilt, but he’s scared as hell.” He shrugged. “Too early to call. Better to talk to him when I get him to Denver. My element. If he knows about our missing dot, he’ll tell me then. I guarantee it.”
Riddle glanced out the window. She didn’t like the way he emphasized, “guarantee.” “Could be a while, with the storm not even at the halfway mark.”
Hart looked out at his Hummer. “Betty’s built for this shit. It’s not out of the question for me to start down the mountain with him.”
Riddle sat silent. She didn’t like the idea of Hart taking off with Lockhart until she was satisfied of his connection to the crime, but she knew there would be no way for her to stop him, should he decide to attempt it.
“For now, I want to look a little deeper into what we discussed, Officer. Can I count on you?”
“Let me do some legwork of my own. Stay on the sidelines for now. It’s a close-knit community. With the storm and cabin fever nerves will be raw.”
Hart agreed. “I need to get back to my cabin for a while. I’m expecting some more paper work, before the phone lines go down.”
“Got a good genny up there where you’re staying?” Charlie asked.
Hart winked. “Brand-spanking- new.”
“Good,” Riddle said. “One less worry.”
“I’ll meet you two back here in a couple of hours.” Hart noticed Charlie stealing glances at the big Colt strapped to his hip.
“Something on your mind, Officer Floating-Reed?”
“No way that’s standard issue.” Charlie pointed to the weapon.
Hart drew the pistol in a blur. At the last second he flipped the gun over and handed it to the stunned officer, handle first.
“Fast on the draw, Tex. “Charlie took the pistol and held it in his hand. “Heavy. Don’t think I’ve seen one of these things, outside a old school western.”
Riddle moved closer to get a better look. She glanced at Hart. “Authentic?”
Hart nodded. “Colt .45 Peacemaker, Officer. How the West was won. Pat Garret, Buffalo Bill, Bat Masterson, they all swore by em. Go ahead, give her a try.” Charlie handed her the pistol.
She held it out from her body with both hands, in shooting stance. It was an ounce or two heavier than her automatic and the barrel at least four inches longer, but perfectly balanced. The nickel finish gleamed bright, and the ivory grip felt natural between her fingers. It didn’t feel nearly as awkward in her hands as it probably looked.
She relaxed and handed the gun back to Hart. “How well would it hold up in a modern-day fire fight?”
“In the right hands, better than you’d imagine.” Hart holstered the antique.
“With only six shots, you better make them count,” Charlie noted.
Hart grinned. “That’s the idea, Officer.”
“How’d you get the higher ups to agree to let you carry it?” Riddle asked.
“After forty plus, I’m pretty much an antique myself. Like I told you back at the cliff, these days I spend most of my time in training and development. The past month or so, the most action I’ve seen’s been when the copier runs out of toner.”
Riddle smiled and nodded.
Hart looked around the station. “Like what you’ve done with the place. Feel right at home.”
“Can’t take the cred. Most of it was donated, by the last officer in charge. I kind of inherited it,” she said.
“Mac knows his cowboy history,” Hart said. “Must’ve had a lot of time on his hands before retirement.”
Riddle looked at him, a little surprised. “You know Mac?”
“We started out in law enforcement around the same time. Back when a fellow still ran the risk of stepping in a pile of dinosaur shit when he walked his beat. We were at the Academy in Denver together in ’68. Lost contact, soon after we choose our different paths. Last I heard he hung up his gun and retired to Wyoming. Raises horses somewhere out there.”
“Made the move a year after I got the job Charlie has now.”
“Also heard about his wife.” Hart looked down at the green tiles. “Five days from their 37th wedding anniversary.” He shook his head and looked up at her. “Damn shame.”
Mac had been tight lipped about the tragic loss at first, but eventually he confided in her. Before she, Charlie and Alex used the storage room for back room poker, she and Mac had. When the temperature dipped below freezing, on those long nights, he’d pull a bottle of Jack from behind a box of printer paper and they’d share a glass and a few confessions. It wasn’t protocol then, either, but nothing to do with Trooper Station 1409 in Cold Spring Colorado ever was.
“It’s getting late. I’m going to get back to the cabin, and see if that paper work’s in,” Hart said, draining her from her thoughts of quieter times.
She stood and put on her coat. “I’ll get to that legwork. Keep the radio close, Charlie.”
“Sure thing, Kempsabe.”
“I’ll check in and relay my 20 every hour on the hour.” She followed Hart out the door.
Riddle straddled her snowmobile and watched Hart climb inside the cab of the Hummer, nearly as big as Alex’s monster ambulance. He pulled out of the trooper station’s snow swept lot onto the road. His tires spun for a moment, then he dropped the vehicle into low gear, and the truck plowed effortlessly down the mountain road.
Dark. She flipped on the front headlamps. The twin halogen beams lit up several yards of frozen land in front of her. She made a last inspection of her insulated riding suit, before plowing a trail west toward the Frontier.
The storm gained strength as it neared the halfway point. The wind charged down the mountain road more erratically now, making it hard to hold the sled steady.
She leaned, with the machine, into a sharp curve in the road and felt a twinge of pain in her left leg, a reminder of the rappelling and snowmobile accidents. With all that had gone down, she’d forgotten to take a pain reliever. She was nearing the Med-Center and decided to stop and pick up a couple of sample packets of the good stuff from Alex.
She steered the sled up to the front door, killed the lights, got off and clicked on her radio.
“Charlie, you got a copy?”
“Go for Floating-Reed. What’s up, Kemosabe?”
“Stopping by the Center to pick up a couple packs of pain reliever.”
“Ten-Four. That crash into the cliff wall coming back to haunt you?”
“Copy that. Not to mention the snowmobile incident.”
He chuckled. “Forgot about that.”
“Shoulder didn’t. Riddle out.”
She snapped the radio to her belt. No light on in the Center. She noticed the ambulance parked under the covered area to the right of the main building. The adjacent efficiency apartment was dark, also. She thought about Alex’s hot-to-the-touch forehead and shaky hands. Fever and sore throat put a body down early in this cold.
Riddle carried a spare key to the Center’s front entrance, in case of emergency situations. No need to wake her sleeping friend. She unlocked the glass door and went inside. She reached for the light switch. Click. Darkness. Medical Center’s the first casualty. She hadn’t notice any snapped power lines on her way in. Frozen transformer.
She pulled out her flashlight, flicked it on, and illuminated a patch of black and white tile. She followed the beam to the supply room, her footfalls echoing off the little building’s tight walls.
She stopped just short of the door. The bodies. A line of gooseflesh broke out and ran down her neck to the small of her back. She bit her lip. What the hell’s wrong with you? You’re a grown woman. And a cop! How could she let such a ridiculous emotion grip her at a time like this? It amounted to a child’s fear of walking past a graveyard at night.
She pushed open the door, walked inside, and made her way straight to the supply cabinet. She sorted through piles of sample packs, before finding the treasure-trove. Non-drowsy formula for now. Lights out for later.
She stuffed a handful of the packs in her pocket and left the room.
She shivered. The electricity couldn’t have been off more than an hour, but already the temperature had plummeted to below freezing. If Alex had self-medicated before turning in, he might not have been alerted to the sudden drop. She should wake him, so he could get the genny going, before it was too late.
She passed through the front doors, stopping to lock them, and made her way over to the apartment. The snow reached well over the top of her boots and she had to walk-hop the distance. She knocked twice, and the door swung open, unlocked.
“Alex?” She stepped inside. She directed the beam around the room. Oddly, it was the first time since Alex took the job she’d been inside the apartment. Like Charlie, Alex was a poker buddy and confidant, but most of their social interactions were limited to the backroom of the trooper station, Charlie’s cabin or the Medical Center.
Though sparsely furnished, the little red room felt cozy and lived in. A moderately sized flat screen hung on the wall to her right. A black leather sofa sat across the room from the TV. The narrow coffee table in front of the couch supported a cordless phone, two empty Corona bottles and a brown ashtray in the shape of the country of Mexico. No pictures of relatives or exotic landscapes lined the clean walls, only a wood framed poster of the movie, Pulp Fiction, complete with Spanish titles and credits, hung above the couch.
She made her way down a narrow, ridiculously short, hallway, shining her light into the kitchenette as she passed. A half-eaten sandwich and can of coke sat on a wood table by the stove.
“Alex?” No answer. The only other door between her and the bedroom opened on a tiny bathroom.
She reached the bedroom door, tapped, and called his name again. Silence. She pushed the door open, fully expecting to find him sprawled across the bed, comatose from the meds. Instead, the single iron bed sat neatly made.
Pent up exhaustion erupted in the small of her back, and its energy draining lava spread through her limbs, causing her legs to wobble beneath her. She sat down on the side of the bed. Power must’ve failed before he had time to self medicate. She thought about the half-eaten sandwich. Probably caught him in the middle of supper. He’s in the utility shed trying to start the genny. She knew from experience how testy the generators could be in this kind of cold and after a few weeks of inactivity. He’d have to “prime the pump.”
She started to stand and go to the shed to offer assistance before she smelled the smoke. Alex came to Cold Spring a chain smoker. Ever since he’d first lit up in front of her and Charlie, they’d waged a war dedicated to saving his lungs from the nasty habit. She’d gone as far as footing the bill for a month’s supply of nicotine patches. He’d made determined efforts over the past year to quit the addiction. But he was a backslider in the worst way, stealing puffs when not in their company and then carelessly dropping the discarded butts into the ambulance’s floorboard, only to be busted by one of the two of them at a later date.
She shook her head and looked down at the metal waste can by the nightstand. A thin line of smoke peeked over the rim. Alex, ye backslider, ye. Dropping the butts into the floorboard of the ambulance was one thing but flicking them into a paper-filled trashcan beside the bed, a death wish. Besides the inevitable “backslider lecture,” he’d get the added bonus of a lesson in fire safety.
She picked up the can and shook it, in search of the smoldering culprit. No butts. Instead she reached in and pulled out a handful of melted old-school photos. Four were burned beyond recognition, but the flame had only scorched the edges of the fifth, leaving the photo intact. She held the picture close to the beam. She heard a thump from down the hall. She turned the light to the door. Nothing. The wind.
She considered the photo. Four young Hispanic men in shorts and muscle shirts stood grinning in front of a tricked-out Mustang, left arms outstretched, showing off matching tattoos. Two eights and an M, with a slash over each.
Her hands shook as she scanned the faces. Three of the four sets of dark eyes were unrecognizable. But those second from left she’d seen before, peering at her over a hand filled with cards, laughing while downing a beer, widening excitedly when talking about a night of clubbing in Denver with Charlie. The man was younger, leaner, but the eyes were the same. The eyes were always the same.
She held tight to the picture, wondering what to do. Take it straight to Hart or confront her friend and give him a chance to explain?
“Let me guess. Thought I’d backslid again.”
She jumped and found him standing in the doorway, shivering. Choice is made. He had on a blue tracksuit and the Denver Nuggets cap. Right hand in his pocket. Left behind his back. She knew by his method of dealing he was a southpaw.
“You ever going to learn how to dress for this shit?” She managed a smile. It was meant to break the tension but fell flat. Insult to injury.
“What’re you doing in my room, Joyce?”
She held his stare and shifted the picture from her right hand to her left. “I--”
“Don’t bother.” He looked away in disgust. He turned to the right, and she saw the crowbar dangling at his side.
She let her right hand dangle near her gun.
He noticed the action and shook his head. “Thought we were friends.”
“We are Alex. I--”
He raised the crowbar and she tensed. “You worried about this? I was outside trying to get the genny going. Had to beat the hell out it. You know what a bitch they can be. You judge me too quickly. Wait. Let me guess. Mexican’s got the connections. That it?”
Compose. This is Alex. A few hours ago, he had your life in is hands up on the cliff. Two seconds of looking at a photo versus a year of memories. “Nobody’s judging you, Alex. I came in to check on you. You told me you were sick, back at the cliff. I noticed the power’s out and got worried. Smelled the smoke and found the source. That’s all. No conspiracy, I promise.”
He relaxed and let the crowbar fall to his side.
As a sign of trust, she let her hand dip below her sidearm. “We can talk this thing through. I’m willing to listen. Right here. Grab a couple of Coronas from the fridge and we can sit down and you can tell me everything.”
Tears welled up in his dark eyes. “Joyce you don’t know how hard it is to get away from your past. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me. Please.” She held out her hands.
He tightened his grip on the crowbar, raised it, and took a step in her direction.
“Alex! Listen to me. Please. I can help you. No matter how bad it seems. It’s not too late. It’s never too late.”
He stopped and looked at her. She read his eyes, hard at first, but then she saw them soften a little.
He took another step closer. “I—,” he started.
“Drop it, Rodriquez!” Hart yelled from down the short hallway. Alex spun to face the Marshal.
The last seconds of her friend’s life would be forever burned into her memory as an explosion of light, sound and color. The piercing crack. The flash of fire. Dark blood splashing across her chest.
Time stopped. When it caught back up to her, she’d throttled the Marshal and was screaming at the top of her lungs, tears of anger streaming.
“I had the situation under control! No cause to fire!”
He stood speechless until she was done. After she let go, he knelt next to the body and picked up the crowbar. “He turned too fast. Couldn’t tell what he was holding. Too dark. Learned a long time ago, you don’t second-guess. Buried a lot of fine officers that second guessed.”
She slumped down on the bed and looked up at him. “How’d you know I was here?”
“Got back to my cabin and this was waiting in the fax.” He handed her the slip of paper. “Read it and called Charlie. He told me where you were. Didn’t waste time getting here.”
She scanned the slip of paper. “Los Angeles County police record?” The photo was of Alex, but the name was different. “Abel Umana?” She looked up at Hart, uncertain.
Hart moved closer to her. “Yeah.”
The report listed other aliases. She skipped those and read over the list of charges. All gang related. Possession with intent, car-jacking, assault with a deadly weapon, breaking and entering, extortion. The file covered a time frame beginning in the early nineties and ending in late 2003.
“Lower Eighty Eight Mafia,” Hart confirmed. “Ramirez was an old girlfriend.”
She thought about Alex’s behavior back at the cliff and then later around the body. She looked to Hart. “How did you make the connection?”
“Marred skin on his forearm”
“His war wound?”
“No war wound. He was in Iraq, but never wounded. Checked his military file. Never stop suspecting, Officer. He had the tattoo removed to conceal his identity. Left the scar. Damn good explanation. But having served time in the Marines myself, I still got some friends connected with the V.A.”
She glanced at the body.
Hart put a hand on her shoulder. “Hibernating. It’s an art, tricking people into believing you’re somebody you’re not. Damn good at his jobs. Paramedic. Soldier. Who knows, maybe he would’ve gone straight, if he hadn’t been tempted by Ramirez and the gold payoff.”
“Alex the backslider,” she whispered. She felt a tear, not of anger but embedded in sorrow roll down her cheek and drop to the floor near her dead friend’s head.
“What was that?” Hart said, bending close.
“Don’t know if this’ll help, but the guy you thought you knew, your friend and card playing buddy, that ain’t him.” He pointed to the body. “This man’s a criminal, connected to the deaths of two fellow officers, as well as his own accomplice in crime, Lucy Ramirez.”
She looked down at her hands and calculated the time line. Alex had showed up at the Frontier before Charlie, after she’d found the marshals, affording him opportunity to get to Ramirez before she could get away.
“Not to sound insensitive, but we need to get him over in the room with the other bodies. I can call your man, Charlie, if you’re not up to it.”
She squared her shoulders. “No. I’ll break this to Charlie. He was even closer to Alex than I was. “Besides,” she sniffed, “I can handle it.”
He nodded. “Of course.”
The two carried the body out of the apartment and through the snow to the Center.
They laid her friend on the last of the stretchers, next to the other four. She considered the bodies. Seven years in the quiet Rockies and, up till now, she’d never been forced to contend with a single dead body. Now she looked upon five, casualties of events that had transpired over the last twenty-four hours.
Before leaving the Medical Center, she locked and checked all the doors. There would be no replacement EMT at the location for a few days, at least not until after the storm passed. Hart waited around for her, walking silently behind, as she checked the entrances and exits.
Outside, she looked back at the apartment and thought about the map. “We never found the map.”
Hart frowned. “Huh?”
“The map. To the rest of the gold. We never found it. Shouldn’t we search Alex’s apartment?”
Hart looked toward the building, shook his head, and spat tobacco juice. “The gold’s F.B.I. territory. My only concern’s the deaths of my boys. Not to worry, Officer. The Bureau will have a team up here soon as the storm passes. They’ll search the paramedic’s apartment with a fine-tooth comb.” He glanced around at the looming Rockies. “God help them, if they can’t find the map. That gold might just be lost forever. Least till some lucky fool happens on it.” He winked. “Who knows, it might just be a tourist boom for your tiny neck-of-the-woods. Legend of the lost gold.”
She sighed. “If it’s all the same, I’m done with gold fever.”
“Can’t say as I blame you.”
Before climbing in the Hummer, he said, “This’s been a hell of a day. I know you got a mountain of paperwork facing you, but why not call it a night? Snatch yourself some shut-eye. Call your man on your radio and tell him you’ll be back in at first light. That’s when I plan on picking up the prisoner for transport.”
She looked at him “Prisoner for transport?”
Hart nodded. “I want to get him down the mountain to headquarters in Denver soon as I can. Wrap this mess up once and for all.”
There’d been a time when she’d argued with Hart over taking Lockhart down the mountain. But Alex’s guilt knocked the wind out of her. Her legs felt wobbly beneath her. She had other worries, like breaking the news about Alex to Charlie. Guilty or not, Lockhart had made his own decisions, and he would have to pay for them.
She shot Hart a glance. “We’ll have Lockhart ready for you.”
“Good enough, Trooper. See you at dawn.”
She put on her helmet, started the snowmobile, and thought about how the hell she would break the news to Charlie. Only one way and you know it. Look him in the eye, pull no punches, and be there to catch him when he falls.
“Bullshit!” Charlie crossed his arms over his chest in defiance. “No way. He was my friend. Best friend.”
Joyce saw the first traces of moisture reflected in his sharp Native American eyes.
“You know how many times I put my life in his hands up there?” He pointed out the window at the mountains and paused. His voice had started to quake. He moved close to her. “You don’t make somebody your climbing partner up here unless you trust them like you trust yourself,” he whispered.
She looked down at her boots, still covered in Alex’s blood and melting snow. “Hell of a thing to swallow. I know.”
He shook his head in denial. “No, I don’t think you do. If you did, you wouldn’t be so quick to take Hart’s side in this.”
She looked up. They stood eye to eye now. She softened her tone. “Charlie, there are no sides. Alex wasn’t who you thought he was.” She handed him the file Hart showed her at the Medical Center.
He stared at her for what seemed to be a long time before taking it. Finally, he sat down at his desk. “What the hell’s this?”
She tapped it with her finger. “Facts.”
He scanned down the page. “No.” He looked up at her. Full-blown tears streamed down his face. His turn to tap the file. “It’s easy to fabricate this shit. Hart could’ve pulled this out of his hat.”
“Why would he do that, Charlie?”
He looked away from her to the window. “I don’t know.”
“I found pictures, too. He’d tried to burn them.” She dropped the photo down on the desk in front of him.
He picked it up. He was about to toss it aside but stopped and scrutinized it closer. “The tattoo?”
“Yeah.” Even if Hart had created the file, how could Charlie explain away the photo?
He leaned forward and placed his head in his hands.
She pushed the file aside and sat down on the desktop. She laid her hand on his shoulder and opened her mouth to console him but thought better of it. Sometimes, grief needed silence more than anything else. Words would be hollow to him right now. The floodgates opened, and she felt him tremble beneath her touch, as he began to sob.
She made a move to put her arm around him, but he sniffed, stood and waved her away. “I’m okay.”
“Why don’t you call it a day? I’ll babysit Lockhart. Go home and get some rest. Have a drink and--”
“No.” He pointed to Lockhart. “Where does this leave him?”
She stood, a little shocked by his quick management of emotions.
“Charlie, you don’t have to do this--”
“I’m all good, I said!”
She stepped back, giving him space. “Charlie, I’m sorry…I…”
He exhaled, reached out, patted her on the shoulder, and apologized. “Look I know you’re trying to be considerate of my emotions and all, but I need to deal with this in my own way. Call it an Indian thing. Staying busy is good.”
“Of course Charlie. I didn’t mean to--”
She looked over at the cell. “Hart’s picking him up at daybreak. He’s going to take him down mountain to Denver. Wrap up this whole-damn -mess once and for all.”
Charlie turned to Lockhart, asleep on the cot. “Sounds good.” He glanced back at her and frowned. “Wrapping it up, I mean.”
She sighed and nodded. “Yeah. It’s been a hell-uv-a twenty-four hours.”
“You think Lockhart was in on it, after all?”
She shrugged. “After Alex, I’m not sure about anything anymore.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Hang out here with Lockhart. Must finish the red-tape before morning. I’m taking the paperwork home. You okay to stay here?”
“Roll out the cot and get some shut-eye. Jack’s behind the printer paper, if you change your mind about that drink.”
Charlie managed a weak smile. “Thanks.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know I wasn’t as close to Alex as you, but I loved him. We all did.”
“Yeah. I know.” He reached out and gave her a tight hug.
She let go and made her way over to her desk, to gather up the paperwork for the reports.
She sorted through yellowed pages of official forms deep in the never-opened bottom drawer of her desk. She blew the dust off and flipped through the stack she’d pulled together. All accounted for.
She yawned and glanced around the office. She looked forward to swapping 1409’s hard gray cinder blocks for the comforting familiarity of her cabin’s logs. The thought of a shot of whiskey, and a nosedive into her big, empty, queen sized bed made her smile a little.
She stood and reached for her coat. The stack of papers slipped from her hand, spilling out, sliding across the tiles. She stooped down to gather the pages. The first one she picked up was Hasting’s United Securities file. She started to read it, but stopped. Forget it. Your detective days are over. Case closed.
She laid the file on the desk and turned back to the strewn paperwork. She knelt and felt a knot twist in her stomach, the same one that pained her when she thought about Hart taking Lockhart down mountain to Denver. She sat back down at her desk. Okay. One last read through, just to put your mind at ease. Then be done with it. She began reading.
Something had been bothering her ever since she’d read the file. Hasting had no criminal record before leaving Atlanta. Squeaky clean. Not even an unpaid parking ticket. Once in Denver, he’d racked up a DUI and prostitution charge in a matter of weeks. He’d suffered serious loss in the sudden death of his wife. The fire that destroyed his home only added pain. Some form of self-destructive behavior, following the events, wouldn’t be beyond reason, even for a law-abiding citizen like Hasting. But why did these vices rear their heads after he’d moved from Atlanta to Denver? Timing’s off. The things we see every day, the little things that remind us of what’s been lost are most often the catalyst for this type of behavior.
She considered her own personal path of self-destruction and when and where it had began, where so many before hers had begun, inside a tiny, non-descript room at an interstate Best Western. Room number twenty-two. It’d been cleaner inside than she’d expected, when she’d opened the door. Somehow, she’d imagined stained walls and beds that vibrated. To the contrary, there’d even been a fresh coat of paint. To this day, the smell of a freshly painted room never failed to conjure images of her middle-aged husband, scrambling to find his pants in the dark, as his twenty-something bleached blonde intern, Felicia, screamed and jerked the sheets high enough to cover her exposed tits. Her husband not only had committed adultery, but it had become such a damn cliché in this day and age. Her fucking name was even Felicia. She looked to the snow-covered mountains. The rearing together of two beautiful kids, thirteen years of memories, and a shit load of lofty expectations were left to rot inside those four freshly painted walls by a damn cliché.
She remembered driving down the interstate, passing that same Best Western on her way to the gambling barges, docked so conveniently at the Mississippi Gulf Shore.
It wasn’t until she moved away from Georgia, putting Atlanta and all its seedy little road side motels in her rearview, she’d finally felt completely free of the uncontrollable grip high stakes gambling had held over her.
So why, then, did Hasting follow an opposite course? His behavior had detoured south after he’d moved away from the source of his pain. Need more research into Hasting’s past. Just to put my mind at ease. That’s all. But how?
January. She reached for the phone. Why hadn’t she thought about her before now?
The journalism bug had bitten her best friend from Dalton County High early in her freshman year at Georgia Tech. She’d ditched engineering school for an unpaid intern position working as a gopher for one of Atlanta’s most well-known investigative reporters at the Journal-Constitution. Over the next decade she’d risen higher and faster in the paper’s ranks than any other female before her to editor-in-chief of the local news department.
“J. Hayes. Journal-Constitution.” She answered in the same sharp “get to the point before I grab you by the balls” voice she’d used since her days as a beat reporter, hounding some of Atlanta’s most notoriously corrupt politicians.
“Just the first initial these days? Intimidating.”
Pause. “Joy? Joy Riddle?”
She grimaced. Jan was the only other person in the world, besides her mamma, and Charlie for a brief time, she’d ever let get away with calling her Joy.
“One and the same. How’s life at the Constitution?”
“Up to my eyeballs and wouldn’t have it any other way. You?”
“Up to my eyeballs would be an understatement at the moment.”
“Interesting. Last time you texted, you assured me the most excitement you see up there is when a moose or something wanders out in front of a snowmobile. You do have moose there, right? Or am I getting my indigenous species mixed up?”
“Close enough. This is different.”
“Bitch of a blizzard. Two dead U.S. Marshals. Four million in lost gold. Killer cabin fever…should I go on with the Rocky-Mountain –recipe-for-disaster?”
“Geez. Sorry Joy. Heard about the storm, but not the rest.”
“Don’t worry. Coping. I was wondering if maybe you could help me out with information concerning a former citizen of your southern metropolis.”
She heard her friend scramble for paper and pen and then order an assistant to “Print it as it is, no matter what the Mayor’s fucking wife thinks,” before she spoke into the receiver.
“William Warren Hasting. United Securities”
Scribble. “United Securities. Got it. What are you looking for? Dirt?”
“Whatever you can dig up. I’d be really grateful if you could get me a relative’s phone number or a connection to someone who might know a little about him, personally.”
“See what I can do. What’s your fax number at the station?”
“I’m headed home for the night so shoot it to me there. 555-555-5748”
“Will do. Listen, I’m not sure how deep you want me to go, but I’m kinda limited with just a name. If you could get me a fingerprint, I could have my source at the A.P.D run it for you.”
She placed a hand over the receiver. “Charlie, get me a copy of the fingerprints you lifted off Hasting’s wallet.
Ill send it to you before I leave the station. I’m skimming through the file the Federal system pulled together. Don’t know how much more you’ll be able to mine.”
“The Federal system casts a wide net. Could’ve overlooked something the locals might’ve flagged.”
“Hate to ask, but--”
“Yeah. Lines could snap within the hour. Borrowed time.”
“Call me on my cell when you get ready to send the report. You have that number right?”
“Yeah. Somewhere. Don’t worry I’ll call. And Joy…”
The storm stretched the usual ten-minute snowmobile trip from the station to her cabin into a half hour. The first riffs of Lynard Skynard’s Sweet Home Alabama shattered the living room silence, the second she opened her cabin door, her prized ringtone. Before answering the cell, she reached for the light switch. The fixture above her head flickered to life. She offered up a prayer of thanksgiving. She was too exhausted to wrestle the genny at the moment.
“Jan? Can barely make out your voice. Find anything?”
“Found… interested in. The Fax…on…way.”
“Can’t hear. Will call you as soon as this is all over. Thanks,” she shouted into the phone.
“Be… reful. Seriously…. call me. Bye.”
Riddle walked over to her computer desk next to the front window and switched on the lamp. She’d bought the all-in-one printer/fax/ scanner/copier at a Wal-Mart in Denver about a month ago. This marked the first time she’d received a fax over it. She heard a series of beeps and blips, as the printer woke. It printed part of a sentence and stopped. Beep. Beep. Blip. It printed two words, then beep, blip, beep.
Might as well start a pot of coffee.
She walked to the kitchen and reached for the coffee filters. Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since the coffee she’d had for breakfast, earlier at the station. She opened the fridge, pulled out a jar of peanut butter and spread a tablespoonful over a slice of stale bread, then poured herself a cup of black coffee.
On the way back to the computer, her cell rang. She put it to her ear. Jan?
“Hay’s for horses and I got plenty of em.”
Big, wide and throaty. Not Jan. Her former boss’s voice hadn’t changed one octave since he left Cold Spring.
“All the way from Wyoming, Darling.”
He sounded even more like late country singer Waylon Jennings over the phone than in person.
It’d been nearly a year since she’d talked to him. “You’re the last person I expected to hear from today.” Odd. Connection’s clear. She could hear every syllable, just like he was sitting next to her.
“Just checking in on my former protégé in her hour of greatest need.”
“You know about what’s happened up here?”
“I hear things. We even got running water here in the Big Country.”
“I didn’t mean--”
“I know. Just busting your ba….Well you know.”
“Hell of a mess, Mac. Never seen anything like it in my seven years. Attempting the best job I can of sorting it all out.” She sat the sandwich and cup of coffee by the computer and leaned forward, attempting to read the fax.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to train you more for this kind of thing. In the nearly twenty years I was assigned up there, I never saw anything like it, either.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mac. You couldn’t have known anything like this would ever happen in the Spring. Nobody could.You taught me how to handle a snowmobile, and that was hard enough.” She grinned.
“Yeah. I remember. It wasn’t easy, but you turned out okay.”
“Knowing how to handle a snowmobile is priority one in weather like this.”
“Heard about that, too. According to the weather channel, you got yourself a real bitch of a spring -system up there.”
“And the timing couldn’t be better. The perfect storm.”
“Just you and Charlie?”
“Yeah. The Feds are having trouble getting here, but there’s a Marshal, named Hart. Says he knows you.”
She waited for the name to jar his memory.
Silence then…“Jake Hart?”
It’s been a long time. Academy days. He’s built a reputation of being the best at his job. He should be of some major help to you.”
She sat silent a moment as she thought about Hart and his approach to the situation. “He’s got his own method, Mac. Takes some getting used to, but he’s efficient.”
Eventually, she would need to tell Mac about Alex. He’d known Alex for a short time, before his retirement. But it would have to wait. With the fax coming across the wire, she didn’t have time to go into the long sordid story.
“You’re aware the Winchesters are fully functional, and not just for looks, ain’t you? There’s plenty of ammo for them in the drawer underneath the gun case, should you need it.”
“Yeah, Mac, I know about the guns and how they work. I grew up in rural Georgia. Remember? Why would you ask?” The statement came out of the blue, catching her off guard.
“You got yourself a load of dynamite in a tight space up there. One spark and it could blow.”
“If you’re aiming for making me feel better, Mac, it’s not working.”
“I’m not aiming for anything. I love you and I want you to be prepared for whatever might come of this. Maybe nothing. But just in case, be ready. Okay? Promise me.”
Her stomach went cold. She didn’t like the tone of his voice. Real fear.
“Okay, Mac. I promise.
“Joyce, I just wanted you to know that I’ll never forget our card games together and our talks about Catherine and what she meant to me over a snort or two of Jack. You’ll never know how much it meant just to have somebody truly listen.”
That damn tone again. First fear. Now regret?
“Joyce, sometimes people do things for…”
She pulled the phone away from her ear. Connection failed.
She dropped the phone down on the coffee table beside the sandwich and cup of coffee. What was he trying to say?
What the hell had he meant about needing the Winchesters?
The beeping fax got her attention. Fax’s nearly complete. She reached to pick it up as the power failed, leaving her in pitch-black darkness. She felt her way through the room like a blind person, over to the coat rack and pulled the flashlight from her jacket pocket, curious to read what Jan dug up on Hasting. But before she could devote her attention to the paperwork, she needed to go outside to the utility shed and start the generator. Procrastinate and the cold will take up residence inside the cabin.
She slipped on her jacket, followed the beam down the hallway and out the back door, across the snow-covered path to the shed. Her maroon 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee sat parked to the right of the little wood building, buried. The shack was cramped, but big enough to store the generator, snowmobile, and a few summer gardening tools.
She shoved the door open and directed the beam to the right corner of the shed. The generator rested beneath a swirl of cobwebs, constructers long dead from winter cold.
She knelt to check the fuel and oil levels. Oil’s good. Fuel tank’s empty. She sighed and cursed. For all her preaching to the town folk on the importance of being prepared, she’d let her own generator run out of gas before the storm’s arrival. She grabbed the gas can next to the genny and walked behind the building to the fuel drum. She began pumping gas into the can and noticed the main electrical wire running to her house. Severed, footprints led from behind the Jeep to the back door.
She drew her side arm, held the pistol close to her body, and stepped away from the fifty-gallon fuel drum. One spark from a fired weapon could ignite an explosion strong enough to take her life and destroy her home. Moving with her back against the splintery wall, she made her way around to the front of the building.
Intruder. She switched off the light and knelt low to the ground. She crept forward, kicked opened the door and flicked on the flashlight, aiming the beam at the eyes holes of the ski mask, momentarily blinding him. Surprised, he fired a wild shot. It ricocheted off the doorjamb, missing her head by inches.
“Freeze!” He darted for the door. She fired two shots. The first bullet missed, the second struck the shoulder of the parka. Feathery insulation exploded outward, as he lept through the door to the outside.
She flew forward through the kitchen, down the hall, past the living room and bolted out the front door in pursuit. He sprinted behind the utility shed. She dropped the flashlight in the snow as she charged for the tiny building. He dashed from the shed to other side of the Jeep. She fired. Missed again. Too dark. She cursed herself for dropping the light.
A snowmobile revved to life. Machine and rider sped onto the road, heading east toward the station. She fired off two more rounds, but he was already out of range.
She straddled her sled and noticed the glow behind the shed. Red and yellow flames licked at the mouth of the fuel drum, smoldering bundle of rags. She jumped off the sled and kicked a covering of snow over the blaze, extinguishing it. She fell to her knees, coughing and out of breath. What the hell could he have been after? Nothing of value inside the cabin. Cold air caught in her throat.
“The fax.” She leapt to her feet, running for the back door. On her way, she spotted the flashlight and picked it up.
She stood over the printer tray. Empty.
No one knew about the fax beside me, Jan and… “Charlie.”
She’d known Charlie Floating-Reed longer than Alex. But Charlie knew Alex before he’d come to Cold Spring as its resident paramedic. It’d been Charlie who’d recommended Alex for the position. The two climbed together, drank together, went to bars in Denver and picked up women together.
What the hell are you doing? She let herself fall back down on the couch and think about what her tired mind attempted to imply.
“Not Charlie. No-way.”
Unlike cash, gold’s got a way of getting under people’s skin. Hart’s words flooded her thoughts. So true. She’d felt it. Maybe Charlie had too.
“24k. Purest of the pure. You don’t forget it, once you’ve seen it. His words. If she couldn’t trust him, who could she trust?
Only Hart? She shook her head. Need more time to think. Ever since Hart arrived, she’d second guessed herself. Much like another time and place. The Dixie Star Casino. She’d been wrong to second-guess herself then, and maybe she was wrong now. Time to start trusting the one thing I’ve lost faith in since Hart’s arrival.
She reached inside her coat pocket and pulled out the walkie-talkie. With the cell tower off line and her home phone lines down, her only connection to another living person was her first officer. She raised the handset to her mouth and squeezed the button. Hesitation. Hart or God given instincts? Make the choice.
She did. “Charlie? You got a copy?”
“Ten-Fo-Four, Kemosabe. Go for Charlie.”
Out of breath. She pulled the walkie-talkie from her lips and tensed. “You’re winded.”
“Yeah. Just got the genny going. Power went a few minutes ago. Old girl needed some coaxing. And I got to lay off the Little Debbies. Why do you ask?”
She hesitated again. “Nothing, Charlie.”
“You okay, Kemosabe? Sound strange.”
“Powers off here, too. Took some time to get my genny going. Had to gas it up. Me and my preaching.” She’d made the choice to put her trust in him, but decided not tell him what’d happened. Play it smart and hedge your bet. “Got plenty of fuel at the station?”
“Maybe enough to get us through the night, but to be on the safe side, I lit the lanterns and turned off the lights to conserve the fuel.”
“Good thinking. Heat’s the most important thing right now.”
“You need something?”
“Yeah, what about the phone lines?”
“Static, but I think there may be a dial tone somewhere in there. Probably lose it soon, though.”
“Lines are down here. I need you to call my friend, January Hayes, at the Atlanta Paper. She sent a fax over to me here, but the power went before I could get it. Call her and have her send it to the station fax.”
“Area code 222-555-7272.”
“Got it. Anything else?”
“The minute you get the fax, radio me, if I’m not there, already.”
“Thanks, Charlie. Riddle out.”
She fell back against the couch. No matter what the eventual consequence, it felt good to trust her own judgment. Pushed all chips to the center of the table and bet the house. All or nothing.
She closed her tired-as-hell eyes and whispered, “No other option.” If I’m wrong about Charlie, then might as well hang up the gun and turn my badge in to HQ. She grinned before getting up. Hello, Mega-Mart. Before heading back to the station, she went out and started the generator, to get the heat and lights back on in her cabin.
She steered the sled in the direction of 1409. On the way, she decided to stop at the BMW. She pulled the snowmobile alongside the mound of snow and climbed off the sled. She hadn’t known about Hasting’s connection to the armored car heist when she and Charlie searched the car for clues. Maybe I overlooked something. It’d been cold as hell and we thought we were investigating an accident. Nothing more.
She dug out the door handle and climbed in the front seat. The frozen dash sparkled in the flashlight beam.
She reached beneath the front and rear seats, in the pockets, and anywhere else her hand would fit. Nothing. Not even a stray gum wrapper. Either Hasting had been a compulsive neat freak or someone was attempting to hide something. She remembered the rank stench from the trunk. She’d ordered Charlie to close it and he’d given her no objections. Maybe it held more than just the stench.
She reached for the door handle the moment her walkie-talkie beeped, startling her.
“Kemosabe, you got a copy?”
She snatched it from her belt and raised it to her lips. “Ten-four. Go ahead, Charlie.”
“Got the fax, or, at least, a part of it. It’s slow from the storm. Waiting on the last page.”
“Read me what you got.”
“Okay. Here it goes, verbatim…. Joy, dug up a little local info on Hasting. He made our paper. Poor bastard. Guy loses his wife of ten years to a drunk driver then, a month later, a gas line explodes under his house, nearly killing him. Firefighters found him inside the garage, leaning against his car, burned around the face and upper body. Pretty bad.
“Hasting reported an attempted burglary at his home, a few days before the fire. He surprised an intruder, but the suspect fled the scene before he got a chance to steal anything. Local law and fire officials determined there was no link to the attempted burglary and the gas line explosion. Freak coincidence, I guess.
“No viable next of kin. Both parents deceased. Only one younger brother. Career military. erald Hasting, 37. Missing in action since 2007. Afghanistan.
“In-laws may be a little hard to reach, also. Met his wife through an international Internet dating service. “Mail-order-bride” thing. After her funeral, her body was cremated, and her ashes sent back to her parents in that other Georgia. Across the pond.
“Sent fingerprint to my source at Atlanta P.D. Must be some mistake. Had her run it twice. Just to be sure. Print doesn’t belong to Hasting. Instead to a convicted felon. Carmine Wraffe, 38. W’s silent. Cyber criminal. Fraud. Identity-theft. Outside the virtual world, he’s racked up a couple of burglary charges and a number of DUI and prostitution arrests. Guy might make a decent career criminal, if he could keep his mind off cheap liquor and women.
“Last record of arrest: March 2013. Arresting Officer:… and that’s where it ends, Boss.”
She leaned back and thought about the information from Jan and, after a second of connecting pieces, sprang forward. “Charlie, you lifted that fingerprint directly from Hasting’s wallet, right?”
“Were there any other prints on the wallet?”
“Nope, just the one set. What’s your twenty by the way?”
“I’m at the BMW. Charlie, is there a picture of Wraffe with the file that Jan faxed?”
“Charlie, I need you to go to my desk and find Hasting’s United Securities associate profile. Should be right there on top. Compare the picture of Hasting with Wraffe’s.”
“Gimme a sec.”
“What do you see, Charlie?”
“Pretty strong resemblance. It’s a little freaky. Could be brothers. Maybe.”
“What about height and weight? Close?”
“Yeah. Hasting’s 6’1” two hundred pounds. Wraffe’s an even six foot and one ninety-five. Hell-of-a-coincidence.”
She thought about the stench in the trunk and how the newspaper article stated the firefighters found Hasting leaning against the BMW, inside the garage. Burns to his face. Attempted burglary…
“Maybe not as much a coincidence as you think, Charlie.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind for now. I need you to do something else for me.”
“Forget about all the mentioned physical similarities for a moment and focus on the eyes. What do you see?”
Silence. “Same color. Deep brown, but--”
“Yeah. Hasting’s are softer. Little farther apart, but Wraffe’s are--”
“Hungrier. Harder. Closer together.”
“Yeah. Nailed it. You seen the photos?”
“Never. But I know something about eyes.”
“Poker, Charlie. Hasting never made it out of that fire in Atlanta alive. I’ll explain when I get back to the station. I’ll be here for another ten minutes or so. I need to search the inside of the trunk one last time.”
Maybe Wraffe didn’t clean the BMW as thoroughly as he thought. One thing’s for sure, these sons of bitches are never as smart as they first think they are. Hart’s words.
She reached inside the glove box and hit the trunk release, opened the door, and jumped out of the car. She dug the snow off the lid and opened the hatch.
She slipped off her glove and reached as far inside the trunk as her arm would allow. Her fingertips glided over the cold hard rubber of the spare tire and cool steel of the jack. Nothing.
She reached father, awakening the pain from the snowmobile and rappelling accidents. She grimaced, ignored the dull ache and kept reaching. She’d nearly given up, when her fingers brushed across the wispy genetic material she felt for. She closed her eyes and grinned. Jack pot.
She backed away from the trunk and stench of burnt death. She let herself exhale and breathe in gulps of cold, fresh mountain air, as she held tight to the few strands of hair, being careful not to allow the wind to steal them from her.
“The singed hair’s Hasting’s. The real Hasting.”
She worked her way backward through the mystery. Wraffe’s the burglar Hasting interrupted. The thief had gotten a good look at his intended victim, noticing the obvious physical similarities, and been in the house just long enough to discover information concerning his high-ranking position at United.
Perfect opportunity for identity theft.
Wraffe left the house, intending to return for Hasting’s computer hard drive and personal information. The night he returned, gas line exploded.
Bad timing’s the only real coincidence.
One man survived the explosion. Wraffe. He dragged Hasting’s body to the garage and stuffed it inside the trunk of the BMW before the firefighters arrived.
The burns to his face help camouflage any major differences between the two men’s appearances. With the wife dead and no close relatives to dispute his claim, Wraffe became Hasting. The real Hasting’s body would’ve remained in the trunk and locked away in the garage, until Wraffe’s release from the hospital.
The transfer from Atlanta to the Denver Branch eliminated any chance old friends or acquaintances might spot subtle differences in personality or mannerisms.
Somewhere between Georgia and Colorado, Wraffe disposed of the body. Once he was firmly ensconced in Hasting’s skin, he hooked up with Ramirez, the prostitute also familiar in the art of identity theft. She informed him of her connections, and, drunk, he told her about the gold shipment.
“God-given instincts,” she whispered. By solving the crime, she’d lay claim to a portion of Hart’s thunder. She grinned. Added bonus. She placed the locks of hair inside the pocket of her coat. Valuable DNA evidence. The strands would be safe there, until she made it to the station. Gone all C.S.I., and it felt pretty damn good. “Charlie’s own words.”
There was left only the mystery of who stole the fax, but if she Hart and Charlie put their heads together maybe they could determine the intruder’s identity. She was about to jump on her snowmobile and speed away for the station, when her walkie-talkie beeped, shattering the silence.
“Kemosabe, you got a copy?”
“Geez, Charlie, you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“Sorry bout that, Boss. Fax spit out that last page. Good thing. Phone lines are gone.”
She sat and waited for Charlie to read the remainder of the fax to her. He started to speak into the handset, when she heard the low moan of a snowmobile a short distance away, traveling eastward in her direction. She looked down at the face of her watch. 3 a.m. No one, besides her or Charlie, would have a reason to be out in the storm. Intruder. Over the other side of the hill ahead of her, the glow appeared, as the rider approached. She was shaken by a chill that rose from the pit of her stomach and worked its way out, twisting into an overwhelming sense of unease. It came to her before Charlie confirmed her instinct with his words…
“Wraffe’s last record of arrest was in March 2013. The convicted felon and escapee from Stone Ridge Federal Prison was apprehended seventy miles west of Boulder, Colorado by veteran United States Federal Marshal Jake Hart…”
She was bathed in the twin halogen beams of the sled as it pulled to within a few feet of where she stood. The final line of colors of the cube had clicked into place, her conversation with Hart, inside the storage room. Worked as a consultant for United Securities. Few people would possess the ability to spot Wraffe’s deception, but Hart’s a poker player and poker players knew as much about windows to the soul as they did about the cards. Hart had looked into Wraffe’s eyes and recognized him, imposter beneath the beard and scars. How’d he known about the fax? She thought about the time he’d spent at the station. Managed to plant a remote monitor.
Hart killed the sled’s engine and climbed off. The son of a bitch is still wearing the hooded parka. She noticed the outline of the bullet hole in the shoulder.
Her right hand, the one she’d used to find Hasting’s hair, was still gloveless and growing numb from exposure to the wind-chill. The hand I use to draw and fire my weapon. She let it drop to near the firearm’s grip.
“Officer Riddle figured I might find you here,” he said, climbing off the snowmobile and walking in her direction. In an attempt to disorient her, he left the snowmobile lights on. She glanced down. Walkie-talkie’s in my hand. She’d cut Charlie off in mid-sentence. She gently clicked the button to the on position and hoped (prayed) he’d listen to their conversation from the other end.
“You should know by now that those tricks don’t fly with an old hard case like me, Miss. Riddle.” He drew his sidearm in one fast, fluid motion. Like a gunslinger. He demolished the walkie-talkie with one shot. It exploded into a spray of plastic and electronic shrapnel. The bullet passed between her middle and fourth finger, leaving the digits intact, but severely scorching the skin between.
She jumped and rolled over the guardrail, beyond the snowdrift, and partially down the embankment. Only option. She grabbed hold of a rocky ledge, several feet down, seconds before tumbling into the darkness below. Sapling pines grew in dense clusters up the side of the embankment. She used the brush as cover and the narrow trunks to pull back toward the top, near the guardrail.
My snowmobile. Hart’s an experienced rider, but not as familiar with the local terrain. Lose him, in a chase over the narrow mountain trails leading to the station.
Leaving the snowmobile’s headlamps on had aided Hart in the beginning, but now it worked to her advantage. She viewed his dark silhouette move along the guardrail, searching for signs of her lifeless body. Thankfully, the darkness made her invisible. Holding to the base of a sapling pine with her wounded left hand, she drew her Glock with her right. She fired three quick shots in the direction of the silhouette. Hart leapt backwards, out of the light’s beam. She canvassed her way up the embankment to the front of the BMW, near her sled.
Uncertain if the bullets found their mark, she crouched and fired another round, waiting in the dark for return fire. She breathed a sigh of relief when no report sounded. Keeping low, she climbed on her snowmobile, revving it to life. Hart fired a sudden shot, shattering her left rearview mirror. She bent low, kicked the sled into gear, and sped into the darkness.
Pursuit. No time for the helmet, the wind and ice pellets stung her face and eyes. She could barely make out the road ahead. She fought against the weather and bore down on the accelerator, keeping her body close to the machine, leaning with the curves of the mountain road, to steady the sled as she approached the sharp turns.
The determined the beams of Hart’s snowmobile were roughly twenty yards behind. She focused her attention on the road and heard Hart’s pistol over the wind roar. The bullet struck the lower part of the snowmobile and ricocheted, missing her left leg by only inches. Gunfire sounded again, followed by a second “ping.” She glanced down and witnessed the slug fly into the sled near her right leg. He’s an excellent shot. Only a matter of time before his bullets end in flesh.
She needed to get to the station, but the longer she remained on the open road, the easier target she made. Steer the sled off the road onto a trail that leads to the station. Hart knew the main roads well enough to keep up with her, but she was willing to bet he didn’t know the secluded trails.Only a highly experienced snowmobile rider could negotiate them. She’d cut her teeth on these as a rookie. She glanced back, amateur.
Three miles from the station, she spotted a trailhead entrance on her left. Hart had gained on her considerably, since he’d fired his last shot. She sensed him about to fire again, heard the shot, and swerved into the trail mouth. She leaned closer to the snowmobile and felt a swell of triumph, watching Hart nearly thrown from his sled as he attempted to follow her. He regained control of the machine, but she’d placed a much-needed amount of cold distance between her and her pursuer. She didn’t let the momentary advance lead to complacency. She leaned and pushed the accelerator to its limit.
Hart, desperate now, fell further behind. He fired wildly, missing by long distances. She neared the last split in the trail and glanced back. Lose him for good, before the final split. Don’t lead him to the station.
She steered the sled onto a narrower trail that veered off the main leg, eased off the accelerator, and allowed him to cut her lead down a notch. His over confidence will work to my advantage. Draw him closer.
Seconds passed, before the beams appeared through the thick cluster of snow covered pines behind her. She waited until she was sure he’d seen her rear lights, and then bore down on the accelerator, propelling the sled down the path. Hart fell in behind, leveling the Colt and taking aim. She found the spot in the trail, bent low, and aimed the nose of the sled directly for the V shaped tree formation in front of her. It’d been strategically created for the pure pleasure and thrill of the jump.
A slight rise in the ground served as a ramp. Riddle hit the ice hump with the required velocity to propel her through the space, landing on the other side of the trail. It was a feat she’d accomplished countless times, as she and Charlie raced through the trails in pursuit of one another. She slowed the sled to a near stop, a few feet up the trail, and waited for Hart’s attempt.
He hesitated before hitting the ramp. Fatal mistake. His sled pulled to the right, slamming into the trunk, throwing him to the snow. Unconscious? Her spirits fell, only a second passed before he was up off the ground. He fell behind the wrecked snowmobile the way a cowboy would a dead horse.
She aimed and fired. He rose a few inches above the demolished sled and returned fire.
She waited a moment, before firing another blast, anticipating he’d unleash a volley of his own. Silence. She knelt low and listened.
She heard the static choked voice of another man. Accomplice. Upon their first meeting, he’d told her he was staying at his cabin with his son-in-law. A lie. Only be a matter of time before an ambush situation. She holstered her weapon and steered the sled down the trail to where it ended forty yards from the trooper station.
She huffed, nearly out of breath. The lit the coal oil lanterns, hung above the three main windows. Car parked in front of the station. She squinted. Black and gold Mustang.
“Oh God no. Please not child care. Not now” she whispered.
She pulled the snowmobile around to the rear and killed the engine. The Winchesters are fully functional and not just for looks.
Maybe Mac had had a foreshadowing and attempted to prep her for the worst. Maybe. Mac’s a good man. She knew that. She also knew that Hart, and whoever else was in on it would be coming for Lockhart. They needed him. Perfect scapegoat. Hart planned on killing Lockhart somewhere between Cold Spring and Denver, attempted escape. That was the plan, before she’d discovered the connection between Wraffe and Hart, but now he’d need to kill her and Charlie to cover his tracks. More difficult to explain, but not impossible. It all came down to her and Charlie in a standoff with Hart and his men.
“What the hell happened to your radio, Kemosabe? One minute you were on the other end and the next static. I’ve been trying to raise you ever since. Had me worried,” Charlie said, the instant she burst through the station’s back entrance. She jammed her wounded hand in her jacket pocket, to avoid more questions from Charlie. It ached from the cold and bullet burn but would have to wait.
She spotted Jordan sitting on the floor, next to her desk. The pregnant girl lay beside him, covered in a spare trooper jacket from the storage room. She looked to Charlie for explanation.
“They just arrived, and he carried her inside. She’s burning up with fever.” He shrugged. “Didn’t know what to do for her. Reason I been trying to radio.”
Jordan looked to Riddle. “We tried the Medical Center, but it was locked up. Beat on the door. No answer. Got scared, so I brought her here.” He brushed the girl’s damp hair out of her eyes.
“I didn’t know where else to bring her. The car slid off the road twice. Knew it’d be death to try and get down the mountain.”
Riddle reached out and felt the girl’s forehead. She nodded. “Fever. How long?”
“May be just a cold, from her trip out of the car yesterday. Keep her bundled and stay beside her. Charlie, grab the Motrin from the first-aid-kit.”
She attempted to console the kid as she thought about the oncoming storm and how she would handle it with this added complication. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of her until we get help up here. I have a key to the Medical Center. As soon as I can get out of here, I’ll go and get what she needs. For now, you’ll have to trust me and do exactly as I tell you. Understood?”
Jordan shrugged. “Okay. But why so scared?”
She grabbed the collar of his jacket, pulling him close and kept her voice low so the girl couldn’t hear. “Save the third-degree. Important thing’s taking care of her. Just do what I tell you.”
He noticed the urgency in her eye and nodded. “Okay.”
Charlie walked out of the storage room, first aid kit in hand.
“Where are the keys to the gun cabinet, Charlie?”
“For that?” He said, incredulous, and glanced at the row of Winchesters as he made his way over to the girl.
“In the bottom drawer of my desk. Why?”
She grabbed the first aid kit and dug for the fever medicine, tossed the bottle to Jordan, and ordered the boy to take her to the storage room and give her the meds.
Jordan caught the pills. “Okay. How come I got to take her in the storage room? Why can’t we stay out here with you?”
She locked eyes with the kid. “Remember what I told you about the third-degree. Just fucking do it!”
“Charlie, help him carry her to the room and lay her against the back wall. We don’t have a lot of time!” She went over to Charlie’s desk to retrieve the keys.
“Kemosabe, you’re not making any sense…” Charlie started.
She pointed to the storage room. “Now Officer!”
“Okay. Okay, Boss!” He grabbed the girl’s feet, and the boy her shoulders. They carried her to the room. Charlie appeared a second later.
She pointed to the door. “Secure it!”
He frowned, confused. “But Boss what if they need something or….”
She halted him. “No arguments!”
Sensing the tension in her voice he followed her order without debate or hesitation. “What the hell’s going on?”
She motioned for him to come to where she stood at the gun cabinet. She looked to the storage room door before speaking in a hushed tone. “Lockhart’s innocent. Maybe Alex. Hart and his men are coming for him.” She pointed to the cell. “Scape-goat.”
Charlie looked over at Lockhart, then to her. “The Wraffe thing. You made the connection between him and Hasting? That’s why you had me compare the pictures?”
She pulled her wounded hand from her pocket and used some gauze from the first aid kit to wrap it. “Yeah. Wraffe posed as Hasting, after hiding his body at his home. Ultimate opportunity for identity theft. Wraffe made some plans of his own, but Hart recognized his former collar at United. Instead of an arrest, Hart lured him with the gold heist and Wraffe bit.”
“Charlie’s eyes sparked as he made the connection. It’s starting to make sense.”
“Kill him between here and Denver. Blame him for an escape attempt and the heist, then split the gold with the others.”
“Now it gets more complicated than that.” Charlie noted.
“They’re coming for Lockhart and they won’t be unarmed.” She tossed him the keys to the gun rack. He caught them in midair.
“Unlock the cabinet and pull all the rifles down, load them, place them near the windows, safetys off.”
“Load them? We got bullets for those things?”
He unlocked the padlock, opened the case and withdrew a silver plated 30/30. He held it and looked down the sites, before leaning it against the wall, then opened the cabinet and retrieved a box of shells to begin loading.
Riddle reloaded her sidearm, looked up, and noticed how awkwardly he held the weapon. “Good shot with a bow, but not a rifle?”
He finished loading the gun, held it out, and aimed at the rear wall of the building.
“Never was much of a hunter with bullets, but I did a hitch in the Army. These things are antiquated compared to an AR-15, but just like any other firearm. Point and shoot.”
Lockhart stirred inside his cell. He’d overheard them. She looked up. He moved to the bars and peered at them. “What about me? I can help. Let me out of here! You know I’m innocent! Said it yourself!”
Charlie stood silent, waiting for her decision.
She considered Lockhart’s proposal. Could use another man. He’s a civilian, not an officer of the law. Someone I’m sworn to protect. To bring him in the line of fire would be placing his life in jeopardy. “No.”
“Riddle, we could use him,” Charlie argued.
“He stays put, until we gauge what we’re up against. If we need him, we’ll utilize him.”
Lockhart moved back over to the cot and sat down, head in his hands.
Charlie looked to her. “It may come down to that.”
She sighed. “I know, Charlie, but I don’t want any more innocent blood shed. Enough.”
“You’re the Sheriff.” He looked down at the rifle, managing a slight grin.
“No.” She smiled weakly. “Just a person who wants to get us and these people through the night alive.”
“Me to, Kemosabe.”
“What other firearms do we have, besides the rifles and our side arms?” She asked.
“12-gauge pump, maybe an extra 9mm, and a couple boxes of shells in the storage room.”
She looked to the room door. “Get em and load em. We’ll need everything. How much ammo left for the rifles?”
“Counted five boxes of fifteen shells.”
“Everything loaded? Safeties off?”
She glanced around the room. “Extinguish all the lights down to the minimum we need to find our way around. One lantern on the floor.”
Charlie leaned the loaded rifles beneath the widows and turned down the lanterns except for the one he sat on the floor.
“Check on the two kids before it gets ugly. Gauge if her fever’s dropped. Tell the boy to stay low and over her, no matter what sounds they hear out here,” Riddle ordered.
Charlie pulled the room keys from his pocket and opened the door. Jordan jumped up from beside the girl the moment the locked clicked.
“Why lock us in here? What the hells going on out there?”
Charlie told him to keep his seat beside the girl.
The kid’s eyes widened. “She’s scared now. Hell I’m scared. We just want to know what’s happening. Please!”
Charlie took a step in his direction and pointed at the girl on the floor. “Fever down?”
The kid nodded. “Yeah. Two degrees. Pills helped, but she’s groggy.”
“Good. Riddle’s got the motherly instinct. Trust what she tells you.” Charlie turned to the shelves and found the shotgun. He moved some printer paper and other supplies, looking for the spare 9mm and cartridges.
“C’mon, Officer, tell us something!” Jordan reached out and tapped him on the shoulder, startling him.
Charlie shoved the kid to the wall and ordered him to crouch.
The kid trembled but stood facing the trooper.
Charlie spotted the fear in his eyes and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder to console him. “No matter what you hear out there, stay calm and close to her. Keep low to the ground. Everything’ll be all right. I promise.”
The kid looked to the shotgun in his hand and back to big officer, pleading for answers.
“Please. Just do what I tell you.” Charlie pointed to the girl.
She asked him to kneel next to her and hold her hand. He looked to Charlie, then to her. “Okay, Baby. I’m here for you, always.”
Charlie bent and squeezed the boy’s shoulder for reassurance before making his way out the door with the shotgun and shells.
The kid watched the Trooper leave the room. After the click of the lock, Jordan reached behind his back and placed his hand on the 9mm’s grip. He’d found the gun on the shelves, before Charlie entered the room. He let his index finger slide around the trigger. It filled him with a feeling of safety and security.
“What are you doing?” The girl grabbed his cheek.
He jumped, startled, nearly pulling the weapon from his back. “What?”
“Got your hand behind your back. How come?” She couldn’t see the gun.
His tongue flicked out and licked across his lips. He glanced back at the door, then to her, and stretched his arm around her shoulders.
She reached, took his hand, held it tight, and pulled close to him.
He leaned on her. “Sorry. I’m here for you. You know that.”
“Yeah. I know.” She let her free hand fall near the gun. He snatched her wrist and pulled it away.
“Why’d you do that? What are you hiding back there?”
“Nothing. Got a rash. Probably from the bed in that cheap motel.”
“Oh.” She yawned and closed her eyes. He let his hand work its way back to the gun. He looked to the door, then down at her. “Things might get rough, but I’ll be here for you, no matter what. Just like I promised back home. We’ll make it to LA. Sorry I got you into it.”
“The girl’s fever down?” Riddle asked, as Charlie handed her the shotgun he’d found in the storage room.
“Yeah. Couple degrees.”
“Good.” She loaded the shotgun and asked, “where’s the handgun?”
“Couldn’t find it.”
“For now we’ll have to make do.”
She sat on the floor, with her back against the front of her desk, held her sidearm in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
“Still no signal?” Charlie sat down beside her.
She glanced over at him. “Not like I was expecting one. How’d you think he’s doing?” She nodded in Lockhart’s direction. He sat on the cell floor, back against the cot.
“I think he’d feel better if we let him out. Can’t blame him.”
“It’d only be another distraction.”
Charlie looked at his watch.
“What time is it?”
“Three forty-five. Think Hart’ll wait til dawn?”
“He’ll come before. The dark’ll provide cover.”
Charlie sighed. “This is crazy, Kemosabe. You know that?”
“What other choice do we have?”
“I don’t know. But I have to ask myself, is he worth it?” He pointed to Lockhart. “We have the sleds. It’s conceivable that four of us could get away. Me you and the two of them,” he whispered.
“They’re watching us right now. If we attempt a run for it, they’ll pick us off.” She glanced at Lockhart. “Worth it? I don’t know. Only thing I know is, it’s the right thing.” She looked to him. “You do too.”
He let his head rest against the desk. “Maybe.”
She nudged his shoulder with her own. “One thing I’ve learned, looking back on my life, is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to forgive yourself for doing the wrong thing, than it is for not doing the right thing.”
He managed a smile. “Damn you, Kemosabe. You and your new-found- conviction-to- duty.”
A shot exploded the window above her desk. A hail of glass swirled in air around them like a deadly ice storm. Charlie threw Riddle forward, shielding her body with his own. Seconds passed, before they were both up on all fours crawling for the safety of the wall beneath the demolished widow.
Riddle visually scanned for holes in the door to the storage room. None. Luck. She turned her attention to the cell. “Lockhart!?”
The prisoner yelled from beneath the cot. “Scared shitless but no flesh wounds.”
She glanced over at Charlie. He sat with his back against the wall, rifle cocked and ready. “Only a warning shot. To get our attention. The next ones won’t be as random.”
Riddle considered the station. Washed in brilliant white light. Hart pulled the Humvee near the front of the building. She constructed a mental image of the vehicle. Two headlamps. Row of fog lamps across the top, and a spotlight mounted to each of its front two doors. He’s using light to disorient, again. This time she felt less like a startled deer surprised by the headlight’s beam than a rabbit scurrying for cover from a natural predator.
Charlie yelled something to Hart. She grabbed him by the arm. “Let him speak first.”
They waited in silence for what seemed an eternity.
“Officer Riddle, we’ve come to an impasse. We’re going to be taking the prisoner from you. Easy way or…well you know the rest.”
Charlie began to speak again, but she halted him again.
“You and your man choose the path. Rocky or smooth. Hand Lockhart over to us. No fight.”
She shouted, “Don’t waste your breath, Hart. We both know where either path ends!”
She couldn’t see him but imagined the nod and smile. Use it to our advantage. She prodded Charlie.
He prepared to fire. “Aim for the cowboy?”
“No. The lights. Take out as many as you can. Darkness is more our friend than theirs. Hart’s behind cover. Wasted shot.”
“Had to at least give it a try,” Hart yelled.
Charlie waited for her order.
“You might’ve been able to explain away killing Lockhart. But things have taken a rocky detour. How you gonna explain the shooting deaths of two Colorado State Troopers?”
“Desperate man Lockhart, Trooper Riddle. You and your officer never dealt with a situation like this before, virgin territory, less than professional in your handling of the prisoner. Lockhart wrangle’s one of them pretty rifles off the wall. Fatal lapse in good judgment by your deputy. Take’s both of you hostage. Standoff-situation. Both dead. Lucky for the rest of the good citizens of Cold Spring, I nailed Lockhart before he could get away.”
“Planned to the last detail.” She suspected all Hart’s men to be armed with the same model Winchester rifles. 30/30 caliber bullets. “Alex. Innocent!”
“Nothing personal. Had a history that fit the criteria, reasonable suspect. Wrong place at the wrong time. Or, from my perspective, right place at the right time. The witness protection program proved--”
Before he could finish his sentence, she motioned for Charlie to fire. He rose to position, aimed, and demolished the driver’s side spotlight and the right headlamp. Riddle fired two shots, left headlamp and passenger-side spotlight gone. They’d extinguished the two greatest sources of light. The station was darker now, allowing them to move more freely across the floor by the glow of the lantern.
Hart and his men answered with a hail of fire. The one unbroken front window shattered and she and Charlie fell to the floor, hands and arms covering their heads. Fast and furious rounds followed by silence.
She looked to Charlie. “Reloading.”
She and Charlie crawled back to the front wall beneath the station’s middle window.
“You okay?” she whispered.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” He touched her face and noted the blood on his fingertips. “You’re hit!”
She wiped her hand across the trail of blood that dripped from the side of her head over her right ear. “Nick from the glass. I’m good.”
She pointed to the storage room door. “Bullet holes.”
Charlie fell close to the ground, made his way over the glass shards to the door and knocked.
“All good inside?”
No answer. He looked to Riddle, worried.
“Hey kid. You two still with us? Talk to me.”
He heard a whisper near the door.
“What the hell just happened? The bullets blew shit off the shelves above us. Had to make like the fucking Secret Service to protect her!”
“But both of you are okay?”
“Yeah. Scared as hell. Let me out. I can help! I got…”
“No. Stay down. Pull anything off the shelves you can use as cover.”
“But…! I can…”
He heard the kid scoot back across the floor, then he crawled beside Riddle.
“Not yet. Let ’em wonder if either of us is wounded or dead. Over confident, one or two of them might make a move for the station, giving us a clear shot. Were you able to see any of them?”
“One. Jumped behind the Hummvee when I fired. “Coltrane.”
“Sam,” she whispered. “The missing puzzle piece. Ambushed Ramirez behind the motel. Shirt change. Blood, not coffee.”
She let her head rest against the wall. Moved to the Spring a couple years after I did and took the job as manager of the Wild Frontier. Plaid the role of good-natured-town-drunk, well. Kept to himself. Unassuming. Never talked much about his past.
She turned to Charlie. “Sam and Hart.” She held up two fingers. “One more.” Charlie whispered. “An unknown. Three against two aren’t bad odds.”
“Maybe, but we’re still at a disadvantage. Need to take out one to begin turning the odds.”
“The head of the snake? Hart?”
“I don’t know. I know Sam and Hart. Have some idea of their abilities. But I don’t know the third man. It’s the unknown I’m most worried about.”
“Your call.” Charlie assured.
“Wait for their next move.”
Charlie leaned his back against the wall, keeping the gun close.
A quarter of an hour of silence passed, not a sound from Hart and his men. Charlie glanced at his watch. “Four-fifteen. What the hell’s the hold up? What’re they waiting on?”
Riddle released a breath. A line of frozen mist slinked into the air from her chapped lips. “Shattered windows. Gusts of wind and blowing snow inside, shredding the building’s inner temperature.” She looked to the window.
Charlie shivered. “Need to cover the widows.”
She grabbed his shoulder. “No. Stay low. As long as the heat’s on, should be okay…” She stopped in mid-sentence and looked to the building’s back door. “Oh hell. The genny!”
“If they cut it, our senses will be weakened from exposure. Numb mind and hands we’re more vulnerable.”
As if on cue the central heat unit’s hum went quiet.
“It’s like they read my fucking mind.” She looked to Charlie. “The girl needs to stay warm.”
He looked to the storage room. “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
She considered the options as gunfire erupted. Both fell to the ground. After a moment Charlie raised his head. “What is it, Charlie?”
“Why are all the rounds hitting the ceiling?”
She glanced up. He was right. She heard the ping, ping of the bullets striking the metallic pipes that ran, exposed, above them and noticed the sparks emitted as lead collided with copper.
“Oh no.” She whispered.
“What?” Charlie questioned confused until his eyes fell on the sprinklers.
“They’re not attempting to smoke us out but freez…”
Before she could finish her sentence, a spark struck the tiny sprinkler head above and a shower of ice cold water poured down on them.
“Charlie, we got to shut off the flow!” Soaked in this temp and its hypothermia city. Where the hell’s the cut-off valve?
“It’s outside. Where we park the snowmobiles.”
The moment the words left her mouth, Charlie, rifle in hand, crawled to the rear of the building. “Charlie! Wait!” But he was already at the door. She had to provide cover fire. She grabbed Charlie’s Glock from the floor, stood, and, with both guns in hand, fired off as many rounds as she could to divert attention. Hart and his men answered her volley. The smoke from the weapons filled her nostrils, nearly choking her, as she reloaded the two side arms beneath the spray of water.
Somewhere in the recess of her mind, she heard Mac’s words echoed from the day on which she accepted the command position at the station. The most action a Trooper stationed at 1409 can expect to see is directing weary tourists through inclement weather on their way to more popular Colorado towns and resorts.
She rested her back against the wall underneath the window, prayed silently for Charlie’s return, and reloaded both guns. Okay. Good firing order for my next round. Need to lay down more cover fire for Charlie when he’s done. “Wait and pray,” she whispered over and over, now a mantra.
When enough time had passed for Charlie to make it back, she added worry to the wait and pray. Get ahold of yourself. Charlie’s a good man and can take care of himself.
Still, somewhere deep inside her mind, she could hear Hart’s voice confident and assured; sent your beloved fellow officer on a fool’s errand, old girl. His corpse can’t return. No matter how good a man.
Charlie’s gone, leaving nothing but you, Lockhart and the cold. Then death. Death will come for you first. Then the young ones.
No! He’s coming back. You’re letting your mind slip. Hold on. It’ll be all right in time.
She sprang from her thoughts the moment the water torrent ended. Good man Charlie. Good man. The instant the wave of triumph swelled within her a lone shot exploded outside the station’s rear wall. The building sat between two small mountains. One a hundred yards in front, one fifty yards at its rear. The report sounded from several feet up the side of the mountain slope at back. A tense second passed, between the gunfire and Charlie stumbling through the station’s door.
He dragged himself across the floor on his stomach toward her, leaving a trail of dark blood behind. She could see, through her tear-blurred-vision, the bullet found its mark between his shoulder blades, exiting through his chest. He had used his foot to kick the rear door closed as he inched toward her, gasping for breath. Lockhart sprang forward and reached through the cell bars, an attempt to help him.
Riddle crawled forward and pulled her friend and first officer close to her. She tried to wail, to make any sound, but choked. A faint whimper, the cry of a frightened child.
A lure. The instant Charlie exited the building, a sniper waited high up the incline at the station’s rear, camouflaged by the dense mountain brush, sights fixed on the cutoff valve.
She kneeled on the station floor, knees pressing against shards of unforgiving glass, the pain meaningless, as the splinters tore through her uniform, digging deep into her skin. She sat holding her dying friend. Looking into his dark-Native American-eyes, dimming of life with every second that passes.
“K-Kemosabe… I…shut…the…wat… they’re going to…they’re…sorry..I,.. can’t…
“Jesus Charlie don’t leave me…” He convulsed, coughed and tried to speak again. She grabbed his hand and squeezed, pleading. She felt him squeeze back and manage a weak smile. “You’ll make it Kemosabe…long time before you meet me on the happy hunting gr….” his light darkened and the faint pulse she felt traveling up from his heart to her hand and through her to her heart stopped. She heard a sound and looked to the window. Movement.
“He’s dead! Officer! You’ll, be, too, if you don’t get down! Now!” Lockhart’s voice snapped her out of her sorrow filled trance.
She leapt forward and down, crawling away from the body, to the front wall. Several shots flew through the windows. Lockhart fell beneath the cot. She looked from Charlie’s body to where Lockhart lay beneath the bed.
“You have to let me out! It’s the only way. If you don’t, then we’re both going to end up like him! Them, too!” Lockhart pointed to the storage room.
“Like him,” she whispered, nodding. Charlie’s dead. Might as well have pulled the trigger. She hunched beneath the window. Spurned him into the sights of a waiting sniper by my sudden panic over the water. She placed her head in her hands, tried to fight back the tears, for no other reason but to hold on to her strength. Too much. The tears for Charlie poured from her eyes like the water had burst from the sprinklers above.
“Please! Officer! Please! You gotta let me out! Can you hear me?”
Lockhart’s voice seemed distant, surreal. You’re still in a trance. Snap out of it!
Hart, calling to her from outside the station broke it for good. The voice. The voice of the root of it all. Alex, Charlie, my happy world, and the safe patch of earth I was hired to protect destroyed and shattered. She prepared to stand and empty two fully loaded magazine’s worth of gunfire directed at her enemy, but fought back the urge, remaining silent, trembling and biting her lip from rage and frustration until she felt a warm trail of blood run down her cheek, anticipating his next words.
“The Indian is dead by now. My man, like myself, always hits his mark. He is a fellow brother-in arms-and a hell of a good marksman. Trained by me. Sniper. United States Marine Corp. I’ve been known to hedge my bets.
Before answering, she looked over at Charlie’s body. Dead. Maybe I’m to blame. She felt a hot tear trickle down her face. She wiped it and the blood away. Blame can be placed later. After what I have to do is done and over with. At that time, if alive, she could cry all the tears of regret she desired, enough to fill every river in the fucking the state of Colorado, but right now priority one is to kill the son-of-a-bitch.
“I’m going to kill you, Hart!” she assured. Not a threat or warning, spoken out of the anger she felt, but a promise, cold and without compromise.
“That’s a pretty strong statement for someone in your position,” he chuckled.
No reply. Time for talk’s over. War.
Lockhart moved near the bars about to make another plea for his release, but before he could get the words out, she reached inside her jacket pocket and tossed him the keys to the cell door.
“Weapons training?” He unlocked the cell door and slipped to where she waited beneath the window.
“Not really, but…”
She handed him the shotgun. He took it from her and waited for instruction.
“Its range is limited but it’s simple. Point and shoot. If you’re close enough to your target, you’ll hit it with the spray of pellets. Understand?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“What we need to do now, Officer Riddle, is--”
She halted him. “The sniper. He’s made his way back around to the front of the building, with Hart and Coltrane. He’ll be positioned higher up on the slope facing the windows. He’ll fire a shot at one of us the moment his first window of opportunity is flung open.”
She crawled over to Charlie’s body, grabbed the rifle, removed his uniform jacket and hat, and crawled back to where Lockhart waited.
“Put these on!” She handed Lockhart the blood-soaked trooper coat and cap.
He reached for the clothes but hesitated and looked to her, confusion apparent in his eyes, “I don’t understand.”
“I want them to think Charlie’s still alive. It’ll draw the sniper’s attention.”
“No way in hell! I’m not bait!” He pushed her hand away.
She grabbed his collar, pulling him in close, her face in his. “I lost a friend and a fellow officer. There are two more innocent people under this roof. Bet’s are off. You do what I tell you. Refuse and I’ll kill you before I kill him.”
He searched her eyes, found no compromise, and swallowed. “Okay.”
She released his collar. “If the sniper thinks he missed his mark and Charlie’s still alive, it’ll both frustrate and confuse him and Hart. You’re going to slip into the jacket and hat, jump up and fire a shot. Don’t aim or worry about hitting anything or anyone. Fire the shot to get their attention and drop to cover as quickly as possible. The sniper will return fire quickly. I need to spot the flash from his barrel. Once I determine where the he is positioned, I’ll align my sights and fire.”
“You’re a good shot?” he pleaded.
She picked up Charlie’s rifle and held it in her hands, unsure. After a moment, she let it drop to the floor and looked to Charlie’s desk. She crawled over, felt behind it, and pulled his bow from the case, grabbed an arrow, and made her way back over to Lockhart. “I’m better with this.”
Lockhart looked at the bow and sighed. “And if this doesn’t work, I get my head blown off.”
“If it’s any consolation, then, I’m on my own and probably just as dead.”
“It’s not.” He slipped into the jacket and hat. “But, right now it’s as good a plan as any.”
She held close to the bow and nodded. “Agreed.”
He knelt below the window, shotgun in hand, and waited for her signal. Riddle positioned herself so she had a clear view of the slope of the mountainside that faced the building, raised the bow carefully to her side, took a deep breath, looked to Lockhart, and nodded.
Lockhart sprang up, fired a wild shot in the general direction of the Hummer, and fell back to the ground.
“I thought you said you nailed him!” Hart yelled above the gunfire.
“I did. X marked the fucking spot Boss! On my Mama’s grave!” The voice echoed down the mountainside.
Riddle spotted a flash roughly fifty feet up the side of the facing mountain, behind a cluster of pines. The bullet from the sniper’s rifle entered the window, missed Lockhart by a split second as he fell below the sill.
In one fluid motion, Riddle raised the bow, in the way her friend taught her, aligned the sights to the exact spot where she’d seen the burst of fire. Keeping her breathing steady, and her eyes focused on her mark, she released the bow’s string, and held her breath. Nothing. Missed.
Just before she dropped to cover, she spotted the body of a slim black man, roughly thirty yards up the incline, pitch forward out of the cluster of trees and roll down the snow-covered slope. Arrow in the center of chest. X-marks the spot asshole. She fell to the floor with Lockhart, as the barrage of fire from Hart and Coltrane’s guns erupted. They hunkered beneath the window until the firing stopped.
“You did it! Got the son-of- a bitch!” Lockhart whispered excitedly.
She nodded. “Evening the odds. Two against two.”
He managed an over confident frightened grin. “Yeah…”
They both turned at the sound coming from the storage room, heard the lock click, and the door fling open. Jordan stood holding a pocketknife in his hand. He looked to both of them, eyes confused and pleading. “Had to open it or she said…” The explosion from behind blew him forward, then to the floor across from Charlie’s body.
Lockhart attempted to raise the shotgun but fumbled from shock and it dropped to the floor with a metallic “thud.” Riddle released the bow and reached for her gun, but the girl aimed the 9mm at her chest.
“Forget it, Trooper Riddle. Last place you wanna die’s beside a loser drunk. Speaking of loser’s…” She looked down at the boy she’d shot in the back and kicked him in the leg. “Fucking Tu-Pac wannbe!” She fired another shot. Sister’s dead cause of you!” She screamed.
“Sister.” Riddle looked up at the girl. “Dead at the bottom of the ravine.”
She turned the gun from the kid’s body to her.
“Mountain Sherlock.” She wiped her forehead with her hand. “Fucking shithole motel. Germs.”
“Not pregnant,” Riddle managed.
The girl coughed up a load of phlegm and spit it near the boy’s body. “Needed something to tell the guy. Pregnant. Love you. Get me to L.A. Bullshit.” She looked out the window to Hart and his men. “Sister texted me about a good opportunity, gold-fever spreads fast, takes no prisoners.”
“You got ’em covered in there?” Hart yelled from outside.
The girl looked to the window. “Helpless and on the floor!”
Riddle let her hand fall near the shotgun.
The girl fired a shot. Riddle braced, expecting it to hit her in the chest, reaching for the gun. She looked up. The girl had fired a shot out the window.
“What the hell’s that about?” Hart questioned.
“My sister. Your partner, the motel manager, killed her for her part!” She fired another shot out the window, eyes still filled with rage.
Riddle utilized the time to move her hand closer to the shotgun, just out of reach. She whispered for Lockhart to use his leg to push it closer to her. He tried and failed.
“Okay! Enough!” Hart yelled. “Let’s talk!”
The girl lowered the gun. “Speak!”
Riddle nudged Lockhart. This time he grazed the side of the weapon, moving it closer to her hand.
“You said it all! The fever’s a hell-uh-va-thing, Darling. We all have moments of weakness in its grasp. Specially the really limp ones, like Sambo here. He killed your sister, thinking her part would add to his take. And he’s right. Yours, too.”
The girl remained silent, contemplating her options.
“All you got to do is keep the gun on them til we get in there. Then you get your part of the gold. More than before!”
The girl turned her head to the side, keeping the gun aimed at the window.
“Your sister was a hell of a hard and clever gal. But we both know, in the same situation, she’d rake in her extra share of the gold. End of story.”
The girl let the gun fall to her side, sighed, and nodded. “Okay. Just hurry your asses up and get in here, before I change my mind.”
“On our way!”
Riddle’s fingers fell on the shotgun’s handle. Lockhart ducked. She leveled it with her target and pumped.
The girl, surprised by the sound, raised her gun in one quick motion. Riddle and the girl fired. Shots rang out from both barrels. Lockhart wrapped his hands around his head and prayed.
The smoke cleared, after a moment of silence, he raised his head and looked at the girl. She lay on her back and held to the gun, before it slipped out of her hand to the floor. She kicked her right leg out twice before Lockhart heard a last gasp for breath, enormous hole in the center of her chest. “You…you got her! Killed the bitch! You…” His enthusiasm halted in its tracks as he turned to Riddle, lying next to him, and noticed the blood seeping from bullet hole in her right shoulder. “You’re hit!”
She pulled the jacket off of her right arm and placed her hand over the wound to slow the bleeding. Lockhart helped her to lean forward as he inspected the back of her shoulder. “Big exit hole, but it looks like the bullet went right through. Just like mine. You’re losing a lot of blood. We have to stop the bleeding.”
“No,” she whispered through the pain. “Let it bleed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Shots fired! What the hell’s happening in there?”
“With me down, they’ll be making a move to come inside. I want him confidant, to see the blood on the floor. Hurt and confused, he’ll be expecting me to make a run for it. I’m going to give him what he wants.”
Lockhart backed away and looked at her, unsure. He was about to speak, when Hart shouted outside the window, closer than before.
“We’re coming in! Well played hand, Ms. Riddle. Bet you’re hell at the card table. Wish we could’ve met under different circumstances. Would’ve liked a shot at playing a round or two with you.
Dressing the prisoner up to look like your dead deputy to throw us off our game, that’s classic. Hell-uv-a fight, all over now. House loses.”
Lifting herself, she ordered Lockhart to get back inside the cell.
“What the hell? You just going to give up, after all this?” He moved even further from her.
“You agreed to trust me. Now, do as I tell you and get in the cell,” she said, as she leveled Charlie’s 30/30, at his torso.
He crawled over to the cell, slid inside, and closed the door behind him with a sharp, “clang.”
“Give me back the keys to the cell and firearm,” she ordered.
He hesitated, before handing her the key and shotgun through the bars. “This is crazy. They’ll walk right in and kill me. Rat in a trap.”
Taking the gun and key from him, she shook her head. “Hart can explain away a lot of things, but the one thing he can’t explain away is an unarmed man, dead inside a locked jail cell. He’ll try to pick the lock to get to you. It’s an old lock. With time, he’ll succeed…” She fell against the cell from the loss of blood and pain in her shoulder.
He reached through the bars to try and steady her. “I need the gun and key, and you need help. Just give it back to me!”
“No. Don’t worry. Just try and stay calm. Remember, long as you’re locked behind bars, he can’t hurt you.”
Lockhart fell down on the cot. He watched, as she made her way over to the rear of the building. Blood dripped from her wound to the floor, forming a trail that led out the rear door. She took the rifle with her, as she made her way out back to where her snowmobile was parked.
She stumbled twice, before straddling the sled and starting the engine. She glanced back at the station and took off in an erratic direction up the slope of the mountain that faced the back of the building. The snow had formed a steep drift. Only a few inches of the back wall and sloping roof were visible above the mound of white around the back door. She’d left a visible trail of blood from the doorway to where her sled sat. Her plan hinged on Coltrane following the trail of blood, while Hart held back to try and pick the cell door lock.
At the sound of the snowmobile starting up, Hart grinned. “Sounds like our rabbit’s fled the nest.”
Both men made their way to the rear of the building. Entering the back door, they stepped over Charlie Floating Reed’s body and discovered Lockhart, waiting in the cell.
Hart spotted the trail of blood leading out the door into the snow. “I don’t know where the hell she thinks she’s going in this shit, with a bullet in her shoulder.”
Coltrane looked at at him and shrugged. “Want me to commandeer a sled and run her down?”
Hart leaned close to him and sniffed. “You drunk?”
“Nah. Hung over from the shit I got from that fucker.” He looked through the bars at Lockhart and back to Hart. “Why?”
“She’s a hell of snowmobile rider, but wounded like she is, you should be able to catch her.” He motioned for Sam to go. “Get on the Indian’s sled and find her. When you do, take care of business, but bring the body back down here. We’ll need to snap all the pieces together before we leave.”
Coltrane grinned in agreement. He shuffled out of the back door and followed the trail of blood to where the snowmobiles were parked beneath the metal canopy. After Coltrane left, Hart turned his attention to Lockhart. Hart walked over to the cell and pulled on the door.
“Locked,” he smiled glancing to the rear door. “Bitch.” Bending down and looking into the keyhole, he winked at Lockhart and said, “Don’t worry, little goat, I’ll have you out of there in no time at all.”
Lockhart watched Hart remove an instrument resembling a tiny ice pick from his duster and began working on the lock.
Hart and the prisoner jumped at the sound of a gunshot, a few feet away, just outside the back door.
“That was fast, Sambo!” Hart looked up from the lock to the back door, in time to see the silhouette appear in the doorway, rifle clenched between trembling fingers. She took a step inside. Hart noticed the white splotches of thick snow covering her clothes. She fought to keep her body from shaking, a result of the oncoming hypothermia.
“Get up!” She leveled the rifle at her target.
Hart stood, keeping his hands up and close to his body, not raising them over his head.
“You earned my respect, Miss Riddle.”
He nodded. “It most certainly is. Admire your strategy. Divide and conquer. Drive the sled up the mountain, just so it’s out of sight, then, leaving it behind, double back around and bury yourself in the drift against the back wall of the building. Wait till my man leaves to follow your trail. Underestimated.”
She shivered. As she did, he inched closer to her. “One more step.”
“Why so paranoid, Miss… Officer Riddle? You’ve won. Or…. have you?”
“I have.” She said, attempting a better grip on the gun. Gloves soaked. Fingers numb. She wiggled the digits to regain feeling.
“I don’t know, Officer. Your hands are cold, and you’re hurt. You know how fast I am at drawing my weapon,” he said, never once losing eye contact with her. “Besides, even if you were able to squeeze the trigger in time, it wouldn’t do you much good, with no bullet in the chamber.”
She studied his face. Bluff.
“How well you know the rifle you’re holding? Like the Colt .45 I carry, the Winchester model 30/30 was a standard firearm of the Old West. And like the Colt, I can tell you every specification, right down to the exact number of cartridges it holds in its chamber. Do you know how many that is, Officer Riddle?”
She’d cleaned the rifles on hundreds of occasions for Mac, but never once had she been required to load them. The only time the chambers had been filled, to her knowledge, was hours ago, when Charlie had loaded each of them, but she’d been too distracted to pay close attention.
“Four. Four bullets.” He held up the four fingers of his left hand.” You know how many’s been fired from that rifle? Same one your man was carrying, when mine killed him?”
She frantically ran the frentic succession of shots from the gun through her mind. Charlie fired at least three into the Hummvee’s headlamps, then reloaded and fired at least two more times, then maybe fired on the sniper and then you shot Sam.
Her mind, like her limbs, was to numb to accurately calculate.
“That’s right, Miss Riddle. In all the excitement of executing your plan, you forgot to reload after you shot poor Sam. Didn’t you?”
She felt tears sting her eyes. The moisture blurred his image, body racked from pain and cold, so weak from the blood loss. She thought about Charlie and Alex and the boy. Innocent blood shed. She locked onto his gaze. His eyes narrowed a little. Seen it before. Physical reaction to the Bluff.
“No,” she whispered.
“What?” Hart said.
“You’re wrong.” She spoke louder. Heard Lockhart stir at the sound of her voice.
“How the hell would you know, Miss Riddle?”
She clenched her teeth and locked her jaw. “Told you before it’s Officer-Fucking-Riddle.”
“Yeah. You did.”
She waited. Let him stew. Give him time to question his own abilities.
She focused in. His pupils shrank, like back on the mountainside. Time’s right. Her grip on the weapon tightened before she spoke.
“On my daddy’s chicken farm, back in Georgia, we had a problem with weasels eating those damn cluckers. Sneaky little bastards. They would get in and kill three hens in the middle of the night, before Daddy could get his pants on and make it to the barn with his gun to kill em. In the summer months, when they were the worst, me and him used to sleep in a tent near the barn. Daddy always was partial to his guns. Specially the Winchester. He used to let me shoot it every now and then. It wasn’t long before I could spot and kill a weasel at over a hundred yards.”
He tensed. Shaken.
His lips quivered. Before he could speak, she finished. “You see, Officer Hart, I’ve known these guns since before I moved up here. And I know that they hold a total of five cartridges. Five dead weasels. Daddy’s own words as he handed them to me before we fell asleep inside that little tent beneath the Autumn-Georgia- moonlight.”
He spat. “Poker? You really want to play this game with me, Miss?”
The index finger of her right hand twitched, as she applied pressure to the rifle’s trigger. Her bluff. She’d been raised on a horse farm and, though her daddy had been an avid deer hunter, he’d never owned a Winchester 30/30. If Hart was right and she pulled the trigger with no report to follow, then both she and Lockhart were dead. Then again, with the cold and her wounds, they were probably dead anyway.
Mac, lover of the Old West, had a saying that he swore by from that long-gone era. “If you’re going to die today, and you know it, at least have the dignity to die with your boots on.”
From the time she’d first met him, she’d never taken the phrase any more seriously than she had the antiquated Winchester rifles that gathered dust on the wall next to her desk. But today, as she stood holding one of those same rifles trained on the man whose determination was to kill her, no phrase rang truer for her. Boots on, Mac. Boots on.
She flinched, as Hart let his right hand drop closer above his pistols. About to make his move. His eyes told her that. She’d seen firsthand how fast he could draw his weapon. Even if there was one last bullet in the chamber, no guarantee she could fire it in time enough to stop him from squeezing a round off. He held the lock pick loosely in his right hand. She looked from the shiny instrument to his face, eyes. They were fixed and as cold and emotionless as they’d been on the cliff behind the Wild Frontier Inn, when she’d had her first confrontation with him.
It was his poker face, and though she searched for a weakness, she found none. She applied a notch more pressure to the rifle’s trigger, and thought she saw something. The dark pupils of his blue eyes shrank smaller, or maybe it’s the way the light from the oil lantern on the floor shined on them. She squeezed the trigger, as Hart dropped the lock pick to the floor with a sharp “clink” and drew his sidearm.
The deafening explosion and force of the rifle’s blast blew her backward. The bullet spun Hart around. His weapon fell to the floor, before he could get a second shot off. He stood, clutching the center of his chest a split second, before falling backward and lying motionless on the icy floor. Dead.
She managed to stay on her feet, until she was sure of it. Then her knees buckled, and she fell, letting the rifle slip from her hands. Before she lost consciousness, she reached in her jacket pocket and threw the keys to the cell over to Lockhart. She heard the lock clink open before station 1409 went dark.
Graham Lockhart had spent his first four years out of high school in the Navy and done a brief stint as assistant nurse to the ship’s doctor. He’d never ridden a snowmobile but managed to steer hers over to the Medical Center, and locate the medications. He boarded up the trooper station’s broken windows and kept the genny filled with fuel and running. He used the hotplate to heat coffee and canned soup.
Riddle floated in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware of Lockhart’s attempts to get her to swallow antibiotics, pain pills, water and soup. She heard him talking to her, but staying awake was too painful, too much effort until she was wheeled from inside the station to a waiting ambulance, lights and sounds of the police and emergency vehicles surrounding the tiny building assaulted her senses. She heard the unmistakable whoosh of helicopter blades. There were white and black and red news vans parked between the emergency and police vehicles. Tangles of black electrical cables snaked outward in all directions. Fresh-faced local and national reporters primped and prepped, in front of hot mics and humming video cameras, Fox, CNN, and every local crew accounted for.
The state and federal authorities were all in attendance, not the least of which was a small army of U.S. Marshals. One of the Marshals, a lean man of medium height and middle age, with short sandy hair and sincere brown eyes, pushed through the crowd until he loomed over her, just before she was loaded into the rear of the waiting ambulance.
“Officer Riddle. Name’s Special Agent Samuel Wheeler with the United States Federal Marshal program.” No syrupy smile, only a quick, but understanding, nod.
She nodded. “Agent Wheeler.”
“I understand the most important thing right now is to get you medical attention but, before they take you to Denver, I want to commend you on your professionalism in the handling of this situation.” He looked back at the station. “There remains a lot of investigative work to be done, but from what our intel has reported to me, it looks like one, or more, of our own was involved. We should’ve discovered this before it escalated to this point. My deepest apologies, Officer.”
“Hindsight,” she said groggily. “It’s a bitch.”
He nodded and smiled a little. “After you’ve received medical attention, we’ll need a statement in person. I’ll be looking forward to talking with you one-on- one.”
In the haze the two paramedics loaded her into the back of the ambulance and closed the doors.
For the next three days, following the surgery on her shoulder, she lay in a highly-medicated-state in a generic, white hospital room. A constant barrage of nurses, doctors, specialists, news reporters, Federal and State Law Officers, cable television channels, phone calls from concerned friends and relatives battled for her undivided attention.
On the fourth day after her surgery, she was released from hospital confinement. Elizabeth Manning was kind enough to pick her up and take her back to her home in Cold Spring, in exchange for Joyce filling her in on every last detail of her experience. Not a bad an exchange.
She’d been dropped off and found herself securely planted on the familiar cushions of her cabin’s living room sofa.
There were a total of twenty-two messages waiting on her machine. All could wait until after she’d had time to decompress, a night’s sound rest in my bed. Just one last detail before she could put the events behind her. She’d have to drive down mountain to Denver. She let her head rest against the pillow, closed her eyes, and promised, first thing tomorrow. She had a statement to sign and a decision to make.
As Joyce drove to Denver, she replayed the last two weeks in her mind. She’d come to terms with what had happened during the blizzard; although it was still difficult to comprehend how a man could intentionally engineer the deaths of so many innocent people. Gold. The fever. She’d miss Charlie and Alex. Never forget.
She thought of her discussion with Special Agent Wheeler, the day she left the hospital, and was thankful he’d given her the time to consider her situation, before coming in to sign her statement. She’d made up her mind to leave Trooper Station 1409 and had given her notice to Director Childs just hours ago. He’d understood her decision. She wasn’t cut out for her position in Cold Spring. The events of the blizzard had convinced her of that.
The challenges, the demands and the danger had awakened a hunger in her, an energy she hadn’t experienced since her nights at the high-stakes gaming tables. A different hunger. A different kind of fever. No self-destructive force consuming her. Instead, a drive to be a positive force in the world, or at least, the space she occupied.
Time to move forward, without looking back, and the future looked brighter than she’d expected. New job. New life. New relationship with my daughters. Okay it’s starting to sound too much like a Hallmark moment, Kemosabe. Charlie’s voice. She grinned, fought to hold back tears, lost, and pulled into a visitor’s parking space at the Federal building in Denver.
The slender black woman, who greeted her at the receptionist’s desk, wouldn’t have looked out of place in an upscale law firm had it not been for the .45 auto holstered to her hip.
“May I help you?”
Joyce returned the smile. “I’m Joyce Riddle. I’m here to see Agent Wheeler concerning the Cold Spring incident.”
The woman nodded, stood, and motioned toward the long hallway to her right with her hand. “Right this way, Officer Riddle. Agent Wheeler’s expecting you.”
As Joyce followed the woman, heels clicking as they struck the white tile, Charlie’s spirit whispered in ear again.
“Riddle, you’re going all CSI on me.”
Tears welled-up once more, and this time she whispered back, “You know, Charlie, that’s not such a bad thing.”
Wheeler was on the telephone, as she receptionist ushered her into his office. He motioned for her to sit across the desk and held up three fingers. “Three minutes tops,” he whispered. She studied his desk. Covered with papers and file folders. No crossword puzzles. No game books. No MP3. Not the desk of a man who required simple tasks to fill his time. A different world. Yes. Better?
She glanced at the walls. Maps and wanted posters and arrest histories. No decorations or cowboy memorabilia in sight.
Wheeler placed the phone on his desk, stood, and reached across. As the two shook hands, he nodded and smiled, a little. Same way he did just before they loaded me in the back of the ambulance.
“Welcome to the United States Marshal’s Program, Officer Riddle.”
“Thank you, Agent Wheeler.”
“Call me Sam,” he said with a quick wink that reminded her a little of Charlie.
“Sam it is, then.”
She looked him in the eye. He met her gaze. She exhaled and nodded. “Always.”
They both stood, and he led her down the hall, past the receptionist’s desk, out the door, and across the road to training headquarters.
Not the end. Not even close.
This is not the way it was meant to be. United States Federal Marshal Joyce Riddle allowed her exhausted lean one hundred-and-fifty-pounds to slide down the grimy cinder-block men’s room wall. The surface’s slick film aided her descent. The instant her bottom hit the cerement floor a sharp pain sprang from her tail bone, sped to the base of her neck, and exploded into a dull ache just behind her eyes. She clenched her teeth, swallowed the pain, and pondered. Not the way it was supposed to be.
She wasn’t regretting last year’s decision to accept Agent Wheeler’s offer of the job as a result of her current situation. Hell, she’d encountered plenty of action her first year. You don’t accept the responsibilities attached to it without fully understanding the possible dangers, sweat and blood tests of courage, and hardline discipline. In fact she had excelled, even won a couple of accommodations. It was enough to propel her out of what veterans-of-the-force-referred to as the ‘green-zone’ and ended the sidelong stares and muffled whispers of doubt. How was a former pilot-light from some tiny- tourist-trap-Rocky-Mountain-town going to handle the hovering threat she experienced over the course of 48 hours for a lifetime of it as a Federal Marshal. She’d met their defiant gaze the same way she did other players at the poker table those years ago and pushed her chips forward.
Royal Flush for the doubting Thomas-types. She exhaled a sigh of exhaustion.
Her eyes fell on the woman sprawled on the men’s room floor. The cheap-fluorescent-bulb hummed above her head, blinking intermittently, as they always did when installed in seedy-end-of-the-world-places like this. It was if some underworld-born-B-movie-director purposely staged the scene. The light flickered across the injured woman’s pale complexion as to give it the eerie effect of a quick glimpse of a phantasm before returning to darkness. Phantasm. Darkness. Phantasm. Darkness. As if on cue. The woman muttered something unintelligible. Joyce placed a hand on her heaving chest and whispered in her ear, “I promise to not let you become a victim.” She’d been beaten and now bleeding from more wounds than Joyce could count. She glanced in direction of the door. He was just outside. Her grip tightened on the Glock.
“This was not the way it was meant to be,” she whispered.
A vacation. She’d purchased the ’09 Harley Street Glide as a gift to herself a month ago. It was her own personal accommodation for completing her first year on the force with honors attached. She’d been proud of the medals, but the moment she felt the weight, and power, of the Glide between her legs it was reliving the feeling of strength the snowmobiles, she used to propel herself around the tight-mountain-roads of Cold Spring, filled her with.
“Sweet piece of American-made-machinery,” the bandana-wearing-Duck Dynasty-bearded- salesman assured her with a grin and wink as she’d sped away, trading Rocky-Mountain snow and ice for Arizona-desert grit and sand.
The instant the night wind swept around her, as she sped for the coast, she felt she’d traded work for a few days of damp sand between her toes, the sounds of gulls and surf filling her ears, and the ocean breeze lulling her eyelids to the land of slumber. It wasn’t much more than the typical workaholic’s getaway, but the hundred-and-fifty-mile-ride, courtesy of Harley Davidson, would be the “cherry on the sundae” or “icing on the cake” or whatever they referred to it as these days.
No cherry. The hog lay on its side a few feet from the dilapidated rest-area entrance, like her, broken and bruised but still operational.
The nose of the semi tapping the rear end of her Glide ignited memories of an old movie she’d watched as a kid seated securely on the sofa next to her dad, so many damn years ago, about a guy in a car that had a dangerous encounter with a psychopath navigating eighty-thousand-pounds of steel and diesel propelled fury. She couldn’t remember the name of the movie, but she wasn’t in a car, a much smaller, and more vulnerable, two-wheeled race horse. Her psychopath had shown just enough restraint so the taps only reminded her how close to becoming road-kill she was.
The rest-stop had appeared like a dingy oasis. She’d steered the Harley in the direction of the split asphalt and gravel lot. The instant spinning rubber kissed loose pebbles she lost control. She fought the force but it won. Seconds later she felt the friction-burn seep through her jeans and dig its teeth into her leg underneath the overturned hog. She thanked God for her experience with fallen machines. Leverage. Quick thinking and leverage.
The semi screeched to a halt a few hundred yards beyond the rest-area, and she could hear the gears moan their frustration of the big-rig being thrust into reverse.
She grinded her bare elbow into the asphalt. The slide had ripped the sleeve from her shirt. She’d increased her upper-body strength for the purpose of the job’s physical demands. But was it enough to gain the force to lift, and free, her leg from beneath six-hundred-plus-pounds of metal?
She’d utilized every muscle in her body. The driver had already engaged the gear, and the big-rig began its crawl backward in her direction. By the time the diesel engine gained full force it would be on top of her. She gauged the distance and the semi’s velocity. Roughly nine seconds before road-kill-time. Not her first choice of deaths. She considered her surroundings. Empty desert and no gleam of headlights for miles in either direction. Only darkness. She was overcome by the desire to traverse the loneliest of desert roads over the course of her getaway. She’d even purchased a book entitled America’s Forgotten Paths: A Guide for Those Who Find the Invention of the GPS an Insult. It seemed like a good purchase standing in line at the local Barnes and Noble. But damned if she’d considered adding a road-rage-fueled-psychotic-truck-driver to the vacation equation. But how many travelers ever do? Bet the guy in the movie didn’t. By morning the vultures would have commandeered her dark browns from her crushed head, and only God knew what else she’d be relieved of by the other nocturnal scavengers.
She hissed in frustration as the realization fell on her. She could, in fact, muster the strength to lift the hog but not within the span of nine seconds. She chuckled, a tense laugh at the irony. Maybe fourteen or fifteen. The rig was close enough for her to smell the heat of the tires still burning from the chase. She sighed and gritted her teeth. Her handgun was packed in the Harley’s saddlebag. The bag would have been within reach if it hadn’t been torn from the bike and thrown several yards away near the rest-area entrance.
Even if she held the gun in her hands it would offer little more than a quick release of anger as she fired at the semi’s rear doors. The driver was surrounded by a kind of fortress. She would need to position herself and aim for the side window, or windshield, if she had a gun in her hands. She glanced at the saddlebag and felt her being sink as she prepared for her final moment.
No. Not that easy asshole. I may die but with boots on. An old friend had advised her with those same words, words of Western wisdom. Regardless of how futile, she kept fighting to lift the bike. And then it happened. Just as she was within reach of the momentum, and relief of crushing weigh, to pull her leg free, the truck’s breaks screamed again, the sudden halt of the rig’s weight.
She managed to stand, and the motorcycle’s metal tank slammed to the crumbling asphalt. She met his gaze in the massive truck’s side-mirror. And, although it allowed her the time needed, she could tell, by the pride lingering in his near jet-black eyes, shark’s eyes, it was his way of allowing her a few more moments of life. So confident. So fucking confident. Her anger level rose a notch more. It might seem unintelligent to some, but the fact that the sadistic-bastard was only toying with her the way a cat toys with a mouse enraged her.
She swallowed the pain, inflicted by the road burn, and dove for the saddlebag. She retrieved her Glock 9mm, sped around the side of the tiny cinderblock building, aimed for the driver’s head, and prepared to fire. Clean head-shot though the truck window. A miracle. Maybe it was time to re-evaluate her religious beliefs. She applied pressure to the trigger and froze.
“Oh God. Help…me.” The split second her attention was stolen the headshot was lost. He was gone. Fell below the window or maybe climbed inside the sleeper cabin.
“Help….” The voice, muffled, originated from within the rest-area. But where?
She turned and looked to the rusted metal door to her left. Men’s room.
Decision time. Move on the truck, finish the kill, and return to aid? The voice sounded again, and her answer decided by the tone. She had experienced it enough to know the “death knell sound.”
She bolted for the door and shoved. Something was wedged against it. She glanced over her shoulder at the rig, still idling. No sign of the driver. Where the hell was he? She halted. It wasn’t coincidence. The voice inside? A victim he’d wanted her to find. Before he killed her he desired to offer one last insult. I killed again. You knew moments before your own death, and you were helpless to do anything, Bitch.
The voice had gone quiet, and she hit the door hard. Pain flew through her body like fireworks. Fourth of July celebration of pain. She bit her lip and slammed her weight against the door again. This time it opened enough for her to wedge her body between the door and the jamb. A thick railroad beam lay on the floor against the door. She stepped over it, shoved the door closed, re-wedged the beam, and glanced at the woman lying near her feet.
Death was not only near; it hovered over the woman reaching and clawing for her final breath. She’d always been good with gauging a person by their eyes, windows to the soul. There was nothing much left to gauge, only the cold blue eyes of a near-soulless- body.
The light flickering only added to her disorientation from the chase, the wreck, and the realization of her roles as the mouse. It was simple. He had been watching long enough to determine her plan. The bastard was calculating. Had he been there the day she bought the Harley or behind her line at the Barnes and Noble? She’d worked undercover as a long-haul-trucker for nearly a year. So much time spent training in order to operate the thing. Hours upon hours devoted to riding along on never-ending-nights hauling freight across the Americana by-ways and hi-ways for the purpose of being convincing enough to assimilate into one of the most crime-filled-American-sub-cultures.
She knew plenty of good men were long-haulers. Hell, her late father had been one. She rode along with him on the occasional short-run, but she had also learned, as a result of the high demand for drivers, it was an easy, and wide open sea, to lose your questionable identity in.
Truck stops were sometimes ground zero for drug dealers, pimps, and potential serial killers. The ironic fact-of-the-matter was she’d not been submerged in the sub-culture in order to bring down this particular psychopath. It had been a kidnapping suspect who’d been on the Federal Marshal’s most wanted list since before her acceptance of the job. And she’d been awarded the privilege, and her first accommodation for the accomplishment, of placing James Johnston Styles in hand cuffs. Styles now rotted away in a Texas prison, at least until his execution date loomed. She’d lost a comrade in the shoot-out sparked by the raid on his home. Wes Timberlin. God rest his soul.
She had heard about the bodies turning up in rest-areas around the country, but it was an FBI thing. Her colleagues had only discussed it in casual speak. They rooted for the Bureau Boys. They were the ones that dealt with profiling and motivation. Federal Marshals were important in the take down of criminals on the run. Bloodhounds. She craved it. Follow the scent. She was good at it. Had to be.
She glanced at the woman and heard a sound outside the door. She attempted to rise, but the pain in her leg, which she suspected to be fractured, halted her. She aimed for the door, held her breath, and waited, muscles tensed. Silence.
She had to think. Profiling. Somebody had been profiling her as she worked undercover. As she watched for signs and signals leading to Styles arrest. He was proficient. She hated to admit it. But the guy had utilized the virtue of patience as he watched her for the better part of a year. How long did it take him to make her? She wasn’t sure, but she was sure he’d picked her and waited. It was a challenge. She was the challenge. The pickings along the American-roadways had become too easy. He was bored. Maybe she wasn’t so much a mouse as a predator, a different kind than him but still a predator. He had savored the way in which she’d bided her time in order to arrest Styles, and he’d admired that. To him it was a distorted reflection of himself. She would be more trophy than victim. He could place her head on the wall of his house the way a hunter places the heads of big game among his collection.
The rumble. The diesel’s motor revved. She must stand. She winced and forced herself up, stepped over the woman, and moved to the door. She slid the beam away enough so she could open it a crack. He was back inside the truck, revving. Smoke billowed from the twin smoke stacks. He’d wheeled the semi around, now facing the building. What the hell was he planning? Ram the building?
The woman mumbled a few syllables. She knelt beside her and desired, with every being of her soul, to be able to ease her suffering. She glanced around the room. Nothing. No running water or even a roll of toilet paper to unspool as a makeshift pillow for her head. How long had the place been abandoned? Steely Dan’s top ten days? She glanced at the wounds. Most of the bleeding had slowed, but with each flicker of light she noted there was more blood on the floor than in her body. She shouldn’t be alive. She placed her hand gently on the area where her heart was located and felt her wrist for a pulse. Still beating and pulsing. She fought too. She didn’t want to be a victim any more than Joyce desired for her not to be.
Silence. The revving had stopped. Joyce stood and moved to the door. The adrenalin ignited, by her drive to save the woman, was acting as a kind of mental-pain-killer. She raised her gun, peered through the crack, and found desert darkness. No billowing smoke stacks, no semi, and no psychopath. She hadn’t heard him drive away, but her full attention had been on the woman. She pulled the door open farther and stepped out into the desert night, finger against the trigger. The woman mumbled and she glanced over her shoulder at her. She wanted to assure her it was over. She couldn’t explain why, but that it was over. She bit her lip. Too soon.
She moved away from the men’s room keeping her eyes trained on any movement or possible threat. The night air was still and cool. She glanced in the direction of her Harley, no longer overturned. It had been lifted to its rightful position. Her mind spun with possible explanations. None made sense to her. She moved closer to the bike, alert and prepared to fire, glanced around the lot, and scanned the dark desert landscape. Nothing.
If her bike was operational she could venture to the nearest hi-way patrol station, but, like Cold Spring, there might be only one located miles away, and she couldn’t leave the woman alone for that long.
She could feel her anger rising again. It didn’t make sense. Why?
“Why!?” she screamed in frustration at the surrounding darkness. The guy had purposely chased her to this spot, in order to find a woman, a potential victim, bleeding, broken, at death’s doorstep, and simply vanish into fucking-thin-air. Was she hallucinating? Had she been bitten by some kind of venomous-desert-insect? She considered the dented and scared Harley, felt the ache of her own wounds, and heard the moaning from within the men’s room. No. Not hallucinations. He was gone. She didn’t know, or couldn’t explain, why, but he was gone. She moved near the Harley, straddled it, and, with some effort, the engine revved to life after a couple of pain-inducing-kicks.
How could she transport the injured woman on a motorcycle? She was too weak to prop up and buddy-ride. The effort alone would kill her, but what else was there to do? The road was off-the-grid. It could be sunrise before anyone appeared. Fucking Guide to America’s Forgotten Paths. No choices. Helpless. She’d felt this before in Cold Spring. Isolation. No blizzard or downed power lines only desert emptiness. She heard rustling near the men’s room door, turned and aimed her gun. He’s back. No Semi. On foot. She squeezed the trigger but halted. The coyote’s eyes met hers. Nocturnal scavenger. It sensed the woman’s gravitation toward death and was moving in. Early bird catches the worm and eats the ears. She picked up a rock, aimed, and fired. The animal hissed and sped away, disappearing into the darkness.
She needed to go to the dying woman. She could rummage inside the rest-area for anything helpful after she checked her condition. Still beating and pulsing? Please.
She opened the door and spotted the piece of paper draped over the woman’s face. She spun and aimed her weapon, not even a shadow. After a moment she lifted the Note. “Helpless.” It’d been scrawled in the woman’s blood across the page. Underneath the word a sentence had been written in pen. After reading it Joyce’s blood froze like the river’s she’d once iced fished during the coldest winter months in Cold Spring. Five simple words: The movie’s name is Duel.
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