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Page 20

Chapter Nineteen

IN THE DINING ROOM, QUINN SET COPIES OF THE printouts in front of everyone. There were bowls of popcorn on the table, she noted, a bottle of wine, glasses, and paper towels folded into triangles. Which would all be Cybil's doing, she knew.

Just as she knew Cybil had made the popcorn for her. Not a peace offering; they didn't need peace offerings between them. It was just because.

She touched a hand to Cybil's shoulder before she took her seat.

"Apologies for big drama," Quinn began.

"If you think that was drama, you need to come over to my parents' house during one of the family gatherings." Fox gave her a smile as he took a handful of popcorn. "The Barry-O'Dells don't need demon blood to raise hell."

"We'll all accept the demon thing is going to be a running gag from now on." Quinn poured a glass of wine. "I don't know how much all this will tell everyone, but it's more than we had before. It shows a direct line from the other side."

"Are you sure Twisse is the one who raped Hester Deale?" Gage asked. "Certain he's the one who knocked her up?"

Quinn nodded. "Believe me."

"I experienced it." Layla twisted the paper towel in her hands as she spoke. "It wasn't like the flashes Cal and Quinn get, but...Maybe the blood tie explains it. I don't know. But I know what he did to her. And I know she was a virgin before he-it-raped her."

Gently, Fox took the pieces of the paper towel she'd torn, gave her his.

"Okay," Gage continued, "are we sure Twisse is what we're calling the demon for lack of better?"

"He never liked that term," Cal put in. "I think we can go affirmative on that."

"So, Twisse uses Hester to sire a child, to extend his line. If he's been around as long as we think-going off some of the stuff Cal's seen and related, it's likely he'd done the same before."

"Right," Cybil acknowledged. "Maybe that's where we get people like Hitler or Osama bin Laden, Jack the Ripper, child abusers, serial killers."

"If you look at the lineage, you'll see there were a lot of suicides and violent deaths, especially in the first hundred, hundred and twenty years after Hester. I think," Quinn said slowly, "if we're able to dig a little deeper on individuals, we might find more than the average family share of murder, insanity."

"Anything that stands out in recent memory?" Fox asked. "Major family skeletons?"

"Not that I know of. I have the usual share of kooky or annoying relatives, but nobody's been incarcerated or institutionalized."

"It dilutes." Fox narrowed his eyes as he paged through the printouts. "This wasn't his plan, wasn't his strategy. I know strategy. Consider. Twisse doesn't know what Dent's got cooking that night. He's got Hester-got her mind under control, got the demon bun in the oven, but he doesn't know that's going to be it."

"That Dent's ready for him, and has his own plans," Layla continued. "I see where you're going. He thought-planned-to destroy Dent that night, or at least damage him, drive him away."

"Then he gets the town," Fox continued, "uses it up, moves on. Leaves progeny, before he finds the next spot that suits him to do the same."

"Instead Dent takes him down, holds him down until..." Cal turned over his hand, exposed the thin scar on his wrist. "Until Dent's progeny let him out. Why would he want that? Why would he allow it?"

"Could be Dent figured keeping a demon in a headlock for three centuries was long enough." Gage helped himself to popcorn. "Or that's as long as he could hold him, and he called out some reinforcements."

"Ten-year-old boys," Cal said in disgust.

"Children are more likely to believe, to accept what adults can't. Or won't," Cybil added. "And hell, nobody said any of this was fair. He gave you what he could. Your ability to heal quickly, your insights into what was, is, will be. He gave you the stone, in three parts."

"And time to grow up," Layla added. "Twenty-one years. Maybe he found the way to bring us here. Quinn, Cybil, and me. Because I can't see the logic, the purpose of having me compelled to come here, then trying to scare me away."

"Good point." And it loosened something inside Quinn's belly. "That's a damn good point. Why scare if he could seduce? Really good point."

"I can look deeper into the family tree for you, Q. And I'll see what I can find on Layla's and my own. But that's just busywork at this point. We know the root."

Cybil turned one of the pages over, used a pencil on the back. She drew two horizontal lines at the bottom. "Giles Dent and Ann Hawkins here, Lazarus Twisse and the doomed Hester here. Each root sends up a tree, and the trees their branches." She drew quickly, simply. "And at the right point, branches from each tree cross each other. In palmistry the crossing of lines is a sign of power."

She completed the sketch, three branches, crossing three branches. "So we have to find the power, and use it."

T HAT EVENING, LAYLA DID SOMETHING FAIRLY tasty with chicken breasts, stewed tomatoes, and white beans. By mutual agreement they channeled the conversation into other areas. Normal, Quinn thought as it ranged from dissecting recent movies to bad jokes to travel. They all needed a good dose of normal.

"Gage is the one with itchy feet," Cal commented. "He's been traveling that long, lonesome highway since he hit eighteen."

"It's not always lonesome."

"Cal said you were in Prague." Quinn considered. "I think I'd like to see Prague."

"I thought it was Budapest."

Gage glanced at Cybil. "There, too. Prague was the last stop before heading back."

"Is it fabulous?" Layla wondered. "The art, the architecture, the food?"

"It's got all that. The palace, the river, the opera. I got a taste of it, but mostly I was working. Flew in from Budapest for a poker game."

"You spent your time in-what do they call it-the Paris of Eastern Europe playing poker?" Quinn demanded.

"Not all of it, just the lion's share. The game went for just over seventy-three hours."

"Three days, playing poker?" Cybil's eyebrow winged up. "Wouldn't that be a little obsessive?"

"Depends on where you stand, doesn't it?"

"But don't you need to sleep, eat? Pee?" Layla wondered.

"Breaks are worked in. The seventy-three hours was actual game time. This was a private game, private home. Serious money, serious security."

"Win or lose?" Quinn asked him with a grin.

"I did okay."

"Do you use your precognition to help you do okay?" Cybil asked.

"That would be cheating."

"Yes, it would, but that didn't answer the question."

He picked up his wine, kept his eyes on hers. "If I had to cheat to win at poker, I should be selling insurance. I don't have to cheat."

"We took an oath." Fox held up his hands when Gage scowled at him. "We're in this together now. They should understand how it works for us. We took an oath when we realized we all had something extra. We wouldn't use it against anyone, or to hurt anyone, or, well, to screw anyone. We don't break our word to each other."

"In that case," Cybil said to Gage, "you ought to be playing the ponies instead of cards."

He flashed a grin. "Been known to, but I like cards. Wanna play?"

"Maybe later."

When Cybil glanced at Quinn with a look of apology, Quinn knew what was coming. "I guess we should get back to it," Cybil began. "I have a question, a place I'd like to start."

"Let's take fifteen." Quinn pushed to her feet. "Get the table cleared off, take the dog out. Just move a little. Fifteen."

Cal brushed a hand over her arm as he rose with her. "I need to check the fire anyway, probably bring in more wood. Let's do this in the living room when we're finished up."

THEY LOOKED LIKE ORDINARY PEOPLE, CAL thought. Just a group of friends hanging out on a winter night. Gage had switched to coffee, and that was usual. Cal hadn't known Gage to indulge in more than a couple drinks at a time since the summer they'd been seventeen. Fox was back on Coke, and he himself had opted for water.

Clear heads, he mused. They wanted clear heads if there were questions to be answered.

They'd gone back to gender groups. Had that been automatic, even intrinsic? he wondered. The three women on the couch, Fox on the floor with Lump. He'd taken a chair, and Gage stood by the fire as if he might just walk out if the topic didn't suit his mood.

"So." Cybil tucked her legs under her, let her dark eyes scan the room. "I'm wondering what was the first thing, event, instance, the first happening, we'll say, that alerted you something was wrong in town. After your night in the clearing, after you went home."

"Mr. Guthrie and the fork." Fox stretched out, propped his head on Lump's belly. "That was a big clue."

"Sounds like the title of a kid's book." Quinn made a note on her pad. "Why don't you fill us in?"

"You take it, Cal," Fox suggested.

"It would've been our birthday-the night, or really the evening of it. We were all pretty spooked. It was worse being separated, each of us in our own place. I talked my mother into letting me go in to the bowling center, so I'd have something to do, and Gage would be there. She couldn't figure out whether to ground me or not," he said with a half smile. "First and last time I remember her being undecided on that kind of issue. So she let me go in with my father. Gage?"

"I was working. Mr. Hawkins let me earn some spending money at the center, mopping up spills or carrying grill orders out to tables. I know I felt a hell of a lot better when Cal came in. Then Fox."

"I nagged my parents brainless to let me go in. My father finally caved, took me. I think he wanted to have a confab with Cal's dad, and Gage's if he could."

"So, Brian-Mr. O'Dell-and my dad sat down at the end of the counter, having coffee. They didn't bring Bill, Gage's father, into it at that point."

"Because he didn't know I'd been gone in the first place," Gage said. "No point getting me in trouble until they'd decided what to do."

"Where was your father?" Cybil asked.

"Around. Behind the pins. He was having a few sober hours, so Mr. Hawkins had him working on something."

"Ball return, lane two," Cal murmured. "I remember. It seemed like an ordinary summer night. Teenagers, some college types on the pinballs and video games. Grill smoking, pins crashing. There was a kid-two or three years old, I guess-with a family in the four lane. Major tantrum. The mother hauled him outside right before it happened."

He took a swig of water. He could see it, bell clear. "Mr. Guthrie was at the counter, drinking a beer, eating a dog and fries. He came in once a week. Nice enough guy. Sold flooring, had a couple of kids in high school. Once a week, he came in when his wife went to the movies with girlfriends. It was clockwork. And Mr. Guthrie would order a dog and fries, and get steadily trashed. My dad used to say he did his drinking there because he could tell himself it wasn't real drinking if he wasn't in a bar."

"Troublemaker?" Quinn asked as she made another note.

"Anything but. He was what my dad called an affable drunk. He never got mean, or even sloppy. Tuesday nights, Mr. Guthrie came in, got a dog and fries, drank four or five beers, watched some games, talked to whoever was around. Somewhere around eleven, he'd leave a five-dollar tip on the grill and walk home. Far as I know he didn't so much as crack a Bud otherwise. It was a Tuesday night deal."

"He used to buy eggs from us," Fox remembered. "A dozen brown eggs, every Saturday morning. Anyway."

"It was nearly ten, and Mr. Guthrie was having another beer. He was walking by the tables with it," Cal said. "Probably going to take it and stand behind the lanes, watch some of the action. Some guys were having burgers. Frank Dibbs was one of them-held his league's record for high game, coached Little League. We were sitting at the next table, eating pizza. Dad told us to take a break, so we were splitting a pizza. Dibbs said, 'Hey, Guth, the wife wants new vinyl in the kitchen. What kind of deal can you give me?'

"And Guthrie, he just smiles. One of those tight-lipped smiles that don't show any teeth. He picks up one of the forks sitting on the table. He jammed it into Dibbs's cheek, just stabbed it into his face, and kept walking. People are screaming and running, and, Christ, that fork is just sticking out of Mr. Dibbs's cheek, and blood's sliding down his face. And Mr. Guthrie strolls over behind lane two, and drinks his beer."

To give himself a moment, Cal took a long drink. "My dad wanted us out. Everything was going crazy, except Guthrie, who apparently was crazy. Your dad took care of Dibbs," Cal said to Fox. "I remember how he kept his head. Dibbs had already yanked the fork out, and your father grabbed this stack of napkins and got the bleeding stopped. There was blood on his hands when he drove us home."

Cal shook his head. "Not the point. Fox's dad took us home. Gage came with me-my father took care of that. He didn't get home until it was light out. I heard him come home; my mother had waited for him. I heard him tell her they had Guthrie locked up, and he was just sitting in his cell laughing. Laughing like it was all a big joke. Later, when it was all over, he didn't even remember. Nobody remembered much of what went on that week, or if they did, they put it away. He never came in the center again. They moved away the next winter."

"Was that the only thing that happened that night?" Cybil asked after a moment.

"Girl was raped." Gage set his empty mug on the mantel. "Making out with her boyfriend out on Dog Street. He didn't stop when she said stop, didn't stop when she started to cry, to scream. He raped her in the backseat of his secondhand Buick, then shoved her out on the side of the road and drove off. Wrapped his car around a tree a couple hours later. Ended up in the same hospital as she did. Only he didn't make it."

"Family mutt attacked an eight-year-old boy," Fox added. "Middle of that night. The dog had slept with the kid every night for three years. The parents woke up hearing the kid screaming, and when they got to the bedroom, the dog went for them, too. The father had to beat it off with the kid's baseball bat."

"It just got worse from there. That night, the next night." Cal took a long breath. "Then it didn't always wait for night. Not always."

"There's a pattern to it." Quinn spoke quietly, then glanced up when Cal's voice cut through her thoughts.

"Where? Other than ordinary people turn violent or psychotic?"

"We saw what happened with Lump. You've just told us about another family pet. There have been other incidents like that. Now you've said the first overt incident all of you witnessed involved a man who'd had several beers. His alcohol level was probably over the legal limit, meaning he was impaired. Mind's not sharp after drinking like that. You're more susceptible."

"So Guthrie was easier to influence or infect because he was drunk or well on the way?" Fox pushed up to sitting. "That's good. That makes good sense."

"The boy who raped his girlfriend of three months then drove into a tree hadn't been drinking." Gage shook his head. "Where's that in the pattern?"

"Sexual arousal and frustration tend to impair the brain." Quinn tapped her pencil on her pad. "Put those into a teenage boy, and that says susceptible to me."

"It's a valid point." Cal shoved his hand through his hair. Why hadn't they seen it themselves? "The dead crows. There were a couple dozen dead crows all over Main Street the morning of our birthday that year. Some broken windows where they'd repeatedly flown into the glass. We always figured that was part of it. But nobody got hurt."

"Does it always start that way?" Layla asked. "Can you pinpoint it?"

"The first I remember from the next time was when the Myerses found their neighbor's dog drowned in a backyard swimming pool. There was the woman who left her kid locked in the car and went into the beauty salon, got a manicure and so on. It was in the nineties that day," Fox added. "Somebody heard the kid crying, called the cops. They got the kid out, but when they went in to get the woman, she said she didn't have a baby. Didn't know what they were talking about. It came out she'd been up two nights running because the baby had colic."

"Sleep deprivation." Quinn wrote it down.

"But we knew it was happening again," Cal said slowly, "we knew for sure on the night of our seventeenth when Lisa Hodges walked out of the bar at Main and Battlefield, stripped down naked, and started shooting at passing cars with the twenty-two she had in her purse."

"We were one of the cars," Gage added. "Good thing for all concerned her aim was lousy."

"She caught your shoulder," Fox reminded him.

"She shot you?"

Gage smiled easily at Cybil. "Grazed me, and we heal fast. We managed to get the gun from her before she shot anyone else, or got hit by a car as she was standing buck naked in the middle of the street. Then she offered us blow jobs. Rumor was she gave a doozy, but we weren't much in the mood to find out."

"All right, from pattern to theory." Quinn rose to her feet to work it out. "The thing we'll call Twisse, because it's better to have a name for it, requires energy. We're all made up of energy, and Twisse needs it to manifest, to work. When he's out, during this time Dent is unable to hold him, he seeks out the easiest sources of energy first. Birds and animals, people who are most vulnerable. As he gets stronger, he's able to move up the chain."

"I don't think the way to stop him is to clear out all the pets," Gage began, "ban alcohol, drugs, and sex and make sure everyone gets a good night's sleep."

"Too bad," Cybil tossed back, "because it might buy us some time. Keep going, Q."

"Next question would be, how does he generate the energy he needs?"

"Fear, hate, violence." Cal nodded. "We've got that. We can't cut off his supply because you can't block those emotions out of the population. They exist."

"So do their counterparts, so we can hypothesize that those are weapons or countermeasures against him. You've all gotten stronger over time, and so has he. Maybe he's able to store some of this energy he pulls in during the dormant period."

"And so he's able to start sooner, start stronger the next time. Okay," Cal decided. "Okay, it makes sense."

"He's using some of that store now," Layla put in, "because he doesn't want all six of us to stick this out. He wants to fracture the group before July."

"He must be disappointed." Cybil picked up the wine she'd nursed throughout the discussion. "Knowledge is power and all that, and it's good to have logical theories, more areas to research. But it seems to be we need to move. We need a strategy. Got any, Mr. Strategy?"

From his spot on the floor, Fox grinned. "Yeah. I say as soon as the snow melts enough for us to get through it, we go to the clearing. We go to the Pagan Stone, all of us together. And we double-dog dare the son of a bitch."

IT SOUNDED GOOD IN THEORY. IT WAS A DIFFERENT matter, in Cal's mind, when you added the human factor. When you added Quinn. He'd taken her there once before, and he'd zoned out, leaving her alone and vulnerable.

And he hadn't loved her then.

He knew there was no choice, that there were bigger stakes involved. But the idea of putting her at risk, at deliberately putting her at the center of it with him, kept him awake and restless.

He wandered the house, checking locks, staring out windows for any glimpse of the thing that stalked them. The moon was out, and the snow tinted blue under it. They'd be able to shovel their way out the next day, he thought, dig out the cars. Get back to what passed for normal within a day or two.

He already knew if he asked her to stay, just stay, she'd tell him she couldn't leave Layla and Cybil on their own. He already knew he'd have to let her go.

He couldn't protect her every hour of every day, and if he tried, they'd end up smothering each other.

As he moved through the living room, he saw the glow of the kitchen lights. He headed back to turn them off and check locks. And there was Gage, sitting at the counter playing solitaire with a mug of coffee steaming beside the discard pile.

"A guy who drinks black coffee at one a.m. is going to be awake all night."

"It never keeps me up." Gage flipped a card, made his play. "When I want to sleep, I sleep. You know that. What's your excuse?"

"I'm thinking it's going to be a long, hard, messy hike into the woods even if we wait a month. Which we probably should."

"No. Red six on black seven. You're trying to come up with a way to go in without Quinn. Without any of them, really, but especially the blonde."

"I told you how it was when we went in before."

"And she walked out again on her own two sexy legs. Jack of clubs on queen of diamonds. I'm not worried about her. I'm worried about you."

Cal's back went up. "Is there a time I didn't handle myself?"

"Not up until now. But you've got it bad, Hawkins. You've got it bad for the blonde, and being you, your first and last instinct is going to be to cover her ass if anything goes down."

"Shouldn't it be?" He didn't want any damn coffee, but since he doubted he'd sleep anyway, he poured some. "Why wouldn't it be?"

"I'd lay money that your blonde can handle herself. Doesn't mean you're wrong, Cal. I imagine if I had a woman inside me the way she's inside you, I wouldn't want to put how she handled herself to the test. The trouble is, you're going to have to."

"I never wanted to feel this way," Cal said after a moment. "This is a good part of the reason why. We're good together, Gage."

"I can see that for myself. Don't know what she sees in a loser like you, but it's working for her."

"We could get better. I can feel we'd just get better, make something real and solid. If we had the chance, if we had the time, we'd make something together."

Casually, Gage gathered up the cards, shuffled them with a blur of speed. "You think we're going down this time."

"Yeah." Cal looked out the window at the cold, blue moonlight. "I think we're going down. Don't you?"

"Odds are." Gage dealt them both a hand of blackjack. "But hell, who wants to live forever?"

"That's the problem. Now that I've found Quinn, forever sounds pretty damn good." Cal glanced at his hole card, noted the king to go with his three. "Hit me."

With a grin, Gage flipped over a nine. "Sucker."

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