Gathering Shadows

By: Nancy Mehl

Prologue


He observed the youngster ride his bike to the end of the block where the street dead-ended. Then, after looking around carefully, the man slowly drove his car over to where the boy stood staring at something on the ground. He parked a few yards away and watched as the boy wiped tears off his face.

The man rolled down his window.

“Excuse me,” he said. “You’re Ryan Erwin, aren’t you?”

The boy stood up straight and stared wide-eyed at the man, his expression guarded. He blinked furiously, obviously not wanting the man to know he’d been crying.

“Yeah, I’m Ryan.”

The man smiled. “I’m Bill Martin. I live on the next block. You’ve seen me before, right?”

Ryan frowned, his forehead wrinkled in thought. “I . . . I don’t know . . .”

“Sure you have. I own the big black Lab.”

The boy’s expression brightened. “Oh yeah. I know that dog. You own it?”

The man nodded. “That’s Sadie. She recently had puppies, and one of them is missing. I wonder if you’ve seen it?” The man reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed a photo. “Here’s a picture of Waggles. He got out this morning. I’d sure hate for him to get run over. He’s just a little thing.” He held the picture out.

Ryan nudged the kickstand on his bike down and approached the car.

“He’s cute, isn’t he?” the man said, his smile pasted firmly in place. “My kids are heartbroken.” He pulled the photo a little closer to him. “You have a dog, don’t you?”

The boy nodded. “Yeah, a golden retriever.”

“What’s his name?”

“We named him Ollie, after Laurel and Hardy. My dad . . .” Ryan took a deep breath. “My dad thinks they’re funny.”

“I like that name.”

The boy came up even nearer to the car.

“Ryan, do you think you could do me a favor and help me look for my puppy? I’d hate to go home and tell my kids something happened to him.”

The boy studied the man’s face once again, then stared down at the photo of the small black Lab puppy. Finally, he nodded. “My teacher told me not to talk to strangers, but I guess since I know you, it would be all right.”

“I’m glad you know about stranger danger. It’s very important to be careful.” The man’s smile widened. “Why don’t you leave your bike here? We’ll look for Waggles, and after we find him, I’ll bring you right back.”

“Sure,” Ryan said. He glanced back once at his new blue racing bike as he ran around the car and got into the passenger seat.

An hour later, Ryan’s father found the bike.

But Ryan was gone.





Chapter

One




“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Megan’s voice made me jump. I looked up to see her standing beside me. I hadn’t heard her come in. “Sorry. Guess I drifted away for a minute.”

She stared back at me with a strange look on her face. “You’re about the whitest person I’ve ever known, Wynter. When you get pale, it’s scary. Something about those pictures upset you?”

I shook my head. “No. Just looking them over.” I cleared my throat and turned back to the photographs that lay scattered on the large mahogany conference table. “Where did you say you got these?”

“From my mom. She took them about six years ago.” Megan plopped down in the chair next to me. Her brown eyes sparkled. “She lives in Madison County.” She pointed at the photos. “This town is about ten miles from her. The people shop in Fredericktown, where she lives, so she sees them quite a bit. They don’t like people taking their pictures, but Mom snapped these from her car as she drove past them. I doubt they were happy about it.”

“They’re Amish?”

She frowned. “No. Mom said they’re Mennonite. Not as strict as the Amish, but I think they share some of the same beliefs. Don’t know if this place would fit into your report, but since you’re putting together a list of unique Missouri towns, I thought you might find the pictures interesting.” She pulled one of the photos closer and peered carefully at it. “My mom says the whole town isn’t religious, but most of them live very simply. You know, horses and buggies, stuff like that. Mom has a friend who moved there just because she wanted a more uncomplicated life. She’s not Mennonite though.” Megan shrugged her thin shoulders. “I don’t know much else.”

I fingered through the photos once again. They showed people riding in buggies. Most of the men wore hats, while the older women had some kind of head covering. I couldn’t stop my fingers from trembling.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Megan asked again, her voice tinged with worry. Her dark eyes sought mine. “The flu’s going around. Maybe you’ve got it.” She pushed her chair back a bit, causing me to smile.

“No, I’m fine. Too much coffee this morning, I guess.”

“You do drink more coffee than anyone I’ve ever known.”

I nodded. “What’s the name of this town?”

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