Protect and Shift

Chapter 1

If Steve didn’t find a job soon, he might have to die.

Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t actually kill him. Although, to be honest, the idea had popped into my head a time or two over the last few weeks.

Not that I’d actually carry one of those ideas to fruition. It was just fun to think about at times.

Yes. I love the man, and I know he feels the same about me, too. Even if neither of us has yet said those words to the other yet. Still far too early for that, I thought. We were still feeling our way through this relationship thing.

I’d had boyfriends before, but never anything this serious. Well, that is, if you didn’t count my failed marriage to Archimedes Mineheart a few decades ago. And we all know how that had turned out.

I was used to being alone. Shoot. Before I got in with the Ravenswind clan, I’d been a lone wolf of a witch. Yeah. Try being a double-half-breed supernatural entity. It was a lonely life for sure.

The thing is, the Ravenswinds and the entire Team Destiny crew knew me well enough to give me my space. Steve? Not so much.

Without a job to keep him busy and, well, entertained, he was spending a lot of time at my place. And trust me when I say that my little a-frame cabin wasn’t built for two. It was barely built for one. But I liked my tiny little house. I didn’t want to give it up, and Steve had been hinting around that it might make sense for us to make a move into a bigger place.

Yup. He used the words ‘us’ and ‘move’ in the same sentence. It takes a lot to scare me. I mean, I’ve faced down a lot of evil in my day. But moving in with Steve? Love or no love, that thought was more than a little terrifying.

Steve Brighton, the love of my life, needed a job, and I needed him to have one, too. Desperately.

It wasn’t a money thing. Although, it might become one if the Luparri cut his pay much more. They had alerted him that because he wasn’t producing as many wolf captures as they liked, they were putting him on a part-time basis. More of an on-call basis.

That made sense, in a way. Now that he knew the truth about us werewolves, he wasn’t going to go around just capturing us willy-nilly and turning us in to the Luparri Organization. They must have noticed the change in his work ethic.

They still paid him a stipend, but it wasn’t the full live-on salary it used to be.

Have I mentioned the man needed a job?

All of this had been running through my brain on my drive home from work. Then I pulled into my long drive. When I turned the last corner to actually see my place, I had to put on the brakes.

I swear if I didn’t, I would have run the grinning man over. And yes, that man was Steve.

He was standing next to a big stack of lumber and building supplies. Oh no. How on earth was I going to deal with this?

I eased off the brake and forced myself to slowly drive the remaining few yards to my normal parking spot. Then turned the car off and opened my door.

“Hear me out, okay?” Steve pleaded.

I just looked at him. After a long night of keeping the law in Wind’s Crossing and then coming home to find this, I was simply beyond words. He must have taken my silence as an okay to continue.

“All right. So I know how much you love this place. And for good reason, too. Great neighbors, no rent payments, lots of privacy… it’s perfect. Or it would be if it were just a bit bigger.”

He paused to let me speak. I just continued staring at him.

“I’ve done some construction work in the past, so I could do most of the work myself, and I have a nice little savings account, so paying for the supplies would totally be on me. All I need is your okay, and I’ll start on a room addition today.”

He turned to face the cabin, pointing toward the back of my house. “That clearing in the backyard is plenty big enough for another room or two, and we could use the existing back door as an entry into the new room. Or we could make a little passageway and build another little a-frame cabin behind this one. Then we could each have our own space. Maybe with one big room for us to share.”

He wiggled his eyebrows at me. I guessed that movement was to make sure I got the point he was making. That big room he had in mind to share was likely to be a big master bedroom.

For the first time, I had a small glimmer of hope. Maybe there was a way out of this that would make us both happy.

After all, this estate wasn’t a small one. And the deal I’d worked out with Amy and Ruby and the rest of their gang had given me the deed to a full five acres. This wasn’t the only clearing on that acreage, either.

Maybe Steve could build himself a little a-frame cabin all of his own. Just as long as it didn’t connect to mine, I thought I could handle that.

But now wasn’t the time to go into heavy negotiations. If I tried to discuss this rationally before I got some sleep in, I was likely to say something I would live to regret.

I took a deep breath. “Would you mind very much letting me think about this before you started work on the project? I might have a few tweaks in mind for your plan, but I need time to sort this out. It is kind of sudden, you know.”

He ducked his head. “I know. I should have asked you before having them deliver the supplies, but…”

“But it would be harder for me to say no with them here.”

Steve colored, but nodded. “Well, yeah.”

“First sleep, then we’ll talk.”

And for the record, the man still needed a job.

***

I slept the morning and early hours of the afternoon away. Part of that was that I just didn’t want to get out of bed to face what lay ahead of me. Was having a permanent man in my life worth all of this stress and worry?

The jury was still out on that.

Finally, around two, I couldn’t lie there any longer. I found Steve behind the cabin with a tape measure. He had planted little sticks in the ground, and I noticed a thin line of twine leading from one to another, in the rough shape of a room. A large one.

So much for waiting for us to talk about this, huh?

When he caught a look at my expression, the tape measure disappeared. “This isn’t starting, honest. I just wanted to give you a visual of what I had in mind. That way, you could start to see it for yourself.”

I considered that for a minute. Okay. So the man might just live another day. But before I could share that little piece of good news with him, my phone rang.

“Sheriff Bluespring here,” I answered.

“Hey, Patty, it’s Ruby.” There was a slight pause. “Um, I really hate to bug you, but would you happen to be free for an hour or so? I could really use some help, and Amie isn’t available.”

I looked over at Steve. The sad thing was, I didn’t think I trusted the man enough to leave him alone with my precious little cabin. Who knew what I’d find when I got back?

“Would you mind if I brought Steve along?”

The hesitation this time was longer. “Um, sure? In fact, that might actually be useful in this case. Can you meet me at Mom’s old shop in Wind’s Crossing? And maybe bring Steve’s car? We can leave a vehicle there and go forward together.”

“Half an hour okay with you?”

“More than okay. Thanks, Patty, I’ll owe you a big one for this.”

I almost hung up, but I sensed there was something else she wanted to say. I was right, too.

She cleared her throat. “If, uh, Steve owns any really tight pants that he’d be willing to wear, that might help the situation.” Then, before I could respond, she hung up.

It was hard, but I managed to keep the grin off my face. I didn’t want to give Steve any early warning of what I thought was likely to happen next.

But yeah, Ruby’s request just got a lot more interesting. And fun, too.

The thing is, I knew exactly what outfit Steve should wear. He had a pair of black jeans that he wore sometimes with a simple black polo shirt. Both articles of clothing pretty much showed everything the man had between them. If a girl was willing to use a little imagination, of course. With Steve, the effort was definitely worth it, so most girls seemed more than willing.

As luck would have it, that outfit was now in my tiny closet. His backup clothes. How lucky could a girl get?

He took the time to change, and I didn’t even have to ask him, either. His work (or non-work, as he would have argued) of the morning had left his clothes a little worse for wear. And the man was still trying to make a good impression on our neighbors.

That, of course, included Ruby Ravenswind.

By the time the man appeared out in front of the cabin again, I could no longer hide my grin. Whatever Ruby had in mind, it was bound to be entertaining.

For me, anyway.

Chapter 2

Once Patty joined us in Steve’s car, I asked the obvious question. “Who are we going after, and why do you need help with it?”

Okay, so technically, that was two questions. Sue me. The second one was important, I thought, to let me know what we were heading into. Ruby wasn’t a lightweight at the bounty hunting game. She was good.

Very, very good. If she needed help, that meant there had to be a problem. And I was right about that, too.

“The runner is Melvin Storm,” she said. “And um, the reason I need help is that he’s holed up with a friend and isn’t coming out of the house. Also, he knows me.”

I stared at her for a minute. “If you know where he is, you know you could have just called me in, don’t you?”

She shook her head. “Not without having hands on him first. That’s bounty hunter 101 stuff right there. If I don’t already have him in custody when I call you in—officially, that is—then I don’t get credit for the capture.”

More important than the capture was the actual bounty payout. I could understand that.

“All right, so what’s the plan?”

Ruby glanced at the back of Steve’s head and bit her lip. “Well, I was kind of hoping to draw him out.”

Steve must have felt her eyes on him, because he glanced back at her in the rearview mirror. “Why am I thinking that I’m the bait on this one?”

She blew out a long breath. “Probably because you are. Partly because good old Mel already knows Patty and me. He doesn’t know you.” She paused. “Does he?”

Steve shook his head. “I don’t believe the two of us have that pleasure, no.”

“Good. Then this should work.”

“And the plan, exactly?” I asked again. I’ll admit, my curiosity was running pretty high. As Ruby had said, I knew Melvin. And I knew he much preferred the company of men over women, if you get my drift.

Making Steve, in his current outfit, pretty much the perfect bait to use. In my mind, it was on Steve that he missed the fact that she’d said the whole known business was only part of it.

With another glance at the back of Steve’s head—I noticed she was avoiding his eyes in the mirror—she shrugged. “The friend he’s staying with doesn’t have a garage, and the two of them had been working on a project car. An old vintage muscle car… a Rally Nova, I think it is. I kind of figure if we gently tap it with Steve’s car, it might get him to come out.”

Steve’s eyes widened. “You want me to intentionally hit a vintage car? I don’t think my insurance company would like that idea all that much. And truthfully, neither do I.”

“Look, I’m not asking you to do any real damage to it. Just tap the thing. After you let me and Patty out and we make our way up to the side of the house unseen, of course.”

When Steve still didn’t look all that thrilled at the idea, she upped the ante. “I’ll gladly pay for any damages out of the capture fee… as long as you keep it to a tap.”

He thought for a minute, then pulled over to let us out a block down from the house. We’d have to hoof it the rest of the way. I noticed he didn’t pull away from the curb at once. Looking back, I saw him playing with his phone.

I hoped that wasn’t him coming up with another improvised plan.

It didn’t take Patty and me long to get situated at the house. She took the front, and I took the back. Just in case Mel smelled a rat and tried to make it out the back door. Though why he would do that when he could stay hunkered down inside, I didn’t know. I was just the added muscle here, though, and Ruby wanted me in the back, so that’s where I went.

Kind of. I was covering the back door from the corner of the house facing the driveway. I’m sorry, but hired muscle or not, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss this one.

A full five minutes later, Steve pulled into the drive, going a little on the fast side. Then he slammed on his brakes and a loud screeching, metal-on-metal sound blasted through the air. I almost broke and ran to him. That didn’t sound like the minor tap that Ruby had asked for.

Seconds later, Melvin entered my view. At that point, I started walking toward them. No risk of him coming out the back, now, was there? And I kind of wanted to check on Steve.

He’d already climbed out of the car and was walking toward Melvin with his hands up apologetically. The funny thing was, Ruby hadn’t made her move yet. I kind of figured she was waiting for the same thing I was.

“What the devil did you do?” Melvin yelled. Then his gaze went from the cars to Steve. Even from here, I could see the man changing right before my eyes. His anger went down to notch one and his libido went up to about notch ten.

Steve could do that to a person.

That was about the time Steve got a good look at Melvin, too. Remember those old cartoons where the wolf’s eyes popped out of his head? Steve’s eyes did a pretty excellent imitation of that. For good reason.

Melvin didn’t disappoint. He was dressed in deep purple silk pajamas with a little frog emblem on one of the shirt pockets, and a little rainbow on the other. And his feet? Well, they were encased in fluffy pink bunny rabbit slippers.

Yup, that’s when Ruby’s plan became especially apparent to Steve. Hence the cartoon wolf eyes.

Melvin walked a little closer to Steve, almost purring. “Never mind the car, but I think you need to come inside for a bit so I can get your insurance information.”

Steve recovered fairly quickly. Probably because he saw Ruby sneaking up behind the man. He moved out of the man’s view of the back of the Nova. “No need. I didn’t hit anything.” He waved his phone in the air beside him. “Sound effect.”

Melvin’s eyes clouded. Then it hit him that he was outside in the open and fair game for a takedown.

“Eek!” He yelled as he turned right into Ruby’s not-so-loving embrace.

 I so needed this today. Steve might just live through the day, after all.

***

To make it all official and above-board, I called a deputy to come and take Melvin off our hands. And yes, they signed the release form to allow Ruby to be paid, too. Kind of the point to all this, that was.

Once the deputy had left with his new charge, the three of us piled back into Steve’s undamaged car.

“That was pretty quick thinking with the whole sound effect thing,” Ruby said, grudgingly. I could tell it bothered her a little that she hadn’t come up with that. I was just glad someone had. Steve was right about insurance companies not liking intentional damage. Even if that intention damage was to capture someone running from the law.

He shrugged like it was no big deal. To him, it might not have been. To Ruby, most likely it was.

“Thanks for helping out today, too,” Ruby said, then she went quiet. Too quiet. I could almost see the wheels turning inside her head.

“Something bothering you, Ruby?” I asked.

Her bottom lip caught between her teeth for a second. Like she was debating something. Finally, she just blurted it out.

“I don’t suppose you’d be up for a part-time job, would you?”

Okay, so that surprised me. Ruby was kind of famous for being a very able-bodied witch… and bounty hunter too. The thought of her being willing to take on a partner had never really occurred to me. But now that she’d broached the subject, it got my brain working.

I mean, here she was thinking about a partner, and there Steve was, needing a job. It seemed like a match made in heaven to me. I just wasn’t too sure the others would feel the same way. Time to tread carefully rather than just release my brilliant idea to the world prematurely.

“I’m afraid being a sheriff doesn’t really leave me enough free time for other employment,” I said slowly. “Sorry. Are things that busy for you?”

She nodded. “They are picking up, that’s for sure. Some of the other area hunters have gotten tired of being shown up by me and have moved on to other towns. Good riddance, I say. But, as I like to do my hunts the old-fashioned way, they take up a lot of time.” Ruby paused. “And then there are times that I just need an able-bodied helping hand. Like today, for instance. Amie’s business is picking up, too, and I can’t keep relying on her to help me out of a jam.”

All excellent points. I was still considering the best way to broach my idea when Steve beat me to the punch.

“Does hunting bond runners pay well?” he asked.

Ruby nodded. “Oh, heck yeah. Especially when you’re good at it. I’ll be picking up a check for just under two grand for bringing Melvin in. And it took me less than a day to track him down.”

Steve whistled. “Dang, I’d call that good money, all right.” Then he hesitated. “Patty might not be able to help you out, but I might be interested. If you’d be willing to give me a try… and if we could come to agreeable working terms, of course. I think I’d want to be a full-on partner. Not just an employee. I think I’ve had it with being an employee.”

That lip was back between Ruby’s teeth, and the brain wheels were turning again. Then she looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I could read the question in her eyes pretty clearly enough.

“Personally, I think the two of you would make a good team. For the record, Steve already has a history of tracking runners. He’s good at it.”

Granted, not the same kind of runners, but a runner was a runner, right? “You could always divide and conquer to cover the larger caseload, and then work together when either of you needed assistance with a takedown. Sounds like it could work to me. If you could come to terms, of course.”

I could almost see the shift in Ruby’s brain wheels. If there was one thing that Ruby excelled at—other than being a kick-butt witch and bounty-hunter—it was negotiation.

You know what? This just might work.

Chapter 3

It didn’t take them all that long to hammer out the details of a probationary working agreement. The general idea of it was to give them both a three-month trial period to see if this was something they could live with.

Within that three-month period, either of them could back out, no harm and no foul. And with no hurt feelings on either side. It was all in the quick contract they drew up. Even the no hard feelings part of it. Which I thought was kind of nice. After all, we were very close neighbors here. I didn’t want things to get too awkward if the joint venture didn’t work out. Apparently, the two of them felt the same way.

The contract also stated that during the probationary period, each person would take one hundred percent of their bond capture fees—even if the other person helped them with the actual take-down. That seemed only fair. The real work was in tracking the runners down.

And it was just safer to have another capable person along for the actual capture. Hopefully, with that clause in place, it would help them not to hesitate to call the other one in. For the record, Steve suggested that clause. I liked that.

It also didn’t take long for Steve to catch his very first assignment. Ruby already had two she was working on, so when Vincent Bonds called later that afternoon with another runner, Ruby handed it over to Steve without hesitation.

Of course, it helped that it was a rather small capture fee. Bringing this one in would only net about five hundred dollars. Still not bad for a few days’ work, and on the surface, it didn’t look like Greg Abbott would be all that hard to trace and bring in.

It seemed a pretty perfect first job for Steve to test the waters of bond hunting.

Once all the paperwork was done and the quick contract was signed by both of them, I laid down for a quick nap. Funny, but I didn’t have a bit of a problem falling asleep this time. Mostly because I knew that Steve was in my small living room on his computer trying to get a line on Abbott instead of in my backyard planning an unauthorized expansion of my personal living space.

By the time I woke up to get ready for my shift at the station, Steve was already gone. No note, either, but then that wasn’t so very unusual. The man tended to come and go as he pleased. For now, I was okay with that. Besides, he knew I was slated to work tonight, so his being gone really didn’t matter all that much to me, now did it?

And again, his being gone eased my mind that much more. I really did like my tiny home just the way it was.

At this point, the deal with Ruby seemed to be working great for me. I just hoped that Vincent Bonds could keep them well-stocked with runners to go after for the next three months. If not, then I’d be right back where I started from.

I really didn’t want that to happen.

For my first hour at the station, everything was quiet. That wasn’t so unusual. Things were generally quiet at the start of my shift. They started picking up around midnight. And then even more when the local bars started to close.

The life of a sheriff was a busy one, for sure. The only part of it that I really minded all that much was the paperwork. There was far too much of that to suit me.

Then around nine o’clock, the call came in. I knew something was up when my number one night deputy came to stand in my doorway.

He looked like he had something to tell me that he really, really didn’t want to tell me.

And that had me decidedly worried.

***

I’d been right to be worried.

When I got to the scene, they already had the suspect in handcuffs and sitting in the back of a police car. I spared the car no more than a glance. I wanted more information to go on before I actually did my first interview.

The outside of the house was ordinary enough. Two stories complete with a short cement entryway, light gray vinyl siding, and burgundy colored shutters. Good color combination. I’d have to remember that.

Yes, I was trying to distract my brain from the scene at hand. I had to stop that, though. As sheriff, I didn’t have that luxury. There were things to be dealt with here. Whether I wanted to deal with them or not.

I walked past the for sale sign at the front of the porch and then on through the opened front door. Well, it wasn’t totally accurate to say that the front door was open. It was gone. Okay, technically, it was still there, but the pieces of wood and splinters that were left of it really couldn’t be classified as a door.

From the state of the non-door, I expected to find the inside of the house a total disaster. It wasn’t. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The very picture of perfection. Staged perfectly to allow house hunters to see just how nice of a family home it would make.

That was the case in every room but one. The kitchen. The dead body on the floor put a huge damper on that room’s appeal.

I knelt down outside the main circle of influence to examine the body. “Do we have a name?” Not that I really had to ask. I was pretty sure I knew who was lying there in front of me. But there was always the possibility I could be wrong. Please, Goddess, let me be wrong.

“Greg Abbott.”

So much for my appeal to the Goddess. “All right. Run me through what you have.”

The deputy glanced down at his notebook. “Neighbors heard the perimeter alarm go off around eight. The alarm company called us in immediately. We arrived to find the front door smashed in and Mr. Abbott dead on the kitchen floor.” He paused.

I could tell he really didn’t want to go on. For a very good reason, too. “And the suspect?”

“He was bending over the body when we got to the kitchen.” Another pause. “For the record, he says the door was already busted in when he got here and that he didn’t kill Abbott.”

What the deputy stopped himself from saying, probably in deference to me, was that’s what all suspects said. Giving the denial of guilt practically no meaning at all.

I’d have asked about the cause of death, but it was pretty obvious. The blood on the baseball bat lying to the side and the state of the body kind of hinted at what had happened here.

The thing is, this looked like a murder of passion. Someone who was very, very angry with Greg Abbott had swung that bat. Repeatedly, from the look of things. And that scenario just didn’t lend itself to the suspect in the back of that sheriff’s cruiser as the killer.

At least that was something.

The coroner walked in, and I moved to allow him access to the body. Then I nodded to the deputy. “If you need me for anything, I’ll be outside.”

He swallowed but nodded.

Then I went out to that parked cruiser, got in the front seat, and turned to face the suspect in the back.

“Okay, Steve. What the heck happened here?”

Chapter 4

For a long moment—too long—we just stared at each other through the screened partition between the front and back of the patrol car. Finally, he broke the stare and turned his head to look out the side window toward the house.

“Not what your deputy friends out there think happened, that’s for sure.”

I nodded. I’d already guessed that much. But Steve had to give my people a bit of a break here, too. They had, after all, found him standing over a dead body. As he still hadn’t answered my question, I was still waiting. It took him another minute to get the hint.

“Look, I figured out pretty easily where Abbott was hiding out. I came here with every intention of making the capture and cashing in on the bounty.” His eyes finally came back to mine. “I did not kill the man. You know that bounties aren’t dead or alive anymore, right? With the man dead, I get nothing.”

As if that were the issue at the moment.

I ran a hand down my face. He’d spoken twice and still hadn’t answered my original question. This wasn’t going well.

“What I asked, in case you’ve forgotten, is what the heck happened here? I’d like to know what the place looked like when you got here and what happened between the time you got on site and the time my people showed up.” That was the crucial time period that needed accounting for.

He took a deep breath. “I saw the front door as I pulled over at the curb, so I knew right away that something was very, very wrong. The alarm was still blaring at full volume, so I ran inside to make sure that Abbott was okay.”

Steve blinked at me. “He wasn’t, obviously. I was checking to see if the man had a pulse when your people arrived.” He motioned to the inside of the car. “After that, I’ve spent most of the time in here.”

I hated to tell him, but he’d be spending a bit more time in here, too. There were some things I wanted to check out before taking him down to the station. With any luck, the results of my check would negate the need to do that.

“Is there anything you need right now?” I asked him. “Bathroom, water? You want me to turn on the car to run the heater for you?”

It didn’t feel bad in the car to me, but then wolf’s blood runs a little on the warm side. Or so I’ve been told in the past.

He gave me an incredulous look. “You aren’t cutting me loose? You know I didn’t kill that man, right?”

I nodded. “I do. But I also know that they found you in the house with your fingers touching the body. You know I can’t just cut you loose because you’re my boyfriend, right?” Yes, I was turning his wording back on him. If the shoe fits and all that.

He didn’t look all that happy about it, but he gave me a curt nod. “So go prove I didn’t do it, then. I’m not all that fond of wearing cuffs.”

“So you’re good in here for a while?”

Steve shrugged. “I won’t say good, but I’ll survive. Go.”

The man didn’t have to tell me twice. I was just as uncomfortable sitting in that car, looking through that partition as he was. Maybe even more so, as I was the only one in a situation to change that.

I walked back to the front porch to have another look at the door. Something wasn’t sitting right with me about it. After a few seconds, I realized what that was. There were more splinters of wood and glass on the porch than there were inside the threshold. If someone had kicked the door in from the outside, that should have been just the opposite.

My crew was still working the scene, taking photographs and making way for the coroner to take the body. I glanced around the neighborhood.

That’s when I realized we were being watched. The curtain of the house directly across the road flicked shut when I stared at it.

I stalked across the road and knocked on the door. A sheriff’s kind of knock. The kind of knock that said I wasn’t going to go anywhere until they answered.

Eventually, they did. Or rather, she did. The woman was older, definitely past her early retirement years. A lot of elderly women took an immediate interest in their neighborhood. That could only be a good thing in this kind of situation.

“I’m Sheriff Bluespring,” I said by way of introduction. “Are you, by chance, one of the neighbors that called in the alarm?”

She nodded quietly. “I am.” She hesitated for a second before going on. “That man you have in the patrol car didn’t do the breaking and entering, by the way.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. Now we were getting somewhere. “What makes you so sure of that?”

She sighed. “I heard the commotion of the alarm, so I called the company to shut it off. As the house is empty right now, I could only think it was either vandals or a false alarm, and that alarm of theirs is not a quiet one by any means. I was watching out my window for the cops to show up and stop the blaring when that man pulled up. He took one look at the house—that’s what made me notice the front door in the shambles it was in—and then ran into the house.”

The woman shrugged. “So, if he arrived after the alarm went off, then he couldn’t be the vandal, now could he?”

***

With an eyewitness to verify what I had already known—that Steve didn’t kill Abbott—I was able to cut him loose. That didn’t mean I let him stick around the crime scene with me. The man was a free agent now, not a deputy of another county.

It made a difference. So, I sent him home. Then I reconciled myself to a very late night of work.

The coroner did me a favor and rushed the autopsy through the system. That helped. I know I had an eyewitness, and other evidence on the scene that cleared Steve, but that didn’t mean my people weren’t still sending me fleeting looks. I guess it was possible that Steve could have killed the man, then set off the alarm by bashing in the front door—from the inside, mind you—leave the scene with no one seeing him, and then return to be caught red-headed.

It was possible. But not very probable. Steve might be a lot of things, but he wasn’t stupid.

“I’ve got the initial report on Abbott, if you want it,” Tad said from the doorway. I motioned for him to bring it to me. It had been a long day, and I was saving any energy I had remaining for the reading of that coroner’s report.

He handed it to me, then left. Only to return a minute later with a steaming mug of coffee. “You looked like you could use this,” he said, placing the mug on the corner of my desk.

I smiled up at him. “I can, and thank you. Right now, that coffee maker seems like a mile away.”

Tad chuckled. “Yeah, rough day. Glad Steve was cleared, though. Still not sure he’s good enough for you, to be honest. But he seems an okay bloke, for the most part.”

I grunted. “Most days, yes.” Sorry, but the whole house enlargement thing still had me more than a little bugged. What did it say about someone who would start changing something major like that without first running it by the property’s owner? Namely, of course, me.

“Trouble in paradise?” Tad asked. “Should I have a little talk with him for you?”

I grinned at him. I could only imagine how that would go. Steve was a bit on the brawny side with muscles galore. Tad? Not so much. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a good man to have on your side in a fight, though. He was. Tad might be on the smaller side, but what is it they say? It isn’t the size of the man in the fight but the size of the fight in the man?

Tad had a whole lot of fight inside him. So much so that I might be mistaken about the results of a battle between him and Steve. They just might be on more equal standings than I had at first thought.

Luckily, however, I didn’t have to find out. Not today.

“Nothing we can’t work out.” I grimaced. “He’s wanting to add on to the cabin.”

Tad nodded. “But you love that place just as it is. So much so that you had it moved from your old place.”

Yup. How sad was it that Tad got that and Steve didn’t? Still, we were on our way to reaching an acceptable compromise. I just hoped we had a full agreement before he actually started the work. Our ideas might be very different indeed.

I hefted the still unopened envelope containing the coroner’s report. Well, it was unopened by me, anyway. “You take a look at this on the way to my office?”

“I did. Hope you don’t mind. I was the arresting officer in Abbott’s court case. That kind of gives me a vested interest of sorts.”

I laid the envelope back on the desk and leaned back in my chair. “I don’t mind at all. And I totally understand the vested interest thing too. I’m going to want all the particulars of that case, including the case file, soon. But right now? Tell me what the report says.”

Tad took a deep breath. “Well, as much as it looked like a crime of passion where someone just went in and beat the man to death, the coroner doesn’t think that’s what happened.”

Interesting. “So what does he think happened?”

“According to the report, the bruising and marks were made at different times. It would appear that Abbott didn’t die quickly in the attack. He said it was consistent with cases he’s seen in the past where a victim was beaten by someone wanting information that the victim didn’t freely want to give.”

My fingers drummed on the desktop. “So it didn’t all go down quickly, then. That makes the theory of that door going down from the inside more plausible. Once the killer got what they wanted, they kicked the door down and ran out the back.”

“That’s what it sounds like.” Tad hesitated. “But it’s still possible the killer didn’t exactly get what he wanted.”

The man was right. It was entirely possible that Abbott had given up the ghost without giving up whatever secret the killer was there for. But that would have taken a heck of a man. Was Abbott that strong?

And maybe even more to the point, if that had been the case, then why hadn’t the house been trashed before the killer left? Other than the kitchen, it had been pristine.

No. I thought the killer got what they wanted. The only question now was, what the devil did they get?

Chapter 5

It had been a long night already, and it was going to be even longer. I pulled the case file that Tad had been nice enough to bring me in close and got to work.

Yes, my deputy had been nice enough to give me the pertinent details about the case as he remembered them. The trouble was, sometimes, the best clue in solving a mystery was a tiny little side detail that the arresting officer somehow missed. I was hoping I’d find one of those tiny little details in the case file.

Greg Abbott had been arrested—caught red-handed, as it were—during an attempted burglary. The attempted part of things was only because Tad had come across the scene when he did.

John and Beth Miller were off on a Caribbean cruise when Abbott decided to go on a little shopping trip inside their home. Unfortunately for Abbott, John Miller was a friend of Tad’s and had asked him to keep an eye out on their house.

As a good friend would, Tad had taken to circling the Miller’s block as often as possible during his patrolling hours. That circling paid off, too, when he spotted what appeared to be a repair van in their driveway.

The rest was already written history. The case was a slam dunk, and Tad had followed the rules to the letter. Abbott wouldn’t have been getting off on a technicality on this one.

This wasn’t his first arrest, either. His earlier charge had been a burglary, too, but the judge had thrown the case out because that arresting officer hadn’t been nearly as careful as Tad. That didn’t mean Abbott hadn’t been guilty. He had, and everyone knew that, too. Even the judge. But rules were there for a reason. Even if, at times, I really didn’t understand the reasoning behind some of them.

Unfortunately, as it stood, the case file was very much on the small side. As Tad had caught Abbott while in the act, he hadn’t gotten away with anything.

Which was good, because otherwise I’d have been heavily looking into Tad’s friends as suspects. If the coroner was right, and he usually was, then someone wanted something that Abbott had bad enough to torture and kill for it. Who’s to say the killer wasn’t the rightful owner of it to begin with?

With Abbott’s history of burglary, that just made sense. It was my start-off working theory, anyway. Now all I had to do was find something that substantiated my thought process.

I glanced at the tiny clock at the bottom of my computer monitor. Well past the time I should have been home.

More importantly, it would be good and daylight very soon.

Perhaps I had been a bit too hasty in cutting Steve loose. If he’d been resting in one of my comfortable jail cells, I wouldn’t have had to worry about him putting the lumber sitting on my property to any kind of use without a clear direction of how to do that. Or even if doing it would be okay at all.

On my way out the door, I stopped by Tad’s desk and asked him to pull the files on Abbott’s first burglary case and any other unsolved burglary cases from the past two months.

Surely one of those files would have that one tiny little detail I was looking for.

***

When I got home, it was to find Steve up and waiting for me. With the sun barely reaching the horizon, that was rather unusual.

Then I saw the packed suitcase by the door.

“Going somewhere?” I asked.

He nodded, not quite meeting my eyes. “Look, I thought I had a handle on the whole you being sheriff thing, but I guess maybe I don’t, after all. Yesterday… well, I have some thinking to do, that’s all.”

“And I’m taking it that you have to do that thinking somewhere other than here?”

Steve nodded again. “Here is just too complicated right now. I’m sorry. I’m not breaking everything off. Not yet, anyway. But…” His words trailed off.

“But it might come to that, huh?” I shrugged, going for nonchalance, dang it all. “No worries. I don’t want you here if you don’t want to be here.”

I glanced out the window behind me, and my heart fell. The lumber that had been there now wasn’t. Even if Steve’s words said he wasn’t breaking things off, his actions said something altogether different.

He must have seen my glance. “I didn’t return the building supplies, if that’s what you’re thinking. I just had them put into storage. It wouldn’t have been right to just leave them here cluttering up your living space.”

Well, I had to agree with that.

Steve walked over and picked up the case, then opened the door. “See you around, Patty.”

I swallowed before answering. Normally I didn’t have a problem keeping my composure or holding my emotions in check. But something about Steve had changed all that.

“See you around, Steve.”

I watched from the window as he got into his vehicle and drove off down the driveway. Then I locked and bolted the door.

For some reason, the bed that had been calling to me all night long suddenly didn’t seem like such a pleasant option. I’d gone without sleep a night or two in the past. No big deal, right?

I did take the time to change the sheets, though. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was come back and crawl into a bed that still smelled of Steve. Sometimes having the super sniffer of a wolf wasn’t such a great thing.

On that note, I opened up a couple of windows to allow a cross breeze to air out the cabin. Then I left. Back to the station for me.

If my day-shift deputies were surprised to see me, they didn’t say it. But I saw the look in Trevor’s eyes all the same. If anyone would be able to see right through me, it would be him.

“Trouble at home?” he asked. “Yesterday had to be rough on you guys.”

I grunted. “You could say that.” For a second, I pondered telling him everything, but in the end, I just left it at that.

That didn’t stop him from following me into my office. “Need some help going through those files? There seems to be a burglary crime spree going on right now. Another pair of eyes might help.”

What he didn’t say was that having companionship in the office right now might help, too. He didn’t say it, but I heard it all the same.

I took him up on it, too.

One, because I really didn’t want to be alone right now. But two, because I wanted all the help I could get to put this case to rest.

I didn’t need any daily reminders of Steve disrupting my work.

Of course, there was another reason I wanted this case done sooner rather than later, too. It wasn’t just business anymore.

It was personal.

Chapter 6

Trevor hadn’t been kidding about that sudden rash of burglaries. There were a dozen case files to go through—and that was just from the last month.

Our thought process was that whatever had set off the killer to do what they’d done, it had probably happened fairly recently. Of course, we could be wrong in that assumption, but we had to start somewhere. So we decided to start with the most recent files and work our way backward to the older ones.

In the end, we separated out three files to start with. Not because they were anything truly out of the ordinary, mind you. No priceless paintings or anything like that. Simple, everyday burglaries.

So why did we separate them from the pack? Because the owners of the items taken had taken the thefts decidedly personally. According to the responding officers, these three homeowners had been belligerent and irate.

Yes. Most people who have had their homes violated and personal belongings stolen are belligerent and irate. But these three seemed even more so than most.

I have good people on my force. I trust their judgment on that.

“Which one should we start with?” I asked Trevor.

He shrugged. “Sheriff’s choice.”

I mulled that over for a minute. “Okay, so if it was Deputy Trevor’s choice, which one would we start with?” I’m sorry, but I was far too tired to work up a good decision on this. Besides, Trevor’s brain generally worked the same way mine did when it came to these kinds of things.

When my brain was actually working right, that is. Today it wasn’t. For a variety of reasons. Steve and lack of sleep being the two main ones.

 He picked up the first file. “This one had jewelry and silverware taken. Normally, I’d say this would be a clear winner, but…”

“But they were run-of-the-mill pieces. No family heirlooms, right?”

Trevor nodded. “Exactly. In this particular case, the homeowners might even make out to be better off than they were, as they had the items insured to the hilt.”

I tapped a pencil on my desk. “Hmm. We can’t cross them off just yet, though. I mean, if that’s the case, then why the aggressive hostility?”

He shrugged again. “Might just be the whole home invasion thing. I know I’d take that personally.”

Yeah, so would I. But I wouldn’t take it out on the responding officers who were just doing their job.

“And the other two files?”

He lofted the second file. “Video games. Easily replaceable, though they weren’t insured, so it will cost the owners to do that. I can see them being upset about that, but not enough to beat someone to death over it.”

Then he lofted the third file. “If you truly want my opinion, this is the one I’d start with.”

Even as tired as I was, I smiled. “You really think someone would kill over a stuffed teddy bear collection?”

He didn’t return my smile. Instead, he nodded. “More so than the others, yeah. Collectible teddy bears can be replaced, sure. But the replacements aren’t the same as the originals, you know?” He grew quiet for a minute. “Amie has this stuffed penguin she used to sleep with. I’d pity the soul of anyone who broke into our house and took it from her.”

I stared at him for a minute. The man was dead serious.

“Point taken,” I said, standing up to grab my jacket. “Teddy bear burglary it is.”

***

Emily Baker’s house was nice, but not overly so. A simple, sprawling ranch home that probably held four bedrooms and at least three full bathrooms. Or, more likely, three bedrooms and an office. That was likely as Mrs. Baker had declared herself as self-employed in the police report.

I spared a glance at the For Sale sign in the front yard as we passed it. Trevor noticed the glance and gave a short grunt.

“That’s new,” he said.

Hopefully, the sale wasn’t just because of the burglary. Sometimes homeowners took things like that to the extreme. Sometimes they found it hard to live in a house that had been successfully broken into. For the record, I could understand that feeling. After all, we spend a lot of time sleeping in our homes, don’t we?

Of course, just because I understood their feelings didn’t mean that if it happened to me, I’d be packing up and moving. When faced with a fight-or-flight choice, I usually chose the option to fight. It was the wolf in me.

Mrs. Baker opened the door before we even made it to the front porch. Then she stood there wringing her hands as we finished the short walk. “Please tell me you’ve found my bears.”

I shook my head. “Sorry. That hasn’t happened yet, but we’re working on it. I can promise you that. On that note, we’d like another little chat if you have the time.”

She frowned but nodded. Then she led us into her immaculate house and to the den. She started talking before we even got sat down.

“I really don’t know what’s taking so long with this. I told the young deputy exactly who did this. Why haven’t you arrested him yet?”

I glanced over at Trevor. In my haste to get here, I hadn’t taken the time to go through that file as thoroughly as I should have. As it was one that Trevor had singled out of the stack of burglary reports, he knew much more about it than I did. A fact I was greatly regretting at this point.

This thing with Steve was worse than I thought if it was going to start affecting my better judgment this badly. I couldn’t let that happen. No. I was better than that. I’d done without a man in my life for decades. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

And I’d keep telling myself that, too.

“We checked into your husband’s alibi, Mrs. Baker,” Trevor told her. “It was rock solid for the night of your break-in. He wasn’t the one that took your bears.”

She stared at him for a minute and then pursed her lips. “Then he hired to have it done. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that he has a perfect, rock-solid alibi for the very time that the bears were taken? Wouldn’t someone do that if they hired the thing done?”

The woman had a point.

“I take it that you and your husband are separated?” I asked.

She nodded. “Very soon to be divorced. Not soon enough, but soon.” She nodded out the window. “That’s why the house is up for sale. I can’t afford to live here on my own, and I sure as heck am not giving up to let my rat turd of a soon-to-be ex-husband live in the home that I created. Hell will freeze over before I’ll let that happen.”

Okay, so maybe I needed to back up a bit. “What makes you think he was the one behind the burglary?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Those Teddies were my lifeblood. I spent decades of my life collecting them. Searching for the missing bears in the collection and buying them up one by one. It took me twelve years to complete the Rock-a-Bye Bear collection alone. I think that one hurts me the most.”

She grew quiet for a minute. I let the silence grow. The best way to find out what was really going on with the woman was to let her tell the story in her own time. It didn’t take all that long.

A tear slipped down her cheek. “Donald actually bought me the last bear. As an engagement present. I thought that meant that he was my forever love, you know? A man who totally got me. But I was wrong. He wasn’t that man at all. And when the jerk finally packed his bags and left, he had the audacity to try to take that bear with him. Can you believe it? I had to call the cops to stop him. A gift is a gift, isn’t it? That bear was mine. Lord knows, I suffered enough for it over the last few years.”

“Your marriage wasn’t a good one, was it?” Trevor asked softly.

She shook her head. “No. But at least I had my house and my bears to comfort me. Now? Soon, I’ll have neither.”

We talked for a little longer, but nothing new came out of it. Within twenty minutes of us arriving, we left.

Once in the car, Trevor glanced over at me. “I don’t think she’s our killer.”

“Yeah, neither do I. Now, if the person on the other end of that bat had been Donald Baker, that might be a different story.”

He nodded. “Agreed. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

As our brains worked the same way, I was betting the answer to that was yes.

“We need to have a talk with Donald Baker.”

Chapter 7

My body—and my brain—was starting to feel the effects of lack of sleep. In my job, that wasn’t a good thing. Which was one of the main reasons I was making this a team effort.

It was really nice having a second in command that was as competent as Trevor was. Of course, he should be competent, seeing as how he was the sheriff before me. And yes. I was beginning to understand why he’d been so eager to hang up that particular badge, too.

We pulled into Baker’s Reliable Used Cars, which was Donald Baker’s place of business. It wasn’t in the heart of Wind’s Crossing, but it wasn’t an overly long drive to get there, either. Trevor parked in one of the visitor spots, and we both climbed out.

I glanced around us. The lot was divided into two sections. One of those sections held nice, newer-model vehicles. The other section? Well, let’s just say the look of those vehicles brought great doubt into the entire name of his lot. They sure as heck didn’t look like anything I’d feel comfortable taking on a long trip.

Or a short one, either.

We walked in and went straight toward the manager’s office. Donald Baker was sitting behind his desk, frowning at his computer. He glanced up when we entered. As the door was open, we didn’t bother with a knock.

One look at our uniforms and the man swallowed. My super sniffer could actually smell the fear radiating off the man. It was enough to put me on my guard. As Trevor took a few steps away from me—all the better to see the full man behind his desk—I rather thought something had put his guard up, too.

After another couple of swallows, the man pushed his chair back and stood up. “Is there something I can do for you, Sheriff?”

I nodded. “For starters, you can tell me why you were so intent on taking your wife’s prized bear when you left her.”

His shoulders dropped. Just a fraction, mind you, but enough that I noticed. Then he gave a little relieved laugh. “That’s why you’re here? Emily is still insisting I took that blasted bear and all his little stuffed friends?” He shook his head and sat back down, a much more relaxed man. “Well, I didn’t. I was with three other guys at the high school basketball game. Tons of people saw me there, too.”

He puffed up just a bit. “My business is one of the sponsors of the team.”

“You ever hear of hiring work done?” I asked.

He laughed, leaning back in his chair. “Why would I pay good money to hire a thief to steal something I didn’t want?”

“If you didn’t want it, then why did you try to take it when you left?” I asked.

Baker shrugged. “I was ticked off. It seemed like a good way to hurt Emily like she was hurting me. You know? Nothing more than that. Sure as heck nothing I’d break the law for.”

“Do you have any idea who might have taken Emily’s collection?” Trevor asked.

Baker just grinned. “Nope. Not a clue. If I did, to be honest, I’d be thanking them right about now. The brat deserved it. She cared more for those blasted bears than she ever cared about me.”

“That doesn’t mean you should cover for them. Covering for a burglar would make you an accessory. All kinds of legal problems come with that title,” Trevor said.

The man kept his grin in place. “Then it’s a good thing I’m telling the truth, huh? I honestly don’t have a clue who took those stupid bears.”

The bad thing was, I believed him.

The man was guilty of something. I could smell it on him. But I didn’t think it was the theft of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s collection.

That didn’t mean the man wasn’t on my radar now. I’d be checking into Mr. Donald Baker pretty thoroughly after I put this murder to rest.

Whatever the man was guilty of, I’d find it.

***

“Where to now, Chief?” Trevor asked as he settled back behind the wheel.

I shrugged. It’s amazing how much energy it can take to do that when one is well and truly exhausted. My reserves were running on the very thin side.

“I’ll leave your next move up to your best judgment. My next move, however, is going home and to bed.”

He nodded, his smile fading. “Ah yeah. Last night was a rough one, wasn’t it?”

“You could say that.” Rough on a lot of different levels, too. Especially the emotional level. But I didn’t want to get into that with him. Not yet, anyway. Sooner or later, I’d have to fill the man in. He wasn’t my second in command for nothing. He would need to know. Later. When I didn’t feel so very vulnerable.

He dropped me off at the station so I could grab my car, and somehow I made it home in one piece. My heart fell, though, when I saw that my trip inside and to my bed would not be the short, straightforward one I had thought it would be.

That’s because Ruby was waiting for me on my tiny front porch. The fact that she looked worried didn’t help my state of mind one bit, either. I really hoped there wasn’t some kind of Team Destiny emergency. Everyone has their limits, and I was edging past mine now as it was.

I parked and got out of the SUV. Ruby started talking before I even made it a single step. I held my hand up. “Let’s get inside first, okay? Then we can talk.”

She clamped her lips shut with an obvious effort and then followed me in. I was rather grateful for her company when Steve’s scent hit me hard. So much for changing the sheets, huh? The entire cabin fairly reeked of him. Usually, that was a good thing. Now? Not so much.

I sank down onto the edge of my bed. Hopefully, that would give the woman a bit of a hint as to my current needs. Then I waved at her to continue what she’d started outside.

“Steve came by this morning and told me what happened,” she started. Then she stopped. It would appear that the normally talkative Ruby had run out of words.

“Did he tell you he called a break between us?”

She nodded, looking just about as miserable as anyone could look. “Yeah. I’m sooo sorry. I kind of feel like I’m to blame for all this. If I hadn’t signed Steve on to work with me, then none of this would have happened.”

I shook my head at her. “That’s not true, and you know it. This was bound to happen, eventually. The issue here is the fact that I am a person of authority, and Steve is not. He seems to have problems with that fact. Those are his problems to work out. Better they come out earlier rather than later, if you ask me.”

If only they’d come out before I had become so invested in the relationship, it would have been even better. A lot better, actually.

“You really think so?” There was a tad bit of hope in her voice.

I nodded. My hopes that our conversation had reached the end were dashed, however, when she still stood there, looking uncertain. “Something else, Ruby?”

“Yeah. Steve wants to keep working with me, but I told him I’d have to see if that was okay with you first. I don’t want there to be bad feelings between us. Say the word, and I’ll break that contract with him in a heartbeat.”

I smiled at her. “No need to do that. You need the help, and Steve needs the work. Our relationship doesn’t even factor into that scenario one bit.”

“You really sure about that?”

Funny. Ruby rarely required this much validation. Maybe my face was giving away my true feelings on the matter. I upped my smile and tried again. “I’m sure, Ruby. Now, if you don’t mind, I really need to get some sleep.”

Color crept up into her cheeks. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.” She turned and walked to the door, then stopped to look back at me.

“So we’re good, then?”

I sighed. “We’re good, Ruby.”

Honestly? I don’t even remember hearing the door shut behind her. Blessed sleep hit that fast.

Chapter 8

Well, I slept. That much was good, I guess. The problem was that my sleep was riddled with odd and end weird dreams. Mostly involving Steve or Abbott. Sometimes both of them in the same dream.

I mean, I knew Steve was innocent. We had a witness to prove that. But the dreams sure as heck didn’t help my emotional disposition. At all.

A glance at the clock showed that I still had a few hours that I could sleep before reporting for duty at the station. As tired as I still was, it would probably be a good idea to roll over and go back to sleep until the alarm was ready to go off.

But that wasn’t going to happen. I might be tired, but I really, really didn’t want to start those stupid emotion-draining dreams up again where they left off. My dreams did that when I was super stressed. Like now, for instance.

Two years ago, none of this would have bothered me a bit. Back then, I was a definite lone wolf. No real friends to speak of, and definitely no ongoing relationship with a man. Getting involved with the Ravenswind family and Team Destiny had changed all that. I’d thought that was a good thing.

Right at this moment, though? I wasn’t so sure. Friends and relationships were nice to have, yes. But did they really make one this vulnerable? Were they worth it? Coin toss at this point.

I rolled out of bed and went through my pre-run stretching routine. Nothing fancy, just something to limber up the old bones and muscles before shifting. A nice little run might be just what the doctor ordered.

That was the nice thing about sharing the estate with my friends and neighbors. I had a full run of several acres. That meant I could get a nice run in—in fur form—without worrying about an errant hunter taking a crack shot at me.

An hour later, I was back at my cabin, showered, dressed, and ready to go. But go where? I called the station and got the names and addresses of those closest to Greg Abbott. Might as well start there.

Come to find out, Greg Abbott had a girlfriend. Darcy Jones. She would be my first stop. It was late enough in the day now that she should be home from work. At least the timing was working for me for once.

Darcy lived in a small half-double on the outskirts of Wind’s Crossing. The place was a little run-down, but at least the grass and porch were clear of debris and in good shape. So the person living there had a little pride in appearances, anyway. The state of the building itself was on the landlord.

I knocked, and a few seconds later, a woman with her right arm in a cast opened the door. I looked at the cast and then at her. “Darcy Jones?”

She nodded. I had thought everyone in town knew me and my position, but I could tell this woman didn’t have a clue who I was. Maybe I should have put on the uniform and picked up the sheriff’s SUV before coming.

My badge would just have to do. At least I had that. I always had that.

I flipped my badge for her to see. Her eyes widened, then she nodded again, her shoulders drooping. “This is about Greg, isn’t it?” Her left hand absently rubbed the cast.

“It is. First of all, I want to offer my condolences for your loss. I was hoping you could spare a few minutes to talk with me?”

The door opened wider, and she motioned me inside. Once at her dining room table, I looked rather pointedly at the cast on her arm.

“Did Greg do that?”

She swallowed and hesitated, then shook her head. “No. I… slipped and fell.”

Her words told me one story, but that hesitation and swallow told me an entirely different one. Greg Abbott had been an abuser.

The good thing was that with that cast, no way could Darcy have swung that bat with enough force to do any kind of damage. That meant she was in the clear.

I softened my voice. “How did your father feel about Greg? Do you have any brothers?”

Her eyes widened as she quickly realized where I was going with my questions. Darcy Jones was a very intelligent woman.

“Dad died a year ago,” she said. Then she stopped. I could tell she really, really didn’t want to answer the other question I’d asked. Which meant I really, really wanted that answer. Even if I kind of already had it.

“And your brothers?”

She swallowed again. “They didn’t like Greg. No sense in me lying and saying they did. You’d find out soon enough, anyway.”

The poor woman had been through the wringer. I could tell that. I could also tell that she was at her breaking point. If she went over the edge, I sure as heck didn’t want to be the one who pushed her there. So, I changed tracks.

“Did you know Greg was a burglar?”

She seemed surprised about the quick change of subject, but that didn’t mean she didn’t latch on to it like a lifesaver. “I had my suspicions, but nothing concrete.”

“Did he ever give you anything that you thought might have been stolen?”

“Greg wasn’t really the gift-giving kind of guy.”

I stood and handed her one of my cards. “If you think of anything that might help us, give me a call.” I paused. “And if anyone ever hurts you again, call me.”

Then I left. I’d caused the poor woman enough stress for one day. Time to hunt down those brothers of hers.

***        

Here’s a little tidbit about me. I really, really dislike people who abuse their life partners. Our partners, for those lucky enough to have them, should be treated with our utmost respect and love. Not battered, bruised, and broken at our hands. 

Because of this, I probably wasn’t the right officer to visit Darcy’s brothers. I’m the sheriff, and the law is the law. There are proper channels to go through to deal with abusers like Greg Abbott. I knew that. I also knew that those channels failed the victims more often than not. Most likely Darcy’s brothers knew that, too. 

If I had a sister with a broken arm caused by an abusive partner? Most likely, they’d never find the body. Then again, if I was in a less blood-thirsty mood, I might just have Opal do one of her uber-efficient karma spells. For someone like Abbott, the result would likely be the same, or very close to it. 

And I could still wear this Sheriff’s badge without feeling like a hypocrite. That was important to me. 

All that is to say that I made a call to Tad. He’d be a much better fit to talk with Darcy’s brothers. Tad hadn’t seen all the things I’d seen in life, so he hadn’t reached my level of cynicism yet. He still believed the process worked. 

With Tad handling the brothers, that left me free to pursue other avenues of investigation. I thought it was about time I checked out Abbott’s living space. Who knew what kind of secrets were lurking there? 

Abbott wasn’t the kind to live inside town limits. He owned a parcel of three acres about seven miles south of town. It took me three drive-bys to finally locate his trailer. If you could actually call it that. Doing so would be a distinct insult to other trailers. 

What it truly was, was a big hunk of rusted-out metal, vaguely shaped like a trailer. It was enough to fool the naked eye from the road, if one was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it from there. But up close? Yeah, it didn’t take me long to realize that this was not a livable abode. 

Which made me wonder where the man had lived. Then I remembered Tad mentioning that Abbott had been a survivalist. That opened up a bunch of possibilities in my mind. 

As a half-werewolf, I was a bit of a survivalist myself. I liked to hunker down in a nice ground-covered den in my furry form. It made me wonder if maybe Abbott shared my taste in hidden dens. 

The good thing about Abbott living in such an isolated area was that there was lots of privacy here. I walked a little way into the trees off the road, stripped down, and shifted. 

In my skin form, I had a heightened sense of smell. Far better than the average, or even above-average human. But in my fur form? It was beyond compare. 

It only took me three minutes to find Abbott’s den. 

I just wasn’t quite prepared for what I found inside it. 

Chapter 9

When you were dealing with a survivalist’s bunker, you just couldn’t quite be sure what you’d find inside. Booby traps and vicious guard dogs weren’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Luckily for me, however, both of those possibilities were missing inside Abbott’s bunker. But that was about all that was. The underground fortress must have taken years to dig out. And even more time to reinforce the walls and ceilings to make it livable.

Not that there was much room left there to live in. There wasn’t.

The main room at the bottom of the hidden stairs was large. At least, it was large for an underground dwelling. You could have fit my entire little cabin in that one room—and most likely have had space left over. And that’s before taking into account the two other rooms branching off that one.

The size of the place, however, was the smaller of the two surprises in store for me. The other surprise, the much bigger one, was that almost every square foot of the bunker was stuffed to the gills. I’m not talking junk here, either. I’m talking treasure.

I had to wonder if this was how those adventurers had felt when they walked into all the massive treasure that was found in King Tut’s tomb. Or was that just a story? My brain wasn’t really functioning all that well at the moment.

But the bottom line was, even if Tut’s treasure was more fiction than fact, the treasure surrounding me was very much real. And likely very much stolen, too.

Greg Abbott had definitely had a major problem. The few burglary case files I’d gone through with Tad couldn’t account for even one of the smaller rooms. This was a collection that had to have taken years—perhaps even a lifetime—to accumulate. Tracking down the owners of all this stuff would likely take almost as long.

Not a pleasant thought, that one. But just because something was going to be time-consuming was no reason not to do it. And the sooner we got started, the better.

It was time to call in the troops.

Well, almost time. Sue me, but I wanted the place to myself for a little while. You just never knew what you would find in a place like this. I wanted a little head’s-up before the place got even more crowded with my people in place. But there was another reason I wanted a little time to myself, too.

Don’t get me wrong. I trust my people. Implicitly. But there were some things here, right in plain sight, that tempted even me. Better to have a video recording of the place as it was upon discovery. That would help hold my people accountable if something valuable on the recording came up missing somehow.

I wasn’t kidding about the temptation to be found here. And the fact that we would likely never find the owners for half this stuff only added to that. After all, what good did treasure do in a police evidence room?

My phone gave it a good try, but the job was simply too much for it. I called in Amie. I also told her on that phone call to make sure to bring lots of memory cards for video. Being forewarned is half the battle.

Then I gave into my urge to simply dig in and explore. All was going well until I started in on the room to the right.

***

The very first thing I saw was the teddy bear. It was in a position of honor, so to speak, all by itself on a tiny table in the middle of the room. The rest of the room was just as crammed full of stolen goods as the other two rooms had been.

So why had the bear been given a table, no matter how tiny, all to itself? It was out of place enough to raise my curiosity. Especially when I noticed many more bears — all dressed in similar enough fashion to make me fairly certain they were all in the same collection—all huddled together on top of each other in a corner. I was pretty sure I’d found Emily Baker’s prized bears.

Was the singled-out bear the special one that Donald had given to his wife? The one he had tried to take when he left? If so, how had Abbott known it was the special one? To me, sad to say, all the bears looked very similar. At least until I took a closer look.

The back of the bear on the table had been ripped open and sewn shut again. The person who had made the repair most definitely wasn’t a seamstress. No way would Emily not have noticed that. Which most likely meant that Abbott had been the one to rip the bear open and sew it shut again.

But why would he do that?

So far, I hadn’t touched the bear. Sue me, but it was so out of place where it was that I had to wonder if it was a booby trap. Time to put my super sniffer to the test again. Wolves were just as good as dogs at sniffing out explosives.

But it wasn’t explosives that my nose picked up. It was something far scarier to any wolf out in the wild. Gun oil.

Unfortunately, once my nose picked up on it, I realized I had been smelling a slight whiff of it ever since I’d entered the room. The bear itself definitely held a small trace of the scent, but it wasn’t the only source of the smell.

Which had me decidedly worried. The first thing a wolf thinks about when they catch that scent is… well, hunter! Beware, danger, and all that. I was having a hard time trying to tamp those feelings of danger down. Even down here in an underground bunker all by my lonesome self.

It was that engrained into a wolf’s hard wiring.

Of course, I was far more than just a wolf. I was also a witch. And a sheriff, to boot. My fingers went up to touch the star I wore on the chest of my jacket. Time to woman up to the task at hand.

That scent was coming from somewhere, but there wasn’t a gun, or case of gun oil for that matter, anywhere in sight.

I glanced at my watch. Even if Amie made good time, she should be a few minutes longer. Even if she flew there on a broom—which I highly doubted as I had stressed no urgency in the timing of her arrival—and got there before I was ready, it wouldn’t really matter.

Amie knew I was a werewolf. All the Ravenswinds did. Just don’t tell the others in my pack. They wouldn’t like it very much. Of course, I’d only shared the secret to save my own life. The other wolves might think that my life was a price they’d be willing to pay to keep the hairy secret.

I hadn’t, and I still didn’t.

Shedding my clothes for the second time since I’d reached Abbott’s little camp, I furred out and started sniffing. I probably could have saved myself the extra effort if I’d just thought to take a peek under the small circular rug the bear’s table sat on.

The rug was an ornate one, and I’d just assumed that it was yet another trophy from Abbott’s nasty little thieving habit. And it might have been. But it also served another purpose. It hid a little trapdoor.

I moved the tiny table aside and opened the door. Then I said a quick light spell and the hole underneath me lit up like the Fourth of July.

Plenty of light to show me what the hidden space inside the hidden bunker held.

A small arsenal of weapons. That made things with this case a whole lot more interesting. Where had those weapons come from?

And would someone be willing to kill to get them back?

Chapter 10

Amie was efficient with her picture taking. Goodness only knows she’d had plenty of practice to get as good as she was. But even so, it was a good three hours later before I called in my squad to do their thing.

Amie took her digital memory cards home to process and promised to send copies to my email. I wasn’t really expecting a big break in the case from the photo evidence. The images were mainly a way of holding myself and my squad accountable. As far as I knew—other than the amassed collection of stolen goods—no actual crime had taken place here. It was more of an after-crime storage space.

But as I’ve already said, there was more than a little temptation deep down in that bunker of his. And I wasn’t all that easily tempted, either.

It had been a long and eventful day, and I wanted to close it on a positive note. To my mind, this cache was one step further along in the murder investigation than where we had been this morning. If we could match up the missing items with owners, it would open up a whole new sea of suspects to look into for sure.

So, after I briefed Tad on the night ahead of him, I cut out early. It was supposed to be my night off, anyway. And besides, I’d already put in a full day’s work in my off hours. Sometimes this sheriff gig had perks. Pretty much setting your own hours was one of them.

My plan was simple. Go home, fur out, and go for a nice, stress-reducing run through the woods on our estate. Unfortunately, my cell phone went off just as I slid under the wheel of my vehicle.

A quick glance at the screen and my heart started doing that skip-a-beat thing it sometimes does. The caller ID showed Steve Brighton. I took a calming breath or two, then answered the call. I went for nonchalance. Most likely I failed miserably, but that was what I went for all the same.

“Hey, Steve,” I said. “What’s up?”

“I was wondering if you would be up to meeting me for dinner. And maybe for a little talk?”

Was I up to that? To be honest, no. I didn’t think I was.

“I could do that,” I said, choosing heart over brain. That wasn’t like me. See what love can do to a logical kind of gal? “Where are you thinking? I’m still in Wind’s Crossing.” I paused. “It’s been a long day already.”

“Aren’t they all in law enforcement?” he asked.

Well, the man had me there. But he hadn’t answered my question, so I offered a suggestion. If I was in for an awkward conversation, then I might as well have good food to go along with it. “How about we meet at Carny’s Pizza?”

“Sounds good to me.” There was a pause. “It’ll take me about half an hour to get there. Is that okay?”

“See you in thirty, then.” We’d never been ones for long goodbyes, so we just both hung up about the same time. At least, I’m assuming he hung up around the same time. And then I was doubting myself again. Should I have waited for him to end the call?

Drat. Where was all that old self-confidence I used to be filled with? What kind of lovelorn teenager had I turned into?

Hopefully, whatever kind it was, I could switch back to self-confident sheriff mode in the next thirty minutes. If not, I had a very awkward evening ahead of me indeed.

 ***

My heart went back to doing its skip-a-beat thing as I pulled in to park in front of Carneys. Mostly because I caught a glimpse of Steve through the window. He’d beaten me there and had already snagged us a table.

And Goddess, but did he look good. Even better than Carney’s pizza. And yes, as hungry as I was, that was saying something.

I took a deep breath, put the car in park, climbed out, and went into the restaurant. I could do this. And I’d keep telling myself that too.

As Steve already had the table, I didn’t even pause by the hostess station. I slid into the chair across from him and smiled. He smiled back. So far, so good.

“How are things going?” he asked.

Hmm. Not the way I would have wished him to start the conversation. I was kind of hoping he’d ask about how I was doing, not how things were going. But then again, he was a man. The male mind worked differently than the female mind did. That had been proven countless times before.

“All right, I guess,” I said. Then I tilted my head at him. “How are things with you?”

He shrugged. “Okay, I guess.” There was a brief pause. Yup. This was going to be an awkward evening meal, all right. “I have something to tell you, but I don’t want you getting mad, okay?”

Yet another way I wished the conversation hadn’t gone. Steeling myself, I asked. “No promises, but I’ll try to keep my emotions in check.”

“That’s all I ask. You see, I…” His words stopped because that was when the server decided to take our order.

Luckily, it didn’t take all that long. One large meat-lover’s pizza and a pitcher of soda ordered, and she walked away again, leaving us alone once more. Well, as alone as two people could be in a crowded restaurant.

I arched an eyebrow at him when he didn’t immediately start back in talking. “You were saying?”

He took a deep breath. “I’ve been looking into the Abbott murder.”

My other eyebrow flew up to meet the first one. Keeping my emotions in check might be harder to do than I had thought. There were a lot of ways I wanted to answer that. I could remind him that was my job, not his. I could flat tell him to stay the heck away from the case. I could threaten him with obstruction of justice. And so on. None of which would do a single bit of good. I knew Steve. So I just went with an, “Oh?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I have to say I didn’t much care for being treated like a common criminal by your team. So I kind of feel like I have a vested interest in this one.”

I gritted my teeth for a second before answering that comment. “You do realize that you were treated like a common criminal because, at the time, you very much looked like a common criminal, don’t you? And it isn’t like they arrested you. They would have had that right, but they didn’t use it.”

Flaring eyes met mine over the table. I could feel the heat in my own gaze staring back. So when I saw the server turn the other way with our pitcher of soda, I totally understood why. Some conversations you just don’t want to get in the middle of.

This was turning out to be one of them. And I could feel the chances of the two of us ever being a couple again slipping further and further away.

“As if I would be stupid enough to kill a guy and then stay there and wait for the law to arrive.”

That didn’t dignify a response on my part, so I didn’t give him one. In the silence that followed, the server got brave enough to deliver our pitcher and a couple of glasses. Good thing, too, as I needed a cold drink to cool off my temper right now.

After another minute of silence passed, and Steve was back to staring at me. “So, do you want to hear what I’ve got or would you rather I just keep it to myself?”

I motioned with my hand. “I’m listening.” That was all I trusted myself to say at the moment.

“I got to thinking about alibis and how very fragile they are. One of the people you’ve already talked to… a Donald Baker… sounded familiar to me. I dug through some of my old case files and sure enough, his name popped up.”

Several things were warring in my brain for attention. The main one was just how exactly he’d found out who I had or had not spoken with. Someone in my department was feeding him information. I didn’t like that one bit. I thought I ran a tighter team than that.

But I held that thought at bay, for the moment at least. I needed to know what he knew. “What did Baker do?”

Steve shrugged. “Nothing, according to the case file. But he was a key alibi to the lead suspect in the case. Apparently, three good friends were out on the town that night. Pretty tight alibi.”

“And?” There had to be more, right?

“And the man he alibied and the third ‘friend’ from that evening were the same two that are now giving Baker his alibi. What if that isn’t just three friends getting together? What if they are doing quid pro quo on alibis? Kind of like that movie. You know the one I’m talking about.”

I did. I gave it some thought, then shook my head. “I’m not saying it isn’t possible, because, of course, it is. But if it wasn’t for that movie, you never would have questioned this, would you? I mean, friends get together more than once.”

He leaned back. “They do. But it’s rather odd that they make a habit of getting together right when crimes are going down where one of them would be considered a prime suspect.”

Well, yeah. The man had me there.

Chapter 11

The rest of the meal was just as awkward as its beginnings. If I hadn’t been so hungry, and if the pizza hadn’t been right there, I probably would have bailed at that point. I mean, there wasn’t much left to say, was there?

At least not to Steve.

It was still fairly early when I made it home, so I bypassed my little cabin and kept on going until I got to Amie and Trevor’s house. Luckily, it wasn’t very far as we were all right there on the same property.

This time it wasn’t Amie I was going to see. I wanted a word with my second-in-command, Trevor. As luck would have it, he was the one who answered the door.

“Hey, Patty, what’s up?” His friendly, open smile faded as he got a better look at my face. “What’s wrong?”

I just shook my head. I didn’t trust myself to go into too many details right now. My dinner with Steve had done more damage to me than I’d at first thought it had. “I need to know who Steve has been talking to at the station. Who is giving him details regarding who my persons of interest are and who I’ve talked to?”

He looked down at his bare feet for a minute. Which, of course, drew my gaze down as well. This might well be the first time I’d ever seen my number one deputy’s feet. Not in shoes, that is.

“I think maybe you need to come in for a bit.” He opened the door wider. What choice did he give me? I went in.

We settled at the little counter bar by the kitchen. Trevor, Amie, and me. Amie had insisted on pouring us all a drink before we started. I didn’t object, either.

After taking a sip, I glanced back over at Trevor. It was obvious he knew something. It was also obvious that it was something he didn’t want to tell me.

“So who at the station is talking to Steve?” I asked.

Trevor glanced at Amie who gave him a nod. “I told you a week ago you should tell her,” she said.

Crapsnackles, but I didn’t like the sound of that. “Tell me what?”

Trevor took a deep breath. “I stopped by the Carneys in Wind’s Crossing one night last week to pick up a to-go pizza. The new Carneys over in Oak Hill just isn’t the same, you know?”

What I knew was that the man was stalling. I just raised an eyebrow—signature witch move, I know—and waited. He got the hint.

“I saw Steve at a table with the new receptionist, Sally.”

Sally. Cute little Sally. Tall, leggy, years younger than me Sally. I was so focused on that part of it that I almost missed the bigger implication.

“Wait a minute. That was before the Abbott murder, wasn’t it?”

Trevor nodded, not meeting my eyes. “Yes. It was.”

My heart fell. This news just clinched the earlier thought I’d had about Steve and me rebuilding our relationship. The man had been cheating on me even before this happened. No way were we getting back together now.

“Look,” Trevor said. “There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why the two of them were eating together.”

I just looked at him. “Oh? Give me one.”

“Well, uh, maybe he wanted to give you a gift and needed some advice from a female. Some guys are horrible at that kind of thing, you know.”

I wasn’t buying that for a minute. If the man had wanted information on my tastes that he didn’t already have access to, the ones to go to would be Amie or Ruby. They knew me. Sally did not.

But why burst Trevor’s bubble and make him feel worse than he already did? So I just nodded slowly. “Sure,” I said.

Then I drained my glass and stood. “But Trevor?”

“Yeah?”

“In the future, if there is something I should probably know… tell me, okay? No matter how you think it might make me feel.”

He nodded and crossed his heart. “Promise, chief.”

Alright then, I was done there. I’d be having a little chat with my receptionist in the morning.

Right now, I just wanted to fur out and run off some steam. Another great thing about wolves is that they don’t cry.

***

The run did me good. It wasn’t an end-all and be-all cure, mind you, but at least it helped me clear my head. And stretch my muscles while getting a good workout at the same time.

Win-win.

By the time I made it back to my little cabin, I was more than ready to go in, take a quick shower, and then crash into bed. Alone. After my run, and the clearing of my head, that alone part didn’t sound so very bad. In fact, it sounded kind of welcoming.

I’d much rather be alone than with a man who wanted more than just me. Darn it all to heck, if I wasn’t enough for a man, then the man wasn’t enough for me. Or something like that. Maybe my head wasn’t as clear as I thought it was.

But the main thing was, I was one step closer to being over Steve. Which was a lot further along than I’d been before I furred out. I took that as a win.

The bad news? As I stepped out of my shower, I heard a knock at my door.

I grabbed the big bath towel and wrapped it around me, then opened the door just enough to see who was on the other side. Tad. My number two deputy. Well, my number one night-time deputy, as Trevor worked days mostly.

The door opened a little wider—and so did Tad’s eyes. Oops. As both a witch and a wolf, bare skin didn’t really bother me all that much. But one look at Tad, and I could tell it bothered him.

His cheeks shot red, and he started stuttering. Normally, the man was a rock. Funny what a little naked skin will do to some people. And it wasn’t like all the important parts of me weren’t covered. They were. But then, I do have rather long legs. Legs that normally Tad sees clad in jeans.

He dragged his eyes back up to my face while avoiding my eyes. “Um, uh, I had some news I, uh, thought you might, um, want to hear.”

I nodded, then motioned him in. When he hesitated, I sighed. “Why don’t you have a seat on my porch swing for a minute or two? I’ll dry off, get dressed, and join you.” His enthusiastic nod told me I’d made the right choice for him.

Within two minutes, I was sitting on the swing beside him. He still seemed jittery, but at least he wasn’t using um or uh every few words now. That was an improvement.

“So tell me your news,” I prompted him.

“Well, there’s good news and bad news,” he said.

“Start with the good.”

“Okay. The brothers have rock-solid alibis for Abbott’s murder. Turns out they are big into the Cub Scouts and they were in at a function with a whole lot of young boys and their parents when Abbott died.”

I let out a breath. That was good news. If one of them had been our killer, I could have had a moral dilemma on my hands. Arresting and holding accountable people for doing what I might very well have done myself in the same situation. Not a good position to be in as a sheriff.

“And the bad news?”

Tad got quiet for a minute. “You know I work on cold cases in my spare time, right?”

I nodded. It was a hobby the two of us shared. “You find something that links Abbott to one of our cold cases?”

“Yeah. Remember that case from a few years ago—before my time as a deputy—with the two college girls? The ones that were taken from their campsite?”

Like I could forget that one. It still haunted my dreams at times. Looked like Tad and I were looking into some of the same cold cases. Might not be a bad thing to join forces. Then it hit me where he was going with this.

“You found a link from the girls to Abbott?”

“One of the weapons from his bunker just tested out as the murder weapon for one of the girls.”

“Crap on toast!”

“And a double or triple serving at that,” Tad said. “I’d really like a chance to have one last conversation with Abbott right about now.”

Yeah. So would I.

Chapter 12

Our station’s evidence room wasn’t nearly large enough to handle all the influx of items from Abbott’s bunker. We’d had to outsource a very secure police storage unit for the interim while we tried to place the stolen items back with their owners.

It was going to take a while to do that. A long while.

That’s how Tad and I ended up standing in a rather expansive unit that still managed to feel cramped. But at least my team had somewhat organized the space. That helped.

At the moment, we were standing in the smaller section where they had placed all the firearms. And yes, when I said earlier that the unit was very secure, I meant it. There would be an armed guard at the door to this unit for the foreseeable future. Until we could whittle it down to fit in our much smaller space at the station.

Needless to say, my officers were going to be getting lots of overtime opportunities.

I glanced over at the man beside me. “What type of firearm was the murder weapon?”

Tad shrugged. “Not the normal, actually. You would expect something big like a revolver or a firearm equipped with a clip when you think about a murder weapon, right?”

I nodded. “I would. Yes.”

“Well, Jess Campbell was killed with a bullet fired from a small two-shot Derringer. Those firearms are normally considered to be last-minute self-defense type weapons.”

“Describe it to me.”

“An American Derringer Legendary Model 1. Less than five inches long, but very deadly when handled by someone who knows what they are doing. Double-barreled, so you only get two shots.”

I grunted. When you were planning to kill someone that you were holding captive, you really wouldn’t need many shots, would you? “And the ballistics testing was conclusive?”

“Absolutely. That’s the murder weapon, all right. And before you ask, no, we can’t trace it. All identifying markings have been removed.”

Well, yeah, they would have been, wouldn’t they? A murderer wouldn’t make it that easy on us, now would they?

“And I’m assuming if there were any fingerprints other than Abbotts’ you would have told me before now, and we’d be on our way to making an arrest.”

Tad simply sighed and nodded.

I took a long look around me. My next plan of attack was going to take a very long time.

“I want every available officer going through past burglary records. We need to see how many of these items we can match with their owners.”

“Agreed. We need to get these things back where they belong,” he said. “But most importantly…” His words trailed off.

“Every single person that Abbott burgled is now a murder suspect,” I finished.

 “Yup.” He hesitated. “Well, to be more precise, a double murder suspect.”

Double crap on toast indeed.

***

Tad and I didn’t make any great discoveries during our three-hour stint at the storage facility. We did, however, make a decent showing of getting a head start on the processing. At least we did if you looked at what we’d done on paper. If you looked at the project still looming ahead… well, not so much of a showing at all.

I’d still cut out around two in the morning, though. I wanted to have a decent amount of sleep in my system before I had my little chat with cute, long-legged Sally. That was going to be my first task of the day.

After a coffee run, of course.

I passed the coffees around the office, putting one on my desk before going to collect Sally for a little one-on-one. She wasn’t all that happy when she looked up to see me standing in front of her desk with another deputy. In point of fact, she looked decidedly nervous. From my viewpoint, nervousness was good.

“Can I help you, sheriff?” she asked.

I nodded. “Yes. You can come to my office for a little talk. Billy here will watch your desk while you’re gone.”

Sally swallowed, but what could she say? No? I outranked her in every possible way.

We walked the short distance to my office. Her nervousness increased when I shut the door behind us. There weren’t all that many times I shut my office door. I preferred to give my officers unobstructed access to me if they needed something.

Once we were situated, me behind my rather unimpressive desk and her in one of the chairs opposite me, she spoke again. “Did I do something wrong, Sheriff?”

I leaned back and looked at her. “You could say that. I understand that you were seen having dinner with Steve Brighton.”

Her shoulders fell just a touch. That must not have been what she expected me to start with. Which only made me wonder what other secrets the woman had that I had missed.

“I had dinner with Steve, yes. But I’m not sure what concern that is to the sheriff.” Then she paused with a little smile. “I can assure you, it wasn’t a romantic dinner. I have no interest in Steve as a partner in love.”

She was making it a little too easy for me. “Then why were you having dinner together?” I asked.

Sally tilted her head for a few seconds, then shook it. “I’m sorry, Sheriff, but I don’t believe you have the right to ask that question.” She seemed to gather her strength. “And absolutely no basis to call me into your office over it, either. What happens outside of work hours is not in your sphere of control. Even if I did have romantic designs on Steve—which again, I don’t—it should have zero effect on my job here. There are laws about that sort of thing, you know.”

“I do.” Then I paused to give her a moment of thinking she’d won a battle. She hadn’t, but she didn’t know that yet. “There are also laws about interfering with an official law enforcement investigation.”

She frowned. “And how have I done that?”

The very slight, almost unnoticeable tremor in her voice told me she understood very well how she had done that. But I obliged her, all the same.

“Steve Brighton is a suspect in the murder of Greg Abbott. You had more than dinner with him. You discussed pertinent details of the case with him. Details the man, as a person of interest, had no right to know.”

Sally swallowed again. “He was cleared—there was a witness, wasn’t there?”

“Oh yes, there was,” I said. “But if you know Steve half as well as I do, you know he is a very capable and intelligent man. Having a witness might just have been the whole point of things, you know.”

No. I didn’t believe Steve had killed Abbott. That didn’t make what I was saying any less true. Or her actions any less troublesome.

I could tell she wanted to deny talking to Steve about the case. But then she didn’t know whether he’d already spilled his source to me or not. Being caught in an outright lie to a superior officer would be the end of her time here. She must have known that. And without knowing whether I would have the proof of that lie or not, she couldn’t dare risk it.

Finally, she ducked her head. “I’m sorry, sheriff. I didn’t realize he was still a person of interest in the case.”

“Can you guarantee me it won’t happen again? No more case details leaking out? To Steve or anyone else?”

She nodded.

“All right then. We’re done here.”

Sally stood and left my office, leaving my door open behind her. I realized she left me with something I hadn’t had when we walked in together. Yet another mystery to solve.

If that dinner hadn’t been about romance—and for some strange reason, her words had rung true with me—then what the devil had it been about?

Chapter 13

After my little chat with Sally, I made my rounds inside the station. Basically, just making sure that all of my people were on point and knew what their next step was in the murder investigation. Mainly, going through that evidence storage locker.

As for me, I went home. It had been a long few days, and I was a virtual mess of raw emotions right now. Not to mention the fact that my nerves felt ready to jump clean free of my skin. I was holding myself together by a small, and very thin, thread. If that thread were about to break, better if it does that in the privacy of my own tiny home.

The good thing was I could still work there, as I already had the full case file on the college girls in a tote under my bed. And no, it wasn’t the only case file there, either. But it would be the only one I’d have eyes for today.

I needed to review that case and take a look at the old suspects mentioned. See if any of them had been victims of recent break-ins. That kind of thing.

Most of the file I had already committed to memory, but I didn’t let that sway me. I started from scratch with the very first page. Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t take me all that long. The officers on the case hadn’t been able to come up with much in the way of evidence.

Jess Campbell and Cali Morgan had been students at the local college. Their field of study had been journalism. Which brought up a possibility in my mind. What if the girls had been practicing their art and come across an interesting story?

Unfortunately, it had brought up that thought with the first investigating officer too, and nothing had come of it. If the girls had been on the coattails of a break in a major story, they had never told anyone about it.

Still not out of the question, mind you, but so much harder to prove as a motive for murder.

The two girls had decided to get away from all the college parties for a long weekend and pitch a tent in the forestry. Things might have ended differently if the girls had followed the rules and camped in the established campgrounds there. It had been a fairly busy camping weekend, and the girls would have been much safer among fellow campers.

But no. They were the adventurous sort and had opted to carve out a little campsite of their very own deep into the woods. It had taken the poor sheriff days of searching just to find their site.

Their tent had looked much as it probably had when the girls first pitched it. There wasn’t anything to show that they had even spent a single night within it.

The working theory was that they had been taken shortly after setting up camp. The main question was, had they stumbled upon other people there in the woods? Or had someone with murder in their heart followed them there?

Or should I say murder in their hearts? Jess Campbell had been killed by a bullet from that Deringer. Cali Morgan had been killed by an as yet unidentified weapon of a different caliber.

Chances were good we were looking at two killers here.

A chill came over me as I remembered my last conversation with Steve. My fingers were trembling as I pulled out the short list of suspects and their alibis.

Sure enough, one of the suspects was a man by the name of Jordan Mayfield. He was the older brother of a girl in their class. He had also been warned to stay away from Cali. And no, there was no indication that he had ever listened to that advice. He had been stalking her.

The only thing that had cleared him had been rock-tight alibis. He and two of his friends had been out of town that weekend, celebrating something or another. Jordan had produced credit card receipts for an Uber and a hotel during the crucial time when the girls would have been taken.

As had the two other men.

But it was interesting to see that one of those men just happened to be Donald Baker.

Credit cards could be used by other people to set up alibis. And just maybe we weren’t looking for two killers after all.

Just maybe, we were looking for three.

***

I had a small, mental debate as to where to go with that thought.

If Donald Baker had still been living with his ex when her break-in happened, then my path would have been much clearer. I’d have started with the ex-Mrs. Baker for sure. Namely to ask about any guns that might have been taken in the burglary.

I’d still need to have that visit, but as the guns wouldn’t have been there to be stolen in the first place, it was a lesser priority to me. My main priority seemed to be to break that rock-solid alibi. If I could break it for just one of the men, the others’ alibis would shatter as well.

Unfortunately, cold cases weren’t called cold for no reason. This particular set of murders had happened nine years ago. It wasn’t a simple matter of pulling surveillance tapes and questioning witnesses. Unless the three men had set a building on fire, or happened to get into a drunken brawl in a local bar, chances were very good that no one would be able to remember if they were actually where they said they were or not.

Proving their alibis at this point would be impossible. Dis-proving them probably wouldn’t be any easier.

Or would it?

Perhaps I was looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I didn’t need to be looking at where the men said they were when the girls went missing. Maybe I should instead be looking at where they said they weren’t.

No. There was no evidence that linked any of them to the crime. Other than Jordan’s past obsession with Cali, that is. And yes, people would be just as likely to have faulty memories from that long ago here too.

But what if I didn’t start with something that would require a memory? Most people had more than one credit card, didn’t they? Had anyone checked all the credit cards of the three men? Nothing in the file indicated that they had.

Sometimes, when working on a case, my gut just clocked in with a good old-fashioned hit of intuition. Right now? My gut was telling me that I needed all of those old credit and debit card receipts just as soon as I could lay my hands on them.

I hit my first snag from the banks in question. They wanted a warrant before giving personalized banking information. I thought that surely there had to be a way around that, but I was still far too new to this human side of law enforcement to know all the ropes on that. I’d have to put in a call to Orville, the past sheriff, for some help on that one. I was pretty sure he’d know of a way to get the information we needed. Unfortunately, he didn’t immediately pick up his cell phone when I called, so I had to put that part of the investigation on the back burner.

The good news was that the credit card companies were much easier to deal with once I had firmly established exactly who I was and why I was asking for the account details. The bad news was that, with the records I needed being so old, it was going to take a few days for them to get them to me.

After my phone calls, I sat at my tiny table in my tiny home and drummed my fingers for a bit. Then I made up my mind.

Guess it was time to pay the ex-Mrs. Baker a visit after all.

Chapter 14

For what it was worth, Emily Baker seemed very happy to see me. At least, that was the case until she noticed my empty hands.

“You aren’t here to return my bears? You do have them, right?”

I nodded. “We do. You should have them back shortly. Normally, we have to hold stolen property as evidence, but as there isn’t anyone left to prosecute for the theft, the process should go rather quickly. I’m actually here on a different matter today. Do you have a few minutes to talk with me?”

She shrugged. “I’ve got an hour or so, then I have to be out of the house for the realtor to do a showing.” Her shoulders slumped. “I really don’t like being here when that happens. And I don’t think the realtor much likes it either.”

I could understand that. Nothing would kill the excitement of looking for a new home more than having the current owner hovering around you.

“Have you found another place yet?” I asked.

Emily smiled at me. “Actually, I have. A cute little bungalow just outside of town. Has a nice little backyard with a privacy fence and everything.” She glanced around her. “I think it will be good for me to move out of here. I still hate that I’m being forced to do that, mind you, but starting over in a new place that is mine alone will be nice.”

“I think so, too. You can fill your new place with much happier memories.”

She beamed at me. “Exactly.”

We walked into the sitting room and sat down on the comfy sofa, side by side. She turned to me. “So, what did you want to talk to me about?”

“A couple of things, actually. First off, I wanted to know if you could tell me what Donald’s relationship is with Jordan Mayfield. How close of friends are they?”

She grunted. “They’re more than friends. Jordan is Donald’s half-brother. Always ticked those boys off to no end that Donnie’s father wouldn’t own up to it. But everyone knew it, or at the very least suspected it. Jordan’s mom was too smart to ever ask for a paternity test. She sure as heck didn’t want to have to admit she’d slept with a married man.”

I must have looked a bit confused because she continued. “Ms. Mayfield was the religious type. Having relations out of wedlock was a bad enough sin that she didn’t want to add adultery onto it.”

Ah. I guess maybe I could see that after all. “So she raised Jordan all on her own then?”

“As best she could, yes. Would have been a lot easier on her if Jordan had been worth a darn. Turns out, he inherited a lot of the same genes that Donald did from their dad. Two worthless no-account men, from my standpoint.”

I didn’t know Jordan, but I sure as heck wasn’t about to argue with her regarding Donald Baker. The man was a slimeball that gave used car salesmen a bad name.

“Several years ago, Donald and Jordan went on a trip down to Indiana. Do you remember that?”

Her face got a little more color to it. “Oh yes, I remember that all right. My father passed away two days before that, and Donald refused to fly out with me to help my mother with the funeral. He said he couldn’t back out on the other men at that late date. Personally, I didn’t see what the big deal was. I mean, they could have rescheduled, right? We couldn’t very well reschedule a funeral. Just went to show me even more how little I ranked in the man’s life. I was gone a full month, and Donald never once came down to check on us.”

How very interesting. “I’m sorry. That couldn’t have been easy for you,” I said. “So you were out of town then at the same time?”

She frowned at me. “Didn’t I just say that?”

“Yes, I’m just clarifying it for the record.”

Her frown deepened. “Then for the record, yes. I flew out to Tennessee the day before Donald left for that stupid trip with his buddies, and I didn’t return until one month later.” She paused. “This can’t have anything to do with my bears. Why the sudden interest in that trip?”

I shrugged. “Just getting all my ducks in a row.” I hesitated, then decided what the heck. Emily seemed to be being fully open with me. Why not go for broke?

“This is going to sound like a really odd request, but I don’t suppose you would be willing to share your bank statements from that time period, would you?”

Her frown disappeared, and a slow smile crept over her lips. “You have something on him, don’t you? You think maybe he didn’t go where he said he went?”

I just shrugged. “Let’s just say I’m looking into a few old cases. And I’d really appreciate it if you wouldn’t alert Donald that I’ve been asking you questions about him.”

She laughed. “Oh, this is just grand. And no, he won’t hear a word from me, I swear it. Just give me a minute.”

It took her five, but I didn’t hold it against her. Not when she came back and handed me a nice little bag of stuff.

“This is everything I could think of that might help you with that time period. There are the bank statements from that month and the previous and following month for comparison, and the two credit card statements from the same time, too. I even dug out the cell phone bills for you.”

I looked at the bag of all the stuff I could have wished for and more and felt my heart grow just a little lighter. “Thank you.”

“Please, don’t mention it. It’s my pleasure. I just have one little request for you.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “And what would that be?”

“Nail that rat turd for me, please?”

I grinned at her. “I promise you I’ll do my best.”

With what I was holding, I was a lot closer than I’d been before to doing just that. At least, I sure as heck hoped I was.

Chapter 15

My mother used to say that I was too proud for my own good. I never really understood what she meant until now.

I picked up my phone from the seat beside me for the third time, and for the third time, I put it back down again. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t force my fingers to make the call that I desperately wanted to make.

What was standing in my way? Keeping my diligent fingers from doing their rightful duty? Nothing more than my pride.

I didn’t want to be the one that caved and called Steve. But at the same time, I truly wanted to talk to him. Surely, after all we’d been through together this wouldn’t be the thing that ended us, would it?

After all, if we could get past the whole Luparii werewolf-assassin thing, then we could certainly get past this. Couldn’t we?

I braced myself and reached for the phone yet again. Then I jumped when the thing went off in my hand. Good thing I was pulled off the road at the time, huh? Especially when I saw who the caller was.

“Hey, Steve, I was just getting ready to call you.”

“Really?” He sounded doubtful. Maybe my mom wasn’t the only one that recognized my over-blown pride issue.

“Yeah, really. Had the phone in my hand and everything.” And I might even have been able to get my fingers to cooperate this time, too. Or so I’d keep telling myself. “Is everything okay on your end?”

There was a slight pause. “Maybe. Sally called me last night. She said you had a little talk with her about me.”

I gritted my teeth. “Did she have anything else to say to you?”

He chuckled. “If you mean about the case, then the answer is no. Nothing else will be said in that regard. She made herself pretty darn clear about that.”

“Good. I’m sorry, but you’ve worked in a sheriff’s office before. You know how it goes. As much as I truly regret the way things went down, I have to respect the badge. You do know that, don’t you?”

“Actually, I do. Believe it or not, Sally actually put things into perspective on that too.”

Oh, how lovely. Just what I wanted to hear. The man wouldn’t listen to me, but he’d listen to Sally? Just great.

He must have known he’d stepped over the line by my silence. “Look, about Sally… it isn’t a romantic relationship. At all. I just, well, I just wanted you to know that.”

“So what kind of relationship is it then?”

Another pause. “One that I can’t talk about, unfortunately. If that’s a dealbreaker, then I’m sorry. But if it isn’t a dealbreaker, I’d really like to see you tonight. Maybe take you out for dinner?”

“I guess that depends on the nature of the dinner.”

“I miss you, Patty.”

Dang it all, I missed him too. Bad. “How’s about you come to the cabin around seven tonight, and we just grill out?” A heck of a lot more privacy that way.

“See you then.” He ended the call, and it took me a couple of minutes to put the phone down and pull back out onto the road.

I hoped he really meant it when he said he understood my position with him on this case. But the bottom line was, things wouldn’t be the same between us until this thing was put to rest.

And I intended to do just that. Just as quickly as possible, too.

***

As it was right in the middle of the day shift at work, I managed to catch Trevor at the station. He didn’t spend a lot of time there as a rule, so I was thinking luck had put him there for me.

The two of us went into my office. I half-closed my door behind us. My people knew what that meant. It wasn’t a ‘do-not-disturb’ at all costs kind of signal, but it did let them know that any disturbances should be well-warranted.

Going through bank statements and credit card receipts could be tricky. If your eyes or concentration slipped for just a second, you could miss a vital clue. Hence the half-shut door and the extra pair of eyes that I’d recruited for the job.

“What are we looking for, exactly?” Trevor asked.

I shrugged. “I guess we’ll know when we see it. We know that Emily was out of town for that week in question. She actually left the day before Don and his friends did. So, for starters, we look for any local charges or debits on his card from that week that he was supposed to be away.”

“Got it.”

Trevor pulled the credit card statements to his side of the desk. That left me with the bank statement. Fine with me.

Less than an hour later, we were looking at each other over the desk. “Please tell me you had better luck than I did,” Trevor said. “Because all I got are several charges from where Don said he was. That doesn’t really help our case, now does it?”

He frowned at the papers in front of him. “You know, now that I think about it, there are a lot of charges for that week here. Some of them are really small, too.” His eyes came back up to mine. “Why on earth would you charge a cup of coffee? I wouldn’t want to pay interest on something small like that, would you? Wouldn’t you just use your debit card or pay cash?”

I thought about that for a minute. “How many charges did he make over the week on that card?”

Trevor counted them up. “Twenty-one charges over those seven days.” His eyes sharpened on the paper and he made some notes to the side. “Huh. That’s interesting.”

My eyebrow flew up. “You got something?”

“Yes and no. There were three charges made to that card every single day. One in the morning, one in the mid-afternoon, and another one in the late evening.”

I leaned back in my chair. “Sounds like someone setting up an alibi to me.”

“Yeah. That’s what it looks like to me too. Proving it could be problematic, though.”

“Which is most likely what they were counting on,” I said.

Trevor pushed the papers away. “So we end up being right where we were before, only even more sure that Don is one of the killers. But with no evidence to back us up.”

I stared down at the small pile of papers in front of me. “We do have one more lead to chase down.”

“We do?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Don rented a car for that trip. If he and his friends were in this together, like we think they were, then they had to get back and forth somehow. There should be a trail of that somewhere. If we are truly lucky, and the universe decides to throw us a bone, maybe they used that rental car for their travels.”

Trevor smiled. “That would sure rack up a bunch of miles, now wouldn’t it?”

“Yup. And last time I checked, rental car agencies were very diligent about keeping track of that kind of thing.”

Trevor stood. “I think I’ll go pay that agency a little visit. Want to ride along?”

I was tempted, but I shook my head. “You go ahead. But call me when you get more details, okay?”

“Will do.” He left, leaving my door a little wider open behind him. Which, in turn, kind of turned on the floodgates.

It took me another hour to sort through everything going on at the station and answer all the questions that were waiting for me from the people who had respected that half-shut door. And by that time, it was time to start thinking about a trip to the store.

Hmm. Steaks and asparagus would be good, I thought. Steve had seen me eat steaks before, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Even half-wolves can go through a lot of meat. The greenery was more for show and health than anything.

I just hoped this dinner wasn’t going to be as awkward as the last one was. But if it was… at least I’d have my steaks to comfort me.

Chapter 16

The rain started just before I made it home. Luckily, it was coming straight down, and the wind was playing nice and not blowing things all about. That was a good thing.

All that meant was that we’d have to move the grill up onto the covered porch before getting the fire started and putting the meat on to sizzle its way to perfection. It didn’t take all that much sizzling for me. For Steve, it took more. I generally grilled my steaks a bit longer than I would have if I were alone when we grilled together. I hated to eat before everybody’s food was done. Then there was the whole cold meat thing, too.

Steve’s car was already at the house when I made it down my driveway. He’d been there a while, too, from the look of things. The grill was already on the porch, and there was a nice little stream of smoke coming from it.

The smell hit me as soon as I opened the car door. He’d even put a selection of meat on already. My wolfy nose was picking up the smell of steak, chicken, and even hot dogs. I was smelling way too much food for just two people.

So much for the meat in the bag I was holding.

Steve smiled at me as I stepped up onto the porch. “Hope you don’t mind that I went into the house for the grilling tools.”

Did I mind? Maybe a little. But then, I’d never asked for him to return his key, so I couldn’t really say anything about that, could I? And if he’d been up to no good, the wards on the place would have stopped him cold. So I just shook my head.

“If it means eating sooner, then I guess I’m more than okay with that.” I hefted the bag. “You didn’t have to supply the meat, though. I went to the store to stock up.”

He glanced at the asparagus tips that were peeking out of the bag. “Greenery? Hmm. I didn’t think of that. But the meat can go in the freezer for next time. You can never have too many steaks, right?”

Oh, the man knew me entirely too well. I pulled the asparagus out and handed it to him, then walked inside to put the rest of the meat into the freezer. I took the time to change clothes too. My mind was telling me that having dinner in a sheriff’s uniform might make things a bit more awkward than they already were.

By the time I made it back outside, there were hot dogs on a plate beside the grill. He motioned to them. “Appetizers to hold you over until the steaks are done.”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I picked one up and started munching. No need to add carbs to make me happy.

“And don’t worry, I promise not to overcook your steaks.”

I took a closer look at the grill. There were three steaks and a couple of chicken breasts mingled along with the newest green addition to the meal.

“The chicken is for leftovers.” He paused. “Unless, of course, you are super hungry and want them tonight. No judgment here.”

That was one thing I had to give to Steve. There had never been any judgment over my eating habits. It was one of the things I loved about him. Drat. There was that bloody word ‘love’ again.

I sat on the swing, close to the grill. “So, if I might cut straight to the point… where exactly are we right now?”

He turned the meat and rolled the asparagus before turning to face me. “I know it might tick you off, and I’m sorry about that, but Sally really did help clear a few things up for me. She is really in awe of you, by the way. Thinks you make one heck of a sheriff, and she read me the riot act for being such a jerk to you this past week.”

I raised an eyebrow. Maybe I had the cute little Sally all wrong. Maybe there was hope for her yet. But all I said to him was, “Oh?”

“Yeah. I understand your position more now than I did before. I know that you had to do what you did at that crime scene. To protect your role as sheriff. All you did was your duty. And you did it right, too. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I was such a jerk about it. It just… seemed personal, even if it wasn’t. I was just too close to the case that I couldn’t let it go.”

“And now?”

He took a deep breath. “I’m still struggling with the whole letting it go thing, honestly. But I am trying. That’s something, right?”

“What does all that mean for my original question?”

Steve turned back to the meat. I didn’t take that as a bad sign. After all, I didn’t want burnt meat. I didn’t want a rushed answer, either. If he needed time, then so be it. Even if every second he didn’t answer was eating a little more at my heart.

Finally, he started pulling the meat off the grill and stacking it onto plates. The asparagus came last. He didn’t answer until he had both plates loaded for bear.

Then he stepped away from the grill and came over to me. Steve reached a hand down to me and pulled me up against him. Less than a second later, his lips were on mine.

Action always did speak louder than words with me. When he finally pulled away, he smiled down at me.

“So, about that room addition…”

Oh Creator, here we were again. And you know what? I was more than fine with that.

***

My lighter heart and step must have told on me as I walked into the station the next morning. It didn’t take me long to realize that all eyes were on me.

I stopped and stared back at them. “What?” I asked.

Most of them just gave me a knowing smile and shook their heads, then went back to work. Trevor, however, crossed the room toward me with a huge grin on his face.

“Looks like your dinner with Steve went better than expected,” he said.

I just went with a grunt. “You could say that.” It took some doing, but I kept the big grin that was welling up inside me off my face. After all, I really didn’t want the entire office to know the details of my love life.

Then again, my team was highly efficient at what they did. They probably knew more about me than I thought they did. The witch thing for sure. The werewolf thing, however, was one I’d have to take to my grave. People knew about witches. Werewolves were still holding onto their secrecy with an iron fist. Or would that be an iron paw? Either way, it wasn’t likely to come out any time soon.

“What did you learn at the rental agency?” I asked, trying to get things back on track.

“Those records had already been archived, so they are having to pull them. They are supposed to get back to me this afternoon with the details.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Isn’t all that on their computers?”

Trevor blew out a breath. “It should be, yes. But there was a really bad lightning storm that went through a year or so ago. The lightning managed to fry all of their computers, and they had to start from scratch.”

“I take it they didn’t have backups?”

“Not then, no. Now, yes. At least they learned from their mistake. But it’s a busy little agency and they just never took the time to enter in all the older files.”

“All right, then. I guess we just have to wait, huh?”

He shrugged. “Looks like.” Trevor hesitated. “Do you need me to keep digging on this?”

I thought about it. I would have loved to say yes, but at this point, we were working a cold case that was peripheral to our actual murder investigation. As much as I wanted to nail Donald Baker, there were more current investigations of more current crimes to be handled as well. It didn’t make sense to have me and my right-hand deputy working on the same case.

“No. You keep up the current stuff. I’ll pull you if I need you.”

He nodded and started to walk away. Then he looked over his shoulder at me. “I’m glad about you and Steve, by the way. I like him.”

The grin slipped onto my face before I could stop it. “Yeah. So do I.”

I grabbed a cup of coffee from the office pot and went to my office. There was one little thing I wanted to do before I started the day for real.

Emily Baker had been super cooperative and helpful, and I wanted to return the favor. I pulled up the computerized inventory we had going of all the bunker loot. It didn’t take me long to find the bears.

Lucky for me, the smaller items—like the stuffed bear collection—were being held right here in our very own evidence cellar. I grabbed my jacket, as the lower level of the station was always a bit on the cold side, and headed down to collect them.

As I walked, I remembered the day I had found the bears, along with the rest of the stolen treasure, of course. There had been one bear sitting alone on a table above the trap door to the gun cellar.

Why that bear? Then I remembered the inexpert stitching on the bear’s back, and my breath quickened. So did my steps.

I signed into the evidence locker and headed straight for the bears. Well, as straight as I could go with how very over-stuffed the place was. It only took a few seconds after that to find the bear in question.

There were cameras down here, so furring out was out of the question, but I held the bear’s back up to my nose. At the bunker, I’d thought maybe the scent was coming from the gun cellar directly beneath the table with the bear. I’d thought wrong. There was definitely a scent of gun oil coming out of the bear in my hands.

And the bear was just large enough to hold a small two-shot Derringer.

Chapter 17

I had two women I wanted to talk with. Truthfully, I had planned to start with Abbott’s girlfriend, but it was almost like my car had other plans. Or more likely I guess, my subconscious had other plans, because when I put my car in park, it was sitting in front of Emily Baker’s house.

After frowning at the house in consternation for a few seconds, I grabbed the packet on the passenger seat, got out, and walked up to the front door. She answered before I had even knocked.

Once again, seeing my bear-empty arms wiped the smile from her face. “No bears yet?” she asked.

“Not quite yet,” I told her. “But we are still working on it. There was just a slight hiccup this morning. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Emily opened the door wider and motioned me in. We headed for the kitchen table this time.

“Coffee?” she asked as she poured herself a cup.

“That would be lovely. Thank you.”

Once the coffee had been poured and we had settled at the table, cups in hand, she gave me a good hard stare. “Okay, so tell me about that hiccup with my bears.”

“Well, it isn’t a hiccup with all of them. Just one.” That had to put her mind at ease at least a little bit, right? I opened the packet I’d brought with me and pulled out the first picture. It was of the suspected gun-holding hidey bear. The picture was from the front, so none of the sloppy stitching or the gaping hole in the back was showing. I didn’t want to alarm the poor woman more than necessary. Unfortunately, as it turned out, I kind of did, anyway.

She stared at the picture for a moment in apparent horror, then turned her eyes to me. There was more than a little accusation in them. “You took him out of his box? Why?”

I paused, letting her question settle into my brain. “He was in a box when he was stolen? I’m afraid he wasn’t when we found him. None of the bears were.”

“Of course, he was. Most of the bears in the collection didn’t come in boxes, true. They just come with little tags. But he was different. He was a very limited special edition bear. That’s why it took me so long to find him. Well, actually, I never did. Donald ended up finding him for me.”

That answered one question in my mind and raised another. I’d wondered how Emily had never noticed the shoddy stitching on the back of the bear, or the fact that he was much heavier than he should have been. But if he’d still been in a limited-edition collector’s box, well, that kind of explained that.

Unfortunately, the question it raised proved bothersome. “And the box had never been opened?”

Her horrified look told me my answer even before she did. “Opening the box takes away over half the value of the bear! Why on earth would I do that?”

Well, crapsnackles. That was not what I’d wanted to hear. Her words gave Donald Baker plausible deniability.

Even if we could prove that the bear in question had held the murder weapon, which would be a feat indeed all by itself, we would have to further prove that he somehow managed to place the gun in the bear without leaving any sign of opening the box.

Crapsnackles. I was right back where I started from.

Square one.

Or was I? Maybe the box had been opened after all. I mean it isn’t all that hard to steam open a letter and then reseal it with none the wiser. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) How much harder would opening and resealing a box be?

Bottom line? I needed that box. In the end, it might be circumstantial evidence but it was bloody well evidence that I needed.

Time to send a crew back to Abbott’s bunker. Not on a treasure hunt this time, but a trash hunt.

But just maybe we’d be lucky enough to find treasure in the trash.