He heard something, a slight shuffling sound that wasn’t just a house noise in the night. Ethan didn’t move a muscle, then slowly drew his Beretta and fanned it around him, eyes and ears on full alert.
He said, his voice soft and calm, “Is anyone here?”
Nothing for a moment, then a soft, “It’s only me. I was watching you and the cats. They’re wonderful and so fast. Can I play with them?”
He spun around to see Autumn Backman standing in the doorway, her long brown hair straggling out of a ponytail, her jeans and T-shirt rumpled. She wore orange sneakers on her small feet. In twenty years, he thought, she’d be the picture of her mom.
“Are you all right?”
“How long have you been here?”
She looked at him, her big blue eyes unblinking. She was afraid of him too? “If you don’t talk to me, how will I find out anything?”
She stared down at her sneakers, frowned. He saw that one of the laces was coming undone. But she didn’t move. She said, “You’re the sheriff.”
“Yes, I am, and I’ve been out with about fifty other people looking for you for hours and hours. I’ve been scared for you. Did someone try to take you and you got away?”
Slowly she shook her head. She still wouldn’t look at him. Just like her mother. But at least the daughter trusted him enough to come to his house to hide out. From whom? From what?
Ethan walked slowly to the little girl, aware that Big Louie, Mackie, and Lula were hanging back, watching. They’d known she was here and yet they hadn’t been hiding as they usually did from strangers, Big Louie included, all three under his bed, three twitching tails never quite all the way under. He came down on his knees in front of her, as careful as could be not to frighten her.
“Why did you come here, Autumn, really?”
“Since Uncle Tollie isn’t here, I decided to come here so you can protect me.”
But if someone came inside while I was out looking for you, I wouldn’t be here to protect you. No, no, keep it simple. “Who would I protect you from?”
That was too much; he saw that immediately. She shrank back, wrapped her arms around herself. She looked ready to fold in on herself. Lula meowed. The little girl looked up. Mackie meowed, Big Louie barked, all three now a line behind him.
“They’re nice,” she said.
“They’re varmints,” Ethan said, but with a smile and a laugh, and was pleased to see her arms drop back to her sides. “Lula is a calico. See all the black and gold splotches on white? She’s so independent, I have to make an appointment with her before she’ll give me the time of day. Now, as for Mackie, he’s the big orange-and-white tabby, so big you’d think he could go bring down his own dinner, but he’s also a wuss, lives to eat and sleep and have me rub his ears and tell him how handsome he is. As for Big Louie, he’s a black Labrador, tough and so sweet you want to hug him all the time. He and the cats get along—what a surprise, but it’s true.”
She said, “Lula? Mackie?” Ethan watched them stop their slinking and bound toward her. Independent Lula, to his surprise, began to rub herself against Autumn’s legs. As for Mackie, he had no shame. He stretched out his full length against her, his paws on her chest. She laughed and picked him up, then staggered before Ethan could steady her.
He said, “Why don’t you call me Ethan?”
She shook her head. “Mama said I was to stay away from you. Far away.”
Now that wasn’t much of a surprise. “Did she tell you why?”
The little girl whispered, “She said no way would you believe us.”
“But you came here anyway.”
“Yes,” she whispered, and he saw a small white hand stretch out toward Big Louie. “He’s bigger than me.”
“Yeah, he is, but you know, he wouldn’t hurt you unless you tried to steal his dog bone. Then it’d be close. Would you like me to call your mother, Autumn?”
“If you do, she’ll come out here and he’ll come and she’ll try to stop him and it could be really bad.”
She was rubbing Lula’s back as she arched against her hand, purring with lots of horsepower. Mackie swatted at Lula. Lula whipped around and hissed at him.
Ethan said, “Come on, you guys, don’t be rude around Autumn. That’s a pretty name—Autumn.”
“My daddy wanted to name me that. He’s dead.”
“I’m sorry. Was he ill?”