CAL SAW HER COME IN WHILE HE CUT INTO HIS short stack at the counter. She had on those high, sharp-heeled boots, faded jeans, and a watch cap, bright as a cardinal, pulled over her hair.
She'd wound on a scarf that made him think of Joseph's coat of many colors, which added a jauntiness with her coat opened. Under it was a sweater the color of ripe blueberries.
There was something about her, he mused, that would have been bright and eye-catching even in mud brown.
He watched her eyes track around the diner area, and decided she was weighing where to sit, whom to approach. Already working, he concluded. Maybe she always was. He was damn sure, even on short acquaintance, that her mind was always working.
She spotted him. She aimed that sunbeam smile of hers, started over. He felt a little like the kid in the pickup game of ball, who got plucked from all the others waving their arms and shouting: Me! Me! Pick me!
"Morning, Quinn. Buy you breakfast?"
"Absolutely." She leaned over his plate, took a long, dramatic sniff of his butter-and-syrup-loaded pancakes. "I bet those are fabulous."
"Best in town." He stabbed a thick bite with his fork, held it out. "Want a sample?"
"I can never stop at a taste. It's a sickness." She slid onto the stool, swiveled around to beam at the waitress as she unwound her scarf. "Morning. I'd love some coffee, and do you have any granola-type substance that could possibly be topped with any sort of fruit?"
"Well, we got Special K, and I could slice you up some bananas with it."
"Perfect." She reached over the counter. "I'm Quinn."
"The writer from up in PA." The waitress nodded, took Quinn's hand in a firm grip. "Meg Stanley. You watch this one here, Quinn," Meg said with a poke at Cal. "Some of those quiet types are sneaky."
"Some of us mouthy types are fast."
That got a laugh out of Meg as she poured Quinn's coffee. "Being quick on your feet's a strong advantage. I'll get that cereal for you."
"Why," Cal wondered aloud as he forked up another dripping bite of pancake, "would anyone willingly choose to eat trail mix for breakfast?"
"It's an acquired taste. I'm still acquiring it. But knowing myself, and I do, if I keep coming in here for breakfast, I'll eventually succumb to the allure of the pancake. Does the town have a gym, a health club, a burly guy who rents out his Bowflex?"
"There's a little gym down in the basement of the community center. You need a membership, but I can get you a pass on that."
"Really? You're a handy guy to know, Cal."
"I am. You want to change your order? Go for the gold, then the treadmill?"
"Not today, but thanks. So." After she'd doctored her coffee, she picked up the cup with both hands, sipping as she studied him through the faint rise of steam. "Now that we're having our second date-"
"How'd I miss the first one?"
"You bought me pizza and a beer and took me bowling. In my dictionary, that falls under the definition of date. Now you're buying me breakfast."
"Cereal and bananas. I do appreciate a cheap date."
"Who doesn't? But since we're dating and all..." She took another sip as he laughed. "I'd like to share an experience with you."
She glanced over as Meg brought her a white stoneware bowl heaped with cereal and sliced bananas. "Figured you'd be going for the two percent milk with this."
"Perceptive and correct, thanks."
"Get you anything else?"
"We're good for now, Meg," Cal told her. "Thanks."
"Just give a holler."
"An experience," Cal prompted, as Meg moved down the counter.
"I had a dream."
His insides tensed even before she began to tell him, in a quiet voice and in careful detail of the dream she'd had during the night.
"I knew it was a dream," she concluded. "I always do, even during them. Usually I get a kick out of them, even the spooky ones. Because, you know, not really happening. I haven't actually grown a second head so I can argue with myself, nor am I jumping out of a plane with a handful of red balloons. But this...I can't say I got a charge out of it. I didn't just think I felt cold, for instance. I was cold. I didn't just think I felt myself hit and roll on the ground. I found bruises this morning that weren't there when I went to bed. Fresh bruises on my hip. How do you get hurt in a dream, if it's just a dream?"
You could, he thought, in Hawkins Hollow. "Did you fall out of bed, Quinn?"
"No, I didn't fall out of bed." For the first time, there was a whiff of irritation in her voice. "I woke up with my arms locked around the bedpost like it was my long-lost lover. And all this was before I saw that red-eyed little bastard again."
She paused long enough to spoon up some cereal. He wasn't sure if the expression of displeasure that crossed her face was due to the taste, or her thoughts. "Did you ever read King's Salem's Lot?"
"Sure. Small town, vampires. Great stuff."
"Remember that scene? The little boys, brothers. One's been changed after they snatched him off the path in the woods. He comes to visit his brother one night."
"Nothing scarier than kiddie vampires."
"Not much, anyway. And the vampire kid's just hanging outside the window. Just floating out there, scratching on the glass. It was like that. He was pressed to the glass, and I'll point out I'm on the second floor. Then he did a stylish back flip in the air, and poofed."
He laid a hand over hers, found it cold, rubbed some warmth into it. "You have my home and cell numbers, Quinn. Why didn't you call me?"
She ate a little more, then, smiling at Meg, held up her cup for a top-off. "I realize we're dating, Cal, but I don't call all the guys I go bowling with at three thirty in the morning to go: eek! I slogged through swamps in Louisiana on the trail of the ghost of a voodoo queen-and don't think I don't know how that sounds. I spent the night, alone, in a reputedly haunted house on the coast of Maine, and interviewed a guy who was reported to be possessed by no less than thirteen demons. Then there was the family of werewolves in Tallahassee. But this kid..."
"You don't believe in werewolves and vampires, Quinn."
She turned on the stool to face him directly. "My mind's as open as a twenty-four-hour deli, and considering the circumstances, yours should be, too. But no, I don't think this thing is a vampire. I saw him in broad daylight, after all. But he's not human, and just because he's not human doesn't make him less than real. He's part of the Pagan Stone. He's part of what happens here every seven years. And he's early, isn't he?"
Yeah, he thought, her mind was always working and it was sharp as a switchblade. "This isn't the best place to go into this any deeper."
"I said I'd take you to the stone tomorrow, and I will. We'll get into more detail then. Can't do it today," he said, anticipating her. "I've got a full plate, and tomorrow's better anyway. They're calling for sun and forties today and tomorrow." He hitched up a hip to take out his wallet. "Most of this last snow'll be melted." He glanced down at her boots as he laid bills on the counter to cover both their tabs. "If you don't have anything more suitable to hike in than those, you'd better buy something. You won't last a half mile otherwise."
"You'd be surprised how long I can last."
"Don't know as I would. I'll see you tomorrow if not before."
Quinn frowned at him as he walked out, then turned back as Meg slid her rag down the counter. "Sneaky. You were right about that."
"Known the boy since before he was born, haven't I?"
Amused, Quinn propped an elbow back on the bar as she toyed with the rest of her cereal. Apparently a serious scare in the night and mild irritation with a man in the morning was a more effective diet aid than any bathroom scale. Meg struck her as a comfortable woman, wide-hipped in her brown cords and flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up at the elbows. Her hair curled tight as a poodle's fur in a brown ball around a soft and lined face. And there was a quick spark in her hazel eyes that told Quinn she'd be inclined to talk.
"So, Meg, what else do you know? Say about the Pagan Stone."
"Buncha nonsense, you ask me."
"People just get a little"-she circled her finger at her ear-"now and again. Tip too much at the bottle, get all het up. One thing leads to another. Good for business though, the speculation, if you follow me. Get plenty of flatlanders in here wondering about it, asking about it, taking pictures, buying souvenirs."
"You never had any experiences?"
"Saw some people usually have good sense acting like fools, and some who got a mean streak in them acting meaner for a spell of time." She shrugged. "People are what people are, and sometimes they're more so."
"I guess that's true."
"If you want more about it, you should go on out to the library. There's some books there written about the town, the history and whatnot. And Sally Keefafer-"
Meg snorted a laugh. "She does like to bowl. Library director. She'll bend your ear plenty if you ask her questions. She loves to talk, and never found a subject she couldn't expound on till you wanted to slap some duct tape over her mouth."
"I'll do that. You sell duct tape here?"
Meg hooted out another laugh, shook her head. "If you really want to talk, and get some sense out of it, you want Mrs. Abbott. She ran the old library, and she's at the new one for a spell most every day."
Then scooping up the bills Cal left, she went to refill waiting cups at the other end of the counter.
CAL HEADED STRAIGHT TO HIS OFFICE. HE HAD the usual morning's paperwork, phone calls, e-mails. And he had a morning meeting scheduled with his father and the arcade guy before the center opened for the afternoon leagues.
He thought of the wall of fire across Main Street the night before. Add that to two sightings by Quinn-an outsider-and it sure as hell seemed the entity that plagued the town was starting its jollies early.
Her dream troubled him as well. The details-he'd recognized where she'd been, what she'd seen. For her to have dreamed so lucidly about the pond, about the clearing, to have bruises from it, meant, in his opinion, she had to be connected in some way.
A distant relation wasn't out of the question, and there should be a way to do a search. But he had other relations, and none but his immediate family had ever spoken of any effects, even during the Seven.
As he passed through the bowling center, he sent a wave toward Bill Turner, who was buffing the lanes. The big, burly machine's throaty hum echoed through the empty building.
The first thing he checked in his office was his e-mail, and he let out a breath of relief when he saw one from Gage.
Prague. Got some business to clear up. Should be back in the U.S. of A. inside a couple weeks. Don't do anything stupider than usual without me.
No salutation, no signature. Very Gage, Cal thought. And it would have to do, for now.
Contact me as soon as you're Stateside, Cal wrote back. Things are already rumbling. Will always wait for you to do the stupid, because you're better at it.
After clicking Send, he dashed another off to Fox.
Need to talk. My place, six o'clock. Got beer. Bring food that's not pizza.
Best he could do, for now, Cal thought. Because life just had to keep rolling on.
QUINN WALKED BACK TO THE HOTEL TO RETRIEVE her laptop. If she was going to the library, she might as well use it for a couple hours' work. And while she expected she had most, if not all, of the books tucked into the town's library already, maybe this Mrs. Abbott would prove to be a valuable source.
Caleb Hawkins, it appeared, was going to be a clam until the following day.
As she stepped into the hotel lobby she saw the pert blond clerk behind the desk-Mandy, Quinn thought after a quick scroll through her mental PDA-and a brunette in the curvy chair being checked in.
Quinn's quick once-over registered the brunette with the short, sassy do as mid to late twenties, with a travel-weary look about her that didn't do anything much to diminish the seriously pretty face. Jeans and a black sweater fit well over an athletic build. Pooled at her feet were a suitcase, a laptop case, a smaller bag probably for cosmetics and other female necessities, and an excellent and roomy hobo in slick red leather.
Quinn had a moment of purse envy as she aimed a smile.
"Welcome back, Miss Black. If you need anything, I'll be with you in just a minute."
"I'm fine, thanks."
Quinn turned to the stairs and, starting up, heard Mandy's cheerful, "You're all checked in, Miss Darnell. I'm just going to call Harry to help with your bags."
As was her way, Quinn speculated on Miss Gorgeous Red Bag Darnell as she climbed up to her room. Passing through on her way to New York. No, too odd a place to stop over, and too early in the day to stop a road trip.
Visiting relatives or friends, but why wouldn't she just bunk with said relatives or friends? Then again, she had some of both she'd rather not bunk with.
Maybe a business trip, Quinn mused as she let herself into her room.
Well, if Red Bag I Want for My Very Own stayed more than a few hours, Quinn would find out just who and what and why. It was, after all, what she was best at.
Quinn packed up her laptop, added a spare notebook and extra pencils in case she got lucky. Digging out her phone, she set it on vibrate. Little was more annoying, to her mind, than ringing cell phones in libraries and theaters.
She slipped a county map into her case in the event she decided to explore.
Armed, she headed down for the drive to the other end of town and the Hawkins Hollow Library.
From her own research, Quinn knew that the original stone building tucked on Main Street now housed the community center, and the gym she intended to make use of. At the turn of the current century the new library had been built on a pretty rise of land on the south end of town. It, too, was stone, though Quinn was pretty sure it was the facing used on concrete and such rather than quarried. It was two levels with short wings on either side and a portico-style entrance. The style, she thought, was attractively old-fashioned. One, she guessed, the local historic society had likely fought a war to win.
She admired the benches, and the trees she imagined made shady reading nooks in season as she pulled up to park in the side lot.
It smelled like a library, she thought. Of books and a little dust, of silence.
She saw a brightly lettered sign announcing a Story Hour in the Children's section at ten thirty.
She wound her way through. Computers, long tables, carts, a few people wandering the stacks, a couple of old men paging through newspapers. She heard the soft hum-chuck of a copier and the muted ringing of a phone from the Information Desk.
Reminding herself to focus because if she wandered she'd be entranced by the spell she believed all libraries wove, she aimed straight for Information. And in the hushed tone reserved for libraries and churches, addressed the stringy man on duty. "Good morning, I'm looking for books on local history."
"That would be on the second floor, west wing. Steps over to the left, elevator straight back. Anything in particular you're after?"
"Thanks, but I'm just going to poke. Is Mrs. Abbott in today?"
"Mrs. Abbott is retired, but she's in most every day by eleven. In a volunteer capacity."
Quinn used the stairs. They had a nice curve to them, she thought, almost a Gone With the Wind sort of swish. She put on mental blinders so as not to be tempted by stacks and reading areas until she found herself in Local Interest.
It was more a room-a mini-library-than a section. Nice cozy chairs, tables, amber-shaded lamps, even footrests. And it was larger than she'd expected.
Then again, she should have accounted for the fact that there had been battles fought in and around the Hollow in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
Books pertaining to those were arranged in separate areas, as were books on the county, the state, and the town.
In addition there was a very healthy section for local authors.
She tried that section first and saw she'd hit a treasure trove. There had to be more than a dozen she hadn't come across on her own hunt before coming to town. They were self-published, vanity-pressed, small local publishers.
Titles like Nightmare Hollow and The Hollow, The Truth had her giddy with anticipation. She set up her laptop, her notebook, her recorder, then pulled out five books. It was then she noticed the discreet bronze plaque.
The Hawkins Hollow Library gratefully acknowledges the generosity of the Franklin and Maybelle Hawkins Family
Franklin and Maybelle. Very probably Cal's ancestors. It struck Quinn as both suitable and generous that they would have donated the funds to sponsor this room. This particular room.
She settled at the table, chose one of the books at random, then began to read.
She'd covered pages of her notebook with names, locations, dates, reputed incidents, and any number of theories when she scented lavender and baby powder.
Surfacing, she saw a trim and tidy old woman standing in black, sensible shoes with her hands folded neatly at the waist of her purple suit.
Her hair was a thinning snowball; her clear framed glasses so thickly lensed Quinn wondered how the tiny nose and ears supported their weight.
She wore pearls around her neck, a gold wedding band on her finger, and a leather-banded watch with a huge face that looked to be as practical as her thick-soled shoes.
"I'm Estelle Abbott," she said in her creaky voice. "Young Dennis said you asked after me."
As Quinn had gauged Dennis at Information as tumbling down the back end of his sixties, she imagined the woman who termed him young must have him by a good two decades.
"Yes." Quinn got to her feet, crossed over to offer her hand. "I'm Quinn Black, Mrs. Abbott. I'm-"
"Yes, I know. The writer. I've enjoyed your books."
"Thank you very much."
"No need. If I hadn't liked them I'd've told you straight-out. You're researching for a book on the Hollow."
"Yes, ma'am, I am."
"You'll find quite a bit of information here. Some of it useful." She peered at the books on the table. "Some of it nonsense."
"Then in the interest of separating the wheat from the chaff, maybe you could find some time to talk to me at some point. I'd be happy to take you to lunch or dinner whenever you-"
"That's very nice of you, but unnecessary. Why don't we sit down for a while, and we'll see how things go?"
"That would be great."
Estelle crossed to a chair, sat, then with her back ruler-straight and her knees glued together, folded her hands in her lap. "I was born in the Hollow," she began, "lived here all of my ninety-seven years."
"Ninety-seven?" Quinn didn't have to feign the surprise. "I'm usually pretty good at gauging age, and I'd put you a solid decade under that."
"Good bones," Estelle said with an easy smile. "I lost my husband, John, also born and raised here, eight years back come the fifth of next month. We were married seventy-one years."
"What was your secret?"
That brought on another smile. "Learn to laugh, otherwise, you'll beat them to death with a hammer first chance."
"Just let me write that down."
"We had six children-four boys, two girls-and all of them living still and not in jail, thank the Lord. Out of them, we had ourselves nineteen grandchildren, and out of them got ourselves twenty-eight greats-last count, and five of the next generation with two on the way."
Quinn simply goggled. "Christmas must be insane in a good way."
"We're scattered all over, but we've managed to get most everybody in one place at one time a few times."
"Dennis said you were retired. You were a librarian?"
"I started working in the library when my youngest started school. That would be the old library on Main Street. I worked there more than fifty years. Went back to school myself and got my degree. Johnnie and I traveled, saw a lot of the world together. For a time we thought about moving on down to Florida. But our roots here were too deep for that. I went to part-time work, then I retired when my Johnnie got sick. When he passed, I came back-still the old one while this was being built-as a volunteer or as an artifact, however you look at it. I tell you this so you'll have some idea about me."
"You love your husband and your children, and the children who've come from them. You love books, and you're proud of the work you've done. You love this town, and respect the life you've lived here."
Estelle gave her a look of approval. "You have an efficient and insightful way of summing up. You didn't say I loved my husband, but used the present tense. That tells me you're an observant and sensitive young woman. I sensed from your books that you have an open and seeking mind. Tell me, Miss Black, do you also have courage?"
Quinn thought of the thing outside the window, the way its tongue had flicked over its teeth. She'd been afraid, but she hadn't run. "I like to think so. Please call me Quinn."
"Quinn. A family name."
"Yes, my mother's maiden."
"Irish Gaelic. I believe it means 'counselor.'"
"It does, yes."
"I have a well of trivial information," Estelle said with a tap of her finger to her temple. "But I wonder if your name isn't relevant. You'll need to have the objectivity, and the sensitivity of a counselor to write the book that should be written on Hawkins Hollow."
"Why haven't you written it?"
"Not everyone who loves music can play the tune. Let me tell you a few things, some of which you may already know. There is a place in the woods that borders the west of this town, and that place was sacred ground, sacred and volatile ground long before Lazarus Twisse sought it out."
"Lazarus Twisse, the leader of the Puritan sect-the radical sect-which broke off or, more accurately, was cut off, from the godly in Massachusetts."
"According to the history of the time, yes. The Native Americans held that ground as sacred. And before them, it's said, powers battled for that circle of ground, both-the dark and the light, good and evil, whatever terms you prefer-left some seeds of that power there. They lay dormant, century by century, with only the stone to mark what had passed there. Over time the memories of the battle were forgotten or bastardized in folklore, and only the sense many felt that this ground and its stone were not ordinary dirt and rock remained."
Estelle paused, fell into silence so that Quinn heard the click and hum of the heater, and the light slap of leather shoes on the floor as someone passed by the room toward other business.
"Twisse came to the Hollow, already named for Richard Hawkins, who, with his wife and children, had carved a small settlement in 1648. You should remark that Richard's eldest daughter was Ann. When Twisse came, Hawkins, his family, and a handful of others-some who'd fled Europe as criminals, political or otherwise-had made their life here. As had a man calling himself Giles Dent. And Dent built a cabin in the woods where the stone rose out of the ground."
"What's called the Pagan Stone."
"Yes. He troubled no one, and as he had some skill and knowledge of healing, was often sought out for sickness or injury. There are some accounts that claim he was known as the Pagan, and that this was the basis of the name the Pagan Stone."
"You're not convinced those accounts are accurate."
"It may be that the term stuck, entered the language and the lexicon at that time. But it was the Pagan Stone long before the arrival of Giles Dent or Lazarus Twisse. There are other accounts that claim Dent dabbled in witchcraft, that he enspelled Ann Hawkins, seduced and impregnated her. Others state that Ann and Dent were indeed lovers, but that she went to his bed of her own free will, and left her family home to live with him in the little cabin with the Pagan Stone."
"It would've been difficult for her-for Ann Hawkins-either way," Quinn speculated. "Enspelled or free will, to live with a man, unmarried. If it was free will, if it was love, she must have been very strong."
"The Hawkinses have always been strong. Ann had to be strong to go to Dent, to stay with him. Then she had to be strong enough to leave him."
"There are a lot of conflicting stories," Quinn began. "Why do you believe Ann Hawkins left Giles Dent?"
"I believe she left to protect the lives growing inside her."
"Lazarus Twisse. Twisse and those who followed him came to Hawkins Hollow in sixteen fifty-one. He was a powerful force, and soon the settlement was under his rule. His rule decreed there would be no dancing, no singing, no music, no books but the Bible. No church but his church, no god but his god."
"So much for freedom of religion."
"Freedom was never Twisse's goal. In the way of those thirsty for power above all else, he intimidated, terrorized, punished, banished, and used as his visible weapon, the wrath of his chosen god. As Twisse's power grew, so did his punishments and penalties. Stocks, lashings, the shearing of a woman's hair if she was deemed ungodly, the branding of a man should he be accused of a crime. And finally, the burning of those he judged to be witches. On the night of July the seventh, sixteen fifty-two, on the accusation of a young woman, Hester Deale, Twisse led a mob from the settlement to the Pagan Stone, and to Giles Dent. What happened there..."
Quinn leaned forward. But Estelle sighed and shook her head. "Well, there are many accounts. As there were many deaths. Seeds planted long before stirred in the ground. Some may have sprouted, only to die in the blaze that scorched the clearing.
"There are...fewer reports of what immediately followed, or followed over the next days and weeks. But in time, Ann Hawkins returned to the settlement with her three sons. And Hester Deale gave birth to a daughter eight months after the killing blaze at the Pagan Stone. Shortly, very shortly after her child, whom she claimed was sired by the devil, was born, Hester drowned herself in a small pond in Hawkins Wood."
Loading her pockets with stones, Quinn thought with a suppressed shudder. "Do you know what happened to her child? Or the children of Ann Hawkins?"
"There are some letters, some journals, family Bibles. But most concrete information has been lost, or has never come to light. It will take considerable time and effort to dig out the truth. I can tell you this, those seeds stayed dormant until a night twenty-one years ago this July. They were awakened, and what sowed them awakened. They bloom for seven nights every seven years, and they strangle Hawkins Hollow. I'm sorry, I tire so quickly these days. It's irritating."
"Can I get you something? Or drive you home?"
"You're a good girl. My grandson will be coming along to pick me up. You'll have spoken, I imagine, to his son by now. To Caleb."
Something in the smile turned a switch in Quinn's brain. "Caleb would be your-"
"Great-grandson. Honorary, you could say. My brother Franklin and his wife, my dearest friend, Maybelle, were killed in an accident just before Jim-Caleb's father was born. My Johnnie and I stood as grandparents to my brother's grandchildren. I'd have counted them and theirs in that long list of progeny before."
"You're a Hawkins by birth then."
"I am, and our line goes back, in the Hollow, to Richard Hawkins, the founder-and through him to Ann." She paused a moment as if to let Quinn absorb, analyze. "He's a good boy, my Caleb, and he carries more than his share of weight on his shoulders."
"From what I've seen, he carries it well."
"He's a good boy," Estelle repeated, then rose. "We'll talk again, soon."
"I'll walk you downstairs."
"Don't trouble. They'll have tea and cookies for me in the staff lounge. I'm a pet here-in the nicest sense of the word. Tell Caleb we spoke, and that I'd like to speak with you again. Don't spend all this pretty day inside a book. As much as I love them, there's life to be lived."
"Who do you think planted the seeds at the Pagan Stone?"
"Gods and demons." Estelle's eyes were tired, but clear. "Gods and demons, and there's such a thin line between the two, isn't there?"
Alone, Quinn sat again. Gods and demons. Those were a big, giant step up from ghosts and spirits, and other bump-in-the-night residents. But didn't it fit, didn't it click right together with the words she remembered from her dreams?
Words she'd looked up that morning.
Bestia, Latin for beast.
Beatus, Latin for blessed.
Devoveo, Latin for sacrifice.
Okay, okay, she thought, if we're heading down that track, it might be a good time to call in the reserves.
She pulled out her phone. When she was greeted by voice mail, Quinn pushed down impatience and waited for her cue to leave a message.
"Cyb, it's Q. I'm in Hawkins Hollow, Maryland. And, wow, I've hooked a big one. Can you come? Let me know if you can come. Let me know if you can't come so I can talk you into it."
She closed the phone, and for the moment she ignored the stack of books she'd selected. Instead, she began to busily type up notes from Estelle Hawkins Abbott's recitation.