Toni sat back in the old wicker rocker and closed her eyes; content to listen to the birds and anything else Mother Nature had to offer. She breathed in deeply the crisp mountain air, filling her lungs, thankful to be free at last. Six weeks as a juror on a murder trial and another two sequestered in a hotel room had taken its toll. She was thankful it was over and that her friend, Mary, had offered up her family cabin for a change of scenery, a mini vacation before returning to work and the real world again.
She’d arrived early that morning and had already taken a run around the lake. Weeks of sitting in a chair had been sheer torture, especially for someone that worked out every day. Not that she was a fanatic or anything, but Toni liked to eat, and that meant she had to work it off. Smiling, she thought about the chocolate cream pie she’d brought up with the rest of her groceries. That was going to cost her a few extra trips around the lake.
A rattling in the bushes prompted Toni to open her eyes to investigate. She glanced around, seeing nothing except trees, the lake, and more trees. The cabin was situated on the side of the mountain, deep in the back woods of North Carolina. Mary had told her that her great-grandparents had built it in the twenties, and at their request, the house had not been sold when they’d passed away. Toni was glad, grateful to have a place that she could escape to that was peaceful and quiet, and away from everything.
The phone began to ring inside the cabin, but she didn’t attempt to get up, certain the caller was Mary. She was the only one who knew Toni was there. It’s wasn’t that she didn’t want to talk to Mary, just not at that moment. Her friend was a little long-winded, and Toni just didn’t feel like getting into a long conversation that was usually about nothing. Besides, she’d promised to call sometime later that week to touch base.
She and Mary had grown up like sisters in St. Evangeline’s Orphanage and had always been close. Close in age, they’d arrived at the orphanage within a week of each other, too old for adoption at the age of five, when everyone wanted babies or young toddlers.
Mary had been lucky, though, once it had been discovered that she had family. The product of a runaway teen, her mother had died in a car crash. Years had passed before her grandparents found out they had a granddaughter when Mary was fifteen. They’d quickly removed her from St. Evangeline’s, and three years had gone by before Toni saw her again. Throughout it all they had remained in touch.
Mary was the only family Toni had ever known. At twenty-four, Toni worked a mundane job at the local library and had few acquaintances, some people she hung out with sometimes after work, but that was all. She blamed herself for not letting anyone get close to her. No matter where she was, she felt like she just didn’t fit in.
Finally the phone stopped ringing and all grew quiet again. That was one of the things Toni liked best about being in the mountains—it was nature in all its glory, everything was alive with lush and vibrant color, the sounds of birds and animals were comforting music to her ears. The sky seemed bluer, the air crisper. If she could live there year-round she would have, in spite of the rumors that there were some kind of elusive, backwoods people living deep in the mountains.
That story was as silly as the one that had been going around for centuries about Bigfoot. Toni took the rumor as a ploy from small-town locals to draw more tourists into the area to boost their economy. These legends attracted the curious thrill-seekers, photographers, and scientists who wanted to be the first to find these mysterious people and make their mark in history, or the hunters, who had their own big dreams and were certain that these sightings were of Bigfoot. Whenever there was a new sighting the freaks came out of the woodwork and the towns prospered.
The surrounding towns were small and populated with well-established families whose roots went back for generations. They were loyal, good people that chose a simpler way of life that could be considered archaic when compared with some of the country’s upscale communities. Their Mayberry way of life was okay with Toni. Most of the locals were friendly and helpful when the need arose, and generally minded their own business.
A shrill scream drew her attention toward the sky, where she saw a hawk soaring with a fish in its beak. She watched its graceful movements for a moment, envying the freedom it had. Soon it was joined by another, probably its mate, and they soared away toward the mountain peaks. She watched until the tree tops got in the way, and then closed her eyes again with a wistful sigh.
Her thoughts drifted to Marco Rivera. Found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, thanks to her and the other jurors, he would never again know what freedom was. For as long as Toni lived she’d never forget the look he gave each and every one of them, or the curses and threats he’d screamed at them when he was dragged from the courtroom. She was glad it was over and that she’d never have to see him again.
She tried to move into a more comfortable position, moaning low. The muscles she hadn’t used during the trial were stiffening from her first jog since the trial. She should have started with something easier, like a swim in the nearby lake. Maybe a swim now would help ease some of the soreness. She knew the water would be cold but invigorating, and with no one around she could skinny-dip if she wanted to.
Toni eventually dozed until the persistent ringing of the phone woke her. Swearing with annoyance, she jumped up from the rocker, practically tearing the screen door off its hinges as she rushed inside, hoping to get to the phone in time. Something must be up with Mary.
“Well it’s about darn time!” Mary’s usually cheerful voice was laced with heavy irritation. “I was about to drive myself up there to make sure you were okay.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Toni sat down on the arm of a nearby chair. “I thought we were going to touch base later this week.”
“I know, but there’s something I have to tell you that couldn’t wait. Just in case.”
Toni frowned. “Just in case of what?” She could hear Mary’s little ones screaming and laughing in the background.
“In case you need to go somewhere else. Have you had the TV on at all since you got there?”
Mary took a deep breath. “Then you haven’t heard. You know who Don Roberts and Lucy Monroe are, right?”
“Of course. They were jurors with me.” Don was a thirty-year-old manager of a men’s clothing store outlet, married and without children. Lucy, a young grandmother at thirty-six, was divorced and running her own little tearoom. You didn’t remain sequestered with the same people for two months and not learn a little something about them.
“Toni, it was on the news this morning. They were both found dead.”
“Yes! It’s too early to tell but there’s speculation that it’s connected to the murder trial. The police have been calling me, looking for you. The word is they’re putting the remaining jurors under protective custody until they know what’s going on.”
“You didn’t tell them where I was, did you?” Not too many people knew about the cabin.
“No, that’s why I’m calling you. What do you want me to do?”
Toni thought about it for a moment. “No one but you knows I’m here, and if they did, good luck trying to find this place, it’s not even on a map. I drove around lost for an hour. I should be okay for tonight, don’t you think?”
“Probably, but I don’t think you should take any chances.”
Mary was the ever-cautious one. Toni sighed with resignation. “Damn it!” She unwillingly thought about poor Don and Lucy. They were nice people. She didn’t want to ask how they died. “I guess I’d better call and talk to Detective Todd. I trust her.”
“Good idea, then call me back. Be careful, hon, keep your phone with you, and make sure everything is locked up. Do you want me to drive up? I can be there in four hours.”
There was no way Toni was going to have her come up there if something was going on. “Maybe tomorrow, depends on what Detective Todd advises.” She’d already decided that if they were going to insist on police custody there was no better place to hide out than right where she was. She would just have to convince them of that.
“Do you think it’s just a coincidence?”
Toni thought about the threats that Rivera had hurled at the jurors at the end of the trail. “Probably not, but at least the authorities aren’t taking any changes. I’ll call you back in a few.”
She sighed deeply when she disconnected. This isn’t happening! So much for a few days of peace and quiet with no worries. Apparently Marco Rivera was making good on his threats. Maybe she should just take off and go someplace where no one knew where she was. She could contact the police herself and tell them where she was later. But then she recalled what had come out during the trial—the low-life drug dealer had a lot of people on his payroll, including those who were supposed to protect and enforce the law. Detective Todd was the only one Toni trusted in law enforcement right now.
Damn it! Toni was glad she’d done her civic duty, but she wasn’t going to let it rule her life now that it was over. Still, she’d phone the detective and at least let her know where she was. She was glad she’d added the no nonsense, twenty-year veteran to her contact list so that it was easy to scroll down to her name and call. She didn’t have to wait long before the phone was picked up at the other end.
“Dooley Police Station, Detective Todd, how may I help you?”
“Detective Todd, this is Toni Davenport. My friend Mary said that you’ve been looking for me?” Toni had listed Mary as her emergency contact, so it didn’t surprise her that she’d been called.
“Thank goodness you phoned! Your old number doesn’t work anymore. I suppose she informed you of the circumstances?” There was genuine relief in her business-like tone.
Toni had dropped and broken her phone soon after the trial, and had been forced to get a new one, opting for an unlisted number. “Yes, Mary told me about Lucy’s and Don’s death, that’s just awful. She explained that the other jurors have been placed under police custody.”
“Murders,” Detective Todd corrected. “We’ve established that their deaths aren’t a coincidence. An attempt was made about an hour ago on Mandy Jones. Luckily there was an off duty officer at the same gas station she’d stopped at, and he was able to stop the hit from going down.”
Hit! “Oh, no!”
“Okay, so where are you?”
“I’m in a remote cabin in the mountains. The only ones who know I’m here are you and Mary, and she won’t tell anyone. It would be nearly impossible to find me without directions, and even then it would be hard.”
“Here’s what I want you to do,” Detective Todd began, and Toni could hear the rustle of papers. “Give me explicit directions; we’re going to come to you. If we feel your location is safe, we’ll make a decision about whether or not to remain there temporarily.”
“As soon as we can.”
“No I mean, how long do you think we’ll have to stay in protective custody?”
Detective Todd released a heavy sigh. “There’s absolutely no way of knowing that, but we have detectives working on this round the clock. Don’t go anywhere until we get to your cabin and don’t answer your phone.”
Toni frowned. “Don’t answer my phone?”
“GPS tracking device,” she explained. “We can’t take a chance that they don’t have one. If it’s sophisticated enough it only takes seconds to trace someone’s whereabouts.”
The uneasy feeling in Toni’s belly intensified. The only thing that made her feel better was knowing that it would take hours for anyone to reach her. “What about Mary, I told her I’d call her back.”
“After we hang up I’d rather you not use your phone at all. I have Mary’s number and will call her for you. Look, I’m going to contact the local police in your area and ask them to send someone to stay with you until we get there.”
“Do you really think that’s necessary?”
“It’s just a precaution.” Toni could tell Detective Todd was trying to downplay the situation. “If your place is as secluded as you say, you should be fine.”
Toni thought about the amount of time it had taken her to get there and the wrong turn she’d taken on the way. Once she’d left the main highway and driven deeper into the mountains there were many unmarked turn-offs, and it was easy to take the wrong one, even if you knew where you were going. The dirt roads that crisscrossed the mountains were vast and confusing, but only to those who didn’t live there year round. Knowing all that did make her feel safe, for the time being.
Once Toni had given Detective Todd the detailed directions to the cabin and hung up the phone she felt more isolated than ever. It even seemed quieter outside the cabin than it had earlier. She glanced out the window, surprised at how fast darkness was descending. It had been a few years since she’d been there, and she’d forgotten how rapidly the sun went down in the mountains. She opened up the door to gauge how much time she had before it would be completely dark, estimating that it would be about half an hour.
Toni glanced yearningly at the lake. Did she dare go for a quick swim? By the time she went through her suitcase, dug out her swimsuit, undressed and got into it, it would probably be dark. Better to just take her clothes off and go in her underwear. Without another thought, she rushed to the bathroom for a towel.
She figured she had just about enough time for a few laps. With a towel in hand Toni walked to the water’s edge. She quickly stripped out of her clothes, carefully waded in, and when she was waist deep she kicked off the bottom. It was colder than she was expecting, but the more she swam the warmer she began to feel. She dove several times to the bottom, enjoying the freedom of swimming almost naked. After a while her sore muscles were feeling the benefits of her swim.
As she was making it back to where her clothes were a noise startled her into halting. She tread water while looking around the lake’s shore, assuming it was the local police. Her gaze automatically went to the cabin. She narrowed her eyes against the shadows cloaking the small structure but was only able to make out that there was a vehicle parked close against the side of the cabin. It was parked in a way that blocked her own vehicle so that she wouldn’t be able to leave. Almost simultaneously two men came into view, one from inside the cabin and the other circling around it. Neither were wearing uniforms.
They can’t be the police. Then it dawned on her that there was no way that the police could have gotten there that fast. Toni felt her heart rate begin to pick up speed.
“She can’t have gone far, her car is still here.”
“Well, she’s not inside.” Both men began to look around, and Toni instinctively ducked behind some water grass.
“Fuck, maybe she went out for a walk.” One of them suggested.
“It will be dark in a few minutes. You stay inside, and I’ll take a quick look around the area. And remember, we want this to look like an accident. Once we have her we’ll torch the place.”
Toni caught her breath, fear chilling her more than the frigid water and drop in temperature. For a moment she was frozen in place. What do I do? It was obvious that they were there to kill her. How had they found her so fast? It didn’t make sense, unless they had put a tracking device on her car. They could have done something like that any time.
She thought about her clothes. It wouldn’t take them long to discover them, and then they would know she was in the lake. She heard the sound of snapping twigs and leaves as footsteps moved in her direction. Too afraid to chance a glance, she took a deep breath and sank beneath the surface, then swam in the opposite direction.
It was a large lake. Toni wasn’t even sure she could make it to the other side, but she knew she had to try. And then what? She couldn’t very well hide out in the water all night, she’d die of hypothermia. Her last option of traipsing through the woods to find her nearest neighbor wearing next to nothing was no more appealing.
First things first, she had to get to the other side of the lake. She couldn’t hold her breath that long and soon came up for air. A quick glance behind her confirmed one of the men had found her clothes.
“There! I think I see something over there, in the water!” The other man came running from the direction of the cabin. “It has to be the girl! Get the truck!”
Shit! Toni filled her lungs, and dove beneath the surface again. She continued to swim across the lake, praying she made it there before they did. At least she had a head start. She pushed herself to the limit. The next time she came up for air she paused long enough to listen and search for the truck, hearing it in the distance. Thank God, there wasn’t a road circling the lake, but she knew she wasn’t out of trouble yet. If they were determined to get to her, they would find a way.
When she reached the shoreline, she crawled out of the water and lay there for a moment, gasping for breath and trying to think of what her next move would be. The sound of the men’s approaching vehicle decided it for her. She got to her feet, half stumbled up the embankment, and dove into a wooded area, just as the flash of headlights broke through the trees and landed on her.
“Fuck, man, there she is!” She heard one of them shout out his window.
“I’ll get the bitch!” The other one said, and then Toni heard the unmistakable sound of the door being opened and slammed shut again.
She took off in a dead run, tearing through branches and bushes with only one thought on her mind—she had to get away if she wanted to live. It was completely dark now and she was moving on pure fear and instinct, adrenaline giving her the edge not to question where she put her bare feet. With no direction in mind, she ran and ran, pausing only long enough to catch her breath when she had to and listen to see if they were in pursuit.
At first all Toni could hear was her own labored panting and the eerie sounds of an active nightlife surrounding her in the woods. She became frighteningly aware of how noisy the forest became after dark, of the howls and shrieks, the hoots and screeches of animals as they moved about in the brush in search of food. She had no way of knowing what they were, or how dangerous, and the thought of bears was never far from her mind.
“She went this way!”
The closeness of the harsh comment warned Toni that the men were nearer than she’d hoped. She took off again, forced to go slower this time as the forest grew denser and denser the further she went into it. She was constantly tugging her long hair free from branches or pushing the spidery limbs away from her face and arms. When she wasn’t quick enough to avoid the occasional slap against her skin she ignored the sting, focusing on escape. It didn’t occur to Toni that she was following the sound of running water until she came to the edge of a rocky cliff. At least she thought it was a cliff.
Oh! She just managed to stop from falling off, doing a little jig backwards to gain her balance. It was too dark to see but judging by the noise of rushing water she sensed the black void below her was a river, possibly rapids. She stepped back out of fear. One thing was certain; she wouldn’t attempt the descent until day light. She wasn’t a fool, but she was frightened and beyond exhausted. She couldn’t go on, and she knew she needed to find a place to hide quickly.
Toni turned to backtrack, but that’s as far as she got. It was dark, but she could make out enough of an outline to know that she was facing something big. A bear was her first thought, but it seemed too big to be a bear. Then she realized that whatever it was was standing on two legs, which made him appear even more threatening. She held her breath, fighting down the scream that threatened to rise from her throat. When the ominous shadow moved in her direction, she felt her knees buckle and a crippling wave of terror overtake her. Before she could decide or make a move, she heard a rustling, followed by feet stomping on the ground coming toward them.
“Come on, I think I heard her go this way!”
The dark shape her gaze had been riveted to stopped abruptly and stepped quietly back into the shadows, just as the bushes parted and the two men chasing her broke through. They had flashlights, and stopped upon seeing her. She couldn’t make out their expressions, but she could hear them panting and could well imagine their sense of victory at finding her. An evil snicker was all she heard as they began walking slowly toward her.
When they were within inches of her Toni saw movement behind them, and then everything was happening so fast. The large silhouette moved quickly and silently up behind the two men. Without hesitation it grabbed them by the back of their necks and threw them over the bank with a gritty sound of force. She gasped, hearing their screams diminish the further away they fell, realizing that the ravine was deeper than she had first thought. A distant splash indicated at least one of them had hit water.
Toni stood frozen in fear, barely able to breathe as the menacing shadow turned slowly back toward her. She could just make out the glimmering reflection in his eyes. Oh God, this isn’t happening! She swung around to jump, deciding to take her chances in the river after all. But just as her feet left the ground an arm encircled her waist, hauling her back against a hard-as-granite body, while a large hand that smelled of earth and something manly covered her mouth.
The next thing Toni knew she was sinking into a black abyss.
The Mating Ritual, my first paranormal romance, will be out on 11/15 at Amazon and Smashwords. Tory Richards