“He’ll be there, Jacob.”
“I’ve been waiting an hour,” I grumbled, trying to remember the last time I’d been in an arrivals lounge so cold that I could see my breath.
“As far as he’s concerned, you’re a federal insurance investigator,” Henrik replied, his voice annoyingly flat, even over the phone. “They’re not gonna roll out the red carpet.”
I peered out at the deserted forecourt. The sidewalks were blanketed in snow, as crisp and white as sugar icing. On the other side of the road, tall, dark fir trees, similarly frosted, stretched toward the ice-colored sky. Beyond them, the mountains loomed. The black ridges, forest-sprawled slopes and white-capped peaks looked like they’d been laid out especially for a Christmas postcard. But I knew no picture would ever truly capture the scale of it all. It was so… I wasn’t sure.
I shivered—and not entirely from cold. I’d felt many things in my life. But never…small.
“Jacob, still with me?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here,” I said, turning to scan the empty arrivals lounge, an overly grandiose name for the Formica-tiled room with its single bench that I found myself in after I’d wrestled my case in from the snow-drifted runway. My fellow passengers had long since departed. Not even the coffee counter was manned. “So…can you talk?”
“About what?” he said, tone guarded.
“What am I really doing here, Henrik? A week before Christmas, reviewing an open-and-closed accidental death?”
“You’re there to follow the evidence…like always.”
“A local lowlife crashed his snowmobile and broke his neck,” I muttered, perching on the ice-cold bench and pulling the files from my bag. “Probably had too much eggnog. Why is it even on our radar?”
“Randall thinks there’s more to it than that.”
“Silveridge had a thriving marijuana trade until it was legalized, and now meth and blow have filled the trade gap. The victim, a guy called Bobby Briarsfield, is small-time, but his brother is the main pusher in town. Then there’s this other guy… What’s his name?” He muttered and I heard the sound of clicking keys.
“Samson Litefoot. I’m looking at his rap sheet here—some minor possession and distribution charges but nothing recent. I don’t see the relevance.”
“Old reports say Litefoot has tried to muscle in on Briarsfield’s turf in the past.”
“Randall suspects foul play?”
“I would say so. And there’s more.”
“Litefoot is the local sheriff’s nephew.”
I paused. “So, the Deputy Assistant Director thinks some family favors are being called in?”
“That’s what you’re there to find out.”
“Good to know, because I did wonder if she’d sent me out here for some other reason…?”
The temperature dropped a further few degrees in the silence that followed.
“She doesn’t know about us,” Henrik eventually replied. “And she never will. Right?”
I sighed, my annoyance deflating like a balloon, leaving a hollow emptiness in its place.
“If it’s drugs,” I said, “why aren’t I working myself into the gangs?”
“There must be a reason she’s given you this cover. Work with it. Now, are we done?”
Another pause…even fuller than the last.
“Jacob, do we need to talk about this?”
Don’t say anything. Let it go. “You specifically said there wasn’t anything to talk about.”
Why can’t I ever listen to my own advice?
“Jackie…” The conciliatory tone. This was the one he used when he didn’t want to talk but still wanted sex. “Don’t be like this. We had fun, didn’t we?
“You know what this job is,” he went on. “Relationships just don’t mix.”
“I just wanted Christmas day together.” I cursed my big mouth—one I was usually so good at controlling.
“Agents, guy agents, fooling around is bad enough. God only knows what would happen if we let it get any further.” His tone was flat again. End of discussion. Case Closed. “Now, can we just quit while we’re ahead, like we agreed?”
I rubbed my hand over my face. My head was aching, and it wasn’t just from the flight on a plane that had been less comfortable than a ride-on lawnmower.
“Good,” Henrik said, brightening. Damn him. “Now get your head in the game. I’m sure your contact will be there any minute.”
“Tell me why I’m staying with a park ranger again?”
“Randall thought it was better for your cover. Federal budget cuts are all over the news. Even putting you in the box rooms of one of those high-end ski lodges would look suspicious. Besides, he’s local. Get close to him. See what he knows.”
I flicked to the last page in the file.
Ranger Cody Spencer, US National Park Service.
No record of a date of birth and no information older than his employment with the service. I frowned at that, then at the photo of the green-eyed, honey-blond ranger grinning at me in a way that screamed anything but professionalism. His uniform appeared to be too big for him, he had a chipped tooth and what looked like a fading black eye. Good looking, that was for sure—even beat-up—but young, naive. Trouble.
“The guy’s address isn’t in the file.”
“I get the idea it’s not really marked on the map…”
“Cheer up, Jacob. You’re in the Rockies at Christmas time. I can think of worse places to be spending the holiday.”
Luckily a Jeep roaring into the slush-rimed forecourt prevented me from voicing the first comment that sprang to my lips.
I cut the call with a little more force than was necessary and plastered on the bland, polite smile of a bored, slightly impatient federal administrative employee.
A young man in a large coat and a wide-brimmed ranger hat climbed out of the Jeep and entered the lounge with flushed cheeks, wet-speckled clothing and the scent of snow and pine. He spotted me and grinned. It was the same wonky grin as in his file photo, but he’d had the chipped tooth fixed and, somehow, in the flesh, it looked less goofy and more boyishly charming. His skin was a similar rich, warm tone to the honey of his long hair. He’d tied it back from his face but still some strands had escaped, curling behind his ears. His eyes under the electric light were the strong green of holly leaves, and he hurried forward with the long, loping stride of an athlete.
My breath caught in my throat, and for a second I forgot to school my face. Rebound reaction, I reasoned silently, smoothed my expression and took his offered hand.
“Agent Grant?” he said as he shook my hand vigorously, his grin widening as his eyes flicked over my face. “Ranger Spencer. Cody. So sorry I’m late, man. The plow had to head north before clearing the way out here.” He shrugged. “Skiers have to get to the slopes before they let the likes of me outta town. But then they’re paying my wages, so I guess I can’t complain. So, this all your stuff?”
I looked down and my single small case. “Uh, yeah.”
He arched an eyebrow as he examined my woolen overcoat, cashmere scarf and patent mules. “You not got anything, you know, outdoorsy?”
“I have boots…in the case.”
“Okay. That’s something,” he said, grabbing my case before I could protest. “Let’s hit the road. It’s fucking freezing in here.”
He strode for the exit. I blinked when I saw he wore his hair in a long braid. It bounced against his bulky mountaineer jacket, reaching halfway to his belt, and was tied with a colorful beaded ribbon. I fought to stop my gaze from traveling any lower as I stepped outside where, thankfully, the icy air swiftly extinguished any stirring heat.
“You…uh. You look different to your photo,” I ventured carefully. Spencer shot me a grin over his shoulder.
“Not what you were expecting, huh?” he said with a playful wink that made my stomach clench.
“Hey, it’s fine,” he went on, wrenching open the back door. “Who wants to be predictable?”
He slung in my case then opened the driver’s door. “The pic the service sent will be from when I was a trainee. They never bothered to take a newer one. Not much cause to use ID around here.”
I fumbled the passenger door open with stiff fingers and climbed gratefully into the warm interior. Spencer pulled out before I’d fastened my seatbelt.
“Me what?” I muttered, distracted, wrestling with the jammed belt.
“What’s your story?”
Spencer shrugged. “You don’t look like I pictured, either.”
“What did you picture?” I said, finally clicking in the belt.
“Old. Fat. Bald.” He grinned at me again. “Sorry. You hear ‘insurance’ and your brain just goes there. But I should know by now not to listen to my brain.” I tried to figure if there was something in the way he was looking at me, but then he slammed on the brakes to turn onto the main road.
“Don’t know what to tell you. I just audit federal expense claims.”
“I guess that must be…interesting.” His grin took all the sting out of his sarcasm, but I had no problem appearing irritated.
“It can be.”
“Like this case, huh?” he said, slamming on the indicator and taking a turn onto a winding road with snow piled head-high at either side. “Called all the way out here right before Christmas, just to look into an accident.”
“The death happened on federal land,” I said, watching his face out of the corner of my eye. “I’m checking that all the right costing procedures were followed.”
“Maybe not so interesting then.”
“I’m sorry, Ranger Spencer—”
“Dude,” he laughed, pulling the wheel over to take another bend so fast my case slid across the back seat. “No one calls me that. It’s Cody.”
“Perhaps you could just concentrate on driving?”
The ranger chuckled again but he did at least take the next bend in the correct lane. We began to pass buildings, mostly single-story constructions with neon signs and faded paint—a motel, a strip mall, a diner, a shut-up souvenir shop. I frowned, wondering where all the ski lodges and boutiques were.
“Wait! Where are we going?” I said as Cody slowed to turn onto one of the pot-holed side-streets.
“I figured you might want some breakfast? The tourist places will rip you right off, but I know this great place downtown—”
“I’d prefer to go straight to the scene, please.”
Cody raised his eyebrows again, turned the blinker off and steered back into the traffic. “You’re the boss.”
Soon we had to slow as the traffic increased. The buildings grew bigger, were better maintained and clad in varnished pine. Restaurants, bars and skiwear shops cluttered the broad sidewalks, which teemed with people carrying skis, snowboards or shopping bags. The shopfronts were decorated with spray-on snow and flashing lights. Christmas trees in ornamental pots glittered with silver ornaments and fairy lights.
“I hope you like Christmas,” Spencer said as he came to a halt at a crossing. A harassed-looking nanny corralled a group of children across to a Santa who stood outside a department store with a collection bucket and real reindeer. “It’s kind of a big deal around here.”
My thoughts went immediately to Henrik, to the room I’d booked at the Plaza. My plans for champagne on the flight and to finally tell him…
“I’m here to work.”
A fine line appeared between the ranger’s caramel-colored eyebrows. “Yeah, I’m not much for this overpriced, commercial stuff myself,” he said. “But spending a day eating and drinking too much with people you care about?” The frown melted. “I live for that all year round, man.”
Thankfully he had to do some creative steering around a couple of kids on mopeds, so I was spared from thinking of a reply.
We turned a corner and the sunlight flashed off the glass-fronted facade of a lodge set on a bluff overlooking the town. It dominated the mountainside, its windows stretching from the ground to the apex of its many-pointed roof. Even at this distance, I could see the line of limousines and sports cars queuing for the valet station.
“Yeah, it’s quite something, ain’t it?” Spencer muttered as he caught my look. “The Redrock Hotel, haunt of the super-rich and mega-famous.”
“You don’t sound like you approve.”
Spencer shrugged. “It’s bringing in money, no doubt about it, but most of it ends up in the owners’ pockets.”
“Some would say that’s how business works.”
He glanced at the hotel with a guarded look in his eyes. “I guess. But the Waltons have muscled out a lot of the local businesses. Then they hire all their staff from out of town. When so many of the locals are struggling to find work…” He shrugged again. “Just don’t seem right, that’s all.”
Gradually, the buildings thinned, and we were on winding roads sloping uphill. Soon Spencer pulled into the lot of a large, squat building. Its doors were open, revealing a workshop filled with flying sparks and echoing with the clamor of banging tools. I looked over as the ranger switched off the engine.
“Where are we?”
“You wanted to go to where Bobby crashed, right?”
“My report said Briarsfield had his accident on the northwest route of Silver Peak.”
“Uh-huh,” Spencer said nodding to the line of snowmobiles at the side of the building. “And that’s how we get there.”
Spencer had climbed out before I could reply. I hurried after him.
“My map clearly marked the northwest route as a road,” I said, as Spencer raised his hand in greeting to a large man with a beard and bulky knitted cap who emerged from a side door.
“Two please, Joch,” Spencer said, and the big man nodded stiffly, gave me suspicious look and disappeared back through the door. “It is a road…in the summer,” Spencer went on, then grimaced. “Well, ‘road’ is a stretch. It’s a logging track. But either way, at this time of year it’s under eight feet of snow. Why do you think the guy was on a ’mobile in the first place?”
“I assumed it was snowy,” I said flatly. “But I also assumed you would have a vehicle that could cope.”
“She can cope with most things,” Spencer said, smiling back at his Jeep, “but not northwest Silver in December. Ah, thanks, Joch.” He added this last as the burly man appeared again and tossed two sets of keys through the air. Spencer caught them then held a set out to me. “You know how to drive one of these? If not, we can always double up.” His grin widened. I snatched the key.
“I know how to drive one, thank you.”
“Great. Saddle up, cowboy.” Spencer said, then took off his hat, pulled on some gloves, goggles and a helmet and straddled a snowmobile. I eyed my own warily. The chassis was scratched and the windshield had been fixed with electrical tape. “Budgets aren’t what they were,” Spencer went on, following my look. “But she’s safe enough. Joch’s good at his job.”
I muttered under my breath, accepted the goggles and helmet he held out to me and mounted my own machine. The ranger revved his engine and raced out into the snowy lot. I followed at a more sensible pace.
He led the way down the side of the workshop and out into the open space behind it. The snow was drifted almost ten feet deep. A route had been cut through, leading into the trees. Spencer increased his speed. I gritted my teeth and followed suit, alarmed by the rattling of something in my engine. The wind bit through my coat and trousers and made my cheeks burn.
Spencer wove between the trees, spraying snow from his treads as he took the corners. I attempted to keep up without getting a face full of snow at every turn, but the path was narrow and twisting, and my machine was lurching and juddering like it might fall to pieces any minute. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we were turning onto a broad, clear slope, with the mountain’s lower peaks towering overhead. A number of flashy, high-powered vehicles zoomed past us and sped out of sight.
We crested a shoulder of the mountain and suddenly Silveridge was spread below us like a scene from a snow globe. The white-covered roofs glittered in the sunlight. Even the ostentatious bulk of the Redrock Hotel looked charming in its miniaturized state.
We reached a fork and Spencer slowed and took the narrower track. Then he slowed further, pulled in and cut his engine. I did the same and climbed off, stiff and shivering.
Spencer pulled off his helmet and paced to the edge of the track where a jumble of boulders marked the edge of a sheer slope that knifed into a valley below. I stepped to the edge and looked out at the uninhabited stretches of the National Park beyond Silver Peak. Everything was black and silver, green and white. The wind was fresher than anything I’d ever tasted. The cold was pure, the silence complete. At that moment, in that place, we could have literally been the only two people on the planet.
“Yeah, I like this view, too,” Spencer said. I looked over at him, but he was gazing at the landscape. “Depending on what mood the place is in, you can feel like you’re where you’re finally meant to be.” His smile was different—softer, more sincere. “Or that you’re venturing somewhere you have no business poking your nose.”
I blinked and schooled my expression, then turned back to the track. “So, this is where Briarsfield was found?”
Spencer nodded. He indicated scuffs of red paint on the boulders. “They said he plunged headlong into it. Some early snowboarders found him. Pathologist said he had a broken neck and a crushed skull.”
I bent to examine the scratches then studied the wide, snowy slope and the thin cluster of saplings about a dozen feet away. “It’s not the sharpest turn we’ve done,” I murmured. “How did he miss it?”
Spencer shrugged. “Had one too many with lunch, perhaps. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“I’d be impressed at anyone getting this far if they’d been drinking.”
“Bobby was used to functioning under the influence.”
“You knew him?”
Spencer scratched his chin. “Yeah, I knew him.”
I tried to read his face, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. “What was he like?”
Now he looked at me, puzzled. “Why?”
“My boss if big on details,” I said. “Was it normal for him to come out on a snowmobile after he’d been drinking?”
Spencer surveyed me a moment longer then shrugged. “I hadn’t had too much to do with him recently. We went to school together, but his brother farmed pot, back before it was legalized. Bobby fell in with his crowd young, dropped out of school, started dealing to the tourists.” Spencer shook his head. “Then when the bottom fell out of the marijuana business, he started stealing, getting into fights. Seemed I only really saw him when he was sitting in the cells as the station.” He sighed, gazing wistfully at the scratched rock. “Guess it was only a matter of time before karma came calling. Just”—he winced, lifting his gaze—“no one deserves that.”
I paced around the rocks, then walked the width of the track. There were snowmobile tracks here, too, fresh ones layered over old.
“A busy route, this?”
“One of the main ones to the more advanced slopes,” Spencer gestured up the hill. “Not as busy as those on Red Peak. They’re managed by the Redrock. But this way gets some traffic during the day.”
“The pathologist’s report said he’d probably died sometime early evening the day before he was found. Where would he be going at that time? It would be starting to get dark.”
“I couldn’t tell you,” Spencer said, peering up the slope. “Meeting someone perhaps? Good place for a hand-off up here, in the dark. No one else around.”
“But no witnesses saw anyone else coming on or off the slope at that time?”
“No. And Cherri said she couldn’t get anything from the tracks ’cause it snowed in the night.”
Spencer smiled crookedly. “Sheriff Heart.”
“And does the sheriff often discuss her cases with you?” I asked casually, as I watched the small figures of snowboarders zigzagging down the white face of the mountain above us.
“Okay, mister, I know what you’re really asking,” Cody said with a knowing tilt to his mouth. “But you’re barking up the wrong tree. We all pitch in together here, is all. And Cherri and I go way back.”
I studied his face but saw nothing except guileless good humor, so I turned away.
I paced the scene again, from the rocks to the cliff then back to the trees. Spencer watched, his expression mildly curious. It was on my second lap that I spotted a notch in the bark of the one of the saplings. I knelt closer and examined the graze, thin but deep, revealing the lighter wood underneath.
Spencer frowned as he came over. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” I said, standing. “Where’s Briarsfield’s snowmobile now?”
“They hauled it back to the workshop,” Spencer jerked his thumb down the hill. “Though Joch didn’t find any faults or anything.”
“I’d like to take a look for myself,” I said. “Just to be sure.”
Spencer regarded me again. “You’re a stickler, huh?”
“Most federal employees are,” I said mildly.
I expected him to be offended but he laughed—that same open, unfettered sound, like the wind in the trees around us. “Whatever, man. I’m sure Joch’ll be happy to oblige.”