Excerpt: Flash Memory

Excerpt: Flash Memory

Book 2: Lost Hat, Texas Mysteries

CHAPTER 1

I shot the sheriff just after ten. It wasn’t easy; he kept squirming around and cracking jokes. I was booked to shoot the chief deputy at eleven and hoped he would be more cooperative.

It might not be art, but it was a living.

The Penelope Trigg Photography Studio in Lost Hat brought in enough to cover property taxes and utilities, thanks to the low rates out here in west central Texas, plus my assistant’s wages—so far. I had enough savings to keep me in canned soup and coffee for one year. After that, I would have to get creative.

“One down, one to go.” I slid the check for a hundred and fifty dollars into the deposit bag and handed it to Tillie across the reception counter. Not bad for an hour’s work. I still had the editing and the printing, but my time didn’t count as an expense. What else did I have to do?

“There’ll be more when we get the campaign posters made.” Tillie’s twisted smile managed to convey optimism and anxiety in one tangled expression. She was wearing way too much makeup and had dyed a garish pink streak down the length of her blue-black hair. Possibly a lingering influence of the graduating seniors we’d done portraits for all last month. Such extreme adversity does have strange after-effects.

Deputy Dare Thompson pulled his county vehicle into a space in front of the studio at 11:00 sharp. He had driven over from the Long County Law Enforcement Center, a whole two blocks away on the other side of the courthouse square.

Wasteful? Well, yes. But if the gods had intended Texans to walk, they wouldn’t have given us trucks.

Dare hopped up the curb and strode smartly through the door. He was trim as a cadet, his black hair neatly barbered and his brown eyes bright as agates. I’d pegged him for an ex-Army sergeant the first time I laid eyes on him. I’d seen enough of them, growing up.

“Howdy, Dare.” I stepped forward to shake hands. He had a nice firm grip, not too soft and not too hard.

“Penny. What’s the procedure?”

We were on first-name terms because he was dating Diana Hawkins, who was the sister of my boyfriend and most important client, Tyler. When you bump heads over the coffeepot in your jammies on Sunday morning, formal titles fall by the wayside.

I led him back to the screened area I use for portraits, leaving Tillie at the front desk behind the counter. My studio was a limestone classic, built in 1928. It was about seventy by thirty feet with fifteen-foot ceilings, oak trim, and heart pine floors. I loved it with a helpless passion. The light could be extraordinary, streaming through the big front windows, reflecting off the mellow stone walls, and setting the wood aglow. The second floor was stuffed to the rafters with the antiques I’d inherited from my Great-Aunt Sophia along with the building. I’d also gotten her three-bedroom bungalow and a three-quarter ton GMC truck that I called “The Hulk” on account of its being large, ugly, and green.

I’d hung a drape down the wall at the back of the studio and rigged a set of white canvas screens on casters that I could move around to control the light and provide privacy for my portrait clients. I settled the deputy in a chair inside the screens and adjusted the lights and reflector umbrellas.

Dare didn’t squirm and he didn’t crack wise. He also never smiled. He sat there with a straight back and a solemn face, watching me like he was observing a crime in progress.

His gaze was intimidating and made me feel vaguely guilty—definitely not the best look for a campaign poster. If he wanted to give Sheriff Hopper a run for his money, he needed to loosen up. I knew he could smile; I’d seen him do it at the Hawkins’ house. Diana had promised to come help me with him, but she’d flaked out. I did my best to bring out his lighter side, cracking lame Army jokes and pretending to trip over extension cords. No joy. I even tried some of Diana’s flirty nonsense, like, “Come on along, Dare-a-ling-dong,” but that turned his jaw to granite and his glare to ice.

I needed fresh inspiration. Then the bell over the front door jangled.

“Tillie, what on earth have you done with your hair?” My cousin Marion Albrecht’s clarion tones rang against the rock walls. When I moved to Lost Hat, Marion appointed herself my surrogate aunt, with full rights to meddle in my business. She was the Long County Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Sciences and had an office in the courthouse across the street. She knew everything about everything and never hesitated to share her bounty.

Tillie mumbled something.

“It won’t do you one bit of good to imitate that flibbertigibbet Diana, you know,” Marion scolded.

I backed up a step and poked my head around the screen. “Language, Marion, please! I’ve got a deputy sheriff in here.”

I looked back at Dare and repeated the word flibbertigibbet in my best Donald Duck voice. That got an honest-to-gosh, full-on smile out of him. I managed to get three shots off before it faded. Thank you, Donald! Who knew the deadpan deputy liked cartoons?

Our eyes met. I licked my finger and drew a point in the air. Game over; the photographer wins again. We were finished, so we walked on up to the front.

“Marion.” Dare tilted his head in a short nod.

“Dare.” She turned to face him, one hand planted on her hip, the other balanced on the reception counter. “When is that silly girl coming back? I’m at the end of my rope over there.”

The silly girl was Diana. She was the administrative assistant at the Extension Office and she’d been AWOL for over a week. According to Tillie, this was the sort of thing Diana used to do all the time: haring off with her wild friends for a weeks-long toot in Dallas. She had settled down considerably after taking up with Dare last fall, staying sober and getting a steady job with Marion, the Czarina of Stability.

“Don’t give up on her, Marion,” Dare said. “People don’t change overnight. She’s come a long way in the last year. We have to be patient with her.” His voice was calm, but worry shaded the fine lines at the corners of his eyes. I wondered if their relationship had hit a bump that knocked her off the wagon.

Then he added his spin. “I think she wanted a little time-out. Time alone. Ty’s been pressuring her pretty hard about that project of his.” He shot a look at me. Ty was restoring the ranch he and Diana had inherited and I was doing a photo-documentary of the process.

“You could be right,” I said. Ty was hands down my favorite boyfriend so far. He might even be the One. But he was more than a little competitive and could be a shade on the bossy side. Diana, in my observation, did not like to be pushed.

“She might have consulted me,” Marion said. “When the Extension Office falls into total chaos, I suppose the whole county will have to be patient too.” Marion sounded severely miffed, but then that was one of her favorite moods. She wore it like a perfume: Eau de Huffy.

“That’s why I’m here.” She looked at me. “I want Tillie to take Diana’s job, at least temporarily. Graduation season is long over. You can’t afford an assistant anymore.”

Tillie looked half stricken at the idea of working for Marion and half pleased to be wanted. She shrank into her chair at the desk behind the counter. I didn’t like the implication that I didn’t have enough work to keep an employee, even if it might be true. Ty’s project was enough to keep me going, barely, but I didn’t need Tillie for that. Spending the profits from the graduation portraits to keep her around for company was sheer extravagance.

But it was my call, not Marion’s. I didn’t want to lose Tillie. The Espinoza clan formed a major pillar of the Lost Hat community. Tillie’s mother and grandfather owned a popular Mexican restaurant, one of her aunts owned a popular beauty salon, and one of her uncles was a desk sergeant in the sheriff’s department. I got all the hottest gossip, straight off the griddle. That was important, and not just for the entertainment value. I had only moved to Lost Hat last December and was still getting oriented, people-wise.

Tillie would earn her keep eventually by bringing in more business. Besides, we’d been through some tough times last February and taken each other’s measure, as my father put it. We were pals.

“Get your own Tillie.” I leaned in to wrap my arms around her plump shoulders. “This one’s mine.”

Tillie giggled. Marion scowled. I smirked.

Dare said, “Diana will be back before you know it, Marion. You can survive another week without her.” A bleakness in the back of his eyes contradicted his optimistic words. Maybe she’d broken up with him and left to give them both a time-out?

He wrote me a check and we set a date for him to come back to look at the campaign poster layouts. He held the door for Marion, who gave Tillie a stern parting look. “Think about my offer, young lady. County benefits. Secure employment.”

We stood by the desk, watching her walk across the hot street into the shade of the magnificent old pecan trees around the courthouse.

“You probably should think about it,” I said. “County benefits are nothing to sneeze at.” I’d given up sneezing myself, since I couldn’t afford health insurance. “If Diana doesn’t sober up and come home pretty soon, her job is going to be a hot commodity.”

“Work for Marion? All the whole week?” Tillie shuddered. “Besides, there isn’t going to be any job. Diana will come breezing back in like the Queen of Siam and everyone will forgive her, as per usual.”

I caught a visual of Diana riding into the courthouse square on an elephant and had to blink hard to clear it.

Tillie sat behind the desk and entered Dare’s check into the accounting thingy she’d set up for me. Another reason I needed her: I wasn’t much good at the number-crunching. They’d carelessly neglected to give us courses in small business management at art school.

“Who’s up next?”

Tillie glanced at her desk calendar. “There’s the commissioner tomorrow—Carson Caine. More campaign posters.” She flipped to the next week and the one following. “After that, um…”

After that, nothing, I already knew. “Something’ll come up. Maybe Caine’s opponent will be so impressed he’ll want us to do his posters too.”

“But they won’t want makeup. The deputies didn’t.” Tillie was the makeup expert as well as the chief accounting officer.

“Maybe somebody will get married. Then they’ll all need makeup, groom included.”

Tillie’s round face brightened. “Like Diana and Dare, maybe. Mom said that Sheriff Hopper’s sister said that Dare was like this close to popping the question.” She measured a millimeter with her fingers.

“More like this close.” I held out my hands like I was bragging about a fish. “Since she’s hiding out in Dallas.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Tillie said. Her black eyes glittered, a sign of gossip simmering up. “At least not the Dallas part.”

“What have you heard?”

“Not heard, exactly. But you know that developer guy, Roger Bainbridge?”

“Don’t we all?” Roger “Call me the Dodger” Bainbridge had been making the rounds of Long County landowners lately, trying to hustle up some bargain acreage. He had somehow persuaded himself that we were next in line for a boom in the Hill Country outdoor recreation market. He wanted a piece of Ty’s spa project so badly it made him drool, and I mean that literally. He kept licking his lips and clearing his throat, wearing the same hungry expression when he looked at the landscape as when he looked at Diana.

“He took me and Ben out for drinks the other night,” Tillie said, “to see if we might be interested in buying a house, or so he said. We’re nowhere near ready, but Ben said, ‘Why turn down a free beer?’”

I shrugged. “Can’t imagine that guy giving anything away without a looong string attached.”

“Yeah. He spent like two seconds on that topic and then asked a bunch of questions about Ben’s father’s pasture lease at Ty’s ranch. How long had he had it, how many cattle, how hard would it be to move them somewhere else…”

“As if it was any of his business! Ty can’t stand the guy. I mean he really, seriously, growling-in-the-back-of-the-throat despises him. And the way he looks at Diana—”

“Yeah,” Tillie said, with heat this time. “Turns out that’s what he really wanted. Ben was telling him about how the lease works, being polite, you know. Answering the guy’s questions. But Roger just blatantly stopped listening, looking around at the waitresses like he was totally bored. Then, before Ben even finished, he interrupted him, like, ‘Uh-huh. That’s great. So, have y’all known Diana a long time? How serious is her thing with that cop?’”

I clucked my tongue.

“That’s what I thought,” Tillie said. “What he really wanted was some dirt on Dare. Like we had any! It was horrible. And you know how twitchy Ben gets whenever anybody mentions the almighty Lady Di.”

I had not known that interesting fact, but I did now. The snark in her tone was unmistakable. That pink hair stripe made more sense too. I shook my head. “Roger’s hot for her, that’s obvious. He looks at her like—”

“Like she was a three-scoop banana split with extra fudge sauce. It’s disgusting.”

I was going to say a juicy steak with extra mushrooms, but to each her own. “So let him look. Diana might like to flirt, but she’s not stupid. What could she possibly see in that bozo? He’s bogus from top to bottom. He’s bogosity times ten.”

“I don’t know.” Tillie sounded doubtful. “He is kind of good-looking. And he’s got a really cool car. A brand new red Cadillac Escalade. The seats are genuine leather and they have these little heaters inside to warm them up. Ben said it was worth the bullshit just for the ride.”

“A cow has a real leather seat.” I’d meant that to be sassy, but it occurred to me that cattle also produced a lot of bullshit and you didn’t ride them, so not actually all that funny. Ah, well. You can’t score every time. “What you’re saying is, we might not be shooting the Dare-Diana wedding anytime soon.”

“Probably not. But lots of people get married after graduation. Or maybe there’ll be a reunion or something. Can we do reunions?”

“We can do anything. Worst comes to worst, we can even do pornography.”

Tillie’s eyes popped. “Um, I don’t think my husband…”

“Just kidding.” I was saving pornography for a really, really rainy day. I slapped my hands together. “Well, old partner, old pal. We’ll just to have to get out there and dig up some more business.”

***

CHAPTER 2

My alarm went off five a.m. on Friday morning, getting me up to go out and shoot the sunrise from Mt. Keno on Ty’s ranch. This morning I also planned to identify some anchor points—recognizable features of the landscape to be photographed at different times of day and in different seasons.

Tyler Hawkins was a man with a plan: turning the run-down, over-grazed ranch he and Diana had inherited from their father into an ecologically sensitive dude ranch and spa. He intended to restore the rangeland to its natural glory and had hired me to document the transformation, making the process part of the attraction. We planned to do a nice lobby exhibit and offer lectures and demonstrations about Hill Country ecology. Guests could learn about nature between yoga classes, mountain bike tours, and massages.

It was a dream job for a nature photographer like me and a sound investment for a venture capitalist like Ty. Tourism was booming in the Hill Country, thanks to the explosive growth of the big Texas cities. People would pay real money for a glimpse of a golden-cheeked warbler. Why wouldn’t they pay to watch prairie grasses grow?

I put on a pot of coffee and then stood in front of the bathroom mirror for the two excruciating minutes it takes to French-braid my long blonde hair. I dressed for a day outdoors: khaki pants with big pockets, a camo cami with a sun shirt over it, and my snake-proof hiking boots. I’d packed my camera bag at the studio. Now I filled a day pack with water bottles, energy bars, and sunscreen. When the coffee was done, I filled up my mega-mug and was good to go.

Two minutes later, I was out on Ranch Road 1625, cruising into the hills. In Austin, it would have taken me forty weary minutes to get past the ever-expanding suburbs, even at this hour. I rolled my window all the way down to savor the cool of the June morning and the smell of dew-dappled greenery.

The entrance to Ty’s ranch wasn’t easy to spot. Rusting scaffolds supporting a weathered sign marked the gate. You could barely read the words Lazy H – Hawkins carved across the top. Weeds and brush crowded the posts. It looked like the gateway to a ghost ranch, not an upscale resort.

Bumping over the cattle guard, I picked my way along the rutted caliche road. As I passed the house, I saw Ty’s silver BMW SUV gleaming in the yard. He was back already. He must’ve gotten in pretty late last night or surely he would have called.

I stopped, motor idling while I dithered. Should I park and go in? He was probably asleep and might not like being woken up at the crack of dawn. Plus if I stopped, I’d miss the sunrise and then I’d have to get up at 5:00 tomorrow.

Work first; play later.

I drove on up to Mt. Keno. This wasn’t a mountain like you’d find in the Rockies, the Alps, or even the Appalachians. But at seven-hundred-eighty feet, it boasted the highest elevation in this area, so it got the grand title. Keno means hill in Comanche, thus proving the original inhabitants had a better sense of proportion. Also that the newcomers didn’t trouble themselves to learn any words in the old-comers’ language.

I parked the Hulk under some Ashe junipers below the crest of the hill on the west side and hoofed it the rest of the way up. I didn’t want a rackety green truck in my serene landscape photographs.

The top of the hill is broad and fairly flat, mostly covered with prickly pear cactus and straggling grasses. Native buffalo and blue grama battled invasive king ranch bluestem and johnson grass in the thin soil. An old windmill, twenty or thirty feet tall, made of rusting metal and splintery gray wood, stood near the center. A cluster of wind-twisted live oaks with bee brush at their feet shaded the remains of an old rock wall surrounding a hollow. The rocks were still stacked in rows here and there, but most had tumbled into the grass.

Nobody knew what the wall had been for: maybe a tiny house or a herder’s shelter. I liked to think of it as the bones of a fort, built up here where you could see danger coming a long way off. The windmill would have pumped water for soldiers or goats, depending on your theory.

The view was awesome, all three hundred and sixty degrees. On a clear day, like after a norther blew through, you could see halfway to Austin. In this gray pre-dawn light, I felt like the only living creature standing at the pinnacle of the world beside the remains of a long-forgotten civilization. Now, if only I could capture that feeling…

I put my bags down by a section of wall, took out my tripod, and set it up facing the band of lighter sky in the east. Then I got out my new Canon Eos 7D, which I had paid for by selling my gently-used Ford Escape when I left Austin. That deal had stuck me with the Hulk for transportation, but I loved the camera a million times more than I hated the truck.

I decided to start with a standard 50mm lens for the pre-sunrise show. My first target was an old stone house with a tall chimney almost due east of where I stood. It sat at the top of a hill on the neighboring ranch, just across the boundary of the Lazy H. It had a ridgy tin roof and a forlorn quality, out by itself in the lonesome country. An array of cloud puffs streamed south, starting to turn pink and gold across the bottom. A minute later, the horizon lit up: hot pink, blaze orange, and heavenly gold shading into lavender, peach, and delicate blue. I took a dozen shots in quick succession, adjusting speed and aperture for different effects.

This is what it was all about, the fine arts degree and the crappy studio jobs that got me so used to having a camera in my hand I could almost adjust the settings with my eyes closed. All so I could get out here at the crack of dawn, half asleep, with the breeze chapping my cheeks, and fire away like a hopped-up mobster, knowing that the shots would be sixty percent keepers with a few real beauties.

When the sunrise was over, I detached my camera from the tripod and put it around my neck to walk around a little and see what I could see. There was a thin trail like a deer track zig-zagging down the east side of Mt. Keno. The terrain between the two hills was rocky and uneven. Yucca, greenthread, and Indian blanket dotted stretches of calf-high grass. I took a few general shots and started looking for some focal points. Stone House Hill crumbled into a jumble of boulders with one sheer rock face. The road bordering the boundary fence took a sharp curve under the cliff, winding intriguingly out of sight around the hill. Its rough caliche surface shone white in contrast to the scrub oaks and cedars inside the curve.

I looked through the viewfinder, focusing on the curve, when a big antelope kind of animal stepped onto the road. My whole body flinched. Then I remembered he wasn’t close enough to get me. He didn’t even notice me, over here on my side of the divide hiding behind my camera.

My heart rate slowed to normal. He was beautiful, regal, with tall spiraling horns. I held my breath and shot him. Twice.

That was exciting! Time for a snack. I climbed back up the hill, collecting my tripod on the way. Unfortunately, I had left my coffee in the Hulk, so I had to settle for water to wash down my Clif Bar. I tucked the wrapper in my pack and set the tripod up inside the stone enclosure. I was focusing on a sun-streaked patch of yucca against the silver-gray wall when I heard the growl of a small motor coming up the hill. I smiled into the back of the camera, feeling a warm glow of sensory anticipation. Could this be a tall, green-eyed man coming up to offer me encouragement and possibly fresh coffee? I got my shot and turned around.

Sure enough, here came my very own Tyler Hawkins with his trusty sidekick, Jake, the big brown dog. Jake bounded out of the Gator—the ranch utility vehicle—and I flexed my knees, assuming the position for an incoming Labrador. He plowed into me at full force, nearly knocking me over. His idea of a cheery greeting. I ruffled his ears and bent to let him lick my chin, then he took himself off on a sniffing tour of the hilltop.

Ty swung his long legs out of the Gator and headed toward me. He wore faded jeans, a grey T-shirt, and a pair of well-worn boots. On him, it looked totally GQ. I arrowed into his arms and tilted my head up for a long good-morning-and-gosh-I-missed-you kiss.

“Hey, baby.” He feathered a few extra kisses into my hair.

“You’re home early.” I closed my eyes and burrowed my nose in his chest, savoring the aroma of sandalwood and man.

“Got in around midnight. I drove past your house, but the lights were out, so I didn’t stop.”

“How’d you know I was up here?”

“Jake wakes up at the crack of dawn. Then I saw headlights and figured it was you. Who else would be out here at this hour?”

I tilted my head back again and gave him a sassyfrass grin. “Nobody but us hard-working photographers.”

He kissed me on the chin. “Don’t let me interrupt you. I thought you might like some coffee.”

“Indeed, I might.” I broke away from him and homed in on one of the mugs balanced on the passenger seat. “I left mine in the Hulk.” I leaned against the Gator’s flatbed and took a sip of the life-giving beverage.

Ty held out his empty arms and spoke to the air. “That’s all she wants from me. Access to the ranch twenty-four/seven and coffee on demand.”

“That’s not all I want.” I waggled my eyebrows at him suggestively.

Two long strides and his arm wrapped around my waist. He nuzzled my neck as he reached behind me for his own coffee mug. I landed a smooch on his chin, getting a grin in reward. We stood side by side in silence for a few minutes, leaning against the Gator, surveying the view and enjoying the brew.

After a few moments of silent bliss, I asked, “How’d your meetings go?”

Ty grunted. “Not great. People are generally positive about the project, but nobody can commit actual resources until I get the corporation set up. And I can’t do that without Diana’s signature. Half the land is hers. She could waltz in and put a stop to the whole process at any minute. Then my investors would lose whatever they’d put up at that point.”

“That’s frustrating.”

“I’d wring her pretty little neck, if she were here. That girl needs to learn to make up her mind.” He shot me a sidelong look. “I know it’s my fault, partly. It’s possible that I’ve been a bit of an asshole about the timetable.”

“You have been a little on the dictatorial side. ‘Diana, sign this and then this and now sit down and shut up.’”

“Hey! I’m not that bad. Am I?” He saw my raised eyebrows and frowned. “Humph. Anyway, I have apologized, you may be impressed to learn. I sent her an email saying I was sorry for being a jerk and if she would kindly please come home and sign the goddamn papers, I promise to take her ideas more seriously and give her a more integral role in the planning process.”

“That sounds fair.”

“I’m a fair man.”

“You’re a dark man. Tall, dark, and dictatorial.”

“Hey. I resemble that remark.”

We giggled at each other. Nonsensical conversations are an essential part of courtship.

“So, what did she say?”

“She wrote back pretty quick, which is something. But she said she wasn’t ready to come home. She has other issues besides me and needs time to think about everything.”

“Dare.”

“Yep.” Ty nodded. “That guy really needs to back off. If she says she’s not ready, she’s not ready. And I’ll tell you, if he keeps pushing, he’s going to find me pushing back.”

“I’m sure she can handle Dare on her own.”

“I’m not.”

I let that drop. Poor Diana! No wonder she needed a time-out. Ty and Dare were great guys—honest, loving, decent men. They were also strong-minded men who both wanted to be Diana’s chief protector. She had barely gotten her feet under her after years of floundering; now she was getting pressure from two directions to make complicated decisions with lasting consequences.

Dallas wouldn’t be far enough for me, in her shoes. Los Angeles, maybe—or China.

Ty, as usual, stayed on his original track. “She did say I could fax her the papers and she would get a friend to look at them. Then she said she would most likely sign them and fax them back.”

“That’s great! Isn’t it? Is a fax good enough?”

“Oh, heck yeah. As long as the friend isn’t that scum-sucking Roger Bainbridge. But once I get her signature, I can get some investors signed up—some real ones—and shut him out once and for all. Then I’ll get some contractors out here and get this show on the road. I want to clear the cedars out of that southeast pasture and start burning brush.”

“Uh-oh.” I pushed off from the Gator. “I’d better get busy.”

“Damn straight.” He shook his finger at me sternly. Like a dictator, one might say, if dictators had love lights in their eyes while they did their dictating. “Am I paying you to lounge around drinking coffee?”

“No, sir!” I snapped a salute, clocking myself on the head with my coffee mug. Luckily, it was plastic and empty.

“Do you mind if I hang out while you work?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” I frowned at him, pretending to object. “Do you mean ‘hang out’ as in ‘stand behind me looking over my shoulder and asking a lot of stupid questions?’”

Ty shrugged reluctantly. “Well, okay, if that’s what you want. But I’d rather sit here in the Gator and get some work done.” He held up a legal pad. He liked to make lists on legal pads: things to do, people to call, costs to budget for. He had stacks of them in his dining room and at least one in each vehicle. He smirked at me. “I know how to manage talent, darlin’. Pay ‘em well and stay the hell out of their way.”

We grinned at each other. Then I sashayed back to my tripod and Ty settled himself comfortably with his pad.

The sunlight had grown brighter, but long, interesting shadows still stretched westward. A stream of thin clouds had appeared in the east, as bright as bleached cotton, banding the sky behind the old stone house on the next hill. I loved the lines and the clarity, except for a messy fuzz of scrub oaks across the bottom. If I could get up ten feet, I could get a pure shot with nothing but the dark line of the horizon, the uplift of the old house, and the lines of bright clouds across the sky.

Light changed from moment to moment, especially at this time of day. Hesitation would lose me the shot.

To think is to do. The windmill had a ladder and most of the rungs looked okay. I started climbing, paying more attention to the view than the structure beneath me, until I realized I wasn’t the only thing moving. I got about halfway up when I heard a sharp crack over my head. The ladder tilted abruptly, settled for a moment, then shifted again. A thin, scraping creak told me it was coming down.

I wrapped my arms around the long vertical support and slid a few feet to the first crossbar. That felt sturdy for about two seconds. Then something went crack and the bar swung free. I had to wrap my arms and legs around the rusty post and cling for dear life.

I slipped a few inches, scraping the insides of my arms. I couldn’t see how far down the next crossbar was and had no idea if it would hold me any better than the last one had.

I slipped another bunch of inches and let dignity fly. “Help! Help!”

Both man and dog came running to my rescue. Jake jumped up and down, helpfully shouting, “Look, she’s up there!” in Labradorian.

Ty put his hands on his hips and looked up at me, shaking his head. “Penny, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Grab my camera!” I clutched the support as hard as I could with my legs and one arm while I carefully pulled the camera strap over my head. I dangled the precious object down into Ty’s upstretched hands.

He put it around his neck and then reached up for me. “I’m not sure how to—”

“I’m okay. I think I can get down myself.” I had spotted the crossbar and extended one foot toward it, but I lost my grip on the vertical and somehow missed the damn thing.

“Aaaa!” I fell about six feet onto the leaf-covered ground. I managed to roll as I landed, ending up more dirty than hurt. I lay flat for a moment, contemplating my condition.

Ty came over to peer down at me. “Are you okay?” His strangled tone betrayed his suppressed laughter.

“I’m fine, thank you very much.” I held out a hand and he helped me onto my feet. “This ground isn’t as hard-packed as I would’ve expected. It’s actually kind of fluffy. Have y’all ever planted anything up here?”

“Not that I know of.” Ty returned my camera, which I looped around my neck. His gaze was turned up, not down, studying the windmill as if assessing the damage.

Jake, on the other hand, shared my interest in the state of the earth. He snuffled his flaring nose through a rill of leaves and then started pawing at the ground, throwing up clumps of loose dirt. One of them struck me on the shin.

“Hey!”

Ty whistled sharply. “Jako! Cut that out!”

The dog ignored him, digging furiously, churning up a stream of rocks and clods. “Enough of that, Mister!” I grabbed him by the collar, peering past him to see what he was digging at. He tugged an arm out of the dirt with the ragged ruin of a hand flopping at the end. A silver chain dangling silver charms glinted around the wrist.

I shrieked. “No, Jake, no!”

Ty loomed behind me. “Lord God Almighty!” He grabbed the collar and dragged the dog away.

I backed up, patting myself on the chest. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”

Neither of us could take our eyes off of that arm. We kept backing up until our legs met the low rock wall. I sat down with a bump and shook my head, trying to shake away that foul image. Then I looked at Ty.

He stood staring unblinking at the arm, his face drawn into lines of horror. His body was taut and he gripped Jake’s collar so hard the dog’s feet came off the ground. “That bracelet,” he said, his voice thick. “It’s Diana’s. I gave it to her.”

He let go of the dog and staggered like a zombie back toward the arm. I lunged for Jake and caught his collar, swinging around to block Ty’s path. I couldn’t bear the thought of him touching that thing and didn’t want to think about what—or who—was under there. “Ty, don’t. Come away. We gotta call the cops!”

I gripped the struggling dog and herded the dazed man back toward the Gator. “Call the sheriff.” I snagged Jake’s leash off the seat and snapped it onto his collar. Then I hooked the leash around the tow bar under the flat bed and turned back to Ty.

He was standing there with his cell phone in his hand like he couldn’t remember what it was or how to use it. I took it from him and dialed 911. When the dispatcher answered, I said, “Come quick. The Hawkins ranch—the Lazy H. The dog dug up—we found a body. It might be—it’s wearing Diana’s bracelet. Hurry!”

I hung up and slid the phone into Ty’s pocket. “Sit down, honey.” I gently pushed him onto the passenger seat and stood in front of him, holding both his hands. And so we waited.

***

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Flash Memory. Copyright © 2016 Anna Castle.