2

Stepping off the plane and entering Nashville International Airport, Dustin heard the twangs and strains of a country music song. The sound made him smile. God, he loved Nashville. The city was unique in its mix of the up-and-coming and pride in its history. Music reigned supreme but without self-consciousness; it was ever-present like the air one breathed. People tended to be cordial. And, hell, what was not to like about an airport that had a coffee stand and the welcoming sound of good music the minute he arrived?

He paused for a minute, listening, feeling the buzz of activity around him. In the past decade he’d lived in a number of different places but there was nothing like Nashville and nothing like coming home.

He picked up the paperwork for his rental car, then walked out of the airport and over to the multistoried garage to pick up the SUV he’d rented. A few minutes later, he was following the signs for I-40. Soon he was headed off the highway to a Tennessee state road, passing ranches, acreages with herds of grazing cows and pastures where horses kicked up their heels and ran or nibbled at the blue-green grass.

A little while later, he was on the dirt path that led to Willis House—the “retreat” where he had reservations. Willis House catered to those attending therapy at the Horse Farm and other nearby facilities. It wasn’t a specialized facility, but advertisements for the inn stated that it was a “clean” environment in the “exquisite and serene” Tennessee hills. People didn’t just come here because it was a “clean-living facility,” though. They also chose it because the area was so beautiful, or because they were visiting family or friends who were in therapy nearby.

The gravel drive was huge; there was certainly no problem with parking out here. He slid between a big truck and a small one and noted that the other cars in the lot included a nice new Jag, a Volvo, a BMW and a sad-looking twenty-year-old van.

Willis House was…a house. There was a broad porch with rockers, and he noted an old-timer sitting in one of them, staring as he approached.

“Hello,” Dustin said. The man wore denim overalls and a plaid flannel shirt. His face showed deep grooves of a life gone past.

The man nodded to him. “You the cop?” he asked.

“Agent, now,” Dustin replied. He shifted his bag onto his shoulder and came forward to shake the old man’s hand. “Dustin Blake, sir. How do you do?”

The man took his hand in a surprisingly strong grip. “Jeremy Myers—but they call me Coot. Welcome. You don’t look like someone who needs much help.”

“We all need help,” Dustin said.

That brought a slight smile to Coot’s lips. “Burned out on the job? Or did you go wacko and beat up on some piece of scum that deserved it? Young man, that’s the thing today. No respect. Kids spit in teachers’ faces and the poor teachers can’t do a thing—less’n it gets called child abuse. So, you did your job too well?”

Dustin grinned. “Something like that.”

“No need to explain to me. You’ll have plenty of time to talk. Hell, all people ’round here want you to do is talk. Don’t let me keep you, though. That bag must be heavy.”

“Nice to meet you, Coot,” Dustin said.

“Just open the door and go on in. The main house is open until sunset, and after that you’ll need your key.”

“Thanks.” Dustin went in. It might have been any bed-and-breakfast in any rural section of the South. The entry led to a bright, cheerful parlor with the check-in desk being a bar, behind which was an equally bright and cheerful kitchen. He walked up and the young woman at the desk smiled.

“You must be Agent Blake,” she said.

“I am.”

“Hi, I’m Ellie Villiers. And you’re wondering how I knew who you are. Well, we don’t take in that many guests and we don’t take anyone without a reservation,” she explained. She was on a wheeled chair and she swung down to the end of the bar, where she plucked a set of keys off the wall. “We have you in the Andrew Jackson suite.” She was a gamine of a young woman, tiny with short dark hair and a perky manner. She gave him a warm smile as she rolled back to him and leaned close. “It’s not much of a suite, really. It’s just a big room—a ballroom in the old days. But it has the only private bath in the house and a door to the back porch. We’re careful who we give it to. Not that we have strict rules or regulations, but we do cater to those fighting their own demons, whether they come from a booze bottle, a pill bottle, stress, what have you.” She smiled at him. “You sound pretty cool. I heard that the bosses at the bureau think you need some downtime, that’s all.”

“Talking about me, huh?” he teased.

She shrugged. “This is rural Tennessee, Agent Blake. All we’ve got to do around here is talk. Oh, that’s not really true. There’s a gorgeous stream and cliffs and historic trails. You’ll love it out here. But wait—you’re from Nashville, right?”

“Born in the heart of the city,” he told her.

“Well, then you kind of know the area? I mean, you must have driven out of the city now and then. Of course, some people just get on the highway and keep going. They miss out on all this beauty, and so close to the city, too. Sad, although I guess that’s just the way life is.”

He laughed at her philosophy. “Sad, but true. And my first name is Dustin, okay?”

“Sure, thanks, Dustin. So the one key opens the main door in front. We try to remember to lock it at sunset. The other is to your room, which is just down the hall and to the left. There’s a continental breakfast every morning from six to nine. It’s right behind me in the dining room. If you need anything, give me a holler.”

“I will, and thank you, Ellie.” He started to turn away, but then paused. “Hey, are there any hack ranches around here?”

She seemed surprised by the question. “Why would you want to go to a hack ranch when you’re going to the Horse Farm? They don’t do trail rides, but you’ll be working with horses, so— None of my business! Sorry, the question just surprised me.”

“I used to come to this area when I was a kid. My folks are historians, so we did the Civil War trails around here, national parks, all that. In fact, we often did them on horseback, and I love to ride. I was just wondering…”

“There’s a place—Hooper Ridge Stables. Just go back on that road and down a ways. You’ll see a sign. There’s not much else out here besides private property, the old chapel that’s just outside the national park and…and a few therapy centers and lots and lots of cows. But it’s too late tonight because they don’t rent after five. When you want it, though, it’s there. Still, once you’re been to the Horse Farm…”

“I thought most of their animals were rescues,” Dustin said.

“Oh, they are rescues. And if they’re old or hurt, they don’t do much, just get fawned over by the staff and the patients. Clients. Whatever. But when they’re healthy, well, at the Horse Farm they become really healthy and they’re beautifully trained.” She swung the chair closer to the counter. “In fact, the owner—Marcus Danby—used to go by the local farms, and the owners all knew that if they had a broken-down horse or they brought in a wild one or a kicker, they could sell it to Marcus. Saved a lot of the poor bastards that way. I wonder what’ll happen now that he’s gone.”

“Who’d he leave it to? Did Marcus have any family?”

Her eyes became very wide and she shook her head. “No. The only reason Marcus inherited the property was the fact that he was the very last member of his family. I mean, when he was a kid—way before I was born—he was a total black sheep. Then he straightened out, and I don’t know if he made peace with his people, but…he was the last.”

“So who inherits his property?” Dustin asked again.

Ellie shrugged dramatically. “I guess Aaron. Aaron’s managed the place for him for a long time. He’s a good guy. But who knows if he’ll be as good as Marcus. Although…”

“Although?”

She couldn’t have gotten any closer to him, not with the counter between them. But she tried.

“There’s a rumor out that he died with drugs in his system,” she said, dropping her voice. “Marcus, I mean, not Aaron. Can you imagine that? Founding a therapy center and then biting the dust because after decades you suddenly decide to shoot up again?” she asked, sounding incredulous. Gossip, he realized, was delicious to Ellie. But then, she probably searched for any excitement out here. He lowered his head and smiled. They weren’t at the ends of the earth. Nashville was only twenty miles away. But he knew that people from the country usually stayed in the country.

“No matter how the man died, he apparently did a lot of good before his death,” he said.

“He did. He helped so many people….”

Dustin picked up his keys and finally turned to leave. “Thanks, Ellie.”

“Oh! If you’re hungry, the caf? down the road is open until nine or ten, depending on whether they have people in there. The food’s actually really great. The best corn bread.”

“Nothing like it.”

“And the cheese grits are to die for.”

“Another important factor,” he agreed. “Thanks for the suggestion.”

“Pleasure. Make yourself at home. Old Miss Patterson is in one of the bedrooms upstairs and Carolyn Martin’s up there, too, along with Coot—you met him outside?” Dustin nodded. “He likes to come for the winter. He lives in the hills but he’s a smart old bastard—knows he’s too old to plow snow and manage up there once the cold hits. Oh, I forgot to mention. The living area here is for everyone and there’s a room back of the dining area with games and stuff.”

With a nod of thanks, he headed over to his room. Setting his bag down, he took out his computer and Wi-Fi connector. There was a lot he wanted to look up, background he hadn’t gotten to yet. But neither had he stopped in the city to eat; it might not be a bad idea to check out the local diner and the clientele—especially since he was hungry.

First, though, he called Olivia Gordon, Malachi’s cousin, to explain who he really was and what he was doing there. She evidently knew that an agent was coming in; she couldn’t have missed that fact, since he was scheduled to start at the Horse Farm the following day.

She didn’t answer. He’d try her again in the morning—or maybe he’d just show up. Either way, he didn’t want to leave a message. Messages were recorded, and in his life, recordings could come back to bite you. But he also assumed that Malachi’s cousin was an intelligent young woman. She knew he was coming, so she’d figure it out.

Examining his room, he discovered that he probably did have the best. His bathroom was nice and large with way more closet space than he needed, and his key worked on the back door, as well. It led to the rear porch area; if he ever needed to, he could exit without being seen.

He left his room, carefully locking the door behind him. He did it out of instinct, not because he suspected anyone wanted to go through his belongings. But you never knew.

He waved to Ellie as he left, and also waved at Coot, still rocking on the front porch, as he walked out to his car.

The caf? was even closer than he’d realized from Ellie’s directions; it was just down the road. It was a true diner, converted from a pair of old connected freight cars. The tables were small but neat and clean, and his waitress, a heavyset woman named Delilah, was warm and friendly. The place was empty when he entered, but as she took his order—the daily special of pot roast, with a side of grits, okra and a serving of corn bread—the door opened and four young men walked in, followed by an older man. The boys were joking; the older man looked weary.

“The boys from Parsonage House,” Delilah murmured to him, nodding.

“Parsonage House?” he asked politely.

“It’s a center for wayward boys. At least that’s what we used to call them. Addicts—and other kids who’ve gotten into some minor trouble. None of them are hardened criminals. The Parsonage runs a program for them, and they offer all kinds of therapy. Including horse therapy.” She paused, wagging her head. “We have a famous facility for that, you know.” When he murmured that he’d heard of it, she continued. “The Parsonage has a good success rate—although some people around here aren’t so fond of having it in the neighborhood. But me, I like the boys. They come in every few nights, after their N.A. meeting at the old chapel,” Delilah told him. “Some of them—well, quite a few of them, actually—make it. Some of them, though, they come back, and they come back—and then we hear they’re up at the state prison or they’ve wrapped themselves around a tree off the highway. Drew, over there, he works for the Horse Farm. This is a sideline for him. Guess he likes the company of people now and then, seeing how most of the time he’s with critters.”

She walked away to fill his order. He picked up a copy of the free local paper, which was only six pages—mostly ads, a few columns of local news. The restaurant was small, and even if he wasn’t interested in what was going on around him, he wouldn’t have been able to avoid eavesdropping.

Two of the boys were cutting up, stealing another boy’s baseball cap and tossing it back and forth.

“Stop. Give it back. We’re in a restaurant,” the older man said. He didn’t yell, but he spoke sternly and they listened to him.

One of them complained teasingly, “Hey, Joey had a good day. He was out with Olivia Gordon for half the afternoon!”

“Yes, and you had your horse therapy session, too,” the older man said.

“Yeah, yeah—but I had Aaron.”

“Aaron’s great with the horses—and with you kids,” the older man said.

“Joey’s happy he didn’t get Aaron, right, Joey?” one of the boys joked.

Dustin could just see Joey. The kid was blushing.

“Joey’s got a crush on his therapist!” another one teased.

“I don’t have a crush on her—you guys have a crush on her!” Joey protested. “And it’s dumb. She thinks we’re all kids.”

“You are all kids,” the older man said.

“Hey, Drew,” one of the boys said. “Did you ever try to date her?”

The older man laughed. “I’ve known Olivia Gordon since she was a kid, and no, Sean, we never dated. She was a Nashville girl, and we met when she came out here to visit her uncle.”

“So? City girls didn’t date country bumpkins?” Joey asked.

“No, Olivia was never like that,” the man, Drew, said. He was smiling; it was evident that he liked Olivia Gordon, too. “She’s always been nice to everyone, and she’s very serious about her work. So don’t go making life miserable for her, huh? She’s…”

“She’s what?” Joey demanded.

“She’s just different,” Drew said. “Special. And a really fine therapist, so you all behave like gentlemen when you’re around her, y’hear?”

“Yes, sir,” one of the boys who’d teased Joey said. “This whole thing, though… It’s all a little hypocritical, isn’t it?”

“He’s talking about old Danby going back on the juice,” another boy said.

“Hey, that’s nothing but a rumor,” Drew said firmly. “Certainly at this point. I’m not even sure how it got started.”

“But what if the rumor’s real?” Joey asked.

“I don’t believe it,” Drew said. “I knew and worked with Marcus for years. But if he did go back to drugs, well… Hell, that’s not what you want for yourselves. Found dead in a ditch. Anyway, he shouldn’t be remembered for his relapse, if there was one. He should be remembered for everything he did right—for people and animals!”

Delilah stepped between Dustin’s booth and that of the group. The boys ordered, and when they spoke again, they were subdued. In another few minutes, Delilah brought out Dustin’s order. “Enjoy!” she said. She rolled her eyes toward the boys and Drew at the end of the dining car and hurried back around the counter.

The food was good, the corn bread as excellent as Ellie had told him it would be. But when he was done eating, Dustin stood and walked over to the group’s table. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Dustin Blake. My apologies, but I heard you speaking about the Horse Farm. My first day there is tomorrow. It sounds like you all think highly of the place.”

Drew started to rise in greeting but Dustin urged him to keep his seat.

“The Horse Farm is a great facility,” Drew responded. “I’m Andrew Dicksen, although I’m known as Drew. I’m one of the stable managers there, and these are a few young men who are working things out up there, too. Joey Walters, Matt Dougal, Sean Modine and Nick Stevens. I take them to their meetings a few nights a week and then we have a bite here—and maybe we’ll see a movie. If they’re polite, that is!”

The boys shook hands very politely, grinning all the while. They wanted to go to the movie, he was pretty sure. But they were quiet and respectful and they obviously paid heed to Andrew, even without bribery.

I hope these guys are the ones who make it, Dustin thought.

“It’s great,” Joey said. “The Horse Farm, I mean. It’s the best of all the things we do.”

“It’s really cool when you get to actually ride horses,” Sean added.

“It’s cool even when you don’t—especially if you get Liv.” Nick made a strangled sound; Dustin realized that Joey had kicked him under the table.

“I hope I get to hang around long enough to get back there,” Matt said. He was a lanky kid with long hair. He’d spoken last and almost to himself.

“Why wouldn’t you go back?” Dustin asked him.

Matt flushed uncomfortably.

“Yes, why?” Drew echoed. “Is there a problem?”

Matt looked as if he wished he’d kept his words to himself. “Um, my dad may drag me back home and send me somewhere in Minnesota,” he admitted unhappily. “He, um, said that if the people running the place couldn’t stay clean, what chance is there for kids like us?”

This was followed by a brief silence.

“I’m sorry,” Dustin said. “I heard about the tragic loss of the Horse Farm’s founder.”

Drew Dicksen nodded. “He was a good guy. A damned good man,” he said quietly. “Whatever anyone says.” He raised his head. “It’s a wonderful place. I hope things work out. I believe they will,” he said. “Anyway, Mr. Blake—”

“He’s an agent. Agent Blake. FBI!” Sean said excitedly. He grimaced as he looked at Dustin. “Sorry. I heard Aaron adding your name to the roster. So, we were all talking about you. I mean, it’s pretty exciting. We’re at a place where the feds send their guys!”

“Thanks,” Dustin murmured. “I guess.”

“Hey, did you shoot somebody?” Sean asked. “Is that why you’re here?”

Dustin shook his head. “Nothing like that,” he said.

“So, why’d they send you?” Nick persisted.

“They figure we all need a break now and then. We see too much,” Dustin explained

“Wow, cool. Who have you hunted down?” Matt asked.

“I’m here to not think about it for a while,” Dustin told him.

The door swung open, and a woman of about thirty-five stepped into the coffee shop. She was in jeans and a blue denim shirt—attractive without being beautiful. She smiled at him and then at those sitting at the table. “Hi.” She walked straight to Dustin and offered him a hearty handshake. “You must be Agent Blake.”

“I am. Nice to meet you…?”

“Mariah Naughton, and the pleasure is mine. Oh, I’m sorry, I must seem so rude. I work at the Horse Farm—I’m one of the therapists. We were notified that you were coming in tonight and that you’d be at the Horse Farm tomorrow morning. I believe Aaron has you going out with a small group first.”

“Is it with you?”

“No,” she answered, “sad to say it’s not me. You’ll be going out with Olivia Gordon. Aaron likes to start people out with Liv—and in small groups. She’s our most popular therapist. You’ll see why. Hey, Drew, boys, how are you all doing?”

Sean laughed softly. “You’re great, too, Mariah.”

Mariah grinned good-naturedly at that. “I’m just not twenty-something and gorgeous, huh?”

“You’re just fine,” Matt said fervently. “We all—”

“Don’t worry about it, Matt.” Mariah laughed. “It’s true that Liv has an exceptional gift with animals, so it’s good for people to learn with her first. Now me, I’m the historian! My family’s been here forever. We’ve lived here since the first frontiersman headed out to this part of Tennessee. In fact, I do tours every second Friday night and I lead these guys and a bunch of others on camping trips. We go out on horseback. I hope you’ll be joining us.”

“I’m sure I will. I’m a history buff, too.”

“Yeah?” Mariah asked. “Then you should spend some time with Drew, as well. He’s part of a reenactors’ group,” she said proudly. “They’ve even done reenactments for movies. They’re really good.”

Drew shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed. “I enjoy it. I particularly like the research end of it.”

“Drew is great at making history fun,” Sean said.

“Mariah does haunted history,” Matt put in. “She’s got lots of ghost stories to tell.”

“It all sounds good,” Dustin said. “I’ll look forward to it.”

“Glad you like the idea,” Drew remarked. “But just to prepare you for tomorrow… With any kind of therapy, you have to be open to it. Although, honestly, half the time people aren’t. And those people don’t do well with the horses. Can’t blame a horse for his reactions and he’s probably not out to get you, right?” he asked, smiling.

“Yeah, the horses are way better than sitting there in psych group waiting for someone to talk.” Sean brightened. “I like throwing things at the rock, though. That’s fun.”

“We make paper bombs and throw them at a big rock,” Mariah explained. “Helps let out steam. Throw away anger, resentment, pain…”

“Well,” Dustin said. “It’s been a long day. Nice to meet you all and thanks for the information.” Waving, he left the diner. He knew they’d be talking about him the second the door closed behind him.

Returning to the bed-and-breakfast, he realized he was more curious than ever about what was going on—and he realized, too, that he’d have to be very careful.

A hell of a lot of talking went on in this area.

* * *

Olivia sat on the couch in her parlor, an untouched cup of tea in her hands, while Marcus Danby was in the chair across from her. He looked as if he were alive. He wasn’t, of course, but he was there—almost in the flesh. He appeared to move, to walk, to talk, to be her friend as he’d been in life.

Except, of course, that he was upset. With her?

She shouldn’t be so frozen, she told herself. She’d seen ghosts before, met ghosts before! For God’s sake, her cousin, Malachi, lived with a great old fellow, a Revolutionary War ghost.

And she’d seen the general on the Tennessee hills many times. Some in this area called it a gift, some called it a curse, and some thought those who claimed to have it were flat-out crazy. Therefore, most people learned at an early age to pretend that what was…wasn’t. And when you knew that ghosts could make you appear crazy or even feel like you were crazy, you learned how to cope.

Malachi had kept her sane when they were kids. He’d convinced her that it had to be a secret they shared. And, of course, she sometimes had to be wary of the ghosts themselves. They stayed behind for a reason. It was best to know that reason before making friends.

She remembered one time when they were older, when he’d come out to her college graduation. He’d talked to her once they had some time alone, and she’d smiled because only Malachi had been able to make her laugh.

“I’ve got it,” she’d told him with mock-seriousness. “The way to handle ghosts is by not acknowledging the dead. You keep walking as if you’re in a hurry. You step over bodies along the way—ah, I’ve got it. Pretend you’re a stereotypical New Yorker. You march forward with an agenda at all times, walking briskly, and for the love of God, you never make eye contact.”

“Hey, some of my best friends are New Yorkers!” Malachi said, laughing.

Malachi had always had a sense of humor—and he’d always been tough. He’d gone into police work, and now he was with the FBI. She’d called him hysterically after the authorities had come to claim Marcus’s body, and he’d been so helpful. He’d made her understand that the federal government had to be invited in when there wasn’t a major crime that involved perpetrators crossing state lines, a kidnapping or circumstances in which local authorities had requested assistance.

Never once, however, had he suggested that she was making things up to save the Horse Farm, or that she was overwrought. He’d promised her that he would find a way to help her. “I’m not sure if I’m the right one to come out there at this point. Too many people are aware that I’m your cousin, and it’ll immediately appear as if you’re asking for outside help,” he’d told her. “Good way to piss off the local cops.”

She didn’t care about appearances. She wished Malachi had come.

The most bizarre thing was that Marcus Danby—or the ghost of Marcus Danby—was speaking much more easily than she seemed capable of doing at the moment.

Olivia managed to take a sip of her tea. She stilled her shattered nerves, took a deep breath and spoke to him. “Marcus, there was an autopsy.”

“I know. Ugh!” Marcus said, grimacing, a shiver racing visibly through his body. “Yes, no one’s fault—accidental death and all that.”

“And drugs were found in your system.”

“That’s just it, Liv. I swore, so many years ago, that I’d never touch drugs again as long as I lived. I wasn’t tempted. I didn’t hit what they call a trigger situation. I was a happy man.”

“So?”

“Okay, here was my day. I got up, had my coffee. Came by the Horse Farm. I love this time of year—not cold yet, not hot like summer. Sammy was playful. I was going to go for a ride and then I decided on a walk so I could take him along. Suddenly, not far from the ravine, Sammy starts wagging his tail, then barking like crazy. He raced off toward the grove of trees west of the ravine and he didn’t come back. So I called out to him and followed him, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. I didn’t feel pain. I was just…on the ground.” He paused as if taking a deep breath.

He couldn’t have been taking a breath. He wasn’t alive. Olivia took another sip of her tea. She’d be heading into her kitchen for the brandy in a minute.

“You were on the ground,” she said, encouraging him to continue.

“I don’t know if I was hit in the head, if… I just don’t know. At first, there was nothing. And then…then I was on a high like you wouldn’t believe, and I knew I was in trouble. I got up and started walking and then…I felt a shove at my back and I fell and you know the rest of it!”

“So you believe that someone intentionally drugged you?”

“Yes. Not to mention the part about killing me.”

“I told the police you would never have intentionally relapsed, Marcus. I’ve sworn it, I’ve defended you, I…I called my cousin.”

“Malachi?”

“He’s an FBI agent, Marcus.”

“And he’s coming out here?”

“Ah, no. But he’s working on something. After I talked to Malachi and he promised to get someone here, I found out that we have a federal agent showing up as a client tomorrow. I’m sure he’s the help Malachi’s sending.”

“Why doesn’t Malachi come himself? Why doesn’t he tell you things directly?”

“He’s with the government. Those guys are all paranoid, I think,” Olivia muttered. “Anyway, it’s complicated, Marcus. People in this area know that we’re cousins. Some of them know Malachi. Like you. Sorry, I mean, you knew him—”

“It’s all right. Go on.”

“You can’t just step on the toes of the local police. So Malachi’s managed to get a big shot to believe that something’s wrong here, and they’re sending someone out. Under the guise of a client.”

Marcus remained somber but he nodded and looked at her with hope in his eyes. “Thanks, Liv. You have to solve this. The Horse Farm is a one-of-a-kind place. We work with addicts, with autistic and Down syndrome kids, with burned-out adults, the severely depressed…. But you know all that. And you know that it was always my way to make amends and to help others live quality lives and…you love the Horse Farm, too,” he finished.

“I’ll do everything I can, Marcus,” she promised. She closed her eyes for a minute.

When she opened them, Marcus was gone.

Great. In death, Marcus—always the most polite of men—had suddenly decided to be rude.

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