Authors: Perri O'Shaughnessy
After a tumultuous year, attorney Nina Reilly heads home to put her life in order and move in with her long-time, part-time love, Paul van Wagoner. Carmel Valley, however, is not quite the sleepy town Nina remembers. In a place where the locals clash with the rich newcomers, conflicts have always been an inevitable part of life, but lately, the hostilities have turned ugly: someone has been setting seemingly random forest fires. Just as Nina is re-establishing her family ties and beginning her new life with Paul, she is called upon again. The last fire proved fatal, and Wish, the son of her faithful ex-assistant, Sandy Whitefeather, stands accused of murder. Nina is certain that the fires are not random at all. Against her better judgement, she must work with Paul in order to gain the locals' trust in a race against timeto find the truth before the real killer's motives become all too shockingly apparent.
Presumption Of Death
The ninth book in the Nina Reilly series, 2003
T O PETER VON MERTENS, ARDYTH BROCK, NITA PIPER, SHERRY JENKS, MARY ANN ROBNETT, ELIZABETH BLAIR, JANE FULLER, JOAN WESTLUND, JOANNA TAMER, HELGA GERDES, AND JOYCE LINDSEY-STEADFAST FRIENDS.
“A little noiseless noise among the leaves.”
PICTURE IT: A MOONLESS SUMMER NIGHT filling a hollow sky, glossy unblinking stars; under this, the rolling brown summits of the Robles Ridge; under this, the dry rattling of the leaf-tops of clustering oaks; and beneath all this, in the deep forest that slopes even farther down toward Steinbeck’s pastures of heaven, two young men, hunting.
In soft clothes that did not rustle, one behind the other, they moved in a line between gnarled tree trunks.
To the west, distantly, out of sight, the Pacific Ocean lay black under the sky and poured itself out onto the shore, then drained back into itself with a soft rush. Up the mountain above them somewhere, their prey must be softly crunching like a big buck over the dense dry carpet of dead brush.
They hunted along a steep wooded trail below where it widened to an open saddle before continuing up rocky slopes to the summit, hunting as their ancestors of the Washoe tribe had hunted for tens of thousands of years, following with ancient purpose a spirit moving through the darkness.
But this spirit was no animal.
“Shut up, Willis,” Danny whispered, then darted to a new tree, his tall shape merging into utter blackness.
“Don’t call me that. Only my mother calls me that.” Wish followed Danny, puffing, admiring his headlong confidence and quiet feet. “What am I doing wrong, anyway?” he asked once he had picked his way across the brief clearing and stood pressed against the boulder with Danny.
“Something plops every time you step.”
“Oh. The camera. It’s slung over my…”
“And you sound like an ox. What have you got on your feet?”
“Hey, these are my new Doc Martens. I showed them to you. Remember? I paid a hundred twenty bucks for these…”
“They sound like weed whackers. Pick up your feet. Shh. I hear something.”
An owl made a low percussive sound. Above them, bats whooshed through the air like dry leaves. No sound, no echo of the sound they sought. A light rippling liquid fell onto Wish’s 49ers hat. Wish tore it off and hit it softly against a tree. “Bat guano falling through the branches, that’s all I hear,” he whispered.
He looked up at a rift between the treetops where the Milky Way spread like silver buckshot across the sky.
“Is he gone?”
Danny didn’t answer. He dropped silently into a crouch. Unlike Wish, whose father hadn’t been around when he was growing up and whose mother worked in town, Danny had been brought up to know the wilderness. Danny was the leader here, but then, Danny had always been the leader. So Wish crouched too.
Danny’s hand clenched his shoulder. For a moment they listened to the woods, heads thrust forward, nostrils spread. A hot little breeze lifted and dropped Wish’s lank hair. Danny gave him a push. “Feel that?” he said in a low voice. “That wind?”
“Kinda warm for June.”
“No, I…” Wish stopped talking. He cupped a hand around his ear. He heard a new sound. Singing, like cicadas.
“Fire!” Wish breathed. “He set one up there!”
“Uh huh,” Danny said in a quiet, tight voice. He stood up, favoring his left knee like always, licked the tips of his fingers, and held them up. “The wind is going to take it down this side of the slope. Now, look, Wish. He’s got to come down this side. There isn’t any other way down. Can’t bushwhack in the dark, it’s way too steep. He’s gonna come down right past us.”
“There are houses down here!”
“We’ll get him. Then we’ll call for help.”
“I don’t like this.”
“We’re not giving up. I know what I’m doing. Don’t I always?”
Not at all, Wish thought. Just about never. His mom said Danny made less sense than a pinochle card. What his mom couldn’t appreciate was Danny as a force of nature. His energy pulled you along like a big wind. Wish felt excited, just being around him, blowing this way and that, never knowing what lay ahead. And here they were again, in trouble, like always when he let Danny have his way.
They would get out of it somehow, he thought, come fire, earthquake, or landslide. You could depend on Danny for one thing: a screwed-up, hairy outcome, but somehow, you survived.
Around them, other creatures stirred in their holes, disturbed, sniffing in the bush. Wish caught a whiff of smoke, pleasant and woody, like the fires in the cabin in winter back at Markleeville. “Fire, Danny. This is serious. We need to call the fire department. You got a mobile phone?”
Though Danny didn’t ask, Wish offered, “Mine’s in the van, still hooked to the car charger.” He waited hopelessly for Danny to give him the okay to get going back down the hill to the street.
“We’re close,” Danny said. “He’s up there, I can feel it. Give him a minute. He’ll come tearing down.”
Too afraid to pretend patience, Wish flapped his long arms. “Haven’t you ever seen those shows? Where fire like, blows up in people’s faces? Where even firefighters get trapped? We gotta make like Bambi and Thumper and get outta here!”
Ignoring him, Danny peered into the darkness above them, up the trail that rose another few hundred feet of scrambly sandy dirt to the saddle they couldn’t see. The trail climbed steeply up the east flank of the ridge. The breeze had turned gusty and blew across Wish’s cheek. Coming this way, his mind recorded automatically. Up higher, jittery reds, oranges, and yellows jerked down the hill in fits and starts like rush-hour traffic, accelerating in bursts. “Could he stay up on the saddle?” said Wish. “It’s more open up there.”
“Yeah, sit there and get burned up,” Danny said, disgusted. “He’s not that stupid. Unless maybe he doesn’t care and wants to go out in a blaze of glory.”
“He might try to go uphill instead of down. There’s a trail that runs just below the summit.”
“He might. But he’s got a car down there on Southbank.”
“He won’t leave his car,” Wish said to reassure himself.
“We stay put,” Danny decided. “Listen. He comes down this way, and we’re ready. He’ll have a flashlight, and we’ll spot him first. Then, before he sees us, we shoot him. We slide behind those rocks and trap him trying to get to his car. We shoot, then we let him go.”
Danny got up, and Wish followed him behind the biggest of the rocks off the trail. Another time, Wish wouldn’t have gone near those tumbled rocks with their dark caverns where mountain lions might hide. Flashing his light all around behind the rock and seeing no yellow eyes reflecting back, he picked up a cudgel-like branch, then lowered himself beside Danny, who continued to watch the trail. They could see where it curved around toward them.