16

Olivia wasn’t sure what had awakened her.

At first she’d thought she’d never sleep, but she’d closed her eyes and drifted off with surprising ease. Maybe it had been a release of tension; so much had happened. Aaron had almost died and been saved—and now he was actually dead. The Horse Farm was falling apart. But two armed agents rested nearby and Dustin was just outside. She felt…safe.

But just as easily as she’d slept, she awoke.

She lay there for a minute, trying to ascertain what had wakened her, her heart beginning to beat too fast. Fear set in so quickly these days.

But then she realized she heard Dustin’s voice and that it was calm and relaxed. She saw movement near her; Malachi had risen and crept to the opening of the tent. Abby was awake, as well, watching Malachi.

Olivia inched silently toward Malachi. He turned to her in the darkness. She could barely see his features but he whispered, “Move slowly.”

She nodded. Malachi eased himself out of the tent. She saw that he stood motionless for a few seconds and then moved toward the rock-circled fire, where the embers still burned with a soft glow.

Olivia glanced back at Abby, who rose carefully and together they stepped out of the tent. Malachi had just taken a seat near the fire by Dustin.

Across from them sat the general. He was in his cavalry uniform and appeared as he surely had in life. Olivia felt as if she’d stumbled upon a campfire meeting after a reenactment.

She hesitated, and then moved very slowly, coming around the fire to sit cross-legged on Dustin’s other side, facing the general as the men were doing. A second later, Abby joined her. The general nodded to them each in turn. When he spoke, his voice seemed raspy, like a wind on leaves, and she thought again that he didn’t speak often, that he saw his role in the afterlife as something that didn’t require words.

“The dog cried out and I hurried to the sound,” the general said. “A fine dog, a loyal animal. When I reached him, he was trapped. There was a large rock at his side. It must have been thrown at him and shoved him into a tangle of brush. It was all I could do to ease the tangle so he might run on. When I emerged from the trees, I saw someone wearing clothing in earth colors, greens and browns. In one of those short coats that covers the head.”

“A hoodie,” Dustin mused. “But you couldn’t see a face.”

“No. I first went down to the ravine where Marcus Danby lay. But to my great sorrow, the man was no longer living. Danby was a fine man. We spoke sometimes.” The general was silent, reflective, for a moment. “And so I rose from the ravine and mounted Loki, and I went after that person. But as I rode, many people were out riding. I did not recognize anyone—and no one appeared in the clothing I had seen.”

“Thank you, sir,” Dustin said politely, but Olivia could hear disappointment in his voice.

“We’d suspected that Sammy, the dog, had been hit from a distance, which you’ve confirmed. If he knew who’d harmed him, he’d growl at that person. Thank you,” Dustin said again. “Sammy is a good dog, and we’re grateful he’s alive.”

The general nodded gravely, but a slight smile curved his lip.

“I did see a horse,” he told them. “When the hooded figure disappeared, I saw that he ran to a horse.”

“Which horse?” Olivia asked. “What did it look like?”

“A large animal. One of the largest horses in the area.”

“Gargantua!” Olivia whispered.

“That would be a fitting name,” the general said.

Dustin turned to her; she could feel his tension. “Who was riding Gargantua that day?” he asked her.

Olivia let out a breath. “Aaron. Aaron Bentley,” she said in a shaky voice.

Dustin frowned and looked back at the general. “Sir, were you in this area when we were camping? The night before last?”

The general nodded.

“Did…did you try to talk to one of the young women with us? Mariah?”

“I seldom try to speak,” the general said. “No, I did not try to speak with anyone.”

“Did you see anything that night—or early morning, as it was?” Dustin asked.

“I watched over the camp. I saw the man walk to the stream. I followed him at first. I saw him slap at his neck, as if he had been stung by a bee. Then he fell. There was nothing I could do.” He raised his arms. “I have little strength. By will, if something…if something is light enough, perhaps my will can make it move. But he was a big man. I could not lift his face from the water.”

His sorrow was evident.

“Did you see anything else?”

“I heard the scream and I followed. I saw you race into the woods. I wanted to try to bring you to the water, but you were gone before I could show myself to urge you toward the stream,” the general said. He shook his head sadly. “I wish I could help more.”

“You have helped incredibly,” Dustin told him. “We are grateful, sir.”

The general nodded and stood. “The truth must be discovered. Such a man as Marcus Danby must not be falsely remembered for living a lie. He salvaged his soul and his life and gave life to others, in quality and in years.”

Dustin got to his feet; Olivia, Malachi and Abby quickly followed suit.

“We will find the truth,” Dustin vowed.

“Yes, you are fine soldiers. You will carry on. I have spoken too long, but I will remain here. I will not leave, although I grow faint and weak,” he said, pausing to offer them a grim smile. “I am but a ghost of the man I was. Still, I will watch, and I will do what is in my power.”

Olivia smiled in return, thankful for his promise—and appreciating his unexpected humor.

He walked away from the fire, fading as he did. Just as he reached the heart of the forested shadows, Olivia saw his white horse, radiant in the moonlight. She thought she heard a whinny. Then the general mounted Loki, and they disappeared into the darkness as if they’d never been.

“Olivia, are you sure?” Dustin asked when the general had ridden away.

She stared at him, disoriented for a minute.

“Am I sure…about what?”

“That Aaron Bentley was riding Gargantua that day?”

She nodded. “He always rode Gargantua. And when they found me with Marcus, he’d definitely been riding Gargantua.”

“Perhaps there was a switch-up with the horses?” Malachi suggested.

“I—I don’t know how or when. When we all rode out from the Horse Farm that day, Aaron was on him. When I came to, Aaron was there, and he got back on Gargantua when we left.”

Dustin looked at Malachi. “We’ll have to ask at the Horse Farm. If someone else had taken the horse out first, Drew or Sydney would know.”

“Hmm.” Malachi frowned thoughtfully. “I’m not so sure about that. But it is possible that Aaron killed Marcus—and someone else killed Aaron.”

“You mean, perhaps someone knew that Aaron had killed Marcus—and then killed Aaron because he killed Marcus?” Olivia asked.

“There are a few other possibilities,” Abby pointed out. “Like Dustin said, someone else might have taken the horse.”

Malachi shook his head. “I doubt it, since Liv seems convinced that Aaron was on Gargantua during the day.”

“And here’s something else,” Dustin put in. “Aaron and someone else might have been working together—in which case his partner could have taken the horse. It could’ve been part of the plan. And then…this partner may have decided Aaron was too much of a risk, that he was going to blow it all somehow.”

“But if someone knew that Aaron had killed Marcus—with or without that person as an accomplice—would he or she have gone to the police?” Olivia asked slowly.

Malachi draped an arm around her shoulders. “Hey, you know better than most how twisted and corrupt people can be, cousin.”

Olivia sighed. “So, we’re more or less nowhere.”

“No,” Dustin said. “We have more clues to follow now. Tomorrow we’ll search this area again. And as soon as we get back, we’ll find out what went on with the horses. And, with Jane’s help, we’ll track down that image of the general Frank found in the trees.”

“I still think we should reenact what happened that morning,” Abby suggested. “Try to understand the timing of what went on better.”

“I agree. But for now, let’s get some sleep,” Dustin said.

“Yep, my turn to take over,” Malachi announced. He sat back down by the fire.

“I’ll never sleep now,” Olivia muttered.

“I will,” Dustin said. “Come on. Give it a try.”

He set his hand on her back, pressing her toward the tent. To her surprise, once she’d climbed into her sleeping bag, with him beside her and Abby just feet away—and Malachi on guard duty by the fire—she did begin to drift off.

If it wasn’t so serious, it would be amusing. It was the most asexual situation ever despite the fact that they were crammed together in such intimate quarters. And yet she was comfortable because she could feel his warmth.

* * *

The packaged muffins weren’t very good, but they were edible and Dustin had to admit that the coffee they brewed with stream water was excellent. When they’d eaten, Abby did the directing.

“She used to play a pirate wench at her grandfather’s tavern,” Malachi told Dustin with a grin.

Abby pointedly ignored that. “Malachi, you’ll be Aaron. I’ll be Mariah, and Olivia and Dustin, you two will be yourselves. So…”

“Okay, I’m Aaron. I’ve woken up, stretched and I’m going to the stream.”

He walked away.

“Okay, what next?” Abby asked.

“I hear the scream—I bolt up and run into the woods,” Dustin answered.

“Go!” Abby said.

Dustin shook his head.

“What?” she asked.

“You’re Mariah, so you’re supposed to be in the woods already.”

“All right, I’m going. How far?”

“Just past the ‘powder room’ bushes over there, past the first trees, and into the first clearing,” Dustin told her.

“Okay, wait until I get there and scream.”

Abby ran ahead. A few seconds later, she screamed. Dustin went flying after her; he heard Olivia coming after him. They met up with Abby in the woods.

“That was only about ten seconds,” Dustin said.

Abby nodded. “What next?”

“We were here with Mariah for maybe two minutes and then we all went back to the site. Drew was with me,” Olivia said.

“All right. We head back now.” Abby led the way. When they returned to the campsite, she asked, “And everyone was here then, at the campsite. Everyone except Aaron.”

“Everyone except Aaron,” Dustin confirmed.

“How long until you realized he wasn’t here?” she asked.

“Almost immediately.”

“Okay, so now we go to the stream,” Abby directed.

This time Dustin ran ahead of the others, just as he had that morning. Malachi, who was waiting by the water, looked at his watch. “The entire thing took place in under five minutes,” he said.

Olivia gazed around her and then back at the campsite.

“What is it?” Dustin asked.

“This just keeps getting worse.”

“Why? How?”

“Well, it really could have been anyone. Even Mariah,” Olivia said. “Although that would never have occurred to me if we hadn’t done our reenactment…. She could’ve been at the stream—and then looped around the campsite to get to the woods. And since we don’t know if anyone else was out before Dustin went racing off, one of the others could’ve gone to the stream and come back.” She paused. “I’m positive we can rule out the boys, but…”

“Don’t worry. There are more of us working on this now,” Malachi told her, slipping an arm around her shoulders.

“Let’s finish searching through the trees again, see if we can find anything else,” Abby said.

They returned to the woods; Dustin described what it had looked like where he’d found Mariah. “The, uh, cow pieces are gone now. I guess the coyotes came back and finished them off.”

“Probably,” Malachi agreed. “Let’s split the area into quadrants, start in the middle and we’ll each work outward.”

“What exactly are we searching for?” Olivia asked.

“Anything that doesn’t belong here,” Malachi said.

They explored in silence for a while, combing through the bushes, trying to identify anything out of place on the forest floor.

Suddenly Olivia let out a little cry.

“What is it?” Dustin asked, hurrying over to her.

“Maybe nothing, but…” She opened her hand. She was holding something red with a tiny needlelike point. The small object was in the shape of a horse. “This is one of the tacks we use to put notices up on the office bulletin board,” she said. “Someone might just have had one in a pocket.”

Dustin shook his head. “No, it wasn’t a random find, Olivia. This is where Frank Vine discovered the image of the general. I’d say that means someone—most likely from the Horse Farm—hung it here.”

“To lure Mariah out,” Malachi said, approaching them from the other side.

“So Mariah is innocent. One down.” Olivia raised a finger as though counting.

“Not necessarily.” Dustin shook his head again. “What if she put it here herself to make us believe her story?”

Olivia groaned in frustration. “How will we ever get anywhere?” she demanded.

“Well, Sydney was at the Horse Farm, watching over the place, right?” Malachi said. “Or…”

“Or was he?” Olivia finished for him.

“Maybe that’s something we can prove one way or the other,” Dustin suggested.

“We reach the solution by following every direction,” Malachi told her. “It was a good find, cousin. Now we know it wasn’t just left here by some college kid. That’s important—and it narrows down the possibilities.” They searched a while longer, with no further results, and started back.

En route, Dustin used his radio to call in; Frank Vine told him the night had been uneventful.

When they reached the Horse Farm, Drew and Sydney came out, hearing their arrival. Sammy came out, too, barking excitedly. Olivia immediately dismounted and captured the big dog in a hug, sternly ordering him not to jump.

“Anything?” Drew asked anxiously.

“Nope,” Dustin said. “Anything here?”

“Quiet as a tomb all night.”

“Drew, I heard people say that Aaron always rode Gargantua,” Dustin continued. “Is that right? The day Marcus died, was Aaron riding him?”

Drew raised his eyebrows in evident surprise. “Yeah, it’s true. Aaron—when he went riding, which wasn’t that often—always took Gargantua. He’s a big horse but he’s gentle. I once saw him let himself trip rather than step on Aaron when he’d fallen off. He’d gotten on him bareback, which was kind of foolish for Aaron. I wouldn’t call him an incompetent rider, but he wasn’t the best by far.”

“Where was Gargantua before everyone saddled up to go looking for Marcus Danby that day?” Dustin asked.

“In his stall,” Drew said. “I think.”

Sydney had been listening, Dustin realized, because he walked up to the two of them. “Drew, no. Remember? We had all the horses out in the pasture.”

“Sydney’s right,” Drew said. “I remember now. We had to round them all up to get saddled.”

“Is it important?” Sydney asked.

“I don’t know. Do you ever worry about the horses when they’re out in the pasture? I’m sure you don’t notice all of them all the time. Have you ever worried about one of them being stolen? Could one be stolen?”

“We’ve never had any horses stolen,” Sydney replied. “I guess all the ones we have now are known by people in the area, but we’ve also brought in rescues. Some could be dangerous—unless you knew the horse, knew the problem and the animal’s behavior. Like Shebaan. She was a kicker when we got her. But the first thing we teach anyone who comes here is that you don’t stand in kicking distance behind a horse. Any horse.”

“Should we be worried?” Drew asked.

“No, no,” Dustin assured them. “I wasn’t suggesting that. But could someone, say, use a horse and put it back in the pasture without anyone noticing?”

Drew looked at Sydney; Sydney looked back at Drew.

Then both men looked at Dustin and shrugged.

“What does all this mean? Does it matter?” Drew asked worriedly.

“I’m not sure. Maybe,” Dustin said evasively. “Thanks, you guys.” He left Chapparal with the men and made his way to the office.

Sloan was standing behind Jane Everett at the door, waiting for them. “Anything?” Sloan asked as they entered and shut the door behind them.

“More confusion,” Olivia said, going straight to the coffeepot, Sammy following her every move.

“We spoke with the general,” Olivia said. She poured her coffee and sipped it.

“And?”

“He didn’t see a face, but he did see someone running from the ravine when Marcus was killed.”

“And he saw a horse,” Dustin filled in for her.

“Which horse?”

“Gargantua,” Olivia said.

“Gargantua—the massive horse, I take it?” Jane asked.

Olivia nodded.

Dustin turned to Olivia. “Could he just have disappeared from a pasture and reappeared? Drew and Sydney didn’t seem certain.”

“Well, I guess it’s possible,” she said. “You see and do things every day and you don’t really pay much attention to your surroundings. We often keep the horses in the pastures, and we’ve never had to worry about them. Sometimes they hang around the fences. Sometimes they cluster in the corner by the trees. When I get here every morning, at least some of them are usually out in the pasture, unless they’re being brushed for a session or saddled for a ride. They’re always in their stalls at night, but during the day…” She shrugged. “Honestly, you’d have to ask me to count them. Otherwise, I’d assume they were all where they’re supposed to be.”

“So, it is possible someone took him without being seen,” Dustin concluded.

“I guess so,” Olivia said unhappily.

“Anything else?” Sloan asked.

“We found one of our horse-shaped thumbtacks out in the woods. We’re assuming that means whoever tacked up the image of the general brought it from here—and probably came from here.”

“I believe I’ve learned the source of the image,” Jane said. She sat on the sofa with her laptop and opened it. “Five weekends ago, there was an art show at the Opryland Mall in Nashville. It was kind of a big deal. They had name bands playing there, as well as a contest for artists to create props for haunted houses.” She turned her computer around. There was the gauze cloth, with the watercolor and chalk image of the general. A young man of perhaps twenty-two was standing next to it; a judge stood beside him, handing him an award. “The kid who won is a senior at Vanderbilt. His work will go into a haunted house being set up in an old farmhouse near Murfreesboro. His prize was a grant of five thousand.”

“Have you contacted him?” Dustin asked.

Jane nodded. “His name is Simon Latinsky and you can visit him this afternoon. He rents a room on Capri Street. He’s expecting you anytime before five. Oh, by the way—the original, the one we’re seeing in this picture, is already in the haunted house. But he did a few practice runs, which he sold.”

Dustin looked at Olivia, meeting her eyes. “Why don’t we go talk to the budding artist?”

“Okay with me,” she murmured.

“Meanwhile, I’ll spend some time with Sydney and Drew,” Malachi said. “See if I can find out anything else.”

“Maybe one of you could drop by the caf?,” Dustin suggested. “Delilah is a veritable fount of information and sometimes some of the kids from Parsonage House go there. Oh, if you run into Coot, say hi.”

“I’m going to check up on the whereabouts of your fellow therapists, Mason and Mariah—and I’ll stop by and introduce myself to Sandra Cheever,” Sloan said with a grimace. “I’ve already talked to her on the phone a few times.”

“Really? Why?” Olivia asked.

“According to the last will Aaron Bentley wrote, you’re his executor. And Sandra wants to plan the funeral. Oh, by the way—she quits.”

Olivia groaned. “Another funeral…and I’m not surprised she wants to handle it. All she had to do was talk to me. I’m happy to let her make the arrangements.”

“I don’t think she likes you a lot right now,” Sloan told her.

Dustin nudged Olivia. “Finish your coffee and let’s go,” he said. “We have an art student to see.”

“Sammy and I will hold down the fort here,” Abby said. She yawned. “Maybe take a bit of a nap on that sofa.”

Olivia set down her cup and took Dustin’s hand. “Come on, let’s go. Let’s see what Simon Latinsky has to say.” Sammy let out a mournful howl, as if he knew he was being left again.

“Ah, come here, boy. I’m going to cuddle you while we take a nap,” Abby crooned, enticing him over.

“Just FYI, he’s not supposed to be on the couch,” Olivia said.

Abby grinned at her. “Okay, I’ll be on the couch—and he can sleep on me!”

Olivia smiled. It was evident that she approved of the woman who’d become Malachi’s partner in every possible way.

* * *

Simon Latinsky lived in a turn-of-the-century house on Capri Street near Vanderbilt. When they knocked on the door, the woman who opened it seemed to be expecting them; she welcomed them in and asked if they wanted coffee. They declined, and she directed them to Simon’s room, explaining that she owned the house but rented four of her rooms to students.

The house reminded Dustin of his college days. The tenants seemed to be musicians and artists. He and Olivia could hear someone practicing a guitar as they walked up the stairs, and the hallway was lined with lithographs.

Simon let them into his room. He looked much as he had in the picture Jane had found online.

“Hi!” he greeted them. “Come on in. Sorry, it’s such a mess.” It was a mess. Simon dumped a pile of clothing from a chair and another from the foot of his bed so they could sit. “I heard you’re with the FBI!” he told Dustin.

“I am,” Dustin said, introducing himself and Olivia.

“Cool. But I’m not sure what I can do to help. The lady on the phone was asking me about my General Cunningham picture. She says the sheriff out by you found one—in some trees. The thing is, it can’t be the one in the newspaper photo. That’s owned by Hysterically Haunted Happenings—they’re the guys who had the contest. I was really happy to win. Tuition is stiff, you know?”

“I remember,” Olivia said. “And I sympathize.”

“Hey, want to be a model? What a great face you’ve got.”

“No, but thank you.”

“I didn’t mean a nude or anything. I have a little money now.” He grinned. “I could even pay you.”

“Maybe some other time.” Olivia smiled at him. “If you’re looking for models, we have gorgeous horses at the Horse Farm, not to mention adorable dogs and cats. You could come out and see them sometime.”

“Yeah, a woman on a horse. A naked woman on a horse! Oh, no—sorry. You can tell I like historical images,” Simon said.

“I’m no Lady Godiva.”

Dustin brought the subject back to their original purpose. “My associate told me that you had a few other renderings of the general. Practice runs, she called them. But you sold them all?”

“Too bad I didn’t know I was going to win!” Simon groused. “I’d have held out for more money. Yeah, I did two practice images. They weren’t as well-shadowed or defined as the one I entered, but they were still pretty good. They probably wound up someplace where they won’t really be appreciated.”

“Oh, I think one of them is appreciated,” Olivia murmured.

“So, you sold two. Who did you sell them to?” Dustin asked.

Simon screwed up his face. “We had an art sale right in the yard,” he said. “We do them every few months. Mrs. B.—you met her, she owns this place—is really cool. Some of my friends play their own music, she makes lemonade and sangria and we have a great day. I sold a bunch of stuff, sketches, some watercolors—and the practice pieces.”

“Yes, but who did you sell them to?” Olivia asked, repeating Dustin’s question.

“Well, I’m trying to remember,” Simon told them. “’Cause I sold so much.”

“Was it all cash?” Dustin asked.

Simon brightened. “No. No, I took several checks…. Oh, yeah! I took a check for one of the renderings.”

“Who wrote it?” Dustin persisted.

“Um—a guy,” Simon said vaguely.

“Old guy, young guy?”

“Sort of in the middle. He wasn’t a kid, but he wasn’t keeling over or anything, either.”

“Was he dark-or light-skinned? What color were his eyes? Did he have a beard? How was he dressed? Is there anything you remember about him?”

“Well, he was wearing a baseball cap, I’m pretty sure. I don’t remember his eyes. No, he didn’t have a beard.”

“Do you have the check he gave you?” Olivia asked.

“I already deposited it,” he replied. “Everyone told me I was an idiot to take a check. But here’s the good thing—it didn’t bounce!”

“Simon, I swear we’re not after your bank account, but you must have online banking,” Olivia said. “If you pull up your account, you should be able to find a copy of the check.”

He got up. His desk was piled high with pens and pencils, art sheets and school memos. He brushed them out of the way to get to his computer. A minute later, he’d drawn up his records and hit all the right keys. He swiveled in his desk chair to look at them proudly. “I found it!”

Olivia got up and walked over to stand behind the boy, studying the computer image of the check he’d been given.

She turned to look at Dustin with stricken eyes.

“Aaron,” she said softly. “Aaron bought the general’s image.”

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