Shades of Midnight (Chapter Eight)
Jenna had been yawning off and on for the past hour or so and checking her watch, but Alex knew her friend was too polite to bail on her. Selfishly, Alex wanted to prolong their visit. She had insisted on the pie and one last beer, had even fed a couple of quarters to the jukebox so she had the excuse to wait for her song to play before they left.
Anything to avoid going home to her empty house.
She missed her dad, now more than ever. For so long, he had been her closest friend and confidant. He'd been her strong, willing, and capable protector when the world around her had been turned upsidedown by violence. He would be the only one who'd understand the unspeakable fears that were swirling in her now. He'd be the only one she could turn to, the only one who could tell her that everything would be all right and almost convince her that he believed it.
Now, except for her dog, she was alone, and she was terrified.
The urge to pull up stakes and run from what she'd seen that awful day at the Toms settlement was almost overwhelming. But where to? If running from Florida to Alaska hadn't been far enough to escape the monsters that lurked in her memories, then where could she possibly hope to escape them next?
"You gonna twirl that fork all night, or are you going to have some of this pie?" Jenna downed the last of her beer and set the bottle on the rough wood table with a soft thump. "You wanted dessert, but you're making me eat most of it."
"Sorry," Alex murmured as she put down her fork. "I guess I wasn't as hungry as I thought I was."
"Everything okay, Alex? If you need to talk about what happened the other night at the meeting, or out at the Toms place–"
"No. I don't want to talk about it. What's to say anyway? Shit happens, right? Bad things happen to good people all the time."
"Yeah, they do," Jenna said quietly, her eyes dimming under the glare of the tin lamp overhead.
"Listen, I was over at Zach's for a little while this afternoon. Sounds like the Alaska State Troopers in Fairbanks have their hands full at the moment, but they'll be sending a unit out to us in a few days. In the meantime, they discovered video footage of the crime scene on the Internet, of all places. Some asshole apparently went out there with a cell phone camera not long after you'd been there, then uploaded the video to an illegal site that allegedly pays a hundred bucks for actual blood-and-guts material." Alex sat forward in her chair, her attention snapped sharply back into focus to hear a confirmation of what Kade had told her out at the Toms place. "Do they know who?"
Jenna rolled her eyes and gestured toward the game room, where a small group of the local stoners were shooting darts.
"Skeeter Arnold," Alex said, unsurprised that the slacker, perpetually unemployed yet never without a drink in one hand and a smoke in the other, would be the one so lacking in respect for the dead that he would sell them out for a few dollars. "What a bastard. And to think that he and Teddy Toms had been hanging out together quite a bit before …"
She couldn't finish the sentence; the reality was still too raw. Jenna nodded. "Skeeter has a way of latching on to kids he can manipulate. He's a user and a loser. I've been telling Zach for the past year or more that I have a hunch the guy is pushing drugs and alcohol on the dry Native populations. Unfortunately, cops need to have this sticky thing called evidence before they arrest and prosecute, and Zach keeps reminding me that all I have on Skeeter Arnold is suspicion." arrest and prosecute, and Zach keeps reminding me that all I have on Skeeter Arnold is suspicion." Alex watched her friend, seeing the tenacity sparking in Jenna's eyes. "Do you miss it? Being a cop, I mean."
"Nope." Jenna frowned as though considering, then gave a firm shake of her head. "I couldn't do that job anymore. I don't want to be responsible for cleaning up someone else's tragedies or fuckups. Besides that, every time I'd walk up to a traffic accident, I'd be wondering whose heart was going to be torn apart once I called in my report. I don't have the stomach for police work now." Alex reached out and gave her friend's hand a gentle, understanding squeeze. "For what it's worth, I think you're a great cop, and that's because you do care. It was never just a job to you, and it showed. We need more people like you looking out for the rest of us. I keep thinking that maybe one day you'll go back to it."
"No," she replied, and through the link of their hands, Alex's inner sense told her that Jenna meant it.
"I lost my edge when I lost Mitch and Libby. Do you realize it will be four years later this week?"
Alex recalled very well the November night that took the lives of Jenna's trooper husband and their little girl. The whole family had been traveling home from a special dinner in Galena when an icy snow kicked up and sent their Blazer sliding into oncoming traffic. The eighteen-wheeler that hit them was hauling a full load on its oversize trailer–five tons of timber on its way to the Lower Forty-eight. Mitch had been driving the Blazer and was killed on impact. Libby held on for two days in the hospital, broken and bruised on life support, before her little body simply gave up. As for Jenna, she had lain in a coma for a month and a half, only to wake up to the terrible news that Mitch and Libby were gone.
"Everyone says that in time it won't hurt so bad. Give it time, and I'll be able to console myself with happy memories of what I had, not dwell on what I've lost." Jenna blew out a hitched breath as she withdrew her hand from Alex's loose grasp and picked at the label on her empty beer bottle. "It's been four years, Alex. Shouldn't I have some closure by now?"
"Closure," Alex scoffed. "I'm the wrong one to ask about that. Dad's only been gone six months, but I don't think I'll ever give up hoping to see him walk through the door again. That's part of the reason why I'm thinking I might …"
Jenna stared at her as the words trailed off. "Might what?" Alex shrugged. "I guess it's just that I've been wondering lately if things might be better for me if I sold the house and moved on."
"Move on, as in leave Harmony?"
"As in leave Alaska, Jen." And hopefully leave behind all of the death that seemed to follow her wherever she ran. Before it had the chance to catch up to her again. "I'm just thinking that maybe I need a fresh start somewhere, that's all."
She couldn't read Jenna's expression, which seemed trapped somewhere between misery and envy. Before her highly persuasive friend could launch into a counteroffensive argument for why Alex needed to stay, a loud roar of masculine enthusiasm went up from the area of the bar.
"What's all that about?" Alex asked, unable to tell what was going on with her back to the ruckus.
"Did Big Dave's team win or something?"
"I don't know, but he and his crew just bellied up to the bar in a hurry." Jenna glanced back at her then and exhaled a soft curse. "You are my best friend, Alex, and you know I'm damned picky when it comes to my friends. You can't sit there over a half-eaten slice of pie in the middle of hockey night at Pete's tavern and casually drop a bomb on me about you're thinking of moving away. Since when? And why haven't you talked to me about any of this? I thought as friends we shared everything." Not everything, Alex admitted silently. There were some things she wasn't brave enough to share with anyone. Things about herself and things she'd seen that would label her either mentally unstable or positively deranged. Jenna didn't even know that Alex's mom and little brother were murdered, let alone how.
Attacked by creatures out of the worst nightmare.
Alex and her father had concocted a more believable lie as they'd made the trip to Alaska to begin their lives without the other, missing half of their family. To anyone who asked, Alex's mother and kid brother were killed by a drunk driver down in Florida. They had died instantly, painlessly. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Alex had felt guilty for perpetuating the lie, especially to Jenna, but she'd consoled herself that she was only protecting her friend. No one would want to know the horror that Alex and her father witnessed and narrowly escaped. No one would want to think that evil so terrible–so bloodthirsty and violent–could actually exist in the world.
She told herself that she was still protecting Jenna, shielding her friend in much the same way that Alex's father tried to shield her.
"I'm just thinking about it right now, that's all," she murmured, then drank the last sip of her warm beer.
No sooner had she set it down than a platinum-haired waitress came over carrying two fresh ones. The bright pink streak in her bleached-blond hair matched the garish shade of her lipstick, Alex noted, as the young woman bent down to place the chilled bottles on the table.
Alex shook her head. "Oh, wait a second, Annabeth. We already paid our bill and we didn't order these."
"I know," she said, then jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward the bar area. "Someone out front just bought a round for the house."
Jenna groaned. "If it's from Big Dave, I'll pass."
"Not him," Annabeth said, grinning broadly, her whole face lit up. "Never saw this guy before–tall, spiky black hair, incredible eyes, absolutely smoking hot."
Now it was Alex's turn to groan. She knew it had to be Kade, even before she pivoted in her seat and shot a searching look into the small crowd of men gathered at the bar. He towered over the others, his silky, dark head at the center of the throng.
"Unbelievable," she muttered as the waitress left the table.
"Do you know him?" Jenna asked.
"He's the guy I saw at the back of the church last night. His name is Kade. I saw him again today out at the Toms settlement when I was making my supply run."
Jenna frowned. "What the hell was he doing out there?"
"I'm not entirely sure. I found him in Pop Toms's cabin, looking like he'd just rolled out of bed in the middle of the afternoon. And he was well armed, too–I'm talking high-powered rifle, knife, handgun, and rounds intended for some very large game. I gather he's looking to help out with our supposed wolf problem."
"No wonder Big Dave seems so fond of him," Jenna remarked dryly. "Well, I couldn't possibly drink another beer, free or otherwise. I'm beat. I need to stop by Zach's to drop off some files he asked me for, then I really should head home."
Alex nodded, trying not to think about the fact that Kade was in the same room with her, or the unnerving way her pulse seemed to skitter at the idea.
Jenna stood up and pulled her long down coat from a hook on the wall. "How about you? You want me to give you a ride to the house?"
"No." Late as it was, and as crowded as Pete's seemed to be getting now that Kade was there, it still beat the thought of what awaited her at home. "Go on, don't worry about me. I'm going to finish this pie and maybe have a cup of coffee to wash it down. Besides, I'd rather walk the two blocks home. The fresh air will do me good."
"Okay, if you're sure." At her nod, Jenna gave her a quick hug. "No more talk of moving away, all right? Not without consulting me first. Got it?"
Alex smiled, but it felt like a weak effort. "Got it." She watched her friend wade through the tavern, the cop in Jenna unable to resist stealing an assessing sidelong glance at the stranger in town. Above the noise of the place, Alex heard the hollow jangle of the old cowbell on the door as Jenna slammed it shut behind her.
Alex cut into the pie with the edge of her fork, but stopped short of bringing it to her mouth. What the hell was she doing? She wasn't the least bit hungry, and the last thing she needed was a cup of Pete's crude oil-quality coffee to keep her awake all night once she finally did work up the nerve to go home. God, she was being ridiculous. What she really needed was to go home, feed Luna before the dog tore up the house in retaliation for being abandoned all night, then try to get some solid sleep for a change. She could think about everything else in the morning, when her head was clearer. Things would make more sense then. At least, she hoped so, because she wasn't sure what could possibly happen to throw her off balance any more than she was now.
As soon as she stood up and shrugged into her parka, Alex felt the two beers she'd consumed make a quick rush to her bladder. Great. Using the restroom at Pete's meant walking right past the bar–and Kade. She considered ignoring the urgent press of her plumbing, but the two blocks to her house from the tavern, in the frigid cold, would be torture. Maybe even disastrous.
So what if Kade might see that she was there? She sure as hell didn't need to talk to him. She didn't even need to so much as look at him.
Yeah, brilliant plan. Too bad it fell apart the moment she took two paces away from her table. She felt Kade's quicksilver eyes slicing through the crowd to zero in on her like twin laser beams. His gaze went through her every nerve ending in much the same way–hot, electric. Alex tried to ignore the effect he had on her, which was made a bit easier when she separated Big Dave's grating voice from the others and heard him bragging about his recent hunting exploits while Kade smiled and nodded along like he was hanging out with his best friends.
Twenty-four hours in town and he was one of the good ol' boys already. How freaking nice for him.
Disgusted, Alex continued on past the jukebox to the restroom. Breathing a small sigh of relief to find it unoccupied, she went right in and did her business, rolling her eyes as the good times and laughter continued on the other side of the locked door. It wasn't until she was at the sink washing her hands that she happened to look up into the mirror and saw a tired, haggard reflection of herself staring back at her.
"Oh, my God," she whispered, wishing she'd at least taken the time to dab on some mascara when she left the house tonight. And maybe paused long enough to drag a brush through her windblown, wrecked mop of hair.
She made a futile attempt at smoothing some of the blond flyaways, but there wasn't a lot she could do. No wonder Kade stared as he had. She looked like a walking Medusa who hadn't had a decent night's sleep in about a week straight–which was just about accurate, come to think of it. Had she looked this bad when she saw him earlier today? She hoped not. She hoped he hadn't thought-"For crying out loud. Why should you give a rat's ass what he thinks, huh?" she told the hopeless face in the mirror. "That man out there is the last person you need to impress." Alex nodded at her own advice, at the same time wondering if everything that had happened lately had pushed her past some invisible line where it was suddenly acceptable to have conversations with her own reflection. Bad enough she talked to Luna as if the wolf dog could understand every word; this was taking things just a bit too far.
Taking a deep breath, Alex hooked her unruly hair behind her ears, then opened the bathroom door and stepped outside.
"Everything all right in there?"
Kade. Oh, God.
He leaned on the edge of the jukebox, which she noticed had finally coughed up the song she'd chosen nearly an hour ago. He was grinning at her, humor playing at the corners of his broad mouth and in the pale light of his eyes. Had he possibly heard her berating herself over the irony of Sheryl Crow singing about her favorite mistake?
"I see you're making friends in Harmony already."
He grunted, shot a casual look over at the knot of men who were still pounding down beers before turning all of his attention back on her. "Big Dave and some of the others are going to track the wolf pack that's been spotted around here lately. They asked me to join them."
Alex scoffed. "Congratulations. I'm sure you'll all have a great time." As she brushed past him, he said, "I also heard tonight about a death in the bush late last winter that seemed suspicious. A Native man, living by himself in a cabin ten miles northwest of Harmony. Big Dave seems to think wolves were responsible for that one, too."
Alex pivoted back, shaking her head. "You're talking about Henry Tulak? He was a drinker and a little bit crazy. He most likely did something stupid and died of exposure." Kade lifted one thick shoulder. "Big Dave and the others said nothing could be proven because Tulak's body wasn't discovered until the spring thaw. Nothing left of him by then but a few bones."
"And if you lived in the interior for any amount of time–as you claim–you'd know that nothing lasts for long in the bush. If the elements don't absorb you, the scavengers will. It doesn't mean that wolves killed that man."
"Maybe not," Kade said. "Except the rumor is that the last time anyone saw Tulak alive, he was talking about seeing a wolf pack prowling around his place. Said he felt like they were sizing him up, waiting for the chance to strike."
Alex's frustration spiked to hear this kind of bullshit perpetuated, and especially by Kade, whom she would have guessed to be smarter than Big Dave Grant and his band of boneheads. "Big Dave would say anything to get folks riled up. That's his nature. If I were you, I wouldn't put too much stock in what he says."
"I'm here to gather information, Alex. Right now, Big Dave seems to be the most forthcoming. All I'm getting from everyone else in this town is evasions and half-truths, neither of which interests me." Okay, now she was offended. Her internal barometer blazed right through frustration and into fury.
"Why are you really here? Talk about evasions and half-truths! Look at you. You show up here, nobody knows you, nobody even knows where you came from–"
"I told you, north of Fairbanks. By way of Boston, if we're going to start being honest with each other now."
So, he wasn't actually from Alaska, just flew in from Outside. She couldn't have been less surprised. As casually as she could, she put her hand down on top of his forearm and leaned in closer, as though she were a cop questioning an uncooperative witness. "How did you get to Harmony when everyone else has been grounded by bad weather the past several days? For that matter, how did you get out to the Toms settlement after you left Harmony last night?"
"I walked. On snowshoes, of course."
"You walked more than forty miles in the middle of the night." Alex laughed, but without humor. She listened for the prickling of her instincts as she kept her hand resting on his arm, waiting for her senses to tell her whether he was trustworthy. Nothing registered. He was as clear as glass, unreadable. Still, that didn't change the crock he was trying to feed her. "Such bullshit. You stand there and accuse me of lying to you, when you've told me nothing about yourself other than your name is Kade and you're a bounty hunter looking to cash in on an innocent pack of wolves."
He gave only the barest shake of his head. "I never said I came here to hunt wolves, for a bounty or otherwise. You made an assumption. And you are wrong."
"Okay, I give up then. What are you doing here, and why did you come loaded up with a hell of a lot of serious firepower? What exactly do you want, Kade, the non-wolf hunter from north of Fairbanks by way of Boston?"
"I told you that when we talked earlier today. I want answers. I need to have the truth–the entire truth–about what happened to your friends. I think you can help me with that, Alex. I think you might be the only person who can."
He glanced down to where her hand was still settled on his arm. Alex abruptly drew it away, his deep voice vibrating inside her, his words making her feel that she possibly could trust him, whether her instincts could confirm it or not.
She did not want to warm to him, dammit. She didn't want to put her trust in anything he said when her heart was racing at hyperspeed and everything in her screamed for her to run. Run, before she made the mistake of letting this man into her private hell when she didn't know anything about him.
"What are you trying to pull?" she asked softly, wishing she had the strength just to walk away and leave him standing there instead of giving in to the curiosity that made her want to know more. "What kind of game are you playing here?"
"I don't know what you mean," he said, despite the intense steadiness of his gaze that said there wasn't much that escaped his keen intellect. "What game do you think I'm playing?" Alex stared back at him, forcing herself to try to read in his eyes all the things he probably wouldn't tell her. "You tell me you're not a wolf hunter, but you let Big Dave and the other men believe that you are. You tell me you want information from me, yet you give up nothing in return. You're either one of the good guys, or you're not. So, which one are you, Kade?"
Something flickered across his expression. "Do you view everything in terms of right or wrong, black or white? Is everyone either good or bad in your judgment?"
"Yes, they are." She hadn't really thought about it in those terms, but she had to admit she took a certain comfort in the clarity of that. Right was right and wrong was wrong. In her experience, there was a very distinct line between good and bad.
And Kade still hadn't answered her question.
To her astonishment, he reached out and brushed his fingers across her cheek where some of her tangled hair had fallen into her face. She knew she should balk at the uninvited touch, but the warmth of his caress–even as fleeting as it was–felt too good to deny. "You can be honest with me, Alex. You can trust me that whatever you tell me, I mean you no harm."
God help her, but she was tempted to blurt out everything right then and there. She didn't know this man from Adam, really, and yet when she was looking in his eyes, still feeling the trailing heat of his touch on her skin, she wanted to believe that she truly could trust him. In some frightened, little-girl corner of her heart, she actually hoped that he might be able to help her banish some of the demons that had haunted her nearly all her life.
She felt, inexplicably, that if she told him about the beasts that killed her mom and her little brother-the same beasts she felt certain had killed the Toms family, as well–Kade would understand. That he, of all people, would be her strongest ally.
"You can tell me," he said, his deep voice so gentle and coaxing. "Tell me about the track in the snow. You know what made that footprint, don't you? Tell me, Alex. I want to help you, but I need you to help me first."
"I …" Alex swallowed hard, finding it took more effort than she expected to work up her courage.
"What I saw … it's hard to say the words …"
"I know. But it's okay, I promise. You're safe with me." She drew in a nervous breath and got a sudden whiff of acrid smoke and the odor of unwashed clothing from somewhere nearby. No sooner had she registered the stale stench than she saw Skeeter Arnold and a couple of his stoner buddies shuffling from the bar back to the game room. A cell phone decorated in a skull-and-crossbones motif in one hand, a beer in the other, Skeeter tipped his bottle in Kade's direction as he passed. "Thanks for the brewskies, dude. That was straight-up righteous of you, man." Kade hardly spared Skeeter a glance, but Alex couldn't hide her revulsion. And she was glad for it, because the disgust she felt for Skeeter Arnold doused some of the temporary insanity that was making her think she could trust the stranger who was playing her like an instrument of his own design.
"I take it you aren't fond of that guy," Kade said as Alex weathered an inward shudder of repugnance. She grunted. "You know that video you mentioned to me, the footage of the Toms family that had been uploaded to the Internet? Well, that's the creep who did it."
Kade's eyes narrowed as they locked on to Skeeter from across the room. His gaze was more than intense–it was lethal. And as Alex watched him, she noticed that the pattern of tattoos on his forearms, part of them just visible under the pushed-up sleeves of his shirt, were not the henna color she remembered but a dark shade of deep blue-black.
Well, that was certainly odd.
Maybe she'd had one beer too many if she was seeing his tattoos change colors. Or maybe she simply remembered wrong. She'd been so gobsmacked by the unexpected sight of him at the Toms place earlier today, not to mention the fact that his incredible body had been half naked besides, it was completely possible that she'd mistaken the color of his ink. Except she'd never seen such an amazing work of body art ever in her life, and the image of him standing there, buttoning up his jeans like she'd just roused him out of bed, was a sight burned indelibly into her memory.
After a long minute of searing Skeeter Arnold with his eyes, Kade finally looked back at Alex. "I'll deal with him later. What you have to say is more important."
Alex took a step back now, sensing the danger in the man even though he was speaking to her in the same gentle tones as before. But something was different. There was an air of menace about him that put her on edge.
And there remained the fact that when she'd asked him if he was good or bad, he hadn't answered her.
"I think I'd better go now," she murmured, retreating another step before making a quick dodge past him.
"Alex," she heard him call from behind her.
But she kept moving, cutting through the knot of people packed into the bar and desperate for some cold, sobering air–and freedom from her troubling, visceral response to Kade.