Authors: Patricia Fry
“I gave you mine first, so open it first,” Savannah reasoned.
“How about opening the prettiest one,” Colbi said.
“Better draw numbers,” Margaret suggested.
“Thanks you guys,” Iris said, smiling. “I didn’t expect gifts.” She giggled. “I love surprises…and presents.”
After watching Iris look from one gift to another, Margaret said again, “You’d better draw numbers.”
“Or we could hide the gifts and you can go on a treasure hunt,” Colbi said.
Iris grabbed Margaret’s gift. “Oh, you guys. I’m going to open this one.” However, just as she began to peer into the bag, Rags tore into the room again, leaped onto Iris’s lap and up onto the back of the sofa where he sat staring at the front door.
“Now what?” Savannah asked. “Are there more chipmunks out there—raccoons?” She started to reach for Rags, but he jumped down and headed for the front door, where he stopped and looked up at it.
Knock. Knock. Knock
. “Help me, please!”
“What the…” Margaret said, her eyes wide.
Iris glanced at the others and whispered, “Who’s that?”
“Sounds like a woman,” Savannah surmised.
“Should we answer the door?” Colbi asked, glancing around at the others.
“Sure, go on,” Iris said, shrinking back into the sofa a little.
“It’s your house,” Colbi reminded her.
Savannah stood. “Okay, we’ll all go.”
Margaret balked. “Let’s get a weapon, first”
“A weapon?” Iris hissed. “What weapon?”
Margaret thought about it for a moment, then raced into the kitchen and returned with an eight-inch cast-iron skillet. Holding it up menacingly, she said, “This ought to do it.”
Knock, knock, knock
. “Please!” came the voice again.
“Okay, come on,” Iris urged. “You in front with that…weapon, Maggie.” She steered Colbi toward the door and stood behind her. Savannah walked up next to Iris.
“Well, open it,” Savannah said. When no one reached for the knob, Savannah wriggled her way between Colbi and Margaret, unlocked the bolts, and opened the door. What she saw sent shivers down her spine.
“Let me come in, please,” the young woman begged, glancing nervously behind her.
“Oh, sorry,” Savannah said, nudging Margaret and Colbi aside. As Iris stepped back, Rags suddenly made a move toward the door. “No you don’t,” Savannah said, grabbing the cat and retreating into the room with the others.
“Please come in,” Iris said, her voice faltering.
Colbi pointed. “You’re…you’re the missing woman from the bay area! I published your picture with the article I wrote.” She glanced out into the darkness before quickly closing the door and locking it. “You aren’t being followed, are you?”
The slightly built woman, who stood about five foot six, shook her head, her loose dark curls moving from side to side. “I don’t think so. I’m sure they were asleep when I left.”
“They? More than one person grabbed you?”
She nodded. She took a few steps toward the fireplace and collapsed onto the green sofa next to it. Savannah quickly turned Rags loose and rushed to her side, along with Iris, who said, “She’s freezing. We’d better get her out of those wet clothes. Do any of you have something she can wear?”
“I have a pair of sweatpants,” Colbi offered.
Savannah walked to where she’d left her suitcase. “I might have an extra sweatshirt. I was going to wear it tomorrow.” When the pair returned with the dry clothes, the woman said weakly, “Thank you so much. I really appreciate your kindness.”
Colbi nodded. “Let’s take your shoes off. My gosh, you’re wearing ballet slippers and they’re soaking wet.”
“Those aren’t ballet slippers, Colbi,” Iris corrected.
“Well, practically. They’re sure not made for hiking.”
Savannah reached for the shoes as Colbi removed them and she placed them on the hearth. She touched the woman’s ankles. “You should get out of those tights, too. They’re soaked.”
“I’ll heat some water for tea,” Margaret said, heading for the kitchen. “Tea always warms me.”
Iris grinned. “Whiskey warms me. Do we have any left?” She looked at their guest. “Which do you prefer?”
“Tea sounds wonderful. Thank you.”
“Oh no,” Margaret said, from the kitchen.
“What?” the others asked.
She motioned to Savannah, who rushed to join her. “Someone will have to sleep in the scary room,” she whispered. “We only have two sofas out there. Hey, she doesn’t know about that Amos guy—let’s give her that room.” She grinned. “She’ll think we’re being hospitable and generous.”
“Who says she’s spending the night here?” Savannah said quietly. “She might need medical attention.”
Margaret put her hands on her hips. “And how are we going to get that, pray tell?”
Unable to respond and unwilling to entertain the question, Savannah returned to the woman and, alongside Colbi, helped her change her clothes. After spreading the wet clothes next to the fire, Savannah dug out a pair of her slipper socks and watched the woman slip them on. She then pulled a blanket over her. “Better?” she asked.
“You’re the missing woman from the Bay area—Ann Schultz, right?” Colbi asked.
The woman looked at Colbi and nodded.
Immediately, the others began asking, “How did you…?”
Savannah put up her hand. “Give her some space, ladies. Come on, let’s not interrogate her.”
“Yeah,” Colbi agreed. “Can’t you see she’s been through a lot already? Let’s let her catch her breath.”
Ann eased up to a sitting position and reached out to Colbi. “Can you call someone for me?”
“Well, we oughtta be calling the police,” Margaret said, “but there’s no service up here.”
“No service?” Ann said, as if the wind had been knocked out of her.
Iris shook her head. “Only on the other side of the lake.” She focused on Savannah. “Maybe one of us should row over there and make the call.”
Savannah winced. “You said sometimes you get service here—you said it’s hit and miss. Try it, Iris.”
“Yeah, good idea,” Margaret agreed.
“I’ll try, too,” Colbi offered, reaching for her phone.
After several minutes, Iris said, “It’s no use. No signal, no signal, that’s all we get, no matter where we stand.”
“How about outside?” Savannah suggested. “Take your phones outside and see if you can get through.”
Iris scowled at Savannah. “Easy for you to say.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s dark and creepy out there.”
“Yeah,” Colbi agreed, shivering, “and rainy.”
“Okay then, Auntie and I’ll go out and try with our phones.”
Margaret glowered. “We will?”
“Yeah, get your jacket and your phone.” She turned to Iris. “Did I see some umbrellas down in the basement?” Once she’d found an umbrella that worked, she grabbed her aunt’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“But Vannie,” Margaret whined.
“Come on, it’s important.”
Ann took a sip of the tea Margaret had served her and swallowed. “Yes, it is. I’d sure appreciate it. I don’t know when those creeps will notice I’m gone…” she said, wiping at her eyes.
Margaret stared at Ann for a moment, then said, “Okay,” as she donned her jacket and pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Let’s get it over with.”
Within minutes, the two of them returned and went straight to the fire to warm their hands.
“Any luck?” Colbi asked eagerly.
Savannah shook her head. “No service.” She sighed deeply and looked at Ann. “If we want to reach authorities tonight, we’ll have to do as Iris said and row across the lake to make the call.”
“Oh please,” she said. “Those guys are bound to find me. Please, that’s my only chance.”
“Who are they, anyway?” Colbi asked. “What do they want with you?”
Ann grimaced. She brushed a wisp of hair from her face while avoiding eye-contact with Colbi. “I’m not sure. I think they plan to kill me and hide my body. You know, people go missing up here, never to be found again.” When she started to cry, Colbi kneeled next to her.
“Ann, do you know where they are?”
“Uh…not exactly. They move around. They were keeping me in a van and we never stayed at one camping spot for very long. Tonight, they decided to take a boat across the lake to get more beer. That’s how I was able to get away from them.”
“How far do you think they are from here?” Savannah asked.
“I don’t know,” she said shaking her head. “I walked and walked and walked until I found lights. I could have been walking in circles, for all I know. They might be a block away or a mile, I’m just not sure.”
Savannah stood and pulled on her jacket. She checked her phone. “It’s got a good charge,” she said, as if to herself. Then looking around at her friends, she asked, “So who’s going with me?”
The trio sat silently.
“Okay,” she said, sounding annoyed. “Iris, why don’t you heat up some dinner for her? And, if I were you, I’d shut down the lights—use a candle. Keep the drapes closed.” She looked at Colbi. “Grab the flashlight and come with me.”
Colbi took a deep breath. “Aye, aye, captain,” she said rather weakly as she slipped into her jacket.
“Be careful,” Iris and Margaret said, watching Savannah and Colbi step out the front door. When they saw that it was still raining, Iris said, “Wait. I’ll get you another umbrella. And I think there are some slickers in the basement.”
Savannah grimaced. “Thanks.” Letting out a sigh, she said, “Never went rowing in the rain before.” She squinted her eyes, saying, “Never went rowing in the dark before, either.”
“You’re a couple of gutsy women,” Ranger Bruce Hawkins said as he rowed Savannah and Colbi back across the lake nearly an hour later.
“Yeah, somebody had to do it,” Savannah said. “That poor woman—and the rest of us—could be in danger.”
He pressed his lips together and nodded. Minutes later, he tied the boat to the dock and accompanied the two women back to the Sledge cabin, where they found Ann petting Dolly, who was curled up next to her on the sofa.
“Vannie,” Margaret said, rushing to greet her and Colbi.
“You made it,” Iris said, joining in on a group hug.
“You mean you had doubts?” Colbi asked, her pretty face twisted into a scowl.
Margaret and Iris sputtered a weak response.
“Never mind,” Savannah said. She introduced their guest. “Ann Schultz, this is Ranger Hawkins.” She nodded toward Colbi. “Come on, let’s see if we can find some dry clothes.”
“You got wet through that slicker and with the umbrella?” Iris asked.
Savannah grinned. “Ever try to hold an umbrella while rowing a boat?”
In the meantime, Colbi sat down on the fireplace hearth and removed her boots. “I stepped out of these twice. Who do they belong to, anyway, Big Foot?”
Iris apologized. “They were the smallest ones I could find.”
“Probably belonged to Amos,” Margaret said quietly.
“Ewww,” Colbi said, shaking her hands dramatically before joining Savannah in the main bedroom to change her clothes. The two of them soon returned wearing their pajama bottoms and sweatshirts, and carrying their wet socks and sweats, which they laid out to dry on the hearth.
They heard the ranger ask Ann, “How are you feeling?”
She laid back on the pillow. “Weak after being tied up for so long.”
“You were tied up?” the ranger asked.
He reached for her hands. After examining both wrists, he moved a straight-back chair closer to her and pulled out a notepad and pen. “So can you give me the exact spelling of your name?”
He wrote it out and showed it to her. “Is this correct?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding.
He sat back and stared at the woman, then asked, “What’s your middle name, Ann?”
“Uh…what does that matter?” she asked.
“Formalities. Just formalities,” he said in a casual manner. “I have here that it’s Marie. Is that right?”
“Yes. Ann Marie, that’s it.”
He stared at her again, then said, “Ma’am, a car will be here in…” He looked at his watch. “…an hour or so and we’ll get you out of here where you’ll be safe. Okay?”
“Yes. Don’t you want to hear my story?”
“Sure do, ma’am. Sure do. But I think we’ll wait and get that information at the station.” He gazed toward the kitchen. “Got coffee? Looks like we’ll have a bit of a wait.”
“I’ll make another pot,” Iris said, heading toward the kitchen.
“Yeah, if you’re waiting for someone to drive up that wretched mountain road,” Savannah said, “it could be a while.”
The ranger nodded. “That’s right, especially if it keeps raining and the river keeps rising.” There was a period of silence, then the ranger finally asked, “Which one of you owns this place? It’s the Sledge cabin, isn’t it?”
“It’s her husband’s,” Savannah said, gesturing toward Iris. “We’re just spending the weekend.” She tilted her head. “We talked to another ranger this morning; Steve was his name.”
“Yeah, he’s off until Tuesday. I’m on duty until he gets back—me and Stuart, the new guy.” He looked around the room. “So you’re vacationing…with a cat?” he asked, keeping an eye on Dolly, who was lying at Colbi’s feet keeping an eye on him. “Two cats,” he corrected when he saw Rags saunter in from the guest bedroom. “Why are they staring at me like that?” he asked.
Savannah shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess because you’re a stranger.”
“And a man,” Colbi suggested. “They aren’t used to seeing a man in uniform.”
“With a gun,” Margaret added.
“How long have you been a ranger up here?” Colbi asked.
“Uh, about ten years.”
“So you weren’t here during the time of the killings and the missing people,” she said.
He looked at her, then glanced around at the others. “Yeah, there’ve been some folks gone missing since I’ve been here…missing without a trace. Sure has us puzzled.”
“Do you have piranha in your lake?” Margaret asked, tongue in cheek.
Obviously not amused, the ranger simply shook his head. “No, but maybe a piranha in the forest.”
It was almost ninety minutes later when they heard a knock on the door.
Savannah and Iris glanced at the ranger, who held up his hand indicating for them to wait. He stepped up to a window and peered through the drape panels before moving quickly to the door, his hand on his sidearm. After unbolting the lock, he allowed two deputies to enter.
“So you found her, huh?” one of them said, peering around at the five women.
“Uh…I believe we have a suspect rather than a victim,” Ranger Hawkins said. When the officers appeared confused, he faced the woman who’d identified herself as Ann and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself, young lady.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, glancing nervously at the others.
The ranger pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and held it up for the woman to see. “This is a copy of Ann Schultz’s driver’s license, Ms. Imposter. This, madam, is a picture of Ann Grace Schultz—Schultz is spelled with a C-H by the way.” He held the document alongside the woman’s face. “It’s a strong likeness, but you are not Ann Grace Schultz, are you?” he said, tugging at her wig and revealing her natural, stringy dark-blond hair.
The woman lowered her eyes and pressed her lips together. She glanced at the four other women, who by now were staring daggers at her, and she said, “I can explain.”
“I’m sure you can,” one of the deputies said, lifting her to a standing position and cuffing her hands behind her. “Where’s your coat?”
When she didn’t speak, he asked more gruffly, “Where’s your coat?”
She motioned with her head. “Out there in the car.”
“You drove here in a car?” Savannah asked.
car. I walked up from my friend’s cabin.”
The deputy nodded toward the other officer. “Get her coat, will you, Hank?”
“Hey, she’s wearing some of our clothes,” Colbi said. “Can we have them back?”
The deputy thought for a moment before saying, “Give me your name and address; I’ll make sure you get them. I’m not giving her the opportunity to slip away from us again, right, Miss Victoria England? Or is it Roseanne Willis today?” He took her coat from his partner and placed it across her shoulders. “Want to escort her out to the cruiser, Hank?” he said. He then asked the ranger, “Need a ride back?”
“Nah, I’ll get there faster in the skiff. Besides, I think I owe these Good Samaritans an explanation.”
“Yes, what’s going on?” Colbi asked.
Iris looked bewildered. “You mean she isn’t the missing woman?”
The deputy shook his head. “’Fraid not.” He then waved as he went out the door and said, “Better lock it.”
“So who is she?” Savannah asked the ranger while she bolted the door. “Why did she pretend to be the missing woman?”
The ranger grimaced. “She’s a nutcase who gets a thrill out of impersonating missing persons and other victims. She used to work in a sheriff’s unit in the Bay area until she was caught trying to collect on an insurance policy for a hit-and-run victim. I guess she kind of lost touch with reality and enjoys the attention she gets from nice people like you ladies.”
“But if authorities know who she is, why was she so eager for us to contact you?” Colbi asked.
“Yeah, she had Savannah and Colbi go out on that lake at night, for heaven’s sake, and risk their life for her,” Iris spat. “All the while it was a rotten scam?”
“She has fooled a few sheriff officers who don’t know who she is. I used to work in a department where she did this number a couple of times, so I got to know her.” The ranger shook his head. “Why does she want to be reported? I think she likes the thrill of it. What can I tell you—she’s a nutcase.” He glanced around at the women and scratched his head. “I want to apologize on her behalf. I’m sorry she put you in possible danger. And I want to commend you for being good citizens and trying to help. Don’t let this one bad apple keep you from helping others who may need it. Okay?”
Still in a mild state of shock, the women nodded.
“Thank you Officer…er, Ranger,” Savannah said.
“Yeah, for taking her off our hands,” Iris said.
“So poor Ann Schultz is still missing and possibly in danger?” Colbi asked. “Do you have any leads?”
He picked up his jacket and proceeded to put it on. “No. Other than the fact that we think she could be in this area, which, of course, is why this woman chose to strike here.” Bowing slightly, he said, “Now you ladies continue your vacation. Lock up and stay safe.”
Once the four women had watched the ranger walk away toward the boat dock, they closed the door, made sure it was locked, and stood speechless, each mentally reliving the drama that had unfolded before them.
“What just happened?” Iris asked, looking dazed.
“That was just too weird,” Colbi said.
“So it really happened?” Margaret asked. “It wasn’t a figment of the whiskey?”
Savannah shook her head slowly, then started to chuckle.
“What?” the others asked.
“Michael’s never going to believe it.”
“No one will,” Colbi said. “If I wanted to write that up, it would have to be fiction.” She yawned. “Well, I don’t know about you all, but I’m beat. That trip across the lake in the dense dark about frazzled my last nerve.” She waved her hand in the air. “’Night all. See you in the morning.”
“Wait for me,” Iris said, following her into the main bedroom. “I’m ready to crash, too.”
“Which couch do you want?” Savannah asked her aunt.
“Doesn’t matter. They’re both about as lumpy as they come.”
“Well, go sleep in the guest room,” Savannah directed.
Margaret spread three blankets across the brown sofa and climbed under them. “I’ll take my lumps, thank you.”
“You’re sleeping in your clothes?” Savannah asked.
“Yeah, I often sleep in my sweats on cold nights. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, I guess.” Savannah placed another log on the fire, turned off the light, then, making sure she had her pocket flashlight, made her way back to the green sofa. “Sleep tight,” she said as she began to undress and slip into the rest of her pjs.
The Sledge cabin had been quiet for several hours when Savannah became aware that she was not alone on the sofa. She jumped a little, then realized it was Rags who had joined her. “What are you doing?” she whispered. “You’re tickling my face with your whiskers; can’t you just lie down? Come on, Rags,” she said, patting the blankets next to her. “Lie down here.” But he continued to walk across her and mew.
After a few moments, she decided,
I guess I should thank him for waking me up; now I need to go to the bathroom. Where’s that little flashlight?
When she sat up and placed her bare feet on the floor, she stifled a yelp.
Well, there it is. I stepped on it.
Picking it up, she made her way to the bathroom with Rags walking back and forth in front of her. Upon returning to the living room, she put another log on the fire, poked at it a few times to make sure it was in the right spot, then eased back under the blankets and closed her eyes.
Suddenly, she thought she heard something. She glanced at her aunt in the glow of the fire.
When she looked toward the bedroom where Iris and Colbi slept, all seemed calm and quiet.
I guess it’s just those cats prowling around. Oh wait, Rags is right here with me. What’s he staring at? I think he heard it, too.
She followed his stare and gasped. It took her a few moments to realize that the scream she heard had come from her own lips.
“What was that?” Margaret asked, sitting straight up.
Within seconds, Iris appeared at the bedroom door, a look of terror on her face. She stared out at Savannah and Margaret.
Soon Colbi joined her. “What’s going on?” she hissed, her eyes wide and searching.
All Savannah could do was point.
“What did you see?” Margaret whispered, pulling her blankets up under her chin.
Savannah took a shallow breath. “Someone’s in that room.”
Iris, her fists clenched at her chest, stepped back a few paces and Colbi grabbed Iris’s arm. Margaret, in the meantime, reached down slowly and pulled out the frying pan from under the sofa. When Iris looked at Savannah again and saw the fright in her eyes, she clumsily vaulted onto the sofa next to her, holding tight to her arm. Colbi quickly followed.
“What was it?” Iris whispered, now focusing on the door to the guest room. “What did you see?”
“It…it looked like…” Savannah stuttered. She glanced across at Margaret. “…it looked like Amos Sledge.”
“What?” Iris hissed. “Oh Savannah, you had a bad dream.”
She swallowed hard and shook her head slowly. Her voice sounded pinched. “He was wearing those Harry Potter glasses…and…a tool belt.”
“Are you sure?” Colbi asked, her voice no more than a squeak.
“Yes. He stood right there. When I screamed, he backed into the room. My gosh, you guys,” she whispered. “He’s still in there.”
The four women continued to sit facing the guest bedroom, staring into the darkness beyond the partially open door, when Rags suddenly jumped off the sofa and walked in that direction.
“Rags,” Savannah called. “No.” She gasped and the frightened quartet watched as the door to the guest room creaked open a little wider.
“Dolly!” Colbi said, when she saw the tabby ease into the living room.
The cat gazed at Colbi, then darted into the other bedroom and disappeared, with Rags trotting after her.
“It must have been Dolly that you saw,” Iris reasoned. She chuckled quietly, “…wearing a tool belt.”
“No, it was a man. I’m sure of it,” she insisted. “A Harry Potter look-alike.” Her voice strained, she said, “It was Amos Sledge. I know it was.”