SKIN DANCER is now available as an e-book for Kindle
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If you would prefer to read the first two chapters for a taste,
then read below. Enjoy!
The sharp tang
of burning spruce scented the cool night. Hank Welford squatted beside the
campfire, patiently waiting for the coffeepot to finish percolating.
“My flight out
is at six tomorrow. You sure we’ll bag my moose by then?” the man reclining on
an expensive sleeping bag asked.
Hank glanced at
Ashton Trussell, a Boston plastic surgeon who’d come to Criss County, South
Dakota, to take home a trophy—an animal not even native to the area. The man
had plenty of money and no ethics about how he got his moose. He was the
perfect client for Hank, who had a great need for money and no ethics about how
he staged a kill.
“I’m sure.” He
used an old shirt to grab the hot handle of the coffeepot as he removed it from
the flames. “Want a cup?”
something to help pass the night.” The doctor leaned over to his fancy bag and
pulled out a bottle of Courvoisier.
Hank passed him
a tin cup filled with the strong brew. The doctor poured a good measure of the
liquor into his cup, recapped the bottle, put it away, and leaned back.
“How long have
you been leading these hunting parties into the Black Hills?” Trussell asked.
“A long time.”
“You ever been
“Nope.” Hank had
been lucky. And careful. All it would take to put him out of business was
getting busted by the game warden. Jake Ortiz didn’t mess around with illegal
hunters. He pressed for the heaviest fine, including taking the hunter’s
weapons, vehicles, and equipment. Canned hunts could also carry a prison term,
depending on the judge and jury.
It hadn’t always
been that way in Criss County, but it was now. Jake Ortiz acted like he was the
damn sheriff when it came to enforcing laws. “Don’t worry, Doc, you’ll get your
moose and be gone before anyone knows we’re here.”
“Good. I got
enough trouble right now. I don’t need a hunting citation.”
Hank glanced at
the man’s diamond Rolex, his five hundred dollar hunting clothes, and his
expensive Remington. So what if he was caught? He’d pay the fine and buy more
equipment. Trussell was a plastic surgeon in Bean Town. He made more in a day
than Hank made in a month.
“Once the head
is mounted, Zell’s will ship it to you.” Hank sipped his coffee and sat back on
a felled tree. Trussell could mount the head on his wall and tell whatever
story he liked about how he shot it.
They were still
two miles from Dixon Point where the moose was hobbled and waiting. The whole
camp-out and hunt was an exercise in vanity for the doctor, who wanted to
pretend that he was actually tracking an animal. Hell, he couldn’t find his ass
with both hands.
“Well, I’m going
to turn in.” Trussell set his empty cup in the dirt.
“Me, too.” Hank
stood up to kick out the fire when a stick snapped in the woods. He paused,
foot raised. He’d spent most of his life in the wilderness, and his survival
instinct was well honed. Few creatures warned of their presence. He returned to
his seat, listening.
The fire crackled
brightly, and he leaned back against the tree. Overhead, the stars were
brilliant. He’d never been out of South Dakota. Never seen a reason to go
elsewhere, even for a visit. He had everything he needed right where he was.
The sound of
something moving through the underbrush outside the illumination of the
campfire made him sit up. This wasn’t right. Animals weren’t drawn to fire,
they avoided it.
Hank decided to
have a little fun. A campfire tale for the doc to take home. Folks liked a hint
of danger, as long as it wasn’t real. “Probably nothin’.” He paused. “But there
have been several reports of strange goings on up here in the wilderness.”
“What kind of
‘goings on’?” Trussell asked.
Indians believe there’s a spirit that lives out here, a brave who killed
animals for their skins and wasted their meat. Sort of a Injun trophy taker, if
you get my drift.”
Hank bided his
time, waiting for the next snap of a limb. “The story goes that he got a curse
laid on him. His skin fell off, and he had to go around borrowing skin from
other people.” He hadn’t thought of the story in twenty years. Now, though, he
could tell it was working on Trussell. He’d get his money’s worth.
tale. Does it scare many of your clients? A ghost that borrows skin.” Trussell
was trying to sound bored.
borrowing ain’t exactly the right word, since the Injun never returns it. He
uses it for a time, then it sloughs off and he has to hunt for another…donor.”
bullshit ghost stories. I’m not interested.”
“Hey, I’m just
passin’ on some local tales. Some folks enjoy a few campfire legends.” He
shifted around the fire, kicking dirt onto the embers. He hated to lose the
warmth because the night had grown cold, but it was close on to midnight, and
if he intended to get the good doctor up and moving by dawn, he needed some
like you’re trying to scare me.” Trussell rolled over in his sleeping bag. “It
won’t work. Good night, Welford.”
The doc was right. Time for bed.
fought against the dirt he kicked over them, finally suffocating. In the sudden
blackness, he sensed movement to his right. He turned slowly, trying
unsuccessfully to pierce the darkness with his gaze. Something moved. Something
He thought of
bear and felt a whisper of fear. Most of the wild animals stayed away from
humans. The truth was, he and other hunters had done their best to eradicate
the bear and mountain lion population. They’d worked on the gray wolves, too,
when no one was looking. Still, it could be that one of the predators had
smelled them and come for a closer look.
in the treeline had no fear of them. It made no effort to be quiet.
The wind gusted
and Hank heard a sound that made every hair on his body stand at attention. The
gentle chatter of a bone rattle sizzled on the wind. “Fuck,” he whispered.
“That’s not an
animal.” Trussell unzipped his sleeping bag and sat up.
tryin’ to scare us.” Hank reached for his gun. As his fingers curled around the
perfectly balanced weapon, he felt better. Some joker didn’t realize how easy
it was to get shot in the Black Hills on a dark night.
rhythmic rattle of the bones was another sound, a soft chanting. Hank had gone
to a few of the reservation powwows on grammar school trips, and he’d always
been amused by the Sioux link to the other world, the belief in spirit journeys
and the dancing and chanting ceremonies. About like praying--not much good
except for wearing blisters on knees. Hank believed in a god that helped men
who helped themselves.
“Hey! Cut it
out! Whoever you are, beat it!” Hank yelled. So far, he and Trussell had done
nothing illegal. They were carrying high-powered hunting rifles, but there was
no law against that. They hadn’t killed anything, so if it was the game warden
having a joke at their expense, now was the time to get him to show his face.
The low chanting
and the clatter of the bones in the hollowed gourd continued unabated. With the
wind blowing, Hank couldn’t tell how far away the sound might be coming from.
He dug the flashlight out of his pack and swung the high beam into the
treeline. Shadows leapt in all directions, and his finger tightened on the
trigger of his gun.
nothing to shoot. The night was empty.
on?” Trussell asked.
Hank kicked the
dead fire hoping for a burning ember, but the dirt had completely snuffed it
out. “I’ve got to get some dry wood. We need some light.”
He followed the
flashlight beam to the edge of the woods before he realized the chanting and
the rattle had stopped. The wind whispered among the fir fronds, a soft sigh of
checked his watch. In less than twenty-four hours, the doc would be on a plane
headed back to Boston and his tit-plumping, fat-sucking practice. And Hank
would have the ten grand he needed to pay off the overdue bills on his
four-wheel drive and his manufactured home.
“Whoever it was,
they musta wised up and moved on,” Hank said. “That’s a damn good way to get
shot out here.”
He turned back
to the campsite. He’d figure out who was playing with him and get even at a
blast of wind swept up the steep slope and through the fir trees, rattling
limbs and sending grit flying into Rachel Redmond’s face. She used the back of
her hand to wipe her mouth and then licked her dry lips. She was the only woman
in a group of four men, and she forced her gaze back to the hellish scene where
two naked, headless bodies hung from a tree limb like dead game. With each gust
of wind, the rope that ran through the dead men’s Achilles tendons sang a quiet
complaint. It was an eerie, keening sound like a badly tuned funeral fiddle.
men had been decapitated and mutilated, one more severely than the other. Long
strips of skin and muscle had been removed from their backs, stomachs, buttocks
and thighs, as if someone had been harvesting the skin or inflicting the most
intense pain possible. The idea made her want to look away, but she caught a
glimpse of Jake Ortiz watching her. This wasn’t the time to show
scene was staged, a killer who had a specific agenda, whether it was a fetish
or more personal. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to set up the crime
scene. Aside from some type of silver ornament jabbed into the chest of one
body, there was a bamboo pole decorated with one feather. Footsteps around the
body indicated that the killer, or killers, had moved in a repetitive circle around
the bodies, a ritual of some kind, perhaps a dance.
the men was the carcass of a moose, and beside the moose were two hunting
rifles, one new and very expensive, a pile of clothes and two sets of boots.
There was no identification in the clothes.
She walked over to moose, examining the
gunshot to the chest that had brought it down. The animal had been shot at
close range, the exit wound cavernous. It looked as if the men, poachers
hunting out of season, had been removing the head for a trophy when someone had
taken them by surprise and killed them. She hoped it was a killing with
personal motivation, otherwise, all of the classic elements of a ritual killing
were there. And ritual killers seldom stopped with a single act. Or at least
that was the textbook wisdom she’d learned at the academy.
I cut them down?” Marston French, one of the Criss County Search and Rescue
volunteers, asked her.
them be for now. The forensic team should arrive any minute.” Until the techs
processed the evidence, nothing could be moved or touched. The procedure was
carefully outlined in the manual she’d memorized while training as a deputy.
Even when she’d been studying at the police academy, beginning a career where
she could make a difference, she’d never truly anticipated investigating a
crime like this. The level of cruelty was beyond her comprehension.
started to step forward but she maneuvered herself in front of him. He was a
state game warden and the dead moose would fall under his purview, except that
it was now part of a murder scene. Her scene. Dixon Point was on a finger of
county land that stretched deep into the state forest. This was her case, by
default since Sheriff Gordon Gray was out of commission.
soon as Gus gets here with the camera, make sure he gets a close-up of that
silver thing pinned to the heavy one’s chest.” She spoke to Wilt Baker, another
volunteer. She had to take charge and issue some orders or the men would view
her as ineffective. It was bad enough that she was a head shorter than all of
them—and almost a decade younger. And Jake’s protectiveness wasn’t helping.
turned to the three remaining volunteers. “Lonnie, would you take Beck and Gabe
and see if you can find a campsite or vehicles or something. These men probably
walked here to the Point, but they had to have a base or transportation
somewhere. I’ll broaden my search here for the missing heads. If you get to a
place where you have cell phone service, call and ask for some dogs to be sent
thing, Rachel,” Lonnie said. “We’ll keep an eye out for the heads, too.”
that,” she said.
closer to the bodies, avoiding the blood that had pooled beneath them. The
bamboo pole and feather spoke of some kind of Native ritual. The ornamental
silver had been skewered into the man’s chest with what looked to be a
porcupine quill. She couldn’t tell the purpose of the silver—if it was jewelry
or what. Obviously hand-crafted, it glinted in the bright June sun and drew the
attention of a big crow that watched from one of the trees.
She bent to
examine the footprints that surrounded the victims. Her first impression of a
dance seemed right. The ground looked as if a troop of school kids had played
ring-around-the-rosie. And where the hell were the heads? If the bodies had
been skinned, was it possible someone had lopped off the heads like trophies?
Rachel tried not to imagine it.
can I send the moose down to the retirement home?” Wilt asked.
started to walk the perimeter of the scene.
Jake came up
“It’s tradition,” Wilt insisted. “We always
send the meat from any poached game we get to the retirement home. Give the old
folks some protein.”
Jake put a hand
on Rachel’s shoulder, a silent gesture of support, as he spoke. “Whoever killed
that moose was pretty damn close, Wilt. The moose was likely drugged, and even
though it’s cool up here, the meat might be spoiled. Do what Rachel says.”
her jaw shut. Jake was trying to help her. He didn’t realize that he undermined
her with such behavior.
When Wilt walked
away, Rachel ignored Jake and moved behind the bodies, examining them from all
angles. The man on her left had been a strong son-of-a-gun. The other body was
lean, with more of a gym-sculpted look. Younger, too. Someone with money and
time to devote to fitness training. The closest gym was an hour away, and it
would be a simple matter to get a list of members.
walking the scene, using the Polaroid camera to document everything. The crime
scene photographer would take the official photos, but her snapshots might
There was no way
to tell the identity of the men. She’d have to rely on fingerprints or the
tattoo of a pit viper on the large man’s chest. She snapped a photo. The killer
had left that particular piece of skin, as if he were trying to be helpful in
the identification of the bodies. The idea made her antsy, and she started to
walk away, almost bumping into Jake, who’d stepped too close behind her yet
He slipped a
hand under her elbow for support. “I sure hope they were dead before they were
She glanced at
him to see if he was testing her. “Mercy doesn’t appear to be a priority for
this killer.” His gray eyes met hers squarely, and with a hint of humor.
murder case for a rookie.” His fingers tightened slightly on her flesh, just a
hint of pressure. “Gordon picked the wrong time for his hip replacement.”
“I have to start
somewhere and believe it or not, I’ve got the most training in the S.O.” She
tempered the tone of her reply. Jake had never done anything except support
her. “You know Scott’s wife is expecting any day now. She’s had serious
complications, and he couldn’t be stuck up here in the woods working a double
homicide.” She lifted her chin. “And I asked for this case. I’m a grown-up,
Jake, not the skinny, pitiful, abandoned kid from the wrong side of town.”
“You might have
been skinny and abandoned, but you were never pitiful. You always liked a
challenge.” Jake gave her arm one final squeeze.
me.” For nearly as long as she could remember, Jake had been a part of her
life. He’d influenced her to go into law enforcement. Long ago, he’d saved her
mean Deputy Redmond, the forensic boys are just coming over the ridge.” Wilt
pointed down the trail where two techs from Rapid City were headed their way.
The men carried big suitcases, and a camera hung from around one’s neck.
walked forward to meet the team and to put some distance between herself and
the crime scene. The blood pooled beneath the bodies had enticed a host of
flies. The droning noise and the metallic smell were beginning to wear on her.
“This sure ain’t
no job for a lady.” Wilt’s words, meant to be a whisper, carried to her. What
she couldn’t hear was Jake’s response.
A short way down
the path, Rachel faced a vista that stole her breath. A mile away, granite rock
formations pushed high into a pale blue sky. Evergreens covered the steep
slopes, some of the trunks enormous. There were waterfalls and caves and
mysteries beyond the ken of mortal men. The Sioux believed that some of the
caves were a portal to the underworld. The red men had come from that portal in
the Black Hills, and it was here that the Great Spirit gave them the buffalo as
a source of meat and shelter and clothes. The Native Americans’ bond with the
land was meshed with history and pride and a knowledge that man and the
wilderness were irrevocably linked.
For Rachel, the
Black Hills were savagely wild and untamed, a place where humans seldom
encroached, and she’d grown to love this land. As a kid, she’d been all about
cars and malls and drugs and the party life. She’d changed, though. Now she
could hardly remember the frightened young girl who’d been so alone and so
angry at the world.
“Looks like some
poachers got caught with an illegal moose and someone took justice into his own
hands.” Jake’s voice came from behind her. He was talking to the advancing
“Could be that,”
she told the techs. “Just document everything. The feather on the pole appears
to be owl. I want that checked out as soon as possible.”
“Will do.” The
two men moved to the crime scene and got busy.
In the distance
an eagle caught a high draft and floated in a slow circle. The county and state
lands, as well as the federal lands of the Sioux reservations, were protected
by stringent hunting laws. Many hunters, though, had no respect for borders,
laws, or even the rudiments of sportsmanship. It was all about trophy.
perhaps, was the motive behind these
murders. The moose was an exotic and illegal, meaning someone had physically
brought it into the area. Hunting season didn’t start until the fall. It looked
like the men were poachers, and it was possible that someone finally got tired
But she didn’t
think so. This was more than revenge. The silver ornament, the feather, the
brutality. This was planned, what the textbooks called a highly organized
tech nodded at her but looked to Jake for direction.
She walked back
and gave a rundown of the photographs she wanted. She’d worked with Gus once
before on a suicide. He knew his business, but it was her job to be sure.
“Nothing has been touched, unless it was by the hiker who found the bodies. He
called it in and we got here as fast as we could. Wilt and Marston came along
to help us get the bodies down to the road for transport back to town.”
almighty.” The other tech stopped and simply stared at the scene. “I’ve never
seen anything quite like this. Either someone has a burn on for illegal hunters
or these two guys really pissed the hell out of someone.”
say anything. The mutilation of the corpses was a message, but one she didn’t
fully understand. Maybe the science guys could give her a few hints as to what
direction to pursue.
“Frankie” Jackson swung up into the cab of the dozer and backed it away from
the majestic fir tree. She glared at the burly man whose job it was to push the
four-lane through the Black Hills. No one on the crew was particularly glad to
see her as boss, and the truth was, she didn’t care. If a road had to go
through this place of wonder and beauty, she’d make sure it did the least
amount of damage possible. That was the job Belker Construction had hired her
to do—to build the highway while preserving the wilderness.
She parked the
dozer and jumped to the ground. “Ben, this is a historic tree. See the marker.”
She pointed to the woodcut emblem. “We don’t need protesters out here halting
our progress. You’re twenty yards off course. If you can’t follow the
engineer’s outline, you’d better tell me now.”
stopped working to glance at her long legs encased in skintight jeans and the
knee-high cowboy boots she favored. She was lean as a whippet, and she kept her
body honed with kick-boxing and Pilates. Once she’d been a chubby pre-teen,
drowning her stuttering sorrows and inadequacies in boats of gravy and bowls of
ice cream. Lida Jane’s finishing school had skimmed off the pounds and given
her a whole new view of herself and a new menu of options for achieving her
goals. Of course, if Lida Jane or any of the Montgomery, Alabama, ladies she’d
grown up around knew her ambitions, they’d be horrified. Ladies didn’t run road
crews, and that was just the tip of the iceberg in her lack of conformity.
“Look, I don’t
care how much it pisses you off, we can’t take down that tree.”
“It’s a tree.
There are a billion more right over there.” Ben swung his hand toward the
forest. “The original route went right through there. It’s the easiest and
“And the road
was changed to preserve that specific tree. Accept it or leave now.” Frankie
caught a glimpse of movement in the dark protection of the firs. The Black Hills were so-called because, from a distance, the
thick perfection of the trees made the hills look ebony. She saw the vague
outline of a tall man at the edge of the woods. Before she could say or do
anything, he was gone. She turned her attention back to the crew.
“This tree isn’t
going anywhere. I’m headed into town, and when I come back, if there’s so much
as a scratch on it, I’ll see that every one of you is fired. When I find out
who damaged the tree, and I will find out, he’ll serve time in a federal
prison.” She looked around the circle of men who’d fallen silent. At times they
hated her, but that was just part of her job.
She walked off,
feeling the daggers of resentment digging into her spine. She hadn’t come home
to South Dakota to make friends.
foreman fell into step beside her, talking as they walked. “Hank Welford never
showed up for work today. That’s the third time in two weeks. I’m going to cut
“If he comes in
tomorrow, I’ll tell him he’s fired.”
“Yep. He’s not
reliable. Probably holed up drunk somewhere.”
“Or else on one
of his illegal hunting trips. That bastard has every game warden in the state
looking for him. Makes it hard on the rest of us who are real sportsmen.” He
shook his head in disgust.
The dry taste of
dust from the road work made Frankie wish for a Diet Coke. “Hank’s been living
his life to his own tune for at least thirty years. I doubt he’s going to
change. When you fire him, he’ll be furious. Watch out because he has a gun in
his truck—I caught him shooting at crows last week during a break. He may try
something stupid. Then he’ll get over it and hire on someplace else until he
gets fired again.” She looked back at the men who were still standing around,
talking among themselves. “Put them back to work. I’m going into town to pick
up the specs the engineers faxed over.”
She climbed into
her pickup truck and drove close to the forest. Whoever had been there was
gone. If she were the kind of woman to be scared, the idea of someone hiding in
the woods and watching might creep her out. But there was always a logical
The local Sioux
resented the intrusion of the road through their sacred land, and it was likely
that someone had come to make sure the huge fir tree—a magnificent creation
with a circumference of over 100 feet--was left undisturbed. The tree had once
provided shade for the council meetings of the Sioux leaders. Now the
knot-heads on the road project had the idea that if they ignored certain
things, they wouldn’t be challenged. They were wrong.
She gunned the
motor and spun out, bringing a smile to the men’s faces. It took so little to
redirect a guy’s focus. Put a woman in a truck spinning a bit of gravel and
every thought in a man’s head dropped right down to his crotch. Amazing.
Aiming the truck
toward the county seat of Bisonville, she notched the needle over eighty and
let her thoughts drift. The road project was moving forward, slowly. Things
were on track. To that end, she had a dinner party planned to honor some of the
state politicians and civic leaders. Although trained as a civil engineer,
Frankie knew that it was her ability to build bridges between diverse groups
that had gotten her the high six-figure salary she earned. She made all sides
on the gnarly issue of the new road feel that they’d won some points. And she
did it with style. Lida Jane’s training, while irksome at the time, had proven
She was just
outside Bisonville when she decided to check the radio. A male DJ’s voice came
over the airwaves.
bodies were found high in the Black Hills this
morning by a hiker. Criss County Sheriff’s deputies and state game wardens
responded and the bodies have been recovered, but no identification has been
Redmond refused to comment on the condition of the bodies or the possible
motive behind the brutal slaying, but eyewitnesses at the bizarre scene report
that the decapitated and skinned bodies, believed to be two hunters, were found
beside a dead moose.
the story at the top of the hour. Right now, we’re back to Toby Keith and ‘It’s
a Little Too Late.’”
the radio off and slowed the pickup. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket
and punched in Jake Ortiz’s number. “Hey, Jake, it’s Frankie. When you get a
minute, give me a call. I’m a little worried about my crew out there. I just
want to get some details on that double homicide so I can decide whether to
send them home or keep them working. Thanks.”
She held the
phone a moment before pressing down hard on the accelerator and sending the
eight-cylinder truck up to eighty. She had work to do.
clack of pool balls breaking drowned the soft play of the radio in Bud’s Bar.
Rachel looked over her shoulder to the heavyset man. A cigarette dangled from
his mouth, and his beer dripped condensation on the edge of the table.
got stripes,” he told the man he played with as he bent, took aim, and shot the
cue stick forward. The report was solid and confident. The yellow one-ball
zipped into the back corner pocket. He walked around the table and took his
next successful shot.
wasn’t as interested in the game as she was in the man. He was nearly six feet
tall, in his forties or fifties, strong but gone to pot.
he was much like one of the dead men. How had someone with that physique been
taken down without obvious signs of a struggle? Of course, if the killer had a
gun, it was possible both men had been forced into co-operation—or shot in the
head. She had no way to tell, since the heads were still missing and the
preliminary forensics had revealed only that the two men had lost vast
quantities of blood. Whether from the skinning or decapitation, the state
pathologist wasn’t ready to say. One body had been mutilated worse than the
sipped her Diet Coke and drummed her fingers softly on the varnished wood bar.
Bud’s was a historical locale, dating back to the Indian wars and the cattle
drives that brought the colorful characters of the Old West through the small
town. In all likelihood, the bar hadn’t had a good cleaning since Custer took
his last stand. But it was quiet, for a bar, and not nearly as smoke-filled in
the early evening as it would be later that night.
cranked the jukebox up, and she smiled at the first strains of “Okie from
Muskogee.” Merle Haggard was still a star in Bisonville, but few of his fans
would recognize that the beat of this classic country song was a cha-cha.
Rachel remembered a full, royal blue skirt twirling as her mom’s bare feet, toe
nails painted bright red, moved forward and back in a cha-cha across the faded
linoleum of their kitchen. Junie Redmond had loved to dance, even through
curse from the pool table told her the game was over and someone was a poor
looser. She picked up a couple of polaroids she’d taken at the crime scene and
walked over to the heavyset man who was racking the balls. Like the four
previous guys she’d interviewed, this one wasn’t interested in helping a
ignored her until she dropped two photographs on the table beside his hand.
“Recognize that tattoo?” she asked.
man tried to ignore her, but the photos caught his eye. He picked up the first
one, then the second. Rachel had been careful to show only the tattoo of the
snake and none of the damage done to the body.
if I do?” he said.
could tell me who the tattoo belongs to and then I’d go away.”
snorted, settled the balls and removed the rack. “You can go or stay. Don’t
make me no nevermind.”
might if I invite you to the courthouse for a chat.”
looked her up and down, letting his contempt show. “That uniform doesn’t mean a
damn to me.”
didn’t come here for a pissing match, but I will if I have to.”
looked at the photos again. “Never seen ‘em.” He picked up his stick, placed the
cue ball and broke in one smooth motion.
went back to her barstool. The clientele of the bar, at least the ones she’d
talked to, hadn’t been very helpful. Still, someone had to recognize that
tattoo. Perhaps she should try over at the beauty shop where the ladies might
door of the bar swung open and the last golden slant of daylight fell across
the wooden floor. Blinded, Rachel could only see the tall silhouette of a
slender man. Jake’s boots echoed on the boards. She hadn’t expected to see Jake
in Bud’s. He did his drinking in the more upscale bars of Rapid City.
what are you doing in here this time of day?”
was forever the big brother. It was an act that was beginning to make her
angry. “I wanted a Diet Coke and a quiet place to sit.” She didn’t want to tell
him she was working. There were times that Jake made her feel inadequate.
surveyed the bar, making it clear he found nothing there that should interest
Rachel. There were Diet Cokes available at Lulu’s Café or the U-Tote ‘Em or any
of the dozen gas stations. “I just read an article that said carbonated drinks
can make a woman’s bones porous.” He stood at her elbow.
Jake. Breathing might pollute my lungs.” She turned back to the bar so he
couldn’t see the aggravation on her face. “You act like I’m addicted to a diet
drink. My mother had the drug problem, not me.” The minute she spoke, she knew
it was true. Jake was always vigilant for the first sign of addiction in her.
Even to a cola. Heat flushed her face and she had to struggle to control the
angry retort that sprang to her mind.
Rachel. I guess I need to back off.” He signaled the bartender for a beer.
would be a relief.”
of getting angry, he laughed. “Old habits die hard.” He slipped onto the bar
stool beside her. “Remember John Henry James?”
couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, I had the worst crush on him when I was
fourteen. Good thing he never knew I existed.” In a drunken rage John Henry had
hit his wife and killed her. His remorse had been great, but remorse didn’t
bring life back to the woman he’d killed.
he knew you existed. He used to ride by your mama’s place in that black Camaro.
He was like a shark swimming by, just hoping you’d walk out the door.”
sat taller on her bench. “How do you know this, Jake?”
after school I’d drive by your place. I put down some shingles with roofing
tacks in them, and when he had three flat tires, I pulled him out of the car
and told him if I saw him hanging around you again, I’d bury him under the
was smiling, but Rachel felt the throb of a vein in her temple. “You had no
right to do such a thing.”
not, but he was a predator and a creep.” The bartender put a Bud in front of
him and Jake popped the top. “Your father was gone and your mom sure wasn’t
paying attention. Somebody had to look out for you, Rachel. You were headed
down a long, hard road.”
sipped her drink and swallowed her angry responses. Jake was right. “Is John
Henry still in the state pen?”
out about four weeks ago. Folks say he’s living out in the wilderness in some
kind of survivalist mode.”
this was the reason Jake had brought up the past. Not to devil her but to toss
her a possible suspect. “John Henry never struck me as a killer.”
his dead wife that.”
made and taken. I’ll run a check on him at the office and see if I can dig up
anything on the time he spent in prison. He was always a big hunter, as I
big poacher, as I recall.” Jake drew
the distinction with a nod of his head. “Prison can take a messed up person and
push him right over the edge, Rachel.”
thought you viewed the crime scene today as the work of some anti-hunters.”
my best theory right now, but I’m open to all possibilities. John Henry is just
that, a possibility.”
hesitated. “Jake, I want you to let me handle this on my own. I have to step
forward and be a deputy if I’m going to wear this badge.”
your case. I’m only trying to help.”
Hurt touched his
features, gone as quickly as it had come. “I know. And I appreciate it. But I
have to be able to solve crimes or else I should change jobs.”
put his hand on her shoulder. “Rachel, this is a case that would put even the
most seasoned detective to the test. Just take what help I can give you. I had
a reason for tracking you down. Two things, actually.” He shifted on his bar
stool so that he could look directly at her. “You know this hip replacement has
set Gordon back.”
Gordon had ranched from the time he could sit a horse, and he was a tough man,
but he’d taken a spill and his horse had rolled on him, damaging both hips. The
constant pain and now the surgery had taken a toll.
“Anyway, Dad and
Gordon think I should run for sheriff.” He waited and when she didn’t say
anything, he continued. “I’d want you to stay on as a deputy. I need your
“Is this an act
His grin was
crooked. “No, ma’am. You’re smart. Folks around here respect you and the way
you handle things. With experience and more training, you’re going to be one of
the best. I want you because you’ll do a good job.”
understood his motivation at the murder scene. “And that makes this double
homicide a big deal for you.”
He nodded. “We solve
this one, it’ll look good for both of us.”
“You sure this
is what you want, Jake? You love the wilderness. You studied so hard for that
biology degree. There’s a lot more than solving crimes involved in being
“I know. But
there’s a lot of opportunity, too. Criss County will grow, Rachel. It won’t
always be this small town that time forgot. I want to put together an effective
sheriff’s office with more training and better equipment.”
The idea of
working for Jake was a bit uncomfortable, but if Gordon quit, there would be a
new sheriff. Jake was the best candidate in Criss County.
“I’ll do what I
reminded her of the older teenage boy who’d tormented and teased her. “There’s
one other thing. A special favor.”
Ortiz didn’t ask favors of anyone. “This’ll be a first. What is it?”
a woman, name of Frances Jackson, a friend of Dad’s. She’s the liaison between
environmental groups and the new four-lane that’s going through the Black
Hills. Anyway, she’s having a party tomorrow night and I need a date.”
what?” Rachel almost knocked her cola over.
a social date. Calm down, I’m not asking you to kiss me.” Jake swallowed the
last of his beer. “This Frances Jackson is real interested in the killings,
which is why I’m invited and why I’m inviting you. She wants to be certain her
crews are safe up in the hills. So, I’ll pick you up tomorrow about eight. From
what I hear tell, she knows how to throw a party. Cocktail attire is what Dad
told me. And Dad said she’s been helpful to Harvey Dilson, with his senate
campaigns. He said you’d make a good impression on her. And that it would look
good that the department members supported me.”
she could answer, he stood up. “Thanks for the beer.” He stepped out into the dusk.
sighed. Even if Jake had given her a chance, she couldn’t refuse. Jake had
invoked the name of his father, Mel Ortiz. There was nothing Mr. Ortiz could
ask that Rachel would ever say no to. Her debt load to the man was way too
put five dollars on the bar to cover their tab and headed home. Along with
everything else she had to do tomorrow, she’d have to find time to buy a dress.
drove through the quiet streets of Bisonville watching the distant vista of sky
and the Black Hills change constantly, a panorama of nature’s most impressive
abilities. The winter snows would start just after Thanksgiving, but for now,
the June weather was perfection. South of town in the plains, farmers would be
harvesting. Maybe if she didn’t find time for a workout at the dojang today,
she’d at least take half an hour for a drive. She needed to do something to
release the tension that had kept her awake all night.
men were dead, and she was in charge of a major homicide case. She didn’t have
a college degree, not yet, but she’d learned a lot about the psychology of
criminals during her law enforcement studies. What terrible motivation had made
one human being skin another? She had a bad feeling that at least one of the
men was alive when he’d been tortured. Blood had covered his arms and torso,
which meant to her novice eye that his heart had still been beating when the
skin was removed.
grotesque horror of it was one of the problems. The act was so depraved that it
numbed her mind. She couldn’t begin to figure out why someone would do such a
thing. Yet that was exactly what she had to do. If she didn’t, she knew she’d
never be given a case more significant than a traffic accident. Bisonville was
a small town. She was a young woman with a checkered past working in a man’s
world. No one was going to cut her the first inch of slack. Not even Jake could
fix this if she blew it.
she entered the office at 7 a.m., Gordon Gray, the sheriff, was already at his
desk. He looked up.
put her things on her desk and walked to the private office where he waited for
got a call from the crime lab boys in Rapid City. They told me some preliminary
stuff, but I want you to talk to them as soon as they get to work. I also got a
call from Frances Jackson who’s running the road crews. She’s concerned for the
safety of her men.”
nodded. Gordon was having a tough time. He wanted to be working the case, but
his physical limitations made that impossible. “I’m on it, Sheriff.”
a lot at stake here, Rachel. Millions, if not billions, of dollars.” He used
his cane to pace the room.
know.” The development of Paradise, a high-tech city planned to rival Silicon
Valley, depended on the road. Richard Jones, a local man and a techno wizard
who’d interned with Bill Gates in the early 1990s, had unveiled his plans for
what amounted to a bright and shiny community, an Emerald City of urban
planning and modern marvels right in his home county. Such a development would
change the face of South Dakota into a destination for growth and prosperity.
have to catch this killer. Fast.” Gordon held her gaze a long moment. “We could
come up with a reason to hand this off to the state.”
was asking her if she was up to it. She cleared her throat. “I can solve this
case. I can, Sheriff. You have to give me a chance.” For most of her life,
she’d viewed herself as a victim. The job had given her self-confidence and a
sense of self-worth. She couldn’t let the sheriff take that from her.
county is stirred up. There’re a lot of high emotions about Paradise, both for
and agin’ it. A killer on the loose is the last thing we need.”
know.” The different factions of the county—hunters, Natives, the scattering of
green individuals who’d moved into the hills to escape development, ranchers,
loggers—had worked out a tenuous peace. These murders could easily disrupt it.
With the added tension of the four-lane that was going through land sacred to
the Sioux, the place was a powder keg. Maybe that was why Jake was so staunchly
publicly promoting the
poacher-on-poacher theory of the murders. If it was just lowlifes killing each
other, none of the political factions were involved. It made sense.
know what’s at stake here?” Gordon asked her.
do. If I need his help, I’ll be sure and ask.”
rubbed his clean-shaven cheek and smoothed one side of his moustache. He always
looked immaculate. A rancher who’d spent most of his life working from sunup to
sunset, he was lean, sharp featured and nobody’s fool. If he took this case
from her, she’d never recover in the department. He’d gone out on a limb to
hire her, and now he was standing with the saw in his hand.
can do this. I have to do it.” She
talked to me yesterday. He said the same thing.”
once Jake’s interference was an asset. She’d have to remember to thank
him—after she beat him with the high heels she’d have to wear to the cocktail
sheriff sighed. “Then call the crime lab. Gus Langstrom said he’d be in early
to talk to you. Tell ‘em to put a rush on the DNA evidence and the prints.”
sheriff.” She started to say more but decided that the best way to show her
gratitude was to solve the case, and in record time.
her desk she felt Scott Amos watching her. She gave him a smile and mouthed, How’s Betty Lou?
“Glad you caught
this case instead of me.” He shook his head. “She’d have a conniption if I got
stranded in those hills and couldn’t get home. Losing the last two…Anyway, she
said you’re welcome to dinner any time.”
Home cooking is in short supply at my place.” Rachel dialed the lab, and waited
for Langstrom to answer and identify himself.
do you have for me, Gus?”
e-mailed the photos to you, and I’ll send a hard set by courier. The smaller
man was dead before his skin was removed. The silver ornament was attached to
the victim’s chest with a porcupine quill, as you thought. The feather, which
was wrapped and attached with standard fishing line, came from a great horned
owl, illegal to own because of the endangered species law. Only Natives can own
them, but as you know, there are always illegal sources. Also, and this was the
most interesting of all, we did manage to get some prints from around the
bodies. There was a pattern, all clockwise. And whoever made the prints wore
the victims’ boots.”
felt a chill. The killer, or killers, was clever. “What about prints from the
The killer had to be wearing gloves. Whoever it was made sure not to leave any
forensic evidence. The tool used to skin the men had a serrated blade, exactly
like what a hunter might use. Jesus, that must have taken a while.”
waiting on that, Rachel.”
Gus. You guys make a tough job a little easier.”
that in writing and send it to my boss. Documentation never hurts at raise
hung up and spent the rest of the morning checking with law enforcement
agencies around the country for similar crimes. She ran the exact method of
murder through VICAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. It was a long
exercise that yielded no match, so she ran background on John Henry James. His
cabin was so far back in the wilderness that it would be faster to trailer in a
four-wheeler than walk it. She’d wait until the next day to talk with him.
just started an Internet search on militant anti-hunting groups when Jake
walked in. He put a folder on her desk. “This is a list of the most wanted
poachers in the area. I’ll give you all the help I can, Rachel.”
waited for her to open it. At the top of the list was Hank Welford, followed by
about thirty other names.
think Hank is one of the dead men.” Jake sat on the corner of her desk. “We
could never catch him with the goods, but every game warden in the state and
along the Montana border has been after him.”
know who he is.” Rachel had seen him drinking in Bud’s, bragging about his
prowess as a hunter and guide for rich doctors and lawyers from the East who
came to bag trophy game. As far as Rachel was concerned, the world would be a
better place without Hank Welford. Even so, she meant to find the person or
persons who’d killed him. “What makes you think one of the dead men is Hank?”
She waved the list. “Could be any of them.”
of his buddies remember the snake tattoo on his left pec. I described it to
them, and I’m pretty sure it’s him. We can get one of them to ID the body. Hank
doesn’t have any next of kin, as far as I can tell.”
remembered the tattoo for you.” She stood up. She wasn’t angry at Jake, she was
annoyed at the fact that she’d been blown off because she was a woman. “Thanks,
Jake. An ID on one body would help.”
to grab some lunch?” Jake asked.
got something to do.” She picked up her purse, knowing that the tiny air of
mystery would get under his skin.
some help?” He stepped back to allow her to walk in front of him. Jake always
had excellent manners.
I can handle this on my own.” She walked out the door without looking back.
Hell would freeze over before she admitted she had to go shopping.
held the sales slip in her hand, hesitating. At last she wadded it up and threw
it in the trash in the kitchen of her small cottage.
exhausted from the intensity of her day. A search of Hank’s cottage had yielded
nothing except the fact that he was a slob and careless with the records of his
poaching trips. She’d turned over a notebook to Jake that might yield some
impressive arrests for trafficking in exotic animals.
Yet there was
still the party she had to attend. She held out the cocktail dress, examining
it once more before she pulled it from the hanger and stepped into it. Her
mother had always adored shopping, and a new dress was an occasion for a party.
Rachel had never developed such fondness for clothes. In fact, she seldom
thought about what she was wearing, which made the uniform a real pleasure.
She was going to
this party because the debts incurred during her teen years demanded a certain
type of payment. This act wouldn’t even dent the karmic IOUs she owed Mel
Ortiz. An eight-foot brick wall had separated the trailer park where she’d
grown up from the nice subdivision where the Ortiz family lived. Mel—and
Jake—scaled that class barrier again and again to look out for her.
licked her lips, the taste of lipstick unfamiliar. The saleswoman at the only
cosmetic shop in Criss County had taken pity on her and done her make-up and
even twisted her hair into an elegant look. Rachel was ready for Jake to pick
rumble of her stomach reminded her that breakfast had come and gone hours
before. She’d spent her lunch hourfinding
a suitable dress. In the kitchen, she glanced at the clock, an old frying pan
that her mom had “made” during one of several therapeutic craft marathons at
church-supported homes for addicts. In her various attempts to kick her
addictions, Junie had made clay vases, painted the praying hands of Jesus, and
glued colored macaroni montages. But the clock had been Junie’s favorite,
because it had a purpose.
Rachel stared at
it. The minute hand jumped forward on a whir, paused, then lurched forward
again. Junie had been so proud of the damn clock, proud of herself for staying
clean for two weeks. But she’d gone back to using, back to working the streets.
Rachel tried to
shake free of the past. It was time to get a move on. Jake would be there to
get her. The clock showed seven on the dot.
clearest image of her mother came back to Rachel with visceral force. This time
Rachel was older, and Junie stood in the kitchen of the trailer. She wore a red
dress that emphasized her figure, three-inch heels, and the makeup she artfully
applied to look like a movie star from the 50s. Behind her the frying pan clock
showed seven on a Friday night in July, ten years before.
stay inside, Rachel,” Junie said. “Lock the door as soon as I leave.”
are you going?” The anger in the teenager’s voice echoed back to her through
the years. “I’m hungry. There’s nothing to eat in the house. You can’t go out
and leave me with nothing to eat and no money to get groceries.”
go shopping tomorrow. I have a date. Lock the door and do your homework.”
don’t go.” Even at sixteen, Rachel had recognized the widened pupils, the
fluttering hands, the constant swallowing. “Mama, there are people who can help
slap had been so hard that Rachel had spun onto the sofa. When she turned back,
her mother was gone. There was only the lingering trail of cheap perfume.
And that had
been the last time Junie Redmond had been seen alive. Her body was found the
next morning in a dumpster on the edge of Rapid City. She’d died of an
The ring of her
cell phone nudged Rachel out of the memory. She answered it mechanically.
you might want to come and take a look at this autopsy report.” Charlie Newman,
the coroner, was chewing into the telephone as he talked.
She fumbled through the correct response. “Right now?”
really interesting things here, but I don’t want to talk about them on the
Charlie. I’m on my way.”
are quiet at the courthouse, so this may be the best time for us to talk.”
Rachel caught a
glimpse of her shadowy image in the front window. For one brief instant, she
thought she saw her mother standing behind her. They were both dressed for a
“Rachel, did you
hear me? I’ll meet you at the sheriff’s office.”
She cleared her
throat. “I’m on the way.”
phone shut, she picked up her purse. She’d get a certain amount of teasing from
the night shift who happened to see her, but she didn’t have time to change and
then come home and change back. She dialed Jake. When she got his voice mail,
she left a message.
“Pick me up at
the sheriff’s office in the courthouse instead of home. Thanks.” She walked to
the kitchen, and her hand reached for the clock’s plug as it had done a hundred
times before. She should toss it, buy something new that didn’t have so many
memories attached. But she stopped, mesmerized by her reflection in the
toaster. No one had ever said it to her, but made-up and with her hair pinned
in a French twist, she looked just like her mother.
seven people gathered in the room were tense with excitement. Dressed in dark
clothing and jittery with nerves, they sat around the darkened room and waited.
Baxter stood by the open window and looked out upon the perfect blackness of a
South Dakota night. The stars were incredible, untainted by any other light.
The breeze that blew to him from the Black Hills contained the scents of pine
and juniper. He thought of the gin and tonics his mother drank and felt a
charge of empowerment. He’d decided to use his life for something worthwhile,
not to fritter it away.
turned to address the four women and three men. “The note claiming
responsibility for the murders of the two poachers has already been sent to the
newspaper. By tomorrow morning, WAR will be on the lips of every South
smattering of applause went around the room, but it did nothing to relieve the
of the men raised his hand. “Derek, they’re going to look at us like murderers
now.” His voice rose. “I mean, I think this is a great because it gets
publicity for our cause, but each one of us should be aware that law officers
are going to shoot first and ask questions later.”
point.” Derek felt his own stomach flutter. The brutal murders of the poachers
had the potential to give Workers for Animal Rights the biggest boost in public
awareness since he’d come to the southwest corner of South Dakota to organize a
cell of the activist group. “When we agreed to send the note claiming
responsibility, we all knew what we were risking.” He paused for effect. “They
will shoot you if they catch you.”
like the hunters shoot the wild creatures. Just another thrill for the
Neanderthals.” The girl who spoke was pretty.
No more than twenty-two, she sat a slight distance from everyone else.
Derek noticed because he noticed everything about Justine Morgan.
let’s focus on tonight. We’ll take the black van almost to the road site. We’ll
park it in the woods and make the rest of the way on foot. When we get to the
heavy equipment, everyone knows what to do, right?”
murmur of assent spread through the room.
Get the blow torches.” He moved toward the door.
they have a guard up there?” Justine asked.
shook his head. “Not tonight. That’s the beauty of it. Not one of those big,
macho construction guys wanted to stay up there to guard the equipment while a
psycho killer is on the loose.”
the psycho killers.” Justine rose slowly as she spoke. “They’re the people who
slaughter animals for sport. They’re the sportsmen
with high-powered scopes, radios, automatic weapons and four-wheelers
because they’re so fat and out of shape they can’t even haul their kill out.”
Contempt rested in the way she held her lips. “I say let’s kill more of them.”
The affirmation spread among the young men and women as they hurried after
Derek, out the door and into the night.
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