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It didn't snow in Whiskey Creek often. But when it did, it took Cheyenne Christensen back to another time and place. Not one filled with picture-perfect memories of warm holidays, gaily wrapped packages and hot apple cider, like the Christmases her friends enjoyed. No, this kind of weather made her feel sick inside, as if something dark and terrible had happened on just such a night.
She wished she could remember exactly what. For years she'd racked her brain, trying to make sense of her earliest memories, to conjure up the woman with the smiling face and pretty blond hair who featured in so many of them. Was she an aunt? A teacher? A family friend?
Surely it wasn't her mother! Cheyenne already had a mother who insisted there'd been no one in her life meeting that description.
That didn't mean it was true, however. Anita had never been particularly reliablein any regard.
"Chey, where are you? I need my pain meds."
Real mother or not, the woman who'd raised her was awake. Again. It was getting harder and harder for Anita to rest.
Trying to shake off the stubborn melancholy that had crept over her when the snow began to fall, Cheyenne turned away from the window. The three-bedroom hovel she shared with her mother and sister wasn't anything to be proud of. She'd put up a Christmas tree and lights, and kept the place clean, but their house was easily the most humble abode in Amador County.
Still, it was better than the beater cars and fleabag motel rooms she'd lived in growing up. At least it provided some stability.
"Be right there!" She hurried to the cupboard to get the morphine. After more than a decade, her mother's cancer was back. Cheyenne hated to see anyone suffer. But if Anita hadn't gotten sick fifteen years ago, they might never have settled down, and coming to Whiskey Creek was the best thing that had ever happened to Cheyenne. As guilty as it made her feel, she would always be grateful for the diagnosis that stopped all the shiftless rambling and finally enabled her and her sister to enroll in school. She just wished the cancer that had started in Anita's ovaries had stayed in remission instead of reappearing in her pancreas.
"What are you doing out there while I'm lying in here, suffering?" her mother demanded as soon as Cheyenne walked into the room. "You don't really care about me. You never have."
Fearing there might be some truth in those words, which sounded slurred because she wasn't wearing her dentures, Chey refused to meet her mother's gaze. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to be a good daughter," she said, but even she believed it was duty, not love, that motivated her. She held too much against Anita, had longed to escape her for so many years she couldn't remember when she'd first started feeling that way.
Anita preferred her sister, anyway. She'd made that clear all along. Fortunately, Cheyenne didn't have a problem with it. Presley was older by two years. She came first and would always be number one with Anita.
"I did my best by you," her mother said, suddenly defensive.
Here we go again. She brought a spoonful of morphine to her mother's lips. "That might be true," she conceded. But it was also true that Anita's best fell far short of ideal. Until they came to Whiskey Creek, she and Presley had been dragged through almost every state in the western half of the country. They'd gone hungry and cold and been left alone in cars or with strangers for indefinite periods of time. They'd even been forced to beg on street corners or at the entrances to malls when their mother deemed it necessary.
"You never cut me any slack," Anita complained, snorting as she attempted to shift positions.
Determined to preserve the peace, Cheyenne changed the subject. "Are you hungry? Would you like a sandwich or some soup?"
Her mother waved dismissively. "I can't eat right now."
Cheyenne helped her get comfortable and smoothed the bedding. "The meds will make you sick if you don't get something in your stomach. Remember what happened last night."
"I'm sick, anyway. I can hardly keep anything down. And I don't want to put my dentures in. The damn things don't fit right. Where's your sister?"
"You know where Presley is. She works at the casino."
"She never comes around anymore."
That had to be the painkiller talking. Not only did Presley live with them, she watched Anita during the day so Cheyenne could work at the bed-and-breakfast owned by her best friend's familyand as long as Presley didn't have the money to buy dope, she helped out on weekends, too. "She left a couple of hours ago." Already it seemed like an eternity to Cheyenne, and evidently Anita felt the same way.
Growing more agitated, her mother shook her head.
"I haven't seen her in ages. She's abandoned me. I'm surprised you're the one who stayed."
It wasn't so unusual that Chey would be the daughter to come through for her in difficult times. She'd always been the most responsible in the family. She almost said so, but what was the point? Her mother would believe what she wanted. "She'll be here again in the morning." And as soon as she got home, she'd crash in her bed
"Can you call her?"
"I'm here to take care of whatever you need. Why bother her?"
"Because I want to talk to her, that's why!"
Chey knew she couldn't deal with her mother if she was going to be difficult again. "Calm down, okay?"
"I'm not acting up!" She struggled to sit but couldn't manage it. "Who the hell do you think you are? Where do you think you'd be without me, anyway?"
"That's what I'd like to know." She had a feeling she'd be someplace better. But that was the suspicion talking. She normally didn't say such things. Today, the words rushed out before Cheyenne could stop them. Then they hung in the air like a foul stench.
Her mother blinked at her. Her eyes, though rheumy with sickness, could still turn mean. But she'd lost the power she'd once wielded. She could no longer frighten Cheyenne.
Anita must've realized it wouldn't do her any good to rail, because she didn't let her temper boil over. Her voice became whiny. "You can treat me like this when I'm about to die?"
There was nothing more the doctors could do. They'd prescribed liquid morphine for the pain and Ativan to ease the anxiety, and released Anita so she could spend her last weeks at home. Pancreatic cancer typically moved fast. But Cheyenne didn't think Anita had arrived at her final moments quite yet. "Let's not despair too soon."
"You won't shed a tear when I'm gone."
Hoping to distract her, Cheyenne turned on the TV. "I'll heat some soup while you watch Jeopardy!'''
Anita caught her before she could walk out. "I've always loved you. I could've abandoned you, but I didn't.
I kept you with me every step of the way, even though it wasn't always easy to feed and clothe you."
Cheyenne pivoted to confront her. "Who was the blonde woman? Someone you used to leave me with?"
Anita grimaced. "What blonde woman?"
"I've told you about her before. I can remember someone with blue eyes and platinum-blond hair. I was with her, wearing a princess dress, and there were presents all around as if it was my birthday."
A strange expression came over Anita's sallow face, one that led Cheyenne to believe she might finally receive an explanation. Her mother knew something. But then a hint of the malevolence Anita had just masked sparkled in her eyes. "Why do you keep asking about that stuff? I don't know what on earth you're talking about."
Presley Christensen sat in the parking lot of the Rain Dance Casino, smoking a cigarette in her 1967 Mustang. It was cold outside, too cold to have the window cracked open, especially when the heater was busted, but if she wanted to smoke she had little choice. It was against California state law to light up in a public building, and she sure as hell wasn't going to stand outside.
Crossing her ankles beneath the steering wheel, she took a long, calming drag. As a card dealer, she was entitled to a fifteen-minute break every hour, which sounded like a lot but wasn't, not when she was on her feet for the rest of her shift. She had three hours to go and already her back ached. She wished she could earn a living some other way, but there weren't many options available to someone without so much as a high school diploma. She was lucky to have her GED and a job. "Excuse me."
A man rapped on her window, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. Where had he come from? She hadn't seen anyone approaching
She locked the door to be certain he couldn't get in and spoke to him through the gap in her window. "What do you want?"
Several years ago, a woman had been abducted from a casino northeast of Sacramento. Presley hadn't heard of anything like that happening where she lived, but it was nearly three in the morning, and she was out in the dark alone with a stranger. One who'd been drinking for all she knew.
He lifted his hands in a calming gesture. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. I'm Eugene Crouch, a private investigator." He used a penlight to illuminate the ID he flashed at her. "Are you Presley?"
She wasn't sure whether to answer him. She was afraid the P.I. claim was designed to lower her guard. Her first name was, after all, sewn onto her blouse. "What if I am?" she asked skeptically.
"I'm looking for someone you might know."
She practically dropped her cigarette. As it was, some ash fell into her lap and she had to brush it away before it could burn a hole in her uniform. What did this man want with her mother?
Considering the way Anita had lived her life, he couldn't have any good reason to be looking for her. As the black-sheep daughter of a hard-bitten, broken woman who'd had six kids by as many men, she wasn't likely to inherit money. And, like her own mother, Anita had never been accepted by her extended family, so Presley doubted this man was here to help some long-lost friend or relative reconnect. .
Maybe she'd stolen a watch from someone who'd paid her for sex and the police had issued a warrant for her arrest. Or worse. She'd once crashed into a man on a bicycle and driven away from the scene of the accident. She'd been drinking and shouldn't have been behind the wheel. Presley was surprised she'd suffered no repercussions for that. But it'd happened in Arizona and they'd crossed into New Mexico right after.
Presley had shoved that incident into the back of her minduntil now.
This could also be about welfare fraud or tax evasion, she supposed. Anita had done anything she could to get by.
"Say that name again?" She took another drag on her cigarette while trying to decide how to answer.
"Anita Christensen. Used to be Karen Bateman. Went by the name of Laura Dumas before that."
Presley had a vague recollection of being told her last name was Batemanmaybe when she was eight or nine. But she'd never heard of Dumas. That one must've been before she was old enough to remember. "None of those names are familiar to me." She'd been trained to protect her mother, to assist in whatever con Anita was running. If she didn't, they'd go hungry. Or she and her sister would be abandoned. She was too old for those threats to have the same effect, but old habits and loyalties were hard to break.
"You're sure?" he pressed, obviously disappointed. "You're listed as a reference on a credit card application from years back, in New Mexico. She claimed you were her daughter."
She'd only been sixteen when they were in New Mexico. How had he been able to trace her from there?
"I've never lived in New Mexico." Presley felt no remorse for lying, just an odd sense of panic that this might spill over onto her. Right or wrong, she'd done what her mother had taught her to do.
"Christensen might not be an unusual name, but Presley is," he persisted. "As a first name, I mean."
"Maybe this Anita person liked Elvis as much as my own mother did."
Presley considered herself a pro when it came to misinformation, but he seemed stubbornly unconvinced. "She may have assumed yet another identity," he said. "Would you mind taking a look at her picture?"
"Sorry." She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray. "My break's over. I've got to get to work."
Except she didn't dare open the door with him standing there, and he wasn't backing off. She hesitated with her hand on the latch, and that was all the opportunity he needed.
"It'll only take a second." He pulled out an old mug shot, which he illuminated with the penlight like he had his ID. "She's the one on the right."
Presley was too nervous to really look. She knew who she'd see, but with her mother sick and about to die she figured it didn't matter anymore. Whatever Anita had done wrong, cancer was punishment enough. "Never seen her before in my life," she said as her eyes flicked over it.
He held up another picture. "Do you recognize either of these two?"
She nearly told him he had to leave or she was going to call the police on her cell phone, but clamped her lips shut. She did recognize one of the two subjects of that photograph. Chey was in it as a very young girl. And something about her struck Presley as odd. Although Anita had looked as Presley would've expectedsignificantly younger but still unkemptChey didn't. Her hair was curled into pretty ringlets tied with a ribbon, and she was wearing a fancy dress with black patent leather shoes.
When had this picture been taken? And why wasn't she in it? She couldn't remember a single time their mother had bothered to curl their hair. They'd been lucky to have a comb to straighten out the snarls after several days without a bath.
Not only that, but
who was the third personthe pretty blonde woman?
"Ms. Christensen?" the man prompted.
What did this picture mean?
The possibilities terrified Presley. Anita was about to die. She couldn't lose Chey, too. "I don't recognize them, either."