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Sabrina Hunter fastened her utility belt around her hips. "Eat up, Peter, or we're gonna be late."
Peter Hunter peered up at his mom, a spoonful of Cheerios halfway to his mouth. "We're always late."
This was definitely nothing to brag about. "But," his mother reminded him, "our New Year's resolution was to make it a point not to be late anymore." It was only January twelfth. Surely, they weren't going to break their resolution already.
Chewing his cereal thoughtfully, Peter tilted his dark head and studied her again. "Truth or dare?"
Bree took a deep breath, reached for patience. "Eat. There's no time for games." She tucked her cell phone into her belt. Mondays were always difficult. Especially when Bree had worked the weekend and her son had spent most of that time with his aunt Tabitha. She spoiled the boy outrageously, as did her teenage daughter, Layla. Even so, Bree was glad
to have her family support system when duty called, as it had this weekend. She grabbed her mug and downed the last of the coffee that had grown cold during her rush to prepare for the day.
Peter swallowed, then insisted, "Truth. Is my real daddy a jerk just like Big Jack?"
Bree choked. Coughed. She plopped her mug on the counter and stared at her son. "Where did you hear something like that?"
"Cousin Layla said so." He nodded resolutely. "Aunt Tabitha told her to hush 'cause I might hear. Is it true? Is my real daddy a jerk?"
"You must've misunderstood, Peter." Breathe. Bree moistened her lips and mentally scrambled for a way to change the subject. "Grab your coat and let's get you to school." Memories tumbled one over the other in her head. Memories she had sworn she would never allow back into her thoughts. That was her other New Year's resolution. After eight years it was past time she'd put him out of her head and her heart once and for all.
What the hell was her niece thinking, bringing him up? Particularly with Peter anywhere in the vicinity. The kid loved playing hide and seek, loved sneaking up on his mother and aunt even more. His curious nature ensured he missed very little. Tabitha and Layla knew this!
Bree ordered herself to calm down.
"Nope. I didn't misunderstand." Peter pushed back his chair, carefully picked up his cereal bowl and headed for the sink. He rinsed the bowl and placed it just as carefully into the dishwasher. "I heard her."
Bree's pulse rate increased. "Layla was probably talking about
" Bree racked her brain for a name, someone they all knewanyone besides him.
Before she could come up with a name or a logical explanation for her niece's slip, Peter turned to his mother once more, his big blue eyesthe ones so much like his father's and so unlike her brown onesresolute. "Layla said my real daddy"
"Okay, okay." Bree held up her hands. "I got that part." How on earth was she supposed to respond? "We can talk on the way to school." Maybe that would at least buy her some time. And if she were really lucky Peter would get distracted and forget all about the subject of his father.
Something Bree herself would very much like to do.
She would be having a serious talk with her sister and niece.
Thankfully her son didn't argue. He tugged on his coat and picked up his backpack. So far, so good. She might just get out of this one after all. Was that selfish of her? Was Peter the one being cheated by her decision to keep the past in the past? Including his father?
Bree pushed the questions aside and shouldered into the navy uniform jacket that sported the logo of the Towaoc Police Department. At the coat closet near her front door, she removed the lockbox from the top shelf, retrieved her service weapon and holstered it. After high school she'd gotten her associate's degree in criminal justice. She hadn't looked back since, spending a decade working in reservation law enforcement. The invitation to join the special homicide task force formed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Ute Mountain Reservation tribal officials had been exactly the opportunity she had been looking for to further her career.
Besides her son and family, her career was primary in her life. Not merely because she was a single parent, either, although that was a compelling enough motive. She wanted to be a part of changing the reservation's unofficial reputation as the murder capital of Colorado. This was her home. Making a difference was important to her. She wanted to do her part for her people.
Not to mention work kept her busy. Kept her head on straight and out of that past she did not want to think about, much less talk about. An idle mind was like idle hands, it got one into trouble more often than not.
Enough trouble had come Bree's way the last few years.
No sooner had she slid behind the wheel of her SUV and closed the door had Peter demanded,"Truth, Mommy." He snapped his safety belt into place.
So much for any hopes of him letting the subject go. Bree glanced over her shoulder to the backseat where her son waited. She could take the easy way out and say his aunt and cousin were right. His curiosity would be satisfied and that would be the end of thatfor now anyway. But that would be a lie. There were a lot of things she could say about the man who'd fathered her child, but that he was bad or the kind of jerk her ex, Jack, had turned out to be definitely wasn't one of them.
"Your father was never anything like Big Jack." Even as she said the words, her heart stumbled traitorously.
"So he was a good guy?"
Another question that required a cautiously worded response. "A really good guy."
"Like a superhero?"
Maybe that was a stretch. But her son was into comics lately. "I guess you could say that." Guilt pricked her again for allowing the conversation to remain in past tense
as if his father were deceased. Another selfish gesture on her part.
But life was so much easier that way.
"Am I named after him?"
Tension whipped through Bree. That was a place
she definitely didn't want to go. Her cell phone vibrated. Relief flared. Talk about being saved by the bell, or, in this case, the vibration. "Hold on, honey." Bree withdrew the phone from the case on her belt and opened it. "Hunter."
"Detective Hunter, this is Officer Danny Brewer."
Though she was acquainted with a fair number of local law enforcement members, particularly those on the reservation, the name didn't strike a chord. She couldn't readily associate the name with one department or the other, making it hard to anticipate whether his call was something or nothing. That didn't prevent a new kind of tension from sending her instincts to the next level. "What can I do for you, Officer Brewer?"
"Well, ma'am, we have a situation."
His tone told her far more than his words. Something.
When she would have asked for an explanation, he went on, "We have a one eighty-seven."
Adrenaline fired in Bree's veins. Before she could launch the barrage of homicide-related questions that instantly sprang to mind, Brewer tacked on, "My partner said I should call you. He would've called himself but he's been busy puking his guts out ever since we took a look at the
Damn. Another victim.
Bree blinked, focused on the details she knew so
far. Puking? Had to be Officer Steve Cyrus. She knew him well. Poor Cyrus lost his last meal at every scene involving a body.
"Location?" Bree glanced at her son. She would drop him off at school and head straight to the scene. Hell of a way to start a Monday morning. Frustration hit on the heels of the adrenaline. She'd worked acase of rape and attempted murder just this weekend. As hard as her team toiled to prevent as well as solve violent crimes it never seemed to be enough.
"The Tribal Park." Brewer cleared his throat. "In the canyon close to the Two-Story House. One of the guides who checks the trails a couple of times a week during the off-season found the victim."
"Don't let him out of your sight," Bree reminded. She would need to question the guide at length. Chances were he would be the closest thing to a witness, albeit after the fact, she would get. "Did you ID the victim?" She hoped this wasn't another rape as well. Twelve days into the New Year and they'd had two of those already. Both related to drug use.
Bree frowned at the muffled conversation taking place on the other end of the line. It sounded like Brewer was asking his partner what he should say in answer to her question. Weird.
"Ma'am," Brewer said, something different in his voice now, "Steve said just get here as fast as you can. He'll explain the details then."
When the call ended Bree stared at her phone then shook her head.
"M-o-o-o-m," Peter said, drawing out the single syllable, "you didn't answer my question."
She definitely didn't have time for that now. More of that guilt heaped on her shoulders at just how relieved she was to have an excuse not to go there. "We'll have to talk about it later. That was another police officer who called. I have to get to work."
Peter groaned, but didn't argue with her. He knew that for his mom work meant something bad had happened to someone.
As Bree guided her vehicle into the school's dropoff lane, she considered her little boy. She wanted life on the reservation to continue to improve. For him. For the next generation, period. As hard as she worked, at times it never seemed to be enough.
"Have a good day, sweetie." She smoothed his hair and kissed the top of his head.
His cheeks instantly reddened. "Mom."
Bree smiled as he hopped out of the SUV and headed for Towaoc Elementary's front entrance. Her baby was growing up. Her smile faded. There would be more questions about his father.
She couldn't think about that right now. Right now she had a homicide to investigate.
Onlya few minutes on Highway 160 were required to reach the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. She turned into the park entrance near the visitor's center, a former gas station that had been repurposed. Getting into the park was easy, reaching the ancient cliff face Ancestral Puebloan dwellings was another story.
A rough dirt road barely wide enough for her SUV was the only way besides making the trek on foot or horseback. The SUV bumped over the rutted dirt road. Twice Bree was forced to maneuver around ottoman-sized boulders from a recent rock slide. The road, which was more of a trail, was definitely better suited for traveling by horse or on foot. Since time was of the essence she would just have to deal with the less than favorable driving conditions. Every minute wasted allowed the possibility of trace evidence contamination or loss of that essential evidence entirely.
The harsh, barren landscape had a character wholly of its own. Basins with scatterings of sage and juniper and pine forests broke up the thousands of acres of desolation. Gray cliffs and brick-red buttes soaked up the scorching sun that even in the dead of winter and cloaked with snow somehow
kept the temps comfortable enough most of the time. Not much otherwise in the way of color, but the amazing Colorado sky made up for it with vivid shades of blue broken only by the snow-capped peaks that added another layer of enchantment.
In the distance, providing a dramatic backdrop, was the giant Sleeping Ute Mountain. The name had come from the fact that the mountain's shape gave the appearance of a giant warrior sleeping on his back with arms crossed over his chest. The stories about the cliff dwellings and the great sleeping warrior who'd become a mountain had kept her enthralled as a kid.
At close to fifty degrees, it could have been a nice day. Bree sighed as she caught sight of the official Ute Reservation police SUV. A beat-up old pickup, probably belonging to the guide, was parked next to the SUV.
The idea that Steve Cyrus wanted her on the scene before he passed along any known details nagged at her again. What was with the mystery?
She parked her vehicle, grabbed a pair of latex gloves from her console and climbed out. She headed toward the cliffs where the two-story, sandstone dwelling hung, a proud, crumbling reminder of the residents who built them more than a millennium ago. The dwellings here were every bit as