Read an Excerpt
Old, gnarled tree roots broke through the cement, making the walk up to the old house in the dark treacherous. She glanced at her watch. Two minutes before midnight. She reached the front porch just as a gust of wind showed up. The old, broken porch swing creaked and a pile of dried autumn leaves jumped into the air and swirled around her. She grimaced as a spasm of pain took her by surprise. Her fingers curled around the porch rail until they appeared white in the moonlight.
Then as quickly as it had begun, the wind stilled and everything in the night around her fell silent. Everything. Not even a cricket or stray cat tried to break it.
She took a deep breath as the pain subsided as well. Gripping her bag tighter, she stepped up onto the porch. Finally, a sound as the wood groaned beneath her feet.
She'd just lifted her hand to knock when the door abruptly opened. Dim light fell at her feet in a small puddle of gold.
"Did you bring it?" the old woman standing in the doorway whispered.
She nodded. "It's right here."
"Come in then." The old woman grabbed her arm and pulled her inside. The door slammed with a loud thud, and she hadn't even seen the woman move.
The old woman was tiny, which surprised her. She didn't know why, but it wasn't what she'd expected. The woman's white hair and her skin's pallor were the only light in her dark attire and the dimness of the house.
She looked around as the woman hurried about, leading her down numerous halls and through doors.
Finally, they entered a round, windowless room. The old woman closed the door. She threw three bolts into place, each makinga loud thwack as they hit home. Then she spun around, her talon-like fingers extended. "Give it to me. Hurry child."
She struggled with the cumbersome purse, but finally she pulled out the small wooden box. The polished surface gleamed in the dim light, and for the first time she noticed all the candles set about the room. She frowned. Had they been there when she'd come in? She didn't know and that frightened her.
Before she could stop her, the woman grasped the box, hurried across the room and set it in the center of a tall marble table. On each end of the table an ebony pillar candle glowed, its flame dipping with the breeze caused by the woman's movements.
"Now." The old woman spun back around to face her. "Do you have the other things?"
"Yes." She dug in the purse again and pulled out a small paper bag. "Everything's there."
Despite the closed up room and the numerous candle flames, the room grew cold as she handed the bag over. She shivered as the cold seeped clear to her bones.
Everything happened so quickly. She blinked and the woman handed her the box again. Glancing at her watch, she realized that nearly an hour had passed. How had that happened? Time seemed to have vanished. She slipped the box back into her bag and tried to recall what the woman had done. All she remembered was candle flames and the table.
The woman escorted her back to the front door with slow shuffled steps. For the first time, she realized the woman hunched over as she walked, and was that a cane? Where had that come from?
At the front door, she breathed a sigh of relief, ready to escape the house. She'd accomplished her mission. Stepping out into the night, she didn't even look back when the door slammed shut behind her.
The wind sang around her and bent the oaks nearly to the ground. But she didn't feel it. She felt nothing except a solid coldness settle deep in her chest.
The gale force wind whistled through the eaves and rattled the glass in the window. Clarissa Elgin slept fitfully, a part of her awake, watching the storm with growing trepidation. Suddenly, a gust blasted against her bedroom window. The glass shattered, and the broken frame slammed against the wall.
The breeze tugged at her, tearing at her hair and nightgown. She grabbed for the sheets, the blankets, the mattress's edge, but to no avail. The wind pulled her from the bed. With ease, it sucked her through the broken window, and she tumbled weightlessly through the dark night sky. A scream froze in her throat.
Fascination mingled with her fear. Beneath her, elms, willows and majestic pines whipped in the same wind that carried her through the heavens. Thick, heavy branches twisted and danced like wild lovers in the night. Rooftops, a vaguely familiar church steeple, and a myriad of glowing streetlights whizzed by, dwarfed by the height at which she flew.
As quickly as it had begun, the wind ceased, and she tumbled toward the earth. The buildings rose to meet her, and she shut her eyes in anticipation of the coming impact.
But none came.
Her descent slowed, and opening her eyes, she found herself inside a tiny, deserted diner. Before she could question why, she drifted slowly down to her feet beside the long counter.
She'd never been here before, and she looked around with relief and interest. Once-shiny chrome covered the walls and a scarred red Formica counter ran the distance of the room. Red vinyl stools sat at equal intervals along one side and matching booths lined the perimeter.
The whole scene could have come straight out of an old movie.
A large plate glass window formed one wall of the diner. Outside, night held the distant city tight in its predawn grip while a single customer sat at the counter. His face was turned away from her, but she found her gaze drawn to the thick, dark mane of brown hair tumbling over his broad, leather-clad shoulders. He turned then, giving her a silhouetted view of his features. He reached for his coffee. As he sipped the steaming brew, Clarissa's gaze roamed over the rugged contours of his handsome face. There was a strength and sadness there that triggered her curiosity.
He didn't look at her. She wasn't even sure he knew she was there. He didn't speak at all. Not to Clarissa or to the waitress who leaned against the counter and studied him appreciatively from beneath lowered lashes. Seemingly unaware of his audience, he continued to stare into his coffee.
Slowly, drawn to him and the aura of sadness around him, Clarissa walked to one of the stools beside him. He turned his head and his gaze raked from her head to her toes and back again. Looking down, she realized she still wore her pale blue nightgown and heat built inside her. A flush warmed her cheeks.
His dark eyes seemed to reach out to her. She crossed her arms over her chest, seeking protection from his predatory gaze and the answering sizzle it created in her blood.
A reluctant smile tugged at his lips, and his right eyebrow arched in question. "Interesting outfit to be running around town in at this time of night."
The deep growl of his voice brought the image of a lion to mind, and Clarissa trembled in the wake of the sound. "I didn't have much time to dress."
She watched as he drank the last of his coffee and signaled for a refill. The waitress topped off his cup, and Clarissa wondered only briefly why she didn't offer her one. The woman shoved a silver basket toward the man, and he tore open two paper packages and dumped the contents into his cup. The incessant clink of his spoon grew louder. Its pace slowed as his eyes grew distant.
A crash shattered the quiet as the door suddenly burst open. A man ran in. Clarissa gasped. He wore a black ski mask, but she saw the wild spark of madness in his undisguised icy-blue eyes. A chill gripped her and she shivered in the thin gown.
The punk pointed a handgun at the waitress. "Gimme what's in the register." When she stood motionless, staring in fear at the hooded face, he screamed, "Now!"
At the sharp command, the waitress pushed the buttons on the cash register. Her fingers trembled, missing the keys, and she had to repeat the procedure several times.
"You." The crook pointed the gun at the man's face. "Empty your pockets."
"I don't have anything valuable." The man stood, seemingly unafraid, as he did as he was asked. A roll of candy mints, a handful of assorted change, a black comb missing two teeth and his driver's license landed on the scarred counter.
"Where's your wallet?"
"I didn't bring it with me. I only came for coffee."
"You're lyin'." The kid walked toward the man, stopping only inches away. The punk slammed his fist into the man's stomach, and he doubled over in pain.
Despite her fear, Clarissa realized the thief couldn't see her. She tried to move, hoping to stop the horror going on around her, but her feet seemed glued to the floor and her limbs were useless.
"This is for bein' stupid." The young man stepped away, raised his gun and his ice-blue eyes sighted down the barrel.
Clarissa watched as he pulled back the trigger. The hammer dropped into place and the bullet emerged.
"No!" she screamed.
The punk laughed. The sound, though muffled by the mask, lost none of its madness. In slow motion, the bullet slid through the air and hit the man's broad chest. Clarissa watched the fabric of his shirt tear, then saw the skin beneath give and blood seep from the wound to soak his shirt. His cry of pain sent terror rocking through her as he tumbled to the worn linoleum floor.
The thief grabbed the money the waitress had removed from the till and ran. The merry jingle of the bell attached to the door reverberated mockingly around them.
"Get a doctor," Clarissa screamed to the waitress who stared at her wounded customer.
"If only..." the man whispered as Clarissa knelt beside him. She tried to stop the bleeding, but the blood came too fast. Her nightgown quickly soaked up the warm, sticky fluid.
"If only I'd stayed home tonight," he rasped. "But she wouldn't let me. Damn you, Rachel," he cursed as more blood pooled on his shirt. "Damn you," he repeated in a whisper, just as his head fell back against the cold floor, his dark brown eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
"No," Clarissa cried, but he couldn't hear her--not anymore. Not...
She sat straight up in bed.
Her entire body felt cold and damp. The blue nightgown clung to her skin. Looking down, she was relieved to find it wasn't soaked in blood but with her own sweat. The rumpled sheets were wrapped around her legs.
It had been years since she'd had such a strong vision. The last time ... No, she refused to face those memories or that pain.
This one had been different, not like any before, she reassured herself. In the past, she'd only been a spectator or the receiver of a message, never a participant. No one had ever seen her before. Why had she been a part of the vision this time? What was the reason? Looking up, she realized the wind was gone and her window was closed, as it should be. Moonlight pooled on the rug. Even the storm had merely been a part of her vision.
She shivered and turned on the light beside the bed. It helped chase the shadows away. Still she spent the rest of the night waiting for them to return.
The scents of steamed milk, cocoa, cinnamon, and, of course, coffee filled the air. Normally their familiarity soothed her, but not today. Clarissa bustled back and forth behind the counter of her coffee shop, The Angry Bean, filling orders and avoiding her own thoughts.
By noon, her hair clung to her face in damp blond ringlets, and she'd dropped three of her best mugs. Her nerves were stretched tight.
The crowd had thinned, so she made herself a triple mocha--with extra whipped cream. She hoped the caffeine in the espresso would bolster her lagging energy. She'd yet to take a sip when a voice broke the welcome quiet. "I hope that coffee has more get up and go than you do."
Clarissa looked up and found her friend, Faith Burke, smiling at her from the other side of the counter. She couldn't help smiling back as she automatically grabbed the fixings for Faith's favorite drink.
"Extra whipped cream today." Faith dug in the bottom of her purse for her loose change, like she did every day. Clarissa refused to let her friend pay, and each day Faith dumped change into the staff tip jar as a friendly compromise.
The whir of the steam machine drowned out any conversation, but as soon as it was done, Clarissa waited for Faith to speak. The silence startled her. She looked up and met Faith's questioning stare. "What?"
"You look awful. What's the matter?"
"I..." What could she say? "I've had a busy morning."
"Yeah, right. Like that's unusual. Take a break with me and tell me what's wrong. Is Lindsey in yet?"
"Not for another half hour." There was no one in line and only a few people sat at scattered tables. The shop was blessedly quiet for the first time all morning. She shrugged. "But I will take the break. Want a cookie?"
Famished and armed with her coffee and chocolate chip delight, Clarissa collapsed in a wooden chair. Unfortunately, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to get back up again. Fatigue engulfed her, and she sipped her drink, praying for a jolt of energy.
Clarissa always believed a good defense was a blinding offense, so she struck out first. "How are those two men of yours?" Distraction was the easiest tool in her arsenal.
Faith smiled, settled onto her chair and snitched a bite of cookie. "Mom and Dad are in town. Dad and Cord are golfing, trying to bond, and Mom's spoiling the baby. I'm on my own for a change."
"Working on a new project?"
"Don't try distracting me." Faith playfully shook her finger. "Those dark circles under your eyes are a dead giveaway that something's wrong. What's up?"
"So, when did you become psychic?"
"Funny." Faith knew all about Clarissa's psychic abilities. Clarissa had helped Cord and Faith deal with a rather vicious ghost awhile back, and they'd both nearly died. Clarissa realized how close she'd come to losing her friend. Thankfully, they were not only safe now but happily married.
Still, old fears reared their ugly heads and she drank deeply, swallowing her uncertainty. Should she tell Faith about the vision last night? What would she think? They had been friends a long time, but would she understand?
"Don't try to hide from me." Faith frowned at her.
"Yes, you are. Come on. Spill it." Faith grabbed the plate and pulled it to her side of the table. "Or the cookie's mine."
Clarissa laughed, knowing full well that had been Faith's intent.
"That's better. So, tell me what's up."
Still hesitant, Clarissa took a few minutes to gather her thoughts. "Okay," she relented as Faith took a big bite. "I was sleeping and had a vision last night. I saw a man get shot." Even to her ears the words sounded distant and unemotional. If only she really felt that way.
This time it was Faith's turn to be quiet, and Clarissa tasted her rising panic, panic that grew in proportion to the shock she saw dawning in Faith's eyes. To distract herself and Faith, she reached out and pulled the plate back.
"Shot? Someone was shot? Are you sure?" Faith whispered. "It wasn't a dream?"
"Yeah, I'm sure." Although Faith knew about Clarissa's abilities, she had no way of knowing how impossible it was to confuse a dream with a vision.
"You're positive it was in the future?"
"I think so. In the past all my visions have been precognitive."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"What can I do? Nothing."
"You can't be serious. Clarissa, if someone's going to die, you have to do something to stop it. I know from experience how accurate your visions are, remember?" Her voice rose and Clarissa looked around, hoping the few scattered customers weren't listening to them, especially since many of her regulars were from the police station around the corner. Luckily, no familiar uniforms occupied any of the seats.
How could she explain her fears, her reservations, to Faith? They'd been friends for three years and had never discussed her past. She'd never told anyone of the ridicule and suspicion she'd suffered the last time she'd tried to warn a stranger they were in danger. She shivered at the memories that had driven her to leave Boston and move out west to start a whole new life.
"It's not that simple," she explained.
"What do you mean by that? You have to do something."
"I don't have to do anything." Clarissa stood and picked up her empty cup. Anything to take away the edge of fear and pain she knew was coming. "Things don't necessarily change just because you know they are going to happen." She blinked, fighting the hurt that put a lump in her chest.
Faith stared back at her, questions in her eyes. Yet the way she tilted her head told Clarissa she was trying to understand. "Maybe you had one of those out of body experiences and it ... it already happened."
Clarissa had thought about that, too. "Maybe." She knew better, but she humored Faith and sat back down. "I looked through the papers this morning. There weren't any reports of a shooting." All she'd managed to do was stain her fingers with black ink as she read through each of the papers numerous times.
"How do you know it was here in Boulder?"
"I recognized the buildings. I distinctly remember flying over an old church I've seen before." Clarissa dropped the piece of cookie and vaguely heard it thud against the plate. "That's it. The church."
Faith smiled and snitched the last of the treat. "That's what?"
"That's where it is. Near the church. I'm sure I could find the place if I could find that church." The silence grew heavy as Clarissa let the realization and usual fear sink in. "I don't want to get involved in this," she reluctantly admitted.
"I know." Faith swallowed. "But you will. That's the kind of person you are."
"I really hate it when you're right." Clarissa finished gathering their dishes and turned quickly. The heavy, wooden chair fell back onto the floor with a clatter. The few customers seemed barely disturbed by the noise. Relief washed over her. Maybe they hadn't heard any of their conversation.
Faith reached out and touched her arm. "I didn't mean to pressure you. Are you sure you'll be okay?"
"I don't know." That was true enough. Once again, memories threatened to swamp her and send her back into her chair, back into hiding. But the image of the man--his handsome face frozen in newly found death--sent a shiver through her soul.
She slammed the mental doors closed. She would not think about that.
Just then the door of the shop opened and Clarissa smiled in relief. "Time to get back to work." After Faith left, Clarissa purposefully closed her mind to any thoughts of her visions or the man destined to die.
Hours later, she headed for the door, exhausted. Outside the sunset bathed the parking lot in gloom. Her sports car sat in its customary spot, the bright red paint glowing in the late afternoon sun. A cool breeze fingered through her hair and she shivered. It sounded almost as if the breeze whispered her name. Her stomach clenched in anticipation. She spun around to see who was there.
Still, she felt as if she wasn't alone. She hurried to her car and unlocked it. Slamming the door closed, she smacked the lock down and felt only slightly safer.
Suddenly, a black bird swooped down, brushing its wide wings on the windshield. It settled on the wiper blade and looked through the glass. Amber eyes glared directly at her. She stared in fascination at the softness of its feathers across its spine. Oddly, she wanted to reach out and stroke the sleek, smooth back. Several long minutes passed as the bird perched there, waiting, watching, unperturbed by her presence.
"Caw," it let out a throaty call, and just as quickly, lifted its wings and flew away.
This is ridiculous. She started the car and headed home. Still, the bird intrigued her. She'd never had a pet as a child. Too often animals sensed her psychic abilities and feared her. The zoo animals would pace their cages in agitation if she got too near. Dogs and cats in the neighborhood gladly stayed out of her yard.
A reluctant smiled pulled at her lips as she recalled her grandmother's attempts to compensate. The park near the old woman's house had a carousel. There the animals weren't alive and couldn't fear her. She'd loved to visit the carousel with her grandmother.
The fact that this bird had sat calmly, so near to her, surprised her. Like those old wooden horses, he hadn't seemed to be scared. Shaking her head, she chased away the disturbing thoughts.
She shifted into gear. After several turns down side streets, the city gave way to neighborhoods of tree-lined streets with small older houses. When she passed the Methodist Church, she drove a block and then stopped.
The Methodist Church. The church. She'd "flown" this way last night, she was sure of it. She parked the car in the shade of an elderly spreading elm. For several long minutes she sat in the warmth of the car, her hands trembling against the plastic steering wheel.
Slowly, she opened the car door. Getting out, she moved closer to the tree, closer to the elements of nature, trying to break away from the interference of the cold, modernized world. The heat of the pavement and the steel of the car often interrupted her messages. She'd learned early in life that when the images became too much, a drive in the car would banish them. Though she often thought of the visions as more plague than blessing, today she tentatively sought them out.
She knew she'd come by here, but the images were fading, and it was difficult to remember which direction she'd gone. The cool breeze tugged at her hair and she closed her eyes, seeking any clues the wind might deem to send her. It had been there with her last night.
West. The diner was only a short distance west of here, in a part of town she seldom visited. Gulping back her apprehension, she climbed into her car and turned at the next stoplight.
For several moments, she drove straight west. Then she stopped and turned right once more, then once again as if something drew her down a path. A narrow, broken driveway shot off to the right and she turned into it. There in front of her was the old diner. She swallowed the fear that pushed in on her.
Through the cracks in the old paint, she could see the building had once been white. Looking closer, she saw shades of red, green and blue, and she was almost certain the present color was supposed to be gray. Either that or another coat of badly faded white.
A broken neon sign sat on top of a faded blue awning, its malfunctioning sizzle filling the warm air around her. Dove's Place. It sounded more like a brothel than a diner. Hesitantly, she reached for the car door handle and climbed out.
Would she find him here? If so, what would she do? Before her uncertainty caught up with her, she opened the door and stepped inside.
The odor of something dank and musty filled the little diner. A slow-moving ceiling fan wafted the scent of thick, strong coffee into the mix.
The décor was as authentic as any she'd seen. Aluminum walls, common in the 1950s and every period movie since, reflected her as if through a time warp. The red vinyl stools were just as they had been in her vision. She looked over to the stool where the man had sat last night. He wasn't there. A mixture of disappointment and relief swirled inside her, leaving a knot in her stomach.
Though the stool was empty, she could almost see him there, his strong hands curled around the dingy coffee cup. His shoulders had hunched, as if he were trying to draw within himself, as if wanting to ward off all who approached him. Closing her eyes, she saw the beautiful glimmer of his eyes, and how that glimmer had been abruptly snuffed out.
"What can I get ya?" A rough female voice interrupted Clarissa's thoughts.
"Oh. Uh. Coffee, please." Clarissa looked around for an empty seat and decided to scoot up on the same stool she had occupied last night. As the waitress poured the thick, dark brew into the stained cup, Clarissa grimaced. She didn't want to drink it, but she knew if she wanted answers to her questions, insulting the cook was not a good start. "Uhm, Barbara, is it?" She looked at the small gold badge pinned to the woman's chest. "I'm looking for someone. Do you ever work late at night?"
"Nah, my husband couldn't stand takin' care of the kids that long. No, Madge or Linda works that shift. Why?"
"A ... an old friend used to come in here, and I'd like to locate him. Good looking guy, about my age? Dark brown eyes? Long brown hair?"
"Doesn't sound familiar." The waitress wiped the counter with a damp rag, lifting the condiments and cleaning underneath. "If I'm gonna talk to you, I've got to look busy. Ms. Marion isn't exactly an easygoin' woman."
"The boss's wife. Ever since he married her a couple years ago, she acts as if she's our lord and master."
"Does she ever work the night shift?"
The waitress laughed. "Nah, that woman don't work--ever--just likes to tell us peons how. Like she ever did an honest day's work in her life."
The conversation lagged while questions bounced around Clarissa's mind. She couldn't ask all the things she wanted. The woman would think she was nuts--and at the moment, Clarissa wasn't so sure she wouldn't be right. She sipped the thick coffee and grimaced, then remembered how the man in the vision had liberally poured sugar into his. It helped a little. "How late are you open?" she asked.
"Just as the sign says. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week."
"Oh, yes." Clarissa glanced back at the faded sign in the window. It had been there for some time, the letters having dulled in the sun. She noticed several other customers sat scattered about at tables and old-fashioned booths. The jumble of their conversations formed a soft buzz in the warm air.
None of the events matched her vision. She knew he wouldn't be here now. "What time does the next shift come in?"
"Linda's in at three until midnight. Maybe she can help you find your friend." The waitress left the bill next to Clarissa's nearly full cup of coffee.
"I might be back."
"No problem, if you wanna be up that time of night. Not me, I'm up at the crack of dawn. My head's nodding before the late news even begins."
"Well, I'm a night owl. Thank you for the coffee." Clarissa stood and dug around in her purse. "This is my card. Could you have her call me if he comes in?" The woman smiled and slid the card into her uniform pocket. Clarissa wondered if it would vanish in the next wash or if the card would really make it to the next shift. She paid for her coffee, left the full cup on the counter and stepped outside.
The warm fresh afternoon felt good after the stuffy diner. She drank it in, relishing the light mountain air that still amazed her. The heaviness in the diner reminded her too much of Boston and its ancient scents and feel. She shook her head to dispel the thoughts and walked to her car.
The sound of an air pump shattered the peaceful air and startled her. Muffled cuss words followed, and she realized they came from the garage next door. So normal. So ordinary. So, why did the hairs on the back of her neck tingle? She turned, seeking the cause. Nothing looked abnormal.
An old-fashioned general store, with its windows boarded up, stood on one side. Looking down the sidewalk, she saw the remnants of a small town main street. A small town that the city had gobbled up in its growth. Nothing more.
Usually, a place like this, filled with history, gave off vibrations, but this one left her empty, with no impressions at all.
Suppressing a shiver, she hurriedly climbed into her car, anxious to escape this strange place. As she backed out, two men walked behind the car. They passed and when they reached the door of the diner, one of them turned toward her.
Her heart pounded in her chest and sweat drenched her body as her eyes met his.
Frighteningly familiar icy-blue eyes stared back.
The man turned and went inside. Clarissa stared after him. He was the shooter, she was sure of it. But he hadn't done anything yet.
What could she do? She concentrated on the man, committing every detail about him to memory.
Just in case she didn't find his victim in time.