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Excerpt - Mountain Peril by Sandra Robbins

Mountain Peril
by
Sandra Robbins


According to an anonymous message, a young woman is going to be murdered in the North Carolina mountains. When a body is found, Danielle Tyler is shocked to learn it's her student—the third person in her life to meet an untimely death. Is she next? From disturbing notes and roses left in her office to cold-blooded murder, someone means deadly business. Detective Jack Denton—the stalwart lawman who makes her pulse race—vows to find the deranged madman, but Danielle doesn't dare let him too close. Especially when death seems to be the destiny of anyone she cares about…

Excerpt of chapter one:

The Webster Falls Sheriff's Department Asks for Help in Apprehending a Killer.

The flashing words, accompanied by the steady drone of a drumbeat and the eerie sound of distant guitars, hovered above a picture that sent chills down Danielle Tyler's back. She leaned closer to the computer screen and stared spellbound at the scene below the words. As Dean of Students at Webster University, she was familiar with some of the Web sites her students frequented, but she'd never seen anything like this.

A young girl lay on her back, her dark hair fanned out on a pillow of mountain foliage underneath. Red-tinged leaves littered her blood-drenched clothes. Her open eyes stared upward as if offering a silent plea for release from pain.

Danielle closed her eyes for a moment to shut out the grisly scene of the girl she knew so well and reopened them to stare at Detective Jack Denton from the Webster Falls Sheriff's Department sitting across from her desk. "H-how did you find this horrible site?"

He opened the notebook he held and glanced at a page. "A man named Harrison Coleman from Marietta, Georgia, called our department this morning. He said his son who attends Georgia Tech said the Web site has become the main topic of conversation on the campus. When I pulled it up, I was surprised at what I saw."

Danielle crossed her arms and hugged herself to suppress the icy feeling flowing through her body. "It's given me quite a shock, too."

"I can understand. I intended to take this to the university's president, but when I arrived, his secretary told me he was in Asheville today. She suggested I bring it to you."

Danielle nodded. "Dr. Newman will be back tomorrow. In the meantime, how can I help you?"

The muscle in the detective's jaw twitched. "The Web site claims the girl on there is a Webster student and has been murdered." He paused before he continued. "Our department doesn't know anything about a murder, but we're concerned that the scene is identical to the murder ten years ago of Jennifer McCaslin who was a student here."

Danielle took a deep breath. "I realized that when I saw the picture."

A frown creased his forehead. "Did you know Jennifer McCaslin?"

Danielle sank back in her chair. "We were roommates. She was murdered our senior year at Webster." She pointed to the screen. "But this girl's not Jennifer."

"No, I realized that. I looked at a picture from Jennifer McCaslin's cold case file. We don't know who the girl on the Web site is."

Danielle gritted her teeth. "She's Tricia Peterson, a student here at Webster. But I saw her on campus this morning and she was fine. She was only a child when Jennifer was killed. How would she even know about the murder?"

"I don't know."

Danielle glanced back at the screen. "This doesn't make any sense."

"We know that, but we wanted to see if anyone can give us information. From what my caller told me this morning, this Web site is causing panic on college campuses. Not to mention the fact that it doesn't look good that a sheriff's office is advertising for help in catching a killer."

Danielle frowned. "But why are students frightened by this obvious prank?"

He nodded toward the computer. "Why don't you read what it says next?"

Danielle turned back to the computer and read the lines printed underneath the flashing heading.

The Webster Falls, North Carolina, Sheriff's Department asks for your help in the apprehension of Damien Carter, the chief suspect in the murder of Lila Barrett. The victim, a student at Webster University, was found on a Smoky Mountain trail outside of Webster Falls in September. Carter, also a student at the school, disappeared soon after the discovery of the body. Various sightings of the fugitive have been reported, but so far he has eluded capture.

Danielle shook her head and frowned. "We don't have a Lila Barrett or a Damien Carter enrolled at Webster."

Detective Denton nodded. "I know. When I went to the president's office, his secretary told me."

Acquaintances of the suspect report the young man had become obsessed with murders on college campuses and had often threatened to wage his own rampage across the country. Having been blackballed by a fraternity, he harbors animosity against anyone belonging to a Greek organization. Students enrolled in institutions of higher learning are warned to be on the lookout for this suspected killer. If he is seen, notify the Webster Falls, North Carolina, Sheriff's Department at once.

Danielle leaned back in her chair and pointed to the screen. "I can't believe this. Who would construct such a Web site?"

Detective Denton glanced down at the notebook. "Actually we know. Our tech guys traced the Internet Service Provider and found out the Web site owner is Flynn Carter."

Danielle sprang from her chair. "Flynn?" she screeched. "He's my work study student and Tricia's boyfriend. Why would he do this?"

"That's what I need to find out. Can you get Carter in here?"

She reached for the phone, but her hands shook so that it slipped from her fingers. Clutching it with both hands, she brought it to her ear. "Betty, would you find out what class Flynn Carter is in and get him to my office right away?" After hanging up, she glanced at the detective. "Is there anything else?"

Detective Denton nodded. "There are pages of forensics information, a picture of the victim and killer together before the murder. There's even a page with pictures of the suspected killer at places all across the country—Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, a museum in Oklahoma City, Graceland. It says these photos were sent to the department by tourists who just happened to catch him in their family vacation pictures."

Danielle clicked on the page with the photographs and gasped. "That's Flynn in those pictures."

"That's what I suspected," Detective Denton said.

She started to speak, but Flynn shuffled into the room. Wearing faded jeans with blown-out holes and a muscle-fitted, sueded cotton shirt, he looked like any other Webster student, not the designer of a gruesome Web site. His bleached hair tumbled over his forehead, and he glanced from one to the other, before he settled a deadpan expression on Danielle. "You sent for me, Dr. Tyler?"

She nodded in Detective Denton's direction. "This is Detective Jack Denton, an investigator with the sheriff's office. He'd like to ask you some questions."

A crimson flush spread across his face and forehead. "What about?"

Danielle sucked in her breath and frowned. She opened her mouth, but Detective Denton interrupted her. "I'm here investigating a complaint I had today and need to ask you a few questions."

Flynn tensed. "Fire away."

"Are you responsible for the Web site that claims to document the murder of a Webster student?"

Flynn's body relaxed, and a smirk crossed his face. "Yeah."

The detective's mouth thinned into a straight line. "Can you explain what made you construct such a site?"

Flynn chuckled. "What's the big deal? It was just a joke. You know, shake some fraternity and sorority kids up a little."

Anger flashed on Jack Denton's face, and he advanced on Flynn. "I don't consider it a joke when our department gets calls from parents in other parts of the country who have kids scared to venture out on their college campuses."

Flynn glanced at Danielle. "You mean they thought it was real?"

The frown on Detective Denton's forehead deepened. "Yeah. There's no telling what harm your little prank has caused. With all the crazy people out there, all it would take would be for one to see your site and decide to copy the murder."

"You've got to be kidding. Nobody would do that."

Detective Denton jabbed his finger at Flynn's chest. "Look, Mr. Smart Guy, if you could see all the information that comes across my desk about copycat crimes, you'd have thought twice before you put up that Web site."

Flynn gritted his teeth. "I can't help it if there are crazy people out there. It has nothing to do with me or my Web site."

"Well, just to make sure, our department wants you to take it down."

Flynn shook his head. "You can't make me do that. My dad's a lawyer, and he's taught me all about my rights. I haven't broken any laws, and you know it."

"That remains to be seen."

Flynn started to respond, but Danielle interrupted him. "I suggest you do as the detective tells you, Flynn, before your enrollment at this university is affected."

Flynn's eyes widened. "Dr. Newman wouldn't kick me out, would he?"

Danielle nodded. "You involved the university when you depicted the murder scene of a former student. Since that case has never been solved, you used information from an ongoing investigation." She paused and took a breath. "And I might add that in all the time I've known you, I've never seen you act as disrespectful as you have today. Now unless the detective has more questions, I want you to leave."

Detective Denton held up his hand. "I do have one more question. What about the pictures on the Web site of you at different spots across the country? How did you pull that off?"

Flynn pulled his attention away from Danielle and faced the detective. "That was really cool, wasn't it?" A laugh rumbled in his throat. "A friend and I drove from California when we came back to school. We stopped at tourist attractions along the way. We'd spot a family group. I'd walk over close to them, and my friend would snap the picture. I posted them and said they were pictures sent from people who caught a killer by mistake on their vacation photos."

"Humph!" The snort reflected the disgust on Jack Denton's face. "That's all the questions I have at this time. I'll be talking to you later, though."

Flynn glanced from one to another before he whirled and stormed toward the door. When he'd left, Danielle turned back to the detective. "I want to apologize for Flynn's behavior."

Detective Denton closed his notebook and smiled. "I'm used to it. That's one of the hazards of police work."

Danielle walked around her desk and stuck out her hand. "Thank you for bringing this to our attention." He grasped her hand, and his touch warmed her cool skin. She pulled away and flexed her fingers. "What will you do next?"

He glanced at his watch. "I'll talk to the district attorney. See if we have legal grounds for making Carter take the site down."

"Will you do that today?"

"I don't know. I'm expected in court to testify in a case. I have no idea how long I'll be there, but I'll get back in touch as soon as I know anything."

"Thank you. Do you think you can charge him with anything?"

He shrugged. "I doubt it. He really hasn't broken any laws. I suppose his dad could say he was just exercising his right to free speech."

She clenched her fists. "Well, his right to free speech has brought back one of the most horrible times in my life."

He said nothing for a moment, and she saw a flicker of sympathy in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Dr. Tyler. We'll do everything we can to get this matter resolved."

"I appreciate that."

As he walked out the door, Danielle thought about the surprising turn her morning had taken. As much as she had tried, for the past ten years, she hadn't been able to put Jennifer's death from her mind, and now it had returned to haunt her even more.

She crossed her arms and hugged herself. Jennifer's murder made no sense when it happened, and ten years later it still didn't. The police had never found any motive for the murder, and they had eventually abandoned it to the cold-case files.

Maybe Flynn's Web site would provide a reason for them to study the murder again. Detective Denton hadn't given any indication the department was willing to reopen the investigation, but something about his demeanor gave her the idea he was a dogged investigator. Maybe he would be the person who would finally shed some light on the nightmare she'd lived with for ten years.

Danielle walked to the door, stepped into the hallway and gazed at the retreating figure of Jack Denton. Just before he reached the foyer, he turned his head and glanced over his shoulder. His eyes widened as if surprised to see her standing there. For a moment their gazes locked before he turned away and disappeared through the front door.

There was something about the handsome detective that intrigued her. Perhaps it was that momentary flash of sympathy for her feelings she saw in his eyes. Then again, she might be imagining his concern. After all, he knew nothing about her or the devastating events in her life that started with the discovery of Jennifer's body on the mountain trail.

Days went by when she wouldn't think about what had happened. Then something would remind her. Old wounds would be laid bare, and those things best forgotten would resurface. All she could do was pray that she would survive again as she had done so many times before.

Jack Denton climbed into his car and sat there taking in the Webster University campus. The stately, brick buildings surrounded by manicured lawns and ringed by the Appalachians in the background provided a picture of wealth, affluence and privilege, not anything like the small state college he'd attended.

He stared at the Administration Building, which he'd just left. The structure was really a mansion that sat in the middle of a bustling campus. The information he'd read said it had been home to generations of the Webster family before Thaddeus Webster, at the end of World War I, established a university on the property. Today the mansion housed staff offices and classrooms.

The more modern buildings that bordered a rectangular grassy area across the back of the campus looked slightly out of place in the shadow of the main house. He'd read that the newest structure, the Nathan Webster Pavilion for concerts and recitals, had been completed a year before.

Students hurried from one building to another on their way to class. He thought of Danielle Tyler and wondered why she'd returned to work at Webster after going through the trauma of her roommate's death.

Her sea-green eyes had held a sparkle until she saw the site, and he'd been disappointed to see it disappear. He could smell the perfume she wore, and the familiar scent reminded him of another woman from what seemed like another lifetime ago. He grunted in disgust, turned the ignition and punched the play button on the car's CD player.

The music of Jade Dragon, the hottest rock band in history, filled the interior. They'd been his favorite band since his teenage years. Whenever the past threatened to intrude, he could always depend on them to distract his thoughts.

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