Darby Graham thinks she’s on a much-needed vacation in remote Idaho to relax. But before she even arrives at the ranch, an earthquake strikes—her first clue that something is amiss. Then when a cabin on the edge of town is engulfed in flames and problems at the ranch escalate, Darby finds herself immersed in a chilling mystery.
A serial arsonist sends taunting letters to the press after each fire. As a forensic linguist, this is Darby’s area of expertise . . . but the scars it’s caused her also the reason she’s trying to escape from her life.
As the shadows continue to move in, the pieces of the town around her come into sharper focus. Can she trust the one man who sees her clearly?
Targhee Falls, Idaho
“Why are those dogs barking?” I pointed across the wooden picnic table toward two obviously upset canines yelping nearby.
A man staring at a clipboard didn’t look up. “They’re dogs. That’s what they do. Are you Darby Graham?”
The man checked something on his clipboard. “Good. You’re all here.” He had to speak up to be heard over the commotion.
Before I could ask about the dogs again, he turned and strolled toward the nearby general store.
Although the man seemed unmoved by the dogs’ distress, the other people seated around me on Adirondack chairs or at picnic tables had stopped speaking to each other and were staring. The dogs—a black Lab cross with hound-length ears, and a huge Great Dane mix—both had their tails tucked between their legs and were howling.
The picnic table trembled.
I lifted my hands off the rough pine surface but could still feel the movement under my body. A flock of birds burst from the treetops. Pinecones dropped to the ground from the towering ponderosas.
I was seated near the general store, just below a plate-glass window. The glass rippled, then rattled.
Heart thudding, I dove under the table. The ground rolled under me like ocean waves. A low rumbling was followed by car alarms going off from the parking lot on the other side of the store.
The black Lab flew under the table and landed in my lap. I wrapped my arms around the quivering dog, feeling the prominent bones of her spine and rib cage. “It’s okay there, girl. You’re safe. Your big buddy isn’t so scared—”
The second quaking dog joined us, his large body pressing against my back.
The earthquake ended.
“All over.” I reached around and scratched the Dane’s chest, feeling more bones. Didn’t anyone ever feed these dogs?
Both dogs seemed content to stay put, but the weight of the Lab—even though she was too thin—was still more than my leg was used to and it was rapidly going to sleep. “Come on, sweet girl, time to get up,” I whispered.
Both dogs took the hint.
On the other hand, here under the table seemed a nice place to stay. Tucked into the shadows, I didn’t need to worry about anyone staring at me. I had room to stretch out and could smell the cut grass. I’d be prepared should another earthquake come. And my assignment was to maintain a low profile. Sitting on the ground under a table seemed to be as low profile as I could get.
Two legs appeared next to me. “Miss Graham?”
Flapperdoodle. Mr. Clipboard found me.
I crawled between the bench and table, sliding onto the seat, then glanced around. Several other people had taken similar action. Only Clipboard had noticed my reluctance to leave my hiding place.
One by one, the car alarms stopped. The slight breeze stirred the fragrance of fallen pine needles.
Mr. Clipboard stared at me for a moment, then turned toward the others. He was holding a number of fabric bags imprinted with Mule Shoe Ranch. “Don’t be worried, folks. The town of Targhee Falls is less than fifteen miles from Yellowstone. The national park routinely has between one and three thousand quakes a year—”
“Excuse me, but I’ve heard most of those quakes aren’t noticeable,” a gray-haired woman in a denim shirt said.
“Obviously some are.” The man gave her a rueful half smile and started handing out the bags after checking the attached name tags. “I’m Sam, owner of the general store over there.” He nodded toward the building featuring a two-story false front and wooden sidewalk. The peeling sign said Sam’s Mercantile. “I provide Mule Shoe with transportation, supplies, and assistance during team-building exercises. Inside these bags you’ll find a great deal of information about your stay at the ranch. The owner, Roy Zaring, wanted you to have these while you’re waiting for your transportation—”
“When will that be?” asked a handsome teen with flawless olive skin and a thick lock of black hair. “I’m not getting any cell service here.” He held up his phone. An impeccably dressed man and woman sitting at the same table gave each other sideways glances.
Sam finished handing out the bags, turned, and looked at the youth. “Those your folks?” His gaze flickered to the two people sitting with the young man.
“And I’m guessing your mom? Dad? Both? Told you they were here to take a team-building—”
“A five-day art class in the wilds of Idaho, right?”
“Son, the Mule Shoe Dude Ranch is a primitive facility. No Wi-Fi. No cell reception. No television, radio . . . no electricity. You’ll have a cabin with a fireplace, a composting toilet, and a lantern at night.”
The color drained from the young man’s face. “What?” he whispered.
“That reminds me,” Sam said. “I’ll collect your cell phones and will keep them here and charged for when you return.”
I reached into my purse, took out my phone, and placed it on the table for Sam to collect. Whose brilliant idea was it to send me on assignment to a primitive facility when they know I need my computer and electricity? And five days with all these strangers? I wouldn’t even need to unpack.
“Don’t worry.” An attractive older woman sitting on a wooden Adirondack chair grinned at the boy. “There’s plenty of hot water for showers, courtesy of the natural geothermal environment. The water’s gravity fed and the food is world-class.” She looked around at all of us. “I’ve had an interest in the Mule Shoe and was here last summer, although I have to admit, I prefer to visit this time of year. Late September is perfect. You all are going to love it.”
The young man’s lips compressed into a thin line, and he seemed loath to let go of his cell. Sam kept tugging the phone until the youth relinquished it. “But what is there to do?” he asked no one in particular.
“Most of us are here for the art lessons.” Denim Shirt reached into her bag, pulled out a piece of paper, and held it up. “Listen.” She read from it. “‘You’ll find trail rides, fishing, canoeing, gold panning, mineral collecting, archery, photography, hiking, campfires, swimming—’”
“That’s what I mean.” The young man ran his hand through his hair. “There’s nothing to do.”
I tugged out the same brochure. Welcome, honored guests. We look forward to serving you during your stay with us. Your experiences here will be unforgettable for all the right reasons! You should bring to Mule Shoe your mindset for success.
Yeah, right. I’d like to set my mind on getting in, getting done, and getting home. “Sam, you mentioned transportation . . .”
“Horse and wagon.”
I was afraid of that. “Do you have a regular timetable?”
This time Sam actually focused on me. “No. The horse and wagon are available on an as-needed basis, mostly to transport new groups and supplies.”
From bad to worse. I was stuck. Now would be a good time to find a bathroom. Riding a bumpy, horse-drawn wagon would be uncomfortable enough without a full bladder. Besides, if I left now, no one would notice my slight limp. I normally wanted to be invisible, to disappear into a crowd. When Scott Thomas, my counselor, told me not to stand out, to blend in, he didn’t have to say it twice. Your final assignment before leaving us here in Clan Firinn is to check out Mule Shoe Ranch. We’ve heard rumblings that something’s not right. You’ll be registered as a guest. I’ll tell you more once you get there.
I was irritated at being sent out like this with no idea of what was expected. I now know why. Had I known I wouldn’t be able to use my computer programs or the internet, I would have put my foot down. I was fortunate to have a good memory for words.
I’d heard through the Clan Firinn grapevine that those getting ready to leave—“graduate” as they called it—would have a project that would test their progress toward wholeness. I figured they’d find out soon enough that I wasn’t ready to leave.
I rose, picked up my purse, and made my way to the general store. A cowbell jangled as I entered. “‘I got a fever,’” I muttered. “‘And the only prescription is more cowbell.’” The line made me smile. Why worry about earthquakes, lack of electricity, and the inability to do my work when the world needed more cowbell?
“What?” A young, freckle-faced woman with a smear of dirt on her nose stopped replacing items on the shelf.
“Iconic Saturday Night Live line—more cowbell?”
“Never mind.” The interior had old oak floors, a tin ceiling, and a long counter with a glass display case. The sun through the window spotlighted twirling dust motes. Various cans still littered the floor, courtesy of the earthquake.
“Just let me know if ya need something.”
“I think we’re sold out.”
“John? Head? Loo? Restroom?”
“Toilet?” She nodded to her right.
Fortunately, the primitive conditions did not include the store bathroom. Returning to the store, I picked up a can of soup that had rolled near me. “Do you know anything about those two dogs?” I handed her the can.
“Why are ya asking?” The woman placed it on the shelf.
“They just seem thin, that’s all.”
“Yeah, well.” She adjusted the display. “Sam’s been feeding ’em, but that’s gonna stop.”
My neck tingled. “I don’t understand.” I gave her a steady gaze.
She paused her work and looked around. We were alone in the store, but she dropped her voice to just above a whisper. “He’s just waitin’ for all of you to leave to the ranch.”
The tingling grew to an itch. My years of training as a forensic linguist kicked in, even though I was rusty. I grew very still and waited, listening for more clues in her language.
She gave up straightening the cans. “It’s like this: The dogs were owned by an old lady. I bet she was, like, at least forty.”
“Positively ancient. One foot in the grave.” I gave her a slight smile.
“Right. Her name was Shadow Woman. That’s what everyone called her. Well, that’s the nice name anyway. She was, like, a hermit, but a pretty good artist.” She jerked her thumb at a drawing on the wall behind the cash register.
Were owned, was. Past tense. I widened my smile to encourage her. “Why did everyone call her Shadow Woman?”
The clerk gnawed on a hangnail for a moment. “I guess ’cause she was weird, ya know, like she lived in the shadows. Creepy. Always showed up here at the store at dusk or when it was dark. Sam said she could sneak right up next to you in the shadows and you’d never see her. And her face was weird.”
“Like, really weird.”
“Ah, that clarifies it. Where did she come from?”
“Sam said she ran away from a group home near Smelterville.”
“I can’t imagine why.”
“Right, you know? No one wanted her. Anyway, she owned Holly—that’s the Lab mix—and Maverick, the Anna-toolian sheepdog.”
“Anatolian? From Anatolia in Asia Minor?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
“Of course. I thought the big dog was half Great Dane, half mastiff.”
“Nope. Sam looked it up. Anna-whatevers are super-expensive livestock guard dogs from Turkey or France, I forget which.”
“They are such similar countries,” I murmured.
“Right. So anyway, Sam was surprised that Shadow Woman had one.”
Sam looked it up. Looking for value? Surprised that Shadow Woman had one. Not just a hermit but poor? Broke? “I see.” I leaned slightly against the shelving unit. “You mentioned Shadow . . .”
“Right. Um . . . so Shadow Woman came to town like once a month with her mule, like I said, always after sunset, and bought stuff, like Spam. She’d usually pay her bill about every other month. The dogs always came with her. Six months ago, you know, she stopped coming.”
“Let me guess. She owed Sam a lot of money.”
“Right. Boy-howdy was he steamed about it. Then he, you know, got a check and note from the old woman to pay her bill, but the check bounced higher than a buckin’ bronco.”
“Did anyone follow up, call the police?”
“Not right away ’cause the dogs moved in, first Holly, then Maverick. So, you know, Sam started to feed them. And . . . I think someone changed his mind on what to do with the dogs.”
Cluster of you knows. Sensitive topic. I kept my gaze on her and nodded again.
She glanced down and plucked a piece of lint from her sleeve. “Sam always said he’d get his pound of flesh from her, whatever that means.”
“I’m sure it originated in Turkey or France.”
“Right. Foreign-like. Um . . . Sam finally got close enough to Maverick to see he’d been spayed.”
“Never mind.” A neutered dog was of zero value, and Sam stopped feeding them. I made an effort to unclench my hands. “How have the dogs survived?”
“You know, folks around town feel sorry for them . . .”
The cowbell jangled.
The clerk straightened and glanced in that direction. Her cheeks flamed and her tongue flickered out to moisten her lips.
A sheriff’s deputy charged to the bathroom, disappeared for a few moments, then reappeared and sauntered toward us, replacing fallen items on the shelves. His ordinary brown hair was the only average thing about him. He was otherwise a walking modern-day Adonis, his face chiseled by a master carver. He finally looked up and smiled at the clerk, exposing more teeth than the Osmond family, and seemed to enjoy her reaction to his arrival.
My hand automatically reached to fluff my hair. I stopped and squared my oversized glasses instead.
He looked at me, his eyes widening. “Hello there. I’m Bram White.”
“Leaving,” the clerk said. “Goin’ to Mule Shoe. She’s a guest.”
“Darby Graham.” I glanced at his holstered pistol, then out the window at the two dogs lying under a tree. Check bounced. Sam’s been feeding ’em, but that’s gonna stop. Pound of flesh.
Deputy Bram glanced at his watch.
My neck was crawling with reasons to scratch it.
“Can I get you a Coke or somethin’?” she asked me. “It shouldn’t be long.” The clerk moved toward an ancient cooler. “I’d bet the wagon got slowed down by the earthquake.”
The two dogs began barking.
“See? I told ya. Betcha that’s the wagon now.” The clerk moved toward the front of the store, brushing past Bram. “Excuse me,” she said. At the window, she glanced out, then looked at the officer. “Yep. The wagon’s here.” Without taking her eyes from Bram, she said to me, “You can go now.”
Sam stuck his head in the door. “Miss Graham? Time to leave.” He spotted Bram and gave the man a quick nod.
I gave in and scratched my neck. This was none of my business. No need to get involved. No reason to draw attention to myself. Low profile. Right. I straightened. “I think I’ll wait here. Catch the next wagon.” The words came out without my thinking, but they seemed right.
Sam moved into the store. “I’m sorry, Miss Graham, there won’t be a next wagon. It’s quite a distance to the ranch and it’s getting late. You’ll need to leave now.” He wiped his hands on his slacks, glanced at the clerk, then at the deputy.
The itch was now a full-scale conviction. “Your clerk here—”
“Julia?” Sam glared at the clerk.
“Was telling me about Shadow Woman. And her dogs.”
Bram folded his arms.
Sam opened the door behind him and waved for me to exit. “Miss Graham, I really see that as none of your business.”
Go now. Run. You have nothing to offer. Well . . . almost nothing. I slowly walked over to the counter. “I know Shadow Woman’s check bounced. How much money did she owe you? And how much to cover all the dog food?” I opened my purse.
“How many times have I warned you to keep your piehole shut!” Sam said to Julia.
“I didn’t say nothin’!” Julia crossed her arms. “She figured it out on her own.”
Sam closed the door and approached me, both hands held out as if to show goodwill. “I don’t know what it is that you figured out, Miss Graham, but—”
“Please don’t try lying to me, Sam.” I pulled out my checkbook. “You figured the Anatolian dog would pay Shadow Woman’s bill, but when you saw he was neutered, he had no more value to you. The minute I leave, you’re going to have Deputy White here shoot both dogs. Your pound of flesh.” I stared into his eyes. “I intend to stop you.”
Excerpt from Woman in Shadow by Carrie Stuart Parks. Copyright 2021 by Carrie Stuart Parks. Reproduced with permission from Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved.
Carrie Stuart Parks is a Christy, multiple Carol, and Inspy Award–winning author. She was a 2019 finalist in the Daphne du Maurier Award for excellence in mainstream mystery/suspense and has won numerous awards for her fine art as well. An internationally known forensic artist, she travels with her husband, Rick, across the US and Canada teaching courses in forensic art to law-enforcement professionals. The author/illustrator of numerous books on drawing and painting, Carrie continues to create dramatic watercolors from her studio in the mountains of Idaho.