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Not again. I can't let it all start over again. I've got to stop this madness, even if it costs me everything. I can't live if I take another life and now Carissa.
She's the light that fills Cedar Hollow. She brings sunshine from the gloom that seems to haunt Cooper land. I'll take my own life before I lay a hand on
But she knows too much about me. She's been searching for secrets that have to stay hidden, telling everybody she's gathering information for her school report. What if she's lying? Maybe the report is a cover-up .
Now that I think about it, she's been looking at me differently.
The kid is too smart for a twelve-year-old. She has other ways of knowing about me. I can't trust her. I trusted before and look what happened. I can't ever let my guard down or I'll lose everything.
I can't let Carissa tell what she knows.
Carissa Cooper stepped carefully along the muddy lane that led from the sawmill to the house, hugging the old business ledger that Dad had asked her to fetch. Aiming her flashlight at the tire tracks in front of her, she glanced into the darkness. Fear crept up and down her spine like spiders on patrol.
She wasn't usually scared of the dark anymore, but something about the movement of shadows bugged her. They shifted, changing shapes, skittering along the forested roadside with the movement of her flashlight, like the monsters that had waited for her in her closet and under the bed when she was six. She'd been scared of everything then, right after Mom left.
Now she knew better. Still, tonight she couldn't help imagining that eyes were watching her from those waiting clumps of brush and weeds.
If only her big brother Justin had come with her. If only he weren't still so mad at her.
"Should've kept my mouth shut," she muttered under her breath.
The sound of a quiet thud reached her from somewhere deep in the forest to her right. Horse's hooves? She stopped and listened, but all she heard was the whisper of leaves brushing against each other in a puff of wind. The branches made shadows leap across the trunk of the old walnut tree in the glow of her flash-light like bony arms reaching out for her .
The breeze died and the movement stopped.
Carissa swallowed hard, sweeping the light around her. She had less than an eighth of a mile to go, and here she was acting like a 'fraidy cat. She brought the small circle of light back to the muddy track as she stepped forward again.
What was all the fuss about with Justin anyway? So he was weird. Nothing new. He wasn't the only weird person in their family; he was just acting a little weirder lately. His habits were always making them late to church, late to school. It was embarrassing. This morning she'd counted the number of times he'd checked the front door to make sure it was locked before they left for school. Seven. Same as yesterday. Monday it had been fourteen. Probably to make up for missing his counting process Sunday morning, since they hadn't gone to church.
And she was getting sick of him turning out all the lights in the house at night before everyone went to bed. Last night she was in the bathroom brushing her teeth when he turned out the light on her, and when Carissa shouted at him, Dad got onto her. It wasn't fair.
She shifted the business ledger under her arm. If she dropped it in this mud, Dad would freak. He didn't like his stuff dirty. He and her cousin Jill were probably already wondering what was taking her so long, even though the whole family knew she was doing research on the history of the Cooper sawmill and the deaths ten years ago that nobody would talk about. She could get a good grade on this report if she could dig up enough information, but did they care? No. What she wanted never mattered.
This morning had been the worst thing yet, when Mom had called and Dad wouldn't let her talk to Carissa or Justin. Then Dad had freaked when Carissa picked up the extension. How could he pretend Mom never existed? Sure, Mom had been a jerk, but she was their mother. How could kids be kept from seeing their own mother?
That sound againthat thump of something heavy hitting wet earth in a slow rhythm. Horsewalk.
"Gypsy, is that you?" Her mare wasn't supposed to be in the front pasture, but sometimes she jumped the fence.
Carissa shuffled the ledger beneath her arm to keep it from sliding out of her sweaty hand. It continued to slide. She grabbed for it and dropped the flashlight straight into a gooey puddle. The splatter of mud startled her. The darkness seemed to attack her with glee.
"Stop it, stupid," she muttered to herself, reaching into the puddle.
She came up with a handful of mud, and heard the splash of water mingled with a rustle of brush somewhere behind her. Heart banging in her chest, Carissa tried again, feeling through the slick goo for the flashlight. She searched with both hands, forgetting the book until it slipped from under her arm and fell, splashing her with more mud.
Oh no! Dad would freak. He'd warned her not to
More rustling, closer.
Carissa froze, still stooped over, grasping the mudslicked book. Had she really heard something? Was her mind playing tricks on her? She waited, holding her breath, listening.
"Justin? That you? You'd better stop it or I'll tell Melva." Reporting him to their stepmother was a threat that sometimes worked.
Still no answer.
"Justin, I mean it. Stop it right now."
It had to be Justin playing a trick on her. She listened for his soft snicker. Nothing.
"Never mind Melva, I'm telling Dad."
She continued to search for the flashlight, but her movements grew slower and slower. She frowned.
Usually Justin would be making weird noises by now, just to scare her .
Was that breathing she heard?
"Justin Cooper! Dad'll skin you alive when he finds out you made me drop the ledger."
No answer. This wasn't like her brother.
But then, Justin hadn't been acting all that brotherly lately.
There was another rustle of brush, followed by another thud that sounded like a horse hoof.
Noelle Cooper's fingers stiffened in the process of making change for a customer. She caught her breath at the sudden unreasoning concern that gripped her.
"You okay?" the bearded man asked as he stared at the coins Noelle held poised over his outstretched hand.
She breathed again. Forcing a smile to her lips, she relinquished his change. "Sorry, Jack." She closed the cash drawer. "Guess it's past my bedtime. Hope you like that yogurt. If you want to cut your fat intake, you can skim the cream off the top, but for better taste stir it all together."
She waved him out the door, casting a glance around Noelle's Naturals, her health-food and supplement store. No other customers had slipped in while she was waiting on Jack, so she reached for the keys to lock up.
It was eight o'clock, straight up. Everyone else had gone home. Mariah, Noelle's silent business partner, kept encouraging her to keep the doors open a few minutes past closing on Thursday nights for a customer who had to drive clear across Springfield after work, but that man hadn't been here in three weeks, and there were hardly any cars parked in the shopping center lot.
Besides, Noelle felt strange enervated weak. Understandable enough, since she'd slept only a total of ten hours or so the past three nights. The insomnia was probably brought on by Joel's return. It had been too much to hope that her ex-husband would disappear from Springfield, Missouri, forever.
On top of everything, Mariah was away on a buying trip to Kansas City, and Noelle had been at the store since seven o'clock this morning. Why was it every time her partner left town all the grouches and complainers descended? For the past three hours, Noelle's face had ached from forcing a smile. If one more crank walked through that door
She locked it and returned to the cash register to balance her money with receipts, but then she paused and leaned against the counter. "Okay, Lord, what's happening here?" she whispered.
A ripple of unease brushed her nerve ends, as it had several times the past few days. But why? Usually, when she felt this kind of spontaneous sensation, she could take a few minutes to focus and she would calm down. This time it felt stronger. Different. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, picturing her favorite hiking trail, down by Hideaway. She would go hiking again soon. Very soon, she promised herself.
The constant bustle of Springfield tended to get on her nerves, and she tried to escape from the city at least two or three times a month. Although the nearby nature center offered a good occasional respite, she also needed a quieter trail now and then, with lots of trees and without anyone race-walking past her, chattering on a cell phone. Noelle loved people, but the public could overwhelm her. When she was hypersensitive, as she was now, she craved solitude.
She stretched her arms over her head to ease the tightness in her shoulder muscles. Everything in the store looked in place. She straightened a package of pumpkin seeds on the sale rack and returned to the counter, still unable to shake her anxiety.
There was something different about the way she felt tonight. Noelle knew it wasn't simply stress. Not this time.
The last time she had felt this way a loved one had died.
Carissa didn't move. Her heart was pounding so fast she could hardly breathe, and her throat felt so stiff she could barely swallow. She prayed silently, the way her favorite cousin, Noelle, had taught her to do when she was afraid. Keep me safe, Jesus. Keep me safe.
Something rustled the bushes at the side of the lane, and Carissa felt a low whimper sliding up her throat.
What if it wasn't Justin? Maybe it really wasn't anybody she knew. But who else would be down here in Cedar Hollow at night?
Carissa stopped breathing.
A footstep. Between her and the house. Forgetting about the flashlight in the puddle, Carissa swung around and raced back through the darkness toward the sawmill. She clutched the muddy ledger to her chest like a shield as she stumbled over weeds along the lane.
She heard more rustling behind her, a splash of mud, the sound of labored breathing and a soft whisper that blended so closely to the rustle of brush, Carissa couldn't be sure it was human . It sounded like the wind in the trees, except the whisper kept time with the rhythm of footsteps, and she thought she heard her name Carissssssaa
She let the ledger fall to the ground as she raced through the darkness toward the sawmill, stumbling into branches that seemed to reach out from the black line of trees on both sides of the lane. As she emerged into the lumberyard, the moon peered out from the clouds. She pivoted to her right and sprinted toward the side door of the huge building that housed the sawmill.
The footsteps behind her grew fainter, and when she reached the door, she risked a glance over her shoulder. A shadow broke loose from the hovering trees, but she couldn't tell who it was.
She yanked open the door and ran inside. She cracked her shins on something solid and tripped, falling hard on her left side. Her temple smacked the floor, stunning her. She'd left out a box when she'd been searching the sawmill earlier. Stupid!
The footsteps came closer, slowed and stopped. She sensed her pursuer was poised in the doorway, listening to her harsh, shallow breathing.
She scrambled to her feet, stumbled again, dizzy and confused.
A hand touched her shoulder. She screamed and skittered backward. Something caught her at the ankles. She fell back, slamming against the cement floor. Total darkness engulfed her.
Noelle dropped the bills back into their slot and shoved the cash drawer shut. Time to go home and go to bed.
She looked up to see a customer reaching for the handle of the front doorthe door she'd locked a few moments ago. Groaning inwardly, she motioned for the man to wait, then retrieved the keys from the drawer.
She could feel her neck muscles tightening as she walked toward the front of the store. She glanced outside at the dark sky, then at the pale impatient face of the waiting customer. She wasn't up to this, really she wasn't. She needed to get away sometime soon, away from the demanding customers, the complaints and traffic. She couldn't take
Again, that feeling of focused concern struck her, more powerfully intense this time. And even more focused.
She caught her breath. It had been so long since she'd experienced this this response. She closed her eyes, ignoring the man at the door.
"Oh dear Jesus." It was a prayer not a curse. "Is this" She opened her eyes, startled. "Carissa!"
Nathan Trask gritted his teeth and braked his black Chevrolet pickup to avoid hitting a flop-eared hound darting out in front of him, the dog's black nose following a scent.
"Sorry, fella, but that raccoon's probably long gone," Nathan muttered as the dog plunged into the brush on the other side of the road. "Could be we're both following a false trail."
A car honked behind him, and he increased his speed. Traffic in Springfield could rival the congestion of St. Louis or Kansas City during rush hours, but at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, Highway 160, south of Missouri's third largest metropolis, held some of the attractions of a country lane. Touches of yellow and burnt orange decorated the trees along the road this autumn morning, hinting at more color to come.
But today, the beauty didn't ease Nathan's tension. He knew, from a lifetime of experience, that Noelle Cooper had a formidable understanding of logic, and the idea that Nathan had been considering these past few hours was not logical. His best friend from childhood might think he'd gone nuts.
He forced his hands to relax on the steering wheel and unclenched his jaw. Maybe his desperation to find Carissa, along with a night without sleep, had addled his brain. But his memories of Noelle's particular gift were vivid, more so in the past few months, as the friendship that he and Noelle had shared long ago reestablished itself after years of life's intrusions.
He wasn't romanticizing the past, was he? Jumping to wild conclusions about Noelle's ability to find Carissa when the rest of them had failed?
Noelle adored Carissa, and she needed to know what was happening. He was doing the right thing, if for no other reason than to inform Noelle about something she deserved to know, since she and the girl were family.
He turned right before he reached the city-limits sign, then drove six blocks and turned right again, admiring the picture-postcard attractiveness of this increasingly familiar neighborhood. Since running into Noelle in downtown Hideaway earlier this summer, Nathan had started finding more and more excuses to visit Springfield, despite the three-hour round trip.
As he pulled into her drivewaysecond house on the left, the gray brick with black trimhe spotted her red Ford Escort through the tiny square panes of the garage window, which meant Noelle hadn't gone to work yet. Good. Maybe her partner could carry the load today, so Noelle could be free to come back to Hideaway with him immediately. After a cup of coffee; he really needed a strong dose of caffeine first.
Less than three seconds after Nathan rang the doorbell, Noelle opened the door. She focused on him slowly, pushing back a wave of tousled brown hair. Her brow cleared, and that familiar, affectionate smile lit the sleepy lines of her face.