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Tuck Thunder Horse stared at his phone, debating leaving it off as his plane taxied to the gate in Bismarck, North Dakota. Off duty for the moment, with nothing on his docket but a "rest and recuperate" order to close out his latest FBI assignment, the idea was tempting. And after endless debriefing sessions followed by seven hours in transit from Quantico, Virginia, all he really wanted was to find a bed to fall into.
His sense of responsibility wouldn't let him ignore duty. He switched the phone on and groaned as it immediately started beeping. He had no fewer than five messages and three texts. What could be so all-fired important? His supervisor knew he was on his way back to North Dakota, and his family didn't expect him until later that night. His heartbeat kicked up a notch. Had something happened on the ranch?
Two of the three text messages read "Listen to your voice mail" and were from a buddy of his, Josh Beh-ling, assigned with him to the FBI's Bismarck satellite office. He and Josh went back to initial FBI training at Quantico. Their training days and a few missions that had tested their strength and mettle had forged a friendship that had lasted through the years. He looked forward to seeing his friend.
Behling had promised to meet Tuck at the airport and take him to his apartment, where he'd left his car. Tuck would stay the night there. His brother Pierce would be in from Quantico the following morning. Together they planned to head to the Thunder Horse Ranch, a good three-and-a-half-hour drive, to enjoy their R & R together.
The last text read "911" with a phone number following.
Tuck clicked on the voice mail from Behling, frowning at the three voice mails from a "Blocked Sender." Before Behling's message could begin, his phone buzzed, indicating an incoming call. He hit the talk button.
"Oh, good, you must be on the ground." Behling's voice came over the line, intense, urgent. "I'm here to pick you up, but we've had a change of plan. Do you have a bag to claim?"
"No. I carried it aboard."
The plane pulled to a stop at the gate and the fasten-seat-belt sign blinked off. Passengers filled the aisle, retrieving carry-on baggage from the overhead bins.
Tuck unbuckled and stood, bumping his head on the low storage compartments. Being over six feet tall had its disadvantages on mass transit. He muttered a curse and reached up to grab his suitcase, his hand holding the phone to his ear. "What's the plan?"
"Well " Josh heaved a sigh. "Sorry to disappoint, but I'm not taking you to your apartment."
"No?" Tuck grinned. "Are we going out on the town for old times' sake?" He inched his way down the aisle toward the hatch, juggling the cell phone against his ear and being careful not to bump the guy in front of him with his case.
"No, we had an agent of the National Indian Gaming Commission murdered tonight. His body was found along the shore of Lake Oahe. We also found a dead woman we haven't identified yet."
Tuck stopped at the door of the plane, his breath lodging in his throat. "Anyone we know?" He'd met a few of the NIGC reps, having dealt with them on occasion over the years.
"No. The guy was covering the casino near Fort Yates. Not sure what's going on down there, but the Sioux County sheriff asked for our help."
At the mention of Fort Yates, a flood of memories crashed over Tuck. The last time he'd been in the town near the South Dakota border, he'd been on a vacation that had ended in total disaster. He sucked in a deep breath as he pushed the memories away and asked, "When did it happen?"
"Don't know yet. I was just getting ready to leave for the site when your plane landed. McGowan's out sick. I need a partner and figured you'd want to be in on the investigation."
"I'm supposed to be off for the next week."
"Yeah," Behling said, "but how often do we have an NIGC murdered in North Dakota?"
"Once in a blue moon."
"Right. Are you in, or do I have to call in our supervisor to cover?"
"I'm on my way. Do we have air transportation available, or are we driving down?"
Behling chuckled. "Got a chopper ready and waiting for us."
"See you out front." Tuck clicked the off button, pocketed his cell phone and sighed. The thought of getting back in the air after having just landed was only slightly more appealing than getting on the road in the opposite direction from the Thunder Horse Ranch. And to be heading to the place he'd sworn off since that fateful night over a year ago Well, he wasn't exactly thrilled. Yet, he was curious enough to take the bait. Murders in North Dakota came few and far between and who knew? While he was in Fort Yates, he might run into her. Whoa, now. He pushed that errant thought to the back of his mind.
Behling picked him up outside the airport terminal in his black four-by-four SUV. He didn't wait for Tuck to buckle his belt before he drove away from the curb.
"You mentioned a woman." His chest tightened as he asked, "Who is she?"
Behling glanced in his rearview mirror and merged into the traffic leaving the airport. Before he made it to the airport expressway, he took a turn to the right, heading for the line of hangars where private planes and helicopters parked. "The Sioux County sheriff wasn't forthcoming. He seemed more concerned about the dead commissioner."
"Are we only dealing with the Sioux County Sheriff's Department, or will the Standing Rock Tribal Police be involved, as well?"
"Both. So far they've been cooperative, but I'm not getting much information from them."
Tuck dropped down out of the SUV, and together they entered the building.
"Are you two all that's going?" A man in a navy blue jumpsuit met them at the door to an office, carrying a flight bag and a small clipboard.
"Hi, Rick. We're it." Josh shook hands with the man and turned to Tuck. "Don't know if you two have met. I had to beg, borrow and steal to get use of this chopper." He grinned. "Tuck Thunder Horse, meet Rick Knoell."
The men shook hands and headed out to the tarmac, where a sleek black helicopter sat.
Tuck whistled. "We have the budget for this?"
"Like I said, I had to beg, borrow and steal." Josh jerked his head toward Rick. "Rick needed some night flight time. He owed me a favor, and we needed a quick trip to Fort Yates. It all adds up." He shrugged.
Behling climbed aboard the bird, slipping into the passenger seat.
Tuck slid into the seat behind him. While Rick performed the preflight check, Tuck listened to his other voice-mail messages. One from Behling, indicating the chance of being late to the airport. The other messages from the blocked sender were nothing but air and an odd sound like a baby gurgling in the background. Tuck shook his head. He didn't know anyone with a baby. Probably a wrong number. But something about the calls made him uneasy. Why would a wrong number call back twice?
He didn't have long to worry about it. By the time he'd deleted the messages, Rick had climbed into the pilot seat and started the engine.
Once they were in the air, Tuck settled the flight headset in place over his ears and sat back for the ride, static and the rumble of the rotors numbing him, creating white noise in which his thoughts churned.
The last time he'd been to Fort Yates, a little over a year ago, he'd gone down for a weekend of boating, gambling and drinking. The memories were a mix of blurred impressions and startlingly clear images. The ending of that vacation was not one he'd ever experienced before. After all, it wasn't every day that a man got engaged, married and ditched all in the span of forty-eight hours, more or less. He still wasn't sure how it had all happened, but he had the pictures and annulment papers that proved it hadn't been a bad dream.
As they neared the small outpost of Fort Yates, the neon lights of the Running Buffalo Casino rose up out of the grasslands, a beacon of garish illumination on the dark prairie. The red, yellow, blue and green neon lights reflected off the still waters of Lake Oahe, a lake formed by a strategically placed dam near Pierre, South Dakota. The lake provided miles of fishing and camping for the residents of North and South Dakota, its shores following the Missouri River's path from Pierre almost to Bismarck.
Tuck's chest tightened as he leaned forward to stare out the window of the helicopter. The casino and the surrounding resort looked just as they had the last time he'd been there. Nothing had changed. Except him. Gone was his carefree, reckless sense of taking each day one at a time. He still didn't know why he'd jumped into the wedding andmore disturbingwhy she'd ended it so quickly. The whole situation had made him step back and take stock of his life, and he hadn't much liked the direction he'd been heading.
The helicopter bypassed the casino and landed at the Standing Rock Airport south of town where a Sioux County sheriff's SUV waited, lights flashing on top of the vehicle.
As soon as they exited the chopper, the sheriff met them, his hand held out. "I'm Sheriff White Hawk. I thought you'd never get here."
"Can you bring me up-to-date?" Tuck stepped forward, used to taking charge.
"Our victims were the NIGC rep and a local schoolteacher." The sheriff talked as he led them back to his vehicle. "We cordoned off the shoreline around the two bodies, and I've had a couple of my deputies asking questions around the area. So far, no one saw anything."
Typical. With so much wide-open space in North Dakota, a person could get away with murder, and no one would be the wiser for days. That's where Tuck's job became critical. "Has the state crime-lab team arrived?"
Sheriff White Hawk nodded. "They just got here."
"Was everything left the same way as it was found?"
"Other than the footprints from the fishermen, no one's touched a thing."
"Good." Tuck climbed into the passenger seat of the sheriff's SUV.
They accomplished the short ride to the crime scene in relative silence, the occasional static flaring from the radio on the sheriff's shoulder harness.
A mile past the turnoff to the casino and recreation area, the sheriff turned on a county road, headed toward the lake. After another mile, the lawman slowed the vehicle and glanced at Tuck with a grimace. "We go cross-country from here."
Tuck nodded and held on as they bumped across the dry, flat land to the shore's edge, where several other SUVs and a flotilla of motorboats ringed the crime scene. Yellow crime tape flapped in the wind around the land side of the perimeter.
Tuck ducked beneath the tape and flashed his credentials to get past the battery of Sioux County deputies and Standing Rock tribal policemen.
Once inside the perimeter, Josh hurried forward to the crime-scene technicians and exchanged a few words.
Tuck hung back, his gaze panning the area, his investigative eye noting everything that could be considered evidence. There wasn't much to go on. Based on the lack of blood spatter, the agent and the woman had been murdered elsewhere and their bodies dumped here, probably by boat. The sheriff's deputies would be checking for anyone who might have seen a boat pull close to shore. But as dark as it was, if the boat didn't have a light, no one would have seen a thing.
When Behling stepped back, Tuck caught his first glimpse of the dead woman.
Tuck's breath caught in his throat and his heart jammed in his chest so hard it hurt, a foggy haze settling around the edges of his vision.
Pushing back pain, Tuck sucked in a deep breath, his feet carrying him forward as if he was walking through quicksand. He had to be seeing things that weren't there. It couldn't be her. "Do you have a positive ID on the woman?" he asked, his voice echoing in his head.
The medical examiner looked up at Tuck, his brows raised questioningly. "You have a need to know?"
"It's okay," Behling said. "He's another special agent."
Tuck moved closer, his gaze fixed on the body. "Jesus." He closed his eyes, pressure squeezing his chest tight. "I know her." He opened his eyes and stared down at the lifeless remains of the woman he'd met a little more than a year ago here at Fort Yates.
Behling's head jerked in his direction, his brow furrowing. "You know her?"
Tuck nodded. "That's Julia Anderson. She was my wife."