A killer lurked in the Colorado wilderness, and now Captain Graham Ellison had some reporter sniffing around the crime scene. And not only did Emma Wade know the victim, she never dropped an investigation once she started it. But all Graham saw was an independent streak that would get the gorgeous redhead killed. As much as he didn't like allowing a civilian access to his case, he needed to keep Emma close if he also hoped to keep her alive. And he very much did. After all, she was an innocent victim who needed his protection. Nothing more. Or so he kept telling himself.
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"Would you rather face down half a dozen reporters at a press conference, or shoot it out with drug runners in the backcountry?"
FBI Captain Graham Ellison gave his questioner, Montrose County sheriff's deputy Lance Carpenter, a sour look. "Is that a trick question? At least with the drug runners I've got a fair chance. It doesn't matter what I say at these press conferences. The media puts the spin on it they want."
"If the questions get too tough, just look menacing and tell them the safety of local citizens is your primary concern." Carpenter clapped Graham on the back. "You'll do great."
Graham eyed the crowd of reporters, cameramen and news trucks waiting in the parking lot outside the trailer that served as headquarters for The Ranger Brigadethe nickname given to an interagency task force addressing crime on public lands in southwest Colorado. "The safety of citizens is my primary concern," he said. "Or one of them. I have a lot of concernsand I don't need reporters telling me how to do my job, or wasting my time listing all the ways I'm doing it wrong."
"I don't think you've got any choice in the matter this time." Lance studied the gathering over Graham's shoulder. "Prentice and Senator Mattheson forced your hand."
Graham let out a low growl and shifted his focus to the newspaper that lay open on his desk. Twin headlines summed up his predicament: Mattheson Calls for Dismantling Task Force read one. Prentice Readies for Battle declared the other. Peter Mattheson, senator from Colorado, was on a crusade to "get the feds out of local law enforcement business" and "stop wasting money on federal boondoggles."
Richard Prentice, a billionaire who'd made a career out of buying up environmentally or historically valuable properties, then blackmailing the federal government into paying top dollar to save the parcels, had filed a lawsuit to force local authorities to allow him to develop property he owned at the entrance to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Graham's bosses in Washington had "suggested" he hold a press conference to address both these issues. "We'd better get out there before they start making stuff up," Graham said. He straightened his shoulders, opened the door and stepped out into a hail of shouted questions.
"Captain Ellison, have you spoken with Richard Prentice?"
"Captain Ellison, has the death of Raul Meredes slowed drug trafficking in the area?"
"Captain Ellison, how do you respond to Senator Mattheson's criticisms of the task force?"
Graham stood on the top step of the trailer and glowered at the gathered media. Flashes around him let him know his scowling face would be in newspapers all over the region tomorrow. More than one news account had described him as "a big bear of a man." He hoped this time they'd look at him and think "grizzly." He scanned the crowd for a familiar face, some reporter he knew who'd let him ease into the grilling with a softball question.
A cameraman moved to one side, adjusting his angle, and a woman took advantage of the opening to step forward. Digital recorder in one hand, notebook in the other, she was clearly a reporter, but not one Graham had seen before. He wouldn't forget a figure like hers. She was tall, with a generous chest and curvy hips, a wild tumble of strawberry blond hair and full lips in a perfect pink bow of a mouth. Her eyes were hidden by fashionably large sunglasses, but he had no doubt she was looking right at him. And frankly, he couldn't stop staring at her. Forget the fragile, stick-figure women so popular in magazines and on televisionhere was a real-live, flesh-and-blood goddess. Here was a woman he could embrace without crushing, one he could kiss without getting a crick in his back, one
"Captain Ellison, what are you doing about the disappearance of Lauren Starling?" the woman asked, her voice husky and deep, carrying easily even in the crowd.
At her words, his fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke. She wasn't the perfect womanshe was a reporter. And judging from the frown on her face, she didn't think much of him. "So far it has not been determined that Ms. Starling is a missing person, or that she is, in fact, missing in our territory. We are working with the Denver police to try to determine her whereabouts."
"You don't think finding her car abandoned in the National Park, not a half mile from where we're standing right now, points to some connection between her failing to show up for work two weeks ago and 'your territory?'"
Lauren Starling was the popular nightly news anchor at Denver's number two news station. Three weeks ago, she'd failed to return from a few days' vacation and park rangers had discovered her car abandoned at an overlook in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. "Denver police are in charge of that investigation and they are keeping us apprised," Graham said. What he wished he could say was that, for all he or anyone else knew, Lauren Starling was in Mexico with a secret boyfriend. "At this point we have no evidence of foul play."
Twin lines, like the number eleven, formed between the woman's eyes and her mouth turned down in disapproval. Clearly, she didn't think much of his answer. Too bad. He had bigger things to worry about than one woman who the Denver cops had hinted was more than a little flighty. His officers were keeping their eyes open for any sign of Ms. Starling, but he wasn't losing sleep over her.
"Captain, did the death of Raul Meredes put an end to drug trafficking on public lands?" A reedy man Graham recognized as being from the local county paper asked the question. Meredes had been in charge of a large marijuana-growing and human-trafficking operation based in the National Park. Identifying him as a key figure in the recent crime spree had been the task force's biggest achievement thus far. Unfortunately, Meredes had been murdered before they could question him. The crime rate in the area had dipped following his demise, but Graham sensed the lull represented only a marshaling of resources, in preparation for another surge.
"Mr. Meredes played a major role in the crimes going on in this area," Graham said. "But we don't believe he was the one supplying the money and man power for the operation. We're still trying to track down that individual."
"Do you think Richard Prentice has any connection to criminal activity in the park?"
Graham wasn't sure who asked that question; it came from the back of the crowd. Had someone leaked the task force's suspicions, or had Prentice himself sent someone to test how much the Rangers knew?
"We have no reason to believe Mr. Prentice has anything to do with the crimes in the park," he said. Prentice was a jerk and a thorn in the side of federal and state officials in general, but being nasty and unpleasant didn't make a man a criminal. Which didn't mean the task force wasn't watching him very closely. But Prentice had a lot of money, and a lot of lawyers, so they had to tread carefully, which meant not airing their suspicions to the press.
"What do you think of his plans to build a housing development at the entrance to the park?" asked the stringer for the Telluride paper.
"I don't think my opinion on the matter is relevant," Graham said. "I have bigger things to focus on at the moment than Mr. Prentice's battle for public opinion." He glanced at his watch; he'd been standing up here only five minutes. How much longer before he could make his escape?
"What do you have to say to Senator Mattheson's charges that a multi-agency task force is an ineffective and expensive way to address problems better handled by local law enforcement?" The question came from the female reporter. She'd removed her sunglasses to reveal hazel eyes fringed with long, dark lashes. But there was no warmth in those eyes for him.
"I would remind Senator Mattheson that local law enforcement requested help from the federal government in addressing the multiple crimes that seemed to be originating from federal lands," Graham said. "Law enforcement on public land has always been the purview of federal park rangers and the various federal agencies who oversee various federal regulations, from ATF to Border Patrol. This task force brings members of those agencies together to pool resources and provide a more focused approach to addressing crime in a vast and largely unpoliced area."
"But in three months you've only made one arrest, and you're no closer to identifying the person responsible for this crime wave," she said.
"Real life isn't like television, where every case is wrapped up in an hour," he said, barely reining in his annoyance.
"And you don't think Lauren Starling's disappearance has any connection to the other crimes within the park?" she asked, recorder extended toward him.
"I believe I've addressed the question already." He turned away, aware of her gaze boring into him.
He turned and found Lance, cell phone in hand. "I think you'd better take this call," the deputy said. He handed the phone to Graham, then stepped forward to address the reporters. "We're going to have to wrap this up now," he said. "Thank you all for coming."
At first, Graham thought the sheriff's deputy had manufactured the call, as a ruse to end the press conference early. Points for him, Graham thought as he turned his back to the reporters and spoke into the phone. "Ellison here."
"Captain, Randall here." Randall Knightbridge was the Bureau of Land Management's representative on the team. His voice was strained, putting Graham on alert; this was no fake call.
"What is it, Randall?"
"Marco and I were patrolling in the Curecanti Recreation Area and we came upon a plane wreck. It looks recentwithin the last day or so." Marco Cruz was with the DEA, probably the best tracker on the task forcewell, the best, except for Randall's dog, Lotte. "A Beechcraft Bonanza," Randall continued. "One casualtythe pilot."
"Give me your coordinates and I'll send a team right away." Graham pulled a notepad and pen from the front pocket of his uniform shirt.
Randall rattled off the GPS coordinates. "You probably want to come with the team," he said.
Graham tucked the notebook back into his pocket and glanced over his shoulder at the departing press. The curvy blonde was trailing the pack, headed toward a red SUV parked at the far end of the lot. For a moment he was transfixed on the tantalizing sway of her backside as she moved away from him. Too bad she was a reporter.
"Captain?" Randall's voice recalled him from his fantasies.
"I'm here. What were you saying?"
"I said, there's some interesting cargo here you're definitely going to want to see."
Emma Wade stared at the captain's back through the windshield of her Jeep Wranglerbroad shoulders, muscular arms and yes, a very nice rear end. In other circumstances, he was exactly the kind of guy she'd go forbig enough that she wouldn't feel like an elephant next to him. Strong. Intelligent. Too bad he was a jerk.
He finished one call and immediately made two more, then barked something at the sheriff's deputy at his side. She was too far away to hear the words, but the tension in his expression and body language made her sit up straighter. Something was up.
Graham Ellison and the deputy headed for a black-and-white FJ Cruiser parked on the side of the task force trailer. Emma fastened her seat belt and started her vehicle. The press conference had been a bust as far as gathering any new information, but she didn't have to go home empty-handed. Wherever the captain was headed, maybe there was a story there.
He could refuse to answer her questions at the news conference, but he couldn't keep her off public land. Fresh anger rose at the memory of his easy dismissal of the idea that Lauren Starling might be a concern of his precious task force. The police had had the same attitude ten years ago, when Sherry had turned up missing. The next thing Emma knew, she'd been attending her sister's funeral. She gripped the steering wheel of the Jeep until her knuckles ached. Captain Ellison might think he'd heard the last from her about Lauren, but he was wrong. She wouldn't let another family suffer the way hers had if she could help it.
She eased off the accelerator, letting the Cruiser get farther ahead. Unpaved roads made following easyshe could track the plume of dust that rose behind the speeding vehicle, her own vehicle hidden by the dirty cloud.
When the Cruiser's tracks turned off the road, headed across the prairie, she hesitated only a fraction of a second before following. The Jeep bounced over the rough terrain, rattling her teeth, and she prayed she wouldn't blow a tire. They were headed away from the canyon that gave the park its name, across an expanse of rocky ground pocked with sagebrush and pinon trees, deep into the roadless wilderness area where few people ventured. All that largely unpatrolled public land had proved attractive to the criminals who'd taken advantage of sheltered canyons and abandoned ranch buildings to plant marijuana, manufacture methamphetamine and smuggle people and illegal goods. Hence the need for the task force, though public opinion wasn't convinced that the influx of law enforcement had been much of a crime deterrent.
The dust was beginning to settle around two black-and-white Cruisers by the time Emma parked the Jeep a few yards behind them. As she climbed out of her vehicle, she focused on the mass of wreckage behind the cops: the tail and one wing of a small plane pointed skyward, the nose crumpled against the prairie. She took a couple of pictures with her digital camera then, aware of at least two cops glaring at her, strode forward with all the confidence of a journalist who knows she has every right to be where these men didn't want her.
"Stop right there, ma'am." A rangy officer in a long-sleeved brown shirt, khakis and a buff Stetson stepped out to meet her. A blond-and-black police dog stalked at his side, golden eyes fixed on her.
"Hello, Officer. I'm Emma Wade, from the Denver Post!'
"You need to turn around and leave, Ms. Wade. This is a crime scene."
"Oh?" She directed her gaze over his shoulder, to where the captain and two other officers were huddled at the door of the crashed plane. "What kind of crime? Was the plane carrying drugs? Illegal aliens? Some other contraband? Did anyone survive the crash? Do you know who the plane belongs to?" She took out her reporter's notebook, pen poised. She didn't really expect him to answer any of her queries, but sometimes interrogating men who were more used to assuming the role of interrogator yielded interesting results.
He glanced over his shoulder toward the plane, then back at her, his expression tense. "No comment," he said.
"Then I'd better talk to someone else." She started forward, but he put out his arm to stop her.
"You really need to leave," he said.
"After I've driven all the way out here?" She folded her arms across her chest. "I'll stay."
"Then you'll have to wait over there." He motioned in the direction of her Jeep.
Clearly, he wasn't going to let her any closer. Better to wait him out. "All right." She replaced the notebook in her purse. "Tell Captain Ellison I have some questions for him when he's finished."
She turned and walked back to her vehicle, not in any hurry. Once there, she rummaged in the glove compartment until she found a pair of binoculars. She leaned against the Jeep and trained the binocs on the wreckage.
Debris littered the area around the crashchunks of fiberglass and metal, a tire, a plastic cup, the remains of a wooden crate. She focused in on the crate and made out the words Fragile and Property of- Property of whom?
She scanned to the right of the crate and froze when she found herself looking into a pair of eyes the color of hot fudge, underneath craggy brows.
Angry brown eyes, she corrected herself, that belonged to Captain Graham Ellison. He glared directly at her and she gasped and drew back as he stalked toward her.