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Deputy Sloan Ravencrest sat at a red light, tapping out an intricate rhythm on the steering wheel and thinking about the drive he was about to take out to Winona Cobbs's Stop-n-Swap outside town.
There were some, including most of the other officers assigned to the Montgomery case, who would say he was wasting his time and the taxpayers' money. Winona Cobbs was a flake, a crazy old woman who talked with spirits and ghosts. She was forever coming forward with some bit of information gleaned from the "other side." She was crazy, but harmless.
On the other hand, there were some, including his father, his grandfather and most of the more traditional Cheyenne on the reservation, who accepted that "other side" as a natural part of life. They had visions, too, or knew people who did. They believed in mysteries and spirits and things logic couldn't explain. They didn't discount anything merely for lack of proof.
Sloan wasn't sure which group he belonged in. He had some faith, but he also had his share of skepticism. That was thanks, his father claimed, to his white mother. He had a foot in both the Cheyenne and the white worlds, so why shouldn't he straddle the line on this, too?
All he knew for a fact was that Winona had come by the sheriff's office a few weeks ago to recount her latest vision to him, one in which she'd claimed to see Christina Montgomery dead. And that neither the sheriff's office nor the police department nor the state bureau of investigation had any better leads to follow up. And that the powerful Montgomery family wanted answers yesterday.
And one other thing, he acknowledged with a grin as the light changed and he eased away from the intersection. He knew that Winona Cobbs's niece Crystal was just about the prettiest little thing he ever did see.
His grandfather who'd helped raise him would tell him he should be ashamed of himself, using his job to get an introduction to a pretty woman. But, hell, he'd tried every other way. He'd managed to bump into her on a couple of her rare trips to town, but she'd been in too big a hurry for small talk. He'd tried to get one of her few friends to coax her into the bar where a fair number of Whitehorn's single folks hung out, but that had been a no-go. He'd even done a little unnecessary shopping at the Stop-n-Swap, but she'd hardly looked at him.
His grandmother, who had also helped raise him, would tell him he was foolish, expending effort to meet a white woman. Hadn't it been a white woman who'd broken his father's heart? Who had abandoned Sloan on his father's doorstep three days after he was born to save her parents the shame of knowing they had a half-Indian grandbaby? Why didn't he look closer to home? she would urge. Why not look for one of his own kind?
Because not one of his own kind had ever intrigued him the way Crystal Cobbs did. Maybe it was the way she looked—beautiful, with black hair, green eyes and pale china-doll skin. Fragile, with her defenses firmly in place whenever anyone came close.
Or maybe it was the way she talked—in a rich, lush Georgia drawl that put a man in mind of hot days, steamy nights and astounding women. Even curt brush-offs sounded incredibly sensual in her slow, honeyed voice.
Maybe it was the way she moved. Just last weekend he'd stood in the produce section at the grocery store and watched her select apples and tomatoes in a way that made his mouth go dry and his mind go blank. He couldn't have spoken to her to save his life, not after watching her long, slender fingers and their slow, enticing touches.
Maybe it was the look in her eyes when he did try to talk to her. Wary. Aloof. Distant. And, underneath all that, frightened. It was easy enough to guess that she'd been hurt. Why else would such an elegant Southern belle trade Georgia's gentility for Montana's rugged frontier?
It wasn't so easy to tamp down the protective feelings she roused in him. It wasn't at all easy when he watched her stroll through the market, touching this, damn near caressing that, to restrain the urge to wrap his arms around her and promise she would never be hurt again.
But he never made promises he couldn't keep. Since he hadn't yet managed to get beyond "Hi, how are you?" with her, the chances that he could protect her from anything were somewhere between slim and none.
Slowing down, he turned off the highway just outside of town onto the dirt-and-gravel parking lot that fronted the Stop-n-Swap. In weather warmer than this November day, Winona did much of her buying, selling and trading outside on a shaded patio, but the bulk of her goods were stashed in one giant room in a squat, concrete-block building. Much of it was junk, but if a person took the time to poke around, he could find some bargains. His grandmother's oak rocker had come from there, and half of Aunt Eula's Depression glass collection could be traced back there.
There was only one find Sloan was interested in. Maybe this third visit would be the charm.
He parked beside a battered pickup that belonged to one of the old Jefferson brothers and climbed out of his patrol unit. Considering that Montana was widely believed to be the finest of God's country, the landscape around the Stop-n-Swap wasn't particularly pretty, and the two-bedroom trailer off to the side where Winona and Crystal lived did nothing to enhance it. The mobile home was forty years old if it was a day, white with turquoise trim and skirt, with a wobbly deck serving as front porch and an array of faded plastic whirligigs in flowerbeds where, to the best he could recall, no flowers had ever grown.
It was easier by far to imagine Crystal living in a pre-Civil War mansion, some gracious, elegant place with eighteen-foot ceilings, three-story-high columns, verandas and servants.
He went inside the shop, removed his hat and sunglasses and took a quick look around. Winona was dusting a display of china, and Vern Jefferson was in a distant corner. As he'd expected, there was no sign of Crystal.
As soon as the bell over the door sounded, Winona put down the dusting cloth and approached him with both hands extended and a warm smile. "Deputy Ravencrest. How nice to see you."
She was as short as her niece was tall, as round as Crystal was slender. As did most of the elderly ladies he knew on the rez, she wore her iron-gray hair in a braid that wound around her head, and covered her all-purpose bright cotton dresses with shawls that sometimes matched but just as often didn't. There was no family resemblance between her and Crystal, but the word around town was that they were devoted to each other.
So if Winona liked him, would that win him any points with Crystal?
"Are you here to shop, Deputy, or is this official business?"
"It's business, ma'am. I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"I'll answer them if I can. Would you like something to drink?"
"No, thank you, ma'am." Not unless accepting would bring Crystal out of hiding.
She pursed her lips a moment, then called, "Vern, you find what you're looking for, I'll be outside." The volume went up a notch. "You hear that, Crystal?" Without waiting for a response from either one, she linked her arm through Sloan's. "We can talk on the patio."
There were two patios—one directly in front of the store, shaded by a faded awning that stretched out from the roof, and a smaller one between the store and the house trailer. This one was half open to the Montana sky, half covered by a trellis that supported honeysuckle vines. When they were in bloom in the spring, he imagined it was quite a place to sit.
They sat at the dining table under the trellis, with Winona facing the trailer, Sloan watching the shop.
"Is this about our last visit? About the vision?"
"Yes, ma'am. Have you had any other visions?" He'd already ridden into the woods up near the Crazy Mountains but had seen nothing. He needed more to go on.
"Not a one—at least, not about that. I did preminisce that a collector from Los Angeles would buy those books we got from the Fortier estate, and sure enough, he did. Paid more than I was planning to ask but less than they're valued at, so we were both happy."
She flashed a self-satisfied smile that Sloan couldn't help but return as he pulled his notebook from his pocket. "Have you remembered anything else about this vision?"
Her expression shifted slightly, became less open, more guarded. He wondered why. Was it as simple as the fact that visions of Christina dead made her uncomfortable? After all, Winona's premonitions were generally of the harmless guess-who's-coming-to-call variety. They rarely involved anything as serious as death.
"No," she said quietly. "Not another thing."
"You said the scene was a wooded area, with a road and a body of water in the distance. Can you tell me anything else about it? Was the water a lake, a river? Was there anything you might recognize?"
She shook her head. "None of it was familiar."
"Except Christina, and you didn't see her face. How could you be so sure it was her?"
"I just knew. You're a policeman. Sometimes you just know."
True. In his business they called them hunches, and he'd learned over the years to trust his. It was a hunch that made him go on. "You said she was lying on her back with her arm stretched out."
"That's right. She was covered with blood, and her head was bent like this—" she demonstrated "—and her left arm was stretched out."
"Could you see her hand? Was it palm up or down?"
She considered her own beringed hand a moment before deciding. "Down. I believe it was down."
Feeling a curious tickle on the back of his neck, Sloan flipped through his notes, found what he was looking for, then fixed his gaze on the old woman. "A few weeks ago you said it was her right arm that was stretched out and the palm was up."
Winona appeared startled for a moment, then gave a nervous chuckle. "Left, right… depends on your point of view, doesn't it? Your left is my right."
"Up and down don't change, though," he said mildly. "Were you looking at her palm or at the back of her hand?"
"Whatever I said last time is right. The details were fresh then. I hadn't had time to get confused."
"I've never known you to get your details confused," he pointed out patiently. "You predicted everything about my cousin Ruth's baby, right down to the birthmark and which cheek it was on." He hesitated, then politely, respectfully, asked, "Was there a vision, Ms. Cobbs? Did you really see Christina, or was this an attempt to gain a little attention?"
Winona's face flushed red. "Oh, no, not at all! Why, if it was attention she wanted—we—I mean I wanted…" Looking miserably flustered, she let the denial trail away.
...if it was attention she wanted... Who? Christina Montgomery? Had she planned her own disappearance to get her father's attention? While he wouldn't put it past her, based on what he knew of her, staying away for three months seemed excessive. Letting her family believe she might be dead for so long was cruel, and cruelty didn't appear to be one of Christina's shortcomings.
But she and Winona were the only females involved in this discussion, weren't they?
"Ms. Cobbs, was there a vision regarding Christina Montgomery's death?" he asked again.
She nodded grimly, worriedly.
"But you didn't have it."
After a moment's obvious indecision, she shook her head.
Her hands fluttered nervously. "I gave my word I wouldn't say. This gift has caused her nothing but distress, but the vision was too important to go unreported. I told her I would claim it as one of my own. I told her no one need ever know. I promised her… Oh, dear."
Movement near the shop caught Sloan's eye and he looked from Winona to her niece, standing just outside the open door, sending a cool, aloof stare his way. Just like that, he knew. Call it a hunch, call it instinct, but he knew who Winona was fronting for.
It was Crystal who'd had the vision, who'd seen Christina dead, who'd known nothing but distress.
Crystal, who shared her aunt's psychic gift.
For one moment he put business aside and considered that fact. How strong were her powers? Those few times he'd spoken to her, when she'd tersely brushed him off, had she known that his interest was more than neighborly friendliness? Had she had a clue what he was thinking that time he'd watched her in the market? Could that explain her aloofness, her indifference?
Grimly he turned back to her aunt. "Will she talk to me?"
"I don't think—"
He laid his hand over hers to still the trembling. "If Christina is dead, the killer and your niece are the only ones who know it. I need to know everything she knows. I need to talk to her, Ms. Cobbs."
"It's all been so unpleasant for her," the old lady said, sorrowfully shaking her head.
"I imagine dying alone on ground soaked with her own blood was much more unpleasant for Christina," he said dryly. "If it really happened. Tell Crystal I need to talk to her. Ask her if she'd rather do it now or at the sheriff's office."
"Oh, you can't take her in to the sheriff's office! I promised her no one would know. She's been through so much… It cost her so much…" She lifted her head, straightened her spine. "You'll have to make the same promise to me. You'll have to give me your word that no one will know your information came from her."
"I can't do that. This is a police investigation that will hopefully lead to a criminal trial. Everything has to be documented." Then he relented. "I can keep her name out of it for now. If the lead doesn't pan out, then I won't have to say anything. That's the best I can offer."
Winona considered it for a time, then reluctantly nodded. "Wait here. I'll talk to her."
He watched her follow the path from patio to shop, where she spoke with great animated movements for several minutes. Cool, contained Crystal was animated, too, refusing in every way possible to say no. Twice, she sent cold, stinging looks his way, then at last she made a stubborn gesture, spun around and disappeared inside.
Sloan met Winona halfway along the path. "I'm sorry, Deputy," she said, dignity in her bearing and her voice. "My niece chooses not to talk with you."