Liv becomes involved in the investigation of the murder of Jill Brannigan, a summer intern at the limestone mine Liv manages near Fort Collins, Colorado (a breathtaking setting that unwittingly becomes an accessory to crime). In doing so, she inadvertently puts her friends, her family, and herself at risk of being swallowed in the belly of a madman bloated with perverse appetites for women, surrealistic art, and renown.
Perhaps a bit too daring (and at times irreverent) for her own good, ''Boots,'' as Liv's eight siblings call her, soon realizes she has a knack for outsmarting and tracking down the Venus de Milo murderer--and she enjoys it! As the gripping plot of In the Belly of Jonah unfolds, Liv Bergen takes her place alongside the best female crime-solvers as a woman with smarts, self-confidence, and intuitive savvy.
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A BOTTLE ATOP A tiny two-drawer cabinet next to a larger two-drawer cabinet. Where had she seen this before?
The cabinets were brown. The bottle was brown. The cork, brown. The gravel beneath her feet, the hills around Horsetooth Dam, the rowboats nearby, even the clouds in the dark sky. Brown. Differing shades of brown, as far as she could tell in the moonlight, but brown nonetheless. The dress he had made her put on — simple and old-fashioned, with eggshell-colored lace serving as trim around the collar and the tight short sleeves — was a warm chocolate brown.
Undressing in front of him had made her tremble. Not because of the cool June night in the Rocky Mountain foothills but because she dreaded what would come next. She was proud of having remained chaste and she didn't want to lose her virginity now. Not like this. But he hadn't raped her. Instead, he had just stared at her nakedness and smiled. His dark eyes were wild and still. They didn't scan her body as she would have anticipated;rather, his stare pinned her in place, rendering her useless to fight back or run or scream.
But she was strong enough, fast enough, crazy enough to fight back. Even after sleeping off the roofie or whatever it was that he had slipped into her drink, so disoriented when she had awakened that she had no clue what time or even what day it was. She had lain in the dark room for what seemed like hours, trying to clear her mind, regain her strength, calculate a way out of this mess. She had pretended she was with her mother, laying her head on her lap, feeling hands stroke her hair, and hearing her say everything was going to be all right. And she had felt strong again.
When she had tried the doorknob in the dark room, it didn't give. The only window was covered by a steel grate that had been welded on the inside of the frame. There was no escape. He had done this before, she had thought. She wasn't his first prisoner. Or his last. And then a second thought had come to her. She hadn't heard or read anything recently about women disappearing or dead bodies being found. A wave of relief had washed over her mind then. She wasn't going to die after all. She just had to do what her abductor told her to do.
So, here she stood, focusing all her energy on being still, obedient. Dressed like a settler, complete with a homespun apron, and standing amid the bizarre props he had pulled from the back of his truck.
He had promised her earlier that night that if she obeyed his every instruction, he would not harm her. But if she did not obey he would turn his attention to Julia. She would not let that happen. Even if it killed her.
Her frazzled nerves had paralyzed the part of her brain that was trying to recall where she'd seen this setting before. The odd cabinets they had both carefully placed near the water's edge at his instruction, the wooden cane he was carrying, the dress. It was somehow familiar, but she couldn't quite recall why. And why did it even matter whether she had seen this before? Something primordial demanded it of her, though. She must know the reason for all this.
Neither his stare nor his smile had changed, even after she had finished dressing. What was he fantasizing about her? Was she his maid? His pilgrim? His little woman in his little house on some stupid prairie out west?
But the shoes. They were the most confusing part of all. Her high-top leather basketball shoes and tube socks were heaped by the shoreline next to her blue jeans, T-shirt, and green CSU hoodie. Next to the heap was a pair of tan Converse low-top tennis shoes with no laces.
He told her to slip on the shoes.
For some reason, this was deeply disturbing. The shoes didn't match the dress. Not that she had any fashion sense whatsoever. That was Julia's talent, not hers. Something in the pit of her stomach lurched at the thought of Julia slipping on the shoes instead of her, making his threat and her compliance more important than ever. It was all much too surreal for her. Surreal.
Obedience, she told herself. Be obedient, and live. She slipped her feet into the shoes.
His smile widened. "Sit."
He hadn't hurt her. He had always been gentle, as well as meticulous, careful, prepared. As she sat watching, he spent a painfully long time positioning the props, particularly the bottle. She could see it better now. The combined shape formed by both the bottle and the smaller cabinet to the right was identical to the silhouette that had been cut away in the bottom door of the larger cabinet to the left. Or, seen another way, the shadowy cutout in the door of the cabinet on the left was mirrored in the posed objects on the right. A shadow of the small reflected on the large? Mirror images? Art mimicking art? The overpowering connection of this setting with a faint memory irritated her.
"Like my handiwork?" he purred.
She glanced away, disturbed that he had noticed her soaking up the scene, trying to figure out what this was all about. And why it seemed so familiar, yet elusive.
"Please. Why are you doing this?" was all she could manage.
"Recognizable, isn't it?"
Was he a mind reader too?
He turned his back to her and reached into the camper top of his pickup, which he'd pulled onto the rocky beach nearby. He was unwinding a long hose that looked a lot like the air compressor hoses she'd used at work. She hadn't seen this type before. Her eyes followed the hose to where it was connected to a large tank tucked toward the front of the truck bed. Panic swelled in her belly, constriction overtook her throat. She sprang to her feet, tears burning her eyes.
"Please, please, don't hurt me," she sobbed.
"Hush,"he cooed, dropping the nozzle at her feet and touching her elbow lightly. "We had a deal. I won't hurt you or Julia if you just let me finish."
"What are you going to do?"
She wasn't really sure she wanted an answer to that question, but she was sure she needed to keep talking. She needed to hear her own voice, as if awakening herself from this horrible nightmare.
"This won't take long," he said as he guided her back onto the ground and walked behind her. He started fondling her hair, twisting and stroking it between the pads of his fingers and thumbs. "Now pull your lovely brown hair up in a knot, just above the nape of your neck."
She did as she was told, trembling with fright as she wrapped her long hair in a tight bun. He handed her a band and pins to secure the knot. She heard the gravel crunch beneath his feet as he backed away from her. She stole a glance over her shoulder and saw him staring at her, holding his hands to form a picture frame as if capturing a snapshot with her in the foreground and the cabinets and reservoir in the background.
"Look across the water, will you, Jill?"
She did as she was told. She heard him groan with pleasure.
"Now, please stand up and take the dress and shoes off again."
Trembling, she handed him the dress and shoes, and he set them aside. She was standing stark naked in front of him once again. The disconnect between his lack of interest in her nudity and his interest in her surroundings was like a cold finger dragging along her spine. He placed a folded towel in the shallow water and said, "Sit, please."
"It's ... it's so cold. I can't."
"Yes, you can. Haven't you ever heard of the fable about Jonah being swallowed by a whale?"
"Yes," she said in a small voice.
"Then you know you can."
He was insane, she thought. Certifiable. Stay calm. And keep him talking. "What do you mean?"
"Jonah was strong. Very strong." He smiled. "Jonah lived in the belly of a whale for years, decades. And he never complained of the cold, now did he?"
Her eyes widened. She glanced down at the submersed towel, a terrycloth manta ray floating in the shallows, wings bending back and forth, back and forth. She felt sick.
"Did he?" he barked.
She shook her head and bent on shaky knees, lowering herself onto the soggy towel.
"Never," he answered.
She wrapped her long arms around her knees, hugging herself into a fetal position. He squatted behind her, placing his hot, sweaty hands on her shoulders to keep from tottering. He struggled to pull something from his pocket with his right hand.
Just as she felt his hot breath on her bare shoulder, she felt the prick of the needle in her right arm and immediately relaxed. A sudden euphoria enveloped her. This was all going to be okay, she thought. He wasn't going to hurt her. She wasn't going to catch her death of cold in this frigid water. In fact, it felt more like a Jacuzzi now. She was beginning to feel drowsy. He wasn't behind her anymore, but she didn't remember him leaving. Her body was warm and tingly. Maybe he was gone. Maybe it was all over now. She had nothing to fear.
Then she heard the squeak of a knob turning and the hose on the beach wiggled to life with a hiss. Her heart raced and her mind willed herself awake. She sat erect, fighting gravity to keep her head from lolling toward her chest. He was coming toward her again, the hose hissing near his feet. Her instincts told her to run, but when she moved to stand, her legs were too heavy to pull from the water, her arms too heavy to throw a punch. It was hard enough just to breathe.
She felt him slowly lower her shoulders to the ground, her limbs too weak to fight the fatigue. The water tickled her ears. He had promised her that everything would go back to normal again. She wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe that she would wake up and this would all be over. She wanted to sleep. She wanted to laugh at the water for licking her ears. But a small part of her still wanted to scream.
Her mind drifted to Jonah in the belly of that stinking whale. To what her captor had said about Jonah not complaining even after years, decades, in the belly.
"Three days," she croaked, remembering what Allan had told her. After only three days, the whale spat Jonah out on the beach at God's command. It wasn't a fable; it was a story from the Bible. He had it all wrong. It was days, just three days, not years or decades. Her mind floated away with the tide, with the whale, Jonah free.
In a burst of clarity, she was back at Horsetooth. She wasn't sure if she said the words aloud, but they came out like an echo in her ears, thick and slurred. "Please, I won't tell anyone."
Through the heavy fog in her head, she heard him say, "Neither will I."CHAPTER 2
THE VIEW WAS SPECTACULAR.
I hadn't climbed up to watch a blast in more than two months, and I'd forgotten how amazing the landscape looked from this vantage point. Standing near the piñon grove at the north end of the quarry on top of the hogback, I could see the Rockies, dark and inviting, to the right of me and the plains, stretching to the horizon, far to the left.
Directly in front of me was the best part of all. The smooth layer of limestone just south of the road was pocked with three-inch-diameter holes; a neat pile of bright white drill cuttings lay around the lip of each hole. I counted the holes and, knowing the spacing and estimating the height of highwall in that area, quickly did the math. Twenty thousand tons. Less than the past few months' average, but better than Joe and I had thought. We were almost as far west as we wanted to be — maybe two or three shots away from the buffer — and still able to maintain the beautiful hogback ridge. We'd be reclaiming this area by next spring for sure, another fifteen to twenty acres restored in this hundred-year-old quarry.
I was proud of the progress we had made in the past five years: preparing nearly thirty percent of the quarry for reclamation and having earned release on half of that already. That meant the state approved our accomplishments and released us from bonding requirements. I looked down at the ground where I stood, which had not been mined and never would be, so the piñons would be protected, and at the area to the north of the road cut, where we had finished reclamation three years ago. I couldn't tell the difference between the two landscapes. Neither could the fox that was trotting off into the valley to the northeast.
I imagined what would be left of the limestone a half hour from now, picturing in my head the progression of mining blocks in the coming weeks, followed by the reclamation effort. A tiny movement in one of the holes caught my eye. Ronnie must have tugged a bit on one of the wires during his final check. My eyes traced the wires that snaked from each hole in the same general direction, gathering at a single point where, sure enough, Ronnie was doing his final check. I saw him lift the radio to his scruffy face and heard a crackle from the radio clipped to my hip.
"Ready, boss," Ronnie announced.
I glanced to my right, easily spotting Joe as he stood by his white truck in front of the crowd that had gathered on the opposite side of the hogback beyond the mouth of the quarry down the entrance road. Haul trucks, pickup trucks, loaders, and nearly two dozen employees waited patiently.
I saw him lift the radio to his lips.
"Unit three to unit ten?" Joe's voice crackled.
"Unit ten ready," Paul's voice sounded.
"Unit three to unit seven?"
"Unit seven ready," said Manuel.
"Unit three to unit thirteen?"
"Yo, ready boss," Shawn, our youngest supervisor, replied. I knew Joe would be having a chat with him by day's end regarding blasting procedures and safety protocol. I saw Joe shake his head slowly, then looked to my left and saw Ronnie's shoulders shake with laughter.
"Unit three to base?"
Darlene's voice was the clearest on my radio handset. "All neighbors have been called. Hal has the seismograph ready. Base clear."
"Unit three to unit eight?"
Back to you, Ronnie, I mouthed silently. Ronnie was talking to himself, likely counting down his checklist items. He nodded once in approval and pulled the radio to his lips. "Unit eight ready."
"All units please stay off the air until after the blast," Joe said.
Ronnie knelt over the detonation control he had strung behind the back bumper of his blasting truck and awaited Joe's command. I moved behind the large rock, poking my head up to watch but able to duck in the unlikely event that a blasting mishap sent fly rock in my direction.
A flash beyond Joe in my far right peripheral vision caught my eye, what must have been a glint of sunlight bouncing off the windshield of a car turning off the highway onto our entrance road. Joe must have seen it too because I saw him motion to Manuel, who was blocking the entrance road with his loader. Safety first. Joe hesitated while Manuel talked to the driver and then Manuel signaled with his thumb that everything was okay, and the car stayed put on the safe side of the loader.
I glanced at Ronnie, who had become antsy about the delay. Because he was on the opposite side of the hogback downhill from me, he was the only one who couldn't see Joe or the car that had entered our quarry. But he had seen me perched atop the ridge and was looking my way. I gave him my own comforting "okay"sign from behind the rock and he smiled, returning the gesture.
Joe started the countdown on the radio. "Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six."
We all did the rest of the countdown in our own heads, leaving the radio clear for an emergency abort by anyone on the team. With Joe having set the cadence, I counted down the rest of the way, and at precisely one second past zero, the ground rumbled, dust puffed, and rock crumbled as if Mother Earth had simply made a polite cough.
The sequential timing of the explosives was executed perfectly to minimize the ground vibration. The sky was cloudless and windless, which minimized any air blast. The dust settled quickly on top of the heap of limestone — perfectly blasted rock sized at twenty-four inches or less. The excitement I felt swelled into pride as I saw Ronnie rise to his feet with a grin.
Joe walked back to his truck and waited the agonizing minutes for any unwanted sound resulting from an unplanned, delayed detonation of a faulty blasting cap or misplaced wiring. The employees were anxiously and obediently waiting for the well-respected operations manager's signal that the shot had been denoted, the expended blasting material had been inspected and cleared, and everyone could safely return to work. But Joe always put his employees' safety ahead of their strong work ethic, taking the extra precaution of waiting out a mishap.
Within minutes, Joe was checking out the shot rock, inspecting the completeness of the blast and making sure that all holes were properly detonated. It reminded me of how my dad used to make sure all our fireworks had been expended before allowing the nine of us back outside to play the day after our Fourth of July celebrations. Safety first. With noses pressed against the big plate glass window of our living room, our mom telling us to be patient, we watched Dad as he wandered the driveway and yard back and forth, back and forth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Belly of Jonah"
Copyright © 2010 Sandra Brannan.
Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
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