Jaycee paced in front of the old bank building on the main street in Comfort. With its older builders, historical signs, and quiet streets, this place lived up to its name. But they had chosen it as the meeting place for this unusual assemblage of characters for another reason – its location close to Grandfather’s ranch.
She looked at her watch. Eight-forty-eight. Her heart beat faster as she contemplated the day ahead. There were just so many unknowns. As carefully as they had planned things, she knew they were flying blind here. Trusting that Grandfather or Rex would be able to detect the Chupacabra among the myriad of suspects, what if they didn’t?
‘Relax, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. I promise nothing will happen to you or Angel.’
His voice in her head was more comforting than she could have imagined that first day on the steps outside that courthouse. But despite knowing that for the first time in her life, she did not face her troubles alone, she was still worried. She knew that the unspoken bit of that statement was ‘if it cost him his life.’ She had quickly come to fear losing this man, every bit as much as she did Angel.
She watched as the white truck with a horse trailer came down the road. Rex came to stand beside her, “So, Masters is the first. Why does that not surprise me? Eager to get his hands on one point two million dollars worth of prime horseflesh.”
She chuckled that he chose to use the words she had spoken that first day in the courtroom. “Yes, well, Thad is the red sports car right behind him.”
Before the words were even out of her mouth, the car traversed the double yellow line and overtook the truck, pulling into a parking space in front of the bank. She had not seen the young man who got out of it in weeks, since his father’s attorney, Mitch Taylor, had deposed him. Despite the seriousness of the matter, Thad Marshall seemed surprisingly jovial.
She held out her hand, “Thanks for coming, Thad.”
His smile broke for a moment as he took her hand. “I’m gonna be honest, Jaycee. I need this thing over as soon as possible. I just want to move on with my life.”
She nodded as the middle-aged and slightly paunchy man in khakis and a knit shirt got out of the truck and walked towards them. “Rex,” was his only comment, not bothering to hold out his hand to his former employee.
She held out hers instead, “Mister Masters, I’m Jaycee Riley, and this is my client Thad Marshall. We’d like to thank you for your patience with this matter. Hopefully, we can come to some mutually agreeable resolution today.”
The man eyed her client as if taking the man’s measure. “Yes, well, I hope so as well. If not, then I’m prepared to seize the animals again.”
Thad was about to say something but was distracted as a police cruiser pulled in next to his convertible. The man who got out was the opposite of Masters – hard in every way, from the toned body that testified to hours spent in the gym, and perhaps a few illegal steroids as well, to the grim look on his aging but still handsome face. This man meant business as he studied them all.
He covered the distance in only a couple of strides. He did not bother offering his hand either but was polite enough to doff his hat at her. “I’m assuming that you’re Jaycee Riley, my wife’s litigator?”
This man was everything that she had been warned about – and perhaps more. “Sheriff Kerr, thank you for coming today.”
“Where’s Joyce and my girls?” The man got straight to the point.
She was glad that they had decided it was not necessary to involve that client in the matter. The woman and her daughters were deep in hiding, thanks to a network for domestic abuse victims. Jaycee knew that none of them were emotionally stable and recovered enough to handle a face-to-face meeting with their abuser, and she did not doubt after meeting this man that he was that and more.
“I’m sure you’re aware, Sheriff, that it is not necessary under these circumstances for your former wife to be present at your deposition.”
“We’ll see once my attorney gets here.” His smile sent a shiver up her spine, “I think you might know the man – Sean Riley.”
It did not surprise her that a narcissistic, gaslighting bastard like Andrew Kerr would stoop to such a tactic. But it did shock her a bit that Sean would lower himself to personally dealing with a mere custodial issue. She tried her best not to let that show, as he added, “Biblically speaking even.”
Jaycee was glad that the arrival of a shiny new SUV obviated any need to respond to his dig. She turned her attention instead to the young man next to her as she smiled reassuringly at Thad, “At least your father and his attorney came.”
Thad Marshall nodded, but she noticed that her client was decidedly less sanguine than when he arrived. His face darkened further when his father got out of the vehicle. Even Jaycee was taken aback by the change in the older man’s appearance.
Gone was the self-assured and sanctimonious rancher. In his place was an old man. Perhaps a dying man, she wondered as she watched Mitch Taylor bring a walker out of the back of his car. Even then, Tybor Marshall could barely stand. His skin was yellowish, and his hands covered in bruises of various shades of black, green, blue, purple, and yellow.
Her attention was entirely on her client as she watched the mixed emotions fleet across Thad’s face. She reached out and gently squeezed his shoulder, realizing how easy it had been to stereotype him as uncaring – of the horse, the case, and his father. Perhaps it was not that he did not care, but that he cared too much.
Thad nodded at her as he climbed down a couple of steps to greet his father. “Here, let me help you, Daddy.”
Tybor Marshall shook his head, “Do you really care, boy? Looks like you’ll win by default.” But the man allowed his son to grip his elbow and gently help him up the steps.
Jaycee held out her hand to Mitch Taylor, realizing that they could eliminate one suspect from the list. Couldn’t they? Could a man in that shape be capable of transforming into – that thing?
‘No, he couldn’t,’ Rex’s voice in her mind was a gentle reminder that she was not alone. But she appreciated that he had allowed her to control this circus.
“If you all will bear with me for a few more minutes, we’re only missing one more participant,” she added in her courtroom voice.
Mitch nodded as Thad spoke quietly with his father. Masters grumbled as he glared at Rex. But it was Kerr’s over-confidence that bothered her most, “He’ll be here; you can count on it.”
She was grateful for Rex’s hand on her shoulder, even if Masters did raise his eyebrows. “So, that’s why you bent over backward for this case, Ranger.”
Rex’s only response was a gentle squeeze as the black BMW came down the street. ‘Let the show begin.’
Rex leaned against the post of the front porch. His eyes were glued to the men as they hung on the wooden beams of the coral. Grandfather was putting Angel through her paces with her pony.
Something was off. He could feel that. But since Sean Riley had driven into town in his flashy car, he and the sheriff had been inseparable. Rex couldn’t get a clear enough read on either of them. Both were evil; of that, there was no doubt. But which, if either, was the Chupacabra?
Of course, he worried that he was biased against Riley. He wished he could say that he could not see what his mate had seen in the man. But it was all too easy to see exactly what had attracted her to the man. Mature, self-assured, successful, the man wore it all like the designer suit, which he had on, even today.
The man was a bit older than either Jaycee or himself. Early fifties, perhaps? The prime of his life? Rex had seen red when the man got out of his car, walked straight to his mate, and kissed her. On the cheek, but a kiss, nonetheless. Only the word ‘asshole’ filtering through their bond held him in check.
The man was an expert at pushing buttons: his, Jaycee’s, and it seemed even his only child’s. Rex had not seen Angel so withdrawn, even on that first day, when she had the seizure. She was always the light in this dark, grey world. After the first, ‘watch me, Daddy,’ when the man only gave her a half-smile and wave before turning back to his conversation with Sheriff Kerr, she had seemed… Off? Was that the word?
Rex wanted to speak with his grandfather, but they had all agreed to keep communication, even this psychic form, to a minimum. A Chupacabra had the same heightened senses, after all, and they did not want to tip the creature off.
And it was a creature. He had to keep reminding himself of that. Whoever it was, had long since given up his soul to that thing. The man was no more, merely a servant of the evil. He would prey upon the pain of others as much as the Chupacabra fed upon the blood of its victims.
Time to engage his prey. Rex walked down the steps and across the rocky, dry ground to the corral. He, too, leaned against the wooden fence. “Good girl, Angel,” he called encouragement to his daughter.
The men stopped their conversation. Sean Riley glared at him, “That’s MY girl.”
Rex did not doubt that Sean Riley meant those words just as they sounded. A warning to him, no doubt. But equally, this man did not see Angel as her own person. She was nothing more to him than another possession, like his BMW or his suit.
Except in Angel’s case, that product, that possession, was flawed. Defective. Was it because of her seizures? Or was the man equally disappointed that his only child had been a girl?
His adversary stepped away from the other man, sidling down the coral towards Rex. He held out his hand, “Sorry, I forget your name.”
Rex shook the man’s hand. Evil, for sure, but he had known that already. Could he be that thing? Certainly. But was he? Rex had been confident that he would know, but it was not that easy.
He was beginning to worry that this had been a terrible idea. If they could not identify and neutralize the Chupacabra, then they had opened themselves up to more attacks. They had revealed their safe haven, making it harder, if not impossible, for him to keep his family safe.
Rex did not bother responding to the man’s comments. Letting Riley make the next move was their best option. Instead, he focused his attention on his grandfather as he helped Angel down off her pony. Something was definitely off with the child. He wanted to speak with her alone.
“You’re getting better every day, Angel. How about Grandfather and I put you down for a rest while Hector rubs down Bambi?”
Angel lifted her head and nodded slowly. Were there dark circles under her eyes again? Rex was glad that they had agreed to ask Hector and Lupe to join them on the ranch for a couple of days. A couple of extra hands, especially with Angel, would free them to focus on the things they needed to accomplish.
“Where’s Mommy?” her voice did sound weaker, less animated. Rex was not certain how to describe it, actually.
He reached out and brushed the curls back out of her eyes. “She’s in some important meetings with her clients. But Lupe is here for you. And Grandfather can tell you another legend.”
She looked up at the man who had become her mentor and nodded, “Can you help me with my meditations?”
Sean Riley stepped forward, “Come on now, Angel. You haven’t seen Daddy in weeks. You see these people all the time. Besides, you’ll be seven soon. You’re too big for naps.”
His daughter frowned but nodded as Grandfather lifted her over the fencing. Rex reached out to take her, but Riley pushed him aside. No sooner had the man’s hands touched her waist than her brown eyes rolled back in her head, and her tiny body began to jerk violently as if this seizure indeed would tear her apart.
Riley started to release his hold on the child. If Rex had not been so close, Angel might have dropped to the dirt. But he managed to catch her in his arms as he pushed past the man’s stunned face.
He covered the distance to the house in only a few strides. Lupe was standing on the porch, “Get the emergency meds, and I’ll let Jaycee know.” Rex took control as he followed the woman into the house and down the hall to Angel’s bedroom.
He had never felt more useless, more helpless. Not even during the worst of his cases as he stood just off someone’s property, sometimes watching an animal fight for its life, while he was forced to wait for a court order. He swallowed down the fear that clutched his throat as he laid her stiff little body on the bed.
Tears marred his vision. His child was fighting for her life. He knew that. And there was not a damned thing he could do about it.
Jaycee stared at the faces around the dining room table. It was not the usual conference room where she negotiated deals or interrogated adversaries, but maybe that worked in her favor this time. This group and this meeting were certainly not what she had expected when they set this meeting up.
She stared across the table where Tybor Marshall sat next to his attorney. Mitch Taylor leaned in and whispered something to the older man, who only shook his head as he looked up at his son.
“What’s the point now?” His voice brook over the words as his eyes clouded over.
“Daddy?” Her client did not seem to know what to say. It had been months since he had seen his father, perhaps more than a year. The man across the table bore little resemblance even to the one she had seen just weeks before in the courthouse.
“Family drama aside, I’m here to deal with the issue of those horses. Can we focus on that?” Masters glared at all those around the table.
The man was pompous, arrogant, and a jerk. Of that, there was no doubt. But he was not evil. Even she could feel that.
“Yes, that would be as good a place as any to begin,” Mitch reached into his battered leather briefcase, a relic from another era it seemed. He pulled out some papers and passed a copy across the table to her, and another to the man sitting alone at the other end.
“As you’ll see from this doctor’s report, my client’s cancer has metastasized to his brain. In his expert opinion, my client cannot be held legally accountable for the abuse of those animals as the tumor impaired his judgment.”
Thad took the papers from her hand before she could read them. His face blanched of color as he scanned them.
Masters, on the other hand, seemed intent on reading every line before passing it back towards the center of the table. “Yes, well, that does not really affect the ASPCA. You can take that up with the prosecutor’s office and Marigold. I’m here to deal with the final disposition of those animals.”
“If we give them to you, will you make sure she drops the case against my father?”
Jaycee reached out to place her hand on Thad’s arm, but he shook his head. “I don’t care. They’re just horses. It’s just money. I don’t want Daddy to spend his final days in jail,” his voice cracked.
“Guilt, boy? I thought I raised you to be tougher than that.”
“Loving someone doesn’t make you weak, Daddy. Mama taught me that.”
The older man turned his face to the wall, “Yeah, well, we know what kinda lovin’ you’re doing.”
Her client shook his blond head as tears trekked down his cheeks. “Daddy, being gay doesn’t mean I don’t love you. That I didn’t love Mama.”
“It ain’t being gay that’s the problem, boy. It never was.” The older man practically shouted until he broke down into a coughing fit.
They waited as Mitch wrapped his arm around the man to support him. Thad got up from beside her and went to kneel at his father’s feet. Taking the man’s bruised hand and holding it until the coughing quieted.
“What is then, Daddy? I always thought it was the same old Bible thing of ‘a man lying with a man’ as it was with Mama for so long?” The younger man searched his father’s face.
Tybor Marshall laughed, but it turned into another coughing episode. Jaycee noticed that during the worst of it, when his breathing was labored, he turned his hand over and gripped his son’s as if to comfort and sustain him.
“Boy, you should know I never bought that woman’s religious hogwash. You know, I had a gay bull once — paid good money for the damned thing. Top dollar for a dang bull that would hump all the other bulls he could find, even break a fence to get to another one.”
“But the moment you put him into a dang pasture with the heifers, he couldn’t be bothered. That taught me right then and there that sort of thing ain’t a choice. It’s just how you’re born.”
Tears were flowing down the young man’s cheek, “Then, why, Daddy? Why do you hate me so much? Why are you fighting so hard to keep me from coming home?”
The man stared at his son, “Coming home? I thought you just wanted the ranch so you could parcel it out and sell it off, tract by tract like the Monroe place was?”
Thad shook his head, “No, Daddy. Not the ranch. That’s been our home for generations. I want it to remain that way. Our roots go deep.”
“That’s the problem, son. There’s been Marshalls and Andersons on that land since before Texas was its own country, let alone a state.” He shook his head, “But all that ends with us, boy.”
Tybor Marshall had tears running down his face as he squeezed his son’s hand. “We never told you, but you’re one of them, test-tube babies, just like most of our cattle.”
“Your Mama and I married young. I think more to please our families and unite the ranch than any love. Oh, I liked your Mama as much as any other girl, but it was the ranch and family that mattered to me.”
“And when it passed down to me, the land was all we had — a few heads of cattle and some horses. But there weren’t two red cents in the bank. In fact, the bank held a note on the ranch too.”
“The Andersons were a bit better off. They might not have had much cash in the bank, but they had a decent herd, and their land wasn’t mortgaged. Only problem was they had just the one daughter. Her brother had gone off to the Army and been killed in that dang war.”
“We did what was expected of us. And I worked hard, damned hard to build the ranch up. The problem was we didn’t have no child to leave the damned thing to. Twenty years of marriage and doing our duty and not once had your Mama been in the family way.”
He was silent as he stared off out the window for a long moment. “I had just paid it all off. We were starting to make a profit. And your Mama came up with this crazy idea of in vitro fertilization.”
The man looked at his son for a long moment, “I remortgaged the ranch. It took us three tries before she got pregnant with you. We were so happy.”
“But what now, boy? Who you gonna leave the ranch to? Being gay and all.”
Thad laughed as he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his phone. He pushed some buttons and held it up to his father. “That’s my husband, Trey, and our little girl. Her name’s Sarah Rose, after Mama.”
The older man’s hands were trembling as he took the phone. The room was utterly silent. The only one who seemed unmoved by all that had transpired with Masters, who was fidgeting uncomfortably with the stack of papers on the table.
“The ranch will stay in the family? You won’t sell it, Thad? I have your word?” Tybor pleaded as a smile transformed his face, at least a little bit.
“You have my word, Daddy,” Thad squeezed his father’s hand.
Mitch looked across the table at Jaycee. “My client had instructed me to drop the lawsuit contesting Rose Anderson Marshalls’ last will and testament. I was reluctant, but given this turn of events,” he passed another stack of papers across the table to her.
“I’ll look these over. But I’m sure that we can come to some agreement over everything.” She smiled. Not often did she enjoy her career as much as this.
“Yes, well, that does not settle anything as far as the ASPCA is concerned,” came the cranky voice from the end of the table.
“As I said, if you’ll get the DA to drop the charges against my Daddy, you can have the damned horses.”
“Wait a minute, son. Them horses are valuable — your Mama’s pride and joy. Don’t be so rash. I’m sure Mitch can drag that court case out long enough to give this old man time to die in peace,” Tybor chuckled.
“Thoroughbreds aren’t much use on a cattle ranch, Daddy. I’d much rather have you spend your time getting to know my family than tied up with court cases. We can pick out a few nice ponies for Sarah together.”
Tybor Marshall paused, looking at his son before nodding slowly.
Jaycee was about to steal the deal when Rex came into the room. “We need you.”
She did not have to question why. Even without the mental link, they shared now, the answer was written in the drawn lines of his handsome face.
“Angel,” she stood and headed down the hall without a word to anyone.
Rex hated this impotent feeling as he stood behind his mate. Lupe had administered the emergency seizure medication over two minutes ago, but his daughter continued to jerk violently on her bed. His mate rubbed her shoulder and whispered softly as tears streaked down her face.
There was absolutely nothing more they could do for a few more moments, though Lupe was already preparing another syringe of the medication. “Give it a couple more moments, Señora. She may come around. If not, then I will give more.”
Jaycee turned her frightened gaze to her friend and nurse, “Why, Lupe? She’s been doing so well. We’ve never had to give her a second dose before.”
Rex felt his fists tighten as his throat choked back his pleas. But to whom those prayers were sent, he had never been sure. His mother’s god of ritual that had little to do with the simple carpenter who had taught love and forgiveness. The self-absorbed, trickster gods of war that were his father’s Norse pantheon. Or…
He felt the calm begin to bubble up from the bit of his stomach as his grandfather placed his hand on his shoulder. The man put his other hand on Jaycee’s, “May I, child?”
His mate started to shake her head, but then looked down at her daughter, whose lips had taken on a deep blue tinge. Jaycee scooted over on the bed, making room for Grandfather.
The older man knelt on the floor next to the bed. Though his grandfather was an active man for his more than seven decades on this planet, Rex knew that it must be painful for knees that had seen better days. His wrinkled and gnarled fingers brushed a curl back from his daughter’s face, and she drew in a deep breath, the first in a minute or more.
Grandfather closed his eyes, then held out his arms in greeting and supplication to the ancient forces that, even after a lifetime of research, seemed more mystery than certainty. Rex watched his lips begin to move. His words were familiar but quiet.
“Mother, sing me a song that will ease my pain, mend broken bones, bring wholeness again.”
Rex released his breath and the tears that he had been holding inside, as he closed his eyes and centered his thoughts on the words, “Catch my babies when they are born, sing my death song, teach me how to mourn.”
He fumbled over those words as he felt Jaycee stiffen. He knew that death, too, was part of life. A door through which the circle was complete. But like his mate, his mind cried out at the injustice of the very idea that one so young and gifted should walk through it too soon.
He sent another prayer to that gentle carpenter, ‘Please not this.’
His voice cracked, and he faltered as Jaycee drew in a deep breath. He opened his eyes to see why and sighed himself as Angel’s little body seemed to relax.
Lupe squeezed in between Grandfather and his mate. Her fingers pressed firmly against the column of Angel’s neck. “It is over now,” she confirmed as Angel’s breathing seemed to regulate itself, too.
Jaycee collapsed into his arms as Grandfather nodded before continuing the chant quietly. “Show me the Medicine of the healing herbs, the value of spirit, the way I can serve.”
“This is bull shit,” boomed the voice from the door.
Angel jumped even though she appeared to be still unconscious. Jaycee’s shoulders tensed under his fingers, and every eye in the room turned towards the doorway.
Well, over six feet of imposing man stood blocking the exit from Angel’s bedroom. Rex was not sure which was more ominous, the man’s broad shoulders and chest that virtually blocked even the light from the hallway filtering into the room, or the dark countenance on his face.
“Jaycee, if you think for one moment that I’m standing by and allowing any kind of spiritual healing mumbo jumbo with MY child, then you are crazier than I thought.”
He pulled his phone from his suit jacket pocket, “I’m calling Child Protective Services. Judge Pettus will grant me an injunction.”
His face contorted with hatred and anger as he stared about the room, “I’m taking MY child back to Dallas where she fucking belongs. Where there are real doctors and real medicine, not this ridiculous Indian chant crap,” he waved his hands towards Grandfather.
Jaycee stood up and released her daughter’s hand, “I’ll speak with you outside, Sean. Angel doesn’t need to be disturbed right now.”
“What does it matter? The child’s fucking out of it, woman. Are you that stupid? I’d thought that you were smarter than that; that you might have potential. But those pregnancy hormones must have fried your brain.”
Rex wanted to launch himself across the room and rip the man’s throat apart. It was what a throat that could utter such disrespectful rubbish deserved. But Jaycee placed her hand squarely in the center of his chest and shook her head, ‘I need to handle this.’
He shook his head and wanted to argue as he watched his very life walk across the room. She barely reached the man’s chin, but she squared her shoulders and looked up at her ex-husband. “For your information, Lupe administered the Diastat as prescribed. She had the next dose ready, if necessary. You know, or you should know, that the doctors don’t want us to call or bring her in unless…”
“I know what I saw. Some type of heebee-jeebie spiritual garbage and that combined with your sudden move across the state without notifying me will be more than enough evidence for them to grant me full custody,” he mouthed as Jaycee pushed him out the door.
Panic rose in Rex’s heart as she closed the door behind them. His grandfather reached his hand out and took hold of his arm, “She needs to face her demons alone, my son. And right now, she needs you to be here for your daughter. Help me finish the prayer.”
Rex wanted to argue. He needed to rush from the room, stand between Jaycee and whatever demons she faced, be they physical or emotional. But he had seen the same truth in her eyes. And as hard as it was, being her partner sometimes meant knowing when to let go.
He inhaled and reached for her mind. They were just outside on the porch, arguing. But Jaycee was holding her own, refusing to be intimidated, or allow the man to demean her – again. He had to trust her, trust the link they shared, and ultimately trust in Fate.
He nodded and knelt next to his grandfather by the bed. Lupe was fussing with the blanket that covered Angel’s tiny body. She looked so pale; her lips were no longer blue, but the dark circles beneath her eyes made her look as if someone had given her two black-eyes.
Rex lifted her hand. It was still limp, but he felt the pulse in her wrist, beating solidly as he closed his eyes.
“Mother, heal my heart so that I can see the gifts of yours that can live through me.” This precious Angel was the greatest of gifts that the Mother could entrust to him. Her and her mother.
His mind reached for hers, and he was alarmed to feel them moving further from the house. He battled to remain calm and beside his child. Not to break the trust that Jaycee had shown in him. Not to be another controlling son of a bitch like her ex-husband. When you are the partner of a strong woman, you have to allow her to be strong on her own, on her terms.
He was so deep in thought, repeating the chant almost without thinking, that he almost missed the gentle squeeze around his hand. It took him a moment to realize what it was. He smiled as he opened his eyes to stare into the depths of Angel’s dark brown ones.
But his heart froze in fear as she glanced from him to Grandfather, “Will I be evil like Daddy when I get big? If I will, then let me go to the light.”