“It didn’t help.” But she smiled and the icy wind blowing down the Columbia Gorge didn’t seem quite so cold. Scooping up the phone, she noticed that the cell’s battery life was hovering at two percent. She had four text messages. As predicted, three were from Whitney Stone. The fourth text had no name attached to it, but Cassie recognized the number, and she nearly dropped the damned phone. The number listed was composed of the same digits as the call on Brandon McNary’s phone. The hairs on the back of her neck rose as she read the simple message:
Trent took Cassie’s phone. “Don’t buy into it,” he warned, reading the text message and seeing the horror on his wife’s face. “This isn’t from Allie.”
“How do you know?” Cassie’s eyes were round, her face white, her hands shaking. She looked as if she might collapse against her Honda at any second.
She tried to grab the phone back, but he didn’t release it. “Let me text back.”
“To this number?”
He hesitated. Felt a blast of wind against the back of his neck. What would sending a message back hurt? Or who would it hurt? Cassie? Even more than she was wounded now? Already she was embroiled eyeball deep in whatever this deadly mess was.
“I just want to ask who it is,” she said.
He glanced at the screen. “ ‘Help me’?” he read aloud. “Come on, Cass. Does that sound like her? You know better. When has Allie ever asked for help?”
“This is different.”
“We don’t know that.”
She rubbed her arms as if chilled to the bone. “Why not?”
“I don’t like you engaging with whoever sent it.”
“I have to know.”
“Oh, hell.” He handed her the phone and while the battery life indicator glowed red, she typed: who is this?
“Okay,” he said, “let’s go charge it. And see what happens. But no matter what, when you go meet with Detective Nash today, you hand over this phone. Maybe the cops can trace the calls somehow. They’ve got all kinds of sophisticated equipment and techies and computer experts. Let them deal with it.”
“After we get a response.”
“No matter what. Or we can take it to Carter right now, if you like that option better. He’s a damned PI with connections with the sheriff’s department.”
“But she contacted me.”
“Someone contacted you. And I’d bet my best horse, the gray gelding over there”—he pointed to a small herd and the dappled horse kicking up his hooves and running, black tail aloft across the field—“that someone other than Allie sent that text, that someone’s playing you.”
“Good question. God, I don’t know.” He grabbed her hand and linked her smaller chilled fingers through his. “But let’s find out.” He shot her a look as he tugged on her hand. “I think we should start with Brandon McNary. He got a message, too, right? Something equally mysterious?”
“His said, ‘I’m okay.’ ”
“What kind of message is that? Huh? Last night she was ‘okay’ and now she’s not? She needs ‘help’? From you? Does that even make sense?”
She didn’t answer.
“Of course it doesn’t. Come on.” He started striding to the house, pulling Cassie along the path, the dog galloping ahead.
“So what does?”
“Good point.” That was the problem. Nothing about Allie Kramer’s disappearance and the murders of the other women and the damned text messages meant anything. At least not to him.
As they reached the porch, she said, “We’re not giving Carter my phone.”
“It’ll just upset Jenna. Let’s . . . let’s wait. I’ll hand it over to the police when I go there this afternoon.”
He sent her a disbelieving glance.
“Swear to God,” she said, lifting a hand as if she were testifying on a Bible. At least for now she appeared less shaken. “Maybe before then, we’ll get a response.”
“Maybe,” he hedged, opening the door and feeling as if by answering the text, engaging with whoever was on the other end of the wireless connection, they were walking into a trap.