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Like the beacon over Bethlehem, the fallen but bright star called Las Vegas had long ago guided wise guys from the east to this unholy city where Christmas of a sort was celebrated year-round. Ever since Ben "Bugsy" Siegel had died for the sins of tourists everywhere, men had journeyed across the desert, lured by the glowing neon temples called FLAMINGO and SANDS and CAESAR'S, summoned by celestial bodies with names like Liberace and Sinatra and Darin, to worship at the altar of the elusive fast buck.
Right now, with Christmas less than a month away, gamblers were high-rolling into town like a horde of last-minute shoppers, bucking the odds and dreaming of a green Christmas.
Driving through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in the predawn darkness, Ranger Ally Scott -- like most residents of Las Vegas -- was contemplating the upcoming holiday in terms that had nothing to do with gambling. That is, except for the gamble she would take buying anything for her perennially hard-to-shop-for father. Then there was her sister Elisa...a gift certificate, that would just be cold.
Which was exactly what Ally was at the moment. She didn't have the Park Service Bronco's heater on and the vehicle's interior wasn't any warmer than the night she plowed through, the temperature hovering around a crisp forty. Ally had bundled her-self up in her heavy jacket and Thinsulate gloves, but like so much of the Las Vegas population she had grown up somewhere else. Iowa in her case -- so she damn well knew the difference between real winter and what Las Vegans only thought was winter.
Thin, practically scrawny, and barely over the mandatory Ranger height minimum, Ally enjoyed the relative chill of the December Vegas night as she tooled along the two-lane blacktop that snaked its way through the entire twenty-mile length of the Lake Mead facility.
The flat-brimmed campaign hat covered most of Ally's blonde hair, the rest ponytailed back and tucked inside the collar of her jacket.
Ally had joined the Park Service right out of college and had spent the six years since then working her way up the ladder. Barely a year ago, after bouncing from station to station in the Southwest, she'd landed this plum assignment, here at Lake Mead. Now and then, she drew the night shift like this, but she didn't mind. She was comfortable in her own company.
Headlights slashing the darkness, the Bronco rounded a curve, and the ranger felt (more than actually saw) a blur of motion to her left. Slamming on the brakes, she jolted the vehicle to a stop just as a creature tore across the road in front of her and disappeared into the blackness to her right.
Out here, the lights of the city were a glow on the horizon; otherwise, under a moonless desert sky scattered with half-hearted stars, the landscape remained a mystery. Still, Ally felt something -- off to the passenger side of the Bronco.
With the windows rolled up, she could hear nothing, yet her well-trained senses were tingling. Was that...something? Some muffled sound, out there in the night...?
She shoved the gearshift into park, let out a deep breath, and pretended the goosebumps on her arms were from the cold. Opening the driver-side door, she dropped onto the blacktop and stilled as she listened, intently. At first, only the wind whipping through the foothills, like the ghost of a mule train driver thrashing his team, broke the silence. Then, between lashes of wind, Ally heard something else....
The ranger unsnapped her holster and rested her hand on the butt of her Smith and Wesson model 10, like a western gunfighter ready for the worst. Though most cops these days carried automatics, Glocks, Brownings, the Park Service still issued their rangers traditional, standard Smith and Wesson six-shooters with four-inch barrels. Ally wished she had something with a little more stopping power and, considering her prowess with the weapon, several more rounds at her disposal.
Stepping cautiously, quietly around the open door and walking to the front of the Bronco, Ally could see nothing, although her ears picked up something, something that might have been a far-off conversation. No words could be made out, but the ranger thought she heard voices....
Then, in one chilling moment, she understood what the "talk" was. The coyote that'd crossed her Bronco's path was over there, and the creature wasn't alone -- a minor critter convention was under way. Ally didn't bother pretending that the shiver up her spine was caused by the wintry wind.
Ally clambered back into the Bronco and slipped the gearshift into reverse, backing the vehicle, blocking the road, and cranking the wheel so the front beams threw their small but insistent spotlights up onto the desert hillside.
Six...no, seven coyotes huddled around and hunkered over a large white lump on the ground. For just a moment, the shape was abstract in the harsh headlights. Then Ally knew. As acid rose in her stomach, Ally Scott recognized the lump as human flesh -- the nude body of a woman, sprawled on her side.
The body wasn't moving.
Even with the presence of the coyotes, Ally held out hope that the woman might still be alive, that this was an unconscious body and not a dead one, despite the scavengers. She again hopped down from the Bronco, pulling her pistol to fire a round into the night sky.
The shot splitting the night and then echoing across the desert did get the attention of the animals, the coyotes' heads popping up, turning in her direction...but it didn't spook or disperse them.
Ally lowered the pistol and fired off another round, only a foot or so over the heads of the coyotes this time. The critters jumped and moved away, a few feet, claws scratching the desert floor, but most still lingered near the prone nude form.
And that pissed Ally off.
She charged right at them, screaming and firing off several more shots, and the animals finally took the hint, relinquishing their prize, and scampering like evil puppies into the night.
Making more noise than necessary, to help make sure the scavengers didn't return, Ally pulled off a glove and knelt next to the body. The woman -- a brunette -- appeared to be dead, after all. She lay on her side, as though she were sleeping...but she wasn't. Reaching down, Ally touched the woman's neck and, trained cop though she was, drew back her hand quickly as if she'd touched a hot stove.
What she had sensed was quite the opposite -- the flesh felt more like cold rubber than anything warm and human. The woman's lank hair felt damp -- had the woman crawled up here from the lake? Was this some skinny-dipping party gone awry?
Ally's stomach flipped and the ranger knew that her supper was about to make a return trip. She started panting on purpose, like a dog, just like her orthodontist had taught her back when she was a teenager getting braces. While Dr. McPike had taken that mold of her mouth, he'd instructed her that panting would help her overcome her gag reflex.
You just never know, she thought, when these little life lessons are going to come in handy.
Ally searched for a pulse -- finding nothing stirring under the cold, clammy flesh. This was a dead body, clearly...and that put Ally right smack in the middle of what she knew damn well was a crime scene. The urge to drag the body back to the Bronco was nearly overwhelming, but Ally knew not to disturb the scene any more than she already had, rushing in to chase off the coyotes.
Pistol still in her hand, Ally backed carefully to the vehicle, her eyes sweeping the dark beyond the body and the Bronco beams, just waiting for the first coyote to creep back into the wash of the car's headlights, for her to pick off. She knew, too, that if this was a murder, the perpetrator could possibly still be in the area...though she doubted that. The coyotes wouldn't have made their move until they were alone with the corpse.
Her eyes still searching the hill, Ally reached inside, plucked the mike from its dashboard perch, pulled the long cord out so she'd have an unobstructed view of the body and pushed the talk button.
"Dispatch," she said, "this is mobile two."
No response from the base.
"Dispatch, this is mobile two. Aaron, it's your wake-up call! Get off your ass -- I found a dead body."
The low-pitched male voice sounded groggy, which was hardly a surprise. "Ally? What the hell did you say?"
"Call the city cops, Aaron -- we got a d.b."
A summer intern brought back on temporarily to help out during the holiday vacations, Aaron Davis had little experience beyond handing out maps to tourists and flirting with teenage girls come to swim in the lake.
"Aren't we supposed to notify the FBI, Ally?"
The mild irritation Ally felt was a relief compared to the creepiness that had come over her, touching that cold corpse.
"We will, Aaron," she said with feigned patience, "but the Fibbies won't make it for days." She sighed. "The Vegas P.D. will be here within the hour. Call 911."
"But we're the cops, aren't we, Ally?"
"You mean, cops can call 911, too?"
"Aaron...just make the call. Then you can go back to sleep."
"You don't have to be mean," Aaron said.
She clicked off then and the ridiculousness of the conversation made her laugh. She laughed and laughed, tears rolling down her cheeks, and then she thought to herself, Laughin' like a damn hyena, and that made her think of the coyotes.
And then she didn't laugh any more.
She just watched the still white lump of flesh, guarding it from scavengers. Ally Scott could protect the dead woman from the coyotes, no problem; but if the woman was a murder victim, it would take a different breed of cop to find the animal who had done this.
Copyright © 2003 by CBS Worldwide Inc.