Home > Dead Heat (Alpha & Omega #4)(16)

Dead Heat (Alpha & Omega #4)(16)
Author: Patricia Briggs

Maggie was waiting for them at the door with a tiny woman who was more or less Anna’s age. She had Navajo features and skin tone but honey-blond hair. Maggie followed Hosteen and Kage into the house, but the other woman waited for them.

“Ernestine,” said Max with relief and uncomplicated affection. He trotted over to her and gave her a hug.

“How’s the hoops?” she asked, returning the hug.

“Okay,” he said. “Is there food?”

“Isn’t there always?” she said. “Go on into the kitchen and help yourself.”

After he’d retreated, she greeted Anna and Charles. “How are you? You must be the Cornicks. Charles, I doubt you remember me, but I met you once when I was about Mackie’s age. I’m Maggie’s great-niece Ernestine. I’m usually only here from six to four every day, but today I’ll be here all day, all night, and all tomorrow. They’ve called me in as the heavy reinforcements.” She grinned and opened her arms to showcase all hundred pounds of her. Then she stepped forward, and from the high ground of two steps up she leaned forward and kissed Charles on the cheek.

“Chelsea is my friend,” she said when she was done. Her cheeks were a little red, but she spoke with dignity. “Hosteen would have let her die, so I know who to thank.”

Charles didn’t say anything, so Anna smiled. “Always glad to be of service.”

They retreated to their room. Charles heaved a sigh of relief as soon as the door closed behind them.

“Tough day at the office, sweetheart?” Anna asked.

“Better than it could have been,” he told her. “Nobody died. Any day with no deaths is a good day. I need to call Da and let him know what’s happened.”

When Anna came back from the bathroom, where she’d scrubbed off some blood she hadn’t realized she was wearing, he’d already put his phone away.

“That was a short call,” she said.

“He didn’t answer,” Charles told her. “So I left a message for him to call me back. If you’re done, I’m going to shower.”

He had more blood on him than she did. Not on his clothes, which had returned clean, as usual, when he’d changed back. And he’d washed his hands and face at Kage’s house. But there were rusty stains just under his collar.

“That would be good,” she said, and he smiled at her.

He came out fifteen minutes later, freshly shaved with his hair damp. He didn’t have a great deal of facial hair, but enough that he shaved every day. His eyes looked tired, but he’d lost that grim edge.

“I wonder,” he said, “if Joseph is around.”

They tracked down Ernestine in the kitchen. She glanced at the clock. “He’s usually awake by now. He’s still got the same suite as he was in the last time you were here. Do you remember how to get there?” She shook her head. “Don’t know what’s going to become of this family once he’s gone. He’s the glue holding everyone together. Kage and Hosteen have always paced around each other like a pair of gamecocks, but since Kage and Chelsea got married, the feathers fly a lot more often.”

Beside Anna, Charles went still.

“Gone?” asked Anna tentatively. “Is he sick?”

“Dying,” said Ernestine surprised, then a little horrified. “I thought you knew. I thought that’s why you came. I’m so sorry. He was diagnosed with lung cancer about five years ago. He fought it off with chemo for a while, but it came back with a vengeance a few months ago.”

Charles didn’t say anything, just turned and headed back through the kitchen door.

The house smelled of wolf and sage, but as they proceeded, the smells became more astringent. Disinfectants. Medicines. And beneath it all the scent of illness and dying. Charles’s face didn’t change, but his hand tightened on hers.

He knocked lightly on a door.

“Come in, come in,” said a shaky voice.

This suite was bigger than the one she shared with Charles, a full apartment within the house. The first room was a sitting room decorated in a sleekly modern Asian style—simple furniture built of glass and steel and dark wood. Here as throughout the house, the floor was a dark wood, but instead of throw rugs and the occasional Persian rug, there was a huge handwoven wool rug in a traditional Navajo pattern.

The walls were painted a slate gray that matched the shade in the rug too well for accident. On the wall opposite the door was a large framed black-and-white photograph of a young man on a bucking horse.

The horse was a dark dappled gray and all four of his feet were off the ground, back feet headed left and front feet right. The hooves were a little ragged, and no horse that was in Charles’s barn ever was that ungroomed. But on this horse, all the ragged hair was appropriate and oddly beautiful: he wasn’t a pampered pet, he was something wild. There was joy and power and grace in the thousand-pound animal as he was caught floating in the air.

On his back was a young man, a sweat-stained cowboy hat on his head and a foot-long black braid floating in the wind. His boot-clad feet were just ahead of the cinch that held the saddle on the horse, heels down. One hand was up in the air and the other gripped a thick rope that connected his hand to the bosal on the horse’s nose. The hat shadowed his eyes, but his grin was fierce and as wild as the horse he rode.

On the bottom right corner of the photo, someone had written “July 24, 1949.” The rider wasn’t Kage, obviously, but the resemblance was marked.

Charles had gone ahead while she paused to look at the photo, and she jogged through the rest of the room and caught up to him as he went through the next doorway.

The bedroom had been decorated with the same serene feel as the sitting room, but all that peace couldn’t compete with the hospital bed that squatted in the middle of the room. Various medical devices stacked around the bed wheezed and beeped and flashed lights, presumably doing their jobs.

A skeletally thin man lay in the center of the bed, his head raised so he could see intruders as they came in. His hair was iron gray, worn as Charles sometimes did, in two neat braids that lay over his shoulders. His face was layered in wrinkles, like a shar-pei, features obscured beneath the straps that held his oxygen tubes below his nose.

“Joseph,” said Charles softly.

The man in the bed moved his head and his eyes opened. For a moment he blinked foggily, as though he’d been lost in dreams, and then his gaze sharpened. “Charles.”

The voice was so quiet Anna didn’t know if a human would have heard it. “I should have told you, I know. But I didn’t want to make you come if you didn’t want to. Or I didn’t want the only reason you came to be because I was dying. Pride, you know.”

He spoke in rapid groups of words with pauses between to breathe. Charles didn’t say anything, but fathomless sorrow gathered in his eyes. Anna knew that Joseph really was his friend because he saw it, too.

The old man smiled. “I intended to be one of those sweet old people, you know the kind, who do exactly what they’re told and eventually they lie down and die when it’s convenient for everyone.”

“I remember,” said Charles, and his face softened into a reluctant smile. “As I recall, it was when you were getting on that rank stallion at the Half Moon on a dare. I told you that I’d feel bad burying you the next morning.”

“I rode that horse,” Joseph said.

“And herded cattle with him the next week,” Charles said. “It was still a stupid thing to do.”

Joseph started to speak, but he had to stop and breathe for a minute. Then he said, “Too much pride and stubbornness, you said.”

“More than once,” agreed Charles.

“You’ll be”—Joseph grinned—“happy. I’m proud and stubborn, as always. Won’t go to the hospital as Maggie wishes—too many evil spirits from all the dead people. I will die here and haunt this house until the old man lets Maggie burn the place down.”

He coughed lightly. “In the old days they’d have kissed my cheek and then left me in the desert to die. Then my family would hire some Hopi or white man too stupid to know the dangers of handling the dead to go deal with the body. Now we’re caught between modern ways and the old. If I die here, only fire will keep my evil ghost from making everyone miserable, and they are too rational to do that.” He laughed, a sound that tried hard to be a cackle, but he didn’t have the air to make that much noise.

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