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"How?" Anna lashed out, pulling her hands away from Megan's. "I didn't see his face. I don't know who it was, and neither did the other woman who got away. And the two dead girls won't be talking."
The bitterness in Anna's voice stung Megan as if she'd been slapped. "No. But the DNA—"
"Hasn't matched anyone in the system so far, and probably never will, right? This guy will never be caught."
"But it does connect the crimes, so when we get him, we'll be able to send him away for good. There'll be a time when someone picks up on a clue. Someone else who escapes."
They both fell silent, Megan's words a chilling re minder of the two women who had been raped and murdered within the past six months. If a group of noisy hikers hadn't come by and scared off her attacker, Anna might have been number three.
"We're doing our best," Megan added quietly. "And we will get him."
It wasn't an idle promise, and Megan could only hope Anna believed it. The younger woman had been a county 911 dispatcher for five years before resigning last winter, and she'd seen Megan in action. She also knew why this case mattered to Megan so much.
Anna turned away to brace her hands on the window-sill of the tiny Marshall County sheriff's office. "But until he's caught, he'll continue to prey on women, and that could go on for the next decade." Her voice rose. "I know how few deputies work this county, remember? Not enough. And it's huge. He could hide up in some remote cabin in the mountains and never be found."
Megan waited a few moments for her to calm down. "Or he could be someone we see every day in town, and he could start making mistakes. If there's ever anything you can remember, call me, day or night. His shoes. Something in his voice. A gesture—"
Anna spun around, her face pale, a hand at the jagged, healing wound at the base of her neck. The bandages and sutures were gone now, leaving gnarled, dark pink f lesh that would become a fainter scar in time. But Megan knew the real wounds—the emotional trauma and deep fear—were far worse, and might never fully heal.
"I came in once more because you asked me to, but please don't ask me again. It was dark. He didn't speak.
Living through it all again and again is more than I can bear."
"I understand." At the anguish twisting Anna's lovely features, Megan felt a corner of her heart tear. "I'm more sorry than I could ever say, about everything you've been through."
Anna's mouth lifted in a sad smile. "I know you're trying. Look, I—I need to get back home. Lance has to leave for work at three, and I have to take care of Jeremy."
Megan watched her old friend zip up her heavy jacket, slip out the front door and limp down the sidewalk to the station wagon parked close by. At the driver's side Anna cast a swift, uneasy glance in both directions, then she slid behind the wheel.
Still in off-season for a few more weeks, until the end of May, when the mountain passes were more likely to be clear of snow, the town of Copper Cliff and the surrounding rural areas claimed less than four thousand year-round residents. Only a few of them were on Main Street now. Yet Megan had no doubt that Anna had hit the locks the second she got into her car.
A routine most of the local women now followed without fail day or night…in a town where no one had ever locked their doors until a killer had slipped into their midst.
"Any luck? "
At the sound of heavy footsteps and the scent of Old Spice aftershave behind her, she turned to face Hal Porter, the sheriff. She shook her head. "I was hoping she'd had time to sift through what happened. There just has to be something she can tell us."
"Unless she's too terrified to speak up."
"I can understand that with the other woman who escaped after being assaulted. But given Anna's years as a dispatcher, I thought there'd be a better chance that she could give us something to work with." Megan slashed a hand in the air. "I can't believe a guy could attack some one and never say a single word."
She lifted her eyes to meet Hal's weary gaze. "But whatever the guy said was so vicious, so threatening, she's afraid to talk. What kind of animal is he?"
"We'll find him. It's just gonna take time." Hal shook his head slowly as he turned back to his office, his decades of law enforcement clearly weighing more heavily on his shoulders with every passing month.
He didn't have to say it—she'd noticed the faraway look in his eyes and knew he was contemplating retirement. His wife, Greta, had been fighting cancer for a long time, and had recently taken early retirement from the local high school. He probably longed to spend his days with her…for whatever time she had left.
But he'd never been a man who'd walk away from trouble, or one who could leave a job undone. And no matter what called to him in his personal life, she knew he wanted to retire with this case closed, or he'd feel as if he'd failed.
Hal paused at his desk. "Go home, Megan. I mean it. You've been here well over your twelve hours already."
"It's still not enough." But when he folded his arms across his chest and gave her his trademark implacable stare, she checked her service belt, pulled the patrol car keys from her pocket and headed for the back door.
Going home without answers meant another day the killer roamed free, and the thought rankled.
Even after nine years as a county deputy known for being tough and in control, there was one kind of situation that still sent secret waves of nausea and anxiety through Megan's gut. And this time, yet another good friend had been a victim.
Men who preyed on women—whether domestic bullies or the animal now loose in Marshall County—had been a personal vendetta of hers since the day she'd gone into law enforcement, and that would continue until the day she took off her badge.
For the sake of all the women in the county—espe-cially Anna, and Greta, a sweet, devoted woman who deserved more time with her husband before she died, Megan was going to make sure this case was solved.
Scott Anders nodded at the clerk's farewell, gathered up his four canvas grocery bags and headed out to his truck.
From the day he'd moved to Montana, he'd been startled by the overt interest of the shopkeepers in Copper Cliff, who all seemed to know his name and even where he'd bought property up in the hills, as though through some sort of small-town osmosis.
The gum-chewing, fortysomething gal at the cash register of Roy's Grocery apparently counted him as an old friend, updating him on her teenagers, mother and husband, Erwin, every time Scott came in for supplies. At the tiny local drug store, Ralph, the elderly druggist, regaled him with tales of his grandchildren.
After a lifetime of anonymity in Chicago, the unexpected attention of everyone, from the guy at the feed mill to the gas station attendant, had initially set off alarms in his head; born of the instinctive wariness that had kept him safe on the streets for fifteen long years.
Now, he knew that the collective friendliness was something extended to all year-round residents, because there were just so few of them around. Though after run ning a gauntlet of shopkeepers during his monthly trips into town, Scott invariably heaved a sigh of relief when he could finally head back up into the foothills.
Jasper, his black lab, stirred on the front seat of the truck and hung his head out the passenger window to stare at the coffee shop across the street when Scott climbed behind the wheel.
Scott sighed. "We really oughta get back home."
Jasper looked at him again and whined, his sorrowful expression speaking louder than any words.
From experience, Scott knew that if he didn't make the required trip across the street, the old dog would avoid meeting his eyes for the rest of the day, and the sulk could even stretch into tomorrow.
He reached over and gave Jasper a rub behind the ears. "You are so spoiled. Wait here, then. Fifteen minutes, tops."
Lock ing the door behind him, he strode over to Hannah's Pastries 'n' More and stepped inside. The place was done up in a profusion of red and white—frilly cur tains and such meant to attract summer tourists. Even so, there were a couple of grizzled ranchers sitting at one of the tables, and a few more cowboys were at the far end of the long soda fountain, cradling mugs of the best coffee in town.
A woman sat alone on the swivel stool closest to the cash register, deep in conversation with Sue Ann, the day shift waitress. Her long auburn hair was caught up in a ponytail pulled through the back of a baseball cap, and from her faded denim jacket and jeans, he placed her as a daughter or wife of a local rancher.
A very pretty one, from what he could see from a brief glimpse of her face as she flicked a glance at him. He'd never seen her before, and he found himself wondering what color her eyes were, or if there was a ring on her hand.
An unfamiliar stirring somewhere in the region of his heart made him quickly rein in those foolish thoughts. The last thing he needed was any sort of personal complications, now or ever.
He settled at one of the empty spots halfway between her and the cowboys, and focused on the laminated, one-page menu tucked behind the napkin holder in front of him, though he already knew it by heart.
Sue Ann drifted down his way a minute later with a coffeepot in her hand. "Black, with Jasper's dog cookies to go?"
Even without turning toward her, he sensed the amuse ment of the woman sitting near the cash register. "Make the coffee to go, too."
"And here I thought I might interest you in some of the blackberry pie you like. You want a slice in a takeout container?" She winked at him, a hand propped on her hip. "Just think about that wonderful, flaky crust, and all of those sweet, sweet berries."
Scott nodded, then had second thoughts. "Maybe I'd better just stay here. Last time, we…had a little trouble with takeout."
Sue Ann laughed aloud. "Tell me your buddy didn't eat that pie."
"Down to the last blackberry."
Still grinning, she pulled a mug from the shelf beneath the counter, poured his coffee, then bustled back to the kitchen.
The other woman laughed as she turned to study him. "Trouble, eh?"
He angled a glance at her, then wished he hadn't.
Beneath the bill of her cap he could see flawless, creamy skin, touched by a faint blush of rose over her high cheekbones. Delicately arched brows. Sparkling green eyes that turned his heart upside down…until he caught her direct, frankly assessing gaze, and the way she'd positioned herself to keep her back to the wall.
The hair at the back of his neck prickled.
Pretty green eyes or not, he knew without asking, exactly what she was…or had been. And the painful lessons were with him still.
He shook off his thoughts and gave her a neutral smile. "My dog Jasper loves the homemade dog cookies, but he loves pie even more. Last month, I got distracted by elk on the road. He managed to paw open the foam container and wolf down an entire slice before I could pull over and stop."
"I'll bet he was sorry later."
Her grin seemed to light up her face, transforming it from pretty to captivating, and he found himself smiling back at her. "The digestive complications weren't exactly pretty, but given a chance, I know he'd do it again."
"Sounds like my old dog."
He savored a slow sip of his coffee, nodding his thanks to the waitress when she slid an ample slice of pie and a paper bag of dog cookies in front of him.
She cocked her head as she searched his face. "I haven't seen you around town before. Visitor?"
"I moved here three or four months ago." At her up raised eyebrow, he added, "Up in the hills, above town."
Instant awareness dawned in her eyes. "You must've bought the Swansons' place. I remember hearing it sold last winter. Is your name…" She thought for a moment. "Anderson?"
"Anders. Scott Anders." He accepted her brief, firm handshake.
"Megan Peters." She cast a dismissive glance at her casual clothes. "County deputy, but you wouldn't guess it now. This is a rare day off."
Oh, I knew it, sweetheart. Cop or ex-military, before you even opened your mouth.
"So, how do you like it here?" She smiled, though he saw more than just casual curiosity lurking in her eyes.
"What sort of work do you do?"
"I'm taking a few months off." He turned back to his pie for a final bite and pushed the half-eaten piece away. Settling his Stetson in place, he rose, dropped a ten on the counter and headed for the door. "See you around."
He could feel her studying him as he walked out.
She probably thought he was rude, but it didn't matter.
He kept to himself and planned to stay that way.
And even if the contrast of her appearance and her profession was an all too interesting mix, Deputy Megan Peters was the last person in Copper Cliff he'd want to know any better.
Posted November 19, 2010
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Posted September 18, 2010
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