Blistery fire, Hope. What possessed you to name your father?
The name of her father belonged on Hope’s birth certificate. Nowhere else. Colonel Amelia Matheson had seen to it, or so she’d thought.
Her daughter’s biography, which Amelia would never have authorized, was posted on the team’s website along with the life stories of the other biathletes. The only person who could have written and submitted the article was Hope.
Sometimes that only child of mine is as infuriating as her father had been.
Amelia was tempted to ask Hope’s coach to take it down, but the request would raise questions. A silent sigh expanded her ribcage. After eighteen years, she was tired of the truthful lies, though she only had herself to blame.
With any luck, no one will read it. Regardless, her feisty daughter would still get an earful when she called from Montana tonight. She’d better wear her transmitter.
A knock on her door ended Amelia’s broodings.
Captain Garner stepped inside her office. When he closed the door shut behind him, Amelia braced herself for more bad news.
With his hands behind his back, the junior officer came to stand at ease in front of her desk. A beautifully handcrafted desk buried under a mountain of paperwork.
“We have two problems, ma’am.”
Back in her younger days, Amelia had loved handling problems, the bigger the better, but since she got stuck behind a desk, problems had multiplied at a higher rate than solutions had surfaced. Her body and her mind screamed for action. Accepting her latest promotion had been a mistake and filling in for Colonel Lewis until her position at the Pentagon became official had been an even bigger one. She belonged in the field searching for answers, not in an office waiting for reports.
“What problems?” She kept her frustration wrapped under a cool and professional demeanor.
“The body of a young woman was found in Major Elliot’s cottage in New Hampshire. She was in one of the guest bedrooms dressed in a nightgown. Preliminary report indicates she’s been dead at least two weeks. No name or cause of death yet.”
According to his exemplary service record, Major Charles S. Elliot owned a private medical practice in North Carolina. He was one of many military doctors who provided medical care to the civilian population in his spare time.
The cottage in New Hampshire is a long way from the private clinic in North Carolina.
It baffled Amelia that in fifteen years, Elliot’s behavior or evaluations hadn’t shown he was prone to negligence. Had the doctor been incarcerated instead of being remanded to house arrest, he wouldn’t have escaped, and that young woman might still be alive.
If the victim is one of his civilian patients, the media will have a field trip with the story.
“Was Elliot apprehended by the local authorities?” Not territorial by nature, Amelia didn’t care who arrested the fugitive as long as the blood trail ended. Getting the job done was more important than receiving credits.
“No, ma’am, and that’s the other problem.” Not one to be easily intimidated, Garner looked her in the eye when he spoke. “A male nurse was arrested last night for administering an unapproved drug to a female soldier. The victim developed an adverse reaction similar to the one that killed Major Elliot’s three patients. A look at the nurse’s schedule showed he’d also tended to those patients within twenty-four hours of their death. The charges against Major Elliot haven’t been dropped, but he’s no longer the only suspect.”
A month ago, Elliot had escaped custody while awaiting his court-martial for negligent homicide in the death of three patients. If he were innocent, he’d chosen the wrong month to take a hike and hide a fourth body in his cottage.
“Regardless of his guilt or innocence, Major Elliot is AWOL since November fifteenth. Our job is to track him down and bring him back. The lawyers can figure out the rest.”
* * *
The snow glistened in the early morning sun and the air sparkled with tiny crystals, changing the mountains into a picturesque Christmas card.
Quest loved the serenity and beauty of winter with as much passion as she loved skiing and shooting.
Her skis glided on the trail, packing the fresh snow into two parallel lines every time she raced down a hill and adding crisscross design to every slope she climbed. Ahead of her, a cute blond guy with dark brown eyes and a smile that could melt a glacier, groomed the trail. The vibrations of his machine sizzled through Quest’s body, but as the distance between them grew farther, the sensation faded away.
Her rifle bounced on her back, unloaded, a comforting ally in her silent world. Alone on the trail, Quest didn’t bring any ammunition for target practice and didn’t wear her bothersome transmitter. Later on, once she rejoined the other athletes, she would rectify both situations.
To give her brief reprieves from the white noise she must endure in order to hear, Coach Goldman had requested that special accommodations be made. Thanks to him, Quest had been granted permission to train in the early morning solitude of the sleepy mountains, outside the normal hours of operation. Alone. She appreciated the consideration.
As she ventured deeper into the forested area, the naked trees cuddled closer against the evergreens, blocking her view of the valley below.
Being invited by her coach to the altitude training camp at Snowy Tip had been a dream come true. Convincing her mother and grandfather to let her take the year off and postpone her entrance to Princeton University in order to train full-time for the Olympic trials had required grueling efforts and perseverance.
White clouds formed around her mouth with every breath she took. After two months in Montana, her lungs had adapted to the lower atmospheric pressure. She no longer felt the effect of the altitude. The trials were three weeks away. She was as ready, mentally and physically, as she’d ever be.
Beads of perspiration trickled between her shoulder blades, quickly whisked away by the microfiber undershirt she wore like a second skin. Every piece of clothing and equipment played a role, down to her gloves from which she’d cut off the tip of the right index finger to better feel the resistance of the trigger when she fired.
The flat section ahead curved around a frozen pond. Red markers delimited the perimeter of the ice surface in case some skiers were tempted to cross over.
A yellow light reflecting over the white blanket of snow caught Quest’s attention. She looked over her shoulder. Two snowmobiles headed in her direction. The last one pulled a rake on the ground, mimicking the grooming effect and erasing her ski tracks.
Puzzled by their presence on the trail, she moved to the side to let them pass. As they approached, they slowed down before stopping a few feet away from her.
Despite the cold and wind, the ski masks covering their faces weren’t common attire among maintenance crewmembers. One driver stood up. Big and stocky in his black snowsuit, he looked more like a man than a woman.
Trying her best not to appear intimidated, Quest glanced back and forth between the two of them as she tried to decipher which one led the pack. “Is there a problem, guys?”
The lips of the closer individual moved. “Hope Craig?”
Only strangers, and her mother, called her Hope.
“Who wants to know?”
He pulled a gun on her.
“No reaching for your rifle. You’re coming with us.”
* * *
For their guests’ enjoyment, Scarlet Vacation Resort offered miles of private trails winding through the mountains. The red iron bridges along the trails, a trademark of the resort, added a touch of color to the wintery landscape.
Sheriff Richmond Morgan and Deputy Gil Thompson had been hiking since dawn searching for a specific red bridge. In the photos in Rich’s pocket, the bridge overlapped a stream, guarded on one side by trees and on the other by a steep, rocky wall.
In the last month, someone had snapped compromising shots of Senator Craig Norman while he vacationed alone at the resort, but the senator hadn’t deemed it important enough to notify the authorities he was being blackmailed until last night.
Rich pulled the first photo from his jacket and compared it to the actual landscape.
Some twenty feet ahead, a red bridge overlapped a snow-covered stream. In the morning sun, shimmering ice filled the crevasses in the rocky wall and fresh snow weighed down the branches of the evergreens.
Despite the artistic differences crafted by the weather, Rich was confident he stared at the same bridge from the same vantage point.
“Look at that. The bridge does indeed exist.”
“That’s a shocker.” A cocky grin split his deputy’s face. “We’re just missing the senator and his Black Beauty cuddling by the railing.”
Senator Norman was married with five kids. His wife of twenty-seven years had olive skin, not dark chocolate like the beautiful woman in the photo.
Scanning the surrounding area for a suitable place to hide and snap, Rich found none.
“The senator vaguely remembers taking a friendly walk with a dark-skinned woman he ran into on the trail. Nothing more. How did Norman not see the blackmailer snap the pictures?”
“Maybe his eyesight is as faulty as his memory, Sheriff. Or maybe he was too busy enjoying his new friend’s curvy attributes to notice, or care.”
The politician didn’t strike Rich as the careless type. “Something in this story doesn’t add up.”
In a bid to avoid political embarrassment and protect his marriage, the senator had paid the blackmailer fifteen thousand dollars for the suggestive snapshot despite claiming it was fake. Two weeks later, a second picture, more provocative than the first one, had landed on the senator’s desk. The two hundred per cent increase in price had rattled Norman. He’d sent another fifteen thousand and begged for a two-week grace period in order to raise the missing thirty thousand dollars. Surprisingly, the blackmailer had agreed and Norman had contacted the sheriff’s office.
The FBI should be handling this investigation, not me. As a former federal agent, Rich had suggested that much, but for reasons Norman didn’t or wouldn’t share, the senator had ordered him to conduct a discreet investigation without involving any other agencies.
Rich pulled out the most recent snapshot.
Snowflakes dotted a gray, teal, and purple snowmobile parked near the same red bridge. Straddled over the seat, the senator hugged a youthful-looking blonde sporting nothing more than a pair of black boots and a pink hat with a purple pompom.
According to Nathan Ford, their civilian computer technician who doubled as a photographer in his spare time, the pictures were real. No retouch. No Photoshop.
“You have to give it to the senator, Sheriff. He’s trying his best to keep Snow Bunny warm.”
The blonde girl didn’t look any older than the senator’s children. If she was underage, Norman had bigger problems than worrying about losing his wife or his career.
Rich gave the pictures to his deputy. “I want that girl’s name and age. Go back to the office and take Eve with you. She needs to see some action before she develops cabin fever.”