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FBI Agent Dana Croft ducked beneath the yellow crime scene tape snapping in the dry wind that whipped across the construction site. She joined her partner, Agent Steve Lubeck, squatting beside the body of a young woman—the third in two months.
Dana had been planning a visit to the Southern Ute Reservation where she grew up… just hadn't planned on spending it tracking a serial killer.
Slipping on a pair of latex gloves, Dana crouched next to the woman's head, her dark hair matted with blood and sticking to her cheek. Blood also stained the bandana wrapped around her forehead.
"Do you know her?" Steve slid one gloved finger beneath the victim's hair, lifting it from her face.
Dana scanned the woman's features—a pretty girl with too much makeup and staring, lifeless eyes. She didn't recognize her, but everyone else on the reservation would know her and her business. The small-town atmosphere of a reservation usually made solving crimes for the Indian Country Crimes unit easy.
But this wasn't racketeering or casino theft; this was murder.
"Nope." Dana shook her head. "But then it's been several years since I've been back. I probably know her parents or grandparents, though."
Dana squeezed her eyes shut and gulped in a few breaths of crisp autumn air. The young woman splayed out on the hard earth with her long black hair and mocha skin reminded Dana of her own daughter, Kelsey. Could she handle this assignment? She'd been with the FBI for almost six years and with the Indian Country Crimes unit for four of those years, but she'd never investigated a serial killer on a reservation. This hit hard. This hit home.
"Theconstruction crew discovered the body when they got here this morning. They called the sheriff of the Ute Reservation, Emmett Starr. You know him?"
"Yeah, I know Emmett. Where is he?"
"He was tied up with something else, but he called me right away and sent his guys." Steve waved his arm toward the two cops combing the area for a footprint, blood, a piece of clothing, any small piece of evidence. "Emmett should be here soon."
"I think that's him now." Shading her eyes and squinting at the squad car churning up dust on the road, Dana pushed to her feet.
The car pulled up parallel to the crime scene, and Emmett shot out of the driver's side. "Damn. I can't believe we have another one. I guess it's official now—we have a serial killer on our hands."
He strode toward Dana and swept her up in a hug. "Good to see you, Dana."
"You don't seem surprised that I'm here."
Emmett jerked his thumb toward Steve. "Agent Lubeck told me you were coming on the scene to help out. That's good you're working in the Indian Country Crimes unit."
The passenger door of Emmett's squad car swung open, and Dana swiveled her head around. One long, lean, denim-clad leg appeared. The long, lean body followed.
Dana's breath hitched in her throat and her heart skittered in her chest as the rangy cowboy in the white hat sauntered toward her, sliding his cell phone into his shirt pocket. He tipped his hat back from his face and grinned. "Hey, Dana."
Dana swallowed, her throat tight, as she looked up into the perpetually amused blue eyes of Rafe McClintock.
The man who still had a hold on her heart.
The man who haunted her dreams.
The father of her child.
"What are you doing here?" Dana folded her arms, trapping her trembling hands next to her body. Rafe didn't seem surprised to see her, either. Everyone on the reservation must know she'd returned to assist in this investigation.
Emmett moved to the side. "I'm sorry. You two know each other, don't you? Rafe and I were in Silverhill, discussing the second murder when I got Agent Lubeck's call. Agent Lubeck, this is Sheriff Rafe McClintock. The second murder occurred in his jurisdiction."
As Steve and Rafe shook hands, Dana zeroed in on the badge pinned to Rafe's chest. Why hadn't Auntie Mary told her Rafe was back in Silverhill? She might have had some time to prepare, to steel herself against this rush of emotion cascading through her body.
"Y-you're a San Juan County Sheriff?"
"Yeah, I moved back to Colorado about six months ago and went through the academy. Silverhill elected me sheriff when Sheriff Ballard retired after his son's murder."
"I heard about Zack Ballard's murder." She pursed her lips as she shook her head. "I'm glad Sheriff Ballard retired, but the good people of Silverhill sure embraced an inexperienced sheriff for the top job quickly. But then you are a McClintock."
There. Better put Rafe in his place right here and now.
He raised his brows, laughter lighting his eyes. God, he saw right through her. She'd fooled him once but he was no longer the tall, skinny, sandy-haired boy she'd first spotted in the hallway of Silverhill High.
She would have to feel an insane attraction to the richest and most popular boy in the school. She lived the cliché of every teen movie, featuring the all-American boy and the girl from the wrong side of the tepee. Only their teen movie didn't end with happily-ever-after.
"I'mnot inexperienced. I know Silverhill like the back of my hand, and I worked as a cop in L.A. for almost four years before moving back here. Of course, you wouldn't know that since you disappeared right after high school. Georgetown, right?"
Emmett cleared his throat. "I hate to break up this… er… happy reunion, but what do you have on this latest murder? Is it like the other two?"
Steve and Dana led Rafe and Emmett to the body and Emmett crouched down. "Dear God. This is Louella's girl, Holly."
"Louella Sams?" Dana clapped a hand over her mouth. Louella was about fifteen years ahead of her in school, but Dana knew the family. The personal aspect hit her hard but if she let it affect her, the Bureau would yank her off the investigation. And she wanted in on this investigation.
"Louella Thompson now. She let Holly run a little wild, but nobody deserves this kind of ending." Emmett clutched his hat to his chest and mumbled a few words over Holly's still form.
Dana recognized the Southern Ute chant for the soul of the dead to speed its passage to the heavens. She bit her lip. It had been so long, she'd almost forgotten the words of the chant.
Steve cleared his throat. "The M.O. is the same as the other two murders. The blood on Holly's face is from a split lip. Looks like the killer backhanded her, but he strangled her like the other two and dumped her at a construction site."
"And he left his signature." Rafe pointed to the bandana wrapped around Holly's forehead with the feather stuck in the back.
Dana clenched her jaw. That's the detail law enforcement was hiding from the media. The killer had placed the crude Indian headband around each of the victims after he murdered them. So far, all of the murdered women were full or half Native American—like her. Was this maniac on some kind of one-man ethnic cleansing spree? Apparently, his wrath didn't extend to males or anyone over the age of thirty. All of the victims were young, female and pretty.
Rafe gestured to the ground. "Tire tracks?"
Steve shrugged. "This area is crisscrossed with tire tracks. Nothing stands out, and so far Emmett's officers haven't found a damn thing… just like the other two murders."
Scuffing the toe of his boot into the sand, Rafe said, "Obviously, the construction site is just a dumping ground. He does the deed elsewhere."
Dana appraised Rafe from beneath lowered lashes. His handsome face creased into real concern, and Dana realized she faced a man, not the carefree boy she'd loved enough to leave ten years ago.
That knowledge scared the hell out of her.
The four of them discussed the details of the murders, two now on the Southern Ute Reservation, until the ambulance arrived. Any more evidence they hoped to find would have to come from the victim's body. If the killer hit her before he strangled her, maybe Holly put up a fight for her life and scratched her murderer or pulled out his hair.
They agreed to meet later that evening at Rafe's office at the sheriff's station in Silverhill to compare notes after following their different leads. Rafe jogged to the ambulance before the EMTs loaded the stretcher bearing Holly's body.
Dana's heart picked up speed as Rafe bent his head in conversation, a lock of sun-streaked hair falling over one eye. She'd have to put aside her personal feelings to get through this investigation. Since one of the bodies had turned up outside the boundaries of the reservation, Rafe had jurisdiction over that case and she'd have to work with him.
But not for long.
The FBI would move in and take over. Just like they always did.
But until then, she'd shove memories of Rafe and their high school romance aside. And their daughter? Could she shove her aside as well?
"What do you think, Dana?"
She spun around. Emmett stood behind her, his hands buried in his pockets as he watched the EMTs collapse the stretcher to slide it into the van.
Lifting a shoulder, she said, "Looks like our guy has struck again, but Silverhill is a small town and everyone knows everyone else's business on the reservation. We'll find him."
"Can you help? Did you touch Holly with your bare hands?"
Dana sucked in a sharp breath and froze. Emmett wasn't referring to the help Dana could offer as an FBI agent. He wanted her to use the "gift."
Closing her eyes, she ran a hand through her hair and clasped the nape of her neck.
"You are gifted." Emmett's voice floated between them, almost a whisper.
"Don't call me that."
"Sorry." He held up his hands. "But everyone knows the powers of clairvoyance travel through the women in our particular Southern Ute tribe. Auntie Mary is gifted and her sister Fanny, your grandmother, had the gift, and your mother, Ronnie."
"A lot of good it did my mother." Once Dana's worthless stepfather had found out about Mom's sensitivity, he had exploited it, forcing her to work during the summer months selling cheap jewelry, telling fortunes and casting spells of love and protection when Mom couldn't even find those for herself.
Dana ran her hands across her face as if clearing cobwebs. "Besides, I'm only half Ute, so the gift obviously skipped me. See you at the meeting, Emmett."
As Dana swept past him, Emmett muttered behind her, "Or you choose not to embrace it."
Dana stalked to her rental car, hands fisted. Her second day back on the reservation and already her past was crowding in on her.
She glanced up as Rafe waved and strode toward her, his boots crunching the gravel beneath his feet. Her past was crowding in, all right, from all directions.
"Can I pick you up for the meeting tonight? I haven't seen your aunt Mary in a while. You are staying with her, aren't you?"
She clicked her remote and settled her back against the car. "I don't need a ride. This is a murder investigation, not the high school prom."
"I know. You dumped me before the prom."
"You remember that?" Big mistake. She did not want to traipse down memory lane with Rafe. That path would surely lead to one nine-year old, brown-eyed secret named Kelsey.
Hooking his thumb in his belt loop, he grinned. "Like it was yesterday. You were the only girl who ever shot me down."
"Oh, I don't know. I remember succumbing to the famous McClintock charm pretty quickly."
"Yeah, you had your way with me and then shot me down."
Dana almost doubled over from the sharp pain that stabbed her gut. If they didn't catch this killer fast, allowing her to escape Silverhill and the reservation, she'd fall under this man's spell again. And once he found out she'd kept Kelsey from him all these years, he'd shoot her down.
"Let's not go there." She made a cross with her fingers, holding it up between them. "We have a killer to catch."
"I don't have a problem mixing business with pleasure."
Dana's gaze tripped over Rafe's sensuous mouth and got hooked on his deep blue eyes. "I'll bet you don't."
But if Rafe ever discovered they had a daughter together, there'd be nothing pleasurable about his response.
Nothing pleasurable at all.
Dana dropped into the overstuffed, floral chair and stretched out her legs, resting her feet on top of the high heels she'd kicked off before washing the dinner dishes.
Auntie Mary plucked the reading glasses from her nose and folded her hands over the book in her lap. "You could've left those for me. I didn't invite you to stay here to do my chores."
Dana wiggled her toes. "I know that, but you do have an ulterior motive."
"I don't need an ulterior motive to invite my niece, who's working in the area anyway, to stay with me." Auntie Mary widened her eyes in mock indignation.
"Rosemary chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh string beans from your garden and homemade apple pie to finish me off. You went to a lot of trouble, but it's not going to work."
"Is Holly Thompson another victim of this serial killer?"
"We think so, but I can't discuss the case with you."
"Interesting that the killer keeps dumping bodies of young Ute women at construction sites. Maybe he's trying to make a point." She shrugged and ran a gnarled hand through her cropped, gray hair. "The old ways are changing too fast, and all this money pouring in from the oil down south only hastens the demise of our culture. Dances, songs and worship have been replaced by reality TV and Xboxes."
"Unemployment and poverty have been replaced by jobs and a good standard of living."
"Do you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater?" Auntie Mary cupped her hands in a scooping motion.
"Nobody's trying to do that. I see that Ben Whitecotton is completing the project of a Southern Ute cultural center."
Auntie Mary leveled a finger at her, and Dana could almost feel a shaft of heat scorching her from across the room. "You approve of all the changes."
"I'm proud of my Southern Ute heritage." Dana crossed her arms, bunching her fists. "I just don't believe in all the mumbo jumbo stuff."
"You have the sacred gift." Auntie Mary dropped her arm and closed her eyes. "And you choose to dismiss it."
"What about my mother?" Dana jumped from the chair and took a turn around the small room. "She did worse than dismiss it. She tarnished it, used it for monetary gain."
"That was her husband's idea."
At the mention of her stepfather, Dana ground her teeth. She'd detested her stepfather, Lenny Driscoll, ever since she was five years old when he oozed his way into her mother's life. "If I never see Lenny again, it will be too soon for me."
Posted January 6, 2010
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Posted April 19, 2010
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Posted January 25, 2010
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