On Connolly’s GPS, Ani pinpoints the rough area of the hunting cabin. It’s in a forest, not surprisingly. While we don’t see a road, presumably there’s one going at least close to it if they dropped Ani off there. We analyze the area using satellite imagery maps and spot what we’re looking for.
Along the way, I explain the situation to her—Necklace of Harmonia, auction in four days, multiple interested parties all jockeying to hire curse weavers. She dismisses it as nonsense, of course . . . until I tell her Jonathan has investigated and declared it legit.
We arrive at the juncture between the regional highway and the road to the shack. Calling it a road, though, grossly overstates the matter. It starts off as gravel and then becomes dirt and finally narrows to two grassy tracks through the forest. That’s the point where we abandon the car, to Connolly’s obvious relief. I’m sure he looked down that narrow trail and envisioned every branch gouging paint. This is why I respect guys with second-hand pickups. Four-wheel drive gets you everywhere you need to go, and there are enough stressors in life without fretting over scratches and dings.
While we suspect this “road” runs close to the shack, Ani hadn’t found it while escaping. That means it probably passes a short walk away . . . hidden behind dense woods.
Luckily, Ani spots landmarks that tell her we’re on the right track and help her gauge distance. It’s a testament to her level-headedness that, while fleeing captivity, she’d had the presence of mind to note landscape features. That doesn’t keep Connolly from asking “Are you certain?” every time she recognizes something.
“You could go search on your own,” I say.
“That seems unwise.”
“Cell service works out here. You can call if you find it first.”
“You shouldn’t be alone in the forest, especially when there could be kidnappers nearby.”
Yeah, it’s a lovely excuse, but I suspect he’s the one who doesn’t want to be alone. I doubt he’s ever set foot on a trail. He walks along the hard dirt paths as if they’re quicksand, sucking at his designer leather shoes, and he bats aside every twig as if it’s crawling with spiders.
“You could go back to the car,” I say. “We have this.”
“The dirt will come off your shoes,” I say. “Guaranteed. Also, those branches aren’t poisonous. Not the vines either.”
“I noted three leaves on that last one, which I believe indicates poison ivy.”
“Poison ivy is that right over there.” I point to a patch. “The vines are Virginia creeper. That tree is a yellow birch. That other one is a white ash. The bush is hawthorn. Beware of those. They won’t rip your shirt, but they can scratch.”
Connolly eyes the vine. “You’re certain this isn’t poison ivy?”
“Listen to my sister,” Ani calls back from up ahead. “She spent two summers as a park ranger.”
“Caught the bug in Girl Scouts.” I glance at him. “I’m going to guess you were never a Boy Scout.”
“No, my parents said that was for the mid—” He stops short.
“Middle class? Along with hiking and camping and all outdoor activities, I’m guessing.”
“We did sail,” he says. “And I row.”
“Oooh, I love shooting rapids.”
“There . . . aren’t many rapids where I row. I’m on a sculling team. A group of us continued the sport after graduating from college.”
“Harvard for business, right?”
“Yes. How—? Ah. Jonathan must have found that in his research.”
“Nope, just a wild guess.”
Ani glances back and looks between us. “I have nothing to worry about.”
“About what?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she says with another look from me to Connolly. “Nothing at all.”
Connolly is actually the one who spots the cabin first. I think his brain sees a familiar shape and screams “Civilization!” His steps definitely lighten. Then he gets a good look at the building.
As advertised, it’s a hunting shack and exactly what I’d expect from that. A single room structure that threatens to collapse in a strong wind. Part of the porch is missing. Bone wind-chimes and animal skulls nailed to the wall give it a nice Texas Chainsaw Massacre touch, though.
“People live here?” Connolly says.
“If they’re lucky,” I say. “Do you know how much these cottages cost? We used to dream about getting a place like this, spending our summers watching the stars through the holes in the roof, playing with the families of mice living under the floorboards. It’s only a ten-mile walk to the ocean. Paradise.”
“She’s kidding,” Ani says. “And the fact that I need to clarify that says so much. No one lives here, Aiden. It’s a hunting shack.”
“For hunters, yes?” he says. “They live here while they hunt.”
“That’s not how a hunting shack works,” I say. “See, a place like this has been passed down, generation to generation. When the weekend comes and the wife gives you a list of chores, you say you’re going hunting with the guys. You come out here, shoot a grouse or two and then head inside. Light the fireplace. Pull out the lawn chairs. Drink beer until it’s safe to go home again.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You know the men’s lounge at your country club?” Ani says.
He perks up. “Yes.”
“Think of it as that.”
He nods. “My father spent many Saturday afternoons there. And your father went to places like this, right?”
“Our father was a small-town doctor,” I say. “He didn’t have time for places like this. If he got an afternoon off, he spent it at home, hanging out with us. Now, we’re supposed to be scouting for clues, right? There’s a path over there with broken undergrowth and twigs. That shows where they carried Ani through. We can follow it back later and see where it goes, look for any clues along the way.”
“You’re quite good at this,” Connolly says. “You watch a lot of crime shows, I presume?”
“Books,” Ani says. “She reads books.”
I shrug. “Small town. Big library. We didn’t have cable growing up and the internet’s too crappy to stream. I read a lot.”
“Your parents encouraged you to read,” Connolly says. “That’s good.”
“And very middle class?” I say.
“No, I just meant that it’s good you picked up the hobby. Reading expands the mind, and literacy of any sort, even mystery novels . . .” He catches my look. “That’s condescending, isn’t it?”
“Yep. Good catch, though. Now, let’s split up and look around. We’ll save the cabin for last.”
I’ve examined as much of the surrounding forest as I can. Now I’m standing at the front door, studying it. I step forward and—
A figure leaps from the bushes, slamming into my side and knocking me to the ground. I jab up, my elbow making contact. The figure grunts, and I try to shove him aside, but he’s holding me down, his back arched over me, arms out as if to shield us. I’m about to slam my elbow into him again when I catch a flash of red-gold hair.
“Connolly?” I say. “What the hell?”
A throat clearing from behind us. “That’s my question,” Ani says. “Perhaps even more strongly worded. Please tell me there’s a valid reason why you’re lying on my sister. I have no idea what that reason could be, but I’m hopeful.”
“Get away from the door!” he says, waving. “It’s armed.”
“Uh-huh,” Ani says. “Try again, Mr. Connolly.”
He rises as I push up to my feet.
“The door is armed,” he says coolly. “Your sister was about to open it when I saw the device.”
“You meant the one in the top right corner?” I ask. “The black box that’ll trigger something when the door opens.”
“Er, yes. So you saw it? And you were still opening the door?”
“Did you see my hand anywhere near the knob?” I shake my head as I walk over. “I was getting a closer look. It’s like the alert on my showroom. Not triggering a bomb or a shotgun but a signal, one that tells someone—in this case the kidnappers—that the door has been opened.”
Ani stands on tiptoes to peer at the trigger. “Huh, she’s right. It’s a battery-operated signal device.”
“Presumably operating on cellular service,” I say.
“So it was already triggered when you left,” Connolly says to Ani. “Meaning your kidnappers know you’re free and could be combing the forest for you right now.”
“I crawled out a window.”
I nod. “If you’re being held captive in a cabin, you aren’t going to waltz out the front door. You could walk right into your kidnappers, having a nice cup of tea. Or you could trip an alarm. The sensible answer is to find another way out.”
“So why put that on the front door?” Connolly asks.
“Because they didn’t expect Ani to be sensible. The trigger was to let them know if she escaped. Which means there’s only one thing to do.”
Connolly nods. “Stay far away from—”
“Open the front door.”
I reach for it. Both Ani and Connolly jump to stop me.
I pause. “You’re right. We should go in the window, take a look around and then open the front door.”
“Or not open the front door at all,” Ani says.
“But if it brings them running, isn’t that what we want? They still have Hope.”
After a moment, Connolly says, “That’s actually a good idea.”
“One of these times, you will stop sounding so shocked when you say that. Now, Ani, show us how you got out, and then we’ll summon the demons who stole our sister.”