Christmas in Cowboy Country (5 page)

Tyrell put his arms around her. “That's a forty-five-minute drive one way. Add in at least an hour of shopping and we have the whole afternoon.”
“To do what?”
“As if you didn't know.” He gave her a good squeeze that made Lou giggle again.
Chapter 5
N
ell dropped Annie off by her truck, which she'd left in the town's parking lot, and rolled down the window to say good-bye.
Annie poked her head in. “Wait. That bag's mine.” She'd bought silver nonpareils and multicolored jimmies in advance for Lou's upcoming Christmas-cookie-baking marathon. Her mother liked to go all out, though she had given up on making the much less popular fruitcakes.
“Only one?” Nell asked. The saloon owner had at least ten bags of her own to wrangle.
“Yup. Sure you don't want help with yours?” Nell shook her head. “I didn't buy anything heavy. Do you have everything?”
Annie took a second look. The other bags were too full to close. Bristling foil garlands bulged out of a few, and boxes of glass ornaments were stacked in others. “Yes. That was fun. Thanks again.”
“You bet. Take care now.” Nell drove away when Annie stepped back.
As she walked toward her red pickup she remembered her next errand: stamps. Her mother had asked her to get two sheets with holiday themes.
Annie did an about-face, heading for the Velde post office instead. Looked like she wouldn't have to wait long. There were only two people ahead of her.
She stood, her hands crossed in front of her, looking around idly. Her gaze lifted to the mural above the counter, painted decades ago and still in remarkably good condition. She remembered studying it as a kid, feeling uplifted by its sunny depiction of mail delivery in the West. A Pony Express rider at full gallop rode toward modern times, represented by a small white truck on a rural road, an apple-cheeked mailman at the wheel.
Annie turned her head when someone bumped into her.
“Sorry, dear. I didn't see you.”
“That's all right.”
The speaker was an elderly woman whom she didn't know by name. But Annie had seen her at the town hall. She and her husband had been among the group who'd approached Shep Connally after the meeting.
The woman held a certified letter she'd just received in one thin hand. Annie couldn't help noticing the bold black lettering on the envelope:
Department of Taxation. Official Business. To Be Opened By Addressee Only.
“I'm just distracted, I guess.” Her hand shook and she dropped the envelope. “Oh, goodness. What is the matter with me?”
“Not to worry. We all have days like that.” Annie bent down to retrieve it and read the names,
Jack and Elsie Pearson
.
“Here you go.” She handed it over.
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Yes. My name's Annie Bennett, by the way.”
“Oh,” the woman said a little vaguely. “Well, I'm Elsie Pearson.”
“I'll remember that.” Annie smiled reassuringly and stepped toward the exterior door to hold it open for Mrs. Pearson. “I hope you don't have far to go. I could give you a ride if you like.”
She could get the stamps some other time. Her mother would understand.
The old lady opened her purse and slipped the certified letter next to a plain envelope with no stamp on it and a printed company name in the upper left corner,
Connally Associates
. There was no street or number. Just a town she'd never heard of. Dehia, Arizona.
Annie bit her tongue. The old lady closed her purse and buttoned up her coat before she answered.
“No, that's all right. I live just around the corner. But thanks.”
She walked somewhat uncertainly away, her shoulders bent. Annie looked after her through the glass of the closed door. The two envelopes she'd glimpsed proved exactly nothing. But there was a story behind them. And she knew someone who might be able to help her find out more.
Annie paused in front of a limestone building crowned with a carved pediment, then went up the steps through the columned facade. Her boot heels clicked against the inlaid marble floor of the half-size rotunda. The founders of Velde had spared no expense. There were paintings of them on the walls, in high collars and whiskers, and a smiling portrait of the current mayor. It was a safe bet that he wasn't around this afternoon.
She barely spared them a glance, intent on her errand. “Harriet? You in?”
The town clerk appeared at the doors to a corridor next to the mayor's chambers. “Yes. Hello, Annie. What's up?”
They'd met last quarter, when she'd accompanied her parents into town. They liked to pay taxes in person.
“Hey, do you have a minute or two? I just wanted to ask you a few questions about town records—the ones that are open to the public.”
“Sure. Come with me.” Harriet Sargent led the way into her work space. “Have a seat.” She lifted a stack of manila files off the chair beside her desk.
“Still using hard copies?” Annie teased her.
“Of course. The town files aren't going to be digitized in my lifetime. Besides, paper lasts longer than some computerized records. Remember floppy disks?” She held one up. “I use this for a coaster. Haven't been able to access the data on it for years.”
The flat screen monitor and CPU on Harriet's desk was the latest model. Annie's laptop was older.
“So what can I do for you?”
“I need an answer to a general question.”
“Let's hear it.”
Annie collected her thoughts, which had gone in a lot of directions after the encounter with Elsie Pearson.
“If someone wanted financial information on someone, like tax assessments, could they just walk in here and get it?”
“Property assessments are available to the public online. And yes, here too, if folks fill out a form and request one. Why do you ask?”
“Well, if you were a senior citizen on a fixed income and you had a big tax payment coming up and someone was able to find out about it and pressure you into deeding over your house in the future in exchange for cash now, or something like that—”
Annie stopped and looked at Harriet. Maybe she was letting her imagination run away with her.
“That does happen. Unfortunately, it's kind of a gray area. If a bank does it—and they're not allowed to use high-pressure sales tactics, by the way—it's called a reverse mortgage. Are you concerned about an elderly individual you know personally?”
“No.” It wasn't exactly a lie. Annie hadn't even known Elsie Pearson's name until today. “I was just wondering.”
“Oh.”
Annie glanced down at the newspaper on Harriet's desk, frowning at the front-page photo of Shep Connally shaking hands with a member of the town council as the others looked on. Speak of the devil.
“My folks dragged me to that meeting, but I was sort of glad I went. I didn't like the consultant guy, though.”
Harriet fiddled with a pencil. “I didn't either. But as far as I know, he hasn't done anything wrong,” the clerk added.
“It bothered me how some of the older folks seemed to trust him right away. Why would they? He really didn't say anything that made sense to me.”
“I would agree. And let's all hope he's not setting them up. But it's a free country. You can say anything you want. It's what you do that counts more.”
Annie blew out a breath. Marshall Stone had said essentially the same thing. And both he and Harriet were right. But that didn't do much to ease her mind at the moment.
“If it's any reassurance, Annie, no one has come in here asking to see tax assessments. I suppose people will, since quarterly payments are due at the end of the year. But it's been quiet.”
“Okay. Well, I guess that's all. I appreciate you letting me pester you.”
“Anytime. And you're not a pest.”
Annie thought once more of Elsie Pearson and how troubled the old lady had seemed. “I just wanted to make sure on that one point.” She knew she was going to think of more questions as soon as she was out of here. “All right. Thanks again. I know you have work to do.”
“Yes. Filing. It never ends.” Harriet shifted an uneven stack of papers to an open spot. “If Velde keeps growing, I'm going to have to beg the mayor for an assistant. Maybe two. Know anyone who'd be interested?”
“Ah—” Annie didn't want to put herself forward as a candidate. But she could learn a lot more if she was inside this office. It was something to think about.
“It's just not possible to get everything done on a computer,” Harriet was saying. “And between you and me, I don't quite trust the darn things. One wrong keystroke and the hard drive eats a whole day's work. Or if there's a power failure, it can take hours to get online again.”
Annie gave a sympathetic nod.
Harriet patted the heap waiting to be filed. It contained so many different sizes and types of paper that it would have been impossible to stack neatly. “You're looking at the original database. I'm glad we still have to keep them.”
Annie wished she could look through it all. From where she was sitting, the papers didn't seem to be just documents. Drawings, old ones in faded ink, of property boundaries, and brown-spotted maps were mixed in.
“How do you keep track of it all?”
“You caught me on a bad day, Annie. Usually I'm more caught up than this. Although I couldn't say my desk is ever completely clear.”
Annie had never worked at a desk. She didn't have anything to say on the subject.
“For the most part, I do know where everything is,” Harriet said. “It helps, let me tell you.” She indicated a piece of paper sticking halfway out, near the top of the stack. “That right there is a map of your family's ranch.”
“Really?” Annie peered at what she could see of it. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Not at all.” Harriet pulled it out carefully and handed it to her. “A surveyor requested it a day or so ago. He wanted to compare the old boundaries on file with his new measurements. I think he said he was surveying for the rancher whose land adjoins yours.”
Annie's eyebrows went up. “Do you mean Marshall Stone?”
“That was the name, yes.”
“He was on our property several days ago. He didn't say anything to me about coming in here.”
“Standard procedure.” Harriet seemed unconcerned. “Showed ID, filled out the form. I have it on file.”
“Hmm.” Annie thought about asking to see it, thinking it might be possible to find out a little bit more about Stone without having to ask him personally. But she didn't want to bug the clerk any more than she already had. “Well, thanks for showing me this.” Annie gave her back the old map. “I know my father would be interested.”
“I could make you a photocopy. I can't let you take the original out of the office, though.”
“That's okay. He could come in and see it for himself, right?” The clerk nodded. “I'll tell him about it. And now I really should get going.”
“All right. I'll be sure to file that map first,” Harriet promised. “It won't go astray. And if it does, don't worry. I've never lost anything for longer than a day.”
Chapter 6
T
hat conversation had taken up the rest of the short afternoon. Annie didn't know much more than when she'd started, but she was determined to have it out with Marshall Stone. Maybe it was standard procedure and maybe it wasn't, but she didn't like the idea that he had researched their property without ever telling her. As if her father didn't respect other people's boundaries. That would be Chuck Pfeffer's game. She felt more than a little ticked off.
She kicked a pebble down the stairs and headed for her red pickup.
What next? If she wanted to talk to him, she'd have to find him first. That fancy truck of his ought to stand out even more during the day—although sunset wasn't far off. Still, it would take less than half an hour to drive through every street in Velde.
She had several good reasons to stick to conversation this time around. Annie vowed not to let herself get distracted by his long, lean good looks and potent attractiveness.
He might have worked both to his advantage the night of the town meeting, but he hadn't apologized at the supermarket and he wasn't likely to now either.
His conduct raised questions. The way Annie saw it, Marshall Stone owed her some answers.
She got into her truck and drove away.
 
 
About ten miles out on the road into Velde, Marshall Stone was cleaning out the cab of his truck. Strictly speaking, it wasn't his.
Where he was from in Wyoming, no one would ever drive something so showy. On principle, they'd be likely to bang it up a little, just so the truck knew who was boss.
He had thought when it was assigned to him that the gleaming new vehicle would stand out too much in a town like Velde. Maybe not in Aspen or Vail, but in cowboy country it just looked too damn new. Still, he couldn't complain. There was no way the IT team could retrofit a vintage one with the wireless gear and encrypted satellite connection he needed to stay in touch with his colleagues on the fraud case.
Which was going slower than he liked. If he could wrap up this investigation before Christmas and get out of Velde, that would be fine with him. Hell, if he could wrap it up before Thanksgiving, that would be even better.
He didn't think for one second that a certain beautiful brunette would miss him. Marshall crumpled up a handful of fast-food wrappers and stuffed them into a plastic bag. He'd had about all he could stand of steamed burgers and stale fries.
However, it seemed best to stay out of restaurants, especially restaurant doorways, for the time being. Then again, lightning wasn't supposed to strike twice. The kiss he had shared with Annie had been the kiss of a lifetime.
Yesterday he'd done himself a favor, and swung off the road when he'd spotted a lunch truck out by the sawmill, figuring that hungry loggers knew how to chow down.
The roast beef sandwich he'd selected had been about as big as his head and truly tasty. But he hadn't been able to eat the whole thing and he'd forgotten about the remains, which he tossed into the plastic bag too.
Holding it closed, he walked toward a Dumpster in the parking lot that several small businesses shared. All of them were closed. About to toss in the bag of trash, he heard an echoing bark. Then the scrabble of claws.
Marshall was just tall enough to peer in over the side. The Dumpster was empty . . . except for a black-and-white dog that was staring up at him, wagging its fluffy tail. Didn't have a collar. Looked dusty, but not too bad otherwise.
“How'd you get in there?”
It jumped up toward him and fell back again on all fours.
Marshall looked around. There was no one else in the parking lot. It was possible that the dog had jumped in somehow, unless some son-of-a-bitch had put it in there.
He sighed and went to get a heavy-duty plastic crate stashed behind one of the businesses. He fished out what was left of the roast beef sandwich and tossed the bag of trash into a tall can by the locked back door.
Then he brought over the crate and stood on it to peer over the Dumpster's side again. The dog came right to him, stretching up to sniff at the remains of the sandwich he held out.
There were only a few shreds of roast beef and a glob of mayonnaise on the roll, but the dog seemed interested. More than interested. When it got a whiff of what he held in his hand, the tail really got going.
“Come and get it,” Marshall coaxed.
The dog made a jump and fell back. Its eyes fixed on the prize, it backed up a few steps and crouched, then sprang high enough for Marshall to catch it by the furry scruff of its neck.
He wrangled it over the side of the Dumpster and let it jump down the rest of the way. Wonder of wonders, it sat right down without him saying a word. Maybe without knowing it, he'd given the animal some kind of signal it recognized. Someone had trained it. Maybe the dog hadn't been abandoned. Some practical joker could have put it into the empty Dumpster.
“Who taught you to do that?”
The dog grinned, letting its tongue loll out. Marshall was about to reward it with the sandwich when he realized his hand was empty.
“Hey. That wasn't polite.” The dog didn't even bother to look guilty. If he got close, he would probably smell the mayo on its breath.
“You're pretty slick.” Its tail thumped on the ground; the dog seemed to agree. “So. Now that you're out, what am I going to do with you?”
He patted his pockets, looking for his phone, and remembered that he'd left it in the truck. Marshall walked back to it and the dog accompanied him, heeling like a champion. “Good dog,” he said.
It wasn't that obedient. Before he gave it a command, it jumped past him through the door he'd left open and landed on the front seat. “Hold on. I didn't say you could do that. Now get down.”
The dog eased down into the foot well and popped up its head, grinning again.
“Not quite what I meant.”
It stayed there for a few more seconds, then clambered back up onto the seat and stared out the passenger window like it had important work to do.
Marshall looked it over. It was clearly some kind of stock dog mix, male, probably smart as hell and too adventurous for its own good. He ran his hands along its sides, feeling definite ribs, but it wasn't starved. Just hungry. He picked up a back paw, noting the worn pads and a split nail. It had to have covered a lot of miles lately. No identifying tattoo that he could find. He doubted it was microchipped, but a vet would be able to tell him that.
“Do you have a name? Are you someone's dog?”
The dog turned intelligent amber eyes on him, as if the answer was obvious.
Yours, pal.
“All right.” He sighed. “You need a bath and a collar, for starters. It's late in the day, so you get a reprieve on the vet visit.” Marshall got into the truck and slammed the door.

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