|Home > Keri Arthur > Beneath a Darkening Moon|
Savannah Grant climbed out of the truck and breathed deeply of the crisp air. Though it had snowed last night, the sky this morning was rich and blue, and the sun contained a surprising amount of heat.
The aspen trees surrounding the small clearing glowed a rich, vibrant gold that contrasted sharply against the blue of the sky and the white of the snow-covered peaks looming high above. Leaves littered the ground beneath her feet, but the snow that had covered them earlier was now little more than droplets of water through which the sunlight gleamed, making them glow like mini rainbows.
It was a tranquil setting that hid a darker heart.
She slammed the door shut and turned around as a second truck came to a halt in the clearing. Three men climbed out—two deputy rangers and a brown-haired teenager who looked positively green around the gills.
The teenager's gaze skirted the clearing, resting momentarily on the barely visible trail that disappeared through the aspens. Then he gulped and looked at Savannah. His blue eyes were wide and frightened—a sure sign that for once in his short life, Matt wasn't crying wolf. “I don't have to go back up there, do I?"
"No.” She tried to give the kid a reassuring smile, but it probably looked as fake as it felt. But then, it wasn't every day two human tourists were murdered within a week of each other within the confines of the Ripple Creek Werewolf Reservation.
And it certainly wasn't every day those murders were an exact replica of a past event—an event that still haunted her worst nights.
A shiver ran down her spine. Not from the cold, though here in the mountains it was certainly chilly despite the sun's heat. Clairvoyance wasn't something she'd ever laid claim to, but she'd had premonitions in the past that had certainly come true, and that was what she was feeling now. The murders would not stop with the current two—and the past she'd tried so hard to forget was about to slap her across the face.
She rubbed her arms and stepped away from the truck. “Ike, you want to stay here with Matt?"
"Ike,” she warned, in no mood to take any of the young deputy's crap today. “You do as I say, or you head back down the mountain."
"How the hell am I going to learn anything—"
"You could always sit at a desk and do paperwork,” she cut in. “Your choice."
Sullen didn't even begin to describe his expression as he nodded. Guilt slithered through her, but she shoved it away and glanced across at Ronan. “Ready?"
The russet-haired deputy nodded and hitched the small backpack onto his shoulder. She spun, and walked across the clearing. Sunlight and golden, glowing leaves dappled the slight path, but it quickly gave way to deeper shadows as they moved into the pines.
"You were a bit hard on the kid, weren't you?” Ronan said, his deep voice seeming to resonate through the silence. “I know he can be annoying, but he is truly eager to learn."
She blew out a breath. “I know. It's just—"
"You're dreaming again, aren't you?"
She looked over her shoulder. Ronan's gray eyes gleamed almost silver in the shadows, and they were full of concern. But then, they'd known each other a very long time. Ronan was not only one of her few close friends, but he'd been her very first lover. Even though it went against her policy of not mixing business and pleasure, they still shared a moon dance when one of them was feeling the bite of loneliness.
"What makes you think that?"
His smile echoed through his eyes. “The only time you're so short-tempered is when you're feeling the heat of the moon or have been dreaming. Considering we shared a few rather energetic nights last weekend, I figured it was the latter."
She grinned. “Have you made the bed yet?"
"Yeah. Otherwise Conor would be asking who I was with."
She nodded. The cabin they used for their retreats had been in Ronan's family for years, but these days it was only occupied in spring, when the fishing was good. It was the perfect sanctuary the rest of the year, except that Conor, Ronan's younger brother, was one of those wolves who had a nose for intrigue and always seemed to be three steps behind them. While he didn't appear to know about their sometime affair, neither of them wanted him to find out, if only because the kid was a blabber-mouth. Besides, their illicit meetings not only went against her own rules but council rules, as well.
The council, she thought grimly, definitely needed to pull their heads out of their asses and look around. Not so much because of the no fraternizing with co-workers rule, but for all the other rules they were trying to institute. Like a ten o'clock curfew on anyone under eighteen. This was the twenty-first century, for God's sake, not the Middle Ages. It was dumb-ass rules like that that had driven her out of both home and Ripple Creek when she was barely seventeen.
Of course, her views on the matter, though often aired, weren't taken into consideration, despite the fact her dad was the head of the council. He also happened to be the main man behind all the saving-yourself-for-marriage flag waving currently going on, despite the hassle and heartache such beliefs had caused Neva, Savannah's twin, just over a year ago.
"What are the dreams about this time?” Ronan asked.
She brushed aside a tree branch, waiting until he'd safely passed before letting it go. “Same old, same old. Death, destruction and mayhem."
Only this time, it wasn't in the past, but the present. And that scared her, because the man behind those murders so long ago was supposedly dead.
So how could they be happening again, here in Ripple Creek, the exact same way? The press had never released all the details, so it couldn't be a copycat. Yet the murder—or at least, the first murder—was exactly the same. Right down to the mutilation of the ge**tals.
A shiver ran down her spine. Fear, she acknowledged. Fear of what was coming. Who was coming.
She frowned at the thought, but at that moment, death touched the air. She stopped, sniffing the faint breeze and tasting the scents entwined within it.
"A new death,” Ronan said, stopping close enough that she could feel his body heat. “The blood is still fresh."
She nodded. “The hint of sage and musk suggests the victim is male."
"Same as the first one."
She glanced over her shoulder and met his gaze. The grim certainty reflected in his eyes echoed through her. They had themselves a serial killer, and with autumn giving way to winter and drawing in the cross-country skiing crowd, soon there would be far too many potential victims in Ripple Creek.
"Let's get up there before the scavengers do."
She followed the ever-thickening scent of death through the trees. The path became steeper, rockier, as the tree line began to recede. The clumps of snow become drifts that ran on and on, and the chill in the air was more noticeable. Yet, despite that, sweat trickled down her spine. But not from exertion. The past she'd run from was merging with the present, and all she could see in the near future was disaster.
She swiped at the moisture dribbling down her forehead and tried to get a grip on her overactive imagination. It was just a murderer—just a crazy person. The past wasn't coming back to haunt her. It was a weird coincidence, nothing more.
Maybe, that deep-down voice said. And maybe not.
"There're the egg-shaped boulders Matt mentioned.” Ronan pointed to the rocks off to the left hand side of the trail.
She nodded and made her way toward them. Beyond the stones, death waited.
Like the first victim, this man had his arms and legs stretched wide, his penis and scrotum sliced away, and his heart removed. For a moment, she closed her eyes, fighting not only the sickness that churned in the pit of her stomach, but the memories that came crowding back.
Even without those memories, it was doubtful that scenes like this would ever become easy, she thought, as her gaze swept around the stone circle that surrounded the mutilated body. She might have spent the last nine years as a ranger, but death was not something she'd visited often. Which was why finding someone so brutally and methodically killed still had the power to shock her.
"We have ourselves a nutter,” Ronan said, as he came to a halt beside her.
"That we have.” The question was did this nutter echo past events by chance or by design? “You want to secure the area and take some prelim photos? I'll call headquarters, and get them to call in the coroner."
"The doc's not going to be happy,” Ronan commented, as he swung the pack off his shoulder and took out the crime scene tape. “It's barely eight and Wednesday is his day off."
"Obviously no one told our murderer,” she snapped, then met his sharp glance with a wave of her hand. “I know, I know. I'm going to have to stop being so bitchy."
"Or go see someone about those damn dreams."
She nodded and got her cell phone from her pocket. Then she stepped out of his way and made her call. Kelly, who was both their administrative assistant and communications officer, answered on the second ring.
"Ripple Creek Ranger's Office."
"Kel, can you ask Doc Carson to head on over to Pike's clearing at the top of Red Mountain Road? Ike will be waiting for him."
"Will do. You've a visitor, by the way."
"A Mr. Jones from the Interspecies Investigation Squad."
Savannah swore under her breath. The IIS were an offshoot of the FBI, and by law they had to be notified whenever a human was killed on werewolf land. But she hadn't expected them to come running so quickly, nor did she really want them here. The men and women of the IIS had the reputation of riding roughshod over local law enforcement and had, in the past, caused a lot of bad feelings between the community and its police officers. She certainly didn't want that happening here in Ripple Creek.
"Tell him I'm coming in.” At least that would give Ronan, Ike and the Doc time to do a prelim examination of the scene and the body before the IIS charged in and took over. She glanced at her watch. “I'll be there in twenty."
"I'll tell him. I'll even offer him decent coffee."
Which, in Kel speak, meant the man in question was not only single but gorgeous. She smiled slightly, half wondering if just this once they should use Kel as a distraction. Hell, there were few men of any species that didn't take a second, third and fourth look when Kel walked by, so it might just give them a chance to do their job without IIS inference. But the way their luck had been running of late, Mr. Jones would probably end up preferring dark haired men rather than voluptuous blondes—and none of her deputies were inclined that way.
She hung up and met Ronan's expectant gaze. “The IIS are here."
He swore, long and loud.
"Yeah,” she said. “Exactly. I'm heading down there. I'll get Ike to meet Carson, and he'll have to assist you here."
Ronan nodded. “He's damn good with the cameras, so he can take over that job."
"Just keep an eye on him—with the IIS here, we can't afford any of his exuberant mistakes."
Ronan nodded and began taking photos of the body and the ceremonial ring of small stones surrounding it. She cast one more look at the victim, her gaze resting momentarily on the severed genital area, noting once again the lack of blood in the dirt beneath the body. She shivered and turned around, making her way back down the hill.
If history was repeating itself, she just had to hope that everything about that time of her life wasn't about to make an appearance. Because there were some sections she had no desire to revisit in any way, shape, or form.
"Ike,” she called, once she'd reached the clearing. “I want you to go down to the main road and wait for Doc Carson. Bring him up here and take him to Ronan. You're to help Ronan after that."
The young deputy's eyes lit up. “Really?"
"Really.” God, was she ever that enthusiastic? Probably not. By the time she'd applied for the deputy position, she'd truly seen the darker side of human and wolf nature. She'd known all too well the full extent of damage some people could do to others—physical or emotional.
"Matt, you want to ride back to town with me?"
The teenager nodded and climbed into her truck. She glanced back at Ike. “Do what Ronan tells you to—nothing more, nothing less."
Ike grinned and gave her a thumbs up, his carrot-bright hair glowing like a beacon in the morning sun. Savannah shook her head, climbed into her truck and headed back to town. By the time she'd dropped Matt off and talked briefly to his parents, thirty-five minutes had come and gone.
Kel looked up as Savannah opened the front door of their little section of city hall, her expression a mix of amusement and annoyance. “Our dear IIS officer is not impressed with tardiness. Or so he's said every five minutes for the last fifteen minutes."
"One of those, huh?"
"Yeah. All looks and no charm.” Kel placed a mug on the counter, and the rich aroma of cinnamon coffee teased Savannah's nostrils. “Here, take this. You're going to need it."
Savannah grimaced and picked up the steaming mug. “What excuse did you give him?"
"I didn't. He's not my boss and he certainly wasn't polite, so he didn't deserve an update."
She couldn't help a grin. “So did he get that coffee?"
"Machine blend, not the good stuff."
Meaning he'd really pissed her off. “Could you take all my calls while I deal with this fellow?"