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23.12.2018

Chapter Three

Hawkins Hollow

February 2008

IT WAS COLDER IN HAWKINS HOLLOW, MARYLAND, than it was in Juno, Alaska. Cal liked to know little bits like that, even though at the moment he was in the Hollow where the damp, cold wind blew like a mother and froze his eyeballs.

His eyeballs were about the only things exposed as he zipped across Main Street from Coffee Talk, with a to-go cup of mochaccino in one gloved hand, to the Bowl-a-Rama.

Three days a week, he tried for a counter breakfast at Ma's Pantry a couple doors down, and at least once a week he hit Gino's for dinner.

His father believed in supporting the community, the other merchants. Now that his dad was semiretired and Cal oversaw most of the businesses, he tried to follow that Hawkins tradition.

He shopped the local market even though the chain supermarket a couple miles outside town was cheaper. If he wanted to send a woman flowers, he resisted doing so with a couple of clicks on his computer and hauled himself down to the Flower Pot.

He had relationships with the local plumber, electrician, painter, the area craftsmen. Whenever possible, he hired for the town from the town.

Except for his years away at college, he'd always lived in the Hollow. It was his place.

Every seven years since his tenth birthday, he lived through the nightmare that visited his place. And every seven years, he helped clean up the aftermath.

He unlocked the front door of the Bowl-a-Rama, relocked it behind him. People tended to walk right in, whatever the posted hours, if the door wasn't locked.

He'd once been a little more casual about that, until one fine night while he'd been enjoying some after-hours Strip Bowling with Allysa Kramer, three teenage boys had wandered in, hoping the video arcade was still open.

Lesson learned.

He walked by the front desk, the six lanes and ball returns, the shoe rental counter and the grill, turned and jogged up the stairs to the squat second floor that held his (or his father's if his father was in the mood) office, a closet-sized john, and a mammoth storage area.

He set the coffee on the desk, stripped off gloves, scarf, watch cap, coat, insulated vest.

He booted up his computer, put on the satellite radio, then sat down to fuel up on caffeine and get to work.

The bowling center Cal 's grandfather had opened in the postwar forties had been a tiny, three-lane gathering spot with a couple of pinball machines and counter Cokes. It expanded in the sixties, and again, when Cal 's father took the reins, in the early eighties.

Now, with its six lanes, its video arcade, and its private party room, it was the place to gather in the Hollow.

Credit to Grandpa, Cal thought as he looked over the party reservations for the next month. But the biggest chunk of credit went to Cal 's father, who'd morphed the lanes into a family center, and had used its success to dip into other areas of business.

The town bears our name, Jim Hawkins liked to say. Respect the name, respect the town.

Cal did both. He'd have left long ago otherwise.

An hour into the work, Cal glanced up at the rap on his doorjamb.

"Sorry, Cal. Just wanted you to know I was here. Thought I'd go ahead and get that painting done in the rest rooms since you're not open this morning."

"Okay, Bill. Got everything you need?"

"Sure do." Bill Turner, five years, two months, and six days sober, cleared his throat. "Wonder if maybe you'd heard anything from Gage."

"Not in a couple months now."

Tender area, Cal thought when Bill just nodded. Boggy ground.

"I'll just get started then."

Cal watched as Bill moved away from the doorway. Nothing he could do about it, he told himself. Nothing he was sure he should do.

Did five years clean and sober make up for all those whacks with a belt, for all those shoves and slaps, all those curses? It wasn't for him to judge.

He glanced down at the thin scar that ran diagonally across his wrist. Odd how quickly that small wound had healed, and yet the mark of it remained-the only scar he carried. Odd how so small a thing had catapulted the town and people he knew into seven days of hell every seven years.

Would Gage come back this summer, as he had every seventh year? Cal couldn't see ahead, that wasn't his gift or his burden. But he knew when he, Gage, and Fox turned thirty-one, they would all be together in the Hollow.

They'd sworn an oath.

He finished up the morning's work, and because he couldn't get his mind off it, composed a quick e-mail to Gage.

Hey. Where the hell are you? Vegas? Mozambique? Duluth? Heading out to see Fox. There's a writer coming into the Hollow to do research on the history, the legend, and what they're calling the anomalies. Probably got it handled, but thought you should know.

It's twenty-two degrees with a windchill factor of fifteen. Wish you were here and I wasn't.

He'd answer eventually, Cal thought as he sent the e-mail, then shut down the computer. Could be in five minutes or in five weeks, but Gage would answer.

He began to layer on the outer gear again over a long and lanky frame passed down by his father. He'd gotten his outsized feet from dear old Dad, too.

The dark blond hair that tended to go as it chose was from his mother. He knew that only due to early photos of her, as she'd been a soft, sunny blonde, perfectly groomed, throughout his memory.

His eyes, a sharp, occasionally stormy gray, had been twenty-twenty since his tenth birthday.

Even as he zipped up his parka to head outside, he thought that the coat was for comfort only. He hadn't had so much as a sniffle in over twenty years. No flu, no virus, no hay fever.

He'd fallen out of an apple tree when he'd been twelve. He'd heard the bone in his arm snap, had felt the breathless pain.

And he'd felt it knit together again-with more pain-before he'd made it across the lawn to the house to tell his mother.

So he'd never told her, he thought as he stepped outside into the ugly slap of cold. Why upset her?

He covered the three blocks to Fox's office quickly, shooting out waves or calling back greetings to neighbors and friends. But he didn't stop for conversation. He might not get pneumonia or postnasal drip, but he was freaking tired of winter.

Gray, ice-crusted snow lay in a dirty ribbon along the curbs, and above, the sky mirrored the brooding color. Some of the houses or businesses had hearts and Valentine wreaths on doors and windows, but they didn't add a lot of cheer with the bare trees and winter-stripped gardens.

The Hollow didn't show to advantage, to Cal 's way of thinking, in February.

He walked up the short steps to the little covered porch of the old stone townhouse. The plaque beside the door read: FOX B. O'DELL, ATTORNEY AT LAW.

It was something that always gave Cal a quick jolt and a quick flash of amusement. Even after nearly six years, he couldn't quite get used to it.

The long-haired hippie freak was a goddamn lawyer.

He stepped into the tidy reception area, and there was Alice Hawbaker at the desk. Trim, tidy in her navy suit with its bowed white blouse, her snowcap of hair and no-nonsense bifocals, Mrs. Hawbaker ran the office like a Border collie ran a herd.

She looked sweet and pretty, and she'd bite your ankle if you didn't fall in line.

"Hey, Mrs. Hawbaker. Boy, it is cold out there. Looks like we might get some more snow." He unwrapped his scarf. "Hope you and Mr. Hawbaker are keeping warm."

"Warm enough."

He heard something in her voice that had him looking more closely as he pulled off his gloves. When he realized she'd been crying he instinctively stepped to the desk. "Is everything okay? Is-"

"Everything's fine. Just fine. Fox is between appointments. He's in there sulking, so you go right on back."

"Yes, ma'am. Mrs. Hawbaker, if there's anything-"

"Just go right on back," she repeated, then made herself busy with her keyboard.

Beyond the reception area a hallway held a powder room on one side and a library on the other. Straight back, Fox's office was closed off by a pair of pocket doors. Cal didn't bother to knock.

Fox looked up when the doors slid open. He did appear to be sulking as his gilded eyes were broody and his mouth was in full scowl.

He sat behind his desk, his feet, clad in hiking boots, propped on it. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt open over a white insulated tee. His hair, densely brown, waved around his sharp-featured face.

"What's going on?"

"I'll tell you what's going on. My administrative assistant just gave me her notice."

"What did you do?"

"Me?" Fox shoved back from the desk and opened the minifridge for a can of Coke. He'd never developed a taste for coffee. "Try we, brother. We camped out at the Pagan Stone one fateful night, and screwed the monkey."

Cal dropped into a chair. "She's quitting because-"

"Not just quitting. They're leaving the Hollow, she and Mr. Hawbaker. And yeah, because." He took a long, greedy drink the way some men might take a pull on a bottle of whiskey. "That's not the reason she gave me, but that's the reason. She said they decided to move to Minneapolis to be close to their daughter and grandchildren, and that's bogus. Why does a woman heading toward seventy, married to a guy older than dirt, pick up and move north? They've got another kid lives outside of D.C., and they've got strong ties here. I could tell it was bull."

"Because of what she said, or because you took a cruise through her head?"

"First the one, then the other. Don't start on me." Fox gestured with the Coke, then slammed it down on his desk. "I don't poke around for the fun of it. Son of a bitch."

"Maybe they'll change their minds."

"They don't want to go, but they're afraid to stay. They're afraid it'll happen again-which I could tell her it will-and they just don't want to go through it again. I offered her a raise-like I could afford it-offered her the whole month of July off, letting her know that I knew what was at the bottom of it. But they're going. She'll give me until April first. April frickin' Fools," he ranted. "To find somebody else, for her to show them the ropes. I don't know where the damn ropes are, Cal. I don't know half the stuff she does. She just does it. Anyway."

"You've got until April, maybe we'll think of something."

"We haven't thought of the solution to this in twenty years plus."

"I meant your office problem. But yeah, I've been thinking a lot about the other." Rising, he walked to Fox's window, looked out on the quiet side street. "We've got to end it. This time we've got to end it. Maybe talking to this writer will help. Laying it out to someone objective, someone not involved."

"Asking for trouble."

"Maybe it is, but trouble's coming anyway. Five months to go. We're supposed to meet her at the house." Cal glanced at his watch. "Forty minutes."

"We?" Fox looked blank for a moment. "That's today? See, see, I didn't tell Mrs. H, so it didn't get written down somewhere. I've got a deposition in an hour."

"Why don't you use your damn BlackBerry?"

"Because it doesn't follow my simple Earth logic. Reschedule the writer. I'm clear after four."

"It's okay, I can handle it. If she wants more, I'll see about setting up a dinner, so keep tonight open."

"Be careful what you say."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm going to. But I've been thinking. We've been careful about that for a long time. Maybe it's time to be a little reckless."

"You sound like Gage."

"Fox…I've already started having the dreams again."

Fox blew out a breath. "I was hoping that was just me."

"When we were seventeen they started about a week before our birthday, then when we were twenty-four, over a month. Now, five months out. Every time it gets stronger. I'm afraid if we don't find the way, this time could be the last for us, and the town."

"Have you talked to Gage?"

"I just e-mailed him. I didn't tell him about the dreams. You do it. Find out if he's having them, too, wherever the hell he is. Get him home, Fox. I think we need him back. I don't think we can wait until summer this time. I gotta go."

"Watch your step with the writer," Fox called out as Cal started for the door. "Get more than you give."

"I can handle it," Cal repeated.

QUINN BLACK EASED HER MINI COOPER OFF THE exit ramp and hit the usual barrage at the interchange. Pancake House, Wendy's, McDonald's, KFC.

With great affection, she thought of a Quarter Pounder, with a side of really salty fries, and-natch-a Diet Coke to ease the guilt. But since that would be breaking her vow to eat fast food no more than once a month, she wasn't going to indulge.

"There now, don't you feel righteous?" she asked herself with only one wistful glance in the rearview at the lovely Golden Arches.

Her love of the quick and the greasy had sent her on an odyssey of fad diets, unsatisfying supplements, and miracle workout tapes through her late teens and early twenties. Until she'd finally slapped herself silly, tossed out all her diet books, her diet articles, her I LOST TWENTY POUNDS IN TWO WEEKS-AND YOU CAN, TOO! ads, and put herself on the path to sensible eating and exercising.

Lifestyle change, she reminded herself. She'd made a lifestyle change.

But boy, she missed those Quarter Pounders more than she missed her ex-fianc¨¦.

Then again, who wouldn't?

She glanced at the GPS hooked to her dashboard, then over at the directions she'd printed out from Caleb Hawkins's e-mail. So far, they were in tandem.

She reached down for the apple serving as her midmorning snack. Apples were filling, Quinn thought as she bit in. They were good for you, and they were tasty.

And they were no Quarter Pounder.

In order to keep her mind off the devil, she considered what she hoped to accomplish on this first face-to-face interview with one of the main players in the odd little town of Hawkins Hollow.

No, not fair to call it odd, she reminded herself. Objectivity first. Maybe her research leaned her toward the odd label, but there would be no making up her mind until she'd seen for herself, done her interviews, taken her notes, scoped out the local library. And, maybe most important, seen the Pagan Stone in person.

She loved poking at all the corners and cobwebs of small towns, digging down under the floorboards for secrets and surprises, listening to the gossip, the local lore and legend.

She'd made a tiny name for herself doing a series of articles on quirky, off-the-mainstream towns for a small press magazine called Detours. And since her professional appetite was as well-developed as her bodily one, she'd taken a risky leap and written a book, following the same theme, but focusing on a single town in Maine reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of twin sisters who'd been murdered in a boardinghouse in 1843.

The critics had called the result "engaging" and "good, spooky fun," except for the ones who'd deemed it "preposterous" and "convoluted."

She'd followed it up with a book highlighting a small town in Louisiana where the descendent of a voodoo priestess served as mayor and faith healer. And, Quinn had discovered, had been running a very successful prostitution ring.

But Hawkins Hollow-she could just feel it-was going to be bigger, better, meatier.

She couldn't wait to sink her teeth in.

The fast-food joints, the businesses, the ass-to-elbow houses gave way to bigger lawns, bigger homes, and to fields sleeping under the dreary sky.

The road wound, dipped and lifted, then veered straight again. She saw a sign for the Antietam Battlefield, something else she meant to investigate and research firsthand. She'd found little snippets about incidents during the Civil War in and around Hawkins Hollow.

She wanted to know more.

When her GPS and Caleb's directions told her to turn, she turned, following the next road past a grove of naked trees, a scatter of houses, and the farms that always made her smile with their barns and silos and fenced paddocks.

She'd have to find a small town to explore in the Midwest next time. A haunted farm, or the weeping spirit of a milkmaid.

She nearly ignored the directions to turn when she saw the sign for Hawkins Hollow (est. 1648). As with the Quarter Pounder, her heart longed to indulge, to drive into town rather than turn off toward Caleb Hawkins's place. But she hated to be late, and if she got caught up exploring the streets, the corners, the look of the town, she certainly would be late for her first appointment.

"Soon," she promised, and turned to take the road winding by the woods she knew held the Pagan Stone at their heart.

It gave her a quick shiver, and that was strange. Strange to realize that shiver had been fear and not the anticipation she always felt with a new project.

As she followed the twists of the road, she glanced with some unease toward the dark and denuded trees. And hit the brakes hard when she shifted her eyes back to the road and saw something rush out in front of her.

She thought she saw a child-oh God, oh God-then thought it was a dog. And then…it was nothing. Nothing at all on the road, nothing rushing to the field beyond. Nothing there but herself and her wildly beating heart in the little red car.

"Trick of the eye," she told herself, and didn't believe it. "Just one of those things."

But she restarted the car that had stalled when she'd slammed the brakes, then eased to the strip of dirt that served as the shoulder of the road. She pulled out her notebook, noted the time, and wrote down exactly what she thought she'd seen.

Young boy, abt ten. Lng blck hair, red eyes. He LOOKED right at me. Did I blink? Shut my eyes? Opened, amp; saw lrg blck dog, not boy. Then poof. Nothing there.

Cars passed her without incident as she sat a few moments more, waited for the trembling to stop.

Intrepid writer balks at first possible phenom, she thought, turns around, and drives her adorable red car to the nearest Mickey D's for a fat-filled antidote to nerves.

She could do that, she considered. Nobody could charge her with a felony and throw her into prison. And if she did that, she wouldn't have her next book, or any self-respect.

"Man up, Quinn," she ordered. "You've seen spooks before."

Steadier, she swung back out on the road, and made the next turn. The road was narrow and twisty with trees looming on both sides. She imagined it would be lovely in the spring and summer, with the green dappling, or after a snowfall with all those trees ermine drenched. But under a dull gray sky the woods seemed to crowd the road, bare branches just waiting to reach out and strike, as if they and only they were allowed to live there.

As if to enforce the sensation, no other car passed, and when she turned off her radio as the music seemed too loud, the only sound was the keening curse of the wind.

Should've called it Spooky Hollow, she decided, and nearly missed the turn into the gravel lane.

Why, she wondered, would anyone choose to live here? Amid all those dense, thrusting trees where bleak pools of snow huddled to hide from the sun? Where the only sound was the warning growl of Nature. Everything was brown and gray and moody.

She bumped over a little bridge spanning a curve of a creek, followed the slight rise of the stingy lane.

There was the house, exactly as advertised.

It sat on what she would have termed a knoll rather than a hill, with the front slope tamed into step-down terraces decked with shrubs she imagined put on a hell of a show in the spring and summer.

There wasn't a lawn, so to speak, and she thought Hawkins had been smart to go with the thick mulch and shrubs and trees skirting the front instead of the traditional grass that would probably be a pain in the ass to mow and keep clear of weeds.

She approved of the deck that wrapped around the front and sides, and she'd bet the rear as well. She liked the earthy tones of the stone and the generous windows.

It sat like it belonged there, content and well-settled in the woods.

She pulled up beside an aging Chevy pickup, got out of her car to stand and take a long view.

And understood why someone would choose this spot. There was, unquestionably, an aura of spookiness, especially for one who was inclined to see and feel such things. But there was considerable charm as well, and a sense of solitude that was far from lonely. She could imagine very well sitting on that front deck some summer evening, drinking a cold one, and wallowing in the silence.

Before she could move toward the house, the front door opened.

The sense of d¨¦j¨¤ vu was vivid, almost dizzying. He stood there at the door of the cabin, the blood like red flowers on his shirt.

We can stay no longer.

The words sounded in her head, clear, and in a voice she somehow knew.

"Miss Black?"

She snapped back. There was no cabin, and the man standing on the lovely deck of his charming house had no blood blooming on him. There was no force of great love and great grief shining in his eyes.

And still, she had to lean back against her car for a minute and catch her breath. "Yeah, hi. I was just…admiring the house. Great spot."

"Thanks. Any trouble finding it?"

"No, no. Your directions were perfect." And, of course, it was ridiculous to be having this conversation outside in the freezing wind. From the quizzical look on his face, he obviously felt the same.

She pushed off the car, worked up what she hoped was a sane and pleasant expression as she walked to the trio of wooden steps.

And wasn't he a serious cutie? she realized as she finally focused on the reality. All that windblown hair and those strong gray eyes. Add the crooked smile, the long, lean body in jeans and flannel, and a woman might be tempted to hang a SOLD! sign around his neck.

She stepped up, held out a hand. "Quinn Black, thanks for meeting with me, Mr. Hawkins."

" Cal." He took her hand, shook it, then held it as he gestured to the door. "Let's get you out of the wind."

They stepped directly into a living room that managed to be cozy and male at the same time. The generous sofa faced the big front windows, and the chairs looked as though they'd allow an ass to sink right in. Tables and lamps probably weren't antiques, but looked to be something a grandmother might have passed down when she got the urge to redecorate her own place.

There was even a little stone fireplace with the requisite large mutt sprawled sleeping in front of it.

"Let me take your coat."

"Is your dog in a coma?" Quinn asked when the dog didn't move a muscle.

"No. Lump leads an active and demanding internal life that requires long periods of rest."

"I see."

"Want some coffee?"

"That'd be great. So would the bathroom. Long drive."

"First right."

"Thanks."

She closed herself into a small, spotlessly clean powder room as much to pull herself back together from a couple of psychic shocks as to pee.

"Okay, Quinn," she whispered. "Here we go."