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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Twelve)

Chapter Twelve

IT DIDN'T TAKE MUCH OF A PUSH TO CONVINCE Cybil to throttle back to research mode for a few days. They'd have to look again, she and Gage, but she couldn't claim to look forward to the experience.

Had she seen Gage's death? Had she felt her own? The question played through her mind over and over. Had it been death, or another kind of end when the black had dropped around her, leaving her blind. Had the screams she'd heard been her own?

She'd seen herself at the Pagan Stone before, and every time she did, death came for her there. Not life, not like Quinn and Layla, she mused, no celebration. Only the blood and the black.

She'd have to go back, she knew. In vision and in reality. Not only to seek answers, but to accept them. When she did, she had to go back strong. But not today. Today was a holiday with red, white, and blue bunting, with marching bands and little girls in sparkling costumes. Today's Memorial Day parade was, in her opinion, a little slice of the Hawkins Hollow pie, and sampling it helped remind her why she would go back.

And the view from the steps of Fox's office building was one of the best in the house.

"I love a parade," Quinn said beside her.

" Main Street, U.S.A. Hard to resist."

"Aw, look, there's some of the Little League guys." Quinn bounced on her toes while the pickup carting kids in the back inched by. "Those are the Blazers, proudly sponsored by the Bowl-a-Rama. Cal 's dad coaches, too. They're on a three-game streak."

"You're really into all this. I mean, seriously into small-town mode."

"Who knew?" With a laugh, Quinn snaked an arm around Cybil's waist. "I'm thinking of joining a committee, and I'm going to do a discussion and signing at the bookstore. Cal 's mom offered to teach me how to make pie, but I'm dodging that. There are limits."

"You're in love with this place," Cybil observed. "Not just Cal, but the town."

"I am. Writing this book changed my life, I guess. Bringing me here, realizing I was part of the lore I was researching. It brought me to Cal. But the process of writing it-beyond the hard stuff, the ugly stuff we've faced and have to face-it pulled me in, Cyb. The people, the community, the traditions, the pride. It's just exactly what I want. Not your style, I know."

"I've got nothing against it. In fact, I like it very much."

She looked out over the crowds lining the sidewalks, the fathers with kids riding their shoulders, long-legged teenage girls moving in their colorful packs, families and friends hunkered down in their folding chairs at the curbs. The air was ripe with hot dogs and candy, spicy with the heliotrope from the pots Fox had stacked on his steps. Everything was bright and clear-the blue sky, the yellow sun, the patriotic bunting flying over the streets, the red and white petunias spilling out of baskets hanging on every lamppost along Main.

Young girls in their spangles tossed batons, executed cartwheels on their way toward the Square. In the distance she heard the sound of trumpets and drums from an approaching marching band.

Most days she might prefer the pace of New York, the style of Paris, the romance of Florence, but on a sunny Saturday afternoon while May readied to give over to June, Hawkins Hollow was the perfect place to be.

She glanced over when Fox held out a glass. "Sun tea," he told her. "There's beer inside if you'd rather."

"This is great." Looking over his shoulder, she lifted an eyebrow at Gage as she sipped. "Not a parade fan?"

"I've seen my share."

"Here comes the highlight," Cal announced. "The Hawkins Hollow High School Marching Band."

Majorettes and honor guards twirled and tossed silver batons and glossy white rifles. The squad of cheerleaders danced and shook pom-poms. Crowd favorites, Cybil thought as cheers and applause erupted. And with the pair of drum majors high-stepping, the band rocked into "Twist and Shout."

"Bueller?" Cal said from behind her, and Cybil laughed.

"It's perfect, isn't it? Just absolutely."

The sweetness of it made her eyes sting. All those young faces, the bold blue and pure white of the uniforms, the tall hats, the spinning batons all moving, moving to the sheer fun of the music. People on the sidewalk began to dance, to call out the lyrics, and the sun bounced cheerfully over the bright, bright brass of instruments.

Blood gushed out of trumpets to splash over the bold blue and pure white, the fresh young faces, the high hats. It splat-ted from piccolos, dripped from flutes, rained up from the beat of sticks on drums.

"Oh God," Cybil breathed.

The boy swooped over the street, dropped to it to dance. She wanted to cringe back, to cower away when its awful eyes latched on to hers. But she stood, fighting off the quaking and grateful when Gage's hand dropped firmly onto her shoulder.

Overhead the bunting burst into flame. And the band played to the cheers of the crowd.

"Wait." Fox gripped Layla's hand. "Some of them see it or feel it. Look."

Cybil tore her gaze away from the demon. She saw shock and fear on some of the faces in the crowd, paleness or puzzlement on others. Here and there parents grabbed young children, pushed through the onlookers to drag them away while others only stood clapping hands to the beat.

"Bad boy! Bad boy!" A toddler screamed from her perch on her father's shoulders. And began to cry in harsh, horrible sobs. Batons flamed as they spiraled in the air. The street ran with blood. Some of the band broke ranks and ran.

Beside her, Quinn coolly, efficiently snapped pictures.

Cybil watched the boy, and as she stared, its head turned, turned, turned impossibly on its neck until its eyes met hers again. It grinned madly, baring sharp and glistening teeth.

"I'll save you for last, keep you for a pet. I'll plant my seed in you. When it ripens, when it blooms, I'll cut it from you so it can drink your blood like mother's milk."

Then it leaped, springing high into the air on a plate of fire. Riding it, it shot toward her.

She might have run, she might have stood. She'd never know. Gage yanked her back so violently she fell. Even as she shoved to her feet, he was planted in front of her. She saw the thing burst into a mass of bloody black, and vanish with the horrible echo of a boy's laughter.

Her ears rang with it, and with the brass and drums as the band continued its march up Main Street. When she pushed Gage aside to see, the buntings waved red, white, and blue. The sun bounced cheerfully off the instruments.

Cybil stepped back again. "I think I've had enough of parades for one day."

IN FOX'S OFFICE, QUINN USED HIS COMPUTER TO load and display the photographs. "What we saw doesn't come through." She tapped the screen.

"Because it wasn't real. Not all the way real," Layla said.

"Blurs and smears," Quinn noted. "And this cloudy area on each where the little bastard was. There, but not there."

"There are opposing schools of thought on paranormal photography." Calm now with something tangible to study, Cybil pushed her hair back as she leaned closer to the screen. "Some claim that digital cameras have the advantage, able to record light spectrums not visible to the human eye. Others discount them, as they can pick up refractions and reflections, dust motes and so on that cloud the issue. So a good thirty-five millimeter is recommended. But…"

"It's not light, but dark," Quinn finished, following the line. "An infrared lens might do better. I should've gotten my recorder out of my purse," she added, scrolling slowly through the series of photos. "It happened so fast, and I was thinking pictures not sound until…"

"We heard what it said," Cybil stated.

"Yeah." Quinn laid a hand over hers. "I'd like to see if and how its voice records."

"Isn't it more to the point that we weren't the only ones to see something?"

Quinn looked up at Gage. "You're right. You're right. Does it mean it's strong enough now to push through to the edges of reality, or that those who saw something, even just felt something, are more sensitive? More connected?"

"Some of both gets my vote." Fox ran a hand up and down Layla's back as they watched the photos scroll. "What Layla said about it not being completely real? That's how it felt to me. And that means it wasn't completely not real. I didn't see everyone who reacted, but those I noticed were part of families that've been in the Hollow for generations."

"Exactly," Cal confirmed. "I caught that, too."

"If we're able to move people out, that would be where we'd start," Fox said.

"My dad's talked to a few people, felt some of them out." Cal nodded. "We'll make it work." He glanced at his watch. "We're supposed to be heading over to my parents' pretty soon. Big backyard holiday cookout, remember? If anybody's not up for it, I'll explain."

"We should all go." Straightening, Cybil looked away from the photos. "We should all go, drink beer, eat burgers and potato salad. We've said it before. Living, doing, being normal, especially after something like this, it's saying: Up yours."

"I'm with Cybil on that. I need to run back to the house, file this memory card. Then Cal and I can head over."

"We'll lock up and ride with you." Fox looked at Gage. "Cool?"

"Yeah, we'll follow."

"Why don't you go ahead?" Cybil suggested. "We'll lock up."

"Good enough."

Gage waited until he and Cybil were alone. "What do you need to say you didn't want to say in front of them?"

" Reading people that well must come in handy, professionally. Despite the optimistic possibilities we saw, we've seen the other side of that. There are two things, actually. I realize that the last time out you tried to fight this at the Pagan Stone and it didn't work. People died. But-"

"But we have to finish this at the Pagan Stone," he interrupted. "I know it. There's no way around it. We've seen it enough times, you and I, to understand it. Cal and Fox know it, too. It's harder for them. This is their town, these are their people."

"Yours, too. At the base of it, Gage," she said before he could disagree. "It's where you come from. Whether or not it's where you end up, it's where you started. So it's yours."

"Maybe. What's the second thing?"

"I need to ask you for a favor."

He lifted his eyebrows in question. "What's the favor?"

She smiled a little. "I knew you weren't the type to just say: Name it. If things don't go the way we hope, and if you're sure we wouldn't be able to turn it around-and one more if, if I'm not able to do it myself, which would be my first choice-"

"You're going to stand there and ask me to kill you."

"You do read well. I've seen you do just that in other dreams, other visions. The other side of the coin. I'm telling you, Gage, standing here with clear mind, cool blood, that I'd rather die than live through what that thing just promised me. I need you to know that, understand that, and I'm asking you not to let it take me, whatever has to be done."

"I won't let it take you. That's all you get, Cybil," he added when she started to speak. "I won't let it take you."

She stared into his eyes-green and direct-until she saw what she needed to see. "Okay. Let's go eat potato salad."

BECAUSE HE FELT HE NEEDED A DISTRACTION, Gage hunted up a poker game just outside of D.C. The stakes weren't as rich as he might have liked, but the game itself served. So, he could admit, did the temporary distance from Hawkins Hollow and from Cybil. Couldn't escape the first, he thought as he drove back on a soft June morning. But he'd let himself get much too involved with the woman.

It was stepping-back time.

When a woman looked to you to take her life to save her from worse, it was past stepping-back time. Too much responsibility, he thought as he traveled the familiar road. Too intense. Too damn real. And why the hell had he promised he'd take care of her-because that's just what he'd done. Something in the way she'd looked at him, he decided. Steady, calm as she'd asked him to end her life. She'd meant what she'd said, flat-out meant it. More, she'd trusted him to know she meant it.

Time for a conversation, he decided. Time to make sure they both understood exactly what was on the table, and what wasn't. He didn't want anyone depending on him.

He could ask himself why he hadn't stayed over after the game, used the hotel room he'd booked. Why he hadn't moved on the signals sent by the very appealing redhead who'd given him a good run for his money at the table. All things being equal, he should be enjoying a post-sex room-service breakfast with the redhead right about now. Instead he was, again, heading for the Hollow.

So he wouldn't ask himself why. No point in asking when he didn't want the answer.

He glanced in the rearview at the sound of the sirens, then took a casual glance down at the speedometer. Only about five over the posted limit, he noted, as he wasn't in any hurry. He pulled over to the shoulder. He wasn't surprised that the view in his side mirror showed him Derrick Napper climbing out of the cruiser.

Fucking Napper, who'd hated him, Cal, and Fox since childhood. And had made it his life's work, so it seemed, to cause them trouble. Fox, particularly, Gage mused. But none of the three of them were immune.

Asshole likes to strut, Gage thought, as Napper did just that to cover the distance from the cruiser to Gage's Ferrari. How the hell did they allow such a complete bastard to strap on a weapon and pin on a badge?

Cocking a hip, Napper leaned down, gave Gage a wide, white smile. "Some people think having a fancy machine gives them the right to break the law."

"Some might."

"You were speeding, boy."

"Maybe." Without being asked, Gage offered license and registration.

"What'd this thing set you back?"

"Just write the ticket, Napper."

Napper's eyes narrowed to slits. "You were weaving."

"No," Gage said with the same dead calm, "I wasn't."

"Driving erratically, speeding. You been drinking?"

Gage tapped the to-go cup in its holder. "Coffee."

"I believe I smell alcohol on your breath. We take driving drunk serious around here, fuckhead." He smiled when he said it. "I need you to step out of the car, take a test."

"No."

Napper's hand dropped to the butt of his sidearm. "I said step out of the car, fucker."

Baiting the hook, Gage thought. It was the sort of thing that too often worked on Fox. For himself, he'd just let Deputy Asshole play it out. Slowly, Gage took the keys out of the ignition. He stepped out, clicked the locks, all the while staring into Napper's eyes. "I'm not taking a Breathalyzer, and it's within my rights to refuse."

"I say you stink of alcohol." Napper jammed a finger into Gage's chest. "I say you're a lousy drunk, just like your old man."

"Say anything you want. The opinions of dickheads don't weigh much with me."

Napper shoved Gage back against the car. Though Gage's hands curled into fists, he kept them at his sides. "I say you're drunk." To punctuate it, Napper slammed his hand on Gage's chest. "I say you resisted arrest. I say you assaulted an officer. We'll see how much that weighs when you're behind bars." He shoved Gage again, grinned. "Chicken-shit bastard." He pushed Gage around. "Spread 'em."

Coolly, Gage laid his hands on the roof of the car as Napper frisked him. "You get off on that? Is that part of the perks?" He hissed in a breath, but stayed as he was when Napper rabbit-punched him.

"You shut the fuck up." Wrenching Gage's arms behind his back, Napper cuffed him. "Maybe we'll take a little ride, you and me, before I put you in jail."

"It'll be interesting to hear you explain that, when I call in the six witnesses who drove by while you were rousting me. While you put hands on me while mine were at my sides. License numbers are in my head. I'm good with numbers." He didn't flinch when Napper pushed him violently against the car again. "And look, here comes another one."

The approaching car slowed. Gage recognized it as Joanne Barry's little hybrid. She stopped the car, rolled down the windows, and said, "Oh-oh."

"You just drive on, Ms. Barry. This is police business."

The disgusted look she sent Napper spoke volumes. "So I see. Need a lawyer, Gage?"

"Looks like. Why don't you have Fox meet me at the police station."

"I said you drive on!" Once again Napper's hand went to the butt of his weapon. "Or do you want me to arrest you for interfering with an officer?"

"You always were a nasty little prick. I'll call Fox, Gage." She pulled her car to the shoulder, staring at Napper as she took out her cell phone.

On an oath, Napper pushed Gage in the back of the cruiser. Gage saw his eyes latch on to the rearview as he got behind the wheel. And saw the fury in them as Joanne followed the cruiser into town, and all the way to the police station.

Gage's first twinge of fear came when both Joanne and Napper stepped out of their cars at the station, and he himself was locked inside the cruiser. No, no, he thought, witnesses here, too. Napper wouldn't lay a hand on her and if he did…

But he saw only a brief exchange of words before Napper unlocked the backseat and hauled him out. Joanne marched straight inside, skirted Dispatch with a "Hey, Carla," for the woman who sat there, then clipped to chief of police Wayne Hawbaker's office. "I need to file a complaint against one of your deputies, Wayne. And you need to come out here, now."

Just look at her, Gage thought. Wasn't she something?

Hawbaker came out, looked from Joanne to Gage to Napper. "What seems to be the trouble?"

"I tagged this individual for speeding, reckless driving. I suspected he was driving under the influence. He refused to take a Breathalyzer, resisted, and took a swing at me."

"Bullshit!"

"Joanne," Hawbaker said quietly. "Gage?"

"I'll cop to the speeding. I was about five over the limit. Joanne gave you the rest. It's bullshit."

Hawbaker's steady stare gave nothing away. "You been drinking?"

"I had a beer about ten o'clock last night. That's, what, about twelve hours ago?"

"He was driving erratically. Had an open container in the car."

"I wasn't driving erratically, and the open container was a goddamn go-coffee from Sheetz. Your boy here baited me, manhandled me, rabbit-punched me, cuffed me, and suggested we take a ride before he brought me in."

Red flags of fury rode Napper's cheeks. "He's a lying sack."

"My car's on the side of the road," Gage continued in the same even tone. "Just before Blue Mountain Lane, in front of a two-story redbrick house, white shutters, front garden. White Toyota hatchback in the driveway, Maryland vanity license plate reads Jenny4. Nice-looking brunette was out front gardening and saw it go down. You ought to check it out." He looked back at Napper now, smiled easily. "You're not very observant for a cop."

"That'd be Jenny Mullendore." Hawbaker studied Napper's face. Whatever he saw in it had his jaw tightening. Before he could speak, Fox pushed through the door.

"Quiet," he said, pointing a finger at Gage. "Why is my client in handcuffs?" he demanded.

"Derrick, uncuff him."

"I'm booking him on the aforesaid charges, and-"

"I said uncuff him. We're going to sit down and hash this out now."

Napper whirled on his chief. "You're not standing by me?"

"I want to speak to my client," Fox interrupted. "In private."

"Fox." Hawbaker dragged his hands over his bristly, graying hair. "Give me a minute here. Derrick, did you strike Gage?"

"Hell, no. I had to take him in hand when he resisted."

"Is that what Jenny Mullendore's going to tell me when I ask her?"

Napper's eyes went to furious slits. "I don't know what she's going to tell you. For all I know she's screwing him and she'll say any damn thing."

"You're quite the lover, Gage," Joanne said with a smile. "According to Deputy Napper, I'm screwing you, too."

Fox rounded on Napper, and currently cuffed, Gage could only body-bump him back. "What did you say to my mother?"

"Don't worry." Knowing her son, Joanne stepped forward, took a firm grip on his arm. "I'm filing a complaint. He told me to fuck off when I followed him in, and I followed him in because I saw him shoving Gage, who was already handcuffed. He suggested that I put out for Gage, and half the men in town."

"Jesus Christ, Derrick."

"She's lying."

"Everyone's lying but you." Gage shook his head. "That must be tough. If these cuffs aren't off in the next five seconds, I'm authorizing my attorney to file a civil suit against the deputy, and the Hawkins Hollow police department."

"Uncuff him. Now, Deputy! Carla." Chief Hawbaker turned to the wide-eyed woman at Dispatch. "Get ahold of Jennifer Mullendore."

"Um, actually, Chief, she's on the line. She just called in about, ah, an incident in front of her house."

Fox beamed a smile. "Isn't it nice when private citizens do their public duty? Are you filing charges against my client, Chief?"

This time Hawbaker scrubbed his hands over his face. "I'd appreciate it if you'd give me a few minutes on that. I'm going to take this call in my office. Deputy, come with me. If y'all would just have a seat?"

Fox sat, stretched out his legs. "Just can't stay out of trouble, can you?" he said to Gage.

"Apparently not."

"You either," he said to his mother.

"My boyfriend and I are badasses."

"He crossed the line with this," Fox said quietly. "Hawbaker's good police, he's a good chief, and he's not going to take it, not going to let it ride. If Jenny corroborates your statement, you've got grounds for those civil suits, and Hawbaker knows it. More, he knows he's got a loose cannon on his hands in Napper."

"My girlfriend hadn't come along, he would've done more. He was working himself up to it." Gage leaned over, kissed Joanne's cheek. "Thanks, honey."

"Cut that out or I'm telling my father." Fox leaned closer to Gage. "Was it just Nap the Prick, or was it more?"

"I can't say for certain, but we all know Napper doesn't need demonic help being a violent bastard. Just him, I think. He got worried when I mentioned I had plate numbers for about six cars that went by while he was shoving me around."

Gage glanced toward the closed office door when Napper's voice boomed out. "Fuck you, then. I quit." He burst out a moment later, rage burning in his eyes.

Gage noted his sidearm was missing. "There won't always be a slut around for you bastards to hide behind." He slammed out the front door of the station.

"Did he mean me or Jenny Mullendore was a slut?" Joanne wondered. "Because honestly, I don't see how she has time for slut activities with those two preschoolers of hers. Me, I've got lots of time."

"Okay, Mom." Fox patted her arm, then rose when Hawbaker stepped out of his office.

"I want to apologize to you, Joanne, for the unacceptable behavior of one of my deputies. I'd appreciate it if you'd file that complaint. I'd like to apologize to you, Gage, on behalf of my department for the harassment. Mrs. Mullendore's statement jibed with what you told me. I realize you're within your rights to file a civil action. I will tell you that due to the circumstances, I suspended Deputy Napper, with the intention of conducting a full investigation of this matter. He has elected to resign from the department."

"That works for me." Gage got to his feet.

"Unofficially, I'm going to tell you, all of you-and you can pass this to Cal, because it seems to me Derrick sees you as one. You be careful. You watch your backs. He's… volatile. I can have you taken back to your car, Gage, if you want."

"I've got that covered," Fox told Hawbaker. "You watch your back, too. Napper holds grudges."

GAGE PLANNED TO HEAD STRAIGHT BACK TO CAL'S, grab a shower, some food, maybe some sleep. But impulse pushed him to the rental house. Cybil stood out front, in shorts and a tank that showed off long legs and long arms, and watered the pots and baskets of flowers scattered around the entrance.

She lowered the big, galvanized can, and strolled down to meet him. "I heard you had a busy morning."

"No secrets in the Hollow."

"Oh, a few. Is everything all right now?"

"I'm not in jail and Napper no longer works for the town police."

"Both good news." She angled her head. "How pissed off are you? It's difficult to tell."

"Only mildly at this point. During? I wanted to kick his ass out into the road and stomp on his face. It's hard to resist that kind of pleasure. But…"

"A man who controls himself has a better chance of winning."

"Something like that."

"Well, you won this one. Are you coming in, or passing by?"

Step back, go home, Gage told himself. "Any chance of getting a meal around here?"

"There might be. I guess you've earned it."

When she turned, Gage took her arm. "I wasn't going to come here today. I don't know why I did."

"For a meal?"

He pulled her to him, took her lips with a hunger that had nothing to do with food. "No. I don't know what this is, this you and me. I don't know if I like it."

"At least we're in step there because neither do I."

"If we're alive come mid-July, I'm gone."

"So am I."

"Okay then."

"Okay. No strings on you, no strings on me." But she brushed her hands through his hair and kissed him, warmly, again. "Gage, there are a lot more important things to worry about here than what this you-and-me thing might be."

"I don't lie to women, and I don't like to misdirect them either. That's all."

"So noted. I don't like to be lied to, but I have a habit of picking my own direction. Do you want to come in and have that meal?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I do."

true

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