Read an Excerpt
Hypnotic regression. Those were the only words to describe the feeling that washed over Breanna Morgan as she climbed out of her silver Honda and gazed at her grandparents' small cabin. In the dusky light, its yellow logs and tin roof looked postcard perfect against the tree-studded backdrop of Hungry Hill. Flashbacks buffeted her, some sweet, some nostalgic, others painful. She stood rooted until her mind could assimilate the shock.
With a determined lift of her chin, Breanna strode to the aluminum driveway gate and swung it wide. The night wind whispered, a decibel louder than the gurgle of Graves Creek, following the stream's course as it twisted and turned through the canyon to spill into the white water of the Rogue River five miles west. Above Breanna, a clapboard sign dangled by one corner from the arbor that formed an entry arch. Its rhythmic, forlorn squeaking underscored the surrounding gloom. Glancing at the encroaching laurel and oak trees, she drew in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. After spending most of her twenty-seven years in the mountains, as a child playing in the surrounding woods, as an adult doing wildlife studies, the remote location of The Crescent Moon mining claim shouldn't bother her.
But it did. Vague unease wrapped itself around her and refused to let go.
Turning back toward the Honda, she saw her black dog, Coaly, had exited the car. He seemed bent on exploring everything, and that was a mighty big order when miles of oregon forests stretched in all directions.
"Come on, old man," Breanna called as she slid back behind the steering wheel. "It's time to get settled for the night."
The mostly Labrador mutt led the way down the drive, his incongruous plumed tail waving like a flag over his back. Some of his excitement spilled over to Breanna. She had always loved it down here. Once she settled in, maybe a little of the magic would return. It was a perfect environment for writing, much better than living in town with all the distractions that neighbors inflicted.
Parking near the retainer wall steps to facilitate unloading her hatchback, Breanna fished in the pocket of her faded jeans for her cabin key as she slid out of the car. Coaly ran circles around her for a moment, then veered away to sniff the foundation of the old barn. As she ascended the steps to the overgrown yard, Breanna could see the ravages of neglect everywhere. Weeds flourished in her grandmother's rose beds beside the house. The cement edges of the stone walkway were beginning to crumble. She didn't know what her cousin, Dane, had been doing during his visits here these last seven years, but it was clear he hadn't been caretaking. No wonder their grandmother had given the cabin to Breanna.
Four paces up the walk, Breanna froze, her gaze riveted on the front door. It hung awry on its hinges, swinging slightly as if someone had bumped against it only seconds earlier. The door frame was split and gouged where the sturdy dead bolt had been forced inward. Myriad emotions rushed through her. Disbelief turned to outrage, and both were quickly smothered by fear. Intruders caught in the act could be dangerous. Standing here, she blocked the only exit as effectively as a cork in a narrow-necked bottle.
The door swung slowly shut, then yawned open again, creaking on its hinges. Breanna jumped. Then she realized it was only the wind. Coaly lumbered up the steps behind her, tongue lolling, tail whipping against her leg as he passed. With no apparent presentiment of danger, he bounded onto the porch and gave the swinging door a nudge with his nose.
Trusting her dog's keen sense of smell, Breanna relaxed a bit. He'd be raising a ruckus if anyone was in there. Straining her ears for any unusual sounds, she advanced on the cabin. As she stepped onto the porch, her well-trained eye zeroed in on a footprint in the soft dirt next to the walkway. She leaned over to study it. A man's boot, judging by its size, one with a waffled sole. A hiking boot? It gave her an eerie feeling looking at it.
"Coaly, wait up."
The canine's response was a happy bark as he frolicked into the dark entry hall. Pausing on the threshold, Breanna pushed the door wide. No growls from Coaly yet. That was a good sign. She'd need her flashlight, though. It was black as a tomb in there. Hurrying back to the Honda, she dug into the glove box until her fingers curled around the cylinder of plastic.
Breanna switched the flashlight on as she entered the short entry hall. Glossy log walls burnished with age, just as she remembered. Gramps's hand-carved coatrack hung to her right. On her left was a She came to a dead stop and stared. A white face glowed back at her. For an instant that seemed like eternity, she couldn't move. Her blood pounded in her ears, a loud, rhythmic swish that deafened her. Then she recognized her own distorted image, reflected by an old mirror. She laughed, the sound squeaky and tremulous. If she didn't stop this, she'd have cardiac arrest before she reached the living room.
"Coaly? Come here, boy."
The hall spilled into the main living area. She eased forward, then fell back, waving her arms. Cobwebs. She sputtered, shining the light on her shoulder. Gray wisps clung to her sun-streaked brown hair. She brushed them away, then played the light over the river rock fireplace, the battered kitchen table, the lime-green gas stove. A thick layer of dust covered the sheets on the studio couch and sofa. More cobwebs were draped from rafter to rafter.
"Brother! Talk about a hard day's work; this is it." Her voice rang hollow in the room. The heavy smell of aged pine mingled with moldy dampness, making her shiver. "Gives me the creeps to think of sleeping in here."
First things first. For now, her major concerns were dealing with the broken lock on the front door and clearing a place to stretch out for the night. When she pushed through the curtained doorway to the bedroom, the tarnished brass bedstead gleamed back at her. It was the only valuable antique in the house; she'd been half-afraid it would be gone.
But when she came to think of it, nothing seemed to be missing. Breanna returned to the living room, flicking the light around. Gran's oil paintings of the creek hung above the oak mantel. The mahogany tables stood in their respective corners, the tops littered with Gran's odds and ends. A thimble. A short piece of fishing line. A garden trowel. Nothing disturbed, nothing stolen. A slight frown settled on Breanna's brow. It didn't make sense. Usually if you found your front door kicked in, your house was either vandalized or stripped of its valuables.
"Maybe someone got stranded out here and needed shelter," she said to Coaly. "Polite houseguests. They even left the sheets on the furniture."
The dog didn't respond with his usual bark, but she could hear his claws clacking on the planked floor. Training her flashlight on one of the paned windows, Breanna sighed. Night was closing in fast. She wouldn't sleep a wink unless she could lock up tight. Her earlier feeling of unease had escalated into a full-blown case of edginess. No phone, no electricity. Worse yet, no lantern. Where was it?
Fanning the light along the rafters, she spotted the old Coleman hanging on a hook above the stove. Red clay dust coated its base. It had probably hung there untouched since Gran's first stroke seven years ago. She could almost see her grandmother in the kitchen, flour streaking her apron, her salt-and-pepper hair swept back with tortoise-shell combs. The cozy picture accompanied her as she returned to the Honda to get her can of kerosene.
Forty-five minutes later, Breanna jammed a chair securely under the doorknob and knelt before the hearth to light a fire. Now that the car was unloaded, she could try to relax. Flames licked up the crumpled tufts of old newspaper she had found on Gran's closet shelf, blue tendrils curling hungrily around the sticks of kindling. Mesmerized, she stared at the smoldering newsprint. Then she noticed the date on the right-hand corner.
August twenty-third, ten years ago. Only a few days before the
Her throat tightened and she grabbed the poker, shoving the newspaper into the flames. Why on earth had Gran kept papers that old? And from that particular month?
Forcing the tension out of her shoulders, she glanced around. The yellow glow of flame and kerosene light cast the rooms into flickering shadow. How many times had she sat in this very spot, knees hugged to her chest, eyes transfixed on her grandfather's face as he told stories about John Van Patten's ghost and his legendary gold? Those were the memories she should dwell on, the wonderful ones that were the essence of her childhood.
Smiling, she rose to double-check the door. If someone wanted in, her makeshift barricade might slow him down, but that was the best she could hope for. Breanna tugged on the knob to be sure the chair was angled under it to the best advantage, still wondering who had broken in. The most likely explanation was treasure hunters. Gramps had sounded so convincing when he talked about the Van Patten gold that most people in this area thought the story was gospel. Even her cousin, Dane. Dane.
She hadn't spoken to him in years, but it wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that her cousin had given the house one last search before Breanna moved in. It would be just like him to come down here on the sly, thumping the walls for a hidden panel, checking the stones in the fireplace to make sure none were loose. Yes, it could have been Dane. On the other hand, it might not have been. Goose bumps rose on her arms.
As she reentered the living room, she noticed smoke escaping through the fire screen. Hurrying to the hearth, she grabbed the poker and shoved it up the flue to check the draft lever. Wide open. The chimney was blocked. Just what she needed. "I don't believe this!"
Coughing and waving her hand to clear the air, she stepped to a French window and threw it wide. Then, kneeling on the hearth, she again seized the poker and shifted the wood so it would burn more swiftly. Dousing it with water would only create more smoke.
The wood was laurel, deadfall from Hungry Hill. Its scent and the searing of hot smoke in her nostrils catapulted her mind into the pastto another night, another fire. August, ten years ago. Her knuckles went white as she tightened her fingers around the brass handle of the poker. Images flashed with Technicolor clarity, faster and faster until they came together in a hot, kaleidoscopic amber glare. Sweat popped out on her forehead, triggered by the panicky shiver of nausea that still swept over her whenever she thought about it. Arson, death, suspecting someone she loved. Guilt roiled within her. She wasn't sure which ate at her the most, believing Dane capable of such treachery or keeping silent about her own inconclusive suspicions.
Memories of that violent night lingered in Breanna's thoughts as she turned out the lantern and unrolled her sleeping bag on the sofa. She sank wearily onto a cushion, drawing her legs beneath her and propping an elbow on the couch arm. Her nerves were strung so taut that she couldn't lie down and rest.
The open window made her feel vulnerable. It would be so easy for someone to creep up on her. At least she had Coaly. She gazed out at the shadows in the moonlit yard. Just shadows, not an intruder. A rafter creaked above her. The lantern gave a final sputter, sending a prickle of alarm up her spine before she realized what had made the sound.
Seconds dragged into minutes, minutes into hours. Nothing but the usual noises. Breanna pulled the sleeping bag close, watched the window, blinked herself awake when her eyelids drifted shut. As exhausted as she was, she didn't dare sleep. An owl hooted. The sound of its call faded into silence, mournful, lonely. It was the last thing Breanna was aware of as she slipped into an uneasy doze .
It seemed only moments later that birds were singing her awake. She slipped off the sofa to stand at the open French doors, gazing out at the golden shafts of sunlight that spilled through the oak leaves. Home, she thought. This is how I remember it. The sweetness of Gran's roses perfumed the June morning, lightly blended with honeysuckle and the lingering fragrance of withered lilac blooms. Coaly slept on the lawn, warmed by a circle of sunshine.
Turning, she directed a speculative glance at the dusty stove. Breakfast would be short and simple. Her work was cut out for her if she wanted this place livable by nightfall.
By early evening, Breanna had given the last screw on her new front door lock a final twist. She had been busily working since morning, scrubbing the cabin, unpacking her things, driving to town for a lock and wood to replace the splintered door frame. She stood back to survey her handiwork with a sense of satisfaction. Not only had she accomplished a lot, but staying occupied had diverted her thoughts from last night's uneasiness.
Tossing her screwdriver into the toolbox, she leaned her head back and stretched. As tired as she was, it comforted her to know she would be able to sleep tonight, safe behind a locked door. Then a troubled frown pleated her forehead. Dropping her outstretched arms, she glanced over her shoulder. If she had felt it once today, she had felt it a dozen times. Eyes following her, making her skin crawl.
Was someone out there? Or had her nerves shoved her imagination into overdrive? She scanned the thick brush that bordered the creek. Nothing, not a sign of movement. Smiling at her own silliness, she bent to close her toolbox. Even if someone was there, it was probably a local from Wolf Creek or Leland. Sunday was a day for campers.
"Nice evening, isn't it?" a deep voice boomed.
Breanna gave such a start that she slammed the lid of the toolbox on her thumb. Pain ricocheted up her arm. She sprang to a standing position and turned with a muffled cry. A dark-haired man wearing jeans and hiking boots was striding up the steps. His shirt was such a brilliant red that she couldn't believe she had missed seeing him a moment ago.
"Where did you come from? Don't you know it can be dangerous, sneaking up on someone like that?"
He paused midway up the walk to study her, his steely blue eyes alert to her every move. "I wasn't sneaking. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
She gave a shaky laugh and dropped her gaze to his boots. Hiking boots, suede with red laces and waffled soles. She felt the blood drain from her face as she focused her attention on him. If this was her intruder, she could be in serious trouble. He was well over six feet tall with a good two hundred pounds to back up his height, every ounce hard, lean muscle. A camera hung from a braided strap around his neck, a Leica, the type only a professional photographer or serious hobbyist might carry.