The Target—Coulter “keeps readers guessing” (Booklist) as a little girl is pursued by men who prove as relentless as their motives are baffling. And FBI agents Savich and Sherlock must unravel the clues.
The Edge—In this “fast-paced thriller” (People), an FBI agent’s sister disappears after an attempted suicide. When Savich and Sherlock join the search, they discover a startling connection to a puzzling murder—and put their lives on the line to uncover the truth.
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He stood at the edge of the mountain that sheered down a good two hundred feet before smoothing out into tree-covered ledges and gentle wildflower-covered slopes and sharp gaping ridges. He breathed in the thin air that was so fresh it burned his lungs, but, truth be told, it burned less today than it had yesterday. Soon, the frigid clean air at nearly six thousand feet would become natural to him. It had been only yesterday that he'd realized he hadn't thought all day about a telephone, a TV, a radio, a fax machine, the sound of other voices coming at him from all sides, about people grabbing at him, shouting questions six inches from his face. And those blinding explosions of white from the ever-present flashbulbs. Now, he figured, at last he was beginning to let go, to forget for stretches of time what had happened.
He looked across the valley at the massive, raw mountains that stretched mile upon mile like unevenly spaced jagged teeth. Mr. Goudge, the owner of the Union 76 gas station down in Dillinger, had told him that many of the locals, lots of them Trekkies, called the whole mess of knuckle-shaped mountains the Ferengi Range. The highest peak rose to twelve thousand feet, bent slightly to the south, and looked like a misshapen phallus. He wondered if he'd hurt himself if he climbed that mountain. The folks down in Dillinger joked about that peak, saying it was a sight with snow dropping off it in the summer.
He was aware again as he was so often of being utterly alone. At this elevation there were thick forests of conifers, mainly birch, fir, and more ponderosa pine than anyone could begin to count. He'd seen lots of quaking aspen too. No logging companies had ever devoured this land. On the higher-elevation peaks across the valley, there were no trees, no flowers as there were here in his alpine meadow, just snow and ruggedness, so much savage beauty, untouched by humans.
He looked toward the small town of Dillinger at the far end of the valley that stretched from east to west below. It claimed fifteen hundred and three souls. Silver mines had made it a boomtown in the 1880s, nearly bursting the valley open with more than thirty thousand people-miners, prostitutes, store owners, crooks, an occasional sheriff and preacher, and very few families. That was a long time ago. The descendants of those few locals who had stuck it out after the silver mines had closed down now catered to a trickle of summer tourists. There were cattle in the valley, but they were a scruffy lot. He'd seen bighorn sheep and mountain goats coming down the slopes really close to the cattle, pronghorn antelope grazing at the lower elevations, and prowling coyotes.
He'd driven his four-wheel-drive Jeep down there just once since he'd been here to stock up on groceries at Clement's grocery. Had it been Tuesday? Two days ago? He'd bought a package of frozen peas, forgetting that he didn't have a freezer, just a small high-tech refrigerator that was run off a generator sitting just outside the cabin. He'd cooked those frozen peas on his wood-burning stove, then eaten the entire package in one sitting next to the one bright standing lamp that also worked off the generator.
He stretched, caught a glimpse of two hawks flying low, looking for a snack, and took his ax back to the stump beside the cabin where he was splitting logs. It didn't take him long to pull off his down jacket, then his flannel shirt, then his undershirt. And still he worked up a sweat. His rhythm sped up. The sun felt hot and good on his skin, seeping in to warm his muscles. He felt strong and healthy. He was in business. He knew he had more logs than he could use for the next week, but he just kept to that hard,
smooth rhythm, feeling his muscles flex and loosen, grow tight with power, and release.
He stopped a moment to wipe the sweat off his face with a sleeve of his shirt. Even his sweat smelled fresh, as if his innards were clean.
He heard something.
A very faint sound. It had to be an animal. But he'd gotten used to the owls and the sparrow hawks, to the chipmunks and the skunks, and to the wolves. This sound wasn't one of them. He hoped it wasn't another person invading his mountain. His was the only cabin in the high meadow. There were other cabins, but they were lower, at least a half mile away. No one came up here except maybe in the summer to hike. It was mid-April. No hikers yet. He hefted his ax again. He froze in midswing when the sound came again.
It was like the desperate cry of something-a kitten? No, that was crazy. Still, he pulled on his flannel shirt, and the down jacket. He leaned down and picked up his ax. The weight felt good. Had another man come onto his mountain?
He paused, holding perfectly still, letting the silence invade him until he was part of it. He felt the cool afternoon breeze stir the hair on his head. At last it came again, a soft mewling sound that was fainter this time, broken off into two distinct parts, as if suddenly split apart.
As if a creature was nearly dead.
He ran fast over the flat meadow where his cabin stood. He ran into the pine forest that surrounded the high meadow, slowing because of the undergrowth, praying he was going in the right direction, but uncertain even as he ran.
He heard his own hard breathing and stopped. Little sun could cut through the dense trees. Now that it was late afternoon, it was nearly dark here deep in the forest, where there were suddenly no sounds at all. Nothing. He calmed his breathing and listened. Still nothing. He heard a slithering sound. He whipped around to see a small prairie rattlesnake winding its way under a moss-covered rock. The snake was higher up than it should be.
He waited silent as the trees on all sides of him. He felt a cramp in his right bicep. Slowly he lowered the ax to the ground.
Suddenly he heard it again, off to his left, not too far away, muffled and faint, a sound that was almost like an echo of itself, a memory of what it had been.
He moved slowly now, eyes straight ahead, his stride long. He came to a small clearing. The afternoon sun was still bright overhead. There was rich high grass waving in the breeze. Blue columbine, the Colorado state flower, was blooming wildly, soft and delicate, already welcoming spring. It was a beautiful spot, one he hadn't yet found on his daily treks.
He waited now, his face upturned to the slanting sun, listening. There was a squirrel running up a tree, a distinct sound, one he'd learned very quickly to identify. The squirrel scampered out on a narrow branch, making it wave up and down, its leaves rustling with the weight and movement.
Then there wasn't anything at all, just silence.
He knew the sun wouldn't be shining on him much longer; shadows were already lengthening, swallowing the light. Soon it would be as dark as Susan's hair in the forest. No, he wouldn't think about Susan. Actually it had been a very long time since he'd thought about Susan. It was time to go home, back to his cabin where he'd laid wood for a fire that morning, still waiting for a single match. He'd gotten good at building fires both in the fireplace and in the woodstove. He'd slice up some fresh tomatoes and shred some iceberg lettuce he'd bought two days before at Clement's. He'd heat up some vegetable soup. He stepped back into the thick pine forest.
But what had he heard?
It was darker now than it had been just two minutes before. He had to walk carefully. His sleeve caught on a pine branch. He stopped to untangle himself. He had to lay down the ax.
It was then he saw the flash of light yellow off to his right. For a moment, he just stared at that light yellow. It didn't move and neither did he.
He quickly picked up his ax. He walked toward that light yellow patch,
pausing every few seconds, his eyes straining to make out what it was.
It was a lump of something.
He saw from three feet away that it was a child, unmoving, lying on her stomach, her dark brown hair in tangles down her back, hiding her face.
He fell on his knees beside her, afraid for an instant to touch her. Then he lightly put his hand to her shoulder. He shook her lightly. She didn't move. The pulse in her throat was slow but steady. Thank God she was unconscious, not dead. He felt each of her arms, then her legs. Nothing was broken. But she could be injured internally. If she was, there was nothing he could do about it. He carefully turned her over.
There were two long scratches on her cheek, the blood dried and smeared. Again, he placed his finger against the pulse in her neck. Still slow,
He picked her up as carefully as he could, and grabbed his ax. He curved her in against him to protect her from the low pine branches and underbrush. She was small, probably not older than five or six. He realized then she wasn't wearing a jacket, only the thin yellow T-shirt and dirty yellow jeans. There were white sneakers on her feet, one of the laces unfastened and dangling. No socks, no gloves, no jacket, no cap. What was she doing out here alone? What had happened to her?
He stopped. He could have sworn that he heard the sound of a heavy foot snapping through leaves and small branches. No, he was imagining things. He pulled her closer and quickened his step, the sound of that crunching step hovering just behind him.
It was heavy dusk by the time he walked through the door of his cabin. He laid the little girl on the sofa and covered her with an afghan, an old red-and-blue-checked wool square that was probably older than he was, and very warm. He lit the lamps throughout the cabin.
He turned to look at the front door. He frowned at it, then walked to the door, locked it, and turned the dead bolt. His hand paused as he lifted the chain. Better to be certain. He secured it. Then he lit the fire in the fireplace. Within ten minutes the single large room was warm.
The child was still unconscious. He lightly patted her cheeks, and sat back, waiting, but she didn't stir.
His day certainly wasn't ending as it had begun. "Who are you?" he said to the child. Her face was turned away from him. The scratches were bright and ugly in the lamplight.
He fetched a bowl of tepid water that had been sitting on the woodstove all afternoon, a clean pair of white gym socks, and a bar of soap. He washed her face, as carefully as he could with a gym sock pulled over his hand, blotting the blood off the long scratches.
He brought one of his white undershirts that was warm and soft after years of laundering, and began to strip her. He had to examine her as best he could. He was shocked, then furious, at what he saw.
She was covered with bruises and welts, some of them crusted with dried blood. Blood was smeared between her legs. Oh, God. He closed his eyes a moment.
He bathed her thoroughly, examining her as well as he could, but he didn't see any signs of wounds or cuts, just abrasions and deep bruises. He turned her onto her stomach. Long thin welts scored her child's flesh, from her shoulders to her ankles, welts that didn't overlap, as if made by a careless enraged hand, but that had been carefully placed by someone who wanted to mark every inch of the child, to obtain a certain result, a certain effect. She was thin and as white as the clean undershirt he pulled over her head. The undershirt came to her ankles. He smoothed the covers back over her, and spread out her hair about her head on the pillow with his fingers, gentle as he could be, easing out the worst of the tangles. It was just as well that she wasn't awake while he'd taken care of her. He sat back, staring at the silent child.
He realized he was shaking with fury. What monster had done this to a child? He knew, from firsthand experience, that there were many monsters out there, but to come face-to-face with this made him want to puke and kill at the same time.
He willed her to wake up. She didn't move. He considered whether to take her to the hospital now. He had no phone so he couldn't call. He'd even left his cell phone at home. It was late. He didn't know where the hospital was, how far. And he didn't know who had done this to her, who'd abused and beaten her, or where they were. No, tomorrow he'd take her, and he'd stay with her. He wouldn't leave her alone. Tomorrow, he'd drive with her to the sheriff. There had to be a sheriff in Dillinger. Tonight he'd take care of her himself. If she awoke, if she was hurting, then he'd take her to the hospital, no matter what the hour. But not now.
Had she saved herself, escaped somehow, and run into the forest? Had she tripped on a root or a rock and struck her head? Or had the monster who'd hurt her dumped her, leaving her to die in the forest? He leaned over her and gently ran his fingers over her head. He couldn't feel any lumps. The pulse in her throat was still slow and steady.
If she had escaped the man who'd done this to her, that meant he was still out there looking for her. Of course he'd known this in his gut when he'd brought her into the cabin and that was why he'd locked the door. He checked his Browning Savage 99 lever action rifle. It was already chambered with a .243 Win. On the table by the sofa was his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver. He loved that gun, had since his father had given it to him on his fourteenth birthday and taught him how to use it. It was called the Black Magic because of its black finish on stainless steel. He liked to shoot it, but he'd never used it on a person.