June 25: midday
“What a dump!” Quoting old movies rather than pollute the minds of innocents, Theodosia Devine-Baker gaped at the faded gray clapboard shop her parents and grandparents had once called home—the safe haven they still owned, and she’d hoped to occupy.
She didn’t need her weird empathy to warn that her happy childhood home was not only a wreck but haunted. It had Stephen King’s signature written all over the rotting window frames.
In their desperate flight up to this California mountain-town, she’d recognized the town’s welcome sign of HILLVALE, SPIRITUAL HOME OF 325 LIVES AND COUNTLESS GHOSTS with glee and relief.
She hadn’t realized the sign was literal.
“Gotta pee, Aunt T!” the four-year-old Goth in the back of the aging van cried.
Maybe she could become a cartoonist. There was definitely a comic panel in the scene of the battered and peeling sixties-era van parked in front of an ancient hippie crystal shop in a town the world had left behind half a century ago.
Her family had lived above the shop until she was six or seven, and she hadn’t been back since, so her memories were obviously rose-colored. Would the plumbing still work? Hadn’t the rental agency done anything in twenty-plus years?
The kids, and what they claimed was a dog, had been cooped up in the van for hours on the drive here. She couldn’t hide them any longer. Taking a deep breath and winging a prayer to any Omnipotence passing by, Teddy beat at the van door handle until it opened, then kicked the door wide. The sheepdog-labradoodle mutt whined until she cranked open the back door so the creature could fall out. The animal was ancient. Teddy suspected it was more sheep than dog.
She hoped there weren’t any cops watching. The rolling wreck the kids climbed out of didn’t have child restraints. It barely had seats. That reason alone had been excuse enough to buy it—to hide her niece and nephew on the floorboards. It wasn’t as if the van could reach speeds of more than fifty, and she’d stayed off the freeways as much as possible. Her sister hadn’t given her more than a few days to plan this escapade.
It was a relief to have reached safety—or what she had imagined would be a safe harbor for the next few months. Her imagination had always been overactive.
With trepidation, she glanced up at the burned-out swathe of mountain above the town. There were varying degrees of safety, even here. That fire had been recent and a close call. It might mean mudslides this winter, but that wasn’t her immediate concern.
Digging the ancient key out of her jeans pocket, she crossed the rickety boardwalk and inserted it in a door that hadn’t been painted since Noah sailed the ark. She vaguely remembered it as having once been a magical periwinkle blue.
The key didn’t fit. She glared at a relatively new doorknob. Fu. . . Frigging heck. Teddy glanced down at the six- and four-year-old following her every word and move.
It was like being watched by Pugsley and Wednesday from the Addams Family. Teddy had dyed their beautiful red curls black, used a straightener on them, and then cut bangs so they no longer resembled their strawberry-blond mother. Teddy’s hair was a more fiery auburn-red and hadn’t taken the dye well. She hadn’t been able to bear straightening and cutting it, so she was wearing her tangled mop in a braid pinned tightly and hidden under a knit cap. She probably looked like a jewel thief instead of a jeweler.
Jeb danced from foot to foot, holding the front of his pants like any good, red-blooded male.
Her usual humor dampened by circumstances, Teddy stomped her heeled ankle boots down the boardwalk to the sagging alley gate. It, at least, opened. Glancing over her shoulder to see who might be watching, she gestured kids and dog inside.
Hillvale was much smaller than she remembered. Despite the brave gaiety of painted planters spilling with multi-colored blossoms lining the boardwalk, the line of structures on either side of the barely-paved road showed little sign of improvement since she’d lived here. Cracked and faded adobe buildings sat side-by-side with the teetering remnants of what could have been frontier storefronts like hers. Once upon a time, all the shop owners had lived above their shops, if they were so fortunate as to have one of the larger structures. It didn’t look as if anyone lived here now. She hoped the diner was still down the street because the kids would be starving soon.
A few customers lingered in front of a grocery across the highway dividing the town. They watched with curiosity, but that was any small town. Teddy didn’t know if anyone would remember her. She was hoping it wouldn’t matter out of the city and out of sight.
The back doorknob had been changed too. Darnation. She wondered if editing epithets constituted good nurturing. Since Jeb was already urinating on a pear cactus, she figured Sydony hadn’t reared him any better than Teddy was doing.
Sullen silent Mia clung to her sheep-dog’s collar and looked around in disdain—worldly cynicism from a six-year-old.
The dirt yard was buried in a layer of gray ash and sported a few straggling weeds and rocks. The tree stump she’d used as a tea table when she was a kid had rotted and developed mushrooms. Pines overhung the fence from the steep downside of the mountain behind the house. There would be cabins beyond the fence, hidden among the evergreens, scattered down the mountainside. She could just barely see the roof of one below.
She studied the dirty windows of the kitchen and second story. Breaking and entering wouldn’t be a good example for the kids.
Producing the backpack she’d learned to carry when she was with her niece and nephew, Teddy set it on the stump. “I need to hunt down the keys, kids. Feed the fairies with your snacks and keep Prince Hairy company until I get back, okay?”
Her sister had named the dog when she’d rescued it, back when Mia was a baby. Teddy was pretty certain her niece didn’t recognize the reference.
Clothed all in black, her little Goths dug into the backpack in a manner as uncivilized as the original barbarians. She knew Prince Hairy wouldn’t go anywhere. His main advantage was that he was big and had protruding fangs ferocious enough to scare strangers.
Teddy checked her cellphone for messages as she closed the gate and returned to the street. No bars. Frigging darn heck. How would she know if Syd was all right?
First things first. They needed a roof over their heads. She had used a library computer to e-mail the rental company named in the contract from their parents’ lockbox, told them she would be arriving and to not let the house out this summer. But this business of sneaking around and covering her trail didn’t come naturally. She hadn’t been certain if she should call to confirm.
And now she couldn’t even check her phone to see if another e-mail had arrived. Passing a few window-shoppers, she clunked down the warped boardwalk, hunting signs for the rental agency. Her house was at the entrance to town. The two-story town hall was on the far end, across the street. Thankfully, the diner was still a few doors down from her parents’ old shop, with CAFÉ on the plate glass window in chipped gold letters. It looked busy, so that was a good sign.
She was actually feeling a little better about Hillvale after passing a consignment clothing store with an upscale cross-dressing mannequin in the window and an antique store displaying genuine Victorian garnets. She didn’t need walk-in customers, but if these stores drew broad-minded clientele with deep pockets, she might actually find a new market for her designs. That would give her the breathing room she needed to experiment with the gift she’d just discovered and push her business in a different direction that wouldn’t require so much travel.
The rental agency had a business sign in the downstairs window and curtains upstairs. At least this door was painted. She pushed it open onto a sparse office with a desk, a couple of faded chairs, and a paper calendar with a silvery fish photo on the wall. An older man with thinning gray hair, sagging jowls, and a tailored navy blazer looked up. The name plaque on his desk said Xavier Black.
“Hi, I’m Teddy Baker.” She’d dressed the part of harried aunt in jeans and plaid cowboy shirt, so she figured she didn’t come across as one of the wealthy tourists that occupied the resort above the town. “I e-mailed you about the Baker property?”
Mr. Black stood, looming over her as most people did. “Miss Baker, a pleasure. We haven’t had any Bakers here in over twenty years, if I remember correctly.”
“Well, my mother’s cousin stayed here after we left, but she was married to a Thompson. I understand after she moved out that our parents turned the property over to you to rent?”
He looked exceedingly uncomfortable. Uh-oh. He gestured at one of the chairs. “There seems to be a misunderstanding. Won’t you take a seat?”
She had strong nerves, but she’d never been responsible for kids before. Her world had turned violent and ugly these last months. She needed a safe new one. Teddy’s insides knotted, and she had to deliberately refrain from clutching her fingers into fists.
She perched on the edge of the vinyl-upholstered chair. “What misunderstanding? I have a key.” One that didn’t work. “I have a deed. I have the rental contract. I let you know I was coming.”
He laced his fingers together on the desk. “I had to look up the property. It hasn’t been listed in your father’s name in decades. The Kennedy Corporation purchased it from the Thompsons when they moved out.”
Teddy sat stunned. All their plans for escape. . . She couldn’t let Sydony down like this.