It was one of the worst blizzards in the history of the Rancho Real in Catelow, Wyoming. Dalton Kirk stared out the window and grimaced as the flakes seemed to grow in size by the minute. It was the middle of December. Usually weather like this came later.
He pulled out his cell phone and called Darby Hanes, his foreman. "Darby, how's it going out there?"
"Cattle are pretty deep in it," Darby replied, his voice breaking up with static, "but we're holding our own with feed so far. Getting hard to reach them, though."
"I hope this doesn't last long," he said heavily.
"Me, too, but we need the snow for the spring water supply so badly, I'm not complaining." Darby chuckled.
"Take care out there."
"Sure. Thanks, boss."
He hung up. He hated the storms but Darby was right about their desperate need for snow. The summer drought had made it hard on ranchers all over the West and Midwest. He just hoped they'd be able to get feed to the cattle. In an emergency, of course, federal and state agencies would help to airlift bales of hay to the animals.
He went into the living room and turned on the History channel. Might as well occupy himself instead of worrying so much, he thought amusedly.
Mavie, the housekeeper, frowned as she thought she heard something at the back door. She was clearing away dishes in the kitchen, nervous because the storm seemed to be getting worse.
Curious, though, she went and peered through the white curtains and gasped when she saw a pale, oval face with wide, green eyes staring back at her.
"Merissa?" she asked, shocked.
She opened the door. There, in a hooded, bloodred cape, almost covered with snow, stood a neighbor. Merissa Baker lived with her mother, Clara, way back in the woods in a cottage. They were what local people called "peculiar." Clara could talk out fire and talk off warts. She knew all sorts of herbal remedies for illness and they said she had the "second sight" as well, that she could see the future. Her daughter was rumored to have the same abilities, only magnified. She recalled that when Merissa had been in school, her classmates had shunned her and victimized her so badly that her mother pulled her out of the local high school because of her ongoing stomach problems. The school system had sent a homeschool worker with her classwork and oversaw her curriculum. She had graduated with her class, with grades that shamed most of them.
She'd tried to work locally, but her reputation was unsettling to some of the conservative businesses, so she went home and helped her mother, earning her living with a combination of fortune-telling and online website design, at which she was quite good. She had an older computer, and a cheap internet connection at first, but as her business grew, she'd started making money. She'd managed to afford better equipment and higher internet speed. Now, she was very successful. She designed websites for at least one quite famous author and several businesses.
"Come in out of the snow, child!" Mavie exclaimed. "You're soaked!"
"The car wouldn't start," Merissa said in her soft, delicate voice. She was almost as tall as Mavie, who was just above five feet seven inches. She had thick, short, wavy platinum hair and pale green eyes that were huge in her face. She had a rounded little chin and a pretty, naturally pink bow-shaped mouth, and tiny ears. And a smile that could have melted stone.
"What are you doing here in a storm?"
"I have to see Dalton Kirk," she said solemnly. "And it's urgent."
"Tank?" Mavie asked blankly, using the youngest Kirk brother's affectionate nickname.
"Can I ask what it's about?" Mavie asked, confused, because she didn't think the family had any business dealings with Merissa.
Merissa smiled gently. "I'm afraid not."
"Oh. Well, let me go get him, then."
"I'll wait here. I don't want to drip on the carpet," the young woman said with a laugh that sounded like silver bells.
Mavie went into the living room. There was, fortunately, a commercial. Dalton had turned the sound off.
"Damn things," he muttered. "One minute of program and five minutes of commercials, do they really think people are going to sit there and watch so many at once?" he huffed. He frowned at Mavie's expression. "What's wrong?"
"You know the Bakers, don't you? They live in that cottage down the road, in the cottonwood thicket."
"Merissa is here. She says she has to talk to you."
"Okay." He got up. "Bring her in here."
"She won't come. She got wet walking here."
"She walked? In this?" He gestured at the window where huge flakes of snow were falling. "There's almost a foot of snow on the ground already!"
"She said her car wouldn't start."
He sighed. He turned off the television and put down the remote control. He followed Mavie into the kitchen.
His eyes took in the slender figure of his guest. She was very pretty. Her lips were a natural red. Her eyes were big and soft and green. Her face was rather pointed, and her rounded chin made her seem vulnerable. She was wearing a hooded red cloak and it, and she, were soaked.
"Merissa, isn't it?" he asked gently.
She nodded. She was self-conscious around men. Afraid of them, too, really. She hoped it didn't show.
Dalton was very big, like all the Kirk boys. He had jet-black hair and dark eyes and a lean, angular face. He was wearing jeans and boots and a chambray shirt. He didn't look like a very wealthy man at all.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
She glanced toward Mavie.
"Oh, I'll just go dust the living room for a bit," Mavie said with a grin. She left them alone, pulling the door closed behind her as she went into the hall.
"You're in terrible danger," Merissa said without preamble.
He blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I'm sorry. I just blurt these things out, I don't mean to." She bit her lip. "I have visions. My mother does, too. The neurologist says it's an aura from migraine, which I also have, but if that's all, why do the visions always come true?" She sighed. "I had a vision about you. I had to tell you about it right away so you wouldn't be hurt."
"Okay, I'm listening." Privately he thought she needed a good psychologist more than a neurologist, but he wasn't going to say that. She was very young; barely twenty-two if he remembered correctly. "Go ahead."
"You were attacked in Arizona by four men, just a few months ago," she said. Her eyes were closed. If they hadn't been, she'd have seen Dalton's suddenly still posture and taut features. "One of the men with you was wearing a paisley shirt.."
She opened her eyes and grimaced as he glared at her.
"How did you know that?" he asked, moving forward so fast that she backed up too quickly and stumbled into a chair, almost falling. She caught the table just in time. "Who told you?" he demanded, although he stopped going toward her.
told me. I saw it," she tried to explain. Heavens, he was fast! She'd never seen a man move like that.
"Saw it, how?"
"In my head. It was a vision," she tried to explain. Her cheeks were flushed. He thought she was crazy. "Please, let me finish. The man in the paisley shirt, he was wearing a suit and you trusted him. There was another man, a man with dark skin wearing a lot of gold jewelry. In fact, his pistol had gold plating and pearls on it."
"I only ever told my brothers that!" he said angrily. "Them, and my supervisor and, later, the DOJ guys!"
"The man in the paisley shirt," she continued. "He isn't who you think he is. He has ties to a drug cartel." Her eyes closed again. "He's made some sort of bargain with a man high up in politics in this country. I don't know what, I can't see it. But I do know this. The other man is running for public office, some very high office with money and political superiority in the balance." She swallowed and opened her eyes. "He wants to have you killed."
"Me?" he asked. "What for?"
"Because of the man in the paisley shirt," she explained. "He was with that man who shot you, who's now second-in-command to the leader of the drug cartel. But it isn't known. The cartel put up money so he could run for public office, high public office. Once he's elected, if he is, he'll make sure the drug convoys get across the border with no interference. I don't know how." She held up a hand when he looked as if he might question that. "They're going to try to have you killed so that you can't tell on him."
"Hell, I identified the shooter to the authorities. They have notes on my debriefing," he scoffed. "It's all in there, about the shooter with the gold-plated weapon, the gold jewelry, the lizard-skin boots, the gold tooth with a diamond that he wore for a front tooththe works." He laughed curtly. "It's too late for them to silence me."
"I'm just telling you what I saw," she stammered. "It isn't about the man with the gold-plated weaponit's about the man wearing the paisley shirt. He's working for the politician. He's already tried to have a sheriff killed, a man who might have recognized him. The sheriff was shot
" She closed her eyes and squinted, as if her head hurt. In fact, it did. "He's afraid of both of you. If you recognize him, his ties to the politician will be made public and the politician will end up in prison. So will he. It isn't the first time he's killed to protect his boss."
Tank sat down. This was intense stuff. It brought back nightmarish memories from the shooting. The impact of the bullets, the smell of blood, the dark-skinned man's insane laughter while he fired the automatic pistol. There really had been another man there, a man in a paisley shirt, as she said, wearing a suit.
"Why didn't I remember that?" he mumbled out loud. He put his hand to his eyes. "There was a man in a paisley shirt. He asked for backup. He said a drug deal was going down, a big one. I drove out there with him. He said he was from the DEA" He broke off and gaped at Merissa.
"You hadn't remembered that," she said slowly.
He nodded. His face was ashen. There were beads of sweat just above his chiseled mouth.
She knelt on the floor beside his chair and held his big hand, the one that wasn't rubbing his eyes. "It's all right," she said in a tone of voice that sounded like he imagined an angel of mercy would sound. "It's all right."
He didn't like being babied. He jerked his hand away, and then was sorry when she stood up and backed away, looking hunted.
She couldn't imagine the memories she'd kindled within him. He was trying to deal with them, and not very successfully. "People say you're a witch," he blurted out.
She didn't take offence. She only nodded. "I know."
He stared at her. There was something really otherworldly about her. She was almost fragile, despite her height; quiet, docile. She seemed so much at peace with herself and the world. The only turmoil was in her big, soft green eyes, which were looking at him with a mix of sympathy and fear.
"Why are you afraid of me?" he asked suddenly.
She shifted. "It's nothing personal."
large," she faltered. She shivered.
He cocked his head, frowning.
She forced a smile. "I have to go," she said. "I just wanted you to know what I saw, so that you could keep your eyes open and be alert."
"We have a fortune invested in surveillance equipment here, mostly because of our prize-winning bulls."
She nodded. "It won't matter. They sent a professional assassin after the sheriff in Texas. He had surveillance equipment, too. Or at least I think he did."
He drew in a long breath. He stood up, calmer now. "I know some people in Texas. Where?"
She shifted uneasily. He towered over her. "South Texas. Somewhere south of San Antonio. I don't know anything else. Sorry."
That should be easy to track down. If there'd been a shooting of a law enforcement official, it would be public and he could search for it online. He wanted to do that, if only to prove her so-called vision false.
"Thanks anyway. For the warning." He smiled with pure sarcasm.
"You don't believe me. That's all right. Just
watch where you're going. Please." She turned and pulled up her hood.
He recalled that she'd walked here.
"Just a sec," he said. He went to the hall closet, pulled out a shepherd's coat and threw it on. "I'll drive you home," he said, digging in his pocket for his car keys. Then he remembered that he'd put them on the hook beside the back door. With a grimace, he retrieved them.
"You shouldn't do that," she began uneasily.
"What? Drive you home? It's almost a blizzard. You can't even see where you're going in this!" he said, waving his hand toward the window.
"Hang your keys there," she faltered. There was a strange, opaque look to her eyes. "You shouldn't do that. He'll find them there and get access to the house."
"He, who?" he asked.
She looked up at him and blinked.
"Never mind," he muttered. "Come on."