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Night, that insidious thief of light, plundered her reality and stole the resolve so hard won by daylight.
Bailey Howard leaned her forehead against the cool window of the air-conditioned bus and swallowed the bitter taste of panic. She would gladly kill for a glass of chardonnay right about now. Wine wouldn't have been her drug of choice, but the wish for booze was better than wishing for the line of coke she'd really been craving.
And had vowed to never have again.
She opened her eyes to the inky darkness reflecting back her own haggard image in the glass. What in hell was she doing on a damn bus, having spooky shivers in the middle of a heat wave?
Buses were certainly not her style. What would her New York buddies have to say about such a thing?
She'd been out of the loop for the last five months, holed up at the Renaissance Malibu Rehab Center. So Bailey would be willing to bet none of those New York people would recognize her at all by now. Just as well. They were history. Her history.
But as the word history ran through her head, she remembered a more distant past. A time when she couldn't wait for the lazy, hot summer to bring her back to her grandmother's house in the Arizona mountains of the "big" Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area.
Well, it was a hot summer once again. But she dreaded going to Anali's rustic cabin in the trees this time. Dreaded having to see her grandmother when there was every possibility she would not even be able to recognize her only granddaughter's face.
God, how Bailey hated this. She didn't want to think of putting her grandmother into a nursing home and then packing up herbelongings, along with all her memories. It wasn't fair. How could life be so cruel?
She took a slow breath and tried again to peer out through the black night, but only managed another irritated glimpse of her own reflection in the glass. As a topper to one of the worst times of her entire life, she might've known the damn airlines would manage to screw up. They'd landed the plane at the Flagstaff airport so late that none of the car rental places were still open.
The Labor Day holiday weekend meant none of the motels in the area had any vacancies, either. So here she was. With an intrepid band of passengers, heading down the dark highway through the midnight hours. Her airline shuttle bus was making its way toward Farmington, New Mexico, on the far edge of the Navajo reservation and the closest city to her grandmother's home.
Bailey planned to complain loudly about the screwup. Maybe she would even sue. The very minute she got off this damn bus.
Giving up on the black void outside the window, she stretched her legs and pushed the small of her back against the seat in an effort to ease her cricks and aches. If it were only a bit warmer. Or if only she had a blanket.
Thunk. "Ow." Thunk. Thunk. "Damn it," she yelled, turning around to address the woman in the row behind her. "Can't you keep that kid from kicking the seat back? I'm trying to sleep."
The toddler's mother, a Mexican-American girl barely out of her teens, looked embarrassed. "Sorry. Tara needs a bottle to sleep and I didn't bring enough. I didn't think we'd be traveling so long."
Bailey got up, trying to stay warm. "Don't you have some emergency supplies? You can't expect to travel with a kid who's..." she waved her hand at the baby "...how old?"
"Tara's almost a year old. My husband's unit was called up, so we're going to stay with his parents until he comes back to the States."
Tiny Tara, who must've had the biggest chocolate-colored eyes in existence, heard her name and began screaming and wriggling in earnest.
"Sheesh, Tara. This is so not cool." The mother stood with the crying baby in her arms. "I've got a box of apple juice I can put in a bottle. Maybe that will work. It'll only take me a second to fix it up."
Before Bailey knew what was happening, the young woman shoved the kid toward her chest and released her. Bailey had no choice but to capture the squirming baby in her arms. "Hey," she exclaimed as she hung on to the kicking kid.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Hold her a minute while I get the bottle ready." The young woman pulled out a large bag. "You might try walking Tara up and down the aisle. Maybe that will calm her."
The mother didn't answer. She didn't even glance up as she continued digging in her oversize and intensely ugly flowered satchel.
Trying to arrange the child on her shoulder, Bailey turned and headed for the rear of the bus. Terrific. What she knew about babies would fit into a tequila shot.
She looked around at the half-dozen other passengers for help. Nobody moved.
A minute of holding the brat couldn't be that bad, right? Bailey took a few steps, jiggling the baby in her arms. But the bus rounded a sharp curve just then, and she was thrown off balance.
"The ride's getting rough, kid. We've gotta hang on." Plopping down into an empty seat a few rows behind her own, Bailey once again glanced toward the dark glass beside her. It seemed that the driver was suddenly having trouble staying on the road.
A pair of red-rimmed, yellow eyes appeared at her window. Honestly. Two eyes, no face.
Ohmigod. Was she hallucinating? Five months of rehab and now she was seeing things?
Gasping, Bailey looked around to see if anyone else had seen it, too. Everyone seemed to be asleep.
She must be exhausted. She must be overly stimulated. Oh, hell. She must be downright insane.
That did it. She had to get some sleep. Now.
She prepared to get back on her feet. Her knees were knocking together so badly, though, that she hesitated at the edge of her seat for a second before feeling strong enough to get herself and the baby up.
She waited one moment too long.
Navajo Tribal Special Investigator Hunter Long had been called in the middle of a terrifying dream--of a Skinwalker with the face of his dead father. One of those dreams. He was actually glad to have been awakened from it.
Dazed, he'd dressed and driven to the subagency office at Chinle as dawn began peeking around the orange-colored sandstone cliffs of his homeland. It always took him a while to settle into reality after suffering through a nightmare like that.
Walking into his superior's office, Hunter tried to shake the growing suspicion that his upcoming assignment would be life-changing.
"The shuttle bus driver was killed," said Captain Ernest Sam, his immediate supervisor for Tribal Criminal Investigations. "And four of the passengers were taken to the hospital at Farmington by air ambulance."
"Bad judgment, driving along that lonely stretch after midnight." Hunter had a lot of questions, but he wasn't about to ask them of Captain Sam, a man who could very well be one of the evil ones.
Hunter's biggest wish was to find a subtle way of keeping all strangers and other innocents off Navajoland roads at night. There was a secret war going on. A war that periodically broke out in disastrous skirmishes. Perhaps one exactly like this morning's bus wreck.
A criminal investigator for the Navajo Department of Public Safety, Hunter was also a warrior in the covert army of the Brotherhood, a group of medicine men who were fighting to free the land of a modern-day scourge of Navajo witches. This particular group of bad guys called themselves Skinwalkers, after the ancient legends of supernatural Navajo shape-shifters.
Hunter figured using the term had been a good call on their part. The People cringed at the very word, and refused to discuss anything about witchcraft with anyone, including their neighbors and the police.
Hunter owed his first allegiance to the noble Brotherhood during this troubled time. And Captain Sam was not one of them.
Hunter's gut instincts were telling him this bus crash was connected to Skinwalkers.
"We need you to go up there and take a look," the captain said. "There's bound to be lots of questions about the whole thing, and probably a ton of lawsuits. Best to have our answers ready before the accusations begin. Do a complete job, and do it right. I'm taking you off everything else for a few days."
Hunter nodded in agreement and turned to leave the captain's office. "Be ready for a crowd at the accident site," Sam called after him. "I've heard the TV reporters are already arriving. And a contact called a few minutes ago from the executive director's office in Window Rock. Levi George himself is on his way to the crash site."
Shrugging, Hunter flipped on his hat and stepped out of the police station into the burgeoning heat of the early September morning. So old "Sarge" George, now the executive director of the Navajo Department of Public Safety, wanted to get his face in front of the cameras. Terrific. That meant most of the accident scene would be trampled and evidence destroyed for sure. There wouldn't be much left to investigate.
Hunter's cell phone vibrated in the breast pocket of his khaki uniform as he clicked open the driver's door on his 4X4 SUV. It was the two-buzz signal that meant someone in the Brotherhood was trying to reach him.
He flipped it open and held it to his ear. "Wauneka." His cousin Ben, a medical doctor and also a member of the Brotherhood, announced himself. "I've been called to the Farmington hospital to assist in the treatment of the wounded bus passengers." He didn't bother to ask if Hunter knew about the accident. "One of the injured women came to consciousness a few minutes ago," he added. "She's claiming her daughter is missing."
"Daughter? How old?"
"Toddler. Almost a year. Thing is, no kids were accounted for on the bus. We don't have a complete passenger list yet, but no one under twenty has been found."
"You think her kid was thrown into the brush during the crash and hasn't been located?"
"No." The answer came quietly, with deadly implications. "The mother also claims another woman was holding her baby at the time of the crash. There's been no sign of the woman she describes, either."
"Then you believe the crash was some kind of Skin-walker attack or diversion? That the other woman perhaps was one of them? And on the bus just to get the child? Why would they take a baby?"
"We can make guesses forever. Find the little girl. That should give us some answers."
Hunter flipped off his phone then hopped into his SUV and cranked the engine. But he didn't turn onto the highway in the direction of the crash site. He had a few preparations to make first.
It looked as though he would be more than a simple police investigator this time. Tracking a woman and a child for the Brotherhood and potentially facing the Skinwalkers meant he had better get himself mentally and physically ready.
Being the best tracker in all the Western states was not nearly enough to save him from Skinwalker magic. There were sacred prayers and chants he had to start saying, in case the crash really was the work of the evil ones.
Though, in the end, there was no kind of magic that could hide them from him. He straightened his back and made another vow. The lost child would be returned to her mother, no matter how many Skinwalkers he had to track down to get the job done.