Casefile: Canyon Creek, Wyoming
The flashing blue light in the rearview mirror came out of nowhere, cutting through the cool shadows of the waning afternoon. Hannah Cooper glanced at the rental car's speedometer needle, which hovered just under sixty. The speed limit was sixty-five on this stretch of Wyoming's Highway 287, so she wasn't speeding.
Maybe he just wanted her to move aside to make it easier to pass her on the two-lane highway. She edged the Pontiac toward the narrow shoulder, but the car behind her slowed as well, making no attempt to go around her. The driver waved out the window for her to pull all the way over.
Damn it. She released a slow breath and looked for somewhere to pull to the side. The highway shoulder barely existed on this stretch of winding road, the grassy edge rising quickly to meet the dense stand of pines lining the highway. Hannah spotted a widening of the shoulder a few yards ahead. She slowed and pulled over, cutting the engine.
Tamping down a nervous flutter in her belly, she lowered the window with one hand while pulling her wallet from her purse with the other. Outside the window, footsteps approached. She turned to face the lawman. "Is something wrong?"
She got a brief glimpse of weathered jeans and a shiny silver belt buckle before the man's hand—snugly tucked into latex gloves—whipped up into the window and sprayed something wet and stinging in her face.
Her gasp of surprise drew a spray of fiery heat into her mouth and throat, and her eyes slammed closed, acid tears seeping from between her lids. Pepper spray, she realized, gagging as fire filled her lungs with every wheezing breath. Coughing, she tried to reorient herself in a world turned upside down.
She felt a rough hand on the back of her neck, pushing her forward toward the steering wheel with a sharp thrust. She threw herself sideways, avoiding all but a glancing blow of her cheekbone against the steering wheel. The shock of pain faded quickly compared to the lingering agony of the pepper spray. Panic rose as she felt the man's hand groping for her again.
Don't ever let them get you out of the car.
The warning that filled her foggy mind spoke in her brother Aaron's voice. Aaron, the cop, who never let pass any opportunity to give her advice about personal safety.
If they get you out of your car, you're dead.
The man's hand tangled briefly in her hair then retreated. A soft snapping sound outside the car made her jerk her head toward the open window, and she forced her eyelids open, blinking hard to clear her blurry vision. Through a film of white-hot pain, she saw her assailant's right hand sliding something black and metallic from a side holster.
It snagged coming out of the holster, giving her the distraction she needed. Spotting his left hand resting on the car-door frame for balance, she rammed her elbow on to the back of his hand, crushing his fingers against the door. Something hard and metallic cracked against her elbow bone—a ring? It sent pain jarring up her arm, but she ignored it as he spat out a loud curse and pulled his hand free, just as she'd hoped.
She turned the key in the ignition. The rented Pontiac G6 roared to life and she jerked it into Drive, ramming the accelerator pedal to the floor.
The Pontiac shimmied across the sandy ground, the right back wheel teetering precariously along the edge of the dipping shoulder, but she muscled it back on to the highway and pointed its nose toward the long stretch of road ahead.
She groped on the seat next to her for the bottle of water she'd picked up from a vending machine at a gas station a few miles back. Grappling with the cap, she opened the bottle and splashed water in her eyes, trying to wash out enough of the burning spray to help her see as she drove. It helped the stinging pain in her eyes but did nothing to stop the burning on her skin and in her nose and throat.
Think, Hannah. Think.
She felt for her purse, which held her cell phone, but it must have fallen to the floorboard. She couldn't risk trying to find it. Though she could barely see, barely breathe, she didn't dare slow down, taking the curves at scary speeds. There had to be civilization somewhere ahead, she promised herself, shivering with shock and pain. Just another mile or so….
She peered blindly at the rearview mirror, trying to see if the car with the blue light was following. She'd rounded a curve that put a hilly stand of pines between her car and the waning daylight backlighting the Wyoming Rockies. Behind her, night had already begun to fall in murky purple shadows, hiding any sign of her assailant from view. Maybe she'd bought herself enough time.
She just had to keep going. Surely somewhere ahead she'd run into people who could help her.
She wiped her watering eyes, trying to see through the gloom. More than once over the next endless, excruciating mile, she nearly drove off the road, but soon the highway curved again, and the mountains came back into view, rising with violent beauty into the copper-penny sky. And just a mile or so ahead, gleaming like a beacon to her burning eyes, a truck stop sprawled along the side of the highway.
She headed her car toward the lighted sign, daring only a quick glance in her rearview mirror. She spotted a car behind her, a black dot in the lowering darkness. It seemed to be coming fast, growing larger and more threatening as the distance between her and the truck stop diminished.
Heart pounding, Hannah rammed the accelerator to the floor again, pushing the Pontiac to its limits. It shuddered beneath her, the engine whining, but the distance to the truck stop was yards now, close enough that she could make out men milling in the parking lot.
Behind her, the pursuing car fell back, as if he realized the foolishness of trying to overtake her so close to a truck stop full of witnesses. Shaking with relief, she aimed her car at the blurry span of the truck-stop driveway.
The sun dipped behind the mountains just as she made the turn, casting a sudden shadow across the entrance. The unexpected gloom, combined with her blurred vision, hid a dangerous obstacle until it was too late. Her right front wheel hit the rocky outcropping that edged the driveway and sent the car lurching out of control.
Fighting the wheel, she managed to avoid a large gas-tanker truck parked at the far edge of the truck-stop parking lot, but a scrubby pine loomed out of the darkness right in her path. She slammed on her brakes, but it was too late.
She hit the tree head on, and the world went black.
In Canyon Creek, Wyoming, night had long since fallen in cool, blue shadows tinted faint purple by the last whisper of sunset rimming the ridges to the west. With sunset had come the glow of streetlamps lining Main Street, painting the sidewalks below with circles of gold.
From his office window on the second floor of the Canyon Creek Police Department, Deputy Chief Riley Patterson had a bird's-eye view of the town he protected, though few people remained in town at this time of night. Most of the stores had shut down a couple of hours earlier, though a light still glowed in the hardware store across the street. After a moment, even that light extinguished, and Riley spotted storekeeper Dave Logan locking the store's front door, his dog Rufus waiting patiently by his side.
Riley turned from the window and sank into his desk chair, his gaze lifting to the large, round clock on the wall. At seven-forty on a Tuesday evening, Riley was one of four people left in the building, but up here on the second floor, he might as well be the only person. The quiet was like a living thing this time of night, unbroken for the most part, though a few minutes earlier he'd heard the fax go off in the chief's office. He'd check it before he left for home.
He worked late most evenings, in part because he liked the quiet time to catch up on the paperwork that took up most of his time these days, but mostly because the alternative was going home to his empty house.
He worked his way through a handful of reports the day-shift officers had left on his desk, making notes on interviews that needed follow-ups and putting them in the outbox for his secretary to file in the morning. Then he leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, willing himself to grab his jacket and keys and head home before he started worrying himself the way he knew he'd begun to worry his friends and colleagues.
His desk phone rang before he could move, shattering the quiet. He dropped his feet to the floor and checked the number on the caller ID display. It was Joe Garrison, his boss and lifelong friend. Riley grabbed the receiver. "I'm about to head home, I swear—"
"Just got a call from the Teton County Sheriff," Joe interrupted briskly. "Attempted abduction on Highway 287 late this afternoon. Female victim, mid-twenties."
Riley felt a twinge of unease. "Deceased?"
"No, but I don't know any more details yet. It's Teton County's jurisdiction, but the sheriff gave me a courtesy call. His department should be faxing the details over any minute."
"The fax rang a minute ago. I'll check." Riley put Joe on hold and walked into the chief's office. He grabbed the handful of sheets from the fax tray and scanned them on the way back to his office. Standard BOLO—Be On Lookout— notice, short on details. The victim apparently hadn't gotten a good look at her attacker.
Riley reached his desk and picked up the phone. "Still there?"
"For the moment, although Jane's giving me come-hither looks that are getting a little hard to resist," Joe answered, laughter tinting his voice. "Anything on the BOLO we need to worry about?"
"According to the victim, the assailant was driving a police car, although she doesn't seem sure whether it was a marked car or not. The guy had a blue light on the roof, but it might have been a detachable one." Riley scanned further. "Not much in the way of a description, either, beyond what he was wearing."
"Odd," Joe said.
The next words Riley read made his blood go cold. A faint buzzing noise filled his ears as he read the information again.
"Riley?" Joe prodded on the other end of the line.
Riley cleared his throat, but when he spoke, his voice still came out raspy and tight. "She was pepper-sprayed. In the face."
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line while the implications sank in for Joe. A second later, he said, "I'll be there in ten minutes." He hung up without saying goodbye.
Riley put down the phone and stared at the BOLO, rereading the passage one more time to make sure he hadn't misread. But the words remained unchanged—oleoresin capsicum found on the victim's face, clothing and in her mucus and saliva.
He sank heavily into his desk chair, his hand automatically reaching for the bottom drawer to his right. He pulled it open and took out a dog-eared manila folder, the only thing that occupied the drawer. He thumbed through the familiar pages inside the file folder, searching for the three-year-old Natrona County coroner's report. His breath caught when he read the decedent's name—Patterson, Emily D.—but he dragged his gaze away from the name to the toxicology report on the pages stapled behind the death certificate.
Oleoresin capsicum. It had been found in her eyes, nose, throat and lungs, preserved, ironically, by the plastic sheeting her killer had wrapped her in before sinking her body in a lake off Highway 20.
He heard footsteps pounding up the stairs outside his office. Joe burst through the doorway, his wife, Jane, right behind him. Joe grabbed the fax pages from Riley's desk while Jane crossed to put her hand on Riley's shoulder, her green eyes warm with compassion. "You okay?" she asked.
He nodded, putting the coroner's report back into the file folder and sliding it into the open drawer.
"This is six," Joe said, settling on to the edge of Riley's desk with the fax pages in his hands.
"Six that we know of," Riley added grimly. "And we're not sure about a couple of them." The plastic sheet wrapped around the bodies of two of the victims hadn't protected them from the water where their bodies had been dumped.
"The plastic sheeting was enough of an MO for me," Joe said firmly. "If this one hadn't gotten away, she'd have shown up in a lake or river somewhere around here, wrapped in plastic, too. Maybe this time, the FBI will finally see the pattern."
The FBI didn't want to see the pattern, Riley knew. He'd tried to get the feds involved the minute he'd started piecing together the murders three years ago, when Emily had become one of the killer's victims. They hadn't been interested. "The connection was too nebulous" or some such B.S.
"I'll give Jim Tanner a call in the morning," Joe said, referring to the Teton County Sheriff. "He owes me a favor."
Jane put her hand on Riley's shoulder again. "Come home with us for dinner," she said. "It's nothing much—just some leftover barbecue, but we have plenty of it."
"Even with her eating for three," Joe added with a smile.
"Two," Jane corrected with a roll of her green eyes, "although one of us is half cowboy, so you may have a point."
Riley tried to smile at the banter, but it stung a little, even though he was happy as hell that his old friend had finally found a little happiness in his roller-coaster of a life. Seeing Joe and Jane so clearly happy, so clearly in love, was a reminder of all he'd lost three years ago when Emily had died.
"Actually, I think I'm just going to head home and try to get some sleep so I'll be fresh in the morning," he lied, even as a plan began to form in his restless mind. He gave Jane a quick kiss on the cheek and nodded toward the door. "Let's get out of here and I'll talk to you both tomorrow."
He could see a hint of suspicion in Joe's expression as the three of them walked out to the parking lot, where Joe's dark-blue Silverado was parked next to Riley's silver one. But his friend just gave a wave goodbye as Riley slid behind the truck's wheel and backed out of the parking lot.