The Sun coverEd.note: The following post is excerpted from Chapter 1 of Courtney’s new mystery The Sun. From the book’s description:

A murdered ranch employee. A vanished suspect. A stolen rodeo horse. A black helicopter. Angry environmentalists. Menacing oil-and-gas developers. A Sasquatch hunter gone astray. A mysterious billionaire. A missing can opener…

Without warning, Dr. Bryce Miller, a young doctor in Boston, inherits a large, historic ranch in northern New Mexico from a wealthy uncle she barely knew. She flies out to sell The Sun to the highest bidder, but things get complicated when a body is found murdered on the ranch. Is it a warning meant for her? Meanwhile, she must choose among a colorful cast of suitors who want to turn the working cattle ranch into either: an upscale housing development with golf courses, an oil-and-gas field, a nature preserve, a casino resort, the underground home for a doomsday cult, or the plaything of a shadowy business mogul. Each is willing to pay a large sum of money – and maybe do anything – to get the ranch. Bryce has seven days to decide.

From the author:

The Sun Ranch Saga is a contemporary mystery series. It is centered on a historic cattle ranch in northern New Mexico, the fictional town of Alameda, and takes place during the tumultuous years of 2008-9. The murders happen against a backdrop of Wall Street collapse, conflicts over cattle and wildlife, rising political and economic tensions – and a possible Sasquatch sighting!

You can find out more about the book here.

The foreman wasn’t waiting at her uncle’s house.

After parking, Bryce fished her phone from the passenger well, where it had fallen during her little driving adventure, but none of the messages waiting were from him. She tapped the foreman’s phone number only to be rewarded a few moments later with the click of the answering machine. “Hi, this is Matt…” She sighed and turned the phone off clumsily, still uncomfortable with these new-fangled touch screen devices. She missed her well-worn Blackberry. She reluctantly made the switch last year only because her father gave her the new phone for her thirty-fifth birthday. He was always doing things like that. An early and enthusiastic tech head, he had an uncanny nose for spotting trends before others. Years ago, he was the first person on their block in South Boston to bring home a pocket calculator, causing her frugal mother to grumble at its cost (though she quickly began using it for work). When Bryce was thirteen, he surprised the three of them by bringing home a personal computer – a shiny Apple II – changing their lives forever. Predictably, her mother declared the machine an indulgence they couldn’t afford. Her father gave Bryce a wry smile. “What good is an indulgence if you can’t afford it!” he protested. Then he winked at her.

Life was short.

Maybe the foreman had left her a note. Getting out of the car, Bryce climbed the brief flight of stairs to the front door. No note. She turned to her right and walked along the porch to the observation deck, connected at the corner of the house by an archway. Stepping onto the spacious wooden deck, she saw a sliding glass door to her left that led inside. There was no note stuck to it either. She walked to the center of the rectangular deck. The eight-chair patio set and the large BBQ grill looked expensive, she thought. In the far corner was an elevated hot tub. A peek inside revealed it to be dry. Where was the foreman? Frowning now, Bryce punched his number again and lifted the phone to her ear as she walked toward the railing. She suddenly spied a vehicle traveling toward her on the entrance road, trailing a long plume of dust. She shaded her eyes against the bright sunlight. It looked like a pickup. Finally, the foreman! Wait. What about the truck at the little house? Maybe this was someone else. There was another ranch employee, as she recalled. The answering machine kicked in.

“Hi, this is Matt,” she heard again. His voice was calm compared to the conversation she had with him last week. “I’m not available at the moment, but thanks for calling. Please leave a message at the…”

Bryce stabbed her phone with a finger, ending the call, feeling more worried than annoyed now. Maybe he couldn’t answer because he was driving the truck. Reaching the railing, she saw another wooden stairway, narrower and steeper, heading down to a second parking area just around the corner from where she had left the car. She lifted her eyes to the entrance road, shading her face once more. The approaching truck appeared to be in no rush.

She felt like waving to catch the driver’s attention and speed things up a bit, but she decided to wait instead. She took a deep breath. The wide grasslands in front of her made it feel like she stood at the prow of a golden boat in a vast green sea. It was a comparison that came easily. Her father had been a sailor nearly all his life. As a teenager growing up near the ocean, he saved enough money from his many odd jobs to buy a used but sturdy catamaran which he sailed energetically during his meager spare time. There was something about the sea that grabbed him by the throat and never let go. Even the political turmoil of his college years, followed by his hectic life as a public school teacher, never deterred him from finding time to sail his beloved boat. He felt at home on the water, a feeling he eagerly shared with Bryce, who just as eagerly soaked it up. She learned her life-long love of maps from him. She could remember the excitement she felt when her father spread a new nautical chart across the dining room table. They would pour over the map together, their fingers hunting among inlets and islands, making plans. She loved to watch her father during these moments, his eyes sparkling with possibility. Of course, the irony was incredible. Why was he such a wizard on water but so incompetent with directions on land?

It was a mystery.

A white pickup truck suddenly emerged from the woods on the driveway. Bryce crossed the deck and headed down the porch toward the front door. As the truck pulled into the parking area, she could see an older man behind the wheel, debonair in a trim beard, a grey cowboy hat, and a blue kerchief around his neck. His hands held the wheel comfortably, she noticed, as if the vehicle were an old friend. He sat erectly, which in her experience meant he had either served in the military or grew up in a family that valued good posture.

Parking next to her car, he opened the truck door and climbed out stiffly. He wore brown boots, jeans, a large belt buckle, and a plaid, snap-button shirt with the sleeves down. He was lean and white-haired. As she reached the bottom of the porch stairs, Bryce could see that his face was smooth above his beard, though by the look of his weathered hands he had to be seventy. He had lively blue eyes in an otherwise serious face, suggesting he was mischievous or stubborn – or both.

“Doctor Miller, I presume?” he said in a courtly twang. He stuck out a hand. “Earl Holcombe. Welcome to The Sun. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She gripped his hand firmly. “Nice to meet you too.”

“I’m your neighbor to the south, one of them anyway. The Rafter T Ranch. It’s just a little, bitty place compared to this operation,” he said, nodding at the vista. “I was sorry to hear about your uncle.”

“Thank you. It was a shock to everyone.”

“I bet. Hoo boy,” he said, shaking his head.

He was sizing her up, she knew from experience with older male doctors, so she stood her ground confidently in her casual but upscale outdoor clothing, a pair of trendy sunglasses sitting comfortably on top of her well-cut short hair, feeling every inch the urbandwelling, New York Times-reading, latte-drinking, East Coast liberal that she appeared to be – and was.

“Did you know you’d be inheriting the ranch?” he asked.

“Not a clue.” Her phone suddenly rang in her vest pocket. “Sorry,” she said, pulling it out. After a glance at the number, she silenced the ring. “I thought it might be the foreman.”

“Matt?”

“He called me last week. He wanted to meet at his house as soon as I got to the ranch, but he isn’t home. I saw a truck in the driveway though.”

“Silver? That’s his,” Earl said. “Did you see the quad? It’s a four-wheeler. He uses it to check on cattle and fix fences.”

Bryce shook her head. “No, I didn’t see anything like that.”

“He’s been having trouble with a well in the south pasture. Maybe he needed to run down there.”

“Does he own a horse?”

“Yes ma’am,” Earl replied with a nod. “Brunhilda. She’s quite a gal.”

“The horse wasn’t there either.”

Earl wrinkled his eyes at her. “Not there? That’s odd. He doesn’t usually use her for ranch work. Were there any other trucks?”

“I didn’t see any.”

“Well, I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. Matt’s as good as they come. Did he tell you what he wanted to talk about?”

“No. But he sounded anxious. You have any idea?”

“No ma’am. I know he’s worried about his brother, who’s a Marine over there in Iraq.

Went in as part of the surge last year. But he’s not going to bother you about that.”

Which was eminently alright with her. In March, she attended a peace rally on Boston Common to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the never-ending Iraq War but it had turned ugly when a small gang of pro-war antagonists crashed their quiet protest causing bad feelings all around. It was a sign of the times, she supposed.

Earl nodded his head approvingly. “That’s a good fight, I’ll tell you.”

Not wanting to be discourteous, Bryce decided to change the subject. She glanced up the entrance road. “I’m curious, how did you know I was here? I didn’t tell anyone I was flying out except the foreman.”

“He told me,” Earl replied. “And I knew you had arrived because of the sensor on the main gate. Your uncle had it installed so he could tell when someone came on the ranch. He insisted it buzz at my house too. And he put up a surveillance camera.”

Bryce frowned. “A camera? Why?”

“No idea. Maybe your uncle was worried about all that wine in his cellar.” Earl shook his head. “You a wine fancier?”

“Only when I’m not too tired,” she replied with a smile.

“I hear you,” he said, chuckling. “I did some research on you last night, by the way.

That’s an impressive list of credentials. You’re a children’s doctor?”

“That’s correct,” she said, knowing what was coming next.

“Bone cancer,” he said admiringly. “That’s got to be tough.”

It was a familiar compliment. “Some days it is,” she said quietly, not knowing what else to say.

Earl took the hint. “Did you know your uncle well?”

“I didn’t know him at all,” she replied. “Well, hardly. I met him maybe ten times, mostly while growing up. He and my mother were twins, but we lived in Boston and he lived on the West Coast. I knew he bought a big ranch in New Mexico though.” She turned her head to study the sweeping view. “This place is amazing.”

“She’s a beaut alright. One of the last of the old frontier ranches,” Earl said following her gaze. “Do you know your plans yet?”

“I do,” she said firmly, still surveying the vista. “I’m going to sell it.”

“In that case, here comes your first suitor.”

He nodded at the entrance road where she could see a large red SUV traveling fast toward them, a dust plume rising high into the sky.

“That’s Doreen,” he said, squinting. “She sells big real estate. Watch out, she’s something else too. There’s another one,” he said, nodding at a white truck on the road, not far behind. “That would be Bill Merrill. Smoothest talking SOB in a cowboy hat I ever met.”

“It’s Memorial Day. How do they know I’m even here?”

Earl chuckled. “I think they spy on each other. Here comes someone else!”

He nodded at a shiny sedan speeding behind the other two.

“Who’s that?” Bryce asked.

“Frank McBride, I bet. He works for Nature Unlimited, that big national outfit that buys land for conservation. Their office is in Santa Fe so I wonder what he’s doing here.”

Earl pointed. “Here comes a fourth one!”

A black vehicle emerged from the dust behind the sedan, moving at a slower rate. All four vehicles were now filling the air with a great deal of dust.

“What’s going on?” she asked, amazed.

Earl’s eyes twinkled at her. “It’s The Sun, my dear. You have it and they want it. And I suspect they’ll do anything to get it too.”

Bryce watched the four vehicles race down the road. “Mr. Holcombe, do you have any idea why my uncle willed me the ranch?”

“No ma’am. He and I talked a lot about his plans, but not that.”

“You knew him then?”

“I helped him get started here,” Earl said. “He didn’t know which end of a cow got up first. Fortunately, he hired Matt. Your uncle was an odd duck, as anyone around here can tell you. But I liked him and we got along even though he was a Democrat.”

“I’m a Democrat,” she protested.

“And that’s fine,” Earl said with a nod. “I won’t hold it against you either.”

Bryce laughed easily. A moment later, she returned her attention to the oncoming vehicles.

“I was sorry to hear about your mother as well,” Earl said solemnly.

Bryce was silent. “Thank you,” she said finally.

“Your uncle didn’t seem the same after he came back from her funeral. You said they were twins. They must have been close.”

“Not really. I think they had some sort of falling out.” She turned to him. “That’s why this is all so strange. Other than her funeral, the last time I saw my uncle was during a trip I took to the Bay Area five years ago. We had lunch and chatted. And now this.”

She indicted the sprawling grasslands.

“He must have seen something in you,” Earl said. “I don’t know what.” She gave him a look. “Which end of a cow gets up first?”

Earl chuckled. “You’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.” He nodded at the vehicles, now approaching the hill. “Want any background on your suitors?”

“Please.”

“Alright. Doreen in front represents a developer who wants to build two golf courses on your ranch, one there, and one there,” Earl said, pointing. “Plus a mess of fancy homes in between. I’ve seen the plans. Hoo boy. The developer’s got the support of the Mayor and the Alameda town council, just so you know. Most of them, anyway.”

Bryce nodded.

“Bill in the white truck,” Earl continued, “he’s oil-and-gas. They’ve got a bunch of wells to the east of you. Something called hydraulic fracturing. Apparently, it’s a new way of getting at gas deposits. I guess that means there’s one here on The Sun. Anyway, he’s got the backing of our county commissioners. He’s going to tell you we can get along with industry, but don’t believe a word of it.”

“Don’t worry. What about the other two?”

“Frank, the Nature Unlimited feller, can be a bit touchy. Your uncle outbid them for the ranch and he’s been sore about it ever since. I think he wanted your uncle to will The Sun to them, so he might doubly grouchy.” Earl looked at her. “His outfit is not a fan of cattle, by the way, despite what they say. Word is they want to put bison out here.”

“Is that bad?”

“To cattle ranchers it is,” he replied. “I can’t quite tell who the fourth feller is, but it’s likely Mr. Nibble, as he’s called. The electronic book things? Don’t ask me. I think his real name is Kenneth or Keith. The owner of the company he works for has more money than God and bought all the land north of you.”

He nodded at the dark escarpment and the forested hills lurking above it.

“Used to be the old Circle A, but he combined it with a couple of other ranches and renamed the entire outfit the Diamond Bar. No one knows what he’s up to,” Earl said, his tone taking on an edge of warning. “But I can tell you his property is shaped like half a donut and the Sun is the hole in the middle.”

After giving Bryce a knowing nod, Earl redirected his gaze to the road just as Doreen’s SUV disappeared below the hill, followed shortly by the white truck.

He turned back to her. “Your uncle had a different vision for The Sun, which I guess he didn’t share. He wanted it to be a model ranch. Healthy land, healthy food. I liked it and we talked about it a great deal, at least until he’d get going on one of his liberal rants about climate change or something and that would be the end of the conversation.” Earl shook his head. “Maybe he thought you’d keep his vision going.”

Bryce was silent for a moment. “Not possible, I’m afraid. Is there anyone else? What about you? You want to buy this place?”

Earl’s eyes widened. “The Sun? Absolutely. But you know what it’s worth. You can’t do that with cattle, not anymore, and cattle’s all I got.”

Doreen’s SUV burst suddenly from the woods. It came to a hard stop next to Earl’s truck in the parking area. It was followed closely by the white truck. The other vehicles appeared in short order, parking smartly. Doors opened and people climbed out, the air thick with competition.

Earl caught Bryce’s eye. He chuckled. “This should be fun.”

Doreen rushed at them wearing a flowing red dress over a plump frame with big, unnaturally dark hair and maybe too much make-up on her round face, Bryce thought. She wore embroidered cowboy boots on her feet, a heavy silver Navajo concho belt around her middle, an ornate silver necklace, and multiple silver bracelets, looking like the model in the airline magazine ad for New Mexico that Bryce had read on the flight out. Her eyes were different, however. They had the hungry look of a carnivore.

“Doctor Miller! My name is Doreen Wainwright, it’s so nice to meet you,” she said in a noticeable southern accent as she thrust a business card into Bryce’s hand. “I tried to give you a call last week.”

“Nice to meet you too. Sorry. I’m hard to reach when I’m working.”

“Such an important job too,” Doreen said unctuously. “Taking care of kids with all those cancers. Must be so fulfilling. My heart goes out to them.”

Her smile vanished. “Hello, Earl,” she said, her voice dripping with disdain.

“Ma’am,” he said, touching his hat.

“How long are you here?” she asked Bryce.

“Until Sunday. It’s my week off.”

“You go surfing normally,” Doreen said. “What fun! You took second place at Waikiki last year in that amateur contest. You would have won too if someone hadn’t hidden your board and caused that time delay. It was probably that brute Manolo. He’s always doing things like that, stretching the rules, probably sleeping with the judges. I did a little research.”

“I guess you did,” Bryce replied, blinking.

Doreen cast an evil eye over at Bill Merrill who had reached them. Bryce noticed he also held a business card in his hand.

“I have the perfect client for you,” Doreen said to her. “His name is Mark Sampson. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps just like you and has an incredible vision for this beautiful ranch.” She glanced at Bill. “And by that I mean real jobs for real families.”

“Real jobs driving golf carts and flipping burgers at the country club, you mean,” Bill said smartly. “Allow me to introduce myself. Bill Merrill.”

He handed Bryce a business card. Alpine Services. Working For Tomorrow Today.

He wore boots, jeans, a big buckle on his belt, a bolo tie around his thick neck, and a white cowboy hat on his head. None of his clothes had a speck of dirt, Bryce noticed. He had an open face, blue eyes that sparkled, and very white teeth. Underneath his cheery exterior, however, was a cockiness that signaled a man used to getting his way.

Bryce turned to Doreen. “Mr. Sampson wants to build a country club here?”

“Just a small one,” Doreen replied. “He’s very community-minded. Children! Lots of them will be living here. Think of the fresh air they’ll have!”

“Ask her how many homes they plan to build,” Bill said.

“Just a hundred,” Doreen said smoothly. “They’ll be done very respectfully. He’s ecologically-minded.”

“That’s just Phase One,” Bill said.

“There’s a Phase Two?” Bryce asked, alarmed.

“He’d rather see a bunch of oil wells,” Doreen snapped, nodding at Bill.

“You’ll hardly know we’re here,” Bill replied.

“Until there’s a spill,” announced Frank McBride, who had arrived. “Or the local water supply becomes contaminated.”

“We have an outstanding safety record, Doctor Miller,” Bill said calmly.

“If you don’t include the accident in Canada that sickened three hundred people,” Frank countered.

“I heard about that accident!” Bryce said, alarmed again.

“That wasn’t us,” Bill said defensively.

“Does it matter?” asked Frank, an edge to his voice.

“We provide good paying jobs,” Bill said smoothly to Bryce.

“We’re building homes for families,” Doreen interjected.

“Full of cats and dogs,” Frank said. “Studies show cats are the number one menace to songbirds. They’re furry murderers.”

“What a terrible thing to say about someone’s pet!” Doreen exclaimed.

Frank shrugged. “At least they keep the coyote population well fed.”

“This is getting good,” Earl said, chuckling.

Frank extended a card. “Frank McBride. Nature Unlimited.” He was tall, thin, tanned, and neatly bearded with intense brown eyes. He wore hiking boots, tidy beige slacks with a belt, and a green, golf shirt with a Nature Unlimited logo on the breast. The neat, dark hair on his head, unprotected by a hat, sported a subtle shine, as if glistened lightly with gel.

“Did you know,” Frank continued, “that The Sun is home to an endangered fish? It’s called the Alameda chub. It looks a little bit like a trout. Unfortunately, its habitat has been reduced ninety-five percent in the grasslands around here, thanks mainly to oil-and-gas development.” He directed a slight nod of his head at Bill.

“So why then does your organization want to put buffalo out here?” Bill replied.

“Won’t they step on the fish?”

“They’re called bison,” replied Frank, sounding as if he’s had this conversation too many times before. “They don’t step on fish.”

“Don’t you environmentalists say cattle step on fish?” Bill countered.

“Some make that claim, yes.” Frank replied tersely.

“I guess buffalo are more careful,” Bill said to Bryce, almost winking.

Earl chuckled again.

“I greatly admire the research work you’re doing with children,” Bill continued, efficiently changing the subject now that he held the stage. “The daughter of a colleague of mine has osteosarcoma, which is one of your specialties if I’m not mistaken. She’s in a clinical trial at the Stimson Hospital in Dallas. I know doctors are waiting for FDA approval of that new drug. I can’t make any promises, but we might be able to help out with that.”

“Did you just try to bribe her?” Frank declared.

“No sir. I’m just trying to help sick kids. We know some people, that’s all.”

Bryce pointed a finger at him. “And I’m going to take you up on that regardless of what happens with the ranch.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bill replied, showing his teeth. “In any case, we would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience.”

“As would I, Doctor Miller,” Frank said. “I was very sorry to hear about your uncle’s passing,” he added. “He and I had many productive conversations about the future of The Sun right up there on the porch.”

“If they were so productive,” snapped Doreen, “why did he will the ranch to her?”

A pained expression crossed Frank’s face. “I also applaud your work,” he said, “and I wanted you know that we’ll have a robust educational program here on the property for children, making sure they get outdoors and enjoy nature…”

“Are you going to teach them how to not get gored by a buffalo?” interrupted Bill.

“Bison,” Frank said, trying not to clench his teeth. “They’ll be perfectly safe.”

“The buffalo or the kids?” Bill said, half-smiling.

“Honey,” Doreen said, touching Bryce on the arm, “don’t you think the world has enough snakes and bunnies?”

“But not enough McMansions for the rich?” Frank shot back.

“And you’d rather see oil wells?” Doreen retorted.

“Of course not,” Frank replied tartly. “They’re foul, evil things.”

“I see. So, what’s in your gas tank over there?” asked Bill, jerking a thumb in the direction of Frank’s car. “Vegetable oil?”

Frank looked uncomfortable again. “We have a robust renewable energy program at our company, Doctor Miller,” Bill continued. “We know where the future is headed.”

“You ought to know, you’re the ones screwing it up,” Doreen interjected.

“Remind me again how many solar panels they’re planning to put on the roof of that country club?” he said to Doreen, showing his teeth.

“None,” she replied curtly. “We’ll have lots of recycling though,” she said to Bryce, holding up a finger. “Mr. Sampson doesn’t like to waste anything.”

“Is that why he wrote all those fraudulent checks,” Frank retorted.

Bryce raised her eyebrows. “Fraudulent checks?”

“Those charges were dropped,” Doreen said quickly. “He had a misunderstanding with a contractor, that’s all.”

“Mark Sampson isn’t even his real name,” Frank said to Bryce.

“It isn’t?” she replied.

“And he’s wanted back in Greece for tax evasion,” Frank added.

“He’s never been convicted of anything,” Doreen said, shooting Frank a deadly look.

“Unlike that Board member of your organization.” She leaned toward Bryce conspiratorially.

“Insider trading on Wall Street. Can you imagine?” she said in mock shock, eyes wide.

Frank grimaced as Bill showed his teeth again.

Earl grinned. “I love it.”

“I understand you’re a jazz fan,” Doreen said to Bryce, leaning in. “I can’t wait to tell you about the music festival Mr. Sampson wants to start.”

“It’ll be held right over there too,” Frank said, pointing at an expanse of grassland.

“Just beyond the shopping mall.”

“Shopping mall?” said Bryce, alarmed once more.

“Boutique shops only,” Doreen reassured her with another friendly pat on the arm.

“They’ll be very tasteful.”

“Only if you think tourists from Texas have any taste,” Frank said.

“And you like your jewelry made in China,” Bill added.

“Tourism provides clean jobs,” Doreen countered. “That’s why we have the support of the Mayor and the town council. We all think it’s the future.”

“I can sum up their vision of the future in two words…” Bill started.

“Healthy living,” Doreen interrupted.

“Fur coats,” Frank cut in.

“Minimum wage,” Bill finished.

Bryce furrowed her brow at all of them, feeling dazed.

“Are you aware, Doctor Miller,” Bill continued, “that this county has one of the highest poverty rates in the whole state? Not to mention a serious drug problem.”

“I didn’t know that,” she replied.

“Not like the clean-and-sober oil industry,” Frank said, rolling his eyes.

“How many people will you be hiring?” Bill asked. “Two or three bird watchers? We’ll be hiring dozens of people,” Bill said to Bryce.

“For just a few months,” Doreen announced. “We call them “thank you ma’am” jobs. Here today, gone tomorrow.” She leaned forward. “Not to mention all the brothels that come to town,” she said confidentially. “Being a doctor you know what that means.”

Bryce opened her mouth to respond.

“Don’t forget the meth labs,” Frank interrupted. “This place is perfect. I bet there’ll be two or three right over there.” He pointed toward the river.

“I see,” said Bill, sounding irritated at last. “We don’t tolerate that of course.”

Doreen leaned toward Bryce, giving her a look. “What’s that new show on TV about the high school chemistry teacher? Isn’t it set in New Mexico?”

Bryce noticed that the fourth person had come up. He stood apart from the others, his hands clasped behind him patiently. He was small and thin with a sallow complexion and pale blue eyes. He was dressed in a dark, generic suit with a red tie and black loafers, looking more like an accountant than…what?

“And you are?” she asked.

“Kevin,” he said pleasantly, nodding his head slightly. “Kevin Malcolm. I represent your neighbor to the north. I’m here to pay my respects as well.”

“Did you know my uncle?”

“I did not.”

Bryce frowned. “Are you a real estate agent?”

“I am not.”

He didn’t unclasp his hands, she noticed. “Do you have a card?” she asked.

“No. We think they’re environmentally wasteful. We’ll contact you.”

Bryce noticed that the other three suitors were scrutinizing Kevin with expressions that ranged from awe to fear. She shot a glance at Earl, but he was squinting at the oddlooking man as well.

“Do you live in Alameda?” she asked Kevin.

“I do not.”

Bryce waited for him to say something more, but he just stood there silently, hands still clasped behind him.

“How did you know I was here?” she asked.

A shadow of unease crossed Kevin’s face. “How did they know?” he said, nodding at the other three, each of whom looked away.

Bryce sighed at him. “What’s your vision for The Sun?”

“It’s confidential,” he replied coolly. “The owner will be here later this week. He would like to talk privately with you.”

“The Big Kahuna himself?” Earl said, impressed. “This is getting serious.”

“Alright,” Bryce said with an impatient nod. “I’m happy to meet with him. Do you want my phone number?”

“We already have it,” Kevin replied.

“You do?” she said, astonished.

“And they’ve probably read every email you’ve ever written,” Frank said darkly.

“Not to mention every web site you’ve visited.”

Kevin shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s not allowed, as you know.”

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Bryce said, not sounding reassured at all.

She noticed that the looks of awe and fear had returned to the faces of the other suitors. Was it just his boss’s money or did the odd man in the red tie represent some sort of threat? When no one broke the silence, Bryce stuffed the business cards she had been holding into her vest and pulled her phone from the other pocket.

She needed this to be over.

“I have to call the foreman. Nice to meet everyone,” she said in her best doctorly voice. “Thank you for driving out. I’ll call you tomorrow to set up appointments. Mr. Nib…” She caught herself. “Mr. Malcolm. Call me when you’re ready.”

Bryce turned around to indicate that the meeting was over, feeling for a moment like she was back in the hospital. She punched the foreman’s number and lifted the phone to her ear. She glanced over her shoulder. The suitors were heading back to their vehicles.

She caught Earl’s eye. “Those are my choices?” she whispered.

“Afraid so.”

She tilted a chin at Kevin’s back. “Do you think he really has my phone number?”

“Yes, I do,” Earl replied ominously.

The message machine came on again. “Hi, this is Matt…” She could hear car doors slamming behind her. She waited impatiently for the message to finish, drumming her fingers against her thigh. There was a beep.

“Mister Harris?” she said into the phone. “It’s Bryce. It’s about four. I’m up at my uncle’s house, standing here with Mr. Holcombe.” She paused as a car honked angrily in the parking area. “We’re just wondering where you are. I hope everything is alright. Give me a call as soon as you can.”

She hung up and tapped the phone thoughtfully against her palm. Where was the foreman? Missing? It felt that way. In seventh grade, a classmate of hers disappeared one morning while walking to school. The teachers thought she had stayed home sick while her mom thought she was safe in class. It was lunch before an alarm was raised and general panic set in. Police arrived. Fortunately, the girl was quickly discovered at a local video arcade eagerly neglecting her education.

Bryce’s thoughts were interrupted by another honk of a horn as the cars jockeyed to leave the parking area.

“Does the foreman smoke?” she said suddenly.

“Cigarettes?” Earl replied, watching the cars leave. “Not that I saw.”

“There was a pile of butts outside his back door. There was a dog too.”

Earl turned his head sharply to her. “What dog?”

“In the back of the silver truck,” she replied. “Collie, I’m pretty sure. Black-andwhite?”

“That’s Matt’s dog,” he said, now alarmed.

“Is that a problem?”

“That dog never leaves his side. Something’s wrong.”