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Shades of Midnight (Chapter Four)

The Arctic storm had pounded the Alaskan interior for two days straight, dumping three feet of snow on the small town of Harmony and its far-flung neighbors along the river and plunging daytime temperatures all over the region to fifteen below zero. Ordinarily, weather like that tended to do one of two things to folks: keep them knuckled down at home, or send them flocking to Pete's, the local restaurant and tavern.

Today, despite the howl of the wintry wind and the skin-biting cold as the third and final hour of sunlight faded into midday dusk, nearly all of Harmony's ninety-three residents were packed into the logcabin Congregational church for an impromptu town hall meeting. Alex sat beside Jenna in the second row of pews, trying as hard as everyone else to make sense of the recent carnage in the bush, which had brought six dead, brutally savaged bodies into makeshift cold storage at Harmony's airstrip and put the whole town into a state of anxious unrest.

Alex knew that Zach Tucker had tried to keep the news of the attack on the Toms settlement quiet, but despite the vastness of the interior, word traveled fast–faster still, in this isolated eleven-square-mile chunk of land that hugged the shore of the Koyukuk. Bad news, particularly the kind involving multiple unexplained deaths of a violent nature, tended to reach folks' ears as if flown there on a raven's wings. In the forty-eight hours since Alex's discovery of the killings, and Zach's decision to transport the bodies from the crime scene into Harmony to await the clearing of the weather so the Staties in Fairbanks could come in and take over the investigation, the feeling around town had gone from one of shock and dismay to one of suspicion and dangerous, mounting hysteria. Forty-eight hours had been all the townspeople could take without demanding some answers about just who–or what–had so viciously attacked Pop Toms and his family.

"I simply don't understand," said Millie Dunbar from her seat in the pew behind Alex. The old woman's voice trembled, not so much from her eighty-seven years of age but from sorrow and concern.

"Who would want to harm Wilbur Toms and his family? They were such good, kind folks. Why, when my father first settled here, he traded with Wilbur's grandfather upriver for many years. He never had a bad word for any of the Tomses. I just can't figure who could be so evil to have done something like this." One of the townsmen near the back of the church piped in. "If you ask me, makes me wonder about the boy, Teddy. Too damn quiet, that one. Seen him hanging around town a bit of late, but he wouldn't even say hello when spoken to, just acted like he was too good to answer. Made me wonder what the kid was up to, and if maybe he had something to hide."

"Oh, please," Alex said, feeling obligated to defend Teddy since he wasn't there to do it for himself. She pivoted on the pew and shot a disapproving glance to the area behind her, where dozens of faces had hardened with suspicion because of Big Dave Grant's baseless accusation. "Teddy was shy around people he didn't know well, that's all. He never talked much because of the teasing he always took for his stutter. And to suggest that he could somehow have anything to do with the murder of his family when he's lying right next to them on a cold slab is disgustingly callous. If any of you had seen the condition they were left in–" Jenna's hand came down softly on Alex's wrist, but the warning was unnecessary. Alex had no intention of taking that train of thought any further. Bad enough she'd been reliving the gruesome discovery over and over in her mind since she'd stumbled upon Pop Toms, Teddy, and the rest of their kin. She wasn't going to sit there and rehash for everyone how brutal their murders had been. How savage the wounds that had rent flesh to the bone and torn open throats as if some kind of hellish beast had come out of the cold night to feed on the living.

No, not a beast.

A being out of a nightmare.

A monster.

Alex closed her eyes against the vision of blood and death that began to rise from the darkest reaches of her memory. She didn't want to go there, never again. It had taken years and thousands of miles, but she had outrun that dark reality. She had outlived it, even though it had robbed her of so very much along the way.

"Is it true there wasn't no murder weapon found?" someone shouted from the middle of the gathering. "If they wasn't shot or stabbed, then how exactly were they killed? I heard there was a hell of a lot of blood spilled out there in the bush."

From his position behind the pulpit, Zach held up a hand to quell the ensuing barrage of similarly curious questions from the crowd. "Until the AST detachment arrives from Fairbanks, all I can tell you is that we are treating this as a multiple homicide. Being that I am one of the investigating officers, I am not at liberty to discuss the details of the case with anyone at this time, nor do I think it would be wise for me to speculate."

"But what about the wounds, Zach?" This time it was Lanny Ham who spoke up, his reed-thin voice edged with slightly more than its normal level of nervous energy. "I heard the bodies look like they were attacked by animals. Big animals. Is that true?"

"What does Alex think, since she was the one who found the bodies?" someone else asked. "Do either of you believe it could have been animals that killed them?"

"Roger Bemis said he saw a pair of wolves prowling around near his property on the west side of town the other day," interjected Fran Littlejohn, who ran the town's small health clinic. Ordinarily she was a reasonable woman, but now there was a strong note of worry in her voice. "Been a hard winter already and it's just started. What's to say it wasn't a hungry pack that decided to attack the Toms place?"

"That's a damn good point. And if it was wolves, what's to say they won't come looking around here, now that they've gotten a taste for human prey?" came another paranoid suggestion.

"Now hold on, everyone," Zach said, his attempt to inject calm getting lost as the voices in the building escalated along with the level of hysteria.

"You know, I saw a wolf right before nightfall just last week. Big black male, sniffing around the Dumpster out back of Pete's. Didn't think nothing of it then, but now–"

"And don't forget that it wasn't more than a few months ago that wolves killed some sled dogs down in Ruby. The papers said they didn't leave anything more than entrails and a couple of leather collars–"

"Maybe the smartest thing to do is to take some action here," Big Dave said from his post at the back of the room. "Seeing how we're stuck waiting on the Staties to get their shit together and come out to lend us a hand, maybe what we need to do is organize a hunting party. A wolf-hunting party."

"It wasn't wolves," Alex murmured, her mind flashing back unwillingly to the sight of the bloodied track she saw in the snow. It hadn't been left by a wolf, nor any other kind of animal, of that she was certain. But a small voice whispered that it wasn't exactly human, either.

So … what, then?

She shook her head, refusing to let her thoughts wrap around the answer she hoped–prayed–could not be true.

"It wasn't wolves," she said again, lifting her voice over the din of paranoia running as rampant as a disease all around her. She stood up and turned to face the vengeful crowd. "No wolf kills like this, not by itself. Not even the boldest pack together would do this."

"Miss Maguire is right," said Sidney Charles, one of Harmony's Native elders and the town's longrunning mayor, even if he held the office in name only in recent years. He nodded to Alex from his seat in the front row of the church, the dark hair of his leather-bound ponytail shot with gray, his tanned face lined the deepest at the corners of his mouth and eyes, creases earned from his kindhearted, jovial nature. Today he was somber, however, the heavy weight of all this talk of death showing in the slump of his otherwise proud shoulders. "Wolves have a respect for mankind, as we should respect them. I have lived a long time, long enough that I can promise you they did not do this awful thing. If I live for a hundred more years, I will never believe they would."

"Well, all due respect, Sid, but I, for one, would rather not take that chance," Big Dave said, to the ready agreement of several other men standing nearby. "Last I knew, there weren't no season on dealing with problem wolves. Ain't that right, Officer Tucker?"

"No, there's not," Zach relented. "But–"

Big Dave went on. "If we've got wolves threatening human settlements, folks, then it's our right to defend ourselves. Hell, it's our goddamned duty. I sure as shit don't want to wait around until some rangy pack decides to attack again."

"I'm with Big Dave on this," said Lanny Ham, shooting up from his seat like a rocket. He wrung his hands in front of him, his nervous gaze darting around the room. "I say we take action before the same kind of trouble comes to roost right here in Harmony!"

"Are any of you listening at all?" Alex challenged, her anger flaring. "I'm telling you, wolves were not responsible for what happened to Pop Toms and his family. They were attacked by something terrible, something horrific … but it wasn't a wolf. What I saw out there could not have been done by any kind of animal. It was something else–"

Alex's voice snagged in her throat as her gaze strayed to the back of the church and clashed with a pair of silver eyes so piercing they stole her breath. She didn't know the black-haired man who stood there in the shadows near the door. He wasn't from Harmony, or any of its far-flung neighboring towns. Alex was sure she'd never seen those lean, razor-sharp cheeks and square-cut jaw, or the startling intensity of his gaze, anywhere before in the whole of the Alaskan interior. His face wasn't the kind a woman would ever forget. The stranger said nothing, didn't even blink his inky lashes as she went suddenly mute and lost her train of thought. He merely stared back at her over the heads of the townsfolk as if she were the only one he saw, as if the two of them were the only people in the entire room.

"What do you think it was, dear?"

Millie Dunbar's thready voice jolted Alex out of the unnerving hold of the stranger's gaze. She swallowed on her parched throat and turned back to face the sweet old woman and the other people who were now waiting in silence to hear what she believed she saw out at the Toms settlement.

"I … I'm not really sure," she hedged, wishing she'd never opened her mouth. She felt the heat of the stranger's eyes on her and was suddenly unwilling to voice what she had been thinking that day in the bush, and in all the torturous hours that had passed since.

"What did you see, Alexandra?" Millie pressed, her expression a heart-squeezing mix of hope and dread. "How can you be so certain it wasn't animals that killed those good folks?" Alex gave a weak shake of her head. Damn it, she'd walked right into this on her own, and now, with almost a hundred pairs of eyes locked on her, awaiting her explanation, there was little she could do to back out of it. Not without making herself look like an idiot and condemning an innocent pack of area wolves to the overzealous attention of Big Dave and the posse that seemed to be waiting for permission to roll out and blow them away with no cause.

Shit.

Was there any choice but the truth here?

"I saw … a track," she admitted quietly.

"A track?" This time it was Zach who spoke, his light brown brows drawn low over his eyes as he scrutinized her from his position at the pulpit above the congregation. "You didn't tell me anything about a track. Where did you see it, Alex? What kind of track was it?"

"It was a footprint … in the snow."

Zach's frown deepened. "You mean, a print from a boot?" Alex stood there in silence for a long moment, unsure how to phrase what she was about to say next. No one said anything in that lengthening quiet. She felt the weight of all their focus, all the town's anticipation rooted on the tall, curveless blonde who'd spent most of her life in Harmony but was still regarded as something of an outsider because she'd come with her dad from the humid swamps of Florida. It was the recollection of those sun-baked, heat-drenched wetlands that filled Alex's senses now. She could taste the salty brine of the water on her tongue, could smell the sweet odor of moss-covered cypress trees and fragrant lilies filling the air. She could hear the trilling song of cicadas and the low creak of bullfrogs serenading the dark as she'd watched her mother rock her little brother to sleep on the screened porch of the cabin while she read to them in that soft, gentle voice that Alex missed so much. She could see the golden hunter's moon that had slowly risen toward the glittering sea of stars high above the earth. And she could feel, even now, the bolt of fear that arrowed through her heart as the night had been shredded by violence when the monsters came to feed.

It was all still there for her.

Still so shatteringly real.

"Alex."

Zach's voice startled her, made her shake herself back to the here and now, back to Harmony, Alaska, and the horrific dread that gripped her when she considered that the terror she fled in Florida might somehow find her again.

"What the hell is going on, Alex?" There was impatience in the clipped tone of Zach's voice. "I need to know what you saw out there. All of it."

"I saw a footprint," she stated as clearly as she could manage. "Not from a boot. It was from a bare foot. A very large foot, and very humanlike, only … not quite–"

"Oh, for God's sake," Big Dave said around a snort of laughter. "It wasn't wolves that killed them, it was Bigfoot! Now I've heard it all."

"What are you doing, Alex? Is this some kind of joke?"

"No," she insisted, pivoting away from Zach's disbelieving look to the rest of the townsfolk. They were all staring at her as if waiting for her to burst into laughter.

Everyone except the black-haired stranger in the back.

His silver eyes bored into her like spears of ice, only the feeling she got the longer she held his gaze was not one of cold but of bone-melting heat. And there was no mockery in his expression. He listened with an intensity that shook her to her core.

He believed her, when every other person in the place was dismissing her with polite–and some not so polite–looks of confusion.

"It's not a joke at all," Alex told the residents of Harmony. "I've never been more serious, I swear to you–"

"I've heard enough," Big Dave announced. He started lumbering toward the door, several other men laughing among themselves as they followed him outside.

"I know it sounds crazy, but you have to listen to me," Alex said, desperate that she be believed, now that she'd laid the truth out for them.

Part of the truth, at least. If they wouldn't take her word about the track she saw in the snow, they would never accept the even more incredible–more terrifying–truth of what she feared was to blame for the murders of Pop Toms and his family.

Even Jenna was gaping at her as if she'd just gone off her rocker. "No one could survive in that cold without proper clothing, Alex. You couldn't have seen a bare footprint out there. You know that, right?"

"I know what I saw."

All around them, the meeting began to disband. Alex craned her neck to try to find the stranger, but she couldn't see him anymore. He was gone. She didn't know why that thought should disappoint her. Nor did she understand why she felt so compelled to search him out. She was impatient with the need, and desperate to get out of there.

"Hey, it's okay." Jenna stood up, giving Alex a sympathetic, if bewildered, smile as she caught her in a tight hug. "You've been through a lot. The past couple of days have been rough for everyone, but I'm sure especially you."

Alex pulled back and gave a vague shake of her head. "I'm fine." The church door opened and closed as another group of people walked out into the brisk night. Was he out there, too? She had to know.

"Did you see that guy in the back of the church tonight?" she asked Jenna. "Black hair, pale gray eyes. He was standing by himself near the door."

Jenna shook her head. "Who are you talking about? I didn't notice anyone–"

"Never mind. Listen, I think I'm going to skip Pete's tonight."

"Good idea," Jenna agreed as Zach stepped down off the raised platform of the pulpit and walked over to join them. "Go home and get some sleep, okay? You're always worrying about me, but right now you need to give yourself a little TLC. Besides, it's been a while since I had a burger and a beer with my old fart of a brother, just the two of us. He's been avoiding me lately, making me wonder if maybe he's got a secret girlfriend or something."

"No girlfriend," Zach said. "Don't have time for that when I'm married to my job. You all right, Alex? That was seriously weird and not like you at all. If you want to talk about what happened, with me or even a professional–"

"I'm fine," she insisted, getting irritated now, and thankful for the anger that was letting her put her troubling past on the back shelf where it belonged. "Look, forget what I said tonight. I didn't mean anything by it, I was just messing with Big Dave."

"Well, he's an asshole and he deserved it," Jenna said, looking more than a little relieved that she wouldn't have to call in the white coats after all.

Alex smiled with a lightness she didn't really feel. "I'm gonna go. Have fun at Pete's, you guys." She hardly waited for them to tell her good-bye. Her rush to the door impeded by a trio of little old ladies talking and walking in slow motion, Alex's pulse was racing by the time she got her first lungful of the frigid night outside. She stood under the snow-laden eaves of the log-cabin church and glanced in all directions, looking for the striking face that had burned itself into her memory that first instant she saw him. He wasn't there.

Whoever he was, whatever had brought him to Harmony when the rest of civilization was barred by bad weather, he'd simply walked out into the darkness and vanished into the thin, cold air.

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