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Authors: Maggie Shayne

Darker Than Midnight (32 page)

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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Rex could—and it was amazing he could track her, even though she'd been taken away inside a car. River knew of other dogs who could do it, but only bloodhounds. He'd always thought Rex had the best nose of any shepherd alive, but there was nothing official about it—it was only his opinion. “Find her, boy,” he told Rex. “Find Cassandra.”

Rex barked once, then got to work, sniffing the air and the ground, pacing one way, then another. Eventually, he settled on one spot, getting excited and then barking twice and moving up the road.

“Good dog, good boy.” There was no doubt in River's mind now where Jax had been taken. To the hunting cabin he and Ethan had bought together so long ago. They'd retreated there every spring for fishing and every fall for duck hunting. Even though Ethan had never bagged a bird due to his lousy
aim. It was on the same road Rex had chosen. No way was that a coincidence.

It was Ethan. Dammit, it was Ethan.

River called Rex off, guiding him back to the car. Then he jumped in and drove, taking the shortcut he and Ethan had always used to save time.

* * *

Dawn walked beyond the gate, using the trees along the barely discernable track for cover. But she only went far enough to spot the silver Mercedes. It was backed into a spot amid a stand of thick pines. If she'd been in the Jeep, she probably would have driven right by and not seen it, and she figured that was probably exactly what its driver wanted.

She looked ahead and saw a small cabin. That must be where the car's owner had taken Jax. Dawn looked at the gun she carried, licked her lips and started forward again. But there was a man blocking her path.

She jerked the gun up reflexively before her mind acknowledged him for who he was. Her father.

She wanted to tell him to go away. To leave her alone. But the words wouldn't come. He met her eyes, shook his head slowly from side to side, then lifted his arm and pointed back the way she had come.

“I have to help her.”

He bent his arm slightly and pointed again, jabbing his finger aggressively.

He didn't want her to go on. And she wondered if that was because he was still as evil as ever, still bent on inflicting pain and horror on everyone he could. But then, that had never been his intent. Not truly. He'd always
believed
he was doing what was right. Even when it couldn't have been more wrong.

She stared at his face, really looked at him for once. Every other time he had appeared to her, she'd made a point not to. He looked sad. There were tears in his eyes.

“I'll get help,” she said. “And then I'm coming back.”

He nodded three times, slowly, but strongly enough to be sure she understood. He didn't want her to abandon Jax to her fate. He wanted her to get help.

“Okay, then.”

She could not believe she was doing what he wanted her to. God, she could not
believe
it. And yet, she sensed it was right. So she made her way back to the Jeep and marked the spot in her mind. Then she drove back toward the highway, holding her cell phone in one hand and shifting her gaze constantly between the road and the bars on the tiny screen. She didn't like having to go so far.

Ten miles, give or take, later, she had two bars on the panel. Good enough. She pulled the car off to the side of the road and dialed Bryan's cell.

He picked up on the first ring. “Dawn?”

“Yeah, it's me.”

“Where the hell are you? God, I've been so worried.”

“I'm okay. Got out of cell phone range, but I found them. Some crazy person has Jax, Bryan. They're in a cabin in the middle of the freakin' woods, fifteen miles south of Burlington.”

“Is that where you are now? Dawn, did they see you?”

“No. No one saw me. I didn't have a signal up there, had to drive ten miles to get one so I could call you.”

“Wait for me.”

“But Bry—”

“You came back ten miles, you said. That puts you five miles south of me. I'm on my way. I'll be there in five minutes. Less. Dad and Beth are ahead of me—they followed the police. I'll call them and tell them to get back here.
Wait for me,
Dawn.”

“Okay.” She nodded. “Okay, Bry. I…” She bit her lip and closed her eyes. She had things she wanted to tell him, things—Hell, she wasn't even sure what they were at this point. “I'll talk to you when you get here.”

“You sound—odd. Are you all right?”

She shook her head. “I'm in a rest area. Look for me.”

He sighed, but rung off, probably so he could phone his dad, and focus on driving faster. Bryan would always come charging to the rescue when she needed him. Dawn would never doubt that, even if she wished he'd wise up and find someone more stable. Less dangerous.

She set the phone beside her on the seat, leaned her head back on the headrest and prayed Bryan would get there fast. Before it was too late.

* * *

In the distance, Jax heard someone calling her name. Not Dad. Dad called her Cassie. Not another cop—most of them called her Jax. Except the rookies; to them she was Lieutenant Jackson. No, this voice called her Cassandra, just the way River did.

River.

It was River's voice.

She lifted her head from the floor and tried to shout a warning—to tell him to be careful, before the killer got to him, too, but the only sound that emerged was a hoarse moan. She tried again, but this time it was even softer.

The cabin's door was suddenly flung open. She flinched, jerking a hand up to cover her face. And then he was leaning over her, gathering her into his arms, pushing her hair away from her face. “Cassandra. My God, are you all right?”

She tried to tell him what had happened, but was still having trouble staying conscious. “Car.”

“I know, I know. It's all right. I'm here now.”

She swallowed hard, tried to speak. “F-freezer.”

“What?”

She nodded past him, toward the freezer that stood underneath one of the windows. River turned slowly, looking at it.

Then she heard a slam. A bang she felt right to her bones,
and it made her flinch. She saw River spin away from her at the sound, saw him looking toward the closed door.

He'd left it open when he'd come in.

Slowly, he rose to his feet. “Who's out there?” he called. He moved toward the door, sliding a gun from the back of his jeans, and reminding Jax that she had lost her own.

He moved closer, keeping to one side of the door, gun in one hand with its barrel pointing upward, as he gripped the doorknob with the other. “Ethan?” he called. “I know it's you. Give it up. It's over. I know everything.”

River twisted the doorknob, but it didn't give. He frowned and tried again. “Dammit, Ethan, what the hell is this going to accomplish?”

Jax smelled something. She sniffed and felt her heart start to beat faster. “River.”

He was back at her side almost before she finished saying his name. “It's all right. It's okay. I'll get us out of…”

His words trailed off. She could see the very moment when his expression changed, and she knew he smelled it, too. Gasoline. And following on its heels, smoke.

“River?”

He swore under his breath, looking around, as she was. She could hear it now. Crackling, snapping that seemed to come from many directions. Smoke rose, wafting through the air. Something exploded from beneath the floor, sending floorboards splintering and flying like shrapnel. River flung himself over her, trying to shield her, she knew, and when he eased aside to look, there were flames shooting up from the floor and licking at one wall. They leaped to life on the easy chairs, and gained energy from the fabric, surging toward the ceiling as smoke billowed into the small room.

“Hold on. I'll get us out, I swear.” He grabbed a chair and smashed it into the shutters of one window, but the wooden barrier remained in place.

“They're blocked from the outside,” she told him. “What about Rex? Where is he?”

“Left him in the car.”

“God!”

She gripped the little table in clawed hands and dragged herself up into a sitting position. “River!”

He shot her a desperate, determined look, and lifted the wooden chair again, slammed it repeatedly against the shutters, but they didn't budge. And finally, exhausted, he sank to the floor, wrapped her in his arms, held her. “I'm sorry, Cassandra. I'm so freaking sorry.”

“It's not your fault,” she told him.

“It is. Jesus, everything I love, I destroy.”

“No.”

“Yes. God, I never wanted to hurt you….”

She didn't answer, because she couldn't. He was clasping her face in his hands and kissing her, and the desperation of the act scared her almost as much as the words that preceded it. She kissed him back, clinging just as desperately, but only for a moment. And then, despite her pain and her stupor, she twisted her face away from his mouth and breathlessly whispered, “Kiss me later, River. Right now, get us the hell out of here.”

“I…Cassandra, I don't know if I can—”

“Get. Us. Out.”

The smoke was choking them both by now, and smothering heat blanketed the place. River helped her to her feet and drew her to a corner, where he eased her to the floor again. “Stay down,” he said. “The smoke's not as bad down low.”

She nodded and crouched, but it hurt to bend her body that way, so she had to recline against the wall. River flipped the wooden table upside down, then hauled off and kicked one of the legs right off the piece. Picking up the solid post, he returned to the blocked window and used it like a battering ram.

And even then the shutters didn't give.

CHAPTER 20

“H
ow did you even find her?” Bryan asked.

He was driving. They'd left his dad's pickup on the roadside, and taken Dawn's Jeep, which was easier to maneuver in rough terrain. She hadn't spoken a word since they'd taken off, but now he was asking her a direct question and she thought it was high time she answered it. She owed him that much.

“A dead woman showed me. And my father helped, I think.”

Bry blinked in shock, swinging his focus from the road to her and back again. “Your—?”

“I mean, I saw him. And I saw her. Stephanie Corbett, the woman who died in the fire out at Jax's house a couple of years ago, the one whose husband escaped from the mental hospital. I've been seeing her a lot lately. She was in my bedroom one night, and I saw her in the diner. She's a ghost, Bryan. I've been seeing a ghost.”

Bry licked his lips, nodded slowly. “Okay. Okay, so you've been seeing dead people.”

“You believe me?”

“Of course I believe you. You're not crazy, Dawn.”

“I didn't say—”

“You didn't have to say it. I can read you like a book. This has been coming on for a while, hasn't it? It's why you pulled away from me.”

She pursed her lips. “My father was poison. Every life he touched was tainted by that poison. Julie's. Beth's. Mine.” She shook her head. “You don't want that kind of poison in your life, Bryan.”

“You are not your father.
You're
not poison, Dawn, and even if you were, it wouldn't change the way I feel. And I think you know it.”

Tears welled in her eyes and spilled over in spite of her effort to contain them. “Bryan, I'm afraid I'm going insane like he did.”

Bry jerked the wheel and hit the brake, skidding the Jeep to a stop on the shoulder. Then he turned and pulled her into his arms. “You're not going insane. God, Dawn, how can you think that? Okay, okay, so maybe you inherited whatever it was that made your old man sort of—psychic or whatever. But that doesn't mean you inherited whatever it was that made him turn bad.”

“But what if it's the same thing?”

“It's not.” He held her to his chest, stroked her hair. “It's not, hon. It can't be. Hell, it led you to Jax, didn't it? When she needed your help? Our help, I mean.”

She blinked her eyes and lifted her head. “We have to get to her.”

“I know. But—”


Now,
Bry.”

He nodded hard and got the Jeep going again. But he didn't stop talking, didn't stop rationalizing. “You've never hurt anyone. You're not getting urges to hurt anyone, are you?”

“Of course not.”

“And when you do see these people—are they telling you to do harm?”

“I don't know what they're telling me. I can't even hear them, I can't understand….”

“You're okay, Dawn. You're fine. Is this the exit?”

“Yeah. This one.” She guided him on, to the correct fork in the road. “I just hope you're right, Bry. Because I don't think I could—oh my God! Look!”

He looked. “Is that smoke?”

“Hurry, Bryan!”

He pressed the accelerator to the floor and the Jeep fishtailed, spat gravel and lurched faster.

“There, there's the gate,” she said. “It was closed, padlocked with a chain, before.” It stood wide-open now, though. And the Mercedes was gone. Bryan sped through it, and within seconds, they were skidding to a stop in front of a log cabin that was completely engulfed in flames. Dawn shrieked and jumped out of the Jeep, running forward until Bryan gripped her shoulders and stopped her.

“Jax is inside,” she sobbed.

“You can't be sure—”

“Yes I can.”

He looked at her, searching her face.

Sniffing and swallowing her tears, she pointed. “She's right there, that woman. Standing amid the flames. God, that's how she was killed. In a fire.” She swung her face toward Bryan's, saw him staring at the cabin. “I don't suppose you can see her,” Dawn whispered.

“I don't need to see her.” He looked around, and the next thing she knew, he was racing toward a woodpile, yanking a rusted old ax free of a log and running toward the cabin, right at the window she'd pointed out. He lifted the ax and started swinging. And even amid the flames and smoke, Dawn knew that someone had nailed a two-by-four across the shutters, to keep them tight. The door was blocked, too, with a large board that had been dropped into brackets on the outside.

She ran toward him to try to help, but the heat drove her back. She tripped over a hand pump with a pail hanging from it, and scrambling to her feet, she quickly worked the handle
until water came gurgling out. She filled the pail and carried it to the window where Bryan worked, threw the water onto the flames and raced back for more. Five buckets later, she'd dampened the inferno down in that one spot, and Bryan had smashed open the shutters.

Even as he covered his face and tried to move closer, Dawn saw Jax filling the window opening, her body seeming to levitate. Bryan grabbed her and dragged her out through the hole, and quickly carried her back toward the Jeep. And then Dawn realized there was someone in there with her, even as the man, sooty-faced and damp with sweat, clambered out the window himself.

Dawn ran to his side to help him, pulling one of his arms around her shoulders, but before they reached the Jeep, he collapsed on the ground and took her with him. He lay there coughing as Dawn looked up.

The ghost woman stood there, staring at him, tears streaming down her face. And Dawn knew Mordecai was somewhere around. She
felt
him, lurking, and it made the hairs on her nape rise.

“Cassandra,” the man rasped between bouts of coughing, struggling to sit up again. His eyes, watering and red, kept searching for her.

Dawn got up and helped him to his feet, even as she sought out Bryan. He had the Jeep's back open, was leaning inside.

“Bry? Is she…?”

“She's breathing,” he said. “We've got to get her to a hospital.”

They reached the vehicle, and Dawn looked at the man. He'd stopped still and was staring down at Jax. He looked stricken.

“We can't call for help from here,” Dawn said. “We're going to have to take her ourselves.”

The man reached down, as if to touch Jax's face, but Bryan
grabbed his wrist. “Just a minute. Who are you? What do you have to do with all this?”

The man looked at him like a deer looking at a bright light; clearly, he didn't know what the hell to say.

“I think this is Michael Corbett, Bry. The guy who escaped from the state hospital,” she said. “I saw his picture in Dr. Melrose's office.”

Bryan narrowed his eyes, which met hers, then slid right back to Corbett again. “The guy who killed his wife by burning his house down with her inside?”

“I didn't kill my wife,” the stranger said in a hoarse, raspy voice.

“Funny then that I find you at the scene of another fire that almost killed another woman, isn't it?” Bryan asked.

“I don't think he did it, Bry.”

Bry shot a look at Dawn. “Yeah, well, I'm not willing to risk it. You need to stay away from her, mister.”

“The hell I will.” The stranger shoved Bryan aside and leaned over Jax, one hand touching her face as he bent close and whispered something in her ear.

Dawn put a hand on his shoulder. “You should go,” she said. “They're coming. Listen.”

The man went still, and she knew he could hear the sirens wailing in the distance. He met Dawn's eyes, and his looked dead before he turned his gaze back to Jax again. “I'll come back for you,” he told her, though Dawn didn't think she could hear. “I meant what I said. No more harm will come to you, Cassandra. It's time I put an end to this.”

And then he leaned down, pressed his mouth to hers in a kiss so desperate it brought tears to Dawn's eyes. Jax didn't respond. Corbett lifted his head, turned and walked away. Dawn ran around to the front of the Jeep, yanked a cell phone off the seat and raced after him. “Wait.”

He paused, turning slightly. He looked dangerous. She al
most changed her mind, but something told her not to. “Here,” she said, holding out the phone. “It's Jax's. I can let you know how she's doing.”

He blinked, gazing down at the phone. “You'd do that?”

“I think she'd want me to.”

“I think you're right.” He took the phone from her, looked past her at Bryan. “Thanks for getting us out of there, kid.”

Bryan only nodded, but he'd softened visibly toward the man, since that kiss.

“How did you get here?” Dawn asked. “Do you have a car or—”

“It's out by the road, a few yards down. Out of sight.”

“Go then,” she said. “I'll call you.”

With a final nod, the man took off through the woods toward the dirt road.

Moments later, rescue vehicles pulled in, firefighters pouring out of them, paramedics racing toward the Jeep.

Dawn stepped backward, stunned and feeling shocky. It was suddenly as if she was hearing everything from a distance, and seeing it through a distorted lens at the end of a long tunnel.

It's like that day, isn't it?

Her father's voice rang in her ears. She squeezed her eyes tight.

That day at the inn. The day I died. I never did thank you for what you did that day, Sunny. For making them let me go.

Sunny. It was the name he'd given her when she'd been born, the name he'd always called her. “Please leave me alone.”

I wish I could. And in the end, I guess I'll have to if that's what you truly want. But…I can't just yet.

“Why not? Why the hell not?”

She opened her eyes, half expecting to see Mordecai standing there. Instead she saw Bryan, standing by the Jeep, talking to the medics even while sending worried looks in her direction.

I did a lot of wrong, Sunny.

“Stop calling me that.” She wanted to shout it, but she said it softly instead, all too aware of Bryan's concern, and the paramedics who were starting to glance her way now and then. She stood off by herself near the edge of the woods, carrying on an animated conversation with no one. She must look like a freaking lunatic.

I'm trying to help. It's what I'm here to do, to help.

“To help who?” she cried. “Because this sure as hell isn't helping me! I don't want this!”

I'm not sure it matters if you want it. It's who you are. You have a gift, Sunny—I'm sorry—Dawn. You received it for a reason—and you're going to make better use of it than I ever did. I can help you, if you'll let me. But even if you won't, you can't turn your back on the gift. I wasn't strong enough. It warped my mind. But you're stronger. You can handle it. And you will.

“I will not. I won't, do you hear me? I won't!”

“Dawn?” Bryan was coming toward her now.

She turned and ran into the woods, away from him, away from the voice of her dead father and the ghost of the woman who'd been haunting her. Away from all of it. She ran until she tripped and fell to the ground, sobbing. “I won't,” she blurted. “I won't, I won't.”

You already are, Dawn,
Mordecai's voice whispered.
Stephanie couldn't get through to you—not alone. I had to help her. That's…what I do here. Help others get through. Channel them, much like I did before. Only now there's no mental illness polluting my mind. I help them.

Dawn lifted her head and saw him, standing over her. Not touching her, just staring down, looking sad and so alone.

I helped Stephanie to contact you. Could have helped her speak to you if you would have let me. If you would have let yourself listen, the way you're letting yourself hear me now.
But even without hearing her, you listened to her, and you saved Lieutenant Jackson because of it.

“No,” she whispered.

We're partners, Dawnie. You and me. You can't change that.

“Nooo!”
The word emerged in the form of a shriek that split the forest's wintry air.

And then Bryan was there, gathering her up into his arms, holding her, his hands stroking her hair, her back and shoulders. “Easy, baby. Easy. It's okay, I'm here.”

She couldn't speak. She could only sob and cling to him.

“They're taking Jax to the hospital,” he told her, and then he slid one arm under her legs and picked her up. Started carrying her back toward the Jeep. “We've got cops waiting to talk to us—if you can handle that. And then we can head over there, too.”

BOOK: Darker Than Midnight
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