NEAR BLESSED CREEK, PENNSYLVANIA
IT WAS DARKER than Savich was used to, what with no city lights within fifty miles. The moon was a sharp sickle, cutting in and out of bloated black clouds. He rolled down the window and sniffed the air. Snow was coming, he thought, lots of it, more than enough to build a snowman with Sherlock and Sean in the morning; then the three of them could tramp through the beautiful woods filled with spruce and pine to Lake Klister.
Savich started singing one of his favorite country-western songs, written by his friend James Quinlan, as he drove the straight road with snowcapped boulders and stands of thick trees on his left and a guardrail on his right. "A blameless life ain't no fun at all. I robbed that bank, laughin' till my belly hurt, till I-"
When there was a sudden pop, loud as a shotgun blast, he flung himself to the side in automatic reaction. The pop was followed by the hard slap of rubber against the asphalt. A blowout, a damned blowout. The Subaru's steering wheel jerked in his hands as the car's back end lurched wildly to his left. He gently eased the car into the skid and let up on the accelerator, but the Subaru's momentum lunged it into a snowbank. Despite his seatbelt, his head slammed against the steering wheel, stunning him for a moment. Then everything was quiet. Savich raised his head, shook it, hoped he hadn't hurt himself, and slowly climbed out of the car. The back driver's-side tire had blown.
All in all, he preferred the snowbank to going through the guardrail. He buttoned up his coat, wrapped his scarf tight about his neck, and cleared snow from beneath the left front wheel. Satisfied, he climbed back in and put the gear in reverse. The Subaru hardly hesitated, just backed right out, leaning heavily to the left. Savich climbed out again and collected the spare tire and jack. He called Sherlock, told her what had happened, told her he'd be about twenty minutes late.
The grocery bag from Lew's Friendly Staples, in the small town of Blessed Creek, had spilled over. Lew's Staples, he thought, was really for tourists; Lew was expensive, but his little store was open nearly 24/7 and that was what counted for everyone from out of town, that and the fact that the cabin where he, Sherlock, and Sean were staying for a long weekend was only ten miles away. He picked up a bunch of wizened carrots off the passenger-side floor, for the snowman's nose. The quart of two-percent milk for Sean hadn't burst open, unlike the lovely big watermelon, an unexpected find in the middle of January, in a nearly empty produce bin in a grocery store the size of his dining room. It had splatted open, drenching the microwave-popcorn box.
He wasn't about to clean it up now, but it didn't look too bad, maybe even most of it salvageable. As he jacked up the rear end of the car, he thought the watermelon looked rather like the cabin they had borrowed from Savich's boss, Jimmy Maitland, who regularly loaned it out to his friends and his college sons-it had taken them two hours of scrubbing before the cabin was habitable again.
It didn't take him long to change the tire. He was fastening down the last lug nut when he heard something. He turned to see a woman burst out of the trees twenty feet ahead of him, running directly at him, waving her arms wildly, screaming something he couldn't understand. Her hair was long, dark, and straight, flying back as she ran. Her face was stark white beneath the pale sickle of moon that suddenly shone down through the dark heavy clouds.She was still screaming when she reached him, her breath hitching. Words he couldn't understand bulleted out of her mouth.
He was on his feet in an instant. "It's all right. It's okay, you've found me. I'm an FBI agent. It will be all right." He left his SIG in his belt harness for now. She was so terrified she was heaving, speaking fast and high, hysteria smearing her words like thick grease. "The man, he's in the house! He's trying to kill me. Oh God, help me!"
She threw herself against him. Savich was startled for just a moment, then he took her arms and gently drew her close, patting her back. She wasn't wearing a coat, not even a sweater, only what appeared to be a light summer dress, with thin straps. "It's all right," he said against her hair. A young woman, not more than thirty, he thought, but so frightened she would collapse if she didn't calm down. He tried to soothe her, but it wasn't working. She kept saying over and over again, her voice breaking, her terror slamming him in the face, "The man, he's in the house, he's trying to kill me. You've got to help me!"
The same words, over and over, nothing specific, no names, nothing more than what she'd said since she'd run out of the woods. Her voice was hoarse now, but her hysteria kept building. Her eyes were dark, wild and terrified.
He clasped her face between his hands and looked right in her face. "Listen to me. I'm a cop. You're going to be all right. I'll protect you. Just tell me, where do you live?"
"Over there." She threw a wild hand in the direction off to their left.
"All right, is the man still there?"
"Yes, yes, he's there, he wants to kill me."
"It's okay, just hold yourself together. I'm going to call the sheriff."
"No, please, please, help me now, you've got to, take me back to the house, the man's there, please! Help me!"
"Why do you want to go back there if someone is trying to kill you?"
"Please, you've got to take me back. You've got to get him, stop him. Please!"
Savich drew back, held her arms in his hands and stared down into her white face. Her eyes were very dark, and her face was so white he thought she was going into shock. "The sheriff," he said, but she jerked away from him and began running away, off the main road.
He caught her in an instant. She fought, sobbing, the wild frenzy bubbling out of her, until he said, "All right. I'll take you back home. You can trust me. No, don't try to move. But it would be stupid for me to go there with you alone. I'm calling for help."
He held her by one arm, pulled out his cell and punched in 911. She made no move to get away. She stood docile and quiet beside him, saying nothing. The phone didn't work. But that made no sense. He'd spoken to Sherlock just a half hour before, calling from the very same spot. He tried again. The cell was dead as those shriveled carrots he'd just bought. It made no sense. He tried one final time. Nothing. What was he to do? "My cell doesn't work. It doesn't make sense."
"You've got to help me." He looked down into her white face. There was no choice. He could haul her into the car and drive to the sheriff's office, but he knew in his gut that she'd fight him like a madwoman. He saw her urgency, her fear, pumping off her in vicious waves. "Listen to me. I'll take you back to the house. It will be all right. Come back to the car with me."He put the groceries back in the bag and moved the bag to the backseat. He picked up the watermelon and heaved it into the trees, then helped her into the car and fastened her seatbelt. She whispered thank you a dozen times, maybe more, over and over. In that moment, there was no doubt in his mind that someone was trying to hurt her. He shook his head at the vagaries of fate. All he'd wanted was a nice long weekend where he could go for walks in the woods with his wife and his son, teaching him how to tell a spruce from a pine, and now he was back on the job. He turned the heater on high, but she didn't seem to notice. She didn't even seem to be cold.
"Where do you live?"
She pointed to a side road, up off the main road, to the right. "Up there, please hurry. He's going to kill me, he's waiting, he'll-"
Savich turned onto Clayton Road, narrow, but nicely paved. "This is the way?"She nodded. "Please, hurry, hurry-" She was heaving for breath, gasping. He drove in the middle of the road. Snow was piled up around them.
He drove around a corner to see a large house on a gentle rise to the left, lights shining from the windows on the first floor.
"That's it, yes, that's my house, please hurry, please God, you have to hurry-"
"Yes, we're here. I want you to stay here-"
But she was out the door, running to the front door, shouting over her shoulder, "Hurry, hurry, hurry! You've got to stop him!"
Savich pulled out his SIG, caught up with her, and grabbed her arm. "Slow down. This man-do you know him?"
She said nothing, wildly shook her head, sending her hair flying, and kept repeating, "Hurry, hurry!"
The front door was unlocked. Savich held her behind him as he opened the door, swinging his gun from side to side. He saw nothing, heard nothing.
He nearly lost her as she tried to jerk free, but he held her, saying, "Where's the living room?"
She seemed more terrified now than before, her pupils wildly dilated, and she was sobbing, incapable of speech. She pointed to the right.
"All right, it's okay, we're going in the living room." He moved slowly, carefully, fanning his SIG in every direction.
There was no sign of anyone. Nothing. It seemed to be an empty house except for the two of them.
There was a lovely fire burning in the fireplace, so she couldn't have been gone long. It was warm in the large room, even cozy, with all the lamps lit against the blackness and the bitter cold outside.
"Listen to me," he said, easing her down onto the sofa. "No, don't say anything, just listen. I want you to stay right here, do you understand?"
Her mouth was working, and he was afraid she was going to fold in on herself, but she slowly nodded.
"Don't move. I mean it. I want you safe, so don't move from this sofa. I'm going to search the house. If you see anyone or hear anyone, yell as loudly as you can, all right?"
Again, she nodded.
Savich looked back at her once again before he left the living room. She was sitting frozen, her hands on her knees, looking straight ahead at nothing in particular. One of the thin straps of her summer dress had fallen off her shoulder. Summer dress?
The house was large, one room opening into the next. Every single light was on, and why was that? Who would want to hide in a lighted room? He walked through the dining room and into the large kitchen, then into a mudroom. From the right side of the wide hallway, he looked through a library, a study, a half bath, and a small sitting room that looked like an old-fashioned woman's space, with a small writing desk, a plush love seat, and a lovely Persian carpet on the wood floor. There were lots of file cabinets in the room, and an old typewriter.There was no one lurking anywhere. He checked every inch of the first floor.
The man, the killer, whoever he was, was gone, and that made sense, of course. She'd escaped him to find help. The man knew that and had run himself. Savich walked quickly back to the living room. She was sitting right where he'd left her, her hands still on her knees, still staring, this time into the fireplace.
"There's no one here, at least on the first floor. The man probably ran away when you escaped. Now, you've got to tell me more. Who is this man? Do you know him? Why is he trying to kill you? Are you certain it's not a burglar, and you surprised him? He tried to kill you and you ran? Was he chasing you?"
She didn't make a sound. Slowly, she turned to look up at him. Then she looked up at the ceiling.
It was then he saw the wedding ring on her finger. Where was her husband? "You've got to talk to me, Mrs.-?"
She kept looking upward. Savich frowned as he looked up at the ceiling as well. It was a good nine, ten feet up, with handsome old-fashioned dark molding.
Suddenly, a noise sounded overhead, a thump of sorts, solid, loud, like a man's heavy footsteps, or perhaps a piece of furniture someone had knocked over. But how had she known even before he'd heard anything?
Savich felt a spurt of fear so strong his breath caught in his throat. He brought up the SIG and stared upward at that ceiling. There was nothing more, of course, no sound of anything. He was disgusted with himself. What had he been expecting?
He was getting himself steady again, drawing deep breaths, when there was another noise, but not a thump this time, he didn't know what it was.
All he knew was that someone was right above their heads.
His mouth was bone dry when he said, "Is the man up there?"
Her lips worked, but nothing came out but gasping breaths, full of fear too deep to understand.
"You stay here," he said. "Do you understand me? That's right, don't move. I'm going to take a look up there."
Savich walked to the wide staircase. Why were there no lights on upstairs? He climbed the stairs, his SIG held firm and steady, pausing every couple of steps to listen.
There it was, another sound. He was pissed now. Someone was playing games, the sorts of games that reminded him a bit of the most horrific criminal he'd ever run into, Tammy Tuttle, a nightmare that still haunted him when his brain shut off enough to let it in. But it wasn't Tammy up here. Thank the good Lord she was long dead.
The steps weren't carpeted, just bare solid oak, beautifully finished, and his footsteps echoed loud in the silent air. He felt the weight of each step, sure his feet were sinking just a bit into the heavy planks.
He reached the top of the stairs and paused a moment to listen. He didn't hear anything. He felt along the wall until he found a light switch. He flicked it on and the long corridor lit up. Here the floor was carpeted with thick old broadloom. He went into room after room, all bedrooms, most looking long empty, except for a well-used boy's room with posters of old rock groups on every wall, all sorts of toys and games covering the surfaces. There weren't any clothes strewn about and the bed was made. There was an old signed football from the undefeated 1972 Dolphins sitting in the middle of it. At the end of the corridor there was a huge master suite, the bed made, the whole space neat as a pin. He opened a closet to find a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt lying on the floor, and a pair of women's boots, one lying atop the other. He went into each of the five old-fashioned bathrooms, searched more closets than he cared to count, and finally he eased into a den of sorts, the walls covered with prints of London and Paris. There was no big media center, just a TV on a stand in the corner and what looked like a TV Guide lying precariously on top, a pool table, several easy chairs, and one ratty leather sofa that looked like it had been used for at least two generations.
There was only silence, thick and dead.
Whatever they had heard, no, whomever they had heard, was gone. Savich felt helpless, something he hated. He wondered if the man who'd made these noises had simply slipped out of one of the upstairs windows. Savich walked slowly back along the corridor, alert, his SIG steady in his hand. Suddenly he felt something, something that was close, something right behind him. Savich froze for an instant, then quickly, crouching low, he whirled around, his SIG up. No one was there, not even a dust mote, but the odd thing was that there was a heaviness in the air itself, as if something should be there, as if perhaps it was, just invisible to him. He shook his head at himself.
He had no idea what was really going on. The only one who could clear things up was the woman downstairs, seated on that flowered sofa, staring into the fireplace, wearing a dress more suited to summer than this bone-cold winter night. He could give her tea, calm her down, get her talking, convince her to let him take her to the sheriff.
He'd nearly reached the stairs when he heard another noise. It was above him.