Homicide detective Claire Morgan has a bad feeling when a man's body is found in a Missouri State Park. The crime scene is buried in snow. The corpse is frozen in ice. And nearly every bone has been broken, shattered, or crushed...
Claire's suspicions only get worse when the body is thawed and identified. The victim was an ultimate fighter on the cage-match circuit. His wife blames her ex-husband, a Russian mafioso. But Claire knows this is no mob-style execution. This is something worse. Something evil...
Raised from childhood to inflict pain, the killer uses rage as a weapon. Punishing without mercy. Killing without conscience. Upholding a dark family tradition that is so twisted, so powerful, it destroys everything in its path. And Claire is about to meet the family...
Praise for Linda Ladd's Claire Morgan Thrillers
"One of the most creepy, crawly, and compelling psychological thrillers ever." -Fresh Fiction
"Chilling, compelling suspense...be prepared to lose sleep!" -Eileen Dryer
"Exciting, thrill-a-minute!" -Midwest Book Review
"Plenty of suspense and surprises." -Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
By Linda Ladd
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Linda Ladd
All rights reserved.
Lake of the Ozarks looked like a winter wonderland, or the North Pole; take your pick. Everything was pure white and mounded up and pristine and shining with ice. In fact, so much snow had fallen thus far in the month of January that all precipitation records had been blown away, both in accumulated inches and serious vehicle collisions. From where Canton County Homicide Detective Claire Morgan sat inside her partner's white Bronco, heater on and blasting hot air on her frozen hands and feet and face, she watched Bud Davis taking his turn working outside on the slick streets, directing slipping, sliding, out-of-control vehicles around yet another traffic accident. This one was snarling traffic near the entrance to the Grand Glaize Bridge, and that was not a good place to line up impatient drivers.
At the moment, Bud was gesticulating traffic signals so wildly that he was having trouble staying on his feet atop the thin sheet of ice covering the roadway. The snowplows were still out and clearing county roads, but nowhere close to finishing the job. A silver BMW ignored Bud's urgent gestures to stop and thereby started a sideways skid down toward one of the mall's entrances. Excited, Bud slipped again and fell on his knees but had barely hit the ground when he was back up, trying to veer off to one side and warn a new white Camry that was now entering the street in the path of the out-of-control vehicle taking a rapidly accelerating backward slide toward a steep embankment. Both vehicles managed somehow to stop before the worst could happen. Claire had to laugh a little under her breath at Bud's wild antics and wished she'd had a video camera running. The other guys down at the office would've had a ball watching it. She started to pull on her heavy gloves and get out to help him, but then she realized that he now had everything under control.
Actually, Bud was very good at traffic control. Claire had done a few similar gymnastics herself while on today's beat, including skinning up her knees. Her backside was also sore from going down hard on the ice more often than she liked to admit. She decided to get out and help him anyway, even though her thirty minutes of heater heaven wasn't up yet, but her smart phone chose that particular moment to vibrate alive.
Quickly digging it out of her brown departmental parka's pocket, she was expecting yet another call alerting them to yet another traffic smashup. They had been summoned to one after another all day long, the accumulated layers of ice and snow on the county highways causing all kinds of havoc around the lake. In fact, all of Missouri suffered the same inclement conditions and the state was hard-pressed to get the interstates cleared for travelers wanting to go anywhere at all.
Caller ID said her boss, Sheriff Charlie Ramsay, was on the line, so she picked up in a hurry. "Yes, sir?"
"You and Bud still down at the bridge?"
"Yes, sir. We're directing traffic around a pretty bad fender bender. The ambulances haven't shown up yet but they're on their way. I can hear the sirens coming. We got a couple of patrol cars out here with us, but they're working traffic down at the mall entrances."
"Well, I've already got another patrol car on the way to take your place. I need you both at Ha Ha Tonka, and ASAP. Park ranger found a body out there."
Shocked, since that was the last thing she had expected him to say, Claire remembered all too well one other time they'd investigated a murder in that same rugged Missouri state park, a horrendous case that she wished she could forget. "Is it a homicide, sheriff? Or an accident?"
"I'm gonna let you and Bud determine that. Just get out there in a hurry. This's all we need with everything else going haywire today."
"Where's the body?"
"At the bottom of a cliff, somewhere up around the Castle ruins, I think. Apparently, he went off one of those sheer drops out there. They told me to tell you to take the tourist boardwalk to the area, but then you're gonna have to get off it to find out where he went down. Be careful. The ranger said it was as slick as glass up there along the edge."
Well, that was just great, just about as hunky-dory as it gets. Climbing around on straight-to-the-bottom craggy cliffs the day after an ice storm was just what they needed to end their otherwise hellish day on the job. "Yes, sir. We're on our way."
"Well, make it quick. If it is a murder, keep me posted. Hell, keep me posted whatever the hell it is. Dadgummit it, I hate these blasted ice storms."
"Okay. It might take us a while to negotiate these roads. It's crazy out here and it's startin' to come down hard again."
"The park guy said the best bet is to come in by car at the main gate. I'm sending Buck and his forensics team out there by boat because, as I understand it, the victim landed fairly close to the water and that way'll be easier for them to carry in their equipment. All our patrol officers are working traffic, so you'll probably need to string the crime scene tape and make sure the park's shut down. Not that anybody in their right mind would go out there in this kind of weather. And be careful, for God's sake."
Claire had to agree with him. Ha Ha Tonka was a beautiful and wild place, a siren's song for hikers and explorers and geologists, but it was rather remote once you got inside, with lots of high craggy cliffs and gorgeous views and foot trails winding through woods and streams and rocky outcroppings. Still, it could be a treacherous place if visitors stepped off the wood-planked walkways or ignored the safety barriers and warning signs. Heavy snow was going to make it even more so, and the Park Service had already closed it, as soon as the storm had been predicted. But the victim had gotten inside somehow, whether on foot, car, or by boat, and it was their job to figure out how and why and when.
Beeping the horn a couple of times, she finally got Bud's attention and waved him back to the SUV. Another uniformed officer was already out on the street with him directing the slow-moving traffic. Bud trudged his way back through the deep snow at the side of the road until he reached the Bronco and got in with a rush of cold air and fluttering snowflakes and one rather inventive curse. His lean face was ruddy with cold and windburn, which really emphasized his ashy-gray eyes, and he grumbled around as he pulled off his gloves and held his fingers up against the heat vents. "Man, this sucks so damn bad. I bet I lose some fingers to frostbite this time. I wish I'd never left Atlanta."
"I told you to wear more layers, Bud. It's six degrees out there."
"Tell me about it. And if I put on anything else I couldn't walk two steps. You have the constitution of a damn Eskimo, Claire."
"No, I just put on lots of layers, and some Polartec underwear and a fleece pullover and then a Down Tek jacket that Black got me from L.L. Bean, and then my parka. I dress a lot warmer than you do, but enough about the weather. Charlie says we've caught a body out at Ha Ha Tonka."
That got his full attention. He turned his head and stared at her. "Are you freakin' kiddin' me? Today? Please tell me it's not a homicide. And I do wear insulated underwear. And it's the good stuff that I get over at Bass Pro Shop in Springfield."
Claire shrugged. Bud was Southern. He was always cold in the winter months, but this weather was extreme, she had to admit. "Don't know yet what it is. Charlie wants us to go in down there and tape it off at the gate. The body's up somewhere around the Castle ruins. Not sure exactly where. You've got tape in the back, right? And flares?"
"Yeah. If it's a homicide, we'll be out there 'til midnight. The temperature's supposed to drop ten degrees below zero again tonight."
"Well, that does suck, I have to agree. But Charlie wants the top of the cliff taped off before we climb down to where the body is."
Starting the engine, Bud kept up the grumbling under his breath. "Climb down there? How the hell are we gonna get down those cliffs in this ice? I can't even walk across the pavement without goin' down and slidin' ten feet."
"Guess we'll figure that out when we get there. Buck's bringing in his team by boat. The lake's gonna be iced up around the bank, too. At least it is in my cove."
"Well, I guess anything's better than standin' around and watchin' idiots crash their vehicles into each other. Morons, all of 'em. Out shopping. Really? Today? Come on. Why don't they just stay home and watch the soaps and give us a damn break?"
Used to Bud's grousing, Claire said, "Amen to all of that."
Bud inched his way out into the highway intersection and took a wide slow left turn that avoided the wrecked cars still blocking the roadway. "God, I'm hungry. Starving. You got any of those Snickers bars left over?"
"Yeah. I got some hot chocolate in my thermos, too."
"Well, pour me some and get me those Snickers quick. I can't believe we didn't even have time to eat lunch. I gotta keep up my energy levels. It's gonna take a long time to get to that damn park."
"You'll live, Bud. All you ever think about anyway is food."
"So? You got something better to talk about when you're hungry?" Claire handed him a couple of candy bars, wondering how the hell they were going to work a crime scene in this kind of weather if the victim was located at the bottom of a cliff. She usually loved falling snow and ice and warm fires and sitting in hot tubs with her honeybun, Nicholas Black, but not this time and not today. She didn't think she'd ever been this cold for this long in her entire life, and she had a bad feeling that they were still going to be working this crime scene well after dark and in the predicted blizzard that was coming in from the southwest.
Suddenly, Black's idea of spending the winter months down in New Orleans, where there was little snow and no ice and where he had a spacious walled mansion in the French Quarter, sounded more enticing than residing in the current frigid Missouri climes. She figured that he was already back from Los Angeles by now and that he was smart enough to stay inside and was as warm as toast no matter where he was working. Too bad she and Bud didn't have that option. But if Black had made it in before the snow had started again, that was a very good thing. He had been gone almost a week this time.
Fortunately, she and Bud made the drive to the state park without going into a ditch and/or getting slammed into by helpless motorists sliding around in recently dented and damaged automobiles. The length of the ride and Bud's super-hot, magnificent heater managed to thaw both of them out to some degree, but that wouldn't last long once they got outside and into the wind and tromped around in ridiculously deep snow drifts for four or five hours. The front entrance to the park was wide open, but the smooth white mantle cloaking the road was unblemished by tire tracks. They pulled up and stopped long enough to stretch the fluorescent-yellow crime scene tape at the front entrance. They didn't want anybody to cross that line, especially media or ambulance chasers, which would only disrupt footprints and trample evidence, if there even was anything left behind that hadn't already been covered with the heavy snowfall.
When they got back inside the car, Bud turned to her. "No tire tracks. So how did he get in here?"
"Snow could've already covered it up. It's been falling on and off all day long. Last night, too."
"Yeah, true. Wonder how the park ranger found him."
"I'd say he came in down by the water like Buck's gonna do. It'd be easier than climbing down there like we've got to do."
Bud frowned. "Yeah, it's a tough job, and all that crap."
The parking lot was situated on a hill, as was most of the park, not to mention the rugged cliffs and craggy rock formations. They left the Bronco there, and headed up the road on foot to what was left of the old stone mansion. It was called the Castle by the locals, but had once been a magnificent family home overlooking the lake and Niangua River, constructed of white granite blocks, and no doubt full of rich furnishings. But fire had destroyed it at some point, leaving barren outer walls and open cellars and empty arched stone window frames. Still, it was quite a sight to behold and brought in even more tourists and hikers and botanists to explore its surroundings, not to mention lovers looking for a dark place to make out with one heck of a light-spangled romantic night view out over the lake. She and Black hadn't tried it out yet, but maybe they should.
Bud and Claire struggled along the edge of the pavement, through the deeper drifts, but it probably didn't matter where they walked. No footprints were going to be found anywhere in the park, not with the six more inches that had fallen since daybreak.
Bud stopped at one point, hands on his hips, and looked disgusted. The wind was picking up where they stood, now very high on the cliffs, almost howling around the Castle ruins, like in a horror movie. Maybe it was. Maybe those nasty walking dead or super sexy vampires were going to jump out at them, unaffected by the frigid temps since they were already cold and dead. Bud said, "We aren't gonna find a shred of evidence up here, I can tell you that right now. Look around. It's like a barren landscape. Looks like the surface of the moon, or something."
Bud was right, of course. Claire already had a bad feeling about the case, and she hadn't even seen the body yet. How could they find any usable evidence in such deep and undisturbed snow? Maybe that's why the killer, if there was a killer, chose such a remote spot in which to dump the victim's body. On the other hand, there might be something underneath the snow, signs of a struggle perhaps, or the murder weapon or a bloodstained shirt or another body or a road map to the perpetrator's hideout. Who could tell? But to find it, they'd probably have to either melt off three tons of icy precipitation with a flamethrower or wait until the sun came out in April and did it for them. No telling when the storm would break, either. It had been snowing almost nonstop for the last week and a half, except for some lovely hours of sun that very morning.
When they finally slugged a path through the trees and to the cliff extending just past the Castle ruins, a brisk, bitterly cold wind stung them square in their already wind-burned faces, but they continued to make their way along the high precipice, but not too close, uh-uh and no way, until they could see the lights down below where three police boats had gathered in the water below them. Buckeye Boyd, Canton County's trusted medical examiner, was already on the scene. They could see him standing out on the prow of one of the boats, bundled up to his ears and directing his top-notch technicians around the crime scene. The other boats had portable floodlights focused on the victim in the falling winter gloom, and she craned over as far as she safely could and tried to locate the body. As far as she could tell from so high above them, the victim had probably tumbled down the open area under the boardwalk and then slid right over the cliff drop and landed far below. She couldn't really make out anything yet, but it was a pretty good guess that the body had to be frozen stiff. Everything else in the park was, including Bud and her.
"Looks to me like he went off somewhere around here, all right," Bud called out to her over the whirling wind, clapping his gloved hands together for warmth. "Probably bounced around some on the rocks and scrub trees before he tumbled to a stop down there somewhere."
"Yeah. Our problem is how we're gonna get down there without killing ourselves. Any bright ideas?"
Bud stamped his feet and clapped his gloved hands together some more and pulled the drawstring on his brown fur-lined hood tighter around his face. "Man, what a god-awful way to die, especially if the fall didn't kill him. Just to lie down there alone in the dark, all broken up and slowly freeze to death."
"If it makes you feel better, they say that when you freeze to death, it gets to the point where it's sorta like just drifting off to sleep." Claire took out her camera and started clicking photos of the outlook platform on which they stood. It didn't have any disturbed snow or signs of footprints leading to or from it, except for the ones they had made in their approach. Several feet of snow had completely covered one side, sloping all the way up to the top of the handrail. "Maybe he didn't go off from up here, Bud. Maybe a killer dumped him down there and wanted it to look like he fell."
Excerpted from Bad Bones by Linda Ladd. Copyright © 2014 Linda Ladd. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.