When Jessica took a summer job at the home of Senator Mason in Virginia, she had hoped to get away from the person who had been relentlessly stalking her. Senator Mason had gone to extraordinary lengths to make her feel welcome, but how did these strangers know so much about her. Jessica had been having trouble sleeping, but now found herself caught up in her worse nightmare. Jessica had a suspicion that something else was wrong, and a strong fear that it was about to get out of control.
When the Volkswagen sputtered for the first time, Jessica leaned forward in her seat and peered rather anxiously through the rain-smeared glass. For the last thirty miles she had been watching the gas gauge, passing station after station, all of which were closed.
Gripping the wheel a little tighter, she combed her fingers through her dark hair, trying to make out the road ahead. Nothing but trees—not a building in sight. At each stop, she had heard the same excuse.
“Sorry, ma’am, we can’t pump gas without electricity.”
Finally she had given up and only slowed long enough to scan each building for lights.
“Don’t fail me now, old friend,” she said hopefully, and patted the dash for luck.
She eased up on the accelerator as she maneuvered the car along the rain slick pavement, watching for road signs between the urgent swipes of the wiper blades. The car sputtered again as she bumped over a newly patched spot in the asphalt.
“Oh, please, Lord, not on the bridge!”
Giving the wheel a little jerk, she steered away from a rusty iron railing. She was afraid to look over the side. How many Volkswagens were already down there? When she reached the end of the bridge, she heard the laboring engine sputter for the third and final time. The ominous silence made her heart rise in her throat.Pushing the clutch to the floor, she let the car coast around the curve. Loose gravel crunched under her tires as she rolled to a stop well off the pavement.
In the sudden silence, she could hear the steady gush of the stream as it foamed its way through the boulder-filled channel underneath the bridge. She turned the ignition off and leaned back against the headrest.
“It isn’t your fault,” she said to the car as she ran a weary hand across her eyes. Thunder boomed in the distance as she shifted away from the door and cranked the window down a few inches. None of this was anyone’s fault, she decided after a moment of reflection. It was just that kind of day.
Her bad luck had started that morning when she checked out of a cheap motel just off the interstate. The night clerk had given her a stern lecture about people who kept room keys and pretended they had lost them. After an endless time of fruitless discussion, he had accepted an additional five dollars and allowed her to leave. Two miles down the road she had felt the steering go rubbery and lurched off the highway into the service area of a gas station. It had taken an hour to get a tire mounted by an attendant who looked suspiciously like the clerk at the motel. She had not been surprised when she saw the bill.
Once more on the road, she had tried to make up for lost time. At the outskirts of an almost nonexistent town, a police officer had pulled her over with blue lights ominously flashing. He had informed her he was radioing ahead for the state troopers to watch her progress. With this threat hanging over her, she had driven off through the wet morning hoping her luck would improve.
During the day, she had been stopped four more times by patrolmen who carefully checked her car and examined her license. Each of them had followed her for miles as if they were escorting an important dignitary.
Where were they now when she needed them?
From lost key, to ruined tire, to empty gas tank— What else could possibly happen to her? She glanced at her watch and gave a little cry of dismay. It was five minutes past five, and her new employer had specifically insisted that she arrive no later than .
Jessica consulted the map and decided that she could be no more than a couple of miles from her destination. Through the rain-spattered windshield, she could see the sharp angle of a rooftop visible through the trees. Behind her, there was nothing but the endless forest. The steady drumming of rain on the roof had diminished somewhat. She sat for a moment looking through the glass, then slapped the wheel with her hand and stepped out onto the hard packed gravel. Her cramped legs protested as she stood with her hands braced against her back, trying to decide what to do next.
The sudden snarl of an automobile engine interrupted her thoughts. Maybe her luck had changed. She whipped her head around in the direction of the bridge as a black Porsche came rocketing around the curve. There was only time for a brief glimpse of the driver—a young man with a dark tan, a narrow handsome face, and a light-colored shirt unbuttoned half way down the front. The young woman beside him had a head of loose, tawny hair. Both of them looked directly at her as their car slammed past, whipping water and sand from the road surface.
Jessica buried her face in her hands as all the frustrations of the day boiled over. Looking down at her clothes, she saw that they were soaked through and probably ruined.
If I didn’t need this job so much I’d—
The threat was an empty one, and she stopped before uttering it aloud. She had spent most of her meager supply of funds on her trip from Boston, and turning back was a luxury she could not afford. She felt like crying, but instead she laughed. It made her feel slightly better even if it didn’t solve anything.
Maybe that is a store up ahead, she thought, as she stood hesitantly beside the Volkswagen peering at the building in the distance. The last house she could remember was almost two miles back. The lawn had been weed-choked and neglected, with a rusty car propped up on blocks in the side yard. It was one of those places you were more likely to get trouble than help.
Leaving the car unprotected on the roadside was a chance she hated to take. She had piled her clothes in an untidy heap in the back seat, and they would be in plain view of anyone passing. After another moment of indecision, she removed her keys from the ignition and carefully locked the doors.
Big drops of rain splattered on the glistening surface of the road as she hurried along. As she drew closer to the building, the faded sign above the door was somewhat reassuring, as were the three gas pumps setting squarely in front of the porch. The parking lot was empty of cars, but she could see light shining invitingly through the front windows. The rain was coming down in torrents as she ran up the steps.
A tinkling bell announced her arrival as she pushed against the door. Warm air laden with a hundred sweet smells poured out over the threshold. In the center of the floor a sleepy-eyed dog raised its head and looked at her, then quickly lost interest.
I can’t blame him for that, she decided as she looked at her sodden clothing.
The only person in the building was an elderly man perched on a stepladder, arranging merchandise on a high shelf. As she paused just inside the doorway, his eyes swept her figure from head to toe, pausing for an uncomfortable length of time on the hair plastered to the shape of her skull. Reaching up with her hands, she flipped it back over her shoulders, then gave her head a shake.
Do I look that bad?
The man’s eyes wavered away, and then came back, moving in rapid little jerks across her face. Drops of water were dripping from the hem of her skirt, and she could feel them spattering around her feet. She took a hesitant step away from the door and glanced down the length of the room. The walls were of country pine stained a dark shade of blue, and the shelves and antique cabinets were sanded as smooth as porcelain. The whole shop was a carefully designed work of art.
“You’re wet,” the man said.
Something in his voice stirred a memory, but before she could grasp the significance, the memory was gone. The sturdy boots and hunting shirt had probably come from an L.L. Bean catalog, but there was something in his manner that did not reflect the relaxed image his clothes suggested.
“I’ve had car trouble,” Jessica told him, feeling a touch of uneasiness at his open examination. When he didn’t say anything in reply, she nodded toward the front windows. “I ran out of gas just around the curve. I wonder if you can help me."
His brisk gesture cut off her flow of words before she could explain her dilemma.
“When this storm is over, I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, you might as well look around. We have some very nice antiques.”
Jessica brushed at the sleeve of her blouse and glanced indecisively at the door. Rain, driven by the gusting wind, was slanting halfway across the porch. Lightning flashed, bathing the interior of the store with brilliant light. She jumped away from the windows, uttering a little cry of fright. Almost immediately, a loud boom of thunder rattled the shelves and the floor. The dog leaped to its feet with a little whimpering cry and ran under the stove.
“I’m afraid the phone has been knocked out by the storm. Otherwise, you could call the house,” the man said. She could not help noticing the way in which he was standing, as if he thought she might bolt at any moment. She tried to relax but could feel her tension building.
“That’s quite all right. I’ll wait until the rain has stopped.” Jessica moved down the side of the store to get away from his probing examination. Just past the grocery shelves, an assortment of hardware items was hanging from the wall. She ran her finger along the smooth surface of a saddle and inhaled the sharp fragrance of leather and brass. Hanging beside the saddle was a mirror made from a horse collar. As she reached for the price tag, her mind darted quickly away, puzzling over the statement he had made a few moments before.
How does he know where I am going?
“I didn’t know they still made these,” Jessica said, pointing at the price tag on the mirror. His expression altered slightly and she could not decide what it meant, unless he pitied her. Was it for her ignorance, or was he aware of the hard thumping of her heart?
“Most people don’t. Antique dealers buy items like that and bury them in the earth for a few weeks. After they’ve had time to age a bit, they dig them up and spray them with Gatorade and ammonia.”
“Gatorade?” Jessica said, instantly amused.
“Gives the leather a horsy smell. The wet soil cracks the surface and makes it look old.”
Jessica tried to think of some way to steer the conversation around to the ‘house’ as he had called it. How did this stranger know where she was going?
“I think the rain is letting up,” he said as he untied the apron from around his waist and flipped it across the top of the ladder.
Jessica followed him outside where he picked up a gas can from beside the door and went down the steps to the pumps. The light drizzle made a musical sound as it drummed on the metal roof just above her head. The storm was rumbling its way toward the mountains.
The man glanced up and caught her eye, then motioned that he was ready. Behind her, the dog was standing just inside the door looking at her through the glass. It sniffed cautiously at the place where she had been standing, then placed its paws on the window and started whining. Something about this place appealed to her, and she wished she could stay in this building with its pleasant smells of leather and freshly ground coffee. Jessica took one last look, then swung reluctantly away from the door and went down the steps.
Rain had begun to fall again as they hurried toward the bridge where she had left the car. The man gave her an apologetic look from under the protection of his yellow slicker and rain hat.
“It’s okay,” she told him. “I’m already wet.”
He started to say something but clamped his teeth tightly together and remained silent until they had reached the car. Wind whipped coldly against her damp skin. She turned her back to it and stood with her shoulders hunched as he poured the gas into the tank.
The motor turned over slowly, then suddenly caught with a burst of blue smoke from the exhaust pipe. Tapping the gas a few more times, he listened to the engine and then turned sideways and eased through the door.
“She’ll run now,” he announced proudly. “The engine just needed a little coaxing.”
Nodding her thanks, she reached into the pocket of her skirt where she had placed her last twenty. As she eased her fingers underneath the flap, his hand closed over hers.
“No, no!” he said quickly. “I don’t have any change with me. You can pay me later.”
There was something different in his voice now, as if her gesture had somehow embarrassed him. Jessica opened her mouth to protest, then crammed the bill back into her pocket as she turned away. She was almost broke and would have to watch each penny until her first payday.
“Take care of yourself, dear.”
The voice was close behind her. A large, muscular hand came down on her shoulder. Jessica whipped her head around, then backed warily away. When she sat the look of startled vulnerability in his expression, it made her wish that she had not reacted so quickly to his touch.
“Sorry if I scared you,” he said quickly as they stared at each other.
“It’s okay,” she assured him, but the calm tone of her voice was barely audible above the loud hammering of her heart.
Dropping his head, the man turned away from her, tugging at the brim of his hat. She had reacted too quickly when he touched her. For a moment she thought—but it wasn’t that way, she could see now. Something was troubling him she decided as he went shuffling away.
Do I remind him of someone?
Everything he said had been courteous and polite, but there was something in his manner that had made her feel guilty. Had there been a recent death in his family? If not, then what was wrong with him?
“Thank you!” she called. In the brief glimpse of his face, she could see that his chin was actually trembling. Oh, God! This was awful. The knot in her throat got thicker. The way he was walking reminded her of someone leaving a cemetery after a funeral. Wiping the back of her hand across her eyes, she took a couple of rapid steps after him.
“Wait, please!” she called out, then pressed the palm of her hand over her mouth. I’m tired, she thought, and I am over-reacting.
There was no indication that he had heard. For a moment, she stood motionless, and then she whirled away and slid quickly into the front seat of the car. The door clanked shut as she jerked the shift into gear and popped the clutch. I’ll come by tomorrow and pay him, she decided as she checked her watch. Forty-five minutes late!
She pressed hard on the accelerator and the little car leaped forward, its laboring engine whining in protest. As she sped past the store, she forced her eyes to remain straight ahead and did not relax until the building was out of sight. Suddenly, blue lights flashed in her mirror. There was a sinking feeling in her stomach as she let off on the gas and steered toward the shoulder of the road. The squad car drew up behind her until it was almost touching her bumper.
Glancing in her rear-view mirror, she could see a large police officer walking toward her with his hand resting on the butt of his glock. Jessica cranked the window all the way down, then started digging frantically in her purse for her driver’s license. When she realized the officer had already stopped beside her door, she glanced up with a guilty start.
There was a sheriff’s badge attached to the left pocket of his shirt. On the right was a silver bar with the name Boone Howland. He did not speak until she had produced her license, then whipped off his sunglasses. He appeared more human with them off, although he didn’t look any friendlier.
“Was I speeding?” Jessica asked anxiously. When she saw the blue lights the car had still been accelerating, but she couldn’t have been doing more than 50 miles per hour. Evidently, he had stopped her for some other reason. Thinking about her meager funds, she wondered if she could ask for an advance on her first week’s salary if he gave her a ticket.
“Step out of the car, please,” Howland commanded as he passed the license back to her. A fluttering began in the pit of her stomach as she slid from the seat, wondering if he were going to search her. There had been something on the evening news the previous night cautioning motorist about someone impersonating a police officer. She had grabbed the remote and turned it down, but she wished now she had listened to the gruesome details. Her legs began to tremble as she slid from the seat, waiting for the probing hand. When she darted a glance over her shoulder, she realized that he was more interested in what was inside the car than he was in her.
Howland made a quick, but thorough inspection, looking under the pile of clothes in the rear seat and feeling along the underside of the dash. When he had finished, he removed a notepad from his pocket and glanced at his watch.
“You’re late,” he observed in a friendlier tone without making any further explanation of what he meant, but before she had time to relax, the little tremor of uneasiness had suddenly turned unto dismay. This reaction was as strange as the one she had received from the man in the store.
“I ran out of gas just up the road. Why did you stop me?” she asked, hearing the anxiety in her own voice. He gave her a guarded smile.
“Your name was placed on a traffic list the first time you were stopped, and then passed on to the various law enforcement agencies along your route. It’s routine, nowadays. It keeps people alive that might not be otherwise. Drive carefully the rest of the way. Mason Farms is about a mile up the road.”
He touched his hat and turned away, while Jessica remained where she was, frowning after him. Her shoulders drooped with relief over the fact that she had not received another traffic ticket, but she did not understand the explanation he had given for stopping her.
“Thanks for your concern,” she called when he was almost to the door of his patrol car.
“Just part of my job, Miss Tilly. Welcome home.”
He gunned the engine as he backed up a few feet, then came charging past her rear bumper with his wheels spinning on the wet pavement. Jessica waved as she climbed back into the Volkswagen, watching the patrol car disappear around the curve. Turning her wrist toward the window, she glanced at her watch.
Almost an hour late!
She jerked the car into gear and went up the road in the direction Sheriff Howland had taken. The wind felt good against her face, but the air blowing through the windows soon had her hair stirred into a wild mop. Taking her hand from the wheel, she combed her fingers through the tangles as she glanced in the mirror. Her eyes wavered away, then came back for a second look. It seemed as if she were staring at the face of a stranger. She ran her eyes down the length of her nose, examining the curve of her mouth, and up again to meet the troubled expression in her eyes.
What’s wrong with me? she asked herself, feeling a queasy tightening in the pit of her stomach. As her eyes darted between the rain slick pavement and her image in the mirror, she still didn’t know the answer.