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Cordell Winchester almost missed the Whitehorse Hotel. The old four-story brick building sat in a grove of cottonwoods on the far edge of town, the morning sun glinting off the worn structure.
More than a hundred years old, the place looked deserted. He took note of the vacant surroundings as he parked and went inside. The first thing that struck him was the aging smell, reminding him unpleasantly of his grandmother's lodge. It wasn't a reminder he needed this morning.
He'd been seven the last time he'd seen the Winchester Ranch—twenty-seven years ago—but he recalled the rambling old place only too well. He had always thought nothing could get him back to Whitehorse—let alone to the ranch.
The hotel lobby was done in overstuffed couches and chairs, the upholstery fabrics as dated as the furniture. At the unoccupied registration desk, he rang the bell, then turned to look toward the small parking area outside. No sign of his brother's black pickup.
Where was Cyrus? Not at Winchester Ranch. Cordell had called out there and their grandmother hadn't seen or heard from him. So where the hell was he?
Cordell took off his Stetson and raked a hand through his thick dark hair as he studied the small Western town in the distance. At a sound, he spun around to find an ancient man had appeared behind the counter as if out of nowhere.
"May I help you?" asked the stooped, gray-headed old man.
"My brother Cyrus Winchester is staying with you," he said, settling the Stetson back on his head.
The man nodded, showing no sign of surprise at seeing Cyrus's identical twin. Clearly this man hadn't checked in his brother last night. The clerk thumbed through a file with gnarled fingers. "412. Shall I ring him for you?" He'd already picked up the phone and dialed the room.
Just as Cordell had expected, Cyrus didn't answer. He'd been trying his brother's cell since late last night and gotten no answer and Cyrus's truck was missing. A sure sign Cyrus wasn't here.
Cordell wished now that he'd insisted his brother wait and they ride together, but Cyrus wanted to leave a few days earlier and stop to see friends in Wyoming. Cordell had been tied up with a case and couldn't leave until yesterday. He'd flown into Billings, spent the night and had driven the rest of the way this morning.
He and Cyrus had planned to go out for breakfast when he arrived, where Cordell had planned to make one last attempt to try to talk his brother out of this visit to their grandmother.
"I'm afraid there is no answer in his room."
"Did you happen to see him leave?" Cordell asked even though he figured that was doubtful. The parking area, he'd noticed when he'd driven in, was at the back of the hotel. The clerk couldn't see it from the front desk.
The old man's head wobbled back and forth. "I just came on duty."
"I'm worried about him." He couldn't put his finger on what had him so worried, but it was more than just being unable to reach his brother by phone since yesterday afternoon. "I'd like to check his room."
The elderly clerk hesitated.
Cordell took out his wallet, flashed his driver's license ID and Colorado private investigator license, explaining he was Cyrus's twin brother. He also laid a twenty on the counter. "I wouldn't ask except my brother hasn't been himself lately." Unfortunately true. Cyrus had been acting strangely since getting the letter from their grandmother's attorney inviting them back to the ranch.
The letter implied that their grandmother, Pepper Winchester, who'd spent the past twenty-seven years as a recluse, was dying and anyone who didn't come to the ranch would be exempt from a share of the legendary Winchester fortune.
Neither of them believed the fortune existed. And if it did, they weren't about to let their grandmother manipulate them with it. They'd seen the way their grandmother had used it to control their father and his brothers and sister.
But Cyrus had been insistent about wanting to go back to the ranch one last time. "Remember Enid and Alfred? I wonder if they're still alive. Come on, Cordell, haven't you ever wanted to see the ranch again?"
"Maybe I just want to see if that rambling old lodge is as scary as I remember it or the ranch is as vast as I recall."
Cordell didn't get it and said as much.
"You just don't want to go because Grandmother liked me best," his twin joked, a joke because their grandmother hadn't given a damn about any of her grandchildren even before she'd holed up at the ranch.
"I suppose it would be all right if you had a look in his room," the hotel clerk said now as he pocketed the twenty. He reached behind him and removed a key attached to an orange piece of plastic with the number 412 engraved on it and laid the key on the counter.
Cordell noticed that the other key to 412 was missing.
Rather than take the antiquated elevator, he ran up the stairs. He'd never liked small spaces. They reminded him of a room on the ranch that had been used as punishment when his father was a boy. The room had given him the creeps.
Just the thought made his stomach knot. What the hell was he doing here? Whitehorse, Montana, was the last place on earth he wanted to be. He had no desire to see his grandmother. Nor did he have any desire to return to the ranch and dredge up even some of the happier memories because, in his mind, the ranch was—if not haunted—then definitely cursed.
From the get-go, Cordell had had a bad feeling. That was why he hadn't been about to let Cyrus go out there alone. Cyrus and trouble just seemed to find each other.
And that was what had Cordell worried now. He should have heard from his twin by now.
At room 412, he knocked lightly as he studied the worn carpet under his boots. A warm breeze blew in through a window at the end of the hallway near the old-fashioned metal fire escape exit. The place smelled of decay and cleaner. It was just like Cyrus to pick a hotel like this to stay in, what his brother would have called "authentic."
He knocked again, a little louder this time just in case his brother had hung one on last night at the four bars in town and walked the half mile back from town, leaving his pickup wherever it had been parked.
"Cyrus," he called as he used the key and opened the door.
"He's not in there," said a female voice from down the hall.
Cordell turned to see an older woman with a cleaning cart.
"From the looks of his room, he didn't sleep here last night," she said and pursed her lips scornfully.
Cordell didn't like the sound of that and felt his anxiety multiply. He'd always "felt" his identical twin, sensed him on some cell-deep level even when they were miles apart.
He couldn't feel his brother. It was as if Cyrus was… The thought that his twin might be dead sent a gut-wrenching terror through him.
Pushing open the door to the room, he saw Cyrus's bag next to the undisturbed bed. The housekeeper was right. It didn't appear Cyrus had spent any time in the room other than to drop off his bag.
Moving through the small hotel room, he saw that his brother hadn't even dirtied a glass or broken the paper band on the toilet seat and his fear intensified.
Cordell pulled out his cell, saw that he hadn't received any calls from his twin, and started to call the ranch again when he spied Cyrus's cell phone on the table by the window.
Cyrus didn't go anywhere without his cell phone.
Heart pounding, he walked over and started to pick it up when he saw his brother's room key lying on the floor next to the wall where it must have fallen. Next to it was a paper convenience-mart cup on its side on the carpet in the middle of a dark stain that looked like spilled coffee.
Cordell fought to remain calm as he surveyed the scene, noticing that the curtain was pulled back, the window opened a few inches as if his brother had heard something and looked out and seen…what?
The room was located at the back of the hotel. A strip of pavement made up the parking area. Beyond it was a stand of huge old cottonwoods that grew along what could have once been a ditch or creek.
Past that were piles of old lumber and scrap iron, and in the distance, Cordell could make out a weathered old run-down farmhouse. Several old cars were up on blocks and the yard was littered with toys. A bunch of sorry-looking kids were outside. They seemed to be hunting for something. He heard them calling for someone.
A large woman stood on the front steps of the farmhouse, her hands on her hefty hips. She appeared to be giving the children orders in a strident voice.
Cordell turned his attention back to the parking lot below the window. He could see the glitter of glass on the patched pavement under the only light post. When his brother had arrived last night, it would have already been dark—especially in the parking lot without a light.
What could he have seen?
There were two cars parked between the faded painted lines, an old brown sedan with local plates and a blue VW bug with California plates. The VW had a flat tire on the left rear.
He stared at the flat tire unable to shake the bad feeling that had settled over him. Cyrus must have seen something down there last night. Something that had made him drop everything and run down to help?
He picked up his brother's cell phone and checked to see if he'd gotten any messages other than Cordell's this morning, then checked Cyrus's outgoing calls.
Fear settled like a boulder in his belly when he saw that the last number his twin had called was 911.
As Cordell started to look for a phone book to call the sheriff's department, he saw his brother's pickup coming up the road. Relief flooded him and yet at the same time he wanted to throttle his twin for scaring him like this.
He watched the pickup come in from a back way and wondered why he couldn't feel that connection that had always been there between the two of them.
It unsettled him and made him more anxious as he glanced at his watch. Cyrus was more than three hours late. Not only that, he'd also apparently spent the night elsewhere. It wasn't like his brother to have met a woman and been tom-cattin' around all night.
Cordell couldn't throw off the feeling that something had happened.
As the pickup pulled into the back lot and parked, he watched anxiously, just needing to see that his brother was all right.
The door of the pickup opened and with a start Cordell watched as a woman wearing a baseball cap over her short bluntly cut black hair climbed out. She was dressed in jeans, a jean jacket over a T-shirt and sneakers. Not really Cyrus's type, he thought.
Then she did something that sent a jolt through him.
She glanced nervously around the parking lot before her gaze shot up to the window where he stood. Cordell stepped back at the same instant and watched from behind the edge of the curtain as she opened the VW, took out something and seemed to stuff it under her jacket before heading for the back door of the hotel.
He quickly pocketed his brother's cell phone and room key and stepped into the closet, leaving the door open just enough that he could see most of the room.
It wasn't long before he heard voices out in the hallway, both female. He knew without hearing all the conversation that the young woman driving his brother's truck had conned the maid into opening Cyrus's room for her.
He heard the door open, then close and lock. For a moment, she stood perfectly still as if listening, as well. Then she quickly moved to Cyrus's overnight bag on the end of the bed.
Cordell had a good view of her backside from where he was hidden. The woman appeared to be five-six or seven, slim with an athletic build and enough curves to fill out her jeans nicely. Had this woman been in trouble, Cyrus would have jumped to her defense without a second thought.
She unzipped the bag and hurriedly rummaged through it. He wondered what she was looking for.