Prologue

It began and ended with the eyes. His mother had taken her last breath to show him the way, and while he’d understood her message, even as young as he’d been at the time, he’d also known his quest would require much work. When the time was right, he began in earnest. Years of study and experiments had now confirmed for the Seeker one critical thing. He could find what he had dedicated his life’s work to only in the organ of sight. That discovery had been a game changer.

Part of the journey had taught him to look at everyone in a different way. Like right now. The young man with him was handsome, maybe eighteen or nineteen, with curly blond hair and lashes that women would spend hundreds of dollars to achieve. Regular people would see only a tall, attractive man with model potential. The Seeker couldn’t care less about his glossy hair or chiseled cheekbones. He zeroed in on the man’s incredible blue eyes and the thick lashes he’d apparently been born with. They perfectly framed the ice-blue eyes that stared up at the night sky and the twinkling stars.

This subject, as well as all the others, confirmed the truth behind the trite saying that the eyes are windows to the soul. Until the one special day with his mother, he’d been unaware. The surprising gift he’d received at his mother’s side had remained the guiding force behind his current spate of trials. He sought knowledge, and with each successive trial, he understood more clearly that the saying that sounded so stupid contained the truth he had long searched for. The joy that success brought was, at first, indescribable. He had expected the feeling to last.

It hadn’t, which had been brought home only two months earlier. Like the young man with him now, the pretty woman with the chocolate-brown eyes had been special. He’d waited a long time for her, and when he’d completed his work without the expected rush of satisfaction, he’d been crushed. Then as he’d stood next to her and stared at the treasured jar holding her precious gift, a new realization gave birth to a revised and wonderful course. He’d returned home, added the jar to his collection, and started planning for the next phase.

As it began and the power it brought with it revealed itself, he couldn’t stop. No other way to describe it beyond intoxicating and far better than any ingested, mood-altering substance. Who needed drugs or booze when this existed? One simply had to have skills and a bountiful supply of subjects. One had to be as smart as he just happened to be.

The Seeker reached for his shiny new scalpel and smiled as he completed tonight’s work, his hand rock steady. Blue was one of his favorite colors, and tonight’s treasure would fit in very nicely with the rest. As he stood and slipped the jar into his pocket, his smile grew, the joy of it flooding him. He walked away with a light step and didn’t look back.

 

Chapter One

Vi gazed down at the newly minted identification card and grinned. Her full name, Bavilla Akiak, was printed right below the picture. Not her best photographic moment, but then again, she’d driven directly to the medical examiner’s office, as instructed by her friend and former boss, Shirley Yarno. Shirley, the chief medical examiner in Anchorage, had been instrumental in securing her a position here in Spokane. Her direction to Vi as she’d left to head south had been crystal clear: go meet the ME before she even thoughtabout going anywhere else. From Alaska through Canada and across Washington State, she’d kept those marching orders in mind. Like always, Dr. Yarno had been right. It took about two seconds for her to grasp that her new direct report, Dana Kelsey, MD, appreciated a prompt appearance at the office. One gold star and she wasn’t even officially on the payroll yet.

Back out at her car, she stood for a while staring at the driver’s side door. The journey from Anchorage to Spokane had been thousands of miles long, and she felt beyond ready to be out of the car for a good long while. She wouldn’t object to never getting behind the wheel and driving again. Given that she’d rented a little home in a small bedroom community north of the city, where all the houses were situated on acreage and near enough to nature to make her feel somewhat like she was back home, she didn’t have a choice about another stretch of travel. She hoped the compact house turned out to be as good in reality as it had looked in the pictures. Even if it was half as pretty, she’d be happy.

The adventure of coming here had been, and remained, nerve-wracking. It represented a dream coming true, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified by the prospect of a complete change. To move away from the only home she’d ever known to achieve her goal held a certain amount of thrill. To leave behind her friends, her hometown, and everything she knew—well, that wasn’t quite as thrilling. Her friends were generous with their encouragement and, more than that, with the push she needed to follow through. They understood why she wanted to become a doctor and, more specifically, a forensic pathologist in a medical examiner’s office.

The figurative road to get here hadn’t been quick or easy. It had taken her far longer than she liked to be accepted into medical school. She’d never given up, even when her application had been rejected not once or twice, but three times. The fourth submission turned out to be the charm, and her exhilaration to be starting school at the Spokane-based Washington State University School of Medicine needed no explanation.

So here she stood, gratefully employed, a fledgling medical student and a brand-new resident of eastern Washington. Once she’d located the place she’d signed a one-year lease on, sight unseen, she’d be, as her grandmother liked to say, in fat city. That turned out to be easier than she thought. The commute from the medical examiner’s office just north of downtown Spokane to Highway 291 took her out to the area a road sign declared to be Nine Mile Falls. Her navigation app directed her to a lovely home on the Little Spokane River. As she drove down the long driveway, bordered on both sides by well-maintained fences, she saw llamas or alpacas inside the pastures, though she wasn’t quite sure which was which. After her long drive, the beauty of it projected a calming effect that had her relaxing already.

A nice house sat at the end of the driveway. Not big. Not small either. A one-story painted beige with dark-brown trim and a railed porch that spanned the entire length of the front. Shrubs lined the outside of the porch and provided a pleasant spot of color. Double doors with leaded-glass inserts graced the entrance. She hoped her little rental house would have the same homey vibe as this lovely, welcoming one.

Vi got out of the car and walked up the few steps to the front doors. She had just reached out to ring the doorbell, when the sound of pounding feet made her turn around. Racing toward her sped a dog, medium-sized, with a mostly blue-gray coat and black hair around its eyes that made it look as though it were wearing a mask. Its deep, dark eyes were intent on her. She backed up, not because dogs scared her, but because by the looks of this one, in about five seconds, she’d be flat on her behind. She braced for impact.

“Lucy, sit!” A woman’s voice came from somewhere around the corner of the house.

To Vi’s astonishment, the dog stopped immediately and sat down at the bottom of the steps. Its tail continued to wag, and its whole body wiggled as if unable to contain its excitement. It was cute and impressive. Vi relaxed now that she wasn’t about to be knocked down.

“I’m so sorry.” A woman rounded the corner and headed up the steps in Vi’s direction. “Lucy gets really excited when anyone shows up. Some kind of guard dog, eh?” She recognized the voice as the same one she’d heard on the phone as she’d arranged for the lease. Kate Renard.

She was medium height, with long, purposeful strides, but the red hair captured Vi’s interest the most. Short and wild, it made her want to reach out and touch it. She kept her hands to herself, not wanting to make that kind of first impression. When she got close, she could see that her eyes were deep green and, well, gorgeous. She held out her hand. “I’m Vi Akiak.”

The other woman took her hand, her grip sure and firm. Nice too. “I was pretty sure it was you.” She winked, which made Vi smile. “I’m Kate, but everyone calls me Kat. How was your drive?”

She’d been right. Kate Renard, her landlord. So far, so good. Things were going well with this move. She’d been impressed with her boss in the ME’s office, and now she had to say, her first impression of her landlord came off positive too. If she hadn’t been exhausted, she’d be anxious to take time to get to know her new home. “Long.”

Kat laughed. “No shit. I did that drive a million years ago, and you couldn’t pay me enough to do it again. I think my butt still hurts from all those hours in the driver’s seat. These days I’m about alternate and much quicker modes of transportation. Can you say airplane?”

Amen to that idea and yes, her butt felt fairly numb too. Vi would have loved to fly and bypass all the days on the road. If it had been a simple trip, she would have jumped on a plane in a heartbeat with a suitcase or two. Simple hadn’t been in the cards. To move an entire life in a couple of suitcases would have been impossible. In a single vehicle it hadn’t been much easier. She’d done it, though she never wanted to have to do it again.

She’d had to make some hard choices about what to keep and what to let go of. Some of her friends had suggested that she move the things she didn’t need in the immediate future into storage and bypass a complete downsizing. Tempting as the idea had been, she’d had to go a different direction. Everything she still owned was in her car because she didn’t know if or when she’d be back in Alaska. It would be years before she became a full-fledged doctor, and even more before she finished her specialty of forensic pathology. She would have to go where life took her from here on out. Planning for this life-altering experience had been stressful while home in Anchorage. Now here with her whole life boxed up in the car, it was even scarier. She was up to it. She hoped.

“Too much stuff to fly.” She inclined her head toward her car, unsure if it looked like she was relocating or homeless.

Kat glanced at her vehicle, with the boxes stacked in the back, and nodded. “Gotcha. Come on. I’m sure you’d like to see your new home. I’m confident you’ll find it comfortable here. We sure do.”

We? Vi glanced toward the house and then back at Kat. None of her business who else lived here. “I’m liking things already.” And she was. It was pretty here and, even better, quiet. Sleep and peacefulness were both treasured in her world and would be even more so once school began.

Kat smiled as she looked around. “Appreciate the vote of approval. I’ve loved this place since the first day I laid eyes on it.” She returned her gaze to Vi. “I bet you’re tired, so let’s get you settled in. You can put your feet up and enjoy some serious R&R.”

“That would be nice.” What she didn’t say was that she was less concerned about settling in and more about the bed. She’d like to sleep for about a month, not that rest would be on the agenda in any measurable amount. With her first full day of work scheduled to start at eight tomorrow morning, and school beginning in three weeks, she wouldn’t have much time to relax. The way she figured it, she’d have about enough time to unpack, check in at the school, and get her sea legs at work before the insanity of her new life began in earnest. It was daunting and exciting all at the same time.

“Come on, I’ll show you su casa.” Kat turned and looked at the still-sitting dog, her tail moving back and forth as if she could barely contain her excitement. “Free dog.”

Lucy sprang up and ran to Vi. Her tail picked up speed. Vi laughed as she reached down and ran a hand over her head. “You’re a pretty girl.”

Kat laughed too. “Don’t tell her that. Trust me, it’ll go right to her head. She already thinks she’s the best thing since sliced bread. Don’t you, my little girlfriend?” Lucy barked as if agreeing with Kat.

“She’s awfully pretty.” Vi liked the way the black hair around her eyes gave her character and how infectious energy rolled off her.

“Pretty talented too. She’s a search dog and certified in multiple disciplines.” The pride in Kat’s voice shone through, and Vi could understand why. She was acquainted with several of the K9 officers back home, and the work they put in was nothing short of insane.

Vi squatted to be at Lucy’s level and held out her hand. Lucy sniffed and seemed to smile. She ran a hand over her head. “So you’re a working dog.”

Lucy licked her face as if to say, “Absolutely.”

“She’s quite the worker,” Kat said. “In more ways than one. She will work to find you if you’re lost or work you until she gets half your hamburger.”

Still squatting next to Lucy, Vi rubbed her head as she looked up at Kat. “Let me get this straight. You’re a dog handler, but your name is Kat?”

Her hearty laughter lit up her face in a really nice way. “You hit that oxymoron right square on the head. Blame my brothers. They started calling me Kat when I was a baby, and it stuck. When I turned out to be a dog person, everyone in my family found it hilarious, but by then it was too late to change a thing.”

“I love it.” Vi laughed too, and Lucy gave her another big lick.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Kat had her hands on her hips.

Vi looked up again into Kat’s eyes. “What? Was that wrong to let her lick me? I’m sorry. I should have asked first if it was okay to pet her. I’m not usually this rude. I’ll blame it on the fatigue.” She dropped her hands away from Lucy.

Kat shook her head. “No. It’s fine to pet her. Lucy’s a very social girl and likes to greet people when they come here. The thing is, she doesn’t lick anyone. She’s not that kind of dog.”

“Is that bad?” Despite Kat’s assurance about petting Lucy, Vi couldn’t shake the feeling she’d done something wrong.

“On the contrary, it means she likes you, a lot. She reserves that kind of affection for a very few. Only one thing to say about it: welcome to the pack.”

Vi smiled and felt a twinge of something like hope. Her grandmother had been a big believer in signs, and she had a hunch she’d just been given one. “Well, thanks for the invite.” She ran her hand over Lucy’s head again. The softness and warmth beneath her hand sent a wave of comfort through her body. She stood and directed her smile at Kat. “I like her too.”

 

v

 

Two things struck Kat at once. First, her new tenant possessed something very special, or Lucy never would have taken to her immediately. Second, Vi Akiak looked enough like her teammate Circe to be a blood relation. How freaky was that?

Kinda cool though. Things had been a bit boring lately, and Kat felt ready for something new and exciting. It had just arrived in the form of this medical student. Like Circe, she was pretty, with her long, dark hair and dark eyes that shone with intelligence. She had that same light about her that Circe did too. Even freakier. She’d have to make a point of calling her pal to find out if she had some secret little sister she’d never mentioned.

She almost laughed out loud and caught herself. Didn’t want to run Vi off by making her think she was a nut job. Well, some, like some of her own family, might call her a bit of a nut. After all, how many single women preferred hanging out at their farm rather than going on a romantic date? She couldn’t help it. The animals never let her down. People weren’t quite as reliable. She preferred the old better-safe-than-sorry. She’d done sorry enough times already to be way over it.

“Come, Lucy. Let’s show Vi where she’s going to live.” She turned to look at Vi. “Lucy and I will walk, and you can follow in your car. That way you’ll have all your stuff close. It’s straight down that way.” She pointed.

The wide gravel driveway snaked around scattered pines as it led back to the rental. She’d thinned out the trees a few years back to protect against the fire danger summer brought to this area and to give the place more light. When she’d first bought it, the entire parcel had been loaded with the pines. It wasn’t that she didn’t like them. She did. But sometimes less could definitely be more, particularly when they created a safety hazard. It turned out to be a perfect blending of light and shade.

She and Lucy started jogging along the side of the driveway, and in a minute or so, Vi followed right behind them in her car. The little house came into view, and they continued to jog until they’d made it up the three steps to the small porch. Vi pulled in front of the one-car garage and parked. “Home sweet home,” Kat announced. “Hope you like it.”

Vi stood next to the car, scanning the house and yard. Kat moved from foot to foot as she watched her, wondering what she was thinking. The house was the original dwelling on the place. It wasn’t fancy—a one-bedroom, one-bath with a single-car garage and a swath of grass that went all the way around it. Kat had lived in it for the first five years while she built a larger home and a barn on the south end of the property. She kept it nice and hoped her newest tenant would like it.

A smile turned up the corners of Vi’s mouth, and Kat couldn’t help but think about what a nice thing the smile did for her face. She really was a lovely woman, and no doubt someday she’d break the heart of a patient or two. “This is beautiful and perfect.”

Kat stopped shifting her feet. “It’s nice and quiet, and I’m confident you’ll find it very comfortable. It’s also far enough away from the barn and pastures that the animals shouldn’t bother you.”

“I don’t have a problem with any animal.”

Kat liked her easy acceptance of her little farm. “We’re pretty quiet by and large, and if we do bother you, please speak up. I promise not to take it personally. I want you to be comfortable here.”

“It reminds me of home. One of our neighbors was a musher and always had a dozen or so sled dogs. I’ll tell you what. Get a couple of teams of dogs howling at the same time, and that’s noisy.”

“You’re gonna have to tell me about that. I find sled dogs fascinating. Always wanted to visit a sled-dog ranch.”

Vi turned and studied her. “I can introduce you if you ever make it up to Alaska.”

Only if you come with me.Well, where the hell did that come from? She was getting sappy over a woman she’d known for about ten minutes. Maybe she did need to rethink her self-imposed isolation and go on a date or two just to make sure she didn’t embarrass herself whenever a pretty woman showed up. “That would be nice.”

“Can I look inside?”

“Of course.” She held out a set of keys she’d been holding so tight they left dents in the palm of her hand. “It’s all yours for the next year.” She glanced around and wondered if her excitement was all about her own delight rather than what might be best for Vi. A little shallow even on the best of days. “Are you sure you want to live this far out instead of in town closer to the school? The roads can get slick in the winters, and that hill up into Suncrest can be a real bitch with cars going sideways, if they can even make it up.”

The laughter lit up her face even more. She really was lovely. “You do remember I’m a native Alaskan, right?”

Heat stung Kat’s cheeks. “Ah yeah. I guess you have some experience with snowy winters.”

“A bit, yes.”

Kat held up her hands. “In my defense, you’d be surprised how many people fail to realize that eastern Washington has four seasons, and one of them includes a crap load of snow. Everybody thinks if you live in Washington it’s all rain and coffee, aka Seattle-style. We have a whole lot more experience with bad roads on this side of the state, although our coffee is just as good as any you’ll find in Seattle.”

Vi turned and studied the house again. “I think I’ll like here just fine. It’s enough like where I came from I shouldn’t feel homesick, or not too much anyway. I don’t think I’ll totally escape being homesick, considering this is the first time I’ve ever been away from Alaska.”

“You’ve never traveled in the States?”

Vi raised an eyebrow, and Kat had the feeling she’d just made a faux pas. “You mean the lower forty-eight? I was born and raised in the States, technically speaking.”

“Crap.” She slapped a hand over her mouth and felt her cheeks get even hotter. If she wanted to look like a dunce, she couldn’t do a better job than she’d managed to right at the moment.

Vi broke the momentary tension with a hearty laugh. “It’s all right, Kat. People do that all the time, and we have to remind them that Alaska is a state.”

“I won’t do it again.”

“Not to worry and I’m happy to remind you.” Her smile took any sting out of the promise. “To answer your question, yes, I’ve traveled a fair amount. It’s just that I’ve never lived anywhere except Alaska, so this is going to be an adventure for me in several different ways.”

“Come on. Let’s take a look at your new home.” Kat’s nervousness returned as she opened the door. It wasn’t like Vi was the first renter she’d had in the little house. By far she held the title of the most attractive and alluring. Not to mention the first one she’d ever really wanted to impress.

 

v

 

This one was different, and he found it acceptable. At times it became important to shake things up, and now was one of them. The opportunity presented itself, and only someone very foolish would squander it. The old woman on the bed represented a subject far from one the Seeker would have chosen, and yet, strange as it was, everything about her was perfect. Her eyes, the color of milk chocolate, were clear and aware, and not what would be expected from someone of her advanced age. Her skin, unaccountably smooth, with only a hint of the wrinkles that by rights should line her face, fascinated him. Seventy-six years old, she was the kind of woman anyone in their eighth decade of life would love to be.

Decade number nine would not be in her future. Her remarkable physical state became the very thing that had caught the Seeker’s attention. That and the fact that she was a slight woman and easy to control jumped her right to the top of his list. All he had to do was follow her home and wait. After a mere sixty-five minutes watching from the shelter of a large hedge, he’d let himself inside the house and rendered her immobile on the bed in her tidy bedroom. Her small running shoes and athletic apparel were in a jumbled pile on the floor. It wasn’t like she would need to use them again.

Now, he pulled the cell phone from his jacket pocket and tapped the voice-memo app to begin recording. He set the phone, still recording, on the nightstand next to her bed. He hadn’t planned to add her to his list of subjects, so he wasn’t sure about everything that might happen in this room.

He swept his gaze over her naked body, taking in every nuance of her physical state. “Subject is approximately five feet three inches tall, with short silver hair and brown eyes. She reports her age at seventy-six. Upon placing the gag in subject’s mouth, it was noted that all teeth appear to be original models. No body markings or piercings noted. No major scars or evidence of surgical procedures.”

The Seeker always did a thorough inventory of the subjects. It was important to collect the empirical data, or what would be the purpose of the experiments? He had nothing to compare against, no way to quantify the results of the work. That wasn’t acceptable. Someday they would see and understand the true nature of the mission and how it had opened up an avenue of true knowledge that had never before been seen. Yes, everything must be done methodically and scientifically. She became his oldest subject yet, a characteristic that excited him. As much as he wanted to hurry through the process to see what he could learn from her, he reined in his anticipation. He had to do everything in its proper sequence.

“Subject is well-nourished but not overweight. Body mass appears to be within normal ranges. Muscle tone is exceptional for a woman in her seventies. Subject reports that she runs five miles three to five days per week. Overall, this subject is an excellent, if not above-average, representation for an elderly female.”

Her eyes, the lids taped to her forehead, telegraphed the fear that her body could not react to thanks to his precise methods. There were no wounds, at least not the physical kind. Undoubtedly there would be psychological wounds, that is, if she were to survive what was coming. An odor of urine drifted up into the air. The first time it happened, it had almost ruined the experiment. Now, understanding the physical responses to fear, he welcomed the odoriferous evidence of success.

“Now, now, Lily.” He brushed the fine silver hair off her forehead. “Don’t you worry. I’m not going to hurt you.”

It wasn’t a complete lie. Gratuitous violence wasn’t necessary. Or it wasn’t any longer. When it had all started, perhaps some of the early experiments, especially with his first one, had involved a level of violence that the Seeker ultimately determined to be unwarranted. With time and practice, the process became far more refined. He achieved success with cleaner and simpler techniques. It was better for all involved. The subjects expired in a smoother and more predictable manner. For the Seeker, the orderly process allowed him to track the results of the experiments much easier.

Gazing at her, he saw the signs he waited for. She was ready. Her chest was rising and falling quickly, and her heart hammered beneath the hand he laid on her left breast. He liked that. It got the blood flowing, which was important. Her eyes were moving back and forth as if she searched for the help that would only arrive in time to take her body to the morgue. The Seeker would be long gone before the ME’s van arrived. He always timed everything with an expert touch.

He glanced over at the phone on the nightstand, confirming that it remained in record mode. Then from the inside pocket of the bag he’d brought with him, he pulled out a small black, zippered case. From inside it he removed the scalpel with his latex-gloved hand and laid it next to her. Then he took out the second syringe, filled and ready for use. The first syringe, already administered, had been dropped back into the bag. He did all of it in front of her taped-open eyes, anticipating the fright that filled them. The enjoyment it brought defied description. “Lily, Lily, Lily,” he cooed. “It won’t be long now. You and I will do this together.”

He leaned in close and brought the syringe to her neck. Again her eyes rolled. “No, my sweet, look at me.” When she didn’t, he pressed the syringe hard enough against her flesh to pierce it. “I said,” his voice turned hard, “look at me.”

This time she obeyed and her terrified eyes met his. “That’s better. Now, just focus on me and don’t look away again. This will be over soon.” He pressed the needle deep into her neck.

 

Chapter Two

Vi couldn’t help but be impressed with both her landlord and her dog. She’d always loved dogs and, if not for her insane schedule, would have one or two or three. Once she got through med school, and residency, and her specialization training, well, yes, then she’d get one. Of course, by the time she finished all that she might be eighty. Still, it was never too late to get a dog, right? In the meantime, she could appreciate and be content with the canines that belonged to those in her orbit.

She dropped the last of the boxes from her car onto the kitchen floor. Even though she’d downsized to the capacity of her vehicle, it still seemed like she’d unpacked boxes for hours. In reality it had taken less than one to empty the car and get the boxes piled up in the living room. It seemed a little sad that she could move her whole life in about fifty minutes. How boring was she?

Yet moving like that also made her feel free. Opportunity stretched out before her, nothing holding her back. Oh, she would miss her hometown and the people who made it so special. But with her mother gone for years and her grandmother dead for almost a year, her ties to Alaska had become so thin they were near to breaking.

That wasn’t exactly right. She would always feel connected to the mountains, the rivers, and the glaciers that were her birthright. Being part Yupik would forever tie her to the land and the people of Alaska, and she would never forget her heritage no matter how far away she traveled. Her grandmother had made sure she knew who and what she was, and encouraged her to be proud of it.

Despite all that, she’d been compelled to leave. The lure had been there even before grandmother had been called home to the great beyond. If she considered it very long, she’d admit that even before Mom passed away, she’d known that she would someday follow her destiny into the world beyond the forty-ninth state. It hadn’t been difficult to decide because she’d felt the draw for a long time, or rather the shove. Hard to ignore, especially when no one remained in her life to talk her out of leaving or give her a reason to stay. In the back of her mind she’d hoped that the thing—the sight—that had been with her since childhood would go away once she left Alaska. She’d held on to the belief since she was a child.

Grandmother had been different. She’d rejoiced in Vi’s unique ability and looked at it as a gift. She’d spent the rest of her life trying to make Vi see it that way. Her attempts to sway her granddaughter’s aversion to her so-called gift had never quite been successful, although they weren’t totally unsuccessful either. Thanks to her grandmother, she’d become far more comfortable with it than she might otherwise have been. Together they’d figured out a powerful way to make it work for not only Vi, but for others as well. Her grandmother had been one smart woman. How she missed her.

Vi’s move to Spokane and enrollment at Washington State University’s medical school had initially been her grandmother’s idea. It hadn’t taken much persuasion to get Vi to realize it was a great one and exactly what she needed and wanted. It had set her on a path that spoke to her heart and soul. She’d done her undergraduate work at the University of Alaska and now finally had the opportunity to continue her studies here. Anxious to get started, she was also excited to see what she could do for those who could no longer speak for themselves. Leave it to her grandmother to come up with a way to make something so unwelcome, such as seeing the dead, become a positive part of her world.

After her grandmother died, her life took a dramatic shift. Only then had she realized how unusual she really was. All her life, the community had been polite and welcoming, and she had accepted their attitude with the innocence of a child. After the funeral the changes had been subtle but noticeable. The warmth she’d felt, or imagined she felt, faded, and far too many eyes looked away from her. Even as she made her plans to move away so she could become a doctor, she’d also continued to imagine herself returning home, where she would be welcomed as one of their own. She had a few close friends, and their friendship remained as strong and supportive as ever. The rest of the community was a different story.

One night as she had been driving home from a late shift at the ME’s office, the streets quiet and the homes dark, she’d realized it would never happen the way she imagined. The way she hoped. She would always be the odd little girl with the too-light skin, the dead mother and no father, and that was only part of what made her different. If her friends and neighbors had known that the dead came to her, she’d have been lucky to get even the little period of sympathy they’d afforded her after her grandmother’s death. She feared that even her close friends who always seemed to have her back would also turn away. She didn’t want to test that theory, and so leaving the area became the only thing she could do.

Now as Vi looked around at the small house, she smiled. For the first time since standing in the cemetery and staring at her grandmother’s grave, she felt something like hope. This change would be a good one, and having people around her like Kat would make it all the more exciting. That Lucy had apparently welcomed her into the pack made it even better.

Outside a dog barked. She went to the door and smiled when she saw Lucy. She opened the door. “Hey, girl, miss me already?”

If she didn’t know better, she’d swear that Lucy nodded before she pranced into the house. “Make yourself at home,” Vi said with a laugh, and Lucy did exactly that by leaping onto the sofa, turning a full circle three times, and then lying down.

She watched her for a minute or so, expecting Lucy to jump up and want back outside. It didn’t happen, and rather than wanting to leave, she appeared to be settled in for the proverbial long winter’s nap. She didn’t mind the company at all.

Worn out from unpacking, she thought Lucy’s nap idea was brilliant. Before she could join her on the sofa though, a soft knock at that same front door made her retrace her steps. The pup opened an eye but didn’t move.

“You don’t happen to have a spare blue heeler around, do you?”

Vi smiled. “Funny you should ask.” She waved Kat in. “My first official guest. You’re now number two.”

“Lucy!” Kat shook her head. “I don’t know what to say. She’s not usually a pest, but for whatever reason, you’re her new best friend.”

Kat would have no idea how happy that comment made Vi. Since her grandmother had gone on, she’d been adrift, without roots or connection. Something as simple as being inducted into this spirited dog’s pack brought back a whisper of what she’d been missing, or maybe it was more like a whisper of what she’d always been missing.

 

v

 

Kat should be furious with Lucy. She’d waited until she figured Kat wasn’t looking and then made a beeline for the guesthouse or, as she called it these days, the rental. That dog was too damn smart for her own good, just one of the reasons she loved her with all her heart and why she’d evolved into such a damned fine search dog.

Of course, she had to follow Lucy and get her out of Vi’s hair. The poor woman had driven all the way from Alaska, by herself, and no doubt was exhausted. Not only that, but Kat knew she already had a job at the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s office as an assistant or investigator or something along those lines anyway. And if that wasn’t enough, she was a student at the new medical school down in the U-District. The last thing a woman with that much on her plate needed was a pesky dog bugging the crap out of her.

Yeah, she should be furious with Lucy. She wasn’t. A good excuse to visit with Vi again was not unpleasant. At least not for her. From the very first call, she’d liked the sound of her voice when they’d talked on the phone. Now that she was here, she liked the look of her even better. Once Vi got going with work and school, chances were they’d rarely see each other, which made her a little sad. It might be nice to have this tiny bit of time before everything got rolling to get to know each other.

Vi sat down next to Lucy and began to rub the top of her head. “She’s a beauty.”

She wasn’t wrong. For a pup she’d rescued from a cage at the humane society, she was beautiful and, Kat was pretty certain, a purebred. Whoever had abandoned her was a total dumbass. Lucy had grown into an awesome dog. As if she’d known that Kat had wanted to spend more time with Vi, she’d taken it upon herself to make it happen. Talk about being in sync with her partner.

“I’m decidedly prejudiced but can’t argue; she’s pretty cute. Say, would you like to come over for dinner? I mean, I know you’ve got to be exhausted and all. I have some stew in the slow cooker and thought I’d toss some biscuits into the oven. Nothing fancy, but warm and tasty, and best of all you don’t have to cook.”

“I don’t want to intrude on my first day here. I usually save that for after people get to know me.” Vi smiled, and her whole face lit up. Kat didn’t know much about the folks who made their living working with the dead, but she had to think they didn’t look anything like the beautiful woman in front of her.

“Trust me, I’m not the kind who extends an invitation if I think it’ll be an imposition. I really do have plenty of food, and I’d love to get to know you better. I’m pretty sure Lucy would insist, if she could talk.”

Vi smiled and rubbed Lucy’s head again. “Well, I don’t want Lucy to kick me out of the pack on my first day here.”

“Pretty sure that’s not going to happen today or any day. Once you’re in, you’re in. She’s a mighty loyal girl and picks the members of her pack wisely.”

“So who’s in it?”

“Counting you and me? That would be two.”

“Seriously?”

“When it comes to my dog, I never joke.”

“Then I’d love to have dinner with you two.”

The easy acceptance of her invitation pleased her way more than it should. It worried her as well. She’d just invited this beautiful woman to her house for dinner, and other than the stew, it was slim pickings for food and drink. What the hell was she thinking? Dumb question there. She’d been thinking beautiful woman. But wait, there’s more…beautiful woman that her dog likes. What was it that Bill Murray said one time? “I’m suspicious of people who don’t like dogs, but I trust a dog when it doesn’t like a person.” The opposite also held true. She trusted her dog when she liked a person, and well, her dog really, really liked this person. Dinner it was going to be.

She needed to run to Rosauers and pretty damned quick. She hadn’t lied when she said she had a stew going because it had been in the slow cooker all day. The biscuits? That might have been a stretch. A baker she was not, though she could toss brown-and-serves into the oven like nobody’s business and she had a brand-new package of Irish butter in the fridge.

“So hey, I’ll let you get back to unpacking, and I’m going to feed the animals before I dish us up. How does seven sound?” She might not have a whole lot of people food in the house, but her animals did not suffer the same fate. They were always first on her mind. It was just her own sustenance that she dropped the ball on.

Vi’s smile did something quite nice to her face again. “Seven is perfect. I’ll be sick of unpacking by then and, I suspect, pretty hungry.”

 

v

 

The Seeker had a problem. While the pace of his work had stepped up by design, the acceleration brought new logistical challenges with it. When things were slower and more deliberate, he had time to dispose of bodies and clean up messes. Every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed. As the work increased and the time between each project grew shorter, the challenge to keep things tight increased.

Not that he planned to change anything. He liked the way things were picking up. It was fun. In fact, it was exhilarating, and he was completely up to the challenge. All he had to do was look at things with clear eyes and a logical mind. If he did that, everything would fall into its proper place, just as it always had.

Despite the success he’d achieved and all the knowledge he’d gained, his extracurricular work seemed to have also become more personal. It had always been personal, in a way. In a strange way, the last one had reminded him of Mother, and it took him back decades to that little boy he really thought he’d left behind. He found it disconcerting. He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, allowing his mind to return to a time he rarely thought about.

 

The acrid smell defined the room, as always. The combination of stale air, stained sheets, and medical salves filled his senses, and even at nine he knew he’d never be able to erase the odor from his memory. Tears stung at the back of his eyes. He knew better than to let them fall.

“Sit, boy.” His father put a hand the size of a dinner plate on his shoulder and shoved him into the chair permanently situated at the right side of the bed. The valuable antique wooden chair was hard, the force of the push sending vibrations up his back. He didn’t cry out.

Her body so frail and faded, it was hard to discern that she even lay beneath the quilt that someone had told him his grandmother had made years earlier. It stood out in the room with the white walls, carpet, and furniture. He didn’t know if the story about the quilt was true. He wasn’t sure he had a grandmother. If he did, she’d never stepped foot inside the house.

His gaze lit for only a moment on the bed. Only the sound of labored breathing hinted that something, someone, lay beneath the colorful patchwork. He didn’t want to look at her or hear the rattle of her breathing.

“Yes, Father.” His voice was as bodiless as his mother was. He looked over the bed, his focus on the window that took up a large part of the far wall. The drapes were open, as if letting in the sunshine would breathe life into her failing body. Nothing would bring her back. That was the one thing he knew, and these days he did not believe he knew very much.

In the last three months his world had been turned upside down. His mother, once smiling and happy, had changed into the coughing thing beneath the blanket. When he walked down the hall, her cries carried through the closed bedroom door. His father, never the kind of dad his friends talked about, became a stranger who would drag him into this room day after day to pray over his mother. His dying mother. He knew that death would come for her soon, even though his father wouldn’t say the words.

Beneath the sleeves of his shirt, bruises, the shape of big, thick fingers ringed his arm. No matter how hard he tried to flee, he failed every time. He was dragged to the room of sickness over and over again. His father might not think much of him, but he wasn’t stupid, and his heart told him she wouldn’t be around much longer. His prayers were not for her to hold on. Maybe then it would all stop.

“We will pray, boy.”

He’d heard the words every night and day. Praying did no good. She didn’t get better. Every day she disappeared a little more, the rattle of her breath deeper and more frightening. One day when he came from school, would he find nothing beneath the quilt?

“No.”

He snapped his head around, settling his gaze on his mother’s sunken face. She was pale enough to be a ghost, like the ones he read about in the comic books he snuck into his room. Her eyes, once alive with laughter, were the scary kind of black that looked just like those of the monsters on TV. He didn’t like what he saw. He couldn’t look away. How he wanted to.

“We must pray for you.” His father took his mother’s hand and kissed it. “We will pray away this sickness. You will come back to me.”

“No,” she said again, her voice a hollow rattle. Maybe she was a ghost already. “Your prayers fail. Don’t make him do this anymore.” She pulled her hand free, and that surprised him.

“God will not forsake you.”

“There is no God.”

“Do not speak that way.” His hands balled into fists at his sides.

He sucked in his breath, his body tensing. He hoped he didn’t pee his pants again. Would Father hit her for voicing the truth? If he did raise his hand to her, no amount of praying would fix her broken body. She would be like the birds that flew into the windows so hard he thought the glass would break. Outside, he would find them on the grass, their heads flopped to the side. Yes, she would be just like that, her body still, her head hanging to the side. He wanted to tell Father to leave her alone. He stayed silent.

“Take my hand.” Her gaze now fell on him as she ignored the angry words of his father and the hands that seemed ready to rise in fury. She gave him the same kind of look that she would when she demanded he do his homework or clean his room or take his dishes to the kitchen. The look told him to do as he was told with no talking back.

He stood up from the hard chair and took two steps closer. His legs pressed against the side of the bed. The smell grew stronger and his stomach did a flip. He wanted to run outside, where fresh air would fill him and everything was alive. He closed his fingers around her hand. It was cold and felt weak like the bones of the Thanksgiving turkey hours after dinner was over and done with. Shivers shook him.

With surprising strength, she yanked him down until his face nearly collided with hers. “Look into my eyes.”

He started to turn away, but she squeezed his hand in a grip even tighter than his father’s. “Look into my eyes!”

Tears blurred his vision, and he worried that this time he wouldn’t be able to hold them back. “I’m sorry, Mama.” He wasn’t sure what he was sorry about. Her getting sick? Or that he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but here.

“Do not look away. Only you can capture my soul. If you don’t, I’ll be lost, and you don’t want your mama to be lost, do you?”

He shook his head, and as he did, his tears splattered her face. Her dark eyes almost seemed to glow. “No.”

“Stay with me. Save me,” she said. “Do not let the devil take my soul.”

As he watched, something flashed, and then the light in her eyes faded. Her hand dropped away from his. His pant legs stuck to his inner thighs, warm and wet.

 

Chapter Three

“Rain check?” Only a minute before, Kat had come knocking on the front door. Vi had barely taken time to change her clothes in anticipation of heading up to the main house for the promised stew before Kat had returned.

That didn’t last long, she thought as she stood in the open doorway. It wouldn’t be the first time her aura of weirdness scared someone off. The vibes that rolled off her weren’t anything blatant or explainable. Some people simply picked up on her unique aura, and it put them off. Not that she blamed anyone. She was weird—one of the reasons she’d chosen pathology as her specialization area. The patients she would serve didn’t have to like her, and scaring them wasn’t possible.

Besides, death investigation provided a place her brand of strange found a home. She could use it for the greater good, and wasn’t that what it was all about? God, she hoped so, because if it wasn’t, she might be tempted to follow in her mother’s footsteps with heavy self-medication. Of course Mom had her own reasons for that road, but when it came right down to it, everyone could find some kind of justification for taking the easy way.

“Of course.” She didn’t bother to ask for an explanation. No point. The last thing she had time or energy for anyway was making friends. Between work and school she’d be lucky if she found time to sleep.

“No, no, no, it’s not like that.”

“You don’t have to explain.”

Kat laughed. “Oh, I so need to explain. Girl, your face is a telegraph, and I’m making a hideous first impression. I really need to minimize my damages. Here’s the truth. I just got a call out.”

“A call out?” The woman ran a small farm. What kind of call out could she possibly be talking about?

“Lost hiker up on Mt. Spokane. Remember earlier when I told you about Lucy being a working search dog? We’re members of a search-and-rescue team in both Stevens and Spokane Counties. Got a call ten minutes ago that the air-scent dogs have been requested, and as it happens, one of Lucy’s specialties is air scent.”

Something like relief flooded through her. Pathetic. Like she was in the third grade again and was hoping Sue Simons would be her friend. “Well, that’s not good.”

“True enough but it’s what we train for. We’ll find the hiker.”

“I bet you will.”

“Look, I left the back door open because I really do have that pot of stew cooking, though I’ll have to give you another rain check on the biscuits. I have no idea how long this will take. It could be two hours. It could be ten. You go grab some dinner, and I’ll catch up with you tomorrow. Okay?” She didn’t wait for Vi to answer. “Gotta run.”

She meant it literally too. Kat sprinted across the yard and down the driveway. She jumped into an extended-cab pickup with a full canopy on the back and drove off. Vi presumed Lucy was already in the truck.

Part of her was disappointed that she wouldn’t have a chance to hang out with Kat and Lucy this evening. Another part of her was grateful. The whole journey, not just the driving, but the relocation of her entire life, had left her drained. Hard to imagine she’d ever feel whole again. Too many changes. Too many losses. Witty conversation might be asking more of her than she could produce at the moment.

The thought of the stew, on the other hand, made her stomach rumble. Thinking back over the last eight hours or so, she tried to recall when and where she’d last stopped for something to eat. In particular, something decent. The convenience-store sandwich she’d picked up just after crossing from Canada into the US did not fall into the category of decent. Food on the road left a lot to be desired. She fully intended to take Kat up on her offer of sustenance.

Kat’s kitchen presented a surprise. From the outside, the house appeared to be a moderate-sized farmhouse, very nice and well maintained though not anything that screamed high-end. The kitchen looked straight out of a recent home-remodel magazine, right up to the latest appliances and sparkling countertops. Someone had spent a fair chunk of change on this room.

“Wow,” she muttered. The lady apparently liked to cook, a skill Vi sorely lacked. “But can she field dress a sucking chest wound?” she muttered to herself. Everybody had their strengths. The smell of the cooking stew filled the room with a scent that reminded her of home. Her grandmother had loved to simmer stews on the stove all day long during the cold winter months.

On the counter next to the slow cooker sat two bowls and two spoons. Napkins were in a stand-up holder, and a note directed her to the refrigerator for her beverage of choice. She took the lid off the cooker and breathed in the heavenly aroma. After she ate two servings of what turned out to be a fabulous beef stew filled with big chunks of meat and vegetables, and drank a large glass of milk, she cleaned up her dishes and returned everything to the same spot. Now that she’d eaten more than she had for a week, weariness weighed heavy on her. The stress of the move and the drive to the lower forty-eight crashed down, and she wondered if she had enough strength left to make it back to her new little home. Her arms and legs felt like they weighed a hundred pounds each. As much as she’d like to just lie down right here, she pushed herself out the door and down the driveway. A bed with her name on it waited for her.

The sun was starting to dip behind the mountains as she trekked from Kat’s house to hers. A little bit of energy came back to her as she walked down the drive. Outside with the cool, refreshing air and the sky overhead turning deep red, it was pretty spectacular. Not quite the northern lights, but impressive just the same.

When she reached her house, she took one step toward the front door and stopped. All she really wanted to do was blast through the door and drop into that beautiful, soft bed. Her feet refused to move. A familiar buzz went through her, and she wrapped her arms around herself. She shouldn’t be surprised, and yet she was.

“They need your help.”

She lifted her gaze to where her grandmother sat in one of the two bright-red wooden deck chairs that decorated the lovely full-length front porch. Not surprisingly, she was wearing the same blue dress Vi had buried her in, and her white hair was in a tidy braid that hung down her back. “Who needs my help?”

“You will know.”

Even after passing on, Grandmother was still full of mystery. She had been like that Vi’s whole life, and why she expected her to be different now was anybody’s guess.

“Help me.” She was way too tired for mystery and puzzles.

Her grandmother shook her head slowly from side to side. “You never needed my help.”

Oh, how off base her brilliant and intuitive grandmother was on that score. “I always needed it.”

The braid swung back and forth as she shook her head. “No, child, you only needed my love, and that you always had. Now, rest up and ready yourself. They need you.”

Tears slid down her cheeks as she stared at an empty chair. “I loved you too,” she whispered. “And you’re wrong. I always needed you.”

 

v

 

Talk about piss-poor timing. This search put a serious crimp in her plans for the night. She finally meets an interesting, attractive woman who makes her think she might be ready to risk again, and boom, here comes the call. Sure, she could have declined to respond to the search, but that would have been wrong. She had no solid reason for not showing up except for dinner plans. Those could always be changed. Saving somebody’s life, however, was a different story. In this kind of scenario, time wasn’t their friend, and the sooner Lucy got out on that mountain using her incredible nose, the sooner they could bring the lost hiker home. Dinner with Vi would have to wait.

After all, Vi had signed a one-year lease, so at the very least they had twelve months to become friends and share who knows how many dinners. Many, she hoped. It wasn’t like tonight was a one-and-done deal. She clung to that thought for the next three hours as she, Lucy, and their team searched their assigned area in a north-south grid pattern. She was confident in Lucy’s skill, and the fact that she hadn’t so much as twitched told her their missing hiker was not in their area. They were on their last grid when the call came in over the radio. Another team had found the hiker with what was reported as a possible broken leg or ankle. The ATV units were dispatched for extraction. For Lucy and Kat, the search was over.

It took another hour and a half to hike back to the command post, download track logs, sign out, and get on the road toward home. Lucy slept in the back seat all the way there. Kat would have liked to join her. The search had been a hard one. Rain had rolled in about an hour into their deployment and made everything on the mountain slick as ice, so with the steep terrain, it had become exhausting. Yet none of the searchers or the dogs gave up. It’s what they all trained for. It was why they trained so hard. Every life was important, and each and every time they were called out, they prayed to bring the lost home, alive or dead. No one deserved to be left out there alone.

Now that she and Lucy were back at the house, she stripped off her wet clothes and stepped into the shower. God, the hot water felt like magic on her sore muscles. Going up and down the mountain with a pack that weighed at least twenty-five pounds would have been a workout any day of the week. Toss in rain, cold, and darkness, and every muscle protested. Good thing she worked out fairly regularly, or she’d be one hurting puppy.

Lucy didn’t seem any more worn out than usual. Amazing didn’t even begin to describe her. She’d search for hours without ever slowing down regardless of the weather or difficult terrain. Of course, she’d gotten the hour-plus nap in the truck and was currently passed out on her bed, so it was a little different for her. She’d pop up in the morning and look at Kat with an expression that said, what are we doing today? Lucy would search every single day if she could.

After her shower Kat went to the kitchen, and Lucy surprised her by jumping up and going to the door. She opened the back door to let her out into the darkness, presumably to do her business, although she wasn’t sure she didn’t race to the guesthouse to check on Vi. The immediate bond Lucy had formed with Vi was pretty telling. The one thing she knew without question was that the woman had a true and honest heart. Lucy would never invite someone into her pack who didn’t. She was particular that way.

Despite the late hour and her fatigue, Kat wouldn’t mind meandering down the driveway herself. She didn’t. It would be rude and, well, yeah, inappropriate. No way to explain skulking around in the wee hours of the morning just because. That was the kind of thing stalkers would do, and she should know. Knowledge gained firsthand sometimes really sucked. Nobody ever thinks something like that will happen to them, and when it does, it’s horrible.

That thought made her sober. Not somewhere she wanted to go at the moment. She gave a short whistle, and as expected, Lucy came zipping back quick enough for Kat to be confident she hadn’t gone down to bug Vi. “Good girl,” she said as she patted her on the head. “Let’s call it a night and get a little sleep.”

Her heart sank a little as she looked around the kitchen. Everything appeared to be exactly as she’d left it. Until this second, she hadn’t realized how she’d hoped Vi would come and eat her food. Not that she could blame her. Who would feel comfortable walking into a relative stranger’s home to grab a solitary dinner? Her kitchen might be lacking in bounty, her own fault for failing to stock up recently, but she could cook, and she’d wanted to show off, plain and simple. That she’d failed to make a good impression made her a little sad. That is, until she peered through the glass lid and realized the pot wasn’t as full as when she’d left for the search. A smile turned up the corners of her mouth. Vi had been here.

“You’re a sap,” she said to herself. A sap who doesn’t careis what she didn’t mutter out loud. The fact that Vi had come over and eaten her stew had made her night. Correction, the fact that they’d recovered the missing hiker alive, and relatively well, topped her night. This came in a close second. She smiled as she put the leftovers into the refrigerator, turned out the light, and headed to her bed for a few hours of sleep.

A good eight hours is what she’d really like. But living on a working farm meant the animals didn’t adjust their schedules for hers. They didn’t care if she was up until the middle of the night trying to find the lost and bring them home. Nope, all they cared about was that the water was running in their troughs and they had food in the feeders first thing in the morning. Two hours of sleep or eight made no difference to them at all.

As her dad liked to say, she slept fast and got up by five thirty. Despite the fatigue that made her feel as though she had to drag her feet through mud, she made her rounds and got it all done by seven. Everyone fed and watered. Not for the first time, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last, she contemplated seeking qualified help. She’d been running her farm by herself since Dad bought it for her. Dad’s good luck had been life-changing for his whole family. She thanked him every day for the bit of paradise he had gifted her with and wished terribly that he could still be here to see all that she’d accomplished. He’d be proud of what she’d done here. She smiled at that thought. Dad was always proud of her, whether she was writing industry-changing programs or spinning wool or training search dogs. If she was happy, he was happy.

As if sensing her thoughts had turned to family, her phone rang. It was her brother, James. “What’s up, little bro?” She smiled, thinking how funny it was to a call a six-foot-six, two-eighty-pound man little. His bad luck in the birth department. At four years younger, he would always be her little bro.

“He’s out.”

 

v

 

It had taken the Seeker all night to figure out the solution. He’d done it though, as he always did. He had yet to encounter a problem he couldn’t resolve. Certainly it would have been nicer not to have to sit up an entire night in order to formulate a plan, but sometimes things just worked out that way. When he encountered an obstacle, even if he tried to go to sleep without a resolution, it didn’t work. His mind would not shut off no matter what he tried. He’d learned a long time ago just to roll with it and forgo sleep when necessary. As long as the end result turned positive and in his favor, everything was golden.

Now he stood in the local Lowe’s picking out a stand-up freezer. He liked the chest freezers because of the capacity. The storage space they offered held a certain amount of enticement. The stand-up style, he ultimately decided, best fit his purposes. Once he made that decision, he moved to the aisle with the organizing racks. Several boxes of spice racks were perfect for what he had in mind. They would fit nicely into the freezer.

By the time he made it to the checkout counter, the new plan had come together. The only thing left to coordinate was delivery. That’s where things went contrary to his plans. The delivery schedule was disheartening. He wanted immediate delivery. The clerk almost laughed in his face, which would have been the wrong thing to do. The customer was always right.

“Thursday is the soonest we can get to you, Mr…” He looked down at the paperwork. “Smith.”

“I need it immediately.”

His face remained impassive. “The schedule is completely booked until Thursday.”

“Fine,” he snapped. “Just make certain it is first thing on Thursday.” He wanted to permanently wipe the smirk off the asshole’s face.

“We’ll do our best.”

“Do better than that. First thing Thursday morning or I’ll be making calls.” He glanced at the name tag pinned to the man’s shirt. “Roger.”

He didn’t miss the clerk’s eye roll. What a prick. “On your Lowe’s card?”

His fingers flexed as he held his hands down at his side, silently telling himself to remain calm. At the same time, he studied Roger’s face and thought about his next experiment. “Cash.” Brown eyes, a little muddy, filled with arrogance. Potential. Definite potential.

He left the store, stopping just before he walked out the door to use the hand sanitizer. The racks were the only part of his project he had available to him now. Disappointing to have his plans changed. He’d have to make the best of it until the freezer could be delivered. At least he could assemble the racks and have them ready for immediate installation.

He glanced down at his watch and grimaced. It had taken more time than he anticipated to complete his shopping. He’d hoped to put the racks together, and it wouldn’t happen now. If that cashier hadn’t been such an ass, he might have been able to work on them. Instead, he’d have to take his treasures home, change clothes, and head to work. The last thing he wanted to do this morning was go to the day job. Then again, he needed to get in to the office and have his schedule changed. Someone else in the office would have to handle Thursday. When Lowe’s delivered his freezer, he would be there, and then he would take the rest of the day to create his masterpiece.