Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
Leo shot him a dirty look. “I’m not finished.”
Neil ignored him. His gaze lifted from the drawing to meet my eyes. “That’s her.”
“May I?” Not waiting for Leo’s answer, I plucked the sketchpad from his fingers.
“You spoke quickly. Sylvia made you repeat the description three times. If you gave me more time I could have done more shading but…,” he made a frustrated sound, my pal the perfectionist.
“Wow, she’s not a happy camper.” The picture was eerie in its stark black and white reality. Leo hadn’t just drawn the woman, he’d also included the darkened woods, to show her position on the road. She was tall and slender, almost waifish, with scraggly dark hair. Her age could have been anywhere from mid-fifties to early sixties. She wore a loose white gown, like an old fashioned nightgown complete with ribbon ties, but it was dirty, as was her flesh underneath. Leaves stuck to her feet, which were bare. The details of her face were the most amazing part of the drawing, a tight, grim mouth, sharp bladed cheekbones and a long aquiline nose. And her eyes….
I shivered. “She has crazy eyes. I remembered thinking ‘soulless.’” A murderer’s eyes.
“She might be mentally ill. There could be a group home somewhere and she got out and was wondering around,” Neil suggested. “It would explain a lot, like why she’s barefoot and why she disappeared.”
“But then she showed up at the library the next day,” I said. “Okay, it’s more than we had before. Maybe we should call Sam and—”
I cut myself off as I really noticed the exhausted faces of my companions. They’d spent the previous night in the car and been going nonstop all day. I might have indulged in a little hypnotic R&R, but they appeared done in. “It’ll wait until morning. Let’s all get some sleep.”
Relief showed on three faces and we all moved off to our respective bedrooms.
Neil did his SEAL thing of passing out the second his head hit the pillow but sleep eluded me. My mind bounced around with ideas and I wished I’d swapped Sylvia for the upstairs room so I could fiddle with my murder board.
Grants and Greys and ghosts, oh my!
Leo’s words from earlier had struck a chord in me. The three were connected, I would bet my industrial strength toilet cleanser on it. The Grants bought a house and claimed it was haunted. But no one else had heard of ghosts here until after the Grants sold the estate to the Greys. Why? And how did the woman in the drawing fit in?
A thought occurred to me. Veronica Grey had said that Aileene Grant had cursed Chris Grey for buying the house. I’d employed people before, cleaning partners. If any of them had hexed me to
face, I would have fired them on the spot. Yet Aileene Grant had been working for the Greys up until her death. Again, Why?
I snuggled closer to Neil and listened to Atlas snore. There was more to the Grant-Grey situation than I knew, some connection I was missing, but for the life of me I couldn’t imagine what.
Blackmail? The Grants had been employed by the Grey family for half a century. They had to have dirt on the family. But the Grants displayed no sign of overt wealth. They lived humbly as caretakers on the Grey’s estate.
So why had they sold this place?
I closed my eyes, frustrated at my lack of insight. Damn it all, I was spinning my wheels in the muck and getting nowhere with the investigation.
Leave it until tomorrow.
My mother’s sage advice echoed in my head. Was this weird, that I heard her? That I believed those who were gone still could impact the world I lived in? I’d never questioned it before, but the lines between life and death seemed more like streaky blurs anymore.
Atlas got up and whined at the door.
“Go to sleep,” I told the dog and myself.
He whined again and then scratched at the glass.
“Damn it, Atlas, lie down.”
A bark. Another scratch. At this rate he’d destroy the door and wake the entire household in no time flat. He probably had to go. Fine, I’d take him out to do his business and catch a breath of air.
I got up and slipped my feet into mules and slid the door open. Atlas was a blur as he streaked into the night, toward the old barn.
I slid the door shut and hurried after him. “Atlas!” Maybe he’d seen a squirrel. I just hoped it wasn’t a raccoon or a feral cat or something that could really mess him up.
The wind had picked up and I was glad we’d decided to sleep indoors. Shivering, I hugged the flannel PJs closer to my body. Where the hell was spring? It was April for crying out loud.
“Stupid dog,” I bitched as I tripped on a root. “What the hell is your damage, anyway?” I’d never wanted a dog, so why was it me who was responsible for his hairy hide? “Because I’m a pushover. And also a lunatic who wanders around in the middle of the night talking to herself. Way to go, Maggie.”
I heard his bark—he was definitely around the barn somewhere. Could he have gotten inside? I thought Neil said the door was barred from the inside, but maybe the wind had blown it open and then shut behind the fool creature.
I should check, just to make sure he was safe.
Another quick gust of air blew up my shirt and I shivered. The image of Leo’s drawing of the woman with the crazy eyes flashed through my mind. That was replaced with the bean nighe encounter the night before. What was the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If so, I was just as nuts as both of them. When had wandering alone in the dark with a murderer on the loose and a death sentence looming over me
seemed like a good idea?
Nope, I was going back to the house. Atlas would either come or he wouldn’t. If he didn’t, I’d wake Neil up and we’d go out together. Smart, sensible, or at least as close to sensible as I ever got.
Just then I heard a crash followed by a canine yelp of pain. Without thought, I whirled back around and ran for the barn.
The door slid open with little effort from me. I blinked at the sudden light that filled the space. It wasn’t bright and my eyes adjusted quickly. I searched for signs of my dog.
The back end of him struggled beneath a pile of debris. It looked as if the hayloft above him had collapsed. I sucked in a sharp breath, unable to believe he hadn’t been crushed. But his nails scrabbled on the ancient wood, his hind legs braced as he attempted to tug his way free.
“It’s okay, boy.” I moved to his side and crouched down for a better look. Thankfully he didn’t look hurt. His collar had caught on a nail that poked up out of the floor.
“I’m here. I’ll fix it.”
He wagged, then pulled again. I put a hand on his back to calm him as I weighed the options. If he kept tugging, he might pull it all down on both of us. Same if I added my weight to his. Our best bet was to unhook the collar from his neck and leave it behind.
I murmured soothing things as I reached for the buckle around his throat. He gave me a helpless, wide-eyed look. I told him he was a good boy as I finagled with the thick nylon. Poor fool creature.
Finally, the collar fell away and Atlas backed out. He woofed in gratitude, then moved forward and licked my face, a maneuver that I was never going to like, but tolerated. I checked him over quickly. A dark splotch of blood on his left ear was his only obvious injury.
“Who’s a big dumb dog? Huh? Who’s a giant moron? Gah!”
The gah slipped out when he shook his head with enthusiasm and sprayed me with droplets of his blood and saliva. “Oh, that’ll teach me to get all snuggly with you, you gross thing. All right, enough adventures for one night. Go on with you now, back to the house.”
Atlas charged out like his tail was on fire and I was about to follow him when the light literally dawned.
Because the barn was lit.
I looked around and saw a mattress in the far corner. A television sat on top of a milk crate in front of a moth-eaten chair. A microwave and refrigerator were pressed into the wall nearest them and extension cords snaked across to the nearest outlet.
Someone was living in the barn.
Living being the operative word. My shoulders relaxed—a ghost wouldn’t need a refrigerator.
Who though, and why would someone want to live in this rickety old place? It wasn’t safe. Atlas had proven that much with his shenanigans. Leo had even talked about hiring a demolition crew to take it down as soon as the house was finished. Maybe it was someone just passing through?
That thought dissolved when I checked the contents of the fridge. Yogurt, strawberry jam, a jar of pickles and yellow mustard, a brick of cheddar cheese and sliced salami, all mold free. No fresh fruits or veggies. A loaf of squishy white bread and an industrial-size can of peanut butter and several unopened packets of instant hot chocolate mix sat on top of the microwave. Not the healthiest diet in the world, but stuff that would last awhile, say in case someone couldn’t jet out to the store.
I shut the fridge and moved toward the television. Technologically speaking it was ancient, one of the old sets equipped with rabbit ears and a knob to change the channel. I turned it on, watched static, flipped a few stations with the same result and then shut it off again. Either it was broken or the television antenna was just as useless as my cell phone.
A threadbare floral comforter and hole-riddled sheets covered the mattress. I flipped both back, looked for any other clues and then straightened them out. The bedding wasn’t nearly enough protection against the elements. The barn roof sagged and had holes strewn throughout. They ranged in size from fist to volleyball sized. Various piles of what I suspected were mouse droppings mingled with the sawdust and manmade objects. On a cobweb-covered workbench sat a box of rat poison.
A person who chose to live here had to either be hiding from something or be completely nuts. Probably both at once. I had no desire to meet such an individual, not now, not ever.
Wind whipped through the open door and I didn’t wait for another sign—time to vamoose already. Though it was possible the occupant had moved on, the griping in my guts told me he or she could return at any moment and I seriously doubted he or she would be overjoyed to find me here.
I was halfway to the door when it clicked. My feet froze and my head swiveled back toward the workbench. My gaze fixed on the yellow box, the skull and crossbones warning. Rat poison had killed Aileene Grant. The same Aileene Grant who used to live in that very house, who’d been distraught when her parents had sold the property to the Greys. Was it the property she’d been reluctant to leave or someone who’d lived there? Who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—leave.
“Shit.” The oath came out as more of a croak. I had to get back to the house, to find Neil and call the sheriff—
Pain exploded against the back of my head. I stumbled forward, cracked my skull on the floor and the barn faded to black.
Chapter Twenty One
I awoke with a sense of being moved. Not carried precisely, but dragged. I groaned. The world spun without me. I was pretty sure I had a concussion this time and I thought my vegetarian chili might come up at any second. There was no light around me now, so either whoever struck me had turned off the lights or I was no longer inside the barn.
My arms were bound, as were my feet. Either my tongue had swelled to be all but useless or there was a wad of fabric jammed in my mouth. Something dripped onto my face. Rain? No, it was spray from the waterfall. The one that ran behind the barn. I tried to think through the pain, fight through the nausea. Seeing wasn’t doing me much good at the moment so I left my eyes shut and listened.
Something crinkled, a plastic sound. That was it, I was being dragged on a sheet of plastic or tarp. The realization offered me no comfort. Where the hell was I being taken?
“You shouldn’t come in, Gillian. You know better.”
Gillian? As in Gillian Grant? I writhed on the plastic to get my captor’s attention, and barely suppressed the urge to retch. If I upchucked with the gag in my mouth I’d probably choke to death on my own vomit. Not the prettiest way to go.
My abductor was still talking in a high, excited voice. “I saw you, in the truck with the man. You should have let him die. No one else needed to know, just us. Our little secret.” A giggle that made every hair follicle on my body stand on end.
Neil. She was talking about Neil. And though the voice sounded flat and inflectionless, almost asexual, I knew it was a she. That she was the woman with the crazy eyes, the one who had hit me in the library.
The forward motion stopped. I worked at the gag with my tongue, tried to get the thing out of the way, to speak and tell her I wasn’t who she thought. It wasn’t happening and another wave of dizziness swamped me. I was totally helpless. Again.
“They want to take me away,” my captor said. Even though she’d been hauling my plus-sized carcass for God alone knew how long, she didn’t even seem out of breath. What is it with psychos and superhuman stamina? My mental diatribe didn’t help so I forced myself to listen to her ravings. If she got worked up enough, her attention might be diverted and maybe I could escape.
She moved to stand in a spill of moonlight. Crazy eyes bore into me, leaving me cold to my core. “But this place is my home. Mine! I’m the guardian!”
Since I couldn’t speak, I nodded in sympathy, the same way Neil did when I was on a full-scale meltdown style rant. I’d have to control my temper better in the future, because if I looked anything like she did, it wasn’t a pretty picture.
The nodding accomplished zilch. She didn’t look at me. Her attention was fixed off to the side, her head cocked like a robin, studying the ground for prey. I got the distinct impression she listened to something only she could hear. Voices. She heard voices. Perhaps she was schizophrenic. The thought frightened me more than all the other possibilities that had come before it. People who heard voices did what the voices told them to do. Since I was pretty sure that this woman—whoever she was— had killed Aileene Grant, murder was definitely in her psychotic repertoire.
This was bad. Really,
Eyes lit with the fires of insanity fixed on me. “You can’t make me leave! I belong here!” she screeched at me.
Nodding wasn’t doing much good, so I just stared at her. Who the hell was she?
Suddenly, she crouched down beside me and stroked my hair in an almost tender way. “You should have chosen me, Gillian. I would have taken you in, made you a home. We could have been a real family.”
Living in a dilapidated barn on someone else’s property? Yeah, that sounded more fun than a barrel of wet monkeys. It was probably a good thing I was gagged so I couldn’t add verbal fuel to her fire.
Again her gaze went unfocused and she clapped her hands over her ears. “Go away, Aileene! You can’t tell me what to do anymore!” She rocked back and forth in a fervent motion, as though she were a baby being soothed into sleep. An eerie keening sort of sound left her cracked lips. So close, I could see her pale skin was blotchy with dry red patches. She was all bone and sinew, with sharp cheekbones and knobby knees. Though she was older than I was, something about her demeanor made her seem younger, almost childlike. My gaze fell to her grubby bare feet. It was a wonder she hadn’t caught her death running around without shoes in the cold.
Of course, if she had, I wouldn’t be in this bind.
Her rocking intensified, the cadence of her mental song going faster. An eerie calm descended over me, along with the certainty that whatever she planned to do to me, it would happen when her chanting ceased.
, I thought, as though I could summon him to this spot via telepathy. Stranger things had happened. She wasn’t armed and he could subdue her easily, without hurting her. No one had to die. It would all be all right if he’d only get the freaking message, ASAP.
The wail cut off abruptly and she froze. Her gaze burned with malice and I knew my time was up even before she reached over me for the edge of the plastic sheeting.
A surge of adrenaline spiked and I struggled anew, fought with all my strength and even managed to wriggle myself forward so she couldn’t bundle me in a plastic death shroud like a Maggie burrito.
She eyed me critically. “The water will wash you clean and carry your soul to the other side. Don’t struggle, Gillian. Your soul will be pure.”
“Yeah right,” I said, but the gag muffled the sound.
She picked up a rock and whacked me over the head again and my last sight before I passed out was the determination in her eerie eyes.
The jolt of cold woke me. Disoriented, I struggled for breath, only to find the plastic wrapped over my face, neatly cutting off my oxygen supply. Icy water seeped in over the edges of the plastic and I realized that the strange floating sensation I’d experienced was actually me sinking to the bottom of river.
That crazy bitch had thrown me in the freaking river!
The current pulled at the plastic, assisting in my unwrapping at least. My hands scrabbled for something to hold me still and I got a hold of a large rock. I couldn’t get a solid grip on it but I clung with all the strength those ten digits could muster. I twisted and turned and tamped down my panic at the serious lack of air.
The strong current ripped the plastic free of my nose and mouth. Triumph roared through me. I was still bound, still at risk of drowning, but at least I hadn’t suffocated the way she’d intended. At this point I’d take whatever victories I could get.
The rock scraped my skin even through my clothes and the crush of the current pressed me into it with tremendous force. I latched onto my rock like a baby orangutan clung to its mother. Even though my eyes were closed, spots floated behind my lids. I was moments from blacking out and this time I wouldn’t wake up.
I thought again. I couldn’t quit now. My drowning in the river while he slept a hundred yards away would devastate him. I had to make it through this for him and the boys and my brother and everyone else who depended on me.
One thing at a time, Maggie.
Mom was with me again, as though she sat on the rock and rooted for my pee-wee soccer team. Didn’t matter if I warmed the bench, she showed up because I needed her.
Focus. What has to come next?
Air. I needed to get at least my nose up out of the water. I had to follow the rock upward.
Disoriented, I literally didn’t know which way was up. I tried to put my bound feet down, only to have the current snatch them back into its grip. I had to get to the other side of the rock, to where I was actually protected a little from the relentless press of water and try again.
It was slow going, inching my digits across the unyielding surface. Beneath the waterline the rock was slippery and I lost my grip more than once. But somehow I managed to maneuver to one side.
My lungs burned, my muscles ached from lack of oxygen, and I was chilled by the cold water. I was seconds from sucking in as much river water as I could just to get it all to stop. My fingers actually broke the surface. I could tell because they grew even colder, wet from the water and then chilled in the wind.
I wriggled like a worm on a hook, but got my face up above the waterline. I was amazed and grateful when cool, clean air filled my lungs instead of gallons of river water.
Okay, laundry hag, good progress.
The rock offered me protection from the current and the gaze of crazy eyes, if she still happened to be watching. I could breathe. Worlds better than a few seconds ago.
But my euphoria was short lived as the cold seeped into me along with a new worry. No way I’d be able to stay that way forever. Was the water cold enough to cause hypothermia? I shivered in violent spasms. Trussed up as I was, I couldn’t simply stride out of the river and make myself a fire. And if I stopped shivering? Well, best not to borrow trouble.
The rock I clung to for dear life had been smoothed by time and the relentless press of the river. There were no sharp edges to use to cut my hands free. Dare I risk letting go with one hand to search the riverbed for a sharp stone? Because they were tied, I’d have to relinquish my grip with both hands and be at the mercy of the water. My adrenaline-charged strength was almost spent. The avarice of the current roared around me, almost like the river was hungry and ready to snag me back into its depths and devour me.
Long shot. And I had never been much of a gambler. But I didn’t have many alternatives. Every part of me hurt and I realized I’d stopped shivering. A very bad sign. Tears welled, useless and unavoidable. Had I come this far only to die in the struggle for life?
My head jerked in the direction of Neil’s call. He’d come for me. I tried to shout through the sopping wet gag but choked instead. Somewhere nearby a dog barked. Atlas.
“Maggie!” More voices further upstream. Leo and Sylvia. They were all out looking for me but they didn’t know where I was. Somehow I needed to find a way to get their attention. I couldn’t cry out but with great effort I lifted my legs as high as possible and splashed them back down. It wasn’t too effective, so I stretched as far as I could and let my weight float in the small eddy behind the big rock. My tethered feet rose and tried again with a much more satisfying splash. I felt like a beached whale flapping around, but didn’t hesitate to repeat the motion.
Then he appeared. Neil charged into the water like he didn’t even notice it. He plucked me from its grip, scooped me into his arms and made for the shore.
I wanted to tell him to put me down, to untie me so I could walk, but lacked the energy to say the words, never mind to follow through on them around the gag.
“Found her,” he bellowed in the direction of the other voices that still called my name. Neil didn’t stop though, just brought me straight up to the house. An odd sense of
swamped me when he carried me into the master suite and set me on the floor to turn on the tub. Hadn’t we started the day in there? Finally, he untied me. I coughed when the gag came out, but didn’t fight as he methodically stripped me to my skin.
He was silent as the grave as he removed my ruined clothing, then his own, picked me up and settled us both in the bath. I wanted to tell him I was in no mood to get frisky, but couldn’t manage around the pain. The warm water stung my chilled flesh. The water level rose and he unstoppered the drain to let the cooler water out while the hot continue to pour from the tap. His heat and the bath gradually penetrated my icy outer layers. My teeth chattered so hard I had to clench them together.
Neil inspected the latest damages to my person. I hissed when he touched the matching goose eggs on either side of my head. I squirmed and bitched as he poked and prodded. Eventually the inspection stopped and he just held me.