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The last day of December, and the sky was going dark fast. Landon Guthrie ran his tongue around his teeth, tasting stale peanuts and bitter chocolate, the remnants of the energy bar. Pushing up the cuff of his glove, he checked his watch. The puff of breath that followed was a silent curse. In less than an hour, the season would be over and he had yet to get his buck.
His compound bow lay across his lap with the arrow nocked. He sat fifteen feet off the ground in his deer stand, looking down at a clearing. No fewer than three deer trails spilled into the circle of dead grass and fallen leaves. Less than half a mile behind him was a slushy stream, the animals' drive-thru window for drinks.
The temperature had been dropping all day, but Guthrie was dressed for it--a walking testament to the power of synthetics: Polar fleece. Thinsulate. Polypropylene. Nylon. Acrylic. Vinyl. He was windproof, water-repellent, slip-resistant, and warm.
Everything had been doused with scent blocker and all the outer layers were in a Mossy Oak fall camo of branches and brown leaves. He didn't need the winter camo, which had branches against a white background, because the snow had yet to fly in northern Minnesota.
Glancing up at the sky, Guthrie wondered if they'd finally get snow that night. If not a white Christmas, they could at least enjoy a white New Year's Day. A hawk glided overhead in search of something to eat, and he wished the bird better luck than he'd had. Time to start packing it in. He stood up on the platform and stretched, the bow still in his hand.
A rustling across the clearing froze him. A buck stepped out from between the trees. As the metallic taste of adrenaline bit the back of his throat, Guthrie willed himself to stay calm. He told himself not to look at the rack; it would only make him more nervous. Ignoring his own directive, he counted. Ten points. Good enough.
Fifty yards from the stand, the buck paused, surveying the clearing. Ran on. Thirty yards. Twenty. It stalled again; something had spooked it. The buck took a ninety-degree turn to the right. Guthrie released the arrow, and the broadhead went in just behind the rib cage.
The buck sprinted from the clearing, seeking refuge amid the trees. Guthrie got out of his safety harness and took his time climbing down from the stand. Chasing the wounded deer immediately would make the animal run too hard, and increase the possibility of losing it. Better to give it a chance to lie down.
After strapping a headlamp on over his cap, Guthrie hiked into the thick woods behind the stand to track his prize. His breath hung in the air as he threaded between the trees. He was halfway between the clearing and the stream when he lost the blood trail in the growing darkness. The ground beneath his feet was as hard as concrete, and dry as dust. He wished there had been snow on the ground; it would have made the tracking easier. He stayed on a straight path, heading for the stream. Instinct told him that was where he needed to go.
At the edge of the water, Guthrie found her. "Jesus!"
Guthrie stumbled backward, pulled his right glove off with his teeth, and fumbled around his clothing. Damn jacket had too many pockets. His fingertips finally touched the square edges of the cell and he pulled it out. He knew from experience that he couldn't get a signal where he was standing, but he tried anyway. Hands shaking, he pressed the green button and eyed the screen, praying for bars. Nothing.
Phone still in his hand, he took a step forward. His headlamp illuminated the body and the area around it with a round, soft glow. Snow drifted down from the night sky, sparkling in the lamp's beam like shards of glass. Flakes disappeared against her nightgown and melted into the red staining the fabric. He looked down at the phone and repeatedly pressed the green button, hoping for a miracle. Still no bars. He shoved the cell in his pocket.
He turned his back to the body, leaned a hand against a tree, and vomited peanuts and chocolate. As he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, he eyed the forest with fresh fear. Since he was a child, the woods had been his second home. He knew every ridge and ravine, every clearing, every hollow. Every marsh and slough. He was familiar with where the deer liked to hang out during deep snows and where they went during droughts. He could correctly identify the different hardwoods and pines. He could pick out the chatter of a gray squirrel and describe how it was different from the racket made by a red squirrel.
Now a monster had invaded his home.
He ran away from the stream, diving back into the trees. He aimed for his stand. North of that would be the road, and his truck. As he pumped his legs, his heart pounded hard in his chest and the cold night air burned his throat.
All that blood. That thing on her face. Who'd done that? What did it mean?
No, he told himself. North. Worry about heading north and stop thinking about what was by the water.
What he'd seen by the stream was a girl sprawled on her back in a blood-soaked nightgown.
On her forehead, a five-pointed star drawn in red.
Who'd be calling first thing in the morning on New Year's Day? Instead of reaching for the phone, Bernadette Saint Clare pulled a pillow down over the back of her head.
"Is that your work cell, Bern?"
With both hands, she pressed the pillow tighter and wished her guest and the ringing would go away.
"I think that's the bureau calling, Bern."
The ringing stopped. One wish granted.
She could hear him stomping around the bedroom and fumbling with her phone. "Garcia. Shit. He'll call back if it was important, right? Want me to make you something? Got eggs?"
"No," she said into the mattress.
She'd had a little too much to drink at an unofficial bureau bash and had asked one of the tech guys to drive her home. He'd spent the night on the couch.
A tech guy!
She heard more stomping around the bedroom. This guy was enormous.
"I left some Tylenol and water by the bed, Bern."
She sat up, hugging the pillow to her front. To make matters worse, it was B.K., the most junior guy on TSS, the Technical Support Squad. They'd been nicknamed the Tough Shit Squad because that's what they said when turning down the other agents' many requests for their help. Admittedly, he'd helped her out last night. "Thank you for the ride," she said, running a hand through her short blond hair. Her forehead felt ready to explode, and her mouth tasted like the inside of an old tennis shoe.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and folded his long arms in front of him. In his white T-shirt and jeans, he looked like a supersized toddler. "Breakfast?"
She curled her legs up to her chest and struggled to remember his real name. Everyone called him B.K., which stood for Big Kid. She scooped up the Tylenol and downed it with a hit of water. "This is all I want this morning, B.K."
He got up off the mattress. "Everybody at the soiree sure had a good time."
The soiree. A kegger held in somebody's basement rec room. She hardly knew most of the other partiers, agents stationed in downtown Minneapolis. She worked solo out of downtown St. Paul. Assistant Special Agent in Charge Anthony Garcia was her only regular visitor and an occasional partner. He'd been at the party but had kept his distance. That had ticked her off, and caused her to down a few too many. She looked up at the kid and wished like hell she could ask: Did Garcia see us leave together? Instead, she smiled weakly and said nothing, waiting for him to leave.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "So... "
He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. "I guess I could go home and feed my cats."
"I guess you could," she said, wondering why he was stalling. Did he expect a more elaborate expression of gratitude? He wasn't going to get it.
"Uh... you have to give me a ride to my car. I drove your truck, remember?"
She felt her face heat up. "Be down in a sec."
"I'll get some coffee going."
"Good idea." As she watched B.K. heading for the stairs, she felt guilty that she'd harbored nasty thoughts about him. She should make him breakfast.
Her cell rang again, and she picked up. "Yeah."
Garcia: "You sound like shit."
As if he could see her through the phone, she hugged the pillow tighter to her chest. "I'm fine. Sleepy."
"Wake up fast, because I've got a bad one, Cat," said her boss, calling her by her nickname. "Really need you on it. It's all... political and messy."
She leaned back against the headboard. "Tell me."
"A teenage runaway was found dead in Paul Bunyan State Forest last night. Bow hunter came across the body while tracking a deer. She was... sliced up."
"Stabbed to death?"
"Back of the head bashed in." Garcia cleared his throat. "Let me back up. This girl was pregnant and the baby was... removed after the mother died."
"That's sick. That is just fucking sick. So they found the dead fetus near the--"
"The fetus is missing."
Bernadette sat upright in bed. "Someone killed her, cut her open, and stole her baby?"
"Did it survive? Did the baby survive?"
"A big question mark," said Garcia.
"They took it, so it has to be alive," she said. "Otherwise, why bother?"
"Maybe they started out wanting a live baby, but who knows what they ended up with? This was a very brutal, slipshod job. Vertical slice right through the navel."
She switched the phone to her other ear. "There've been other stolen-fetus cases."
"There's more. There was a five-pointed star--"
"Yeah. There was a pentagram drawn on her forehead, apparently in her own blood."
Bernadette had worked on some ritualistic slaying cases for the bureau. "A cult thing?"
"I don't know what we're thinking," Garcia said.
"How's this a bureau case?"
"It's because of the victim's father," said Garcia. "That's where politics come into play."
"Dead kid was Mag Dunton's daughter."
"Crap," she said.
United States Senator Magnus Dunton, an independent from Minnesota, was not a friend of the FBI. While a chorus had accused the bureau of abusing civil liberties via the Patriot Act, Dunton's voice had been the loudest. Not content to call for tougher limits on antiterrorism laws, the senator had come up with a scheme to dismantle the FBI and divide its duties among other agencies. Though his outrageous plan wasn't being taken seriously on Capitol Hill, he'd opened up a discussion regarding the bureau's functions and its budget. Suddenly there were proposals being floated to close several FBI field offices.
"I suppose Dunton doesn't want us anywhere near the case," she said.
"His people won't return my messages, but I think that's a safe assumption."
"Why not let the BCA take care of it?" she asked, referring to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state criminal-investigation agency.
"The BCA thought it was taking care of it, partnering with the locals. The sheriff up there, Seth Wharten, he's a fishing buddy of mine. His people are the best. But it's not my call. Headquarters handed me my marching orders this morning. Minneapolis Division is to take point on this thing. We're treating it as a kidnapping."
"Did they ask for me specifically?"
Garcia sighed. "What do you want me to say, Cat? They asked for you without asking for you."
"I know how it works." Bernadette rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "Pentagram, huh? This could be interesting."
"Loads of fun."
"I'm sorry the man lost his daughter," she said quickly. "What was her name?"
"What was she doing way in the hell up north?"
"I've got about one million others."
"We can talk on the road," he said. "Pack enough clothes to last awhile, including some serious outdoor gear. My cousin's got a cabin on the Crow Wing chain of lakes and he said we could crash there."
We. Quite a change from the night before. A couple of months earlier, they'd come close to hopping in the sack together. They avoided talking about it now, acting as if it had never happened. Maybe that was why he was behaving inconsistently. Still, she wasn't going to be the one to break the code of silence on the subject. Bernadette smelled coffee and heard her guest clomping around downstairs. Getting B.K. to his car was going to take time. "I have to pull myself together," she said.
"I'll pick you up in an hour. We're going to have to drive. Nothing can fly in this stuff."
She looked out a window across from the bed. The snow was coming down thick. "I'll be ready to rumble," she said, kicking off the covers.
"Let's hope like hell your hands and eyes feel the same way."