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Angelo Tucker remembered stories told at his grandfather's knee of how their tribe used to walk on their hands and fished the mighty Hoh River with their feet until Creator came along to show them a better way.
He and his younger brother Waylon used to laugh out loud at the idea of catching smelt with their toes.
"Why didn't they just walk on their own, Papa?" Waylon asked, his dark eyes gleaming with mirth. They'd loved Papa's stories of the beginnings even if the tales had seemed completely outrageous.
"We were not so wise," Grandfather had answered, smoothing the wild jetblack hair on Waylon's head. "All the blood rushing to our heads clouded our reason. Creator taught us a better way and we were thankful. Aren't you thankful you don't have to fish with your feet?" he asked, his worn face crinkling in a warm, teasing smile.
"Very much, Papa," Waylon had answered fervently. "I don't want to fish with my toes."
"It's just a story, Waylon," Angelo had scoffed at his younger brother's gullibility, earning a subtle frown from Papa. "Creator isn't real and no one would really walk on their hands all their life. It's not possible anyway."
"It is so true." Waylon had pushed Angelo, a fierce scowl on his young face. He turned to Papa for reinforcement, although there was a hint of a question in his expression, for Angelo was his big brother and his idol. "Right, Papa? Tell Angelo he's wrong."
Papa, the hereditary tribal chief, took a long moment to answer. Angelo had shifted under Papa's deep, assessing stare; it felt as if it had zeroed in on his very soul, and then Papa had said, "White Arrow you have much to learn about your people. Your eyes are closed, but when the time is right, they will open. In the meantime, do not mock your brother for what you refuse to see."
"Yeah," Waylon echoed, the laughter returning to his voice as he tackled Angelo, taking both to the worn carpet of their grandfather's living room.
The memory of that day crashed through Angelo's mind now with all the violence of a headon collision, and the unexpected pain brought him back to the present more quickly than the sound of his partner's voice. She repeated the facts as they knew them as they drove to the local facility where the body was being held. He'd known returning to the reservation wasn't going to be a picnic but he hadn't been prepared for the mental assault he'd undergone the moment he stepped foot on native soil.
When his partner, Grace Kelly, a woman who was nothing like her famous namesake in appearance or disposition, noted his attention had wandered, she lowered the case file to her lap to stare him down. "Please let me know if I'm interrupting your quiet time."
"Settle down, Kelly," he retorted irritably as the urgent care facility came into view. He was dealing with more than the case but he wasn't in the mood to share. "I was listening."
"Yeah, I could tell," Grace said dryly, returning to the case file with a sigh. "The body was bagged at the scene by the locals. We can only hope everything was done right. I would've been more comfortable if our forensics team had collected the evidence. Agent Byron Hicks went missing about a week ago, according to his wife. The body was identified by a fingerprint match." She scanned the page, adding, "Says here Hicks was found by a man named Sam Fisher on the bank of the Hoh River with a single bullet wound to the back of the head." She pursed her lips and shook her head at the mystery. "Helluva way to end a vacation. Wife said he came up here to do some salmonfishing. Looks like he caught more than he planned."
Angelo refrained from comment as his grip tightened on the steering wheel, but his mind kept detouring in spite of his best efforts. There was a reason he had never returned, not for visits, not for anything. The weight of his ancestors' judgment seemed to press on him though he told himself repeatedly he'd done nothing wrong in leaving. Not everyone's path started and ended at the reservation. At least that's what he'd tried to tell his grandfather. He bit back a sigh and ignored the stab of guilt that always followed when he allowed his thoughts to wander too closely to his memories of living here.
The urgent care facility, with its bare, utilitarian construction, was as ugly as it ever had been because there had never been enough money for cosmetic improvements. Not having enough money a common thread that wove its way through the reservation. If he'd stayed it would've been his responsibility to look after the tribe, to sit in on the pointless tribal meetings with the government, fighting and scrabbling for the scraps from the white man's table. His tribe had not followed the casino route as had so many of their tribal brothers and therefore, money was always scarce.
As they exited the car he wondered who had taken over the administration position after Hector had died. The fact that he was clueless about who was in charge illuminated just how removed he was from the place. And yet, everything looked the same, locked in time.
Grace swiped at her nose. The moist, chilly air common to the Pacific Northwest at nearly all times of the year made her shiver in her trench coat. "You grew up here?" When Angelo nodded, she offered a grim analysis. "It's cold, wet and creepy. It must've been a friggin' fairy tale calling this patch of dirt home."
"It had its moments," he said, his sharp gaze taking in everything at once. The last time he'd walked through these doors he'd been summoned to identify his baby brother's body. Waylon had been sixteen when someone had shot him in the back, but the fall into the river was what had killed him. The official cause of death was drowning. Like Hicks, Waylon's body had been hauled from the Hoh. The murder had never been solved. Waylon's death had crippled their grandfather mentally. A year later, Papa had walked into the forest and tumbled down a ravine, breaking his neck. And just like that, Angelo's last remaining family member was gone, leaving him completely alone. An uncomfortable tremble shook his frame and he was glad for the bulk of his trench coat for cover. After that day he'd sworn he'd never walk through these doors again. And until this moment, he'd kept that vow.
"Is it weird to be back?" Grace asked, breaking the silence as they walked through the back door of the urgent care, their shoes scraping against the aged and faded tiles.
"A little," he lied, his gaze taking in the surroundings with one sweep. Only a few lights lit the darkened facility, but as the hairs rose on his neck and goose pimples erupted, his stare locked on a woman who emerged from a side office, her dark hair pulled into a short serviceable ponytail that twitched with the brisk clip of her stride.
His gaze feasted even as he took a mental step away. If the memory of his brother's murder made the visit home unpalatable, running into Mya Jonson only made it worse.
Heaven help him, but time hadn't been unkind. If anything, maturity had molded what had been considered a pretty face into one that now stopped traffic. Her dark eyes burned, saying all the things those tightly compressed, gorgeous lips wouldn't. A wave of anger and hostility from her hit him, leaving little to guesswork as to how she felt about seeing him again. He wouldn't say he'd spent the last fifteen years pining for his lost love, but he couldn't rightly say he'd forgotten her, either. Seeing Mya again only served to freshen what he'd hoped had gone stale inside his heart. Still, they both had jobs to do and he wouldn't allow the past to get in the way; he hoped she felt the same. There was only one way to see how this reunion would play out.
"Hello, Mya," he said, inclining his head in a stiff greeting.
"Angelo," she acknowledged, equally stiff.
"Gotta love these hometown reunions," Grace muttered beneath her breath before extending her hand to Mya. "Special Agent Grace Kelly, FBI," she said in introduction.
Mya's gaze moved to Grace as if only too happy to look away from Angelo and visibly thawed as she accepted the gesture. "Mya Jonson, I'm the resident doctor here at Healthy Living. Unfortunately, our regular coroner is on a muchneeded vacation so you'll have to bring in your own team for an autopsy."
Angelo processed the info silently. A doctor She'd always been whipsmart. A surge of pride that he had no business feeling filled his chest. He'd known she had what it took to make something of herself. The fact that she'd left the reservation, attained an education and then returned even though she could've made a higher wage elsewhere spoke volumes as to where her heart remained: with the tribe.
Well, seems that much hadn't changed about her.
"We already have a team assembling. We just need somewhere to hold the body for the time being to preserve any trace evidence that may have been left behind," Angelo said, noting the subtle differences in the woman he'd once loved but had walked away from so many years ago.
"Of course," Mya said, gesturing down the hall. "Follow me."
"You cut your hair," he murmured, almost to himself, catching a quick, narrowed stare from Grace that caused him to flush.
Mya didn't even give him a cursory glance as she answered, moving briskly down the hall to their destination. "I've done many things in the last fifteen years."
The vague answer did little to soften her meaning. His comment had been too personal and he knew it. He shouldn't have mentioned it, but it'd just popped out of his mouth before he realized what a mistake it would be. Her reaction told him there would be no polite conversation between them. He ought to be grateful. He found polite conversation trite and useless. But Mya's hair he had distinct memories of those silken black strands sliding through his fingers, and now, judging by the abbreviated ponytail, it looked as if it'd been chopped to her shoulders he found himself lamenting the loss.
Mya stepped aside and gestured at an open door. "Here is the morgue. It's not large but it has a coldstorage locker that should meet your needs. Do you know when your pathologist is set to arrive?"
"Not until the morning," Grace answered. "We'll hole up here for the night if that's all right with you. Any hotels you could recommend?"
"We don't have hotels for outsiders," she said, sliding her gaze to Angelo. "Perhaps the next town over has some vacancies."
Grace stared quizzically at Mya, not quite sure what to make of her answer. Angelo smirked at Mya, minutely shaking his head. This was the reason the rez was dying on the vine. Damn tribe was always cutting off its nose to spite its face. Mya's attitude was an apt reminder of why he was thankful every day that he'd chosen to leave. "Don't worry, my family's got a place here. We can stay there. It's not the Hilton but it has running water and a roof," he told Grace, ignoring Mya's thinned lips and the flash in her dark eyes.
"Are you sure you wouldn't feel more at home in a hotel?" she asked.
"Oh, I'd likely feel right at home in a hotel, but we'll stay here," he said easily. He didn't relish the idea of going home after all this time, but Mya was right, there were no vacancies for outsiders and, to date, that included him. But it made more sense to stay here because this was where the investigation would be focused, and since he didn't imagine he'd enjoy sleeping in the Range Rover, he was willing to go home for the time being. Besides, it was temporary and he could handle temporary.
"I suppose that's your right," she said coolly.
"Yes, it is." Why was he baiting her? He didn't know. He shifted and caught Grace's pointed gaze, and he knew he better cut it out if he wanted to keep his past with Mya private. Grace was a bulldog when it came to sniffing out details other people wanted to remain hidden. And he wasn't fool enough to believe she'd blunt those skills just because he was the one in her line of sight.
"While you two play catchup I'm going to take a look at the body." Grace shot him a dark look that promised plenty of questions later and then disappeared out the door.
Uncomfortable silence stretched between them and Angelo wished he'd taken the initiative to get out of there sooner. Mya lifted her chin and broke the silence first. "I want to say this and get it out into the open. You mean nothing to me, Angelo. Don't ask me personal questions, like about my hair or who I'm dating. I will work with you in a professional capacity, but anything other than that is out of the question. I'm over you."
"After fifteen years I'd hope so," he murmured, but her words stung.
She ignored his jab and continued, her voice low but strong. "I'm telling you this because I feel obligated to warn you. There are others here who won't be so accommodating."
"If anyone refuses to cooperate I'll have them arrested for obstruction," he said, his jaw tensing.
"You'll do what you feel is necessary, what is best for you," she countered evenly. Unspoken was her belief that Angelo always did what was best for him. He bit back swear words, hating how ten minutes spent with Mya could heap a tenpound weight of guilt on his shoulders. The fact that he had nothing to feel guilty for sharpened his voice.
"Yes, I will. I'm here to investigate the murder of a fellow agent. I don't care what anyone thinks of me, including you. Thanks for the headsup, but I don't need it. People will cooperate or they'll go to jail. Simple as that."
Her smile called him a fool. "All right then. The clinic opens at 8:00 a.m. and I have a full case load. Iris will see to your needs, should you have any."
"Iris Beaudoin?" he asked.
He filed that away. Iris had never been able to govern her mouth and pretty much said whatever popped into her head. He resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose as a headache pulsed to life behind his eyes. Just the thought of having Iris as his gobetween caused pain to erupt. He had to ask, "Is Iris the same as I remember her?"
At that Mya's smile widened but her eyes were deadly cold. "Yes. Worse perhaps."