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Her hand trembled as she opened the closet to find the baseball bat where she'd hidden it in the very back corner. After last time, she'd considered getting rid of the bat. Instead, she'd wiped off the splattering of blood as best she could and kept it.
She wasn't stupid. She watched CSI and all the other forensics television shows. She knew about blood splatters, about DNA, about trace evidence.
But she also knew it wouldn't be good to change anything. Ritual, she knew, was important. It should always be a Saturday night. She should always wear the same blue dress she'd worn the first time. She should always use the old baseball bat she'd found.
"I thought you were going out with friends?" called a voice from the living room. She could hear the TV. One of those reality shows was on. "It's getting kind of late though to be going now, isn't it?"
She bit down on her irritation. She was sick of being told what to do. Sick of other people's expectations for her. She put the bat on the bed and reached for her blue dress. There was one little blood spot along the hem that she'd had trouble getting out. She frowned, worried that even one spot might be enough to change things. To ruin the routine. To jinx her.
She worried at the spot for a moment. Maybe she shouldn't go into town tonight. But it was Saturday. There would be a band at one of the bars. There would be men who would get drunk and want to dance with her.
She thought of the smell of them, the feel of their sweaty hands on the blue dress, the sound of their breathing as they pressed themselves against her.
She put on the dress and picked up the bat. A woman on TV was gagging loudly as if unable to swallow something revolting.
She went out the back door, letting it slam. It was Saturday night. She was wearing her blue dress. She had the bat. And wouldn't some man be surprised tonight.
Sunday morning Laney Cavanaugh looked down at the book in her lap, then out at the country. She was having trouble keeping her mind on what was being touted the summer beach-book read. Maybe it required a beach.
This part of northeastern Montana couldn't be farther from the shore. She could see from horizon to horizon, the rolling landscape awash with tall golden grass that undulated in the morning breeze. Etched against the horizon to the east was the dark outline of an old windmill. To the southwest was the faint smudge of the Little Rockies and the Bear Paw Mountains. In between was prairie, miles and miles of it.
"Boring, huh?" her sister said as she came out of the house, the screen door slamming behind her.
"No wonder Mother hated it here." Laci plopped down in the chair next to Laney's with a huge sigh.
Laney didn't hate it here. Coming here had always given her a sense of peace. She liked the quiet, the only sound crickets chirping in the grass or the closer buzz of a bee in the flower bed along the porch. At night sometimes the wind blew or rain fell in a monotonous drone that lulled her to sleep.
Today though, she felt restless. The July air seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for something. She felt that same sense of anticipation inside her like the flutter of butterfly wings. Something was about to happen.
She didn't share these thoughts with Laci, who would have made fun of her. "You are so dramatic," her younger sister often said. "You should have been an actor or a writer or well, anything but an accountant."
"I'm going to bake some cookies," Laci said, shoving herself out of the chair. Her sister had never been able to sit still for long. It was only nine in the morning. Laci had already made them both breakfast including a blueberry coffee cake, a spinachand-bacon quiche and smoothies. But then Laci wasn't happy unless she was cooking.
"I've never understood why Gramps keeps this place," Laci said as the screen slammed behind her.
Laney understood. This house was all they had left of their daughter Geneva. She and Laci had been born here. That was before their father had been killed in a car accident between here and the small Montana town of Whitehorse to the north.
The first settlement of Whitehorse had been nearer the Missouri River. But when the railroad came through, the town migrated five miles north, taking the name with it.
The original settlement of Whitehorse was now little more than a ghost town except for a handful of ranches and a few of the original remaining buildings. It was locally referred to as Old Town.
Old Town Whitehorse had once been the home of horse thieves who'd been either hanged or forced out by the early settlers. Laney's family had been one of the first to settle here, just miles from where the Missouri River wound a deep cut through the land.
This house and the early memories of their daughter were all Gramps and Gramma Pearl had. Titus kept the place up as if he believed that one day Geneva would return.
Laney and Laci visited each summer for the promised two weeks. Laney felt guilty that it wasn't more, but both she and Laci had their own lives, Laci in Seattle and Laney in Mesa, Arizona. The house sat empty the rest of the time. Waiting for someone who was never going to return.
Laney tried to go back to her book, but her mind kept wandering. She found herself looking down the long dirt road. If anyone had been coming, she would have been able to see the dust cloud miles away.
Nothing moved. Huge cumulus clouds bobbed along in an ocean of blue as the sun rose higher and the day began to get hot. A cloud floated over, casting a dark, cool shadow over her. Laney shivered, sensing a change in the air.
An instant later she was startled by the unexpected thunder of hooves as her cousin Maddie came riding around the end of the house. Maddie leaped off her horse in a cloud of dust, her face flushed with excitement under her western straw hat.
"I heard you were here," Maddie said as she bounded over the railing just as she'd done since she was a child. "Mother's coming by later, but I couldn't wait so I rode over," she said as she gave Laney a hug.
"Got in last night." Laney smiled in spite of herself as she looked at her cousin. Now nineteen, Maddie hadn't changed that much from the gangly freckle-faced girl she'd been. She was tall and slim to the point of being skinny, with a mop of thick reddish-blond hair and light blue eyes. She wore a western shirt, jeans and boots.
"Where's Laci?" Maddie asked excitedly. "Cooking, I'll bet. Oh, what is that heavenly smell?"
From inside the house came the warm rich scent of chocolate-chip cookies baking even though it was way too hot to bake. As if that had ever stopped Laci.
"Who wants a warm cookie?" her sister called on cue from inside the house.
"Guess who!" Maddie called back laughing, then looked at Laney, her expression sobering. "I wish you lived here. I hate these short visits. They are never enough." She gave Laney another hug, hanging on longer this time.
Laney sensed a small shudder in her cousin's thin frame. She pulled back, taking Maddie's arms to look at her, and felt her flinch. Shoving back Maddie's shirtsleeve, Laney saw dark bruises, each spread evenly apart as if someone had grasped her too roughly.
"What is this?" What she wanted to say was "who did this to you?"
"You know me," Maddie replied quickly, drawing her sleeve down over the bruises. "I've always been such a klutz. It's nothing."
It was something; Laney could feel it as Maddie flashed her a reassuring smile that didn't quite ring true and hurried into the kitchen.
THE NEW DEPUTY SHERIFF, Nick Rogers, had been covering the weekend shifts until Sheriff Carter Jackson returned from Florida. So he wasn't surprised when he got called out on another assault Sunday morning.
There'd been two assaults since he'd taken the job. The victims were men who'd been attacked outside one of the bars on a Saturday night when the place was packed and there was a live band. Which probably explained why no one heard a disturbance in the parking lot.
He found Curtis McAlheney at the bar nursing a beer. Nick slid up onto the stool next to him and ordered a cup of coffee since it was only nine-thirty in the morning.
Curtis had a split lip, a black eye, a broken nose and was stooped over as if his ribs were bothering him.
"Broken or cracked?" Nick asked.
"Cracked, but they hurt like hell," Curtis said.
"You see your assailant?"
Curtis looked over at him. Thirty-something, he had thinning brown hair that stuck out the bottom of his John Deere cap. His eyes were small and brown, and his belly hung over his jeans into a T-shirt that proclaimed he was God's gift to women.
"Assailant?" Curtis repeated. "Didn't see no assailant—just some bastard with a baseball bat."
"You see his face?"
Curtis shook his head regretfully. "It was dark. He hit me from behind, knocked me down then beat me up good. He was big, I can tell you that much."
Nick nodded. This was pretty much the same description he'd gotten from the other men. Nick suspected the assailant was anything but big. A big man armed with a baseball bat would have done a lot more damage. "He rob you?"
Curtis looked sheepish. "I imagine he planned to. I think he came to his senses and took off before I got up and took that bat away from him and showed him what for."
Right. The motive in all the cases didn't appear to be robbery since nothing was taken but each man's pride. The assailant had just attacked, beaten up the men and taken off. "Before you left the bar, did you get into a disagreement with anyone?"
"Naw. I just had a few beers, danced a little." Same story Nick was getting from the others, although he suspected each had had more than a few beers.
"Well, if you think of anything else," Nick said finishing his coffee.
"Has to be some bastard not from around here, ain't that right, Shirley?" Curtis said to the bartender.
The bartender, a fifty-something stick of a woman, nodded. "No one around here would do something like that for no good reason."
Nick suspected whoever the assailant was, he had a reason, one good enough for him anyway. Tossing money on the bar for his coffee and a tip, Nick left as his cell phone began to vibrate.
"Trouble down in Old Town Whitehorse," the dispatcher said. "Alice Miller says someone stole her chickens."