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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Excerpted from CHILL FACTOR © Copyright 2011 by Sandra Brown Management Ltd. Reprinted with permission by Pocket, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.