I
Few things in Stonefort are exactly what they seem.

Daniel Morgan reminded himself of that fact, as he studied the scene in front of him. This was the place. From this distance, it looked perfectly normal.

Evening fog rose off cold salt water, closing in and hiding Daniel's kayak as it bobbed gently in the swells, and the water lay as close to calm as the Maine coast ever got. The tide had just turned to the ebb, leaving a wet line drawn across the coarse pink granite cliff. He sat in his cockpit and thought about geology and camouflage.

Camouflage meant a sea-green kayak ballasted low in the water and a fleece jacket mottled the black and deep brown of waterlogged wharf timbers floating in the tide. It meant greasepaint on his face, a flat black double-ended paddle, and black gloves. Coming in, he'd sculled within yards of a raft of eiders without drawing a blink from the drowsing birds. Whatever gave him the creepy sense of being watched hadn't bothered them.

There were things Maine rock did naturally and things it didn't. Sheer cliffs and offshore ledges were natural. Straight channels tucked behind rough sea-stacks weren't. Neat arch-mouthed caves hidden at the end of those channels weren't.

This place had gnawed at his curiosity, ever since he'd spotted it while tracking down a dinghy that had broken loose. The weathered cracks in the rock, the wind-twisted spruces with their gnarled roots clawing for a hold on the lichen and shreds of soil that escaped the storms, the rockweed and barnacles below the tide line, all tried to tell him this was a natural cliff. They lied. Men had carved this rock and then gone to a lot of trouble to hide their work. Judging by lichen and trees, the last ring of hammer on chisel had been centuries ago.

The bell buoy tolled from Tinker Ledge, reassuring in its normalcy. He really didn't have any reason to be afraid. Pratts and Morgans had played tag like this for generations. They weren't enemies as such: no blood feuds, no brawling in the streets like the Montagues and Capulets. There were rules.

The two families had even been partners once, but they'd gone their separate ways after a difference of opinion on long range business planning. Now the two sides kept different secrets, and he couldn't simply walk along the shore and look at something that had caught his curiosity.

Danielís hand caressed the silver dragon pendant at his chest, welcoming the warmth of the fire-red stone bound in its coils. Even in June, the water carried a winter chill. He noticed a sleek gray head watching him from the water at the edge of the fog, body just awash -- seals grew hides for water like this. Humans had to rely on neoprene and Polartec. He'd be so much more comfortable wearing his other skin . . . . He shook his head. This needed human eyes, and maybe human hands.

He tucked the warm glow back inside his wetsuit, along with his usual wry curiosity about how it did the things it did. The Dragon hadn't come with a manual. He'd worn it for twenty years now, almost half his life, and it still sometimes surprised him: for example, this ability to see things that had eluded the Coast Guard and a dozen other federal agencies for years.

A flick of the paddle sent him closer to the cliff. The scene fuzzed and then sharpened, as if he'd slipped through a denser patch of fog. "Thereís a channel here," he said, talking to his left hand inside its splash mitt. "Wide enough for a Novi boat."

A hiss of static answered in his left ear, then a whispered voice. "The charts show solid ledges."

Fifty yards out, you'd never see the overlap in the rocks that hid the channel. Even at high tide, ledges made waters like these a death-trap for anyone without a chart or decades of experience. They meant tricky work even for a narrow sliver of plastic that only drew six inches of water. Daniel would never bring his lobster boat in among these rocks, and there weren't any buoyed traps to show that others were braver or less wise.

He wondered how the Pratts had diddled the charts. Aerial cameras weren't eyes, that they could be fooled by illusions. No matter what the voice in his ear might say: what there was, was a path of clear green water about fifteen yards across, zigzagging through the rocks to a turning basin big enough for a scallop dragger -- or a smuggler's hot-rod, more likely. That hidden slot back through the cliff to the black mouth of the cave didnít show up on any Geological Survey map, either.

Of course, the Morgan family had a few ancient secrets, too. And ways of keeping them. He smiled quietly to himself.

"Iím heading in," he whispered to his mitt.

"Watch yourself," his ear answered. "The Pratts were never known for being stupid."

"Yeah. Well, Maria would never forgive me if I missed Gary's party. She's been planning it for months. You know I'm not going to risk her wrath."

"Wrath" was an understatement. Maria's temper was a byword in three counties. The things they didn't tell you, before you took out that marriage license . . .

Daniel sniffed, searching the salt air, spruce resin, and rotting seaweed odors for alien tangs. A faint whiff of gasoline rode the breeze, along with the mustiness of wet rock that never saw the sun. He also picked up the faintest touch of sun-dried hemp, and smiled to himself over the guess confirmed.

"No more talk," the voice added. "Switch code only."

Daniel clicked his answer, short-long-short pulses on the "talk" switch for agreement. The radios operated on unused frequencies just outside "ham" channels, and the odds were very strong against somebody eavesdropping. That didn't mean he could afford the noise of talking on his end.

Delicate flicks of the paddle moved him south, close in along the cliff. He scanned for wires, for sensors, for cameras, for any evidence of alarms. Old habits of the trade -- he smiled to himself and shook his head. Storm waves and winter ice would wipe out anything like that, to say nothing of the false alarms a sixteen-foot tidal range would trigger.

The walls of the slot reared up around him, coarse-grained, weathered stone scattered with palm-sized splotches of orange and gray-green lichen. He spotted a single gouge left by a quarryman's chisel, and a patch of discolored mortar that plugged a hole. The cliff face dropped straight down into the water, and he guessed there would be at least ten feet of channel at dead low tide. The smell of gas and marijuana grew stronger.

He sculled around to line up with the cave, keying his transmitter again with a Morse code "285" for the bearing on his deck compass. His earphone hissed "Roger" in reply, the growing static on the FM warning him the stone was shielding his signal. So the radio might not be much use. But then, his little hand-held always talked better than it listened.

A single bright scrape marred the entry; someone had gotten careless with a boat hook, fending off. The shadows closed around Daniel, into the total darkness of a cave at night. He dug into his gear-bag, pulled out a headlamp, and put it on. He hated showing light, but infrared goggles gave too coarse a picture for this job, and light amplifiers would need some light to amplify.

The beam cut into the darkness, leaving a white shaft of fog like a thin pale ghost questing to right and left. The inside of the cave was rougher stone, chisel gouges and the half-tunnels of blasting holes standing out clearly in the light. This work had been done after gunpowder and iron came to the coast, but before there were enough people to care about the noise.

Daniel crept along, sculling gently while he scanned for alarms. The tunnel curved slowly north -- a turn easy enough for any boat that had business being there, but sufficient to shield direct light from the outside. The water lay as still as a millpond, and he heard his quietest paddle-strokes whispering in the silence.

The radio spat static at him, with "distance" barely coming above the squelch. He sent his guess back and received another burst of noise. It sounded as loud as a chainsaw in the stillness, and he killed the volume. From now on, he'd be transmitting blind.

His light swept over a slot in the cave roof and walls, and he studied the bright metal edge it showed. Storm gate, he guessed, stainless steel, something to keep heavy swells out when the Gulf of Maine started getting frisky. He paused just beyond it, thinking about traps. Up to this point, nothing he'd seen could stop him from just sneaking right back out again.

The tunnel opened up into a chamber as wide and high as a barn. The walls seemed smoother here, and natural, as if some troll had blown a bubble in the granite while it was cooling. Water splashed from a spring high up to one side, flowing gently down the rock and into the quiet tide below.

He backed water a yard or two, nerves on edge as his headlamp bounced light across rusted iron overhead. He brought the beam back and steadied it, lighting up an ancient hoist and wooden catwalk high along the wall. Judging by the rotted holes in the wood, nobody had used that for fifty years or more. Probably rumrunners and Prohibition. Newer light fixtures also hung from the rock, though, connected by a spider-web of conduit.

Then dark shadows formed into a boat and floating dock, low in the water, new and well-tended. Curiosity sucked him deeper into the cave.

The boat was fiberglass, flat black, long and sleek like an arrow, and bore no name or registration numbers. Very interesting. Outside of GPS and radar antennas and a single VHF radio whip, it showed no metal. If the engines sat below waterline, it would have no more radar signature than a chunk of driftwood.

Daniel sculled quietly along it, estimating length and beam and capacity in bales of marijuana or kilos of cocaine. A man could support a very comfortable lifestyle with a boat like that.

Assuming the right connections, of course. Which the Pratts would have. Daniel had seen enough. He spun the kayak with two dips of the paddle and keyed his transceiver again with the code for "leaving."

Lights blazed, blinding him.

He dug his paddle into the water, thrashing through the glare towards his memory of the exit. Machinery whined, and he heard the rumble of the storm gate closing.

The damned thing would be slow. He still might make it.

A door slammed behind him, and then a single shot blasted and echoed, deafening in the enclosed space. His paddle jerked in his hands. The kayak slewed around and he lost his bearings. He rammed into something, hard and grating on the bow, and that was it. He dropped the paddle and raised his hands.

His eyes slowly adapted to the light. A shadowy figure stood on the floating dock, cradling an assault rifle in his hands. Another sat on a landing by a metal door, rubbing his eyes and dangling night-vision goggles from one hand. Neither of them was actually pointing a weapon at Daniel, so he relaxed a touch. He also locked the radio mike on "transmit."

The gunman jerked a thumb at him, waving him back to the dock. Daniel blinked and focused, trying to identify the man. He seemed to be a stranger. Slow strokes of the paddle brought the kayak over beside the float, nothing sharp or sudden to startle the man with the gun.

Daniel grabbed a ladder and twisted through the contortionist's balancing act required to exit a floating kayak. You practically wore the damned things rather than riding in them, and you couldn't just stand up and step ashore.

He got a closer look at the gunman. He was definitely not a Pratt, and the Hispanic complexion and features tossed any rules out the window. Daniel shivered with a chill that had nothing to do with the cold water.

The guard must work for the suppliers. Probably Colombians. They had a vicious reputation, the kind of people who gave crime a bad name.

The door clanged again, and Daniel looked up. Three more men had entered the cavern, shadows against the light. One of them had the characteristic short and broad profile of the Pratt family. They started down the ramp to the float, and he got a better view: Tom Pratt, head of the clan, and another two Latinos. Both of the Colombians had pistols out -- ugly little Mac 10s, probably full-auto.

Tom shook his head. "Well, well. Look what drifted in on the tide." He grinned, as if the whole scene was a joke.

Take away the guns and Daniel might have laughed. He decided to play along. "Hey, you left the door open."

Tom nodded. Then he turned to the older Latino, a short, thin man with enough lines on his face to suggest that the black hair was a dye job. "How did he get past the illusions?"

"I do not know." His voice had the careful precision of a man who had learned English late but very well. "Is he police?"

That drew a laugh from Tom and the man still up on the landing, the one who'd had the night-vision goggles. Daniel finally identified him as Johnny Pratt, one of the numerous cousins. He now held another assault rifle.

"No," Tom said, still chuckling. "Indeed not. Our cross-town neighbor is the head of a rather ancient clan of thieves and con-men. He's as likely to be nervous of the cops as we are."

He studied Daniel for a moment, head cocked to one side. "It's a pity, him sneaking in the back door like this. That other matter you mentioned, selling some artifacts? Daniel's the man you'd want. I'm sure he could come up with a name or two, people who wouldn't ask embarrassing questions. For a finder's fee, of course."

"That is indeed a shame. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Antonio Estevan Francisco Juan Carlos da Silva y Gomes, at your service. I am a business associate of your neighbor." The old man turned back to Tom. "A thief, you say? Is he here to steal our merchandise?"

"Ah, yes, that is indeed the question." Tom turned back to Daniel. "Just what the hell are you doing here, anyway?"

Daniel shrugged. "Curiosity. I saw something that didn't belong, and followed it. I thought it might explain a story Grandfather told Dad."

"I believe," the Latino said, "that you have an English saying about curiosity killing the cat. We have similar warnings in Spanish." He turned to Tom again. "What is this about his grandfather?"

Tom waved it off, like a triviality. "Probably great-grandfather. Our families used to be partners in the import business. There was a small disagreement over policy back in the 1920s, and the partnership was dissolved. No hard feelings on either side."

Daniel snorted. A small disagreement? Granddad hadn't agreed with the Pratts' plan to cut good Scotch with wood alcohol. He preferred repeat customers.

Tom shrugged his shoulders. "A small matter. I still would like to know how he got past the illusions and wards."

"A question that troubles me, also." The older Colombian waved his bodyguard forward. "Please to search him?"

Daniel gauged the distance to the water, and then remembered that storm gate. It must go right down to the cave floor, or it would be useless at low tide. He could hold his breath a lot longer than they thought. However, all they had to do was keep the gate closed until they caught him, or dumped a few grenades into the pool. He didn't doubt that they had plenty.

The younger Latino was rough but efficient. He pulled out the radio, the microphone, and Daniel's boating knife. He missed the pendant, and Daniel allowed himself a ray of hope. It might be too small to seem like a weapon, but . . . .

"So. A radio." The old Colombian stooped down and poked at it, ignoring the knife. "And to whom were you talking?"

"Nobody. That's a standard marine VHF; I mostly use it for checking weather and stuff like that."

The old man stood up and shook his head. He stepped closer to Daniel, slowly, staring into his eyes. The old man's eyes were dark, deep-set in his lined and graying face, and they seemed like ancient wells with a gravity that pulled sideways on the world.

"You will find it difficult to lie to me. I am a bit of a brujo, you see, what you would call a sorcerer. I know things. I know your thoughts. To whom were you talking?"

Weakness flowed over Daniel, as if he had paddled the kayak all day against the tide. He suddenly found it hard to stand, and he forced his knees to hold. His tongue took on a life of its own. "My brother."

The brujo held his gaze. "Is this true?"

Daniel's tongue said "Yes" at the same time as Tom Pratt said, "I doubt it. Ben Morgan was lost overboard from a scallop dragger about twenty years ago."

The dragon pendant burned hot under Daniel's wetsuit, and he drew power from it to stand and fight this weakness. The brujo's eyes widened, and he looked Daniel up and down.

"Search him again. Here, I hold your pistola. Search carefully." The old Colombian took both Mac-10s and stepped back a pace.

This time, the bodyguard found the pendant. He flipped it out of the wetsuit, and reached to pull it off. Daniel tensed, but the older man grunted and waved the guard back. He handed both pistols to Tom Pratt, and stepped forward to stare deeply into Daniel's eyes. That eerie weakness returned, as if the old man had sucked the strength out of Daniel's muscles and left them filled with water.

"So. Where did you get this little trinket? It is very old, very powerful, yes? It has been in your family a very long time? I think we know how you saw the entrance, how you passed the illusions and the guardians."

The lines around the brujo's eyes were fainter, now, and his skin much smoother. The harsh lighting of the cavern must be playing tricks.

Daniel fought back, pulling on the Dragon through its bond with the pendant. He dragged his gaze away from the Colombian, and concentrated on Tom Pratt. The radio should still be transmitting . . . . "How did you catch me? Professional curiosity, you know."

"We all have our little secrets. Let's just say that you triggered an alarm, and young Johnny came out to watch you sneaking around. When you turned to leave, he signaled Paco to hit the lights."

And Paco would have been beyond that door, some place already well lit so his eyes wouldn't be dazzled. It was a tidy little trap, proof that the Pratts were everything family lore had said. Daniel hoped that Ben was taking notes.

"Padrino, the radio, it is on. It is transmitting."

Daniel jerked his attention away from Tom Pratt. The bodyguard was staring at the handheld, lying on the dock. Its tiny meter showed the steady black band of full output power. Damn. He would run into a bunch of thugs who knew something about radio. Where's ignorance when you really need it?

"So!" The brujo snatched up the radio, twisted the antenna off, and then swiftly popped the back open and removed the battery. He waved the radio's carcass at Daniel, shaking his head. "This is a shame. This is stupidity! Now we must think about your family as well as you. Have you no honradez, that you should endanger women and children?"

The words hit Daniel like lead mallets, heavy but no resonance, and left a sick ache behind. Women and children. Maria. Gary, and Ellen, and Peggy. Some of the drug bosses ordered whole families killed in their turf wars. Such casual brutality served as a warning to others.

Panic washed over him and died. This brujo witchery had even stolen his will to care. It felt totally alien, totally deadening, nothing like the bright bubbling earth-magic of the Dragon flowing through the quartz veins and basalt dikes underneath Morgan's Castle.

The Colombian again stepped closer, bringing that sense of a cold, black drain with him. His face had lost all its lines, and he looked no older than forty. The dragon pendant burned with the flow of power. "Tell me again, to whom were you talking? Give me the name."

Daniel felt as if he was drowning in those eyes. "Ben Morgan."

"Must be one hell of a radio." Tom Pratt's voice slipped past the compulsion of the brujo's eyes. "Like I told you, his only brother drowned almost twenty years ago."

"Muy misterioso." The brujo waved his other guard forward. "Diego, remove this delightful little trinket. Then we shall see what tune the bird sings."

The bodyguard reached for the dragon pendant, and Daniel braced himself. He'd hoped the Colombian sorcerer would try to take it himself . . . .

The guard's bare hand touched the silver. Power flowed like a lightning flash, the guard jerked twice, and then he flopped on the planking of the float. He looked unmarked, but his eyes were open and sightless. The brujo shook his head, knelt down, and closed the dead man's eyes.

"So many years with me, macho, and you have never learned caution. Or wisdom. I would have warned you if you had not thought to steal a kilo from our latest shipment." He glanced up at the other Latino, as if he was driving home a lesson that he wanted repeated to others. "It is true, what the norteamericanos say: users are losers."

He stood up and pulled a pair of thin leather gloves from his pocket, turning back to Daniel. "You will hold very still. You will give up this thing willingly. You will forget all thought of resistance."

His eyes drained Daniel. His face was now the face of a young man in full strength, skin smooth and glowing golden. His gloved hands reached behind Daniel's neck and unclasped the chain holding the pendant, carefully avoiding any contact with the silver dragon or the blazing red stone it twined around and guarded.

The Dragon left Daniel, and his knees collapsed under him.

II

Kate frowned as the midnight blue Suburban rolled past. She wasn't "on duty," but as town constable she was supposed to keep an eye out for anything odd in the general small-town humdrum of Stonefort, Maine. She felt a prickling on her skin that forced her to notice that damned car, as if she was a rabbit under the gaze of a wolf.

Well under the village limit of twenty-five. New Jersey plates. Windows tinted so black you could have a crowd of four-eyed Martians inside gawking at the natives and nobody would know. She slouched back against Alice's weathered picket fence and ran her fingers through her buzz-cut blonde hair. The fence complained.

At six foot six and well on the far side of two-fifty, Katherine Rowley was used to the world complaining about her presence. Back in high school, the basketball refs had seemed to think she was committing a foul just by stepping on the court. Even at thirty-nine, she was broad-shouldered and more muscular than heavy, her big hands scarred and callused and missing half the index finger on the left from years working as a good-enough carpenter. From a distance, some people even thought she was pretty.

Until they found out she was built to the wrong scale, that is. She straightened out of her "I'm not really this big" slouch and glanced down at Alice Haskell. The contrast between them always made Kate feel even bigger. Small, with dark hair and dark skin from her Naskeag Indian ancestors, Alice looked more like one of those pre-adolescent gymnasts, something short of five feet and about as much weight as your average chickadee. Kate nodded at the departing wagon.

"Any idea who that is?"

Her friend quirked an eyebrow. "Now you're sounding like a nosy old fishwife."

Kate hooked her fingers into her belt, dropping into her imitation of a southern sheriff. "It's mah job to know, ma'am. Ahm th' law around this heah town."

Her gaze followed the Suburban around the Stonefort green until the alien vanished towards the waterfront. Something creepy about that overgrown station wagon . . . She wasn't a tourist attraction, that strangers would slow down to stare at her. Besides, New Jersey drivers didn't believe in speed limits.

Kate pulled out a pouch of tobacco and rolling papers, manufacturing a cigarette with unconscious deftness. She lit the product with an old Zippo that had her ex-husband's initials engraved on the side.

Alice wrinkled her nose at the smoke. "You ever going to quit puffing those cancer sticks?"

Kate stared at the glowing end, letting smoke trickle out of her nose. It was her first cigarette of the day, and the nicotine rush gave her enough of a glow that she could ignore the Standard Haskell Healthcare Sermon.

"Probably not."

"Well, toss me that pouch. I need to do a little First People witchery this morning, and you might as well provide the herbs. Could even save your life."

Alice played at being a Naskeag shaman, one of those charming eccentrics you got in small Downeast towns. At least Alice was rich enough to be considered eccentric, rather than flat-ass crazy. Kate shrugged and handed over her Bull Durham. Witchcraft was a harmless hobby. The guys at the building site would have smokes, anyway.

"Ain't scared of cancer. I figure I've been playing with the house's money ever since I got knocked off Charlie Guptill's roof and had Dana Peters kill himself on my right front fender, all in one year. If I drop dead tomorrow, that's still sixteen years of clear profit."

"Where's that leave Jackie?"

Kate grimaced. "Don't want to talk about that brat. College scouts are already talking about a full ride just to play basketball, and she won't even dig in to pass tenth-grade English! We had another set-to last night. Damn near grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and booted her over to Lew's house, let him feed her for a couple of months."

"Humph! Nine days out of ten, that man ain't sober enough to remember he has a daughter."

"He's started AA again."

Alice spat neatly into the bark mulch under her rose bushes. "For the twentieth time. You tell that idiot that his liver is good for about another two gallons of whiskey, max. He can drink it all in one week, or make it last for thirty years. His choice." She studied Kate's face, weighing the familiar symptoms. "You thinking to move back in with him?"

"He gets in a year clean, maybe." Kate stared cross-eyed at the stream of smoke, trying to read the chances of that happening. "He's a nice guy when he's sober." Then, defensively: "Hell, he's nice enough blind drunk. Just useless."

"You never give up, do you?"

"If I gave up easy, Jackie would've been born an orphan. Rowleys don't quit. Grannie told me we've got a town named after us, down near Boston. Consolation prize for making it through those winters back in the 1600s."

"Yeah. And when your ancestors stepped off the boat, mine were standing on that hill over behind Morgan's Castle, bitching about how the neighborhood was going to hell. You won't get anywhere playing that Old Family card around here."

Aliceís gaze browsed on the distant view, over the hollow marking the Stonefort harbor and out to the offshore islands fuzzy the creeping fog. "Look, about that drunk you used to live with. Anytime you get to feeling lonely, you know I've got a lot more bed-space than I need."

Kate considered for a moment and then shook her head. "Never work out. I'd roll over in my sleep and squash you."

"I can remember a few times when being squashed felt awful good."

Those memories brought a faint heat to Kate's cheeks. "Hey, we were seventeen and thought it was cool to sneak into my step-dad's bourbon. Iíve outgrown both conditions."

"Donít go writing off bourbon. I know Lew sets a bad example, but there are a lot of people who can say no to that third drink. Relaxing your corset a bit can let you breathe."

Kate shook her head again. "Relax your corset too much around here, the blue-noses will ride you out of town on a rail."

"Fraidy cat. They let me ride the ambulance, never said word one. Being queer doesnít matter to them when we're delivering a baby in the middle of a run up to Downeast General."

Kate rolled her eyes, carrying on the well-worn banter scripted by the habits of thirty years. "They let you on the ambulance 'cause youíre the only RN dumb enough to take the job for free. Beggars can't be choosers." She pushed away from the fence, her mind still half on that dark blue Suburban.

As usual, talking about Alice's homosexuality made Kate twitchy. The small woman had always been quite open about it, and she was the best friend Kate had ever had -- a damn sight more reliable than any man she'd known. But Jackie had enough problems without the other kids pasting labels on her, and "butch" would be such an easy one with the genes she'd caught from her mother's side.

"Look, Iíve got to go. Have to drop some windows over at Danny Nason's project, then play soccer mom. No rest for the wicked."

"That's 'cause you're sleeping in the wrong bed."

Kate grimaced. "Well, thanks for the water." She heaved the five-gallon jerrycan off the ground as easily as another woman would hoist a purse. "The guys all say there's nothing like your spring, best water in town."

Her battered green Dodge truck idled by the shoulder of the road, coughing on about every tenth spark as a reminder why she didn't shut it off unless it was aimed down the slope for a rolling start. Rowley Construction didn't earn enough money to hang her magnetic signs on the sides of anything more reliable. The beast did have four-wheel drive, ground clearance for the kind of construction sites she found around Stonefort, and a one-ton payload for a decent pile of concrete blocks and mortar. You take what you can get.

Town Constable was ten hours a week, max, and contractor was just another frame of the movie. The concept of "job" barely existed in Sunrise County. What she really had was a succession of ways to pick up next week's grocery money. By local standards, that was doing well. At least she wasn't chasing last week's.

By those same local standards, Alice was rich. She worked ER up at Downeast Regional, sometimes two straight twenty-four-hour sieges where she napped on a sofa in the waiting room. On days off, she puttered around her fourteen-room labyrinth of a weathered gray cape, growing antique roses and incongruous peaches in the teeth of the Maine winters and torturing innocent juniper bushes into bonsai.

Kate looked the old Haskell house over with a professional eye, noting the straight ridge line and square gables that spoke of solid construction well maintained. Fieldstone foundations rooted on bedrock, bare cedar clapboards protected by a good overhang, a slate roof with copper fastenings that couldn't rust. She'd give strong odds that the lime mortar in foundations and chimneys was still gaining strength, more than two hundred years after the first stones were laid.

Rambling up and over and down the crest of its hill, the house looked as if it had grown in place over the centuries, sprouting an ell here and budding out a dormer there like a healthy plant. Kate felt a kinship with that house that was stronger even than her bond with Alice.

People had always called it "The Woman's Place." It had been that way since time out of mind, always calling the latest owner "The Woman" as a sort of title. The old pile of glacier-rounded fieldstone and weathered gray clapboards was worth maybe forty grand. The ten acres of shorefront property it sat on would easily bring two million.

Kate shook her head at the contrast. Boston and New York dollars chased any sniff of salt water and plunked a summer house on it. At least the madness paid her heating bill with a dozen caretaker accounts.

Kate slid behind the wheel, tucking her knees carefully under the dash and steering column. Danged world didn't even make trucks big enough for her.

Speaking of trucks . . . she ought to run a search on that Suburban. She flipped her visor down, checking the list of ten-codes before she made a fool of herself on the air. Then she pulled the mike out from under the dash. "Five-seven-seven to Sunrise dispatch."

The radio spat static back at her, with the cicada buzz of the old Dodge ignition. "Sunrise. Go ahead, five-seven-seven."

A sexy contralto: that meant Denise was back on the day shift. "Ten twenty-eight, blue Suburban, New Jersey niner niner eight Charlie Echo Golf."

"Ten four, Kate. New Jersey niner niner eight Charlie Echo Golf. I'll run the tag and get back to you."

Babying clutch and gas and gearshift got her moving without either killing the engine or jerking a couple-thousand-dollars' worth of custom windows over the tailgate. The cracked side mirrors showed only her normal level of white smoke. She'd heard about life in the fast lane and life in the slow lane. Her own life seemed to tend to the breakdown lane.

#

Alice stared down the road, muttering to herself. Kate's green truck turned right at the commons, opposite to the route that evil blue Suburban had taken. Alice relaxed a touch.

Even Kate had felt it -- Kate who had all the sensitivity of one of her rough-sawn four-by-fours. About as quick-witted, too, although she wasn't dumb. It just took her a couple of weeks to realize that it was raining.

That didn't stop Alice's heart from jumping every time she saw those lumberjack shoulders. Alice grinned to herself. Flirting with the big moose was always fun. If she ever actually said "no," that would be the end of it.

So far, the net result was twenty years of "maybe," hiding behind the face of a straight wife and mother that she maintained for the town and particularly for that mule-headed daughter of hers. But sooner or later, Kate was going to have to come to terms with her feelings. Alice planned on being around when that happened.

There was more to it than sex, no matter how much fun that was. The House needed Kate. It needed a woman who was physically strong and tough, as well as one who was . . . talented. This generation, both hadn't come in one package.

The Haskell House. The Woman's House.

Alice knew the stories that went back to when Maine was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a century or so earlier. Some of them were even true. Her family had lived on this land before the Pilgrims started hanging and drowning witches down in Salem. The Woman had meant something then, a figure even the white men feared and respected. The House meant refuge for the victims, as well as protecting . . . other things.

She weighed the pouch of tobacco in her hand and then tucked it into the pocket of her denim shirt. Good thing Kate had given the offering freely -- even if she didn't believe, that mattered. The spirits that protected this land valued tobacco and enjoyed its smoke. That lummox was going to need some allies, whether she knew it or not.

Alice took one last snip at a climbing rose and gathered up the dead branches from her pruning, humming to herself. The Russellianas had come through the winter better than she'd hoped, and they were the least hardy variety she'd planted. Maybe it was time to push the limits of Maine weather again, see if she could grow those Arethusas that Fosters' advertised.

Roses weren't as tough as they looked. Kate was like that. You'd think you could use her to split rocks, but she broke as easily as any other human. The accident -- Alice would just as soon Kate hadn't mentioned it.

Memories flooded through her: raining, three in the morning, she had been riding EMT on the ambulance and was still groggy from the beeper dragging her out of bed. They screamed to a stop at a high-speed crash, pieces of dark, shredded metal tangled bad enough that you couldn't tell what parts went with what. One driver was dead on the spot, thrown into a ditch like a rag doll. Damn fool hadn't believed in seatbelts. The other still sat pinned in a twisted cage of steel. Alice tasted the reek of gasoline and antifreeze.

She reached through the shattered side window to check for a pulse. She suddenly realized the victim was a woman, and far pregnant. The face was a mass of blood and flayed meat speckled with broken glass, unrecognizable. Damned pickup was so old, it didn't have seatbelts or even an offset steering column. Only reason the driver didn't have a horn button sprouting out of her back was that the impact had thrown her across to the passenger side an instant before the front end collapsed back through the firewall. Alice spotted a familiar earring in the middle of the bloody hair and suddenly realized it was Kate's.

They cut the cab to pieces around her and pulled her out. The run to Downeast General took forever. Her heart stopped twice on the way. Alice fed her own life into her friend, keeping the spark alive until the ER doctors took over.

Then she fainted.

That kind of witching carried a cost. Aunt Jean had laid down the law: you could kill yourself, pulling out the life-force and passing it to another. Alice knew that when she gave life to Kate and to her baby she had probably cut five years from her own.

Kate was worth it. Alice sometimes wondered about Jackie. The twit wasn't flat-out evil, not like the aura from that dark station wagon, but she sure wasn't much to brag about. And Kate could never have another.

Alice shuddered and breathed deep of the damp salt air, using the blend of spruce and rockweed to rinse the stink of a hundred car wrecks from her throat. She dumped the clippings into her compost heap, oiled the blades of her pruning shears, and put them away in the garden shed. She stopped off and said "Good morning" to the bees humming around the hives under the apple trees. Routine helped to put memories in their place. She hadn't owned the house then.

She touched the door-post and spoke to her house, a kind of password identifying herself to the small gods living in the timbers and inhabiting the hearths. She always felt more comfortable if she went through the ritual. Otherwise, the walls seemed to be watching. She'd only lived here for ten years, mere seconds as the house reckoned time, and sometimes it forgot that she belonged.

The house rambled long and low above the bay, an organic growth from century to century as generations of Haskell women added on or reworked sections for changing needs. Alice lived in three rooms in the newest ell, the part with indoor plumbing and electricity. The rest mostly just sat there thinking to itself, a labyrinth of rooms small and large, open and secretive, magical and mundane, waiting for whatever call might come. It spoke of shelter against nature and man, a place of solid warmth and nurturing. It sang of harmony.

She checked the venison stew simmering on her big black wood-fired range, shook out some ashes from the grate before adding a single stick of oak, and tossed in a bit of this and that to adjust the seasonings. Days off, she liked to cook things that took a bit of time. They helped make up for the rubber chicken and library-paste potatoes from the hospital cafeteria.

Did she need to do anything? That big Suburban radiated evil, but nobody ever said that the Woman had to fight all the evil in the world. One of Aunt Jean's rules was simplicity itself: nine times out of ten, the best thing to do was nothing. Alice stood and stared at the wall.

Alice knew damn well, thirty years of practice, just what Kate was doing right now. She was on the radio, running a license check. Never a thought to scanners and the dozens of unofficial ears that heard everything on police-band channels.

The stew could wait. That was the essence of stew. Given the habits of her favorite nosy old fishwife, Alice wasn't sure other things could.

She glanced around the kitchen and "new" parlor, making sure she was willing to have people see the place that way if she never came back up from the cellar. Granted, it wasn't likely, but mistakes had caught up with one or two other women in the past.

Everything looked more or less presentable, so she topped off a lamp with olive oil and lit the wick. The house hated the smell of kerosene. It barely tolerated electricity, and insisted on wood heat. Aunt Jean had said that it had sulked for years after they put in plumbing. Opinionated old cuss, it was, just like a cat.

Speaking of which . . . Dixie Bull the Pyrate Queen lay curled up behind the stove, black tail tucked over white nose. Alice reached in and hooked the cat out, scritched her ears, and shoved her out the door. After a green-eyed glare, Dixie fluffed up her fur and plodded over to a sunlit spot in the garden.

That was another of Aunt Jean's rules: "Always put the cat out before you go down into the cellar."

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