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Authors: Sandra Brown

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Chill Factor

BOOK: Chill Factor
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SANDRA BROWN
CHILL FACTOR

CHAPTER 1

THE GRAVE WAS SUBSTANDARD. The storm was forecast to be a
record
breaker. Little more than a shallow bowl gouged out of unyielding
earth, the grave had been dug for Millicent Gunn—age
eighteen, short
brown hair, delicate build, five feet four inches tall, reported
missing a week ago. The grave was long enough to accommodate her
height. Its depth, or lack thereof, could be remedied in the spring,
when the ground began to thaw. If scavengers didn't dispose of the body
before then.

Ben Tierney shifted his gaze from the new grave to the others
nearby. Four of them. Forest debris and vegetative decay provided
natural camouflage, yet each lent subtle variations to the rugged
topography if one knew what to look for. A dead tree had fallen across
one, concealing it entirely except to someone with a discerning eye.

Like Tierney.

He took one last look into the empty, shallow grave, then
picked up
the shovel at his feet and backed away. As he did, he noticed the dark
imprints left by his boots in the white carpet of sleet. They didn't
concern him overmuch. If the meteorologists were calling it right, the
footprints would soon be covered by several inches of frozen
precipitation. When the ground thawed, the prints would be absorbed
into the mud.

In any
case, he didn't stop to worry
about them. He had
to get off the mountain. Now.

He'd left his car on the road a couple hundred yards from the
summit
and the makeshift graveyard. Although he was now moving downhill, there
was no path to follow through the dense woods. Thick ground cover gave
him limited traction, but the terrain was uneven and hazardous, made
even more so by the blowing precipitation that hampered his vision.
Though he was in a hurry, he was forced to pick his way carefully to
avoid a misstep.

Weathermen had been predicting this storm for days. A
confluence of
several systems had the potential of creating one of the worst winter
storms in recent memory. People in its projected path were being
advised to take precautions, stock provisions, and rethink travel
plans. Only a fool would have ventured onto the mountain today. Or
someone with pressing business to take care of.

Like Tierney.

The cold drizzle that had been falling since early afternoon
had
turned into freezing rain mixed with sleet. Pellets of it stung his
face like pinpricks as he thrashed through the forest. He hunched his
shoulders, bringing his collar up to his ears, which were already numb
from cold.

The wind velocity had increased noticeably. Trees were taking
a
beating, their naked branches clacking together like rhythm sticks in
the fierce wind. It stripped needles off the evergreens and whipped
them about. One struck his cheek like a blow dart.

Twenty-five miles an hour, out of the northwest
,
he thought
with that part of his brain that automatically registered the current
status of his surroundings. He knew these things—wind
velocity, time,
temperature, direction—instinctually, as though he had a
built-in
weather vane, clock, thermometer, and GPS constantly feeding pertinent
information to his subconscious.

It was an innate talent that he had developed into a skill,
which had
been finely tuned by spending much of his adult life outdoors. He
didn't have to think consciously about this ever-changing environmental
data but frequently relied on his ability to grasp it immediately when
it was needed.

He was relying on it now, because it wouldn't do to be caught
on the
summit of Cleary Peak—the second highest in North Carolina,
after Mount
Mitchell—carrying a shovel and running away from four old
graves and
one freshly dug.

The local police weren't exactly reputed for their dogged
investigations and crime-solving success. In fact, the department was a
local joke. The chief was a has-been, big-city detective who'd been
ousted from the department on which he'd served.

Chief Dutch Burton now led a band of inept small-town
officers—yokels outfitted in spiffy uniforms with shiny
badges—who had
been hard-pressed to catch the culprit spray-painting obscenities on
the trash receptacles behind the Texaco station.

Now they were focused on the five unsolved missing persons
cases.
Despite their insufficiencies, Cleary's finest had deduced that having
five women vanish from one small community within two and a half years
was, in all probability, more than a coincidence.

In a metropolis, that statistic would have been trumped by
others
even scarier. But here, in this mountainous, sparsely populated area,
the disappearances of five women were staggering.

Further, it was a generally held opinion that the missing
women had
met with foul play, so finding human remains, not the women themselves,
was the task facing the authorities. Suspicion would fall on a man
carrying a shovel through the woods.

Like Tierney.

Up till now, he had flown under the radar of Police Chief
Burton's
curiosity. It was crucial to keep it that way.

In pace with his footsteps, he clicked off the vital
statistics of
the women buried in the graves on the summit. Carolyn Maddox, a
twenty-six-year-old who had a deep bosom, beautiful black hair, and
large brown eyes. Reported missing last October. A single mom and sole
supporter of a diabetic child, she had cleaned rooms at one of the
guest lodges in town. Her life had been a cheerless, nonstop cycle of
toil and exhaustion.

Carolyn Maddox was getting plenty of peace and rest now. As
was
Laureen Elliott. Single, blond, and overweight, she had worked as a
nurse at a medical clinic.

Betsy Calhoun, a widowed homemaker, had been older than the
others.

Torrie Lambert, the youngest of them, had also been the first,
the
prettiest, and the only one not a resident of Cleary.

Tierney picked up his speed, trying to outrun his haunting
thoughts
as well as the weather. Ice was beginning to coat tree limbs like
sleeves. Boulders were becoming glazed with it. The steep, curving road
down to Cleary would soon become unnavigable, and it was imperative
that he get off this goddamn mountain.

Fortunately, his built-in compass didn't fail him, and he
emerged
from the woods no more than twenty feet from where he'd entered it. He
wasn't surprised to see that his car was already coated with a thin
layer of ice and sleet.

As he approached it, he was breathing hard, emitting bursts of
vapor
into the cold air. His descent from the summit had been arduous. Or
perhaps his labored breathing and rapid heart rate were caused by
anxiety. Or frustration. Or regret.

He placed the shovel in the trunk of his car. Peeling off the
latex
gloves he'd been wearing, he tossed them into the trunk as well, then
shut the lid. He got into the car and quickly closed the door,
welcoming shelter from the biting wind
.

Shivering, he blew on his hands and vigorously rubbed them
together
in the hope of restoring circulation to his fingertips. The latex
gloves had been necessary, but they hadn't provided any protection
against the cold. He took a pair of cashmere-lined leather gloves from
a coat pocket and pulled them on
.

He turned the ignition key.

Nothing happened.

He pumped the accelerator and tried again. The motor didn't
even
growl. After several more unsuccessful tries, he leaned back against
the seat and stared at the gauges on the dashboard as though expecting
them to communicate what he was doing wrong.

He cranked the key one more time
,
but the engine
remained as dead and silent as the women crudely buried nearby.

"Shit!" He thumped both gloved fists against the steering
wheel and
stared straight ahead, although there was nothing to look at. A sheet
of ice had completely obscured the windshield. "Tierney," he muttered,
"you're screwed."

CHAPTER 2

THE WIND HAS PICKED UP, AND THERE'S ICY STUFF FALLING out
there,"
Dutch Burton remarked as he let the drape fall back into place over the
window. "We'd better start down soon."

"I need to empty these few shelves, then I'll be done." Lilly
took
several hardcover editions from the built-in bookcase and placed them
in a packing box.

"You always enjoyed reading when we came up here."

"That's when I had time to catch up on the latest
best-sellers.
Nothing to distract me here."

"Except me, I guess," he said. "I remember pestering you until
you
put your book aside and paid attention to me."

She glanced up at Dutch from where she sat on the floor and
smiled.
But she didn't pursue his fond recollection of how they'd spent their
leisure time in the mountain retreat. Initially they had come here on
weekends and holidays to escape their hectic schedules in Atlanta.

Later they'd come here simply to escape.

She was packing what remained of her personal belongings to
take
with her when she left today. She wouldn't be coming back. Neither
would Dutch. This would be the last page written—an epilogue,
actually—of their life together. She had hoped to make their
final
farewell as unsentimental as possible. He seemed determined to stroll
down memory lane.

Whether his recollections of times past were designed to make
him
feel better or to make her feel worse, she didn't want to engage in
them. Their good times together had been so eclipsed by their bad ones
that any memory reopened wounds.

She steered the topic back to pragmatic matters. "I made
copies of
all the closing documents. They're in that envelope, along with a check
for your half of the sale."

He looked down at the manila envelope but left it lying on the
oak
coffee table where she had placed it. "It's not right. My getting half
."

"Dutch, we've been through this." She folded down the four
sections
of the box top to seal it, wishing she could close the argument as
easily.

"You paid for this cabin," he said.

"We purchased it together."

"But your salary made that possible. We couldn't have afforded
it on
mine."

She pushed the box along the floor to the door, then stood up
and
faced him. "We were married when we bought it, married when we shared
it."

"Married when we made love in it
.
"

"Dutch—"

"Married when you served me my morning coffee wearing nothing
but a
smile and that afghan," he said, motioning in the general direction of
the knitted throw on the back of the armchair.

"Please don't do this."

"That's my line, Lilly." He took a step closer to her. "Don't
do this
."

"It's already done. It's been done for six months."

"You could undo it."

"You could accept it."

"I'll
never
accept it."

"That's your choice." She paused, took a breath, brought the
volume
down. "That's always your choice, Dutch. You refuse to accept change.
And because you can't, you never get over anything."

"I don't want to get over you," he argued.

"You'll have to."

She turned away from him, pulled an empty box nearer the
bookcase,
and began filling it with books, although taking less care with them
than before. She was now in a hurry to leave, before she was forced to
say more hurtful things in order to convince him that their marriage
was, finally and forever, over.

Several minutes of tense silence were broken only by the
soughing of
the wind through the trees surrounding the cabin. Branches knocked
against the eaves with increasing frequency and force.

She wished he would leave ahead of her, preferred he not be
there
when she left the cabin. Knowing that it would be for the last time, he
might have an emotional meltdown. She'd been through such scenes before
and didn't want to experience another. Their leave-taking didn't have
to be bitter and ugly, but Dutch was making it so by resurrecting old
quarrels.

Although clearly it wasn't his intention, his rehashing of
these
arguments only underscored how right she'd been to end the marriage.

"I think this Louis L'Amour is yours." She held up a book. "Do
you
want it, or shall I leave it for the new owners?"

"They're getting everything else," he said morosely. "Just as
well
throw in a paperback book."

"It was easier to sell the furnishings along with the cabin,"
she
said. "The furnishings were bought specifically for this place and
wouldn't look right in any other house. Besides, neither of us has
extra space, so what would I have done with it? Move it all out only to
sell it to someone else? And where would I have stored it in the
meantime ? It made more sense to include everything in the sell price."

BOOK: Chill Factor
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