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Amy Grimes was bored with her life. She was bored with school, bored with her parents, bored with most of her friends, and had been well on the way to being bored with her boyfriend, Simon Church (of all things!), until he suggested that they just pack up and leave this very boring little town.
Amy was sensible enough even at seventeen to know that the suggestion had been prompted more by his failing grades in school and the six-pack of beer he’d polished off that night than any seriously deep feelings for her, but she discovered that she didn’t really care what had prompted the suggestion.
It suited her just fine.
Simon had worked construction since his midteens, and Amy was only one credit away from earning her certificate as a beautician at the nearby community college, so she was confident they could support themselves. She had her college savings (fairly pitiful, which was why beauty school) and Simon had two weeks’ pay in his pocket, and they decided that was enough to get started on.
Even after he’d sobered up, Simon was ready to leave Serenity and take Amy with him, even to the point of being willing to go along with her plans for a mysteriously secret buildup to their departure. She didn’t confide even in her girlfriends, because she knew all too well that one of them was bound to blab to her older brother or one of theirs, and before you could say scat everybody in town would know.
Since Simon was eighteen and had a decent car in his name—courtesy of his parents—all paid off and insured and everything, they decided to take that. And for nearly a week, they had a lot of fun in gradually sneaking into his car those items they felt unable to leave without. There was a brief argument about Simon’s flat-screen, but in the end he managed to make room and Amy agreed that they’d certainly need a TV wherever they landed.
Because that was the fun part, as far as she was concerned. No real plans. They’d just leave, and drive, and decide somewhere along the way where to settle—at least for a time.
“We’ll stop in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg,” she’d suggested to Simon, “and both write postcards to our families.”
“Then just keep going,” he said with some relish.
Amy nodded. “Then just keep going. We could head west, or north—wherever.”
“And our parents probably won’t even know we’re gone until they get the postcards,” Simon said.
Amy wasn’t so sure about that, given her father’s watchful eye, but she was still certain she could sneak out once her parents were in bed, and by morning she and Simon would be out of the reach of both sets of parents.
She was certain of that.
She just loved the idea that people would wake to find the two of them mysteriously vanished. She did spare a pang for the worry that would undoubtedly seize her parents but was certain a reassuring postcard in a couple of days would be enough to allay worry.
The plan was perfect. And over the course of just three days, they were somehow able to sneak their things from their respective houses and get everything in Simon’s car without anyone the wiser. Three days, and they were ready to leave, Simon telling his parents casually that he was spending that Friday night with a friend because they’d planned a very early fishing trip in the morning, and Amy all set to just wait until her parents were in bed to sneak out and join her boyfriend at the appointed meeting place just down the block.
It wasn’t until then that it crossed her mind that Simon hadn’t said anything at all about getting married, but she shrugged that thought off with careless ease.
It would all work out just fine, she was sure of that. And their departure would certainly give everyone something to talk about for quite a while. A mystery to brighten their dull lives.
She had no trouble sneaking out of the house, and it was just after midnight that Friday night when she slid into the passenger side of Simon’s Jeep.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Am I ever. Let’s get out of here.” Amy was looking forward to being, however briefly, a mystery in a town where nothing mysterious ever happened.
Even barely awake, Jonah Riggs groaned as the phone on his nightstand shrilled a demand. He was tangled in the covers as usual but managed to maneuver himself over far enough to grab the phone and shut it up.
Lying back with his eyes closed, he muttered, “It better be good.” He had gotten to bed somewhere near dawn after winning enormous imaginary sums at the monthly poker game the city fathers would have frowned upon—had they not been his opponents.
He didn’t know what time it was, but his aching head and scratchy eyes said it was too damned early.
“Sorry, Chief, but there’s something you need to see.” Sarah Waters didn’t sound all that sorry, but she was his lead detective, his second in command, and since she and his younger sister had played together in the sandbox, he was only mildly surprised she didn’t offer a more colorful and less apologetic awakening.
“It’s Saturday, Sarah. My day off. My first day off in three damned weeks. Can’t you handle it?”
“No,” she said simply.
That woke him up, because in her whole life, he’d never seen anything Sarah couldn’t handle.
He fought free of the covers and sat on the edge of his bed, running his fingers through his hair. He needed a haircut. “What’s going on?” he asked her.
She hesitated, then said, “It’ll be easier if you just come see for yourself. Honest, Jonah, I wouldn’t call you out here if I didn’t think it was important.”
He knew that. “Out where?”
“North side of town, off Main and about a hundred yards down Street.”
That was actually the name of the street. Street. Jonah had wondered more than once if they’d just run out of names, or if somebody had been having fun and it just stuck.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be there in fifteen. Oh—Sarah? Are we talking about an actual crime?”
“I’m not quite sure,” she replied.
He found that somewhat baffling but didn’t waste time with more questions. “Okay, you know the drill. Keep everybody back away from whatever it is until I get there.”
Jonah hung up the phone, frowning, and headed for the shower, hoping enough hot water would clear his head. Because so far, this was hardly a normal Saturday morning.
It got stranger.
Jonah seldom wore a uniform, virtually always in jeans, clipping his badge to his belt near the front, wearing his gun on his right hip, and depending on the weather, either a T-shirt or sweatshirt or else a light Windbreaker over a button-up shirt.
This Saturday morning in May was cool but comfortable, the middle-of-the-night rainstorm hours past. But it was also supposed to be an off day for Jonah, so he wore a sweatshirt with the faded letters of Duke University across his chest.
He had stopped at a coffee shop in town and swallowed some aspirin, but his head didn’t feel any better when he stopped his Jeep behind Sarah’s cruiser and got out to join her.
She was leaning against the front of her cruiser, frowning at another Jeep, this one pulled more or less off the road, with both front doors standing open.
Jonah didn’t see another soul about. Clearly, Sarah had decided against calling the station, for whatever reason. It wasn’t a large police station or police force, and it was rare to see more than one officer or detective out on patrol.
“Isn’t that Simon Church’s Jeep?” he asked as he reached her.
“Yeah. I checked the registration and tag to be sure.”
“So where is he?”
“The question of the day.” Sarah eyed him. “You up for this?”
He grunted. “Depends on what this is. You gonna tell me, or shall I figure it out for myself?”
Unsmiling, she said, “Take a look inside the Jeep.”
Jonah didn’t argue, just moved forward, sticking to the paved-road side of the Jeep. He had already noted that there were no skid marks, and no sign that the vehicle had been forced off the road. No body damage he could see, and all four tires seemed fine.
He looked in the front passenger door, and a nameless dread began to crawl up his spine. The vehicle was packed with stuff. Not stuff one would expect if a robbery had been committed—despite the flat-screen TV. Packed in tight in the back were clothes, shoes, luggage presumably holding more of the same and . . . things.
A stuffed bear sat atop a stack of books, squeezed in beside a golf bag. There was a basket holding an odd assortment of things that included a dog’s collar and leash, a can of WD-40, a laptop and tangle of cords and cables, a case holding CDs or DVDs, and a teapot.
Shirts and dresses and sweaters still on hangers were laid across luggage probably filled with the same sort of thing. There was what looked like a little sewing kit sitting atop a tackle box. There was a cooler of the sort most people used to transport adult beverages. There was another stuffed animal, this one a puffy cat, sitting atop a goldfish bowl where one lone fish swam rather desperately around in his shallow world.
Still bent forward and still without touching the car, Jonah turned his gaze to the front seat. Not much on the driver’s side. A little open change niche filled with coins and gum wrappers and at least two petrified French fries.
On the passenger seat, very neatly in the center, sat a purse decorated all over with beads and fake gems. It was very colorful.
Jonah straightened and looked back at Sarah. “You checked the purse?”
“Yeah. Amy Grimes. Her driver’s license is in a wallet that contains, I’m guessing, a few thousand dollars. I didn’t want to disturb anything even with gloves, until you saw it all.”
Jonah frowned at the Jeep another moment, then returned his gaze to Sarah. “All the earmarks of an elopement.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“Well, they didn’t get very far, that’s one thing. I’m guessing Amy sneaked out of her house sometime after midnight; even at a crawl, they should have reached the highway before dawn.”
Jonah glanced back toward town and silently agreed with her. Hell, even if they’d left at dawn, they should have gotten farther.
“Gas? They broke down?”
“Key’s in the ignition, as you see. I cranked it up. Tank’s full, and the engine seemed to be running fine.”
Jonah looked over the inside once again, then walked back along the Jeep until he reached the bumper. He lifted his brows at his lead detective. “Both doors found open.” It wasn’t a question. “Pulled mostly off the road. A purse with money. Valuables in the back. And the key in the ignition, making it easy for somebody to steal the whole shebang.”
Sarah nodded. “Now we come to the very weird part.”
“Now we come to it?”
“Yeah.” She stepped over onto the grassy verge and led the way just as far as the open driver’s-side door. “Look down there.”
There was no guardrail here, and the bank on the side of the road sloped gradually down to a flat area; from that, a vague path led toward a stand of trees while another vague path led off to the left, toward a distant creek. Neither of the paths was well traveled, just handy shortcuts, mostly for kids.
But right now both the bank and the flat area were more dirt than grass. Mud, since the rainstorm hours before.
Very clearly, two sets of footprints were visible going down the bank and to the flat area. One larger set, probably boots; one much smaller set, undoubtedly a woman or girl.
The prints were absolutely perfect, showing no slipping or sliding. The bootprints and shoeprints were side by side down the bank, to the flat. Where they stopped.
Where they just . . . stopped.
That wordless dread was growing in Jonah. “You’ve been down there?”
“Yeah. I stayed away from the prints, circled. There’s nothing, Jonah. And there should be. All around the place where the prints stop, there would have been prints if they’d gone on. There’s no way they could have jumped far enough, and no sign at all they did. No sign of a vehicle, no sign of a horse. No sign of a third person. I’d dare anybody to back up that bank, putting their feet in exactly the same spots as when they went down; it’s slippery as hell and there’s nothing to hold on to.” She drew a breath and let it out slowly. “If this is a prank, it’s a damned good one. But I don’t think it’s a prank. I think those two kids walked down that bank to the flat area—and something happened.”
“Something took them,” he said slowly.
Sarah nodded. “That’s the only thing I could think of. It’s like something just swooped down and carried them away. And judging by the footprints, they had to be lifted cleanly, straight up. No sign of a struggle. No sign of a fight. There are houses close enough to hear if someone had screamed. Even in the middle of the night.” Without turning, she jerked her head back and toward the other side of the road. “Mildred Bates is watching us from her front porch now; she sleeps with her windows open and the slightest sound wakes her. Her bedroom windows face this way. Less than fifty yards from here to there. If there had been any kind of a commotion, she would have heard—and called us. She didn’t.”
“So, where are those kids?” Jonah said slowly. “And how the hell did they just . . . vanish?”
Jonah didn’t voice what he felt, that what they were looking at was not exactly an ending—but the beginning of something. The beginning of something bad. The beginning of something that was going to shake his town to its foundations.