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Virtue Falls #4
September 5, 2018
St. Martin's Paperbacks
Available in: Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, e-Book (reprint)
The Woman Who Couldn’t Scream
“Tension builds and suspicion shifts with breakneck speed.” (Publishers Weekly) in this mesmerizing, emotional Virtue Falls thriller from New York Times bestseller Christina Dodd
As if that all wasn’t enough, someone in Virtue Falls is stalking innocent women and slashing them…to death. With no one to turn to, no one she dares trust, Kateri has to wonder—who is the killer’s ultimate target? Can it be Merida Falcon, Kateri’s old friend, newly arrived in Virtue Falls with a new name, no voice and suspicious intentions? No one is safe, and if Kateri doesn’t figure out the who and why soon, before the night is over, she could become the town’s first dead female sheriff.
“The payoff Kateri fans have been waiting for!”—RT Book Reviews
“Another stunner.” —Library Journal Starred ReviewOriginally published September 2017 in hardcover by St. Martin’s Press.
Listen to an audio excerpt:
Washington's Olympic Peninsula
In the mountains
Officer Rupert Moen steered the speeding patrol car around sharp corners, up steep rises and through washouts caused by spring rains. Sweat stained his shirt, ruddy blotches lit his cheeks and the middle of his forehead. He was young, with the sheriff's department for only a couple of years, shy and never the brightest bulb in the chandelier. But damn, put that kid behind the wheel and he could drive.
Sheriff Kateri Kwinault's only jobs were to lean into the curves and keep him calm. In the soothing voice she had perfected during her time as regional Coast Guard commander, she said, "Four wheels on the ground. Don't skid on the gravel. Your only job is keep that car in sight. We've got a helicopter on its way and every law enforcement officer on the Peninsula moving into position."
Like a Celtic warrior, Moen was all wild red hair and savage grins. "This road is a real bitch, isn't it?"
"It's … interesting." Kateri purposefully kept her gaze away from the almost vertical plunge on her side of the car, away from the equally vertical rise on the other side.
"Goddamn interesting." With flashing lights and a blast of the electronic air horn, Moen harried the black Dodge SRT Hellcat that raced ahead of them. "This time we'd better catch those bastards."
"Yes." The Terrances, father and son, were bastards and worse: drug dealers, meth cookers, jail escapees, drive-by shooters … and murderers.
Kateri corrected herself. Attempted murderers. No one was dead … yet.
She checked the dash cam; she wanted video of every last moment of this capture. "I hope the road blocks stopped all unofficial vehicles. We don't want to meet someone in a head-on."
"Not much traffic up here this spring. Too much runoff. Good thing, considering."
Considering the steep and narrow gravel road, considering the speed, considering no civilian wanted to encounter John Senior and John Junior. Well, except for those few locals who monitored their police frequency radio scanners and were delighted when they could actively observe or participate in law enforcement activities – especially pursuits. So far, there hadn’t been a problem; in this case, the public had been of assistance … and possibly helped the Terrances.
This was wild country. All the things that made the Olympic Peninsula a hiker's and boater's paradise — steep mountains, dense forests, wild beaches and hidden inlets — made it ideal for two fugitives intent on evading arrest. Except, oh gee, if the Terrances had been hidden in a cave or deep in the woods, they would have had no Wi-Fi, no radio reception, no way to contact the outside world.
The public and law enforcement had been put on alert and for three intensive days, the hunt had pulled in county, city and state police to patrol the roads as well as the Coast Guard to cruise the Pacific coast. The hunt had been publicized by local news media with the warning, "If seen do not attempt to apprehend, contact your local law enforcement agency." Finally alert citizen Pauline Nitz had spotted the black Dodge SRT Hellcat speeding along one of the isolated roads and the chase was on.
Now, spitting gravel and raising dust, Kateri and Moen led a line of Virtue Falls police department cars in hot pursuit.
Moen's white knuckles gripped the wheel. "Hold on." He steered them over a series of washboards that rattled everything in the car and made Kateri moan and press her hand to her side. He glanced at her. "Sorry, Sheriff."
"Not your fault," she said. Four days ago, while Kateri sat in the window of the Oceanview Café, celebrating her surprise election to the office of sheriff, the Terrances had sprayed bullets through the windows. One of their bullets had skipped off her ribs like a flat stone off the rippled surface of a river, leaving her broken and bloody and sore as hell, but not seriously wounded.
Instead, they'd put two bullets into Virtue Falls' beloved waitress, busybody, and local wise woman, Rainbow Breezewing. Now Rainbow rested in the hospital hooked up to ventilators and drips, unmoving, unconscious. The doctors told Kateri Rainbow didn't have a chance. They said Rainbow's coma was a blessing, for she was dying. Dying…
"The Terrances are slowing down." Moen moved closer to the Hellcat's bumper.
"Maybe they're out of gas." That would be too wonderful — and too lucky since as far as Kateri could tell, the Terrances had stashed fuel and food all up and down the coast. "I don't believe it. Back off."
Moen sighed noisily, but did as he was told.
She leaned forward, trying to figure out what they were up to. "Be care—"
John Terrance, Junior or Senior, goosed the black Dodge SRT and threw it into a skid that sent the car sideways, passenger side toward the pursuers.
"Don't T-bone him!" Kateri shouted.
Moen downshifted, eased off the gas and in the excessively patient tone of the very young for the very old (Kateri was thirty-four), he said, "I know what I'm doing, Sheriff."
The SRT's passenger door flew open. Something tumbled out.
Someone tumbled out.
Moen screamed, "Shit son of a bitch!"
Kateri yelled, "Don't hit him. Don't run over him!"
Moen leaned on his brakes, locked up all four wheels, making the patrol car a high speed toboggan propelled by inertia and momentum.
No way to avoid the collision.
The patrol car's left front tire caught the body. The car went airborne.
"The tree!" Moen shouted.
They rammed it, a giant Douglas fir, square on.
The airbags exploded.
Kateri was smashed against the back of her seat. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't see. She was drowning.
She fought the hot white plastic out of her face. The airbag was already deflating … she tore off her sunglasses. White dust covered them, covered the interior of the car. The siren blared. She needed to catch her breath—
Moen looked in the rearview mirror and yelled, "They can't stop. They're going to nail us!"
Another explosion of sound and motion as they were rammed in the right rear fender. Metal scraped. Fir needles rained down. The impact spun the patrol car sideways, wrenched the stitches over Kateri's ribs. The wound opened, one torn stitch at a time. Icy-hot pain slithered up her nerves. Warm blood trickled down her side.
Moen opened his door.
Through the ringing in her ears, Kateri heard the roar of an engine. Was another vehicle going to hit them? Or worse — had John Senior escaped?
Moen unbuckled his seatbelt. "You okay, sheriff?"
"Yes." She pressed the pad of her bandage. "Go."
He leaped out and ran toward the unmoving body in the middle of the road.
Had they inadvertently killed a hostage?
Someone yanked open her door. "Sorry, sheriff, when you fishtailed, we couldn't stop." A moment, then a face thrust into hers. "You okay, sheriff?"
Kateri blinked at the star-pattern of pain before her eyes.
The face belonged to Deputy Sheriff Gunder Bergen. Good guy. Good law officer. Second in command. He knew stuff.
"Who did we hit?" she asked. "Did we kill him?"
Moen stuck his head in the driver's door. He leaned a hand on the steering wheel and one on the seat and spoke to her. "The body was John Junior. He was already dead. Like … there was no rigor mortis so a few days ago, right?"
Bergen inched in farther, leaned a hand on the dashboard. "We're getting the coroner out here, but yeah. What killed him?"
Moen switched his attention to Bergen. "Gunshot wound."
"Close range? His father shot him?" Bergen asked.
The two men were talking over the top of her. Which was as annoying as hell. "He shot his son so he could use the body as a diversion?" Kateri clicked her seatbelt and let go.
The buckle smacked Bergen on the thigh.
He jumped back, bumped his head on the roof, looked surprised as the dog who ate the bumblebee.
"No. I mean, maybe, but the shot was long range, entered the right side at about the liver. He bled out." Moen looked hard at Kateri. "Sheriff, you don't look much better than the corpse."
Bergen nodded. "Ambulance just pulled up. We'll send her to the hospital."
Kateri said the obvious. "Don't be silly. I'm fine."
"You sound just like my wife right before she collapsed with a ruptured appendix," Bergen said.
"I'm fine," she repeated. The air coming in the door was hot. Wasn't it? "Did we get John Senior?"
Moen clearly didn't want to give this report. "The diversion worked. He gunned it. Road was too narrow. No one could get past us. He's gone."
"Now I'm not fine." As her brief burst of hope faded, Kateri felt each torn stitch. "Hand me my walking stick."
Moen pulled it out of the back seat and passed it to Kateri.
Four years ago, an earthquake had hit the coast of Washington. Kateri Kwinault had been the regional Coast Guard commander. She had lost her Coast Guard cutter in the resulting tsunami, saved her crew, been sucked out to sea and drowned by the frog god …
She said, "Moen, move the cars and the body and get after John Terrance."
"If we do that, sheriff, we'll compromise the evidence."
She looked at Moen. Looked at him.
"Right away, ma'am." He ducked out of the car.
She could hear him shouting instructions. "Good boy," she muttered.
Some people thought she was nuts thinking she had seen the frog god, that ancient god who lived in the depths of the ocean and whose leap caused the earth to move and the tsunamis to rise. Some people made snotty comments about her belief that she had died and been resurrected. But after too much time in the hospital, too many operations, too many joint replacements and months of rehabilitation — after surviving when she should have died — she didn't care what anyone thought. She knew what she knew.
So she used a genuine Lord of the Rings Gandalf-tested polished walnut staff to help her get around … Maybe it wasn't truly Gandalf-tested. But it was genuine walnut.
To Bergen she said, "Terrance is up here for a reason. He's got a hide-out and supplies. Find out where."
"Will do." Bergen stepped back. "As soon as I see you get yourself out of the car."
Cautiously she swung her legs around to the ground. Took a breath. Yeah, it was hot. Summer solstice, almost July, surprising for Washington state even in the summer hot. Kateri put a hand on the door and one on the stick and tried to stand.
A few inches off the seat — and she dropped back.
Mistake. Such a mistake.
After The Earthquake, she had suffered so much pain, she should be inured to it.
Nope. Pain still hurt, and something about having stitches ripped out of already shredded skin nauseated her to the point of — she breathed deeply, staying conscious. "I'm not going in the damned ambulance," she muttered.
Bergen swore at her in some language like Norwegian or Swedish.
"Mean. Considering." She crooked her finger to him, and when he leaned close she said, "Look. I'm not being stubborn or foolish. I was elected four days ago. By two votes. Had a drive-by shooting in the first few hours of my office. I was shot. Rainbow was critically wounded. Worse, the crime was committed by felons who escaped from custody. Tourists freaked out and left town. City council wants my head."
"Like they didn't already want it." But Bergen was beginning to comprehend.
"Business owners are screaming. July fourth is in two weeks. If I don’t capture John Terrance, we’re going to have a financial disaster. And we just lost him again." She stared Bergen in the eyes. "I'll go to the hospital, but not flat on my back in an ambulance. Get someone to drive me and I'll by God walk into the emergency room under my own power. You stay and handle this situation. We have to catch that guy and not just for the tourist trade or to keep Virtue Falls citizens secure. You know why? For Rainbow. She deserves to have justice. "
Bergen stared right back at her. "You deserve justice, too, Kateri."
He didn't call her by her first name very often. Usually only when he and his wife Sandra had her over for dinner. Or in moments of great stress … Kateri supposed this boondoggle qualified as the great stress. "We'll have justice. Bergen, make sure the memory on this dash cam is safe. Back it up as many times as you can. When we capture John Terrance and he tries to sue us for running over his beloved son, that's our insurance that we'll come out clean."
"Will do. I'll make sure we've saved the memory on any other camera that might have captured the action, too." He stood and glanced around, then leaned in briefly. "Someone's coming who can help you get down to the hospital on your terms."
"Thanks." She closed her eyes, listened to Bergen shout instructions to the assembled police, and hoped the someone who would drive her was not Moen. With her ribs, she didn't think she could survive a trip down the mountain at the same breakneck speed they'd come up.
A man's warm, reassuring voice spoke close beside her, "Don't worry. I'm here."
Familiar, but definitely not Moen.
Without hesitation, the guy slid an arm around her waist, down under her butt and handled her out of the patrol car.
She opened her eyes wide.
Oh. Now she knew who it was.
Stag Denali. Bouncer. Enforcer. A Native American with rumored connections to the mob. A man who had served time for murder. The guy who was bringing a casino to the local reservation. Rainbow had once expressed a wish to see him running through the forest naked. Kateri had … in a figurative sense.
She looked up into those dark inscrutable eyes … eyes she had seen wild with lust and need and satisfaction. "What are you doing here?"
His smooth tones held an undercurrent of amusement. "I was out for a Sunday drive through the scenic Olympic Mountains and came upon this scene, and like any good citizen I thought I should offer assistance."
"Okay, you got me. I was listening on the police scanner and decided I wanted in on the fun."
She judged that was bullshit, too. Stag Denali wasn't one of those guys who needed to join a police chase for his jollies. He'd already had plenty of excitement in his life. "Citizens who impede police action are a pain in the rear."
"I impeded nothing. Just tagged along and avoided the collision." He led her toward a gorgeous sedan. Really gorgeous. A Tesla… Expensive, too. He stopped beside the passenger door. "Here we are."
Stag's car, like the Terrances', was low-slung, fast and black, but where theirs had silver glitter in the paint, his was smooth with an undertone of dark, dark green that seemed to reflect the cool depths of the forest. "Nice," she mumbled. "New?"
"You shouldn't drive it on gravel roads."
"Today I got a chip in the windshield." He opened the passenger door and supported her as she lowered herself onto the seat. He lifted her feet inside, took her walking stick and shut the door. As he walked around the hood, she watched and thought it was one of God's little ironies to build a Native American into the living embodiment of John Wayne, all long legs, narrow hips, broad shoulders and calm confidence.
Stag opened the driver's door and suavely slid in.
Could the action of getting your butt into a car be described as suave?
Probably not. But Stag made it work for him. Maybe he was a mashup of John Wayne and James Bond…
She must be getting punchy from heat, pain and loss of blood. She pressed her hand hard against her ribs. Hot. Inflamed. That couldn't be good.
"Take this," he said.
She opened her eyes to see him holding a pill in the palm of one hand and a bottle of water in the other.
"What is it?"
"Percocet for the pain."
"Percocet is a prescription drug. How did you get it?"
"I strained a groin muscle lifting my girlfriend up against the door so I could bang her brains out." He stared meaningfully at her. "She's a tall woman, I'd guess five-eleven."
She plucked the pill out of his palm. "Not since the hip replacements. Now I’m maybe five-nine." She swallowed the pill with a long drink of water. "The strained muscle? Was it worth it?"
"Yes." He lowered her seat all the way back. "If you weren't bleeding and looking like a ghost, I would lift you up on the hood and do it again, strained muscle or no."
The guy might be a crook. But damn, he was charming. If only she didn't have this ugly suspicion floating in the back of her mind…
Since the day Stag had strolled into Virtue Falls, he had been surrounded by a firestorm of gossip. Gossip about his past, about the casino, and inevitably, gossip about them.
They'd slept together. Which was nobody's business but their own — except at the time, she had been running for office and that made it everyone's business. In a small town where prejudice ran deep, electing a female sheriff had been a huge step. Electing a Native American female sheriff had been ground-breaking. Electing a woman who slept with the guy, also Native American, in charge of building a casino on the reservation … from here she could see beacon fires of indignation blazing all up and down the coast.
But none of that was why she felt conflicted about Stag Denali.
He pulled a blanket out of the duffel bag in the back and wrapped it around her. "Going to ask me why I carry a blanket?" He sounded testy.
He placed his index finger on her nose. "Right you are."
She should ask him what he'd been doing outside the window of the Oceanview Café at the time of the drive-by. Why, before the shooting started, he dove toward the ground. Why, although bullets riddled the pavement, the sidewalk, the trees in the park and the building, he hadn't been hit.
Virtue Falls was a small town. Gossip ran rife. Yet no one seemed to think anything suspicious about Stag Denali's miraculous escape. Except Kateri. And she was the last person who should be having doubts.
"What's wrong? You look funny. Are you going to vomit?" Stag looked around at his wonderfully glossy, polished wood interior. "Because this is a new car with all leather seats and I can open the door in a hurry."
Clearly a man who kept his priorities straight. The breeze of the air conditioner grabbed her, and Kateri shivered. "I'm cold."
He touched her forehead. "You're clammy." He started the car and flipped on her seat heater. "You were in a wreck. You're in shock."
"None of the other officers are in shock." Testy. She was testy.
"No one else was shot four days ago."
She put her hand on her side. "It's nothing."
"I've been shot. It's never nothing." He put the car in reverse, made an efficient three-point turn and headed toward town. "It'll take us about an hour, hour and a half to get to the hospital, so close your eyes and try to get some sleep."
"I want to know what's happening." She sounded like a fretful child.
One hand on the wheel, he reached around and clicked a switch. The police scanner blared to life, then faded, then blared, then faded, but from the jumble of voices, the news didn't sound good. "In these mountains, it'll be in and out, mostly out." He reached back again and clicked it off.
"Why do you have a police scanner?"
"I like to keep track of my girlfriend."
Her mind clicked along to the next thought. "John Terrance has a police scanner, doesn't he?"
"We could … do something with that information. Something … sneaky." She took a couple of breaths and felt herself relax. "That's a plan."
Stag laughed, warm and deep.
She had a plan. A stupidly obvious easy plan, and Stag had helped her figure it out. She looked at his profile and smiled at how intently he concentrated. He drove well, not like Moen on the chase, but smoothly, competently, speeding around corners as fast as he could without tossing her from side to side.
The car's interior was nice. Really nice with a computer console that looked vaguely like a Star Trek Enterprise control panel. From the latest movie. The new car scent made her dizzy. Or maybe it was the bleeding. Or maybe it was Stag's scent. Whew. She closed her eyes. She thought she dozed.
John Terrance and his son … bullies, the kind who liked to harass women on the street, to fight when they were the only ones with firearms. Worse, they made meth, sold it all over Western Washington, were responsible for all the misery that addiction caused … and made a fortune. They owned the fast car, they owned the speedy boat, they escaped … but now John Jr. was dead. No one would mourn him except his father, and his father would mourn. His father would wage war on her and her men…
Kateri had a vision of John Terrance Sr., skinny, dirty, leering, eyes aflame, screaming he would come after her, rape her, hurt her, make her sorry. She heard his voice in her head… "I'll leave you more deformed than you already are!"
She came awake on the whiplash of that nightmare.
Stag must have been watching, because he asked, "How is Rainbow?"
Kateri breathed to calm her racing heart.
He repeated, "How's Rainbow?"
"Rainbow?" Kateri tensed, fought the drug, then inevitably relaxed again. "Dying. She's dying." Oh, God. Percocet helped the pain in her ribs. It did nothing for the pain in her heart.
He glanced at her. "The story I heard is that since meeting the frog god, you can bring people back from the brink."
Because Stag was Native American, she was comfortable talking with him about the gifts the frog god had forced upon her. "With her, I can't. There's no elegant way to do it. I have to blast life into a dying body. I've only done it a couple of times — once was my dog — and only when it was almost too late. If I blasted life into Rainbow, I'm afraid it'll be like blowing too hard on a dying flame. It will flicker out."
"You're afraid to try."
"Don't accuse me. Try to understand — I can't take the chance I’ll kill her. She brought me into this world."
He'd been kind of guiding the conversation, giving her something to think about besides pain and worry. Now he was clearly riveted. "What?"
"Rainbow delivered me. She arrived in Virtue Falls, a kid with a backpack and a woven blanket and nothing else to her name, and of course my mother took her in. My mother was always taking in strays—"
"Including your father?" Stag slowed the car.
She felt the gentle bump as the wheels hit the pavement. "Yes. Perhaps. But that was like offering to carry the scorpion across the river. When she had helped him, loved him, adored him, given him everything of herself … When he had sucked all the life and youth out of her … he walked away. She never recovered." Her mind wandered to memories of her mother, of the smiles, the love, the time spent together … the well-hidden unhappiness, the slow disintegration into alcoholism, the broken body and soul.
In a gentle voice, Stag said, "You were telling me about your mother and how Rainbow delivered you."
Kateri focused. "Right. They went out to dig clams by the full moon. Mom was pretty pregnant — her due date had been the week before…"
"Good God. It was night? She was overdue? And they went out to the beach to dig clams?"
"Once I asked Rainbow what they were thinking and she said Mom was fat and uncomfortable and depressed about my father."
"How old was your mother?"
"Eighteen when she met him."
"And he was…?"
"I don't know. In his thirties, I guess, visiting Virtue Falls for the game fishing. Of course she fell in love and gave up her V-card to him because she thought he was going to marry her. He romanced her for a couple of weeks, then when she asked about the wedding…" She looked up and out the window at the tops of the evergreens and the fringe of the sky. "He didn't stay."
"Jesus." Even Stag who had probably seen plenty of brutality sounded shocked.
"He wasn't about to sully his precious eastern white heritage with a short, black-haired, red-skinned Indian wife. What with being a blue blood and being married to a blue blood and having pure blue blood kids." Why was Kateri confessing her darkest, most painful secrets to Stag Denali? She never told anyone about her screwed-up heritage … must be the Percocet. Or maybe the experience of lying back in a warm, soft leather seat knowing someone was in charge and she didn't have to tell him where to go or what to do or worry that Stag would blab her confessions to the world.
The side of his mouth was drawn up in a cynical crease. "What did this guy say when she told him she was pregnant?"
"She didn't tell him."
"Your father doesn't know you exist?" Stag was shocked again.
"Do you want me to finish this story or not?" Snarling was unpleasant, although sometimes necessary.
"Right. One thing at a time. So your mom was overdue and depressed…"
"And nineteen years old and Rainbow was seventeen, and everyone told them the first baby always took hours of labor … so they headed out in Mom's crummy old pickup down to Grenouille Beach —"
"Rough road." He clenched the steering wheel hard.
"Right. They hit enough washboard to knock the teeth out of a woodpecker."
"Woodpeckers don't have…" He caught himself. "Never mind. What happened?"
"Once they got there, they made a fire out of driftwood and started digging clams. They planned a picnic, a feast in the moonlight. Mom always said the best clamming was in that place where the waves and the currents intersect, so that’s where she was digging. Rainbow was up the beach by the cliff and she said the waves were backing and forthing, as they do, and she was digging, and all of a sudden she realized it was quiet." Kateri had heard the story so many times she could see it in her mind. "Deadly quiet. She looked up and saw this giant wave rise up over the top of my mother." She lifted her hands and let them hover. "Rainbow screamed. Mom looked up in time to be slammed down to the sand. She disappeared. Just disappeared. The water rushed up and up the beach. Rainbow ran toward the spot where she had been. To hear Rainbow tell it, it was long minutes before my mother washed up at the tip of the wave." Kateri allowed her hands to wilt down onto her chest. "When she crawled out, she was in labor."
"What did Rainbow do?"
"Delivered me. I came fast. They'd brought a knife and a blanket. For the picnic. They used the knife to cut the cord and the blanket to keep me warm by the fire."
Stag whistled softly. "I'll bet when the elders heard that story, they made some interesting predictions about you."
"As far back as I can remember, there was talk that I had been marked by the frog god. Like I wasn't already marked enough for being half white on the reservation and half Indian in the Virtue Falls schools."
Stag laughed, not like he thought it was funny, but like he understood all too well. "Get beat up a lot?"
"Conflict is a half breed's lot in life." She managed the balance between pitiful and sarcastic very well. Years of practice had perfected the art.
Stag slowed, turned, hit a couple of speed bumps.
Lights flashed in her eyes; the car stopped and she could see the sign that proclaimed, "Emergency Room" in bright white and red.
He raised her seatback. "Ready to go in?" he asked.
"They're going to yell at me. Then they're going to hurt me."
"That's the price you pay for being a half-breed sheriff marked by the frog god." He managed the balance between pitiful and sarcastic pretty well himself. "I'll get the wheelchair." He got out and leaned back in to say, "I liked that story, but someday you'll tell me how you met your father."
"I didn't say I had met him."
"Sometimes, Kateri, what you don't say speaks as loudly as what you do."
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“Tension builds and suspicion shifts with breakneck speed.” —Publishers’ Weekly
"The payoff Kateri fans have been waiting for!"—RT Book Reviews
"Another stunner."—Library Journal Starred Review