Montaña de Oro State Park
Central California Coast
Eight years ago
This was his chance to get it right. he was nervous but confident. This was good. No . . . great. Perfect. A fresh start. A new day. The first time had been a bloody mess. Of course, it counted. It had been everything—which was part of the problem. He’d been careless. He wouldn’t do that again. Because he’d learned that killing is never as easy as you hope, but it’s sooo worth taking the time and trouble to do it with style. Practice makes perfect. Here he was and here she was. Take two.
Looking up at California State Park Ranger Marilu Feathers, he let a smile tickle his lips and said, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
He pulled one corner of his mouth higher than the other, crafting what was intended to be a rakish grin. She’d know that he knew it was a corny old saying, and that would show his mastery of the situation. While he was at it, he arched an eyebrow, aiming to look clever, disarming, maybe even handsome. He was rewarded. She smiled. She was flirting with him.
In no mood, Feathers smirked. It was Christmas Eve and this clown was about to make her late to dinner at her parents’ house with her brother and his family. Her young niece and nephew wouldn’t care, but her sister-in-law would find it an opportunity to remind single, childless, thirty-something Feathers about the importance of schedules for children.
She’d taken her horse instead of the Jeep to do one last patrol of the nearly deserted sandspit, ringing in the holiday and a well-earned break with a sunset gallop. And now this.
The stranger looked Feathers over with a measure of scrutiny and delight, as if examining a long-sought-after rare book found by chance at a yard sale. He had watched in awe from the moment she’d appeared with Gypsy, her big roan mare, from the pass-through between the dunes and had begun galloping across the sand. She scattered spindly-legged sandpipers and inky black cormorants feeding in the surf while brown pelicans and Western gulls circled above, the gulls calling, “Kuk, kuk, kuk.”
He had known she’d take Gypsy from the stable behind the dunes, would go down the Jeep path onto the spit, and would turn right, toward the Rock. He had known exactly where to position himself. She often rode at sunset, when the sandspit was quiet, but not always. He’d spent disappointing hours, primed, waiting, only to return home unfulfilled. While frustrating, waiting taught him discipline, which he knew he sorely needed. Now, at last, his reward. His heart had thrilled with each beat of the horse’s hooves upon the sand.
He felt his emotions running away with him and—just as Feathers had reined in her horse—he seized command of himself. His reward was near. His memories of this moment would keep it alive and fresh forever. All he had to do was hold on. Hold on.
Feathers pulled up her horse beside the makeshift barrier and managed an insincere “Good evening, sir,” and then the admonishment. “You’re in the snowy plover restricted habitat. You can’t be here, let alone have a campfire.”
He knew that. Who could miss the miles of yellow nylon rope on four-foot metal stakes marked with signs, some drawn by schoolchil?dren, “Share the beach!” “We love the snowy plover!” He thought the stupid bird deserved to go extinct, but he knew that if she could Ranger Feathers would sit on their nests—mere shallows in the sand, the lazy birds. He’d not only purposefully gone into the restricted habitat, he’d built a fire with driftwood. Brilliant. Did he know how to push her buttons, or what?
Standing near him now, she was a sight to behold, tall in the saddle, her dun-colored uniform fitting loosely on her big-boned, lean frame. He was beguiled by her uniform, her round, flat-brimmed Ranger Stetson hat, her gun, and her badge. Her plain face so easily adopted that no-nonsense bearing. He’d seen her laugh, but soon after, her face would reassume that stern countenance, that command presence coveted by cops. It came naturally to Feathers. She had been born for the job.
He’d told her, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Rakish grin. Arched eyebrow.
He returned his attention to the marshmallow he was roasting on the end of an opened wire hanger. The next move was hers. He was so excited, he could hardly stand it. Get a grip, buddy!
Feathers thought, What’s he doing? Trying to flirt with me? She guessed he was one of the college kids that abounded in Morro Bay and Los Osos, the relaxed beach cities adjacent to the sprawling state park. A state university was nearby, and students frequented the park to hike in the jagged coastal mountains or to surf and raise hell on the long stretch of secluded sandy beach reached by foot or horseback via twisting, steep trails that traversed the dunes. Only rangers were allowed to drive there.
She had invested a lot of time over her years at the park reprimanding, citing, and sometimes arresting the drunken, the loaded, and the pugnacious of all ages. In addition to providing the public information about hiking trails, campsites, local flora and fauna, and the locations of public restrooms, her job was to enforce the law in the park. Those who did not revere this sacred space would feel her iron hand. She was protective of these eight thousand acres. Her corner of paradise. Her mountain of gold.
The young adult visitors were usually in packs, or at least pairs. This jackass was alone, sitting on a cheap, webbed-nylon folding chair. He wore a heavy plaid wool jacket, buttoned to the top, blue jeans, and sand-caked athletic shoes. A wool watchman’s cap was pulled low over his ears. She saw no other belongings other than the chair, the open bag of marshmallows on the sand near his feet, and the wire hanger. The jacket, though, had deep pockets.
The park was nearly empty. Only a few campsites were occupied. The sandspit was deserted except for this guy. He was burning driftwood, an additional insult to the park. Her park.
“Sir, you’re going to have to put out that fire and move out of the restricted area. Now.”
“I know, Ranger Feathers.” He pulled the golden, softly melting marshmallow from the flames and swung the wire toward Feathers. “Toasted marshmallow?”
The sudden motion startled the horse, and she pranced backward. Gypsy was Feathers’s personal horse and unaccustomed to aggressive movements.
“Watch it, pal.” Feathers steadied Gypsy, the horse moving so that Morro Rock was behind them. The giant, crown-shaped, long-extinct volcano at the mouth of the bay was silhouetted by the fading winter sun.
She was wearing a brass name tag, but his vision had to be extraordinary if he could read it at that distance in the fading light. She leaned forward and gave the horse a couple of firm pats while eyeballing the stranger.
The watch cap covered his hair and part of his eyebrows. He was seated, but his legs and arms were long. She guessed that standing he would be at least six feet. His clothes were bulky, but his build looked average. His face was ordinary. Not handsome or ugly. No distinguishing scars or marks. It was a blank canvas, brightened only by the way he looked at her: adoring and consuming. It put her in mind of the way her brother played with her infant niece, slobbering kisses over the baby while taunting, “I’m gonna eat you up. Eat you up.”
“Didn’t mean to scare Gypsy.” Tossing off the horse’s name was good. He was golden. He could almost see the wheels turning as she sized him up, wondering, “Do I know this guy?” It was all this nondescript, young Caucasian male could do to keep from grinning. He knew how the world saw him. He had learned to use it to his advantage.
His adoring gaze made her wary. It aroused her instincts of danger. He hoped it also appealed to another part of her. She would be unaccustomed to such attention from men. She was a rawboned woman with a lantern jaw, a squat nose, and thin lips framing a gash of a mouth. Calling her handsome would be generous. She ?wasn’t the type of woman who inspired sonnets. But he loved her. He could hardly wait to show her how much. He caught his breath, feeling overwhelmed.
Control, he told himself. Control.
Christmas always made him emotional.
She asked, “Do I know you?” She searched her mind, grabbing at a memory that stubbornly slipped back into the shadows. “Where have I seen you?”
He pulled the sticky marshmallow from the end of the hanger with his fingers and blew on it before tossing it into his mouth. He chewed with obvious pleasure, letting out a little moan. He stood and stabbed the wire into the sand, where it wobbled back and forth.
He struggled to calm his breath. “Nowhere. Everywhere.”
“What’s your name?”
He retrieved the wire hanger and intentionally held it by his side in his left hand, farthest from her, in a nonthreatening manner. He ducked beneath the yellow rope and walked a few feet toward the surf. He wrote in the wet, smooth sand.
Feathers cocked her head and squinted at the scrawling. “What does that say?”
He shrugged, chucking the wire away. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Okay, pal . . .” Feathers reached behind her and pulled a small spade from a loop on the saddle bag. “You’re gonna put out that fire and I’m gonna escort you out of the park. Being Christmas Eve, if you cooperate, I won’t cite you. If you don’t, I’ll arrest you and you’ll spend the night in jail. Got it?”
“Ranger Feathers, you know about death.”
He was standing a few feet away from her and the horse, his hands by his sides. He ?didn’t want to breathe through his mouth, but he ? couldn’t help it. He’d never been more rock hard. He was afraid that the slightest movement would make him explode, which would be awkward.
“Tell me what you know about death, Ranger Feathers. I want to know. I want to know everything.”
She shifted the spade to her left hand and pulled out her two-way.
The call would go to Ranger Dispatch. Budget cuts had made staffing thin. They would probably reach out to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department. Backup would arrive, but not in enough time.
“Do you wear the pearl necklace?”
The question caught her off guard. She released the radio button.
“Yes, Marilu. That necklace. Do you like it?”
“So you’re the one who gave it to me.”
“You earned it. The heroism you showed the day you brought down Bud Lilly . . . You were judge, jury, and executioner, ridding the world of a worthless creep. That should be honored in a special way.”
Finally, she raised Dispatch.
He detected relief in her eyes. A crack in the armor.
She announced her location into the two-way and asked for an assist with a ?nine-?eighteen—?a psycho/insane person.
In a flash, his hand was in and out of his pocket. He aimed the snub-nose .38 at a spot between her eyes as if it were something he did every day, even though it was the first time he’d aimed a gun at a human being, other than at his own reflection in the mirror.
She reacted quickly, but not quickly enough. He fired.
He couldn’t believe he’d missed. He looked at his gun as if it had betrayed him.
At the sound of the gun blast, the horse had reared. With one hand, Feathers tried to rein in Gypsy while pulling out her gun with the other. Struggling with the frantic horse, she got off a shot. The horse reeled.
His hand flew to his neck, which stung like crazy. He drew back bloody fingers. He stared at the blood. She’d grazed him. He started to giggle. She’d only grazed him. But the blood . . . And the heat radiating from the long fissure across his skin. It thrilled and calmed him. His hand was steady. It was like magic. He aimed again.
Feathers did too, but this time, his aim was true.
Gypsy took off at full gallop. After fifty yards, mortally wounded Feathers fell from the horse into the surf, scattering the sandpipers and cormorants. The calls from the soaring birds grew more frantic.
Overwhelmed, he dropped to his knees. He tried to keep his eyes open, but the pleasure of release was so sublime, he had to close them as he cried out, his hands clutching the sand.
Still panting and fuzzy-headed with bliss, he pulled himself together to finish his mission. He picked up his beach chair and bag of marshmallows and walked to retrieve Feathers’ Ranger Stetson from where it had fallen just within reach of the foamy fingers of the surf. The mare Gypsy, hovering near her fallen master, galloped off at his approach.
He took a long, final look at his prize, Ranger Marilu Feathers, bleeding into the sand. The young man—whom years later Detective Nan Vining would give the nickname T. B. Mann—then turned and walked into the lengthening shadows. The next phase of his life had begun.
A wave washed away his handwriting in the sand.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Deepest Cut by Dianne Emley. Copyright © 2009 by Dianne Emley. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.