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His new partner shook his head. "You never know with these old houses. Nooks and crannies everywhere. Did you get into his files?"
"We could take the laptop with us."
"Just to let him know we were here? No, thanks." A suggestion like that made him wonder. Was this guy dumber or more reckless than he looked, or was it a test? They'd been working together for a week, but they might as well have been standing at opposite ends of the morning bus for all they'd got to know each other. "Anyway, a laptop's too easy to lose. Not a good place to store something really valuable."
"Maybe he destroyed it, like he said."
"I know him."
There was a short silence. "We can look again." "Right. And when he gets home, he can give us a hand."
The little guy from town, sniffing and gurgling as usual, came down the stairs from the second floor. "He's supposed to see an implement dealer in Brandon next Friday. It's a couple of hours both ways, never mind looking at equipment."
As hard as it was to believe, the farm seemed to be the real thing. "Friday it is. We'll have all day. If it's here, we'll find it."
A pool of murky light cut a few feet of gravel road out of the darkness. Liz reached over the steering wheel and wiped her already damp sleeve through the condensation clouding the windshield. Trembling beads of water stood on the glass, then slid, in little zigzagging streams, to the bottom. In seconds, the fog began to form again. She cracked open the window. Crisp cold air, full of the smells of fallen leaves and field fires, flowed into the car.
She must have taken the wrong road. Some people might have an internal compass, but she didn't. North was wherever she was pointing, west and east were always changing places. The turn-off had felt right, though. Her body had seemed to tell her to turn, as if her cells remembered the way even if she didn't. Since then, not a single landmark. Just miles of bush and empty fields, and the odd furry thing darting in front of the car, evidently sure where it was going. So much for cells.
Liz glanced at the clock on the dash. Two hours since she'd left the lights of the city behind. It felt like ten. If Susannah had been navigating, they'd be warm in their grandmother's kitchen by now. They had planned to come together, one last visit for old times' sake, after Susannah had finished her season's digging for bones and Liz her new children's book. But Sue had looked up from her fossils long enough to fall in love with the man digging beside her, and instead of coming home to Three Creeks with her cousin, she'd gone off to the gobi Desert with her new husband. It wasn't old times without Sue.
"Now, what's this?" Liz slowed almost to a stop. A few dots of light to her left suggested a house set far back from the road. She could just make out a scraggly grove of bur oaks. It was the Ramsey place! She'd done it, after all. Five minutes stood between her and a gallon of tea.
No need to worry about fogged windows nowshe could drive this last section of road blindfolded. A clear view might be safer, though. Liz held one finger on the switch that had seen so much action over the past couple of hours, and the driver's window hummed all the way down.
Above it, she heard another sound. She turned to look. A car was coming right at her.
Her stomach lurched. She wrenched the steering wheel to the right, and floored the gas pedal. Her car surged forward and sideways. The rear tires bit into loose gravel and the back end began to skid. Just a little, then sharply, right before she saw the deer. On the side of the road. Deep in the ditch. Everywhere.
They bolted. All but one. Sides heaving, knees locked. At the last moment, it leaped away, the white of its raised tail flashing once before it disappeared. The car slid past the place where the deer had stood and came to a jolting stop when it met a rock at the crest of the ditch.
Liz sat, trembling, her hands clutching the steering wheel. Where was the other car? It had come out of nowhere. No headlights. No horn. She fumbled for the recessed door handle. Cold air hit her legs when she stepped out of the car, and her heels sank into soft gravel. Heels. They'd seemed just right in Vancouver.
"Is anybody there?" Rustling noises came from the ditch. Small, slinking noises. Liz moved closer to the middle of the road, to the smooth track where tires had worn away the gravel. "Hello?"
She walked a short distance on legs that still wobbled, reluctant to go farther than her car's headlights reached. She peered along the road and into the ditches on either side, trying to distinguish in the shades of darkness, shrubs from rocks from empty space. There would be a glint from metal or glass, if a car had crashed. A smell of burning rubber, or the sound of an engine still running. The other driver must have gone. The new neighbor, maybe, the pumpkin farmer who'd bought the Ramsey place last year.
Everyone was all right, then. That was the main thing. Even the deer was all right. She had been so sure it would die, that it would come through the windshield, sharp hooves flailing at her head, and she would die, too. There were always deer on the roads in fall. They wandered from field to field, grazing on stubble and hay bales, gorging themselves before winter. She had forgotten.
The car door was wide open, and at last the windshield was completely clear. Liz buckled up, then eased her foot onto the gas pedal. The wheels turned, and there was a skin-crawling scrape of metal against rock as the car ground forward. She'd never damaged a car before, not enough to notice, anyway. Had she got the extra insurance? Twelve dollars for peace of mind, the clerk at the airport rental desk had said. She must have got it. Still, they'd be angry.
At jogging pace, she drove until she came to a bend where the road curved to follow the largest of the three creeks. For anyone reading a map, it was still Creek Road from here on in, but locally it had always been known as Robb's Road. It was narrow, darkened by Manitoba maples that filled the ditches and nearly met overhead. When she and her brother and cousins were children, it had seemed like part of their own land. They'd walked or ridden their bikes or horses right down the middle, surprised, and a little indignant, if cars came along raising dust and expecting space.
The woods thinned, and the house came into view. Her grandmother had made sure she couldn't miss it: two stories of light glowed through the maples and elms in the yard, tall narrow windows and a wide front entrance beckoning. As she turned into the driveway something emerged from the lilac bushes, a large, slow-moving shape that divided into two as it drew nearer. Black labs. There had always been black labs at Grandma's, quiet dignified dogs who kept a careful eye on visitors. If they knew you, their dignity fell away and they brought sticks and fallen crab apples for you to throw. These two didn't know Liz. They trotted ahead of the car, out of the way, but watching.
"This is so weird," she whispered. An odd, disjointed feeling had come over her, as if there were a fold in time, as if the past and present occupied the same space. She could see herself at five, at ten, at fifteen all coming up the driveway with her now, all greeted by the dogs. Like the Twilight Zone. That couldn't be good. The Twilight Zone never had a happy ending.
The driveway was empty. Relief mixed with disappointment. She'd half expected her entire family to be waiting, arms outstretched. Not that it would have been as big a group as it used to be. The family wasn't replacing itself with its old gusto, and not everyone chose to farm and live along Robb's Road these days. Even her parents had retired to White Rock, an hour south of her apartment, close enough for Sunday dinners.
Liz lifted her overnight bag from the passenger seat. There were two larger cases in the trunk, filled with clothes and presents and sketches to show her grandmother, but she'd leave them until morning. Now all she had to do was get safely past the dogs. She pushed open the car door. "Hey there, big fellas."
"Bella! Dora!" The dogs pricked up their ears and bounded toward a small figure on the veranda, by the side door. "Elizabeth, you're not afraid of these pups, are you?"
"Grandma!" Liz hurried to the house. She let her bag drop to the ground and gently wrapped her arms around her grandmother. Bella and Dora stood quietly, reserving judgment. "Of course I'm not scared."
"They're Flora's granddaughters." Eleanor's voice was muffled by Liz's shoulder. "You remember how friendly she was. By tomorrow they'll think they've known you forever. Now, come inyou're shivering. Didn't the heater work?"
"It was the fan. I had to leave the window open to see. Then your new neighbor came crashing out of his driveway without headlights and nearly ran me off the road" Her grandmother gave an anxious exclamation. Liz wished she hadn't said anything. "I'm completely fine. Nothing to worry about."
Just inside the door, she stopped. A man sat at the kitchen table drinking tea, a stranger with unblinking silver eyes. He put down his cup and stood, one hand outstretched. "Jack McKinnon. The neighbor."
His voice was warm and medium-deep. Now that she was closer to him, she could see that his eyes were light gray, not silver. They looked watchful. Like the dogs, suspending judgment. She smiled, but his expression didn't relax. "The car was going the other way, toward the highway, so I suppose it couldn't have been you."
He lifted her overnight bag onto a chair. "You think it came from my driveway, though?"
"It must have. Nothing else intersects with the road there. I hope it wasn't somebody causing you trouble."
"Boys up to no good on a Friday night," Eleanor said. "They'll settle down once hockey starts." She exclaimed when Liz gave a sudden shiver. "You're chilled to the bone! No wonder, with your sleeve so wet. Let's get you out of this coat." She pulled while Liz shrugged her way out of the sleeves. Jack McKinnon took the coat and hung it on one of a series of hooks by the door.
Eleanor patted an armchair beside the wood-stove. "Come sit by the fire." She shook out a crocheted afghan that had been folded over the back of the chair, multicolored squares edged with black. "Wrap that around you, and we'll get a hot drink into you. I should have told you to stay in the city overnight, or to take the bus out. You're not used to country driving anymore."
Liz pulled the afghan up to her chin. The wool was itchy, but it was warm enough to be worth it. "Please don't worry, Grandma. Why don't you sit down? You and Mr. McKinnon."
"Can I help, Eleanor?"
"If you'd bring over a cup of tea? Clear, unless she's changed her ways."
The neighbor appeared in front of Liz, holding out a cup three-quarters full of a liquid so dark she couldn't see the pattern at the bottom. Eleanor liked her tea strong. No loose leaves, no added flavors, no subtle blending of green and black, just plain tea strong enough to stain the cup and your teeth and keep you up half the night. Liz handled the cup carefully. It was the special-occasion Spode. She hadn't seen it since all the hullabaloo after her marriage.
She pulled her mind away from the memory. Her grandmother and Jack McKinnon bustled around together, arranging two more chairs and a small table near the stove, bringing cups and cream and sugar. Eleanor had hardly changed since her last visit to Vancouver. She looked a little smaller, a little thinner, but her short white hair was still permed into gentle curls, and she wore the style of dress she always had: knee-length, belted, three-quarter sleeves. She sewed them herself, apparently from the same pattern each time. This one was cornflower-blue, one of her best colors. The kitchen was the same as it had always been, too. Nothing seemed moved or worn or different in any way, as if the room had been turned off when Liz left fifteen years ago, and had just been turned back on now.