Mackenzie's Magic by Linda Howard

  After what seemed an interminable length of time, he heard a twig snap. He didn’t move. His position, crouched by the right front tire, was secure; he couldn’t be seen until they walked in front of the truck, but by then they would have looked into the cab and seen it was empty, and wouldn’t pay any more attention to the truck. They would be looking instead at the trailer, and at Maris’s small footprints in the thin layer of snow, leading right up to it.

  There were other sounds now, rustles from careless feet, more than one pair; the brushing sounds of clothing, the harshness of someone who was slightly winded trying to regulate their breathing. They were close, very close.

  The footsteps stopped. "She isn’t in the truck." The whisper was barely audible, sexless.

  "Look! Her footprints go right up to the trailer." It was another whisper, excitement making it louder than the first.

  "Shut…up." The two words were hissed between clenched teeth, as if they had already been said more than once.

  "Don’t tell me to shut up. We have her cornered. What are you waiting for?"

  Though still whispering, the speaker’s voice was so forceful that it was almost as audible as if he—or she—had spoken aloud. The mike might have caught it, Mac thought. With enhanced sound-extraction techniques, which the Bureau had, he was certain the words were now on tape. The only problem was, they hadn’t exactly been damning.

  "You hired me to do a job. Now stay out of my way and let me do it." There was fury evident now, in both words and tone.

  "You’re the one who bungled it the first time, so don’t act as if you’re Mr. Infallible. If you’d been half as smart as you seem to think you are, the horse would already be dead and Maris Mackenzie wouldn’t suspect a thing. I didn’t bargain on murder when I hired you."

  That should do it, Mac thought with grim satisfaction. They had just talked themselves into a prison sentence.

  He tightened the muscles in his legs, preparing to step out and identify himself, pistol trained and ready. A crashing, thudding noise behind him made him freeze in place. He looked over his shoulder and almost groaned aloud. A big, black, graceful horse was prancing through the trees toward them, proudly shaking his head as if wanting them to admire his cleverness in getting free.

  "There he is! Shoot him!" It was a shout. Pleasure’s unexpected appearance had started them out of caution. Almost instantaneously there was the sharp crack of a shot, and bark exploded from the tree just behind the horse.

  Damn amateurs! He silently cursed. Pleasure was behind him; if he stood up now, he would be looking straight down the barrel, caught between the shooter and the target. He couldn’t do anything but wait for the next shot to hit the beautiful, friendly stallion, who had evidently caught their scent and pulled free so he could join the party.

  Dean realized Mac’s predicament and stepped from concealment, pistol braced in both hands. "FBI! Drop your weapons on the ground—now."

  Mac surged upward, bracing his arms across the hood of the truck. He saw Randy Yu, his hands already reaching upward as his pistol thudded to the ground. You could always trust a professional to know how to do things. But Joan Stonicher was startled by Mac’s sudden movement, and she wheeled toward him, her eyes wide with panic and rage. She froze, the pistol in her hand and her finger on the trigger.

  "Ease off, lady," Mac said softly. "Don’t do anything stupid. If I don’t get you, my partner will. Just take your finger off the trigger and let the gun drop. That’s all you have to do, and we’ll all be okay."

  She didn’t move. From the excellent viewpoint he had, Mac could see her finger trembling.

  "Do as he says," Randy Yu said wearily. The two agents had them caught in an excellent cross field. There was nothing they could do, and no sense in making things worse.

  Pleasure had shied at the noise of the shot, neighing his alarm, but his life had been too secure for him to panic. He trotted closer, his scooped nostrils flaring as he examined their familiar scents, searching for the special one he could detect. He came straight for Mac.

  Joan’s eyes left Mac and fastened on the horse. He saw the exact instant when her control shattered, saw her pupils contract and her hand jerk.

  A shrill whistle shattered the air a split second before the shot.

  A lot of things happened simultaneously. Dean shouted. Randy Yu dropped to the ground, his hands covering his head. Pleasure screamed in pain, rearing. Joan’s hand jerked again, back toward Mac.

  And there was another whistle, this one earsplitting.

  Maris stepped from behind a tree, her black eyes glittering with rage. The pistol was in her hand, trained on Joan. Joan wheeled back toward this new threat, and without hesitation Mac fired.

  Chapter 9

  He was mad enough to murder her, Maris thought.

  She was still so enraged herself that it didn’t matter. Fury burned through her. It was all she could do to keep from dismantling Joan Stonicher on the spot, and only the knowledge that Pleasure needed her kept her even remotely under control.

  The woods were swarming with people, with medics and deputies and highway patrol officers, with onlookers, even some reporters already there. Pleasure was accustomed to crowds, but he’d never before been shot, and pain and shock were making him unruly. He’d wheeled at Maris’s whistle, and his lightning reflexes had saved his life; Joan’s bullet had gouged a deep furrow in his chest, tearing the muscle at an angle but not penetrating any internal organs. Now it took all of Maris’s skill to keep him calm so she could stop the bleeding; he kept moving restlessly in circles, bumping her, trying to pay attention to her softly crooning voice but distracted by the pain.

  Her head was throbbing, both from Pleasure’s skittishness and from her own desperate run through the woods. She’d heard him moving through the trees, and in a flash she’d known exactly what had happened, what he would do. How he’d gotten free didn’t matter; he had heard and smelled them, and pranced happily to greet them, sure of his welcome. She’d known he would catch her scent on MacNeil’s clothes and go straight to him. It had been a toss-up which of them would be shot first, MacNeil or Pleasure. All she could do was try to get there in time to draw the horse’s attention, as well as everyone else’s.

  For one awful, hellish moment, when Pleasure screamed and she saw Joan swing back toward MacNeil, she’d thought she’d lost everything. She had stepped out from the trees, moving in what felt like slow motion. She couldn’t hear anything then, not even Pleasure; she hadn’t been able to see anything except Joan, her vision narrowing to a tunnel with her target as the focus. She hadn’t been aware of whistling again, or of taking the pistol from her pocket, but the weapon had been in her hand and her finger had been smoothly tightening on the trigger when Joan jerked yet again, panicked, this time aiming at Maris. That was when Mac had shot her. At such close range, just across the hood of the truck, his aim had been perfect. The bullet had shattered her upper arm.

  Joan would probably never have use of that arm again, Maris thought dispassionately. She couldn’t bring herself to care.

  The entire scene had been recorded, complete with audio. The camera had playback capability and Dean had obliged the sheriff by playing the tape for him. Both Yu and Joan were nailed, and Yu, being the professional he was, was currently bargaining for all he was worth. He was willing to carry others down with him if it would lighten his sentence.

  It had stopped snowing, though the day hadn’t gotten any warmer. Her hands were icy, but she couldn’t leave Pleasure to warm them. Blood glistened on his black chest and down his legs, staining his white stocking, splattering on the snow-frosted leaves and on Maris. She whispered to him, controlling him mostly with her voice, crooning reassurance and love to him while she held his bridle in one hand and with the other held some gauze the medics had given her to the wound on his chest. She had asked a deputy to contact a vet, but as yet no one had shown up.

  Yu could have seen to the horse, but he hadn’t offered, and
Maris wouldn’t have trusted him, anyway. It was he who had hit her on the head. As soon as she saw him again she had remembered that much, remembered his upraised arm, the cold, remorseless expression in his dark eyes. Other memories were still vague, and there were still blank spots, but they were gradually filling in.

  She must have gone to the big house to see Joan about something. She didn’t know why, but she remembered standing with her hand raised to knock, and freezing as Joan’s voice filtered through the door.

  "Randy’s going to do it tonight. While everyone’s eating will be a good time. I told him we couldn’t wait any longer, the syndicates are pushing for a decision."

  "Damn, I hate this," Ronald Stonicher had said. "Poor Pleasure’s been a good horse. Are you certain the drug won’t be detected?"

  "Randy says it won’t, and it’s his can on the line," Joan had coolly replied.

  Maris had backed away, so angry she could barely contain herself. Her first concern had been for Pleasure. It was the time when the stable hands would either be eating or have gone home for the night. She couldn’t delay a moment.

  Her next memory was of running down the aisle to his stall. She must have surprised Randy Yu there, though she didn’t remember actually coming up on him. She remembered enough to testify, though, even if she never remembered anything else, and assuming her testimony was needed. The tape was solid evidence.

  Another vehicle joined the tangle, and a roly-poly man in his late fifties, sporting a crew cut, got out of a battered pickup truck. He trudged wearily toward Maris, clutching a big black bag in his hand. Finally, the vet, she thought. Dark circles under his eyes told her that he’d probably been up late, possibly all night, with an ailing animal.

  Tired or not, he knew horses. He stopped, taking in Pleasure’s magnificent lines, the star on his forehead, the bloodstained white stocking. "That’s Sole Pleasure," he said in astonishment.

  "Yes, and he’s been shot," Maris said tersely. Her head was throbbing; even her eyeballs ached. If Pleasure didn’t settle down soon, her head would likely explode. "No internal organs affected, but some chest muscle torn. He won’t settle down and let the bleeding stop."

  "Let’s take care of that problem, first off. I’m George Norton, the vet hereabouts." He was working as he spoke, setting down the bag and opening it. He prepared a hypodermic and stepped forward, smoothly injecting the sedative into one of the bulging veins in Pleasure’s neck. The stallion danced nervously, his shoulder shoving her once again. She clenched her teeth, enduring.

  "He’ll quiet down in a minute." The vet gave her a sharp glance as he peeled away the blood-soaked gauze she’d been holding to the wound. "No offense, but even with the blood, the horse looks in better shape than you do. Are you all right?"


  "Then for God’s sake stop letting him bump you around like that," he said sharply. "Sit down somewhere before you fall down."

  Even in the midst of everything that was going on, as the medics readied Joan for transport, Mac somehow heard the vet. All of a sudden he was there, looming behind her, reaching over her shoulder for Pleasure’s bridle. "I’ll hold him." The words sounded as if he were spitting them out one at a time, like bullets. "Sit down."

  "I—" She’d started to say "I think I will," but she didn’t have a chance to finish the sentence.

  He assumed she was about to mount an argument, and barked out one word. "Sit!"

  "I wasn’t going to argue," she snapped back. What did he think she was, a dog? Sit, indeed. She felt more like lying down.

  She decided to do just that. Pleasure was going to be all right; as soon as he quieted and let the vet do his work, the bleeding would stop. The torn muscle would have to be stitched, antibiotics administered, a bandage secured, but the horse would heal. Even though the truck and trailer were stolen, under the circumstances she couldn’t imagine that there would be any problem with using them to transport Pleasure back to Solomon Green. Until the vet was finished and Pleasure was loaded in the trailer, she intended to stretch out on the truck seat.

  Wearily she climbed into the cab. The keys were still in the ignition, so she started the engine and turned on the heater. She took off her coat, removed the Kevlar vest and placed it in the floorboards, then lay down on the seat and pulled the coat over her.

  She almost cried with relief as the pain immediately began easing now that she was still. She closed her eyes, letting the tension drain out of her, along with the terror and absolute rage. She might have killed Joan. If the woman had shot Mac, she would have done it. Enveloped in that strange vacuum of despair and rage, she had been going for a head shot. She hadn’t even thought about Pleasure, not in that awful moment when Joan turned on Mac. She was glad she hadn’t had to pull the trigger, but she knew she would have. Knowing her own fiercely protective nature was one thing, but this was the first time she had been faced with the true extent of it. The jolt of self-knowledge was searing.

  Mac had already faced this; it was in his eyes. She had seen it in her father, in her brothers, the willingness to do what was necessary to protect those they loved and those who were weaker. It wasn’t easy. It was gut-wrenching, and those who were willing to stand on the front lines paid for it in a thousand little ways she was only beginning to understand. She hadn’t had to take that final, irrevocable step, but she knew how close it had been.

  Her mother also had that willingness, and a couple of her sisters-in-law. Valiant Mary, intrepid Caroline, sweet Barrie. They had each, in different circumstances, faced death and seen the bottom line. They would understand the wrenching she felt. Well, maybe Caroline wouldn’t. Caroline was so utterly straightforward, so focused, that Joe had once compared her to a guided missile.

  The door by her head was wrenched open, and cold air poured in. "Maris! Wake up!" Mac barked, his voice right over her. His hand closed on her shoulder as if he intended to shake her.

  "I am awake," she said, without opening her eyes. "The headache’s better, now that I’m still. How much longer will it be before I can take Pleasure back?"

  "You aren’t taking him anywhere. You’re going to a hospital to be checked out."

  "We can’t just leave him here."

  "I’ve arranged for him to be driven back."

  She could hear the effort he was making to be calm; it was evident in his careful tone.

  "Are things about wrapped up here?"

  "Close enough that I can leave it with Dean and take you to a hospital."

  He wouldn’t let it go until a doctor had told him she was all right, Maris realized, and with a sigh she opened her eyes and sat up. She understood. If their situations were reversed, she would be doing the same thing.

  "All right," she said, slipping on her coat. She turned off the ignition and picked up the Kevlar vest. "I’m ready."

  Her willingness scared him. She saw his eyes darken, saw his jaw clench. "I’ll be okay," she said softly, touching his hand. "I’m going because I know you’re worried, and I don’t want you to be."

  His expression changed, something achingly tender moving in his eyes. Gently he scooped her into his arms and lifted her from the truck.

  Dean had brought the Oldsmobile out of its hiding place. Mac carried her to it and deposited her on the front seat as carefully as if she were made of the most fragile crystal. He got in on the driver’s side and started the car; the milling crowd in front of them parted, allowing them through. She saw Pleasure, standing quietly now. The bandage was in place, and the wild look was gone from his eyes. He was watching the activity with his characteristic friendly curiosity.

  As they drove by, Dean lifted his hand to wave. "What about Dean?" Maris asked.

  "He’ll get transport. It isn’t a problem."

  She paused. "What about you? When do you leave? Your job here is finished, isn’t it?" She didn’t intend to let him get away, but she wasn’t sure exactly how much he understood of their situation.

  "It’s finished."
The words were clipped. The look he gave her was one of restrained violence. "I’ll have to do the paperwork, tie up some loose ends. I may have to leave tonight, tomorrow at the latest, but I’ll be back, damn it!"

  "You don’t sound happy about it," she observed.

  "Happy? You expect me to be happy?" His jaw clenched. "You didn’t obey orders. You stepped right out into the open, instead of staying hidden the way you were supposed to. That idiot woman could have killed you!"

  "I was wearing the vest." She pointed that out rather mildly, she thought.

  "The damn vest only improves the odds, it isn’t a guarantee! The issue here is that you didn’t follow the plan. You risked your life for that damn horse! I didn’t want him hurt, either, but—"

  "It wasn’t for Pleasure," she said, interrupting him. "It was for you." She looked out the window at the snow-dusted pastures they were passing.

  It was quiet in the car for a moment.

  "Me?" He was using that careful tone again.

  "You. I knew he’d go straight to you, that he’d catch my scent on your clothes. At the very least he would distract you, bump you with his head. It was even possible he’d give away your position."

  Mac was silent, absorbing the shock of the realization that she was willing to risk her own life to protect his. He did the same thing on a fairly regular basis, but it was his job to take risks and protect others. But he’d never before felt the terror he’d known when he saw Maris draw Joan’s attention, and he hoped he never felt it again.

  "I love you," she said quietly.

  Damn. Sighing inwardly, Mac kissed his bachelorhood goodbye. Her courage stunned him, humbled him. No other woman he’d known would have put herself on the line the way Maris had done, both physically and emotionally. She didn’t play games, didn’t jockey for control. She simply knew, and accepted; he’d seen it in the soft depths of her black eyes, an instinctive inner knowledge that few people ever achieved. If he didn’t snatch her up, it would be the biggest mistake of his life.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]