“Every Woman in Town Is Terrified”
Since the school year started, two female students in Alta Mira, a town in a beautiful high desert valley, have gone missing while hitchhiking home from the community college. There may be a serial killer at work, and as if the new sheriff didn’t have her hands full with that, two star players on the high school football team are under a cloud of suspicion in connection with the rape of a cheerleader at a Saturday night party. Into the middle of all this, Quill Gordon and his friend Sam Akers show up for a late-season fishing trip with Gordon’s old college buddy, local radio host “Mountain Bob” Hastings. Mountain Bob thinks he has a lead on one of the crimes, and when he’s murdered during his morning program, the sheriff and district attorney turn to Gordon for help following up his friend’s investigation. After another student disappears, it becomes a race against time and gender, with Gordon trying to avoid becoming the killer’s second male victim.
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Logging Road, Dusk
“Take off your clothes.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Does this gun look like a joke?”
They stared at each other, five feet apart in the fading light. He gestured with the gun.
“Come on,” he said. “I mean it.”
“You’re crazy,” she said. “It’s fricking cold out here.”
“Once we get going, you won’t feel the cold.”
“Who said anything about getting going? You were just giving me a ride.”
“Maybe half an hour ago, but as you can see, the situation has changed. Now move! Blouse first. I’m losing my patience.”
She looked at him, looked at the gun, and unbuttoned the top button of her pink blouse. A gust of cold autumn wind came up, rattling through the treetops. It knifed through her thin blouse, and she shivered.
“It’s cold,” she said.
“Honey, that’s the least of your problems.”
“I can’t believe you think you’re going to get away with this.”
“Why not? I have so far.”
Then she knew, and a stab of fear went through her, colder and deeper than the gust of wind.
There was no chance of anyone coming along this deserted logging road at sunset. Her only hope was to take matters into her own hands.
She looked at his eyes, which to her advantage, were fixed on her breasts. He’s behaving like a man, she thought. Maybe I can use that against him.
“All right, then,” she said, unbuttoning the blouse slowly for deliberate effect. She wished that today, of all days, she hadn’t worn the Victoria’s Secret bra she’d bought last summer in Sacramento. He noticed it immediately.
“I see you’re dressed for this,” he said. “I like that. Now let’s see your panties.”
As she unbuttoned the last button, she pulled the blouse open, showing off her torso and the bra. The cold air stung her skin, but she saw he was looking at her breasts and took a half step forward. She was about three and a half feet from him. Not as close as she would have liked, but she didn’t feel she could move any closer.
“All in good time,” she said. She slid her right arm out of the blouse, then reached across her front and grabbed the collar with it, pulling the left sleeve down over the arm. When she was done, she stood looking at him.
“Take off the jeans,” he said.
Now or never. To make him think she was complying, she reached down and touched her belt buckle. Suddenly, with a quick, backhand motion, she swung the blouse as though snapping a towel in the locker room and hit him across the side of the head.
He wasn’t expecting it. The others had gone along meekly, so he’d been looking at her crotch, waiting for her to pull the jeans down. When the blouse hit the side of his head, he started and took a step backward, inadvertently lowering the gun. She lunged forward and grabbed his hand.
She was five-nine and fit from playing on the volleyball team, but he still had the physical edge. They grappled awkwardly for several seconds, as she put both her hands on his right wrist, trying to turn the gun away. Using both hands, he gave her a hard shove backwards.
As he did, the gun went off.
The velocity of the bullet gave her an additional impetus that sent her over the edge of the road. He saw, as a quick flash, the wound near her heart, then she was out of sight.
He stood shaking and panting. It had all gone spectacularly wrong.
They had been in a turnout on a logging road several miles from the state highway and the nearest paved county road. At this point, the road had a nearly sheer dropoff of about 75 feet. Nervously, he walked to the edge and looked down.
She had ended up caught in the branches of a pine tree, 20 feet below the road and 50 feet up from the base of the tree. She was still. From the quick glimpse of her wound, he guessed she was either dead or bleeding out and soon would be. There was no way he could get down to the body. Recovering it would be a major effort, even for the professionals on the Search and Rescue team.
He walked up and down the road in either direction and concluded that she couldn’t readily be seen by a passing driver. Not that there were many of those at this time of year. There would be no logging operations on this road until spring, and deer-hunting season had concluded last weekend. He walked back to the turnout and looked down. Her white torso stood out against the tree branches, but in the growing darkness, the jeans blended into the background.
Then he heard the sound of the stream running through the gorge below and realized there were nearly two weeks left in the fishing season. There was a chance a fisherman in the gorge might spot her in the tree. He squinted to try to see what the sight lines from the creek would be, but it was getting too dark to tell.
Still, he thought, calming himself, the odds were in his favor. Most people here stopped fishing when deer hunting season began and didn’t start again until spring. No, there was a pretty good chance that the body wouldn’t be found until next spring, if at all. Who could say what animals might get at it? And if it should be found, there would be nothing to connect it to him.
Moving to his vehicle, he stopped to pick up the pink blouse, which was lying on the ground. He sniffed it, opened one of the doors, unzipped a duffel bag and put the blouse inside. He started the engine and began driving back down the hill, thinking that, unlike her, he had dodged a bullet. Even so, he was displeased.
I got careless, he thought. It won’t happen next time.