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Wolfhunter River
Author: Rachel Caine

PROLOGUE

Four days ago

When Ellie White’s teacher, Mrs. Willingham, told her that her driver was coming early to pick her up from school, Ellie knew it wasn’t the whole truth. Mr. Lou never came early to get her, not unless she was sick.

“Why?” she asked. She liked asking questions when things didn’t make sense. She might only be six, but Daddy had taught her to ask if she didn’t understand. Momma had been a little embarrassed by how much she’d taken to it.

“I’m afraid—I’m afraid that your daddy asked him to,” Mrs. Willingham said. She was a nice white lady with a streak of gray in her brown hair, and she was a good teacher. She never treated Ellie any different from the others, even though Ellie’s father had a lot of money. Even though Ellie had dark-brown skin, darker than any of the other girls here, who mostly looked as white as magazine pages.

“Daddy doesn’t do that,” Ellie said. “Something’s wrong.”

Mrs. Willingham was looking at her but not at her. “Well, your momma got sick,” she said. “So he’s sending a car to come get you and take you to the hospital where he and your momma are. Okay?” She helped Ellie put on her sweater, which Ellie didn’t like to wear but didn’t want to leave behind either. Then her backpack.

“Mrs. Willingham?” Ellie asked. She looked up at her teacher. “Are you crying?”

“No, sweetie. I’m just fine. Come on now. Let’s get you out there, he’s waiting.”

“But Daddy said the code word?”

“He said the code word,” Mrs. Willingham said. “The code is blackbird today, right?”

Ellie nodded. Thursday was blackbird. Every day was a bird of some kind, because she liked birds, and Momma always called her little hummingbird because she darted around so fast. But Sunday was hummingbird.

Mrs. Willingham went down the school steps first to talk to Mr. Lou, who was waiting inside the car on the loop that went between the steps and the big marble fountain. The rule was that Ellie was never to come to the car until Mrs. Willingham said it was okay. She and Mr. Lou were talking a long time. Mrs. Willingham kept crying.

It was hot today, and humid, but the fountain always looked so cool and pretty. The water sprayed out of a bunch of concrete shells into a bigger shell in the middle. Momma had told her there’d once been a pretty lady in the shell, but some parents had made the school take her out, so she was off in some storage closet now, which was sad.

Mrs. Willingham came back up the steps to take her hand. Ellie looked up at her. “Everything’s going to be all right,” her teacher said, but her voice shook. Her eyes were red. “I’m sorry, baby. But I have to do this. I have a family too.”

Ellie felt sorry for her. “Is your family okay, Mrs. Willingham?”

She didn’t mean to make the lady cry. “Yes, Ellie, they’re going to be okay. Can you help me make sure they are?”

Ellie wasn’t sure how to do that, but she nodded anyway. She liked to help, even if she wasn’t really sure why Mrs. Willingham thought she could.

Mrs. Willingham opened the door and boosted Ellie up, which was Mr. Lou’s job, usually. Then her teacher hugged her. “You stay strong, Ellie. You’re going to be okay.”

“But what about your family?” Ellie asked. “Aren’t you coming with me so we can help them?”

Mrs. Willingham covered her mouth, and tears rolled down her cheeks, and she just shook her head. She shut the door, and that was when Ellie knew something was really wrong. Mrs. Willingham had just lied to her, but she didn’t know why.

And then she realized it was worse than she thought, because this looked like the right car, but it didn’t smell like the car usually smelled, which was a little bit like coconut, her favorite. “Mr. Lou?” she called toward the driver. The lock engaged with a heavy thunk. She could see him up in the front seat, a big man wearing a cap. She felt smaller than usual in the back seat, and as the car started to move, she quickly buckled herself up; Mr. Lou never started moving until she was buckled in. “Mr. Lou? What’s wrong with Momma? Mrs. Willingham said—”

She stopped her questions because the man driving wasn’t Mr. Lou. The eyes looking at her in the rearview mirror weren’t his. “Put your seatbelt on,” he said. Not Mr. Lou’s voice. And Mr. Lou would have said please.

“I did already,” she said. She was scared, but she wasn’t going to show it. “Do you know the code word?”

“Blackbird,” he said. “Isn’t that right?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m somebody who’s going to get you somewhere safe,” he said. “Just like Mr. Lou would want me to do. All right?”

“I’m calling my daddy,” Ellie said, and unzipped her backpack to pull out her cell phone.

It wasn’t where she kept it. She knew better than to leave her phone somewhere. It was expensive, and important, and she always put it there in that pocket.

She felt tears well up and wouldn’t let herself cry. They’d want her to cry, whoever took her phone. Whoever was playing this nasty game. “Who are you?”

“Nobody,” the driver said. “Now sit there and be quiet.” He turned the SUV onto a main road. She tried to watch where they were going, but quickly lost track; she never had to pay attention to that before. The school disappeared over a hill, and he made more turns, and she didn’t know where they were at all.

She didn’t know what to do. Daddy had always told her there were bad people, and she shouldn’t go with them if they didn’t know the code word, but he did know the code word, and she couldn’t push “Emergency” if there wasn’t a phone.

“Let me out,” she said. She tried to make it sound like her momma would have: cool and confident. “You can stop up here.”

“Shut up,” the driver said. “Keep quiet. You start making a racket, and I’ll tape your damn mouth shut.”

That scared her even more than being in a strange car and not having her phone, but she wasn’t going to show him that. She wasn’t going to cry. She looked around and tried to think what else to do. The door wouldn’t open. Neither would the window. The SUV had dark-tinted windows, same as Mr. Lou’s car; they were to keep the sun out. But they also made it so people couldn’t see in.

Ellie realized something awful. She was a shadow inside a black car behind tinted windows, no one could see her, and she didn’t know what to do next.

When she started to scream for help at passing cars, the driver took an exit, parked under a bridge among the cool green trees, and put tape over her mouth and around her legs and arms. Then he carried her around to the back of the SUV.

It was empty except for a sleeping bag, one with Disney princesses on it. She was screaming underneath the tape, and wiggling, and trying to get free, but he put her on top of the sleeping bag and shook his head.

“Go to sleep,” he told her, and wiped sweat off his face. “We’ve got a long way to go. You mind your manners and I’ll feed you in a few hours. You’ll be home in a couple of days with a real good story to tell.”

Daddy had always told her, If bad people get you, don’t believe what they tell you.

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