Authors: Alice Sharpe
“How far away are these people?” he asked.
“About a mile. In fact, they’re closer to the river than I am. I’m surprised you didn’t stumble on them first. I can’t call ahead because my cell doesn’t work up in these mountains.”
“Maybe they won’t be home,” he said hopefully.
But a few minutes later they found a brand-new truck parked on a quiet wooded street in front of a modest green cabin. The few other houses around it looked empty.
Okay, one way or another he was going to have to trust a complete stranger, which come to think of it, pretty much described the entire population of the world except for Paige Graham. He sure hoped this didn’t turn out to be the mother of stupid ideas.
He followed Paige up the front steps, where she knocked on the door and rang the bell.
“Maybe they’re still asleep,” he said as they stood on their side of the unanswered door.
Paige tried the knob. The door opened as far as the dead bolt chain allowed. She called out, “Jack? Carolyn?”
There was no answer.
“Maybe they went for a walk,” Paige said. “That’s where I met them, on a morning hike in the forest.”
“Well, what a shame we missed them,” he said.
She started to close the door, then stopped. “No, they’re not out hiking. I can see Jack’s backpack over there on the floor. He told me he always takes it with him because he likes to be prepared.”
a Boy Scout. Great.” He pointed at the steps. “There are no tracks in the snow except ours.”
“Maybe they’re around back.”
“In this weather?”
“Don’t give up so easily,” she said, and marched down the steps and around the house like a general off to mount an attack. Once again he followed.
But the back of the house was as empty as the front. Paige sighed and said, “Well, we struck out, I guess. I could leave a note, maybe, or something.”
He caught her hand and pointed at the back door. It was closed, but what had caught his attention were the tracks that crossed the small deck toward a smaller door that probably opened into a garage.
Paige tore her hand out of his and ran up the stairs to the deck. He called her name, begged her to stop, but she was inside the house in a flash and once again he followed.
He arrived in the kitchen to find more prints on the floor and Paige disappearing down the hall. The smell of death lay heavy in the heated house.
Paige turned into a room on the right, and then she screamed. The sound sent chills down John’s back as he raced to help her. Still screaming, she backed out of the room, hands held in front as though warding away evil, her gaze riveted on whatever lay within.
John grabbed her shoulders. She turned into his chest and buried her face against him, the screams morphing into sobs, her body shaking violently. He peered over her head.
An older woman lay in the bed as though she’d been killed in her sleep, her throat slit. Blood sprayed the wall behind her, soaked into her bedding, pooled on the floor.
“Where’s Jack?” Paige mumbled as John pulled her from the doorway.
Good question. Still holding on to each other, they searched the small house but found no sign of the old guy. “We have to get out of here,” John told her at last.
She seemed too stunned to argue. He hurried her back the way they had come. Once out the door, he stopped abruptly. The footprints leading to the garage now took on an ominous feel. John opened the door with the fabric of his jacket, hoping against hope he wasn’t about to find what he knew in his gut he would.
“Stay back a minute,” he said, but Paige had already peered around him and they both saw Jack Pollock at the same time.
He was in his pajamas and slippers, and it appeared he’d been attacked by a maniac with a hatchet. There was so much blood it was hard to see what the man had once looked like. The car was gone, leaving tire tracks of red against the cement.
Paige was unnaturally silent and John looked down at her with concern. Her mouth was open, her eyes shut, as though she was lost in a cacophony of silent screams that ricocheted inside her head.
He pulled on her once again. “Come with me,” he said, closing the door behind them. They quickly retraced their path in the snow, both of them looking around as they moved for some sign they weren’t alone. This time John shuffled his feet, obliterating any of their clear footprints.
“Someone murdered them and stole their car,” Paige mumbled.
“I should have called the police from their phone,” she said as they reached the car. Without discussing it, she handed John the keys.
“They’re way past needing immediate attention,” he said, opening her door for her.
“But we can’t just leave them—”
“Yes, we can,” he said gently.
He closed her door and went around to his own side, slipping behind the wheel.
“John, you know what this means, don’t you?” she asked.
“I probably didn’t hurt the guy up at the park, yeah, I know.”
“Some kind of maniac,” he interrupted.
“Yes. I want to leave the mountains. Now.”
“As soon as I get my computer. I can’t leave that behind. All my work is on it. You can come with me if you want, but I can’t stay here. Not after…not after this.”
His gut twisted as he stared at her swollen eyes and pale face. In some illogical way, he knew he was responsible for what was going on. He could feel it in his bones.
“Let’s just hurry,” he said at last. “I don’t think those murders happened all that long ago.” He paused to look down the street and back the way they’d come. He saw no movement that suggested the killer hovered nearby, but threat seemed to hang in the air like cold, damp fog.
“I’ll be quick,” she said, her voice shaky. Tears ran down her cheeks and she flicked them away with her fingertips. He fought the urge to comfort her by starting the car. He didn’t dare touch her. He wanted it far too much and he wasn’t sure why, but the feeling their fates were interconnected had grown strong in the past few hours and the thought that whoever had done that to the Pollocks could do the same to Paige was more awful than he could bear contemplating.
“I’ll leave the mountains with you,” he told her. “For better or worse, we’re in this together.”
She covered her face with her hands.
He let her cry in peace.
* * *
ACK AT THE CABIN
dumped her coat on the bed and threw her belongings into her bag. She and John split up the rest of the chores, with John hauling things out to her car. She worked fast, although a combination of nerves and the vivid images of the Pollocks’ bloodied bodies made her clumsy.
John was outside packing the trunk when she took a last check of the kitchen. Might as well take things to eat on the road. As she grabbed a few apples and a chunk of cheese, she heard the back door open.
“John?” Closing the fridge door, she turned, intending to ask him to help her carry the last load out to the car.
It wasn’t John.
The cheese slid from her grasp and hit the wood floor at her feet with a clunk.
“Who are you?” she gasped, but she already knew.
The man filling the doorway six feet away had shaggy black hair streaked with white, and small, mean eyes. Though he wasn’t as tall as John, he was built like a bull, with strong-looking shoulders and big hands with a band of black and gold on the right ring finger. His face was etched with deep lines, his lips thick and curled in a sneer. The bulky jacket with a fur collar that he wore stretched tight across his chest and pulled at the one button he’d managed to secure.
Paige’s stomach flipped as she recognized the coat. It had belonged to Jack Pollock. Thin, wiry Jack Pollock. That’s why the coat was too tight for this man. The revulsion she felt was nothing compared with the horror that filled her as the light from the one weak bulb hanging from the ceiling glanced off the thick, curved blade of a dagger he held down by his leg....
This was the man who had attacked and killed the Pollocks—she knew that as surely as she knew anything, and would have even if their blood hadn’t stained his shoes, even if he didn’t carry that knife or wear that jacket. She could see it in his eyes. She could smell it. He was a predator and he was ruthless.
And from the look on his face, she was his next victim.
Terror momentarily drained her, anchoring her to the floor. And then just as quickly, the instinct to flee melted indecision.
She threw the apples at his face, turned and ran.
Out of the corner of her eyes she saw him react way faster than she’d expected. She screamed John’s name as she raced into the living room. The door seemed a mile away. She screamed again. Where was John? Had this beast already killed him?
The man’s heavy footsteps pounded right behind hers. He caught her hair and pulled her back against him right as the door flew open and John appeared.
Their gazes locked.
He held his gun, but he had to know, as did she, that it was empty.
What good was an unloaded gun against a monster?
“Mr. Cinca,” the man said in a thickly accented voice that sounded as if it came from inside a fish tank.
John winced. How did this guy know his name? “Who are you?” he asked.
“Come now. Don’t play coy with me.” He smiled—if you could call it that—and added, “You look surprised to see me again. You thought you got away. But what is a waterfall to man like me? I walk down long way when I hear shot, but I arrive in one piece. Now put down gun. The chase is over. No more games. Anatola Korenev has won.”
The guy’s accent nudged itself against the void of John’s missing memory. For the first time since waking up on the riverbank, he felt close to grabbing on to something about himself, but the feeling had no sooner blossomed than it wilted away.
“How did you know I was here in
cabin?” John asked, biding for time. He had to figure out where Paige had put the ammo clip. He should have collected it the minute they got back here. What was wrong with him?
“I followed you from old people’s house. Good luck for me I see you. You are losing your touch. Maybe rocks bang you on head too hard.”
“Maybe,” John said, swearing silently at himself. He’d known better than to agree to come back here, but he’d been so moved by Paige’s grief he’d allowed sentiment to get in the way of survival. And now it looked as though they were both going to pay for it.
He’d been trying hard not to meet Paige’s gaze, afraid he’d weaken if he saw her fear. When he finally did, he found anger burning behind the terror. And then she glanced at the desk drawer and back at him. She’d stuck the giant knife there the night before—had she put the ammo there this time?
“I propose a trade,” Korenev said.
“What kind of trade?” John asked as he gauged the distance he had to cover to get to the drawer.
“Hand over gun and girl goes free.”
“Oh, come on,” John said. “Did you try the same lame thing on the Pollocks before you murdered them?”
“Not exactly,” Korenev said.
“I don’t get it,” John said. “Why did you kill them that way?”
Korenev shrugged. “Old man caught me stealing car. Had to die. Woman might hear car start and look out window. Anyway,” he added, shrugging, “overkill suggests crazy person. Someone like you, maybe. Give me gun or girl will be dead before she hits floor.”
“Go to hell,” Paige managed to gasp. It earned her another throat-tightening squeeze, and this time John saw the gold on the man’s finger. Paige’s body grew limp and her eyes rolled back.
“Here,” John said, holding the gun by the barrel with the empty grip down and pointed away from the brute’s sight. He advanced a few steps and didn’t have to work to inject panic in his voice. “Leave her alone, take the gun, let her go, I’ll come with you.”
“Put the gun down,” Korenev repeated.
But John kept advancing, talking a mile a minute as though he couldn’t stop himself. “No, no, you take it, here, please, just take it, let her go, don’t hurt her, I’ll come with you, let her go....”
He was finally close enough to shove the revolver at the guy, who grabbed it by the grip. John steeled himself to take whatever opportunity presented itself.
Paige, more or less cast aside in the transaction, slumped to the floor. A second later, it was obvious Korenev realized the ammo clip was missing. Enraged, he threw the gun at John, who dodged to the left. The weapon landed beside him and slid across the floor out of sight into the bedroom.
The attacker came at him with the knife held above his head, roaring like a banshee.
Paige was a blur at the desk as John fought to avoid the blade directed at his chest. “The clip is in my coat!” she yelled. John avoided the downward slash of the knife. Paige’s coat was on the bed. At least he thought it was. Six short feet to save the day. Might as well be six hundred....
Barely dodging another slice-and-dice attempt, he glimpsed Paige advancing with the cleaver in her hand. Their attacker must have sensed her behind him. He turned quickly and slashed at her as she raised the cleaver to protect her head.
Suddenly, the room filled with screams of pain and a geyser of spurting blood. For one terrible moment, John thought Korenev had slit Paige’s throat. But it wasn’t she who was injured. With the force of his own strength, Korenev had driven his right hand across the cleaver blade and lost his index finger in the process. His bellows rattled the windows as he tucked his maimed, bloody hand under his arm and advanced on Paige with a murderous fire burning in his eyes.
Paige had dropped the cleaver in the impact and was now backed against the wall as John darted into the bedroom to get the ammo. Her coat was on the bed but it had four pockets, all zipped, and he wasted precious time feeling around trying to find the right one as Paige’s screams pealed through the cabin. At the same time, he scanned the floor, in search of the gun. There it was, against a floorboard on the outside wall. He finally found the right pocket.