The Hollow
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Five
CYBIL'S LUST-AS-SPRINGBOARD MEDITATION MIGHT'VE given Layla a fit of giggles initially, but then she thought she'd done pretty well. Better, certainly, than her usual faking-it method at yoga class. She'd breathed in the lust, as instructed-navel to spine-breathed out the tension, the stress. Focused on that "tickle in the belly" as Cybil had described it. Owned it.

Somewhere around the laughter, the breathing, and the tickle, she'd relaxed so fully she'd heard her own pulse beating. And that was a first.

She slept deep and dreamless, and woke refreshed. And, Layla had to admit, energized. Apparently, meditation didn't have to bore her senseless.

With Fox in court and Alice at the helm, there was no reason to go into the office until the afternoon. Time, she thought as she showered, to dive into research mode with Cybil and Quinn. To put her energy into finding more answers. She still hadn't added the incident at the Square to her chart, or catalogued the dream both she and Fox had shared.

She dressed for the morning in jeans and a sweater before earmarking the afternoon wardrobe change for Secretary Layla. And that, she had to admit, was fun. It felt good to need to dress for work, to plan and consider the outfit, the accessories. In the weeks between leaving New York and starting at Fox's office, she'd been busy, certainly. She'd had enormous adjustments to make, monumental obstacles to face. But she'd missed working, missed knowing someone expected her to be in a certain place at a certain time to do specific tasks.

And, shallow or not, she'd missed having a reason to wear a great pair of boots.

As she headed out, intending to hit the kitchen for coffee, she heard the clacking of the keyboard from the office they'd set up in the fourth bedroom.

Quinn sat cross-legged in the chair, typing away. Her long blond hair swayed in its sleek tail as she bopped her head to some internal music.

"I didn't know you were back."

"Back." Quinn hammered a few more keys, then paused to look over. "Swung by the gym, worked off a few hundred calories, screwed that with an enormous blueberry muffin from the bakery, but I figure I'm still ahead considering the stupendous and energetic sex I enjoyed last night. Got coffee, got showered, and am now typing up Cybil's notes on your dream." Quinn stretched up her arms. "And I still feel like I could run the Boston Marathon."

"That must've been some sex."

"Oh boy, oh boy." Wiggling her butt in the chair, Quinn let out her big, bawdy laugh. "I always thought it was romance novel hype that sex was better when you're in love. But I'm living, and extraordinarily satisfied, proof. But that's nearly enough about me. How are you?"

If she hadn't woken feeling energized, Layla mused, two minutes around Quinn would have perked her right up. "While not extraordinarily satisfied, I'm feeling pretty peppy myself. Is Cybil up?"

"In the kitchen, doing her morning coffee and newspaper thing. We passed briefly, and she grunted something along the lines that you made progress with Fox yesterday."

"Did she mention that we happened to find our lips colliding in the storage closet at his office when his mother came in?"

Quinn's bright blue eyes popped wide. "She wasn't coherent enough. You tell me."

"I just did."

"I require details."

"I require coffee. I'll be back."

Another thing she'd been missing, Layla realized. Having fun and personal details to share with girlfriends.

In the kitchen Cybil nibbled on half a bagel as she read the newspaper spread over the table. "Not a single mention of the crows in today's paper," she announced when Layla walked in. "It's extraordinary, really. Yesterday, a brief article, stingy on the details, and no follow-up."

"It's typical, isn't it?" Thoughtful, Layla poured coffee. "Nobody pays a lot of attention to what happens here. And when there are reports or questions, interest, it doesn't stick, or it comes across as lore."

"Even the people who've lived through it, who live here, gloss it over. Or it glosses over on them."

"Some that remember it too well leave." Layla decided on yogurt, took out a carton. "Like Alice Hawbaker."

"It's fascinating. Still, there aren't any other reports on animal attacks, or unexplained occurrences. Not today, anyway. Well." With a lazy shrug, Cybil started to fold the paper. "I'm going to go tug on a couple of very thin threads toward finding where Ann Hawkins lived for our missing two years. It's damned irritating," Cybil added as she rose. "There weren't that many people around here in sixteen fifty-two. Why the hell can't I find the right ones?"

BY NOON, LAYLA HAD DONE ALL SHE COULD DO with her housemates. She changed into gray trousers and heeled boots for her afternoon in the office.

On her walk she noticed that the windows on the gift shop had been replaced. Cal's father was a conscientious landlord, one she knew had a lot of pride in his town. And she noticed the large, hand-printed Going Out of Business Sale sign that hung in the display window.

That was a damn shame, she thought as she walked on. The lives people built, or tried to build, tumbling down around them, through no fault of their own. Some let it lie in ruins, unable to find the hope and the will to rebuild, and others shoved up their sleeves and put it back together.

There was new glass at Ma's Pantry, too, and on other shops and houses. People, jackets buttoned or zipped against the chill, came and went, in and out. People stayed. She saw a man in a faded denim jacket, a tool belt slung at his hips, replacing a door on the bookstore. Yesterday, she thought, that door had been scarred, its windows broken. Now it would be fresh and new.

People stayed, she thought again, and others strapped on their tool belts and helped them rebuild.

When the man turned, caught her gaze, he smiled. Layla's heart took a jump, a little bump that was both pleasure and surprise. It was Fox's smile. For a moment she thought she was hallucinating, then she remembered. His father was a carpenter. Fox's father was replacing the door of the bookstore, and smiling at her across Main Street.

She lifted her hand in a wave and continued to walk. Wasn't it interesting to get a glimpse of what Fox B. O'Dell might look like in twenty years?

Pretty damn good.

She was still laughing to herself when she went inside Fox's office and relieved Alice for the day.

Since she had the offices to herself, she slid in a CD and started the work Alice had left her to Michelle Grant on low volume, muting it whenever the phone rang.

Within an hour, she'd cleared the desk, updated Fox's calendar. Since she still considered it Alice's domain, she resisted killing another hour reorganizing the storage room and the desk drawers to her personal specifications.

Instead, she pulled out one of the books in her satchel that covered a local's version of the legend of the Pagan Stone.

She could see it in her mind's eye, ruling the clearing in Hawkins Wood. Rising altarlike out of the scorched ground, somber and gray. Solid, she thought now as she paged through the book. Sturdy and ancient. Small wonder how it had come by its name, she decided, as it had struck her as something forged by gods for whatever, whomever, they might worship.

A center of power, she supposed, not on some soaring mountaintop, but in the quiet, sleepy woods.

There was nothing new in the book she scanned-the small Puritan settlement rocked by accusations of witch-craft, a tragic fire, a sudden storm. She wished she'd brought one of Ann Hawkins's journals instead, but she didn't feel comfortable taking them out of the house.

She put the book away and tried the Internet. But that, too, was old news. She'd read and searched and read again, and there was no question both Quinn and Cybil were better at this end than she was. Her strength was in organizing, in connecting the dots in a logical manner. At the moment, there were simply no new dots to connect.

Restless, she rose to walk to the front windows. She needed something to do, a defined task, something to keep her hands and her mind busy. She needed to do something. Now.

She turned back with the intention of calling Quinn and begging for an assignment, no matter how menial.

The woman stood in front of the desk, her hands folded at her waist. Her dress was a quiet gray, long skirt, long sleeves, high at the neck. She wore her sunny blond hair in a simple roll at the nape.

"I know what it is to be impatient, to be restless," she said. "I could never sit long without an occupation. He would tell me there was purpose in rest, but I found it so hard to wait."

Ghosts, Layla thought. Why should a ghost trip her heartbeat when only moments ago she'd been thinking of gods? "Are you Ann?"

"You know. You are still learning to trust yourself, and what was given to you. But you know."

"Tell me what to do, tell us what to do to stop it. To destroy it."

"It is beyond my power. It is even beyond his, my beloved's. It is for you to discover, you who are part of it, you who are part of me and mine."

"Is it evil in me?" Oh, how the possibility of that burned in Layla's belly. "Can you tell me that?"

"It is what you make of it. Do you know the beauty of now? Of holding it?" Both grief and joy radiated in Ann's face, in her voice. "Moment to moment, it moves and it changes. So must you. If you can see into others, into heart and mind, if you can look and know what is real and what is false, can you not look into yourself for the answers?"

"This is now, but you're only giving me more questions. Tell me where you went before the night of the fire at the Pagan Stone."

"To live, as he asked of me. To give life that was precious. They were my faith, my hope, my truth, and it was love that conceived them. Now you are my hope. You must not lose yours. He never has."

"Who? Giles Dent? Fox," Layla realized. "You mean Fox."

"He believes in the justice of things, in the right of them." She smiled now, with absolute love. "This is his great strength, and his vulnerability. Remember, it seeks weakness."

"What can I- Damn it!" Ann was gone, and the phone was ringing.

She'd write it down, Layla thought as she hurried back to the desk. Every word, every detail. She damn well had something to do now.

She reached for the phone. And picked up a hissing snake.

The scream tore out of her as she flung the writhing black mass away. Stumbling back, more screams bubbling up in her throat, she watched it coil like a cobra with its long, slanted eyes latched on hers. Then it lowered its head and began to slither across the floor toward her. Prayers and pleas jostled in her head as she backed toward the door. Its eyes glowed red as it surged, lightning fast, to coil again between her and the exit.

She heard her breath, coming too fast, in quick pants now that hitched and clogged in her throat. She wanted to turn and run, but the fear of turning her back on it was too great. It began to uncoil, inch by sinuous inch, began to wind toward her.

Was it longer now? Oh God, dear God. Its skin glistened an oily black, and it undulated as it slunk its way across the floor. Its hissing intensified when her back hit the wall. When there was nowhere left to run.

"You're not real." But the doubt in her voice was clear even to her, and it continued to come. "Not real," she repeated, struggling to draw in her breath. Look at it! she ordered herself. Look at it and see. Know. "You're not real. Not yet, you bastard."

Gritting her teeth, she shoved away from the wall. "Go ahead. Slither, strike, you're not real." On the last word she slammed her foot down, stabbing the heel of her boot through the oily black body. For an instant, she felt substance, she saw blood ooze out of the wound and was both horrified and revolted. As she ground down with all of her might, she felt its fury and, more satisfying, its pain.

"Yeah, that's right, that's right. We hurt you before, and we'll hurt you again. Go to hell, you-"

It struck. For an instant, one blinding instant, the pain was her own. It sent her pitching forward. Before she could scramble up to fight, to defend, it was gone.

Frantic, she yanked up her pants leg, searching for a wound. Her skin was unbroken, unmarred. The pain, she thought as she crawled toward her purse, was an illusion. It made her feel pain, it had that much in it. But not enough to wound. Her hands shook as she fumbled her phone out of her bag.

In court, she remembered, Fox was in court. Can't come, can't help. She hit speed dial for Quinn. "Come," she managed when Quinn answered. "You have to come. Quick."

"WE WERE ON OUR WAY OUT THE DOOR WHEN you called," Quinn told her. "You didn't answer the phone, your cell or the office number."

"It rang." Layla sat on the sofa in reception. She'd gotten her breath back, and had nearly stopped shaking. "It rang, but when I picked it up..." She took the bottle of water Cybil brought her from the kitchen. "I threw it over there."

When she gestured, Cybil walked over to the desk. "It's still here." She lifted the phone off its charger.

"Because I never picked it up," Layla said slowly. "I never picked anything up. It just made me think I did."

"But you felt it."

"I don't know. I heard it. I saw it. I thought I felt it." She looked down at her hand, and couldn't quite suppress a shudder.

"Cal's here," Cybil said with a glance out the window.

"We called him." Quinn rubbed Layla's arm. "We figured we might as well bring in the whole cavalry."

"Fox is in court."

"Okay." Quinn rose from her crouch in front of Layla when Cal came in.

"Is everyone all right? Nobody's hurt?"

"Nobody's hurt." With her eyes on Cal, Quinn laid a hand on Layla's shoulder. "Just freaked."

"What happened?"

"We were just getting to that. Fox is in court."

"I tried to reach him, got his voice mail. I didn't leave a message. I figured if he was out he didn't need to hear something was wrong when he'd be driving. Gage is on the way." Cal walked over, running a hand down Quinn's arm before he sat down beside Layla.

"What happened here? What happened to you?"

"I had visitors from both teams."

She told them about Ann Hawkins, pausing first when Quinn pulled out her recorder, then again when Gage came in.

"You said you heard her speak?" Cal asked.

"We had a conversation right here. Just me and a woman who's been dead for three hundred years."

"But did she actually speak?"

"I just said... Oh. Oh. How stupid am I?" Layla set the water aside, pressed her fingers to her eyes. "I'm supposed to stay in the moment, pay attention to the now, and I didn't. I wasn't."

"It was probably a fairly big surprise to turn around and see a dead woman standing at your desk," Cybil pointed out.

"I was wishing I had something to do, something to keep me busy, and, well, be careful what you wish for. Let me think." She closed her eyes now, tried to picture the episode. "In my head," she murmured. "I heard her in my head, I'm almost sure. So I had, what, a telepathic conversation with a dead woman. It gets better and better."

"Sounds more like a pep talk from her end," Gage pointed out. "No real information, just get out there and give your all for the team."

"Maybe it's what I needed to hear. Because I can tell you the pep talk might have turned the tide when the other visitor showed up. The phone rang. It was probably you," she said to Quinn. "Then-"

She broke off when the door opened. Fox breezed in. "Somebody's having a party and didn't... Layla." He rushed across the room so quickly Quinn had to jump back or be bowled over. "What happened?" He gripped both her hands. "Snake? For fuck's sake. You're not hurt." He yanked up her trouser leg before she could answer.

"Stop. Don't do that. I'm not hurt. Let me tell it. Don't read me that way."

"Sorry, it didn't feel like the moment for protocol. You were alone. You could've-"

"Stop," she commanded, and deliberately pulled her hands from his, just as she deliberately tried to block him out of her mind. "Stop. I can't trust you if you push into my head that way. I won't trust you."

He drew back, on every level. "Fine. Fine. Let's hear it." "Ann Hawkins came first," Quinn began, "but we'll go back to that if it's okay with you. She's just run that one."

"Then keep going."

"The phone rang," Layla said again, and told them.

"You hurt it," Quinn said. "On your own, by yourself. This is good news. And I like the boots."

"They've recently become my favorite footwear."

"But you felt pain." Cal gestured to her calf. "And that's not good."

"It was only for a second, and I don't know-honestly don't-how much of it was panic or the expectation of pain. I was so scared, for obvious reasons, then add in the snake. I was hyperventilating, and couldn't stop at first. I'd have passed out, I think, if I hadn't been more afraid of having a snake slithering all over me while I was unconscious. I have a thing."

Cybil cocked her head. "A snake thing? You have ophidiophobia? Snake phobia," she explained when Layla simply looked blank.

"She knows all kinds of stuff like that," Quinn said proudly.

"I don't know if it's an actual phobia. I just don't like- okay, I'm afraid of snakes. Things that slither."

Cybil looked at Quinn. "The giant slug you and Layla saw in the hotel dining room the day she checked in."

"Tapping in to her fears. Good one, Cyb."

"It was spiders when the four of you were together at the Sweetheart dance." Cybil cocked her eyebrow. "You've got a spider thing, Q."

"Yeah, but it's an ick rather than an eek."

"Which is why I didn't say you have arachnophobia."

"That would be Fox," Cal volunteered.

"No. I don't like spiders, but-"

"Who wouldn't go see Arachnophobia? The movie? Who screamed like a girl when a wolf spider crawled over his sleeping bag when we-"

"I was twelve, for Christ's sake." With the appearance of a man stuck between embarrassment and impatience, Fox jammed his hands in his pockets. "I don't like spiders, which is different from being phobic. They have too many legs, as opposed to snakes, who don't have any, and which I find kind of cool. I'm only somewhat freaked by spiders that are bigger than my goddamn hand."

"They were," Layla agreed.

Fox blew out a breath. "Yeah, I guess they were."

"She said, Ann said that it seeks out our weaknesses."

"Spiders and snakes," Cal offered.

"That ain't what it takes," Gage finished and got a ghost of a smile from Cybil.

"What scares you?" she asked him.

"The IRS, and women who can rattle off words like ophidiophobia."

"Everyone has fears, weak spots." Wearily, Layla rubbed the back of her neck. "It'll use them against us."

"We should take a break, get you home." Fox studied Layla's face. "You've got a headache. I see it in your eyes," he said stiffly when her back went rigid. "I'll close up for the day."

"Good idea." Quinn spoke up before Layla could object. "We'll go back to our place. Layla can take some aspirin, maybe a hot bath. Cyb'll cook."

"Will she?" Cybil said dryly, then rolled her eyes as Quinn smiled. "All right, all right, I'll cook."

When the women left, Fox stood in the center of the room, scanning it.

"Nothing here, son," Gage pointed out.

"But there was. We all felt it." Fox looked at Cal, got a nod.

"Yeah. But then none of us thought she imagined it."

"She didn't imagine it," Gage agreed, "and she handled it. There's not a weak spine among the three of them. That's an advantage."

"She was alone." Fox swung back. "She had to handle it alone."

"There are six of us, Fox." Cal's voice was calm, reasoned. "We can't be together or even buddied up twenty-four hours out of the day. We have to work, sleep, live, that's just the way it is. The way it's always been."

"She knows the score." Gage spread his hands. "Just like the rest of us."

"It's not a fucking hockey game."

"And she's not Carly."

At Cal's statement, the room went silent.

"She's not Carly," he repeated, quietly now. "What happened here today isn't your fault any more than what happened seven years ago was your fault. If you drag that around with you, you're not doing yourself, or Layla, any favors."

"Neither of you ever lost anyone you loved in this," Fox shot back. "So you don't know."

"We were there," Gage corrected. "So we damn well know. We know." He slid up his sleeve and held out the wrist scored with a thin white scar. "Because we've always been there."

Because it was pure truth, Fox let out a breath. And let go of the anger. "We need to come up with a system, a contact system. So if any of us are threatened while we're alone, all of us get the signal.

"We'll have to come up with something," Fox added. "But right now I need to close up, and get out of this suit. Then I want a beer."

BY THE TIME THEY ARRIVED AT THE RENTAL house, dinner preparations were already under way, with Quinn dragooned into serving as Cybil's line chef.

"What's cooking?" Cal leaned down, tipped Quinn's chin up, and kissed her mouth.

"All I know is I'm ordered to peel these carrots and potatoes."

"It was your idea to have dinner for six," Cybil reminded her, but smiled at Cal. "What's cooking is delicious. You'll like it. Now go away."

"He can peel carrots," Quinn objected.

"Fox can peel carrots," Cal volunteered. "He can handle vegetables because that's about all they ate at his house."

"Which is why you should practice," Fox shot back. "I want to talk to Layla. Where is she?"

"Upstairs. She... hmm," Quinn finished when Fox simply turned and walked out. "This ought to be interesting. Sorry I'm missing it."

He headed straight up. Fox knew the layout of the second floor, as he'd been drafted into carting up bits and pieces of furniture when the women were settling in. He turned straight into her bedroom, through the open door, where she was wearing nothing but a bra and a pair of low-cut briefs.

"I need to talk to you."

"Out. Get out. Jesus." She grabbed a shirt from the bed, whipped it in front of her.

"It won't take that long."

"I don't care how long it takes, I'm not dressed."

"For Christ's sake, I've seen women in their underwear before." But since she merely lifted her arm, pointed at the door, he compromised by turning around. "If you've got modesty issues, you should close your door."

"This is a houseful of women, and I... never mind."

He heard the rustling of clothes, slamming of drawers. "How's the headache?"

"It's fine-gone, I mean. I'm fine, so if that's all-"

"You might as well dismount."

"Excuse me?"

"From your high horse. And you can toss out the idea of me apologizing for reading you before. You were pumping off fear, and it rammed right into me. What happened after was instinctive, and doesn't make me a psychic Peeping Tom."

"You can curb your instincts, and do it all the time. You told me."

"It's a little tougher when it's someone I care about in crisis. So deal. Meanwhile you might want to start thinking about another job."

"You're firing me?"

He figured she'd had enough time to pull something on, so he turned around. He still had a crystal-clear picture of her wearing only bra and panties in his head, but had to admit she made an equally impressive picture wearing jeans, a sweater, and outrage.

"I'm suggesting you think about finding a job where you work around people, so you're not left alone. I'm in and out of the office, and once Mrs. H-"

"You're suggesting I need a babysitter?"

"No, and right now I'm saying you have a big overreact button, and your finger's stuck on it. I'm suggesting you shouldn't feel obligated to come back to the office, that if it makes you uneasy, I get it, and I'll make other arrangements."

"I'm living and working in a town where a demon comes to play every seven years. I have a lot more to be uneasy about than doing your damn filing."

"There are other jobs where you wouldn't be doing anyone's damn filing alone in an office on a regular basis. Alone in an office where you were singled out and attacked."

"In an office where I fought back and did some damage."

"I'm not discounting that, Layla."

"Sounds like it to me."

"I don't want to feel responsible for something happening to you. Don't say it." He held up a hand. "My office, my schedule, my feelings."

She angled her head, the gesture both acknowledgment and challenge. "Then you'll have to fire me or, to toss back your own advice, deal."

"Then I will-deal. We're going to try to come up with some sort of alarm or signal that can reach everyone at the same time. No more phone trees."

"What, like the Bat Signal?"

He had to smile. "That'd be cool. We'll talk about it."

When they walked out together, he asked, "Are we smooth now?"

"Smooth enough."

Despite Cybil's edict, the rest gathered in the kitchen. Whatever was on the menu already scented the air. Cal's dog, Lump, sprawled under the little cafe table, snoring.

"There's a perfectly good living room in the house," Cybil pointed out. "Well-suited for men and dogs, considering its current decor."

"Cyb still objects to the flea-market-special ambiance." Quinn grinned and crunched into a stalk of celery. "Feeling better, Layla?"

"Much. I'm just going to grab a glass of wine then go up and chart this latest business. By the way, why were you calling me? You said you'd tried to call me on the office phone and my cell."

"Oh God, with all the excitement, we forgot." Quinn looked over at Cybil. "Our top researcher's come up with another lead to where Ann Hawkins might have lived after the night at the Pagan Stone."

"A family by the name of Ellsworth, a few miles outside of the settlement here in sixteen fifty-two. They arrived shortly after Hawkins, about three months after from what I've dug up."

"Is there a connection?" Cal asked.

"They both came over from England. Fletcher Ellsworth. Ann named one of her sons Fletcher. And Ellsworth's wife, Honor, was third cousin to Hawkins's wife."

"I define that as connection," Quinn stated.

"Have you pinpointed the location?"

"Working on it," Cybil told Cal. "I got as much as I got because one of Ellsworth's descendents was at Valley Forge with George, and one of his descendents wrote a book about the family. I got in touch-chatty guy."

"They always talk to Cyb." Quinn took another bite of celery.

"Yes, they do. He was able to verify that the Ellsworths we're interested in had a farm west of town, in a place that was called Hollow Creek."

"So we just have to-" Quinn broke off, catching Cal's expression. "What?" Because he was staring at Fox, she turned, repeated. "What?"

"Some of the locals still call it that," Fox explained. "Or did, when my parents bought the land thirty-three years ago. That's my family's farm."