A LEX HURRIED BACK to the boardinghouse, deep in thought, the image of the dead man's eyes burned into her brain. She opened the front door and stepped inside, thinking that the world had gone mad.
Of course, in a way the world had gone mad the day the first shot of the war had been fired. But this was something worse. Worse? What could be worse than a war that was exterminating half the young men of a divided country?
Losing all sanity and all souls.
The thought came to her unbidden, and she shook it off. But what was happening here was strange. People were behaving differently.
Cody and Jim had literally severed the dead man's head.
"There you are, Alex!" Beulah chastised her as she came through from the kitchen, clasping a hand to her heart. "Don't you go round worrying me so now, young lady, do you hear?"
Alex stared at her. "Beulah, I was right down the street."
"Maybe so, but you need to be inside now. It's dark, and the moon...well, the moon is out."
Alex smiled, giving her a hug and wondering what the moon had to do with anything. "I'm fine. The bad guys got sent away with their tails between their legs. Tonight we're all safe."
Beulah drew back, shaking her head sadly. "Honey child, no time is safe anymore. But darkness? It's not safe at all."
Alex stared at the older woman.
"Beulah, what's going on here?" she asked.
"Evil," Beulah said sagely.
"Bad things, very bad things. It's like the devil himself is trying to take hold here. Oh, honey, I don't know everything. But it's like an evil disease. So we just stay inside. Oh, Lordy! Brigsby gone. And Hollow Tree, too, I hear tell...and now Victory. Maybe we thought we'd be spared. Maybe we felt we couldn't do a thing about it 'cept run, and for too many folks, this is all we have and there ain't nowhere to run to."
"Beulah, I don't understand you," Alex said impatiently.
"I don't rightly understand it myself," Beulah said, then smiled suddenly, her eyes lighting up. "But tonight...well, that was a miracle, it was, those two fellows turning up when they did. And now they'll be staying here. What a fine thing that is."
Beulah made the sign of the cross over her ample chest as she spoke.
Alex nodded. That much was true. She would definitely feel safer with the men who had successfully defied the outlaws staying in her boardinghouse.
Suddenly her smile of agreement froze on her face.
She had just watched Cody Fox decapitate a dead man.
With the blessing-no, at the insistence of-of Jim Green.
She realized she was exhausted. No doubt the world would look normal again after a good night's rest.
"I think I have to go to sleep," she told Beulah.
"You need to have something to eat, child," Beulah said.
Alex laughed. "Beulah, you're a sweetheart, but I'm too tired to eat. I'm going to go up to bed now, and I'll worry about what's going on in the morning."
"It's the devil," Beulah said, nodding sagely.
Alex took Beulah's hands. "I saw the devil's work when anger and hostility entered the hearts of men and sent them to war." Her eyes grew sad. "I guarantee you, God has no part in the carnage of war. Whatever this is, we can fight it, and we will."
"Maybe. Now that they've come," Beulah agreed, then added, "But maybe not. This evening they came in a roar of gunfire. But sometimes they come in stealth and quiet, slipping into our lives and our souls-like the devil. Please, Alex, you heard what Cody Fox said to them fancy girls. It's time to be smart and careful."
Alex gave Beulah a hug. "I'll be careful, I swear," she promised, and headed for the stairs. Just dragging herself up the steps suddenly seemed like a tremendous effort.
She made it to her room. Her father's room. No, her room now, as he would have wanted it to be.
One of the girls had laid out her nightdress, and left her a basin of water on the washstand. By rote, she carefully removed and hung her clothing, washed up and slipped on the nightgown. She dipped her hands into the water again to refresh her face, and caught her reflection in the mirror. In the white gown and the lamplight, she appeared gaunt and pale. As if she were some kind of wraith. Despite herself, she found herself thinking of the women in the saloon. Dolly, who was so...assured. That new girl, oddly pretty and fresh. She paled in comparison. She winced. How odd! She wasn't accustomed to feeling insecure.
She turned again to her reflection and realized she was comparing herself to others because...
Because of Cody Fox.
A flood of red heightened her cheeks as she continued staring into the mirror.
She took her towel and patted her face dry, and turned quickly away from the mirror, feeling ridiculous. The world had gone crazy-and she was worried about being noticed by a man. She definitely needed sleep. Ever since Grant's death, she hadn't even thought about men except when she'd volunteered at the hospital, where they'd simply been sad and scared human beings longing to die with the warmth and comfort of a woman's hand clutching their own.
Maybe that was it. It had simply been so long since she had buried her fiance, so long since she had even thought about appearances, attraction...and then a man like Cody Fox came along and suddenly she was seeing herself as a woman again.
Alex let out a sigh of irritation, blew out the lamp and crawled into bed.
Darkness, exhaustion. They would surely allow her to rest.
But she found that her eyes were drawn to the double French doors that led from the master suite to the balcony. The moon wasn't full, but still there was a flood of light falling to earth from the heavens, a yellow glow permeating the world beyond her windows, making its way through the drapes.
Bathed in that glow, shadows moved. They looked like the wings of birds, giant birds dancing in the air beyond the window. She almost thought she could hear the rush of wings, but she knew it was only the sound of the wind as it rushed over the plain.
She forced herself to close her eyes, and at last she slept.
THEY WERE IN THE ACT of burying the decapitated man when the sheriff and his deputy made it back into town at last.
The sheriff, Cole Granger, was a tall, hard-muscled man with sharp blue eyes and hair so dark it had a blue sheen in the moonlight. His deputy, Dave Hinton, was smaller, but he had a solid handshake and steady eyes.
Jim Green explained what had happened when Milo and his band of outlaws had come to town.
"These fellows saved us, and that's a fact," he said, then cleared his throat, kicking at the freshly dug mound of earth below his feet. "Honest, Cole, we weren't being cowards-we just didn't know what to do, you know? Ace Henley got this fellow, though. We don't have a name for him, don't know nothing about him. But we've taken care of him-and we've buried him deep."
"Damn it, damn it all straight to hell!" Granger said, sounding disgusted with himself. "I shouldn't have ridden out, and I sure as hell shouldn't have taken Dave with me." He looked Cody and Brendan in the eyes. "Thank you. I don't know how the hell you did it, but thank you. There'd been trouble out at John Snow's trading post-and I had to get out there, see what was going on. But I didn't count on getting back so late."
"We hit some trouble on the return," Dave said.
"Trouble? What happened?" Cody asked.
"Darnedest thing," Cole said, shaking his head. "We were coming through a patch of brush and trees about five miles from here when the horses just went crazy. Go figure. We've both been riding since before we could walk, and first we lose Dave's horse, and he's running around like a headless chicken till I can catch him and start to get him settled. Next thing you know, my Titan is rearing and snorting, and starting Dave's horse going again. There was something out there, but damned if I know what. Wolves, coyotes, something. All I know is, I've never seen horses acting up so badly." Cole stopped speaking and looked Cody in the eye again. "Everyone is saying the devil is loose in these parts. I don't know what the devil is, but there's sure as hell something going on. Something that lets Milo and his crew annihilate whole towns. I figured they'd be coming for us sooner or later. It's just sooner than I expected." He looked from Cody to Brendan, and back to Cody. "How the hell did you stop him?"
"I know Milo's type," Cody said. "I know how to make him believe that he'll lose his own life if he doesn't listen to me. I know this kind of enemy."
"We finished decapitating the dead man," Jim Green put in nervously.
Cole set a hand on Jim Green's shoulder. "If you feel it was necessary, Jim, then that's fine."
"Absolutely right," Dave agreed, shaking his head strenuously. Cody and Brendan exchanged a look. It was obvious that Dave thought the very devil was walking the streets.
Cole Granger was a harder man altogether, and his attitude said he'd seen his share of vicious men. He clearly still believed that he was dealing with something real and tangible.
"With everything going on out here," Cody said, "haven't you gotten any help from the army or the U.S. Marshals?"
Cole Granger shook his head. "If we'd ever suspected we could all be wiped out this way, we might have gotten together and mustered up a militia. As to government help...Texas is part of the Confederacy, and the Confederacy has lost too many men to have any left to send out here. Our only help might come from Chief Tall Feather and the Apaches, and maybe some of his Comanche friends. At least we don't have problems with the Indians out here. They live their lives, we live ours, and we trade. They say an evil spirit has come to earth and possessed the souls of men. I don't know what it is, only that I'm not running and I will see these killers stopped."
"How'd you know about the trouble out here?" Dave asked suddenly.
"I have family out here-or I did," Brendan said, correcting himself. "And Cody's folks lived in these parts. His father died out here."
"My mother went home-back to New Orleans-before I was born. But the important thing is that we're here to help you fight. Tomorrow, as a matter of fact, if it sits well with you, Sheriff, I'm going to go out and meet that Indian chief. You say his name is Tall Feather?"
"That's right. He's a good man, even though the Apache are a warrior clan. Tall Feather sees the way the world is going. He says the Spirit Fathers have told him that the white man will not go away, that he will come in greater numbers. If you can't fight them, in his opinion, you should study them and figure out how to use them. Go ahead and talk to him-he'll tell you what's been going on."
"What did you find out at the trading post?" Cody asked Cole, changing the subject.
Cole shook his head. "Two of John Snow's children have gone missing, both of them beautiful young girls. But I couldn't find a trail, not a drop of blood, not a broken branch. It's as if the girls wandered into another dimension."
"I'll try to get out that way, too," Cody said. "So where do Milo and his band hole up during the daylight hours?"
"No one knows," Dave said.
"Brigsby, I'm thinking," Cole said. "But I haven't had a chance to get back out there to check. We had a gunslinger go through here a few weeks back, and he thought he was tougher than solid stone. He went out to Brigsby. We found what was left of his body on the ground out by where the horses went crazy on Dave and me."
"We need to get out there as soon as we can manage it," Cody said. "I'd like to be sure what we're up against. Men like Milo...they can deceive, build traps. We need to find out everything we can if we're going to fight them. Anyway, Sheriff, what you and your deputy here need to be doing is warning your townsfolk not to open their doors to strangers-and especially not even to be on the streets at night. I tried to tell the girls at the saloon that it was important to be...cautious, but that may have been a lost cause. Thing is-" Cody broke off, hesitating. The thing was, Cole Granger was going to have to accept some of the truth of the matter-or else the sheriff would be running him out of town before he could count to three.
"Inviting folks in just leads to danger," Cody finished lamely. "This place needs to be locked up tight at night. We'll talk more in the morning, if that's all right with you, Sheriff. I think we're all worn to the bone right now."
"Good night, then," Cole said, and Cody and Brendan started out of the graveyard. "Hey," Cole said, calling them back. "Where are you staying?"
"Miss Alex is back in town. They're over at the boardinghouse," Dave said.
"Right. Alex is home," Cole said thoughtfully. "Good night, then. And thank you for your help this evening. I offer you a true welcome to Victory."
Cody waved a hand in acknowledgment, wondering at the sheriff's tone when he'd mentioned Alex's name. Was something going on there? Long-ago lovers? She had gone back East to marry, so the story went. But now that she was back in town, maybe things would be rekindled out here. Why not? The sheriff seemed like a good man, young, good-looking. And Alexandra Gordon was...beautiful. More than that. She was a fighter. There was a life inside her that was like a shimmering flame, beckoning everyone to her.
He tamped down the thought. He'd decided long ago that his life was meant to be a solitary one.
"You think the boardinghouse is safe?" Brendan asked as they walked together along the street.
Cody shook his head. "It's a boardinghouse. Its business is opening its door to strangers."
"Someone in there knows something, though. There are crosses all over the place, garlic festooned around the window."
"Doesn't matter. Milo has already been in there," Cody said.
"Maybe we need more crosses," Brendan suggested.
"What we need is to kill Milo," Cody said, and kept walking.
Brendan looked after him. "Right. And then pierce his heart, chop off his head and burn the body to ash."
AS THE TWO OF THEM walked back to the boardinghouse, Cody thought back to how he and Brendan had met. It had started with the murderer Aldridge had needed his help in stopping. He could still remember bending over the first two bodies....
The first of the two latest victims was lying on his back, a look of abject terror on his face. His wife was in worse condition. Her tormentor must have played with her first, because her eyes were closed, as if she had clenched them hard against the sight of her impending death.
Both bodies bore stab marks about the chest and abdomen, but neither was lying in the expected pool of blood, and both were curiously white.
"It beats everything I've seen," Aldridge said quietly, watching as Cody moved the woman's hair aside to reveal the marks he'd been sure he would find. Cody hesitated, wondering just how much of the truth Aldridge might be able to accept.
The evidence was actually encouraging, at least as far as putting an end to the killing spree went. He was pretty sure he was looking at a rogue killer, someone who was trying to blend in with the population of the city. The stab marks had been made to fool whoever found the bodies, and it was only luck-good for Aldridge, maybe not so good for Cody himself-that someone had connected these killings to the case Cody had put an end to.
Cody looked up at Aldridge. "I'll go after your killer, sir, but it's unlikely I'll be able to bring him in for trial. This...person will fight to the death."
Aldridge stared at him. "You do what you have to do. I need you to catch this man."
"I can't be held to any curfew."
"You'll have free rein," Aldridge promised.
That night, Cody prowled the streets.
He tried the bars first, but found nothing unusual. Then, as he walked along Dauphine Street, he noticed a gate standing ajar. Curious, he pushed the gate open and stepped into a dark courtyard.
He scanned the courtyard quickly, then winced, seeing what looked like a pile of clothing off to one side. He hurried over and found the body of a young woman, still warm to the touch, but dead.
Quite, quite dead.
Still warm, he thought. Which meant the killer might still be near.
He heard piano music and a songstress at work coming from one of the nearby restaurants, so he walked over to see what he might find.
He stood by the bar and sipped bourbon as he looked around the room. Several soldiers were at a table close to the piano, where they watched a dark-haired and quite beautiful woman as she played and sang, all the while flirting openly with them.
As he watched, the songstress rose, whispered in the ear of one of the men, then left him sitting and staring hungrily after her as she walked toward the back and the alley Cody knew ran behind the building.
As subtly as he could, he followed.
He had to stop the death toll. Now.
She was waiting, leaning against the wall, a wicked smile upon her face as she waited with supreme anticipation. He stared at her for a moment, realizing with a sick feeling that she wasn't the intended victim at all.
"Excuse me?" she said, surprised when she saw Cody, and not the young man with whom she'd been flirting.
"Good evening," he said.
She smiled and shivered, though it was far from cold. "Lovely night, actually. I'm Vivien La Rue. How do you do?"
She stretched out a hand, and when he took it, she allowed her fingers to wander over his flesh.
"You shouldn't be out here," he said, playing along. "There's a killer loose in the city."
He glanced toward the door. The young soldier had yet to emerge, but it might not be much longer until he showed. This would have to happen quickly.
"Are you interested in other sorts of...entertainment?" he asked softly.
She laughed and sized him up. "What might you have in mind? And what are you offering?"
She moved closer and slid her arms around his neck, gazing up into his eyes. Something she saw there seemed to startle her, and she started to pull away.
He didn't let her. She let out a hissing sound and threw back her head, lips receding, teeth extending. She started to aim for his throat.
But he was ready. And he was extremely strong. He slit her throat, instantly severing the jugular. Trying to avoid the spilling blood, he worked relentlessly, sawing, finally dropping both the body and the head to the ground as he made the final cut. In moments, nothing was left but a pile of ash.
Grateful that the soldier had not yet made an appearance, he hurried out of the alley and straight to Aldridge's office, where the lieutenant had promised to wait for word.
Cody informed him that the killer had been found and, as he'd predicted, been killed.
"Where's the body?"
"I'm afraid you won't find it." Suddenly, Cody realized Aldridge was looking at someone who was seated behind him, and he cursed himself. He should have sensed the other presence.
He turned quickly to see a lean, dignified man of middle age. Cody recognized him as Brendan Vincent, a one-time brigadier general in the Union army, discharged on medical grounds, who had made his reputation in the Mexican War and was now honored by both sides in the current conflict.
Vincent stood as Aldridge made the introductions and smiled grimly as he shook Cody's hand. "I'm pleased to meet you, young man. I need you desperately."
"We've been having some trouble out West. In Texas."
Startled, Cody looked at Aldridge.
Aldridge nodded grimly. "Yes, Texas, still a Southern state. But murder is murder, and Brendan is my cousin. He's made Texas his home since his discharge, and...well, I'll let him explain for himself."
"We've had a few...incidents recently. Whole towns disappearing, and I think we're looking at the same kind of killer my cousin tells me you've now defeated twice. I'm desperate, Mr. Fox. I need you to come with me."
Cody winced, looking downward for a moment. Did he really want to go back there? Out West? Where he'd been conceived?
"All right," he said after a moment. "When do we leave?"
"First thing in the morning."
"Exactly where are we going?" he asked.
"We're going to Victory, my boy."
At first he thought Vincent was trying to be poetic. Then it hit him.
"Victory, Texas," he breathed, and the other man nodded.
Cody swore under his breath, cursing fate.
If there was any place he hated, it was Victory, Texas.
THE DREAM CAME UPON Alex as if she were watching a play. It was as if velvet curtains opened and stage lighting slowly illuminated the scene, a scene she went from watching to starring in. She was lying in her bed at first, but then she rose.
The moonlight outside the window was so tempting. Or it might have been the shadows, like wings, like beckoning arms.
They'd been warned to keep everything locked, but it was such a beautiful night. The outlaws were long gone, had ridden out of town, and the sound of the breeze against the windows was enticing. She wanted to feel the wind. Feel it lift her hair and caress her cheeks. It would be soft and balmy, as gentle as the moon glow. The breeze would lift the soft cotton of her gown, and she would feel its cool sensation on her flesh.
For a few moments she hovered by her bed, but then, almost as if she were floating, she moved toward the French doors that led out to the balcony and pushed them open.
And there was the moon. Not yet full, but it was a cloudless night, so perhaps that was why the moonlight seemed so strong. From her balcony, she could see virtually the entire town, except she couldn't really see most of the houses, only the lights here and there where someone was keeping a lantern burning through the night.
She saw the trees, the branches that had created the beckoning shadows she had been unable to resist. Though the breeze was gentle, the branches bowed and waved as if they were in fact greeting her. She slid her hands over the rail at the balcony's edge and felt the wood beneath her hands, warm and supportive, as if it were something living. The air moved around her, and she blushed, even though she was alone, at the way she was seduced by the erotic feel of it. The fabric of her gown, like the shadows, seemed to touch her, to stroke her with arousing fingers.
She needed to turn away.
To go inside, to lock the door.
To close away these feelings.
But even as the thought gained a foothold in her mind, the shadows continued touching her, their touch palpable, sensuous. It was as if they had substance, as if they could take her and whisk her away into the night. The shadows were taking form, as if they were giant birds, or even bats, as if they had talons and could pluck her up from where she stood and fly with her, their prisoner, into the night.
Into true darkness.
A scream froze in her throat. The dream had become a nightmare. She reminded herself that she was strong, that she knew how to fight, how to shoot. But she had no weapon, and even if she did, shooting a shadow would be of no avail, and fighting the wind was a futile task.
And then he was there.
Just as suddenly as he had appeared that day. The tall man in the railroad duster and the hat dipping low over golden eyes.
He stood straight and firm against the wind, defying the darkness.
He closed his arms around her and swept her close, and she was uncomfortably aware of the intense way he was looking down at her. His eyes, which in reality were hazel, were glowing with a true golden splendor against the night. It was like being touched by the sun, and heat coursed through her, warming her face, her limbs, and stirring an arousal she'd never experienced before.
He walked with her into her room and gently set her down on the bed. Then he touched her cheek with a tenderness that made her catch her breath, but when she would have stroked his face and drawn him to her, he rose.
"Always fight the shadows, and never listen to the wind," he whispered. "And don't worry. I'll be here," he added, as if it were a vow.
Despite the words, though, he stepped away from her and stood at the foot of her bed. "Never open your door. Believe me as you believe in God, Miss Gordon, and do not open your door," he warned her.
She wanted to speak.
She wanted to draw him back to her.
She wanted to forget that her father had been killed, that there had ever been a past and would ever be a future.
She wanted him back.
But she couldn't form words. It was a dream, of course. A dream turned nightmare, turned dream again. Because she was safe, and she knew it.
Because he was there.
"Sleep now, Miss Gordon."
"Alex," she managed to say.
And so she did.
WHEN SHE OPENED her eyes, she was alone.
And yet she could remember every detail of the dream.
In the cold light of day, she groaned aloud, wishing she didn't remember with quite so much clarity.
She rose impatiently and turned toward the doors to the balcony. They were closed, the curtains drawn. And it was the light of day seeping in, not moonlight punctuated by dancing shadows.
Then she noticed the door that connected her room to the one beyond. Once that room had been the nursery, but it had long ago been converted to a guest room.
She hesitated, her heart thundering, then set her hand on the doorknob and slowly turned it.
The door was unlocked.
She pushed it open.
The bed was unmade, as if awaiting the maid's attention. And lying on the bench at the foot of the bed were saddlebags. Saddlebags engraved with a name. Cody Fox, M.D.