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"Do you think he's a jumper?"
The excited voice on the other end of her police radio had Officer Alana Anders groaning inwardly. All she'd reported was that she'd spotted someone loitering along Oak Grove, Texas's, flooding Miller Creek. How that constituted a 911 crisis was all in dispatcher Barbara Jayne "Bunny" Dodd's vivid imagination.
"Bunny, he's sitting on a tree stump that's no higher than a park bench would be if this town wasn't too cheap to put any in," Alana told the information-addicted woman. "Unless he has a rocket strapped to a part of his anatomy that I can't see, he'd need to be an Olympic long jumper, not a diver, to make the fifteen-to-twenty feet it is to the edge of the water."
It was unusual to see the creek in this conditionespecially since there was no hurricane blowing up from the Gulf of Mexico. But there was a change in weather patterns going on. It was flooding in Oklahoma and Arkansas; as a result, while East Texas was seeing little in the way of precipitation, the northern counties' tributaries were inheriting a splendid overflow.
"But it's a blue moon," her coworker declared, the announcement coming out of nowhere.
An aspiring writer in her free time, the divorcee was chockfull of trivia that most people forgot minutes after hearing it. While Alana sometimes found her prattling a help to stay awake during many an uneventful shift, others avoided the woman exactly because of her wandering focuses of interest as much as her relentless chat-tiness. She'd certainly knocked one out of the park this time with that blue-moon reference.
"Excuse me?" Alana peered out of her windshield to check the sky in case she was really missing something of astronomical significance.
"They're rare because it takes two to three years to build up on the yearly extra days to have a second full moon in a month. It's said that this August one is among the rarest. That has to mean something."
"Not according to CNN this morning," Alana replied. "They said the scientific world has taken all the mystery out of the event. Supposedly a volcano eruption caused the appearance of a blue moonand some green sunsets. Krakatoa back in 1883, I think they said. So the other references that go back another couple of hundred years could well have been due to equally logical coincidences. But, hey, if it will make you happy, I'll gladly ask our fellow insomniac if he's a galactic visitor here to correct the last half-dozen mathematical errors in calculating the end of the world. That's our job, right? Leave no question unanswered."
Bunny sighed. "Oh, Ally, you don't usually make fun of me the way the others do. And where's your sense of romance? You like music. You know musicians were referencing the blue moon in song forever."
"And you know that I don't listen to Elvis," Alana replied, feeling the pinch of a tension headache coming on. "Who, by the way, also offered his services to Nixonor was it J. Edgarto be an agent for the U.S. Give me a break, Bunny."
"Not just Elvis," Bunny replied in her most little-girl voice. "Mr. Richard Rogers. You like Broadway."
"I like beer and bourbon, too. Unfortunately, I'm on duty." At Bunny's prolonged silenceobviously due to wounded feelingsAlana lifted her gaze to the heavens again. "Okay, okay, I'm going to make an effort after all, it has been a while since I've had the cheap thrill of frisking a total stranger."
"Now, you stop," the dispatcher demanded. "For all you know, he could be suffering from a broken heart. Maybe he's been somehow led here to be your guy."
Alana had heard enough. "Listen, Sherlock"
"What does he look like?"
"Bunny," Alana said, tone pleading, "I'm too far away from him to tell, and you know the lighting isn't great over here."
"Well, go find out before he goes and does something you might both regret for the rest of your lives."
Alana decided the only thing that she was regretting at the moment was reporting the situation when she did. To heck with procedure, she should have just gone and checked things out, then radioed her findings afterward. "Consider me gone. You hold off drafting an engagement announcement for the newspaper until I at least introduce myself, okay?"
"What I am going to do is notify Ed for backup. It's been a while since we've had a stranger come through town."
Now she remembered why they cut her a check every two weeks? "Barbara Jayne Doddcease and desist!'' The woman's mindset could go from softhearted romance writer to police-procedural novelist faster than a career perp could blame someone else for his problems. No wonder she wasn't published yet; she was all over the map with her feelings and focus. A person would have to be schizophrenic to keep up with her.
But Alana did sympathize to a degree. Oak Grove, population 3,900, was a challenge to her, too. The town hierarchy claimed it could barely justify the police force they hadespecially around raise timeand yet protected the top tier that officiated over criminal behavior, so that things like drug trafficking and subsequent related crimes couldn't be crushed, only minimally controlled. As a result, Alana was often accused of being an adrenaline junkie herself and just "looking for trouble." That said, she wasn't about to let what was probably a simple 11-94, Pedestrian Stop, get turned into something that could cost the chief another prescription for his ulcer.
"Will you please let Ed have his donut break?" she told Bunny. "With Sue Ann out of town visiting their daughter and new grandbaby, this is the only time he doesn't get his clothes checked for sugar-glaze crumbs. If I think there's a need to bring him in on this, you'll be the first to know."
Signing off, she exited her white patrol car with the bold red-and-blue writing on the side, and angled south beyond the vehicle a few yards in order not to approach the man from the rear and startle him. As much as she wanted to rein in their dispatcher's imagination, she wasn't about to drop her guard. Aided by the very moon that had Bunny sounding as though a serial Lothario might be on the loose, Alana saw that the man continued to sit quietly, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his knees, staring unblinkingly at the fast-flowing creek. Unless he was deaf, drugged or otherwise hearing impaired, he had to have heard her pull up behind him, and could still hear the patrol car's engine continue to idle.
Usually no more than a dozen feet wide, the creek was now at least twice that. Nevertheless, as she'd attested to Bunny, the stranger was not in harm's way yet; Alana could confirm that from her new vantage point. Also, so far, she didn't think she knew him. He was wearing a dark-colored T-shirtshe was now guessing it was olive-green due to the duffel bag between his feetjeans and athletic shoes. If he was a drifter, there was nothing shabby about him, and given his buzzed haircut and lean but toned build, her first guess was that he was military, or at least recently discharged. A veteran on his way home? He sure didn't seem in any hurry. With that in mind, she also had to consider the spike in suicide rates due to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress. Then there was the AWOL possibility, another reason for sticking to back roads and night travel to keep out of sight.
In the mysterious blue-white light of Bunny's moon, his hair color was difficult to define, and the close haircut didn't help. It looked at once ashy, then brown, but not as dark as her own. One thing was for certain: with each step, the closer view of his profile discounted Latino, Native American or Middle Eastern ethnicity. In fact, he could be Kevin Bacon's kid brother.
"Sir? Everything okay here?"
At first the man acted as though he hadn't heard her, but after another few seconds, he rolled his head, chin leading, to inspect the intrusion on his privacy. Was that sweeping glance and subtle shake of his head for a woman being in uniform, for the fact that she'd had the audacity to approach him by herself, or what? Whatever his thinking, he returned his attention to the water.
"Am I breaking some ordinance, Officer?"
"Technically, not at all," Alana replied, allowing a touch of humor to enter her voice. "But at this hour, our four-legged scavengers tend to assume that this trail is their territory. If one happens to confront you, I'd strongly advise you to voluntarily surrender any food you're in possession ofespecially if it's pizza or hot dogs from the convenience store down the block."
She followed that comment by a nod toward the brightest lights in town. It earned her an "are you for real?" look.
"Here's the thing," Alana said in response to that. She was now confident that she had his full attention and that he wasn't high on something. "It's after one in the morning and it's obvious that you're not here to fish, or throw change into the creek and make a wish. If by chance you have another plan less pleasant, it's my responsibility to convince you to reconsider."
That won her another disbelieving glance.
"Oh, yes, sir, I'm serious," she said, although her tone remained amiable. "And look at that current, the dirty foam against the bank, and the litter accumulating in the tall weeds. No telling what else is in that water. Do you really want to deal with an angry woman having to face an admittedly overdue tetanus shot, not to mention getting her hair messed up?"
While his expression said, You and what crane? he replied, "I'm not planning anything. I was just taking a break. Thinking. Have politicians figured out a way to put restrictions on that, too?"
"Rumor has it something is tucked away in an upcoming city council bill." But Alana was relieved that the man could form such a coherent sentence. "I don't recognize you as a local."
"I'm not. Well, once. Not anymore."
"So you're passing through to touch bases with someone before heading elsewhere?"
Alana could visualize Bunny scribbling down this dialogue for some work in progress, but she was finding it as enjoyable as scraping lint out of a dryer vent. "What might change your mind?" When he didn't seem to want to answer, Alana tried a different angle. "My institutionally disrespected female intuition is telling me that you're military. Reassure me that you're not AWOL."
"Officer," he enunciated, "I'm retired and the least of anyone's worries."
Ordinarily, that would suffice for herexcept for the defeated and world-weary tone in his voice. "I appreciate that, sir. I'm Officer Alana Anders, Oak Grove P.D. And you are?"
It took him a good while, but finally he offered,
Alana could start to feel the roots of her hair follicles aching as she mentally visualized pulling them out of her head. "You'll have to do a little better than that."
She had to lock her knees to keep from taking a step back. "Mack Graves." Her heart went into such chaos, she couldn't help but take several deep breaths for the skidding and colliding going on behind her ribs. Especially when she started to see something familiar about his face. "Fred's Mackenzie?"
"Just Mack. Mackenzie is my mother's maiden name and it was hell getting through school with it, let alone dealing with the ridicule in boot camp." The look he added suggested that if she remembered nothing else, she shouldn't forget to avoid calling him that again. "But, yeah, Fred is my father. I angled down this way to see if he wanted to try again in the relationship department. I suspect if you know Fred, you know warm and fuzzy aren't the first descriptions that come to mind."
Despite her training, Alana momentarily struggled with deeper emotions, and not only because Mack Graves had used the wrong tense. To her, Fred had been those thingsalthough, she would allow, not to everyone.
"You have been away for some time." She wished she could delay telling him the bad news, but she couldn't. "We were trying to find you. I'm sorry to sayso sorry to tell youthat your father passed away last month."
After another long look, the unusually self-contained man nodded once, twice, then simply hung his head and stared at the duffel bag between his feet.
Alana had no problem picking up on the shock and turmoil going on inside him. She knew all about such emotions and much more.
So the prodigal son had returned. Fred's ex-wife, Dina, had left him years agoand had taken their eight-year-old boy with her. She had hated small-town living and Fred's iron grip on their finances. Word had it that the boy had returned once, as a teenager during a summer break, but had left soon afterward, never to return. The gossip mill concluded that Fred had been abusive at the worst, and a cold miser at best. At the time, Alana had only started grade school and was preoccupied with horses and flying, the latter a passion her older brother had infected her with, so she had remained blissfully oblivious to all of that. It was only later that she'd come to learn how inaccurate the gossips were. That wasn't to say that Fred hadn't been a disciplinarian, and frugal, but what had he been dealing with in a boy who no longer remembered, let alone respected, him?
"I'm sorry for your loss," she said, hoping he didn't catch the hitch in her voice that had gone husky. He didn't need to know that the loss of Fred was hard on her, too. "Although I can see the resemblance to your father, I'd appreciate seeing some ID. Then you can come with me to the station. There are papers you need to sign before we hand things over to you."
"He was cremated?"
"Yes, but " Alana hesitated in telling him everything yet, so she pointed across the street to the city cemetery. "We ended up placing the urn over there. Under the big oak at the northwest corner between his parents, your grandparents. I was talking about the keys to the ranchhouse, truck, barn, things like that. You're his sole beneficiary. That's the other reason that we've been trying to locate you."
After the slow, enigmatic response, Mack pulled out his billfold and took out his driver's license. Despite her certainty that he was who he claimed to be, Alana still accepted it with her usual caution when dealing with strangers, then used her LED penlight to see that it was a current one from Virginia. The address was an apartment and she would bet anything he no longer considered it home. She also noted that he was born in mid-February, thirty-eight years ago. The photo was clearly the man before her, maybe ten pounds heavier, with fewer signs of life and its stresses. Returning the flashlight to her pocket, she tucked away the ID, as well.
"Okay, I'll hang on to this to make a copy at the station. Grab your bag and let's go. Afterward, I'll drive you out to the ranch."
"You don't have to do that. I guess I remember enough to find it myself."
While he hadn't been out of the service long enough to go soft, on foot a relatively healthy person might make Fred's ranch by the first hint of daylight. Such a trek was neither safe at this hour, nor would it be considerate. "Fred was more than a neighbor and friend," she said, by way of explanation. "He was like family to me. It's the least I can do."
As Mack Graves put his duffel bag in the backseat of the patrol car and eased into the passenger side, Alana settled in the driver's seat. "Which branch were you in?"
Then he could definitely make the hike faster than most people, but she still wasn't going to allow that. "Were you in Iraq or Afghanistan?"
Whoa, Alana thought. "Glad you made it backand in one piece."