Authors: Terri Persons
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
ALSO BY TERRI PERSONS
This book is dedicated to Keith, Kay, Britni,
and Angie-dear family friends who have
made their cabin our cabin.
As always, I must first thank my amazing husband, David, and our wonderful sons, Ryan and Patrick. I couldn’t function without the constant encouragement and practical assistance from my guys. Ryan, a budding author, is my writing critic and firearms expert. Patrick is the computer guru. David gives me everything from moral support to help with a jammed printer.
For medical expertise, I relied on dear family friend Jacalyn DiCello, MD, who patiently answered questions related to childbirth. I hope I didn’t embarrass you, Jackie.
Once again, I turned to my sister-in-law, nurse Rita Monsour, for all sorts of medical information. I trust I didn’t embarrass you too badly either, Reetz.
Carrie Wallin, who works in marketing and communications for hospitals and clinics, provided valuable background on small medical centers.
I have the best team in the publishing world in my agent, Esther Newberg, and my editor, Phyllis Grann. Thank you both for your faith in my writing.
Finally, thanks to my friend John Camp for help and advice.
he last day of December, and the sky was going dark fast. Landon Guthrie ran his tongue around his teeth, tasting stale peanuts and bitter chocolate, the remnants of the energy bar. Pushing up the cuff of his glove, he checked his watch. The puff of breath that followed was a silent curse. In less than an hour, the season would be over and he had yet to get his buck.
His compound bow lay across his lap with the arrow nocked. He sat fifteen feet off the ground in his deer stand, looking down at a clearing. No fewer than three deer trails spilled into the circle of dead grass and fallen leaves. Less than half a mile behind him was a slushy stream, the animals’ drive-thru window for drinks.
The temperature had been dropping all day, but Guthrie was dressed for it—a walking testament to the power of synthetics: Polar fleece. Thinsulate. Polypropylene. Nylon. Acrylic. Vinyl. He was windproof, water-repellent, slip-resistant, and warm.
Everything had been doused with scent blocker and all the outer layers were in a Mossy Oak fall camo of branches and brown leaves. He didn’t need the winter camo, which had branches against a white background, because the snow had yet to fly in northern Minnesota.
Glancing up at the sky, Guthrie wondered if they’d finally get snow that night. If not a white Christmas, they could at least enjoy a white New Year’s Day. A hawk glided overhead in search of something to eat, and he wished the bird better luck than he’d had. Time to start packing it in. He stood up on the platform and stretched, the bow still in his hand.
A rustling across the clearing froze him. A buck stepped out from between the trees. As the metallic taste of adrenaline bit the back of his throat, Guthrie willed himself to stay calm. He told himself not to look at the rack; it would only make him more nervous. Ignoring his own directive, he counted. Ten points. Good enough.
Fifty yards from the stand, the buck paused, surveying the clearing. Ran on. Thirty yards. Twenty. It stalled again; something had spooked it. The buck took a ninety-degree turn to the right. Guthrie released the arrow, and the broadhead went in just behind the rib cage.
The buck sprinted from the clearing, seeking refuge amid the trees. Guthrie got out of his safety harness and took his time climbing down from the stand. Chasing the wounded deer immediately would make the animal run too hard, and increase the possibility of losing it. Better to give it a chance to lie down.
After strapping a headlamp on over his cap, Guthrie hiked into the thick woods behind the stand to track his prize. His breath hung in the air as he threaded between the trees. He was halfway between the clearing and the stream when he lost the blood trail in the growing darkness. The ground beneath his feet was as hard as concrete, and dry as dust. He wished there had been snow on the ground; it would have made the tracking easier. He stayed on a straight path, heading for the stream. Instinct told him that was where he needed to go.
At the edge of the water, Guthrie found her. “Jesus!”
Guthrie stumbled backward, pulled his right glove off with his teeth, and fumbled around his clothing. Damn jacket had too many pockets. His fingertips finally touched the square edges of the cell and he pulled it out. He knew from experience that he couldn’t get a signal where he was standing, but he tried anyway. Hands shaking, he pressed the green button and eyed the screen, praying for bars. Nothing.
Phone still in his hand, he took a step forward. His headlamp illuminated the body and the area around it with a round, soft glow. Snow drifted down from the night sky, sparkling in the lamp’s beam like shards of glass. Flakes disappeared against her nightgown and melted into the red staining the fabric. He looked down at the phone and repeatedly pressed the green button, hoping for a miracle. Still no bars. He shoved the cell in his pocket.
He turned his back to the body, leaned a hand against a tree, and vomited peanuts and chocolate. As he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, he eyed the forest with fresh fear. Since he was a child, the woods had been his second home. He knew every ridge and ravine, every clearing, every hollow. Every marsh and slough. He was familiar with where the deer liked to hang out during deep snows and where they went during droughts. He could correctly identify the different hardwoods and pines. He could pick out the chatter of a gray squirrel and describe how it was different from the racket made by a red squirrel.
Now a monster had invaded his home.
He ran away from the stream, diving back into the trees. He aimed for his stand. North of that would be the road, and his truck. As he pumped his legs, his heart pounded hard in his chest and the cold night air burned his throat.
All that blood. That thing on her face. Who’d done that? What did it mean?
, he told himself.
. Worry about heading north and stop thinking about what was by the water.
What he’d seen by the stream was a girl sprawled on her back in a blood-soaked nightgown.
On her forehead, a five-pointed star drawn in red.
ho’d be calling first thing in the morning on New Year’s Day? Instead of reaching for the phone, Bernadette Saint Clare pulled a pillow down over the back of her head.
“Is that your work cell, Bern?”
With both hands, she pressed the pillow tighter and wished her guest and the ringing would go away.
“I think that’s the bureau calling, Bern.”
The ringing stopped. One wish granted.
She could hear him stomping around the bedroom and fumbling with her phone. “Garcia. Shit. He’ll call back if it was important, right? Want me to make you something? Got eggs?”
“No,” she said into the mattress.
She’d had a little too much to drink at an unofficial bureau bash and had asked one of the tech guys to drive her home. He’d spent the night on the couch.
A tech guy!
She heard more stomping around the bedroom. This guy was enormous.
“I left some Tylenol and water by the bed, Bern.”
She sat up, hugging the pillow to her front. To make matters worse, it was B.K., the most junior guy on TSS, the Technical Support Squad. They’d been nicknamed the Tough Shit Squad because that’s what they said when turning down the other agents’ many requests for their help. Admittedly, he’d helped her out last night. “Thank you for the ride,” she said, running a hand through her short blond hair. Her forehead felt ready to explode, and her mouth tasted like the inside of an old tennis shoe.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and folded his long arms in front of him. In his white T-shirt and jeans, he looked like a super-sized toddler. “Breakfast?”
She curled her legs up to her chest and struggled to remember his real name. Everyone called him B.K., which stood for Big Kid. She scooped up the Tylenol and downed it with a hit of water. “This is all I want this morning, B.K.”
He got up off the mattress. “Everybody at the soirée sure had a good time.”
. A kegger held in somebody’s basement rec room. She hardly knew most of the other partiers, agents stationed in downtown Minneapolis. She worked solo out of downtown St. Paul. Assistant Special Agent in Charge Anthony Garcia was her only regular visitor and an occasional partner. He’d been at the party but had kept his distance. That had ticked her off, and caused her to down a few too many. She looked up at the kid and wished like hell she could ask:
Did Garcia see us leave together?
Instead, she smiled weakly and said nothing, waiting for him to leave.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “So …”
He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I guess I could go home and feed my cats.”
“I guess you could,” she said, wondering why he was stalling. Did he expect a more elaborate expression of gratitude? He wasn’t going to get it.
“Uh … you have to give me a ride to my car. I drove your truck, remember?”
She felt her face heat up. “Be down in a sec.”
“I’ll get some coffee going.”
“Good idea.” As she watched B.K. heading for the stairs, she felt guilty that she’d harbored nasty thoughts about him. She should make
Her cell rang again, and she picked up. “Yeah.”
Garcia: “You sound like shit.”
As if he could see her through the phone, she hugged the pillow tighter to her chest. “I’m fine. Sleepy.”
“Wake up fast, because I’ve got a bad one, Cat,” said her boss, calling her by her nickname. “Really need you on it. It’s all… political and messy.”
She leaned back against the headboard. “Tell me.”
teenage runaway was found dead in Paul Bunyan State Forest last night. Bow hunter came across the body while tracking a deer. She was … sliced up.”
“Stabbed to death?”
“Back of the head bashed in.” Garcia cleared his throat. “Let me back up. This girl was pregnant and the baby was … removed after the mother died.”
“That’s sick. That is just fucking sick. So they found the dead fetus near the—”
“The fetus is missing.”
Bernadette sat upright in bed. “Someone killed her, cut her open, and stole her baby?”
“Did it survive? Did the baby survive?”
“A big question mark,” said Garcia.
“They took it, so it has to be alive,” she said. “Otherwise, why bother?”
“Maybe they started out wanting a live baby, but who knows what they ended up with? This was a very brutal, slipshod job. Vertical slice right through the navel.”
She switched the phone to her other ear. “There’ve been other stolen-fetus cases.”
“There’s more. There was a five-pointed star—”
“Yeah. There was a pentagram drawn on her forehead, apparently in her own blood.”
Bernadette had worked on some ritualistic slaying cases for the bureau. “A cult thing?”
“I don’t know what we’re thinking,” Garcia said.
“How’s this a bureau case?”
“It’s because of the victim’s father,” said Garcia. “That’s where politics come into play.”
“Dead kid was Mag Dunton’s daughter.”
“Crap,” she said.
United States Senator Magnus Dunton, an independent from Minnesota, was not a friend of the FBI. While a chorus had accused the bureau of abusing civil liberties via the Patriot Act, Dunton’s voice had been the loudest. Not content to call for tougher limits on antiterrorism laws, the senator had come up with a scheme to dismantle the FBI and divide its duties among other agencies. Though his outrageous plan wasn’t being taken seriously on Capitol Hill, he’d opened up a discussion regarding the bureau’s functions and its budget. Suddenly there were proposals being floated to close several FBI field offices.
“I suppose Dunton doesn’t want us anywhere near the case,” she said.
“His people won’t return my messages, but I think that’s a safe assumption.”
“Why not let the BCA take care of it?” she asked, referring to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state criminal-investigation agency.
“The BCA thought it was taking care of it, partnering with the locals. The sheriff up there, Seth Wharten, he’s a fishing buddy of mine. His people are the best. But it’s not my call. Headquarters handed me my marching orders this morning. Minneapolis Division is to take point on this thing. We’re treating it as a kidnapping.”
“Did they ask for
Garcia sighed. “What do you want me to say, Cat? They asked for you without asking for you.”
“I know how it works.” Bernadette rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “Pentagram, huh? This could be interesting.”
“Loads of fun.”
“I’m sorry the man lost his daughter,” she said quickly. “What was her name?”
“What was she doing way in the hell up north?”
“I’ve got about one million others.”
“We can talk on the road,” he said. “Pack enough clothes to last awhile, including some serious outdoor gear. My cousin’s got a cabin on the Crow Wing chain of lakes and he said we could crash there.”
. Quite a change from the night before. A couple of months earlier, they’d come close to hopping in the sack together. They avoided talking about it now, acting as if it had never happened. Maybe that was why he was behaving inconsistently. Still, she wasn’t going to be the one to break the code of silence on the subject. Bernadette smelled coffee and heard her guest clomping around downstairs. Getting B.K. to his car was going to take time. “I have to pull myself together,” she said.
“I’ll pick you up in an hour. We’re going to have to drive. Nothing can fly in this stuff.”
She looked out a window across from the bed. The snow was coming down thick. “I’ll be ready to rumble,” she said, kicking off the covers.
“Let’s hope like hell your hands and eyes feel the same way.”
When Bernadette’s bare hands touched an object once held by a killer, she could see through the murderer’s eyes. Her sight didn’t come with any guarantees, however, and Garcia knew that.
Let’s hope like hell
summarized its reliability.
In even the most ideal settings of calm and quiet—she’d used everything from empty churches to dark cellars—she could fail to lock on to the killer. At other times the sight could surprise her, coming on suddenly as her fingers casually brushed an object.
Even when her sight was cooperating, she couldn’t count on viewing a worthwhile show. Another slaying could unfold before her eyes, or she might watch the murderer assemble a sandwich. Her special sight was filmy and out of focus, as if she’d popped in someone else’s contacts. She couldn’t always tell if she was observing something as it was happening or if it was from recent history.
Each time she harnessed her ability, it exhausted her. It could even put her in the same emotional state as the murderer she was pursuing, causing her to become violent or paranoid or sexually aroused. During a case she and Garcia had worked in the fall, she’d stepped even deeper into the killer’s body. She carried a faint scar on her cheek from the cut that materialized on her face while the murderer was shaving.
• • •
Garcia pulled up in front of her condo in a big gray Nissan Titan. Bernadette went around to the rear of the pickup with her bag, threw her duffel onto the bed, and slammed the gate. She went around to the front passenger door, scaled up the side of the Titan to reach her seat, and muscled the door closed. “Where’d you get this monster from?”
“It’s a company car,” he said.
He checked his rearview mirror and steered away from the curb. “We needed something that could get through the snow.”
He handed her a file folder. “Picked this up from the St. Paul cop shop on my way in.”
Bernadette flipped it open and read. Lydia Dunton attended a public arts high school in St. Paul. Her folks had been having trouble with her over the previous year. Violated their curfew. Skipped classes. Caught drinking at a school dance. Grades started to tank. Put on academic probation. Her parents left for the long Thanksgiving weekend—the daughter had begged off, supposedly to work on a school film project—and when they got back she was missing. Took some clothes with her, cleaned out all the cash in the house, made off with some jewelry. Her mother called it in. Cops interviewed the girl’s friends. They claimed ignorance.
She held up a five-by-seven studio portrait of a girl with long red hair and green eyes. Lydia was dressed in a fuzzy white sweater with red heart buttons running up the front. Her head was tilted to one side. Her nose was turned up at the end. Not enough to make it a pug nose but enough to make it endearing. Her hair was pulled back from her face and her ears were visible. They stuck out a little too much. Again, endearing in an odd sort of way. Minimal makeup—just a bead of peachy gloss on her lips—and no smile. Heart buttons aside, it was a sober picture for such a young girl. “Was the pentagram pointing up or down?”
“Check the photos. I printed out some stuff from the coroner up there. Stuck it in the folder. Should be in there.”
She went to the back of the file and pulled out a stapled packet. Flipped through it. The star was inverted, making it a satanic symbol. She read the coroner’s report. From the size of the placenta, he thought the baby was full term. “Tony I think—”
“Not now.” Garcia was preoccupied with navigating. Traffic downtown was a mess. It was the first storm of the season, and after eight months of being spoiled by clear roads drivers had to learn how to maneuver in the snow again. It didn’t get any better once Garcia steered onto Interstate 94 heading west. When they came to a dead stop behind a semitruck, Garcia glanced at his passenger. “Go ahead.”
“She would have been pretty far along when she took off, but there’s nothing about her pregnancy in the stuff from the St. Paul cops. Didn’t her parents know?”
The semi rolled forward a few car lengths and Garcia followed. “She could have kept it from them. Bulky sweaters and such.”
“Runaways go to big cities. Plus, she was an artsy-fartsy film student. Wouldn’t she head for someplace more bohemian than northern Minnesota?”
“Boyfriend from up there?”
“No mention of one in the report.”
body got her pregnant,” said Garcia.
“Where’s the body right now?”
Garcia told her the girl’s remains were at the local hospital. They’d have time for a look before the Ramsey County ME’s wagon arrived for transport to the Twin Cities. The crime scene itself was buried, because the hunter was so rattled he’d had trouble leading the law to the body. By the time they got to the remains, they were under a drift. No footprints, because the ground had been frozen. Nothing
the snow, because the stuff had just started to fall when the hunter made his grisly discovery.
Beyond downtown Minneapolis, traffic thinned. They listened intently to a radio report on the killing.
“The body of a sixteen-year-old girl was discovered by a bow hunter in Paul Bunyan State Forest last night. Authorities are not commenting on a possible cause of death, or speculating on how long the body had been in the woods. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner is conducting the autopsy. The young woman’s name is being withheld until relatives can be notified. In other news …”
“No missing fetus, no pentagram, no senator father,” observed Garcia.
“Details will come out,” Bernadette said. “Media’s tied up with the storm and the fender-bender count right now.”
“Speaking of benders, how’d you get home last night?”
She didn’t want to talk about it, and the radio gave her an out. “The weather,” she said, turning up the volume.
“… and parts of the Twin Cities could see fifteen to eighteen inches. Northern Minnesota may get slammed with up to two feet by the time this storm system pushes its way across the Midwest. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is asking drivers to give their plows plenty of…”
“I’ve never dealt with a crime scene in the middle of a blizzard,” she said.