For much of the year, some remote areas of northern Canada rest on land so precarious there are no real roads. They're accessible only once the perfect conditions appear. It's no different for certain people.
Some say life has passed Emily Moore by. They're wrong. She's just waiting for her moment.
And that moment arrives when she discovers her friend Daniel is missing and a strangersupposedly Daniel's nephewis living in his house. Emily has no reason not to believe Matthew Rutherford, but odd things are starting to occur. There are break-ins along Creek Road and no news from Daniel.
And then there's the fact that instead of researching the family history, Matthew seems much more interested in Emily.
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The more Emily thought about Daniel missing the wedding, the more concerned she became. Nearly everyone from in and around Three Creeks had gone, whether or not they were formally invited, and he had certainly been invited.
She sank her hands to the bottom of the sink, feeling under the bubbles for any last breakfast dishes, then pulled the plug, wrung out the dishcloth and spread it over the rim of the sink to dry.
"Mom? I'm going to run into town to check on Daniel."
Julia sat at the kitchen table behind a stack of cookbooks, shoulders bent, graying hair twisted into a tidy roll just above her neck. She pressed one finger under the line she'd been reading and looked up, not quite at Emily, but beside her. "On Daniel?"
"In case he's fallen or something."
Emily wasn't sure if that was an expression of confidence or disappointment. She had never been able to figure out what her mother and Daniel thought of each other. "He's immune to trouble, is he?"
Julia had already gone back to her book. She rarely cooked, but she liked reading recipes.
"I'll drop in on Grandma, too. See how she's doing after all the excitement. I won't be long."
This time her mother gave an absent nod.
As soon as Emily took her keys and purse from the hutch cupboard, the cat appeared from under the table, nearly tripping her on her way to the door. It was a stray that had adopted them that spring, establishing itself first on their driveway, then their front step and, finally, at their feet, wherever their feet happened to be. So far they hadn't given it a name. It faced a tough decision when she opened the door, but decided to stay with Julia.
Emily stepped outside. Right away, perspiration prickled on her forehead. It was a still, quiet day, the heat too much even for the squirrels and goldfinches she usually heard. There had to be a hundred trees in the yard, with millions of leaves, but not one rustled. Not until Hamish emerged from under the caragana hedge. He stretched one leg behind him, then the other, and his tail gave a token wave.
"Good morning, old man." She bent to stroke the border collie's white-streaked face. "Don't worry, in a few months it will snow. Won't it be nice to have the cold to complain about?"
She emptied stale water and drowned flies from his dish and refilled it. "There. All set. You're in charge, Hamish." His tail wagged harder.
Daniel lived on the north edge of Three Creeks, a few miles from Emily and Julia's farm. His house stood on the last of five elm-lined streets that branched off the town's main road and ended one block later in a field of mixed clover. It wasn't his family's original property. That was long gone, the trees and yard bulldozed when the provincial highway first went through and the house torn down years later, when it was widened.
The Rutherfords had moved away then, scattering across the country. Daniel had spent most of his adulthood moving from place to place, first in the Army and then the RCMP. No one had expected him to come back, but one day a sign had appeared on the community bulletin boardDaniel Rutherford: Security Consultantand there he was, home for good.
All of that had happened before Emily was born. It was one of the stories she heard whenever her relatives were in the mood for reminiscing. As far as she was concerned, Daniel had always been in Three Creeks, as much a part of her world as her grandparents and her aunts and uncles.
She pulled up outside his house, a cozy story and a halfcozy except for the security bars on the basement windows. The driveway was empty.
He didn't usually park in the garage. Protecting his car's finish from the sun wasn't an issue. He'd been driving the same sky blue '87 Cutlass for as long as she'd known him and it had done all the fading it was going to do.
She leaned close to the window on the side of the building and shielded her eyes so she could make out the shapes inside. No car and, as far as she could see, no Daniel.
"I'm surprised you're out and about today, Emily." The soft voice startled her. An older woman wearing long sleeves and a wide-brimmed straw hat had come out of the neighboring house. "Don't you need a bit of slothful time?"
"I slept until nine, Mrs. Bowen. How much more slothful could I get?"
"A hammock comes to mind. How is your mother this morning?"
Mrs. Bowen gave an understanding smile.
"What a lovely day it was yesterday. Perfect for a wedding. It did my heart good to see you and Liz and Susannah together again."
"Mine, too." Emily's cousins hadn't been home at the same time since high school. After fifteen years in Vancouver, Liz had recently moved back, but Susannah never would. Paleontologists had to live where there were fossils to dig.
"Liz and Jack are off, are they?"
"Somewhere over the Atlantic by now."
"And you're visiting already! You won't find Daniel home. He hasn't been around for the better part of a week."
That couldn't be right. She'd spoken to him a week ago, and he hadn't mentioned a trip then. "Did he say anything to you about going out of town?"
"Not a word, but he never does. Are you worried that something may have happened to him? He's a very self-reliant man, dear."
But in his seventies, Emily thought, and gone without explanation.
"I'll be right back." Mrs. Bowen disappeared into her house and returned a few minutes later, flushed from hurrying. "He leaves a spare key with me. I suppose we could take a peek inside."
After ringing the bell twice, then knocking, she unlocked Daniel's side door and opened it a few inches. Hot, stuffy air reached Emily's nose.
"Hello? Daniel?" It was a tentative call. Mrs. Bowen hardly raised her voice, as if even that would be an intrusion. They went up the steps from the landing into the kitchen.
"Oh, his plants! Look at them!" Mrs. Bowen pushed a halffull coffee mug out of the way and began carrying drooping begonias, philo-dendrons and violets to the sink. "What was he thinking, leaving them like this?"
Now Emily was even more worried. She quickly checked the main floor and the two small bedrooms under the eaves. Upstairs and down, dust had settled on surfaces, but there was no sign of Daniel and nothing to suggest he had run into any kind of problem.
"Some milk and fruit in the fridge were going off, and there was moldy bread in the box," Mrs. Bowen said when Emily returned to the kitchen. "I've got rid of those and watered the plants. You know, Daniel usually is quite responsible about them when he's away. He rigs trays of water so they can drink as much as they need. He must have been in a hurry this time."
She paused when Emily opened the basement door. "His cameras and so on are down there, all that police paraphernalia of his."
"I won't touch anything." Emily flicked on the light. A staircase with narrow steps and steep risers came into view. It was hardly better than a ladder. If Daniel had fallen anywhere, this would be the most likely place, but there was no huddled shape at the foot of the stairs. She sidestepped down, keeping one hand on the rail and the other on the wall.
Rows of metal shelves filled the room. They were stacked with sealed cardboard boxes, coiled wires and stainless-steel equipment Emily didn't recognize. All she knew was it helped ranchers guard against poachers and small businesses ward off the occasional thief. She tried a door in the middle of one wall. It was locked.
Mrs. Bowen's voice came from the head of the stairs. "That must be the furnace room. At least that's where my furnace and water heater are, but they're not walled off like that."
"Why would he lock the furnace-room door?" Emily felt over the top of the frame for a key. It didn't seem likely that an ex-Mountie who ran a security business would stash a key so close to the lock it opened, and of course, he hadn't. She rattled the knob. "Daniel?"
"He's not in there. I really think he's gone off the way he does sometimes. You worry too much about people, dear."
Emily started back upstairs. She didn't think she worried too much. Just a sensible amount, about sensible things her grandmother's health and her mother's absent-mindedness. And now Daniel's unexplained absence.
The telephone and two phone books sat on a recessed ledge near the kitchen table. She opened the yellow pages and made a series of calls. The RCMP in Pine Point told her an '87 Cutlass hadn't been involved in any accidents. Daniel hadn't been admitted to the local hospital, or any of the hospitals in Winnipeg.
"I don't know what else you can do, Emily."
"There's still the garden to check."
They went out together, Mrs. Bowen unlocking the gate and recounting all the times her neighbor had disappeared for a day or two, or even a week, and returned without explanation. If you didn't have ties at home, why not travel whenever the urge hit you?
She broke off when they rounded the corner.
The soil was cracked and gray. Lettuce leaves wilted, tissue-paper dry against the ground. Tomato plants drooped despite the wire frames around them. Green beans shriveled on the stem. Muttering that it was too late now, and what was wrong with her not to have thought of it before, Mrs. Bowen hurried to the back of the house and began uncoiling a green hose from a metal bracket.
Daniel loved his garden. Digging in it, choosing seeds, watching daffodils come up in May and roses open in June, harvesting vegetables at exactly the right moment. If that wasn't a tie, Emily didn't know what was.