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"There must be some mistake." Dulcie Hughes shifted in her chair, anxious to flee the lawyer's office. "We've covered everything my parents left me in their estate."
"Not this particular part of your inheritance," he said and cleared this throat. For years Lawrence Brooks, Sr., had been her parents' attorney, but upon his death his youngest son, Herbert, had taken over his father's law practice.
Herbert was in his early thirties, only a few years older than Dulcie herself, a tall, prematurely balding man with tiny brown eyes and a nervous twitch.
Today though he seemed even more nervous than usual, which made her pay closer attention as he handed her the documents.
"What is this?" she asked, frowning. Her elderly parents had discussed all their financial arrangements with her at length for years. She'd never seen this before.
"You've been left some property in Montana."
He tried to still his hands as he waited for her to read the documents.
"My parents never mentioned anything about having property in Montana." She read the name. "Who is Laura Beaumont?"
"You don't know?"
She shook her head. "I've never heard the name before. This is all the information you have?"
"Apparently Laura Beaumont's estate was being held for you in a trust until their deaths, taking care of the expenses. That's all I can tell you." He stood abruptly, signaling an end to their business.
Dulcie didn't move. "Are you saying this is all you know or this is all you're allowed to tell me?"
"If you want to know more, I would suggest you obtain an attorney of your own to look into the matter further," he said, tapping his fingertips on his desk as hewaited impatiently for her to leave. "Or go to Montana yourself." He made the latter sound imprudent.
"Maybe I'll do that," Dulcie said, rising to her feet and tucking the papers into her shoulder bag.
"As your parents' attorney, that completes our business," Herbert said, sounding glad of it.
For the past four months, she'd been grieving the loss of her parents and not in the least interested in dealing with the financial aspects of that loss.
As the only heir of Brad and Kathy Hughes, she'd known she would be inheriting a sizable estate. Not that she needed it. Straight out of college, she and a friend had opened a boutique that had taken off.
After establishing more than a dozen such shops across the country, she and Renada had sold the businesses six months ago and made enough that she would never have to work again if she invested the money wisely, which of course she had.
She'd been trying to decide what to do next when her seventy-two-year-old father had taken ill. Her mother had never been strong, suffering from a weak heart. But to lose both of them within a few weeks had been crushing.
Now, months later, she felt even more at loose ends.
As she left the lawyer's office, her cell phone rang.
"So it's over?" asked her friend and former business partner tentatively. Renada had wanted to come along with her to see the lawyer, knowing how hard this was for her. But Dulcie had needed to do this on her own. She needed to get used to doing a lot of things on her own.
"All done," she said, patting the papers she'd stuffed into her shoulder bag.
"Up for lunch?" Renada asked.
"Absolutely. I'm starved." And she was, she realized.
It wasn't until after they'd eaten and she was feeling better for the first time in months that she told her friend about the Montana property.
"It's very odd," she said, digging out the papers the lawyer had given her. "I've been left property in Montana from someone named Laura Beaumont."
"Seriously? How much?"
"Apparently a hundred and sixty acres just outside of Whitehorse, Montana."
"Where is that?"
"I haven't a clue."
"Aren't you curious about this Laura Beaumont?"
"Yes, but it's so strange that my parents never mentioned this woman or anything about the property, even though Laura Beaumont left it to me years ago."
"Your parents never even went to Montana to see what you'd been left?"
"Apparently not. We went to Yellowstone Park one summer. Wouldn't you think they'd have mentioned the property?"
"Or taken you there. Unless it's in the middle of nowhere and they had no interest in it. You are going to check it out, aren't you?"
Dulcie knew her friend had been worried about her, urging her to come up with another business venture to help get her through her loss. "Do you want to go with me?"
Renada shook her head ruefully. "I'd love to, but I can't leave right now. I just agreed to teach some clothing design classes at the community university."
"Good for you," Dulcie said, excited for her friend. Renada had always talked about doing something like this when she had the time. Their boutiques had kept them so busy she'd never gotten the chance. Now there was nothing keeping her from it.
"It's funny," Dulcie said as they walked out of the restaurant together. "I got the feeling from the lawyer that there was something unusual about this inheritance."
"Something he couldn't talk about. Or wouldn't."
"A secret?" Renada said on an excited breath. "Maybe this land is worth a small fortune. Or Lewis and Clark left their names carved in the stones on the property."
Dulcie laughed. "Don't get your hopes up. I'm sure it's just a piece of property that is so inconsequential that it skipped my parents' minds."
"A hundred and sixty acres in Montana inconsequential?" Renada scoffed. "Still, it does seem odd since you've never heard of this Laura Beaumont. So when are you going to Montana?"
"Right away, I guess," Dulcie said, feeling as if this was a decision that had been taken out of her hands a long time ago.
A hot, dry wind whispered in the curtains as the weather vane on the barn turned restlessly, groaning and creaking.
The air in the house was so hot it hurt to breathe. The parched land outside the old farmhouse with its ochre dried grasses seemed to ache for a drink in the undulating heat waves that moved across the prairie as far as the eye could see.
Like the land, she'd forgotten the smell of rain, the feel of it soaking into her skin. She thirsted for the sound of raindrops on the roof, the splash of mud puddles as a pickup drove past.
She lay naked on the bed in the upstairs bedroom, the hot wind moving over her lush body, leaving it glistening with perspiration. Too young and ripe to be widowed, she ached for more than a cool breeze to caress her flesh.
The noise of the whirling fan across the room covered the creak of the slow, deliberate footsteps on the stairs. While she didn't hear anyone, she must have felt a change in the air that told her she was no longer alone in the house.
"Is that you, sweetie?" she asked without expending the energy it would take to open her eyes. "I thought you'd gone down to the creek with your little friend."
A chill skittered over her, dimpling her flawless skin. Her eyes flew open in alarm as if she heard the blade cutting through the oppressive heat.
The first stab of the knife stole her breath. She tried to sit up, but the next blow knocked her back. The attacks came more quickly now, metal to flesh to bone, burning deep as blood pooled on the clean white sheets, the blood as hot as the breathless air around her.
By the time the knife finally stilled, its wielder panting hard from the exertion in the close heat of that second-story bedroom, she lay with her head turned toward the door, eyes dull with death, the face of her killer reflected accusingly in her dark pupils.
Jolene Stevens dropped the neatly printed pages and let out the breath she'd been holding. She glanced past the glow of her desk lamp to the door of the Old Town Whitehorse one-room schoolhouse.
The door was open to let in what cool night air might be had this late spring day. Like the beginning of the story she'd just read, the heat had been intense for weeks now. There wasn't a breath of cool air and little chance of rain, according to the weatherman.
Jolene fanned herself with her grade book as she looked down at the pages again. On Friday she'd given her students an assignment to begin a short fictional story that would be told in six segments. She'd told them they didn't have to put their names on their stories, thinking this would make them less self-conscious.
Each story was typed, double-spaced, on the student's home computer so all of the stories looked the same.
While she'd instructed her students to start their stories at an exciting part and introduce an interesting character or intriguing place or event, she hadn't expected anything this disturbing.
Mentally, she envisioned each of her five students:
Amy Brooks, the precocious third-grade girl; the two goof-off fifth-grade boys, Thad Brooks and Luke Raines; the sixth-grade cowgirl, Codi Fox, and the eighth-grade moody boy on the cusp of becoming a man, Mace Carpenter.
She couldn't imagine any of them writing this. Picking up the assignments, she counted. Six? Five students and yet she had collected six short-story beginnings? Was it possible one of them had turned in two stories?
For the first time since Jolene had come to Old Town Whitehorse to teach in the one-room schoolhouse, she felt uneasy. She'd been hired right out of Montana State University to fill an opening when the former teacher ran off and got married just before the school year ended, so all of this was new to her.
She rose and walked to the door to look out. Night sounds carried on the breeze. Crickets chirped in the tall dried grass of the empty lot between the school and the Whitehorse Community Center. No other sound could be heard in the hot Monday night since little remained of the town except for a few old buildings.
Her bike still leaned against the front of the school where she'd left it. Past it she could make out the playground equipment hunkered in the dark inside the old iron fence.
Beyond the playground, the arch over the cemetery on the hill seemed to catch some moonlight. She'd been warned about strange lights in the cemetery late at night. Talk was that the place was haunted.
Jolene had loved the idea, loved everything about this quaint rural community and her first teaching job. She loved the rolling prairie and even the isolation. She was shy, an avid reader, and appreciated the peace and quiet that the near-ghost town of Old Town Whitehorse afforded.
But the short-story beginning had left her on edge. She shivered even though the night was unbearably hot. Nothing moved in the darkness outside the school-house. The only light was one of those large yard lights used on ranches, shining from down the road by the small house that came with her teaching position.
Jolene closed the door, locking it, and stood for a moment studying the tables and chairs where her students sat. Light pooled on her desk, illuminating the rest of the opening scenes waiting there for her to read.
Tomorrow her students would turn in their next segment of their short stories, the assignment to run for another five days, ending next Monday. Would there be more of this story?
Earlier she had decided to stay late and read the first of the stories here where she'd thought it might be cooler. Now, with the murder story too fresh in her mind, she changed her mind and, stepping to the desk, scooped up the assignments and shoved them into her backpack.
An owl hooted just outside the open window, making her jump. She laughed at her own foolishness. She'd been raised in the country, and having been a tomboy, nothing had scared her. So why was she letting some fictional tale scare her?
Because she couldn't believe that any of her students had written it, she thought, as she zipped her backpack shut and turned out the lamp. She moved through the dark schoolroom to the door, unlocked it and stepped out.
The heat hit her like a fist and for a moment, she had trouble catching her breath. The weather this spring was too much like the short story, she thought, as she climbed on her bike and rode down the hill to her small house.
Once inside, she turned on all the lights, feeling foolish. What was there to be frightened of in this nearly deserted town in the middle of nowhere? The murder in the story had just been someone's vivid imagination at work. Vivid, gruesome imagination at work.
She made herself a sandwich and sat down with the rest of the stories. They were all pretty much what she'd expected from each of her students and she'd easily recognized each student's work.
Just as she'd suspectednone of them had written the brutal murder story. But one of them had to have turned it in. Why?
The answer seemed obvious.
Someone wanted her to read it.
Dulcie Hughes brought the rented car to a stop in front of a boarded-up old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
This was it? The mysterious Montana property? She couldn't help her disappointment. She hadn't known what to expect when she'd flown into Great Falls and driven across what was called the Hi-Line to White-horse.
The small Western town hadn't been much of a surprise, either, after driving through one small Western town after another.
She had driven under the train tracks into White-horse, telling herself she understood why her parents had never brought her here. There wasn't much to see unless you liked cowboys and pickup trucks. That seemed to be the only thing along the main street.
A few bars, churches, cafés and a couple of clothing stores later, she had to backtrack to find a real-estate office for directions to her property.
A cute blonde named April had drawn her a map and told her she couldn't miss it. Of course that wasn't true given that the land and all the old farmhouses looked alike. Fortunately she had the GPS coordinates.