In the heart of a raging blizzard Sheriff Jeff McQuede discovers a woman frozen to death in her car. At first he believes her death to be an unfortunate accident–until he finds clues that point to cold-blooded murder. Margaret’s husband, Arthur, left her in the stalled vehicle to brave the storm and manages to reach Joe Trevino’s isolated ranch. The case becomes more complicated because of the recent warehouse robberies at Trevino’s store. McQueede finds that Trevino is Margaret Burnell’s business partner, and that she has traveled from their Casper store to conduct a company audit. In addition, Margaret has planned to meet with her only child, a run-away daughter she hasn’t seen in years. Trevino, the missing daughter, and Arthur Burnell would all profit financially from Margaret’s demise. Has a relentless killer tracked and sabotaged the Burnells, or did Arthur simply abandon his wife for his share of the money, leaving her to die an icy death?
Targeted Age Group:: General Readership
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
It’s cold in Wyoming! Cold enough to freeze to death. This fact makes An Icy Death the only book we have ever written inspired by the weather. In winter it’s not uncommon for the temperature to dip to minus seventeen, often with a wind chill factor of thirty below zero. Because many places still exist where cell phones cease to work and help is almost impossible to summon, blizzards and sudden whiteouts are extremely hazardous. We got to thinking of what might happen if a murderer used a blizzard to cover up a crime and AN ICY DEATH was born.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Jeff McQuede, a modern-day sheriff, is a product of the Old West. He was named for his relative, frontier Sheriff Jeff McQuede, and embodies the qualities that had made him famous. He often follows the old westerner’s advice: when you think your right, it’s time to step back and take another look.
After creating McQuede, we added friends and family, such as a very strong and opinionated Aunt Mattie Murdock, the local villains, Frank Larsh, better known as Ruger, and his pal, Sammy Ratone, and Professor Barry Dawson who sometimes helps and sometimes hinders McQuede’s investigations.
After an unexpected and brutal blizzard, the thirty-mile blacktop from Paxton to Durmont had just this morning reopened. The blowing snow and the biting wind had long since subsided, leaving in its wake an icy and ominous stillness.
Sheriff Jeff McQuede glanced from the white mountain peaks that loomed above him back at the narrow, icy road, defined on either side by high stacks of snow. His trip to Paxton had been a wasted effort, and the tedious trek back to Durmont made his eyes burn and tension to cut between his shoulder blades.
He spotted the sign, SNYDER’S OUTPOST, LAST CHANCE GAS, with gratitude. He hadn’t expected the station to be open, and he pulled into the driveway anticipating a hot cup of coffee.
Ron Snyder, a little man with a loud, grating laugh, came from behind the counter. “Only the daring get through,” he said, slapping a hand against McQuede’s shoulder. “What brings you out here, Sheriff? Don’t you have a warm, safe office somewhere?”
McQuede squinted at him. An hour of staring at the snow caused Snyder’s thin face to blotch with white. Yet he couldn’t help being aware of Snyder’s big, toothy smile. “My pay goes on,” McQuede told him. “I have to earn it. Been over to Paxton checking out a clue connected to the warehouse robbery at Durmont.”
“Looks like you’re dealing with some right bold scoundrels,” Snyder said. “Those thugs would have to be bold to hit Trevino’s Sporting Goods. Joe is intimidating enough, even without that special security guard he’s hired.”
Ron Snyder wandered toward an urn and returned offering McQuede a cup of coffee. He watched McQuede sample it before he said, “Joe Trevino’s been calling you a lot of snappy names. Said the next ice age would set in before you caught up with those thieves.”
“From the looks of this weather the next ice age is almost here, and I do intend to catch those crooks.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Snyder went on with teasing good-humor, “Trevino would have to eat his words if he could see you now. Here you are, on the coldest day of the year, bigger than life, out in pursuit of the robbers. All bundled like up Santa Claus and just as dedicated.”
“I’d rather be Santa Claus.”
“Wouldn’t get paid as much,” Snyder reminded him. “Seriously, I don’t know many people who would venture out today. I’ve only had one customer so far, a trucker headed to Paxton.”
McQuede clutched the cup, savoring the steaming heat that warmed his hands. “I passed him a ways back.”
“He told me he thought he saw a wrecked car up on that short-cut road that leads to Durmont. I tried to call it in, but the lines are down.” Snyder shrugged. “He wasn’t all that sure anyway. All that white plays strange tricks on the eye.”
In spite of wishing he could ignore the trucker’s words, McQuede found himself reacting. “That road isn’t good even in the summer. Only a fool would take it in weather like this.”
“Only a fool,” Snyder repeated, then with another grating laugh, added, “But, then, we’ve seen a few fools around these parts, haven’t we?”
As McQuede left the station, he thought of the temperature dipping to below zero, of the wind chill factor of twenty below. He adamantly hoped he’d find no car. If he did, it was certain to spell disaster.
A cell phone wouldn’t pick up a signal out there, which meant a stranded person would not be able to summon help. Faced with this isolation and in a blinding snowstorm, he wouldn’t be able to locate a reachable destination. Moreover, hypothermia made waiting for help filled with dire consequences.
McQuede stopped at the old 231 crossing and skimmed the side road that rose slowly to a summit, but he saw nothing. Since he was here, though, he might just as well do a thorough check. As he left the main highway, he attempted to turn up the heater, which was already running at full capacity. Even wearing gloves, his fingers felt numb as they locked on the steering wheel.
His four-wheeler relentlessly plowed through the deep snow and laboriously gained traction. McQuede skillfully controlled the gas and steering wheel, propelling it safely up the steep incline. Once he reached the summit, he cut the speed, and his sharp, gray eyes skimmed the high drop-off that overlooked the Paxton Road.
He would not have spotted the car had he not been searching for it, for only patches of maroon were visible from its covering of white. Apparently it had gone into a skid and had come to an abrupt stop, not damaged, just hopelessly stuck. The car’s position was in itself amazing, for only the big drift or the rocks beneath it had prevented the vehicle from plummeting over the edge.
McQuede left his four-wheeler and drew closer, kneeling momentarily to brush snow away from the license plate. A long way from home—Natrona County, in or around Casper. The accident had taken place before the road closed, and the travelers must have been trapped here throughout the night. That didn’t bode well for them.
No tracks were visible. The occupant or occupants were either still inside, or they had abandoned the car, and the falling snow had erased all traces of their attempted escape. Either case left them with little to no chance of survival. He stepped closer to the door with dread.
As he did, he railed against their fate. Why would anyone have even attempted this rough byway in the face of such warnings?
The window was iced over. McQuede rubbed a spot clear with his gloved hand, and then drew in a breath. Someone was inside!
His hands felt numb and frozen as he pried at the door. It seemed locked, but he knew it was only the ice that barred his progress. With a powerful tug, he wrenched the door open.
The interior of the car loomed before him, an icy tomb. McQuede’s breath stopped in his throat. A woman who looked to be in her late forties leaned against the passenger seat. Her heavy, wool scarf had slipped away from her face, which was framed on one side with a mass of long, brown hair. Her features possessed a delicate beauty, and she would have looked as if she had fallen into a peaceful sleep, had it not been for the bluish-white pallor of her skin and the ice crystals that had formed on her lashes and hair.
He removed his glove and touched her face. Her eyelids were iced over and her marble skin, blue and white, felt stiff. He determined that she had been dead for some time.
She wore a heavy jacket and a blanket was tucked around her legs. An empty thermos and a chocolate bar wrapper lay on the seat beside her, provisions left within reach to keep her alive.
Keys still hung in the ignition. The heater must have kept her warm until the car had run out of gas, then she had succumbed, probably to hypothermia. In any event, McQuede had arrived way too late to save her.
McQuede felt sick, as he always did when he encountered tragic death. His gaze held to her for a moment. She looked hauntingly familiar, although he did not know why. He was certain he had never met her.
He forced his attention to the car. Lying on the floor near her, he found a bottle of prescription pills, pills for pain. His gaze moved to the blanket-wrapped legs, for the first time noticing the taped ankle protruding from the fleece wrap.
McQuede searched the car and found a registration under the name of Arthur and Margaret Burnell of Casper, Wyoming. Once again he glanced toward the woman, a stranger, who he somehow seemed to recognize. Knowing her name made her death seem more personal.
McQuede looked through her purse, but found nothing of any importance, only a photo of a cultured-looking couple, a happy husband and wife. He studied the man’s face, an appealing one, with high forehead, light brown hair, and a charming smile. He was likely the car’s other occupant.
His wife couldn’t have gotten far, not with a bad ankle. It looked as if he had tried to make her as comfortable as possible and then left in an attempt to get help. Once again McQuede felt a surge of dread. He knew from experience that leaving a car in a blizzard was an almost certain death sentence. He had located people who had wandered around in circles and been found frozen not far from their vehicle. What chance did Margaret Burnell’s would-be rescuer have of surviving?
Would it be possible for him to have found shelter? McQuede tried to recall all he knew about this rugged terrain. Joe Trevino’s ranch was at least two miles east. Nothing between here and there but an old sheepherder’s cabin that Trevino left open for fishermen and hunters. If he drove on from here, he’d intercept the turnoff to the cabin in less than a half mile.
Chances are Burnell would not have known such a place even existed, but just in case he had by some miracle found it, McQuede decided to check there first. Not that it would do any good. He knew he was just going through the motions. Arthur Burnell would likely be frozen to death now, deeply buried by the drifted snow. He, as well as his wife, had doubtlessly died an icy death.
Vickie Britton, along with her sister Loretta Jackson, are the authors of over forty novels. The sisters have co-authored the Jeff McQuede High Country Mystery Series: Murder in Black and White, Whispers of the Stones, and Stealer of Horses. They have also written the eight-book archaeological Ardis Cole Mystery Series.
Both writers are drawn to western settings, which have provided a background for much of their work.
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