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Forged in Fire

Awakened by Terror #1


by L.L. Brooks

Forged in Fire Bell was ugly, dirty, and mean. If he had left me alone, the others would never have known I was there. I was terrified of him, yet more terrified of not being beside him. He made promises when he kidnapped me, to protect me from the others and take me home once his drug deal with the biker gang was done. The others let it be known that at any opportunity, they would rape, torture me, and kill me. Every concept of the life I’d lived was destroyed, had to be for me to survive. Oscillating back and forth from trusting Bell, believing he would take me home, to hating and wanting to see him dead, I battled with never before experienced emotions. He hurt me a little, to save me from worse, or so he claimed. I responded to him, telling myself I had to, not that he made me hot and wanting.


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Release Date: July 30, 2019
Genre: Romantic Suspense

A Red Satin Romance


Excerpt

Chapter One

 

Phoenix, Arizona—1980

 

With six dead, one dying, and one gone crazy, he had little interest in his surrounding, not that he wasn’t aware. All the beauty and craftsmanship of the wall mosaic of a flaming Phoenix bird rising in rebirth went unappreciated by Dwayne Pratters, F.B.I. The who and why of the reason he was there dominated his mind, his thoughts surging ahead, as his lanky, bony frame stalked through the terminal.

No one was there to meet him, not that Pratters gave a damn. To see the bodies, the survivors, write his report, and leave without any contact with the local law would suit him just fine. Any taxi could take him to the morgue and hospital, and if they didn’t like it, too bad. They should have had someone there to meet him.

Even more annoying, his name was called over the loud speaker system directing him to a white paging phone. He answered in his usual way. Growling his name savagely made the unsuspecting person on the other end stammer.

“Th-th-is-this is Deputy Sheriff HuHume. I was sent toto meet you.”

“I’m claiming my suitcase.” The tone was curt, rude, and he hung up before Hume could say more.

Not knowing who he looked for put Deputy Hume at more of a disadvantage. Pratters had no trouble recognizing him. Young, neat, and tidy in a freshly pressed suntan uniform, and flushed with embarrassment, Hume stood out like a sore thumb.

Pratters saw no reason to put him at ease as he waved him over. “I’m Pratters.”

He turned his back to wait for his luggage, not missing how Hume fingered the butt of his holstered gun, while he told Pratters, “Sorry, I’m late. Another report was coming in as I was leaving. I thought it might be important.”

“Was it?” he asked without bothering to look around.

“Yes, sir. They found another body. That makes seven now, two women and five men. This one had his arm blown off. He bled to death. Had to be from the same gun John Doe had.”

“Why?”

“He was the only one who had a gun with that large a caliber. The others only had thirty-eights.”

Pratters gave a derisive snort, reaching for his bag. Hume jumped forward to carry it for him. Relinquished his hold, Pratters gazed coolly at Hume, long enough to make Hume color a deeper shade of red, duck his head, and turn quickly.

“The car is just out here.”

Pratters fell into step beside him. “What’s Doe’s condition now?”

Hume shrugged. “The doctor won’t say much more than he ought to be dead. Would have been if that woman hadn’t covered his sucking chest wound with her hand.”

The glass door opened, and the heat blast hit him like stepping into an oven.

“I left the refrigeration going in the car,” Hume told him.

The shock of a Phoenix summer in full force passed, and Pratters went back to business. He slid into the car, appreciating the protective cold cocoon of metal and glass, not that he showed it. As soon as Hume deposited his bag in the back and crawled in behind the wheel, he said, “I understand he has injuries other than the bullet wound.”

“They had them quite a war out there. Doe played hell with them before they stopped him, and they died doing it. The way the detectives read it, Doe killed the first man in a fight, broke his neck. The others retaliated.”

He hesitated and swallowed distastefully. “He either got away or they were foolish enough to let him go. He retaliated in spades, burned their camp, including their bikes, and poisoned their water, the reason the women died. Exposure is a damned hard way to go. He’s got to be sick to do a thing like that.”

Shaking his head, he obviously still found it hard to believe. “I never saw anything like it before. If he hadn’t overlooked the ice chest and it hadn’t rained, they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they did. Jane Doe wouldn’t have made it. It’s the worst kind of premeditated murder I’ve ever seen.”

“You haven’t seen it all then,” Pratters said in a flat, indifferent tone.

Hume’s head swung around. “You haven’t seen anyone die of exposure.”

“Compared to some of the things I’ve seen those animals were responsible for, exposure was a kindness. They died.”

Hume swallowed hard, remembering the other survivor. “He still killed them,” he said tightly, looking back at the road.

“You can take my word for it. They intended to kill him.”

“Sure, after what he did.”

“Before—they never let him go.”

Hume glanced around at him again. “You’re the expert on the motorcycle gangs. So why didn’t they kill him then?”

“Maybe Jane was more interesting.”

Hume blanched. “She was beaten and raped repeatedly.”

“But not killed.”

“The doctors say she won’t ever be the same.”

“That’s what I said. Sometimes dying is easier.”

Hume’s fist pounded the steering wheel. “They’re animals, filthy, rotten animals.”

Pratters stared ahead, unaffected by the rush of emotion from Hume or the subject.

“How do you stand it?” Hume asked.

“I keep my temper under control and use everything I can get to use against them. This isn’t the first time I’ve taken a spur-of-the-moment flight. I’ll seize any opportunity to get even one piece of evidence on any of them.”

“Ought to castrate the bastards.”

“You get the law passed, and I’ll do the cutting.”

“She’s just a kid, just a tiny little kid.”

Pratters knew Hume didn’t necessarily refer to Jane Doe’s actual size or age. Seeing someone mentally shattered made them seem smaller. Her state of mind, however, didn’t soften Patters’ voice.

“Any ID on her yet?”

“No and there’s not much chance of it. She either can’t or won’t tell her name. With so many run-aways, dozens fit her description.”

Hume went from fury to drowning in compassion. The latter appealed to Pratters less than the former. He changed the subject. “I understand you were the first at the scene. Mind giving me a first-hand account of what you found?”

“Sure,” he said willingly.

Pratters suspected Hume’s eagerness to comply came from this case being the most important thing to happen in his career and probably always would be.

“I picked up a distress call on a citizen’s band. At first, I thought it was because of all the flooding. The woman was hysterical, repeating her message without letting up on the button long enough for me to answer. When I finally got through, she calmed down. She gave me an accurate location and was telling me she needed an ambulance when she broke off. I couldn’t raise her again. I could see why when I got there. They shot the hell out of her RV.”

“What kind of RV?”

“Motorhome. Nice job, twenty-four-footer with everything. She even had—”

Pratters was getting more detail than he wanted. “What did you find when you got there?”

“The way she was parked, I thought maybe she’d had a heart attack or something. I pulled up behind it. I saw the bodies and motorcycles down the embankment when I walked around the end. Even from there, there was no doubt they were dead, heads were gone. The side of the RV was shot up, windows shattered, and Doe’s legs were sticking out the door.”

His air of importance diminished with the seriousness of what he described. He paused and swallowed. “You don’t expect to find something like that. I don’t mind telling you, I didn’t like the idea of walking up to that door. I felt like an idiot when I jumped out, pointing my gun at them. She didn’t even look up, and he couldn’t.”

He shook his head. “I thought he was dead. You’ll see why when you see him, and they were both covered with blood. She was crying, and she kept stroking his head, like you’d see someone do to a hurt child. Man, it was weird. Her hand was cut, and she kept rubbing blood in his hair.”

“I take it she was in the door with him,” Pratters said drily.

“Yeah, sitting on the top step, holding him with her legs and arms. When I tried to move him, she screamed at me. She said she had to hold him, or he’d die. Hell, I didn’t know what to do. I could see why she was holding him like that with her hand pressed on his chest. Anything more was past any first aid I knew, and I couldn’t have gotten him away without fighting her. I left them alone and called in.”

“What did she do then?”

“Nothing,” he said glumly. “Other than when I tried to move him, she didn’t seem to know I was there. I checked on the other two. He shot one of them twice, the other one three times. He pumped bullets into their heads after they were dead. He just did it to mutilate them.”

Pratters’ voice was as dry and indifferent as ever. “Or to make double sure they were dead.”

“Well, they damn sure were. He blew their heads off. It seems to be a favorite thing. He did it to three of them.”

A head shot was the surest way to be positive the men wouldn’t get up again, but Pratters let the thought pass unspoken. “What about the woman?” he asked.

“She didn’t come out of it until the medic talked to her. When they started finding out the extent of damage done to him, they called for a chopper. I could see a little of it, but I didn’t have any idea how bad he was until they started looking him over.”

“Did the woman?”

“She just knew he was hurt. She found him on the side of the road, helped him inside, and then called for help. She was talking to me when the other two showed up. That was why she cut off like she did.”

“If she wouldn’t let you move him, why did she let the medics?”

Hume shrugged. “They talked to her while they took his vitals and didn’t try to move him away from her until she seemed to understand who they were. They said she was the only reason he was still alive. She held him up so he could breathe with that lung filling with blood, and she kept her hand over the wound, keeping the chest cavity from filling with air. It’s kind of spooky the way a person can be that far gone in shock and still be able to do the right thing. She could just as easily have gone screaming and running into the desert to end up like the other two women.”

“What did she do when she came out of it?”

“Not much at first. The medic took her hand, telling her he wanted to clean it. She jerked away from him and looked down at herself, kind of funny like, then jumped up, saying something about being dirty. He followed her back into the RV and waited until she came out. Then she let him—”

“Came out of where?” Patters asked, showing the first sign of interest.

“The shower.”

“Shower!” he roared. “You let her take a shower?”

Hume stared at him long enough to drift over the center line. A blast from an oncoming car snapped him out of it. “Why not? She was all bloody, and the medic said—”

“What shape were her clothes in?”

“Bloody.”

“Torn?”

“No, just bloody.”

“What does she look like, how old?” Patters questioned rapidly.

“What has what she looks like got to do with anything?”

“Pretty, plain, what?”

“Plain as a mud fence.”

“How old?”

“Thirty or so.”

“She said she found him on the side of the road?” Hume nodded numbly. “What else?”

“Not much. She didn’t know much. It all happened too fast. When he heard the bikes, he pushed her. She hit her head, and it stunned her. The medic said that’s probably why she didn’t remember much.”

“Neat,” Patters said with a snarl of contempt.

“I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“I’m not getting at anything,” he told him flatly.

“You act like she did something wrong. If you’re making something out of her wanting her name withheld, I don’t blame her. Other people would do the same thing you’re doing, and she doesn’t deserve it. She got the hell scared out of her, and she’ll probably never stop for anyone again.”

“She probably wishes she never had.”

“Which would be natural. A person like that has never been any closer to real violence than news on T.V. She stopped. That’s more than most would have done.”

“A person like what?” Patters asked, dropping back to detached indifference.

Hume rolled his eyes in exasperation. “She takes pictures of nature. Pick up a copy of Arizona Highways. Some of her work is in this month’s edition.”

“What did the doctor’s examination come up with?”

Hume got lost in what seemed like a change of subject to him. “Which one?”

“On her.”

“The medic found a lump on the back of her head and cuts on her hands and knees from crawling in the glass. There wasn’t any sign of concussion, but he still thought she should have gone to the hospital.”

“Did she?”

“No, she wanted to go home. He advised her to see her own doctor.” He asked again, “Why?”

Pratters dropped it with a slight shrug and changed the subject. “Any chance Jane Doe is faking?”

Hume shook his head, his face flushing with anger. “This wasn’t the first time she’d been beaten. They suspect brain damage, but she’s so hysterical it’s hard to tell how severe it might be.”

“There’s not much chance of getting any information from her?”

“No,” he answered tightly.

“John Doe’s the only chance then,” he stated, exhibiting as much indifferent to Hume’s anger as to the condition of Jane Doe’s mind.

“He wouldn’t give you the time of day.”

“He might if it makes things easier for him.”

Hume twisted to stare at him. “You can’t offer him any deals.”

“Watch where you’re driving,” Patters told him, watching a parked car coming up fast on his side.

Hume turned back to the front, speaking through a partially locked jaw. “You can’t, not after what he did to those women. It’s not in your jurisdiction. County and state have priorities. You’re just here as an advisor. He isn’t going to get away with murdering those women.”

“I’ll tell you something about those women you’re wasting your compassion on. They were just as vicious as the men. Some of them are like your little Jane Doe, but most of them want to be there. If you could get Jane to tell it, you’d find out they did as much to her as the men.”

Hume showed how naïve he was. “They couldn’t!” he exclaimed.

“She has rope burns on her ankles, doesn’t she? It’s the women’s job to tie them. They strip them naked, hitting them as many times as it takes to get them to submit. They tie their hands behind their backs and their legs apart with a stick between their ankles. If it’s a mock or initiation, the stick ends aren’t sharpened to a point. If it is, it’s a blow-out, a slow agonizing death while every perverted sex act thought of is done, and it isn’t always a man or his penis that—”

“God,” Hume groaned.

“Make you sick? Good. Keep it in mind when I tell you I’ll use any means available to stop them, including letting one bastard go to get two or three. That bastard is always left, and it won’t be long before I’ll get him on something else if his friends don’t kill him first for dealing with me.”

“You’re as bad as they are.”

“Would you like me to tell you how they do it to a man or how much easier it is for them to do it to a child?”

“You don’t even know if they have done those things!” Hume cried.

“Yes, I do. That’s why they send for me. I know this gang, and I know their methods. The stick thing is their favorite. For variation, they put the stick between the—”

“God damn you, shut up!”

“If John Doe is someone I can use, I’ll take him,” he told him coldly. “I don’t care whose toes I step on.”

* * *

Hume led Patters to the intensive care unit, but wouldn’t go in. A doctor stood at the nurses’ station reading a chart. Pratters went to him. The hiss thump of respirators and beeping of electronic equipment were the only sounds in the quiet, hushed cubicles, until Patters spoke.

The introductions were short, accompanied by a show of Patters’ credentials. The doctor barely looked up, gave his name as Doctor Daniel Thristen and answered Pratters’ question absently. “Critical.”

“You can be more specific,” Pratters told him tartly.

Calm, grey eyes rose to study Pratters’ face. Without a word, he handed Pratters the chart.

Pratters worked his way through the bad handwriting. One item struck his interest and explained Hume’s uneasiness at one point. “Sodomy?”

“That’s an uncomplicated way of putting it.”

“Interesting but hardly the cause of his impending death.”

The doctor’s voice was droll in his answer. “Interesting is hardly the word I would use, but you are right, a torn rectum and bruised genitals are not the cause of his critical condition. It’s internal hemorrhaging.” He paused, no doubt waiting for a response from Pratters and got none. “We can’t stop it without surgery, and we can’t operate until it stops. So far the whole blood and coagulants haven’t overtaken the bleeding enough to stabilize him.”

“There is some hope?”

“Remote at this point, but as long as the machines keep his heart and remaining undamaged lung functioning, there is some.”

“I’d like to see him.”

The doctor didn’t like him. Pratters knew it and didn’t care. John Doe was one of them. If he’d done something to turn the gang against him, he’d only received what he had done to others. Fitting punishment and one the law would not dispense.

They crossed to a cubical with the front curtain drawn to shut the sight away. The doctor pulled the curtain before he folded the covers back from the still form on the bed. Pratters could easily see why. Nothing could be more destructive to the morale of visitors to a seriously ill person than seeing a sight like that.

“We shaved his head, face, and pubic area. Easier to get rid of lice that way. We also cut his throat. The tube through it is for the respirator. It’s the only reason he’s still breathing.”

Pratters’ gaze went to where he pointed. “Rope burns on the neck, wrists, knees, and these bruises on the ankles would be if he hadn’t had boots on. Lots of pressure, broken blood vessels. Feet are undamaged. Knees, rope burns already mentioned, and lacerations on the inside of each. Right is more severe. Object was sharp, irregular, and wood to judge by the bits we dug out. Contusions and abrasions on the front, indicating he crawled or was dragged. Thighs, more contusions from blows by blunt objects.”

He skipped the torso going to the head. “No serious injury to the skull or brain. Rather amazing when you consider what was done to the face. Two more teeth were knocked out.”

“More teeth?” Pratters asked, staring hard at the mutilated face.

“The first and second incisors were lost at an earlier date. No denture. He either lost it when that happened or never had one. The laceration through the cheek is minor. The one through the lip will require plastic surgery if he’s ever to be pretty again.”

Pratters looked at the misshapen lump of a nose the doctor pointed at and doubted if he ever had been.

“Old break,” the doctor informed him. “Nasty one and healed without attention. The other abrasions and bruises are minor. Shoulders and arms are covered with abrasions, bruises, and shallow lacerations. Left shoulder seems to be sprained, some swelling. His kidneys are not functioning, a common occurrence in trauma.” He pointed to a needle embedded in the right arm, “That we did.”

Pratters gazed as indifferently at the tubes inserted in a muscular forearm with as much disinterest and lack of compassion as he did everything else. He didn’t care if the man had to have a machine draw out his blood, filter it, and send it back into a body no longer capable of doing it. No more than he cared that a machine filled and emptied one remaining whole lung with life sustaining oxygen for the same reason.

The doctor pointed to the groin area. Pratters’ eyes followed to stare at something he’d noticed the second it came into view.

“Nasty scars,” the doctor stated, “but they have nothing to do with his present condition, so I’m sure you aren’t interested in them.”

“Wrong,” Pratters told him curtly. “I’d like to know how he got them.”

“They weren’t made with a knife. The edges are too irregular. My guess would be shrapnel.”

That did interest Patters. He looked up to ask, “Nam?”

He found the doctor watching him closely. “Probably. He’s too young for Korea. That was where I saw the same type of wounds. He’s fortunate surgery techniques have improved since then. They did a good job on him.”

“Are you talking about plastic surgery?”

The doctor nodded and pointed. “Corrective work. I’d guess the cuts were deep enough to have affected the genital nerves.”

“Enough for him to be impotent?”

“That would depend on how deep or how well they sewed him back together. I haven’t tested for it. Would you like me to?”

His sarcasm wasn’t missed. Patters glared at him. “Just go on with your story.”

“Where did I leave off? Oh, yes, chest, abdomen, and groin. All have various bruising from blunt objects, except for that, which appears to be a bite mark.” He pointed to one mark before pointing to a small bandage on the upper left chest. “This is where we begin to get serious. Bullet wound, the bullet is still in there. The lung is punctured by a fractured rib as well and hemorrhaging. The tube through his nose is sucking out the blood to keep him from drowning.”

His finger dropped to point to a swollen black and blue area the size of a cantaloupe, still on the left side, but to the lower end of the ribcage. “This is the critical. Underneath the fractured ribs is the lung and below it is the spleen. We don’t know yet how extensive the damage is to either. We do know there is hemorrhaging, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

“Yet.”

“Yet,” he agreed. “Anything else you would like to know?”

Pratters ignored the sarcasm. “How long could he have moved around like that?”

“Not long enough to walk out of this room, and he couldn’t have walked.”

“According to the report, he did.”

“According to what I understand, he rode a motorcycle.” He pulled the covers back over the man, taking the time and care to place the arms with the various tubes connected to them, on the outside.

“He had to walk to it.”

“Or crawl.” He straightened to stare at Pratters in distaste. “Or it wasn’t far. Or he hadn’t punctured the lung yet or been shot and started to hemorrhage.”

“Those ribs could have been fractured without causing the hemorrhaging immediately?”

“Fractured ribs don’t always puncture or tear at the tissue beneath. Binding prevents it and if binding isn’t possible, care in movement can. He would not have been able to lift or twist, and he would have had to have carried his arm to his side. If he had lifted it above his shoulder, it would have caused a puncture.”

“This couldn’t have happened before he fired the camp?”

“If he did.”

Pratters gave him a cutting look as he turned and walked out. He’d done it, all right. That kind of violence was just his style. Pratters stepped into the hall with reaction setting in. Bell! It had to be Bell. Pratters always feared this was going to happen, had ever since the man started blackmailing him. If Bell died, there would be no problem, but men like Bell didn’t die. They held on to extort and blackmail. How could he make the payment Bell would demand now? How could he possibly protect him?

* * *

Pratters couldn’t totally hide his reaction. He didn’t, however, want anyone seeing it, including Hume. He refused to answer when Hume asked if he recognized John Doe and walked off, demanding to be taken to Jane’s room.

His reaction to being told he could not see her was nearly explosive. Hume moved to prevent what he seemed to think was a threat of violence to the nurse who barred Pratters’ way. Pratters spun off, demanding to be taken to the morgue.

At the morgue, Hume’s attitude changed to disgust he didn’t hide over Pratters’ and the coroner’s callousness as they walked down the row of drawers, pulling them out to view the bodies. Neither batted an eye or suffered from difficulty with breathing at the sight of mutilated heads, blistered faces, or the early stages of decomposition.

Pratters read through the autopsy reports with as much concern—less than most people read the daily paper. From the tone of voice both used when Pratters finished, they could have just as easily been discussing the weather.

“Six days?” Pratters asked.

“Seven as a maximum. I’d say four as a minimum. The weather element out there alters the normal decomposing times. First, we had the dry heat, then wet from rain, then damp heat. Broken neck was first. He laid on his back during rigor mortis. Then he was moved and buried face down. Four to six days from the time he was brought in. Two to four days later the other two were killed. The one missing an arm was not moved from the time he fell and died. The last one brought in was killed about the same time. He laid on his back during rigor mortis, and moved, either to be thrown in the wash or by the flood water. The first two brought in were easy. The women were still hot, but they had been dead several hours. The heat and rain make it tricky.”

“How much time do you estimate between the first two gunshots and the last?”

“One to two full days.”

“Same gun killed them all?”

The coroner shrugged. “I just measure the holes. Same caliber gun, but there were no bullets for ballistics.”

Pratters mused aloud. “Four to seven days from start to finish.”

“Sorry I can’t be more accurate.”

“You do what you can.”

* * *

Pratters recoiled from the heat build-up in the closed car, and Hume wasn’t so disgusted as to not feel sorry for him. “Let me get the air conditioner started before you get in.”

Pratters waited, his head already pounding from the heat. When Hume signaled, he crawled inside and leaning into the cool air pouring out of the dash ports. “How do you people stand it?”

“July is a bad month.”

“What’s a good month?”

“January.” He eased into traffic. “Where to now?”

“The lab.”

Hume sighed. Pratters had no sympathy for the hours more Hume waited while he went over everything the lab boys had gathered from the charred remains of the camp to the clothes taken off John Doe.

He also spent time, to Hume’s ire, searching through the shattered RV. “Did she remove anything?”

“Not personally. She asked for her camera. The department had someone take it to her.”

“Was it in a case of some kind?”

“Yes, and it was searched and dusted before it was released.”

“I’d like to see her statement.”

“I’ve got a copy of it in the car.”

He started out, and Pratters followed. “I’ll read it on the way to the scenes.”

Hume stopped short. “I don’t think you better go out there.”

“Trying to keep me away?”

Hume retorted. “If you’re smart, you’d stay away. You can’t take the heat.”

“I wouldn’t be stranded.”

“No.” He turned away in disgust and started for the car again. “There’d be someone there to rush you to the hospital.”

“Don’t think—”

He whipped back to face Pratters. “I’m not being smart. Look at yourself. You’re sweating like a horse and not cooling off. If you don’t watch it, you’ll have a heat stroke or go into heat exhaustion. They aren’t fun, either one.”

He shoved the door open and marched to the car. Head throbbing, Pratters waited as the car’s cooling system cranked out cool air before getting in.

Hume tossed a bottle to him when he slid in. “Salt tablets.”

“I’d rather have some aspirin.”

“Those will do more for the cause.” He jerked the gear lever and moved out on the street.

Pratters looked at the bottle, looked at Hume, and held his head. “What’s the difference between a stroke and exhaustion?”

“Convulsions with one, cramps and vomiting with the other, and both will knock you out or kill you.”

“What is it now?”

“Sick,” Hume said, sounding like he had something bad tasting in his mouth. “A cold shower, a cool room, and a nap will take care of it.”

“I guess living out here you’d have to know all about strokes and such to survive. I suppose Miss, ah...” He waved his hand trying to recall a name he hadn’t heard.

Hume didn’t fall for the ploy and give Pratters an answer he wanted. “I suppose so. She goes out in that desert all the time. She’d be an idiot if she didn’t.”

“Did she seem like one to you?”

“No, just shook. Why don’t you lay back and rest?”

“Sounds like a good idea, but I can rest later. Where’s that statement?”

Hume pointed to a folder of papers. “Where do you want to go now?”

“Back to the hospital.”

* * *

Hume seethed again, and as usual, Pratters didn’t give a damn. He had a plan, and a uniform or witness didn’t fit in. He made Hume stay in the hall.

As he suspected, Jane Doe was not tiny, though she was young. She jumped to her knees and drew herself into a huddled ball in the middle of the bed when he walked in. Her pupils were huge with fright, and her face was scarlet with sunburn.

Pratters glanced behind him to make sure the door was closed and pressed his finger to his lips. “Your old man sent me,” he whispered to her.

“Al?” she cried, rising out of her huddle.

“Shh.” He looked over his shoulder at the door, moving closer to the bed. “Yeah, Al sent me to look out for you.”

She whispered, loud enough to be heard twenty feet away. “When’s he coming after me? I don’t like it here. They keep asking me questions.”

Pratters hoped the door was thick enough to keep the conversation private. “You haven’t told them anything?” he asked sharply, though still in a whisper.

“Noooo.” She shook her head from side to side, assuring him she hadn’t. “Al told me never to tell anyone anything.”

“Good.” He sat down on the edge of the bed. “Al can’t come for you right now. The pigs have him.” Her eyes filled with tears and fear came back into her eyes. Pratters kept talking. “That’s why he sent me to take care of you. You’re supposed to do what I tell you.”

“He isn’t ever coming,” she whined.

“Sure, he is, just as soon as he gets out. That’s why I’ve got to talk to you. You can help.”

“I want to, really I do. Al takes good care of me. He’s my old man.”

“Good. You know how it is in the slammer. It’s hard to talk. Al couldn’t tell me very much, and I have to know what happened.”

“Are you a lawyer?”

“Right and more importantly, I’m on the outside. I grease the wheels to make things go easier.”

“Are you Davidson?”

“You got it,” he agreed, tucking that name away for future use. “Tell me what happened.”

“When?”

Pratters bit his tongue. “In the desert.”

“I got lost looking for Al.”

“Before that. Why did Bell kill Joey?”

With a shrug, she said, “Made him mad.”

“What did Joey do to make him mad?”

“He was just mad, and Joey was closest.”

“Why was he mad?” Pratters forced his voice to a gentle level, and it wasn’t easy. He knew he had to go easy if he was to get any answers out of her.

“They tried to get Prissy.”

Pratters quickened in interest. “Prissy?”

She nodded. “Bell’s old lady. He never shares, and Al says he should.”

“Okay,” he said with satisfaction, beginning to understand. “Al and the others wanted Prissy, and Bell wouldn’t let them have her. They got into a fight, and Bell killed Joey. What happened then?”

“Al and Dago went to look for Prissy.”

“Did they find her?”

“No.” Her eyes filled with tears. “They used me.”

Pratters backtracked quickly. “What did Bell do when Al and Dago left?”

“He just laid there.”

Pratters took a deep breath to quiet his impatience. “He was unconscious?”

“Al hit him with a rock.”

“Then someone hurt Bell.” He used the word with a twist.

“Ready’s mean. I knew she was going to hurt him. I went in the tent so I wouldn’t have to see. That’s what made him mad, and what Fingers did. That hurts more than what Ready did. I know. It hurts.”

Her eyes filled with tears again. Pratters hoped they’d go away on their own. He asked, “But they didn’t kill him?” She shook her head. “Why not?” She shrugged. “They were going to kill him.” She nodded again. “Why didn’t they?”

“Al hit Ready. He said it was all her fault. She was supposed to tell him when he woke up, but she didn’t. She hurt him more, and he got loose while they hurt me.”

Tears spilled out of her eyes, and Pratters’ voice grew hard and cold. “What’s the big deal? That’s what you’re for, isn’t it?”

She choked back the tears, nodding at him. “Don’t tell Al, please.”

“I got better things to do. What happened after Bell got away?”

“I went to sleep.”

Pratters groaned. God, what a simple creature. “What happened the next day?”

“We looked for Prissy.”

“Not Bell?” he asked in surprise.

“Oh, no,” she told him emphatically. “Bell told Ready they better not cross the wash, or he’d think they were coming for him. He said he’d be back in two days, and Fingers better be there, or the deal was off. Al said he must have met Prissy, and she must have seen what really happened and told Bell, and that was why he came back and burnt everything.”

“You’re sure it was Bell?”

She nodded. “He made Al awful mad. When Fingers got back, they went after him, Al figured out he wasn’t across the wash at all, ’cause it was always the hill he took Prissy to, and he figured out that’s where he had Prissy hid, and he must have been right, ’cause we heard shooting, and no one came back but Bell. He took the Jeep.”

Pratters stopped her quickly. “What Jeep?”

“Prissy’s Jeep. Bell wouldn’t share her, and Al says he should share, that she should be initiated if she was going to stay, but he said she wouldn’t be there that long. He never kept one more than three days.”

Pratters stopped her again. Once he’d got her started, it was a flood of rattle that barely made sense. “How long did he keep her?”

She shrugged. “He told her he was going to take her home, but Ready and Jolene told her he lied, and it made him mad when she wouldn’t mind, and he suffocated her.”

“He killed her?”

“Not then, but Al figured he was going to when he said it’d be two days before he’d come back, and he sent Fingers for the stuff and guns, ’cause Bell had a gun, and he used it to stop a claim fight.”

“Who’d he shoot?”

“No one, but I was afraid he shot Al when Al didn’t come back. I went looking for him, and I got lost when it started to rain, and I couldn’t find him or the camp, and—andI got so scared.”

She started crying, making what she said difficult to understand. “I didn’t want Bell to find me. He wanted to take me home, and he comes back covered with blood. Al said he must use a knife for so much blood. Dago says he must stick them with a knife ’cause he can’t get it up.”

“Calm down and back up,” Pratters told her curtly.

Pratters couldn’t quiet her as she went into hysterics. In a rage over losing control, he stormed out of her room, heading for the intensive care unit, too much in a rage to care that Hume followed. While Hume stopped in the hall, Pratters marched straight to the foot of Bell’s bed.

The doctor came up quickly behind him. “He’s the same.”

“If I didn’t need the bastard,” Pratters told him with the hatred drawing his mouth into a snarl, “I’d pull the plugs myself.”

He spun around. The curtain thrashed as he threw it out of his way. When he came out of the door, Hume stood there.

“Get off my tail. I don’t need a babysitter, and you can tell your bosses that.”

 

 

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