Authors: Christine Gentry
Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General
“The coyotes go about at night to rob and kill. I cannot see them. I am not God.”
Ansel hated coming back to a dark house. The drive from Fort Peck had taken longer than she'd expected. Rush hour traffic had been terrible, an ordeal she didn't often experience with a work-at-home business. She unlocked the trailer door and stepped inside. The porch halogens cast brilliant white beams across the front yard after she flipped a wall switch.
She tossed her fanny pack onto the couch. When she turned on the Tiffany lamp beside the sofa, a multicolored glow spotlighted the answering machine. The red message light winked so fast that it amazed her. Deciding not to fight the inevitable, Ansel pushed the PLAY button.
Beepâ¦ “Ansel, this is Andrew Henderson from the Montana Museum Association. What's going on down there? The board has just heard about the murder of Nicholas Capos. Give me a call as soon as you get in. Thanks.”
Beepâ¦ “Hello, Ansel. Phil Rodgers at
. Doctor Andreasson approved your artwork. Once I get it, we're set to make the proofs. Your check is going off. Are you interested in doing some more projects? Call me, and we'll discuss it. Bye-bye.”
Beepâ¦ “Leslie Maze. Please phone me when you get a chance, Ansel.”
Beepâ¦ “Hau, Sarcee. When you want the crow gut delivered to the ranch. Lucy needs to know when to start cooking. Jessie. Over and out.”
Beepâ¦ “Miss Phoenix. Lieutenant Dorbandt. I need to talk to you again. Call me.”
Beepâ¦ “This is Karen. Nicky's memorial service is scheduled for Thursday morning, eleven o'clock at the Omega Fellowship in Glasgow. Have you looked over the collection? I'd like to get that stuff sold.”
Beepâ¦ “Sarcee, Pearl and I are worried. The newspaper has us spooked. You call us, hear? Love you, sweetie.”
Beepâ¦ “This is Cameron. Did you see the article in the
about Nick? He was poisoned with strychnine. We need to do more damage control. Call me immediately.”
Beepâ¦ “Ansel, I sent my email resignation to you, but can't we talk about this? I'm sorry for what I said to you. I mean it. Please call me when you get in.”
Overwhelmed by the messages, Ansel stared at the black device as if it had turned into a crouching beast. Nick had been killed with strychnine? His funeral was on Thursday? Henderson from the museum association sounded upset. Evelyn wanted to rehash everything? And, Dorbandt was trying to track her down for another little interrogation.
“Shit,” Ansel cursed, slapping her thigh in frustration.
Could the day get any worse? She'd learned useful information about Nick, but she was emotionally drained and very hungry. All she wanted to do was shut out the world and lick her wounds for the rest of the evening. The one bright spot on the horizon was the money she'd get from Rodgers. Small consolation. As much as she loathed the idea, she needed to get back into the truck and find a copy of the newspaper.
Goosebumps suddenly skittered up Ansel's arms as a primal awareness alerted her to danger. Her back was toward the bedroom hallway, but she had the distinct feeling she wasn't alone.
Ansel froze, listening to sounds inside the trailer. The front door had been locked.
People pick locks
, an inner voice whispered back. The hairs on her neck rose to perilous heights when a noise broke the silence. There was no mistaking the leather-flexing squeak of boots shifting position on the carpet.
Ansel half-turned. An immense man wearing sunglasses, cowboy hat, black leather jacket, and gloves came toward her. A gun glinted in his right hand. Seconds later he grabbed her ponytail and used it as leverage to spin her back around. He quickly forced her toward the breakfast counter.
“Let go,” Ansel yelled to the man behind her, pushing, punching, kicking, and bucking despite the painful pull against her scalp.
The cowboy propelled her chest down on the counter top. The Formica edge slammed into Ansel's stomach like a power punch. Tim's bag of oranges flew off the edge and thumped to the carpet. A white ceramic bowl containing delicate fossils percolating in lemon juice exploded into pieces on the kitchen linoleum.
The wind fled from her lungs. With lightning speed, the man released her hair, yanked hard on her right arm, and pulled it behind her back. Her feet lifted completely off the ground. The twisted limb shot bolts of electric fire up Ansel's shoulder, stunning her nearly senseless. A gun barrel, cold and deadly, rested against her right temple.
“Listen, and I won't hurt you,” a raspy voice ordered.
Ansel's fragmented thoughts flashed on the night stand in her bedroom. What she wouldn't give for the loaded Colt revolver stashed there. She gasped for breath and fought back the pain. “What do you want?”
“You know what I want. And I want it now.”
Ansel groaned. He applied more pressure to the gun. The barrel bored into her flesh while his weight pressed down on her spine. His jacket smelled of sour sweat and old leather. Her feet kicked air while the counter dug into her stomach. Her twisted arm had gone numb. Ansel swallowed down her fear. She had to think.
“I don't know what you're talking about. I can't breathe.”
“Listen, bitch. If you don't want your red ass blown against the walls, you'd better tell me where the money is.”
Left cheek squashed against the counter, Ansel saw a plastic bowl next to her head that hadn't been thrown off the counter. A surge of hope calmed her when she looked past the dish toward a white gallon jug next to it.
“There is no money. You robbed the wrong house. Leave, and I'll forget you were here.”
The pressure against her temple eased, and she felt the man's body relax. Still her eyes never strayed from the jug.
“You really don't have it?” the man asked with genuine surprise. “You don't have a fucking clue, do you?” A derisive chuckle escaped his lips. “Looks like Capos screwed you more ways than one.”
“Nick Capos? What are you talking about?”
Minor relief flooded through her when the cowboy allowed her legs to touch the floor. The hope that he'd let her go evaporated when he pressed harder on her back. More alarming was the way his knee moved slowly between her pant legs and began traveling up her inner calves, slowly separating her thighs.
The brute leaned down and pressed his rough lips to her right ear. “If you can't help me with the money, maybe there's something else you can do, squaw.”
Ansel smelled alcohol on his breath. The sweet, fruity pungency of wine. A rapist with epicurean tastes, she thought angrily. Suddenly the fear of death held no power over her. She'd died once. There were things far worse. She had to loosen his hold.
“You killed Nick,” she accused, going for shock value.
The cowboy's head pulled away. “Hell, no.”
“Let me guess. You're Griffin. No. Maybe you're just the scumbag who poisoned Nick for Griffin.”
The cowboy went berserk. “Fuck you,” he screamed, releasing Ansel's arm and yanking her upward by the hair. He spun her clockwise, attempting to pull her into his arms. As she made the spin, Ansel's left arm shot out and snagged the jug handle, hefted it, and swung it toward his enraged face.
The cowboy saw what Ansel meant to do and raised the gun. He fired, but the bullet's path intersected that of the moving jug, and an arching, pressurized gush of muriatic acid spit out the puncture hole. Then the jug connected with his head.
The clear, concentrated hydrochloric acid slapped across the cowboy's hat, sunglasses, nose, cheek, and chin. His yelp turned into an anguished scream. He staggered backward, releasing his grip on Ansel and the pistol. The gun thumped onto the carpet. Ansel jumped on the kitchen counter, tucking her legs beneath her to avoid the gurgling acid spraying everywhere.
The cowboy stumbled backward over rolling oranges. He barely escaped more sizzling liquid as it ate away at the carpet near his boots while he slapped at his own melting face. Wherever his gloved hands touched acid, the burning spread, and he screamed anew. Foul streamers hissed like snakes as they ran down the man's jacket and pants, eating through cloth and skin. The felt hat smoked. The leather gloves steamed. His sunglasses cracked. The air reeked of burnt fabric, cooked skin, hot citrus, and putrid fumes. The cowboy had the stamina of a bullock. He glared through one intact lens and located her. “You're dead,” he croaked.
Ansel looked at the pistol which had fallen underneath the coffee table. She couldn't reach it, and she'd never get past him. As he stomped across the smoking rug, Ansel swivelled her buttocks and slid across the Formica counter toward the kitchen, putting a barrier between them. Everything crashed to the floor as her knees swept to the left. More bowls shattered. Fossils exploded into dust.
The cowboy lunged at her through the pass-through. He caught her flannel shirt with one hand just as she prepared to leap. Panicked, Ansel twisted around and grabbed his hand. Beneath the glove cuff, her fingers hooked onto a chain encircling his wrist. She twisted it against his skin as hard as she could, and the thug's despoiled face bellowed with pain. He pulled away, and the links in Ansel's fingers snapped.
Ansel fell off the counter, her rump hitting the ground like a bronco rider. Leaping to her feet, she reached for the cutlery in a wood block beside the refrigerator, yanked out a carving knife, and held it defensively. Little protection against a gun, but she would go down fighting.
The cowboy ran into the living room and scrabbled along the floor for the pistol. Then he staggered toward the door. Ansel could see the huge, blood-red blisters erupting on his right forehead and cheek as he gave her one last, hate-filled look. He fumbled with the lock, whipped back the door, and disappeared moaning.
Knife in hand, Ansel dashed to the door and set the deadbolt with shaking hands. She leaned against the wall crying and cussing. God, had Nick really been involved with this monster? As chilling as that thought was, there was no doubt the name Griffin had meant something to him.
Ansel looked down. The knife was clasped in her right hand. A gold chain in her left. The broken links were thick and heavy. A dime-sized charm hung from them. The stylized relief of a single human eye and eyebrow decorated the metal. Ansel had never seen the design, but the bracelet gave her indisputable proof that the cowboy had been there.
Ansel pushed the bracelet into her shirt pocket and hurried into the bedroom. The night stand stood in a corner. She squeezed by a six-foot-high, green rubber, blow-up Godzilla wearing a red cowboy bandana and plastic sunglasses to reach it.
Setting the knife on the bed, she opened the top drawer. The holstered Colt Defender rested next to a box of .45 caliber hollow-point bullets. Ansel removed the loaded, stainless steel weapon. Its perfectly tooled metal curves and customized buffalo horn grip fit her palm like she'd been born with it in her hand.
The odor of gun cleaner brought back memories. The last time she'd fired it had been over a year ago. She'd used it for target practice on empty bottles and vegetable cans. She'd never used the gun on a human being, but she might have to. Although the cowboy was badly injured and probably wouldn't return tonight, it didn't mean he wouldn't come back later.
Stronger locks, Ansel decided. She'd also have an alarm system installed. Until then she would keep her gun handy at all times. Every child on the western prairie learned how to handle a firearm, and Montana women weren't squeamish about picking up a weapon. In this state
pass my shotgun
Feeling better, Ansel brought the gun into the living room. She stared at the ruined carpet. The acid jug lay on its side by the breakfast nook. A huge oval of burnt carpeting made the room rank with caustic fumes, mingled with the smell of burnt oranges. If she hadn't planned to mix acid and distilled water for cleaning brachiopods encrusted with chert, the jug would have never been on the counter. She coughed. She needed to open the windows.
Instead Ansel pawed through her fanny pack and drew out Dorbandt's card. She scooped up the remote and punched in the number, followed by Dorbandt's extension.
The phone rang. And rang. Finally there was a click and Dorbandt's gruff voice instructed her to leave her name, number, and the time. For emergencies requiring immediate police aid, he instructed her to stay on the line to be connected with the desk sergeant. She wanted to speak with Dorbandt personally. Annoyed, she turned off the remote.
The unexpected growl of a vehicle engine drew Ansel's attention. Her heart skipped a beat. Had that cowboy bastard come back? Maybe with friends? Ansel turned toward the bay window. Heavy blue curtains shrouded her from view. She moved to a corner edge and peered around the drapery.
Ansel spied a white, double-cab Ford in her driveway, and a huge smile enveloped her face. She rushed to the front door and threw it open. A tall figure with silver hair tied back into a short ponytail and dressed in a white windbreaker, Stetson, and boots stood on the steps.
“Daddy,” Ansel yipped, engulfing him in a bear hug.
Chase Phoenix almost dropped the rolled newspaper he was carrying. “Whoa there, mustang.” He laughed and gave her a dazzling smile. “You're cinching my girth too tight. Let me get my breath.”
Ansel pulled away reluctantly. He smelled deliciously of leather polish and Lava soap, two scents she'd associated since childhood with cattle ranching. “What are you doing here?”
“I figured if Sarcee won't come to the mountain, then the mountain will come to Sarcee.” His eyes rolled toward the Colt clasped in Ansel's trembling hand. “What's the Peacemaker for?”
“It's been quite a day.”
Chase pulled back at arm's length and squinted at her critically. “I've been worried sick about you.” Suddenly Chase lifted his head and sniffed the air. He glanced at the open doorway and his nose crinkled. “Pee Yew. What's that smell? You cooking a sweet and sour Torosaur in there?”