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A lean, rangy man with a face marked by weather and strain, his gray eyes pierced whatever he looked at and nearly matched the early gray at his temples. He looked as if he might have been chiseled out of the granite of the Wyoming mountains. He had one of those faces that made guessing his age nearly impossible, yet few would have believed he was only thirty-five.
He'd spent the day at the crime scene, gathering the kind of information a photograph or a report might overlook: angles of attack, best vantage points, surrounding cover. The little and big things that could answer the question: why did this happen here and not elsewhere? Given the relative isolation of the wooded murder scene, that question had gained a lot of importance.
Gage returned to the office, looking as tired as any man who'd spent the day looking at two partially decomposed bodies while marching up and down rocky ground looking for footprints and cartridge casings. Maybe worse than tired, because Gage lived his life in constant pain, the only outward signs of which were his limp and the burn scar on his cheek and neck.
"Nate's going to come in tomorrow," Gage said.
"Good," Adrian answered. Nate Tate was the former sheriff of Conard County. He'd retired a couple of years ago to be succeeded by Gage Dalton, a man still referred to as "the new sheriff." But Adrian had worked more oftenwith Nate over the years than he had with Gage, so he knew the man's mettle and doubted anyone on the planet knew this county better. If anybody in Conard County had a screw loose, Nate would know who it was and would probably even have the guy's phone number memorized. A good starting place in a case like this.
Gage settled in his chair, a pillow behind his back, reflexive pain showing only in a minute tightening around his dark eyes. "Okay," he said, "we're getting nowhere fast. We should probably call it a night."
"Probably." Oddly, however, Adrian felt reluctant to return to the peace of his ranch. The place he had chosen to be his hermitage. His fortress.
"I don't get it," he said. "Was it a hate killing? It looks like it. The way these guys were arranged...."
Gage winced again, this time at the thought. "I don't want a Matthew Shepard thing in this county."
"Who does? But it doesn't feel right anyway. You saw them. Something about it keeps nagging at me. Misdirection. That's what I'm thinking."
Gage nodded, pulling a couple of the crime scene photos toward him. "I guess we won't know for sure until we find out who they are."
Any identifiable items had been removed. Adrian stared at a photo, thinking. "If it was a hate crime, wouldn't they want us to know who the vics are?"
"You're talking about a rational mind, Adrian."
"Even neo-Nazis can be rational. They're just wrong."
At that a faint smile flickered over Gage's face. "Maybe."
"Well, the statement gets kind of overlooked if it takes us weeks to find out who these guys are. By then the news will have moved on."
"Don't mention the news. The major media are going to crawl all over us tomorrow." Gage heaved a resigned sigh.
"Too bad," Adrian said, "that these guys couldn't have been on state forest land."
"Yeah. Then we could have called in your old buddies."
Adrian had retired on disability from the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation. He would have loved to turn all of this over to them.
Or maybe not. Despite himself, his interest was piqued.
"Too bad," Gage said, "it didn't happen in Denver. Anywhere but my county."
At the soft voice both men looked up to see Emma Dalton, Gage's wife, standing in the doorway. The years had dissolved none of her beauty, and to Gage she still appeared to be the redheaded, green-eyed goddess he'd fallen in love with in the darkest time of both their lives. "Have you got time to listen to a witness?"
"Witness to what?"
"The murders. Kerry Tomlinson. You remember her. She had a vision about it."
The two men looked at each other, neither of them knowing what to make of this announcement. It was almost as if they had just ridden over the hump in a roller coaster, the word witness starting to fill them with excitement just as the word vision sent them plunging. But there was Emma, a paragon if ever there was one, asking them to listen.
Gage cleared his throat. "I didn't know Kerry was a psychic."
"She's not." Emma stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. She smelled like rose water and the library, and a touch of cold autumn air. "But she's very scared and very frightened, and she can't shake the images out of her mind. So you are going to listen to her and reassure her. If she's got information you can use, good. If not you can at least put her mind to rest about whether she's really seeing the murder victims."
Gage and Adrian exchanged looks again. To Adrian it seemed both of them felt the same reluctance.
"Okay," Gage answered after a moment. "But we're not shrinks. Let me just put all this stuff out of sight."
Emma glanced down and her lips tightened. "Please do," she said. "I don't need to look at that, either. Let me get her."
Emma hovered over her like a guardian angel, Kerry thought as they walked down the hall to the sheriff's office. The sense of having an ally in this craziness reassured her almost as much as the sense of an unseen presence just behind her shoulder disturbed her. Emma might spread her metaphoric wings, but those wings seemed unable to hold back the push from the invisible presence.
This is insane.
But insane or not, she had the strong feeling that if she didn't spit out these images, they were going to plague her forever.
She entered Gage's office tentatively, giving him a small, weak smile. Then she saw the other man. Tall, rugged-looking, dark hair with a dash of gray at the temples. Adrian Goddard. What was he doing here?
At that instant she almost turned and ran. Being crazy was one thing. Announcing it to a whole bunch of people, one of them almost a stranger, was entirely another. His gray eyes flicked over her, as full of doubt as any atheist's when inside a church.
"I can't do this!" The words burst from her and she started to turn, but Emma gently caught her arm.
"You can," Emma said firmly. "None of us know what happened to you this morning. Nobody can say whether it was something random occurring because of the news you heard, or whether you really saw something. But one thing I do know, Kerry. You're not crazy, and if there's even a slender hope that you might have picked up on something useful, you owe it to the victims to tell Gage."
Kerry closed her eyes a moment, felt again the pressure pushing her forward, thought she almost heard a whisper in her ear. "Okay," she said, squaring her shoulders. "Maybe if I tell you all, I can forget about it, which would be a blessing."
She took one of the two chairs facing the desk, refusing to look at Adrian Goddard. Right now she needed his apparent dubiousness as much as she needed another vision. Gage merely looked inquiring. And kind.
"It's okay, Kerry," he said. "Before this week is out we'll have had a handful of people claim to have committed these murders even though they had nothing to do with them, and a thousand useless tips. And we have no leads at this point. So a vision of any kind is welcome, okay?"
Kerry nodded slowly, trying to find the persona that could control a classroom full of rowdy teens, and leave behind the disturbed woman she had become today.
"Okay," she said. "Okay." But it was going to be one of the hardest things she'd ever done.
Adrian leaned back in his chair, folding his hands on his flat stomach, trying to appear impassive. His gaze bored into Kerry Tomlinson, though. A schoolteacher with visions. He'd noticed her around, of course. You couldn't live in Conard County for long without noticing just about everyone.
She was tiny, almost frail-looking, with long dark hair caught in a clip at the nape of her neck. Her dark eyes were large in her face, her cheekbones high and her unpainted lips invitingly shaped. Pretty, but able to pass unnoticed if she chose. A quiet prettiness, the kind that for the right person could easily turn into brilliant beauty. A man would have to approach carefully, slowly, and gently, to bring that out, but once he did...
Catching himself, Adrian almost shook his head to bring his attention back to what she was saying.
"It's hard to explain," she said, looking at Gage. "I was just sitting there waiting for my breakfast to finish cooking..." She trailed off and looked down at her knotted hands.
"Start wherever you want," Gage said gently. "You don't have to get right to the vision."
That seemed to reassure her. Her head lifted, and Adrian now saw the woman who taught for a living, the woman who could handle rooms full of teenagers.
"All right," she said, her voice taking on a somewhat stronger timbre. "When I was in my senior year in college, we were driving back to school after the holidays when the car skidded on ice and went over a cliff. My two friends died. Probably the only reason I'm still here is that I was in the backseat, and an EMT saw us go off the road."
Gage nodded, didn't ask her how this was related. Just let her tell her story her own way, which was often the best way.
"Anyway," Kerry continued, "I died twice."
In spite of himself, Adrian sat up a little straighter. Gage leaned forward and repeated, "Twice?"
Kerry nodded. "That's what they tell me. I was clinically dead twice before they managed to stabilize me. I'm lucky not to have suffered major brain damage."
"I would say so!" Gage agreed heartily.
A faint smile flickered over Kerry's face. "I'll spare you the tale about going into the light. My near-death experience was pretty much the same as everyone's you hear about. I know it was real. I don't need to convince anyone else."
Gage nodded. Adrian sat frozen. He would have liked to demand the details for himself, but held on to his desire. Another time. A better time.
"Anyway," Kerry said, "I recovered, I finished school, I came back here to teach. You all know the rest. I've been teaching here for eight years now," she added to Adrian, as if he might not know. "But I changed after the accident."
"Most people do," Emma said comfortingly. She would know. A senseless, brutal crime had once torn her life apart.
Kerry looked at her and nodded gratefully. "Anyway," she continued, returning her attention to Gage, "everything checked out, not even any brain damage that they could find. I was lucky. I was blessed."
Gage murmured agreement. Adrian could tell that Kerry didn't really feel blessed and suspected some survivor guilt. She'd be less than human if she didn't feel it.
Kerry drew a deep breath, clearly ready to plunge in to the hard part. "I sometimes get these feelings. I call them my quirks. But sometimes I know things that are going to happen. Or I know things that happen elsewhere that I only hear about later. I usually shake them off. Coincidence. Probably the result of some minor brain damage."
Gage nodded. "Possibly."
"But this morning..." Kerry hesitated. Finally she closed her eyes, as if to pretend she were alone, and said, "I heard the news announcement and then everything just shifted. In an instant I was somewhere else and the things I saw were all jumbled."
Gage leaned forward now, picking up a pen and holding it over a legal pad. "Can you organize it in any way?"
Kerry compressed her lips before speaking. "It was like a rush of things, disjointed, some not clear, others almost too clear. Sounds. I heard men laughing. I heard them opening cans, and could smell the beer. I smelled cordite. I saw...I saw... I saw two men lying on the ground. They were facing each other, and each had an arm over the other's body. And blood. There was blood everywhere... They were shot. Twice each. Once in the chest, once in the head. But they weren't lying like that when they were shot. They were dragged there. Positioned."
Her eyes snapped open. "It's supposed to look like a message, but it's not."
That was the moment Adrian felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
Kerry waited, but she hardly saw Gage and Adrian now. She had returned to this morning, that bright beautiful morning that had been suddenly and inexplicably blighted by evil. At some level she smelled the bacon burning on the stove, but her mind had attached itself far away from the kitchen.
"Kerry?" Gage's voice recalled her.
"Can you wring any more details out of what you sensed?"
She met his gaze and saw something there, something that suggested she hadn't just flipped a brain circuit. "You mean what I saw was real?"
Emma squeezed her arm again. Gage hesitated. "I'm not supposed to discuss the investigation. So can we just say that you hit on something that no one outside the department should know?"
"Oh, God." Kerry lowered her head, her stomach sinking at the same time. "I don't need this. I don't want this...this whatever it is."
"I don't blame you," Emma said quietly. "But for whatever reason, it happened."
Kerry nodded, fighting for equilibrium and battering down the fright. "Okay. Okay. Let's just say that somehow, some way, I saw something that was real. At
Posted November 15, 2010
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Posted February 2, 2011
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