While skiing deep in Lake Tahoe’s backcountry, private detective Dan Reno finds the first naked body, buried under fresh snow. Reno’s contacted by the grieving father who wants to know who murdered his daughter and why?
How did the body end up in such a remote, mountainous location? The questions become murkier when a second body is found. Is there a serial killer stalking promiscuous young women in South Lake Tahoe? Or are the murders linked to a different criminal agenda?
Searching for answers, Reno is accosted by a gang of racist bikers with a score to settle. He also must deal with his pal, Cody Gibbons, who the police consider a suspect. The clues lead to the owner of a strip club and a womanizing police captain, but is either the killer?
The bikers up the ante, but are unaware that Cody Gibbons has Reno’s back at any cost. Meanwhile, the police won’t tolerate Reno’s continued involvement in the case. But Reno knows he’s getting close. And the most critical clue comes from the last person he’d suspect.
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)|
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The cornice stretched three feet over the sheer face below. There was about fifteen feet of vertical drop before the snow-covered slope angled out at forty-five degrees. I inched my skis farther forward, the tips hanging over the void. I was wrong — it was more like twenty feet of mandatory air. And that was the shallowest entry the ledge offered.
I blew out my breath and ignored the sickly sensation of my testicles trying to climb into my stomach. Turning back now would mean a long uphill hike, while the reward for leaping off the cornice was five hundred feet of untracked powder. A slight dip to the left marked the most forgiving launch point. I pushed myself back and sidestepped higher up the ridge. A couple deep breaths, then I released my edges and glided toward the dip.
In a second, I launched over the precipice, my hands thrust forward, my knees tucked toward my chest. As I dropped, I could see the distant desert floor of Nevada fall behind the stands of pine and fir at the bottom of the bowl. I extended my legs in the instant before I touched down and absorbed the shock, blinded for a second by a blast of snow. Then, I cranked my skis on edge, bounced out of the fluff, and made a second turn through the deep powder. It had snowed about a foot last night, but here, the fresh coverage was at least two feet, maybe more. Bottomless under my boots.
Twenty turns to the glade below, my heart pounding, my body disappearing in blasts of powder, the white coating me from head to toe. When I reached the tree line, I skidded to a stop and caught my breath. Then, I looked up and admired the S-turns I'd left on the otherwise unblemished slope. Not bad, I thought, smiling at the understatement. Most of the winter storms that had blown through the Lake Tahoe region came out of the warm Pacific and dumped wet, heavy snow, creating the notorious Sierra cement. But last night's blizzard had swept in from Alaska, bringing colder and lighter snow. As a result, I was in the right place at the righttime.
I skated along the terminus of the bowl and turned into the trees when they became sparse enough to allow passage. This was the Nevada backcountry, unpatrolled, accessible by ducking the boundary ropes at the highest elevation of South Lake Tahoe's ski resort, right at the California-Nevada border. Before me lay 4000 feet of descent to the high desert floor where I'd parked my truck, near Route 207 outside of Gardnerville.
It was slower going now, the terrain interrupted by tangles of deadfall and icy patches where the wind had scoured the surface. I picked my way through it, my skis alternately between sinking in powder then chattering and scraping across slick bands of ice. Finally, I spotted a clearing — a wide, sweeping snow bank that fell toward a collection of pines hundreds of feet below. I rode the section like a surfer on a wave, turning down off the lip then riding back up, staying high and avoiding a flat area that would likely necessitate a hike.
When I reached the trees below, I entered a broad glade, the trunks spaced at wide intervals, the snow as soft and uniform as a white pillow. The morning sun had just appeared from behind a swath of swift moving clouds, and the snow glittered with pinpricks of light. I took a long moment to take in the scenery, then I picked a line and pushed off into the mild grade. The pristine snow held no surprises, the powder light and consistent, making it easy to find a rhythm. Floating through the trees and leaving a wake of rounded tracks, I became immersed in the splendor of the moment, as if the setting had been created solely for my indulgence.
My grandiose thoughts came to a crashing halt when I came around a tree, and my skis rammed into something solid beneath the snow. My binding released with a loud click, and I flew forward and face-planted in a poof of powder.
"Son of a bitch," I said, wiping the snow from my goggles. I took a quick inventory of my body and found no injuries. Then, I crawled back ten feet to where my ski lay. When I pulled it from the snow, the edge caught, probably on a hidden stump, I thought. Then, the powder fell aside, and I saw a flesh-colored streak. I froze for a second, certain my eyes were playing tricks on me. Blinking, I used the ski to push away more snow.
"No way," I whispered, my heart in my throat. A bare shoulder revealed itself, then a snarl of blonde hair strung with ice. I reached down with my gloved hand and carefully pushed aside the hair. The face was half-buried, one eye visible, lashes thick with mascara, a blue iris staring blankly. Using both hands like a shovel, I pushed away the bulk of the snow covering the upper body. A sour lump formed in my gut. The body was naked, the skin that of a young woman, perhaps a teenager.
I stepped back and blew puffs of steam into the frigid air. After a moment, I took my phone from my coat pocket and dialed 911. There was no reception. I removed my pack, found a red bandana, and tied it to a branch overhead. Then, I turned in a circle, taking note of the surrounding features in relation to the sun over the granite ridgeline looming to my right.
The morning was beginning to warm up. It was close to zero at 8:30 when I had come up the chairlift, and now, it was probably ten degrees warmer. I looked again at the blonde-headed girl curled at the base of the tree. She'd not been there long, maybe only hours. Soon, the creatures of the forest would find her. Field mice, badgers, and mountain lions would make short work of the body, the big cats spreading the bones over miles.
I checked the surroundings again. The mountainside was unfamiliar to me, but I knew from a variety of accounts that as long as I headed downhill on a due east course, I'd not run into any cliffs, gorges, or otherwise impassable terrain. I clicked back into my binding and skied out of the glade, my turns lackluster and disjointed, the exuberance I felt a few minutes ago replaced by a creeping sense of dread.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, I sat on the hood of my truck and waited for the police to arrive. I'd missed the run-out leading to where I'd parked and had to trudge half a mile up the highway. Dark clouds lolled down from the sky, blotting the sun and shrouding the valley in a dense winter haze. An eighteen-wheeler down-shifted and rumbled out of the fog, chains rattling, a plume of gritty smoke billowing from the pipes above the cab. Streaks of mist lingered in the truck's wake, floating over the rutted road and hanging in the trees like a cast of ghostly spectators.
A Gardnerville sheriff's cruiser came along shortly and parked on the icy dirt next to my truck. Two deputies I'd never met climbed out, young cops, one pudgy and baby-faced, the other a studious looking fellow with glasses and mittens on hishands.
"I can't believe this," Baby Face said, his cheeks reddened. "The day before Christmas, and we catch a body."
They began interviewing me while we waited for snowmobiles to arrive. There wasn't much to talk about. A young, naked female deep in the backcountry, covered by the night's snowfall. Another foot or so of coverage would have hidden her scent, and she'd have been buried until spring.
The spectacled cop asked for my driver's license and began taking down the information. Then, he looked up at me. "You're the PI from South Lake Tahoe?"
An SUV towing a trio of snowmobiles labored up the road and crunched to a stop on the shoulder. Police Captain Nick Galanis from Douglas County PD stepped from the vehicle, while two more of his deputies released the straps securing the snowmobiles to a trailer behind the SUV.
"Hey, Dan Reno, right?" Galanis said, flashing his trademark smile, his face tan and handsome. He wore no hat, despite the temperature. His curly locks of black hair were unmoving in the wind.
"It's Reno, as in no pro blemo."
"That's right, I remember. No problemo, huh? Sounds like we got a problem up there." He cut his eyes toward the mountainside.
"I'd say so, Captain."
"So, what happened?"
"I was skiing and ran into a body buried in the snow."
"Beyond the ski resort boundary?"
"Yeah. No law against it. It's national forest land."
He nodded, his expression one of casual agreement, a hint of smile still on his smooth face. Behind his back, local cops called Galanis 'The Snake,' a reference to both his habit of seducing college-aged women and his ability to instantly change his frame of reference to serve his personal agendas. I'd also learned in a case some months back that he was corrupt as the day was long, taking kickbacks for building permits, soliciting payoffs from a high-end escort service, and even selling confiscated drugs.
"You know how to ride a snowmobile?" he asked.
"I'll ride with you, then." He walked over to where the snowmobiles were staged, one with a body sled in tow.
"Actually, I'm a little rusty, Captain. I'd hate to see you get hurt on my account. Maybe you should ride with one of your deputies."
Galanis looked back at me, and for an instant, his eyes narrowed. Then, his smile returned. "Okay, we'll follow you."
We set out into the woods, and I was able to easily follow my tracks back a mile or so to the scenic glade where the girl lay half buried. I stood aside and watched while Galanis coordinated the crime scene. He made sure his deputies took plenty of pictures before they pulled the stiffened corpse from the snow. Once they lifted her free, I saw her face, her hair falling back behind her ears, an expression of shock and pain frozen on her features. She looked like a macabre Barbie doll, her red lips parted as if her hopes and dreams had died with a final gasp, her eyes wide with the realization that all she'd experienced in her short life had, in no way, prepared her for her final moments.
Galanis also seemed to be studying her face. He knelt and stared at her, his expression incredulous for a moment. I saw his head shake slightly, as if he was denying something. But he recovered quickly, and stood and motioned to thedeputies.
"Get the snow off her before you put her in the body bag," Galanis said. "We don't want her in a pool of water."
The deputies began brushing the snow from her flat stomach and large breasts and thighs and scant pubic hair and buttocks and calves. They exchanged embarrassed glances and made quick work of it. I saw she had a couple tattoos, one on her upper thigh and a tramp stamp at the base of her spine.
With considerable strain, they unfolded her stiffened legs. Then, grunting with exertion and blowing steam, they placed her in the bag and arranged the dark folds of plastic until only a thin line of flesh showed. The cops hesitated for a long moment, as if reluctant to finish their grim task, then zipped the bag shut, enclosing her forever in darkness. In a detached part of my mind, I wondered whether she'd been a stripper. A cynical conclusion probably, but even in death, her body made me think of the lyrics to a song, something about shaking your moneymaker.
"Someone must have killed her somewhere else and dumped her here," one deputy said.
"We would have seen snowmobile tracks."
"No, last night's snowfall would have covered them," I said.
"Assuming she was dumped before the storm," the other deputy said. "Hell, she could have been dropped from an airplane."
"It's all mental masturbation until the coroner looks at her," Galanis said. "Put her on the gurney and let's go. It's freezing out here."
"Hope it's not me that has to notify next of kin," said a deputy, under his breath.
"Yeah," said the other. "Merry freaking Christmas."CHAPTER 2
A week went by, and I wondered what conclusions the Douglas County homicide detectives had reached, if any. The two calls I'd placed to Nick Galanis had not been returned. No surprise there; I was a private citizen, and he had no obligation to share information on the case with me. So, I tried to forget about the girl in the snow, but when I lay down to sleep, the death stare of her face was always waiting. But that would fade in time. It always did.
Christmas was a quiet event for me. Candi, my recent live-in girlfriend, decided not to visit her family in Texas, and my plan to drive us to my mother's home in San Jose was thwarted by another cold storm that closed Highway 50. So, we spent the down time between Christmas and New Year's around the house, staying busy with home improvement projects she'd instigated after moving in three months ago. A brightly lit tree besides the fireplace dominated our living room, and she had redone a sunroom I'd never used for anything but storage. The room was now full of easels and canvases and drop cloths.
In the years since my ex-wife divorced me, I'd defaulted to a sparse living style, my furniture utilitarian, my appliances old but functional. That changed when Candi moved in. In short order, she transformed my modest, three-bedroom house into something that still made me blink when I walked through the front door. My sagging couch was gone, replaced with a tan, leather sectional. Where my old tube TV had collected dust was a new flat screen, and the scarred table in my kitchen was chopped to kindling in favor of a fancy walnut unit. None of my artwork needed to be trashed, because I only owned a few pictures. My framed photo of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry now resided in the bathroom. Candi had hung my other favorite — a great picture of the Eiger north face towering above a Swiss hamlet — in the bedroom. The family room walls were now covered with a tasteful assortment of her paintings and modern art pieces.
At first, I'd protested, but I soon realized Candi had an impeccable eye, and I found myself enjoying what she was doing with the place. I'd bought the home mostly for the large lot and because it butted up against hundreds of acres of federally protected meadowland. A mile past my backyard stood the Sierra Nevada range, 5000 vertical feet of evergreen topped by sheer granite cliffs. A mile in the other direction was Lake Tahoe, claimed by many to be the most beautiful alpine lake in the Americas.
"Hey, doll, I'm gonna go to Zeke's, help out behind the bar for lunch hour," Isaid.
"See you in the afternoon, then?" she called out. She was in the sunroom, working on one of her paintings.
"Don't be long." A soft, suggestive edge to her voice.
My tires slipped on the unplowed residential streets as I drove out to Highway 50, the main drag of South Lake Tahoe. I turned away from the state line, where the casinos were filling with New Year's revelers. A minute later, I pulled into the parking lot at Zeke's Pit. I'd invested twenty grand in the joint last fall, dirty money I needed to hide from the IRS. I viewed the investment as a community service. The funky, old western-style barbeque pit and saloon had been an off-the-beaten-path favorite for locals and tourists alike, until it was shuttered for a month after owner Zeke Pappas died and left the place to his son, Zak, who promptly went on a cocaine binge and nearly fried his circuits for good before landing in rehab.
When Zak got sober, he was flat broke and gladly accepted not only my money but also my condition that Zeke's was to reopen and remain as before. No changes to the menu (which included the best goddamned barbeque chicken and beef brisket in California, I regularly professed to anyone who would listen). No changes to the interior, either — not to the saloon's wooden plank floor, or forty-foot oak bar, or the chandeliers above the cocktail tables, or the wood stove in the corner, or even to the off-color stickers plastered on the cooler doors behind the bar. Over the years, I'd seen plenty of my favorite joints replaced by strip malls or simply redecorated and voided of ambiance, so it was with no small satisfaction that I viewed my stake in Zeke's and the guarantee it would not fall victim to modernization.
But Zeke's had always done good business, so there was no need to reinvent the place. Hungry patrons stopped by for plates piled with smoked meats, beans, coleslaw, corn on the cob, potatoes au gratin, garlic bread, and green salads. Or they came in just to have a few drinks, to listen to the jukebox, and enjoy a setting that harkened a simpler time, a time when men earned a living with their backs, a time uncluttered with technology, electronic gadgets, and instant gratification.
I tied a white apron around my waist and began washing glasses in the metal sinks behind the bar. I didn't know much about the restaurant business, but I knew enough to fire the previous bar manager after discovering he was tapping the tills for $200 a week. Aside from my investment, that was my sole contribution to the resurrection of Zeke's. That, and filling in behind the bar once a week.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dark Ice"
Copyright © 2018 Dave Stanton.
Excerpted by permission of Bloodhound Books.
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