Avalanche (A Stone Mountain Mystery Book 3)

AVALANCHE

Kristina Stanley

AVALANCHE

A Stone Mountain Mystery #3

 

Copyright © 2016 by Kristina Stanley. All Rights Reserved.

 

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. And any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead (or in any other form), business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

www.KristinaStanley.com

 

FIRST EDITION Kindle eBook

 

Imajin Books —
www.imajinbooks.com

 

June 25, 2016

 

ISBN: 978-1-77223-247-9

 

Cover designed by Ryan Doan —
www.ryandoan.com

Praise for Avalanche

 

“A mountain as deadly as it is majestic; characters far too familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins and murder—Kristina Stanley’s
Avalanche
has it all. This fast-paced mystery is as thrilling as a heart-stopping run down the slopes.” —Gail Bowen, author of the Joanne Kilbourn Shreve mysteries

 

“Layer upon layer, like snow building for an avalanche, Stanley weaves a story that keeps you guessing. You can’t turn the pages fast enough.” —Jeff Buick, author of
Bloodline

 


Avalanche
smashes and uproots relationships in Stone Mountain Resort, leaving devastation in its wake. With as many layers as winter’s snow, this whodunit will keep you turning pages and guessing to the end.” —James M. Jackson, author of the Seamus McCree Series

 

For my brothers, Peter and Michael, with love.

 

Acknowledgements

 

Mathew, the love of my life, eagle-eye editor, and constant supporter is the person I need to thank first.

 

A heartfelt thanks goes to my friends for life who read, reread, commented and commented again: Liliana Conn, Michael Conn, Janice Janczyn, Sue Kreiling, Debi Sarandrea and Adrienne Stewart.

 

A special thanks goes to Monica Conn and Fred Conn for helping me name characters in the early days. The characters Monica Bellman and Fred Morgan are named after my niece and nephew and together they named Roy McCann.

 

For expert advice in his field and for reading for accuracy, Andrew Nelson, Association of Canadian Mountain Guides Ski Guide, Avalanche Forecaster and Educator.

 

I would like to thank Humber School for Writers through which I received feedback from Joan Barfoot and Mary Gaitskill.

 

And of course, thank you to Cheryl Kaye Tardif and Imajin Books for believing in me.

 

Somewhere in this book is a hidden “Easter Egg,” a link to 3 FREE Qwickie novellas by 3 bestselling authors. This is a time limited offer, so happy reading and hunting!

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Fearless of skiing in the backcountry, Roy McCann climbed to the summit of Stone Mountain Resort and paused at the entrance to the Dragon’s Bowl. His muscles ached, and his calf cramped from the strenuous ascent. He released his boot from the binding of his touring ski and stretched his foot toward his shin, fighting the developing knot.

The first glow of morning light reflected off the run, and Roy searched the shadows for signs of another person. A two-kilometer crescent started above the tree line and ended in the forest, providing a steep powder run for only the most advanced skiers and snowboarders. The terrain also provided infinite hiding spots.
So where?

The avalanche warning sign hanging from an orange safety line displayed a considerable danger rating. Logic said he should turn back. Not a chance. His need to finish what he started was stronger than logic.

He surveyed the precipice above the bowl. An overhanging mass of hardened snow extended along three-quarters of the ridge, but the band of uncertainty was small. He could manage the terrain.

Prepping for a downhill run, he removed the climbing skins from the base of the skis. He ducked the line and traversed to his favorite entry point into the bowl.

The sun rose over the peaks, and his headlamp automatically switched off. Twelve hundred meters below, the chairlift operators began their morning ritual. The lifts rotated, and the rhythmic hum of machinery drifted toward him. His shift with ski patrol started at eight, so he’d better get his ass in gear. He’d done his best.

He jumped off the edge and attacked the run. Powder sprayed above his knees as he glided through each turn. A skier’s dream.

Several seconds in, the whumph of packed snow fracturing echoed across the Purcell Mountain range.

Avalanche!

He jammed the edges of his skis against a mogul, stopped and checked the cliff directly above him. The morning sun glistened off the snow, momentarily blinding him. The rumble of a slide pummeling everything in its path reverberated through his bones.

Which way?

An ash-gray cloud of snow exploded over the cliff, blocking out the sky. Too late. Ice chunks, trees and mountain detritus surged toward him, sounding like a vat full of boiling rocks.

He pushed with his poles and took off. Crouching, he picked up speed.

The avalanche closed in. He glanced left and right, searching for an escape route, but dense forest lined both sides. He raced toward the edge of the run, aiming for shallower snow.

Wind blasted past him, and snow grabbed the back of his skis, shot putting him forward. He flung his hand toward the on button of his transceiver, but it wasn’t there. He’d been in such a hurry earlier he’d shoved the equipment into his backpack instead of putting on his harness.
Dumb
.

He hit the ground chest first, air expelling from his lungs. His muscles fought a losing battle for control, and he plummeted. Desperate to stay above the turbulent snow, he swam. Sunlight flashed on and off each time his face breached the surface and was dragged under again.

Snow mixed with fragments of mountain pounded him from every angle, rag-dolling him end over end, snapping a bone in his right arm. A rock snagged his backpack and ripped the straps off his shoulders. A branch tore his upper lip in half.

He glimpsed a person blurred by a curtain of snow. He screamed, but the roar of the avalanche swallowed the sound.

Buried alive.

An immense pressure came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. His left hand cupped in front of his mouth, providing a small pocket of air. His right arm burned as if it had been pulled from its socket. His boots pressed against his feet, making it impossible to wiggle his toes.

The pulse in his neck pounded.
Slow your breathing.

In less than fifteen minutes the snow would solidify into an ice mask, creating a sealed cavity around his face and cutting off his clean air supply. His own breath would slowly kill him as his oxygen transformed into carbon dioxide. The deeper he breathed, the faster he would die.

The unattached half of his lip blocked one nostril. He worked his tongue, creating moisture in his mouth, tasted blood and spat. Saliva dribbled from the corner of his mouth to his ear, telling him he lay with his face toward the surface.

He scratched his fingers against the packed mass in a feeble attempt to dig himself out. To break the silence, he closed his eyes and hummed his mother’s favorite tune.

His sister flashed in front of him like images on a movie screen. He owed Kalin…a lot. Maybe he deserved this.

“It’ll be alright.” But he knew it wouldn’t. Every night demon his brain had ever conjured up, every imaginary villain who chased him because of what he’d done joined him now.

At seven thirty-two a.m., Roy’s headlamp burst to life, eerily illuminating his surrounding snow coffin.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Once she knew the thing, she couldn’t unknow it.

Kalin Thompson submerged into the steaming water and waited for dawn. The hot tub, nestled behind her chalet at Stone Mountain Resort, invisible from the road or from neighboring homes, gave her a place to think, gave her time to figure out how to tell her husband of seven months her news. Ben didn’t like change, and this would be a doozy in his world.

If only her brother hadn’t been such a jerk last night. What a disaster. Before she’d had the chance to tell Ben her plans, Roy had shown up and started an argument that ended with Ben telling Roy to move out of the house. Roy had poured what remained of his beer into the sink and stormed to his ground-floor bedroom. Kalin stomped upstairs and feigned sleep when Ben arrived.

The Purcell Mountain range was the first range west of the Rocky Mountains, and kilometer after kilometer of forested terrain inhabited by wildlife stretched before Kalin. She turned off the jets, closed her eyes and listened to the forest awakening. Somewhere in the distance, an avalanche rumbled.

A twig cracked and an edginess spread through her. Another snap from behind. She scanned the forest, laughed at herself for being nervous and sank lower in the tub.

She tried to ignore the willies but had to look again just in case. Her eyes locked with the opaque eyes of a cougar, and she let out a tiny squeal. In a blur, the cougar disappeared behind a tree, almost as if it had never been there.

Kalin eased to the side of the tub closest to the house, barely causing a ripple, and backed onto the deck.
No sudden movements
. Step by step she worked her way toward the house, treading slowly even though the snow froze the skin on the soles of her feet. She opened the door a crack and slipped inside.

“Ben, get up. There’s a cougar out back,” Kalin yelled. She’d left her husband tucked in their sleigh bed on the second-floor loft with his head buried beneath his pillow.

Ben raced into the living room, his cheeks flushed from sleep, his brown hair mussed, and in sock-covered feet slid to a stop on the hardwood floor, inches from Kalin. Not anticipating the quick stop, Chica, their yellow Labrador, bumped into the back of his legs.

The muscles on his bare chest and stomach rippled with tension as if ready for battle. Nothing was stopping her from grabbing his hand and dragging him back to bed. Makeup sex was always good, but she remained by the door with the interior lights off where she had a clear view of the hot tub.

When Kalin didn’t move, Ben asked, “Is it still there?”

“I can’t see it.”

“Why were you in the tub?”

“I needed to think.”

Ben caressed her cheek with the back of his fingers. “Maybe it’s not the best idea to go outside by yourself in the dark.”

She ignored the tension remaining from the previous night and enjoyed the heat of his hand. “What should we do?”

“Get naked?”

She suppressed a laugh. How had he known what she was thinking? She rested her palm on the curve of his lower back and pulled him close. “I meant about the cougar.”

“Nothing. It’s probably moved on already.” Chica stood by Ben’s side at the window, emitting a guttural growl. “Or not.”

Chica pressed her nose to the glass, leaving smudge marks, and barked several times.

A white rabbit bolted from behind the hot tub, zigzagging for the trees. The cougar exploded from its hiding spot and snatched the rabbit by the neck. A quick death. No cruelty intended, only a meal required. In a flash of movement, the cougar disappeared again.

“Wow,” Ben said. “Did you see how fast it was?”

So much for sympathy.
“Can you feed Chica while I get dressed?”

“So no getting naked?”

“Unfortunately,” Kalin seductively sucked his earlobe and let it go with a smack, “you don’t have time before your shift.”

Ben touched his lips to hers, sighed, then said, “I’ll watch to make sure the cougar doesn’t come back. Although,” Ben raised both eyebrows twice, “you do look sexy in that red bikini.”

Kalin smiled as she jogged up the steps to the bedroom. She returned wearing slippers, charcoal-gray fleece pants and a lilac sweater. She wanted to talk to Ben before she put on her suit and he asked questions about her business attire.

“I’ve been promoted,” Ben said.

Her news would have to wait. “Why didn’t you tell me last night?”

“Roy interfered.”

She wrapped her arms around him, ducking slightly to nuzzle her nose in his neck, and his stubble tickled her cheek. Her gut wrenched. The anxiety of sharing her news turned to dread.
Conflict, here we come.

“That’s wonderful,” she said, but her words didn’t match the emotions swirling inside her like snowflakes in a storm. Being the youngest director on the team, Kalin had been surprised by the phone call she’d received earlier in the month. Thirty-one years old, a booming career and married to the hottest guy at the resort should have made her happy. But what if there was more?

“Did you know?” Ben asked.

As the director of human resources and security at Stone Mountain Resort, Kalin should have known, but she suspected she’d been kept out of the loop because she was married to the candidate. “No, I knew Turner offered the director of mountain ops to Oliver. I hadn’t heard if he accepted.”

“He did. And right after, Turner called me in. I thought I was being reprimanded for something, he looked so serious. Then he told me Oliver was the new director, and I would report to him if I accepted the promotion. Like I wouldn’t.”

Ben broke the seal on a new can of coffee, and the aroma wafted toward Kalin. While he prepared the coffee maker, she studied the mountain chalet they’d built. Today was their fourteenth day in the home they’d designed together.

Ben drummed his fingers on the granite counter top, and his gorgeous brown eyes darted around the kitchen, making her suspect he had more to announce.

“Turner’s expanding the role. Avalanche forecasting will report to me. I’ll be in charge of search and rescue, too.”

Kalin laughed at his enthusiasm. How could she wreck his day when he’d just been handed his dream job? “You’ll be great at it.”

A familiar pit of fear awakened in Kalin. She’d been a widow when she met Ben, and she couldn’t survive another immense loss, but he knew how to be safe in the backcountry, and she should stop worrying. “I thought I heard an avalanche earlier.”

Ben reached behind Kalin’s head, pulled her hair free from her ponytail and let his fingers linger on the curve of her neck. As if he read her thoughts, he said, “I’ll be careful.”

“I know. I’m proud of you.”

“There’s one more thing.” In a gesture characteristic of nervousness, Ben ran his finger along the hairline scar on the underside of his jaw. “This means Roy will report to me.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“He’s your brother. And after last night, I don’t know, maybe we can get past the crap of the last couple of weeks. Besides, I recommended him for the job. I can’t fire him because I’m the new manager.”

“Did you hear him leave earlier?”

“Hard to miss the slamming door.”

Maybe Roy would surprise her and things would get better. “I’ll defrost a couple of steaks. Let’s celebrate your promotion with a nice dinner.”

Chica’s tail thumped, and Ben rubbed her head. “I think she understands the word
steak
.”

With open eyes, Kalin leaned forward and pressed her lips onto his. Her body ached for him, but she needed to change into a suit soon.

“Man, I love your one brown eye, one green eye thing. You have no idea how beautiful you are. Rain check on getting naked?”

The warmth of his compliment made her smile. How could she tell him she wanted to leave Stone Mountain?

“You know this means you can’t seriously consider the job at White Peaks, right?”

Ben’s phone rang, and he took the call. “I’ll be right there.”

“What?” Kalin asked.

“My new role starts right now. The avalanche you heard was in the Dragon’s Bowl. I gotta go.”

 

* * *

 

Kalin watched Ben’s truck trundle along the snow-covered Black Bear Drive until his taillights were pinpricks, then jogged up to the loft. She was not going to worry. The avalanche happened before the resort opened for the day, and all Ben needed to do was assess the surrounding terrain.

Once dressed, she stood before the full-length mirror attached to her closet door and checked her suit from several angles. She only owned one now that she worked in a ski resort. Maybe with the change in blouse, she’d look different enough from the previous interviews.

She’d kept the first and second interviews for the general manager role at White Peaks a secret from the president at Stone Mountain. James Turner was a boss who expected loyalty. The interviews had been with the human resources director, then the outgoing general manager. Going from being a director responsible for four hundred winter employees to a resort that hired over a thousand seasonal employees was a bit of a jump. Her security team patrolled the fifteen hundred guest rooms at Stone Mountain. She didn’t know how many rooms White Peaks had, but the number had to be much larger. The change would be a challenge, but she could do it. Couldn’t she?

In a few minutes, she would log into a video conference with the board of directors.

Her cell rang just as she did up the top button of her suit. She checked the name on the display. The resort’s finance clerk.

“The safe is empty,” Helen Armstrong said.

“How can that be?” Kalin asked.

In a frantic voice, Helen explained what happened. “Can you come in…Please?”

“Hang tight. I won’t be long.”

As the senior finance clerk, Helen counted the resort’s money before she prepared floats for the various outlets around the resort. Her attention to detail made her good at her job, but she had to be mistaken. Kalin couldn’t put a major theft on her résumé, not now, not when she needed a good reference.

She called White Peaks and postponed her final interview. She did her best to explain the situation without exposing proprietary details.

A total of fifteen minutes had passed when she rushed into the finance center in the administration building. She found Helen slumped on the carpet, facing the empty safe. “Who else knows about this?”

“No one,” Helen said.

Helen’s softness in appearance matched her personality. Her fit body carried curves that made her appear more feminine than athletic. An odd fit for a ski hill. She wore her hair tied tight behind her head, and only enough makeup to highlight her doe-like eyes.

“Are you okay?” Kalin asked.

“I don’t know what to do.”

“We’ll figure this out.” Kalin extended her hand to help Helen get off the floor.

Like a wolf sensing weakness, Jessica Scott appeared in the doorway. She stood with her hands on her hips and glared at Helen. “I thought Eric was on shift today.”

Jessica carried herself like a runway model. All angles. No curves to soften her look. Her blonde hair fell straight, ending halfway between her shoulder blades. Not one kink in sight. Precisely laid blush accentuated her sculpted cheekbones. Although Jessica was physically beautiful, Kalin thought Helen’s personality made her the more attractive of the two.

From her place on the carpet, Helen answered her boss without looking at her. “He asked me to sub for him.”

Jessica leaned forward. “Why are you sitting on the floor?”

Red crept up Helen’s neck to her face and turned her cheeks a blotchy crimson.

“Helen?” Jessica asked.

Helen swung her hand in front of the empty safe. “The money’s gone.”

“What do you mean
gone
?” Jessica strode to the safe, grabbed the door and swung it wider. “And what’s Kalin doing here?”

Poor Helen
. Kalin watched her carefully. Helen didn’t look her boss in the eye. Instead she stared at the wet footprints left by Jessica’s winter hiking boots on the threadbare carpet. Even wearing jeans, Jessica looked elegant.

Helen had been a senior clerk for five months, and with her lack of education, she’d been lucky to get the job. Kalin had risked hiring her because she thought her honest and detail oriented. And even though it shouldn’t influence a hiring decision, she liked Helen.

“It’s not my fault,” Helen said.

Jessica took a deep breath. “I didn’t say it was. What happened?”

“I don’t know. I opened the safe and found it empty. When I locked it last night, it was full.” Helen rose and wiped her palms on her denim skirt. Black leggings covered her shapely legs. She wore flats and a plain beige sweater.

“Stop with the whipped puppy look. You need to get yourself together. How much money was in the safe?” Jessica asked.

Kalin pulled Jessica away from Helen, giving Helen some space. Jessica was Roy’s girlfriend, and Kalin didn’t want to hear from him later that she’d given Jessica a hard time, so she kept her voice polite. “Jessica, calm down. Okay? Yelling at Helen isn’t going to help.”

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