GAGE SLEPT POORLY, AND THE INSOMNIA HAD nothing to do with dreams or visions. He wasn't used to making serious mistakes, or worse-certainly more mortifying-clumsy missteps. Particularly with women. He made his living not just reading cards and the odds, but out of reading people, what went on behind the eyes, the words, the gestures.
It was small comfort to understand, at about three a.m., that he hadn't read Cybil incorrectly. She was just as intrigued and attracted as he, just as interested-and probably just as wary-of acting on those now-famous buzzing sexual vibes.
No, he wasn't wrong about the sexual connection between them.
His monumental mistake had been knee-jerking off a disquiet inside himself and kicking it right into her face. The second layer of the mistake being-and Christ, it was lowering-he'd been after reassurance. He'd wanted her to agree with him, to tell him there wasn't anything to worry about. She wasn't any more willing to get dicked around by Fate than he was.
With that all tidied up, they'd work together, sleep together, fight together, hell, maybe die together, and no problem.
All that talk about emotion and emotional connection had spiced the stew he'd already had simmering inside him. Hadn't he watched both his closest friends, his brothers, fall in love? And weren't they both heading toward the altar? Any man in his right mind would take a hard look at the hand being dealt and fold before the draw.
And, with hindsight flashing like neon, he had to admit he should've kept that move, that thought, that opinion to himself. Instead, he'd fumbled it, gone on the defensive. And had, essentially, accused her of setting him up. She'd been right to kick his ass over it. No question about it. Now the question was how to put things back on a level field without having to wade through the sticky waters of an apology first. He could use the greater-good ploy, but however true it might be, it was weak.
In the end, he decided to play it by ear, and walked into the rental house. Quinn was halfway down the steps, and paused when he came in. After the briefest of hesitations, she jogged the rest of the way down. "Hi. You wouldn't be here to work, would you?"
She plowed right over him with a rush of words and movement. "Because we're very shorthanded. Fox and Cal are both in meetings, and Fox's dad had a couple hours, so Layla's over at the boutique with him going over plans. It's down to me and Cyb, and actually, I need to run out to the place to get the thing. I came down to get Cyb some coffee, there's fresh in the kitchen. Get that, will you? I'll be back in twenty."
She nipped straight out the door before he could get in a word. At least half of what she'd said was bullshit manufactured on the spot. A man recognized bullshit when he was standing knee deep in it. But since it served his purposes, he just walked back to the kitchen and poured two coffees, then carried them upstairs.
That curly mass of hair tumbled this way and that out of pins Cybil had used to secure it to the top of her head. A new look for her, he thought-at least that he'd seen-and a damn sexy one. She worked with her back to him, on the big dry erase board. Another chart, he noted, and recognized the names of the cards they'd all chosen in the various rounds the night before. The music, he assumed, came from one of the laptops set up in the room. Melissa Etheridge soared.
"Wouldn't logging those into the computer be faster?"
He saw the quick jolt, and the quick recovery before she turned. The look she spared him was what he thought of as beige. Absolutely neutral. "They are logged, but this is easier on the eyes, and more accessible to the whole group. Would one of those be my coffee, or do you plan to drink both?"
He stepped over, held one out to her. "Quinn said she had to go to the place to get the thing, and would be back in twenty."
Irritation flickered over Cybil's face before she turned back to the board. "In that case, you ought to go downstairs, or outside until you have a chaperone to protect you from my wiles."
"I can handle you."
She glanced back. No beige now, Gage mused. This look was all smoke, with the faintest tinge of hot blue at the edges. "Others have thought the same. Their mistake."
Screw it, he decided as she continued to print her perfectly formed letters. When a man played his hand poorly, he had to take his losses. "I was out of line."
"Yes, we've established that much already."
"Then no problem."
"I never imagined you had one."
He drank some coffee. He watched her. He tried to figure out why her cool disinterest just pissed him off. So he set the coffee down, and took her arm to get her attention. "Look-"
"Careful." The warning dripped like molten sugar. "The last time you started a statement that way you ended up with both feet jammed in your mouth. I imagine you'd find it as boring as I do to make the same mistake twice."
"I never said I made a mistake."
When she met this with silence, and a long, bland stare, it occurred to him she'd be a killer at the poker table. "Okay. All right. The whole day was over the top. Since I don't see you as a tease, it's pretty clear we're going to end up in bed together."
The sound she made wasn't quite a laugh, and was all insult. "I wouldn't place my bets on that just yet."
"I like the odds. But the point is, I thought we'd both want the rules laid out beforehand. The over-the-line part was making it sound as if you were looking for something more."
"That was the over-the-line part?"
"You could cut me a small break here, Cybil."
"Actually, I already have." She thought of the Treatment, and smiled. "You just don't know about it. Let me ask you something. Do you really believe you're so irresistible, so appealing, that I'll fall in love with you and start dreaming of white picket to fence you in?"
"No, I don't. That's part two of the over-the-line. Straight out?"
"Oh, yes, please."
"All the hookups, the link-ups, the subsets like you called them," he said, gesturing to her board, "started to make me uneasy. Added in the more we're in this, the more I've got an urge for you-which I know damn well is mutual-I overreacted."
And that, Cybil decided, was as close to an apology as he'd come up with, unless she beat him with a stick. All in all, it wasn't half bad. "Okay," she said, mimicking him, "all right. I'll cut you a slightly bigger break than I already have. I'll also toss in the fact that I think both of us are old enough and smart enough to resist our urges should we have concerns that acting on them will result in driving the other party into mad and hopeless love. Does that work for you?"
"Yeah, that works for me."
"In that case, you can either run along and do whatever it is you do, or you can stay and pitch in."
"Define 'pitch in.'"
"Lend a fresh eye with the charts, the graphs, the maps. Maybe you'll see something we're missing, or at least the potential of something. I need to finish this one, then it needs to be analyzed." She began to write again. "Then, if you're still around, it might be a good idea to try another link-up-of the psychic variety-when at least one other person's around. It occurred to me if the timing had been different yesterday, and that dog had gotten there sooner-"
"Yeah, it occurred to me, too."
"So, I think at least until we have a better handle on it, we shouldn't try that sort of thing alone, or outside."
He couldn't argue with that. "Tell me about this first, the cards."
"All right. Start with me. I've listed my cards, in the succession they were picked, and the subsets I picked with. Yours and mine here, then with Q and Layla, then with the group as a whole. There are twenty-two Major Arcana in a Tarot deck. You and I chose five cards each, all ten of them Major Arcana."
He scanned the board, nodded. "Got that."
"My female subset, five cards each, and a total of fifteen of Major Arcana. When I picked with the group as a whole, the first three were again Major Arcana, the last three-and as I elected to pull from the deck last, all twenty-two were already pulled-were the Queen of Swords, the Ten of Rods, and the Four of Cauldrons.
"Now, when you look at my three rounds, you see that in the first, and the last, I pulled both Death and the Devil. Other repeats, first and second rounds, the Hanged Man, and in all three rounds, I drew the Wheel of Fortune. Second and third, Strength."
"All of us drew repeat cards."
"That's right, so those repetitions add weight to our individual columns. And, tellingly, each woman picked a queen, each man a king. Mine, Queen of Swords, represents someone on guard. An intelligent woman who uses that intellect to gain her own way. Which I'm certainly prone to do. This queen is usually seen as a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman. Ten of Rods, a burden, a determination to succeed. Four of Cauldrons, help from a positive source, new possibilities and/or relationships."
She stepped back, frowned at the board. "My take here is, the cards from the Lesser Arcana represent not only who we are, but what we need to do individually to aid the whole. With the repeat cards representing what was set before us-individually again-what's come to be or is coming, and the eventual outcome."
"How about my king?"
"Again Swords. Represents a man of action who has an analytical mind. And though it might be seen more as Fox, as it's often someone in the legal profession, it means this man is fair, a good judge and basically, nobody's patsy. Next, you have the Six of Rods, triumph after a struggle. And last, Nine of Cauldrons. Someone who enjoys the good life, and has found material success.
"So…" She blew out a breath. "As Q and I are most familiar with the Tarot and its meanings, we'll work this. Shuffle it around, analyze, dig into meanings in each subset and in the order of individual picks, repeats, and so on."
"Which will tell us…?"
"Strengths and weaknesses-that's a key, isn't it? For each of us, for each subset, and for the whole. And speaking of Q," Cybil continued when Quinn stepped to the doorway. "Did you get the thing from the place?" Cybil asked sweetly.
"What? Oh, that thing from that place. They were out. So, what are we up to?"
"You and I are on cards. Gage will be putting his analytical mind and his judgment into charts, maps, and graphs."
"Cool. Isn't it sweet how Cal and I picked King and Queen of Rods?" She beamed her smile at Gage. "Both prefer country living, are loyal with strong ties to family."
"Handy." With that, Gage decided the maps needed his attention.
He wondered how many hours they'd put into all this-their pushpins and computer printouts. He understood and valued the need for research and prep work, but honestly couldn't see what help color-coded index cards were against the forces of evil.
As he studied the map of the Hollow, his mind automatically filled in houses, buildings, landmarks. How many times had he cruised those streets-on a bike, then in a car? There was the place where the dog had drowned at the dawn of the second Seven. But the summer before, he and Fox and Cal had snuck out and gone skinny-dipping in that pool one hot summer night.
The bank would be there, corner of Main and Antietam. He'd opened an account there when he'd been thirteen, to hoard money where the old man couldn't find it. And that asshole Derrick Napper had jumped Fox there one night, just for the hell of it, as Fox cut through on his way from ball practice to the Bowl-a-Rama. The Foster house had been right about there, on Parkside, and in the basement family room, he'd lost his virginity and taken that of the pretty Jenny Foster one memorable night when her parents had been out celebrating their anniversary.
Less than eighteen months later, long after he and pretty Jenny had parted ways, her mother had set the bed on fire while her father slept. There had been many fires during that Seven, and Mr. Foster one of the lucky ones. He'd awakened, put the fire out, then managed to subdue his wife before she lit up their children.
There was the bar where he and Cal and Fox had all gotten ridiculously drunk when he'd come back to celebrate their twenty-first birthday. A few years before, he recalled Lisa Hodges had stumbled out of that same bar and shot at anything that moved-and some that didn't. She'd put a bullet in his arm that Seven, Gage thought, then offered him a blow job.
He scanned the graphs, but as far as he could see, it didn't appear that any one area, or sector, of the Hollow experienced more episodes of violence or paranormal activity. Main Street, of course, but you had to factor in that Main got more traffic, more people used it than any of the other streets or roads in and around town. It was the primary route, with the Square the hub.
He visualized it that way, as a wheel, then as a grid, with the Square as the central point. But no particular pattern emerged. Waste of time, he thought. They could play at this for weeks, and nothing could change. All it proved was that at one time or another, nearly every place within the town limits had been hit.
The park, the ball field, the school, the old library, bowling alley, bars, shops, private homes. Documenting wasn't going to stop them from being hit again when…
He stepped back, used both his eyes and his memory to build Hawkins Hollow on its map. Maybe it meant nothing, but hell, the stupid pushpins were right there. Picking up the box, he began adding blue ones to the map.
"What are you doing?" Cybil demanded. "Why-"
He cut her off simply by holding up a finger as he shuffled through his memory, added more pins. There had to be more, he thought. How the hell was a man supposed to remember every applicable incident in some wild theory? And not all of them would involve him. He and Cal and Fox had been tight, but they hadn't been joined at the hip.
"Those locations were already marked," Cybil pointed out when he paused.
"Yeah, that would be the point. And these particular locations have all been hit more than once, some at each Seven. And some of those have already had an incident this time."
"Multiple hits would be logical." Quinn moved forward to study the map. "A town the size of Hawkins Hollow is limited. Other than Main Street, it's fairly spread out, but that's logical, too, as Main has more activity, more people per square foot."
"Yeah, yeah. Interesting, isn't it?"
"It might be, if we knew what the blue pins represented," Cybil said.
"Places, memories, highlights, lowlights. The bowling center. The three of us spent a hell of a lot of time there as kids. I lived on the third floor, worked there-so did Cal and Fox-for spending money. The first violent incident, at least the first we know about, happened in the center on the night of our tenth birthday. At least one act of violence happened there every Seven. Already this time, you had the mess on Valentine's Day, and Twisse shot me back to the apartment-illusion or not, it felt pretty damn real. I got the shit kicked out of me plenty of times up there."
"Violence drawing violence," Cybil murmured. "It returns to locations where you, or one of you, had a violent experience."
"Not just. See this." He tapped the map. "I had sex for the first time in the house that sits here. I was fifteen."
"Precocious," Quinn commented.
"The opportunity presented itself. Next Seven, the lady of the house tried to burn it down, with everyone in it. Didn't work out for her, fortunately. By the next Seven, my first conquest had married her college sweetheart and moved away, and the rest of the family moved to a bigger house well out of town. But the guy who bought the place broke every mirror in the place-that would be July of '01, and according to his wife, whom he attacked, started screaming about devils in the glass. The school-God knows we put in time at all three levels-we got in our share of fights there, copped our share of feels and long, wet kisses once we hit high school."
"Violent or sexual energy. Yours," Cybil added. "You, Cal, and Fox. Yes, that is interesting."
"There's bound to be more. There's also some interest in the fact that up until last month, there was never an incident of any kind at Fox's farm. It wasn't real, but it happened. Nothing ever happened at Cal 's parents' place either. But it's something we should watch out for."
"I'm going to call him right now." Quinn dashed out of the room.
"Well, King of Swords, your observant and analytical mind may be on to something." Cybil tapped a finger on the map. "This is our house. No incidents here before we moved into it."
"There might have been something we didn't know about."
"No major incidents, because if there had been, you'd know. But after we move in, it starts here. Aimed at us, very likely using our own energy as part of the fuel. The first incident you're aware of happened at the bowling center when the three of you were there. This time around, the center was the scene of the first major illusionary incident, when four of the group were there. Quinn saw the demon here, when she was driving to Cal's house to meet him for the first time, which put four of the six of us in the area-for the first time."
"What are you looking for?"
"A pattern in the pattern. The second Seven, one of the first major occurrences involved a woman coming out of this bar, and firing a gun. You were hit."
"Yeah, then hit on."
"The three of you on the scene, and of course, the alcohol making the woman more susceptible. But as you were just seventeen, it's doubtful any of you spent appreciable time at that bar, or had any sort of experience there that would-"
"The old man spent plenty of time there." Understanding where she was headed, Gage checked the urge to keep that area buried. "Kicked me out, literally, when I went in looking for him. I was around seven. It was the first time he seriously laid into me. That's what you're looking for?"
When she offered no sympathy, no gesture of comfort, his stomach muscles relaxed again. "The last Seven we tried the ritual again, so we were at the Pagan Stone at midnight. I don't know where the first incident took place, but it was the worst of them. That year was the worst of all."
"All right, let's backtrack. You knew it was coming; you were prepared. Things happened, as they are now, before that stroke of midnight on July seventh. What do you remember happening first?"
"The dreams always come first. I came back early spring that year. We bunked in this apartment Cal had back then. I saw the little fucker crouched right on the Welcome to Hawkins Hollow sign when I first drove into town. Forgot about that. And the first night, or early morning, the three of us stayed in Cal 's place, the crows hit."
" Main Street, that's where they like it best. But heavier on the building where we were. Yeah, that took the biggest hit. And there were a lot of fights at the high school. People put it down to end-of-year tempers and stress, but there were a lot of fights at the school."
"We can work with this, I think," Cybil responded as she swung back to her computer and began peppering the keys. "A lot of inputting, cross-referencing, and so on, but we can work this." She glanced up briefly when Quinn came back. "Is he coming?"
"As soon as he sees his parents."
"Get Fox and Layla over here, too."
"She got something?" Quinn asked Gage.
"Defense is as integral to any war as offense."
"Integral," Gage repeated.
"We pinpoint the highest-risk locations, then take the necessary defensive steps."
"Which would be?"
"Evacuation, fortification." She waved the question off as she might a persistent fly. "One thing at a time."
Gage didn't put much stock in evacuation or fortification, but he followed Cybil's line of thinking. He saw the pattern within the pattern. He edged back as the others arrived, as the six of them crammed into the little office.
"We've agreed we're catalysts," Cybil began. "We know the three men released the entity we call Twisse, as that was the name it was last known by, by performing a blood ritual. We know that Quinn's first sighting was in February, the earliest we have on record-when she arrived. Layla and Quinn, both staying at the hotel, had their first shared sighting there. It's escalated since, faster and stronger. In the bowling center at the Sweetheart Dance when four of the six of us were there. The attack on Lump at Cal 's when all six of us stayed there. We've logged the individual and mutual sightings this time. Again the bowling center, the Square, Fox's office and apartment, this house. So when we go back to previous Sevens, there's a locational pattern."
"Bowling center's a major site." Quinn studied the updated map. "The high school, the bar, what was the Foster house, the area around the Square. Obvious reasons for all that. But it's interesting that before this year, neither Fox's building nor this house had any incidents. We're on to something here."
"Why didn't we see this before?" Cal wondered. "How the hell did we miss it?"
"We never did charts and graphs," Fox pointed out. "We wrote stuff down, sure, but we never put it all together this way. The logical, visual way."
"And you see it every day," Cybil added. "You and Cal live here. You see the town every day, the streets, the buildings. Gage doesn't. So when he looks at the map, he sees it in a different way. And doing what he does for a living, he instinctively looks for patterns."
"What do we do with this?" Layla asked.
"We add as much data as possible from these guys' memories," Cybil began. "We input that, study and analyze the resulting pattern, and…"
"We calculate the odds on the first strike or strikes," Gage finished when she looked at him. "Bowling center year one, the bar year two. We don't know, because we were at the Pagan Stone, what took the first hit year three."
"We might." Frowning at the map, Cal pinned a finger to a spot. "My father stayed in town. He knew we were going to the clearing, to try to stop this, so he stayed in case… I didn't know it. He didn't tell me until after it was all over. He planted himself in the police station. A couple of guys in the bank parking lot, going at each other's cars-and each other-with tire irons."
"Did anything significant happen to any of you there?"
"Yeah." Fox hooked his thumbs in his front pockets. "Napper jumped me there once, beat half the snot out of me before I got my second wind and beat the rest of it out of him."
"Just what I'm after," Cybil told him. "Where'd you lose your virginity, Cal?"
"Don't be shy." Muffling laughter, Quinn bumped his shoulder.
"Backseat of my car, like any self-respecting high school senior."
"He was a late bloomer," Gage pointed out.
Cal hunched his shoulders, then deliberately straightened them again. "I've since made up for it."
"So I hear," Cybil said, and Quinn laughed again. "Where were you parked?"
"Up on Rock Mount Lane. There weren't many houses along there back then. They'd just started to develop, so…" He angled his head, and once again laid a finger on the map. "Here, right about here. And last Seven, two of those houses burned to the ground."
"Alongside of the creek. Well outside town limits. There are a few houses tucked in there now, but they're not part of the Hollow. I don't know if that plays in this."
"We should log them in anyway. What we'll need you to do, all of you, is dig back, think back, note down anything, anywhere, that might be significant. A violent episode, a traumatic one, a sexual one. Then we'll correlate. Layla, you're a hell of a correlator."
"All right. My shop, or what will be my shop," Layla corrected. "It's been hit hard every Seven, and already took damage this time. Did anything happen there?"
"It used to be a junk shop."
The tone of Gage's voice, the quality of silence from both Cal and Fox told Cybil this wasn't only significant. It was monumental. "A kind of low-rent antique store. My mother worked there part-time off and on. We were all in there-I think maybe our mothers got together to have lunch in town, or poke around. I don't remember. But we were all in there when… She got sick, started to hemorrhage. She was pregnant, I can't remember how far along. But we were all in there when whatever went wrong started going wrong."
"They got an ambulance." Cal finished it so Gage wouldn't have to. "Fox's mother went with her, and mine took the three of us back to the house with her. They couldn't save her or the baby."
"The last time I saw her, she was lying on the floor of that junk shop, bleeding. I guess that's pretty fucking significant. I need more coffee."
Downstairs, he bypassed the pot and went straight out on the porch. Moments later, Cybil stepped out behind him.
"I'm sorry, so sorry this causes you pain."
"Nothing I could do then, nothing I can do now."
She moved to him, laid a hand on his arm. "I'm still sorry it causes you pain. I know what it is to lose a parent, one you loved and who loved you. I know how it can mark your life into before and after. However long ago, whatever the circumstances, there's still a place in the child that hurts."
"She told me it was going to be all right. The last thing she said to me was, 'Don't worry, baby, don't be scared. It's going to be all right.' It wasn't, but I hope she believed it."
Steadier, he turned to her. "If you're right about this, and I think you are, I'm going to find a way to kill it. I'm going to kill it for using my mother's blood, her pain, her fear to feed on. I swear a goddamn oath right here and now on that."
"Good." With her eyes on his, she held out a hand. "I'll swear it with you."
"You didn't even know her. I barely-"
She cut him off, taking his face in her hands, pulling so that his mouth met hers in a quick and fierce kiss that was more comforting than a dozen soft words. "I swear it."
Even as she drew back, her hands stayed on his face. And a single tear spilled out of her eyes to trail down her cheek. Undone, he lowered his forehead to hers.
Grateful, he took the comfort of her tears.