Those Who Wish Me Dead — Excerpt

Part One

Hidden Witness

1

On the last day of Jace Wilson’s life, the fourteen-year-old stood on a quarry ledge staring at cool, still water and finally understood something his mother had told him years before: Trouble might come for you when you showed fear, but trouble doubled-down when you lied about being afraid. At the time, Jace hadn’t known exactly what she was talking about. Today he did.

It was a sixty-five-foot drop from Rooftop to the water, and Jace had a hundred dollars riding on it—a hundred dollars that he didn’t have, of course—all because he’d shown a trace of fear. It was a stupid bet, sure, and he wouldn’t have made it if the girls hadn’t been there, listening to the whole thing and laughing. But they had been, and so now it wasn’t just a hundred bucks, it was a hell of a lot more than that, and he had two days to figure out how to pull it off.

Not everyone who tried Rooftop succeeded. They’d pulled bodies out of the quarry before, and those were older kids, college kids, maybe even divers, he didn’t know. He was certain none of them had been terrified of heights, though.

“What did you get yourself into,” he whispered, looking behind him at the cut in the wire fence that led out of the old Easton Brothers quarry and into his yard. His house backed up to the abandoned quarry property, and Jace spent hours there, exploring and swimming—and staying far from the ledges. The one thing he did not do in the quarry was dive. He didn’t even like to get too close to the drop-offs; if he edged out just for a quick glance down, his head would spin and his legs would go weak and he’d have to shuffle backward as fast as possible. Earlier in the day, though, all of his hours alone in the quarry had provided the lie he needed. When Wayne Potter started giving him shit about being scared of heights because Jace hadn’t wanted to climb the ladder that some maintenance worker had left leaning against the side of the school, allowing access to the roof, Jace had blown it off by saying that he didn’t need to climb a ladder to prove he wasn’t scared of heights because he did quarry dives all the time, and he was sure Wayne had never done that.

Of course Wayne called him on the bluff. Of course Wayne mentioned Rooftop. Of course Wayne had an older brother who would take them out there over the weekend.

“You’re an idiot,” Jace told himself aloud, walking down a gravel path littered with old cigarette butts and beer cans, out toward one of the wide slabs in the old quarry that overlooked a pool he was certain was deep enough for a dive. Start small, that was his plan. He’d get this jump down, which was probably fifteen feet, and then move on to the next pool, where the jump was a good bit higher, thirty feet at least. He looked across the water and felt dizzy already. Rooftop was more than twice that high?

“Just try it,” he said. Talking to himself felt good, out here alone, it gave him a little added confidence. “Just try it. You can’t kill yourself falling into the water. Not from here.”

Still, he was simply pacing the ledges, giving himself a good three feet of buffer, as if his legs might just buckle and send him sliding down the stone on his face, leave him floating in the water with a broken neck.

“Pussy,” he said, because that was what they’d called him earlier in the day, in front of the girls, and it had made him angry enough—almost—to start up the ladder. Instead, he’d used the lonely quarry to defend himself. In retrospect, he probably should have climbed the ladder.

Thunder cracked and echoed back off the high stone walls and the water, sounding deeper and more dangerous down in the quarry than it would have up on the road. The wind had been blowing hard ever since he got out of school, and it was really gusting now, swirling stone dust, and out of the western sky advanced a pair of pure black clouds, trapped lightning flashing within them.

Bad time to be in the water, Jace thought, and then he latched on to that idea because it gave him an excuse not to jump. “Wayne Potter is not worth getting electrocuted over.”

And so he started back, was almost all the way to the hole in the fence before he stopped.

Wayne Potter wasn’t going away. Come Saturday he’d be there with his brother, and they’d take Jace out to Rooftop and watch him piss down his leg and they’d laugh their butts off. Then Wayne would go back to school Monday and tell the story, assuming he hadn’t called everyone first. Or, worse yet, brought them to watch. What if he brought the girls?

It was that idea that finally gave him some resolve. Jumping was frightening, but not jumping in front of the girls? That was scarier still, and the price was higher.

“You’d better jump it,” he said. “Come on, coward. Just go jump it.”

He walked back fast, because dawdling only allowed the fear to build, so he wanted to go quick, get it over and done so that he knew he could do it. Once that start had been achieved, the rest would be easy. Just a matter of adding height, that was all. He kicked his shoes off, then pulled his T-shirt and jeans off and left them in a pile on the rocks.

As thunder boomed again, he squeezed his nose closed with his thumb and index finger—a baby thing, yes, but he was alone and didn’t care—and then spoke again.

“I’m no pussy.”

Since he was holding his nose, his voice came out high and girlish. He took one last look at the water below, shut his eyes, bent at the knees, and sprang off the ledge.

It wasn’t much of a drop. For all of his worrying, it ended fast, and it ended pain-free, except of course for the jarring shock of cold water. He let himself sink to the bottom—water didn’t bother him in the least, he loved to swim, just didn’t like to dive—and waited for the feel of smooth, cool stone.

It didn’t come. Instead, his foot touched something strange, an object that was somehow soft and hard at the same time, and he jerked back in fright, because whatever it was, it didn’t belong. He opened his eyes, blinking against the sting of the water, and saw the dead man.

He was sitting almost upright, his back against the stone, his legs stretched out in front of him. Head tilted sideways, like he was tired. Blond hair floating in the current Jace had created, strands rising off the top of the dead man’s head to dance in the dark water. His upper lip was curled like he was laughing at someone, a mean laugh, mocking, and Jace could see his teeth. There was a rope around his ankles and it was attached to an old dumbbell.

For a few seconds, Jace floated there above him, suspended not five feet away. Maybe it was because he was seeing it through the dim water, but he felt separated from the scene, felt as if the corpse down here had to be something imagined. It was only when he realized why the man’s head was leaning to the side that the terror he should have felt initially overcame him. The man’s throat was cut, leaving a gap so wide that water flowed through it like an open channel. At the sight, Jace began a frantic, clumsy churn back up. He was no more than fifteen feet down but still he was certain he wouldn’t make the top, would drown down there, his body lying forever beside the other corpse.

When he broke the surface he was already trying to shout for help, and the result was awful; he inhaled water and choked on it and felt as if he’d drown, was unable to get air into his lungs. He finally got a gasping breath in and spit out the water that was in his mouth.

Water that had touched the dead man.

He felt a surge of sickness and swam hard, only to realize he was angling in the wrong direction, toward the steep walls that offered no way to climb out. He panicked and spun, finally getting his eyes on some low rocks. The world echoed with more thunder as he put his head down and swam. The first time he tried to pull himself out, his arms failed, and he fell back into the water hard enough that his head went under.

Come on, Jace! Get out, get out, you’ve got to get out…

On the second try he made it, flopped up on his stomach. The quarry water was pouring off him and it was in his mouth again, dripping from his lips, and for the second time he thought of the way it had flowed through that gaping tear in the man’s throat. He gagged and vomited onto the rock, throat and nose burning, and then crawled weakly away from the pool as if the water might reach up for him, grab one leg, and pull him back in.

“Holy shit,” he whispered. His voice trembled and his entire body shook. When he thought he could trust his legs, he stood up uncertainly. The storm-front winds chilled the cold water on his skin and his soaking boxer shorts and he hugged his arms around himself and thought stupidly, I forgot to bring a towel. It was only then that he realized he’d also come out of the water on the wrong side of the quarry. His clothes were piled on the ledge across from him.

You have to be kidding me, he thought, looking around at the steep walls that bordered this side of the pool. It wasn’t easy climbing. In fact, he wasn’t sure that it was possible climbing. Nothing but vertical smooth stone above him. Farther down, below the pool, there was a drop-off that led to an area littered with brush and thorns. Going in that direction would be slow and painful with no shoes or pants. The fastest option was simple: get back in the water and swim across.

He stared at the pile of clothes, close enough he could throw rocks onto them easily. The cell phone was in the pocket of his jeans.

Need to get help, he thought, need to get someone out here, fast.

But he didn’t move. The idea of going back into that water…he stared into the murky green pool, darker than it had ever looked before, then suddenly lit bright by a flash of lightning, the storm sweeping in fast.

“He’s not going to hurt you,” he said, edging toward the water. “Not going to come back to life and grab you.”

Saying that made him realize something he hadn’t processed yet in his desperate attempt to get away—the man wasn’t going to come back to life, no, but the man also wasn’t far removed from life. His hair, his eyes, the lip curled back against his teeth…even the skin around the wound in the throat hadn’t begun to decompose yet. Jace wasn’t sure how long something like that took, but it seemed like it would go pretty fast.

Hasn’t been there long…

This time the thunder made him jump. He was staring around the quarry, eyeing the top ridges of the stone walls, looking for a watcher.

Empty.

Get the hell out of here, he instructed himself, but he couldn’t bring himself to swim for it. Couldn’t imagine being immersed in that water again, swimming right above the man with the dumbbell tied to his ankles and the lopsided head and gashed throat. Instead, he walked down toward the drop-off. There a ledge connected one side to the other: the pool he’d just been in, on the right side, and another one to the left. The drop to the left was the thirty-foot monster he’d intended to use as his practice for Rooftop. For some reason, the narrow ledge was home to plants, but only mean ones. Anything that grew in stone seemed to have thorns. He narrowly missed a broken bottle as he entered the weeds. With his first steps, the thorns began to rake his flesh, and he grimaced but pushed ahead slowly, warm blood mingling with cool water on his legs. The first drops of rain started to fall and the thunder boomed overhead and then echoed back through the quarry as if the earth wanted to respond.

“Ouch! Damn it!” He’d managed to step right on a thorn, and the sticker remained in the bottom of his foot, so his next step drove it in farther. He was standing on one leg and had just pulled the thorn out of his foot, blood rushing to fill the hole, when he heard the car motor.

His first thought was that it might be a security guard or something. That would be nice. That would be wonderful, because whatever hell he was going to catch for being in the quarry was worth it to get back out. For a long moment he stayed just like he was, balanced up on one leg, holding his bleeding foot in his hand, and listened. The engine came on and on, someone driving up the gravel road that was blocked by a locked gate.

Killer coming back, he thought, and now the frozen indecision turned to wild terror. He was standing in the middle of the ledge in the most visible spot in the entire quarry.

He turned and started to return to the place from which he’d come, then stopped. There was no cover there. The rock face was sheer; there wasn’t even anything to duck behind. He spun and headed in the other direction again, trying to plow through the weeds, indifferent to the thorns that raked him and left ribbons of blood along his chest, arms, and legs.

The engine was very close now.

He wasn’t going to make the other side. Not fast enough.

Jace Wilson gave one look at the water below, one quick attempt at picking a safe landing zone even though the water was too dark to show what waited beneath, and then he jumped. Talk about doubling-down on your fear—he was scared of heights, but of whoever was coming? That wasn’t fear. That was terror.

This time, the drop felt real, felt long, as if he’d started from a truly high place. He was thinking of rocks and pieces of twisted metal, all the junk that was left behind in these quarry pools, all the things his dad had warned him about, when he struck the water and tunneled down. He tried to stop himself early, but his velocity had been high and he sank even as he tried to rise, plunging all the way down. The pool wasn’t nearly as deep as he’d expected. The landing jarred him, his feet striking stone and sending a sparkler of pain up his spine. He pushed back off and let himself rise slowly. He didn’t want to break the surface with much noise this time.

His head cleared the water just as the sound of the engine cut out. The car had come to a stop. He swam toward a slab of limestone that jutted up at an angle, offering a narrow crevice that he was sure he could slip into. He’d just reached it when he chanced a look up and saw a man walking toward the water. Tall and broad-shouldered, with long, pale blond hair. His head was down, following the path, and he hadn’t seen Jace yet. The quarry had grown very dark as the thunderheads moved over, but in the next strobe of lightning, Jace saw the glistening of a badge and realized the man was in uniform.

Police. Someone had already called them, or somehow they already knew. Whatever had happened to get them here didn’t matter to Jace. They were here. Help had arrived. He let a long breath out and was filling his lungs to shout for help when he saw the others.

There was another police officer, also blond, his hair cut shorter, like he was in the military. He had a gun on his belt, and he was shoving forward a man in handcuffs. There was a black hood over his head.

Jace stifled his shout and went still, clinging to the rock with his feet and one hand. Trying not to move. Not to breathe.

The first cop waited until the other men reached him. He was standing with his arms folded over his chest, impatient, as he watched the man blinded by the hood stumble forward. The man in the hood was trying to talk and couldn’t. Just a series of strange, high noises.

Something’s over his mouth, Jace realized. He might not have been able to make out the words, but he got the meaning clear enough: The man was begging. He was scared, and he was begging. It came in whines and whimpers, like a puppy. When the first cop swung his foot out and upended the man in the hood, dropping him hard to the ground, blind and unprepared for the fall, Jace almost cried out, had to bite his lip to keep silent. The second cop, the one who’d brought the man down from the car, knelt and put a knee in his spine and jerked his head up by the hood. He leaned down and spoke to him, but it was soft, whispered. Jace could not hear the words. The cop was still talking to the man in the hood when he put out his hand and curled the fingers impatiently, waiting for something, and the first cop offered a knife. Not a pocketknife or a kitchen knife, but something like soldiers used. A fighting knife. A real knife.

Jace saw the man’s head jerk in response to one fast motion with the blade, and then saw his feet spasm, scraping the earth in a search for traction as he tried to lift his cuffed hands to his throat, tried to put back the blood that was spilling out from under the hood. Both of the cops grabbed him then, fast and efficient, taking hold of his clothes from the back, careful to stay away from the blood. Then they shoved him off the rock and he was tumbling, falling just as Jace had. He outpaced his own blood; a red cloud of it was in the air above his head when he hit the water.

At the sound of the splash, Jace finally moved. Now that it was just the two of them up there, no distractions, they’d be likely to look around. Likely to see him. He pulled himself in under the rock and squirmed into the darkness, trying to push back as far as possible, scrabbling at the stone with his fingers. He couldn’t get far. He’d be visible to anyone who was level with him on the other side, but that would require that person’s being in the water. Still, if they came down that far, his hiding place was going to turn into a trap. There would be nowhere to run then. His breath was coming in fast, rapid gasps, and he was dizzy and felt like he could throw up again.

Don’t get sick, don’t make a sound, you cannot make a sound.

For a few seconds all was quiet. They were going to leave. He thought that they were probably going to leave and he would get out of here yet, he’d get home today, despite everything.

That was when he heard one of their voices loud and clear for the first time: “Well, now. It would appear someone has been swimming. And chose to leave his clothing behind.”

The voice was so mild that for a moment Jace couldn’t believe it came from one of the men who’d done the killing up there with the knife. It seemed impossible.

There was a pause, and then the second man answered. “Clothes are one thing. But he’d also choose to leave his shoes?”

“Seems like rough country,” the first voice agreed, “to walk without shoes.”

The strangely serene voices went silent then, but there was another sound, a clear metallic snap. Jace had been around the shooting range with his dad enough to recognize that one: a round being chambered into a gun.

The men circled the quarry rim, and down below them, pinned in the dark rocks, Jace Wilson began to cry.

2

The weather-alert radio went off just as they settled into bed, speaking to Ethan and Allison in its disembodied, robotic voice.

Potent late-spring storm system will continue to bring heavy snow to area mountains.…Heaviest snowfall above seventy-five hundred feet.…However, several inches of heavy wet snow are possible as low as forty-five hundred feet before morning. Heavy wet snow on trees and power lines may result in power outages. Snow should taper off Sunday morning. One to two feet of snow expected with locally heavier accumulations on north- and east-facing slopes. Mountain roadways will become snow-packed and icy tonight and may become impassable in spots, including over Beartooth Pass.

“You know what I love about you?” Allison said. “You’re leaving that thing on, even though we’ve been watching it snow for the past four hours. We know what’s happening.”

“Forecasts can change.”

“Hmm. Yes. And people can sleep. Let’s do that.”

“Could get fun out there,” Ethan said. “Surely someone decided they’d take a quick hike this morning, ahead of the weather. And of course they wouldn’t need a map, because it was just going to be a quick hike, right?”

Those were the kinds of decisions that usually drew Ethan into the mountains in the middle of the night. Particularly the late-season storms, when the weather had been temperate enough for long enough to lull people into a false sense of security.

“May every fool stay indoors,” Allison said, and kissed his arm, shifting for a more comfortable position, her voice already sleepy.

“Optimistic wish,” he said, pulling her close to his chest, relishing her warmth. The cabin had cooled quickly once they let the fire in the woodstove burn down. Beside them, the window rattled with a steady drilling of sleet. On the shelf above the bed, next to the weather-alert radio, the CB was silent. It had been a good winter—only one call-out. Winters were usually better than other seasons, though; most tourists stayed away from Montana in those months. Ethan didn’t like the feel of this storm. Last day of May, summer looming, a week of sunshine and fifty-degree weather just past? Yes, some of the fools Allison mentioned might have taken to the mountains. And once they got stuck, that radio above Ethan Serbin’s head would crackle to life, and his search-and-rescue team would assemble.

“Got a good feeling,” Allison said into the pillow, fading fast the way she always did; the woman could probably sleep on the tarmac of an active airport without trouble.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. But just in case I’m wrong, turn off your radio. At least the fool frequency.”

He smiled at her in the dark, squeezed her one more time, and then closed his eyes. She was asleep within minutes, her breathing shifting to long, slow inhalations he could feel against his chest. He listened as the sleet changed back to snow; the rattle against the glass faded to silence, and eventually he started to fade too.

When the radio went off, Allison awoke with a groan.

“No,” she said. “Not tonight.”

Ethan got out of bed, fumbled the handheld unit from its base, and walked out of the bedroom and across the cold floorboards to the front window. It was fully dark inside the cabin. They’d lost power just after sunset, and he hadn’t bothered to use the generator; there was no need to burn fuel just to sleep.

“Serbin? You copy?” The voice belonged to Claude Kitna, the Park County sheriff.

“Copy,” Ethan said, looking out at the white world beyond the dark cabin. “Who’s gone missing, and where, Claude?”

“Nobody missing.”

“Then let me sleep.”

“Got a slide-off. Somebody trying to get over the pass just as we were about to shut it down.”

The pass was the Beartooth Pass, on Highway 212 between Red Lodge and Cooke City. The Beartooth Highway, as 212 was also known, was one of the most beautiful—and dangerous—highways in the country, a series of steep switchbacks that wound between Montana and Wyoming and peaked at over ten thousand feet. It was closed for months in the winter, the entire highway simply shut down, and did not reopen until late May at the earliest. The drive required vigilance in the best weather, and in a snowstorm in the dark? Good luck.

“Okay,” Ethan said into the radio. “Why do you need me?” He would roll with his team when someone was missing. A slide-off on the highway, or, as Claude liked to call the really nasty drops, a bounce-off, might require paramedics—or a coroner—but not search-and-rescue.

“Driver who thought it was a wise idea to push through says she was on her way to see you. Park service bumped her to me. Got her sitting in a plow truck right now. You want her?”

“Coming to see me?” Ethan frowned. “Who is it?”

“A Jamie Bennett,” Claude said. “And for a woman who just drove her rental car off a mountain, I have to say, she’s not all that apologetic.”

“Jamie Bennett?”

“Correct. You know her?”

“Yeah,” Ethan said, confused. “Yeah, I know her.”

Jamie Bennett was a professional bodyguard. Since leaving the Air Force, Ethan had taught survival instruction as a private contractor, working with civilians and government groups. Jamie had been in a session he’d taught a year ago. He’d liked her, and she was good, competent if a bit cocky, but he could not imagine what had her driving over the Beartooth Pass in a snowstorm in search of him.

“What’s her story?” Claude Kitna asked.

Ethan couldn’t begin to answer that.

“I’ll head your way,” Ethan said. “And I guess I’ll find out.”

“Copy that. Be careful, now. It’s rough out here tonight.”

“I’ll be careful. See you soon, Claude.”

In the bedroom, Allison propped herself up on one arm and looked at him in the shadows as he pulled his clothes on.

“Where are you headed?”

“Up to the pass.”

“Somebody try to walk away from a car wreck?”

That had happened before. Scared of staying in one place, people would panic and set off down the highway, and, in the blowing snow, they’d lose the highway. It seemed like an impossible thing to lose, until you experienced a Rocky Mountain blizzard at night.

“No. Jamie Bennett was trying to get through.”

“The marshal? The one from last spring?”

“Yes.”

“What is she doing in Montana?”

“Coming to find me, is what I was told.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“That’s what I was told,” he repeated.

“This can’t be good,” Allison said.

“I’m sure it’s fine.”

But as he left the cabin and walked to his snowmobile in the howling white winds, he knew that it wasn’t.

The night landscape refused full dark in that magical way that only snow could provide, soaking in the starlight and moonlight and offering it back as a trapped blue iridescence. Claude Kitna hadn’t been lying—the wind was working hard, shifting north to northeast in savage gusts, flinging thick, wet snow. Ethan rode alone and he rode slow, even though he knew 212 as well as anyone up here, and he’d logged more hours on it in bad weather than most. That was exactly why he kept his speed down even when it felt as if the big sled could handle more. Of the rescues-turned-to-corpse discoveries he’d participated in, far too many involved snowmobiles and ATVs, people getting cocky about driving vehicles built to handle the elements. One thing he’d learned while training all over the world—and the lesson had been hammered home here in Montana—was that believing a tool could handle the elements was a recipe for disaster. You adapted to the elements with respect; you did not control them.

It took him an hour to make what was usually a twenty-minute ride, and he was greeted at Beartooth Pass by orange flares, which threw the surrounding peaks into silhouette against the night sky, one plow, and one police vehicle parked in the road. A black Chevy Tahoe was crushed against the guardrail. Ethan looked at its position, leaned up on one side, and shook his head. She’d come awfully damn close. Pull that same maneuver on one of the switchbacks and that Tahoe would have fallen a long way before it hit rock.

He parked the snowmobile, watching the snow swirl into the dark canyons below, lit orange by the flares as it fell, and he wondered if there was anyone out there in the wilderness whom they didn’t know about, anyone who hadn’t been as lucky as Jamie Bennett. There were tall, thin poles spaced out along the winding highway, markers to help the plows maneuver when the snow turned the road into a blind man’s guessing game, and on the downwind side of the road, the snow was already two feet high against them, three feet in areas where the drifts caught.

The passenger-side door of the plow truck banged open, and Jamie Bennett stepped out of the cab and into the snow before Ethan had cut his engine. Her feet slipped out from under her and she nearly ended up on her ass before she caught herself on the door handle.

“What frigging country do you live in that has a blizzard the last day of May, Serbin?”

She was almost as tall as him; her blond hair streamed out from under a ski cap, and her blue eyes watered in the stinging wind.

“They have these things,” he said, “called weather forecasts? They’re new, I guess, experimental, but it’s still worth checking them, time to time. Like, oh, before driving over a mountain range at night.”

She smiled and offered a gloved hand, and they shook.

“I heard the forecast, but I figured I could beat the storm. Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m keeping my positive mental attitude.”

That was one of the seven priorities for survival Ethan had taught in the course Jamie had taken. The first priority, in fact.

“Glad you’ve retained your lessons. What are you doing here, anyhow?”

Claude Kitna was watching them with interest, staying at a courteous distance but not so far away that he couldn’t overhear the conversation. Farther up the road, the headlights of another plow truck showed, this one returning from the pass gate, which would now be shut and locked, the Beartooth Highway closed to all traffic. They’d opened the pass for the first time that season just four days earlier. Last year, it had been closed until June 20. The wilderness was more accessible now than it had once been, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still the wilderness.

“I’ve got a proposition for you,” Jamie said. “A request. You may not like it, but I want you to hear me out, at least.”

“It’s a promising start,” Ethan said. “Any job that arrives with a blizzard has to bring good things.”

It was a joke then. There in the wind and the snow and the orange signal flares, it was only a joke. Weeks later, though, in the sun and the smoke, he would remember that line, and it would turn him cold.