Saturday, December 27
An excessive richness suffused the air, a sensual feast. It was evident in the intoxicating scent of woods and wildlife and winter and weaved through the smoky blueness of the mountains that rose in the distance, their shapes painted by some dyslexic artist on a celestial canvas. Just below the balcony where Mira Morales stood, lengthening dark shadows moved soundlessly down the steep slope of barren trees. A thin horse had been turned out in a denuded pasture near the stable to her left and a pair of little goats bleated pathetically in the cold afternoon shadows. Even the knotted pine railing, which had retained the scent of earth where it once had grown, felt excessive beneath her hands.
People often described Asheville, North Carolina, as God’s country, a little Eden. Mira supposed that mountains did that to people, made them speak in terms of divinities, epiphanies. But frankly, she just didn’t see it. In all fairness to North Carolina, though, she was a Florida girl, born and bred. Her cells were accustomed to heat and sunshine, the smell of salt and sand. Her body craved greenery, blue water, fruit warmed on trees that never shed their leaves. To her, all of this looked as if Providence hadn’t finished the act of creation.
It was barely four in the afternoon and already, darkness encroached with the mythic impunity of a god. On Tango Key in the winter, it was light until almost six in the evening.
She was visiting, not moving here. She wanted to love Asheville and the farm where they were staying because Wayne Sheppard loved it. Because his friends owned all twenty-five acres of it. Because it was the Christmas holidays and she, Sheppard, and Annie had driven seventeen hours to get here. Yet, she couldn’t feel her feet. They were frozen inside her Florida shoes, inside her light cotton Florida socks, inside skin that already had begun to pucker and dry in the mountain chill. Mira zipped her jacket to her throat and blew into her hands to warm them.
The door slammed open and Annie rushed out, gushing, “Wow, you’ve got to see this, Mom. There’s a wood-burning stove and everything. It’s fabulous.”
Mira glanced around, taking in the sight of her daughter’s flushed cheeks, her grin, her shiny black hair, a loose cascade that fell to her shoulders, her shining dark eyes like her father’s. Annie, fourteen going on forty, had dressed for the weather—a thick parka, hiking shoes with thick, sturdy soles like Sheppard’s, wool socks, even gloves. She stood for a moment in the cold air and breathed in, then out, watching her breath.
“This is great, really great. Listen, I’m going down to the barn and then over to the house to meet the girl who lives here. Okay? Is that okay? Shep says that besides the horses and the two goats, they’ve got dogs, chickens, and some cats.”
“Let’s help Shep unload the car first, then you’re cut loose. We’ll eat dinner in an hour or so.”
“It’s a deal.” She thrust her hand into the air for a high five.
Their palms came together and Annie’s fingers came down perfectly between Mira’s and they drew close. “You okay?” Annie asked, her perfect brow wrinkling slightly, worried that something would intrude on all that she saw as perfection.
“Just a little tired, that’s all.” And her throat felt scratchy, as though she were coming down with a cold. “Too much sitting in the car.”
“We’ll do some yoga stretches later. You and me.” She gave a small, girlish giggle. “We’ll make Shep do them, too.”
Mira laughed. Sheppard and yoga were an imperfect match at best, and whenever Mira and Annie got him to do any of the postures, he ended up twisted like a pretzel and groaning loudly. “Deal.”
“How’s that ring feel?” Annie asked, admiring her mother’s engagement ring, turning her hand this way and that in the winter light.
“Strange, but good.”
Christmas Eve, Sheppard had given her an emerald engagement ring. It was a deep green Colombian gem that caught the light perfectly. They hadn’t set a date yet, but after more than five years together, a date was beside the point. There were so many details to be worked out, namely who would live where and who would give up which house and how would Nadine, Mira’s grandmother, feel about staying if Shep was living there, too?
Nadine was beside herself with delight and offered to move into the apartment above the bookstore she and Mira owned. But Sheppard wouldn’t hear of it. Mira’s house, he’d said, had plenty of room, and if they needed to add on, they would use the money he earned from the sale of his place. Black and white, that was the world that Sheppard inhabited, she thought, and although Nadine had agreed, Mira still worried. But then, she worried about everything, large things and small alike.
She worried that if she married Sheppard, she would be betraying the memory of her husband, Tom, dead now for eleven years. She worried about the bookstore failing and having to dip into Annie’s college fund. Those were the big worry items. At the smaller end of the scale, she worried about rust in the pipes at home, that the battery in her car would fail, that the transmission would blow up, that a tire would flatten as she drove to the bookstore at the other end of Tango Key. It wasn’t that she looked for trouble, only that since the events of six months ago, something within her had shifted permanently.
You could not go back thirty-five years in time, she decided, and return looking at the world in quite the same way. And since she didn’t know anyone else besides Sheppard and her daughter who had had this experience, her means of comparison were rather limited. They rarely talked about what had happened on that summer beach, when a man with a cast on his arm had nabbed Annie, then taken her through the black water and back in time. They rarely mentioned the framed note to Annie, signed by Janis Joplin, that hung in Annie’s room, or talked about the black water mass off the coast of Tango Key that had long since dissipated. They definitely didn’t talk about the subtle but profound changes that had occurred in Mira’s abilities. They didn’t discuss her worries that time travel might have done something to them genetically, something that might not show up for months or years. Some things were better left in the past.
Mira and Annie hurried out to the van, where Sheppard was unloading their belongings. He was a tall man, about six foot four, with hair the color of beach sand and a beard threaded with gray. He didn’t look like any concept she had of an FBI agent, which she supposed was one of his professional strengths. She still hadn’t reconciled herself to the fact that she was in love with a cop. To her, if you carried a gun, then you attracted the circumstances where you would have to use it.
He wasn’t carrying a gun right now, but she knew it was stashed somewhere, his faithful P226 SIG Sauer, with a double-column magazine that held fifteen rounds of 9mm Parabellum ammunition. A premier combat weapon, she thought, better suited to SWAT teams and battles on foreign soil.
“Suitcases,” Sheppard said, and handed them each a bag. “And a bag of groceries apiece. We should go up to the farmhouse in a while so Annie can meet Tess and I can introduce you to Jerry and Ramona.” His friends, the people who owned the farm. “And tonight or tomorrow we can head into Asheville.”
“Getting back down that road in the dark could be a challenge,” Mira remarked, hooking her thumb toward the crooked and slippery dirt road they had followed in here.
“Oh, Mom,” Annie groaned, rolling her eyes. “You worry about everything.”
Mira glanced over at Sheppard to commiserate, but he was staring back down the road, frowning slightly. Mira’s psychic antenna twitched. “Something wrong?” she asked.
Sheppard looked back, his face breaking into a smile. “Nope. I just thought I heard a car coming up the drive. Probably Jerry and Ramona. Or one of the two guys who works here.” He fell into step beside Mira as Annie vanished around the corner of the cabin with her things. “Did you go into the glove compartment for anything last night?”
Last night they had stayed in a motel in Savannah and the only time she had gone outside was for dinner. But they had walked to dinner. “No. Why?”
He shrugged. “It’s probably nothing. This morning when I opened the glove compartment, all the stuff inside was a mess. I couldn’t find the map Jerry had drawn of how to get here. I didn’t bother locking the van last night.”
Tidy Sheppard, she thought. Everything in his personal world had its place, everything just so. An organized man. “Your gun wasn’t in there, was it?”
“Of course not. Annie probably went into it looking for her Sims game or something.”
As they reached the porch, the hoot of an owl preceded its appearance by several seconds. It swept in low through the trees, wings beating, its haunting song echoing through the shadows. It touched down on the corner of the cabin roof at the end of the porch and watched them watching it. A chill shuddered through Mira, and Sheppard looked at her quickly, as though he’d felt her chill.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
‘They’re messengers, Shep. Among indigenous tribes, owls are thought to carry the souls of the recently deceased. Or they portend the death of someone close.”
“C’mon, Mira,” he said, a trace of impatience in his voice. “We don’t live in a tribe.” He pushed open the cabin door with his foot and went inside.
Mira stood still, watching the owl until it flew off into the bare and ugly trees.
It was completely dark by five and somehow the darkness seemed deeper and more pervasive because it was cold. But the wood-burning stove kept the cabin toasty and filled the air with the sweet scent of burning wood. Sheppard grilled fresh trout on the porch grill and they ate in the cabin’s spacious kitchen. Then Annie raced back outside to visit the horses, the dogs, the cats, the entire wondrous menagerie of animals.
As Mira rinsed off the dishes, she wondered where the water came from that poured out of the faucet. Probably a well. But how deep a well? Was the water pure enough to drink? She leaned forward and sniffed. The water smelled like a mountain stream.
“It’s not well water,” Sheppard said as he returned to the kitchen.
“So where’s it come from then?”
“Probably a reservoir, Mira.”
He gave her one of those looks that had become so frequent in the last six months, the look that whispered, You’ve changed since you went through the black water mass.
“I feel like I’m in a foreign country,” she said.
He laughed and came up behind her and slid his arms around her waist, then up under her sweatshirt and against her breasts. He nuzzled her neck and whispered, “You think Annie will be back in the next thirty minutes?”
“I doubt it.” She turned in his arms and they stood there for long, delicious moments, creating a landscape of such intense desire and need that they finally stumbled down the hall, laughing and tugging at their clothes, and collapsed onto the king-size bed.
Sheppard kicked the door shut, Mira pulled back the comforter, they tore off their clothes and snuggled under the covers. When you shared your living space with a teenager, she thought, sex was, at best, an opportunistic venture, stolen moments sandwiched between one obligation and another.
A knock at the cabin door brought them both upright. “Shit,” Sheppard murmured, and they hurriedly got out of bed and pulled on their clothes.
As Mira ducked into the bathroom, she heard laughter and squeals of excitement when Sheppard opened the door. Ramona and Jerry Stevens, she guessed, and wished she felt more sociable. She sneezed and felt that terrible scratching in her throat again. She quickly uncapped her bottle of chewable vitamin C and gobbled down four.
Then she went out into the living room to meet Sheppard’s former college roommate and his wife.
Ramona Stevens was tall and wiry, with long, curly red hair which she wore swept up in a ponytail, and a bubbling exuberance that could make anyone feel welcome. She hugged Mira hello as though they had known each other for years and went on at great length about what a nice kid Annie was and how she and Tess, her daughter, were already thick as thieves, down there in the barn, tending to the horses. Her husband, Jerry, was as tall as Sheppard, and had to duck just like Sheppard did when he came through the doorway. His energy felt more Greek to Ramona’s Irish, but as it turned out, both were originally from Brooklyn.
The odd thing, the thing that ultimately would become disturbing, was that she didn’t pick up anything on these people other than the fact that she liked them. No flashing images, no impressions, not a single psychic detail. Mira blamed her scratchy throat and the congestion that, even now, was creeping up on her.
She and Ramona walked down to the barn to check on Annie and Tess. Ramona had a flashlight with her and kept shining the beam around until the light found a pair of red eyes, watching them from the edge of the woods.
“A raccoon, see him?” she whispered. “We have a lot of them. Jerry hates them because they’re such scavengers, but I think they’re the cutest little things.”
“I saw an owl earlier,” Mira said suddenly.
“Really? What kind of owl?”
“Large. Maybe a barn owl.”
“How strange. I haven’t seen a barn owl here in the winter for I don’t know how long.”
Mira tried not to dwell on this, on what it might mean. She sneezed and blew her nose and suddenly the owl was the only thing she could think about. “Shep has talked about you for years,” Ramona was saying. “Ever since that homicide in Lauderdale where you gave him psychic leads.”
‘That’s how we met.”
“So what’s it like being psychic?”
Mira laughed. It was the equivalent of asking someone what it felt like to be Asian or black. “I don’t know. It’s been a part of me for so long that I would feel like half a person without it.”
“Shep says you pick up information when you touch people?”
“Or objects that they’ve touched. It depends.” Mira knew where this was going. What do you pick up on me? On my husband? My daughter? And pretty soon she would be reading for the family, neighbors, friends, and friends of friends.
“So when we hugged hello, did you pick up anything on me? Does it work that fast, that spontaneously?”
Frequently. “Sometimes. It depends on what’s going on in the person’s life, on how I’m feeling, on a lot of different things. I’m kind of under the weather tonight, but I’d be glad to read for you all tomorrow.”
“Really? How great. Thanks. Jerry’s skeptical about this kind of stuff, but Tess and I are fascinated.”
They stepped into the barn, where bright overhead lights revealed a four-stall barn and two very happy teens, laughing and chatting like old friends as they brushed down a miniature horse no larger than a St Bernard. “Mom, isn’t this just the coolest and most gorgeous horse?” Annie called.
“That’s Beauty,” Ramona explained. “She’s our newest addition. We bought her to keep Coal company. She’s the black horse in the next stall. If you sit in the stall with Beauty, she lays on her side and puts her head in your lap. Like she’s a dog or something. Tess, honey, this is Annie’s mom, Mira.”
“Hi, Mira,” called the pretty young girl who was the spitting image of her mother.
“Nice to meet you. Can Annie spend the night with us tonight?”
“Can I, Mom? Can I?” Annie asked.
Ramona laughed. “It’s fine with me.”
“I think Shep wants to take you all into Asheville,” Mira said.
“Cool,” Tess said. “Let’s hurry up and finish the stalls. We’ll meet you at the cabin.”
Thirty minutes later, Mira was huddled in front of the wood-burning stove, sipping hot tea and waiting for the aspirin she’d taken to kick in. She felt like shit, had a low-grade fever, could barely breathe through the congestion in her sinuses. She begged off on Asheville, and since Ramona and Jerry had to get up early, it would be just Sheppard and the teens and one of the dogs, a gorgeous golden retriever named Rich.
“If you see a health-food store, can you pick up some zinc and green tea?” Mira asked Sheppard. ‘That way I’ll be fine by morning.”
“I thought vitamin C did the trick,” Sheppard said.
“If Mom says that’s what she needs, then that’s what she needs,” Annie told him, and gave Mira a hug. “We’ll bring you back something special, too.”
“Bundle up,” Mira called after them.
Sheppard bussed her good-bye on the top of her head, Rich the dog licked her face, and then they were gone, leaving her to the heat from the stove and the blissful silence.
Mira moved into the huge recliner, turned on the TV, and curled up. With the blanket around her shoulders and a pair of Shep’s heavy socks on her feet, she finally understood the phrase, “snug as a bug.”
When she woke, it was to wood crackling in the stove and the wind whistling through the trees. It wasn’t something she heard very often on Tango Key and the sound spooked her. She threw off the blanket and padded into the kitchen for a bottle of water. It was now nine, but felt like four in the morning. Her fever had broken, but her body ached all over, and when she coughed, her chest hurt.
Flu? Bronchitis? Or hell, why not imagine the worst? SARS.
She tried Sheppard’s cell number, but her cell didn’t get a signal up here, and when she picked up the cabin phone, she got a busy signal. What’d that mean? Was the cabin on a party line? Did such things even exist anymore? Annie had left her cell phone on the kitchen table, so she tried Sheppard’s number on the small, much more powerful Motorola. But it didn’t pick up a signal, either.
A knock at the front door. Probably Ramona, she thought, bringing her homemade chicken noodle soup or something. Mira set Annie’s phone down on the newspaper Sheppard had left on the table, and went over to the door and turned on the outside light. As she opened the door, a chill wind blew inside, wrapping itself around her stocking feet. A pretty woman about Mira’s age, in her early forties, stood there. She was maybe five foot eight, with long, thick black hair, and was bundled up in a parka, jeans, boots. Snowflakes glistened in her hair.
“Hi, is Mr. Sheppard here?” she asked.
“No, he’s not. He went into town. You can try his cell phone, if you can get a signal up here.”
“You’re Mira, right? Mira Morales?”
“Uh, yes. And you are. . . ?”
“Allie,” she said, with a pleasant smile, and slid her right hand out of her parka pocket and pointed a gun at Mira’s chest. “Don’t make me use this, Mira. Just step back inside the cabin.”
Mira looked at the gun, at the woman, and all her usual worries about car transmissions and the bookstore failing suddenly shrank in importance. The sight of the gun terrified her, paralyzed her, and her sluggish mind pushed up against the wall of that terror and refused to move beyond it.
“I said, move, “the woman barked, and stepped forward, forcing Mira back into the cabin.
Without taking her eyes off Mira, the woman kicked the door shut. “My God, it’s like a furnace in here.” She unzipped her parka. “Toss me that cell phone in the chair, put on some shoes, jacket, and put some clothes in a bag. Where’s your suitcase?”
“What. . . what the hell do you want?”
Allie’s smile snapped like a brittle twig and settled into a thin, hard line. “I ask the questions. Now give me that phone and move down the goddamn hall.”
Mira picked up the phone, tossed it to her. She started down the hail, struggling desperately to pick up something on this woman. But her head throbbed from sinus congestion, her body ached, and the only thing she picked up was the obvious—she was in very deep shit.
In the bedroom she put on her shoes and the woman stood in the doorway, watching her.
“Where’s your suitcase?”
“Under the bed.”
As Mira knelt down and slid the suitcase out, the woman opened the drawers to the dresser and scooped out clothes that she dropped on the bed. “No wonder you’re congested. These aren’t mountain clothes. And those shoes. . .” She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “They’re Florida shoes. Do you have a fever?”
Florida shoes. “How do you know where I’m from?”
“I know quite a bit about you. They say you’re psychic, but if that’s true, you should have known I was going to be at the door and therefore wouldn’t have opened it. So much for the psychic part. You’ve got a teenage daughter and a handsome FBI agent boyfriend. You were born on October twenty-seventh. That makes you hmmm… I’m not really up on my astrology, but I bought a couple of books on the subject at your store. You have a collection of weird books. Anyway, that makes you a Scorpio, right?
“I know that your ancient grandmother lives with you, your bookstore is flourishing, and you have quite a number of clients who come to you for predictions about their lives. Poor suckers. Six months ago, something happened to you or to your daughter, I’m still not real clear on that part. And, oh, I know that your husband, Tom, was gunned down in a convenience-store robbery when your daughter was three or so. Tragic. Really. It’s the sort of thing that taints your whole life.”
Jesus. Mira just stared at her, unable to understand how she never had picked up any indication that she was being watched, stalked, investigated, researched.
“I know that Sheppard was married years ago to an attorney, during his first stint with the bureau. No kids. He spends a lot of time with your daughter and they seem to be quite close. You help him out on cases from time to time, supposedly using your abilities, like with that case in Lauderdale, where you met him. I figure you just got lucky with that one. You do have some repeat clients, so they must be getting something out of the readings you do for them. Maybe you’re just a good listener, huh? More of a counselor, an inexpensive therapist, that’s how I see it.” She paused. “A few months back, I almost had a reading with you. I’d made the appointment—under a phony name, of course—then I canceled. I figured I didn’t really need to talk to you at all. I already knew so much about you. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person just by observing, talking to other people, and from the Internet.” Another pause. “So, do you have a fever?” she asked again.
“What difference does it make to you?”
“If you’ve got a fever, then you’ve got an infection. If you’ve got an infection, then you need an antibiotic. But if it’s viral, then the most that will work is something for the fever and some vitamin C.”
She talked like a doctor. And as soon as Mira thought this, she got the only psychic impression she’d had all day, of this woman shouting, Clear, and applying cardiac paddles to a patient’s chest. “You’re a doctor.”
The woman frowned, then gestured impatiently with the gun. “Just hurry up, c’mon, we don’t have all night.” Keep her talking, stall for time. “Where’re we going?”
“Move,” she snapped.
Mira zipped her bag shut. “My jacket’s in the closet.”
She retrieved her jacket from the closet, zipped it up, grabbed her bag off the bed—and sneezed. “I need some Kleenex.”
“I’ve got plenty of Kleenex in the car.”
“I need to blow my nose now, not ten minutes from now.”
The woman slipped a travel pack of Kleenex out of her jacket pocket and tossed it to Mira.
She held it tightly for a moment, struggling to pick up something from the packet of Kleenex, but nothing surfaced, not a single image or impression, not even a tiny inner nudge.
“C’mon, let’s move.” She gestured impatiently with the gun.
Mira went through the bedroom doorway—and whirled suddenly, swung the bag, and it slammed into the side of Allie’s head, knocking her back and the gun from her hand. Mira raced down the hail, threw open the cabin door, and ran outside, shouting for Ramona, Jerry, screaming for them to call the police, to hide, there was a crazy out here with a gun. Her voice echoed in the eerie stillness. Where was everyone? Why weren’t the dogs barking?
She headed into the barn, her chest heaving for air, her head in an uproar. A horse. She would ride out of here on the big black horse. But midway into the barn, she tripped, fell, and found herself lying on top of something warm. A body, Christ, it was a body, a man, and he wasn’t moving. She leaped up, wild with panic, the horses whinnying, braying, and Allie crashed into the barn, her powerful flashlight stripping away the darkness, Mira’s protection.
“Hey, I don’t want to hurt you!” she shouted. “Don’t make me hurt you!”
Mira flew straight for the door on the opposite side of the barn, arms tucked in at her sides, her body moving as fast as a bullet, straight on target. Then those doors flew open, an explosion rocked through the barn, and pain burst in Mira’s right thigh. The bitch had shot her. She gasped and tried to keep moving, but the pain, dear God, the pain. Her leg gave out, her knee buckled, and she went down.