Forged (gail mccarthy mystery)

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 FORGED

Also by Laura Crum

Barnstorming, Going Gone, Chasing Cans, Moonblind, Hayburner, Breakaway, Slickrock, Roped, Roughstock, Hoofprints, Cutter

 

 

FORGED. Copyright © 2004 by Laura Crum. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Crum, Laura. Forged / Laura Crum.-I st ed.

p.cm. ISBN 0-312-32327-1 EAN 978-0312-32327-1

1. McCarthy, Gail (Fictitious character)-Fiction. 2. Horseshoers-Crimes

 

First Edition: July 2004 1098765432

 

For Gunner and Flanigan, two good horses

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

With thanks and love to Andy and Zachariah, my husband and son, and all the animals and plants that share our home.

 

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Santa Cruz County is a real place and is much as described, but various local landmarks have been changed and rearranged to fit the purposes of the story. All the human characters are entirely imaginary; the animal characters are drawn from life. For more information about this mystery series, go to lauracrum.com.

 

FORGED

 

Table of Contents

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

EPILOGUE

 

 ONE

I drove up my own driveway, mad as hell. He'd better be there; I found I was saying the words out loud. "He'd better be there or this time he's had it. If that bastard pulls a no-show on me one more time, I’ll kill him."

Rounding the comer at the bottom of the hill, I looked apprehensively in the direction of the barn. Damn. I heaved a sigh of relief. There it was-a white pickup truck parked in my driveway. He was here, after all.

Parking my own truck near the house, I got out and walked back down the hill toward the barn. Perhaps I would say a few kind words to the man. My horseshoer had, for once in his life, shown up when he said he would.

Being a horse vet myself, I was more than familiar with the typical client complaint: "You guys charge an arm and a leg and you always show up late." Horses were unpredictable, and it was nearly impossible to keep a strict schedule when you were dealing with a dozen or more of the beasts in a day. But even allowing for the inevitability of delays, Dominic Castillo was notoriously unreliable.

There were plenty of horseshoers on the central coast of California, some of whom were quite dependable. I put up with Dominic for one reason: He was a master farrier and my horse, Gunner, had a tricky foot problem. Thus I dealt with Dominic's legendary tardiness and absenteeism.

Dominic had failed to show up for the appointment I'd scheduled last week; naturally, he had an excuse. Swallowing the angry tirade I longed to deliver, I'd rescheduled for today. As I approached his pickup truck, I schooled my face into a quiet, composed mold-not friendly, not hostile. Dominic had one more annoying fault-he was an incorrigible flirt.

No matter how often I declined his offers, advances, and invitations, if I so much as gave him a warm smile, Dominic was certain to come on to me once again. None of this was particularly flattering; Dominic was known to come on to any woman he met who was roughly between the ages of twenty and sixty. It seemed of no matter to him that he'd gone through two wives and numerous girlfriends already. Nor did he seem to care if the objects of his various flirtations were married or otherwise involved themselves. Any woman who would respond to his charm was fair game, apparently-at least in his estimation.

And he had considerable charm. Despite everything, Dominic Castillo was difficult to dislike and easy to smile at, and there you were-with the man's arm draped around your shoulders and his eyes smiling into yours as he asked you out yet again. Thus I composed my face to remain in a neutral frame.

Gunner was tied to an oak tree in the spot where Dominic usually shod him, and looked at me inquiringly. I walked up to my horse and rubbed his forehead. Gunner, my big bay gelding with his white blaze, high socks, one blue eye, and friendly nature, had been my buddy for many years now. I was more than willing to pay the top dollar that Dominic charged in order to keep my good horse sound.

Shoeing tools lay on the ground, the forge was chugging away in the back of Dominic's pickup, but I could see no sign of the man anywhere, which was odd.

I looked around the barnyard, fearing yet another contretemps. Would I find him sitting in the barn drinking whiskey? I was, after all, his last appointment of the day, and Dominic was known to like a drink. My friend, rancher Glen Bennett, always said that Dominic could shoe a horse when he was drunk better than most men could sober, but my preference was not for a drunken horseshoer.

"So, where is he?" I asked Gunner.

The horse pushed his muzzle into my face and I blew gently into his nostrils-a typical horse-greeting mannerism. Gunner's breath smelled warm and sweet, and I rubbed the underside of his neck, where he liked to be scratched.

"Dominic," I called out.

No reply. Now this was truly odd. Usually if Dominic did show up, he worked. Yes, he would flirt and chat, but he still got the job done. So, what in hell was going on?

Maybe he WAS drinking in the barn.

"Dominic," I said again, looking in the direction of my hay barn.

It wasn't much of a building-a small, high-roofed pole barn suitable for storing a load of hay; that was all. There was a good-sized stack of wheat hay filling it now, delivered a week ago by my local feed merchant. Walking towards the stack, I called Dominic's name again.

Still no answer. But I stopped dead.

Something not right. Boots . . . boots sticking out from behind the haystack. I took a cautious step forward and peered around the high wall of hay bales.

"Oh ... my ... God." I could hear my own voice; it didn't sound like me, though.

Dominic lay face-up in the litter of chaff on the floor of the barn. There was a bloody, wet spot in the middle of his stomach, pulpy and dark. His eyes were closed.

"Dominic!" I stepped toward him and reached for his wrist. His eyes stayed closed, but the pulse was there, barely. Even as I took it I was digging my cell phone out of my pocket. "Oh my God," I said again, my gaze riveted to Dominic's body as I dialed 911.

"I need an ambulance right away. A man's been shot; he's still alive," I said without preamble, knowing that the operator would have my address already.

"Is the injury serious?" the voice on the line asked.

"Very. He's gut-shot."

"And you are?"

"Dr. Gail McCarthy. I found him here in my barn."

"An ambulance and police will be right there."

"Thanks," I said. As I ended the call, Dominic's eyelids flickered.

"Dominic," I said, reaching for his hand.

The eyelids lifted. Dominic's brown eyes looked straight at me.

"Gail." I could barely make out the whisper.

"I'm here," I said. "I'm with you, Dominic. The ambulance is coming." I squeezed his hand gently. "What happened?"

A long, long silence. Dominic's lids dropped back down; I thought he was out again. But in a minute the eyelids slowly lifted and once again I looked into Dominic's eyes. I couldn't fathom their expression.

His lips twitched. Faintly, very faintly, the words came. "I was cleaning the gun. An accident." Then his eyes closed.

I pressed his hand to comfort him, hardly believing what I had just heard. Why would he be cleaning his gun in my barn in the first place?

Scanning the littered hay around us quickly, I saw it. Sure enough. Half-buried under his thigh; I'd never noticed it in my haste to get help. A pistol, looked like a large caliber. My God.

"Dominic," I said again.

No response. I thought his breathing sounded more labored. In the distance came the thin wail of sirens.

I sighed with relief. "Just hang in there, Dominic."

The minute or so that it took the ambulance to pull in seemed like an hour. Dominic grew perceptibly paler as we waited. But eventually the flashing lights were in my driveway, and I was waving the paramedics toward the barn. A dark green sheriff's sedan was right behind them.


Page 2

Once Dominic was on a stretcher and in the ambulance, I turned to the man who had gotten out of the green car. Strongly built, with a big chest and a thick neck, he had wiry brown hair, brown eyes, and a somehow familiar face.

"Are you Gail McCarthy?" he asked.

"I am." Something in his tone or his stance made me bristle. "Dr. Gail McCarthy. And you are?"

"Detective Johnson of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department." He didn't offer a handshake; neither did I. "You dialed nine-one-one and reported that you found this man in your barn."

"That's right."

"He was already shot when you found him?"

"That's right."

We were both silent as Detective Johnson made a note. I was pondering my reaction to the man, which was one of instant dislike. Why, I wasn't quite sure. A certain sort of forceful overconfidence in his voice, maybe, a tinge of that typical cop's distaste for a member of the general public. Whatever it was, Detective Johnson's manner antagonized me. I wasn't about to volunteer anything. Let him ask.

"Do you know this man?"

"I do. Dominic Castillo. My horseshoer."

"Do you know why he was here?"

"Presumably to shoe my horse." I gestured to Gunner, still tied to his tree.

"Tell me how you found Mr. Castillo."

I recounted my movements as accurately as I could, ending my story by pointing at the gun, which was still lying in the hay on the barn floor. Detective Johnson made notes as I spoke.

At one point he looked up. "He said he shot himself?"

"That's right."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure." I shut my mouth firmly on any comments I might have made. Detective Johnson didn't need my opinion.

I watched as the man took a cell phone out of his shirt pocket. "Could you please wait here?" he asked.

Leaving me stranded in my own driveway, he walked far enough away that I couldn't hear him, and began talking on the phone.

Since I could see no reason not to, I moved the few steps to where Gunner stood tied and began to rub his neck. In five minutes or so Detective Johnson was back.

"Please wait where you were asked to do so. This is a crime scene."

"I'd like to put the horse back in his corral and feed him and the others."

"That will have to wait until we're done here."

"And when will that be?"

"I don't know."

I could feel the annoyance building up inside me. "I expect to be able to feed my horses," I said sharply. "Do you know Detective Jeri Ward?"

"I do." Something in Detective Johnson's voice said, And what of it?

"She's a friend of mine," I amended lamely, already knowing it would do no good. Detective Johnson visibly shrugged; I thought I saw a brief flash of outright hostility in his eyes. I tried again. "How long will this horse need to stay tied here?"

"Until the crime scene investigators are done."

"And how long will that be? Give me an estimate."

Detective Johnson met my eyes. "I just called them. I imagine it will take them at least a couple of hours to go over the scene."

"So you don't think this was an accident?" I asked.

Detective Johnson didn't reply to the question. Instead, he asked me another. "How well do you know Dominic Castillo?"

I pondered a minute. "Not well. But I've known him, or known of him, in the way one knows a horseshoer, for several years."

 "For how many years has he been your horseshoer?"

"A little over a year. But I knew him before he was shoeing my horses. I'm a horse vet; he's a shoer. We both interacted in the same community of horse owners. I saw him from time to time; I knew his reputation. I can't really remember when we first met."

"You say you knew his reputation. Explain."

I started to open my mouth and stopped. What should I say here? More important, what shouldn't I say? There was a lot that could be said about Dominic, but did I want to be the one to say it?

"He has a reputation as an excellent craftsman" was what I did come up with. Detective Johnson looked at me sharply. My hesitation wasn't lost on him.

"And personally?" he asked.

"I don't know him personally," I hedged.

Our eyes met. At that moment a white van pulled into my driveway; both of us glanced in that direction. "Crime scene investigation team," he said briefly. "Could you wait here, please?" And off he went to confer.

I stayed where I was told, this time. No point in aggravating the man further. He seemed to have taken the same instant dislike to me that I had taken to him. I stood quietly in my driveway and watched the crime scene team deploy themselves over my barnyard.

There were at least half a dozen of them, all dressed in beige jumpsuits, two holding cameras. They photographed Gunner; they photographed Dominic's shoeing tools lying on the ground; they photographed his truck, the barn, and, repeatedly, the gun. Others went over the ground closely, searching for something, it seemed. Detective Johnson spoke to one or another from time to time. Occasionally he made calls on his cell phone.

I waited. Time passed. The sun dropped behind the ridge and the golden slant of late afternoon light dissolved into the cool colorlessness of dusk. Gunner nickered at me from his tree. At the sound, my two other horses, Plumber and Danny, neighed loudly in unison. "Feed us," they said.

Staring impatiently at Detective Johnson's back, I tried to bore holes in his head with my eyes. Come on, you asshole, get on with it, I thought but didn't say.

Apparently unaware of my mental daggers, Detective Johnson continued his conversation for a solid ten more minutes before he turned to me.

By this time, I'd had it. Pretending patience for over an hour had worn me out. Wisely or unwisely, I greeted Detective Johnson's approach with a curt "I need to feed my horses and get on with my evening chores. Let's see if we can arrange that."

"You can put the horse in his pen and feed him now," he said. "But I want to talk to you a little more. Can we go somewhere quiet?” This last with a pointed look up my driveway.

"All right," I said resignedly. "Just let me get all my animals fed and we'll go on up to the house."

TWO

The last thing I wanted was to invite Detective Johnson into my home. However, common sense dictated for once. After all, it was starting to get dark outside. And I clearly wasn't going to be done with this guy until he was ready.

Ushering him in the door, I waited, almost automatically, for the positive response most people gave to my house. Detective Johnson didn't smile; he didn't gaze in appreciation. He merely glanced around briefly and sat down at the table.

Chagrined despite myself, I sat down, too. I liked my house to be admired. Its design wasn't my doing, but I delighted in its compact 650 square feet of living space, and thought my main room, which did duty as living room, dining room, office, and kitchen, to be a particularly pleasant place.

Big windows overlooked my garden, rough pine planks lined the walls, a primitive wool rug from Turkey decorated the mahogany hardwood floor. With the last daylight filtering through the high clerestory window, the room seemed soothing and welcoming to me.

Not for long. Detective Johnson was opening his notebook and looked pointedly at the light above the table. I turned it on.

"I take it you don't believe this was an accident," I said.

"We need to investigate all possibilities," he answered smoothly.

"But why would Dominic lie to me?" I asked, more or less to myself.

Detective Johnson gave me a noncommittal look and said nothing. I could fill in the blank perfectly. If he said anything to you, was what the man was thinking.

For the first time it dawned on me that Detective Johnson probably considered me a suspect in Dominic's shooting, and that I hadn't helped my position any by repeating Dominic's words, improbable as they sounded.

"I had a hard time believing him myself," I said. "Why in the world would he decide to start cleaning his gun in my barn in the middle of a shoeing job? He hadn't finished, you know. The horse only had three shoes on."

Detective Johnson gave me a quick look and made a note. Judging by his expression, he hadn't noticed.

"How well do you know Dominic Castillo?" he asked.

"I told you that," I said. "Not well. He's my horseshoer. I've known him awhile."

"Are you friends?"

"No."

"Have you ever been involved with each other?"

"Involved? Oh, you mean as in dating him. No."

Detective Johnson watched me closely. "No?"

"No," I said firmly. "Why do you ask?"

"I made a few phone calls," he said. "Dominic Castillo is reported to be a man who is flirtatious with his female clients."

"That's true," I said.

"Is he flirtatious with you?"

"No more or less than with anyone else, I imagine."

"But he is flirtatious with you?"

"Yes," I said, exasperated. "Of course he is. He flirts with everyone."

"Is Dominic Castillo married?"

"Not that I know of. Last I heard, he was living with a lady named Barbara King."

"Do you know Barbara King?"

"Yes," I said. I sighed. At this rate I would be here all night answering questions about Dominic's personal life, which, unfortunately, I did know a good deal about. Perhaps the laconic approach was a mistake.

"Look," I said, "how about I tell you all I know about Dominic Castillo, and then you leave so I can make dinner."

Detective Johnson met my eyes. "I may need to question you further."

"Some other day," I said. "Tomorrow even. Not tonight. Deal?"

Detective Johnson sat up straighter in his chair. "As long as you agree to further questioning, I'll be happy to limit tonight's session," he said formally.

"Okay. Here goes. I think Dominic's been married twice, though I couldn't swear to that. His first wife, that I know of, is Lee Castillo, and she has two kids by him. Lee has horses. She's a client of ours."

"How old is Dominic Castillo?" Detective Johnson interjected.

"Somewhere between forty and fifty, I'd guess. He's ..." I paused and for the first time in this conversation, smiled. "He's well preserved, you could say."

Detective Johnson didn't smile back. "Which means?"

I shrugged. "He's a handsome man, if you like that type. Tall, slim, olive-skinned, dark eyes, unwrinkled, very manly and charming. Hard to tell his age, if you take my meaning."

Detective Johnson made a note and said nothing.

"Anyway, his second wife is Carla Castillo," I went on. "I know her because she has horses, too. No kids there, I don't think. For the last couple of years Dominic has lived with a lady named Barbara King, who also has horses and is a client of mine. And, as your informant told you, he's a big flirt; I certainly wouldn't know about his other conquests, but by all accounts, he had them.

"Now," I stood up, "I'm happy to give you more information tomorrow or whenever, but I'm tired and hungry and I need to make dinner now."

Slowly Detective Johnson stood up as well. "The crime scene team will need to finish up down at the barn," he said.

"Fine. So long as they don't let the horses out of their pens."

"I'll be by tomorrow."

"Fine," I said again. All I wanted was to get the man out of here. "I'll expect you."

Detective Johnson gave me yet another hard-edged cop stare and turned at last to go. No good-bye, no thank you forthcoming. I watched his departing back with relief.

The minute he was out the door, I turned to my cupboard and got out tequila, orange liqueur, and some lemons. In another thirty seconds, more or less, I had a much-needed cocktail in my hand and was letting my yapping Queensland heeler dog out of her pen.


Page 3

"I'm sorry, Roey," I told her. "No running around tonight. Too much going on. Come on in the house."

I could see lights, vehicles, moving human figures down at the barn. Resolutely I turned my face away and ignored them. Nothing I could do about it now.

I dialed my lover's cell phone.

"Hello." Blue's voice.

"Hi. Where are you?"

"At work still. We're shorthanded."

"Oh." I knew how it was. Blue was the nursery manager for a large rose growing operation. Like horses, the needs of plants varied dramatically and were not always amenable to human plans; Blue was often late getting home, as was I.

"You'll never guess what happened. I found the horseshoer in the barn, shot."

A long silence. Then Blue's voice, sounding hopeful. "April fool?"

"What? Oh. No. It is April Fools' Day, isn't it? But no, no joke."

"My God. Is he all right? What happened?"

"I don't know if he's all right. He was alive when the ambulance took him away, but he didn't look too good. And I've got cops all over the place. It's kind of a weird story; I think I'm a suspect."

"What?" Blue sounded truly alarmed now.

"Don't worry; they haven't arrested me yet. But come home as soon as you can, okay?"

"Right. Will do." And we hung up.

I leaned back in my corner of the couch and sighed. Took a sip of my drink and patted the dog, who had settled herself next to me. Did my best not to look out the windows in the direction of the barnyard. What a lousy ending to what had been a relatively easy Friday.

Until now. Now it was a particularly difficult Friday. I took another long swallow of margarita, straight up. For the first time, I let my mind drift back to Dominic's face when he'd spoken to me. I wrinkled my nose. He'd smiled. I could have sworn he smiled.

But why? It had clearly cost him tremendous effort to speak. How could he have managed to smile? And again, why?

I sipped more margarita and tried to will my mind away from Dominic. Tried, once again, to take in my peaceful, much-loved room. I stared at the graceful curves of the moss green armchair in front of the woodstove. Blue's chair. Blue would be home soon.

My live-in lover. I smiled. In theory, Blue lived in his travel trailer, parked just beyond the vegetable garden. In practice, he lived with me.

Which was just fine. Blue and I had been living together a little over a year now, and I was quite happy with the arrangement. We each pursued our own lives, our own careers, and we came home to each other. I had never known it could be this good.

Sipping my drink, I sighed again. The last thing in the world I wanted interrupting my life was a police investigation in my backyard. But that was exactly what I had.

I picked up the phone and dialed a number from memory. Detective Jeri Ward had given me her cell phone number last fall. I just hoped she hadn't changed it in the interim.

"Ward here." She answered on the second ring.

"Jeri, it's Gail, Gail McCarthy."

"Gail. Oh-ho." Something in her voice, something I couldn't place. Amusement, cynicism, sympathy?

"Have you heard?"

"Dominic, the horseshoer, was shot in your barn. Matt Johnson is investigating. Lucky you."

"Lucky me," I agreed. "I think Matt Johnson suspects I shot Dominic. He seems familiar, Matt Johnson. Should I know him?"

"He investigated Nicole Devereaux's murder, a couple of years ago."

"Oh." Now I remembered. I'd met Detective Johnson briefly when a friend of mine had been killed. I hadn't liked him much then, I recalled.

"He's no friend of yours; is that right?" I asked Jeri.

"That's right," she answered crisply. "Can't say more right now."

"Have you heard anything about Dominic?"

"He's dead, poor bastard. Died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital."

"Oh no." I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut. Somehow I had never believed that Dominic would actually die. "Oh no," I said again.

"I'm afraid so." Jeri's voice was level-she knew Dominic; he shod her horse, too.

"That's terrible. Have you heard the story?"

"Parts of it. Look," Jeri said. "I can't talk now. Call me when I'm at home this weekend."

"Okay," I said. "Thanks, Jeri." I hung up the phone, staring straight ahead blindly. Dominic was dead. It changed everything. I had just assumed that he would live, spend time in the hospital, recover. Without really thinking about it, I'd believed that I came in time to save him.

But I hadn't. Dominic had died anyway. After saying those improbable words. Once again, I visualized his face. No mistake. I still thought he'd been trying to smile.

I shuddered. Smiling when he was about to die. Why? Why?

Finishing my margarita in one swallow, I got up and walked across the room to the kitchen. I opened the sleek stainless steel refrigerator and evaluated. Then I opened the freezer. Frozen lasagna it was.

I turned on the matching stainless steel oven and plunked the lasagna in. Headlights coming up the drive caught my eye. Familiar headlights.

I reached down the terra-cotta tile counter for the cocktail shaker. Blue was home.

THREE

How are you doing?" were the first words out of Blue's mouth.

I met his eyes across the room. "All right. But Dominic died. Do you want a drink?"

"I guess so. Gail, are you all right?"

"I'll have another," I said, pouring myself a second round.

Blue took a step toward me and accepted the cocktail glass from my outstretched hand. "Gail, are you all right?" he asked again. The little spotted dog at his heels wagged her tail.

"I'm fine. Frozen lasagna okay for dinner?"

"Sure." Blue stared at me with obvious worry. "Can you sit down and tell me about it?"

"Okay," I said. Seating myself on the couch, in my usual corner, I watched Blue take his accustomed seat in the armchair. Freckles lay down next to his feet. Only a year or so of living together and we already had these routines, just like an old married couple.

"Well," I began, "I came home from work ..." and told the story all over again.

Blue listened with few interruptions, as was his way. When I was done, he said, "How do you feel?"

I took a deep breath. "Knocked sideways, I guess. Like I just got kicked in the stomach. It's not really grief. I wasn't that close to or fond of Dominic. But, my God." Words failed me.

Blue left his chair and came and sat next to me on the couch. Putting his arm around my shoulders, he drew me close to him. "It must have been a pretty big shock," he murmured.

"It was," I said into his shoulder.

Freckles jumped up on the couch next to Roey, who snapped peevishly at her. "Now girls," Blue admonished them.

Both dogs flattened their ears submissively, looking for all the world like a couple of sisters who had just been chastised for squabbling. Freckles lowered her white, whiskery muzzle down on her front paws and wagged the tip of her feathery tail. Roey licked my hand.

"Okay," I said. "Good dogs."

With Blue's long, solid body pressed against my left side and the two dogs curled up against my right, I felt sandwiched in warmth. Taking another sip of my drink, I twitched my shoulders and leaned back, feeling some of the tension ebb out of my body.

"Its not just Dominic," I said, "though that's bad enough. I feel invaded. All those strangers down there, tramping all over my barnyard. Hell, they wouldn't even let me feed the horses until they gave the word." To my surprise, there was a catch in my voice.

Blue squeezed my shoulders gently. "I understand," he said.

"And there's bound to be an endless amount of questioning; that detective is coming back tomorrow. He's an ass," I added, more or less to myself.

"Why do you say that?" Blue asked.

I shrugged. "It's hard to put in words. He's one of these men who have a sort of aggressively macho posture. I never get along with that sort. I think I push all their buttons. They seem to find a confident, forthright woman who is neither interested in them as a man nor particularly intimidated by their masculinity, a threatening commodity."

"I never knew you were a closet man-hater." Blue grinned at me.

"I am not," I said indignantly. "I just don't like assholes, whether they're male or female. Or, for that matter, black, brown, or white."

"A reasonable point of view." Blue finished his drink in one swallow.

I held up my glass. "I'll have another."

"All right."

Getting to his feet, Blue crossed the room to the kitchen counter and began making another round. I stared. Tall, long-legged, with a broad back and wide shoulders-my lover looked good from behind. Red hair curled down just over the collar of his blue denim shirt; suddenly I wanted to dash across the room and put my arms around his waist.

"Do you really think this detective suspects you of murdering Dominic?" Blue asked over his shoulder.

"I can't tell. He's got so much of that reflexive cop mannerism, you know, never-trust-a-member-of-the-goddamn-public. But he might. After all, it does sound pretty weird. Me telling him that Dominic said it was all an accident."

"Are you sure that's what he said?"

"Positive. And I could swear he smiled."

"That is weird."

"On top of which," I went on, "I still have to finish getting the horse shod. He's only got three shoes."

"A minor problem," Blue said, handing me a drink.

"Not so minor. Farriers as great as Dominic are few and far between. And if that hind shoe isn't exactly right, Gunner will go lame again."

"Who will you use?" Blue asked.

I took a sip of my third margarita. "Tommie Harper, I guess. She's the best I can think of."

"A woman?" Blue sounded surprised.

"That's right. There are women horseshoers, you know." "Takes someone with a strong back."

"True enough. And Tommie Harper has got one." I took another sip. I was starting to feel better now. "Funny thing. Tommie lives with Dominic's ex."

"As roommates?"

"Roommates and lovers," I said.

"Oh."

"Yeah. Carla left Dominic for a woman. I don't think he ever got over it. He hated Tommie with a passion, which is something Detective Johnson would no doubt be interested in."

"Will you tell him?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I won't lie, if he asks me directly. But I don't want to bad-mouth anyone."

"Dominic was something of a womanizer, wasn't he?"

"Oh yeah. He was your true womanizing horseshoer-it's a rela

tively common breed. As far as I can tell, that's how he met all his wives and girlfriends. He came out to shoe their horses, came on to them, and there you are."

"From what I heard," Blue said, "he got himself in a lot of trouble. Some of his conquests were married to other people."

"Uh-huh. There was a rumor recently that he was messing around with Tracy Lawrence, and that Sam Lawrence had threatened to kill him. Oh." I set my drink down so abruptly that some margarita splashed onto the end table. Mopping it up with my shirttail, I met Blue's eyes. "What have I said?" 1 murmured.

"Something that your friend the detective would be quite interested in, I imagine."

"The trouble is, it's just too easy to think of people who might have wanted to murder Dominic."

"Maybe somebody went ahead and did it."

"Then why would Dominic say it was an accident?"

"Protecting the person, perhaps."

"Protecting his killer? Why?"

"Hard to say."

I sipped more margarita. "I can't imagine why he would do that."


Page 4

Blue shook his head; red-gold curls brushed his collar and sprang back.

At the gesture, I got up and walked around behind his chair. Twining my arms around his neck, I bent down and kissed his cheek. "What do you say we forget all this for a while and retire to the bedroom?"

Blue reached an arm up and gently pulled me forward so our lips were almost touching. "Margaritas make you amorous," he murmured. "What about all those people down in the barnyard; the bedroom doesn't have any curtains."

"We can turn out the lights. They can't see in." I kissed him again, on the mouth this time.

Blue smiled. "What about the lasagna?"

"It won't be ready for a while." Our lips connected for a good long while. "Don't you want to go to bed?" I asked when we broke apart.

"What do you think?" Blue asked, and guided my hand to his belt buckle.

I smiled. "Then let's go."

FOUR

Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Venus floated in a turquoise-blue sky above the eastern ridge as I peered out the bedroom window. All the vehicles and people seemed to have vanished from my barnyard overnight.

Pouring myself an early cup of coffee, I left Blue to sleep and wandered outside to investigate, Roey and Freckles at my heels. A sweatshirt was enough to cut the morning chill; spring had definitely arrived. The wisteria vine that twined from one pillar of the porch to the next was dripping with blossoms, their dusty lavender hue a pale gray in the dawn. Early roses were in bloom, too; the banksia that covered my garden shed was spangled with frothy, pale yellow stars-a color that glowed even in this dim light. And the last of the glorious deep blue ceanothus bushes were in full cry, though their cobalt shade, so brilliant in sunlight, was ashen without it.

I tromped down the hill to the barn, coffee cup in hand, pursuing one of my favorite occupations-looking at the garden. I was finding that I enjoyed observing the plants more than anything else. Noticing their individual peculiarities, seeing how they changed from season to season, how they competed or failed to compete with the other plants. Mine was a wild garden, where introduced exotics mingled freely with the native plants, and animals, of the California brush. I had found that for every pretty piece of flora I put in that thrived, there were at least a dozen casualties. And I was also finding that it really didn't matter.

I liked to watch what happened, see what the garden itself wanted to do. Gardening was a dialogue with Nature: How about this, I'd suggest, with a clump of vivid mandarin orange crocosmia. No chance was the reply; gophers like them. Well, maybe this graceful cream-colored tea rose. Nope. Not vigorous enough and a particular favorite of the deer. Sometimes the answer was yes. The last of the brilliant yellow daffodils bloomed in long grass at the feet of blue-flowered ceanothus and rosemary shrubs-a fortuitous combination that Nature had agreed to wholeheartedly.

The garden was fun. I could feel my spirits lifting as I strolled down the border that lined my drive and noted that the mintbush from Australia was just coming into full bloom. Now that was a really spectacular plant-a solid mass of bright lavender flowers.

I rounded the corner of the driveway that led to the barnyard and my high spirits took a sudden dive. Yellow crime scene tape was everywhere, reminding me only too forcefully of yesterday's fiasco. It looked as though the cops had confiscated Dominic's truck; it was gone, anyway.

Feeding my three horses, I duly noted that all seemed lively and healthy and Gunner wasn't bothered by his missing shoe. Still, I knew well enough that I'd have to take care of it soon or risk having him go lame again.

The flock of banty chickens clamored to be fed, so I threw some hen scratch out for them, and was reminded by a plaintive meow that the barn cats were waiting, too. I smiled.

My old cat, Bonner, had died last winter, of complications caused by old age. Within a month of his passing, a gray feral cat had taken up residence in my barnyard. In another month it was apparent that a gray feral mama cat and her three teenage kittens were now living in my barn. I'd eventually trapped all the cats, given them their shots, and had them spayed and neutered respectively. None of them were really tame, but they did show up to be fed, and they kept the barn free of mice.

I greeted them by name as I scooped some cat food out of a barrel and poured it in their bowl. "Hi, Mama Cat," to the matriarch-not exactly a creative choice. The biggest kitten, shorthaired and jet black, was Jiji, named after the black cat in Kiki's Delivery Service, one of my favorite animated movies. The tabby was Baxter, for the cowboy poet Baxter Black, and the smallest kitten, black and fluffy, with white paws and a white chest, was Woodrow. This last for Woodrow Call in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.

I stood for a moment, watching my cat family eat while the chickens pecked vigorously at the hen scratch and the horses munched their hay. Roey and Freckles trotted through the long, dewy grass. It was all so peaceful and serene. And there, in the barn, marked off with yellow tape, was the place where Dominic Castillo had fallen, shot in the stomach.

Sitting down abruptly on a bale of hay, I stared at the spot. There, exactly there, was where Dominic had been lying when I found him. I tried to imagine him taking a break from his shoeing job to clean his pistol. Had he carried a loaded pistol with him? Jesus. I certainly hadn't known that. Why would he choose to clean it with one shoe left to tack on my horse? With his forge burning? Why not clean the gun when he was done, if he chose to do it at all?

None of it made any sense. I could definitely see why Detective Johnson might suspect me. Dominic's words sounded false, even though I had actually heard them.

Why would he lie? To protect someone, Blue had said. If the person had shot him, though, why protect them? It seemed ludicrous.

I gave up thinking, finished my coffee, and started back up the hill to the house. It wasn't my business to solve this case, I reminded myself. Right now, my business was making breakfast. Pancakes, I decided. It was the weekend, and I wasn't on call. Pancakes for breakfast it was.

We were halfway through them when I spotted the dark green sheriff's car pulling up the driveway.

"Oh no," I said.

Blue glanced at the clock. "Eight on a Saturday morning. Our detective gets to work bright and early."

The car didn't even hesitate at the barnyard, just pulled right up to the house. Detective Johnson got out of it.

"Well, now you get to meet the man," I told Blue. "Let's see what you make of him."

In another moment Detective Johnson was standing next to the table, not seeming the least abashed at having interrupted our breakfast.

I introduced him to Blue. The two men shook hands, Blue rising to do so. I was amused at the contrast. At six and a half feet, Blue towered over Detective Johnson, who was not a short man. This didn't seem to sit well with the detective, who tipped his head back to meet Blue's eyes with a scowl. With his thick neck, heavy shoulders, and square-jawed face, Detective Johnson reminded me of a bulldog; he had short, wide, thick-fingered hands to match. Blue, on the other hand, though tall and wide-shouldered, had slender fine-boned hands and a refined look about his cheekbones and eyes. A Thoroughbred, I decided. And Detective Johnson was one of those old-fashioned squatty-bodied Quarter Horses you didn't see so much of anymore. They even called them "bulldog" -type horses.

Suddenly I noticed that both men were staring at me. Detective Johnson had apparently asked me a question; I'd been so engaged in drawing human/horse parallels I hadn't even noticed. You've been working too hard, Gail, I told myself.

"I'm sorry, I didn't catch what you said," I said out loud.

Detective Johnson wanted me to recount yesterday's story again, in detail. He wanted to know the exact time I had driven in my gate, the exact time the shoeing appointment was scheduled for, the time I had dialed 911. Some of this I could tell him; some I couldn't.

"The appointment was for four o'clock. I drove in close to five; I looked at the clock in the truck on my way home; it was four forty-five, and I remember thinking how early I was getting home. I have no idea when I called nine-one-one. I don't wear a watch and probably wouldn't have noticed the time if I did."

"Does twelve minutes after five sound about right?"

"I guess so," I said, and looked at him sharply. "You knew."And then, "Of course, the nine-one-one operator."

"That's right. What did you do between five o'clock and five-twelve?"

"I told you," I said in exasperation.

"Tell me again. Take it one step at a time. You parked your truck where?"

And so it went. On and on. Half an hour later I protested that I had told him Dominic's exact words yesterday and the detective gave me a level look in return. "This is potentially a felony homicide investigation; I'm sure you want to help us in any way you can."

"That's right," I said wearily.

"Then let's go over it again. I have all the time in the world."

I shut my mouth firmly on the "I don't" that sprang to mind. Blue leaned back in his chair in the corner and watched us, saying nothing. I noticed that Detective Johnson's quasi-hostile manner had abated somewhat in Blue's presence. Apparently I was more palatable as one half of a couple than I had been as a lone woman.

It took a long, long time. The clock said ten-fifteen before Detective Johnson seemed satisfied that I'd recounted my movements and observations exactly. But he wasn't done yet.

"What can you tell me about Dominic Castillo?" he asked.

"I told you what I knew yesterday," I said. I was sulling up, as horsemen say. I'd had enough of this grilling.

"Do you know anyone who might have had a reason to kill Dominic Castillo?"

I took a deep breath. "Dominic was a real lady killer, to use an unfortunate term," I said, "as I think we discussed yesterday. Obviously he made a lot of people angry. There was a great deal of gossip about him in the horse community. As our veterinary clinic is the primary horse clinic in this county, I know a lot of the people in the local horse community. So I heard plenty of rumors about Dominic over the years. However, I am not going to name off all the people who might have had a grudge against Dominic as a list of potential killers. There's too many, for one thing. And I'd certainly forget about some candidates and remember other rumors that are entirely false. So I'm not going to pass on any gossip. If you come up with some evidence linking a person to this crime, if it is a crime, and ask me about that person specifically, I'll do my best to tell you what I know. Now," I said formally, "I think it's time for you to go."

I met his stare. Detective Johnson's eyes were dark brown, and plainly angry. I was aware of Blue's quiet, observing gaze from his place in the comer.

"I may need to question you further." Detective Johnson rose from the table as he spoke.

I said nothing. After a minute, the detective turned without a word and walked out the door.

"I can see why you don't like him," Blue said.

"What was I supposed to tell him," I demanded. "That the current rumor is that Sam Lawrence threatened to kill Dominic over Tracy?"

"No, I see what you mean," Blue said. "Who's Sam Lawrence?"

"A horse trainer. Has a place up on Summit Road. Mostly breaks and trains backyard horses. Sam's a redhead, like you. Has a temper, unlike you. And Tracy is young, blond, and cute. You do see what I mean?"

"Yeah."

"And, of course, I have no idea if it's true. Horse people love to gossip. Tracy might not have had anything to do with Dominic. Who knows?"

"I see what you mean," Blue said again. "Kind of rough to sic the detective on them."

"That's what I thought."

"So what now?" Blue asked.

"How about we forget all this and take the horses for a ride on the beach?"

"I've got an even better idea. It's supposed to be warm and sunny all weekend. How about we take a mini-pack trip? Just an overnighter. I know a great place we could go. It's right on the beach," Blue suggested.

"How will we feed the horses?"

"Just leave it to me. Give me a couple of hours to get everything ready. All you have to do is get in the truck when it's time to go."

"What about Gunner's missing shoe?"

"It's a short ride and all on soft ground. We'll put an EZ Boot on him."

"All right," I said. "I'll clean up the house, weed the veggie garden, make us a lunch, and be ready to leave around one."


Page 5

"You've got a deal," Blue said.

FIVE

I climbed into the truck at one-fifteen. As promised, Blue had organized everything; dogs, horses, and gear were all loaded in the truck and trailer when I walked down to the barnyard carrying saddlebags packed with a lunch on one side and a jacket and clean underwear and socks on the other. It was a relief to turn my back on the crime scene tape and drive away.

"What are we going to eat for dinner?" I asked Blue.

"Don't worry, I took care of it."

"And breakfast?"

"Took care of that, too."

"Great," I said, and concentrated on watching the landscape slip by outside the windows.

Rolling hills were vivid with the sharp chartreuse green of spring grass, splashed with yellow-orange California poppies and pools of deep blue wild lupine. Even the live oaks, so stately and somber, were warmed with the gold and rose tints of their buds and new leaves. Life burst from every twig.

The truck topped a rise and I could see the blue curve of the Monterey Bay ahead of us, looking impossibly clear and dreamlike on this sunny April day. Blue followed Highway 1 down the coastline, giving us glimpses of scrub-covered dunes, sandy beaches, and twisted cypress trees. When he turned onto a familiar side road, I looked at him accusingly.

"You're taking us out to your work?"

Blue pulled the rig into the driveway of Brewer's Rose Farm without a blink. "We're starting here, yes." He drove through the maze of warehouses and greenhouses and parked the truck and trailer out back, next to a new greenhouse range.

"This is where you used to live, isn't it?" I asked.

"That's right. My house trailer sat just where that greenhouse is sitting now. When I kept my horses out here, I took lots of rides down on the beach. I thought I'd take you on my favorite little trip."

"Okay."

Brewer's Rose Farm was less than a mile from the ocean. We could see the deep turquoise-blue of the water and hear the distant rumble of the surf as we saddled the horses and ate our lunch on the tailgate of the pickup. When we were done, Blue adjusted the pack rig on Plumber's back and I slipped the plastic EZ Boot over Gunner's barefoot right hind. Then we pulled the cinches tight and climbed aboard.

Gunner grunted slightly as he felt my weight in the saddle. Danny stiffened as Blue settled himself; I saw the colt's head go down and his back hump up.

"Look out," I said.

Blue just smiled. Clucking to Danny, he urged the young horse forward. Danny took two stiff-legged steps, as if he were walking on tiptoe, dropped his head another notch, and launched into a buck. Blue sat on top of him as peacefully as if the horse were strolling rather than crow-hopping.

It didn't last long. Blue let Danny buck for half a dozen hops, while the dogs ran around him, yapping with excitement, then tugged on the reins and said, "That's enough."

When Danny didn't respond, Blue used the end of the reins to spank the colt lightly, which brought his head up right away. Blue walked him in a circle for a moment and then untied the packhorse and rode off. The dogs and I followed.

"My goodness," I said as we trooped down a dirt road between fields of artichokes and strawberries, headed towards the bay. "Why do you think he did that?"

Blue shrugged. "He's young; he feels good; I haven't ridden him in a week; he's a little bit cinchy. All of those things. It's not a big deal. He's fine now."

It was true. The bay colt walked along as quietly as if he were twenty-five instead of five, his acrobatics temporarily forgotten. "Better you than me," I said. "I just don't have the experience to cope with that. I'm sure glad you do."

Blue just smiled.

I remembered how easy Danny had been to train when I'd purchased him a year and a half ago as an unbroken three-year-old. Blue had helped me with him every step of the way and had taken over as trainer at my request when I felt that I'd gone as far with the colt as I was capable of going. Danny had begun bucking when he was fresh-something that I was entirely unequal to.

"Why does he do that?" I asked Blue again. "He never used to."

"It's not uncommon," Blue said. "He's just starting to wake up, feel his oats. Sort of like an eighteen-year-old kid who's always been docile and obedient and suddenly gets himself arrested for drunk driving. The parents are aghast, but it's more or less a normal stage. Danny's just being rebellious."

I looked at my bright-eyed bay horse and was deeply grateful for Blue's long years of experience breaking and training horses. Without Blue, I might have felt like giving up on Danny, seen his bucking as incurably "bad." At the very least, I would have been afraid to ride him, which was bad enough in itself.

Instead, I sat comfortably on my old and trusted buddy, Gunner, while Blue quite happily took the kinks out of Danny. What a deal.

Warmed up now, the three horses plodded quietly down the road, the dogs trailing in their wake. I could smell the briny, seaweed smell of the ocean mixing with the earthy scent of freshly turned agricultural fields. Seagulls screeched; my heart sang.

We passed an abandoned farmhouse, faded and weathered to a silver gray. Some rusting tractors crumbled silently in the sagging shed alongside. The road rose up into the dunes.

Up one hill and down the other side. Up again and there it was-a great, shining, restless bulk-the ocean. Sleek and aquamarine far out, heaving translucent green in the nearby breakers, frothy white at the shoreline. Gunner snorted.

Then we were moving out onto the sand of the beach while the dogs ran ahead to frisk in the waves. The tide was out and the wet sand along the water's edge was dark and smooth, shiny and firm. We made our way in that direction, the horses sinking deeply into the dry sand with every stride.

All three geldings had been ridden on the beach before; still they approached the surf with trepidation-eyes wide, plenty of long, rolling snorts. Gunner jumped as a little wave rolled towards us and I clutched the saddle horn tightly. Gunner had always been a spook, and even now, at a mature ten years, he still had that tendency to leap sideways. Since he was in every other way an entirely calm and reliable horse, I forgave him his one fault and cultivated a good grip on the saddle horn.

I glanced over at Blue and saw that Danny was marching along calmly, which was also typical. Bucking aberrations aside, Danny was an amazingly quiet, easygoing young horse. Plumber trooped in his wake, patiently carrying the loaded pack bags-again, a gesture that was indicative of this willing, kind, and always helpful horse.

So we rode, our dogs beside us; it came to me that we were the perfect family. I felt a sudden joy in the moment, all of us together at the beach, just so. Dogs running through the waves, horses moving reliably and happily along; this was the life I wanted.

I looked over at my partner, aware that he was an integral part of this picture. Blue sat peacefully on Danny with a slight smile that I thought reflected the same content I was feeling. The ocean breeze ruffled the red curls that stuck out from under his gray fedora; his long, slender, slightly freckled hands held Danny's reins and Plumber's leadrope with a touch that was both firm and relaxed.

I knew that touch; I'd experienced it myself many times. Blue met my eyes and I smiled.

"This is fun," I said.

Blue smiled back. "We live in paradise," he said simply.

I followed his eyes as they took in the long, blue sweep of the bay, the empty white sand of the beach, the soaring, screeching gulls and churning waves.

"It's true," I said. "People come from all over the world to vacation in a place like this and we live here. I sometimes forget how lucky I am; I get wrapped up in my work and feel so busy and frantic I don't even notice how beautiful this area is. And then we come here and," I waved my hand at the scene, "I realize it all over again. Thanks for bringing me."

"My pleasure," Blue said.

"And it's low tide, too. That's lucky. It's so much easier for the horses to walk on the firm sand."

Blue smiled. "I checked my tide chart."

"You thought of everything, didn't you?"

"I tried." Blue smiled again.

"Look," I pointed. A sleek humped back with a dorsal fin rose out of the surf in a curling leap.

"There's another one." As Blue gestured, I saw the shadow shape again, outlined in the shining wall of a breaker.

"Porpoises, right?"

"Yeah," Blue said with a grin. "They're surfing. Watch."

Sure enough, the animals were riding the breaking waves, exactly like human body surfers. Periodically, they would leap entirely out of the water in exuberant, frisky arches, apparently playing.

We watched, entranced. The horses marched on, unaware or uninterested in the dolphins surfing beside them. The dogs trotted behind us, tongues hanging out, tired of chasing the shorebirds.

"Hey," I said, "there's a seal."

The round, whiskery head bobbed up not far from the porpoises.

"Look at the gulls." Blue pointed. "There must be a school of fish just offshore."

Seagulls swooped low over the stretch of water where we had seen the seal; in another moment a dozen brown pelicans flew into view, aiming for the same spot. As we watched, each pelican flapped steadily into position, hovered a split second, and then plunged headfirst with a splash into the water, disappearing completely beneath the surface. When they emerged, the seagulls dive-bombed them, trying to steal fish out of the pelican's beaks.

"Wow," I said.

"It's amazing, isn't it?"

Blue and I stared at the teeming stretch of seawater, awash with darting, swooping bird and animal life.

Beyond the turbulent blue-green bay the distant hills rose behind the town of Monterey. Gunner's black-tipped red ears flicked back and forth in front of me as he walked; I reached down and smoothed a long strand of his mane back in place. Then I smiled at Blue.

"We live in paradise," I repeated quietly.

We rode in silence for a while. Eventually Blue indicated the flat sheen of standing water ahead of us.

"Elkhorn Slough," he said. "We go inland here."

Reining Danny to the left, he led our little troop back through the soft sand and up and over the dunes. Once again I found myself on a dirt road rolling through fields of artichokes and strawberries. The roar of the ocean receded behind me. To my right I caught glimpses of a large body of quiet water reflecting the long slant of late afternoon light.

"So," I asked Blue, "where are we going?"

"Not too far," he said.

"Good," I said. I was getting tired. No two ways about it, I was out of shape. A three-hour ride wore me out. Too many long days at work; too few hours in the saddle. The dogs were tired, too. They padded along, tongues hanging low, no more racing about. Gunner's neck was wet with sweat.

The road ran endlessly between hilly cropland, or so it seemed. Eventually, I saw a tree-filled rift ahead of us. Blue guided Danny to a narrow trail that led down into the trees.

A minute later and I gasped.

"We're here," Blue said.

SIX

The old barn in front of me was about as picturesque a thing as could be imagined. Hidden from the road by its screen of trees, it was weathered and gray and appropriately frayed on the edges, but still standing sturdy, straight, and well-shingled. The large central doorway was wide open, as was the matching opening on the far side. Through the window thus created, I could see the glow of sunlight on water. The barn looked right out on Elkhorn Slough.

"This is great," I said to Blue as I climbed somewhat stiffly down from Gunner.

"Just wait," he said.

We tied the horses to the hitching rail out front. Blue put a hand under my elbow and led me inside.

The interior of the barn was dim and cool. A huge, old-fashioned wooden hayrack and manger ran along one wall, looking in good repair. A couple of bales of clean alfalfa hay sat in the comer nearby. The dirt floor was tidy and neat, no piles of boards or rusting equipment anywhere to be seen.

Gentle pressure from Blue's hand led me on, through the doorway on the far side of the barn.


Page 6

"Oh," I gasped.

It was magical. The barn sat right on the bank of the slough; some thoughtful person had built a deck along its length, looking out over the clear, reed-fringed water. A small wooden pier extended out to an island about thirty feet offshore. Sparks of light clung to the ripples lapping the planks; a long-legged blue heron fished in the shallow water just off the island.

I looked at Blue. "This is wonderful."

"Do you like it?"

"Yes," I said. "The understatement of the century. How did you find it?"

"The guy who owns this place farms next door to the rose farm. He told me about it. His family uses it once a year for a big family picnic. He said I was welcome to come here."

"And the hay?"

"I brought it one day last week when I had some time. Thought it would come in handy if you wanted to take a little pack trip with me."

"And here we are." I smiled. "You really did think of everything."

"Maybe," he said. "Ready for a drink?"

"Sure. Let's get the horses unpacked."

Blue ran water from a rusty spigot to rinse and fill an old watering trough next to the hitching rack while I unsaddled and brushed Gunner and Danny. Then he unpacked Plumber as I watered the other two and tied them to the manger with flakes of hay in front of them. When Plumber was similarly provided for and the dogs had had both a drink and a dip in the trough, we began unpacking the gear.

"Wow, it's the deluxe trip." I grinned.

Blue had brought folding chairs and a cooler. He'd also brought big, comfortable quilted flannel sleeping bags and a thick air mattress to sleep on.

"No tent, though," he said. "I figured we'd sleep on the deck. If it rains, we can just move into the barn."

"You bet," I said. I was investigating the contents of the pack bags and finding that Blue had provided us with chips and salsa as well as margarita makings. And the cooler contained a bag of ice cubes, marinated skirt steak, and a green salad.

"Wow," I said again.

"Sit down and relax." Blue indicated a chair he had set up in a patch of sunshine on the deck. "Let me bring you a drink."

"This is just too good for words." I accepted a clear tumbler filled with lime green liquid. Staring out over the quiet water of the lagoon, I asked, "What did I do to deserve it?"

"Oh, just being you is plenty, Stormy." Blue clinked his glass against mine.

"To us," I said.

We drank.

After a minute, Blue began collecting driftwood, margarita in hand. Piling it next to a simple stone firepit near the shore, he pointed at the little island at the end of the pier. "Hummingbird Island. Do you want a tour?"

"I sure do."

"Better leave the dogs behind."

We tethered Roey and Freckles to the posts of the porch and I followed Blue down the narrow, creaky pier.

"The rancher told me about this island," Blue said. "It's really fascinating."

The pier ended at a sandy spit of a beach, fortified at one end with piled rocks, which seemed to form a rudimentary seawall. The island itself looked to be less than an acre, mostly covered with native scrub--greasewood, ceanothus, manzanita.

"Come on." Blue took my hand. "Let me show you where the hermit lived."

"Hermit?"

"Yeah. Bob, that's my rancher friend, said that when he was a boy, an old man lived out on this island. A crazy old man, or that's how everyone thought of him. He had no particular right to be here; the island belonged to Bob's family, who own this ranch. But Bob's father let him stay."

As Blue talked, he led me down a narrow trail, really more of a tunnel through the brush; we both had to stoop and push branches out of our way. The path emerged into a clearing; with a wall of scrub on all sides, it was as private as if it were an enclosed villa.

"There's what's left of his hut." Blue gestured at what appeared to be no more than a pile of sticks; adjacent to it, and still standing, was a primitive arbor made of found wood. A wild cucumber vine still trailed over the trellis, wreathing it in bright green leaves and tiny cream-colored flowers.

"What's that?" I asked, pointing at a large hump in the center of the clearing.

Blue shrugged. "Sculpture? Religious icon?"

The hump was made of earth that looked as though it had been patted and stomped to a smooth clay texture. Embedded in it were thousands of shells, and fragments of shells, and pebbles, mosaiclike, arranged in strange, swirling patterns. At the top, an intricate geometric shape radiated outward.

As I stared, a tiny, iridescent green bullet dive-bombed my head, with a sharp, whirring shriek.

"Yikes." I ducked, already recognizing the culprit. "Hummingbird Island," I said to Blue with a smile.

"That's right. They're all over the place. They breed and nest out here."

"That one looks like an Anna's," I said. I was familiar with hummingbirds; they nested on my property, too.

"I think so," Blue said. "From what I've seen, there are both Anna's and Allen's Hummingbirds on this island."

I looked around the clearing in bemusement. "So this old man just lived out here alone with the hummingbirds, making weird sculpture?"

"That's right. When he first came, apparently he had a little boat, which he used to row to the town of Moss Landing for supplies. After he got older, Bob's family built the pier, so they could bring him food."

I smiled. "Their own personal hermit."

"Yeah. They probably got lots of karma points for taking care of him."

I stared around some more. The clearing had an eerie resonance; it felt entirely apart from the modern world. I could almost sense the old man's presence, brooding over his strange mound. Not hostile, not frightening, just otherworldly.

Blue watched my face. "Can you feel it?"

"Yeah."

"That's what I thought, too. It's an odd spot."

I raised my eyebrows. "A sacred space?"

"Maybe." Blue sketched a small, formal bow in the direction of the mound. "We'll be going now."

"Thank you," I said, nodding my head in the same direction.

 We both ducked back into the brush, emerging onto the sand spit by the pier. Startled, a mallard female herded her flock of fluffy babies back into the water with many alarmed quacks. Blue and 1 stood silently together, hand in hand, as the ducks sailed off in a tiny flotilla.

"That was neat," I said as we walked back along the pier. "Thank you for taking me there."

"My pleasure." Blue grinned. "How about another drink?"

"You're on."

We drank margaritas while Blue made a fire and grilled the meat; he'd brought red wine to drink with the steak and salad for dinner. The sun went down over the lagoon as we ate; afterward Blue emerged from the barn carrying two oil lamps.

"I stashed these here when I brought the hay," he said, as he lit and hung the lamps off the deck. "Watch. There's something 1 want to show you."

The lanterns cast a flickering illumination over the slough. As it grew darker, I found that by cocking my head so I got the angle just right, I could see into the inky water.

Blue smiled and pointed with his eyes. "Hold still," he said.

A flap of wings alerted me to a black bird with a white crest descending out of the night sky to perch on one of the posts that formed the porch railing. Two others arrived right behind him.

"Night fishing herons," Blue whispered softly.

This was a type of bird I'd never seen before. As I watched, the three birds studied the water below them intently. Suddenly one plunged, as neatly and precisely as a high diver; he entered the water headfirst and appeared to swim under the surface briefly. His head popped up a second later, a silvery fish in his beak.

I smiled at Blue and reached for his hand. Together we watched the birds fish for what seemed like a long time; it might have been only ten minutes. I was lost in the magic of the scene, the old barn at our backs, the slough before us, the fitful light of the lanterns on the water. The diving herons, with their long, trailing white crests, like plumes, lent just the right note of exotic splendor.

"This has been the perfect vacation," I whispered in Blue's ear.

He smiled and reached in his pocket. Before I could see what he was doing, my hand was in his hand. "Stormy, will you marry me?"

"Will I what?" I looked down in amazement. Blue was gently

pressing a ring into my palm. My fingers closed around it and I held it up as I met Blue's eyes. "I'm sorry," I said, as I saw his expression. "I wasn't expecting this."

I looked at the ring. A simple band, it was set with a heart-shaped stone that flashed in the dim light. It didn't appear to be a diamond.

"It's a sapphire," Blue said. "It was my mother's. I had it set in a ring for you."

I swallowed.

"Sapphires were always my favorite stone." Blue looked down.

I took his hand. "I don't know what to say. Thank you for asking me. I honestly hadn't been thinking about us getting married."

"Will you think about it?"

"Of course. Tell me, why do you want to get married? Don't you like things the way they are?"

Blue gave me a hesitant glance. "I thought," he said diffidently, "if we wanted to have a child, it might be better if we were married."

"A child?" Now I was really reeling. "You want to have a child?"

"Haven't you thought about it?"

I was silent for a moment. "Yes," I admitted, "I have."

"Me, too," Blue said simply.

"Is that what you want, then?" I asked him.

"Maybe. If you do. Either way, I'd like to marry you. I love you, you know."

I smiled. "I love you, too. No matter what."

"So you'll think about it?"

"Yes. I promise."

"Good. I'll save the ring until you decide." Blue pulled me towards him and gave me a long kiss.

"Maybe," I said, when we broke apart, "we should just skip straight to the honeymoon."

"Those sleeping bags look awfully good," he agreed.

I kissed him one more time and began to unbutton my shirt.

Blue grinned. "I can't wait to see what you look like by lamplight," he said.

SEVEN

I arrived home the following afternoon to a reality check of truly dismal proportions. Crime scene tape still swathed my barnyard, Detective Johnson had left three messages on my answering machine, and Gunner was lame. Despite the EZ Boot and the soft ground, the trip had really been too much for him.

"Damn." I watched my good horse limp off across his corral and wanted to kick myself. "I should have got the shoe back on him right away."

"Why don't you call the shoer now while I feed," Blue suggested.

"All right." I headed back up to the house, mentally composing what I would say to Tommie Harper. It wasn't exactly a typical request. Please finish the shoeing job your competition started. And Tommie was a very forthright person. I'd just have to see what she made of it.

Tommie laughed. "So Dominic managed to get shot in the middle of shoeing your horse?"

"Is that what people are saying?"

"That's what I heard."

"Well," I said feebly. "Would you mind putting the last shoe on? It's the foot the horse has got navicular in, actually, and he's already sore."

"No problem."

"I've been using an egg bar shoe with a wedge pad," I added.

"No problem," she said again. "I'll be there tomorrow evening when I'm done with my appointments. Say, five-thirty."

 "Great," I said. "I appreciate it." I hung up the phone noting that Tommie had quite distinctly failed to say that she was sorry about Dominic. Of course, it was no secret that she'd detested the man.


Page 7

On the thought, I dialed another number.

"Hello." Jeri Ward's crisp tone was unmistakable.

"Jeri, it's Gail McCarthy. Are you busy?"

"No. I'm home, I'm off duty, I'm not even on call. How are you doing?"

"Fine, more or less. I was just wondering what the story was on Dominic."

"It's a strange one. And your part is the strangest. Old Dominic's last words."

"I know," I said. "But that's what he said. I heard him."

"Well," Jeri said. There was a long silence. Then, "Most of my info is just hearsay that's going around the department, since Matt Johnson doesn't exactly confide in me. In fact, he doesn't speak to me unless he has to. We don't get along. But I have heard that he may be pursuing the line that Dominic was murdered and that either Dominic or you is covering up for the murderer."

"Why does he think that Dominic was murdered?"

"Crime scene investigators found some discrepancies in the position of the gun, the spent shell casing, and the gunpowder residue. It seems unlikely that the gun was in Dominic's hand when it was fired."

"Oh," I said.

"The gun did belong to him, though. Along with a good two dozen others."

"What?"

"That's right." Jeri sounded amused. "Apparently he was a gun collector. Pistols. That's what his girlfriend said. Do you know her?"

"Barbara. Yeah. She's a team roper; I'm also her vet."

"She said he kept a loaded gun in the glove compartment of his truck. She also said that everyone who knew him well knew that."

"I didn't," I said.

"I take it you didn't know him well."

"True enough," I agreed.

"Neither did I." Jeri sighed. "From what I could tell, he was a right bastard."

"A good shoer, though." I hesitated. "Am I a suspect?" I asked her.

"Hard to say what Matt's thinking," she answered crisply. "But you don't have any obvious motive. If you'd been involved with Dominic or if you stood to gain in any way by his death, that would be different."

"Who does?"

"Gain? The way I heard it was that his not inconsiderable estate and a hefty life insurance policy were made out to Dominic Castillo Jr., Sophia Castillo, and Carlos Castillo."

"Dom and Sophy are his two kids with Lee," I said slowly. "I don't know who Carlos is."

"As for people who've been involved with him," I could hear Jeri grimace over the wires, "the sky's the limit."

"Ain't that the truth. Detective Johnson was trying to pry the current gossip out of me, but I stonewalled him. For God's sake, where was I going to begin? Or end?"

"I'd be careful stonewalling Matt," Jeri warned. "He's very tenacious; he can make your life miserable."

"How much more grilling can I expect?" I asked.

"Who knows? As much as he wants to do. If I were working this case, I'd be very interested in the timeline. Where exactly everybody was at what time. It's got to be a pretty narrow window. Dominic arrives at your place and someone drives in and shoots him and leaves before you arrive? See what I mean?"

"I do," I said.

"So I imagine old Matt's liable to grill you a little more."

"I'm picturing myself as a well-done steak. Thanks, Jeri."

"You're welcome. But if I were you, I wouldn't mention my name or let on that you know anything about the investigation. It'll just piss him off."

"I get you," I said. "Thanks again,"

Setting the phone down in its cradle, I frowned at the blinking light on the answering machine. If Jeri was right, which she surely was, I was liable to spend a good deal more time closeted with Detective Johnson. Not an appealing prospect. Maybe I could stave it off a bit.

Erasing all the messages, I went back down to the barn.

Blue had just finished feeding the horses and was pouring some crumble into the barn cats' bowl. I could see the moleskin-colored Mama Cat lurking up in the brush; the tip of black Jiji's nose was just visible behind the haystack. Baxter sat in plain sight in the driveway and mewed plaintively; he was definitely the friendliest one of the family. Familiarity made me glance up into a nearby oak tree for Woodrow. Sure enough, there he was, perched on a branch. My tree-dwelling cat.

Blue followed my eyes and smiled. "It's like one of those complicated pictures where you're supposed to pick out so many of one kind of object. Find four cats in this barnyard."

"That's it," I agreed.

We both stepped back away from the bowl so that the cats would feel comfortable and watched them come in to eat. First Baxter, then Mama and Jiji, and last, like a puff of drifting smoke, little Woodrow.

I stared at the crime scene tape in its role as absurd backdrop to this bucolic scene. Then I looked at Blue. "You once said that Dominic might have lied to protect his killer. Is that what you think?"

"I'm not sure." Blue watched me closely. "It seems possible."

"Why would he do that?"

"Perhaps it was someone he cared about."

"But the person had just finished shooting him in the guts."

Blue's long, slender fingers selected a hay stalk and began to twist it. Without looking up, he said, "Perhaps he felt that he deserved being shot."

"Well," I said. "That's a thought. In some ways, I think he did deserve to be shot. But I can hardly imagine that Dominic would buy into that idea."

"Men can have odd ideas of what's noble or heroic."

I considered this. "Dominic was being chivalrous? In some ways, that does sound like him. Or an idea that would appeal to him, anyway. By the way," I added, "Jeri Ward says Dominic had money, which I wouldn't have guessed, and a collection of pistols, which I might have."

I filled Blue in on my conversation with Jeri and finished up with, "And the only sure thing about it all is, I'm bound to be grilled numerous more times by that god-awful Matt Johnson."

"Poor you." Blue put his arm around my shoulders and began to walk me back up to the house. "How about I make you a drink and cook you some dinner?"

"Sounds great, but you did all the work last night."

"Doesn't mean I can't do it again. Remember, I'm trying to convince you to marry me. Once the knot's tied, all bets are off."

I laughed and gave him a quick hug. "That doesn't sound like much of an incentive. But don't worry, I haven't forgotten."

"Good. So what do you want to drink?"

"Not margaritas," I said firmly. "I know they're your favorite, but I've had them two nights in a row. Something different, something elegant."

"What sort of elegant?"

"I don't know. Something straight up and made with gin," I ad-libbed. "But not a martini."

"I've got just the thing."

Five minutes later Blue presented me with a melon-colored drink in a chilled cocktail glass. One sniff assured me that it did, indeed, contain gin, and bitters, too, or I missed my guess.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's a Pegu."

"So, what's a Pegu?"

"Well, the original Pegu was a little bar in Rangoon, back in the days when it was the capital of Burma." Blue picked his glass up off the counter and clinked it against mine. "To you," he said and grinned. "Just try it, Stormy."

I took a sip. "Wow," I said. "That's different. Almost medicinal. I like it, though."

Blue bent his head over his glass and sniffed briefly, then took another sip. "My cocktail bible says the taste complexity is high."

"Your cocktail bible?"

"That's right. Great book. By somebody who calls himself 'the Alchemist.' "

I laughed. "A wizard with cocktails. Well, I do like this one. Thanks. It was just what I needed. The prospect of being questioned yet again by that detective is distinctly stressful. I erased all the messages he left on our machine and I don't plan to be in touch with him until I have to, but I know it will happen eventually."

Blue sighed. "Is that wise?" he asked neutrally.

I shrugged. "I don't owe the guy to bend over backwards for him. He's been nothing but an ass. And answering machines screw up all the time."

Blue said nothing. Familiar with my stubbornly recalcitrant nature, he knew better than to argue.

"I'm not about to lie down like a doormat for any hostile and aggressive guy, cop or otherwise," I said firmly.

"Spoken like a true feminist."

I swirled my drink and sipped. One thing about this cocktail, it forced you to take your time with it.

"I'm not sure I'd call myself a feminist, exactly," I said. "I'm more of an individualist. I don't so much identify myself as a woman, any more than I do as a Caucasian, or a tall person, or a horse lover. I'm a combination of characteristics, like all people.

"And that's how I relate to others, I guess. I don't see a man as better or worse than a woman, though if I were hiring someone to buck hay, I'd probably hire a man. There're exceptions, of course, but generally speaking men are physically stronger than women. And, equally generally, women are less prone to the particular kind of macho asshole behavior that Detective Johnson displays."

"I'd agree with that," Blue answered reflectively. "Women are also a lot less likely to commit violent crimes."

"Good point," I agreed. I bit my lip. "Hot-tempered men are probably the most likely. Which makes me wonder."

''About what?"

"Sam Lawrence. Who is, by all accounts and my own observation, an extremely hot-tempered horse trainer."

"Does he beat on the horses?"

"Sometimes. But he's not without talent. He's more of the old

school type of horseman, likes a horse to be a little afraid of him. In some ways, it's understandable. What Sam mostly gets are spoiled backyard horses that have developed terrible, even dangerous habits. The owners want them retrained so they can get along with them again. It's a tough job."

"I imagine."

"Sam's actually pretty good at it, but when he loses his temper, watch out. He's as likely to take it out on a human as a horse; he's lost numerous clients as well as stable help because he bawled them out."

"Has he ever done anything violent?" Blue asked.

"I heard he slugged someone just last month. A client who came on to Tracy. After he'd had a couple of drinks," I added, glancing down at the beverage in my hand.

Blue stood up. "What do you say to a simple fried rice for dinner? Something light."

"Suits me," I said.

Blue headed for the refrigerator. "Sounds like your friend Sam might be an ideal candidate for a questioning session with Detective Johnson," he said over his shoulder.

"Yeah," I said slowly. "I've got to admit you're right."

EIGHT

Monday morning began like every other Monday morning-busy. Damn busy. The receptionist read off a list of at least a dozen people who had called since we opened at eight o'clock. Sick horses, colicked horses, lame horses. And Lee Castillo wanted to float the teeth on a new horse she'd just bought.

"Did she ask for me or Jim?" I pointed at Lee's name.

"You." Nancy sounded surprised. We both knew that Lee usually used my partner as her vet.

"Give Jim the colic up in Boulder Creek and I'll take the one in Watsonville and do Lee's horse after that."

In another minute Nancy and I had finished divvying up the calls and I was back in my truck headed for the first client of the day. We need another vet to help us here, I thought, not for the first time.

Jim and I once had another vet on our staff for a brief six months last year. But John Romero had quit and moved on, and I for one didn't miss him. Perhaps this next time around Jim, with my assistance, would manage to hire someone who wasn't a closet woman-hater.

At the thought, I had to smile. Blue had called me a closet man-hater the other night, and then a feminist. Sometimes life seemed to sort itself out into this odd battle of the sexes, men siding with men, women with women. I had never seen myself as part of that particular army, but there was no denying that a certain dismissive attitude on the part of an ignorant man made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.


Page 8

Like Detective Johnson, for instance. Damn. My most fervent wish was to have nothing further to do with the guy. But it was a wish that was unlikely to be granted.

The thought of Detective Johnson led me to the thought of Lee Castillo and the rather peculiar fact that she had requested my services rather than Jim's. Lee had been using Jim by preference for almost twenty years. I'd seen her horses only when she had an emergency and I was the vet on call. Thus I knew her, but not well.

I had to wonder if today's call wasn't the result of Dominic's demise in my barnyard. After all, teeth that needed floating could usually wait. Perhaps Lee Castillo's curiosity couldn't.

Working my way through a minor gas colic in a broodmare in Watsonville-the horse had been brought in from a pasture and put on straight alfalfa hay, free-choice-I reassured the owner that all should be well and headed out to Lee Castillo's place in nearby Freedom.

An older ranch that had been chopped up into ten-acre parcels formed the framework of the small and not very upscale housing tract. A dirt road led the way in; Lee's property was the last one and included the original ranch house and barn, as well as various outbuildings.

Lee herself stood in front of the barn, directing what I thought were her two teenage children in the process of mucking out stalls. I parked my truck and got out.

"Gail. Good to see you." Lee pulled a pair of leather gloves off her hands and marched in my direction.

"Hello, Lee. How are you?" We shook hands, both of us, I thought, evaluating.

Lee Castillo was a striking woman. About my age-late thirties-she had prematurely gray hair that was a true silver color. It was also long and thick and shiny, usually worn, as now, in a ponytail down her back. The hair, combined with relatively unlined skin and strikingly large light brown eyes with dark lashes, created a disconcerting dissonance; Lee looked ageless-not young, not old, not middle-aged, a creature outside of time. This impression was enhanced by her tall, broad-shouldered frame, extremely fit body, and direct, even hearty manner. A hard woman to categorize.

As we made the requisite small talk, I was struck, as I had been before, at what an odd pairing she and Dominic Castillo must have been. I couldn't imagine what had drawn them together.

Apparently I was right about the possible reason for this call. Lee wasted no time in coming to the point. "I heard my ex was shot in your barnyard."

"So it seems," I said guardedly.

"I also hear that the cops are treating it as a possible murder."

"I hear that, too," I admitted.

"What do you think?" Lee demanded.

"I don't know what to think exactly," I said, wondering what Lee Castillo wanted from me. I noticed that her children had both stopped shoveling horse manure and were drifting in our direction, for all the world like my barn cats coming in to eat.

Lee caught my glance and looked over her shoulder. "You know my kids, don't you, Gail? Dam and Sophy."

"I think we've met," I said, smiling at each in turn.

Dam was a shock. No longer the pudgy teenager I'd last seen several years ago, he was instead a tall and heavily muscled young man with flat, expressionless eyes of the exact same shade as his mother's. Sophy, too, had changed-the rounded body more woman than girl, the expression on her face guarded. Neither of them smiled back at me.

"How old are you guys now?"

Dom looked down at his feet; Sophy shrugged.

After a minute Lee answered. "Dom just turned nineteen; Sophy's seventeen." Once again Lee's focus shifted back to my face. "According to the paper, you found Dominic and he said something to you. What was it? Was he murdered?"

I stared at Lee. "What did you read in the paper?" I hedged.

"Just what I told you," she said impatiently. "A quote from the investigating detective. I can't remember his name. That you had found Dominic and he'd spoken to you. That was it. No mention of what he said. Just that it was being treated as a potential homicide."

"Oh," I said.

"You can't blame me for being curious," Lee said firmly.

"No, I guess not." I was aware of Dom's eyes on me as I spoke and the unnerving intensity of Sophy's stare.

Lee seemed to catch the meaning in my glance. "Kids, could you go finish up with the barn?"

Neither kid moved or spoke.

Lee shrugged. "Oh, all right. I know you guys are curious, too. Gail, don't mind them. We all want to know."

Now I was really stuck. Whatever I may have thought of Dominic Castillo, these were his children. I felt totally unequal to the task of describing his last moments in a suitable manner.

As I took a deep breath, Dom spoke for the first time. "We can handle it," he said. The gaze that accompanied the words was the implacable, slightly sullen stare of adolescence.

"They can," Lee asserted. "Dominic wasn't part of their lives. They always understood how poorly he treated me; neither one of them had anything to do with him."

I wondered. It seemed unlikely to me that these kids were as indifferent to their father as Lee seemed to think.

Taking in my hesitation, Lee spoke again. "Gail, Dominic was a shit. He ran around on me constantly when we were married, and once we were divorced he reneged on the alimony and child support that he owed. And he didn't lack for money. Dom and Sophy know this. It's not surprising they didn't want anything to do with him."

"He never took an interest?" I asked.

Lee paused. Then she said forcefully, "He never lived up to his responsibilities. So, in the end, I got full custody. And none of us were interested in seeing Dominic."

I tried to find some emotion in either Dom's or Sophy's face in response to this statement. I couldn't. That steady mask of indifference so common to teenagers was firmly in place. I had the sense that no adult was likely to penetrate the facade.

I sighed. "There's not much to tell," I said finally. "Dominic said that he shot himself accidentally while he was cleaning his gun. I held his hand until the ambulance came. That was it."

For a moment no one spoke, but I could feel the ripple of shock go around the group.

"He said he shot himself," Lee repeated slowly.

"That's right."

"Then why are the cops calling it murder?"

"I'm not sure," I said honestly. "And now I've got a question for you. Do you know who Carlos Castillo is?"

"What?" Lee's jaw snapped shut as her eyes shot back to focus on mine. "How does he come into this?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "I heard the name. I was curious. Just like you," I reminded her.

"Oh," Lee said slowly. Then, "Kids, I really need you to finish up the barn. And Dom, go get that new horse so Gail can do his teeth." This time she spoke with some emphasis.

After a second, Dom and Sophy moved off toward the barn.

"They're great kids, really." Lee smiled proudly at the departing backs. "Dom's my right-hand man."

"So, who's Carlos?" I asked.

"Dominic's illegitimate son," Lee snapped. "Born the same year as Dom."

I did some quick thinking. "Oh," I said.

"That's right. Born while we were still happily married, or so I thought. I didn't find out the kid existed for several more years."

"How did you find out?"

"The mother came and told me. She was fed up with Dominic by then, too. It was her idea of revenge."

"Oh," I said again.

"Right," Lee agreed. "Not pretty. That's what life with Dominic was like. There was always one woman after another."

"And eventually he left," I hazarded.

"Are you kidding?" Lee laughed. "No way would Dominic have left me. No, that wasn't his idea. He wanted to have the wife and kids and numerous girlfriends on the side. I just got tired of it."

"Oh," I said again. "And you say he had money?"

"Not when we were together," Lee huffed. "Oh no, then it was pretty much hand-to-mouth; I had to take a job as a waitress for a while. But after we were divorced, Dominic's father died and left him a great deal of money."

"But he still worked as a horseshoer?"

Lee laughed. "Dominic was as tight with money as he was promiscuous with his sexual favors. Can you believe it? He wouldn't even pay his child support. His own kids. I was always taking him to court. Or trying to, anyway. He was pretty slippery, old Dominic."

I could see Dom leading a black horse out of the barn and tried one final question on Lee. "Do you think Dominic left his money to Dom and Sophy?"

"I sure hope so. Who else did he have to leave it to?" Lee shrugged.

Carlos, apparently, I thought but didn't say. Instead I got the electric floats we used for teeth out of my truck and filled a syringe up with tranquilizer.

Dom handed the horse's leadrope to his mom and I gave them both my best professional smile.

"Let's do some dental work," I said.

NINE

I left Lee Castillo's place having successfully smoothed and leveled her black gelding's teeth, but with my mind buzzing with speculation. Detective Johnson had asked me point-blank if I knew of anyone with a motive to murder Dominic Castillo. Well, here was someone with a very obvious motive. Money. Alive, Dominic had failed to pay what Lee thought he owed her and her kids. Dead, it seemed, she believed he'd pay handsomely.

And from what Jeri Ward had told me, Lee was right. Though it sounded as though she had a surprise coming in the form of Carlos Castillo and his inheritance. But still, surely this was a good solid motive.

I worked my way through several relatively routine calls-shots and worming for a Morgan mare, a sole abscess on a Peruvian Paso, another bit of equine dentistry on an ancient gelding who was teaching a seven-year-old girl to ride. Just as I was leaving this last job, my cell phone rang.

"Gail, it's Nancy. Doug Hoffman just called to say he's bringing a horse in. He thinks it may have broken a hind leg up high. Jim's in the middle of another emergency call up in Felton. Can you come?"

"Yeah, I can. I don't have anything that's too important. Call Elaine Delgado and tell her I'll be at least an hour late to do her preg check."

"Will do."

I sighed as I hit the button to end the call. I hated broken legs. Generally speaking, a broken leg would mean I'd have to euthanize the animal. Horses were just not constructed to get by on three legs, as dogs and cats did so readily. Neither were most horses able to stand the degree of confinement and immobility necessary to heal a broken leg bone. Thus a broken leg almost always meant a death sentence.

And I knew Doug Hoffman well; more than that, I knew his horses. Doug had learned to team rope in the same time period that I had; we'd often sat together commiserating over our mistakes. I wondered which of his three nice geldings had gotten hurt.

My favorite, it turned out. My heart sank like a stone when I saw the dapple-gray horse standing on three legs in the dirt parking lot behind the clinic. Mr. Twister, a horse I'd admired for years.

"Oh, no," I said out loud as I got out of the truck. "Not Twister. What happened?"

Doug shook his head. "You're not going to believe it, Gail. He ran into my truck."

"He what?"

"I know it sounds crazy. But he literally ran into my truck."

"How'd that happen?" I asked, as I stepped forward to lay a hand on the horse's neck, slightly damp with sweat.

Doug sighed. "I keep my horses in a little five-acre field just down the road from my house. I got home late last night, after dark, and drove down to throw some hay to the horses, as usual. Opened the gate, drove my pickup into the field, and headed for the shed where I keep the hay. There wasn't any moon, so I couldn't see much, just the road right ahead of me in the headlights.

"That road takes a bend around a big tree just before it gets to the hay shed. I came around the comer and saw this horse flying straight at me at a dead run. I slammed on the brakes and came to a complete stop; I thought he was going to come right through the windshield and end up in my lap.


Page 9

"He must have been blinded by the headlights." Doug shook his head again. "He locked it up at the last second and slid half under the bumper; I felt him hit the truck, but not hard. Then he ran off.

"To make a long story short, he ran on all four legs as far as I could see in the headlights, so I figured he was all right. I've got a new baby at home and my wife is pretty stressed out, so I just threw the hay out and went back to do my duty as a dad. But when I came back this morning to check, Twister was three-legged."

Twister was, indeed, standing on three legs, holding his left hind leg so that the hoof didn't touch the ground. I palpated the leg gently; nothing obvious. Just a lot of swelling around the stifle.

"Lead him a few steps," I said.

The gray horse hobbled off obediently in response to Doug's tug on the leadrope. He did, I noticed hopefully, put a little weight on the bad leg. Not much, but a little.

"I'm not sure," I told Doug, "but it looks like he might have tom up his meniscus joint. I'll need to shoot some X rays, though."

Doug nodded. I knew he was expecting this. As I pulled our largest X-ray machine out of the back room and plugged it in, I asked Doug, "How old is this horse?"

"Seven this spring." Doug shook his head heavily. "And he was just starting to be really solid. I thought he was going to be my number-one horse this year. It'll be a shame if I have to chicken him."

I stared at the gelding, who stood patiently waiting despite the fact that he was undoubtedly in a lot of pain. Pretty-headed, with a large, kind, alert eye, Twister was in all ways an appealing horse. His dapple-gray coat was icing on the cake, a color scheme as lustrous and ineffable as watered silk, or shadowed light on a still pond.

"It would be a real shame," I agreed. "He's a gentle horse, isn't he? I used to see your kids riding him."

"That's right. Gentle as can be-you can put anyone on him. And a top-notch rope horse besides."

"It always happens to the good ones, doesn't it?" I propped the heavy X-ray plates in position and took the necessary shots, Twister standing for it all like the gentleman he was.

Ten minutes later, I'd developed the X rays and studied them. Returning to Doug and his horse, I said, "The good news is that the leg's not broken."

Doug's wide smile faded as I added, "But the joint is pretty thoroughly torn; that swelling is probably due to leaking synovial fluid. He may never be a sound horse again."

"The leg might just as well be broken, then."

"No, not really. Given enough time, it's possible he'll heal up from this. I'd say he has a fifty-fifty chance."

"How long is enough time?"

"In my experience, at least a year. I've only had a couple of horses in my career with a similar injury. One of them did recover to be a riding horse after a couple of years."

"But that's not rope-horse sound." Doug looked down at the ground.

We both knew that team roping was a demanding event; only a horse in top physical condition could do the job.

"No," I agreed. "It's unlikely that he'll ever be sound enough to be a head horse."

"Put him down, then," Doug said, sadly but firmly.

"You want to euthanize him?" I was stunned. "What about your kids?"

"There's plenty of nice horses in the world. If I'm going to keep one and feed it, it's going to be a rope horse."

I stared at the man in disbelief. Despite the fact that it was an entirely practical point of view, I'd never even considered the notion that Doug would refuse to give Twister a chance.

My eyes moved back to the horse. Head down, hind leg cocked so that only the toe of his hoof touched the ground, Twister stood quietly. His silver-white face was shadowed with charcoal shadings; a sooty gray forelock hung between the steady brown eyes.

Horses are all different. Like people, they're individuals, some chicken-hearted, some courageous, some cranky, some forgiving. Like people, you can often see a horse's true nature shining right out of his eyes, can feel his spirit and sense his intentions. As I grew older, I knew that I could read horses better than I could humans, and Twister struck me as truly noble, a horse with a great heart.

Despite my eight years as a veterinarian and the many horses I'd had to euthanize, I still felt a plummeting sense of shock and pain at the thought of killing this animal here and now.

"If he rests out of it, you could sell him as a riding horse," I said hopefully to Doug.

"But that's a year or more down the road. I've got to feed him and take care of him all that time when I could be feeding a useful one. And he may never be sound."

"That's true," I had to admit.

"I don't want him to suffer," Doug said. "Let's just put him down and get it over with."

I looked at the horse one more time. Doug's decision wasn't irresponsible. But, still ... Mr. Twister was special. I just knew it.

"Doug," I said, "would you give him to someone who'd give him a good home?"

"I guess so. But who'd want him under these conditions?"

"Me," I said slowly.

"You?"

"Yeah. I like this horse." I stroked Twister's patterned shoulder, wondering at my own choice.

"Sure." Doug smiled. "I'll give him to you. And I'll be real happy if I see you roping on him some day. That's great, Gail."

 "Thanks," I said. "I'm not sure it's the smartest thing I ever did, but I've always been drawn to this guy."

Doug's grin spread right across his face as he handed me the leadrope. "He's all yours," he said. "I'll even throw in the halter. And it's a big load off my mind." He strode towards his truck as he spoke; I had the impression that he didn't want to give me time to change my mind. "All those X rays are on you, now," he said over his shoulder, "right?"

"Right," I agreed. "The whole call's on me. Thanks, Doug." But he was already gone.

Turning back to my new horse, I stroked his neck one more time. Despite the fact that I wasn't quite sure how I would manage the logistical problems arising from his presence out at my place, I felt a deep peace at the thought that I now owned him and he wouldn't have to die.

Slowly, very slowly, I led him to a box stall and gave him some painkiller intravenously. As the stoic look faded from his eyes to be replaced with relief, I fed him a flake of alfalfa hay and filled a bucket with water.

"You're my horse now," I told him, and watched with satisfaction as he began to eat.

Somehow or other, I had been the right person in the right place and time to make this gesture. It all felt harmonious. Whatever came of it, I was glad to be here now with this horse.

A slow tear ran down my cheek; I brushed it away with the back of my hand and smoothed Mr. Twister's mane. What would it take to redeem all the suffering I routinely saw? The right person in the right place making the right gesture? I couldn't take them all home.

But still. "Compassion," I whispered to the horse. "It takes compassion. I think we'll get along just fine."

TEN

The rest of my day passed in a much more routine fashion. Saying good-bye to Mr. Twister at five o'clock, I went home to meet my new horseshoer and rearrange my corrals to accommodate a fourth horse.

Half an hour later, I was staring morosely at the only possible place to squeeze another pen into my barnyard and castigating myself as a soft-hearted idiot. I really didn't have room for a fourth horse. Nonetheless, I was bringing one home.

In the midst of these fruitless ruminations, Roey barked sharply. A black pickup truck pulled in my gate and bumped up the gravel drive. Tommie Harper, I hoped.

Sure enough. The truck parked itself in front of the barn and the distinctive form of Tommie Harper emerged from the driver's side.

Tommie was a big woman. At least six feet tall, by my reckoning. She had wide shoulders, wide hips, and a pretty good belly on her. Big-boned and strong-featured, with her blond hair cropped crew-cut short and a heavy leather belt encircling her jeans and boot-clad figure, Tommie looked about as butch as it was possible to appear.

I walked in her direction and got her wide, white, friendly smile. "Hello, Gail McCarthy."

"Hi, Tommie. Thanks for coming out."

We shook hands as Roey sniffed Tommie's heels. Tommie smiled again. "No problem. I'm happy to help you out of the mess Dominic left you in." Gesturing at the yellow crime scene tape, she asked, "Is that where he bought the farm?"

"Yes," I said, slightly shocked. Even for someone who was known to have disliked Dominic, it seemed a callous tone.

Tommie caught my look. "Sorry," she said, as she laid out her shoeing tools and lit her forge. "But I hated that bastard. I'm just plain glad that he's dead." She grinned at me. "Of course, I hope no one thinks I wanted it enough to shoot him. Especially that damn detective."

"Oh. Has Detective Johnson been on your case?"

"Got it in one. He was around this morning before I left for work, bothering Carla. But I think at this point he likes me better as a suspect." Her grin flashed again. "I've got a feeling Detective Johnson doesn't care for my kind."

I could imagine. "How's Carla taking it?" I asked.

"Well, she doesn't miss Dominic, that's for sure," Tommie snapped. "Dominic tormented poor Carla. He never got over the fact that she left him for me-another woman. God forbid. It was just too much for his poor, fragile male ego. He wouldn't leave Carla alone, he called her, he wrote her notes, he followed her; I swear he stalked her for years."

"He quit eventually, didn't he?" I asked. "After all, they've been divorced for a long time."

"Naw, he never really quit. Though he didn't hound us lately like he did in the beginning. But Carla still got the occasional note, or he'd come by the house when he knew I wasn't home. He never got over her." Once again the smile. "Of course, that I can understand."

I smiled back. I liked Tommie.

"Dominic hated me." She grinned cheerfully. "Now, if I was the one dead, you'd know where to look. He threatened to kill me a couple of times. I can't imagine how he resisted shooting me for all these years."

"That can't have been fun for you," I said.

"Oh, I wasn't afraid of Dominic. It was more the other way around. He'd go out of his way to avoid me; he couldn't stand to look at what Carla chose over him. And whatever trouble he was, Carla's more than worth it." Again the smile.

No doubt that Tommie was in love; to the impartial eye Carla Castillo was a plump woman in her late thirties with a flighty air, a girlish giggle, tiny, silver-rimmed spectacles, and a truly spectacular mane of long, black hair. Not someone I could imagine anyone falling in love with, though.

Probably Tommie wouldn't think much of Blue; I smiled to myself. At that moment, I saw his pickup coming through the gate. Looked like I would find out what they made of each other.

Blue parked his truck in its accustomed place and ambled in our direction, Freckles beside him. Tommie had finished her preparations and was studying Gunner's right hind foot. She paused, then turned to see who was approaching.

"Tommie, this is Blue Winter," I said. "Blue, this is Tommie Harper."

I watched as the two "guys" greeted each other. A pleasant handshake, a smile on both parts. I knew Blue well enough to be sure that he would see Tommie as an individual, and like or dislike her as such, not, as many men might have done, dismiss her because she was a lesbian.

Tommie, on the other hand, I was barely acquainted with. For all I knew, she might dismiss all men on general principles. Apparently not. Tommie smiled at Blue as readily as she did at me; her direct blue eyes were friendly.

"You must be Gail's boyfriend," she said.

"I am," Blue agreed. "You must be our new horseshoer."

"Yep. Come to finish the job the old one left undone. Pretty dramatic way of quitting in the middle, I'd say. Now Gail, tell me how you want this horse shod."

"We've been using an egg bar shoe and a wedge pad on him. Just like the other hind foot."

"Uhmm." Tommie studied Gunner another minute, then selected a shoe from the rack in the back of her truck. Using tongs, she set the shoe in her forge to heat up.


Page 10

"I wonder who killed old Dominic?" she said, as we watched the forge chug away.

"He told me the gun went off as he was cleaning it. And then he died ten minutes later," I told her.

"Is that right? Then why is that detective acting like it's a murder investigation ?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "I guess he must believe that either Dominic was lying or I was. Since I know I'm telling the truth, the lie, if there was a lie, came from Dominic. But why would he do that?"

"To protect someone, maybe," Tommie said as she lifted the shoe, now red-hot, out of the forge. Using the tongs to place it on the anvil, she hammered it here and there, her motives indiscernible to an untrained eye.

Blue and I glanced at each other. "I guess that's the only possible reason," I said. "But who would he want to protect that much?"

Tommie dipped the shoe in a bucket of water to cool it, then measured it against Gunner's foot. Taking the shoe back to the anvil, she hammered some more. "His girlfriend, maybe," she said between blows.

"Why would Barbara kill him?" I asked.

"Because he's been running around on her." Tommie measured the shoe against Gunner's foot again and nodded in satisfaction.

"But they've been living together for years and from what I can tell, he always ran around on her. Why kill him now?"

Tommie shrugged, got a rasp from her truck, and began smoothing Gunner's hoof. "Hard to say. I know lots of people who hated Dominic almost as much as I did. Maybe one of them killed him."

"Who, for instance?" I asked.

"Do you know Sandy McQuire?"

"Just a little," I said. "She's a horse trainer of sorts. Gives riding lessons. Up near the summit."

"That's right. I'm her shoer. Sandy lived with Dominic for a while after Lee kicked him out. She left her husband and kids, just fell madly in love with the guy, God knows why. She lost custody of her kids, lost her job, lost her home, basically lost her whole life, all for worthless Dominic Castillo."

Tommie had gathered packing material, a wedge pad, shoeing nails, and a hammer from her truck. Laying the blend of pine tar and oakum against Gunner's hoof, she pressed the pad over it and put the shoe on top of that. Holding it all carefully in place, she began to nail.

Tap, tap, tap, the familiar rhythm of horseshoeing. As the nails were driven through the wall of the hoof, Tommie examined each one in turn. Gunner stood patiently and quietly, an old pro at being shod.

"Anyway," Tommie went on, once she was done hammering, "Dominic never would marry Sandy, even though she really wanted him to. She did everything, even had a boob job to make herself more feminine and alluring. But Dominic just ran around on her, like he did everyone else, and eventually left her to marry Carla. Sandy never got over it."

Tommie lifted Gunner's foot up onto a metal stand to clinch the nails down tight.

"Sandy talks about Dominic constantly. How he ruined her life, how her kids hated her because of him. She's still angry."

"Angry enough to kill him?"

"I couldn't say." Tommie untied Gunner from the tree and led him down the driveway a few steps, watching how he traveled. Grunting her approval, she looked back at me. "I was mad enough to kill him, but I didn't. Thought about it, talked about it, even, but I didn't do it. I don't know what it takes to push a person past that edge."

"Neither do I," I admitted. "Losing your kids might do it."

"It might," Tommie agreed. "That's why I thought of Sandy. Of course, Juanita Gomez hated Dominic just as much, and she had a better reason to kill him." Tommie grinned. "Better than me, even."

"What's that?"

"She had a kid by him, must be almost twenty years ago now. Dominic never would help her with anything, financially or otherwise. But he did tell her once that he'd left her boy some money in his will."

"Is the boy named Carlos?"

"That's right."

"Does Juanita Gomez have horses?" I asked curiously.

"Naw. I know about her because Carla told me. When Dominic was married to Carla, Juanita used to come around and try and get money out of him. But Dominic never gave her a nickel. It used to make Carla mad."

"Well, everybody seems to agree that Dominic was tight with money."

"So does he look good enough to you, Gail?" Tommie gestured at Gunner.

"Yeah, he sure does. Thanks, Tommie. What do I owe you?"

"Nothing, this time. It's on the house. Of course, I expect to be invited back."

"No problem. In six weeks, all right?"

"I'll put you on the schedule." Smiling at Blue and me in turn, she put her tools away, turned off her forge, climbed in her truck, and waved a good-bye. "Got to get home to Carla." Then she was gone.

Blue shook his head as her truck disappeared down the drive. "She seems nice," he said. "But it still strikes me funny, the notion of a woman in love with another woman."

I smiled. "A lesbian woman I know said it strikes her funny that a woman would ever choose to fall in love with anything but another woman. She thinks all of us straight gals are closet lesbians."

"And are you?" Blue asked.

"Not that I can tell. I haven't had so much as a single fantasy about a woman, let alone been tempted."

"That's a good thing."

"Of course, you never know," I teased.

Blue smiled. "I hope I can keep you happy," he said formally.

"You do. You'll make me especially happy if you'll help me move these corral panels to make a small pen over there." I pointed to a spot behind the hay barn.

"Sure. But why?"

"I'm bringing a new horse home."

Blue looked startled, as well he might. I told him the story of Mr. Twister and how I'd happened to acquire him; Blue shook his head at the conclusion.

"Gail, we barely have time to ride the horses you already own."

"I know," I agreed. "That's not lost on me. But this is a really sweet horse. What was I supposed to do?"

Blue sighed. "What you did, I guess."

"Besides, we won't be riding this guy very soon, if ever."

"So, we now have a pet horse."

"That's right. That's how I got Gunner and Plumber, you know. They were given to me because they got hurt. They recovered, given time. Twister might, too."

Blue shrugged. "It's certainly your choice."

I stared at him. "Do you mind me making a decision like that without asking you?"

"No, of course not. It's your place."

"You live here, too, and you help pay the feed bill and take care of the horses as much as I do. That gives you a say. Would you rather I didn't bring this horse home?"

I hesitated, then added, "I do realize I can't take home every horse I feel sorry for. But I fell in love with this gray horse the first time I saw him-it must be three or four years ago. I was at a roping, and he had such a nice way of working, tried so hard, really got his hind leg up under himself. He was talented, but it was more than that; he seemed so willing to try. He seemed ..." I searched for the word and found it " ... gallant. A truly gallant horse. I never forgot. And when I saw him today, about to be put down for lack of a chance, well ..." I spread my hands.

Blue pulled me to him and hugged me. With his face against my hair, he said, "Stormy, I'm happy for you to bring home as many horses as you please. Just so long as you marry me and let me help support them."

I sighed, enjoying the feeling of his long arms around me. "I haven't forgotten," I said. "But I think we'd better start moving panels before it gets dark."

Blue sketched a bow. "Your wish is my command."

I punched his arm lightly. "Oh, knock it off." As we both bent to the task of lifting and shifting a heavy steel corral panel, I added, "And now I have something important to ask you."

"Ask away." Blue took a deep breath and hoisted his end of the panel upward.

"Who," I said with a grunt, "really killed Dominic Castillo?"

 ELEVEN

Blue didn't speak until we had the fence panel in its new spot. "Why do you ask?" he said finally.

"Because I want to know." I said it more forcefully than I'd intended. "Look at that stupid tape. It reminds me, every day. The man died in my barn, or as good as. Everyone seems to believe he was murdered. That means someone drove in here and shot him. On my property. I want to know who it was."

I looked up at Blue. "It feels personal," I said at last. "This is my space. My garden, my home. Someone invaded it to do evil. I don't like it. I want to know who."

"Don't make a vendetta of this," Blue warned. "Leave it to the cops. This isn't about you, Gail. It's about Dominic and whoever wanted him dead."

"Whoever it was came here to do it," I said, "not incidentally causing me to become a murder suspect. I don't like it. I want to know who," I said again.

"Well, I don't have any new ideas," Blue said, after we carried another panel into its position. "Your horseshoer has a point, though. Dominic's girlfriend is the most obvious suspect."

"Barbara." I leaned against the fence, catching my breath. "I know Barbara. She's been a client of mine for years. She team ropes, and I used to see her at ropings. She's a real strong lady, has a temper. I can see her killing someone. But she's been living with Dominic for a while; she always seems able to ignore his flings. So, why kill him?"

"I don't know," Blue said. "But I've read that one's significant other is the most likely candidate for killer in the event of murder."

"Oh, great," I said, as we marched off towards the next panel.

Once it had been lugged into place, I went on, "So, let's try a new angle. Whoever killed Dominic was someone he tried to protect, despite the fact that the person shot him. Who would inspire that emotion?"

"A lover or a wife?"

"Or a child," I said.

"Good point," Blue agreed.

"And I just saw two of Dominic's children today."

"And?"

"I don't know how to describe it," I said. "They were odd. Very closed, very silent. I couldn't tell if it was just normal adolescent sulkiness or something different. And then there's this mystery kid."

I told Blue about Carlos as we hoisted up the last panel and dragged it into its resting place. Blue tightened the connecting clasps with a wrench while I fed the horses, chickens, and barn cats. When we were done, we walked up the driveway side by side, Roey and Freckles behind us.

I stopped to admire the climbing tea rose, Madame Alfred Carriere, festooning the grape stake fence that ringed my vegetable garden. Holding a blossom in one hand, I inhaled the sweet scent as I studied the color-cream flushed with mother-of-pearl; glowing yet pristine warmth.

Looking back over my shoulder, I found I could no longer see the offensive yellow tape; the barn, shaded by the western ridge, was dark, even as the rose shone in the last, long, golden light.

"It's hard to imagine a child murdering his or her father for money," I said, more or less to myself.

"But you're wondering," Blue said.

"Yeah, I'm wondering. Those kids seemed somehow off to me. And Lee's attitude-it was a little strange, too. But it's hard to picture any of these people driving up my driveway and shooting Dominic in the belly with his own gun."

"How would they have known he was here?" Blue asked.

"That's a good question. He would have to have told them. Of course, Barbara could just look at his schedule."

"There you go."

I could hear the phone ringing as we neared the house. "I'd better answer it," I told Blue. "I'm on call this week."

Sure enough, the call was for me. "A Barbara King has a colicked horse," the answering service operator reported.

"I'll be right there," I answered, and put the phone slowly back in its cradle.

"That's odd," I told Blue. "Really odd. We were just talking about Barbara and now I get a call from her. It gives me a funny feeling. But I'd better go."


Page 11

"Gail, if you think there's anything wrong, let me go with you."

I shook my head. "What could be wrong? She could hardly call me out to her place to murder me. A little too obvious, don't you think? Don't worry, I'll be fine. If you want to do me a favor, just fix up some dinner I can have when I get home. Anything. Sandwiches would be fine."

"Will do." Blue kissed me briefly on the lips. "Be careful."

"I will," I said, and then it was back in the truck.

Barbara King lived only a few miles and a couple of ridges away from my home in the hills behind the little town of Corralitos. I drove to her place with my mind turning as busily as the wheels of my truck. Barbara was, as Blue had said, the most obvious suspect. Had she finally decided she'd just had enough of Dominic?

I'm not sure what I expected, but Barbara King, when I greeted her, was a shock. For one thing, she wasn't out at her barn waiting for me. Lights were on in the house, though, and Barbara answered my knock.

"Gail, come in," she said heavily.

I stared at her in consternation. Tall and slim, Barbara could not exactly be called a pretty woman; her face was a little too masculine for that. Still, with her high cheekbones, big eyes, and wide mouth, she was attractive enough at first glance, despite an overly strong, square jaw and a heavy brow line. The severely bobbed, frosted hair didn't make her appear any more feminine, nor did her rather mannish way of striding along. Nonetheless, Barbara normally had a certain well-turned-out appeal.

Not tonight. Tonight she looked an absolute wreck, her face lined and ashen, her clothes crumpled, her hair lank and greasy. Obvious tear marks streaked her cheeks and her eyes were red. I had never seen anyone who appeared more devastated.

"I had to see you, Gail," she said.

"You mean you don't have a colic?"

"No, that was a lie."

It was hard to muster up any anger, confronted with her ravaged face. "What can I do for you?" I asked quietly, though I thought I already knew.

Barbara lit a cigarette with shaking hands. "You were with Dominic before he died," she said, seeming barely able to pronounce his name. "That detective said that Dominic spoke to you."

"That's right," I said gently. "He did."

"What did he say?"

I watched Barbara closely but could see no sign of anything but natural curiosity. "That the gun went off when he was cleaning it. That it was an accident."

Tears welled up in Barbara's eyes and ran down her cheeks; the hand that held the cigarette shook. "Then why is that horrible detective acting like he thinks I murdered Dominic?"

"I don't think it's personal," I offered. "He acted like he thought I'd murdered Dominic, too."

Barbara didn't seem to hear me. "He keeps asking me if I have an alibi; I must have told him twenty times that I was taking my horse for a ride in the park. How can I prove that?"

"In the park?" I asked.

"Yeah. I exercise them in Lorene Roberts."

"Oh," I said. I was familiar with Lorene Roberts State Park; a large tract of wilderness, it covered many miles of coastal mountain range. "How do you get in there?" I asked curiously, trying to distract her from her grief. "I thought it was off limits to horses."

"Oh, it is, theoretically. But I live near one of the parts nobody goes into much. I just ride across my neighbor's apple orchard and out his back gate and I'm on a trail that leads into the park. None of those rangers ever get up into this part."

"So you didn't see anyone?"

Barbara stubbed out the cigarette. "That's what that damn detective keeps asking me. And no, I didn't see anyone but Mountain Dave, and he's not worth anything as an alibi. No one can find him."

"Who's Mountain Dave?"

"A wild man. He lives in the park. Just keeps moving from place to place so they never catch him. Gets around on a mountain bike."

"I see what you mean. Hard to use a guy like that as an alibi."

I glanced around the room as I spoke, my eyes widening as I took in the decor. The house itself was an average sort of American tract house-ranch style, with Sheetrock walls and ceilings painted white and wall-to-wall beige carpeting-but every square inch of space seemed to be crammed full of some sort of "western" artifact. Horseshoes formed a chandelier overhead, Navajo blankets draped the furniture, saddles had been converted into end tables and lamps. And most striking of all, at least to my eyes, the walls were decorated with guns.

With pistols, actually, many of them looking quite venerable. They surrounded large items of cowboy art and were interspersed with what looked like antique shoeing tools.

Barbara followed my gaze. "That's Dominic's gun collection," she said heavily. "That detective went on and on about it. But it's perfectly legal to collect guns. Dominic never shot anyone." And she burst into tears again.

I didn't know what to say. Somehow, even in these extremes of distress, Barbara didn't seem the sort of woman who'd want to be hugged. Nor was I the sort of woman who easily proffered hugs. So I waited.

"I can't believe he's dead," Barbara sobbed. "I miss him so much. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Her pain was real; I didn't doubt it. Faced with the intensity of her grief, I had to believe she'd loved Dominic, no matter how hard it was for me to assimilate that fact.

"I'm sorry," I said gently. "I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you."

"I don't know how I can go on." Barbara swallowed another sob.

"Do you have someone who can stay with you?"

Barbara sniffed. "My sister offered."

"Can she come over now?" I asked.

"Paula lives up on Summit Road. It's half an hour away, and she's got horses to take care of just like I do. I don't like to ask."

"I think you should take her up on it," I told Barbara. "It sounds like you shouldn't be alone right now."

"You're right, Gail." Barbara used her sleeve to wipe the end of her nose. "I just keep looking at all those guns and thinking that it would be so easy to get it over with."

"Barbara," I said, "you're scaring me. Should I call Paula to come stay with you? I don't feel good about leaving you."

"No, no." She shook her head. "I'll be all right. Honestly. I got through the last two days. I'll go on. I'm kind of a drama queen, you know." Barbara flashed me a very weak echo of her normal grin. "But it is hard. Just tell me one thing-did Dominic die peacefully?" Tears welled as she spoke.

"I wasn't with him when he died," I said. "I did hold his hand until the ambulance came." Searching for some comforting words, I said, "He didn't seem distressed."

"That's good." Barbara was crying again, quietly now. Judging by her appearance, she'd been crying all day.

Before I could speak again, she got up and led me towards the door. "Go home, Gail. I'm sorry I got you out here on a fake emergency. I just had to talk to you."

"I understand," I said. "Are you sure you'll be all right?"

"I'll be fine," Barbara said softly. "As fine as I'll ever be."

I opened my mouth, but she literally pushed me out the doorway. "Go home, Gail," she said again. And shut the door behind me.

TWELVE

Tuesday morning was every bit as busy as Monday had been. I looked at my list of scheduled calls in dismay. All fourteen of them. My God. Every day more hectic than the last.

Even as I contemplated, I felt a hush go over the office and waiting room. Looking up sharply, I immediately spotted Detective Johnson striding in the office door, every inch of his bearing proclaiming non-horsey officialdom.

Mustering a smile for the benefit of staff and clients, I greeted him as if I were glad to see him. "Hello, Detective. Come into my office."

Detective Johnson didn't deign to answer, but he did follow me through my office door. "You're a difficult person to get hold of," he said brusquely.

"I am that," I agreed. "What can I do for you?"

"We need to talk."

"Well, it can't be now." I waved my list of scheduled calls airily. "I've got a full day ahead of me, just like you."

"How about this evening?"

"Don't you ever rest?" I sighed. "I'm on call this week, so there's no knowing where I'll be, but you're welcome to come by the house. Any progress on the investigation?"

"We're working on it."

"Any unbreakable alibis?"

Detective Johnson hesitated a minute and then said sharply, "No, and there's no shortage of suspects, either." It was the most human remark he'd made yet.

"The more you look at Dominic's life, the more people there are who seem to have a possible reason to kill him. That's what I thought, too," I said sympathetically.

"Any particular person come to mind more than another?"

"No. I'm afraid not. And I really do have to go. Perhaps I'll see you this evening." I held out my hand, and for the first time in our brief relationship, if you could call it that, Detective Johnson shook it. Maybe I wasn't a suspect after all.

Turning back to my calls, I returned to the one that had piqued my interest before the detective's entrance. Sam Lawrence had a lame horse. I wondered if Detective Johnson had already been up to Summit Road to see Sam. I wondered if anyone had mentioned the rumor concerning Dominic and Tracy Lawrence to the detective. Maybe it was time to find out.

"I'll do Sam Lawrence's horse first," I said to Nancy as I passed the desk on the way out, "and then do the other calls up on Summit Road. There's three, it looks like. After that, I'll work my way back in this direction."

Summit Road was an hour away, at least in the heavy morning commute traffic. I crept slowly down the clogged freeway, thinking nostalgically of my youth, when a traffic jam in Santa Cruz County was virtually unheard of, unless it concerned tourists bound for the beach.

Things were certainly different now. All the roads crammed full with the county's many residents, on their way to work or school or play. The pace picked up a little after I left the freeway and began threading my way through the mountains.

Summit Road followed the ridgeline that separated Santa Cruz County from the Silicon Valley. A popular area with folks who wanted to live in the "country" but commuted to jobs in the city, Summit Road was lined with small horse ranches, mini-vineyards and the like. Though the area was mountainous and remote, still a long stream of traffic trailed down the two-way road; I drummed my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel.

Many minutes later I was turning onto the graveled drive that led to Sam Lawrence's training barn. A wooden sign overhead said REDWOOD RANCH.

It was an appropriate name. Tall, red-brown redwood trunks were everywhere, their dark green canopy shading the whole place. On a sunny spring morning, the light shafts slanting through were inviting, but cold, dank midwinter days at Redwood Ranch could look pretty damn dismal.

Sam was out at the barn, his short, slim figure unmistakable. Sam had red hair that curled flamboyantly back off his brow, a sharp, fine-featured face, eyes that flashed ready sparks, and a snappy, emphatic way of moving and talking. He was in no sense a restful personality.

Nevertheless, he was a good hand with a horse, and had, to my knowledge, retrained some very difficult problem animals, horses that I might have guessed to be unsalvageable. I wasn't crazy about his methods, though.

"Hi, Sam," I said as I climbed out of my truck.

"Gail." Sam sounded curt; he looked a good deal worse than that. He looked hungover, dead tired, and on the verge of some sort of nervous breakdown, all at once. His movements, as he brought a bay horse out of a stall, were jerkier and more haphazard than usual. I could have sworn his hands shook.

"Have a look at the off fore," Sam said. "I'm wondering if it's bowed."

Putting a hand on the gelding's shoulder, I ran my fingers down the leg in question.

"Whoa, Wilbur." Sam's voice was rough but not unkind; he laid a hand on the horse's neck.

Wilbur's right front was very swollen behind the cannon bone; most of the hair was scraped off as well. I thought I could feel the tendon, however, smooth and strong beneath the swelling.

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