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Dangerous refuge, p.1
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       Dangerous Refuge, p.1

           Elizabeth Lowell
Dangerous Refuge


  To my readers, thank you!
























































  About the Author

  Also by Elizabeth Lowell



  About the Publisher


  There was no doubt about it. He was dead.

  Shaye Townsend swallowed hard, breathed carefully through her clenched teeth, and swallowed again. The sick feeling subsided. The grief didn’t. Although it wasn’t the first time she had seen death, it was the first time she had known the person who died.

  Lorne Davis was lying on his back, lean and dark and motionless as the black shoulders of the mountains holding up the western sky. The air had a bite that whispered of summer’s end. The first sunlight of day was caressing the highest icy peaks, but there was no warmth yet. The sky was clear, endless.

  No need to feel for a pulse, she thought as tears blurred her vision. No need to cry, either. He died the way he wanted to, boots on, working the land he loved more than anything else.

  The deeply slanted sidelight revealed no sign of a struggle around the body or any flailing pain before the end. Death had come quickly. It had taken the scavengers a while longer, but they, too, had arrived. If Lorne had been wearing a hat, it had vanished in the restless wind. He wasn’t wearing a jacket, either. It must have been warm when he died.

  Whenever that had been.

  The rising sun showed more than Shaye wanted to see, more than enough for her to guess that Lorne had spent at least a day in the open. Probably more.

  I can’t even cover his ruined face.

  The local deputies would lecture her if she went any closer to the body than she was now. So would her volunteer search-and-rescue unit. Her training had been very clear: If there was no chance of life, the body was to be left undisturbed until the authorities arrived.

  He’ll never laugh and call me a skinny city blonde again. Never serve me coffee that would etch glass and silently dare me to ask for sugar or cream. Never stand in the dusty yard next to me and watch night flow like a lover up the mountain slopes.

  Roosters crowed from the direction of the barn, telling the hens it was time to get out and scratch for a living. Lorne had enjoyed the busy chickens, and Dingo, his half-wild dog, had known they were off-limits for eating or chasing.

  Tears streaked Shaye’s cheeks as she fumbled in her fleece jacket pocket for her phone. The lining of the pocket felt almost hot against her cool fingers.

  Her movement sent a rustling through the nearby sagebrush, where the animals that had scattered at her appearance waited for her to leave. Magpies and crows had come with the increasing light. They settled on the rails of the ancient corral, watching, waiting. Two vultures flapped harshly overhead, fighting gravity for a chance to feed.

  It was early for the big birds to be flying. Usually they waited for the sun to heat the air enough to raise thermals. Then the vultures would rise on the warming air and do lazy cartwheels, waiting for something to die.

  They must have been here yesterday, knew food was waiting for them today.

  She choked off an irrational need to scream at the scavengers. They were what they were—nature’s cleanup crew. Nothing personal.

  His last words to me were a furious phone message. He died cursing me.

  A slow wind blew down from the mountains. It dried the tears on Shaye’s cheeks as it dried everything else it touched. The country on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains was arid, unforgiving, and beautiful in a spare, open way.

  She punched in three numbers on her cell phone, waited, and then realized there was no cell service where she was. She thought of the backpack of search-and-rescue basics she always kept in her Bronco. The flashlight, first-aid kit, bear spray, and other necessary tools wouldn’t help her now, but the SAR beacon could.

  I could use the locater, she thought. It’s close and has a radio. I wouldn’t have to leave Lorne.

  But the beacon was only to be used in a life-or-death emergency. This was urgent, yet it wasn’t an emergency. Death didn’t care about a few minutes or a thousand eons.

  She muttered something unhappy, waved her arms wildly to drive the waiting scavengers farther back, and retreated toward the weathered barn across the dusty ranch yard. By some quirk of geography, the barn was one of the few places on the ranch that had any cell connection. Lorne had been disgusted when she had discovered it. He had prided himself on needing nothing from civilization—and giving nothing in return.

  The only exception to his daily solitude was Dingo, the tawny mutt with erect ears, curled tail, and dainty feet. Lorne had allowed the dog to share first the edges of his life, then his small home. Like Lorne himself, Dingo was aloof with people, independent, but had a reluctant need for companionship.

  Both mutt and man had softened toward Shaye in the last months. In Dingo’s case it was the treats she brought him. In Lorne’s it was the slow understanding that she shared his love for the land in all its enduring, unforgiving grandeur.

  A few days. A few days gone and she came back to this.

  And all because her boss had never met any paperwork she couldn’t trash.

  Shaye turned away and walked quickly toward the barn. The dawn wind flexed, ruffling the feathers of the bald-headed black birds sidling closer to Lorne’s body. She spun around, shouted, waved her arms, and threw rocks. The birds grudgingly retreated. She thought about pulling out the bear spray and blasting them with concentrated capsicum, but that was anger and revulsion talking. Rocks would work better.

  Watching them, she touched the three numbers on her cell phone and waited, automatically turning into the wind so that her hair wouldn’t end up in her eyes. Even when she fussed and carefully pinned it up, some of the slippery stuff would always escape to tickle her ears and neck and get in her eyes and mouth.

  After hearing Lorne’s message, she hadn’t taken the time for more than pulling her hair into a clasp at her nape. Now it was flying everywhere.

  “Nine-one-one. What is the nature of the emergency?” asked a calm voice.

  “A death,” Shaye said. Her voice was too hoarse. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I found a body.”


  Tanner Davis had been driving since morning.

  The news of Lorne’s death had been both surprising and inevitable. He was, after all, eighty-
six and counting. The surprise came because it was always that way with death. Young or old, dirt farmer or descendant of great wealth, no one expected to die. Someday, sure, everyone dies. But today?

  Even after years as a Los Angeles cop—the last twelve of them as a homicide detective—Tanner didn’t take death for granted.

  He looked into the rearview mirror. Cobalt-blue eyes looked back. Hard eyes. Cop’s eyes. He didn’t have to see the rest of the package—black hair, dark stubble, angular lines, flat mouth—to know that he wouldn’t make a convincing Santa Claus. He’d never looked pretty, and years as an L.A. cop hadn’t added any warm-and-fuzzy charm to him.

  A road sign told him that Refuge was the home of nine churches and four civic groups. If memory served, there were more than twice as many bars.

  The sun was already behind the Sierras and the valley was filled with the radiant not-quite twilight he had loved in his youth. He drove through the center of town, a collection of low brick buildings where merchants served a mostly local clientele. Refuge was close enough to Carson City that people who were on their way to or from the state capital weren’t likely to stop. Refuge had never been a destination for anyone but the ranchers who settled the south end of the valley and the merchants, preachers, and pimps who served them.

  He turned his Ford—a former police car—up Emery, past single farmhouses where lights were coming on and barns were set in acres of ragged green grass, fenced by barbed wire or wood corrals. From the top of telephone poles, hawks and small falcons watched for a last chance at a warm meal before real darkness came. Without even thinking about it, he knew the birds’ names and hunting habits, legacy of summers at Lorne’s old house near Glory Springs.

  Some of the ranches and farms sported signs on the fences promoting future development, something newer, bigger, better than the way of life that had settled in for more than a hundred-year stay. The smell of wet graze and pastureland flowed through the open window across his face. The water’s scent had a subtle mineral tang beneath it. Drinkable, but hard as the rocks it flowed through.

  The jagged blue-black line of the Sierra Nevada Mountains loomed large as Emery cut into Ridgeline. For all that he could see, the valley might well have been lost in time. Only the addition of satellite dishes, both large and small, and slightly more modern pickup trucks, disturbed the illusion of having stepped back into the world of his childhood memories.

  There were a few more houses than there had been, but nothing like the sprawl of L.A. Most of the newer construction was for people who wanted a ski or gambling getaway but didn’t want to pay city prices. The rest was sage and pasture, willows and pines.

  If it hadn’t been for the slightly drunken telephone/electric power poles strung at the edge of the fence, he would have missed the dirt road leading to the ranch. He had been expecting a Keep Out sign and a cable across the road, enforcing Lorne’s privacy, but the cable lay tangled under sagebrush at the edge of the dirt.

  By the time the lumpy, rutted road climbed through a notch in the flank of the first ridge of mountains, only the sky was light. The small valley itself was dark. Lorne’s house was darker.

  Tanner parked the car and threw the door open. Taking a powerful flashlight from the backseat, he switched on the beam and started raking the area with harsh, slanting light. Every small dip and flattened weed leaped out into stark relief.

  There was a scattering of different tire and boot tracks in the dry dirt of the front yard, but the tracks were too wind-scrubbed to be of any use for identity. A few yards out, he could see an area where the grass had been tamped down, but the patch wasn’t much bigger than Lorne himself would have taken up had he fallen there.

  Looks like the EMTs didn’t bother trying to resuscitate him.

  Nor was there enough trampling to indicate the kind of thorough search a crime scene generated.

  Hell, the house hasn’t even been secured with yellow tape.

  Tanner listened to his own thoughts and laughed roughly. This isn’t a crime scene. This is just where an old rancher had a heart attack. People die all the time and there isn’t a crime behind it.

  But it was hard to shake old habits, even if he had been assigned to the morgue lately, trying to match bodies with missing people or felons.

  Lorne’s old F-150 was still parked near the back of the house. Still the same dirty green color, same Nevada plates that were old enough to show more metal than paint, same internal combustion workhorse waiting for the day to begin. The truck had outlasted Lorne, because the man had taken care of it. No shine or polish, but Tanner knew that everything necessary would be good to go.

  He switched off the powerful light and stood quietly, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Other than his own slow breathing, the only thing he heard was a sigh of wind and the distant yodel of a coyote. He knew that there were quail roosting in the bushes near the pump shed, hawks in the big pines across the north pasture, bobcats, bears, and occasional mountain lions prowling the shadows everywhere for the first meal of the night, but the animals were as silent as darkness itself.

  The front door wasn’t locked. The key hung on a nail just inside the door, where his uncle had kept it. The back door—most often used—hadn’t had an external lock, only a bar on the inside.

  Tanner pocketed the key, turned on the light, and stepped inside. The place smelled dusty. Familiar. His uncle had been tidy enough, but not much for the finer points of housekeeping. Dusting was done maybe once a month in summer and rarely in winter. The house was like Lorne’s truck, ranch, and life. No decoration. Nothing extra. Everything in the one-story house was functional, not fussy. There were old furnishings, but not an antique among them.

  Slowly he wandered through the small house. A pair of crusted, hard-used boots resting on a slat bench in the small mudroom near the back door caught his attention. The nail for the truck keys was empty.

  Bet they’re in a personal-effects box at the local sheriff’s office.

  Lorne’s everyday boots listed sideways, waiting to be worn from the back porch to the barn or pastures, through muck and mud. Tanner didn’t know why the boots caught his attention until he remembered what the lawyer had said. Lorne had died fully clothed, apparently headed toward the corral.

  If he was doing chores, why was he wearing good boots? Why not the everyday work boots?

  A homicide cop’s instincts never turned off, even when he didn’t need them. File away everything. The little things all point to big things. That was fine when he was trying to figure out the murder of a Jane Doe. Not so helpful when he was supposed to be taking care of personal business.

  Tanner turned away and nearly knocked a beaten-up felt Stetson off its hook. Next to it hung a hat that looked new. Creamy white, untouched by dirt, crisp as a fresh dollar bill.

  He should have been wearing one hat or the other. He never went out bareheaded.

  Puzzled, Tanner really looked around him, rather than sleepwalking through a past he had never asked for. Immediately he saw the dusty red light blinking on Lorne’s answering machine.

  At least he finally caught up with the twentieth century, if not the twenty-first. Wonder if he had a cell phone, too.

  Even as the thought came, he shook his head. There was old school and then there was Lorne.

  Tanner crossed the room and grabbed a pencil out of the chipped cup next to the phone. The pencil was gnawed at the eraser end. In his mind he could see his uncle literally chewing out his frustration with whatever conversation he was forced to have by phone. With the eraser stub Tanner pressed the play button on the answering machine.

  The system was so outdated that there was no chirpy mechanical voice telling him the date and time of the call. The tape was worn almost through. It hissed and jerked as it worked its way between the spools.

  The first message on the phone was from a man.

  “Lorne? It’s Dr. Warren. Look, about Dingo. He’s pretty sick. From the signs, internal bleeding and the like
, I’m pretty sure that he got into some rat poison, strychnine most likely. He’s touch and go. I’m keeping the dog until he’s stable, because I’m not sure I cleaned him out in time. Call me when you can.”

  Tanner shook his head. It hadn’t been a good few days for his uncle or Dingo. He’d have to call the vet tomorrow. Stupid dog letting its nose get it into trouble. Stupid people putting out poison, too.

  The next voice on the tape wasn’t a man’s.

  “Are you there, Lorne? It’s Shaye. I’m back from the retreat. Pick up the phone, please.”

  The words stopped, waiting.

  Automatically Tanner categorized the voice he had heard—female, young, but not at all childish. A woman. The kind of natural huskiness that made a man think of tangled sheets and bone-deep satisfaction.

  The voice came back. Obviously the woman had decided Lorne was screening calls.

  “I know why you’re so angry, but it was a mistake. Kimberli brought the wrong contract. You know what a disaster she can be. Paperwork is her enemy. Talk to me, let me explain.”

  There was a plea in her voice. Not the slick oil of a follow-up sales call, but a voice with emotion in it. Tanner had heard enough liars to know when someone was telling the truth.

  Unless she was a sociopath. They didn’t have human emotions, but the smart ones learned to mimic what they didn’t understand. They hid their inhumanity behind manners and pretend emotions, actors on a lifetime stage.

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