The car crash echoed all the way up Porcupine Hill. Its bone-crunching wallop rattled the kitchen windows, uprooting Alyssa Swain from gluing down new floor tiles.
She held her breath, listening, paying respects. She knew. Ever since moving into the farmhouse atop the hill a few miles south of Moonstone, Wisconsin two months ago, she'd endured screaming car brakes as drivers descended the fifty-yard drop into the hairpin turn. She knew somebody had finally died.
With hands shaking and heart pumping, Alyssa pulled a stocking cap over her short-cropped, brown hair. She grabbed the yellow barn coat and leather gloves from a wood peg by the kitchen door. After reaching for the doorknob, she hesitated. Blood bathed her memory. There would be too much blood this time, too. She knew.
When a feathery whip hit her legs her breath caught again. For a moment she thought it some ethereal force telling her to stop her heinous nightmare visits to the past.
Alyssa looked down. Her lungs whooshed out pent-up air. "Millicent, please, I'm in a hurry."
The white Angora cat blinked up with one gold eye and one blue before untangling herself from Alyssa's legs.
After calling 911, Alyssa flung herself into whirlwinds of brown, red, and gold leaves on the crisp October Thursday. She raced down the short gravel driveway then onto the black-topped county road, following it the few yards to the crest of the hill. Far below, fingers of fog reached out of Red Rock Creek, wending through the woodland to huff hoary mist at an upside down, midnight blue car. The car had smashed head-on into a birch tree, its triad of white trunks bent over the car like a mother flailing arms over a dead baby.
Alyssa's mind spun. If only she had slowed down that day...
If only. That's our punishment after such things happen. We live our lives in "if only" limbo. Even after four years.
She ran hells bells down the blacktop grade. Tears flowed, wicked away by air that spiked colder as she descended into the lowland.
If I can get there faster this time maybe I can save--
Red rivulets drizzled down the upside down window frame then onto an aqua explosion of glass pebbles decorating damp, gold leaves. Alyssa fought the urge to retch. She crouched within arm's length of a man hanging upside down in his seat belt.
"Hello?" The simple question was all she could muster while holding onto her stomach.
Blood oozed off strands of his black hair and chin. A massive shoulder encased in a camouflage jacket was wedged against the door frame. He lay twisted with his face toward her. The deflating air bag cradled a cheek. Dark eyes were open but still as a brackish marsh pool, unnerving her. "Are you all right, sir?"
Alyssa shot up. She listened for the EMTs. No sirens yet. Nothing.
She threw herself at the steep hill, angry for impulsively running down the hill instead of driving her truck with its first aid kit and blanket. She stopped twice because her lungs seized.
Finally she leaped into her Jeep Cherokee, chiding herself again. Last time she'd left the rescue to the EMTs. She couldn't do that again. "Mrs. Swain, the EMTs did the best they could but I'm sorry to have to tell you..."
Alyssa had barely turned around in her driveway when a shiny, new squad car pulled alongside her. A woman in a brown uniform and jacket, with a blonde ponytail pulled through a baseball-style regulation cap, got out.
Alyssa rolled down her window. "He's all right? The ambulance came already?"
"Did you hear anything odd?"
Why weren't they racing to help the man? "A crash."
"But no brakes, right?"
She hadn't heard the usual squeal of brakes on the hill. She swallowed. Had the man meant to run into the trees to commit suicide? "No, Officer, I didn't hear brakes."
"Please call me Lily."
Alyssa wanted to scream. Why are we wasting time? Her hands trembled on the wheel. "Lily, is he--?"
"They tried their best, Mrs. Swain." Alyssa choked. She hadn't been able to save the man in the car either. She turned off the truck engine.
"Ma'am?" Officer Lily tapped her arm. "Ma'am?"
"I'm sorry. I knew he died. I knew. I saw it in his eyes, but I was hoping--"
"There is no dead man."
"We didn't find anybody."
"But you found the car? It was smashed. He'd rolled it."
"Maybe he was smashed and walked away to avoid a ticket. There's nobody at the bottom of the hill. I'll have the car towed into town. It's a BMW. Not from around here."
Alyssa got out of the truck to run to her barbed wire fence. She followed it until the crest of the hill. The car was still held in the arms of the birch tree. She called back to the officer, "He was there, unconscious, bloody. He couldn't've walked away."
"Maybe he wore a red scarf and you just thought you saw blood."
Alyssa raced back to the officer. "No, he was wearing camouflage, nothing red. He was bleeding. It covered his face and was all over the broken window glass. Did you look in the creek? Maybe he crawled out and fell into the water."
Officer Lily placed a reassuring hand on Alyssa's arm. "It's Halloween week. It was a joke by high school kids playing hooky. I'm the new deputy here so I've been expecting something like this. They probably stole the wreck from a junkyard, stuffed a dummy in it with fake blood, and now they'll be watching the papers for news of the wreck. That is, if I put this silliness into a report." Lily giggled. "Not!"
Unease wouldn't loosen its strangle-hold on Alyssa's sixth sense. The man had been real. She was sure of it. But the pony-tailed deputy shrugged at her.
Alyssa managed a smile. "Yeah, it was probably a trick." She hated Halloween. The horrible accident she'd lived through four years before had happened on the holiday that celebrated dead souls.
"I'm Alyssa Swain. I'm a new dealer at the Port Cliff casino."
Lily shook her hand. "You must work with a friend of mine, Claire Lone Eagle. Her husband's building a gazebo behind the North Pole."
Lily laughed, an unexpected sound that relaxed Alyssa despite herself. "That's what they call the Victorian mansion in Moonstone that overlooks Lake Superior. It has a restaurant called The Jingle Bell Inn run by another friend of mine, Kirsten. She's expanding it with an enclosed aviary, an outdoor deck, fire pit and heated gazebo. She wants it all done before the wedding."
"Sounds like a big shindig."
"A Christmas wedding for Peter LeBarron. His father, Henri, owns the mansion. Peter's marrying Crystal Hagan, known for her pet reindeer, alpaca, and goats. She teaches first grade."
First grade. Alyssa shivered again so violently that she had to excuse herself to throw up.
After assuring the deputy she'd be fine, she went to the house and crawled into bed.
A menacing rapping downstairs made her sit up with her heartbeat skittering like fall leaves. But she had to have dreamed the knocking. Millicent slept curled in a white ball next to her. The white cat always leapt down to hide under the bed when anybody came to the door.
The knocks came harder. Banging. Urgent.
"Damn kids." Alyssa suspected she'd get down to the door to find nothing. But why wasn't Millicent awakened by the noise? Alyssa scrutinized her watch-cat. Her fur moved; she was breathing.
Alyssa slipped into her shearling-lined moccasins and fuzzy lavender robe, cinching it tight. She grabbed her cell phone...her thumb ready for the 911 speed button.
Downstairs she found nothing at the living room's front door but cold air nipping at her bare ankles. She sighed, certain now that it was a trick. Sure enough, sharp raps came next from the kitchen.
She rushed through the hall, minced carefully around the tiles and tools on the kitchen floor, then opened the door. "Yeah, yeah, trick or treat--"
It was him. The dead man.
* * * *
Alyssa went light-headed at the sight of the tall, black-haired man filling her doorway, giving her a lopsided grin. His eyes were the rich brown color called burnt sienna, part of the palette of stains she was using to refurbish the woodwork. He wore the camouflage jacket but it sported no blood. His hair was combed in neat waves from a side part.
"Can I help you?" she asked. How had he cleaned up so fast? Maybe her cat hadn't moved because this was a dream. The man wore spotless, indigo blue denims and high leather boots with leather laces. He carried an overloaded toolbox.
"Where do you want me to start?"
She clutched the bathrobe together at her neck. "Pardon me?"
"We've got a lot to do before Sunday."
"What's Sunday? Who are you?" Had she forgotten about hiring a carpenter? Certainly thirty-five was too young to be that forgetful.
"Your Halloween party for all your dead relatives."
She wasted no time in slamming the door on the lunatic's face.
She locked the door. If the man knocked, she would punch 911.
Millicent padded into the kitchen as if nobody had been at the door. She didn't sniff the air as she usually did with disturbances. Instead, she picked her way to her glass bowl of kibble near the refrigerator.
Alyssa tiptoed to the window next to the door. She peeked around the green-and-white striped cotton curtains she'd hung only yesterday. She saw nobody in the driveway or near the barn northwest of the house. The barn was locked, so she felt safe that he wasn't hiding there.
Alyssa shook her head, smiling. She was groggy, overly-tired from trying to refurbish a house over a hundred years old. She'd dreamed everything.
She had barely turned from the window when the tall man walked through the door.
As in, he walked through the closed...locked...solid walnut door.
Alyssa stumbled backward.
"How did you do that?" She slapped her face to wake up. "I get it. A Halloween trick. You're a hologram?" She looked around him expecting to see somebody projecting a light through the window over the sink. But she didn't see anybody.
The tall man with broad shoulders stood in the middle of her kitchen, toolbox in hand, shaking his head, nonplussed at the room. "Don't tell me you were thinking you could strip that wallpaper, refinish that tin ceiling and these floors by Sunday? Are the other rooms as bad?"
Alyssa lunged the two long steps to the kitchen table to snatch a chair to use as a weapon. "How did you get in here?"
He shrugged. "I walked through the door. Isn't that how most people do it?"
"But, but--" She shook the chair at him as she scuttled to the door. She put the chair down to feel the door. "This door is locked. You have a key?"
He put the toolbox on the counter, giving her an eyeful of a denim-clad backside. He wore a hammer to the side like suggestive jewelry. She blinked in confusion while he brushed the countertop with a broad hand. "Cheap gray linoleum replete with cigarette burns. You smoke?"
She grabbed for the chair again. "Of course not. And do I look like the kind who'd set her cigarette directly on the countertop?"
His dark gaze flicked up and down her. "No. You look a little uptight actually. Either that or you're a lion tamer. Damn sexy one, I might add."
Her insides fluttered, first in embarrassment, then in frustration. She must have hired him, yet she had no recollection of it. To her dismay, he stood between her and the cell phone she'd left on the counter. She excused herself to go upstairs to toss on armor: a grubby, gray fleece sweatshirt and pants covered with tiling cement, wood stain, and white ceiling paint. She took a fortifying breath before trotting back down to the kitchen.
He'd hung his jacket over a chair back and was rolling up the sleeves of a blue work shirt to reveal tanned arms with sprinkles of dark hair. She hadn't noticed how tan he was earlier at the accident scene. If this were even the same man. The tawny color softened the weathered face but made the glint in his dark eyes all the brighter by contrast.
Alyssa's belly did a flip-flop. The light in his eyes reminded her of a tunnel connecting two worlds. She wanted to climb in and see where the tunnel would take her.
He said, "Where should we start? Here or upstairs in the bedroom?"
She picked up a chair again.
With a weary sigh, he snatched it and set it aside. "Could you move over that way a little?" He pointed toward the striped curtains.
"You're blocking the door and my cat, Dillinger, wants to come in."
For some odd reason she obeyed. A huge, shaggy, matted, brown-and-copper ring-tailed cat with one milky, blind eye materialized through the walnut door. It paused, hissed like a panther, then pawed at a cocklebur stuck to one ear.
"Get that fleabag out of here!" Alyssa leaped between the scruffy cat and her white Angora still eating next to the refrigerator.
"They'll be fine," the man said, leaning near Alyssa to retrieve for his toolbox.
He smelled pleasant, like the fog before it evaporated in the late morning sun. Alyssa's mouth went dry. She backed up against the vibrating refrigerator. She was ready to scoop up Millicent, but the man was right about the cats. Millicent crunched away on kibble, oblivious to the rogue cat. Millicent, run! Hide as usual! That's a vicious wild cat!
The man shook her hand, shaking Alyssa out of her reverie. His touch was like nothing she'd ever experienced. It made her body melt like chocolate left on a steam radiator. She seemed to merge with him, settling into a soft pool of comfort. Somehow she heard him saying, "Name's John Christopherson. Nice to meet you, Alyssa Swain."
How did he know her name? She couldn't blame this memory loss on a night of drinking. She didn't drink alcohol. She was about to start though.
"When did I hire you?"
He walked through the plaster wall between the kitchen and hallway, then came back to stand in the real doorway. Alyssa winced. "How did you do that? And how do you know who I am?"
His face darkened. "Let's just say that I was commissioned to come here."
"What does that mean?" His cat hissed, baring fangs at Alyssa. "Put that wild thing outside."
"He's had a bad night. We both have. We'll work it off."
"No, you won't." Her boldness made her heartbeat quicken. "I don't care who commissioned you. Oh crap, my ex-husband didn't hire you, did he? Get out."
His cat snarled, pawing at the air with threatening talons.
Alyssa shivered. "What is wrong with that mangy thing?"
John brightened, as if glad for the change in subject. "Can't you hear it?"
"Your toilet's running. Dillinger picks up on irritating sounds. I'll have it fixed in a jiffy for you. The ball cock is probably corroded. Nothing worse than a rusty cock."
She was sure she'd turned flame red. John winked before clomping down the hallway. He and his cat took the staircase two steps at a time.
She rushed to the bottom of the stairs, waiting like a ninny. The toilet tank lid clanked. Everything sounded real up there. The man was humming a song that was vaguely familiar. "Moon River, wider than a mile..."
Alyssa hurried to the kitchen to use the cell phone. She whispered, "Deputy Lily? It's Alyssa Swain. Hurry. I have an intruder."
"Where is he now?"
"Fixing my toilet."
Silence. Then a giggle. "I'm betting this is all Tootsie's doings. Her 'Welcome Wagon' approach. We have a crazy woman called Tootsie Winters who loves to stick her nose in other people's business. She raises silkie chickens. Were there any lavender chickens running around with the man? She's trying to unload new chicks hatched in September."
"No. Just a really bad-looking cat with one eye and lots of attitude."
"A man who likes cats can't be dangerous. But I'll come check him out."
About a half hour later, Alyssa was pacing in her kitchen listening to John using an electric sander on the wood floor in the living room. When Deputy Lily arrived, she dashed past John to open the front door.
A blast of wind howled, whipping brown oak leaves in with the officer.
John kept on working on the floors, paying them no attention.
Lily took off her cap. She re-did her ponytail. "That's some wind. We're going to get snow for Halloween, I hear."
By the way Lily smiled at Alyssa expectantly, Alyssa knew the deputy couldn't see John or hear the sander's whining. But Alyssa had to try. "You don't hear anything?"
"Who can hear anything over that howl outside?"
"You don't see anything?"
Lily peered at the smooth, maple wood floor. "You've been busy. That floor is gorgeous. You sand it yourself?"
Alyssa sagged. "I guess I must've." Under John's firm fists the sander whirred in a corner.
"Now where's this guy with the cat?"
She gave up. "He left. Sorry to bother you." Before Lily could leave, though, Alyssa grabbed the deputy's coat sleeve. It felt real.
Lily smiled. "Something else?"
"You're sure you don't see anything? A man with broad shoulders? Wavy head of black hair? Denims that fit, well, nice, with a hammer in a loop?"
"Tootsie Winters got to you, didn't she? This house isn't haunted, no matter what she says."
"Haunted?" Alyssa had her share of bad dreams. She didn't need to add to them.
"I guess she didn't tell you. Keep in mind Tootsie is the former mayor's wife, but she still thinks she's running the town. She tries to create lore to bring in the tourists. According to her, this house is an in-between house."
"What does that mean?"
"I don't know. I'm a facts person. Tootsie's the kind to read the Duluth-Superior obits then insist those ghosts pass through here for your great view of Lake Superior."
Alyssa paled. If the woman read obituaries for entertainment, did she know about Alyssa's little girl? Alyssa choked on anger. Had this Tootsie hired somebody to taunt her, to punish her for what had happened four years ago this weekend?
"I need to be alone. I'm not feeling well." Alyssa hoped Lily would forgive her for practically shoving her out the front door. This was twice she'd taken ill in the presence of the officer.
John stopped the sander. He flashed a smile. "So how's it look?"
Alyssa was so mad she could barely make her teeth unclench. "You're a cruel person. Who put you up to this sick joke?"
He came to her in swift strides, cupping her elbows in the palms of his broad hands. Heat rippled from him like a warm wave on a beach at sunset, lapping into her body, buoying her.
"It's not a joke." The tunnel of light widened, inviting her again. "I know about your daughter and how she died. That's why I'm here. The police report was wrong. You didn't mean to kill little Sadie Rose."