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Authors: Beth Groundwater

Tags: #cozy, #mystery, #fiction, #groundwater, #skiing, #vacation, #murder

To Hell in a Handbasket

BOOK: To Hell in a Handbasket
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To Hell in a Handbasket
© 2012 Beth Groundwater

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any matter whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from Midnight Ink, except in the form of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

As the purchaser of this ebook, you are granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this ebook on screen. The text may not be otherwise reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, or recorded on any other storage device in any form or by any means.

Any unauthorized usage of the text without express written permission of the publisher is a violation of the author's copyright and is illegal and punishable by law.

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

First e-book edition © 2012

E-book ISBN: 978-0-7387-2805-6

Previously published in 2009 by Five Star Publishing, an imprint of Gale/Cengage.

Book design by Donna Burch

Cover illustration © Glenn Gustafson

Cover design by Kevin R. Brown

Midnight Ink is an imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd.

Midnight Ink does not participate in, endorse, or have any authority or responsibility concerning private business arrangements between our authors and the public.

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Midnight Ink

Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd.

2143 Wooddale Drive

Woodbury, MN 55125

Manufactured in the United States of America


To Breckenridge, Colorado, my new hometown,
for welcoming my husband and me with open arms.


First I'd like to thank those who helped me with background research for this book. Derek Woodman, Undersheriff of the Summit County Sheriff's Office, answered numerous questions, gave me a tour of their facility, and had one of his patrol officers model their uniform for me. Also, Wally Lind and Don Lewis of the crimescenewriter “Crime Scene Questions for Writers” Yahoo! group gave me excellent feedback on the plausibility of various scenarios for citizen involvement in police investigations. Hopefully, I didn't stretch reality too far for you, fellas.

Also, I want to thank Gail Westwood and other staff at the Breckenridge Nordic Center for answering questions about their snowshoe trails and equipment, and the staff at Tiger Run Tours for giving my family a great time on our “research” snowmobile ride. Thanks to Robert I. Friedman, author of
Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America
, for a fascinating and useful resource.

I owe huge thanks to my writing critique group (Robert Spiller, William Mason, Barbara Nickless, and Maria Faulconer) for their insightful feedback on this manuscript. Thanks to editor Denise Dietz and the other professionals at Tekno Books and Five Star Publishing who worked on the 2009 hardcover edition of
To Hell in a Handbasket
. Many thanks to the professionals at Midnight Ink who worked on this edition and make all of my books look good—and thus make me look good: acquisition editor Terri Bischoff, senior editor Connie Hill, and cover designer Kevin R. Brown. (Purple is my favorite color!) And special thanks to my literary agent, Sandra Bond, who looks out for my best interests in my writing career.

And last but not least, thanks to my family for their support and enthusiasm.

One: Snow Accident

Claire Hanover's knees slammed
up towar
d her chest. She shoved them down and around the mogul and braced for the next impact.
Oof !
Then the next and the next. All she could hear were her own labored breaths and her skis swishing through three inches of Colorado champagne powder sprinkled over the bumps of packed

Her body lurched, thrown back on her skis. Punching out with her fist, she drove her downhill knee forward to regain her balance. It screamed in protest. She stabbed her ski pole into another mogul and swung around it.
Three more turns
, she promised her forty-six-year-old knees.
Then we'll rest.

After rounding three more body-sized bumps, she hockey-stopped in a soft patch of loose snow. Leaning forward on her poles, she eased the pressure on her knees. They stopped cursing her for pushing them so hard during her first day on skis in months. The pain slowly receded. She sucked in gasps of clean, cold air, unzipped her jacket a few inches to cool off, and glanced uphill.

The T-bar was no longer in view, inching its way above the tree line on Peak Eight of the Breckenridge ski resort. The smooth upper slope of Ptarmigan, the easiest black diamond run north of the T-bar, sparkled in the brilliant sunshine of a cloudless March sky. Claire had carved pretty S-turns up there, but when the slope plunged into the trees, growing steeper, the resulting moguls thrown up by countless skiers had forced her to sacrifice her grace. Now she was in survival mode.

She looked downhill. Three skiers stood off to the left below the mogul field, waiting with faces upturned toward her. Her husband, Roger, would be secretly grateful for the opportunity to rest, but Judy, her twenty-one-year-old daughter, and Judy's companion, Stephanie, would be anxious to move on.

Claire took a deep breath and pushed off.

She fought through the remaining moguls, conscious of the others watching her as her knees resumed their cries of agony.
Why did I let Roger and Judy talk me into this run? It'll be the death of me.
Finally, she carved one last long turn and slid to a stop between the culprits.

Roger grinned at her from beneath his tinted goggles. His gray
ing hair stuck out in all directions around his bald spot. He refused to wear a ski hat or helmet, so Claire constantly had to slather sunscreen on his head.

He raked his hand through his tousled hair. “Great run, huh?”

“And we've got it almost to ourselves. That's the advantage of skiing on a weekday.” Judy nodded at a lone snowboarder speeding through the mogul field.

Barely under control, the boarder launched off one bump
, slammed
into another, rolled and righted himself before launching into the air again. His goofy hat streamed multi-colored fleece dreadlocks behind him as he bounced down the slope toward them, picking up speed.

Claire tried to gauge where the young man's erratic trajectory would take him. “Think we should move?”

“It's his responsibility to steer clear of us,” Roger said.

Claire shuffled backward toward the trees on her skis. “But is he capable of steering?”

Before Roger could answer, the boarder raced past. Leaning hard
on one edge of his psychedelic orange-swirled board, he sprayed them with snow.

“Hey!” Judy cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled at the boarder's receding back. “You cut that too close!”

Stephanie whirled to watch the boarder's progress, whipping long black hair across her face. She swiped her locks away and tsked at Judy. “He needs to be taught some manners.”

“How right you are,” Judy said.

Surprisingly compatible, Stephanie and Judy hadn't known each other before last night. The connection was Nickolas Contino, Stephanie's brother and Judy's boyfriend, who currently was skiing Copper Mountain's back bowls with his father. Unbeknownst to Claire, when she arranged to fly Judy home from her spring semester in France for this ski trip, Nick made plans for his family to vacation in Breckenridge at the same time. Having just met the young man, Claire was reserving judgment.

In fact, she still felt miffed Judy had gone out with Nick only a few hours after the family arrived for their two-week vacation. Claire and Roger had collected Judy at the Denver airport Saturday, taken her home to Colorado Springs to do laundry and repack, then driven to Breckenridge on Sunday. Claire would have liked one unhurried night with just family before Judy started socializing. Here it was Monday, their first day on the slope, and Judy already had someone tagging along.

Judy tossed her mane of long chestnut-brown hair, glanced at her mother, and pursed her full, plum-colored lips. She quickly plastered an “I'm having a good time” smile on her face, but as if it had a mind of its own, one foot stamped its ski in the snow.

Some would take the gesture to mean Judy needed to warm her feet, but Claire knew the action signaled impatience. Impatience with her slow, uncool mother, who cramped her style. Even though she tried to hide it, Judy pawed at the snow like a thoroughbred racehorse anxious to be given her head.

Claire sighed. She had hoped to spend the day skiing as a foursome, snatching some long-missed conversation time with her daughter on the lift rides. Now, only an hour after they had started skiing, Judy had had enough.

Claire released the reins. “Judy, you and Stephanie go on ahead. You don't need to keep waiting for me. Your dad and I will meet you in the Vista Haus at noon for lunch.”

Judy flashed a grin. “Thanks, Mom.”

She and Stephanie pushed off and skied toward the upper part of the Claimjumper run. Their willowy bodies leaned gracefully into their fast, carved turns. Stephanie had the better skiing form, but Judy managed to keep up.

Ah, to be young, fit, and fearless.

Roger laid his hand on Claire's arm. “I know you wanted to spend the day with her, but you did the right thing.”

“Yeah, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. First Michael couldn't leave his project in Boston to join us. Now Judy can't wait to get away from us.”

Claire knew she should feel proud that management at Electronic Data Systems thought her son's engineering skills were so important they couldn't release him, but she missed him. And now Judy stood poised on the brink of leaving the nest, wings fiercely flapping to catch the winds of freedom. Soon, no one would need the mothering skills Claire had honed over two dozen years.

Roger bent and gave Claire an awkward kiss, their goggles rubbing against each other. His brown eyes twinkled behind the plastic lenses. “You've still got me.”

She smiled at him and patted his cheek. “Yes, I do, and I'm not letting you go. You ready to hit the slope again, Handsome?”

“After you, Beautiful.”

To the rest of the world, Claire was sure their words rang false, with their middle-aged paunches and graying hair—Claire's dyed blond. But Claire still saw traces of the handsome athletic MBA candidate she'd married twenty-six years ago during the summer before her senior year of college. She hoped Roger's gaze was similarly rose-colored.

She pushed off and followed Judy's and Stephanie's tracks down the hill. Roger trailed behind, letting her set a leisurely pace. They wound through the widely spaced fir and spruce trees above the snowcat track connecting the top of the Independence chairlift with the bottom of the T-bar.

A scream pierced the thin mountain air.

A tight fist of fear squeezed Claire's heart.
Oh, God.
“That sounds
like Judy!”

Claire hunkered down and picked up speed, scanning the slope before her with anxious eyes. Roger's skis schussed right behind her as he raced after her.

She spotted Judy in the woods off to the right, bent over a form in the snow. Her skis lay abandoned on the slope nearby, but she didn't look hurt. Relief washed over Claire, loosening clenched muscles.
Thank God, but where's Stephanie?

Claire tore her gaze from her daughter. The form by Judy took shape. A body lay on its side, with its back facing Claire and wearing Stephanie's ski jacket.

Claire skied over to Judy's skis and clicked out of her own. She slogged through the soft snow on the trailside to Judy. “What happened?”

Tears streamed down Judy's cheeks. “Ste—, Steph—” She pointed.

Claire stepped closer and peered over Stephanie's back.

Stephanie's face came into view, scratched, swollen, with blood streaming out of her misshapen nose. A bright red pool stained the snow by the young woman's head, but its source wasn't just her broken nose. Blood oozed out of her ear, a sure sign of a traumatic head injury.

Horror-stricken, Claire fell to her knees, clutching her chest. Her heart pounded. “Oh, God.”

“Holy shit!” Roger stood over her. He gaped at Stephanie, then looked around.

“She must have hit this.” He pointed to the tree straddled by Stephanie's skis. Bits of bark littered the snow around the base of the tree.

Claire tried to clear her mind and remember the first-aid mantra she had learned years ago when she had been Judy's Girl Scout leader.
Check, Call, Care.
She licked her dry lips and reached out to feel Stephanie's neck. A faint pulse fluttered under her fingertips. She bent over the young woman's face. A small breath whiffed out of her lips and blew against Claire's cheek, followed by an almost imperceptible rise of Stephanie's chest.

“How'd she hit the tree?” Claire asked Judy.

Judy gulped and took a shuddering breath. “I don't know. I didn't see.”

Roger stumbled over to Judy and gathered her in his arms, pulling her head away from the shocking scene. She squeezed her eyes shut and clutched her father.

“Roger, call nine-one-one,” Claire said. “Tell them we have an unconscious victim with shallow breathing and a head trauma.”

While he dug out his cell phone, Claire's mind raced.
Stephanie doesn't need CPR yet, but we should try to stop the bleeding without moving her.
Claire shivered, but not from the cold. While holding Stephanie's head still with one hand, Claire gingerly pinched the bleeding nose with her other hand and checked that air was still flowing through Stephanie's mouth.

Roger reached the emergency dispatcher and started relaying information.

Claire glanced at Judy. “Why didn't you see what happened?”

Judy shook her head and sniffed. “Sh . . . she got ahead of me. Then that snowboarder came out of the woods up there.” She pointed uphill, at a curve, and swallowed hard.

“What happened next?”

“He sped past me and around the curve. A few seconds later, I heard a thump and saw Stephanie-eee.” She wailed and buried her head against Roger's chest again.

“You think he hit her?” Claire asked.

Judy nodded.

Roger clutched her while he gave directions over the phone.

Claire un-pinched Stephanie's nose and checked it. The bleeding seemed to have stopped, and the flow out of her ear had slowed. Stephanie was still breathing, though the breaths were shallow.

Claire's hands hovered over the frighteningly still young woman
, yearning to comfort, to make the hurt go away, to mother. But how? Stephanie shouldn't be moved. If she hit the tree hard enough to break her nose, she could have a neck injury as well as the head trauma.

Claire couldn't think of anything else to do that would not make Stephanie's injuries worse, but she ached to do something, anything, useful. She focused on their skis lying above them. At least she could help the ski patrol find them.

“Watch her breathing, Roger, and let me know if it stops.”

Pushing off her sore knees, Claire rose and tromped through the snow to their skis. She hoisted hers and walked them out to the center of the slope, where she slammed them into the snow, making the sign of an X, the universal call for help at ski areas. She searched uphill for other skiers but saw none. Tracks in the snow caught her eye. Only a few showed in the fresh layer that had fallen overnight.

She traced Judy's, hers, and Roger's tracks up from where they had stopped and clicked out of their skis. Then she saw the single track of a snowboard making wide turns. She followed the track, looking for the impact point with Stephanie's ski tracks.

Claire found where Stephanie's tracks changed from a carved turn to an out-of-control skid veering into the woods. The snowboarder's track intersected with Stephanie's near there, but one last set of ski tracks appeared in the snow, too.

Where Stephanie's tracks veered into the woods, the extra set carved toward hers, approached within inches, then veered off in the opposite direction.
Could the skier have hit her instead?
Claire searched uphill, following the extra tracks until they disappeared into the woods off to the right side of the slope. A broken branch swung in the light breeze.

I need to see the tracks up close.
If she could tell which track went over the top of which, maybe she could figure out who reached the spot at the same time as Stephanie.

Claire started uphill, but before she could take more than a few steps, three ski patrollers came into view. They wore red jackets emblazoned with white crosses, and one towed an evacuation toboggan. They rushed toward Claire's X'ed skis. She waved her arms and pointed to Stephanie.

The patrollers skidded to a stop, their toboggan obliterating all the tracks around the impact point, and ran over to examine the young woman. Claire could tell from the tenseness in their voices when they saw the head injury that Stephanie's chances were slim.
They worked efficiently nonetheless, immobilizing her head, lift
ing her onto the sled and zipping her into the yellow, vinyl-coated bag that kept hurt skiers warm for the ride down the hill and their injuries masked from public view.

BOOK: To Hell in a Handbasket
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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