This Fallen Prey – Kelley Armstrong

The season may have officially started two months ago, but it isn’t truly spring in Rockton until we bury our winter dead. Dalton and Anders are digging the shallow grave. I’m wandering, trying to calm Storm. As a future tracking dog, she needs to know the smell of death. I’ve read books that say cadaver dogs can’t do the job for long because every “success” leads to a dead body. I dismissed that as anthropomorphism until I showed Storm the corpses . and she promptly set about trying to wake the dead. We’re walking in ever-growing circles around the grave. Dalton’s occasional “Casey?” warns me to stay close, while Storm’s insistent tugs beg me to let her explore and forget what she’s seen. The tugs of an eight-month-old Newfoundland are not insubstantial. “Switch?”Anders walks over and holds out a hand. Storm isn’t the only one who needs a break from this task. Every year, Dalton orders his deputy to stay behind.

Every year Anders ignores him. As a former soldier, Anders might not need to see more death, but being a former soldier also means he refuses to grant himself that reprieve. I give his hand a quick squeeze as I pass over the leash. “Remember, you gotta show her who’s boss.” “Oh, she knows who’s boss.” The dog yanks, nearly toppling Anders. “And it’s not me.” He plants his feet. “Fortunately, I’m still a whole lot bigger. Go help Eric. We’ll be fine.” I walk along a narrow caribou trail bounded by towering spruce.

Green shoots have snuck up in patches of sunlight, and the air smells of a light shower, the rain already evaporating. I see no sign of Dalton. The forest here is too thick. Endless forest, the quiet broken by the scolding of a red squirrel as I pass. I stay on the trail until I find Dalton standing beside one hole dug down to the permafrost. Three bodies lie beside it. Two are long dead, partly mummified from having been stashed in a cave by their killer. The third looks as if she could be sleeping. Sharon was the oldest resident in Rockton until we found her dead of a heart attack this morning, prompting Dalton to declare the ground soft enough to bury our winter dead. A shallow grave.

Unmarked. As a homicide detective, I should be finding these, not creating them. But this is Rockton. These three women came here in secrecy, fleeing threats from elsewhere. They came to the Yukon to be safe. And we failed them. One can argue it wasn’t our fault. Yet we accept responsibility. To say “We did our best” is a slippery slope in Rockton. We lay the corpses in the hole.

There’s no graveside service. I wasn’t brought up in any religion, and our sheriff was raised right here, in this forest. I’m sure, if pressed, we could find a few lines of half-remembered poetry for the dead. But that isn’t our way. We stand there, and we remember, and we regret. Then we fill in the hole. When we’re done, Dalton rubs his face. He looks at his hands, as if thinking about what they just handled. I reach into my pocket and pass him a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer. He snorts at that and takes it, and when he’s done, I lean against his side for a moment as he puts his arm around my shoulders.

Then we both straighten, job done, moment passed, time to get back to work. “Will?” Dalton calls. There’s exactly one heartbeat of silence, and Dalton’s face tightens as he shouts, “Will?” “Over here,” Anders calls back. “Pup found herself a rabbit hole and—” A grunt of exertion. “And she really wants bunny for dinner.” We walk over to find him only lightly tugging on the leash, his big biceps barely twitching. I sigh and yank the lead with a “Hut!” Storm gives me a look, not unlike a sullen teen, and walks over to brush against Dalton. Anders chuckles. “If Mommy gives you shit, suck up to Dad. Nice try, pup but—” He stops, as we all hear the whine of a small plane engine.

Dalton shields his gaze to look up. “Does that sound way too close to Rockton?” Anders says. “Fuck,” Dalton mutters. “That’d be yes. Come on, pup. Time for a run.” We kick it into high gear. Dalton scans the sky as he tracks the sound. It’s not a supply delivery—it’s exceedingly rare for anyone other than Dalton to handle those, and he’s scheduled to head out later today, releasing a few residents. But from the sound, that plane is heading straight to our airstrip.

The pilot shouldn’t be able to see our airstrip. No more than he should be able to see our town. Structural and technological camouflage means that unless the plane skims Rockton, we should remain invisible. I look up to see a small plane on a perfect trajectory with our landing strip. Dalton curses again. “Has anyone ever found the airstrip before?” I ask. “Ten years ago. Guy was lost. Rookie pilot. I fixed his nav, gave him fuel, and pointed him to Dawson City.

He was too shaken up to question. I just told him it was an airstrip for miners.” Having anyone stumble over Rockton even by land is rare, but we have a pocketful of cover stories. Today, Dalton decides “military training base” will work. We’re all physically fit. Anders keeps his hair stubble-short, and Dalton recently reverted to his summer look —his hair buzzed, his beard down to a few days’ growth. Suitable for a backwoods military camp. Anders pushes his short sleeves onto his shoulders, US Army tattoo more prominently displayed. Dalton snaps his shades in place. I put on my ball cap, ponytail tugged through.

And we have our guns in hand. We arrive just as the propellers creak to a stop. The pilot’s door opens. A woman gets out. When I see her, I slow, the guys doing the same. We’ve donned our best quickie military costuming; hers looks like the real thing. Beige cargo shorts. Olive tank top. Dark aviator shades. Boots.

Dark ponytail. Thigh holster. Arms that make mine look scrawny. She doesn’t even glance our way, just rolls her shoulders and acts like she has no idea three armed strangers are bearing down on her. She knows, though. She waits until we’re ten feet away. Then she turns and says, “Sheriff Dalton?” Her gaze crosses all three of us. She rejects the woman. Rejects the black guy. Settles on the white one as she says “Sheriff?” again.

I could bristle at that, but she’s right in this case, and the certainty on her face tells me she’s been given a physical description. Without waiting for confirmation, she steps forward and extends her hand. “I have a delivery for you, sir.” Dalton takes her hand. While he’s doing a good job of hiding his confusion, I see the tightness in his face. He might rule in Rockton, but he’s only thirty-one, two months younger than me, and new situations throw him off balance. “We weren’t informed of any deliveries,” I say. She hands me an envelope from her pocket. “The details are in here, ma’am. I’m just the courier.

” Dalton walks over to the plane. When a hand smacks against the glass, Storm and I both jump. Anders says, “Shit!” Dalton just peers inside. A man’s face appears. A man wearing a gag. Dalton turns to the pilot. “What the hell is this?” “Your delivery, sir.” She opens the cargo door and disappears inside, with Dalton following. Anders and I wait. A moment later, Dalton comes out, pushing the man ahead of him.

He’s blond, younger than us, wearing a wrinkled linen shirt, trousers, and expensive loafers. He looks like he’s been pulled off Bay Street midway through his stockbroker shift. He’s gagged with his hands tied in front of him; a cable binds his legs so he can’t do more than shuffle. “I was told not to remove the cuffs,” the woman says as she follows them out. “I was also told to leave the gag on. I made the mistake of removing it. That lasted about sixty seconds. I have no idea what he’s in for, but he’s a nasty son of a bitch.” “In for?” I say. “Yes, ma’am.

” She looks around. “There is a detention facility out here, isn’t there? Some kind of ultra-maximum security?” “Privileged information,” Anders says. “Sorry, ma’am. You know how it is. Same in the air force, I’ll wager.” The woman smiles. “It was. And it’s no different in private security.” She nods at his tat. “Cross-border job shopping?” “Something like that.

I appreciate you bringing the prisoner. We weren’t expecting anyone new, so we’re a bit surprised.” Anders peeks into the cargo hold. “You wouldn’t happen to have any beer in there, would you?” She laughs. “No, sir.” She reaches in and pulls out a duffel. When she opens the zipper, it’s full of coffee bags. “Just this,” she says. “Even better,” Anders says. “Thank you.

” I look at the prisoner. He’s just standing there, with Dalton behind him, monitoring his body language as Anders chats with the pilot. “Thank you for bringing him,” I say. “If you’re flying back to Dawson City, skip the casino and check out the Downtown Hotel bar. Ask for the sour toe cocktail.” “There’s an actual toe involved, isn’t there?” “It’s the Yukon.” She grins. “I’ll have to try that. Thank you, ma’am.” She tips her hat and then motions to ask if she can pat Storm.

I nod, and Storm sits as she sees the hand reach for her head. “Well trained,” she says. “At her size, she needs to be. She’s still a pup.” “Nice.” She gives Storm a final pat. “I’ll head on out. You folks have a good day. And remember, keep that gag on for as long as you can.” 2 The bush plane has left, and we’re standing by the hangar.

I’ve opened the letter, and Dalton is reading it over my shoulder while Anders guards the prisoner. Storm lies at my feet, her wary gaze on the stranger. As usual, Dalton reads faster than me, and I’ve barely finished the opening paragraph when he says, “Fuck, no. Fucking hell, no.” Anders leans over to see the letter—and the prisoner lunges. Anders yanks him back, saying, “Yeah, it’s not that easy, asshole,” and the guy turns to see both Dalton and me with our weapons trained on him, Storm on her feet, growling. “If you’re waiting for us to get distracted and let you run, you’ll be waiting a long time,” Anders says. “It wouldn’t help anyway,” I say. “You’re hundreds of miles from the nearest community. Gagged.

Bound. Your legs chained.” I turn to the guys. “Can we let him go? Please? Lay bets on how far he gets?” “Nah,” Anders says. “Lay bets on what kills him. I vote grizzly.” “Cougar,” I say. “Exposure,” Dalton says. I look at Dalton. “Boring.

” “Fine, rabbits.” “But the rabbits haven’t killed anyone.” “Yet.” The prisoner watches us, his eyes narrowing, offended that we find his predicament so entertaining. “On the ground,” Dalton says. The guy lifts his bound hands and extends both middle fingers. My foot shoots out and snags his leg. He drops to his knees. “Boss wants you on the ground, you get on the ground,” I say. “Practice your yoga.

Downward dog. All fours. Ass in the air.” When he doesn’t move fast enough, Dalton says, “Do you really think this is the time to challenge us? I just read that letter.” The guy assumes an awkward downward-dog pose. Dalton holds the letter out for me to finish. I don’t need to—my gaze snags of a few key words, and I skim the rest to be sure I’m not misreading. Then I look at Dalton. “Fuck, no,” I mutter. “That’s what I said.

” We’ve left our prisoner with Anders and returned to Rockton. As we enter town, I imagine bringing him back. Imagine how we might explain Rockton, how we’d pass it off. Wild West theme town would be our best bet. Seriously. That’s what it would look like to an outsider—a place where rich people pay far too much to pretend they live in a rougher, heartier time. Wooden buildings, all in perfect condition, each adorned with very modern, oversize quad-paned windows. Dirt roads swept smooth, not a scrap of litter or whiff of horse dung. People milling about in modern dress, because we wouldn’t want to take the fantasy that far. Living without electricity, cell service, and Wi-Fi is primitive enough, thank you very much.

We drop Storm off at the general store, where Petra will dog-sit. Then we head to Val’s house, which seems like old times, going to her and demanding to speak to the council. For my first four months in Rockton, I never set foot in Val’s house except on business. And I swear she never set foot outside it unless she had to. Since then, Val has come to realize the council set her up, that they wanted their local representative isolated. She’s finally begun changing that, which means that when I say there was an unscheduled plane arrival, she doesn’t hesitate to make the call. Phil answers right away, as if he’s waiting. “A serial killer?” Dalton says. “You sent us a goddamn serial killer.” “For six months,” Phil says.

“Not as a resident, but as your prisoner. You are free to impose any restrictions on him. We will not question your judgment. In fact, under the circumstances, we don’t want Mr. Brady to enjoy his stay in Rockton. That is the point.” “The point?” I say. “Yes, hello, Detective.” There’s relief in Phil’s voice as he realizes I’m there. I am the reasonable one.

Classic good cop, bad cop: the hot-headed, profane sheriff and the educated, professional detective. It’s a useful fiction. As Phil continues, his defensive edge fades. “Mr. Brady is in Rockton because he has refused other options.” “Like jail?” Dalton says. “Lethal injection? Because he’s sure as hell earned those.” “Possibly, but Mr. Brady’s father believes society is better served by saving the expense of a trial while removing him as a danger to the public. He wants to keep Mr.

Brady in what we would consider luxurious isolation, on an island, with caretakers and guards. Mr. Brady has refused. Which is why he is temporarily yours.” “So he’ll come to see the appeal of a permanent Caribbean vacation,” I say. “Yes, and while we can argue that he deserves worse punishment, that isn’t our concern.” “Your concern is how much you make from this arrangement,” Dalton says. “No, how much you make. For your town, Sheriff.” Phil proceeds to remind us how expensive it is to run Rockton, how the five-grand fee from residents hardly covers the expenses incurred during their two-to-five-year stays.

How even the hundred grand they get from white-collar criminals barely keeps the town running. Some white-collar criminals pay a lot more than a hundred grand, though, as do worse offenders. Rockton just never sees that money. The council keeps it. But with Oliver Brady . “One million dollars,” Phil says. “To be used at your discretion, Eric. And twenty percent of that is yours to keep personally as payment for the extra work.” Dalton glowers at the radio. “Fuck.

You.” “Detective?” Phil says. “I trust you will speak to your . boss on this. Explain to him the benefits of a nest egg, should he ever decide to leave Rockton.” Explain it to my lover—that’s what he means. Convince Dalton he should have money set aside in case he ever wants to leave Rockton with me. This is a threat, too. A reminder that they can kick him out. I clear my throat.

“I believe Sheriff Dalton sees that two hundred thousand as a bribe for endangering his town. While we could use extra money for Rockton, I think I can speak for both of us when I say we don’t want it at the expense of endangering residents.” “People don’t come here for feather pillows and fancy clothes,” Dalton says. “They come for security. That cash isn’t going to buy us a doctor, is it? Or radios that actually work?” “We could certainly invest in better radios,” Phil says. “Though I’m not sure that would be a wise use of the money.” The problem with the radio reception is interference. The same thing that keeps us safe and isolated also keeps us isolated from one another when we’re in the forest. Phil continues, “I’m sure if you asked the residents, there are things they’d like to use the money for.” “Yeah,” Dalton says.

“Booze. And more booze. Oh, and a hot tub. That was their request last year. A fucking hot tub.” “We could actually do that, Sheriff,” Phil says. “It wouldn’t be a jacuzzi-style with jets, but a deep communal tub with fire-heated water and—” Dalton cuts him off with expletives. Many expletives. “There are always things we could use,” I say. “And if we went to the residents and asked, they might take this offer.

That’s because they trust us to protect them from someone like Oliver Brady. But we are not equipped for this, Phil. We have one jail cell. It’s intended as a temporary punishment. It’s not even big enough for a bed. We can’t confine Brady to it for six days, let alone six months. If you wanted to send him here, you should have warned us and provided supplies to construct a proper containment facility.” “And maybe asked us if we wanted this deal,” Dalton says. “But you didn’t because you know what we’d say. Which doesn’t excuse not giving us any warning.

You dropped off a serial killer and a bag of fucking coffee.” “Tell us what you need to construct a proper containment facility, and we will provide it,” Phil says. “Until then, your holding cell will be adequate. Remember, the goal here is to convince Mr. Brady to accept his father’s offer. Show him the alternative. Let him experience discomfort.” “You want us to waterboard him, too?” Dalton asks. “If you like. I know you’re being facetious, Sheriff, but the residents of Rockton are not subject to any governmental constraints or human rights obligations.

Which you have used to your advantage before.” “Yeah, by making people sleep in a cell without a bed. By sentencing them to chopping duty without a trial. Not actual torture, and if you think that’s what I’m here for—” “You’re not,” I say. “The council knows that. What the council may not understand, Phil, is exactly what they’re asking. Even with a proper facility, we won’t be equipped for this. We don’t have prison guards. You saw what happened this winter.” “But Nicole is fine now.

She’s staying by choice. That alone is a tribute to you both and everyone else in Rockton. You can handle this.” “They shouldn’t have to.” That isn’t me or Dalton speaking. It’s Val, who has been silently listening. “Eric and Casey shouldn’t have to deal with this threat,” she continues. “The people of Rockton shouldn’t have to live under it. I don’t know what this man has done . ” She looks at me warily, as if not sure she wants me filling in that blank.

“He’s a thrill killer,” I say. “He murders because he enjoys it. Tortures and kills. Five victims in Georgia. Two men. Two women. And one fourteen-year-old boy.” Val closes her eyes. “Oliver Brady is a killer motivated by nothing more than sadism,” I continue. “An unrelentingly opportunistic psychopath.

” “We can’t do this, Phil,” Val says. “Please. We cannot subject the residents of Rockton to that.” “I’m sorry,” Phil says, “but you’re going to have to.”

.

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