It was the fear that finding the skull was all some kind of catalyst, that something evil had begun—or come to the surface—when the skull was found. Dread had been building within him and he’d sensed it, felt it in the air, almost smelled it...but been unable to pin it down.
Maybe that was why he’d wanted the damned skull out of town!
They weren’t dealing with a current tragedy, accident or murder. Whatever had happened to the living, breathing person they now sought to identify, it had happened way before they could make an arrest or bring any responsible party to justice. So why his concern?
He didn’t know.
He walked into the kitchen and opened his refrigerator. For a moment he froze, brought to full attention as something plopped onto the counter next to him.
He refrained from pulling his gun and smiled to himself, shaking his head.
“Cougar. Where were you? Sleeping on top of the fridge?”
He stroked the pitch-black cat with the huge gold eyes that sidled up to him.
“Sorry, how inconsiderate of me. I’ve eaten, you haven’t. Hang on, okay?”
Sloan found the cat’s bowl, which was shoved up against the cabinets beneath the sink, and filled it with cat food, then checked the automatic water dispenser he had for his pet. It was still almost full.
“You needed sustenance and that comes first. I was just going for a beer.”
The cat meowed; he was darned loud for a cat. Very talkative. He’d found Sloan, rather than the other way around. One day, he’d been on the doorstep and Sloan had taken him in. The fliers he’d posted around town hadn’t produced an owner, nor had the ad he’d placed in the paper. Cougar had become his. He was huge, maybe part Persian or Maine coon, and he deserved the name “Cougar.”
Once the cat was cared for, Sloan pulled a beer from the refrigerator and went back to the parlor.
He eased into one of the two plush leather chairs that sat in front of the fire, although tonight he didn’t have a fire going. He closed his eyes for a minute; when he opened them again, he saw that he wasn’t alone.
The man who sat next to him was ageless. His hair was long and dark and barely graying. He wore jeans, a calico shirt and a cowboy hat. His facial structure was fine and proud, his expression stoic at all times.
It wasn’t Johnny Bearclaw. Johnny never entered without knocking.
It was the “visitor” he’d first met when his grandfather was dying. Longman. In talking, he’d learned that Longman had ridden with Cochise and had been his great-great grandfather on his mother’s side. He had come for his grandson, Sloan’s grandfather—and to see that his great-great grandson learned how to help the living cross the great plain to the great lands beyond.
Only, when Sloan’s grandfather had died and crossed the plain, Longman had not. He chose to remain behind and torment Sloan. At least that was how Sloan saw it.
He managed to keep from groaning out loud. He held his silence, waiting for the spirit of his ancestor to speak.
Longman didn’t say anything for a while. He stared at the hearth as if a fire was crackling.
“Evening,” Sloan said at last, raising his beer to Longman, who nodded gravely, then continued to stare as if deep in thought, mesmerized by dancing flames that weren’t there.
“An artist is doing a rendering of the woman whose skull was discovered up at the theater,” Sloan began. “She’s a very good artist.” She was. “I don’t know why, but I feel I’ve seen the woman in her drawing, and it bothers me. But that’s impossible.” He didn’t add that he was bothered by Jane Everett, as well. She could be all business, and yet courteous at the same time. She’d clearly gone through all the right training. She was truly stunning and he had to admit he was attracted to her in a way that was definitely physical but much more. Maybe it had to do with how she moved and spoke, or the depth of passion and care that seemed to lie beneath the surface.
He was worried about her. Again, he didn’t know why. She was no doubt proficient at protecting herself.
Longman looked at him. “And?” he asked.
“And...and that’s it. Oh, there’s the usual. Caleb Hough is acting like an idiot over his son being arrested. The kid is okay, though.”
“But you’re worried.”
“Yeah, I’m worried.” He didn’t say that Hough wasn’t his major concern at the moment; it was Jane Everett. Strip away the FBI appearance, the tailored business attire, and Jane Everett looked as if she could be a model for an elegant line of lingerie.
That didn’t explain why he was afraid for her. In fact, there was no reason for anyone to be afraid in Lily. The town had kids who drank too much and a few adults, like Caleb Hough, who thought they were money kings. There weren’t even any high school gangs in Lily and, for the most part, Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics and old Euro-Americans—everyone—got along just fine.
Longman turned back to the hearth. “When you feel the wind, my boy, it means it is blowing from somewhere. Remember that. Too often, we forget that we need to pay heed to the sights and sounds that tease the air. If you feel wind, Sloan, then you must look for the storm, for surely it is coming.”
“A storm? To Lily? When?” Sloan asked.
“A storm, a change, a shake-up. The ground is always quiet before the earth erupts. First, men feel a rumble, and if they don’t heed the warning, they fall through the cracks.”
Great. Really great. All he needed was a cryptic ancestor. Longman was on his mother’s side. His dad’s people had been a no-nonsense mix of English and Norwegian. But, of course, this land had been in his mother’s family for generations. Longman was his mother’s great-grandfather, and it was her father who’d raised him. This house was on old Apache land, it was natural, he supposed, that his last full-blooded Apache ancestor should come to his parlor to watch invisible flames.
Then, of course, his dad’s family had its share of the unusual, as well. The bad, the good—and those who’d just disappeared into thin air.
As if reading his mind, the specter of his dead great-great grandfather looked at him thoughtfully. “You think you’ve seen the woman in the picture because you have. You’ve seen pictures of her many times—even old photographs. In fact, those pictures have been seen by everyone in Lily. You believe they found the skull of Sage McCormick, your father’s great-grandmother.”
Yes, it had been in his mind. Of course!
“You knew her?”
“I often saw her perform from the back of the theater. I was allowed in. We were tolerated in Lily—my people, I mean. When the wars still raged and Native peoples were rounded up, many of us were part of the community here. I remember when Sage McCormick came to Lily. I remember her presence onstage. I remember her laughter, and that she was kind. I remember when she fell in love with your father’s great-grandfather, and I remember her daughter, your father’s grandmother, as she grew up.”
“So that’s it,” Sloan said. “I knew the picture because I’d seen the woman Jane depicted dozens of times. She’s my great-great grandmother. And I’ve avoided acknowledging this—because I never wanted to know how she died. It’s the distant past now, but I guess the stories always made me want to believe she went to Mexico and lived happily ever after in a world where she could be herself.” He sighed. “And if there is a ghost in her room at the Gilded Lily, I wanted to believe that it wasn’t her—or that she returned there after her death. Does that make sense?”
There was no answer. Sloan looked over at the chair. Longman was gone.
Maybe he had never been there. Sloan didn’t know. He had never known if he created