Tahoe Blue Fire (An Owen McKenna Mystery Thriller Book 13)

BOOK: Tahoe Blue Fire (An Owen McKenna Mystery Thriller Book 13)
13.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub







Todd Borg











The big rotary snowblower was parked in the dark at the side of the road where the shoulder had been cleared of snow. The unusual snow removal machine was one of the huge ones, built on a double-engine chassis, designed for clearing highways.

The drive engine was idling quietly despite its size. The much larger blower engine was off. Because that engine made so much noise, the operator would fire it up at the last moment.

Three kills. Maybe four or five.

That’s all it would take to get rich.

Three people who were in the way. People who deserved to die.

The money involved was the kind no one could ignore.

Not even a priest.

Not even a saint.

There was some footwork involved, some financial maneuvering, a disguise, a little bit of persuasion. If the killings weren’t all done in the same way, there would be no consistent M.O. to track. If a victim or two couldn’t even be found, better still.

The rotary driver knew from research that most murderers aren’t that careful, yet many are never caught. Which made a careful killer almost impossible to find.

It had taken a week to prepare for the first kill.

Everything was in place. The victim had taken the bait.

It was midnight. A car drove by on the cross street up ahead. Its red tail lights were partially blocked by snow berms and trees, yet visible now and then. A block down, the car’s tail lights went bright. The car turned into the large open field that had been filled with snow over the course of the winter, hundreds of dump truck loads carted off the highway that ran through South Lake Tahoe. When the field was filled by the beginning of March, they brought in a front-end loader and a rotary blower to clear some space. The loader broke up the worst chunks of ice. Then the rotary blew half the field’s snow onto the other half, almost doubling the depth to 12 feet.

Now, the snow was starting to melt in the heat of spring sunshine, the third week of April. But it remained a thick layer of white ice, compressed like a glacier that never moved.

Two blocks down, a road grader was working the street, its blade scraping the asphalt, moving the snow into a large berm at the edge of the road. Other than the rotary driver, the grader driver, and the car driver, there was no one else anywhere close on the frozen spring night. Which meant that there was no reason for anyone other than the victim to turn into the parking lot. That alone almost guaranteed the victim’s identity.

The car’s tail lights pulsed with varying beats and intensities of red as the trees opened and then blocked the view. The lights went bright again as the car slowed. The car stopped, and the tail lights went out. The interior light went on and then off as the car’s driver got out and shut the door.

It was hard to see through the trees in the dark, but it looked like the car’s driver was walking over to the dead-end snow canal that had been cut out of the center of the snowfield. Now the car driver was silhouetted against the snowbanks. Even though it was night, it was easy to see him as he walked into the snow canal.

Proof that he was the correct person.

The rotary operator shifted into gear and gave the drive engine some fuel. The big 580-horsepower diesel rumbled as it revved. The engine was the size of the biggest engines on semitrucks. But it was nothing compared with what was to come.

The operator started forward, going easy on the accelerator. It wasn’t that the vehicle’s engine was quiet - it sounded like the huge truck it was - but there was no point in creating unnecessary noise. The rotary turned at the corner and began rolling down the street at a good pace.

The man who’d gotten out of the car might wonder at the coincidence of a rotary plow and a road grader coming near the meeting point. But their email exchange had noted that meeting during snow removal operations, which went on 24 hours a day, provided the cover of lots of noise and action, and allowed them total privacy.

Snow plows were a constant presence on the roads of Lake Tahoe in the winter and spring, especially near the snow storage lot. Even the specialized rotaries that were only used in the snowiest parts of the country were numerous in Tahoe. They weren’t upgraded dump trucks with blower accessories bolted onto their front bumpers. These were single-purpose machines built like tall, square locomotives, big boxy monsters that prowled the highways at night. The rotaries had four-wheel steering and could crab sideways as necessary on icy roads. They chewed up the snow berms that had been pushed up by the road graders, and they shot the snow in giant 200-foot arcs out into the forest.

As the rotary approached the parking lot, the operator gradually accelerated, trying to find the balance between engine noise and speed, needing as much surprise as possible. Although the rotary wasn’t currently blowing snow, the man waiting at the snow canal would probably assume that the rotary was going to blow some of the nearby berms.

The rotary driver turned into the closest corner of the parking lot, heading toward the most recent dump truck loads waiting to be blown onto the other half of the storage lot. The rotary was quite far from the man in the snow canal.

As the big machine got closer to the mounds of snow, its headlights briefly washed over the parked car. The man who’d gotten out of the car came into view for a short moment, illuminated by the light that bounced off the snow. He stood at the end of the dead-end passage as was agreed upon in their email communication.


No doubt excited at the promise he’d been given. Probably skeptical, too. He had, after all, failed at his job. But apparently, the email reassurance had worked. The promise of riches always enticed, even when the victim was scared.

Little did he know.

Now came the critical sequence.

As the rotary got close to the dump truck mounds, the operator started the giant blower engine. The huge diesel fired, then grew in volume to an amazing roar.

It was a rush for the driver, listening to the 1300-horsepower behemoth as the blower engine came up to full power. Combined with the big drive engine, the two power plants produced almost 2000 horsepower, and they roared like a rocket at liftoff.  

Now that the rotary plow was fully alive, the driver flipped on the accessory lights.

Three thousand watts of floods and flashers lit up the night. The lights shined behind and to the sides of the rotary plow and still left six huge high beams to shine forward. The light level was in concert with the danger of the machine. The rotary plow seemed from a distance like a hostile alien invader. In reality, it was just a giant snow blower that could clear a path of heavy, compacted ice and snow eight feet wide. At the upper sides of the machine’s auger housing were steel blades that pointed up at a forward angle, able to cut snow as deep as 12 feet. When clearing roads, the blades left smooth vertical walls as the cut snow fell down into the churning auger. Now those blades slid against the previously-cut snow walls.

The driver engaged the rotary clutch. There was a screech and a jerk as the auger came up to speed. The carbide-edged blades spun fast, flipping snow - and rocks and road trash and any other debris - into the impeller that rotated many times faster and shot the snow up into the directional chute and out into the air.

The rotary plow could move 11,000 tons of snow per hour. That was over 6000 pounds a second. It was the most powerful snow-blowing road machine on Earth.

When the rotary was close enough that the victim would not have time to run and escape out the entrance to the snow canal, the driver floored the accelerator, speeding up the rotary plow. The driver cranked the wheel toward the snow canal. The big rotary jerked to the side, the 50,000-pound machine nearly leaning over on two wheels. The lights came around as the machine pointed into the snow canal, aimed toward the man waiting at the end.

The victim reacted in an instant, telegraphing his understanding that he’d been set up. He darted left, then right, like a trapped bug who too late understands what his fate will be if he can’t escape. The victim paused for a moment and held up his arm, trying to shield his eyes from the glare of the flood lights on the plow, which was now on an attack sprint. Perhaps he was trying to gauge if there was room for him to sneak past the side of the plow.

The man in the snow canal must have seen that the giant blower filled the snow canal side-to-side. He must have realized that there was no room to get past, for he turned away and ran to the snow wall at the end of the box-canyon. He tried to kick toe holds and punch his hands into the snow. But in the two days since the rotary had cut the canal, the snow had repeatedly thawed under the spring sun and then refrozen at night into a hard ice surface. It was now a solid wall of slippery ice.

The man was unable to get a grip. He backed up a few steps and then ran and leaped higher, attempting to hook his hands onto the top of the wall, which varied in height but at no point was less than ten feet high. The man couldn’t reach the top, and he fell back to the icy pavement as the roaring monster charged forward, its sharp auger blades spinning at high speed.






“It would be too dangerous for me to come to your office,” the woman on the phone said. She had told me her name was Scarlett Milo and that she’d wanted to meet and that she was in significant danger. She’d hesitated before saying her name, so I wondered if it was a pseudonym. She had yet to tell me any other info about what, where, when, why, and how.

So I picked one. “Why?” I asked.

“Someone is planning to kill me. And your office is in a public location. It would be too easy for him to lie in wait and pick me off. Or he could follow me home and burn down my house with me inside.”

“Really?” I said.

“Do you doubt me?”

“It just sounds a bit melodramatic,” I said.

She paused. “I thought you were a professional, an ex-cop who would care about innocent people.”

The statement stung. While I considered it, I drank coffee that was cold enough to have lost its edge. Maybe I had lost my edge. I looked at Spot, my Harlequin Great Dane, who was sprawled in front of my desk. He looked so somnolent that I didn’t know if he’d even raise up his 170 pounds for a steak. Maybe he’d lost his edge, too.

“Excuse me for being blunt, Ms. Milo, but if someone wants to kill you, he doesn’t have to wait for you to meet me. He could come to your home now.”

“He knows he has a target to kill, but he hasn’t yet figured out where I live. But he knows that I’m onto him and that I will be cautious. He’ll assume that I will seek help. So he would likely watch security people like you. Then he could figure out where I live and come and kill me.”

“Now you’ve gone beyond melodramatic. Someone wants to kill you but doesn’t know who you are.” I saw no point in adding that, from my perspective, calling me a security person was like calling a college professor a baby sitter. From her perspective, the nomenclature would make no difference. “I’m not the only so-called security person in Tahoe,” I said.

“You’re almost the only one. He’s probably watching you as we speak. As for others like you, he could hire someone to watch them.”

“Why don’t you just tell me your concerns now? Over the phone.”

“I could never trust the phone lines. I have something I need to tell you in person.”

“How do you want to meet, then?” I said, wondering if I really wanted a paranoid client. But I couldn’t afford not to have a client, paranoid or not. Besides, maybe she was just rattled by our recent earthquake, which had mostly shaken but not damaged area buildings. I’d met people who seem to lose their common sense when their house starts rocking.

“If you come to me, I can see you drive up the road below my house,” she said. “I’ll be able to tell if you’re being followed. If not, I’ll give you the directions.”

“Why not just give me directions now?”

There was a pause before she spoke. “Because he might intercept you and force you to tell him where I live.”

I took a deep breath. “He could do that after I meet you,” I said.

“No. Because after I meet you, I’m going to go away. No one will be able to find me.”

“How will you do that?”

Another pause. “I’m the only one who needs to know that.”

Her statements were so over the top that my instincts told me to decline the job. Her fear was obvious and seemed genuine, but I suspected that it was fueled by an excessively-active imagination.

“If you doubt me,” she said, “just humor me for the money. What’s your standard retainer? Five thousand to start? Ten thousand?   Tell you what. I’ll give you my credit card number and you can run it before you come out. Now that I think of it, you will likely have some significant travel expenses before you’re done with this situation. So run my card for twenty thousand. Then you can do your thing without having to worry about getting more money from me right away. When this is all over, you can refund whatever funds were in excess of your expenses.”

Maybe I hadn’t lost my edge.

I was about to tell her that it wouldn’t be necessary until after we met, but I stopped myself. Why not let her pay to indulge her imagination? A substantial payment up front always separates the merely paranoid from the seriously worried.

“Twenty thousand?” I said just to check that I’d heard her correctly.

“That’s what I said. I already called the credit card company and told them that a substantial charge would be coming through.”

“Okay,” I said. I expected her to balk and backpedal. Instead, she read off the card number and the security code and gave me the billing zip code.

“After you run the transaction, come up to Olympic Valley. You know where that is, of course?”

“Squaw Valley’s official name,” I said. “Where shall I go?”

She told me how far to drive up the valley toward the village, where to turn off, and where to pull over.

“If you call me from that point, I’ll look down from my deck. Then, if I see that you aren’t being followed, I will tell you how to get to my house. It is very important that you take this seriously, Mr. McKenna. So please engage in some obfuscation or whatever you call it when you want a tail to think you’re just running errands, going to the grocery store, etc.”

“Will do, Ms. Milo. I can obfuscate a bunch and still be there by three o’clock. Would that work for you?”

She hesitated. “I can tell by your tone that you’re sarcastic and cocky and you think I’m just a fussy woman. But I assure you, I’m not being fussy.”

“You’ve paid me, Ms. Milo. You can be sure that I give full service regardless of how I sound.”


I let Spot into the back of the old Jeep with the new bullet-hole ventilation provided by the men who’d kidnapped Gertie O’Leary the month before. We drove clockwise around the lake so that I could cruise past Emerald Bay. The road and its steep switchbacks had finally opened after two months of near-constant avalanche closure. No matter how often I drive that route, I’m amazed at the spectacular vistas.

Spring was putting on a brag show. The sky was an intense light blue to complement the intense dark blue of the lake. Brilliant, snow-capped mountains were under full assault from hot, high-altitude sun, and they were shrugging off their winter snow cloaks. Five dozen streams and creeks rushed and danced and jived their way down to the big lake.

The Steller’s jays had recently come up from lower elevations, and they squawked and strutted their color through the forest like showy, drag-queen bouncers, letting all the other songbirds know who was now in charge whenever the hawks and eagles and ospreys and falcons took a break from local raptor patrol.

The air was redolent of pine scents as the conifers readied their energies for the growing season that was still over a month away. Hardy sprouts of green grass poked up at the edge of the roadways, sustained by thermal-mass heat from the nearby asphalt even after the blazing sun went down and the temperatures were forced back down by hundreds of square miles of thick Sierra snowpack to the west.

I drove up the West Shore to Tahoe City and rolled over Fanny Bridge next to the dam that holds in the top six feet of the lake and stores it like a reservoir. Highway 89 turns west just north of the bridge. Before I followed it down the Truckee River Canyon to Squaw Valley, I stopped at a grocery store and bought two pastries. I was very vigilant as I did so, fulfilling, as with my usual attention to work responsibilities, my promise of discretion. Confident that no one was watching me, I paid for my purchase and went back out to the Jeep.

Just to reinforce my standards of diligence, I let Spot out and made a show of feeding him his breakfast treat while I ate mine, during which I surreptitiously studied my surroundings.

Everyone in view was focused on my dog, which meant that no one in view was focused on me. I’d seen it hundreds of times. All people have a similar reaction to a 170-pound Harlequin Great Dane, regardless of whether or not he is ravishing a Danish. It’s an open-mouthed stare that morphs into a grin and then to a raised arm and pointed hand and a shout to their companions to check out the giant, splotchy, black-and-white dog.

If anyone had an agenda that was about spying on me, they wouldn’t fit the pattern and would thus stand out.

Obfuscation meets Holmesian deduction.

No one was following me.

I turned onto 89, driving next to the Truckee River on its way down to Truckee and then Reno before it dead-ended at Pyramid Lake out in the Great Basin desert, dumping its water there to eventually evaporate.

A few miles down the river valley, I went past the River Ranch Lodge and Restaurant and the road up to Alpine Meadows ski area. After another mile, the Olympic rings and the Olympic gas flame came into view, leftovers from the big snowfest back in 1960. I turned left and drove into Olympic Valley. The snow-capped peaks of Squaw Valley ski area came into view, a picture with a postcard quotient as high as they come. In the distance ahead, I saw the little dot of cable car carrying skiers from the base village up to High Camp atop the 2000-foot cliff.

My intersection approached up ahead. I turned off to the right and drove up to a curve that matched what Scarlett Milo described over the phone. I stopped and got out and dialed her number.

As it rang, I scanned the slope that rose above me. There were several nice homes visible in the forest and, no doubt, several that were hidden but nevertheless had views down to the valley floor, me included.


“Hi, Ms. Milo, Owen McKenna here. I’m at the turn you described.”

“Okay. Hold on.” There was some background sound, a sliding door maybe. “Okay, I’m out on my deck,” she said. “I can see you down there. You’re standing near your car door and… Oh, what is that big black-and-white animal protruding from the rear window of your car? There’s something pink, too.”

“That’s my dog. His name’s Spot. The pink is his very large tongue.”

“I see. Well, I don’t see anyone else, and that was the purpose of this little exercise.”

“The result of a prime obfuscation session,” I said.

“Okay, come on up,” she said. She proceeded to describe where and how I should turn and what to look for to know which house was hers, and then there was a snapping sound in the phone, followed by a deep crack that thudded in the air where I stood.

“Ms. Milo?” I said, sprinting for the Jeep. I jumped in, jammed the shifter into drive, and floored the gas. “Scarlett? Can you hear me?”

But there was nothing.

I raced up the slope, reciting what she’d said about left turns and right turns as I pushed the Jeep around the corners.

The house sat by itself on a section of curving road, out of sight from its neighbors. My tires scraped sand and grit as I stomped on the brakes. I jumped out, let Spot out, and ran for the woman’s door.

“Scarlett Milo?!” I shouted as I tried the door. The doorknob was locked. There was also a deadbolt, and the door looked too heavy to easily kick in.

I ran around the side of the house. Spot anticipated my movements and ran ahead.

The house was on the lower side of the road, and the ground went down at a steep angle. I scrambled down a landscaped path to a broad stairs that climbed in a dogleg up to the deck. I took them two at a time while Spot took them three or four per leap.

Scarlett Milo was sprawled on her side at the far edge of the deck where she had probably stood to look down on me. Her throat was blown open, and blood gurgled out in large volume. I’d seen enough wounds to know this one was fatal. Because the blood was bright red and pulsed, I knew the bullet had hit her carotid artery.

By the shards of shattered vertebrae that mixed in with the messy, shredded wound, I knew her neck had largely been destroyed. There was no way to prevent further blood loss without strangling her.

Nevertheless, I knelt down and put my thumb across the main part of the blood flow. The blood gurgled out elsewhere. Just then, she made a kind of a coughing contraction. But there was no connecting windpipe to her mouth, so the exhalation just sprayed blood from her neck into the air and all over me and Spot, who stood a respectful several feet back.

I reached my phone out of my pocket with my other hand and set it on the deck to dial 911, a reasonable, if futile, move.

Her hand rose up, demonstrating that at least part of her spinal cord was still intact. She clutched at my shirt and pulled me down. Her mouth was moving. I realized that she was still conscious and wanted to say something. I bent down, my ear next to her mouth.

Because her windpipe was destroyed, she had no way to run air from her lungs through her vocal cords, if there were any vocal cords left. All she could do was make mouth movements.

Her hand shifted and reached for her pocket. In an astonishing feat of focus and control, she pulled out a pen and held it up.

I realized she wanted some paper. I let go of my phone and felt my pockets. There was a gas station receipt. I held it on the deck boards.

She scrawled some marks.

A voice came over my phone. “Nine-one-one emergency,” a woman said. “Please state your name and location.”

I reached for the phone.

Scarlett Milo tapped her pen on the deck boards.

BOOK: Tahoe Blue Fire (An Owen McKenna Mystery Thriller Book 13)
13.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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