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Like a panther, she stalked her prey through the shivery, silent night. The young Navajo woman going by the name Sunnie Begay had made herself too tough to feel the cold. Other forces made her too tough to care.
Alone but bolstered by the knowledge and expertise she had recently acquired, Sunnie crept through sagebrush and granite boulders. Too dark on this moonless night to see much, she let her memory, honed senses and imagination guide the way.
As she edged ever so surely to her date with destiny, instinct told her that at last the end was near.
Tonight she would catch the Navajo Wolf unawares. She would take her shot, ending the misery the People had for years endured at the hands of that abomination of mankind. The monster who had wreaked his last bit of suffering on Navajoland would go the way he had livedthrough violence.
Hefting the rifle case that had become her only companion over the last six months, Sunnie took her spot among the rocks. On this blustery winter's evening, the last of the cottonwood leaves rattled in the frosty midnight hours.
She carefully removed her dismantled rifle from the case and admired its shiny barrel by the light of the stars. Using her teeth, she pulled off her sheepskin gloves and caught the faint scent of gun oil. Listening to the intense quiet of the desert and the cliffs surrounding her position, Sunnie took each measured step with noiseless deliberation.
As her fingers trailed over the polished mahogany stock, she considered how far she had come. An unlikely assassin, she was nevertheless a dedicated and proficient one. Over the last six months she'd taken what used to be a happy childhood hobby of targetpractice and turned it into a deadly vocation.
She'd made herself over from a young rifle target shooter into a crack shot. A sniper who, with the right equipment, could put a bullet through the eye of a needle as it traveled at seventy miles per hour.
But a needle was not her intended target. Not tonight. Not ever.
The only target she ever intended to see down the barrel of her nightscope was the leader of the Skinwalkers: the Navajo Wolf. The man who had taken many lives and destroyed countless others. Seeing to his destruction was now her sole mission.
Her previous life was long gone. Friends, family and old occupations had been ripped away. Her future looked every bit as bleak as her current life.
But for tonight she had found a valid reason to take each breath. For tonightfor just a little while longer. Until it was done.
Until the Navajo Wolf was no more.
Cisco Santiago would've killed for a shot of tequila right about now. The day had been long and was getting longer. In fact, the moonless night looked about ready to give way to dawn. So, actually, he supposed it was already tomorrow.
Still, he was sure the man whose SUV he followed would eventually lead him to the next piece in the puzzle. And that was worth a missed night's sleep and a lost meal or two.
The road under his vehicle's wheels had turned to gravel about a mile back. And the landscapingwhat little he could see of it by the starshad taken on an eerie feeling of otherworldliness. His senses turned edgy. But though he remained alert, he wasn't worried.
The young Navajo man had claimed to have a relative in the desert who might be a reliable informant. But after watching the kid down several drinks in that bar in Farmington, New Mexico, Cisco had listened when his gut told him to drive his own car.
His Charger, sleek on the outside but all V-8 hemi power on the inside, usually got him in and out of most tight spots. But perhaps tonight, what with the blackness of the night and the narrow gravel road, traveling in the other guy's four-wheel-drive would've been the smarter move.
There was nothing in life Cisco hadn't tried and little he didn't dare, including walking into some kind of setup. High risks were merely the potential for high reward. It was what had brought him the most success in his life. What had taken a poor barrio kid and turned him into a successful entrepreneur. Into a man who wielded enormous authority and respect, even in a chosen profession that normally invited neither.
But Cisco was good at what he did and he liked being a high-powered skip tracer. "Bounty-hunter" was how he would be viewed in some less knowledgeable people's minds. The bounty he usually hunted, though, was far more refined and intelligent and much harder to catch than the average person knew.
Skip tracers worked for bail bondsmen. Cisco's company did both bonding and tracing. Someone needed to bring in the errant white-collar criminals who had chosen flight instead of justice. The police were always glad to have help bringing their criminals back from overseas.
That's where he was the best, and where his employees excelled. He now had a dozen operatives, most of whom could be trusted to find and retrieve their quarries anywhere in the world. His businesses also employed crack international bankers and a raft of lawyers. Finding rich runaway criminals was usually a lot easier when you tracked their bank accounts rather than their actual movements.
The road beneath his car suddenly curved, and Cisco automatically checked his rearview mirror to make sure no one was following. He saw nothing but his own brown eyes in the dim backglow from his headlights. He'd flipped off the dashboard lights earlier in order to better navigate in the pitch-black of such a remote area. But now he couldn't even see the rest of his face in the mirror.
Cisco worked on shutting down his growing tension by practicing the things that had made him the fearsome tracker. He prided himself in being able to give verbal descriptions of people's physical attributes after only cursory inspections. He could call up vivid descriptions better than police sketch artists.
In his head he listed the physical description of the Navajo he'd been following.A six-foot, strapping twentysomething, the kid wasn't anything special in his jeans and all-weather jacket. His short, dark brown hair matched the deep-set brown-black eyes. In fact, the eyes were the only standout in the whole description, and that was because of the vacant, almost dead look in them. Cisco had seen some drugged-out gazes in his time, but the look in this kid's eyes was something he had never beheld.
Cisco gave up trying to catalog it and began listing his own descriptionor the description of the desperado he had worked so hard to become.
Clad in black jeans and leather jacket. The slightly too long ebony hair. The day-old stubble covering a jutting chin and slashing cheekbones. The brown and burnished-toned skin that spoke of a Mexican-American heritage. And the perpetual sneer that frequently pulled at the too-full lips and the razor-thin white scar at the side of his mouth.
The scar was real and only one of many. He'd received it in a knife fight when he was a teenager. Women loved the scars. Men respected them.
But the rest of the menacing image was meant for the mean streets. He had deliberately designed it to be a hundred and eighty degrees from the real man underneath. Cisco had gone way back to his hard roots to cultivate the perfect looks and image of the dangerous Latino hombre. A bounty hunter who never lost his man under any circumstances.
The real Cisco preferred fine wine and rare first editions. He'd call himself a refined new-age man who'd earned a master's degree in Art History. A self-taught man of the world who could discuss the Chinese philosophers and would easily win a debate on nearly any subject.
The road ahead made another wide turn around the base of a cliff, and he remembered his true mission for this trip. Business wasn't what had brought him to the Navajo reservation tonight. No, this was personal. And long overdue.
Soon he would uncover the answers he'd sought for most of his life. Now that he had the time and the money to make things happen, nothing would stop him from learning the truth.
The winds had finally died down as Sunnie took great pains fitting together the rifle components, then loading the shells into the chamber with a quiet snap. Caressing the sleek metal and warm wood as she went, she studied each piece. Testing, she tightened her finger lightly against the trigger, then lifted it again.
The rifle had become like her child, to be petted and admired. It was a replacement for the baby she had once imagined she would have. But that was in another lifetimebefore her fiancé betrayed her and sold her spirit to the Skinwalkers.
Louis Singleton, the fiancé she had once loved and then grown to hate, had paid for sins against his own people. Paid with his life, like all who failed the Wolf. But she too had paid, in lost dreams, shattered hopes and months of reprogramming by the Brotherhood.
Thank the gods for the Brotherhood. Without them, the Dine would be lost against their evil enemies. And she would've been lost, as well.
The Brotherhood had rescued her, given her shelter and, in the end, a kind of peace. Though their efforts proved to be only a temporary reprieve from the horrors of the night.
She now knew the truth: there could be no real peace. Not for her. Not until the Wolf was dead. Maybe not ever.
Taking up her position, Sunnie waited. The night unheeded. She was ready to cope with any physical test.
For weeks now she had watched and waited. Tracing patterns, seeing similarities.
From an earlier time, she remembered this particular place. The canyon road below her was on the Navajo Wolf's route when he moved around the reservation. She was the only one alive to know his custom was to travel the gravel road but only in the dead of night. Oftentimes he traveled as the Wolf. There would be little opportunity for taking a shot while he was in that superhuman condition.
Would he come this time in human form and by car? If so, would it be in a caravan of comrades or all alone in his black sedan?
The Navajo Wolf's minutes on earth were numbered. Sunnie didn't care how many protectors surrounded him. He didn't stand a chance against her marksmanship.
The Wolf would not be expecting such an ambush in Navajoland. It was not the sort of thing any traditionally trained Navajo would do. Not even the Brotherhood would attempt an out-and-out assassination.
Sunnie's own mother, a traditional Navajo, would have been mortified to think of her only daughter doing anything so out of character, regardless of how badly her family had been treated by the demon of the night. Traditional Dine did not seek revengeor even punishmentfor those who had lost the true Way. They sought only to rehabilitate the offender to harmony, restoring the balance within them and to their clan.
But her mother had died when Sunnie was a teen, before the current Skinwalker threat had come to Dinetah. Sunnie now thought of her mother's early death to cancer as a blessing. It had protected her from witnessing the ugly horror that had befallen her family and clan.
And it had shielded her mother from the truth of what her only daughter had become: a cold, calculating killer. A woman whose only purpose in life came down to one shot.
Sunnie knew the Brotherhood believed she was still safely hidden away with her new identity. And her real brothers thought she had left Dinetah long ago, as they had. Today there were few friends and no other family left to wonder about Sunnie Begay's whereabouts and motives.
Which should have been a sentimental thought, but Sunnie felt nothing. Nothing but the growing urgency to make that one shot.
Then it was there. The faint buzz that had become known to the Brotherhood as the announcement of a pending Skinwalker appearance.
She noticed a slight tension running across her shoulders and deliberately forced them down. There would be no mistakes tonight. No chance of letting the Wolf get away to wreak havoc on the Dine for another day.
"Come on, you bastard. Drive into your destiny." Through the darkness two pairs of headlights appeared around the curve that circumvented Hawk's Way Bluff. She peered through her nightscope. A light-colored SUV led the way. The dark sedan followed closely behind.