Chapter 1 Winter’s Malice

CHAPTER 1

Liam Matthews felt his jaw tightening as he stood along the bank’s edge watching the team of divers as they struggled to pull Hector Ramirez into the boat. The small craft tipped to the left and then abruptly righted itself, sending a fresh ripple of waves rolling across the water as Hector’s bloated and mangled body was finally hoisted onboard. As the boat turned and headed for shore, the last rays of light slithered across the front of its bow and disappeared into a thicket of trees, signifying a bitter end to what had been a weeklong search for Weeping Rock’s favorite son.

A fierce wind began to beat steadily down, transforming the ripples of water into rough whitecaps, which in turn caused the occupants of the boat—with the exception of Hector—to grasp onto its sides as it violently rocked back and forth.

Flipping up the collar of his coat, Liam scowled at the Channel 2 News helicopter as it passed overhead. Once word had gotten out that Hector’s body had been located, it hadn’t taken long for the media to converge upon their tiny town. Staring at the intrusive beast as it hovered above the water, Liam found himself hoping that the obtained footage would end up being too dark for them to use. Although he had nothing personal against reporting the fact that Hector had been recovered, he saw no need for an aerial view of the man’s corpse to accompany it. Dropping to one knee, he grabbed hold of the front of the boat as it drew near and, after fastening his fingers around the edges of its aluminum frame, gave a hard tug, successfully beaching it upon the rain-swollen bank.

Gordon Stiles, who had been sitting by the bow, stood up first, giving Liam a full—and unexpected—view of Hector. Turning his head, Liam pressed the back of his wrist to his nose and lips as he stumbled to his feet.

“You all right, Sheriff?” asked Gordon.

Certain that more than words would come spilling out of his mouth if he opened it, Liam offered his deputy a stiff nod instead.

“Poor bastard,” said Gordon, climbing out onto the bank. “Somebody sure fucked him up.”

A flurry of movement on his right caused Liam to shift his attention to the top of the embankment—and sigh. The small group of curious onlookers initially crowded behind the yellow police tape had evolved into a frenzied horde of cell phone-clutching spectators who were fighting to get a front-row picture by using any means necessary, including, but not limited to, pushing, shoving, and throwing well-aimed elbows. Swallowing his irritation, along with everything else that had gathered in the back of his throat, Liam stepped to his left in order to block Hector from their line of sight, then taking his hand away from his lips, reluctantly coaxed his gaze back into the boat.

Stiles’ words, although crude, were accurate, for even with the amount of decomp that was present, there was no denying the beating Hector had taken. Beneath his matted tangle of dark hair were bits and pieces of rotting flesh; brownish-green in color and putrid, they clung to a deep laceration that ran the length of his scalp. The lower part of Hector’s jaw was crooked and slack, revealing a large gap where several of his teeth used to sit, and—what Liam could only guess was his nose, lay flattened against his face, which in retrospect, really didn’t resemble a face at all. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the one-inch symmetrical hole situated just below Hector’s left brow that up until seven days ago had housed an inexpensive glass eye, he would have been unrecognizable.

“Looks like the son-of-a-bitch’s luck finally ran out.”

Knowing the gravelly voice coming from behind belonged to that of Bill Miller, Liam didn’t bother turning around.

“Hey, Bill,” called Gordon, giving him a wave. “How’s it going?”

“How’s it goin’?” Miller repeated. “I’m freezin’ my goddamn balls off! That’s how it’s goin’!”

Gordon laughed and shook his head. “Aren’t we all?” he replied, using his foot to steady the boat for the divers.

“Why the hell couldn’t you have waited until the spring to have us search for him?”

“Because,” said Gordon, nodding at the lake, “somewhere down there’s a prized largemouth with my name on it, and I couldn’t have Hector’s smelly ass ruining my chances.”

Miller let out a raspy snort. “I hear ya!”

As Liam bent down to retrieve the folded sheet beside him, he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck beginning to bristle over his deputy’s easy-going banter with Miller, and—finding the exchange between them to be as disrespectful as it was disturbing—gave him a look that told him so as he tossed him the covering.

Still grinning, Gordon handed the sheet to one of the men in the boat and promptly returned his attention to Miller. “Besides,” he said, gesturing at the chopper, “it’s been so long since you’ve gotten any, I figured that putting your ugly mug on the evening news might help.”

“Shit …” replied Miller, dragging the word out as he laughed.

“Let’s go, Stiles,” the diver behind him said in a weary voice.

Chuckling to himself, Gordon grabbed hold of the corner of the sheet. “On three.” After giving the count, he helped the divers carry Hector up the steep embankment.

The helicopter followed suit and moved in for a closer shot, causing the crowd of spectators to momentarily scatter.

“You know, I’ve been captain of Search and Rescue for almost twenty years,” said Miller, shouting to be heard over the high-pitched whine of its rotors, “and I ain’t never seen such a commotion over a dead man in my life. The press is gonna have a goddamn field day with him.”

Shielding his eyes from the grass and debris being flung his way, Liam did his best to ignore Miller’s comments as Hector’s remains were placed inside a body bag and loaded onto a stretcher. Deep down, however, he knew Miller was right; with tons of questions and very few answers, the media was going to be feeding off of this for weeks, piece by broken piece, and story by unsubstantiated story. It was a forgone conclusion that everything learned over the coming days, whether true or not, was going to be sensationalized to the point that the only thing Hector Ramirez would be remembered for was the way he’d died.

A rough slap between the shoulder blades interrupted Liam’s thoughts.

“You got it from here, Matthews?”

Liam forced himself to turn around. “I think I can manage.”

Miller leaned over and spat, sending an arc of brown saliva hurtling towards the ground. “You know, I always liked workin’ with your old man.”

An unintentional smile found its way onto Liam’s lips. “Is that right?”

“Yeah.” Wiping the dribble from his chin, Miller narrowed his eyes. “He knew what the hell he was doin’.”

Drops of rain, cold and stinging, began to fall upon Liam’s face, yet did nothing to diminish the searing heat that had encircled his cheeks.

“Harlan always had a sixth sense about these kinds of things,” Miller continued, the buttons at the bottom of his coat straining against their slots as he widened his stance. “It’s a damn shame what happened to him.”

Jamming his hands in his pockets, Liam watched the helicopter’s sleek red-and-white tail disappear into the shadows as it swung around and began heading north.

“Yep …” Miller paused to let go of a heavy sigh. “A damn shame.”

Finding himself floundering in the unyielding silence left behind in the chopper’s wake, Liam was relieved to hear his radio fill with static.

“Sheriff, do you copy?”

“Go ahead, Enid.”

“I’ve got people from news channels 2, 7, and 11 on the phone wanting to know when you’re going to give a statement.”

Liam glanced at the covey of news vans parked along the edge of the embankment and felt his relief leaving him. “Give me fifteen minutes.”

“Copy that.”

Lifting his ball cap, Miller eagerly began smoothing his reddish-blond comb-over. “You want me to handle it for you, Matthews? Because I know how to deal with these bloodsuckers. Trust me when I say that I’d be doing you a favor.”

Seriously doubting that he had his best interests at heart, Liam shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ve got it,” he replied, wishing that Miller would just go back inside his little command tent at the top of the hill.

Miller stopped primping and jerked his thumb towards the embankment. “This isn’t your average run-of-the-mill interview, you know. It’s gonna get picked up by every affiliate in the country, and if you don’t know how to handle yourself, you’ll come across sounding like a jackass.”

“Are you speaking from experience, Bill?” asked Liam, clipping his radio back onto his belt.

The brazen smile Miller had been sporting faded.

A small sense of satisfaction crept onto Liam’s face making him purse his lips in an effort to hide it. It was a gesture that did not go unnoticed by Miller, whose dismantled grin quickly morphed into a straight line that stretched taut across his pudgy cheeks.

“Sheriff!”

Glancing over his shoulder, Liam saw his other deputy coming towards him, yet noting the urgency in his steps, turned and met him halfway. “What’s wrong?”

“Yeah,” chimed Miller, bumping against Liam’s elbow as he caught up to him, “what’s your hurry there, son?” Running his tongue along the inside of his cheek, Miller leaned forward and spat again.

A pool of rainwater spilled from the brim of Aaron Red Elk’s hat as he looked at the wad of tobacco lying near the tip of his boot. Slowly lifting his head, he locked eyes with Miller.

“What’s wrong?” repeated Liam, having no desire to run interference between them this time.

Uncurling the fist that he’d made with his right hand, Aaron shifted his gaze to Liam. “The victim’s—”

An earsplitting shriek ripped through the trees, piercing the darkness around them.

“—wife is here,” he finished.

Liam visibly shivered as another shriek, more volatile than the one before, tore through him. “I need you to take her down to the station—now,” he said, feeling his apprehension increasing as the crowd began to part down the middle. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Aaron turned and started up the muddy slope, his long and deliberate stride enabling him to reach the top of it in a matter of seconds—just in time to grab hold of Hector’s wife, who was in the process of ducking under the police tape.

“Let me go!” she screamed. “I want to see him! Hector! Hector!” The woman’s demands were drowned out by her wails as Aaron awkwardly tried to console her amidst a sea of cameras.

“Well, good luck solvin’ this one,” said Miller with a condescending laugh as he slapped Liam on the back once more. “You’re sure as hell gonna need it.”

Liam used the sleeve of his coat to wipe the rain off his face before extending a rigid hand. “Thanks for all your help, Bill,” he said, hoping that the curtness in his voice would somehow be mistaken for sincerity. “And thank your men for me too. I know the weather’s been rough on them these last few days.”

“Don’t think nothin’ of it,” Miller replied, wrapping a meaty paw around Liam’s fingers. “Be sure and let me know if you need anything else now.”

“I’ll do that,” he said, persuading his tongue to let go of the words.

Pulling a small tin from his pocket, Miller stuffed a fresh pinch of tobacco inside his left cheek and shouldered past him. “Come on, boys!” he barked. “Let’s pack it up!”

Liam’s breath came out in a heated rush, instantaneously transforming the air in front of him into a cloud of white, as he watched Miller trudge up the embankment.

“Hey, Sheriff!”

Liam turned and looked in the direction the voice had come from, but between the encroaching darkness and the rain that was rapidly turning into an icy mix, he couldn’t see much of anything.

“Over here!”

Grabbing his flashlight from his coat, Liam moved it back and forth in a sweeping motion until the beam fell upon a diver standing in waist-deep water. “Did you find something?” he called, fighting to keep his teeth from chattering as he made his way along the bank.

The diver, whom Liam had overheard the other men in the rescue unit refer to as Rusty, nodded. “There’s a car down there, about twenty yards from where we found the victim.” He paused to remove his mask, leaving a deep crease behind in his freckled cheeks. “It looks like it’s been down there a while,” he said, squinting against the light.

Disappointment churned inside Liam. “That’s not unusual,” he replied, adjusting his grip on his flashlight as he straightened to go, “this entire area used to be a junkyard before it became a lake. There are lots of abandoned—”

“But, Sheriff”—Rusty shook his head emphatically, sending droplets of water flying from a close-cropped set of red locks—“this one’s not abandoned.”

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