MacKenzie's Magic (Chapter 6)

The most frightening thing was that it was so damn easy to imagine it all. The only thing that frightened aim more was the thought that it might not happen, that he was actually using her in a setup where she could be hurt, despite all the pains he was taking to keep her safe.

They left the cover of the woods, and he eased the truck across the rutted ditch and onto the highway. No headlights appeared in either direction. Fat snow-flakes swirled and danced in the beams of their own headlights, and the low clouds blocked any hint of the approaching dawn. The radio remained silent, meaning Dean hadn't seen anything suspicious. After several minutes the lights of the motel sign came into view, and a few seconds after that they passed the Oldsmobile, pulled off on the side of the road and were facing back the way they'd come. It looked unoccupied, but Mac knew Dean was there, watching everything. No vehicle could approach the motel without being seen.

He pulled into the parking lot and backed into a slot, so that she could get out faster. He left the engine running, though he killed the lights. He turned to face her. "You know what to do. Do exactly that and nothing else. Understand?" "Yes."

"All right. I'm going to get into the back of the truck now. If the fools start shooting early, hit the floorboards and stay there."

"Yes, sir," she said, this time with a hint of dryness. He paused with his hand on the door handle. He looked at her and muttered something under his breath. Then she was in his arms again, and his mouth was hard, urgent, as he kissed her. He let her go as abruptly as he'd grabbed her, and got out of the truck. Without another word, he closed the door, then vaulted lightly into the truck bed, where he lay down out of sight and waited for a killer to appear. Chapter Eight

The motel was located where a small side road entered the main highway. The highway ran in front of the motel, the secondary road along the right side. Dean had checked out the little road as soon as he arrived and found that it wandered aimlessly through the rural area. No one looking for them was likely to arrive by that route, because it went nowhere and took its time getting there. The Stonichers and/or their hired killer would be on the highway, checking motels, following the faint but deliberate trail Mac had left. The plan was for Maris to let their pursuers catch a glimpse of her as she drove around the back of the motel and onto the secondary road. She would turn left, then right, onto the highway. They would notice immediately that she wasn't pulling the horse trailer, so instead of trying to cut her off, they would hang back and follow her, expecting her to lead them to Sole Pleasure.

At least Mac hoped that was how it worked. If Yu was the only one following them, that was how it would go down. Yu was a professional; he would keep his head. If anyone else was with him, the unpredictability factor shot sky-high.

It was cold in the back of the truck. He had forgotten to get any blankets to cover himself, and the snow was still falling. Mac huddled deeper into his coat and tried to be thankful he was out of the wind. It wasn't working.

The minutes dragged by, drawn out agonizingly by his tension as he waited. Dawn finally began to penetrate the cloud cover, the darkness fading to a deep gray, though true daylight was at least an hour away. Traffic would begin picking up soon, making it difficult for Dean to spot their tail. People would begin leaving the motel, complicating the traffic pattern even more. And better light would make it more difficult for Maris to hide in the woods. "Come on, come on," he muttered. Had he made the trail too difficult?

Right on cue, the radio clicked. Mac keyed it once in reply, then gave a single rap on the back of the cab to alert Maris, who had shifted into position behind the wheel.

The radio clicked again, twice this time. Quickly he rapped twice on the cab. Maris put the truck into gear and eased out of the parking slot. She was turning the corner behind the motel when headlights flashed across the cab as a vehicle pulled into the lot, and Mac knew the lure had been cast. In a few seconds they would know if the bait had been taken.

Maris kept the truck at an even pace. Her instinct was to hurry, but she didn't want whoever was following them to know they'd been spotted. The car hadn't turned the corner behind them by the time she pulled onto the secondary road, so if it was them, they were hanging back, not wanting her to spot them.

She stopped at the stop sign, then turned right onto the highway. Watching her rearview mirror as she turned, she saw the car easing out from behind the motel. Its lights were off now, and its gray color made it difficult to spot in the faint light; she wouldn't have noticed it at all if she hadn't been looking for it.

They were driving Ronald's gray Cadillac. Maris had only seen it once or twice, because she usually dealt with Joan, who drove a white BMW. The driveway wasn't visible from the stables, and she seldom paid attention to the comings and goings at the big house. All that interested her was at the stables.

Still, she wondered that they would drive one of their personal cars at all, until she realized that it didn't matter. Sole Pleasure was their horse, and no crime had been committed. If she had called the police, it would have been their word against hers that a crime had even been attempted, and no one in the world would believe the Stonichers were willing to kill a horse worth over twenty million dollars.

Dean's Oldsmobile was nowhere in sight. Maris hoped she was giving him the time he needed to drive the car deep enough into the woods that it couldn't be seen and to work his way into position on foot.

Watching the mirror, she saw the Cadillac turn onto the highway behind her. Without its headlights on, and with the swirling snow cutting visibility, she could barely make out the gray bulk. They would be able to see her much better than she could see them, though, because her lights were on; that was why they were hanging back so far, because they were unable to judge how visible they themselves were.

Their caution was working for her and against them. The distance would give her a few extra seconds to get out of the truck and hide, a few seconds longer for Dean to get set, a few seconds longer that Mac was safe. She tried not to think of him lying on the cold metal bed, unprotected from any stray bullets except by a thin sheet of metal that wouldn't even slow down a lead slug.

It was only a few miles to the place where she would leave the road and drive into the woods. A couple of times the snow became so heavy that she couldn't sec the Cadillac behind her. The white flakes were beginning to dust the ground, but it was a dry, fluffy snow that swirled up with every breath of wind, and the passage of the truck blew it off the highway.

She maintained a steady speed, assuming they could see her, even though she couldn't see the Cadillac. She couldn't do anything that would make them suspicious. Finally she passed the mile marker that told her she was close, and she began braking, looking for the tire ruts where they'd driven before. There. She steered the truck off the highway, bouncing across the ditch faster than, for the sake of her head, she wanted to, but she didn't want to go any slower than she already was. Now that they had seen her leave the highway, she wanted to go as fast as she could, to gain a few more of those precious seconds.

Her headache, which had lessened but never disappeared, increased in severity with each bounce. She ignored it, gritting her teeth against the pain, concentrating on steering the truck on the narrow, winding path MacNeil had already blazed through the trees. She couldn't begin to imagine how difficult it must have been to do this with the trailer in tow, but it was a testament to both his stubbornness and skill that he had.

The Cadillac wouldn't be able to take the bumps and holes as fast as the truck did; it was too low to the ground. More seconds gained.

A bare limb scraped over the windshield, then her headlights caught the dark bulk of the trailer, almost concealed among the trees. Now. She parked the truck in the exact position MacNeil had decreed, killed the lights so the glare wouldn't blind the camera hidden under the trailer, then slipped out the door and walked swiftly to the trailer and then beyond it. She cut sharply to the left, stepping in places where the snow hadn't sifted down. She left no tracks as she removed herself from the scene so he could do his job without worrying about her.

She'd caught movement in her peripheral vision as she walked away, a big, dark shape silently rolling over the side of the truck bed to conceal himself behind one of the tires. At least he would have some protection, she thought, trying to console herself with that. His mind might be easier now, but hers certainly wasn't. He needed the vest she was wearing; she would never forgive herself if he was killed because she'd agreed to take his vest. It would have been better to remove herself entirely, even if it meant they wouldn't be able to get any solid evidence against the Stonichers. The FBI would get another crack at Randy Yu, but she would never find another MacNeil.

She'd gone far enough. She stopped, her back against a big oak. Snowflakes drifted silently down in the gray dawn, settling in a lacy cap on her unprotected head. She leaned her aching head against the tree and closed her eyes, listening, waiting, her breath almost halted, her heart barely beating, waiting.

Mac waited, his eyes never leaving the rutted trail. They might drive right up to the truck, but if Yu was in charge, they would probably get out of the car and come the rest of the way on foot. He and Dean were prepared for both circumstances. The underbrush was thick; if they tried to force their way through it, they would make a lot of noise. The best thing to do was to walk up the trail, staying close to the edges. Maris had parked the truck so that they could bypass it only on the driver's side; the tailgate on the passenger side was right up against the bushes. Anyone coming along that trail would be funneled into the camera's view and duly recorded on tape.

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¡Xnow." 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 ear splitting. 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 Nine 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.