Read an Excerpt
Kathryn Reynolds swept a lock of fiery red hair away from her forehead and rocked back in her chair.
Rolling the tension out of her shoulders, she stared critically at the computer screen. Two days ago she’d been happy with the brochure she was designing for Sunrise Realty.
Now she had the nagging feeling there was something wrong. Was the text readable enough against the background of rising suns? Should she use a bolder font?
She had just clicked on the color chart when she heard footsteps on the front porch of the white Victorian she’d inherited from Grandma O’Shea.
Heather! Thank God. She hadn’t realized until that moment how worried she was. But her sigh of relief evaporated with the sound of the doorbell. Heather wouldn’t ring the bell. Unless she’d lost her key––and forgotten about the one she’d hidden under a rock in the bushes. Which, actually, she wouldn’t put past her friend and downstairs tenant. Heather had a lot of excellent qualities, but she was also a bit of a flake.
Speaking of which––
The bell sounded a second time, and a male voice called out, “Anybody home?” Kathryn looked down at the long, bare legs protruding from beneath her Redskins tee shirt. Damn! She’d done it again––gotten up and started working, then lost track of the time.
Now it was afternoon, and she wasn’t exactly dressed for company. Sprinting into the bedroom, she grabbed the pair of knit shorts she’d left on the chair, pulling them on as she crossed the worn Oriental rug.
After unlocking the door to her apartment, she hurried barefoot down the stairs to the sound of pounding on the front door, then looked through the beveled glass window.
A dark-haired man in a blue uniform stood on the porch, and her mouth went dry.
It was him!
No. She canceled the spurt of panic. It wasn’t him. He was too young. Too heavy. It wasn’t the guy with the white van she’d seen off and on around the neighborhood for the past week––acting busy. He’d given her a creepy feeling, and she’d asked a couple of neighbors if they knew what he was doing. Nobody had been sure. She hadn’t seen him for a few days; and, for a moment, she’d thought...But it wasn’t him.
Slipping the door on the chain, she opened it and asked, “Can I help you?”
“She’s not home right now.”
The man looked annoyed. “She’s supposed to be here between three and six.”
“I’m sorry. Can I help you?” she asked again.
“Mr. Fisher asked me to bring over these carpet samples she wanted to see.”
Heather had complained about the carpet in the bedroom, and Kathryn had said she’d go in with her on replacing it. But obviously she couldn’t make the selection by herself.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to come back when she gets home.”
He jutted out his jaw. “And when will that be?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah, well, I’m late for an installation job because of her, so tell her to get back to Mr. Fisher.”
“I’ll give her the message.”
He picked up a vinyl case he’d set down and stamped back across the porch, leaving Kathryn standing in the vestibule that led to both apartments. Turning to her right, she stared at her friend’s door.
When had she last seen Heather? Saturday night? She wasn’t sure, because she’d been working on a couple of jobs, and she hadn’t been paying attention. It wasn’t unusual for Heather to take off for the weekend. And it wasn’t even unusual for her to extend a minivacation into the next week––since she worked as a substitute teacher and could turn down assignments if she wanted. But usually she was back by Monday afternoon. Now it was Tuesday. And she still wasn’t home.
Kathryn pressed her hand against the wall, running her fingers over the raised strips in the wallpaper, staring at Heather’s door. She owned the apartment. She could go in if she wanted and look around, but her own sense of privacy was very strong. So she wasn’t going to invade Heather’s space just because she was feeling jumpy.
And what would she be looking for if she did go inside? A body? Signs of a struggle?
She grimaced, knowing she was letting her imagination run away with her now.
Slowly she climbed back up the stairs, stepped into her apartment, and locked the door––looking around at the cozy space where her graphic design business shared her living quarters. After Gran had died, she could have moved down to the first floor. But she liked being up here, liked the extra light and the view of the garden––and not having anyone walking around above her. She loved the high ceilings and the old wooden floors and the carefully crafted woodwork that made her home so different from the tract housing developers were slapping up these days. More than that, she was comfortable here. Maybe too comfortable. Sometimes she knew she had a tendency to close herself off like a hermit crab ducking into its shell.
Which was why her friendship with Heather DeYoung, who rented the apartment downstairs, had been so good for her.
The woman could be maddening. Exasperating. A total flake. And at the same time a really good friend. In the year and a half that Heather had lived downstairs, they’d gotten into the habit of hanging out together––taking power walks in the afternoons, going on shopping expeditions. Talked long into the evening about movies and books and the guys in their lives. Shared their problems.
So did her friend have a problem now? Something she hadn’t felt comfortable bringing up? Like that little episode last year?
She crossed to the window, ducked under The Spider Plant That Took over the World, and stared down at the bright pink and red azaleas in full bloom, then flicked her gaze back to the empty space in the driveway where her tenant’s burgundy Honda was usually parked.
“Dammit, Heather,” she muttered. “Where are you? Atlantic City, cleaning up at the slot machines? Why don’t you take a minute to give me a call and let me know you’re okay?”
Like magic, the phone rang, and she blinked––then sprinted back to the desk and snatched up the receiver.
There was no answer.
The silence stretched, and she carefully replaced the receiver in the cradle as she looked at the caller I.D.
It said “Unavailable.” So it was probably just one of those automated telemarketing calls. Not Heather trying to check in. Or calling to say her car had broken down because she’d forgotten to change the oil.
Like she’d forgotten to charge the battery on her cell phone. Which was probably why there was no answer when Kathryn had called that number.
She grimaced. Maybe it was time to check in with Heather’s boyfriend, Gary Swinton. He was a strange guy. Secretive. Always acting superior, like he knew something Kathryn didn’t. Privately she called him The Swine, and she’d told Heather she could do better; but Gary was still in and out of her bed on a semiregular basis.
After looking up his number in her Rolodex and dialing, she counted five rings before an answering machine picked up.
“Hey, this is Gary. I really want to talk to you. So leave a message.”
Yeah, sure, she thought. Probably she was the last person he wanted to talk to, because she’d made her feelings about him pretty clear.
She almost hung up. Then she took a breath and said in an upbeat voice, “Hi. This is Kathryn Reynolds. I’m trying to reach Heather. She needs to set up an appointment to look at the bedroom carpet samples. If she’s with you, could you ask her to give me a call?” She finished by leaving her number, all the time picturing Gary sitting by the machine, listening to her talk.
She considered driving down to his place. But he lived in D.C., in Adams Morgan––not a neighborhood she liked to walk through alone at night. And it would be dark by the time she got there.
With a sigh, she picked up the magic wand sitting on the desk. Too bad she couldn’t wave it, say “abracadabra,” and command her tenant to appear. Unfortunately, the wand was just a hollow plastic tube about a foot long, one of the toys she liked to play with while she was thinking. It was filled with shiny stars and moons floating in a viscous blue liquid. Turning it on end, she watched the heavenly bodies shoot upward in a swirl of blue, but they didn’t give her any insights into Heather’s whereabouts.
Her hand tightened on the plastic as she seesawed the cylinder back and forth, watching the moving shapes, trying to banish the feeling of uneasiness that had been hanging over her since she’d opened her eyes that morning. Well, longer than that––if she were honest.
With a small thunk, she set down the wand.
What was wrong with her? She was usually rock steady. In charge of her life. She’d been on her own since Gran died five years ago. She’d paid for her own college education with work-study and student loans. After apprenticing for a couple years at one of the big ad agencies downtown, she’d gone out on her own. Her graphic design business was doing really well, and her client list was growing as satisfied customers recommended her to their friends. She’d worked hard to get where she was. And she was proud of her achievements.
But for the past few days, a kind of free-floating anxiety had been hanging over her. Not just because of Heather. It was something else––something she couldn’t identify. Like a storm gathering, its low, dark clouds hanging directly over her.
“Really, that’s a pretty over-the-top image,” she muttered. With a quick shake of her head, she crossed to the window, staring down again at the empty space in the driveway. Heather would be home tomorrow morning, she told herself firmly. But if she wasn’t, it was time to get in touch with the Montgomery County Police.
Jack Thornton pulled his unmarked into the driveway of his gray colonial, cut the engine, and sat with his hands wrapped around the wheel for several moments.
All day he’d felt something hovering over him, something that grated on his nerves. And now that he was home, he felt as though he’d made a miraculous escape.
He didn’t know. But he did know he’d had a hell of a day. He’d walked into the middle of a domestic case. The kind that made him wonder if he was a police detective or a mental health worker.
It started out when he’d been driving down Democracy Boulevard and seen a woman dressed in a nightgown and robe, sobbing and running in and out of the traffic. No one else was on the scene, so he’d called in a report, then stopped and identified himself.
By the time a couple of uniformed officers had arrived, Mrs. Westborn had apparently bonded with him.
But seeing the uniforms got her sobbing again, begging him to stay with her, and he’d ended up taking her to Montgomery County Hospital, where he’d interviewed her in an emergency room cubicle.
He’d sensed from the first that she was holding back information––which was one of the reasons he’d stuck with her.
With a good deal of patience and reassurance, he’d finally gotten Mrs. Westborn to admit that her husband was at home––dead. He’d slit his own throat, and the wife had freaked out.
Slit his throat! That had riveted Jack’s attention. Slitting a throat wasn’t so easy to do, despite its popularity with producers of slasher movies. It took a bit of effort to cut through tough muscles, cords, and rubbery tendons, unless you had a rather large and exceptionally sharp surgical scalpel. Besides, throat-cutting was a kind of slow and painful death, one that normally didn’t appeal to suicidal folks.
Jack had sent a couple of uniforms to check out the story while he’d waited with the woman until psychiatric services arrived.
Then he’d gone over to the house to investigate the scene––and found the guy was dressed in a woman’s lacy gown and robe.
So much for domestic tranquillity in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the richest counties in the nation. But he’d learned that more money sometimes meant more problems. Like the bored teenager who had hacked up his friend a few years ago, or the group of boys who’d raped a mentally retarded girl in the woods.
Now he was thinking that murder was as likely as suicide in the Westborn case. Tomorrow he’d start questioning the neighbors, to find out how the couple had been getting along. But he wasn’t going to dismiss the possibility of suicide out of hand. Suppose, for example, that Westborn was in serious financial trouble, and he’d seen only one way out?
Six months ago, Jack might have started checking up on Westborn from his home computer. But he’d been smart enough to recognize the signs of burnout. He’d pulled back, vowed to leave the job at the office.
As he stepped inside the door, he was enveloped by the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies. For a heart-
stopping moment, he thought that Laura was in the kitchen with the kids. Then reality came slamming back. Almost three years ago, a drunk driver on I-270 had crossed the median and crashed into his wife’s car with enough force to ram the engine block into the front seat.
He closed his eyes, banishing the terrible image. He didn’t need it. Not now.
He took several measured steps down the hall, focusing on the conversation coming from the kitchen. Craig was talking to their housekeeper, Emily Anderson, and he remembered that seven-year-old Lily was at a friend’s for dinner. Emily was going to pick her up later.
Nine-year-old Craig was enthusiastically helping with the cookies.
“You promised I could lick the bowl. If you keep on scraping like that, there won’t be anything left,” Craig complained.
“I think you like cookie dough better than cookies.”
“Yeah. And you got those eggs that come in a carton so I could eat the dough.”
“Mm-hmm.” The housekeeper chuckled. “I suppose I liked the dough better, too, when I was your age,” she admitted.
“Not you, Mrs. A.”
Jack set down his briefcase and leaned his shoulder against the wall, enjoying the domestic eavesdropping. His children had gone through a pretty rough patch, and it was gratifying to hear Craig having a normal good time, thanks to Mrs. Anderson. A plumber’s widow, she was the perfect grandmother substitute for two kids who needed as much stability in their lives as they could get. And she ran the house with quiet, unobtrusive efficiency.
The timer rang. From the hallway, Jack watched the housekeeper bend to open the oven and take out a cookie sheet. Deftly she used a metal spatula to transfer the cookies to wire racks.
“When can I have one?” Craig asked.
“Well, we both know it’s supposed to be dinner first and then dessert.”
Emily lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You can have a cookie first, if you have it with a glass of milk. Just be sure to eat your dinner––so your dad won’t think I’m a bad influence.”
“You’re a good influence! I’ve heard him say that.”
She made a tsking sound as she set the boy up at the table with his before-dinner treat, then popped the last sheet of cookies into the oven.
Jack was about to join them when Craig stopped him in his tracks with a question. “Does a girl have to be married to have a baby?”
He saw Mrs. Anderson set down her pot holder and turn slowly, saw his son watching her intently.
“Uh, why do you want to know?” she asked.
Craig scuffed his foot against the chrome leg of his chair. “Dad tries to be real cool, but he’d probably get uptight if I asked him.”
“What made you think of the question?” the housekeeper asked carefully.
“On the playground today, this kid, Billy Patterson, was talking about his sister. He says she’s going to have a baby and that her and her boyfriend are probably going to get married.”
“She and her boyfriend,” Mrs. Anderson corrected. “Craig, this is the kind of thing you should talk to your dad about.”
“Oh, he got me and Lily this book that explains all about...you know...about how the mom and dad...you know. But I can’t imagine anyone doing something that yucky unless they were married and...you know...had to have a baby.”
“Well, some uh...try it out before they get married.”
Jack felt a stab of guilt, because he was glad Emily was handling this for him. One of the things he dreaded about single fatherhood was coping with the sensitive stuff.
“Oh.” Craig thought about that. “Do you think my mom and dad did it before they got married?”
“I don’t know.”
“But they did it after. Twice.”
Jack took a step back, his stomach knotting. God, what he wouldn’t give to do it with Laura again!
Closing his eyes, he took a quick emotional inventory. His wife’s loss was no longer a raw wound. Maybe he was even ready to think about a relationship with another woman––although he hadn’t met anyone that interested him.
With an inaudible sigh, he returned to the front door, opening it silently, then closing it loudly to announce his arrival before striding down the hall.
Both occupants of the kitchen looked toward the door, embarrassment painted across their faces. Mrs. Anderson bent and checked the oven again. Craig took a gulp of milk.
“What a great surprise. Cookies,” Jack said, grabbing one and taking a bite.
He was slender and of medium height, with pale gray eyes that darkened when he was excited or when he wore his special contact lenses. His hair was fine and blond as corn silk. When he combed it carefully, the medallion-sized bald spot on his crown was invisible.
He called himself many names. Simon Gwynn was his alias today, although that wasn’t his real name, of course. He was careful to keep his real identity hidden, because to have possession of a name was to have power over that thing or person.
No one had questioned the legitimacy of Simon Gwynn or any of his other names. They gave him protection––from the police, from those few men who still knew and practiced the ancient magic arts. And from other more powerful forces.
But names weren’t his only safeguard. He had many homes, so that he could switch his residence if need be. And there were many disguises that he put on when he ventured forth into the world of ordinary men and women. Not just the clothing––the whole persona, he thought with a self-satisfied laugh. He could look and sound like an old man in a dirty button-down shirt, baggy pants, and a white Albert Einstein wig. He could play a plumber in a visor cap and blue coveralls with the name Jerry embroidered on the breast pocket. A fast-talking salesman in a crisp blue suit, horn-rimmed glasses, and a mustache. He had a wardrobe that filled an enormous closet. And the theater courses he’d taken had taught him the art of makeup. Once or twice, he’d even passed as a woman, although that certainly wasn’t his preferred mode of disguise.
Alone at home, he dressed quite simply and all in black. This afternoon he was clad only in loose-fitting silk trousers that slid sensuously against the skin of his legs as he climbed the stairs from the basement.
He’d been down there to check on the prisoner in the soundproof cell behind the locked door in the laundry room. She had been spaced out when he’d scooped her up. Spaced out and all too trusting. Stupid, actually. Too caught up in a relationship to pay attention to little warning signs. But most people were like that. You simply had to understand how to manipulate them. How to assert your will over theirs.
She was still sleeping from the drugs he’d put in her food. If she figured out what he’d done, she wouldn’t eat the next time he fed her. But that was okay. If she didn’t eat, she’d get weak. And that would only make it easier to handle her when he brought her into the black chamber and used her in the most important ceremony of his career.
As he ascended the stairs, he stroked his fingers gently over the skin of his narrow chest. It was pale, except where it was crisscrossed with a network of fine, raised red lines. He stroked those faint lines, loving the way they felt under his sensitive fingertips. The scars were the product of the lash he’d taken to his own flesh. The lash that was part of the discipline of his studies.
The lines that remained were symbols of his acquisition of knowledge, and he was justifiably proud of them.
When he reached the second floor, he walked with measured paces to the library. The walls were lined with volumes, old and new. The Golden Dawn as revealed by Israel Regardie; The Black Arts, the brilliant biography of Aleister Crowley; The Great Beast, Hopper’s Mediaeval Number Symbols; The Kabbalah, Butler’s Ritual Magic. Most of the standard works in his field. He was still looking for Portal to Another World on the off chance that it still existed somewhere. But he didn’t need it; he’d learned enough on his own from the books he had hunted down in private libraries and dusty shops. Along with the ancient texts and the histories of magic rituals were the other branches of knowledge he had explored. Psychology, pharmacology, economics, social history, anthropology, physics.
He had studied long and hard, delved into mysteries that few understood. He had practiced the rituals he needed, memorized the words of power. And soon he would be ready to put all his hard work to the test.
A tingle of excitement rippled over his skin, and he struggled to regain his composure. There was no room in his life for euphoria. Not yet. Not until he had achieved his goal.