The barking of her dog dragged Callie Vanetta from a deep sleep.
Rifle, the German shepherd her parents had given her for Christmas, was only two years old, but he was the smartest animal she’d ever known, certainly savvy enough not to make a racket in the middle of the night without reason. Despite all the critters that scurried around the place after dark, he hadn’t awakened her like this once in the three months since she’d moved to the farm.
So if he thought she had something to worry about, there was a good chance she did.
Despite the warm June night, chills rolled through Callie’s body as she lay on her back, blinking against the darkness. She’d always felt so safe in her grandparents’ home. They’d passed away five years ago, but the comfort of their love and the memories created here lingered on.
Sometimes, when she closed her eyes, she could almost feel their presence.
But not tonight. Fear eclipsed all other emotions, and she wondered what she’d been thinking when she gave up the small apartment above her photography studio downtown. She was out in the middle of nowhere, her closest neighbor over a mile down the road, with her dog sounding an alarm and scratching at the front door as if some menace lay beyond it.
“Rifle?” She whispered his name as loudly as she dared. “Hey!” she added, making kissing sounds.
He charged into her room, but he wasn’t about to settle down. He circled in place, whining to let her know he didn’t like something he heard outside. Then he darted back to the front door, singularly determined to show her where the trouble was.
She thought he might try to rouse her again. He obviously hoped to get her out of bed. But she was so frightened and undecided about what to do she couldn’t move. Especially when he quit barking and emitted a deep, threatening growl—one that told her he’d laid back his ears and bared his teeth.
The hair rose on Callie’s arms. Her dog meant business. She’d never seen him like this. What had him so upset? And what should she do about it? She’d watched too many true-crime shows not to realize what could happen. But, given her health, getting murdered would be too ironic.
Surely, this couldn’t be leading there.
She’d just decided to call the police when a heavy knock sounded and a male voice carried into the house.
“Hello? Anyone home? Sorry to wake you, but…could a man come out here, please? I need some help.”
A man? Whoever was at her door wasn’t from Whiskey Creek. Her family had lived in the area for generations.
Everyone knew that this was the Vanetta farm, that the aging Theona and Herbert had died within months of each other and she was living here alone.
“Hello?” the man called again. “Please, someone answer me!”
Should she respond? Letting him hear her voice would tell him she was a woman, which didn’t seem smart. But she had her dog to defend her. And she had a pellet gun she used to scare off skunks and raccoons and any other animals that might have rabies or get aggressive. Problem was she couldn’t remember where she’d put it. The screened-in porch that overlooked the outbuildings in back? The mudroom off the kitchen? She might even have left it in the barn. Until now, she hadn’t felt any need for self-defense. All the wildlife she’d encountered seemed more afraid of her.
Still, she should’ve kept that gun close. What good was it otherwise? She wasn’t going to scare anyone away with her camera.
“Open up!” Bang, bang, bang.
Drawing a shaky breath, she called 9-1-1 on her cell phone, which had been charging on the nightstand, and, speaking as low as she could and still be heard, told the operator that she had a stranger at her door. The operator advised her to sit tight, a squad car was on its way, but she slid out of bed and groped through the darkness for some clothes. Summer had come early this year. With the weather so mild, she hadn’t worn anything to bed except a pair of panties. In case her visitor tried to break in before the police arrived, she wanted to get dressed.
“Can someone help me?” the man hollered.
Wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, and armed with the knowledge that someone from Whiskey Creek’s four man police force would soon arrive, she crept toward the door. What was wrong?
Despite the ruckus her dog was making, her visitor didn’t seem to be giving up. His determination lent him a degree of credibility, even though she knew her reasoning was flawed. His persistence didn’t necessarily mean he was telling the truth. If he had a gun and was capable of using it, he wouldn’t have to worry about getting bitten.
So…was he really hurt? If the answer was yes, how’d he get that way? And how did he come across her property, tucked away as it was in the Sierra Nevada foothills?
She couldn’t imagine some random individual driving these back roads at one in the morning, especially midweek. She encountered plenty of strangers during tourist season, which was upon them, but always in town. Not out here.
“Shit,” he grumbled when he got no response. Then something hit the door harder than a knock, as if he’d crumpled against the wooden panel and was sliding to the porch floor.
A flicker of concern warred with Callie’s fear.
Maybe he really was hurt. Maybe he’d run his car into a ditch or a tree and injured himself so badly he was…
She snapped on the porch light. Although it went against her better judgment to let him know she was home, he’d managed to convince her that he might really need help. Some of the TV programs depicting real home-invasion robberies also showed innocent victims who were unable to get help because of other people’s fear.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
A swiping sound suggested he was using the door to steady himself as he clambered to his feet. She peered through the peephole, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but even with the porch light on she couldn’t see much—just a man’s head covered in a hooded sweatshirt.
“Thank God,” he said.
She might’ve thought it was one of the Amos brothers. Although they’d calmed down in recent years, a couple of the younger ones still caused problems, from drunken-and-disorderly conduct to selling crystal meth to fighting. But they lived down by the river on the other side of town, they’d never bothered her before and she would’ve recognized the voice.
“Who are you and what do you want?” she called out over Rifle’s barking. The dog was even more excited now that he had the support of his master in taking on this interloper.
“Name is Levi, Levi McCloud. I need a first-aid kit, some water and rags.”
She ignored the second part. “I don’t know a Levi.”
“I’m just…passing through, ma’am.”
He was leaning too close to the door for her to distinguish his features. Was he doing that on purpose?
The idea that he could be made her more nervous than before. “But you decided to stop here?”
“No choice. My motorcycle…broke down a mile or two back.”
“That’s how you got hurt?”
“No. It was a…a couple of dogs. They ran out and attacked me…for no reason…while I was pushing my bike. Got me good, too.”
The way he forced his words through his teeth suggested that he was in pain, but maybe he was faking it. Maybe he was planning to rob her, rape her, possibly kill her.
“Where did this happen?” she asked.
He attempted to laugh but the sound died almost immediately. “Hell if I know. I’ve never been around here before.”
“Then what made you come now?”
“Heard it was pretty country.”
That was it? He was out on a joyride? Alone? His response didn’t seem particularly plausible, but the scenario he gave wasn’t inconceivable. Out here in the country, dogs weren’t always penned up or put on leashes. He could’ve been attacked, as he said.
She was tempted to open the door, if only to verify his story, see his injuries. But she couldn’t take the risk.
“How’d you get away?”
“Listen…” He dropped his head against the door, covering the peephole entirely. Now it was impossible for her to see anything. “I don’t mean to frighten you. Is there…is there a man in the house? Someone else who…who might not…be afraid of me?”
She didn’t want to let on that she was alone. But if a male didn’t take command of the situation soon, he’d know, anyway. Perhaps he’d said that to confirm what he already suspected. “Tell me how you got away from the dogs.”
“I…convinced them I wasn’t…anything they wanted to mess with.”
Meaning he’d hurt the dogs as much as they’d hurt him?
She wondered whose pets they were, and if the incident had really happened. “How badly are you hurt?”
“Hard to tell in the dark, but…it’s bad enough to make me bother you, which isn’t something I wanted to do.”
She wiped sweaty palms on her jeans. “Okay, just…stay where you are. I’ve called for help. The police will be here soon.”
“The police?” Instead of reacting with relief, as she’d expected, he cursed and shoved away from the door.
“Are you serious? They won’t do anything for me.”
“They’ll get you the medical attention you need,” she said, but he wasn’t listening. He was leaving. She could hear the porch creak under his weight.
“Where are you going?” she yelled.
He didn’t answer.
After hurrying to the window, she dropped to her knees in an effort to catch a glimpse of him before he could move out of sight.
For just a moment, she could make out the broad shoulders of a tall, spare man wearing jeans with that hoodie.
Why was he taking off without the help he needed?
And why had he acted so averse to meeting up with the police? Was he wanted? A known felon?
Possibly. He had to have some reason for avoiding the authorities. But seeing how obviously he favored one leg, she believed he really was hurt.
She checked the time on her cell phone, which she’d brought with her. How long could it take to get a cruiser out here? She didn’t want to be any more vulnerable than she already was, but she also didn’t want to be responsible for the death of a lonely, injured stranger.
“Come on, come on,” she muttered, but each minute felt like an hour. When she couldn’t wait any longer, she sprang to her feet and ordered her dog to silence.
Reassured by this show of strength, Rifle stared up at her, tongue hanging out and tail wagging eagerly. He seemed to be asking, “What now? What are we going to do now?”
“We’re going to see where he went,” she told him. She wasn’t sure he could comprehend her words, but speaking calmed her, and he certainly understood her intention. He barked once to confirm that he was ready. Holding him by the collar, she slowly, cautiously, opened the door a crack and peered outside. The porch was empty, just as she’d assumed. She couldn’t hear or see any movement, didn’t know where the stranger had gone.
Rifle struggled against the grasp she had on his collar. Then he nudged the door open wide enough to squeeze through and pull her along with him. He even tried to drag her down the steps. Clearly, he wanted to go after the man.
She wasn’t up for that. But before she could insist they go back in and lock the door, she stepped in what her dog had probably smelled—something dark and wet smeared on the floorboards of the porch.
The second she realized it was there, she knew what it was. Blood.
The police had come and gone, and they hadn’t found a thing—no tall, dark stranger hiding on the premises. Not in the old tack shed. Not in the barn. And not in the cellar. They attempted to follow the blood that led down the steps of Callie’s porch, but the trail disappeared in the grass and dirt about ten feet away.
They poked around for over an hour, hoping to discover what had happened to her guest, but they didn’t have any search dogs with them and Rifle wasn’t trained to track. They tried using him for the first thirty minutes, but he was so distracted and excited by the two officers who’d come to help, she eventually had to shut him up in the mudroom, where she kept his food and
In the end, the police couldn’t figure out where the injured man had gone, which left Callie as unsettled after they drove off as before. She couldn’t help wondering if they hadn’t found the stranger because he didn’t want to be found. She didn’t think he’d had time to go far, not injured as he was. So how had he just…disappeared?
Maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he’d reached a neighbor’s property. But if that was the case, why hadn’t anyone else called to report a bloody, hood-wearing stranger? And why hadn’t the cops been able to find his motorcycle? Was there a motorcycle? And was it really broken down?
Exhausted in a way she’d never been before she’d been diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, she finished cleaning up the blood—she didn’t want to see it when she woke up—and went into the house.
Rifle barked and scratched at the mudroom door, whining to be let out. But even now that everyone was gone, he was too excited. She didn’t want to deal with an agitated dog after what she’d already been through. She’d found her pellet gun in the barn, felt that would offer her some defense if the man came back. So she called out a good-night to Rifle, promising she’d take him for a long walk in the morning. Then she used the bathroom off the kitchen and checked all the doors.
Once she was satisfied that the house was as secure as she could make it, she took a final peek through the window, dragged the heavy pellet gun to her bedroom and peeled off her jeans. She was too rattled to sleep almost nude, like she’d been doing earlier, but she knew she’d never get comfortable in fabric as stiff and heavy as denim.
It wasn’t until she’d propped the gun against the wall next to her headboard and crawled beneath the blankets that she heard a noise. She wasn’t sure what it was; it had been too slight. But when it came again her fear returned.
She looked around—eyes wide, breath held—and realized her bathroom door was closed. She rarely shut that door. It was in the master bedroom and she lived alone. There was never any reason to.
But that wasn’t the only thing that made her heart race. The light was on in there. She could see it through the crack near the floor.