She was a forgotten girl, a runaway found murdered on the High Line train through the northern Rocky Mountains and, with little local interest, put into a dead file. But she was not alone. When Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere of the joint FBI-BCA violent crime force stumble upon the case, they discover a horror far greater than anyone expected—a string of murders on the High Line, all of them young women drifters whom no one would notice.
But someone has noticed now. Through the bleak midwinter and a frontier land of forbidding geography, Stevens and Windermere follow a frustratingly light trail of clues—and where it ends, even they will be shocked.
About the Author
His previous Stevens and Windermere novels are The Professionals, Criminal Enterprise, Kill Fee, The Stolen Ones, and The Watcher in the Wall. The Professionals was nominated for the Barry and International Thriller Writers awards for best first novel, as well as the Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel: New Voices Award. Criminal Enterprise was nominated for the ITW Award for best novel, and The Stolen Ones for the Barry Award.
Read an Excerpt
Tanya Sears had to admit the guy was cute, anyway. It was just that she couldn't remember his name.
Mike something, maybe. Mitch. Matt. He'd told Tanya three times already, not that it mattered. It wasn't like she was going to marry the guy. Still, though, as a matter of self-respect, Tanya figured she'd better get his name sorted out before they wound up in bed together.
As it was, they were huddled in close outside Mike/Mitch/Matt's front door, swearing and stamping and shivering as Mike/Mitch/Matt fumbled with his keys while the frigid subzero wind tore into them both.
Minnesota in January. Heaven on earth.
"Hurry up." Tanya snuggled in closer to the guy. "I'm freaking freezing out here. And the colder I am, the more work you're going to have to put in warming me up again."
Mike/Mitch/Matt paused with the keys. Glanced down at her and turned on that smile again, that thousand-watt stunner that had more or less melted her into a pool of Jell-O after he'd nearly taken out her eye with that pool cue back at the Lamplighter. That smile was the main reason Tanya was here-that and the tequila. And Mike/Mitch/Matt knew it, too.
"I'm working on it," he told her. "Just a little hard to concentrate when you're all up in my business."
Tanya arched an eyebrow. "Performance anxiety?"
Mike/Mitch/Matt slid a key into the lock. Twisted it and pushed the door open. Turned that smile on her again and stepped back so she could enter. "Not on your life."
His place was kind of small, but clean, neat and tidy, no dirty dishes in the kitchen, no clothes lying around, all the furniture tasteful and modern-hell, even the books on the bookshelf were arranged alphabetically. The place was almost too tidy, Tanya thought, like, might-not-really-like-girls tidy. And wouldn't that be her luck, to finally meet a decent guy and he's gay. Or he happens to keep a stock of severed heads in his freezer.
Mike/Mitch/Matt took her coat and showed her to the living room. Dimmed the lights and played with his phone until music started up from some speakers somewhere, something moody and instrumental, sexy but not cheesy, didn't scream one-night stand, but didn't quite say You're the love of my life, either.
Mike/Mitch/Matt disappeared into the kitchen, said something about fixing drinks. Left Tanya sitting on the sofa with nothing to do, and she was just about giving in to the urge to rearrange the books on the dude's bookshelf when she saw he'd left his phone on the coffee table and decided it was time she sorted out the name situation once and for all.
She picked up the phone, sly as she could. Slid her finger across the unlock screen, entered Mike/Mitch/Matt's passcode-eight-eight-nine-three; she'd watched him type the code back at the bar-and presto-she was in, a background picture of some Twins player and a handful of apps. Tanya opened Facebook and tapped through to Mike/Mitch/Matt's profile. Squinted at the screen, everything kind of fuzzy.
Mark, the guy's name was. Mark, Mark, Mark. Thirty years old, single. Worked for the Marsh Implement Company, the local John Deere retailer. A tractor salesman. Okay, boring, but he still had that smile. Tanya could live with it.
She crept on Mark's Facebook profile for a bit. Sent herself a friend request. Closed Facebook and opened the photo library. Chose a picture at random and started scrolling through.
Most of the pictures were boring stuff: Mark on a hunting trip, Mark in a fishing boat, Mark with some buddies in Minneapolis somewhere. Then a couple landscape shots, real artsy stuff, soulful. Looked like the desert; it definitely wasn't here.
Tanya kept scrolling. Found a picture with a road sign. santa fe. "Why were you in New Mexico?" she asked before she could stop herself. Mark poked his head through the doorway, and Tanya held up the phone. "I spied on you when you typed in your passcode. Total invasion of privacy, I know, but these pictures are really beautiful. When did you take them?"
Mark frowned a little, confused. Then he laughed. "That's a funny story, actually," he said. "Hold on."
He disappeared back into the kitchen. Tanya scrolled some more. A few more landscape shots, a few more pictures of Mark. Mark standing proud in front of a new combine, handing over the keys to some wizened old farmer. A picture of a mountain valley, pristine, no sign of human life, a stunning picture. Tanya admired it for a moment. Then she scrolled right again, to the last picture, the newest.
This picture was different from the others. Tanya stared at it, her mind not comprehending. Couldn't look away.
"What's the matter?" Mark came back, holding a cocktail glass in each hand. "Don't tell me you found that stupid selfie from the Kenny Chesney show."
Tanya didn't answer. Run, her mind hollered. Run as fast as you can. But she didn't move. Couldn't. She couldn't tear her eyes from the screen.
"Tammy?" Mark set down the drinks. "Uh, what's going on?"
Tanya didn't say anything. Didn't do anything, either, not until Mark sat down beside her and reached for the phone. His fingers brushed her wrist, and that jolted her alive, broke the spell.
Tanya let Mark take the phone from her hand. Then she screamed. She screamed, and she didn't stop screaming until the police came.
I'll warn you now: this will be intense."
Special Agent in Charge Drew Harris slid a slim folder across his desk. On the other side, Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere swapped glances.
It was early January in what was already turning into a frigid new year. Outside, a blizzard raged, blanketing the Twin Cities in another heavy layer of snow. Inside the FBI's Minnesota regional headquarters, the SAC had his heater cranked high, but Stevens could still feel the chill on his skin from the morning commute. He'd been in the Criminal Investigative Division for all of five minutes before Harris had summoned him and Windermere to his office-a new assignment.
Stevens and Windermere had been working cases together for going on four years now. Their partnership had begun by chance, Stevens an agent with the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Windermere a hotshot with the feds, an interstate kidnapping ring the catalyst. In the years since, the BCA agent and his FBI counterpart had chased bank robbers, contract killers, human traffickers, and one truly sick online predator, and somewhere along the way, Stevens had switched offices from the state police hangout in Saint Paul to the FBI's new HQ in Brooklyn Center, northwest of Minneapolis. He and Windermere now formed a joint BCA-FBI violent crimes task force and, to this point at least, they hadn't exactly been hurting for work.
Stevens could feel Windermere watching him as he reached for the folder. A beautiful, ften brilliant thirtysomething from Mississippi, Carla Windermere exuded tough, take-no-prisoners and all kinds of attitude, but Stevens had learned that his partner's prickly outward persona was mostly a defense mechanism. The real Carla Windermere was infinitely more complex.
She'd taken the last case hard, a suicide fetishist with a preference for vulnerable teens, and Stevens still wasn't exactly sure how deep she'd been hurt. Stevens himself was no stranger to tough assignments; the case before last had involved human traffickers importing young women as sex slaves, and Stevens, father to a teenage daughter, had struggled throughout the investigation to keep his emotions in check.
He and Windermere had faced their share of intense situations already, and Drew Harris knew it. Agent Stevens hesitated before he opened the folder, wondering what new awful crime could have prompted the SAC's warning.
There was a picture of a woman, a close-up of her face. She might have been young, but Stevens couldn't be sure; her face and neck were badly bruised and partially decomposed, and her skin had been mutilated besides, though by what or by whom wasn't immediately obvious.
She was dead, though, that was obvious, and whoever she was, she hadn't died peacefully. She lay on a background of pristine white snow, her black hair spilling out around her, a stark contrast. Stevens's gut churned as he studied the picture.
"Ouch. You weren't lying." Windermere craned her neck to look over Stevens's shoulder. "Who is she?"
"Nobody knows," Harris replied. "What we do know is that she was murdered. The sheriff's department in Boundary County, Idaho, recovered her body last week. A railroad maintenance crew found her in a snowdrift by the tracks. Sheriff's and coroner's reports are attached."
Stevens flipped the pages, scanned the reports. Both were brief: the woman had been sexually assaulted and beaten, brutally. The Boundary County coroner had determined she'd been strangled to death, though exactly when was still a mystery. It was bitterly cold in the Idaho panhandle this time of year, and the low temperatures had arrested the decomposition process, essentially mummifying the woman.
"Terrible," Windermere said, reading. "Horrible. Awful. But, I'm sorry." She looked across the table at the SAC. "Am I missing something, boss? This all happened in Idaho. Where do we come in?"
Harris nodded, like he'd been expecting the question. Gestured to the folder. "That picture of the victim is a printout of a digital photograph the police department in Willmar, Minnesota, lifted from a personal cell phone. Turn the page."
Stevens did. Found another set of photographs: a youngish man with tired, bloodshot eyes and a deadpan expression.
"Mark Higgins," Harris said. "A tractor salesman, a Willmar native. The picture was on his smartphone. A young woman stumbled on it. Apparently, they met at a local bar and Higgins brought her home. She decided to do a little snooping before they got down to business."
"For real?" Windermere said. "Dude never heard of a lock screen?"
"Most people still don't lock their doors out in Willmar," Stevens told her.
"Yeah, but most people don't have pictures of murdered women in their homes."
"The woman, Tanya Sears, freaked out and called the local PD, who booked Higgins," Harris said. "Higgins denies taking the picture, or ever having seen the deceased before."
"So how'd the pic get on his phone?" Windermere asked.
"That's the thing," Harris said. "Higgins hasn't volunteered much to the Willmar PD, and they don't have the resources for a prolonged investigation, anyway. They kicked this up to the BCA, who passed it on to us when they discovered the Idaho connection." He looked at Stevens over his glasses. "Your old boss thought it smelled funny. I'm inclined to agree."
"This Higgins dude's probably the killer," Windermere said. "Look at him. He's a creep."
"I guess you're going to find out." Harris stood. "Willmar PD is expecting you. I told the chief if anyone could unravel this thing, it's you two."
Mark Higgins didn't look much better in person. There were bags under his eyes, and his hair was a mess. He looked like the clothes in a suitcase at the end of a three-week vacation: wrinkled, disheveled, starting to smell.
Higgins sat at a table in a sparse interview room in the Willmar Law Enforcement Center, a handsome low-lying complex not far from the town's namesake lake. It had taken Stevens and Windermere nearly three hours to drive the hundred miles, the snow outside falling heavy and fast, obscuring visibility and blanketing the highway.
The Willmar PD's chief was a man named Nordheimer. He shook Stevens's and Windermere's hands, offered them coffee, and showed them to the interview room, where Mark Higgins had company already: his lawyer, a young man in his father's second-best suit who stood up when the agents entered the room.
"I want to reiterate that my client hasn't been formally charged with a crime," he announced. "Mr. Higgins is here of his own accord, as a show of good faith toward the Willmar Police Department, and can exercise his right to leave at any time."
"Good to know," Windermere said, sitting down across from Higgins, "but he's dealing with the FBI now. And good faith or no, he happens to be a man with a picture of a murder victim on his phone. If he chooses to walk, that tells me and my partner that he cares more about saving his own skin than he does about catching the killer. And is that really the impression he wants to give to the feds?"
The lawyer colored. "I-I'll need to confer with my client."
Windermere waved him off. "Relax," she said, gesturing to his empty chair. "Sit down. In case you didn't know, it's a blizzard outside. Your client isn't missing out on any big tractor sales."
The lawyer wavered. Higgins didn't say anything.
"Come on," Windermere told them. "The sooner we get this done, the sooner you can exercise your right to quit bothering me."
But Mark Higgins didn't have much to say for himself.
"It's not my picture," he told Stevens and Windermere. "I didn't take the picture, and I don't know the girl. I sure as heck didn't kill her."
Windermere fished a copy of the picture from her briefcase. Dropped it on the table in front of Higgins. "Have another look," she said. "It was dark the other night. You were a few Surlys short of a twelve-pack. Maybe you see it again, it jogs your memory."
But Higgins didn't react. He glanced down at the picture, at the dead, battered woman, shook his head, and pushed the picture away. "Not mine."
"You understand the confusion, though, right? Your girlfriend did find this pic on your phone."
"She's not my girlfriend," Higgins said, "but yeah. This isn't the first time this has happened."
"What?" Stevens leaned forward on the table. "Pictures of murdered women showing up on your phone?"
"Not murdered women, but pictures, yes. It started, like, five or six months ago. I would turn on my phone and there would be a bunch of new pictures in my photo folder, strange pictures, pictures I hadn't taken."
"Like what, for instance?"
"Landscapes, mostly. A few desert pictures. Very few people. There was some really beautiful stuff, actually."
"But you didn't tell anyone?" Windermere said. "You didn't think that was weird?"
"Of course I thought it was weird." Higgins glared at Windermere like she was the killer. "I thought it was just a glitch in the software, and anyway, some of the pictures were kind of neat. Did you look? Whoever did take them was actually pretty good."
Windermere glanced back at Nordheimer. "You have the phone handy?" she asked. "I want to see for myself."
Nordheimer produced Higgins's phone in an evidence bag, unsealed it, and handed it to Windermere. She arched an eyebrow at Higgins as the phone powered up. "If this thing does some crazy self-destruct bullshit, I will have you arrested," she told him. "And I don't give a damn what your legal representation has to say about it."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
After reading "the stolen ones" I ordered everything else this author had written, then pre-ordered this one. Every $$ spent meant hours of enjoyment!! One of the nice things about these books is that you really don't need to read in any kind of order. Highly recommend any and all written by this amazing writer. Warning: plan on losing sleep as you will keep turning pages well past your bedtime. ENJOY!!!
Interesting and something it made me think about. As a kid we had a "hobo" (they were called back then). He would show up every summer and stay in the park where I lived and still do. In a place called Speed. Everybody knew him wasn't afraid of him and would feed him. Let him do odd jobs. I guess it never occurred to me he was a train rider. The trains runs right through our small community, and still do. Memories!!
Deep in the northern mountains of the United States, where winter is harsh and people are scarce, girls have been going missing for years. Many of them are Native American, some are prostitutes, some are runaways, some are small town barmaids, all are the kind of girls that could easily disappear without anyone noticing. Until now. When FBI agents Windermere and Stevens get wind of the case, all they have is a dead girl, an unidentified runaway rail rider, and a gut feeling that there is something more to this than the one girl. Quickly, they find themselves chasing a serial killer, a failed Army Ranger who hates women, a loner who is an expert survivalist. And he’s about to give them a run for their money. The premise of this book was enticing, but the cover was what really sold the deal for me. And who loves a good serial killer story? This girl does. Alas, the cover was the best part of the book. The story is interesting, and it started off really well. Immediately, I was into it, drawn to the first girl who dies, wanting to know more about this serial killer who rides the rails trolling for victims. However, it wasn’t suspenseful enough for my taste, not gritty enough. The angst of the killer, the frustration of the agents, the fear of the victims, these are feelings that should have been palpable, but were not. After the first few chapters, it was easy enough to set aside at bedtime, and that isn’t what I expect from this kind of book. The second thing is, it wasn’t really detailed or technical enough. Not enough FBI procedure, no focus on the serial killer’s motives, no profiler or psychologist involved. Ultimately, it was a soft approach, and while I’m sure there are plenty of readers who like that, I’m not one of them. Scare me. Thrill me. Disgust me. Make my heart race. Make me wonder what the hell is going on. Please. For me, it was meh. Mo Hayder and Lincoln Child are more my speed. Note: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.