Autumn Sommers tossed and turned, an icy fear creeping over her. Gooseflesh rose over her skin and moisture popped out on her forehead at the vivid, frightening images expanding into the corners of her mind.
A little girl raced across the freshly mown front lawn of her suburban home, laughing as she played kickball with her friendsa child five or six years old with delicate features, big blue eyes and softly curling long blond hair.
"Get the ball, Molly!" a little red-haired boy shouted. All of the children were around the same age.
But Molly's curious blue eyes were fixed on the man standing on the sidewalk holding a fuzzy black-and-white puppy. Ignoring the ball, which rolled past her short legs into the shrubs at the edge of the yard, she hurried toward the man.
"Molly!" Angry, the little boy raced after the ball, picked it up and gave it a sturdy kick back toward the other children, who squealed with delight and chased after it.
Molly saw only the adorable little puppy.
"You like Cuffy?" the man asked as she reached up to pet the dog with gentle, adoring strokes. "I have another puppy just like him. His name is Nicky, but somehow he got lost. I was hoping you might help me find him."
Lying in bed, Autumn shifted restlessly beneath the covers. "No
" she muttered, but the little girl couldn't hear her. She moved her head from side to side, trying to warn the child not to go with the man, but little Molly was already walking away, the puppy held snugly in her arms.
" Autumn whispered, but the little girl just kept walking. Still clutching the puppy, the child climbed into the car and the man closed the door. He made his way to the driver's side, slid behind the wheel and started the engine. An instant later, the vehicle rolled quietly down the street.
"Molly!" shouted the red-haired boy, running toward the disappearing auto. "You aren't supposed to go off with strangers!"
"Molly!" One of the girls clamped her small hands on her hips. "You're not supposed to leave the yard!" She turned to the red-haired boy. "She's really gonna be in trouble."
Worried now, the boy stared down the empty tree-lined street. "Come on! We've got to go tell her mom!" The children started running toward the pathway that led to the house.
When the boy reached up and slammed the knocker down hard on the door, Autumn awakened from the dream.
Her heart was thundering in her chest. Staring up at the ceiling, she blinked several times as the dream slipped away. Then she dragged in a couple of calming breaths; the dream was over. Yet she remembered it clearly and was still unnerved by what she had seen.
With a sigh, Autumn glanced at the glowing red numbers on the digital clock beside her bed. It was almost 6:00 a.m., her usual time to get up. She was a fifth-grade schoolteacher at Lewis and Clark Elementary, though the summer break had just started and she was off work until the first of September. She punched off the alarm before it buzzed and swung her legs to the side of the bed.
Grabbing her quilted pink robe from the foot of the bed, she raked back her short auburn hair. It was naturally wavy; she only had to shower and towel herself dry and her hair fell into soft russet curls around her face. For her busy athletic lifestyle it suited her perfectly.
Autumn thought of the dream as she headed for the bathroom of her twelfth-floor condo. Were the images she had seen a result of something she had watched on TV? Maybe something she had read in the newspapers? And if they were, why had she experienced the same dream three nights in a row?
The shower beckoned, steam rising tantalizingly up inside its glass doors. She stepped beneath the soothing spray, then spent several minutes soaping and washing her hair, indulging herself in the warm, caressing water.
A few more minutes spent in front of the mirror to apply a light touch of makeup and fluff out her hair, then she headed back into the bedroom to dress for the day. In jeans and a T-shirt, she went into the living room, a cozy, sunny area with sliding glass doors at one end leading out onto a balcony overlooking downtown Seattle.
With her father's help, she had purchased the condo five years ago, just before real estate values had gone completely out of sight. She would have preferred one of the small Victorian homes near the Old Town district, but the condo was all she could really afford.
As a compromise to living a high-rise lifestyle, she had furnished the interior with antiques and hung lacy curtains at the windows. She had pulled up the carpet in the living room and replaced it with hardwood floors, then covered them with floral rugs and painted one of the walls a soft shade of rose. The bedroom was done in a floral print and she had bought a canopy bed.
The apartment was homey, nothing like the house in her dream, which, she had noticed last night, appeared to be a large custom-built, beige stucco tract home with fancy brick trim. She had only gotten a glimpse or at least remembered only enough to get the feeling the area was fairly exclusive, the children nicely dressed and obviously well cared for.
Autumn sighed as she grabbed her purse and headed for the elevator in the hall. She was meeting her best friend, Terri Markham, at Starbucks for coffee before she headed over to her summer job at Pike's Gym. One of the things she liked best about living in the city was that everything was in walking distance: museums, theaters, libraries and dozens of restaurants and cafés.
The grammar school where she taught was only a few blocks away, the gym just up the hill and Starbucksher favoritesat down on the corner.
Terri was waiting when she arrived, twenty-seven years old, the same age as Autumn, a brunette who was slightly taller and more voluptuously built than her own petite, five-foot-three-inch frame. Both women were single, both career women. Terri was a legal secretary at one of the big law firms in town. They had met five years ago, introduced by mutual acquaintances. They say opposites attract and maybe that explained the friendship that had grown between them.
Autumn pushed open the glass door leading into the coffee shop. Terri shot to her feet and waved from the back of the room.
"Over here!" she called out.
Autumn wove her way through the tables that were packed with morning coffee drinkers and sat down in one of the small wrought-iron chairs, gratefully accepting the double-shot, non-fat latte that Terri shoved toward her.
"Thanks. Next time it's my turn." Autumn took a sip of the hot foamy brew that was her favorite morning drink and saw her friend frown above the rim of her paper cup.
"I thought you were staying home last night," Terri said.
"I did." Autumn sighed, catching the concern in Terri's glance. "But I didn't sleep very well, if that's what you're getting at."
"Honey, those dark circles are a dead giveaway." She grinned. "I didn't get a whole lot of sleep, myself, but I bet I had a lot more fun."
Autumn rolled her eyes. Everything about the two women was different. Where Autumn was interested in sports and loved being out-of-doors, Terri was obsessed with shopping and the latest fashions. And when it came to men, they couldn't have been more opposite.
"I thought you stopped seeing Ray." Autumn took a sip of her coffee. "You said he was dull and boring."
"I wasn't with Ray. I'm through with Ray. Last night at O'Shaunessy's I met this really hot guy named Todd Sizemore. We really clicked, you know. We had this, like, incredible karma or something."
Autumn shook her head. "As I recall, you said you were going to reform. No more one-night stands. You said from now on you were going to get to know the guy, make sure he wasn't just some deadbeat."
"Todd's not a deadbeathe's a lawyer. And the guy is terrific in bed."
Terri always thought the guys were great in bed the first time they made love. It was after she got to know them that the problems began. Autumn's emotions were too fragile to handle casual sex, but Terri was far more outgoing and spontaneous. She dated as many men as she could fit into her busy schedule and slept with whomever she pleased.
Autumn rarely dated. Except for her two teaching jobsone at the grammar school and the other at exclusive Pike's Gym where she gave classes in rock-climbing, her passion in lifeshe was kind of shy.
"So I know why I didn't get any sleep," Terri said. "What about you? You didn't have that weird dream again, did you?"
Autumn ran a short, neatly manicured nail around the rim of her cup. "Actually, I did."
After the second time it happened, she had told Terri about the dream, hoping her friend might have seen or read something that explained the occurrence.
"Was it the same? A little girl named Molly gets into a car and the guy drives away?"
"That's weird. Most people have recurring dreams about falling off a cliff or drowning or something."
"I know." She looked up, a tight feeling moving through her chest. "There's something I've never told you, Terri. I hoped I wouldn't have the dream again then I wouldn't have to worry about it."
Her friend leaned across the table, shoulder-length dark brown hair swinging forward with the movement. "So what haven't you told me?"
"This same thing happened to me once beforewhen I was a sophomore in high school. I began having this nightmare about a car wreck. My two best friends were in the car. And another kid, a new kid at school. I dreamed the new guy got drunk at a party and drove the car into a tree. It killed all three of them."
Terri's blue eyes widened. "Wow, that really was a nightmare."
"Back then I didn't say anything. I mean
it was a dream. Right? I was only fifteen. I thought if I mentioned it, everyone would make fun of me. I knew they wouldn't believe me. I didn't believe it myself."
"Please don't tell me your dream came true."
Autumn's chest squeezed. She never talked about the nightmare. She felt too guilty. She should have done somethingsaid somethingand she had never forgiven herself.
"It happened exactly the way I dreamed. The new guy, Tim Wiseman, invited my friends Jeff and Jolie to a party. Tim was a year older and apparently there was liquor there. I guess they all got a little drunk, which Jeff and Jolie had never done before. On the way home, Tim was driving. It was raining and the streets were wet and slick. Tim took a curve too fast and the car slid into a tree. He and Jeff both died instantly. Jolie died a couple of days later."
Terri stared at her in horror. "Oh my God."
Autumn glanced away, remembering the devastation and overwhelming grief she had felt back then. "I should have said something, done something before it was too late. If I had, my friends might still be alive."
Terri reached over and captured Autumn's hand. "It wasn't your fault. Like you said, you were only fifteen and even if you'd said something, no one would have believed you."
"That's what I tell myself."
"Has it happened again anytime since then?"
"Not until now. The first time, before my friends died, my mom had been killed two years earlier in a car wreck, so I figured maybe that's why I dreamed the dream, but now I don't think that was it. I keep hoping this isn't the same, but what if it is? What if there's a little girl out there somewhere who's about to be kidnapped?"
"Even if there is, this isn't like before. You knew those kids. You don't have any idea who this little girl might be. Even if she exists, you don't know where to find her."
"Maybe. But if I knew the people in the dream before, maybe this little girl is someone else I know. I'm going to check the school records, take a look at student photos. Maybe the face or name will click."
"I suppose it's worth a try."
"That's what I figure."
"You know I'll help in any way I can."
"Maybe you won't dream it again."
Autumn just nodded, hoping that was true. But she couldn't help remembering how vivid the dream was and how clearly she could recall it.
She finished her coffee as she got up from her chair. "I'd better get going. Class starts at nine and I've still got to change into my climbing clothes."
Terri smiled. "Maybe this summer you'll meet someone interesting in class. With all those hard bodies around, there's got to be someone."
Autumn ignored the remark and waved as she headed for the door. Terri was always trying to help her find the right man, but Autumn steered clear of most men. Since high school, she'd had nothing but disastrous relationships. In college she had fallen in love with Steven Elliot, a fellow student at Washington University. She and Steve had dated seriously their sophomore through senior years. Autumn was madly in love with him and they talked a lot about marriage and kids.
It seemed her future was set until that afternoon just before graduation when Steve told her he wanted to end the relationship.
"I just don't love you, Autumn," he had said. "I thought I did, but I don't. I never meant to hurt you, but I have to get on with my life. I hope things work out for you." He had left her standing in the quad, crying like an idiot, hating herself for having fallen in love with him.
She had gone on to graduate, then continued school long enough to get her teaching degree, but it had taken years to get over losing Steve.
Standing on the corner, she pulled her sweater a little closer against the breeze and waited till the stoplight changed to green. She crossed from Second Avenue to Third then continued toward Pike Street. The sun was out today but the air was damp and clouds had begun to gather on the horizon. Seattle got more than its share of rain but Autumn never minded. She had grown up in Burlington, a little town north of the city. The beautiful pines and nearby ocean were worth the clouds and rain.