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Wearing jeans and a fitted blue T-shirt on her lean, five-foot-nothing frame, with her dark hair tucked beneath a straw hat and a canvas bag slung over her shoulder, Maya Cooper looked every inch the tourist she'd intended to portray. But inside, she was all cop as she scanned the swept-clean brick roadway that ran down the center of the faux ghost town outside Bear Claw City.
Her training as a criminal profiler told her she was reaching, but her gut told her she was on to something.
She was positive the Chuckwagon Ranch was connected to the sick bastard who'd planned two separate violent crime sprees over the past six months.
Wexton Henkes, part owner of the theme park, was a Bear Claw legend. Born in the city and raised up through the school system, he'd taken his father's one-room electronic repair shop and built it into an empire. Once he'd made his first million — or ten — he'd started giving back to the city that had brought him his success. He'd funded everything from civic projects and art revivals to nature conservation and the local sports teams. In short, he was a prince.
On the outside, at least. Inside, Maya was convinced he was something else entirely. He'd broken his own son's arm three months earlier — nobody could tell her different — and he was poised to duck the abuse charges because he had money, power and influence.
Enough influence to get her in serious trouble the last time she'd gone after him.
"But not this time," she said aloud, earning herself strange looks from the passing tourists.
The June morning was warm and bright, perfect for a family trip. The Wild West theme park was cut down the middle by Main Street, a wide brick causeway flanked with false-fronted buildings that had been painted to look like a saloon, a general store and a livery. Tourists streamed into and out of the buildings in a chaos of movement and sound that made it almost impossible to pick out individuals. On either side of the buildings, bison-dotted pastures stretched for miles, taking up most of the shallow, hill-bounded bowl of land.
Maya scanned the low ridgetops that flanked the road and saw nothing. A faint feeling of wrongness prickled at the nape of her neck, a familiar sense of being watched. Of being alone.
But damn it, she was alone. She'd been suspended from the Bear Claw Police Department pending an inquiry into the incident at the Henkes mansion three months earlier.
Anxiety pressed at her, echoing her heartbeat in the low-grade headache that had plagued her ever since she'd awoken in the Hawthorne Hospital with a knot on the back of her head and no memory of attacking Henkes in his own home.
But that was what she'd done. Or so they said. What if they kicked her off the force? Maya's throat closed at the thought. She was already on the outside of the Bear Claw City Police Department — BCCPD — looking in. Alissa Wyatt and Cassie Du-mont, her best friends and coworkers within the start-up Forensics Department, had tried to include her in the gossip, but they were run ragged shouldering her work as well as their own.
The new three-woman forensics team was struggling to gain acceptance within the Bear Claw PD as it was. What if —
No, Maya told herself, she wouldn't dwell on that. The previous night she'd finally decided it was time to stop with the futile attempts at self-hypnosis, the painful efforts to force some remembrance of that night at the Henkes mansion. It was no use. The memories were gone, and she had an ugly feeling she knew why.
She touched a hand to her throat, where her charm necklace held five bangles. There should have been six more, but she'd lost them to a mistake. To temptation.
Would she lose the remaining five charms as well? What if she had to start over again? "No," she said aloud. "I'm stronger than that, and I'm damn well going to prove it. Starting now."
As though on cue, her cell phone rang, a digital bleat that cracked through the background hum of tourism. Not expecting a call, Maya slapped open the unit and checked the number, but the ID was blocked.
Annoyed, she flipped the phone shut and dropped it in the front pocket of her canvas bag. These days most of her calls came from media hounds looking for quotes on the dismissal of the Henkes child-abuse trial, or supporters of Wexton Henkes himself calling to threaten her, somehow still believing the bastard had a solid shot at the upcoming Congressional election. She didn't need to talk to either group.
Focused on her own special way of doing the job — more organic than straight detecting, more regimented than pure profiling — she followed the flow of tourists toward the livery building, which held a petting zoo.
She wanted to get a feel for the theme park and the man who'd bankrolled it.
Inside the building, rough-hewn boards and crooked center beams gave the sense of an old, rundown barn, though a closer look showed her that everything was neat and new, and painted to look old. The place was packed with excited children, along with adults wearing expressions that ranged from enthusiasm to exhaustion. Small goats and lambs wandered a straw-bedded center pen, begging for handfuls of pellets that could be bought from quarter-operated machines on the wall. Box stalls on either side were set up to hold larger animals, though only one was occupied, holding a shaggy bison that looked close to five feet tall at the shoulder and probably weighed in well over a thousand pounds. Its short, curved horns were dulled at the ends, but that did little to blunt the physical impact of the creature as it snorted and stomped in its enclosure.
Maya noted the people and animals, then turned her attention to the building. She wasn't even sure what she was looking for. A sense of the place, maybe, or insight into the man who had financial ties not only to the ranch, but also to the state park where Alissa had found the kidnapped girls during the first crime wave, and to the Bear Claw Natural History Museum where Cassie had nearly lost her life in the second.
During her terrifying ordeal in the museum, Cassie had heard the computer-altered voice of a third man, one who called himself the planner.
He had promised more violence to come.
The members of the special BCCPD task force assembled to deal with the crimes had vowed to find the Mastermind before he could strike again, but their leads had fizzled out in the months since. They needed an accurate psychological profile of the criminal, but their quarry was too many things and none of them all at once. It was nearly impossible to separate his ego from the works of the men he'd coerced into executing the actual crimes, but Maya was damn sure going to try.
So what if she was off the case, off the force entirely? That didn't stop her from being a cop. Didn't stop her from wanting to prove that she wasn't —
The phone rang again, startling her. Though the ID was still blocked, she stepped outside the petting zoo and answered it, planning to give the persistent journalist an earful. "Maya Cooper speaking. Who is this?"
"You don't know me," said an eerie, mechanized voice.
A jolt slapped through her. The distorted sound matched Cassie's description of the Mastermind's voice.
She swallowed and said, "Hello, Wexton. How's the arm?"
She was sure of her suspect. She just had to convince the rest of the BCCPD.
Dead silence echoed over the digital airwaves. For a moment she thought he'd hung up. Then the mechanized voice returned. "You think you're so smart, don't you? Well, I've got a surprise for you."
Maya's fingers tightened on the cell phone. "What kind of surprise?"
The voice held a hint of metallic amusement when it said, "There's a bomb hidden somewhere in the Chuckwagon Ranch. You have ten minutes to evacuate."
"YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?" Thorne Coleridge
stopped pacing the small office and stared at Bear Claw City's Police Chief.
William Parry, grizzled and bulldogesque with his jowly face and sad eyes, leaned back in his desk chair. "Do you want the job or not?"
Thorne jammed his hands in the pockets of the navy wool slacks he'd worn as a concession to the interview. He'd gotten a quick trim of his short, sandy hair and donned a white oxford-cloth shirt, but had skipped the tie, figuring he should begin as he meant to go on.
The question echoed in his brain. Did he want the job? Did he want to get in at the ground level of a start-up forensics department? Hell, yes. Did he want to get out of the Wagon Ridge PD, where conversations stopped the moment he entered the room and the whispers began the moment he left? Hell, yes. That was why he'd jumped at the chance when his bosses in Wagon Ridge had asked if he would drive down to Bear Claw and help with an ongoing case. He needed a fresh start.
But he wasn't sure he wanted to make that start at the expense of a colleague.
He resumed his pacing before he said, "Nobody told me I'd be replacing another psych specialist. I thought you were looking to fill a vacancy."
"It can become a vacancy if you do your job. Hell, I'll probably have to replace her either way." But Parry's frown drooped lower, cutting deeper lines in his sagging face. "The three women came with glowing references and wanted to work together. I was looking to upgrade my forensics team. It seemed like a match."
"I take it things haven't gone smoothly?"
Parry snorted. "You could say that. If it isn't one thing with those three, it's another. At first, they couldn't manage to get along with the rest of the PD. They did their jobs well enough, but it was tense as hell. Then once all this trouble started, my crime scene expert and my evidence tech wound up snuggling with my best detective and my FBI liaison." His expression darkened. "Hell, they wound up being targeted by the damn killer!"
"You can't blame them for the criminal mind," Thorne said, avoiding the touchy issue of inter-departmental romance. He didn't need to go there. Not now.
Not ever again.