God, it was cold. As in hovering just under freezing. But then, what could you expect in western Wyoming in the dead of winter? Amber’s thoughts swirled like the snow coming down in front of her headlights, thousands of tiny flakes dancing in the twin beams that cut through the rugged countryside.
Man, this place was a black hole, but according to her GPS, there was a town in the valley ahead somewhere. Less than five miles, thank God and, hopefully she would find a twenty-four-hour service station to take a break and fill up. Her gas gauge still showed a quarter tank, but you had to be careful out here in the middle of nowhere. Miles of nothing but darkness—that was her impression of Wyoming. Amber hated the feeling of isolation; it made her nervous as hell.
Then again, everything made her nervous these days, not the least of all being Robert’s parents. She’d met them once before, of course, during the summer and they’d traded a few barbs. But this time, a visit of three freakin’ days with the whole family in attendance for Thanksgiving, Frankie and Philip Petrocelli had been at each other’s throats. From the moment Phil had sliced into the turkey incorrectly until midnight, when Frankie had stumbled up the stairs from “one too many” Manhattans, they’d shown their absolute abhorrence for each other.
And to think she was considering marrying into that bunch of lunatics. “Smarten up,” she said, glancing in her rearview mirror. Robert was usually such a sweetie, the exact opposite of his bitter, venomous parents. But this visit had shown her a different side of her fiancé. For most of her stay, he had withdrawn to a near zombielike state in the wake of his parents’ vitriol. Really, the only time he’d snapped out of his daze had been when his ex-girlfriend Joy “happened” to drop in. Only Joy had been able to pull him out of his dark shell.
Although she had planned to stay ’til Monday and drive back with Robert, when Robert’s parents had started arguing again over something at lunchtime, she’d been glad to zip up her suitcase and tell those crazy Petrocellis adios, sayonara, au revoir and good riddance.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she said aloud as she fumbled with the radio’s dial. She found a station but could barely hear Adele’s voice over the static, so she switched it off, only making her already bad mood worse.
Maybe she should rethink the whole “’til death do us part” thing. Maybe her whole future with Robert wasn’t meant to be. The story of her life. In all of her twenty-six years not one man had turned out to be even near “the one.” While her high school and college friends were busy planning weddings and putting the final touches on their nurseries, here she was, contemplating breaking up with the only guy who had ever seriously talked about marriage.
“Big deal,” she said sourly as she squinted through the windshield. Already Robert was mad at her for cutting out early. She didn’t know if she could patch things over, and she didn’t know if she really cared.
The glass was beginning to fog despite the struggling heater that barely warmed the interior of the car. These open plains were ghastly cold—a no man’s land.
Reaching across the seat to her purse, she fumbled for her pack of cigarettes and found there was only one left. Great. Though she had sworn she would quit, another one of Robert’s ideas, she didn’t plan to put an end to her nicotine habit until New Year’s Day. That gave her the next six weeks to enjoy smoking as much as she wanted. Then at the stroke of midnight, she would quit cold turkey.
As she saw the neon sign for a diner come into view, she lit up and even dared crack the window just a smidgen so that smoke could get sucked out. Not enough to have her hand outside, not in this cold, but just enough space to keep the smoke from filling up the car.
God, she missed California. Another fifteen hours to Sacramento, depending on the weather and road conditions and how long she could stand it. She’d come a long way from Billings already, over the Montana state line and clear across the state of Wyoming. She wondered how much longer she’d be in this big-ass state..
As she signaled to turn off the highway, she saw that the diner was also a bar. Big Bart’s restaurant also housed the Buffalo Lounge where one could hear live music every Saturday night, according to the backlit sign posted high overhead.
Finally. The night was starting to hold some promise!
Instead of getting a hot cup of coffee and a hamburger, she decided she’d splurge and order a drink . . . oooh, maybe even an Irish coffee. Yeah, that sounded good. With whipped cream and, if she could talk the bartender into it, a drizzle of crème de menthe for the holidays. Mmmmm.
Her stomach rumbled in anticipation as she pulled into the near-empty lot of the roadside establishment. She hit a pothole disguised by a layer of snow and it jarred the car, probably nearly taking out the front axle of her fifteen-year-old Honda in the process.
“Shit!” she muttered under her breath. Fortunately the Civic was tough and had made it through more than its share of abuse in the four years her brother had driven it before selling the little sedan to her.
Grabbing her purse, she slid outside, locked the door, then braved the snow to reach the double glass doors framed by a half-lit string of Christmas lights. Oh, yeah. Right. Merry effin’ Christmas!
As she stepped inside, a wall of heat hit her head-on. At last. She hoped to thaw her toes before starting back out again. The hallway led to a landing, and then split. Amber paused to check her reflection in the mirror at the landing. Even though her eyes were a little tired and puffy, her black hair, with its blue tint henna, shone in the dim light. Fabulous. It was worth every penny Andre had charged. Turning away from the well-lit dining area, she headed toward the lounge, where the sound of country-western music bounced against the walls.
She took an empty seat at the end of the bar and ordered her Irish coffee from a tall, thin bartender with a gold tooth that glimmered when he smiled.
“ID?” he asked.
Amber sighed as she rummaged through her purse, annoyed that she kept getting carded when she was so over twenty-one. Locating her driver’s license, she thrust it over to the bartender.
“One Irish coffee comin’ your way, Amber.” He winked at her as he handed it back over, which only aggravated her further.
As she waited for her drink, she noticed there were two other patrons at the bar, and a few couples at the tables sprinkled around a small dance floor located in front of a stage. Apparently, she had missed the Saturday-night crowd. If there had been a band, it was long-gone, the stage empty, aside from a couple of mics shoved toward the back wall.
The drink came with the requested green drizzle and a complimentary if pathetic Irish accent from the gold-toothed barkeep. “Here ye be, missy!”
Amber perused a bar menu, half listening to a Randy Travis ballad that oozed through hidden speakers. As she sipped her drink, the tension in her shoulders and neck muscles eased up, and she decided to give herself a break. To hell with her diet. So what if she needed to drop five pounds? It wasn’t as if she was going to try and squeeze into a wedding dress anytime soon. So thinking, she ordered chicken strips and fries then finished her drink.
Nearby, a group that had been drinking beer scraped back their chairs, then took up pool cues at the billiards table near the far wall.
Pool balls began clicking loudly, the two couples laughing, bantering and placing bets as an upbeat country tune she didn’t recognize filled the room. Her toes had stopped tingling as her order came and she dipped a greasy fry into a paper cup of ranch dressing. Yep, her blood had begun flowing again. When the bartender asked her if she’d like another drink, she nodded. She was already feeling the effects of the first, but that would change once the food hit.
For the first time she noticed the guy at the corner of the L-shaped bar. A cowboy from the looks of him. Wearing a black Stetson dipped low over his forehead. He was a big guy, with broad shoulders. Just her type. She’d always liked tall guys, something she’d never mentioned to Robert, who was only a few inches taller than she was. But this cowboy? Yup. Hmmmm.
He’d been staring at her, not directly, but through the mirror behind the bar. When she met his gaze in the reflective glass, he looked away quickly, but only for an instant. Then he was back again, his eyes intent. He smiled slightly, lifted his glass and took a big swallow from his beer.
She did, too. It wasn’t really flirting, just an unspoken “hi” to a fellow patron of the good old Buffalo Lounge. Along with his Stetson, he was wearing a heavy jacket and jeans, which seemed to be the uniform of all the male patrons around these parts.
Don’t do it, Amber. Don’t toy with a man you don’t know. Think of Robert, and for God’s sake, be careful. So he’s hot. So what? Be smart. For once in your life, don’t do something just for the hell of it, for the adventure. You know it’s never worth it.
She exchanged a few more glances as she delved into her second drink. A few minutes later, she caught his eyes on her again. He touched the tip of his hat, then left a few bills on the bar and slid off his stool. With one last look, direct this time, not through the glass, he nodded, as if acknowledging their silent conversation, then headed toward the back of the building, either to hit the bathrooms or take the rear exit.
Dang. A part of her felt ridiculously disappointed as she watched him disappear into a darkened hallway. Maybe she was being stupid. The Irish whiskey had muddled her brain a bit and the best thing she could do was get over it. After all, she was unofficially engaged (no ring, mind you) to Robert, and when he returned to Sacramento she was going to have it out with him. Either there was a sizeable diamond under the tree this year or he was getting a big kick in the backside on New Year’s Day. Cigarettes weren’t the only thing she’d be giving up for her New Year’s resolution. She was swearing off loser men who couldn’t commit.
Leaving half of her overcooked chicken strips in the basket with a few fries, she accepted a third drink from the bartender. She nursed it, along with a glass of water, for another half hour. By the time she paid her bill, Amber’s head was a little fuzzy. Hmm. Maybe she wasn’t in the best shape for driving…but she couldn’t stay here.
Even though the roads were pretty much empty at this time of night, she knew she couldn’t make it to Sacramento. Even Salt Lake City would be a stretch. Elbow on the bar, she rested her head on her fist, sorting her weary thoughts.
Find a motel—that was the only option.
Gathering her purse and zipping her jacket, she decided she’d just drive a little farther down the road and stop at the first motel she came to. She could flop for the night. In the morning, she would set out fresh and make it all the way to Sacramento.
“Sounds like a plan,” she said as she walked through the frigid night toward her car. Clouds covered the moon and snow was still falling, drifting against the buildings. Shivering, she made her way to her Honda, then stopped short. Her front end was listing badly. The tire she’d hit on the pothole earlier had totally deflated.
“Crap!” she muttered under her breath, her heart sinking. She didn’t have Triple A, and though her father had taught her how to change a tire back when she’d learned to drive, she wasn’t sure that her spare was functional or if she had a jack or whatever the hell it was she needed to change the flat.
She could go inside, ask for help, or take a cab to . . . where? Shit. Whether she liked it or not, she’d have to depend on the kindness of strangers. The bitter wind that roared through the valley cut through her coat and stung her eyes. No one would last out here for long.
“Need help?” a rough voice asked.
She turned to find the guy in the black Stetson walking across the parking lot.
Relief swept across her worried mind. “It’s my tire. Flat as a pancake.”
“Let me take a look.” He walked to the driver’s side and crouched down near the front wheel well. “Yep. It’s bad. See here?” He pointed to the tire and moved back, so she could see the damage. Though she really didn’t need to lean down to see the damage, she did just to appease him.
Wasn’t it funny how some things just worked out? That the tall cowboy from the bar would turn out to be her savior, her Good Samaritan—maybe a friend and a lover if things developed right. You couldn’t fight destiny.
“Doesn’t look like I can drive—” Her eyes were trained on the wheel when he moved sharply, startling her.
Before she could get away, he yanked her body hard against his.
“Hey!” she said, half scared, half intrigued, until he shoved something over her mouth. His hand, thickened by a leather glove that muffled her cry.
Panic shot through her. What the hell was going on?
Her mind raced through all the horrible stories she’d heard about rapes and abductions. Oh, no! Not her. She had to stop him. Someone had to stop him…someone leaving the bar…
She struggled in his arms, kicking against his legs, but he was unflinching. A tall pillar of a man.
“Be a good girl, and you won’t get hurt,” he whispered into her ear, his voice sizzling with malice.
Oh, Jesus. Talk some sense into him. Stand tough! Wasn’t that how you were supposed to deal with a potential rapist?
Her gaze combed the parking lot and the building, willing the door to open and someone to rush to her rescue. Please… open that door!
She felt him shift, one of his hands lifting, and she used that moment to kick and writhe and try to beat him off. She bit hard on the glove, tasting dust and dirt and old suede.
He didn’t so much as flinch.
She threw her weight against him and his rumbling laugh, deep and throaty, convinced her that her struggles were useless.
Think, Amber. Somehow you have to outwit this son of a bitch!
In the slight pause she saw the knife in his free hand. The long, sharp blade glinting in the weak glow of a security lamp. Oh, dear God…
This time, when she tried to jerk away, he lifted her off her feet and dragged her, wiggling and twisting, to a dank patch of snow behind the Dumpster. No one from the bar would see them back here. No one!
“Let me go!” Her words were muted by his hand, but in the next second—a dark spiral of hope—she gasped as he flung her down.
It was the last clear thought before her head hit the frozen ground, sending an explosion crackling through her vision. Pain and fear shot through her system, but through the misery something called to her.
Get up! Escape! Now!
Her head ached and her bones felt heavy as she tried to pull herself onto her feet. Confused, she thought she might get away …but when she opened her eyes, he was on top of her, a heavy weight crushing her chest, pressing into her throat.
“I said, ‘be good!’”
In the weak light, she could only make out the glint in his eyes. A sickening glimmer of pure evil that chilled her very soul.
“You’re hurting me,” she croaked out. “Why are you hurting me?”
His voice was a knowing whisper as his lips curled into a cold grin. “Practice makes perfect.”
Then he lifted the knife again. And in that last fragile instant, while snowflakes fell around her and the faint hum of music from inside the bar reached her ears, Amber Barstow realized she would never make it home to California.
Standing outside the entrance to the cave, the killer watched snow fall on the valley below. From up here, through the haze of white, it was possible to see the river, a dark snake winding toward the smattering of lights. Hundreds of bulbs illuminated the snow-blanketed streets of Prairie Creek, Wyoming.
A night owl screeched, and then there was quiet.
He wiped the blood from the blade of his knife on his worn jeans and thought about what the future would bring. As he cleaned the sharp steel, a ghost of a smile crawled across his lips and the pleasant hiss of anticipation buzzed in his ears.
No one knew.
No one suspected.
The girl had been dead a week and not a soul anywhere around was looking at him.
Wind whistled through the canyon, rattling snow from branches, churning up white clouds, bringing the cold from the north. Good, he thought as he ducked between rocks to the hidden entrance of his cave where a campfire was already burning, black smoke billowing upward near the skinned carcass of a coyote dripping wetly against the rocky floor.
This was a good kill.
A kill accomplished with only his bare hands and his knife. He relived the first thrust of his blade through the coyote’s shaggy hide. Listened again to its howl of agony, its snapping teeth going still. That was it. The rush of the kill, the feeling of flesh surrendering, the life struggle that was about to come to an end, the shudder of death.
He’d used animals for years, he thought over the hiss of the fire. But they were easy prey. Easily outwitted.
Humans, though? They were the ultimate test, the supreme target.
His thumb stroked the hilt of the knife as he recalled taking the woman. He ran his tongue over his lips at the memory: the suddenly limp body in his arms, blood flowing from her neck, shock in her eyes as she let out her last gurgling breath. Now he felt an erection begin to rise. She’d been so naïve: a bleating little lamb to the slaughter. Killing her had been child’s play. Disabling her car and luring her in, waiting for just the right moment for her to lean forward, her balance off, the way she’d fought him and then later, the smooth feel of the knife plunging through and running beneath her skin. Remembering brought a shudder to his large frame, but she was, of course, just a rehearsal for the main event.
He’d hidden her body well. He’d gutted her atop a tarp, long after throwing her in his car, leaving no trace of blood in the parking lot. No one suspected. No one even seemed to know that she was missing. Poor Amber. That was her name, according to the California driver’s license he’d found in her purse.
But now it was time to go to the next level. That’s why he was here. That’s what he’d come for. The Dillingers. . .their ranch spread out below him. . .their souls black. . .their time near.
He had to be extracareful now. Every kill had to count.
Holding the knife above his head with both hands, he felt the power that came from the killing enter him, uplift him, send him to a higher plane.
Do you feel me? he silently asked them, his prey.
I’m coming for you.