Tess Lockwood drew in a sharp breath. She'd buried her memories deep, but the sign for Cold Creek, Ohio, brought the terror back. To face everything againto relive itno, she refused to do that. But they kept cropping up, tall as the cornstalks crowding the roads in this area.
She told herself that Cold Creek was a charming, quaint town but started to shake when she saw a sign stuck in the ground. Reelect Gabe McCord for Sheriff. It was with a few other local political ones, including a fancy poster to reelect Reese Owens, still mayor here after all these years. She'd tried to prepare herself for the fact that she was going to see people who reminded her of the past. But Gabe was the worst and she'd do everything possible to avoid him if she could.
Selling the family house she'd recently inherited was her immediate goal or she wouldn't have come back at all, especially at this time of year. But the day care center she wanted to buy would go to someone else if she didn't get some money fast. Her life's desire was to purchase the Sunshine and Smiles Center for preschool kids in Jackson, Michigan, where she'd worked for years. She planned to live upstairs and redo a lot of the space downstairs where she would teach and protect her young charges. The timing was doubly right since her renters in Cold Creek, her cousin Lee and his family, were moving out. Her mother had wanted to sell their house years ago, but it had no fields attached, and people hesitated to buy a place where a tragedy had happened. They had managed to rent it though, and were relieved that their cousins could live there for a while.
"Wow, four traffic lights uptown instead of one," she said aloud, thumping a fist on the steering wheel while she was stopped at the first light near the gas station. She needed a fill-up, but it looked pretty busy right now and she wasn't ready to run into familiar faces. "Like Gracie said, this place is so much bigger!" It felt comforting to talk to herself, as if she had someone with her, someone who really cared what happened.
Of course, she still had two sisters who cared about her, though Char and Kate were understandably upset that their mother had left the house only to her. On her deathbed Mom had said she owed Tess something for what had happened.
The Cold Creek Community Church they used to attend was at this end of the commercial district. She saw they had put on an addition. Piles of pumpkins adorned its lawn with a donation bucket out front for people to leave some money. Even in Jackson, you'd never seen something like that. Please Make Your Own Change, the hand-printed sign read. How she'd like to make a lot of changes in her life, banish the nightmares and the fear.
When the light turned green, Tess drove slowly to read the store signs. The doctor's office was still there but with a new name stenciled on the window, not Dr. Marvin, who had tended to her immediately after her kidnapping. The tiny storefront library they used to visit between times the bookmobile stopped by was still crammed between the hardware store and the bank. On the other side of Main Street she saw the Kwik Shop, where they used to buy groceries. She'd brought milk and juiceand two bottles of winein her big cooler. She also had cereal, bread, peanut butter and jam, so she wouldn't have to stop anywhere, at least right now.
Cold Creek had seemed huge when she left at age six, but she knew that was just because everything seemed big to little kids. Still, from the keep-your-chin-up phone calls from Lee's wife, Gracie, over the past few years, Tess had heard all about the recent growth of the town and its influx of wealthy retirees and weekenders.
She wasn't sure how people would react to her return. Although eighteen years had passed since she'd set foot here, would people still stare and whisper? They might not recognize her at first, but how quickly would word get around? They might give her those looks so full of curiosity and pity it made her feel ashamed, despite the fact that her mother, Dr. Marvin, that investigator Agent Reingold and the sheriff had said over and over that what happened wasn't her fault.
But was it her fault? After all, she'd run into the back cornfield and tried to hide when Gabe, their teenage next-door neighbor and the sheriff's son, had told her to cut it out and called her a crazy tomboy. That was where and when it all began. And maybe Gabe was right, because she'd felt a little crazy ever since.
In the space where the sheriff's office had been, she saw a gift shop, Creekside Gifts, its windows decorated with Halloween costumes, wooden black cats and corn shocks. Farther on beyond the tiny town square, a brick sheriff's office had been built next to a new volunteer fire department. The American flag and the Ohio state flag flew from a big pole between the two buildings. A police vehicle with Sheriff emblazoned on the side was parked in the small lot, but she saw no one around. Rod McCord had been sheriff when she lived in Cold Creek and his son, Gabe, held that position now.
He would be thirty-one now, because he was thirteen when her family left town. Gracie said Gabe had bought his parents' house, directly across the roadside cornfield from the Lockwood homestead she now owned, so they'd be neighbors, just like when they were children.
The third traffic light turned red and she came to a stop again. Gracie had told her about "the great divide," but now she saw it for herself. The west side of town belonged to the outsiders, the new folks who had invaded and kept pretty much separate from the townies, except on market day. Well, what did she care? Tess told herself as she frowned at a new restaurant, a tearoom, some shopsand an English pub, no less, in rural Falls County.
Her stomach clenched as she turned onto hilly Valley View Road. "You can do this, Tess," she said.
But as she drove down the two-lane road lined with tall, thick cornfields, she wasn't so sure. Especially when she passed the McCord place as the sun began to set atop the darkening Appalachian foothills and her family's old farmhouse crept into view. It seemed to leap at her. Even with the car windows up and the doors locked, she was certain she could feel the cornstalks clutching at her, rustling, whispering. She suddenly recalled being told to be quiet or the ears of corn would hear her. Who had said that? Mom or Dad?
"You're fine," she told herself. "You'll be just fine."
But she sat stock-still in the car at the bottom of the gravel driveway with the motor running until Gracie burst from the front door of the house and windmilled her arm to wave her in.
Falls County sheriff Gabe McCord left his cruiser about twenty yards outside the tall wooden gate of the Hear Ye Commune and walked closer. The place gave him the creeps, but the thirteen families of what he'd call a far-out religious sect had broken no laws and kept pretty much to themselves except on Saturdays when they had a big table of their produce at the farmers' market.
He'd received a complaint from Marian Bell that someone had seen a child at the Hear Ye market stall who resembled her lost daughter, Amanda, so he had to check it out. Gabe's theory was that the girl had been snatched by her father and taken abroad when the Bell marriage broke up, but Peter Bell had been impossible to trace. Amanda's disappearance didn't fit the pattern of the child kidnappings that had haunted his father and now him, but he was following all leads, desperate for any break in the long-standing case.
Although no one had disappeared on his watch, he still got heartburn over it in more ways than one. Worse, he was convinced his father had suffered two heart attacks running himself into the ground over the abductions. The so-called cold case of Cold Creek was always on the front burner for Gabe.
"Lee, how you doing?" Gabe greeted his former neighbor as he was walking across the grassy ground outside the fenced compound of meeting house, family buildings, school, gardens and workshops. Lee Lockwood was holding a forked willow branch straight out while pacing the grassy knoll. "Looking for wateror buried treasure?" Gabe asked. Most folks in the area knew Lee was a water dowser, which some in the area called a water witcher, as if it was evil or demonic.
"Oh, hi, Sheriff. Didn't see you coming. Usually we got guards out. You know, greeters who watch for strangers or gawkers. Got a lot of kids here to protect, including my two, now. And I really get into dowsing when I do it. Yeah, looking for water. Don't you go believing that buried treasure stuff you hear, nor the old wives' tales about locating ancient graves with a dowsing branch neither. It's just we could use another well since the water pipes don't come out this far from town yet. Been looking most of the afternoon though, and no go so far. I figure when cousin Tess gets back, I'll have her help me. She's got the gift too, you know."
He pointed the tip of the willow wand toward Gabe. Lee looked really nervous about his presence, but then some people were. The usually reticent man was trying to cover his unease up with talk.
Lee rushed on, frowning so hard his forehead furrowed. "Least Tess used to be good at it when she was a little kid. But I 'spose she don't want to be reminded of any of the old times."
"No. Me neither, but it's still an open case. Grace told me Teresathat is, Tessis coming back for a while to sell the old place. But aren't you going to miss living at the Lockwood house? Grace said your kids were doing fine in the public school, so why shift them here after only two months this year?"
"There's lots of benefits here. Protection from the world. Closeness to God through Bright Star, other things."
It was getting dark as the sun sank behind the tops of the hills where rain clouds were gathering. Gabe wanted to get this over with, but he stared into the face of the earnest young man and hesitated to get him involved. He was a first cousin to Teresa, now called Tess, Lockwood, the first child taken in the twoor maybe threekidnappings of young girls.
"Brice Monson has everyone here calling him Bright Star?" Gabe asked.
"Those who trust his guidance. 'You do well to heed a light that shines in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.' That's the way we look at Brice. The bright morning star in a dark world."
Gabe decided not to get into it with his former neighbor, who had just moved out last week. He'd seen Grace was still there, sweeping the front porch, waiting for Tess at the very house where the first kidnapping had happened when his dad was sheriff. That afternoon Gabe was supposed to be watching several neighbor kids. Thank God Tess had come back alive, because the other twoif Amanda was onehad not come back at all.
"See you later," Gabe said. He headed for the gate to the compound.
"Oh, hey, forgot to tell you," Lee called after him. "Everyone's down by the creek picking up walnuts to sell at the farmers' market, even Bright Star. He let me stay here because we need a new water well, like I said."
The compound did look deserted. Gabe walked back toward Lee. Was the man shaking or was that willow limb quivering in his hands of its own accord?
"You tell him I'll be back tomorrow morning a little after ten," Gabe said, hoping Lee was listening. He looked transfixed, staring at the ground where the stick seemed to point like a skinny, crooked finger. Was Lee putting on a show for him? Gabe didn't really believe in dowsing any more than he believed Brice Monson was some sort of modern-day messiah. But Lee looked so amazed that Gabe could only hope he'd remember to pass on his message.
As he strode back to the cruiser, Gabe couldn't help thinking Monson had picked a weird time to order everyone down by Cold Creek to pick up walnuts. Darkness setting in, a rainstorm coming. Gabe had helped his dad collect walnuts down there once. His hands were stained brown from it, and he'd run around the house pretending it was spattered, dried blood until he caught heck from his mother. "Blood on someone's hands is not fun and games!" she'd scolded him.
Did Lee actually have to get Monson's permission to stay behind? he wondered. This place was starting to sound worse than boot camp. Gabe was glad he hadn't mentioned what he wanted here. Monson might not agree to bring all the girls about Amanda's age for a lineup to see if the girl in the photo Marian had given him resembled her lost child. But Gabe was hungry for anything to make progress on these kidnappingsany lead, any hint, any clue.
As he got into his vehicle, he heard a rumble of thunder echo from the hills. It reminded him of things that made him uneasy when he needed to be in control, because it sounded like distant 155-millimeter howitzers, boom, thump, thump. Thunder often took him back to the day in Iraq when his Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit disarmed a huge bomb in a Kirkuk market before it could detonate. Even as they succeeded, other IEDs went off in the distance, echoing, killing some of the men he'd sent to another site.
After he fastened his seat belt, his hand darted to his chest. Sometimes he almost thought he could feel his army-issued pistol in its cross-draw holster from his duty days. Today he wore his weapon on his equipment belt. From his inside jacket pocket he pulled out the pictures of Marian Bell's daughter and the Hear Ye girl. One was a close-up first-grade school photo, the other a grainy, more distant one of the child in question, standing by the commune's market booth. He stared at the photos side by side in the graying light. Again, he vowed he'd somehow finish what his dad had left undone: find the phantom Cold Creek kidnapper, who took little girls and, but for Tess Lockwood, made them disappear.