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The Devil's Cradle
A Kendall O'Dell Mystery
By Sylvia Nobel
Nite Owl BooksCopyright © 2000 Sylvia Nobel
All rights reserved.
There it was again. That feeling. Gnawing at my insides. Disturbing my train of thought. Hard as I tried, I couldn't shake the growing sense of agitation.
Wedged behind my desk in the small newspaper office, the phone jammed against my ear, I fidgeted in the chair and stared longingly out the smudged window at the cottonwood trees tossing in the sultry August wind that swept across the desert floor every afternoon. In the distance, mountains of hazy purple, crowned with thunderheads taunting the promise of rain, beckoned to me. Massaging the ache in my neck, I tried to refocus my attention to the matter at hand. The disembodied voice droning on and on at the other end of the line was beginning to tax my patience.
I sighed inwardly. Might as well give the feeling a name. Restlessness. I was restless and bored. And trapped. I wondered, not for the first time, if I hadn't made another one of my colossal blunders of judgement. I seemed to do well in the mistake department.
"Ah hem!" I tuned out the prattling in my ear and glanced at the doorway. Our receptionist, Ginger King, was planted there for the second time since lunch. The look of suppressed excitement on her freckled face, combined with hand gestures that rivaled a navy signalman, left little doubt that she intended to capture my attention this time.
"It's your brother, Patrick, calling from Pittsburgh again," she called in a loud whisper, "and I don't think he's gonna take no for an answer this time."
I cupped my hand over the receiver. "Ask him if I can call him back. Markham Bainbridge is on the line and he's mad as a wet hen." I paused. "Make that a rooster."
She grinned at my little joke, but remained firm. "You can't. He's fixin' to catch a plane right shortly and says he's got something real important to tell ya."
My heart jolted. Uh oh. The rush of anxiety must have shown on my face because she took a quick step forward. "Now, dumplin', don't wet your drawers or nothin'," she soothed. "Your family's all hunky-dory, but he told me he's got a heap o' news that'll make your day and then some."
My innate curiosity got the best of me. I pressed my hand tighter on the mouthpiece. "Tell him to hang on."
She flashed a hundred-watt grin and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up before turning to leave.
Laughter gathered in my throat. Ginger was such a delight. Quirky. Bubbly. Always upbeat. What would I do without her?
"Miss O'Dell, are you listening to me?" Mr. Bainbridge's testy voice crackled in my ear.
"Ahhh, yes, yes, I heard you," I fibbed, straining to remember what he'd said last. "We're extremely sorry for the misstatement attributed to you and there will be a retraction in Saturday's paper."
"Page one?" he goaded.
"Page one. And sorry again for the mix up." Before he could utter another syllable, I punched the blinking button. "Patrick? This had better be good."
"Keep your shirt on, Sis," he chuckled. "How's it going? You settling into your new duties okay?"
"I guess. Being an editor is certainly no picnic. No wait, it's a headache and a half."
His laugh was sympathetic. "You sound just like Dad. He always said reporting in the field was a lot more fun than pushing papers and dealing with all the other crap. But listen, I've come across a story you may find interesting," he announced, a reflective note entering his voice. "You in the market for a scoop?"
"Are you kidding?" I swiped the list of problem calls away and grabbed my notepad. In the background, I could hear the din of airport noise as I waited for him to begin.
"I'll make this short and sweet, because we're boarding pretty soon. Okay, here's what I know. Margie's second cousin has a girlfriend at her college and her name is ..." He paused as if he were reading something. "Angela. Yeah, Angela Martin. Anyway, this girl's mother passed away last March and she's been living kind of hand-to- mouth working nights and going to school and then, whammo, out of the blue she gets this really weird letter last week from some doctor she's never heard of from out there in Arizona."
I tightened the grip on my pen. "Explain really weird."
"You're gonna love this," he said, raising his voice over the clamor. "The guy claims he knew her mother, Rita, a long time ago and that Angela isn't really Angela."
"You lost me."
"This doctor — Orcutt's his name — claims her mom gave her a fake identity."
"Angela says she doesn't have a clue, and she's also been under the impression her father died when she was a little kid. Well, guess what? He actually just passed away a couple of weeks ago and here's the corker. She's the sole heiress to some old mining town out there."
"Yeah. A whole town."
"Well, that might be no big deal. There are a lot of played-out mines in this state. Are you talking about a ghost town?"
"No, no. The doctor lives there and apparently mining engineers have discovered a huge new vein of gold. Angela could end up being a very rich young woman."
"Now this is starting to get good. Tell me more." I scribbled furiously as he fed me additional information.
When he was finished, I blew out a low whistle. "Pat, this is great stuff. But, why are you torturing me with this gem? I can't do it justice from here. The story ought to be covered by someone there in Pittsburgh."
"But, Kendall, the girl is coming out your way."
"Here? To Arizona?"
"Yeah, silly. Why do you think I called you?"
A spark of anticipation warmed me. "Well, why didn't you say so? When?"
"The beginning of next week, I think."
"That soon?" My mind began to work feverishly.
"Yeah. Margie's helping her book a flight into Tucson."
"She's supposed to see her mother's lawyer there. Angela said Dr. Orcutt was going to phone her later this week with more details. Oh, listen, Margie told her you'd arrange to have someone meet her at the airport and kind of show her the ropes. Was that okay?"
That was so like my sister-in-law to forge ahead without bothering to check with the parties involved. "Not really. Tucson is a four-hour drive from here and I'm pretty short-handed right now ... but I'll tell you what, if you fly her into Phoenix, I'll do my best to meet her plane. After that, I don't know. Is she renting a car?"
"Oops. I forgot to tell you something important. This girl is an epileptic so, she's not allowed to drive. Listen, Sis," he said in a distracted tone. "I have to go now."
"Wait, wait, wait. Just one more thing. Is this girl in agreement? I mean, before I go out on a limb, how do I know she'll consent to let me write this story?"
"You don't. I'm just passing along the information Margie gave me," he said cheerfully. "I guess it will be up to you to convince her."
"You're such a dear," I replied dryly. "How long will she be staying?"
"Don't know that either. I'll call you Sunday when I get back from Atlanta."
By the time I'd thanked him and cradled the phone, my spirits were going through the roof. For the first time in weeks my doldrums completely vanished.
Re-reading the notes, my thoughts leapfrogged over each other until the barest glimmer of an idea began to form. It was illogical. It was unrealistic. But as the concept grew in scope, so did the list of obstacles confronting me.
I jumped up and paced the cluttered room, lamenting my decision to take the reins as editor of the Castle Valley Sun. It had seemed like a great idea seven weeks ago, but the naked truth was, it wasn't fun. And every fiber of my being screamed out for me to get back to what I liked best — investigative reporting. I loved it, I needed it and I could feel clear down to my bone marrow that this was going to be one hell of a good story. The solution was simple enough, I thought, slumping behind the desk once more. All I had to do was find someone to take my place in six days.
The cracked-vinyl chair gave a protesting squeak when I swung around to stare dejectedly out the window as if somehow I expected to find the answer to my dilemma amid the shimmering heat waves rising from the asphalt parking lot.
"Flapdoodle," I complained aloud, borrowing Ginger's favorite phrase. "Double flapdoodle!"
"Double Flapdoodle?" inquired a voice behind me. "Now that sounds mighty serious."
Startled, I looked around to see Tally slouching in the doorway. Before I could answer, he strode in, his boots clicking smartly against the bare concrete floor still awaiting new carpet. He turned the wooden chair in front of my desk around and straddled it. As always, his nearness made my pulse rate pick up considerably.
"You look like you're carrying the weight of the world on those pretty shoulders. What's up, boss?" He laid his hand out and I slid mine into it.
"Oh ... this and that. And quit calling me boss," I chided with mock severity.
He grinned and pushed his Stetson away from his forehead. "Anything I can do?"
For a moment, I said nothing, just rejoiced in the feel of his fingers closing around my own and the look of genuine affection emanating from his dark eyes.
I'd fallen in love with this quiet, easy-going man the first time I'd laid eyes on him. He'd demonstrated admirably that his feelings were mutual, but even so, we'd come to the conclusion independently that since we'd only known each other barely three months, and each had less-than-successful marriages behind us, it would be unwise to rush things even though Ginger was already working up a list of caterers and busily compiling a guest file.
"Come on, Kendall," he persisted, giving my hand a gentle squeeze. "I can tell something's bugging you."
I sighed deeply. "Oh, Tally, I've got myself boxed into a corner and I don't know how to get myself out."
Traces of a smile brushed his mouth. "Now why do I find that hard to believe?"
I knew he was teasing, but his breeziness exacerbated my already souring mood. I pulled my hand away. "Easy for you to say. You're not stuck in this ... this dull, gray jail cell ten hours a day," I retorted, gesturing impatiently at the pictureless, posterless walls, bared in preparation for painters who'd yet to make an appearance.
"Well now," he said, tipping his hat back far enough to reveal a few dark curls, "correct me if I'm wrong, but I could have sworn I heard you say something about looking forward to a nice, cozy desk job. Something ... mmmmm ... a bit more sedate than your last assignment. Something about having a job description that didn't include the words ..." he paused, looking pensive, then raised one hand to stretch invisible words in the air, "possible life-threatening situations may be included ..."
I made a face at him. "Okay. Okay. So I was wrong. Sitting around here is giving me a colossal case of cabin fever." I smacked my palm on the desk for emphasis and Tally just grinned at me, seemingly unaffected by my theatrics.
"This doesn't have anything to do with the phone call from your brother, does it?" he asked quietly.
I stared at him. "How did you know about that?" His bland expression and small shrug said it all. "Oh. Ginger, of course. What was I thinking?" As much as I adored my fun-loving friend, her insatiable penchant for gossip drove me to distraction.
"So," he continued, "I'll consider that a yes and ask you again, what's wrong?"
I pointed to my notes. "I'm bursting to follow up on this." As I excitedly reiterated Patrick's story, he seemed only mildly attentive and when I'd finished he said, "Well, it sounds kind of interesting, but nothing to get all riled up about."
"Kind of interesting?" I leaped to my feet once again. "Don't you see what an incredible human interest story this is? Think about it. Here's a young woman who has spent her whole life believing she's someone else. Why did her mother lie to her? Why was she never told that her father was alive all this time? Up until she received notice a few weeks ago, that is," I added, my mind creating wondrous possibilities as I paced from one end of the room to another. Suddenly, I pulled up short. "Where is this place, Morgan's Folly?"
Tally rubbed his chin, frowning in thought. "I think it's down near Bisbee. Not far from the Mexican border." He looked around the room. "Tugg used to keep a topographical map in here. Where is it?"
I crossed the room and rummaged around behind one of the scarred bookcases piled high with past issues of the Sun. "Here it is," I said at length, pulling it out along with a half dozen enormous dust bunnies.
Tally blew off the layer of grime and laid the map flat on the desk. "Morgan's Folly," he said, tapping the paper with his forefinger. "And now that you mention it, I remember reading something about it last spring, right around the time you started here." He stared into space a few seconds, looking hopeful, then blank. "Sorry," he said, shaking his head. "I can't think of what it was right now, but it'll come to me."
"It doesn't matter anyway," I said with a disheartened sigh. "There's no way I can get away to do this story. Even entertaining the possibility is an exercise in futility."
I fixed him with a look of incredulity. "Who's going to take my place? Jim? He's the only full time reporter we've got until I can fill the vacancy. And so far, I haven't had much luck. Even with the new capital, the new equipment coming and," I brandished my hand about, "this old place finally getting a facelift, applicants haven't been exactly stampeding in the door."
"I thought we had an ad running in the Phoenix paper."
"We do, but only a handful of people have even called. All I can figure is that experienced reporters don't want to work for some dinky tabloid that only publishes twice a week. And let's face it, Castle Valley isn't exactly a Mecca of hot breaking news topics."
He edged me a wry grin. "Oh, I think you've already proven that theory wrong."
Remembering the excitement and danger of my first, and what proved to be my last really compelling assignment, gave me a momentary rush. "It was pretty exciting, huh?" I glanced at the cast still encasing his injured arm and then we exchanged a solemn look as the memory of that stormy day in June hung between us.
"Come here," he growled, drawing me close to his lean body. Snuggling happily against his soft cotton shirt, I wrapped my arms around his waist. My lips found his automatically and for a few minutes the irritations of the day faded into insignificance.
"Mmmmm," I murmured, nuzzling his neck, breathing in the masculine, outdoorsy scent of him. "Why don't you come over to the house tonight for dinner and then we can watch the moonrise over Castle Rock."
"Best invitation I've had all day," he replied huskily, dipping his head to extract another kiss from me, his hands gently massaging my back and neck. When we finally drew apart, his sensuous lips broke into that crooked grin I loved so much. "Feel better?"
"Yeah. I guess."
My half-hearted response snuffed out the fiery glow in his eyes. He dropped his arms to his side. "So, what are you saying? That nothing is going to make you happy unless you and only you get to follow up on this story?"
He was right. Perhaps I was overreacting, but the yearning inside me was so strong, it was almost a physical pain. I looked away. "There's no point in discussing it further. We don't have enough support staff, so there's not a chance in hell I could do it anyway. And that's that." I knew I sounded like a petulant child, but I couldn't seem to stop myself.
He grasped my shoulders hard. "You're about as subtle as a loaded freight train. Listen, you know I'd help you out if I could, but if you'll recall, you assigned me to cover the Cardinal's training camp in Flagstaff next week. And after that, you know I was planning to go down to San Pedro and buy that stallion I told you about."
"Thanks for depressing me further." At the look of displeasure clouding his face, I regretted my words instantly. When? When would I ever learn to keep my big mouth shut?
He gave me a long, level stare. Unlike me, he seemed to be mentally counting to ten before speaking. "What's wrong with giving Morton Tuggs a call? He and Mary got home from their cruise last week."
I shot him a look of disbelief, remembering Tugg's final words before he'd left. 'Can't do it anymore, Kendall,' he'd said to me. 'The damn job's too short on fun and too long on stress.' "Tugg? What makes you think he'd be willing to sub for me?"
"How long will it take you to get the story?"
"I'm not sure. A week, maybe. And who knows, this girl may not want a nosy reporter delving into her private family history."
"Even if he did agree, I'd never get past Mary," I reminded him ungraciously.
Excerpted from The Devil's Cradle by Sylvia Nobel. Copyright © 2000 Sylvia Nobel. Excerpted by permission of Nite Owl Books.
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