The battle is one of wits and cunning, where the strong heart will overcome his enemy.
Ex-marine Arthur Nakai spent years as a member of the Shadow Wolves, an ICE tactical unit tasked by the US government to hunt human traffickers and drug smugglers on the US/Mexico border. He put that life of confronting violence in the darker contours of the desert landscape behind him and settled into a quiet existence in New Mexico with his wife, Sharon, a local TV reporter.
But when Sharon goes missing after crossing paths with a serial killer who has just added to his list of young victims, Arthur’s calm world is shattered. He must return to the darkness of the life he left behind in order to save what matters most to him, and the future he and his wife plan to share together. He can only hope that she is still alive, and that his skills will be enough to find her.
So begins the huntto find a ruthless killer and save the love of his life.
About the Author
From a young age, my father instilled in me a love for the American West. After visiting it myself throughout adulthood, my connection to the land became much more irrevocable. And after spending almost 30 years working for someone else, I retired and began focusing on my writing. Path of the Dead is the result of that focus. My heart has always belonged to the Four Corners area, and my goal is to soon live where my novels take place so that I can immerse myself in its sights and sounds and aromas so that I can bring that world to life.
Read an Excerpt
The body of sixteen-year-old Renée Braun lay weak and warm, cradled by the moss and leaf litter of the forest floor. The severe drought that plagued the New Mexican landscape over the summer had given way to a welcome fall rain. The tall Douglas firs that stood around them were already beginning to turn gray in the falling rain, on their way to black. They began to weep softly as a mild breeze swayed the branches that had been soaking since early morning, turning limber again.
The forest had stood quietly by, final witness to the muffled cries and pleadings that had reverberated in the moist morning air. The girl's eyes, now wide with the realization that her life was coming to an end, heightened the sensation the Apache felt coursing through his veins. Her fading whimpers were no match for the drowning well of blood that had already spilled into her lungs and now rose like a swelling tide in her throat. Flecks of scarlet began to stipple her face as she tried to grasp hold of her last fleeting breath, just before her eyes went still.
The Apache watched in eager anticipation as the tide of blood swelled from her mouth and ran down both sides of her face to brighten the damp earth. Now the only sounds in the falling rain were the repetitive calls from a cast of falcons, carried on the mountain breeze from somewhere off in the distance. The Apache reached out a hand and gently brushed away a few strands of brunette hair that had gathered across her forehead. How beautiful you look, he thought, and how blessed am I that you have been chosen for me like all the others.
On the morning that was to be the last in her adolescent life, Renée Braun had dressed herself in a thin white sweater over a pastel pink blouse, carefully paired with her new white denim shorts — shorts that had tantalized the Apache's imagination from the moment he saw her standing by the calm, smooth lake. His eyes had been drawn quickly to the frayed edges that caressed the tops of her creamy thighs before disappearing between them. And to the pair of simple white Crewcuts sneakers that adorned her perfect little feet — an unconscious afterthought of spontaneous teenage flare.
The Apache replayed in his mind the cries that had begged him to stop, to let her go, whimpering that she wouldn't tell anyone if he would just let her go. But he had not stopped, and he could not let her go, because there was no way to stop the events that had already been set in motion. For this little temptress had to pay in the same way as all the others. She had to be made to see that she could not play with the emotions of men without suffering the consequences.
As he pulled the blade of his hunting knife from her body for the last time, he found himself on his knees, straddling her waist and tilting his head from side to side, admiring the mosaic of blood and flesh and clothing. He marveled at the images of blurred makeup and smeared lips that still managed to shimmer from the cinnamon lip gloss he had tasted as she fought his initial violation. He slipped his tongue out between his lips, like a reptile tasting the air, and savored the lingering flavor that remained. His eyes then wandered to the blackened rivulets of mascara that had drizzled down her face in jagged lines as she bore each downward plunge into her abdomen. Each thrust going deeper and ripping its way through already torn flesh and severed bone, until he had felt the tip of the double-edged blade bury itself in the earth beneath her.
His lungs filled with a kind of drunken satisfaction as he lifted the hem of the thin white sweater and slowly wiped her blood from his blade. He laid the knife on the ground beside him. Then he unbuckled his belt. Now she could be his. Now she wouldn't fight.
The clock on the docking station atop the nightstand declared "8:10 a.m." in black numerals backlit by a pale sea of incandescent blue. Arthur Nakai slipped out of bed and padded across the hand-woven Navajo rug that covered the cold hardwood floor. For the past few months, he had tried to be as quiet as possible in the morning. Sleeping late was a luxury that Sharon had just begun to enjoy, and he wasn't going to be the one to ruin it.
He showered quickly and was toweling off when something made him pause briefly and study himself in the oak-framed oval mirror above the washstand. He saw his father's strong jaw and proud nose, and his mother's gentle eyes gleaming from above her high cheekbones. His damp black hair felt good brushing his clean skin. His shoulders were still broad and strong, and his chest and abdominal muscles where still where they should be after forty-five years of life. In fact, the only noticeable signs of encroaching middle age so far were the doughy love handles that now clung to his flanks, just above the belt line, like two well-formed links of smoked sausage.
He took a deep breath and let it out. Forty-five isn't really a bad age to be, he told himself. He was still fit and healthy, and the only things he had noticed, aside from the sausages, were the subtle changes that had begun to creep over his face. The faint wrinkles around his mouth and the corners of his mother's eyes, for instance. He grinned to himself, wedged his chin between thumb and fingers, and moved his head from side to side, then nodded approvingly to the image in the mirror before slapping the bathroom light off and padding back to the bedroom, smelling of sandalwood soap.
Pausing at its emptiness, the first thing he noticed was that their bed was now vacant and the sheets carelessly tossed. The second thing he noticed was the tempting aroma of breakfast seducing him. With the empty bed now explained, he pulled on a fading pair of jeans from behind the small door in the middle of his dark wood dresser, put on a red long-sleeved shirt from the closet, and covered it with a black leather vest that he took from the chair of Sharon's vanity. He was sitting on the end of their bed, tugging on one of his worn square-toed Justin ropers, when Sharon floated in wearing nothing more than one of his red-and-black flannel shirts and carrying a fresh mug of coffee.
"You know," he said, "there's something extremely sexy about a woman wearing only a man's shirt in the morning." He took the mug from her hands and savored the aroma, then the taste, and then the warmth in his throat.
Sharon smiled. "And what makes you think this is all I have on?"
"Because I saw you wearing nothing last night, and my ever so observant mind can always put two and two together and end up with four."
Behind her smile, Arthur noticed something clouding her mind. He took another slug of coffee and gave her back the mug, pulled on his other boot, and stood. Sharon handed him back the mug.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"I just had some trouble sleeping last night, that's all," she said. "I kept thinking about our life." Sharon looked down at her hands, loosely intertwined in front of her, before returning her gaze to her husband. "I was thinking that it might be the right time to try again."
Arthur sipped his coffee and swallowed. "Really?"
"Yes. It's taken me a long time to get to this point, and I want us to try again."
The possibility of children was something he had forced himself not to contemplate since the day it happened. He had always found other ways to occupy his mind, some other way of pushing it back into the darkness where, he knew, it would always be lurking. But now that past was falling over the edge of his mind with all the weight and the roar of Niagara Falls. What if it happened again? Was she ready to put herself through the same torment and devastation if it did? Could she survive it? Arthur exhaled. Could he?
Sharon bowed her head slightly, dark eyes rising to look at him from under her brow. "Don't you want to try again?"
Arthur smiled halfheartedly, shaking off the past. Her morning look of bare legs, flannel shirt, and shimmering ebony hair had captivated his mind. "I'm always up for trying," he joked.
"This isn't funny," Sharon replied, slapping his arm playfully. "You'd make a great father. I think we should try again. I mean, it's been two years ..." She let the words hang in the air.
"I know it has," he said. "I count the days, too, sometimes." He took her hand gently in his. "It's just that we've never even gone into the room we locked after it happened. And besides, you're rarely home anymore, and I'm out galloping around the desert most every day. Kids take a lot of work. I just don't know that we're up for that kind of responsibility quite yet."
Sharon sighed as if from the weight of her thoughts. "So, it bothers you that my work keeps us apart."
Arthur said nothing as he led her out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen, where Sharon had already decorated the table with a plateful of pancakes stacked under a steam-lined plastic lid. Two pans, one of eggs, the other bacon, simmered on the stove, while two frosted glasses of orange juice and a stainless-steel carafe of brewed coffee waited on the table. After shifting the eggs and bacon onto their plates, they sat. All this time had given Arthur a chance to piece together his thoughts.
"That's not what I meant," he said. "I knew before we got married how important your career was to you, and I was okay with that. I just wanted us to be together and build a life. But look, if you're serious about having kids, maybe you should start eating twin ears of corn so we can make it twins."
Sharon grinned wryly at the Navajo taboo as she pushed the eggs around on her plate. "Smart-ass. The doctor told us back then what caused it." She shook her head slowly with regret. "I should have been more careful."
Arthur just sat listening, remembering what the doc had said about the lambs and the Q fever and the infection's role in what happened. But no matter how many times he replayed the events, the thought that perhaps it was her fault had always found a way to creep back into his mind. What if she had put her career before her family? Was this how the fertility god had chosen to punish them? Pulling himself out of his dark well of thought, he cut a wedge of pancakes and ate it to give himself time to regroup. "What made you think of this now?"
Sharon looked at him over her juice glass and took a drink, then set the glass down and swallowed. "I guess I've just been so busy pouring myself into work, I never thought about what we've actually been missing." A smile of lost possibilities crossed her face. "He would already be talking now. You know, they say a two-year-old has a vocabulary of about seventy-five words?"
Arthur didn't answer. He knew she wasn't looking for one. Sometimes saying nothing was the best reply.
Sharon sniffled as her eyes grew moist. Suddenly, her face lit up and she smiled broadly from across the table. "You would have been telling him about Talking God and the Creation Story, and the story of First Woman and the stars."
Arthur allowed himself the thought of doing all those things as he watched her move her eggs around on her plate in a stalling dance. He had the distinct feeling the other shoe was about to drop.
"I also think we've grown apart in some ways," Sharon said.
And there it was. The shoe hadn't simply fallen off; it had come flying at him. Arthur took a breath and let it out. He felt the quicksand in the pit of his stomach, and the dry tickle in the depth of his throat.
Sharon went on. "Sometimes we don't even see each other for days. And we hardly ever eat dinner together anymore." She waved her fork absently. "And you always sleep on your side of the bed now. You used to lie next to me and lay your arm over me and hold me." There was a short pause. "You haven't even done that in a long time. I guess I don't excite you anymore." She paused again. "Or maybe you blame me?"
Arthur tossed his fork onto his cooling eggs and heard it rattle on the plate. "I do not blame you! And of course, I'm attracted to you — you're my wife!"
"Really?" she countered. "Then why don't you act like it? I used to love all the little things you would do for me, but they're not enough anymore. I need to feel you next to me, but you never are. I need to know your warmth is there, but it never is."
Arthur sat at the other end of the table, sifting through his vocabulary. When one said the wrong thing at a time like this, the argument only escalated. He sipped some coffee, hoping it would loosen the constriction he still felt in his throat, but it didn't. "I'm just not sure if trying again is right for us now."
Sharon looked at her plate, stabbed a piece of pancake, and bit out the words, "I'm just trying to get us back to where we were before!"
Arthur thought very carefully about the next words that would come out of his mouth. Over the years, he had begun to understand her attitudes and their subtle complexity. He changed the subject to a less fraught path. "How are things going at the station?"
Sharon shook her head at the futility of talking with men. "They're fine," she said flatly. "I just need to change my life."
"There must be something going on," Arthur prodded. "You've only been back to work for six months."
Sharon ate in silence for a few moments. "It's just that as journalists, we're taught to separate ourselves from the story, to look at it as if we were simply a spectator. I find it harder to do that anymore, because there are always some stories that just linger in the back of your mind, only reaching out every now and then to tug at your subconscious, like a small child pulling on its mother's dress for attention. Stories like the Christa McDonald murder."
Arthur gave her a blank look.
"Men!" she said. "You all have the retention of a kitchen strainer. She's the woman who was murdered down around Silver City three years ago. She'd been working in the US Forest Service office for about six months when they found her dead in her apartment."
Arthur acknowledged that he remembered, then picked up his juice glass and drained it before picking up his plate and depositing them in the sink. He went back for Sharon's plate, along with his coffee mug, and rinsed them.
Sharon shook her head sadly. "She was stabbed to death in her bedroom. They believe her killer was there long enough afterwards to wipe the place clean and take a shower after first positioning her body on her bed like she was flying."
Arthur searched for something to say, but that train of thought had already derailed. He remembered reading in the Albuquerque Journal about the missing woman: good family background, graduated from Princeton, a bright future ahead of her. He also remembered reading that she had been found partially clothed and stabbed many times. He also remembered the coroner stating that she had been sexually assaulted after her death.
"Whoever did it left behind no DNA," Sharon continued. "Not even a fingerprint or a strand of hair. The autopsy found evidence of a spermicide, so it is believed he used a condom — a condom that was never found at the scene, by the way, which means he was very methodical. And the fact that no hair follicles but her own were found on her body led the authorities to believe that the killer had probably shaved himself clean."
"From head to toe?" Arthur said.
"Head to toe," Sharon repeated. "And nothing was under her fingernails, either. It was like she never even struggled."
"Maybe she knew her killer?" Arthur said. "Or maybe he met her somewhere and they ended up going back to her place."
Sharon shrugged. "Maybe he took her by surprise, and she never had a chance. We'll never know, though. The detectives pulled all the unsolved murders from the past ten years and found nine more resembling hers, in different parts of Arizona and New Mexico. No one had ever put them together before. They're sure they can classify it as serial — kind of like the Chester Turner case in South L.A."
Arthur remembered reading about it. Turner had been charged with killing ten women, including one who was six and a half months pregnant, in the 1980s and '90s. Christa McDonald's killer had been connected to at least ten murders in the past twelve years.
"He hides among us, he kills, and then he hides again." Arthur said, glancing at the regulator clock ticking away on the wall. "Shouldn't you be getting ready?"
Sharon glanced at the clock. "I have plenty of time," she said. "My overnight's already packed, and I wasn't planning on taking off from Farmington till eleven. Before you know it, I'll be landing in Belen covering the newest renovations at the Harvey House."
"The Fred Harvey House?" Arthur asked. "As in Judy Garland and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe?"
Excerpted from "Navajo Wind"
Copyright © 2018 Mark Langley.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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