মুখ্য Wait for Dark

Wait for Dark

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সাল:
2017
প্রকাশক:
Penguin Publishing Group
ভাষা:
english
বইয়ের সিরিজ:
BISHOP/SPECIAL CRIMES UNIT 17)
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EPUB, 1.67 MB
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Hard Justice

সাল:
2017
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
EPUB, 370 KB
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2

Queen’s Rise

সাল:
2015
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
EPUB, 362 KB
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Titles by Kay Hooper


			Bishop / Special Crimes Unit novels

			HAVEN

			HOSTAGE

			HAUNTED

			FEAR THE DARK

			WAIT FOR DARK

			The Bishop Files novels

			THE FIRST PROPHET

			A DEADLY WEB





		 			 			BERKLEY

			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014



			Copyright © 2017 by Kay Hooper

			Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

			BERKLEY is a registered trademark and the B colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Names: Hooper, Kay, author.

			Title: Wait for dark / Kay Hooper.

			Description: New York : Berkley, 2017. | Series: A Bishop/SCU novel ; 5

			Identifiers: LCCN 2016046729 (print) | LCCN 2016055946 (ebook) |

			ISBN 9780425280942 (hardback) | ISBN 9780698194007 (ebook)

			Subjects: LCSH: Bishop, Noah (Fictitious character)—Fiction. | Government

			investigators—Fiction. | Murder—Investigation—North Carolina—Fiction.

			| BISAC: FICTION / Suspense. | FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Police

			Procedural. | GSAFD: Mystery fiction. | Suspense fiction.

			Classification: LCC PS3558.O587 W35 2017 (print) | LCC PS3558.O587 (ebook) |

			DDC 813/.54—dc23

			LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016046729

			First Edition: March 2017

			Cover photograph of room with the window open by Vasilyev Alexandr / Shutterstock Images; Photograph of red shoe by Africa Studio / Shutterstock Images

			Cover design by Rita Frangie

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fi; ctitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



		Version_1





CONTENTS


			 				Titles by Kay Hooper

				Title Page

				Copyright

				 				PROLOGUE

				ONE

				TWO

				THREE

				FOUR

				FIVE

				SIX

				SEVEN

				EIGHT

				NINE

				TEN

				ELEVEN

				TWELVE

				THIRTEEN

				FOURTEEN

				FIFTEEN

				SIXTEEN

				SEVENTEEN

				EIGHTEEN

				 				Special Crimes Unit Agent Bios

				Psychic Terms and Abilities

				Author’s Note





PROLOGUE





Clarity, North Carolina

			July





It didn’t seem like a big deal when Clara Adams saw, a couple of blocks ahead of her car, what looked like a child playing in the center of the road, almost directly under a streetlight. Dumb, but no big deal, after all.

			Idiot kid, playing in the street. Where are the idiot parents?

			She put her foot on the brake pedal, already mentally rehearsing what she wanted to say to the kid.

			The pedal went all the way to the floor. And the car didn’t even slow down.

			Clara hadn’t been going very fast since the downtown speed limit was only twenty and rose only to thirty-five in the residential areas surrounding downtown. But as she gripped her steering wheel in growing horror, her foot pumping the unresponsive brake pedal, she realized that the car was not only not slowing—it was gaining speed.

			She pressed frantically at the car’s horn button, but there was no response. Pushed the button for the car’s emergency flashers and, again, no response. No way to warn the little boy, whom she could see more clearly now, playing contentedly with a toy dump truck. Even with no one else in sight, she tried to lower the car’s window so she could yell a warning at the child. But that didn’t work either. Even the steering wheel was fighting her.

			As if the car wanted to run over the boy.

			The needle on the speedometer inched higher, matching the blue numbers in the digital readout that were inexorably climbing as the car’s speed increased.

			Clara had no more than seconds to choose between horrible alternatives, and all she knew for sure was that she could not run over a child. So she used all her strength to wrench the resisting steering wheel to the right, trying to aim the car between two others parked at the side of Main Street just before the next intersection. Beyond them was a construction site, as one of the businesses set back from the street was being given a facelift.

			A stack of lumber, she thought, was probably the most forgiving barrier she could see.

			The car turned—but just enough to avoid the child, shooting past the opening between the two parked cars, crossing into the empty intersection, and then, engine screaming, speed increasing, plowing headfirst into the thick iron post that held the streetlight out over the lanes.

			Clara never heard the awful crunch of metal or the screaming engine dying with a sputter. She never heard the car’s horn begin to screech, or smelled the gasoline.

			Or saw the first flickering flames.

			A blessing, most said later, when word got around. That she never saw. Never knew. A true blessing.

			—

			THE LITTLE BOY stood up, holding his dump truck, and looked with a singular lack of expression at the wreck no more than fifty yards away from him. Then he turned, still expressionless, and walked away, unnoticed by the people spilling out of restaurants and the businesses that were still open, uninterested in their cries of horror, their frantic shouts for someone to call 911.

			He stopped briefly on the sidewalk, an expression of confusion passing suddenly over his face. He heard the shouts and the first sounds of emergency-response people and vehicles, and looked over his shoulder to see flames shooting into the air. It was all he could see, really, because of all the parked cars and all the people.

			He wanted to drop his toy and run in that direction along with everyone else, wanted to see what had happened. It looked awfully interesting, and different for Clarity, where nothing ever really happened.

			He hesitated only because he had a strong feeling his ma would not be happy about him near a fire.

			And now that he thought about it, why was he here? Hadn’t he gone to bed? It had to be late, or at least it felt late, and he could have sworn he had gotten into his pajamas and gone to bed—

			“Sean.”

			He didn’t even have a chance to look up before a large, heavy hand gripped his shoulder. And for an instant, things whirled and flipped inside his head, making him dizzy.

			The sounds down the street died into a peaceful silence, and he realized he just wanted to go home. To go home and . . . and slip in through the side yard to the window into the laundry room, the one with the broken lock.

			It was the way he always slipped in and out of the house whenever he wanted to break one of his ma’s rules or just sneak out to join friends even if he was grounded.

			He got grounded a lot.

			“Time for bed, Sean.”

			Yes . . . that was it, that was where he was supposed to be. In bed. He’d leave his dump truck outside near the driveway, where his ma would expect to find it. And then he’d get back into his pajamas and go to bed.

			“It’s just a dream, Sean. Just a dream. You’re fine. You’re absolutely fine.”

			The soothing voice made sense, and Sean accepted the information it offered. He was asleep and dreaming.

			He just needed to go get back into bed so when he woke up, he’d know for sure he’d been dreaming.

			“I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine,” he murmured.

			The heavy hand fell away from his shoulder, and eight-year-old Sean Brenner walked away into the unusually cool evening.

			He didn’t look back.





ONE


			August

			Thursday





“Accident,” Deputy Emma Fletcher said, her tone that of someone who had convinced herself of truth.

			Sheriff Malachi Gordon frowned at her. “Yeah? And how many years has Brady Nash used his harvester without getting thrown out of a closed cab and into the teeth of the machine?”

			Emma winced, even though describing it, she thought, was never going to have the shock value of seeing . . . what was left of a man she had grown up knowing. Spread out behind the machine in a bloody trail of . . . shreds of flesh and jarringly white shards of bone mixed in with the ripped brown stalks and leaves of corn. Like some obscene salad.

			Emma fought a sudden urge to gag and silently told herself to stop with the gross mental images.

			“Well?” Mal demanded.

			Grateful, she dragged her mind back to being a cop. “I don’t know. A lot of years. Since I was a kid. I remember seeing him plowing his fields in the spring to plant. Harvesting in the summer and into early fall, sometimes late fall. Plowing everything under after the harvest to get ready for winter. He got older and older, but he never seemed to get any slower.” She scowled at him. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

			“Just wondering how long it’s taken you to convince yourself this was an accident.”

			“All morning,” she confessed.

			Mal took a couple of steps back away from the front of the hulking machine until he could look behind it, at the trail of mangled and bloody cornstalks and shreds of human flesh that stretched back for at least a hundred feet.

			“No sign it even slowed down.”

			“I noticed. And he had to have . . . He must have gone into the blades way back there, or else there wouldn’t be . . . all the blood and stuff.” Field salad. People salad. Farm salad. Stop it! She added hurriedly, “And it’s a straight path; a car with nobody at the wheel definitely would have wandered left or right. Would a machine like this keep going in a straight line if it wasn’t being steered?”

			“No idea. I’d assume so, given ground this level.”

			“Even with the ruts?”

			“Especially with the ruts. This machine was designed for planted fields, and they’re rutted.” Mal shrugged.

			Emma cast about for some other question or tidbit of information she might have and came up empty. Too many questions and too little information. It was unusually cool for an August day even in the mountains; she told herself that was the reason why she had jammed both hands into the pockets of her uniform jacket.

			“Safety features,” Mal muttered. “Brady showed me once when I asked. The controls inside the cab. If the operator has a heart attack or something, that’s what he said. A kind of dead man’s switch; they tend to be on most dangerous machines. The harvester blades stop turning unless the operator is holding that one lever back—and it won’t stay back by itself. They use the same sort of switch on subway trains. And even in gear, the machine doesn’t keep moving forward unless the operator has his foot on the pedal.”

			Emma nodded mutely. That made sense. It made all too much sense.

			“So why didn’t it stop? It comes to that, how the hell was he thrown out of the cab? Doors are fastened securely, glass is intact. And it did come to a stop, here, even though the engine was still running. Even though he couldn’t have been inside the cab holding that dead man’s switch and with his foot on the pedal all the way down the row since the . . . trail starts way back there.”

			“I don’t know,” Emma said. “All . . . this . . . and I’m still trying to figure out why he was even out here last night, nowhere near the barns. That’s what his wife said, right? That he went out to check on his milk cows late, before turning in himself, because one was due to calve, and so she went on to bed without him. Woke up hours later, just before dawn, realized Brady wasn’t in bed. Not that unusual with a cow calving—until she heard the harvester, looked out her window, and saw it sitting here, headlights and the lights above the cab glaring, engine running. Their dog had been shut in the barn and was barking his head off; Brady wouldn’t have left him in there if he wasn’t there himself, since the dog sleeps in the house with them. Sue knew something was wrong. Knew it.”

			“I’m just glad she rousted Hank out of bed to check instead of coming out here herself,” Mal said. “Bad enough he had to see this, and call us, and tell Sue—and then come back out and wait until we got here.”

			He looked over to the split-rail fence, which was more decorative than anything else and bracketed the long dirt driveway up to the farmhouse, noting that Hank Taylor, who was more of a very good friend and partner than an employee to Brady Nash, had his back to the cornfield as he leaned against the fence, gazing off at nothing. The Nashes’ border collie, Murphy, sat at his side, ostensibly held by a makeshift twine leash even though the dog showed no sign of wanting to go anywhere—especially toward the harvester and its gruesome trail.

			Hank, a widower who lived on an adjacent plot of land with a tidy little house just over the hill, within easy walking distance, had been badly shaken and wasn’t the sort of man to try to hide it. He and Brady had been as close as brothers.

			Mal walked over to the man and dog by the fence, more out of concern than because he expected to learn anything new.

			“Hank?”

			“That didn’t happen, Mal,” Hank said in a queerly conversational tone, still gazing off into the distance.

			“We both know it did.”

			“No, I mean . . . it couldn’t have happened. Machines are machines. They work a certain way, the way they’re designed to work. They break down or malfunction a certain way. A machine goes wrong, you know why. But this . . .”

			“I know.”

			“Do you?” Hank turned his head to stare at the sheriff, a frown creasing the skin between his oddly glazed eyes. “Do you understand this? Because I don’t. It’s . . . like something I dreamed. It’s like a nightmare I can’t wake up from.”

			“Yeah. Look, Hank, why don’t you go on home? We’ll have people here for hours yet, maybe coming back over days to study what happened here, and the harvester can’t be moved until I give the word. Nothing here can be . . . changed, until I give the word; we’ll be putting up Police Line tape around the whole area. I know where to find you if anybody else has questions you might be able to help answer.”

			Hank looked at him a moment longer, still frowning, but then nodded. “Okay. I’ll . . . go tell Sue I can keep Murphy with me for a while, since she has her sister now. He’s slept at my place before. I . . . don’t think he wants to stay around here. The . . . smell. Stronger for him, of course.”

			“That sounds good, Hank. You go take care of Murphy. And take care of yourself, okay?”

			“Sure. Sure, Mal. I’m fine, though. I’m absolutely fine.”

			Mal stood there for several moments, staring after the tall, lanky man trudging along the fence back toward the house, then slowly returned to the horror in the field and his deputy.

			“Is he okay?” Emma asked.

			“Are you?”

			She drew a short breath and let it out in a rush. “Good point. No, I’m not okay. I’m not even close to being okay, not with stuff like this happening. First that weird car crash, then a grill exploding, and the elevator falling the way it did . . . and now this. Four people dead since the middle of July, all from accidents that shouldn’t have happened. That’s not normal, not for Clarity. I looked it up. The last accidental death here was from a farmer falling off the roof of his barn. Nearly fifteen years ago.”

			“Yeah.” Mal was still frowning, brooding.

			“We’ve been averaging one body a week, Mal.”

			“Tell me something I don’t know.”

			Emma cast about mentally once again, then offered a bit uncertainly, “Maybe it isn’t Brady. I mean, even if Hank seems sure, how do we even know—”

			“His ring.”

			She blinked, glanced toward the machine, and then looked hastily away. The clearly male hand was oddly unmarked, jutting up from the bloody metal teeth of the machine from a point between elbow and wrist, fingers relaxed but not curled. And he wore a big ring on that hand, his right hand.

			Emma wasn’t really tempted to get any closer. “I never noticed him wearing anything except his wedding ring,” she said.

			“Didn’t you? He never took it off.” Mal brooded, still frowning. “It’s his West Point ring.”

			Emma blinked. “He went to—”

			“Yeah. Didn’t want to be career military, not in the beginning, just wanted the discipline the school offered. Or needed it. Apparently he was a real hellion as a teenager, and his father gave him a choice between some kind of military training or no bail money or quiet word with the judge the next time he landed in jail for being stupid. He was smart enough for West Point, and that’s where he went. Told me he actually enjoyed it, that it suited him. Served the required five years in active duty, then chose a few years in the reserves afterward rather than a military career in peacetime. There was the farm to run, but that wasn’t really why he made the choice. He told me once he was almost sorry his age was never right for wartime. Too young for Vietnam; too old for all the Middle East wars since.”

			“I doubt Sue was sorry,” Emma offered. “At least they had a lot of good years together before . . . this.”

			Mal nodded, still clearly preoccupied.

			“What are you thinking?”

			He looked at her for a moment as if he didn’t see her, and then obviously brought her into focus. “My gut tells me there’s something we’re not seeing in all this, some kind of connection. And I’m thinking it’s time we called in someone who sees a lot more weird crimes than we do.”

			Startled, Emma said, “Crimes? Aren’t they accidents?”

			“Any one of them taken alone—possibly excepting this one—I’d probably agree with you, except for one thing they all have in common. Maybe this one too, maybe not. As far as this possible accident goes, somebody else could have been in the cab and managed to run Brady over, and if so that makes it murder or manslaughter. Realistically, that’s the only way this could have happened, given the way the machine operates, with the teeth pulling up, grinding and stripping what’s below the machine, not above it. But nobody else was seen, and way out here they should have been. Even at night.”

			“Fingerprints in the cab?” Emma suggested hopefully.

			“We’ll print it, but I’m not expecting to find any strange prints in there. With all the crime stuff on TV and movies, only a moron would forget to wear gloves.”

			“Brady didn’t have any enemies that I know of,” Emma said.

			“Me either. Never heard anything but good of him, and that was my experience with him. I certainly can’t think of an enemy pissed enough to consider this as a way of dealing with his grudge or anger. And there’s another thing bugging me about this one.”

			Emma thought she’d had quite enough of inexplicable things but asked anyway. “What?”

			“Nobody heard him scream.”

			Emma swallowed hard, really wishing she hadn’t had that sausage biscuit for breakfast, and said reluctantly, “Maybe there was no time. If he went in headfirst . . .”

			Scowling now, Mal said, “What it looks like is something impossible. It looks like he was held by that one hand or arm, dangled above the blades—and slowly lowered into them. Literally fed into the machine. Slowly enough that when the blades stopped turning, only that one arm hadn’t been forced in.”

			She eyed the distances involved, then said, “I just don’t see how anyone could have done that. There’s no room in front of the cab or even a good place to stand, never mind holding a full-grown man out several feet over the blades of a moving machine and—and feeding him into them.”

			“Yeah. And it’s not the way the machine works. Or is supposed to work. So did somebody rewire something? Reverse the blades, the engine, something? And say that was done, how did the machine keep on operating with nobody in the seat? Was there more than one person involved? And even so, even if they managed to change the way the harvester operates and somehow feed him into it, how was his arm the only limb or other body part to survive mangling?”

			Emma swallowed hard, trying to get horrific images out of her head. “I don’t know anything about engines. But it seems to me it wouldn’t be easy to . . . change the way they were made to operate.”

			“No, I don’t think it would be. Hank doesn’t think it would be, and he knows this machinery. Like I said, on its own, this doesn’t make any sense. Along with the other . . . incidents . . . it makes even less sense. None of it makes sense.”

			Belatedly, Emma remembered something Mal had said. “Except for one thing. You said except for one thing all these accidents have in common. Because it’s all been machines?”

			“I wouldn’t call a plain charcoal grill a machine.”

			Neither would Emma. “Okay. But you said one thing all the accidents have in common. You know something I don’t?”

			“You noticed the same thing. They all had cell phones, and none of their cell phones have been found.”

			“Well . . . except for Karen Underwood and that elevator, all the victims have been pretty much . . . destroyed. So maybe their cell phones were burned or—or shredded.”

			“Maybe. Maybe destroyed on purpose.”

			Emma blinked. “Why?”

			“To hide something.” Mal shoved his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and hunched his wide shoulders. “So I finally did what I should have done from the beginning. I had their cell records pulled and sent to me.”

			“I haven’t seen them.”

			“No. Came in late yesterday, after your shift. And now I’ll have to pull Brady’s too. If I find the same thing . . .”

			“What? What thing?”

			“The afternoon before each of their deaths, Clara Adams, Jeremy Summers, and Karen Underwood all received, exactly at three o’clock, the same text message, each from an unknown number, probably a burner.”

			“What did the text say?”

			“Wait for dark. That’s all. Just . . . Wait for dark.”

			—

			IT WAS A sort of game.

			He hadn’t really thought about it in those terms at first. Maybe because the first accident had been . . . personal. Some might call it revenge.

			He preferred to think of it as justice. And if his thoughts went a little fuzzy when he thought about it at all, well . . . what was there to think about? There were steps he had to follow, a path he had to follow to . . . Well, he wasn’t sure where it would lead him eventually.

			But he knew he had to follow it, that path. Take each step as it came, each turn, each twist. Listen to the deep, soothing voice in his head that encouraged him when he faltered.

			When the fuzziness in his mind cleared just enough to show him things that made him uneasy. Things that frightened him.

			The voice was always there. To calm him. To make it all peaceful and certain once again.

			Even so, he hadn’t expected to feel what he had felt that first time. Watching the car crash and burn, watching the heroic efforts to rescue Clara Adams. Unsuccessful efforts.

			The flames, the cries of horror. The shattering glass and smell of melting plastic and rubber. And burning flesh. Wailing sirens.

			The fuzziness in his mind had retreated then, but all his attention had been riveted on the wreck. And his own excitement.

			It had all been . . . unexpectedly satisfying. Even mesmerizing. All bright colors and sharp sounds and acrid smells. Like a dream. Like, he supposed, someone’s nightmare.

			Even later, when he found out that Clara’s heart, apparently a time bomb in her chest from childhood due to some defect, had stopped beating before her car struck the pole and burst into flames, it had only diminished his satisfaction a bit.

			She had known what was coming.

			She must have known. Because he had been told.

			Because he’d had his instructions.

			Hacking into her car’s electrical system had been easy for him; electronics were easy. A car, an elevator, a hulking piece of farm equipment. Ironically, the most difficult had been the tricky matter of arranging for a simple charcoal grill to explode. That had taken ingenuity. That had, if he was honest, taken more help, more instruction, than the others.

			Still, he trusted that someday his genius would be appreciated. That was the promise. That he would be known. That he would be famous.

			But he didn’t think too much about that. Because the high he experienced wore off, and even though the fuzziness in his mind returned to soothe him, he hungered to feel that excitement again. And again. And there was, really, no end to the accidents he could arrange.

			“You mustn’t rush things.”

			The hand on his shoulder was large and heavy, and he didn’t look up. But he frowned. “Why not?”

			“Everything must happen in its own time. You know that. I explained it to you.”

			“Yes, but . . . the whole town’s shook up now. On edge. Just like you wanted.”

			“It’s enough for now. Enough for right now.”

			“Why?” He heard the whine in his voice but was powerless to change that, to sound strong and certain. He never could.

			“Because of the plan. You remember the plan.”

			“Yes, but you said I could do her. And I haven’t yet.”

			“Soon. All in good time.”

			“But—”

			“All in good time.” The heavy hand tightened.

			The fuzziness in his mind thickened, until it was like a fog, a chill fog he knew he would never find his way through. Not alone. For an instant he felt frightened, but then that faded, and there was only the peaceful fog, parting to show him the path he had to walk.

			“Everything in its own time.”

			“Yes. Yes, I understand.”

			His list, their list, was a long one.

			A list for justice. Because he deserved that much, they both did.

			At least that much.

			And once everyone knew, once everyone understood, he was certain they would agree with him.

			Justice.

			And if they didn’t agree, well . . . he supposed the path could be a long one. With interesting twists and turns.

			After all, they had time.

			They had all the time in the world.

			—

			AFTER A LONG moment, and hoping it wasn’t obvious that the fine hairs on the back of her neck were standing straight out and her skin was covered in gooseflesh, Emma said, “Okay, that’s weird. The text is weird. Where did it—they—come from?”

			“Like I said. Unknown number, no name. A burner.”

			“But . . . from here?”

			“I’m not sure. Those burners can be programmed to show any number located just about anywhere for the source of the call. I haven’t asked the cell company to try to give me some kind of triangulation. All I know is that every text message was exactly the same.”

			“Okay. More than weird. That’s . . . I don’t know what that is.”

			“Neither do I. Which is another reason I think it’s time to call in outside help.”

			“You’ve already called in that expert on farm machinery to look at—this. So he can tell you how this happened?”

			“More or less. I can’t explain why, but something about this, about the way the blades are positioned, just doesn’t look right to me, and how it apparently killed Brady sure as hell doesn’t seem right. Hank knows it’s wrong, but I’d rather not involve him in this part of the investigation.”

			“He’s been through enough,” Emma murmured.

			“Agreed. But I don’t know enough about farm equipment to know for sure something’s wrong. That this death, among all the others, really does stick out as something . . . that doesn’t seem possible. The way it apparently happened doesn’t seem possible. So I need an expert.”

			“I hope you warned him,” Emma said.

			“As much as I could. Actually, I only had to begin talking about a harvester that killed someone; I’m pretty sure his own experience and imagination took it from there.”

			“Jeez, are there that many farm accidents like this?”

			“I doubt like this, but wherever there’s big machinery designed to cut and crush and mangle, there are bound to be accidents. He didn’t seem all that surprised that a harvester could have killed someone, so maybe it’s more common than we know.”

			“Not a kind of experience I’d want,” Emma volunteered. She hadn’t wanted all this experience with death, either, but that was the risk she ran in becoming a deputy. Even a deputy in a small town where nothing ever really happened.

			Usually.

			“No. Me either.” Mal brooded, half turned so he could look out over more than half a field of corn still standing.

			“Are you going to call in an outside crime scene unit? Since we don’t really have one, I mean.”

			“Too much after the fact for the other . . . incidents. Any evidence would have been burned or else trampled on by us, the rescue unit, bystanders trying to be helpful, and God knows who else. As for this one . . . my bet is anything behind the machine or still inside it won’t help us. Maybe his arm will.”

			Emma blinked. “His arm?”

			“I don’t see any bruising, but if he died quickly enough there wouldn’t be any. Still, a good ME might be able to tell us something we can’t see for ourselves.”

			“We don’t really have an ME either,” she pointed out.

			“Apparently never needed one. None of the local doctors trained in forensics beyond the basics of being able to perform autopsies. And nobody wanted another elected position in Clarity, so they decided against having a coroner as well.”

			With a slight grimace, Emma said, “I’ve always been a little surprised we have an elected sheriff rather than an appointed chief of police.”

			“I’m not. Accountability.” Mal’s voice was wry. “The mayor and town council wanted to make sure theirs weren’t the only elected heads on the chopping block if the citizens got upset enough to feel the need to vote somebody out of office.”

			“Especially if something like weird accidents that are maybe something else started happening?”

			“Something like, yeah. So I’ve already called the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill.”

			“When’d you do that?”

			“While you were waiting with Sue for her sister to come stay with her.”

			“Okay. Are they sending someone?”

			“Apparently, docs trained as medical examiners are part of a network all over the state. More efficient that way, since being an ME in a small town like Clarity wouldn’t even be a full-time job. Most of the docs with special training in forensics work in the big hospitals and medical centers, where they get plenty of varied experiences every day, and then get temporarily assigned to law enforcement agencies as needed. We got lucky; the trained doc in Asheville grew up on a big farm and specializes in deaths involving farming and other dangerous machinery.”

			Emma said, “That sounds fairly grisly. For a job, I mean. When’s he due to arrive?”

			Mal smiled faintly. “She is due to arrive within the next hour. Dr. Jill Easton. With an assistant, she told me, and whatever equipment and tools she believes she’ll need based on my description of these . . . events.”

			“Will they be staying here for very long?” Emma asked tentatively.

			“I don’t know. I do know I want the doc to look at the other incident reports, especially the photos, in case she sees something we missed. Something only a specialist in forensics might see. And I don’t know how long it’ll take her—them—to get whatever blood and tissue they need from whatever happened here. Plus, she doubles up: does her own lab work onsite, in the closest clinic or hospital facility. Anything up to DNA testing, but she also sends samples to the state lab for tests and to verify her results. I have no idea how long any of that will take her and her assistant. So I’ve booked them into Solomon House, no departure date. Downtown might not be the ideal location, but the inn is nicer, and the motel nearest to the hospital is fully booked. Some kind of medical seminar or something.”

			Emma studied him for a moment, then said, “You’re thinking of calling in someone else, aren’t you? Not just an ME?”

			“I am, yeah.”

			“So who are you planning to call in?”

			“There’s an FBI unit I’ve heard about. Not a lot of information through official channels, but plenty being quietly passed among law enforcement officials now that we’re finally getting smart and doing more networking, sharing info or at least uploading routinely to state and federal databases like ViCAP, CODIS, and AFIS. Anyway, far as I can tell, investigating the weird and inexplicable is apparently the specialty of this unit. And they have the reputation of getting to the bottom of any situation in record time.”

			Emma glanced over at the hand and partial forearm jutting up from bloody blades, then looked hastily back at the sheriff. “Then I say let’s call them. Before another machine or piece of equipment gets weird with one of us, up close and personal. And before anyone else gets an enigmatic text message.”





TWO





Quantico

			Friday





Special Agent Hollis Templeton studied the last page of the fourth report, then closed the folder and rested one slender hand on the stack, long fingers drumming restlessly. Her nails were very short, the thumbnails slightly ragged due to a bad habit she couldn’t seem to break, so the drumming was quiet. “I don’t get it. Why call us in for accidents?”

			She was a woman of medium height and almost slight build, with no-fuss short brown hair and eyes an unusual and striking shade of blue. Her face was memorable without being in any way remarkable, her emotions generally clearly visible and lending animation to her regular features.

			“If that’s what they are,” her partner, Special Agent Reese DeMarco, said slowly, his gaze still on the open file before him. He was a very big man with wide shoulders and an athletic build, his face coldly handsome perfection, almost as if carved in marble by a master’s hand, and not a bit softened by shaggy blond hair and watchful pale blue eyes.

			“What are you seeing that I’m not?” Hollis demanded, her tone more questioning than challenging. “A car accident, a guy using too much lighter fluid in his grill, an old elevator with worn brakes and controls that shorted out, and now a very dangerous piece of farm machinery run amok. All those sound like accidents. The local sheriff even wrote them up that way. He might have hedged a bit with the combine harvester thingie, which does stand out as weird, but he still can’t point to anything showing deliberate intent, by the operator or someone else, to cause any of this to happen. No signs of tinkering or tampering, that’s in his reports—and I assume he’d know what to look for or has someone in a farming community there or nearby who would.”

			“He called us,” DeMarco said. “Maybe he believes something really unusual is going on, something too unusual to put into his reports. Maybe something paranormal.”

			“We used to be the Bureau’s guilty secret,” Hollis said wryly. “Now it seems everyone knows our name. And our specialty. Oh, for the good old days.”

			“Cops talk,” her partner reminded her. “Maybe he knows what’s special about this unit, or maybe he only knows that we’re called in to help investigate unusual crimes, and that we’re very good at what we do.”

			Hollis turned her frowning gaze to their unit chief, who sat with them at the big round table in the Special Crimes Unit’s conference room, a place that was seldom used by any of them for anything except occasional briefings, unless a case was local and they could actually work out of Quantico. “Bishop?”

			Special Agent Noah Bishop was another tall, wide-shouldered and athletic man with an almost-too-handsome face that was made very human by a faint, wicked scar twisting down his left cheek. An odd and seemingly inexplicable streak of white hair at his left temple almost glowed surrounded by the raven black, and he possessed a distinct yet somehow unsettling widow’s peak setting off his high forehead. The overall effect was both dangerous and unexpectedly exotic.

			He tended to speak quietly and few who knew him could even summon a memory of him losing his temper, but since there were rarely very many secrets or even unknown characteristics in a team of psychics, most of his agents knew only too well that the calm, even reserved outer Bishop was the surface mask over very deep emotions and a great capacity for sheer danger.

			An excellent unit chief and gifted profiler even without the psychic edge, he was an unusually loyal friend—and a very bad, completely ruthless, and pitiless enemy.

			Bishop seldom gave this sort of direct briefing to his teams, which was clearly setting off alarm bells in Hollis, but all he said in response to her was, “In a small town with less than ten thousand people, four fatalities resulting from seeming accidents in roughly four weeks is . . . an unusual spike, to say the least. Worth investigating.”

			“Sure, but by us? Why?” Hollis had never been shy in questioning their unit chief.

			One of the two remaining agents at the table, Kirby Bell, said tentatively, “Training assignment? For Cullen and me?” She was younger than the other agents, still in her twenties, and with her short, very red curls and big golden eyes, she could easily have passed for a high school student. In fact, she always got carded at a bar or whenever she ordered alcohol, something she found frustrating and most around her found amusing.

			And nobody ever believed she was an FBI agent, no matter how many credentials she could offer as proof.

			Cullen Sheridan, the final agent at the table, was nearly as tall as the other two men but less physically imposing, wiry rather than powerful, his regular features usually wearing a friendly expression and his reddish-brown hair seemingly always in need of a trim. He had an unusually deep voice, evident when he said, “It’s not the first case for either one of us. Just the first we’ve both been assigned.” He eyed Bishop from very sharp brown eyes, one brow rising. “Testing out partners?”

			“I do that on a continual basis, until it’s obvious a particular partnership gels,” Bishop said. “Sometimes that happens quickly, even almost instantly. Other times not so much.”

			“You don’t have to tell me I’m a prickly bastard,” Cullen said, knowing only too well that it was true. Kirby was the fourth partner he’d been paired with in the last eight months.

			“A characteristic true of most members of the unit, to one degree or another,” Bishop said. “Male and female alike; our lives are usually difficult and if our abilities weren’t the cause of that, they certainly didn’t—and don’t—help.”

			“Ever?” Kirby asked rather forlornly. She was not only the youngest at the table, but also the newest psychic. A car accident two years previous had left her in a coma for a week, after which she had emerged with absolutely no memory of what had happened to her and one more sense than she’d had before. And even though she had found real understanding and total acceptance in the SCU and was happy she was part of the unit, Bishop had had to talk her into joining the FBI.

			She was a full agent only because Bishop had over the years earned the authority to recruit people directly into his very specialized unit. Even then, before they could go into the field they were required to complete the basic law enforcement courses and the physical fitness test, or PFT.

			Kirby was still astonished she had passed that one.

			Hollis said to her, with characteristic bluntness, “At first most abilities can be a pain in the ass, especially if you came to them recently and/or abruptly.” Something she most certainly knew about, since she had developed several of them, each very abruptly, in only the last few years.

			“But just at first, right? I mean, it gets better?”

			“Some of it does. And some abilities are easier than others to handle. The thing is, most everybody who does get better at it does so in the field, not in the lab. Meditation exercises and biofeedback sessions notwithstanding.”

			Kirby said uncertainly, “So it is a training mission?”

			Bishop replied, “There really aren’t any SCU training missions per se, not in the field.”

			“He doesn’t send us out on those,” Hollis told both of the two newest agents. “Subscribes to the theory that new agents are best broken in by being dropped into the deep end of the pool. Even if there are sharks in the water.” She returned her almost limpid gaze to the unit chief.

			Bishop’s very handsome face seldom showed any emotion, but when it did it was the faint scar twisting down his left cheek that was as good as a barometer, becoming more prominent and growing pale when he was in any way disturbed.

			The scar remained virtually invisible, his sentry-gray eyes were intent but calm, and a slight smile curved his mouth. “But never unarmed,” he said to Hollis. And then, to Kirby, he said, “Sometimes an investigation that appears simple on the surface turns out to be anything but.”

			“Sometimes?” Hollis sighed. “I gather you have reason to believe this is one of those with sharks in the water.” It wasn’t really a question.

			Bishop nodded. “I spoke to Sheriff Gordon a couple of hours ago. He confirmed that he’d just received the cell phone records from the fourth and most recent victim, Brady Nash. Before he put it in his reports, he wanted to make sure one very odd similarity between the seeming accidents covered all four. It could well be the signature tying all these supposed accidents together.”

			DeMarco frowned slightly. “No cell phones were found at or around the scenes.”

			“No. And yet all four victims had cell phones they habitually carried.”

			“So what was on the cell records?” Hollis asked.

			“The same message was texted to each victim at the exact same time on the afternoon before the night they died. From an unknown number, most certainly a burner. Location still undetermined. And all it said was: Wait for dark.”

			Half under her breath, Kirby murmured, “Now that’s creepy.”

			Not really scoffing, Hollis said, “Oh, that isn’t even the doorway to creepy. I’m betting we’ll find stuff a lot more worthy of the word.”

			Wide-eyed, Kirby said, “Am I supposed to look forward to that?”

			“Stop scaring her,” DeMarco said mildly.

			“I’m not really scared,” Kirby told him seriously. “Just . . . a little unsettled. Apprehensive, I guess? I’ve been working on my shield and it’s pretty good, usually, but if the whole town is feeling creeped out by what’s happened, I’m bound to pick up on it, and that is not a very comfortable sensation.” She was an eighth-degree empath, which meant she was on the more powerful end of the scale the SCU had developed to measure psychic abilities. And that meant she was likely to feel a great deal of other people’s emotional turmoil, shields or no shields.

			She had been known to abruptly burst into tears if enough of the people around her wanted to cry but were holding back.

			“Word does tend to get around faster in small towns,” Bishop admitted, “but I gather from the sheriff that while people are talking about the odd run of accidents, nobody has suggested it’s anything else. So far.”

			“So how’s he going to explain us?” Hollis asked. “I’d hazard a guess most people know FBI teams don’t generally investigate accidents unless they involve something like a plane crash.”

			With a faint smile, Bishop said, “If anybody asks, Gordon plans to explain that the FBI does sometimes assist in investigating an unusual number of accidents in a small, fairly remote area. To expose our agents to . . . every type of incident.”

			“And he thinks that’s gonna fly?”

			DeMarco closed one of the files in front of him and said, “Well, he’s called in an ME from the state network, so I’m betting people are already getting curious, if not uneasy.”

			“Great,” Kirby murmured.

			“This could all stop at the four victims we have now,” Bishop pointed out. “Even if they aren’t accidents, if someone is behind them, he or she might not continue.”

			“Because one of the four victims might have been the only real target,” Hollis said slowly.

			“The idea has been used in enough mystery novels and TV shows over the years, and in reality. More than one serial or mass murderer has tried to hide a single murder by killing a group of unrelated or seemingly random people. That could be the case here. It’s certainly a possibility that has to be investigated.”

			DeMarco said, “One the sheriff would have trouble exploring fully after he’s classed all the deaths as accidental.”

			Bishop nodded. “Exactly. We can ask questions he can’t about accidents, especially using the excuse he’s giving us. And if this isn’t finished yet, if there’s another odd accident, I doubt it’ll go unnoticed in Clarity with or without our presence. People will begin connecting the dots, that’s inevitable. Still, the text messages haven’t become the subject of gossip or speculation publicly. At least at this point, Sheriff Gordon doesn’t plan to share any of that information with anyone except his lead deputy and us.”

			“Which is great,” Cullen said. “Unless, of course, the victims shared those with someone else before they were killed, and it just hasn’t gone public. Yet. If I got a weird text message like that, it’s something I might do.”

			“As far as the sheriff can determine, they didn’t, but it’s not a question he can ask outright. Not a question we can either, as long as that text remains the only commonality to link these . . . accidents. Especially if they don’t stop at four.”

			DeMarco said, “You have reason to believe this is going to continue? Weird accidents that are anything but?” It was just barely a question.

			“If, as the texts suggest, there’s a killer making his crimes look like peculiar accidents, and toying with his victims to the extent of warning them something’s about to happen, I doubt he’ll stop until he achieves his goals. Whatever those might be.” Briskly, he added, “Hollis, you have the most experience as a profiler, so you’re lead. If there is someone behind this, Gordon doesn’t believe it’s a stranger; he believes a local is most likely responsible, and I agree. Demographics for Clarity are fairly uniform, however.”

			“So nobody sticks out,” Hollis said. “Small towns really do suck when it comes to victimology. Too damned many overlaps. Churches, doctors, places to shop, schools, even jobs. Really hard to find something specific all the victims have in common when they have most things in common.”

			Bishop nodded. “And worse when the victims are composed of both genders and a wide age range. An accurate profile of this unsub may be the only way to find him and stop him, and building that profile is going to take more than standard victimology, more than standard police work.”

			Hollis duly noted that he had abandoned even the pretense of believing they were going to investigate accidents. “Which means our psychic tools are likely to play a major role in finding this unsub,” she said.

			“I believe so.”

			Kirby murmured, “But no pressure.”

			“You’re part of a team; we share the pressure.” Hollis sent the younger agent a quick, slightly rueful smile, then said to Bishop, “Do we confide in the good sheriff?”

			“Play it by ear. I couldn’t really get a sense of whether he knows about our abilities or simply assumes we’re a specialized unit called in on crimes that don’t fit the usual patterns.”

			“So,” Cullen said, “we keep the psychic stuff low-key.”

			“At least until you get the lay of the land,” Bishop agreed. “Quite often, these small mountain towns lean more heavily toward superstition than science, and rumors, once started, tend to run that way. Things can get ugly in a hurry. So even if the sheriff is told, he may want to keep the info to himself.”

			“That happens more often than not no matter how the townsfolk feel about it,” Hollis said dryly. “Very few cops want to admit they turned to psychics for help.”

			“It does vary, though, so take your lead from him. And even after that choice is made, it goes without saying, if and when the media becomes interested in the story, they’ll know only that you’re FBI agents, called in to assist local law enforcement, and you stay in the background as much as possible, away from the cameras. If cornered by media, you have no comment.”

			“Copy that,” Cullen said.

			“Sheriff Gordon is expecting you. The jet will be ready to go in half an hour. The usual SUV, stocked with supplies, will be waiting for you at the airstrip near Clarity, the nav system already programmed to get you to town.”

			“Is it that far off the beaten path?” Kirby wondered, clearly still uneasy.

			“It’s that far off a major highway, and mountain roads can be tricky, especially at night. It’ll be dark by the time you reach town since night comes early in mountain valleys, but not too late, so you can meet Sheriff Gordon, get settled in, and start fresh in the morning.”

			Hollis nodded and got to her feet. “You’re the boss. Come on, guys, let’s go cancel whatever plans we may have made for the weekend and get our go bags ready.”

			She didn’t appear to notice that her partner did not rise with the two newer agents but stayed in his seat, and if either of them thought it odd, they didn’t show it.

			When they were alone, Reese DeMarco, still gazing at the folders on the table before him, said quietly, “She isn’t ready.”





Clarity

			Sheriff Mal Gordon frowned at the man who couldn’t sit still in his visitor’s chair. “You want to run that by me again, Joe?” he requested politely.

			Joseph Cross tried and failed to not look as desperate as he felt, but he felt things strongly and this was no exception. Given that he generally wore a hunted, even paranoid expression common to men who dealt in bootleg whiskey and was known to have a still of his own hidden away somewhere, it was generally next to impossible for him to hide any emotions at all. “I just know something’s happened to Perla. I know it, Mal.”

			Perla Ferguson Cross held the dubious honor of being married to Joe Cross, and had let it be known that if a white knight would only swoop down and rescue her or, failing that, she could get her hands on enough money to haul her own ass out of Clarity, she’d lose no time in doing so.

			They had been married slightly less than a year.

			The betting pool on when Perla would leave Joe had been going on at the sheriff’s department for on to nine months now.

			Mal wondered fleetingly who had won the considerable pot but tried to keep his mind on business.

			“Joe, I know you don’t want to hear it, but Perla’s had one foot out the door since your honeymoon, and everybody in town knows it because she talks to people. A lot. She’s left you more than once, and only returned because she barely had enough money to get to the Holiday Inn out on the highway and spend a night or two.”

			Even though she had a well-paying job, Perla loved to shop, especially for shoes, and had an impressive collection of heels that looked good on her but were decidedly out of place in Clarity.

			Joe flushed, but then the hectic color faded and he just looked anxious. “I know that, Mal, but this time it’s different. Really different.”

			“How?”

			“She didn’t take anything. No bags, none of her perfumes or makeup, not the grocery money. All her clothes and shoes are still where they ought to be, even that stupid little dog of hers is in the house yapping its head off. I wanted to strangle the damned thing.” At a look from the sheriff, he added hastily, “I didn’t touch him, I swear. Left him in the house still yapping his head off.”

			Mal had to admit, if only silently, that Perla was unlikely to have run away without taking any of her things, most especially the little Yorkie, whose name was Felix and who went everywhere with Perla, his head sticking up from the overlarge designer purse she carried mostly to accommodate her companion. Whether or not the pooch in the bag had begun as another fashion statement very much out of step with Clarity, it had quickly become clear that Perla loved that little dog. He frowned. “Her purse?”

			“Right where she always leaves it, on her dressing table,” Joe said miserably.

			“How long since you’ve seen her?”

			“This morning, before I left for work. She had the day off and said she was going to start cleaning out the attic. The attic door was closed when I got home, but I went up the steps far enough to call out to her, even though I doubt she would have been up there all day. Nothing, not a sound. And the lights weren’t on. There’s no way she’d be sitting up there in the dark. Too creepy.”

			Perla and Joe lived on the outskirts of town in his family home, which sprawled with the odd architecture of an original cottage added to as necessary to house a once-growing family of varying tastes and which could boast generations of unwanted or damaged possessions in the basement and attic.

			“Nobody at the bank has heard from her?” She worked there as a teller.

			“No, like I said, it was her day off. But I called the bank before closing just to make sure she wasn’t called in to cover somebody else’s shift. Manager said nobody had seen her since yesterday.”

			Mal glanced out the window of his office, which overlooked Main Street, reminding himself what he already knew. It was dark. Even in August, darkness came early to Clarity, nestled as it was in a valley surrounded by mountains.

			Wait for dark.

			Had Perla Cross received that text at three o’clock today?

			It had been dark for at least three hours.

			“You waited, hoping she’d come home,” he said, not really a question and not the one he really didn’t want to ask.

			“She always has before,” Joe said miserably. “Or at least called from the Holiday Inn by suppertime to yell at me. And since she didn’t take anything, I just figured maybe she’d gone to stay with one of her friends for a while. And left the dog at home because . . . well, I don’t know why she would have done that. But I called everybody I knew, everybody she knew, and they all said they hadn’t seen her.”

			The slightly sick feeling had been with Mal for a while now, and it felt worse when he forced himself to ask the question he really didn’t want to ask. “Joe, did you find her cell phone?”

			A blank stare greeted that question for several beats, and then Joe Cross said slowly, “It was on the kitchen island. That’s another thing that made me worry. She always has it with her. Usually in a pocket or even in her hand. Always. Her and her friends, and her sisters, they text each other all day long.”

			“Did you check it for messages? Missed calls? Texts?”

			This time Joe’s flush was an ugly red, and he avoided the sheriff’s steady gaze. “She—once before, I—I looked at her cell. To see who she’d been talking and texting to. And she got real mad. So she traded it in for one she could have password protected. I . . . don’t know the password.”

			Mal glanced at his watch, calculating. The FBI team he was expecting was still probably at least two hours away, if not more. He didn’t have a large complement of deputies, but there were others he could call on at need. Retired cops or just men and women with some training, military or law enforcement, people he knew and could count on to be discreet and to not lose their heads if there was real trouble.

			If a search was required once it got light, there would be plenty of volunteers.

			But if Perla Cross’s cell phone contained that single chilling text, then Mal Gordon didn’t expect to have to send out search teams. Because so far, except for the car accident, all the bodies, all the remains, had been found in or very near the homes of the victims.

			Oh, Christ, I don’t want to find another victim.

			He’d had more than his fill of dead and mangled bodies in the military; once he’d taken off the uniform, becoming the sheriff of a small Southern mountain town had seemed the best way to put his training and experience to good use without all the carnage.

			Especially since he’d grown up in Clarity and knew the place and the people as well as anyone, if not better.

			He rose to his feet, hesitated briefly as he considered certain facts known locally, so far, only to him and Emma, then said, “One of my deputies is good with tech; maybe she can break the code on Perla’s cell. I’ll bring a couple more deputies and we can search the house and that big yard of yours.”

			“Mal—”

			Since he didn’t want to answer any questions now with so many rattling around in his own head, the sheriff merely said, “Let’s be real sure she’s missing before any of us lose our heads, okay, Joe? Come on.”

			Visibly baffled and even more worried, Joe Cross obeyed.





THREE





“Hollis isn’t ready,” DeMarco repeated to their unit chief.

			“She wants to work.”

			“She isn’t okay. Not yet.”

			“It’s been more than six months,” Bishop said, “since the investigation in Georgia.”

			“I know. And we both know time has nothing to do with it.”

			“We also both know Hollis isn’t nearly as fragile as she looks,” Bishop reminded him. “Not physically and certainly not emotionally or psychologically.”

			“Yeah. She may well be the strongest person I’ve ever known. But what she faced down there . . . I’ve seen a lot of people face a lot of demons, Bishop. I’ve done it myself, and still do from time to time. But what Hollis faced . . . was pure evil. Maybe what she was able to do after we found that last victim helped, being able to fight that evil on her own terms, but it was brutal. I know she follows her instincts, and so far they’ve guided her true, but absorbing so much dark energy the way she did, transforming it, that went way beyond anything any of us has ever done before. We don’t know the short-term effects of that. And we sure as hell don’t know what the long-term effects might be.”

			“All true.”

			“Being here, being kept busy with a few refresher courses, working with some of the new agents, digging into the cold case files, it’s been a break she needed. A respite. No lives in danger. No stakes too high. No real pressure. Regular meals and plenty of time for sleep, whether she took advantage of that or not. And I know the visits from Maggie Garrett helped. Maybe a lot.” Maggie Garrett was a co-founder of the SCU’s domestic sister organization, Haven, but more importantly she was an amazingly powerful empath with the ability to heal others, to heal the wounds of the soul and the mind as well as those of the body. “Maybe all of it gave Hollis a chance to really begin recovering from everything that’s happened to her in the last few years, including that original attack.”

			“I don’t know if you could ever truly recover from something like that to the extent of putting it behind you, forgotten,” Bishop said. “I don’t know if Hollis will be able to, even with all her strength.”

			DeMarco didn’t like to think of Hollis hurting even a little; it haunted him awake and dreaming, the nightmare of the horrific attack that had so changed her life and her self several years before. The sadistic serial rapist and murderer who, after brutalizing his victims, took their eyes, literally, and left them for dead.

			Hollis had not died. She had fought incredible odds to survive, with her sanity intact. And then she had fought to see, after a medical procedure believed to be impossible. She had fought—and now she saw.

			Through the transplanted eyes of an anonymous donor.

			Steadily, DeMarco repeated, “I know she’s had help healing. In the beginning and over all the time since. I know being in the SCU is without question the best decision she could have made, because it’s the best place for her to be, where all of us to varying degrees understand what she’s been through and accept her for who she is now. And I know she’s strong.”

			“Yes. And now she needs to work.”

			“She’s been working.”

			“She needs to be in the field, Reese. I can’t keep her here in the nest any longer, not without risking her self-confidence. She’s been showing signs of restlessness for quite a while. She’s run the trainee course three times this week. And outscored all the cadets and trainees, plus three active agents.”

			“Do you know she’s started remembering her nightmares? Nightmares about the attack that took her eyes and triggered her abilities?” DeMarco’s voice was level.

			“Does she know you remember them?” Bishop countered.

			DeMarco didn’t react to that, although he had told no one about his ability to “remember” Hollis’s dreams. In a unit of psychics, few things were secret, even those some would have preferred to bury somewhere dark.

			Or thought they had.

			He said finally, “We haven’t talked about it. Haven’t talked about . . . anything personal.”

			“It appeared you two had made progress on that front.”

			“Yeah, well. She has the habit of . . . suddenly retreating, quickly, like a cat wary of being touched.” He made his voice light, almost mocking. “Just out of reach. I turn around, and she isn’t there anymore. Even if she is. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. And I don’t know if that’s better or worse.”

			“She’ll find a way through it,” Bishop said.

			“Will she?”

			“If Hollis is anything, she’s a fighter. She won’t give in to the urge to hide herself from you. It may still be a battle, but she’s never truly lost a battle yet. I don’t believe she’ll lose this one.”

			“Don’t you? Bishop, I . . . see her. And she knows it. Maybe that’s the one step too far. Even if most of her worst memories have been distant for years, they’re still with her. Sometimes trapped in her subconscious, in nightmares she didn’t consciously remember for so long. Sometimes, now, since Georgia, not distant at all. And nightmares that are no longer forgotten when she opens her eyes. Her shield is still iffy, uncertain during the day, when she’s awake, but almost always down at night, when she sleeps. If she sleeps, which is usually when she’s too exhausted not to. Probably why she’s been running the trainee course, with no active case to exhaust her. I’m telling you, Bishop, she isn’t okay.”

			DeMarco wasn’t what anyone would have called a talkative man, not at all given to sharing feelings with anyone, but he wasn’t much surprised to find himself talking so frankly with Bishop. People tended to do that, he’d noticed. Even the most unlikely people.

			Bishop was looking at him steadily. “And you believe keeping her here will help her get okay?”

			“I thought it would. Maybe it still will.” Because I haven’t pushed even though I’ve wanted to, even though I’m back at arm’s length in every way that counts. Because I’ve given her space. Because I want that to be all she needs. Time. Just more time. Not more pain, not for her. There’s been enough pain, more than enough pain she’s had to endure. So time. Just more time to come to terms with . . . everything.

			After a moment, Bishop said musingly, “The first time I sent Hollis out into the field I partnered her with Isabel. You know Isabel, blunt to a fault, and at the time she had no shield of her own. She was also the only agent whose psychic awakening was anywhere close to what Hollis had endured. A violent physical assault that should have killed her. And didn’t.

			“She didn’t think Hollis was ready, barely seven months after the attack that first triggered the abilities she was more than half afraid of. Even after Maggie helped the way she does, to heal Hollis as much as possible then, to make most of the pain and trauma seem distant, even buried, so she was protected from the worst of it. So she could go on with her life. We all knew she was still adjusting, still learning to cope with more than a new career radically different from anything she’d planned for herself. But Hollis believed she needed to work and I agreed with her, even though she wasn’t yet a full agent. Even though she was still adjusting to so many things, including the differences in her sight. That was . . . just over three years ago.”

			DeMarco frowned. “I read that case file. Hollis was almost killed.”

			“One of her many near-death experiences.” The words might have been flip, but Bishop’s tone was anything but. “And even though many of us find our abilities changed during some cases in the field, for better or worse, with Hollis, every investigation so far has strengthened or changed an active ability, or activated or created a new ability. Something that is unique to her.”

			“Is that why you keep sending her out?”

			“I hope you know better than that.”

			DeMarco stared at his unit chief for a long moment before finally returning his gaze to the closed files on the table before him. “Yeah, I know. She didn’t nearly die in Georgia, at least not literally. She absorbed and filtered the darkest energy I’ve ever seen, ever heard about. And even if it didn’t damage her, it changed her. She’s still changing.”

			“And you don’t know what she’ll be if and when she finally stops changing?”

			—

			“DON’T YOU SOMETIMES wish you were a telepath?”

			Hollis jumped, more than a little startled, and turned her head to stare at Kirby. “What?”

			The younger agent nodded gravely toward the conference room off the far end of the bullpen, its big windows clearly showing Bishop and DeMarco still talking. “I mean, it would make some things easier, right?”

			Hollis wasn’t much of one for backpedaling—except with DeMarco—so she didn’t avoid the fact that she’d been caught staring and brooding. Even if she did needlessly fiddle with one of the straps of the compact go bag on top of her desk as she replied, “That coming from an empath is rich. Does it help you to know what other people are feeling?”

			“Well . . . sometimes.”

			Figures.

			But all Hollis said was, “If everybody were meant to know what each other was thinking, we’d all be telepaths.”

			Kirby untangled that in her mind and nodded, still solemn. “I guess so. Do you know what they’re talking about?”

			“No.” But she would have bet it was about her. “Do you?” she added unwillingly.

			“No, I’ve caught feelings from other people, so I’m pretty sure it’s not my shield blocking them. They both have very solid shields, don’t they? I mean, I knew Bishop did, but I’ve never worked with Reese before. His shield is really strong.”

			“Double shield,” Hollis heard herself saying. Because that was hardly a secret and wasn’t really anything personal. Was it?

			“Really? I’ve never heard of that.”

			“Neither had the rest of us,” Hollis said dryly. “Far as anybody knows, it’s unique.” Before the younger agent could ask more questions, as she showed every sign of doing, Hollis added, “Is your go bag ready?”

			“Yeah.” Kirby smiled a little. “Just tell me it’s none of my business if I ask too many questions. I’m just curious by nature, but I don’t mind being told to quit it.”

			Lightly, Hollis said, “Quit it.”

			The younger agent nodded, clearly unoffended. “Okay. I’ll go see what’s keeping Cullen.”

			Hollis nodded, and watched the petite redhead wend her way among all the desks in the bullpen to get to Cullen’s desk, where he appeared to be searching through his bag for something.

			Hollis kept her gaze on the other two agents, all the while concentrating on shoring up her shield.

			She didn’t look toward the conference room again.

			—

			WITH A FROWN, DeMarco said, “She’ll be Hollis, I know that. All I care about is that whatever changes, it won’t bring her more pain.”

			Bishop nodded, but said, “You can’t stop that. Protect her from that. Trust me, I know.”

			“I can try.”

			“Yeah, you can do that. And will. It’s human nature.”

			“But?” DeMarco heard himself ask, totally against his will.

			“But she’s an exceptional woman, we’ve both learned to appreciate that. She wasn’t supposed to live, wasn’t supposed to survive that first attack. All the doctors said so. I still don’t know how she did, except . . . She wants to live. With a will stronger than any I’ve come across yet. So when her survival or that of a team member or a loved one is at stake and she has to change, has to adapt, even to create a brand-new ability because it’s what she needs, then she does.”

			“Without even thinking about it.”

			“Spontaneously.” Bishop nodded. “None of us know what her true limits are, not even Hollis. Maybe especially her. But all my experience tells me that she’ll never be truly healed from that first attack until she becomes . . . the person she has to be. And for Hollis, that means accepting what happened to her, all the horrific memories, accepting that it didn’t leave her damaged or broken. And then leaving it behind her, where it belongs.”

			“That isn’t what she’s been doing. Being brutalized the way she was . . . She kept that buried deep, Bishop, like I said, all of it. She kept it inside her, part of her. Kept it in those nightmares she never remembered then. Maybe it should have stayed there. Maybe that’s the only way anyone could live with the pain of memories that horrific.”

			“If that were true, she wouldn’t have faced them, finally and really for the first time, in Georgia.”

			“She didn’t have a choice.”

			“Of course she had a choice. The Universe puts us where we need to be, but we still have free will. We can choose to leave. To run or keep running. You said yourself that she knew beforehand what she’d find behind that closed door. She knew it was a horrific, bloody message meant for her. Meant to hurt her, weaken her, even destroy her. She could have run. Nobody would have blamed her for that. She could have just turned away. But she opened the door. Because it was time for her to face what happened to her years ago, face it wide awake and unblinking.”

			DeMarco shook his head. “I’d love to call that New Age bullshit, but I know you’re right. It’s just . . . agony like that doesn’t heal just because you face it. That’s only the beginning. It’s still a hell of a painful journey for her. And a long way to go yet.”

			“You might be surprised. And, after all, she doesn’t have to take that journey alone.”

			With forced lightness, DeMarco said, “Yeah, that’s what I keep telling her.” Not that it’s done a damn bit of good.

			“She’s stubborn. Don’t stop telling her. Reminding her. That her life has purpose. That she’s helping people. That we’re her family. And that she isn’t damaged, isn’t broken somewhere deep inside, no matter what she believes.”

			“But she was damaged. Hurt so badly there aren’t even words for it. I’ve seen career military men fall apart in battle with less severe injuries, less severe psychological trauma, doomed to spend the rest of their lives trying to cope with PTSD.”

			“And some never recover.”

			DeMarco nodded. “Some never recover. Not with therapy. Not with meds. Not surrounded by caring, supportive people who have some idea what that kind of trauma feels like. Even with all the help, too many of them take all that pain with them to the grave. And too many of them go to that grave too young.”

			“Hollis wants to live,” Bishop repeated.

			“Even if it means struggling? Even if it means suffering?”

			“Even if.” Bishop’s gaze was steady. “‘Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.’”

			“Khalil Gibran.” DeMarco half nodded. “A quote well known among a lot of soldiers.”

			“Yes. I don’t know if Hollis has ever heard it. You might offer it, if the timing seems right.” He barely hesitated before adding, “Because she heals herself, virtually all of her scars are on the inside now.”

			“Virtually all?” DeMarco heard himself ask. “Even from the first attack?”

			“Most of them are gone as well. But . . . She just had a complete physical, of course, in preparation to return to the field. The doctor reported there’s only one scar on her entire body now.”

			“Do I need to know this?” DeMarco asked steadily.

			“I think so. Because the scar isn’t in a place where Hollis has to see it every day. Where she has to repeatedly confront trauma from that original attack. It’s on her back, low down, on her left hip. An . . . almost perfect bite mark.”

			DeMarco shifted in his chair in a very rare sign that he wanted to protest, wanted to stop this. Or wanted to take things apart with his bare hands.

			“He’s dead,” Bishop reminded him, still quiet. “He’s dead, and Hollis helped make that happen.”

			“Carrying the scars he left her with.”

			“She helped destroy him. That matters. That’s part of what’s helped build that extraordinary strength of hers. That, more than the attack itself, set her feet on the path she’s been following ever since, with us.

			“The absolute right path for her, because Hollis has a real gift for this work, a fascination and understanding for it that can’t be taught. And she has an instinct for finding and facing the sort of evil we too often face, without allowing it to corrupt her.”

			“Because she’s seen true evil,” DeMarco said. “It can never hide from her, not for long. Never deceive her.”

			“Yes. She also has a partner who knows far more than the average person about the trauma of war. And the demons that never quite leave us alone afterward.” He paused, then added, “She’s a survivor, Reese. You’re her anchor, but you can’t protect her from the pain. She has to get through this herself.”

			“I want to help. To be more than an anchor.” DeMarco hadn’t realized he was going to say that, admit that, until he had.

			Bishop nodded, matter-of-fact. “I know. And I think you’ll be a lot more than an anchor for her. You already have been, even if she’s still skittish about it.”

			“And when she stops being skittish? If she does?”

			“Oh, she will. She’s far too bright to . . . struggle for long against inevitability. Especially when she knows she’s better, even stronger, with you than without you.”

			DeMarco frowned just a little. “And just how will she learn that lesson? We’re partners; we always work together and have since you first paired us. She hasn’t had to work on her own, without me, for more than a year.”

			“The Universe puts us where we need to be.”

			Beginning to feel more than a little grim, DeMarco said, “If there’s something I need to know about this case, Bishop, you’d better tell me now. If Hollis is hurt in any way because of something important you’re keeping to yourself—”

			“There’s nothing I know.” Bishop hesitated uncharacteristically, then added slowly, “Just . . . something I feel.”

			“Not a vision?”

			“No. And nothing I can put into words. Except that Hollis needs to work . . . and both of you need to go to Clarity.”

			—

			THE CROSS HOME really did sprawl. By Mal’s count it had at least eight exterior doors, not counting the double garage that also boasted a doorway into the house, three levels in two sections of the house, and a rather wild assortment of windows: large, small, multi-paned, single-paned, circular—and at least two shaped like Gothic arches.

			It had been constructed originally of brick, but over the years the other sections added had been faced with seemingly whatever material had been available or cheapest at the time: stucco, at least three different kinds of rock, two other shades of brick, and both cedar shakes and redwood siding.

			It really did look as though it had been designed by an architect who’d been either on a drunken bender or high as a kite on some mind-altering substance. But no architect had designed any part of the Cross home, just different Crosses over different years with different needs and tastes, adding a room here, expanding a room there, modernizing bathrooms and kitchens. Hanging wallpaper that was dated before the glue dried, and laying carpet over the threadbare one underneath. And nobody had ever bothered to make the various additions match or complement the others.

			Both overgrown shrubbery and unpruned trees too tall and too close to the house to cause anything but trouble made the place seem weirdly claustrophobic, and Mal couldn’t help thinking as he, three of his deputies, and Joe walked up the winding and slightly uneven walkway to what had been deemed the front door that it was difficult to blame Perla for wanting to leave.

			If she had left.

			Mal had learned to trust his instincts, and his instincts told him Perla had not left. That she was here, somewhere. Added to the heavy pit in his stomach was a weird, crawly sensation in his skin that was something new in his life. And so far, it only heralded bad things.

			The porch light, billed to repel bugs but surrounded by a little flock of very-much-alive moths and other insects, glowed a dim yellow that seemed more ominous than welcoming. Joe led the way inside, merely walking through the unlocked door.

			Mal sighed but didn’t bother commenting. Clarity was still one of those little towns where most people didn’t lock their doors, even at night, and even if their houses were miles outside town and mostly surrounded by what seemed a wilderness of forests and overgrown pastures.

			Joe started turning on lights and was only on the third one when they all heard a frantic scrabbling on the mostly wooden floor, and Mal found himself holding a bundle of shaking, whimpering Yorkie. The dog had literally launched himself straight at the sheriff.

			“Hey, Felix,” he said a bit wryly. An animal person by nature, he cradled the little dog easily, accepting with equanimity several almost frantic licks on his chin.

			Joe eyed the two with a certain amount of indignation. “I never could make friends with that little brute. Swear I have scars on my ankles where he’s bitten me.”

			Deputy Susie Dunlap, who despite her uniform looked distinctly unlike any kind of cop, being deceptively willowy and languid, with heavy-lidded brown eyes that gave her slightly angular face an oddly fascinating drowsy expression, said mildly, “Maybe you should stop calling him a brute. He’s just a little dog, Mr. Cross.”

			“Easy for you to say,” Joe retorted darkly. “You don’t come home every day to a yapping attack.”

			Mal frowned. “He wasn’t barking when we came in.” Shifting his hold slightly on the little dog, he added, “And he’s shaking like a leaf.”

			“He never likes it if Perla goes somewhere without him,” Joe said somewhat dismissively.

			Susie said, “I didn’t think she ever went anywhere without him.”

			“No,” Joe said. “Hardly ever.” He appeared struck by that for the first time, and even more worried. “Hardly ever. Mal—”

			“We need to search the place, Joe.” Mal would have put the dog on the floor, but the way Felix was trembling so violently bothered him. Felix really did seem frightened, and not only of being left alone. After a brief hesitation, Mal half zipped the light Windbreaker he wore against the faint nighttime chill of even a summer night in the valley and tucked the Yorkie inside.

			“Seriously?” Joe demanded.

			Without responding to that, Mal said, “Joe, show Susie where Perla left her cell phone, so she can get started trying to break the password. Then you and Ray start going through the house. Lower floors first, in every section. Then head down and check the basement areas. Brent, you’re with me.”

			Deputy Ray Marx, who didn’t need a uniform to look imposing since he was six and a half feet tall and built like the linebacker he had been in college, and who had the deep voice to match his size, seemed utterly matter-of-fact when he asked, “What’re we looking for? I thought Perla had just run off again.”

			They all ignored Joe’s halfhearted glare.

			“Maybe she has, and maybe she hasn’t. Let’s make sure. Brent, you and I will take the upper floor and the attic. Joe, I know there are two sections, but you can get from one to the other without coming back down here, right?”

			“Yeah, there’s a kind of hallway between them, across from the top of the stairs. Perla calls it a catwalk, but it’s not open, ’cept for a couple windows looking out the back.”

			“Same thing with the attic?”

			“Yeah. There’s only one doorway leads to the attic, and it’s roughly in the middle upstairs. Closed door, but real stairs, not the pull-down kind, and there’s a light switch, like I said. Plenty of light up in the attic.”

			“Okay. Let’s get going. We’ll leave the lights on in here, and all stairwell lights, but once you’ve cleared a room, turn out the light and close the door.”

			Deputy Brent Cannon, who was average height and sturdy and looked so much more like a stolid cop than any of the others he might as well have had COP tattooed on his forehead, said, “I was wondering how we’d keep it straight without a grid search. This place is . . .”

			“Ambitious?” Mal suggested dryly.

			“I was gonna say big,” Brent confessed.

			“Yeah. Well, let’s get going. The FBI team ought to be getting to town sometime in the next couple hours or so, and I’d like to be there to meet them.” None of the deputies questioned the information, or even reacted to it, except for Susie, who briefly raised an eyebrow.

			They split up, with Joe and Susie headed for the kitchen and Perla’s cell phone, with Ray wandering after them, and Mal heading for the main stairs with Brent close behind.

			It wasn’t until they were nearly at the top of the stairs leading to the second level that Brent asked a low question. “Sheriff, are you expecting to find another . . . accident . . . here?”

			Mal wasn’t surprised that Brent Cannon was the first deputy other than Emma to ask that question. The deputy had more law enforcement experience and education than most of the others, having not only graduated from Duke with a degree in criminal justice but also having nearly five years with the State Bureau of Investigation under his belt. He’d been born and raised in Clarity, but it was only the desire of his high school sweetheart and wife to move back here when she became pregnant with their first that had persuaded Brent to put on a uniform again.

			Mal was glad he’d made that choice.

			“I’m not sure what I expect,” he confessed to Brent. “I just know I’ve got a very bad feeling we’re not going to find Perla holed up at some motel this time.”





FOUR





“I guess we checked the Holiday Inn?”

			“Yeah. She’s not there. Hasn’t been there, according to the manager, in at least a couple of months. And I checked every hotel, motel, and B and B within a hundred miles of Clarity just to be sure. Nada. No woman with her name or description has checked in.”

			Brent said thoughtfully, “She doesn’t strike me as the type to hide right here in the house to give her husband a scare.”

			“No, I would have said she wasn’t. And if she’s here, why is Felix not with her—and why’s he scared to death? He’s still shaking.” Without waiting for a response to that, since they had reached the top of the stairs and were just across from the arched opening that was the entrance to the “catwalk” hallway between the two halves of the second floor, he found the light switch and turned it on.

			Just outside the hallway on the stairway landing was a single closed door, and Mal guessed that was the entrance to the attic.

			The hallway had some colorful scattered rag rugs along the wooden floor and two round windows with a small table and a vase of silk flowers between them, and looked as odd as the rest of the house did.

			Mal gestured with the hand not still cradling the dog snuggled inside his jacket. “You head right and I’ll take the left. Pretty sure that’s the door to the attic out here; whoever gets done with his section first, head up to check that out. If I remember right, it’s a big, open space with big windows at either end.”

			“Is there an end?” Brent asked somewhat whimsically. “I sort of get why Perla keeps running off. This place is a little creepy, and I swear it looks bigger every time I see it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it grew all on its own after dark.”

			“Yeah, I’m sure the house plus Joe is a bit much to take,” Mal replied absently, a more plainspoken response than he might have offered a different deputy.

			They split up, and Mal discovered that his “section” was composed of half a dozen decent-sized bedrooms, all with a dizzying array of furnishings from different time periods. It would have taken a sizable housekeeping staff to keep a house this size as clean as it probably should have been, and neither Perla nor Joe had ever claimed to be a housekeeper; there was a layer of undisturbed dust over most everything, and the rooms held a musty odor of disuse.

			Ignoring that, Mal cleared each bedroom methodically, checked out the two bathrooms—one of which had been done almost entirely in black-and-white checks, the tile walls as well as the floor, and made him feel a bit dizzy and nauseated—and found himself the first back at the attic door.

			Even before Mal felt little Felix begin to tremble even more, his skin had that crawly sensation he had come to associate with finding bad things he didn’t want to find. But he opened the door and flipped the light switch, more relieved than he wanted to admit when bright light spilled down the neat but plain painted wooden stairs going up.

			It looked perfectly normal.

			Like the others he had a small but very bright pocket flashlight, which he hadn’t had to use as yet. And it remained in his pocket when he reached the top of the stairs to find the entire huge attic very well lighted by actual light fixtures, not bare bulbs. They were a peculiar mixture of styles, from a hanging wagon-wheel fixture with two burned-out bulbs to an extremely elaborate crystal chandelier sparkling as though all the crystals had been recently polished.

			At some point in its history, maybe at several points, someone had taken a stab at organizing chaos, so in the right-hand section of the cavernous space, there were numerous areas where like items had been grouped together. There was a section of old trunks; at least three areas he could see that had groupings of old chairs and tables that were damaged or just unwanted or out of fashion; a wild assortment of mirrors reflecting light and odd bits of things in all directions since they were leaning up against two different walls; and a long metal clothes rack on wheels from which at least thirty or forty empty picture frames hung by their corners.

			But Mal barely noticed all that, because as soon as he reached the top of the stairs, two things drew his attention. One was the fact that he could feel a fairly strong breeze that told him both of the big windows up here were undoubtedly open; given their placement at either end of this main section, they could and did provide a strong crosscurrent of air.

			The other thing that drew his attention was a single red high-heeled shoe only a few steps straight out from the top step of the stairwell. It was one of Perla’s. Mal recognized it because she had worn it the previous Sunday. To church.

			It was a very bright red shoe, and shiny, almost metallic, and it was sitting there as if someone had merely stepped out of it and walked away. The toe was pointing to the left.

			Felix let out a low, eerie sound that was as close to a howl as a little dog could ever make, and Mal automatically used his free hand to try to soothe him. The odd, mournful cry ended in a little whimper, and it was a sound Felix continued to make.

			Mal could feel the hair standing up on the nape of his neck, even though every sense told him he and the dog were alone up here.

			He turned slowly to the left, looking down a sort of walkway between stacks of boxes and bins lining this side of the attic. He could see the big casement window; one side was opened all the way inward, the other side almost all the way, filmy sheers placed there at some point fluttering as the breeze blew into the attic.

			In front of the window and about three feet in was the second red high-heeled shoe, its toe pointing toward the window.

			Bracing himself against whatever he was going to find, Mal walked slowly between the tall stacks of boxes and bins, absently still using his free hand to soothe the little dog, who continued to whimper miserably.

			The cop in him noted that the floor was surprisingly free of dust, far more so than the bedrooms on the floor below. He also noted that the window seemed to have simply been opened, not forced in any way. No panes of glass were broken, and there was no sign in front of the window that any sort of struggle had taken place, not so much as a scuff mark.

			Just those two red, empty shoes.

			The lights in the attic didn’t extend to the outside, and as he reached the window, Mal could hear leaves stirring in one of the tall trees just outside.

			He reached into his pocket for the flashlight and, being careful not to disturb the shoe or the placement of the windows, he used his elbow to hold the sheers to one side and pointed the flashlight out at the big oak tree.

			At first, for a single baffled instant, he thought she was just up in the tree for some reason, far higher than was safe up here nearly at the roofline. He almost called out to her, because she was facing him, and her eyes were open.

			But then he saw. Then he understood. That Perla Cross hadn’t climbed up in the big oak tree, and she hadn’t somehow climbed out of this window to reach it.

			He supposed she might have slipped, but even as the thought crossed his mind, he was dismissing it. Because it wasn’t a case of had she fallen or was she pushed.

			Perla had been hurled from the window into the tree.

			Because it would have taken that much force to impale her on at least six thick limbs, their ends deliberately sharpened into rough, now bloody wooden spears.

			—

			HE ARRANGED THE candles carefully, murmuring under his breath the Words he needed. He expected the FBI to arrive at any time, expected her to be one of them because he could feel her getting nearer, and he had to be ready, he knew that all too well. Ready for everything, but especially ready to protect himself. Ready to hide himself.

			She was powerful.

			She was more powerful than anyone realized.

			Especially her.

			So he had to be ready. He had to have power to spare, far more than he’d needed so far. And power of a different kind, really. Because she had a nose for Dark, and he couldn’t afford her figuring out what was really going on in Clarity before he was ready for her.

			She was the only one who might have the ability to stop him before he was finished. And he couldn’t have that.

			He could conjure a smokescreen or two, he knew that. He had discovered almost from the beginning that he could do that. It was, actually, easy to lay down smokescreens. To give himself more time. To keep them, to keep her occupied with . . . trifles. With unimportant things.

			Confusing, unimportant things.

			He lit the candles one by one, this time speaking the Words louder, the cadence of his voice rising and falling. Old, old words. Ancient words, in a language few if any would have understood.

			Here, at least.

			But even here, in this isolated little town with its modern technology and its dedicated sheriff, even here there was someone listening to the ancient words, someone who understood.

			Someone who offered him power, power few of the pitifully weak minds around him could even begin to imagine, much less comprehend. Power . . . and control. Everything he needed to achieve his goals.

			Of course, there was a price. There was always a price.

			Everything worthwhile has a price.

			Yes. Yes.

			Still chanting, but this time softly, he reached to his right and unwrapped folded silk to reveal a sheathed dagger. It was old, the symbols carved into its bronze handle worn almost smooth with much time and use, and cryptic to anyone who didn’t understand. He picked up the sheathed dagger and held it aloft, almost as an offering. He laid it down directly in front of him, then reached to his left and picked up a bronze goblet carved with similar cryptic symbols.

			He set the goblet carefully in the center of the design drawn in chalk, in the center of the circle of candles.

			He picked up and unsheathed the dagger slowly, laying aside the sheath. The blade revealed was gleaming silver, darting out sharp, bright little shafts of candlelight as he turned it this way and that.

			He closed his eyes, still chanting, gripped the handle in his right hand, and closed his left over the blade.

			In a single smooth movement, he drew the blade of the dagger from his fisted hand.

			Holding his still-closed fist above the goblet, he watched thick scarlet blood drip into its cup, his chanting still smooth and without interruption.

			In his right hand, the silver blade was bloody for only a few moments, and then seemed to absorb the viscous stuff, leaving the blade pristine and gleaming once more.

			He finished his chant, bowed his head, and closed his eyes in a few moments of reverent silence. When he lifted his head and opened his eyes again, it was to see that the goblet, too, had absorbed the blood offering.

			His offering had been accepted.

			He opened his fist and watched as the thin red line across his palm slowly disappeared.

			There was always a price for power. Always. This time, he was happy to pay it.

			Next time, it would be a price demanded of someone else.

			—

			“I SENT JOE back to the station with one of my deputies,” Mal told the four agents standing in the entrance hall of the Cross home. “It was all we could do to keep him from going up there and seeing for himself, but . . . That’s not a memory he needs.” He couldn’t help but eye the younger-looking of the two women, wondering if it was a memory she could do without as well.

			“It’s okay, Sheriff,” the little redhead said to him, clearly in response to his glance. She had been introduced as Agent Kirby Bell. “I’m tougher than I look. And I’ve seen more than you might expect.”

			He had a feeling that was true, despite her big, seemingly innocent eyes. But he also read tension in her face and in the slightly stiff way she held herself, so he doubted she was as calm as she otherwise appeared.

			“Well. I’m just sorry I had to call you all straight out to see this without even a hello. But since it’s the first . . . crime scene . . . that’s been undisturbed, I figured you’d want to look it over before it gets disturbed. I thought you’d have time to settle in tonight, but . . . all I know for sure is that this was no accident.”

			He drew a deep breath and let it out. “I’ve got the ME I’ve had in town—Dr. Jill Easton—finding out whatever she can without disturbing the body. She’s qualified as a crime scene tech as well as an ME, and brought all her equipment with her, so I got lucky there. We’ve never needed a CS unit. Her assistant and one of my deputies set up big work lights at that end of the house, and last I checked she was up a ladder to get as close as possible to the body. It’s . . . a pretty grisly scene.”

			“No doubt about the cause of death?” the other woman, who had introduced herself as Hollis Templeton, asked, her unusual blue eyes very intent.

			“No, I don’t think so. The doc wanted to check to see if she’d been knocked out or something first, but since her eyes are open, I’m betting she was wide awake and aware when she was thrown into that tree.”

			“Sheriff—”

			“Mal, please.”

			She nodded. “We’re all pretty informal too.” They looked it, casual in jeans and light jackets. They could have been just ordinary citizens—except for the guns three of them wore on their belts and a glimpse Mal had caught of a big silver gun in a shoulder holster worn by the larger of the two men. “First names suit us fine. And if anybody forgets, ‘Agent’ works too.”

			“Good enough.”

			“Are you sure she was thrown from inside the house into that tree?” He had briefly explained how he’d come to find this victim and where, as much to warn them as anything else.

			“You’ll see for yourselves when we go upstairs but, yeah, I don’t see how it could have been done any other way. At the same time, I don’t see how it could have been done at all. It’s almost like somebody had a catapult up there.”

			“But no signs there was anything like that?”

			“No. And I had two of my deputies search the entire attic just in case something had been hidden among the junk up there. No joy. There isn’t even a fucking scuff mark in front of the window. It’s like somebody incredibly strong just lifted her off her feet and threw her.” He frowned. “Left her shoes behind, but in two different places. I have no idea what that means.”

			Hollis said, “We should definitely see her before the body is moved. Oh—what about her cell phone?”

			“It was here, left on the kitchen island, but password protected. I sent it back to the station, where it can be examined a little better. I have a couple of deputies good at tech going over it now. And even if they don’t find anything, I’ve sent in a request for the cell records. We should have them by morning.”

			“You expect to find that text, same as before?” The question came from the very powerful blond man standing behind Agent Templeton, a man whom Mal had instantly recognized as another military veteran. The one carrying a very big silver gun in a shoulder holster barely concealed by his black leather jacket. Reese DeMarco.

			“Yeah, I do,” Mal admitted. “Even though there’s no way in hell anybody could mistake this for an accident. She was murdered. And while solving that and finding her killer is of course vital, I also need to know how this was done and what it means in relation to all the supposed accidents we’ve been having up till now.”

			“This could be a one-off,” DeMarco offered. “Somebody taking advantage of the string of apparent accidents and hoping this death would be lumped in with the rest. Have you cleared the husband?”

			“Well, technically no, there hasn’t been time. But aside from the fact that he wouldn’t have the physical strength to do it, Joe isn’t at all a violent man. In fact, the major problem Perla—his wife, our victim—seemed to have with him was his inability to even stand his ground when she felt like a fight.”

			He saw Hollis lift an eyebrow at him.

			“Look, I know how it sounds, but she was just . . . like that. Not mean or violent herself, but she came from a local family known to express themselves pretty much at the top of their lungs. I’ve been called out for domestic disputes to one Ferguson home or another by disturbed neighbors just to find two or three of them having a spirited political debate. It never escalated to violence, not even the milder sort.”

			“No chance he finally had enough and snapped?” That question came from the fourth agent, a tall but wiry, tough-looking man who had been introduced as Cullen Sheridan.

			Mal shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s anything in him to snap. He’s never shown any signs of violence, and I’ve pretty much known him his whole life. He works as a mechanic and he’s a good one, but he also runs bootleg whiskey and is rumored to have a still of his own somewhere on this property or up in the mountains.”

			“Wouldn’t that sort of lifestyle make him more volatile?” Hollis asked.

			“There used to be a lot of violence associated with running whiskey and making moonshine, but these days the ATF has too much on their plate to worry about a small-time lawbreaker like Joe, and it’s not like he has competition in the area, violent or otherwise. It’s mostly a lot of trouble with very little benefit, and as far as I’ve been able to determine, Joe is the only one still bothering. I’ve never been able to catch him red-handed but, honestly, I haven’t tried that hard. In the general scheme of things, it doesn’t seem much of a crime to me.”

			DeMarco said, “Did it seem much of a crime to Joe Cross?”

			“I’m guessing he considers it more of a sin than a crime, especially since his mother had him in church every time the doors opened for the first fifteen years of his life. When she died, he kept going, every Sunday at least, not that I can see any sign it’s changed him much.”

			Mal shrugged. “Bootlegging just isn’t exactly a booming business down here, and that’s even more true of making moonshine. The days of bootlegging being profitable enough for violence and territorial disputes are long past, like I said. I’m not even sure anybody who buys the shine from Joe is over twenty-one; it’s the sort of thing kids do on a dare or for a goof, but since you could use the stuff to strip paint, I doubt many are drinking it. At least not more than once.”

			“So he isn’t making much money,” Hollis ventured.

			“I seriously doubt it. His family used to be famous—or infamous—as bootleggers, but that was generations ago. He’s probably making no more than pocket change, if that. Earns more as a mechanic.” Mal shook his head. “I think Joe keeps it up because his family did, and he’s the last of them. More habit than anything else, just like going to church is habit. He has a paranoid streak, not surprisingly, but his response to that is flight, not fight.

			“Perla wasn’t happy in the marriage, she told anybody who’d stand still to listen that much, but she wasn’t the least bit afraid of Joe. And far as I know, she’s never been seen with any physical signs of abuse, certainly no hospital visits, and that was never a complaint she shared. Since she shared everything else . . .”

			“Everything?” Hollis asked wryly.

			“Oh, yeah. I know way more than I ever wanted to about what happened—or didn’t happen, as the case may be—in the matrimonial bed. I don’t think Perla even recognized that there were private areas of our lives most of us keep private. She sure as hell never seemed to have any boundaries of her own.” He shrugged. “You’re welcome to question Joe yourselves, of course, if you can get any sense out of him.”

			“He’s in shock?” Kirby asked.

			“Pretty much. In tears, and he wasn’t faking. However Perla felt about him, Joe pretty much worshiped the ground she walked on. That was a big part of why I made sure he didn’t see Perla and