Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Paranormal

Missing Persons

 
h1={color:#000;}. [][] MISSING PERSONS

[] BY OPHELIA JULIEN

Published by Ophelia Julien

Text Copyright © 2015 Ophelia Julien

Original Cover Art by Carmen Elliott

All Rights Reserved

All rights reserved. For private use only.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

[] Table of Contents

MISSING PERSONS 1

BY OPHELIA JULIEN 1

Table of Contents 3

CHAPTER ONE 6

CHAPTER TWO 11

CHAPTER THREE 18

CHAPTER FOUR 26

CHAPTER FIVE 34

CHAPTER SIX 42

CHAPTER SEVEN 50

CHAPTER EIGHT 56

CHAPTER NINE 63

CHAPTER TEN 71

CHAPTER ELEVEN 78

CHAPTER TWELVE 86

CHAPTER THIRTEEN 94

CHAPTER FOURTEEN 102

CHAPTER FIFTEEN 112

CHAPTER SIXTEEN 119

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN 125

AUTHOR’S NOTE 127

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 128

 

For Teresa Basile, who gave Jake and Corts their first home. And for every reader who came along for the ride that was Saving Jake. This is for you.

The author wishes to thank C. Allen Reed, Deputy U.S. Marshal, retired, for both his law enforcement expertise and his patience; Donnie Light for formatting yet another; Carmen Elliott for her always-excellent cover art; beta readers Jim, Vicky, and Carmen; and as always, the Fat Elvis Circle. Where would I be without them?

[][] CHAPTER ONE

“I’ve been told there is no longer any need for his friend. Take him back a ways and shoot him.”

The words, my death warrant, spoken so casually and so finally, froze me into shock. Jake was dragged away from where he had stood beside me, hauled off back towards the van, struggling against the two men that held him. He tried to twist back in my direction, but in the end he was thrown forcibly, bodily, back through the gaping doors into the darkness that was the van’s interior. “Corts, no—” His voice, a howl of anguish, was cut off abruptly by the slam of the van’s doors. In a matter of seconds, the engine started, and the van rumbled away from me, no visible lights to show its path, no red glow of the taillights. It just disappeared into the night.

Someone grabbed my arm in a steel grip and propelled me, stumbling, along a path deeper into the woods. It was black as ink and I found myself wondering fleetingly how he could see where he was going. I couldn’t. Maybe it meant I wouldn’t see death when it came, either.

When we were away from the clearing, he pushed me down onto a fallen tree. “Sit,” he said conversationally.

This was no problem as my legs were like spaghetti already.

He sat down opposite me and placed the muzzle of a large handgun against my chest. I could see that much. I gulped.

“You will be silent, yes?” he said in a voice that was friendly and more frightening than anything I had ever heard in my life.

I nodded.

“Good. I have something I would like very much to tell you, Mr. Corts. Please pay attention.”

I nodded again.

“I have been ordered to shoot you. This I will not do. At least, not tonight.” There was a hint of a smile in his voice. “You have not seen my face, nor any of the others. You could not identify us, nor the vehicle that brought you and your friend here. I would presume you do not even know where ‘here’ is, do you?”

I shook my head.

“So. I think that what we shall do is this. I am professional, as you would say. I do not kill for enjoyment. I do not kill if there is no need. I do not believe there is need here. The others will not expect to find your body. Understand, Mr. Corts, that if I were to kill you, no one would find your body. But we need not speak of this, yes? Again I ask you to pay attention to what I tell you. I cannot leave you here in the woods. That is most untidy and I am not untidy in my work. So I believe I will drop you close to the train station. Where you go from there is entirely your problem. But go you will, and away from here. You will not talk to young Mr. Holdridge’s parents. You will not talk to your parents. If you do, Mr. Corts, I will learn of this. And then I will come after your family. Mother and father. And your sweetheart. Sarah is her name, I believe. And her younger brother. Ryan, no? And you, Mr. Corts, you I will kill last of all.”

I couldn’t see him but I could feel his eyes on me, like ice.

“Do we have an understanding my young friend? You may speak.”

I swallowed. “Yes,” I managed in a whisper.

“So. Good. We will go now. Your hands I will leave bound behind you for the car ride. I will free you when we are close to the station. You will walk to the trains from where I drop you, and you will go.” He paused. “And remember what I have told you.”

He rose, a dark black shape against a dark gray night, and pulled me upright. Then he marched me in silence back through the trees, guiding me with that steely pressure on my arm. I was somewhere between complete shock and complete panic, but I bit my lower lip and held my personal turmoil in check. I had no choice. Another dark shape loomed up ahead of us, and after a few more steps I was able to discern that it was a car. He stopped me at the front passenger door, slipping behind me and speaking very quietly. “You will sit down, lean back, and close your eyes, Mr. Corts. You will appear to be asleep for this ride. When we arrive, I will tell you to get out. You will not look at me, and you will not look at this car when you go. If you wish to remain alive. You understand? Again, you may speak.”

I cleared my throat. “Yes.”

He opened the door and I got in obediently, leaning back and closing my eyes. He fastened the seatbelt for me. “We do not wish to attract the attention of the police,” he said and again I heard the hint of a smile in his voice. He shut my door and came around to the other side. “Keep your eyes closed.”

I settled back against the seat. My hands were pressed uncomfortably against the seat back, which was velour. Not leather. Great clue, I thought as I sat there. He started the engine and we were on our way, bumping and bouncing at first, then sailing along smoothly on nicely paved road. I wondered if I would hear anything to tip me off to my location.

Then I started to wonder if I could figure out a way to learn something about the man beside me. I didn’t know what he looked like, but I knew I would never forget his intonation, his slight accent, his peculiar phrasing.

The nasty little voice inside my head reminded me that there was a way to obtain quite a lot of information, if I chose. Track, it said. Defensively, I curled my fingers inward. The rope around my wrists held my hands firmly against the seat no matter how I tried to twist them away.

“You will be still, my friend.”

“Sorry,” I said. “An itch.”

“Ah.” He seemed amused.

Track, the voice said again.

Son of a bitch. I knew the voice was right, but damned if I wanted to do it. This guy was a killer. What would I connect with if I tracked? And what if I lost control? Jake wasn’t here to pull me back. Jake. I thought of him being thrown into the back of that van and felt a chill. For Jake, it said. Do it.

I took a deep breath as silently as possible, and opened my hand against the seat back. The images sucked me in greedily, streams and streams of them, almost too quick to sort out. I saw the faces of a little boy and girl repeatedly, scenes of them in summer on a wooden play set, of the two of them before a Christmas tree, or sitting to eat dinner, the boy in a high chair, the girl on a booster seat at the table. There were two adults, presumably their parents. I looked at their father…and there was my professional killer. Early to mid-thirties. Dark hair cut short. A small scar on his left cheek. A normal, even nice-looking man. In a suit, he would disappear into any crowded city street in any state in the country. He looked like a businessman. Hell, he looked like a doctor or a banker. He leaned over and kissed the woman –his wife?- on the forehead. Inside, deep inside of me, I was rejecting every one of those pictures. This man had led me, bound, into the woods and put a gun to my chest. This man had threatened my family, my lady, her younger brother. This man had helped to take away my friend.

I came out of the track with a jolt, no longer fearful as much as I was angry. I opened my eyes without thinking, then closed them immediately, hoping he hadn’t noticed. As if it mattered now. I could find you. I could find you again, you— I couldn’t think of an expletive filthy or graphic enough to describe him. But that didn’t matter, either. I knew now that I could track him down, if I wanted. If I managed to keep something of his, I could find out more about him than he would have believed. I began scrabbling around behind me, looking for a dropped coin, or a button, anything that would connect me to him once I was out of his presence.

“You grow too restless,” he said.

My reply was insolent and crude, but I didn’t say it aloud.

He was silent for a moment longer, then remarked, “Perhaps you are getting over your fear, yes? Becoming angry? A temper is a dangerous and indulgent thing to have, Mr. Corts.”

Again I made no reply. I was angry. I’m not stupid. I was thus totally unprepared for the ensuing sharp blow to my left leg. It felt as if he had clubbed me with a steel rod. My eyes flew open of their own accord in pain and shock, and he immediately struck me in the head, turning my face away from him. The yell that had begun deep in my throat when he had struck my leg was transmuted instantly into a choking attempt to continue breathing. The pain had taken away my wind and I was hard put to get it back again.

“Temper is very dangerous,” he said again. “You forget yourself. Close your eyes. Now.”

I complied, gritting my teeth and keeping my face turned away from him. The blow to my head had made my eyes water in spite of myself. And I was furious.

The rest of the ride entailed my trying to regain control. The throbbing in my leg refused to subside, and my head was pounding. I wondered how I would be able to “walk to the trains” as he had said. It would be a long, slow journey.

A few minutes later I felt the car slow down and ease into a turn before it stopped.

“We are several blocks from the station, Mr. Corts. You remember everything I have told you?”

“Yes.” My voice was ragged, resentful.

“Good.” He released my seat belt. “Turn your back to me, please.”

I twisted around awkwardly, catching myself before I let out a hiss of pain when I moved my leg. I didn’t want to give him any satisfaction from that.

“Do not let your temper lead you the wrong way, my friend.”

I felt something cold against my hand, then realized that he was cutting my bonds. The cord separated and I brought my arms, stiff and numb, around to my lap, trying to rub the burn out of my wrists. It took me a moment to realize I still had a knotted length of cord in my hand. I closed my fist around it.

“Get out. Do not look back. Protect those you love and do not speak of this.”

I let myself out into the night and found myself facing the brick wall of an alley. The car drove away and I waited several moments before turning around. When I did, the street was empty. I let myself collapse, then, sinking down against the wall as the weight of the night crashed down on me. Jake. Was he still alive? He had to be. I couldn’t accept anything else. My parents. Would they think Jake and I had taken off together somewhere? Would they call the police when I didn’t come home? And Sarah. Sarah and Ryan. I had just been with them yesterday…

I turned over onto my hands and knees and vomited then, repeatedly and violently. When the attack had passed, there were tears running down my face and I mopped them away with the cuff of my sleeve. Tears wouldn’t last long. They couldn’t. I was totally empty inside.

[][] CHAPTER TWO

Jake and I hadn’t set out to be kidnapped that night. We had set out to have a drink together, something we had never done before even though we had been friends since seventh grade. It was the first time we could go to a bar legally. And it was the first outing we had had together for a long time. He had been gone for about three years.

Some of you will know about the time that Jake disappeared. There had been a bit of an uproar, Jake being the only son of two very wealthy parents. Fortunately, no one from the police department, or the newspapers, ever came looking for Jake’s best friend. That would be me, and I had everything to do with his disappearance. At the time, we were trying to save his life.

Jake is an artist, a very talented, gifted artist. But his father didn’t see it that way. When it got to the point that Stephen M. Holdridge, or the Great Man, as Jake always referred to his father, was forcibly trying to install his son into the family corporation, I intervened. I had to intervene. Jake had retreated into that dark place where he felt he would be better off dead and was willing to do something about it. I couldn’t watch my friend die. I had already done that once. And if you don’t believe in reincarnation or don’t have even an inkling that it’s a possibility, then you’re better off closing this book and not reading any further.

The alternative to death by his own hand was a quick exit. On his nineteenth birthday, incredible as this sounds, Jake and I got together, opened up a hole in the fabric of reality, and sent him through it to the other side. Not having gone with him, I couldn’t tell you where he ended up, or what he had been doing for three years. I had just learned to live with the fact that I would never see him again, at least not in this lifetime. And then I got an invitation in the mail.

My mother handed it to me when I arrived home one afternoon. “I see Jake’s back,” she said.

I almost dropped the gallon of juice I had grabbed out of the refrigerator. “What?” I blurted out.

She grinned at me and handed over a postcard. On the front of it were three pictures, one of which I recognized: a painting of a young woman once known by the name of Rebecca Halliwell. On the back was information about a showing by three young artists, including Jacob M. Holdridge. At first I thought that his father was giving his absentee son a showing. But at the bottom was a hand-written message. “You are cordially invited to a reception to meet the artists. Seven p.m. Appropriate attire.”

I looked at my mother, speechless, and she smiled at me again. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know he was back?”

I shook my head, dumbfounded. “No,” I said slowly. “I had no idea.”

Ten days after that card arrived, I attended the reception to meet the artists. Or at least one of them. I wasn’t appropriately dressed, but no one turned me away at the door. It was held in the gallery, and when I slipped inside and tried to disappear into the casually wealthy crowd, clearly out of my element, I caught sight of Jake at the far end, talking to a small knot of people who were clustered around one of his paintings. The sight of him was like a blow to the solar plexus. I couldn’t believe he was standing there, large as life, chatting casually with people that he found extremely boring. I’d known Jake long enough to recognize the polite, semi-glazed expression on his face. He had cut his hair back to shoulder length and left it free to brush against the collar of the navy blue shirt he wore. From the looks of it, I guessed he had cut it himself. Again. He had on a tie, always a novelty with Jake. This one had some sort of wildly colorful print on it. Even from across the room I could make out that much detail. He also had on a sport coat, which surprised me. I’d never seen him dress like that in his life. Well, the day I met him he had been wearing a suit, but we were at a funeral. He had the inevitable glass of wine in his hand, and he played with it, sloshing the amber liquid around in it as if he were trying to create a small whirlpool, pausing every now and then to take a sip. He nodded at something one of the men said to him, then smiled and shook hands.

The people moved away a few moments later and he turned without hesitation and looked directly at me, as if he’d known I had entered. As if he’d known where I would be standing. It’s always been that way with Jake. I think he can read my mind, though he denies it. He looked at me and without so much as a split-second change in that same expression, not even an open acknowledgement that he knew who I was, he lifted one brow and ever so slightly tilted his head toward the back exit.

I grinned at him and nodded, letting myself back out the way I had come in. No one noticed, nor should they have. I wasn’t even a blip on one of their radar screens. I walked around to the back of the building, and he joined me after a few minutes.

“Damn, Corts, you came.” There was genuine pleasure in his voice, and the next second he pulled me into a back-slapping bear hug.

“Get off me, you troll.” I pushed him away with a laugh.

“Watch the wine,” he said. He produced a can of Coke from his jacket pocket and handed it to me before straightening his tie, careful not to spill the glass of white wine he held.

I looked at him and then glanced past him into the back window of the gallery. People were milling around the paintings, drinking champagne from fluted glasses and nibbling at hors d’oeuvers. I turned back to him and grinned. “I can’t even talk to you,” I said. “You’re too fricking fancy for me.”

“That’s a kinder term than I’d use to describe that lot,” he said, nodding at the crowd visible through the window. He smirked at me. “How’s Miss Sarah?”

“She’s good. We’re good. And Miss Rachel?”

He smiled, but sadly. “I’ll have to tell you about that some time.” He yanked at the knot in his tie. “My mother just called.” He sipped the wine.

“Oh, yeah? What’d she say about her boy opening up an art show?”

“I don’t know. I hung up on her.”

“Ah.” I let that go.

We sat and drank for a while in silence. Just being in each other’s company was strange, novel, and I was shocked to realize that I was feeling a little bit shy. I looked at him and he laughed and looked away. He knew what I was thinking.

The door behind him opened suddenly. “Mr. Holdridge?” It was an elderly man in a suit. “Someone was inquiring about one of your pieces. I told him I would try to locate you.”

Jake looked at me and sighed. “Duty. Responsibility.”

“Some of us know all about that,” I said with a laugh.

“You’re still a jerk, Corts.” He turned to the man and said, “I’ll be right in.” Then he turned back to me and asked, “Can you get away tonight?”

“Where are we going?”

“For a drink. I’m going to need one. I’m going to need a few vats, actually. Come by the coach house.”

I nodded. “Say eight?”

“Say eight,” he agreed. He tagged me on the shoulder with his fist and went back inside.

 

We chose a corner bar not far from his coach house apartment. This was new to both of us, and neither of us wanted to be the driver. Well actually, I didn’t want to drive, and the idea of Jake driving, either sober or drunk, would have been enough to take the shine off of any evening. We walked for a few blocks, trying to catch up on everything all at once, and finally found ourselves at one of those neighborhood places that serves food on one side, and has a bar on the other.

It was warm inside, with sporadic lighting. A jukebox was playing loudly, War singing about the low rider, and the additional sounds of laughter and of voices ratcheting up to be heard above the music rolled through the bar in waves. We wove our way around knots of people, sniffing fried appetizers and other bar food, and catching scraps of conversation along the way. The floor was wood and well worn, scraped in places from the legs of the barstools. But the bar itself wasn’t uncomfortable, and I rather liked the atmosphere. We found a booth in the back and settled in.

I bought the first round, closing my hands around an ice-cold bottle of beer for myself and a fairly large glass of Rhine wine for Jake. He had always been a fanatic about wine, swiping bottles from his father’s wine cellar and smuggling them over to his apartment. It seemed odd to be sitting down opposite him with liquor instead of Coke. My mindset was still a few years in the past.

Jake put his glass up and I clinked it with the beer bottle. “God, I can’t believe we’re sitting here,” he said after a long sip.

“You and me both.” I looked at him. “You haven’t changed a bit. Well, maybe a bit uglier than I remembered.”

“Screw you, Corts,” he said mildly. “Oh, before I forget.” He stood up and started scrounging around in the pockets of his jeans.

“What? Do I get a present?”

“No. You get more of that responsibility you were harping about earlier.” He laughed at the look on my face. “I plan to get completely plastered tonight, to make up for the horrendous day the Great Man just put me through.” He came up with a wad of bills and handed it to me. “You hold onto this.”

I whistled, automatically turning toward the wall and counting the money with my hands hidden a bit by the table. I am extremely paranoid when it comes to money. “Jake, there’s nearly a thousand here,” I whispered sharply. “What the hell are you doing with all this?”

He shrugged. “I have an account. Didn’t I tell you that? The Great Man sent me a memo to let me know, and I’ve been using it since. I just didn’t know I had already taken out so much. I’d get a bit here, a bit there. When I went to get some cash out of the drawer tonight I couldn’t believe how much was in there.” He paused. “I do have a debit card, but I never remember the pin number. Cash is easier for me.”

“So you brought it all out to a bar? Are you crazy?”

“I just grabbed it and left. So you hang onto it for me.”

“Sure thing.” I divided up the stack and stashed it in two different pockets, with a little bit going into my wallet. When I had settled down again, he looked at me and smiled. “What?” I demanded.

“I still can’t believe we’re sitting here.”

“So what’s it like?” I asked. “Where you were. What’s it like, and how did you get back?”

He sighed. “It’s like Door County, I guess. Only maybe a hundred years ago. Something like that. God, I’ve missed the music.” He nodded toward the front of the bar, at the jukebox, his eyes distant for just a moment. Then he blinked and focused on me. “And how did I get back? Hey, your guess is as good as mine. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

I shook my head. “Not good enough, Jake. I nearly killed myself getting you over there. How the hell did you get back?”

“You know that Rachel was over there with me, right? Rachel and Matt?”

I nodded. I had known his Uncle Matt was there. I had even had a glimpse of him the night we sent Jake away. As for Rachel, Jake had left a message of sorts for me, and I had figured it out.

“Rachel’s been having a hard time. Not at first, but the longer we stayed. It’s too different for her.” He paused and drank a little more wine, then sat and played with the glass, sloshing the honey-colored liquid in his glass, barely paying attention to what he did. “But you’d have to know her.”

“So she’s back, too?”

“Oh, yeah. I think that’s how we got here. There was a little bit of an argument.” He paused again. I knew better than to prompt him. After all the time apart, conversation with Jake hadn’t changed. “You’ll have to meet her some time, Corts. She’s a lot like you.”

I raised my brows in inquiry.

“She’s really smart. Scary smart. And funny. We used to laugh a lot.” He smiled as he remembered. “She likes to read and is always on me for all the stuff I’ve never read. And she’s got a hell of a memory.” He raised the glass to me and took another sip. “Maybe not quite like yours, but she hangs onto facts and details the way you do. We can talk about everything. I kind of missed that about you.” His voice trailed away and he looked at me as if considering. “If Rachel hadn’t turned up, I would have had to propose to you, I guess.”

I blinked at him. “You what?”

He smirked at me. “I thought that would get your attention. How did you say Sarah was doing?”

“You don’t get off that easy,” I said. “I can ignore most of your crap, Jake, but a proposal? Are you saying you proposed to Rachel?”

He nodded. “Twice.”

“What, she turned you down flat?”

“Just the first time.”

“Ahhh, “I said, suddenly comprehending. “Your little bit of an argument.”

“You bet. She didn’t say no, but…” He looked at me. “We wound up in that meadow. Remember it?”

“You drew it for me in ridiculous detail, Jake. It was the last place I saw you. I don’t think I’d forget it.”

“Well, we were walking and talking, arguing, and we wound up in the meadow. And then all of a sudden we were back.”

“What, just back? Back where?”

“Back at the coach house apartment. Or anyway, I was. Luckily, no one was in it at the time. I couldn’t believe it. I was standing in the middle of that living room in my little turn-of-the-century outfit, and Rachel was nowhere to be seen. When I calmed down enough to think, I realized she was either still back in that meadow, or she was up in Milwaukee. Turns out she was up in Milwaukee. In her bedroom.”

“How’d you find that out?”

“Hey, in three years, we had lots of time to talk. We figured each other out and we met up at the Art Institute. That was after I had turned up at the Great Man’s office. I almost caused him a coronary. Must have caught him between a couple of bad investments. Or maybe it was the clothes. Anyhow, I got myself reinstated in the apartment, and he didn’t even mind. He’s getting a little daffy, the Great Man is. Did I tell you? First he set up that account for me. Now he’s into meeting me for lunch. He calls me almost everyday and we talk about nothing. I can’t decide if this is worse than before.”

I wasn’t surprised. Jake hadn’t seen the effect his disappearance had had on his father.

“Anyway,” he continued, “she said she needed time to think. In fact, her own family doesn’t even know she’s back, and we’ve been here a couple months, now.” He saw the look on my face and elaborated. “She turned up in her bedroom while her mother was at work, so she was able to sneak out before anyone knew. I set her up in a sublet in Milwaukee. She said she wanted to be…away.” His voice dropped suddenly.

She wanted to be away from him. I didn’t know what to say.

He looked up at me. “Guess things can change over a century, huh?”

“Sarah’s great,” I said, starting a less painful conversation. “But I haven’t proposed to her.”

“I said you were smart.” He finished up the last of his wine. “How about another? You’ve got all the bucks, Einstein.”

I got us both refills, and the conversation turned to lighter things. By the end of a few hours, we were laughing like we had been before he ever went away. I felt as if something inside of me was slowly being healed, but I should have known better.

Jake didn’t get completely drunk, in the end. In fact, I could barely tell he had been drinking. But he decided to call it a night, and I agreed, and we left the bar in a soft cloud of alcohol-induced cheer. I like to think we would have been cheerful even if we had sat and drank Cokes all night, as we might once have done. I tend to blame the alcohol for the fact that we didn’t pay any attention to the van parked on the opposite side of the street, its back doors open to the night.

[][] CHAPTER THREE

Walking down dark Chicago streets on my way to the train station at close to three in the morning was not something I would ordinarily have done without a thought, but my head was full of pain and devoid of anything resembling reason. My sole focus was putting one foot in front of the other. It never occurred to me not to get on a train. I could see my parents’ faces too clearly to think I had a choice. I could see Sarah’s face too clearly.

No one gave me a second glance, not that there were many people wandering around with me. I could see one or two other night strollers a block or so ahead. At this distance and with my eyes refusing to seriously focus, I couldn’t even discern their gender.

My head throbbed. My leg was on fire. I winced with each step, hoping that the mere act of walking would eventually loosen the knot placed there so violently by my captor. Not likely. But I did realize dimly that my shuffling gait, the fragile way I carried myself, probably pegged me as just another strung out kid, just another homeless face. And thus I would attract no attention.

I got to the train station and found that it was closed until five AM. Super. I couldn’t afford to be stopped by the cops, so I spent my time wandering the streets close to the station’s main entrance, ducking into shadows every time a vehicle of any kind came my way. I got pretty good at lurking in the background, or so I thought. But I was too tired and messed up to think.

At about five-ten, I pushed my way in and tried to find a train schedule somewhere. When was the next train leaving? And where was it going? There were other people in the station, but all of them, like me, just wanted to be left alone. I saw the sign for the restroom and stumbled off in that direction.

Luckily, it was deserted. I splashed water on my face and the back of my neck, dried down to a state of relative dampness with shredding paper towel. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I winced. It had only been maybe nine hours since I had met Jake at his apartment. In nine hours, I had gone from cheerfully beery to hollowed out and pegged to dry. There was a huge bruise on the side of my face. I looked like I had lost an argument with a brick wall. The swelling was creeping closer to my eye. I splashed a little more cold water on it, and gingerly patted it dry.

Before I left the restroom, I locked myself into a stall and counted the money Jake had given me. Jake. I tried not to think about that. Plenty of time to think on the train. I put about three hundred in my wallet and stashed the rest of it back in the other two pockets. I figured that would get me a ticket to about as far as I wanted to go.

I managed to find the ticket counter after looking at a schedule. The next train to depart would be going to Milwaukee. What the hell. I was worried about the ticket seller asking me about my face, or being able to remember that I was at her ticket counter several hours after I was supposed to have been killed. And what might happen to everyone I loved should that come to pass. Seconds later I realized my fears were unfounded. She never looked at anything except the money I handed her. There was a line forming behind me and I guess she didn’t want to be alert at that hour of the morning, pacing her energy for dealing with the passengers waiting to buy their tickets.

The conductor I passed on my way to the train looked as tired as I was. The other people I saw getting on besides me looked tired. Even the train looked tired. I limped my way to a seat and collapsed. As we pulled out of the station, I thought that I probably should stay awake, stay watchful, and then I promptly fell asleep.

Milwaukee looked big and cold in the half light of early morning. In the station, I dawdled a bit, went to the restroom, studied the schedule board as if I wanted to take another train. In the end, I went outside and found a cab. I gave him the name of a cemetery as my destination. It was the first thing that came to mind. I hadn’t thought about it in years.

He didn’t ask if he had heard me correctly. He simply pulled away from the curb and proceeded down the street. I leaned back in the seat and shivered. I was so tired. I was cold. I hurt. Somewhere deep inside I was probably hungry, as well, but that wasn’t much of a problem at the time. We arrived at the cemetery gates after a short while. I paid him, told him to keep the change, and passed, shivering, into the burial ground.

It was a cemetery like any other cemetery I had ever been in. I don’t know that I was expecting anything different. It was fairly large and I wondered what the odds were of locating a particular gravestone. On the other hand, what else did I have to do? I wandered up and down the paths, stopped and peered at different markers, checked the dates. After what felt like a century, I stumbled, literally, across the marker I sought. It was small, especially compared to some of the others that surrounded it. But there was a familiarity to it that struck a bittersweet chord deep inside of me. I didn’t really need to read the words on it. I already knew them. After all, I had picked them, once upon a time.

It said, “Rebecca Halliwell. In death we are joined, beloved.” The date of death was March 22, 1902. I sat down on the damp, cold grass and stared at it. I had arrived at the only destination my fragmented mind could fixate upon in Milwaukee. And now what?

Shivering, I crawled up next to the stone and closed my eyes. Maybe if I tried hard enough, I could make the whole world go away. Bad idea. I had enough presence of mind to realize that if I fell asleep and the caretaker found me, I’d probably be arrested for vagrancy, or something along that line. And being picked up by the police was something I absolutely could not afford. I folded my arms, trying to get warm, and reviewed my options. I supposed I could wander off and try to find someplace to eat. That could help.

I got to my feet and took a few steps back in the direction I had originally come, then noticed a bench across the path and down a ways. I made my way over and sat down, happy to find that I could rest my back against the trunk of a big, old maple. The sun was starting to grow warmer and I closed my eyes again, trying to feel warm. In a little while, I would figure out where to go next. I just needed a little rest…

Something woke me abruptly. I opened my eyes with a start and needed a few long moments to remember where I was, and why I was there. The memories came back, unbidden, and I put rubbed my face with my hand, wincing at the tender area beneath my temple. A sudden movement caught my attention and I glanced back across the path.

She moved like a cat. It was the first thing that crossed my mind. There was something purposeful and very deliberate about the way she walked, very sure of herself and at the same time somehow almost stealthy, as if trying to ward off the attention she would inevitably attract. She had reddish-brown hair that gleamed when the sun caught it. It was pulled back into a tail and I could see when she followed the curve of the path that it was long and wavy. She had sunglasses on against the early morning glare, and I knew at once that when she took them off, her eyes would be green. I watched her curiously as she approached the grave I had recently deserted, watched as she squatted down in front of it, just as I had. And then she did the same thing he would have done. She turned around and looked straight at me.

I stared back at her, feeling suddenly overwhelmed. It was the age-old haunting all over again. It was the crazy superimposition of today over a time long gone, just like Door County. My breath caught when she rose slowly and began coming towards me.

She was wearing jeans, close-fitting but not tight. She had on a black turtleneck, a blue plaid flannel shirt over that, and a gray baseball jacket over all of it. None of the colors matched, but for some reason, it worked. Or maybe it was just that her face was so lovely. Just as I had remembered. Just as he had painted her. She stopped when she was directly in front of me and I blinked.

“Philip Corts,” she said, just like that, in a low voice that carried quiet conviction. If I hadn’t been Philip Corts, I still wouldn’t have disagreed with her. Then she raised her brows, lightening her mood. “Right?” she added with a smile that was unexpectedly shy.

“Only if you’re Rachel Harp.” I got to my feet, managing to do so without crying out at the pain, and extended my hand. “Good to meet you.” This time around. I didn’t say it aloud.

Her handshake was firm. “Why are you in Milwaukee?”

I could have been talking to myself. Jake had always told me I was too direct. “It seemed a good idea at the time.”

She looked around, looked past me. “Are you-“

I nodded. “I’m alone. He isn’t with me.”

She frowned. “Did he send you?”

“To a cemetery in Milwaukee? I don’t think so.”

She blushed. “I guess that was kind of a stupid question.” She studied me and I saw her eyes focus on the bruise I sported. “What are you doing up here, then? If he’s not with you?”

I didn’t know how to answer that. See, it’s like this. Jake got kidnapped, and I’m supposed to be dead. I opened my mouth twice, but nothing came of it.

“I don’t come to this cemetery often,” she said after the silence had grown a bit uncomfortable. “But for some reason this morning, I just had this feeling.”

I shivered and she looked at me. “Let’s go get something to eat,” she said. “It’s cold out here and we need to talk.”

“I could use something warm,” I agreed. I followed her as she led me past Rebecca Halliwell’s grave and down a path to a different entrance than I had used.

We walked for several blocks, not exactly in silence, but not exactly conversing steadily. I guess we both had a lot on our minds. I thought we were going to go to a pancake house or something, but she led me to a courtyard apartment complex on a quiet side street. It was an older building, with the mailboxes built into the wall of the entryway just inside the outer door, and a second locked door that led to a stairway. She opened the door for me and brought me up to the second floor.

The apartment we entered reminded me vaguely of Jake’s coach house. This one was older, and the furniture a bit more worn, but the sofa and love seat, the coffee table, even the way the TV screen was situated reminded me of Jake’s place. Maybe it was just lack of sleep.

“Eggs and French toast okay? I’ve got bacon, too.”

“Sounds great.” I followed her into the kitchen, but she smiled at me and pushed me back out. “Go lie down. You look like a zombie.” Again her eyes sought out the bruise on my face and again she said nothing. It occurred to my addled brain that she might think Jake had been the one to punch me in the face. If only.

I went out to the sofa, kicked off my shoes, and lay down. It was warm in the apartment and I managed to stop shivering before I fell asleep.

She let me sleep. Not because she wanted to, I learned later, but because I wouldn’t wake up when she tried. The clock on the wall said that it was nearly three when I was finally awake enough to read it. She was sitting in the love seat reading a magazine, and when I turned my head, she flipped it shut and tossed it on the coffee table. “Good thing I checked on you before I cooked,” she said.

“I’m sorry.” I pulled myself into a sitting position. I was hungry and still tired, but I knew—remembered abruptly—that I couldn’t stay. I started putting on my shoes. “I gotta go,” I said.

“Like hell.”

I looked up at that. This attitude did not mesh well with the young woman in Jake’s portrait. “No, really,” I said. “I gotta go.”

“First you’re going to eat,” she said, very quietly. “No, first you’re going to tell me what’s going on.” She came over to the couch and sat down beside me. I was very aware of the fragrance that she wore, of the tawny glow to her hair, hanging loosely down her back, of how tiny her hands were. She reached one of those small hands up to touch my face and I winced and pulled back before I could stop myself. She stared at me. “Philip, what’s going on?”

There was no easy way to say this. “Rachel, my life is kind of hanging by a thread at the moment, and damned if I’m taking Jake’s lady down with me.”

She looked away from me and I thought that she was crying. I had seen the gesture before, a lifetime or so ago. But if I was expecting her to simply fold up, I was still a century behind. She turned back the next second and the heat in her eyes pushed me back. There were no tears. “Okay, that’s it,” she said. “Tell me.”

I shook my head. “I can’t.”

She nodded at me. “I think you can.” Her green eyes were surprisingly hard. “Jake should have called me hours ago. He’s never this late. Never. So what’s going on?”

I was the one who folded up, but truth be told, I needed very badly to do so. I didn’t have Sarah’s calm rationale to steady me. I sat back, touching my face almost unconsciously where I had been struck. “Jake and I were kidnapped last night,” I said at last, my voice suddenly hoarse. It happened a lot when I was nervous. “Coming out of a bar. He’d just finished this gruesome reception his dad had for him. You know, for the gallery opening. We went out for a few drinks and when we left the bar, they were there.”

I stopped a moment to get my thoughts straight. The memories stung, but she needed to hear, and I needed to tell her. “There were three of them. Maybe four. And a cargo van with the back doors open. We had to pass by it after we crossed the street and that was when they grabbed us. I mean literally grabbed us by the arm and hustled us toward that open van. Jake opened his mouth before I did and somebody flashed a gun at us. Just for a second, but there it was. Enormous.” I swallowed at the thought of it.

“They put us in the back of the van, tied our hands and made us sit on opposite sides. It was dark as all get out when they shut the doors, but one of them got in back with us. We felt the van start and I was afraid I was going to puke.” The memory of that dark ride came back with a wallop. I looked at her and after seeing the expression on her face knew that I couldn’t look at her again if I were going to finish the story. “After we had been driving for a bit, who knows how long, Jake said, ‘I could pay you to let us go.’ There was just a silence, and then this voice said, ‘Your father will pay more, I think.’ Jake said, ‘I wouldn’t bet on it.’ Then there was this…sound. A gun being cocked. We both shut up.” I stopped.

“Philip,” she said after a long silence. Her voice was sharp.

I took a deep breath. “After driving forever, we came to a stop. Someone opened the doors and they pulled us out of the van. I couldn’t see how many of them there were. It was too dark. But my sense is that we met up with one or two more people. I thought then that we might be in a forest preserve or something, but now I think we may have just been off of the highway in the middle of nowhere. A couple of them walked away a few yards and we could hear them talking, though I couldn’t get what they were saying. When they came back…” I stopped and closed my eyes a moment. “When they came back one of them said that they didn’t need me anymore and so I should be taken somewhere and shot. Then they grabbed Jake and put him back in the van. He tried to fight. He was yelling for me, but neither of us could do anything. The van drove away without its lights on. I never saw a license plate. I couldn’t identify it again if I saw it. It was just a gray cargo van.” I didn’t look at her. “That’s all I know about what happened to Jake.”

“God,” she said. It was all she could say, staring at me, aghast. “Oh, my God.” Then, “But—”

I smiled at her bitterly. “But why am I still here? Why aren’t I dead? Jake must think I am.” I shook my head. “The man who led me away after the others left decided not to kill me. He did tell me that if I went to the cops, or told anyone, that he would come after my family. Come after Sarah and her brother, Ryan. And me last of all.” I stood up. “I shouldn’t be here, Rachel. I should never have told you.”

“I won’t say anything to anyone, Philip. My own family doesn’t even know I’m back. But we have to do something. We can’t just—” She broke off and put her hand over her mouth.

I looked at her, feeling miserable and helpless and worried, and not liking any of it. “Look,” I said. “Mr. Holdridge is filthy rich. He’ll pay what they want and get Jake back. I think it’ll be okay. If they hurt him, Mr. Holdridge could hire an army to hunt them down and destroy all of them, so why risk that when they can just get a bunch of money?” I wasn’t sure about anything I was saying, but it sounded good.

“And what do we do in the meantime?”

“I’ve been thinking about it. I think I need to leave. I think I just royally screwed things up for you by being here.”

“Then the last thing you need to do is leave. What good is it for either of us to be alone, if we’re both in trouble now?”

I’m a coward. I admit I didn’t want to go off on my own. But what she said had a certain amount of reason.

“C’mon,” she added. “Let’s feed you.”

Maybe she needed the activity. God knows I needed the food. She cooked pasta and heated up sauce, found some rolls and butter for me. I ate more than I would have thought possible. I thought for a moment how interesting it would be for Sarah and me to double date with Jake and Rachel, and wondered if we would ever have the chance. My appetite cut itself off immediately.

She sat down opposite me with a glass of water. “Philip, what happened to your face?”

I wiped my mouth with a blue paper napkin. “That happened when he was bringing me to the train station.”

“When who was bringing you where?”

“The man who was supposed to kill me. Mr. Professional Killer.” I told her about his little talk with me before he put me into the car and brought me to the trains. Then I told her about the drive there, leaving out no details, and watched her response. She accepted the concept of tracking without blinking an eye. I had a feeling she already knew about it.

“Could you use it to find him again?”

I dug into my jeans pocket and retrieved the knotted bit of cord that had been around my wrists. “I don’t know. I think so, but I’m not sure.”

We looked at each other and I knew that she was really asking me if I could track Jake. She may have turned down his proposal and high-tailed it to another state, but I could read her feelings for him just by looking at her face. I turned away from those green eyes, looked down at the table. “I’m not clairvoyant, Rachel. I can’t see the future, either. I just seem to have this bizarre ability to look at the past. If I can figure out a way to make it work for us, I’ll do it.”

She sought my eyes and I finally looked at her. “Just tell me this,” she whispered. “Do you think Jake is still alive? Can you feel that?”

I thought about the question before I answered, reaching deep inside me to see what I could offer her. “I think…” I paused a moment, trying to make the words exactly right. “I honestly think that if he were dead, we would both know.”

[][] CHAPTER FOUR

Afternoon slipped into evening. We were both jumpy and I tried to stay out of her way. This was her space and I felt like one hell of an intruder. Nothing like turning up unexpectedly and bringing wretched news, to boot. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We talked our way around the entire situation, but there were no solutions. We were stuck with too many restrictions. Well, maybe one big restriction: DON’T TELL ANYONE.

At one point, she left for a short time. I wanted to go with her, but she pointed out that I wasn’t supposed to have connected with anyone, so if someone spotted me with her, there would be trouble. She was right about that. I wasn’t comfortable with her going out into the city night by herself, but she stopped just short of laughing at me and reminded me that she had been there alone for some time. I had to concede the point.

I put the TV on and flipped through the stations without paying much attention. TV wouldn’t hold my attention that night. Nothing would have held my attention that night. I got up and went over to the window, stood behind the curtain and looked out at the night. Jake was out there somewhere. He had to be. I needed him to be. Just twenty-four hours earlier, we had been together at a bar. I turned away from the dark streets of Milwaukee and moved back over to the sofa, collapsing into it and wishing I could have been back at home. Wishing none of this had ever happened. I wasn’t expecting to have a vision.

It can’t have lasted for more than a couple of minutes, if that. One moment I was sitting on the couch, staring at the lifeless TV. The next I was inside a huge, dark, stuffy place. It was hot, hot like three o’clock in the afternoon in August. My shirt was sticking to me, and I could barely breathe. But I was moving in a crouch, trying to find something I didn’t want to find and at the same time, trying to avoid someone who frightened me to death. The word death stuck in my mind and played over and over like an echo. There was a hard knot of panic in my stomach, and my leg muscles were protesting from being in an awkward position for so long. I put my hand against the wall next to me. It was hot and dry, rough. It was wood. Was I in a barn? But no, the floor was concrete.

After long seconds, I inched forward a few more steps. The air around me was stifling and preternaturally still, as if something very large and very evil surrounded me and held its breath. Moving even more slowly while trying to make absolutely no sound, trying to control my panic, I willed myself to move forward once more. It was just around the corner. It. What I was dreading to find. What I knew I had to find…

And then I was back in Milwaukee, sitting on a sofa, just about sweating bricks. I snapped out of the nightmare with a jolt. Had I been asleep? I didn’t think so. What the hell had just happened? It felt like a track, but I hadn’t been tracking. I was barely touching anything, and I kept my guard up without even thinking about it anyway. But my head was aching and the tell-tale weakness was already pervading my limbs.

I heard the downstairs door open and close, and realized Rachel was back. I couldn’t talk to her. We hadn’t exactly been having in-depth conversations, but I didn’t even have it in me to make small talk, or any other kind of talk. I grabbed a handy afghan, pulled it over me, and feigned sleep, settling my head down on a cushion just as her key was turning in the door.

I heard her enter briskly, then catch herself when she caught sight of me. A gust of cold air entered with her, and I shivered in spite of myself, but I didn’t open my eyes. She went straight to the kitchen, and then I surprised myself. I actually fell asleep.

When I woke again, it was morning. I felt as if several diesel trucks had passed through my mouth during the night. I turned onto my side with a groan, blinking myself into consciousness. On the coffee table was a stack of new clothes: jeans, a green striped rugby shirt, socks, even a pair of boxer shorts. I sat up just out of curiosity. Next to the pile of clothing was a toothbrush, an electric razor, and deodorant. Either Rachel was being incredibly hospitable, or she was giving me a very large hint.

There was a sheet of paper tucked under the toothbrush. “Philip,” it read, “Jake bought all of this for coming up to visit me. He hasn’t made it here yet, so it’s all new. Help yourself to anything you like.” Please, I added mentally. I looked at my watch and saw that it was nearly 7:30. Not bad. After a few moments of stretching, I grabbed everything on the table and went to take a shower.

The bruise on my leg matched the one on my face. I studied them both gingerly in the steamy bathroom. In spite of the sore places on my face and the knot that refused to leave my leg muscle, I felt much better after the shower. Maybe even a little hungry. I felt guilty, thinking about Jake, but I still felt hungry. Maybe if I ate something, I could figure out some kind of next step.

I dressed quickly, ran a comb through my hair, and went to the kitchen. Rachel must have been a coffee-in-the morning kind of person. I found two bags of fresh roast coffee in the refrigerator, last night’s leftovers, and a quart of skim milk. I assumed the bread for the French toast that she had offered me was the bread I devoured with the pasta. There was one English muffin left, and nothing else. The bacon was in the freezer. I went through the cupboards and found soup, rice, and other staples. But nothing very interesting to eat for breakfast.

The apartment was still silent. I didn’t want to wake her, so I decided to slip out and see if I could find a grocery store. I’d just pick up a few things and bring them back. Of course, I couldn’t leave the apartment unlocked. While I was pondering the point, I heard the bathroom door shut, and the shower start. Problem solved. I’d leave her a note and be back in a flash.

There was a man entering the building as I was stepping through the front door. Before I realized what was happening, before I had time to think, something grabbed my collar hard, propelled me back through the door into the foyer, and smashed me into the wall. “It seems I should have killed you after all.”

I froze at the sound of that smooth, silky, slightly accented voice behind me, even though I had rather been expecting to hear it again sooner or later. In the foyer of Rachel’s apartment building was not a good place for this to happen. I needed to lead him away from her. But I couldn’t move. This was getting old.

“Give me one good reason I shouldn’t shoot you right here.”

I wanted to laugh, suddenly. After looking over my shoulder since the other night, he was here. I was already dead, so it didn’t matter. “There aren’t any reasons good enough for an asshole like you, so just shoot me now. Okay?” My temper got the best of me as soon as I gasped out that first imbecilic reply. “Professional killer,” I mocked, voice ragged with scorn and a strange mixture of fear and recklessness. “You’re just a hypocrite.” I embellished the insult with a healthy amount of profanity.

“What did you call me?” His voice was dangerously soft and close to the back of my neck.

“You’re a hypocrite. A freaking fake. A lousy family man who makes his living by killing people.”

He spun me around viciously and shoved me back against the wall. I finally saw his face and I realized that this probably meant my instant demise. But dying was a done deal and besides, I already knew what he looked like. I smirked at him in Holdridge fashion, a last homage to my missing best friend. “So what will you go home and tell Marie—that is your wife’s name, isn’t it? Will you tell her that you killed someone’s kid today to pay the mortgage? And what do you tell your kids about your job, anyway? I’m not sure of their names, yet, but I’m working on it.” I grabbed his wrist as he held me pinned to the wall, but not in any attempt to break free. I took my guard down so fast and pushed the process so hard that I would have fallen over if he hadn’t been holding me up. “Isabel,” I said, staring at him, searching for the effect my words would have on him. “Your daughter. And your son’s name –holy crap, he has my name doesn’t he? But with the French conceit. That fancy, foreign spelling. Are you going to tell little Philippe that you shot someone else’s son today?”

The expression on his face was worth it, even if he emptied an entire clip into me before killing me. His eyes were frozen with a kind of manic intensity, and he all but backed away from me. “How do you know this?” he demanded.

“I looked you up. Professional killer dot com. Or maybe it was hypocrite dot net. I can’t remember right now.”

He looked about to strangle me and I was basically egging him on. Come on, come on, show me your stuff. But I can tell you more about yourself than you would ever believe. I can steal your secrets… We glared at each other, just on the brink, fascinated by what each of us saw. He recovered first, grabbing my shirtfront and dragging me to the door. At least we were leaving Rachel’s building.

Why was the street always deserted when this man decided to try his particular brand of violence on me? He shoved me into his car, this time with my hands free and my eyes open, and pulled away from the curb with the required squeal of tires.

“You’re going to tell me how you know what you do,” he said, very quietly, very forcefully.

“No way,” I replied, equally forceful, about ten times as rude. All the worry about Jake, about Sarah and my family, all the anger from being victimized, rose to the fore and I didn’t bother to check it. I barely noticed the headache beginning just behind my eyes.

“You’re willing to die?”

“For Christsake, you’ve been threatening me over and over. Just do it, if you’re going to do it.”

He was silent a moment, and then he said, “Your friend is still alive.”

Damn it. The scare tactics weren’t working on me anymore so he had switched plays. I looked at him coldly. “And a liar,” I said.

His hand twitched on the steering wheel and I flinched. But he didn’t hit me. He pulled into a spot at the far end of a grocery store parking lot. “Look,” he said. “Each of us has information the other wants. Why make it so difficult?”

“Gee, that’s a tough one,” I said. “Maybe because you get to leave and I get to die? You think that might have something to do with it?”

He looked at me for a long beat. Then he said, “I’m not going to kill you, Mr. Corts. I’m a cop.”

“And I’m psychic,” I retorted, wondering if we had suddenly switched gears to honesty.

“I’m serious,” he said. “I’m a cop.” With those two sentences, the slight foreign accent dropped and he was suddenly speaking in broad Midwestern mode.

I gaped at him. “You’re a what? A cop? You force me into a van, put a gun to my chest, beat me when I can’t defend myself, threaten my life and everyone else’s, not to mention kidnap my best friend, and you’re a cop?”

“Yes, I am. I’m kind of on loan at the moment.”

I kept staring at him, not sure if I wanted to club him, or thank him profusely for the news that spared my life. He didn’t give me a chance to do either.

“So now it’s your turn. How do you know about my wife and my children?” His eyes were hard, defensive, and I realized I was treading on thin ice although I didn’t know why.

I also realized I didn’t care. “I told you,” I said. “I’m psychic.”

His expression didn’t change. “Cut the crap.”

“Hey, you asked, I answered.” I shrugged. “You can believe it, or not.”

“Phil, I wouldn’t push it—”

“Let my friend go,” I said flatly. “Get him the hell out of wherever he’s being held, and give me back my life. That’s all I want from you.”

He took a cigarette from a pack in his pocket and jammed it into the corner of his mouth, although he didn’t light it. “Your friend, Jake,” he said. “He disappeared a few years ago, didn’t he?”

“And?” I said.

“There was no police report. I found out what I could. But didn’t he just disappear and stay gone for a couple of years?”

“And?” I said again.

“I looked into his background. And I followed you. To see if you would keep your word. To see if you would keep your family safe. And here you are, hooking up with a girl who also disappeared a few years ago. There was a police report about her. I read it. College girl. Disappeared the night of her birthday.” He took the cigarette and jabbed it at me. “Makes me wonder if there’s a connection there. Jake disappearing. This girl disappearing. And you’re the only one who knows both of them.”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say.

“She’s alone in that apartment. Do her parents even know she’s here?” he asked softly.

“I guess you’d have to ask her,” I said.

“Very good, Phil. That’s good.” He toyed with the cigarette, running it between his fingers and his thumb. Little bits of tobacco spilled out the end of it. “But you still haven’t answered my question. How do you know about my family?”

“I answered your question.” I was too worn out to invent a story and I didn’t feel like lying. “Look. Let me have something of yours. A key ring. Or your driver’s license. Just something.”

His expression unreadable, he dug around in his pocket and produced a plastic, covered card. “For a parking garage,” he said.

I took the card without looking at it, fingering the worn plastic at the corner. “I have no idea beforehand what I’m going to tell you,” I said. I closed my hand around the card, shut my eyes, and let down my guard. And was assailed immediately. The image before me was bloody and horrible and I didn’t want to look, but I had no choice.

She was perhaps seven years old. Certainly no older than eight. She had dark hair that would have tumbled in ringlets to her shoulders, had she been running or jumping or playing as she should have been. But she was dead, stretched out on the floor of a seemingly deserted building. Her throat had been cut, but she had been arranged as if for sleep, her hands peacefully at her sides, her eyes closed. Her clothing was soaked with her own blood. I could see that her dress had been worn thin in places. Her stockings were a nondescript gray, as if they had been washed so many times no color had remained. Her shoes were old and cracked. But she had the face of an angel, the rounded cheeks that should have been pink. And her eyes, when she had been alive, were big and brown. I knew her face although I didn’t know her. Why? The anguished question ran through me, a tormented refrain. How could he do this?

I pulled out of the track, horrified. How could he do this? I found that I was speaking the question aloud. He did this? He? I looked at him and the expression on his face went nearly to revulsion. I must have been speaking, describing, through the entire track. I barely registered the look on his face. “Did you kill her?” I demanded. “Did you kill that little girl?”

He was staring at me as he might have at a poised cobra. “What did you just do?” he asked in a hollow whisper.

“I call it tracking. There’s a word for it. Sarah told me. It’s psychometry. Look, I can’t control what I’ll see. I can’t control what I’ll say. And doing it beats me up like you wouldn’t believe.” With a shaking hand, I put the plastic card on the seat next to him. I noted how he squirmed away from it. How he squirmed away from me. I leaned back against the warmth of the seat, trying to ignore the headache that pounded away from inside my skull, and fixed him with a look. “Did you kill that little girl?”

He didn’t answer. Then he said, “Does Jake do that, too?”

“What difference does it make?” I didn’t hide the annoyance in my voice. “No, Jake doesn’t track like I do. But he once said that when we got together, it was the ultimate in magic.” I only said it because I was beginning to enjoy playing with his head. I figured he owed me some for the shot to my face and the bruise that still knotted my leg. “Hey, you asked and I answered,” I said again. “You didn’t believe and I showed you. For the last time, did you kill that little girl?”

He shook his head. His face had grown ashen. “It’s a dream I have,” he said, his voice barely audible. “I’ve been having it for years. Ever since a particular murder.” He gave me a look that was almost a wince. “I have never told anyone about that dream. Not even Marie. How could you know?”

I nodded at the plastic card that still lay beside him on the seat. “That told me,” I said. My head was still aching, and I rubbed my forehead, ran my hand across my eyes. “What murder? Was she the victim?”

“No. The victim was a little boy. I knew him by sight. He’d pass me on his way to school, and he’d always wave at me.” A slight smile touched his face, but it vanished as quickly. “One day he disappeared. His parents were frantic. The whole neighborhood turned itself upside down to find him. It went on for almost five weeks. And then we did find him.” He grew silent.

“How did he die?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Not good. It wasn’t good. He had his throat slit, like the little girl in my dream. But…” He couldn’t go any further.

I looked at him. For some reason, I suddenly had to know. I reached out tentatively and put my fingertips on his hand.

He jumped at my touch, and started to say something, then stopped. I closed my eyes and got what I needed. I wished I hadn’t, but I had to know. And then my mind made one of those leaps it does from time to time. “What does this boy’s murder have to do with Jake?”

It took him a couple of tries to get the words out. I think I was really scaring him, something I would have found pretty amusing at any other time. “I think that the man who kidnapped Jake also murdered the little boy.”

“You think what?”

“He’s done it before. The little boy. There have been others. I know it. Jake’s the most recent.”

I phrased the next question slowly, not wanting the answer that I knew was coming. “And the other victims. Did you find them, too?”

“Yes, but not alive. Not one of them.”

There was a long silence in the car, and then I exploded. I threw a punch that he deflected easily, as he did the next and the one after that. When I lunged for him, he pushed me back with enough force to stop me, but he didn’t strike. Part of me wanted him to do just that. Part of me wanted him to reduce me to a pile of ashes. It seemed better than what I was feeling at the time.

“Take it easy, Phil,” he said, pushing me down when I tried again.

“You son of a bitch.” I was so angry that the words caught, sounding fragile, which made me even angrier. “You helped them take him away. You didn’t stop them. What kind of cop are you? Letting Jake be used as a pawn just so you could stalk your prey?”

“We’ll get him back, Philip. That was the point.”

“The point now,” I said, “is that they’re going to kill him. And you’re letting them.”

[][] CHAPTER FIVE

Rachel’s expression could have stopped a cruise ship in its tracks in a Caribbean hurricane. “Where the hell—”

“I have someone you need to meet,” I said, cutting her off mid-sentence. “And then we gotta go.”

She stepped back from the door and admitted both of us, Gray right behind me. She didn’t say anything, and I liked that. Practical. But her expression was not exactly amiable.

“Rachel, this is Gray. Gray, meet Rachel.”

“Gray what?” she asked.

“Just Gray,” he said. He reached his hand out and after a moment she shook hands with him.

“And who the hell are you?”

“He’s my professional killer,” I explained. “Except that he’s really a cop.”

She didn’t say a word and I liked that, too. No barrage of questions. She didn’t come at us from all sides. She simply stood there with her arms folded and stared at us.

“He can help us find Jake,” I said.

She gestured us toward the sofa and we complied. Even Gray, six foot plus, solid, and a cop, wasn’t going to bat against this one. “Tell me,” she said simply, sitting down in the armchair.

“I think I know where Jake’s been taken,” Gray said.

“You’re a cop,” she said.

“Right.”

“And you helped kidnap Jake,” she added.

“Yes and no. The man who took him moved sooner than originally planned. I got there in time to do some damage control,” he nodded at me, “but it had already happened when I found out about it. So now it’s trickier.”

“Trickier,” she repeated, her voice like Minnesota in January. “Jake’s been kidnapped, and it’s all about being ‘trickier’?” She was not in a good mood.

“Look, Rachel, we’re going to play beat the clock here and get Jake the hell out. But we’ve got to move fast,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” Gray said. “We? Where did the ‘we’ come from?”

I looked at him. “Of course it’s ‘we.’ You said you couldn’t leave us here in case someone spotted me. That means that Jake can’t be far from here, right?”

“Almost right. No, I can’t leave you here, Mr. Corts, because you don’t know what anyone involved in this thing looks like, and they all know what you look like. And you’re supposed to be dead. But no one knows about Rachel except for me. She can stay here.”

Even as Rachel began to protest, I heard Jake’s voice from over a hundred years earlier. Promise me you won’t leave her alone out there. Promise me, he had said. “She can’t stay here,” I said. They both looked at me. “She has to come with us.”

Gray frowned. “Philip-“

I shook my head. “It’s no good, Gray, and we don’t have time. So let us just get our stuff together and we’ll go.” As I was still speaking, Rachel was already up and heading toward her bedroom.

“Five minutes,” she called over her shoulder. “Max.”

There was silence in the car. I let Rachel have the front seat beside Gray while I hunkered down in the back, trying to be invisible. “Any chance you were followed, too?” I asked. I caught his eye briefly in the rearview mirror before I ducked my head down again. I had already tried lying down, but the seat was too short.

“No,” he said with finality.

I had to assume he knew what he was talking about. After all, he was the expert.

“And we’re going to work on getting Jake back, right?”

“That’s the plan.”

I could see big city skyline out my window, and some sky, but not much else. I had no idea where we were or where we were going.

“Where are you taking us?” I asked.

He took a deep breath before he answered. “Philip,” he said, “shut up.”

I complied. Rachel sat and simply stared out the window. I’m no mind reader. I don’t have Jake’s ability—the one he always denies—but I found myself thinking that no matter how crazy my life had become, I didn’t think it was a patch on either of theirs. I wondered more than once what was going through her mind. And what was going through Jake’s.

Gray drove in silence for about forty minutes. “Okay,” he said. “I’m taking you two to my own private safe house. This is my place, and normally my job does not enter through that door. But I can’t think of any other place to go and we have to get out of sight ASAP. We are going to be in the middle of nowhere. There is no cell service. There is no town. Just a lot of woods and privacy.”

He didn’t say it, but from the tone of his voice, I had an idea what he meant. “It’s your sacred space, Gray. Got it. And we appreciate it.”

He made a small noise, but didn’t say anything further.

Gray’s place was as bad as Door County. I don’t mean that to be as negative as that seems. All the places Jake loved in Door County felt like they were in the middle of the wilderness: nothing but trees, trees, and more trees. Sometimes there were glimpses of the lake. Lots of times there was wind. But overall, there was little else. And here we were at Gray’s cabin, facing nearly the identical set-up.

I’m metropolis born and bred. I like street lights and neon and traffic noises and people all over the place. This was going to be tough. And I didn’t have Jake to talk with, or Sarah to keep me steady. Just the cop that helped kidnap my friend, and that same friend’s significant other. Who probably wished she had never laid eyes on me. Yes sir, this was going to be one heck of a time.

The cabin, and I use the term loosely, looked like something out of an architectural magazine. Or maybe I want interior decorating. The outside was not particularly impressive, a small house in the woods made of wood and some brick, a shingled roof, a combination porch and deck at the front of it with three steps leading up to it, and a glider to the left of the door.

The interior, however, was so welcoming and so comfortable that I was almost ashamed to be there, bringing along the problems that were mine and depositing them into his personal shelter. I stopped just past the entryway, standing on polished hardwood and gazing around me at the fieldstone fireplace, the deep, brown couch and love seat complete with Southwest pillows, the ripple afghan done in shades of brown, tan, and blue placed casually—even lovingly—across the back of a black recliner. Centered before the sofa was a large, wooden trunk that served as a coffee table. To the left of the living area, I could see a round, wood dining table with four chairs on casters, and beyond that, a small, galley kitchen. There was an accordion wine rack on the one counter with three bottles still in it. There was a wooden bowl of nuts on the other counter, the nutcracker hanging on the side of it. Bringing my gaze back to the living area, I saw the basket of kindling beside the hearth, the brass fireplace set, the recessed bookshelves behind the recliner, the boom box on its own small stand, with a short stack of CDs next to it.

“Gray,” I started and faltered immediately.

He turned to me with an expression that was ferocious and hurt at the same time.

I shook my head. “We shouldn’t be—” I tried again, stammering over what I wanted to say and yet couldn’t put into words. “I apologize.”

Rachel looked almost as stunned as I felt. “Gray, there must be somewhere else for us,” she said in a hushed tone. “This place is…glorious.” She was striving for the right words as well. “We can just go to some kind of motel, or something.”

He glared at us both, then sighed suddenly and relaxed. “A motel might leave a trail,” he said. “No one I work with knows where this place is. I’m sure someone could find it eventually, but it would take a bit of work. And my associates at the moment would have to figure out who I am first before they could even start digging. No, this will have to do.”

“Have to do?” I echoed. “That’s not quite how I would have phrased it.”

He lightened up, then, suddenly becoming the host. “Put your things in the bedrooms. They’re that way,” he nodded to the right. “Then come back here and we’ll have a talk.”

Rachel took what must have been the guest room, with its full size bed and matching chest of drawers. I settled into his kids’ room, tossing my stuff onto one of the twin beds.

Gray met us at the sofa with mugs of hot chocolate and some cookies. When we had gotten settled he regarded us for a few minutes over his own steaming mug before he began. “Your friend has been researched for the past few months,” he began at last. “The Holdridge family is fairly prominent, so this was not a difficult thing to do. Have you got any idea how much money that family really has?”

I shook my head. “A lot,” I said.

“More than a lot,” Rachel said slowly. “Jake didn’t talk about it much, but from the things he mentioned…” She collected her thoughts. “I don’t know much about upper class living, but some of the things he would say, just so casually, not even thinking about it.” She shook her head. “Mr. Holdridge is worth an awful lot.”

Gray nodded. “So is Mrs. Holdridge. Her family is older money, and there’s quite a fortune there. Between the two of them, well, let’s just say they could probably support all of us and our families in a style to which we could easily become accustomed. And then some.”

I thought about Jake and his high tops, the haircuts he gave himself, his tendency to clothes shop at thrift stores, and tried to reconcile him to the wealth in his background. I had never given it all that much thought. He was rich. That was the end of it. I looked up at Gray, frowning. “But is this kidnapping about money?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” That was Rachel.

Gray caught my eye before answering. “In this day and age, anything is possible.” At the same time he was warning me to keep some things to myself. He was right. No point in letting Rachel know the worst if she didn’t need to know it yet. “We’re assuming it is.”

“You said he was researched,” I prompted.

“This man, this kidnapper, always does research. I can’t tell you exactly what he’s looking for with each of them, but once he zeroes in on a victim, he is very thorough in learning what he can about that person before he makes a move.”

“ ‘Each of them’?” Rachel said. “How many others has he kidnapped?”

“I can’t be sure,” Gray said. “To tell you the truth, as far as the world at large is concerned, this man doesn’t even exist. I’m almost the only one who thinks he’s a serial kidnapper.”

“Why?” Rachel asked.

I looked at Gray. This was going to be dicey, if he didn’t want her to know that we were really dealing with a serial kidnapper-slash-killer.

“There have been other kidnappings over the past several years,” he said after not too noticeable a pause. “All of them wealthy. There were certain things about all of the cases that caught my eye. I thought I saw a pattern. No one else did.” He shrugged.

“So how did you find him?” I asked. “How did you connect with him?”

“Luck,” he said. It was all he was going to say about the subject. He shifted in his seat, put his empty mug on the coffee table. “So here’s what is going to happen next. I have to go and check in. I’m due in the next few hours. And no, he won’t think anything of my having been gone. It’s the way I’ve worked for him all along. He thinks I’m his paid assassin. I don’t have to be in on all of his dealings. I’m just supposed to be around when there’s killing to be done.” He nodded at me. “That’s why I arrived late when you and Jake were taken. I got a call that my presence was requested.

“But now that Jake has been taken, I’ll be around the proceedings more, and that will not be unusual. Now that there is something going on, it would be natural for me to hang around and protect my investment. After all, Mr. Corts, I was paid quite well for your murder.”

“Glad to hear it,” I managed, but the thought still left me a little lightheaded.

“So what you’ll need to do is make yourselves at home here. I’m going to be coming and going. I can’t give you a schedule. I’ll come back when I can. We don’t need anyone to follow me here.”

Rachel shivered. “Jake’s still alive, isn’t he?” she asked.

“Well, I didn’t get a call, so that’s good news.” He looked at me and I suddenly knew what he was thinking. Jake was alive unless the man had decided to kill him himself. “But I should have more information for you when I get back.”

“So we just sit and wait?”

Gray looked at Rachel. “That’s about the size of it for now. There’s not much TV reception, but there is a small television with a DVD/Blu-Ray player in the master bedroom. We have some discs. There’re books. There’s a CD player if you want music. Radio doesn’t come in too well, though.” He thought a moment. “As I said, no cell service.”

“So much for ordering pizza.”

He shrugged. “Sorry kids. You wanted in.”

I shook my head. “Hey, I’m not complaining. We sit and wait.”

He nodded. “I just have to get a few things together.” He left us sitting there and went out the back door.

“Do you think we trusted him a little too quickly?” Rachel asked.

“No. Yes. What choice do we have?” I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees, and met her eyes directly. “He’s the only connection we have with Jake. There was no other choice.”

“But what if he’s one of them?”

“Then we’re really in it,” I said. I shrugged. “I was really in it the other night. Jake’s still there. I want us safe, and I think Gray’s the only way to do that.”

She tilted her head, and I thought to myself that she had been hanging around Jake way too long. “But do you trust him?”

“I have to. But I think I would have anyway. There’s something about him.” I didn’t quite know how to put it into words.

She was still staring at me. “You tracked him again, didn’t you?”

I nodded. “A couple of times.” I thought about all the tracks I had actually done on Gray. “We can trust him, Rachel.”

She gave me a look that suggested disbelief, then got up and began clearing the mugs and the cookie plate. Something to do. I followed her into the kitchen and watched her do the dishes after she waved off my attempt to help out. A movement out the back window caught my eye, and I saw Gray stepping out of a shed and stopping to padlock it.

“Look,” I said. “Maybe that’s where he buries the bodies.”

“Stop it.”

“Hey, I was kidding.” I watched as he approached the house. “Everything okay?” I asked when he came in.

“We need some stuff,” he said curtly. “And you two need some groceries. I’ll bring things back with me. And a pizza, or something.” He moved past us and back out to the living area, and I knew that he was leaving then. Something close to panic suddenly grabbed hold of my gut.

I tagged along behind him, like a little kid shadowing his big brother. I still felt uneasy around him, but all of a sudden I couldn’t stand the thought of him leaving. I went out the front door with him and walked him to his car. He didn’t say anything until he took out his keys.

“You should get back in the house,” he said abruptly.

“There’s no one around. I’m okay.” Then, “Tell me about that little girl,” I said, trying to get him to stay longer.

He didn’t tell me to shut up and he didn’t cuff me across the face, either. He looked at me, his expression unreadable. “Just a dream I have,” he said. “A recurrent dream. Isn’t that what they call it? It’s nothing real.”

“You don’t believe that though, do you?”

“Mr. Corts, you are one strange agent. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you. I don’t think I’d have wanted to, to be perfectly frank. You’re spooky. But a dream is just a dream until I learn differently.”

“But the way she was killed—”

“Her throat. I know. Just like the little boy. Just like the rest of them. I’m just putting those details into my dreams. Nothing mystical about it.” He looked at me. “Why are you trying to keep me here?”

“I don’t know,” I said, too embarrassed to hedge. He could see through me, anyway. “Rachel’s not sure we can trust you.”

He shrugged. “Not really my problem.”

“Not mine, either.” I tilted my head back to look at him, squinting a little against the sun. “But do we know you’re really coming back? Do we know this isn’t just a set-up?”

“No, you don’t.” This time the shrug was in his voice. “You don’t know jack about me. I’m just telling you that I’ll be coming back.”

I had to accept it. “Will you be going to see Jake, now?”

“If he’s where I think he is, yes.” He flipped his key ring around in his hand, selected the key he wanted. “There should be enough snacks in there to hold you over until I get here.”

“You want to watch your back,” I said as he got into the car.

“Been doing it a long time. Take care of her, since you insisted on bringing her along.”

I stayed out in front of the house, alone, for a long time after he left.

[][] CHAPTER SIX

Rachel found a book on one of the shelves and curled up to read on the love seat. I wandered through the cabin a few times, checking out the pantry for the snacks he had said were already there. Crackers, the rest of the cookies, and one box of cold cereal. I supposed it would work if a blizzard hit and we were starving. I wasn’t hungry anyway. Rachel ignored me as I strolled through the cabin, and eventually I sprawled out on the sofa and fell asleep. And dreamed.

in here, a voice hissed at me. It was a quiet voice, but impossible to ignore. I followed its lure around a corner into the dark. Here, it whispered again. But there was nothing but darkness. I put out a cautious hand and touched cold air. After a little while, my eyes adjusted enough to see the vague outline of shapes. Were those trees up ahead? And what was that huge shape rising up out of the darkness? What was that noise?

It had a strange cadence to it. A sort of a scrape-scrape, pause, and then a thunk. There was a short silence and then it started again: scrape-scrape, pause, thunk. I felt a chill down the back of my neck, but my curiosity got the best of me. I ventured forward, taking dream-steps through the cold dream-air, following the bizarre noise. I realized it came from the large shape now just several yards away from me. My steps slowed as I got closer. Scrape-scrape, pause, thunk.

There was a little bit of light closer to… the thing. Whatever it was. I kept walking toward it, shuffling a little, just a bit reluctant, but still needing to know.

Someone was building a wall of sorts. It was brick. I could see the hands moving as I got closer, and understood the scraping sound I had heard was the sound of mortar being spread on each brick. The hands applied the mortar, scraped off the excess, then positioned each brick with a dull, final thunk. I looked at the structure, darker than the dark sky, and saw that three walls had been finished. The hands were building up the last wall from within that three-sided enclosure, and it stood at knee height.

The bricks themselves were not uniform. Some were traditional red rectangles. Others were thinner and wider, black or gray. nd still others were the same kind of sandy-colored things that made up my old grade school. The hands wielding the bricks and the trowel were skilled and worked swiftly. I peered into the darkness to see who this mysterious builder was, laboring so carefully and so diligently in the dark. At that same moment, the laborer stopped and looked up at me. Our eyes met and my shock caught in my throat—

I woke up with a start and found that my heart was pounding. The dream dissolved into shreds of memory and then disappeared altogether. The feeling of something vanishing clung to me and I needed a few long moments to realize where I was. None of the surroundings were familiar.

 

Rachel was no longer on the love seat. The book she had been reading was open and face-down on the seat cushion. I pushed myself into a sitting position and swung my legs around until my feet were on the floor. The cabin felt cold, and the dark of early evening was beginning to press up against the windows. The trees beyond the cabin had gone to shadow.

“There’s no sign of Gray,” Rachel’s voice said from the kitchen. She appeared in the kitchen entrance a second later. She looked at me, her expression just short of accusatory.

“He’ll be back,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster. “He has to.”

“Why? Why do you trust him, Philip? The bruise on your face is horrifying. And I’ve watched you walk. You try to hide it, but I know your leg still hurts, too. Why would you trust a man who beat you when you couldn’t defend yourself?”

“Because I believe him, I guess. Because he has a family. He has two kids and a wife he’s crazy over. He’s a cop and I have to trust that.”

She crossed her arms as she looked at me and for a moment her lower lip trembled, but she got that under control pretty quick. Not Rebecca Halliwell, Rachel Harp. Twenty-first century. Rebecca would have been easier to deal with, I couldn’t help thinking. “You’ve been asleep for almost two hours,” she said.

“I’m tired.” I wanted to add So sue me, but decided that would make things a bit worse. “And I’m escaping,” I admitted in a quieter voice. Sarah knew that about me. She sometimes kidded me about it, but other times she would tell me to go to bed and pull the blankets up. She knew me really well, did Sarah.

“I wish I had your faith,” she said in an equally quiet voice.

I looked at her, surprised. From the moment I had first seen her in the cemetery, I could understand Jake’s attraction to her. She was pretty average gorgeous, as he would have said, all long reddish-brown hair and that fine-boned facial structure that he was always going on about. And her eyes, of course. She would have attracted all kinds of attention walking down the street if she chose to do so.

On the other hand, her conversation since we met had largely been on the prickly side. I couldn’t blame her, really. The circumstances of our meeting were disastrous. I could tell she loved Jake and the worry coming off of her was palpable. I just wished she’d stop aiming all of it at me.

“Faith,” I repeated. “I never would have used that word in connection with me. But I guess I have some.” I tried to catch her eye. “What about you? Do you believe in Jake?”

Her eyes narrowed at that. “What does that mean?”

“I mean, if they haven’t killed him outright, do you believe he’d be doing everything he could to survive this?”

She came around to the living room area and perched on the love seat, closing the book and laying it aside. “What does that mean?” she asked again, staring holes through my pupils and into my brain matter.

I tried to find words. “Jake and I, well, actually you and Jake, too… We’ve all known each other a long time, right? A very long time. I may not remember all of it, but just from the years I’ve known him, he’s always been a survivor. He acts like he isn’t, but he is.”

“You’re talking about Ridgeland Academy,” she said.

“I’m talking about all of it. Ridgeland. His parents. His grandparents. Jake hasn’t had a happy life, we both know that. But he keeps plugging along, somehow. Secretly hoping for the best, I think. He’d never admit it, but he fought for that survival. He even fought me for it.” I lapsed into silence, thinking about all the times Jake had tried to maneuver me into doing what we finally did: send him into a different life. Now he was back, and… This was not a kind life, not for Jake. I wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off staying wherever the heck he had been. With Rachel.

“Why did you guys come back?” I asked.

She stared at me a moment longer without saying anything, then turned away with a sigh. “We didn’t do it on purpose,” she said. Jake had told me as much.

“Jake said you two were in the middle of an argument…?” I prompted after a silence.

She took another deep breath. “What did he tell you?”

I couldn’t help a small smile. “That he proposed to you twice and you turned him down both times.”

She made a face. “Yes and no. Yes, I turned him down the first time. What is he thinking? We’re barely old enough to be out of college. As far as I know, he’s never dated anyone else in his life. Has he?”

I thought that over. “Not to my knowledge, but Jake can keep a pretty good secret.”

She shook her head. “The second time, well, that’s when we were out walking. I hated walking there, by the way. All those stupid long skirts in all that mud. Ugh.”

I smiled again. Jake had said Rachel hadn’t been enamored with that life.

“Anyway, I guess we wound up in a place that had significance for him.” She looked at me and I nodded. “The drawing, right?” I nodded again. “We started arguing and I was going to walk away from him, just so we could both cool down, and he grabbed my hand and all of a sudden…” She stopped. “I was home and he was gone.”

“But it wasn’t because you guys were trying to get back here?”

“No. Jake loved it there. Me, well.” She shrugged. “Not so much.”

A thought occurred to me. “I gotta ask. Was Matt there?”

“Jake’s uncle? Yes, he was. He’s a very sweet man, very kind and very creative. Life there agrees with him. He draws. He builds furniture. There’s a gentle and pretty lady who lives closer to town and they see each other. He’s happy as a clam. I don’t know if Jake has been able to let him know what happened to us. They have some kind of weird communication thing.” She looked at me. “Kind of like you two.”

I returned her look, but surprised. “What about us?”

“You guys have some kind of kindred-mind thing, or something.”

“If you say so.”

There was a noise at the front door and we both froze. I stood up slowly, clenching my hands into fists, as if that would do any good. Rachel had also gotten to her feet and was backing away toward the kitchen. Knives, I thought. Or at least maybe a rolling pin. Good for her.

The door opened and Gray stood there with the key in his hand, a couple of bags of groceries, and a large pizza box. I moved to give him a hand with his things. He had brought us dinner and bad news. He gave us dinner first. We didn’t find out about the bad news until after we ate.

Rachel rose to clear the table and I dutifully got up to help her. My mother’s training is apparently indelible.

“Sit down,” Gray said suddenly. “Sit down, both of you.”

We glanced at each other, Rachel with the plates in her hands, me with the empty cardboard carton and a couple of glasses, before we complied.

“It’s about Jake,” he began. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rachel put her hand to her mouth. He turned to her. “He isn’t dead,” he said gently. “He’s still alive.” Then he grew abruptly silent.

“But?” I prompted him impatiently. “He’s still alive, but?”

Gray scratched his head. “He’s…unconscious.”

“What does that mean?” I said. “Unconscious how? Sick? Drugged? Injured? What?”

“That’s just it,” he answered with a little bit of a sigh. “I’m getting what information I can, and as discreetly as possible. I’m just a paid assassin. I’m not supposed to have any interest in what’s happening to his victims. But I found someone who talks to me a little, and this is what I’ve gotten. Jake apparently lost consciousness sometime today, and they can’t seem to bring him around. They can’t even figure out why.” He glanced at Rachel. “If they can’t figure out why, then he’s not sick and he’s not injured. Just unconscious. Someone mentioned the word coma.”

“So what are you really saying?” I asked.

He looked at me levelly. “Do you remember what I told you about the man who took Jake?”

I nodded.

“Does Rachel know?”

“Do I know what?” she demanded, breaking her silence. “Stop the bull and just get to the point.”

He looked a bit taken aback.

I cleared my throat. “Rachel, this guy has kidnapped other people before. The police have found every single one of his victims. And every single one of them was dead. Sometimes a ransom had been paid. Sometimes not. It didn’t seem to make any difference.”

She looked at us, stunned. “But—” she began.

“It’s worse than that,” Gray interrupted.

“How?” I asked.

“The man is sick. I mean sick in the fullest sense of the word. Psychotic, sociopathic, demonically possessed, anything you want to call him, I’ll agree with you. After a point, right before he would get the ransom, or maybe even if he just reached the end of his own arbitrary time limit, he would start to send things to the family.”

Something about the way he said the word “things” sent a prickle of apprehension through me. “What things?”

“Parts. Body parts. An ear, maybe. Part of a finger.”

“You didn’t tell me this before,” I said.

“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to. I was hoping to end this before it got as far as it has.”

“But Jake’s being unconscious—is that why you said, and I quote, ‘it’s worse than that’?”

“Yes. Because it changes the man’s timetable. He likes to be in control. He requires being in control. Jake, whatever is wrong with him, has upset his agenda. This is about the time when he would have had Jake write a letter home. Something that could be checked for Jake’s fingerprints. Maybe a picture with today’s newspaper to prove he’s alive. But now that doesn’t look likely to happen.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” Rachel asked. There was a steel coating over her words.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just think we don’t have much time.”

 

There wasn’t much to say after that. I helped Rachel clear away dinner and we left Gray sitting at the table, apparently contemplating the crumbs we had left behind. In a little while he got up and went out the front door, and we both knew not to follow him.

Rachel finished cleaning up, to both her and the local public health inspector’s satisfaction. I was waiting for her to produce a bucket and mop, but that didn’t happen. Instead, she began pacing around the cabin and I realized that she wasn’t even aware that she was doing it.

She took close to nine minutes to approach me—I was timing her— and give me a strange look. I already knew where she was heading with it, because the same thought had been playing through my mind.

Before she even spoke I said, “I need something of his.”

She blinked, not expecting me to broach the subject first. “You’re wearing his clothes.”

“Yes and no. He’s never worn these, right? No, I need something he’s been in contact with. Do you have anything?”

She stared at me a moment longer, then disappeared in the direction of the bedrooms. She came back with a small box and handed it to me.

I swallowed. It was a small, velveteen-covered jeweler’s box. “Rachel,” I started.

“Trust me, he held onto that for some time until he talked me into taking it. I always have it with me.” She dropped her gaze away from mine. “I just never quite accepted it. I don’t wear it,” she clarified, looking back up at me with something like defiance. “You can open it,” she added, when I still hesitated.

I shook my head. “Hanging onto the box will be enough. I’ll see what’s inside it when, I mean if, you ever put it on. But for now it’s between the two of you.”

She looked at me then with at least ten degrees less animosity. I offered her a slight smile and retreated to the couch, playing with the small box in my hand. I wondered where Jake had gone to buy it. What kind of jewelry stores were available in Door County early in the last century? I didn’t ask.

She sat down opposite me. “Is it okay to watch?”

“Yes,” I said. “Not real exciting, but it doesn’t matter. Jake was always hanging around when I did this. Of course, doing this was always Jake’s idea.” I closed my hand around the box, took a deep breath, and closed my eyes.

I saw darkness, and then I saw gray walls. There was shelving on two of the walls. It looked like a storage room. There were a toilet and sink in one corner, and a great many boxes in scattered stacks around the room, but not much else. There was a door on one side and I knew as I looked at it that it would be locked. And there was a cot. A narrow cot against an empty wall, with a thin pad on it, a camping pillow, and a blanket. Whoever had taken Jake, well, they were not keeping him in the lap of luxury. Jake would be indifferent to that, so if they were trying to torment him by keeping him in a place without two-inch thick carpeting, plush furniture, and decorative wall-hangings, they were barking up the wrong tree.

The connection felt warm, felt strong, and I knew he was still with us.

And then something about the scene changed and I felt jarred, shaken…The only way to describe it would be to say something punched me, in the face, in the gut, anywhere to break my concentration. My breath caught and the picture faded to dark, a dark that was cold and slimy and fetid, like a swamp. Something pushed me away and slammed a door. The reverberation of it played like a wire threaded through the pain that was beginning to pulse from deep within my head.

I started and opened my eyes in time to see Rachel, head down, wiping a tear away from her face, and the sight hurt. She was putting up a brave front, a masterful, hostile, brave front, but she had to be a mess on the inside. I knew I was. I didn’t know that she would ever let me comfort her, though. Comfort could only come from one person.

Her reaction made me realize that I had been speaking through the track, like I did with Jake, except for those times when what I saw took me into the scene so completely that I couldn’t manage a word. She wasn’t alarmed, though, so I also realized that I must have stopped when the vision of Jake’s prison room was taken from me. Lucky. She was left with my certainty that he was alive. The weird, cold darkness I experienced right after remained my secret.

“You’re sure?” she whispered.

“That he’s alive? Yes, absolutely. But where he is? He doesn’t know, himself. I just saw where they’re keeping him. I don’t know how much help that is.”

“A lot.”

I nodded. “I’m glad, then.” I managed to smile at her, but my head was killing me and my thoughts were already on Gray and what we could do to get Jake back, hopefully soon. There was real danger there, and while I didn’t know what it was exactly, it felt like a great deal more than being kidnapped by a crazy man who cut off body parts. On the face of it, that made no sense. But while Rachel might have been comforted by the track, I felt about ten times worse. We needed Jake out of there yesterday.

[][] CHAPTER SEVEN

Gray chose that moment to reenter his cabin and before he could even say anything, I asked him, “What else do you know about what’s going on with Jake? How many details did you get?”

He stared at me, but didn’t waste time with unnecessary questions. “I know that he was awake first thing this morning. Like I told you earlier, he lost consciousness some time today. They’re trying everything they can think of, short of calling a doctor. I don’t think even he can afford to bring a doctor in on this one.”

“So are you going to get him out? Right away?”

He regarded me. “I’m working something out.”

That was hopeful but he had no idea. “You have to get me in to see him.”

He blinked at that. “This isn’t a hospital, Phil. I can’t just get you a visitor’s pass.”

“I’m serious. You have to get me in to see him. I think I can get him out of it. I think I can bring him around. Wouldn’t that help us get him out easier?”

“Us?” he repeated, then changed tacks. “You can bring him around? When did you get your medical license?”

I shook my head impatiently, wincing as the movement aggravated my headache. “It might be a long shot, okay? I’m just another stupid college kid. But with this situation? I can wake him up. At least you won’t be trying to rescue an unconscious body, if it makes any difference.”

“It might make a difference—”

Rachel cut him off and the hope on her face was painful to see. “Philip, do you mean—”

And I cut her off in turn. “Yeah, I think. I think I could do it for Jake. Not anyone else, but I think it would work with Jake.”

“Okay, now you guys stop the bull and get to the point.” Gray had an unlit cigarette in his hand and was tapping it against the pack he held.

I took a deep breath. “Remember when you asked me how I knew all that stuff about Marie?”

His hand stopped. “Yeah. So?”

“Jake and I…” I broke off. How did I begin to explain this? “I can get into his head,” I said at last. Simply. A bit defensively.

He didn’t burst out laughing. He just stared at me. “And then?”

“Then what?”

“If you wake him up, it will be because I got you in there. Then I’ll have to figure out a way to get you both back out.”

“You said you were working on something.”

“Yes, but there’s nothing definitive in place.”

“You can come up with something.”

There was a moment of silence. “You’re not just another stupid college kid,” he said heavily. “You’re an idiot as well.” He raised his cigarette against my protest. “If I bring you in there, I bring you in the only way I can. There is no sneaking over gates, or breaking into back bedrooms. I bring you in as my own kidnap victim. Do you understand what I’m saying here? We go through the front door. I’ll be dragging you in, probably restrained. And I’ll be bringing you there in the trunk of my car.” He stared at me. “Remember that first car ride I gave you? Your face does. Well, I was being gentle. Hell, I was being kind. These guys won’t even think of you as a person. You’re just so much leverage to get their way. I can’t guarantee anything beyond getting you there. I don’t know exactly where Jake is being kept or if you’ll even have the opportunity to see him. I don’t know if they’ll keep you alive or shoot you dead on the spot, the way I was supposed to in the woods. All I can say is that I would do my best to make your life too important to cut short. So that they don’t kill you right away.”

There is nothing wrong with my imagination, and he was conjuring up very nasty images in my head, but I pushed them aside for now. “Get me in to him.”

“And what about the other lives involved? If this thing goes south, it doesn’t matter much for me. It’s my job. But what about you two? Or you three, if we can get Jake out of his stupor. You’re just kids. And you have families.”

I laughed. “We’re not just kids,” I said. “You know what we really are? We’re missing persons.”

Rachel’s eyes widened. “I hadn’t thought of that.” She looked at Gray. “Philip is right. All of us are listed as missing. Possibly even presumed dead, at this point. If this thing goes south, as you say, it won’t matter much for our families, will it?”

“They’ll just find the bodies, this way,” I said. I looked at him. “And Marie? Would she be prepared for this?”

“Yes,” he said shortly, in a way that closed the door on discussion.

“So come up with a plan,” I said.

 

Gray went right back out the door. He had stared at both of us for a few minutes, then made himself scarce. I could only hope he had gone off somewhere to put things into place so that we could go and get Jake back.

I went back into the living area and sat down on the love seat, wondering what was going to happen next. Worried sick. Thinking about Jake and that nasty darkness I had felt right at the end of the track. What was that about?

Rachel followed me and sat down on the couch. “Philip?”

I turned my head and looked her way, although my mind was still otherwise engaged.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I’m sorry. What?”

“I asked what you were thinking. The expression on your face…” She didn’t finish.

“I was thinking about Jake.” I settled on a half-truth. I wasn’t going to tell her about the extra ten layers of uneasiness I had gotten at the end of the track.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Do what? Let Gray sneak me in to see him?”

“What happens if they don’t let you anywhere near him? What happens if they just kill you as soon as he brings you there?”

“I guess I die,” I said. I wasn’t quite as nonchalant as that reply might sound. But I was thinking about a stormy evening, over a hundred years earlier, when Jake had shoved me out of the path of certain death and took the hit himself. I hadn’t consciously thought about that track in years but now here it was, metaphorically in front of my face, and the impact was the same as that rainy evening several years ago when Jake had handed me an old and fading book about shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. My eyes had grown wet, remembering how he had died to save me, how I had watched as his life slipped away, and I felt the unexpected sting of tears now.

“I’m sure,” I said, so quietly I wasn’t sure that she heard me, but she did.

If she saw traces of what I was feeling, she gave no sign. But after a few minutes she said something completely unexpected. “Philip, you should write.”

I looked at her. “What?”

She took a deep breath. “This is going to sound dreadful, but if I had known about Jake before…” Her voice trailed off. “You should sit down and write something for your parents. For Sarah. Just in case…you know.”

I thought about that. She was right. “You’d take care of that for me? If…?”

“I’m assuming Gray won’t let me come along with the two of you. I doubt there’s room for both of us in his trunk.” She twisted her mouth up into a bitter grin. “Not alive, anyhow. If you’re going to try to get Jake back, it would be the least I could do.” She looked at me, eyes steady. “It would be an honor.”

I couldn’t even look at her without losing it, so I didn’t. I got up and started hunting for a pen and some paper.

“I’ve got that covered,” she said. She went to her things and brought back a notebook and a stick pen. “I won’t bother you,” she said, and went back to the room she had chosen.

I sat down at the table and started trying to figure out what to say. For a while, nothing would come, but I reminded myself that in the best case scenario, neither my parents nor Sarah would ever see what I needed to write now: how much I loved them; how grateful I had been to have them in my life; how sorry I was for the worry and the pain that I had caused them and how Rachel would give them the whole story so that they would know why I chose to do what I did. I did not let myself break while I was writing. Time for that later, I supposed, if just for that short moment while looking down the barrel of a gun. I wrote my letters and focused on Jake and the fact that he was still alive. I focused on how we needed to keep it that way. And I managed not to let any tears I was holding spill over and embarrass me.

 

After the tension that held us for the better part of the evening, I was nearly asleep on the couch before Gray came back into the cabin. I had long since given the letters to Rachel for safe-keeping, a pretty dreadful moment, to tell the truth, and I won’t dwell on it. She had accepted them without a word and then closed the bedroom door again. We almost had an unspoken agreement that we needed to be apart for now, not speaking, not sharing our thoughts, not doubling our own fears. I had wandered back out to the living area, stretching out on the couch after stealing the afghan off the back of the recliner.

Gray entered quietly, but the sound of the door was still enough to wake me up. I sat up and looked at him, dazed and trying to bring the world back into focus.

He sat down on the loveseat and regarded me, a serious expression on his face.

“Phil, how old are you?”

I replayed the question in my head a few times to make sure I had heard that correctly. “Old enough to drink,” I said. I don’t know why I didn’t just tell him.

But he didn’t push me. “So you’re an adult, right? At least by age?”

I let the little dig in the second question pass. “Yes.”

“All right then.” He regarded me for a few more seconds and then said, “There are a few things I want you to know. They may have some bearing on Jake’s fate, but I’m not sure. We all know the Holdridge’s are wealthy people.”

I nodded.

“And as you would probably guess, every kidnap victim I ascribe to our particular culprit has also been wealthy.”

“That make sense,” I said, not understanding where he was going with all of this.

“Well, it turns out our kidnapper probably has more money than any victim he has ever targeted.”

That took a few minutes to soak in. “What? He’s got money?”

“A great deal of it.”

“Then why—”

“And that is the crux of the matter. If he doesn’t need money, then why do any of this? Think about it.”

I did. And I didn’t like where I wound up. “You’re saying he does this because he likes it.”

Gray didn’t answer.

I looked at him. “What aren’t you telling me?”

His expression changed a few times before he looked directly at me. “There’s a very real possibility that Jake knows his kidnapper.”

I felt cold. “And that means?”

“I’m not sure. This guy never lets any of his victims live, anyway, so it’s not like he was ever going to let Jake go even with the ransom. It just makes the situation that much…darker.” He emphasized the last word.

“We’ve got to go,” I said. “We need to do something. I need to do something.”

He sighed. “Mr. Corts, you are about to get your wish.”

His words put a deeper chill into me and I pulled the afghan around my shoulders as if that would help. “So you’re bringing me in to see Jake?”

He nodded. “You can still back out of it. Tomorrow morning—” He looked at his watch. “Sorry. In about five hours would be your last chance to bow out. I’d be going in anyway, but if you want in…”

“I’m in,” I said.

He leaned back and yawned. “Okay then. Try to get some sleep. I’ll fill you in on the details before we leave.”

“Gray? Rachel will be safe here, right?”

“Safer here than anywhere, especially with us.” He gave me a frown as if he expected me to insist she come along with us.

“That’s all I need to know.” I looked around. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to sleep out here.”

“Whatever you want, Phil. I’m turning in.” He got up and strode quietly to the master bedroom, turning off lights along the way, leaving the cabin dark and quiet.

[][] CHAPTER EIGHT

We were all up before five in the morning. As Gray had observed, it was a matter of hours. The level of tension in the cabin should have blown the walls out. Gray had brought back eggs and bacon and bread. He’d even bowed to convention and brought a box of donuts, but none of us seemed able to eat very much.

“You’re in for a long day, Phil. Maybe even a couple of long days. Are you sure you don’t want anything?”

I shook my head. “I know I’ll be starving later. Assuming I live out the rest of the day,” I added. He gave me a sharp look and I managed a half smile. “Sorry, I can’t eat right now.”

He was only drinking coffee so he didn’t have much room to preach. “Rachel?”

“No, thank you,” she said, her voice subdued. “I can’t eat when…” She didn’t finish the sentence and no one added to it.

“So what happens today?” I asked.

Gray took a cigarette out of the pack and began tapping it end over end on the table. I wondered how long ago he had quit smoking. “In a little while, I’m going to tie up your hands, slap some tape across your mouth, cram you into my trunk, and drive you over to where Jake should be.”

“Should be?” I echoed

“You’re not sure?” Rachel asked at the same time.

He took a deep breath. “Not entirely. Let’s put it this way. Not one hundred percent. Frankly, I don’t know where else they’d be keeping him, so that’s where we’re going. If I’m wrong, well, I guess both of us are done.”

“In that case, it’s been real,” I managed after a moment of silence. My voice sounded hollow.

Gray looked at me. “Last chance to back out is right now, Phil. What do you want to do?”

I looked back at him, then glanced across the table at Rachel, who was studying her empty plate. “Stick with the plan.”

He sighed and drained the last of his coffee. “All right. I need to take care of a few things, and then we’ll start out. We have a little bit of a drive, and the sooner we can get to Jake, the better.” He washed his cup at the sink and put it on the drying rack, then went out the door.

“Hey, Philip.”

Her voice was so soft I almost didn’t recognize it. There was no edge to it. There was no edge to her anywhere, that morning. It was like something in her had deflated overnight. I looked at her without saying anything.

“You know if it could have been me, I’d be going instead.”

“I figured that.”

“But it can’t be. It has to be you, because it’s Jake.” She stopped and looked at me, wordless.

“I’ll bring him back,” I said. “I’ll bring him back, or…” This time I left my sentence unfinished and she didn’t complete it for me.

Gray stuck his head through the doorway. “You guys? It’s time.”

I followed him out to the front of the cabin and stopped at the trunk of his car. My heart was starting to speed up and I took a couple of deep breaths. Rachel had followed us reluctantly and came to stand beside me.

He opened up the trunk, which was empty except for a duffle bag, and from this he took some rope, a roll of duct tape, and a small jar of petroleum jelly. Stark fear shot through me, then. This was all very real. The rope was real. The tape was real. The gun that I knew was stuck in his belt beneath his jacket was real. I began to wonder what I was doing, handing myself over as a sacrificial goat. In the end, who was this guy anyhow, and how did I know I could trust him? My thoughts must have been reflected in my face. He nodded at me encouragingly and said, very softly, “Turn around, now, and put your hands behind you.”

I did as he said, letting him cross my wrists and wind the rope around them.

“Oops. Forgot.” He handed the jar of petroleum jelly to Rachel. “Put some of that on his lips, okay?”

We both gave him a weird look and he actually laughed if just for a moment. We didn’t join him. “It’s so the tape isn’t such a pain to remove. Don’t smear it all over, though, or nothing will stick. I just don’t want our boy here to remove his skin and both lips when he finally takes off the tape.”

I ducked my head down and let Rachel apply the goop to my mouth.

“That’s good. That should help. I think.” He looked at me. “I gave you an out with that rope. You shouldn’t have any problem getting out of it when you need to.” He tore a wicked-looking strip of tape from the roll. “Anything you want to say before I shut you up?”

“Yeah. Don’t get any of us killed.” I wasn’t really joking.

“That’s the plan,” he said.

Rachel moved closer and put her arms around me. “You come back,” she whispered. “All of you, come back.” She kissed me on the cheek and stepped back.

Gray plastered tape across my mouth and jaw, making sure that my nose was clear. Then he began helping me into the trunk. “You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”

A little late, I thought. I shook my head.

“Good. I popped the back seat out of its frame for you, not enough to be noticed, but so you can get a little extra air that way. That’ll help.” He pushed my legs a little farther in, arranging me sideways and in such a way that the trunk would close. “The next time you see me, we’ll have an audience, so I have to tell you this now. When we get there, comply with me, but not too readily. Well, don’t overdo it. Don’t pull away and try to run because you’re likely to get shot. But a little reluctance, a little resistance, will be about right. Got it?”

I nodded.

“Also, I have to blindfold you.”

What the hell…?

Again he read my face. “It’s to save your life,” he explained. “You can’t see these people. You can’t be able to identify them. And if I pull off into a rest stop or on the side of the road to put a blindfold on a guy who’s tied up in my trunk, we’re definitely going to attract attention.”

I had to concede the argument. I sighed and allowed him to tie a band of cloth across my eyes. “Okay, that’ll do it. Lie down on your side. Wait, let me guide you so you don’t brain yourself.” When he had arranged me to his satisfaction, he slammed the trunk shut with a firm bang, and I was alone and completely helpless.

“Rachel, I left some directions for you on the table so that you know what to do, if we don’t come back. My wife’s car is in the shed, and there are directions to the nearest phone you can use. All the keys you need are on the table. But wait for us as long as you can,” I heard him say. “Even through tomorrow, until at least noon. If I can, I’ll let you know what’s going on. Just try not to worry. But I will tell you this. Either all of us come back, or…” Another unfinished sentence. The morning of unfinished sentences.

The car shook slightly as he got in and shut his own door and then I felt and heard the engine start. This was it.

Shut up in a trunk, immobilized, is no way to travel. If I had thought the journey to the train station in the front seat with my eyes closed was uncomfortable, I hadn’t been using enough imagination. I wondered, as the car roared along to our destination, if I would ever be able to feel my left arm again. Or my left leg. I shifted my position a bit, but nothing helped for long. I began to wonder what would happen if Gray got rear-ended. What if he had to brake suddenly and there was a semi-trailer behind him?

I pushed that idea out of my head and tried to think of other things. Happier things. Impossible. The duct tape on my face smelled strange, and actually, so did the trunk. Had Gray been transporting dead bodies? But no, he was actually a cop, not a hit man. Or was he? I thought of the tracks I did on him and remembered Marie’s face. I remembered his children. Tracking had never be wrong before, had it? I tried to remember. I tried to think of anything except what was actually happening to me.

If I could have slept, it might have helped. The ride was interminable, but I knew that when the car came to a stop, the ride would have been too short. Hey, Sarah, I thought, picturing the softness of her eyes, remembering the warmth and strength of her hand in mine. I think I might be about to die…

The car stopped.

“We’re here,” he said in a low voice. “You’re going to have to trust me completely, now.”

Like I had a choice.

I heard his door open and shut, and a moment later the trunk was opened. I felt the sun on my face, the light breeze, smelled the warm, late morning air. The feel of it was dizzying after the closeness of the past hour? hours?

“Be ready,” he said to me. He helped me sit up, giving a tug to the rope around my wrists while he was at it. “That’ll come off easy,” he mumbled into my ear. He pulled me forward to help me clamber out of the trunk.

Let’s talk about physical challenges. My legs were stiff—even numb—from being curled up for so long that it took a few tries to get me onto my feet. If I hadn’t been so terrified I might have been laughing.

“What’s he doing here?” a none-too-friendly voice over to my left demanded.

Gray slipped into the slightly foreign accent as easily as I would have fallen over without his hand around my arm. “I am here to see him.” Slight emphasis on the last pronoun.

“Wait here,” the other voice said.

“I think not,” Gray replied. “This is a matter of some urgency. I trust he will be ecstatic to see me.”

The shrug in the other voice was apparent. “Suit yourself.”

“This way, my young friend,” Gray said to me. He dragged me along, and without the use of my eyes or my arms—and barely the use of my legs, for that matter—I didn’t have to feign resistance. He guided me up two steps and into what felt like a cool, dusky place. We walked on tile first, then onto plush carpeting. I could smell a combination of cigar smoke and furniture polish. I wondered where the hell we were. I heard a door open before us, and I assumed he led me through the doorway. There was still carpeting under our feet, but it felt even thicker, as if few people ever walked in this area. My left leg kept trying to give out from under me, and he was practically hauling me along with him.

“I have brought someone for you,” Gray called out without any other greeting.

There was a pause. “Isn’t he supposed to be dead?” a voice asked. Unlike the one outside, this voice sounded both wealthy and educated. Maybe it was because of what Gray had told me earlier about Jake’s kidnapper. This must be the man himself.

“Dead by my hand,” Gray agreed. “As you can see, he is not. I kept him on a whim, I suppose you could say. And I think you might find him useful.”

There was amused contempt in the answer. “Oh, really? And why would that be the case?”

“I understand that your…guest…has developed a chronic case of unconsciousness, shall we call it? He has not been conscious since yesterday morning, and you cannot find a way to rouse him, yes? Also, by your timeline, you need the note to be sent to the family. This young man is your guest’s closest friend. I am sure he would be quite gratified to give you all the information you need to write this note. With or without your guest’s input.”

There was a pause. My leg chose that moment to give and Gray pulled me upright again.

“What’s wrong with him?” the voice asked. He sounded annoyed but I had a feeling it had to do with what Gray had just said, and the suggestion that this man might need help.

I sensed the other man coming close and felt an overwhelming sense of dizziness. It was him. It was all him: the cold, the dark, the sliminess. I felt myself shrinking back against Gray as I felt this darkness approaching. My skin was crawling, and if my face had been uncovered, they would have both seen my sense of revulsion clearly in my expression. A small, distressed noise escaped from behind the tape across my mouth, and I found myself pushing back toward Gray without conscious thought.

“What’s wrong with him?” the other man repeated, his voice sharper.

I felt like a small creature that had just attracted the attention of a snake.

“He is woozy, still, this young friend of mine. Occasionally, I must subdue my own guests.” The tone was dismissive, but from the strength of Gray’s hand on my arm, he was trying to cover for my reaction.

There was another pause. “We can talk,” the cultured voice said, a trifle petulantly. There was a long moment of silence. “Perhaps I will find your young friend even more intriguing than you do,” he said, his voice soft as a hiss. “Take him away,” he added peremptorily. “Put him with the other.”

Gray squeezed my arm one last time. Encouragement? Farewell? Another hand gripped me from the other side and pulled me away. “Let’s go,” a new voice said.

I was marched stumble-wise through a maze of corridors or halls or connecting rooms, who knows? I had no idea. At least my leg got better as we hustled along. Eventually, we stopped and again I heard a door open. “In with you,” the voice said. I was pushed from behind and staggered forward several steps from the force of that push. The door closed behind me and I heard the click of a lock.

For a few long moments, I stood where I was. I didn’t sense anyone else in the room, but I didn’t trust that. The floor beneath me was no longer carpeted. It felt hard and fairly smooth, like concrete. Perhaps I was in a storeroom, or part of the garage. Awkwardly, I lowered myself to my knees, then again until I sat on the floor. It was cold, that floor. Definitely concrete. I waited but no one said anything to me. No one told me to stop moving or stay where I was. Cautiously, I began wriggling out of the rope around my wrists, seeking the slack Gray had promised me.

He was as good as his word. The rope gave without much of a fight. Once one of my hands was free, I yanked off the despised blindfold and, bracing myself for the sting, tore the tape away from my mouth. Bless Gray and Rachel and the petroleum jelly, and bless the relief of freedom. I slipped the last loops of rope from my other hand and looked around at my new prison.

And recognized the storeroom I had gotten from tracking Jake, although it was a good deal larger than I had realized. There were the shelves built into the walls as I had seen. I noticed now that there were stacks of boxes, and that there was a small window in one corner, a mere rectangle cut high into the wall and abutting the ceiling. The glass was frosted over so it admitted a small amount of light and nothing else. It seemed to be the only source of light in the room, which was going to grow dark when the sun began to go down.

I shivered, chilled, now that the worst part of the ordeal for me was over. No more ropes. No more being shut away in a trunk. I began to move, looking for the sink and the toilet, looking for the cot I had seen earlier.

There were a few cardboard boxes stacked against the wall toward the back, but nothing else that I could see. I walked back towards the window, drawn by the dim light, and found the cot, half-hidden by the boxes. There was someone on it, someone very still and very unconscious.

[][] CHAPTER NINE

Jake.

I hadn’t seen him in days. He needed a shave. And he was dropping weight again, just as he had two or so years ago before we first sent him away. But he was the first family I had seen in forever, and a knot formed in my throat as I stared at him. He looked dead. His eyes were closed. His hand, when I touched it, was cold. I knelt down beside the cot and put my head down on his chest, reassured then by a slow, steady heartbeat.

I shook him but he didn’t respond. I didn’t know how much time I had, but I knew I had to get him back as fast as possible. I shook him again, called his name softly. Still no response. So I bent over, very close to his ear, and said, “Jake, if you don’t come out, I’m coming in after you.”

I sat down on that cold floor and waited for him to stir. Nothing happened. Dammit. There was nothing else for it. I got back up onto my knees and put a hand on his arm. Then I let down my guard.

This was far different from tracking. I sought him out in my thoughts, squeezing my eyes shut, trying to focus on anything that meant Jake to me: the paintings at the coach house apartment, especially Rebecca’s; Cokes with no glass and no ice; wine casually lifted from his father’s wine cellar; a sunny afternoon in Bridgeton Park Cemetery and the first time I had ever seen that annoying, familiar grin—

I found myself tumbling down some kind of dark, narrow chute, unable to see or stop, until I sensed myself spilling ass over elbow onto a patch of grass. I understood there was no chute, no patch of grass. Nevertheless, my mind sought to make sense of whatever it could find and I found myself flat on my back on a small oval of weedy grass. I got to my feet and looked around…

…Jake was in a world of madness. And I had thought tracking through a ship-sinking storm was bad. Maybe this was because he’s an artist. Maybe there was a reason I had always thought he was slightly unhinged. The world I entered now was screaming and gray-orange and chaotic. A storm, with the Mockingbird just going under, swept past me and I ducked. I felt as if I were in the middle of a whirlwind or three. There were trees in profusion, their branches whipping and snapping: Door County in a frenzy. There were countless mummies, all black and white, wandering aimlessly about. Jake always had a thing about mummies, so I wasn’t too concerned, nor were they interested in me.

A graveyard floated past me and disappeared around a corner. There weren’t actually any corners, but I lack any other way to describe it. Buildings from Ridgeland Academy sprang up and exploded. I saw Rachel in almost every direction, but she was always too far away to speak with, or even to see clearly. I knew it was her from her hair, her posture, her way of moving.

I saw Rachel’s portrait—well, Rebecca’s portrait—drift past. It had a glow around it. I blinked in confusion when I saw myself, dressed in my usual jeans and tee shirt, walking through Bridgeton Park Cemetery. I watched until I disappeared from my own view, then saw Matthew Brock standing at the foot of a lighthouse. How was I supposed to find Jake in all of this?

I looked down at my feet to see if there was a road beneath me, and found that I was walking on brick. Okay, fine. I set off, calling his name, trying to listen for a response. The road I walked was literally building itself with each step I took. I would put my foot down, and there would be brick beneath me. But if I looked ahead, there was nothing. I decided not to look ahead. Instead, I found myself looking around, ducking flying canvasses and watching in surprise when I saw two dusty, ragged knights going at each other with two-handed swords. Beyond them looked to be the Revolutionary War.

“Halt!” a voice cried out before I could see anyone. A tall, shadowy figure emerged from nowhere onto the path. “Friend or foe?”

“Friend,” I answered.

The figure pushed a hood away from his head and I found myself face-to-face with Jake. He stared at me blankly, and then splintered into a million shards and disappeared. The sight was unnerving.

I wandered past stranger and stranger sights, calling his name, worrying that I would never find him. But I was in his mind, so how could I not find him? This was getting way too surrealistic for me. The part of me that remained in the storeroom served as my anchor, but the farther I drifted, the more cut-off from it I felt. This was not a good thing.

After a bit, the brick road that I was walking and simultaneously building led me to a haphazard brick structure and beyond that, a coast of sorts with cliffs and gnarled trees. I reached the structure and was shocked into remembering the dream I had had the first afternoon at Gray’s cabin. Jake had been building this brick monstrosity in that dream. We had stared at each other and the split second of recognition had been enough to jar me out of my nap. I had forgotten what I had dreamed until now.

Jake had been walling himself up inside of it. There was a window-sized opening in one wall and I walked up and peered into it. The next moment, I was at the edge of a cliff, looking out at the sea.

“Hello, Corts,” a voice said. “I didn’t think you’d be able to come after me.”

I jumped, looking around, but couldn’t find him. Only Jake ever called me “Corts.”

“Down here.”

I inched closer to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Jake was hanging by his fingertips from a crevice in the cliff face.

I was lying face-down, reaching for him, before I knew it. “Let me help you.”

He smiled happily at me, as if absolutely nothing was amiss. “But if you help me, I’ll be dead for sure, won’t I?” He looked down. “Of course, falling off would amount to the same thing.”

“I’m not dead, Jake,” I said.

“You’re not? How did that happen?”

“The man who was supposed to shoot me changed his mind. It’s a long story. Let me get you back up here, first.”

“Is it worth it? It’s been very weird these past few…” He swore. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been gone. How long has it been?”

“Just a few days.”

The happy expression disappeared from his face. “Rachel,” he said softly. “What can she be thinking?”

“Rachel knows all about it. I’ve met her.” I had realized by then that no amount of stretching on my part would let me reach his arm. I would have to scramble down a bit to a ledge I saw below me and grab for him that way. I rose into a crouch and made my way slowly over the lip of the precipice. “Hang on,” I said. “I’m almost there.”

He shook his head and one hand slipped off, leaving him dangling by the other, long legs swinging wildly, but he regained his hold. “I didn’t think anyone was coming for me. I didn’t think anyone would even miss me, except maybe Rachel. And she wouldn’t have known what to do. My father doesn’t know about her. Her own parents don’t even know that she came back.”

“I know. She told me.” I had picked my way down to the ledge and stretched out on it carefully. “If I grab your hand and pull you back, we ought to be okay.”

“Whatever you say, Corts.”

I reached my hand down and he scrabbled around until he could grab me. I closed my fingers around his wrist and pulled, struggling to move backward at the same time. He helped, finding a precarious toe hold and pushing off of it until he could swing his legs up and roll over onto the ledge beside me. We lay there for a short time, catching our breath.

“What did you mean, is it worth it?” I asked at last.

“Is what worth what?”

“Earlier. When I told you that I was going to pull you up, you asked me if it was worth it.”

He put a hand over his eyes. “I thought you were dead, Corts. And it would have been my fault. I thought I was dead. Or close to it. I was ready to go, you know.”

“That’s pathetic, Jake. You give up too easily. Every frigging time. Have I ever told you that?”

“No. Because if you did, I’d beat the crap out of you.”

I laughed. “Yeah? You and what army?”

He was silent for a minute. “So you met Rachel?” he asked.

“Yup.”

“What did you think?”

“I think she’s delusional. What’s she doing with someone like you?”

He sat up and looked at me. “We need to go back, don’t we?”

I remembered where we were and what I was doing there. “Damn. I was kind of not thinking. You’re right.”

“Corts, I don’t want to go.”

I had never seen him this way. Of course, I had never been inside his head before, either. “You have to.”

“Why? I could stay here. No one bothers me here. I’m alone and I’m safe.”

I shook my head. “You’re alone. You’re not safe. We gotta go back.”

“You don’t know what’s out there. I do. There’s something more than just a kidnapper there, Corts. There’s something else going on.”

I knew what he meant and I had a sudden image of a very young Jake, cringing in the corner of the walk-in closet he had once called his room. “I know.” I realized I was seeing him completely unguarded. We had to get out of there. I didn’t want to know any more of his secrets. “Come on,” I said. “We have to get you back to Rachel.”

The air around us lit up suddenly, as if the sun were melting away fog.

“Let’s do it.” He pulled himself to his feet, then looked at me doubtfully. I gestured at the narrow path that led up and away from the cliff. Still hesitant, he clambered back up to the top and I followed him.

“You lead,” I said. “This is your show.”

“Which way did you come from?”

“The way with the fighting knights and the floating graveyard. And all the wind. How the hell do I know?”

He looked at me as if I were crazy. “What are you talking about?”

I looked around and nothing was visible at all. Absolutely nothing. “What’d you do with all the special effects?”

His expression was one of sheer confusion.

“C’mon,” I said finally. “This way. I think.”

I didn’t know where I was going any more than he did, but I sensed myself sitting in the storeroom with one hand on Jake’s wrist and I made my way in that direction. Somehow. We walked for a few minutes in silence. When it got too quiet, I looked around. Jake was lagging behind. The distance between us was growing. “C’mon,” I said again. I went back and grabbed his wrist. “It’s this way.”

“Corts, I don’t know,” he said. He had that look on his face again. “What are we going back to? What’s out there? They took my earring. I know they sent that to my father. They wanted me to write a note.”

The note. I remembered that from the earlier conversation with Gray after the pizza dinner.

“I tried to wait them out. Hell, I tried to get out. That’s when they started putting stuff in my meals, to make me drowsy. I finally decided not to bother waking up at all.”

“How do you decide something like that?” I was still pulling him after me, trying to find true north and the way back.

“I’m not sure. I just…went away.”

“To here.”

“Right. To here.”

“Did you hear me call your name? Did you hear me on the outside, trying to wake you up?”

“No.”

Ahead of me I saw the dark outline of a double doorway. “I think that’s it.”

“It should be. Those are my eyes.”

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind.”

Conversations with Jake were still the same. “C’mon,’ I said again.

I felt him trying to slip away and I tightened my grip on his arm. No way he was going anywhere except for where I was dragging him. My hand was growing tired from holding on so hard.

“You can let go now, Corts,” a voice said aloud.

Aloud. As in a real voice, not just one in my head. Startled, I opened my eyes. The part of me that had been there all along recognized the storeroom, looked down at my friend, and registered that he was staring at me curiously. Everything else that comprised me shot forward into a vacuum and I felt as if I were being sucked through a funnel, or perhaps a drain. I plowed back into the storeroom—into me— at about a hundred and eighty miles per hour and the impact sent me reeling. Literally. I dropped his wrist and fell backward. When I could breathe again, I managed a weak, indignant “Jeez, don’t do that to me.” And when I could focus again, I saw that familiar smirk on his face.

“That’s what I love about your abilities, Corts. Sometimes you have absolutely no control over them.” He laughed. “You’re like an express train derailing.”

“Screw you, Jake,” I said, genuinely stung. But it felt so good to be able to say it to his face that I laughed, too. Then I groaned and put my hands over my head. “Please pass the pain pills.”

“Corts, what happened to your face?”

“What?” The headache I had now far surpassed the one Gray gave me that first night when he had tried to punch me into the middle of next year. “Oh, that was Gray.”

“The color?”

“The killer. The professional killer.”

“What?”

“I’ll tell you about that when I get over the trauma of being in your head.”

He ignored that. “So how do we get out of here?”

“Damned if I know. I was blindfolded when I got in.” My head was splitting open and I covered my eyes with my hands. The thought of getting up and physically walking around caused me great anguish at that moment.

“You were what?”

“I was being a kidnap victim, again.” I explained about the ruse that had gotten Gray and me through the front door.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, that doesn’t help us much, then.”

“The point was to get me into the same room as you. We’d heard about your unconscious routine. Someone even called it a ‘coma.’ Rachel just about went off the deep end when she heard that. I had a feeling I could root you out of it if I could get in to see you.” I looked at him. “You’ve got a lot of really weird stuff in your head.”

“Tell me something I don’t know. And I’ll owe you something epic if you don’t go on about it.” He raised himself up on an elbow. “So I’m back. Now what?”

“I think Gray’s coming for us.”

“You think?”

“Yeah. Just not sure when. Or how.”

He frowned at me. “I know that when you’re after-track, your head’s a little fuzzy. But think about this, Corts. Didn’t you just say this man is a professional killer? And that he threatened to kill you?”

I nodded. “Me. My parents. Sarah. Ryan.”

The expression on his face was comical. “And you trust him?”

“He wasn’t going to kill me anyway, Jake. It’s a long story and I’ll tell you about it, but later.” I glanced around. “Are there cameras in here?”

Jake searched the corners of the room with his gaze. “You know, I looked for that when I first got here. I even dug through the boxes, as well as I could. I hate the idea of someone watching me.” He shivered. “But I didn’t find any. I know that doesn’t mean anything, but I don’t think so.”

“Hope you’re right. But if you’re not, they should be coming for us any minute. So you can write your note.”

“And they can kill you because they won’t need you anymore.”

“That’s twice I’ve become obsolete.”

“Three time’s the charm, Corts,” he said lightly.

“You’re not helping.” I staggered to my feet and started prowling, albeit slowly, around the room. The door remained locked. Like Jake had suggested, none of the closed boxes looked like they had been opened recently, and we didn’t find any suspicious holes in any of them. So no cameras. “He gets his jollies in other ways,” I said.

Jake looked at me. “What do you know about him?”

I had no idea what time the cavalry was coming. “You might as well sit down,” I said. “I’ll tell you everything that’s happened since you got taken away and I was supposed to die. And then I’ll tell you what Gray said about your kidnapper. It’s a long story.”

[][] CHAPTER TEN

Jake is a good listener, but even as I spoke I could see his hands twitching. In all the years that we’ve known each other, he’s always had paper and a pencil while we talked, so that he could sketch nonstop through the entire conversation. By the time I had told him what Gray had said about the kidnapper being beyond wealthy, and before I got to our harebrained scheme to get me into Jake’s prison, I realized I needed to stop talking and try to assuage the twitch in his drawing hand.

To my surprise, the pen Rachel had given me the night before so that I could write my farewell letters was still in my back pocket. I pulled it out and offered it to him. “There’s gotta be some paper around here somewhere.”

He looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, Corts. I’ve been listening, I really have.”

“I know that. Drawing is like your coffee, cigarettes, brandy, and potato chips all rolled into one.” I was wandering around poking at boxes, wondering if he would be content with decorating the sides of cardboard crates. Then I spotted a clipboard on one of the shelves and happily there were some sheets of paper on it. “Will this work for you?”

I handed it to him and he received it with a grateful expression. “It’s been a long time since I’ve drawn anything…” His voice tapered off into the ether, and he stopped moving, staring down at the clipboard with a strange expression on his face.

“What?” I asked. He didn’t answer so I walked over and nudged him. “What?” I asked again.

“This is a packing slip,” he said, voice slow and distant.

“And this is a storeroom. So what?”

“I don’t know the vendor.” His voice was still slower. “But I know the receiver.” He looked at me. “You said that my kidnapper is beyond wealthy. Is this him?”

I took the clipboard back. The recipient, H. O. Becher, had received a box of medical supplies containing syringes, gauze, alcohol wipes, and scalpels. “So somebody is stocking a clinic. Or a hospital. Or something.”

Jake shook his head. “Look at the size of the order. That wouldn’t stock even a one-doctor clinic for longer than a few days.”

“And you know this because?” I looked at him and found the expression on his face worrisome.

“Never mind that. H.O. Becher is a world-class billionaire. He’s a total recluse, so I’ve only seen him once, at a distance. My dad brought me to some ultra-boring dinner back when he was trying to indoctrinate me into the Holdridge empire-expanding mindset. Years ago. But Mr. Becher was there.” He stared at me. “Is he my kidnapper?”

“Maybe. I guess.” I handed the clipboard back to him and tilted my head toward the cot. “Let’s go sit down. I’ll finish the rest of what Gray had said to me.”

Jake couldn’t even draw, a bad sign. Getting taken at gunpoint, being locked away in a storeroom, willing himself into some sort of weird unconscious state—all of that was something he could handle and go right back to where he could sit and listen to a story, drawing as he listened. But finding this billionaire’s name on a packing slip was eating away at him.

I told him the rest of the story, about the faked kidnapping, about Gray not agreeing to do this unless he had a way to get us all out of here, or at least I presumed that much. Maybe I had been an idiot. Jake’s skeptical expression suggested as much. But there wasn’t anything to do about it now except wait.

“So why is this Becher guy getting under your skin?” I asked.

“It’s not the money,” he said, rubbing the palm of his left hand against the denim of his left leg. “If it came to that, he could blow the Holdridge’s right out of the water.”

“You’re kidding.” I couldn’t even conceive of that kind of wealth.

“No, dead serious. But this isn’t about money. Is it? You and Gray discussed that. This guy is someone who does this because he likes it. If you hadn’t gotten here, I don’t think my earring would have been the only thing arriving on my dad’s doorstep.” He winced a little. “But I keep thinking there’s something else going on. I mean, obviously it’s not the money, but I don’t know that it’s just the kidnapping, either.”

“No,” I said, agreeing. “It’s the kidnapping and the torture and the murder.”

He frowned at me, not angry, just thoughtful. “What did you think when you met him?”

“We didn’t exactly meet. It’s not like I could shake his hand and say hello. Or even see him. But I got the sense that he was rich. Educated. And…” I stopped. Repulsive. Vile. Abominable. I didn’t say the words aloud, but I was with Jake and I didn’t need to. He took one look at me and pulled the thoughts that were in my head out into the open.

“You know it too, Corts. You’ve felt it. The guys who took us, they’re just hired muscle. That whole thing in the van, that felt like a routine kidnapping, right?”

“I’ve never had a routine kidnapping before. Have you?”

“Shut up. You know what I mean. Guys with guns who want money. But once we got to Mr. Becher himself, something shifted. Becher. I thought he looked familiar.” He shook himself and stretched out his legs, staring at his high-topped feet. “He came to see me in here. They had already started putting the stuff in my food so I was a little woozy when he turned up at my bedside.” He cleared his throat. “I felt like a rabbit about to be stooped by a hawk.” He looked at me. “He wants something…”

I repressed an actual shudder. “Let’s not go there,” I said.

He regarded me, more serious than I had ever seen him, including all those times I thought he was trying to find a way to end his life. “It’s not physical, Corts. Think about it. Remember how you felt when you were with him, even though you couldn’t see him. He wanted something from me, but now that he’s run across you—”

He wasn’t able to finish the thought but I would remember it with compounded interest at a later time.

There was a shout followed by running footsteps down the corridor beyond the locked door. We stood up without thinking, and I could feel both of us tensing for whatever was coming next: discovery, maybe death. He caught my eye and managed one of his trademark smirks, and I grinned back at him in answer. This wasn’t a storm-tossed ship on the frigid, ravenous waters of Lake Michigan, but if we had to, as we had done so many times before, we would make a stand and go down fighting. Together.

There were more shouts and more running footsteps, but the words were indecipherable. There were two pop-pop sounds, and then silence. We waited in that endless quiet until we heard something that sounded like shuffling footsteps go past the door.

“Do we pretend the room is empty, or call for help?” I asked him.

“The baddies know this room isn’t empty and if they hear the call for help…” he stopped. “We don’t know what’s going on out there.”

“I’m guessing it’s Gray’s rescue party,” I said. “But I don’t know.”

“Exactly.”

We waited. After a while we heard voices that grew louder as they approached the storeroom. A moment later, the lock turned and the door was pushed open. A police officer in what looked like black, fabric armor stepped into the room and spotted us. “Jake Holdridge?” he asked in a voice of steel.

Jake held up one hand at the same time I pointed at him.

“Come with me.”

“This is Philip Corts,” Jake said, not moving just yet. “He’s coming, too.”

The man looked at him. “Your father told me to bring you with me.”

“Then he won’t be surprised if I bring Corts with me.” Jake’s voice was conversational, as laid-back as always, but clearly he wasn’t budging.

This was answered with a shrug. “Your call. You can explain.”

He led us out of the room and down a concrete-floored hallway that gave onto some sort of utility foyer, and that led us out into the courtyard.

“Damn, I was this close to outside,” Jake muttered.

“I don’t think you’d have gotten real far,” I muttered back. There were police officers with scary body armor and even scarier weapons rounding up and cuffing a number of various baddies, as Jake had referred to them. I had never really seen any of them clearly, so if the cops had been arresting a group of guys who had dropped by to play poker or even the backroom crowd at the bar we’d been at, I would never have known the difference.

“Where’s Gray?” Jake asked, searching the spectacle in front of us.

“Uh, there he is,” I said, somewhat surprised. Gray seemed to be in the process of being taken with the others. I stared at him curiously as he was being handcuffed and when his eyes met mine, he gave me an almost imperceptible wink, although he was grim and serious about it. I understood that I wasn’t supposed to acknowledge him. “I guess he’s being arrested.”

Jake raised an eyebrow. “Maybe safer for him that way.”

“Let’s go.” The officer who had brought us out of the locked room turned us in another direction and before any of us could react, Stephen M. Holdridge ambushed Jake from the left and grabbed him into a hug so violently that the policeman and I were nearly knocked over.

I looked at the two of them, flabbergasted. I had never once seen Mr. Holdridge demonstrate any emotion other than chilly anger. I rarely saw Jake demonstrate any emotion other than anger or despair, although during the one evening we’d had before being kidnapped, he did seem happier than he’d been before he disappeared from his life as we knew it. I watched Jake hug his father back, pat him on the back a few times, and then the two of them relaxed.

“I thought I’d lost you again,” Mr. Holdridge managed in a hoarse voice.

“This wasn’t my fault,” Jake said.

“I’m not saying that. Just…don’t disappear on me. Do not ever do that again.”

“No, next time I’ll give you notice.” Jake smirked at his father and then gestured at me. “Look who came along for the ride.”

Mr. Holdridge saw me for the first time and started. “Philip Corts? What are you doing here?”

“He got taken the same night I was,” his son said. “He was supposed to be—” He broke off the sentence. “And he had a lot to do with me being found.”

“You were kidnapped with my son?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your parents must be frantic. Here. Take my phone. Call them right away. Don’t make them wait.” He gave me a quick, unexpected hug—I caught Jake pointing at me and mock-laughing from behind his father and managed to give him the finger—and then his father thrust his cell phone into my hand and gestured urgency. “Call them now.”

 

My mother didn’t let go of me for twenty minutes, about the length of time it took for me to tell my sorry tale. My dad, who had squeezed the breath out of me when the police delivered me to the door, got on the phone immediately to let Peter and Tracy, my two older siblings, know that their missing younger brother had come home, pretty much unscathed.

Almost. My mom touched the bruise on my face and promptly burst into tears. I was grateful and unnerved and sorry as hell for what my parents had gone through. When she had finished trying to kiss the bruise all better, my dad gave me his phone, a good thing because if my mom kept it up much longer I’d have lost it myself.

“Don’t leave the house,” he said, and I recognized the voice of ultimate authority. “But there is someone you need to call now. Maybe Sarah would like to join us for dinner.”

Sarah’s reaction nearly brought even me to tears. Forget dinner, she arrived about five minutes after we hung up, never mind that she lived at least fifteen minutes away. She didn’t let go for twenty minutes, either, but this time I wasn’t embarrassed. Just sorry as hell. We sat down to dinner and I scarfed down my mother’s pot roast—“She cooked every night you were gone, just in case,” my father explained—like a starving tyrannosaurus. Sarah nibbled like an over-fed sparrow.

After we helped my folks clear the table, Sarah and I headed for the front porch.

“Don’t leave the house,” my dad called after me.

“The thought never entered my head,” I called back, opening the door. “We’ll just be on the porch.”

“Tell me,” Sarah said when we were alone. Well, almost alone. I caught a glimpse of my mom peeking at us from behind a curtain, but I figured that had more to do with worry than it did with parental spying. I guess I couldn’t really blame her.

I told Sarah everything, starting with going to a bar with Jake after his artist’s reception, being kidnapped, being threatened, meeting Rachel, all of it, all the way through to the police coming for us, and Gray being taken away. She touched my face while I talked, the warm concern in her eyes enfolding me like a blanket. At one point, I reached over and wiped a tear away from her face, but she didn’t interrupt and when I was done, she put her arms around me and pulled me in close. She was trembling, and I held her tight enough to crush her. She made me feel like I had come home the way nothing else could.

I didn’t edit the story for her. Unlike what I had withheld from my parents, I also told her about the sense of evil I had gotten off of the man who had ordered Jake’s kidnapping and my death.

“And the police didn’t get him?”

“Nope. Jake said that he didn’t see him with the rest of the guys being arrested, but we figured he’d already been taken away. I don’t know if anyone knows where he is now. Maybe Gray.”

“Do you know how to get in touch with him?”

“Who, Gray? No. I don’t even know if that’s his real name. I get the feeling he thinks his job with us is done because Jake got home safely, but that he’s still going to keep after this guy.” I thought about it. “I think he needs help but I don’t imagine I’ll be the one he asks for it. I think I drove him a little crazy.” I remembered a couple of our discussions and smiled a little to myself.

“You probably did,” she agreed. And then she reached up and kissed me and we had a nice evening all around.

 

[][] CHAPTER ELEVEN

Life went to almost normal first, and then back to normal. I attended class, I spent time with Sarah, I did homework and started trying to plot a life for when school was finally finished. After a while my mom stopped calling me every hour or so, and eventually she got to the point where I just needed to let her know I was around from time to time. She talked to Sarah a lot and I think they helped each other out.

I had nightmares about the whole incident, for weeks. I dreamed uneasily about being in the trunk of Gray’s car, about the cemetery in Milwaukee, even about the cabin somewhere up in the woods. Sometimes I heard Gray’s voice, not his real voice, but the one with the fake accent. And one time I dreamed about Mr. Becher himself and that nightmare was the worst of all. I woke up in a cold sweat, out of breath and shaking. I didn’t even remember what I had seen in my sleep. All I could remember hearing in my head was that there was no place to hide. For days after, just the memory of the dream chilled me deep inside.

Jake and I spoke occasionally. Neither of us is very much into phone conversations so we weren’t as closely in touch as we once might have been, although it didn’t matter. Since he was back, I knew that he could find me—and I could find him—anytime either of us wanted. There was a certain undercurrent of contentment that came with that knowledge.

And then, being Jake, he turned up on my doorstep unannounced a few weeks later.

My mother said, “Jake’s at the door for you. And he has someone with him.” She didn’t say it in a way that made me think of Rachel. There was a bit of uneasiness there. I pushed my chair back from the table and went to the front door.

“Hey, Corts.” Jake had come in and was accompanied by a very large black man wearing slacks, a sport coat, and glasses.

“Hey, Jake. Uh…”

“Oh, this is Herschel. My dad hired him for me as a present.”

I looked at Herschel. He looked back at me without expression. “A present?” I repeated.

“He’s my bodyguard. Armed. Totally lethal. And he never says anything, even when I want to have a conversation.” He glanced back at Herschel, who returned the look without a word. “I take that back. Sometimes he says things like “Back up” if he thinks I’m not paying attention when I cross the street. Once he told me to stop when I tried to go through a door ahead of him. But he’s great.”

“Okay. What’s up?” I led the way into the living room. Normally, Jake and I would have gone up to my bedroom, but I wasn’t sure Herschel would have fit bodily in there with the two of us.

“Well, Herschel is only on loan.”

I looked at the man and he looked back at me. I usually get some sort of feeling or vibe off of someone when I meet them for the first time, but Herschel was completely neutral. I’d never met anyone like that before in my life.

“How so?”

“Just until they catch the kidnapper. For keeps, this time.”

I stood up almost as soon as he said it. “What?”

“They almost got him, but they missed. You didn’t know about that?”

“No one told me.” I sat down again, slowly.

“What about Gray?”

“What about him? I haven’t seen him since the day they took him away with the rest of the bad guys.”

“You really are out of the loop.”

“Duh.”

“Well, then, here’s the stuff you need to know. The man had an escape hatch in his house.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means he actually went back to his place. It was under observation, but they never thought he’d return. But he did. And disappeared. They found a way out of the house through a tunnel that led about a mile away from the property. That’s how he got out the first time when the good guys were coming in. Didn’t take anyone with him the first time, either. He left everyone else to take the fall.”

“Yeah, but he’s wanted, right? And everyone knows who he is? And all those guys they arrested can testify against him or whatever? Right?”

“If they ever find him again, and that’s huge. Remember how rich he is? He could have gone anywhere. He could have rat holes and hideaways that no one even knows about. He’s old money, and he’s not old money-American. He has ties to Europe and South America. Good luck finding him.”

“Well, in that case, Herschel might not be that temporary.” I looked at him and he looked at me again.

“My dad thinks they’re gonna find him. I think he’s being eternally optimistic, but hey, whatever works. Anyhow, what are you up to?”

“Homework. Remember how some of us are in college?”

“You keep making that point. What are you saying, Corts?”

“That I need to finish. I want to graduate. I want a job. I want to move out.”

“You could move in with me. And Herschel.”

Herschel and I exchanged looks. “Thanks,” I said. “I think I’ll take a pass on that for now.”

“Your call, Corts. But you could.”

He was twitchier than usual and I looked at him as he sat there on the couch, flexing his fingers and examining his nails. There was something on his mind. “Want to go get something to eat?” he asked at last.

“Sure. I’ll just let my mom know.”

We piled out the front door and there was a two-year old Lexus in my driveway. From the way it was parked, I realized Jake had been driving.

“I see you still steal your dad’s runaround car.”

“He doesn’t mind. Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t care,” I said. “But if we really want to be safe, I should drive,” I said.

Herschel said his first word to me. “Agreed.”

Jake looked hurt. “I’m not that bad,” he said.

“You drive like someone out of the nineteenth century trying to handle one of them there newfangled auto-mo-biles,” I answered. “And that was before you left.”

Jake muttered an answer but dutifully got into the back seat, leaving Herschel free to maneuver should the need arise.

“So where’s Rachel these days?” I decided to head to the nearest Denny’s, and backed out and turned accordingly.

“Up in Milwaukee. Gray was able to let her know what was happening after you found me, and he helped her get back from the cabin. We talk. I was going to go up and see her but she asked me not to. She’s still dealing with her parents and the fallout from being missing so long.”

“Really? What did she tell her family? About being gone for three years?”

“I’m not sure. Whatever it was, I bet it went down like the Titanic.”

“What’d you tell your dad about being gone?” I asked. I hadn’t thought to ask him that first night we had together. We had too much else to catch up on.

“Just that I’d been away. Then I thanked him for not looking for me. It was amazing how much that sentence helped the situation.” I caught his eye in the rearview mirror and he smirked at me. “But he did look for me, didn’t he?”

“Yup. He started with me.”

I thought he might. He never admitted any of it. Just acted like of course, dear boy, no need to concern ourselves. I’m sure you were safe as houses the whole time.”

“That’s heartless even for you, Jake. He was pretty deflated when you left.”

“I gathered.” He was quiet a moment. “It didn’t help things with my mother, though.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that so I didn’t touch it.

“They played the blame game a whole lot.”

“Have you talked to her since?”

“What, since I got back? Or since my second disappearance?”

“Yeah, that.”

“Maybe once. Barely.”

I remembered him hanging up on his mother the night of the gallery opening. I didn’t ask for more details.

Denny’s wasn’t crowded. We were between the lunch and dinner rush. Jake and I took a booth, and Herschel sat at a small table across from us. He spent a lot of time looking at the door and at the picture windows.

“He’s really paranoid, isn’t he?” I whispered over a glass of water.

“Who, Herschel? It’s part of his job. I’m trying to talk him into training me so I can be lethal, too.”

I choked on the water I’d sipped. “What was that again?”

“Hey, why not? I’ve already proved repeatedly that I know how to take a beating.” His eyes took a faraway look for just a moment and I thought of Ridgeland. There were still scars. Knowing Jake, there were probably still wounds from those horrendous three-or-so years at the exclusive prep and boarding school out East. “Besides, I already know how to shoot a rifle. And a shotgun.”

“You do?” That was news to me.

“Yeah. My dad took me hunting a few times way back when I was younger. I don’t like killing animals, but I do like firing a gun. It’s fun. Ever try it?”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “You’ve gotten strange in your absence, son.”

He looked at me. “That whole thing, being kidnapped. Having everything taken away, my freedom, maybe my life. It shifted things for me.”

I got that. “You’re right,” I agreed.

“I don’t want to feel like that again. Ever.” There was an edge in his voice I had never heard before.

He had a point. “Hey, maybe Herschel can train both of us.”

Jake gave me that infectious grin. “I knew I could get you to come around.” He tilted his head at his bodyguard. “I’ll try to talk him into it. If it’s possible to talk Herschel into anything.”

 

Jake has always been the harbinger of the strange in my life. Shortly after that lunch, I started dreaming about Gray in earnest. Unfortunately, I started with the man’s nightmares. I saw the dead little girl with her throat slit. I woke up from that one feeling sick and disoriented and it gave me a headache that persisted the next day through two lectures and a drive back home to my bed.

Then I dreamed about the little boy Gray had told me about, the victim who had tipped him off to our billionaire serial kidnapper and murderer. I never saw the little boy, never saw any pictures of him, living or dead, but I saw him now. Clear as a full-color movie poster, glossy and completely appalling. I wrenched myself awake from that one, cursing Gray’s name under my breath. “Just come and talk to me, dammit,” I muttered before turning over onto my side, pulling the blankets up over my head, and defiantly trying to go back to sleep.

So I guess I wasn’t really surprised when Gray surprised me outside of a lecture hall a few afternoons later.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Is this safe?” I added. Jake’s—and Herschel’s—paranoia was rubbing off on me.

“As safe as we can be, Mr. Corts. I need to talk to you.”

“Yeah, I got that.” I rubbed my forehead and thought a moment. I didn’t really want to bring him back to the house. “We can go to the cafeteria, I guess. I want something to drink.”

“So do I, but they don’t serve that here.”

“And it’s only two in the afternoon. Starting a bit early, aren’t you?”

He followed me without comment. I got a Coke, he got a coffee, and then we sat down at a cozy table for two close to the window. The cafeteria was filled with its usual mish-mosh of students studying, talking, sleeping, eating, and making a ton of noise. I could see someone folding a paper airplane a few tables away, and the girl across from me at the next table was nodding her head to the music coming through her earbuds, and working on Sudoku.

“What’s on your mind besides dead kids with slit throats?” I asked when he had sat down with his coffee.

“Exactly that.” He looked at me over the steam rising from the lid on the paper cup. “That and…I need you to find him for me.”

He didn’t even bother explaining who the “him” in his statement referenced.

“What makes you think I can do that?”

He took the ever-present cigarette out of the pack and started tapping it end over end on the table. “I’m beginning to wonder how much more you can do, Phil. What you told me about my wife and kids, how you got Jake out of his unconsciousness.” He shook his head. “I would never have believed any of this, even six months ago. But now I don’t know what to think. Even the question you just asked me, about the kids with their throats slit. Where did that come from?”

Damn, that was careless of me. “Dreams,” I said.

“You dreamed about them?”

“I saw them in dreams. I don’t know that I saw anything else about them. Just how they looked when they were found.”

He frowned at that. “Who did you see?”

“The little girl, first. The one I saw when I tracked you. Then I think I saw the little boy you told me about.”

“Describe him,” he said.

I didn’t want to remember but I did. “He was on his back, just like the little girl, like he was asleep except that his throat was cut. He was wearing blue shorts and he had on a red tee shirt that almost masked the blood, but not really. There was a picture on the shirt but I didn’t see it clearly. There was a black and red backpack just a little way’s from his head. And he was in a dark room, like a cellar or something. I didn’t look much beyond that.”

He cleared his throat before he started talking. “What you’re describing was a crime scene photo. Down to the detail of not being able to see clearly what was on the tee shirt. Of course, there are other pictures where you can see it. He was wearing his team shirt from park district tee-ball, and it showed up very nicely on other shots. But you’re describing a particular photo.”

“So?”

“It’s the one I studied the most.” He pinned me with a look. “How are you getting this stuff?”

“I have no idea. If I knew, I’d stop.” But that was partly a lie. I knew how I was getting it. Tracking his parking key, then tracking off of his wrist. Plus, Gray had manhandled me a few times, and that meant physical contact. It was like the time I had picked up on Jake’s nightmares after tracking him in his sleep. But it was true that I didn’t know how to stop it and that I would, if I could. I didn’t want anyone else’s nightmares. I had enough of my own.

He was still staring at me and I looked down at the table.

“Philip. Mr. Corts. I don’t know how you do what you do. Maybe you don’t know yourself. But I have a feeling you can help me find the man I’m looking for. Can you?”

I didn’t look at him. “His name is Becher, isn’t it? We found an invoice on a clipboard in the storeroom where they were holding Jake.”

“Becher is the name we know him by. I’m pretty sure he uses others.”

“Isn’t he amazingly wealthy? Why is he so hard to find? The Internet must be keeping up on his travels and foundation galas.”

“It’s true that he has a boatload of money and then some. He’s not much on the Internet, though. If wealth can buy celebrity, a lot of wealth can buy privacy. If he’s doing foundation galas, no one seems to know about it, which would kind of defeat the purpose. He’s one of those old-money types that no one really knows about and if they do, they’re not talking. So no, he’s not easy to find. He pays for discretion and secrecy.”

“And so you think I can do what?” I looked at him directly then. “I’m just a stupid—”

“—college kid, I know. But that’s not exactly true, is it?”

The question made me uncomfortable. “What do you want from me?” I finally asked.

“Can you find this man? And answer me honestly. Do you think you have any chance at pinning down his location?”

I took a deep breath. “First off, I’d need something of his. I need physical contact to get anything off of him. Secondly, it’s not like I’m going to see him standing conveniently in front of a sign that says where he is. I may be able to tell you what I see around him. But I won’t be able to say that he’s definitely in the Yukon or Tahiti or anything like that.”

“Good enough,” Gray said. “It’s more than I’ve got at this point. So what of his do you need?”

I shrugged. “Anything that’s personal. You gave me a plastic parking card, remember? It just needs to be something he’s had a lot of contact with.”

He nodded. “I’ll try to find something. Let me get back to you on that.” He finished his coffee in a few gulps and stood up.

“That’s it?”

“For now. Be careful.”

“I don’t know what he looks like, though. You took care of that.”

“Yes, but he knows you.”

[][] CHAPTER TWELVE

Gray had a way with parting words. Something about the way he said it gave me a chill that would not go away. I called Jake that night and told him about Gray’s visit.

“Seriously, Corts. You ought to move in with me and Herschel.”

“Yeah, that’d be a bit cosier than I want to get, I think.”

“Think your mom would let you come away with us this weekend?”

“With who? You and Herschel?”

“Yeah. We’re going up to the woods.”

“Have you ever known me to want to go up to the woods? Ever?”

“No. But this will be private property. We can shoot up there.”

“Shoot what?”

“Guns, idiot. What’d you think? Cameras? Like we were doing photo ops?”

I did my imitation of Gray. “I’ll get back to you on that.”

My mom wasn’t hot on the idea, but I assured her I’d be with Jake and his lethal bodyguard. “I’d like to get away for a while,” I admitted. “I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.” I omitted the part about the guns, just so she wouldn’t worry. It wasn’t like we were going up there to play paintball with a couple of twelve-gauges, but I figured she might get that kind of idea and so I sort of left out that detail.

“What did Sarah say?” my mother asked. She’s been doing it a lot, lately. Like her and Sarah’s votes could override a Philip Corts vote.

“I haven’t told her yet,” I admitted. “I wanted to run it by you.”

“Well, okay, then.” She sighed. “I don’t know. Is Mr. Holdridge all right with this?”

“As long as Herschel is with us, sure.”

“I can’t stop you, Philip. But I’ll worry.”

“I’ll call,” I assured her. “A lot.”

 

Herschel knew where we were going, so he actually drove that trip. I felt much safer just getting into the car and realizing that Jake was not going to be behind the wheel. He always gives me grief when I comment about that, muttering something rude to me or even punching me in the shoulder, but deep down inside I’m sure he knows I’m right. Jake drives like the parts of his brain that control perception, fine motor control, and hand-eye coordination shut down as soon as he starts the car. To this day, I can’t figure it out, but I do know better than to let him drive if I can help it.

While we were watching scenery fly by, I thought to ask Jake what should have been an obvious question. “Wouldn’t you be safest if you just went back to where you came from?”

He gave me an annoyed look. “What does that mean?”

“That didn’t come out quite right. What about you and Rachel going back to…you know. Whatever Neverland you were in before you had that argument.”

“You really want to try and get me back there?” Jake raised an eyebrow.

The headache from that endeavor stayed with me for days. “Well, it wasn’t great, but we could do that.”

“I’ve thought about it,” he admitted. “But I don’t want to go without Rachel. And I have a feeling there’s no going back for her.”

“Even if it was to save your life?” I asked.

He pondered that for a moment. “I don’t know if I could put it to her like that. It wouldn’t be right. She hated it there, Corts. Not at first, but it just started growing after a few months. It was harder for her. Life for women back then was just…” He spread his hands, looking for words. “It was so restrictive for her. I know it wasn’t fair. I had a lot more freedom than she did and I can’t ask her to go through that again.”

I nodded. “I guess that makes sense. Have you even spoken to her?”

“A little. She did tell me you found a use for the ring I gave her.”

“Well, not the ring so much as the box. I didn’t see the ring.”

“Too bad. That might have been your only chance.” His voice sounded so sad that I didn’t say anything more.

Herschel took all of this in without comment.

Wherever it was that we wound up, another cabin somewhere in some woods up north, we were greeted by Herschel Two. Well, not really. This man’s name was Walt. “Hi,” he said, which was more than Herschel said to me when I first met him. “I understand we’re going to do a little training this weekend.”

I should have run away as soon as he uttered that sentence. Walt was shorter than Herschel, but one-and-a-half Herschels in width, and equally as solid as his taller colleague. He also said more: “Is that the best you’ve got? Can’t you run faster than that?” and “Water break comes later. Keep going.” and “My mother does a better take-down than you do. And she has blue hair and weighs ninety-eight pounds.”

I wanted to kill Jake. He had years of running due to soccer and he also had years of drubbing at Ridgeland which made him almost impervious to the pain Walt inflicted during his personal defense drills. I had done three years of cross-country in high school, but that was in high school. As for pain, well, I don’t like it.

During our last self-defense drill, Walt nailed me with another “You call that a take-down? My grandmother does better take-downs than you do.”

“Let me guess,” I panted. “She’s got white hair and weighs eighty-five pounds.”

“You got that right, plus she’s in a walker.”

For some reason, that made Jake laugh and as soon as that happened, training ended. He tried getting serious again, but nothing worked. Walt called it a day. “I guess I got you two sorry specimens as far as I can take you. You guys are getting punchy.”

Jake thought that was funny, too.

The next day was much better. Herschel took us out to a small clearing and let us try shooting into some targets backed by a high berm. Turns out Jake is pretty scary with a gun. I didn’t do too badly, it being my first time trying either a pistol or a long gun. The shotgun was unnerving until I learned to shove it back into my shoulder and hold it there as firmly as possible. I liked the rifles better.

I was completely sore for a couple of days after that weekend, so I was not delighted when Jake called and said we were going to do it again.

“What?” I couldn’t believe what he was telling me.

“Brace yourself, Corts. This upcoming weekend. It’ll be fun.”

“As good as when I had my wisdom teeth taken out,” I agreed, just this side of hostile.

“You liked the shooting part, though. Admit it.”

I admitted it.

“I’m never going back into a storeroom, not for anyone. You don’t ever need to get back into the trunk of a car, either. He’s still out there, Corts. Remember that.”

I had been trying to forget, but I knew Jake was right. The phone started buzzing against my ear and I realized there was another call coming through. I wasn’t sure about the number. “Hang on, I have someone else calling.”

“No need. I gotta go anyhow. We’ll pick you up Friday around six.”

I didn’t think I had agreed to that, but he hung up before I could say anything else.

The other caller was Gray. “Phil, when can we meet?”

“Meet? For what?”

“I have something for you. For tracking.”

I groaned without making any noise. Tracking an evil serial kidnapper and murderer did not sound like a great idea, but I had told him I’d try. “When’s good for you?” I heard myself asking. “I’ve got classes tomorrow, but I’m through at one.”

“I’ll meet you in the cafeteria we went to last time.”

“Okay, but I’m not tracking there. We’ll need to go back to your car.”

“Not a problem.”

 

At least it wasn’t a keychain. I said so out loud and Gray gave me a weird look.

“Never mind. Kind of a private joke.” We were sitting in his car like we had all those weeks ago when I thought he was going to kill me, but now he had just handed me a small pocketknife. It was a nice one, comfortable to grip, with a cool and smooth metal handle and a clip to keep it in place. “This was his?”

“He gave it to me. When I accepted the contract on Jake’s life.”

Something stirred uneasily deep inside of me but I pushed it aside. Just the simple statement of him accepting a contract on Jake’s life was enough to put me on edge, even though I knew Gray was one of the good guys. “Was it gift-wrapped? Or in a box?”

He gave me another strange look. “No. He took it out of his breast pocket and handed it over to me. Why?”

“It works better if he actually handled it.” I looked at him. “We may not like what we find,” I cautioned him.

“Go for it.” His expression was guarded.

I took a deep breath, tightened my grip around the knife, and closed my eyes. At first, all the images were of Gray and that made sense. He had used this to cut the rope around my wrists the night he took me away from the others and saved my life. He used it to open mail and packages. Underneath the layers of Gray, though, I could feel that current of cold darkness. There was a slimy feel to it and I wanted to pull back, but I hadn’t seen anything yet, so I persisted.

…And was pulled out of the vision by Gray shaking me by the arm. “Phil, what is it? What’s going on?”

I opened my eyes, sputtering for breath, and was completely disoriented by Gray’s face practically nose-to-nose with mine. “What?” I stammered. “What—?” My head was pounding and so was my heart. I wasn’t sure which was going to kill me first but my demise felt imminent. My kingdom for some aspirin. Or a nice dose of chloroform.

Gray released me with a small shove and sat back. I could see that his hands were shaking. He took several deep breaths and regarded me with that same look he had used all those weeks ago the first time I showed him what I could do. “You stopped talking and started shrieking. I didn’t know what else to do.”

My attention went from the pain I felt to what I had just seen and the memory threatened to overwhelm me. I was so messed up inside from the track that I couldn’t respond beyond looking back at him. A tear spilled from one eye and I felt more piling up behind it. I palmed them away, embarrassed.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “It’s okay. I think I get it.”

“What did I say?” My voice was choked with the sobs I was holding in check and I was afraid to take my hands away from my face. What was wrong with me? I had never done this before, not with any track. Not even the one that showed me how Jake had died as I hunkered down beside him, helpless and freezing cold, all those years ago on the Mockingbird.

His voice was low and ragged. “You described the room, the one in the crime scene picture. The one where the little boy—”

“Got it.” I was remembering now. Only, it wasn’t just the room I had seen. “Oh, God, the murder…” I couldn’t get anything else out of my mouth, or out of my head.

“Phil, you described it from the killer’s point of view.” He sounded quietly shocked. “The whole thing, in detail. And,” he paused, shaken. “And the voice coming from you was his.”

I closed my eyes. That’s why I had started shrieking. He’d gotten into my head. He had let me relive the murder through him, and it had been more than I could do to pull away and regain control of my own thoughts. It had taken Gray shaking the daylights out of me…

“You must have gotten it through his knife.”

I shook my head. “He’s evil, but he’s more than that. He’s got an ability.” I didn’t know how else to describe it.

“Like yours?”

“More like including mine. He’s strong, Gray. I’ve never felt anything like that.” I couldn’t help a shiver. The little boy’s murder would haunt me for a long time, but at least for now I knew why I had been on the verge of sobbing myself dry. I could still feel vestiges of the track clinging around my edges. “I want to go home and take about ten showers.” I handed the knife back to him and Gray took it after a moment’s hesitation. Instead of putting it back in his pocket, though, he put it in the glove compartment. The uneasiness I had felt earlier had ballooned into something that was sucking the air out of the car. A terrifying thought occurred to me. “When he gave you this, did you give him anything back?”

“You mean besides my agreement to kill Jake?”

“Yes. Anything physical? Beyond a handshake?”

“Well, there was a handshake. A double-hander on his part, come to think of it.”

I winced, and not just because my head was pounding.

“Why? What are you thinking?”

“Anything else? Did you ever give him anything at all?”

Gray thought. “A pen,” he said after a long pause. “I gave him a pen. He needed to sign something and didn’t have one handy so I gave him one of mine.”

I nodded. “The double handshake was probably enough, but the pen sealed the deal. We’re in trouble, Gray.”

“What’s going on?”

“You may not be able to find him before he finds us,” I said.

Gray frowned. “Finds us?” He paused. “I know what I’m doing to keep my family safe, at least.”

“Then don’t think about them. If you’ve got them someplace where he’d need to track them down, don’t give him any hints at all.”

“You mean like don’t call them?”

“Well, yeah, that too, because he could find them that way. But more like don’t even think about where they are. Don’t picture it, don’t name it in your head. Nothing. He can…access that. I think. Especially since he has your pen. He can track you.”

“And you?” Gray frowned at me.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. My voice sounded light and hollow. “He can track me. Easy-squeezy, lemon-peasy.” I put my aching head back and closed my eyes. “Me. Jake. He can find any of us.” Even as we talked I could still feel that nasty presence poking at my boundaries. I had started blocking as soon as I was coherent after the track, but he was still around. I shivered at the thought and said a silent prayer that my block would be strong enough to stop someone who could track me back.

“So what do we do to keep you safe?”

I shrugged. “I got the sense he was curious about me.” I remembered him saying to Gray that he might find me intriguing, before having me brought to the same storeroom where he was keeping Jake. Now I wondered what he had had in mind, and if he had put me with Jake just to see what would happen. I had gotten into Jake’s head and drew him out of an unexplained unconscious state. This man would understand what I had done in ways even I didn’t.

I looked back at Gray and found that he was still frowning at me. “Mr. Holdridge hired a bodyguard for Jake. We’ve been doing a little self-defense training with him, but I know it won’t do much good in the end, at least not for me. I’m no martial artist, I can’t quite handle a gun, and I sure as hell don’t have any super powers.”

“I think you might have one.”

I looked at him. “It’s not a super power if it’s also my kryptonite.”

After another long pause, Gray started the car. “I’ll take you home,” he said. There was nothing more to be said or done.

One really ugly thing occurred to me before I got out of the car when Gray pulled into my driveway. “Hey, did you know this guy before? I mean, had you met him somehow before you started investigating him? Or got hired to be his paid killer?”

He shook his head. “No. I don’t exactly travel in the same circles as international billionaires.”

“Then I can’t explain it. But here’s the thing about that little boy’s murder.” I hesitated so long that he prompted me with a “What?” It was my turn to shake my head. “I don’t know how or why, Gray. But that little boy’s murder… Somehow it was meant for you.”

He looked at me, not understanding.

“He meant for you to be the one to find it. He had you in mind when he did it.”

“That’s impossible. He doesn’t know me. And that makes no sense anyway. Are you saying he dedicated a horrendous murder to me the way someone might dedicate a work of art?”

That sounded about right. I felt it resonate deep inside. “Yeah. That’s exactly what I meant.”

Gray pondered that. “You weren’t able to give me anything to help me find him.”

“I don’t think I could have. I don’t think he would have let me.” Even as I said it out loud something inside of me felt cold, felt ice-burned. Because this man had known. He had been aware of me looking for him. I licked my lips and tried to explain that to Gray. He looked skeptical, but I tried to make the point clearly. “I doubt that running into him again will be a problem. I have a really strong feeling about this, so skeptical or not, you need to hear me. He knows you’re looking. He was super aware of me just now. So keep your family safe and get yourself ready, and I mean with bazookas and plastic explosives if you’ve got them. Gray, he’s coming after all of us but I think he’s coming for you first.” Then I added my closing argument. “If he likes killing his victims himself, then why did he need to hire you? Specifically you? Think about it.”

 

[][] CHAPTER THIRTEEN

But nothing happened. I kept going to school, Jake kept pestering me about training with Herschel and Walt, which we did a couple more times, and Gray texted me from time to time—just to touch base, he said. But I think he was letting me know he was okay, and checking on me and Jake at the same time, and I appreciated it. Sarah and I went back to spending time together when she was home from school, and that was more frequent lately. Life felt normal, and I didn’t trust it for a minute. I was right.

I woke up one morning maybe a month or so after I had done that horrific track for Gray. A month or so of perfect normalcy. A month or so, and just enough time to relax a little. I woke up with a sense of dark around the edges and a touch of slimy, clammy cold tracing the back of my neck. It took me approximately ten seconds of being awake to identify it. I grabbed my phone and texted Gray: He’s coming.

Gray found me on campus, as always. “Explain this,” he said, holding out his phone to me. The screen showed my text of that morning.

“When I woke up today, I knew he’d been sneaking around. I could feel him.”

“And so that means—?”

I shook my head. “I can’t give you anything definite here, Gray. There isn’t anything. All I’m saying is he’s getting close.” I squinted, trying to find the words. “Maybe what I want to say is that his attention is back on us. On you.”

“I guess that’s only fair since my attention has been on him.”

We walked from the lecture hall toward his car. “What have you been doing?”

“Trying to figure out where he’s gotten to. Trying to get to the bottom of some of his other names. Trying to find out if he’s done this sort of crime in other countries besides the U.S.”

“How do you do that? Like, how did you already know all the stuff about Sarah and her family when you threatened my life that night? How did you find out about Rachel disappearing years ago?”

He allowed a small, tight smile. “I have great connections,” was all he said. Then he softened a bit. “Rachel pulled my interest because I’ve always paid attention to missing person cases. Her face looked familiar when I saw her with you. It wasn’t that hard to research.”

I accepted that, knowing I wasn’t going to get much else. “And the stuff you’re getting on Becher? How’s that going?”

“Two steps forward, three steps back. I’m pretty sure that he has done this in other countries, but I can’t prove it. I think I might have a handle on at least two of his other aliases, but I can’t know that for sure, either. The only thing that seems consistent across the board is that he’s got more money than Fort Knox.”

“That’s a lot of money.”

“Tell me about it. And money buys privacy and security.”

“And the guys you arrested when you got Jake and me out of his place?”

“They can’t tell us much. They were mostly locals, hired and well-paid. They knew him as Mr. Becher and that was all. They were hired to kidnap and hold. They didn’t even all know each other. I don’t know how he recruits, but he seems to get new muscle every time. I don’t think any of the guys that took you and Jake had anything to do with the little boy.”

I thought of the crime scene photo image I had gotten from Gray and managed to hold my reaction down to an expression of disgust. And then something else occurred to me. “Do you think he kills everyone he hires after he does his own thrill-kill?”

“I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe he pays everyone and fires them once he starts his ransom-and-kill agenda, but don’t quote me on that. Maybe. But on the other hand…”

I thought about the implications. About a man who could hire a group of criminals to do most of his heavy lifting, and then possibly kill all of them as well as the original targeted child victim. It sounded right and felt terrible. “Why are you talking to me about this?” I asked, abrupt. “Should I even know all of this?”

“Probably not,” he admitted. “But you’re the closest thing I’ve got to an ace up my sleeve. You’re also a tripwire.” He looked at me with his cool glance. “You’re probably more useful than either of us realized.”

“Great. Thanks.”

He shifted the subject. “So you think he’s coming around again?”

I nodded. “I know he is. He probably even whispered that to me in my sleep except I didn’t want to hear it.”

Gray nodded back at me. “I guess it’s time to batten down the hatches.” He skewered me with one of his dark looks. “Take care of yourself, Mr. Corts. If you have any more information for me, then text me. Otherwise, steer clear.”

“Not a problem. What about you?”

“I want to end this. If I can find him, I plan to take the fight to him.”

 

Gray’s plan settled into my gut like an anxiety-coated brick. Steer clear, he had told me. Well, how was I supposed to do that when Becher knew where I lived? I assume he did, by now. And he knew how to reach for me through that realm of Other-Weird-Stuff that I tried really hard to ignore. Jake still had Herschel, bless Mr. Holdridge’s righteous paranoia, but my family and I were not quite so protected. And neither was Sarah, which added a nice load to my worry.

But that last bit about taking the fight to Becher. That got hold of me and worried a jagged pint-sized hole into my stomach. Everything that worries me puts me off my feed. It’s how I maintain my weight even though I have the activity level of an average rutabaga. When things go south, I stop eating.

Sarah noticed right away. “What’s bothering you?” she asked a couple of evenings after I saw Gray. “You aren’t eating right.”

I sighed. “I think we need to stop seeing each other for a while,” I said, jumping right into it. I explained my logic and she listened with a particularly wintry expression on her face. The air around us must have dropped about twenty degrees.

“So, what? We’re on hold until Gray gets his man?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know what to do. I just know I want you safe. And my family. He knows all of us.”

“Yes, but you think he’s going for Gray first.”

“It’s not like I read his checklist. What if he means to take all of us all at once? What if Gray’s his starting point but he keeps going until he has everyone? And what is he planning to do, anyhow? Gray screwed up his fun time with Jake. Well, Gray and Jake and me, we all did. And he’s a psycho, Sarah. A full-blown, blood-drinking psycho. He likes to maim and he likes to kill. His preferred method for doing that is—”

“Okay, stop, Phils. I get it. I know he’s a bad man. I know he’s left his imprint all over you.” Her eyes had gone from glacial to sad as she looked at me. “And I know until Gray catches him, that you’ll be looking over your shoulder, and mine, too. I just wish there was a different way to do this.” She put her hand over mine. “Are you about to do something stupid and dangerous?”

I laughed at that. “What, go all Robin to Gray’s Batman? I don’t think so. More like at home in my room, cowering under the blankets until this all goes away. Am I your hero, or what?”

She smiled at me and we finished dinner. We both understood that we couldn’t get together again for a while.

Trying to explain this to my parents was a whole different matter. “We should call the police,” my mother said when I finished.

“I don’t know what I’d say.” I have never told my parents about my own weird abilities. Strange, now that I think about it, but I couldn’t figure out how to even begin to explain it to them. I had done a demonstration for both Sarah and Gray, so they knew all about it. My parents on the other hand— for some reason, I had the feeling they would always believe I was just pulling their leg, somehow. Like I had learned a strange form of sleight-of-hand and hey, that was a good trick, Philip. Now go do your homework.

So I made it sound like Gray and I had discussed the possibility that my kidnapper was a very vindictive man and that Gray had a sense that the man might come back around again, and soon. And he and I had discussed that, just not quite the same way.

“Philip’s right,” my dad said. “We don’t have anything to report, other than Gray’s warning, and he is a cop, after all, so what more can they do?” He looked at me. “Should we send you to visit Mark? Or Tracy?”

I shook my head. “It’s bad enough worrying about you two. The last thing I need to do is drag either of them into this, and Mark’s kids, too. No, I need to stay local. But maybe I shouldn’t stay with you?” I put a question into my last statement.

“Where could you go?” my mother asked. “And then there’s school.”

“I guess I could go stay with Jake,” I said. “He’s been inviting me all along.”

“Jake has that huge bodyguard right now, doesn’t he?” There was hope in my father’s voice.

“Yes. Herschel. He’s lethal, but he doesn’t talk. Well, not much.”

“Talking doesn’t matter,” my dad said. “As long as you’re safe.”

“What about you guys, though?” I asked. “Do you want to go visit Mark and hang out with the grandkids until this all blows over?”

“It’s not like we can move in with them,” my mother said, a wry tone in her voice. “And we don’t know how long this is going to take. Besides, it isn’t us he wants, is it? It’s you.” Her voice caught a little at that, but she shook her head and managed a smile. My dad put his arm around her and squeezed.

My parents are the best. I gave them both a huge hug. “I’ll call Jake and go over,” I said. “And I’ll call as soon as I get there.”

“We’ll drive you there,” my dad said in his voice of ultimate authority.

I moved into Jake’s coach house apartment on a Thursday evening and first strike hit that night in the form of a dream. Of course.

Jake woke me up, and when I came out of my nightmare, I saw Herschel standing behind him, blinking in what could have been surprise, but no other expression on his face. His glasses were crooked but he didn’t look any less imposing. “What the hell, Corts,” Jake said. “If that’s the way you are at night, I’m glad you didn’t move in sooner.”

His matter-of-fact comment brought me around faster than anything else could have. “Screw you, Jake,” I managed. I struggled into a sitting position and looked at both of them, suddenly feeling much safer, even though I thought safety was pretty much an illusion right about now.

“What’d you see?” Jake asked.

“A house,” I said. “Like a crazy, nightmare funhouse, but with creepy and cold all over it.”

“Seriously? You had us running in here for your screams of terror because you saw a flipping house?”

“I was not screaming in terror.” My throat felt a little raw but I wasn’t going to admit to it.

“We thought Becher got in here and was ax murdering you. Herschel got here even before I did.”

I looked at the man and nodded my thanks, something he acknowledged with a brief dip of his head. “It’s not just the house, stupid. It’s him. He was there the whole time. It’s like…” I broke off. Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly. The thought popped into my head without effort. “He wants something. Didn’t you tell me that before? The nightmare I just had—it’s like he’s throwing open his door and all I need to do is enter. Except then I die.”

“So his version of a roach motel?”

“I guess you could put it that way.” The question was typically Jake, but I knew he understood what I was saying. Jake can read my mind, I’m sure of it, even if he won’t admit it.

“We’re secure,” Herschel said. That was positively wordy, coming from him.

Jake nodded. “Okay. Go back to sleep, Corts. We’ve got your back.”

The sentence brought a rueful smile to me. “It was easier when it was just nightmares about storms, wasn’t it?”

Jake looked down for a minute. “It’s my fault. I got you into this,” he said, voice soft. “This is all on me, so—”

“Shut up.” If I didn’t stop him now, he’d be off on one of those godawful mushy side-trips he subjects me to from time to time. They embarrass the crap out of me and make me feel beyond uncomfortable. “I’ll go back to sleep. If Becher comes to the door, wake me up.”

“You got it.”

They left me alone after that, and strangely enough, so did Becher. But I knew he was just getting started.

Friday was a day off for me. None of my classes met on a Friday, amazingly enough, and I slept in. I awoke to the smell of oil paint and coffee. The coffee must have been Herschel’s: Jake still didn’t drink it and neither did I. No one was in the bathroom so I hogged it for a shower and a shave, and emerged feeling like a new man. Even the cold and slime of Becher from the previous night had been damped down to a dull roar at the back of my mind.

Jake was working on something which meant that I couldn’t look at it. He never lets anyone see what he’s doing until he gets to a certain point. Like when he’s about to frame it. I was used to him.

“Whatcha painting?” I asked off-handedly, helping myself to an English muffin and a glass of milk.

“Beauty,” he said, voice terse. “And terror.”

He was working. I left him alone after that, and got going on Faulkner. I was majoring in business, something useful, but my minor was fiction and writing, which would always be my true passion. The morning passed peacefully enough. For lunch, Jake ordered in some sub sandwiches, and Herschel met the delivery boy and paid him. I never felt so pampered in my life. But I was getting restless.

“Are you getting cabin fever, yet? Can we go out for a while?” I asked.

Jake looked surprised at the suggestion. “You need to go out?” he said. “There are times I don’t leave the place for days.”

“How do you not go crazy?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I guess I don’t think about it.”

I looked at Herschel but of course there was no comment from that direction.

“Does Herschel ever get time off?” I asked.

“Weekends, mostly. Then Walt comes over.” He grinned at me. “You’ll be happy to see Walt, right?”

I groaned. “Does he make you do push-ups and lunges between painting sessions?”

“Nah, but he is slightly more conversational. Slightly.”

“Great. Looking forward to it.”

“You really want to get out of here?”

“Just for a bit. Don’t you need paint or something?”

Jake glanced over at his makeshift studio. “I guess. I can always use some stuff. Are you okay with a walk, Herschel?”

There was no answer that I could hear but Jake said, “Good. Let’s go, then.”

I got up from my chair and then felt the world go crazy before falling over completely. Even as I was hitting the floor, I realized that this was Gray’s world: his fear, his out-and-out panic came to me in one huge wave and I was gasping for breath, lost in his nightmare.

On the surface, I could feel hands reaching for me, turning me over, shaking me. At a distance, I could hear Jake yelling for me. But my vision was all Gray, all dimensions. We were running through woods of some kind, with branches grabbing at our clothes, and roots reaching up to trip our feet. I don’t know what was chasing us, but Gray’s heart was pounding, and not just from the exertion. I tried to catch my breath and failed. My lungs were burning, and at the same time I knew that there really was nowhere to go. No place to hide, as Becher had once assured me. He was right.

The sudden fall into space that Gray took the next second snatched away what breath I had left, and the impact at the end of it was stunning, shattering. My body jerked with the crash landing and I felt the alarm from the other two, but I couldn’t respond. I was flat on my back, looking up at the sky, and I knew death was imminent. If not from the fall, then from him, because I knew he was scrambling down to find me. And I couldn’t move.

My head was in agony from hitting the ground. There was a rock under my neck, but I had the feeling that wasn’t the problem. I was in pain from my head down to my…chest. And then I couldn’t feel anything below that: not my lower back, not my legs, not my feet. I couldn’t move much beyond my right arm, and even that was a struggle against pain and weakness. Sitting duck. The words slipped through my mind in a whisper of despair. I could hear footsteps from above me, still at a distance but closer. He was coming…

[][] CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“Corts! Come back! Come back now!”

Jake was just about hauling me bodily off the floor with Herschel right behind him, poised to act. I blinked and Gray’s world faded away enough that I could see Jake, understand that I was still in the coach house apartment and lying on the kitchen floor. “I can’t move,” I said. My voice was so weak I could barely hear me, but Jake did.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Gray,” I said. “Becher is about to kill him.”

Jake stared at me and then his expression registered shock. “And you’re linked to him?” he asked. He had made the connection before I did.

“I must be.”

“If Gray dies, will you…” He didn’t quite finish the thought.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how linked we are. But wherever he is, I think he’s got a broken back.”

Herschel was catching all of this and I gave him enormous credit for not asking a bunch of questions or telling us that we were both flat-out crazy.

Jake turned away from me and looked at his bodyguard. “We need to save Gray. If we’re gonna save Corts.”

“Walt,” Herschel said, and disappeared from my view. I could turn my head, but just barely.

“Don’t move. Just stay there.” Jake followed Herschel out of my line of vision but came back with a blanket. “I don’t want to put anything under your head. I’m scared to move you.”

“Don’t,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. We need to get to Gray.” It wasn’t just my life I was talking about. I was thinking about Marie and Isabel and Philippe. I was thinking about how this incredible mess could destroy more than one family and Jake would blame himself for all of it. And then I thought about Sarah. I felt an unexpected tear slide down my face and hated myself for it.

Jake wiped it away without a word, then went back to tucking the blanket around me.

Herschel came back into view. “Walt’s coming,” he said, another one of his lengthy explanations. And then he surprised me. “We’ll figure something out.”

“I can help,” I said. “I think.”

They both looked at me.

“If I’m linked to Gray, I might be able to track him.” I stopped talking then, leaving Jake to explain the concept. Gray’s world kept impinging on my vision and I was getting exhausted trying to keep it at bay. Besides, I guess I needed to know how close Becher was to Gray’s position. I closed my eyes to the apartment and opened them to Gray’s worldview.

We were at the bottom of a chasm. Overhead I could see the sky clearly, but now I was aware of tree branches high above us. I sensed rather than saw the rough, rocky sides that sandwiched us. There were loose rocks, and bigger embedded boulders, with shrubs and vines of various sizes clinging to the uneven rock. Where are we? I thought, trying to concentrate, trying to block out the knowledge that Becher was on his way to us.

Gray was doing his best to get his panic as well as his pain under control. I could feel him forcibly pushing away thoughts of Marie, of his children, doing his best to protect them, even to the last possible moment, and I thought at him that he needed to think of me. Come to Papa, Gray, I thought, but he was working too hard in the other directions to be aware of me. This was going to be harder than I thought.

I felt someone touch my shoulder and I opened my eyes.

“Walt’s on his way,” Jake said. “Before he gets here, can you get us some idea where we need to go?”

Herschel’s demeanor changed ever so slightly when Jake said the word “we,” but he didn’t say anything about it.

“I can try. I’ve never done anything like this before, Jake. It’s not like tracking a keyring or something. I’m trying to get into Gray’s head.”

“You got into mine, no problem,” Jake observed with just the slightest smirk.

He had a point. “And that was like falling into a pail of crazy,” I said, just for something to say. It came out slightly above a whisper.

“Do it,” he answered.

I wanted to crawl away somewhere and disappear. I wanted to make the world go away. Most of all, I just wanted to be sitting in Jake’s apartment like before, watching him paint and doing my homework. I wondered for a moment if life would ever be the same. And then I thought of Gray and wondered if life was even going to continue. Jake was still looking at me, and I obediently closed my eyes.

This time, I forced myself away from Gray and the chasm where he lay waiting for his death. With no clear idea, I started seeking Becher’s lair. Deep inside of me, my fear was pulling away from the thought of searching for it, but there was no choice. Jake would need the information.

I moved forward in my thoughts, focused on searching, and then found that I was, amazingly, already searching. It was like moving through water, or moving through air, a shadowy, wingless flight. I arrowed into the darkness, seeking my prey, flying past distorted images of trees and mountains and rivers, knowing they were unimportant to me. I flew in the dark for what seemed hours before catching a glimmer, a spark, on the left. It was light, but it was unholy light, and I knew I had arrived.

A monstrous and distorted version of a cabin stood at the edge of a dark forest. As in my dream, the doorway was angled and uneven, like a crazy abstract drawing of a door. I slipped through it and the light grew a bit brighter, yellow but still dim, sputtering like a fire lit with damp wood. I should have been choking on smoke but there was none. I stole farther into the room and found I was in a cabin similar to the one Gray owned, but this was hideous and grotesque, with shadows that moved of their own accord and shapeless forms that writhed and slipped in and out of the mismatched corners. Where was this place?

Someone else was in the room, then, and I knew it was him. Becher. His touch was foul and cold, and he was smiling. “I had hoped, when I reached out to you,” he whispered and his voice was all around me and in and through me. “I wouldn’t have guessed how strong you already are, but I had hoped.”

I backed up but not away.

“I know you’re looking for Gray,” he continued. “That is incredibly stupid of you. Gray, as you call him, has no idea about all of this. He lives solidly in his solid world, and what you and I do would be quite beyond him.”

“No,” I said, then dropped it.

“Too late for childish strategy, young master. You cannot hide your thoughts from me, not completely. You cannot hide yourself from me, period. I could find you where you are without much effort. I could come and destroy all of you.”

I surprised myself by getting angry. “That’s all you know how to do anyhow, isn’t it? Great. Knock yourself out. I’m gone.”

His anger was a freezing-cold current. “Careful, little—”

“I’m not your little anything. ‘Little’ this, you putrid son of a bitch.” In my mind I gave him the appropriate gesture. “I’m outta here.” Gray was close. I could sense him just beyond this bizarre and vile construct, and I needed to find some sort of geographic clue to his location, if I could. I had no time for this. But I had to get past the bogeyman and arguing with him wasn’t going to do it. Before he realized what I was doing, I shot through the door and went up above, trying to gain height, looking for something, anything that could help Jake, Herschel, and Walt.

C’mon Gray. Give me a clue. I was rewarded with a shocking flash of a familiar high-end development not far outside the city. All of the houses cost millions, and all of them had an amazing amount of land around them, but they were hardly in rural-cabin territory. Scattered images came to me, like a disjointed track, but I was getting details, all the little details that Gray had in his head. And the place had nothing to do with where we had met Becher before.

I willed myself down to Gray’s street-level recollections and although there was no address, I saw particulars about the front door: massive and oak with a wreath-shaped brass knocker in the middle; about the windows along the side of the house; about the back and patio doors—and I knew where Gray would have entered, sneaking in through the back door like we hadn’t been able to at the country estate.

Forget the house where Becher had sequestered Jake. That whole estate was irrelevant. That was why the carpeting had felt so unused under my feet, why the house had felt so cold. Uninhabited. It was pretty much a front, maybe a staging area. In that instant I realized that I had somehow pulled this nugget of information out of Becher himself. But the image, the knowledge of Gray waiting to die at the bottom of a chasm…Where was that happening?

Looking at this beautiful mansion, an island in the middle of an urban landscape, I felt a sudden rush of horror engulf me and I wanted to choke. The view of the house, the details, weren’t coming from Gray. Somehow I had accessed Becher himself. A film of greasy slime was traced around the edges and around some of the details. And that wasn’t all. There was more than uneasiness here. There was coldness and pain. There was blood and cruelty. I realized then that I had found the man’s killing grounds. He brought them all here, in the end. All his victims. Jake would have wound up here, too, if we hadn’t gotten to him first. The thought made me ill and as suddenly, I felt myself being yanked back down, back into the darkness.

“This will do you no good.” His voice was harsh inside of me. “There is nothing you can do.”

I saw him then for a second, thirty feet tall and dressed in material that was foul and rotting and melded to him like a second skin. I knew I was seeing him in his essence, unguarded. Seeing him as he really was. Before I could even protest, he swatted me down like an insect and I plunged into something that was like cold tar: thick, sticky, suffocating. Worse than quicksand. I was sinking and I could find no way to float or pull myself back to the surface.

“I guided you to me out of curiosity, gave you the direction and the power to come to me. I thought perhaps you might be interesting, at least, and I admit I regret the need to be rid of you so quickly. There were so many things we might have done.”

Flashes of what he did to his victims, of silently shrieking faces, of unspeakable cruelty, assaulted me in stabs and glimpses and I turned away the best I could, knowing that I would be haunted by those images for a long time. If I lived.

“But in the end you are not interesting enough, and I am in a hurry, after all,” he continued. “There is nothing more you can do but die, young neophyte,” his voice assured me again.

A wall of tar came down on me and I went completely under, the air sucked out of my lungs. I was suffocating. I was drowning. I thrashed about, hands flailing, trying to find something to hang onto, something to save my soul. The waves I created with my struggles confounded my efforts, but it was impossible to stop struggling. I was dying.

The sudden realization quelled my effort. I thought of Sarah and how much I really did love her. Strange that I hadn’t figured it out until now. I thought of Jake and hoped he would take care of her for me. And that he and Herschel and Walt would find this son of a bitch and take him down, so that they could all get on with their lives, and safely. But my mental pictures were starting to fade. Becher had gone. I sensed that I was alone and that was the way it was meant to be. I guess we all die alone. If I had been on the planet, now would have been when I would be closing my eyes and slipping away.

Something hard and strong as wire closed around my wrist. Instinctively, I tugged away from it, but there wasn’t any fight left in me. I gave up and went into the darkness.

 

“Sometimes it takes a while for him to come back.” The voice was Jake’s.

Jake! I wanted to open my eyes, but they seemed to have been glued shut. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t move. Through my closed lids, the light on my face kept going to shadow and then coming back, as if people were passing before me and cutting off the light source.

“He’s so still I can’t even tell if he’s breathing.” That was Walt.

I wanted to tell them that I was right here, but just couldn’t seem to get anything to function. And then the little voice, sounding annoyingly like Jake, said Nudge him.

Nudge him. Jake, of course. I took a stab at him. Knocked against that concrete head of his. Pounded at his gray matter.

He felt it, as I knew he would. The mind reader who always denied the ability.

“He’s back,” he said softly, then louder, “You’re back.”

“What?” Walt said.

“Corts.” Something grasped my shoulder and shook me hard. “Wake up, damn it! Come all the way back and WAKE UP!”

I coughed then, startled to feel air in my nostrils, in my lungs, and my eyes snapped open.

Jake was about an inch away from me and the first expression on his face told me everything. I knew then that he had somehow found his way into that darkness, had tracked me and caught my wrist before I went under for the last time. But he covered up with his customary smirk. “Jeez, Corts, what you won’t do for attention.”

But I saw more than he realized. His hand shook slightly as he took it from my shoulder, and was that a very thin streak of gray lacing through his hair? He chose that moment to toss his hair away from his face, but the gray remained. “I think I found them both,” I croaked.

Jake sat back from me, looking more tired and drawn than I had ever seen him. “Tell us.”

“You know that million-plus dollar subdivision just outside the city? The one where all the houses have a few acres and some even back onto wooded areas but are still in the heart of urban living? It’s not far from where I go to school.”

“Something-Something Estates,” Jake said. “Yeah, I know about the place.”

“Becher’s killing ground is there. That’s where Gray is.”

He didn’t even express surprise. “What house?”

I closed my eyes, trying to remember everything I had seen. “It’s the last house on a street that ends at the woods. It’s the biggest house on the block, and there are only three houses on that side of the street. It’s got a red roof, which is kind of unique for that subdivision. And it has wrought-iron gates at the entrance.”

“You can find that.” Herschel surprised me by saying a full sentence. I tried to look at him but he was out of my viewing range. Gray’s paralysis was getting worse.

“I can find that?” Walt repeated. “You’re going along with this? I think we should just take Phil to the hospital. He must have cracked his head when he hit the kitchen floor.”

“We have to go, Walt.” Jake was quiet but insistent. “If we don’t, he’s gonna die. They’re both gonna die.”

“Who?”

“Corts. And Gray.”

I knew without seeing that Herschel and Walt went off to discuss this in private. I could hear them going at it. Jake took the time to sit down next to me. He looked like he felt a little better and he actually gave me one of his lopsided grins. “We’ll get him,” he said. “We’ll get them both.” He raised his head and looked in the direction of the voices. “And that needs to end right about now.”

He got up and went to add his own two cents to the discussion. He was right. It ended.

Herschel and Jake sat down next to me, one on either side, and Walt came to stand in my field of vision. “We’re going, Corts,” Jake said. “Try not to worry.” He looked at me, as serious as he ever got. “Your job is to stay alive. Got it? Stay alive.”

I would have nodded, but I couldn’t quite move my head. “Stay alive,” I repeated.

“You, too.”

“Don’t worry about us. Worry about him.” From the emphasis in his voice, I knew Jake wasn’t talking about Gray.

Herschel blinked at me, then at the other two. “Keep a rein on it,” he said. The man was becoming verbose.

Walt stared down at me. “I don’t know how much of this I believe. Probably none of it. But Jake is adamant, and we’re just hired help. If he’s going off on some fool’s quest, it’s our job to keep him safe. I think Herschel should just get you to a hospital while we’re gone—” He held up a finger to stop my protest, weakly voiced as it might have been. “But I’m willing to give this a little longer, if you are. For the record, I think you’re both crazy, and I’m even crazier for going along with it.”

Jake ignored that. “Herschel, when we get there I’m going to send a picture of the place to show to Corts, just to verify.”

Herschel nodded, and they left. I heard the door close quietly behind them.

“Do you think we’re crazy?” I asked Herschel after a period of silence. He was still sitting next to me so I figured I might as well try for conversation.

He looked at me and for a moment I felt like he was staring straight into me, and then somehow past me. It felt a little unsettling, but not necessarily uncomfortable. His dark brown eyes were focused and he took some time to answer me, but he did. “No.” That was all.

“Okay, then,” I said, not knowing quite what else to say. Maybe nothing.

And then he started to talk and if I could have shown more surprise, I would have. But my body was not complying at the moment. “Working for Mr. Holdridge has been interesting. Maybe the most interesting job I have worked in a while. Most wealthy clients are spoiled, demanding, and difficult due to their foolish noncompliance. Jacob Holdridge is not like that. Additionally, his talent astounds me.”

I did manage to raise my eyebrows in reply.

“I invest in art, Mr. Corts. I am paid generously for my endeavors, and art is something that I have always admired and enjoyed. Now that I can acquire some pieces for myself, I do so, when I can. Perhaps I can acquire one of his.”

I smiled a little. “He’d love that. Although I think if you asked him, he’d just do one for you.”

“That would be outside the boundaries of my contract.”

“Oh.”

“You, Mr. Corts, are also very interesting.”

“I am?”

“Your abilities. I haven’t seen anything like that in some time.”

That startled me. “You’ve seen my abilities before? I mean, you’ve seen someone like me before?” I hadn’t, but then maybe those of us with strange abilities don’t talk about them in public. If Jake hadn’t tumbled onto the idea of backwards tracking, I never would have known I could do it.

“Once. Long ago. I grew up in the deep South.” He stopped there, as if that explained everything. I didn’t press it. I also wondered what he had done with his Southern accent but asking him about it seemed like the height of rudeness. Herschel was always such a gentleman that I didn’t want to offend him.

“Mississippi,” he added in a soft voice. His eyes took on the look of someone remembering, but he blinked out of that the next second. “Do you think we are in danger here, Mr. Corts?”

“No.” I was positive. “Well, I guess I might be, but it won’t be because Becher comes through our door. But Gray…” I stopped.

“You believe that if Gray dies, so will you?”

I had been dodging the idea but Herschel was making me face it head-on. “I guess. I mean, I think that could happen.”

He nodded. “If Walt can stop this, he will.”

“If they find Gray,” I agreed. We lapsed into silence.

At one point Herschel asked me if I would at least like a sip of water, but I turned him down as politely as I could. I didn’t want to risk puking up my lunch when I couldn’t move and the mere thought of a drink of water almost caused bile to creep up my throat.

After about two hundred years, Herschel’s phone buzzed. He looked at it, then held it up so that I could see the screen. “Is this the house?” Jake had sent more than one picture, but I knew it at a glance.

“Yes.”

Herschel texted back. “And now we wait,” he said.

That’ll be a change,” I couldn’t help grousing. Herschel didn’t reply.

Waiting was interminable. I remembered being in the trunk of Gray’s car, waiting for that ride to end, wondering if I were going to die at the end of it. Here I was on the floor of Jake’s apartment, about as helpless as I was on that horrid ride, and wondering again if I were going to die. Gray was in pain and at the same time, couldn’t move a muscle. How was that possible? His nerves were doing their job, weren’t they? I shifted my shoulders and head, and groaned just a little with the pain and effort.

Herschel turned his attention back to me. He had been sitting there like a large lethal weapon that was momentarily at rest. Or waiting. I thought of the WWII tanks I had seen once on a field trip to an historical site and realized how much Herschel reminded me of those tanks. Huge, powerful, almost dormant, but don’t let that fool you. I had a feeling he could be up, weapon drawn, to defend both of us before I even realized we were under attack. The thought was reassuring, even though I knew the danger to me was not coming through any wood-paneled front door.

“Perhaps we should talk to pass the time,” Herschel suggested.

I took him up on the offer. Anything to get my mind off of things as they were.

[][] CHAPTER FIFTEEN

He started speaking first, and after my initial surprise, I listened as he told me stories about growing up in Mississippi. How his parents had moved him and his sister to the city, but his grandmother still lived out in the rural area. How much he enjoyed going to her place in the summer. How she had always been kind and gentle to him, but also how he sensed that there was something more to her than a tiny old lady living not far from the swamps. Neighbors came to her to consult, he said. Something about the way he said it caught my attention, drew me away from the pain and the worry, and all at once I understood why Herschel had come across as neutral to me when I first met him. I couldn’t read him because he was actually blocking me. I looked at him, then, and he looked back as impassive as ever. But we understood each other. And I understood why he had chosen to stay with me and send Walt with Jake. A sort of painful hope flooded through me; maybe I was as safe across the board with Herschel as I would have been had Jake stayed.

But he was still talking and I didn’t dwell on that thought. Herschel told me more about his grandmother, how she would help with particular kinds of problems, and how her neighbors repaid her for that help. They brought eggs and home-made bread, fresh milk or a string of fish and sometimes a piece of fabric for a new skirt. She wasn’t wealthy, he explained, but she never wanted for anything. Her neighbors took good care of that.

“Since I left, I’ve never seen another place where people were that giving, that caring,” he said. “Well, maybe one of the villages I saw in—” He caught himself and I knew not to ask about it. Herschel had learned to be lethal somewhere. I figured if he didn’t want to share that part of his story, then that was his business.

I tried to hang onto what he was telling me, to picture all the stories he wove about his grandmother, and the secrets of the swamp, and eventually, how he came to leave his home and seek a completely different life. But all through it, the pain and the hurt in my body were growing. Pain is one thing: not easily ignored, but at the moment still manageable. The hurt, however… Inside I knew that I was broken. That I might never walk again, if I survived Becher. That my life as I had known it was over, even if I didn’t die that afternoon. I thought of Sarah and the unshared plans involving her that were in my head. The ones I had never thought to tell her, either because of laziness or fear on my part. I thought about my parents and what it would be like for them to have their son come back home broken and pathetic, if not in a box.

I was tired. I was hurting. I was losing that touch of hope and as soon as that happened, a tear or two welled up in spite of my best efforts. Herschel noticed and removed a handkerchief from his sport jacket to wipe me off. I didn’t know whether to thank him or to apologize for being such a wuss.

“How long have you and Mr. Holdridge known each other?” he asked, refolding the now damp cloth and placing it aside for further use.

“Not quite ten years,” I said.

“So almost half your lifetimes.” His voice was soft and thoughtful, as always. “I’m sure it feels much longer than that.”

“I think it is,” I said, not having the energy to debate the subject. I was too worn out to hedge. Or explain.

Herschel regarded me with those quiet eyes, so impassive behind his glasses. “Closer than friends,” he said. “More like brothers.”

“That’s us.” I closed my eyes as a sudden pain crossed my chest and ended at the dead zone just below. “Brothers.” When I could breathe again, I looked at him. “What about you and Walt?”

“I trust Walt with my life. Our job depends on that. But we are not close, not like you and Mr. Holdridge.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Agreed.”

I managed a weak grin and opened my mouth to reply to that, but I never had the chance. Philip Corts disappeared from the coach house apartment and popped into Gray’s ruined body.

 

I recognized the cellar. It was the same in the crime scene photograph. It looked almost like the one in my first track of Gray, but somehow it was too modern. There had been an old quality to the room where the little girl’s body had lain, but I brushed aside that detail. Just a different place. Same kind of murder.

Gray and I were lying on the floor, and the part of us that could still feel suffered the cold of the concrete floor beneath us. The room was dim but there was enough light to see Becher. The man was standing just within our sight, sharpening a knife that looked to be about a foot long. But it was the wall behind him that held our attention. Death was inevitable, that was a fact, so we focused on the newspaper clippings that were tacked up on the wall behind Becher and, we assumed, all the other walls as well.

They were news stories related to kidnappings and murders. Becher’s handiwork. And as suspected, since not all of the clippings were in English, the man had been busy in other countries as well. But for some reason, this estate in the middle of Midwestern America had become his home base. This is where he would have taken Jake. And this is where he planned to take both of us.

“Still alive, are we? In that case, I’m glad you could join us,” Becher said suddenly, and I realized he could sense my presence. Confusion flowed back to me from Gray: he was still unaware of the link. I was actually grateful for that, in one corner of my mind. If it came to that, he would think he died alone and he wouldn’t be worrying about me at the last moment. No guilt about me needed. He carried enough sadness and guilt all by himself.

“I will find it edifying to read of your demise, young friend. I wonder what the medical experts will attribute it to. A weak heart, perhaps? Or some unsuspected aneurysm? It should make for fascinating reading.”

Gray interrupted by asking him what the hell he was talking about.

For my part, I thought the filthiest string of expletives that I could at him and he laughed, but he never stopped sharpening his knife. “Shall I let you in on a secret?” he asked.

“Please do.” Gray voiced the question for us both.

The way Becher pinned Gray with a look told me that Becher was speaking to him alone, not to both of us. “This is an old fight between us. Much older than you could ever understand. I have been looking for you, doing everything in my power to draw you out. And I did. I knew what your weakness would be. It always has been. Even then.”

Gray was baffled but Becher’s meaning hit me like a punch to the gut. I understood, now, why that little boy’s murder had been dedicated to Gray. I got a swirl of pictures from Becher, a sickening stream of them, filled with gloating at first and then tinged with sharp anger at the end. “This time,” he announced, still angry, “this time the story ends differently.”

He put down the device he had been using to sharpen the knife and focused his attention on the helpless man in front of him. I wanted to turn away, but I couldn’t. Sarah, I thought. I pictured my mom and dad. And then I pushed it all away so that Becher wouldn’t have someone else to hunt. Maybe I was already too late, but maybe not. None of us were wealthy. In his mind, Gray was torn between last thoughts of his family and trying to keep them safe. When he died, they would be at Becher’s mercy and at the thought of it, a wave of despair and anger crashed through him like a tidal wave.

Becher crossed the room slowly, holding the knife up and admiring it with every step he took. “I have waited years for this,” he whispered. “So many years that it feels like a lifetime. Maybe more.” He laughed at his own joke, and Gray simply stared at him, expression blank. Brave man. I was trying to match that level of courage, but not succeeding very well. Still, there was something unbreakable in Gray, and I held onto that. If this was the way Philip Corts was going out, well then, best to do it with some little bit of courage, whatever I could scrounge up in these last few seconds.

Becher lowered himself until he straddled Gray’s chest. Straddled us. The knife had an unholy gleam in the dim light. I felt Gray steeling himself against the slash of that blade. “I can’t even congratulate you on a good fight. You are pathetic.” Becher put his hand just below Gray’s collarbone and raised the knife. I saw the cold glint of razor-sharp metal and closed my eyes against it. “I so enjoy that this time, you die at my hands.”

And then there was an impossible pounding at the top of the steps. In spite of himself, Becher looked up and I saw his mouth drop open. “What—” he began, and got no further.

Gray turned his head the best he could and I saw Walt first, and then I saw Jake behind him. Walt’s gun was out and leveled, and I was startled to see that Jake was armed as well. For a split second I had time to wonder how he had snuck that out of the apartment. Herschel would have a heart attack when he found out. And then my focus snapped back into Gray and we both watched with just a glimmer of hope.

Walt and Jake had reached the bottom of the stairs and were approaching Becher, who maintained his position and began lowering the knife down to Gray’s neck.

“Put the gun down or this man dies immediately.”

“Put the knife down, or you’ll do the same,” Walt said. “And quicker.”

Jake moved up to Walt’s side and the man caught his first glimpse of Jake’s pistol. His momentary surprise was enough. Becher moved to kill Gray—kill us. I saw the knife flash as he brought his hand all the way down toward Gray’s neck.

Somehow, Walt had the presence of mind and the speed to knock Jake out of the way and take the shot himself.

Jake crashed into the near wall, losing the grip on his gun and landing on his side with an outcry of surprise and pain. Walt’s shots, and there were two, found their target. Becher collapsed, the air coming out of him like a broken balloon, and slid sideways.

And almost in that same moment, Gray found the movement and the strength to push Becher off of him and try to sit up. “Jake?” he whispered, shock in his voice.

Jake sat up as well and rubbed his elbow, looking at his bodyguard. “Walt,” he began to protest.

“Shut up, kid. That shot was never yours to take.”

At that, Jake looked over at Gray and at Becher’s dead body, still bleeding onto the basement floor, and the color drained from his face at the sight of abrupt and violent loss of life. In the coming weeks, Jake, who had never enjoyed hunting animals, would tell me that he finally understood how much Walt had done for him in those few seconds that afternoon.

And then the connection broke and I was back in the apartment, copying Gray in my struggle to sit up, pushing against the floor with arms that wobbled. Herschel caught me behind the back and helped me.

“They found him,” he said. “And ended it.”

“Yes.” It was all I could manage, but it didn’t matter. Herschel understood all of it. Gray was safe. I was safe. The relief was short-lived as the memory of the paralysis, the knife and how close I had come to dying, flooded back into my brain. Herschel’s arms came around me, stronger than anything I had ever known, and held me when the real sobs began.

 

Walt brought Jake back to the apartment. Herschel didn’t leave my side until they returned, even though the danger was gone. I was touched and embarrassed by his ministrations, but he didn’t treat me any differently.

Walt looked at me in surprise. “You can move now?”

“You took away my paralysis when you took Becher out of the picture.”

“I don’t believe it,” he said. But there was doubt in his voice. He turned to Jake. “I called your father and let him know that Becher has been taken care of. You and Philip should be fine.”

“We will,” Jake said with confidence.

“Then this is it,” Walt said. “Your dad knows where you are. I’m sure he’ll be in touch in short order.”

Jake shook Walt’s and Herschel’s hands, genuine gratitude evident on his face. “Thank you. Thanks. We all would’ve died—”

“Herschel would never have let that happen,” Walt said, giving his partner a small grin.

“And shooting Becher—”

“Our job, Mr. Holdridge. Never yours.” Herschel’s voice was firm.

Turning to his partner, Walt said, “Our client is safe now, and you know Becher’s status. We have a hell of a mess to clean up.” And that was it. They left the apartment together and I never saw either of them again.

Jake pulled a kitchen chair over and sat down close to the sofa where I lingered, still weak, trying to regroup. He told me his side of the story, even though I had seen quite a bit of it. “Becher was one sick… Never mind. Walt ruined my shot.”

I nodded. “I saw that.”

He smirked. “I got him back. On the drive here I said to him, ‘You call that a take-down? My grandmother does a better take-down than that. And she’s dead.’”

We looked at each other and somehow started laughing, laughing until we were crying. It helped.

 

The story we told my parents was incomplete. We didn’t tell them that Jake had gone haring off after a murderer. We didn’t tell them that I almost died without being anywhere near that same murderer. We did tell them that Herschel and Walt had done their job of keeping us safe, and that Walt, working with Gray, ended Becher’s kidnap-and-murder spree with extreme prejudice, as Walt would have put it, past military training slipping out. On hearing that, my mom grew about thirty years younger even as I looked at her.

 

In the days that followed, I went along to Mr. Holdridge’s office and personally thanked him for helping to keep me safe, and for his part in ending it all. He accepted my gratitude and then graciously asked me how school was going. Then he offered me a paid internship with a potential permanent position in one of his in-house publication departments. “Think it over,” he said. I left his office with my head spinning.

 

Sarah came home from school as soon as she could when I told her that it was all over, and helped dispel the darkness that still clung to me. We talked about my link—with Gray and with Becher—Sarah, Jake and I, and I told them that I never wanted to go through that again. I needed to find a way to block that. It was one thing to get images off of an inanimate object. Winding up in someone else’s head, or having someone wind up in mine, was more than I wanted on my doorstep, thanks anyhow. I knew that even though talking about it helped, I would need weeks, if not months, before my brain felt anything like normal. Every guard, every block that I knew how to use was in place. I didn’t want to track again ever.

[][] CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Eventually, Gray came and sought me out. I had been half-waiting for him, and so I wasn’t surprised when he turned up weeks later outside my lecture hall. “This is getting to be a habit with you,” I greeted him.

“Could you get Jake here?” he asked without returning the greeting. “I think you both need to hear about this. And then I have some questions for you, too.”

“I’ll call him,” I said. I took out my phone and contacted my friend. An hour later Jake turned up in his favorite bottle-green trench coat and a pair of new red high tops. His hair was loose and I found myself staring at the thin, gray streak just north of his left temple. It looked deliberate, a carefully dyed stripe to contrast with the dark brown of his hair, but I knew better. His paint-spattered sweatshirt and ragged jeans looked about right. If Gray found Jake’s appearance odd, he kept it to himself.

“Let’s go somewhere more private,” Gray said. “It’s that kind of conversation.”

“We have to stop meeting like this,” I said when we settled into his car.

“I didn’t think a restaurant was a good idea, considering what we’re about to discuss.”

“This is fine.” Jake hadn’t been in Gray’s car before and looked around with his usual curiosity. He noticed the pack of cigarettes on the dashboard. “Do you smoke?”

“No, he just plays with them.” I looked at Gray. “What’s on your mind?”

“First, I figured you’d want an update about how things turned out with Becher. He was killed during an attempted murder, so there wasn’t much difficulty closing the case. His remains were sent back to Europe per his will. I imagine there’s a lot of infighting on all his corporate boards about the direction of his companies, but that doesn’t affect us. Your bodyguards, Jake, made statements that satisfied the homicide detectives. Besides, there was all kinds of evidence in that basement.”

“So Walt’s okay? Even though he shot Becher?”

“As far as I know. Walt and the other gentleman—”

“Herschel,” Jake supplied the name.

“—are off on another assignment, or so I’ve been told. I didn’t get much of a chance to thank either of them. Especially Walt.”

“He considered it part of his job,” Jake said breezily. “Besides, I bet he likes shooting people.”

“I could see that,” I agreed.

Gray looked at us both for a moment, then changed course. “What do you know about Becher?” His question was directed toward both of us.

I gestured for Jake to go first.

“He was richer than all get-out, I know that. I saw him once, years ago, when my dad brought me to some kind of function, but that was when I was pretty young. I think he stopped going to anything like those events right after. My dad never mentioned him again. Other than that, I never thought of him until he tried to kill me.”

Gray nodded. “And you?” His expression was serious. “And don’t hold back.”

I took a deep breath. “I know he could do what I do, and more. I know he linked with me when he came after all of us.” I frowned at him. “What was up with your back? And being chased through the woods?”

“Corts told me about that,” Jake added. “But not until way after I saw Becher trying to kill you, so I didn’t know then that you were supposed to have a broken back. What was all that about? Corts couldn’t even move.”

I raised a hand to stop him but I was too late.

“What?” Gray asked. “What does that mean?”

I sighed. “It means that I was linked to Becher, but I was also linked to you. I saw that run through the trees. I was running with you. I took that fall off a cliff with you. And I lay there with my back broken, waiting for Becher to come and finish me off. Which is what he was about to do to you, but in a basement. So what was all that other stuff?”

“That’s partly why I came to you.” Gray leaned over his seat and reached for a briefcase in the back. Jake picked it up and handed it to him. Inside was a file of photocopied clippings and articles. He handed the file to me and I opened it on the front seat armrest so that Jake could see it from his place in back.

The top articles were all about kidnappings and murders. “Were these the ones on his wall?” I asked.

There was a pause and we both looked up at Gray.

“Copies.” And then, “It creeps me out that you can do this stuff,” he said. “You saw all of that? That is, unless Jake told you about it?” The last question had a hopeful note to it.

“Jake didn’t. And I couldn’t see all of it,” I admitted. “Just what was in your line of vision when you were lying on your back on the floor.”

“Christ, Phil—”

“So these are the same as the articles on the walls?” I asked again. I already knew that I freaked him out so we didn’t need to go through any more about it at this point.

“Pretty much. Not all of the international ones hit our news services but I found a few of them in the British papers.”

Jake and I scanned them. “They date all the way back to the 1980’s,” Jake said, a kind of terrified awe in his voice.

“He started young,” Gray offered by way of explanation. It didn’t help us feel any better.

There were also photocopies of articles from early in the last century. I looked up at Gray but he didn’t say anything and we went back to looking at them. And there was the story about a little girl, a poor girl, who had been taken off the streets of New York and found murdered in the basement of an old hotel. That an underprivileged child had been taken off of the New York streets in 1913 was not exactly newsworthy. What made the story a headline grabber was the fact that she had been found lying on her back as if asleep, with her throat slit.

For a moment I was back in the original vision I had in Rachel’s apartment, and I realized I had been seeing Gray’s memory from a lifetime or two ago, sneaking into a deserted basement to learn the truth, on the verge of discovering a dead girl’s body—and the sight of someone he knew slipping out another door with something slim and long, wrapped in a bloody cloth, tucked under his arm.

Gray cleared his throat and I snapped back to the present. Jake was still reading and I picked up where I left off previously. When we had finished reading the article, the man looked at us with a frown. “Becher wasn’t alive in 1913. None of us were. So explain this to me.”

“Do you have any articles on the murderer? Did they catch him?”

Gray dug through the file and came up with a photocopy of a three columns of newsprint. “Not quite. But these were also in Becher’s possession.”

The story was about a wealthy young man who had gone missing. He was born to a family that had properties in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. He had been college-educated and was in his second year of working in the family business when he disappeared. His last night had been with his good friend, a classmate from college who had not been wealthy but had been his boon companion since their early days at college.

“’Boon companion’?” Jake murmured.

I ignored him.

Friends and witnesses said that the two had gotten into a violent argument the night before the wealthy young man disappeared, but there was nothing that suggested foul play and so the young man was listed as a missing person. He never returned to his family, and the friend was thought to have moved away. He also never returned to his home town.

There was a coda to the story: some thirty years after that disappearance there had been a local headline: human remains were found at the bottom of a chasm, a dried-up stream bed that wandered through the wealthy young man’s family property. Although there was no way to make an identification at that time, the tatters of clothing and a signet ring found with the bones allowed the family to declare that this was indeed their missing relative. An unverified rumor also suggested that a second skeleton was found, one that had a knife close to its hand—a knife that matched the nick found on two of the first skeleton’s ribs, but no credence was ever given to that story. The remains were buried in the family crypt. No more mention was ever made of a second skeleton. The article dated back to 1947.

Jake and I finished reading at the same time. I looked up and Jake raised an eyebrow at me.

“Don’t start,” I said. “No. I don’t want to go there.”

“Go where?” Gray was confused.

“What Corts is trying to avoid doing is tracking this article. He can track published stories. We found that out a long time ago.” I thought about the book on shipwrecks that Jake had showed me that rainy night years ago and closed my eyes to the memory. Jake looked at me and continued. “If he tracked this, he could tell you all about this disappearance. I’m betting he could verify that one of the skeletons they found was Becher, that the young friend who had the violent fight with him was you, and that it was your knife that put an end to this rich guy at the bottom of that chasm, although I guess it ended your life as well.” He swore softly. “Psycho-bastard child killer. He deserved it.”

“You’re not serious?” Gray looked at me.

“Dead,” I said. It seemed appropriate. “Dead serious. But I’m going to do this one without tracking. When I was linked with Becher, he let me see some things. Or I was able to pull them from him, I’m not sure which. Yes, you had a history with him. Remember him saying that he knew how to draw you out? He drew you out before. All those years ago, last century, you figured out what he was doing. And you ended it. That’s why he said that he was going to enjoy you dying at his hands. Why he said the story would have a different ending this time. He remembered all of it…even from your past life.”

“That’s all well and good, Corts,” Jake said, not even registering surprise. “But what about the whole chasm thing you saw?”

I looked at Gray. “Was there a chase this time? Did you go after him? Did he come after you?”

Gray looked away, embarrassed. “It was drugs, all of it. I just remember walking to my car, and then I woke up in his basement. He kept me drugged, too. But I do remember that chase you talk about. I remember running through those woods and tripping. I fell over the edge of a bluff, I think, and broke my back. I couldn’t move except for my right arm, a little bit.”

“Being able to move just one arm, that was enough,” I said. “You were remembering your last meeting with him, when he came down that bluff to kill you and you did him in with a knife, even with a broken back. Or maybe Becher fed you the story while he had you medicated. Either way, according to this news article, it all really happened. What were the names of the two young men again?” I went back to the beginning of the article. “Yup. The rich young man was Haran Bramwell. H.B. His friend was George Lodge. So Gray, does your last name begin with L?”

He didn’t answer.

“Bullseye,” Jake observed. “Hey, Gray, you were a badass in a past life, knifing a psycho killer guy when your back was broken and you could only move one arm. Sweet.”

“You two sound like maniacs.” He turned to look at us for a moment. “You know that, right?”

“Of course we know it,” Jake said. “But if we weren’t maniacs, Walt would never have been able to find you. You know that too, right?”

Gray was silent, looking out the driver-side window.

After a bit, I asked him, “What did you think we were going to say?”

He took a cigarette from the pack and began playing with it. “I knew what you were going to say. I was just hoping you wouldn’t.”

Jake actually laughed. “Abandon hope, and all that,” he said.

Gray gave his cigarette a final tap and shoved it back in the pack. “I owe you guys my life. Mine and my family’s.”

“I owe you mine,” Jake said simply. “If you and Corts hadn’t come for me that day I would have been in that basement way ahead of you.” He got serious again, quiet as he considered that.

I thought about Jake saving me on the Mockingbird. I thought about Jake going into that basement with Walt. I thought about Gray sparing my life and bringing me to the train station. “We could keep this going for hours,” I said aloud. “All of us constantly saving each other. So why don’t we just call it even all the way around?”

“We can do that,” Jake agreed. “Then I’ll go home and figure out how many times you actually owe me, Corts.”

“Screw you, Jake.”

On that note, Gray started up the car and brought us both back to Jake’s apartment.

[][] CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Life went on. Jake continued to pursue Rachel, at a distance. “She keeps telling me to give you her love and gratitude. What is up with that?” he asked one time, truly annoyed. I don’t know what she told her parents about her three-year absence, but I do know that she finally introduced Jake to her family as someone she met while she was gone. They liked him. “Maybe,” he confided to me. “But what I think they really like is that my dad has money.” Jake was growing cynical.

Sarah and I both graduated, she with highest honors. “Show off,” I said, but I was proud of her. Sarah had hated being away for four years of school but she wanted the program they offered and she stuck it out. I had the luxury of living at home and commuting. And I still didn’t pull off high honors.

“You’re slipping, Corts,” Jake observed when I told him.

I gave him my customary two-word reply accompanied with a punch to his shoulder and the conversation ended.

I started my internship at one of Mr. Holdridge’s office sites two weeks after school ended. Jake, amused by my new eight-to-five routine decided to come down and meet me after work on a Friday. It was close to the height of summer and the sunny days were stretching late into the evening.

We ate, drank, laughed, and decided to keep things going by heading back to his place and watching a movie. What that would be was the subject of contentious argument, as always, but it felt no different than when we were thirteen and arguing about TV shows.

We stepped out of the bar and were immediately blinded by early evening sunlight. “That feels great,” Jake said around the toothpick sticking out of his mouth.

I nodded.

We crossed the street and had gotten about halfway down the block to our train stop when a car approaching on the opposite side of the street pulled a sudden U-turn and screeched to a halt in the driveway in front of us, blocking our path.

Jake swore once and jumped back, startled, his hands going up in surrender.

I whacked him hard in the gut to get him to put his arms down. “It’s just Gray,” I said, surprised nonetheless.

Gray stuck his head out the window. “How are you guys doing?”

“Okay,” I said. “Shouldn’t you be out arresting criminals?”

“I was looking for you. Mr. Holdridge told me where to find you.”

Jake sighed as if exasperated. “I’ll have to have a talk with him,” he said.

We started to walk away.

“Hey, give me a break,” Gray called out after us. “I could really use your help. I need you to come with me. Both of you.”

We looked at each other, then turned to him. “Does this have to do with guns?” Jake asked. Was that a hopeful note in his voice? I frowned and nudged him with my elbow.

“Actually, it has to do with a sword.”

Jake turned to me, eyebrows raised. I looked back at him. He shrugged.

“Aw, what the hell,” I said.

We got into the car. Gray smiled at us and shifted into gear.

 

[][] AUTHOR’S NOTE

 

Saving Jake was written over a fourteen-year stretch and after having both Philip Corts and Jake Holdridge in my head—and my heart—for that long a period of time, I missed them quite a bit when the story ended. Before starting work on Haunted, and to make myself feel better, I began playing with the storyline that became Missing Persons. Softy that I am, I couldn’t quite bring myself to leave Corts and Jake apart for yet another lifetime. I hope you enjoyed following them for another adventure.

 

[][] ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

I grew up in a haunted house on the north side of Chicago and still live in Illinois. I am fascinated by all things paranormal. I believe everyone has a ghost story so I’ll listen to anyone who wants to tell me a tale. If you ever meet me, we can swap a story or two.

 

My website is www.opheliajulien.com. Write to me there; I’ll answer!

 

I am on Twitter (rarely) and FaceBook (more likely; I have a page), and also have a weekly blog (I try!) called Ubiquitous Ghosts on BlogSpot.

 


Missing Persons

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not yet read the novel Saving Jake, please postpone reading this free story until you have finished reading that novel, in order to fully understand the details and events referenced or included within Missing Persons. When best friend Jake Holdridge was still a big part of Philip Corts’s life, Philip grew used to a certain type of madness also being a big part of his life. Now three years after a life-changing episode that affected both friends, Philip finds himself dealing with more Jake-related madness than he could ever have seen coming, from kidnappings and killers, to bodyguards, one hostile girlfriend, and for Philip—a frightening new aspect to his innate psychic ability that will change his life once more, and possibly even cause his death.

  • Author: Ophelia Julien
  • Published: 2015-11-22 23:40:19
  • Words: 48548
Missing Persons Missing Persons