River stubbed her toe on cardboard boxes stacked in one corner of the dark attic and tried not to swear. With a pencil-thin flashlight tucked between her teeth she stood still for a moment, listening, hoping no one had heard her, but the house below remained silent.
She didn’t want her stepmother to know she was here. More important, she didn’t want Jake to know either. Her half brother was too young for the problems life had thrust on him and it was better if he didn’t know about the shit going on in hers.
As River sifted carefully through the contents of the boxes—not sure what she was hoping to find but certain that whatever it was, it had to be here at her childhood home—she tried hard to swallow her worry for Hawk. She would have known if he were dead. She would have felt the hole. But he’d been gone for nearly two weeks, cutting himself off from her so that she could no longer sense his presence or feel his soul next to hers.
He’d said he would return for her, and the feminine part of her had wanted him to keep the promises he’d made to her no matter what.
Which just went to show that a woman could only rely on herself—exactly as she’d been taught by the father who’d raised her.
She had come here tonight in search of answers because of her father. Constable Jim Peters insisted he had been involved in top-secret government experiments. River refused to believe it.
“Trust me,” Jim had said to her a few days before he, too, had disappeared.
“Your father was no simple farmer.” His blue eyes looked tired as he rubbed a freckled hand through his graying red hair and complained about needing a haircut.
“Was he overprotective?” he asked. “Did he ever go off without explanation for extended periods of time?”
She’d started to say no to the last because the disappearances had been so rare she’d almost forgotten them, but looking back, there had been at least three. She had no idea if there had been any in more recent years, when she had been less a part of his life. She couldn’t deny other oddities either. She had no idea how he’d earned a living. He could fix anything with an engine and four wheels. He’d taught her to shoot a gun, a rifle, and a crossbow, skills he’d later taught Jake. She and her mother had signed up for self-defense lessons and practiced with him. He’d taught them a few moves of his own. These had all been necessary skills in the world she’d grown up in after the war, and they proved nothing other than that her father liked to be prepared. But neither did they disprove what Jim had tried to tell her, and River wanted Jim to be wrong. She wanted at least one part of her life to be true.
If she couldn’t believe in her own father, what was the point of believing in anything? River carefully replaced the last box. She’d found nothing other than the photos she’d already seen, the ones of the poor creature that had died in a mountain cave not too far from the house. She didn’t know where her father had gotten these photographs and that was what made her uneasy, although she refused to believe they meant anything bad. The man who had raised her had been honest and caring. Without a doubt he had loved her.
He had not, however, always been open. She had to admit that. As she slid the box farther back on the shelf, she met with resistance. Curious, she reached her hand in behind to see what was blocking it. Her fingers brushed cold, smooth metal. A familiar jolt of energy made her smile and she drew a long cylinder off the shelf. This was the first toy she and her father had built together. Similar to a kaleidoscope, it could be held to the eye and the tube spun to create images. He’d been far more fascinated by it than she. Anytime she’d played with it, he’d impatiently waited for his turn. A branch scratched against the windowpane and River started, spooked by the sudden noise disturbing the stillness.
She put the toy back onto the shelf. It wasn’t the noise that had unsettled her, she realized, the skin on her arms beginning to crawl. The house was too silent. No matter how quiet she’d tried to be, and she could be very quiet, Jake would have heard her. He had a sixth sense for things out of the ordinary, something he’d inherited from their dad.
She didn’t walk to the door. Instead, she used her magic and transported herself across the room so as not to make the floor joists creak. She did not, however, dare jump to the main level because she had no idea what she might find if she did. She opened the door and started down the stairs, carefully stepping where the wood had been nailed to the frame. On the second level she passed the open door to Melinda’s bedroom.
The room was empty. She wished Hawk were with her. She might have been taught to look after herself, but there was something to be said for backup. Seriously panicked, and even more cautious, she peered into the other two bedrooms. They were also empty.
A scraping noise came from directly below her, in the vicinity of the kitchen. It sounded like a chair being moved. She didn’t like the thought of having to take that second flight of stairs to the main level because she’d be exposed, but she had no choice. It was either the stairs or go out a window. If she went out a window, she’d have to get back into the house again. At the foot of the stairs she paused in the darkness to let her eyesight adjust and to orient herself. She turned to the kitchen door and placed her hand on the wood, listening hard but hearing nothing now.
A funky smell seeped through the cracks, coppery and rank. Hope died.
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