Murder Game – Christine Feehan

The cougar was going to turn. Tansy Meadows inhaled swiftly, biting at her full lower lip. Her heart was pounding; she could taste the familiar dryness in her mouth and feel the dampness on her palms. The rush of adrenaline made it difficult to control her shaking hands when she needed desperately to be absolutely still. Turn, baby. She whispered the encouragement in mind, willing the animal to do so. If you turn, I’ll make you very, very famous. The big cat stretched lazily, its sleek body rippling with muscle beneath the soft, tawny fur. The end of its long tail twitched. Tansy’s heart nearly ceased to beat, than began to tap out double time. Come on, little mama, she coaxed, turn for me. Her legs had long since lost feeling; they were so numb from inactivity, Tansy wasn’t certain she would be able to leave the tiny ledge where she had set up her blind some months earlier. It didn’t matter; nothing mattered except getting this picture. The mountain lion was large, nearly eight feet long, very pregnant and due to give birth any day now. The slate gray tip of its tail twitched again and again, and Tansy remained utterly still, waiting for her moment.

Five long hours of waiting, anticipating. Five long hours of cramped, sore muscles, not to mention the months of preparation. Come on, baby, a little more. You can do it. Get that beautiful face pointed this way. The mountain lion arched her back leisurely, tantalizing Tansy with expectancy. The cat turned her sleek head, green gold eyes glittering like sparkling jewels. Tansy exhaled slowly as she began snapping frame after frame with her camera. As if she knew she was the object of admiring eyes, the cat preened herself, lapping at her tawny coat with her long tongue. She grimaced, showing off her gleaming yellow fangs.

She even managed something Tansy thought resembled a smile right before she let out a soft, whistling call. Mountain lions hunted mainly at night. Tansy worked with both digital and film, capturing wildlife in its natural habitat. She had captured a beautiful photographic series of this particular cat bringing down an elk calf three weeks ago, but this was her first real break since. Cougars were elusive and difficult to photograph in their natural habitats. Whenever possible, they preferred a high vantage point, and their superior vision allowed them to spot humans long before humans spotted them. Tansy had been studying the female cougar, one of the most elusive animals in North America, for a long time in the hopes of capturing a cougar birth on film. She was lucky she had such an affinity with animals; even the wild ones didn’t seem to mind her presence too much. She continued taking as many pictures as she could, knowing every angle, every frame was going to yield gold. The background was everything she could possibly have asked for.

The night sky, the moon and stars, the slight wind shifting the leaves just so and ruffling the silver-tipped fur. Her subject was quite cooperative—stretching, cleaning and displaying her long, sleek body from all angles. Tansy particularly wanted a series of shots with a variety of lighting up close on the fur. The color was difficult to truly describe, especially with each individual hair tipped in that silvery gray, enabling the cat to disappear at twilight, to simply blend into her surroundings and move without detection through most of her habitat during night hours. She wanted to get the sense of that camouflage in the pictures, of the stealth and power of the huntress, in contrast to the playful and motherly personality. In the distance overhead, the thump, thump of a helicopter, blades spinning fast as it made its way across the dawn sky, interrupted the silence of the night. The cougar froze, crouching low so the few bushes and blades of grass growing on the rock hid her. She bared her teeth in a silent snarl as she looked upward. Tansy slowly lowered her camera and remained just as still as the cat, an inexplicable awareness of being hunted creeping down her spine. Her breath caught in her lungs, and for just one moment she was disoriented, a frightening thing while on a narrow ledge with a wild cougar just a few feet from her.

She turned her face toward the sky as the helicopter flew directly over her. Just the sight and sound of the aircraft was unsettling to her, and she bit down hard on her lower lip, peering at the craft in order to identify it, worried her parents had sent someone after her when she’d insisted she was exactly where she wanted to be. She had chosen this wilderness to be completely away from all human contact, and the helicopter above her was definitely military—not forestry, and certainly not one belonging to her father. The undercarriage of the helicopter glowed with green lights as it moved fast over her, a large bird of prey swooping low over the tall trees and then just as suddenly dipping down below her line of vision, the noise fading quickly. She lay very still on the narrow ledge, her heart thundering in her ears. She forced air through her lungs as the lights disappeared. Her imagination was running wild— maybe she had been alone too long after all. Movement snapped her attention back to the cougar, as the cat gave one final, almost contemptuous lick along her tawny, muscled leg and, in a single bound, leapt to the rock above her resting area. Tansy knew her den was there. The cat had chosen a small cave to give birth to her kittens.

Tansy had been able to infiltrate two caves the cat had previously used as dens to set up her equipment, in the hopes she could somehow film the event. To her disappointment, the cave the mountain lion had chosen was totally inaccessible, which meant Tansy would have to spend another year or two studying the species and waiting for the next birth cycle, after these kittens were raised. In the meantime, tonight’s pictures were worth a fortune and would give her the necessary money to continue her work. Tansy deserved a long soak in the natural pool and an even longer nap in the mid-afternoon sun. Very carefully, she stretched her sore, tired muscles. Needles and pins rushed in where before there had been only numbness. The cramps would hit soon, grabbing at her calves and thighs, a protest against the long hours of being motionless. She had no real room to maneuver, the ledge was so narrow. She breathed through the needles, breathed through the cramps, flexing and stretching with care until she was certain she was able to climb the sheer rock face as she did most days. There were tiny crevices where she could wedge her fingers and toes.

Long ago she had rigged a rope for safety. It was often an effort to remember to use it; she was so accustomed to the climb. Today, however, she was grateful for its presence. She was far more tired than usual. The natural pool would be more than welcome, and nothing was going to prevent her well-deserved catnap. Tansy stowed her precious camera and its load alongside the diary she kept of the cat’s movements, in her strongest metal box at her camp. She locked the latches with not one, but two heavy locks and stored it well away from her food supplies, on the off chance a wandering bear became curious. She was actually happy. Tansy stretched again. She couldn’t wait to let her mother and father know.

They’d been so worried about her after her breakdown, and they’d been so frightened when she started disappearing for months at a time into the wildest places she could find. Dropped by helicopter with her gear, she lived with just a daily radio call to assure them she was alive and well. And she was more than well now. She had suffered through hell and come out on the other side. Happiness was a bright light spreading through her like a glow, when she honestly couldn’t remember feeling happy before. She yawned, glanced at her watch, waiting for the arranged time to call. Her mother had obviously been doing the same exact thing on her end, because when she gave her call sign, her mother answered immediately. Sharon Meadows’s bubbly voice was like a ray of sunshine and Tansy smiled just hearing her. “You should see the pictures I got,” Tansy greeted. “I don’t think anyone’s ever managed to get so close to a cougar in the wild.

” “You’ve always had an affinity for animals. They don’t seem to mind you being around,” Sharon agreed. “Even the meanest dog would turn into a love when you talked to him. But don’t get too close, Tansy. You are carrying a weapon, aren’t you?” “Of course, Mom. How’s Dad?” “I’m right here, Tansy-girl. I wanted to hear your voice. Are you about to wrap it up?” Don Meadows asked. “She’s going to have her kittens any day. I thought I might be able to film the birth, but she tricked me and found the one place I couldn’t get my camera into.

I should be able to photograph the kittens within a few hours after birth though.” “Which means you aren’t coming home.” Her father made it a statement. She laughed. “You two don’t want me home. You’re like a couple of honeymooners and I cramp your style.” “We want you with us, Tansy,” Sharon said, and now worry had crept into her voice. “I love it up here,” Tansy explained. “I know you don’t understand, Mom…” Don laughed and Tansy knew he was trying to cover for her mother. “She doesn’t even like to camp in an RV, Tansy.

There’s no way she can understand how you want to live in the wild without all the amenities of a five-star hotel.” Her father had taken her camping often over the years, but her mother had found excuse after excuse not to go with them. Tansy had been about ten years old before she realized her mother hadn’t wanted to come along with them and that her excuses weren’t real. Tansy, like her father, loved camping, and those summers had prepared her for her current work. “I just don’t like you being so alone all the time,” Sharon said, forcing a brightness back into her voice. “Mom,” she assured her, “this is good for me. I don’t have all the craziness out here. I can’t be around people, you know that—it’s dangerous for me.” There was a small silence. She heard her mother choke and knew she was holding back tears.

Tansy wasn’t normal. She would never be normal, and her mother loved her and wanted desperately for her to be able to be like other women. To get married, have a family. It was all her mother had ever wanted for her. Sharon had never been able to give birth to biological children. She’d adopted Tansy and wanted for her all the things she couldn’t have herself. “Are you certain, Tansy?” Sharon asked. “I can’t help you when you’re so far away. I don’t know that you’re healthy and happy. Are you? Are you really, Tansy?” This time the break in her voice was very apparent, and Tansy’s heart clenched tightly.

“It’s all right, Mom. I’m all right,” she said softly. “I’m happy here. I’m productive. I’m able to make a good living at this and I really love it. My mind feels clean and clear out here.” “I just don’t want you to be alone all your life,” Sharon said. “I want you to find someone, and be loved by him the way your father loves me.” Tansy pressed her fingers to her eyes. She was exhausted, and even over the distance, even with radio waves, she heard the pain and disappointment in her mother’s voice—not at her, she knew that.

But on her behalf. “I love both of you,” Don said firmly. “And for now, that’s more than enough, isn’t it, Tansy-girl?” Of course she wanted a husband and children, but she knew it was impossible. She’d accepted that and so had her father. Love for him, for his ability to understand how truly flawed she was and yet love her anyway, poured over her. “Absolutely, Dad,” she agreed, meaning it. “I’m really happy, Mom. And I’m not ill, even the headaches are gone.” “‘Completely?” Don asked, shock and hope in his voice. Tansy smiled, happy to be able to tell the truth.

“Absolutely, Dad.” And thank you for all the nights you sat up with me when I couldn’t sleep, she added silently. “That’s wonderful, dear.” Sharon’s voice was packed with relief. “Do you need us to send more supplies? I’ll get one of our pilots to make the drop.” “I’ll make a list and give it to you tomorrow. I need sleep now. I was up all night.” “Take care. Tansy,” her mother said, her voice back to normal, once again upbeat and happy, as if by using her bubbliest tone, she could bolster Tansy.

“If you don’t come back soon, your father and I will be on your doorstep.” Don snorted and Tansy burst out laughing. “Okay, Mom. Just another few weeks and I’ll be home.” She made kissing noises and signed off, feeling very lucky and grateful that Don and Sharon were her parents. She had always felt loved by them, even though she was so different. She’d always been different. As a baby she detested touching objects. Even dinnerware and utensils were enough to set her off, crying and rocking, so distressed that her parents would take turns comforting her, walking her up and down, singing to her. School had been a nightmare for her, and in the end, they had hired private tutors—which had broken her mother’s heart.

Tansy sighed. She had so wanted to be that girl her mother could share her life with. The proms, the late night gossip sessions, the wonderful fairy tale wedding—her mother would never have that, and Tansy wanted it for her, just as her mother wanted that life for Tansy. Finally, after months in a hospital, she’d realized she couldn’t be that girl—would never be that girl. She’d accepted herself for who she really was, flaws and all, and she’d managed to make a new life for herself. She was content, even happy, here in the wilderness. Tansy powered off the radio and started down the trail leading to the natural pool. The hike to the basin was long and winding, but she was very familiar with it and could go fairly fast in spite of the roughness of the terrain. The rock formation was part of the reason she’d chosen this area as her base camp. The falls were beautiful, flowing down a series of smooth rocks to a natural pool below.

The swimming hole was lined with rock, so it stayed clean, and it was surrounded with flat granite, so she had plenty of room to sun herself. The basin was the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon after being up all night working. Tansy liked to sleep in the morning, bathe in the pool, and then catch a couple of hours of sun in the afternoon before returning to her camp and preparing for another evening’s shoot. As a rule, mountain lions had a large territory, the females often covered fifty square miles, but the female was staying close to her small cave, and Tansy was absolutely certain that she was about to give birth any day. She didn’t want to miss her opportunity, or let the female get away from her. She’d heard of cougars changing dens at the last moment, and she needed to be watching the pregnant cat closely. Tansy stretched out, trying to get comfortable on the smooth granite surface. Ordinarily, after a long night without sleep, she dropped right off in the afternoon sun. She tried to tell herself she was excited over her pictures, the months of work finally paying off. The truth was, since the moment that helicopter had flown overhead, she’d had a vague feeling of uneasiness, as if a storm were gathering off in the distance and heading her way.

The premonition persisted and was so strong, she lifted her head to search the sky for a sign of ominous, dark clouds. A lazy hawk floated in the cloudless sky, catching a thermal and riding it just for fun. Tansy laid her head against her arm and rubbed her cheek back and forth in a soothing gesture. It was crazy, but she felt as if she were being hunted. The area was secluded, restricted without a permit, well posted, impassable except on foot or, in winter, with snowshoes. The helicopter had shaken her more than she wanted to admit. “Let it go,” she whispered aloud. She closed her eyes tiredly, searching for the inner contentment she always found after a great shoot. No one else could have gotten those pictures. Well, very few.

She had a way with animals, as her mother had said. If she willed something in her head, oftentimes she could get the animal to cooperate, even the most feral. She had it all: the perfect job, the wild terrain, and the peace the mountains always managed to give her. This was the life she chose, loved. More, this was the life she needed. No human contact whatsoever. At last she’d found a place she could be happy. Tansy smiled in contentment. She was very tired and needed sleep. She only had a few hours left in the afternoon.

Nights on the mountain were always iffy. Let it all go and just sleep. When she woke, she could swim in the pool and then stretch out and dry off in the hot afternoon sun before making her way back to camp to prepare for this night’s shoot. “Are you going hunting, sir?” Kadan Montague glanced up at the crew chief, sliding his .45 smoothly into the holster at his hip and locking it down. “Something like that.” He shouldered his pack and slipped his knife securely into the scabbard before glancing at his coordinates. “This is it.” The crew chief, recognizing his VIP didn’t want to talk, made certain the rope was secure and moved to the side to allow his passenger to step up to the open door. Kadan caught the rope with both gloved hands and waited for the pilot’s okay.

The craft steadied and he went down, fast-roping, settling to earth with a slight impact and stepping clear to give the away signal. His descent had taken seconds, and the helicopter swung away, shifting toward the south, flying fast for base. It would set down at the ranger station and wait, no matter how long, for a radio signal to pick him up in the lower meadow as soon as he had the cargo ready. Kadan took a deep, long breath of mountain air and looked slowly around him, feeling at home. Dawn was breaking over the mountain, spilling light along the ridges, turning shrubbery, leaves, and granite to gold. Pine, fir, and dogwood stretched as far as the eye could see, and huge, towering cliffs of granite jutted up toward the sky. For the first time in a long while, he relaxed. No one was trying to kill him. He might be in for a long hike, but he could enjoy his surroundings. He moved with complete confidence, with the steady gait of a man used to being out in the wilderness and covering a large territory fast.

He was at home in any environment, having trained with the military Special Forces as well as with the GhostWalker teams. Arctic, desert, mountain, and water training had given his body the fitness to hike the rigorous terrain. He enjoyed physical activity, and although he was tired from going through several time zones and being without sleep for several days, he was wholly focused on his mission. He traveled in the direction in which he estimated he would be most likely to find Tansy Meadows’s campsite. The area had several possibilities, but she had specific needs for a long-term stay, and that narrowed her options significantly. If she was anywhere in the zone he had targeted, he would run across her tracks. An hour into his hike, he found several trails leading upward into the higher, less dense forest and more toward the craggy granite, a good place for mountain lions. He worked his way steadily to the granite, where there was more brush and fewer trees. Kadan paused on the narrow, faint ribbon of a deer trail to take a long, slow drink of his water. He had the coordinates of the range she traveled in, taking amazing photographs for National Geographic, and he was certain the information he had was accurate.

Tansy Meadows, psychic extraordinaire and elite tracker. The girl who could track serial killers with her mind. Some said she was difficult to work with, others that she was “freaky” but got the job done, and every single report he’d read on her said she was the real thing. Of course, now the law enforcement agencies claimed she’d lost her talent in a climbing accident, when she’d fallen and hit her head. He didn’t believe it for a moment, but if he was wrong, he was wasting time he didn’t have on a bad roll of the dice. He had a few questions marks in his mind about Meadows. There were no photographs of her, not a single one, and she worked for numerous law enforcement agencies. He’d tried National Geographic, but they didn’t have a picture either. Who had that kind of power? No civilian could manage to wipe out law enforcement records—unless there was never a photograph in the first place. There were plenty of articles in newspapers, and her name was in numerous FBI and police reports across the country, and then there were her hospital records.

No photograph existed there either, which meant that little Miss Tansy Meadows had to be red flagged. Kadan had high security clearance and the general even higher, yet from what they could tell, no photograph of her existed. Period. She’d been adopted at the age of five by Don and Sharon Meadows, a wealthy couple who’d made a name for themselves in the research, design, and assembly of aircraft, specifically attack helicopters. Don and Sharon Meadows were major players in politics and frequently received government contracts for military research and design. The couple was well connected politically, but did that mean they had the clout to keep their daughter’s photograph from appearing anywhere in the news? It was possible, but doubtful. It would take far more power and influence, and for what possible gain? The first time Kadan had heard rumors of a teenager who could track serial killers was when he’d trained at Quantico. Controversy had raged over whether there was such a thing as psychic ability, and if one had it, whether could it really be channeled to track a killer. He had never entered into the discussions, because he knew absolutely that psychic ability existed, but to harness it and be able to use it were difficult things. The police Tansy had worked with swore by her, but no one mentioned her training, which had seemed odd to him.

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