Regan Pescoli was hot.
Not in the sexual sense.
Hot as in furious. As in consumed with rage. As in pissed as hell.
Her hands gripped the wheel of her Jeep so tightly her knuckles bleached white, her jaw was set and she glared through the windshield as if she could conjure up the image of the soulless bastard who’d sent her into this stratosphere of rage.
“Bastard,” she muttered as the county-issued Jeep’s tires slid a bit on the icy incline. Her heart was racing and her cheeks were flushed despite the sub-freezing temperature outside her vehicle.
No one, not one person on this planet, could make her see red the way her ex-husband Luke “Lucky” Pescoli could. And today was no exception. In fact, today, he’d crossed the invisible line Regan had drawn and he’d heretofore avoided. Damn, he was a loser. In all the years she’d been married to him, the only “luck” he’d brought her was bad.
Now, out of the blue, the son of a bitch was set on taking her kids away from her.
As the notes of a familiar Christmas tune played through the radio of her Jeep Regan drove like a mad woman through the steep, snow-covered hills and canyons of this part of the Bitterroot Mountain range. The Jeep, windows fogging, responded, engine growling through the pass, tires spinning over the snowy county road that crossed this particular ridge, the backbone of a mountain that separated her home from that of Lucky and his new wife, a Barbie Doll of a woman named Michelle.
Usually Regan loved this barrier.
Today, with worsening weather conditions, it was a pain.
Her last phone conversation with Lucky replayed like a bad recording on an unending loop through her mind. He’d called and confirmed that her children, the son and daughter she’d raised nearly alone, were with him. Lucky, in that supercilious tone of his, had said, “The kids, Michelle and I have been talking, and we all agree that Jeremy and Bianca should live with us.”
The argument had escalated from that point and just before she’d slammed down the receiver, her parting words to her ex had been firm: “Pack up the kids, Lucky, because I’m coming to get them. And that includes Cisco. I want my son. I want my daughter. I want my dog. And I’m coming to get them.”
She’d locked the house and taken off, determined to set things straight and get her kids back. Or kill Lucky. Maybe both.
The Jeep’s engine whined in protest on the snowy terrain as she slowed to an irritating crawl. She searched for her hidden, “only in a situation of extreme stress” pack of cigarettes in the glove box and found that it was empty. “Great.” She crushed the useless pack and tossed it on the floor in front of the passenger seat. She’d been meaning to quit . . . completely and absolutely quit again for a while. Today, it seemed, was the start.
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,” some female country singer warbled and Pescoli snapped off the radio.
“You got that right,” she muttered fiercely and gunned the Jeep around a corner. The tires slid a bit, then held.
She barely noticed.
Nor did she see the tall spruce, fir and pine trees, their branches drooping under the pressure of snow and ice as they rose like majestic sentinels in the crisp, frigid air and snowflakes poured from invisible clouds. The wipers were slapping away the flakes while the heater thrust out BTUs. Despite the fan the warmed air flow couldn’t keep up with the steam on the inside of the windows.
Pescoli squinted and longed for a single blast of nicotine as she braced herself for the confrontation that was about to ensue. It promised to be epic. So much for “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Holidays” and “Peace and goodwill to men.” Not in Lucky’s case. Not ever. All those platitudes about making nice for the kids, keeping the peace and reigning in her emotions was out the window.
He could not, could not, take her kids from her.
Sure, she worked a lot of overtime with the Pinewood County Sheriff’s Department and lately, with the winter storms causing widespread electrical outages, road closures, and icy conditions everywhere, the department had been stretched thin. Then there was the Star-Crossed Killer still at large, the first serial killer ever to hunt in this part of Montana.
This guy was bad news. A patient, organized and skilled killer who somehow shot out the tires of unsuspecting victims then “rescued” the injured women before squirreling them to some private lair where he nurtured them back to health, gaining their trust and dependence, before marching them naked into the storm-ravaged wilderness and strapping them to a tree where he left them to die a slow, agonizing death in the frigid, unforgiving forests.
God, she’d love to nail his ass.
So far the cruel bastard had killed four women, the last one, Hannah Estes, having survived long enough to be found and life-flighted to a hospital where she had died before regaining consciousness and identifying the sick son of a bitch. There was other evidence found at the scenes of course, the crashed vehicles found far from where the victims were located and even notes left at each killing arena by the killer, nailed over the victims’ heads. But not one shred of evidence so far could be tied to any suspect. Not that they had any real person of interest. At this point, with the victims unrelated, no would-be killer had popped onto the radar.
That would change. It had to.
In the meantime, while Pescoli and the whole damned department was logging in extra hours trying to nail the sick son of a bitch, Lucky had the audacity, the unmitigated gall to kidnap her kids and let her know he planned on seeking full custody.
She’d hung up from him less than half an hour earlier, called her partner to cover for her and was now within fifteen minutes of the bastard’s place. Popping in a Tim McGraw CD, she realized it belonged to Lucky and ejected it. She tossed the damned thing onto the floor of the passenger seat next to her empty, crumpled pack of Marlboro Lites. She thought fleetingly of Nate Santana, a man with whom she was involved. He had a way of turning her inside out, but she knew he was wrong for her. Way wrong. A good-looking cowboy; the type to avoid. And one she couldn’t think about now. Not when she had more important things on her mind.
The Jeep’s tires slid a bit and she corrected carefully. She’d been driving these hills in blizzards for years, but she was furious and probably pushing through a bit too aggressively.
Outrage guided her.
Her sense of justice fueled her.
She hit the corner a little too fast and started to slide, only to work her way out of it before the Jeep hit the shoulder and careened into the abyss that was Cougar Canyon.
She shifted down. The wheels slid again, as if the road was covered in a sheet of ice, here near the crest of the final hill. A few more feet and she’d start her way down the hill . . .
Again the rig slipped.
“Losin’ your touch,” she chided as she reached the corner.
The forest echoed with the sound of a high-powered rifle blast.
By instinct Regan ducked and with one hand on the wheel scrabbled for her sidearm.
The Jeep shuddered and she realized what was happening. In the middle of the friggin’ blizzard, someone was taking pot shots at her vehicle.
Not pot-shots. It’s the Star-Crossed Killer! This is how he initially gets his victims!
Fear knifed her heart.
Her rig spun, tires skidded, her seatbelt clutched and behind the wheel she was useless.
Faster and faster the Jeep spiraled, sliding over the edge of the cliff. Frantically, she grabbed her cell phone, touched it, but it fell from her hand as the Jeep bumped and crashed through trees, lurching over rocks, metal crunching and screaming, glass and cold air spraying inside, the air bag slamming her.
Bam! The Jeep landed on its side, metal shrieking, sharp rocks and debris tearing through the door. Pain screamed up her neck and shoulder and she knew she was hurt.
Warm blood oozed from the side of her head as the Jeep tore through the brush as if on rails, then began to roll.
Oh God . . .
She clung to the wheel with one hand, still holding tight to her pistol with the other, her world spinning, teeth slamming together and chattering. In her mind’s eye she saw the victims of the killer. Rapid-fire images, naked women, dead, their skin blue, ice and snow encrusted to their hair, their bodies lashed so tightly to the trunks of the trees that their skin had broken and bruised, blood running down before freezing.
Oh, Jesus, no.
The front end crunched on impact, jarring Pescoli to her bones. Her shoulder felt as if it were on fire, and she was pressed tight by the airbag, the grit from its release in her eyes.
With a scream of twisting metal, the Jeep spiraled off a tree, spinning down the slope, front panels crumpling, a tire popping as it rolled ever faster down the hillside.
Pescoli could barely think past the kaleidoscope of agony and fought to stay conscious. She held fast to her pistol, fumbling for the dash to push the button that would release the magnetic lock on her shotgun, if she could get hold of it.
But she had to. Because if she survived the crash and some son of a bitch carrying a rifle came to rescue her, she’d nail him. No questions asked. Fleetingly she thought of her life and the mess she’d made of it: her children and dead first husband; her second husband, Lucky; and finally Nate Santana, a drifter and sexy son of a bitch she should never have gotten involved with.
So many regrets.
Don’t think like that. Stay awake. Stay alive. Be ready for this twisted maniac and blow his balls straight to hell.
Gritting her teeth, she popped the magnetic lock on the shotgun release but nothing happened. It wouldn’t budge. Despair welled but she still had her pistol. Her fingers closed over it now, and she took comfort in knowing it was there.
Shoot first, ask questions later.
She heard another grinding metallic groan as the roof, around the roll bars crumpled, crushing down on her.
In a blinding second of understanding, she knew she was about to die.