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Someone followed her.
Someone she couldn’t see or hear through any normal means, but whose presence vibrated across her psychic senses.
Someone whose mission was death.
The wind stirred, running chill fingers across the nape of her neck. Nikki shivered and eyed the surrounding shadows uneasily. She’d never been afraid of the dark before--had, in fact, found it something of an ally, especially in the wilder days of her youth. But tonight there was an edge to the silence, a hint of menace in the slowly swirling fog.
People disappeared on nights like this. At least, they did here in Lyndhurst.
She returned her gaze to the slender figure just ahead. This was the second night in a row Monica Trevgard had come to the park after midnight, and if the teenager had a reason for doing so, Nikki sure as hell hadn’t found any evidence of it. Her actions to date made very little sense. The only child of one of Lyndhurst’s--and possibly America’s--richest men, Monica had spent most of her life rebelling against her family and their wealth. And yet, ironically, it was only thanks to her father’s money that she was free to walk the streets tonight. Though nothing had ever been proven, it was generally acknowledged that John Trevgard had at least one judge and several police officers on his payroll.
Nikki smiled grimly. Trevgard would probably have been better off keeping his hand in his pocket and letting his only child spend some time in jail. Maybe a day or so locked behind uncompromising concrete walls would shock some sense into the girl.
It sure as hell had with her.
Shoving cold hands into the pockets of her old leather jacket, Nikki let her gaze roam across the fog-shrouded trees to her left.
He was still there, still following her, the man with darkness in his heart and murder on his mind. But not her murder, or even Monica’s. Someone else’s entirely.
She bit her lip. With two knives strapped to her wrists and her psychic abilities to fall back on, she was sufficiently protected. At least under normal circumstances. But the man out there in the darkness was far from normal, and something told her none of her weapons would be enough if he chose to attack.
Maybe she was as mad as Monica. Four women had already disappeared from this particular area. She should play it safe and go home, let Jake--her boss, and the man who’d become more of a father to her than her own damn father had ever been--take over the case. A teenager looking for trouble was going to find it, no matter how many people her father hired to follow and protect her.
Only, Jake had enough on his plate already, and his night-sight had started deteriorating since he’d hit the big four-0 several years ago.
The sound of running water broke through the heavy silence. Though the fog half hid the old fountain from sight, Nikki knew it well enough to describe every chipped detail, from the wickedly grinning cherub at the top to the embracing lovers near the bottom. It was amazing what became interesting when you had nothing else to do but watch a teenager watch the water.
Only, this time, Monica didn’t stop at the fountain. She didn’t even look at it. Instead, she glanced quickly over her shoulder--a casual move that raised the hairs on the back of Nikki’s neck.
Monica knew she was being followed. Tonight she was the bait to catch the watcher.
The bitter breeze stirred, seeming to blow right through Nikki’s soul. She swore softly and ran a hand through her hair. It was nights like this, when she was caught between common sense and past promises, that she really hated being psychic. She would have run a mile away from here had it not been for her gift, which warned that death would claim Monica’s soul if she wasn’t protected.
And because she couldn’t stand the weight of another death on her conscience, Nikki had no real choice but to follow.
They neared the far edge of the park. Streetlights glimmered--forlorn wisps of brightness barely visible through the trees and the fog--and Nikki’s discomfort surged. Monica wasn’t heading for the street or the lights, but rather toward the old mansion on the far side of the park. The place had a reputation for being haunted, and though she wasn’t particularly afraid of ghosts, the one night she’d spent there as a kid had sent her fleeing in terror. Not from the ghosts, but from the sense of evil that seemed to ooze from the walls.
Of course, it might have been nothing more than a combination of knowing that a family had once been murdered there, and an overactive imagination. But still . . .
Monica squeezed through a small gap in the fence and cast another quick look over her shoulder. There was no doubt about it, the kid definitely wanted to be followed.
Nikki stopped and watched her walk up the steps to the back door. Her common sense told her not to follow, and her psychic sense told her danger lurked inside. She clenched her fists. She could do this. She had to do this. For Monica’s sake.
Because if she didn’t, the teenager was doomed.
She stepped forward, then froze. No sound had disturbed the dark silence. Even the breeze had faded, and the fog sat still and heavy on the ground. Yet something had moved behind her. Something not quite human.
Throat dry, Nikki turned. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a hint of movement--a hand, emerging from darkness, reaching out to touch her . . .
Yelping in fright, she jumped back and lashed out with a blast of kinetic energy. Something heavy hit a nearby oak, accompanied by a grunt of pain. She stared at the tree. Despite the sound, there was nothing--or nobody--at its base.
Yet something had to be there. It didn’t make any sense--bodies didn’t just disappear like that. She swallowed and ran trembling fingers through her hair. Disembodied hands couldn’t emerge from the darkness, either.
Had it simply been her imagination, finally reacting to the overwhelming sensation of being followed? No, something had been there. Was still there, even if she couldn’t see it.
Not that that made a whole lot of sense.
She turned and studied the dark house. Trouble waited inside. But so did Monica.
Ignoring her unknown watcher, Nikki climbed through the fence and ran across the shadowed yard. Edging up the steps, she slipped a small flashlight from her pocket and shone the light through the open doorway.
The entrance hall was small, laden with dust and cobwebs that shimmered like ice in the beam of light. Faded crimson and gold wallpaper hung in eerie strips from the walls, rustling lightly in the breeze that drifted past her legs. The house really hadn’t changed much in the ten years since she’d been here last--except for one thing. The creeping sense of evil felt a hell of a lot stronger now than it had before. In fact, it almost seemed alive. Alive and waiting.
She swallowed heavily and directed the flashlight’s beam toward the stairs. Motes of dust danced across the light, stirred to life in the wake of Monica’s passing. She’d gone up. Up to where the sense of evil felt the strongest.
Gripping the flashlight tightly, Nikki walked through the dust, toward the stairs. The air smelled of decay and unwashed bodies. Obviously, it was still a haunt for those forced to scratch a living from the streets. It was odd, though, that there was no one here now--no one but Monica and whoever it was she’d come here to meet.
A floorboard creaked beneath Nikki’s weight, the sound as loud as thunder in the silence. She winced and hesitated. After several heartbeats, someone moved on the floor above.
It wasn’t Monica. The footfalls were too heavy.
Reaching into her pocket, Nikki turned on her phone. If things started to go bad, she’d call for help. Trevgard might not like the publicity a call to the cops would bring, but if it meant the difference between life or death--her life or death--then he could go to hell.
The staircase loomed out of the shadows. Nikki shone the light upward. Something growled, a low noise almost lost under the thundering of her heart. She hesitated, staring up into the darkness. It had sounded like some sort of animal. But what animal made such an odd, rasping noise?
One hand on the banister, the other clutching the flashlight so tightly that her knuckles began to ache, she continued on. The growl cut across the silence again.
It was definitely not an animal.
She reached the landing and stopped. The odd-sounding snarl was much closer this time. Sweat trickled down her face and the flashlight flickered slightly, its beam fading, allowing the night to close in around her. Nikki swore and gave it a quick shake. The last thing she needed right now was for the light to give out. It flickered again, then became brighter.
She moved on but kept close to the wall, just in case. At least she could use it as a guide, even if the peeling remains of the wallpaper felt like dead skin against her fingertips.
The hallway ended in a T. Moonlight washed through the shattered window at the end of the left-hand corridor. On the right, the darkness was so complete that the flashlight barely penetrated it. And while she knew it was little more than a result of shuttered windows at that end of the hall, it still seemed oddly unnatural.
It wasn’t a place she wanted to go. Unfortunately, her psychic senses told her that Monica was down there somewhere. But that odd sound had come from the opposite side. Whatever it was, she had to check it out first. She wasn’t about to risk being attacked from behind in a place like this. So she turned left.
Two doors waited ahead--one open, one closed.
Was it fear or instinct that warned against entering either of the rooms?
The wind whispered forlornly through the shattered window at the end of the hall, accompanied by a low moan that raised goose bumps across her skin.
It was definitely more human than animal. And it wasn’t Monica. The teenager still waited in the darkness of the right-hand corridor. Nikki crept forward and peered around the door frame. The room was large, with a line of windows to the right, but the glass was so filthy it allowed little moonlight to filter through. She couldn’t immediately see anything waiting in the shadows, but something was in there. The sense of malevolence was so overwhelming she could barely breathe.
So why don’t you turn around and run?
The thought whispered into her brain, featherlight but hinting at anger. Nikki froze, fear squeezing her throat tight. Just for an instant, her mind linked with another. She tasted darkness and concern and the need to kill. This was the man she’d half seen near the fence, the man who’d followed her through the fog.
Turn around and leave. You cannot help the child now.
No. Why could she hear this man’s thoughts? Telepathy had never been one of her talents, even though she’d been able to receive Tommy’s thoughts well enough. And who the hell are you to tell me what to do?
I am merely trying to save your life. You will not like what you find here. Not in that room, and not with the teenager.
Yeah, right. Who was this person? A would-be prophet of doom? Hell, for all she knew, he might even be the source of the darkness she sensed waiting, even if her senses told her otherwise. I have never run from anything in my life, and I don’t intend to start now.
The lie gave her courage. She took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
Michael Kelly hit the fence in frustration. The little fool had gone in, despite his warning. Or perhaps because of it.
She knew that danger waited. He could taste the fear in her thoughts, despite the distance between them. So why wouldn’t she run? Why did she continue this fruitless pursuit? Given the strength of her psychic talents, she had to know the child was well beyond salvation.
He let his gaze roam to the far end of the house. Hidden by the darkness, evil waited for his next meal, ably served by his young companion. Unless he intervened, Nikki James would become the fifth woman to go missing.
Had it been anyone else, he wouldn’t have cared particularly--not given the identity of the man who hunted her, a man he’d long hunted himself. But he’d been sent here tonight to save a life rather than trap and kill a murderer, and as much as he might want to do the latter, he could not. But Nikki’s abilities added a dangerous dimension to his task. It was for those abilities, more than for her blood, that Jasper hunted her.
He turned and walked to the end of the fence. The sudden movement caused pain to shoot through his head, but he resisted the urge to rub the lump forming near his temple. He had deserved that--and more--for being so careless. But he hadn’t expected the fool to use her kinetic abilities against him. Why, he couldn’t say. He smiled grimly. Maybe senility was finally setting in.
He walked through the gate and headed for the garage. While he generally couldn’t enter private homes uninvited, that restriction didn’t apply to houses that had been long abandoned. He could go in unhindered, and do what he was sent here to do.
But Jasper was not in that house alone. Not only did he have the teenager at his command, but his living dead as well. Six against one were not the best of odds, even for someone like him. What Michael needed was a distraction. He slipped past the remains of the garage door and his gaze came to rest on an old gas can. He picked it up; liquid sloshed within.
Jasper hated fire. Feared it.
It might provide enough of a distraction to save Nikki James.
The room smelled awful--a putrid mix of stale urine, excrement and death. Nikki cupped a hand over her nose and mouth and tried not to gag as she swept the flashlight’s beam across the room.
Something slid away from the light--a hunched, humanoid shape that smelled like death.
Nikki backed away. She didn’t know what hid in the shadows and didn’t really care to find out. She’d learned long ago that there were some things best left unexplored, and she very much suspected this was one of those moments. Perhaps if she retreated and closed the door, whatever lurked in the room would leave her alone. She knew from past experience that all the doors in this old house creaked; it was one of the things that had spooked her as a teenager. At the very least, it would give her warning if the creature decided to move.