The jangle of her cell phone startled Kelly so much she jumped. The quiet of Vickie's office had settled over her like a blanket as she stared at the computer.
"This is Kelly."
"Hey, Kelly, Jayleen here. I got your message. Do you want me to come over and help with those accounts?"
"Actually, Jayleen, I could really use your help another way. I'm afraid it would take most of tomorrow, though."
"I'd be glad to help you, Kelly. Any way I can. What do you need?" Jayleen replied, her voice revealing that Kelly's attempts at kindness had not gone unnoticed.
"Well, I have to go to Wyoming with some friends tomorrow and check out my cousin's ranch. She's died and left a lot of cattle and sheep. And I learned today there's a bunch of alpaca there, too. Now, I've got cow and sheep people, but I need an alpaca expert."
Jayleen chuckled. "Well, I don't know if I'm an expert, but I think I can help you out, Kelly. Cow and sheep people, huh?" She laughed a husky low laugh.
"Boy, Jayleen, you're a lifesaver," Kelly enthused over the phone, deliberately not revealing she'd asked Geri first. Geri had pleaded too much business in town. "Listen, here comes the bad part. We're leaving from my house near the Lambspun shop at seven a.m. We can swing by your place in Landport about seven-thirty. How's that?"
"Why don't I meet you at Harvey's Restaurant at the crossroads? I like to have breakfast there. Besides, it's on the way out of town."
"That's great. Thanks again, Jayleen. See you tomorrow." Kelly snapped her phone off, relieved the last lingering problem of the day had been solved.
Surveying the littered desk, Kelly decided enough. It was nearly nine o'clock, and she was starving. Brewing some of Vickie's coffee had helped, but that had worn off long ago. She needed to go home. Besides, poor Carl was probably starving.
The image of Carl-in-Chains, starving no less, spurred her on. She closed out the computer accounts and straightened all the folders that lay open on the desk. Gathering what she needed into her briefcase, she snapped off the desk lamp and left the office.
Thank goodness she'd remembered to turn on the lights in the great room. The idea of being alone in a pitch black house where her friend had been murdered wasn't a pleasant thought. Kelly felt a chill pass over her as she hurried toward the front door, deliberately not looking toward the spot where Vickie was slain.
She pulled open the front door and fumbled for the keys as she stood on the doorstep. "Darn it!" Kelly exclaimed in exasperation as she searched in her briefcase.
Just then she heard a loud slamming sound near the barn, and Kelly jumped around to peer through the night. The moon was shrouded, so she couldn't see distinctly, but she thought she saw the door to the alpaca barn open.
That's funny, she thought, as she stepped off the wide porch. Jayleen always closed the doors and dropped the metal hook through the lock every night. Kelly hesitated in the yard, debating whether to approach the darkened barn. She shouldn't leave it open. Predators lived in the canyon. Mountain lion and coyote. Alpaca were gentle prey, like sheep.
She swallowed down her uneasiness and walked to the open barn door, even though part of her wanted to run to her car as fast as she could. Kelly took a deep breath and entered, reaching around the corner for a light switch. The smell of hay and feed floated out to her in the darkened doorway, and she thought she heard the animals rustle.
Her fingers found the switch and the barn flooded with light, causing her to squint. She stepped inside, quickly surveying the open stalls and holding pens. Several of the alpaca blinked back at her, then went back to sniffing the smoke grey alpaca in their midst. Kelly recognized Raja, surrounded by the others. Her stomach unclenched. Her imagination was running wild, that's all. Dark house. Murdered friend. She shook all the images away.
"Hey, guys. Have a good night," she said as she retreated through the doorway. Reaching for the door so she could close it, Kelly noticed the metal hook lying on the ground near her feet. She picked it up, flicked off the lights, and closed the door, shoving the hook through the slot. It must have blown off with the wind, she told herself as she walked toward her car.
But there was no wind tonight, not even a breeze, a little voice in the back of her mind said.
That thought caused a ripple to run up Kelly's spine. Had someone been sneaking around the property? She quickened her pace to her car. Whether her imagination was getting the best of her or whether someone had actually been poking around the property uninvited, it didn't matter. She was definitely not going to work alone at night in that house again.
Suddenly the deep rumble of a truck engine sounded in the distance. Kelly paused at her car door and peered down the driveway. The throaty rumble revved, rising then falling, like a truck was shifting gears and pulling away.
This time the ripple turned into real fear. Had someone parked down the road and then crept around the ranch at night? And she was sitting all alone in an empty house, scene of a grisly murder.
Kelly yanked open the car door, swiftly checked the back seat, and jumped inside. Revving the engine loudly, she locked the doors and zoomed down the driveway, spitting gravel in her wake. Dark canyon roads be damned. She planned to beat all speed records back into Fort Connor.
© Maggie Sefton