There was blood on the ice.
Rick Jordan jolted to a stop, gaze riveted on the crimson spots blemishing the frosty ground, fingers tightening on the disposable cup of coffee he’d just nuked.
Could his eyes be playing tricks on him in the waning light of the December afternoon?
He leaned closer.
His 20/20 vision hadn’t failed him.
It was blood.
After all the gore he’d seen, it wasn’t difficult to make a positive ID.
But with all the wildlife on the wooded acreage he called home, could it be from an animal?
As he peered at the ruby-colored stains, the hair on the back of his neck snapped to attention–and since metabolic cues had saved his hide on more Night Stalker missions than he cared to remember, ignoring them would be foolish.
The blood was human.
Giving the landscape a thorough, methodical sweep, he set down the cup of java he’d picked up at the café during his supply run to town, balancing it on the uneven ground.
No movement other than the huge flakes that had begun to sift down from the leaden sky.
Apparently the blizzard warning issued this morning had been spot-on. Missouri would have a white Christmas.
Nothing wrong with a Currier and Ives–style holiday–except the flakes were rapidly covering the trail of splotches on the three-day-old ice crystals from Tuesday’s sleet storm.
In minutes, they’d be impossible to track.
Continuing to scan his surroundings, he removed the compact Beretta from the concealed holster clipped to his belt. No reason to carry when the camp was full of kids and counselors, but wandering around unarmed in winter on 650 isolated, deserted acres?
He might never have needed a gun in the four years he’d called this rural Missouri acreage home, but it was better to risk overkill than be killed.
And while the camp had always been a peaceful refuge for him and the hundreds of kids who visited each season, his goosed adrenaline suggested that was about to change.
Pistol in hand, he followed the uneven trail of blood, only the muffled quack of a duck from the lake a hundred yards away breaking the stillness. No more than a few scarlet spots here and there dotted the frozen surface, but they were sufficient to keep him on course.
The trail ended at the canoe shed, which was closed up tight for the winter season.
Or it had been, before someone picked the padlock.
Shifting into military stealth mode, Rick edged next to the structure and put his ear to the door.
Firming his grip on the Beretta, he yanked the wide door open and flattened his back against the wall, out of sight.
If anyone was inside, they’d masked their surprise well.
Either that, or they weren’t able to respond.
After thirty soundless seconds ticked by, Rick risked a peek around the edge of the door frame.
Nothing was amiss.
The racks of canoes looked the same as they had when he’d stacked them for the winter. The paddles were in their brackets, life vests stashed in their bins, fishing rods lined up against the wall like soldiers in formation.
And there was no blood inside, as far as he could tell after flipping on the light and making a quick circuit.
Nor was there anything to suggest someone had taken refuge in the structure.
A frigid gust of air swooped in through the open door, bringing with it an assault of snowflakes–but the arctic weather alone wasn’t responsible for the shiver that snaked through him.
Where had the injured person gone?
Rick stepped outside again, ducked his head against the polar onslaught, and peered at the ground as he walked the area in a tight grid pattern.
There were no more red blots.
Even the original trail he’d followed had disappeared under a blanket of fresh powder.
Nothing remained to indicate anyone had ventured onto his property.
In fact, if he’d detoured to his computer after arriving home from town instead of indulging in a stroll to the dock while he finished his coffee, he would never have seen the blood. Nor would he have visited the canoe shed until he began prepping for the Saturday spring camps, a task that was weeks away.
Yet what did it matter?
Whoever had broken into the outbuilding had done no harm or stolen anything. There was minimal blood, and the person had seemingly left of their own volition.
The incident might be a bit bizarre, but it wasn’t a life or death situation, like the ones he’d faced in the Middle East.
Tugging up the collar of his coat, Rick returned to the shed and flipped off the light. Lock repairs would have to wait until the storm subsided–but the delay posed little risk. There wasn’t much chance anyone would venture out in this weather to steal his lake equipment.
Go back inside and hunker down until the storm blew over. There was no reason to linger while the biting wind burrowed into every seam of his outerwear and the sky hurled icy BBs at his cheeks.
He turned away.
Took three steps.
You’re missing something, Jordan.
Hard as he tried to muffle the tiny voice in his head, it refused to be silenced.
Especially since he couldn’t shake the feeling that his mysterious visitor had been more than a vagrant or a vandal who’d gotten cut on barbed wire or tripped on a rock and ended up with a bloody nose.
Heaving a sigh, he pivoted, tramped back to the shed, and opened the door again. Unless he did another walk-through, his keep-atituntilyousolvethepuzzle gene wasn’t going to shut up.
Back inside, he flicked the light switch and began a second loop, this one much slower.
Halfway through, he hit pay dirt.
The two small objects on the stern seat of one of the canoes, half tucked into the shadows, hadn’t been there when he’d closed up the place for the winter.
Palming the items, he angled his hand toward the light.
Sucked in a breath.
The identity of his visitor was no longer a mystery.
Boomer had been here.
But . . . why had he shown up, unannounced, after all these years?
What had caused the blood?
Why had the man left?
Where had he gone?
Was he coming back?
Only one person could supply those answers–and he’d vanished.
Another blast of bitter air pummeled him, and Rick slid the two items into the pocket of his coat. After wrestling the door back into place, he slogged toward the cabin, head bent against the wind.
Halfway back, as he slowed to scoop up the cup of java balanced on the frozen ground, a vulture circled overhead, riding the wind currents in search of death.
Bad omen–if you were the superstitious type.
Ignoring the macabre scavenger, he focused instead on the Christmas riddle that had arrived on his doorstep.
His visitor hadn’t been some random stranger, but a person he’d once worked with every day.
A person who, under normal circumstances, would have contacted him to arrange a visit rather than show up out of the blue.
Meaning things were far from normal–and the man must need his help.
If I can ever do anything for you, all you have to do is pick up the phone or email me or knock on my door.
As the wind shrieked and ice pellets continued to sting his cheeks, the promise he’d made almost six years ago echoed through Rick’s mind.
He’d meant every word of it then.
He still did.
It was the least he could do for the fellow soldier who’d saved his life . . . and almost lost his own in the process.
But to help a man, you first had to find him.
And with night falling, a blizzard approaching, and Christmas Eve mere hours away, that might be as difficult as a snatch ’n’ grab mission in a Little Bird deep behind enemy lines.
(C) Irene Hannon, Revell, 2019
Former Army Night Stalker Rick Jordan usually has his camp for foster children to himself during the winter months. But someone has visited recently–leaving a trail of blood. One of the two clues left behind tips Rick off to the identity of his visitor, who soon turns up dead. The police deem it an accident, but Rick isn’t convinced. With the help of private investigator Heather Shields, he sets out to decipher the remaining clue. Except someone doesn’t want them to succeed–and will stop at nothing to keep them from finding the truth.
With her trademark psychological suspense ratcheting up the tension on every page, bestselling and award-winning author Irene Hannon takes you on a search for a cold-blooded killer with an ambitious goal and deadly intent.
About Irene Hannon
Irene Hannon is the bestselling author of more than fifty novels, including One Perfect Spring and Hope Harbor, as well as the Private Justice and Men of Valor series. Her books have been honored with three coveted RITA Awards from Romance Writers of America, a Carol Award, two Reviewers’ Choice Awards from RT Book Reviews magazine, a Retailers’ Choice Award, two Booksellers’ Best Awards, and a National Readers’ Choice Award.