The Pagan Stone (Chapter Five)
SHE'D BEEN IN HIS DREAMS, AND IN HIS DREAMS, she came to his bed. In his dreams her lips, soft and seeking, yielded to his. Her body, sleek and smooth, arched up, long arms, long legs wrapping him in warmth, in fragrance. In female.
The wild glory of her hair, dark against white sheets, spilled away from her face while those deep, seductive eyes watched him.
She rose. She opened. She took him in.
In his dreams, his blood beat like a heart, and his heart pounded its fist in his chest. Inside him, joy and desperation rolled into one mad tangle of need. Locked, lost, he took her lips again. The taste, the taste that burned through him like a fever while their bodies raced together. Faster. Faster.
While around them the room began to bleed, and to burn.
She cried out, her nails biting like teeth into his back while the sea of bloody flames rolled over them. And the word she cried as they were consumed was bestia.
HE WOKE, ONCE AGAIN AT FIRST LIGHT. AND THAT, Gage thought, had to stop. He had no particular affinity for mornings, and now it seemed he was doomed to deal with them. There'd be no going back to sleep after the little movie clip his subconscious had drummed up. It was too damn bad such a promising dream had taken a turn so far south at the-ha-climax.
He could pick apart the symbolism, he thought, staring at the ceiling of Cal 's guest room. But then, it was easy to identify the springboard for the lion's share of tonight's entertainment.
He was a guy. He was horny.
Moreover, it suited his fantasy to have her come to him rather than him pursuing her. They'd made a pact not that long ago on this very topic. How had she put it? You won't try to seduce me, and I won't pretend to be seduced.
Remembering made him smile into the dim, dawn light. But if she made the moves, all bets were off as far as he was concerned. The challenge would be to con her into making those moves so she believed it was her idea in the first place.
Then again, the interlude in the dream had ended badly. He could ascribe that to his own cynical, pessimistic nature, or he could consider it a portent. Or, third option, a warning. If he let himself become involved with her-because it hadn't just been sex in the dream, he'd been involved-they could both pay the ultimate price. Blood and fire, he thought-as usual. And it hadn't been her lover's name she'd cried out when she'd been consumed by passion and flame, but bestia.
Latin for beast. A dead language used by dead gods and guardians.
Simply put, the distraction of sex would blur their focus, and the Big Evil Bastard would strike when they were defenseless. Meaning, any of the three options indicated the smart money was on keeping it in his pants, at least as far as Cybil Kinski was concerned.
He rolled out of bed. He'd shower off the dream, and the urges it stirred. He was damn good at controlling his urges. If he was restless and horny, it meant he needed a game and sex. So he'd make it a point to find both. A quick trip to AC would meet both needs, eliminate any possible complications or consequences.
And he and Cybil would use the sexual tension between them as an energy source for the greater good. Of course, if they won, if they lived, he'd make damn sure he found a way to get her naked. Then he'd find out if her skin was as soft as it looked, her body as limber, her…
That line of thinking wasn't going to help him control his urges.
He toweled off, opted out of shaving (what the hell for?), then pulled on jeans and a black T-shirt because they were the handiest. As he started downstairs he heard the murmur of voices, and a quick, sexy giggle behind the closed bedroom door. So the lovebirds were up early and already cooing, he mused. Odds were they'd be at it long enough for him to have a quiet, solitary cup of coffee.
In the kitchen, he started the first pot of the day, and while he brooded, he walked out of the house to hike down to the road and the paper box. Cal 's front slope was a riot of blooms. The azaleas-one of the few ornamentals Gage actually recognized-were in full, showy bloom. Some sort of delicate weeper arched over, dripping pink. All that color and shape tumbled down toward the gravel lane, cheerful as children, while the woods stood along the edges with its thickening green hiding its secrets. Its joy and its terrors.
Birds trilled, the winding creek murmured, and his foot-steps crunched. Some of Cal 's blooms were fragrant, so their perfume fluttered in the air while dappled sunlight played over the ribbon of the creek.
Soothing, he thought, the sounds, the scents, the scene. And for a man like Cal, unquestionably satisfying. He enjoyed it himself for short stretches, Gage admitted, as he reached into the blue box and pulled out the morning paper. And he needed, again unquestionably, infusions of Cal and Fox. But if those stretches played out too long, he'd start jonesing for neon, for green baize, for horns and crowds. For the action, the energy, the anonymity of a casino or a city.
If they killed the bastard and lived through it, he thought he'd buzz off somewhere for a few weeks. Cal 's wedding in September would bring him back, but in the meantime, there was a big world out there, and a lot of cards to be dealt. Maybe Amsterdam or Luxembourg for a change of pace.
Or, if he was in the get-Cybil-naked mode, he might suggest Paris. Romance, sex, gambling, and fashion all in one shot. He thought she'd like the idea. After all, she shared his affection for travel and a good hotel. Finding out how they traveled together might be a nice way to celebrate living beyond his thirty-first birthday.
She was bound to bring him luck-good or bad was yet to be seen-but a woman like that tipped scales. He was willing to gamble they'd tip his way.
A couple of weeks, pure fun, no strings, then they'd come back, watch their friends get hooked up, and part ways. It was a good blueprint, he decided, one that could easily be adjusted to whim and circumstance.
With the paper tucked under his arm, he started back the way he came.
The woman stood just over the other side of the little wooden bridge that spanned the creek. Her hair fell loose and free around her shoulders, and glowed pale gold in the delicate sunlight. Her long dress was a quiet blue, high at the neck. His heart gave one hard thump as he knew her to be Ann Hawkins, dead for centuries.
But just for an instant, for one quick beat when she smiled, he saw his mother in her.
"You are the last of the sons of the sons of my sons. You are what came from me and my love, what came from passion, cold blood, and bitter sacrifice. Faith and hope came before you, and must remain steadfast. You are the vision. You and she who came from the dark. Your blood, its blood, our blood. With this, the stone is whole once more. With this, you are blessed."
"Blah, blah, blah," he said, and wondered if the gods struck you dead for mouthing off to a ghost. "Why don't you tell me how to use it, and we'll finish this thing and get on with our lives?"
Ann Hawkins tilted her head, and damned if he didn't see the mother look on her face. "Anger is a weapon as well, if used judiciously. He did all that he could, gave you all you would need. You have only to see, to trust what you know, to take what is given. I wept for you, little boy."
"Appreciate it, but tears didn't do me a lot of good."
"Hers will, when they come. You are not alone. You never were. From blood and fire came the light and the dark. With blood and fire, one will prevail. The key to your vision, to the answers, is in your hand. Turn it, and see."
When she faded, he stood where he was. Typical, he thought, typical female. They just couldn't make things simple. Irritated now, he crossed the bridge and climbed the slope of the lane to the house.
The lovebirds were in the kitchen, so he'd lost his chance for that quiet and solitary cup of coffee. They were wrapped around each other, naturally, lip-locked in front of the damn coffeepot.
"Break it up." Gage bumped Fox with his shoulder to nudge him clear of the pot.
"Hasn't had his first cup yet." Fox gave Layla a last squeeze before picking up the Coke he'd already opened. "He's bitchy until."
"Do you want me to fix you some breakfast?" Layla offered. "We've got time before we have to leave for the office."
"Aren't you Mary Sunshine?" On this grouchy pronouncement, Gage pulled a box of cereal out of the cupboard, then dug in for a handful. "I'm good." Then he narrowed his eyes as Fox opened the paper. "I walked down for that, I get it first."
"I'm just checking the box scores, Mr. Happy. Any Pop-Tarts around here?"
"God, you're pathetic."
"Man, you're eating Froot Loops out of the box. Pot, kettle."
With a frown, Gage glanced down. So he was. And since the coffee kicked the worst of his crabbiness down, he looked back at Layla with an easy smile. "Hey, good morning, Layla. Did you say something about fixing breakfast?"
She laughed. "Good morning, Gage. I believe I did mention that, in a weak moment. But since I am feeling pretty sunny, I'll follow through."
"Great. Thanks. While you are, I'll tell you guys about the visitor I had on my morning stroll."
Layla froze with her hand on the handle of the refrigerator. "It came back?"
"Not it. She. Though technically maybe a ghost is an it. I haven't given it much thought."
"Ann Hawkins." Fox tossed the paper aside. "What's the word?"
Topping off his coffee, Gage told them.
"Everyone's seen her now, one way or the other, but Cybil." Layla set a platter of French toast on the breakfast bar.
"Yeah, I bet that'll tick her off. Cybil, that is," Gage added as he forked up two slices.
"Blood and fire. There's sure been a lot of that, in reality and in dreams. And that's what put the bloodstone back together. That was Cybil's brainstorm," Fox remembered. "Maybe she'll have one about this."
"I'll fill her in when she gets here later today."
"Sooner's better." With a generous hand, Fox poured syrup on his stack of French toast. "Layla and I will swing by the house before we go to the office."
"She's just going to want me to go through it all again when she gets here."
"Still." Fox sampled a bite, grinned at Layla. "This is great."
"Well, it's not Pop-Tarts."
"Better. Are you sure you don't want me to go into the bank with you this afternoon? Being you, your paperwork's in order, but-"
"I'm fine. You've got a busy schedule today. Plus, with my two investors, I'm not applying for a big, fat loan. More of a slim, efficient one."
So they segued, Gage thought, from ghosts to interest rates. He tuned them out, started to scan the headlines in the paper he'd stolen back from Fox. Then caught a stray comment.
"Cybil and Quinn are investing in your shop?"
"Yeah." Layla's smile radiated like sunlight. "It's great. I hope it's great for them-I'm going to make it great for them. It's just wonderful, and staggering, that they'd have that kind of faith in me. You know what that's like. You and Fox and Cal have always had that."
He supposed he did, just as he supposed this was one more tangible aspect of how the six of them were entwined. Ann had said he wasn't alone. None of them were, he realized. Maybe it was that, just that, that would weigh the odds in their favor.
When he had the house to himself, he spent an hour answering and composing e-mails. He had a contact in Europe, a Professor Linz, whose expertise was demonology and lore. He was full of theories and a lot of verbose rhetoric, but he had come through with what Gage considered salient information.
And the more data you tossed into the hat, the better the chance the winning ticket was in there. It wouldn't hurt to get Linz 's take on Cybil's newest hypothesis. Was the bloodstone-their bloodstone-a fragment of some larger whole, some mythical, magickal power source?
Even as he wrote the post, he shook his head. If anyone outside of his tight circle of friends knew he spent a great deal of his time searching out information on demons, they'd laugh their asses off. Then again, those outside that circle who knew him, only saw what he let them see. Not one of them reached the level he'd call friend.
Acquaintances, players, bedmates. Sometimes they won his money, sometimes he won theirs. Maybe he'd buy them a drink, or they'd stand him a round or two. And the women-away from the tables-they'd give each other a few hours, maybe a few days if it suited both of them.
Easy come, easy go.
And why did that suddenly seem more pathetic than a grown man wanting a Pop-Tart for breakfast?
Annoyed with himself, he combed his hands through his hair, tipped back in the chair. He did as he pleased, and lived as he wanted. Even coming here, facing this, was a choice he'd made. If he didn't make it past the first week of July, that would be too damn bad. But he couldn't complain. He'd had thirty-one years, and he'd seen the world on his own terms. From time to time, he'd lived pretty damn high. He'd rather live, and work his way back up to that high a few more times. A few more rolls of the dice, a few more hands dealt. But if not, he'd take his losses.
He'd already accomplished the most important goal of his life. He'd gotten out of the Hollow. And for fifteen years and counting, when someone raised a fist to him, he hit back, harder.
The old man had been drunk that night, Gage remembered. Filthy drunk after falling face-first off the shaky wagon he'd managed to ride for a handful of months. The old man was always worse when he fell off than when he waved that wagon on and kept stumbling down the road.
Summer, Gage thought. The kind of August night where even the air sweated. The place was clean, because the old man had been since April. But being up on the third floor of the bowling center meant that sweaty air just rose and rose until it squatted there, laughing at the constant whirl of the window AC. Even after midnight, the whole place felt wet, so the minute he stepped in, he wished he'd crashed at Cal's or Fox's.
But he'd had a sort of a date, the sort where a guy had to peel off from his pals if he wanted any kind of a chance to score.
He figured his father was in bed, sleeping or trying to, so he toed off his shoes before heading into the kitchen. There was a pitcher half full of iced tea, the instant crap that always tasted too sweet or too bitter no matter how you doctored it up. But he drank down two glasses before looking for something to kill the aftertaste.
He wished he had pizza. The alley and the grill were closed, so no chance there. He found a half a meatball sub, surely several days old. But small matters such as these didn't concern teenage boys.
He ate it cold, standing over the sink.
He cleaned up after himself. He remembered too clearly what the apartment smelled like when his father was drinking heavily. Bad food, old garbage, sweat, stale whiskey and smoke. It was nice that, despite the heat, the place smelled normal. Not as good as Cal 's house or Fox's. There were always candles or flowers or those girly dishes of petals and scent there. And the female aroma he guessed was just skin touched with lotions and sprayed with perfume.
This place was a dump compared, not the kind of place he'd want to bring a date, he thought with a glance around. But it was good enough, for now. The furniture was old and tired, and the walls could use some new paint. Maybe when it cooled off in the fall, he and the old man could slap some on.
Maybe they could swing a new TV, one that had been manufactured in the last decade. Things were pretty solid right now with them both working full-time for the summer. He was squirreling away some of his take for a new headset, but he could kick in half. He had a couple more weeks before school started up, a couple more paychecks. A new TV would be good.
He put his glass away, closed the cupboard. He heard his father's step on the stairs. And he knew.
The optimism drained out of him like water. What was left in him hardened like stone. Stupid, he thought, stupid of him to let himself believe the old man would stay sober. Stupid to believe there'd ever be anything decent in this rat trap of an apartment.
He started to cross to his room, go inside, shut the door. Then he thought the hell with it. He'd see what the drunken son of a bitch had to say for himself.
So he stood, hip-shot, thumbs in the front pockets of his jeans, a defiant red flag eager to wave at the bull. His father pushed open the door.
Weaving, Bill Turner gripped the jamb. His face was red from the climb, from the heat, from the liquor. Even across the room, Gage could smell the whiskey sweat seeping out of his pores. His T-shirt was stained with it under the arms, down the front in a sodden vee. The look in his eyes when they met Gage's was blurry and mean.
"'Fuck you looking at?"
"Had a couple beers with some friends, don't make me a drunk."
"I guess I was wrong. I'm looking at a drunken liar."
The meanness intensified. It was like watching a snake coil. "You watch your fucking mouth, boy."
"I should've known you couldn't do it." But he had done it, for nearly five months. He'd stayed sober through Gage's birthday, and that, Gage knew, had been when he'd started to believe. For the first time since his father had stumbled down the drunken path, he'd stayed on that wagon over Gage's birthday.
This disappointment, this betrayal was a sharper slash than any lash of the belt had ever been. This killed every small drop of his hope.
"None of your goddamn business," Bill shot back. "This is my house. You don't tell me what's what under my own roof."
"This is Jim Hawkins's roof, and I pay rent on it just like you. You drink your paycheck again?"
"I don't answer to you. Shut your mouth, or-"
"What?" Gage challenged. "You're so drunk you can barely stand. What the hell are you going to do? And what the hell do I care," he finished in disgust. Turning, he started toward his room. "I wish you'd drink yourself dead and finish the job."
He was drunk, but he was fast. Bill lunged across the room, slammed Gage back against the wall. "You're no good, never been any damn good. Never should've been born."
"That makes two of us. Now take your hands off me."
Two quick slaps, front and back, set Gage's ears ringing, split his bottom lip. "Time you learned some goddamn respect."
Gage remembered the first punch, remembered plowing his fist into his father's face, and the shock that fired in his father's eyes. Something crashed-the old pole lamp-and someone cursed viciously over and over. Had that been him?
The next clear memory was standing over his father as the old man sprawled on the floor, his face bruised and bleeding. His own fists had screamed from the pounding, and the healing of his swollen, bloody knuckles. His breath wheezed in and out of his lungs, and sweat soaked him like water.
How long had he beaten on the old man with his fists? It was a hot red haze. But it cleared now, and behind it was ice cold.
"If you ever touch me again, if you ever lay a fucking hand on me again in your life, I'll kill you." He crouched down to make sure the old man heard him. "I swear an oath on it. In three years, I'm gone. I don't care if you drink yourself to death in the meantime. I'm past caring. I've got to live here at least most of the time the next three years. I'll give my share of the rent straight to Mr. Hawkins. You don't get a dime. I'll buy my own food, my own clothes. I don't want anything from you. But however drunk you are, you'd better be able to think this one thought. Hit me again, you motherfucker, you're a dead man."
He rose, walked into his room, shut the door. He'd buy a lock for it the next day, he thought. Keep the bastard out.
He could go. Exhausted, he sat on the side of the bed and dropped his head in his hands. He could pack up what was his and if he showed up on Cal 's doorstep or at Fox's farm, they'd take him in.
That's the kind of people they were.
But he needed to stick this out, needed to show the old man and, more, show himself, that he could stick it out. Three years till his eighteenth birthday, he thought, then he'd be free.
Not quite accurate, Gage thought now. He'd stuck it out, and the old man had never raised a hand to him again. And he'd taken off when his three years were up. But freedom? That was another story.
You carried the past with you, he thought, dragging it behind you on a thick, unbreakable chain no matter how far you looked ahead. You could ignore it for good long stretches of time, but you couldn't escape it. He could drag that chain ten thousand miles, but the Hollow, the people he loved in it, and his goddamn destiny just kept pulling him back.
He pushed away from the computer, went down to get himself more coffee. Sitting at the counter, he dealt out a hand of solitaire. It calmed him, the feel of the cards, the sound of them, their colors and shapes. When he heard the knock on the door, he glanced at his watch. It appeared Cybil was early. He left the cards where they were, grateful the simple game had kept his mind off the past, and off the woman as well.
When he pulled open the door, it was Joanne Barry on the front deck. "Well, hey."
She only looked at him for a moment. Her dark hair was braided back, as she often wore it. Her eyes were clear in her pretty face, her body slim in jeans and a cotton shirt. Then she touched his face, laid her lips on his forehead, his cheeks, his lips in her traditional greeting when there was love.
"Thank you for the orchid."
"You're welcome. Sorry I missed you when I dropped it off. Do you want to come in? Do you have time?"
"Yes, I'd like to come in, for a few minutes."
"Probably something to drink back here." He led the way back toward the kitchen.
" Cal 's got a nice place here. It's always a surprise."
"That he-all of you-are grown men. That Cal 's a grown man with this very nice home of his own, with its beautiful gardens. Sometimes still, just every so often, I wake up in the morning and think: I've got to get those kids up and off to school. Then I remember, the kids are grown and gone. It's both a relief and a punch in the heart. I miss my little guys."
"You'll never be rid of us." Knowing Jo, he skipped right over all the sodas, whittled her choices down to juice or bottled water. "I can offer you water or what I think might be grapefruit juice."
"I'm fine, Gage. Don't bother."
"Could make some tea-or you could. I'd probably-" He broke off when he turned and saw a tear sliding down her cheek. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"The note you left me, with the plant."
"I'd hoped to be able to talk to you. I stopped by Cal 's mom's, but-"
"I know. Frannie told me. You wrote: 'Because you were always there for me. Because I know you always will be.'"
"You were. I do."
With a sigh, she put her arms around him, laid her head on his shoulder. "All of your life, as a parent, you wonder and you worry. Did I do that right? Should I have done that, said this? Then, suddenly, in a fingersnap it seems, your children are grown. And still you wonder and you worry. Could I have done this, did I remember to say that? If you're very lucky, one day one of your children…" She leaned back to look into his eyes. "Because you're mine and Frannie's, too. One of your children writes you a note that arrows straight into your heart. All that worry goes away." She gave him a watery smile. "For a moment anyway. Thank you for the moment, baby."
"I wouldn't have gotten through without you and Frannie."
"I think you're wrong about that. But we damn sure helped." She laughed now, gave him a hard squeeze. "I have to go. Come and see me soon."
"I will. I'll walk you out."
"Don't be silly. I know the way." She started out, turned. "I pray for you. Being me, I cover my bases. God, the Goddess, Buddha, Allah, and so on. I pretty much tap on them all. I just want you to know that a day doesn't go by that I don't have all of you in my prayers. I'm nagging the hell out of every higher power there is. You're going to come through this, all of you. I'm not taking no for an answer."