Her small face blurred. I can’t—
Yes, you can. Autumn! No, wait—
He heard a distant echo of her voice, as if she were calling him from inside a well. I can’t see you!
It’s all right. Just relax and try again.
Her voice was more distant now, only a whisper, her face a blur. I’ll try to call again so you can tell me what to do.
But who are you? Where are you?
The little girl was gone, like someone flipped a switch. Where there had been bright color and light and a child so close he could touch her, there was now only empty blackness and his racing thoughts. Savich kept calling to her, but she was gone. It was evidently only a one-way circuit. She hadn’t connected psychically with anyone except her father, now dead, so she would have to learn to control the psychic communication with him. Autumn and her mother were in big trouble, and here he was helpless, since he had no clue who she was or where she was.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Her name was Autumn and she was in the mountains, probably in the Appalachians, he hoped close by, maybe somewhere in Virginia. Tomorrow he’d make some calls to police chiefs and sheriffs he knew throughout the state, have them call others. She and her mom were new to town. That would help. Uncle Tollie? He’d throw his name in the computer, see what popped up. Retired? What was his real name? Surely not Tollie. He sighed, closed his eyes, and tried once again to call her.
No answer. No flicker of an image.
He lay there, arms crossed behind his head, staring up at the dark ceiling. Did Autumn’s mother really accept that she had this amazing gift?
Sherlock’s sleepy voice sounded against his neck. “Dillon? Why are you awake?”
He settled her face against his shoulder, kissed her nose. “Go back to sleep, sweetheart. I’ll tell you in the morning.”
Saturday evening, two days later
Ethan Merriweather felt hopelessness sweeping over him like a tsunami. It didn’t help that the sky was blacker than the bottom of a cauldron tonight—no moon, no stars, only drooping, bloated clouds pressing down on the thick-treed hills like so many black hats. His grandpa would have poked his arm and told him he was sounding like a long-haired poet again. His grandpa would have said it with a sort of Scottish lilt in his heavily accented voice, a spoken song, Ethan had always thought, one of his thick, white eyebrows arched higher than any eyebrow Ethan had ever seen. He’d practiced for hours in front of a mirror but never achieved his grandfather’s lift.
He knew it was time to call it a day. Or a night.
Where are you?
Ethan’s cell screamed out “Blood on Your Hands,” a grinding death-metal rock ringtone that spiked his brain better than a double espresso. He picked it up and said right off, his heart speeding up a bit, “Tell me she’s been found.”
“Sorry, Sheriff, still no sign of her,” said Ox, his senior deputy. “I called to tell you the three rangers from Thunder Ridge district are ready to call it quits for the night, said they can’t do anything more now that it’s dark.”
“Yeah, they’re right. I’ll call Faydeen, have her round everybody else up, tell them to go home. We’ll pick it up tomorrow morning. How you feeling, Ox?”
“I’m hunkered down beside you in a swamp of worry, Sheriff. Even my evening infusion of Turkish tar didn’t hold me up long.”
Ethan said, “There’s lots of room in my swamp, so welcome aboard. See you in the morning.”
“You going to go home too, Sheriff?”
“Yeah, to feed the critters, then I’ve got to see Mrs. Backman in town, let her know what we’re doing. I’m nearly finished driving the perimeter of the wilderness.” Again. “Damnation, where is she, Ox? We’ve covered all the roads, the rangers have checked and rechecked the trails and campsites without a sign of her, and no one’s seen hide nor hair of her in or out of town. Nothing more to do until it’s light again. Go home to Belle, Ox.”
“Yeah, my sweetheart and I deserve big steaks, then we’ll have a nice run in the woods.”
Three more miles, Ethan thought as he punched off his cell, and he’d hit Rural Route 10, a winding two-lane country road that would take him to Highway 41, and back into Titusville.
Titus Hitch Wilderness. He’d grown up here, knew every inch of the four thousand and fifty-four acres. He’d climbed the highest peak, called Titus Punch, many times and fished since he was four years old alongside his grandpa in the Sweet Onion River that flowed below the Appalachian Trail. He’d eaten tuna-salad sandwiches on Sod Drummer’s Ridge, a jagged, toothy line of rocks that cut the wilderness in half, and painted the endless stretches of tree-carpeted hills in every season. He’d explored the treacherous gullies, like knife gashes made by pissed-off giants, his grandpa had said, spent nights in almost all the caves. He’d even run through it in hundred-mile ultramarathons every year until a torn ACL, nearly rehabbed now, had brought him down on the last one the year before.