3,545
23.12.2018

Chapter Nine

SHE SPENT A LOT OF TIME, TO CAL'S MIND, WANDERING around, taking what appeared to be copious notes and a mammoth number of photographs with her tiny little digital, and muttering to herself.

He didn't see how any of that was particularly helpful, but since she seemed to be absorbed in it all, he sat under a tree with the snoring Lump and let her work.

There was no more howling, no more sense of anything stalking the clearing, or them. Maybe the demon had something else to do, Cal thought. Or maybe it was just hanging back, watching. Waiting.

Well, he was doing the same, he supposed. He didn't mind waiting, especially when the view was good.

It was interesting to watch her, to watch the way she moved. Brisk and direct one minute, slow and wandering the next. As if she couldn't quite make up her mind which approach to take.

"Have you ever had this analyzed?" she called out. "The stone itself? A scientific analysis?"

"Yeah. We took scrapings when we were teenagers, and took them to the geology teacher at the high school. It's limestone. Common limestone. And," he continued, anticipating her, "we took another sample a few years later, that Gage took to a lab in New York. Same results."

"Okay. Any objection if I take a sample, send it to a lab I've used, just for one more confirmation?"

"Help yourself." He started to hitch up a hip for his knife, but she was already taking a Swiss Army out of her pocket. He should've figured her for it. Still, it made him smile.

Most of the women he knew might have lipstick in their pocket, but wouldn't consider a Swiss Army. He was betting Quinn had both.

He watched her hands as she scraped stone dust into a Baggie she pulled out of her pack. A trio of rings circled two fingers and the thumb of her right hand to catch quick glints of the sun with the movement.

The glints brightened, beamed into his eyes.

The light changed, softened like a summer morning even as the air warmed and took on a weight of humidity. Leaves budded, unfurled, then burst into thick green on the trees, casting shade and light in patterns on the ground, on the stone.

On the woman.

Her hair was long and loose, the color of raw honey. Her face was sharp-featured with eyes long and tipped up slightly. She wore a long dress of dusky blue under a white apron. She moved with care, and still with grace, though her body was heavily pregnant. And she carried two pails across the clearing toward a little shed behind the stone.

As she walked she sang in a voice clear and bright as the summer morning.

All in a garden green where late I laid me down upon a bank of chamomile where I saw upon a style sitting, a country clown…

Hearing her, seeing her, Cal was filled with love so urgent, so ripe, he thought his heart might burst from it.

The man stepped through the door of the shed, and that love was illuminated on his face. The woman stopped, gave a knowing, flirtatious toss of her head, and sang as the man walked toward her.

…holding in his arms a comely country maid. Courting her with all his skill, working her unto his will. Thus to her he said, Kiss me in kindness, sweetheart.

She lifted her face, offered her lips. The man brushed them with his, and as her laugh burst like a shooting star, he took the pails from her, setting them on the ground before wrapping her in an embrace.

Have I not told you, you are not to carry water or wood? You carry enough.

His hands stroked over the mound of her belly, held there when hers covered them. Our sons are strong and well. I will give you sons, my love, as bright and brave as their father. My love, my heart. Now Cal saw the tears glimmer in those almond-shaped eyes. Must I leave you?

You will never leave me, not truly, nor I you. No tears. He kissed them away, and Cal felt the wrench of his own heart. No tears.

No. I swore an oath against them. So she smiled. There is time yet. Soft mornings and long summer days. It is not death. You swear to me?

It is not death. Come now. I will carry the water.

When they faded, he saw Quinn crouched in front of him, heard her saying his name sharply, repeatedly.

"You're back. You went somewhere. Your eyes…Your eyes go black and…deep is the only word I can think of when you go somewhere else. Where did you go, Cal?"

"She's not you."

"Okay." She'd been afraid to touch him before, afraid if she did she'd push them both into that somewhere else, or yank him back before he was done. Now she reached out to rest her hand on his knee. "I'm not who?"

"Whoever I was kissing. Started to, then it was you, but before, at first…Jesus." He clamped the heels of his hands at his temple. "Headache. Bitch of a headache."

"Lean back, close your eyes. I'll-"

"It'll pass in a minute. They always do. We're not them. It's not a reincarnation deal. It doesn't feel right. Sporadic possession maybe, which is bad enough."

"Who?"

"How the hell do I know?" His head screamed until he had to lower his head between his knees to fight off the sudden, acute nausea. "I'd draw you a damn picture if I could draw. Give me a minute."

Rising, Quinn went behind him and, kneeling, began to massage his neck, his shoulders.

"Okay, all right. Sorry. Christ. It's like having an electric drill inside my head, biting its way out through my temples. It's better. I don't know who they were. They didn't call each other by name. But best guess is Giles Dent and Ann Hawkins. They were obviously living here, and she was really, really pregnant. She was singing," he said and told her what he'd seen.

Quinn continued to rub his shoulders while she listened. "So they knew it was coming, and from what you say, he was sending her away before it did. 'Not death.' That's interesting, and something to look into. But for now, I think you've had enough of this place. And so have I."

She sat on the ground then, hissed a breath out, sucked one in. "While you were out, let's say, it came back."

"Jesus Christ." He started to spring up, but she gripped his arm.

"It's gone. Let's just sit here until we both get our legs back under us. I heard it growling, and I spun around. You were taking a trip, and I quashed my first instinct to grab you, shake you out of it, in case doing that pulled me in with you."

"And we'd both be defenseless," he said in disgust.

"And now Mr. Responsibility is beating himself up because he didn't somehow see this coming, fight off the magickal forces so he could stay in the here and now and protect the girl."

Even with the headache, he could manage a cool, steely stare. "Something like that."

"Something like that is appreciated, even if it is annoying. I had my handy Swiss Army knife, which, while it isn't up to Jim Bowie standards, does include a nice corkscrew and tweezers, both of which you never know when you may need."

"Is that spunk? Are you being spunky?"

"I'm babbling until I level out and I'm nearly there. The thing is, it just circled, making its nasty 'I'll eat you, my pretty and your big, lazy dog, too.' Rustling, growling, snarling. But it didn't show itself. Then it stopped, and you came back."

"How long?"

"I don't know. I think just a couple minutes, though it seemed longer at the time. However long, I'm so ready to get gone. I hope to hell you can walk back, Cal, because strong and resilient as I am, there's no way I can carry you piggyback."

"I can walk."

"Good, then let's get the hell out of here, and when we get to civilization, Hawkins, you're buying me a really big drink."

They gathered their packs; Cal whistled Lump awake. As they started back he wondered why he hadn't told her of the bloodstone-the three pieces he, Fox, and Gage held. The three pieces that he now knew formed the stone in the amulet Giles Dent had worn when he'd lived at the Pagan Stone.

WHILE CAL AND QUINN WERE HIKING OUT OF Hawkins Wood, Layla was taking herself out for an aimless walk around town. It was odd to just let her feet choose any direction. During her years in New York she'd always had a specific destination, always had a specific task, or several specific tasks to accomplish within a particular time frame.

Now, she'd let the morning stretch out, and had accomplished no more than reading sections of a few of the odd books Quinn had left with her. She might have stayed right there, inside her lovely room, inside that safe zone as Quinn had termed it.

But she'd needed to get away from the books. In any case, it gave the housekeeper an opportunity to set the room to rights, she supposed. And gave herself an opportunity to take a real look at the town she'd been compelled to visit.

She didn't have the urge to wander into any of the shops, though she thought Quinn's assessment was on the mark. There were some very interesting possibilities.

But even window shopping made her feel guilty for leaving the staff of the boutique in the lurch. Taking off the way she had, barely taking the time to call in from the road to tell the owner she'd had a personal emergency and wouldn't be in for the next several days.

Personal emergency covered it, Layla decided.

And it could very well get her fired. Still, even knowing that, she couldn't go back, pick things up, forget what had happened.

She'd get another job if she had to. When and if, she'd find another. She had some savings, she had a cushion. If her boss couldn't cut her some slack, she didn't want that stupid job anyway.

And, oh God, she was already justifying being unemployed.

Don't think about it, she ordered herself. Don't think about that right this minute.

She didn't think about it, and didn't think twice when her feet decided to continue on beyond the shops. She couldn't have said why they wanted to stop at the base of the building. LIBRARY was carved into the stone lintel over the door, but the glossy sign read HAWKINS HOLLOW COMMUNITY CENTER.

Innocuous enough, she told herself. But when a chill danced over her skin she ordered her feet to keep traveling.

She considered going into the museum, but couldn't work up the interest. She thought about crossing the street to Salon A and whiling away some time with a manicure, but simply didn't care about the state of her nails.

Tired and annoyed with herself, she nearly turned around and headed back. But the sign that caught her eye this time drew her forward.

FOX O'DELL, ATTORNEY AT LAW.

At least he was someone she knew-more or less. The hot lawyer with the compassionate eyes. He was probably busy with a client or out of the office, but she didn't care. Going in was something to do other than wander around feeling sorry for herself.

She stepped into the attractive, homespun reception area. The woman behind the gorgeous old desk offered a polite smile.

"Good morning-well, afternoon now. Can I help you?"

"I'm actually…" What? Layla wondered. What exactly was she? "I was hoping to speak to Mr. O'Dell for a minute if he's free."

"Actually, he's with a client, but they shouldn't be much longer if you'd like to…"

A woman in tight jeans, a snug pink sweater, and an explosion of hair in an improbable shade of red marched out on heeled boots. She dragged on a short leather jacket. "I want him skinned, Fox, you hear? I gave that son of a bitch the best two years and three months of my life, and I want him skinned like a rabbit."

"So noted, Shelley."

"How could he do that to me?" On a wail she collapsed into Fox's arms.

He wore jeans as well, and an untucked pinstriped shirt, along with an expression of resignation as he glanced over at Layla. "There, there," he said, patting the sobbing Shelley's back. "There, there."

"I just bought him new tires for his truck! I'm going to go slash every one of them."

"Don't." Fox took a good hold of her before Shelley, tears streaming away in fresh rage, started to yank back. "I don't want you to do that. You don't go near his truck, and for now, honey, try to stay away from him, too. And Sami."

"That turncoat slut of a bitch."

"That's the one. Leave this to me for now, okay? You go on back to work and let me handle this. That's why you hired me, right?"

"I guess. But you skin him raw, Fox. You crack that bastard's nuts like pecans."

"I'm going to get right on that," he assured her as he led her to the door. "You just stay above it all, that's the way. I'll be in touch."

After he'd closed the door, leaned back on it, he heaved out a breath. "Holy Mother of God."

"You should've referred that one," Alice told him.

"You can't refer off the first girl you got to second base with when she's filing for divorce. It's against the laws of God and Man. Hello, Layla, need a lawyer?"

"I hope not." He was better looking than she remembered, which just went to show the shape she'd been in the night before. Plus he didn't look anything like a lawyer. "No offense."

"None taken. Layla…It's Darnell, right?"

"Yes."

"Layla Darnell, Alice Hawbaker. Mrs. H, I'm clear for a while?"

"You are."

"Come on back, Layla." He gestured. "We don't usually put a show on this early in the day, but my old pal Shelley walked into the back room over at the diner to visit her twin sister, Sami, and found her husband-that would be Shelley's husband, Block-holding Sami's tip money."

"I'm sorry, she's filing for divorce because her husband was holding her sister's tip money?"

"It was in Sami's Victoria's Secret Miracle Bra at the time."

"Oh. Well."

"That's not privileged information as Shelley chased them both out of the back room and straight out onto Main Street-with Sami's miraculous bra in full view-with a rag mop. Want a Coke?"

"No, I really don't. I don't think I need anything to give me an edge."

Since she looked inclined to pace, he didn't offer her a chair. Instead, he leaned back against his desk. "Rough night?"

"No, the opposite. I just can't figure out what I'm doing here. I don't understand any of this, and I certainly don't understand my place in it. A couple hours ago I told myself I was going to pack and drive back to New York like a sane person. But I didn't." She turned to him. "I couldn't. And I don't understand that either."

"You're where you're supposed to be. That's the simplest answer."

"Are you afraid?"

"A lot of the time."

"I don't think I've ever been really afraid. I wonder if I'd be so damned edgy if I had something to do. An assignment, a task."

"Listen, I've got to drive to a client a few miles out of town, take her some papers."

"Oh, sorry. I'm in the way."

"No, and when I start thinking beautiful women are in my way, please notify my next of kin so they can gather to say their final good-byes before my death. I was going to suggest you ride out with me, which is something to do. And you can have chamomile tea and stale lemon snaps with Mrs. Oldinger, which is a task. She likes company, which is the real reason she had me draw up the fifteenth codicil to her will."

He kept talking, knowing that was one way to help calm someone down when she looked ready to bolt. "By the time that's done, I can swing by another client who's not far out of the way and save him a trip into town. By my way of thinking, Cal and Quinn should be just about back home by the time we're done with all that. We'll go by, see what's what."

"Can you be out of the office all that time?"

"Believe me." He grabbed his coat, his briefcase. "Mrs. H will holler me back if I'm needed here. But unless you've got something better to do, I'll have her pull out the files I need and we'll take a drive."

It was better than brooding, Layla decided. Maybe she thought it was odd for a lawyer, even a small-town lawyer to drive an old Dodge pickup with a couple of Ring Ding wrappers littering the floorboards.

"What are you doing for the second client?"

"That's Charlie Deen. Charlie got clipped by a DUI when he was driving home from work. Insurance company's trying to dance around some of the medical bills. Not going to happen."

"Divorce, wills, personal injury. So you don't specialize?"

"All law, all the time," he said and sent her a smile that was a combination of sweet and cocky. "Well, except for tax law if I can avoid it. I leave that to my sister. She's tax and business law."

"But you don't have a practice together."

"That'd be tough. Sage went to Seattle to be a lesbian."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Sorry." He boosted the gas as they passed the town limits. "Family joke. What I mean is my sister Sage is gay, and she lives in Seattle. She's an activist, and she and her partner of, hmm, I guess about eight years now run a firm they call Girl on Girl. Seriously," he added when Layla said nothing. "They specialize in tax and business law for gays."

"Your family doesn't approve?"

"Are you kidding? My parents eat it up like tofu. When Sage and Paula-that's her partner-got married. Or had their life-partner affirmation, whatever-we all went out there and celebrated like mental patients. She's happy and that's what counts. The alternate lifestyle choice is just kind of a bonus for my parents. Speaking of family, that's my little brother's place."

Layla saw a log house all but buried in the trees, with a sign near the curve of the road reading HAWKINS CREEK POTTERY.

"Your brother's a potter."

"Yeah, a good one. So's my mother when she's in the mood. Want to stop in?"

"Oh, I…"

"Better not," he decided. "Ridge'll get going and Mrs. H has called Mrs. Oldinger by now to tell her to expect us. Another time."

"Okay." Conversation, she thought. Small talk. Relative sanity. "So you have a brother and sister."

"Two sisters. My baby sister owns the little vegetarian restaurant in town. It's pretty good, considering. Of the four of us I veered the farthest off the flower-strewn path my counterculture parents forged. But they love me anyway. That's about it for me. How about you?"

"Well…I don't have any relatives nearly as interesting as yours sound, but I'm pretty sure my mother has some old Joan Baez albums."

"There, that strange and fateful crossroads again."

She started to laugh, then gasped with pleasure as she spotted the deer. "Look! Oh, look. Aren't they gorgeous, just grazing there along the edge of the trees?"

To accommodate her, Fox pulled over to the narrow shoulder so she could watch. "You're used to seeing deer, I suppose," she said.

"Doesn't mean I don't get a kick out of it. We had to run herds off the farm when I was a kid."

"You grew up on a farm."

There was that urban-dweller wistfulness in her voice. The kind that said she saw the pretty deer, the bunnies, the sunflowers, and happy chickens. And not the plowing, the hoeing, weeding, harvesting. "Small, family farm. We grew our own vegetables, kept chickens and goats, bees. Sold some of the surplus, some of my mother's crafts, my father's woodwork."

"Do they still have it?"

"Yeah."

"My parents owned a little dress shop when I was a kid. They sold out about fifteen years ago. I always wished-Oh God, oh my God!"

Her hand whipped over to clamp on his arm.

The wolf leaped out of the trees, onto the back of a young deer. It bucked, it screamed-she could hear its high-pitched screams of fear and pain-it bled while the others in the small herd continued to crop at grass.

"It's not real."

His voice sounded tinny and distant. In front of her horrified eyes the wolf took the deer down, then began to tear and rip.

"It's not real," he repeated. He put his hands on her shoulders, and she felt something click. Something inside her pushed toward him and away from the horror at the edge of the trees. "Look at it, straight on," he told her. "Look at it and know it's not real."

The blood was so red, so wet. It flew in ugly rain, smearing the winter grass of the narrow field. "It's not real."

"Don't just say it. Know it. It lies, Layla. It lives in lies. It's not real."

She breathed in, breathed out. "It's not real. It's a lie. It's an ugly lie. A small, cruel lie. It's not real."

The field was empty; the winter grass ragged and unstained.

"How do you live with this?" Shoving around in her seat, Layla stared at him. "How do you stand this?"

"By knowing-the way I knew that was a lie-that some day, some way, we're going to kick its ass."

Her throat burned dry. "You did something to me. When you took my shoulders, when you were talking to me, you did something to me."

"No." He denied it without a qualm. He'd done something for her, Fox told himself. "I just helped you remember it wasn't real. We're going on to Mrs. Oldinger. I bet you could use that chamomile tea about now."

"Does she have any whiskey to go with it?"

"Wouldn't surprise me."

QUINN COULD SEE CAL'S HOUSE THROUGH THE trees when her phone signaled a waiting text-message. "Crap, why didn't she just call me?"

"Might've tried. There are lots of pockets in the woods where calls drop out."

"Color me virtually unsurprised." She brought up the message, smiling a little as she recognized Cybil's shorthand.

Bzy, but intrig'd. Tell u more when. Cn B there in a wk, 2 latest. Tlk whn cn. Q? B-ware. Serious. C.

"All right." Quinn replaced the phone and made the decision she'd been weighing during the hike back. "I guess we'll call Fox and Layla when I'm having that really big drink by the fire you're going to build."

"I can live with that."

"Then, seeing as you're a town honcho, you'd be the one to ask about finding a nice, attractive, convenient, and somewhat roomy house to rent for the next, oh, six months."

"And the tenant would be?"

"Tenants. They would be me, my delightful friend Cybil, whom I will talk into digging in, and most likely Layla, whom-I believe-will take a bit more convincing. But I'm very persuasive."

"What happened to staying a week for initial research, then coming back in April for a follow-up?"

"Plans change," she said airily, and smiled at him as they stepped onto the gravel of his driveway. "Don't you just love when that happens?"

"Not really." But he walked with her onto the deck and opened the door so she could breeze into his quiet home ahead of him.