Something smelled wrong. Kate Rowley wrinkled her nose, sorting through truck-cab air for the difference. Flinty, the sharp dusty semi-ozone tang she got when her mason's hammer struck sparks from a piece of granite she was shaping for a wall. That smell didn't belong in the autumn woods. Nobody had been striking sparks from stone in this forest for at least a hundred years. But that's what she smelled, strong enough to reach her inside her old truck, like she was standing downwind from a quarry drill.
Kate slowed and then stopped on the narrow woods road, consciously setting the nose of her green Dodge stakebed at the head of a slope. She switched the ignition off and set the brake and listened to the snaps and ticks and groans of cooling machinery, the only sound. No jays, no crows, no chickadees -- not even the rustling of dry leaves in the wind. The trees, the dirt, even the stone seemed to be watching, listening, waiting.
She sniffed again, window down, nose sorting through stale cigarette smoke and oil and hot metal and cold morning coffee for whatever troubled her. It had vanished. She heaved the door open and climbed down, the old springs and shocks sighing with relief to be rid of her bulk. She tended to think of her weight in tons -- an eighth of a ton sounded heavier than two hundred and fifty pounds.
And that estimate was being kind, assuming she'd lost weight in the hospital. Kate had quit stepping on scales a couple of decades back. Not that she was fat, just big. She stretched the kinks out of her spine and straightened to her full six-foot-six height.
And then winced. Week in the hospital, two months in bed and then gimping around with a cane. Bullet wounds, shoulder and hip, mostly healed now but they still bothered her when the weather changed or she spent too long in one position. Like sitting in the truck. Still, the physical pain hurt less than her memories.
A raven croaked omens down at her from above the sun-dappled tunnel through ancient fat birches and maples yellow with the bloom of Maine autumn, a single lane leading down into a hollow dark with cedar. Dry brittle weeds stood tall between the ruts, broken off where her truck had passed. Nobody had driven this road for days, maybe weeks, and she was supposed to meet a man about an addition to his house?
Kate shook her head. The last pavement was two miles back, the last power and phone a mile beyond that. She'd lived in Stonefort for forty years, most years never even been out of Sunrise County, and she'd never driven on this road before.
behind the truck seat and pulled out her tattered
checked her notes again, scribbled from the phone call.
Followed the turns on the map, winding inland
No money to be made here. That voice on the phone had been playing a prank. But Kate wore two hats. The hardhat of carpenter-and-stonemason-turned-contractor said to find a space between the trees, turn around, and write the morning off as a nice drive in the September woods. The part-time cop hat with the tarnished shield said "bullshit."
was still in
A road that somebody used, often enough to keep the scrub cherries and alders from taking over, and that looked like it had been here for decades if not centuries. She knelt and dug at the roadbed, finding cool coarse washed gravel of a made road, not the scraped dirt of loggers swamping out a clear run at their prey. Something definitely smelled fishy.
She climbed back in and cranked the truck, crossing fingers on both hands, and the engine roared to smooth life and then settled into a purr, surprising her again. Not even a cloud of oil smoke in the rear view mirrors. New engine, old habits. And the mirrors weren't cracked anymore, either. Kate shook her head.
Alice Haskell. That girl knew what was good for you, and did it whether you wanted it done or not. "Hey, Charlie, could you hitch a ride out to Ayers Island and bring Kate's truck back on the ferry? Here's the keys. While you're at it, rebuild the bastard from winch to tow-hitch." Probably would have cost less to buy a new truck, but Kate had turned that down. Twice.
So Alice went around to the back door, applying the magical touch of Haskell money. Stopping her was like trying to argue with a glacier.
Kate called it "Haskell money" out of habit, less than a drop in the bucket of a considerable fortune. Alice seemed to think of it more like a trust fund for her tribe, and apparently Kate had become an honorary Naskeag Wabanaki when she moved in with Alice.
Anyway, Alice had handed her back the keys when they both got out of the hospital, done deal. Take it or leave it, and a contractor needed a truck. One that could haul its rated load of a full ton of lumber or sheetrock for the first time in ten years was a real plus. It even started and stopped when she asked it.
She eased the truck into gear, the clutch smooth and reliable and strange, and used the engine to brake her down the slope, four-wheel-drive and low range engaged. Only a fool explored roads like this faster than a walk. Washouts lurking under drifted leaves, high-centered rocks sitting in ambush, bog holes that looked like innocent puddles from a recent rain -- the Maine woods had their ways of eating old roads and careless trucks. And she didn't feel up to limping the miles back to civilization for a tow.
Down in the hollow, those cedars were old, old and tall and straight-grained and heavy with fragrance, and someone should have fed them to a shingle or clapboard mill a century ago. Headed up the far slope, the truck rumbled into a grove of thick-boled white pines that would have left a timber merchant drooling, three and four feet through and the trunks shooting up fifty feet clean to the first limbs.
Hairs stood up on her forearms and the back of her neck. This road was a time-warp into another century. She pulled up to another crest, an opening with mossy old oaks to the south and blueberry barrens rising away to the north, and stopped. Blueberry land usually meant dry fields, sand and gravel and bare rock, should be a safe place to turn the truck. Her odometer and the phone message said there should be a driveway . . . .
She sat and studied the sweep of low bushes red and purple with the touch of autumn, the stone outcrops scattered on the crest, the clear blue sky. Something still set her teeth on edge. There was a lot of commercial blueberry land tucked away in the wilds of Sunrise County, but those roads showed up on the map.
Kate grimaced, shifted, winced again, shifted again -- settling into a position that minimized the aches from her hip and shoulder. Wounds from her own gun, fired by her own daughter. Half of the ache was memory. She couldn't forget. Kate shook her head and fumbled for a cigarette.
Jackie. She stood in the middle of the trail ahead, a faint and wavery ghost, tall and muscular with short blonde hair like her mother and grandmother, a teenage scowl glooming her face. Kate kept seeing her daughter around town, all the places she'd used to be, all the places Kate expected her to be. Memories of pain and failure, haunting Kate.
The damnfool child had run away from home. Moved in with friends, Pratts, an old Stonefort family with mucho money from the import/export business. Drugs. Turned out Jackie had been involved in that for years. Not using, selling. Kate had been too busy keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads to see the signs.
Alice had gone out to the old Pratt place, separate business of her own, and Kate ended up there because of a vision of fire and death right out of one of Alice's Wagnerian operas. End result, the brat shot Alice in the back, turned and shot her mother, then ran 'round a corner and got her own self killed in a shootout with a rival drug gang. Kate concentrated on lighting the cigarette, hands shaking the flame on her late ex-husband's battered Zippo.
Let's hear it for the modern American family.
The first cigarette in an hour or so, she drew deep and held the nicotine in her lungs like the kids held each toke of their demon Weed. She couldn't smoke in the House, Alice's house.
Not that Alice told her she couldn't. She'd quit her nagging when Kate moved in, dropped her standard RN's coffin-nail rant about the threats of lung cancer and heart disease and yellow-stained teeth and smoker's breath in their kisses. Not that there'd been much of that, the condition both of them were in.
And the House didn't seem to mind her smoking, either. Rather otherwise. That was the problem.
The House, the Haskell House, ancient home of the Haskell Witches, much more aware than any pile of stone and wood ought to be and with some very strong opinions on the way the world should work, seemed to consider tobacco sacred. And anyone who crossed its worn oak threshold lived by the House's rules. It had unpleasant ways to enforce them.
Sure, Kate could light up a cigarette any time she wanted. As long as she offered smoke to the four winds and to the spirits of earth and water and sky, that is, and muttered some phrases in Naskeag that she half understood. And then dealt with the spirits that the smoke and words woke out of their ancient sleep.
Kate grimaced again, took a last long drag, and stubbed out the butt. Then she shut off the ignition, opening the truck door and climbing down, wincing as she stepped wrong and put all her weight on that hip.
Kate felt that sense of watching again, something or someone this time, different, hostile. Before, it had just been . . . watching. Waiting. Neutral. But she couldn't see anything out of place, uphill or down, field or woods.
She studied the woods. Glacial till, all right, boulders poking through the dead leaves to make humped lines and shadows and corners under the broad oaks.
Right-angled corners. Kate blinked and shook her head until her brain reset. Glaciers didn't leave straight lines and right angles behind when they headed back to Canada for another load of rocks.
She was staring at abandoned buildings, probably the reason for the old road. Abandoned buildings of thick stone masonry, worn down to waist-height or lower by centuries of Maine winters and by old-growth oaks splitting the walls. Small buildings, one- or two-room houses, maybe four rooms if they'd originally stood tall enough for an upper floor, and small sheds or barns likewise built of stone. Not like any Maine farm she'd ever seen.
She stepped off the road and shuffled through dry leaves, nosy-poking, as much curious mason as cop. She knew Maine construction. The only thing like this she'd ever seen in these parts was Morgan's Castle back in Stonefort. And that heavy plain stone tower was older than any history book would admit. If you believed Alice, it dated back to Welsh refugees from Edward the First.
The nearest wall felt cold and damp, mossy, flakes of lime plaster stucco and mortar crumbling at her touch and rattling down into the leaves. The stones slept. To Kate, they felt almost as if they had been left by the last ice age, no memory of the men that laid them. Alice said that stone and wood liked Kate, that they wanted to please her. More of her magical mystical bullshit. Kate just paid attention to grain and gravity. Knowing her materials didn't count as witchcraft.
She moved along the wall to a corner, estimating distances with a practiced eye. Yes, two rooms, if it had been a house. Two small rooms. No sign of a chimney, so it might have been an outbuilding. Or maybe they just used a smokehole in the roof.
Her foot dropped out from under her and she jolted down to mid-calf depth, fire stabbing through hip and shoulder. Black dots swam through her sight. She leaned against the stone and panted, sweat cold on her forehead and tears stinging her eyes. Then she stood up, slowly, carefully, painfully. Fox or woodchuck hole, hidden by the fallen leaves. She rocked her weight from side to side, listening to her body and hating what she found.
Step by limping step, she eased back out to the road, pausing halfway to lean on an oak. She didn't dare explore the rest of the ruins. Not by herself, not in her condition. If she fell into the old privy, odds were she wouldn't be able to climb out.
She wasn't used to being careful, and it galled. She'd been hurt before, hurt bad and damn near killed, and it hadn't taken her this long to recover. She was getting old. Old like those stones, weathered, silver hairs scattered through the blonde.
Then a picture flashed in her head, and she knew where she'd seen stonework and a farm like this before. In a book or magazine, Irish farmsteads abandoned since the Famine, a Scots crofter's cottage fallen to ruin, fishing villages on out-islands in the Hebrides, left open to the wind and winter when all the children moved to the mainland and the cities. Only difference was the trees. Those out-island photos showed bare heather and grass.
Walking seemed to ease the pain in her hip, and she couldn't face cramming herself back into the truck. If she sat for an hour right now, most likely her body would seize up like a rusty winch. And something about the high field drew her, those stones on the crest of the blueberry barren. The spacing looked regular, as if they related to the ancient farm.
She climbed, slowly on the stiff incline and stiffer hip, and felt strength flow back into her from the land. She belonged to this place, belonged to all of Stonefort. Her body had grown from its land and sea. So her people had only lived here for a few hundred years, as opposed to maybe a thousand for the Morgans or ten thousand for Alice's Naskeag ancestors. That was still long enough that she could lay claim to the title "native" in Maine lingo. Long enough for the stone and dirt to know her blood.
Something fluttered on the crest of the ridge, flashing white or silver in the breeze. Trash? Here? Then another thought shot across her mind, and she froze -- nearly turned back to the truck to get her gun and badge. Dopers grew marijuana deep in the woods, scattered plants or whole fields of the demon Weed. That might explain occasional traffic on an abandoned road. And those fields usually had guards or booby traps protecting them . . .
But they'd had frosts already, even a hard freeze. Bird season started next week, thousands of blaze orange snoops wandering through the Great North Woods looking to commune with nature through the barrels of their shotguns. Any dopers would have harvested their pot plantation long ago.
Besides, she was more than halfway there. Her hip didn't want her to climb down and then back up again. And she couldn't see any tracks through the brown grass and mounded purple swathes of blueberry bushes. Not even a deer trail, or the swirled and matted beds they'd leave. Odd. She sniffed. That flinty tang was back, sharp through the mixed hay and earth and cinnamon of the barren.
The stones sat there on the crest, rough glacial boulders, unshaped, showing about half her height above the ground, obviously moved and placed by men. And then forgotten -- gray and yellow lichen blotched them and some bore a hairy thatch of grass and heather. As she climbed closer, they curved away from her and formed an arc, perhaps a circle.
The stone-smell closed in on her, a pressure against her skin like simmering anger. Kate felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. That flashing came again, beyond the stones, rattling, the sound of plastic sheeting in the wind.
Something lay there, long, narrow, wrapped in builder's poly, displayed on a flat boulder or outcrop of ledge centered in the curve of stones. Kate stopped and stared, suddenly chilled in spite of the clear sun on her back. That shape reminded her too much of a body bag waiting for the medical examiner's meat wagon. She'd seen them all too often, car wrecks and drownings and the occasional "domestic." She'd seen one just two weeks ago, her ex dead of a lifetime of whiskey and she'd found the body when he hadn't answered his phone for two days . . .
But she was a cop. Not a cop in favor with the county DA right now, but still a cop. She shook her head, watched her feet to avoid stomping on any clues, and crossed the last twenty or thirty feet to the center of the stone circle.
A body, fresh enough it didn't stink. Wrapped in several layers of poly sheeting, six mil by the look of it, tied in place with green nylon net twine circling the bundle at six different points. Nude body, apparently, or flesh-colored underwear, lumps in the plastic looked like female. She didn't touch anything to find out more. And then she reached the head.
Blonde hair. Cut short. Damned tall body for a woman, broad shoulders like Kate's own. The ridge faded around Kate, and again Jackie flashed across her blurred eyes, face teen-age sullen.
They'd never found her body, after that shoot-out and fire at the Pratts' place. Found blood and bone and brain tissue spattered across the gravel, but they'd never found the body.
Kate was sitting. Her back leaned against something cold and rough. Blueberry bushes prickly under her butt and against her arms through the sleeves of her work shirt. Stone, stone at her back, stone solid and reliable, guarding, she'd never get shot from that direction.
Kate stared at the cell phone in her hand. Left hand, missing half the index finger from a second's carelessness with a power saw. Call in. Nine-one-one, report to dispatch, easier than groaning to her feet and limping back down the ridge to her truck and the police radio under the dash.
She felt the chill of those hostile eyes again and looked up. Jackie. Jackie standing by the tree-line, calm, weighing, nodding, then fading into nothing like a proper ghost. Kate's vision blurred, black dots swirling into a tunnel, and she blinked tears away. The edge of the field stood empty again, bracken and grass and blood-crimson blueberry bushes undisturbed.
Her right hand made its own choice and poked at the buttons for a memory number, memory number one, Alice, cell phone in her car or at the hospital or wherever. Anywhere except the House. Cell phone wouldn't work in the House. House didn't like it.
Get her out here before the sheriff or the state patrol, closest real cops. Too many things wrong.
Alice tucked the foil blanket tighter around Kate's shoulders, gently forced her lover's head back down on the improvised pillow of a wadded-up jacket, and checked her temporal pulse again. Still weaker than normal, even lying in the grass with her head downhill. Then Alice looked up, glaring at the state trooper. Wescott, according to his nameplate. Not local. Both good and bad sides to that.
"Shit, yes, I touched the body. I used sterile gloves and left them lying on top of the plastic wrap in case they picked up any forensic goodies. In my professional opinion, as a registered nurse specializing in ER trauma and as an EMT, my patient needed to know that corpse was not her missing daughter. Life-or-death, extreme clinical shock. Now fuck off! I'm dealing with a medical emergency here."
A mix of code words and crude emphasis, shorthand that should penetrate even the thickest rote rule-book cop skull. State troopers weren't dumb, none of them. Even if they sometimes acted that way.
And he could see her industry-standard EMT crash bag and her photo-ID from Sunrise General clipped to her shirt pocket and the stethoscope draped professionally across her shoulders. Badges of authority, added to the command voice.
And since Wescott wasn't a Stonefort boy, he wouldn't know Kate was about as fragile as one of those boulders in the stone circle. Alice was just buying herself some space. Yeah, it sounded cold and calculating. Her lover lay under her hands, pale and clammy and her blood pressure down around sixty from shock, and the Haskell Witch subprogram had taken over Alice's brain, manipulating people and weighing which of their buttons to push.
It worked. The cop left, shaking his head.
But that trooper would be asking some damned awkward questions if he ever found out that Alice landed on the crime scene at least half an hour before the nine-one-one call. That she'd studied the wrappings and the knots on that do-it-yourself body bag before untying and opening it up to find out what was inside, to look for clues that the Medical Examiner would never understand. Photographing stuff with her digital camera. And then closing everything back up and matching all the original knots, including the botched ones. Whoever had wrapped that package wasn't a sailor or a fisherman.
Kate opened her eyes and stared up into nothing, unfocused, blue sky reflected in sky-blue eyes. Alice glanced over at the cops and forensics guys, checking just which way they were looking, and then bent down and gently kissed her on the forehead. She fed power through her hands, feeling it drain out of her own body and wake up the ache in her back and chest. Do much more of that and she'd end up on a gurney herself. But Kate's eyes came back into focus, and her pulse strengthened.
"Just lie there. That wasn't Jackie. Just lie still and let the earth give you strength."
Kate shook her head, slowly, as if it hurt. "They never found her body."
Alice nodded. "They never found any of the bodies. We know people died at the Pratts' place. We know people died in that cigarette boat that blew up and sank out in the bay. No bodies, anywhere. But that girl wasn't Jackie. Big kid, maybe, but three or four inches shorter than either of you, most likely a couple of years too old, and she wasn't a natural blonde. Brown roots."
Not to mention the nipple ring and a couple of raunchy tattoos. But Kate didn't need that level of sharing.
And the kid's heart was somewhere else, along with four or five liters of blood. Bled dry like a slaughterhouse pig, but not by slitting her throat. Big jagged hole in her chest, with a tiny razor-sharp flake of obsidian imbedded in the cut end of one rib, a flake that Alice had left in place for the M.E. to find and puzzle over. Anyway, the shadowy perp hadn't killed that girl here. But the stones still felt angry.
Kate wrinkled her nose. "Sooner or later we're going to have to talk to them."
"Sooner." The ground seemed to throb under Alice, Maine granite sending code to the base of her spine where she squatted in the grass. "Talk to them here. That'll cut down on the awkward questions."
"Huh?" Kate hoisted herself up on one elbow, blinking as if her brain fuzzed with the move. Then her skin flushed slightly from its pale, waxy color. Blood pressure rising. Good, even if it was her temper.
"Talk to them here," Alice repeated. "But you may have to bring the Forensics team back again tomorrow. They'll have a hard time finding the place without you. Harder time remembering what they've found. They'll have trouble recalling anything they didn't write down or photograph."
Kate's skin reddened further, almost back to normal, and her eyes narrowed. She sat up. "They'll have a hard time finding the place? Remembering? You been getting into the scheduled drugs at the hospital?"
You'd think the girl would start to believe in magic, the things she's been through. "The stones like you. Damned if I know why, but they wanted you here. You. Then you called me, and then you called dispatch. If you hadn't been here, if the stones didn't know you, none of us could have found this place. Can't you feel it?"
That Power crawled over Alice's skin, helping her help Kate. But it focused on Kate, only using Alice because she was available.
Kate frowned. "Feed it to your roses. Somebody called me. Set me up. Since when do rocks use telephones?"
"Silicon, kiddo. Silicon and germanium and gallium and a bunch of other minerals. And copper and aluminum and gold. That's what they make computers out of. Computers and radios and cell phones. And rocks."
The Power flowing through this place nearly stood Alice's hair on end. She couldn't use it, it wouldn't feed her magic, but by the Jesus she sure could feel it. Couldn't use it except to help Kate.
Kate shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Crazier than a shithouse rat. And you ain't even pretty. Damn good thing you're rich. Weren't for that, they'd have tossed you in the nut bin before you were out of diapers." But her face softened while she spoke, fond smile lines tugging at the corners of her mouth and eyes.
Alice felt her heart twist around in her chest. The big ox wasn't going to die on her. The big, scarred, numb-as-a-stump-but-she's-good-with-her-hands ox who didn't believe in magic wasn't going to take her magic away. Besides that personal thing, the House needed her.
Kate shoved over onto her hands and knees, winced, and then stood up, swaying. Alice didn't try to help her. With the difference in their sizes, the best she could do was stand by and try to break the fall if Kate passed out. The shock wasn't an act. Kate really had thought she'd found her daughter's body.
But as for acting . . .
"Just tell them what we talked about. I got here a few minutes before the first cruiser, you don't know the exact time. I was closer when I got your call, nothing suspect there. I peeled enough plastic back to see that the corpse wasn't Jackie's. By then, you'd flopped on your face in the blueberries and everything else is fuzzy. Trust me, they won't ask a lot of questions. The stones won't let them."
"Shit they won't. DA tried to get the town to fire me. State cops won't talk to me on the radio, always just out of range when I transmit. MDEA and the Feds think I ratted out that drug raid over at Tom Pratt's, because Jackie was there and I'd heard ahead of time the raid was going down. That left 'professional courtesy' stinking like a week-old roadkill skunk. I turn up with a murder in the puckerbrush, you think they won't sniff it up one side and down the other? 'Specially if I'm the only one who can find it?"
That flinty smell had returned, the first thing Alice had noticed when she got out of her car. "The stones own this place. They say what will happen and what will not. Trust them to protect you."
Kate looked like she'd bitten a lemon. "Lying to cops. Interfering with a crime scene. I used to be a cop, dammit!"
"Still are. You're just exactly the kind of cop that Stonefort wants. That's why the selectmen didn't fire you. And you aren't lying. Just not telling everything. Nobody ever does."
Not that the town selectmen would ever fire the Haskell Witch's lover. All of them came from old Stonefort families. They knew. And even without that, "foreigners" like the DA could go to hell. If it came to a vote, more than half the town would decide to blow up the Salt Hay Bridge and ignore Sunrise County, ignore Maine, ignore the rest of the Boston States.
Kate limped away, over to the clump of uniforms hovering next to the stone circle. Alice winced, sighed, and shook her head. Those wounds lingered. It seemed almost like Jackie had rubbed poison on the slugs before she fired. The kid had sucked life from her mother since before she was born, and now she continued from beyond the grave.
If she had a grave.
Wescott intercepted Kate, fancy folding aluminum clipboard in hand, got to get those forms filled in. She settled herself on one of the boulders, moving carefully, shoulders slumping. She still didn't bend very well. Then her back stiffened and her shoulders drew back as the land fed strength to her, free gift. That girl didn't believe in magic?
Alice rubbed her eyes, shuddered, and opened them again, hoping the scene had changed. It hadn't. She'd seen this stone circle in a nightmare the House had brought her more than once. A nightmare of Kate standing behind that stone altar with a bronze knife in her hand, Kate dressed in some Medieval get-up of baggy handwoven wool trousers and pullover wadmal top and a garland of mistletoe around her straw blonde hair, and the sacrifice lying naked on the stone was also Kate.
The House remembered things. The ghosts that haunted the House remembered things. Alice had never stood on this ridge before, but some ancestor had. Had seen sacrifices here, had seen blood soaking into that stone.
And that scene was Kate. If Kate thought she had to do something, she did it. Whatever it cost her. You'd get farther trying to talk gravity into giving up.
Another uniform split from the group by the stones and headed across the field, brown and tan instead of blue-gray, a sheriff's deputy. Questions for Alice. She made a show of gathering up her gear and repacking the crash bag, slow, precise, setting things so she wouldn't have to search the next time she needed nanoseconds. Stripped off her gloves. Tucked them away for bio-waste disposal. Tobacco stink invaded her space, another smoker, cigars this time. Cheap cigars, rum-soaked crooks. Alice looked up.
Andy Page, she knew him from the ambulance and crash scenes, a boy from Winter Cove on the mainland. Not "local" but not "from away." The clipboard hung loose in his left hand, backside up. Not open for business.
"Kate going to be okay?"
"Yeah. She really thought that was Jackie. Just saw the blonde hair through the plastic, saw how long the body was. Freaked."
"Still no word on her kid?"
He glanced around, as if checking the distance to other ears. "Look, off the record, most of the force thinks the DA is full of shit. We know Kate. If she'd found out about the dope, she'd have busted her own kid. Cuffed her and stuffed her and dumped her at the jail. She's that kind of cop. Tell her that."
"Thanks. I will." The District Attorney thought she was a native because she'd been born in Portland. That tended to get the locals' backs up. Hell, that was barely in the same galaxy as Stonefort.
The deputy muttered something that could have been "Boston bitch." Then he lifted his clipboard. Back on duty. "When did you arrive at the scene?"
"Best I can say is, less than five minutes after I got her call. I was already headed down through Grants' Corners, coming home from work."
"Did you see anything unusual, any tracks or other evidence?"
Alice rolled her eyes. "Unusual, like a body dumped in the middle of the field? Sorry. Not unless you count the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Page blinked, then seemed to get the Sherlock Holmes reference.
Alice nodded. "I didn't see any wheel tracks in the field. Checked before I pulled over to the side, to make sure I didn't mess up evidence. I saw Kate's foot trail through the dry grass and blueberries. One trail going in, none coming out. She'd left the grass bent in the direction she walked. Nothing else."
He frowned at that. "Can you give me the exact time you got here?"
She waved down at the bottom of the field, at her rusted-out Subaru wagon parked on a patch of ledge. "My car clock hasn't worked in maybe five years, and I left my watch at Sunrise. Got blood all over it, that wreck up on Connors' Hill." All true statements. She had about a dozen watches, identical fifteen-buck Casios, including two more in the bag. But he didn't need to know that.
He made a note, then the clipboard dropped again. Semaphore signals. "The Collins kid going to make it?"
Alice made a face. "Yeah. But taking five seconds to buckle her seatbelt could have saved her a year of surgery and rehab. And her left eye."
He winced and then shook his head with a wry smile. Cops and EMTs spent too much time at crash scenes. They really got tired of people who sat on their seatbelts.
God, I'm tired. Just got off two eight-hour shifts, back to back and snatching naps on a gurney in the corner, and now this. She opened her eyes again and looked up.
The deputy shook his head in sympathy, the bond of combat vets crouching in the same foxhole. His clipboard came up again, and the pen waited.
"Any idea why she called you in?"
As if he didn't know. "We share a house. She moved in with me after we both got shot. We take care of each other. She can't bend over, I can't lift either arm above my shoulders. Between the two of us, we can reach all the kitchen cupboards." And between the two of them, they might be able to let Caroline fly back out to school in Arizona in another month or so. Alice knew the girl had other things to do besides cook and clean up for her doddering aunt. Like grad school and her thesis.
"Did you recognize the corpse?"
"Don't think I've ever seen her before. Best guess, a runaway. Hair looks like a city job. Nobody around here does that kind of cut. Maybe drug scene, maybe prostitute. Too old, too big for kiddie porn." She didn't mention the piercings and the ink.
The deputy nodded, her guesses echoing his own thoughts. Outside trouble, city trouble, Naskeag Falls or even Boston, dumped back here in the puckerbrush for the clamdigger hicks to solve. He filled out a few more blanks in the form, snapped his clipboard shut, and glanced over at Kate still talking and sitting on her rock.
"Take care of her. Okay? That trooper has a ramrod up his ass. I'll try to pry him loose."
And then he walked away, almost marched, radiating an air of Professional Police Officer. Alice shook her head. Surprising how macho men like the deputies were much more tolerant of lesbian or bi women than they were of gay men. Put a fag in Kate's position, they'd make life pure hell for him or kill him outright. Instead, Kate was just one of the boys.
Probably didn't hurt that she could squash any one of them at arm-wrestling. Or could have, before she took two bullets.
Alice zipped her bag shut, slapped the side pockets to set the Velcro, and hauled herself upright. She gritted her teeth against the ache throbbing deep under her left shoulder blade. One 9mm slug in the back could ruin your whole day. Or life.
Wescott had turned aside, answering whatever Andy Page was after. Alice ignored him. She walked straight up to Kate where she sat on one of the stone boulders, stabbed a forefinger at her nose, and then hooked her thumb downhill towards where her truck was parked, the "You're out!" gesture.
"Move it. Home. Bed. Now! I'll thaw out some pea soup."
Hot and hearty followed by large doses of quiet, that was the prescription. And hope the Morgan girls weren't raising too much hell. Praise to any and all gods that might be listening, Alice had never felt inclined to have children of her own. Borrowed ones were bad enough.
The trooper turned halfway back and reached one arm out with "Wait a minute!" body language. Alice glared at him, a look that had cowed a Doberman more than once, and just walked right by. The Haskell Witch was back in charge. She brushed straight through the trooper's arm, her attention turned to Kate as if that bulky blue-uniformed figure was so much fog.
"What's the model year on that old Dodge, anyway? Charlie asked the other day, said ordering parts would be a dite easier if he knew."
Kate blinked as if Alice had finally flipped out. She staggered to her feet and limped along behind, though, probably force of habit. In her condition, she'd likely take orders from a talking chipmunk.
"Hold on, there. I'm not done with either of you."
Alice spun back, turning her glare up two notches. "Fuck off, mister! You going to arrest us? My patient needs rest and food, stat! Any questions you've got, you can ask tomorrow or next week." Full Head Nurse mode, both barrels. She'd been told it added a foot and a half to her height.
Wescott looked stunned, eyes wide and color draining from his face. Before he could react, Andy Page tugged at his elbow. Alice walked on. As far as she could remember the legal mumbo-jumbo, this crime scene belonged either to the county sheriff or to Kate, anyway. State cops only got to boss in the unorganized townships. Locals usually deferred to the state boys, but they didn't have to.
She turned back to Kate. "Charlie says your registration claimed 1970. No way that's a '70 Dodge, unless it was made in Brazil."
"Uh, cab's a '59 or '60, I think." Kate looked nearly as stunned as the state trooper, but she was following. "You'd have to whip up a séance and ask Uncle Ray. 1970 was the year he made it street-legal and registered it. Used it as a jitterbug up 'til then."
Jitterbugs -- jalopy woods trucks, some of them hand-built, others based on Model A Fords, you name it. Alice glanced back out of the corner of her eye. They were still in earshot of the cops. "Cab's a '59?"
"He told me the chassis and drive train came from an army surplus truck, can't remember if it was Korea or World War II. He welded up the cargo bed himself. He replaced the engine and transmission a couple of times before he died, playing around for more power and better gear ranges."
Her color was better now. Maybe walking helped, or maybe just talking about something totally unconnected to that long plastic-wrapped corpse in the stone circle.
That, and Power from the stones. The same Power that had made Alice shovel a ration of shit in that trooper's face. And made him swallow it.
Alice glanced back at the stones crowning the field. The place set her teeth on edge. It felt angry. Not angry at the killing -- more like insulted. It didn't mind human sacrifice, but that murder hadn't been dedicated to the stones. The Power of the death had gone elsewhere. The blood had fed some other ground.
Garbage dump. That was what she felt. The killer had used the old stone circle as a garbage dump for a desecrated corpse. Sacrilege, whatever Powers you believed in. And it didn't feel accidental.
This was an attack on Kate. Alice didn't have a clue where the connection lay, but someone was trying to weaken Kate. Her and the rest of the Town of Stonefort -- someone striking at roots that reached down beyond memory.
Someone who knew too damn much about the use and abuse of Power.
Caroline Haskell stirred her pot of chowder, dipped out a spoonful, blew on it, and sniffed. The taste of Maine, the taste of home. Soul food, Down-east style. God, she'd missed it. Somehow, clams and onions and the lingering thick greasy smell of fried-out salt pork blended perfectly with hot apple pie and woodsmoke. She tasted the cooling spoonful and then dumped a guesstimate of salt into the pot before sliding it all to the back corner of the black iron stove.
Old habits made her duck low to check the firebox, rattle the grates to shake down ash, and cock her head as she gauged the coals. One more stick of oak, that was the call. Cooking on the ancient Atlantic Clarion had little in common with setting a gas burner to "simmer" and turning your back on supper to watch Oprah on TV. Or punching a few buttons on a microwave.
Of course, the House wouldn't have let a TV through the door in the first place. It barely tolerated indoor plumbing and only allowed electricity in three of the newest rooms. The rest of the rambling collage of additions still lived in the eighteenth century. Or seventeenth.
Hell, the heart of it was Neolithic. And Caroline ought to know -- parts of the place were as old as the potsherds and chipped flints she uncovered in Anasazi ruins, summer fieldwork for her Anthro post-grad studies.
This sudden attack of domesticity puzzled her. It was out of character -- she never had time for puttering around the kitchen, what with her TA class sections and fieldwork and roughing out that damned dissertation. And where would she be finding clams in Arizona, anyway?
But Ray Guptil had dropped off a heaping peck of softshells that had spent a couple of days in clean salt water to wash the mud out of their meat, and Alton Frost had left three sacks of fresh-dug spuds last week, "finest kind," and Amy Wetherall had come by with two loaves of whole-wheat still hot and fragrant from her oven, and then the Greenings were just hanging there on the apple trees out back, calling to Caroline . . . .
Stonefort people took care of the Woman, the Witch, the matriarch of the Haskell House. Women, right now, five witches rather than Shakespeare's three, more bodies than had lived in the House in decades. Aunt Alice, "Aunt" Kate, Caroline, the Morgan girls -- poor kids, Maria Morgan murdered by the Peruvian brujo and Daniel vanished into that kinda sorta "dead" that Morgans cooked up if cops or insurance adjusters or rivals started sniffing too close on the trail. "Dead" with a legal certificate and a memorial marker like so many others in the Morgan graveyard, "Lost At Sea."
With Dan Morgan, that dodge had been damn near necessary rather than just convenience. He'd been held prisoner in the Pratt tunnels when Maria drowned, already "lost," memorial mass and all. If he'd come back from the dead after she'd died, he'd have been an obvious suspect. Some of their fights had become Stonefort legends. Not a smooth marriage, by any measure.
So now Aunt Alice was guardian of Peggy and Ellen Morgan, AKA Mouse and Ellie, and sole trustee of the Morgan estate. And it was a hell of a lot safer for them to live here rather than at their house. Less chance of them ending up as hostages again. Plenty of room still -- Caroline wasn't sure exactly how many rooms the old pile of dryrot actually held. It probably changed with the weather, and the place would be growing more with winter coming on. Chance of more bodies to shelter, more mouths to feed.
Anyway, the House had to grow, with Kate living here. The big lug almost brushed the kitchen ceiling beams with her buzz-cut and made any room she was in feel cramped. People averaged smaller when the House was built, and Kate most certainly averaged larger. But she strengthened the place, for sure. The floors and stairs didn't creak anymore, just from that magic of wood and stone sleeping under their roof. The chimneys drew better, window sashes didn't rattle in the wind, doors no longer stuck.
Speak of the devil . . . Kate's truck rumbled into the driveway, as distinctive a sound as the foghorn on the Morgan's Point buoy. Aunt Alice's Subaru crunched over the gravel behind it. They must have met up somewhere for lunch, for them both to get home at the same time.
Caroline glanced out the kitchen window, verifying evidence like a good research assistant before she set the table. Then she stopped and stared. Both of the women sat behind their steering wheels for a full minute, shoulders slumped, and then climbed out with a weariness Caroline could feel from thirty feet away. Aunt Alice had to brace herself against her car's doorpost in order to pull her bag out, and then staggered with the weight of it.
Caroline felt a sudden flash of rage. She knew what had caused her sudden impulse to putter around the kitchen. Why she'd felt possessed to pick and peel enough Greenings for a pie.
It wanted hot food, hearty food, easy food, ready the moment Alice and Kate walked through its door. It felt quite comfortable with manipulating people to make it happen. Times like this, she felt like ramming the entire witch thing up someone's ass. Look at where it had gotten her aunt.
Next thing to dead, that was where. And damn few of her line had died of old age, either.
Caroline met them at the door and grabbed Alice's bag. She pulled up just short of throwing it across the room, stopped by the memory of exactly how many sharp and breakable things it held. Sharp and breakable and expensive things. She set it down carefully on top of the boot rack, exactly where her aunt would expect to find it on the way out the door at a dead run.
A shiver ran down Caroline's back, a touch of winter in the air, and she looked up. A big white SUV ghosted past on the road, slow, windows tinted next thing to black, and she felt something in there watching. Something hostile, something nasty, watching and waiting and taking notes. The shiver came and went again, and the car rolled on like a passing cloud that left the warm September sun shining again in the dooryard.
That Peruvian brujo, that Tupash, had driven a truck like that. He'd kidnapped the girls as weapons to get what he wanted from their father. But he was dead.
Caroline shook herself and turned back to where Kate and Alice had slumped into chairs, on opposite sides of the old maple table. She wondered if either of them had the strength left to hoist a spoon, or whether she'd have to hand feed them.
She stood there, hands on her hips, and glared from one to the other. "Why don't you just shoot yourselves? It'd hurt less and be over a damn sight quicker."
Kate didn't even look up. Alice stirred, shook her head, and glanced wistfully at the pot of chowder.
"It's my job."
Caroline ignored her chowder for the moment. Bowls broke too easily. Instead, she grabbed a loaf of still-warm bread, slammed the cutting board down on the counter, and hacked off four or five thick slices. Cutting something, anything, felt deliciously destructive.
"Which job? ER nurse? Ambulance? Guardian of every woman and child in Sunrise County and protector of small furry critters? I add that up to maybe forty hours. Every goddamn day."
As if summoned, Atropos padded across the floor and bounced up into Kate's lap. The calico catlet kneaded her chosen pillow with her front paws, claws snagging gently in Kate's jeans, and then settled down to purr.
"Our people need me."
Caroline slammed the butter dish down in the middle of the table, clattering a couple of knives after it. Sterling silver knives, gifts to some ancestral Haskell Witch.
"You're scaring the cat."
Actually, it was Kate who'd twitched. But Caroline took the message and reined her anger back a notch. She dished out chowder and handed spoons around. She filled glasses with water, cool water brimming with the Power of the House's spring. She leaned her back against the cold metal of the refrigerator, and glared.
"Our people don't need you dead. Or laid up in the hospital again. And I need you healthy enough that I can get back to having a life. Professor Stevens is getting twitchy."
Aunt Alice chewed her mouthful of bread, swallowed, and sighed. "I thought you'd conned him into another semester free."
"There's a limit to how long he'll swallow the story. I let him fill in the blanks -- single mom on the rez, likes men and the bottle a bit too much, raised by the saintly aunt who's lying at death's door, can't get a nurse to stay here on the backside of nowhere, the whole nine yards. Amazing how many stereotypes you can fit into the head of a man who should know better. But he could make one phone call and blow my whole game to shit. He is a cultural anthropologist, you know. He's used to asking questions."
That drew a wan smile. "Lainie will love what you've done to her reputation."
Caroline shook her head. "She thinks it's kinda cool. Suggested most of it in the first place. Laughed and quoted that 'Nobody loves a drunken Indian' bit."
"My sister has a twisted mind. Always did. You take after her."
"I thought you said I got that from my dad."
"No. He gave you a genetic predisposition for carrying a set of lock-picks in your purse."
Kate scraped the bottom of her bowl and tilted it for the last spoonful. She looked better now, her back straighter and color back in her cheeks. Maybe it was the food, maybe the water, maybe just sitting and the restful conversation. Maybe the goddamned House. Caroline took a hint and refilled the bowl.
Goddamned House. Caroline felt her anger building again. "I still don't see what good killing yourself does for the Sovereign Naskeag Nation. Or Aunt Kate and the rest of the paleface types, either."
Kate had become "aunt" by custom and courtesy, just like she'd be "uncle" if she were male and married to Caroline's real aunt. And all of Stonefort called the Haskell Witches "aunt" anyway, whatever the blood ties and age, and Kate had moved solidly into the "witch" category with their fight over at the Pratts. Aunt Alice might have shot that brujo through the heart with a silver bullet, but Kate had been the one who actually killed him. She'd drawn on the Power of the whole Stonefort peninsula to burn his body down to ash. The surge had blown out the power grid for miles around.
Neat jiu-jitsu trick, giving him way too much of what he wanted. Even if she didn't believe in magic.
Kate cleared her throat. Both Caroline and Alice focused on her -- the big woman didn't talk much, particularly when aunt and niece were bickering. "Funny you should mention that. I had a long talk with Dr. Adams one afternoon, a little after your aunt and I got shot."
She paused, pain twisting her face, and then went on. "Just after Jackie shot us. Anyway. He said he'd run a statistics program on the hospital computers. Odd thing. Based on what he saw, somewhere between five and ten people a year owed their lives to Alice. That's how many fewer patients died while she was on shift, compared to the averages of every other shift. Ten year average. It didn't matter who she was working with, what part of the hospital she was in, ER or OB/GYN or Oncology or Pediatrics. If she was on duty, fewer patients died." She paused again.
"I wouldn't be sitting here if she hadn't been riding the ambulance late one night."
That was a long speech, for Kate. Dr. Adams. He was the head of surgery or some such thing, big honcho at Sunrise General. He'd probably fished the bullets out of both women.
"Sampling error." Caroline shook her head. "He couldn't have found enough shifts she didn't work to make a valid statistical comparison."
Aunt Alice suddenly glanced around, eyes wide, noticing the abnormal quiet. "Where are the girls?"
Damn! That would freak her out. "Mom stopped by and picked them up. She said she'd promised to start teaching them to make baskets, and this was as good a weekend as any. She'll see they get to school on Monday."
Alice took a deep breath, looking bleak. "Just as well. Getting back to your father, I think we need to hold a séance. Pry into some Morgan secrets."
Séance. Summon the "spirit" of Ben Morgan. He'd also played that old Morgan trick -- another faked death, another "Lost at Sea." That one was a favorite, what with the number of sailors and fishermen who found that as their real grave. No body necessary to keep up the fiction. Both her father and his brother Daniel had been "lost at sea," twenty years apart.
Kate frowned and pushed back from the table. Her bowl was empty again. "I need a cigarette." Then she was limping out the kitchen door.
"What bit her?"
"Attack of conscience." Alice shook her head. "Got a wild hair up her ass about being a good cop. She doesn't want to hear anything she shouldn't about people with memorial tablets gathering moss in the Morgan graveyard. Don't ever develop a conscience, girl. It'll just get in your way."
"Small chance of that, with you as my shining example."
Alice shrugged. "Like I said, it gets in the way of the job. The Woman does what she has to do. Anyway, how's your Latin?"
"So-so. What the hell's that tangent about?"
"Not a tangent. Most of the earliest Morgan archives are written in Latin, church Latin rather than the classic. That's what their tame priests knew, and they were the only ones who knew how to write. God help us if we had to read their tortured notion of Welsh spelling."
She paused for another bite of bread slabbed with butter -- fresh butter from Jed Prouty's farm about ten miles up the road. At least Caroline had handed over a sack of Greenings in trade for that.
Then Alice swallowed and smiled, her first genuine smile since walking through the door. "Hey, maybe you could use those tattered sheets of sheep-hide to finesse your Professor Stevens. Here you've got this unique chance for some research, genuine unpublished source materials covering the first contact between aboriginals and the European settlers. Don't need to tell him any little details like the dates involved."
It figured. Her first real smile would involve some touch of twisty thinking, some way of achieving three ends with one move. Haskell thinking.
On the other hand . . . "Dad's people have caused me a lot of trouble with my field work. They owe me."
Alice lifted her right eyebrow. "Eh? Now who's going off on tangents?"
"Ya ta hey. I had a hell of a time getting past Grandmother Walks-with-the-moon. She thought we were too assimilated to count as real Indians. Not that she used two-dollar words. 'Brown skin, white heart,' that was her exact phrase. We've lived with those damned Welshmen for too long. We live in villages along with the whiteskins, speak English, eat English, work English, don't do sings, don't dance, don't drum or wear fancy feathers. Never got herded into reservations or starved or massacred. Not real Indians."
Alice sat there, her face quiet. "And yet she let you enter the kiva. How did you change her mind?"
"I sat in front of her door."
"I sat in front of her door."
Now Alice lifted her left eyebrow. "And?"
"I thought about our spring. That Arizona sun gets to you after a while."
"How long did it take?"
"She offered me water on the third morning. Said that no English could be that stubborn." Caroline's mouth quirked a smile. "If she thinks I'm stubborn, she's never met you."
Alice just stared at her, quiet, ignoring the jab. Finally she nodded to herself. "That would get you past the first wall, maybe the second. What got you into the heart?"
"I told her about us, of course. After we'd swapped stories for about a year, I chanted her our creation myth. The real one, including the lines about the Sea People from the land of the dawn and their white swan canoes. About how we assimilated the whiteskins, the first time around, them and enough of their diseases that the Colonial epidemics mostly passed us by. About how we used the Sea People as camouflage when the English showed up and tried to take our homes."
Caroline paused, glanced at the door still resolutely shut behind Kate, and cut a couple of slabs of apple pie. She consulted the state of her stomach and added one for herself with a side order of a cheddar wedge. Prouty cheddar.
"Then it got complicated. I had to explain about the difference between the Welsh and English tribes, about how to outsiders they might look the same, like Blackfoot and Crow, but that they were really ancient enemies. About how half the French thought we were English, and half the English thought we were French, and how we dodged them both by being neither. Switching sides so fast the paint never dried on the road signs, was the way I explained it."
That drew a snort from Alice. "You tell her about us?"
Caroline understood the accent on that word -- "us" the family, not "us" the tribe. "I had to. You don't get far, trying to hide things from Grandmother Walks. Anyway, as soon as I mentioned epidemics, she was all over that like a tall dog. I had to give her an explanation a lot stronger than that we'd met some of those germs before. Summoning the spirits of the land and air and water, now, that she could believe."
Alice stared down into her glass of water. "You never mentioned any of this. No letters, emails, phone calls. Nothing."
"No. That was half the point of going out west, wasn't it? You kept telling me that I had to stand on my own two feet. Learn to fight my own battles, without you and the House to back me up. The all-powerful Haskell Witch can't ever rely on anyone but herself."
"Jeezum. Nothing says you can't ask for help. Can't accept help when it comes along. I've got Kate . . ."
Time to break this off before it dissolved into tears and words regretted in the morning. "Speaking of Kate, what are we supposed to be plotting behind her back?"
Alice shook herself and then looked up from her glass. "Plots? Nothing dark and sinister, girl. I just want you to comb through those papers for any mention of a stone circle up on Dyers Ridge. Any mention at all. That thing is old and powerful and tied somehow to Kate. It isn't Naskeag -- its roots have to be Welsh, damn near as old as the Morgans in this land. We've got to find out more about it. Ask your father to help, if he isn't too busy stealing something from a museum in Bangkok. Ask Gary."
Gary Morgan, the half-brother she'd always thought was a cousin until Alice sorted out some of the local tangles for her. Ben Morgan had the morals of a tomcat. Damned awkward that the only boy in three townships who caught her fancy turned out to be her half-brother. Cousin wouldn't have been so bad. Half-brother was . . . tacky.
But maybe her hormones were just missing Kenny Grayeyes. Damn few Haskell women had much use for celibacy.
Caroline grabbed her wandering thoughts by the scruff of the neck. Back to business. "Ummm. Aunt Alice, you still haven't told me what this is all about. What the hell did you and Aunt Kate get into?"
"Eh? Girl, you've got to work on your mind-reading skills if you're ever going to amount to something as a witch. We've got a problem. A big problem."