The splash of red near her mount’s feet made Rae Morgan yank on Napoleon’s reins. He skittered to a stop and then shied back.
One glance and Rae saw why. Blood.
Lots of it.
An excited fly buzzed past her ear on its way to the feast. Rae startled, at first thinking it was the hum of a bullet.
She scanned her surroundings for danger. Scrubby bushes provided lots of cover for an enemy. She startled at the sight of something man-sized. A saguaro cactus held up its arms in surrender. In front of her, Superstition Mountain rose to an impressive 3000 feet above the nearly flat desert floor. From this distance, the 160-acre wilderness appeared to be one large jagged monolith instead of a series of mountains, peaks and canyons. Today, white clouds flitted around Superstition’s reddish gold peak, like cotton balls applying blush to a maiden’s cheeks. Picturesque, proud, and dangerous. Rae loved it out here. Where the sea called to some men, this desolate area had charmed her from the time she was small. Yet she knew all too well that a moment’s inattention could mean paying the ultimate price. Death.
The blood staining the ground spoke to that risk. Still, violent death wasn’t something normally encountered on a sunny October day, even in the Arizona desert.
Rae strove to control the panic sizzling through her nerves and sat, as motionless as possible, on her steed’s back. A stiff breeze rustled the brush. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary or the least bit threatening—the same as that afternoon almost two years ago.
This isn’t Afghanistan.
A few feet further up the trail, she spotted a larger pool of darkened soil. More blood or a shadow? Behind her, she heard the murmurs of the restless riders and the stamp of their horses, impatient to be off.
Three days a week, she led small groups of tourists on horseback into the Superstitions for Fool’s Gold, the family business. The trails were well marked and well traveled. Of course, in the unforgiving wilderness, there was always the possibility of disaster, usually appearing in the form of rattlesnakes, wildcats, an occasional rockslide, or a lost tourist. She carried a shotgun for the first two and a walkie-talkie and pickax for the others. Today, she’d lucked out with a small tour. A single family of five. The father appeared to be a typical middle-aged businessman with a thick waist and a balding pate. His wife, far too young to be the mother of the three children accompanying them, had sharp blue eyes and a predatory smile. The two girls were twins of twelve. Rae could tell they’d taken riding lessons from their postures; however, navigating a wilderness trail was a lot different from cantering circles in a dirt ring. The son, more man than boy, hadn’t smiled since they’d left, nor had he taken his resentful gaze off his father’s wife.
“What’re we stopping for?” Mr. Baxter called. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, probably already regretting his decision to wear new, too-tight jeans to impress his much younger, blonde trophy wife.
“Is that blood?” The Baxter’s son’s sunburned face brightened for the first time since they’d left the stables.
It was the same question Rae was asking herself. Instead of answering, she dismounted and motioned for the other riders to stay put. No one did, of course. The teenager, who she’d suspected would be trouble from the onset, rode past her.
“I think it is blood,” he said, his voice pitched higher with excitement.
Rae’s heart thudded against her ribs. She swallowed a shout for the stupid boy to stop, dismount, hide, while she fought back her irrational fear. No terrorists lurked in the bushes or behind rocks waiting to pick off soldiers as they passed. Probably, hopefully, the explanation was more mundane. A dead rabbit brought down by a hungry coyote, perhaps. Her instincts didn’t accept the reasoning. Too much blood to be a rabbit, or even a dead coyote.
The Baxter family remained mounted, but had drifted to a halt in a close-knit huddle. None of them seemed concerned with the boy’s discovery; instead, they began to forage for water bottles and snacks. The others’ nonchalance at this unscheduled stop helped Rae keep the situation in perspective.
The boy urged his horse further down the trail as he practically leaned down with his nose to the ground. “There’s more blood over—”
If he’d meant to say “here”, Rae wasn’t sure. A girly scream erupted from his throat, startling the horses and sending Rae’s already jangling nerves into overdrive.
She jerked her shotgun from the saddle holster as the boy tumbled out of his saddle.
“Get down!” she shouted over her shoulder, instinct taking over. She ran toward the young man in a crouch to evade enemy fire. No bullets sang past or thudded into flesh as she arrived next to the teenager sprawled on the ground. His eyes were large pools of terror in a face drained of color.
He nodded automatically, then shook his head and gagged.
As she reached for his horse’s reins, Big Red, the boy’s mount, danced away, showing the whites of his eyes. She followed the horse’s panicked gaze. A dirty backpack lay beside a heap of blood-stained denim. Forcing herself to be calm, she took a deep breath and, for the first time, scented the coppery tang in the air.
She’d seen worse on her ill-fated tour of duty. In that far away desert, body parts had littered the ground in wild disarray, legs mingled with torsos and intestines while the sickening scent of scorched flesh seared her nostrils. Shuddering, she stepped closer to get a better look at the corpse. Clad in jeans and a filthy once-white shirt, the body lay on its stomach. A man or a woman with a boyish figure. Without turning the body over to do an anatomical inspection, she wouldn’t be able to tell the sex.
Identifying the victim would be a hell of a lot easier if they found the missing head.