The Hollow
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Two
HE HAD A BEER SITTING AT THE LITTLE TABLE with its fancy iron chairs that made the kitchen in the rental house distinctly female. At least to Fox's mind. The brightly colored minipots holding herbs arranged on the windowsill added to that tone, he supposed, and the skinny vase of white-faced daisies one of the women must have picked up at the flower shop in town finished it off.

The women, Quinn, Cybil, and Layla, had managed to make a home out of the place in a matter of weeks with flea market furniture, scraps of fabric, and generous splashes of color.

They'd managed it while devoting the bulk of their time to researching and outlining the root of the nightmare that infected the Hollow for seven days every seven years.

A nightmare that had begun twenty-one years before, on the birthday he shared with Cal and Gage. That night had changed him, and his friends-his blood brothers. Things had changed again when Quinn had come to town to lay the groundwork for her book on the Hollow and its legend.

It was more than a book to her now, the curvy blonde who enjoyed the spookier side of life, and who had fallen for Cal. It was more than a project for Quinn's college pal Cybil Kinski, the exotic researcher. And he thought it was more of a problem for Layla Darnell.

He and Cal and Gage went back to babyhood-even before, as their mothers had taken the same childbirth class. Quinn and Cybil had been college roommates, and had remained friends since. But Layla had come to the Hollow, come into this situation, alone.

He reminded himself of that whenever his patience ran a bit thin. However tightly the friendship was that had formed between her and the other two women, however much she was connected to the whole, she'd come into this alone.

Cybil walked in carrying a legal pad. She tossed it on the table, then picked up a bottle of wine. Her long, curling hair was pinned back from her face with clips that glinted silver against the black. She wore slim black pants and an untucked shirt of candy pink. Her feet were bare, with toe-nails painted to match the shirt.

Fox always found such details particularly fascinating. He could barely remember to match up a pair of socks.

"So..." Her deep brown eyes tracked over to his. "I'm here to get your statement."

"Aren't you going to read me my rights?" When she smiled, he shrugged. "We gave you the gist when we came in."

"Details, counselor." Her voice was smooth as top cream. "Quinn particularly likes details in the notes for her books and we all need them to keep painting the picture. Quinn's getting Layla's take upstairs while Layla changes. She had blood on her shirt. Yours, I'm assuming, as she didn't have a scratch on her."

"Neither do I, now."

"Yes, your super-duper healing power. That's handy. Run it through for me, will you, cutie? I know it's a pain, because when the others get here, they'll want to hear it, too. But isn't that what they say on the cop shows? Keep going over it, and maybe you'll remember something more?"

Since she had a point, he began at the moment he'd looked up and seen the crows.

"What were you doing right before you looked up?"

"Walking up Main. I was going to drop in and see Cal. Buy a beer." Lips curved in a half smile, he lifted the bottle. "Came here and got one free."

"You bought them, as I recall. It just seems if you were walking toward the Square, and these birds were doing their Hitchcock thing above the intersection, you'd have noticed before you said you did."

"I was distracted, thinking about... work, and stuff." He raked his fingers through hair still damp from being stuck under the faucet to wash the bird gunk out. "I guess I was looking across the street more than up the street. Layla came out of Ma's."

"She walked over to get some of Quinn's revolting two percent milk. Was it luck-good or bad-that both of you were there, right on the spot?" Her head cocked to the side; her eyebrow lifted. "Or was that the point?"

He liked that she was quick, that she was sharp. "I lean toward it being the point. If the Big Evil Bastard wanted to announce it was back to play, it makes a bigger impact if at least one of us was on the scene. It wouldn't be as much fun if we'd just heard about it."

"I lean the same way. We agreed before that it's able to influence animals or people under some kind of impairment easier, quicker. So, crows. That's happened before."

"Yeah. Crows or other birds flying into windows, into people, buildings. When it does, even people who were here when it happened before are surprised. Like it was the first time they'd seen anything like it. That's part of the symptoms, we'll call it."

"There were other people out-pedestrians, people driving by."

"Sure."

"And none of them stopped and said: Holy crap, look at all those crows up there."

"No." He nodded, following her. "No. No one saw them, or no one who did found them remarkable. That's happened before, too. People seeing things that aren't there, and people not seeing things that are. It's just never happened this far out from the Seven."

"What did you do after you saw Layla?"

"I kept walking." Curious, he angled his head in an attempt to read her notes upside down. What he saw were squiggles of letters and signs he didn't understand how anyone could decipher right-side up. "I guess I stopped for a second the way you do, then I kept walking. And that's when I... I felt it first, that's what I do. It's a kind of awareness. Like the hair standing up on the back of your neck, or that tingle between the shoulder blades. I saw them, in my head, then I looked up, and saw them with my eyes. Layla saw them, too."

"And still, no one else did?"

"No." Again, he scooped a hand through his hair. "I don't think so. I wanted to get her inside, but there wasn't time."

She didn't interrupt or question when he ran through the rest of it. When he was done, she set down her pencil, smiled at him. "You're a sweetheart, Fox."

"True. Very true. Why?"

She continued to smile as she rose, skirted the little table. She took his face in her hands and kissed him lightly on the mouth. "I saw your jacket. It's torn, and it's covered with bird blood and God knows what else. That could've been Layla."

"I can get another jacket."

"Like I said, you're a sweetheart." She kissed him again.

"Sorry to interrupt this touching moment." Gage strode in, his dark hair windblown, his eyes green and cynical. He stored the six-pack he carried in the fridge, then pulled out a beer.

"Moment's over," Cybil announced. "Too bad you missed all the excitement."

He popped the top. "There'll be plenty more before it's over. Doing okay?" he asked Fox.

"Yeah. I won't be pulling out my DVD of The Birds anytime soon, but other than that."

"Cal said Layla wasn't hurt."

"No, she's good. She's upstairs changing. Things got a little messy."

At Fox's glance, Cybil shrugged. "Which is my cue to go up and check on her and leave you two to man talk."

As she walked out, Gage followed her with his eyes. "Looks good coming or going." Taking a long pull on the beer, he sat across from Fox. "You looking in that direction?"

"What? Oh, Cybil? No." She'd left a scent in the air, Fox realized, that was both mysterious and appealing. But... "No. Are you?"

"Looking's free. How bad was it today?"

"We've seen a lot worse. Property damage mostly. Maybe some cuts and bruises." Everything about him hardened, inside and out. "They'd've messed her up, Gage, if I hadn't been there. She couldn't have gotten inside in time. They weren't just flying at cars and buildings. They were heading right for her."

"It could've been any one of us." Gage pondered on it a moment. "Last month, it went after Quinn when she was alone in the gym."

"Targeting the women," Fox said with a nod, "most specifically when one of them is alone. From the viewpoint-the faulty viewpoint-that a woman alone is more vulnerable."

"Not entirely faulty. We heal, they don't." Gage kicked back in his chair. "There's no way to keep three women under wraps while we try to come up with how to kill a centuries-old and very pissed-off demon. Besides that, we need them."

He heard the front door open and close, then shifted in his chair to watch Cal come in with an armload of take-out bags. "Burgers, subs," Cal announced. He dumped them on the counter as he studied Fox. "You're okay? Layla's okay?"

"The only casualty was my leather jacket. What's it like out there?"

Getting out his own beer, Cal sat with his friends. His eyes were a cold and angry gray. "About a dozen broken windows on Main Street, and the three-car pileup at the Square. No serious injuries, this time. The mayor and my father got some people together to clean up the mess. Chief Hawbaker's taking statements."

"And if it goes as it usually does, in a couple of days, nobody will think any more about it. Maybe it's better that way. If things like this stuck in people's minds, the Hollow'd be a ghost town."

"Maybe it should be. Don't give me the old hometown cheer," Gage said to Cal before Cal could speak. "It's a place. A dot on the map."

"It's people," Cal corrected, though this argument had gone around before. "It's families, it's businesses and homes. And it's ours, goddamn it. Twisse, or whatever name we want to call it, isn't going to take it."

"Doesn't it occur to you that it would be a hell of a lot easier to take him down if we didn't have to worry about the three thousand people in the Hollow?" Gage tossed back. "What do we end up doing through most of the Seven, Cal? Trying to keep people from killing themselves or each other, getting people medical help. How do we fight it when we're busy fighting what it causes?"

"He's got a point." Fox lifted a hand for peace. "I know I've wished we could just clear everybody the hell out, have a showdown. Fucking get it done. But you can't tell three thousand people to leave their homes and businesses for a week. You can't empty out an entire town."

"The Anasazi did it." Quinn stepped in from the doorway. She went to Cal first. Her long blond hair swung forward as she leaned over his chair to kiss him. "Hi."

When she straightened, her hands stayed on his shoulders. Fox wasn't sure the gesture was purely out of affection or to soothe. But he knew when Cal's hand came up to cover one of hers, it meant they were united.

"Towns and villages have emptied out before, for mysterious and unexplained reasons," she continued. "The ancient Anasazi, who built complex communities in the canyons of Arizona and New Mexico, the colonial village of Roanoke. Causes might have been warfare, sickness, or something else. I've been wondering if some of those cases might be the something else we're dealing with."

"You think Lazarus Twisse wiped out the Anasazi, the settlers of Roanoke?" Cal asked.

"Maybe, in the case of the Anasazi, before he took any name we know. Roanoke happened after sixteen fifty-two, so we can't hang that on our particular Big Evil Bastard. Just a theory I've been kicking around." She turned to poke into the bags on the counter. "In any case, we should eat."

While food and plates were transferred to the dining room, Fox managed to get Layla aside. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." She took his hand, turned it over to study the unbroken skin. "I guess you are, too."

"Listen, if you want to take a couple of days off, from the office, I mean, it's fine."

She released his hand, angled her head as she took a long study of his face. "Do you really think I'm that... lily-livered?"

"No. I just meant-"

"Yes, you do. You think because I'm not sold on this idea of the-the Vulcan Mind Meld, I'm a coward."

"I don't. I figured you'd be shaken up-anyone would be. Points for the Spock reference, by the way, even though it's inaccurate."

"Is it?" She brushed past him to take her seat at the table.

"Okay." Quinn gave Cal's burger one wistful glance before she started on her grilled chicken. "We're all up to date on what happened at the Square. Bad birds. We'll log it and chart it, and I'm planning on talking to bystanders tomorrow. I wondered if it might be helpful to get one of the bird corpses and send it off for analysis. Maybe there'd be a sign of some physical change, some infection, something off that would come out in an autopsy."

"We'll just leave that to you." Cybil made a face as she nibbled on the portion of the turkey sub she'd cut into quarters. "And let's not discuss autopsies over dinner. Here's what I found interesting about today's event. Both Layla and Fox sensed and saw the birds, as far as I can tell, simultaneously. Or near enough to amount to the same. Now, is that simply because all six of us have some connection to the dark and the light sides of what happened, and continues to happen in Hawkins Hollow? Or is this because of the specific ability they share?"

"I'd say both," was Cal's opinion. "With the extra click going to shared ability."

"I tend to agree. So," Cybil continued, "how do we use it?"

"We don't." Fox scooped up fries. "Not as long as Layla pulls back from learning how to use what she's got. That's the way it is," he continued when Layla stared at him. "You don't have to like it, but that's how it is. What you have isn't any good to you, or to the team, if you won't use it, or learn how to use it."

"I didn't say I wouldn't, but I'm not going to have you shove it down my throat. And trying to shame me into it isn't going to work either."

"What will?" Fox countered. "I'm open to suggestions."

Cybil held up a hand. "Since I opened this can of worms, let me try. You've got reservations about this, Layla. Why don't you tell us what they are?"

"I feel like I'm losing pieces of myself, or who I thought I was. Adding this in, I'm never going to be who I was again."

"That may be," Gage said easily. "But you're probably not going to live past July anyway."

"Of course." On a half laugh, Layla picked up her glass of wine. "I should look on the bright side."

"Let's try this." Cal shook his head at Gage. "The odds are you'd have been hurt today if something hadn't clicked between you and Fox. And it clicked without either one of you purposely trying. What?" he asked as Quinn started to speak, then stopped herself.

"No. Nothing." Quinn exchanged a quick look with Cybil. "Let's just say I think I understand where everyone's coming from, and everyone makes a point. So I want to say, Layla, that maybe you could consider looking at it another way. Not that you're losing something with this, but you could be gaining something. Meanwhile, we're still going through Ann Hawkins's journals, and the other books Cal's great-grandmother gave us. And Cybil's working on finding where Ann might have gone the night Giles Dent faced down Lazarus Twisse at the Pagan Stone, where she stayed to have her sons, where she lived until she came back here when they were about two. We're still hopeful that if we find the place, we may find more of her journals. And Cybil also verified her branch of the family tree."

"A younger branch than all of yours, so far as I can tell," Cybil continued. "One of my ancestors, a Nadia Sytarskyi, traveled here with her family, and with others in the mid-nineteenth century. She married Jonah Adams, a descendent of Hester Deale. I actually get two branches, as about fifty years later, one of my other ancestors-Kinski side- also came here, and hooked up with Nadia and Jonah's grandchild. So, like Quinn and Layla, I'm a descendent of Hester Deale, and the demon who raped her and got her with child."

"Making us all one big happy family," Gage put in.

"Making us something. It doesn't sit well with me," Cybil added, speaking directly to Layla, "to know that part of what I have, part of what I am, comes down from something evil, something neither human or humane. In fact, it pisses me off. Enough that I intend to use everything I have, everything I am to kick its ass."

"Does it worry you that it may be able to use what you have and are?"

Cybil lifted her glass again, her dark eyes cool as she sipped. "It can try."

"It worries me." Layla scanned the table, the faces of the people she'd come to care for. "It worries me that I have something in me I can't fully understand or control. It worries me that at some point, at any point, it may control me." She shook her head before Quinn could speak. "Even now I don't know if I chose to come here or if I was directed here. More disturbing to me is not being sure anymore if anything I've done has been a choice, or just some part of a master plan created by these forces-the dark and the light. That's what's under it for me. That's the sticking point."

"Nobody's chaining you to that chair," Gage pointed out.

"Ease off," Fox told him, but Gage only shrugged.

"I don't think so. She's got a problem, we've all got a problem. So let's deal with it. Why don't you just pack up and go back to New York? Get your job back selling-what is it-overpriced shoes to bored women with too much money?"

"Step back, Gage."

"No." Layla put a hand on Fox's arm as he started to rise. "I don't need to be rescued, or protected. Why don't I leave? Because it would make me a coward, and up until now I've never been one. I don't leave because what raped Hester Deale, what put its half-demon bastard in that girl, drove her mad, drove her to suicide, would like nothing better than for me to cut and run. I know better than anyone here what it did to her, because it made me experience it. Maybe that makes me more afraid than the rest of you; maybe that was part of the plan. I'm not going anywhere, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm afraid. Of what's out there, and of what's inside me. Inside all of us."

"If you weren't afraid you'd be stupid." Gage lifted his glass in a half toast. "Smart and self-aware are harder to manipulate than stupid."

"Every seven years good people in this town, ordinary people, smart, self-aware people hurt each other, and themselves. They do things they'd never consider doing at any other time."

"You think you could be infected?" Fox asked her. "That you could turn, hurt someone? One of us?"

"How can we be sure I'm immune? That Cybil and Quinn are? Shouldn't we consider that because of our line of descent we could be even more vulnerable?"

"That's a good question. Disturbing," Quinn added, "but good."

"Doesn't fly." Fox shifted so Layla met his eyes. "Things didn't go the way Twisse planned or expected, because Giles Dent was ready for him. He stopped him from being around when Hester delivered, stopped him from potentially siring more offspring, so the line's been diluted. You're not what he was after, and in fact, according to what we know, what we can speculate, you are part of what's going to give me, Cal, and Gage the advantage this time around. You're afraid of him, of what's in you? Consider Twisse is afraid of you, of what's in you. Why else has he tried to scare you off?"

"Good answer." Quinn rubbed her hand over Cal's.

"Part two," Fox continued. "It's not just a matter of immunity to the power he has to cause people to commit violent, abnormal acts. It's a matter of having some aspect of that power, however diluted, that when pooled together is going to end him, once and for all."

Layla studied Fox's face. "You believe that?"

He started to answer, then took her hand, tightening his grip when she started to pull it free. "You tell me."

She struggled-he could see it, and he could feel it, that initial and instinctive shying away from accepting the link with him. He had to resist the urge to push, and simply left himself open. And even when he felt the click, he waited.

"You believe it," Layla said slowly. "You... you see us as six strands braided together into one rope."

"And we're going to hang Twisse with it."

"You love them so much. It's-"

"Ah..." It was Fox who pulled away, flustered and embarrassed that she'd seen more, gone deeper than he'd expected. "So, now that we've got that settled, I want another beer."

He headed into the kitchen, and as he turned from the refrigerator with a beer in his hand, Layla stepped in.

"I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to-"

"It's nothing. No big."

"It is. I just... It was like being inside your head, or your heart, and I saw-or felt-this wave of love, that connection you have to Gage and Cal. It wasn't what you asked me to do, and it was so intrusive."

"Okay, look, it's a tricky process. I was a little more open than I should've been because I figured you needed me to be. The fact is, you don't need as much help as I thought. As you thought."

"No, you're wrong. I do need help. I need you to teach me." She walked to the window to look out at the dark. "Because Gage was right. If I keep letting this be a problem for me, it's a problem for all of us. And if I'm going to use this ability, I have to be able to control it so I'm not walking into people's heads right and left."

"We'll start working on it tomorrow."

She nodded. "I'll be ready." And turned. "Would you tell the others I went on up? It's been a very strange day."

"Sure."

For a moment, she just stood, looking at him. "I want to say, and I'm sorry if it embarrasses you, but there's something exceptional about a man who has the capacity to love as deeply as you do. Cal and Gage are lucky to have a friend like you. Anyone would be."

"I'm your friend, Layla."

"I hope so. Good night."

He stayed where he was after she'd gone, reminding himself to stay her friend. To stay what she needed, when she needed it.