There weren't any signs to identify the Kadin ranch, but Lori had seen pictures of the place and she wasn't mistaken. The two-story, white frame house was barely visible through the jungle of trees and overgrown shrubbery; the massive barn to the left looked as if it was listing to one side; a rusting piece of farm machinery sat mired in the middle of a nearly mature wheat field. Because it had been dark for over an hour, Lori couldn't identify the various species of plants that ringed the ranch house like a green wall, but she'd wanted to come here as soon as she reached the valley.
I've got to be prepared tomorrow, Lori thought. At least I can say I've been out here.
She stepped hesitantly up to the open gate leading into the winding private drive. There weren't any Keep Off signs, but she still didn't feel right about walking right in, especially at night like this. She thought about going up to the house and introducing herself, but hesitated. According to the information she had on the Kadin ranch, an elderly woman lived alone here. It might frighten her to have a stranger show up on her doorstep on a moonless, misting northwest night.
Lori's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of something padding along the wet gravel toward her. She stiffened, recognizing the sound as coming from a dog but having no idea whether the dog was friendly or not. She heard the animal's breathing long before she was able to make out the dark bundle of fur with a tail wagging so enthusiastically that the animal hit its side with every wag.
"You're a great watchdog, aren't you?" Lori asked as she knelt down to receive a wet bundle in her arms. The dog's front paws raked her thighs and left mud tracks on her pants, but Lori barely noticed. It had been a long time since she'd been accepted uncompromisingly by a living creature. "Hi, fella. Do you have a name? You're wetter than I am. You know that?"
As if the dog understood what was being said, it squirmed and wriggled until its nose was buried tightly against Lori's side. It breathed loudly through its nose, the first true sound Lori had heard since she stepped into the mist. She hugged the dog back, not denying the flood of emotion that swept through her. She missed Zero more than she thought possible. The red male mutt she'd brought home from the Humane Society had been her one confidant during the months before her divorce. "What do you think?" Lori asked the wet, black bundle. "Do you think Mrs. Kadin is going to have a heart attack if I ring her doorbell?"
Unfortunately, the dog didn't seem capable of imparting that kind of information. With a sigh Lori rose to her feet, brushed absently at her slacks and started tentatively up the crushed-rock drive. Vines and low-hanging branches from several massive oak trees threatened to block off her path, but at least they provided some kind of protection from the softly falling rain. Lori shivered once, but she wasn't cold enough to go back to her car for some kind of wrap. Besides, the mist was promising purification. She stopped for a moment when there was a break in the shrubbery and lifted her head. The clouds hanging low over the valley were more gray than black, a friendly blanket designed to wash away dust but not enough to swell the creeks.
Lori felt moisture on her eyelashes, forehead and lips, accepting the cool penetration. It took her back to a fall she'd spent on the Oregon coast with her father, when fog and mist seemed to begin and end every day. Black Bob would like this place. The acreage around the farm was large enough to keep neighbors at more than arm's length. In fact, except for the strangely listing barn, Lori couldn't see any other buildings. That was how Black Bob liked things. "People live jammed up next to other people" was as close as he ever came to philosophy. "That's what's wrong with the world. There's no elbow room. Makes people nervous to have other people living in their pockets."
There certainly wouldn't be a problem with neighbors sticking their elbows up next to Mrs. Kadin, Lori thought as she started walking again, choosing her steps carefully because the little black dog was underfoot. A thought warmed her. Her father, Black Bob, would feel at home here. It made her wonder if the elderly lady who lived here ever got lonely, whether it was safe for her to live clear out here.
That not what you're here for. You want to sound knowledgeable tomorrow. Take a look at what's around you.
That was easier said than done. There was no way she'd be able to identify what kind of vines were climbing over the edges of the gravel road, seemingly in defiance of automobile traffic, and she had no way of knowing what was healthy or unhealthy growth overhead. Maybe the most she'd be able to tell whoever was going to interview her was that a lot of pruning had to be done in order to allow the sun to penetrate the thick foliage. Obviously, many years had passed since any of the trees had had any attention.
Suddenly, the little dog left Lori's feet and catapulted its body forward. Its movement was accompanied by a loud chorus of happy barks. Lori stopped. She wondered if the elderly woman was out here, but she was afraid that anything she'd say would startle her.
"Hello out there. Stand and identify yourself." The voice was masculine, strong and confident.
"Hello," Lori replied, feeling embarrassed, startled and self-conscious. The hair on the back of her neck rose; meeting a man wasn't the most comforting thought. She had no idea what he was doing here. "I--the dog said I was welcome."
"This mutt would welcome Jack the Ripper. You haven't come to steal the family jewels, have you? I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. There isn't much except some old furniture that's too heavy for you to throw over your shoulder."
At that Lori relaxed. Despite the deep tone of his voice, the man didn't sound menacing. "I'm sorry," she continued. "I left my car back at the gate. I hope I didn't startle anyone."
"Not really. I heard the car. You have muffler problems."
Lori laughed. Talking to this stranger was so easy. "That's not the only problem that old relic has. Ah, I know it's late, but I wonder if Mrs. Kadin would mind if I looked around."
The man stepped out of the shadows. Lori could make out glinting, thick, curled hair. He was wearing a T-shirt that looked as wet as hers, but because it was dark, she couldn't hazard a guess at his age within twenty years. His silhouette was tall and broad enough that she quickly dismissed the thought that he might be Mrs. Kadin's age. Besides, his strong voice didn't belong to an old man. "I doubt if she'd mind," he said. "But Ruth went to bed about a half hour ago. When you're eighty-five, you need all the beauty rest you can get."
"Oh." Lori started to form an explanation for why she was here, but stopped herself. The man certainly was big. His frame seemed to blend in with the night, making it hard for Lori to determine where he left off and the surroundings began. She wasn't sure how much of herself she wanted to reveal to this wet, impressive stranger. "I guess I should come back in the morning," she finished instead.
"Is it something I can help you with?" he asked, inclining his head toward her. "Ruth lets me pretend I have some say around here. You aren't lost, are you?"
Lori shook her head and brushed wet bangs away from her forehead. "No." She'd never pretended to have any so-called women's intuition, but something told her she had nothing to fear physically from this man. "Actually, why I'm here is kind of complicated. Is--well, I was going to ask Mrs. Kadin if I could familiarize myself with the place."
"In the rain? You're soaking wet."
Lori glanced down at herself. He was right. There wasn't much left to the imagination. Thanks to the mist, her sleeveless top clung to her like a second skin. There was no way she could hide the fact that the cold night air had hardened her nipples. She must look like a waif or someone who had decided to take a leave of absence from the state mental hospital. She had no idea what she could say or do to convince him that she didn't need a keeper. "I like the rain," she said lamely. "I've been in a car all day. It's almost as good as a shower."
"Most people take off their clothes when they take a shower." He smiled.