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Grudgingly accepting her repetitive routine as a sure sign of impending spinsterhood, Jamie Danby still began every day the same waywith a two-mile run, a shower and clothes change, then a large cup of coffee, a banana-bran muffin and the front page of the Reeves County News.
The paper and the breakfast she picked up each morning on her way to work. When weather permitted, she walked.
It was only six blocks from her two-bedroom cottage to the Cantu Corner StoreDolores Cantu baked the muffins herself and saved the plumpest of the batch for Jamieand only another ten to Weldon Pediatrics, the small West Texas practice where Jamie had worked as office manager for six years.
Because she walked, she usually finished her coffee before she arrived. Her mother knew this, being as familiar with Jamie's daily routine as with her own.
On those days, Dr. Kate, as she was fondly referred to by the county's residents, would bring Jamie a refill, picking it up with her own breakfastan egg, potato, cheese and chorizo burrito, loaded and folded by Dolores's husband, Juanbefore making the drive five miles north to the Danby Veterinary Clinic.
This morning, Jamie was still outside the pediatrics office, a boxy building of brown siding with rock beds of succulents hugging the front, fitting her key into the door, when her mother's black Suburban pulled into the lot that would soon be teeming with bilingual mothers and children.
Jamie turned briefly, squinting against the sun as she watched Kate swing the SUV in a semicircle, the big vehicle's tires grinding on the gravel and creating a cloud of dust thick enough to gag a horse. Jamie's mother had alwaysbeen more focused on her destination than the journey of getting there, and it showed in the way she drove.
Once the clinic's door was unlocked, Jamie dropped her keys into the bulky hobo bag hanging from her shoulder, and walked to where her mother waited. She took the coffee Kate handed her, removed the top from her empty cup, and settled the new one into the old.
After a quick sip, she smiled and said, "Where would I be without you to look after me?"
The corner of Kate's mouth, her lips smooth and free of added color, quirked to one side. "Married with children?"
It was an ongoing joke between overprotective mother and a daughter who had been through hell and only by a miracle survived. Though could Jamie really call it surviving?
Ten years later she was still in hiding, existing not as her own woman, but as a creation of the horrific crime she'd witnessed when she'd been just nineteen years old.
Not having kids or a husband was, in her case, for the best. Should her memories of what she'd seen return, she didn't know if she'd be fit to live with, or if the remembered trauma would send her over the edge.
No, the future Jamie saw for herself was one spent alone. And, reallyshe was okay with it. Independence. Doing her own thing. A woman, an island unto herself. Seriously. How bad could spinsterhood be?
Another sip, and she thought back to what her mother had said. "I'm too spoiled for marriage and children. I like getting my own way all the time."
Kate shook her head, and reached for her own coffee where it steamed from the holder built into the Suburban's center console. "I'll cop to being a hovering nuisance, but the spoiling is your own doing. I was always too busy working and worrying to waste time seeing to your every whim."
Jamie nearly choked, but managed to swallow and come up laughing. "Are you kidding me? Where do you think I learned the art? You were the best teacher a girl could have." She raised her cardboard cup as proof. "You still are."
"Humph." Kate shook her head, fought a smile with a frown. "It would only be spoiling if I were stopping at the Cantus' just for you. But since I'm stopping for my own breakfast, it's not."
"You keep telling yourself that," Jamie said, lifting a hand to wave at Roni and Honoria, two of her cowork-ers who carpooled to Weldon from Alpine, and had just arrived in Honoria's sedan. "And I'll keep enjoying being single and an only child."
Kate arched a brow, studying her daughter's face as if the right angle might show her something new. "Sounds to me like you learned more from me than spoiling. You learned the art of self-deception as well."
Jamie tilted her cup against her mother's in a toast. They were two of a kind, gracefully accepting what life had served them. And though both would rather things had turned out differently, neither would give up the bond they now shared to make it so. "You have a busy day ahead of you?"
Kate nodded, pushing up the brim of the Danby Veterinary ball cap that covered the short wedge of her silvered brown hair. "The Barneses are bringing in their litter of shepherd pups. Two spays and six neuters."
"Which means you'd better get going."
"Which means I'd better get going. Besides" Kate angled her chin in the direction of the clinic "it looks like your staff has something on their mind."
Jamie followed the direction of her mother's gaze. Just inside the plate-glass entrance, Roni and Honoria stood facing each other, gesturing dramatically in Jamie's direction. She couldn't imagine what had them so animated this early. The day's first patient had yet to arrive.
She backed away from her mother's Suburban and hefted her bag more securely over her shoulder. "I'd better see what's going on. And you've got a dozen testicles calling your name. Thanks for the refill."
As her mother pulled out of the parking lot, leaving with a full-arm wave, Jamie headed for the front door.
She opened it to the sound of scurrying feet squeaking on the tiled floor as Honoria disappeared down the hallway toward the examination rooms.
Roni had obviously been in a similar hurry to take her seat at the front desk. Her headset was on crooked, and as Jamie came closer, she saw an insurance file open in front of the other woman. A tall blonde Laurel to Honoria's short dark Hardy, Roni stared at her computer monitor, doing her comical best to pretend she was hard at work.
Jamie blew the other woman's cover by reaching across the reception counter and turning the file right side up. "Might as well spill it now before the two of you explode. With Dr. Griñon here only half a day, I won't have time to clean up the mess if you do."
"Why are his half days the busiest of the week? And why don't we get to leave at noon, too?" Roni asked, forcing a light laugh as she situated the folder to her liking. She refused to meet Jamie's gaze. "I swear, Wednesdays should be relaxing, but they can really suck."
They could, but Jamie knew when Roni was grabbing for a distraction. The spots of color high on her cheeks told the tale. "You're changing the subject."
"Am I?" The color brightened. "I thought I was commenting on what you just said. You know, making conversation?"
"I'm not going away, so you might as well fess up." Jamie set her bag and her breakfast on the counter that rose in front of the desk, and her gaze on Roni, snapped open the single-section newspaper.
No sooner had she smoothed it out than Roni grabbed it, hiding it beneath the desk in her lap, ignoring the "gimme" motion Jamie made with her hand. "Honoria said she wanted to talk to you first thing."
"What about?" And more importantly, how much of Jamie's paper was salvageable, and how much was smeared on Roni's pink scrub pants?
"I don't know, I mean, I don't remember." Flustered, Roni stood and leaned across the counter to call out, "Honoria! Jamie's here!"
As if Roni's partner in crime wasn't already aware. Jamie sighed. "This better not be some early surprise birthday-party thing " Surely her mother would still be outside if it was, ready to come in and sing and blow noisemakers with the other two.
Roni met Jamie's gaze, frowning for a moment before her brown doe eyes went wide. "If there's a surprise party, I don't know anything about it, and this isn't it. Honoria! Get your butt out here now!"
Jamie sighed. Dear Roni, giving it away without admitting to a thing. Jamie's birthday wasn't for another two weeks, but she knew no one was going to let the momentous occasion of her turning thirty come and go quietly. That's how it was for old maids.
Honoria emerged from the file room, the morning's patient charts clutched to her ample chest. Ample was Jamie's word. Honoria considered herself short and dumpy and copy-paper plainbut then she'd never seen herself light up like the desert sky when her husband, Vicente, swept her away from the clinic for a private lunch.
Right now, the only thing bright about her were her eyes as her gaze bore into Roni's, broadcasting her disbelief that the blonde couldn't handle things on her own. Obviously, the two hadn't had time to get their story straight.
Whatever they were up to, it would have to wait. Jamie was hungry. "I'm going to the break room to eat my breakfast and read whatever part of the paper I can. Come get me when you've figured out how to tell me whatever it is you don't want me to know."
She lifted her bag by the shoulder strap, grabbed her coffee with the same hand, and reached with the other for the newspaper Roni still held captive.
Roni, having sat again, remained as silent and smiling as long-faced Laurel. Jamie turned to the Hardy of the duo. "I need my morning news. You know how I am without my morning news."
Honoria nodded, not a strand of her short wavy hair moving. Neither did her lips, not right away, and her eyes had gone flat. For the first time since walking into the comedy routine, Jamie was not amused. "What's going on, guys?"
"You don't want to see the newspaper today, mija." Honoria pulled a copy of the latest O Magazine from her stack of files. She worshipped Oprah like she would a goddess. "Read Oprah instead. She has good, positive, cheery things to say."
Meaning whatever was in the Reeves County News was a bad, negative downer. Jamie thought quickly. Her mother was fine. She had yet to see Dr. Griñon today, but if something had happened to the clinic's pediatrician, Laurel and Hardy here wouldn't be hiding it. And they were both here, so there was nothing going on with their families.
Families. Jamie's father. He hadn't been a part of her life for ten years. Not since she'd been nineteen, attending Texas Tech University at Junction, living with her parents on their struggling ranch between Junction and Sonora, and working on Interstate 10 as a waitress at the Sonora Nites Diner. It had been his choice to walk out of her life, to leave her and her mother to deal with the things he hadn't been strong enough to handle. That didn't mean bad news wouldn't hurt.
"Is it my dad?" She knew it wasn't. Her mother would have told her had something happened to Steven Monroe. Which left only that other thing.
Once more, Jamie set down her belongings and waited for the paper. This time, she wasn't taking no for an answer. Sharing a sad look with Honoria, Roni placed the folded and wrinkled sheets into Jamie's shaking hand.
There was only one thing that could have happened. Only one thing her friends would keep from her. Not because they didn't want her to knowshe would find out eventually no matter whatbut because of the wounds the news would reopen.
What her friends didn't understand was that the wounds had never really closed.
She crushed the paper, looked from Roni to Honoria, tears filling her eyes and blurring her vision, emotion lodged in her throat like a red rubber ball. "They found the last body, didn't they?"
Both pairs of brown eyes held distress and sympathy and fear. Jamie felt only one of the three. Her hands continued to tremble, her stomach twisted and gripped. Her friends nodded, first one, then the other, tears rolling down Honoria's cheeks as Roni choked back a sob.
Neither woman had known Jamie at the time of the murdersshe and her mother had moved to Weldon not long afterand no one other than Jamie's parents and the authorities involved knew the details of that night.
Not even the families of the other victimsthe victims who had died, and the one who had been dragged from the diner against his will. Jamie had been a victim, too, but that fact seemed lost on those left behind.
They'd demanded answers, had called her a liar, a coward, when the truth was she'd had no answers to give. She knew their lashing out was a coping mechanism; it gave them something to do when they felt so helpless. They wanted to know why she had been the one to live instead of their children, their siblings, their spouse. But most of all they wanted to know why she couldn't remember enough of that night to help authorities catch the person who'd destroyed so many lives.
She breathed deeply, tasted bile at the back of her throat and spread the newspaper open to the headline on the front page.
FIFTH VICTIM OF SONORA NITES DINER MURDERS IDENTIFIED Remains discovered in the Davis Mountains State Park this past March have, through dental records, been positively identified as belonging to Kass Duren, the hostage taken at gunpoint from the Sonora Nites Diner ten years ago following the after-hours robbery and shooting spree that left all but one employee dead.
Jamie had been that one employee. She stopped reading and thought back, trying to remember what she'd heard about the discovery of a body. Nothing came to mind. Either she'd blocked it out, or she'd read nothing about the find. The former seemed likely, but still
Kass Duren. The cook. His wife's name was Helen. He'd been what he'd called peasant stock. Sturdy and solid. Descended from potato farmers from the old country. Jamie, at nineteen, had never asked which one.
"I remember so little about it." Her voice came out soft, words she heard in her mind more than with her ears. "Colors, sounds. Flashes of light. It's all one big mess. Like sharp bursts or abstract pieces." She closed her eyes, felt the tingle of perspiration bite at her skin. "They had to tell me that Kass had been taken away."
She looked back at her closest friends, the only two people with whom she had trusted her story when she could no longer hold it in, knowing they would never betray her, or reveal the truth of her past. Both were silent, pale. And when her cell phone played like a country-western band in her bag, they both jumped along with her. She dug it out, glancing at the number on the screen.