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Eyes Of Darkness Megabook Volume 1 - Christy Poff

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EYES OF DARKNESS

BOOK 2:

SPARK OF A WOLF

by

Christy Poff

Prologue

A darkened cemetery to an abandoned church. The moon full of ominous warnings.

Shadows surrounded him and encircled him as he walked deeper into the Garden of the Dead. A shiver ran down his spine, causing him to stop and look around.

He heard a twig snap and turned toward the noise, though he could still see no one. He calmed and forced himself to go a little further. Another twig snapping stopped him.

Whoever you are, come out and face me, he stated. He hoped he had not betrayed his apprehension. He waited, then heard the rustle of dried leaves as someone approached. Again, he turned to where the sound came from, though he could find no one near him. He sensed the presence of another. Why hadn’t they shown themselves?

The note had been clear.

Meet me at Saint Anne’s Cemetery if you want the answers you seek. Midnight. Come alone.

Cryptic at best, something in the message compelled him to be at this place at the stroke of midnight. Never had an invitation held power over him like this.

He heard a nightingale sing its mournful song, then fly away. The air around him changed and closed in on him, intense and dangerous. Should I leave now?

No, you shouldn’t—not if you want answers.

Get out of my mind, damn it! Come out and face me!

He heard another sound and spun around to come face-to-face with the largest silvery-gray wolf he had ever seen. The moonlight bathed the animal, giving it the appearance of having white fur. His eyes locked with the animal’s glare, red with a devilish fire.

I will not harm you unless you force me to.

Who are you? he asked aloud, taking comfort in the sound of his own voice.

I am your future.

Excuse me?

You are one of us—a hunter.

No, I’m human—a cop.

A good one, but you need to discover your true potential. We need your knowledge.

And you know about me how?

Our history tells of a great hunter who’ll give us what we need to survive.

You’re crazy. This is a dream.

No dream, my friend. It’s time...

No! he yelled. His voice shattered the silence of the cemetery. He backed away, then ran. He knew it would be fatal if the wolf caught up with him but he realized he had to escape this insanity—his nightmare. He raced to the gates of the ancient graveyard, but only made it a short distance when the huge wolf tackled him. He rolled on his back and tried to fight the animal off. He grabbed a handful of thick fur to pull him away to no avail.

Teeth bared, the wolf bore down on him as his thunderous growl echoed through the night.

Why couldn’t you have made this easier?

Leave me alone!

I’m afraid it is too late for that.

The wolf bent down, his teeth sinking deep into his prey’s shoulder.

A pain-filled scream ripped through the night. God help me.

He can’t help you now.

Chapter 1

Sean McMurray bolted up, soaked in a cold sweat. Why the nightmare kept coming to him, he had no clue. As real as any of his dreams had ever been, this one had been the worst and too close to his own life. The setting had changed, but the nightmare remained the same. He would inevitably fight a mystic wolf and lose the bloody battle.

At first, he cast them aside and blamed stress, but he could no longer do so. They meant something to him and sooner or later, he would be driven to find out what.

He had been a detective on the Aspen Police Force since leaving Special Forces, where he had served the elite group as a tracker and surveillance specialist. His incredible night vision had been one of his greatest assets and garnered him nighttime covert assignments worldwide. When he had put his papers in for retirement, his commanding officer tried desperately to change his mind. Sean refused with three simple words—I’ve had enough.

The feel of the cool, hardwood floor under his bare feet chilled him and calmed him at the same time. He ran his hand through his dark brown hair and rubbed his neck. The dreams had to stop or he’d go mad. He stood up, the sheet dropping away from his naked body. Since his retirement from the military, he’d lived alone and felt no need for proprieties.

He walked to the bathroom and washed his face off, the heat of the water giving him some comfort. He dried off and went to the bar in his study, where he poured himself an old-fashioned glass of Jack Daniels. He looked at what he’d poured, downed it and refilled the glass. With bottle in hand, he walked to his leather couch and dropped down on it.

I have got to get it together.

* * * *

He woke the next morning, sprawled on the couch, the empty glass on the braided carpet. His head hurt from the nightmare followed by his foray into overindulgence. The slight movement to open his eyes to morning’s light caused his head to spin. Somehow, Sean got himself into the bathroom and got sick. He washed his face off then, once the room ceased spinning, he cautiously stepped into the shower and took a hot one.

Sean felt better afterward, hot showers always a relief and comfort. He tugged on a pair of silk boxers, his one extravagance, and then a pair of jeans. He walked to the kitchen and made some coffee. He started when the phone rang, then finally answered it.

Yeah, what? he growled.

Good morning to you, too, Detective.

Sorry, Jules, bad night, he told the detective squad’s secretary, Julia Reardon. She’d been his Moneypenny, he, her James Bond. They would always be just good friends, the way he preferred it.

Are you all right, Sean?

I’ll live, I guess. What’s up?

We just got a report of a body dumped in the alley behind the senator’s office. Fortunately, he’s in Washington so you won’t have to deal with him.

How long?

Several weeks.

What about the vic?

Within the last twelve hours.

Who found it?

One of his secretaries. She went to put trash in the dumpster and found it by the wall.

Description?

Blonde, early twenties. Boyd said she overdosed.

I’m on my way. Let him know to hold the crime scene till I get there.

Already taken care of.

Did you get hold of Hunter?

He’s holding the scene for you.

I see. Thanks, Jules.

Sean hung up and headed to the shower again. He took a quick one, dressed in a black twill shirt and blue jeans, then slipped his feet into a pair of Vans. On his way to his bureau, he picked up his shoulder holster and checked his 10mm Beretta. The clip full, he made sure he had one shot ready in the chamber. Safety on, he slid it back into the leather holster, then slid into it. One last check assured him he had two extra clips. Sean grabbed his leather jacket and left.

Outside, he slid behind the wheel of his Chevy Silverado pickup, started it, and let it run a few moments, then left for the drive into Aspen. He loved the town off-season. With no skiing, or minimal skiing at best, tourists blended in with the locals, unlike the winter months when Aspen doubled in size.

Fifteen minutes later, he parked the truck, got out and walked up to the rear of the small strip of storefronts and small offices. As he got out of the truck, he glanced around the area. From behind his silver aviator-styled sunglasses, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. A small crowd had gathered at the entrance to the alley and Sean took a quick survey of those standing around. One advantage of the shades as dark as he wore, he could watch people without them being aware of his interest.

As he approached the yellow police tape, he moved his jacket out of the way in order to have his badge evident. A patrolman nodded as he lifted the tape to usher Sean under it.

Thanks, Officer.

Sir.

He walked down the alley to where the forensics people hovered over the body of a girl in her early twenties. He could smell death as he picked up the scent of spent blood. He stopped a moment and took a deep breath.

You all right, sir?

Bad night, no sleep.

Sean looked around him, his mirrored shades concealing his eye movements. He couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, aside from the body and investigators, but he sensed something hanging over the area. What the hell is happening here? He took another survey of the immediate area but saw nothing.

What do you have? he asked the first officer he met.

The only thing I can tell you is the murder took place somewhere else and then the perp dumped her here.

Any idea who she is?

Not yet. I had planned to check missing persons of late to see if we might have a hit there.

Good idea. Forward your information to me when you get it.

Yes, sir.

Anything else?

No, sir. The medical examiner probably has something.

Thanks, Sean said, then stepped closer to the body of a young woman, who at one time, had been a beauty. He looked at her arms and found needle tracks on both. Haphazard at best, he counted over two dozen wounds on her left arm, then checked the right and found the same.

Sean looked at her face and saw the look of someone who had become dependant on one drug or another. He shook his head.

Can you get me the test results as soon as possible? he asked Dr. Elise Whitman, Aspen’s Medical Examiner.

Sure.

Any ideas?

Cause of death looks to be an overdose, but the pool of blood tells me different.

What do you mean?

Poor girl was so high, she never felt the gunshot. After he shot her, he brought her here, where she finished bleeding out. She showed him the bullet wound in the back of the girl’s head before she rolled her back.

How long?

Six hours from lividity of remaining blood and she’s a bit stiff. Whoever did this dumped the poor girl off as if she were trash.

Thanks, Elise. I’ll wait to hear from you.

Sean stood and turned to leave the crime scene. He’d seen enough and could recite the crime’s scenario without thinking.

Young girl, early twenties, found dead. Victim has numerous needle tracks from intense drug usage over a short period of time. Cause of death ranges from stabbing to gunshot wounds, though victim is always left to bleed out. Murdered at one location, not where body eventually located.

He shook his head but made a note to check the toxicology reports. By now, they had to have some idea what the girls overdosed on. Somebody had access to the drug and he wanted to know the particulars and put the bastards away. Three girls dead, possibly more. Whoever had done this had to be stopped.

Sean left the alley and walked to his pickup. He slid behind the wheel, deep in thought as he tried to organize the facts as he had them. The more he tried to analyze things, the worse his headache became. He needed sleep or he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the case. He left word for Hunter Lockwood, his partner, to meet him at the office and left.

* * * *

Once back in his office, he made up his index cards and pinned them to a board on the wall. His mind worked on organization and it helped him to lay things out like this. After he placed the last card, he stepped back to see if he could find something to lead him to the killer or killers. So far, nothing, but he knew they’d be making a mistake and soon. After three or more unanswered murders, the perps had to be getting overconfident. Make your mistake and I will be there.

He picked up the phone and called the lab.

Do we have anything on the drugs the victims used?

Not yet, though I can tell you it’s potent as hell.

Go on.

I can’t match it to any of the ones on the DEA’s list. Whatever we’re looking at could be a new recipe, maybe even a hybrid.

Shit, Sean cursed. That means we could have...

I don’t even want to think about it, Sean. If this hits the streets, we’ve got a big problem. Have you seen the ME’s reports?

What have I not seen? Sean asked.

Look at the description of the victims’ brains and hearts.

What am I looking for?

Each girl would have died within days from either a massive brain hemorrhage or a massive coronary.

Shit!

Exactly.

Let me know if you get anything more.

Sure, Sean.

Thanks, Eli.

Sean hung up even more determined to solve this case. They had been fortunate all this happened during the so-called off-season when Aspen’s population was a fraction of the thirty-five thousand who came to the small mountain town to ski at Christmas. The season neared and he needed to put this to rest and solve the case before then.

* * * *

Rhiannon Drake worked as a guide—both privately and for the National Park Service. She loved the work and her schedule because she made her own. Once a month, she kept a week for herself. She told anyone who asked about her master’s thesis on the effects of the full moon, but she had another, more personal reason.

Rhi, or Ducky as some of her friends from school called her, had her own agenda and this time helped her keep her sanity. She lived in a secluded cabin on wooded acreage between two national wilderness areas, away from the hustle and bustle of Aspen and the very same people who paid her for her skills.

She got out of her black Land Rover after finally returning home and stepped away from it. As she did each time she made it home safely, she breathed in a deep dose of fresh air and thanked the Spirits who guided her. Half-Irish, half-Cherokee, she leaned more toward her native roots than the Catholic ties of her father’s side of the family. For some reason, she took more comfort in her beliefs than those of a large, opulent church like the one he went to in Chicago.

Rhi closed her eyes and let the breeze wrap around her. She opened them to find a black wolf gazing at her.

How are you today, my Lord Wolf?

She wanted to see what he would do next. He made regular visits to her home and they would visit, then the huge animal would amble off into the woods and disappear. She noticed something different about him as if the weight of the world sat on his shoulders.

When she knelt down, he went to her and allowed her to stroke his thick fur, a privilege she took to her soul. She closed her eyes again and let her mind open to his.

You must be careful. A threat to you and the rest of us hangs over the area.

But, my Lord Wolf, why me? I keep to myself here. You know that.

I do, my child, but danger is around us.

What danger?

Men with their drugs. Their evil threatens our safety.

But what can I do? I’m not strong.

You will be, in time. There is one out there who doesn’t know of his gifts. You must find him. We need his help.

Who?

A man in torment. He’s yet to realize or meet the change. It’s coming upon him in the near future. He has to come to Sanctuary, or we’ll lose him.

My Lord Wolf, how...

I don’t know but he must be found. You walk in his world as he sees life. You...

The sound of a car startled the wolf and he drew back and hurried away from her to disappear into the shadows. Slowly, she opened her eyes and came away from the connection between the wolf and her mind. She looked up to see a car pull up behind her SUV.

She relaxed when she recognized the man who got out of the official-looking vehicle.

Charlie, what are you doing here?

I couldn’t get a hold of you. You know how I worry.

I’m fine. Really.

I heard they found another girl murdered. I wanted to see for myself that you’re all right.

Yes, Charlie, I am.

Good, then I’ll see you later.

Thanks, Charlie.

She watched the older man leave and smiled. It meant a lot to her that he cared enough to check on her. It disturbed her to hear of another murder in town. What if it kept happening? And the warning... Who did she have to find or help? What the hell was going on?

Chapter 2

Sean left the office and headed home. He planned to run to tire himself out so he’d sleep. He needed sleep if he intended to be able to function on the investigation that just came across his desk. Three girls, three murders—all by the same hand.

He changed to sweats and his Nikes, then took off after stretching. His runs usually went eight to ten miles, depending upon his moods. Hopefully a good pace would settle his emotional turmoil.

He ran up several hills, then down quite a few others, the last one leading into a small park near where he lived. Once he made it home again, he cooled down, then went inside to get a glass of iced tea. After downing it, he poured another, then went upstairs to take a hot relaxing shower, or so he hoped. A short while later, Sean toweled off, then walked to his bed where he laid naked across it. A headache came on and replaced the sore muscles he’d gotten from running.

Damn it! Can’t I have a break? I need some rest, he yelled to the emptiness of the room. He rolled to his stomach and prayed the ache threatening to explode would ease some. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Sean tossed and turned in an effort to get comfortable. He finally dozed off, but not into the sound sleep he needed.

Everything about him ached—his head, his body, his mind—and no relief in sight. He couldn’t understand the reasons, though several things in his life proved to have changed. During one of the times he’d woken from his restlessness, he went over them and met with only confusion.

He always had extremely acute night vision but his eyes had become very sensitive to light, so much so, he wore the mirrored aviators a good part of the time. Bright lighting also bothered him. His eyesight had been the least of his concerns, as the sensitivity had been one of his life’s constants.

Unlike his eyes, his ears had been different. His hearing had been tested at normal levels but lately, he could sit in one spot and hear not only the conversations going on around him, but voices and sounds from a distance. He didn’t care if the couple walking on the opposite side of the street discussed divorce, but he heard about it anyway.

His sense of smell had intensified to the point he could smell things as their odor wafted by him. Insignificant aromas came to him, just as his sense of taste increased, along with his feelings and instincts. He had trouble accepting all this. What made it worse had been the absolute absence of anyone he could discuss this without ridicule. Sean needed to talk to someone who would not force him to see a shrink. He needed to be able to feel safe and secure again.

As he wracked his brain for answers, he dozed off again.

* * * *

Sean McMurray responded to an abandoned church on the east end of town. He entered the main sanctuary and stopped opposite the last row of pews. He looked around, but saw nothing wrong. Why have I been called here?

Detective, thank you for coming.

How can I help you? Sean asked as he turned to where he thought the voice had come from. His breath caught when he found no one in the church with him. Father?

Your help is needed, a disembodied voice said.

Sean spun around again and could find no one. The hair on the back of his neck stood on edge. He trained his sensitive eyes on the shadows, but discovered no one lurking.

Come out and face me, Sean commanded, but with no response.

He turned toward the altar and froze.

Why are you tormenting me like this?

We have been trying to make you see. We need your help. You need ours. We can help each other.

Why do I need your help? How...

You need us to get you through to your future. We know of your past and...

My past?

You’ve always been different, haven’t you? The acute night vision and now, the intensity in your other senses.

How do you know about...

We are the same bloodline. We endure the same...

Curse?

Some might call it that, while others embrace the gift. You did in your military service, I think.

I was always given surveillance ops, the darker the better.

Exactly. Your senses are heightened more now.

Why?

I will tell you later. I have to tell you something of importance.

What?

You will meet your soul mate. She’ll help you to Sanctuary, where all this will become clear.

Who?

You’ll know when you meet her.

Why can’t you give me her name?

You need to meet as destined by other things not in our control at this point. I can’t be responsible for changing your future.

But if we’re to meet...

I cannot advance your life’s timeline.

Damn it! Why did you bring this up?

To make you aware of it. You are going to face a lot between your life and the case you’re working.

You said you needed my help. How?

In due time, Sean.

Sean stared at the wolf in front of him, the same one he faced in all his nightmares. The same one who confused him with cryptic messages, then left before any explanation came forth. As he tried to get a better look at the huge silvery-gray wolf, it darted off as usual.

Wait! Come back!

Finally able to move, he ran after it but when he got outside the church, he found himself alone again and no sign of the wolf. He turned to go back inside and saw lightning bolts. Pain thundered in his mind as darkness set in.

Sean bolted up, a cold sweat drenching him. Another nightmare, but this one had a difference to it. This one felt more real than the others, he ran his fingers through his hair, then rubbed his temples.

He got up, went into the bathroom and wiped his face with a cold washcloth. He padded back into the bedroom then, without thought to throwing clothes on, he headed downstairs to where he kept the Jack Daniels, his favorite. He poured himself a glass, downed it, then went straight to the bottle.

Seeing no other option to getting some rest, he hoped a hangover might help. He needed sleep and at this point, he welcomed any possibility at all if it meant he rested—even if the pain afterward was worse.

* * * *

Rhiannon got up early. She loved watching daybreak as dawn broke over the mountains. She threw on a robe, grabbed a cup of coffee, and went to sit on the front steps of her cabin.

She relished this time of the morning as the sun bathed her in the warm glow of the new day. She closed her eyes to enjoy this beauty. She heard a sound and slowly opened her eyes to see the black wolf who hung around the area. Over the months since the previous autumn, they had become extremely close and comfortable with each other, a relationship few could claim.

Their eyes locked as he came closer to her. She reached out to him and felt the softness of his fur between her fingers.

My Lord Wolf.

Rhiannon.

Are you all right?

Me personally, yes, but all of us are in danger. We need to find the one who’ll keep us all safe before it’s too late.

As I keep asking you—why me?

You two are soul mates.

Soul mates? I’m not...

It’s your destiny.

I don’t want...

You have no choice. You need each other to survive.

I’m doing...

Not with what’s in the near future. You will find each other and...

I’m not mating, if that’s...

You will. We need the two of you if we expect to survive.

But...

It’s your fate and our beginning. We need you, Rhi, more than you know.

But if what you say is true, who is this supposed soul mate?

I can’t say, but you will find each other.

My Lord Wolf, I...

When you do, you will know it. When it happens, you must bring him to Sanctuary. We are the only ones who can help him and you.

It would help if you weren’t being so damned cryptic...

I’m sorry.

The sound of the phone ringing broke their link and the wolf ran off. He disappeared quickly and without a sound, something that caused Rhi to marvel. She felt so clumsy in comparison.

She stood up and went inside to the phone on her desk.

Hello?

I’m sorry to bother you so early, but I need you to guide a party today.

You know it’s my day off. I have plans. What about Haynes? He’s available.

I want you.

I can’t. I have appointments I can’t break.

Please. I swear I’ll make it up to you.

No. How about the new girl? What’s her name?

Natalie? I hadn’t thought about her. Okay, thanks, Lowell said, then hung up. She shook her head.

Lowell Atlee had been Rhi’s supervisor for two years. Ever since he came into their close-knit group, he’d been trying to break Rhiannon’s schedule. He could not understand why she had special considerations. He wanted to change it but the district head and his boss over him had backed her. Lowell lived with this predicament but tried every chance he could to assert his authority, or lack thereof.

She went to get another mug of coffee. Once she had, she went to her desk and checked her e-mails. While she waited for one to come up on her laptop’s screen, she sat back and tried to think about what she’d learned earlier.

Soul mate? Me? Not!

* * * *

Hello?

Sean, its Hunt.

Hey, what’s up?

You sound terrible. Another bad night?

Yeah.

This isn’t going to make it any better.

What?

Our three are the most recent of a long line of related deaths. We’ve got a long list of unsolved murders, all with the same MO’s.

From where?

Tacoma, Billings, Minot, Salt Lake, Houston, Sedona, Taos, and one or two others.

All the same? How many?

Almost four dozen.

Shit! And no one’s caught them?

No.

Cause of death?

Gunshot or the like. The wounds are bad enough to cause massive bleeding. All the victims have been found with numerous needle wounds on the arms, a few legs.

What had they been using?

"A new designer drug more potent than Ecstasy. One victim had a curious comment on the autopsy report."

What? Sean asked as he held the phone away from his ear and the pounding headache from the hangover.

The victim had been stabbed and left to bleed to death. Whoever dumped her decided to have a go at her. According to the coroner, the girl’s brain exploded roughly about the time of climax. Whatever it is, this drug causes massive aneurysms during the height of sex.

One hell of a way to go.

The thing is, the victim is either out of it or so high, they have no idea of either the sex or the pain in their heads.

Jesus, Hunt. What the hell have we got here?

I don’t know.

Do this. Get backgrounds on all the victims. I want to know everything and especially if any of them were loners, or the type who seem like it.

Okay, anything else?

Yeah, check into drug activity in the area. Find out about any unsolved cases, dealings, federal ops, or DEA ops. Oh, and find out if any ran active.

Can I get you the world?

It’d probably be easier.

True. I’ll get back to you.

Thanks.

Are you coming in?

Later.

Sean hung up and laid back. His head hurt from his drinking binge but at least he’d gotten some sleep and without the God-awful nightmares, though he still felt like crap. He knew he needed help but this would get him a ticket to the department psychiatrist and a good possibility of losing his job. He loved his job, the only thing keeping him going.

After he took a shower, Sean went into the kitchen and made himself a steak with eggs. For some reason, he had a ravenous appetite, yet another change in his life.

* * * *

Natalie Young had gotten Atlee’s call near seven in the morning. She grabbed her gear and headed into the office where she would meet a party of five men for a two-day hike into the nearby national forest. The unexpected scheduling pleased her since she could always use the extra cash.

At twenty-three, the dark-haired young woman knew her way around the area and, after a short time on the job, had been given the go ahead to take her own groups out without another guide. She liked her position and easily fit into the group. She could stay away as long as needed since she had no pets, no close family, and no close friends to worry about. She preferred to live her life alone, simple and basic.

Once she arrived, Natalie waited to meet her group.

Miss, I’m looking for Natalie Young, a male voice said. She turned to see a tall blond-haired man, very muscular with a rough complexion. His blue eyes betrayed nothing but a hard demeanor as if he’d been hurt both physically and mentally. At six foot five, he struck her as being one not to meet in a dark alley. She detected a Russian accent, though it was faint.

I’m Natalie Young. Can I help you?

Lowell Atlee gave me your name. We’d like you to guide us into the mountains.

You’re my...

Actually, the rest of my group is outside waiting to get started.

Oh, and your name is?

Adolph Gliickman with two i’s.

Okay, let me get a few things we need so we can get started.

Good, I’ll be outside with the others.

That’s fine.

She watched him as he went outside to join the others. She grabbed extra maps and information, plus a radio, her only tie to civilization for the next forty-eight hours.

Once she joined the group, introductions were made.

If you’ll follow my car, we’ll proceed to our start point, where you can leave your vehicle. We have periodic patrols so it will be all right. Are there any questions before I go over the basics?

A few minutes later, she sat in her car advising her base of the group’s departure, the others piled into a van and waited for her to lead them to the beginning of the trail. She pulled away and made sure they followed her. A few moments later, they grouped at the front of her car, then started the hike.

Before they did, Natalie checked for the cell phone she used as a backup if the radio didn’t work and vice versa. Rhiannon Drake, the senior guide, had taught her to do this for her safety, along with her group’s.

They hiked about forty feet into the outer tree line, when they had to stop. One of the men, an Asian, had twisted his ankle. She went to see if she could help him. She knelt down to look at it and froze.

Make one move and you die right here.

Please, I don’t...

Shut up, the man yelled before another one of the group took her radio. He threw it on the ground, then put a bullet through it. She jumped at the sound of the radio exploding from the silenced gunshot.

While Gliickman held her at gunpoint, the Asian, who had faked the injury, and a dark-haired man held her while a curly-haired man frisked her. He found her cell phone and a knife she used for survival. She tried to fight the men’s hold on her but they overpowered her considerably.

Take her to the van.

No, you can’t do this.

I can and I have. Now, shut up and move.

Please...

She struggled with them as she refused to go with these men quietly. Once they got to the side of the van, the two men shoved her against the side of it then, as one held her tight to the cold, unforgiving metal, the other taped her hands behind her back. They forced her inside, tied her feet and left her lying on the floor of the vehicle.

Remember this, Miss Young, I am now in control of your life.

Please, I beg you. Let me go...

You are too important to us to let you go. Besides which, I will not take the chance of you identifying me or my men.

You won’t get away with this.

But I will. I always do.

Gliickman nodded and the Asian pressed a piece of tape over her mouth. Natalie looked at the men, fear in her eyes. The Asian slid behind the wheel as the others piled into the van with her. Gliickman sat up front with the driver and never said another word.

Natalie looked around, then whimpered. Why hadn’t I been more careful? Why...

* * * *

The van rumbled along for a good distance. All Natalie could see was the blue sky passing by. A solid-sided van, the windows it did have had deep tint. She laid back and wept.

Once they arrived at their destination, the taller of the men shoved a black hood over her head. She felt him cinch it at her neck and shivered.

Next, she heard the door slide back, then felt her body roughly yanked from it before her waist made contact with a firm shoulder. A strong arm crossed over her legs as her head bounced behind him.

Natalie’s head swam between the hood and the way the man carried her. She knew they had covered a good distance of uphill and winding paths. Where the hell are they taking me?

Blood ran to her head as Natalie became lightheaded. How much longer?

Their pace slowed some before she heard a door open. The man who carried her stopped, then climbed several steps to a wooden floor Natalie figured to be a porch. She felt the difference in temperature from the warmth outside to a chill inside. She thought it strange for the air conditioning to be on full blast with such beautiful weather.

Footsteps across a hardwood floor caught her attention as she tried to get her bearings. Where have I been taken? The man turned to his left and, as he went through a doorway, her spine scraped the top of the doorjamb. She whimpered in pain but he ignored her.

More pain shot through her as he dropped her on a bed. The shock stunned her for a moment, though it was long enough for two others to join them. Silently, several pairs of hands untied her and removed her clothes, except for her lingerie. Her body was secured to the bed, spread eagle. Cold air made her shiver.

The hood will be removed and you will keep your eyes closed. Open them and you die.

The hood roughly came off before she felt the weight of two pads placed over her eyes, followed by another piece of tape. Natalie moaned from the cold and the pain as the tape pulled her skin. Footsteps left her alone, her body shivering uncontrollably. She tried to find some reason, but she couldn’t.

Natalie Young saw her life pass before her eyes and prayed. Why?

Moments later, a calloused hand took hold of her arm. It ran its way along the length of it, then went to her other one.

Perfect. Good veins, a strange voice said.

Natalie tried to curl up and away from whoever touched her.

Relax, my dear.

Do I have a choice?

Natalie jolted from a sting in her forearm, followed by a burning sensation as a syringe emptied into her vein. A euphoric sense overtook her as whatever he had injected into her went to work. She sank out of control, her body limp from the euphoria into which she had been put.

The drug burned its way through her, every vein and artery on fire. Her senses jolted from each sensation as she rode the high the drug created. Lightning flashed in her mind, her body craving more.

Very good, my dear.

The man’s voice echoed in her brain and caused her head to hurt. Her breathing became erratic as convulsions overwhelmed her. She clenched her hands, tight enough to draw blood where her nails dug into her palms.

Pain coursed though her as someone ripped the tape from her mouth. As she writhed in pain, she cried out. The high gone, all she had left to experience was denial.

Please...

Chapter 3

McMurray.

Sean, it’s me.

Hey, what have you got?

A lot.

Tell me.

Hunter Lockwood, Sean’s partner for years, gave Sean everything he learned from the other jurisdictions.

We’re looking at a profile which doesn’t usually alter. Only one of the victims was older than the others, but from what I can tell, she looked younger than her age.

How old?

She would have turned thirty the week after they found her body.

What else?

In answer to the question about loners—you caught another similarity the others hadn’t.

What?

Every one of them either kept to themselves, or had very minimal contact with others. I found estrangements, no family connections or friends at all, aside from one person. Whoever took these girls made sure they wouldn’t be missed.

Did you find any similarities as to when they went missing, when someone reported their disappearance, and when they turned up?

Three weeks to a month. In three-quarters of the cases, a family member or friend did report them missing, the others had no early documentation. The average time frame came from those two dates—the date of discovery and the needle tracks.

How did they run?

Single injections to start, multiple near the end. It looks to me like these girls became unwilling lab rats.

Son of a bitch, Sean cursed. What about the drug angle?

From what I’ve been able to get from our close-mouthed brothers, FBI and DEA had ops going on in the immediate areas.

Drug labs?

In each one.

This would explain the lab rat scenario.

I’ll check with the Feds and find out what they might have going on around here.

Tread lightly. We’ve got too much federal land around us to antagonize them. We have to work with them to clear the three we have open.

You got it. What about you?

I’m going to talk to someone who might be able to tell me if there’s anything up in the mountains.

Who?

Rhiannon Drake. She’s a...

...A very well-respected guide around here. I’ve heard of her. Do you know her?

By reputation only, but I’ve heard of her expertise. Not only that, she’s in her twenties, a loner...

She fits the profile to a tee.

I think she deserves to be forewarned.

Good idea. At least we can try to help one...

One of many. I wish we could do more.

I’ll get back to you as soon as I find out anything.

Good.

Hey, Sean, how are you holding up? Hunt knew his partner hadn’t been one hundred percent of late and it worried him.

I got drunk last night.

Did it work?

Yes and no. I got some sleep but I don’t feel rested at all.

Have you gone to see a doctor?

No. In fact, you’re the only one who knows. I appreciate you keeping my privacy and the covering you’ve done for me.

Hey, friend, what else can I do? I worry about you, though. I mean... What if it’s serious?

I’ll deal with it when the time comes.

Let me know if I can help.

Thanks.

Sean shut off his cell phone and thought about Hunter Lockwood. They’d known each other since childhood, though each went off in a different direction with their lives. While Sean had served his country, Hunt went to college and majored in criminal justice. He surprised everyone when he enlisted in the Navy and got his law degree.

Hunt distinguished himself as a Judge Advocate based in San Diego. Although he could argue any case diplomatically in a court of law, his heart lay in investigation and law enforcement. He returned to Colorado, joined the force in Aspen, and hooked up with his old friend. They had a partnership most dreamed of but Sean treasured their friendship. To him, Hunter had always been closer than any family could ever be. Thank God for this one good thing in my life.

Sean remembered the football games and the paint ball battles. At six foot five each, they worked together well and always won. They protected each other then and they still did now. It relieved Sean to know he could rely on Hunt without question.

He stood up and wavered a bit as remnants of his hangover remained with him. He showered and felt a little better, though the headache held on. He tried to ignore it as he dressed in black jeans and a purple chambray shirt. Once he pulled on his Justin boots, he grabbed his shoulder holster and slipped it on, then stowed his wallet, cell phone, handcuffs and his badge. Putting on his jacket, he left to go see the one person who might be able to help them.

* * * *

Sean parked his truck in front of the pavilion where the guides met their tours. It housed offices, a small theater, area display and a gift shop. Behind it, he saw huge stables and grazing areas for the many mounts they used for the horse trails. He saw some beautiful animals, pleased over the care they received. He hated when the animals received the basest of attention instead of loving and conscientious care.

Can I help you, sir?

Yes, I’m here to meet with Rhiannon Drake.

Yes, sir. She’s on her way in. She’ll be here in a few minutes.

Thank you, Sean said, smiling.

Sean turned to gaze at the horses. Having always loved horses, he marveled at their majestic grace while being powerful at the same time. He’d been able to feel close to them in an unusual way but it made no difference to him. He preferred it to dealing with humans.

As he watched them graze, one of the stallions approached him. Sean held out his hand to him but the horse abruptly shied away. He backed off, then galloped away. Strange...

Hoofbeats on the path behind him caused him to forget the horse’s actions as he turned to see a black stallion approaching. Sean’s eyes feasted on the amazing beauty astride the magnificent steed. His gaze followed her as she dismounted and gave the reins over to a hand. The two of them had been meant for each other.

Can I help you? she asked with curiosity.

I’m meeting with Rhiannon Drake.

You must be Sean McMurray?

Guilty.

Pleasure, she said as she held her hand out to him.

Sean grasped it and inwardly jolted as if an electric charge raced into him from her. He could tell she felt the same way but couldn’t be sure how he knew.

Uh...beautiful horse. His n-n-name? Sean stammered out.

Andromeda.

Andromeda—it fits him. A dark night...

He was born on a night with no moon or stars. For some reason, his name popped into my mind and it sang, so it stuck.

Interesting.

Sean reached to stroke Andromeda’s neck. The horse shied a little then, as if he realized everything would be all right, he accepted Sean’s attentions.

That’s odd. Andromeda’s never shied like he just did.

It’s normal, at least today. I seem to have this effect on animals.

No, they know you can be a predator, a hunter, but one who ultimately fights for them.

I don’t know if I’d go that far.

I’m usually a good judge of character. Maybe you just don’t realize your true calling.

While they talked, Andromeda came back to him and enjoyed a neck rub while Rhiannon hosed him down. They’d gone through streams and over some dry ground, and she wanted to make sure it didn’t cake on him. She put her hand to his neck and felt the stallion’s pulse. She could tell his feelings this way and used it to gauge his reactions.

Rhi felt something odd, though comforting in Andromeda. She’d never sensed anything like it before, but it felt good.

When you find him, you will know it.

The thought came out of nowhere and startled her. She chased it away to concentrate on Andromeda. Once she finished grooming him, she fed him, then led him back to his stall at the end of the stable and away from the other horses.

Why do you stable him here by himself like this?

He’s mine. The others are used by the tourists. Down here, he’s left in peace.

I see.

Where I live, I can’t stable him because of the predators, so he lives here.

They left Andromeda and walked back to the office. Each time they tried to get a conversation going, someone interrupted them. Sean became frustrated.

Is there somewhere...

Not here. I live between both wilderness areas if you’d like to come out to the middle of nowhere.

Sounds like an offer I can’t refuse.

Here’s the address and directions, she said, writing the information down on the back of her card. Come out around eight and I’ll have dinner on.

Hey, I don’t want to be a bother.

No bother, I have some things to do and then we can talk without distractions.

Eight, then.

See ya.

Rhi watched him leave, her curiosity piqued. Could this be the one I’ve been warned about? Andromeda had picked up on something, but what? She’d be on her guard when he joined her for dinner. She had too damned much to protect.

* * * *

Meeting Andromeda gave Sean the urge to ride. After he’d made the plans with and left Rhiannon Drake, he put himself off-radio and went home. He parked his truck and headed straight to the barn.

Mister McMurray, how are you?

Good, Chris. When are you going to call me Sean?

I’m sorry, Sean, force of habit.

Anything I should know about?

No, they’re all healthy and happy. Empress will foal soon and it looks to be in good position.

Excellent. I may not be here though.

A case?

Yeah, and we have to clear it soon.

I see. Shall I saddle Captain?

You read my mind.

Chris went to the tack room and brought out Sean’s saddle and tack, then went to Captain’s stall. While he saddled the steed, Sean waited and sighed.

Sean intended to run his own ranch. He’d bought the spread years before, added to it, and profited from it. The military and the department had taken him away from it and caused him to be unable to give the operations his full attention. He smiled with relief as he watched Chris and thanked whoever had gotten them together, since Chris Lee had been his blessing. He ran the ranch while Sean served his country or now, as he investigated big cases, and during tourist season.

A few moments later, Sean checked the cinch from habit, mounted up and rode the sorrel Spanish mustang into one of the pastures. They both needed this.

Captain had been born on the ranch in the early days of Sean’s ownership. With black mane and legs, the horse always stood with a regal but relaxed air. His personality helped Sean when he needed it.

He thought about the case at hand and the unknowns associated with it. Those thoughts led to the beauty he’d met earlier. A real spitfire, she had hair like Rita Hayworth, bright expressive eyes, and an exceptional body. Not tall, he