Authors: Charlene Weir
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To Chris and Leslie and Bruce
With thanks to Ruth Cavin, Nancy Sephton, and all my writer friends who helped.
DEFINITE disadvantages to being chief of police, Dan Wren thought as he headed the pickup along the graveled, hilly road past tree-dotted fields with barbed wire fences. When prominent citizens beckoned, you came on the run, even if it meant leaving your brand-new wife and warm, soft bed.
Hell, maybe he was getting too old to be slipping into a warm bed at four o'clock in the afternoon. It was all this smitten-with-love stuff. Hard to believe.
Spotting the wood-slat fence, he pulled over, jounced to a stop, and slid from the truck. Thin clouds, the color of dirty cotton, stretched over the winter sky. The cold air seemed heavy with silence. He crunched to the gate, went through and closed it behind him, then stood, gloved hands on his hips, looking across the empty pasture. All right, Guthman, I'm here, where are you? Wind brushed his face with two or three needles of sleet. Dead grasses rustled under his boot heels as he set off for the far end.
A sharp crack tore through the stillness.
He dropped instinctively and rolled toward a ravine. The second shot gouged a chunk from the rim as he tumbled in. Goddamn idiot! Why didn't the asshole look where he was shooting? “Hey!” Dan shouted and waved his cap.
The next shot splintered echoes in his ears.
He stared at the capânice neat hole right at the crownâand poked a gloved finger through it. Jesus. Good his head hadn't been there. A sniper with a rifle, hidden in the brush on the rise two hundred yards to the north, was trying to pick him off like a crow on a fencepost.
Guthman? What the hell?
Didn't matter if he couldn't figure it, he'd better figure on how to get out of here. Rising slowly, he slid the .38 from the holster. Not much use against a rifle and he was a lousy shot with a handgun anyway, but it was all he had. His own rifle was back in the pickup a half-mile south; lot of good that did. He'd never get there.
A few poplar trees, bare limbs against the gray sky, grew on the gentle slope to the east. He'd stand out like rabbit tracks in the snow if he tried zigzagging across winter-dead grass in his dark jacket. Nothing else but empty pasture with shallow dips and rises that offered no cover. If he stayed put, the sniper had to come out in the open and down the slope to finish him. Standoff, he thought sourly. Not good enough.
Keeping his attention on the brush, he moved toward the narrow end of the ravine. Autumn rains had caused heavy erosion, and now in mid-January the steep, corrugated sides were frost-hard.
Fading light and steady concentration played tricks with his eyes. Fancied movement brought up the gun, but he stopped himself from firing. He couldn't afford to waste a shell.
Muscles cramped. His feet got numb. At least the sniper was as cold as he was. Easing the fingers of his left hand from the glove, he curled them against his palm. They were stiff and unresponsive; much longer and he wouldn't be able to fire. Better think of something.
One thing in his favor: If he no longer saw sharply, neither did the sniper. He had an idea and considered making his try now, while he was reasonably sure of cooperation from stiffening muscles.
Stupid. Wait for more darkness.
He thought of Susan, snug and warm in the house, waiting for him to come home. Susan, nearly eleven years younger, his wife of six weeks, snatched from San Francisco and set down in the northeast corner of Kansas.
A convention for law-enforcement officers, for God's sake. He hadn't even wanted to go and there she was, breathtakingly beautiful, in the shadows of the hotel bar. A glass-enclosed candle threw highlights across a smooth clean line of cheek and jaw, dark hair fell softly around an oval face, blue eyes held a glint of amusement. A lady cop. Jesus, San Francisco must have some recruiting program. She was expensively dressed, tall and slender with the uncompromising carriage of a big cat and the go-to-hell look of city-bred women. Love grabbed him by the throat and he'd boggled at her in stupefied silence.
Sleet stung his face as though someone had thrown a handful of sand and he shivered, glanced at the darkening sky, then put the gun back in the holster. If he were to have any chance, he'd better move now before he was completely frozen. With luck, the sniper would be watching the other end of the ravine, the one closest to the road.
All right, you son of a bitch, I'm not going to let you kill me. He took off his gloves and rubbed his hands, then stuck them under his shirt and rubbed them against his chest to work some feeling into them. Wedging his back into the frozen dirt, he planted his boots on the opposite wall with his knees slightly bent. He inched up the side.
It was slow going; sweat broke out in his armpits and, rapidly chilling, across his forehead. Several times, he slid back hard-won inches, rested, cursing silently, and started again. Bracing both elbows behind him, he eased one foot up the side, then the other. He put one elbow farther up, moved the other elbow, and then levered up his body. He repeated each maneuver over and over, slow and careful.
At the top, he eased one foot over the rim, turned, grabbed at dead grass, and hauled himself out. He jackknifed, rolled to his feet, and ran in a fast, random half-circle around the base of the rise toward the poplars fifty yards away. He skidded behind a tree, stumbled on a twisted root, and fell. His breath came hard and rasping; cold air clawed at his lungs.
Had he gotten out unseen?
He stayed only long enough to get his breathing under control, then worked numb fingers back into his gloves and took his revolver from the holster. Keeping low, aware of the danger of being outlined against the deepening slate sky, he scuttled to the first patch of brush.
He crouched, waited.
No sound from the top of the rise.
He moved on, quickly, quietly, to the next patch. Again, he waited.
A spot high up between his shoulder blades itched and tingled. Instincts pricked and nagged that he was being lured into the exact position the sniper wanted.
He raised his head like an animal testing the air. It smelled of coming snow and long dead grass and his own fear. He searched for movement, listened for sounds. In the distance, he heard the raucous cry of a crow and, farther away, the musical baying of a hound.
Tense, senses jangling, he ran at an angle across the slope, pausing in what cover the brush afforded, working his way to the top.
Once there, he snaked silently forward until he could see down the far side. The sniper, back turned, sat on a boulder twenty feet below, rifle across knees.
Dan rose, gun ready. “Drop it,” he said with harsh anger.
The sniper whirled and raised the rifle.
Oh Christ, he thought when he realized who it was. Why? “Move a muscle and you're dead,” he said.
The sniper hesitated.
“I can't miss at this range.”
The rifle was slowly lowered to the ground.
Dan motioned with the gun and the sniper stepped a pace away.
“What the hell were you doing?” Roughly grabbing a shoulder, he shoved the sniper belly-down over the boulder and caught both wrists in the handcuffs.
He holstered his gun and picked up the rifle. A smattering of sleet pelted his face as he prodded his prisoner down the rise and across the pasture to the road. Anger, mingled with relief, made him breathe heavily.
At the gate he was careful, opening it, jerking the prisoner through and closing it again. When they reached the pickup, he drew his first easy breath and the muscles in his shoulders relaxed.
He was tired and hungry and felt a small satisfaction that he wasn't even going to be very late for supperâdinner, to Susan. She was probably swearing under her breath and banging pans. Susan and things domestic didn't pull together.
He shoved his prisoner against the side of the truck and reached for the door handle.
A giant sledgehammer smashed into his back at the instant he heard the ringing bark of a rifle. He saw a sick look come into his prisoner's eyes.
The prisoner saw Dan's eyes go blank, saw him slammed into the truck with a wet bullet hole punched high in his spine, through the leather jacket and blue shirt, dead center, between the shoulder blades.
Dan's body bounced and went down in a curiously ugly and boneless drop. He lay totally soft and flattened on the gravel road, his blank eyes open to the black sky. No twitch, no sound.
The sleet came down in earnest with a stealthy sinister hiss, driving into the slack exposed face, icing the road and coating each dead blade of grass in its own frozen sheath.
SUSAN stirred the stroganoff, scooped out a spoonful and tasted it, then gave the spoon a suspicious look, raised her eyebrows and tasted again. Heavenly days, it was actually good. Her forays into cooking often brought forth, at best, mixed reviews. She swirled the spoon through the pot, banged it against the side and put back the lid.
Sleet chattered against the window and collected on the ledge outside. She shivered. Sleet, snow and frigid temperatures the whole ten days she'd been here.
Truth to tell, she couldn't quite figure it out. There she was, one of San Francisco's finest, going about upholding and protecting, a semi-hard-bitten cynic, unattached and with a hefty caution about the male-female stuff. She'd come close to marriage twice before; once she'd backed out, the other time the guy backed out. After that she decided to give the whole thing up. Not for her this whither-thou-goest shit.
What happened? Daniel happened. Six foot three and lean as a greyhound, with his sweet smile and soft voice. She had liked the look of him, the easy sure way he moved, the laugh lines around his eyes.
What the hell, he was only in San Francisco for a few days; spend a little time with him. What did she have to lose? Only her mind. Nothing important.
The jokes running around when she turned in her badge ranged from the merely crude to the truly inane. She'd danced off with Daniel to marriage and a month in Mexico. And here she was in Kansas.
The radio on the counter told her she had just heard Beethoven, Symphony no. 6 in F major, played by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter conducting, and the time was six-twenty-six. The clock on the very same radio showed six-twenty-eight.
Daniel was late.
Meant nothing. Cops' hours.
Hampstead wasn't a big city where you took your life in your hands when you hit the streets. No crazies here with knives, or addicts looking to score, or eleven-year-old kids who shoot cops. Crime in Hampstead ran along the lines of candy bars lifted at the market or car doors slammed after midnight. The most dangerous thing that had occurred since she'd arrived was Otto Guthman's prize bull getting loose.