Read CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH Online

Authors: B.J. DANIELS

Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE

CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH (6 page)

And gets herself killed, she thought with wry humor.

But she couldn’t help studying the letters. She knew a little about codes because they involved math and because she’d played around with them as a girl, sending “secret” coded messages to her friends about the boys she liked. Her friends struggled with the deciphering and tired of them quickly.

It had been years, but she remembered some of the basics. She began to play with the letters, noticing there were eighteen
W
s and sixteen
A
s.

The most common letters in the English language were
E,
T
and
A
. So if these were English words, then
W
and
A
were probably one of those more frequently used letters. Though by the position of the
A
letters, they represented something other than
A,
she thought.

Her cell phone rang, making her jump. She was surprised to hear Tag’s voice.

“I talked to my brother. He says the thumb drive didn’t come from Ford.”

“Really?” She was already pretty sure of that anyway, but she did like the sound of his voice. He had a wonderful Texas accent.

“I’m sure there’s another explanation,” he said.

She was, too.

“I’d better go. Just wanted to let you know.” He seemed to hesitate.

She felt her heart beat kick up even against her will.

“Okay,” he said.

“Thanks for letting me know. Maybe I’ll talk to you later.”

“Yeah.”

She hung up, a little disappointed he hadn’t asked her out—if that was what he’d been about to do earlier—but now all the more determined as she studied the letters again. Codes often involved simple addition or subtraction. She should be able to break this one by trial and error, but it would take time.

If it really was a code. She was glad she hadn’t mentioned her suspicions to Tag, though. He thought she was geeky enough as it was.

* * *

T
AG
SWUNG
BY
his uncle’s cabin. Who better to get the truth from than Harlan’s brother? Tag had seen the look pass between them. He had a feeling there were few secrets between the two of them. If his father had a girlfriend, Angus would know.

But when he knocked at the door, there was no answer. He glanced in the curtainless window. The cabin was small, just three rooms, so he could see the bed. Clothes were thrown across it, the closet door open as if he’d packed in a hurry.

At the bar earlier, Angus hadn’t mentioned going anywhere, especially this close to Christmas. Tag thought about the way the two of them had acted as they were leaving the bar. All his suspicions began to mushroom.

He checked the makeshift garage and found Angus’s rig gone. Maybe he’d gone over to his daughter’s. Tag drove on down the canyon to the Cardwell Ranch. This time Marshal Hud Savage was nowhere to be seen.

“I went by your dad’s cabin,” he said after Dana answered the door and ushered him into the kitchen, where she was baking cookies. The babies were napping, she said, and the two older kids, Mary and Hank, were with their aunt Stacy.

“It looks as if Angus is going out of town. I thought you might—”

“He’s been called away on business,” Dana said. “He wasn’t sure when he’d get back, but he promised he would try his best to be here Christmas Eve.”

“He got called away on business?” Tag couldn’t help his skepticism or the suspicion in his tone. He couldn’t imagine what business his uncle might have other than buying new guitar strings. “Just days before Christmas? What kind of business?”

She shot him a questioning look. “He’s never said. Why?”

Tag let out a surprised sound. “So this isn’t unusual?” Dana shook her head. “And you’ve never asked him?” He hadn’t meant for his tone to sound so accusatory, but he couldn’t help it. How could she not know what her father did for this so-called business?

“In case you haven’t noticed, our fathers do their own thing. I’m not sure exactly what they do, but occasionally it takes them out of the canyon for a few days, usually on the spur of the moment.”

This news came as a complete surprise. “Harlan does this, too? I didn’t think either of them ever left. So they’re
both
involved in this
business?

She gave him an impatient look, then shrugged.

“Aren’t you suspicious?”

She chuckled. “
Suspicious?
Dad could have a whole other family somewhere. Maybe more than one. But if that’s the case, he seems happy, so more power to him.”

Tag couldn’t believe her attitude. “Has either of them ever had girlfriends locally?”

She thought for a moment. “Not really. Maybe a long time ago. Like I said, they seem happy just doing their thing, whatever that is.” She pulled a pan of cookies from the oven and deftly began sliding them onto a rack to cool.

As she did, she said, “Angus and I aren’t that close. I’m busy with the kids and the ranch and Hud, and Dad’s a loner, except for his brother....”

“I always thought that if I lived here, Harlan and I would be closer,” Tag said as he took a seat at the table and watched her. He couldn’t help feeling disappointed. He’d really thought this trip would bring him closer to his father. If anything, it seemed to be pushing them even further apart. “What is it about those two that they aren’t good with their own kids?”

Dana sighed. “Or with their wives. They just aren’t family men and never have been. But don’t let that spoil your Christmas here,” she said, and handed him a warm cookie. “We’re going to have a wonderful time whether they make it Christmas Eve or not.”

“Yes, we are,” Tag said, sounding more upbeat than he felt. Right now, he felt as if the Grinch had already stolen Christmas.

After he left the ranch, he drove around aimlessly, hoping he might see his father or uncle coming out of one of the local businesses. Finally, he stopped for something to eat, but barely tasted the food in front of him.

When he came back out, he was surprised it was already getting dark. The sun had disappeared behind Lone Mountain several hours ago, and the deep, narrow canyon was shrouded in shadows. He’d forgotten how quickly it got dark this far north in the winter.

As he drove up to his father’s cabin, he was relieved to see Harlan’s SUV parked out front. He’d half expected that, like Angus, Harlan had taken off for parts unknown on some “business” trip.

Wading through the snow and growing darkness toward the cabin, he was determined to get the truth out of his father. No more lies. Either that or he would have to go to the marshal with what he knew. Nix that. He’d have to take his suspicions to the cops in Bozeman, since he wasn’t sure he could trust Hud. Admittedly, he didn’t know much about Mia’s death—or about his father’s possible involvement. Just a gut feeling—and a leather jacket.

Deep shadows hunkered around the edge of the cabin as Tag started up the steps. He’d shoveled the steps and walk early this morning before he’d left to go Christmas tree hunting. That now seemed like a lifetime ago.

There had been some snow flurries during the day close to the mountains. The snow had covered the shoveled walk. Tag slowed as he noticed the footprints in the scant snowfall.

His father had had company. Several different boot prints had left tracks up the walk. One had to be his father’s, but there were at least two others. His brother? But who else? He’d gotten the feeling his father had few visitors. Then again, he hadn’t thought his father had female visitors and he’d been wrong about that.

Only one light shone inside the house. It poured out to splash across the crystal-white snow at the edge of the porch.

He slowed, listening for the sound of voices, hearing nothing. From the tracks in the snow, it appeared whoever had stopped by had left.

He thought of Dana now. Unlike her, he had to know what was going on with his father. He wasn’t buying that they had “business” out of town occasionally. Monkey business, maybe.

As he opened the door and looked in, all the air rushed from his lungs. The cabin had been ransacked. He stared, too shocked to move for a moment. Who would have done something like this, and why?

He thought of the thick envelope that his father had given the marshal. Was that payoff money to keep a lid on what his father and uncle were involved in? The envelope had been thick. Where would his father get that kind of money? Not from playing his guitar at a bar on weekends.

Drugs? It was the first thing that came to mind. Were his father and uncle in the drug business?

At the sound of a groan, he rushed in through the debris to find his father lying on the floor behind the couch. Tag was shocked to see how badly Harlan had been beaten.

He hurriedly pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911.

Chapter Six

Hate is a strange but powerful emotion. Camilla went to bed with it each night; it warmed her like wrapping her fingers around a hot mug of coffee. It was her only comfort, locked away in this world of all-women criminals. The place didn’t feel much like a prison, though, since it was right in the middle of the city of Billings.

Only when she heard the clang of steel doors did it hit home. She was never leaving here. At least not for a very long time.

Of course the nightmares had gotten worse—just as the doctor had said they would. She’d known they would since they’d been coming more often—even before she’d been caught and locked up. She’d wake up screaming. Not that screaming in the middle of the night was unusual here.

The nightmare was the same one that had haunted her since she was a girl. She was in a coffin. It was pitch-black. There was no air. She was trapped and, even though she’d screamed herself hoarse, no one had come to save her.

The doctor she’d seen a few years ago hadn’t been encouraging, far from it. “Do night terrors run in your family?” he’d asked, studying her over the top of his glasses.

“I don’t know. I never asked.”

“How old did you say you were?”

She’d been in her late twenties at the time.

He’d frowned. “What about sleepwalking?”

“Sometimes I wake up in a strange place and I don’t know how I’ve gotten there.” But that could have described her whole life.

He’d nodded, his frown deepening as he’d tossed her file on his desk. “I’m going to give you a referral to a neurologist.”

“You’re saying there’s something wrong with me?”

“Just a precaution. Sleepwalking and night terrors at your age are fairly uncommon and could be the result of a neurological disorder.”

She’d laughed after she left his office. “He thinks I’m crazy.” She’d been amused at the time. Back then she hadn’t been sleepwalking or having the nightmare all that often.

Unfortunately that was no longer the case. Not that she worried about it all that much. So what if she got worse? It wasn’t as though she was going anywhere, and everyone here already thought she was half-crazy.

So, Spark. How would you say you’re dealing with prison life?

In her mind’s eye, she smiled at her pretend interviewer. “I exercise, watch my diet and, oh, yes, I have Hate. It keeps me going. Hate and The Promise of Retribution, they’re my cell mates.”

Tell inquiring minds. Who’s at the top of your hate list and why?

“It’s embarrassing actually.” Camilla thought about the first time she’d laid eyes on Marshal Hud Savage. The cowboy had come riding up on his horse. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” she asked her fictional interviewer. “Then I have a story for you.”

* * *

“Y
OUR
FATHER
SAYS
he didn’t get a good look at the intruders,” Marshal Hud Savage told Tag later that night at the hospital.

“How is that possible? They beat him up. He had to have
seen
them.”

“What makes you think it was more than one man?” Hud asked.

“The tracks in the snow. There were three different boot prints. I’m assuming one pair was Harlan’s.”

Hud nodded. He seemed distracted.

Tag felt that same sick feeling he’d had earlier today when he witnessed his father with the marshal. “Harlan didn’t mention anything when the two of you talked just after noon today?”

Hud frowned. “Why would Harlan—”

“You didn’t see my father earlier today? I thought he said he was stopping by your place to talk to you.”

The marshal’s eyes narrowed before he slowly shook his head. “Harlan told you that? Maybe he changed his mind.”

Hud had just lied to his face. “I must have misunderstood him.” Tag felt sick to his stomach. What the hell was going on? “I hope you’re planning to find who did this to him and why.”

“I know my job,” Hud snapped. “Look,” he said, softening his tone. The marshal appeared tired, exhausted actually, as if he hadn’t had much rest for quite a while. “When your father is conscious, maybe he’ll remember more about his attackers.”

It angered him that Hud was trying to placate him. “
If
he comes to.” Harlan had fallen into a coma shortly after the EMTs had arrived to take him to the hospital. What if he didn’t make it?

“Harlan’s going to be all right,” Hud said. “He’s a tough old bird.”

Tag hoped Hud was right about that. His cell phone rang. He checked it, surprised to see that the call was from Lily McCabe.

“Excuse me,” he said, and stepped away to answer it. “Hey.”

“I think it’s in code.” Lily sounded excited.

“Code?”

“The letters on that thumb drive, I think they’re two lists of names.”

“Names?” A call came over the hospital intercom for Dr. Allen to come to the nurses’ station on the fourth floor, stat.

“I’m sorry. Did I catch you in the middle of something?”

“I’m at the hospital. Someone ransacked my father’s cabin and beat him up.”

“Is he all right?” She sounded as shocked as he felt right now.

“The doctor thinks he’s going to recover. He’s unconscious. The marshal is here now.” He looked down the hall and saw that Hud was also on his cell phone. Tag wondered who was on the other end of the line. Uncle Angus?

“Did he tell you that Mia Duncan’s condo was also ransacked?”

It took Tag a moment to realize she was referring to the marshal—not Harlan or Angus. “No, he didn’t mention that.” Another reason not to trust Hud—as if he needed more.

“That’s odd. First Mia’s condo is ransacked and she’s murdered, then your father’s cabin and he gets beaten up. This is Montana. Things like that just don’t happen.”

Apparently they did. “That
is
odd,” he said. First Mia’s, now his father’s place? Had Harlan come home and surprised his intruders? Or had they torn up the place
after
they tried to kill him?

“I’m sure there’s no connection.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t want to see a connection to his father and the murdered woman, but the coincidences just kept stacking up. “So you say those letters are actually names?” He knew he sounded skeptical.

“I have only started decoding them, but yes, they appear to be names. I can’t really explain it over the phone. But I thought you’d want to know right away.”

He glanced down the hall. Hud was still on his cell phone, his back turned to Tag. What if Mia had put that computer thumb drive in his pocket last night?

“I want to see what you’ve found.” More than she could know.

“You’re welcome to come up to my place when you’re ready to leave the hospital.”

“Give me your address. I’ll come over as soon as I can, if that’s all right.”

She rattled off an address on Sky-High Road up on the mountain. “It’s at the end of the road.”

As he disconnected, he saw the doctor coming down the hall. “Harlan is conscious,” he said to the marshal, then looked in Tag’s direction. “He’d like to see his son.”

Hud started to say something, but the doctor cut him off. “He said he’ll talk to you after he talks to his son.”

Tag walked down the hall and pushed open the door into his father’s hospital room. Harlan looked as if he’d been hit by a bus, but he was sitting up a little and his gaze was intent as he watched Tag enter.

“You gave me a scare,” Tag said as he stopped at the end of his father’s bed.

“Sorry about that.” Harlan’s voice was hoarse. He was clearly in pain, but he was doing his best to hide it. “The marshal will catch the little hoodlums. How times have changed. They’re targeting old people now for our prescription drugs.” He chuckled even though it clearly hurt him to do so.

“Whoever beat you up, they weren’t after your arthritis medicine,” Tag said evenly. He couldn’t believe how angry he was at his father for continuing to lie to him. “What were they really looking for,
Dad?

His father’s expression hardened. “Stay out of this, son. That’s why I wanted to see you. I want—”

“That woman who was at your cabin was Mia Duncan, wasn’t it?”

Harlan sighed. “I told you. I don’t know anyone by that name.”

Tag shook his head and tried to still his growing anger. “You just keep lying to me. What business is Uncle Angus away on?”

“Why are you asking me that?”

“Because the two of you are inseparable. You can finish each other’s sentences. You have to know where he’s gone and why.”

“I guess what I should have asked is why is it any of your business?” Harlan said, an edge to his voice.

Tag pulled off his Stetson and raked a hand through his hair as he tried to control his temper. “I know something’s going on with the two of you, and it has to do with that woman who was murdered. Angus owns a snowmobile and he knows those old logging roads behind the ranch. You own snowmobiles yourself. I would imagine the two of you have been all over that country behind the ranch. Is it drugs? Is that the business you’re in that gets your cabin torn up and you beat up and in the hospital?”

His father let out a sigh. “Do you realize what you’re saying?”

“You lied to me. At the bar, I saw you watching the door. You were expecting Mia. You were shocked when I told you she was dead. That’s why you didn’t ask who was killed. Because you
knew.

“This conversation is over.” He reached for the buzzer to call the nurse.

Tag stepped to the side of the bed and caught his father’s arm to stop him. “Tell me it isn’t true. Tell me I’ve got it all wrong.” He hated the pleading he heard in his voice.

His father met his gaze. “You have it all wrong.”

“Then you don’t mind if I keep digging into her death.”

“Leave the investigating to the people who are trained for it. Please, son. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

His father had already hurt him by not being in his life. But did he really believe Harlan Cardwell was...what? A drug dealer? Worse, a killer?

He met his father’s steely gaze. “Then tell the truth.”

“Stay out of this, Tag. It isn’t what you think.”

“I hope you’re right—given what I’m thinking.”

Harlan closed his eyes. “Tag, I need you to go back to Texas.” When he opened them again, Tag saw a deep sadness there. “This isn’t a good time for a visit. Please. Go home. Don’t wait until after Christmas. If you don’t—”

The door opened and the doctor came into the room. Harlan looked away.

“If I don’t leave... What are you trying to tell me?” Tag demanded of his father. “That if I continue digging in your life I’ll end up like that woman you don’t know?”

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “Did I interrupt something?”

“No. My son was just leaving,” Harlan said. “Please don’t tell your mother about this. I’ll call you in a few days in Texas.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll see you before then,” Tag said, and left.

* * *

“Y
OU
HAVE
TO
tell him the truth,” Hud said after the doctor had left.

Harlan looked up at him from the hospital bed. “You know I can’t do that.” He motioned to the pitcher of water on the bedside table, and the marshal poured him a glass.

“He’s your
son,
” Hud persisted. “He isn’t going to stop. That damned stubbornness seems to run in your family.”

Harlan took a drink of water and handed back the empty glass. “I need you to persuade him to go back to Texas.”

“I wouldn’t count on that happening. He seems to know that you stopped by the ranch earlier today.”

“How would he know that?” Harlan shifted in the bed and grimaced in pain.

Hud shook his head. “He knows and he’s suspicious as hell of both of us.”

“Have you heard anything from Angus?”

“Nothing yet.”

“I tried to warn Mia....” Harlan looked away.

“She knew what she was getting into.”

“I warned her what could happen if she got too close to the truth.” Harlan turned back to him. “You didn’t find anything?”

“Nothing. If she had it, then whoever killed her took it. Tag said she was drunk when he saw her at the bar.”

“She had to be pretending to be drunk, maybe so she could leave early and not be stopped. Or maybe they got to her somehow.” Harlan gently touched his bruised and swelling jaw. “We still don’t know who was waiting for her outside the bar?”

“All Tag could tell us was that it appeared to be a dark-colored pickup and the driver was wearing a cowboy hat. I could take him in to look at mug shots.”

Harlan quickly shook his head, then groaned in regret for doing it. “I need my son kept out of this. Do whatever you have to to make that happen.”

“I can’t very well arrest him without a reason to charge him.”

Harlan closed his eyes. “You’ll think of something. He seems hell-bent on finding out the truth. You know what’s at stake. Stop him.”

* * *

I
T
BEGAN
TO
snow as Tag left the hospital. He felt shaken as he slid behind the wheel of his rented SUV. What were his father and the marshal involved in? A cover-up regarding Mia Duncan’s murder? Lily had said that Mia’s condo had been ransacked. Clearly, whoever was behind this was looking for something.

He feared he knew what. Worse, that Lily had it.

As he watched large snowflakes drift down through the lights of the parking lot, Tag suddenly realized how late it was. But he couldn’t stand the thought that Lily was in danger if that thumb drive was what the killers were looking for.

He started the SUV, still debating what to do because of the late hour and the snowstorm. Was it possible that Lily was right and Mia had put the thumb drive in his pocket? Why would she do that? Why give it to a complete stranger? Unless she knew she had to get rid of it quick?

With a start, he was reminded again of what she’d said.

“You look like him.”

Had she known he was Harlan’s son?

Tag shook his head. She’d been drunk or high on drugs. She hadn’t known what she was saying. He thought of his father. He couldn’t believe Harlan and Angus were drug dealers. And yet he didn’t really know them. He especially didn’t know his father, and the way things were going, he doubted he ever would.

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