Regan Pescoli was hot.
Not in the sexual sense.
Hot as in furious. As in consumed with rage. As in pissed as hell.
Her hands gripped the wheel of her Jeep so tightly her knuckles bleached white, her jaw was set and she glared through the windshield as if she could conjure up the image of the soulless bastard who’d sent her into this stratosphere of rage.
“Bastard,” she muttered as the county-issued Jeep’s tires slid a bit on the icy incline. Her heart was racing and her cheeks were flushed despite the sub-freezing temperature outside her vehicle.
No one, not one person on this planet, could make her see red the way her ex-husband Luke “Lucky” Pescoli could. And today was no exception. In fact, today, he’d crossed the invisible line Regan had drawn and he’d heretofore avoided. Damn, he was a loser. In all the years she’d been married to him, the only “luck” he’d brought her was bad.
Now, out of the blue, the son of a bitch was set on taking her kids away from her.
As the notes of a familiar Christmas tune played through the radio of her Jeep Regan drove like a mad woman through the steep, snow-covered hills and canyons of this part of the Bitterroot Mountain range. The Jeep, windows fogging, responded, engine growling through the pass, tires spinning over the snowy county road that crossed this particular ridge, the backbone of a mountain that separated her home from that of Lucky and his new wife, a Barbie Doll of a woman named Michelle.
Usually Regan loved this barrier.
Today, with worsening weather conditions, it was a pain.
Her last phone conversation with Lucky replayed like a bad recording on an unending loop through her mind. He’d called and confirmed that her children, the son and daughter she’d raised nearly alone, were with him. Lucky, in that supercilious tone of his, had said, “The kids, Michelle and I have been talking, and we all agree that Jeremy and Bianca should live with us.”
The argument had escalated from that point and just before she’d slammed down the receiver, her parting words to her ex had been firm: “Pack up the kids, Lucky, because I’m coming to get them. And that includes Cisco. I want my son. I want my daughter. I want my dog. And I’m coming to get them.”
She’d locked the house and taken off, determined to set things straight and get her kids back. Or kill Lucky. Maybe both.
The Jeep’s engine whined in protest on the snowy terrain as she slowed to an irritating crawl. She searched for her hidden, “only in a situation of extreme stress” pack of cigarettes in the glove box and found that it was empty. “Great.” She crushed the useless pack and tossed it on the floor in front of the passenger seat. She’d been meaning to quit . . . completely and absolutely quit again for a while. Today, it seemed, was the start.
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,” some female country singer warbled and Pescoli snapped off the radio.
“You got that right,” she muttered fiercely and gunned the Jeep around a corner. The tires slid a bit, then held.
She barely noticed.
Nor did she see the tall spruce, fir and pine trees, their branches drooping under the pressure of snow and ice as they rose like majestic sentinels in the crisp, frigid air and snowflakes poured from invisible clouds. The wipers were slapping away the flakes while the heater thrust out BTUs. Despite the fan the warmed air flow couldn’t keep up with the steam on the inside of the windows.
Pescoli squinted and longed for a single blast of nicotine as she braced herself for the confrontation that was about to ensue. It promised to be epic. So much for “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Holidays” and “Peace and goodwill to men.” Not in Lucky’s case. Not ever. All those platitudes about making nice for the kids, keeping the peace and reigning in her emotions was out the window.
He could not, could not, take her kids from her.
Sure, she worked a lot of overtime with the Pinewood County Sheriff’s Department and lately, with the winter storms causing widespread electrical outages, road closures, and icy conditions everywhere, the department had been stretched thin. Then there was the Star-Crossed Killer still at large, the first serial killer ever to hunt in this part of Montana.
This guy was bad news. A patient, organized and skilled killer who somehow shot out the tires of unsuspecting victims then “rescued” the injured women before squirreling them to some private lair where he nurtured them back to health, gaining their trust and dependence, before marching them naked into the storm-ravaged wilderness and strapping them to a tree where he left them to die a slow, agonizing death in the frigid, unforgiving forests.
God, she’d love to nail his ass.
So far the cruel bastard had killed four women, the last one, Hannah Estes, having survived long enough to be found and life-flighted to a hospital where she had died before regaining consciousness and identifying the sick son of a bitch. There was other evidence found at the scenes of course, the crashed vehicles found far from where the victims were located and even notes left at each killing arena by the killer, nailed over the victims’ heads. But not one shred of evidence so far could be tied to any suspect. Not that they had any real person of interest. At this point, with the victims unrelated, no would-be killer had popped onto the radar.
That would change. It had to.
In the meantime, while Pescoli and the whole damned department was logging in extra hours trying to nail the sick son of a bitch, Lucky had the audacity, the unmitigated gall to kidnap her kids and let her know he planned on seeking full custody.
She’d hung up from him less than half an hour earlier, called her partner to cover for her and was now within fifteen minutes of the bastard’s place. Popping in a Tim McGraw CD, she realized it belonged to Lucky and ejected it. She tossed the damned thing onto the floor of the passenger seat next to her empty, crumpled pack of Marlboro Lites. She thought fleetingly of Nate Santana, a man with whom she was involved. He had a way of turning her inside out, but she knew he was wrong for her. Way wrong. A good-looking cowboy; the type to avoid. And one she couldn’t think about now. Not when she had more important things on her mind.
The Jeep’s tires slid a bit and she corrected carefully. She’d been driving these hills in blizzards for years, but she was furious and probably pushing through a bit too aggressively.
Outrage guided her.
Her sense of justice fueled her.
She hit the corner a little too fast and started to slide, only to work her way out of it before the Jeep hit the shoulder and careened into the abyss that was Cougar Canyon.
She shifted down. The wheels slid again, as if the road was covered in a sheet of ice, here near the crest of the final hill. A few more feet and she’d start her way down the hill . . .
Again the rig slipped.
“Losin’ your touch,” she chided as she reached the corner.
The forest echoed with the sound of a high-powered rifle blast.
By instinct Regan ducked and with one hand on the wheel scrabbled for her sidearm.
The Jeep shuddered and she realized what was happening. In the middle of the friggin’ blizzard, someone was taking pot shots at her vehicle.
Not pot-shots. It’s the Star-Crossed Killer! This is how he initially gets his victims!
Fear knifed her heart.
Her rig spun, tires skidded, her seatbelt clutched and behind the wheel she was useless.
Faster and faster the Jeep spiraled, sliding over the edge of the cliff. Frantically, she grabbed her cell phone, touched it, but it fell from her hand as the Jeep bumped and crashed through trees, lurching over rocks, metal crunching and screaming, glass and cold air spraying inside, the air bag slamming her.
Bam! The Jeep landed on its side, metal shrieking, sharp rocks and debris tearing through the door. Pain screamed up her neck and shoulder and she knew she was hurt.
Warm blood oozed from the side of her head as the Jeep tore through the brush as if on rails, then began to roll.
Oh God . . .
She clung to the wheel with one hand, still holding tight to her pistol with the other, her world spinning, teeth slamming together and chattering. In her mind’s eye she saw the victims of the killer. Rapid-fire images, naked women, dead, their skin blue, ice and snow encrusted to their hair, their bodies lashed so tightly to the trunks of the trees that their skin had broken and bruised, blood running down before freezing.
Oh, Jesus, no.
The front end crunched on impact, jarring Pescoli to her bones. Her shoulder felt as if it were on fire, and she was pressed tight by the airbag, the grit from its release in her eyes.
With a scream of twisting metal, the Jeep spiraled off a tree, spinning down the slope, front panels crumpling, a tire popping as it rolled ever faster down the hillside.
Pescoli could barely think past the kaleidoscope of agony and fought to stay conscious. She held fast to her pistol, fumbling for the dash to push the button that would release the magnetic lock on her shotgun, if she could get hold of it.
But she had to. Because if she survived the crash and some son of a bitch carrying a rifle came to rescue her, she’d nail him. No questions asked. Fleetingly she thought of her life and the mess she’d made of it: her children and dead first husband; her second husband, Lucky; and finally Nate Santana, a drifter and sexy son of a bitch she should never have gotten involved with.
So many regrets.
Don’t think like that. Stay awake. Stay alive. Be ready for this twisted maniac and blow his balls straight to hell.
Gritting her teeth, she popped the magnetic lock on the shotgun release but nothing happened. It wouldn’t budge. Despair welled but she still had her pistol. Her fingers closed over it now, and she took comfort in knowing it was there.
Shoot first, ask questions later.
She heard another grinding metallic groan as the roof, around the roll bars crumpled, crushing down on her.
In a blinding second of understanding, she knew she was about to die.
I watch in satisfaction as the Jeep spins and rolls over the edge of the cliff and into the ravine. Trees shake, great piles of snow fall from limbs and the sounds of shrieking metal and shattering glass are muted by the storm.
But I can not rest on my laurels or pat myself on the back, for there is much work to do. And this one, Regan Elizabeth Pescoli . . . no make that Detective Pescoli is different from the others.
She might recognize me.
If she’s alive.
If she’s conscious.
I must be careful.
Quickly, I roll up the plastic tarp on which I laid on the spot where I had such a perfect and clear shot of the road. I lash it onto my pack, then make certain my ski goggles are covering my eyes and that my ski mask, cap and hood disguise my face. Once assured my identity is obscured, I haul my rifle and begin trudging through the thick snow, grateful that the blowing snow will cover my tracks.
My vehicle is parked in an abandoned logging camp two miles from the spot where the Jeep has landed. Two miles of steep and difficult terrain that will take me hours to cross. Pescoli is not a petite woman and she might fight me.
But I have ways to deal with that.
I start hiking down the backside of the hill that overlooks the road and through a culvert to cover my tracks. It’s tight and dark, no water trickling, and it takes a lot longer, but the extra half mile is worth it. Not only will it be harder for the imbecile cops to track, but also it leaves Detective Pescoli in the frigid air a while longer, lets the cold seep deep into her bones so that she’ll welcome help from anyone. Even though she’ll be wary.
I don’t believe she could have survived the crash and gotten out of the car or escaped, not with the damage that I saw and heard as the Jeep spiraled over the edge of cliff. But even if by some miracle she did survive well enough to extract herself and crawl away from the wreckage, I’ll be ready.
A tiny jolt of adrenalin surges through my bloodstream at the thought. I’ve always loved to hunt, to stalk prey, to test my skills against the most worthy of opponents.
Smiling beneath the neoprene of my ski mask I realize Regan Pescoli is certain to be one.
Run, I think, the gloved fingers of my right hand tightening over my rifle. Run like the devil, you stupid cop-bitch!
But you’ll never get away.
Pescoli could barely breathe.
Her lungs were tight, so damned tight. And the pain . . . God, the pain.
She felt as if all the weight of the crumpled Jeep was compressing on her body, grinding against her muscles, squeezing the air from her lungs, the life from her body.
Don’t be a melodramatic idiot.
Get out now!
You know what’s happening and it’s not good. In fact, it’s very, very bad.
Desperately, adrenaline spurring her, she tried to release her seatbelt, to thrust the damned air bag away from her face as pain splintered up her shoulder and she let out a wounded yowl.
Where once her body responded to her every command, she was helpless.
Come on, come on! You don’t have much time!
Even now she knew he was out there.
Felt his presence.
Realized he was coming for her with deadly and sure intent.
God in heaven, move, Pescoli, get the hell out of here!
Sucking in her breath, gritting against the pain, she forced her fingers into the space between the seats and pushed hard on the seatbelt release button.
Now if she could force the crumpled door or somehow try to get through the windshield . . . But nothing happened, the belt didn’t so much as budge.
She tried again.
She heard the same metallic sound of release, but the damned thing was jammed. Like the shotgun catch.
Panic-stricken, she tried over and over again, grimacing against the pain, fearing that any second the killer would appear and that would be the end of it. Of her.
Don’t give up! There’s still time!
The blood that was oozing from a cut near her temple was freezing on her skin and she was shivering, her teeth chattering as the wind and snow raged through the shattered windshield, yet a nervous sweat ran down her spine.
Any second she expected the sick son of a bitch to appear.
Damn it, you’re a sitting duck! Get the hell out of this rig!
If she could just reach the police band radio or her cell phone or . . .
Again she tried to release her seat belt and realized it was no use, the damned buckle was jammed tight. Hell! She was going to have to cut the seat belt . . . but with what? Grabbing at the console, she tried to open the lid, but it, too, was mangled. “Oh, for God’s sake,” she muttered, forcing one finger through the opening . . . while in her left hand, she still held her gun. There was a knife in her pocket. If she could just reach it . . . or the radio . . . or her cell phone . . . or her safety pack. If she were just wearing her safety pack, but she’d been off duty, so the small radio she sometimes wore at her shoulder was lost in the back seat. She hadn’t thought she’d need it in confronting Lucky.
Jaw tight, she tried to reach into her pocket where she kept a pocket knife with a serrated blade, one that could saw through the seat belt.
She struggled to push her right hand into her pants and tried vainly to tamp down her panic, the feeling that any second she might go into shock and render herself useless.
Don’t even think that way. Just keep working. You can do this, you can.
Swallowing back terror, she felt the knife with her finger tips. Come on, come on. She eased her hand further into the pocket all the while listening above the pounding of her heart and the wintry rush of the wind for footsteps or snapped twigs or any noise that didn’t fit in this frigid wilderness, any human sound that would warn her of the predator who stalked her.
She would be found by her colleagues; she knew that. Eventually. Given enough time the sheriff’s department would locate her vehicle. Though not equipped with a computer, there were devices within the vehicle that would send out signals and the Jeep would be located. By the good guys.
But, with the department stretched thin, and her own request that she needed some time alone, she would either be captured or freeze to death before anyone came looking.
Fear and fury swept through her just as her fingers clenched around the knife.
She concentrated on pulling the small weapon up her leg, out of the pocket, away from the pain. Hands shaking she finally extracted the knife. Painstakingly, she opened the blade then madly slashed at the airbag which hissed and slowly collapsed. She pushed it aside and then began to saw at the seatbelt. Her cheeks were numb, her fingers unresponsive as they began to freeze.
If she were uninjured she could have sliced through the belt quickly. As it was, it took all of her strength. She began sawing and felt rather than saw that she wasn’t alone.
She froze. The fingers of her left hand were clenched around her semi-automatic Glock. Cramped as she was, she needed the flexibility of the pistol. Once she was free of the wreckage, she could try for the shotgun again, see if she could get the catch to release.
She heard nothing save the scream of the wind and her own panicked heartbeat. She saw nothing but white on white, millions of furious snowflakes falling from the sky, creating a shifting curtain where only shadows and her own imagination created images. Her heart was racing wildly.
I know you’re out there, you prick. Show yourself.
She licked her cracked lips, told herself that she was imagining things. She usually didn’t take much stock in “gut feelings” or “woman’s intuition” or “cop’s instincts.” But now, in this lonely frozen canyon . . .
Was that movement? In the thicket only ten feet from the vehicle?
Heart drumming, she squinted as ice crystals peppered her face.
No! Yes, something was definitely moving . . . She dropped the knife and put both hands on the pistol, training it through the shattered windshield. Another shadow.
She pulled the trigger as the image leaped.
The bullet hit the boles of a snow-blanketed pine. Bark and chunks of ice and snow exploded.
A great buck leaped out from behind the trees and sprang up the hill, a frightened gray shadow disappearing into the whiteout.
“Oh, God,” she whispered, adrenaline spiking through her bloodstream. A deer. Only a damned deer.
She let her breath out slowly, started sawing again and had convinced herself she was overreacting when she saw something move in the fragments of her rearview mirror.
She looked again and it was gone.
Get over yourself.
One last swipe with the knife and the seatbelt released just as she felt a sharp sting against her nape.
She slapped the back of her neck, felt something cold and metallic, a small missile lodged near her spine. Her heart turned to stone as she yanked a dart free.
Her insides liquified.
She nearly dropped the damned thing. Someone had shot her with what? Any kind of drug or poison could be inside the slim silver cannister with its short needle and hidden charge that forced the foreign substance into her body.
She wanted to throw up.
Don’t! Keep your wits! The bastard’s near . . .
Again there was movement in the reflective shards of what remained of the mirror–-a blurry shifting.
She blinked hard, brought up her pistol as she turned toward the window, but it was too late. Her fingers were already not responding to her brain’s commands, the images in her mind scrambled, a tingling spreading through her.
The drug . . .
Another movement in the shattered crumpled mirror.
The shotgun. She needed the shot. . .gun. . .
She tried to respond, to look for her assailant, but she was feeling numb all over. Her head lolled to one side, the pistol slipped from her fingers and the world began to spin in eerie slow motion, images becoming dim and foggy.
“No!” she said, her tongue thick as she tried and failed to find her sidearm again.
And then she saw him, his features distorted by the broken mirror, a tall figure in white, ski mask obscuring his face, huge dark goggles shielding his eyes.
She was beginning to fade, to slip beneath the surface of consciousness as he said, “Detective Pescoli,” in a warm voice that indicated he knew her. He was only a few feet away . . . if she could just aim her weapon . . . “Looks like you’ve had yourself an accident.”
She rolled her eyes up at him and with one last great effort snarled, “Go to hell.”
“Already there, Detective, but at least now I won’t be alone. You’re going to join me.”
Not if I can help it, she thought with a sudden burst of clarity. She scrabbled for her pistol, her hands sluggish as she brought it up and fired.
A series of blasts echoed through the canyon.
But the shots missed. Her aim was off.
As close as he was, she’d missed him, hitting only trees and rocks and God-knew what else.
He sighed and clucked his tongue. “You’re going to regret that.”
She wanted to squeeze off another round but her fingers refused to respond and the best she could do as he came closer was to swipe at him with her hand, her finger nails catching in his ski mask, then tearing down his skin. He let out a surprised yelp.
That’s me, jerk-wad, and I’ve got your epithelials and DNA under my fingernails. If I’m ever found, you’re as good as dead.
She noticed blood welling on his skin and he reached into some kind of pack and pulled out something . . . an apron? God, she just couldn’t focus . . . everything was so distorted . . . but she should recognize the piece of clothing dangling from his hand . . .
A straight jacket?
A chilling, mind-numbing fear sliced through her.
She realized he wasn’t going to let her die easily or quickly, he was going to keep her alive, torture her, nurture her, but inevitably kill her, just like the others.
But a straight jacket? Being bound and rendered completely helpless . . . it was as if he understood her worst, most terrifying fears.
The white blizzard swam before her eyes, his image and that of the straight jacket clouding in the swirling, dancing, icy flakes.
As she sank into unconsciousness she felt no fear; just a hard-edged determination that if she ever woke up again she was going to take this son of a bitch down. Way down. To a place so dark he would never, ever see the light again.
She only prayed she’d someday get the chance.