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Nicolette Johnson was about to leave for her night-shift job at The Truck Stop Diner when her cell phone rang.
She slipped it out of her jeans pocket and hesitated while she listened to the ringtone playing "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Most of her recent callers had been nosy reporters or curious neighbors wanting to ask what she knew about her cousin Arianna Munson's recent murder.
"That would be nothing, just like I told the police," she muttered. But since her curiosity was aroused, she gave in and answered. "Hello?"
"Hello, Nicki, darlin'."
The slow, deep drawl was dripping with menace, sending chills up her spine. "Who is this?"
"Never mind who I am. You need to stop holding out on us," the man warned. "Remember, we know where you live."
Nicki swallowed past the lump in her throat. "I don't know what you're talking about. Leave me alone."
"That's not going to happen, lady. That idiot Murke blew it the other night, but we can still get to you, just like we got to the Serpent."
"Who?" She rued the telltale tremor in her tone.
"Arianna Munson." He gave an evil-sounding chuckle. "That was our pet name for your dearly departed cousin."
There was a pause while the caller laughed as if he'd just told a great joke. "We eliminated her, and we can do the same to you. If you think you can run or hide, just ask the Sagebrush cops what happened to one of their wives a few years back." He chortled again then shouted, "Boom!"
Stifling a tiny shriek, Nicki immediately ended the call. Many of the specifics of the man's threats had already become a confusing muddle, but one fact stood out. The way he had barked boom left no doubt that she was dealing with a deadly enemy, one she should not try to defeat on her own.
Shaking, Nicki managed to punch in the phone number from the business card the police officers had left with her a few days before. She held her breath and counted the number of rings while she waited for someone to answer.
"Sagebrush Police Department. How may I help you?" a friendly sounding woman asked.
Nicki had intended to report the sinister warning calmly and with little emotion. When she heard the dispatcher's voice, however, she blurted, "I need help. Somebody just threatened to blow me up!"
"K-9 unit 463, your position?" the patrol radio broadcast.
Jackson Worth keyed the mic. "Sagebrush Boulevard and Main, headed north."
"We have a possible bomb threat at 3274 Lost Woods Road, apartment 210. See the woman."
"Affirmative. On my way. ETA approximately ten."
"Copy. Advise if you need backup."
Jackson flipped on his light bar and spun the wheel of the SUV. In the backseat, his black Labrador retriever, Titan, was panting rapidly, knowing they were about to go to work.
The big dog's enthusiasm made Jackson smile. They were so much a team it was as if Titan could read his mind. He could certainly tell what that dog was thinking. When they were on duty his canine partner was all business, even when he acted as though he was still battling the negative effects of their previous assignments in war zones.
"We both came through the fire okay then, didn't we, old boy?" Jackson said affectionately. "And we're still doing it."
Titan wiggled, but remained disciplined enough to stay seated and not fight the restraints that kept him safe when he wasn't riding in his portable kennel. Jackson hated to cage the tractable dog so he used every excuse not to.
They pulled to the curb in front of the apartment building on Lost Woods Road, and stopped. Jackson barely had a chance to climb out when a slim, young woman in jeans and a pink T-shirt raced over and grasped his sleeve. Her wide eyes were as blue as a summer sky, and her coppery-brown hair fell softly around her face, its silky length brushing her shoulders.
"Are you the party who placed the call for police assistance?" Jackson asked.
"Y-yes. I thought they'd send the same officers who were here before."
He politely touched the brim of his cap, then opened the rear door to leash Titan as he explained, "I'm Detective Worth, ma'am. You must have mentioned a bomb threat when you contacted the station or they wouldn't have sent us."
"I did. That's really the only thing I can remember clearly. The man who called me said I should ask about a policeman's wife getting blown up and then he hollered, 'Boom!' Just like that." She tried to catch her breath. "I didn't know what else to do so I called the number on the card those other officers left when they were here a few days ago."
"You did the right thing by waiting outside, Ms "
"Nicolette Johnson." She pointed to the upper story of the poorly maintained apartment building. "That's where I live. I was about to leave for work. After I got the threatening phone call, I didn't know what to do."
Jackson straightened with Titan at his side. "Okay. Let's start from the beginning. Tell me your version of the trouble you had here recently."
"Okay. A man broke into my apartment. I hid in the closet and called 911. When the other officers got here there was a fight and some shooting. That's when a police dog was wounded. It was awful."
Jackson nodded soberly. "I understand how upsetting that must have been. A fugitive named Derek Murke was arrested."
"Right. He was an ex-boyfriend of my late cousin, Arianna Munson. That's another reason I got scared. The man who called me today mentioned her. Only he called her a snake or something."
"You mean Serpent?"
Nicolette nodded, her eyes wide. "That was it. Serpent. He said that he had killed her."
"In those exact words?" Jackson knew that the Munson woman had died during a shoot-out with the police, so why would anyone claim murder as a threat? He had to make an effort to control his excitement. Any clues, no matter how obscure, that brought the department closer to finding the gang of killers and drug runners causing mayhem in and around Sagebrush were definitely top priority.
"I—I don't know. I'm sorry. I can't remember his exact words. I guess I was too scared."
Or up to your eyeballs in the whole criminal mess, he thought, keeping that notion to himself for the time being. "Suppose we get off the street and go check your apartment before we do anything else?"
"Okay." She was wringing her hands. "I feel silly causing such a fuss, but he sounded really serious about hurting me."
"Did he say why?"
"Yes. He seemed to think I was withholding some kind of information. Murke said the same thing when he held me hostage the other night."
"Of course not. If I did know something, I'd have told the officers who arrested him." She shivered. "He's still in jail, isn't he?"
"Yes, ma'am. And he will be for a long time if I'm any judge. You don't need to worry about him coming back to bother you."
"Oh, good! What about the wounded police dog? Is she going to make it?"
"Yes. The muscle in her hind leg was torn up pretty bad, but the vet says Lexi will be back on duty in due time."
"That's a relief."
Nicolette was reaching for the outer door to the complex when Jackson stopped her. "You'd better wait while we check the premises. I'll signal you to come and unlock your apartment when we're sure the halls are clean."
She seemed reluctant. "Okay, but."
"Just stand where we can still see each other," Jackson told her. "If Titan finds anything suspicious, he'll sit down by it, and then I'll call for backup and evacuate the building. If he doesn't react, you'll know everything is fine."
"What a beautiful, intelligent animal," she said softly as man and canine started to walk away.
Jackson watched Titan methodically check every corner and sniff at every door on the ground floor. Then they returned to Nicolette.
"Coast is clear down here. Where's your apartment?"
"Second floor, far end of the hall." She held up a key. "Do you need this?"
"Not yet. Let us take the lead. You can follow at a safe distance. When Titan is satisfied, you can come and unlock the door for us."
It would have given Jackson a better feeling if he'd had at least one more officer with him to guard the young woman, although in this case it seemed unnecessary. Whoever had tried to frighten her had succeeded, yes, but that wasn't proof of real danger. As long as Titan didn't alert, he'd be satisfied that the place was free of explosives. That was the main thing.
Finished with the second phase of the sweep, he paused at apartment number 210 and motioned to Ni-colette.
Watching her hurry to join them he was taken by her grace, her natural loveliness. So many women he'd known in the past seemed to think that painting themselves up was the key to beauty. As far as Jackson was concerned, a naturally pretty woman like Nicolette Johnson was far easier on the eyes.
You're on the job. You're not supposed to notice things like that, his conscience reminded him.
That made Jackson smile slightly. He might be working. And he was certainly not in the market for romance of any kind. But that did not mean he was unable to appreciate this kind of loveliness, any more than he could overlook a gorgeous Texas sunset or the shining, coppery coat on a special chestnut-colored mare out at his ranch.
His smile threatened to widen and he had to stifle it. He could just imagine what Ms. Nicolette Johnson would think of having her beauty compared to that of a fine horse, even if it was one of the nicest compliments he could have bestowed.
Nicki's hands were trembling so badly she had trouble fitting the key into the lock. When she was finally successful, she stepped back and let the dog and his handler enter while she waited by the door.
It was interesting seeing how they worked as a team with the dog leading the way and the man indicating when he wanted him to proceed to another room.
If the apartment hadn't been so small and sparsely furnished, she would have worried more when they both disappeared into the bedroom. Thankfully, there wasn't much to see and their inspection was complete in a matter of minutes.
"You can come in and relax now," Jackson called. "The place is clean. There's no danger."
Frowning, she poked her head in first. "You're sure?"
"Titan is," Jackson said with a smile. "You can trust him. I do."
"Okay." She took a few steps closer and eyed her tiny living room. "I suppose I'd notice if there was anything out of place. It's just that the last few days have been so awful. The landlord repaired my front door after the female police officer forced it, but I thought I'd never get the stains out of my rug from where that poor dog was wounded."
"I understand your concern." He waited for her to sit in the only easy chair before taking a place across from her on the slipcovered sofa. Titan lay at his feet. "Now that we can take it easy, how about starting from the beginning and telling me what's been going on?"
Sighing, she began. "I feel like I've just run a marathon instead of sleeping 'til noon. I work nights at The Truck Stop Diner out on Highway 20 so I don't get up very early." Her stomach fluttered, then settled, much to her relief. She didn't think it was this officer's business that she was expecting a baby so she kept that information to herself.
His eyes never left her face as he asked, "I take it that's your normal schedule. Are you a waitress?"
"No. I'm one of the shortorder cooks. I've worked that shift for the past year."
"How about neighbors? Any trouble with them lately?"
"Boyfriends? Anybody you may have argued with?"
Hadn't he heard a word she'd said? "I told you what the caller wanted. He knows—knew—my cousin, Arianna. That's what this is all about. Everybody thinks she told me some secret, but she didn't."
Nodding, he seemed to be trying to stare right into her mind because his gaze was unwavering. "I'd like to believe you, but there's a problem with that," Jackson said.
"A problem? What?"
"I heard your cousin's dying declaration with my own ears. She said, 'Cousin. Code. Danger.'"
"Now you sound like Murke!" Nicki jumped to her feet and began to pace the small room. "Arianna and I were related, yes, but we weren't close. Not anymore. There's no reason for her to even mention me."
"Does she have other cousins?"
Nicolette's shoulders slumped and she shook her head slowly. "Only one that I know of. I have a half sister somewhere back East. Since even I don't know where she is, I'm sure Arianna couldn't have meant her."
"So, that leaves you," he said calmly.
"I know, I know." She blinked back unshed tears, unwilling to let a stranger see how close she was to losing control of her emotions. That was another of the side effects of pregnancy, or so she had read, and she couldn't believe how often she'd fought mood swings lately.
"We'll need your half sister's name." He poised to write in a small notebook.
"Her maiden name was Mae Johnson. I heard she got married. I don't know what her last name is now."
"We'll track her down, just in case." He stood and pocketed the notebook and pen. "Are you sure there's nothing else you'd like to tell me?"
"No! Nothing. I don't know why nobody will believe I'm innocent."
"It doesn't matter what I do or don't believe, Ms. Johnson. I'm just doing my job."
"I know you are. Sorry."
He nodded stiffly. "No problem. I'll be glad to escort you to work if you want."
Nicki almost told him to go away, to leave her alone and stop treating her as though she was lying. If she hadn't still been so afraid she might have done so.
"Okay. I guess there's no sense sitting home brooding," she finally said with a muted sigh. "Besides, I can't afford to make my boss mad. When I had to call in sick the other night after Murke came gunning for me, Lou told me it had better not happen again or I'd be fired."
"In that case, we should get going. If you receive more strange calls or notice anything unusual, feel free to call us again. That's what we're here for."
"Thanks." She hesitated. "Would you mind walking me to my car and having the dog check it, too? Just in case."
"Sure. Be glad to."
Nicki grabbed her wallet off the end table and fisted her keys. They jingled, attracting the dog's attention and making him pant and wag his tail.
"Looks like your partner is ready to go for a ride."
"Titan is always ready for adventure." Jackson stepped to the side while Nicki opened the apartment door.
She halted abruptly, staring at the floor. Someone had tucked a small, fresh flower arrangement in the doorway so that she couldn't miss seeing it.
"Oh, how pretty. I love daisies."
Jackson frowned. "I thought you said you didn't have a boyfriend."
"I don't. Not since Bobby Lee got so mad and took off. Maybe he changed his mind." She bent and reached for the flowers.
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