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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Three)

Chapter Three

IN LOOSE COTTON PANTS AND A TANK SHE considered suitable only for sleeping, Cybil followed the life-affirming scent of coffee toward the kitchen. It was lovely to know someone in the household woke before she did and had a pot going. The chore, all too often, fell to her as she was up and about before any of the others.

Of course, none of the others slept alone, she thought, so they got coffee and sex. Didn't seem quite fair, she decided, but that's the way the cookie crumbled. Still, the cookie meant she wasn't required to make precaffeine conversation, and had a quiet interlude with the morning paper until the frisky puppies rolled out of bed for the day.

Halfway between the stairs and the kitchen, she stopped, sniffed the air. That, she realized, was more than coffee. Bacon scented the air, which made it a red-letter day. Someone besides Cybil was cooking.

At the doorway, she saw Layla busy at the stove, humming away as she fried and flipped, her dark hair pulled back in a little stub at the nape of her neck. She looked so happy, Cybil thought and wondered why she felt this big-sister affection for Layla.

They were of an age, after all, and while Layla might not be as well-traveled as she was, her housemate had lived in New York for several years, and even in cropped pants and a T-shirt wore urban polish. With Quinn, there'd been an instant connection for Cybil-a click the moment they'd met in college. And now, there was Layla.

She'd never had that same affinity, that click with her own sister, Cybil thought. But then she and Rissa never fully understood each other, and her younger sister tended to get in touch primarily when she needed something or was embroiled in yet another mess.

Cybil decided she should count herself lucky. There was Quinn, who'd been like a missing piece of herself, and now Layla sliding smoothly into the slot, to make the three of them a unit.

With the bacon set aside to drain, Layla turned for a carton of eggs and jolted when she saw Cybil. "God!" On a laugh, she clutched at her heart. "You scared me."

"Sorry. You're up early."

"And with a yen for bacon and eggs." Before Cybil could do it herself, Layla got down a cup and poured coffee. "I made plenty of bacon. I figured you'd be down before I finished, and Fox is always up for a meal."

"Hmm," Cybil said, and dumped milk into the coffee.

"Anyway, I hope you're hungry because I seem to have fried up half a pig. And the eggs are fresh from the O'Dell farm. I got the paper." Layla gestured toward the table. "Why don't you sit down and have your coffee while I finish this up?"

Cybil took that first mind-clearing sip. "I'm forced to ask. What are you after, Darnell?"

"Transparent as Saran Wrap." With a wince, Layla broke the first egg in the bowl. "There is this little favor, and I'd be bribing Quinn with breakfast if she were here instead of at Cal 's. I have the morning off, and a fistful of paint samples. I was hoping I could talk you and Quinn into going over to the shop with me this morning, helping me decide on my color scheme."

Cybil pushed her hair back, drank more coffee. "Here's a question. Why would you think either of us would let you get away with deciding on the color scheme for your own boutique without us badgering you with our opinion?"

"Really?"

"Nobody escapes my opinion, but I'll be eating bacon and eggs."

"Good. Good. It just seems crazy, worrying about paint chips when we've got life-and-death issues to worry about."

"Color schemes are life-and-death issues."

Layla laughed, but shook her head. "We've got a demon who wants us dead, coming into full power in about six weeks, and I'm pursuing the wild hare of opening my own business in the town it wants for its personal playground. Meanwhile Fox has to interview and train-or I have to train-my replacement as his office manager while we figure out how to stay alive and destroy ancient evil. And I'm going to ask Fox to marry me."

"We can't stop living because… Whoa." Cybil held up a hand, and waited for her morning-fuzzy brain to clear. "In my journalism classes, that's what we called burying the lead. Big time."

"Is it crazy?"

"Of course, you never bury the lead." Since it was there, Cybil reached over and took a slice of bacon. "And yes, of course, marriage is insane-that's why it's human."

"I don't mean marriage, I mean asking him. It's so unlike me."

"I would hope so. I'd hate to think you go around proposing to men all willy-nilly."

"I always thought when everything was in place, when the time was right, that I'd wait for the man I loved to set the scene, buy the ring, and ask." Sighing, Layla went back to breaking eggs in the bowl. "That's like me-or was. But I don't care about everything being in place, and how the hell can anybody know, especially us, if the time's right? And I don't want to wait."

"Go get him, sister."

"Would you-I mean under the circumstances?"

"You're damn right I would."

"I feel… Here he comes," Layla whispered. "Don't say anything."

"Damn, I was planning to blurt it all out, then toss a few handfuls of confetti."

"Morning." Fox sent Cybil a sleepy smile, then turned a dazzling one on Layla. "You're cooking."

"My boss gave me the morning off, so I've got time to spare."

"Your boss should always give you whatever you need." He reached in the fridge for his usual Coke. And, popping the top, looked from one woman to the other. "What? What's going on?"

"Nothing." And thinking of his ability to read thoughts and feelings, Layla pointed her whisk at him. "And no peeking. We were just talking about the boutique, paint chips, that sort of thing. How many eggs do you want?"

"A couple. Three."

Layla sent Cybil a satisfied smile when Fox leaned in to nuzzle her and cop some bacon behind her back.

THE BUILDING THAT WOULD HOUSE LAYLA'S BOUTIQUE had an airy feel to it, good light, good location. Important pluses, to Cybil's mind. Layla had years of experience in fashion retail, as well as an excellent eye for style-other major advantages. Added to them was her shared ability with Fox to sense thoughts, and that sense of what a customer really wanted would be an enormous advantage.

She wandered the space. She liked the old wood floors, the warm tones of it and the wide trim. "Charming or slick?" Cybil asked.

"Charming, with slick around the edges." Standing at the front window with Quinn, Layla held one of the paint chips up in the natural light. "I want to respect the space, and jazz it up with little touches. Female, comfortable, but not cozy. Accessible, but not altogether expected."

"No pinks, roses, mauves."

"None," Layla said decisively.

"A couple of good chairs for customers to sit in," Quinn suggested, "to try on shoes, or wait for a friend in the changing area, but no floral fabrics, no chintz."

"If this were a gallery, we'd say your stock would be your art."

"Exactly." Layla beamed over at Cybil. "That's why I'm thinking neutral tones for the walls. Warm neutrals, because of the wood. And I'm thinking instead of a counter"-she waved the flat of her hand waist-high-"I might find a nice antique desk or pretty table for the checkout area. And over here-" She pushed the chips into Quinn's hand, crossed the bare floor. "I'd have clear floating shelves in a random pattern, to display shoes, smaller bags. And then here…"

Cybil followed as Layla moved from section to section, outlining her plans for the layout. The image formed clearly-open racks, shelves, pretty glass-fronted curios for accessories.

"I need Fox's father to build in a couple of dressing rooms back here."

"Three," Cybil said. "Three's more practical, is more interesting to the eye and it's a magickal number."

"Three then, with good, flattering lighting, and the tortuous triple mirror."

"I hate those bastards," Quinn muttered.

"We all do, but they're a necessary evil. And see, the little kitchen back here." With a come-ahead gesture, Layla led the way. "They kept that, through its various retail incarnations. I thought I could do quirky little vignettes every month or so. Like, ah, candles and wine on the table, some flowers-and a negligee or a cocktail dress tossed over the back of the chair. Or a box of cereal on the counter, some breakfast dishes in the sink-and a messenger- or briefcase-style handbag on the table, a pair of pumps under it. You know what I mean?"

"Fun. Clever. Yes, I know what you mean. Let me see those chips." Cybil snatched them from Quinn, then headed back to the front window.

"I've got more," Layla told them. "I've sort of whittled it down to those."

"And have your favorite," Quinn finished.

"Yeah, I do, but I want opinions. Serious opinions, because I'm as scared as I am excited about this, and I don't want to screw it up by-"

"This. Champagne Bubbles. Just the palest gold, really just the impression of color. Subtle, neutral, but with that punch, that fun factor. And any color you put against this will pop."

Lips pursed, Quinn studied the chip over Cybil's shoulder. "She's right. It's great. Female, sophisticated, warm."

"That was my pick." Layla closed her eyes. "I swear, that was my pick."

"Proving the three of us have excellent taste," Cybil concluded. "You're going in to apply for the business loan this week?"

"Yeah." Layla blew out a breath that fluttered her bangs. "Fox says it's a slam dunk. I have references from him, Jim Hawkins, my former boss from the boutique in New York. My finances are-hah-modest, but in good order. And the town wants and needs businesses. Keep revenue local instead of sending it out to the mall and so on."

"It's a good investment. You've got prime location here- Main Street only steps from the Square. You were raised in the business, as your parents owned a dress shop. Work experience, a canny sense of style. A very good investment. I'd like a piece of it."

Layla blinked at Cybil. "Sorry?"

"My finances are healthy-not bank-loan healthy, but healthy enough to invest in a smart enterprise. What have you projected as your start-up costs?"

"Well…" Layla named a figure, and Cybil nodded and wandered. "I could manage a third of that. Quinn?"

"Yeah, I could swing a third."

"Are you kidding?" was all Layla could say. "Are you kidding?"

"Which would leave you to come up with the final third out of your modest finances or the bank loan. I'd go with the loan, not only to give yourself breathing room, but for tax purposes." Cybil brushed back her hair. "Unless you don't want investors."

"I want investors if they're you. Oh God, this is-wait. You should think about it awhile. Seriously. You need to take some time, think about it. I don't want you to-"

"We have been thinking about it."

"And talking about it," Quinn added. "Since you decided to go for it. Christ, Layla, look what we've already invested in each other, and in this town. This is only money-and as Gage would probably say, we want to ante up."

"I'll make it work. I will." Layla brushed away a tear. "I will. I know what we are to each other, but if you do this, I want it all legal and right. Fox will… He'll fix it, he'll take care of that part. I know I can make it work. Now, especially, I know I can."

She threw her arms around Quinn, then opened up to pull Cybil into the hug. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"Not necessary. Remember what else Gage might say," Cybil reminded her.

"What?"

"We could all be dead before August." With a laugh, Cybil gave Layla a pat on the butt, then stepped back. "Have you thought of any possible names for the place yet?"

"Again, are you kidding? This is me, here. I have a list. In fact I have three lists, and a folder. But I'm tossing them because I just thought of the perfect name." Layla held her hands out to the sides, palms up. "Welcome to Sisters."

THEY SEPARATED, LAYLA TO THE OFFICE, QUINN to have lunch with Cal 's mother to discuss wedding plans, Cybil back home. She wanted to pursue the bloodstone-as-weapon angle, and push deeper into the idea of it being a fragment of a larger mystical power source.

She liked the quiet and the solitude. It was good for thinking, reshuffling thoughts, for moving them around like puzzle pieces until she found a better fit. Because she wanted a change of venue, she brought her laptop and the file of notes she'd printed out that dealt specifically with the bloodstone down to the kitchen. With the back door and windows open to the spring air, she made iced tea, fixed a small bowl of salad. Over lunch, she reviewed her notes.

July 7, 1652. Giles Dent (the Guardian) wore the bloodstone amulet on the night Lazarus Twisse (the Demon) led the mob it had infected to the Pagan Stone in Hawkins Wood, where Giles had a small cabin. Prior to that night, Dent had spoken of the stone, and shown it to Ann Hawkins, his lover and the mother of his triplet sons (who would be born on 7/7/1652). Ann wrote of it, briefly and cryptically, in the journals she kept after Dent sent her away (to what would become the O'Dell farm) in order to birth their sons in safety.

When next documented, the stone had been divided into three equal parts, and was clutched in Cal Hawkins's, Fox O'Dell's, and Gage Turner's fists, after they had performed their blood brother ritual, at the Pagan Stone at midnight on their shared tenth birthday (7/7/1987). The ritual-blood ritual-freed the demon for a period of seven days, every seven years, during which time it infected certain people in Hawkins Hollow, said infection causing them to perform acts of violence, even murder.

However, as the demon was freed, the three boys gained specific powers of self-healing and psychic gifts. Weapons.

Cybil nodded at the word she'd underscored. "Yeah, these are weapons, these are tools that kept them alive, kept them in the fight. And those weapons sprang from, or are certainly connected to, the bloodstone."

She reviewed her notes on Ann Hawkins's journal entry about bringing three back to one, and her conversations-such as they'd been-with Cal, with Layla. One into three, three into one, Cybil mused and found herself mildly annoyed Ann hadn't elected to appear to her.

She thought she'd like to interview a ghost.

She began to type her thoughts, using the stream-of-consciousness method that served her best, and could and would be refined later. From time to time she paused to make a quick handwritten note to herself on her pad, on some point she wanted to dig into later, or a reference area that needed a closer look.

When she heard the front door open, she kept working-thought fleetingly: Quinn's back early. Even when the door slammed, sharp as a shot moments later, she didn't stop the work. Wedding tension, she supposed.

But when the door behind her slammed, and the thumb bolt on the lock snicked, it got her attention. She saved the work-it was second nature to save the work, and her mind barely registered the automatic gesture. Over the sink, the window slid down, the slow movement somehow more threatening than the slammed door.

She could hurt it, she reminded herself, as she rose to sidestep to the knife block on the counter. They'd hurt it before. It felt pain. Drawing the chef's knife out of the block, she promised herself if it was in the house with her, she would damn well cause it some pain. Still, her instincts told her she'd do better outside than locked in. She reached for the thumb bolt.

The shock ripped up her arm, had her loosing a breathless scream as she stumbled back. On a sudden, thunderous burst, the kitchen faucet gushed blood. She stepped toward the phone-help, should she need it, was only two minutes away. But when she reached for the phone, a second, more violent shock jolted her.

Scare tactics, she told herself as she began to edge out of the kitchen. Trap the lone woman in the house. Make a lot of noise, she added when the booming shook the walls, the floor, the ceiling.

She saw the boy through the living room window. Its face was pressed against it. It grinned.

I can't get out, but it can't get in, she thought. Isn't that interesting? But as she watched, it crawled up the glass, across it, down, like some hideous bug.

And the glass bled until it was covered with red, and with the buzzing black flies that came to drink.

They smothered the light until the room, the house, was dark as pitch. Like being blind, she thought as her heart began to buck and kick. That's what it wanted her to feel. It wanted to claw through her to that old, deep-seated fear. Through the booming, the buzzing, she braced a hand on the wall to guide her. She felt the warm wet run over her hand, and knew the walls bled.

She would get out, she told herself. Into the light. She'd take the shock, she'd handle it, and she would get out. Wall gave way to stair banister, and she shuddered with relief. Nearly there.

Something flew out of the dark, knocking her off her feet. The knife clattered uselessly across the floor. So she crawled, hands and knees. When the door flew open, the light all but blinded her. She came up like a runner off the mark.

She plowed straight into Gage. Later, he'd think she would have gone straight through him if she could've managed it. He caught her, fully expecting to have a clawing, kicking, hysterical female in his hands. Instead, she looked into his eyes with her own fierce and cold.

"Do you see it?" she demanded.

"Yeah. Your neighbor out sweeping her front walk doesn't. She's waving."

Cybil kept a viselike grip on Gage's arm with one hand, turned, and waved with the other. On the front window, the boy scrabbled like a spider. "Keep it up." Cybil spaced her words evenly. "Waste all the energy you like on today's matinee." Deliberately she released Gage and sat on the front steps. "So," she said to Gage, "out for a drive?"

He stared at her for a moment, then shaking his head, sat down beside her. The boy leaped down to race around the lawn. Where it ran, blood flowed like a river. "Actually, I'd stopped in to see Fox. While I was there, he got this little buzz in the brain. A lot of static, he said, like a signal just off channel. Since Layla said you were the only one on your own, I came up to check."

"I'm very glad to see you." Fire sprang up from the bloody river. "I wasn't sure I was getting through, with our psychic Bat Signal." To help keep herself steady, she reached out, took Gage's hand.

On the lawn, the thing screamed in fury. It leaped, and it dived into the stream of flaming blood.

"Impressive exit."

"You've got balls of fucking steel," Gage murmured.

"A professional gambler should be able to read a bluff better than that."

As every inch of her began to shake, Gage took her chin in his hand, turned her face to his. "It takes balls of fucking steel to bluff like that."

"It feeds on fear. I was damned if I was going to give it lunch. But I'm double damned if I'm going back in the house alone, right at the moment."

"Do you want to go back in, or do you want to go somewhere else?"

His tone was casual, almost careless, without a trace of there, there, honey. The last hard knot in her belly loosened, and she realized that last little one had been pride, not fear. "I want to be in Bimini, sipping a bellini on the beach."

"Let's go."

When she laughed, he went with instinct rather than judgment, and took her mouth with his.

Stupid, he knew it was stupid, but smart couldn't be half as satisfying. She tasted like she looked-exotic and mysterious. She didn't feign surprise or resistance, and instead took as he did. When he released her, she kept her eyes on his as she leaned back.

"Well, that was no bellini in Bimini, but it was very nice."

"I can do better than nice."

"Oh, I have no doubt. But…" She gave his shoulder a companionable pat as she rose. "I think we'd better go inside, make sure everything's all right in there." She looked out over the lush green lawn, toward the front window sparkling now in the afternoon sunlight. "It probably is, but we should check."

"Right." He got up to go inside with her. "You should call Fox's office, let them know you're okay."

"Yeah. In the kitchen. That's where I was when it started." She gestured to the living room chair lying on its side. "That must've been what flew across the room and knocked me down. The little bastard threw a chair at me."

Gage righted it, then picked up the knife. "Yours?"

"Yeah, too bad I didn't get to use it." She stepped into the kitchen with him, let out a slow breath. "The back door's closed and locked, and so's the window. It did that. That was real. It's best to know what's real and what isn't." After rinsing the knife and sliding it back into the block, she picked up the phone to call Layla.

Assuming she'd want it the way it was, Gage unlocked and opened both door and window.

"I'm going to cook," Cybil announced when she hung up the phone.

"Fine."

"It'll keep me calm and centered. I'll need a few things, so you can drive me to the market."

"I can?"

"Yes, you can. I'll get my purse. And since I now have bellinis on the brain, we'll stop by the liquor store and pick up some champagne."

"You want champagne," he said after a beat.

"Who doesn't?"

"Anything else on our list of errands?"

She only smiled. "You can bet I'm getting a pair of rubber gloves. I'll explain on the way," she said.

SHE BROWSED, STUDIED, EXAMINED THE OFFERINGS in produce. She selected tomatoes with the care and deliberation he imagined a woman might use when selecting an important piece of jewelry. In the brightly lit market with its mind-melting Muzak and red dot specials, she looked like some fairy queen. Titania, maybe, he decided. Titania had been no pushover either.

He'd expected to be irritated, or at least impatient with the household task of food shopping, but she was fascinating to watch. She had a fluid way of moving, and a look in her eyes that said she noticed everything. He wondered how many people could be terrorized by a demon, then coolly stroll behind a grocery store shopping cart.

He had to admire that.

She spent a full fifteen minutes over poultry, examining, rejecting chickens until she found one that somehow met her standards.

"We're having chicken? All this for chicken?"

"Not just chicken." She tossed back her hair, gave him that sidelong smile of hers. "It's a roasted chicken made with wine, sage, garlic, balsamic-and so on. You'll weep with joy at every bite."

"I don't think so."

"Your tastebuds will. Your travels have probably taken you to New York a time or two over the years."

"Sure."

"Ever dined at Piquant?"

"Fancy French place, Upper West."

"Yes, and a New York institution. The chef there was my first serious lover. He was older, French, absolutely perfect for the first serious lover of a woman of twenty." That smile turned knowing, and just a little sultry. "He taught me quite a bit-about cooking."

"How much older?"

"Considerably. He had a daughter my age. Naturally, she despised me." She poked at a baguette. "No, I'm not settling for the bread here, not this late in the day. We'll stop by the bakery in town. If nothing there works, I'll just bake some."

"You'll just bake some bread."

"If necessary. If I'm in the mood to, it can be therapeutic and satisfying."

"Like sex."

Her smile was quick and easy. "Exactly." She rolled the cart into line. Leaned on the handle. "So, who was your first serious lover?"

She didn't notice, or didn't appear to care, that the woman ahead of them in line looked back over her shoulder with wide eyes. "I haven't had one yet."

"Well, that's a shame. You've missed all the wild passion, the bitter arguments, the mad yearnings. Sex is fun without it, but all the rest adds intensity." Cybil smiled at the woman ahead of them. "Don't you agree?"

The woman flushed, moved her shoulders. "Ah, yeah, I guess. Sure." And developed a sudden-and to Gage's eyes, bogus-interest in the tabloids on the rack before the belt.

"Still, women are more prone to look for all that emotion. It's genetic-hormonal," Cybil continued conversationally. "We're more sexually satisfied, as a gender, when we let our emotions engage, and believe-even if the belief is false-our lover's emotions are as well."

When the belt cleared enough, she began to load her purchases on. "I cook," she told Gage, "you pay."

"That wasn't mentioned."

She gave the bird a pat as she set it on the belt. "If you don't like the chicken, I'll give you a refund."

He watched her load. Long fingers, palely painted nails, a couple of sparkling rings. "I could lie."

"You won't. You like to win, but like women and emotion and sex, the win isn't as satisfying for you unless you play it straight."

He watched the items ring up, and total. "It better be damn good chicken," he said as he pulled out his wallet.

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