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Heart of the Raven

By:Susan Crosby

Heart of the Raven
Susan Crosby

       One




Cassie Miranda shivered as she maneuvered her car up a steep, bumpy  driveway on Wolfback Ridge. She hunched over the steering wheel to study  her surroundings through the windshield. Downright eerie, she thought,  slowing to a crawl. What happened to the blue sky and balmy weather that  had followed her across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito?

Until a minute ago the gorgeous September day would've had photographers  racing around the city to take postcard-perfect pictures and  businessmen ditching work for the Giants' game. Then, without warning,  gloom had blanketed the sky, as if a thundercloud hovered over just this  piece of property. She glanced at her rearview mirror. Sure enough,  still an azure sky behind her and a slice of San Francisco Bay.

The house came into view, a soaring glass-and-wood structure with a  spectacular view of the San Francisco skyline and the world's most  famous bridge-if only the view hadn't been blocked by the untended  forest surrounding the property. She swore no ray of sunshine could  penetrate the foliage. Her new client obviously required an abnormal  amount of privacy.

She didn't mind eccentric-to a point. If she'd wanted  everyday-run-of-the-mill all the time, she wouldn't have chosen to be a  private investigator.

Cassie parked under a gnarly tree that looked to be a century old. A  city girl all her life, she guessed it was an oak, but the only thing  she knew about oaks was that acorns grew on them. She didn't see any  acorns.

She grabbed her briefcase and leather jacket from the passenger seat and  climbed out of the car. It was quiet. Too quiet. As if birds were  afraid to be there.

Cassie made a slow sweep of the terrain with her gaze as she slipped  into her jacket. Chills tiptoed down her spine. Someone was watching  her.

"It was a dark and stormy night," she muttered, figuring if she spoke  the hackneyed phrase aloud it would make her laugh. It didn't.

She pulled her braid free of the jacket and let it fall against her  spine. The lack of birdsong made her wonder if a wild animal was  crouched nearby, watching her. Stalking her. That would scare the birds  into silence, wouldn't it? A wolf, perhaps? Is that why this place was  named Wolfback Ridge-because wolves ran free?

She scanned the property again, admired the hand-carved sign that said  Raven's View, then lifted her gaze to the house. Tinted windows. Was it  the client watching her? He even sounded gothic-Heath Raven. The name  alone gave her an image of him. Dark and mysterious, maybe even  disfigured. Tormented.

Cassie shook off her overactive imagination. One of her Los Angeles  bosses had assigned her the case, a missing person. She'd called the  client immediately and set up an appointment to see him, even though it  was lunchtime. He'd sounded normal. A quick Internet search yielded the  information that he was an architect, a highly acclaimed one. How  bizarre could he be?

She walked toward the house, her boots crunching gravel along the rustic  path leading to the building. The sky turned inky as the structure  itself blocked the only remaining hope of sun creeping in.

Cassie trusted her instincts, and her instincts were screaming at her to  turn tail and run, that the man who lived in this dreary setting was  going to make her personal demons surface, ones she'd buried deep and  long ago. But just then the big wooden door opened and a man stood  framed in the doorway.

He wasn't disfigured. Other than that, she'd nailed him. Dark brown hair  overdue for a trim, angular features, clear green eyes, assessing and,  yes, tormented. A too-thin body, but solid, too.

"Ms. Miranda?" he asked in that perfectly normal voice but without the slightest smile in his eyes.

"Yes. Good afternoon." She passed him her business card, which  identified her as Cassie Miranda of ARC Security & Investigations.

"I'm Heath Raven," he said, taking a step back. "Please come in."

He wore blue jeans and a red polo shirt, more normalcy.

Yet nothing seemed normal at all.

The house was as silent as a padded cell. The sleek furnishings of the  living room they stepped into looked unused, as did the fireplace, which  showed no signs of ever having been lit. The huge windows should've  allowed light to flood in. Instead it was dim. Dismal. And  sad-especially sad, as if the house was in mourning.

Cassie pulled a notebook and pen from her pocket as she sat on the sofa. He stood a distance away.

"Who's missing, Mr. Raven?" she asked.

His jaw hardened. "My child. My child is missing."

His words hit hard, a blow to the stomach. This wasn't a case for her  firm, but for the P.D. She closed her notebook. "What do the police  say?"                       
       
           



       

He shook his head.

"I don't understand. A child who disappears-"

"The woman who is carrying my child disappeared. She left a note. The police won't get involved because she went voluntarily."

Anger coated his words-at the woman or the police? Understandable, either way.

"May I see the note?" she asked.

He left the room, giving her a chance to catch her breath. If she'd  known there was a child involved …  No. She would've met with him  regardless. She just wished she'd been prepared. Any case involving a  child kept her up at night, drove her to exhaustion. She pushed harder  for answers, demanded more of herself and everyone around her.

"Here," he said, handing her a single sheet of pink stationery.

Dear Heath,



I need to figure things out. Don't try to find me. I'll be in touch later.



Eva



Not exactly a love letter, Cassie thought. "When did you receive this?"

"It came in the mail this morning."

"Is she your wife?"

"No. We had a one-night stand over eight months ago. I offered to marry  her, several times, but she said no. Several times." He walked away from  her.

"Why would she leave?"

He looked back sharply. "I didn't abuse her, if that's what you're thinking."

"I'm gathering facts. That's what I do."

Impatience surfacing, he dragged his hands down his face. "Here's the  story," he said. "I don't get out much. Most of the time people come to  me when I need something. Eva works as a clerk in my lawyer's office,  and she was assigned to bring me paperwork to read and sign. After  almost a year of seeing her once a week or so, we slept together. Once.  She got pregnant."

"When is she due?"

"In three weeks." He moved around the room again, not stopping to touch anything, just moving, pacing. Prowling.

"Are you sure the child is yours?"

He hesitated a fraction of a second. "I have no reason to believe otherwise."

She measured his response and decided if he'd questioned the issue  before, it was settled in his mind-or almost so. He'd be a fool not to  have some doubt, based on what he'd told her. "Okay. Were there any  clues that she was about to take off?"

He came to an abrupt halt. "None." The harshly uttered word conveyed all  of his brimming emotions. "She stops by every few days. She gives me an  update from her latest doctor's appointment, we talk a little, and  that's it. I've never done anything to make her run away. She agreed to  shared custody as soon as the child was weaned. We have an amicable  relationship."

An amicable relationship? Cassie thought it was an odd description, implying they were not friends but merely acquaintances.

"Do you give her money?" she asked.

"Yes."

She waited. He didn't expand on his answer.

"I'm going to need more detail than that."

"Ms. Miranda. Eva is carrying my child. I want my child well taken care  of. That starts in the womb. Short of Eva moving in here, which she  refused to do, I thought that making her life easier with some extra  money would only help. I will show you the accounting of my payments to  her, but what does it matter?"

"It matters because it establishes a pattern. Maybe she ran off and is  holding your unborn child hostage because she wants more money." Cassie  tapped her pen against the pad she'd opened again. "She says she'll be  in touch. Why aren't you just waiting her out? If you trusted her, you  would do what she asked."

He looked away, his hands clenching and unclenching, shoulders stiff.  The barely contained emotion fascinated her. Still waters ran very deep.

"Three years ago my son died. My only child," he said, then faced her again. "I won't lose this child, too."

His pain pierced the room like a siren's wail. Cassie's heart opened  wide with sympathy. She was twenty-nine years old, and she'd seen  suffering and endured a lot in her own life, but nothing like losing a  child.

Her suffering- No, she wouldn't dwell. "I'll help you," she said to Heath finally.

His relief brought quiet back into the room. "Thank you."

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