CHAPTER ONE

 

DOUG DIDN’T kiss Christopher good-bye. He never did when they were out in public. Even though it had been a year since the suicide of Christopher’s brother Peter had brought them together, eating lunch together was about as openly gay as Doug Heavy Runner could manage.

In the small, predominately white town of Elkin, Doug’s job was already difficult. The fallout from Peter’s suicide had included the gruesome discovery that the man who’d held the post of sheriff for over a decade was complicit in the torture and murder of dozens of the town’s children. Sheriff Greg Brubaker was dead, thanks to Christopher. Because Doug and Christopher’s former partner Ray were the only witnesses, the people of Elkin had taken to whispering conspiracy theories and accusations about what had actually happened in the secluded cabin where Christopher shot Brubaker before nearly bleeding to death. At best, they thought he’d murdered their sheriff to cover up his brother’s crimes. At worst, they thought he’d participated in them.

The promotion to sergeant Doug had received after the investigation ended had somehow brought all of the town’s suspicions about Christopher down on him. Christopher had followed Doug’s lead for months, trusting him when he said things would blow over. Nothing had changed, and Christopher was sick of walking on eggshells every time he ventured out from the seclusion of Doug’s ranch. He thought about taking the initiative and just kissing him, right out there on the sidewalk, but he knew Doug wouldn’t kiss him back. That hurt almost as much as the cold glares and vicious comments from people in town. “You heading back to the office?” he asked instead.

“Yeah. I’ve got to get timecards processed before five. Are you going home?”

Christopher watched a young couple walking toward them shift their family quickly, shuffling their two golden-curled little girls toward the curb and placing themselves between their kids and Christopher and Doug. He glanced at Doug, wondering if his lover had noticed. Over the last year, Christopher had learned to discern when Doug was holding his tongue. At the moment, he looked oblivious and distracted.

“What’s up?” Christopher asked, shifting closer to him automatically.

The answer came strolling up to them in a polo shirt and khaki pants. The man was younger than both of them, with short-cropped hair and a smile that looked like it had cost a fortune. “Mr. Heavy Runner? Do you have a minute?” he asked, holding out a business card.

Doug ignored the card. “No, can’t say I do.” He set his hand on Christopher’s shoulder and tried to steer him toward the street.

Christopher froze, suddenly worried. Doug was always the picture of professionalism, even on his lunch break. Unless the person he was dealing with had already done something to piss him off. The only thing Christopher could imagine Doug getting pissed off about was the occasional comment people would make about them—or more specifically, about Christopher. He knew there would never be a shortage of homophobic assholes in the world, and in Elkin there would never be a shortage of people who took one look at Christopher and only saw his brother’s crimes. But he’d never asked Doug to try and shield him from any of them.

Christopher stepped away from Doug, rounding on him and the man with the business card. “Something I should know about?”

Doug’s dark eyebrows drew together. “Huh?”

The man in the polo shirt tried to step between them. “Mr. Heavy Runner, I know you said you’re not interested, but you haven’t heard the details of our offer yet.”

“Not interested,” Doug said curtly.

The man in the polo shirt persevered. “My clients understand you have concerns about possible agricultural use of the land, but we’re willing to do whatever it takes to reassure you on that front. We can rezone every parcel to exclude agricultural use and even include restrictive covenants in the deeds that would prevent anyone from raising livestock on the land.” He pushed the business card into Doug’s face. “You’re not going to get a better offer, Mr. Heavy Runner.”

Doug rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Look, I told you when you called, I don’t want to sell. I’m sorry you wasted your time coming all the way up here, but that hasn’t changed. My break’s over, and I’ve got to work.” Doug took the business card and shoved it into his pocket, then tugged Christopher away by the elbow. When they’d put half a block between them and the City Center Cafe, Doug let go of his arm. “What the hell?” he asked, not looking at Christopher. “You know things are bad enough at work as it is. Do you really think adding more drama to the rumor mill is going to help?”

“So I can’t even ask what’s going on with you?” Christopher snapped. “Asking a question in public doesn’t qualify as drama.”

The anger in Doug’s eyes dimmed. “He’s the guy who’s been bugging me about selling the ranch. And he’s a dick,” Doug whispered, his voice dripping with a vehemence Christopher wasn’t used to hearing. “Two of our neighbors to the south lost their land thanks to him.”

Christopher consciously decided to ignore the “our” part of Doug’s rant. They were hardly mutual neighbors, since Doug was still so in the closet he’d begrudgingly introduced Christopher as his “roommate” six months after Christopher moved in. “Lost, or sold?”

“Lost,” Doug insisted. “They were behind on their mortgages, and the drought forced them to sell off their herds last year, but when they wouldn’t sell to him, the guys he works for bought their mortgages and foreclosed.”

“But your land’s not mortgaged.”

The frustrated look on Doug’s face was replaced with a smug grin.

A half block ahead, a woman following a toddler down the sidewalk stared at them for a moment, then scooped her child up and crossed to the other side.

Doug’s eyes followed the woman.

“I can’t imagine you working here without having some place out of town to escape to.”

“It’s not that bad,” Doug said. “Besides, it’s always been my home. Where else would I go?”

“You could come back to San Diego with me,” Christopher suggested, thinking of the career and friends who were still waiting for him back home. “Or we could both go to Miami.” Doug had spent four years working in Miami, and even though he didn’t talk about those years, Christopher often found him fiddling with the surfboards stacked in the corner of his garage on weekends.

For the briefest of moments, Doug’s controlled expression slipped. He froze midstride, his arms and legs rigid. “This is where I belong,” he insisted.

And before Christopher could analyze his expression, before he could press for an answer, the moment was gone. Christopher knew there was no point in pressing the issue. Doug wasn’t going to leave Montana, no matter how much homophobic or racist bullshit he had to deal with.

“I really do have to go. If I don’t get those timecards done, none of the guys are getting paid.” Instead of a bump to his shoulder, Doug nodded and hurried down the block to the county sheriff’s office.

Christopher chewed on his bottom lip and hurried after him, willing to drop the subject. No matter what he tried, bringing up Doug’s four years as a member of the Miami-Dade Sheriff’s Department was an instant way to kill any conversation. Christopher wanted to understand what could make Doug talk like he deserved the way some people in Elkin treated him, but Doug always walked away when he tried.

When Christopher caught up with him, Doug increased his pace. He forced himself to smile. “Right. Have fun with the timecard stuff. I’m going to run.”

“Again?” Doug slowed down a little. “Didn’t you run this morning?”

“Yeah, I did. Now I want to run again.”

Doug slowed down once he was about twenty feet ahead. “Don’t push yourself too hard this time!” he called back over his shoulder.

Christopher shrugged. He could never not push himself, and they both knew it.

 

 

THE ROCK came out of nowhere. It smacked Christopher in the back of the head with a crack that echoed around the street. He stumbled forward, dragging his feet as the world went black. His field of vision filled with splotches of neon light. He had to brace himself with his hands on his knees to keep from falling over. The screech of tires and laughter behind him cut through the pain. He bit back the panic paralyzing him and forced himself to move. He staggered off the sidewalk toward the hedge separating him from the parking lot on his left.

“No one wants fucking perverts like you jogging past our playgrounds!”

Christopher turned his head in the direction of the voice and took in everything he could, adding details to the list of evidence he was collecting in his head. He noted the make and model of the vehicle, a newer Dodge Durango with dark, tinted windows. A young man, obviously still a teen, was standing on the passenger seat, half out the window. He was holding on to the roof rack with one hand. The driver’s side window was down, and Christopher saw another boy behind the wheel. He didn’t recognize either of them, but he would be able to identify them later if he had to.

He shoved his way through the hedge, desperate to put the illusion of a barrier between himself and the road.

“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” a high-pitched voice shouted from across the parking lot.

The SUV peeled away, and the laughter faded.

“Chris?”

Christopher turned toward Brittney McAllister, the woman his lover had almost married once upon a time. He let her slip under his shoulder and guide him through the cars in the parking lot to the coroner’s office.

“Hi,” he whispered, delicately reaching toward the back of his head. “Am I bleeding?”

“Yeah. Sit down on the steps, let me take a look.”

Christopher lowered himself onto the concrete and bent forward.

Even though getting to know Doug’s ex had been awkward, Christopher was grateful for any ally he could get in Elkin. For a while, he’d really believed once he’d settled in, people would stop comparing him to his brother and warm up to him. He’d been stupid and naive. The people of Elkin would never welcome someone they considered a threat to their children, and he was too closely connected to his brother’s case for them to ever see him as anything but a potential pedophile.

Christopher winced as Brittney used her fingernails to lift his too long hair.

She hissed. “Those rotten little bastards! Come on inside. I’ll call Doug.”

Christopher caught her wrist. “No. He’s got enough shit to deal with, thanks to me. It’s fine.”

A sharp-toed shoe nudged him in the lower back. “It’s an open gash! It is not fine. It’s going to need stitches,” she said, pushing his head down farther. “I think it’s about a quarter of an inch too long for glue.”

“I’ll go….” Not to the clinic or the small hospital it was attached to. Being the head of the county search and rescue team, Doug was almost as well-known at the hospital as he was in the sheriff’s office. If Christopher went to the clinic, he wouldn’t even get back to see a doctor before Doug showed up. “I’ll go to the urgent-care center down in Ronan.”

Brittney stopped poking the back of his head and sat down on the steps beside him. “He’d want to know.”

Christopher tried to shake his head, but the black splotches exploded across his vision again. “He’d want to arrest them.”

Outrage flashed in Brittney’s eyes. “He should arrest them!”

Christopher sighed. “And how would it look if he did?”

“Like he’s doing his job.”

“You think anybody in this town besides you would believe that?”

“Sheriff Daniels would.”

“No he wouldn’t. Daniels is a decent guy, but he’s a cop. He’d think Doug was abusing his authority to get back at some kids who were picking on his boyfriend. And everybody else….” Christopher couldn’t say it. There were enough people in Elkin who assumed he was as much a monster as his brother had been. They wouldn’t assume Doug was trying to protect him; they would assume Doug was trying to conceal whatever crimes they imagined Christopher was guilty of. “He’s got it bad enough as it is.”

Brittney sighed. “Fine. Let me lock up. I’ll give you a ride.”

“Can’t you just do it? You stitch up bodies after autopsies, right?”

“Bodies don’t feel pain, and the only risk of infection I have to worry about is my own. I don’t have topical anesthetic or a way to sterilize instruments except bleach and rubbing alcohol. Plus they might want a CT scan to rule out a concussion.”

“I don’t have a concussion. I didn’t black out. I’m fine. Bleach will kill the bad stuff, right?”

She leaned back, her lips curling. “Uh, no.” She elbowed him in the shoulder gently. “Besides, even in medical school, I was more comfortable working with cadavers. You’re either accepting the ride from me, or I’m going to drag Doug over here so he can give you a ride. What’s it going to be?”

Christopher tried to shake his head, but it hurt too much. “You.”

Brittney hurried into the coroner’s office and emerged again, free of her crisp white coat, with a stack of towels in her hands. She draped one over the seat of her tiny Mazda Miata, then gave Christopher one to hold over the wound.

His phone rang halfway into the hour-long drive. He fumbled with the towel and phone, but he relaxed when he saw the caller ID was showing an unknown number.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Hi. Is Christopher Hayes available?”

“This is him.”

“Mr. Hayes, this is Melinda, from the Baker County School District. I got your message from yesterday, and I just wanted to call and let you know we decided to go with another candidate.”

“Another candidate?” For a substitute teaching job he had applied for a month ago, and they had reposted yesterday.

“I’m afraid so. It’s a glutted market, and we have so many candidates who already have their Montana certifications, you see. But thank you for calling to follow up.”

“Sure,” Christopher managed. “Thanks for letting me know.” He hung up quickly.

Brittney glanced sideways at him. “No luck with the job?”

“Nope. Apparently they’re going with someone else.” He shoved his phone back into the pocket of his running pants. “Someone who hasn’t applied yet, because they put the listing back up on the job service website yesterday.”

“They didn’t! Damn it, I’m sorry.”

Christopher almost had to laugh. “You know what? I’m not. If I were in their position, I wouldn’t want to hire me, either. The parents in this town might lynch any school administrator who dared give me a job.”

“Well, I’m still sorry,” Brittney said gently.

He repositioned the towel, folding over the bloody spot, and held the dry terry cloth against his head. “Why does he stay here?” he asked, not really expecting an answer. “He’s gotten three offers to buy his place in the last year.”

“It’s his home. His ancestral home. Four generations of his family worked to build that ranch. Selling it would be like throwing away all their hard work.”

“I understand that. I do,” Christopher said. “I just wish… I wish Elkin was different.”

“It won’t change without people like Doug.”

“It won’t change. Period. What really gets to me is how he brushes it all off and keeps smiling politely. It makes me insane!”

“It’s better than it used to be thanks to him. And a lot of people in town respect you both.”

“I know,” Christopher admitted. “Logically, I know. I just wish he’d get angry about it, too.”

“You’re preaching to the choir, Chris,” Brittney teased him. “Ever since we were kids, he bottles everything up inside until he makes himself sick.”

His phone buzzed, and he dug it out again. “Hey, I got another text from my partner,” he announced, suddenly in a better mood. Technically San Diego Homicide Detective Ray Delgado was his former partner, but each text and note in his e-mail about Ray’s current cases gave Christopher’s endlessly grinding thoughts something to chew on. The texts had been steadily increasing since the beginning of April, and with his birthday looming in less than forty-eight hours, Christopher was damn grateful for the distraction.

Every time he stopped moving, he remembered the photographs Brittney had taken of his brother’s body after the suicide. He’d never been able to forget the letters Peter had carved into his body before he’d hanged himself, the coagulated blood forming the words “Happy Birthday” on his forearms. Considering how many years it had taken him to recover from the things Peter had done to him, Christopher knew Peter’s suicide shouldn’t have upset him. But now, with his birthday on the horizon and nothing to do but think about his bastard of a big brother, the familiar mixture of hatred and grief was eating away at him. Christopher would have given anything to be back in San Diego, laughing with his partner at the gym, instead of sulking in the shadow of the bluff where Peter had died. “What’s your partner working on now?” Brittney asked.

Christopher scrolled through some of the details. Ray Delgado wasn’t texting him about a case this time. “Well, shit….”

Brittney pursed her lips. “What?”

“This has got to be some kind of joke.”

“Oh, come on, what?”

“He wants me to be his best man.”

“Best man? That sounds like fun. When’s the wedding?”

Christopher scrolled through the text. “Sunday.”

“What? He wants you to be in the wedding party with five days’ notice?”

“Five days’ notice, and this is the first I’ve heard of him thinking about marrying anyone.”

“Wasn’t he seeing someone?”

“Yeah, but they just got together four months ago, and Delgado’s not really out of the closet. Hell, Delgado couldn’t say the word ‘gay’ without turning purple a year ago. They can’t….” Christopher shifted the towel and tried to imagine Ray asking his boyfriend to marry him. Could the partner he remembered, the man whose relationships didn’t typically last beyond breakfast the morning after sex, be settling down?

 

 

IT WAS late evening by the time Brittney dropped Christopher off at the park where he’d left his car. He drove home carefully, going out of his way to avoid driving past the ruined lot where his brother’s home had once stood. Even going near the street made him choke up, so he avoided it. It was dark by the time he turned onto the last bumpy dirt road leading to the ancient farmhouse Doug had nervously started calling “theirs.”

The house and barn were covered in a new coat of dark blue paint. After a long, miserable winter where people seemed to shift their lives permanently indoors, Christopher had declared war on the endlessly encroaching prairie. There was something resembling a yard now, thanks to his efforts. His small vegetable garden lay in neatly tilled empty rows. His fourth attempt at planting the hot peppers Doug spent most of his grocery budget on had been reduced to insignificant brown stalks by yet another late frost, and he was tempted to give up.

But there were other chores around the place.

With nothing to do over the last twelve months except recover from getting run down by Elkin’s previous sheriff, Christopher had tackled any and every job he could find at the ranch to keep himself busy. But most of them, like his garden, had been exercises in futility.

He parked outside the garage and let himself into the house, chewing and swallowing one of the pain pills the urgent-care clinic had sent home with him. Even though the doctor at the clinic had assured him he didn’t have a concussion, his head was killing him.

He thought about making food, but with his stomach churning there didn’t seem to be much point. When the medication hit him hard enough to slow his racing thoughts, he draped a towel over his pillow in case he rolled over, shed his grimy jogging clothes, and crawled into bed.

Before he passed out, he pulled his cell phone and the small bottle of painkillers out of his pocket and set them on the cluttered nightstand. He stared at the bottle for a moment, wondering how many of the pain pills he would need to swallow to sleep through the next two days. Just long enough so he wouldn’t have to face his birthday or the memories tainting it. But then again, why not take enough to sleep forever? He wouldn’t have to think about why Doug kept punishing himself by working in Elkin or think of an excuse for the half-inch long line of stitches on the back of his head.

“Stupid,” Christopher said out loud. “Better just to use a gun….”

By the time Christopher was aware of anything again, a thin ribbon of sunlight was draped across the bed. The blankets on Doug’s side were a mess, and the scent of coffee was wafting up from the kitchen. There was no sign of Doug, and Christopher was grateful for that. His hair was long enough to cover the angry red line of stitches and the Steri-Strip on the back of his head, but there was no way to hide how much pain he was in every time he moved.

He dug another painkiller out of the prescription bottle and swallowed it dry. Collapsing back onto the bed, he buried his face in the pillow and waited for the world to stop throbbing.

The shrill ring of his cell phone cut through the pain like a hacksaw. He fumbled for the phone, then buried his eyes in the pillow again before answering. “Hello?”

“Good morning,” Doug said amid a din of voices and the clang of metal hitting metal. “Are you still in bed?”

“Yeah. I feel like shit,” Christopher said. That was true enough.

“Probably a good thing I let you sleep this morning. I had to leave early to get a prisoner transfer set up. I’m going to be on the road all day, so I won’t be able to meet you for lunch.”

“Lunch?” Christopher’s only real excuse to get away from the empty, silent ranch during the day.

“Yeah. I’ve got to drive all the way down to Warm Springs. You’re not going to go stir-crazy out there on your own, right?”

“If I’m sitting still, I’m stir-crazy,” Christopher said bluntly. “Don’t worry, I’ll find something to do. Oh, hey, do you think you can take Sunday and Monday off? Maybe Tuesday, too?”

“Maybe. I figured you might want to go somewhere for your… for tomorrow.”

Christopher was glad he hadn’t said “birthday.” He wasn’t sure he could stand hearing the word right now. “Actually, there’s this thing in San Diego on Sunday.”

“I’ll talk to the sheriff about it when I get back tonight. And I’ve got to go. See you tonight.”

When Christopher wandered downstairs, he found a cold bowl of gelatinous oatmeal waiting for him, along with half a pot of bitter coffee. His phone rang again as he was about to dump the coffee out. His partner this time.

“Hayes.”

Ray Delgado laughed at him. “You don’t say? I would think after a year of being a lazy slacker, you’d have learned how to answer the phone with ‘hello’ like a normal person.”

“Lazy?” Christopher was almost insulted. “A psychopath tried to kill me with a truck,” Christopher reminded him. “What’s wrong, anyway? You never call unless you’re bored, and you’re never bored unless you’ve gotten yourself suspended.”

“Give me time. If I get five minutes alone with the assholes who had my current case before me, I’ll be lucky not to end up in jail.”

Christopher reached for a mug. He wanted to point out they probably weren’t that bad, but he’d learned a long time ago if he was going to argue with his partner, he needed hard evidence first. “What did they do?”

“They didn’t do their jobs. CPS requested a welfare check, and the guys assigned to do it were lazy, incompetent morons who didn’t bother trying to talk to the kid alone before chatting with the parents. They closed out the case because there wasn’t sufficient evidence of abuse.”

Christopher wasn’t too surprised by the violence in his partner’s voice. “No evidence?” Regardless of how much evidence there had been initially, Ray wouldn’t have taken over the case if it hadn’t become a homicide.

There was a long silence. Christopher could imagine the expression Ray would have on his face, trying to figure out how to convince Christopher he was right without actually changing the facts.

“Technically,” Ray said begrudgingly, “the pathologist’s report said most of the fractures took place over a period of several years, and they said the boy didn’t appear to have any bruises or injuries during the interview.”

Christopher forced himself to swallow the stale coffee. “Sounds like it wasn’t much to go on.”

“The pathologist’s report may have said the fractures were old, but there was evidence of eighteen separate ones,” Ray added.

Christopher tightened his grip on the mug and took a deep breath. “Anything to explain the injuries in the kid’s history?”

“Apparently he was accident prone. He was eight fucking years old, Hayes. And those pricks didn’t even have the discipline to look at the autopsy photos to see how badly they’d fucked up!”

“Don’t be an asshole, Delgado,” Christopher said automatically. “Outside of Homicide, that’d freak anybody out.”

“I don’t care. He’s dead, and if they’d done their jobs, he’d be alive. The least they can do is look at the damage they caused.”

Christopher finished his coffee and let his mind chew on the tone of his partner’s voice. “Have you got enough to arrest the parents?”

“Already done. Now I’m running around getting more witness statements to make sure neither of them bond out before they go to trial.”

“If you’ve already got them, why not relax?”

“They’ve got another kid. A four-year-old girl. Remanded to the care of her grandmother during the investigation. If they bond out, the grandparents will hand her back to them.”

“Sounds like a mess.” Christopher wondered how long Ray would keep dragging out the conversation by talking shop. “So, you’re getting married? Did you decide that on a whim?”

Ray groaned. “If I said yes, would you laugh?”

“Delgado, I….” Christopher closed his eyes. “No, I wouldn’t laugh. It’s just a little weird for you, isn’t it?”

“Tell me about it. But we had this big dinner a month ago for his birthday. His family came down from San Francisco, and they’re….”

Christopher heard Ray choke. “You all right?”

“I’m fabulous. And they were really cool about me and him. They were really cool about everything. They even invited my sister and her kids to dinner, and it was…. It was like I went back in time, and I had a home again, you know? I love him, and watching his folks together made me think about what it’d be like to grow old with him. And… I want that. Shit, I don’t know how to explain it. You’re coming, right? I know the timing is absolute shit. We weren’t planning on doing it so fast, we really weren’t, but everything sort of fell into place. Please tell me you’re coming.”

Christopher sighed. Maybe getting away from Elkin, and those few assholes who were intent on turning it into his own personal hell, was just what he needed. “I wouldn’t miss it. If I leave tomorrow, I can get there Saturday afternoon.”

 

 

CHRISTOPHER COLLAPSED onto the dirt near the edge of bluff. He folded his arms over his knees and dropped his head onto his forearms. The valley stretched out beneath him, buildings and houses peeking out through the dense canopy of trees, but he didn’t care about the view. He’d avoided the trails along the cliffs and bluffs overlooking the valley for most of the year, and now that he’d finally forced himself to make the hike, he felt like he was going to be sick.

Less than a foot away, a gnarled tree stump clung to the side of the cliff, its roots half-exposed. A year ago, his older brother had chosen this spot to end his life, carving a bloody “Happy” into his left arm and “Birthday” into his right before hanging himself. He thought the rage and adrenaline he’d been riding when he’d had to deal with his brother’s death had faded, but every time something reminded him of Peter, it surged back to gnaw at him all over again.

He was so tired of remembering. He was tired of the guilt, the pain, and even the anger. He was tired of feeling worthless, of having no way to define himself beyond the slurs and insults hurled at him in town.

How could Doug stand it? But Christopher already knew the answer. Doug relied on his job to anchor him, to give his life enough purpose that putting up with the town’s bullshit was worthwhile.

Christopher pulled out the tiny prescription bottle, pried the top off, and dumped a handful of pills into his palm.

“What the fuck am I thinking?” he mutter