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Excerpt for DESERVES TO DIE

Zebra
July 2014, ISBN: 1420118528

Genre: Romantic Suspense
(Part of the Montana "To Die" series - Book 6)

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Prologue

The Louisiana Bayou
October

            She wasn’t quite dead.

            Though her eyes seemed fixed as they stared up at the night sky, her breathing was shallow, her heart still faintly beating as she lay, face up on the tarp.  She was still alive, but barely, only inches and seconds from meeting the grim reaper, which was a good thing.  No longer could she taunt or ridicule anyone.  No longer would she ever smirk again.   Comatose, so near death that it would take little for her to cross over, she lay on the marshy bank of the bayou, an easy victim.

            Crouching over her, he grinned at her ultimate vulnerability.  If he wanted to, he could slice her throat and watch as the drips of blood accumulated over the grotesque smile he would carve into her white flesh. 

            He considered doing the deed and his knife, a slim switch blade that felt heavy in his pocket.  Maybe . . . ?

            But no, she was close enough to dead already and he had another, more intimate way of slicing her.

            Something jumped into the murky water not ten feet away.  A bullfrog maybe, but it reminded him to get back to work; he didn’t have much time.  A full moon was rising, casting silvery shadows through the white barked cypress, their roots exposed, Spanish moss draping over the dark water.  Crickets chirped, fish jumped, and the water lapped in this isolated stretch of Louisiana.

            Beads of sweat dotted his brow and ran down his face, creating salty tracks that passed over his lips and dropped onto her still body as he took her left hand in his, splaying her fingers easily.  Antique diamonds winked in the pale moonlight, their brilliance seeming to mock him. Oh, what those icy stones had meant, the promises that had been vowed, the secrets they held.

            A deep, smoldering rage ran through him as he eyed the stones, then using his free hand, he pulled a slim automatic pocket knife from his pocket and clicked the blade open.  It too reflected the moonlight. Without hesitation, he went to work, holding her fingers wide, then cutting quickly, nearly seamlessly slicing her finger off at the knuckle.

            She didn’t so much a flinch.

            As her blood pumped, he yanked the ring from its ugly stump and felt a welling satisfaction at a job well done.                      

                        Straightening, he looked down at her, nearly a corpse, her gauzy dress now filthy, her beautiful face condemned to death.

            He held her finger in his open palm, the ring now his.           

            Exquisite diamonds.

            So easily removed. 

            So easily pocketed.

            Satisfied, he kicked the body off its mound, watching it roll down the short bank. With a soft splash, she slipped into the murky water to float for a second, catching the slow moving current, heading downstream and out of sight.

            “Good riddance,” he whispered, glad to be rid of her.

            He took in several deep breaths and wiped his brow before pocketing his treasure.  As he turned to head back through the dense foliage, he heard another sound over the chorus of crickets and bullfrogs, a quiet, ominous splash, the sound of a large reptile sliding into the water.

            Perfect, he thought, as the creature swam noiselessly under the water’s surface.  Smiling as he hurried to his hidden truck and knew that she was already gator bait.

            As if on cue, there was a loud splash, a frantic, sickening roiling of water, a flash of a white belly as the reptile rolled to make its kill, jagged teeth sinking into her skin, vise-like jaws gripping and pulling her under the water until the last bit of air escaped her lungs.

            Then all went quiet for a second as the stillness of the bayou surrounded him and only the barest of ripples spread to the surrounding water.   The chorus of insects, momentarily silenced, began again.            

            A fitting end, he thought.  It served the cheating bitch right.

Grizzly Falls,  Montana
January
Chapter One

            This has to be the place.

            Jessica Williams stared at the dilapidated cabin and her heart sank. Of course she’d been hoping for an isolated place to live, one without the prying eyes of nosy neighbors, but this little cottage went far beyond “rustic,” with its mossy roof, sagging porch and rusted down spouts.  At least the windows weren’t boarded over, and there was a garage of sorts, but it was all piled under nearly a foot of snow, and she doubted very strongly that there was any central heat within the building.  If she’d expected a haven, she’d been sorely disappointed.

            Too bad.

            For the foreseeable future, this little eighty-year-old building nestled deep in the forested foothills of the Bitterroots was going to be home, whether she liked it or not.

            “Not, is what I’m thinking,” she said as she hopped from the cab of her ancient SUV, a Chevy that had over two hundred thousand miles on its odometer and into the pristine snow.  The air was crisp and cold, the snow crusted over and no longer falling. For the last fifty miles of her long journey the Tahoe’s engine light had been blinking on and off and she’d ignored the warning, praying that she would get here before the damned thing overheated or gave out completely.  Somehow, subsisting on power bars, bags of Derates, Red Bull and bottled water, she’d arrived after nearly thirty-six hours on the road.  She was tired to the marrow of her bones, but she couldn’t stop; not yet.

            She glanced behind her vehicle to what could barely be called a lane where there was the merest a break in the trees, just wide enough for her rig to pass.  Now, twin ruts broke up the pristine mantel of snow and were evidence that someone was now occupying the cabin. 

            Jessica Williams, she reminded herself.  That’s who lives here, that’s your name now.  Jessica Williams.  The name felt uncomfortable, like a scratchy coat that rubbed her bare skin, but had to be worn.

            Before she started unloading, she broke a path to the rotting porch and inserted her key into the lock.  If it were rusted, which she half-expected, she’d be in trouble.   More trouble she reminded herself as she trudged up the two steps to the porch.  Snow had blown in, a couple of inches piling near the door, dark dry leaves poking up through the thin layer. 

            She tried the key and it stuck, unmoving in the lock.  She rattled it.  “Come on, come on,” she said under breath that fogged in the air.   She’d rented this place on-line, an struck a simple deal with the out-of-state owner: She paid him up-front, in cash, no questions asked.  She only hoped he held up his end of the bargain.

            With a final twist, the lock clicked and she was able to pull the door open.

            “Oh, man,” she said peering inside.  She flipped a light switch near the door and nothing happened, so she walked back to her SUV, found her flashlight and a roller bag, and returned to the porch and the open door.   Snapping on the flashlight, she swept its harsh beam over the interior that looked as if no one had been there for a decade and smelled musty, the air thick with dust.  She ran the beam across an old love seat with faded, lumpy cushions and a scarred wooden frame.  A coffee table sat in front of it and a rocker, with most of its stuffing exposed was situated by a river rock fireplace where, she assumed birds roosted in the summer, old nests probably clogged the flu and that didn’t begin to count the bats.

            “Fixer Upper’s Dream,” she said aloud.  The ad certainly hadn’t lied about that, nor, probably, “A Hunter’s Paradise.”  Both the terrain and the building were beyond rugged.   From the looks of the cabin’s interior, mice and other rodents had been the last house guests and she half-expected a racoon or worse to be cowering in a kitchen cabinet.  However she’d been wrong.  There were no cabinets.  Just a table near an antique wood-burning stove and an empty spot where once a refrigerator, or maybe an icebox had once stood.  And all the conveniences of home, which had been advertised were sorely lacking. She’d asked for running water, electricity, a septic system and cell phone access, if not the ability to connect to the Internet.  However, it seemed, she might have none of the basics.

            “Great,” she muttered under her breath and told herself that the most important aspect of the cabin, her tantamount request which was its isolation, had been provided.  “La-di-frickin’-dah,” she said, then caught herself.

            “Beggars can’t be choosers.”  Her mother’s voice moved slowly through her mind, dulcet tones tinged with rebuke.

            So this  would have to do.

            She tested the toilet.  Of course it didn’t flush, but once she twisted the valves underneath the tank, water began to flow.  A good sign. She’d been afraid that the pipes had rusted through or were frozen.  “Will wonders never cease?” she said and flushed again.  This time water swirled down the stained fixture.  It worked and water ran through the sink, though it was ice cold.

            Good enough for tonight.

                        She toured the rest of the cabin which consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom that looked questionable as to its functionality and a small loft tucked beneath a sloping roof.  A back porch overlooked a small stream that ambled through the hemlocks and firs that lined its shores.  Now, it was nearly frozen over, just a trickle near the middle indicating that there was still running water within.

            There was no visible signs of a furnace, nor duct work, just a kerosene space heater tucked into a gun closet and the river rock fire place with a charred and well-used firebox.   “Home sweet home,” she said as she walked through the interior and through the front door.  She needed to unload the Tahoe, clean the place up if she could, dare start a fire and settle in for the night.

            As she walked outside again, she notice dusk was settling in, twilight casting deep shadows across the small clearing, a soft snow beginning to fall again and, of course, cover the tracks her rig had made when she’d turned off the county road twenty miles into the hills surrounding Grizzly Falls, Montana.

            Good.

            Surely she would be safe here, she thought, her gaze scouring the woods.  There was no way he could find her.  Right?  She’d covered her tracks completely.  Again, she looked at the ruts her SUV had dug into the unbroken snow.  If ever there were red arrows pointing to a target, those ruts were it.  Worse yet, she felt as if she had been followed, though she’d seen no one in her rearview for miles.

            Paranoia crept in with the night stealing across the snowy landscape and, of course, she always felt as if someone’s only a step behind her, ready to pounce and quickly slit her throat.  Absently she touched her neck and reminded herself that she has friends in Grizzly Falls, people she can trust.

            And what good will they do, if he finds you?  They can’t save you, “Jessica” and you know it.  No one can.

            Despair threatened her just as a stiff breeze kicked up,  rattling the branches of trees and swirling around the thin walls of the cabin.

            Get over yourself.  The law here was supposed to be different than what she was used to, the sheriff a thinking man with deep convictions and an ability to sort fact from fiction. 

            Dan Grayson would help her.

            He had to.