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Hidden Salem

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Year:
2020
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Language:
english
Pages:
336
ISBN 13:
9781984802910
ISBN:
2019055491
Series:
Bishop SCU #19
File:
EPUB, 299 KB
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Titles by Kay Hooper


			Bishop / Special Crimes Unit Novels

			 				HAVEN

				HOSTAGE

				HAUNTED

				FEAR THE DARK

				WAIT FOR DARK

				HOLD BACK THE DARK

				HIDDEN SALEM



			The Bishop Files

			 				THE FIRST PROPHET

				A DEADLY WEB

				FINAL SHADOWS





		 			 			BERKLEY

			An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

			penguinrandomhouse.com



			Copyright © 2020 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 and the BERKLEY & B colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Names: Hooper, Kay, author.

			Title: Hidden Salem / Kay Hooper.

			Description: First Edition. | New York : Berkley, 2020. | Series: The bishop/special crimes unit

			Identifiers: LCCN 2019055490 (print) | LCCN 2019055491 (ebook) | ISBN 9781984802897 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781984802910 (ebook)

			Subjects: GSAFD: Suspense fiction.

			Classification: LCC PS3558.O587 H53 2020 (print) | LCC PS3558.O587 (ebook) | DDC 813/.54—dc23

			LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019055490

			LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019055491

			First Edition: April 2020

			Jacket design by Rita Frangie

			Jacket art: Village skyline by Artem Hvozdkov / Shutterstock; typography by Anna Zasimova / Shutterstock

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



			pid_prh_5.5.0_c0_r0





; CONTENTS


			 				 				Titles by Kay Hooper

			 				 				Title Page

			 				 				Copyright

			 				Prologue

			 				Chapter One

			 				Chapter Two

			 				Chapter Three

			 				Chapter Four

			 				Chapter Five

			 				Chapter Six

			 				Chapter Seven

			 				Chapter Eight

			 				Chapter Nine

			 				Chapter Ten

			 				Chapter Eleven

			 				Chapter Twelve

			 				Chapter Thirteen

			 				Chapter Fourteen

			 				Chapter Fifteen

			 				Chapter Sixteen

			 				Chapter Seventeen

			 				Chapter Eighteen

			 				Chapter Nineteen

			 				Chapter Twenty

			 				Chapter Twenty-one

			 				Chapter Twenty-two

			 				Epilogue

			 				 				Character Bios

			 				 				Psychic Terms and Abilities

			 				 				Author’s Note

			 				 				About the Author





PROLOGUE


			Salem

			Do it.

			Do it now.

			Mark Summers could hear the command, but not out loud. His head hurt horribly, and he had the hazy idea that the commands that kept ringing out were actually inside his head, as clear as one of his own thoughts, but . . . savage. It blocked out everything else, the people circling him, the almost overpowering scent of some kind of herb or incense, the low sounds they had been making—not exactly a chant but a weird sort of hum.

			Before he’d closed his eyes, they had only been shadowy shapes flickering in the candlelight, but he’d felt their demand, like the one in his mind, insistent. Every beat of it hurt, and he had the dim sense that they had . . . done things . . . to his body. That they had hurt him, over and over.

			And always the questions, the demands that hurt even more, that seemed to wrench at something inside his very skull.

			“I don’t understand,” he managed to whisper, wondering vaguely what he was lying on, because it felt like solid stone. And he couldn’t move his arms or legs, even though he didn’t think he was tied down. No, there was . . . something holding him still. And he felt something else . . . wet . . . underneath him, and flowing out of him.

			Do it. You know. Deep down inside you, you know.

			“No . . . I don’t understand.” He felt appallingly weak, even though they’d been feeding him, more or less. Since he’d stopped on his way into Salem to help a stranded traveler and—and he didn’t remember much after that.

			Summers opened his eyes for a moment, then shut them again, dizzy, because the flickering candles were moving now, all around him, and that hum grew louder, more of a chant now, and he still didn’t understand.

			“Please,” he murmured. “Please let me go. I won’t tell anyone. I just want to go . . . home.”

			Hot breath on his face, smelling faintly of something he almost recognized, and then a harsh voice said, “You are home, Mark. You know it’s true. You’ve come back to Salem. Back to your family.”

			“I don’t have a family,” he whispered.

			“Your family called you here, Mark. And now it’s time for you to do what you were born to do.”

			He wanted to question, to protest, but there was a pressure building in his mind, something . . . powerful . . . pressing against the bone of his skull, and he knew, suddenly, that he would never be able to contain all that strength, all that power. It was too big for him, too much for him . . . too much . . .

			He was fading, losing consciousness, but even as the blackness closed over him he identified the smell of that hot, harsh breath.

			Brimstone.





ONE


			TUESDAY

			He passed her on one of the backstreets of downtown Salem, and if Geneva Raynor hadn’t been relaxing her shield for a bit so she could send out a few cautiously probing telepathic tendrils, she would have completely missed him. A hunter, recently down from the mountains even though it was still very early, and . . .

			Oh, God, oh, Jesus, what coulda done that? I never seen so much blood, so much . . . What kind of animal coulda . . . And all that on the rocks . . . all them symbols or signs, like witchcraft . . . but in blood, I know it was in blood . . .

			His horror was such that Geneva could hardly sort through and try to get a location from his scattered thoughts, and what she got was maddeningly uncertain, a vague direction at best.

			Still, she waited only until he was well past, then wandered in the opposite direction, pausing now and again, against every instinct screaming at her to hurry, in order to point her camera and click to capture a beautiful bit of scenery.

			Or whatever. She didn’t give a damn about the scenery.

			She didn’t want to take the time to go back to the B and B and lose her camera; for one thing, she’d need it. And for another, from everything she’d heard before and since arriving in Salem, the town militia was uncanny in how swiftly and thoroughly they “took care” of little problems. Like a murdered and mutilated human body.

			Possibly, she reminded herself, knowing that whatever the hunter had seen might have been something else. Maybe.

			But probably he’d seen just what he thought he had. Hunters knew what dead game looked like, after all, even if it had been torn to shreds.

			There had been three dead human bodies to date, if her information was correct; she had no reason to doubt that info and every reason to trust it. And she had certainly found no trace of the three missing persons she’d been sent here to ferret out. She was very good at her job; if they had been here, she would have found them, likely in the first few days but certainly in the last two weeks. They were gone. And by now, Geneva didn’t expect to find them, alive or dead.

			But this one . . . if this was a fourth missing person . . . then she had the chance to see at least what the hunter had seen, get a step or two ahead of all this for once.

			So she made her way from town, her pace lazy as she looked around, as usual, for what might make a good shot. She was casual when she began to follow one of the trails that led seemingly straight up a mountain, as she had done fairly often in the last couple of weeks. But this time Geneva didn’t remain on the trail long; she didn’t want to be observed by anyone in town heading in a particular direction. And she was very much aware that as soon as the hunter calmed down, or perhaps sooner, he’d be reporting to a person in authority what he’d seen—and then the militia would be on the job.

			Forcing herself to think slowly and clearly even as she used saplings and sometimes harsh bushes that didn’t spare her hands to help her to climb the slope, her legs already starting to burn despite a superbly conditioned body, Geneva wondered if a fourth person had, in fact, gone missing while she’d been here in Salem. There would have been no way for Bishop to let her know. Not, at least, until he sent her partner in.

			Friday or Saturday, most likely.

			Until then, she was on her own. Today was Tuesday.

			Geneva kept looking around, trying to find the landmarks she had gotten somewhat fuzzily from the hunter. She was able to pick out one giant boulder and another odd-shaped tree, and as soon as she knew she was in the right general area, she concentrated and opened up the lone spider sense she could claim.

			At first there was nothing, and Geneva silently cursed the camera that seemed to be catching on every branch and bit of undergrowth, knowing it was a distraction she didn’t need. She paused a moment in the steep climb toward . . .

			Blood.

			The spider senses varied within the members of Bishop’s unit, some able to enhance all their normal senses, and some only one or two. For Geneva it had always been scent. No matter how hard she tried, she could not enhance her sight or hearing. But her scent . . . that she could do.

			With a vengeance.

			Blood . . . blood . . . blood . . .

			She tried to breathe through her mouth, which was easy in one way because she was getting winded from the long, steep climb, and more difficult in another way because the smell of blood was so strong she could taste it now, thick and coppery. And even without enhanced senses she could hear the buzzing of flies . . .

			Geneva closed her mind to that. She kept climbing grimly, until the sapling she’d grasped to help pull her along snapped forward and propelled her into a small clearing so quickly she was barely able to keep to her feet.

			Blessed with a cast-iron stomach and a seasoned agent besides, Geneva didn’t immediately lose her breakfast. But her enhanced sense of smell told her the hunter had, and she tried not to think about that, tried, now, to shut down the spider sense.

			Not that she could. Once triggered, it was a wayward thing with a mind of its own, the team members who used it had decided. Unlike the truly psychic senses, which could usually be cut off by erecting a shield, the spider senses were just . . . there. Once turned on, they were impossible to turn off. They were just raw nerves exposed to the air, gradually ebbing over minutes. Or hours.

			Grimly, Geneva breathed through her mouth, trying to ignore the thick feeling of scent even there, and stood right where she was, studying the scene carefully.

			A dump site. Not a murder scene; for all the blood and viscera, and there was a lot of both, the ground around the . . . remains . . . wasn’t soaked, and that told her this victim had been killed somewhere else.

			The worst of the butchery had been done afterward, and here, long after his heart had stopped pumping blood.

			Victim. Male; he was naked, and nothing had been done to mutilate his genitals. She noted that dispassionately, just as she mentally checked the box beside NOT SEXUALLY MOTIVATED.

			Young but no child; from what she could see of bony shoulders and upper chest, her guess would be in his twenties. After that . . . all she could do was note details. Arms and legs had been slashed repeatedly, some shallow cuts and some showing white bone. His chest and midsection had been opened, the breastbone and ribs broken outward, and with great force. That could be done by an expert with the right tools, she knew, but this . . . this didn’t look like anything she’d seen, not in textbooks, not at the body farm, and not at any crime scene or dump site she’d witnessed until now.

			Almost as if he’d swallowed some kind of explosive device, though she saw no signs of other damage such a device would cause. Just those outward-bent, splintered ribs and breastbone.

			Virtually all of his organs appeared undamaged yet had been cut free of the body and now lay alongside it in a way that looked to her eye more hurried than carefully staged.

			And his head . . . his skull . . . looked as if it had somehow . . . burst open under the same extreme force that had broken the breastbone and ribs outward. Shards and fragments of bone from the skull were also angled outward, some bent, some broken, white in the morning sunlight with only a patch or two of scalp still clinging to bone.

			His brain was gone.

			Just gone.

			It was difficult to remain dispassionate at that, but she mentally checked another box in her head: SOMETHING I’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE; NO IDEA WHAT CAUSED IT.

			Geneva forced herself to look carefully, still not moving closer, and saw no sign of that organ anywhere.

			There were several boulders not much larger than basketballs around the body that looked as if they had been rolled from somewhere else and placed there, a few clearly pried loose from dark earth still clinging to them. Placed carefully, she thought, to surround the body. That much was staged. A hasty effort to make this look like something occult or satanic? And on bared areas of gray granite, probably in the victim’s blood, were signs and symbols. Like an ancient language. Or the scribbling of a toddler.

			Geneva didn’t recognize a single one of them as having any kind of meaning, occult or otherwise. And though she might not be the SCU’s expert on the occult, she was more than familiar with the basics, as all primary agents were.

			The clock in her head was ticking away the minutes she likely had before the militia arrived. And it was ticking fast. She grabbed at the camera, grateful for it now, and began skillfully photographing the scene.

			She was no crime scene tech, but like all of Bishop’s people, she had spent some time working with the best specialized teams at Quantico in order to learn the skills she might need in the field. And that practice of their unit chief’s, arming his people with as much knowledge and experience as possible in a wide variety of skills, had come in handy more times than any of them could count. Because you never knew what you would need in the field until you were there.

			She moved as carefully as possible, trying to leave no evidence that she had been there, circling the scene but staying well back, placing her feet wherever possible on rock or some other surface that would not leave traces.

			They don’t use dogs to track. I don’t think they use dogs. Never heard of that, and I would have. I think. Surely would have picked up on it somehow. Maybe. Dammit.

			Two weeks here and she knew so little.

			It probably took no more than five minutes, though alarm bells were already screaming in her mind, before Geneva finished to her satisfaction. Then she carefully backed away, chose a different direction that would take her well away from the town before she’d have to angle back toward it, and began to make her way back down the mountain. She went cautiously, leaning on all the woodcraft she knew, pausing now and then to listen, to strain her eyes looking around through the dim forest. And then she went on.

			The smell of blood she’d resolutely closed her mind to had gradually faded away. As for the rest . . . she didn’t need to see the pictures she’d taken to remember every horrific detail.

			She was perhaps fifteen minutes and quite a distance from the dump site before she paused near a thicket of brambles, used a piece of dead limb to dig a hole in the ground, and lost her breakfast. When she was done, she carefully scraped the dirt back over the hole, then pulled a thicket of brambles over it.

			She stood back, studying the area critically for a long moment to make certain there were no signs of her passing this way. And then Geneva adjusted the camera strap on her shoulder and continued to angle on down the mountain, toward one of the narrow but well-used trails that would take her to the town of Salem.



* * *



			—

			 			IT WAS STORMING. The storm had come out of nowhere, according to the bewildered weather guy on TV, and seemed isolated over a very small area. No snow, but a sporadic icy rain mixed with sleet. And thunder, which was rare with winter storms. He couldn’t understand it. Nellie Cavendish turned him off with a faint sigh. Of course it was storming.

			It always stormed when she was upset.

			Especially this upset.

			She left the light on in the bathroom because she hated the dark, and lay back in the surprisingly comfortable bed. Leo licked her hand, and she gently pulled at her dog’s short, silky ears as he lay alongside her. He knew she was upset.

			It was storming, after all.

			“I won’t dream,” she murmured, to him or to herself. “Not tonight. I’m so close now. Surely I won’t dream.”

			Leo whined.

			Maybe he knew she would dream. Nellie didn’t have the sort of connection with Leo to be sure what he knew or didn’t know except when it was obvious. It stormed when she was very upset, very nervous, or very anxious. After five years with her he knew that and tended to stick even closer than usual.

			He knew they were on a trip, and normally Leo enjoyed travel. Exploring new places with new things to smell was fun; that was the sense she got from him. But not this time. He had been uncharacteristically subdued all the way here.

			Then again, maybe it was just this motel.

			She had spent the last two nights at this very unsettling and weirdly familiar roadside motel about ten miles away from Salem, trying to get up her nerve to actually drive into town. It had been the closest lodging she’d been able to find not actually in the town—the only lodging, really, within at least thirty miles, which was weird.

			No weirder than the rest of this, she supposed, but . . .

			Weird.

			It was almost as if the town wanted to be hidden.

			Almost.

			Her car’s GPS system hadn’t had a clue, and neither had the maps app on her cell, so she’d had to rely on some pretty old, many-folded maps of the kind still sold at most gas stations. And even then she’d found herself stopping often to ask where she was on them (since roads and highways had been added everywhere since the maps had been printed) and how to find Salem. The directions she had followed had consisted entirely of physical landmarks such as an ancient tumbledown barn just off the highway, a lone pancake house that appeared to have gone out of business a considerable time previously, and, at the off-ramp itself, what looked like a truckers’ gas station and café actually called Mama’s Good Food.

			Mama’s cooking didn’t appear to be a very strong draw. Nellie hadn’t seen a single truck or, for that matter, a car at the café, even though a blinking red neon sign in the window, a few dim places in its tubing adding to the weirdness, had declared the place to be open.

			It was hardly inviting. Nellie hadn’t been tempted to stop.

			Miles off the highway ramp she had been somewhat reassured to discover that her interim destination, recommended by a helpful man at a gas station several hours before, was neat and in good repair. The neon sign indicating the Raven Lodge had not been missing any of its illumination, blue letters shining brightly, functioning as the beacon it was no doubt designed to be to draw in weary travelers for a brief respite from their adventures in the middle of godforsaken nowhere.

			A single crow had been perched on the sign and had watched Nellie’s arrival with bright eyes. Weirdly appropriate, even though it was a crow and not a raven. And she didn’t even know if she could have explained the difference. Just that she knew this was a crow, because she saw them all the time.

			She had deliberately avoided looking at it as she checked in and parked near her room, carrying in her bags herself. And she hadn’t looked out to see if the crow lingered.

			They almost never did once she got inside.

			Almost never.

			Since then, she had mostly stayed inside. A couple of other guests had come and gone for a single night, which had been reassuring, but not very; Nellie had seen them only in passing, and they’d had the glazed-eyed look of exhausted travelers just looking for a place to rest for a few hours before moving on in their journey from somewhere to somewhere else.

			It was a lonely place. Still, Nellie really wasn’t all that worried about anyone bothering her. She had her gun. And Leo. Not many people were willing to mess with a ninety-pound Pit bull.

			Or even a little woman holding a gun with very expert ease.

			No, the Raven Lodge, despite its somewhat eerie isolation, was to all appearances safe enough, neatly kept and maintained as though someone cared; she’d seen a gardener working, and there were at least two maids who took care of the rooms.

			So. It was a place to pause for a day or three and think about this, which was why she had stopped instead of pushing on when she was so close. To think. To walk Leo—always within sight of the motel—and to ask herself again and again if she was making the biggest mistake of her life.

			A place to pause and consider—that’s what she had needed. And never mind that there was always a crow visible somewhere when she took Leo out. Sometimes more than one, always watching her with their small, black, eerily intelligent eyes.

			She ignored them.

			Because this was a good place to stop and think, without distractions, feathered or otherwise.

			It had this fairly comfortable bed, after all, complete with a snowy white duvet cover freshly bleached instead of the mystery bedspread of many hotels and motels made infamous by unpleasant stains hidden by dark, busy floral prints. There were plenty of good pillows and warm blankets, plenty of hot water in the shower, and plenty of towels. The heating system worked efficiently without sounding like a jet taking off just outside the window. Both the satellite TV on a seemingly brand-new flat-screen and the Wi-Fi password she’d been given at check-in for her laptop worked with no problem at all as long as she remembered not to rest her fingers or hands on the laptop for any longer than necessary.

			They tended to go dead on her if she wasn’t careful. Even if they were plugged into an electrical outlet. Even if she wore her gloves.

			There was no food service or restaurant on-site or nearby, but there were vending machines in a central niche where the ice machine lived, and a fair selection of those, even providing sandwiches and microwavable soup and other meals. She had both a coffeemaker and a microwave in her room. And, anyway, it beat driving all the way back to Mama’s.

			So a good place to pause. To think.

			But she had still dreamed the first night here. And last night. The same horrible, inexplicable dream that woke her with a scream of terror tangled in her throat, locked behind her gritted teeth. And so tonight it was storming, the rumble of thunder rolling and rolling and rolling as if seeking a particular path through these old mountains and valleys. Or a particular thing.

			Hunting.

			Hunting her.

			Dumb. Dumb thought. Turn out the lights, the TV, listen to the storm—and imagine it’s hunting you. Oh, yeah, that’ll lead to a restful night.

			Leo licked her hand again, and Nellie murmured to him soothingly, then closed her eyes in determination. The storm was not hunting her. This little motel was perfectly ordinary and perfectly safe, and she could sleep easily.

			She could.

			She told herself that over and over.

			And she almost believed herself.



* * *



			—

			IT WAS NEVER the same, Nellie’s dream—and yet it was. The same terror and shame and confusion. The same overwhelming sense that this wasn’t her, that she was watching someone else do these inexplicable, sickening, unspeakable things.

			It was always in the woods, dense woods like those that surrounded this isolated motel. There was always a big fire, a bonfire, with shadowy figures she could never quite make out throwing more branches onto the fire to keep it burning high and hot.

			She could never tell if it was a mist or smoke that made it difficult for her to see clearly, but she never could. The brightness of the bonfire, the shifting human shapes of shadows. Smoke or mist swirling, distorting everything.

			There was always chanting. Words she could never make out, or maybe a language she didn’t know. Or maybe she just didn’t want to understand what they were saying, because something inside her, inside the sane her, didn’t want to understand. Smells she didn’t want to identify because . . . because. Things she didn’t want to look at, to see.

			Even glimpses were bad enough. Because she thought there was a body lying prone on a big, flat rock, blood dripping, shining in the firelight, and it didn’t even look human anymore.

			Who had done that? Why?

			They were all around her, moving, perhaps dancing as they chanted. In the shadows mostly, but occasionally a flicker of the bonfire would catch the gleam of eyes or the wet maw of an open mouth chanting.

			Chanting . . . something. Slowly at first, softly. Then louder. Faster. Frenzied.

			And then there was her. As if she stood back and watched, she could see herself. Or someone that appeared to be her, which was what she desperately hoped was the truth. Not her. Just someone who looked like her. Dressed in some filmy white dress with layers and bits that fluttered as she danced and whirled. Barefoot, her hair loose and whipping about. Layered or not, the dress was nearly transparent, more obviously so when the layers and bits lifted and shifted with her movements, and it was utterly clear she was naked underneath it.

			Naked. Aroused.

			It made her want to turn away, to writhe in shame and disgust. Because she, that other her, that stranger, was wild, pagan, and dancing with total abandon, out of control, growing more frenzied as the chanting grew more frenzied. A shadowy partner danced with her near the bonfire, a partner who was clearly male and clearly aroused as well, because he was naked.

			She couldn’t see his face because he was wearing some kind of mask, but the firelight glinted off sweat-slick muscled flesh as he danced with a grace that was riveting.

			That was what Nellie hated, that she couldn’t look away, couldn’t turn away and run from this. She stood frozen, somehow apart from what was happening or wanting to be, staring, watching herself—watching that stranger that looked like her—behave in a way she never had, never could, in some kind of ceremony or ritual or, hell, just insanity, and what she felt even over the disgust and shame and bewilderment was this awful certainty of . . . inevitability.

			It wasn’t a dream. Wasn’t a nightmare. It was something else.

			It was something real.

			And it terrified her.

			The chanting grew louder, the shadows in the background moved with more frenzy, she moved with more frenzy, and then she started taking off the filmy white dress, the sheer layers of it falling away from her, her sweating face twisted in an expression of lust, and the naked man was reaching for her, his hands grasping—

			And she woke with a cry, sitting up in bed, Leo whining anxiously beside her.

			She wrapped her arms around him and held on to his warmth and strength, his reality, knowing she was shaking and frightened. She could still hear the thunder, softer now as the storm wandered away, its task finished.

			It had found her.



* * *



			—

			OUTSIDE THE ODD little motel, the crows gathered, as they had every night since Nellie had arrived. Oddly silent for birds that weren’t usually.

			Two. Four. Ten. Finally a dozen in all. A couple perched on the motel’s sign. Others perched on tree branches, a few on the old three-rail fence that fronted the motel’s property and was supposed to be decorative.

			Some of the crows looked up as thunder rumbled in the distance, but their attention never strayed far or for long from the motel room with the curtains drawn.

			The one with her inside.

			They were silent, the crows. Wings flapped occasionally, but no normally raucous caw of sound escaped any of them.

			They just watched. And waited.





TWO


			Geneva forced herself to spend the rest of the day snapping pictures around town and talking pleasantly to people, as she had been doing for the last two weeks. Building solidly on the cover that she was here to photograph the often genuinely stunning views of the landscape, as well as the historical architecture, for a planned book of her wandering photographic “journey” of the Southern Appalachians.

			One small town at a time.

			She had lunch at one of the cafés, indoors because it was cold. She hadn’t noticed it so much that morning, but as the day wore on she certainly did.

			As she always did, she cautiously opened up her mind now and then, hardly more than sending out a seeking tendril of telepathic energy to probe her surroundings. And, as had so often happened in the last two weeks, what she sensed was . . . unusual. Sometimes there was only static in her head, a faint crackling like between stations on a radio. Other times she was able to pick up a thought or two from the people around her. The sort of normal thoughts most people had, about what was going on in their lives at the moment, large and small worries or frustrations and sometimes contentment or unclouded happiness.

			And sometimes—often—nothing; thoughts hidden behind mental or emotional walls the SCU had found more common in small towns, where everybody knowing your business tended in some people to result in protective barriers erected unconsciously. Though usually not quite so . . . solid.

			In any case, she sensed virtually nothing that helped her, and she was very conscious of the nagging feeling that the static, while baffling, was also important, and that maybe she should drive her rental a safe distance from town, as she had for her only check-in so far, and find a landline phone to contact Bishop.

			But Geneva was stubborn. It was her job to figure this shit out, and she intended to do just that.

			The day seemed to crawl by. She had supper out as well as lunch, partly because she was hungry and partly because she wanted to try again to pick up any of the militia chatter—making other cautious telepathic efforts, though so far she hadn’t been able to read a single one she’d identified as militia. And they were not, she’d quickly discovered, talkative to strangers. At all. Nor did they seem especially chatty to townsfolk, though always pleasant.

			They were a lot more like a solidly disciplined law enforcement or military group than most of the militias she’d encountered, and though it was a bit reassuring to see no outward signs of fanaticism such as shaved heads or ugly tattoos, she had not been able to find out anything about their beliefs and motives. Other than the obvious one of keeping order in Salem.

			She had mentally tagged a couple dozen citizens of Salem as belonging to the militia, almost entirely from actions, behavior, and the very few snippets of conversation she’d overheard one way or another. There were a few women but mostly men, and she had a strong feeling she had yet to encounter whoever was in charge of what was in effect local law enforcement.

			She really needed to find out who was in charge. In two weeks she had overheard only two names that sounded as if they were held in a great deal of respect, and she had neither met nor encountered either man yet. Finn had been one name, Duncan another. Finn seemed to be high up in the day-to-day operations of the militia—she thought, since she’d caught quite a few snippets of conversation that included the phrases “Finn said,” or “Finn wants us to” . . . whatever.

			But she hadn’t been able to find out any real, solid information. She wasn’t even sure which of the families they belonged to, though she had a strong hunch they came from the original five families that had settled this valley and founded the town hundreds of years before.

			She was more than usually frustrated by the lack of information, which was why she sent out carefully narrowed seeking tendrils to probe those around her whenever she was in a restaurant or even just walking around town, even though she was also worried her own seeking might be picked up by someone else.

			Like the wrong person.

			So by now, she was extra-cautious when she reached out, increasingly bothered by the static and the walls. The static because she was afraid it originated somehow in a human source and was getting stronger, which indicated increasing power of some kind, and the walls because she became gradually convinced they were the more rare kind that usually hid psychic ability, active or latent.

			She hadn’t recognized another psychic as she’d wandered around the area snapping pictures, but that wasn’t unheard of, even though until now she would have said it was more usual that they tended to recognize each other. She normally did, being a very strong telepath. But in Salem . . . the walls she sensed were . . . really thick. Like from a lifetime of practice.

			The sort of practice born psychics grew up with.

			So she shored up her own walls and went about what she had carefully established as her normal daily routine, finally returning to the B and B when it was too late and too dark for her camera to be a good excuse to be out and about. And because it was damned cold. She greeted the ever-present Ms. Payton at the desk of the B and B and cheerfully imparted the information that she had two rolls of film to develop.

			Normally she wouldn’t have been so forthcoming while on a case, but in this instance she had made a point of explaining that since she used professional cameras and developed her own film, she’d be setting up a temporary space in her suite for such work and requested that the area not be disturbed by housekeeping.

			She was absolutely certain it had been disturbed, searched, at least twice during her stay, and not by any of the maids.

			But Geneva had found a place to conceal any damning evidence that she wasn’t what she claimed—even though it had not, until now, been needed. Anything a searcher would have found before today could have done no more than confirm her cover story.

			There was a second bathroom in her suite, and it was just large enough for her needs. She borrowed a small table from her sitting room in order to have enough space for her trays, and there was already a pullout line in the shower meant for guests to hang up anything they wished to drip-dry over the bathtub.

			Perfect.

			She spent the next couple of hours developing the pictures from one roll of film, ignoring the other for the moment. She made two copies of every shot she’d gotten at the dump site. When she was done, she took one set of copies into her sitting room and spread them out on the large coffee table, first turning on several lamps and drawing the drapes across the wide windows and the sliders that led out onto her balcony.

			It might have been no more than her usual caution, but Geneva had been disturbed more than once to find herself under observation—by a crow. They were all about the area, so that shouldn’t have bothered her. And if she’d had a different job, maybe it wouldn’t have.

			But she worked for Bishop, for the SCU, and she had learned to be wary of things that bothered her.

			The crows bothered her.

			So just in case one of them landed on the railing of her balcony and decided to look in at her . . . Well, just in case.

			Geneva studied the pictures one by one. All they told her, individually and in total, was that someone had been tortured somewhere else and dumped here, where organs from the trunk of the body had been removed and set aside. She had no clue what had happened to the brain, or at what stage of the process it had been somehow removed, along with a substantial part of the skull.

			The photos also told her that whoever had dumped the body had painted a lot of nonsense on some rocks rolled around the remains, presumably to thoroughly scare the shit out of anyone who found the place.

			It had certainly terrified and horrified the hunter, although Geneva thought the human remains alone would have done that, mutilated as they had been.

			As she saw it, there were two options most likely. Another person had gone missing after heading to Salem, information Bishop had not been able to get to his agent since her one and only report to him very early on. Or an unlucky hunter or hiker had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, a victim of opportunity, and had been sacrificed.

			Because she didn’t have any doubt about that. This was not the work of a serial killer, or a onetime murderer, or somebody who’d gotten pissed at this poor man and murdered him for the Universe only knew what senseless reason. This was ritual, yes, but not of the serial-killer sort.

			It wasn’t anything she recognized as Satanism or any of its many offshoots. Not the sort of occult most people would think of as such. This, her training, experience, and instincts told her, was an even darker, thankfully rare type of ritual, an attempt to gain power by causing the maximum amount of agony to a victim. A human victim. Because death released energy, and a death in agony released a lot of very powerful, very negative energy.

			And now the static Geneva had been aware of and on guard against since arriving became even more troubling. Because if someone was sacrificing people in prolonged torture, and if that person or those people were doing so for the purpose of creating and absorbing energy, then it was the darkest energy, and anybody on that deadly path had an agenda. A very bad agenda.

			It was a possible answer—at least in part—for why three, possibly four, people had come to Salem to die. If they had died, and had died like this, which she could not, even now, be certain of. So far, all she had were these photos of one victim and a dump site she was almost positive would by this time have been sanitized. She hadn’t been able to take any biological samples, both because she’d lacked the necessary equipment and because she hadn’t dared leave any signs of her own presence there.

			There would be no human remains now, she was sure. No signs of rocks painted with nonsense symbols in blood. No sign of a young man tortured to death. No sign anything bad had happened. And no news of it down in Salem. The militia would see to that.

			But who were they protecting? That’s what Geneva didn’t know, what her best efforts had failed to uncover. Common sense said they could have been involved in the torture or murder at worst, or covering up what was happening under orders, willingly or not. But whose orders?

			They looked like ordinary citizens, dressed casually without uniforms, and sported no badges or insignia she’d been able to see. But she had spotted handguns in shoulder holsters and clipped to belts under thick winter jackets or coats. It was an open-carry state, but as far as she could tell, only the militia felt the need to go armed. Or, perhaps, had made certain they were the only ones who were, no matter what state law was.

			Otherwise . . . ordinary. Not, of course, that monsters boasted horns and a tail so they could be easily identified. Not human monsters, at any rate.

			And there was, clearly, at least one monster in Salem.

			She picked up one of the photos and forced herself to study it, seriously disturbed by one thing more than any other. As far as she’d been able to determine, only one organ had been completely missing from the remains.

			His brain. And she wasn’t even certain it was missing. It could, given the condition of the skull, have simply . . . exploded somehow, leaving nothing except microscopic bits only a forensic pathologist could see.

			And Geneva didn’t have a clue how that was even possible.



* * *



			—

			BETHANY HICKS KNEW she’d made a bad mistake when the first crow landed silently on a low branch of the tree she’d been hiding behind.

			She looked up cautiously, not a whit reassured by the bird’s bright-eyed but seemingly benevolent gaze. Nervously pulling her coat tighter around her because it was really, really cold, she yanked her attention away from the crow and stared once more at the church. Not that it looked like a church, really. Just somebody’s old house tucked back in the woods where you couldn’t see it from the road. Or, really, from anywhere except close. An old farmhouse made more than a little creepy because the only light she could see through windows dressed with nothing except sheer, gauzy material was candlelight. Moving around all through the house as though people with candles were following some pattern she couldn’t recognize.

			She could see the lights. But not the people.

			But she could hear them.

			They started chanting in a language Bethany didn’t understand. And it struck her as extra-creepy that she could hear the chanting even though every single window she could see was closed against the cold January night.

			She felt a prickling sensation on the back of her neck, and at first thought it was the eerie chanting that was spooking her. But then something made her look up slowly to find that the lone crow had been silently joined by two friends, all three regarding her with bright crow eyes.

			There were a lot of crows around Salem, so she was familiar with them. Crows were big birds and made a lot of noise when they flew close, Bethany knew.

			These hadn’t made a sound.

			And all of a sudden, Bethany didn’t really care what was going on in the spooky old house back here in the woods at the edge of Salem. She didn’t care if it was a church or not. She didn’t care what they were doing in there, not a bit.

			All of a sudden, she didn’t want to break off one of the geraniums in the pot on the front porch, the ones Jason swore were real even though it was January and they shouldn’t be real, shouldn’t be blooming. She didn’t want to steal a flower and run and show it to Jason and the other boys to prove she was brave.

			Bethany didn’t feel very brave.

			She didn’t feel brave at all.

			Holding her breath so there was no mist at all in front of her face, she backed away from the tree, her gaze flicking back and forth from the strange house with its increasingly creepy chanting sounds that seemed to grow louder as she backed away to the three watching crows that turned their heads in perfect sync to watch every movement she made.

			She backed away slowly, her heartbeat thundering in her ears, until she couldn’t see the house or the crows, until the silent, dark woods closed around her, and then Bethany Hicks ran as fast as her long ten-year-old legs could carry her.

			And she almost made it.

			WEDNESDAY

			Geneva followed her established habits when she went out just before lunchtime on Wednesday. She carried her camera; she smiled at people; she took a few pictures of stunning scenery. And all the time, behind her pleasant facade, she was mulling possibilities, questions, speculation.

			She wouldn’t have been the first agent to complain that the job was too often like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the finished picture was supposed to look like. Trying this piece, then that, rotating, flipping, trying to see the pattern.

			The fact that there always was a pattern was the saving grace. It was just usually difficult as hell to find it.

			And the extra senses that were tools in her investigator’s toolbox hadn’t been a lot of help on this one so far. She had picked up little telepathically. Practically falling over the frantic hunter had been sheer happenstance.

			Worse, after her speculations and tentative conclusions of the night before, she was even more wary of using her telepathic senses. Especially once she was roaming about today and was uneasily aware that the static she sensed was indeed growing stronger and seemed to hang over the town now like an invisible cloud that made her skin crawl just a bit.

			It hadn’t been like that yesterday. Or else it had, and she hadn’t sensed it as strongly, for whatever reason. It wasn’t, after all, that unusual that her extra senses might wax and wane in strength; very often they seemed to have a mind of their own. And they could be affected by external energy sources, so there was also that troubling thought.

			But maybe it was only her growing uneasiness over the victim she had found, solid evidence of evil lurking, that made it seem to her today that there were even more walls around her now, walls blocking the minds of people who smiled pleasantly and casually at her as she passed.

			Maybe. Or maybe that building static was changing things somehow. Changing those around her. Changing her. Walls could strengthen and weaken even as paranormal senses could and did, but they were built for a reason, shored up for a reason, and whether it was to keep something in or something out, it roused the caution in Geneva’s nature as nothing else could have. So she went carefully and used only her usual senses as much as possible.

			She had worked her way to the end of Main Street, to the playground, almost a part of downtown, and because she was preoccupied, she very nearly missed it. A young and quavery voice expressing worry and concern.

			“You didn’t do nuthin’ wrong,” a still-young but tougher voice was saying as Geneva found herself a bench on the other side of the hedges where she could hear but not see. She fiddled with her camera, head bent over the seeming task, listening intently.

			“I never should have dared Bethany to do it, and you know I shouldn’t of. It’s too far, up in them woods, and I told her”—the young voice quavered even more—“I told her she had to sneak out after bedtime, or it wouldn’t be a real dare.”

			“Jase—”

			“I told her she had to grab one of them flowers off the pot on the porch, beside the front door.”

			“Jase, she prob’ly just got scared and ran home. You know she prob’ly did.”

			“She wasn’t at the bus stop this mornin’!”

			“Listen—”

			“She wasn’t at lunch neither, so that’s why I snuck out and went over to her house. It’s empty, Trev, nobody’s home.”

			“That’s why I had to come sneaking out myself to find you? Jeez, Jase, her dad works out at the paper mill, and—”

			“No, they left, that’s what old Mrs. Carney said. She was out walkin’ her dog and I asked, and she said they packed up their car even before the school bus came this morning and left.”

			“Well, then Bethany—”

			“She wasn’t with ’em, Trev, that’s what Mrs. Carney said. And she looked for her special, ’cause she’s the only other person that old dog of hers likes. Growls at me, like he did when I asked her. But . . . but Bethany didn’t leave with her family, Trev, I know she didn’t. An’ it’s all my fault!”

			Geneva shut out the voices, concentrating instead on sending a very narrow seeking tendril toward the boys on the other side of the bushes. The minds of children were always difficult and often chaotic, thoughts darting here and there, sometimes only fragments. And she hated invading someone else’s mind without so much as a by-your-leave anyway, so that made it harder.

			But she guarded herself as best she could and probed, carefully, looking for a memory of that place young Jason had sent Bethany Hicks, and looking for the address of the Hicks home because it would save her time.

			She got both, more or less, hazy and incomplete, but enough of a trail for her to follow. And just in time, because she heard a scolding adult voice, and both boys were rushing away with lame excuses and pleas for mercy . . .

			Geneva sat there on the bench for a few moments, still fiddling with her camera, head bent as she apparently focused on whatever she was doing, while inside her trained and experienced mind she was carefully building up her shields. Because even though it had happened in the flash of an instant, she had a new and very uneasy sense that a second person had touched young Jason’s mind just as she had in that moment. And that maybe, just maybe, whoever it was had known she was there too.

			It was extremely unsettling.

			She was alone here, and undercover, with no authority. With the sharp-eyed militia about, she hadn’t dared carry her own weapon, leaving it well hidden in her room at the B and B. Not that she was defenseless without her gun, but still.

			With an effort, she shook off the growing uneasiness. She would be even more cautious, that was all. Just take care and do her job, same as always. But as she rose from the bench and set off on a seemingly rambling walk, camera in hand, she could feel that slightly crawly sensation on her skin that experience told her was energy of a negative kind, and wondered if Bishop knew the static in this town, whatever its source or the agenda behind it, was getting stronger. She probably needed to let him know that.

			But, in the meantime, she had a house to break into. And another one up on the mountain to find.





THREE


			Bethany had no idea where she was when she woke up, her head aching, memories fuzzy. And she felt sick, like when she’d had the flu and hadn’t been able to keep anything down.

			She started to move, then stopped, eyes still closed, when her stomach protested and she had to choke back what was rising in her throat. It was a long time, she thought, before she was able to slowly open her eyes.

			She was . . . where was she? It was dark, but not so dark that she feared she’d gone blind. Dim light coming from just around the bend of . . . of what looked and felt to her like a cave. Maybe close to the entrance since there was some light, but she was afraid to hope. There were a few caves and old mine shafts in the area, she’d heard, though her daddy had forbidden her to go exploring for them.

			She wished now she had. Not that it would have helped her, probably. She was at the back of a cave or a mine shaft, just tall enough for a man as tall as her daddy to stand upright, and maybe wide enough for two of them to stand with outreached hands touching the walls and each other.

			She wanted to cry out, to scream for help, but a primitive sense deep within warned her to make no noise until she was certain where she was. And because of something else.

			Because the really scary thing, the thing that made her shiver even though it wasn’t too awfully cold in the cave, was that within that small, hacked-from-rock space, she was in a cage.

			It was just large enough for the small cot she lay on—she could see that as soon as she sat up—and again just tall enough for a tall man to stand up in. She didn’t get up, but judged it would only take her two or three steps from the cot to reach what looked like the door of the cage.

			Closed by a shiny chain and padlock that looked a lot newer than the crisscrossed, rusting metal of the cage itself.

			She didn’t know what time it was. How long since she had been taken. Where she was. Or who had her—and why.

			That last unknown scared her even more than she’d been before, because she knew nice people didn’t put little girls in cages and hide them away in caves. And because . . . because there had been whispers she’d heard about stuff the grown-ups hadn’t intended for her to hear, about bad things that had happened to people up in the mountains.

			Up in the mountains.

			Where the caves were.

			Quantico

			Noah Bishop, chief of the Special Crimes Unit, was an impressive man even when seated and seemingly at ease. It might have been the obvious strength of his broad shoulders that was hardly disguised by the formal suit he wore; it might have been the way his powerful hands rested almost negligently on the closed file on the table before him. It might even have been the lean face that was handsome and somewhat enigmatic, marked by the level gaze of striking tarnished-silver eyes beneath winging brows, and by a dramatic, exotic widow’s peak of raven black hair on his high, curiously unlined forehead.

			It might also have been the odd, stark streak of white no wider than two fingers winging back from his left temple, or the very faint but visible scar that twisted down that left cheek, lending him an air of danger that was not at all deceptive.

			It might have been all that, Grayson Sheridan thought as he joined his unit chief in the conference room that was seldom used except for briefings, or unless a case was local. But he thought privately—he hoped, being pretty much surrounded by telepaths most of the time—that Bishop was impressive simply because he was one of those innately powerful men, natural leaders, who came along maybe once in a generation but usually even less often than that. A man who commanded others seemingly without effort, winning the absolute loyalty of those who worked with and for him.

			A man who was, in simple reality, changing the world.

			And how many humans could say they had done that?

			“You’ll be taken to your drop point just west of the Trail tomorrow morning,” Bishop was saying in his low, calm voice, seemingly oblivious to the other man’s thoughts. (Which might or might not be true, given his truly formidable telepathic abilities.)

			“It’s in the Southern Appalachians, isn’t it?” Grayson said with more resignation than anything else. “Salem. One of those little towns all but forgotten by time.” It was entirely possible, after all, to more or less hide an entire town in the old, forest-dense Appalachian Mountains. Or more than one town, if it came to that.

			“Afraid so. Relatively close to the North Carolina–Tennessee border, very remote, and the topography alone makes it unusually isolated even for that area.”

			Which was saying a lot.

			Grayson made a mental note to study a topographical map of the area tonight, for all the good it was likely to do him. And to unearth his good hiking boots as well as some basic but unobtrusive survival gear that had come in handy in past situations; he believed in being prepared for anything. He focused and considered a few potentially important questions.

			“Psychics?”

			“Our undercover operative doesn’t know for certain.”

			That was a surprise. “Nobody’s been able to scan the place?” That had become a step Bishop virtually always took preliminary to sending in any of his agents, partly due to unpleasant surprises in the past—and partly due to the number of psychics they had discovered over the years, far more than they had expected to back in the beginning. Some, unfortunately, playing for the other side.

			So now they had quite a few members of the unit who were virtually always able to determine the presence of other psychics in a given area without themselves getting too close. And that had come in handy more than once.

			“I’ve sent three different people close to the area, and all they got was static,” Bishop said. “It’s something we’ve encountered before, and it’s never been a good thing; it usually means energy being used or contained, either by natural geography or by a psychic or psychics. The issue is that contained energy tends to interfere with our energies as well, even alter our abilities in a worst-case scenario, which has been known to cause problems for us—and with us.”

			“Great,” Grayson muttered. He paused, then added, “Just how remote is this place, anyway?”

			“You’ve walked the Trail, haven’t you?” The Appalachian Trail was a bit over two thousand rugged miles long and attracted both day hikers enjoying a day in the wilderness and thru hikers geared up and determined to walk the entire Trail.

			Grayson nodded. “North to south when I took a year off from college; that took me seven months. South to north the year before I joined the SCU; that took six months. About average.” It had been a test of endurance and survival knowledge he had enjoyed, but even more, the second trip along the Trail had given him the solitary time he had needed to consider all his options and think about his future before taking a job in which the psychic abilities he’d spent a lifetime hiding would be incorporated into the toolbox of an investigator and cop.

			“Then you know what a wilderness those mountains are, even with scattered towns and major highways crisscrossing them.”

			“I know fugitives have vanished for lifetimes in those dense forests. I know I encountered some . . . strange people, and at least a few pretty strange small towns not far off the Trail during my hikes.”

			“Then you’re probably more prepared than most to find your way to Salem, and explore the surrounding area if necessary.”

			Grayson eyed his boss. “Uh-huh. So it’s that remote.”

			Bishop went on as if he had not heard the question. “You’ve read the brief. A loosely organized group of militia members seems to be what passes for law and order there, at least for all intents and purposes, and word has it they have a low tolerance for lawbreakers. Which may be one reason the general crime rate is reportedly low. There is a sheriff over the county who apparently deputized at least some members of the militia in order to grant them law enforcement authority, but no sheriff’s office in Salem, apparently no regular visits to the town by the sheriff, and he was . . . less than forthcoming with information. We were warned to stay away. And not with any degree of subtlety.”

			“Don’t we have to be invited in?”

			“Normally. Officially. But two of the missings are from other states, so if any crime is involved, it crossed state lines; that would make it federal. And there are other . . . factors. We have more than enough reason to believe this situation is anything but normal.”

			What the hell am I getting into?

			“Don’t carry your weapon openly unless and until you’re certain that’s best; the laws in the state allow open carry, and you’ll be known to be hiking in rough territory, so your rifle will be expected. As for your handgun, we both know it’s best to figure out who else is openly armed and why before you decide to be. Don’t volunteer that you’re with the FBI or, indeed, any law enforcement agency, especially a federal one; conceal your credentials where they aren’t likely to be found unless you need them. Don’t lie unless the occasion calls for it, but if it calls for it . . . be creative. And don’t volunteer information. As I said, you’ll be taken to an appropriate spot just west of the Trail early tomorrow morning and dropped off there to hike the rest of the way, so you won’t be driving into town, but expect your room to be searched, possibly even bugged.”

			“Bugged. In a small town in western North Carolina.”

			“Best not to be caught by surprise by any . . . possibility.”

			Salem

			It wasn’t all that easy to sneak into a house in a nice little neighborhood in broad daylight on a Wednesday morning, but Geneva managed. She slipped around back unnoticed, automatically noting the yard clutter that indicated a home with children, like the big swing set and netted trampoline.

			She also saw the water bowl meant for a sizable dog on the back deck, but since she’d already reached out telepathically, she knew they had either boarded him somewhere or else taken the family dog along on the very sudden “vacation.”

			Last night, one of the three little Hicks girls had vanished, and today the rest of the family had left abruptly, all signs except the haste pointing to a vacation out of town.

			No Amber Alert had been issued. In fact, as far as Geneva had been able to cautiously determine, there had been no police report at all, and if the militia knew or cared, there was no sign.

			It was the same with Bethany’s school. If they had any doubts that Bethany was safely with her family, no one betrayed anything unusual. Geneva had gotten close enough to know that.

			Yet, now, when she managed to slip into the Hicks house, bypassing a really good alarm system, she found a home that bore the usual cheerful clutter of a family—and signs that packing had been done in haste. There was a neat bedroom for Bethany—her name was on the door, as her two sisters’ names were on their bedroom doors, in cheerful Disney plaques with stardust and favored characters—and inside were schoolbooks for the current year, and clothing, toys. Everything neat, perhaps unusually so. Even that little suitcase with her name on it one would think she would have packed if visiting family away from Salem was neatly in the closet.

			In her sisters’ rooms, clothing was a bit messy, and small suitcases with their names on them were not in the closets.

			Every sign told Geneva that little girl had not left with her family. And yet not a single sign pointed to her having disappeared mysteriously. Other than one guilty little boy, nobody at all seemed worried about Bethany Hicks.

			Except Geneva.

			She stood in the approximate center of the house and opened her senses, trying to pick up something even though she knew she was alone in the house. A few times doing this job—a very few times—she had managed to pick up what Bishop called “residual thoughts” at a location. The more emotionally disturbed the person or people had been, the more likely they were to leave that sort of trace energy behind them, though even then it seldom lasted more than a few hours.

			Geneva had the ghostly sense of bustle and hurry, of muted voices and anxious thoughts, even an initial panic that had climbed rapidly before being damped down by . . . something. And then . . . hurried but cheerful packing, bright talk of visiting family . . . down in Florida. In Florida, where it wouldn’t be cold. Just a short break, a little trip . . .

			In the middle of the school year.

			The ghostly sense faded, then vanished. Geneva was standing in a very empty house.

			With a very baffling puzzle piece to add to all the rest.

			Quantico

			Grayson frowned slightly at his boss. “Okay, we all know by now that you hold back information, for reasons we all have various theories about but seldom understand—at least until all the shouting is over. Would it do any good for me to ask you for hints of some kind of shit like that?” His tone was wry.

			Deadpan, Bishop said, “No.” Then he smiled faintly. “All I can tell you is what I already have. Be careful. One thing concerns me most. We have three missing people. And if our information is correct, there have been three deaths of supposed hikers within the same window our missings were in Salem. Officially accidental deaths, as per the militia and the sheriff. The militia apparently discovered the bodies, and those were dealt with quickly and with no fuss. According to the sheriff, the bodies were cremated. He refused to identify them but insisted their remains had been returned to their families.”

			“You don’t believe him.”

			“I have a suspicious mind.”

			“You think it was our missings.”

			“Since it isn’t our jurisdiction, there was no way the sheriff was going to confirm or deny that, even if he could, which I doubt. He simply insisted the remains had been returned to family.”

			“You believe he was lying.”

			“I believe the official record is that careless hikers on or near the Trail at the worst time of year back in December, when there were at least two snowstorms, were killed in accidents that are hardly uncommon. As to what really happened . . . we’ve found no evidence or witnesses to say anything different.”

			“You believe they may have been murdered.” It wasn’t a question.

			“I believe it’s more than possible. And if our missings were lured there for some reason they refused to explain to friends, only to meet their deaths . . . People have always tried to summon power of one kind or another, and the commission of dark or evil acts quite definitely creates dark energy.”

			“That static around Salem?”

			“Possibly. If so, a definite warning flag.”

			“So I should be prepared for anything—and everything.”

			“That would probably be wise. Our motto if not our mantra.” Bishop’s voice became brisk again. “Salem is a very small town where strangers are bound to be noticed—and not especially welcomed, even for welcome tourist dollars. Though tourists do visit throughout the year, and the townsfolk accept them. They even grudgingly accept the occasional visitor who comes down off the Trail for a break of a few days or even a few weeks.

			“That’s your cover, and it’s believable, especially this time of year and given the equipment you’ll have. There’s a B and B that actually caters to that sort of visitor. Use your real name, but remain as low-key as possible, at least until we know what we’re dealing with; if either the militia or the sheriff gets curious enough to check you out, they’ll find only information on an ordinary citizen who inherited a small company here in Virginia and is known to take time off every year to hike various trails and mountains.

			“We do not want to make a law enforcement presence obvious. Or even detectable, if possible. For that reason, we sent in the undercover operative a couple of weeks ago; her orders are to scout the town and area, observe and gather information, but not take any action until you’re on the scene.”

			“So I’m the primary?” Grayson wasn’t certain how he felt about a partner, however deeply undercover. He was a bit of a loner and hadn’t worked with a partner in . . . a long time.

			“You are. But keep in mind she’s one of our experts in the occult and may notice signs you wouldn’t if that turns out to be a factor. She can also handle herself in any sort of situation I’ve known her to encounter, she can live off the land as well as you, she’s more than qualified with any handgun or rifle, and some of her early years were rough enough that she had to learn some down-and-dirty street fighting that taught her to use whatever weapon is near to hand when necessary to defend herself.” Bishop paused, then added almost musingly, “I once saw her take out a man with a high-heeled shoe.”

			“A shoe?”

			“Yes. And he had an Uzi.”

			There was a warning, very uncomfortable bell going off in Grayson’s head. Because there were few agents in the SCU who specialized in the occult as most people understood that term. Fewer of those with extensive experience in either rough hiking and living off the land or fighting in deadly situations without standard weapons.

			And there were even fewer SCU agents with those traits who were also experienced in undercover work, able to work alone, and comfortable operating without either backup or supervision, sometimes for months or even longer; that talent was a very specific one, and seldom needed on SCU cases.

			Seldom. But not never.

			“Bishop? Who’s the undercover agent?”

			“Geneva Raynor.”

			Trust Bishop to totally bury the lede.

			“Shit,” Grayson muttered.

			Outside Salem, Wednesday Night

			Nellie had gone to bed early, hoping to sleep without dreaming, a forlorn hope. The nightmare had come swiftly, but this time, as she had once or twice before, she’d been able to wrench herself free of it before the worst of the fear gripped her. She had a feeling her odd abilities had helped her do that but didn’t want to think about it very much.

			Now she was wide-awake and it was barely midnight. Dawn was still hours away, and Nellie knew she would not be able to go back to sleep. She finally let go of her dog and reached to turn on the bedside lamp, then leaned down to haul her big leather shoulder bag from the floor up onto the bed.

			In a zippered pocket that wasn’t all that obvious unless you knew it was there, she found and withdrew an envelope, its edges yellowed with time. On the front of it was simply her name, in an unfamiliar printed handwriting.

			 				Nellie



			She opened the envelope slowly and pulled out a single folded piece of stationery, its crease showing signs it had been opened and closed many times before.

			She had memorized the message nearly a year before, when her father’s attorney had shown up to deliver the note—ten years after Thomas Cavendish’s death in a somewhat inexplicable accident. She hadn’t been able to match the handwriting to any of the few examples of her father’s writing she’d had in her possession, especially since virtually everything she did have bore only his scrawled signature. That, at least, was the same, signed at the bottom, witnessed and notarized.

			The message, according to the absolute certainty of his longtime attorney, who had been the witness, had come from Thomas Cavendish, had been written by him and delivered to said attorney formally and with specific instructions. Which he had obeyed scrupulously.

			He hadn’t waited around to see what the letter said, and Nellie didn’t know whether to be glad or regretful about that. Perhaps he could have shed some light. Then again . . .

			 				Nellie,

				We’ve never been close, you and I, and I regret that. But there are reasons, good ones, which, unfortunately, you will have to discover for yourself. Reasons for which I cannot atone, because if you are reading this, then I am dead, by whatever means, and was not able to stop what threatens you now. Not able to save you. This letter has been delivered to you on your 29th birthday. Before your 30th birthday, you must go to Salem, where our family’s roots were deeply planted long ago, where my line and yours originated, and quietly seek out a man named Finn. He will know you. He may even seek you out. He can help you. He is, perhaps, the only man who can. Please, Nellie, go to Salem. And be careful. Trust your intelligence and your abilities, but hide your abilities as long as you can, for they will mark you to some as an enemy and to others as a tool. Use your mother’s maiden name, and avoid telling anyone you are a Cavendish. You will learn why soon enough. There are people who will try to stop you from doing what you have to do, and you must not allow them to, no matter what. It would mean your life. Trust no one but Finn.

				I have always loved you.

				Dad





FOUR


			There had been many things in Nellie’s life that had baffled her, some she had either figured out for herself or else simply learned to live with. Like the crows that had been around her since childhood, their numbers increasing as she’d entered her twenties. And other baffling things that had remained unnerving mysteries.

			Her father had remained one of the mysteries.

			She studied the strange letter from him, absently smoothing the paper.

			It was a weird letter.

			Weird? Jesus Christ.

			Nellie’s first impulse had been to tear it into tiny pieces and flush the whole thing, at least in part because her father had not been involved in her life for a long time, even before he had died. In fact, he had barely been a part of her childhood.

			Still, she hadn’t destroyed this letter that came seemingly from beyond the grave. She had instead thrust it into the very back of a drawer in her bedroom desk and done her best to ignore it, forget it. Only to find herself, night after night, pulling it out and reading the message again, frowning, disturbed on a level so deep she couldn’t even explain it to herself.

			She didn’t even know what it was about, for Christ’s sake!

			Weeks, then months. But the closer she came to her thirtieth birthday, the stronger had been her uneasy certainty that she had to go to Salem. A town she had never heard of, far less been aware she had any personal connection to.

			A specific town with a not-uncommon name that had been very difficult to find when all she had to go on was that her father’s family had its roots there.

			Even in this age of information overload, there were some things so very specific or so old that they were simply difficult to find using anything handy like a search engine. She’d had to dip reluctantly into genealogy, and it had been time-consuming to find her father’s branch of the family tree and from there trace it back to a small town named Salem three hundred years in the past.

			But she’d done it, her own determination catching her off guard and bothering her, because against all logic it . . . felt important. Imperative. It felt like something she had to do, letter or no letter.

			And that was disconcerting as hell.

			Still, she had pushed aside the second and even third thoughts, especially once she had located Salem. Because once she had, the pull to go there had grown steadier by the day.

			She had no idea how long this . . . thing she was supposed to do would take, so she tentatively planned for a couple of weeks. It had actually been simple to take an indeterminate leave of absence from work, largely because Thomas Cavendish had set things up carefully to impose the least burden on his daughter, allowing her to choose how involved she wished to be in his business.

			The one truly considerate thing she could ever remember him doing for her.

			Leo whined softly, and she automatically reached out her free hand to rub his broad head and pull absently at the silky black ears. “I don’t know what this is all about,” she confided softly to her dog. “If I had any sense at all, I’d just ignore it. But . . . all Dad left me, really, was stuff. Material things. And questions. Nothing of him. Nothing to help me understand him, understand the way he was. And this . . . this might be my last chance to do that. To understand him. To understand why there are things I can’t remember no matter how hard I try. Blank spaces in my life.”

			Too many blank spaces.

			Too many missing memories.

			Like virtually anything about her mother. She had vanished when Nellie was a toddler, just . . . run away, abandoning her husband and child. That was what Nellie had been told.

			All she had been told.

			And then there was the other thing. The thing she and her father had never spoken of.

			She had never been sure that he’d even known his daughter was . . . different. But it seemed he had known, had even accepted the strange abilities she’d learned in her earliest childhood to hide.

			And he’d never said a word to her. Until the letter.

			Nellie drew a breath and released it slowly. “I don’t think we have a choice, Leo. I don’t think we ever did. And I think that scares me more than anything else.”



* * *



			—

			GENEVA SLIPPED THROUGH the woods, silent, her passage not noticed or at least not announced by the dogs of Salem as she passed by some of the outlying houses. Not that she expected them to give her away. She liked dogs, they liked her, and by now they’d most certainly grown accustomed to her almost nightly rambles all around town. She’d made sure of it.

			Most usually greeted her from the backs or sides of fenced yards, more curious and hopeful than suspicious, especially since she’d made it a habit to carry a generous pocketful of doggie snacks for those she encountered, until even the most wary of them had been pretty well won over.

			Tonight, though, there weren’t many dogs out at all, or pets of any kind, and no doubt most livestock was shut up warm and snug for the night in the very tidy barns the community boasted.

			It was dark and it was cold, bone-chilling cold, the coldest night by far she’d experienced here yet. Even though she had dressed for cold, and from the skin out, she was still shivering, and already looking forward to a hot, hot shower later tonight. Damn cold. Even if never before this bad, it was nearly this cold every night, or at least had been since her arrival a couple of weeks previously. No matter what the weather reports said, it was always ten to twenty degrees colder in Salem than in the general area outside the valley—including the higher elevations.

			Which was one of the oddities.

			She had wondered more than once if it was all the granite around this valley and underneath it, hard stone God only knew how deep that had frozen miles below the surface and down to its very atoms and never thawed from the last ice age, which had ended more than ten thousand years ago, continuing to radiate an unusual chill even today.

			An unnatural chill.

			If she had dared, she would have sent a message that he should pack for the Arctic, or at least bring along his thermal underwear. But as much as she would have enjoyed doing that, and imagining his expression when he received the message, once on the job she was all business.

			Well, except for that one time.

			Which would not be repeated.

			Frowning, she focused on the here and now, her job. Because even though the dogs of Salem would give her a pass, she was a lot less certain of what else she might encounter in these dark, eerily silent woods. She had, after all, more than once on previous outings observed sentries of a kind, and had too narrowly avoided solitary men she was almost certain had been armed also moving silently about in the forest for reasons she had yet to discover.

			The militia on patrol? Maybe. But against what? Or who? The faint, seeking telepathic tendril she’d cast about her on those occasions had been yanked back behind her shield, a precaution against the possibility that one of those men might have caught her probe. After that, she’d used all the woodcraft she knew well to move silently and cautiously.

			That had been fairly close to town, making her a bit wary of exploring the higher mountain slopes. At least until yesterday morning, when she had found the remains of a man tortured to death. She was venturing again higher up the mountain tonight; she had no idea whether that meant she was less or more likely to encounter the militia. But seeing Bethany’s home had left her grimly determined to do whatever she could to find that child.

			Alive.

			And even if she set Bethany apart, there was still just too little information she’d been able to discover about Salem, and too much of that came second- or even thirdhand.

			She really, really hated it. Born to solve puzzles, that’s what Bishop had said once about her. That she was one of those people who simply couldn’t bear things that didn’t make sense and had to endlessly examine and toss and turn puzzle pieces until every piece clicked into its proper place and she understood the picture.

			All she had after two weeks here was a box of puzzle pieces and no idea what the picture was supposed to look like.

			The closest thing to real, hard evidence she had so far was the photographs of the mutilated victim—and since she had snuck back up there after visiting the Hicks home earlier in the day, she knew only too well that the entire area had indeed been sanitized.

			So—no body. Photographic evidence that wasn’t enough. She hadn’t dared get close enough to take a biological sample the first time she’d been up there in the hopes of possibly identifying the victim. And by the time she got back up there, finding anything viable was simply impossible.

			The militia was very, very thorough.

			So just more puzzle pieces for her frustrating puzzle.

			It looked like a normal little town on the surface, and most of the people appeared normal, sounded normal, acted normal—but her spider senses were tingling like mad, and other than a single sense, hers weren’t especially well honed.

			Behind the smiling faces and pleasant greetings was . . . something else.

			The whole place . . . felt wrong.

			Which was why she was searching these woods rather than going directly to what she believed was her destination: that house out in the middle of nowhere that Bethany had been dared to approach alone.

			Geneva paused next to a huge oak, her gaze roaming all around, trying to see beyond the closest trees and able to see quite well despite the lack of moonlight. Her spider senses really weren’t any good when it came to vision, but Bishop had told her to believe they were, and that actually seemed to help make her normal vision at least a bit more acute, but . . .

			It was another odd thing. Sometimes these woods were really, really dark, and sometimes they weren’t. And it didn’t have a damned thing to do with moonlight or the lack of it.

			It was almost like the trees, evergreen and hardwood, sometimes decided to huddle close way up high, lace their branches soundlessly to form a sort of roof and shut out the light. For whatever reason. As if there could be a reason.

			It was an eerie thought, but not the first time she’d thought it.

			I’m missing something. Even with extra senses I’m missing something important. I have to be. There’s too much weird and . . . off . . . in this place, this town, without there being a . . . center. A nexus. Someone or something pulling all the strings. Because it isn’t just one weird thing; it’s a hell of a lot of them. People. Animals. Things. Places. Actions. Habits. Even the air itself sometimes holds a whiff of something that makes my skin crawl, and I don’t think it’s just all the static. No matter what it looks like on the surface, no matter how normal, underneath is something bad. And every once in a while one of them gives it away. Veiled glances and guarded conversations. Smiles that never touch their eyes. The flicker of a thought that doesn’t make sense. That weird militia that really doesn’t act like any I’ve ever heard about, especially the guy giving most of the orders but not, apparently, the one really in charge. And in a town this small where so much else is connected, where so many of the people are connected, there has to be a center point . . . or overlapping . . . or something . . .

			So why hadn’t she been able to find it?

			She heard a faint fluttering sound and turned her head to see, without much surprise, a huge crow not twelve feet away, perched on the lower branch of another tree, regarding her with bright black eyes and eerily sentient curiosity. It wasn’t the first time one of her night rambles had drawn an escort.

			Another of the weird, unsettling things about Salem.

			They were everywhere, both day and night, and watched everything, the crows, saw everything. Usually singly or in small groups, in town as well as in the woods.

			There was something very weird about the way they hung around. And watched. What she had yet to discover was who—or what—they reported back to. Because that was something else of which she was positive, even if only pure instinct made her so certain of it. The birds were sentries, spies, escorts; every sense she could command told her that much. The watchmen on the walls of . . . whatever was being hidden and guarded in this town. Whatever was being done secretly. Perhaps they were even weapons, though she had never yet seen them attack anyone.

			And the townspeople seemed fairly oblivious to them. From all appearances, they didn’t consider the presence of one or more on this or that tree, this or that street sign, this or that railing, at all odd.

			But it was odd. It was even eerie.

			The Birds.

			Yeah, while you’re sneaking through dark, dark woods on a dark, dark night, think of a creepy movie that scared the shit out of you as a kid. That’ll help.

			A second crow joined the first, this one soundless. And then a third, also making no sound.

			Neat trick, that.

			Uncanny.

			Unnatural.

			She wasn’t especially afraid, because it had happened before and had ended well, with her safely back in bed. Possibly because she had each time gone no farther, retreating at once, choosing not to, on those occasions, test the sentries, not to keep pushing on toward . . . whatever. It was what her instincts were telling her to do now.

			She should stop. Go back to her room, maybe continue the search tomorrow, in daylight.

			Except that she couldn’t do that.

			Because unlike all the other nights, tonight she had a definite purpose. Tonight, she had to find that house out here in the middle of the woods and look for a little girl no one else seemed to realize was lost.

			But the crows . . .

			Turn around and leave. Go back to the B and B. These are . . . a line. A red line. Go no farther.

			That was . . . eerie. Almost like an alien voice in her head.

			Surely not. Her shields were up, even though it actually made her head hurt to not use them in a situation where she should have. She was depending on woodcraft and her usual senses, because . . . because she wasn’t sure why. Except that it seemed to her the right way to do this.

			As for the crows, the odd thoughts in her head were just because their presence made her wary, as it always did, but especially here and tonight, at a level deeper than the cold chill of this place. She had the feeling the crows were only sent—or only made sure she became this aware of them—when she got too close to things they guarded.

			Guarded for their masters.

			Them. The men behind this.

			She didn’t know who they were, though she doubted it was the militia, or at least not entirely. Not that a lack of certainty had stopped her from speculating. An educated guess—based on the fact that five families had formed an alliance of sorts and had pretty much carved this town out of wilderness hundreds of years ago using muscle, determination, intelligence, and not much else—marked their descendants, or at least some of them, as being the ones behind whatever this was.

			So maybe they, or one or more of them, with the militia as their soldiers—some of whom she was fairly certain belonged to those families—formed to keep order just the way the families liked it. That was how it looked.

			On the surface. But Geneva had developed, over the years, a nose for the rot that lay beneath far too many pleasant surfaces. And all her senses had been warning her to be cautious, be wary, even without the crows. The surface might seem unthreatening, creepy crows notwithstanding. But beneath—

			She was yanked from her thoughts by the realization that she had been too still for too long, too lost in thought and speculation, that she should have moved the instant her instincts or that alien voice told her to go no farther, retreated as usual, and by the fact that the three crows were suddenly looking beyond her rather than at her.

			Oh, shit.

			“Good evening, Miss Raynor. Taking the night air?” The voice was deep, calm, male, and not in the least threatening.

			Which did not in the least reassure her. Because there was something in that voice, something that made the hairs on the nape of her neck quiver even as every instinct she could claim shrieked a warning that she was in trouble. Bad trouble.

			All of a sudden, it was even colder than it had been.



* * *



			—

			DUNCAN CAVENDISH STOOD at the window of his large house, with its view down to Main Street, only the streetlights and various security lights shining now, so late, and he felt powerful. He had always been powerful, of course, in many ways. The head of his family, the most powerful of the original Five, he was listened to by the other heads, their offspring and soldiers. He was respected.

			He was also feared.

			Duncan knew that. He liked it. But he was cautious about it, because no man is invincible, and because he knew very well that even fear would not stop the other four families from moving against him if they knew exactly what he’d been doing and why. In fact, fear might spur them to act before he was ready.

			He had to be even stronger to keep them at bay. Even more powerful.

			And he had to eliminate the threat Nellie Cavendish posed. She would be here soon, he knew. He lacked the Talent of precognition, but he’d had her watched for a long time, and he knew where she was, knew she was hesitating miles outside Salem.

			Knew she would come because she had to.

			He had not been able to find out for certain how powerful or even how many Talents she possessed, not now, but . . . As an infant, her Talents had already begun to manifest, and what manifested so early promised great Talents to come. Great power. A simple, ordinary bout of colic had brought down on Salem one of the worst storms Duncan could remember. Oh, Thomas had denied his small daughter had caused that, had even tried to laugh it off, but Duncan knew. He’d seen the child’s face.

			When baby Nellie cried, storm clouds began to gather. And when she gurgled happily, the skies were clear and trouble-free.

			Duncan knew. He knew because he knew the family history better than Thomas ever had, and he knew more than one Cavendish ancestor had possessed that particular Talent. And that, in every case, it had gotten stronger as they had grown into adults, at times becoming uncontrollable.

			Dangerous.

			It was, after all, one of the Talents that had caused their family and the others to create the Barrier generations before, a wall placed by those of another Talent in a young mind to protect both the child and the families—and the town. It had become a normal thing to do, and yet Thomas had refused to place a barrier in his infant daughter’s mind. His resistance had surprised Duncan, angered him, in part because he was certain that Sarah, with her own inborn Talents, had strongly influenced his brother. Thomas’s refusal had led to their final confrontation and Thomas’s decision to take his small family and leave Salem.

			Duncan pushed aside the vague, nagging question of whether Thomas had ever truly been certain that his beloved wife had not left him by choice. Duncan hadn’t been willing to risk her further influence over her husband—and their daughter. She’d possessed too much of the Talent herself to be allowed that.

			He wondered, as he always did, just how much of that she had passed along to Nellie.

			It was part of what he feared, that what there was in her untaught mind might rage forth—and destroy. He couldn’t be sure. All he could be sure of was that whatever Talents Nellie possessed would reach their full strength by the time she turned thirty. It seemed an arbitrary number, but their family had proven it to be accurate to within a few months.

			The Barrier, when placed correctly, contained those energies, and it did so quite well as a rule.

			Sometimes the Barrier began to fail on its own by the time the child grew into his or her twenties, the Talent refusing to be denied. Other times the wall seemed to smother the Talent so that it went latent, often for that lifetime. Fear of Talent could create its own Barrier, which is what Duncan suspected had happened with Nellie. Any of the Talent raised outside Salem virtually always feared the Talent and tried to be normal.

			But where it existed, no matter how it was created, the Barrier could be destroyed, Duncan had discovered. And when it was destroyed, if the Talent lying behind it was great enough, that destruction released enormous power.

			He had discovered that, experimenting deliberately on a cousin whose branch of the family had left Salem long ago. That was when he had seen and understood that he could become even more powerful himself. If he did it correctly, that Talent released was something Duncan could claim for his own.

			He wanted it.

			He wanted it all.





FIVE


			When he was set down at his drop point very early Thursday morning—by an eerily silent green chopper, the sort of which he knew Bishop used in these parts—Grayson was only a couple of miles, as the crow flew, from the Trail, and from there he’d be hardly more than two or three miles from Salem. As the crow flew.

			Adjusting the heavy pack he carried with ease, he set off in a direct path for the Trail. He had no reason to suspect that watchers lurked this far from Salem, nor did he believe Bishop would have picked the drop point unless it had been thoroughly scouted ahead of time, likely by SCU members or Haven investigators. Nevertheless, once he was into the trees, he immediately changed direction.

			He took a meandering path to the Trail, looking all around him with the experienced scouting gaze of one whose life had more than once depended on his awareness of his surroundings. He saw no one, though he crossed several faint trails made by wildlife, and at least one that appeared to be used on a fairly regular basis by humans.

			But he also found two old campsites in the general area, rings of rock placed roughly, cinders and traces of old ashes within, so drew the conclusion that this was one of those places passed by word of mouth from hiker to hiker about various locations where it was relatively safe to camp.

			He left the area untouched and moved a bit more swiftly until he reached the Trail itself and crossed over it to the east. He encountered no one, which didn’t surprise him; even this far south, it was a hardy and experienced hiker who braved the Trail in January.

			Or a fool.

			He was well down off the Trail and beginning to angle toward the northeast, and Salem, when he crossed another trail. This one gave him pause, and for a moment he hunkered down to get a closer look.

			It was actually two trails, or two parallel narrow tracks. Made not by any wheeled vehicle, but by feet. Human feet. His trained gaze could see shoe and boot marks and even, faintly, the marks of bare feet.

			Bare feet. In January? Or, for that matter, anytime during the last two or three months?

			The trail was well-worn enough to tell him it was used on a regular basis—but not every day.

			Grayson hesitated, then followed the parallel tracks, staying well to the side of both. He was heading in the general direction of Salem, but since he was well off the Trail, he doubted that many, if any, hikers would have stumbled across these tracks. Especially since the forest grew more dense, with the tracks he followed barely visible in the absence of light.

			He used his spider senses, enhancing his vision, even though he knew the price he’d pay for that later. He also shifted his pack a bit, so he could more easily get to the rifle strapped across the top. Just in case.

			Grayson always expected trouble.

			The parallel tracks came abruptly out into a clearing, and Grayson stopped, going only as far as he needed to in order to see what there was to see.

			It was a flat area, probably no more than sixty feet across before the mountain began to both climb and descend again. In that clearing was a single standing stone wall that rose to a point at the far end, with the other walls that had once risen to join it now only a tumble of stones that had fallen or been placed mostly inside the structure. The original building had probably been no more than twenty-five feet from the entrance to that still-standing wall.

			And it was old. It was very, very old.

			Grayson’s guess was that it had once been a church, typically one of the first buildings settlers erected when they chose their new home, especially in this part of the world, though he would have said this one was in an odd place in relation to Salem.

			Then again . . .

			In the semicleared space of the interior, someone had constructed a rough altar stone. Obviously hacked from a single larger slab of rock, the oblong was about two feet wide and at least six feet long, and laid across two big boulders beneath that brought the altar, Grayson estimated, as high as his thighs.

			He wasn’t about to move closer; he could clearly see that the ground all around the structure was of the sort of loosely powdered dust that left tracks. He could see many, with the two trails he had followed continuing to the gaping doorway of the structure, and a number of tracks in between and around.

			But what disturbed him, what kept him within the woods and back away from the structure, was the fact that he could see the rusty brown of dried bloodstains on that stone altar. A lot of bloodstains.

			Grayson studied as much as he could see from his position, then worked his way carefully around the structure, always staying well back and counting on his enhanced vision to show him what there was to be seen.

			There were a few streaks and splashes of dried blood on the two partial walls, and some on the stones that had been moved to clear space for the altar, but he couldn’t tell how old they were.

			No signs at all of human remains.

			He knew it was a lot more likely that some poor animal had been slaughtered here in a ritual sacrifice than it was that a human being had been a victim. In a normal world, at least.

			The world he lived in was rarely normal.

			After a thoughtful while, Grayson studied his surroundings carefully for landmarks, fixing this spot in his mind. He shrugged off his pack long enough to remove and use his camera to take a number of pictures of the building, the clearing, and the parallel tracks leading to the spot from as many angles as he could manage. Then he put the camera away, shrugged on the pack again, and continued down the mountain, following no path now but heading for Salem.

			It was still early, not yet noon; if he had not detoured to follow the tracks, he probably would have been in Salem by now. Still, Grayson didn’t hurry, and he frowned as he picked his way down the mountainside. He was not an expert in the occult, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t picked up knowledge of it here and there as most of Bishop’s people had. And what he’d seen back there in that . . . church . . . pointed to the occult. Or at least to something very like it.

			Geneva had been here two weeks; she may well have found what he had found, or she may have been concentrating on the town itself. Until they met up and compared notes, there was no way to be sure.

			No way to be sure of anything.

			Especially with Geneva in the picture.



* * *



			—

			BETHANY HAD NO idea how much time had passed, because the faint glow of light just beyond the curve of the cave never seemed to change. She had cried quietly at first, for a long time, until her eyes were swollen and her nose ran and her throat felt raw. Shudders of fear had racked her slender body as she sobbed, and even though her thick jacket and other clothing kept the faint chill at bay, she felt so cold, so cold and alone.

			At some point she had cried herself out, at least for the moment, and curled up on the cot without blankets or a pillow or anything except the thin, musty-smelling mattress, and somehow she had fallen asleep.

			When she woke, the momentary confusion of where she was and what had happened returned, but before she could begin to cry again, she saw that a little tray had been slid through a slot near the floor she hadn’t even seen before. It held only a shallow bowl and cup, small enough to slide easily through the cramped opening.

			Bethany sat up and leaned forward, able to reach the tray easily from the cot. The cup held only water, and only a few sips of that. The small bowl held a thin liquid that, when she cautiously tasted it, proved to be lukewarm chicken broth.

			At least that’s what it tasted like.

			Bethany wanted to cry again. Because there was so little. Because someone had delivered the tray and she hadn’t awakened to ask the desperate questions and plead as she wanted to plead to go home. Because she was afraid. So afraid.

			The pinched feeling in her stomach told her that supper had been a long, long time ago. So Bethany fought back the tears and placed the tray beside her on the cot, lifting the bowl and cup to drink the broth and the water. The broth was salty, and too late she realized it made her more thirsty; her vague plan to try to save some of the water in case nobody came again vanished as she drained the cup.

			She told herself she should be brave, like the heroic kids she saw on TV shows and in the movies, brave and smart enough to get herself out of this cage.

			With that prodding her, she managed to get to shaky feet and step out to touch the cold, rusty metal that formed her cage. She tried pulling and pushing only to find no give at all in the metal. She hooked her fingers and tried to pull upward. Again, the cage didn’t budge. Then she looked for an opening other than the padlocked door and the shallow slot that had admitted the tray and its contents.

			She thought she must have checked every inch of the four sides of the cage, even stood on the cot to try to reach the top, only to find her stretching fingers inches short of their goal.

			Not that it mattered, she thought wearily as she sat down on the cot again, scrunching back and lifting her legs so she could hug them against her body. She was still cold. And despite the broth and water, the pinched feeling in her middle remained.

			Rocking back and forth a little, Bethany Hicks began to cry again, silently.



* * *



			—

			THE FACT THAT it took Grayson most of the morning Thursday to cover the scant few miles from his drop point to Salem was hardly something he could blame on the pause to study the ruins he’d found. He told himself he was simply out of shape. It had been a few years since he’d done any serious hiking, after all. And the Trail was serious, especially the section he’d been called upon to traverse just coming from west to east across it.

			Never mind that he was a daily runner and worked out with a few of his fellow SCU agents in mixed martial arts at least two or three times a week. Never mind that.

			Ass. You know what it is. You know the truth. You’re just not sure what mood you’ll find Geneva in. She could be utterly professional and pleasant.

			Or she could shoot you.

			The truth was, h