As a member of a mountain search and rescue team, Gracie Kinkaid routinely volunteers to put her life on the line. But it’s at her new day job at a residential camp in the mountains of southern California where she finds her life is really in danger…
As a volunteer for Timber Creek Search and Rescue, Gracie responds to a call out for a car that’s gone over the side of a treacherous mountain road. The crash, which Gracie quickly suspects is no accident, proves to be one in an escalating and deadly series of events that lead her right back to Camp Ponderosa, a church-owned camp where she works as Program Director. As Gracie probes more deeply into the dark secrets at the camp, she unearths a hidden world of illegal activities, including murder…and finds herself going head-to-head with desperate perpetrators who will do anything to silence her forever.
About the Author
M.L. Rowland is the author of Zero-Degree Murder: A Search and Rescue Mystery.
Read an Excerpt
THE station wagon shot over the edge of the cliff, headlights parallel beacons slicing the night. It smashed against the mountainside. Glass shattering, steel shrieking, the car cartwheeled, plunging down and down and down, smacking into trees and boulders, crashing through bushes, until finally, at the bottom of the canyon, it slowed. Rocked once. And stopped.
The groaning of settling metal drifted away with the dust.
The cooling engine ticked to a stop.
GINA Ramirez was missing, and Gracie’s little toe hurt.
Her sock, crusty from the previous day’s wear and pulled on in the dark that morning, had bunched up inside her hiking boot. Even with a liner sock, the fabric rubbing against a blister on the outside of her toe had begun to burn only a quarter mile out on the high-mountain trail along which she now hiked. Exhaustion from searching for the missing fifteen-year-old girl for five out of the last seven days manifested itself in stubbornness, an unwillingness to stop to remove her knee-high gaiter and her boot and place a square of moleskin over the raw spot.
As Gracie limped down the trail, she swiped away sweat burning the outer corner of her eye with the back of her wrist. Sweat stained the armpits of her orange uniform shirt and saturated the rim of her floppy hat, plastering ropy strands of damp hair to her forehead and the back of her neck. The waistband of her desert camo army pants was wet where the strap of her heavy pack was cinched atop bruised hips.
Behind Gracie hiked Lenny Olsen. A burly six-foot-five with a wild thatch of straw-colored hair, he was one of the newest members on Timber Creek Search and Rescue. Normally the young man’s ready grin and effusive banter never failed to make Gracie smile. But that morning, Lenny was so glum, so grimly silent, it took a mumbled curse or size 12EEE hiking boot kicking a stone to remind her he was there.
The fawn-colored National Forest Service trail along which the two searchers hiked meandered just below the mountain ridgeline at over nine thousand feet. Rounded clumps of manzanita crowded in on both sides, shiny leaves against smooth, dark red bark. On the right, white fir and ponderosa pine reared up against the clear cerulean sky. On the left, intermittent openings in the trees below offered Sierra Club–calendar glimpses of the Bavarian-style resort town of Timber Creek. And beyond, Timber Lake glittered, diamonds on cobalt satin, beneath the afternoon sun.
Gracie breathed in the cool, sweet high-altitude air. Any other day, hiking in heaven on earth would have sent her spirits soaring with the ravens. But that day, hoofing it down the trail, she barely noticed the natural world, brilliant and perfect, brought low by a cruel world where a teenager could vanish without a trace.
Media alerts and flyers papering the entire valley and surrounding communities displayed a picture of the missing girl: bright dark brown eyes, a wide smile revealing tiny pearl teeth, shoulder-length black hair held back from her face by a pink headband. Gina Ramirez. Age fifteen. Five foot one inch tall. Eighty pounds. Last seen wearing a dark pink T-shirt with a light blue hoodie, blue jeans, white sneakers, diamond-chip earrings, and a thin gold bracelet with a pink enamel heart.
According to the briefing search teams received upon their arrival at the Incident Command Post, the girl had last been seen around ten o’clock the previous Monday night. Bouncing up the stairs to her bedroom, she had called a cheerful good-night to her parents sitting in the living room watching Animal Planet on the flat screen with their two young sons. The following morning, Gina was gone. Her bed hadn’t been slept in.
Seven grueling days of searching followed. More than one hundred searchers representing fourteen teams from five southern California counties. Ground pounders. Trackers. ATVs. Aviation. Dog teams. Horse teams. Vehicle and boat patrols. Street by street, knocking on doors, passing out flyers, talking to locals, questioning tourists, dredging the lake. Neighborhoods. Businesses. Marinas. Every building, vehicle, and boat within a two-mile radius of the girl’s house had been searched. And searched again. Every trail in the surrounding mountains had been hiked. And hiked again.
Not a single piece of evidence had been found. Not a single clue. Every possible scenario had been examined. Every tactic exhausted. With each passing day, hope for finding Gina Ramirez alive faded like the last glimmer of afternoon sunshine on lake water.
By the end of her fourth day of searching, Gracie was on autopilot, her mind numb, shutting out everything but the present and the bulldog obsession to keep searching, to find little Gina Ramirez alive and bring her home to her family. She squinted behind her Ray-Bans, head swiveling from side to side, eyes skimming the steep incline thrusting up on her right, plunging down on her left, trying to pick out anything resembling a clue, any unnatural color standing out against the surrounding gray rock and the green tapestry of bushes and trees. A flash of gold. An ordered pattern.
“All teams stand by for announcement.” Ralph Hunter’s voice over the radio microphone clipped to Gracie’s chest pack made her jump. She slid to a stop on the trail, pulled off her gloves, and tucked them into a pant-leg pocket.
Lenny stopped so close behind Gracie his breath tickled the back of her neck. “What’s happening?” he asked. “Did somebody find her?”
“Nope.” Gracie withdrew her GPS from its own little pocket on her chest pack and held it aloft to acquire satellite signals. “They would have announced it.”
“Then what are—?”
Ralph’s voice over the radio cut Lenny off. “Per IC, all teams return to base. Repeat. Return to base. All teams acknowledge.”
“Shit,” Gracie whispered.
“What’s happening?” Lenny asked again.
“Ground Forty-six. Acknowledged,” a man’s voice said over the mike, then a woman’s: “Dog Eight copies.” Another man’s: “ATV Seventeen. Ten-four.”
Gracie waited, poised to call in, hand on the radio microphone. “They’ve called the search.”
“They called it?”
She cleared her throat and thumbed the mike button. “Ground Forty-three. Copy.” She jerked her gloves back on. “We’re done.”
Lenny bent to peer into her face. “That’s it?”
Gracie looked into his wide eyes, a startling cornflower blue. “That’s it.”
Knowing she was lecturing, she said, “Technically, they’re probably only suspending it, not calling it off, so they can resume later if they find any clues or evidence.” She concentrated on wrapping the straps of her trekking poles around her hands. “For us, for now, it’s over.”
“Fuck!” Lenny stomped twenty feet back up the hard-packed trail, stopped, and bent over, elbows on knees, head hanging, taking in deep breaths.
Exhaustion anesthetized most of the pain, but tears burned Gracie’s eyes.
They had done everything they could.
But it hadn’t been enough.
Little Gina Ramirez had officially become a statistic.
GRACIE pressed the accelerator all the way to the floor and guided her Ford Ranger pickup, a rust-spotted maroon, around the steep curves of Cedar Mill Road on the five-mile climb from the valley floor up to Camp Ponderosa high in the mountains. The air, warm and soft, tickled her arm hanging out the open window. Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine towered overhead. A lone raven wind-surfed the canyon updrafts. Massive cotton ball clouds hovered in a robin’s-egg blue sky. “Just another day in paradise,” Gracie said with a sigh.
Even though her arms and legs felt as if they were weighted down with sacks of wet cement, she noticed a perceptible lightening of the gloom that had persisted since the search was suspended the day before.
After the long debrief at the Sheriff’s Office, she had headed home, afterward remembering nothing of the ten-minute drive. She stumbled into her cabin, stepping out of dirty, smelly search clothes directly into the shower in the downstairs bathroom. With the sun still four fingers above the horizon and filling the bedroom upstairs with an amber glow, Gracie flopped down onto the camp mattress that served as her bed and was asleep in less than a minute.
Eleven hours later, the alarm jarred her awake.
Gracie lay motionless in the tangle of bedsheets and contemplated calling in sick to work. Because of the search, she had already missed three days in the past week. Her pseudo-boss, Jay, the manager of Camp Ponderosa, the year-round residential camp where she worked seemed to be understanding, even supportive. But she couldn’t risk any complaints about her performance. She couldn’t afford to lose the job practically before she had started.
So she dragged herself out of bed and pulled on a pair of khaki shorts and a forest-green Camp Ponderosa T-shirt. Her toilette lasted all of sixty seconds—throwing cold water on her face, scrubbing her teeth with a dry toothbrush, and catching her unruly auburn hair up in a clip on top of her head. Breakfast was two cups of double-strength Folgers Instant gulped down during the ten-mile drive across town.
The twisting stretch of Cedar Mill Road unwound before the Ranger like a serpent. Gracie lifted her foot off the accelerator in anticipation of an upcoming turn.
A silver Dodge Ram hurtled around the curve up ahead, taking it too wide and fast and sending the box trailer it was pulling swinging wide into Gracie’s lane.
“Shit!” She cut the steering wheel hard to the right and slammed on the brakes. Tires slid on asphalt, then gripped the gravel on the shoulder. The Ranger stopped with four inches of its front right tire hanging over the edge of the road, which dropped sharply away in a twenty-foot tumble of rocks and scrub juniper.
The Dodge Ram roared past.
Over her shoulder, Gracie glimpsed a lifted hand, a flash of pearly whites. “Eddie,” she muttered.
Eddie Wilson. Jay’s younger brother. Camp Ponderosa’s live-in head of maintenance and security.
Gracie had met the man only once, on her first day of work. He seemed nice, certainly friendly enough. She’d seen him several times since but only from a distance and knew practically nothing about him except he drove through camp—and apparently everywhere else—like a bat out of hell.
She flexed her hands still fizzing with adrenaline, backed the Ranger onto the pavement and continued the drive up the hill.
The truck bumped off the asphalt and onto dirt. Another half mile up, it crested a rise and swept beneath the hewn-log entryway into camp.
Owned by a megachurch in Orange County, Camp Ponderosa rested on the largest privately owned parcel of land in Timber Valley—real estate literally worth millions. Ten acres of lodges and cabins with the pristine spring-fed five-acre Lake Ponderosa, surrounded by nearly two hundred more unblemished acres of pine—cinnamon-barked ponderosa, sugar with cones a foot long, Jeffrey with bark smelling of vanilla; white fir and California black oak, interspersed throughout with boulders of California granite, some the size and shape of elephants. Mountain chickadees, acorn woodpeckers, pygmy nuthatches. Chipmunks, ground and gray squirrels, and a coyote or two.
It had taken Gracie a single day to realize the little piece of Eden was beyond price—an unparalleled treasure to be nurtured and protected.
The Ranger rolled past the Gatehouse, the cottage housing the camp offices, down a short hill and over a narrow creek lined with cottonwoods and rushing with snowmelt. A large grassy recreation field opened up on the left, a paved parking lot on the right. The road angled left, continuing on into the rest of camp. Straight ahead, in front of a tumble of boulders, rustic signs announced LOADING/UNLOADING ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT and the ten-mile-per-hour speed limit. Weeds crowded the feet of an eight-foot-high carved bear holding another sign, DINNING HALL, with an arrow pointing to the right.
Annoyed at the misspelled sign and vowing that someday, when she had been at camp long enough, she would get them to fix it, Gracie swung the truck in the direction of the arrow and parked in one the spaces in front of Serrano Lodge. Painted a grayish brown, the two-story cinder-block building blended in neatly with the surrounding rock.
Stepping down from the truck, Gracie was engulfed in a chirping, twittering symphony of birds. Ten feet away, a chipmunk no larger than a teacup sat flicking its tiny tail atop a boulder. A red-shafted flicker sailed overhead to land on the branch of a nearby oak tree. For a moment, Gracie stood still, pulling the fresh, dry scent of pine on high-mountain air into her lungs and savoring the peace.
Then she stooped to catch a foam coffee cup skittering across the pavement, tossed it into the garbage can next to the front door, and walked into the lodge.
A Lysol-over-mildew smell from a long-neglected water leak pervaded the entire first floor of Serrano Lodge. Gracie walked along the narrow hallway, lined with dark green industrial carpet and walls painted celery, past door after door of lodge rooms.
She was reaching out to push through the two-way swinging door into the dining hall when the door burst open from the other side. A girl of sixteen, possibly seventeen, stalked by without a word or glance. A camp T-shirt ripped off short showed eight inches of creamy midriff. Low-slung denim shorts revealed coltish legs. A pink ponytail swung beneath an A’s baseball cap worn backward. A blue backpack was slung over one shoulder.
With her back pressed against the wall, Gracie stared after the young woman. She couldn’t remember her name, but she had seen her several times before. Always the same revealing clothing. Always enough eye makeup to supply an entire cheerleading squad. Always the same expression that screamed, Don’t fucking talk to me or I’ll rip your fucking head off.
Talk about Trouble with a capital T, Gracie thought.
She pushed off the wall and through the swinging door into the dining room where she was bombarded with the boisterous chatter of forty-three middle-schoolers and eleven adult chaperones overlaid with the heady aroma of French toast, syrup, oatmeal, and coffee.
On the left was a serving window and another swinging door leading into the kitchen. On the right, at the far end of the room, a stone fireplace rose up to the ceiling. Across the room, tall windows offered a panoramic view of oak and pine and granite.
Gracie edged past a table of giggling preteen girls. “You ladies ready for high ropes this afternoon?”
Six voices answered in unison, “Yes!”
“Don’t forget. Sneakers and long pants.” Gracie returned gleeful shouts of “Hey, Miss Kinkaid!” with waves and smiles and negotiated her way through the tables to the far corner of the room where she wrestled a pink plastic cup from a pile of green stackable dish racks, filled it with coffee and a splash of hot chocolate, and elbowed through the swinging door into the kitchen.
“. . . slut!” hissed a female voice.
Gracie stopped dead in the doorway. The door swung closed behind her.
The windowless kitchen was lined with stainless steel counters, dishwasher, stove, and walk-in refrigerators with a large, rectangular butcher block prep table in the middle.
Jay Wilson, the camp’s manager, stood next to the dishwasher on her left. Serene Bishop, the head cook, scowled at her from the far end of the prep table, chest heaving, breath coming out in quick whispers through flared nostrils. One hand held a large chef’s knife in a death grip.
For several seconds, the three stared at one another in a culinary tableau vivant. Serene brought the scene back to life by banging the knife down on the table. She stalked out of the room and down the back hallway, lime green flip-flops slapping on faded linoleum.
“Good morning, Gracie,” Jay said, turning away to load a dish rack with dirty plates and glasses. “Welcome back,” he said with a flip of his hand. “Welcome back.”
“Thanks.” Gracie sidled over to lean up against the stainless steel counter. “Sorry if I interrupted.”
Jay shrugged off the apology with another flip of his hand. “Serene’s a little upset because Jett called in sick again this morning.”
Calling in sick makes her a slut? Gracie blew little ripples into her coffee and studied her boss over the rim of the cup.
Jay Wilson wore his XXXL madras plaid cotton shirt tucked into khaki pants belted high up on a fifty-two-inch waist. With a wealth of carefully coiffed silver hair, a tuft of whiskers beneath his lower lip, and large central incisors, he reminded Gracie of Peter Pettigrew, the rodentlike character from the Harry Potter movies.
But his voice was pleasing, as fluid and smooth as warm honey, which Jay used to maximum effect in his role not only as manager of a church-owned camp but also as a lay preacher.
Today the man’s fleshy cheeks were flushed an unhealthy crimson. His forehead glistened with sweat.
Maybe it’s his heart, Gracie speculated. She guessed his weight topped three hundred pounds. Carrying all that weight around was hard work. Especially at altitude.
The reason for Jay’s bulk was no mystery. He vocally scorned physical activity of any sort, routinely driving the eighth of a mile from the office down to the kitchen. His preferred diet was mashed potatoes, gravy, and fried chicken, and he bought and consumed mini–candy bars by the case. What was a mystery was why he chose to work at a camp high in the mountains surrounded by the nature he so loathed.
Gracie took a sip of coffee, considering that maybe Jay’s color was attributable to the tête-à-tête she had interrupted mid-tête, which brought her around to wondering if it was indeed Jett who Serene had called a slut and, if so, why.
Jett McKenna, kitchen manager and Serene’s boss, was the object of the woman’s almost pathological loathing.
Gracie, however, found Jett’s lack of pretense refreshing, respecting, even envying, her fearlessness in dealing with people and life in general. But Jett had a hair-trigger temper that flared unpredictably like a desert cloudburst at Serene for putting too little salt in the oatmeal or Emilio, the young man who helped in the kitchen, for a speck of dried food on a serving spoon. The anger quickly dissipated, sun shining again on mesquite and barrel cactus, all forgiven, all forgotten—at least on Jett’s part. But those who bore the emotional cuts and bruises of her mercurial behavior—Serene in particular—didn’t seem to forgive or forget quite as easily.
At first, it puzzled Gracie how Jett was able to keep her job at a church-owned camp. A high-school dropout and ex-hooker with a police record, the self-proclaimed born-again Christian had a mouth even more foul than some of the men on Search and Rescue. She wore her dyed blue-black hair razored short on the sides and back with soft wisps up top combed forward and waving around like a peacock feather. Faux jewel-studded rings—one an elaborate dragon with ruby eyes—adorned her fingers. For work she toned down her preference for strategically ripped animal prints and black leather to black T-shirts and jeans.
But it quickly became apparent to Gracie that Jett was stiletto sharp and quick, an organizational wizard. In five years, she had clawed her way up through the camp ranks from dishwasher to kitchen manager, no mean feat at an institution where, as a rule, employees were hired in at one position, remaining there forever and ever, amen. Under the woman’s supervision, the camp kitchen served upward of forty thousand on-time, underbudget meals every year. Jett made the camp money and thus made Jay look good. So Jett stayed.
Still, Gracie mused, if Jett didn’t try harder to control her temper, the cauldron of rancor that churned and bubbled just beneath the surface in the camp kitchen would boil over and she might find herself out of a job.
Gracie took a sip of coffee and reflected that normally Jett’s presence in the kitchen precipitated Serene’s foul moods. Her absence should have been cause for great rejoicing.
Jay sprayed scalding water over a rack of dishes, sending a plume of steam billowing around him. “Anything more on the missing girl?” he asked over his shoulder.
A lump formed in Gracie’s throat. She recognized the signs of post-traumatic stress from a prolonged unsuccessful search—the feeling as if she were walking around on eggshells, frustration and grief held in check by a spider’s web. It might be weeks before she could talk about the search without tearing up, months before she wasn’t constantly thinking about it. She cleared her throat and said, “They suspended the search yesterday.”
Jay pushed the dish tray along the rollers into the automatic dishwasher, slid the door closed, and flipped the On switch. “Tragic,” he said, grabbing a towel from a nearby hook. As he dried his hands, he turned around to face Gracie. “Just tragic. Only the good Lord knows why He chose to punish that family that way.”
Gracie opened her mouth to respond, thought better of it, and shut it again. In the month she had worked with Jay, she learned he wasn’t interested in hearing anyone else’s opinions on anything, especially theology. Gracie wasn’t exactly sure what she believed, but she was pretty sure life’s cruel twists and turns weren’t the result of a vindictive Supreme Being yanking the puppet strings of the minions on earth. Sometimes life just sucked.
Serene reappeared behind the prep table, picked up the knife and began whacking with practiced precision at a head of red cabbage.
The head cook stood at least six inches shorter than Gracie’s five-foot-eight. Her russet hair was blunt cut to chin length and parted in the middle, accentuating large brown eyes. She wore a camp T-shirt, a dingy yellow that washed out her already pale face. A perpetual frown puckered her mouth and creased three vertical furrows between heavy eyebrows.
Serene, honey, you need to get laid, Gracie thought. She stopped, her coffee cup halfway to her mouth. What the hell am I talking about? I need to get laid.
It occurred to her suddenly that the teenager wearing the short shorts and “fuck you” expression was Serene’s daughter, Jasmine, whom she had never met but whom Jett had referred to more than once as “the Demon Spawn.” A daughter like that could certainly render a single mother permanently surly.
“Morning, Serene,” Gracie ventured, then took another sip of coffee.
The reply was a tightening of pale lips.
More to bridge the awkward silence than anything, Gracie asked the room, “So Jett called in sick this morning? What’s wrong with her? Cold or something?”
Jay turned away to wipe down the already spot-free counters. “Flu. I hope I don’t get it.”
Serene chopped away with renewed vehemence at the poor cabbage, no doubt a stand-in for Jett’s head.
The silence stretched until it hit Gracie that Jay and Serene were waiting for her to leave. “Well, guess I’ll head on up to the Gatehouse,” she said, pushing away from the counter. “I have a bunch of paperwork to do, then I’m on the high course all afternoon.”
“Bible study this afternoon,” Jay said. “Three o’clock. Why don’t you try to make it?”
Gracie blinked. “Uh, thanks. I have to be on the high course this afternoon.” Didn’t I just say that? As she placed her cup in the dirty dish rack, a gnawing in her stomach reminded her that she still hadn’t eaten breakfast.
One of the perks of her job was all the camp-prepared meals she could eat while she was at work. But she wasn’t going to hang around the kitchen eating her French toast, and the prospect of breakfast with the teeming masses out in the dining hall was daunting enough to prompt her to look for something more portable. She hauled open the massive stainless-steel door of the walk-in refrigerator, leaned inside, and grabbed up the first thing she saw—a plastic container hand-labeled cold slaw.
“Have a good one, Serene.”
The knife stopped, poised in midair.
“See you later, Jay.” Gracie pushed out through the kitchen door.
As it swung closed behind her, she thought she heard Serene’s soft voice above the tumult of the dining room: “You, too, Gracie.”
THE ground floor of the Gatehouse served as the camp offices with the walk-out basement-garage around back functioning as the maintenance shop. At one time the building might have resembled Snow White’s quaint little cottage in the forest. But dingy, peeling yellow paint; missing roof shingles; and shaggy yews overwhelming the front windows lent it the general air of not having been tended by seven hardworking dwarves for years.
Gracie backed in the Ranger and parked in front of one of the shop garage doors. With her pack over a shoulder and the container of coleslaw in hand, she wove her way through the shop, past sawhorses and band and chop saws and signs in various stages of routing, staining, and drying, through a door at the back and up a flight of wooden steps, taking them two at a time.
On the main floor, to the right past a small bathroom, an arched doorway led out to what once was a living room, now the front office and reception area. Another archway straight ahead led into a full kitchen, which in turn opened out into the front office.
The furnishings of the front office were latter-day Elks Club. Wooden end tables and mismatched lamps flanked two sagging brown plaid couches. A portrait of a blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus hung above a stone fireplace skunk-striped black from years of smoky fires. Casement windows off to the right offered a world-class view of the valley’s evergreen-clad mountains.
To the left of the stairs, a hallway led to two former bedrooms. One was now Jay’s office. The other was used for his daily Bible study which, for reasons inexplicable to Gracie, was attended solely by the women who lived in camp during the summer, whom Jett dubbed the Camp Women.
Gracie crossed the hall into the kitchen, poured herself a cup of coffee from the previous day’s pot, and stuck it in the microwave, drumming her fingertips on the counter as she waited for it to heat.
Out in the front office, the door opened, jingling a little bell hanging down in front. A tiny Asian woman stepped into the room.
Gracie walked out of the kitchen to greet her. “Good morning.”
The woman, a full foot shorter than Gracie, bowed and held out a red plastic shopping satchel. “I come to pay,” she said. “Korean Methodist.”
Gracie took the bag. A quick peek inside revealed multiple packets of bills rubber-banded together. Gesturing to one of the couches, she said, “Have a seat. I’ll be right back,” and cut back through the kitchen and down the hallway to Jay’s office.
Sitting down at the desk, she meticulously counted out the money. Six one-hundred-dollar bills, eight fifties, 104 twenties, 50 tens, 61 fives, 160 ones, two quarters, and one nickel. A total of $4,045.55.
When a cursory search of the area turned up three bags of mini–candy bars but no receipt book, she scribbled one out on a sheet of computer paper, jogged back up the hallway, and handed it to the woman with a smile and a thank-you.
The woman, who hadn’t moved from her place just inside the door, bowed again, responded “Thank you,” and left, closing the door quietly behind her.
Back in Jay’s office, Gracie stuffed the packets of cash into a large manila envelope along with a dated note explaining who the money was from and taped it closed. She laid it on top of the metal safe on the floor of the large closet, thinking that more than four thousand dollars was a lot of cash to have lying around. She slid the closet door closed and made a quick call down to the kitchen to let Jay know the money was there.
As Gracie walked back up the hallway, she checked her watch. Plenty of time for paperwork before she needed to be down on the high course for that afternoon’s program.
But first, breakfast, such as it was. Back in the kitchen, she grabbed a fork out of a drawer and pulled the lid from the container of coleslaw.
The container flew across the room and smacked against the refrigerator. Night crawlers in black soil splatted on the yellowed linoleum floor.
Gracie crouched down and studied the glossy pink worms. “Sorry about that, guys,” she said with a full-body shiver. “I hate worms.” With the fork handle, she scooped them up one by one and dropped them back into the container, resealed it, and placed it back in the refrigerator. She wiped up the remaining dirt with a paper towel and washed her hands.
Granola bars from her pack would have to last her until lunch. She picked up her coffee and walked down the stairs to the basement level.
At the bottom of the steps, opposite the shop, was Gracie’s office—an eight-by-ten-foot windowless room with unpainted cinder-block walls, lit by a bare hundred-watt lightbulb in the middle of the ceiling. Floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves running the length of the room held spools of parachute and accessory cord, a rope cutter, and plastic bins of climbing helmets and harnesses, stuff sacks of climbing rope, and steel hardware.
To the right of the door was a metal folding chair and an old wooden desk with a single center drawer, a gooseneck lamp, and a forest green princess telephone on top. A narrow three-shelf bookcase wedged against the far wall held mountaineering and Search and Rescue books and manuals.
At the desk—so short she couldn’t cross her long legs, Gracie spent the next hour opening mail, answering and making phone calls, working on ropes course scheduling and paperwork, and other mundane but necessary tasks that made it possible for her to do what she considered to be the best part of her job—working outdoors.
British megastar Rob Christian—whose life Gracie had saved on a search six months before—had created a foundation for the development of The Sky’s the Limit, a summer adventure program for low-income, at-risk kids, with the stipulation that Gracie be hired as its director. The church that owned the camp had also offered Gracie additional hours and the accompanying income to manage the camp’s two ropes courses—one a high ropes course with elements thirty feet off the ground, designed specifically for individual challenges, the other with elements much lower to the ground and designed specifically for teams. Previously Eddie had been overseeing the ropes courses. How the man felt about Gracie taking over that portion of his responsibilities, she hadn’t a clue.
Gracie’s initial delight at the job offer, her excitement to be doing something other than serving up macaroni salad from behind the Safeway deli counter, evolved into anxiety that she wasn’t up to the task, that Rob’s faith in her was misplaced. Ten years was a long time between jobs paying more than minimum wage. But once she was immersed in the work, she was relieved to find it fulfilling and its challenges satisfying but, most of all, to be putting money into her depleted checking account.
And here we are already, she thought, standing up from the little desk. The first session of camp was almost over. High ropes course that afternoon. Closing campfire that evening. And the next morning after breakfast, the forty-three middle-schoolers would be loaded on school buses for the trip back down the hill to Compton.
Fifteen minutes later, all but the last, and heaviest, bin of high-course equipment for the afternoon program had been carried out and loaded in the bed of the Ranger. Gracie squatted to lift the forty-pound bin of steel hardware, then groaned as the movement strained leg muscles still stiff from the search.
“Hullo, Gracie,” came a deep male voice behind her.
Gracie dropped the bin with a squawk and spun around.
Eddie Wilson leaned against the doorjamb.
He wore faded Levi’s and an emerald green T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. Arms tanned and folded across a broad chest displayed well-muscled biceps to maximum effect. A toothpick moved at the corner of his mouth.
Jay and Eddie Wilson shared the same long eyelashes and thick, curling hair, but otherwise they couldn’t have been more physically different. Jay was Gracie’s height and Pillsbury-doughboy soft and round, preferring plaid shirts, khakis, and loafers. Eddie was three inches taller, lean and fit, favoring blue jeans and T-shirts. Jay resembled an amiable hippopotamus when he walked—ponderous and deliberate. Eddie moved like a mountain lion, every movement fluid and calculated.
Where the hell did you come from? Gracie wondered. Annoyed at being surprised with her rear end up in the air, she only barely managed to keep the edge out of her voice. “Eddie. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“How’s it goin’?” Eddie drawled in a voice as smooth and rich as melted caramel.
“Going well. Thanks.” She stepped to the other side of the bin so she faced Eddie and bent again to lift it from the floor.
“Here, let me get that for ya.” Before Gracie could react, Eddie stepped forward, lifted the bin out of her hands, and carried it out of the room as easily as if it were filled with balloons.
“You forgot the ‘little missy,’” Gracie grumbled to herself. Jay had told her that he and his brother had been born and raised in New Jersey. So Eddie’s good-ol’-boy drawl was pure affectation. But she knew what was really irking her was how hard she had to work to maintain a physical strength level most men came by naturally and took for granted.
She heaved her pack over one shoulder, yanked on the string to turn off the light, and followed Eddie outside.
Out in the shop yard, Eddie lifted the bin into the bed of the Ranger. “That it?”
He slammed the tailgate shut and dropped the back window of the shell, then turned around and smiled down at Gracie.
“Thanks,” she said, unable to keep from smiling back.
Gracie was sure that if the man had been wearing his cowboy hat, he would have tipped it. “My pleasure,” he said, dimples appearing on both cheeks. Shining chestnut hair curled over his forehead. His eyes were an exquisite green.
Damn, he’s a good-looking cuss, she thought. Aware of the stirrings of physical attraction, she looked Eddie full in the face and said, “There was a plastic container in the walk-in fridge with night crawlers in it.”
Eddie hooked his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans, opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again. He looked like a ten-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He moved the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “Them are mine,” he said. “Use ’em to fish.”
“It was labeled ‘cold slaw.’”
He cocked his head at her, an inscrutable twinkle in his eyes. “I knew what was in it.”
“They’re in the refrigerator upstairs.” Gracie lifted the back window of the truck, dropped her pack into the bed, and closed the window again.
“You’re on that Search and Rescue, ain’t ya?”
“Yup,” Gracie said. Dammit if the man’s drawl wasn’t contagious. She looked at her watch again. She needed to be down at the high-course meeting the staff, not standing around chatting up a good-looking married man. “Whoops. Gotta run.” Giving Eddie wide berth, she circled around to the driver’s door and pulled it open.
“That’s cool,” Eddie said, moving so close behind her that she could smell the wintergreen on his toothpick. “You been lookin’ for that missing girl?”
Gracie slid into the driver’s seat. “They suspended the search yesterday.”
Eddie stood in the doorway and put an arm on the top of the door. “Feel bad for that family.” He looked off over the top of the truck. “Can’t imagine. Got kids o’ my own.”
Eddie looked back down at Gracie. “You into it? Search and Rescue?”
“You could say that.”
“Have to stay in pretty good shape, huh?” He stretched out a hand to feel her bicep.
With a warning look, Gracie caught his forearm and moved his hand away.
Eddie held up his hands, palms out. “You look fit. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
“I have to go.” Gracie started the engine and grabbed the armrest to pull the door closed, but Eddie’s body was blocking the way.
He smiled down at her, giving her the full dazzle of perfect teeth.
Gracie tugged on the armrest, nudging him with the door. “See ya, Eddie.”
He backed out of the way and saluted her with two fingers. “You take ’er easy, then, Gracie.”
She closed the door and punched down the accelerator. The tires spun and spit gravel out behind the truck.
She felt Eddie grinning at her. Her cheeks flamed. She lifted her foot from the pedal, let the tires stop spinning, slowly pressed down on the accelerator, and drove out of the shop yard.
“WAY to go, Devon!” Gracie shouted up to a boy standing on a steel cable far above her head. She stood beneath a rectangular system of cable elements stretching thirty feet in the air between the trunks of massive ponderosa pines.
A rope clipped to the waistband of the boy’s climbing harness led to pulleylike hardware hanging from a third cable higher up, then all the way down to a belay device on Gracie’s harness. She anchored the boy in place by holding the rope behind her back.
Behind her, across the expanse of bark mulch on which she stood, the middle-school group sat on log benches forming a semicircular amphitheater built into a steep hill. All eyes were trained on four climbers on the various elements throughout the course. Laughter and shouts of encouragement filled the air.
On the element nearest the amphitheater, a preteen girl with a dreadlock ponytail and wearing a canary yellow The Sky’s the Limit! T-shirt clung to a rope hanging down like a vine in front of her.
Belaying her was an Asian man named Tony. Silver flecked his short black hair and mustache. A ready smile showed even white teeth. A retired middle-school teacher from La Puente, he’d so far proven to be solid and dependable. Gracie had liked him from the start.
The girl’s legs trembled, wobbling the cable and bringing a gasp from the crowd below.
“Come on, Cassie,” Tony called up to her. “You can do it.”
The girl regained her balance, reached out for the next rope, and grabbed it. Shouts and clapping sounded from the amphitheater.
“Nice job!” Tony yelled.
Gracie stepped sideways to stay beneath Devon as he edged along the cable above her, his hands sliding along a parallel cable even higher up. The boy had long, spindly arms and legs and feet the size of boat paddles. He wore a red climbing helmet, a bright green The Sky’s the Limit! T-shirt, and canvas gloves sizes too big for him.
A high-pitched squeal drew Gracie’s eyes to her left where a teenaged girl and boy with matching fire-engine red T-shirts stood on two cables forming a horizontal V. Hands interlocked, they edged away from the apex, widening the gap between them and leaning in toward each other to keep their feet on the cables. The girl’s legs were shaking uncontrollably, threatening to pull her and the boy off the cable. She squealed again.
Belaying the two climbers were Abe and Madison Bonds, co-owners of Adventures “R” Us, the adventure programming company Gracie had hired for the summer to run the busy sessions of The Sky’s the Limit program.
“You’re doin’ great, girlfriend,” Madison yelled up to the girl.
“Outstanding job, Jerome,” Abe shouted to his climber.
Jay had pushed Gracie to hire the couple, promoting them as “good Christian people,” a description she found curious since Abe wore a Star of David on a chain around his neck.
At first, Gracie had had her doubts about hiring the couple. She found Abe’s penchant for stroking his meticulously trimmed goatee and sniffing at odd times to be pompous and rehearsed. And Madison’s tendency to chatter on in a voice rivaling Alvin the Chipmunk grated on her nerves.
As ever, Jett had tossed in her two cents, questioning how good a role model for kids Madison would be—a fortyish woman trying to look thirtyish for her twentyish husband. Dark eyes flashing with mischief, she had speculated loudly as to what would attract the hunky and, she assumed, virile Abe to a woman almost twice his age. Her conclusion: the Triple B-jobs—Botox, boob, and blow.
Conscious that she might be resisting hiring Madison and Abe because she didn’t like to be pushed, Gracie nudged her reservations aside and hired the couple. With an office in Timber Creek, they had solid credentials, serviceable technical ropes skills, a roster of trained and certified contract facilitation staff already familiar with the camp’s ropes courses, and a full slate of school and executive retreats already on the camp calendar. They were the most logical choice.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Zero-Degree Murder: A Search and Rescue Mystery
“With her spunky female leading the way, Rowland dishes out generous portions of adrenaline rush…[Her] adventure writing has real flair.”—Library Journal
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Dollycas’s Thoughts This second installment is even better than the first. This time the recovered body is that of a friend and co-worker at Camp Ponderosa and Gracie can’t help but get involved. When she does she finds all the clues lead right back to the camp and even when she becomes a target she just can’t give up. Just like Zero-Degree Murder the suspense starts from page 1 and Gracie has no idea who she can trust. Gracie is a strong sleuth and her SAR skills help her in so many ways. Her confidence has grown since the first book and she seems physically stronger too. She does get into some dangerous situations and even gets hurt and she just keeps plugging until the last clue falls into place. At times it was like watching a scary movie and I wanted to yell, “don’t go there!” but of course she does and we suffer together through those white knuckle moments. I recommend reading the books in order. You can read my review of Zero-Degree Murder here. The author’s Search and Rescue experience shines in both books. She also describes the settings so well. On and off the paths seem to be absolutely beautiful. The mysteries are fantastic and the hints of romance continue to build. I am anxious to see how things play out after all that has happened in Murder Off the Beaten Path. It should be very interesting!
Fearless Search and Rescue heroine Gracie Kinkaid returns along with her SAR teammates and a lot of great new characters are introduced as well as a new setting--a residential camp in the mountains. Murder Off the Beaten Path contains all of the same ingredients that made Zero-Degree Murder such a great read: authenticity, great, fun characters including the villain(s), unique setting and situations, break-neck pacing. I couldn't put the book down. In my opinion, this book's even better, more exciting, more of a page turner than the first. The only downside...be ready to stay up all night to finish reading it. (Note: tried not to leave this anonymously, but B&N's website wouldn't let me.)
Loved this book even more than the first. We get to know Gracie better personally--at home and at work. She's growing as a character. Loved that the characters from Zero degree Murder (the first book in this series) return-- Gracie's Search and Rescue buddies as well as ROB! Great nail-biter. Can't wait for Book 3.
Spot on technical SAR.
I have really enjoyed the first 2 books in this series, and look forward to more tales from M.L. Rowland. Her knowledge of search and rescue (SAR) is excellent and she is able to bring that knowledge and experience to her books. I want to see more from this writer - I like what I have seen so far!
A great continuation of a new series! I loved this author’s first book, Zero Degree Murder, so I pre-ordered this second book in the series and couldn’t wait to read it. I definitely was not disappointed! Murder Off the Beaten Path digs deeper into the character of the protagonist, Gracie, and in addition to the interesting search and rescue scenes, gives us a glimpse into how well her SAR skills serve her in dealing with the events arising out of her new position as a program director and ropes course manager in a year-round residential camp. I don’t want to give anything away, but the suspense hooked me on page 1 with the prologue, and the fast pace kept me reading non-stop until I finished the book. The vivid writing style made me feel like I was right there in the middle of the action: white-knuckled at every scary turn of events, warmed by her new relationship with Minnie (a sweet dog she rescues), saddened by the loss of her friend Jett. All of the characters are well drawn (including the villains), and I enjoyed watching Gracie develop and deepen as the action unfolds. This fast-paced, well-written book is a fun read, and I highly recommend it. I can’t wait for the next installment…
i could hardly wait for the next book.. fast pace and on the edge
Murder Off the Beaten Path is M.L. Rowland's second book in her Search and Rescue mystery series. Rowland has a great eye for detail. Her descriptions of the scenery, the search and rescue missions and daily life at Camp Ponderosa were spot on and very detail oriented. Readers who are looking for a little adventure in their cozies with appreciate Rowland's vast experience with SAR and her way of writing a good whodunit. A great second book in the series! What I liked: In M.L. Rowland's first book in the Search and Rescue mystery series, Zero-Degree Murder, I questioned whether or not the book truly fit into the parameters of the cozy sub-genre. It leaned quite heavily toward being a thriller, but in Murder Off the Beaten Path, Rowland has settled into a more common cozy pattern. The balance between adventure and amateur sleuthing is much better in this one, but it still gives the reader a good dose of heart pumping action. Rowland's experience as a form mountain search and rescue operative is essential to giving this series it's authenticity. It is obvious that this author knows exactly what's she's talking about when it comes to this subject. It gives her main character Gracie Kincaid a lot of credibility and makes the story so much more believable. The powers that be often tell new writers to write about what they know. Rowland has certainly taken that to heart and provided readers with a very well written portrayal of what a woman faces working in the search and rescue arena. Gracie impressed me in this book. In the first book she was a bit more complacent. She didn't quite have the confidence I thought she needed in the beginning of that book, but throughout the course of the read she earned that confidence and became a much better heroine. In Murder Off the Beaten Path, Gracie already has a handle on who she is and where she fits. I liked her spunk and her zest for life. I appreciated her need to be of service and help people not only in her search and rescue efforts but also in her work at Camp Ponderosa. She is coming into her own as a heroine and Rowland continues to develop her character until the final page of the book. The search and rescue missions are important in the book but Gracie's search for answers is central to the theme of this one. When her friend is killed in an accident under suspicious circumstances, Gracie begins to question her work with Camp Ponderosa a church supported camp in the area. As things start to come together in her amateur search for clues, Gracie becomes more determined than ever to find out what is going on behind the scenes at the Camp. It was a very well written mystery that kept me guessing all the way through. It was a true cozy mystery and Rowland excelled at bringing it all together. Bottom Line: I liked this one even better than the first book in the series. Gracie is becoming just as much a sleuth as she is a search and rescue worker. Rowland's balance between adventure and sleuthing was much better in this one and readers will appreciate her attention to detail in every aspect of the book. This book really rings true and feels real and believable. A great second book in the series!