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THE MIDNIGHT EFFECT
by Pamela Fryer

Genre: Paranormal Romance, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy

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A strip of yellow light crossed the family room floor through the cracked bedroom door. After a few minutes of soft whispers, Lily and the child fell silent.

Miles picked up the Tigger doll. It was foolish to keep it away from the little girl like some coveted shred of his daughter. He’d donated her clothes and toys to a charity that helped women fleeing abusive relationships. This toy was no different, but his heart had seized with pain when he saw one last tangible piece of Michelle he could hold in his hand.

He rose from his chair and crossed the small family room. Miles gently pushed the door open.

Lily lay on her side, one arm placed over the sleeping child. Her molten gaze rose to his as he stepped into the room. Heat stirred in him, in of all places, his heart.

“You want me to turn out the light?”

She brushed a lock of corn silk hair from Annie’s cheek and whispered, “She’s afraid of the dark.”

He’d already made the decision to dump these two at Seattle East’s front door tomorrow morning and pretend he’d never met them. They couldn’t be out of his world soon enough.

He looked down at the toy in his hand. Lily saw it too. There was pity in her eyes when she looked back into his. He crossed the room and placed it against Annie’s arm. She would find it in the morning.

The gentle smile Lily thanked him with was more than he could bear. He turned and strode from the room.

He started by slipping into his shoulder holster. His feet took him to the wall safe behind Sara’s small painting of the lake. His fingers turned the dial even as his mind warred with the hand wanting to hold the revolver again.

Turn them over to the department and forget you ever met them.

He knew that wasn’t how it would happen. There was a part of the man he used to be, buried deep, that was still alive and wouldn’t allow it.

Miles stayed up late into the night, taking great care cleaning his weapon. Hours later he was no closer to peace.

He loaded the cylinder and snapped it shut. The .38 fit his hand like a well-worn glove. It slipped naturally into his leather holster with the familiarity of a lover’s kiss.

Of Lily’s story, the part concerning him the most was the social worker’s death.

Was a killer sleeping in the next room?

He tried to convince himself appearances could be deceiving. If the man who had chased her to the gas station had been a better shot, Lily would be the prime suspect in his murder.

He glanced at the short-wave radio on the credenza. Should he put a call in to local tonight? The clock beside it glowed eleven fifty-eight. At this time there would only be a desk officer on duty, but given the fire and the fact Miles couldn’t be located, Sergeant Thompson might still be at the station.

Miles wiped his fingers on a rag and boxed up the gun-cleaning kit. A scraping sound behind him had him out of his chair and whirling toward the door. The .38 was in his hand before he’d made the decision to draw.

There was no one there. His eyes slipped to the picture that had lain face-down since the first — and last — time he’d come here after Sara’s accident.

It was now standing up. His wife’s smiling face taunted him over his own shoulder, her arms wrapped around his neck, her gleaming blond hair backlit by the late afternoon sun. In his arms Michelle smiled with all the youthful excitement of a playful child. His own face was that of a stranger he no longer recognized.

He turned away. Annie stood in the center of the tiny room.

 “Sweetheart, you scared me.”

Her eyes were wide, haunted. “I wanted to see them.”

He turned back to the picture. He distinctly remembered glancing at it earlier, noting it was still laid down.

“Shouldn’t you be in —”

Annie was gone.

An icy sensation rippled over his skin. Miles moved silently to the bedroom door and pushed it open. Annie and Lily lay in the same position they had been in hours earlier. Annie slept with one hand curled under her chin. Her brow was pinched and she twitched as though caught in a bad dream. Her little sneakers were beside the bedside table where her corduroy pants were folded neatly, exactly as they had been when he’d brought in the doll.

She’d been fully dressed as she stood in the cabin’s main room, not thirty seconds ago.

He’d imagined it. He had to have. His senses were on overload and he needed sleep desperately. Coming out of his half-dead existence had been a shock to his system.

His body still hummed with nervous energy, but Miles went to the couch and lay down. He forced his eyes shut.

It seemed only moments later Lily shook him awake. Sunlight streamed in through the kitchen window. Recognition came rushing back with painful clarity.

Her beautiful face was a mask of terror. “Someone’s coming.”