Blood Brothers (Chapter Seventeen)
IT WASN'T THE TIME, CAL DETERMINED, TO TALK about a broken stone or property searches when Quinn was buzzed about her trip to the past with Ann Hawkins. In any case, the bowling center wasn't the place for that kind of exchange of information.
He considered bringing it up after closing when she dragged him into her home office to show him the new chart Layla had generated that listed the time, place, approximate duration, and involved parties in all known incidents since Quinn's arrival.
He forgot about it when he was in bed with her, when she was moving with him, when everything felt right again.
Then he told himself it was too late to bring it up, to give the topics the proper time when she was curled up warm with him.
Maybe it was avoidance, but he opted for the likelihood it was just his tendency to prefer things at the right time, in the right place. He'd arranged to take Sunday off so the entire group could hike to the Pagan Stone. That, to his mind, was the right time and place.
Then Nature screwed with his plans.
When forecasters began to predict an oncoming blizzard, he kept a jaundiced eye on the reports. They were, in his experience, wrong at least as often as they were right. Even when the first flakes began to fall midmorning, he remained unconvinced. It was the third blizzard hype of the year, and so far the biggest storm had dumped a reasonable eight inches.
He shrugged it off when the afternoon leagues canceled. It had gotten so people canceled everything at the first half inch, then went to war over bread and toilet paper in the supermarket. And since the powers-that-be canceled school before noon, the arcade and the grill were buzzing.
But when his father came in about two in the afternoon, looking like Sasquatch, Cal paid more attention.
"I think we're going to close up shop," Jim said in his easy way.
"It's not that bad. The arcade's drawing the usual suspects, the grill's been busy. We've had some lanes booked. A lot of towners will come in later in the afternoon, looking for something to do."
"It's bad enough, and it's getting worse." Jim shoved his gloves in the pocket of his parka. "We'll have a foot by sundown the way it's going. We need to send these kids home, haul them there if they don't live within easy walking distance. We'll close up, then you go on home, too. Or you get your dog and Gage and come on over and stay with us. Your mother'll worry sick if she thinks you're out driving in this at night."
He started to remind his father that he was thirty, had four-wheel drive, and had been driving nearly half his life. Knowing it was pointless, Cal just nodded. "We'll be fine. I've got plenty of supplies. I'll clear out the customers, close up, Dad. You go on home. She'll worry about you, too."
"There's time enough to close down and lock up." Jim glanced over at the lanes where a six-pack of teenagers sent off energy and hormones in equal measure. "Had a hell of a storm when I was a kid. Your grandfather kept her open. We stayed here for three days. Time of my life."
"I bet." Cal grinned. "Want to call Mom, say we're stuck? You and me can ride it out. Have a bowling marathon."
"Damned if I wouldn't." The lines around Jim's eyes crinkled at the idea. "Of course, she'll kick my ass for it and it'd be the last time I bowled."
"Better shut down then."
Though there were protests and moans, they moved customers along, arranging for rides when necessary with some of the staff. In the silence, Cal shut down the grill himself. He knew his father had gone back to check with Bill Turner. Not just to give instructions, he thought, but to make sure Bill had whatever he needed, to slip him a little extra cash if he didn't.
As he shut down, Cal pulled out his phone and called Fox's office. "Hey. Wondered if I'd catch you."
"Just. I'm closing. Already sent Mrs. H home. It's getting bad out there."
"Head over to my place. If this comes in like they're whining about, it might be a couple days before the roads are clear. No point wasting them. And maybe you should stop, pick up, you know, toilet paper, bread."
"Toilet…You're bringing the women?"
"Yeah." He'd made up his mind on that when he'd taken a look outside. "Get…stuff. Figure it out. I'll be home as soon as I can."
He clicked off, then shut down the alley lights as his father came out.
"Everything set?" Cal asked.
The way his father looked around the darkened alley told Cal he was thinking they weren't just going to lose their big Friday night, but likely the entire weekend.
"We'll make it up, Dad."
"That's right. We always do." He gave Cal a slap on the shoulder. "Let's get home."
QUINN WAS LAUGHING WHEN SHE OPENED THE door. "Isn't this great! They say we could get three feet, maybe more! Cyb's making goulash, and Layla went out and picked up extra batteries and candles in case we lose power."
"Good. Great." Cal stomped snow off his boots. "Pack it up and whatever else you all need. We're going to my place."
"Don't be silly. We're fine. You can stay, and we'll-"
As clear of snow as he could manage, he stepped in, shut the door behind him. "I have a small gas generator that'll run little things-such as the well, which means water to flush the toilets."
"Oh. Toilets. I hadn't thought of that one. But how are we all going to fit in your truck?"
"We'll manage. Get your stuff."
It took them half an hour, but he'd expected that. In the end, the bed of his truck was loaded with enough for a week's trek through the wilderness. And three women were jammed with him in the cab.
He should've had Fox swing by, get one of them, he realized. Then Fox could've hauled half the contents of their house in his truck. And it was too late now.
"It's gorgeous." Layla perched on Quinn's lap, bracing a hand on the dash while the Chevy's windshield wipers worked overtime to clear the snow from the glass. "I know it's going to be a big mess, but it's so beautiful, so different than it is in the city."
"Remember that when we're competing for bathroom time with three men," Cybil warned her. "And let me say right now, I refuse to be responsible for all meals just because I know how to turn on the stove."
"So noted," Cal muttered.
"It is gorgeous," Quinn agreed, shifting her head from side to side to see around Layla. "Oh, I forgot. I heard from my grandmother. She tracked down the Bible. She's having her sister-in-law's granddaughter copy and scan the appropriate pages, and e-mail them to me." Quinn wiggled to try for more room. "At least that's the plan, as the granddaughter's the only one of them who understands how to scan and attach files. E-mail and online poker's as far as Grandma goes on the Internet. I hope to have the information by tomorrow. Isn't this great?"
Wedged between Quinn's butt and the door, Cybil dug in to protect her corner of the seat. "It'd be better if you'd move your ass over."
"I've got Layla's space, too, so I get more room. I want popcorn," Quinn decided. "Doesn't all this snow make everyone want popcorn? Did we pack any? Do you have any?" she asked Cal. "Maybe we could stop and buy some Orville's."
He kept his mouth shut, and concentrated on surviving what he thought might be the longest drive of his life.
He plowed his way down the side roads, and though he trusted the truck and his own driving, was relieved when he turned onto his lane. As he'd been outvoted about the heat setting, the cab of the truck was like a sauna.
Even under the circumstances, Cal had to admit his place, his woods, did look like a picture. The snow-banked terraces, the white-decked trees and huddles of shrubs framed the house where smoke was pumping from the chimney, and the lights were already gleaming against the windows.
He followed the tracks of Fox's tires across the little bridge over his snow-and ice-crusted curve of the creek.
Lump padded toward the house from the direction of the winter-postcard woods, leaving deep prints behind him. His tail swished once as he let out a single, hollow bark.
"Wow, look at Lump." Quinn managed to poke Cal with her elbow as the truck shoved its way along the lane. "He's positively frisky."
"Snow gets him going." Cal pulled behind Fox's truck, smirked at the Ferrari, slowly being buried, then laid on the horn. He'd be damned if he was going to haul the bulk of what three women deemed impossible to live without for a night or two.
He dragged bags out of the bed.
"It's a beautiful spot, Cal." Layla took the first out of his hands. "Currier and Ives for the twenty-first century. Is it all right if I go right in?"
"Pretty as a picture." Cybil scanned the bags and boxes, chose one for herself. "Especially if you don't mind being isolated."
She glanced over as Gage and Fox came out of the house. "I hope you don't mind crowds either."
They got everything inside, trailing snow everywhere. Cal decided it must have been some sort of female telepathy that divided them all into chores without discussion. Layla asked him for rags or old towels and proceeded to mop up the wet, Cybil took over the kitchen with her stew pot and bag of kitchen ingredients. And Quinn dug into his linen closet, such as it was, and began assigning beds, and ordering various bags carried to various rooms.
There wasn't anything for him to do, really, but have a beer.
Gage strode in as Cal poked at the fire. "There are bottles of girl stuff all over both bathrooms up there." Gage jerked a thumb at the ceiling. "What have you done?"
"What had to be done. I couldn't leave them. They could've been cut off for a couple of days."
"And what, turned into the next Donner Party? Your woman has Fox making my bed, which is now the pullout in your office. And which I'm apparently supposed to share with him. You know that son of a bitch is a bed hog."
"Can't be helped."
"Easy for you to say, seeing as you'll be sharing yours with the blonde."
This time Cal grinned, smugly. "Can't be helped."
"Esmerelda's brewing up something in the kitchen."
"Goulash-and it's Cybil."
"Whatever, it smells good, I'll give her that. She smells better. But the point is I got the heave-ho when I tried to get a damn bag of chips to go with the beer."
"You want to cook for six people?"
Gage only grunted, sat, propped his feet on the coffee table. "How much are they calling for?"
"About three feet." Cal dropped down beside him, mirrored his pose. "Used to be we liked nothing better. No school, haul out the sleds. Snowball wars."
"Those were the days, my friend."
"Now we're priming the generator, loading in firewood, buying extra batteries and toilet paper."
"Sucks to be grown up."
Still, it was warm, and while the snow fell in sheets outside, there was light, and there was food. It was hard to complain, Cal decided, when he was digging into a bowl of hot, spicy stew he had nothing to do with preparing. Plus, there were dumplings, and he was weak when it came to dumplings.
"I was in Budapest not that long ago." Gage spooned up goulash as he studied Cybil. "This is as good as any I got there."
"Actually, this isn't Hungarian goulash. It's a Serbo-Croatian base."
"Damn good stew," Fox commented, "wherever it's based."
"Cybil's an Eastern European stew herself." Quinn savored the half dumpling she'd allowed herself. "Croatian, Ukrainian, Polish-with a dash of French for fashion sense and snottiness."
"When did your family come over?" Cal wondered.
"As early as the seventeen hundreds, as late as just before World War Two, depending on the line." But she understood the reason for the question. "I don't know if there is a connection to Quinn or Layla, or any of this, where it might root from. I'm looking into it."
"We had a connection," Quinn said, "straight off."
Cal understood that kind of friendship, the kind he saw when the two women looked at each other. It had little to do with blood, and everything to do with the heart.
"We hooked up the first day-evening really-of college." Quinn spooned off another minuscule piece of dumpling with the stew. "Met in the hall of the dorm. We were across from each other. Within two days, we'd switched. Our respective roommates didn't care. We bunked together right through college."
"And apparently still are," Cybil commented.
"Remember you read my palm that first night?"
"You read palms?" Fox asked.
"When the mood strikes. My gypsy heritage," Cybil added with a flourishing gesture of her hands.
And Cal felt a knot form in his belly. "There were gypsies in the Hollow."
"Really?" Carefully, Cybil lifted her wineglass, sipped. "When?"
"I'd have to check to be sure. This is from stories my gran told me that her grandmother told her. Like that. About how gypsies came one summer and set up camp."
"Interesting. Potentially," Quinn mused, "someone local could get cozy with one of those dark-eyed beauties or hunks, and nine months later, oops. Could lead right to you, Cyb."
"Just one big, happy family," Cybil muttered.
After the meal, chores were divvied up again. Wood needed to be brought in, the dog let out, the table cleared, dishes dealt with.
"Who else cooks?" Cybil demanded.
"Gage does," Cal and Fox said together.
"Good." Cybil sized him up. "If there's a group breakfast on the slate, you're in charge. Now-"
"Before we…whatever," Cal decided, "there's something we have to go over. Might as well stick to the dining room. We have to get something," he added, looking at Fox and Gage. "You might want to open another bottle of wine."
"What's all this?" Quinn frowned as the men retreated. "What are they up to?"
"It's more what haven't they told us," Layla said. "Guilt and reluctance, that's what I'm picking up. Not that I know any of them that well."
"You know what you know," Cybil told her. "Get another bottle, Q." She gave a little shudder. "Maybe we should light a couple more candles while we're at it, just in case. It already feels…dark."
THEY LEFT IT TO HIM, CAL SUPPOSED, BECAUSE IT was his house. When they were all back around the table, he tried to find the best way to begin.
"We've gone over what happened that night in the clearing when we were kids, and what started happening after. Quinn, you got some of it yourself when we hiked there a couple weeks ago."
"Yeah. Cyb and Layla need to see it, as soon as the snow's cleared enough for us to make the hike."
He hesitated only a beat. "Agreed."
"It ain't a stroll down the Champs Élys��es," Gage commented, and Cybil cocked an eyebrow at him.
"There was another element that night, another aspect we haven't talked about with you."
"With anyone," Fox added.
"It's hard to explain why. We were ten, everything went to hell, and…Well." Cal set his part of the stone on the table.
"A piece of rock?" Layla said.
"Bloodstone." Cybil pursed her lips, started to reach for it, stopped. "May I?"
Gage and Fox set theirs down beside Cal's. "Take your pick," Gage invited.
"Three parts of one." Quinn picked up the one closest to her. "Isn't that right? These are three parts of one stone."
"One that had been rounded, tumbled, polished," Cybil continued. "Where did you get the pieces?"
"We were holding them," Cal told her. "After the light, after the dark, when the ground stopped shaking, each one of us was holding his part of this stone." He studied his own hand, remembering how his fist had clenched around the stone as if his life depended on it.
"We didn't know what they were. Fox looked it up. His mother had books on rocks and crystals, and he looked it up. Bloodstone," Cal repeated. "It fit."
"It needs to be put back together," Layla said. "Doesn't it? It needs to be whole again."
"We've tried. The breaks are clean," Fox explained. "They fit together like a puzzle." He gestured, and Cal took the pieces, fit them into a round.
"But it doesn't do anything."
"Because you're holding them together?" Curious, Quinn held out her hand until Cal put the three pieces into it. "They're not…fused would be the word, I guess."
"Tried that, too. MacGyver over there tried superglue."
Cal sent Gage a bland stare. "Which should've worked-at least as far as holding the pieces together. But I might as well have used water. No stick. We've tried banding them, heating them, freezing them. No dice. In fact, they don't even change temperature."
"Except-" Fox broke off, got the go-ahead nod. "During the Seven, they heat up. Not too hot to hold, but right on the edge."
"Have you tried putting them back together during that week?" Quinn demanded.
"Yeah. No luck. The one thing we know is that Giles Dent was wearing this, like an amulet around his neck, the night Lazarus Twisse led that mob into the clearing. I saw it. Now we have it."
"Have you tried magickal means?" Cybil asked.
Cal squirmed a little, cleared his throat.
"Jesus, Cal, loosen up." Fox shook his head. "Sure. I got some books on spells, and we gave that a try. Down the road, Gage has talked to some practicing witches, and we've tried other rites and so on."
"But you never showed them to anyone." Quinn set the pieces down carefully before picking up her wine. "Anyone who might have been able to work with them, or understand the purpose. Maybe the history."
"We weren't meant to." Fox lifted his shoulders. "I know how it sounds, but I knew we weren't supposed to take it to, what, a geologist or some Wiccan high priestess, or the damn Pentagon. I just…Cal voted for the science angle right off."
"MacGyver," Gage repeated.
"Fox was sure that was off-limits, and that was good enough. That was good enough for the three of us." Cal looked at his friends. "It's been the way we've handled it, up till now. If Fox felt we shouldn't show you, we wouldn't be."
"Because you feel it the strongest?" Layla asked Fox.
"I don't know. Maybe. I know I believed-I believe-we survived that night, that we came out of it the way we came out of it because we each had a piece of that stone. And as long as we do, we've got a chance. It's just something I know, the same way Cal saw it, that he recognized it as the amulet Dent wore."
"How about you?" Cybil asked Gage. "What do you know? What do you see?"
His eyes met hers. "I see it whole, on top of the Pagan Stone. The stone on the stone. And the flames flick up from it, kindling in the blood spots. Then they consume it, ride over the flat, down the pedestal like a sheath of fire. I see the fire race across the ground, fly into the trees until they burst from the heat. And the clearing's a holocaust even the devil himself couldn't survive."
He took a drink of wine. "That's what I see when it's whole again, so I'm in no big hurry to get there."
"Maybe that's how it was formed," Layla began.
"I don't see back. That's Cal's gig. I see what might be coming."
"That'd be handy in your profession."
Gage shifted his gaze back to Cybil, smiled slowly. "It doesn't hurt." He picked up his stone, tossed it lightly in his hand. "Anyone interested in a little five-card draw?"
As soon as he spoke, the light snapped off.
Rather than romance or charm, the flickering candles they'd lit as backup lent an eeriness to the room. "I'll go fire up the generator." Cal pushed up. "Water, refrigerator, and stove for now."
"Don't go out alone." Layla blinked as if surprised the words had come out of her mouth. "I mean-"
"I'm going with you."
As Fox rose, something howled in the dark.
"Lump." Cal was out of the room, through the kitchen, and out the back door like a bullet. He barely broke stride to grab the flashlight off the wall, punch it on.
He swept it toward the sound. The beam struggled against the thick, moving curtain of snow, did little but bounce the light back at him.
The blanket had become a wall that rose past his knees. Calling his dog, Cal pushed through it, trying to pinpoint the direction of the howling. It seemed to come from everywhere, from nowhere.
As he heard sounds behind him, he whirled, gripping the flashlight like a weapon.
"Don't clock the reinforcements," Fox shouted. "Christ, it's insane out here." He gripped Cal's arm as Gage moved to Cal's other side. "Hey, Lump! Come on, Lump! I've never heard him like that."
"How do you know it's the dog?" Gage asked quietly.
"Get back inside," Cal said grimly. "We can't leave the women alone. I'm going to find my dog."
"Oh yeah, we'll just leave you out here, stumbling around in a fucking blizzard." Gage jammed his freezing hands in his pockets, glanced back. "Besides."
They came, arms linked and gripping flashlights. Which showed sense, Cal was forced to admit. And they'd taken the time to put on coats, probably boots as well, which is more than he or his friends had done.
"Go back in." He had to shout now, over the rising wind. "We're just going to round up Lump. Be right there."
"We all go in or nobody does." Quinn unhooked her arm from Layla's, hooked it to Cal's. "That includes Lump. Don't waste time," she said before he could argue. "We should spread out, shouldn't we?"
"In pairs. Fox, you and Layla try that way, Quinn and I'll take this way. Gage and Cybil toward the back. He's got to be close. He never goes far."
He sounded scared, that's what Cal didn't want to say out loud. His stupid, lazy dog sounded scared. "Hook your hand in my pants-the waistband. Keep a good hold."
He hissed against the cold as her gloves hit his skin, then began to trudge forward. He'd barely made it two feet when he heard something under the howls.
"You catch that?"
"Yes. Laughing. The way a nasty little boy might laugh."
"I'm not leaving that dog out here any more than you are."
A vicious gush of wind rose up like a tidal wave, spewing huge clumps of snow, and what felt like pellets of ice. Cal heard branches cracking, like gunfire in the dark. Behind him, Quinn lost her footing in the force of the wind and nearly took them both down.
He'd get Quinn back into the house, he decided. Get her the hell in, lock her in a damn closet if necessary, then come back out and find his dog.
Even as he turned to get a grip on her arm, he saw them.
His dog sat on his haunches, half buried in the snow, his head lifted as those long, desperate howls worked his throat.
The boy floated an inch above the surface of the snow. Chortling, Cal thought. There was a word you didn't use every day, but it sure as hell fit the filthy sound it made.
It grinned as the wind blasted again. Now Lump was buried to his shoulders.
"Get the fuck away from my dog."
Cal lurched forward; the wind knocked him back so that both he and Quinn went sprawling.
"Call him," Quinn shouted. "Call him, make him come!" She dragged off her gloves as she spoke. Using her fingers to form a circle between her lips, she whistled shrilly as Cal yelled at Lump.
Lump quivered; the thing laughed.
Cal continued to call, to curse now, to crawl while the snow flew into his eyes, numbed his hands. He heard shouting behind him, but he focused everything he had on pushing ahead, on getting there before the next gust of wind put the dog under.
He'd drown, Cal thought as he pushed, shoved, slid forward. If he didn't get to Lump, his dog would drown in that ocean of snow.
He felt a hand lock on his ankle, but kept dragging himself forward.
Gritting his teeth, he flailed out, got a slippery hold on Lump's collar. Braced, he looked up into eyes that glittered an unholy green rimmed with red. "You can't have him."
Cal yanked. Ignoring Lump's yelp, he yanked again, viciously, desperately. Though Lump howled, whimpered, it was as if his body was sunk in hardened cement.
And Quinn was beside him, belly down, digging at the snow with her hands.
Fox skidded down, shooting snow like shrapnel. Cal gathered everything he had, looked once more into those monstrous eyes in the face of a young boy. "I said you can't have him."
With the next pull, Cal's arms were full of quivering, whimpering dog.
"It's okay, it's okay." He pressed his face against cold, wet fur. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Get him in by the fire." Layla struggled to help Quinn up as Cybil pushed up from her knees. Shoving the butt of a flashlight in his back pocket, Gage pulled Cybil to her feet, then plucked Quinn out of the snow.
"Can you walk?" he asked her.
"Yeah, yeah. Let's get in, let's get inside, before somebody ends up with frostbite."
Towels and blankets, dry clothes, hot coffee. Brandy-even for Lump-warmed chilled bones and numbed flesh. Fresh logs had the fire blazing.
"It was holding him. He couldn't get away." Cal sat on the floor, the dog's head in his lap. "He couldn't get away. It was going to bury him in the snow. A stupid, harmless dog."
"Has this happened before?" Quinn asked him. "Has it gone after animals this way?"
"A few weeks before the Seven, animals might drown, or there's more roadkill. Sometimes pets turn mean. But not like this. This was-"
"A demonstration." Cybil tucked the blanket more securely around Quinn's feet. "He wanted us to see what he could do."
"Maybe wanted to see what we could do," Gage countered, and earned a speculative glance from Cybil.
"That may be more accurate. That may be more to the point. Could we break the hold? A dog's not a person, has to be easier to control. No offense, Cal, but your dog's brainpower isn't as high as most toddlers'."
Gently, affectionately, Cal pulled on one of Lump's floppy ears. "He's thick as a brick."
"So it was showing off. It hurt this poor dog for sport." Layla knelt down and stroked Lump's side. "That deserves some payback."
Intrigued, Quinn cocked her head. "What do you have in mind?"
"I don't know yet, but it's something to think about."