The Hollow
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Eight
A CHILLY TRICKLE OF RAIN DAMPENED THE morning. It was the sort, Fox knew, that tended to hang around all day like a sick headache. Nothing to do but tolerate it.

He dug out a hooded sweatshirt from a basket of laundry he'd managed to wash, but hadn't yet put away. At least he was ninety percent sure he'd washed it. Maybe seventy-five. So he sniffed it, then bumped that up to a hundred percent.

He found jeans, underwear, socks-though the socks took longer as he actually wanted them to match. As he dressed, glanced around his bedroom, he vowed he'd find the time and the willpower to put the stupid laundry away, even though it would eventually be in need of washing and putting away again. He'd make the bed sometime in this decade, and shovel out the rest of the junk.

If he could get it to that point, maybe he could find a cleaning lady who'd stick it out. Maybe a cleaning guy, he considered over his first Coke of the day. A guy would get it better, probably.

He'd look into it.

He laced on his old workboots, and because housekeeping was on his mind, tossed discarded shoes in the closet and, inspired, shoved the laundry basket in after them.

He grabbed his keys, another Coke and a Devil Dog that would serve as his while-driving breakfast. Halfway down the outside steps, he spotted Layla standing at the base.

"Hey."

"I was just coming up. We saw your truck was still here, so I had Quinn drop me off. I thought I'd ride with you."

"Great." He held up the snack cake. "Devil Dog?"

"Actually, I've had enough of devil dogs on four legs."

"Oh yeah." He ripped the wrapper as he joined her. "Strangely, that's never put me off the joy of the Devil Dog."

"That is not your breakfast," she said as he bit in. He only smiled, kept walking.

"My stomach stopped maturing at twelve." He pulled open the passenger door of his truck. "How'd you sleep?"

She shot a look at him over her shoulder as she climbed in. "Well enough." She waited until he'd rounded the hood and slid behind the wheel. "Even after Cybil told me about her and Gage's run-in-literally-with a devil dog. It happened when they were driving to Cal's from your place."

"Yeah, Gage filled me in while I was skinning him at pinball." He set his Coke in the drink holder, took another bite of the cake. After a quick check, he pulled away from the curb.

"I wanted to ride with you because I had some ideas on how to approach this thing today."

"And I thought it was because you can't keep away from me."

"I'm trying not to react with my hormones."

"Damn shame."

"That may be, but... It took so much out of Quinn yesterday. I'm hoping we could try, you and me, and take her out of the mix. The whole point is to find the journals, if they're there. If they are, they're in the now. If not, then we'd have to fall back to Quinn. But-"

"You'd like to spare her the migraine. We can try it. I'm also assuming you didn't mention this idea to her."

"I figured, if you agreed, we could bring it up as something we came up with on the drive over." She smiled over at him. "There, I'm working on my strategy. Did you dream last night?"

"Only about you. We were in my office, and you were wearing this really, really little red dress and those high heels with the ankle straps? Those kill me. You sat on my desk, facing me. I was in the chair. And you said, after you'd licked your lips: 'I'm ready to take dictation, Mr. O'Dell.'"

She listened, head cocked. "You just made that up."

He shot her a quick and charming grin. "Maybe, but I guarantee I'll have that dream tonight. Maybe we should go out. There's this bar over the river? A nice bar. They have live music on Saturday nights. They get some pretty decent musicians in."

"It sounds so normal. I keep trying to keep a grip on normal with one hand while I'm digging into the impossible with the other. It's..."

"Surreal. I forget about it-between the Sevens, I can forget about it for weeks, even months sometimes. Then something reminds me. That's surreal, too. Going along, doing the work, having fun, whatever and zap, it's right back in my head. The closer it gets, the more it's in my head." His fingers danced against the steering wheel to the beat of Snow Patrol. "So a nice bar with good music is a way to remember it's a lot, but it's not everything."

"That's a smart way to look at it. I'm not sure I can get to that point, but I'd like to listen to some music across the river. What time?"

"Ah... nine? Is nine good for you?"

"All right." She drew in a breath when he turned in the lane to the farmhouse. She was making a date with a man she was about to link with psychically. Surreal didn't quite cover it.

It also felt rude, she discovered, to go inside the house without invitation. It was Fox's childhood home, true enough, but he no longer lived there. She thought about going into her parents' condo when they weren't there, deliberately choosing a time they weren't there, and simply couldn't.

"This feels wrong," she said as they stood in the living room. "It feels wrong and intrusive. I understand why we want to do this while they're not home, but it feels..." At a loss, she settled for the standby. "Rude."

"My parents don't mind people coming in. Otherwise, they'd lock the doors."

"Still-"

"We have to prioritize, Layla." Quinn spread her hands. "The reason we're here is more important than standard guidelines of courtesy. I got so much outside the house yesterday. I'm bound to get more inside."

"About that. I had this idea, talked it over with Layla on the drive. If you don't mind us cutting in line, Quinn, I'd like to try something with Layla first. We may be able to visualize where the journals are, if they're here. Or at least get a sense of them."

"That's good thinking. And not just because I'd rather you didn't go through it again," Cal added when Quinn narrowed her eyes at him. "It could work, and better yet, with Fox and Layla linked, it downscales the side effects."

"And if it doesn't work," Fox added, "back to you."

"All right, that makes sense. Believe me, it's not as if I look forward to having my head explode."

"Okay, then we're up. This is the oldest part of the house. Actually, this room and the ones directly above were the house as far as anyone can tell. So, logically, if there was a cabin or a house here before this one was built, it could be over the same spot. Maybe, especially given Quinn's trip yesterday, they used some of the same materials."

"Like the fireplace." Quinn crossed to it, stepped over Lump, who'd already stretched out in front of the low fire, to run her hand over the stones. "I'm big on the idea of hiding stuff behind bricks and stones."

"And if we hack at that mortar, start pulling out stones without being a hundred percent, my father will kill me. Ready?" Fox asked Layla.

"As I'll ever be."

"Look at me." He took her hands. "Just look at me. Don't think. Imagine. A small book, the writing inside. The ink's faded. Imagine her handwriting. You've seen it in her other journals."

His eyes were so rich. That old gold color so fascinating. His hands weren't lawyer-smooth. Not like the hands of a man who carried a briefcase, who worked at a desk. There was labor on them, strength and capability in them. He smelled of the rain, just a little of rain.

He would taste like cake.

He wanted her. Imagined touching her, gliding his hands over bare skin, sliding them over her breasts, her belly. Laying his lips there, his tongue, tasting the heat, the flesh...

In bed, when there's only us.

She gasped, jerked back. His voice had been clear inside her head.

"What did you see?" Cal demanded. "Did you see it?"

With his eyes still locked on Layla's, Fox shook his head. "We had to get something out of the way first. One more time?" he said to Layla. "Use your compartments."

Her skin felt hot, inside and out, but she nodded. And she did her best to set her own desires, and his, aside.

Everything drew together into a narrow point. In it she heard the jumbled thoughts of her companions, like background chatter at a cocktail party. There was concern, doubt, anticipation, a mix of feelings. These, too, she set aside.

The book was in her head. Brown leather cover, dried from age. Yellowed pages and faded ink.

With the dark so close outside, I long for my love.

"It's not here." Fox spoke first as he carefully let the connection between him and Layla fade. "It's not in this room."

"No."

"Then I need to try again." Quinn squared her shoulders. "I can try to home in on her, on the journal. See when she packed it away, maybe to take back to her father's house in town. The old library."

"No, they're not in the old library," Layla said slowly. "They're not in this room."

"But they're here," Fox finished. "It was too clear. They have to be here."

Gage tapped a foot on the floor. "Could be under. She might have hidden them under floorboards, if there were floorboards."

"Or buried them," Cybil continued.

"If they're under the house, we're pretty well screwed," Gage pointed out. "If Brian would be unhappy with us taking some stones out of the fireplace, he'd be pretty well crazed if we suggested razing the damn house to get under it for some diaries."

"You don't have enough respect for diaries," Cybil commented. "But you're right about the first part."

"We need to try again. We can go room to room," Layla suggested. "The basement? Is there a basement? If she did bury them, we might get a better signal from there. Because I can't believe they're inaccessible. Giles told her what would happen, told her about us-about you."

"She may have hidden them to keep them from being lost or destroyed." Cal paced as he tried to think it through. "From being found too soon, or by the wrong people. But she'd want us to find them, she'd have wanted that. Even if just for sentiment."

"I agree with that. I know what I felt from her. She loved Giles. She loved her sons. And everything in her hoped for what those who came after her would do. We're her chance to be with Giles again, to free him."

"Let's take it outside. Yeah, there's a basement," Fox told Layla. "But we could focus on the whole house from outside. And the shed. The shed was here, most likely, when Ann was here. We should try the shed."

As Fox had expected, the rain continued, slow and thin. He put his parents' dogs in the house with Lump to keep them out of the way. And with the others, stepped out in the stubborn drizzle.

"Before we do this, I had an idea-came to me in there-about the Bat Signal?"

"The what?" Quinn interrupted.

"Alarm system," Fox explained. "I can get it, the way I could get all the mental chatter in there. It's just like tuning a radio, really. If you push toward me, I should pick it up. If I push toward any of you, same goes. We'll want to run it a few times, but it should work faster than phone tag."

"Psychic team alert." Cybil adjusted her black bucket hat. "Unlimited minutes, and fewer dropped calls. I like it."

"What if you're the one in trouble?" Under her light jacket, Layla wore a hoodie in what he supposed should be called an orchid color. She drew the hood up and over her hair as they crossed the yard.

"Then I push to Cal or Gage. We've done that during the Seven before. Or to you," he added, "once you've gotten a better handle on it. We used to play in there. Remember?" Fox called out to Cal and Gage. "We used it for a fort for a while, only we didn't call it a fort-too warlike for the Barry-O'Dells. So we said it was our clubhouse."

"We murdered thousands from in there." Gage stopped, hands tucked in his pockets. "Died a million deaths."

"We made our plans for the birthday hike to the Pagan Stone while we were in there." Cal stopped. "Do you remember? I'd forgotten that. A couple weeks before our birthday, we got the idea."

"Gage's idea."

"Yeah, blame me."

"We were-what the hell, let me think. School was out. Just out. It was the first full day of freedom, and my mom let me come over and hang all day."

"No chores," Fox continued. "I remember now. I got a pass on chores, one-day pass. First day after school let out. We were playing in there."

"Vice cops against drug lords," Gage put in.

"A change from cowboys and Indians," Cybil commented.

"Hippie boy wouldn't play greedy invaders against indigenous peoples. And if you'd ever gotten one of Joanne Barry's lectures on same, you wouldn't either." The memory had a smile ghosting around Gage's mouth. "We were so juiced up, September was a lifetime off. Everything was hot and bright, green and blue. I didn't want that to end, I remember that, too. Yeah, it was my idea. Major adventure, total freedom."

"We all jumped on it," Cal reminded him. "Plotted the whole thing out right in there." He gestured toward the vine-wrapped stones. I'm damned if that's a coincidence."

They stood there a moment, side by side. Remembering, Layla supposed. Three men of the same age, who'd come from the same place. Gage in his black leather jacket, Cal in his flannel overshirt and watch cap, Fox in his hooded sweatshirt. Odd, she thought, how something as basic as their choice in outerwear spoke to their individuality even while their stance spoke of their absolute unity.

"Layla." Fox reached out. Her hands were wet and cool. Rain sparkled on her lashes. Even without the psychic link, her anxiety and eagerness flowed toward him.

"Just let it come," he told her. "Don't push, don't even reach for it. Relax, look at me."

"I have a hard time doing both of those things at the same time."

His grin was pure male pleasure. "We'll see what we can do about that later. For right now, bring the book into your head. Just the book. Here we go."

He was both bridge and anchor. She would realize that later, that he had the skill, had the understanding to offer her both. As she crossed the bridge, he was with her. She felt the rain on her face, the ground under her feet. She smelled the earth, the wet grass, even the wet stone. There was a hum, low and steady. She understood with a stab of awe that it was the growing. Grass, leaves, flowers. All humming toward spring and sunlight. Toward the green.

She heard the faint whoosh of air that was a bird winging by, and the scrape that was a squirrel scampering across a branch.

Amazing, she thought, to understand that she was a part of it, and always had been. Always would be. What grew, what breathed, what slept. What lived and died.

There was the smell of earth, of smoke, of wet, of skin. She heard the sigh of rain leaving a cloud, and the murmur of the clouds drifting.

So she drifted, across the bridge.

The pain was sudden and shocking, like a vicious and violent rip inside her. Head, belly, heart. Even as she cried out, she saw the book-just a flash. Then the flash was gone, and so was the pain, leaving her weak and dizzy.

"Sorry. I lost it."

Gage's hands hooked under her armpits as she toppled. "Steady, baby. Easy does it. Cybil."

"Yes, I've got her. Lean on me a minute. You had quite a ride."

"I could hear the clouds moving, and the garden grow. It hums. The flowers hum under the ground. God, I feel..."

"Stoned?" Quinn suggested. "You look stoned."

"That's about right. Wow. Fox, did you-" She broke off when she managed to focus. He was on his knees on the wet gravel, his friends crouched on either side of him. And there was blood on his shirt.

"Oh my God, what happened?" She pushed instinctively with her mind, but rammed into a wall. She stumbled, went down on her hands and knees in front of him. "You're hurt. Your nose is bleeding."

"Wouldn't be the first time. Damn it, I just washed this stupid sweatshirt. Just give me some room. Give me room." He dragged a bandanna out of his pocket, pressing it to his nose as he sat back on his heels.

"Let's get him inside," Quinn began, but Fox shook his head, then pressed his free hand to it as if the movement threatened to break it away from his shoulders. "Need a minute."

"Cal, go get him some water. Let's try your mother's trick, Fox." Cybil moved behind him. "Just breathe." She found the points, pressed. "Should I ask if you're pregnant?"

"Not a good time to make me laugh. Little sick here."

"Why was it worse for him than for Quinn?" Layla demanded. "It was supposed to be less, because we were linked. But it's worse. You know." She aimed a fierce look at Gage. "Why?"

"Being O'Dell, he stepped in front of you and took the full punch. That'd be my guess. And because of the link, it was a hell of a punch."

"Is that it?" Furious, Layla turned on Fox. "I'm listening to clouds and you're getting kicked in the face."

"Your face is prettier than mine. Marginally. Quiet a minute, okay? Have a little pity for the wounded."

"Don't ever do it again. You look at me, you listen to me. Don't ever do it again. You promise that, or I'm done with this."

"I don't like ultimatums." Even through the glaze of pain in his eyes, the temper sparked. "In fact, they piss me off."

"You know what pisses me off? You didn't trust me to carry my share."

"It has nothing to do with trust or shares. Thanks, Cybil, it's better." He got carefully to his feet, took the water Cal offered and drank it straight down. "They're wrapped in oilcloth, behind the south wall. I couldn't tell how many. Two, maybe three. You know where the tools are, Cal. I'll be back out to help in a minute."

He made it into the house, into the bathroom off the kitchen before he was as sick as a man after a two-day drunk. With his stomach raw and his head a misery, he rinsed his face, his mouth. Then just leaned on the sink until he had his breath back.

When he came out, Layla stood in the kitchen. "We're not finished."

"You want to fight? We'll fight later. Right now we've got a job to do."

"I'm not doing anything until you give me your word you won't shield me again."

"Can't do it. I only give my word when I'm sure I can keep it." He turned, started rooting through cupboards. "Nothing but holistic shit in this house. Why is there never any damn Excedrin?"

"You had no right-"

"Sue me. I know some good lawyers. We do what we do, Layla. That's the way it is. That's the way I am. I took a shot because I knew it was a good one. I got there because of you, because of us. I wasn't going to let you get hurt if I could stop it, and I'm not going to promise not to do what I can to stop you from being hurt down the road."

"If you think because I'm a woman I'm weaker, less capable, less-"

His face was sheet pale as he rounded on her. Even temper couldn't push the color back into his face. "Christ, don't start waving the feminist flag. Did you meet my mother? Your sex has nothing to do with it-other than the fact that I'm gone on you, which, being straight, I wouldn't be if you were a guy. I survived. I got a headache, a nose-bleed, and I lost my breakfast-and dinner, and possibly a couple of internal organs. But other than wishing to goddamn hell and back there was some aspirin and a can of Coke around this house, I'm fine. You want to be pissed, be pissed. But be pissed correctly."

As he drilled his fingers into his forehead, she opened the purse she'd left on the kitchen table. From it she took a little box with a crescent moon on the top.

"Here." She handed him two pills. "It's Advil."

"Praise the lord. Don't be stingy. Give me a couple more."

"I'm still pissed, correctly or incorrectly." She handed him two more pills, inwardly wincing when he dry-swallowed the lot. "But I'm going out to help do the job because I'm part of this team. Let me say this first, if you're so gone over me, consider how I feel seeing you on the ground, bleeding and in pain. There are lots of ways to be hurt. Think about that."

When she stalked out he stayed where he was. She might've had a point, but he was too worn out to think about it. Instead, he got the pitcher of his mother's cold tea out of the fridge and downed a glass to wash the dregs of annoyance and sickness from his throat.

Because he still felt shaky, he left the chiseling to Gage and Cal. Eventually, he'd have to tell his parents, he thought. Especially if they weren't able to replace the stone in such a way the removal didn't show.

No, he thought, he'd have to tell them either way or he'd feel guilty.

In any case, they'd understand-a lot better than a certain brunette-why he'd wanted to try this when they were away from home. They may not like it, but they wouldn't start shoveling the you-don't-trust-me crap over his head. Not their style.

"Try not to chip it."

"It's a fucking stone, O'Dell." Gage slammed the hammer on the knob of the chisel. "Not a damn diamond."

"Tell that to my parents," he muttered, then jammed his hands in his pockets.

"You'd better be sure this is the one." Cal struck from the other side. "Or else we're going to be doing a lot more than chipping one rock."

"That's the one. The wall's four deep, one of the reasons it's still standing. That one was probably loose or she worked it loose. The past shit's your milieu."

"Milieu, my ass." Wet, his knuckles scraped, Cal struck again. By the next strike, the knuckles had already healed, but he was still soaked to the skin. "It's coming."

He and Gage worked it loose by hand as Fox fought the image of the whole wall crumbling like a game of Jenga.

"Sucker weighs a ton," Gage complained. "More like a damn boulder. Watch the fingers." He cursed as the movement pinched his fingers between rocks, then let the weight of the stone carry it to the ground. Sitting back on his heels, he sucked at his bleeding hand as Cal reached into the opening.

"Son of a bitch. I've got it." Cal drew out a package wrapped in oilcloth. "Score one for O'Dell." Carefully, hunching over to protect the contents from the rain, he unwrapped the cloth.

"Don't open them," Quinn warned from behind them. "It's too wet out here. The ink might run. Ann Hawkins's journals. We found them."

"We'll take them back to my place. Get out of these wet clothes, then-"

The blast shook the ground. It knocked Fox off his feet, smashing him into the stone wall with his hip and shoulder taking the brunt. Head ringing, he turned to see the house burning. Flames shot through the roof, clawed through broken windows with the roaring belch of black smoke behind them. He ran toward home, through a blistering wall of heat.

When Gage tackled him, he slammed hard into the ground and swung out with blind fury. "The dogs are inside. Goddamn it."

"Pull yourself together." Gage shouted over the bellow of fire. "Is it real? Pull it together, Fox. Is it real?"

He could feel the burn. He swore he could feel it, and the smoke stinging his eyes, scoring his throat as he choked in air. He had to fight back the image of his home going up in flames, of three helpless dogs trapped and panicked.

He gripped Gage's shoulder as an anchor, then Cal's forearm as his friends pulled him to his feet. They stood linked for a moment, and a moment was all he needed.

"It's a lie. Damn. Just another lie." He heard Cal's breath shudder out. "Lump's fine. The dogs are fine. It's just more bullshit."

The fire wavered, spurted, died, so the old stone house stood whole under the thin and steady rain.

Fox let out a breath of his own. "Sorry about the fist in the face," he said to Gage.

"You hit like a girl."

"Your mouth's bleeding."

Gage swiped at it, grinned. "Not for long."

Cal strode to the house, threw open the door to let the dogs out. Then simply sat on the floor of the back porch with his arms full of Lump.

"It's not supposed to come here." Fox walked forward, too, set a hand on the porch rail he'd helped build. "It's never been able to come here. Not to our families."

"Things are different now." Cybil crouched down and rubbed the other two dogs as they wagged tails. "These dogs aren't scared. It didn't happen for them. Just us."

"And if my parents had been in there?"

"It wouldn't have happened for them either." Quinn dropped down beside Cal. "How many times have the three of you seen things no one else has?"

"Sometimes they're real," Fox pointed out.

"This wasn't. It just wanted to shake us up, scare us. It-Oh God, the journals."

"I have them."

Fox turned, saw Layla standing in the rain, clutching the wrapped package against her breasts. "It wanted to hurt you. Couldn't you feel it? Because you found them. Couldn't you feel the hate?"

He'd felt nothing, Fox realized, but panic-and that was a mistake. "So he scored one, too." He crossed to Layla, drew up the hood that had fallen away. "But we're still ahead."