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Could that be her? Naw. Too much of a coincidence.
Junior justice department attorney Colt Chance stepped out of hiding and into a patch of bright sunlight filtering down onto filthy sidewalks. He squinted, turning his gaze in her direction. The young woman was walking down the other side of the street in the middle of a crowd and he needed a better look.
Just yesterday his brother had faxed a computerized, ageenhanced photo of their little sister, Cami, gone since the age of four. And the woman he'd just seen seemed a perfect match to that photo. She'd stood out in the middle of the group of Mexican-Americans who had appeared to be traveling together down the busy barrio sidewalk. Her lighter skin color and more updated clothing made him take notice.
Forgetting for the moment that he was supposed to be in the middle of a three-agency government sting, he chased the moving tangle of people down the blockthough his orders had been to stay put.
His family had searched for any sign of their kidnapped baby sister in the Southern California area for the past twenty-odd years. And if this could possibly be her, Colt refused to miss his opportunity to find out.
Not that he had seen that much of the rest of his family in too many years to count. But he still cared about them and stayed in contact. His ugly hometown memories were what had kept him away from any reunions. He hated the tiny town of Chance, Texas, and the Bar-C Ranch, and he despised everything they reminded him of and stood for.
But getting a lead on Cami might go a long way toward easing the many mysteries still lingering in his mind about his childhood.
He dashed down the street, heedless of the very real confrontation about to take place. At that moment Manuel Villegro, the federal prosecutor that the justice department secretly had been keeping under surveillance for many months now, pulled his Hummer up to the alley entrance and stopped right next to their informant. Colt's unit had designed this sting to gather evidence proving Villegro had been taking bribesand it was going down now.
Paying little attention, Colt turned the corner, trying to keep one eye on the crowd ahead and one eye on the action behind him. But when he looked up, the group of people he'd been chasing had evaporated. The barrio's streets were suddenly deserted.
Hesitating where he stood and wondering what had changed, he spotted two pickups loaded with men moving ominously in his direction. He got a better look, taking note that the men appeared dangerous and carried long-barreled guns. He figured they must belong to the international arms cartel that had been allegedly bribing Villegro.
Realizing a little late that the inter-agency's sting had probably become a double cross, Colt turned on his heels and started running back toward the other members of his team who'd been waiting in the shadows. The pickups' engines gunned right behind him.
He wouldn't make it back in time.
"Abort the operation," he shouted as he ran and waved his arms above his head. "Get off the street now. Move. Move."
He never heard the first sound of gunfire when the bullets struck him in the back. But pain became his entire focus as he tried to take a few more steps.
The next thing he knew rounds from illegal weapons started echoing off buildings everywhere and the stench of gunpowder irritated his nostrils. A smoky haze settled over the entire scene, making it tough to see who was who. Several bullets found their marks then and took him to his knees.
Damn. He'd screwed up. Lost his chance.
His last thought, before everything went black, was now he might never find out what had happened to his baby sister.
Colt woke up from the nightmare soaked in sweat and breathing hard. The same way he came awake every time he'd suffered through that damned old dream.
"You okay, little brother?" Sam, his eldest brother, leaned over him, a look of deep concern spreading across his face.
God, how he hated this. Hated being thought of as an invalid. Hated being forced to come back to his home-townto the Bar-C Ranch.
The early-morning sun beat down against the wooden porch where he sat, giving everything a false golden hue.
"Just great." Colt couldn't avoid a grimace as he slowly straightened up in the rocker and then came to his unsteady feet beside his eldest brother.
"That same nightmare again?"
"Yeah," he admitted. Only it wasn't a nightmare. He'd lived through every second of that whole nasty scenario six long months ago.
"You sleep in that chair all night?" Sam studied him with serious intent. "Something the matter with the perfectly good king-size bed inside this old mobile home? Travis and I worked our butts off stuffing the danged thing into the place and setting it up alongside Mama's old office furniture."
"I haven't been sitting in the chair for long," he answered reluctantly. "And there's nothing wrong with the bed. I woke up early, came out for air and fell asleep again waiting for sunrise." Only a slight exaggeration. He'd been out here on the porch since 3:00 a.m.
Sam gingerly sat on the porch's top step and gazed at the sunrise. "We're worried about you. Living out here on the range in this temporary mobile Mama used to use as an office is crazy. And you're not entirely healed yetonly one month out of the rehab hospital. It's not right."
"Grace sent you." It wasn't a question. Colt knew who worried the most in his brother's family.
Sam huffed under his breath. "I'm every bit as worried as my wife is. Maybe more. I know how it feels to be suspended from your job.
"What the hell are you doing, Colt? Why not work harder at getting well so you can go back and fight for your job?"
"I'm not sure I want my job back." Well, damn. That was the first time he'd admitted such a thing out loud.
He knew their conversation was far from over, so he folded up his tall frame and sat next to Sam. Figuring his admission would trigger an interrogation, he rested his elbows on his knees and waited.
It didn't take his eldest brother long. "No? Then what do you want?"
May as well say it. "Answers. I want to know what happened to Cami. And I intend to find out who really killed Mama." There was one more thing he'd like answers about, too. But Colt wasn't quite ready to admit that one yet.
"Well, yeah." Sam turned his head, staring at him with another thousand questions in his eyes. "The rest of us want those kinds of answers, too. Gage perpetually searches the internet for any word on Cami. And I've combed that barrio where you think you spotted her every time Grace and I take the kids out to Southern California to visit her grandmother. We all want the same things, so what's different now?"
"Now is different because I intend to prove that our father did not kill our mother. Once and for all, I want to clear his name."
Sam's lips tipped up at the edges like he was about to smile, but he stayed sober and thoughtful enough to say, "Man, that's a real cold case. Almost twenty years ago. Going to be tough tracking down any new evidence."
Thank goodness Sam refrained from mentioning the fact that Colt was not the most skillfully trained investigator in the family. But if desire and heart counted for anything, Colt would get the job done where others may have failed.
"You don't believe Daddy did it, do you?"
Sam rubbed at his chin for a moment. "Naw. I don't guess any of us thinks that. But do you have any other suspects in mind?"
Colt knew what his brother was asking. Nearly twenty years ago the Chance County sheriff had rushed through their mother's murder investigation, convicted their father and sent him off to die in prison. And every one of the Chance boys had wondered about his true motives thenand now.
"Austin McCord still sheriff in this county?" he asked by way of answering Sam's question.
"Yeah, he is. Just older. And even pricklier, if that's possible. Gonna be tough getting any information from him."
"Don't think I'll be asking him for info anytime soon." Colt intended to begin in a much more indirect way rather than by head-on assault. "There're plenty of people from back in those days still living in Chance that I can interview, aren't there?"
"Some. But you'll still need to see the old files, if any of them still exist. It'll be important to take a look at the forensics done at the time and to read the sheriff's interviews. Time dims memories. Eventually you'll have to go through the sheriff to look at whatever he kept."
The idea actually brought a smile to Colt's lips. "Eventually. Maybe. In the meantime, I have a few ideas on how to get information that don't include asking."
Sam got to his feet and drilled him with a steely stare. "None of Chance County's files from that long ago were ever put on computer. So I'm guessing I don't want to know what else you have in mind, do I?"
"Probably not, big brother." Colt stood, too, and even managed a half smile. "So, tell Grace I'm just fine. I'm healing nicely and plenty happy about not having anyone around to bug me."
"I'll tell her. But look, we're actually flying to California with the kids tomorrow and staying with Grace's grandmother for a couple of weeks. Why don't you move to our house while we're gone?"
Sam and Grace and their two little ones were living in the old Chance homestead, where the family had been raised. And where their mother had died. They'd remodeled the old place some, but as far as Colt was concerned the ghosts remained.
"I don't think "
"Tell you what, I'll leave you my key and the security code. You'll be a heck of a lot more comfortable at the house than you are here. And the hands will be available to cook and clean. No one will bother you. I promise."
When Colt remained unconvinced and let it show, Sam added, "I haven't had time to go through all of Mama and Daddy's papers since we moved in. Daddy's old combination library and office is still just like he left it. Maybe you can find something to help in your investigation there."
Sam screwed up his mouth and then went on, "And everything you find in our house will be obtained legally."
Colt held in the grin and nodded. "Maybe."
But meanwhile he intended to work his own version of an investigation. Doing it legally was the least of his worries.
Deputy Lacie McCord stretched and yawned as she left the Chance County sheriff's station for the night, heading out across the nearly empty parking lot toward her car. She'd just pulled a double shift, thanks to the Yardley boy who'd started a fire in his neighbor's barn. And she was filthy and exhausted.
She didn't really mind doing the extra duty. The sheriff's staff and volunteer fire department both being short-handed was the reason she'd managed to snag this position in the first place. Her stepfather, the sheriff, would never have hired her had he not been desperate. The two of them hadn't spoken since the day she'd fled town right after high school. Not until she'd applied for the job.
He didn't hide the fact that he'd never much cared for her, and the feeling was mutual. But hating her stepfather with a passion that bordered on obsession hadn't stopped her from wanting to work for him.
Too many questions remained unanswered in Lacie's mind to stay away from Chance forever. And when her mother was committed to a nursing home after a diagnosis of Alzheimer's and the deputy's job happened to come up at the same time, she'd finally accepted that the only way to live a full life would be to return home and find her answers.
Settling into her ancient Subaru and belting in, she turned up her nose at the way the interior smelled. Like barbecue brisket and garden mulch. Not such a pleasant scent, but there wasn't much she could do about it.
Next to her car, the sheriff's department pickup she'd used on patrol today sat parked and locked for the night. It was a strong temptation to change over to the better-smelling county-owned vehicle for the ride home. Chance County only employed four deputies and three part-time dispatchers, and all of them but her drove county vehicles to and from work.
But to her mind, it just didn't seem right for the sheriff's stepdaughter to drive a county car for personal use. What would the townspeople think?
If she had to work for the bastard, which it seemed at least temporarily she did, no one would have a reason to complain about nepotism. Not if she had something to say about it.
She cranked the key while staring out the bug-ridden windshield toward the long, low brick building housing the sheriff's department. When she'd come back to town to take the deputy's job, she'd learned the "new" building had been erected five years ago. Constructed courtesy of Travis Chance, the head of the Bar-C and owner of much of the land in Chance County. His donation, in addition to a massive fundraiser the town had put together, gave them enough money to modernize the whole sheriff's department.
Computers and air-conditioning and brand-new patrol trucks. Chance County had updated their sheriff's office as if it were a department as large as one in the city of Houston. She knew about one of those, as she'd been employed there for the past few years before coming here.
Her Subaru wheezed, hesitated and finally rumbled to life. But still she sat and stared. Something seemed off.
Only Louanna, the part-time dispatcher, should be in the building at this hour. Yet a light had just gone out in one of the storage rooms in back. If it was Louanna moving around back there, that would mean she wasn't doing her duty at the front desk. Didn't sound like the woman.
Lacie tried to focus on the outside perimeter of the building, though deep pitch-darkness everywhere but at the front kept her from seeing too clearly. Was that something, or someone, moving through the shadows in back?
On pure instinct, her right hand went to the gun at her hip. Now she felt sure something was wrong.
Leaving her car running in Neutral, she quietly stepped out and headed across the parking lot toward the rear of the building. If this was an employee coming back to retrieve something they'd left at work, she would apologize and feel foolish.
But if this were someone breaking in
Breaking into the sheriff's offices? Who would be stupid enough or drunk enough to do anything like that? And why?
Adjusting her eyes to the low light coming from the stars and half-moon, Lacie bent at the waist to make herself a smaller target and started through the sage and brush surrounding the building. She heard a slight rustling, and then footsteps against the hard, packed ground. Finally she saw the silhouette of a man, creeping along the edge of the building.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Guess the perpetrator took that as a rhetorical question, because he took off running as if he'd been shot.
Ah, hell. After a day of physical strain doing her job, now she was forced to chase down an intruder?
From what she could see, he was a big guy. But with a lean build. Just her luck, he'd probably be a runner.
"Stop!" Another seemingly useless statement, as he never slowed down. So she set off to catch him across the darkened fields.