Read Shadow Creek Online

Authors: Joy Fielding

Tags: #Suspense, #Thriller

Shadow Creek (25 page)

BOOK: Shadow Creek
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Hi, Ellen
, she read, the words floating across the screen on a wave of Percodan.
Just wanted to let you know that Wayne and I got back from Paris yesterday—you can check out our photos at franandwaynemcquaker.com—and it was wonderful, as always. It really is the most beautiful city in the world. Of course Wayne’s back was giving him trouble and I had a terrible cold for the first part of the trip. And we had such awful turbulence on the plane ride home that my ears got completely plugged. Frankly, it still feels as if someone is standing behind me with their fingers in my ears. Most irritating. Anyway, I’ll tell you all about everything this weekend. Wayne and I are so looking forward to our visit. It’s been way too long. Love, Fran
.

“Franandwaynemcquaker.com,” the girl said, feeling their surname sticking to her tongue.
“McQuaker … McQuaker,”
she spit out, as if trying to dislodge it. She sank back against the pillows, her mind trying to focus through the haze that was rapidly enveloping her. What did good old Fran McQuaker mean,
I’ll tell you all about everything this weekend?
“Wayne and I are so looking forward to our visit,” she repeated aloud, the words not quite registering, their meaning elusive.

She noted that the message was dated this afternoon. “Looks like we might be having company,” she said as her eyes closed. She’d have to tell Kenny some potential victims were on their way. Although he wasn’t calling himself Kenny anymore, she
reminded herself, trying—and failing—to remember the new name he’d come up with.

Probably should have gone easier on the weed, she thought, laughing as she opened the third and final e-mail. Not to mention the Percodan. “Might as well have a look at what’s behind door number three.”

Hello, Mother
, the message began.

The girl edged forward in her seat, the previous e-mail already forgotten. Now this could be interesting, she thought.

Katarina just told me she thought you might have phoned the other day. It was a bad connection and she was in the middle of doing something and couldn’t talk. She sends her apologies. So how’s everything up there in Shadow Creek? (The name still gives me the shivers, by the way.) Everything is good here in sunny, unshadowy California. Willow and Mason are enjoying camp and Katarina has started taking acting lessons, hoping to land an agent. My law practice is doing well and my golf game’s even better. Shot a 78 the other day. Handicap getting closer to single digits. (That’s a good thing.) I’m afraid it doesn’t look good for coming out east in the fall. September is such a busy time, what with my practice—we’re contemplating merging with another firm—and the kids going back to school, and casting season in full swing. Why’d you have to get married in September anyway? Maybe you could think about coming out here for a few days next spring. There’s a great new restaurant just down the way from us and we could celebrate your fiftieth there. Make that fiftieth and a half. Pretty impressive. Anyway, think about it. Say hi to Dad for me. Bye for now, Ben
.

“Well, now, aren’t you the loving son?” she thought, feeling strangely angry on Ellen’s behalf. “Can’t make it home for your parents’ anniversary, but hey, you shot a seventy-eight. Good
to know somebody has his priorities straight.” She yawned, stretching her arms high above her head. “How to respond, how to respond. Let’s see,” she said, hunching forward over the computer. “
Dear Ben. Dear, dear Ben. My darling son. Ben, you sack of shit
 …” She grinned, the grin stretching across the entire lower half of her face. “No, I think I can do better than that.”

Dear Ben
, she typed slowly with her thumbs.
Don’t worry about not being able to come to our fiftieth anniversary party this fall. Your father and I have decided to get a divorce. Love, Mother
.

She pressed Send, then collapsed in a fresh fit of giggles.

That was when she heard the noise outside. She jumped to her feet, letting the computer slide off her lap and fall to the floor. “Hello?” She edged cautiously toward the front door. “Is somebody there?”

Her question was answered by a loud knocking.

She ran into the kitchen, grabbing a large knife from the counter, her head suddenly very clear. “Who is it?” she asked, her ear to the door.

“Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Laufer,” came the immediate reply. “It’s Henry Voight. I’m with the park rangers.”

The girl hid the knife behind her back as she opened the door to the handsome young man in uniform. “My grandmother’s asleep,” she began.

“I’m really sorry to be bothering you so late,” he began. “I didn’t realize the Laufers had visitors. I’ve been patrolling the area and I saw your lights were on or I never would have knocked. I just wanted to make sure everything is okay.”

“That’s so sweet,” she told him. “You must be freezing. Why don’t you come in? I’ll make you some lovely peach and cranberry tea.” She was smiling as she ushered him inside, closing the door after him.

NINETEEN

A
T PRECISELY TWO O’CLOCK in the morning Val awoke from an unpleasant dream, the details of which were already evaporating by the time her eyes were fully open. Something to do with being chased by a hooded giant with a hook where his hand should have been. Great, she thought, as a familiar tug on her bladder pushed the last fragments of the dream from her mind.

She sat up, realizing she had to pee and wondering if she could hold out until it got light out. Another twinge told her there was no way she’d be able to make it through the night and she might as well make the trip now rather than lie here uncomfortably for hours, only to have to succumb to nature’s call eventually anyway. If she got up now, at least she had a chance of falling back to sleep. “Melissa,” she whispered, wriggling
free of her sleeping bag and hoping her friend was awake enough to accompany her. “Melissa, are you up?” But Melissa was sleeping soundly and even a rough push on her shoulder failed to rouse her. “I have to pee,” she told her anyway.

An eerie stillness had settled over the campground, like a thick fog. Except for the myriad of insects wildly circling the lights that shone from the high posts at strategic intervals throughout the camp, nothing moved. Rain was definitely in the air. Whatever possessed me to make this trip? she wondered for the hundredth time, the unanswered question pursuing her to the area where two dozen porta-potties stood like sentries, surrounded on three sides by tall pines and spruce trees. As soon as it gets light, she decided, I’m getting the hell out. I never should have come. What in God’s name was I thinking?

She picked the closest portable and opened its door, her eyes automatically scanning the dark interior for unwanted spiders or snakes. “And wouldn’t that just be the icing on the cake,” she said, quickly lowering her jeans and hovering above the plastic seat.

Which was when she heard something moving around outside.

Damn it, she thought, holding her breath and waiting.

For a few seconds, there was nothing. Val was beginning to think it had been her imagination, along with her bladder, working overtime. Which was when she heard the noise again. The telltale crackling of branches, the muffled shuffling of feet drawing nearer. An animal? she wondered as the door handle began to jiggle, causing the entire structure to shake.

Someone—or some
thing
—was trying to open the door.

The Hook Man
, she thought, and might have laughed had she not screamed instead.

“Sorry,” a familiar voice said immediately. “I didn’t realize anyone was in there.”

“Jennifer?”

“Valerie?”

“You scared the shit out of me.”

“Well, at least you’re in the right place.”

Seconds later, Val emerged from the john, still shaking, although this time more in anger than fear. “Was that supposed to be funny?”

“Sorry,” Jennifer apologized again, barely managing to suppress a grin. “Did you think you were going to find a bloody hook hanging from the door handle?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Val said testily. Damn that James and his stupid story anyway.

“Sorry,” Jennifer said a third time, sidestepping Val and disappearing into the next portable.

How is it possible that anyone can look so damn good in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere? Val found herself wondering. The young woman was wearing no makeup, but even under the harsh overhead lights her complexion was still flawless, her hair artfully tousled. Even when she was all dressed up for a night on the town, Val had never looked that effortlessly put together. She always looked as if she just needed another ten minutes.

Which was what Evan had always claimed to love about her: that careless confidence, as he’d once called it. Well, she was still acting as carelessly as ever, but what the hell had happened to her confidence?

You were fearless
, Gary had said earlier. But maybe
reckless
was the better word.
Proceeding with a potentially dangerous course of action without thought to its consequences
. She’d certainly
been guilty of that lately. How else to explain what she was doing here?

The door to Jennifer’s portable opened and Jennifer emerged, luminous blue eyes widening at the sight of Valerie still standing there. “You didn’t have to wait for me,” she said, appearing genuinely touched. “That was very sweet of you.”

Val was about to contradict her, tell her the truth, that she hadn’t been consciously waiting for her at all, that she’d simply been lost in thought, then decided against it. Hell, if Jennifer wanted to think she was sweet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, she was too exhausted to argue. “Not a big deal,” she said instead, starting back toward their tents.

“I owe you another apology.” Jennifer hurried to catch up to her. “For the mean things I said earlier.”

Val continued walking.

“I was tired and cranky and upset.”

Val offered no response.

“I was feeling very sorry for myself.”

Val stopped, swiveling on her heels toward the other woman. “There’s no need to keep apologizing.”

“No. I owe you that much, at least.”

Yes, it’s definitely the least you owe me, Val thought. What she said was “It’s okay. I understand.”

Jennifer’s blue eyes opened even wider than before. “You do?”

“Believe it or not, yes, I do,” Val surprised herself by saying, even more startled to realize she was telling the truth. “You’d been looking forward to the weekend. You thought you were going to be spending three days with the man you love and his daughter in a luxurious spa hotel, not camping out in the woods with his disgruntled ex-wife and her two somewhat less than conventional friends. I get it. I really do. Enough said.”

Jennifer’s lips trembled, as if she might burst into tears. “Thank you.”

Val brushed the other woman’s gratitude aside with a tired wave of her hand. Forgiveness was more exhausting than she’d imagined. “And you don’t have to worry. I’ll be out of your perfect hair in the morning.” She resumed walking.

Jennifer was immediately back at Val’s side. “I’m sorry about what happened before with Brianne.”

“Enough with the apologies.”

“I should have told you about Tyler.”

“You didn’t want to betray her confidence. I get it.”

“I just really wanted her to like me.”

Val sighed, once more stopping in her tracks. “She does.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer said again. “I know this must be very hard for you.”

“I don’t need your sympathy.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Please. I think you’ve apologized more than enough for one night. Let’s give it a rest.”

They returned to the center of the camp, Val debating whether or not to continue on to Gary’s tent as soon as Jennifer went inside hers, but Jennifer sank to the ground in front of her tent instead, hugging her knees to her chest.

“You’re not going inside?”

Jennifer shook her head. “I don’t like it in there.”

Val glanced toward the voluminous dark clouds that were gathering around the moon like a hostile gang of delinquents, preventing its light from escaping. “Looks like it’s going to rain. You’ll get drenched.”

Jennifer looked up at the sky, then back at her tent, and didn’t move. “I’m kind of claustrophobic.”

“Oh.” Val paused, not sure what else she could say. “I thought
you just didn’t like anything where you weren’t in control of your feet.” She recalled the conversation they’d had the day before. Was there anything this girl wasn’t afraid of?

“I guess I must seem pretty pathetic to you.”

“No more pathetic than I probably seem to you.”

“I don’t think you’re pathetic.”

“I don’t think you are, either.”

A brief moment of silence, then, “Can somebody else join this little lovefest?” James emerged from his tent. “Or are dogs not welcome at the table?”

“I’m really so sorry about that,” Jennifer said as Val groaned.

“Please tell her to stop apologizing.”

“Stop apologizing,” James said dutifully, lowering himself to the ground. “So, what’s going on here? Are we bonding?”

“Jennifer is claustrophobic.”

“Really? I read somewhere that all phobias are actually a fear of death.”

“I read the same thing,” Jennifer said brightly, clearly thrilled they’d found some common ground.

“And just what are you afraid of, James?” Val asked.

James thought for a few seconds before answering. “Teenage girls.”

Val laughed, glancing over her shoulder toward his tent. “Speaking of which, how’s my daughter doing?”

“Sleeping like a log. Hasn’t moved a muscle all night. Or at least, hasn’t moved since she stopped getting up to go to the bathroom every two seconds.”

Val felt a dull headache starting to gnaw at her temples. She closed her eyes, trying to block out the thoughts she felt forming.

“Something wrong?” James asked.

“Do you mind if I go in there to check on her?” Val was already moving toward James’s tent.

James was immediately behind her. “Why do I have this sudden, horrible feeling in my gut?”

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