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Something glittered, garish and out of place against the massive framework of sticks that comprised the abandoned eagle's nest, a flash of metal, gold. Ruby Hudson shaded her eyes and peered through her binoculars at the aerie tucked high in the pine tree and moved to find out what the glittering object was. She estimated the structure to be a good two tons worth of tangled branches, no doubt added on to and reused by many generations of eagle pairs since her father purchased the land in the wilds of Oregon decades ago. It had been hemmed in by a tight clench of fir trees, recently removed due to borer beetle damage. The disease had taken hold throughout the area. Ruby had been distraught to watch the nearby trees cut down. So had Josephine Walker, who lived nearby.
"You can't cut them," Josephine had wailed. "My Alice won't be able to find her way home."
Alice won't be coming home, Ruby's heart had answered. Not after twenty years.
Now the sharp scent of the felled trees mingled with a small pain wriggling through her stomach again. If her family had never come, she wondered for the millionth time, would the tragedy have still occurred?
Stop it, Ruby. It isn't healthy. She loved the property, the birds, the endless blue sky and the smell of life burgeoning all around her. The Hudson Raptor Sanctuary had saved countless birds, it was a haven
and also the place where she'd first learned what evil was. The memory of Alice Walker came to mind, hair so fine it blew in the breeze like downy feathers, and eyes of
Had they been blue? It bothered her that she could not remember.
If the Hudson familyRuby, her father and brotherhad only remained in San Francisco it never would have happened, the one fleeting moment that changed them all forever. She slapped away a leaf that had become tangled in her auburn hair. Blue or green? She should know the color of Alice's eyes.
Her skin prickled as the leaves rattled out a hollow rasping chorus in the breeze. It had been a June day then, too. Ruby, desperate to play outside, had badgered her father until he acquiesced with strict ordersshe was only to walk to the end of the graveled path and back with little Alice who had come to play.
No straying, Ruby.
The woods were dark and dangerous.
More than dangerous, she'd learned.
The hair on the back of her neck stood up, along with the feeling that there were eyes on her that very moment. The same sensation she'd gotten the day before, and on and off for weeks since the tree removal had begun. She suspected it was Josephine again, following her, begging her not to cut the trees that somehow preserved the hope that her daughter would return.
She listened. Nothing. There is no evil in these woods, she told herself firmly.
Then what happened to Alice all those years ago? She'd seen Peter Stokes that day, a jovial fifteen-year-old who lived nearby with his mother and little brother, Cooper. Peter had become the main suspect for a while.
He'd returned to the tiny town of Silver Peak four months ago, living in the rickety cabin just beyond the edge of sanctuary property. She wondered how she would feel if they came face-to-face. Was he a man she'd falsely accused? Or the person who hid the guilty truth from them all?
Ruby shook the clinging past aside and climbed up the rough limbs.
A drop of moisture fell from above and left a cold trail along her temple. She shimmied up, using the latticework of branches. She'd measured the nest before, adding to her study notes, a good nine feet in diameter, conical, wedged into the fork of the pine. The nest had been abandoned years before as the trees around grew taller. Eagles liked to have a clear, unobstructed view. The glimmer of gold was a few feet away and she had to take a precarious step out onto a lower branch to reach it. It creaked ominously under her feet. With straining fingers she stretched farther, past the bleached white bones of a rabbit and the glistening ribs of a long-dead trout. A few inches more.
Sweat beaded her brow in spite of the cool. She could not reach it, not without stepping out onto a weaker branch that would deliver her fifteen feet straight to the ground. She remembered the pencil behind her ear and used it to hook the gold object. It was stuck on a dried conifer branch, one of many wedged into the aerie by the male during incubation for some reason known only to eagles. She dislodged it, sending a cascade of brittle bones to the forest floor.
She scooted toward the trunk and stared at the object in her hands.
A necklace, small and delicate. Her heart froze over, the beats crystallizing in horror as she contemplated the heart charm hanging from the chain with a letter inscribed on it. A tiny A. For Alice.
The child who had vanished without a trace that long ago day in the dark and dangerous woods. It was as if all her memories flooded her mind in one horrifying rush. Alice, Alice, her mind cried out. What happened to you? Did Peter hurt you? Was it a stranger? What should I have done? The cold metal locket seemed to chill her palm.
Somehow, her body guided her down from the tree until she dropped heavily onto the soft cushion of needles.
She stared at the necklace dangling from her nerveless fingers.
"My baby's," came a sibilant whisper that made Ruby cry out.
She whirled to see a gaunt woman, gray eyes in a dead white face. Long silvered hair streamed over her shoulders. Her mouth was twisted in a horrified line. "That necklace. It belongs to my baby. I want it."
Ruby forced her mouth to work. "Mrs. Walker?" Ruby felt the hunger in Josephine's eyes, a ferocious need to connect to Ruby because Ruby was there and her daughter was not.
"It's Alice's. You took it. You took her. I see the truth now. It wasn't a stranger. Or Peter. It was you."
"No," Ruby started to say until anguish closed up her throat. She fought for breath. "Mrs. Walker, I don't know what happened to Alice. I did not see the person who took her. Remember? I told you before."
She pointed a finger at Ruby, the nail broken and dirty. "You wanted her necklace. Give it to me."
Fear arced violently inside Ruby. "I found it in the nest, up there."
Mrs. Walker did not look up. Her red-rimmed gaze never left Ruby's face.
"You took her."
"No, I did not. Alice was my friend. I would never." Ruby's throat thickened as she fought tears. She moved back a step. "This is evidence. We can go to the police again. It might help them find her." She felt cruel saying it. After two decades they would not find Alice, not alive anyway. Everyone knew this, yet a tiny flame of hope never died inside Ruby, and she knew that flame must be a roaring fire inside the mother whose daughter had vanished without a trace.
Mrs. Walker cocked her head and for a moment, Ruby thought she understood. Then her eyes narrowed, mouth twisted. "I've been watching you. All these months, I've been watching you make your plans to hide your guilt. Did you think cutting down the forest would keep you safe?"
Cold rippled through Ruby's body. She could not reply.
"You took my daughter, and you want to take her necklace now. That was from her father. You cut down the trees so she can't find her way home."
"Mrs. Walker," Ruby whispered. "Please listen to me."
Mrs. Walker pulled a knife from her pocket. She gripped the white handle, the blade winking in the dappled light. Ruby's mouth went dry.
"You took my Alice."
Ruby could only shake her head, the necklace vibrating in her trembling hand.
"You took my baby," Mrs. Walker said again. With each word her voice rose in volume until it was a shriek that reverberated through the trees, startling two Meadowlarks into flight. "I want her back."
Ruby screamed and threw up her hand as the knife flashed toward her.
* * *
Cooper Stokes regarded the mess of a cabin his family had called home once upon a time. Though his brother, Peter, had returned some months before, dust blanketed the shelves, the carpet was dark with ugly stains and everything that had been worth a nickel had been hocked, no doubt. A mouse skittered along the top of the kitchen cupboard, regarding him with curious, twitching whiskers as if to ask why anyone of the human variety would choose to come here.
"No choice, mouse, so deal with it," he said, his voice odd and hollow in the silent space. It was a wreck, in much the same way his brother Peter's life had been for the past twenty years since suspicion cloaked him in a cloud of darkness from which he couldn't escape. Cooper sneezed, a wave of doubt rushing through him. He'd allowed himself to believe that Peter was sober, holding down a job, finally. Cooper's contract to work in the adjoining national forest seemed serendipitous. Go crash with Peter for a while. To enjoy the company of his sober brother? His darker thoughts took over. Or to check up on him?
It was incredible to think that Peter could again make a home here in this wreck, especially with the memories crawling around as numerous as the rodents.
Suddenly, he felt closed in by the space, though the high ceiling gave ample room even for his six-foot frame. Dust eddied around his feet as he escaped onto the front porch, sucking in deep breaths which calmed his nerves. The view outside made up for the disastrous interior. Pete's cabin backed onto the Hudson Raptor Sanctuary.
A sanctuary. Ironic. Peter had found no sanctuary there, not one friendly soul to believe in his innocence.
A scream split the air and he froze. Bird?
Another shrill cry. The hair on his arms raised as he determined it was not an animal sound, but human.
He vaulted over the split railing rather than taking time for the stairs and charged onto the sanctuary property, sprinting along a path in the direction from which he thought he'd detected the scream. Five minutes later he stopped, breathing hard. Trees crowded every square inch of the forest floor except for a narrow ribbon of trail that branched off into two directions. Which way? He listened.
Shouts now, instead of the scream, coming from the eastern fork of the trail. He barreled ahead, slapping branches out of his way. Small critters, maybe lizards, maybe not, scuttled away from his graceless progress.
Finally he emerged into a hollow, filled with cracked boulders that hemmed in a massive threesome of pines.
An older woman with long silver hair whirled to face him.
"What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
The woman didn't answer, but something in her eyes caused his pulse to tick up a notch. A vacancy in the pupils, insanity even.
Then he saw the knife in her hand, something dark staining the handle.
"She took my daughter," she said, voice low and soft.
"She?" Cooper dropped his gaze to the ground behind the lady, finally noticing what his brain did not want to believe. A young woman lay on her side unmoving, auburn hair covering her face.
"She needs help," he said, in what he hoped was a placating tone.
"No, no, no," the old woman chanted. "She took my girl."
The last word was gathered up by the wind that danced around the grove, caught along with the pine needles that drifted, lifeless to the ground.
He kept his voice low and level. "Whatever it is that you think she did, it's no reason to hurt her. Move away and let me help. Please."
The woman looked at the prone figure lying at her feet. "I had a girl once."
"So you know how sad her family will be if she doesn't come home."
She nodded, a sudden wash of tears coursing down her cheeks. "Yes." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "They'll be so sad because they'll never know."
He didn't follow, but there was no time to press the point. If the girl had been stabbed, she might be bleeding out. "Yes, very sad. Let me help her."
A long moment passed while the woman considered, hair rippling around her face. Abruptly, she shuffled into the trees, making her own way where there was no trail to be seen.
Cooper went to the victim, pushing aside the sheaf of hair. There was something familiar about the heart-shaped face, spattered with freckles, wide cheekbones and a delicate mouth. A bruise darkened her right temple.
She was breathing on her own. A blessing he'd take gratefully. He ran his hands along her slender arms and legs, checking both for breaks and blood. Everything appeared to be intact. Gently he lifted the bottom edge of her jacket, near a tear that pointed to the knife entry point.
There was a grunt from somewhere behind him, guttural and bearlike and Cooper felt himself being jerked back and slammed against a tree. He stared into the furious face of Mick Hudson. Things became clear in spite of the ringing in his head. The woman on the ground was Mick's sister Ruby, whom Cooper had not seen since she'd ruined his brother's life.
Cooper blocked an incoming punch and threw his own weight against the big man, knocking him back, but only for a moment.
"What did you do to my sister?" Mick barked.
"Nothing. I heard a scream. There was a crazy woman standing over her with a knife. She's hurt and while you stand here trying to take me down, she may be bleeding to death."
Mick considered for a split second before he knelt by his sister, shoulders still heaving. "Bee, honey?" he whispered in a tender voice totally out of keeping with his toughened face and fists. He looked from her to Cooper.
"You a doctor?"
"No, but I've got some medical training. I was checking for a stab wound when you jumped me."
Mick moved aside. "Well, help her then." He obviously did not remember Cooper Stokes, brother of the most despised man in the county. Just as well.
Cooper bent and resumed his examination. "Here," he said, pointing to a thin ribbon of blood bisecting Ruby's creamy skin at the waist. "She's cut, but it's not deep. She's got a bump on her head which might be a bigger issue. We should get her to a doctor."
"I'll do it. Thanks." Mick didn't wait for any more discussion. He lifted Ruby from the ground and plunged back down the path from which he'd come. Cooper flexed his shoulder, sore from getting shoved into the tree trunk. He should go back to the cabin, let go of the thought of the red-haired Ruby Hudson, especially after what she'd done. It was clear that if he dared to follow Mick there would be trouble.
That was just fine with Cooper. He'd had his share of it, and he wasn't going to shy away.
He took off through the dappled woods after Mick and his wounded sister.