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Patricia Devlin, Trish to her friends, felt edgy, edgy enough to come to the sheriff's office. A pretty woman of about thirty, with auburn hair and moss-green eyes, she drew a lot of male attention and spurned all of it. She had and kept her secrets. Only children and fools did otherwise.
Gage Dalton welcomed her warmly in his back office at the Conard County Sheriff's Department. With his burn-scarred face and tortured past, he'd once earned the nickname in the county of "Hell's Own Archangel." Nobody thought of him that way anymore. Today he was the "new sheriff," a moniker that would probably take years to erase after he'd replaced the town's longtime and well-beloved sheriff, who'd retired a few years ago. But it was "Hell's Own Archangel" Trish was here to see. The man Gage had once been, maybe, would understand.
"Hey, Trish," he said when he saw her at his office door. He smiled and waved her in. "What can we do for you this morning?"
Trish, dressed in the local uniform of jeans, cowboy boots and a light jacket over her shirt, returned his smile and slid into the creaky old wood chair. She wasn't at all sure she was doing the right thing. "Well, I'm not sure you can do anything, Gage. I'm probably just being paranoid."
He leaned forward a bit to rest his arms on the desk. "I never ignore paranoia." His tone was encouraging.
"Yeah, but I don't like to give in to it."
"Apparently, something is bothering you enough to come here, so just tell me. We'll figure out how to handle it."
She hesitated, biting her lower lip. "I don't want to get anyone into trouble."
"I doubt you'll get anyone into trouble who doesn't deserve it. What's going on?"
His logic made her smile again, uncomfortable as she was. Once more she hesitated, reconsidering, but then reminded herself this was the whole reason she'd come here: to get information so she could put this matter out of her mind. She had enough on her plate already without worrying about some stranger who was acting a little…odd.
"Well, there's this guy who comes and sits in the park across from my house every night at one in the morning. At first I just thought he was resting there, but… " Again a moment of hesitation. It sounded so stupid when she said it out loud, but she forced the words out, anyway. "He sits in the same bench every night, Gage, and it's like he's staring straight at my house. He just sits there and stares. Not at my windows or anything specific that I can tell. Just at the house. Then about twenty minutes later, he gets up and walks away."
Gage frowned slightly.
"I know, I know," Trish said quickly. "Public park and all that. And he limps so badly, he's probably just resting. And if he was any threat, why tip his hand by doing it every night?"
Gage held up a hand. "Hold on. Every night?"
"Since I first noticed him. I mean, honestly, I thought it was nothing, but when it kept happening night after night… well, finally I started checking to see if he's there. He is, every night." She sighed and looked down at her hands, feeling even more awkward now that she'd framed her concern out loud. "It's probably nothing. I'm making too much of it."
Gage shook his head. "You're not. You have every reason to feel uneasy. And you're not the only one who has noticed this guy, although I hadn't heard before that he's going to the park."
Trish's curiosity rose. "What does he do?"
"He's staying at the motel. Walks into town every night at the same time, gets a drink at Mahoney's and leaves. It's enough to get a few people speculating, but not enough to get anyone wound up. But this park thing… You're sure he's looking at your house?"
"It could be coincidence. The bench is right across the street. But it's like…" She spread her hands, trying to find the right words. "He never looks around. Never looks away. Just right at my house. Now maybe I'm overreacting from all the stress at work lately. I haven't been sleeping very well, which is why I'm looking out my window at that hour. But if he'd just turn to look in another direction I wouldn't even be worrying about it." Which might not be exactly true, but she'd be worrying a whole lot less.
Gage nodded."Okay, I'm going to check him out. We' ll run a wants and warrants on him, a background check, find out what's going on. Trust me, if there's anything squir-rely, we'll uncover it. Should I call you at work?"
"Try my cell." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small wallet, withdrawing a business card. She passed it to him. "I'm taking a few days of vacation time to try to relax."
Gage smiled. "I could use a few of those myself. Emma wants to take a cruise, but I have trouble imagining being confined to a boat for a week."
Trish laughed. "I hear they come into a port every other day. You'd survive."
He winked. "What Emma wants, Emma gets."
She knew full well Emma would get her cruise, because Gage would lay the world at her feet if he could, and not because she'd give him a hard time. She laughed, anyway, knowing that's what he wanted to see.
After she left the office, she stood on the sundrenched street, feeling the kiss of autumn, that amazingly wonderful sensation of crisp air and warm sun that always made her glad to be alive.
Even if she was worried to death about work.
With a supreme effort of will, she forced her job from her mind. She'd taken these few days to get away from that, and she refused to spend her vacation time worrying about her work problems.
The problem, however, was that in taking her vacation on impulse like this, she'd made no plans about how to spend her time, hadn't made arrangements with her friends to take off at the same time so they could go backpacking or drive into a bigger town for some shows and shopping.
A planner by nature, she laughed at herself now for not having thought this through, then decided she'd practice winging it. Her friends often teased that she wasn't happy unless her life was laid out two weeks ahead in her datebook. The criticism might be a little on the extreme side, but there was more than a kernel of truth to it.
So, here she stood, and decided there was no time like now to try making up her day as she went, first with a trip to the bookstore down the street. It would be a perfect day, she decided, to curl up with a novel in her backyard. A little chilly, but that's what she had the clay fireplace out back for. She could light it, drink hot chocolate and coffee, and enjoy the luxury of uninterrupted reading until the sun sank too low.
Feeling her spirits lift, she hurried down the street to the bookstore, a tiny, musty and wonderful place full of new and used books that covered the entire spectrum. A fictional world was just what she needed right now. Vampires, maybe, or ghosts and ghoulies. Something so far away from everyday that she could truly escape.
Bea's Books seemed to be open all the time, but maybe that was because Bea lived above her store and loved books more than anything in the world. She could sit in a cozy corner of her shop with a mug of coffee and delve into new arrivals by the hour, distracted only when she had a customer. On weekends the place was usually full, but on weekdays it was a place where you could sit and read, and Bea never pressed you to buy the book first.
But today Trish was on a mission, and the weather was too beautiful to want to spend it inside. She chatted for a few minutes with Bea, who directed her to a stack of recent acquisitions that hadn't yet been shelved. In ten minutes Trish found three books that appealed to her and paid for them.
Outside she inhaled a deep breath of the fresh air and began her walk home, books tucked under her arm. It was such a perfect day, she thought. Exactly the kind of day she had returned to Conard County for, that and being able to walk almost everywhere she needed to go. Not until she'd moved away to go to college and then to take a job with a big accounting firm had she realized how much growing up here had taught her to yearn for the outdoors and open space.
People she passed on the street, even those she didn't know except by sight, all nodded and smiled. Many said hello. The breeze ruffled the leaves, making them whisper of approaching winter even as they brightened with autumn color. Not colors like she had seen in the northeastern part of the country, but still colors.
The breeze seemed to push gently at her back, hurrying her along the sidewalk toward her house. Gradually a spring came into her step, and she started smiling about nothing at all. It just felt good to be alive.
That mood lasted until she neared her house and saw the park bench where the stranger sat every night. Immediately the nervous feeling returned, much as she had tried to minimize it, both in her own mind and when she had spoken to the sheriff. Deep inside somewhere, she didn't really believe the stranger's presence was an accident.
Even though he wasn't there now and probably wouldn't be back until late that night, her sense of pleasure in the day evaporated. Maybe she shouldn't sit outside, just in case. Maybe she should stay inside until Gage told her there was no threat at all.
Maybe she was nuts, but she ought to take just a few reasonable precautions. After all, she'd been growing increasingly uneasy even before the stranger's appearance. And sometimes, she had learned, it paid to listen to your intuition.
In the end, she decided not to sit out back in her own yard, but rather to wait inside for news. Opening a window in the living room to allow fresh air to enter was the only compromise she would make.
Gage paid her a personal call that evening just after dusk. "Sorry it took so long to get back to you, but we had to do an intensive search."
She invited him in and offered him coffee. "What do you mean?"
"I'd love coffee. Then we'll talk."
Nodding, she went to get that mug of coffee for him and refreshed her own mug. When he'd stepped through the door, she'd felt the cold clinging to him, a reminder that days were growing short, and as they shortened the winter chill approached, especially at night.
She joined Gage on the couch and wrapped her hands around her mug, looking at him. "So it's nothing?"
"I can't say for sure at this point. I couldn't find out anything at all about him. No criminal record, period. No outstanding traffic warrants. No driver's license record at all, in fact. No real estate holdings here in Wyoming, and he wasn't born here. He pays cash in advance at the La-Z-Rest. Came to town about a month ago and didn't use a credit card. Now before you get nervous, none of that means anything bad. Lots of ordinary citizens come up blank on a background check."
Relief started to creep through her, then she had a thought. "Nothing? You couldn't find anything? I mean, you're cops. You should have been able to search in ways I couldn't."
"You'd think." He hesitated, sipped his coffee, then set the mug on a coaster on the end table. "But there are limits on where and how I can search without a warrant or a subpoena, and I don't have probable cause for either. I'm sure he has bank records, but I wouldn't know where to look for them. There's a half dozen people with similar names in the credit agencies, but none of them near his age."
"So he's using a phony name?"
He shook his head. "Look, there are people who live off the grid, as they say. People who don't own anything and haven't done anything that would pop up on a background check. Some just don't like using credit. Some want to be anonymous."
"I can't imagine a good reason for that."
"That's the thing. Like I said, not everyone who chooses to live that way is necessarily a bad guy. You see the problem?"
She hesitated, aware that her nerves had begun to coil again. "I don't like this."
He sighed, rubbed his hands together as if to warm them, then reached for his mug again. "How nervous are you, Trish? How far do you want me to go with this? Because there are limits to what I can legally do."
She couldn't find a reasoned answer, which surprised her. Generally speaking, she was a reasonable person.
"What's got you so nervous? Apart from the fact that this guy sits in the park every night for a little while?"
She lifted her brows. "What do you mean?"
"I've known you long enough to know that you don't shake easily. Yeah, the guy sitting out there every night might get your attention, and you'd watch him, but you wouldn't worry about him."
"Maybe I wouldn't." She hesitated, then finally said, "I've got a little thing going on at work. I think I found that some product is missing, but I'm not a hundred percent sure. So I notified the CFO about it, but I haven't gotten an answer yet. And I'm wondering if I messed up."
"Messed up how?"
"Well," she admitted with a wry smile, "I'm the chief accountant. If it turns out I did my numbers wrong, I'm likely to be the ex-chief accountant."
"Ahh." He took a deep drink of his coffee, then shook his head. "Relax, Trish. Nobody gets fired for one mistake."
"Yeah, maybe." And he was probably right. She should just stop worrying, check her office e-mail before she turned in for the night in case the CFO replied, and then put it out of her mind.
But part of what made her such a good accountant was her accuracy, and sitting around wondering if she'd made a mistake, no matter how many times she had re-checked her numbers, made her feel utterly unsettled.
And that, she decided, was the only reason she'd even gotten paranoid about the guy sitting in the park. She was just in a paranoid mood to begin with. "Sorry I put you to so much trouble, Gage."
He shook his head. "No trouble at all, Trish. Tell you what I can do."
"I can do a stop and identify. Ask for his ID. Maybe we can get a little more info on the guy. But that's all I can do unless he does something he shouldn't."