UNDERCOVER SCOUT #3

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Apache Protectors: Wolf Den

Can she trust him with her case…

And with her life?


Despite clues pointing tribal police detective Ava Hood to one suspect, her instincts scream that Kee Redhorse isn’t involved. She’s deeply attracted to the Apache physician, but she can’t let those feelings hinder her case. With the clock ticking, and Kee willing to help find the missing girls, Ava will use him. Her career, multiple lives and perhaps even her heart are now on the line.

 


Excerpt from UNDERCOVER SCOUT - Apache Protectors: Wolf Den

CHAPTER ONE

Detective Ava Hood watched her prime suspect, Dr. Kee Redhorse, through her field glasses and scowled. You couldn’t tell about a person by looking. Dr. Redhorse was a great example of that. Charming, well liked by his tribe, above reproach and the very last person you would suspect. But as it turned out, Ava suspected everyone. And no one was this squeaky clean.

Redhorse was a trusted member of the Turquoise Canyon people. A physician, newly board certified and quite possibly a monster.

She sat in her Chevy Malibu, parked nose out, between the battered yellow bulldozer that created the temporary road and a ten-foot pile of gravel.  From her position she could see the FEMA housing trailers that included her sister's and the one assigned to Dr. Richard Day and Dr. Kee Redhorse.  She noted in her log that Kee left his assigned FEMA trailer on Sunday to go for a walk at 8:08 a.m. October 15.

Ava didn’t trust the tribal police on this rez mostly because Dr. Redhorse had a brother on the force, Jake Redhorse. Plenty of opportunities to look the other way. She knew if she wanted to get to the bottom of her investigation she had to do it herself and she didn’t have time for official channels. She accepted the potential risks and didn’t care for the cost. State evidence be damned. Justice would be served, one way or another.

Her niece was missing—quite possibly a victim of the series of kidnappings that had recently hit the reservation.

All young women. All to be used as surrogates in a baby trafficking ring run by the Russian mob.

And all of them patients at the clinic shortly before their disappearance.

She adjusted her field glasses in her hands and studied her subject. Redhorse was dressed in faded jeans, a college T-shirt over which he yanked a well-worn, gray hooded sweatshirt as he descended the steps. He looked more approachable in casual clothing, losing some of that air of professionalism that clung to him during his shifts at the tribe’s clinic. She tried to ignore the way the clothing hung on his perfect frame and failed.

“No one is that perfect, Ava,” she muttered to herself. She knew that much.

Today, he wore scratched and scuffed Timberland boots and a ball cap. He was the sort of man that you noticed right off because of his easy smile and dark, intelligent eyes. Ava noticed him because she thought he was guilty. And if she reacted to him as a man, well, she would ignore it.

How much had he gotten away with in his life because of his good looks and natural appeal? She hated charmers because that was how her grandmother described Ava’s father—the father she had never known. A real charmer.

She had been watching both doctors from the reservation clinic, Hector Hauser and Kee Redhorse, since last Saturday night. She'd come the minute she'd heard from Sara that one of the missing girls, Kacey Doka, had reappeared after escaping her captors.  She'd hoped to speak to Kacey but she and Colt Redhorse had vanished four days ago and she had suspected the Justice Department had them. She'd taken a leave of absence from her own tribe’s police force, the Saguaro Flats Apache. She only had a few weeks left in the position. She’d already accepted a new job here on the Turquoise Canyon police force, but the job didn’t start until the first of November. That was too long to wait to start her investigation. Time was of the essence and she had to start ASAP. Every good cop knew a missing person’s trail got significantly colder after the first forty-eight hours. Her sixteen-year-old niece Louisa had been gone longer than that.

No, she couldn’t trust the Turquoise Canyon tribal force to handle the investigation on their own—especially if one of their officers was blocking evidence.

As far as her force knew, she was here only to comfort her sister, Sara, and help Sara out with her daughters, which was true. But they didn’t know she also planned to track down  Louisa. That she’d do so alone just made sense. No one else to endanger or to let her down.

Ava had managed to break into both Redhorse’s and Hauser’s temporary FEMA trailers and install a tracking program on their personal computers. The simple program gave her access to their bank records, email, calendars, browser history and social media accounts. She’d done criminal record checks on each and all their closest associates. The only hit was Kee Redhorse’s father, Colton, who was serving a sentence in federal prison for armed robbery. And his brother, Ty, who had a juvie record, which was closed. Ava wondered about that one since the dates corresponded exactly to Colton Redhorse’s  last heist. Even though there had been no other convictions, Ty was currently under investigation by tribal police for kidnapping Kacey Doka—the girlfriend of his youngest brother, Colt. Not enough evidence had been found to tag him to the crime yet, but there was still a big question mark over his head.

And Colt? His record was clean. After Kacey had escaped her captors and fingered Ty as the driver.  Sara had confirmed that Kacey and Colt had entered witness protection until the crime ring could be stopped.

“Something that’s taking too long in my book,” Ava muttered to herself.

Today was day eight of her investigation and she was running out of time. Soon she’d have to ask for help, return home or resign her job and stay. She thought about resigning from Saguaro Flats force altogether before coming here to Turquoise Canyon, but there were perks to being a cop—even one on leave. She still had access to police databases, which was imperative to her success. Quitting the police force would cause her to lose effectiveness.

She knew the FBI was involved with the investigation because they received an alert on their reservation from Turquoise Canyon Tribal Police that they had requested assistance last week when it was discovered that one of their missing persons was not a runaway but a kidnapping who identified several other of missing held captive with her.  The Bureau's focus would be on capture and conviction of those responsible.  Hers was on recovery by any means.

Ava had already spoken to the kidnapper of the only woman to escape capture. The Russian was paralyzed from the waist down, still in the hospital at Darabee and on suicide watch. Ava got nothing from him as he still elected to pretend he did not speak English. She did get a photo of his tattoos and was running a check on them through the database. Gang affiliations were often written on the skin and his said Russian organized crime.  But they'd need connections here.

First she'd figure out who and they'd tell here where the missing were kept.  That was the plan.

She’d learned all she could from her surveillance of Kee and Hauser and from their personal computers and found nothing to implicate either physician.

She needed to get inside that clinic.

Ava drove along the rutted gravel road, hastily laid before the trailers had been hauled in by the dozens.  The dam collapse that touched off the move out of the tribe's tribal seat happened just a little over three weeks ago.  The evacuees were moved to temporary shelters out of the potential flood area but, now the FEMA trailers had arrived, her sister had been among the first to receive one because she had young children.

She parked before her sister’s FEMA trailer and ignored the barking as she opened the door. Woody, the big brown family dog, jumped up to say hello.  She was surprised to see him, as he had been staying with a friend of her sister who lived outside the reach of potential flooding. Woody had been added to the family at Louisa's insistence and seeing him made her throat tighten.  She gave him a quick scratch behind the ears and pushed him off until he dropped to all fours. His tail swung back and forth, thick and hairless at the base from too much chewing. A shepherd/pit-bull mix, he had a head the size and shape of a shovel.

Ava checked her watch. Redhorse should be back by here in about ten minutes. Woody poked around the trailer and returned with a faded, worn, green tennis ball. Ava accepted the offering and tossed the ball. She kept her attention on the end of the street until Redhorse returned.

He was only a few hundred yards away with a newspaper tucked under his arm when he noticed her. She could tell by the hesitation in his stride.

She continued to toss the ball as Redhorse approached.

This was how he found them. Ava throwing a slippery tennis ball to an oversized puppy.

Kee Redhorse’s black hair was trimmed short. His skin was the tawny-brown with bronze undertones. He had a broad forehead, a blade of a nose that hooked downward over a generous mouth and pinholes in each earlobe for earrings, which he did not wear. Handsome by any standard, she thought.

He hadn’t shaved this morning. She found that the dark stubble only added to his appeal. The hair growing beneath his lower lip brought her attention to his mouth. It was a sensual mouth. His lips parted and he inhaled, making his nostrils flare. Then that winning smile appeared. She felt a twitch in her stomach.

Suspect, she reminded herself.

Woody spotted Redhorse and trotted over to say hello. The man offered his hand. It was a nice hand with tight medium-brown skin and a sprinkling of dark hair on the back, and the hand itself was broad and square with long elegant fingers. Ava blew away her frustration at her body’s reaction to the doctor.

“He’s friendly,” said Ava and forced a wide smile as she descended the steps and stood with her hands in her back pockets. She’d dressed for success today, in jeans that left room for her ankle holster but hugged everything else and a blouse that was feminine without broadcasting her cup size. Woody sniffed Redhorse’s hand and the wet ball fell to the ground.

Ava made a grab for the ball but Woody was too quick and snatched it up again. The tug-of-war ensued with the dog crouched, growling as he shook his shovel of a head, tail thumping. Ava wasn’t much of a frolicker but she did her best.

Redhorse laughed. “He’s not giving up.”

“He loves to play,” she said.

Woody won. The canine dropped the ball at Redhorse’s feet.

Traitor, she thought.

“He wants you to throw it,” she said keeping her smile until he turned to retrieve the ball.

He did and it was a really good throw. She gauged his physical strength and was glad she had both her service weapon and her training.

Woody returned, chewing as he trotted. He folded to the ground to begin gnawing in earnest, the ball between his paws. She could swear the canine was smiling.

Ava put a hand on her hip and sighed.

“Guess I finally wore him out,” she said and gave Redhorse another smile, making eye contact. He seemed to be looking right through her. Heat sizzled inside her and her stomach tensed. She knew he was single, dated occasionally but never for long and had been engaged to an Anglo in med school. Circumstances of the breakup were unclear.

Redhorse cleared his throat and looked back to the dog. Ava took a deep breath and pinched her lips together as she fought the troubling physical zip of awareness for him. It had never happened to her with a suspect before.

He cast her an effortless smile and the tug grew stronger. She was going to have to arrest him or sleep with him.

Yeah, right. She didn’t have the justification for either action.

Their eyes met and her heart gave an irritating flutter again. She wished she had enough evidence to read him his rights. She bet handcuffs would wipe that smile off his face.

Her grandmother would approve, she thought. Also possibly a felon. She scowled.

Redhorse was a suspect, not a prospect.

Woody stared up at her, his ball forgotten.

She pointed. “That’s Woody.”

Her gaze dropped to the sensual curve of his upper lip.

You’re staring at his mouth.

He switched to Tonto Apache. “Hello. I am Roadrunner born of Wolf, the oldest son of Colton and May Redhorse.” Then he switched back to English as he completed his introduction and extended his free hand. “I’m Doctor Kee Redhorse.”

Trotting out the title, she thought. She didn’t trust him and did not accept his hand. She was already attracted to the man. Touching him would only make the nagging stab of desire worse. Instead, Ava lifted her hands out before her, palms up.

“Wet,” she said, with dog slobber.

He held his smile as his arm dropped to his side. Was he disappointed?

“I live just up that way,” he said, motioning the way he had come. “For now, anyway. Until we move back to Piňon Flats.”

She knew that. Likely knew more about him than his own family.

Since the dam collapsed upriver of this reservation, most of the residents of the community of Piňon Flats had been relocated here to high ground in Turquoise Canyon while the temporary rubble dam was reinforced by FEMA. Their permanent houses were still intact, but the damn had already been destroyed in an act of ecoterrorism. Neither the tribe elders nor FEMA wanted to put anyone else at risk.

“I heard that will be any day,” she said.

He nodded and grinned.

“How is it I have never seen you before?” he asked and switched to Tonto. “I know that I would remember you.”

That smile made her insides roll and her stomach flutter. It was like swimming against a strong current. Those teeth, that jaw line, that elegant nose. Oh boy, was she in over her head. She hoped he wasn’t guilty because…what? He was handsome? She was smitten? She needed to get a grip.

It wasn’t her job to hope he was guilty or innocent. It was her job to find Louisa. If he had her or was responsible for her disappearance then that was that.

Ava, you need to lock this down.

“I didn’t get your name,” said Kee.

“I’m Ava Hood.” She didn’t use her legal name, her father’s name. Never had, though her surname, Yokota, did cropped up on things like her diplomas and legal documents.

“You didn’t grow up on the rez, Ava. I’d have noticed you.” His smile was so dazzling she needed sunglasses. Suddenly his charm and charisma seemed a threat. It made it easier to resist.

“I am Snake born of Spider,” she said in perfect Tonto Apache in the traditional form of greeting. One always began with the tribe, moved to clans and then relations. Only after these important ties were given, did one mention their own name. “My parents are Eldon and Lydia Hood from Saguaro Flats reservation.” Though her father was Eldon Yokota, she had given the correct first name.

“You speak very well,” he said in English.

The compliment seemed an insult. Besides, she had little choice as her grandmother had no other language but Tonto and she had lived with her until she was eight.

“I know that rez. Small, right?”

“Very.”

“What brings you up here?”

“Visiting my sister. She married a man up here.”

“What’s his name?”

“Diamond Tah.”

Kee’s smile slipped. “Oh.” He nodded and then met her gaze, his smile gone and his eyes serious. “I knew him very well. I used to listen to him play the flute at gatherings. So your sister is—”

“Sara Tah.”

Ava’s sister was newly widowed. Her husband had died one night on his way to the bathroom from a brain aneurism. He’d been forty-two. That should have been enough tragedy for one year, but it turned out to be only the start.

His gaze flicked away again. Was that guilt? Or did he know that her sister was in far worse shape since her husband’s death than Ava had imagined. The drinking had gotten worse and there had been calls to protective services. It was reason enough for Ava to visit.

Ava waited for him to speak. What would a man who she suspected had a hand in the kidnappings say at this moment?

“I’m very sorry,” he said.

Appropriate, she thought.

“For what?”

He looked surprised, as if this was obvious, but she wanted to hear him say it. “Sara lost her husband recently and now…well, Louisa is missing. I know she’s been…struggling. It’s a terrible tragedy.”

He did not do or say anything that might reveal that he could be the reason for Louisa’s disappearance.

“We are still hopeful.”

“Of course.” He shifted, uncomfortably. “How is Sara doing?”

Did he know about her sister’s drinking?

She went on the defensive. It was her fallback position, and protecting her sister came naturally as breathing. The truth was that her sister had lost weight, and didn’t eat. The entire situation made Ava’s chest hurt. “It’s a hard time.”

He nodded. “And the girls?”

She wanted to press a finger into his broad chest and tell him that he didn’t have the right to ask about them. Not ever.

“They’re frightened, mostly. The twins are afraid to leave for school or talk the bus. . So I’m driving them, for now.”

Margarita and Alexandra were five, and Olivia, only three. These were the children Sara had with Diamond. She’d brought Louisa to the marriage after her first marriage had failed.

Redhorse had treated each one of her sister’s kids. Most damning, he’d treated Louisa on September 30, on her last visit to the tribe’s clinic, just two days before her disappearance.

“I understand that,” he said. “Good of you to be with her at this time.”

She watched him. He didn’t shift or rub his neck. His gaze did not cut away as if he were anxious to put her behind him. He only held the appropriate look of sadness and concern.

He smiled. “Nice folks.”

“They sure are. I’d do anything for my sister and her kids.” She waited through the awkward pause. Still, he radiated nothing but concern.

“Is that why you bumped into me? You wanted to ask me about them?”

He was smart. She’d give him that but that only made him more dangerous if he was guilty.

“Is there something you’d like to get off your chest?” she asked.

“Off my…me? No,” he said and looked puzzled.

She waited as he cocked his head to study her, brow wrinkling.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Ava. May I call you Ava?”

She nodded.

“And please call me Kee.”

She preferred to call him prime suspect.

“What do you do down there on your rez, Ava?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m not sure. You have a certain directness to you.”

The pause seemed especially long. He stared at her and she noted the golden flecks in his deep brown eyes.

“So what do you do down there on the flats?” he asked again.

“I used to work for the casino. Dealer. High rollers, mostly. But I’m taking a break.” Actually that was her sister’s bio but she wasn’t going to tell him she was ROTC, had done four years of active duty in Germany and had just finished her four additional years on reserve while completing police training, and recently earned her gold shield. Given how her sister  had completely withdrawn from society after her husband’s death and buried herself in a bottle, she doubted that Sara would have the opportunity to blow her cover.

The small talk continued. He told her what she already knew, that their clinic had only seven employees. Two physicians. One administrator, Betty Mills, and five nurses, one of whom—Lori Mott Redhorse—was well on her way to becoming a midwife. Lori was also Kee’s sister-in-law and the one who’d first made the connection between the clinic and the seven missing women from his tribe.

Ava had already spoken with Lori and believed she was one of the good guys. The woman seemed interested in finding the missing teenagers and willing to do all she could to help the investigation. Not the actions of someone guilty of a crime.

“I thought there were three physicians,” Ava said when she caught an inaccuracy in Redhorse’s story.

“Oh, yes. That’s right. Dr. Day is on loan from FEMA. That’s my roommate, temporarily, until we get the all-clear to move back home.” Since Ava had searched the trailer, she was aware of the roommate situation. But Dr. Day hadn’t been around long enough to be a suspect, so she’d focused entirely on Dr. Kee Redhorse.

“I didn’t know that FEMA provided doctors.”

“Oh, yeah. And they have emergency medical response teams. Our clinic is currently set up in two of their mobile medical units. Crowded, but we are getting the job done. It’s been good to have another set of hands during the crisis. We’ve been super busy but we’ll lose Day soon.

She quirked a brow. “That so?”

He casually slipped a hand into his back pocket. She watched his hands wondering if he had a weapon. Kee kept talking.

“Once we get back to the clinic in Piňon Flats and out of those trailers, I’m sure they’ll recall him. Too bad, he’s a nice guy.”

There was something implied in his tone. She took a guess. “But not a good doctor?”

The side of his mouth quirked. His tell, she decided, that little gesture that said she had made the right guess. “He’s adequate.”

“But not Native.”

Kee made a sound that might have been a laugh. “Oh, I don’t mind that. But he is from Minnesota. So he thinks it’s too hot up here.”

“He’d hate Saguaro Flats.”

Now Kee did laugh. The sound buzzed over her skin and the hairs on her neck lifted at the pure musical joy in that deep male rumble of delight. She was reconsidering her strategy. Ava had not anticipated liking her suspect.

“His specialty is emergency medicine. He’s less interested in ongoing treatment of chronic conditions and I think he’s had his fill of diabetes and high blood pressure.”

“I see.”

Woody discovered an abandoned soda bottle, which he trotted over to Ava with. Her attempts to retrieve it from his mouth resulted in another game of chase.

“He can have it,” said Ava, recognizing defeat first. She turned back to her questioning. “How do you like working at the clinic?”

He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “Oh, I like it, but I really prefer emergency medicine, too. Plus I’m only here part-time. Just finishing up my residency. Dr. Hauser, he’s our head physician, he arranged for me to split my time between here and Darabee Hospital.”

Ava crinkled up her face. “Sounds busy.”

Kee shrugged, a good-natured expression on his face. “It is. Doesn’t leave much time for a social life—or even a chance to catch up with the people in my own family. But with my loans…” He held a hand to his throat and pretended to be strangling. “Gotta get a position in a hospital. Plan is to leave for a few years to get the best salary possible. I hope to come back someday.”

That didn’t mesh with a man making oodles of money from the Russian mob unless he knew that his tribal police force had made connections between the missing girls and his clinic. Then crying poverty was smart. His little brother was on the force. Had Officer Jake Redhorse given Kee some insider info?

“Medical school is expensive,” she said, hoping she sounded sympathetic. Her computer hacking had exposed he was in up to his eyeballs in debt and had a really good motive for wanting to make a boatload of fast cash.

“I’ve had some assistance from the tribe. Dr. Hauser helped me qualify for a grant that covered some of it.”

She made a mental note to check on that.

“Sounds like a great guy.” Or a dangerous criminal, she thought.

“Yeah. He is. Hector is the one who encouraged me to practice medicine. I had a leg-length discrepancy as a kid.” He shrugged. “He took an interest.”

She thought of the photo she’d seen in his room in the FEMA trailer. He’d been younger with a single crutch under one thin arm.

“I had lots of surgeries down in Phoenix.” He held his arms wide. “Now I’m the shortest male in my family.”

He wasn’t short, by any means. She marked him at nearly six feet.

“Why is that?” she asked.

“Well, they can’t add to the shorter leg. You know, make you taller. So they make corrections by reducing the size of the longer limb.”

She flinched as she imagined someone sawing through her lower leg bone.

“Yeah, exactly. Lost three inches. But they even up within an eighth of an inch.” He bent slightly at the waist and presented his straight legs for her examination. They were fine muscular legs. She could see that even through the denim of his jeans. “Hector arranged for all that and the therapy. Pulled strings and it was all taken care of.”

So Hector was a string puller and Kee was forever in his debt. How far would Kee go to pay him back?

“It was a hard time. My dad was…gone.”

In prison, she thought.

“We didn’t have much money.”

“Your head physician sounds like a wonderful man.” Her smile felt tight and unnatural. Kee didn’t seem to notice.

“He used to operate out of a room at tribal headquarters when I was a kid. Gave me all my shots there. But you should see the facility now. We have an urgent care center, triage, three exam rooms, reception, radiology and a woman’s health center with three birthing rooms, plus additional ob-gyn exam rooms.”

“That’s impressive. Paid through gaming?” she asked. It wasn’t, she knew, because she’d seen their budget, via her sister’s login on the tribe’s website.  Some areas of the tribe's website were public while others where password protected to insure only tribal members could access them.  The page holding the minutes from tribal government meetings was one of these pages.

Kee shrugged. “Our administrator handles all that.”

Betty Mills, Ava knew. Recently divorced. Mother of three grown boys and driving an Audi leased by the clinic.

Woody tore the bottle in two and Ava threw the ball so she could retrieve the jagged pieces.

“I better check on my sister and the girls.” Sara was probably still in bed and likely hungover. The girls were being raised by a game console, as far as Ava could tell. She could at least get them all out of bed and feed them a healthy breakfast.

Anything to keep them all afloat until Louisa and the other missing children could be found.

“Oh,” he looked disappointed. “Of course. Umm, Ava? Will you be here a few days?”

“I plan to be. Yes.”

“Would you like to have a drink sometime this week?” His face was red when he finished, which she was chagrined to find she found absolutely adorable. Her heart was not behaving, hammered as if this was something other than a stakeout. Her department had another word for it…entrapment.

She didn’t care. All rules were off when you messed with hers.

So, here it was, the opportunity she had been hoping for. But that was before she realized she would be attracted to the good doctor. She hesitated, biting her bottom lip as she tapped the two sides of the ruined plastic bottle together before her in a nervous tattoo.

Dating Kee would give her access to him, to Hauser and to the clinic and she needed to know what was going on in there.

“Ava?” His dark brow lifted. “Are you seeing someone?”

She shook her head. “Oh, no. Not currently.” It was unfortunate that not one of the men in her past made her silly heart pitter-patter like this one, here. “I just need to work around the kids’ schedules and my sister. And I don’t really drink.”

Because it meant a possible loss of control and Ava did not go there.

“Oh. Coincidence,” he said. “Neither do I. And I understand about your family. You’re here for them. Family first, my dad always said.”

How reassuring. An adage from a con.

As far as she could tell Kee and Jake were the only ones that visited dear old dad and not often. But at least they had a dad.

“My sister gets home from work at five fifteen. I’ve been getting the kids dinner and I’m free after that.”

“Oh, great.”

“When?” she asked.

“How about Tuesday? Dinner at the casino?”

Ava was known here as Sara's sister and a member of the Saguaro Flats tribe.  But like many detectives, she kept her profession secret mainly so as not to make people uncomfortable but also to allow her to more easily do her job.  Anyone who would have asked was told that she worked in her tribe's adult education program.

“That sounds fun.” Ava held her smile.

“I’ll pick you up around six?”

“Seven.”

“Sure,” Kee agreed.

She drew a flare pen from her back pocket. “Give me your hand.”

He did. His palm slid across hers, warm and dry. The tingle of awareness began at her fingers and rippled up her arm. Whatever attraction was between them was as strong as it was unwanted. She stared up at him, meeting his welcoming brown eyes. Then she used her teeth to remove the cap to the pen and she wrote her cell phone number on the back of his hand. Her task done she was both anxious and reluctant to let him go. She did and stepped back, sitting on the step of her sister’s trailer.

“Now don’t scrub up before you copy that,” she teased lightly.

He studied the back of his hand and grinned. “I won’t.

“See you Tuesday, Dr. Redhorse.”

“Kee, please.”

 “I’ll try to remember that.”

Ava smiled against the chill that swept through her. If he was behind this, she’d see he never got within sight of another girl for as long as he lived.

Excerpt UNDERCOVER SCOUT ©2018 – Jenna Kernan

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