he said, “I don’t have much experience with wildlife. Why don’t you give me a rundown on mountain lion behavior?” He cast a speculative glance her direction. “If you’re up to it.”

“Lions are notoriously shy. Usually they avoid humans at all costs.”

“What about a mother protecting cubs?”

“It’s a possibility,” she admitted. “Bears will, but they tend to be more aggressive. They also like people food, which leads them into populated areas. A transient lion might skirt past suburban neighborhoods and go after livestock, even a family pet. Lions prefer deer, but if they get hungry enough, they will eat almost any prey that becomes available.”

“Including humans?”

She hesitated. “Yes. In the cases I’ve studied, I believe hunger was the motivation for the attack.” Her eyes met his. “Again, this is an extremely rare situation. Only five or six fatal incidents have occurred in California over the past two hundred years.” Her tone was defensive. “Dog attacks are far more frequent.”

Luke was sure what he’d seen couldn’t have been done by a dog, but he didn’t say that. He was also pleasantly surprised that she seemed to know her stuff, but he didn’t comment on that, either. “Are there bears around here?”

“No. A black bear could wander this far, in theory, but I’ve never seen bear sign, and I’ve hiked every inch of this wilderness.”

He fell into silence as they rounded the next bend, hoping he hadn’t imagined the flinty determination in her eyes when she spoke of her responsibility to the land. She’d need it, along with nerves of steel and a cast-iron stomach, when she saw what lay ahead.


He brought her to the Graveyard.

It was a flat stretch of land, grassy and desolate, broken up by a single oak tree and a congregation of large, slate-colored rocks. They looked more like the humped backs of whales than headstones, and as far as Shay knew, no one had ever been buried here. Rumor had it the place was haunted by the spirits of dead Indians, and that it had been an execution site where horse thieves were hung. Teenagers called it the Graveyard because they’d been gathering here to tell ghost stories, and to mourn their losses, for decades.

Whenever a local kid got killed doing something stupid like drunk driving (which happened with alarming frequency around these parts) his friends got together at the Graveyard to have a party in his honor. Some came to grieve, some to drink, some to socialize. It was a popular hangout even when no one had died. High school boys flocked to the location, hoping a spooky setting and a bonfire would encourage their girlfriends to get cozy.

More than just memories had been laid to rest here.

Shay didn’t believe any of the old stories, but she had to admit she’d been caught up in the ambience once or twice. Before she left for college, she’d given her virginity to Jesse Ryan beneath the hanging tree on a hot summer night.

She closed her tired eyes, picturing Jesse’s face in her mind, wishing he’d been a little less handsome and a lot more sincere. Together they’d burned fast and bright, an old flame that rekindled from time to time, especially when she was feeling weak or self-destructive.

If there was anything positive about the morning so far, Shay thought, it was that she hadn’t woken up in bed with Jesse.

She opened her eyes to see a lone officer at the side of the road. He was standing guard next to his police cruiser, his barrel chest all puffed up with importance. Shay had known Garrett Snell since they were kids. He was a bully and a blowhard and she didn’t envy Luke Meza for having him as his only deputy.

Luke parked beside Garrett’s cruiser, got out of the vehicle, and started off toward the Graveyard. She had to hurry to keep up with his long-legged stride, an experience she was not accustomed to. When he stopped suddenly, she almost crashed into his back.

“Just look,” Luke said, holding up one hand. “Don’t touch anything. Watch where you step. And don’t talk until you’re finished.”

Feeling peevish, she stared back at him in silence.

“Do you understand?”

“Of course. I’m hungover, not stupid.”

A ghost of a smile touched his lips. Then it was gone, as if she’d imagined it, and he took her by the elbow, walking her toward the circle of stones like a suitor leading a debutante. When she saw what was beyond the rock border, she was thankful for his support.

At first glance, the woman on the ground resembled a sleeping child curled up on one side. She was slim and small of stature, barely five feet tall, but the lines on her face and curves of her body showed her true age.

Shay recognized her, and like most of Tenaja’s residents, she knew the woman hadn’t been a child for quite some time. They weren’t friends, and they never would have been, but that didn’t make her any easier to look at.

Her long dark hair was matted with blood, partially obscuring the fatal wound on the nape of her neck. Mountain lions often attacked from behind, severing the spine, and she hadn’t been spared this indignity. Deep scratches covered her hands, her shoulders, her exposed arms, her face. She’d fought. Her clothing hung in blood- soaked tatters from her petite frame. Flies and ants swarmed around her, lighting in and out of her open mouth.

Shay grimaced, covering her eyes with one hand and turning away from the gruesome sight. Her cheek met the hard wall of Luke’s chest, and even in her tumultuous state she noticed how rigid he held himself.

To Shay’s surprise, her response to the corpse was more emotional than physical. Her headache was still there, like a dull roar, and she was sicker than ever, but what she was most aware of wasn’t her own discomfort or Luke’s chest or even the woman lying dead before her. For a fleeting moment, the present receded, and she was sixteen again, standing in the barn behind the house, catching her first glimpse of death.

Gasping, she banished the image, relegating it to the dark, faraway corner of her mind where it belonged. Then she was staring up at Luke Meza, not the rafters in the barn, and he was gripping her upper arms as if he thought she might faint.

She risked another glance at the victim. This time, her brain worked to compartmentalize the elements of her reaction. Fear and horror went into one box, empathy into another, allowing her to analyze the subject with clinical detachment.

This was not a woman. It was a kill. Lion sign. Nothing more, nothing less.

“Okay now?” he asked, sensing a change in her demeanor.


When he released her, she gave the remains a closer study, measuring the size of the tooth marks with her eyes, noting the distance between the scratch lines. A part of her was proud of her composure, another ashamed of her inability to feel.

Remembering his instructions, she took a step back and considered her surroundings. There was no question that a lion, and a large one, probably a male, was responsible for this attack. But what had he been doing here, of all places?

The Graveyard looked the same as always. Low-lying rocks, the perfect height for lounging, were evenly spaced around the smoldering embers of last night’s bonfire. Crushed aluminum cans and cigarette butts littered the soft dirt. In the close, quiet distance, grass-covered hills swayed with the gentle morning breeze.

Saying nothing, she examined the ground near the body. Her brow furrowed in concentration as she walked in a wide circle around the site, searching for any other evidence of the lion’s presence.

“Well?” Luke asked when she returned to his side.

“It was a lion.”


“He wasn’t here.”

Although her words didn’t make any sense, he acted like they did. “How do you know?”

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