Zero-Degree Murder, page 1part #1 of Search and Rescue Mystery Series
STILL IN SHOCK . . .
Rob sat immobile, face oyster white, eyes shadowed in their sockets and staring off into space.
He turned his head slowly and looked up at her.
“What’s going on?”
Gracie sat down next to him. “What happened?”
“There was a fight.”
“A fight? When?”
“More than a fight.”
“When was this?”
“Up there. On the trail. I can’t quite . . . someone . . .” He massaged his forehead with his fingertips. “I remember . . . trying to get away.”
“To get away from someone? From who? Do you remember?”
“It’s all a fog. I remember a lot of . . .” He stopped, frowning.
“A lot of what?”
He looked straight into Gracie’s eyes. “Blood.”
Goose bumps walked ghostly fingers up Gracie’s arms and made all the hair stand on end. “Blood.”
He nodded. “I remember a woman screaming,” he said, his eyes never leaving Gracie’s. “I think I saw someone die. And I think someone tried to kill me.”
M. L. ROWLAND
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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Copyright © 2014 by M. L. Rowland.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-60156-3
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / January 2014
Cover art by Dominik Michalek/Shutterstock.
Cover design by Diane Kolsky.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product
of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Mom and Dad,
my role models.
Adventurers in their own way.
Models of integrity. Lives of service.
Still in Shock . . .
A heartfelt thank-you to:
Nancy Chichester, Jo Colwell, Sergeant Trace Hall, Steve Kennedy, L. Lee and Norman Lapidus, Barbara Law, Kathleen Law, and M. Scott Nash.
My editor, Faith Black.
And, of course, my live-in encyclopedia, my fellow adventurer, my source of never-ending support, encouragement and love, my best friend, my husband, Mark.
And to all the Search and Rescue volunteers who routinely risk their lives.
THE body hung upside down in the truck, suspended by the seat belt, sun-bleached hair skimming the roof of the cab.
Gracie Kinkaid and Ralph Hunter crouched side by side atop a granite boulder, looking down through the shattered passenger window of an F-150 pickup, which lay upside down at an oblique angle amid a jumble of rocks and vegetation. The stark white light from Gracie’s LED headlamp merged with the beam of Ralph’s mag flashlight, illuminating the cab and the body of what appeared to be a young man inside.
“At least this time the body’s in one piece,” Gracie said. “I can handle ‘in one piece.’” She tugged open her radio chest pack and picked out a pair of purple latex gloves. As she snapped them on, she added under her breath, “At least I hope I can.”
Ralph tugged on his own gloves, slid off the boulder onto a wide triangle of open ground next to the truck, and handed the mag flashlight back up to Gracie. “Light it up, will ya?”
Gracie grabbed the heavy flashlight and swept the cab interior with its beam. “Not a lot of blood,” she said. “He didn’t bleed out.”
“Blunt force trauma probably knocked him out,” Ralph said. “Hanging upside down in the seat belt probably killed him.”
Gracie nodded. “Traumatic asphyxia. First time I’ve seen someone die from wearing a seat belt.”
“Dead for sure without it.” Ralph turned and looked up at her over the top of his glasses. “You okay w
“I better be, dammit,” she said. “Or I need to find something else to do with my stupid-ass life.” Knowing that with any other team members around, Ralph would never ask her that question, she added, “I’m good. Thanks, Ralphie.”
“Okay,” he said, reaching up to pat her foot. “Let’s open ’er up then.” He leaned down and tested the handle of the bashed-in door. It didn’t move. Bracing himself against the side panel, he hauled on it with both hands. “Nope,” he said finally. “Not gonna happen.” He swept away the remaining glass shards with his sleeve and stretched in through the window to place two fingers on the carotid artery of the young man’s neck.
Gracie counted off the seconds to herself until Ralph said in a low voice, “Nothing.”
He grunted as he heaved himself even farther inside the cab.
“Careful, Ralphie,” Gracie whispered.
A mumbled curse and another grunt later, Ralph wormed his way back out of the window. “ID,” he said and tossed a thin leather wallet up to Gracie, who snatched it out of the air with one hand.
He leaned back inside again, elbowed aside the deflated balloon that was the deployed airbag and sifted through the papers and trash scattered throughout the cab.
Muffled voices and bursts of laughter filtered out from the forest of Joshua trees behind Gracie—the rest of the recovery team hiking in with the Junkin litter, the sturdy plastic basket in which they would transport the body. “Ralph,” she said. “Litter’s here.”
Wedging the mag flashlight in place between her feet, Gracie opened the wallet and zeroed the beam of her headlamp onto the California driver’s license inside. A bright young face smiled back at her.
She snapped the wallet closed and shoved it into a side pocket of her fleece vest. She looked up, breathing in the pungent pine and sage perfume of the high Mojave.
The sky, a deep rose in the west, dissolved to teal overhead, then indigo in the east, where, one by one, stars, bright and unwinking, unveiled themselves for the night watch.
Anxiety knotted Gracie’s stomach. She forced herself to take slow, even breaths in through her nose, out through her mouth. “Don’t you dare get sick,” she whispered. A smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. “You barf all over Ralph’s boots again and your ass is grass.”
Ralph hauled himself up onto the boulder and took the mag flashlight from Gracie. Together they slid off the other side and stood watching the litter team approach, headlamps bobbing like tiny Chinese lanterns in the near darkness.
Four men scrunched into view and up to where their teammates stood. On a count of three, they bent as a single unit to lay the litter in the sandy dirt. “Howdys” and “Heys” rumbled throughout the group.
As the men unclipped from the litter and sipped from water bottles and hydration packs, Ralph brought them up to speed. For reasons that weren’t immediately obvious and which might never be determined, a Ford F-150 pickup had shot off the winding gravel Forest Service road above their heads, cartwheeled down more than three hundred feet, and finally come to rest upside down with the sole occupant still inside. Deceased.
“Who is it? Do you . . . we know?” asked Lenny Somebody, burly, pink-cheeked, barely twenty-one, and so new to the team Gracie didn’t even know his last name. His voice was incongruously high and timid. It was his second SAR mission, his first body recovery.
“Uh, that would be my cue,” Gracie said, withdrawing the wallet from her pocket. Keeping her thumb firmly pressed over the face, she focused her headlamp beam on the driver’s license. “Bradford, Joshua D. From down the hill. Long Beach. He would have been seventeen . . . next Monday.”
Silence enveloped the group as all descended into their own morose thoughts of how, in a matter of seconds, a young life can be snuffed out by an error in judgment or too many beers.
Steve Cashman broke the mood by scrambling up onto the boulder. He held his flashlight shoulder high, focusing the beam down into the cab of the battered pickup.
Gracie noticed that, characteristically, Steve wasn’t wearing a helmet, in direct violation of team policy.
The rest of the group climbed up onto the boulder and stood in a semicircle, necks craning, headlamp and flashlight beams converging on the truck.
Kurt, wearing gold-rimmed glasses, his long sandy hair pulled back into a ponytail, stood on Gracie’s left. “We waitin’ for the Coroner?” he asked.
“Negative,” Ralph answered. “Coroner’s still a couple of hours out. We’ll litter the body out to the road. She’ll pronounce him there.”
“We can do a litter raise,” Cashman said, sweeping the rocky hillside above the truck with the beam of his flashlight. “Haul ’im up, right up there to the road.”
“Risk outweighs any advantage.”
“We brought some of the ropes shit,” Cashman said. He gestured toward the rope coils and jumbles of steel carabiners and pulleys piled in the litter. “It’s in the—”
“Negative,” Ralph said. “Decision’s been made. We’re littering him out.”
Cashman swung his flashlight around, shining the beam at Ralph. “Who made the decision? You and Gracie?”
“Watch Commander. Get that light out of my eyes, Steve.”
Cashman swung his beam back down to the truck.
“That’s it then, right?” Lenny asked, his face a shade paler than before. “’Cuz if the Watch—”
“Come on, Hunter,” Cashman said with a smile. “Don’t be such a pu . . .” He glanced across at Gracie, then back down at the truck. “. . . Spoilsport.”
Ralph lowered his voice an octave. “Decision’s been made, Steve.”
Kurt leaned in toward Gracie and said so softly that only she heard, “Shut the hell up while you’re ahead, Cashman.”
Gracie took a deep breath and jumped into the fray. “We need to figure out how to extricate the body.”
Crouching down for a better angle, Kurt said, “Gonna be a sonofabitch.”
“Through the door?” Lenny asked.
“It won’t open,” Gracie said.
Cashman jumped down next to the truck and tugged on the door handle.
Lenny jumped down next to him. “Through the window then?”
“We can cut the door off,” Cashman suggested.
“That would require—” Gracie began.
“Take too long for extrication equipment to get here,” Warren, the fourth member of the litter team, said. The older man was so stolid and quiet, half the time Gracie forgot he was there.
Lenny crouched down next to the hood. “How ’bout through the windshield?”
“It’s too—” Gracie said.
“Too smashed in,” Kurt said. “Too narrow.”
“How ’bout the window?”
Several rescuers shook their heads.
Gracie tried again. “He’d be—”
“Truck looks kinda teetery,” Lenny said. “Can we rock it onto its side so it’s more level?”
“We could build a three-to-one Z-Rig,” Cashman suggested. “Hoist it up.”
Eyes focused on the truck, Ralph stood several feet away from the rest of the group, remaining silent, letting all present have their say.
Gracie smiled to herself and gave up. She should have known better than to try to get a word in edgewise. She had learned a long time ago that it took a lot less energy to stand back and listen, to speak up only when she felt a pressing need to step in and be heard, usually when someone’s safety—especially her own—was at stake.
Not to mention that her legs had already morphed into wobbling stalks of wilted celery as they did every time she spoke more than monosyllables in front of a group, even her buddies on the team.
She stepped from boulder to boulder around to the opposite s
It really shouldn’t have mattered how long it took to decide how to remove the body from the truck. They weren’t, after all, in a tearing hurry.
Except Gracie had shed her heavy fleece jacket for the half-hour drive out from the town of Timber Creek. She had left it behind in the Search and Rescue unit when she and Ralph had slipped and slid down the steep hill to the truck. All she was wearing was a black, lightweight fleece vest over an orange cotton shirt, and a pair of army-surplus desert camo pants. A pair of short, black gaiters were Velcroed over the tops of her hiking boots to keep out the dirt and desert pricklies. Hastily braided hair was mashed up beneath a black ball cap with Timber Creek Search and Rescue embroidered on the front.
Carrying the litter out would generate body heat and warm her up. But now, standing around, she felt the chill of a late November evening at sixty-five-hundred-feet elevation. Goose bumps tickled up her arms and legs, soon to be followed by chattering teeth and shivering.
If you don’t get moving, Kinkaid, the body the team hoofs outta here is gonna be yours.
The discussion on the other side of the truck had deteriorated into the telling of morbid jokes.
Gracie shifted her weight to the other long leg and cracked her gum like a rifle shot, not caring how obnoxious it was.
No one took the hint.
“Can we make a decision already?” she asked.
The current joke Cashman was telling continued unabated.
Gracie’s patience circled the drain. She flicked away her gum. “All right, listen the hell up!” she barked across the truck.
Gracie’s legs trembled. “This is what I propose. First, we stabilize the truck with rocks and logs so if it settles at all, nobody gets squished to death. Then someone—Cashman—crawls beneath the bed on this side. There’s enough room.” She retraced her steps around the ring of boulders to the other side of the truck. “Someone else—Kurt—crawls beneath on this side. And Lenny . . .” She pointed a purple finger at him.