Ninety Minutes Earlier
When he realized that dragging his feet and struggling wasn't doing a damned thing to slow the kelpie down, Sam changed tactics. His knife was on his hip. The hip that was stuck fast to the flexing haunch of the galloping kelpie. He tried to work his hand in between. All that did was get his free hand stuck too.
No matter how hard he pulled or yanked or wiggled, Sam couldn't free himself. He did find, however, that he could slide the captured parts over the horse. Downside to that was, as soon as any part of him that hadn't touched the horse did, he was stuck there, too. One of the soles of his shoes tore away from the friction. The ground quickly ripped away the sock underneath and started on his skin.
Sam gave in to the inevitable. He managed to pull himself around so that he was lying sidesaddle on his hip across the kelpie's rump, his torso arched over Abby, his hands spread on the kelpie's bobbing neck. He pulled his legs up as high as he could, and they held as securely as if he'd rested his feet in stirrups. At least he'd get where they were going without his feet being ground down to bloody stubs.
"It's gonna be ok, Abby," he assured the trembling, silent little girl beneath him. "I'm Sam. I won't let anything hurt you."
A measure of relief washed through him when Abby gave a little whimper. "Promise?"
"I promise." He prayed that promise wouldn't turn into a lie. "Abby, did Smoky say anything to you?"
"No, he can't talk," she answered. "I told him and told him to bring Alex back but he wouldn't even move and then I told him to take me to Alex instead so I could bring Alex home and that's when he ran away with me right out the window like he did with Alex!"
All that came out in one shaky burst. Abby whimpered again. "I'm scared, Sam."
"I'm a little scared too, but it's ok. I'll take care of you. You have to promise me one thing first though, with your most serious promise."
"That no matter what I tell you to do, you'll do it, right then. Fast as you can. No questions and no fussing—no matter what you see or how scared you are. Can you do that?"
She was quiet so long he wondered if she was going to answer at all.
"I can," she said softly, sounding a little less terrified than before. "I'm not a baby."
"I know. You're very brave."
"Sam? Where's Smoky takin' us?"
"I don't know. To the river, I think."
Abby's head brushed his chest as she tried to crane her head up to look at him. "I can't swim!"
"Don't worry. I can." He wished he could hold her, comfort her somehow, but he could barely even see her.
Neither of them said much after that, because the yards, roadsides and open fields gave way to woods so thick the kelpie had to weave its way through, twisting and leaping at full speed.
Branches slapped them and briars snagged and clawed through his clothes and skin. Sam did his best to wrap himself protectively over Abby without crushing her between his body and the horse.
It was almost a relief when they burst out into the open again. Almost, because Sam could hear rushing water not far away, and smell the wet silt of a riverbank. He lifted his head and opened his eyes. They were at the top of what was once a huge lawn, now overgrown and partly reclaimed by the encroaching woodland. Sam twisted back as much as he could and caught a glimpse of an enormous, crumbling house. The Hart mansion.
From the house, the grounds gradually sloped down over the length of a couple of acres to where willows and taller trees grew.
Where the water's edge waited.
Smoky picked up speed.
A column of blazing, painfully white light materialized inches from the kelpie's nose.
Smoky squealed and whirled away, across the slope, then angled down towards the river again. The apparition blocked its path once more.
"Is that an angel?" Abby whispered beneath Sam as the glowing figure lit up their faces like noon sun.
"Maybe," he whispered back. It was almost a lie, but hey, the devil he didn't know was keeping the devil he knew from drowning them both—so he was rooting for the unknown.
The third time the kelpie tried to make a break for the water, the white light didn't stop its oncoming rush.
It burst around the kelpie's head in a flare so brilliant that Abby screamed and Sam was sure he was blinded.
Smoky reared and they hit the ground hard. Sam grabbed what he hoped was Abby and rolled to his feet.
The colored sunbursts cleared from Sam's vision in time to see the apparition dim into the form of a young girl with long brown hair, dressed in an old-fashioned nightgown. He was flooded with bone-aching cold as she threw her arms around his waist.
"We must go quickly. He won't be frightened away for long!" the phantom told them, her voice distant as an echo.
Sam felt an indescribable sensation, a disorienting wrench in body and soul. In the same instant, the early dawn light dimmed to a broken twilight. He and Abby were now inside what looked like a long abandoned attic. The windows were almost opaque with dust. The roof was rotting away above them, letting the morning light enter in broken patches and brighter shafts that sparkled with swirling dust.
Abby lifted her head from his shoulder and looked around too. "Where are we?" she whispered.
"Inside an old house," he answered. That was about all he was certain of at the moment.
"Did the angel bring us here?"
"Yes." Well, and that too.
"Will she take me home?" Abby clung to him like a spider monkey.
Sam shifted her around as if she were a carry-pack, into a more balanced position. "If she doesn't, I will."
Now that his wits had a chance to settle a little, an unmistakable smell registered. Urine. Abby was wet, but this scent was stale and strong.
"Is anybody here?" he called out softly.
He heard a tiny mewl, not much louder than a kitten, and furtive rustling. Sam considered leaving Abby to wait where they were, or taking her with him. He moved towards the sound, Abby still perched on his hip.
"It's ok," he called out again, hoping he sounded nonthreatening. "I'm Sam. You can come out. I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to take Abby home."
"Abby?" a tiny voice echoed.
"Alex!" Abby squealed. "Alex! Come out!"
She wriggled until Sam set her on her feet. He kept a tight hold on her hand, though. Not everything that sounded like family always was.
Across the attic, the door of a massive, mildewed armoire creaked open. A little boy in grubby pajamas peeked at them and then his dirty face lit up with a huge smile. "Abby!"
He tumbled out and ran across the attic. There was no way Sam could have held onto Abby then. She grabbed Alex and they did a little happy dance, both of them babbling away at once.
Sam left them to it, because a tiny girl, younger than Abby and Alex, swung her leg over the opening, her toes straining for the floor. Sam went over and lifted her out. She gave a startled squeak and struggled in his arms.
"It's ok, sweetie," Sam crooned. "I'm here to take you home. You're Sophie, right?"
"Uh huh," she nodded. "But you're a stranger and I'm not a'posed to talk to strangers."
"That's right, but you can talk to policemen, right?"
Sophie's thumb went into her mouth. She nodded, more slowly this time.
"I'm kinda a policeman. My name's Sam. See? We're not strangers any more."
Sam smiled at her and she smiled back, a tiny, shy flicker around her thumb.
"Sophie, where's Ethan?"
She pointed back to the armoire.
Sam swallowed a lump of dread and opened the door wider. Inside, on a nest of mangy fur coats, the little boy from the photo lay curled up.
"Ethan don' feel good," Sophie whispered around her thumb.
"Ethan?" Sam reached in and touched the boy's side. Ethan was warm and breathing. The rush of relief that washed through Sam almost weakened his knees.
Ethan lifted his head and blinked up at Sam. He was thinner now, with dark circles under his eyes. Starving, Sam realized with a jolt. Seven days with no food….
Sam set Sophie down and crouched beside the armoire, his hand still on Ethan's back. "Are you hurt anywhere, Ethan?"
Ethan shook his head. "Jus' tired," he whispered.
Sam picked him up. "I'll take you home, so you can rest in your own bed, ok?"
Ethan nodded against his shirt. "I'm hungry, Sam."
"I know, buddy. It won't be much longer now." Sam looked down at the other three children, gazing back up at him with trust and anticipation. "Ok, I want you all to promise me you'll do exactly what I say. I'm going to take you home, but you have to obey me so I can. Will you do that?"
Three little heads bobbed.
"Ok. Where's the door?"
Alex and Sophie pointed towards the far side of the attic. Sam headed that way, Ethan in his arms and the other three trailing behind like ducklings. He discovered how Ethan had survived his week of captivity as he picked his way across the treacherous, shadowy floor.
The kids might not have had food, but they had access to water. There were containers of all kinds set under the openings in the roof, most of them still holding a little water from the recent rains. A shudder went down his spine as he recalled the latest forecast. Dry weather for at least a week.
"Setting those bowls out to catch rainwater was very smart, Ethan. Good job."
"The big girl told me to do it," Ethan answered.
"The big girl?" Sam echoed.
Sophie piped up. "She don't let the bad horsie get us again."
"Her name's Olivia," Alex said, confirming Sam's suspicion. "This is her house."
Sam slapped his pocket for his phone. It wasn't there. He did still have his wallet, and the lock-pick hidden inside. If the attic was secured only with the old fashioned lever-lock he could see from this side, that one slim hook was all he needed to get them out of here. A relief, because the door swung inwards; so no kicking it open, and the hinge pins were massive, corroded and double-headed, so circumventing the lock entirely by lifting the door out of the frame wouldn't be a quick process.
As soon as he reached out to try the doorknob, the kids gasped and Alex grabbed his wrist. "No! We ain't allowed to touch it! It makes her real mad!"
"It's ok. Olivia will let you out now." She'd damn well better. Sam rattled the doorknob.
That shrill, frightened shout seemed to come from everywhere at once. The kids scattered like quail to hide behind trunks and under sheeted furniture.
Sam's teeth began to chatter, and when he exhaled, he could see his breath. Ethan shivered in his arms.
"Olivia?" Sam called out. "It's ok, honey. You have to let me take these kids home."
"No! I must keep them safe!"
An apparition shimmered in front of him, Olivia's face. Her body faded away below the chest, her image strobing in a weird, almost digital flicker. She was running low on juice.
Ethan took one glimpse and buried his face against Sam's neck. Sam drew a calming breath of frigid air and reminded himself that he was dealing with another frightened child here.
"You did save them and keep them safe," he agreed, looking into her spectral eyes. "But you can't keep them with you. I'll watch out for them now, and take them home."
"I had to save you," she hissed. Olivia's eyes narrowed. "I was too frightened to save William. I wasn't strong enough to keep the first ones safe. But I'm not afraid anymore, Sam."
She dematerialized, leaving only her voice behind. And I'm very strong now.
An invisible blow knocked the wind out of him and laid him out flat on his back. So, not running low on juice. Conserving it. Sam pushed himself back up onto his feet, one arm still tight around Ethan.
"Olivia," Sam wheezed, "You can't keep them here. There's no food. They'll die."
"You don't mean that," he chided, keeping his voice gentle. "I know you don't. If you were that cruel, you would have let the kelpie drown them too. They need to go home, to their parents."
They are home! They're mine now.
Sam scowled and channeled his dad. His voice sliced through the still, unnaturally cold air like whipcord. "They're children, Olivia. Not dolls for you to play with. Stop acting like a spoiled brat."
But I'm so lonely….
That sad little whimper broke his heart and froze his spine. "I know you are, sweetie. Look, I can help you be with William again. But you--"
Quiet! I hear something!
"Olivia?" The temperature shot up twenty degrees. Sam realized he was talking to empty air. He settled Ethan close by on a sheet-draped settee and went to work on the door lock.