THE KILLING STORM
“Have you seen my puppy?” the man asked. They were in the park, a span of thick green with black-trunked oaks and soaring, spindly pines, nestled among sprawling subdivisions northwest of Houston.
Caught up in an imaginary world, a sandbox desert of hand-shaped hills and roundabout roads, the boy pressed down hard on a bright yellow and red plastic dump truck up, pushing it up a make-believe ramp, then pulling it down again. All the while, his soft, pink lips vibrated, brrrrrrrrrr, mimicking an engine.
“Did you see my puppy?” the man asked again, louder. The boy glanced up, startled, but then smiled at the man. When he saw the frown on the man’s face, the boy thought that the man looked troubled.
“No,” the boy said, shaking his head, his clear blue eyes wide with worry. “Is your puppy lost?”
The man’s brow furrowed and his lips pinched, as if ready to cry. The puppy must be lost, the boy thought, and then the man confirmed it. “He ran away,” he said. “My little puppy ran away. Will you help me find him?”
A worried look on his face, the boy swiveled toward his right and saw his momma sitting on a picnic bench, talking on her cell phone and staring off into the pond, where the ducks with the green heads and the snow-white geese milled about plucking at the water. It was a school day, and the park was deserted except for the boy and his mother, and the man who’d lost his puppy. The boy thought about the puppy and wondered where it might be. I should tell Momma that I’m helping the man, he decided. She’s upset about the big storm, the one they keep talking about on television. “Just a minute,” he said, turning to run to his mother.
Before the boy could leave, the man reached out and gently touched the child’s shoulder. “Don’t go!” he pleaded. “You’ve heard about the hurricane. I need to find my dog before the bad weather comes. Please help me. He’s not far away. It won’t take long.”
As the boy dropped his gaze to the sand, deep in thought, the man glanced at the woman and smiled. The boy’s mother remained on her cell phone, and it appeared she hadn’t even looked their way. “Your mommy is busy,” the man said, wearing his best you-can-trust-me expression. “I know her, and I know she likes it when you help people. She’d want you to help me.”
Concentrating on the face of the man who towered over him, the boy wondered if the man looked familiar. Maybe. His momma knew a lot of people. The man had a nice smile, the kind adults have when they’re worried but they want to be nice anyway, to not look upset. The boy’s momma did that, tried to look like everything was okay when the boy knew it wasn’t, like the day his poppa moved out. That afternoon, the little boy heard loud arguing, his momma screaming at his poppa, telling him that he’d be sorry if he left them.
After his father slammed the apartment door, the boy rushed to his mother, frightened. “It’s okay,” she said. The boy looked up as his mother reassured him with a tightly drawn smile. “We’ll be okay.”
Again, the boy glanced at his mother and saw she still talked on the telephone and gazed out at the water. Every day his momma brought the boy to the park to play, unless it rained. On those days, they stayed inside their small apartment, and she watched television while he played with his toys on the stained tan carpet. Once in a while, when she was in a happy mood, they played games, Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders.
“I need you to help me find my puppy,” the man insisted, reclaiming the child’s attention. “It’ll only take a minute. I bet my puppy will come if you call him.”
The possibility that the puppy would listen to him caught the boy’s interest. “Your puppy will come for me?” he asked, excited by the prospect. “If I call him?”
“I bet he will,” the man said, his hands palms up as if weighing the likelihood. “He’s a good puppy, but sometimes we play this game. Like playing hide and seek. He hides, and I have to find him. I like games. They’re my favorite things to do. Do you like games?”
The boy thought again about Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and this time hide and seek. “I like games,” he said. “I like games a lot!”
“You look like the kind of boy who would,” the man said, this time not only with a smile but a soft chuckle. “I play games a lot. All kinds of games.”
“With your puppy?” the boy asked.
“Yes, with my puppy and, sometimes with little boys and girls,” the man said. “It’s my favorite thing to do.”
The boy looked at his momma a third time. She was still talking on the phone. She looked serious. Maybe it was about the storm. Or maybe she was talking to his poppa. The boy wondered sometimes where his poppa lived now that he didn’t live with the boy and his momma. Considering what he should do, the boy gazed up at the man again, stared at the leash in his hand, and then said, “What’s his name?”
“His name?” the man asked.
“Your puppy’s name,” the boy said.
“Buddy,” the man said. “My puppy’s name is Buddy.”
The boy laughed. “That’s a silly name.”
“Why is that silly?” the man asked.
The boy thought about it and wasn’t sure. “I don’t know,” he said. “It just is.”
The chains squeaked wearily as the humid, hot breeze picked up, and the eight swings with their thick brown leather seats swayed lazily back and forth, back and forth. How strange that the sky was so blue and the day so tranquil when a violent storm circled in the Gulf. Sometimes the boy liked to swing. His momma pushed him so high that he thought he should be able to stretch out his legs and punch his feet through a cloud.
“And your name is Joey,” the man said.
“I’m Joey!” the boy said, then felt confused. “How did you know my name?”
“I told you, I know your mommy,” the man said, with an indifferent shrug.
Joey Warner thought about that. The man knew his name, and he didn’t seem like a stranger. He was a nice man with a nice smile. And the man was right, Joey thought. His momma liked it when Joey helped, like picking up his toys or cleaning his room. And he was supposed to be respectful of adults. His momma said that, too.
“Okay,” Joey said, nodding. Then he cried out, “Buddy. Buddy.”
Above the boy, tree branches rustled and the still green leaves shimmered, showing off their silver underneath. Joey looked over at his momma and thought again that she had to be talking to his poppa, because that’s the way they talked now, angry with loud voices. Although he couldn’t hear her, he knew his momma was upset.
“I saw my puppy over there,” the man said, pointing near a stand of trees bordering the parking lot. “That’s where Buddy ran off.”
“Oh,” Joey said. Then that’s where the puppy must be, he thought. With the man following, Joey ran fast toward the parking lot, shouting “Buddy. Buddy. Come, Buddy.”
The man glanced back toward the picnic table, wondering if the boy’s mother would finally look in their direction, but even with the boy shouting, she never turned around, instead staring out at the shimmering water. “That’s right, Joey. Let’s play the game,” the man murmured. “Call the puppy. Come with me. It’s all part of the game. Someone hides, and someone seeks.”
Hands on my hips, I pondered the body that lay before me. Eighteen years as a cop, ten profiling murder scenes, I’d seen stranger killings, but this one was up there near the top of the bizarre list. Overhead, I heard a crackling, drawing my attention to the strong, gnarled branches of an oak tree, draped with long, flowing, feathery tendrils of pale green Spanish moss. Midway up perched a dark, hooded figure, watching, beady eyes staring down at me, waiting.
“I hate vultures,” I said, with more intensity than I’d intended. I grabbed a tissue out of the back pocket of my black Wranglers to mop up a bead of sweat tracing its way down the back of my neck. When that didn’t help, I gathered my shoulder length, straw colored mane in one hand and hoisted it up, hoping for a breeze to cool the exposed skin. No luck. “Damn buzzards are the ugliest birds.”
“Gotta say I agree, Lieutenant,” Sgt. George “Buckshot” Fields growled back. In a similar pose standing beside me, Buckshot had a look of pure disdain on his broad, mustached mug. A big, sinewy man, he took up more than his share of space. I’m not a small woman, a little over average height and a good weight, not heavy but not too thin, a little broad through the hips, yet my fellow Texas Ranger towered over me. When I said nothing, he went on, contending, “Those damn birds are even uglier than my ex-wife, and that’s saying a mouthful.”
I looked over, and the sergeant sneered, exposing saliva-coated teeth, yellowish brown from the plug of tobacco he religiously gnawed. He had a roguish sparkle in his intense dark eyes, seated under the ridge of a prominent brow. “That gal, she could stop a train with her face,” Buckshot said about the woman he’d once loved. “And don’t get me started on her figure. Not sure she had one.”
“You forget, I know Peggy,” I said, with a blank stare. “Beautiful woman, at least on the outside.”
Buckshot shrugged. We both knew that he hadn’t forgotten, just felt like grousing out a bit of frustration.
“Yeah, Sarah, that’s true enough. Most likely why she left me,” he said with a sheepish grin, ruffling up his wavy, salt-and-pepper hair, wet with perspiration. He mopped off his forehead with the back of his hand, thoughtful. “Can’t blame a man for complaining, way she high-tailed it out of here.”
I nodded, figuring he had a point. A year earlier, Peggy had taken up with one of Buckshot’s best friends, a guy he’d known for decades who’d won somewhere around four million in the state lottery. After the divorce, they moved to southern California, where Buckshot said the happy couple lived in a house with a maid and a kidney-shaped swimming pool.
“Lieutenant Armstrong, you want me to kill that damn bird?” the sergeant asked, cocking a pistol fashioned out of his right index finger and thumb and pointing at the vulture hovering above us. To make sure I understood, Buckshot followed it up by suggestively placing his hand on the 9 millimeter in his holster.
He looked pleased at the idea, and I momentarily considered the possibility, sizing up the repulsive thing and figuring the world wouldn’t miss one homely scavenger. But then, maybe it would. After all, the vulture wasn’t doing anything it wasn’t designed to do. And it was waiting politely, not in a hurry for dinner. I couldn’t think of a justification for killing it simply for being what nature intended. “Nah,” I said. “Leave him. When we’re done here, it’ll call in its friends, have a party and help clean up this mess.”
It was then that the sergeant voiced what so many on the Gulf Coast felt, the uneasiness that comes from impending danger. It makes your senses keener, but it comes along with a sense of dread. “Guess you’re right. Damn ugly, but those birds don’t usually bother me. It’s this blasted, never-ending heat. It’s long past time for summer to pack it in for the year. Don’t know if I believe in all that global warming mumbo jumbo, but this is the hottest October I remember. And, I don’t much like having that damn storm out in the Gulf. Never cared much for vultures, but I like hurricanes even less.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’ll get no argument from me.”
The hurricane had a name, Juanita, and it had been trekking toward land for the better part of a week. An impressive category four with 145-mile-per-hour winds, it measured more than four hundred miles in diameter, and it was deadly. On satellite photos Juanita filled much of the Gulf of Mexico. Two days earlier, the storm had flooded and ravaged northern Cuba, leaving it in shambles, and putting thirty-five men, women, and children in their graves.
Stalled over the unseasonably warm Gulf waters, Juanita grew stronger with each passing day, and I felt my anxiety build. It was a nervous time, too early to know where Juanita would come ashore, despite the best efforts of the predictors. “So far it looks like it’s heading farther south. They’re not saying it’ll hit us,” I pointed out. “Still with hurricanes, you never know.”
Buckshot nodded, and I expressed the dilemma of living in hurricane country, “Sure don’t want it here, but I’d hate to wish a killer storm like that on anyone else.”
“I know what you mean,” said Buckshot, with a sickened frown. “I can’t think of any good place for a hurricane but spinning to its death out at sea.”
At that, Josh Braun sauntered over. While we discussed vultures, the unseasonable heat, and hurricanes, Braun had been on his cell phone checking in with his insurance people. He had a claim to file, no doubt about that. “Well, Sarah, my agent’s going to give you a call. He’ll need a copy of the police report. But the big question is, what the hell happened here?”
Thick-necked and stubble faced, Braun graduated a few years ahead of me from high school, which I figured placed him in his early forties. Folks in my hometown, Tomball, worship local football players with the intensity much of the world reserves for movie stars. Braun had been the star quarterback and a notorious ladies’ man, deflowering, legend had it, most of the high school cheerleading squad. Middle-aged, overweight and balding, he still had a certain cache as the head of a family that owned twenty-six hundred prime wooded acres grazed by the largest herd of cattle in the hills north of Houston.
In the past decade, the city had gobbled up ever-larger pieces of Tomball, a once sleepy burg half-an-hour north of Houston. Six months earlier, my mom had been approached about selling the Rocking Horse, our place, where she boards horses. Rumors said developers were clamoring to buy the Braun family’s cattle ranch, the last major spread close to the city that remained undeveloped. Mom turned down the offer for the Rocking Horse. But folks had bets on how long the Brauns would hold out, and how high they’d drive up the price. I wondered if what we were looking at was in any way related.
“Anyone have a reason to be mad at you, Josh?” I asked. “Could this be someone’s way of persuading you to sell your land?”
The rancher mulled that over for a few moments, as if considering the likelihood. Then he shook his head and waved his right hand, pushing the thought aside. “Don’t think so. I really don’t. We’re talking to a few folks interested in buying the place, sure, but nothing all that serious, and there’s been no hard feelings. At least, not yet.”
I thought about that, then asked, “Okay, what about anyone else who has a reason to be teed off at you? Somebody you fired or had a run-in with, or someone you’ve wrestled with in the past?”
This time, Braun grimaced, furrowing his heavy brow. Time passed, and no one talked, until he again shook his head. “Well, Sarah, I guess there’s nearly always someone mad at me,” he admitted, with the certainty of a man who’d been in more than his share of sticky situations, including, if the other rumors were true, with the angry husbands of a good number of lovers. “But for the life of me, I haven’t got a clue who’d be bastard enough to do something like this. You know how much that damn animal was worth?”
All three of us stared down at the bulky beige and tan body splayed out on the ground. Someone had drawn a circle around it in the coarse, red-brown earth. Habanero, Braun’s prize-winning Texas longhorn bull, lay in the center, dead long enough in the incubator like heat that the pasture smelled of decomposition and flies buzzed the beast’s face.
I sensed the sergeant wanted to put Braun on notice. “I believe you already told Lieutenant Armstrong and me how much you figure the animal was worth,” Buckshot said, never one to belabor a point. He stopped to spit a cheek full of tobacco juice onto a pile of red sumac leaves. “Actually, Josh, I think you’ve told us a few times how much that bull of yours was worth.”
The rancher grimaced. “I don’t mean to repeat myself, Sergeant Fields, but I want you both to understand that I’ve suffered a sizable loss here. This animal was valuable,” Braun said, his voice impatient. “Now that I really think about it, I had Habanero underinsured at a hundred grand. The past couple of years, we shipped straws of that bull’s semen across the world. Last week we even got an order from Australia. That animal was a gold mine, and we had a lot more years to cash in on him.”
When we’d been summoned by a frantic call to the office, I’d been reviewing cases for other agencies. As the Texas Rangers’ only criminal profiler, that’s my job, assessing evidence and working on investigations with law enforcement agencies across the Lone Star State. In all the other cases, the victims were human. Responding to a scene where the deceased was a nine-year-old longhorn? Well, I had to admit this was the first time I’d had that pleasure.
Shaking his head, Braun folded his arms across his chest, steadfast. “I should’a been more careful, kept Habanero closer to the rest of the stock, instead of letting my prime sire wander so far out,” he said, sounding like a man plagued by regret. “Least I should have done was made sure he was fully insured. I’m going to have to rethink what I’ve got in insurance on my stock, if this sort of thing is going to go on.”
Then he said what we were all wondering: “Who the hell would murder a bull just to paint some blasted symbol on him? How’s that make sense?”
Not sure, I didn’t answer, which appeared to only irritate the cattleman more. “Is this some kind of gang ritual or something? Some city kids from Houston come up and do this?” Braun asked, looking perplexed. “Sarah, I could use some answers here.”
Not eager to commit until I had a shot at being at least close to right, I kept my mouth shut and considered the possibilities. At first, the men followed my lead and no one spoke. Finally Buckshot spit again, and then, it appeared, felt compelled to attempt to defend my honor. “Lieutenant Armstrong here’s real good at figuring these types of things out. This here’s a strange one for sure, but you give her a chance, and she’ll decipher it. That I guaran-damn-tee you.”
What was apparent was that both the men were angry, and not surprisingly so. To the rest of the world a longhorn might seem like just another animal, but in Texas the animals, descendents of Spanish cattle introduced to the new world by Christopher Columbus, verge on sacred. This isn’t like India. We eat longhorns all right. I haven’t met a lot of Texans who don’t enjoy a well-marbled rib eye. But the breed is part of our heritage, our image, and we take the animals seriously.
Wanting a closer look, I crouched down, covering my mouth and nose with a tissue, as much for the smell as to keep away the flies. The symbol was drawn on the dead bull’s hide in thick black ink, painted with broad downward sweeps to accommodate for the beast’s short, soft hair. Sizing it up, the diagram was made up of a large triangle divided into four parts, each holding a cross, the tips of the intersecting lines ending in circles. At the top of the main triangle were three lines, double-arched and resembling birds in flight. Pointing at the corners of the triangle’s base were figures that resembled arrowheads.
Was it some kind of a Native American reference? Or a gang symbol, as Braun suggested?
“Sergeant, I need paper,” I ordered, and Buckshot complied, handing me his lined spiral bound report notebook and a pen. We’d already photographed the bull’s corpse, including multiple close-ups of the drawing, but in college I was a psychology and art major, and sometimes sketching helps me analyze what I’m seeing. Abandoning the tissue, which wasn’t helping anyway, I swatted away flies as I drew the symbol, outlining it then filling in the solid parts with the black ink. While I worked, I thought about the animal’s coloring, buff with scattered caramel colored spots. The interesting thing was that the area where the symbol was drawn, smack on its side, midway from head to tail, was completely pale. That was obviously the part of the animal the killer cared to preserve, since the bull’s head had been nearly blown away. Most of the skull had been cratered and emptied out, blood and brain matter splattered across the dirt and the side of a nearby oak tree, the one the vulture was using as a perch.
“I know this beast isn’t a human, but I need you to take the case seriously,” Braun said, looking even more disgusted. “I raised Habanero, and he’s worth more to me than money.”
A stand of pines bordering the pasture filtered the searing rays of the sun. I leaned over the bull, on closer inspection, and noticed bits of lead pellets and wadding, the ingredients of a shotgun shell, mixed in with the brain matter fanned out behind the bull’s head. Braun described it as an even-tempered animal, not afraid of humans. I figured the killer walked right up to it, raised the shotgun and pulled the trigger. Habanero’s head exploded, and the animal maybe staggered some or simply dropped where it stood. The killer painted the symbol, whatever it was, on the carcass with some kind of thick black marker and then dragged a stick or something through the dirt, to draw the circle around the bull. It seemed a vile thing to do to any animal, to sacrifice it for no apparent reason, not food or even sport.
“Habanero’s value makes this a serious offense. We’ll have to consult the district attorney’s office, but, to my mind, this person robbed you of valuable property, and we’ll view this as a high-level felony,” I said, noticing Braun relax as he nodded in agreement. “We’ll do our best to investigate.”
“That’s all I’m asking, Sarah,” the aging jock said. “Just that you look carefully at this case, don’t shelve it because it’s about a dead animal and money.”
“The sergeant and I will do our best,” I reassured him, pushing up and again standing between the men. “There’s a professor at A&M, one who works with bugs. She’s the best in the state, and she may be able to analyze the larvae on the carcass to give us a rough estimate of time of death. And I have a crime scene unit on the way. It may be tough to pull up a print since the bull’s hide is covered with hair, but we can try. I doubt it, but they may decide to take the bull in for autopsy.”
“That wouldn’t make that old guy happy,” Buckshot offered, nodding up at the vulture. “I think he had big expectations.”
All three of us looked up at the buzzard in the tree and frowned. “Damn birds,” Braun said. “Guess I shouldn’t begrudge him. That’s how we knew something had happened. We saw them circling. We shooed the others off. That particular vulture refused to go.”
Looking around the setting, a remote location far from the ranch house, I could see the wheels turning when Buckshot asked, “You figure the guy did it way out here to hide the thing?”
It had never occurred to me that the killer wanted to conceal his handiwork. It seemed obvious that he wanted folks to notice. Why else choose a prize-winning bull to slay? If he’d just wanted the thrill of shooting a cow, there were plenty out in the fields. Folks would miss them, sure, maybe report the killing to the local police, but they didn’t belong to bigwig ranchers who’d call the governor and request that the Texas Rangers investigate.
“No. I don’t think so,” I said to Buckshot. “Where’s the fun in leaving behind an obscure message on a dead animal’s hide if you don’t want anyone to find it? My guess, it was just the opposite, that this lowlife figured the bull was expensive enough that someone would go looking for him.”
“Guess you’re right,” Braun said. “But it sure is a puzzle.”
“I can understand rustlers, stealing animals and selling them to pocket the cash. This I don’t get,” the sergeant said. “The bull was just a way to send some kind of message?”
“Yeah. The way it looks, this is all about that drawing,” I said, pointing at the symbol.
“Sheesh.” Braun looked disgusted, furious at the culprit. “When you find the bastard, tell him to send an e-mail or a letter next time. Leave my livestock alone.”
“We’ll do our best, Josh,” I said. With that, I started walking back to where we’d left our vehicles, fifty feet away in the cattle pasture. Careful where I put my boots down, I explained what would happen next, that Buckshot would stay at the scene to oversee the CSI unit and work with the entomology professor. We were still discussing plans when my phone rang.
“Sarah,” David Garrity said. I was glad to hear his voice, and I reacted with a slight quickening of my pulse, then silently scolded myself for my response. David is an FBI agent, a fellow profiler. We’d been officially dating for about six months, and I’d grown to enjoy hearing him say my name. At first, it had all seemed relatively simple. We enjoyed each other’s company, maybe more than we were ready to admit. At least, I suspected that was true from my perspective. But then, a month earlier, a wrinkle had developed, an unforeseen complication we had yet to navigate our way through.
“Yeah, hi, David,” I said, glancing at my watch. Half past six. I’d told him I’d be ready for dinner at seven. I had to get home, get the cow dung off my boots, and change into something at least flirting with feminine. It was part of the new me. David hadn’t complained about the old me, but I was taking a stab at trying to at least vaguely dress like a girl, especially under the current circumstances. I thought about my hair, frizzy. I’d need a shampoo.
But then, maybe not.
“I can’t make it. At least not at seven,” he said. “We’ve got a kidnapping, a little boy, four-years-old, from a park in Houston. The Amber Alert is out, and I’m on my way to the scene.”
“Where?” I asked, feeling my body tense. I’ve never liked missing kid cases, anything involving a child really. And there’d been a rash of them lately, all little ones. The others had turned out badly.
“Northwest side,” David said.
“Maybe the kid just wandered off into the park?” I ventured, getting a sick feeling that betrayed the optimism in my question. “Are you sure it’s a kidnapping?”
“We’re not,” he admitted. “Might not be that at all. They’re doing a preliminary search of the park, but so far no little boy. The sheriff’s department responded to the nine-one-one call and requested FBI assistance. The deputies on the scene tell me the mom’s a bit odd. She waited a full hour before she called it in. Her ex-husband was at the scene, and he says she wanted to search the park on their own, before bringing in the police. We’re looking at her pretty hard.”
“You’ve got a mom though,” I said. “This isn’t like the others?”
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve got a mom and dad, an ID on the kid. It’s not like the other two, the unknowns.”
“That’s good,” I said, thinking about the two partial skeletons of children found over the past year and a half. This case was different, but I wasn’t ready to give up on the possibility that David’s missing child case could be related. “This kid is about the right age to be connected to the others.”
“I thought about that,” David said. “But nothing else matches. This isn’t a case of unidentified remains. Our boy’s been reported missing. And like I said, we’ve got parents and an ID.”
I thought about that and decided I was undoubtedly reaching for straws, grasping any possible clues to the deaths of the unidentified little ones, unsolved cases that had been haunting me for months. “You’re right, of course. You need any help? Should I meet you there?”
“No. We’re okay. The sheriff’s department is flooding it with talent. Half of major crimes is investigating. I’ll call you later.” He paused and then added, “Sarah, I still hope this’ll be quick, that we’ll find the kid and have time to get together, but it might be pretty late.”
“No problem. Hate to think of the little guy lost or worse. I’ll head home and get ready, in case it works out, and wait to hear from you. Let’s see what happens.”
“Great. I’m sorry. I was looking forward to tonight,” David said, sounding genuinely disappointed.
“Me, too,” I admitted. Maybe I had more reason than he did to regret calling off our date. “I hoped we could have that talk you’ve been postponing.”
“Ah,” he said, his voice soft, regretful. “Yeah. I know. The truth is that I’m not sure I’m ready. I haven’t really figured it all out. But I understand why you’re impatient.”
Silence on the telephone, then David said, “I’ll call as soon as I know what’s up.”
“Okay,” I said. “Now go find that kid.”
“Fingers crossed,” he said.
When I clicked off the cell phone, Buckshot grinned at me. “You and that FBI agent going to make it legal?”
That’s one of the things about working with strong, opinionated, protective men: as soon as a woman’s dating, they figure she needs to be looked out for, and that she needs a wedding ring on her left hand to make it respectable. “Hasn’t been discussed,” I said.
“I didn’t know you were single, Sarah,” Josh said. He stood up straighter and smiled, one of those smarmy suddenly-I’m-so-interested grins. The legendary philanderer had the audacity to straighten his shirt collar and move closer to me. “You know, I had kind of a thing about you in high school. When I heard you married that Texas Ranger, I figured I was out of luck, since the guy would be a deadeye shot. When was the divorce?”
“No divorce. Bill’s dead,” I said, narrowing my eyes and giving him a cold, calculated look intended to cut off the conversation. Braun took two steps back. People react that way a lot to finding out I’m a widow, unsure what to say. “My daughter and I are living at the ranch with Mom. Bill was a great guy, wonderful father. He died two-and-a-half years ago, and I miss him every day.”
“Sorry,” Braun said. Yet he took only a minute to regroup and moved closer. He seemed confused when I shook my head.
“Josh, I’m not a high school cheerleader, and you’re not the star quarterback,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Buckshot chuckle, enjoying the exchange. “It’s my job to figure out who killed your bull. That’s it. I’m busy, so I’d like to avoid distractions and tie this up.”
I shot the cattleman a smile, and then waited. He frowned at first but then shrugged, undoubtedly realizing that solving Habanero’s killing was worth more to him than a flirtation with me. A commotion overhead, and I realized the potential diners had multiplied. Four vultures batted their long black wings, riding the air currents and gliding above us, while two on the ground greedily picked at the carcass.
“Now about the dead longhorn, chase those buzzards away and get more photos before we lose the light, Sergeant,” I said. “Then guard the scene until the forensic unit gets here.”
“Those birds are going to be more than disappointed,” Buckshot said, with a wink. He seemed delighted at the prospect of sending the birds packing with empty stomachs.
“Yeah, well, when it comes to disappointment, there’s some of that going around,” I said, thinking about David’s phone call. “All that best laid plans of mice and men, I guess.”
The sergeant and Braun looked at me as if confused, but I didn’t bother to recite the verse or credit Robert Burns, instead simply saying to the sergeant, “Keep me posted.”
“Sarah, help me haul the bottled water into the house,” Mom shouted, when I pulled up in my state-issued, burgundy Chevy Tahoe and parked next to her old blue Ford pickup, the paint bleached and pockmarked by Texas’s harsh summer sun. Her cap of loose white curls was flopping, and she was wearing jeans and a denim work shirt. Mom had a five-month-old silver F-150 in the garage but refused to use it, afraid she’d scratch the black vinyl bed liner. She also had a red silk shawl I gave her a decade ago, in its original box, in her dresser drawer, waiting for a special occasion that apparently had to be of the magnitude of a presidential inauguration.
“Are you ever going to start driving the new pickup?” I asked, as I bent down and grabbed two cardboard cartons of plastic water bottles. Dusk minutes away, the sun rested on the horizon, and the sky shone orange with gold streaks through the pines, as vibrant as strokes from a wide brush thick with coats of oil paint.
“Sarah, I do. I drive it, sometimes. But this old girl’s got a lot of life left in her,” Mom said, gesturing proudly at a truck that had been around for a chunk of my adult life. “I’m going to see what I can get out of her before I pasture her.”
The water was heavier than I expected, so I put one case down, and then carted the remaining one toward the backdoor. Halfway up the porch, my 12-year-old, Maggie, less formally known as Magpie, swung the screen door open and held it for us. I trudged in with Mom, carrying two brown paper grocery bags, behind me. “Looks like you’re stocking up,” I said, stating the obvious. “We expecting company?”
“No, a hurricane,” Mom said, her well-lined face weary from what appeared to have been a hectic day. “I’ve got bottled water and fresh batteries. I found a battery-operated radio at Target. That old one we have picks up a lot of static, and I figured we might be out of power for a while, like last time.”
Last time was five years earlier. The thing about hurricanes is that the hurt comes in waves. First there’s the storm itself, fierce winds and torrential rains, like the worst possible thunderstorms, multiplied exponentially, sometimes enduring for twelve hours or more, spawning floods and spinning off tornadoes. Later there’s the aftermath: destroyed homes and businesses, fallen trees, and cleaning up the damage. One of the biggest problems is waiting for the crews to repair downed power lines. Last hurricane, we went without electricity for two weeks.
“What about bigger flashlights?” Maggie asked, wide-eyed, with kind of a nervous smile, one that showed off her new braces with the purple rubber bands. Her mop of thick, dark hair framed hazel eyes. The kid had been excited about the storm for days, ever since it popped up on the weather reports. Seven when the last one hit, Maggie didn’t remember the danger and apparently only saw the prospect as a potential adventure.
Still, since the Rocking Horse was eighty-five miles from the Galveston coastline, more than thirty miles northwest of downtown Houston, we wouldn’t catch the brunt of it, not the storm surge or the flooding. Yet even so far from the Gulf, the possible damage from a category three or four wasn’t to be underestimated. We’d been lucky last time, just a minor leak in the stable roof and one shutter blown off a second floor window. But, if Hurricane Juanita turned in our direction, there were no guarantees we would fare as well this time.
“Sorry, dear,” Mom said to Maggie. “The flashlights were all sold out. We’ll use the four we have, but that’s okay. Bobby called, and he found a generator for us. So even if the electric’s out, we should have lights, a couple of ceiling fans, and the refrigerator and freezer working. The bad news is that I could only fill two gas cans. They’re rationing at all the stations. We’ve only got a couple of day’s worth of fuel.”
At that point, I looked up and realized Mom and Frieda, our ranch hand, had already duct taped Xs across all the house windows, to keep them from shattering into the house if they broke from flying debris. Something bothered me. “While I believe in being prepared, I’m confused. Is the storm headed here? Do we know that?”
“Not for sure, but the weatherman said on the news this afternoon that it looks more like the storm will change direction. He thinks it could hit us!” Maggie said, her voice edged with exhilaration. “And Mom, the longer the hurricane stays out over the water, the stronger it will be when it hits land.”
“Perfect,” I said, sarcasm dripping.
“We just need to keep our fingers crossed that it’ll miss us, but make sure we have everything we need in case it doesn’t,” my levelheaded mother advised.
We were back at the truck, and I hoisted the second case of bottled water, while Mom grabbed two more grocery bags. “They’re looking at the storm making landfall in a few days, probably sometime late Saturday,” Mom continued, looking perplexed by the entire situation. “Who’d have thought we’d be talking about a hurricane in late October? Why, Saturday is trick or treat, Halloween. It’s too late in the season. Guess it’s just that we’ve had such hot weather.” Stating the obvious, since we’d been breaking records all fall, she added, “Doesn’t really feel much like summer has ended.”
Just then Bobby Barker, Mom’s suitor, pulled up. We walked outside again, in time to see the white-haired oil exec with the thick laugh lines around his brown-green eyes brace a piece of plywood like a ramp on his pickup, then slide a red generator off the truck bed. The thing had thick black wheels, so he gripped it by the handles, like a wheelbarrow, and rolled it toward the garage. “Look what I’ve got,” he said, nodding back toward his pickup and a lineup of six fifteen-gallon gas containers. “All full.”
“Well, aren’t you the hero,” Mom said, with a half smile. Then to Maggie and me as we walked in the house, low enough so her frequent companion couldn’t hear: “Sometimes there’s a comfort to having a man on the spread.”
An hour later, I’d showered, put on makeup and dressed in a pair of black slacks, strappy black heels, and a white T-shirt with lace trim that dipped low at the neckline. I was even wearing jewelry, a pair of silver earrings and a chain necklace. I brushed on a thin coat of mascara and then looked at myself in the mirror, long and hard. Up until the last few weeks, life had felt pretty good. Now I had the feeling I was waiting in the wings, for someone else to decide my future. The situation with David made me uneasy. It’s not fair, I thought. Life was simpler when I was young. When Bill and I met, we fell in love and married, started a family. Now, with David, both of us came toting heavy baggage.
In the kitchen, stew simmered lazily on the stove, filling the house with a rich aroma. Mom had a long wooden spoon, giving the thick brew a stir, eyeing my get up, she asked, “Are you going out with David?”
“I’m not sure, still waiting to hear from him,” I replied. She didn’t say anything, just pursed her lips. We’d had the discussion before, and I knew what she was thinking. Mom has a way of getting her point across without a lot of words, and she’d made it clear that my current situation with David wasn’t to her liking. “Check the horses, will you, Sarah?”
Moments later, the outdoor lights clicked on, powering the strands of small white bulbs that line the corral elm tree’s branches and the top of the surrounding fence. The lights were Maggie’s idea, her way of feeling as if her dead father watched over us. They illuminated my path up the hill to the stable, where a dozen horses, four of ours and eight boarders, munched on oats and hay. I stopped at Emma Lou’s stall to say good night, but Maggie’s black-and-white pinto sized me up, suspicious. I wondered if the scent of bad weather had the mare jumpy. In the next stall Emma Lou’s colt, Warrior, must not have developed his bad weather sensors. Six-months-old, all black and growing quickly, he playfully nuzzled my chest with his long, velvety soft nose.
“Hey there,” I said, pushing him away and laughing. Although I wasn’t sure it would prove true, I added, “I’ve already got a date.”
After closing the stable doors, I walked back toward the garage and climbed the stairs to my combined office and workroom, drawn to what waited high on a shelf. Before long, I’d taken down two boxes. Carefully, one after the other, I removed two small skulls on pedestals. Each wore a mask sculpted from clay, work I’d done six months earlier, attempting to replicate the lost faces of the two unidentified children.
A chemical plant shift worker found the skeletons while four-wheeling through a field far south of Houston. A macabre scene, the two sets of small remains laid side-by-side, arms crossed over their chests as if positioned in a coffin. No clothing, nothing to help identify them had been recovered. After lining up the skulls on my workbench, I stared at my handiwork, memorizing, not for the first time, the faces of two young children. We had so little to go on. Just to determine their sexes, the M.E. had to bake samples of the bones, and then add liquid nitrogen to pulverize the chunks. From the powder, he pulled the DNA of a boy and a girl.
“Who are you?” I whispered. “Who?”
We had two more bits of information from the M.E.: both children were Caucasian, and based on the development of their joints, between three and five years old. As I’d worked on them, I fashioned finely cut features in a clay with the lightest of tints. But skin tone, along with nearly everything else, was at best a guess.
“Where are your parents?” I asked, looking into the blue and white, unseeing plastic globes, that were now their only eyes. “Why isn’t any one looking for you?”
I wondered again if David’s missing boy could be connected. That he was four, about the estimated ages of the dead children who’d found what appeared to be a permanent home in my workroom, troubled me. Then I reconsidered the circumstances and had to conclude that David was right. With the two children in the boxes, no parents had come forward. We’d searched long and hard but found no reports of missing children that even remotely matched their descriptions. We’d run pictures in newspapers across the state and reported them to all the national Web sites, looking for someone to identify them, hoping it would spur memories and bring us names.
“Nothing. Not a single phone call.”
At that moment, my phone rang, and David’s number flashed on the screen.
“Change of plans,” he said.
“Tell me you found the boy, or that there’s something I can do to help,” I said, as I reached out for the first skull, the nameless little girl’s, to put it back in the box. For the time being, I needed to concentrate on cases where I had clues, ones I had a hope of solving. I needed to think about children I might be able to save. “What have you got in mind?”