She wakes to the sound of footsteps outside her secluded home. Moving toward the window, she scans the dark woods around her and freezes. A tall figure in a long dark coat holds a crossbow pointed right at her. She blinks as lightning cracks overhead. But when she opens her eyes, the figure has vanished…
When the body of a man is found in the dense forest surrounding Black Rock Falls, Sheriff Jenna Alton immediately sees disturbing similarities with a past case—the same murder weapon, the remote beauty spot, and the way the victim is perched against a tree with no sign of a struggle. But the killer in that case was jailed for life.
Jenna suspects a copycat killer and her fears are confirmed when, during the town’s Halloween festival, the bodies of two tourists are found further down the remote trail. They too had been hunted down and murdered in another picturesque spot and all Jenna can hope is that the man behind bars can help her catch the twisted monster behind these new deaths.
As she comes face to face with the vicious murderer who has haunted her dreams for years, she is sure he knows more than he’s telling her. Looking deep into Jenna’s eyes, as if they’re two old friends catching up, he promises to take his final revenge on her for locking him up. But before she can learn more, he is dragged away by prison guards.
When a sudden emergency call takes Jenna and her deputy David Kane deep into the woods, Jenna senses something is very wrong about the situation. As a strange calmness falls over the forest, a familiar face emerges from the shadows. Will this killer be the one who finally takes down Sheriff Alton, and can they make it out of the forest alive?
Release date: July 7, 2021
Print pages: 350
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Cross My Heart
Wind battered the small tent and howled through the trees, peppering the sloping sides with pine needles. The tent bucked so hard it could’ve blown away in a split second—but it wasn’t the weather that had dragged June Harris from sleep, it was the thud and desperate cry. Had she been dreaming? She opened her eyes wide and stared at the tent flap, its zipper glistening in the moonlight as the wind slapped it against the opening. The intermittent view of the campfire, its ashes twirling into the night, came and went with each gust. She reached out to wake her husband, only to find his sleeping bag empty. “Payton, are you out there?”
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled in alarm. Something was terribly wrong. If he’d needed to go outside, he’d have zipped up the tent. Heart thundering, she scrambled out of her sleeping bag, dragged on her boots and coat, and then crawled to the entrance. The wind whipped her hair across her eyes and buffeted her hood, but she hadn’t mistaken the crunch, crunch, crunch of boots over dead leaves. She shrank back as a tall shape moved out of the darkness wearing a long, flapping dark slicker. A stream of moonlight glistened on something in his hand. In blind panic, she backed inside and searched around for the flashlight. Gasping with relief when her hand closed around the familiar shape, she flicked it on and, heart hammering against her ribs, moved the beam over the trees. The figure had vanished but as she scanned the perimeter of the campsite, she made out someone sitting against a tree wearing a familiar red jacket. “Payton, is that you?”
Straightening, she ran across the clearing and gasped in disbelief as the flashlight moved over her husband’s face, frozen in a glassy stare of horror, and then to the arrow piercing his forehead. Shocked, she stumbled to a halt, not believing her eyes. The wind lifted Payton’s hair and flipped open his jacket. Pine needles showered her hood like raindrops and prickled her exposed flesh. A twig cracked behind her, and she spun around, moving her flashlight in all directions, but only dark shadows filled the clearing. Heart thundering, she took a few steps closer to Payton, hoping to see a sign of life, a flicker of an eyelid, something. The smell of gasoline bit into her nostrils and as she moved closer, she could see the fluid dripping from Payton’s inert body. With trembling fingers, she touched his ice-cold cheek and peered into unseeing eyes. Her stomach cramped as realization slammed into her. Payton was dead, and his killer was coming back for her.
Indecision froze her to the spot and, terrified, she let out a sob. Alone and lost, she had no idea what to do. June stared into the darkness; the forest vast and foreboding offered no escape. She ran back to the tent to call for help. On hands and knees, she ran her palms over every inch of the floor searching the ground for her phone, flinging bedding in all directions, but it was nowhere to be found. Panic had her by the throat. She had to get away, and scanned the campsite, spilling the flashlight beam over the entire area before venturing across the clearing. The embers in the fire glowed as she passed and a curl of smoke rose up and blew toward her. She’d closed her eyes against the ashes brushing her face when the crunch, crunch, crunch of leaves came again. Heart thundering, she spun around and gaped in horror at the dark figure emerging from the shadows. She took a step back as her flashlight picked out a man in black. His long coat flapped in the wind and a crossbow dangled from one gloved hand. Terrified, she stared at him, trying to make out his features, but something was covering his face.
“You looking for someone?” His deep voice seemed to penetrate the wind.
June raised her voice. “I need help. Someone’s shot my husband.”
“You planning on starting a forest fire?” He ignored her pleas and kicked dirt over the glowing embers.
June, waved a hand behind her. “No—my husband. Didn’t you hear me? He’s been shot.”
“I heard you just fine.” The stranger’s eyes glistened in the moonlight like liquid pools with no expression, dark and deep as if the balaclava covered the face of a ghoul. “He’s dead, so of no interest to me. What’s your name?”
Taking a step backward, June glanced between the man and the body of her husband. “June Harris.”
“You’ll make a fine addition to my collection, June Harris.” His voice seemed to echo across the space between them like a whisper from a grave.
The stranger chilled June to the bone. The way he tipped his head to look at her through the gaping eye sockets in the balaclava was like talking to a skull. “Collection?” She darted her gaze in all directions, looking for a way to escape. “What do you mean by that? What collection? You’re not making any sense.”
“You’ll find out soon enough.” His cold, bottomless stare never left her face.
The impending danger radiating from him grasped her by the throat and she gaped at him, unable to move. As if in slow motion, the stranger raised a crossbow and aimed it at her. She flinched, but her attention had fixed on the bolt pointing right at her. She held up her hands, defenseless. “Don’t shoot me.”
“Now that wouldn’t be fun.” A chuckle came from deep in his chest as he took a step closer. “Run.”
Lungs bursting from lack of oxygen, June ran through the forest again, screaming until her voice became a raspy croak. He’d kept her tied up all day and held meaningless conversation with her as if they were friends. He’d waited until nightfall to play his sick games with her again. He was the hunter and she his prey. As his footsteps pounded behind her, she scrambled under a bush; the smell of damp soil and scat crawled up her nose. Heart pounding, she’d tried to control her gasping breath but the slow crunch, crunch of his deliberate footsteps stopped close by. He’d hunted her down with ease. She peered through the branches to see his outline, a dark shadow above her.
“That was too easy, June Harris.” His amused chuckle sent shivers down her spine. “It’s dark, surely you can offer me more sport than that? Get up and try again. Run up the trail, you’ll be able to see your way in the moonlight. I’ll count to twenty.”
Exhausted and with her heart threatening to burst through her chest, she crawled out from under the bushes and ran, tripping and falling into the pine needles. When he laughed at her, his complete lack of empathy terrified her. She stood on trembling legs and faced him. “Please let me go. I won’t tell anyone. You have my word. Just let me go. I can’t run another step.”
“Nope. You don’t get to decide your fate.” Shadows hid his eyes, but he motioned her on with the crossbow. “Last chance. Head toward the mountain. If you reach the fork in the trail, I’ll let you go, now run.” He laughed at her. “Scream all you like, there’s no one here to help you and you’ll attract the bears. Won’t that be fun?”
Terrified, June ran, dragging her aching legs up the steep slope. Branches lashed her cheeks and dead bushes caught in her clothes. With each gasping breath, the cold air seemed to be tearing holes in her lungs. Ahead, the mountain loomed out of the moonlight, not far now. She could just make out the fork in the trail ahead where the trees separated. Something hit her hard and searing hot pain sliced through her calf muscle. Crying out in agony, she fell face down in the dirt and then he was on her. As she desperately tried to crawl away, he watched her as if enjoying her pain before grabbing her by the feet and dragging her away from the main trail and along an animal path. The rough ground tore into her back. Rocks and dead twigs piled up beneath her, cutting deep. “Please stop. You’re hurting me.”
He said nothing.
Dragging her into a stinking cave, he pushed her over onto her face with one large boot. Trembling with fear, she froze in the pitch-black darkness until he turned on a lantern. He remained silent and just sat at the entrance staring at her as if deciding her fate. In agony, she looked down at the bolt piercing her leg and dry retched as her abductor rested his back against the entrance, opened a backpack, and feasted on hot coffee and sandwiches as if they’d been on a picnic. Horrified, she lay in shock, too frightened to close her eyes, until the early morning rays of sunlight pierced the gloom.
The cave had metal boxes stacked in one corner, and a crude attempt had been made to sweep the animal scat and small bones into a corner. Cool mountain air rustled the bushes covering the entrance, raising chill bumps on her exposed flesh. June stretched a little, testing her muscles. An explosion of agony shot through her calf. She bit down hard on her cheek, refusing to give her captor the satisfaction of seeing her in pain, and peered at the man rolled up in a sleeping bag blocking the entrance. The cave reeked of his sweat as if he hadn’t washed for a week. She had no chance of escape, now he’d shot her. The searing torment would make it impossible to walk, let alone run.
Panic gripped her and, dizzy from lack of food and water, she stared at her injury. Exhaustion soaked through her, but if she had any chance at all she’d have to remove the bolt wedged through her flesh like a giant silver splinter. With trembling fingers, she pulled gently on the feathered end of the bolt and then gritted her teeth and slid it back through the muscle. Her cry had caught the stranger’s immediate attention, and he watched her with an amused expression as if she’d become an exhibit in a zoo. A rush of nausea and light headedness made her sway but she refused to allow him to win. Sucking in breaths between clenched teeth, she searched her jacket pockets and found her cotton scarf. After tying it around the wound, she leaned back against the wall. Sweat ran down her face and stung her eyes, but she forced herself to meet his hard, cold gaze. “What do you want with me? Why are you keeping me here?”
“Get some rest.” He closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall of the cave. “It’s just more fun trying to catch you when you’re fresh. It gets boring real fast if you’re too exhausted to run.” He wet his lips. “You’ll get a chance to escape again soon enough.”
June nodded. She understood what he wanted. He craved the chase of the hunt. “Then shooting me and not giving me anything to eat or drink is cheating. How can I run? I can hardly stand up right now. Or is it you can’t handle the challenge?”
“You have a smart mouth, you know that?” He reached for a backpack, removed a bottle of Gatorade, and tossed it to her. “There you go.”
June grabbed at the bottle and sipped the drink, then stowed half of it in the pocket of her jacket. If she managed to escape him, she’d need it later. She planned the way through the forest in her mind. During her last escape she’d run blindly, but as he dragged her to the cave, she’d become wiser and scanned the area for an escape route. If she could reach the trail, she’d have a chance of someone hearing her call for help.
As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t close her eyes and rest. The image of Payton with the arrow protruding from his head was burned into her retinas, and her leg throbbed along with the rapid beating of her heart. Trying to control her breathing, she eyed the man from beneath her lashes. He was toying with her and trying to prove he could catch her no matter how many times she escaped. He was as cunning as a fox. There was no reasoning with him. She might as well be talking to a robot with scripted replies. It was as if she’d become a player in a video game running on a loop inside a crazy man’s head.
June stared at him, waiting for him to pounce. When he went through his backpack and tossed her an energy bar, she frowned, unable to understand his logic. Had she finally gotten through to him? “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me.” He pointed at her. “I don’t hunt down wounded prey. It’s no challenge to me. I’ll make a deal with you. Play the game and if you make it to the river, I’ll let you go. If not, you’ll be spending a long time in this cave.” His dark eyes, like bottomless pits, moved over her. “I’ll even give you a minute start to make it interesting. Rest up, Little Piggy—the Big Bad Wolf is locked and loaded.”
Sheriff Jenna Alton ignored the sinister howling of the wind, shoved her feet into her boots, and wrapping her coat around her, headed for the front door. She stared at Duke, the bloodhound owned by her deputy, an off-the-grid special forces sniper, Dave Kane, and sighed. “Two in the morning? Since when have you needed to go potty at this time of night?” She paused to disable the alarm. “Come on then.”
Freezing air rushed to meet her. It was late October, and with Halloween just around the corner, the first snow wouldn’t be too far away. Floodlights spilled across the driveway of her isolated ranch to the dark cottage where Kane lived. A strange loneliness crept over her whenever he went away. She’d gotten used to him being around. He’d been seriously injured recently and unable to cope alone, had spent time recovering in her spare room. Kane was an old-fashioned kind of guy and once he was back on his feet had returned to his cottage. Now the house was so dreadfully quiet she could hear herself breathing.
As they had no cases to solve, Kane had taken the opportunity of attending a criminal profiling seminar out of Helena, with Special Agent Jo Wells, a behavioral analyst, and her partner, Special Agent Ty Carter. The seminar had speakers from all over the world, and she’d encouraged Kane to go. His skill in the field was substantial, but he craved more information and she would manage for one weekend. In fact, she’d spent the entire day hanging new drapes over the picture window in the family room. Apparently, changing the drapes to a more modern look had proved to be a little more challenging than she’d expected. Previously she’d unhooked one pair and replaced them, but the new ones required a rod of huge proportions. Determined to complete this not so simple job herself, she’d found a way around the obstacles that had plagued her and, after many trips back and forth to town to collect the tools she needed, had the new rod attached to the wall and the drapes in position.
Leaning against the porch railing, she waited for Duke to run around. She inhaled the fresh night air. Cold and invigorating, it carried the scent of pine trees and a hint of snow from the mountains. Lightning zigzagged across the horizon, followed by a low roll of thunder, and Duke let out a yowl and scampered back inside the house. A brave dog most times, he had his Achilles heels: storms, the vet, and baths. She watched him head into her bedroom and crawl under the bed and then turned to stare at the sky. The weather had been strange of late: high winds and dry thunderstorms that yielded no rain. After a dry summer and with no rainfall so far in fall, the frequent lightning strikes had become a threat to Stanton Forest. A fire could burn out of control in no time and although the forest wardens had maintained the firebreaks, everyone was holding their breath and waiting for the first snow. Shivering as a blast of ice-cold wind flapped open her coat, Jenna turned inside, reset the alarm, and fell into bed. At least she’d have a few hours’ sleep before rising at five-thirty to tend the horses before heading into work. Deputy Rowley and Deputy Rio were quite capable of running things in her absence, but she liked to keep busy and her new office still needed arranging.
Sleep came easy until her black cat, Pumpkin, let out a snarl and jolted her awake. She rolled over to stare at the cat. Outlined in the window, she was doing a great impersonation of a Halloween decoration. Back arched, fur fluffed out, and her ears flattened to her head. With every yowl, her tail swished back and forth. The next second, a low growl came from beneath her bed. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, what’s wrong with the pair of you now? It’s just a storm. Lie down, Duke, and go to sleep.”
She covered her head with the blankets and ignored her pets. This time of the year, when people’s minds turned to Halloween and all the spooky legends around it, everyone including animals were on edge as if waiting for something to happen. Her cat had arrived last Halloween splashed in blood, and the entire week had been consumed with death and destruction. This year the weather had gone bananas and was lighting up the sky with dry storms. She dozed on the edge of sleep, that lovely place where the body relaxes into the warm hug of tranquility, when a noise came from the direction of the porch. Duke shot out from under the bed. Pumpkin spat and hissed, walking sideways along the windowsill, her head turned and eyes slits in the moonlight.
“It’s just the wind.” Jenna patted the side of the bed. “Come here, boy. It’s probably just a branch hitting the steps is all.”
Duke’s growl was deep and menacing. Jenna pushed back the blankets and yawned. “Okay, you win. Come on then, I’ll show you everything is okay. No one can get in here, Duke, we’re safe.”
What was that? Suddenly wide awake, Jenna sat up and shook her head. “Now I’m getting spooked.”
It’s just the wind. When Duke growled again and scratched at her door, she reached for the bedside lamp. “Okay, I’m coming.” She flicked on the switch. No pale glow flooded the room. She ground her teeth. Just her luck. The bulb needed replacing. Reluctantly climbing from her warm bed, she went to the door and hit the switch on the wall.
A flash of lightning followed by a roll of thunder shook the house, sending Duke running for cover. Jenna bit back a laugh. “It’s okay, the lights will be back on soon and we’ll check the house.”
As the house had a backup generator, if the storm had knocked out the power it would come right back on. She went back to her bed and sat waiting, counting for the few minutes it took to kick in. Time seemed to drag by and she reached for her cellphone. It lit up, fully charged, and she watched the clock; five minutes went by and the house remained in darkness. The last time the generator failed, someone had entered her home and tried to kill her. The cat yowled again. Its orange eyes fixated on something outside and the hairs prickled the back of Jenna’s neck, echoing Pumpkin’s warning. She’d never seen a bear on her property but it wasn’t beyond reason, or perhaps a bobcat had ventured inside her boundary. When Duke came out from under her bed, braving the storm to bare his teeth at her bedroom door, she had no doubt that someone was in her yard. Heart thundering, Jenna slid out of bed and took her Glock from the bedside drawer, checked the clip, and slid one into the chamber. She had the best security money could buy, but without power it was useless. But whoever was out there had underestimated her. She might be alone, but she’d fight back like a wildcat.
The moon peeked through the dark clouds rushing through a stormy night. Glad the shadows had hidden him from view, he smiled to himself as he observed her, backlit in the windows. Out here with no one around she thought she was safe from prying eyes, and yet, he stood mere yards away from the famous Sheriff Jenna Alton. Her tough-guy bodyguard was conveniently away for the weekend. Now here she was, all alone with only a dog to protect her. Oh yeah, she had weapons, but he was smart. In the dark, she’d go for a chest shot and he wore a military-style vest to keep him safe.
The wind buffeted him as he moved closer to the house and threaded his gift onto a bolt and slotted it into his crossbow. He was an excellent shot and automatically made an adjustment for the wind. He aimed and hit the front post on the sheriff’s porch dead center. The sound of the metal piercing the wood seemed to vibrate the stillness for a split second before another crack of lightning lit up the sky. He heard a dog barking and could imagine the sheriff running around in the dark. Once he’d gained access to her ranch, he’d cut the phone lines and set up his wireless disrupter. Disabling the power had been a breeze, and it didn’t take a genius to find the backup generator. Just about every ranch around these parts had one, and with one single flip of a switch the sheriff would remain in the dark.
He wanted to scare her, make her aware she had a worthy opponent. The idea of her watching over her shoulder all the time for an unknown assassin excited him, but then she’d never had to deal with what would happen next. He’d offer her glimpses of him. He wanted to frighten her and be menacing from the get-go. Others had tried to disguise their murderous ways but he reveled in death. She’d be aware of him, sense him close by, and almost be able to touch him, but he’d always be one step ahead of her, waiting for the time to strike.
He’d play with her for a while, make her believe she could win, and then he’d draw his trump card. He couldn’t wait to be there at the end, watching her as she took her last breath and knowing that evil always triumphs. He’d left a message, a small clue on her porch, and a gift for her in the forest unless the wildlife had spread the remains but he didn’t think so. He’d taken steps to keep the scavengers at bay. His attention remained fixed on the house, and excitement gripped him when the drapes moved a fraction. He chuckled and stepped out of the shadows in full view but just far enough away to make her question if it was really a man standing in her yard or an apparition. At this time of year, when people’s minds filled with stories of ghosts and ghouls, she’d never really be certain. The drapes shivered again, opening just enough for him to make out a pale face at the window. He grinned. She couldn’t hear him but he’d sure gained her attention. “Your move, Sheriff—or should I call you Jenna?”
The house creaked and moaned through another blast of wind. Unsure if someone had broken through her security, Jenna ducked down and crawled across the floor to grab her phone. The cool night seeped through her PJs. If she planned to face an intruder, she’d need a few things for protection, and shucking her light-colored nightclothes was one of them. Dressing fast in jeans and a black sweater, she pulled on socks and boots. Another thwack hit the front porch and convinced her that someone was outside. If they used a suppressor on their weapon, it would sound similar, but why would some idiot be shooting up her house? She added a spare clip to the pocket of her jeans and edged toward the window. Apart from the intermittent rays of moonlight threading through the clouds rushing across the sky, darkness engulfed her yard. Only the groans of the old wooden house and Duke’s l. . .
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