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Tracer bullets ripped through the night like shooting stars.
He hit the sand along with other members of his team. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded a few feet away, sending shrapnel slicing and burning his skin. Then the enemy poured out from rocks like locusts.
Adrenaline surged through him, smothering the pain. He slid behind a rock, called in copter support and aimed his M16 at the figures multiplying in front of him.
He cursed. Intel had said there was only a small group of Taliban here. One of their high-level couriers was supposedly passing this way.
He fired steadily but the enemy kept coming as his own men fell around him. The smell of gunpowder and the deafening sound of explosions filled the cold night air.
He glanced around. Four of his ten men were down. To his right he heard a steady return of fire. Dave? What about the other four?
Eric was down. Trying to crawl for cover. Gotta go after him, get him behind rocks.
Move. He sprinted toward his wounded teammate.
His leg exploded in agony and he went down as more bullets ricocheted off rocks around him. Everything was burning. He reached for the M16 he'd dropped . Too far
Someone lifted him. Dave. "No," he screamed. "Leave me!" Then he fell again, Dave falling over him, shielding him. He heard the sound of helicopters as everything went black..
Josh Manning jerked awake, the battle still alive in his head.
He reached for his gun. It wasn't there.
Then the adrenaline ebbed as his surroundings came into focus. Not a battlefield. A room. Familiar now after a few days. The rapid beating of his heart eased. He sat. Breathe. Slowly. In and out. His face and body were wet with sweat. So were the sheets.
Another damned nightmare.
Beside him, Amos whined and tried to inch under the narrow bed.
Knocking. That was what had woken him.
What time is it? He glanced at his watch. 1000 hours. Later than he thought, but he hadn't fallen asleep until dawn. He shook his head, trying to erase the remnants of the nightmare that so often cursed his few hours of sleep. Another knock at the door. Insistent. Damn it.
Whoever it was apparently wasn't going away. He looked to the floor. What he could see of Amos's hindquarters was quivering.
Josh knew he was in no condition to answer the door. He was still wet from the nightmares, and he hadn't shaved in several days. He was wearing only skivvies in the warmth of summer. But more knocking would only exacerbate Amos's terror. He pulled on a pair ofjeans, limped painfully to the front door and threw it open so hard it bounced against the interior wall.
He did not feel welcoming. He'd been beset with unwanted visitors since he'd reached the cabin a week earlier, and each one seemed to make Amos more fearful. Didn't make him happy, either.
A middle-aged lady stood at the door with an aluminum tin held out to him and a determined smile on her face. All he could think of was Amos's frantic retreat and the bone-deep pain in his left leg when he'd first put weight on it.
What in the hell did it take to be left alone?
He scowled at her.
Her mouth formed a perfect O. Then she thrust the tin in his hands and practically ran from the porch. She didn't look back as she scurried down the broken pavement that served as a driveway.
He must look a hell of a lot worse than even he thought. He went back inside, set the damned tin on a counter and grabbed a beer from the ice chest. He slugged it down and tossed the bottle in the garbage can. He reached for another, then stopped himself. Drinking in the morning! Damned bad habit to form. He'd never been a big drinker. No one in his unit had been.
But then he wasn't with the Rangers any longer. He wasn't with anything.
He swore in the silence of the room. He'd behaved badly. He must look terrifying with his scruffy face, uncombed hair and large size. A bare chest with scars probably hadn't helped.
All he wanted was to be left alone. He and Amos.
Amos. He went into the bedroom and called his name softly.
No audible response. No wag of a tail. Not even a whine. Just heavy panting.
He gingerly lowered himself to the floor and started talking to Amos. "It's okay. Nothing there to hurt us. Just civilians. No enemy. No explosives."
He stopped, his breath caught by grief that was still raw. He continued in a low, rough voice. "I know you miss Dave. I do, too. But he wanted you safe. That's why he asked me to take you." He touched Amos's butt, the only part that wasn't under the bed. The dog gradually relaxed and finally eased from under the bed.
"Breakfast," Josh announced.
Amos was not impressed. He put his head between his paws.
Josh braced himself on the side of the bed to get up. He'd shed a cast six weeks after a third operation and threw away the cane two weeks after that. His left leg resembled Humpty Dumpty's after the fall, a result of the explosion that killed Dave. He could live with the injury, but he ached every time he looked at Amos. Amos had been his best friend's canine partner, uncanny in finding explosives, unflagging on missions and ecstatic to play with his reward ball. He was a shadow of himself now.
Maybe it was a mistake coming here. Hell, he didn't even understand why Dave had left it to him, especially since he'd never mentioned it in the years they'd been friends. Dave had talked about Colorado and how they might start a camping and fishing business since their skills outside the army weren't much in demand. But a cabin? No. He'd racked his brain since an attorney contacted him in the hospital and said he was the sole beneficiary of Dave's estate.
From what the attorney had said, Josh had thought the cabin was somewhere deep in the woods, somewhere he and Amos could heal quietly and on their own.
He hadn't expected a parade of people invading his life and scaring the hell out of Amos. Perhaps a big No Trespassing sign would help.
He went to the door and looked at the deep royal blue of the lake that was several hundred feet from the cabin. It was the reason he'd decided to stay. At least for a while. That, and the mountain behind the cabin.
The small town of Covenant Falls snuggled on the side of a pristine blue lake and against forested mountains. The cabin was the last structure on a road that ran alongside the lake and deadended at the mountain. Shielded by towering pines and underbrush, the cabin was in dire need of repairs. It was apparent no one had used it in years, except maybe partying kids.
The attorney had told him a trust had paid the taxes and a certain amount of upkeep.
Not very much, from his point of view. Flaking paint, missing and broken appliances and rotting floors. The area in back was knee-high in weeds. But then he hadn't expected much. He'd mostly lived in on-base bachelor quarters or tents or slept on the ground these past seventeen years.
He had gone through the cabin, trying to decide what to do. It had good bones. Maybe he could fix it up. He didn't have anything else to do, and he'd learned a lot in the military about fixing things. When he finished, maybe he could sell the cabin. Find some someplace else to go.
He hoped it would be someplace without, God help him, curious neighbors.
His gaze caught the cheerfully painted tin on the cabinet. Now he did feel chagrined.
Despite himself, he found himself taking off the lid. An enticing scent filled the room as he stared at rich, dark brownies that looked as if they'd just come from the oven. How long since he'd had homemade brownies? Not since some guy in the unit received some from his wife. They'd been stale and broken, but they'd been like manna from heaven.
"That man in the Hannity cabin. June went over there to welcome him. He was practically naked, and he scared her to death."
Covenant Falls mayor Eve Douglas tried to pacify the caller. Marilyn Evans wasn't the first one in the past few days. Others had expressed concerns about the newest resident of their small community. Some were genuinely frightened. Others were offended at his rebuff of any welcoming overtures.
Marilyn ranted on for several minutes before Eve interrupted. "Has he done anything other than be rude?" Marilyn lived next to June Byars on Lake Road, three houses down from the Hannity cabin.
"Well, no," she admitted, then added ominously,
"You've complained many times that the Hannity cabin is an eyesore. If the owner is here, maybe he'll fix it."
"Fiddlesticks. Do you know he has a motorcycle?" Marilyn suddenly asked. "Maybe he's one of 'them.'"
Eve's body tightened and for a moment she couldn't breathe. Her father, then police chief, had been killed by a biker gang three years ago, and Marilyn knew that well. Eve knew she couldn't condemn everyone who rode a motorcycle, but still the sight of two or more riders still sent shivers down her back.
"And he drinks," Marilyn continued in a lower tone. "Some bottles fell out of his garbage can when the truck came by."
Eve doubted they'd fallen out. More likely Marilyn had checked the trash herself. Marilyn contributed a weekly column to the Covenant Falls Herald and considered herself the town watchdog. "You haven't met him?" Eve asked, surprised that Marilyn hadn't shouldered her way inside.
"I tried," Marilyn said with a long-suffering sniff. "He didn't answer the door."
"Maybe he wasn't there."
"He was," Marilyn insisted. "The motorcycle and Jeep were there. Someone who really belonged here would answer the door. What if he's a serial killer?"
Aha. Therein was the problem, Eve thought. Marilyn was usually a good-natured, if overly inquisitive soul, but she took dismissal poorly. There was a silence, then Marilyn added stiffly, "I just thought you should know what's going on in your town."
"I appreciate that," Eve said. "But we can't send out officers without any reason."
"If anything happens.. just don't say I didn't warn you."
Eve sighed. "I'll see what I can find out."
"And you'll let me know?"
"Yes," Eve said patiently, knowing she would also be telling the Covenant Falls Herald. "Thanks for calling, but I have a meeting, and I'm late. I'll talk to you later."
Although she hadn't met the newcomer, she understood both the curiosity and apprehension. No one had lived in the cabin permanently since Michael Hannity had drowned in the lake and his nephew had been under suspicion of murder. Nothing was proved, however, and it was finally ruled an accident. David Hannity had left and hadn't returned. The property had been rented on and off for four years until some renters practically destroyed it, then it had been empty the past twelve years, although the taxes had been paid.
Rumors had started several days ago when the power was turned on. Then talk accelerated when several residents of Lake Road reported seeing a man in a Jeep turn into the driveway and enter the house. It rankled Eve that the new resident was so abrasive. Her town was friendly and welcomed newcomers with open hearts and hands full of goodies. She hated to see them hurt even if, she admitted, they could be rather aggressive in their attempted neighborliness.
There was also a dog. A big one, according to reports. And it wasn't on a leash. No one could describe it exactly because apparently the man and dog walked only in the middle of the night. And that in itself spurred more talk. Sometimes her small, eccentric town reminded her of a game she used to play when a child. Someone would whisper to the person next to her, and the secret would go around a circle, being embellished all along the way until a mouse turned into bigfoot.
As the beleaguered mayor of Covenant Falls, she didn't need this nonsense today. Not when this afternoon there was an informal council meeting. The council planned to discuss hiring a new police chief within the month. The council wanted to name one of the current officers, Sam Clark. Over her dead body.
She looked at her watch. She had a few more minutes. She called down to Merry, who served as both city clerk and bookkeeper. "Have you heard anything from the county about a change in ownership on the Hannity property?"
"Not yet," Merry said, "but a Mr. Manning was in here around noon, asking about building permits for a porch. I told him we needed proof of ownership first, and he said he would provide it. He also wanted a copy of the property survey. I was so busy with the tax bills, I asked if it would be okay if I got it later in the day. He said yes, and he would be back tomorrow afternoon."
"Why didn't you tell me?'
"You were at lunch, then I was swamped with those bills."
"How was he?"
"Polite enough, although he didn't talk much. Looked a bit rough, but I liked him."
Eve had to smile. She had yet to find someone Merry didn't like.
She would probably like Genghis Khan. But it made Eve feel better. Obviously he was no squatter if he wanted a building permit and a land survey.
Ordinarily, she would have asked Tom MacGuire to quietly check out the newcomer.
He had been police chief for the three years since her father had been killed, and had been with the county sheriff's department as head of detectives before that. He was genuinely kind as well as efficient. But he was at home today, and she really didn't trust his officers to handle the matter with any finesse.
That drew her back to her immediate problem. Tom planned to resign because of heart problems. Finding someone to replace him was daunting, especially when small-town politics entered into the equation. There were less than three thousand permanent residents, and policing usually involved speeders, bar brawls and domestic conflicts. But there was the occasional fatal accident, lost child or robbery. She needed officers with diplomacy for domestic problems, and experience and judgment for the others. Tom had all that, and the affection and respect of the community. But he'd had a second heart attack, and his wife insisted he retire.
The problem was the city couldn't pay enough to attract someone like Tom. He'd served because he loved Covenant Falls. He was also a second father to Eve and honorary grandfather to her son, and she wasn't going to risk his life by trying to keep him.
She picked up her iPad and made her way to the small council chamber. Maybe she would visit the stranger in the morning. Quiet the rumor mill.