In Copper Creek, Montana, Gwen Marcey is struggling to put together her life after cancer and divorce. When her dog retrieves a skull of a murder victim and leads her to the victim's grave, Gwen uses her forensic art ability to identify a serial killer. She is horrified to discover all the victims look like her fourteen-year-old daughter.
The murderer is a "lone wolf," a member of the terrorist group Phineas Priesthood—and he has a score to settle with Gwen. Unraveling the tangled Christian Identity movement, where race—not grace—provides salvation, Gwen is in a frantic rush against time. She must use all her skills to uncover the killer before he can carry out his threat to destroy her and everyone she loves.
I charged from the house and raced across the lawn, frantically waving my arms. “Stop digging! Winston, no!”
Winston, my Great Pyrenees, paused in his vigorous burial of some form of roadkill and raised a muddy nose in my direction.
“I mean it!” Why hadn’t I bought one of those nice, retriever-type dogs who mindlessly played fetch all day? Winston spent his time wading in the creek, digging pool-sized holes in the lawn, and―judging from the green stain―applying eau de cow pie around his ear. I crept toward him.
He playfully raised his tail over his back and dodged left.
“I’m warning you.” I pointed a finger at him. Phthalo-blue watercolor rimmed my nail, making my gesture less threatening and more like I was growing a rare fungus.
Unfazed, he darted toward the line of flowering lilac bushes lining the driveway, temporarily passing from sight. How could a hundred-and-sixty-pound canine move so fast? I circled in the other direction, slipping closer, then carefully parted the branches. No dog.
This was ridiculous. I could chase my dog until I retrieved the roadkill from his mouth, or scrub it off the carpet for the next week. And it was getting dark, with Prussian-blue shadows stretching between Montana’s pine-covered Bitterroot Mountains.
I glanced to my left. Winston crouched, wagging his tail. I moved toward him. He snatched his prize and shook it.
Two black hollows appeared.
I couldn’t move. The air rushed from my lungs and came out in a long hiss. I patted my leg, urging the dog closer.
Winston lifted the object, exposing a hole with radiating cracks.
Crouching, I extended my hand. “Come on, fellow. Good doggie, over here.”
He placed his find on the ground. It came to rest on its even row of ivory teeth.
I approached gingerly, knelt on the soggy ground, and inspected the sightless eye sockets. “Oh, dear Lord.”
Winston nudged the skull forward.
I yelped and sprawled on my rear. An overfed beetle plopped out of the nasal aperture and landed on my shoelace.
Heart racing like a runaway horse, I violently kicked the offending bug, skidded backward, and stood. Fumbling my cell phone from my jeans pocket, I punched in Dave’s number. “Leave it to you, Winston, to find a skull full of bugs¾”
“Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Dave Moore.”
“She’s dead. You’ve got to come now, Dave!” Winston pawed at the skull like a volleyball.
“Stop that, Winston. You’re just going to make more bugs fall out.” I bumped the dog away with my leg.
“What is it now, Gwen? You’re calling me because Winston has bugs?”
I rubbed my face. “Of course not. Don’t be silly. I already told you she’s dead―”
“Question one: Are you okay?”
“Good, good. Now, question two: Where are you?”
“I’m home. Near home. The edge of the woods¾”
“Doggone it, Dave, don’t patronize me.” I wanted to sling the phone across the yard, then race over to the sheriff’s office and kick Dave in the shin. “Stop being irritating and get over here.”
“Ah, yes. That brings me to question three. Who’s ‘she’?”
“She’s a skull. Or technically a cranium. Didn’t I say that? She was murdered.”
“Murdered? Are you sure she isn’t a lost hiker or hunter?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Dave. She’s got a neat bullet hole in her forehead, and a not-so-neat exit wound shattering the back.” The dog reached a paw around my leg and attempted to snag his plaything. I tapped it out of reach with my shoe. I sincerely hoped no one was watching me play a macabre version of skull soccer with my dog. I already had a reputation for being eccentric.
“Are you positive it’s female?”
“Just look at it!” I realized I was holding the phone over the skull and quickly put the cell back to my ear. “I’m not a forensic anthropologist, but if I had to guess, I’d say female. There’s a lack of development in the supraorbital ridges, the zygomatic process is less pronounced, there’s an absence of the external occipital protuberance―”
“Don’t interrupt. She has signs of animal activity―chewing―and is missing the lower jaw. Hence she’s a cranium, not a skull, but her teeth are in good shape in the maxilla. That’s the upper jaw.”
“I know what that is. You’re a forensic artist. Since when has a skull spooked you?”
“It’s not the skull, it’s the bugs.”
“Yeah, yeah, you and your insect phobia. I think you’re just out of practice with the real thing. You’ve been doing too much work on plaster castings.”
“I don’t even want to think about plaster castings.” It was only eight months since my work in Utah and I still had nightmares.
“Speaking of that case, didn’t you find some body parts on your property in that case too? Are you turning into Montana’s version of the body farm?”
“Very funny.” Leave it to Dave to know how to simultaneously calm me down and irritate me beyond belief. He treated me like a kid sister, which, in a sense, I was. His family took me in when I was fourteen.
“I will concede that I haven’t reconstructed a skull from a homicide case for a while.” I smoothed my paint-stained denim shirt. “But in the past, they’ve always arrived cleaned. In a neatly labeled evidence pouch. All the slithery things inside them boiled away.”
“You’re getting mighty prissy about receiving evidence.”
“Ha. Do you have any missing-persons reports?” I took a deep breath, then scratched my dog behind the ear. I stopped and looked at my hand. Fresh, cow-pie green. Great. I wiped the poo on the grass.
“One came in less than an hour ago from the Missoula Police Department. Possible abduction this morning of a fourteen-year-old girl, name of Mattie Banks.”
“If she was abducted this morning, she’d hardly be down to bone by evening . . . unless someone boiled her head . . .”
“You have a sick mind.”
“So you like to point out.”
“I’ll check missing persons, also give a call to the State guys, see how fast they can get here. We’re really shorthanded. I got two officers on sick leave, but I’ll be over within the hour.”
I gazed at the vast Bitterroot wilderness stretching past my yard. Churning indigo clouds now blotted out the setting sun. April weather could change in a second in the mountains.
“On second thought, don’t come over tonight. A storm’s about to break.” I thought for a moment. “Unless you want to call in half the law enforcement in Montana, the National Guard, and every Explorer Scout in the West, I need to see if I can narrow down the possible perimeter for this homicide. Pyrs can retrieve roadkill or tasty dead critters from about a five-mile radius. That gives us a lot of back country to search.”
About The Author
Carrie Stuart Parks is an award-winning fine artist and internationally known forensic artist. Along with her husband, Rick, she travels across the US and Canada teaching courses in forensic art to law enforcement professionals. As a working forensic artist, she incorporates her actual cases and real events into her thrilling suspense books. The author/illustrator of numerous books on drawing and painting, Carrie continues to create dramatic watercolors from her studio in the mountains of Idaho.
Mentored by New York Times best-selling author, Frank Peretti, Carrie began writing fiction while battling stage II breast cancer. Now in remission, she continues to encourage other women struggling through the effects of cancer.
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