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"Drop the shoes!"
"No! Get away from me!" Dee Kelley screamed the five words, the sound tearing at her throat the way the trees around her tore at her body. Her face stung as a branch lashed her cheeks and forehead. The trees around her, the tips of their limbs vividly green with shiny new leaves, turned into a harsh field of obstacles as she fled, their boughs tugging at her clothes while their roots made every step uncertain. Dee risked a glance behind her, and she stumbled, going down sideways, her hip thudding into a patch of bright purple flowers in the undergrowth. A shriek burst from her lips as she twisted, fighting back to her feet, her right fist still desperately clinging to a pair of bright white children's sandals.
"Drop the shoes!" The rough voice sounded closer than before, almost at her back, and Dee could hear the running footsteps, the sounds of boots smashing into the soft, spring ground that had dogged her for almost half a mile.
A musty, sweet blended aroma of damp leaves and squashed flowers circled around her head as Dee demanded her exhausted body to rise off the woodland floor again. "Get up! Get up!"
This third fall had compounded the scrapes and bruises of the previous two. The winding and uneven path that traversed the two and a half miles from her writer's retreat cabin and the small, historic town of Mercer, New Hampshire, was familiar to her, but now she was far off the path, into the dense forest, running, gasping for air, hurting.
"What were you thinking?" Her hoarse words sounded flat as she struggled to her feet and ran, trying to ignore the voice behind her.
But she knew the answer as she grasped her aching side. She had been thinking that these white sandals could mean the difference between life and death. She just never dreamed it might be her own.
Tyler Madison picked up the picture of eight-year-old Carly Bradford that had remained propped against his desk calendar for the past three months. He examined yet again the delicate features and shining smile. Tyler thought all little girls were beautiful, but Carly's infectious grin and loving warmth drew everyone to her. Yet she remained completely and totally eight years old. Innocent and full of wonder. So he'd kept the picture there since that rain-soaked day when the petite princess had vanished to remind him of what really mattered.
As if he could ever forget.
An early spring rain had barely ended when Carly had dashed from her home wearing only a blue gingham dress, white sandals, and a yellow poncho to chase her puppy into the woods behind her home. The puppy had come home alone.
Tyler and his small force had exhausted all their resources on the foot-by-foot search of the area, to no avail. Carly had simply vanished, leaving behind no evidence of either accident or kidnapping.
He released a deep sigh, put the photo back on his calendar and pushed away from his desk. He recognized that finding Carly had become his obsession, but he didn't want to give up hope. It was not his nature to do so. After three months, however
He stood, pacing his small office. He searched the Web every day for clues, but today he'd finished early. There was just nothing there. Three months! Everything had gone cold. The scant evidence, the interest of the community
even the press had been reluctant to keep her picture in their papers and on the Web sites unless something new turned up. The frustration of it gnawed at him, and Tyler knew he had messed up. What else explained it? Children didn't just disappear! They ran away, had accidents, were taken by relatives or strangers, but they didn't just vanish.
Tyler stopped. OK, I have to focus on something else. Some other case or
something. Jogging with his dog sometimes worked. Sometimes friends helped. He looked at the clock that hung next to his office window. Only ten o'clock, so he didn't even have the distraction of lunch with Dee and the other folks at the Federal Café. He grabbed his hat and checked his pocket for his keys. Maybe a drive would clear his mind, although he doubted it.
Somehow Tyler knew that the taking of Carly Bradford would haunt the rest of his life.
Dee smelled blood among the musky scents of earth and newly sprouted trees, and she knew it was her own.
Her face burned from the scratches and the salt of her sweat highlighted each wound with a sharp ache. Still, she pushed. She had to get to Mercer, had to find Tyler Madison. These shoes! She glanced at her fist briefly, her knuckles as white as the leather straps she clutched.
"Drop the sandals!"
Dee cried out, realizing the voice came from in front of her now, and she dodged to the left. She knew the road had to be just up ahead. Her mind grasped for a sliver of hope as she saw a break in the trees, there, farther into the woods, just to the left. Dee scrambled forward, reaching out for the next tree, then the next, her running shoes sinking deeper into the moist, moss-covered ground.
"Stupid woman! Drop them!" The voice sounded as if it were right behind her.
Dee could see the road now, the black pavement cutting through the forest like an ebony river. Safety. She had to get to
A hand snagged the shoes, pulling her arm back and spinning her around.
"No!" Dee jerked them toward her, wrenching the sandals free from her pursuer. The figure behind her lost momentum with the action and stepped backward, grabbing wildly at a tree for balance. Dee got only a quick glimpse of the thin figure, face hidden behind a cap pulled low and a cloud of short dark hair, the frame indistinct in the black hooded sweat suit at least a size too big.
"You took Carly!" Dee screamed, her fear turning into a mother's rage. "Why would you do that?"
There was a quick shake of the head, then Dee's pursuer froze as a car whooshed by on the road up the bank behind Dee, as if for the first time realizing how close they were to traffic. Dee took advantage of the hesitation and turned, scrambling upward, her left hand digging into the dirt for traction. A hand clutched at her leg, but Dee jerked away, kicking backward. Her foot connected with flesh, and a sharp "oomph" echoed around her. But the action cost Dee her balance and she stumbled hard into a tree. She braced herself, then pushed away to go around it.
A branch hit her full in the face, as if it had been held back and released. A sharp pain shot through her nose, and Dee went down with a scream, one hand covering her face. Her eyes and cheeks stung as if she'd been slapped, and a hot stickiness covered her fingers.
There was another jerk on the sandals, and this time Dee screamed, an insane fury filling her. "No!" She swung her fist into a hard right cross, and the assailant went down, rolling back down the embankment.
Dee couldn't open her eyes wide enough to see anything. She screamed again as she fought her way toward the road, staggering on the rocky ground. How could she be such an idiot?
She knew she needed help. Just as she reached the pavement, unexpected drops of blood and sweat dripped from her brow into her left eye, blinding her. Dee tripped over the rough edge of the asphalt, right into the path of an oncoming car.
-Light came back slowly. With it came the stark aromas of medicine and disinfectant, as well as someone's cologne. Dee could hear padded footsteps, the whispery sounds of low voices and the rustle of clothes near her bed. Behind her head, a machine softly beeped.
Hospital. I'm in the hospital. Where are the She squinted and cleared her throat, grasping out with her right hand, which felt oddly empty. "The sandals
A soft pressure covered her wrist and the soothing baritone of Tyler Madison's voice attempted to comfort her. "Yes, we have the sandals. You gave them to me, remember? Dee. You need to rest. Just rest. Everything will be OK."
Dee struggled against the grogginess in her mind. "The shoes. Carly's shoes."
"Yes. You told me about them. Sleep."
The light faded a bit, as did the pain. The voices swirled around her in a fog, yet every moment in the woods remained as clear as luminous pearls on black velvet. Especially the moment she first saw the little girl's sandals. Carly's sandals.
The white leather had gleamed against the rich green grass of the stream bank like a beacon, like the sudden appearance of a cherished memory on a bad day. The shoes were simple, just a wooden sole with white straps across the top of the foot. But they had a sweetness to them, as all little girls' shoes do, with the white leather straps etched with tiny stars. One shoe lay flat, while one rested on its side, but Dee Kelley knew they hadn't been on the stream bank long, since no splashes of mud dotted the leather.
Dee, however, knew she looked anything but perky when she had paused by the edge of the path to catch her breath, clutching a tree branch to stay upright. Her dark brown hair stuck in matted clumps to her neck, and sweat rivulets carved crevasses in her makeup. "Keep going!" Her voice croaked from lack of air and water.
Determination, however, had not stopped the cramp in her left calf, so she'd hobbled off the path to a shady spot at the edge of a stream. The stream ran beneath a narrow, wooden footbridge and extended several miles through the woods. She stretched her leg, gulping air and massaging the muscle. As the pain eased, she plopped down on the stream bank. "I hate exercise."
That's when she had spotted the sandals, their pale shapes standing out against the dark earth and grass of the stream's edge. "Someone must have gone wading."
Dee stood and placed one foot on a rock in the middle of the stream. She bent to lift the shoes out of the grass by their straps. As she straightened, she hesitated, puzzled. There were no other signs on the ground that a child had been anywhere near here. No footprints, no squashed grass, no rocks appeared tipped or out of place. Dee lifted the shoes and peered at them.
"So, did you walk upstream and just drop them, forgetting you had shoes in the first place?"
She smiled slightly, as a painful but beloved memory stabbed the back of her mind. Joshua had often done that, had constantly flipped off his shoes and gone without, forgetting where he'd left the dreadfully hot, confining things in the first place. Mickey had wanted to make Josh start paying for shoes out of his allowance, but Dee had resisted. It's a kid thing. He'll grow out of it.
Trying to soothe the issue between father and son, Dee had written a children's book, The Day My Shoes Took a Walk Without Me, told from Joshua's point of view.
Dee took a deep breath and pushed the memory away. Part of her ongoing plan for recovery meant allowing the memories in but not dwelling on them. After all, dwelling on the past had kept her locked in her parents' house for almost three years.
"Keep moving," Dee said aloud, as much about her exercise as her past. The sandals still dangling from her fingers, Dee struggled back up the bank to the path. Stretching again, she continued toward her goal at a fast walk, reluctant to break back into the jog that had caused the cramp in the first place.
Her goal was the Federal Café, in downtown Mercer. Those three years of seclusion had added some extra weight to her petite frame, and Dee had become determined to rid herself of it. So, every day she walked or jogged the path into Mercer for a sensible, low-calorie lunch at the café with her new friends. She then took the road that ran from Mercer through several neighborhoods and the wooded area back to the retreat.
Dee picked up her pace a bit, the sandals bumping against her leg with almost every swing of her arm. Her mind drifted to the way she looked in a size eight. In particular, an emerald green dress that Mickey had given her just a week before the accident
Dee stopped and lifted the sandals again, peering at them. Something about a pair of children's sandals tickled the back of her brain, and she let it drift there for a moment. There was something
in the news
sandals, wooden soles and straps with stars on them
The wind sucked out of Dee as if she'd been punched, and her knees buckled. She sat down hard on the ground. Carly Bradford! These had to be Carly's. A sudden panic flooded over her. "What do I do?"
Tyler. She had to get to Tyler. He would know what to do. He was always at the café this time of day; they usually ate lunch together. She picked up her pace, then broke into a jog. She had to get to the
"Drop the shoes!"
The voice, harsh and low, came from Dee's right, and she stumbled, almost falling into a bush. She spun, listening, unsure if she'd really heard a voice or if her mind had turned the rustling of squirrels and birds into words.
"Drop the shoes!"
Dee had instead turned and fled.
Tyler leaned against the wall in the examining room, watching Dee breathe, every muscle tightening when she shifted restlessly on the bed. The bruise around her left eye had grown to the size of his palm, framing a network of scratches on Dee's swollen, misshapen face. Tiny butterfly bandages held several of the cuts closed, including one across the bridge of her nose.
His mind reeled to think how close he had come to killing her. He'd almost panicked when she'd darted into the road, and precious minutes passed before he realized that, although his fender had grazed her, most of her injuries were from an attack in the woods.
He'd bundled her into the car and headed for Portsmouth at lightning speed. He had radioed the station to alert the hospital and sent Wayne Vouros, his sole detective and crime scene specialist, to the site of the attack. He'd also called Fletcher and Maggie Mac-Allister, owners of the writer's retreat where Dee lived. Maggie was a close friend of Dee's, and she now waited impatiently outside the E.R. while Fletcher had joined Wayne at the scene, promising to call as soon as they knew anything.
Tyler shifted his weight and checked his cell phone one more time, even though it had not vibrated since he'd arrived at the hospital. He replaced the phone, then took a deep breath to quiet his increasing anxiety, his need to do something.