Tick. Tick. Tick.
He was losing time.
The sun threatening to set early this time of year, disappearing behind a mountain ridge, the last cold shafts of light a brilliant blaze filtering through the gathering clouds and skeletal branches of the surrounding trees.
As if a clock were inside his head, he felt the seconds clicking past. Far too quickly.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
By rote, with the precision he’d learned years before in the military, he set up his shot, knew where the perfect spot would be, an open area that would allow a clean, neat shot.
Not that the bitch deserved the quick death he planned to mete. He would prefer she suffer. But there was no time for waiting. His patience was stretched thin, his skin starting to itch in anticipation.
He knew her routine.
Sighting through his scope one last time, he waited, breath fogging in the air, muscles tense, a drip of sweat collecting under his ski mask despite the frigid temperatures.
Come on, come on, he thought and felt a moment of panic. What if today she changed her mind? What if, for some unknown reason, a phone call, or a visit, or a migraine she abandoned her yearly ritual. What if, God forbid, this was all for naught, that he’d planned and plotted for a year and by some freak decision she wasn’t coming.
No! That’s impossible. Stay steady. Be patient. Trust your instincts. Don’t give into the doubts. You know what you have to do.
Slowly, he counted to ten, then to twenty, decelerating his heartbeat, calming his mind, clearing his focus. A bird flapped to his right, landing on a snow-covered branch, clumps of snow falling to the ground. He barely glanced over his shoulder, so intent was he on the area he’d decided would be his killing ground, where the little-used cross-country ski trail veered away from the lake, angling inward through the wintery vegetation.
This would be the place she would die.
His finger tightened over the trigger, just a bit.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
And then he saw her. From the corner of his eye, a tall, slim figure gliding easily on her skis.
Reddish hair poked out from beneath her ski cap as she skied, ever faster. Recklessly. Dangerously. Tall, rangy and athletic, she wound her way closer. She’d been called “bull-headed” and “dogged” as well as “determined.” Like a dog with a bone, she never gave up, was always ready to fight.
Well, no more. He licked his lips, barely noticing how dry they were. A hum filled his mind, the familiar sound he always heard before a kill.
Just a couple more seconds . . .
Every nerve-ending tight, he waited until she broke from the trees. His shot was clear. She glanced in his direction, those glacial bluish eyes searching the forest, that strong chin set.
As if she saw him, she slowed, squinting.
He pulled the trigger.
With an ear-splitting report, the rifle kicked hard and familiar against his shoulder.
Here head snapped backward. She spun, skis cutting the air like slow-moving, out of kilter, chopper blades. And she dropped dead in her tracks.
“Bingo,” he whispered, thrilled that he’d brought her down, one of the most newsworthy women in all of Grizzly County. “And then there were five.”
Just as the first flew flakes of snow fell, he shoved hard on his own ski poles, driving them deep into the snow, and pushed himself forward. In easy, long strides, he took off through the trees, a phantom slicing a private path into the undergrowth deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. He’d lived here most of his life and knew this back hill country as well as his own name. Down a steep holler, along a creek and over a small footbridge, he skied. The air was crisp, snow falling more steadily, covering his tracks. He startled a rabbit a good two miles from the kill site and it hopped away through icy brambles, disappearing into the wintry woods.
Darkness was thick by the time he reached the wide spot in the road where he’d parked his van. All in all, he’d traveled five miles and was slightly out of breath. But his blood was on fire, adrenalin rushing through his veins, the thought of what he’d accomplished warming him from the inside out.
How long he’d waited to see her fall!
He stepped out of his skis, carefully placed them inside the back of his van with his rifle, then tore off his white outer clothing. Ski mask, ski jacket and winter camouflage pants, insulated against the stinging cold were replaced quickly with thermal underwear, jeans, flannel shirt, padded jacket and a Stetson; his usual wear.
After locking the back of the van, he slid into the freezing interior and fired up the engine. The old Ford started smoothly and soon he was driving toward the main road, where, he knew, because of the holidays and impending storm, traffic would be lighter than usual. Only a few hearty souls would be spending Christmas in this remote part of the wilderness where electricity and running water were luxuries. Most of the s in this neck of the woods were bare-bones essentials for hunters, some without the basics of electricity or running water, so few people spent the holidays here.
Which was perfect.
At the county road he turned up hill, heading to his own cabin, snow churning under the van’s tires and spying one set of headlights before he turned off again and into the lane where the snow was piling in the ruts he’d made earlier. Yes, he should be safe here. He’d ditch this van for his Jeep, but not until he’d celebrated a little.
Half a mile in, he rounded an outcropping of boulders and saw the cabin, a dilapidated A-Frame most people in the family had long forgotten It was dark of course, he’d left it two hours earlier while there was still daylight. After pulling into a rustic garage and as he killed the engine, he let out his breath.
He’d made it.
No one had seen.
No one would know. . . yet. Until the time was right. He carried all of his equipment into the house, then closed the garage door and heard the whistle of the wind through the trees and echoing in this particular canyon.
In the light from his lantern, he hung his ski clothing on pegs near the door, cleaned his rifle, then again, as the cabin warmed, undressed. Once he was naked did he start his workout, stretching his muscles, silently county, breaking into a sweat to a routine he’d learned years ago in the army. This austerity was in counter-balance to the good life he led, the one far from this tiny cabin. His routine worked; it kept him in shape and he never let a day go by without the satisfaction of exercising as well as he had the day before.
Only then did he clean himself with water cold enough to make him suck his breath in through his teeth. This, too, was part of the ritual, to remind him not to get too soft, to always excel, always push himself. He demanded perfection for himself and expected it of others.
As his body air dried, he poured himself a tall glass of whiskey and walked to the hand-hewn desk attached to the wall near his bunk. The pictures were strewn across the desk top, all head-shots, faces looking directly at the camera . . . his camera, he thought with more than a grain of pleasure.
He found the photograph of the woman he’d just sent to St. Peter, and in the picture she was beautiful. Without a trace of her usual cynicism, or caustic wit, she had been a gorgeous woman.
No more. Tossing his hunting knife in the air and catching it deftly, he smiled as he plunged its sharp tip into the space between his victims eyes. So much for beauty, he thought as he sliced the photograph and staring at its marred surface, rattled the ice in his drink and took a long swallow.
“Bitch,” he muttered under his breath.
Turning his attention to the remaining five photographs, he felt his insides begin to curdle. God, he hated them all. They would have to pay; each and every one of them. But who would be next?
Sipping from his tall glass he pointed at the first with the tip of his knife and moved it to the others as he rattled the ice cubes in his glass and said, “Eeny, meany, miney, mo . . .” But before he could continue and make his selection, his gaze settled on one face: Stern. Brooding. Contemplative. With a hard jaw and deep-set eyes. In that instant, he knew who is next target would be.
Make that Sheriff Dan Grayson.
“Merry Christmas,” he said to the photograph as the wind picked up and rattled the panes of the old building. With his new target in mind, he took a long swallow from his glass and felt the whiskey warm him from the inside out. Deep in his heart he’d known all along that Grayson would be next.
He hoped the bastard was ready to die.