Ice lake gone cold cold.., p.23

Ice Lake: Gone Cold\Cold Heat\Stone Cold, page 23

 

Ice Lake: Gone Cold\Cold Heat\Stone Cold
 


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  His eyes darted to Kylie. “I think your plan backfired. I’m trying to keep everyone together in the main room, like you said. But when the crew went out to bring in plywood and start the plows, there was a lot of movement. And then the diesel engines were running and there was hammering and no one was listening to me—”

  “Winston.” Kylie touched the older man’s arm and urged him to take a breath. Other than the pinkened abrasions from Daniel’s beard around her kiss-stung lips, she gave no sign of the passion and raw emotions they’d just shared. “What’s wrong?”

  “I can’t find Victoria.”

  CHAPTER SIX

  KYLIE DASHED OUT to the lobby with Daniel on her heels and Winston hurrying behind them. She nimbly climbed atop the front desk. “Victoria Cooper! Are you here? Has anyone seen Victoria Cooper?”

  Conversations abruptly halted. Hammers and saws went silent. The maids who were handing out more blankets and pillows to anyone who was ready for some sleep stopped and stared.

  Kylie scanned the long, tall room for a glimpse of auburn hair. No sign of Victoria. The silence echoed in her ears and in the pit of dread opening in her gut.

  Kent appeared from the nearest hallway with a flashlight, the sober expression on his face adding to her fear. She squatted down to hear him, out of earshot of the guests.

  “Good. You’re already here,” her brother said. “I located Winston to ask about the list, but he was already looking for his daughter.” Kent shook his head as Daniel came up beside them. “I just checked every room and closet in the hotel wing. She’s not there.”

  Kylie’s worst fear had come true. “He’s got her.”

  “Who?” Kent asked.

  Daniel’s tone was equally grim. “The strangler’s partner.”

  Kylie rose to her feet and took control of the room again, before the buzz of speculation could drown her out. “False alarm. She’s been located,” she lied. She tried to summon a smile, but couldn’t. “Nobody leaves this room. Understand? That’s an order from the Granite County Sheriff’s Department. It’s for your own safety.” She scanned the groupings of people again. “If an avalanche hits us directly, it could wipe out the hotel wing. Go on about your business, but you have to stay here where the stone walls can protect you.”

  From the dangers outside this lodge.

  But what about the danger lurking within?

  As the guests relaxed and the crew went back to work, Kylie spotted Mike Osterman lounging on a couch in front of the fire pit. The young brunette he was chatting up seemed more taken by his charms than Kylie had been. He’d come to Montana looking for snow bunnies, and apparently, had finally found one.

  He’d made Victoria Cooper laugh easily, too.

  Victoria was always ready for a smile or a laugh.

  Wait a minute. Kylie was going about this backward. She hunched down to speak to Daniel and her brother. “Forget Victoria for a sec. Are there any men missing?”

  “I’ve got the list in my pocket.” Kent pulled the rolled-up papers from the back of his jeans and flattened them on the desktop. “You want me to have them sign their names again?”

  Daniel shook his head. “I don’t think we could come up with another excuse that wouldn’t send everyone into a panic. Right now, Barb Hughes is the only person besides our staff and Winston who knows what really happened to her roommate. But they’ve all heard about her being missing. If they think someone else has disappeared…”

  Kent nodded. “I can go through the crowd, make sure everyone has what they need for the night, and ask some casual questions to see if anyone has wandered off for any reason. I’ll get somebody to talk. I can be real friendly.” He waved over a couple of members from the ski patrol team and they quickly started working their way around the room.

  Tony Marchek sat up from the sofa where he must have been dozing as Kent approached him. He yawned and stretched, then shook his head at whatever her brother had asked him.

  I can be real friendly.

  Her brother’s tossed-off statement turned a switch inside Kylie’s brain as every observation she’d made over the past twelve hours fell into place.

  “Lou Sullivan looked me right in the eye. He joked with me.” He’d never been that confident before. “He was flirting.”

  “What?” Daniel grasped her waist to help her down from the desk.

  The imprint of his large, strong hands that had held her so desperately just a few minutes ago barely registered. “Forget head counts. Let me see that.”

  She dragged the stack of papers in front of her and flipped through the list. There. The clue was so simple that she’d overlooked it. “He didn’t sign his name.”

  “Who?”

  “Lou.” Kylie pointed to the blank spot beside the printed name. “It’s Lou. Lou Sullivan is Burney Novak’s partner.”

  Daniel’s shoulder brushed against hers as he verified the omission they’d all missed.

  “He never once took off his gloves, not even to write his name. What if his hands are scratched up? And he always has that scarf wrapped around his neck. And those glasses? The man’s hiding himself from head to toe. If he has any marks or blood on him, we wouldn’t see them.” He’d even made a joke about his autograph. “I was so intent on finding the killer, I wasn’t really listening to what he was saying at the time—or how he was saying it.” Kylie latched on to the arm of Daniel’s sweater and the strength she felt beneath. “Lou Sullivan is trying to be Burney now that his partner is out of the picture. Lou is Stacy Beecham’s killer.”

  Kent rejoined them at the check-in counter. “My men counted heads twice and asked some questions. Everyone’s here for except for Victoria and—”

  “Lou Sullivan,” she and Daniel answered in unison.

  “How did you know—?”

  “Don’t ask.” Daniel’s muscles bunched beneath her hand before he pulled away and faced Kent. “Do you know where he was last seen?”

  “Maintenance crew said he was outside, driving the snowplow.”

  Daniel swore. “Clearing the path for his own escape.”

  “Well, he didn’t get very far.” Kent’s tone was less harsh. “The engine seized up with the cold. The plow is broken down and blocking the parking lot exit.”

  Kylie glanced over her shoulder at Daniel’s stern, surprisingly cold, expression. “That’s probably what set him off and made him come after the woman who was easiest to get to. Someone he works with—a friend like Victoria, who wouldn’t question it if he asked for some kind of help.”

  Winston chose the wrong moment to eavesdrop on their conversation. “My baby? This is about the Big Sky Strangler, isn’t it? That note in the freezer. He’s going to kill my baby.”

  “No, he won’t.” Kylie turned to Kent. “Calm Winston down. Don’t let anyone else leave the building.” Then she turned and hurried down the hallway toward the ski patrol office, where her winter gear was stowed.

  Daniel was right behind her. He walked straight to the ski cabinet and pulled on his orange ski patrol gear as Kylie tugged on her hat and coat and adjusted the bulky warmth over her holster and utility belt.

  Gun, check. Ammo, check. Flashlight, check. Boots, gloves, resolve—check.

  Kylie no longer had any doubts that the Big Sky Strangler’s partner was here in Ice Lake. Shy, stuttering Lou Sullivan made the perfect submissive for a dominant partner like Burney Novak. Lou could blend in to a crowd without being noticed. He could scout out an area for Burney’s potential victims ahead of time, without anyone being the wiser. Burney and Lou were two sides of the same murderous coin. The FBI had it wrong. Lou hadn’t abandoned his partner at all. Not in life. Or death. Instead of fleeing the area when he could, he’d stayed to carry on his partner’s work.

  Kylie had to find Lou Sullivan before he killed again.

  If she wasn’t already too late.

  The door was blocked by a tall, golden mountain man with deadly intent stamped in his gray-green eyes. Her hear
t broke apart at the tight clench of his jaw and the resolute determination that flattened his beautiful mouth. “Ready?”

  Kylie reached out to stroke her fingers across those tight lips that had kissed her so thoroughly. She wanted to spare him any more pain and regret, and the guilt she didn’t fully understand. “I don’t know if you should go. What if something’s happened to Victoria? Another dead body might—”

  “Nobody knows that mountain like I do.” He pulled her hand away, refusing her comfort. “It’s the middle of the night. Who else can track him?”

  “But you seem so…”

  “Unbalanced?”

  “Angry.”

  “Yeah, I’m angry. I’m angry that innocent people are dying on my watch and that the bastard killing them has been right under my nose for two months.” Daniel shrugged into his pack and reached for hers. “A hell of a fine guardian I am. I couldn’t protect that little boy or my men or you—”

  “What little boy?”

  But that was still a nightmare he wouldn’t share. “I’ll carry the gear. You carry the gun.” He was calm, focused, determined—every bit the Marine going off to battle—as he stepped aside and ushered her through the door.

  THE SNOW HAD FINALLY stopped. But even with everything around them painted white, the sliver of moon in the clearing sky gave them little visual advantage beyond the scope of their flashlights. But the scents of gasoline and exhaust fumes, and two sets of boot prints, led Daniel to the snowmobile shed.

  It looked to have been a quick stroll across the parking lot, judging by the spacing of the prints. Victoria had no qualms about keeping up with Lou Sullivan—until the shed door opened. Daniel pointed his light to the swath cleared through the snow that went straight down to the pavement, then knelt down to pick up the pink mitten that lay half buried beside it. “Looks like there was a struggle here.”

  “He probably had to knock her out or tie her up, once Victoria realized the excuse he’d used to get her out here was a ruse.” Kylie’s light swept the same area before she pulled open the unlocked door. “I don’t see any blood. That’s good. Chances are she isn’t dead yet.”

  While she searched inside, Daniel’s ears tuned in to a distant, rhythmic sound coming from far up on Mount Atlas. He stood, held his breath and listened for the enemy in the darkness.

  “No one’s inside. But one of the snowmobiles is missing.” Kylie’s voice dropped to a whisper as she rejoined him. “What is it?”

  “Shh.”

  “Is that…?”

  Daniel’s release of warm breath clouded the air between them. The distant, evenly timed clacking noise of the lift chairs passing over each tower. “He’s cranked up the ski lift.”

  “Why would he do that?”

  “Besides draining the generators?” Daniel circled the shed. The base of the lift was a good fifty yards beyond them. And while there was a set of deep boot prints leading in that direction, the dimness of the moon and massive drifts of snow prevented him from seeing the entry platform, to know whether or not those tracks went all the way to the lift. “If Victoria is unconscious, once he got her onto the chair he wouldn’t have had to carry or drag her.”

  “He could be taking her up to where he killed Stacy. Most killers like familiar territory.”

  “I’m guessing his familiar territory is buried under about five feet of snow by now. He’d have a hard time finding it in the dark.” Daniel hiked back through the thigh-deep snow to the front of the shed. “It could just be a diversion, too, to make us think he’s gone up the mountain.”

  Kylie unzipped the top pocket of her coat and pulled out her walkie-talkie. “I’ll radio Kent to turn off the lift.”

  Daniel stopped her hand. “No. If Lou has taken her to the top of Atlas, that’s the quickest way for us to get there. But hold on…” He shone his flashlight along the pair of parallel tracks that headed toward the lake. “The snowmobile went that way.”

  “To the cabins?” Kylie put away the walkie-talkie and took a few steps along the path. Their powerful flashlights barely made it to the edge of the trees, where the tracks disappeared. “But the gravel road around the lake circles back to the main lodge.”

  “And the terrain is too rugged and steep to go cross-country to get to the more remote cabins or the highway. A snowmobile is too heavy to get far in snow this deep, when it hasn’t been packed down yet.”

  “So which way did he take her, and which is the diversion?” Kylie backtracked over her steps. “Lou’s smarter than I gave him credit for.”

  Bad memories were crawling inside Daniel’s mind. There was nothing about this setup he liked. Two trails. Deep snow. Limited vision. Freezing temps. Missing young woman. Crazy bastard who wasn’t right inside his head. Tonight was going to end badly for someone. Daniel could feel it in his bones.

  But as much as he dreaded the possibility of losing someone else, he was equally determined to do whatever was necessary to keep Kylie from losing an innocent victim on her watch. “Which way do you want to go?”

  Her decision was far too easy, and way too risky. “We have to split up.”

  “No.”

  Damn that stubborn Webber spirit. “If Victoria’s hurt, she’ll need your EMT skills. And if there’s any chance of saving her, you can get up the mountain faster than anyone I know. I’ll check the lake cabins.”

  “What if she’s hurt down here?”

  Kylie’s answering smile illuminated the darkness. “You can come down the mountain faster than anyone I know. Or I can radio Kent. It wouldn’t be that much farther for him.”

  Daniel didn’t need daylight to see the determination in her eyes. No matter what he chose, she was going the other way.

  “You’ll need these.” He pulled the snowshoes off his pack and dropped them at her feet. Then he pulled out his skis and poles. “Radio the second you spot anything. With the snow stopped, the walkie-talkie should carry over a longer distance.”

  “You, too. The moment you see anything suspicious, let me know.”

  Ah, hell. One way or the other, they had to ferret out the enemy. The sooner he got up that mountain, the sooner he could get back to Kylie. As soon as she straightened, he palmed the back of her neck and pulled her to him for a hard, quick kiss that conveyed everything he felt, yet wasn’t nearly enough.

  He released her and jabbed his poles into the snow. “We’ll meet up back here, right?”

  He had to see her again. There was no surviving this world without her.

  “Right.”

  KYLIE WATCHED Daniel’s powerful legs carry him up and over the first tall drift before she lost sight of him in the trees.

  Her own feet didn’t want to move at first. She was still reeling from the power of that kiss. Daniel felt everything so deeply, so powerfully.

  And it was that reason, the need to protect him from any more pain and loss, that got her moving. With the beam of her flashlight leading the way, she jogged beside the snowmobile’s tracks as quickly as her snowshoes and the chilled air filling her lungs let her. With her ears tuned for any unusual sounds beyond animals and birds stirring back to life now that the blizzard had ended, and her eyes straining for any unexpected movement in the shadows, Kylie kept alert for any signs that this was the path Lou had taken.

  The snowmobile runners went right past the first cabin, but veered off before they reached the second. After a quick 360 scan, she left the road and followed the tracks up the small incline at the shoulder of the road, then looked down toward the frozen lake below. “Oh, my God.”

  Kicking off her snowshoes to negotiate the rugged drop-off through the trees, Kylie climbed down over the rocky, snow-studded slope. She stopped to check out the gouge that had been made in the trunk of a pine tree, verified that the sticky trail of dark liquid in the snow was oil and not blood. She picked up the runner that had snapped off when the vehicle hit the rocks and spun out onto the lake. Dropping it, she braced a hand on a granite boulder and leaned out as
far as she could to follow the skid marks across the ice with her light.

  She unhooked her holster before unzipping her walkie-talkie and getting Daniel on the line. “Daniel. This is Kylie. Do you read me?”

  There was an answer of static, the whine of wind over the receiver and then a clear, “This is Daniel. I’m up at the roundhouse. It’s clear. I’ve got tracks into the trees, but haven’t had a chance to follow them yet. What is it?”

  Although the lake remained frozen through the winter, she was still tentative about stepping out onto the solid surface and testing her weight on it. “I found the snowmobile. It went off the road and crashed into the lake.”

  One step, two. Those little crackles of sound must be the static over their connection, because the ice felt firm as she slid her feet across it. But wait, the broken runner support had carved a pretty deep gouge in the ice. It must have finally caught and flipped the vehicle, which it was resting on its side about twenty yards out from shore.

  “Kylie?” A few more crackles. “Kylie, answer me!”

  “I’m fine. There’s no one here.” She started again toward the snowmobile, but something beneath her feet seemed to give way and she jumped back. “Whoa. Is that supposed to happen?”

  “Kylie? Report.”

  She backed up another step. “I think the heat from the engine must have softened the ice.”

  “Kylie, get off the lake! I’m coming down.”

  “No. We stick to the plan. Victoria’s counting on us to be smarter than Lou.” Once Kylie felt firmer footing, she swung her light around. “I’ve got tracks going out to the north.”

  “One set or two?”

  She hurried over to follow them off the lake and onto the rocky bank. “It’s hard to tell. One, I think, but he’s doubled back at least once.”

  “Sullivan was probably making sure he could save himself before he went back to get Victoria.”

  Kylie pulled herself up over the rocks and tried to make sense of the patterns in the snow. Were there two sets of footprints now? Someone had fallen here. Or had Lou set down Victoria’s body? Man, Kylie wished she could read a trail the way Daniel did. “Maybe this is a wild-goose chase down here and you’re on Lou’s track. Watch your back.”

 
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