Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

River's End

Nora Roberts


  The monster was back. The smell of him was blood. The sound of him was terror.

  She had no choice but to run, and this time to run toward him.

  The lush wonder of forest that had once been her haven, that had always been her sanctuary, spun into a nightmare. The towering majesty of the trees was no longer a grand testament to nature’s vigor, but a living cage that could trap her, conceal him. The luminous carpet of moss was a bubbling bog that sucked at her boots. She ripped through ferns, rending their sodden fans to slimy tatters, skidded over a rotted log and destroyed the burgeoning life it nursed.

  Green shadows slipped in front of her, beside her, behind her, seemed to whisper her name.

  Livvy, my love. Let me tell you a story.

  Breath sobbed out of her lungs, set to grieving by fear and loss. The blood that still stained her fingertips had gone ice-cold.

  Rain fell, a steady drumming against the windswept canopy, a sly trickle over lichen-draped bark. It soaked into the greedy ground until the whole world was wet and ripe and somehow hungry.

  She forgot whether she was hunter or hunted, only knew through some deep primal instinct that movement was survival.

  She would find him, or he would find her. And somehow it would be finished. She would not end as a coward. And if there was any light in the world, she would find the man she loved. Alive.

  She curled the blood she knew was his into the palm of her hand and held it like hope.

  Fog snaked around her boots, broke apart at her long, reckless strides. Her heartbeat battered her ribs, her temples, her fingertips in a feral, pulsing rhythm.

  She heard the crack overhead, the thunder snap of it, and leaped aside as a branch, weighed down by water and wind and time, crashed to the forest floor.

  A little death that meant fresh life.

  She closed her hand over the only weapon she had and knew she would kill to live.

  And through the deep green light haunted by darker shadows, she saw the monster as she remembered him in her nightmares.

  Covered with blood, and watching her.


  A simple child that lightly draws its breath,

  And feels its life in every limb,

  What should it know of death?

  —William Wordsworth


  Beverly Hills, 1979

  Olivia was four when the monster came. It shambled into dreams that were not dreams and ripped away with bloody hands the innocence monsters covet most.

  On a night in high summer, when the moon was bright and full as a child’s heart and the breeze was softly perfumed with roses and jasmine, it stalked into the house to hunt, to slaughter, to leave behind the indifferent dark and the stink of blood.

  Nothing was the same after the monster came. The lovely house with its many generous rooms and acres of glossy floors would forever carry the smear of his ghost and the silver-edged echo of Olivia’s lost innocence.

  Her mother had told her there weren’t any monsters. They were only pretend, and her bad dreams only dreams. But the night she saw the monster, heard it, smelled it, her mother couldn’t tell her it wasn’t real.

  And there was no one left to sit on the bed, to stroke her hair and tell her pretty stories until she slipped back into sleep.

  Her daddy told the best stories, wonderfully silly ones with pink giraffes and two-headed cows. But he’d gotten sick, and the sickness had made him do bad things and say bad words in a loud, fast voice that wasn’t like Daddy’s at all. He’d had to go away. Her mother had told her he’d had to go away until he wasn’t sick anymore. That’s why he could only come to see her sometimes, and Mama or Aunt Jamie or Uncle David had to stay right in the room the whole time.

  Once, she’d been allowed to go to Daddy’s new house on the beach. Aunt Jamie and Uncle David had taken her, and she’d been fascinated and delighted to watch through the wide glass wall as the waves lifted and fell, to see the water stretch and stretch into forever where it bumped right into the sky.

  Then Daddy wanted to take her out on the beach to play, to build sand castles, just the two of them. But her aunt had said no. It wasn’t allowed. They’d argued, at first in those low, hissing voices adults never think children can hear. But Olivia had heard and, hearing, had sat by that big window to stare harder and harder at the water. And as the voices got louder, she made herself not hear because they hurt her stomach and made her throat burn.

  And she would not hear Daddy call Aunt Jamie bad names, or Uncle David say in a rough voice, Watch your step, Sam. Just watch your step. This isn’t going to help you.

  Finally, Aunt Jamie had said they had to go and had carried her out to the car. She’d waved over her aunt’s shoulder, but Daddy hadn’t waved back. He’d just stared, and his hands had stayed in fists at his sides.

  She hadn’t been allowed to go back to the beach house and watch the waves again.

  But it had started before that. Weeks before the beach house, more weeks before the monster came.

  It had all happened after the night Daddy had come into her room and awakened her. He’d paced her room, whispering to himself. It was a hard sound, but when she’d stirred in the big bed with its white lace canopy she hadn’t been afraid. Because it was Daddy. Even when the moonlight spilled through the windows onto his face, and his face looked mean and his eyes too shiny, he was still her daddy.

  Love and excitement had bounced in her heart.

  He’d wound up the music box on her dresser, the one with the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio that played “When You Wish upon a Star.”

  She sat up in bed and smiled sleepily. “Hi, Daddy. Tell me a story.”

  “I’ll tell you a story.” He’d turned his head and stared at his daughter, the small bundle of tousled blond hair and big brown eyes. But he’d only seen his own fury. “I’ll tell you a goddamn story, Livvy my love. About a beautiful whore who learns how to lie and cheat.”

  “Where did the horse live, Daddy?”

  “What horse?”

  “The beautiful one.”

  He’d turned around then, and his lips had peeled back in a snarl. “You don’t listen! You don’t listen any more than she does. I said whore goddamn it!”

  Olivia’s stomach jumped at his shout, and there was a funny metal sting in her mouth she didn’t recognize as fear. It was her first real taste of it. “What’s a whore?”

  “Your mother. Your fucking mother’s a whore.” He swept his arm over the dresser, sending the music box and a dozen little treasures crashing to the floor.

  In bed, Olivia curled up and began to cry.

  He was shouting at her, saying he was sorry. Stop that crying right now! He’d buy her a new music box. When he’d come over to pick her up, he’d smelled funny, like a room did after a grown-up party and before Rosa cleaned.

  Then Mama came rushing in. Her hair was long and loose, her nightgown glowing white in the moonlight.

  “Sam, for God’s sake, what are you doing? There, Livvy, there, baby, don’t cry. Daddy’s sorry.”

  The vicious resentment all but smothered him as he looked at the two golden heads close together. The shock of realizing his fists were clenched, that they wanted, yearned to pound, nearly snapped him back. “I told her I was sorry.”

  But when he started forward, intending to apologize yet again, his wife’s head snapped up. In the dark, her eyes gleamed with a fierceness that bordered on hate. “Stay away from her.” And the vicious threat in her mother’s voice had Olivia wailing.

  “Don’t you tell me to stay away from my own daughter. I’m sick and tired, sick and damn tired of orders from you, Julie.”

  “You’re stoned again. I won’t have you near her when you’ve been using.

  Then all Olivia could hear were the terrible shouts, more crashing, the sound of her mother crying out in pain. To escape she crawled out of bed and into her closet to bury herself among her mountain of stuffed toys.

  Later, she learned that her mother had managed to lock him out of the room, to call the police on her Mickey Mouse phone. But that night, all she knew was that Mama had crawled into the closet with her, held her close and promised everything would be all right.

  That’s when Daddy had gone away.

  Memories of that night could sneak into her dreams. When they did, and she woke, Olivia would creep out of bed and into her mother’s room down the hall. Just to make sure she was there. Just to see if maybe Daddy had come home because he was all better again.

  Sometimes they were in a hotel instead, or another house. Her mother’s work meant she had to travel. After her father got sick, Olivia always, always went with her. People said her mother was a star, and it made Olivia giggle. She knew stars were the little lights up in heaven, and her mother was right here.

  Her mother made movies, and lots and lots of people came to see her pretend to be somebody else. Daddy made movies, too, and she knew the story about how they’d met when they were both pretending to be other people. They’d fallen in love and gotten married, and they’d had a baby girl.

  When Olivia missed her father, she could look in the big leather book at all the pictures of the wedding when her mother had been a princess in a long white dress that sparkled and her father had been the prince in his black suit.

  There was a big silver-and-white cake, and Aunt Jamie had worn a blue dress that made her look almost as pretty as Mama. Olivia imagined herself into the pictures. She would wear a pink dress and flowers in her hair, and she would hold her parents’ hands and smile. In the pictures, everyone smiled and was happy.

  Over that spring and summer, Olivia often looked at the big leather book.

  The night the monster came, Olivia heard the shouting in her sleep. It made her whimper and twist. Don’t hurt her, she thought. Don’t hurt my mama. Please, please, please, Daddy.

  She woke with a scream in her head, with the echo of it on the air. And wanted her mother.

  She climbed out of bed, her little feet silent on the carpet. Rubbing her eyes, she wandered down the hallway where the light burned low.

  But the room with its big blue bed and pretty white flowers was empty. Her mother’s scent was there, a comfort. All the magic bottles and pots stood on the vanity. Olivia amused herself for a little while by playing with them and pretending she was putting on the colors and smells the way her mother did.

  One day she’d be beautiful, too. Like Mama. Everyone said so. She sang to herself while she preened and posed in the tall mirror, giggling as she imagined herself wearing a long white dress, like a princess.

  She tired of that and, feeling sleepy again, shuffled out to find her mother.

  As she approached the stairs, she saw the lights were on downstairs. The front door was open, and the late-summer breeze fluttered her nightgown.

  She thought there might be company, and maybe there would be cake. Quiet as a mouse, she crept down the stairs, holding her fingers to her lips to stop a giggle.

  And heard the soaring music of her mother’s favorite, Sleeping Beauty.

  The living room spilled from the central hall, flowing out with high arched ceilings, oceans of glass that opened the room to the gardens her mother loved. There was a big fireplace of deep blue lapis and floors of sheer white marble. Flowers speared and spilled from crystal vases, and silver urns and lamps had shades the colors of precious jewels.

  But tonight, the vases were broken, shattered on the tiles with their elegant and exotic flowers trampled and dying. The glossy ivory walls were splattered with red, and tables the cheerful maid Rosa kept polished to a gleam were overturned.

  There was a terrible smell, one that seemed to paint the inside of Olivia’s throat with something vile and had her stomach rippling.

  The music crescendoed, a climactic sweep of sobbing strings.

  She saw glass winking on the floor like scattered diamonds and streaks of red smearing the white floor. Whimpering for her mother, she stepped in. And she saw.

  Behind the corner of the big sofa, her mother lay sprawled on her side, one hand flung out, fingers spread wide. Her warm blond hair was wet with blood. So much blood. The white robe she’d worn was red with it, and ripped to ribbons.

  She couldn’t scream, couldn’t scream. Her eyes rounded and bulged in her head, her heart bumped painfully against her ribs, and a trickle of urine slipped down her legs. But she couldn’t scream.

  Then the monster that crouched over her mother, the monster with hands red to the wrists, with wet red streaks over his face, over his clothes, looked up. His eyes were wild, shiny as the glass that sparkled on the floor.

  “Livvy,” her father said. “God, Livvy.”

  And as he stumbled to his feet, she saw the silver-and-red gleam of bloody scissors in his hand.

  Still she didn’t scream. But now she ran. The monster was real, the monster was coming, and she had to hide. She heard a long, wailing call, like the howl of a dying animal in the woods.

  She went straight to her closet, burrowed among the stuffed toys. There her mind hid as well. She stared blindly at the door, sucked quietly on her thumb and barely heard the monster as he howled and called and searched for her.

  Doors slammed like gunshots. The monster sobbed and screamed, crashing through the house as it called her name. A wild bull with blood on his horns.

  Olivia, a doll among dolls, curled up tight and waited for her mother to come and wake her from a bad dream.

  That’s where Frank Brady found her. He might have overlooked her huddled in with all the bears and dogs and pretty dolls. She didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. Her hair was a golden blond, shiny as rain to her shoulders; her face a colorless oval, dominated by huge amber eyes under brows as dark as mink pelt.

  Her mother’s eyes, he thought with grim pity. Eyes he’d looked into dozens of times on the movie screen. Eyes he’d studied less than an hour ago and found filmed and lifeless.

  The eyes of the child looked at him, looked through him. Recognizing shock, he crouched down, resting his hands on his knees rather than reaching for her.

  “I’m Frank.” He spoke quietly, kept his eyes on hers. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Part of him wanted to call out for his partner, or one of the crime scene team, but he thought a shout might spook her. “I’m a policeman.” Very slowly, he lifted a hand to tap the badge that hung from his breast pocket. “Do you know what a policeman does, honey?”

  She continued to stare, but he thought he caught a flicker in her eyes. Awareness, he told himself. She hears me. “We help people. I’m here to take care of you. Are these all your dolls?” He smiled at her and picked up a squashy Kermit the Frog. “I know this guy. He’s on Sesame Street. Do you watch that on TV? My boss is just like Oscar the Grouch. But don’t tell him I said so.”

  When she didn’t respond, he pulled out every Sesame Street character he could remember, making comments, letting Kermit hop on his knee. The way she watched him, eyes wide and terrifyingly blank, ripped at his heart.

  “You want to come out now? You and Kermit?” He held out a hand, waited.

  Hers lifted, like a puppet’s on a string. Then, when the contact was made, she tumbled into his arms, shivering now with her face buried against his shoulder.

  He’d been a cop for ten years, and still his heart ripped.

  “There now, baby. You’re okay. You’ll be all right.” He stroked a hand down her hair, rocking for a moment.

  “The monster’s here.” She whispered it.

  Frank checked his motion then, cradling her, got to his feet. “He’s gone now.”

  “Did you chase him away?”