Copper Lake Encounter

Chapter 1

 

 

 Welcome to my dream.

 

 I've been having it every night for the past twenty-nine days. I'm in a strange place. It could be a neighborhood here in Atlanta, but I don't think so. It has a small town feel. I walk down the streets, passing businesses that are closed up tight. I don't see any people, though I hear them, as if life is going on around me, but instead of me being invisible, in this dream everyone else is.

 

 On one side of the street is an old-fashioned square. On the other, I see restaurants, a pharmacy, a flower shop, a coffee shop. I smell the rich dark roast and, fainter, the buttery aroma of fresh pastry. I can't see the names of any of the establishments, though, or enough details to make identifying them possible.

 

 Now I'm in a riverfront park. There's a parking lot, playground equipment, a broad asphalt track used by runners. I'm not one of them. I prefer to get my exercise in a shopping mall or a kitchen, which explains why I'm . . . plump, says my mother. Fat, says my sister. Curvaceous, says my grandmother. Like a woman should be.

 

 I follow the trail as it leads out of town into the woods that border the river. It starts to rain, a gentle mist that gradually gains intensity, growing into fatter, forceful drops. The sky darkens, but I can't turn around. Something draws me along the trail, to its end, onto a faint path that sticks close to the river. With each breath I inhale the smells so foreign to me, the city girl: decaying leaves, mud, water, fish. Nature.

 

 The trail peters out fifteen feet ahead. I stand beside a fallen tree, downed so long ago that it seems impossible it ever could have stood upright. Some of its ghostly branches reach into the slow-moving river; others rise into the night sky like phantom limbs from phantom dead. They beckon me, and I move closer, until lightning flashes, brilliant and blinding, frightening me, making me spin and turn back the way I came.

 

 My pace picks up until I'm running as fast as my three-inch heels and tight skirt will allow. I feel something following, something that escaped the fallen tree. The parking lot, the town, is ahead, the people I can't see, but the thing behind me is closer, ever closer, and suddenly I trip—

 

 Nevaeh Wilson's breath caught with such force that her chest and throat ached. Though her eyes were still closed, she laid her arm over them and concentrated on filling her lungs, slowing her heart rate. She hated dreams, especially the repetitive ones. Especially the ones she was actually a part of.

 

 Most of the dreams were harmless—about friends, acquaintances, occasionally strangers, about falling in love and having babies and gentle, easy deaths, breaking hearts and starting over.

 

 This dream disturbed her.

 

 Finally, she removed her arm and glanced around the room. It was comforting in the way old familiar things were. She'd lived most of her life in this room, with her parents down the hall, her sister Marieka next door, her mother's mother across the hall. She'd been ten when she moved into it, not sure she was ready to have a room all to herself. But there'd been no doubt that Marieka was ready. She was tired of having her big sister hanging around all the time. She needed privacy and peace.

 

 Now here they were, twenty-eight and twenty-seven, still living in their mother's house with their mother and grandmother and a lifetime of memories.

 

 Nev checked the clock. Five-fifteen. If she managed to fall back to sleep, the dream might return. Tossing back the covers, she stood, stretched her arms high, then touched the floor before shrugging into her bathrobe and stepping into scuffs.

 

 The upstairs was dimly lit by a single bulb shining up from the foyer. She tiptoed past Marieka's room, then went down the steps, avoiding the creaky ones that had always alerted their father to their sneaking about. He'd been gone five years, but the habit was still with her.

 

 The aroma of coffee led her to the kitchen, where YaYa was sitting on the padded bench of the breakfast nook. Her grandmother was seventy-two and didn't have much need for sleep. Never had. She could function better on four hours than most people could on double that.

 

 She didn't look up from the computer screen as Nev shuffled in. "About time you got up. Your coffee's ready. Get your cereal and sit down before your mama wakes up."

 

 Nev inhaled, and the chicory of her favorite New Orleans roast separated itself on the warm air from YaYa's Newman's Own blend. Usually YaYa just fixed her own, then set up the Keurig so all Nev had to do was push a button. Nev didn't question why she had deviated from morning routine. She just measured out a bowl of cereal, topped it with one-half cup light coconut milk and joined her at the table. "Any news?"

 

 The first words out of her mouth every morning, and they could keep YaYa talking until Nev had enough caffeine in her to take part in the conversation.

 

 "Politicians are all crooked, but that's been true since the beginning of time. Gonna be sunny and humid today." YaYa snorted. "August in Georgia. That's not news, either. I got three new followers on Twitter and two new subscribers to my blog. That means I got more on both than Rachelle."

 

She grinned at Nev over the monitor. Who ever would have guessed when she retired from her housekeeping job at the nursing home that she would become the Internet maven of Magnolia Street? Nev's mother Lima—like the city, not the bean—called her a foolish old woman. Lima didn't even have an email account. Marieka sought help from YaYa in keeping up with her own social media. Nev was just happy she had a passion in her life.

 

YaYa looked down the hall toward the stairs, then said, "Okay, scoot on around. I've got something to show you."

Nev slid around the U-shaped bench until she and YaYa anchored the U with the laptop open between them. With a few fast clicks of the mouse, YaYa brought up a website, scrolled down and clicked again, and an enlarging photo appeared on the screen. "Does this look familiar?"

 

Nev's nerves tightened, and her stomach tumbled enough to make her set the coffee down. She'd confided her dreams in YaYa, of course, no one else, and her grandmother had assured her that if the dreams had significance, they'd find the town.

How many hours had YaYa searched the Internet? How many pictures of small Southern towns, squares, river parks had she looked through? Each time she'd found something encouraging, she'd shown Nev, and each time Nev had stared at the pictures, willing herself to—

 

To recognize or not? The dream scared her. She would prefer to believe the place didn't exist so then it would go away. But after nearly a month, it was apparent it wasn't going away. Better to find out its location so she could do whatever she needed to get rid of it, right?

 

So far none of the places YaYa had shown her were right. She had so little to work with: a square, a gazebo, a river, a handful of businesses virtually all small towns had. But she kept looking, kept cruising the net, partly because the digital age fascinated her but mostly because she loved her granddaughter.

 

Nev took a deep breath as the photo finished loading, squeezed her eyes shut a moment, then looked. It was the downtown area of a not-too-small town. On the left side of the screen, green grass, flowers and a white gazebo filled an entire city block. On the right side were businesses: a coffee shop, a drugstore, a lawyer's office, a hot dog shop, a florist, a children's clothing store and, at the far end, a restaurant. Beyond it was a highway, a narrow strip of land, a bit of grass with playground equipment.

 

The photographer had stood at the corner, next to the coffee shop, and taken the shot. Nev had stood at the corner, too. Had walked that sidewalk. Had crossed that highway and passed those kids' toys.

 

Though she'd never been there in her life.

 

"You recognize it." YaYa's voice was low but triumphant. She nudged Nev's coffee closer to her. "Take a drink."

 

Nev numbly obeyed, lifting the cup, breathing deeply, drinking deeply. While she stared, YaYa set more pictures scrolling across the computer screen. A close-up of the war memorials. The gazebo decked out in pastels for Easter. A front view of Ellie's Deli, the homey kind of place that invited customers to sit for a while on the front porch. An aerial view of the Gullah River making a slow, lazy curve north of town. Antebellum mansions: River's Edge, The Jasmine, Calloway Plantation, Fair Winds, the Kennedy Place.

"It's called Copper Lake." YaYa folded her hands in her lap. "It's about halfway between Atlanta and Augusta. It's where you'll find the reason for your dream."

 

A knot had formed in Nev's throat. "I-it's just a dream. Maybe someplace we drove through once. Something I saw on TV. It doesn't—" Feeling the weight of YaYa's gaze, she stopped abruptly and inhaled again.

 

"Some dreams don't mean nothing. But one you've had every night for—" YaYa glanced at the calendar hanging beside the refrigerator "—twenty-nine nights means something. It is twenty-nine, isn't it? You had it again last night, didn't you?"

 

Nev nodded.

 

"Now you know where, Nevy. All you have to do is find out why."

 

If she had one bit less control, hysteria would be bubbling inside her about now. How freaky would it be, going to a town she'd never seen before and recognizing places around her? Knowing the bumps and cracks in sidewalks she had walked only in dreams? And not pleasant dreams, at that.

 

"How do I do that?" she whispered.

 

"I don't know, sweet girl. I imagine the answer's there." YaYa pointed at the computer screen, where pictures still scrolled: churches, parks, hospital, schools. "You go there, and you'll find out."

 

***

 

For as long as he could remember, Tyler Gadney had wanted to be a cop. The dream had kept him out of trouble and working hard through high school and college. It had brought him back home to Copper Lake, where he'd been the first black officer hired by the department. A few decades behind other Southern cities but light years ahead of plenty of places.

 

 He'd gotten Tased for the honor of serving and protecting. He'd been spit on and wrestled with and even shot. This Saturday morning, though, he thought the job would finally kill him. Turning to glare at the prisoner in the back seat, he gritted out, "Remember that right to remain silent? For the love of God, Maggie, would you use it?"

 

She stopped wailing long enough to glare back at him. "Come on, Ty, you know me. You arrested me, what, three times? You know I would never make meth in the house where my kids are at!"

 

Ignoring the snort from Pete Petrovski, his partner, behind the wheel, Ty scowled again. "I've arrested you at least eight times, Maggie, and twice your boyfriends were making meth in the house with your kids there."

 

Mascara ran down her cheeks in streaks, a fine fit to her stringy blond hair and clothes that smelled as if she'd worn them most of the week. "They'll take 'em away for sure this time! Ty, you can't let that happen!"

 

He faced forward again and tried to tune out the howls from the back seat. It was a fine show, impressive for someone who hadn't been treated to the scene plenty of times already. He didn't feel any sympathy for Maggie Holigan. She'd been given multiple chances to get straight, to be a good mother to her kids, but she'd thrown them all away for men, for drugs, for oblivion.

 

He did feel sorry for the two girls, though. It wasn't easy being a Holigan in this town. If there was a wrong side of the tracks further dividing people who already lived on the wrong side of the tracks, the Holigans were there. Mothers run off, fathers in prison, drugs and booze incapacitating the few who stuck around, looked down on by even the other poor people and no one who cared enough to take the kids in and give them a chance.

 

Ty gave a silent prayer of thanks for his grandfather, who'd taken him in when he'd needed someone.

 

Her histrionics getting no response didn't curb Maggie's tears. In fact, she increased the volume another ten decibels. Pete grimaced and settled his left arm on the door frame. Ty would bet he was holding one finger in his ear. He wouldn't mind doing the same, though it wasn't the most dignified way for a police officer to go about his official duties.

 

By the time they reached the station with the adjacent jail, Maggie had stopped to take a few breaths. Though it was routine for her, he glanced around. The way his luck ran, one day she'd shriek so long and loud that she'd bust a vessel in her brain and die right there, in a place as familiar to most people as their homes, handcuffed in the back seat of a police car.

 

He couldn't help thinking, albeit guiltily, that her daughters would be better for it.

 

The rest of the suspects taken into custody at Maggie's house—her boyfriend of the month, his cousin and three buddies—had already been escorted inside and were going through the booking process. Ty freed Maggie's left wrist, waited until she sat on a bench, then hooked the dangling cuff to the metal loop welded there.

 

 "Isn't this a fun way to spend a Saturday?"

 

He didn't have to look to know it was Detective Katherine Isaacs standing behind him. She'd been teamed with their boss, Tommy Maricci, this morning, and they'd been the first to return to the station with their prisoners. Like he'd been the first black hire, the first black detective, Kiki had been the first female.

 

"Yeah," he said before he turned. "Hell of a morning."

 

She wore her brown hair pulled back tightly, braided to control its natural frizz. Like everyone else, she was dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, though she definitely looked better in them. With pale skin, a few freckles and blue eyes, she was smart and aggressive, the first requirements for a woman in a male-dominated field. The only problem was she was so used to going balls-to-the-wall for what she wanted that she had trouble accepting sometimes that she couldn’t have it.

 

 And what she'd wanted, for the last few years, had been him.

 

 "You got plans for tonight?" she asked as they both turned toward the hall that led to their office. Her head more than topped his shoulder; she wasn't more than a few inches shorter than him and probably didn't have much more body fat than him.

 

He missed the days when he'd dated shorter, softer, rounder women.

 

"Uh, yeah. I'm going over to my grandfather's house. Fix him some dinner, watch a movie. He's partial to John Wayne."

 

Her eyes narrowed. "Really. Saturday night, and you're hanging out with Grandpa? Come on, Gadney. Doesn't Pops go to bed with the sun?"

 

 "Actually, he stays up later than me most nights. Says he doesn't have enough time left to waste it sleeping." Ty repeated Granddad's words with a smile that was more grimace. Everyone had a time to die, and Granddad's couldn't be too far away. He'd already lived eighty full years, forty of them mourning his wife, twenty-five of them raising various grandkids and great-nephews. It had been a good life, and he was ready to meet his Maker.

 

 Ty would never be ready for life without Granddad in it.

 

 He opened the door at the end of the hallway that led into the police department proper, and Kiki brushed against him as she went through. "Can't you visit Pops tomorrow? It's Saturday night, Ty, and I want to party."

 

 "You've got other friends to party with. Granddad's expecting me." He said it in as friendly a voice as he could muster, but it didn't win him any points with her.

 

 Her lower lip sliding into a pout, she muttered something that he was pretty sure was obscene before turning into the women's locker room. Lieutenant Maricci, coming out of the men's locker room, gave a rueful shake of his head.

 

 "I warned you, Gadney. Never date within the department." Maricci held up one finger, then stuck up another. "Never date a woman who can take you in a fair fight." Another finger. "Never date a woman who's a better shot than you." One more finger. "And never date a woman who's just freaking nuts. It gets ugly when it goes bad. And it always goes bad."

 

 "Yeah, Lieutenant, I know." He'd known it wasn't a good idea the first time a bunch of them had gone to a party at Kiki's place and he hadn't been smart enough to not be the last one to leave. A good time, a few beers and . . .

 

 He hadn't gotten home until the late the next morning.

 

 That had been two years ago, and they'd been together off and on since. Sometimes she said she loved him, and sometimes she said she hated him. He felt bad about it, but he didn't love her. He didn't even much like her when he was with her.

More importantly, he didn't like himself when he was with her. Too many arguments, too much pressure, too much everything except satisfaction.

 

 "What about Maggie's kids?" he asked before Maricci could walk away.

 

 "Social workers are on their way to pick them up from the neighbors and will take them to an emergency shelter."

 

 "They bite, you know? And they're really good at hiding. And running away."

 

 Maricci grinned. "Yeah, first time I removed them from the home, my shins were bruised for a week. It took two of us to put them in the car because by the time I got one buckled in, the other was unbuckled and out the door. They're showing the finest rebellious spirit of their uncles."

 

They both got somber. It was one thing for the grown Holigans to raise hell, but it sure made it hard to find placement for the five- and six-year-old girls when it was like herding cats one-handed. "I don't suppose a respectable, law-abiding relative has turned up since the last time Maggie was in jail."

 

"Law-abiding, definitely not. But maybe one of the guys has conned some innocent into marrying him or has found God in prison and wants to do the right thing."

 

They both snorted. Not likely.

 

"They'll stay with one of the emergency families this weekend, then Jill will get something more permanent figured out Monday." Maricci punched his shoulder. "You better get out of here before Isaacs comes out and decides to take another run at you."

 

Ty considered it for about sixty seconds. He didn't need to go into the office because he and Pete had an agreement: whoever dealt with Maggie, the other would do the paperwork. Didn't need to stop by the pop machine, either. He could buy that on the way home. And there were times when retreat really was the best option.

 

 Maricci went one way, and Ty went the other, heading out the main door and to his car at the far end of the lot. He tossed his vest into the passenger seat, then slid behind the wheel and pulled out of the parking lot.

 

 As he sat waiting at a stoplight, from the corner of his eye, he saw a group of officers come out of the station. Kiki was with them, one arm around the newest officer, a twenty-four-year-old kid named Benton. Every time he'd broken up with her, she'd immediately gone out with other guys, making sure he knew, and he'd always been just a little jealous. Yeah, they'd been broken up, but it would just be a matter of time before they got back together. Today . . .

 

 He didn't feel a thing besides relief, along with a little sympathy for Benton. He hoped the kid knew what he was getting into.

 Instead of pop, he opted for coffee and found a parking space a half block from the square. A Cuppa Joe stood on the corner where it'd been long before Joe Saldana came to town and bought it. He'd taken the shop green, widened the selection of gourmet coffees and served pastries and cookies baked by his former deputy U.S. marshal wife, Liz.

 

The air was thick and damp, and he smelled more than a little ripe from the hours spent at Maggie's place with the heavy bulletproof vest on. Definitely reason to get his order to go. He went inside, cold air rushing over him, a sensation as common in summer as the kudzu trying to conquer the South. He ordered a frozen coffee and two of Liz's special oatmeal raisin cookies, picked them up, then stepped back outside on the sidewalk and almost plowed over the woman standing there.

 

 "Sorry," he murmured, but she didn't seem to notice him. She stared down the street toward River Road as if she were in a trance, so intense that he turned to look behind him to see if anything was out of place. There wasn't. About the usual number of shoppers, the usual old men sitting on the benches in the park, the usual cars parked diagonally along the street.

 

He looked back at the woman. She was a good six or eight inches shorter than him, wearing a sleeveless red dress that hugged her curves and a pair of open-toed heels that showed off her deep red nails. Sunglasses hid her eyes, but it was a good bet they were brown, fitting with the creamy milk-and-cocoa hue of her skin. Her lips were deep red, too, and her shoulder-length brown hair was smooth. Probably the result of an hour's worth of wrestling with a flat-iron.

 

She was . . . Not beautiful. Not pretty.

 

Lovely. She was absolutely lovely.

 

And Tyler Gadney was a sucker for a lovely woman.

 

 

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