Ice lake gone cold cold.., p.21

Ice Lake: Gone Cold\Cold Heat\Stone Cold, page 21

 

Ice Lake: Gone Cold\Cold Heat\Stone Cold
 


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  “I agree.” Kylie took another sip of her soup. “If they knew one of their suspects was still here on the mountain, I think the elements are the only thing that would stop them from coming back to search for him.”

  Kent nodded. “Did you think anything looked out of place at the cabins?”

  Daniel swallowed another bite before answering. “There was food in the cabinets of the one that had been broken into, along with some ice fishing equipment. But those could have been left behind by the paying tenants when we evacuated them to the lodge.”

  “I’ll find out who was in that unit and see if they can account for their belongings.” Kent paused to throw another log into the woodstove near where he’d seated Kylie and Daniel to thaw out from their trip up the mountain, and share a meal away from the others taking their dinner in the dining room. Kylie was glad for the privacy, so they could discuss her investigation without being overheard by any potential suspects.

  “Could your killer be stockpiling a hideaway?” her brother added.

  She’d considered that. But it was an odd assortment of items for a man running from the law—both men and women’s clothes, bait and tackle, a cabinet full of pudding mix and cereal, soured milk in the powerless refrigerator, and a pair of neatly made cots with tucked in sheets and blankets. “If that’s his idea of survival gear, then he won’t last very long.”

  “Did you see any signs of tracks leading away from the place? Maybe around the lake and down to the highway?”

  Daniel popped the last of his sandwich into his mouth and shook his head. “The only recent tracks were between cabins and between there and the lodge.”

  “Do you think that means the killer is here?”

  Kylie finished off her soup and dabbed her lips with a paper napkin. “No way to prove it. Yes, someone broke into that cabin, which is suspicious, but it could have been a guest who forgot a key, or someone who got lost in the storm and tried to get into the wrong unit.”

  “You mean they broke into one when their key didn’t work, realized it wasn’t theirs, then found their way to the right place?”

  “It’s something I intend to ask about. If no one will admit to the broken lock, then maybe it was an attempt at escape,” she conceded. “But unless the Feds were mistaken and Burney Novak’s partner is long gone, then I’m guessing he’s one of those guests in the dining room or lobby. Hiding in plain sight.”

  “That’s a comforting thought,” Daniel groused.

  “It’s just a matter of identifying him.” Kylie traded her paper plate for Daniel’s empty cup and carried both mugs to the sink in the counter next to the coffee station. While she rinsed them out, he tossed the trash into the bin beside the desk.

  Kent came to her side and draped his arm around her shoulders. “Any idea how you’re going to do that, Sherlock? The list Winston gave me has the names of forty-two guests and itinerants who were stranded here when the storm hit. Plus, you’ve got twelve of us on the lodge and support staff.”

  Kylie shrugged beneath his supportive hug. “Well, I’m eliminating the women, since they don’t fit the profile. And I think I can trust that neither you nor Daniel murdered Stacy Beecham.”

  “Glad we didn’t make the suspect list,” he teased.

  A scoffing noise drew her attention to the golden-haired man holding the curtain aside to peer through the window. “Don’t forget to look for someone with blood on his clothes,” Daniel said.

  Kylie curled her toes into the dry wool socks she’d borrowed from her brother, battling the urge to go to Daniel to ease the acid in his tone. Something about the gore and violence of Stacy Beecham’s murder had gotten inside his head. She knew there were people who couldn’t stomach the sight of a lot of blood, but she had a feeling that wasn’t the case here. Daniel was dealing with flashbacks to the nightmare in the Middle East that had changed him.

  She understood his cold shoulder toward her a little better now. For a few miraculous moments on the mountain, he’d shared a part of himself with her. Needs were exposed. Fears were revealed. Hearts had touched.

  That kiss had told her more than six months of mood swings and avoidance had. Daniel still cared for her, wanted her. But he was raw and confused and waging a war inside himself that he needed to win before he could handle any kind of relationship. And as much as she wanted him to admit he still cared, she would never force him into anything that might damage the fragile healing going on inside him.

  So Kylie stayed with her brother and focused on the investigation. “You’re right. We should expand our search to look for bloody clothes or a recent injury. Stacy put up a fight. There’s no way her killer walked away from that scene without a mark on him.”

  Daniel closed the curtain and strolled across the room. “The wind’s dying. The snow should be done by daybreak.” His eyes darkened in ominous warning at every step. “That’s a full night, and however long it takes us to dig out over the next couple of days, in close quarters with a man who knows you’re looking for him. He’s got the advantage here, Kylie. Not you.”

  “Tell me something I don’t know, Mr. Gloom and Doom.” She picked up her Kevlar vest from the chair beside the stove and checked it to see if the cover was dry. Time to gear up again and go back to work. “I just have to stay sharp. He’ll make a mistake. He’ll give us a clue soon enough. And then where’s he going to run?”

  She pulled the vest on over her khaki uniform shirt, but Daniel’s fingers were there to fasten the Velcro securely beneath each arm. She gasped as he cinched it a bit too tightly. “It’s that point when he’s cornered and has nowhere to run that I’m worried about. Think of how a wild animal reacts when it’s trapped.”

  Batting Daniel’s helping hands away, she ripped apart the strap and refastened the vest in a snug, but more comfortable fit. “Let’s just hope I’m smarter than a wild—”

  “Kylie?” The hallway door swung open with a bang against the wall and Daniel pushed Kylie behind him, putting himself between her and the man charging in unannounced. “Is she here?” The first question was to Kent. And then Winston Cooper spotted her nudging Daniel aside. “Kylie? Thank God.” The big, overweight lodge manager huffed and puffed his way across the room. His pudgy cheeks were flushed with color. “I thought I’d find you here. Good.”

  She eased her right hand off her weapon, where it had instinctively gone to defend herself, and raised her left, urging him to slow down and catch his breath. “Take it easy, Winston. You okay?”

  He inhaled a shallow gasp of air, but nodded. “There’s something you need to see. Victoria found it. Damn fool girl—trying to impress a boy.”

  Kent rested a calming hand on the frazzled man’s shoulder. “Take a deep breath, Winston. Is Victoria all right?”

  “Yes.” He watched Kent’s eyes, mimicked his slower breathing as the EMT subtly kept the manager from hyperventilating. “I mean, she’s freaked out. I sent her to the front desk and told that Mike fella to get back in the lobby with the other guests.”

  What now? “Mike Osterman?”

  “I didn’t ask his last name.”

  “Is Victoria all right?” Kylie echoed in a firmer tone. If the bozos were up to no good again…

  Winston swung his gaze back to her. Something had clearly rattled him. Please, God, not another dead body. “Just come.”

  The door to the infirmary opened and Barb Hughes peeked out. The older man’s noisy entrance must have awakened her from her drug-induced sleep. “Is it Stacy? Did you find her?”

  “Barb?” Kent hurried over to the slim blonde and slid an arm behind her waist to steady her on her feet. “Remember? We talked about Stacy.”

  “We did?” She squeezed her eyes shut with a sob of lucidity and she leaned into Kent. “What am I going to tell her mom?”

  Winston glanced Barb’s way, flashing the friendly smile with which he normally greeted guests. But just as quickly, the panic was back and he turned to Kylie again. “Please. Before anyone
else sees it.”

  “Go. I’ll take care of her.” Kent shifted his glance to Daniel. “You’ve got them?”

  With a nod, Daniel slipped his hand beneath Winston’s elbow. The older man was already backing toward the hallway. “I need you to come and look at something,” he said.

  A few minutes later Kylie and Daniel were standing in the kitchen’s walk-in freezer. A dedicated generator had kept the room at a frosty temperature to preserve and isolate the first strangulation victim’s body, along with that of her killer, Burney Novak.

  “Son of a bitch.” A warm puff of air formed a cloud when Daniel cursed.

  “Your daughter and Mike found the room like this?” Kylie asked.

  “That’s what she said.” Winston pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe away the perspiration freezing on his forehead. “She was talking to that boy about the Big Sky Strangler, and he dared her to prove he was here. Something like that. She ran straight to me when she saw it.”

  Ignoring the woman’s body, Kylie quickly moved across the concrete floor and knelt beside the stocky form of Burney Novak. The plastic tarp he’d been wrapped in had been pulled open. Spatter from the bullet wound that had killed him stained his shirt.

  But she was more interested in what was curiously out of place. The right front pocket of his pants had been turned inside out. Overlooking the protocol of donning plastic gloves, she quickly felt the rest of his pockets. “His billfold is missing.”

  What was that about? Why rob a dead man when there was no place to spend his money? The dead man’s credit cards would be no good, either. She wouldn’t put a sick prank past Mike Osterman, but this was about more than a stolen wallet.

  Behind her, Winston wheezed. “This is really bad, isn’t it?”

  “Yeah.” Kylie braced her hands on her knees and pushed herself to her feet. “Our guy has discovered a taste for killing.”

  Just like his partner.

  Her eyes focused on the handwritten note that had been taped to Novak’s forehead: “You can’t get rid of me this easily. This is prime hunting ground. I’m coming for you.”

  CHAPTER FIVE

  I’M COMING FOR YOU.

  Vague enough to make Kylie believe every woman at this lodge was in danger. Sinister enough to make the threat feel very personal.

  And the man who’d sent that message was in this room.

  “Gather around so you can see,” Kylie urged the people in the lobby, fixing a smile on her face, although she knew there was little to smile about tonight. “We need to fit everyone in here. That’s right. Sit if you want, or stand. We just need to make sure we’re all here and that you can hear Mr. Cooper and Mr. Webber at the front desk.”

  Shining her flashlight into the guests and staff crowded into the lodge’s lobby, Kylie looked for two things—any man boldly making eye contact with the only woman wearing a gun and a badge in the room, and any man making an effort to mask his face or some other part of his body that might have a cut, scratch or scrape that looked as if it had been earned in a brawl on the mountain.

  She nodded to one gentleman. Too old to fit the profile. She tucked a blanket more securely around a woman. Wrong gender. Ah, yes. Her dear friends Mike and Tony. Mike looked right at her from his seat beside the fire pit. Make a note. With a flick of the flashlight, she directed his attention to her brother and the lodge manager climbing up onto the knotty pine check-in counter.

  Tony stood behind Mike’s chair, his face turned toward the fire. He’d worn a silly necktie when she’d first run across him in the ditch. And now he’d put on a borrowed turtleneck that went clear up to his chin. This morning he’d seemed too blitzed to be a threat to anyone but himself. But could that have been an act? She jotted a second mental note to look beneath that neckline for any scratches, or ask Kent if his staff had treated any injuries beyond Tony’s wrist.

  She tilted her chin, searching out Daniel, who was on the far side of the gathering, making a similar inspection of the guests. A glance with her eyes alerted him to her suspicions about Mike and Tony, and he answered with a subtle nod. Then he angled his head toward the staff members lined up in front of the picture window at the rear of the lobby.

  Kylie began moving in that direction. What had caught his attention back there? The kitchen staff still wore their aprons, along with sweaters and gloves. Did he think one of them might be hiding an injury? The two maids were female. And the rest of them she knew from their work with Kent. Ski patrol. Lodge maintenance. Front staff. Having just come in from working outside, Lou Sullivan and the maintenance guys were brushing snow off their outdoor gear. Sure, a scarf or glove or coat sleeve could hide a mark from her.

  But Daniel was part of the lodge team, too. Did he really suspect one of the men he worked with was a killer? Was paranoia a symptom of PTSD?

  Frowning at the thought, Kylie turned her attention back to the two men speaking at the front of the room. This gathering had been her idea. With nightfall looming and the blizzard waning, depleted fuel supplies for the generators, and new dangers that could result if anyone thought it was safe to leave once the snow stopped, they had a perfectly legitimate reason for holding a public meeting and making a few announcements.

  Only she, Daniel, Kent and Winston—and possibly the killer himself—knew there was an ulterior motive behind getting everyone into one place at one time.

  “If we could have your attention. Ladies and gentlemen, please,” Winston called out again, his thick chest rising and falling with the effort of climbing onto his perch. One by one, side conversations quieted and he spoke again. “I can’t thank you all enough for your cooperation and the spirit of camaraderie that we’ve shared throughout the storm. But for everyone’s safety and survival, I must ask your indulgence for a little while longer.”

  “Are we running out of food?” someone shouted.

  “We’ve got enough to get us through another week, if you don’t mind canned supplies instead of a gourmet menu.”

  “We’re going to be here another week?” someone else asked.

  “We’ll freeze to death by then,” a voice complained.

  Another guest chimed in, “I’m freezing now.”

  Winston patted the air with placating hands to quiet the stirrings of unrest. “No. No. We’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. But the chief of the Mount Atlas ski patrol—my friend Kent Webber—has a couple of things you need to be aware of for your safety.” Looking enormously relieved to be turning the meeting over to Kylie’s brother, Winston gestured to the tall man standing beside him. “Kent?”

  “Thanks, Winston.” Kent stepped forward. “First, I want to assure all of you that we are perfectly safe here inside the lodge. However, based on my team’s patrols and my experience with this mountain, I need to issue an avalanche warning, and tell you we need to stay put for another twenty-four hours. At least.”

  Kylie scanned the crowd again, face by face, as a buzz of complaints and concerns cropped up—travel plans, missing work, no way to notify worried family back home. But no one blipped across her radar as someone who seemed particularly upset or angered by the announcement.

  Before he could be bombarded with questions, Kent hushed the crowd again. “I’ve asked the maintenance staff to put plywood over the north-facing windows, so please avoid that area. The main part of the lodge is literally rock-solid and we’ll be safe here. But the wood-framed wings of the hotel and the lake cabins, along with the glass facing the mountain, obviously, aren’t as sturdy. And absolutely do not venture outside for any reason.”

  “Are we going to die?” a woman asked.

  Kylie swept the crowd for signs that anyone else understood the innocent double entendre of her question. Nothing. Either this guy was good—or she wasn’t good enough.

  And she damn well wasn’t going to concede to that.

  “We’ll be just fine,” Kent reassured her. “As long as we’re smart about things, and you do as I say.”

  While h
is confidence seemed to calm the young woman, he darted his gaze to Kylie. Did I stall long enough, sis? he seemed to ask.

  With the slightest of nods, she signaled him to go on to the next phase of her plan. She’d seen all the faces and had a short list of suspects. Now she needed to find out if Mike or Tony, or one of the other twenty-to-thirtyish, brown-haired, average-built men she’d spotted would reveal a clue that could help her determine who had violated Burney Novak’s corpse and killed Stacy Beecham.

  Kent jumped off the counter and asked everyone to form an orderly line. Then he pointed to Winston and Victoria Cooper and the lists of names they held up. “Since the computers are down, we have no other way to verify who is here. Whether you’re a registered guest or not, even if you’re staff, we need you to sign beside your name so we have a record of everyone we’d have to account, for should some unforeseen catastrophe hit us. Like I said, I don’t believe we’re in any immediate danger inside the lodge. But it’s my job to be prepared ahead of time. Thank you.”

  Despite a few grumblings, there was more praise for Kent’s proactive safety measures, and sighs of relief from the people lining up. Kylie and Daniel worked their way to the front of the room, encouraging those who signed the sheet to move on out of the way.

  Mike Osterman winked at Victoria as he signed his name, and the young redhead giggled. “You’ve got a pretty laugh.” Kylie got no wink, though, when he faced her. Maybe it had something to do with Daniel Stone lurking over her shoulder. “Deputy. Mountain man,” he said in greeting.

  Daniel encouraged him to move on by stepping right behind him. “You’re holding up the line, Osterman.”

  “Like I said, this Western hospitality sucks. I’m movin’.”

  The sleeve of Tony’s oversize sweater came down to his knuckles, but he made no effort to pull the knit out of his way to write.

  “What is your last name, anyway, Tony?” Kylie asked. “We didn’t know what to put on the sheet.”

  “Are you asking as a deputy so you can arrest me?”

 
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