Ice Lake: Gone Cold\Cold Heat\Stone Cold, page 19
“Does she have any family here?”
Daniel shook his head. “A roommate. Barb Hughes. Kent’s got her sedated in the infirmary. She doesn’t know exactly what happened yet. If anyone else here is missing her, they haven’t said—”
“Whoa. Someone’s missing?” Mike Osterman’s fingers curled through the grate between the seats as he invited himself into the conversation. “First you’re being all hush-hush about a killer. And now you can’t find somebody?” It could have been the cold, or perhaps it was genuine concern that made his voice shake. “Just what the hell kind of place have you brought Tony and me to? We have rights.”
Kylie jumped in before Daniel snapped the fool’s head off. “You’re lucky I didn’t leave you on the side of the road to freeze to death.”
Mike pulled his fingers back and huddled inside his blanket. “Coming here for our vacation was a bad idea, right, Tone?”
Tony just stared at his friend through droopy eyelids and groaned.
Kylie unhooked her seat belt. “Let’s get our patients straight to the infirmary.” Before they spread rumors and suspicion among the guests inside, she added to herself. “Gentlemen?”
With a lingering look that could have been impatience or regret, Daniel pulled his patrol cap back over his head and got out to open the back of the SUV. Once he and Tony had disappeared through the lobby’s doors, Kylie blinked to give herself a moment of respite from whiteout conditions and dueling wills.
If a woman had been murdered on the Mount Atlas ski run, it wasn’t too soon to start taking stock of her surroundings. A cornered killer could be desperate, unpredictable—especially if he was used to having a partner telling him what to do. She needed to act quickly before he panicked and lashed out at another innocent victim.
But there was still too much snow flying for Kylie to be able to detect whether anything seemed out of place around the main lodge, the parking lot or any of the outbuildings and craggy, forested landscape surrounding them. She inhaled a deep, steadying breath to counteract the responsibility weighing down her shoulders, before turning to her passenger in the backseat.
As she peered through the side window, a gust of wind cleared her line of sight for a split second and she spotted the orange vest of a snowsuit over by the snowmobile shed. Who would be out in this mess?
Just as quickly, the man was swallowed up by the snow. But her pulse had already given a little lurch of recognition. Was that her brother? Another member of the search and rescue team?
Or something else entirely?
She made a mental note to prioritize her investigation list. First thing on the agenda was to get an accounting of every guest and staff person currently taking refuge at the resort. It would be far easier to find the man who didn’t belong if she knew the names and faces of everyone who did.
“Okay, Mike. Let’s move it.” The cold and wet slapped her in the face as soon as she climbed out of the SUV. Bending her head slightly to take on the wind, she opened the back door, bracing her hip against it to anchor it in place while she helped the man out.
“This is a mighty fancy hospital.” Mike Osterman’s breathy tone indicated that he was dealing the effects of his needless exposure to the elements. “A little out of my budget. No one’s going to charge me for this, right?”
“The hospitality is free during the storm.” The citations and fines he’d be receiving later, for his reckless behavior and a possible DUI, were all on him.
The flash of orange caught her eye again, and Kylie instinctively turned to see who was approaching her. The man hurrying toward her car was too short to be her brother. And he was moving with a purpose that put her on guard. When the next wave of snow hid him from view again, she squeezed Mike’s arm. “Time to move.”
The wind howled through the archway and smacked the car door against her hip. It knocked her off balance and she tumbled into Mike. But before the two of them crashed to the ground, an unexpected hand caught her arm and righted her.
Kylie spun around. A glint of light from inside the lodge reflected off the shorter man’s round glasses, and she exhaled an embarrassing sigh of relief at recognizing her savior.
Louis Sullivan was one of Ice Lake’s seasonal hires who’d been around for a couple of months now, doing odd jobs and handyman work. He released her to close the SUV’s door. “Wh-wh-what are you doing here?”
Although she guessed him to be about thirty, Lou’s wiry frame and soft-voiced stutter often made her think she was talking to a shy teen. “You gave me a start there, Lou. But thanks for the help.” She eyed the snow shovel in his free hand as he hurried around them to open the first of the lodge’s double glass doors. “Looks like you’re fighting a losing battle.”
“We have to k-keep the drive in front of the shed doors clear, in case there’s an emergency. I’m doing it by hand to save the gas for the g-g-generators. Is every…th-thing all right?”
“Dude. You need to—”
Kylie could hear the remark about Lou’s speech impediment forming on Mike’s lips, so she pushed him on through the second set of doors for a time-out in the lobby. “I can’t get back into town with this weather, so I brought two stranded travelers here for shelter and medical attention. Looks like we’re going to be snowed in with you guys until the storm breaks and the roads are cleared.”
Simply getting out of the wind between the doors warmed her enough to unzip her coat. But the sudden difference in temperatures fogged up Lou’s glasses, and with thickly gloved fingers, he pulled them off to wipe the lenses on a bandanna he drew from his pocket. “You want me to park your car in the g-garage for you?”
“Thanks, but—” she nodded to the Suburban outside “—I’m afraid I can’t give a civilian access to my car. Would you make sure the garage is unlocked for me, though? I’ll move it in in a few minutes. As soon as I get my passengers the medical attention they need.”
“G-g-glad to. I s’pose you heard about the k-killings. It isn’t safe for a woman....” His cheeks flushed and he glanced away to put his glasses back on and compose himself. His eyes lingered at her waist before he looked at her again. “Even with a g-gun, it isn’t safe.”
She reached out to give his shoulder a friendly pat. “I appreciate you looking out for me, Lou. But it’s my job. I’m not afraid.”
“Of c-course.” Was it her imagination, or did Lou’s chin sink lower into the folds of the thick wool scarf he’d tucked into his insulated coveralls? “I wasn’t s-saying that you were.”
Under the circumstances, perhaps it would be wise to play down the badge and body armor angle just a bit. Anyone gathered around the fireplace in the lobby had a clear view of her khaki uniform and the Kevlar she wore under her coat. If the Big Sky Strangler’s partner was here, then she’d just put a big target on her back. Time to tone down the tough chick attitude she relied on when she had to handle drunken idiots like Mike and Tony, and let a little demure female come out.
She pulled off her sunglasses and winked at Lou. “I wouldn’t mind a thorough scrape down on all my windows, though. Since you’re already bundled up?”
His chin lifted and an instant smile was his answer. “S-s-sure. No problem, Deputy.”
It was easy to make her smile match his eagerness to please. “It’s Kylie, Lou. If you’re going to be working with Kent and my friends here at Ice Lake, then we’re going to be friends, too. There’s no need to be so formal.”
“Right. Thanks, K-Kylie. S-stay warm.”
“You, too. Thanks, Lou. I’ll be back out in ten.” While he hurried off to the snowmobile shed to exchange the shovel for a broom and an ice scraper, Kylie stepped into the lobby.
She was instantly met with a wall of heat and dozens of curious glances. The warmth emanating from the circular fire pit at the center of the lobby opened the pores of her skin and thawed her tensed muscles like a good massage. But the looks she was getting from the guests gathered around the fire
But everyone else seemed to have taken note of the lodge’s newest arrival. A few of the men and women must have felt relief at seeing a cop on the premises, and returned to their books and knitting and roasting marshmallows. Others seemed to take her arrival as a sign that the danger they’d endured for the past forty-eight hours wasn’t over, and quickly bowed heads and closed ranks to speculate as to what Kylie’s presence might mean. No one stuck out as being overly curious or nervous about her pulling the front of her coat back, past her holster and handcuffs, and sliding her chilly fingers into the pockets of her slacks.
Good to know. If the Big Sky Strangler’s missing partner was here, then he was a damn fine actor who blended in with the other guests. Other than the fact they were using candles and kerosene lanterns instead of electricity to add more light to the meager sunshine seeping through the windows, it could pass for any afternoon at the resort lodge during the height of ski season. Weeding him out of the crowd without arousing his suspicion wouldn’t be an easy task.
If he wasn’t one of the fifty or so people wrapped in blankets or sipping something steamy by the fire pit or in the nearby seating areas, then that meant he was hiding out somewhere. That could prove to be an equally difficult challenge. As long as the blizzard raged and the lodge’s guests were all gathered here, he’d have plenty of empty rooms and mountain cabins where he could stay out of sight.
And if he had any kind of outdoor survival training? He’d have the whole mountain to hide on.
As the lone officer on site until backup could get through, Kylie knew she had a daunting challenge ahead of her. Tracking down a man who’d evaded the FBI’s detection for weeks, maybe even months, was a tall order for one woman to accomplish. But it wasn’t impossible, so long as she kept her head and relied on her training.
“Let’s go.” She tugged off her gloves and cap and combed her fingers through her hair to help the short waves fall into place as she guided Mike toward the front desk, and the hallway beyond it where the staff quarters and ski patrol offices were housed.
“Kylie?” Victoria Cooper closed the book she’d been reading by flashlight and hurried to the edge of the counter. “What are you doing here?” She squinched up her plump cheeks. “Did you hear about the…bodies…in the freezer?”
“I heard.” Kylie stopped to squeeze the college student’s hand. “How are you holding up?”
“Fine. I guess. I’d relax a little more if Dad wasn’t so stressed out about everything. We’ve never had one death here, much less two.”
Good. So word about the woman Daniel had found on the mountain hadn’t gotten out yet. Kylie intended to keep it that way for as long as possible. “We’ll be okay. I’m here now to keep an eye on things.” She gave the younger woman a wink. “The biggest thing you and your dad need to worry about right now is not running out of marshmallows and firewood for the guests.”
The tension eased and Victoria relaxed. “I’ll be sure to tell him.”
“Hey, darlin’.” Unfortunately, Mike wasn’t shivering so hard that he couldn’t lean in and flirt with the petite redhead. “You got a bed for me? I need some warming up.”
Kylie turned him away from the desk. “Ignore him.”
“Kylie!” Her brother’s deep-pitched voice boomed from the hallway. Before she could answer, he swooped around the corner and gathered her up in a big bear hug that lifted her onto her toes. “Daniel told me the kind of trouble you were having.” She was flat on her feet now as he pulled back to inspect her from head to toe. “Are you okay?”
The once-over he gave Mike Osterman wasn’t nearly as friendly.
Taking Mike by the arm, Kent positioned himself between the man and Kylie, then led them down the wood-paneled hall into the ski patrol office. As soon as they were through the door, Kent summoned another EMT to take Mike into the adjoining infirmary and get an examination started. Alone with her for the moment, big brother propped his hands on his hips and frowned down at her. “I don’t know what to do here. We need your help but…I don’t want this to be your responsibility.”
“But it is. I’ll do my job and you do yours. Your team needs to keep everyone here alive and healthy. Get them safely through this blizzard.”
“The weather I can handle.” He rested his hands on her shoulders for a moment, then turned her around to pull off her coat. “But you’ve always been a handful. The Big Sky Strangler and his partner targeted strong women—women they perceived as having power or authority over them.” When she turned back, he dropped the coat into her arms and flicked his finger against her badge. “Hello.”
Indulging the instinct she hadn’t been able to with Daniel, she reached up and brushed a strand of dark hair away from the worry lines on her brother’s forehead. Then she deftly changed the subject. “So, how’s my other snow-diving buddy? Anything broken?”
Understanding her stubbornness better than anyone on the planet, Kent let the conversation drop. He took her to his desk and pulled out a chair for her to sit. Knowing she was with someone she could completely trust, Kylie relaxed and let him fuss over her for a few minutes. He poured her some hot coffee with a slug of milk in it, the way she liked, and handed her the mug. “It’s not like I’ve got an X-ray machine here I can use, but I’m not even sure it’s a sprain. He scraped a chunk of skin off, so I’m guessing he knocked it against a tree root or trunk and hyperextended it. Good field wrap, by the way. The swelling was almost nil.”
Kylie savored the heat of the mug between her hands and inhaled the pungent aroma before taking a sip. “If Tony wasn’t seriously hurt, then why was he moaning and groaning so much?”
“Hangover? A touch of hypothermia and he’s thawing out?” Kent poured himself a cup and then settled his hip on the corner of his desk, facing her. “He seems a little groggy to me. Maybe he’s on something and it hasn’t worn off yet. We’re getting him some dry clothes and hot soup to bring his temp back to normal. Then I’ll have a better idea of what’s going on. We’ll do the same for the other one.”
“Thanks. I knew I could count on you.”
He drank another swallow before clearing his throat in a way that reminded her of their father. “I don’t know what you intend to do, but be smart about it. Be safe. You know you don’t have any backup here.”
“Yeah, she does.” Daniel Stone strolled in from the infirmary. The gravelly promise—or was that a warning?—in his voice danced across Kylie’s eardrums and seeped into her blood.
He’d shed his coat to reveal a form-fitting sweater and waffle-weave undershirt that hugged his shoulders and every ripple of muscle along his lean frame. While he poured himself a cup of coffee, Kylie slipped her guard back into place, stiffening her spine even as that innate awareness of his masculinity softened her resolve to remain immune to him. She’d do better standing on her feet and meeting him face-to-face rather than having him tower over her and make pronouncements like that. “What are you talking about?”
“We’re partners again, babe.” He turned and raised his mug in a parody of a toast. “I’m not letting you out of my sight until this guy is caught.”
THE MAN SHIVERED.
He was cold. He was alone. The clothes he was wearing itched against the scrapes and scratches on his skin.
His foster mother used to beat him until the skin broke. He remembered her telling him that that was how she knew he really felt the pain, really understood whatever the lesson was she wanted him to learn—do her bidding, guess what she wanted before she had to order him to do it, never guess wrong.
He pulled the Ice Lake Resort stationery from his pocket and warmed the pen between his hands so the ink would flow.
He’d kept house for truck driver Donna. Cooked her meals. Folded her laundry. Woman’s work.
He had been too weak.
But he’d been a boy then.
Now he was a man.
Now he was the one in control.
Taking extra care not to disturb anyone in the room, he moved silently to finish his work. The woman in the room was of no consequence. She posed no threat.
But that lady deputy was another story. That one would put up a fight.
Kylie Webber had legs like a fine racehorse. And she was pretty when she smiled. A part of him recognized her as an attractive woman. That part had wanted to impress her, tame her, earn one of those smiles for himself.
But another part knew she was trouble. Nothing to him but trouble. She was here because of the dead woman. Here for him. Flashing that badge as though it put her in charge. Making sure everyone could see that gun strapped to her waist. Giving him orders. It didn’t matter if it was couched in one of those pretty smiles—it was just a ploy, a trick she used to get him to do her bidding. He had no doubt she would have drawn that gun on him to get her way if he hadn’t done what she asked.
False power. Female power.
He would take it from her.
No woman would ever make him feel like that helpless little boy again.
He cursed his shaking fingers as he hurried to complete his task without being seen. His fingers had shaken earlier, too, when he’d had them around that stupid blonde’s throat. She should have listened, shouldn’t have rebuffed his advances the night before—shouldn’t have thought she was doing him a favor when she’d come over to the trees to rescue him.
When she’d thought he was injured, weaker than her, she’d been all smiles and help and saving the day. She’d been so confused when he didn’t need her help, after all. Then she got angry, talked down to him as if he was a little boy again. “I don’t have time for this. Get on your feet and follow me down the mountain. The ski patrol ordered all of us down to the lodge before the blizzard hits.”