fenbergers’ house the little boy will have come home.”

“Better to hope the temperature doesn't drop.”

The borough of Lickin Creek sits in a basin, surrounded by mountains of the Appalachian chain. The surrounding dark, hulking hills have been silent witnesses to the valley's history: the bloody turf battles between the Delawares and Iroquois; the arrival of the early settlers, who carved their farms out of the wilderness; the tragic battles with the Indians; the French and Indian War; the Revolutionary War; and the event that seemed freshest in the minds of most residents-the Civil War.

In the daylight, covered with a soft lavender haze, the mountains were a landscape artist's dream. But at night, they looked menacing to me, especially when I had to drive into them. I could imagine how they might seem to five-year-old Kevin Poffenberger tonight.

Stinking Spring was high in the mountain range to the south of town. Garnet's truck seemed to grow wider by the minute as I slowly inched it up the very narrow mountain road, which had been wrenched from the dense forest. I drove slowly, not only because I was nervous about the icy road and the steep drop-off-which I was-but because I was part of a long procession of cars, sport-utility vehicles, fire engines, ambulances, and trucks winding its way toward the place where Kevin Poffenberger had last been seen. It seemed as if everyone in Lickin Creek was headed up the mountain tonight.

Despite the lack of a sign at the crossroads, I knew I was in the right place. Vehicles, more abandoned than parked, littered the fields on either side of the road. A sign over the weathered wooden building on the northeast corner announced that CORNY'S IS YOUR FRIENDLY FEED STORE. I was glad of that-who'd want to shop in an unfriendly feed store?

A traffic director, somewhere on the leeward side of eighty, wearing a fluorescent orange vest, directed me with his flashlight beam to a parking place. The trucks, mine included, made a circle around a field, and in the center, like besieged travelers of a wagon train, were the support units for the rescue teams.

In the light from a dozen campfires, volunteers were erecting tents where searchers could rest between shifts. Long tables bowed under the weight of the huge urns of coffee and trays of doughnuts, cookies, and sandwiches. Several steel watering troughs, with the name Corny's Feed Store on the sides, held ice and canned sodas.

Hundreds of people milled about, shouting orders, calling out names, asking for directions. They all were so bundled up in heavy clothing as to be unrecognizable. It warmed my heart to see the community's overwhelming response to an emergency.

I stopped a navy-blue parka and asked if it had seen Luscious. The silver-fox fur on the hood bounced vigorously as it nodded and pointed toward the largest of the tents on the edge of the encampment.

“Hey, Luscious,” I said as I lifted the canvas flap and peeked inside. “Any news?”

The acting police chief looked up from where he sat at a folding card table on which were three cellular phones, piles of yellow legal pads, a stack of topographical maps, and a flickering kerosene lamp. His pale face was drawn, his eyes red. “Hi, Tori. I'm glad you're here. Come in and sit down.”

I sat across from him on a metal chair, the coldness of which seeped through the double layers of my wool slacks and thermal underwear.

“I've tried to think of everything, but I'm scared to death I forgot something.” His usually bland face was creased with worry. “Look this over and tell me what you think.”

He handed me a yellow lined pad on which he had printed a checklist in childlike block letters. He gnawed on the eraser of his pencil while I read through it.

Garnet had not only been Luscious's boss, but also his father figure. The young policeman had depended on him for guidance, professionally and in his personal affairs. When Garnet had left Luscious in charge of the public safety of Lickin Creek, he'd shown, in my opinion, a surprisingly large amount of faith and an equal amount of poor judgment. Gradually, over the past month, Luscious had taken to dropping in at my office several times a day with questions on police procedure. It took me a little while before I realized Luscious had chosen me as his mentor by virtue of my relationship with Garnet.

“Looks fine to me, Luscious,” I assured him. “Garnet couldn't have done better.” I wondered how much of the plan had been suggested by Marvin Bumbaugh, the council president, but that wasn't of any real importance. What was important was that the search had been well organized.

His sallow face reddened at my praise. “There's more than five hundred people out there hunting him right now. And more coming from Adams and Fulton counties.”

“You might want to lay off the brandy till he's found,” I suggested. The faint odor of alcohol told me that his facial redness wasn't entirely from embarrassment.

His color heightened.

“Perhaps I'm overly sensitive, Luscious, but I grew up with that smell. Are the boy's parents here? I need to interview them for the paper.”

“The mother wanted to help with the search, but I told her it's better she stay home, in case he comes back on his own. They're on up the mountain 'bout half a mile on the Iron Ore Road. Just past the junkyard. You can't miss it.”

I thanked him, then an idea suddenly came to me. “Have you questioned the cousins yet? The ones who were with the boy when he got lost?”

“ 'Course I did, Tori. See this map of the mountain? The X is where they seen him last. That's the center of our search-we'll spread out from there.”

Apparently, Luscious didn't really need my help, only my assurance, so I left him studying his maps. Outside the tent, I paused for a moment to get my bearings and take in the surreal scene before me. In the flickering light from the bonfires, the volunteers appeared almost inhuman-strange, unidentifiable creatures from another world.

Suddenly, Ginnie Welburn's familiar voice called my name. The outerspace creatures were, once again, ordinary people.

I walked to a table piled high with doughnuts, where she and Oretta Clopper stamped their feet and blew on their fingertips in a futile attempt to stay warm.

“I saw you coming out of Luscious's tent. Any word?” Ginnie asked hopefully.

“Not yet, but Luscious is doing a fine job.”

“I suppose there's a first time for everything,” Oretta sniffed.

“Give him a chance,” Ginnie said. “Doughnut?”

I absentmindedly accepted one.

“I guess we have to put up with him, now that Garnet's gone.” Oretta stared pointedly at me, as though it were my fault he'd left. Great! Now the town had something besides last summer's burning down of the historical society to blame on me. One would think accidents didn't happen to anyone but me. I took a bite of the doughnut and ended up with white splotches of powdered sugar all over the front of my jacket.

“We could use another pair of hands. Especially unfrozen ones,” Ginnie said with a smile.

“I'm sorry, but I have to talk to the boy's parents.”

“Better talk to his cousins, too,” Oretta said. “I'll bet they know more than they're saying.”

Exactly what I'd been thinking, but I wondered why she thought so. “Why do you say that?” I asked. I stuffed the rest of the doughnut into my mouth and ineffectually tried to brush the sugar off my bosom.

“I don't trust children. Mark my words, there's more to this than meets the eye.” Oretta's chins bounced with indignation.

“You seem to know a lot about children. How many do you have?” I asked.

“Matavious and I were not blessed with a family,” Oretta said. “But as a playwright, I am somewhat of an expert on human behavior.”

“You don't really believe that those kids would have deliberately hurt their cousin, do you?” Beside me, Gin- nie's usually cheerful face registered horror.

“Things like that have been known to happen,” Oretta said. “In fact, I recently finished a play on that theme-it's much better than The Bad Seed. Maybe you'uns would like to read it.”

“I would,” Ginnie said. “How about you, Tori?”

I'd heard a sample of Oretta's playwriting skills earlier that evening, so I fibbed, “Love to. Soon as I find the time.”

“I'll print out a copy and bring it by your house,” Oretta said to Ginnie.

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