I CALLED M C M AHON. N O ANSWER. C ROWE. D ITTO. I LEFT MESSAGES: Seven thirty-eight. Leaving Alarka for High Ridge House. Call me.
Picturing the empty lot, the deserted county road, I punched Ryan's number.
Another image. Ryan, facedown on an icy drive. I'd asked for his help that other time in Quebec. It had gotten him shot.
Ryan has no jurisdiction, Brennan. And no personal responsibility.
Instead of “send,” I hit the delete button.
My thoughts ricocheted like the metal sphere in a pinball game.
Someone should be told of my whereabouts. Someone I would not be placing in danger.
Sunday night. I dialed my old number.
“Hello.” A woman's voice, mellow as a purring cat.
“Is Pete there?”
“He's in the shower.”
I heard a wind chime tinkle. A wind chime I'd hung years ago outside my bedroom window.
“Is there a message?”
I clicked off.
“Fuck it,” I muttered. “I'll take care of myself.”
Slinging purse and laptop over one shoulder, I rewrapped my fingers around the scalpel and readied my keys in the other hand. Then I cracked the door and peered out.
My Mazda was alone with the exiled hook-and-ladder trucks. In the deepening twilight, it looked like a warthog facing off with a herd of hippos.
Reaching the car, I threw myself behind the wheel, slammed down the locks, revved the motor, and raced from the lot.
When I'd gone a mile, I began to calm, and an ill-focused anger seeped over the fear. I turned it on myself.
Jesus, you're like the heroine in a B-grade movie. One crank call and you scream for the help of a big strong man.
Seeing deer on the shoulder, I checked my speed. Eighty. I slowed, returned to chiding myself.
No one leaped from behind the building, or grabbed your ankle from under the car.
True enough. But the fax was not a crank. Whoever sent that list knew I'd be the one to receive it. Knew I was alone at the morgue.
As I drove through Bryson City, I checked the rearview mirror repeatedly. The Halloween decorations now looked menacing rather than festive, the skeletons and tombstones macabre reminders of the hideous events that had unfolded nearby. I gripped the wheel, wondering if the souls of my skeletal dead wandered the world in search of justice.
Wondering if their killers wandered the world in search of me.
At High Ridge House, I cut the engine and peered down the road I'd just climbed. No headlights wound their way up the mountain.
I wrapped the scalpel in a Wendy's napkin and zipped it into my jacket pocket for return to the morgue. Then I gathered my belongings and dashed to the porch.
The house was quiet as a church on Thursday. The parlor and kitchen were empty, and I passed no one on my way to the second floor. I heard no rustling or snoring from behind Ryan's or McMahon's doors.
I'd barely removed my jacket when a soft knock made me jump.
Her face was tense and pale, her hair glossier than a page from Vogue.
When I opened the door she handed me an envelope.
“This come for you today.”
I glanced at the return address. Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee.
I started to close the door but she held up a hand.
“There's something you need to know. Something I need to tell you.”
“I'm very tired, Ruby.”
“It wasn't an intruder that wrecked your room. It was Eli.”
“He's not my nephew.”
“The Gospel of Matthew tells us that whoever shall put away his wife—”
“Why would Eli trash my things?” I was not in the mood for religious discourse.
“My husband left me for another woman. She and Enoch had a child.”
“I wished terrible things for them. I wished them to burn in hell. I thought, if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. I plucked them from my life.”
I heard the muffled sound of Boyd's barking.
“When Enoch passed, God touched my heart. Judge not and ye shall not be judged; condemn not and ye shall not be condemned; forgive and ye shall be forgiven.”
She sighed deeply.
“Eli's mother died six years ago. The boy had no one, so I took him in.”
Her eyes dropped, returned to mine.
“A man's foes shall be they of his own household. Eli hates me. Takes joy in tormenting me. He knows I take pride in this house. He knows I like you. He was just getting at me.”
“Perhaps he just wants attention.”
Look at the kid, I thought, but didn't say it.
“I'm sure he'll come around in time. And don't worry about my things. Nothing was taken.” I changed the subject. “Is anyone else here?”
She shook her head.
“I believe Mr. McMahon's gone off to Charlotte. Haven't seen Mr. Ryan all day. Everyone else has checked out.”
Again, I heard barking.
“Has Boyd been a nuisance?”
“Dog's been ornery today. Needs exercising.” She brushed her skirt. “I'm off to church. Shall I bring dinner before I leave?”
Ruby's roast pork and yam pudding had a calming effect. As I ate, the panic that had sent me racing through the twilight gave way to a dismal loneliness.
I remembered the woman on Pete's phone, wondered why hearing her voice felt like a kick in the gut. I know postcoital somnolence when I hear it, but so what? Pete and I were both adults. I'd left him. He was free to see whomever he pleased.
Condemn not and ye shall rock.
I wondered how I really felt about Ryan. I knew he was a bastard, but at least he was a winsome bastard, though I could do without his smoking. He was smart. He was funny. He was dizzyingly handsome, but completely unaware of his effect on women. And he cared about people.
Lots of people.
So why had Ryan's number been one of the first I'd started to dial? Was it just that he was nearby, or was he more than a colleague, a person I would think of for protection or comfort?
I remembered Primrose and was again flattened with remorse. I'd involved my friend and now she was dead. I'd gotten her killed. The guilt was crushing, and I was sure it would follow me the rest of my life.
Enough. Read the letter Ruby brought. It will thank you for the lecture and say it was splendid.
It did. The envelope also contained a copy of the student newsletter with its photo of me and Simon Midkiff. To say I looked tense would be like saying Olive Oyl was on the thin side.
But Simon Midkiff took best of show. I studied his face, wondering what had been in his mind that day. Had he been sent to pump me for information? Had he come on his own? My scientific colleagues often attend one another's lectures. Was it he who had faxed me the code name list? If so, why would he divulge his complicity?
My musings were interrupted by a sharp yip, followed by another.
Poor Boyd. He was the only being on the planet whose loyalty never wavered, and I ignored him. I checked my watch. Eight-twenty. Time for a quick run before Crowe arrived at nine.
I locked my computer and briefcase in the wardrobe in case Eli decided on a return engagement. Then I threw on my jacket, grabbed flashlight and leash, and headed downstairs.
Night had taken full control, ushering in a zillion stars but no moon. The porch lights did little to dispel the darkness. As I crossed the lawn, my limbic system began firing questions.
What if someone is watching?
Like Eli the Avenging Adolescent?
What if the call was not a prank?
Don't be melodramatic, I reasoned. It's the weekend after Halloween, and kids are kicking up their heels. You left messages with McMahon and Crowe.
What if they don't check?
The sheriff will be here in forty minutes.
A stalker might be out there right now.
What could happen in the company of a seventy-pound chow?
That seventy-pound chow yipped again, and I sprinted the last few yards to his pen. Hearing footsteps, he placed forepaws on the chain-linking and raised himself to a bipedal stance.
When he recognized me, Boyd went ballistic, pushing back, bounding forward, jumping up, and pushing off the fence again. He repeated the cycle several times, like a hamster on a wheel, then stood again on hind feet, threw back his head, and barked steadily.
Saying doggy things, I ruffled his ears and clipped on the leash. He nearly dragged me chowside in his lunge toward the gate.
“We're only going to the end of the property,” I warned, leveling a finger at his nose.
He cocked his head, twirled the brows, and yipped once. When I lifted the latch, he bounded out and raced in circles, nearly toppling me.
“I envy your energy, Boyd.”
He lapped my face as I disentangled the leash from between his legs, then we started up the road. Light from the porch barely reached the edge of the lawn, and within ten yards I clicked on my flash. Boyd stopped and growled.
“It's a flashlight, boy.”
I reached down and patted his shoulder. He rotated his head and licked my hand, then doubled back, did a little dance, and pressed his body against my legs.
I was about to move on when I felt him tense. His head dropped, his breathing changed, and a low rumble rose from his throat. He did not respond to my touch.
“What is it, boy?”
“Not another dead squirrel.”
I reached out to stroke him and felt hackles. Not good. I tugged the leash.
“Come on, boy, we're turning back.”
He would not move.
The growl grew deeper, more savage.
I aimed my light where Boyd was staring. The beam crawled over tree trunks and was sucked into dead zones of blackness between.
I yanked the leash harder. Boyd whipped left and barked. I swept my light in that direction.
“This isn't funny, dog.”
Then my eyes made out a form. Or had it been a trick of shadow? In the moment I glanced down at Boyd, what I thought I'd seen vanished. Or had it been there at all?
“Who's there?” Fear crimped my voice.
Nothing but crickets and frogs. A fallen tree lodged against one still standing groaned and creaked in the air.
Suddenly I heard movement behind me. Footfalls. The rustling of leaves.
Boyd turned and snapped, lunging as far as the leash would allow.
“Who's there?” I repeated.
A silhouette emerged from the trees, denser than the surrounding night. Boyd snarled and tore at the leash. The dark shape moved toward us.
“Who is it?”
I thrust the flashlight and leash into one hand and reached for my cell phone with the other. Before I could autodial, it slipped from my shaking fingers.
“Stay back!” It was almost a shriek.
I raised the light to shoulder level. As I was readjusting the leash for better control, about to reach for the phone, my grip loosened. Boyd broke free and charged, teeth gleaming, a fierce growl rumbling from his throat.
In an instant the silhouette altered shape. An arm uncurled.
A flash. A deafening crack.
The dog bounced off the silhouette, dropped to the ground, whimpered, and lay still.
Tears ran down my cheeks. I wanted to tell him I'd take care of him. Tell him he'd be all right, but my body was paralyzed with fear, and no words came from my mouth.
The form moved swiftly toward me now. I turned to run. Hands grabbed me. I twisted, wrenched free. The shadow coalesced into a man.
He hit me with his full weight, his shoulder beneath my armpit. The shock of the impact sent me falling sideways.
The last thing I remembered was breath on my face, sprawling. Then the crack of my skull against igneous rock.
The dream was frightening. An airless place. I couldn't move. I couldn't see. Then something stroked my cheek.
I opened my eyes to a reality more hellish than any nightmare.
My mouth was stuffed and wrapped with tape. I was blindfolded.
My heart shrank in my chest.
I can't breathe!
I tried raising a hand to my face. My wrists were tied over my chest.
The rag filled my mouth with an acrid taste. A tremor began below my tongue.
I'm going to vomit! I'm going to choke!
I felt panic, began to shake.
I tried shifting, and a cocoon of fabric moved with me. I smelled dust and mildew and spoiled vegetation.
I kicked out, thrust with my head.
The movement shot arrows through my brain. I lay still, waiting for the pain to subside.
Breathe through your nose. In. Out. In. Out.
The throbbing lessened slightly.
I was imprisoned in some sort of bag. My hands and feet were bound. But where was I? How had I gotten here?
Disjointed memories. The morgue. The empty county road. Ruby's troubled face. Primrose Hobbs.
Oh, dear God. Not Boyd! Had I killed the dog, too?
I rolled my head and felt a lump the size of a plum. Another wave of nausea.
The attack. The faceless form.
Simon Midkiff? Frank Battle? Could my captor be the moron magistrate?
I twisted my wrists, trying to loosen the tape. More nausea.
Clamping my teeth, I rolled onto my side. If I did vomit, I didn't want to aspirate the contents.
The movement made my stomach heave. I filled my lungs and the contractions receded.
I lay rigid, listening. I had no idea how long I'd been unconscious, or how I'd arrived at my present location. Was I still in the woods at High Ridge House? Had I been taken elsewhere? Was my attacker just feet away?
My heart rate slowed by a nanosecond, and cogent thought began to creep back.
It was then the thing crawled across my cheek. I heard dry insect sounds, felt movement in my hair, then the tickle of antennae on my skin.
A scream formed in my throat. I rolled back and forth, batting at my face, my hair. Blinding pain seared my brain, and my innards jammed up against the back of my throat.
Quiet! One functioning brain cell commanded.
Cockroaches! The others shrieked.
I tugged at my jacket, tried to pull it up over my head. It wouldn't go.
My heart hammered the order against my ribs.
Be still. Be still. Be still.
Slowly, I calmed, and reason returned.
But not into another trap.
Bare branches hissing in the wind. A chirp. Leaves skittering across the ground.
I peeled back a layer of sound.
Water swirling around rocks.
Far away and barely there, a loonlike wail followed by a strange giggle.
Gooseflesh spread across my arms and up my throat.
I knew where I was.