Zero-degree murder (a search and rescue mystery)

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Rob sat immobile, face oyster white, eyes shadowed in their sockets and staring off into space.


He turned his head slowly and looked up at her.

“What’s going on?”

“Something happened.”

Gracie sat down next to him. “What happened?”

“There was a fight.”

“A fight? When?”

“More than a fight.”

“When was this?”

“Up there. On the trail. I can’t quite . . . someone . . .” He massaged his forehead with his fingertips. “I remember . . . trying to get away.”

“To get away from someone? From who? Do you remember?”

“It’s all a fog. I remember a lot of . . .” He stopped, frowning.

“A lot of what?”

He looked straight into Gracie’s eyes. “Blood.”

Goose bumps walked ghostly fingers up Gracie’s arms and made all the hair stand on end. “Blood.”

He nodded. “I remember a woman screaming,” he said, his eyes never leaving Gracie’s. “I think I saw someone die. And I think someone tried to kill me.”







Published by the Penguin Group

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A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2014 by M. L. Rowland.

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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-60156-3


Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / January 2014

Cover art by Dominik Michalek/Shutterstock.

Cover design by Diane Kolsky.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the productof the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



For Mom and Dad,my role models.Adventurers in their own way.Models of integrity. Lives of service.


Still in Shock . . .

Title Page





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Chapter 77

Chapter 78

Chapter 79

Chapter 80

Chapter 81



A heartfelt thank-you to:

Nancy Chichester, Jo Colwell, Sergeant Trace Hall, Steve Kennedy, L. Lee and Norman Lapidus, Barbara Law, Kathleen Law, and M. Scott Nash.

My editor, Faith Black.

Anne McDermott.

And, of course, my live-in encyclopedia, my fellow adventurer, my source of never-ending support, encouragement and love, my best friend, my husband, Mark.

And to all the Search and Rescue volunteers who routinely risk their lives.


THEbody hung upside down in the truck, suspended by the seat belt, sun-bleached hair skimming the roof of the cab.

Gracie Kinkaid and Ralph Hunter crouched side by side atop a granite boulder, looking down through the shattered passenger window of an F-150 pickup, which lay upside down at an oblique angle amid a jumble of rocks and vegetation. The stark white light from Gracie’s LED headlamp merged with the beam of Ralph’s mag flashlight, illuminating the cab and the body of what appeared to be a young man inside.

“At least this time the body’s in one piece,” Gracie said. “I can handle ‘in one piece.’” She tugged open her radio chest pack and picked out a pair of purple latex gloves. As she snapped them on, she added under her breath, “At least I hope I can.”

Ralph tugged on his own gloves, slid off the boulder onto a wide triangle of open ground next to the truck, and handed the mag flashlight back up to Gracie. “Light it up, will ya?”

Gracie grabbed the heavy flashlight and swept the cab interior with its beam. “Not a lot of blood,” she said. “He didn’t bleed out.”

“Blunt force trauma probably knocked him out,” Ralph said. “Hanging upside down in the seat belt probably killed him.”

Gracie nodded. “Traumatic asphyxia. First time I’ve seen someone die from wearing a seat belt.”

“Dead for sure without it.” Ralph turned and looked up at her over the top of his glasses. “You okay with this, Gracie girl?”

“I better be, dammit,” she said. “Or I need to find something else to do with my stupid-ass life.” Knowing that with any other team members around, Ralph would never ask her that question, she added, “I’m good. Thanks, Ralphie.”

“Okay,” he said, reaching up to pat her foot. “Let’s open ’er up then.” He leaned down and tested the handle of the bashed-in door. It didn’t move. Bracing himself against the side panel, he hauled on it with both hands. “Nope,” he said finally. “Not gonna happen.” He swept away the remaining glass shards with his sleeve and stretched in through the window to place two fingers on the carotid artery of the young man’s neck.

Gracie counted off the seconds to herself until Ralph said in a low voice, “Nothing.”

He grunted as he heaved himself even farther inside the cab.

“Careful, Ralphie,” Gracie whispered.

A mumbled curse and another grunt later, Ralph wormed his way back out of the window. “ID,” he said and tossed a thin leather wallet up to Gracie, who snatched it out of the air with one hand.

He leaned back inside again, elbowed aside the deflated balloon that was the deployed airbag and sifted through the papers and trash scattered throughout the cab.

Muffled voices and bursts of laughter filtered out from the forest of Joshua trees behind Gracie—the rest of the recovery team hiking in with the Junkin litter, the sturdy plastic basket in which they would transport the body. “Ralph,” she said. “Litter’s here.”

Wedging the mag flashlight in place between her feet, Gracie opened the wallet and zeroed the beam of her headlamp onto the California driver’s license inside. A bright young face smiled back at her.


She snapped the wallet closed and shoved it into a side pocket of her fleece vest. She looked up, breathing in the pungent pine and sage perfume of the high Mojave.

The sky, a deep rose in the west, dissolved to teal overhead, then indigo in the east, where, one by one, stars, bright and unwinking, unveiled themselves for the night watch.

Anxiety knotted Gracie’s stomach. She forced herself to take slow, even breaths in through her nose, out through her mouth. “Don’t you dare get sick,” she whispered. A smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. “You barf all over Ralph’s boots again and your ass is grass.”

Ralph hauled himself up onto the boulder and took the mag flashlight from Gracie. Together they slid off the other side and stood watching the litter team approach, headlamps bobbing like tiny Chinese lanterns in the near darkness.

Four men scrunched into view and up to where their teammates stood. On a count of three, they bent as a single unit to lay the litter in the sandy dirt. “Howdys” and “Heys” rumbled throughout the group.

As the men unclipped from the litter and sipped from water bottles and hydration packs, Ralph brought them up to speed. For reasons that weren’t immediately obvious and which might never be determined, a Ford F-150 pickup had shot off the winding gravel Forest Service road above their heads, cartwheeled down more than three hundred feet, and finally come to rest upside down with the sole occupant still inside. Deceased.

“Who is it? Do you . . . we know?” asked Lenny Somebody, burly, pink-cheeked, barely twenty-one, and so new to the team Gracie didn’t even know his last name. His voice was incongruously high and timid. It was his second SAR mission, his first body recovery.

“Uh, that would be my cue,” Gracie said, withdrawing the wallet from her pocket. Keeping her thumb firmly pressed over the face, she focused her headlamp beam on the driver’s license. “Bradford, Joshua D. From down the hill. Long Beach. He would have been seventeen . . . next Monday.”

Silence enveloped the group as all descended into their own morose thoughts of how, in a matter of seconds, a young life can be snuffed out by an error in judgment or too many beers.

Steve Cashman broke the mood by scrambling up onto the boulder. He held his flashlight shoulder high, focusing the beam down into the cab of the battered pickup.

Gracie noticed that, characteristically, Steve wasn’t wearing a helmet, in direct violation of team policy.

The rest of the group climbed up onto the boulder and stood in a semicircle, necks craning, headlamp and flashlight beams converging on the truck.

Kurt, wearing gold-rimmed glasses, his long sandy hair pulled back into a ponytail, stood on Gracie’s left. “We waitin’ for the Coroner?” he asked.

“Negative,” Ralph answered. “Coroner’s still a couple of hours out. We’ll litter the body out to the road. She’ll pronounce him there.”

“We can do a litter raise,” Cashman said, sweeping the rocky hillside above the truck with the beam of his flashlight. “Haul ’im up, right up there to the road.”

“Risk outweighs any advantage.”

“We brought some of the ropes shit,” Cashman said. He gestured toward the rope coils and jumbles of steel carabiners and pulleys piled in the litter. “It’s in the—”

“Negative,” Ralph said. “Decision’s been made. We’re littering him out.”

Cashman swung his flashlight around, shining the beam at Ralph. “Who made the decision? You and Gracie?”

“Watch Commander. Get that light out of my eyes, Steve.”

Cashman swung his beam back down to the truck.

“That’s it then, right?” Lenny asked, his face a shade paler than before. “’Cuz if the Watch—”

“Come on, Hunter,” Cashman said with a smile. “Don’t be such a pu . . .” He glanced across at Gracie, then back down at the truck. “. . . Spoilsport.”

Ralph lowered his voice an octave. “Decision’s been made, Steve.”

Kurt leaned in toward Gracie and said so softly that only she heard, “Shut the hell up while you’re ahead, Cashman.”

Gracie took a deep breath and jumped into the fray. “We need to figure out how to extricate the body.”

Crouching down for a better angle, Kurt said, “Gonna be a sonofabitch.”

“Through the door?” Lenny asked.

“It won’t open,” Gracie said.

Cashman jumped down next to the truck and tugged on the door handle.

Lenny jumped down next to him. “Through the window then?”

“We can cut the door off,” Cashman suggested.

“That would require—” Gracie began.

“Take too long for extrication equipment to get here,” Warren, the fourth member of the litter team, said. The older man was so stolid and quiet, half the time Gracie forgot he was there.

Lenny crouched down next to the hood. “How ’bout through the windshield?”

“It’s too—” Gracie said.

“Too smashed in,” Kurt said. “Too narrow.”

“How ’bout the window?”

Several rescuers shook their heads.

Gracie tried again. “He’d be—”

“Truck looks kinda teetery,” Lenny said. “Can we rock it onto its side so it’s more level?”


“We could build a three-to-one Z-Rig,” Cashman suggested. “Hoist it up.”

Eyes focused on the truck, Ralph stood several feet away from the rest of the group, remaining silent, letting all present have their say.

Gracie smiled to herself and gave up. She should have known better than to try to get a word in edgewise. She had learned a long time ago that it took a lot less energy to stand back and listen, to speak up only when she felt a pressing need to step in and be heard, usually when someone’s safety—especially her own—was at stake.

Not to mention that her legs had already morphed into wobbling stalks of wilted celery as they did every time she spoke more than monosyllables in front of a group, even her buddies on the team.

She stepped from boulder to boulder around to the opposite side of the truck and looked down at it from that angle. Fishing a piece of strawberry bubble gum out of her pocket, she popped it into her mouth. Blowing bubbles, she shone her flashlight at and around the truck and listened to the alpha males jockey for dominance in the team hierarchy under the guise of volleying extrication ideas back and forth.

It really shouldn’t have mattered how long it took to decide how to remove the body from the truck. They weren’t, after all, in a tearing hurry.

Except Gracie had shed her heavy fleece jacket for the half-hour drive out from the town of Timber Creek. She had left it behind in the Search and Rescue unit when she and Ralph had slipped and slid down the steep hill to the truck. All she was wearing was a black, lightweight fleece vest over an orange cotton shirt, and a pair of army-surplus desert camo pants. A pair of short, black gaiters were Velcroed over the tops of her hiking boots to keep out the dirt and desert pricklies. Hastily braided hair was mashed up beneath a black ball cap withTimber Creek Search and Rescueembroidered on the front.

Carrying the litter out would generate body heat and warm her up. But now, standing around, she felt the chill of a late November evening at sixty-five-hundred-feet elevation. Goose bumps tickled up her arms and legs, soon to be followed by chattering teeth and shivering.

If you don’t get moving, Kinkaid, the body the team hoofs outta here is gonna be yours.

The discussion on the other side of the truck had deteriorated into the telling of morbid jokes.

Gracie shifted her weight to the other long leg and cracked her gum like a rifle shot, not caring how obnoxious it was.

No one took the hint.

“Can we make a decision already?” she asked.

The current joke Cashman was telling continued unabated.

Gracie’s patience circled the drain. She flicked away her gum. “All right, listen the hell up!” she barked across the truck.

Dead silence.

Gracie’s legs trembled. “This is what I propose. First, we stabilize the truck with rocks and logs so if it settles at all, nobody gets squished to death. Then someone—Cashman—crawls beneath the bed on this side. There’s enough room.” She retraced her steps around the ring of boulders to the other side of the truck. “Someone else—Kurt—crawls beneath on this side. And Lenny . . .” She pointed a purple finger at him.

The young man took a step backward.

“. . . climbs in through the passenger door window, which, by the way, would be too small to get the body through since rigor has most likely set in and we’re dealing with a stiff in the true sense of the word.” She softened her voice. “Lenny, you cut the seat belt with your knife.” She raised her voice again. “And the three of you—Cashman, Kurt and Lenny—take the body out through the rear cab window—it’s big enough—and hand him off to me, Ralph and Warren, who will put him into the litter. Then all six of us lift him up onto this big flat rock.” She stomped her foot. “We put him in the body bag and package him in the litter.Thenwe all hoof him back out to the road and wait for the Coroner to get here. Any objections?”

Four men stared at her.

She looked over at Ralph, who was watching her, eyes crinkling with amusement. “Works for me,” he said. “All in agreement?

Some nods. Some shrugs.

“Okay, then,” Ralph said. “Let’s get moving!”


THREEmen and a woman hiked along a narrow winding trail carved out of the side of a mountain.

On their right, gunmetal gray cliffs jutted sharply upward toward a cloudless sapphire sky. On their left, the mountainside fell away in a rugged free fall of granite boulders, leafy mounds of manzanita, ponderosa pines and white fir, then rose up again across the gaping divide. Successive mountain peaks receded from forest green to hazy mauve. Along the horizon line in the distance stretched the biscuit-colored flats of the Mojave Desert.

Rob hiked in the lead. Dressed head-to-toe in black, he was tall and long limbed, his strides long and fluid. His cheeks were pink with cold. His chest heaved with exertion, yet he maintained a steady pace up the trail. “Keeping up then, old man?” he said over his shoulder to Joseph hiking directly behind him.

Joseph was a bull of a man with fleshy cheeks and a square jaw. Heavy eyebrows formed a straight line above deep-set blue eyes. His silver beard was full, yet carefully trimmed. The desert-camouflage bandana covering his head was tied at the back of his neck. Even though he was older than Rob by twenty-five or so years and shorter by half a foot, he was having no trouble maintaining the pace up the trail. “Any closer behind you, my friend,” Joseph said, “andmyhead would be up your ass instead of your own.”

Rob threw back his head and laughed, the sound echoing throughout the canyon.

Several yards behind Rob and Joseph hiked the woman and the third man.

Diana was petite and small-boned to the point of appearing frail. But she was fit and strong, able to keep up with the men hiking ahead of her. Her eyes were large and dark against flawless skin. Shoulder-length hair, almost black, was tucked up beneath a multicolored knit hat. While warm enough from hiking, she was thankful for her long coat, which shielded her from the icy wind pushing her up the trail.

Close behind her, Tristan hiked on long spidery legs.

As she hiked, Diana struggled to ignore Tristan. His open, congenial nature and startling blue eyes were appealing enough. But the man talked incessantly, babbling on and on about himself, trying to impress her, trying, she knew, to get her into bed.

Hiking uphill at altitude had winded Tristan and he had finally stopped talking, allowing Diana to focus her attention on the man hiking several yards ahead: Joseph—a personal coach for Rob Christian, the British star of the movie they were shooting in Timber Creek.

When Joseph Van Dijk had arrived on set the previous week, Diana found something hauntingly familiar about the man, but couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it was. She searched for opportunities to observe him from a distance and gathered information about him from other crew members and fellow actors. She learned that he held himself apart from everyone but Rob and revealed nothing of a personal nature. And while he appeared friendly enough, sometimes joking and laughing with Rob, his smiles never seemed genuine, rather a baring of yellowed teeth.

The more Diana watched and learned about Joseph, the more convinced she became that she had seen his face somewhere before and that he wasn’t who he pretended to be. But his true identity eluded her, remaining just out of her grasp, fleeting, like a nightmare that, vivid in sleep, fades upon waking.

All of which was why, repelled as she was by Tristan, she had accepted his invitation to go hiking along with some of the crew and other actors staying in town over the holiday weekend, welcoming the opportunity to observe Joseph even more closely.

Tristan patted Diana’s shoulder from behind. “Doing all right then, love?” he said, panting.

“Fine,” she answered over her shoulder.

“How much farther are you planning on going then, Rob?” Tristan called up ahead.

Rob glanced back over Joseph’s head at the two laboring a short distance behind. He stepped out onto an expansive promontory of rock jutting out from the trail and turned back. “You two ready for a breather?”

“For a mile at least,” Tristan said.

Rob glanced down at his watch. “We probably ought to head back. Don’t want the others to worry.”

“Christ, no,” Joseph said, walking past Rob onto the level outcropping. “Turn a walk into an international incident.”

Diana stepped past Rob and Joseph and sat down on a large concave boulder at the far end of the outcropping. The high-altitude sun warmed her head and shoulders even as sharp gusts of bitter wind bit into her bare cheeks and whipped the hair around her face. She tugged her hat down farther over her ears.

Tristan sank down on the boulder beside her. “About bloody time,” he muttered and blew out a long breath. “Shouldn’t have drunk so much bubbly at lunch.”

“We still have the hike back,” Diana said. She took a sip from her water bottle, then clipped it back onto her belt.

“Don’t remind me.”

The two rested side by side, watching Rob and Joseph who stood in middle of the promontory.

Joseph was showing Rob the curved fang of a knife in his fist. “This is how you hold it, my friend,” he said. “So it is hidden. Then you strike. Low. Like this.” He jabbed his arm up in a fake punch to the other’s midsection. “Then up, so you cut as many organs as you are able.”

“Jesus,” Rob said.

“It is how it is done,” Joseph said with a shrug.

Rob clapped Joseph on the shoulder and lowered his knapsack off his back and onto the ground. He pulled a water bottle out of a mesh side pocket, took a swig, and turned to look out over the view. “Amazing up here,” he said.

Joseph swung down onto a boulder on Diana’s left.

Diana shifted uncomfortably in her seat and resisted the temptation to stand up and move away from Joseph. He was too close. She had hoped to remain a passive observer, not an active participant.

Joseph reached inside his jacket and pulled out a pint bottle of blackberry brandy. He extended the bottle toward Diana.

When she shook her head, he held it out toward Tristan.

“Why not, right?” Tristan said, swallowing thetat the end of the word. He reached across Diana to take the bottle. She leaned back so his arm wouldn’t brush her breast.

Tristan took a swig of brandy, then reached across Diana again to hand it back. “Thanks.” Still leaning forward he said, “Your work is impressive, Mr. . . . Van Rijk, is it?”

“Van Dijk. Joseph.” The man’s voice was rough and deep with the trace of an accent Diana couldn’t place.

“You fight very well,” Tristan said. “Fascinating to watch.”

Another shrug. “It is what I am hired for.” He took several long swallows from the bottle.

“Where’d you learn to fight like that?”

Instead of answering, Joseph looked at Diana and asked, “So, miss, how are you enjoying the walk so far?”

“It’s very beautiful up here,” she said, giving the man a quick smile, then looking away.

Joseph pulled a pack of Camel non-filter cigarettes from his pocket. He tapped the pack on his open palm, then extended it out to the pair. “Smoke?”

Diana shook her head.

Tristan drew out a cigarette. “Trying to quit actually, but what the hell?”

Joseph put a cigarette between his own teeth, lit it, and shoved the pack back into his pocket. He dragged the smoke deeply into his lungs and blew it out directly into the wind, which carried it away over his shoulder. He took another swig of the brandy, then looked over at Diana again. “Where are you from, miss . . . your last name, please?”

“Diana,” she answered, eyes forward. “I live in L.A.”

“And you are . . . an actor?”

Diana shrugged and nodded.

Tristan leaned forward again with his elbows on knobby knees. “Don’t let the modesty fool you, right?” he said. “She’s brilliant. They don’t know what they have here.”

Diana shot Tristan a tight smile.

Joseph took another casual drag from the cigarette. “You enjoy this?” he asked, exhaling the smoke with his words. “Working on this movie?”

“Yes, it’s—” Diana began, but Tristan cut her off, gesturing expansively.

“Diana Petrovic. The next bloody . . .”

“Tristan,” Diana hissed.

“What?” Tristan asked, feigning indignation.

“Petrovic,” Joseph said in a mild voice. Diana stiffened.

“. . . the next bloody Meryl Streep,” Tristan finished.

“Petrovic,” Joseph whispered. He inhaled deeply from the cigarette and blew out the smoke.

Fear flickered through Diana like flames at dry, dead timber. She stood up. “I . . . I think we should go back,” she stammered to Tristan, who stood up next to her. “The others will worry.” She moved on unsteady legs back across the outcropping toward the trail.

Rob laid a hand on Joseph’s shoulder “Before we do . . .” he said to Diana, then to Joseph, “show me that release one more time, will you then? The one from yesterday.”

For a moment, Joseph didn’t move. He simply watched Diana, who stared at the ground, hands deep in the pockets of her coat. Then he flung the cigarette, still lit, into the dirt and stood up, rocking for a moment on his feet.

Tristan appeared next to Diana. “You all right then, love?”

It was all Diana could do not to shrug off the arm he put around her shoulders. “I want to leave,” she said. She stepped away from Tristan and out onto the trail. “I want to go back to the others.”

“It’ll only be a second, right?” Tristan turned back to watch Rob and Joseph grappling in the middle of the outcropping.

Joseph had Rob in a headlock. Then, so fast Diana hardly saw him do it, Rob thrust an elbow into the other man’s ribs, knocked his hands apart, and twisted around to wrap an arm around his head.

“Good, my friend,” Joseph said with a grunt, then flung an arm around Rob’s waist.

Evenly matched, the two men strained against each other until, without warning, Joseph threw himself to the ground. Rob stumbled to keep his balance and Joseph broke free.

Rob’s jacket zipper snagged the bandana on Joseph’s head, pulling it askew.

Kneeling on the ground, Joseph pulled the fabric back into place.

But it was too late. Diana had already seen.

Joseph had only one ear.

Like a curtain thrown open to reveal the painful glare of the sun, the pieces of the puzzle snapped into place. Recognition punched a gasp from Diana’s lungs. She stared in horror at the evil standing only ten feet away.

Time had been unkind, adding pounds to his stocky frame and flesh to his cheeks and neck. And the beard he wore hid his face somewhat. But Diana knew without a doubt that the man’s name was not Joseph Van Dijk.

Her mind flashed to stories she had heard and read, pictures she had seen. Of slaughter. Men killed in front of their wives. Children in front of their parents. Diana’s own uncle murdered along with his three sons.

The man standing a few feet away was a Satan among lesser demons, his calling card the disembowelment of his victims while they still lived.

Believed by the entire world to be hiding somewhere in Europe.

But he was here.Here.

He was Radovan Milocek. He was “The Surgeon.”

Rob held a hand out to Joseph, who still knelt on the ground, and hauled him to his feet. Then he clapped the shorter man on the shoulder again and smiled down at him. “Good one, man. Thanks.” He slung his knapsack onto his back and said, “Give me another second though, will you?” With a wave of his hand, he trotted up the trail and disappeared around the curve of the mountain.

Joseph straightened and turned around. He looked directly into Diana’s eyes and saw the horror there. The recognition.

With flat, expressionless eyes, Radovan Milocek smiled at Diana—a baring of short nicotine-stained teeth.


“WHATpeckerhead told me three aspirins with orange juice would ‘absofuckinglutely’ prevent a hangover, so ‘have another shot of Cuervo’?”

Gracie lay in the living room, stretched out on the sagging couch wrapped up in her favorite purple fleece blanket. “Had to be Cashman,” she mumbled into the cushion pressed beneath her cheek. “Yeah, it was definitely Cashman. Peckerhead.”

Outside, a harsh wind blew down the long valley, whistling around the corners of Gracie’s one-bedroom cabin and rattling the windows and shutters like an unseen specter trying to gain entrance. Inside, where Gracie lay, only the ticking of her great-grandfather’s mariner’s clock on the fireplace mantel intruded upon the silence. Gnarled branches of a piñon pine growing outside the front picture window churned a marionette of shadows on the hardwood floor.

The litter carry the evening before had been a muscle-straining danse macabre even with six rescuers sharing the load—an arduous, meandering mile of sliding down into sandy washes, scrambling up rocky embankments, and plowing through dense cholla and yucca lying in wait to stab spines and spears through thick pant legs and into tender skin.

When the recovery team reached the dusty Suburban parked on one of the myriad dirt roads crisscrossing the desert flats, Ralph and Warren stayed behind and waited for the coroner to arrive and pronounce the body. The four remaining team members drove back to town and blew off a little steam with a four-hour marathon of karaoke and tequila at the team’s watering hole, the Saddle Tramp—the diviest bar in Timber Creek.

Gracie cringed as she remembered one particularly unfortunate incident that had occurred sometime after midnight. “Oh God!” she groaned into the cushion. “Did I really fall down on the stage with Cashman?”

She wiggled onto her back, trying to find a more comfortable position on the lumpy Salvation Army couch.

“You’re too old to be singing karaoke and closing out smoky dive bars, Kinkaid. Have I said that before? Yes. Am I talking out loud to myself? Yes. Do I do that too much? Yes.” She covered her eyes with an arm. “But it’s the only way I can get intelligent conversation,” she added and snorted at her own joke.

The day’s activities so far had consisted of shuffling from the sleeping bag on a narrow camp mattress upstairs down to the living room with a detour through the bathroom for a quick shower because the smell of stale cigarette smoke in her hair was tripping her gag reflex. Breakfast was a giant panda mug of double-strength Folgers Instant washing down her morning-after remedy of two Tylenol and two Motrin.

She stretched a hand out from beneath the blanket and picked up the panda mug from the ancient sea chest that served as a coffee table and which, along with the couch, were the only pieces of furniture in the cavernous room.

Gracie took a sip of coffee.

Lukewarm. “Ick.”

She slid the mug back across the chest.

For the past two hours she had lain on the couch, unable to move, scabbed-over pinhole reminders of cactus itching on her legs. Even the mood-enhancing Baroque adagios playing softly in the background had hurt her head, so she had turned them off.

It was no use trying to blame the body-numbing malaise solely on too many Saddle Tramp shooters. She had been hung over often enough to know better. It was Joshua Bradford’s bright, young face recurring in her mind’s eye that made her body feel heavier than an old mattress. And the pervasive marrow-deep exhaustion that comes with three SAR callouts in two days.

The first search for two sisters, ages six and eight, had had a happy ending when the girls walked out of the woods behind their house on their own. Gracie had just pulled into her driveway when her pager beeped again to look for a man who had become separated from his female hiking partner. While Gracie and two other SAR team members searched far into the night scouring a boulder-strewn area north of the valley, the man, who had hiked out on his own and not bothered to call anyone, had spent the afternoon and evening drinking and playing pool at a bar in town.

The third callout less than twelve hours later was the body recovery.

“Maybe it’s finally time to admit you can’t cut the mustard,” she said. “Whatever the hell the mustard is.” She burrowed deeper into the couch. “Yeah, right, Kinkaid. Quit the team.” She snorted. “And do what else with your scintillating life?”

Sunlight arced a buttery reflection across the glossy wooden floor, steeping the entire room in a warm amber glow. Outside, the wind fussed and moaned. Inside the sanctuary of the cabin, it was still. And church-mouse quiet.

Gracie’s eyes closed.

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