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The heat shimmered up from the asphalt as Bill Cloudman drove the pickup, Tank barking enthusiastically in the back. It had taken eight months away from Rockvale for him to realize he'd actually missed the ferocious heat. After two days back home, he felt as if he'd never left. This small town, snuggled up next to the Eagle Rock reservation, was undeniably a part of him, as much as he'd tried to escape it. He eased off the road that led away from his aunt Jean's dilapidated trailer, deep in reservation territory.
Aunt Jean was the reason he'd returned, her nasty fall the only thing that could draw him back to this place filled with bitter memories. Thankfully, she was recovering well, already back in her trailer making every guest feel welcome. Sharing a glass of iced tea and listening to her chatter had taken his mind off the past for a little while. Even though she was not his aunt by blood, he never thought of her as anything else. With her, he could pretend things were fine, that his sister, Leanne, was alive and they were a family, that his partner, Johnny Moon, hadn't been murdered.
That game got him only so far. Leanne was dead. Johnny was dead. No amount of wishing would bring them back again. His tension increased as he drove away, losing himself in acres of sunbaked trees and dry grass that surrounded him.
He breathed deeply as he drove the five miles to the small home he'd left in the months following his partner's death. It was remote, far from the nearest reservation neighbor, and he liked it like that. Working as a Tribal Ranger, one of twelve officers who protected life and property on the reservation and surrounding areas, he'd appreciated the distance sometimes, the quiet. It had been a sanctuaryuntil Johnny was killed. Then everywhere he looked he saw friends and neighbors who knew how he'd let his partner die. Bill had packed his bags and resolved never to come backand he hadn't, until Aunt Jean had her fall.
Bill exhaled slowly, trying to quell a sudden feeling of unease. The tingle of alarm grew stronger even before he crested the last ridge and his house came in sight. There was an unfamiliar tang in the air, an odor that caused Tank to growl as they crunched up the winding driveway.
Something was wrong.
He eased the truck to a stop, breath tight in his chest.
He got out and ordered Tank to stay. The dog barked his displeasure, but obeyed.
Broken glass littered the ground, blazing in the sunlight. All the front windows were fractured into bits except for sharp teeth of glass that remained stubbornly in the frames.
Vandals with nothing better to do. Teens, he told himself. Who else would cause such destruction?
Muscles tight, he moved closer. A bucket of crimson paint had been thrown at the walls. It stained the stucco like the red spurt of blood. Angry, hateful.
The note was impaled to the wall by the blade of a knife, plunged to the hilt into the wood.
Coming for you.
It needed no signature.
Oscar Birch's rage seeped through the scrawled letters.
Oscar, the man he had imprisoned.
The man who murdered his partner.
He didn't know how Oscar had wrecked his place when the man was supposed to be in jail, but he might as well have signed his name in the vicious smears of paint.
Paint that was still wet.
"You're not welcome here."
Bill Cloudman knew it, felt it, long before he found himself on Charlie Moon's gritty doormat two hours later. It had taken that long for his former colleagues to finish their investigation at his home and pass the information on to federal authorities. They told him the brutal truth with as much compassion as they could muster.
Oscar Birch had escaped.
The officers would try their best, but Bill knew with sickening certainty they would not capture the fugitive. Oscar was smart and wily and desired only one thingBill's death. Oscar wouldn't be captured or contained until he got what he was after.
Bill tried to focus on the hostile face of Johnny's uncle. "I came to warn you."
Charlie grunted. "Then you did what you set out to do."
Bill suddenly felt every one of his fortyfive years weighing him down as he stood on the front porch of the small house, the South Dakota sun scorching through him with unrelenting fire. "And I wanted to see how you were doing. And Tina."
Charlie Moon raised a grizzled eyebrow. "Since you let her brother die? "
Bill exhaled. The words weren't unexpected, but they cut deep anyway. "I loved Johnny like a son, you know that."
"I don't know any such thing. I only know you were my nephew's senior officer. You were supposed to take care of him, watch his back." Charlie shook his head. "He was so proud when he joined the Tribal Rangers. So proud to work for you."
"I trained him the best way I knew how." Bill felt the surge of frustration that caused his voice to edge up a notch. With an effort, he kept it level. "It was a bust gone bad. Oscar knew we were coming."
Charlie's calloused fingers gripped the door frame, the pressure turning his knuckles white through the natural tan of his skin. "Words. Just words. Johnny went in first, a nineteenyearold rookiehe went in first and got blown up. Can you tell me any of that ain't true?"
Bill looked at the red dust coating his boots. "No."
"And can you stand there and say to me it wasn't your fault? You've been a Tribal Ranger for what? Twenty years? And a rookie walks in after a fugitive first, without waiting for a backup team? That how it's supposed to go, Bill?"
He could not answer against the thickening of his throat.
Charlie looked at him, lips in a tight line. "If you came back to Rockvale for forgiveness, you're not going to find it here. Not with me. Maybe not from anybody."
A sixyearold girl with a thick braid of black hair peeked past Charlie. "Hiya, Uncle Bill. Have you come back?"
Bill knelt and blinked back an unexpected wash of tears. "Hey there, Tina. I've missed you."
"Me, too," she said. "I got the birthday card you sent and I put the stickers on my lunch box. Where's your dog?"
He nodded toward the massive rottweiler watching their every move from the back of the truck. "Right over there."
"Can I play with him? I want to see if he's learned to fetch."
Bill was about to answer when Charlie pulled the girl back.
"Mr. Cloudman is not your uncle and he's leaving now. He can't play with you anymore."
Tina shot her uncle a puzzled look. "Never? "
Charlie nodded grimly. "Never."
"Is it 'cuz Johnny went to heaven?"
Charlie patted her shoulder. "We'll talk about it later. Go back to your room and put your books in order."
"Go," Charlie said, voice hard.
Tina's face was puzzled as she wiggled her fingers at Bill before she disappeared into the house.
Bill straightened. "Is she how is she doing?"
"Better than you'd think for someone who lost her mother to cancer and her big brother to murder. 'Course, Johnny was more like her father, him being so much older and since her father took off before she was born. So all she's got left is her old uncle Charlie and this piece of wasteland." He gestured to the horizon, harsh cliffs painted against the setting sun. "How's that gonna get her any kind of future?"
Images of a previous sunset flashed through Bill's brain. The explosion, the ferocious hatred of the man bent on killing them. The ease with which Oscar Birch had been able to murder Bill's partner. And now the murderer was back with a different target in his sights. Bill looked up to find Charlie staring at him.
"Heard you helped bust Oscar's son near the Badlands."
"Yeah." He'd gone to assist his friend Logan to keep Oscar's son, Autie, from killing a woman named Isabel Ling. They'd gotten Autie, all right, and remanded him into custody. In the process Logan had found his soul mate in the strongwilled Isabel. At least there was a silver liningfor Logan anyway. The guy deserved it. Charlie's voice intruded on Bill's thoughts.
"Heard Oscar's son died."
"Yes." Autie had finally run out of luck. He'd made a break for it on his way to prison and been felled by a volley of police fire. Bill had felt nothing when he heard, no grief, no satisfaction; just the same numbness that had taken hold of him since the afternoon Johnny Moon was killed. He hooked his thumbs in his belt and let his gaze wander to his boots again.
Charlie's laugh was harsh. "That's justice, I guess. Oscar killed Johnny. You killed his kid. Now he knows something about my pain."
Though Bill said nothing, he knew Charlie was wrong, dead wrong. Oscar was filled with hate and anger that sizzled hotter than the Dakota desert, an incendiary rage that would not be satisfied or dulled by grief. And he was here. He might even be watching right now. Bill felt a chill in spite of the heat.
A bark from the bed of the truck pulled Bill from his thoughts. He noticed the curtain move in the front window of the small house. Tina was still watching. He tried to make his expression more pleasant. "Anyway, I thought you should know Oscar's escaped."
The old man wiped a hand over his mouth. "Listen, I got enough problems. Not my job to help you catch him again."
"I wasn't asking for your help. I'm not a Tribal Ranger anymore. I just wanted to tell you and see if you or Tina needed anything."
"She needs her big brother, but you can't give her that, can you?"
The door swung shut, the sharp click loud in the stifling air.
Bill put his palm to the wood, warm from the late afternoon heat. If I could have that minute back, Johnny would be alive.
The curtain fluttered again and Tina's little face peeked out. She mouthed something, a gap showing where she'd lost a tooth in the time he'd been away. Her expression so resembled her brother's that he was momentarily frozen. He forced a smile and walked down the drive, the enormous mass of a child's lost innocence weighing him down.
Heather Fernandes heaved a sigh. The guard at the entrance to the massive underground research facility, DUSEL, looked down at her, no expression on his stern face except for the slight uplift of one thick eyebrow.
She straightened, the steering wheel hot, since she'd turned off the air to prevent the Jeep from overheating. It was already making strange noises and she couldn't afford a repair bill. "All I want to do is talk to Dr. Egan. I've called dozens of times and gotten no response. I'm a reporter with the Desert Blaze."
She didn't entirely blame Egan. In his position, she wouldn't speak to reporters, either, especially not hacks for a local rag that was mostly filled with ads for used trucks and prickly pear jam. Egan was used to being interviewed by respected science magazines, like the kind she'd worked for in the past. "I used to write for Horizons in Science."
His eyes flickered as he took in her beatup Jeep. "And I used to guard Buckingham Palace. This is just my summer job."
It wouldn't do any good to prove she was telling the truth. She gritted her teeth and looked past him as the dying sunlight painted the distant cliffs. Somewhere, concealed by construction equipment and the dip and swell of browncovered hills, was the deepest mine in North America. Only, now the goal was no longer hauling out gold, but building the finest Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory in the world. The best of the best, the most cuttingedge science so close, yet it might as well be on the moon. "Here's my number. Please have Dr. Egan call me."
She snapped out her business card and reversed the Jeep, suspecting the guard was laughing as he returned to his airconditioned post.
Laughing that a seasoned fortythreeyearold reporter was so easily defeated? Or amused that Heather actually claimed she had written for Horizons? She groaned. If it weren't for the framed copies of longago articles, she might have believed it was a joke herself. Now she was reduced to writing a piece about some piddly fossil find and covering the local town events. She eased the Jeep down the road a couple of miles, rounded a corner and pulled over to the shoulder. Turning off the engine, she sipped some iced tea out of the thermos and considered. In years prior, her Horizons press pass had given her access to anybody, anywhere. The who's who in the science world practically salivated for the chance to air their discoveries in the magazine.
She recalled a time when she thought Rockvale might even become a home to her. She remembered a trip a year and a half before to this town, when she and Bill Cloudman had struck up a friendship. Her cheeks warmed. More than a friendship, on her side anyway. But things had ended badly after six months. Very badly. Shame licked at her insides again.
She'd decided to return to her father's house in this nowhere town a week ago only after she'd learned that Bill had gone, checked out from the world after the murder of his partner. Where was he now?
It was probably good for him to have left. Maybe he'd found a new life. She shifted uncomfortably on the seat, remembering the emotion that had shimmered in his dark eyes the day he'd arrested her. There might have been love there, but she'd seen only betrayal, the same kind of betrayal she'd lived with since her mother had walked away from Heather and her father when Heather was just a child. Walked away. The only written contact she'd ever made was that one brief note.
I read your lagerstatte article. Excellent and well researched. You should be proud. Mother.
The insanity of it still boggled Heather. Her mother had chosen to break her silence and comment about some ancient set of fish fossils buried in remote Montana?
She'd wanted to scream at the injustice of it. What about me? Aren't you interested in me? Your child?
But even more unsettling was how much Heather had been moved by that one word.
Why should that one word coming from her mother, the stranger, the betrayer, the woman she should hate, mean so much?
Heather flopped her head back on the cracked vinyl. Would her mother be proud now? Proud despite her daughter's battle with alcoholism? Losing her job and relationship in one fell swoop?
When she felt the despair creep up again, she grabbed hold of her lifeline.
God, thanks for giving me the strength to stay sober.
It wasn't eloquent or lovely, but she figured God was used to her constant stream of thankfulness mixed in with regular pleas for help. True, she hadn't gotten her job at Horizons back and there was no hope that she would ever understand her mother's abandonment, but she was sober and God got all the credit for that gigantic achievement.