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August, usually the hottest month of the year in the New Mexican desert, made former U.S. Marine Travis Blacksheep appreciate the cool predawn temperatures. The steel-blue skies were glowing now, and soon it would be time. Honoring the customs of the Dine, the Navajo People, had helped him leave the memories of war behind him after his deployment to Afghanistan had ended.
As the sun peered over the horizon, Travis took a pinch of pollen from the leather pouch tied to his belt. He touched the powder to the tip of his tongue and the top of his head, then threw it up into the air, chanting as he did. The blessing would clear his path today and allow him to walk in beauty.
Once the prayer was finished, Travis adjusted the hawk fetish he wore on a leather band around his neck, then smiled at the large black mutt lying on the ground beside him, sniffing the air.
"Hey, Crusher, ready for breakfast?"
The dog barked enthusiastically.
Travis petted the dog's massive head. He'd rescued the abandoned mastiff mix from the side of the road several years ago and they'd formed a strong bond. Crusher had even undergone some police-service dog training. Although he excelled at tracking, he'd failed to qualify for normal K-9 duty. Crusher refused to respond to staged threats and wouldn't attack on command.
There was no denying that he was a skilled tracker, however, and very protective of his master. The few times Travis had encountered real danger, the dog hadn't hesitated to respond.
Crusher was aptly named. At one hundred and fifty pounds, he wasn't known for speed, but he could knock an assailant to the ground and keep him pinned without expending much effort. That's why he was allowed to ride with Travis on occasion. The dog's bulk alone was usually enough to ensure a suspect's cooperation. If not, one low-throated snarl was guaranteed to do the job.
They were heading back to the house when Crusher suddenly stopped in his tracks. His nose lifted high up in the air, he growled softly, looking off to the west—the direction of the road.
Travis stood still, listening. After a moment, he heard faint footsteps coming in their direction. It was too early for company and the station would have called if they were sending someone out. It wouldn't be a surprise visit from his police-officer brother, either. Nick worked evenings these days and didn't get home until after midnight. He was undoubtedly curled up in bed beside his wife.
On his own property and off duty, Travis hadn't bothered to clip his pistol to his belt. The training and skills he'd developed as a marine took over now. He remained motionless behind the juniper, trying to identify the number of people approaching and get an exact location. He'd had some trouble with poachers earlier in the summer.
After a moment Travis determined only one person was out there, but the guy crunched through the woods like a water buffalo. If he was here to hunt, the only thing he'd bag was a deaf deer.
Crusher growled again and Travis placed his hand on the big dog's head, a signal for him to remain quiet. The dog obeyed instantly.
Moving around the juniper, Travis crouched and waited, Crusher beside him. As the figure moved past him, Travis reached out and grabbed the subject from behind.
Travis caught the soft scent of roses and immediately realized that the trespasser was a woman. Distant memories suddenly crowded his mind.
Taking advantage of that split second of hesitancy, the woman rammed her elbow directly into his gut.
Travis doubled up and couldn't move fast enough to avoid the inevitable takedown. The horizon stood on its head as she flipped him over her shoulder.
As he looked up from the ground, he found himself staring at the muzzle of a big bore pistol, then at the familiar face beyond.
Crusher suddenly came crashing out of the brush. Before he could leap, Travis yelled out a command. "Stay!"
The dog froze and stood his ground, growling menacingly.
Travis's gaze traveled back to the beautiful woman who held him at gunpoint. "It's you…."
"Can't remember my name? They say that memory's the second thing to go when you get old," she said, putting her gun away slowly. "Can I trust your dog?"
"He's fine," Travis said, petting the dog, who relaxed, sensing that there was no imminent danger.
Travis's gaze drifted down her body slowly. Even the loose-fitting T-shirt couldn't hide those curves. The rest of her wasn't bad either. He noted sexy slim hips clad in plain jeans and those long legs. He hadn't seen Laura in years, but in that time she'd sure filled out in all the right places. Only the laughing eyes were the same—and that smile that could challenge and tease all at the same time.
Laura offered him a hand-up. "Do you always greet early-morning guests this way? I mean, it's an interesting way to say hello and all, but I imagine it can get hard on your back when you meet someone who's more than a match for you," she said, grinning.
"Skinny.. you've sure changed," he said.
She laughed. "No one's called me that since high school."
"I can see why." His gaze remained on her. She'd turned into a knockout with black hair that fell in soft waves around her shoulders and light brown eyes that sparkled with mischief. Most of all she had Attitude—with a capital A.
"So, you're a cop now?" he asked, recognizing her skills.
"I was with the FBI for four years but I've moved into the private sector. I work for New Standards Investigations out of the Albuquerque office."
His eyebrows rose. NSI was well-known among law-enforcement officers. A former FBI assistant director had started the company. They specialized in high-profile cases—and their success rate only enhanced the firm's stellar reputation.
As she moved closer to him, Crusher blocked her, preventing her from reaching Travis.
"It's okay, Crusher. Stand down. She's a friend," he said.
"It's okay, big guy," Laura said softly. Crusher's tail began to wag. Laura looked back at Travis. "Is he a pet or your backup?" Before he could answer, she continued, "I hope he's backup because you can't fight your way out of a paper bag." She shot him a totally outrageous smile.
Although he would normally have taken a jab like that as a direct challenge, her playful tone and those sparkling eyes made him laugh along with her. "I see you've finally come out of your shell, Skinny."
"Back in high school, things were sure different, weren't they? " she asked softly. "Do you remember Nancy? In comparison to her, I came across as shy. But that was only because she was so outgoing—star athlete and all that."
"Yeah, you two hung out together until she got completely wrapped up in sports. She always wanted to be center stage and you were the quiet, mysterious one. So what brings you back here from the big city?"
"Nancy's dead—murdered—and I have reason to believe her killer's living in this area."
"Sounds like we should go to the house and talk," he said, leading the way up the rocky path. Constructed of pine logs and a green metal roof, his home fit into the hillside as naturally as the trees around it.
Travis walked inside ahead of her, in accordance with Navajo customs. Although Anglo men were taught to let the women pass first, Navajo men preferred to take the lead. If there was trouble, they'd be the first to face it. Laura didn't comment, so he didn't offer to explain.
"You've got a personal stake in this case. I'm surprised NSI is allowing you to work on it," he commented.
"They're not. I'm on my own time."
Travis led her into the large modern kitchen. "It's still early. Have you had breakfast?" he asked.
Laura shook her head. "I haven't had much of an appetite lately."
He stepped over to the fridge. "Let me fix us something and while I'm working, you can fill me in."
"Yeah. I hate eating takeout all the time," he said, bringing some eggs and cheddar cheese out of the fridge.
She didn't speak right away and he didn't push. Long pauses were common when Navajos spoke. Waiting was second nature to him.
"My friend was murdered six weeks ago," she finally said, her voice wavering slightly. "I won't mention her name again.
I remember what you taught me a long time ago about the chindi."
"Thanks." He appreciated the courtesy. Although he embraced the modern way of life, as a New Traditionalist he still lived by his Navajo beliefs. To use the name of the dead was said to call back their chindi, the evil in a person that survived death but remained earthbound, unable to merge with Universal Harmony.
"What happened to her?" he asked as he worked.
Laura gave him the details, pausing a few times to keep her voice steady. "The detectives didn't find any semen. He obviously used protection. But they were able to collect blood samples from the hit he took in the shoulder. There wasn't a DNA match in any of their databases."
"So he's not on any sex-offender lists," he said thoughtfully. "And you checked hospital records, right?" he asked. She nodded. "So he must have treated himself, and has probably recovered by now. We're assuming, of course, that we're only dealing with one suspect."
"I've got reason to believe we are."
"What led you here, specifically?"
"I've investigated this case from every possible angle. I also searched through RMIN and national databases like NCIC for similar crimes."
Travis nodded, familiar with the names she'd mentioned. RMIN was the Rocky Mountain Information Network—pronounced rim-in by law enforcement—and the National Crime Information Center, with its FBI origins, was a national database. Computer searches allowed officers to compare a crime under investigation to ones committed by known criminals. Similar M.O.'s could then be used to narrow down suspects.
"And you got a hit? "
"Yes. Five months prior to my friend's murder, a young high-school basketball star was found assaulted and strangled in her home in Bloomfield. That's less than fifteen miles east
of Three Rivers. Since that crime was committed prior to the attack on my friend, I'd first assumed that the suspect had left this area and was working his way west, into Arizona. Then, just a week ago, a reservation women's softball coach was murdered in Shiprock. That's less than an hour's drive from the Bloomfield scene and the Shiprock M.O. matched the two previous homicides."
"So you're thinking since two of three similar crimes have occurred in this area, the suspect either lives here or in one of the Four Corners communities."
"Exactly," she said. "Since Three Rivers is the largest city in this part of the state, I've decided to make it my base of operations." She paused, then after a beat, continued, "You and I were good friends once. You knew me and Nan—" she stopped herself short. "And my friend," she corrected. "That's why I was hoping you'd agree to work with me after hours."
"I know about the coach's murder—all of our officers were briefed—but the crime occurred outside my jurisdiction. Cases on the Rez are handled by the tribal police and the feds," Travis said.
"I know, but you'll still have access to much of the information. Intelligence on open cases is shared by local departments." She looked directly into his eyes. "Back in high school, you and I always had each other's backs. That's why I came to find you when I learned that you were a police officer here in Three Rivers."
He stared at an indefinite point on the wall, lost in thought. Back then they'd lived day-to-day. Poverty had been an ever-present shadow neither of them could outrun. Their friendship had been forged through adversity. He'd always known he could trust Laura not to betray his secrets. She had too many of her own.
"I need your help," she said at last.
Something in her voice told him how hard it had been for her to admit that.