My entire world shattered on a cold, rainy, miserable night in early December.
The evening started off depressingly normal with a blind date arranged by my sister, Steph. Now, I love Steph to death, and I know she means well, but her ability to pick just the kind of man I’m least likely to hit it off with is legendary.
My date du jour, Jim, was good-looking, unattached, and conspicuously charming, at least on the surface. In Steph’s book, that made him perfect for me. Little details like his self-absorption and thinly veiled disrespect for women had apparently escaped her notice. They did not, however, escape mine.
When my cell phone rang, I practically dove into my purse to find it, praying the call would grant me a reprieve from the date from hell. I did a mental happy dance when I glanced at the caller ID and saw the name Emmitt Cartwright.
I gave Jim my best imitation of a chagrined expression. “I’m so sorry,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound relieved. “It’s a client. I have to take it.”
He indicated it was okay with a magnanimous sweep of his arm. His face conveyed another message—something along the lines of how much he loathed people who interrupted romantic dinners for something so crass as business. Considering some of the views he’d expressed over appetizers, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he were a charter member of the “women belong in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant” club.
I dismissed Jim’s disapproval and answered the call as I pushed away from the table, heading for a quiet corner near the back of the restaurant where I could talk in something resembling privacy.
“Nikki Glass,” I said.
“Miss Glass,” Emmitt said, sounding relieved to have reached me. I’d tried to convince him to call me Nikki, but he had the quaintly old-fashioned habit of reverting to “Miss Glass” whenever I failed to remind him. It made him sound almost grandfatherly, although he was younger than me. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
I smiled, glancing over at the table where Jim sat with his legs crossed and his fingers tapping impatiently. “Nothing that didn’t badly need interrupting,” I assured him. “Is everything all right?”
He hesitated a moment. “I . . . don’t know.”
I raised an eyebrow at that hesitation. I’d only met him in person once, but that was enough to leave a strong impression. He wasn’t the hesitant type. The man practically had “alpha male” tattooed on his forehead.
“Maggie called me,” he said quietly.
I leaned against the wall and bit my lip, trying to figure out what to make of this new development. Maggie was his ex-girlfriend, and he obviously hadn’t gotten over her yet. He’d originally hired me to track her down after she’d left him for a guy he suspected of belonging to a weird cult of some kind. He’d said he was worried the cult was going to indoctrinate her.
“What did she have to say?” I asked, genuinely curious. I’d had very little luck in my investigations so far. Maggie and the other members of this so-called cult lived together in a massive mansion in Arlington, Virginia, and discreet inquiries in the neighborhood had revealed only that they “kept to themselves.” Real helpful. All I had to show for my investigation so far were names and a handful of surveillance photos, and I’d been lucky to get those.
“She said she wanted out. She wants me to come get her.”
I frowned. This seemed like exactly the kind of break Emmitt had been hoping for, and I wondered why he hadn’t already whisked her away.
“She’s going to wedge the front gate open, and I’m supposed to drive up to the back and pick her up,” Emmitt continued.
Ah. Now I had a hint why he hadn’t already run to the rescue.
“In other words, she thinks someone might try to stop her, so she’s trying to make a fast, quiet getaway.”
“Yeah. Something like that. I’d like you to come with me. I want another witness there in case things get … weird.”
All right, that I hadn’t been expecting. “I’m not really sure I’d be much help,” I said. Emmitt was about as imposing a human being as I could imagine. I’m five foot two, fine-boned, and female. Anyone not intimidated by Emmitt wouldn’t even give me a second glance. “ Maybe you should call the police.”
“And tell them what? I have no proof of anything, and Maggie didn’t even say she was being threatened. I’m probably just being paranoid, but I don’t like the idea of going up there alone. Just in case. This cult believes some very strange stuff, and I don’t think it’s smart to expect them to act rationally.”
Everything substantive I’d learned about the cult’s beliefs had come from Emmitt himself, though he’d always been a little vague about how he’d learned the details. Apparently, they believed themselves to be descended of gods and therefore immortal. I didn’t doubt that these nut-jobs were dangerous, but my gut was telling me to turn Emmitt down. This wasn’t a job for a private investigator. At least, not for this private investigator.
“I’ll pay double your fee,” Emmitt said, sounding almost desperate. “But I don’t want to keep her waiting too long. I don’t want to give her time to change her mind.”
“Money isn’t the issue,” I assured him. “I just don’t think …”
“Please humor me, okay? I don’t have anyone else I can ask on short notice.”
I glanced over at the table, where Jim’s body language was screaming even more loudly that he resented me taking this call. The server had brought our entrees while I was talking. My stomach gave an unhappy grumble at the thought of going hungry, but I wasn’t anxious to spend the next hour or so gnashing my teeth to keep from telling Jim exactly what I thought of him. Emmitt was giving me a perfect excuse to cut the evening short, and he was going to pay me, to boot.
I decided to ignore my gut instinct and agreed to meet Emmitt at the gate in front of the house.
I’m twenty-five years old and have been listening to my gut all my life. I should have known better than to ignore it.
The skies opened up as soon as I left the restaurant, and by the time I pulled up to the gate in Arlington, the rain was mixed with sleet and the streets were growing slick. All the worst moments of my life have been associated with rain, so this should have been another clue it was time for me to turn around. My windshield wipers squeaked and squealed as they tried their best to dash the rain away. I’d meant to replace the wiper blades months ago.
The neighborhood was dark and quiet. Most of the houses were set far enough back from the road that they were hidden from view, and the streetlights were few and far between. Close to D.C. as it was, the neighborhood still felt distant from all the hustle and bustle, and I seemed to be the only person out and about in this weather.
I’d expected Emmitt to be waiting for me at the gate, but when I pulled up, I saw no sign of his car, nor of him. The gate stood open, however, making me wonder if Emmitt had gotten impatient and decided not to wait for me.
I pulled off to the side of the road, keeping the car running and the headlights pointing at the gate, then dug out my phone and called Emmitt’s cell. There was no answer. A chill that had nothing to do with the frigid weather or the sleet crept down my spine. I knew he had his cell phone with him, since that was the number he’d called me from. So why wasn’t he answering?
“Damn it,” I muttered under my breath. This was so not my type of gig.
I sat there for a good ten minutes, debating what to do between repeated attempts to get Emmitt on the phone. The rain had turned to sleet, and icicles were forming on the gate. The branches of the trees beside the road hung low, weighted down by a thin coating of ice. There was no sound except the steady ping of the sleet bouncing off the windshield and the roof of my car.
Finally, I blew out a deep breath and put the car in drive. I couldn’t sit idling forever. My choices were to turn around and go home, or drive through the gate and make sure everything was okay. Doing so was technically trespassing, but the gate was hanging open like an invitation. Emmitt had almost certainly gone in without me, and if he had, his failure to answer the phone was a bad sign.
“Screw it,” I decided, and maneuvered the car carefully down the driveway, my tires struggling to find a grip on the ice-slicked asphalt.
I gave the ice the respect it deserved, driving slowly and trying not to make any sudden moves. Even so, my car slipped and slid, and I gripped the steering wheel tightly as I struggled to keep control. The damn driveway meandered through trees too evenly spaced to be natural growth. I wished whoever had done the landscaping had kept the trees farther back from the road. There wasn’t a hell of a lot of room for error if I lost control of the car. Streetlights would have been a nice touch, too.
My nerves were taut, and I had to remind myself to breathe every once in a while. Driving in snow I can handle, but the sleet was a nightmare. I worked my way around yet another curve in the driveway, one that seemed specifically designed to send cars careening into the trees. I let out a sigh when the driveway finally straightened out, the lights of the house itself just visible in the distance. Anxious to find Emmitt and get out of there, I gave the car a little more gas than was strictly wise.
My only warning was a glimpse of movement in the trees off to my right. Then, as if he’d appeared literally out of nowhere, a figure stood in the middle of the road, barely two yards from my car.
With a shriek of alarm, I instinctively slammed on the brakes. If I’d had half a second to think about it, I’d have remembered that slamming brakes on an icy road was a bad idea. The wheels locked up, and the car skidded forward, the back slewing to one side.
The figure in the road made no attempt to get out of the way. At the last moment, he raised his head, and I recognized Emmitt’s face in the glare of the headlights. His eyes met mine, and I’ll never forget the small smile that curved his lips. Then the car slammed into him with a sickening wet thunk.
I screamed again, my car now spinning like a top as the airbag exploded out toward my face. The impact slammed my head back against the headrest. Though I tried to turn the wheel into the skid, I was so disoriented, I didn’t know which way that was.
Out of the side window, I saw a tree trunk heading my way. The side of the car crunched with the impact, safety glass shattering and peppering my face as I held up my hand to protect my eyes. The car door crumpled under the pressure, and something sharp and hard stabbed into my side, the pain blinding. Even as my head snapped to one side, the car caromed into another tree. Something struck the other side of my head, and everything went black.
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