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Hidden Moon (Chapter 17)

The show had ended by the time I slipped into the circle of lights. No one seemed to notice I'd been gone.

Where had Cartwright been headed? What could possibly require his attention in the depths of a forest that wasn't his own?

Good questions, neither of which I'd probably ever get an answer to.

The fortune-teller was mobbed. Not that I wanted my fortune told, but I had wanted to ask her again about the talisman. However, without it, I doubted I'd have gotten any further than before. I'd probably end up with another monkey's paw, and that I could do without. I'd return tomorrow night and bring along the chunk of wood.

A serpentine line led away from the menagerie wagons. A large crowd clustered in front of the cougar; another equally large one peered into what I assumed was the grizzly's cage. Plenty of Gypsies milled about, keeping an eye on things.

I tried to find Joyce but had no luck. She must have left right after the show. I couldn't blame her. The woman was in the office long before I was every morning.

I headed for my car, but as I pulled away I caught a glimpse of Sabina at the edge of the trees. I lifted my hand in greeting, but she didn't respond.

I felt sorry for her. She seemed lost, lonely. I wondered if the Gypsies treated her poorly because of her infirmities or watched over her as if she were an injured puppy.

I slowed my car, intent on trying to communicate with her, but when I glanced a second time where she'd been, she was gone.

The road to Lake Bluff was deserted. Without streetlights, it was downright cavelike with the canopy of trees rimmed by the mountains on either side.

I drove slower than the speed limit, alert to any movement at the edge of the woods. A deer darting into my path could cause quite an accident. At the very least, my air bag would engage. I hated when that happened.

For several minutes my headlights revealed nothing but asphalt; then suddenly a dark shape raced toward me. I swerved, slamming on the brakes. My tire caught in the gravel at the edge of the road, and I skidded sideways, coming to a stop with the nose of the vehicle in the ditch.

Taking a shaky breath, I turned my head and came nose to nose with a wolf.

Luckily, the window was shut. Nevertheless, I reared back, squeezing my eyes closed, expecting the glass to shatter inward and rain against my face.

Nothing happened.

I opened one eye, then the other. All I saw was trees.

"Hell."

Had I seen a wolf, or hadn't I? I didn't plan on getting out to check if there were tracks, even if I'd been capable of distinguishing the print of a dog from a coyote or even an albatross. That was a job for Grace.

I shoved my car into reverse and floored it, bouncing out of the ditch and onto the road with a squeal. Then I held on to the steering wheel with a grip so tight my fingers ached as I sped much more quickly back in the direction I'd come.

There'd been something strange about that wolf. Something I couldn't put my finger on since it had been there and then gone so fast I was left wondering if I'd even witnessed it in the first place.

The fur had been tawny brown, gold, gray all mixed together, and the eyes had been strange, though I couldn't determine why I thought so. I'd never seen a wolf except in a book or perhaps on television.

I passed the turn for the lake and kept going. Grace's house was about a mile farther down, on a hill with a view of the mountains on one side and the lake on the other. It had been in her family for centuries, a miracle considering the government's penchant for taking anything worth having from the Indians.

But one of Grace's ancestors had possessed the wherewithal to cede their property to a white friend. That friend had kept it for him when the Cherokee were herded onto the Trail of Tears. For years the Aniyvwiya, or the principal people, as they called themselves, had remained in the desolate corner of Oklahoma where they'd been exiled. But they'd missed their mountains.

A few had come back, hiding in the hills with others who'd slipped away and never left. When the time came for the Aniyvwiya to reclaim some of what was theirs, the McDaniels had taken back their land forever.

I turned onto the narrow road that tilted upward at a sharp angle, winding through spruce trees so thick and overgrown there were times I couldn't see past the brush of their boughs across my windshield. When they parted, the house appeared like a castle before me.

I don't know why I thought the thing resembled a castle, as it was built of wood, not stone. No turrets. No moat. No dragon. In truth, Grace's house resembled something you might find on the front of a Halloween card.

Not that it was broken down. I doubted it was even haunted. But the way it rose up out of the high, narrow ridge, shining white against the ebony night, with a gabled roof and… were those bats circling the chimney?

At least she was home. The windows were ablaze with light, her cruiser parked next to the toolshed.

I probably should have called, but after seeing the wolf I hadn't wanted to take my eyes from the road even to dial my cell phone.

As I stepped out of my car the sounds of the night surrounded me – bugs, the wind, a distant rustle. The space between my vehicle and the front porch loomed large. I slammed the door and hurried across it.

A bat swooped low, chasing those bugs, and I stifled a shriek. If I started screaming, I'd scare Grace to death. Although Grace didn't scare as easily as I did.

I reached the porch, thundered up the stairs, and rang the bell, hitting the button so hard the thing rang three times in a row. There'd be hell to pay if I dragged her out of the tub.

She didn't come. I glanced at my watch. Not even 10 p.m. Where the hell was she?

I rang the bell again. Then stood impatiently tapping my foot, straining my ears, trying to catch the sound of her approach.

I started to get nervous. Lights on. Car here. Maybe she'd fallen and she couldn't get up?

I jiggled the doorknob. Locked. Leaning over the porch rail, I peered into one window, then crossed the creaky wooden floor and peeked into the other. New furniture but no Grace.

I should go around back and see if I could get in that way. Glancing at the sky, I flinched as something flew past, making the silvery light of the moon flicker.

Taking a deep breath, I hit the ground running and was pounding up the back steps before I realized I'd gone the whole way with my eyes closed. Luckily, Grace hadn't added any lawn ornaments lately, or I'd be flat on my face in the grass, skewered by a grinning ceramic gnome.

I I knocked. No one answered. Tried the door.

Locked, again. Checked the windows. Nada.

"Damn."

I pulled out my cell and dialed her number. Inside I heard the echo of the ring that played in my ear, over and over and over until finally her machine picked up.

"I'm not here. Leave a message. If this is an emergency, call – " Grace's voice recited the number for emergency services, though I was certain most locals knew her cell phone number, like I did.

I dialed that next and caught the faint drift of a ring – I turned and stared into the dense cover of the trees – out there. I waited for her to pick up, but she didn't.

Had Grace dropped her phone when she was taking a stroll? Had she dropped her phone after she'd fainted? Or perhaps when the wolf that appeared to be stalking us all had attacked.

I wished, not for the first time, that I carried a gun.

Then again, who knows what or whom I might shoot if I had one?

I crept down the steps, pausing as the phone stopped ringing and went to voice mail. I waited a few seconds, then hit redial, and when the ring, which was actually a song, "Stray Cat Strut," began again, I inched toward the edge of the yard.

The moon cast me in shadow, and I stared at my outline with a frown. I was hunched, cringing, and that would not do.

I straightened so fast my spine crackled. I would go into those woods, find Grace, and deal with whatever had to be dealt with. My days of cringing and hiding were gone. I was the mayor; I was in charge, and I'd damn well act like it.

"Grace!"

I stood at the edge of the trees, with Grace's empty house blaring light behind me and the dark shrouded hills before me.

The mist tumbled down. Tendrils of white snaking through the branches, swirling, whirling, coming closer and closer, faster and faster.

"Oh hell," I muttered.

That wasn't mist.

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