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"The woman is turning into a pest, Hank," Deputy Brady Donovan said as he steered the official SUV around a mountain curve. "Last week I told her flat out that I didn't want to go out with her again, but she's still jamming my cell phone with text messages."
The junior deputy sitting in the passenger seat offered his best explanation. "Maybe Suzie has a hearing problem?"
"Only when it comes to the word no," Brady muttered.
Groaning, Brady's young partner rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "Man, if I could just be you for one day I'd overdose on women."
Brady chuckled wryly. "Trust me, Hank, a daily diet of females can be hazardous to your health."
"So is starving. And I don't want a diet of women. I want a feast. Like you."
Brady tossed his partner a droll look. "I don't know where you get your ideas, Hank. If you ever expect to be a good deputy you've got to do a better job at sizing up people."
"Yeah. Just like you could size up Suzie's figure?"
Chuckling again, Brady rolled his head to ease the stiffness that had been building in his shoulders for the past hour. "You sound just like my family. They have this notion that I'm a cowboy James Bond. Thrilling chases after criminals and making love to a bevy of beauties. They don't understand that we spend hours on the road, talking about nothing, and wishing an antelope would cross the road just to break the monotony."
Moving to the edge of his seat, Hank twisted the rearview mirror so he could study his freckles. "Cowboy James Bond. I wish. Maybe it would change my luck if I ordered my iced tea shaken and not stirred?"
"Damn it all, Hank, straighten that mirror before it snaps off. Or do you want to explain to Sheriff Hamilton why our vehicle needs repairs?"
It was nearing ten-thirty on a pitch-black Sunday night in August. For the past two hours Brady and Hank had been patrolling the southeastern corner of Lincoln County. Not a simple feat, considering the New Mexican county covered more than four thousand, eight hundred square miles and some of the roads were rough dirt, winding through steep mountains. But Brady and his partner both knew that if criminals were out to smuggle drugs, do illegal deals or rustle some rancher's livestock, it would most likely occur on these secluded back roads. And there was nothing that Brady liked more than catching a criminal in the act. Liked it much more, in fact, than cozying up to Suzie Pippin on a cold night, or even a hot one, he thought wryly.
But so far this evening, everything appeared to be quiet. Another quarter mile to go and they'd be at Highway 380 near Picacho. Brady would be glad to get back on asphalt. Deep winter snows, followed by unusually heavy spring rains, had washed out huge sections of this particular road. He'd spent the past thirty minutes wrenching the steering wheel one way and the other in order to dodge deep holes and road ledges that were crumbling away to the steep canyons below.
"Aw, Brady, you're no fun tonight. You could've let me dream for another minute or two." Hank readjusted the mirror to its proper position and settled back in the bucket seat.
"You can dream while you're in bed," Brady retorted.
Hank sighed as he stared out at the empty dirt road in front of them. "Okay, I'll put the dreaming on hold. When we get to 70 let's head into Ruidoso. The Blue Mesa stays open all night and I want some coffee and maybe a piece of cherry cream pie," Hank said as the SUV bounced over another rough spot. "No. Make that apple. With cinnamon on it. And some ice cream on top of that."
"Forget it. We're driving on to the county line. Sheriff Hamilton didn't send us over here to eat pie. Or dream about women. Which is all you seemed to be doing tonight."
"Hell, what else is there to do?" Hank countered. "This night is as dead as a doornail."
Brady slowed the vehicle as they crossed a washboard surface in a road that had narrowed down to little more than a dirt track hugging the side of the mountain.
"Okay," he relented. "After we reach the county line, we'll head back to Ruidoso and—" All of a sudden, Brady stomped on the brakes and the vehicle skidded to a stop in the middle of the road. "Hellfire! What's that, Hank?"
Sensing the urgency in Brady's question, the other man bolted upright in his seat and leaned toward the windshield. "Where? I don't see—"
Before he could finish, Brady rammed the gearshift in Park and jumped to the ground. Grabbing a flashlight, Hank quickly followed and lengthened his stride to catch up with his partner.
"Over there," Brady instructed. "To our left. In the ditch. It looked like a body to me."
The orb of the flashlight swung to a steep cliff covered with boulders, scrubby pinyon pine, juniper and tall clumps of sagebrush, then dropped to a white object lying in the ditch.
"Man, oh, man, somebody met up with some trouble!" Hank exclaimed in a hushed tone.
Before moving to the downed figure, Brady took a few seconds to assess the situation. There were no other vehicles to be seen or any evidence of a driving mishap. No persons or animals. Nor a sound to be heard. Like Hank had said earlier, the night was dead. Brady only hoped to God that wasn't the case for the person lying several feet away.
"Call this in, Hank."
To the onlooker, the two deputies appeared equal and for the most part they shared duties just as they shared a friendship. But during critical calls, Brady's position of chief deputy demanded that he take control. Thankfully Hank was more than happy to accept the protocol.
"Right," Hank replied. "An ambulance, too?"
"Let me have a look first. We might need the coroner."
The other man tossed Brady the flashlight, then made a quick U-turn back to their unit. Brady moved purposely forward, his gaze surveying the body lying facedown on the rocky ground. The person was slender, dark-haired, dressed in blue jeans and white shirt and unfortunately showing no sign of life.
Homicides were extremely rare in the county. In fact, during his seven years at the sheriff's department, Brady had only worked two murder scenes. The last thing he wanted was a third.
His senses on keen alert, he squatted near the body and, using one hand, swiftly slid his finger to the artery at the side of the victim's neck, the flashlight throwing a narrow beam of light. The faint pulse fluttering against the pad of Brady's finger sent relief rushing through him.
Behind him, the sound of crunching gravel alerted him to Hank's approach.
"Is he alive?" the other man asked quickly.
"Yes. But unconscious."
Very carefully Brady rolled the person to a face-up position and was instantly whammed with shock as he found himself staring at a young woman! One side of her black hair was wet with blood, while dried smears marked her forehead.
"Hank, get a blanket from the unit and call for an ambulance," Brady ordered swiftly. "It's a woman. And she has a nasty gash on the forehead."
While the other deputy hurried away, Brady carefully searched her limbs for obvious broken bones or visible injuries. Other than the head wound, there didn't appear to be any, but he could only guess what might be going on internally. Except for a crumpled tissue, there wasn't anything in her pockets.
Hank arrived with the blanket and as Brady folded it to make a cushion for her head, the woman suddenly made a faint groaning noise.
Encouraged by the sound, Brady stuffed the makeshift pillow beneath her head, then questioned, "Miss? Can you hear me? Wake up and tell us what happened! Is there anyone else injured?"
She groaned again and Brady glanced at Hank. "What's the ETA on the ambulance?"
"Twenty-five minutes. When it's time, I'll drive to the highway to signal them," Hank told him. "Unless you'd rather me stay with her and you do it."
Brady wasn't about to leave the woman. Everything about the situation was screaming that some sort of foul play had taken place and he wanted to be around to make sure nothing else happened. "I'm staying," he said bluntly.
"What the hell could she have been doing way out here?" Hank wondered aloud.
"I can't make sense of it," Brady responded. "She doesn't look like the typical person involved in drug use or trafficking. And this area isn't a national forest with camp sites or hiking trails for nature lovers. I don't want to start speculating, but I'm getting a bad vibe."
"Could be she had a simple accident," Hank suggested.
"Yeah. But why did a simple accident happen in the middle of nowhere?"
"Maybe she's been out hunting. Her vehicle might be parked on one of the offshoot roads and we didn't spot it."
"Maybe. But there's no rifle or bow and hunting season is closed. Besides, she isn't dressed for that sort of thing. Look at those cowboy boots. Small fortune for those hand-stitched babies. And she's wearing turquoise—the expensive kind—on her wrist and neck. A robber wouldn't have left that behind."
"Hmm. That's why you're the chief deputy," Hank said wryly. "You don't have to study about noticing things. You just see them."
Brady glanced up at Hank. "Walk the edge of the road and see if you can spot a wallet or handbag lying around," he ordered, then, turning his attention back to the victim, he lifted her hand and patted the back of it. "Come on, miss, wake up!"
This time his voice must have penetrated. Her eyelids fluttered, then slowly lifted. Brady anxiously watched her gaze attempt to focus on him.
"Hello," he said to her. "Welcome back."
She stared blankly at him. "What—where… am I?"
Even though her voice was dazed and weak, Brady was relieved to hear her speak. Bending near, so that she could get a look at his face and official uniform, he explained, "I'm Chief Deputy Brady Donovan."
"A deputy?" she repeated dazedly. "Have I…been in some sort of accident?"
"It appears that way." He squeezed her hand. "An ambulance is on the way. Other than your head, does it feel like anything else is injured?"
Her free hand slowly lifted to her temple. "My… head is…pounding."
"Anything else hurt?"
She closed her eyes and for a moment Brady feared she was going to lose consciousness again.
"No— I… don't think so," she mumbled.
Encouraged that she might not be as badly injured as he'd first feared, he asked, "Can you tell me anything? What happened?"
Confusion puckered her forehead. "No. I— Where am I?"
Brady pulled a handkerchief from his pants and began to wipe at the blood trickling near her eye. If someone had deliberately struck this lovely young woman, they'd obviously left her for dead. The idea sent a shudder down his spine. "You're on a mountain road in Lincoln County, New Mexico. You don't remember?"
Her eyes widened and Brady could see they were a deep gray, the color of a snow cloud on a stark winter day. They were framed by black winged brows and long thick lashes that fluttered like a silk curtain caught in the wind.
"New…Mexico? I—" She broke off as her trembling fingers traveled from her forehead down to her dirt smeared cheek. "That doesn't… make sense to me."
"I…don't know! It—" Suddenly in a panic, she attempted to rise. Not wanting her to struggle and perhaps worsen her condition, Brady helped her to a sitting position. By now, her whole body was beginning to shake, a signal to him that she might be slipping into shock.
Supporting her with an arm around her shoulders, he wrapped the blanket around her, then tucked it close to her body to help hold in the warmth. "Don't worry about it now, miss," he gently instructed. "You've had a nasty knock to your head. Just try to relax and we'll start from the beginning. Can you tell me your name?"
She looked at him and Brady felt something twist in his gut as he watched her lips tremble with fear and uncertainty. He'd never seen a woman look so lost and vulnerable and the protective side of him ached to reassure her, yet the lawman in him yanked those emotions back and ordered him to remember that his first priority was doing his job.
"I… no! Oh, God help me, I don't know my name!"
Over the years, Brady had learned that people who found themselves in trouble with the law oftentimes conveniently forgot their identities. That could be the case with this gray-eyed gal, but he didn't think she was acting. The shock on her face looked far too genuine.
Before he could decide how to reply to her anguished plea, Hank walked up carrying nothing but a flashlight. Brady rose from his squat to talk to his partner.
"Nothing, Brady. Maybe we'll find something after daylight."
With a pointed glance at the blanket-wrapped woman, Brady gently elbowed Hank in the ribs and the two men walked a short distance away before stopping to converse in low voices.
"She's claiming she doesn't know who she is or where she is," Brady told him. "I'm thinking she has a heck of a concussion. It might be tomorrow before we find out what took place."
Frowning, Hank glanced over his shoulder at the injured woman. "Yeah. But she could be lying. Especially if there was a drug deal gone wrong. By tomorrow, she might lawyer up and decide not to tell us anything."
Brady's lips stretched into a grim line. He wasn't buying that scenario. He'd sensed something innocent about the woman. No doubt Hank would laugh at that notion, so Brady kept the opinion to himself. "Let's hope that doesn't happen."
"Is she Apache? Maybe she's from the res."
"No. She's white. Somewhere in her mid-twenties, I'd say."
Hank shook his head with disbelief. "Boy, oh, boy. And I thought this was going to be a boring night."
Brady slapped him on the shoulder. "You'd better get down to the highway. The ambulance ought to be here soon."
Forty-five minutes later, the ambulance had picked up the injured woman and carried her to Sierra General Hospital in Ruidoso. Brady and Hank arrived directly behind the emergency vehicle and followed the paramedics as they pushed the injured woman through the swishing doors.
Once they were inside the building, Hank said, "Guess we'd better give Admitting what information we have. But that's not a heck of a lot."
Brady's expression was rueful. "We have nothing but white female. Black hair, gray eyes, mid-twenties. They'll have to admit her as a Jane Doe."