The team leader glanced at the notification scrolling across his satellite phone. Vermisstes. Missing persons. The notification came direct from the BKA. A strange thing for the German intelligence agency to take an interest so quickly. Then again, these two weren’t the usual missing persons. The team leader adjusted the zipper on his faded red and green overcoat and gestured toward the three other members of his unit. Volunteers—all of them. Their logo in crisp black letters: Bergwacht Deutchsland. Mountain Rescue, Germany. They stomped through the snow in the fading evening. Only an hour left before they’d have to turn back. No sense searching at night and risking his team as well. A gorge dipped from slipping ravines on their left, and to their right, the mountain only protruded higher, threatening to pierce the clouds in their grayish gloom. The Bavarian Alps were a long and intricate mountain range.
And two crosscountry skiers as experienced as the missing persons were could cover a significant distance from the Wolfsschluct Resort in the time they’d been missing. Sasha, the local guide, pointed off into the distance. The team leader paused at the sound of an approaching buzz. He turned, chill wind cooling his exposed face as he regarded the orange helicopter whirring through the blue sky. An echoing hum from the chopper blades resounded in a continuous loop against the backdrop of mountains encumbered with snow. “Kapitän,” said Jerome, the youngest team member. He huffed a bit, approaching the team leader with quick steps, flicking snow as his boots plunged and lifted from the burdened trail. “Hmm?” said Luka Porter, the unit captain. Jerome leaned in, yelling to be heard over the chopper. “No more ski tracks.
Scheisse! Think we should double back.” Luka regarded the young man and breathed, allowing a trail of vapor to twist up past his cheeks and probe toward the evening sky. He also responded in German. “Nein. We go back, you know what happens, then?” he asked, quietly. Jerome hesitated. “It’s—it’s growing dark, sir. Just that, I thought one of the rules was to return before nightfall.” Luka scratched at the stubble on his chin. He’d been roused early that morning without a chance to shave.
These Vermisstes were important people. Underscored by the BKA agents who’d personally shown up at his home to drag him to the office beside the resort. “An hour,” said Luka. “Then back. But an hour more.” Jerome looked disappointed, but disguised it well enough. Both of them trudged through the snow along the trail, following Sasha as she led them along the trajectory of the last known direction the Italian couple had followed. “I hear… I hear they were wealthy,” Jerome said, gasping in between words now. Some of his eager energy was beginning to fade the deeper the snow became. Luka grunted again, limiting his words, saving his strength.
“Twenty-four hours missing. In this weather, in November, wealthy or not, they’ll freeze all the same.” “Or worse,” Jerome muttered. Luke frowned but didn’t reply, doing both of them the favor of conserving their breath. Just then, Sasha held up a hand from further along the trail. The light trickle of snowfall had stopped and started a few times over the last few hours, disguising any further ski tracks they might have found. Yet Sasha motioned rapidly, drawing Luka’s and Jerome’s attention. “What is it?” Luka called out. Sasha was pointing toward the sky, and the two men followed the indicating gesture. A single beam of blue light extended faintly in the evening horizon, originating from the helicopter, but swishing and circling around a small grove of trees at the very top of the gorge, near the slope.
“They found something!” Sasha shouted. Luka nodded and picked up the pace, feeling the sting of the cold now and the quick freeze of his breath vapor against his cheeks. He bowed his head, following Sasha’s footsteps as they rushed toward the grove. The Italian couple had set out skiing from the resort more than twenty-four hours ago. Yet, still, there was a chance they’d survived. Properly garbed, perhaps carrying shelter, they’d be in a bad way, but death wasn’t a certainty. Many of the people their Bergwacht unit was sent after ended up being recovered. Many, but not all. They neared the grove of trees, following Sasha, who had skis strapped over her shoulder. The snow here was too fresh, too light for skiing to be optimal.
Luka frowned—so why was the helicopter indicating this grove? A scattering of coniferous larch and spruce trees circled the indicated beam of blue light, which only seemed to strengthen the more the evening darkened. “Lights!” Luka called. The other members of the search and rescue team hit their headlamps, and Luka withdrew his well-used one-hundred-thousand-lumen aluminum safety light. He clicked the switch and pointed the large flashlight toward the trees. Luka blinked a bit at the bright glare, like the headlights of a police vehicle. He nodded at the others to approach. Care was in order. Jerome, their law enforcement volunteer, drew his sidearm. One could never be too careful in the Alps. All sorts of creatures lurked in these mountains.
“I see something,” Sasha called as she moved toward the trees. Snow crunched underfoot, suggesting new snowfall had been blocked, mostly, by the trees, leaving only residue and whatever had been dislodged from the branches. “Careful,” Jerome called, his weapon in his gloved hand. Sasha nodded but waved away the caution, stepping toward the indicated portion of the forest. She pulled up sharply. Luka could see it now too. It was hard to miss. Dark shapes against the snow. Dark stains. Jerome’s gun lowered slowly as they approached through the coniferous trees.
Then the young volunteer cursed and his arms went limp. “Oh mein Gott,” he said, murmuring a quick prayer before crossing himself. Luka stepped past Jerome and came up level with Sasha, beneath a giant fir. He brushed aside an extended branch with one hand and stared into the snowy grove, his eyes fixed on the scene. “The tourists?” Sasha asked in a low, trembling voice. “Call it in,” Luka said, sharply. “Now.” He heard Sasha at his side fumbling with her SAT phone, followed by the quick beep of buttons in response. He listened to the helicopter still whirring overhead, like a vulture circling a carcass. Jerome tried to move closer, but Luka held out an arm, pressing back against the young man.
“Don’t,” he said, quickly. “Can’t disturb it.” “What—what do you think did this?” Jerome murmured, staring. Luka returned his attention toward the grove, difficult as this was. He’d seen victims of animal attacks before, but nothing like this. Bear attacks weren’t common in the region—or, at least, hadn’t been in a long while. Recently, though, in the past few years, there had been a resurgence of brown bear sightings in the Alps. Now, the proof lay before him. Two bodies—at least, what remained of them. Bloody, frozen, scattered like impressionistic art in droplets and spray around the area.
A few streaks had even speckled the trees. Pieces of human flesh also ornamented the ground. An entire foot was caught in a young sapling, the tree’s growth stunted by lack of sunshine. Bloody furrows and cuts laced the bodies. So much blood. Too much, suggesting the victims had been alive for a good portion of the carnage. Luka simply stared, arm extended, braced against Jerome as he listened to Sasha. “Yes… yes, is the agent still there? The one with BKA? No, Franz, no time—now. We—we think we found them.” A pause.
A staticky voice on the other end. Sasha swallowed. “Dead,” she said. “Definitely dead.” CHAPTER TWO Another vibration on her desk. Adele glanced down and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Angus. Again. He’d been texting her for three days now. She pushed her phone out of sight beneath a stack of papers balanced on a metal tray.
Late. She’d pushed off the paperwork for too long already. Agent Grant, her supervising officer in San Francisco, was a patient sort, but even she was getting tired of Adele’s procrastination. In fact, her last comment had gone something like, “Stay the hell in your office. Lock the door, and don’t leave until you get the forms on my desk. Understand? Christ, Adele, I have bureaucrats breathing down my neck as it is.” Not the most comforting of words to have echoing in her head as she filled out the overdue forms. Adele wrinkled her nose and glanced at her empty mug. The faint odor of coffee hung on the air of her small office. Really, it was little more than a walk-in closet with an opaque glass door.
Windowless, with a single desk and chair and an overhead yellowish light, it served well enough. She lifted another file, dropped it in front of her, and began flipping through the pages. Her eyes glazed as she did, and the hand holding the pen went limp, pressed against the desk. Only fifty more documents to go. The joys of corresponding between multiple agencies couldn’t be overstated. At last, she found the portion of the document requiring her attention and moved to fill it out. More vibrating. “Damn it!” she shouted, launching her pen at the stack of papers now shielding her phone. She grabbed the phone, lifted it, and read, “4 New Messages.” All of them from Angus.
The handsome, curly-haired coder had broken up with her a few months ago. At the time, she’d thought they were on the verge of getting engaged. She glanced at the pile of folders, then at her phone. Then, quietly muttering to herself, she unlocked the screen and scrolled through Angus’s messages. Hey Adele, have a sec? A sec? Quaint. Cute. To the point. Don’t know if you got my last message. Can we talk? She scanned the times the messages were sent. Only two hours in between.
Was it just her imagination, or was Angus getting desperate? What could he possibly want anyway? Adele, look—I’m sorry for how things ended. I’ve been thinking a lot. Do you think we could hash things out this week? Adele’s eyebrows inched up and she tapped her pen against her whitened teeth. Interesting. Was… was it possible Angus wanted to get back together? She read the last message, which simply said: Please. She sighed and pushed her phone back beneath the pile of papers in the metal tray. No sense sorting it out now. She was swamped. Hurting Angus’s feelings a little was nothing in comparison to what Agent Grant would do to her if she postponed filling out the forms another day. Besides, Angus had done his share of hurting last time they’d interacted.
Adele squared her shoulders and tried to return her attention to her paperwork. No use. She leaned back, emitting a quiet sigh that extended toward the ceiling as if encapsulating the yellow light and blending with the illumination. Though he’d hurt her, she wasn’t interested in hurting Angus. He’d been a good boyfriend— a solid boyfriend. Predictable? Maybe a little. Reliable, though? Certainly. Honest, too—though sometimes too nice, too hesitant. Safe. Perhaps the best word to describe him.
Rich now, too, if what she was hearing about his last tech company was anything to go by. Her left hand inched toward the phone again, but she paused, allowing it to linger on the soft surface of the paper beneath her fingertips. All this paperwork could have been avoided, at least—mostly—if she wasn’t forced to spend so much time in airplanes, or moving between agencies. When she’d agreed to work with Interpol as a correspondent between BKA, DGSI, and the FBI, she’d thought she’d known what she was getting into. But now… She wrinkled her nose again at the pile of folders in front of her. Perhaps it was time to set down roots. Moving, constantly moving… It wasn’t conducive to a happy life, was it? Recently, Adele had read an article in Psychology Meritus, a journal that the FBI Behavioral Unit swore by, which said that people who constantly moved in their youth, and continued to do so as an adult, often found it difficult to connect to others. The threat of uprooting and leaving could sometimes even have a traumatic effect on a child. Adele frowned at the memory. Could it be true? It wasn’t like she had many friends.
She thought of Robert, and a small smile played across her lips. Even Agent Grant, despite being her boss, was someone she could confide in. Her smile faded a bit as she thought of John Renee. Crack-shot, wisecracking asshole extraordinaire. Nothing safe about John. The anti-Angus in many ways. Frowning now, she reached for her phone, intent on calling Angus. A call couldn’t hurt, could it? Especially if he wanted her back. What would she say? Would she even know before hearing his voice? As she picked up her phone and felt the smooth weight, it began to ring. Not vibrating this time, but a shrill chirp.
The only number in her phone set to make a sound came from upstairs. Adele’s frown deepened and she could feel the furrowed lines gouged into her forehead as she pressed the phone to her ear. “Agent Grant, I’m working on the files. Not done yet, but I should—” “Adele, forget the files,” said the voice on the other end. “We need you upstairs.” “Are you sure? If you give me a few more hours, I’m sure I could—” “Forget the files, Adele,” said Agent Grant’s voice. It sounded strained, reluctant, but certain. “Hurry. Something came up.”