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Outside Salem, Massachusetts
"You should be here at Halloween."
Tramping across the marshy ground with her flashlight, searching for a firmer trail in the tall grass, Annja Creed glanced at her two companions. In the darkness of the Evergreen Harbor Cemetery, it was hard to tell them apart.
Twenty-year-old goth Colleen Digby was just shy of five and a half feet and wore all black, a skirt over skinny jeans and a hooded trench coat over that. She rustled every time she took a step, and the muddy ground sucked at her boots. Her cropped black hair had an electric-blue streak through it. Her dark makeup stood out against her pallid face.
In a black steampunk double-breasted jacket cut high in the front with a tail nearly down to his ankles, Victor Lambert's hair was cut only a little shorter than his girlfriend's, but he'd left it long in front so it dangled in his eyes. They walked so closely together that they looked, more often than not, Annja thought, like a two-headed creature.
Annja regretted wearing a dark turtleneck and cargo pants, because it smacked too much of the look her two guides favored. She wasn't even sure which one had spoken to her. Their voices sounded a lot alike. "Why Halloween?"
"The whole town loves Halloween." Colleen looked at her.
"They go all out." Victor watched the surrounding woods with his head ducked slightly, as if he thought he was going to be attacked at any moment. "Decorations. Parties. They've even talked about hanging a witch, just for old times' sake."
"He's kidding." Colleen rolled her eyes.
"Maybe I'm kidding. People go missing here, Colleen. For all you know some of the frat houses at the college grab women during Pledge Week and haul them up to Gallows Hill to string them up in the same place they killed all those suspected witches."
"They don't do that."
"How do you know? Remember when that woman went missing last year? The one who ran that herbal shop? I was told that was what happened to her."
Colleen looked at him. "Mrs. Entwhistle?"
Victor shook his hair out of his eyes. "Yeah. That was her. Weird name, Entwhistle. If you ask me, that sounds like a witch's name."
"The police found her."
"Nobody kidnapped her? Everybody was saying she was kidnapped."
"She's an old lady with Alzheimer's who got off her meds because she thought the herbs she was selling would work as a substitute. She got in her car and drove back to Boston." Colleen looked at Annja. "That's where the police found her. She went up to her old house and started yelling at the people who live there now, telling them to get out of her house. Totally wack, right? Old people should take their meds. There should be a law or something. You should see my grandma when she goes off hers."
Annja sighed. It was 3:00 a.m. and she was running out of steam. She'd been tramping through the woods with her "guides" since nine o'clock. "Maybe we could focus on finding the witch's ghost."
"Dude." Victor brushed his hair back with a hand. "You don't find the witch's ghost. The witch's ghost finds you. Kind of like Chuck Norris, you know?"
After listening to hours of inane conversation and now being addressed as dude, Annja was ready to shove Victor's face into the mud. At five feet ten, she had him by at least four inches and outweighed the scrawny guy, as well.
The late March air had enough of a chill to make Annja thankful for her wool beanie, thigh-length coat and gloves. She cinched her belt a little tighter, looking forward to her return to the hotel and a hot bath.
"We've been out here for hours and the witch's ghost hasn't found us yet." Some of her irritation came through in her voice, but she was past caring. Doug Morrell, her producer at Chasing History's Monsters, was going to get an earful in the morning.
Victor shrugged. "Sometimes she's like that. Fickle, you know?"
Annja couldn't believe it. "'Fickle?'"
"Yeah, you know. 'Likely to change.' Like the weather. Like the witch's ghost changes her mind, right? Gets you sometimes, doesn't get you others."
"And you know this to be true?"
"Sure. Even though she's dead, the witch's ghost is still a woman, right? Women are fickle."
Annja's grip tightened slightly on the five-cell flashlight she carried in her right hand that could have easily doubled as a truncheon. "I think that's a prejudicial over-generalization of women."
"Really? I don't." Victor nodded at his companion. "Take Colleen here. She's fickle. Aren't you, Colleen?"
Colleen nodded. "I am. It's part of my nature. I'm still struggling to integrate all my past lives."
"Your past lives?" The instant she asked, Annja wished she hadn't.
"Yeah. Four of them that Victor and I know of. Too bad you're not here about past lives."
Victor threw an arm around Colleen's thin shoulders and hugged her. "In one of those past lives Colleen was a witch who got hung on Gallows Hill. That's why she keeps breaking up with me."
"Colleen breaks up with you because in one of her past lives she was a witch?" Annja was struggling to keep up with the conversation and watch out for deep mud pits.
"No." Colleen rolled her eyes toward the dark clouds that obscured the stars. "Because I'm trying to integrate those past lives. Sometimes when I'm deep into one of them, I don't like Victor very much. Obviously, our relationshipthe Colleen and Victor relationshipis solid. But some of the past lives that manifest don't care for him." She sighed. "It's just really hard being more than one person."
"I suppose it would be." Annja looked at Victor. "What about you? Got any extra lives in you?"
"None that we've found. I'm glad. It's sad enough being me." He studied Colleen. "Besides, I can't imagine how Colleen would feel if I broke up with her and went off with some other girl. It would probably kill her."
Colleen nodded. "Victor gets me, though. He knows that when I'm off with other guys, I'll be myself again soon and come back to him." She snuggled into him for a moment, and somehow they remained completely in step and didn't fall despite the sucking mud.
Annja played the flashlight beam around. The stone wall of the cemetery was a hundred yards off to her right, and the uneven coastline was eighty yards to her right. Small, white-capped waves smacked the beach.
An owl took off from one of the nearby trees. The thump of its wings in the wind caused Colleen and Victor to drop to their knees.
Victor cursed. "What was that?"
"Just an owl," Annja replied.
After a moment he helped Colleen to her feet. "What's it doing out here?"
"Probably hunting. They're nocturnal feeders."
Colleen glanced at the sky. "Do they travel in flocks? Was that some kind of scout?"
Annja couldn't believe college students could know so little. "Owls eat mice and rabbits and insects. A few of them eat fish. None of them eat humans."
Victor straightened. "I was a little worried there for a minute because I didn't know for sure. Glad we have an expert with us, you being an archaeologist and all."
Colleen hovered close to Victor.
Expert. Right. As usual, Doug Morrell's notes on the assignment had been spotty and incomplete. The information in the email had boiled down to: The witch's ghost is kind of like the love child of Casper the Friendly Ghost and Wendy the Good Little Witch. You know, if witches and ghosts could have a kid and she turned out evil. Find her. Get me video. This could set your star ablaze again.
Personally, Annja thought her star was doing fine. Ratings on the cable network show were better than ever, and a lot of that was because of the stories she'd brought in that weren't the half-baked, warmed-over wives' tales Doug gave her to run down. She preferred true archaeology, but the show's budget enabled her to travel.
And she liked doing the show. Having fans around the world was an unexpected pleasure.
"Tell me again," she said.
Victor walked between his girlfriend and Annja and did the honors. "There was this witch named Horrible Hannah back in the days of the Pilgrims, right?"
"Does Horrible Hannah have a last name?"
"I don't know. She might not have been married."
Annja made herself take deep breaths.
"Everybody said her father worked on a whaling ship. Back when it was still legal, I guess. Anyway, he wasn't well thought of by some of the crew. He was accused of stealing, so they hanged him and threw him overboard. But when his body dropped to the bottom of the ocean, this massive thing ate him."
Annja stopped in her tracks. "Wait. I don't remember that being in the story."
"Colleen doesn't tell it the way I do. Besides, you have to hear from all of Colleen's past lives. One of them tells the story just the way I do."
I cannot get back to the hotel soon enough. Annja folded her arms.
"Well, this thing felt sorry for Horrible Hannah's father because he really loved his daughter. So it agreed to give her the power to get revenge on the people that killed her father."
Evidently too much time had passed since Colleen had been the center of attention. "Because he didn't take their stuff. He was innocent."
Victor nodded. "The thing swam to shore" he pointed "and called Horrible Hannah to him. Except she was just Hannah then, but the horrible part is coming. The sea thing gave her witch powers and she went into Salem and destroyed that ship when it came into port. Smashed it to pieces by calling down a storm."
I'm getting a massage in the morning, Doug, and you're paying for it. Politely, Annja nodded.
"Some of the people in town saw it and decided to hang her for being a witch. And she's been haunting this place ever since." Victor smiled, satisfied with himself.
"Horrible Hannah could destroy a ship and its crew, but a group of townspeople easily captured her?"
Colleen and Victor exchanged a look. "I guess she was tired from, you know, destroying the ship and killing those sailors. That couldn't have been easy."
Annja tapped the flashlight against her thigh. "You're right. It probably wasn't easy." After tonight, there wasn't going to be another night in the cold if she could help it. She'd already searched for Horrible Hannah all she intended to.
Colleen suddenly stepped in front of Victor. "What if we go all shaky cam with this thing?"
"You know, run around with a camcorder and shake it and scream about seeing Horrible Hannah?"
"You mean fake the sighting?"
Colleen sneered. "Not fake the sighting. Reenact it. Victor and I have seen Horrible Hannah several times. We'll just do it over again. Simple."
Annja pinned the young woman with her gaze. "You're not serious."
Colleen thrust out her chin. "That Morrell guy is paying Victor and me minimum wage to guide you to Horrible Hannah. We agreed to do it because he also told us we'd be the stars of this story."
"There's no story, so nobody is a star." Annja held up her hands. "Okay, that's it. I'm done. You two can wander around out here all you want, but I'm going back to the car."
"You can't just leave us here."
"If you're not at the car when I leave, I can." Annja turned and started walking through the brush back the way they'd come. She had marked the path, and the rental car wasn't more than a half mile away.
Behind her, Colleen and Victor started sniping at each other.
Annja kept walking. She would have sworn that some of the soupier parts of the marsh had migrated.
Then she heard a boat's motor in the harbor and spotted a speedboat powering toward the shore. One of the men standing behind the abbreviated windscreen held a familiar shape across his body.
Recognizing the cleanly efficient and brutal lines of an assault rifle, Annja switched off the flashlight and turned back to her guides. "Get down. Now."
Neither Victor nor Colleen moved. They stood there and blinked owlishly as a spotlight aboard the speedboat flared to life and strafed the woods.
Grabbing hold of their jackets, Annja yanked the two forward, tripped them and dumped them in the mud behind a thicket of brush. She squatted beside them and watched the approaching watercraft.
"Hey!" Victor started to sit up and sling mud from his hands. "Why did you do"
Annja grabbed him by the hair and shoved his face back in the mud. She put a knee in the middle of his back to hold him there while Colleen stared at her.
"I'm going to let you up in just a second, so you're not going to drown. There are guys with guns out there. Now I'm letting you up. Don't yell. Don't even breathe loudly." Annja glanced over at Colleen. "And if you don't stay quiet, this life is going to be another past one, okay?"
Her hands clapped over her mouth, Colleen nodded.
Annja pulled Victor up but was ready to shove him down again if need be.
Wheezing, face rimed in dark mud, Victor wiped his eyes clear and glared at Annja. He looked like he was going to say something, then he started spitting and wiping his mouth with his coat sleeve.
Colleen scooted over closer to Annja and whispered, "What are we going to do?"
"We're going to stay herequietlyand hope they go away without seeing us," she said as she watched the water through the brush.
Six men crewed the speedboat. In the shallows, two of them jumped out, grabbed the mooring lines and pulled the boat up onto the shore far enough to anchor it to a tree. They, too, carried assault rifles.
A tall man with bearded jowls took command of the group, waving them out to secure a perimeter while he remained on the boat. He spoke Russian in a gruff voice.
"Oh, my God." Colleen leaned over Annja's shoulder. "They're Russians. My mom's baker is Russian. I know the language when I hear it. They must be criminals."
Like the assault weapons, the late hour and the clandestine location didn't already give you a hint? Gently, Annja pushed the young woman back, then held up a hand, signaling her to be still.
Staring at the men, Colleen shook her head. "We can't just stay here."
"We can if you shut up. If they get on with their business without knowing we're here, we're going to be fine."
Once in position, the men remained where they were. The Russians seemed more concerned about the sea and the area to the east. Nobody was watching the forest to the west or Evergreen Harbor Cemetery. She turned to her guides.
"We have to get out of here."
Victor looked puzzled. "I thought you said we had to stay here."
"I changed my mind." Annja waited a beat to make sure they were both listening. "We're going back to the cemetery and taking a more circuitous route to the car. Then we'll get out of here and call the police." She had her sat-phone in her coat pocket but didn't want to use it at the moment in case the Russians could detect it. "Understand?" Victor and Colleen nodded.
"Good. Now let's get started. Victor, you lead the way."
"Why me?" Victor complained unhappily.
Colleen raised her hand as if she was back in class. "I'll do it." She shot her boyfriend a look of disgust. "After all, in one of my past lives I was a Native American guide for the Pilgrims."
Annja couldn't resist. "I suppose that was before they hung you as a witch."
Colleen glanced over her shoulder. "I"
"Keep going." Annja brought up the rear. Luck was with them. None of the lookouts saw them go.