মুখ্য Fear the Dark

Fear the Dark

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ক্যাটাগোরিগুলো:
সাল:
2015
প্রকাশক:
Penguin Publishing Group
ভাষা:
english
ISBN 13:
9780425280720
বইয়ের সিরিজ:
Bishop/Special Crimes Unit 16
ফাইল:
EPUB, 459 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 459 KB)

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Golden Flames

সাল:
1988
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english
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Fear the Dark

সাল:
2015
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
MOBI , 666 KB
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Titles by Kay Hooper

			Bishop / Special Crimes Unit novels

			HAVEN

			HOSTAGE

			HAUNTED

			FEAR THE DARK

			The Bishop Files novels

			THE FIRST PROPHET

			A DEADLY WEB





			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

			This book is an original publication of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Copyright © 2015 by Kay Hooper.

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices,

promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized

edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or

distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			BERKLEY® and the “B” design are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			For more information, visit penguin.com.

			eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-19193-8

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Hooper, Kay.

			Fear the dark / Kay Hooper. — First edition.

			p. cm.

			ISBN 978-0-425-28072-0

			1. Paranormal fiction. I. Title.

			PS3558.O587F43 2015

			813'.54—dc23

			2015026605

			FIRST EDITION: October 2015

			Cover photo © Paul Knight / Trevillion Images.

			Cover design by Rita Frangie.

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of

the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons,

living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.





		Version_1





Contents


			 				TITLES BY KAY HOOPER

				TITLE PAGE

				COPYRIGHT

				AUTHOR’S NOTE

				PROLOGUE

				CHAPTER ONE

				CHAPTER TWO

				CHAPTER THREE

				CHAPTER FOUR

				CHAPTER FIVE

				CHAPTER SIX

				CHAPTER SEVEN

				CHAPTER EIGHT

				CHAPTER NINE

				CHAPTER TEN

				CHAPTER ELEVEN

				CHAPTER TWELVE

				CHAPTER THIRTEEN

				CHAPTER FOURTEEN

				CHAPTER FIFTEEN

				CHAPTER SI; XTEEN

				CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

				CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

				EPILOGUE

				SPECIAL CRIMES UNIT AGENT BIOS

				PSYCHIC TERMS AND ABILITIES

				BISHOP/SCU STORY TIMELINE





AUTHOR’S NOTE


			Once again, and at the request of many readers, I have chosen to place this note at the beginning of the book rather than after the story, so as to better inform you of the additional material I am providing for both new readers and those who have been with the series from the beginning. You’ll find some brief character bios, as well as standard SCU definitions of various psychic abilities, at the end of the book, plus a Special Crimes Unit “timeline,” information that will hopefully enhance your enjoyment of this story and of the series. I hope you enjoy Fear the Dark.





PROLOGUE


			Serenity, Tennessee

			May 5

			Amy Grimes was bored with her life. She was bored with school, bored with her parents, bored with most of her friends, and had been well on the way to being bored with her boyfriend, Simon Church (of all things!), until he suggested that they just pack up and leave this very boring little town.

			Amy was sensible enough even at seventeen to know that the suggestion had been prompted more by his failing grades in school and the six-pack of beer he’d polished off that night than any seriously deep feelings for her, but she discovered that she didn’t really care what had prompted the suggestion.

			It suited her just fine.

			Simon had worked construction since his midteens, and Amy was only one credit away from earning her certificate as a beautician at the nearby community college, so she was confident they could support themselves. She had her college savings (fairly pitiful, which was why beauty school) and Simon had two weeks’ pay in his pocket, and they decided that was enough to get started on.

			Even after he’d sobered up, Simon was ready to leave Serenity and take Amy with him, even to the point of being willing to go along with her plans for a mysteriously secret buildup to their departure. She didn’t confide even in her girlfriends, because she knew all too well that one of them was bound to blab to her older brother or one of theirs, and before you could say scat everybody in town would know.

			Since Simon was eighteen and had a decent car in his name—courtesy of his parents—all paid off and insured and everything, they decided to take that. And for nearly a week, they had a lot of fun in gradually sneaking into his car those items they felt unable to leave without. There was a brief argument about Simon’s flat-screen, but in the end he managed to make room and Amy agreed that they’d certainly need a TV wherever they landed.

			Because that was the fun part, as far as she was concerned. No real plans. They’d just leave, and drive, and decide somewhere along the way where to settle—at least for a time.

			“We’ll stop in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg,” she’d suggested to Simon, “and both write postcards to our families.”

			“Then just keep going,” he said with some relish.

			Amy nodded. “Then just keep going. We could head west, or north—wherever.”

			“And our parents probably won’t even know we’re gone until they get the postcards,” Simon said.

			Amy wasn’t so sure about that, given her father’s watchful eye, but she was still certain she could sneak out once her parents were in bed, and by morning she and Simon would be out of the reach of both sets of parents.

			She was certain of that.

			She just loved the idea that people would wake to find the two of them mysteriously vanished. She did spare a pang for the worry that would undoubtedly seize her parents but was certain a reassuring postcard in a couple of days would be enough to allay worry.

			The plan was perfect. And over the course of just three days, they were somehow able to sneak their things from their respective houses and get everything in Simon’s car without anyone the wiser. Three days, and they were ready to leave, Simon telling his parents casually that he was spending that Friday night with a friend because they’d planned a very early fishing trip in the morning, and Amy all set to just wait until her parents were in bed to sneak out and join her boyfriend at the appointed meeting place just down the block.

			It wasn’t until then that it crossed her mind that Simon hadn’t said anything at all about getting married, but she shrugged that thought off with careless ease.

			It would all work out just fine, she was sure of that. And their departure would certainly give everyone something to talk about for quite a while. A mystery to brighten their dull lives.

			She had no trouble sneaking out of the house, and it was just after midnight that Friday night when she slid into the passenger side of Simon’s Jeep.

			“Ready?” he asked.

			“Am I ever. Let’s get out of here.” Amy was looking forward to being, however briefly, a mystery in a town where nothing mysterious ever happened.

			—

			EVEN BARELY AWAKE, Jonah Riggs groaned as the phone on his nightstand shrilled a demand. He was tangled in the covers as usual but managed to maneuver himself over far enough to grab the phone and shut it up.

			Lying back with his eyes closed, he muttered, “It better be good.” He had gotten to bed somewhere near dawn after winning enormous imaginary sums at the monthly poker game the city fathers would have frowned upon—had they not been his opponents.

			He didn’t know what time it was, but his aching head and scratchy eyes said it was too damned early.

			“Sorry, Chief, but there’s something you need to see.” Sarah Waters didn’t sound all that sorry, but she was his lead detective, his second in command, and since she and his younger sister had played together in the sandbox, he was only mildly surprised she didn’t offer a more colorful and less apologetic awakening.

			“It’s Saturday, Sarah. My day off. My first day off in three damned weeks. Can’t you handle it?”

			“No,” she said simply.

			That woke him up, because in her whole life, he’d never seen anything Sarah couldn’t handle.

			He fought free of the covers and sat on the edge of his bed, running his fingers through his hair. He needed a haircut. “What’s going on?” he asked her.

			She hesitated, then said, “It’ll be easier if you just come see for yourself. Honest, Jonah, I wouldn’t call you out here if I didn’t think it was important.”

			He knew that. “Out where?”

			“North side of town, off Main and about a hundred yards down Street.”

			That was actually the name of the street. Street. Jonah had wondered more than once if they’d just run out of names, or if somebody had been having fun and it just stuck.

			“Okay,” he said. “I’ll be there in fifteen. Oh—Sarah? Are we talking about an actual crime?”

			“I’m not quite sure,” she replied.

			He found that somewhat baffling but didn’t waste time with more questions. “Okay, you know the drill. Keep everybody back away from whatever it is until I get there.”

			“Copy that.”

			Jonah hung up the phone, frowning, and headed for the shower, hoping enough hot water would clear his head. Because so far, this was hardly a normal Saturday morning.

			It got stranger.

			Jonah seldom wore a uniform, virtually always in jeans, clipping his badge to his belt near the front, wearing his gun on his right hip, and depending on the weather, either a T-shirt or sweatshirt or else a light Windbreaker over a button-up shirt.

			This Saturday morning in May was cool but comfortable, the middle-of-the-night rainstorm hours past. But it was also supposed to be an off day for Jonah, so he wore a sweatshirt with the faded letters of Duke University across his chest.

			He had stopped at a coffee shop in town and swallowed some aspirin, but his head didn’t feel any better when he stopped his Jeep behind Sarah’s cruiser and got out to join her.

			She was leaning against the front of her cruiser, frowning at another Jeep, this one pulled more or less off the road, with both front doors standing open.

			Jonah didn’t see another soul about. Clearly, Sarah had decided against calling the station, for whatever reason. It wasn’t a large police station or police force, and it was rare to see more than one officer or detective out on patrol.

			“Isn’t that Simon Church’s Jeep?” he asked as he reached her.

			“Yeah. I checked the registration and tag to be sure.”

			“So where is he?”

			“The question of the day.” Sarah eyed him. “You up for this?”

			He grunted. “Depends on what this is. You gonna tell me, or shall I figure it out for myself?”

			Unsmiling, she said, “Take a look inside the Jeep.”

			Jonah didn’t argue, just moved forward, sticking to the paved-road side of the Jeep. He had already noted that there were no skid marks, and no sign that the vehicle had been forced off the road. No body damage he could see, and all four tires seemed fine.

			He looked in the front passenger door, and a nameless dread began to crawl up his spine. The vehicle was packed with stuff. Not stuff one would expect if a robbery had been committed—despite the flat-screen TV. Packed in tight in the back were clothes, shoes, luggage presumably holding more of the same and . . . things.

			A stuffed bear sat atop a stack of books, squeezed in beside a golf bag. There was a basket holding an odd assortment of things that included a dog’s collar and leash, a can of WD-40, a laptop and tangle of cords and cables, a case holding CDs or DVDs, and a teapot.

			Shirts and dresses and sweaters still on hangers were laid across luggage probably filled with the same sort of thing. There was what looked like a little sewing kit sitting atop a tackle box. There was a cooler of the sort most people used to transport adult beverages. There was another stuffed animal, this one a puffy cat, sitting atop a goldfish bowl where one lone fish swam rather desperately around in his shallow world.

			Still bent forward and still without touching the car, Jonah turned his gaze to the front seat. Not much on the driver’s side. A little open change niche filled with coins and gum wrappers and at least two petrified French fries.

			On the passenger seat, very neatly in the center, sat a purse decorated all over with beads and fake gems. It was very colorful.

			Jonah straightened and looked back at Sarah. “You checked the purse?”

			“Yeah. Amy Grimes. Her driver’s license is in a wallet that contains, I’m guessing, a few thousand dollars. I didn’t want to disturb anything even with gloves, until you saw it all.”

			Jonah frowned at the Jeep another moment, then returned his gaze to Sarah. “All the earmarks of an elopement.”

			“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

			“But?”

			“Well, they didn’t get very far, that’s one thing. I’m guessing Amy sneaked out of her house sometime after midnight; even at a crawl, they should have reached the highway before dawn.”

			Jonah glanced back toward town and silently agreed with her. Hell, even if they’d left at dawn, they should have gotten farther.

			“Gas? They broke down?”

			“Key’s in the ignition, as you see. I cranked it up. Tank’s full, and the engine seemed to be running fine.”

			Jonah looked over the inside once again, then walked back along the Jeep until he reached the bumper. He lifted his brows at his lead detective. “Both doors found open.” It wasn’t a question. “Pulled mostly off the road. A purse with money. Valuables in the back. And the key in the ignition, making it easy for somebody to steal the whole shebang.”

			Sarah nodded. “Now we come to the very weird part.”

			“Now we come to it?”

			“Yeah.” She stepped over onto the grassy verge and led the way just as far as the open driver’s-side door. “Look down there.”

			There was no guardrail here, and the bank on the side of the road sloped gradually down to a flat area; from that, a vague path led toward a stand of trees while another vague path led off to the left, toward a distant creek. Neither of the paths was well traveled, just handy shortcuts, mostly for kids.

			But right now both the bank and the flat area were more dirt than grass. Mud, since the rainstorm hours before.

			Very clearly, two sets of footprints were visible going down the bank and to the flat area. One larger set, probably boots; one much smaller set, undoubtedly a woman or girl.

			The prints were absolutely perfect, showing no slipping or sliding. The bootprints and shoeprints were side by side down the bank, to the flat. Where they stopped.

			Where they just . . . stopped.

			That wordless dread was growing in Jonah. “You’ve been down there?”

			“Yeah. I stayed away from the prints, circled. There’s nothing, Jonah. And there should be. All around the place where the prints stop, there would have been prints if they’d gone on. There’s no way they could have jumped far enough, and no sign at all they did. No sign of a vehicle, no sign of a horse. No sign of a third person. I’d dare anybody to back up that bank, putting their feet in exactly the same spots as when they went down; it’s slippery as hell and there’s nothing to hold on to.” She drew a breath and let it out slowly. “If this is a prank, it’s a damned good one. But I don’t think it’s a prank. I think those two kids walked down that bank to the flat area—and something happened.”

			“Something took them,” he said slowly.

			Sarah nodded. “That’s the only thing I could think of. It’s like something just swooped down and carried them away. And judging by the footprints, they had to be lifted cleanly, straight up. No sign of a struggle. No sign of a fight. There are houses close enough to hear if someone had screamed. Even in the middle of the night.” Without turning, she jerked her head back and toward the other side of the road. “Mildred Bates is watching us from her front porch now; she sleeps with her windows open and the slightest sound wakes her. Her bedroom windows face this way. Less than fifty yards from here to there. If there had been any kind of a commotion, she would have heard—and called us. She didn’t.”

			“So, where are those kids?” Jonah said slowly. “And how the hell did they just . . . vanish?”

			Jonah didn’t voice what he felt, that what they were looking at was not exactly an ending—but the beginning of something. The beginning of something bad. The beginning of something that was going to shake his town to its foundations.





ONE


			There was no hope at all of keeping the disappearance of Amy Grimes and Simon Church quiet, Jonah knew that. In fact, he expected to find both sets of parents in his office when he returned to the station. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t do whatever was possible to minimize the . . . strangeness of all this while he tried to figure it out.

			“Okay,” he said, after considering the matter. “Roust Tim out of bed and get the station’s tow truck out here. I don’t much like moving the car, but I sure as hell don’t want to leave it just sitting, and we don’t have the manpower to guard it.”

			“I’ll tell him to hurry,” Sarah said calmly.

			Jonah eyed her. “Left him in bed sleeping, did you?”

			“Not that it’s any of your business—Chief—but, yes, I did. It’s his day off too.”

			Jonah didn’t forbid his people to get involved romantically; he was a realist. And he preferred openness to sneaking around. Not that Sarah or Tim, both sensible professionals, had made it obvious, but Jonah knew, and he figured if he knew then everyone else did too.

			“Well, tell him I’m sorry, but it can’t be helped. We need to get this car into the police garage, pronto.”

			“Copy. Want to call Sully and get his dogs out here?”

			“I doubt there’ll be time before we get a downpour. We’ll just have to wait and hope we get a lead. Maybe the dogs will come in useful then.”

			“What’ll you tell their parents?”

			“Damned if I know. Lie through my teeth, probably. Or just say what little we’re reasonably sure of. Say the kids were clearly eloping, must have had car trouble—and we’re investigating the rest.”

			“And how are we investigating the rest?”

			“Get the good camera out of the back of my Jeep and start taking pictures. The car, the way it was left, that bank. The footprints. You know the drill, Sarah.”

			“Copy that. I take it you’d rather no one else saw the scene as we found it.”

			“I’d rather, yeah. Call Tim, and wait till he gets here. He won’t have to be told, but remind him nobody but the three of us will know about how the car was left and the footprints until I say different. Once you have the pictures and he has the car, both of you get back to the station. I’d also rather nobody too nosy just wandered out here to see what was going on.”

			“Mildred Bates has been watching.”

			“Yeah, I can feel her eyes boring into my back. But she can’t see over the edge of the bank even with binoculars, she’s virtually immobile with that cast since she wrenched her knee, and I don’t expect even her to come out here, especially once the car is moved. With a little luck, once the car is moved she won’t wonder if there’s anything else to see out here.”

			“Like the footprints?”

			“Exactly.”

			A rumble of thunder made them both look up at dark clouds rolling in.

			“Shit,” Jonah said. “Weather’s coming in faster than the forecast. Get those pictures, Sarah. Close the car doors. And when Tim heads back to the station with the car, you follow. If there’s a little more luck for me today, the rain will wash away those footprints before anybody else sees them, and nobody will realize something very weird happened here.”

			“Hope you got a lot of luck stored up,” Sarah said as she headed for the back of Jonah’s Jeep. “I’ve got an awful hunch we’re going to need every bit of it.”

			Since it wasn’t raining yet, Jonah walked farther up the road a stretch, just to see if anything else looked odd, but found nothing. And no sign that a car had pulled off the road. In this area, the weeds pretty much ran right up to the road, trimmed back later in the year; in May even the hardiest of weed was hardly more than a foot tall.

			Giving that up, Jonah returned to the abandoned car. Thunder rumbled again. “Hurry,” he called out to Sarah, who was near the bottom of the bank, placing a ruler beside each footprint before she photographed it.

			“Yeah.” She didn’t look up. “Meet you back at the station.”

			Jonah wanted more hot coffee, lots of it, and he wanted breakfast. He had a feeling he’d need to be fortified. He got in his Jeep and headed for town, pretending not to see Mildred Bates beckoning imperiously to him. Sarah must have used her cell while he’d been checking out the road to call Tim, and lit a fire under him to get here in a hurry, because Jonah passed the police tow truck, lifting a hand to Tim as they came abreast but not slowing.

			The small downtown diner, simply named the Diner, hadn’t been open long this morning; Jonah was the first one to take a seat on a stool at the counter, and the booths were all empty. The coffee was just beginning to percolate.

			He wished it would hurry.

			He didn’t waste time calling out his usual breakfast order, hearing an acknowledgment yelled from the back. A glance at his watch told him he still had time before the usual breakfast crowd arrived. The waitresses hadn’t even arrived yet. But then he noticed something odd.

			“Hey, Clyde? Is your clock right?”

			The owner/operator, who usually cooked and was fixing Jonah’s eggs and bacon in the kitchen, popped his head into the opening where the waitresses picked up orders. “What? Loud back here, Jonah.”

			Loud because he played country music on an old CD player. He favored Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

			“Your clock.” Jonah raised his voice and nodded toward the clock that hung in a place of prominence on the wall behind the cash register. Clyde had gotten it on his honeymoon, apparently having stopped at some point at one of those touristy places along the side of the road that sold novelty items.

			The big clock boasted an eagle, its gradually unfolding left and right wings showing the time. Most thought but never said that it was a peculiar-looking bird, especially at certain times when the wings were sort of cockeyed.

			Clyde was very proud of it.

			“My clock? What about it?”

			“Time right?”

			“Yeah, I set it when I came in this morning. Used my cell phone.” He vanished back into the kitchen before Jonah’s bacon burned and before Waylon could get to the chorus.

			Jonah looked at the big watch on his wrist for a moment. It had stopped. It never stopped, warning him when new batteries were needed, and he’d just put in fresh ones barely two weeks ago. It was more of a sportsman’s watch, with more than one dial so he knew his current elevation, and the time in another country if he wished, and he could also use the device as a stopwatch.

			Not digital.

			Staring at the still face and keeping the time on Clyde’s clock in mind, then as far as he could remember the time it showed would have been just about when he’d reached the abandoned car and the mysteries surrounding it. It was also showing zero elevation when the town was several thousand feet above sea level.

			He stared at it for a moment, then fished for his cell phone and checked the time. It appeared to be still working normally, showing the correct date. But . . .

			The time on the cell was off by more than half an hour. Pretty close to the amount of time he’d spent out at Simon Church’s abandoned car.

			“Well, shit,” he said under his breath.

			—

			“WHERE COULD THEY have gone?” Monica Church twisted a handkerchief in her hands anxiously. Long married to a man who, if he had deep feelings about anything, never showed them, she tended to be emotional enough for both of them. She also tended to dress in simple, elegant outfits that usually stood out in Serenity, which was more of a jeans-and-sweatshirt sort of town.

			The pretty spring dress she wore now, colorful and a bit filmy, would have looked more in place in a larger town and warmer weather. But neither ever seemed to dictate Monica’s choices. Gossip said she had found a man who showed her more attention than her husband, but if said lover had been identified, Jonah hadn’t heard about it.

			“Told you they were going to elope,” Ed Church said, taciturn as always, and casual as always in jeans and a black T-shirt. “Been obvious for weeks. No sense in trying to stop them.”

			“But something did stop them.” Monica’s reddened eyes turned to Jonah’s face. “Mildred Bates called me and told me she saw the police tow truck taking Simon’s car toward town.”

			Of course she did.

			“Where is my son, Chief?”

			Jonah sighed as he leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his cluttered blotter. He was expecting the second set of parents any minute now. “I’ll tell you what I can, but let’s wait for Stuart and Sue Grimes; they called they were on their way.”

			Five loudly silent minutes later, the other set of parents burst in. Sue Grimes was every bit as emotional as Monica, but not crying and not neat; she was wearing pale slacks and a bright pink blouse that was buttoned wrong and almost matched her almost neon lipstick. Which had clearly been applied in haste. One eyebrow was darker than the other as well, and her blond hair didn’t look as if it had seen a comb since at least the night before.

			Jonah wasn’t tempted to laugh. Much.

			Stuart Grimes wasn’t as taciturn as Ed Church, nor could he claim the other man’s lazy stillness. Stuart waved his arms a lot. And his voice was loud most of the time.

			Jonah took in those details automatically, saving what amusement or annoyance he found in them for later.

			“Where are they, Jonah?” Stuart Grimes demanded. “Where are the kids? Why was Simon’s car towed back to town, and why is it in the police garage now?”

			Jonah was accustomed to the fact that many people in town called him casually by his first name, just as many used his title. It didn’t really matter to him.

			“If you’ll just sit down, Stuart, you and Sue, I’ll tell you as much as I know.” Which was a lie but a necessary one. The only saving grace he personally found in the situation was that these two couples were friends all the way back to high school, and it was unlikely that either set of parents would blame the other set’s kid for . . . whatever.

			Small comfort.

			He decided to start with blunt information, not because he was a cruel man, but because he knew the bottom line would have to be reached, and he preferred to reach it sooner than later.

			“The kids are missing,” he told their parents, keeping his voice matter-of-fact. “We have no evidence that anything happened to them, no signs of a struggle, nothing else to indicate they were taken away by force.”

			Monica let out a sob into her handkerchief.

			“And Simon’s Jeep?” his father asked. “It was in perfect working order.”

			Jonah nodded. “As far as we can tell, that’s entirely true. There was gas in the tank, the tires were fine, it cranked easily when we tried it. Still, I have my best people going over it inch by inch to see if there’s something not so obvious that might have stopped it.”

			With ominous timing, a loud boom of thunder rattled the windows, and it really let go outside, raining heavily.

			Jonah hoped Sarah had been able to get all the pictures she could, because there sure as hell wouldn’t be anything remotely resembling evidence at the scene when the storm passed.

			“Were they eloping?” Sue Grimes demanded, showing less emotion except for the fierceness in her eyes and voice.

			Jonah answered honestly. “Looks like it. The back of the Jeep was packed full of everything from clothes and a golf bag to a big screen and a goldfish bowl.” He felt compelled to add, “I had one of my people get the fishbowl out and bring it up to this floor, to the lounge.”

			He didn’t add that the solitary fish had seemed much more relaxed with more water in his bowl—and a bowl that was not in motion. He made a note to ask his people to look for fish food in the car.

			In his usual lazy voice, Ed Church said, “We got the car was pulled off the main road, doors open, engine off. Robbery?”

			Jonah wondered if Mildred Bates had a zoom-lens camera. Maybe they should have asked her for photos.

			Maybe they would, before this was over with.

			Shaking his head, Jonah said, “I don’t see how. Too many valuables left in the car.” He looked at Sue Grimes. “Amy’s purse was in the front seat, undisturbed. There’s several thousand dollars in her billfold. I had it and everything in the purse printed just to be sure; lotta smudges on the money, but otherwise no prints except Amy’s.”

			Every student entering high school in Serenity got an ID with photo and fingerprints as a matter of both school and town policy.

			He added, “Jean’s holding it for you at the front desk; you can pick it up when you leave. I doubt it has any value as evidence.”

			Stuart Grimes said, “Where are the kids? It’s not like there’s a romantic trail off the side of the road to tempt them to stop. Where did they go?”

			Jonah kept his voice even. “I don’t know, Stuart. At this point, all I can tell you is what I have told you. The car was pulled off the road, doors left standing open, personal items and other valuables left in the car. Key in the ignition but engine off. And the kids gone.”

			“You didn’t find a fucking clue? Not a footprint or anything to tell you what happened to the kids?” Stuart all but shouted.

			“I didn’t find anything that told me what happened,” Jonah replied, honestly. “Maybe friends came by and picked them up, for whatever reason. Maybe they set out walking—for whatever reason—and stuck to the pavement so they didn’t leave prints.” He finished with that lie without a blink. “Look, when it comes to missing people, it’s still early yet. We have to start calling their friends—we’ll need your info and probably your help for that—and see if any of them have information worth sharing.”

			Or are willing to talk.

			“And then?” Stuart demanded.

			“Let’s cross that bridge when we get there. The most likely explanation is that one of their friends knows where they are, and that they’re somewhere waiting out the rain. So we start calling their friends.”

			“And then?” Stuart demanded again.

			Jonah had never responded well to bullies, but his job had taught him to at least be calm. “Stuart, as I said, we’ll take this a step at a time, following the procedures for missing persons. While this storm is pounding us and most of the other kids are either at home or with friends, we have an excellent opportunity to make phone calls. I assume you’re all willing to help?”

			“Of course.” It was snapped almost in unison by everyone but Monica, who merely sobbed again.

			“Okay, you all know the conference room is next door. There are several phones as well as legal pads and pens. Coffee too. I called before I got here and had two of the high school yearbooks left in there. Stuart is a senior and Amy a junior, so you can divide up the list like that if you want; even if you don’t know names, look for faces you’ve seen with your kids more than others. However you choose is fine with me. Just please write down who you call and what they said. Jean’s getting a list from the school with phone numbers, home and cell.”

			And it was a good thing Jean and Jack Rollins, the school principal, were . . . very good friends. He’d been willing to leave his coffee and his snug, dry house and slosh out to the high school for numbers he’d fax back to the police station.

			There were, Jonah had thought many times, benefits to living in such a small town that virtually everyone knew everyone else. The downside, of course, was that nearly everyone knew everyone else’s business. So if they didn’t already, the whole town would soon know of an elopement that apparently didn’t go as planned.

			Jonah personally got the parents settled in the conference room and then returned to his office. All his instincts told him he wouldn’t get much use from whatever the parents found—except to spread the news faster—but they needed to be busy, procedure needed to be followed, and he needed them out of his hair while he tried to think.

			Sarah tapped on his door and came in. She didn’t look the least bit wet, so either they had beaten the storm back, or water just slicked off her like a duck. It was something he had thought before.

			She held a thumb drive in her hand. “You need to look at this.”

			“Ah, shit,” he groaned. “Don’t tell me this whole thing is even stranger than I think it is.”

			Without another word, she went around his desk to the credenza behind it, plugged the thumb drive into his computer, and called up the pictures on the drive.

			“Take a look for yourself. I got every shot before the rain started.”

			Jonah swiveled his chair around and stared at the large screen of his computer. He stared for a long time, his gaze moving from photograph to photograph, each one clear, correctly lit, expertly focused. Very professional, obviously taken by an expert.

			Except . . .

			“Did you close the car doors?”

			“Not until after I took those pictures,” Sarah said calmly.

			In each shot of the car, the doors were closed.

			“And the footprints?”

			“They were just as you saw them, same as I did, when I took the shots. The camera is working fine; I checked it as soon as I saw these. What the hell, Jonah?”

			He really didn’t know. Because there were no footprints in any of the shots. None. And he could tell from the wide shots Sarah had included that she had taken the pictures where they had both seen muddy footprints of two people.

			Footprints totally gone. Gone as though they had never been there.





TWO





May 12

			Judge Phillip Carson had called Serenity home for most of his life, minus the years away at college and law school and a five-year stint at a big legal firm in Atlanta.

			He’d hated Atlanta. Hadn’t thought much of the firm either.

			Coming home to Serenity had suited him perfectly. Even a small mountain town of hardly more than five thousand people could always use another lawyer—and had definitely needed a judge. Since the county in which Serenity resided could claim only two other towns, both also small and with small populations, it had been more or less tacked in a judicial sense onto the larger circuit that was literally on the other side of the mountain. And that one contained several large towns, which made for a busy judge.

			So it hadn’t been very difficult for Judge Carson to convince the powers that be that it would just be a good idea all around for this smaller county to become a single district, and for the judicial circuit to have its own judge residing in Serenity. Unless something really unusual came up, he only had to leave Serenity to hold court in one of the other small towns maybe once or twice a month.

			Holding court in Serenity—in the single courtroom on the second floor of the small police department—tended to consist of mundane traffic violations, the occasional half-assed assault between two drunks, and rare property damage from the handful of troubled high school kids they had to contend with seemingly every year.

			But all in all, it was a peaceful town. That was what he liked about it. He had lots of leisure for his favorite sport, fishing. And though it looked hardly more than a wide creek, there were plenty of fish, so the stream that was less than a mile from downtown Serenity suited him perfectly. He’d staked out his special spot—which everyone in town knew and respected—and the walk out there and back two or three times each week was what he considered to be sufficient exercise.

			Today, rod and tackle box in hand, he stopped in at the police station. “Is he in?” he asked Jean at the reception desk.

			“He’s in, Judge, but I’ve seen him in better moods.”

			“I’m not surprised.” The information didn’t deter the judge, and he passed through the nearly deserted bullpen to the chief’s office. He didn’t let the closed blinds deter him either.

			He walked in without knocking, saying briskly, “Nothing new, I take it?”

			Jonah looked up from the usual clutter on his blotter with a frown, but it was a general expression of mood rather than anything directed at the judge. He looked very tired and a bit haggard. “Nothing. I’ve reached out to every law enforcement agency in three states, issued a BOLO, and took Sully’s dogs out for miles around on three different days even though there wasn’t much hope after that damned rain.

			“There’s been no ransom note. We’ve personally interviewed every single high school student in Serenity, plus all the teachers and the guidance counselor, and contacted distant relatives of both kids. We’ve searched both their rooms and their lockers at school. Everything points to a deliberate and well-planned elopement, nothing else. An elopement that just . . . stopped . . . near the edge of town.”

			“Nothing in the car?” The judge sat down in one of the visitor’s chairs, setting the tackle box at his feet and propping his rod against the other chair.

			“Nothing unusual. Once we went over everything and got it all out of the car, I had the parents back here sorting what belonged to who. Some stuff was obvious, but not everything. And nothing stuck out as not belonging to a couple of reckless kids taking off without much in the way of planning for the future.” He didn’t add that Monica Church had sobbed the entire time the parents had sorted their kids’ belongings.

			Jonah drew a deep breath and leaned back in his well-worn chair until it creaked. “Those two kids might as well have vanished into thin air for all the evidence I’ve found.”

			“Maybe they were just smart enough to lay down a false trail,” the judge suggested.

			Thinking of the vanished footprints that, so far, only he, Sarah, and Tim knew about, Jonah said, “From all I’ve been told, Amy was the brains of that pair—and she wasn’t that smart. All she wanted was to get out of Serenity and out from under her parents’ thumb, and it was the same for Simon. I’m betting they hadn’t thought much beyond just getting out of here. No elaborate plan. They had relatively little money, relatively few skills, and like most teenagers, they thought they could build a life on that foundation. Somewhere other than Serenity.”

			“Stranger things have happened,” the judge said mildly.

			“Yeah, yeah, I know. And if either one of them had been in touch with somebody, I wouldn’t be so worried. But they haven’t. It’s been a week, and nobody’s heard from them. And since Amy left her purse behind, they only had whatever cash Simon had in his jeans. About two weeks’ pay at most, his father thinks. That won’t get them very far, especially if they have to rent a room somewhere.”

			He paused, then added, “Something else. Their cell phone usage—high as hell like every teenager’s—stopped abruptly. Nothing after Saturday night, about the time they left. Which figures; probably Stuart letting Amy know he was waiting with the car. Nothing since. I mean nothing. The phones are either off or destroyed. And I have to lean toward the latter, because both had GPS locators in them; the parents had made sure of that and that the GPS was locked on at all times, so the kids couldn’t disable without destroying the phones. A condition of them having their own phones, I gather.”

			“And no joy.” It wasn’t a question.

			Jonah nodded. “How many teenagers do you know who can be more than a foot or two away from their cells? If they aren’t in a pocket, they carry them in their hands. A lot of the girls don’t even bother with purses anymore, just a little billfold-like thing on a long strap that holds their cell, driver’s license, and car keys if they have a car, and maybe a few bucks or an ATM card.”

			He held up a hand before the judge could ask. “I know that because they volunteered the info and showed me the billfold things. Most of the girls seem to have them. The twenty-first-century version of the fanny pack, I guess. Handy. But not helpful to me.”

			“Maybe they tossed their cells and bought burners,” the judge suggested.

			“It’s a possibility, especially given the locked GPS signals, but who would they call except friends or family? I don’t really know Amy, but according to her BFF, she would have called once they were out of town and on their big adventure, proud of herself for having pulled it off. The friend seemed sure. And worried.”

			“Because there was no call.”

			Jonah tapped his fingers on the stack of papers on his desk. “You signed the warrants so I could get the phone records of all the kids—plus everybody with a kid in town. And it’s a sign of everybody’s worry that they don’t seem to mind. Anyway, I’ve pored over these records every day and had Sarah go over them in case I missed something. No strange numbers on any of these accounts. No unknown numbers. No untraceable numbers.

			“We’ve also gone over their laptops or desktop home computers, and no joy there either.” He sighed again. “Two very ordinary teenagers started to elope, and something stopped them near the edge of town. Not only stopped them—but took them.”

			“With no ransom demand.”

			“No. But . . . there are possibilities I’m not about to mention to the parents or anyone outside the investigation unless I have to. For one thing, there’s a hell of a lot of money to be made these days in human trafficking, and kids in their age range are typical for the targets. I’m not talking about pretty girls sold to be sex slaves for some sicko, though there is that. I’m talking about something even worse. Something I didn’t know anything about until I took those FBI courses last year.”

			“I’m afraid to ask,” the judge said.

			“I wish I didn’t know about it,” Jonah responded frankly. “Even the FBI isn’t sure if it’s a huge organization or a bunch of smaller ones. Sort of like a bunch of secret clubs whose members are pedophiles, monsters into torture and snuff films, whatever horror you can imagine. The FBI has a unit set up just for the human trafficking, and they have young undercover operatives all over the country trying to infiltrate the groups.”

			“Jesus.”

			“Yeah. Dangerous as hell for the young agents. The FBI can’t go in as buyers and commit crimes, so they have to send in undercovers to be potential victims.”

			“Jesus, who’d volunteer for that?”

			“Some dedicated young agents, I’d say. As for the buyers . . . Pay a small fortune, and you can have your pick of attractive young people or kids, and do with them whatever you want, in a nicely discreet location and among other monsters with the same . . . tastes. The FBI hasn’t yet figured out how these perverts communicate, how they’re notified that one of the traveling groups will be in their area, but somehow they find out where to meet, at some very isolated location. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours later, the club is gone, the perverts are gone, and someone in the organization takes care of the cleanup and disposes of the bodies, most of which are never found.”

			“Nobody gets out alive?”

			“Not according to the FBI. They believe some of the kids last for more than one . . . encounter . . . but eventually the client pays enough to kill to get off, and does just that.”

			“I wish I didn’t know that,” the judge said, adding immediately, “You think our two missing teenagers might fit?”

			“Maybe some good news there. I was on the phone an hour yesterday with an agent in that FBI unit. The more I told her about the situation here, the less she thought they could have been targets of these traffickers. They tend to go for street kids, college kids, or clubbers in major cities. They apparently keep them under observation for a while, learn their habits and schedules, learn which kids are vulnerable, on the point of dropping out or burning out, or just don’t have anyone to worry about them. Then they take them. Sad as it is to say, more often than not nobody even reports these kids as missing for weeks—if at all.”

			The judge frowned. “A stranger watching our kids would stand out here, especially if he or she watched for that long.”

			“Yeah, that’s what the agent said. No way would one of the traffickers have taken a couple of high school kids a mile from their homes in a little mountain town. Just not where they hunt. Too high-risk for them.”

			“So you’re back at square one.”

			“Yeah. All I know for sure is that they’re gone—and there was no sign of struggle near the car. That’s pretty much it.”

			“Then you’re doing all you can.”

			“Tell my conscience that, will you? Then maybe I can sleep tonight.”

			The judge eyed him. “I’m a little older than you, so let me give you a piece of advice. Understand that you aren’t going to win them all, find every bad guy, rescue every damsel—or couple—in distress. Even in a little town like this, there’ll be murders you can’t solve, other crimes you can’t solve. And lost people who never get found.”

			“I don’t like it,” Jonah said. “It’s not why I became a cop.”

			“Course not. Also why it makes you such a good one. But you won’t win every time, Jonah, no matter how good you are. No one wins all the time. Do everything in your power, do your job. But don’t let it eat you up inside.” He rose to his feet, gathering his tackle box and rod. “You’re a good cop, and that’s good for the town. But nobody expects you to be perfect.”

			Jonah glanced at the clock on his desk and raised his eyebrows at the judge. “Thanks. Aren’t you going out a little late? It’ll be dark in another hour.”

			“Full moon. I get some of my best fishing then. And it’s so peaceful. I very much enjoy being alone with the fish and my thoughts.”

			“Well, I hope you get lucky,” Jonah told him.

			Words that would haunt him for a long time.

			—

			AS HE HAD every night since the young couple had disappeared, Jonah worked late, going over and over information already burned into his brain, hoping to see something he’d missed, overlooked, or misunderstood every other time he’d studied it.

			Nothing. Not a clue where those kids had gone.

			Or where they had been taken.

			Or any answer to the fairly spooky question of why both his watch and Sarah’s watch and Tim’s had stopped when each of them had reached the abandoned car, and why all their cell phones, still functioning, had all been missing the time spent out there.

			As if they had stepped into a fucking time warp, or something else right out of science fiction.

			“It’s my night to work, not yours,” Sarah said as she came into his office. “Go home, Jonah.”

			“You know, I am your boss,” he reminded her.

			“Yeah, yeah. Look, you can go home under your own steam, or I can call Tim and the tow truck.” When he didn’t even frown at that, she lowered her voice and kept it matter-of-fact. “A week in, we aren’t likely to find anything new, and you know it. If nothing else, you need a good night’s sleep so you can come back at it with fresh eyes in the morning.”

			“It doesn’t seem right for me to just . . . go home,” he said finally.

			“You won’t be any good to anybody if you spend another sleepless night in this office,” she said.

			“I slept. Sort of.”

			Sarah glanced at the old leather couch across the room from his desk. “That wasn’t sleep, that was time on a medieval torture device. Unless you confessed you’re a heretic, it was useless time.”

			Not even that earned a smile from him.

			“Jonah. You’ve done every single solitary thing a cop could do on a missing-persons case.”

			“I haven’t figured out the weird stuff,” he said. “I’m not even sure keeping quiet about all that is the thing to do.”

			“I’m sure,” she said. “Right now, we’ve got two teenagers missing, with clear evidence their intent was to elope. Both sets of parents and the rest of the town can understand that. They can find reasonable explanations in their own minds for the abandoned car, the inactive cell phones, the lack of any trail to follow.”

			“But add in the weird stuff . . .”

			Sarah nodded. “Add that in, and your slightly uneasy town is going to wobble toward panic. Really fast. And what good’s that going to do anybody?”

			“If I could just figure it out—”

			“From where I’m standing, I’m not sure anybody could figure it out. But one thing I do know is that you need rest, real, honest-to-God sleep, about twelve hours of it. Because no matter what you believe, nobody expects you to work on this or anything else twenty-four-seven.”

			“I think Monica Church does,” he said seriously.

			“Jonah. Go home. You stopped making sense a couple of hours ago.”

			He thought she was probably right. And he was too tired and discouraged to keep arguing with her. He did need to sleep. He needed a decent shower rather than the make-do shave and wash in the little bathroom off his office—though Sarah had been kind enough not to actually say that he looked like hell. He also needed to eat something that hadn’t come out of a vending machine or a take-out box.

			The Diner was still open even this late on a Saturday night, though nearly deserted, and Clyde was more than willing to get started on a burger and fries for Jonah. Then he came out to the front counter, reached underneath, and produced a bottle of Scotch and a small glass.

			Mildly, Jonah said, “You don’t have a liquor license, Clyde.”

			“I’m not charging you for this, Jonah. Drink it. Then eat and go home. Get some sleep. I’ve seen men in coffins look better than you.”

			“Nice.”

			“Truth.” Clyde returned to the kitchen. He didn’t have Waylon or Johnny playing tonight, so the Diner was quiet. There was a couple over in a corner booth finishing their own late supper and talking in low voices, and an expressionless teenage boy sitting at the far end of the counter with an open laptop before him.

			Since Jonah had personally spoken at least briefly with every teenager in town, he recognized this one. Alec Lowry. Not a bad kid, but a not-so-good home life, and Jonah wasn’t surprised to see him here because Clyde was generous with his Wi-Fi and liked to provide a safe place where kids could spend a few hours if needed.

			Alec needed more than most, if Jonah was any judge. The favorite sport of his parents seemed to be arguing. Loudly. So he wasn’t likely to find any quiet time at home. And there were certainly worse things he could be doing late on a Saturday night when he wasn’t eager to go listen to or ignore the latest fight.

			He probably wouldn’t be missed there, sad to say.

			Jonah brooded about that as he sipped his Scotch. It burned all the way down to his empty stomach, but he thought it probably would help him sleep once he ate.

			He thought about two sets of parents who had, in their individual ways, been going crazy for a week now, and compared them to Alec Lowry’s parents, who should never have had kids because they were too damned self-involved. If their son grew up to be a good man, as he showed every sign of doing, it would be because he’d virtually raised himself, not because they had.

			“Here.” Clyde slid a plate across the counter to probably his last customer of the day. “Eat.” He raised his voice. “Alec, you want to earn a few bucks?”

			The teenager looked up from his laptop, thin face finally wearing an expression as he smiled faintly. “Dishes?”

			“There’s a sink full,” Clyde said. “Or you can stick around for sweeping and mopping. I could use the help.”

			Jonah dug into his burger and fries as the Diner owner went over to talk more to Alec, perfectly aware that Clyde was one of several adults in the town who looked out for the kids who got either bad parenting or no parenting at all.

			A safe place to spend an evening, a good hot meal, and a little cash in their pockets from odd jobs could make all the difference in the world, as did a little time and attention from a good adult role model.

			There were advantages to small-town life.

			Usually.

			—

			IT WASN’T THE crack of dawn on Sunday morning when the phone rang, but Jonah was still conscious of a tickle of déjà vu as he fought his way out of the tangled covers to answer. And a cold, hard pit of something he didn’t want to acknowledge settled in the base of his belly.

			“Yeah?”

			Without prevaricating, Sarah said, “Looks like another one, Jonah.”

			“Shit. More kids?”

			“No. It’s the judge. He didn’t show up for his usual Sunday breakfast at Clyde’s, and we all know he’s a creature of habit. Clyde called me early, as soon as he started to feel uneasy. I went out and checked the judge’s fishing spot.” She paused, audibly drew a breath, and finished, “Everything looked absolutely normal and undisturbed. His chair, his tackle box, a string with half a dozen fish he’d caught just at the water’s edge. His fishing rod leaning up against the chair with what looked like fresh bait on the hook.”

			“But no judge.”

			“No. It’s a grassy path most of the way down from the road to the water, you know that, and we haven’t had any rain since that gully washer the day the kids disappeared. No sign of footprints, his or anybody else’s, except for one clear print just where he put the string with his catch in the water.”

			“String tied to the stake?”

			“Yeah. As always. Nobody ever bothers that, not even the kids. Nobody else was out there, or had been, far as I could tell. Haven’t seen another soul since I got back here. I took a chance and made the hike back to the judge’s place, and everything looked normal. Key was in the normal place, so I went inside and took a quick look. Normal. Absolutely normal.”

			Jonah knew she was repeating the word deliberately. And they both knew why. The pit in his stomach was making him feel queasy, and not only because he considered Phillip Carson a good friend.

			“One thing,” Sarah added. “His cell was on his kitchen counter. Whether he forgot it or—”

			“Probably just left it there. Whenever he doesn’t expect to be called, or doesn’t want to be, he just leaves the cell at home.”

			“Thought so. But we still need to take a look at his records and see when the phone was last used. I suppose the warrant he signed is good for his phone records too?”

			Jonah honestly had no idea, but he knew the judge in the neighboring district, and made a mental note to call him and find out what they needed to observe the legalities.

			“Okay, I’ll take care of that a bit later. You talk to Clyde?”

			“Asked him to keep his questions to himself, that you’d come talk to him later. We both know nobody else is likely to miss the judge unless we start shouting about it, at least for a day or two. Might not be such a bad idea for us to have that day or two without . . .”

			“Without panicking the town?”

			“Something like that. Missing kids with a clear intention of eloping is one thing; the judge is a fixture here. He goes missing, nobody is going to believe he just ran off.”

			“Probably right.” Jonah fumbled for his alarm clock and squinted at the time. “It’s after ten.”

			“Well, there really wasn’t much for you to do here anyway. I figured you needed the rest, and I could take care of the preliminary look-see. Even went ahead and got pictures, for all the good it’ll do us.”

			“I appreciate it.” He swung his legs off the bed, absently noting that they were still wrapped, mummylike, in the covers. “What time did Clyde call?”

			“Right at seven. Called me on my cell, not the station. Said the judge was always there when he opened up at six.”

			“Figure thirty minutes to walk from the stream to the Diner. He never uses lures in that stream; how fresh was that bait?”

			“It’s a worm, Jonah. All I can tell you is that it wasn’t moving and hadn’t dried out. He had a little can of live worms beside the tackle box.” She paused, then added, “He had one of those little fisherman’s battery lanterns beside his chair. The kind that’s fairly powerful even though it’s small enough to fit inside a tackle box. It was still on.”

			“So it was still dark when he . . . left.”

			“That would be my guess.” She drew a breath. “The only thing the disappearances really have in common. Every victim was taken in the dark.”





THREE


			Jonah ran his fingers through his hair, trying to think. “Shit,” he said again. “Did you say you were still there?”

			“Judge’s fishing spot, yeah. I knew you wouldn’t want crime scene tape around the area, but I also figured you’d want to see it the same way I did. Only a few cars have gone by this morning on the way to church. Nobody’s appeared to notice anything strange about me being here, and I’m leaning against the car all nice and natural. Just looking at the view. I’ll stick around here. You can get to the Diner before church lets out. Have breakfast and talk to Clyde.”

			“Anything else?” he asked politely.

			“Yeah. Bring me a coffee, will you?”

			“See you in a few.” He didn’t wait for a response but cradled the receiver and fought free of the remaining covers so he could get out of bed. He had been told he was an extremely restless sleeper but had no idea why, since he could never remember his dreams.

			In less than half an hour, he was showered, shaved, dressed, and out the door. Like the judge and even though both were bachelors, Jonah owned a house not far from the downtown area, with a small front yard, a garage, and a fenced backyard where the latest thing in barbecue grills lived on a spacious patio.

			Though Jonah had never asked, he figured the judge owned a house rather than a condo for the same reason he did: a dislike of neighbors being too close.

			They each knew more than they really wanted to about their neighbors through their respective jobs. There was no sense finding out more details they didn’t need to know.

			The Diner held only a scattering of customers, since church hadn’t yet let out, so Jonah was able to claim his usual stool at the counter. Am I becoming predictable? And is that a bad thing?

			“The usual, Chief?” a fresh-faced waitress named LaRae Owens asked cheerfully as she poured coffee for him.

			Definitely predictable.

			“Yeah, thanks, LaRae.”

			She nodded, smiled, and went off to serve somebody else, calling out Jonah’s order as she passed the serving window to the kitchen, a bit quieter than usual because it was Sunday. And because Waylon and Johnny weren’t singing back in the kitchen.

			Jonah sipped his coffee and looked at nothing, his mind racing. Phillip Carson wasn’t the sort for a joke, not like this, not when he knew how worried Jonah was about the kids disappearing. How worried the town was. So he hadn’t vanished just to have fun. He didn’t have family to speak of, at least not in Serenity, and if he’d been called away for a family emergency or because of his duties as a judge, Sarah would have known about it because the station was always notified of any change to his schedule.

			If he had vanished as the kids had vanished, then victimology was not going to help find either the judge or the kids. Two teenagers attempting an elopement, and then a highly respected judge in his late forties who liked to fish at night? What did they have in common? Why would both be targets to be . . . taken?

			They all lived in Serenity. They were all white, which was the majority demographic for the town, so possibly not something important to victimology. They had all been taken, apparently, sometime before the sun rose.

			Jonah didn’t know that the latter mattered; if he’d wanted to abduct someone, he probably would have chosen the darkness as a cover himself. And so late, between midnight and dawn, there was certainly less chance of being seen or heard, especially in a little town not exactly famous for its nightlife.

			But . . . the unsettlingly weird aspects were true of all three disappearances. It was as if those three people had simply vanished in an instant. No signs of struggle. In the case of the kids, there had been footprints that had seemed decidedly strange when Jonah had seen them with his own eyes; the fact that the camera had not shown them at all just added to the eeriness of his memory of them.

			The fact that both his watch and his cell had apparently been affected at the site where the kids had vanished, just as Sarah’s and Tim’s had been affected, was decidedly weird.

			Jonah mentally kicked himself for not having asked Sarah if the same . . . situation . . . existed at the judge’s fishing site. Though he’d find out soon enough, he supposed.

			He hadn’t realized he’d been lost in thought so long until a steaming plate of eggs, hash browns, and bacon slid in front of him, along with a smaller plate of toast.

			“What the hell’s going on, Jonah?”

			It was Clyde, and he kept his voice low.

			Jonah glanced back over his shoulder toward the kitchen.

			“Alec’s minding the griddle. Kid’s a fair cook—and nobody can screw up breakfast anyhow. Where’s the judge?”

			“I have no idea,” Jonah replied honestly, keeping his own voice low, his tone determinedly casual.

			“So he’s just gone? Gone like those kids last weekend?”

			“That’s how it looks. I’m going to meet Sarah at the stream as soon as I finish up here so we can put our heads together and try to figure it out. Wanted to ask you if he’d said anything to you recently. If he’d noticed anything odd, strange phone calls, a car he didn’t recognize parked near his house or office, anybody following him.”

			Clyde leaned an elbow on the counter, looking very casual until Jonah met his very level, steely gaze—and reminded himself that even though he was only a few years older than himself, Clyde had served in Iraq back in the beginning.

			“Not a word. Nothing out of the ordinary. And you do know, I hope, that he didn’t talk to me about those kids going missing, not the way he must have talked to you, about details I imagine you’ve mostly kept to yourself.”

			“Yeah, I figured.”

			“I know how to keep my trap shut too, Jonah. Do me a favor and keep me in the loop about the judge as much as you can, okay? We’ve known each other a long time.”

			Jonah nodded.

			“Appreciate it. Now eat your breakfast. You don’t look much better than you did last night.”

			Without bothering to comment, Jonah merely dug into his meal, knowing he needed to eat even though he had absolutely no appetite. He was aware of Clyde returning to the back and his griddle, joking normally with the two waitresses working this morning and talking to Alec. And then he cranked up Waylon and Johnny—though a few notches lower than normal in deference to its being Sunday.

			At least, Jonah figured that was it.

			He finished his meal, also aware that more people were coming in for breakfast or brunch or lunch as the area churches were letting out. He ordered two coffees to go, paid his bill and left a generous tip, then managed to leave the Diner without anyone saying anything to him except good morning.

			He had learned long ago that a preoccupied expression on a cop’s face was enough to keep all but the most determined busybody from asking questions he didn’t want to answer. He had perfected that preoccupied expression, though it certainly wasn’t faked now.

			He drove his Jeep roughly half a mile to the narrow side road that ran along the stream for a stretch, parking behind Sarah’s cruiser. She was leaning against the front fender, hands in the pockets of her jacket, looking down toward the stream with a frown.

			“Anything new?” he asked as he joined her and handed over her coffee.

			“No,” she said, gloomy. She took a sip of the hot coffee. “I just keep asking myself why the judge. Why those kids. What the hell’s going on, Jonah?”

			“I wish I knew. They’re all white, they all live in Serenity, and they all disappeared sometime between midnight and six, as far as we can tell. All disappeared during the night. Those are the only commonalities I can think of.”

			“Shit.”

			He hesitated, then said, “Your watch—”

			“Not wearing one.” She didn’t look at him. “But as near as I can figure, my cell lost the time I was here earlier, and the time I was down there using the camera. Seems to be working fine, it’s just . . . about forty-five minutes off what it should be.”

			Jonah hesitated, then looked at his watch. He’d bought a new one rather than having the other one repaired. He was inordinately relieved when it was clearly working just fine. And then Sarah had to offer an explanation.

			“I’ve been thinking, and I think there’s some kind of perimeter. Because standing here, my cell hasn’t lost any time. But it did lose the time I spent down there around his chair. Not sure exactly where the demarcation line is, assuming I’m right. Maybe your watch can tell us when you head down there.”

			Jonah wasn’t exactly in a hurry to test her theory.

			“You really didn’t notice anything at all odd down at the stream? Other than whatever happened to your cell?” He could see from their position the judge’s low beach chair and other things a few yards from the stream.

			“Nothing. Looks like he just got up and left, peacefully. Leaned his pole against his chair, left his catch in the water, his tackle box and bait can closed. And just . . . left. How long do you think we can keep this quiet?”

			“If we have to start asking questions, which we do? The whole town’ll know by suppertime.”

			“And then?” Sarah sounded like she dreaded the answer.

			“And then,” Jonah said, “this place is going to go from uneasy to downright scared. It won’t be pretty.” He straightened away from her cruiser. “Before that starts, I want to get a look for myself. And then I want to get Sully’s dogs out here, checking both sides of the stream at least half a mile in each direction.”

			He didn’t want to even mention the idea that had occurred to him on the way here. That maybe the judge wasn’t missing. That maybe they’d find him quickly enough. In the water.

			Then Sarah said, “He wouldn’t have waded out into the stream to fish, and I can’t think of another reason he’d have willingly gone into the water. I looked as closely as I could and didn’t see any sign of blood on any of the rocks, like if he’d lost his balance and fell.”

			“Still,” Jonah said.

			“Yeah. Still. With all the big boulders downstream, and the trees felled by last winter’s storms, if he did fall in, his—he’d likely be caught somewhere along the way.”

			Jonah could hear in Sarah’s voice that part of her would prefer to find the judge—in whatever condition—than have another inexplicably missing person.

			He didn’t blame her. He felt the same.

			“Okay,” he said finally. “We can be sure of a few things. The judge didn’t leave a car parked by the side of the road. He wouldn’t have left all his equipment and his catch behind, and he wouldn’t have done that and accepted a ride from anyone.”

			“Maybe he got hurt,” Sarah suggested. “He got a hook through one finger last summer, remember.”

			“Yeah. But if something like that had happened, he would have made sure to let you or me know about it. That’s something I’m absolutely sure of. The only way he left here hurt and without letting us know would be if he was hurt . . . bad. Unconscious.”

			“And a Good Samaritan helped him but didn’t report it?” Her voice was steady. “Doesn’t sound likely.”

			“No,” Jonah said grimly. “It doesn’t sound at all likely.”

			As he took a step toward the stream, Sarah said, “You gonna test my theory?”

			Jonah didn’t want to, but he didn’t admit that out loud. He just held his wrist up and pushed the cuff of his sweatshirt back so he could see the new watch, efficiently ticking away, then walked slowly down the path toward the judge’s abandoned things.

			When he was approximately six yards away from the little fishing site, his watch just . . . stopped.





May 30

			Lucas Jordan scrolled through the last page of the report on his tablet and looked across the big desk at his boss with lifted brows. “And the police chief is only now calling us in?”

			“It’s happened in pretty short order,” Bishop, Unit Chief of the Special Crimes Unit, said, calm as always. “A little more than three weeks, and the first disappearance had all the earmarks of an elopement, possibly set up in such a way as to throw off pursuit. No solid evidence there had been an abduction. The second, almost exactly a week later, the district judge—who likes to fish at night and knew all the details of the earlier disappearances. But an adult, and there was absolutely no sign of a forced abduction. Wherever he went, it could have been willingly.”

			Samantha Jordan, who hadn’t even opened the tablet in her lap, looked at Bishop from her curiously dark eyes, unblinking. “The chief doesn’t think he did that, obviously.”

			“No. But he could find no evidence to the contrary, just like with the teenagers. Then, three days later, on a Tuesday night just after ten P.M., a young woman named Luna Lang vanished. She left her husband at home with their sleeping infant daughter, to walk to the opposite side of their apartment complex, through an enclosed courtyard, to borrow a couple of jars of baby food from a friend and neighbor. She never got there. And, again, there was absolutely no sign of an abduction.”

			“Any of these places have security cameras?” Luke asked.

			Bishop half nodded. “At the apartment complex. Grainy images the FBI lab is trying to enhance, but it looks like Mrs. Lang was visible, walking briskly, then passed into what’s apparently a security blind spot. She never reappeared on the security cameras.”

			“How big was the blind spot?” Samantha asked.

			“According to the chief, no more than fifteen feet.”

			Samantha blinked. “Damn.”

			“Whatever happened, happened fast,” Bishop agreed. “And also according to the chief, in that blind spot were no windows or doors, or even shrubbery. No place for an assailant to hide.”

			“An enclosed courtyard.”

			Bishop nodded. “Pretty sturdy, tall iron fencing at the walkway out of the courtyard, with a gate requiring a keycard and a code. All entrances and exits are recorded on the main security computer. Now.” He paused, then added, “This complex advertised itself as safe for young families just because of the general layout; it was designed with a few tricks to deter burglars or anyone else thinking about breaking in. From very thorny and well-lit shrubbery preventing any access to first-floor windows to first-rate door and window locks with individual security for each unit, plus excellent lighting all around the perimeter and inside the courtyard. Each apartment door is well lit all night, as are the open walkways on each of the four floors within the courtyard. No shadowy spots. And there’s a two-man security team at night, one to watch the monitors and the other to patrol.”

			Luke lifted his brows again. “They worry much about security in a little place like Serenity?”

			“They do now,” Samantha murmured.

			“Sam.”

			“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?” She looked at Bishop.

			“It would probably be more accurate to say they’ve become obsessive about security. This apartment complex, for instance, had the fencing reinforced and the keypad code added, and began the process of updating the security system two days after Judge Carson vanished.” He paused. “They were scheduled to update or replace security cameras and add several more to eliminate all blind spots in the courtyard and all around the exterior of the complex later in the week. Mrs. Lang disappeared before that could be done.”

			Samantha shook her head slightly, but said only, “And the next person to vanish?”

			“Sean Messina, a car salesman, on the following Monday night.” There was both a closed tablet and a stack of folders on Bishop’s neat blotter. He never glanced down at them. “Messina and his girlfriend went to see a movie; there’s an old-fashioned but renovated theater downtown and a multiplex out near the highway.”

			“They chose downtown?” Luke guessed.

			Bishop nodded. “Messina’s girlfriend told the chief it was because they could walk, on well-lit sidewalks, from their condo to the theater. They walked there without incident. The theater was about a third full, which Chief Riggs says is entirely normal on a Monday night when there’s a new movie playing. The adults tend to leave the theater to the kids and teenagers during the weekends. Anyway, about halfway through the movie, Sean Messina left his seat and headed to the lobby, to use the restroom and get snacks at the concession stand.”

			Luke said, “Please tell me they have surveillance cameras in the lobby.”

			“They have. But Sean Messina never shows up on any of them. The entire lobby is covered, including the entrances to the theater and the doors of the restrooms. There is footage of him and his date arriving, getting sodas, and going into the theater. Sean Messina is never visible again.”

			Samantha said, “I suppose the emergency exits have alarms?”

			“They do. And as far as Chief Riggs’s technical people and the theater owner could determine, they were not tampered with at any time.”

			“When did his date realize he was gone?” Samantha asked.

			“Approximately ten minutes after he left her. The movie was still running, but she left her seat and went in search of him. She went straight to the theater owner, who apparently also acts as projectionist and usher when needed, and together they searched the lobby and restrooms. Then he wisely locked the front doors, interrupted the movie to raise the house lights, and when there was still no sign of Messina, he called the police.”

			Slowly, Lucas said, “The first fully contained crime scene.”

			“Yes. Except that there was no sign a crime had been committed. No sign of a struggle, no exterior door opened—and no sign of Sean Messina. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since. The chief even brought dogs in to clear the theater before he allowed other moviegoers to leave. They were very cooperative. And very shaken by what happened.”

			“And the dogs found nothing,” Luke said.

			“According to their handler, who was as baffled and uneasy as everyone else, as far as the dogs were concerned, their behavior clearly signaled that Sean Messina had never been in the theater.”

			Samantha frowned, the expression making her look even more sulky than the normal expression nature had given her. “He disappeared after he was never there?”

			“Just telling you what’s in the chief’s report, Sam,” Bishop said, still completely calm.

			“Well,” Lucas said after a pause, “it definitely sounds like our kind of case.”

			Samantha was still frowning, her unusually dark gaze on Bishop. “Give,” she said.

			He answered her readily enough. “There’s a page missing from your reports. Not because I withheld it, but because I don’t have it yet. All I have is the verbal report from Chief Riggs when he called me a couple of hours ago. Sometime after midnight last night, ten-year-old Vanessa Tyler apparently got out of bed to get herself a glass of ice water from the kitchen, which was not at all unusual for her. When her parents got up a few hours ago, they found a half-full glass of water on the kitchen counter, along with Vanessa’s favorite stuffed bear. Her grandmother made it for her, and she always slept with it.”

			Bishop’s gaze remained steady, but his voice had taken on a very soft, even, steely tone both the agents in front of him recognized. Like the scar twisting whitely down his left cheek standing out more than usual now, his tone was an indication of an intensity of emotion he very, very rarely showed in any other way.

			“All the doors and windows in the house were locked from the inside. The security system, a good one, was active and showed no signs of having been tampered with. No screens were cut, no glass broken. But Vanessa Tyler is gone. She’s the sixth victim to go missing this month. The first child. And so far, there is absolutely no evidence to indicate what happened to her. Or to any of the others. They’re simply gone.”

			After a long moment, Samantha said with something of Bishop’s almost preternatural calm, “Definitely a case for us.”

			—

			ROBBIE HODGE LOOKED up from the tablet she’d been studying and frowned a bit at Miranda Bishop. Who, as was her usual habit, was sitting on her desk rather than behind it in the chair.

			“You said two teams would be going?”

			“Yeah. You two, plus Luke and Samantha Jordan.”

			Dante Swann, sitting in the other visitor’s chair, looked up at Miranda and frowned as well. “Is Bishop briefing them?”

			Miranda nodded, wearing a faint smile.

			“Why?” Robbie demanded.

			A little chuckle escaped Miranda. “Generally speaking, the newer agents find me . . . less intimidating. At least in the beginning. And a briefing isn’t much more than relaying information. The four of you can go over everything on the jet. You should just about have time to do that before you land in Tennessee.”

			Dante glanced at his partner; they hadn’t worked together for long, and it showed. As did something else, at least to Miranda’s experienced gaze.

			“Your abilities,” she said calmly, “will only improve with practice. Field practice. We can only go so far in the lab, and experience has taught us that agents adapt quicker and with far more control when working in the field. Maybe because then it counts.”

			“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Dante muttered.

			“Seen any spirits yet?” she asked him.

			It was Robbie who said, “He has his shields up. Full strength. Can’t you feel it?”

			Miranda smiled faintly again. “I can. Don’t push, Robbie.”

			“I’m not sure I even know how,” Robbie confessed.

			“You need to be aware,” Miranda told her. “Your instincts are to reach out, even through your own shields. Born psychics tend to do that without thought or intent. It’s a sense that’s natural to you; your mind, at least at the unconscious level, doesn’t operate with the same constraints most of us consciously impose on ourselves.”

			“Hey, were you trying to read me?” Dante was frowning at his partner.

			“No. Not trying. I just knew your shields were up, that’s all.”

			Matter-of-factly, Miranda said, “Dante has the stronger shield between the two of you. He also has a tendency to keep it up as much as possible.”

			It was Robbie’s turn to frown at her relatively new partner. “You can’t keep that up all the time. It takes too much energy, for one thing. And for another, with shields in the way, how will you communicate with spirits?”

			“I’m really hoping there won’t be any,” he said with some feeling. “Spirits would mean our victims are dead.”

			Robbie looked back at Miranda. “Are you going to tell him or shall I?”

			“Tell me what?”

			Miranda said, “Serenity is an old town, Dante. Generations have lived—and died—there.”

			“So,” Robbie finished, “the place is probably teeming with spirits, no matter what happened or didn’t happen to our missings. Are you having fun yet?”

			“With six missing people including a kid, no,” he retorted. Then, to Miranda, he added, “I don’t have spirit guides. A whisper here, a glimpse there; that’s about it for me. I’ve never even had a helpful spirit point me in the right direction. Why send me?”

			“You and Robbie need time to work together as a team,” she answered readily. “And it’s our practice to put a new team with a more experienced team when we can. We don’t have many teams as experienced as Luke and Samantha.”

			“They could do this without us,” he objected. “Samantha is scary powerful as a clairvoyant, and Luke’s whole thing is finding people who are lost.”

			“We like to cover all our bases,” Miranda said. “Luke’s ability usually hinges on whether those who are missing are frightened or in pain; if they aren’t, that sense is fairly useless to him. Sam is powerful, but there have been cases where her clairvoyance wasn’t helpful. That happens, to all of us. As for you two . . . You may encounter a helpful spirit or spirits this time. And Robbie’s an exceptionally strong telepath; that’s not only one of the most reliable of psychic abilities, it’s virtually always a good ace to have whenever gathering information by talking to people.”

			“It’s cheating,” Robbie muttered.

			Miranda was unsurprised by the comment. Being one of those psychics born with her abilities, she had learned at a very young age to keep them hidden. Even though other telepaths here at the Special Crimes Unit at Quantico had worked with her for months now, she still struggled with the discomfort of “invading someone else’s mind,” as she called it.

			“It’s cheating,” she repeated. “If they don’t know. If I don’t ask permission. It’s an intrusion.”

			Deliberately, Miranda said, “Six missing people. Two of them teenagers. A judge. A young wife and mother. A young man with a frightened girlfriend. And a ten-year-old child.”

			After a moment, Robbie finally looked up and met her gaze. “The end justifies the means?”

			“That’s not what this is about. Your abilities are just tools, like the investigative and profiling techniques you’ve been taught. Like marksmanship, and interview techniques, and how to pick a lock if you have to.”

			Robbie smiled wryly at that.

			Miranda nodded, more to herself than to the younger woman. “We never really know what tools will come in handy during an investigation. Or which psychic abilities decide to go AWOL just when they’re needed. You may not need to even try to pick up someone else’s thoughts, with or without permission. Because it isn’t necessary—or because you tap into your abilities without even trying. That happens too. To the best of us.”

			Dante said, “Does this Chief Riggs know anything about our abilities?”

			“Well, he was up here about a year ago, taking some of the courses we offer law enforcement officers around the country. He seems the type to make friends easily, and he talked to quite a few agents here. None of ours, I think, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t find out about the SCU. In fact, we’re reasonably sure he did.”

			“Why?” Dante asked.

			“Because he asked for us. Not a first-response team, not the BAU, not even the child abduction unit. Us. The SCU. And he was adamant about it. He called Noah directly.” She paused, then added, “Noah and I both believe there’s more to this than what’s in Chief Riggs’s reports. He struck us both as being shaken, and he’s just not the type to easily shake. People disappear, it happens. Especially in the mountains. These disappearances seem odd, certainly, but what we’ve been told so far could easily indicate that these people, at least except for the little girl, just decided to leave and managed to do so without being seen.”

			“All within the same month?” Robbie said skeptically. “All in a little town that probably hasn’t seen an unexplained disappearance in most if not all of its history? And all leaving when they were apparently in the middle of very ordinary, routine activities?”

			“That does stick out,” Dante agreed.

			Miranda nodded. “We agree. Something very strange has happened—and may be still happening—in Serenity. Something the typical law enforcement officer isn’t trained to understand or cope with. It’s clear Chief Riggs knows that. How much he knows about the SCU . . . Well, you’ll all find out soon enough. Grab your go bags. The jet’s standing by.”





FOUR


			Jonah got word that the feds had landed on a semiprivate airstrip about thirty miles from town, and not half an hour later, a black SUV pulled into a parking slot in front of the police station, which was just off Main Street.

			He stepped out onto the sidewalk to meet them, and to say he was curious would have grossly understated the matter. Four people were getting out of the vehicle, two men and two women, all casually dressed but all also wearing guns on their hips.

			The driver was a tall, well-built blond man with unusually intense—and just plain unusual—green eyes. He moved quickly, with the springy step of a man in excellent shape and with energy to spare. And he was the first to reach Jonah.

			“Chief Riggs? I’m Lucas Jordan. Luke.”

			“Jonah.”

			They shook hands, and then a very fair-skinned woman of medium height with a slight build, short black hair, eyes the closest to black Jonah had ever seen, and a sulky mouth that turned her almost beautiful when she smiled joined them on the sidewalk.

			“My partner and wife,” Luke said. “Samantha.”

			“You always introduce me as your partner first,” Samantha said, observation rather than complaint.

			“We were partners first,” he said simply.

			“Ah.” She nodded, then extended her hand to Jonah. “Sam,” she said.

			Jonah shook hands and was just thinking how these two were unlike any federal agents he’d met before when the other two joined them on the sidewalk, equally . . . unusual.

			The man Luke introduced as Dante Swann was slightly above medium height, with dark brown hair and very pale brown eyes that were almost gold—and seemed almost to glow, which was more than a little disconcerting.

			“Dante?” Jonah managed.

			“My mother was a classical scholar and loved his poetry. Go figure.” He shrugged. “I tried to just be Dan for a while, but—”

			“You aren’t a Dan,” Sam said absently as she stood looking around what she could see of the town. There hadn’t been very many pedestrians on Main Street and there were none at all on this side street.

			“Apparently not,” Dante agreed, taking a step to the side to introduce his partner.

			Robbie Hodge was tall, very blond, and very beautiful. She could have made a fortune as a model. Her merely polite smile made Jonah wonder if his toes were actually curling inside his boots.

			Surely not.

			Putting various thoughts aside to chew on later, he told the team, “A town this size doesn’t need a very large police department, and since I’ve called in all the auxiliary personnel I have, it’s more than a little crowded in there. If it’s okay with all of you, I’ve commandeered the space next door, right over there, for the duration. Used to be a real estate office, but it’s been vacant for a couple months. I’ve got a big round table, evidence boards, Wi-Fi, and landlines already set up, along with two new computers. There’s a kitchenette in the back as well as a restroom and a lounge. And I’ve got workmen coming in a bit to hang blinds over that big window in front. I figure we don’t need passersby looking in. Because they would.”

			“Panic setting in?” Sam said, more a statement than question.

			“That started more than two weeks ago, when the judge disappeared. It’s been growing worse and worse. The only happy people in town—though they do try hard to hide it—are the owners of our one electronics store.”

			“A run on security systems?”

			“Yeah. On complete systems and on various components to enhance and strengthen existing security systems. And locksmiths are installing new door locks at a pace I’ve never seen before. I don’t think there’s a house or condo in town that doesn’t have an extra dead bolt on every exterior door.” Jonah knew he looked tired and grim; he just hoped he didn’t look as grateful as he felt at the arrival of these agents. He was not too proud to yell for help, especially when he didn’t have a clue what was going on in his town, but no man wanted to look like he felt totally helpless, after all.

			Luke, clearly the lead agent, exchanged looks with the others, then said, “It’ll be dark in a few hours. All the sites of the disappearances were within a mile radius of downtown, right?”

			“Yeah.”

			“Okay. Well, we brought some equipment with us, but we can unload that and get set up later. I assume you’ve stepped up patrols in Serenity?”

			“Doubled during the day; after dark they’re doubled again, and I have officers on foot, in teams, covering as much as possible of the downtown area. The town council told me to forget the budget and get whatever and whoever I need, but there just aren’t many trained auxiliary deputies, and I don’t like using jumpy volunteers. So I’ve done what I could. Stretching resources as far as they’ll stretch.”

			“It’s all you can do until we find some kind of pattern in all this,” Luke said.

			Jonah nodded and said, “Your hotel is just a couple of blocks away. And they’ll hold the rooms till whenever you’re ready to check in.”

			It was Luke’s turn to nod. “Good enough. Normally, we’d split up and take different sites, but in this case, I think we should all probably see the site of each disappearance at the same time. And in order.”

			“That could be important?”

			“At this stage, there’s no telling what may or may not be important,” Luke said, matter-of-fact. “Sometimes we start with the most recent case and work backward, mostly because the freshest crime scene is the most likely to hold some important information or detail. But in this case . . . we can’t really call them crime scenes. According to your reports, nothing was disturbed at any of the scenes, no blood, nothing suspicious. Just missing people. Might as well start with the first scene and work up to Vanessa Tyler’s disappearance last night.”

			“Her parents are basket cases,” Jonah said. “My second’s been with them all day, as well as their pastor, with various relatives and friends coming and going. I had to follow the missing-child protocols and put out the Amber Alert for surrounding areas, and I have people manning the tip line.”

			Robbie tilted her head slightly as she looked at him. “But you don’t believe either will help find Vanessa.”

			“Nessa,” he said in a rather automatic tone. “They call her Nessa. And, no, I don’t expect either to help. If this was a child abduction, just simply that . . . But it isn’t. It’s the sixth disappearance in less than a month, and even though they were all different, they all have . . . things . . . in common. Whatever happened to Nessa, it’s happened to five other people. I don’t want us to focus on just the disappearance of a child, as difficult as that may be. They’re all gone. They all need to be found.”

			Luke nodded. “Understood. And agreed. When did you put out the Amber Alert on Nessa?”

			“I waited as long as I could,” Jonah said frankly. “It’s a second marriage for Caroline; Matt is Nessa’s stepfather—though he adopted her legally. Her biological father, Curtis Hutchins, hasn’t been part of her life since she was a toddler. He was abusive; Caroline left him with the baby and came here, where she had family. Filed for divorce, uncontested, and got full custody. She and Matt were married a bit over a year later.”

			“Hutchins was a suspect?”

			“To Caroline he was. Probably still is. She’s convinced even after nearly nine years that he got in somehow and abducted Nessa.”

			Luke said, “You’re sure he didn’t. Because her disappearance matches these others in certain . . . details?”

			“That. And the fact that shortly after noon today we tracked down Curtis Hutchins. He’s doing life in a Nebraska prison. Aggravated murder, nothing to do with a child.”

			“I’d call that an alibi,” Dante murmured.

			“Yeah. Once I more or less persuaded Caroline he couldn’t possibly have taken Nessa, of course she and Matt both wanted the Amber Alert. But I kept it low-key.”

			“To delay the media descending on us,” Sam said.

			Jonah nodded. “It gives us a little breathing room. But if I’m wrong, if Nessa’s disappearance isn’t connected to the others and somebody did simply abduct that little girl . . . I know the odds on stranger abductions of children. Delaying the Amber Alert could have signed her death warrant.”

			—

			SINCE IT WAS quicker to drive than walk to the spot where Amy Grimes and Simon Church had vanished, Jonah led the way in his Jeep, with three of the feds following in their SUV.

			Lucas Jordan rode with the chief.

			Almost as soon as they pulled out onto Main Street, Luke said, “You seem very sure Nessa’s abduction wasn’t someone local.”

			It wasn’t exactly a question, but Jonah answered anyway.

			“No registered sex offenders in Serenity. I know those monsters can hide in plain sight and often do, but I also know my town. I grew up here. Look, we went through the paces. We questioned neighbors, friends of the family, and Nessa’s friends, asked all the right questions of all the right people. I believe a stranger who watched Nessa long enough to be able to get into that house, take Nessa, and get out without leaving so much as a fucking hair behind, even assuming that was possible, would have been noticed.

			“That leaves a stranger abduction—and I have the same reservations for that, for the same reasons plus one more. Because her disappearance was too similar to five other disappearances this month for me to be able to ignore that.”

			“How do the parents feel now that the biological father has been eliminated from suspicion?” Luke asked, looking around as they drove.

			“The whole town knows about the disappearances; even though I tried to keep details quiet, once others were nearby—girlfriends, husbands, parents—most of those details got out quickly. The Tylers believe Nessa’s abduction is connected. They want answers, naturally. And the sooner the better. They’ve also scared themselves more than necessary by going onto the Internet and reading stats on abductions, especially child abductions. Why do people do that?”

			“They think they want to be informed, to understand.” Luke shrugged. “Though it usually just scares them more, as you said.”

			“I get it. I just don’t like it. People still believe every word they read on the Internet is true, the way they used to be able to trust newspapers. It’s hard as hell to convince them to read critically and check sources. It also wastes my time,” he added.

			Calmly, Luke asked, “Have you managed to keep the real oddities of the disappearances under wraps?”

			“The oddities of people disappearing into thin air, no,” Jonah said after a moment. “Conspiracy theories are popping up like weeds.”

			“And the rest?” Luke smiled faintly when Jonah shot him a quick look. “You asked for the SCU. For us, specifically. We’re all assuming there are details you didn’t put in your reports or tell Bishop. Details you’ve been keeping to yourself. Details that make you certain these disappearances are connected.”

			“My second knows,” Jonah said finally. “Sarah Waters, lead detective. She discovered the kids’ car abandoned at the first site, where we’re going now, and was the first to reach the stream where the judge disappeared. She knows all the . . . oddities.”

			“And you don’t want to tell us what those are.”

			Jonah sent him another quick look. “It isn’t a test or any of that bullshit. It’s just . . . I don’t want any of you influenced by our knowledge or perceptions. People disappearing into thin air is bad enough; I don’t want my imagination running wild. At least not any worse than it already has.”

			“I don’t disagree,” Luke said. “About not telling us, I mean. History is filled with disappearances, with people walking away—and apparently vanishing without a trace. But six people in one small town in less than a month is definitely outside the norm.”

			“It’s certainly outside the norm for Serenity. We don’t have a disappearance on record until this month. Not a single one, not even runaways.” Jonah hesitated for a moment, and then said, “The spot where we found Simon Church’s car is just up ahead. Before we get started, I should probably confess that I have a pretty good idea of what’s so special about the Special Crimes Unit.”

			Mildly, Luke said, “We more or less assumed.”

			“Because I called Agent Bishop directly?”

			“That—and your visit to Quantico last year. The SCU started out as being something of a guilty secret the Bureau wanted kept at all costs, but the years and the successful cases have made us more respectable, even a solid plus for the FBI. We still tend to keep our abilities quiet in public, but at Quantico and even among most law enforcement organizations we’ve worked with in recent years, we’ve been more or less open about them. Not to the extent of putting too many details in official reports, you understand, or giving interviews to the media.”

			Jonah nodded. “I asked around, and that’s what I heard. Your unit has investigated all over the southeast, but especially in the Blue Ridge mountains. You’ve earned a lot of respect. Cops I know are too hardnosed to believe in the supernatural talk about your abilities like they’re just useful skills.”

			“They are,” Luke said. “And that is the point. We have abilities that are completely natural to us. And when we can, we use them as investigative tools. Sometimes they help; sometimes they just make a situation more difficult.”

			“I have questions,” Jonah admitted. “But I expect I’ll have plenty of chances to ask them.”

			“Probably. We aren’t shy, so don’t hesitate. But it might be easier to absorb if you get the information in smaller-to-digest pieces rather than all at once.”

			“Noted.”

			Jonah pulled his Jeep onto the wide shoulder of the road and stopped it. He and Luke got out, and Jonah waited until the black SUV pulled in behind him and the other three feds got out before he said, “Simon Church’s car was parked on the shoulder about twenty yards straight ahead. I’ve still got the car in the police garage, so you can see that later. I should warn you that just after we found the car and moved it into the garage, we had a hell of a storm with inches of rain. Whatever footprints or other signs there might have been were certainly washed away.”

			Sam shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket and frowned at him. “There were photos in the file, when the car was still here. Presumably taken before the rain. No sign of any footprints, and no mention of them.”

			“True,” Jonah said. And that was all he said. He didn’t exactly look stubborn, but it was clear he had nothing else to say for the moment.

			To his people, Luke said, “Let’s just walk the area, okay? Keep an open mind, see if we notice anything helpful.”

			Jonah waited at the Jeep, leaning back against the front, not showing much expression except weariness.

			As soon as they were a few feet away, Sam said, “We being tested?” She was still more than a bit touchy about that sort of thing, especially given her background as a carnival “seer.”*

			“No,” her husband and partner replied. “He’s not asking us to jump through hoops, Sam. He hasn’t offered details, but it’s clear Bishop was right about there being things Jonah didn’t put in his reports. There’s something odd about every one of these scenes, something connecting them. Whatever it is, he couldn’t explain it, and he wants to know if we find the same thing.”

			“Without prejudice.”

			Luke nodded. “Without prejudice. Are you sensing anything yet?” Samantha was a touch clairvoyant, which meant that she generally only had to shield when she was touching something connected to a crime or other violent event. She had, however, been working with other SCU clairvoyants as well as Luke in teaching herself to sense more intangible things—such as the mood of a small town.

			“I feel that the whole damned town’s on edge, but it’s a general sort of uneasiness and bafflement. Plus a lot of fear. But faint. What about you? Sensing anything from the missing?”

			“You know my shields are up.”

			She did. “Yeah, but you’ve gotten better at picking up on fear or pain even with them up.”

			“I didn’t want to try until we got to the scenes.”

			“Well,” Sam said, “here we—” She stopped so abruptly that Lucas stopped as well, half turning to look at her.

			“Sam?”

			After a long moment, she said in a distant-sounding voice, “What?”

			Luke glanced at the other two agents, who had stopped just behind them. Both looked curious—and guarded. Typical for new agents. He looked back at his wife.

			“What are you sensing, Sam?”

			She looked up at him, blinked, and then her eyes closed and she went completely limp, only Luke’s quick catch keeping her from hitting the ground.

			—

			“WELL, I KNEW you all had some kind of abilities, psychic abilities, but I didn’t expect them to knock any of you out.”

			“They don’t, as a rule—though we do have a couple of agents who suffer from blackouts. But Sam can be exceptionally powerful, and unlike most clairvoyants or seers, if what she senses is unusually strong, sometimes she . . . goes somewhere else.”

			“Somewhere else? Like where?”

			“A galaxy far, far away,” Samantha murmured as she opened her eyes, blinking several times with a frown. She was in an unfamiliar vehicle—she assumed Jonah’s Jeep, since it had been closer—mostly sitting up in the backseat.

			The door was open and Luke was standing there beside her. She looked at his hand holding both of hers in her lap, then turned her head enough so she could see his face. He didn’t look quite as grim as he might have, which told Sam she must not have been out long, and he wasn’t showing any external sign of strain.

			“A galaxy far, far away?” he said to her, dryly.

			“When I was coming out of it, I could hear you and Jonah talking,” she said. “And I couldn’t resist.”

			“So where were you?” Jonah asked in the tone of a man who wanted answers. “The future, or now?”

			“It wasn’t a vision. Nothing from the future.”

			“Then the here and now. What was it?”

			“I have a question first.” Samantha looked at her fellow agents one by one. “Anybody else feel anything unusual up there?”

			Rather surprising everyone, including herself, Robbie immediately said, “Some kind of energy. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stirring. And really faint, there was sort of an uncomfortable crawly sensation in my skin.”

			“Any idea what kind of energy?” Luke asked her.

			Robbie shook her head. “I haven’t really learned to differentiate. “But . . .” She drew a quick breath. “For just a few seconds, I could hear whispers.”

			“Saying what?”