The Hollow
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter One
Hawkins Hollow

March 2008

FOX REMEMBERED MANY DETAILS OF THAT LONG-AGO day in June. The tear in the left knee in his father's Levi's, the smell of coffee and onions in Ma's Pantry, the crackle of the wrappers as he and his father opened Slim Jims in Mrs. Larson's kitchen.

But what he remembered most, even beyond the shock and the fear of what he'd seen in the yard, was that his father had trusted him.

He'd trusted him on the morning of Fox's tenth birthday, too, when Fox had come home, bringing Gage with him, both of them filthy, exhausted, and terrified, with a story no adult would believe.

There'd been worry, Fox reflected. He could still see the way his parents had looked at each other as he told them the story of something black and powerful and wrong erupting out of the clearing where the Pagan Stone stood.

They hadn't brushed it off as overactive imagination, hadn't even come down on him for lying about spending the night at Cal's and instead trooping off with his friends to spend the night of their tenth birthday in the woods west of town.

Instead they'd listened. And when Cal's parents had come over, they'd listened, too.

Fox glanced down at the thin scar across his wrist. That mark, one made when Cal had used his Boy Scout knife nearly twenty-one years before to make him, Cal, and Gage blood brothers, was the only scar on his body. He'd had others before that night, before that ritual-what active boy of ten didn't? Yet all of them but this one had healed smooth- as he'd healed from any injury since. Without a trace.

It was that mark, that mixing of blood, that had freed the thing trapped centuries before. For seven nights it had stormed through Hawkins Hollow.

They thought they'd beaten it, three ten-year-old boys against the unholy that infected the town. But it came back, seven years later, for seven more nights of hell. Then returned again, the week they'd turned twenty-four.

It would come back again this summer. It was already making itself known.

But things were different now. They were better prepared, had more knowledge. Only it wasn't just him, Cal, and Gage this time. They were six with the three women who'd come to the Hollow, who were connected by ancestry to the demon, just as he, Cal, and Gage were connected to the force that had trapped it.

Not kids anymore, Fox thought as he pulled up to park in front of the townhouse on Main Street that held his office and his apartment. And if what their little band of six had been able to pull off a couple weeks before at the Pagan Stone was any indication, the demon who'd once called himself Lazarus Twisse was in for a few surprises.

After grabbing his briefcase, he crossed the sidewalk. It had taken a lot of sweat and considerable financial juggling for Fox to buy the old stone townhouse. The first couple of years had been lean-hell, they'd been emaciated, he thought now. But they'd been worth the struggle, the endless meals of PB and J, because every inch of the place was his-and the Hawkins Hollow Bank and Trust's.

The plaque at the door read FOX B. O'DELL, ATTORNEY AT LAW. It could still surprise him that it had been the law he'd wanted-more that it had been small-town law.

He supposed it shouldn't. The law wasn't just about right and wrong, but all the shades between. He liked figuring out which shade worked best in each situation.

He stepped inside, and got a jolt when he saw Layla Darnell, one of that little band of six, behind the desk in his reception area. His mind went blank for a moment, as it often did if he saw her unexpectedly. He said, "Um..."

"Hi." Her smile was cautious. "You're back sooner than expected."

Was he? He couldn't remember. How was he supposed to concentrate with the hot-looking brunette and her mermaid green eyes behind the desk instead of his grandmotherly Mrs. Hawbaker? "I-we-won. The jury deliberated less than an hour."

"That's great." Her smile boosted up several degrees. "Congratulations. That was the personal injury case? The car accident. Mr. and Mrs. Pullman?"

"Yeah." He shifted his briefcase to his other shoulder and kept most of the pretty parlorlike reception area between them. "Where's Mrs. H?"

"Dentist appointment. It's on your calendar."

Of course it was. "Right. I'll just be in my office."

"Shelley Kholer called. Twice. She's decided she wants to sue her sister for alienation of affection and for... Wait." Layla picked up a message pad. "For being a 'skanky, no-good ho'-she actually said 'ho.' And the second call involved her wanting to know if, as part of her divorce settlement, she'd get her cheating butt-monkey of a soon-to-be-ex-husband's points for some sort of online NASCAR contest because she picked the jerkwad's drivers for him. I honestly don't know what that last part means except for jerkwad."

"Uh-huh. Well, interesting. I'll call her."

"Then she cried."

"Shit." He still had a soft spot for animals, and had a spot equally soft for unhappy women. "I'll call her now."

"No, you'll want to wait about an hour," Layla said with a glance at her watch. "Right about now she's getting hair therapy. She's going red. She can't actually sue her skanky, no-good ho of a sister for alienation of affection, can she?"

"You can sue for any damn thing, but I'll talk her down from it. Maybe you could remind me in an hour to call her. Are you okay out here?" he added. "Do you need anything?"

"I'm good. Alice-Mrs. Hawbaker-she's a good teacher. And she's very protective of you. If she didn't think I was ready to fly solo, I wouldn't be. Besides, as office manager in training, I should be asking you if you need anything."

An office manager who didn't jump-start his libido would be a good start, but it was too late for that. "I'm good, too. I'll just be..." He gestured toward his office, then walked away.

He was tempted to shut the pocket doors, but it felt rude. He never closed the doors of his office unless he was with a client who needed or wanted privacy.

Because he never felt quite real in a suit, Fox pulled off the jacket, tossed it over the grinning pig that served as one of the hooks. With relief, he dragged off his tie and draped it over a happy cow. That left a chicken, a goat, and a duck, all carved by his father, whose opinion had been that no law office could be stuffy when it was home to a bunch of lunatic farm animals.

So far, Fox figured that ran true.

It was exactly what he'd wanted in an office, something part of a house rather than a building, with a view of neighborhood rather than urban streets. Shelves held the law books and supplies he needed most often, but mingled with them were bits and pieces of him. A baseball signed by the one and only Cal Ripken, the stained-glass kaleidoscope his mother had made him, framed snapshots, a scale model of the Millennium Falcon, laboriously and precisely built when he'd been twelve.

And, in a place of prominence sat the big glass jar, and its complement of dollar bills. One for every time he forgot and said fuck in the office. It was Alice Hawbaker's decree.

He got a Coke out of the minifridge he kept stocked with them and wondered what the hell he was going to do when Mrs. Hawbaker deserted him for Minneapolis and he had to deal with the lovely Layla not only as part of the defeat-the-damn-demon team, but five days a week in his office.

"Fox?"

"Huh?" He spun around from his window, and there she was again. "What? Is something wrong?"

"No. Well, other than Big Evil, no. You don't have any appointments for a couple of hours, and since Alice isn't here, I thought we could talk about that. I know you've got other work, but-"

"It's okay." Big Evil would give him focus on something other than gorgeous green eyes and soft, glossy pink lips. "Do you want a Coke?"

"No, thanks. Do you know how many calories are in that can?"

"It's worth it. Sit down."

"I'm too jumpy." As if to prove it, Layla rubbed her hands together as she wandered the office. "I get jumpier every day that nothing happens, which is stupid, because it should be a relief. But nothing's happened, nothing at all since we were all at the Pagan Stone."

"Throwing sticks and stones and really harsh words at a demon from hell."

"That, and Gage shooting at it. Or Cal..." She stopped, faced Fox now. "I still get shaky when I remember how Cal stepped right up to that writhing mass of black and shoved a knife into it. And now nothing, in almost two weeks. Before, it was nearly every day we saw it, felt it, dreamed of it."

"We hurt it," Fox reminded her. "It's off wherever demons go to lick their wounds."

"Cybil calls it a lull, and she thinks it's going to come back harder the next time. She's researching for hours every day, and Quinn, well, she's writing. That's what they do, and they've done this before-this kind of thing if not this precise thing. First-timer here, and what I'm noticing is they're not getting anywhere." She pushed a hand through her dark hair, then shook her head so the sexy, jagged ends of it swung. "What I mean is... A couple of weeks ago, Cybil had what she thought were really strong leads toward where Ann Hawkins might have gone to have her babies."

His ancestors, Fox thought. Giles Dent, Ann Hawkins, and the sons they'd made together. "And they haven't panned out, I know. We've all talked about this."

"But I think-I feel-it's one of the keys. They're your ancestors, yours, Cal's, Gage's. Where they were born may matter, and more since we have some of Ann's journals, we're all agreed there must be others. And the others may explain more about her sons' father. About Giles Dent. What was he, Fox? A man, a witch, a good demon, if there are such things? How did he trap what called itself Lazarus Twisse from that night in sixteen fifty-two until the night the three of you-"

"Let it out," Fox finished, and Layla shook her head again.

"You were meant to-that much we agree on, too. It was part of Dent's plan or his spell. But we don't seem to know any more than we did two weeks ago. We're stalled."

"Maybe Twisse isn't the only one who needs to recharge. We hurt it," he repeated. "We've never been able to do that before. We scared it. " And the memory of that was enough to turn his gilded brown eyes cool with satisfaction. "Every seven years all we've been able to do is try to get people out of the way, to mop up the mess afterward. Now we know we can hurt it."

"Hurting it isn't enough."

"No, it's not." If they were stalled, he admitted, part of the reason was his fault. He'd pulled back. He'd made excuses not to push Layla on honing the skill-the one that matched his own-that had been passed down to her.

"What am I thinking now?"

She blinked at him. "Sorry?"

"What am I thinking?" he repeated, and deliberately recited the alphabet in his head.

"I told you before I can't read minds, and I don't want-"

"And I told you it's not exactly like that, but close enough." He eased a hip onto the corner of his sturdy old desk, and brought their gazes more level. His conservative oxford-cloth shirt was open at the throat, and his bark brown hair waved around his sharp-featured face and brushed the back of his collar. "You can and do get impressions, get a sense, even an image in your head. Try again."

"Having good instincts isn't the same as-"

"That's bullshit. You're letting yourself be afraid of what's inside you because of where it came from, and because it makes you other than-"

"Human?"

"No. Makes you 'other.' " He understood the complexity of her feelings on this issue. There was something in him that was other as well. At times it was more difficult to wear than a suit and tie. But to Fox's mind, doing the difficult was just part of living. "It doesn't matter where it came from, Layla. You have what you have and are what you are for a reason."

"Easy to say when you can put your ancestry back to some bright, shining light, and mine goes back to a demon who raped some poor sixteen-year-old girl."

"Thinking that's only letting him score points off you. Try again," Fox insisted, and this time grabbed her hand before she could evade him.

"I don't-stop pushing it at me," she snapped. Her free hand pressed against her temple.

It was a jolt, he knew, to have something pop in there when you weren't prepared. But it couldn't be helped. "What am I thinking?"

"I don't know. I just see a bunch of letters in my head."

"Exactly." Approval spread in his smile, and reached his eyes. "Because I was thinking of a bunch of letters. You can't go back." He spoke gently now. "And you wouldn't if you could. You wouldn't just pack up, go back to New York, and beg your boss at the boutique to give you your job back."

Layla snatched her hand away as color flooded her cheeks. "I don't want you prying into my thoughts and feelings."

"No, you're right. And I don't make a habit of it. But, Layla, if you can't or won't trust me with what's barely under the surface, you and I are going to be next to useless. Cal and Quinn, they flash back to things that happened before, and Gage and Cybil get images, or even just possibilities of what's coming next. We're the now, you and me. And the now is pretty damn important. You said we're stalled. Okay then, let's get moving."

"It's easier for you, easier for you to accept because you've had this thing..." She waved a finger beside her temple. "You've had this for twenty years."

"Haven't you?" he countered. "It's more likely you've had it since you were born."

"Because of the demon hanging on my family tree?"

"That's right. That's an established fact. What you do about it's up to you. You used what you have a couple of weeks ago when we were on our way to the Pagan Stone. You made that choice. I told you once before, Layla, you've got to commit."

"I have. I lost my job over this. I've sublet my apartment because I'm not going back to New York until this is over. I'm working here to pay the rent, and spending most of the time I'm not working here working with Cybil and Quinn on background, research, theories, solutions."

"And you're frustrated because you haven't found the solution. Commitment's more than putting the time in. And I don't have to be a mind reader to know hearing that pisses you off."

"I was in that clearing, too, Fox. I faced that thing, too."

"That's right. Why is that easier for you than facing what you've got inside you? It's a tool, Layla. If you let tools get dull or rusty, they don't work. If you don't pick them up and use them, you forget how."

"And if that tool's sharp and shiny and you don't know what the hell to do with it, you can do a lot of damage."

"I'll help you." He held out his hand.

She hesitated. When the phone in the outer office began to ring, she stepped back.

"Let it go," he told her. "They'll call back."

But she shook her head and hurried out. "Don't forget to call Shelley."

That went well, he thought in disgust. Opening his briefcase, he pulled out the file on the personal injury case he'd just won. Win some, lose some, Fox decided.

As he figured it was the way she wanted it, he stayed out of her way for the rest of the afternoon. It was simple enough to instruct her through interoffice e-mail to generate the standard power-of-attorney document with the specific names his client required. Or to ask her to prepare and send out a bill or pay one. He made what calls he needed to make himself rather than asking Layla to place them first. That kind of thing had always struck him as stupid in any case.

He knew how to use the damn phone.

He managed to calm Shelley down, catch up on paperwork, and win a game of online chess. But when he considered sending Layla another e-mail to tell her to go ahead and knock off for the day, he realized that came under the heading of avoidance, not just keeping the peace.

When he walked out to reception, Mrs. Hawbaker was manning the desk. "I didn't know you were back," he began.

"I've been back awhile. I've just finished proofing the papers Layla took care of for you. Need your signature on these letters."

"Okay." He took the pen she handed him, signed. "Where is she? Layla?"

"Gone for the day. She did fine on her own."

Understanding it was a question as much as an opinion, Fox nodded. "Yeah, she did fine."

In her brisk way, Mrs. Hawbaker folded the letters Fox had signed. "You don't need both of us here full-time and can't afford to be paying double either."

"Mrs. H-"

"I'm going to come in half days the rest of the week." She spoke quickly now, tucking letters into envelopes, sealing them. "Just to make sure everything runs smoothly for you, and for her. Any problems, I can come in, help handle them. But I don't expect there to be. If there aren't problems, I won't be coming in after Friday next. We've got a lot of packing and sorting to do. Shipping things up to Minneapolis, showing the house."

"Goddamn it."

She merely pointed her finger at him, narrowed her eyes. "When I'm gone you can turn the air blue around here, but until I am, you'll watch your language."

"Yes, ma'am. Mrs. H-"

"And don't give me those puppy dog eyes, Fox O'Dell. We've been through all this."

They had, and he could feel her sorrow, and her fear. Dumping his own on her wouldn't help. "I'll keep the F-word jar in my office, in memory of you."

That made her smile. "The way you toss it around, you'll be able to retire a rich man on the proceeds of that jar. Even so, you're a good boy. You're a good lawyer, Fox. Now, you go on. You're clear for the rest of the day- what's left of it. I'm just going to finish up a couple things, then I'll lock up."

"Okay." But he stopped at the door, looked back at her. Her snowy hair was perfectly groomed; her blue suit dignified. "Mrs. H? I miss you already."

He closed the door behind him, and stuck his hands in his pockets as he walked down to the brick sidewalk. At the toot of a horn, he glanced over and waved as Denny Moser drove by. Denny Moser, whose family owned the local hardware store. Denny, who'd been a balletic third base-man for the Hawkins Hollow Bucks in high school.

Denny Moser, who during the last Seven had come after Fox with a pipe wrench and murder on his mind.

It would happen again, Fox thought. It would happen again in a matter of months if they didn't stop it. Denny had a wife and a kid now-and maybe this time during that week in July, he'd go after his wife or his little girl with a pipe wrench. Or his wife, former cheerleader and current licensed day-care provider, might slit her husband's throat in his sleep.

It had happened before, the mass insanity of ordinary and decent people. And it would happen again. Unless.

He walked along the wide brick sidewalk on a windy March evening, and knew he couldn't let it happen again.

Cal was probably still at the bowling alley, Fox thought. He'd go there, have a beer, maybe an early dinner. And maybe the two of them could figure out which direction to try next.

As he approached the Square, he saw Layla come out of Ma's Pantry across the street, carrying a plastic bag. She hesitated when she spotted him, and that planted a sharp seed of irritation in his gut. After she sent him a casual wave, they walked to the light at the Square on opposite sides of the street.

It might have been that irritation, or the frustration of trying to decide to do what would be natural for him-to wait on his side of the corner for her to cross and speak to her. Or to do what he felt, even with the distance, she'd prefer. For him to simply keep going up Main so they didn't intersect. Either way, he was nearly at the corner when he felt the fear-sudden and bright. It stopped him in his tracks, had his head jerking up.

There, on the wires crossing above Main and Locust, were the crows.

Dozens of them crowded together in absolute stillness along the thin wire. Hulking there, wings tucked and-he knew-watching. When he glanced across the street, he saw that Layla had seen them, too, either sensing them herself or following the direction of his stare.

He didn't run, though there was an urgent need to do just that. Instead he walked in long, brisk strides across the street to where she stood gripping her white plastic bag.

"They're real." She only whispered it. "I thought, at first, they were just another... but they're real."

"Yeah." He took her arm. "We're going inside. We're going to turn around, and get inside. Then-"

He broke off as he heard the first stir behind him, just a flutter on the air. And in her eyes, wide now, huge now, he saw it was too late.

The rush of wings was a tornado of sound and speed. Fox shoved her back against the building, and down. Pushing her face against his chest, he wrapped his arms around her and used his body to shield hers.

Glass shattered beside him, behind him. Brakes squealed through the crash and thuds of metal. He heard screams, rushing feet, felt the jarring force as birds thumped into his back, the quick sting as beaks stabbed and tore. He knew the rough, wet sounds were those flying bodies smashing into walls and windows, falling lifeless to street and sidewalk.

It was over quickly, in no more than a minute. A child shrieked, over and over-one long, sharp note after another. "Stay here." A little out of breath, he leaned back so that Layla could see his face. "Stay right here."

"You're bleeding. Fox-"

"Just stay here."

He shoved to his feet. In the intersection three cars were slammed together. Spiderwebs cracked the safety glass of windshields where the birds had flown into them. Crunched bumpers, he noted as he rushed toward the accident, shaken nerves, dented fenders.

It could have been much worse.

"Everybody all right?"

He didn't listen to the words: Did you see that? They flew right into my car! Instead he listened with his senses. Bumps and bruises, frayed nerves, minor cuts, but no serious injuries. He left others to sort things out, turned back to Layla.

She stood with a group of people who'd poured out of Ma's Pantry and the businesses on either side. "The damnedest thing," Meg, the counter cook at Ma's, said as she stared at the shattered glass of the little restaurant. "The damnedest thing."

Because he'd seen it all before, and much, much worse, Fox grabbed Layla's hand. "Let's go."

"Shouldn't we do something?"

"There's nothing to do. I'm getting you home, then we'll call Cal and Gage."

"Your hand." Her voice was awe and nerves. "The back of your hand's already healing."

"Part of the perks," he said grimly, and pulled her back across Main.

"I don't have that perk." She spoke quietly and jogged to keep up with his long, fast stride. "If you hadn't blocked me, I'd be bleeding." She lifted a hand to the cut on his face that was slowly closing. "It hurts though. When it happens, then when it heals, it hurts you." Layla glanced down at their clasped hands. "I can feel it."

But when he started to let her go, she tightened her grip. "No, I want to feel it. You were right before." She glanced back at the corpses of crows scattered over the Square, at the little girl who wept wildly now in the arms of her shocked mother. "I hate that you were right and I'll have to work on that. But you were. I'm not any real help if I don't accept what I've got in me, and learn how to use it."

She looked back at him, took a bracing breath. "The lull's over."