Home Coming Soon Catalog Authors Awe-Struck Hard Shell Phaze Submissions
catalog
imprints
genres
other
Subscribe to the feed!
Book Likes!
Book Likes!
Dreamshadows

On a visit home to help on her family's ranch, Patty O'Donnell expects a pleasant two weeks' work, but finds a multitude of questions instead. Why is someone attacking their horses? What is the Indian cave, and why does someone want its location badly enough to kill for it? And what happened to her mother, who disappeared for a day as a child fifty years ago, and never recovered her memory of that missing day?

With the help of an ex-cop cousin, Patty investigates, gathering clues from the records of the past. Hiding in plain sight, a ruthless killer watches and waits, ready to pull the trigger if they get too close to the truth. As they dig deeper and deeper into events that were meant to stay secret, they put themselves more and more firmly into the killer's crosshairs.

Can they find the answers to a fifty year old mystery and stop the attacks on Patty's family, before the killer can bury them along with the past?

Buy this book:
Trade Paperback978-1-59426-426-9$12.95Qty:
Adobe Reader eBook (.PDF)978-1-60659-209-0$4.99Qty:
Kindle eBook (.MOBI)978-1-60659-209-0$4.99Qty:
iPhone / Nook eBook (.EPUB)978-1-60659-209-0$4.99Qty:

Pepper Smith

Pepper Smith began writing mystery/suspense stories with a school friend at age 9. She is the author of Blood Money, Rio Star, and Reef Runner, the first three books in the Patty O'Donnell Suspense series, as well as several short stories. She also volunteers as an instructor at the Muse Online Writers Conference, teaching suspense writing.

Pepper lives in Arkansas with her husband, son, and three cats.

Coming Soon...
Excerpt

Chapter One

The mare was blowing and grunting as we neared the top of the dome. Rocks crunched under her shod hooves, and her ears were back, more a show of her current disposition than to listen to my words of encouragement. Her registered name was Bright Chance, but she was known familiarly as Pig. She was bone lazy and slow, though she was always the first in line at the feed trough. I wouldn’t have ridden her that day, except my own mare had picked up a rock in her hoof and was temporarily lame.

The sky overhead, that intense blue that you only saw in the desert southwest, was free of clouds. The air was hot, in spite of a brisk wind that scattered dust and tiny rocks off the hillside. Pig’s bay coat was dark with sweat. Sweat plastered my gray t-shirt to my skin and loose strands of my long brunette hair to my damp face and neck. I stood in the stirrups, keeping my weight as far forward over her withers as I could get as she scrambled up the last stretch of the old cattle trail to the top.

Around us, the vast Springerville volcanic field spread, huge sweeps of rolling grassland interspersed with high, rounded volcanic domes and jagged, bare black basaltic rock. The grass was dry and had been sun-bleached a light tan. This section of the volcanic field was still geologically young, somewhere in the range of 300,000 years old, too young to support more than grass and a few shrubs. I settled back in the saddle and looked down from my high perspective, studying the landscape for signs of what I’d been sent to look for.

It had long been rumored that old Eldon Simms had left cattle behind when he’d sold off his stock, in the days before his son, Vernon, had packed him off to an old folks’ home. If there were still cattle here, we needed to know about it.

Pig tugged on the reins, trying to drop her head and snatch a few mouthfuls of dry grass. Wind swept up the side of the dome, pelting us with grit. She bobbed her head, ears flat, and tried to turn away. I reined in, then let her lower her head to eat in the hopes that her appetite would keep her still.

Up here, the wind was stronger, drying the sweat without providing relief from the heat. The sunburnt land showed signs of grazing, but there were pronghorn, deer, and elk around, so some loss of grass was to be expected. There were no dark shapes of cattle among the scattered bushes below. I gathered the reins and urged Pig along the rim of the dome, looking for signs of an old well or watering hole. Cattle would not survive out here without water. Neither would the horses we were planning to put on the property. Far below and in the distance, a truck sped past on the highway, the sound of its tires on the pavement a tiny high whine, audible only because the wind was coming from that direction.

We were on the far side of the top of the dome when I spotted what I was looking for in the shape of an erosion channel cluttered with healthy green brush. If there was surface water, there would be signs of whatever was coming there to drink. A cattle trail led down at that point, steeper than the route we’d followed up. I studied it for a moment before deciding that if the cattle could make it down that, so could a horse. Pig pricked her ears as I turned her toward it, optimistically sensing an end to her toils. I leaned back in the saddle and let her pick her way down. She might have been lazy, but she was born and bred in this region, and she was sure-footed. Her hooves dislodged rocks on the surface of the trail, sending them tumbling down the slope ahead of us. Saddle leather creaked and squeaked against my jeans and boots. The trail curved along the slope of the dome, making it less steep than it had appeared from the top. Apparently, even cattle weren’t crazy enough to head straight down.

At the bottom, Pig pricked her ears again, snuffling and flaring her nostrils, as clear a sign as I could have asked for that there was water close by. I reined her toward the greenery, and she picked up her pace, eager for the water. I looked down as we approached, studying the ground, and saw signs in the dry, powdery soil of elk, pronghorn, deer, and coyote traffic, but no cattle.

The greenery had grown up over a small spring, which emerged onto the surface, ran for a dozen yards or so, and sank back into the thirsty ground. There were indications that during the rainy season, water pooled here, the overflow flowing out along a now-dry stream bed at the lower end. If there was water this late in the dry season, it probably wouldn’t dry up except under extraordinary circumstances.

Rumbling deep in her chest in anticipation, Pig muscled her way through brush along a deer track, ignorant of the thin branches that slapped at me and tried to snag my hair, and dropped her head to drink from the spring. Before her muzzle could touch the water, she jerked her head up and shied violently, clearing the brush in a single backward lunge. I sucked my breath in through my teeth, tightening my legs around her sides.

“Whoa!” I reined back, startled. This would be a bad place to fall off, given that we were out of sight of the road and help. She jigged and danced and fought my hands on the reins, hooves pounding the ground and raising dust, and when she finally realized that I wasn’t going to let her run away, she came to a jolting four-footed stop. A good fifty feet now separated us from the spring. She stood, breathing hard, at an angle to the spring, ready to grab the bit and run if she thought my attention was wandering.

Breathing hard myself, I studied the brush, looking for any sign of what had spooked her. There were no recognizable animal shapes among the foliage, no equally startled animals running away in the other direction. No sounds except the wind and the mare’s breathing. Anger welled up inside me. Stupid horse. Stupid, stupid horse. I could imagine myself limping out of here, bruised and sore, while she galloped off in fear of something that wasn’t there.

“What on earth was that about?” I demanded.

She snorted and turned her head further, staring at the brush. The whites were showing around the edges of her eyes. Whatever was in there, real or imagined, she wasn’t going to be talked into getting close to it.

I let out a quick breath.

“All right. Let’s hope we find another watering hole.” I shifted my hands to guide her around the spring and onward.

The sharp crack of a rifle shot sent her spinning away beneath me to flee. I made a panic grab for the saddle horn, felt her hind quarters go out from under her, and tried to kick free of the stirrups before she could fall. She went down fast and hard. I slammed into the unforgiving ground with hip and shoulder and head.

There was a bright flare of light inside my mind, then darkness. When everything switched on again, it was with a suddenness that left me disoriented and nauseated. I breathed in hot, dust-laden air, and immediately fell into a coughing fit. My head responded by threatening to explode, and every abused nerve in my body began screaming for attention.

The air was hot, but the ground was hotter. I started to roll forward, wanting to escape the heat by getting off it, but a twisting strain in my left knee stopped me. The mare’s head and neck lay stretched along the powdery soil in front of me. I looked to my right and found that her heavy body held my lower leg firmly pinned to the ground. She was making no efforts to get up. In fact, I didn’t think she was even breathing.

“She’s dead,” a gruff, male voice confirmed.

I jerked my head around in search of the voice, which wasn’t a good idea, because it set the world spinning around me. I was suddenly and thoroughly sick, vomiting up the sandwich I’d had for lunch. The half-digested meal smelled bad, the remnants tasted worse, and except for angling myself away, I couldn’t get away from it. I gasped and rolled half onto my back, pivoting at the waist to protect my knee, desperate for cooler, cleaner air. The ground beneath me burned my back. The sun beat down on me, hot and heavy. There was no way to keep it off my face. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost my hat.

“What’s your name?” the voice asked.

“Patty Donner.” My voice was unsteady. I rolled my head cautiously to the side, studying him. From my viewpoint at ground level, he seemed quite tall. He was dressed in dusty tan trousers and brown boots, with a sweat-stained tan shirt and a light-colored Stetson. It would have been simple for him to drop into the dried grass and essentially vanish. He was carrying a rifle in his right hand, balanced at the grip, the muzzle currently pointing at the ground. His stance was relaxed, as if he figured he had all the time in the world. Which he did, because I wasn’t going anywhere. What I could see of his face under the brim of his hat conveyed very little. I thought he must be old, but to an eighteen-year-old, everyone over thirty seems ancient. My head throbbed. My stomach threatened to empty itself further, which made me wonder what would happen if I ended up vomiting on his boots.

“Why did you shoot my horse?” I asked.

“Because you didn’t fall off when I spooked her.” He squatted, bringing himself closer to eye-level. The rifle now rested across his knees. From this angle, I could see his face more clearly. Blue eyes regarded me with an expression I couldn’t read. His face was all hard planes and angles, fringed around the edges with black hair. Three days’ growth blurred the lines of his jaw. He didn’t seem like the type of person whose company I would have willingly sought. I realized that I should have been terrified, but wasn’t, and decide it was because I hurt too much to have the energy for it.

“What are you doing here, Patty Donner?”

“Looking for lost cattle.” My thoughts were starting to grow fuzz around their edges.

He gestured around us with the muzzle of the rifle. “There are no cattle here.”

“Not on this part of the ranch, no.”

“Eldon Simms know you’re trespassing on his ranch?”

I shook my head carefully, frowning at him. “I’m not trespassing. Eldon Simms is dead. We just bought the place from his son.”

His expression, already hard to read, went wooden. There was another long pause while he considered that. Finally, he nodded as if I’d just answered a question he hadn’t asked.

“Can you get up?”

I shook my head.

“Your leg broken?”

“There’s a horse on it. I have no idea.”

He grunted, conceding the point. “How old are you, Patty Donner?”

“Eighteen.”

He narrowed his eyes slightly. “You ever hear of the Indian cave?”

“Is there one here somewhere? We only finalized the sale yesterday. Don’t know what’s here yet.”

He suddenly seemed to lose interest. “You’re no use to me, then.” He stood in a smooth motion and raised the rifle to sight down the barrel at me. There was a click as he pulled back the hammer.

I flinched, raising a hand as if I could block a bullet that way. “Stop!” He didn’t fire, so I fought the increasing fuzziness to stay focused. “I’m not a threat to you. I don’t know who you are, or what you’re looking for. At this point, all you’ve done is shoot a particularly worthless horse. But if you kill me, they’ll come looking for you. It’ll be a lot harder to find whatever you’re looking for if you’re dodging search parties and sheriff’s posses.”

One corner of his mouth quirked. After a few seconds, he dropped back into a squat.

“You’ve got spunk,” he said. “There is something you might be useful for after all. You can pass along a message for me. Tell him I’ve done my time, and now I want what belongs to me. Got that?”

“Tell who?”

He got up. “Remember what I told you.”

He turned and started away. I stared in disbelief. A spurt of adrenaline pushed back the edges of the fuzziness.

“Wait! My leg’s still pinned under this stupid horse!”

“Get yourself out.”

“I can’t. And if you walk off and leave me like this, I’ll die in this heat, and no one will get your message.”

He paused. “And what if your leg’s broken?”

“That can’t be helped. I need shade, and I need water, or I won’t last long enough for anyone to find me. Please. I can’t do this without help.”

He turned and walked back, staring down at me for a long moment. I wondered at my own audacity, given that he hadn’t balked at shooting my horse to begin with. I was sweating, sick, and in pain, and my brain was beginning to feel like it was packed in cotton wool. I didn’t want to imagine what it would feel like to be pulled from under the horse if my leg really was broken.

Finally, he moved, coming around to lean the rifle against the mare’s rump before reaching down to grab my arms. He leaned back and pulled, slowly dragging me with him as he shifted backward. Pain shot through my knee and ankle, but nothing grated or felt like it was about to snap. I gritted my teeth and tried not to cry out. The mare’s weight pressed down, making it hard to slide out with the leather of the saddle pressed against my boot and jeans. I had a moment of panic when my foot stuck, then I realized it was actually my boot that was stuck in the stirrup and pointed my toes, letting the footwear slide off. As soon as he saw my sock-clad foot emerge from under the saddle, he let go, stepping back to scoop up the rifle. I lay panting, trying not to whimper with pain.

“Can you walk?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Crawling from here to the shelter of the brush, fifty feet or so away, was probably my best bet, but it seemed like an impossible task at the moment. I wished he would leave so I wouldn’t have an audience.

He hesitated, clearly wanting to be gone, then growled, set the rifle down, and grabbed my arms, hauling me to my feet. The shift made my stomach lurch. My left leg, numb from the knee down, didn’t want to hold me. I was dizzy and weak, and would have gone straight down again except he put his arm around my waist to keep me upright. With a look of annoyance, he leaned down and caught me under the knees.

The jolt of each step made my head ache. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth.  He set me down none-too-gently in the shade, turned, and went to retrieve his rifle.

“Thank you,” I said.

He returned, leaning down to look me in the eye. “You pass on that message, or I’ll come looking for you.”

I shrank back, looking up at him. I didn’t understand any of this, and now that I was in the shade, I had enough sense to spare to be frightened of him. He straightened, shoved past me along an animal trail through the brush, and walked away, the rustle of leaves in the wind swallowing the sound of his footsteps.

****

Time passed, which is not to say that time passed quickly. I worked my way deeper into the brush, close enough to the spring to splash water on myself. I wasn’t quite ready to drink it yet. The thought of parasitic infection was stronger than my thirst. Between the heat and the pain, time positively dragged. I was drowsy, but it was too hot to sleep and I didn’t want to risk it anyway, so I lay in the shade on the uncomfortable ground and watched as the mare’s belly gradually swelled. Eventually her gut would rupture, spilling out half-digested grass and grain and digestive fluids. Given the sheer volume involved, I figured it was going to smell much worse than the sandwich I’d thrown up.

As I lay still and quiet, a small band of deer approached cautiously, disturbed both by the smell of human and the smell of death. They skirted Pig’s body, then stood for an eon, studying the brush, long ears forward, looking for signs of danger. Eventually, one doe decided to take the risk and picked her way across the ground on slender legs, heading for a spot about twenty feet away from me. The rest of the band followed one at a time.

The flies arrived next, coming out of nowhere to settle on the gunshot wound and the trail of blood running down the mare’s face. Scavenger birds began circling overhead, picking up the odors of decay on the breeze. It occurred to me that, eventually, bigger predators would be drawn by the scent of death. I might find myself facing coyotes, a bear, or even a mountain lion. I didn’t know when my brother would realize I was missing and come looking for me, and I had nothing on hand that I could fight with, even if I was physically able to do so. I could only hope that the dead mare would seem like an easier and tastier meal than a live human. The birds dropped to the ground and began picking at her, ripping away shreds of flesh with their beaks.

The coyotes came with the fading of the light and the easing of the day’s heat. They approached Pig’s body with both caution and an air of purpose. The birds flew a short distance away, content to wait until it was their turn again. I watched while the coyotes tore open her belly and went after her organs, repelled by the brutality and unable to turn away. The every-man-for-himself way that they went about it, snarling and snapping at each other as they tried to grab as much as they could, made me glad Pig was already dead and couldn’t feel what they were doing.

It was full dark before I heard the hoofbeats. I shifted, looking away from the coyotes, and spotted a bobbing light in the distance. The wind had died down, and the sound of a voice carried clearly across the space between us.

“Patty!” the rider called.

It wasn’t my brother’s voice, but it was the next best thing. A laugh of relief escaped me. I raised a shaky hand to my lips and let out a shrill whistle, bringing a new burst of pain to my head. The coyotes were startled into silence. The distant light stopped, as did the hoofbeats.

“Where are you?” the voice called.

I braced myself, knowing shouting back was going to hurt.

“Over here!”

As he rode toward where he thought I was, I shouted out the occasional “Left!” or “Right!” to guide him in. He spoke, though not loudly enough for me to hear. After a few seconds, I realized he was speaking into a walkie-talkie, letting the rest of the search party know that he’d found me. His path took him directly past the mare’s body. I wasn’t surprised when he reined in to take a look, or that his horse showed signs of wanting to be elsewhere. I was surprised to note that the coyotes had faded silently into the grass.

“What happened?” he asked.

“There was a man hiding out here. He shot her. The coyotes have been eating her.”

He jerked the lantern around to look for me, knowing from my voice that I must be close.

“Are you all right?”

I weighed my answer, deciding that I couldn’t in all honesty tell him I was all right. “I was on her when she went down. I don’t think anything’s broken, but my head really hurts, and I don’t think I can walk.”

“Were you shot?”

“No.”

“Is he still around?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

He urged his mount on. After another twenty feet, he spotted me and came directly toward me. He reined in and dismounted, dropping the reins. His horse, trained to ground tie, stood patiently while he came forward and knelt to hold the lamp over me, looking for obvious wounds. I grinned up at him.

“Eddie, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see anyone in my life,” I said.

His gaze shifted from the side of my head to my face. The lantern light cast odd shadows over his handsome features and glinted off his curly black hair. He gave me a quick smile before reaching to carefully touch the side of my head with probing fingers.

“You’ve got a pretty good-sized lump there.”

“I’m not surprised.”

He set the lantern down and unclipped his walkie-talkie. “Adrian, she’s had a hard fall. I don’t think it’d be a good idea to make her ride out of here.”

“Where are you?” my brother’s voice replied.

“Behind that first big dome on the highway end of the lower pasture. It looks like there’s a big cluster of brush in a line right next to us. If you don’t see us at first, come around to the other side. Otherwise, the lantern will show you where we are when you’re close enough.”

****

Adrian arrived about ten minutes later in one of our aging pickup trucks. The bouncing of the headlights as he crossed the rough ground told me what I would be in for on the trip out, and made me wonder if it might not have been easier to ride out with Eddie.

Eddie had spent the intervening time asking me questions, testing my limbs for signs of injury, and checking my pupils. He’d encouraged me to lie still while we waited, though he’d come to the conclusion that, most likely, nothing had been broken, but I was going to hurt for a while.

The truck’s headlights swept across Pig’s carcass, and then across Eddie’s mount, which was quietly grazing not far from us. The truck stopped with its headlight shining on us. The light was painfully bright after the darkness. I flinched, turning my head away.

Adrian got out and came toward us.

“What happened?” he asked, his words clipped. For a rancher, a dead horse was both an unwelcome disposal problem and a financial loss. He leaned over us, hands on knees, his blond hair lit from behind by the headlights.

“Patty was ambushed.” Eddie nodded toward the mare. “Pig was shot out from under her. She’s got a concussion, a strained leg, and a lot of bruising. I didn’t want to bring her out of here on Dodger because I’m not absolutely certain nothing’s broken, and she’s dizzy enough that she might not be able to stay on him.”

Adrian nodded. “Do we know who did this?”

Eddie shook his head. “Patty didn’t recognize him.”

“What did he want?”

“She said he was looking for an Indian cave.”

My brother frowned. “Out here?” He made a face. His gaze shifted to me. “You ready to get out of here?”

I nodded. “Long since.”

****

The hospital emergency room had two advantages over where I’d just spent my afternoon and evening: it was air conditioned, and the bed was a good deal more comfortable than the ground. On the down side, it was a Friday night, and the place was noisy and busy with accident victims and drunken brawlers. The emergency room staff had remarked when they’d admitted me that mine was the most original reason for being there that they’d heard all night.

It was now nearing midnight, according to what I could see of Adrian’s watch. He sat in an uncomfortable-looking chair on my left, his arms folded across his muscular chest, having read and discarded the magazines on his side of the room. Ten years my senior, he was tall at 6’2”, lean, and hard-muscled from years of ranch work. His jeans, boots, and light-gray tee-shirt were dirty and smelled of horse and sweat. His blond hair was roughed up from running his hands back through it, and though his eyes were closed, I knew they were a bright blue.

On the other side of the bed, my sister Terry sat in a chair that was probably only marginally more comfortable than Adrian’s. She was my fraternal twin, was wheat-blonde where I was brunette, and at 5’4” was four inches shorter than me. Her curly hair was pulled back off her face. Her slender form was turned sideways in the chair, with one jean-clad leg folded and her foot tucked under her other thigh. She’d kicked her boots off. Her blue-green eyes followed the words of the book she was reading. She glanced up, noticed I was looking at her, and smiled.

“You okay?”

It wasn’t the first time she’d asked that, but since I’d already given them all the details of what had happened, there wasn’t a lot else to talk about. I nodded.

Across the room, in the front left corner, Eddie snorted, drawing our attention. He slouched in a chair that he’d brought in from elsewhere, which was technically against the rules, since patients in the ER were limited to two visitors at a time. No one had insisted that he leave. He was our cousin, the son of our father’s sister Kate, and the only one of the four of us who had inherited the family coloring of black hair and green eyes. He’d also inherited the family sense of humor, and was an equal-opportunity mocker. Like my brother, he was well-muscled, but he’d augmented the ranch work with a set of free weights in the basement of our house. There’d always been a subtle competition between him and Adrian over who was bigger and stronger. Terry and I believed he was secretly in fear of the day Adrian got serious about weightlifting.

He turned a page, and snorted again.

“What?” Adrian opened his eyes to look at him, apparently deciding that anything would be more entertaining than contemplating the backs of his eyelids.

Eddie looked up from the women’s magazine he’d picked up out of boredom. About six months out of date, it appeared to be a holiday entertaining issue. He opened his mouth to share whatever he’d found so amusing, but his gaze slid sideways toward the open doorway before he could get a word out. His expression became unreadable. Over the noise of the busy ER came the sound of footsteps, growing louder as they approached the door. We all turned to look, curious about Eddie’s reaction.

When Sheriff Walker appeared in the doorway, we all understood.

Hiram Walker was a big man, tall and heavy, and he filled the doorway as he stopped and looked in at us. He was in his late fifties, gray-haired, clean-shaven, and he rarely smiled, at least around us. There had long been animosity between him and my family, though I was never clear on why, since it had its roots from before I was born. Most recently, he’d been a competing bidder on the Eldon Simms property, which lay between his ranch and our own. We had not, in fact, put in the highest bid on the property, but Simms’ son Vernon hadn’t liked Walker personally, and had exercised his right to choose who he was going to sell to.

“Cuddy says you had some trouble out on the Circle S,” he said, his voice showing the effects of years of tobacco use. There was also just a hint of malicious amusement in his tone, though I wasn’t sure he knew it was showing.

“We gave our statement to Deputy Cuddy earlier,” Adrian said.

“And now you can repeat it to me.”

My brother let his breath out slowly.

“Some man shot Patty’s horse out from under her.”

“Really.” His skepticism was unmistakable. His gaze turned to me. “You sure it was a gunshot you heard?”

“The man who did it walked out of the bushes, rifle in hand, and assured me my horse was dead,” I said.

He narrowed his brown eyes slightly. “And why would he do that?”

“Apparently he didn’t think I’d be willing to stop and give him directions.”

He guffawed. That’s the only way to describe the derisive noise that came out of his mouth, loudly enough to set off my headache. I winced and sucked my breath through my teeth.

“He was hiding in some brush. He tried to spook my horse out from under me, and when that didn’t work, he shot her. She was trying to run away from the sound of the gunshot when she fell dead, and the impact from the fall knocked me unconscious. When I woke up, he was there, standing over me with a rifle in his hand, and my leg was pinned under the horse. He asked me if I knew where an Indian cave was.”

The laughter faded, but he still looked amused.

“And?”

“I didn’t know anything about an Indian cave, so he said I could carry a message for him. He said…” I paused, searching the fog in my brain for the words. “He said, ‘Tell him I’ve done my time and now I want what belongs to me.’ He didn’t say who I was supposed to tell it to.”

The expression seemed to freeze on his face. “Those were his words?”

“Yes.”

He appeared to mull that over.

“A convict, then. Someone recently released, probably. We should be able to check with prison authorities and get some idea who he is. You gave Cuddy a description?”

“He’s got all the information Patty could remember,” Adrian replied. His tone was cool, a clear indication that he was restraining himself from what he really wanted to say.

“Excuse me, Sheriff,” a voice said. Sheriff Walker glanced over his shoulder, then shifted his bulk out of the doorway to let the white-coated emergency room doctor in.

The doctor was youngish, handsome and dark blond, and I could not for the life of me remember his name, even though I knew I’d looked repeatedly at his name tag. He gave me a smile, then addressed my brother, holding a clipboard in just the right position to hide his name from me.

“The x-rays all look good. She does have a concussion. One concern we have is, with the skull closed, the brain can swell enough to be damaged, and the pressure has nowhere to go. We would like to keep her here for a few more hours for observation, just to be sure.”

Adrian nodded, fatigue in his movements. “How is she otherwise?”

“Otherwise, she’s going to hurt for a while, but it appears that there won’t be permanent damage.”

“Are you going to move her to a room?”

“No, we’ll just keep her here for a bit and keep an eye on her vitals. We’re probably being overly cautious, but it’s better to be safe.”

He nodded again. His gaze shifted to Eddie.

“Why don’t you take Terry home and get some rest. There’s no point in all of us being exhausted tomorrow.”

“Right.” Eddie rose to his feet, while Terry untucked her foot and leaned down to tug her boots back on. She stood and smiled at me, giving my hand a squeeze.

“See you at home.”

“Okay.” I smiled back.

“Give me a call if you need me to come back or anything,” Eddie said, looking at Adrian over my sister’s head as she passed between them.

They stepped out into the hall. I noticed that the doctor had slipped out while I was distracted.

“Bair,” the Sheriff’s voice boomed in the hallway.

“Yeah?” Eddie sounded wary and vaguely hostile.

“Who found her?”

“I did.”

“I’ll want you to take me out there in the morning so I can get a look at the place.”

There was a pause, then Eddie answered, “Sure.”

Three sets of footsteps moved off down the hall, fading as they drew away.

I sighed.

“I still have to figure out who I’m supposed to deliver the message to.”

Adrian was silent for about ten seconds.

“You already did,” he finally said, staring at the empty doorway. “I was watching Walker’s face. He knows who did this.”

He shifted his gaze to me.

“And you can bet that we’ll never find out who did it or why it happened.”