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Amberly Nightsong watched the children pouring out of the grade school, the variety of shapes and sizes and colors decorating the last of the summer grass as they raced to awaiting school buses and parked cars.
As always, her heart swelled as she saw the small, slender dark-haired boy running toward her, his face lit with a beatific smile. Max. At six years old, he owned her heart in a way no other male ever had before.
He opened up the passenger door, threw his bright blue backpack onto the backseat and then got into the car. "Hi, Mom."
"Hi, Max, how was your day?" she asked as she waited for him to buckle in and then pulled away from the curb.
"Good, except for at recess Billy Stamford called me a sissy boy because I wear a necklace."
Amberly glanced over at her son and the necklace she'd placed around his neck when he was three years old. It was the same necklace Amberly's grandmother had placed around her neck when she'd been three years old.
The silver owl had been hand pounded and crafted by her grandfather and was a talisman against evil. The rawhide string that it hung from had been replaced many times over the years, and even though Amberly didn't live the Cherokee way of her ancestors, when she'd draped it around Max's neck, she'd figured a lucky charm from her grandfather, intended for protection, couldn't hurt.
"Did you tell him it isn't just any necklace but a very special protection necklace? Did you explain to him that the owl and the cougar were the only creatures that stayed awake for the entire seven days of Creation?" she asked.
"Nah, I just told him he was a poo-head, and then we played baseball."
Amberly bit back a smile, wishing all conflicts could be resolved so easily. But as an FBI profiler, she knew that wasn't the way life worked. Conflicts got messy and people could be twisted, and by the time she was called to work a case, somebody was almost always dead.
"I'm ready whenever you are," Max said, a touch of eagerness in his voice.
"Okay." Amberly slowed the car a bit as they drove by a coffee shop where several people were seated outside, enjoying the early-September sun. "The man in the red shirt," she said. Their car drove slowly past the shop, and then she stepped on the gas. "Go."
Max frowned thoughtfully and then began. "His shirt was red and he had on blue jeans. One knee was ripped out and he had on blue-and-white sneakers. He had blond hair and a mustache."
"Excellent, Max," Amberly said proudly. "You're going to be the best FBI agent in the whole world when you get old enough."
It was a game they played every day on the way home from school, honing his powers of observation. He loved it, especially when he noticed something about somebody or someplace that she hadn't noticed at all.
They were almost home when her cell phone beeped to indicate a text message. She dug it out of her purse and frowned.
"Looks like I'll be going to Dad's," Max said as he saw her expression.
"Looks like," she agreed and hit one on her speed dial. Her ex-husband, John, answered on the second ring. "What's up?" His deep voice, as always, whispered an edge of guilt through her.
"I just picked Max up from school and then got a message that I need to go in."
"Bring him by. Tell him we'll order pepperoni pizza for dinner."
"Okay, be there in ten." She clicked off and glanced at Max. "Dad said he'll order pepperoni pizza for supper."
"Awesome, that's my favorite. Am I going to spend the night there?"
"Hopefully not, but you know how this goes. I need to find out what's going on, and then I'll call later and let you know the plan."
"Okay," Max agreed easily.
Amberly thanked the stars that when she and John had divorced four years ago they had remained close friends, both committed to maintaining a healthy relationship for Max's sake. She was also incredibly lucky that John worked from home and was always available to keep Max, as her work hours were so unpredictable.
Within ten minutes, she pulled into the driveway of the neat ranch house where she had once lived as John Merriweather's wife. She'd kept her maiden name when they married as an honor to Granny Nightsong, the grandmother who had raised her. Max was a Merri-weather by name, but definitely a Nightsong in spirit.
John greeted them at the door, his handsome face wreathed in a smile as he gave Max a fist pump and then smiled at Amberly. "Just dinner or overnight?"
"I don't know yet. I got a text to see Director Forbes as soon as possible. I'm not assigned right now to anything specific, so I have no idea what to expect. I'll call you?"
"We'll be here," he said as he scuffed the top of Max's gleaming black hair.
Twenty minutes later, Amberly walked into the downtown Kansas City FBI building. She flashed her badge and identification to the security guard on duty, despite the fact that she'd been coming into the office at least five days a week for the past eight years, since four weeks after her twenty-second birthday.
The passion she should have felt for John when they'd married had always been superseded by her passion for her job. She'd known in her heart as she'd walked down the wedding aisle that she was making a mistake, but three months pregnant and desperate to create a family unit for the baby she carried, she'd said "I do."
For the next three years she had tried to make it work. But she'd known her own unhappiness with the marriage and had sensed John's. Ultimately, she'd left the marriage behind when Max was two, with the determination to keep the divorce as friendly and healthy for her son as possible.
All thoughts of John and her failed marriage fled her head as she knocked on Director Daniel Forbes's door. "Enter," his deep voice boomed.
She opened the door to see her boss seated at his desk. Even sitting, he was an imposing figure with his steel-gray hair and matching eyes.
"Agent Nightsong." He gestured her into the chair in front of his desk. "Mystic Lake."
Amberly blinked. It always took her a minute or two to adjust to Director Forbes's form of abrupt communication. There were times she wasn't sure if he knew nouns and verbs could be used to form a complete sentence. She waited for him to continue.
"You know it?"
"Not well. Small town about twenty miles from here." When she was with Director Forbes she found herself talking in sentence fragments, as well, as if he had a communication disease that was contagious. "Problems?"
"Three murders. Ritualistic overtones. The third victim was found forty-five minutes ago."
"Have we been invited in?" Amberly asked.
Forbes frowned, a deep vertical cut appearing in the center. "The mayor called me. Doesn't want us in officially but would like somebody there to unofficially aid law enforcement."
"So, local law enforcement isn't eager."
"That's probably an understatement," he replied. "You're assigned in a consulting capacity, and they're holding the latest scene for your arrival. It's in the city park. Your contact is Sheriff Cole Caldwell." He gave a curt nod of his head toward the door, his official dismissal.
Minutes later, Amberly was back in her car and headed to the small town of Mystic Lake. All she knew about the little town was that it was built at the edge of a small lake and that its Main Street had a reputation for quaint antique shops, crafty boutiques and intriguing eateries, which drew tourists during the summer months.
As she drove, she reached into the center section of her car console and withdrew a length of red licorice from a package she kept stashed there. She'd quit smoking on the day she'd found out she was pregnant with Max, changing that addiction to one for red licorice.
Sheriff Cole Caldwell. She chewed thoughtfully. She could just imagine what she would be up against, some good old boy who ran the place with an iron fist and wore a fat belt buckle to hold in his immense beer belly.
In her experience, small-town sheriffs hated two thingsanyone questioning their authority and FBI agents. She glanced at her watch. It was already almost five. She might as well give John a call and tell him it was going to be an overnighter with Max.
She had no idea what she was walking into, but if it was serial kills with ritualistic overtones, then she had a feeling there were going to be a lot of overnighters with John for Max in the near future.
She took the highway exit that would lead to the town north of Kansas City. One of the things she loved about this city was the fact that within a fifteen-minute drive, you could be out of the concrete jungle and into rolling pastures and shady woodlands.
There were times she thought about moving out here, someplace outside the city limits, where Max could have room to maybe have a horse, but she couldn't discount the convenience of having John living a mere three blocks from the small house where she and Max now lived.
As she turned onto Main Street of Mystic Lake she wondered where, exactly, the city park might be. As she looked up and down each side street she passed, she steeled herself for joining a party where she was, in effect, an uninvited and unwanted guest.
"The willow tree bends but rarely breaks in the force of a gale." It was Granny Nightsong's voice that whispered through her head. Amberly smiled, the warmth of her memory tempered by grief.
Granny Nightsong had been a curious blend of Cherokee and flat-out crazy. Although she'd passed some of the traditions of her heritage to Amberly, Granny was also prone to making up legends and old, wise sayings to fit the circumstance. When Granny had taught Amberly the Stomp Dance of their people, Amberly had recognized more than a little bit of jitterbug in it.
Granny Nightsong fled from her mind as she looked down a side street and spied what appeared to be the city park. As she turned and headed in that direction, she knew she was right. Yellow crime-scene tape was strung from one tree to another, and several official cars were parked in the graveled lot.
She pulled up next to them and got out of her car, immediately halted by a stern-faced young deputy. "Crime scene working, nobody is allowed in this area," he said.
She flashed her badge and continued forward. As she got closer to the scene, her mind processed several things at one time the victim, a pretty, blond-haired young woman, lay beneath the overhanging branches of a tree, and in the tree limb above her head was a bright red-and-yellow dream catcher and Sheriff Cole Caldwell was a tall, dark-haired hottie without a belly bulge in sight as he leaned closer to the dream catcher for a better look.
He suddenly snapped his head around as if he'd somehow sensed her approach. She had one instant of noticing strong, handsome features before they twisted with anger and the blue of his eyes went icy cold as he straightened to his full height.
"Lady, can't you see this is a crime scene? Deputy Walkins, escort this woman away from here." His voice was deep, authoritative, as if he was accustomed to people jumping immediately to obey his orders.
Amberly held up a hand to stop the deputy, who moved toward her with a sense of purpose. She showed her identification and flashed the sheriff a bright smile. "Don't worry, I might look like a Native American, but actually I'm the Cavalry sent to save the day."
It was at that moment that she realized Sheriff Cole Caldwell had absolutely no sense of humor.