Catherine Mulvany
Catherine Mulvany

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SOMETHING WICKED
© 2007 Catherine Mulvany
(unedited copy)
Chapter One

The late afternoon sun beat down like a curse. A hundred two in the shade. Not that there was any shade. “Go to hell, Ms. Cluny,” reclusive philanthropist Charles Cunningham Nash had said the last time Regan had pestered him for an interview. And here she freaking was.

A clever woman would have realized fate was conspiring against her when mechanical difficulties delayed her flight from JFK to Reno. A clever woman would have taken the hint when her favorite Louis Vuitton bag vanished into luggage limbo. A clever woman would have said, “Screw this,” when her rental car’s air conditioner gasped its last shortly after she crossed the California border.

But Regan had persevered.

Huge mistake.

The only thing playing on the radio now was static, the gas gauge was flirting with empty, and Juniper Basin was nowhere to be seen, even though according to the MapQuest directions she’d taped to the Corolla’s dash, she should have been there already. She must have made a wrong turn somewhere.

Right. Like the second she’d decided to pursue this story so doggedly. After all, those tabloid photos had been obvious fakes. Alien cities buried deep beneath the Modoc Plateau? No way. But her instincts had told her to follow her nose and damn it, Nash’s lame-assed explanation of what he and his team of archaeologists were really doing out here in the middle of nowhere stank to high heaven. After all, why would anyone invest millions to excavate a nondescript Paleo-Indian village unlikely to yield anything more exciting than Clovis points and grinding stones? 

Still, was tracking down the truth worth a detour through hell?

The molten sun was riding the rimrocks by the time Regan reached the next outpost of civilization, a blink-your-eyes-and-miss-it town named Chisel Rock.

She pulled up to the pumps in front of the Oasis Truck Stop where neon palm trees decorated one windowless side wall of the cinderblock building housing the restaurant and mini-mart. A shabby twelve-unit motel edged the back of the property, and to the west stood a row of Lombardy poplar skeletons, their elongated shadows stretching across the parking lot like bony fingers. Two dusty pickup trucks, a PT Cruiser, and half a dozen cherried-out Harleys huddled in the meager shade. 

Wasn’t exactly the Big Apple, but Regan figured someone inside could tell her how to find the dig at Juniper Basin. She unbuckled her seatbelt and stepped out of the car.

A bow-legged mutt with a scruffy patchwork coat suddenly bounced out from between two big rigs parked along the shoulder on the opposite side of the highway. The dog crossed the road at a trot, then made a wide detour around her before pausing to christen both rear tires of the Corolla.

“Amen, buddy.” Smiling in grim amusement, Regan filled her tank, then headed inside to pay.

The Oasis’s interior reeked of stale grease. An old-fashioned jukebox blared eighties’ tunes at a deafening decibel level. Worse yet, the moment Regan crossed the threshold, six badass biker types glanced up from the pool table in the corner to focus their X-ray vision on the front of her cami. None of which carried any weight when balanced against the blessing of air conditioning.

“Pump two.” She handed a twenty to the middle-aged brunette at the cash register. “What’s the best way to get to Juniper Basin?”

The cashier rang up the gas and counted back the change. “Never heard of the place, but then, I’m from Reno. Haven’t lived here long. Josh!” she called to a lanky teenager who was bussing tables on the far side of the room.

“Yeah?” The kid stuffed a tip in the pocket of his Wranglers with one hand while balancing a tray of dirty dishes with the other.

“Lady here’s looking for directions to Juniper Basin.”

The kid set his tray on an empty table and ambled across the dining room to Regan’s side. “You looking for Mr. Nash, too?” 

“Too?” she said.

“His dig site’s become a regular tourist attraction since it got all that media attention.” He shot her a puzzled look, probably thinking she didn’t fit the profile. Most tourists weren’t stupid enough to set off across the desert in silk suits and stilettos.

“Charles Cunningham Nash and I have business to discuss,” she said. “He gave me directions to Juniper Basin,”—which was a lie of the big, fat, you’re-going-to-hell variety—“but I got turned around. Could you help me, Josh? I’d really appreciate it.” She gave him her best pleading, doe-eyed look.

He turned three shades of pink. She half expected him to scrape the toe of one boot across the tiles and mutter “aw, shucks.” Instead he shot her a shy smile. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.

Ma’am? Since when did thirty-three qualify a woman for ma’amhood?

“Take the first gravel road to the left just past the church and follow it to hell and gone,” he said, “until you come to Calliope Rock, a formation that looks like a big pipe organ. Little dirt track there cuts off to the right along the river bank. The dig’s about a mile in. Can’t miss it. Just look for all the tents lined up along the edge of the basin.”

Lightbulb moment. Juniper Basin wasn’t a town. It was an actual basin.

So much for MapQuest.

“Be careful if you’re headed out that way, though. Road’s full of ruts and potholes. Easy to get high-centered. You don’t want to end up buzzard bait.” A faint frown drove a line between his eyebrows. “In fact, if I were you, I’d stay overnight here in Chisel Rock and head for the dig site in the morning.”

“Don’t tell me. Your parents own the motel.”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“How long a drive are we talking about?” she asked.

“Half an hour. Forty-five minutes tops, only—”

“Thanks. You’ve been a big help.” She treated him to fluttery eyelashes and a sultry smile. Ma’am that, cowboy.

Regan moved her car around the side of the building, parking under the neon palm trees. Then she headed inside again where she lingered over a Coke, reluctant to go back out into the heat. Twenty minutes ticked by. Finally, grabbing a six pack of bottled water—buzzard bait was so not a good look on her—she settled her bill.

She emerged from the air-conditioned interior to find that the sun had dropped behind the mountains, leaving the town swathed in gray twilight. She’d assumed she had a couple hours of daylight left to find Nash’s camp, but she hadn’t factored in the brevity of the desert dusk.

She brushed past the bikers, who, having abandoned the pool table, now loitered under the awning that shaded the front of the building. Ignoring their lewd suggestions and mocking laughter, she hurried to her car. What had sounded relatively straightforward in daylight now seemed a lot trickier. Would she be able to find her way in the dark? Maybe Josh’s suggestion about staying the night here in Chisel Rock wasn’t such a bad one after all. So she’d miss her flight home tomorrow morning. Big deal. She could always reschedule.

Juggling her water and purse in one hand, she fumbled for the car keys.

A breeze stirred the rapidly cooling air, carrying with it a musky male scent.

Regan spun around to find that one of the bikers had followed her. He crowded close, backing her against the Toyota. Taller than average and muscular with dark eyes, dark hair, heavy beard stubble, and an all-too-lifelike snake tattoo coiled around one arm, he was dressed in fatigues and a grubby wife beater. “Need some help, blondie?”

“No, thanks,” she said, feigning a calm she was far from feeling. “I’m fine.”

He grinned. “Yeah. Yeah, you are.” He grabbed her chin and tilted her face up to his. Their gazes locked. His grin faded, and the color leached from his face. “Katie?”

Katie? 

He released her chin. His hand was trembling. “How?” he demanded, his voice husky with emotion. “I don’t understand.”

Neither did Regan. “Look, I—”

“You’re dead.”

Despite the heat, gooseflesh rose along her arms. “I’m not dead, and my name’s not Katie. You must be confusing me with someone else.”

“I know you blame me for what happened, but if it hadn’t been for Nash...” His shell-shocked expression vanished, replaced by suspicion. “He’s behind this, isn’t he?” No mistaking the menace in his voice.

Okay. Not just a scary, tattooed biker. A scary, tattooed psycho biker. Regan’s heart threatened to jackhammer its way past her ribcage, but she kept her voice calm and steady. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t know how he managed it, but he brought you back, didn’t he? What’s the plan? What’s he up to?”

“I really don’t have any answers.” Regan spoke evenly, willing him to believe her. “I’m—”

“The hair threw me at first, but hair color’s easy enough to change. Only...” He scowled. “Your eyes are wrong.”

“My—”

You aren’t Katie.”

“I never said I was. You’re the one—”

He narrowed his eyes to black slits. “What the hell is going on?”

Good question. “Look, I don’t know what your problem is, but I don’t have time for—”

He clamped one big hand around her upper arm and pulled her close. “You’re playing dumb, but I heard you ask for directions to Juniper Basin.” He spoke just above a whisper. “Tell me, if you’re not in cahoots with Nash, then why the hell are you headed out to his dig site?”

“I don’t see how that’s any of your concern.”

“Don’t you now?” His mouth smiled, but his eyes didn’t as he leaned closer, trailing his fingertips down her cheek, brushing a thumb across her lower lip.

Her panic bubbled over, escaping as a scream.

He laughed. “Yell all you want, blondie. Juke box is amped up so loud they can’t hear you inside, and my boys are the only ones out here. Sad to say, they’re not much for rescuing damsels in distress.”

“Harper!” one of the other bikers called. “You need help?”

“I’m good,” he said.

“So you claim.” The gang’s raucous laughter ebbed away as they moved from the entrance.

Somewhere beyond Regan’s line of sight, the Harleys rumbled to life, reminding her of the obligatory chick dismemberment scene from every cheesy biker film she’d ever seen. Please, God, don’t let me die a Hollywood cliché.

Harper grinned, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, as if her fear fueled his pleasure.

Desperate now, she used the hand still buried in the depths of her bag to search unobtrusively for a weapon. Lip gloss? No. Hairbrush? Maybe. Keys? Another maybe. Or... She jammed the handle of the brush against the soft leather of her purse. “Take your hand off me,” she warned.

The biker laughed. “Or what?”

“Or I’ll blow a hole through your chest.” She pointed her fake gun at his breast bone.

Maybe it was just the light reflecting off the neon palm trees or maybe the biker really did turn a little green around the gills. Regan wasn’t positive. All she knew for sure was that he released her arm.

“Now back off.”

He studied her, his face expressionless.

“What?” she said.

“I had this figured all wrong. Nash doesn’t know you’re coming, does he? If he did, you wouldn’t have had to ask for directions to the dig.”

She didn’t say anything.

“So what’s your angle, blondie?”

“I don’t have an angle.”

“Bullshit. Everyone’s got an angle.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You don’t know Nash, either. If you did, you wouldn’t try to scam him. You have no idea who you’re dealing with, what he’s capable of. He’s not who you think he is.”

“Thanks for the warning, but Mr. Nash isn’t my problem at the moment. You are. So move.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Or you’ll shoot me? Go ahead. Have at it.”

He was calling her bluff, and she had nothing. Worse, he knew it. A feral glint sparked in the depths of his dark eyes. “Bzzz. Sorry. You lose.”

This wasn’t a game, damn it. Anger triggered a spurt of adrenaline. She dropped her purse and, wielding the six pack with both hands, swung at his face.

But he was too fast for her. Capturing her wrists, he twisted them up over her head. She lost her grip on the bottled water. It bounced off the hood, then hit the pavement with a crack. She jerked and kicked, desperate to free herself, but he slammed her hard against the car, immobilizing her with his hips.

“Let me go!” Her breath sawed in and out.

“I don’t think so.” He grinned again. Then slowly, deliberately, he ran one finger down her throat, lingering on her racing pulse.

Oh, God. She shuddered.

He ducked his head, licking along the path his fingertip had taken. “Spicy,” he murmured, making it sound obscene. 

A door banged open to her left. Two of the kitchen staff, one male, one female, emerged from a service entrance. Their voices rose and fell in a good-natured squabble over whose turn it was to clean the effing grease trap.

“Hel—”

The biker clapped a hand across her mouth, smothering her cry. A major miscalculation on his part. 

She bit down hard enough to draw blood and elicit a yelp of pain.

“Shit!” He snatched his hand away and stumbled back a step, just far enough for her to deliver a knee to the groin. He doubled up with a moan.

“Is there a problem?” the woman called.

“Get an ambulance,” Regan said. “This poor man’s bleeding.”

“You’re making a mistake,” the biker croaked.

“Won’t be the first time.”

 

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