C.R. Chandler


Features a look at the latest novel in a series—up until it is available for purchase.  I hope you enjoy it—and if you want to comment on it, please feel free to drop me a line at: CRChandlerAuthor@gmail.com. I’m always happy to hear from my readers!  ~ C.R. Chandler    


  She was lighter than the others.
  The climb up the rocky trail had been much easier hauling less weight. It was too bad he’d already decided on the names for his list, or he would’ve been tempted to look for smaller targets. If his current selections didn’t appease the demands of the bitch who continued to torment him, he would keep the size of his future targets in mind. 
    His mouth twitched upward. He’d always thought of them as targets, liking the way it made them sound like something other than human. But why a target? Why not an object, or simply a thing? He shrugged, losing interest in the question as soon as it had popped into his mind, letting it quickly drift away.
   It made no difference. All he cared about was this target meeting her fate at last. That’s what mattered now.
  Kill the target. Appease the bitch.
  Death never lost. That was an unbreakable rule. His loving mother had drilled that into him every minute of every day until he’d finally found an escape in the army. Strange he’d found peace in a place where he’d constantly trained for war.
  At least he’d been happy for a while. But the bitch had found him eventually. He knew she would.
  He glanced over his shoulder toward the cart, barely visible in the shifting darkness of the overcast night. The light from his headlamp pierced into its interior where the woman lay.
  Her honey-blond hair was tangled beyond fixing, an impossible mess covered with a coat of the constant mist that permeated the air in the mountains. She would have had to cut it off and grow it out again if it had been her fate to ever leave this forest. Her neck was bruised around the edges of the collar he’d fastened there, and her eyes were closed. But he knew they were hazel.
  The last time he’d seen them, they’d been filled with terror.
  She was naked, her hands and feet bound together by a course piece of braided twine. When he’d undressed her, he’d been pleased with her toned body, admiring her flat stomach, the sleek muscles in her arms, and long legs. He liked to exercise every day himself and approved of the way she’d kept in shape.
  Sarah Maynard. That was her name. She was young—hadn’t even reached thirty yet—which put her a solid two decades behind him. But that was all the years she was allowed to have, and even then she’d managed to steal a few extra. But now it was time to pay up.
   The temperature in the mountains was close to freezing, made that much colder by the frigid air trapped beneath the thick canopy of the trees towering overhead. Despite the influence of the drug he’d given her that had rendered her unconscious and kept her quiet during their trip up the mountain, she still shivered. If she had frozen to death on the way to the ridge, he would still send her tumbling over its edge.
  It had to be done. It was the only way for him to make things right, and until he had, he’d never escape the bitch. Never have any peace. And he deserved that. He’d earned it. Even his poor excuse of a brother would have agreed.
   His upper lip curled into a sneer at the thought of his older sibling. He could still hear that nasty voice echoing in his head, taunting him. “Tatum tater tot. That’s all you’ll ever be. A soft little tater tot.”
  A low moan from the depths of the cart pulled him back to the present and his task at hand. He held up his wrist and glanced at the expensive sports watch he always wore. It was an indulgence, but one he was careful with. He only wore it on these special nights, never during the day. Right now it was telling him that he had to hurry if he was going to keep to the timetable. He needed to be off the mountain before sunrise, but first things first.
  “I’m cold.”
  The soft plea signaled that she was awake at last. He’d already waited an hour longer than he usually did, which was another reason to keep the weight of his target in mind. He should have reduced the dosage for her.
  “Please. I’m going to be sick.”
  He shrugged in answer, even though she couldn’t see him. He’d turned his headlamp off, and his dark jacket and black pants blended into the night. A necessary precaution against some camper or stray park ranger spotting him, even at this late hour. There was no reason to make it easy to see him. He’d even painted his cart black and always kept the wheels well oiled.
  “Where am I?”  Her voice had a noticeable tremble in it but still sounded stronger than a moment ago. He needed to get the rest of his work done before she found enough energy to scream. Not that it would make any difference because there wasn’t anyone around to hear it, but he didn’t want to deal with the noise.
   Ignoring the feeble movements of the woman lying alone in the dark, he lifted a coil of nylon rope that he’d tossed into the cart before starting the hike up the rocky trail. He lifted a coil of nylon rope he’d tossed into the cart, ignoring the feeble movements of the woman inside.
  “Who are you?”
  “Justice.” He smiled at that. It sounded very poetic.
  “What do you want?” Her voice had risen half an octave, ringing with the same panic they’d all shown.
  “Justice.” .” He chuckled at the clever way the single word answered both questions. He turned his headlamp back on and aimed it directly into her face.
  “I don’t understand.”  Her hazel eyes were still clouded from the last effects of the drug, and she was now shivering so violently the whole cart was shaking.
  He held the end of the rope in one hand, letting the rest of the length drop to the ground as he clapped his other hand firmly against her shoulder and pressed down to hold her still. He quickly threaded the end of the rope through the ring sewn into the leather collar he’d already fitted snugly around her neck.
   Drawing the rope through, he efficiently tied a knot, then tugged on the tightly braided line, lifting her up by the neck to test its strength. It held just fine. That was good. When he abruptly let go, her head and shoulders dropped back into the darkness of the cart. The soft thump was followed by her cry of pain.
  “Please. I’ll do whatever you want.”
  He almost laughed. Did she think she had any choice in the matter?
  He grabbed the woman’s arm and yanked her up, waiting while she cried out in protest and scrambled to get her feet underneath her.
  When she collapsed beside him, he grunted his annoyance and dug his fingers into her scalp, wrapping a handful of her hair around his fist. He yanked her upward, satisfied when she screamed in pain. Latching on to her shoulder once more, he wrapped his other arm around her waist, tightening it enough that she had to struggle to take in a breath.
  The sound of her fighting for air made his eyes close from the spurt of warmth flooding through him. He savored her frantic gasps for a long moment before half dragging, half carrying her over to the iron ring. He flexed his arm muscles and deliberately put extra effort into throwing her onto the unforgiving granite floor at his feet, where she collapsed onto her hands and knees like a deflated balloon.
  His own breathing was spiking upward now. The short bursts coming out of his mouth formed a white mist in front of his face. At least her flailing about had warmed him up.
   Taking up the slack in the rope, he pulled it tighter through the ring cemented into the ground until the pressure on her neck forced her into a low crouch. He didn’t let up, continuing to pull on the rope until the side of her face was flat against the rock and her nose was touching the cold iron of the ring.
   Now she was crying in earnest, pleading with him, offering him money, her body, even her silence, but there wasn’t anything she had that he needed. There was only one thing she could give him that would bring him peace.
  He put a heavy boot on her back, increasing the pressure to keep her in place as he looked up at the sky. The ridge created a break in the thick forest around them, allowing him a glimpse of the ghostly gray of the clouds shifting overhead. They parted just enough for him to catch sight of the slim crescent shape of the moon before it disappeared in the heavy mist once more. But that was enough to assure him that it was time.
  He patted his shirt pocket, listening for the slight crinkle of the paper tucked inside before resting a hand on the butt of the pistol nestled in the holster on his hip.
  He removed his gun, cradling the weapon in his hand before slowly lowering his arm. The matte-black finish made it difficult to see when he held it next to his leg with the barrel pointing down. But he could feel its comforting weight, and the curve of the handle fit perfectly into his palm.
  He closed his eyes. Now all he had to do was wait.
  But not for long.
   Within a minute he heard the thump and scrape of a cane, followed by labored breathing. Every time it was the same sounds, and every time they made his back go rigid and his shoulders tense.
  Do you hear me, boy?
   “I hear you,” he whispered into the dark, his eyes open now. He didn’t even blink as he stared straight ahead into a dark void that stretched out forever.
   When it’s your time, you have to go. You can’t cheat death. Your brother couldn’t and he was much stronger than you. It isn’t right.
   He tamped down the spurt of hatred for his brother and did what was expected, dutifully shaking his head and echoing the words back to her. “It isn’t right.”
  Do you hear me, boy?
   “I hear you.” The black despair rose from his belly and spread through his chest. He had no choice if he ever wanted to be free. He closed his eyes again and took several deep breaths before repeating the words out loud. “I have no choice.” It was as much of an explanation as the woman sobbing beneath his boot would get.
  Slowly turning around, he shifted the gun from his side and held it in front of him, bending at the waist until the barrel was an inch from her head.
  “Justice,” he repeated before slowly squeezing the trigger.
   The woman took in a breath so hard and fast he could hear the air whistling down her throat. It made so much noise he doubted if she even heard that split second of sound when the bullet left its chamber, just before it hit her skull.


  Winter never gave up easily. Despite the calendar sitting firmly in May, the bite in the early-morning air penetrated right to the bone. To make the beginning of the new day even more miserable, the downpour from a few hours before had dwindled into a mist that wasn’t heavy enough to be considered rain, but still managed to paint the surrounding trees and ground with a dripping sheen of moisture that turned to ice in random places. It was a good time to be inside, snuggled deep in a warm bed. Or better yet, sound asleep.
   This was where the coastal mountains met the waters of an inland bay that snaked its way around long peninsulas of land, eventually reaching the most western shore and disappearing into the Pacific Ocean. It was the essence of the northwest corner of the country—mountains, towering trees, string-bean-shaped bodies of water, and rain. Lots of rain.
  The curvy road traveled the length of Dabob Bay and was the single connection between the three small towns of Brewer, Massey, and Edington. But only the tourists referred to them by their individual names. The locals simply called them “the Bay.”
  The trio sat along a twenty-mile stretch of the two-lane road, enjoying the calm inland waters that were an offshoot of the much-larger Hood Canal. The Bay proudly flaunted its claim as the backdoor gateway to the rugged Olympic National Park, and over the years the towns had seen fit to invest in several large signs, posted strategically along the road, to keep visitors informed of their elite status.
  But in everything else the local councils always watched their pennies. Solely for the sake of saving money, they had banded together to form one government that oversaw a single police force and any other common community needs. Since Edington was the largest of the three towns, and very conveniently sat between the other two, it had become the central hub for most services by default. No one really cared where the police department or water district was located, as long as they were equally shared.
  A big piece of the collective budget came from the avalanche of traffic tickets given out to the tourists who clogged the two-lane highway and local streets every weekend from late spring until the first snowfall of winter.
   These were summer towns, with one resort hotel located near the south end of the Bay, in Brewer, to accommodate those who wanted to enjoy nature without the bugs and the dirt. The gently winding road and spectacular scenery also offered the perfect setting for bicycle races and the occasional marathon.
  But the largest draw for tourists was the scenic drive and the huge national park that stretched from Dabob Bay all the way to the ocean. With its soaring mountains covering most of the upper peninsula, it had the singular honor of being the only rainforest in all of North America. A fact that the Bay’s residents had insisted be included on all three of their signs.
  Living in the Bay was a roller coaster of highs and lows. For six months of the year the whole area was overrun by “weekenders” looking for a change from their city life in nearby Seattle and its suburbs, and for the other six months, when the heavy rains and winter snow set in, the residents walked down deserted streets. There was a constant debate over which one was better. More tourists meant more money in their pockets, but they also brought more headaches.
  Ricki James reluctantly opted for the tourists. Her two business ventures depended on them, and she had bills to pay. But that financial necessity aside, she liked the solitude of the Bay during the late fall and winter months, when the Seattleites and out-of-state RV vacationers deserted them.
  She’d grown up here, and loved it, but had been eager to leave it behind to go to college and then pursue a career in law enforcement. Somewhere along the way her nine-year marriage had fallen apart. One of the biggest epic failures in her life, and one that had soured her toward the romantic kind of relationships ever since. Which was fine. She didn’t miss it. Ricki silently rolled her eyes at herself. Well, not most of the time.
  Now she was back in the Bay, and this time determined to stay put and create a life and livelihood in her small hometown.
  Dressed in running gear topped by a white windbreaker with reflective stripes across the front and back, she jogged steadily down the deserted highway followed by the dog who’d shown up one day on her doorstep and simply decided to move in.
  Corby was seventy-five pounds of solid muscle. On a good day, after a thorough bath that made his white chest and black face markings stand out, he could legitimately claim to be a boxer. But since bathing wasn’t his favorite activity, most days he looked like the mutt that he was, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that thrown in along with his boxer ancestry. But whatever breeds resided inside him, he did like to run. Which worked out just fine, because so did she.
  It was barely past 6 a.m. and the sun was finally asserting itself, but not enough to keep water from dripping down the thick tail of dark hair that hung from beneath her wool cap and reached halfway down her back. Tall and slender, she pumped her arms in unison with her long legs, keeping her pace steady as her runner’s stride ate up another mile with Corby easily loping along beside her.
  Four days out of the week she’d still be in bed, enjoying the last half hour of sleep before having to get her son out the door to school. It wasn’t that her thirteen-year-old didn’t like school. He did.
  Eddie was just plain smart, in the same way her dad had been. Both were born engineers.
  Her son loved to build robots or anything that would move, calling them “automated crawlers”. It always made her think of giant mechanical spiders plotting to take over the world. Kind of creepy when you came right down to it. However, it was Eddie’s passion, so she applauded him every step of the way no matter how weird-looking his creations got.
  What Eddie didn’t love was getting out of bed on a cold morning. But it was Thursday morning, and Wednesdays were Eddie’s night to spend at his father’s townhouse with its fancy kitchen that the man never actually used, and a large hot tub on the wide patio, which he used a lot. 

   Her ex-husband had lived in the Bay all his life except for the four years he’d attended the University of Washington to play football. His high school years as a jock had earned him the nickname of “Bear,” and it had stuck to this day.
  They were married their sophomore year in college, had Eddie their junior year, and were divorced seven years later. Bear had stayed in the Bay while she and Eddie had moved across the country so she could pursue her chosen career in the special investigative services of the National Park Service, and then with the US Marshals Service. She’d loved her work, and had been good at it.
  Until that night a year ago on the docks of Seattle.
  It was the recurring dream she regularly had of that night, and it was the deep anger it always sparked in her that had driven her out of bed and into the cold, misty morning. She needed to calm down and clear her head and a hard run was perfect for that. She couldn’t get back to sleep anyway.
  The dream had started about a month after she’d been released from the hospital. It was always the same, ending with her staring at her partner’s lifeless body. At that point she was always jolted awake, her breath caught in her throat and zero chance of getting any more sleep.
  It had been a routine prisoner transport, and they’d walked right into an ambush. Marie was dead, their prisoner was dead, and she should have been dead too. She had a scar running across her midriff to prove it.
  She knew the drill about what could happen after going through a traumatic event, so the nightmares were no surprise. She’d even been warned by a nurse at the hospital who’d dealt with PTSD patients before. So when the dreams had started, she’d dutifully taken herself off to a highly recommended psychiatrist, who’d insisted what she was feeling was the same terror and helplessness she’d felt that night.
  Except it wasn’t that at all.
  That night replayed in detail in her sleep, and it forced her awake every time. But she didn’t feel afraid, or helpless. She felt anger, bordering on fury. She always told herself it was because she’d failed to protect her partner, that in the end, she hadn’t had Marie’s back. It had been another horrendous failure in her life. Even worse than the divorce because at least her ex-husband was still alive.
  But somehow accepting her truth that she hadn’t kept Marie from being killed didn’t seem to explain the deep-seated anger. Her gut told her that wasn’t it. Or at least not all of it.
  Three months ago she’d taken matters into her own hands by cancelling all her sessions with the shrink and simply running the boiling emotion off. It worked better than trying to convince Dr. Meaks that he was putting her into a pigeonhole that simply didn’t fit.
  The trouble was she didn’t know what did fit. Marie had been her best friend ever since they’d been thrown together as roommates in their college dorm. They’d celebrated, or commiserated, every big event in each other’s lives. Her marriage, the birth of her son, her divorce, Marie’s engagement. 
  She’d left her investigating job with the park service to join Marie at the US Marshals district office in Seattle, right after Marie had become engaged to another agent. Except Josh worked for their rival, the much-disliked FBI. She’d enjoyed teasing her best friend about it every chance she got, always laughing at Marie’s staunch defense of her fiancé.
  Now all those moments were gone like smoke in the wind, and she still mourned their loss.
  The long driveway leading up to the St. Armand, the only resort hotel in the area, loomed ahead. It marked the three-mile point from where she’d parked her jeep in the alley behind her main source of income, a small diner she’d named Sunny Side Up. It seemed appropriate for a place that started the day with a breakfast special of eggs and ham and sat next to a rainforest.
  Once she reached the drive, she jogged in place and glanced at her wristwatch. She wanted a longer run, but she needed to get back to the diner. She and the cook took turns opening it up, and today was her day. Wishing she had time to run up to the hotel and linger over a cup of coffee while admiring a panoramic view of the bay, she sighed when the need to pay bills won out.
  Just yesterday she’d received a letter from the nursing home taking care of her mom, outlining all the reasons why they were increasing their rate. Seeing the double-digit percentage jump in the monthly cost had spawned an immediate headache. Where was she going to find that extra money? So far she’d come up blank, but she was going to have to figure it out. And quick.
  Turning around, Ricki started back down the road, reaching the outskirts of town twenty minutes later. The cluster of small businesses on this side of Brewer included Alice’s Market, a small mom-and-pop grocery store that had been there as long as Ricki could remember. A man with a long beard and a beat-up heavy plaid jacket with a scruffy wool collar sat on the curb out front. He peered at Ricki from underneath a battered baseball cap.
  “Hey, Agent James. Looks like you still got that dog.”
  Ricki smiled and lifted a hand in greeting. Old Chip was a regular at her diner and a personal favorite of hers since she’d known him most of her life. He’d been the janitor at the local school all the years she’d been there, finally retiring when the arthritis in his back made it too painful for him to push a broom. Now he lived in a small cabin out in the woods, making the trek into town every few days to have breakfast, and then usually hanging around for lunch as well so he didn’t miss one morsel of the latest gossip making the rounds.  
  “I’m not an agent anymore, Chip. And yeah. We still have the dog. I can’t find his owner and he doesn’t seem inclined to leave.” Not that she’d given it all that much of a try. But she had put up a poster or two. She figured in a place as small as the Bay, that should be good enough.
  Chip dropped his chin to his chest and peered up at her from beneath shaggy brows. “Guess he’s yours now. Are you going to be opening soon?”
  “You come on by anytime. I’ll have a cup of coffee waiting for you.”
  “When is Anchorman getting in?”
  Ricki stopped jogging in place and put her hands on her hips. Anchorman was the former Marine who, after twenty years of service, had traded his rifle for a spatula and become the cook at Sunny Side Up. Her blue eyes narrowed as she raised an eyebrow at the elderly man. “Are you saying you don’t want my coffee?”
  He raised a scraggly brow right back at her. “It’s like tar, Agent James. And not in a good way like the tar we drank in the navy. Yours is bad tar.  And your food is always burnt a bit.”
  Ricki glared at him. One time. She’d been forced to cook the breakfast shift one time seven months ago, and no one would let her forget it. So she wasn’t as good in the kitchen as her mom. The only thing she knew how to cook that didn’t come frozen in a package was a batter-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Put some salty potato chips inside it and you had the perfect bite.
  But her customers preferred a bit more variety.
  Fortunately, Anchorman was an excellent cook. That was the simple truth, so Old Chip was right all the way around. Her coffee not only looked like tar—it tasted like it too. And, like he’d put so bluntly, in a very bad way.
  “Then you’ll have to wait an hour or so,” Ricki said with exaggerated politeness.
  She started moving again, ignoring Chip when he yelled, “That’s okay,” at her back. 
  So all right, she groused to herself. She couldn’t cook. And owning a diner might seem a bit strange for someone who was a complete failure in the kitchen, but she really did love the Sunny Side Up.
  When you lived in a small town with limited career options, you grabbed on to whatever worked, and her little diner was doing pretty well. It was gradually becoming a favorite of locals and tourists alike.
  She was two blocks away from her jeep and a change of dry clothes when her cell phone rang. She pulled it out of the side pocket of her windbreaker and glanced at the caller ID. Someone was getting an early start to his day.
  “Hi. What’s up?”
  The deep voice on the other end didn’t bother with a greeting. “I need you to get out to the Elkhorn campground. We’ll meet you there.”
  Ricki frowned. The Elkhorn campground was on the state land bordering Olympic National Park. “Who’s ‘we’? And I need to open the diner. I can be there in a couple of hours. . .”
  The voice on the other end cut her off. “I mean now, Ricki. Consider it a consult job. I’ll see you in thirty minutes.”
  Thirty minutes? Well, shit.
  “And Ricki? Bring your gun.”
  When the connection went dead, Ricki held the phone out and stared at it.