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"Where are you, Dev?"
"Out here," Devlin Wylde called.
Following the sound of Her husband's voice, Hanna stepped into the enclosed patio at the back of their house. Beyond, their backyard swept through a natural meadow to the base of the Santa Monica foothills. Deer often grazed at the edges during twilight.
"Let's go," Hanna said, "before the phone rings."
"Almost with you," Devlin said. He popped heel inserts into his Brooks, slipped the running shoes on and pulled the laces tight.
"Any last minute glitches with the race preparations?"
"That’s an understatement. What was I thinking when I started this project? It was supposed to be a simple 10-K fun run to raise money for the cougar habitat, and it has turned into this monster with a life of its own."
Hanna was wearing a brilliant white t-shirt with a stylized line drawing of a cougar on the front. The words 1st Annual Cougar Run were emblazoned on the back across a simple map of the Santa Monica mountains. Hanna worked the area as a park ranger. Below the t-shirt, she wore pink running shorts cut high on tanned, muscled legs. Her own running shoes were battered veterans of the trail. With short, chopped hair, she looked fast even standing still.
"I told you not to volunteer," Devlin chuckled.
Ignoring the gibe, Hanna stretched her thighs, alternately pulling each foot up behind her buttocks. "Let’s run up Old Boney,” she said. “ I want to be sure the trail is clear. It shouldn't take over an hour."
"No problem," Devlin said. He bent slowly from the waist, placing his palms flat on the ground. He was lean and wiry, his legs sun-hardened, gnarled muscles. "But let's stretch it out, do ten or fifteen. I need to get some distance in."
As he stood up the phone rang. He looked at Hanna
"Don't answer it," she said.
"I have too. I'm on-call."
"You're always on-call."
"It's a small unit."
"Let another homicide detective handle it."
Her words came too late. Devlin had already entered the small house and picked up the kitchen phone.
"Wylde." His voice moved an octave lower to it's professional range. He listened. "Okay, I'm rolling." He checked his watch. "Forty-five minutes." He hung up.
"Hanna, honey, I'm sorry --" Stepping back into the enclosed patio, Devlin cut his apology short. Through the screens, he saw his wife sprinting away, her legs moving with the speed of anger.
With a rock in his heart, he stood watching as she disappeared into the mountains like Jonah down the whale's gullet.
THE LOS ANGELES TRIBUNE
MAY 30, 2005
SEARCH FOR DETECTIVE’S WIFE CURTAILED
SANTA MONICA (AP)
After three months, the search for a missing woman has been called off by authorities. Hanna Wylde, 30, wife of Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective Devlin Wylde, disappeared February 18th in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreational Area while running. A park ranger, Ms. Wylde was training for an upcoming 10K race she had organized.
Extensive searches of the trails and surrounding regions did not recovered a single trace of the missing woman, and a police spokesman stated resources are currently being redirected to other pressing issues. A number of possible reasons behind the disappearance have been investigated, but have also met with negative results.
The 10K Cougar Run conceived and organized by Hanna Wylde was run on schedule earlier this month. Responsibility for the event, produced to raise funds to protect the local cougar habitat, was assumed by several of the Santa Monica Mountain park rangers with whom the missing woman worked. The event was staged as both a fund raiser and a way to keep the fate of Hanna Wylde at the forefront of public attention.
At this time, the missing woman is feared dead, however, foul play has not been indicated . . .
From the shade of the granite overhang, the golden-colored cougar lay watching a narrow trail leading up to her perch. Far below, a dust cloud indicated the progress of a group of runners as they jostled for position.
Wearing red shorts and a black singlet, a tall, lean runner began moving quickly toward the front of the pack. The cougar’s sleepy eyes caught the action and became suddenly alert. Muscles under fur twitched and rippled as the cougar pushed herself up on her front paws.
On the trail below, Devlin Wylde was completely unaware of his observer. With a burst of speed, he broke away from the pack and attacked the steep mountain trail. Hack Martin, his homicide unit partner, also sped up and fell into step beside him.
“You’re pushing it,” Hack said, his voice steady.
“One of those days,” Devlin replied, kicking the pace up another notch.
Their work day had been ordinary, so Hack knew his partner must be struggling as always with the fate of his wife. “How are the plans for the next Cougar Run? It’s just a couple of weeks away, right?”
“Yeah, but all I do is show up and run. The park rangers are doing all the organizing.”
“Hanna would be pleased the race is a success.” Hack was laboring now, the pace too fast to make talking easy.
Devlin grunted. “Perhaps – but would it be a success if she hadn’t disappeared and made it a memorial run?”
“That’s cold,” Hack said.
“I’m feeling cold,” Devlin said. He surged past a dip in the trail and began driving hard with his arms as the ground became steeper.
“You’ve got to work through this, man,” Hack said, falling back slightly.
“It’s been two years –“
“And your point?”
“How about, get over it?”
Breathing heavily, Devlin turned on the speed and pulled away from his friend and partner. Hack let him go. He’d worked with Devlin long enough to know when he’d pushed too hard. Sooner or later people worked through their grief. In Devlin’s case it would be later –much later.
Running on instinct, lost in his own head, Devlin knew Hack’s intentions were good. However, roads paved with good intentions still led to hell. Hanna was gone. No that wasn’t right. Hanna was dead. For Devlin, memorial runs and well meaning friends only kept memory and pain alive. He felt obligated to participate, but it made him the target for sympathy he didn’t need or want.
It was the not knowing that killed him inside. They had found no trace of Hanna. He had found no trace of Hanna. He was a detective, a homicide detective. His reputation had been built on cracking tough cases when other detectives floundered. But on this most important case, the one he had to crack, he wasn't able to detect his way to first base. Every day, it killed him. It didn't matter if two years had passed. Every day, he chewed himself up and spat himself out.
All he could do was run.
All he wanted to do was run.
Higher on the trail, the cougar watched Devlin putting distance between himself and the pack. Her ears flattened against her head, which appeared too small in comparison to her powerful shoulders and body. Her nose twitched, scenting the air.
Rising, she slunk out of the shade and into the glare of the sun. Her tail, the thickness and length of an average man’s arm, swished with agitation. The action of her tail and the mass of muscle in her back haunches made leaps of twenty to thirty feet possible.
Devlin was moving easily, legs churning without effort. A thin sheen of sweat oiled his shoulders and the fronts of his thighs. The muscle crankiness of the first few miles of the run were history, his body now flowing to an internal rhythm.
Hill running was Devlin’s strength. He attacked the rising trail as if he wanted to stomp it flat, conquer it with sheer determination. He fought to keep his breathing regular, his body upright, and his speed constant. His aggressive pace gradually separated him further and further from the shuffling pack behind.
Halfway up the two mile long hill, the trail curved around a rocky outcropping. With his mind focused only on the numbing anesthetic of pace, Devlin rounded the obstacle. Appearing suddenly, the cougar snarled viciously from the center of the trail, causing Devlin to almost skid into a cactus patch in shock. Fighting to maintain his balance, he stumbled forward as the cougar turned and scrambled away.
Staggering to a stop, Devlin’s heart pound as he gasped for breath. Not more than ten feet away, the mountain cat also stopped, turned back, and snarled again.
“Get out of here! Scat!” Devlin yelled.
Adrenaline overload from the surprise was causing him to shake. The cat snarled again, but didn’t move.
Devlin stamped one foot forward. The cat moved enough to keep her distance and then snarled again. “Scat!” Devlin clapped his hands and took two steps forward. The cat moved the same distance and stopped. This time there was no snarl, just an expression on the animal’s face that struck Devlin as challenging.
Without thinking, Devlin took several more tentative steps. The cougar moved back enough to keep her distance. Emboldened, but still trying to scare the cat away, Devlin began jogging forward. The cougar turned and moved up the trail, looking over her shoulder as if to make sure Devlin was following.
Devlin felt himself drawn. As the cat picked up speed, Devlin picked up his own pace. The dusty path twisted around several more outcroppings, and Devlin raced forward each time to keep the cat in sight. Eventually, he was running flat out, virtually chasing his quarry. For her part, the cougar was at speed, stretching out to full body length with each gallop forward.
There was something primeval in the chase. Blood coursed through Devlin’s veins, saliva whipping from his mouth.
And then the cat was gone.
Devlin was as startled by its disappearance as he had been by its apparition. He slowed to a walk, unsure of what happened. He looked at the ground. There were paw marks in the dust of the trail – and then there weren’t.
Devlin looked into the underbrush at the side of the trail. Nothing. He ran up the trail, around the next outcropping, and the next, constantly hoping to catch sight of dusky golden fur.
Devlin stopped. The cat was gone, leaving him sweating and dirty, but somehow full of spring in his legs. He smiled, his face creasing into familiar lines long unused. Then he began running again with a sudden feeling of power and purpose.
The call out came the next day at an inappropriate time, as it always did. Devlin’s head was under the shower, shampoo rinsing from his hair, when the bleating of the phone intruded. All too familiar with this type of timing, Devlin had placed the portable phone on top of the wide frame around the shower doors. Without bothering to turn the water off, he grabbed the receiver and answered while trying to keep soap out of his eyes
“Devlin,” he said and then listened.
“No way,” he said after a moment. “Keep everyone away from the crime scene. I’ll be there in forty-five minutes.”
He listened again. Then, “I don’t care what the patrol sergeant is saying. I want it handled as a crime scene and I’ll have anyone’s butt who wants to argue the point.” He terminated the call, placed the phone back on top of the shower door frame, and stuck his head back under the water. All he wanted was to shower, eat, run some errands, and run later in the afternoon. It was his day off, but being on-call made the term moot.
It was closer to an hour before Devlin reached the crime scene. Turning into the Will Rogers State Park entrance, he spotted a gaggle of reporters gathered around the trail head. Clearly, news had leaked something sensational was afoot.
Used mostly by horse enthusiasts, hikers, and runners, the trail started in the park and ran through the unincorporated Santa Monica Mountain Recreation Area. It was also the boundary line between the city and the county – between the LAPD and the LA Sheriff’s jurisdiction.
Out of his car and moving quickly, Devlin blew past the reporters. They peppered questions, but he ignored them and ducked under the crime scene tape. Inside the secured area, he spotted uniformed sergeant Mac Reynolds and made his way toward him.
“What’s the story?” Devlin asked.
“Plain and simple,” Reynolds said dourly. “Mountain lion attack.”
Devlin gave him a hard look. “Mountain lions rarely attack human adults.”
“Yeah, maybe, but let’s get real,”
“Look for yourself,” Reynolds said. He was a rotund, self-important man who didn’t like his judgment being questioned.
Devlin despised Reynolds and wouldn’t believe him if he said the wind was blowing during a hurricane.
Devlin paused, looking down at the body. Fifty feet further north she would have been a problem for the Sheriffs’ Department, and he’d still be enjoying his day off. The victim looked to be a twenty-something female with a small bone frame. Her battered body was sprawled in a shallow gully underneath a dead oak tree.
It was fortunately out of sight of the reporters’ probing cameras, but from where he was standing, Devlin could see the ragged wound on the victim’s shoulder. It was a bloody, torn mass of flesh. There were also several clear claw marks.
“Told you,” Reynolds said, walking up next to Devlin.
Devlin turned cold eyes on the sergeant. “You figure it was a mountain lion who left the victim laying there in a sports bra, no panties, and one pink Nike?”
“But you can see the bite and scratch marks yourself.” Reynolds tried bluster.
“There’s no bleeding,” Devlin said softly, barely maintaining control. “The bite and scratches are post-mortem.”
He pushed back the screen of brush covering the gully. A matching pink running shoe and a pair of pink shorts were crumpled in a hollow further back. “The cat only dragged the body out from where it was hidden. This is a murder scene – my murder scene – and if you screw it up any more, your butt is going to be the next thing chewed.”
Reynolds looked stunned. “Well, ah . . .”
Devlin moved away from Reynolds and began giving orders to several uniformed officers. “Get the area completely cordoned off –I’m talking the park entrance, the parking lot, the trail head, everywhere. Got it?” One of the officers nodded and began unreeling yellow tape.
Devlin turned to another officer. “Start interviewing all the looky-loos. Find me a witness.”
Devlin was looking at the dirt on the trail as the officer moved away. “Wait,” Devlin stopped him. “Also their shoes. I need imprints of everyone’s shoes.”
“Son, if it’s available at Footlocker, I want a copy.” Devlin popped open his cell phone and hit a speed dial number.
“Where are you?” he asked when Hack answered. “We’ve got ourselves a headline maker.”
The crime scene took on a life of its own as all crime scenes do. Criminologists from the department’s Scientific Identification Division, wraith-like in their white jumpsuits, flitted about taking pictures, gathering soil samples, and bagging debris. Shoe prints were laboriously obtained on white paper from bystanders and reporters who ranged in attitude from amused to disgruntled.
Department brass appeared, demanded updates, wondered aloud why the crime hadn’t been solved before it was committed, played to the press with feigned concern over violent crime, almost sincere statements of sympathetic condolences, and preening avowals of a no-stone-unturned investigation. When there was nothing left to do but police work, they slunk back to their ivory towers.
When Hack arrived, Devlin let him take over running the crime scene. Hack was the better organizer, Devlin the more intuitive hunter. Hack kept Devlin focused and everything else court ready. Devlin, frustrated by the niceties of procedure, broke cases on instinct.
Right now, he was obsessing over footprints. He had ordered the collection of the shoe prints more for elimination than identification. He couldn’t feel the presence of the killer. His shoe prints – and it was almost certainly a he as women didn’t kill this way – wouldn’t be among those gathered from the witnesses and reporters. But they may still be somewhere on the trail.
From the trampled dust in the immediate area of the crime scene Devlin could tell nothing. He looked for the tracks of the mountain cat’s pads and found only a few partials. Everything else was a jumbled mash overrun with the heavy treads of uniform cop boots, the cheap sneakers of the paramedics, and the leather imprints of nosey reporters.
Making a spiral path out from the body, Devlin, bent forward staring at the ground, needed only a magnifying glass to complete a portrait of Holmesian intensity. He easily recognized Nike, Soucany, Brooks, and various other brands of running shoes by their tread patterns. He’d been around running and runners for too many years not to be able to identify the major shoe manufactures and even many off-brands by second nature.
He was also able to take this identification to the next level. From the wear pattern in the shoes he could tell the serious runners from the joggers. By the stride and shoe length, he could tell male from female and approximate height and weight. However, nothing struck him as out of the ordinary.
He began making a closer examination, looking at the treads of hiking boots, dog and deer prints, and the Rockports worn by old people and anyone else more concerned with comfort than style. Again, nothing particular caught his attention.
And then there was something.
A cougar print, deep and well formed, on the side of the trail. And another a little further on.
Moving carefully around the area, Devlin looked closely at the cougar prints and their relationship to the human footprints. There were several shoe prints going in the same direction, but one stood out. In the soft earth, he could see it was a size twelve or thirteen – so, almost certainly a man’s. The shoe surface was flat, like an old basketball court shoe. In the center of one print there was a circle with a triangle inside – a brand logo Devlin didn’t recognize. The edges of the imprint showed heavy wear, and the ball of the foot area of the right shoe was almost worn away. Whoever owned the shoes favored his left leg.
Devlin tracked the worn prints. They didn’t belong to an athletic shoe or a hiking boot. They were a junk shoe – bargain bin specials. And where they led, the cougar tracks followed. Devlin knew the cat was trailing the man because in two spots, the cougar’s pads overlaid the shoe prints.
Weirder and weirder. What did the cat sense, Devlin wondered?
Eventually, both sets of prints disappeared at the edge of a little used gravel parking lot two hundred feet further on. Scouring the area, Devlin found nothing else.
He felt a tightness in his stomach. He’d have casts made of both the cougar prints and the odd brand shoes. He didn’t know where this was all leading, but he could help thinking about Hanna. It was impossible not to do so. He had loved her so much. He’d never responded emotionally or physically to anyone with the intensity he shared with Hanna. They hadn’t just wanted each other for today or tomorrow, but for eternity.
Two years and the searing emotional wounds of her disappearance were as open as ever. Chasing the cougar on the training run, and now this case – a cougar and a murdered woman jogger. He knew the victim wasn’t Hanna, but in his mind he kept seeing Hanna’s face on the victim’s torso. Was there no way to heal?
Hack found Devlin standing at the edge of the gravel parking lot, staring into space.
Hack put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You okay?”
Devlin took a deep breath, forced his eyes to focus. “No. I’m not okay. I’m never going to be okay.”
Despite Devlin’s personal preoccupation, the gears of the investigation turned and meshed. His partner drove the process allowing Devlin to simply go through the motions. While Hack had sympathy for what Devlin was continuing to go through, he knew the situation was headed toward a breaking point. They were a good team, a great team even, but only when both were fully functional.
Hack was tired of carrying the load alone. He was also slightly jealous. He had never experienced the kind of love Devlin and Hanna shared. He knew they both desperately wanted children, but he didn’t understand how Devlin could say in some ways it was a blessing – the lack of success bringing them closer together as a couple instead of wedging them apart.
Both of Hack’s marriages ended in divorce. Even his more casual relationships with women eventually soured. He couldn’t conceive of the type of love Devlin once described as surpassing time and dimension. Hack believed it was just hokum. As far as he was concerned, Devlin had to not only get over Hanna – He had to get over himself.
At the crime scene, somebody from the press recognized Devlin and cynically tried to make a connection between the current case and Hanna’s disappearance. The reporter’s pointed questions, challenging Devlin’s suitability to handle an investigation of a murdered female jogger, crashed like burning dirigibles against Devlin’s implacability. It didn’t matter there was not the slightest connection between the cases – the angle was fresh, juicy, and would make for fantastic six o’clock news promos.
Devlin pushed through the media throng without even uttering a, “No comment.” His ears were burning. He needed to get out of there – needed to run even though there was still too much to do before he could flee his pursuing demons.
Despite his disgruntled disposition, Hack couldn’t help finding a residual of compassion. He caught up with Devlin, talking quickly and quietly. “Go. Get out of here. I’ve got this covered. You know what else needs doing. I’ll call you.”
Devlin shot a grateful look over his shoulder as he slid into his vehicle. Hack forced a camera crew back as they rushed toward the sedan with film whirling.
“Come on, Hack.” The hair shellacked on-air reporter wore torn jeans under his blazer and tie. “This is good copy.”
“Go pull down some other wounded wildebeest,” Hack said. “It’s what you jackals do, isn’t it?”
“Why are you busting my chops?” the reporter asked. “I’ve got a job to do, just like you.”
“If I had your job,” Hack said, walking away to his own vehicle. “I’d eat my gun.”
By late the following afternoon the pace of the investigation slowed. The night before, Devlin and Hack both caught four hours sleep in the cot room at the station before continuing to fight the time crunch of the first forty-eight, the crucial hours that can mean the difference between solving a murder and having it haunt you with constant dead ends and little progress.
During the first forty-eight hours the easy answers come back from the crime scene: Are there clear prints? Are those prints identifiable? Is there any DNA? Are there any major clues that can be immediately run down and cleared up? If the victim can be identified, who are the logical suspects? Husband? Lover? Jealous acquaintance? Can those suspects can be tracked down and sweated for answers or confessions?
Often the whole package can be resolved leaving only the onerous follow-up and legal wrangling with which to deal at leisure.
Devlin and Hack both knew that wasn’t going to happen in this case. The victim was identified quickly from a runner’s ID tag attached to her shoe. Jane Dorothy Hawkins, twenty-three, a newly minted nurse working her first job at a local hospital. The doctor with whom she was sleeping was contacted, but was more concerned with his wife finding out about the affair than providing helpful information.
Hack took it upon himself to question the doctor’s wife. The interview didn’t do much good for the doctor’s marriage, but it did provide a solid alibi for both. It wasn’t an easy task.
Detective work inherently lacks the ability to dance softly around issues. There was often collateral damage. Despite being only the conduit of the damage and not the cause, the stress of recriminations often weighed heavily across a detective’s already burdened shoulders.
Devlin had attended the autopsy while Hack chased clues on the ground. As Devlin surmised, the cougar bite and scratches were post mortem. The victim had been dead less than an hour when dumped – a fresh kill as far as a hungry cougar was concerned.
The findings, however, did little to explain why the cat appeared to be following the tracks of the man Devlin already considered the killer. He couldn’t tell you why he was convinced, and he struggled to keep an open mind, but instinct told him where the case was headed. The spoor was on the ground, and Devlin had to be confident enough in his ability to follow it.
DNA from the sexual assault of the victim was recovered, but it would be several weeks before testing was completed. The results could then be run through the DNA bank for comparison. Devlin wasn’t holding his breath.
Devlin also spent time sorting through the collected shoe prints, identifying almost all except for the one track of importance to him. The make of the off-brand print with the triangle inside a circle logo in the middle of the sole still eluded him. It had to be an off-brand rip-off.
Devlin had inquiries out to all the major discount chains and shoe manufacturers. He’d contacted friends on the staff of running magazines and requested their input.
He’d also pulled information on recently released sex offenders, local sex registrants, parole and probation sources, and prepared a profile for VICAP – the FBI’s Violent Criminal Offender Apprehension program. VICAP was a data base used to profile and possibly match solved and unsolved homicides, particularly those involving abduction or those appearing to be random, motiveless, or sexually oriented. As he went through all of these standard motions, he constantly fought his churning stomach as the déjà vu of the investigation into Hanna’s disappearance washed over him.
Eventually, the two detectives reached a point of diminishing returns. They were either waiting for results to come back on their inquiries, or had run all other clues to earth. The killer’s identity was still as big a mystery as when they arrived on the crime scene – even more so since they had discounted all the easy answers.
For Hack, the easy answer for what to do next was sleep. For Devlin, sleep could wait. He needed to run.
Devlin got home just in time to change into his running gear before leaving again to workout with his local track club. He’d been a member of the Santa Monica Chargers’ Running Club even before meeting Hanna. It was a mix of serious and recreational runners who met informally three times a week for speed workouts or longer buddy runs.
Grabbing his shoes from under a chair on the enclosed patio, Devlin was hopping around, trying to put them on in a hurry, when a movement at the edge of his property caught his eye. He froze. A mountain lion was sitting causally on its haunches moving its head to bite at a cluster of wheat grass.
The cat’s ears twitched and it came to its feet as Devlin made eye contact. The long tail twitched. Devlin’s heel pushed firmly into his running shoe, and without tying them, he walked out of the enclosed patio and let the screen door slam behind him.
He stood for a moment looking at the cat. He was surprised the animal hadn’t moved away, but had remained alert yet unmoving. Devlin began walking forward as if magnetically pulled.
He got to within thirty feet of the cat and stopped. From the cat’s size and coloring, he knew enough from Hanna’s teachings to recognize the animal was female, about a year old.
“Hey, there,” he said, feeling silly, but not knowing what else to do or say. Did he expect the cat to talk back?
The cat yowled loudly and Devlin jumped back about two feet, heart thumping. The cat looked at him as if laughing. Devlin took a step forward and the cat suddenly exploded into action, turning to sprint away and disappear into the low scrub of the hills behind the house.
Devlin had been too surprised to move. He stood for a while, waiting to see if the animal would return, but to no avail. Finally, he walked forward looking for paw prints in the dirt. The ground was hard, however, and the markings were indistinct. Devlin took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He checked his watch, scanned the surrounding hills one more time, and then jogged back toward the house.
Fifteen minutes later he was pulling into the parking lot of the Santa Monica High School. Most of the track club regulars were already gathered in front of the home bleachers stretching.
“Get a load of the unknown on the track,” Mitch Rawlings said. Rawlings was the club’s informal coach. A retired high school cross country and track coach, he kept those who wanted direction on personalized training schedules. He also took care of the paperwork details when the club or individual members competed.
Devlin followed the direction of Rawling’s nod and saw a tall female runner gracefully flowing over the track’s composite surface. She was moving fast. Devlin judged she was grinding out a sub six-minute mile pace. Under skimpy nylon shorts and a torn T-shirt, she was all lean sinew and muscle. Surprisingly, she was running barefoot.
As she ran past the bleachers where Devlin was standing, he took a closer look. What he saw baffled him. Appearing to be somewhere in her twenties, the woman was obviously in top athletic condition, but her hair was a tangled mess and there were clearly streaks of dirt covering her arms and legs. Her hard, angular face contained a wide nose with flaring nostrils. Hooded eyes, paid no attention to the watching spectators. It was if she was one of Santa Monica’s homeless denizens who was somehow staying in top physical shape.
Devlin’s heart leapt into his throat as he saw the back of her dirty, ragged T-shirt. It had once been white and bore the logo for the 1st Annual Cougar Run.
The official 1st Annual Cougar Run t-shirts distributed to the participants were tan in color. There had only been a dozen white t-shirts with the logo done as mock-ups to test the print. Hanna had been wearing one the day she disappeared – the others Devlin had destroyed in a fit of frustrated anger when he discovered them in a drawer.
“Hey!” Devlin said loudly, the involuntary verbal response torn not only from his throat, but from his psyche.
The woman didn’t break stride. Devlin took a step after her.
“What?” Mitch Rawlings asked, startled by Devlin’s response. “You know her?”
“Yes…er…no,” Devlin said, running a few more steps forward.
“She’ll come round again,” Rawlings said, but Devlin ignored him. He was already hitting his stride, chasing down his quarry. What he was going to do if he caught her hadn’t entered his head.
The woman had gained twenty yards on Devlin when he started after her, but he closed the distance quickly.
“Hey! Wait! Please,” he called out from behind her.
The woman glanced over her shoulder and then picked up her pace.
Devlin was caught off guard. He knew he was in peak condition. He ran every day, varying speed and distance work. He put time in doing push-ups, pull-ups, lunges, and a thousand various crunches a day. He’d smoked the competition in his events at the Police Olympics earlier in the year and had run several marathons in under two-and-a-half hours. This woman, however, had suddenly upped her pace to sub-five minute miles and was starting to pull away.
“Please,” Devlin called out. “I just want to ask a question.”
The woman ran on ignoring him.
Devlin suddenly realized he must sound like a masher, a track Lothario who’s ego was bruised by the faster female.
“Damn it!” Devlin cut the corner of the track, running up onto the interior grass and shortening the distance between himself and the woman, who was cruising at a sprint around the track’s inside lane.
Throwing himself forward, Devlin grabbed at the woman’s legs as she went past. He caught one of her feet as he crashed to the track’s composite surface, sending her tumbling. Yet even in her fall, she was graceful, rolling to her feet with a vicious snarl of anger and clouting Devlin across the head with the swipe of her arm. Then she was on her feet and running again.
Devlin shook his head to clear it. The woman was racing across the track, heading for the school exit. In desperate pursuit, Devlin knew his actions were futile. He couldn’t believe what he’d just done, but knew he’d had no choice.
The woman turned left out of the school and sprinted across a busy street, leaping and sliding over the hoods of two cars screeching their brakes and skidding to avoid her before they crashed into each other.
Devlin streaked after her, his ragged breath smoothing out as his muscles and lungs caught up with the demand he was putting on them. This is nuts, Devlin thought, knowing he couldn’t stop the chase, but also knowing he was outclassed as a runner, out of line in his actions, and way over his head in some crazy mind game playing out around him.
Instinct told Devlin where the woman was going. She’d rounded a corner and was momentarily out of his sight. Devlin slid round the corner at speed, feet churning for traction and raced toward the beckoning foothills of the Santa Monica mountains.
Ahead, he could see the woman moving at speed. If anything, she had increased her pace, her tangle of tawny hair flying wildly behind her. Devlin didn’t waste breath calling out to her. He forced his legs into a higher gear, trying to close the gap. The woman suddenly cut left down a side street. Devlin followed just in time to see her cut sharply right through the grounds of an impressive ranch-style residence.
Devlin cursed. Many of the residences in the area were zoned as horse property. Corrals, barns, and stables were normal facilities in the huge backyards. The rear of this residence also had access to the horse trails crisscrossing the neighborhood leading, like Devlin’s own back yard, to the low foothills and mountain trails of the Santa Monica Recreation Area.
Almost without breaking stride, the woman vaulted the split rail fencing at the rear of the yard, throwing up a cloud of fine dust as she hit the narrow horse trail.
Devlin went after her, but began choking on the dust. The harder he forced his lungs to work, the more clogged they became. Overcome with a coughing fit, his muscles spasm and he lost his footing, spinning to the ground in the soft dirt.
He lay coughing and gasping. Knowing the woman was gone, tears streamed from his irritated eyes, running in rivulets through the sweat-fasten dirt on his face.
“You okay, pal?” a man in jeans and a cowboy hat asked. He’d been cleaning out a nearby stable. He chuckled, when Devlin waved a hand at him while still coughing. “She sure blistered your butt,” the man said. “Bet you ain’t seen a woman that fast in a while.”
“You…” Devlin gasped for breath. “You seen her…before?”
“Nope,” the man said. “And I doubt either of us will see her again the way she was moving.” The man gestured to a nearby spigot with a hose attached. “Help yourself.”
Gratefully, Devlin drank from the hose and then poured water over his head. “Thanks,” he said when he felt better.
“No problem. You going after her?”
“If I had any idea where she was going.”
Devlin moved back out onto the horse trail. His heart was thumping. He knew what he was going to find. Knew it was impossible, but knew it just the same.
He found her tracks – barefoot outlines, deep in the heel from the foot strike, dissipated at the ball of the foot from pushing off. Devlin walked on looking at the tracks. Very soon, they changed slightly. The heel depression gradually faded away to nothing, as if the woman was sprinting on the balls of her feet, and then even the smears from under the ball of the foot disappeared, and then there was nothing.
But Devlin knew there would be something. He kept at it. Kept looking with the patience of the hunter he was. And then, just were the soft dirt of the trail changed to the hard pack of the mountain base was a single impression. It was blurred, but Devlin had no recognition problem.
It was a cougar track.
Devlin’s dreams were fevered. He woke in a sweat, heart pounding, having no clear recollection of the disjointed images his unconscious mind flashed through his sleep. The nerve endings under his skin felt hot, hypersensitive, the hairs on his arms and legs electrified. He threw the covering sheet away from him, unable to stand its touch.
Lying with his eyes open in the dark room, he wondered if he was losing his mind. The whole series of events triggered by the discovery of the victim’s body in the state park had a surreal tinge. Had they really happened? Was it all some bizarre hallucination on his part? The cougar prints, the woman at the track . . .
The phone rang, loud and insistent, startling him.
The glowing numbers on the clock showed 5:30, the alarm set to go off in another fifteen minutes.
He felt exhausted, as if he’d had five minutes sleep instead of five hours. The phone rang again. He swung his feet out of bed, grabbed up the receiver and grunted into it.
“And hello to you too, sunbeam,” Hack’s voice said.
Devlin felt his heart fluttering around in his chest like a trapped dove. He knew what was coming. “What have we got?”
“An attack on an early morning female jogger.”
“An attack? Not a body?” Devlin interrupted.
“Let me get it out,” Hack said. “Victim was jogging on the Conquistador golf course when the suspect grabbed her from behind and put a hunting knife to her throat.”
“How’d she get away?”
There was a pause.
“Ahh, the victim stated a cougar came out of nowhere and attacked the suspect. Clamped its jaws on the knife arm and wouldn’t let go.”
“You’re kidding me?” Devlin was wide awake now. “I’m on my way.”
It took Devlin fifty minutes to get to the Conquistador golf course clubhouse. The sun was glaring in early morning splendor, bouncing off the dew of the fairways and greens. Hack had beat him by three minutes and was still in the parking lot. Devlin caught up with his partner.
“Do you believe this?” Hack asked.
“Has to be the same suspect who dumped the body in the state park,” Devlin said. “The entrance is barely a mile away.”
“And what’s with a cougar being involved again?”
“Beats me,” Devlin said. “The whole set-up is on the edge.”
A paramedic ambulance and two police cars stood near the entrance to the clubhouse lobby. As Devlin and Hack approached, they could see two uniforms talking with a woman in her twenties who was being treated by the paramedics.
The woman, dressed for jogging, had several relatively minor cuts and abrasions, but was obviously shaken by her experience.
“I don’t know where he came from,” she told the detectives as she related her story. “He put a big knife to my throat and I thought I was dead.”
“And that’s when the cougar attacked?” Devlin asked.
The woman started to cry. “It was like a miracle. The cat grabbed the arm with the knife and knocked us both to the ground. I rolled away, but the cat was all over the guy. The knife was on the ground and the guy grabbed it with his other hand and stabbed the cat.”
Devlin flinched. “Where did this happen?
“Near the ninth hole. Almost back to the clubhouse. The guy took off running with the cat chasing him.”
Devlin didn’t hear the last statement. He was already moving fast toward the flag indicating the ninth green.
The scene of the attack was obvious. The dew was smeared into one large swath of damp, the grass pressed down and torn up. In the bright morning sun, Devlin could see traces of clotting blood. He swore. Moving around, he was able to get a slant on the sunlight and see tracks left in the dew where the suspect fled the scene.
Devlin jogged over a rise and looked down into a deep sand bunker. A dark form was slumped at the bottom. It was the cougar. Devlin didn’t hesitate. He sensed every second was critical.
The cat was unconscious, but breathing shallowly. Devlin could see an ugly gash in its side. He pulled his phone off his belt and punched Hack’s speed dial number. “Get the ambulance out to the ninth green,” he said urgently when Hack answered, hanging up before any questions could be asked.
Scooping his arms under the cat’s surprisingly heavy limp body, Devlin rose to his feet and staggered around the sand trap toward the oncoming ambulance.
“It’s good you got her here as quickly as you did,” Doctor Jean Bell said. The mountain lion was laid out on the veterinarian’s operating table. The doctor had cleaned and stitched the wound in the animal’s side. “It was a nasty cut. If she’d lost much more blood she wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
“And now?” Devlin asked. He stood on the other side of the table. The sleeves of his white dress shirt were covered in blood stains and grime.
“We’ll have to wait and see.” The doctor was a tall, thin woman in her sixties, glasses perched on the end of her nose. “She’s a young healthy animal, she should pull through. The biggest question is how you convinced the ambulance crew to transport her.”
“No mystery,” Devlin said. “Most people do what they’re asked when they’re looking down the wrong end of a forty-five.”
“It took that much persuasion?”
Devlin looked at the cat. There was a lump in his throat he couldn’t explain. “You’ll take care of her here? I’ll cover the fees.”
“I’m sure you will, but there’s something else,” the doctor said. She moved around to the head of the cat. “She took a good bite out of her attacker. There is foreign blood and tissue in her mouth. It could be animal, but I’d say there’s a chance it could be from your suspect. Do you want it preserved for DNA, or have I been watching too many television shows?”
Devlin actually smiled. “You could star in one.”
Later in the afternoon, Devlin hooked up with Hack in the Homicide Unit’s squad room. Two plaster casts sat on a scarred wooden desk. One had been cast in the golf course sand trap. The other was from the trail near the first attack. Both contained the distinctive triangle/circle logo.
“Can’t get much closer,” Hack said.
“Same size, same logo, same guy,” Devlin said. “How good are you on the Internet?”
“I can Google.”
“Does that mean you can run a check on this trademark?”
“For that you’ll need somebody twelve or younger.”
Devlin picked up the phone on his desk. “Then it’s time to resort to old fashioned methods.”
He punched in the numbers for a friend in the District Attorney’s office and was referred to a trademark attorney. He spent fifteen minutes on the phone with the trademark attorney explaining what he needed before faxing him a copy of the triangle/circle logo from the suspect’s shoes.
The attorney called back less than thirty minutes later with the information Devlin needed.
“The lawyer recognized our logo?”
“Knew it right away,” Devlin said. “Apparently, it’s part of a fairly well known case. It belongs to a fly-by-night company who had a contract with Price Mart for producing high-end running shoe knock offs. The crap shoes were called Skeeters and were manufactured in Chinese sweat shops using child slave labor. The media got hold of the story and dragged Price Mart through the muck. Price Mart discontinued the contract, then blew the remaining shoes out for pennies on the dollar through their stores in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.”
“Land of the three last names and the negative teeth-to-tattoo ratio.”
“Let’s not get judgmental,” Devlin said. “The problem is, this all went down three years ago. The shoes haven’t been on the market since, and they were never available on the west coast.”
“We can add the shoes as a clue and get VICAP to run a specific M.O. check targeting the south,” Hack said.
“Do it,” Devlin said. “We don’t have anything else.”
Three days later, it was a traffic helicopter who first spotted the cougar in traffic.
Hack skidded into the homicide room. “Quick, turn on the TV.”
When Dev didn’t move fast enough for him, Hack grabbed up the remote and punched the power button. The television monitor mounted in a corner of the small room blared out loudly. Hack fumbled with the controls, bringing down the sound and switching to the local news coverage.
“You don’t see wild mountain lions in the suburbs very often , Chet.” The shot on the screen was from a circling news copter. A banner at the bottom of the screen read – LIVE FROM WEST LA.
Behind the voice of the traffic reporter was the excitement this scoop might get him out of the air and into the studio. “Let’s hope animal control or the police can shoot the beast before it eats a child.”
“Like hell!” Devlin said, grabbing his jacket and his ASTRO radio on the way to the exit with Hack right behind him.
By the time Hack had the dual purpose police sedan – unmarked but with flip down red lights in the windows and a worthless siren – roaring out of the parking lot, Devlin had already contacted LAPD air support and had them moving toward the news copter’s location.
He put out an information broadcast insisting the cat be contained only and not shot on sight by some over eager patrol officer with a hunting fetish.
Hanging up the radio handset with his left hand, Devlin began dialing his cell phone with his right. The phone rang three times before the veterinary clinic picked up. Devlin ground his teeth waiting for Dr. Bell came on the line.
“Detective Wylde, my assistant said it was urgent. I’m in the middle of surgery.”
“Where is our cat, Doc?”
“Simple question, Doc – where is our cat?”
“I don’t have time for this –“
Jean Bell paused before answering, sensing the tension in Devlin’s question. “She’s recovering exceptionally fast. I put her into an outside pen this morning to get some exercise.”
“Is she still there?”
“Of course she is.”
“Go and check – please.”
There was a pause and Devlin could hear Bell telling one of her assistants to check on the cat. “This is ridiculous,” she said coming back on the line.
Devlin could hear a commotion in the background on Bell’s end of the line. The vet’s voice came across in a muffled disjointed string of “what?” “how?” and “impossible.”
“What’s going on, Doc?” Devlin said.
“You tell me,” Bell said. “The cat is gone. Apparently the cap to the pen was not secured. Somehow, she climbed the eight foot chin link fence and knocked the cap askew enough to escape.”
“Finish your operation and turn your television to channel four. She’s on the loose in the neighborhood. I’ll call you when I know more.”
The air unit quickly vectored Devlin and Hack toward the intersection of San Vicente and 26th Street located in the north end of West LA Area. Any further west and the jurisdiction switched to the city of Santa Monica.
As Hack approached the intersection, the air unit gave another quick broadcast. “Animal control is on the way, but their ETA is an hour and the cat is on the move. It just disappeared into a hedge of rhododendrons.”
“The cat is a she,” Devlin transmitted back. “Stay on it and find her.”
Hack cruised through the intersection and pulled up next to the thick rhododendron hedge.
Devlin started to get out of the car. “Whoa, buddy,” Hack said. He’d grabbed Devlin’s arm. “That’s a mountain lion out there, not a kitty cat. You can’t reason with her like some homeboy from the hood.”
“Trust me on this,” Devlin said. “This cat is not a threat.” He got out of the car, taking his radio with him.
As Devlin moved toward the hedge of dusky red flowers, the air unit broadcast over the radio. “Spotted her again. Two streets east. She’s sitting on the sidewalk.”
Devlin signaled Hack to drive off without him. He then pushed into the hedge, trying to follow the cat’s actual route.
The surrounding area was high-end residential. Known as Brentwood, it’s real estate prices rivaled Beverly Hills, except the money here was much older and much more private. Will Rogers State Park where the first body had been found was a mile further north. The golf club where the last attack occurred was a half-mile east.
Devlin realized the cat could simply be heading back to her habitat in the Santa Monica mountains, but in his gut he knew there was something else going on. When he broke through to the second street east, he could see Hack driving southbound toward him.
“Where is she?” Devlin asked the air unit via his radio.
“On the move again – two houses down from you. There’s an open gate to the backyard. Hurry, there are kids playing back there.”
Devlin saw the open gate and sprinted toward it.
“The cat’s still moving,” the air unit reported. “She’s leapt over the back wall.”
Devlin entered the backyard in time to see a tawny tail vanishing over the six foot slump stone wall. Three youngsters who had been bouncing on a large round trampoline stopped to stare at him. Devlin kept running.
“Hey!” An older man, probably one of the kid’s father’s yelled.
“Police,” Devlin yelled back, but didn’t stop. He pulled himself up and over the wall, scrunching and scraping the fingers wrapped around the radio.
He tumbled awkwardly down the other side into a flower bed and saw the cat skirting the edge of a sparkling swimming pool and moving down the side of another house. The whale sized matron sprawled on an air mattress in the middle of the pool with cucumbers on her eyes was totally oblivious.
Devlin half-spoke, half-panted into the radio, “The cat is headed to the next street. Get eyes on.”
“Got her,” the air unit reported. “She’s running across the street toward the front of the house directly opposite.”
Devlin paused at the gate, taking time to open it rather than scramble over. The cat had easily bypassed it with a leap. Running into the street, he saw the cat sitting by the front door of the house opposite. She appeared to be staring directly at him.
Devlin slowed to a walk. The cat stood up and paced back and forth along the border of a flower bed by the large bricked driveway.
Suddenly, the front door opened. A tall man with a full beard and a large forehead appeared. The cat startled him with an angry, spitting snarl. The man froze in fear, but the cat turned and sprinted away.
“Wait!” Devlin said, feeling stupid yelling at the cat as if he expected her to understand him. But then he realized he did expect her to understand. The cat scooted under the low hanging branches of a willow tree bordering the next property.
“Don’t lose her,” Devlin said to the air unit.
“Sorry -- didn’t see where she went after she ducked under the tree.”
Hack pulled up to the curb near where Devlin was trying to lift the tangle of willow branches.
“Go another street over,” Devlin said. Hack squealed away.
Thirty minutes later there was still no sign of the cat. Devlin was back in the car, cruising with Hack.
“So, what’s it all about, Alfie,” Hack asked.
Devlin shook his head. “Beats me.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Let’s go back to the last place we saw her,” Devlin said.
“Of course, the cat. Who else are we talking about?”
“I don’t know,” Hack said. “But you’re talking about this animal as if she was human.”
Devlin was silent. There was nothing he could say. When Hack pulled up by the willow tree both men got out. Hack followed Dev to the door of the house where the cat had been sitting.
Devlin knocked on the front door and waited. He knocked again. He rang the bell. Pissed, he began pounding on the door with his fist.
“Dev –” Hack said.
“What!” Devlin turned sharply toward his partner.
Hack was standing a few feet away. He was looking down into the flower bed by which the cat had paced.
Devlin looked down.
In the soft soil of the bed was a partial footprint – a sneaker with a distorted triangle surrounded by a circle in the center of the sole.
Victor Crawford was a man who knew his rights. He wasn’t a lawyer, but he’d played one once on TV and he knew he didn’t have to answer any questions or let the cops search his house without a warrant. He didn’t care a footprint possibly belonging to a serial killer had been found in a flowerbed outside his residence – a residence where his wife and daughter also lived.
What he cared about was his taxes going to pay the salaries of these public servants who couldn’t even keep a mountain lion off his property. Hack wanted to tell him if he could break a penny into quarters, he’d give Crawford his share back.
Devlin was actually please by Crawford’s reaction. It meant the man was guilty. The question was, guilty of what?
Despite Crawford’s protestations, a search warrant proved relatively easy to obtain despite the strange circumstances. Devlin downplayed the cat’s involvement as “unrelated police activity” leading to the discovery of evidence from another crime. Nobody was going to sign a warrant in which the affidavit stated a cougar was acting as an informant.
The search of the house really ruffled Crawford’s feathers as he tried to make himself look important in front of his family. After all he was an actor – a character actor perhaps, but an actor nonetheless. Crawford was going to have somebody’s job for this embarrassing inconvenience. He knew the mayor – which actually meant he’d been at a charity event where the mayor was the keynote speaker.
Devlin and Hack let Crawford bluster all he wanted. They worked their way through the house leaving Crawford and his family sitting in their living room with two stoic uniformed officers. They knew they might not find any evidence tying Crawford to the footprint outside his residence, but they knew without a doubt they would find something.
Experience had taught them over and over that everybody has something to hide. Whatever it was might not be illegal, but it would certainly be something to cause major embarrassment if made public.
It was Devlin who uncovered the stash of dirty photos and erotic letters. They were hidden in the bottom of a suitcase in the master bedroom closet along with several sex toys and set of velvet lined handcuffs.
“Kinky,” hack said when he saw them.
“Leverage,” Devlin replied, setting the suitcase down in the hallway before entering the living room.
“Are we under arrest?” Crawford said as soon as he saw Hack and Devlin. Crawford stood up from the armchair where he had been sitting across from his wife. One of the uniformed officers began to step forward, but Hack waved him off. Through the living room’s French doors, Devlin could see the other uniformed officer standing by a swing set in the backyard where the Crawford’s daughter was playing.
“No you are not under arrest,” Hack told Crawford. “You are detained pending the finish of our search warrant service. Then we’ll make a decision if you are under arrest or not.”
“On what charge?”
“I’m sure we can think of something,” Hack said. “Now, would you come through to the kitchen with me?”
Eleanor Crawford started to rise from her chair.
“Please stay here, Mrs. Crawford,” Hack said. “My partner would like to talk with you.”
“Now, see here,” Victor Crawford started. “We want a lawyer before you speak to anyone.”
Hack gave Crawford the look cops give when they are running out of patience. “Mr. Crawford, either come with me to the kitchen or I am going to arrest you for interfering in a police investigation.”
Crawford allowed himself to be led away, but not before telling his wife not to say anything.
Devlin nodded to the uniformed officer to go with Hack and Crawford. When the trio were gone, Devlin retrieved the small suitcase from the hallway. He set it down on the heavy wooden coffee table in front of Sharon Crawford before sitting in the armchair across from her.
Devlin stayed silent, watching Sharon Crawford’s pupils enlarge as adrenaline surged through her system. The carotid artery on the side of her throat pulsed visibly. Finally she brought her eyes up to meet his. Devlin knew she wasn’t going to put up a fight.
“Nicky,” she said.
“Nicky?” Devlin’s voice was even. He fought the trace of a smile wanting to drift across his face. He’d been right about her not putting up a fight, but he didn’t want to appear smug and have her change direction.
“Nicholas Crawford,” Sharon said. “Victor’s black sheep brother. He turned up yesterday asking for a handout.”
“Why do you think he’s got anything to do with the footprint outside?”
“He’s the only person who has been here in the past week and trouble follows him like a cloud. He was dressed like a homeless bum - everything stank.”
“Some kind of ratty tennis shoe. Not an athletic shoe – flat pieces of canvass like old fashioned PF Flyers.”
“Victor give him money?”
“Yes. Anything to get rid of him.”
“No brotherly love?”
“Victor doesn’t like being reminded of his Okie roots.”
“Any other reason?”
Sharon Crawford looked again at the suitcase. “Nicky is very strange. Victor pays him to stay away from us.”
“He’s been here for money before?”
“A couple of years ago. He said he couldn’t go back to Oklahoma, so Victor gave him enough money to go somewhere else.”
Sharon shrugged. “I never asked.”
“Okay,” Devlin said. “Do you know where Nicky is now?”
“I don’t know.” Sharon Crawford quickly shifted her eyes from the suitcase to Devlin. “I mean, I really don’t know.”
Devlin nodded. He took out a business card. “If Nicky comes back, or you hear anything about him, call me.”
Sharon took the card. “Does Victor need to know what’s in the suitcase?”
“I won’t bring you into it unless it’s necessary.” He pushed the suitcase toward Sharon. “I suggest you destroy what’s in there, and don’t let your lovers take anymore pictures. Victor might spot one while cruising the Internet.”
“Great. Thank you. We’ll call you back when we have something further.” Hack hung up the phone and turned toward his partner. “Oklahoma State Troopers are all over this. Apparently, Nicky escaped from a prison work crew there a month ago.”
It had taken Devlin less than an hour to sweat the truth out of Victor Crawford. He had taken particular pleasure in popping the man’s vanity and delusions of self-importance.
By the time Devlin was done with him, Victor fully appreciated the many differences between real life and the movies. In some ways, Devlin had done Victor a favor. The character actor now had first hand experience with a whole range of emotions from which to draw.
When he finally began talking about his problematic younger brother, Victor’s verbal dam burst with the energy of pent up sibling frustration. According to Victor, Nicky had been a plague on the family since he slid out of the womb.
Problems in school and beyond had established Nicky’s patterns of petty crimes, cruelties, and sexual deviations. Several times, the Crawfords had paid to cover up Nicky’s messes. Inevitably, however, Nicky’s actions led to time in juvenile hall, county jail, and eventually prison.
The final offenses occurred two and a half years earlier when he’d kidnapped and raped a series of six female joggers in the suburbs of Oklahoma City. DNA hits had tied him to the crime. When all six of his victims identified his picture in a photo line-up a warrant was issued. With the luck of the damned, however, Nicky had slipped through the manhunt and headed west.
He’d turned up on his brother’s doorstep in West Los Angeles a few weeks later. Victor, having no idea Nicky was wanted, reluctantly gave him a place to stay. His welcome lasted until he caught Nicky fondling his pre-pubescent daughter.
Nicky fled again, but didn’t get far. The next day, and LAPD uniformed unit stopped him for Jaywalking. They ran him for warrants, and when the Oklahoma felony want popped up, Nicky was on his way back to his home state and a prison road crew.
The longer Victor talked, the more information he imparted, the colder Devlin felt. It was as if his heart was turning to ice and would shatter within his chest at any moment.
While Devlin was leading Victor through the interview, Hack was unobtrusively taking notes. The timeline was as clear to him as it was to Devlin. Nicky had been in the same place at the same time as Hanna’s disappearance. Nicky had been escalating the M.O. of his kidnap rapes in Oklahoma. By the time he arrived in LA, he could easily have stepped up to kidnap-rape-murder.
Oklahoma would have taught him the need to cover his tracks. Hiding or disposing of a body in the Santa Monica mountains where Hanna disappeared didn’t require a Ph.D.
Nicky’s fugitive timeline could also explain the total lack of clues related to Hanna’s disappearance. If Nicky was responsible, he’d been arrested and sent back to Oklahoma before he established an identifiable west coast pattern.
But now he’d escaped and was back. There was one dead female jogger and another attack victim to prove he hadn’t changed his ways. This time though, he was facing something even more daunting than a mounted Oklahoma state trooper with mirrored sunglasses and a scatter gun – this time he appeared to be facing a very angry cougar.
The phone in squad room jangled and Devlin swooped it up. “Homicide, Wylde.” He listened for a few seconds and then thanked the caller.
“More news,” He said to Hack. Police work was often like the proverbial snowball rolling downhill, just a little momentum could end up in an avalanche – in this case of information. “SID says they matched the DNA from the blood in the cougar’s mouth, to Nicky’s DNA register in CODIS. His DNA was originally uploaded from the Oklahoma rape cases.”
“Life is good,” Hack said.
“What did the troopers say about the shoes?”
Hack smiled. “The Oklahoma Department of Corrections made a special buy from Price Mart of Skeeters Athletic shoes for their inmates. Apparently, they got quite a deal.”
“I bet they did,” Devlin said.
“And here’s the kicker,” Hack said. “Nicky was wearing a pair of size thirteens with the distinctive triangle in a circle logo when he escaped from the prison road crew.”
Devlin and Hack sat silently looking at each other. They were alone in the Homicide Unit’s squad room except for the six hundred pound gorilla of Hanna’s disappearance squatting between them.
The morning of the Cougar 10K run broke clear and cool. Almost five hundred runners were gathered at the trailhead parking lot. Another two hundred support crew and spectators mingled amongst the bright shorts, numbered singlets, overpriced running shoes, and stretching muscles of the participants.
The check-in had proceeded smoothly and the runners were now gathered into a loose corral. Devlin stood stoically with the other premier runners is a much smaller corral ten yards in front of the larger group of recreational runners. Devlin, however, felt separated even from the other runners in his class.
He knew he was obligated to honor the memory of his wife by participating, but he hated being the focus of attention. Organizing the original run had been Hanna’s entire focus during the last weeks before her disappearance. It was a cause she believed in. Devlin had believed in her.
Now, he didn’t believe in anything.
The day before, he and Hack had done everything possible to locate Nicky Crawford. Wanted bulletins had been created and distributed. They had accompanied the transient detail officers through a tour of homeless encampments. The Park and Recreation rangers had been contacted and notified to be on the lookout for anyone matching Nicky’s description.
Both Hack and Devlin had been on the phone numerous times to the Oklahoma State Troopers, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, and VICAP. No VICAP link-ups had previously been made to Nicky because the women he kidnapped and raped in Oklahoma had not been murdered. With the additional knowledge they now had, however, Nicky was not only linking up to the current crimes in West LA, but also to a series of rapes proceeding from Oklahoma to LA two years earlier when he had fled prosecution in Oklahoma.
Hanna’s case was still in the mix, but nobody, except Devlin, was willing to make the leap of faith needed to pin her disappearance on Nicky strictly due to time frame.
Devlin had exhausted himself, but he knew he had to run the next day no matter what. Everything in his world was pressing down on him. If he could escape for an hour in running, then perhaps it was the best thing for him. He had the clues now, something to work with. If Nicky had kidnapped and murdered Hanna, sooner or later Devlin would catch him and prove. Devlin just wanted it to be sooner – before Nicky struck again.
The pre-race speeches by local officials had been short and finally the gun to start the race was fired.
Instantly coming out of his trance, Devlin sprinted hard for the first quarter mile. Usually, this was the mark of an anxious beginner who wouldn’t last the race. Devlin, however, was in great shape, and he wanted nothing more than to put distance between himself and the other runners.
As he slowed from his sprint and hit his cruising stride, he breathed deeply. He could both smell and taste the ambience of the meadow the trail passed through on the way to the first hill climb.
The 10K route was circular, winding through the scrub covered hills where Devlin had first encountered what he now thought of as his cougar. Rising over five hundred feet from the base of the foothills, the trail would eventually spit out to the finish line a quarter mile east of the starting point.
Thinking he was well ahead of the pack, Devlin was surprised to hear breathing behind him. Turning his head to the right, he cursed internally as the other runner blew past him on the left. It was an old psyche-out trick usually reserved for a finishing sprint, but Devlin was still mad he’d fallen for it. Whipping his head forward again, he received another shock when he spotted the woman who eluded him at the Santa Monica Track Club setting the pace in front of him.
“Hey!” he said involuntarily, receiving no response in reply. She was moving away from him as they hit the first incline leading into the foothills. Not this time, Devlin thought as he dug in for the chase.
The woman was still barefoot, seemingly impervious to the stones and natural debris of the trail. Like the last time he’d seen her, she still wore the tattered white 1st Cougar Run t-shirt. It was filthy and long – coming down to the woman’s thighs. As he chased her, Devlin realized she wore no running shorts underneath.
This is way too bizarre, he thought. He fought a feeling of panic rising up in his chest, his breathing faltering and becoming ragged.
Disciplining himself, he consciously brought his elbows in close to his torso and used his arms to drive forward.
He maintained position behind his quarry as the trail led higher into the hills. The pace was killing, but Devlin found himself rising to the challenge. She couldn’t keep this up for much longer – could she? He had to be smart.
The race was only a 10K – six miles. He ran further every day in training. He could blister an uphill 10K in his sleep, as long as he ran within himself. Pushing aside all questions, fears, and worries, he locked his gaze onto the woman’s back and cleared his mind. If ever there was a time to run strictly on instinct, this was it.
For the next mile, Devlin followed his prey step for step, in stride and in sync with her every move. He didn’t even notice when they left the main 10K course for a smaller side trail – not that he would have cared.
The Cougar Run was well beyond his consciousness, which encompassed nothing further than the next stride, the next breath, the internal monitoring of a superbly tuned running machine. He was zoned – almost entirely focused, the only intrusion being the constant flashes of the woman’s taut, naked buttocks.
Since Hanna, women had presented no demanding physical draw for him. He recognized their allure, yet remained inured to it. But as he gave chase, arousal stirred within him. It was almost primal in its intensity, in its need. Like a male animal scenting the pheromones of a female in heat, his sexual excitement gave immediacy to a chase he didn’t understand on any human level.
And then his concentration snapped.
She was gone.
Devlin desperately kept running. She had powered around a bend, picking up speed without him realizing it. She must be ahead, around the next close curve. The minor trail they were running was carved out of the mountain, close to the granite and clay of the hill on one side, and dropping off to a crevasse of scrub on the other.
As Devlin tore around the next bend, every fiber in his being focused ahead of him, the weight of what felt like a huge boulder smashed across his shoulders. He fell, stumbling forward at first, and then crashing to the ground hitting his head. The weight across his shoulders was a hot, living, breathing thing riding him down and smothering him.
Devlin rolled to the side, flailing out at the mass of tawny fur and fury above him. The cougar hissed and the gave out what sounded like a scream – a sound Hanna had told Devlin was associated with a female cougar in heat.
In his crazed disorientation, Devlin saw a flash in the cougar’s eyes – a sudden transformation, spiritual, yet also physical.
Hanna! He didn’t know if he thought, spoke, or screamed her name. His brain refused to focus. What was the happening? The cat was fighting to keep him down. His bell was rung again as he tried to roll away and struck his head on a rock – his last conscious thought, the impossible sight of the woman runner backing toward him, and the feeling of lust welling inside him.
A search team found him an hour later. He was conscious and walking slowly. Paramedics quickly diagnosed exhaustion, dehydration, and mild concussion. It was enough to keep him in the hospital overnight for observation, but he refused. Hack busted him free from the poking and prodding of an impersonal, supercilious doctor who thought runners were nothing more than obsessive compulsive exercisers who did more damage to themselves than good.
With Hack taking over the guest room, Devlin took to his own bed and slept like a man drowning. Images of Hanna ran willy-nilly through his subconscious – swimming naked together in the Caribbean; making love beneath the bleachers of a high school neither of them had attended; running stride for stride together, mile after mile after mile.
He awoke ten hours later, thirsty, but curiously refreshed. He knew he should have been feeling rusty and disgruntled, but his mind was clear. Something was different. He couldn’t put his finger on it, and then he could – he felt happy.
He also had an idea.
Hack was in the kitchen pouring coffee. He was unshaven and rumpled in boxers and a sleeveless sweatshirt.
“Morning, sunbeam. You’re looking gorgeous this morning.” Devlin was breezy and smiling.
Startled, Hack spilled coffee on his hand and swore. He looked up at his partner in amazement. It wasn’t so much what Devlin had said as much as the bantering tone it was delivered in. Hack hadn’t heard anything like it from Devlin in forever.
Devlin was fully dressed in jeans, tight black t-shirt, black windbreaker, and worn Timberlines. He hadn’t told Hack or anyone else what had actually happened to him on the trail. He simply made out he couldn’t remember. Because of the dehydration and concussion, his amnesia was accepted without question.
Smiling at his partner, he buckled his detective gun belt around his waist and secured it to his jean’s belt with leather keepers. The dull patterned grips of his .45 showed prominently above its holster. Two spare magazines balanced the gun belt on the opposite side next to his badge. Two pairs of handcuffs were secured in pouches below his kidneys. Inside the back of the gun belt, Devlin always kept a tape covered handcuff key. It was a precaution against being taken hostage and secured with his own cuffs.
“Don’t look so shocked,” Devlin said, taking the cup of coffee from Hack and sipping. “I had to come back sometime. Grab your gear. We’re going hunting.” Devlin handed back the coffee and headed for the garage.
Hack shook his head to clear it, gulped a swallow of the too hot coffee, and rushed to catch up. He didn’t know what happened, but the old Devlin was suddenly back – there was life in the corpse again.
Devlin drove them to the main ranger station for the Santa Monica Mountain Recreation Area located in Will Roger’s State Park. The dilapidated building was located within a half mile of where the body of the female jogger had originally been found.
“I think we’ve been chasing our tails searching the transient encampments,” Devlin said while they drove. “Our man is a loner. He’s used to surviving in rough terrain. He also needs privacy to carry out his crimes. We need to take another approach.”
At the ranger station, Devlin was pleased to find Max Waterman, on duty. Max had known and worked with Hanna since before she married Devlin. He had a fatherly affection for her, and Devlin knew Max would do everything he could to help.
When asked, Max quickly produced a series of detailed maps of the unincorporated areas covered by the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area.
“I know we’ve gone over all of these before,” Devlin said apologetically. “But this is a new case, and this time we’re not looking for somebody who went missing. Instead, we’re looking for a suspect who may be hiding.”
“No problem,” Max said. He unrolled another map on the large table top and secured its edges with smooth stones. “Perhaps the difference in perspective will make something jump out at us.”
“What exactly are we looking for,” Hack asked.
“I not sure exactly,” Devlin said. “But let’s start big and work our way down.” He nodded to Max. “Can you mark all the major ranger stations in the area?”
“Sure.” Max used a pink highlighter to make a handful of marks.
“Substations?” Devlin asked.
Max made another half dozen marks, this time with a yellow highlighter.
Switching to a blue highlighter, Max made more marks.
“Any other kinds of structures?” Devlin asked.
Max thought a moment. “There’s trail maintenance sheds.”
“What are those.”
“They’re much smaller than our storage facilities. We only use them sporadically when we clear or repair trails, so we don’t have to lug all our equipment back and forth every day.”
“Let’s see them on the map.”
Max had to find and check a list before putting ten green highlights on the map. “That’s all the active facilities.”
“Yeah. There’s probably a few others, but they’re located on washed out trails deemed beyond repair.”
Devlin studied the map. He felt a rising excitement. This was the instinct of the hunter-cop. Hack was the duo’s gatherer and organizer. It was Devlin, however, whose single focus on the suspect could get him to a correct conclusion or identification long before all the facts were in. “Where are the inactive sheds?”
It took Max fifteen minutes and three phone calls to get another list faxed to him. When he did, he added three more highlights to the map. “Two of these trails were washed out. The other one was abandoned for a shorter more direct trail due to funding concerns.”
Devlin hovered over the map. His eyes were inexorably drawn to where his own residential property would butt up against the protected mountain recreation area.
“There,” he said, pointing to the last of the marks Max placed on the map.
“There what?” Hack asked.
“How long has this trail been abandoned? Devlin asked Max, ignoring hack in his intensity.
Max looked at his list. “Flash flooding, 1999.”
Devlin switched his gaze to Hack. “Hanna and I ran that trail regularly. Even after it was washed out, we used part of it to connect to other trails. We often talked about running up further to see if any of the damage had been repaired. If Hanna ran the trail the day she disappeared, she could have run right into Crawford.”
“Whoa, partner,” Hack said. “Slow down. First, this isn’t about Hanna. This is about another victim. Second, you are making a huge assumption to think Crawford was holed up anywhere in the mountains let alone a maintenance shed on an abandoned trail.”
“If I’m wrong, you can sue me.”
Hack reluctantly looked down at the map. When Devlin got like this on a case, Hack had never known him to be wrong.
Indian Smith was a sunburnt, granola nut of a man – taciturn, gaunt, and possessing a pair of pale eyes almost totally obscured by crow’s feet wrinkles. If he was truly an Indian was up for speculation, but he was still the best desert tracker Max Waterman knew.
Smith led Devlin and Hack scrambling across boulder and scrub strewn hills on a trail only he could see. Wending his way through the clusters of scrub oaks, his eyes moved constantly from the dirt at their base to the densely leafed branches above before moving on. The point of the journey was to arrive at an oblique angle to the abandoned trail maintenance shed Devlin had picked off the map. Smith appeared to be taking his assignment more than seriously, taking them on an unnecessarily circuitous route. However, there was something about the man’s quiet demeanor keeping Devlin and Hack from questioning his intentions.
There had been discussion about bringing
in police backup, but the detectives agreed the chances of success were too tenuous to warrant a full scale operation. While Devlin was confident in his gut instinct, his assumptions would blow away like cobwebs under official scrutiny. If they were going to scout the location, they would have to do it alone except for the old tracker they were following.
When Smith lingered for an exceptionally long time under one tree, Devlin finally approached him and asked what was causing the delay.
Smith pointed down at what was clearly the droppings of an animal. “Cougar scat,” he said. He then pointed up into the overhead tree branches. “She was watching from up there.”
Devlin looked from the scat to the branch Smith indicated it dropped from. Devlin had been too focused on simply getting to the abandoned maintenance trail to pick up on any tracks, but now he could see several partial cougar tracks around the base of the tree. There were also scratch marks on the trunk where the cat had climbed up. He realized the size of the tracks tipped Smith to the cat being female. “You’ve been following the tracks? That’s why we were all over the place?”
Smith chuckled. “I wondered when you’d catch on.”
Devlin reigned in his temper. He looked over to Hack slumped against a boulder sipping water. “How far are we from the old trail and the shed we’re interested in?”
Smith pointed to the west. “It’s what the cat was watching.”
The were on a plateau, which Devlin realized ended in a sheer drop off to the abandoned trail they were seeking. Following the line of sight Smith indicated, he spotted the hard-edged roofline of a wooden structure weathered to the same color as its surroundings.
Devlin’s immediate reaction was a feeling of dangerous exposure followed by an almost overwhelming rush of adrenaline. For a second, he was rooted to the ground, blinded to what to do next. The moment passed and he began scanning the area for potential threats.
Smith had assumed a squatting position in the limited shade of the tree they had been examining. He had brought them this far and now his job was done. Devlin though he detected a less than hidden smugness in the man’s attitude. It was a superiority Devlin would happily kick out of Smith if Crawford was alerted because they hadn’t been warned of the nearness of their goal.
Devlin moved back and filled Hack in on the situation. Like Devlin, Hack’s fatigue immediately dispersed. “Do you want to wait and watch or go pro-active?” he asked.
“I’ve never been much for watching and waiting.”
“Let’s do it” Hack said. “I’ve got your back.”
The two detectives moved over the rough terrain, belly crawling the last twenty feet to the edge of the plateau’s drop off. The roofline at the back of the maintenance shed was an arm length in front of them. Looking around the edges, they could see what was left of the abandoned trail below. A large swath had been cut through the area by the flash flood sweeping out any semblance of trail accessible to the average hiker. Loose rubble and larger rocks were strewn everywhere. A small copse of hardy scrub oak had survived and still stood defiantly on the edge of the trail opposite the shed.
Despite the rough appearance of the area, there were obvious signs of recent human activity. Piles of cans and other food wrappers and trash were clearly visible. Also clear was the stench of a shallow latrine dug to one side of the shed. Hack looked at Devlin with a sour expression, but no words were exchanged.
There was no noise from inside the shed and no movement on the observable area of the abandoned trail. Devlin spent a few minutes studying the shadows under the scrub oaks opposite, trying also to pierce through their dense branches and foliage.
Eventually, Devlin grabbed the roofline of the shed and lowered himself down to the ground. Hack followed. On the ground, both men drew their weapons, their senses in overdrive.
The shed was roughly eight feet wide by six feet deep. It was worn with weathering, but still appeared structurally sound. Devlin proned himself out on the dirt and poked his head around the front edge at ground level. He saw no movement, nor sensed any specific danger. His heart started pounding, however, when he saw the lock on the door hanging loosely from its broken hasp. His pulse ratcheted up yet another notch when he saw the dirt in front of the shed was covered with blurred versions of a now familiar shoe imprint.
Pushing himself to his feet, Devlin spoke softly to Hack. “The lock is broken. Matching footprints out front.”
“Good enough,” Hack said. “Let’s back off and call in the troops. We have more than enough confirmation.”
“Yeah, right,” said Devlin. He slid around to the front of the shed.
Yanking opened the door, he went in fast and low, his gun covering the confined space. The interior was filthy and dank with an overpowering smell of human sweat. There were several sleeping bags and blankets strewn on the dirt floor. It was the tool pegs along the back wall that riveted his attention. Four t-shirts hung there, two pink, one blue, and one white. The white one was torn and filthy and bore the logo of the 1st Annual Cougar Run. HANNA, Devlin’s brain screamed over and over.
Devlin’s head whipped around at the sound of Hack’s shout.
Nicky Crawford, all 6’8, 280 pounds of him, the limp body of a female jogger over his shoulder, had Frankensteined his way around a blind corner of the trail.
Devlin hadn’t thought the man would be so big despite his size thirteen shoes. It was like facing a monster.
Seeing Devlin and Hack next to his lair, Nicky let out a roar of rage. Dropping the burden he was carrying, which cried out and immediately curled into a fetal position, Nicky did the unexpected. Instead of surrendering or turning to flee, he pulled two guns from his waistband.
Moving at a quick shuffle toward the detectives, he began firing repeatedly, but wildly. His inarticulate yelling and screaming the final effect needed to turn him into a killing juggernaught.
Devlin and Hack dived into the dirt, Devlin snapping off one shot on the way down. He saw it strike Nicky in the shoulder, but realized it didn’t even slow the killer down.
Nicky kept coming, crossing under the stand of scrub oak, continuing his barrage of bullets – determined to kill by sheer dint of will.
Devlin had both arms out in front of him. His .45 was gripped in both hands. He was beginning to squeeze the trigger when Nicky was suddenly struck down from above.
The branches of the scrub oak bowed down and snapped upward as the female cougar launched herself out of hiding. She landed with staggering impact on Nicky’s back. Her jaws wide open, jagged teeth clamping down on the back of Nicky’s head – incisors crushing and penetrating Nicky’s misanthropic brain.
Five months had past since Nicky Crawford had his ticket to Hell punched. The closure brought by the discovery of his gruesome collection of t-shirt trophies in the abandoned trail shed had only served to solidify Devlin’s new sense of purpose.
The press had their usual field day with the story of Nicky Crawford and his death in the jaws of a cougar. Fear of further attacks had sent several hunting forays into the mountains in search of the cat, all to no avail. Devlin worried about the hunts, but after the first party returned empty handed, he felt his concerns slip away.
The woman who would have been Nicky’s next victim had her fifteen minutes of fame on both local and national talk shows – survivor of a serial killer; book and movie to follow.
When the media frenzy passed, as it always did, Devlin and Hack went back to work in the homicide unit as if nothing extraordinary had happened. Drive-by shootings still needed to be solved. Domestic smoking guns still needed sorting out and handling.
In some ways, Hack felt he had his old partner back. But on another level, it was as if Devlin possessed some secret knowledge and was happily keeping busy until . . . until what, Hack didn’t know.
Devlin’s experiences during the latest Cougar Run were still his secret, and they burned deep within him – the spark that kept his heart beating. He knew if he attempted to explain what happened, he’d be treated as a psychological risk. He’d be taken off the squad and be sent to the shrinks assigned to the department’s Behavioral Science Section. If he was delusional, he didn’t want to be cured. This kind of crazy was a whole lot better than the pit of despair from which he’d been reprieved.
His longing for Hanna was as intense as always, but now it was overpowered by a sense of positive anticipation. Devlin didn’t know where the events in his life were leading. Neither did he understand what was happening to him on any kind of logical plane. What he did know was not knowing and not understanding didn’t matter – all he had to do was keep running and everything would come right.
Every day possible, he would leave the enclosed back porch of his house to run into the hills following the same trail he and Hanna used. Each time he ran, he went further, never reaching exhaustion. Instead, he felt invigorated, the sense of expectancy deep within him.
And then expectancy was met.
It was another day, another banging of the screen door behind him as he prepared for a run. Devlin stood, stretching his calf muscles and surveying the glow of the late afternoon sun on the mountains behind his property. It was hot and dry, without any trace of a breeze.
Devlin’s first thought the movement caught in his peripheral vision was a covey of quail. He wasn’t surprised, however, when the waiting cougar rose majestically from her belly to sit up straight and regal. Next to her, two smaller shapes popped up. Even from a distance, Devlin could see the piercing blue eyes of the two month old cubs.
He laughed joyously, moving forward at a jog. The female cougar didn’t move except to swish her full tail and to keep the cubs in front of her. Devlin slowed to a stop when he reached the trio. He was silent because no words could express the emotional feelings and physical changes flowing through him in waves.
The cougar took her luminous eyes off of Devlin, gently batted her cubs into motion, and then sinuously moved after them. Devlin followed, first at a jog and then hitting his stride at a pure run as the cats accelerated.
Devlin knew there were miles to go before the exhilaration of exhaustion and beyond, but he also knew the waiting was over.
Hack and Indian Smith worked their way slowly up the mountain trail. Devlin had been missing for three days. The day before, a lawyer had delivered an envelope of documents turning Devlin’s house and all his possessions over to Hack. The lawyer had been instructed to make the delivery if he did not hear from Devlin for two consecutive days.
Due to these arrangements, the police department was rapidly moving toward a conclusion of suicide to explain Devlin’s disappearance. They were relying heavily on the documented stresses Devlin underwent connected to Hanna’s similar disappearance. Hack knew different.
Through Max Waterman, he’d contacted Indian Smith again. He knew he’d done the right thing when Smith immediately identified cougar tracks at the edge of Devlin’s property. The department, however, had made it clear it didn’t want anything more to do with cougars. Devlin’s obsession with them only added fuel to the fire to show he was unbalanced. Hack was on his own – except for Smith, who didn’t seem to find anything odd in Hack’s insistence on tracking his missing partner.
They were now almost fifteen miles back into the hills. Smith had split limited supplies between their two backpacks in case they were forced to spend the night in the rough. For his part, Hack had no idea where they were or how Smith kept finding traces of tracks to keep them moving forward. However, every time Hack was ready to give up, Smith would somehow locate another mark.
Their biggest find had come a mile earlier when they located Devlin’s running shoes abandoned about ten feet apart. They had started their search following Devlin’s shoe prints and three sets of cougar prints. From their size, Smith judged the cat prints to belong to a female and her cubs. Now they were down to occasional traces of the female cat’s tracks and Devlin’s bare footprints.
Hack sat on a rock, mopping his face with a blue bandana and taking judicious sips of water. He watched as for the umpteenth time, Smith made ever widening circles looking for sign. Suddenly, the hunting guide stopped and crouched down. Hack walked over and stood next to him.
“What is it?”
“Not sure,” Smith said. He rose and walked back ten paces. He pointed down.
Hack followed him and looked. In the soft dirt, he could see the deep heel strike of Devlin’s bare right foot. At the front of the print were the three pad marks of a cougar.
“Was Devlin running over her tracks, or was she running over his?” Hack asked.
“Neither,” Smith said. “Look at the pad marks at the front of the print.”
Hack stared hard, but failed to see any major significance. “What’s different than the tracks we’ve seen before?”
Smith moved back another ten feet and pointed down again. “That’s the female we’ve been following.”
Hack walked over and looked at the print for a long minute. He then moved back and looked at the first combined print Smith had shown him. “The pads on this track are bigger,” he said after a few seconds.
Smith moved past him, his eyes rapidly scanning from side to side. He crouched down again, almost excitedly. “Look,” he said.
Reluctantly, Hack moved forward. He looked. There were clearly two sets of cougar prints – the smaller print of the female they had been following and now a print with larger pads. There were no human foot prints anywhere.
Smith shook his head slowly, suddenly becoming an Indian mystic delivering judgment. “Your friend–”
“I know,” Hack said. “I know.”