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Jasmine heard the phone ringing as she undertook the complex process of disabling her condo's security system. Always the way, she thought, and considered letting the call go to voice mail. But the door opened, her shoes slipped off easily and the violence of the thunder that had been circling Salem, Massachusetts, for the past hour had her longing to hear a friendly voice rather than the insidious whispers currently echoing in her head.
Those whispers wanted to draw her back to another place and time, just far enough away that she managed not to think of it every minute of the day. Only in darker minutes and thunderstorms.
She ran the last few steps to grab the handset. The spectacular bolt of lightning that corresponded with her breathless "Jasmine Ellis" flickered on through the "Ouch" that followed when her bare foot came down on a leather dog toy. A moment later, two large paws planted themselves on her chest and shoved her onto the sofa.
Laughing, she shoved back. "Hello to you, too, Boris." She caught the dog's chin. "If it took you this long to get here, you must have been sleeping on the bed again."
Her three-year-old German shepherd barked twice. Meant yes, or in this case, guilty.
Still laughing, Jasmine dislodged his paws and returned her attention to the neglected caller. "Sorryhello." A prolonged crackle made her sigh. "Melvin, is that you?"
To his delight, her assistant's seven-year-old son had recently discovered the snicker value in playing practical jokes. He'd called her twice last night to crinkle tissue paper in front of the mouthpiece.
"I can hear you breathing, kiddo." Giving Boris's ears a quick scratch, she shrugged off her black trench. "First rule of practical jokes, the same old, same old doesn't work more than twice ."
The crackle came again, so sharp she drew the phone from her ear.
"Jas, it's me," a man on the other end shouted. "Are you there?"
A chill danced across Jasmine's skin. She stood slowly, her eyes locking on the polished floorboards. "Daniel?" Then suspicion swept in, and she spun to scan the darkness beyond the living room window. "Who is this?"
"It's me, Daniel, swear. The rain in Spain made our honeymoon a pain."
Jasmine's mind scrambled to decode his words even as she endeavored to block the horror-filled months that preceded his removal from her life.
Didn't work, of course. The memories were simply too strong.
Daniel Corey was her ex-husband, emphasis on the ex. He'd been an investigative reporter who'd gone where he shouldn't have, learned things he'd had no business knowing, escapedbarelyand dragged himself home. That's when all hell had broken loose.
Life for both of them had become a carousel of safe houses, stringent security measures, pending trial dates, testimony and, in the end, for Daniel at least, the witness protection program.
Her role in the fallout hadn't been as prominent, but that hadn't made it any less terrifying. Because he had no other family, the people Daniel had crossed had seen her as his Achilles heel.
With several very real threats hanging over her, Jasmine had been followed day and night by undercover police officers for four long months. When that had been deemed insufficient, she'd been placed in a safe house for three more. Altogether, she'd forfeited over half a year of her life to Daniel's dog-with-a-bone attitude. She didn't intend to lose another day.
The rain-Spain-honeymoon thing was a password of sorts. Daniel had invented it should the need to contact herwhich he was never supposed to doarise.
Thunder sounded directly overhead, a perfect backdrop to Jasmine's plunging mood. "Where are you?" she demanded, then slashed a hand through the air. "Scratch that. Why are you calling?"
"Something bad's going on. I've got two feathers and, oh um, speaking of death, I'm really sorry I missed Captain Ballard's funeral."
Captain Gus Ballard of the San Diego Police Department had been at the heart of the case that Daniel's unsanctioned investigating had brought to a highly explosive head. In short, and put very, very simply, one corrupt San Diego business magnate named Malcolm Wainwright, with ties to an equally corrupt South American magnate, both of whom possessed a network of people, weapons and criminal savvy, had been, if not destroyed, seriously damaged by Daniel's findings.
Ballard had spearheaded the case from start to finish. He'd arranged the safe houses, seen to her protection and kept Daniel alive through the trial and beyond. Sadly, eighteen months after the nightmare had more or less played out, he'd died of a pulmonary embolism.
"I know you were at the service." Her ex-husband's regret penetrated the phone line's static. "Ballard was a good man."
"Yes, he was." She struggled for patience. "Daniel, what do you want?"
"I told you, something's happening. Here and in other places."
Thunder rumbled again. Though he made no sound, Boris's ears flattened. She gave his side a reassuring rub. "Well, nothing's happened here. I'd know if it had." Wouldn't she? "In any case, you must have seen the headlines. The escape Wainwright and two other inmates engineered three months ago resulted in a smashed helicopter and the remains of three dead bodies. And don't tell me Wainwright couldn't be positively identified, because both the police and the FBI were satisfied he was among the fatalities. Story's dead, and so is he."
"Dentures aren't proof positive in my opinion, and no Wainwright-related story is ever dead. If it were, would I still be living in exile under a new name?"
Swallowing a snarl, Jasmine started for the kitchen. "Daniel, if you called to give me heebie-jeebies because you're bored with your new life, I'm hanging up. I watched people die protecting me from the hornet's nest you agitated just as the cops were about to close in."
"Hey, all I did was nudge the investigation along."
"Hanging up," she warned.
"No, don't. Listen, Jas, I do know that a handful of people who should be alive today have died during the six weeks since Ballard's funeral. Wainwright's chopper went down three months ago, right?"
Pausing, she rested her back on the kitchen door frame as another bolt of lightning shot through the sky. Wisdom told her she should disconnect. But Daniel had never been an alarmist. He wouldn't have contacted her without a very good reason.
"Okay, I give up," she relented. "Who besides the captainand his death was absolutely of natural causeshas died?" Her eyes went up as thunder rolled like a slow-motion wave from ceiling to floor. "Better make it fast. The storm here's getting worse."
"Here, too," he returned above the static. "The answer is two of Wainwright's top executives, as well as the assistant D.A. of San Diego."
Boris wandered through the kitchen, sniffed the air. Watching him, Jasmine offered a cautious "Go on."
"The trial judge's sister-in-law."
"Don't you think in-laws are a bit of a stretch?"
"Not done yet. One of the investigating officers under Captain Ballard, a man who was an integral part of the security team, got word that his uncle was knifed in a New Orleans alley a few days ago. And here's the kicker. I can't get hold of my contact."
"Maybe he's on vacation."
Daniel's protracted silence elicited a sigh.
"Fine, things have happened. And you know about them because.?"
"Sources, Jas, plus a little hacking prowess I've acquired."
Boris gave a short bark as lightning speared down once more. Pushing off, Jasmine crossed to the back door and checked the dead bolt.
"I assume you think one of Wainwright's people is out for blood."
"One of his people, one of his South American counterpart's people or, hell, even Wainwright himself."
"Stretching, Daniel." She observed the light show through the door's half window. "People like Wainwright never do their own dirty work. Especially if they're dead." Boris had gone rigid beside her. "What is it?" she asked with a frown.
He gave two quick barks. Not a warning, butsomething.
"Jasmine?" She could barely hear Daniel now. "What-ever's unfolding here, I'm worried. About you more than meeven though I'm the one who got the raven's feathers."
"What raven's feathers?" she demanded. "Daniel, are you drunk?"
"I wish. You need to call someone you can trust. And no, I'm not going to name names, because even if we have been divorced for three years, I still care about you. Hell, I love you. So don't expect me to suggest you put your life, or any other part of you, in someone else's hands."
Now a very different set of memories popped into her head, though truthfully, they'd been swimming on the fringe since the thunder had started.
"Will it make you feel better if I contact Ballard's replacement?"
"Sorry can't hear you." Daniel's voice faded in and out on elastic bands of static. "For the record, and just in case the feathers are for real, I'm."
Interference took over.
"Daniel?" She quieted Boris. "Where are you?"
"Raven's Cove Maine."
So close? She'd expected him to be in some innocuous Midwestern town.
"Ballard's replacement's in San Diego," he continued. "That's a country's width away from Massachusetts. I'm not sure who's in your area, but, well, do what you have to do to stay safe."
His frustration came through loud and clear.
"Whatever you decide, just keep away too dangerous don't believe in gobbledygook as such, but I did get those feathers, and there's a raven local legend says certain death."
The rest of his sentence was swallowed up in a sizzle of sound that had Jasmine jerking the handset from her ear a second time.
"Daniel?" she tried from a distance.
But there was only fuzzy noise. And a moment later not even that as both the lights and her phone went dead.
He lingered for an exhilarating moment in the rain and gusting wind. Lingered and savored and visualized the prize.
There'd been no hitches so far, no obstacles thrown down that he couldn't handle. They would come, though, and from more than one direction, because it was the woman's turn now. Her long-overdue, highly anticipated turn.
Anger bubbled like hot acid. But he needed to maintain control, fight for balance. He couldn't allow a single wrong emotion to slip in or out.
Lightning directly above fractured the night. Watching it fade, he ramped up his resolve, shoved a hand in his jacket pocket and prepared to set the wheels of Jasmine Ellis's death in motion.
Jasmine wondered distantly how her mother, her only family, would react to Daniel's call.
Colleen Ellis had been forty-four years old when she'd marched into a sperm bank and been impregnated. Time was right, she'd decided. Her tenure at Harvard was secure, and her internal clock was winding down.
She'd taught art history for twenty-five years after Jasmine's birth, then she'd packed up her hiking boots and cameras and headed for Scotland in search of the Loch Ness monster.
Confirming the existence of at least one legendary beast was the lone item on Colleen Ellis's bucket list. When Nessie had failed to materialize, she'd shifted her attention to the fabled giant octopus off the coast of Bermuda. Currently, she was hunting for Bigfoot in the Olympic Mountains.
Colleen could surely decipher the raven's-feather references, Jasmine suspected, if not the implications of what they portended.
Holding tight to Boris's collar, Jasmine waited until her emergency lights kicked in.
Rain pounded the roof and windows like ferocious fists. As if galvanized by them, her thoughts took off in two directions.
The first led her back more than a year and a half to a night much like this one. On that night, a dark-haired, dark-eyed man had appeared at her safe house, a stranger who had simultaneously terrified and fascinated her.
The second took her back six weeks, to Captain Ballard's funeral. Once again, the man had appeared in the night. Maybe he'd appeared out of it. Either way, she'd turned and there he'd been, standing behind her, more familiar this time, but no less dangerous and certainly no less fascinating.
His name was Rogan. Just that, no more. Ballard had assured her he was a cop. Not the sort you could pin down to any one division or captainor any one city or state, for that matter. Rogan went where required as required and stayed until the job he'd been sent to do was done. Then, poof, back into the night.
Not that Jasmine didn't appreciate his mysterious qualities. She was, after all, the head of acquisitions at Salem's Museum of Early American Artifacts and Antiquities, or Witch House, as it was more commonly known, since almost every piece there had a witch-related story attached to it.
More than once she'd considered working a figure of Rogan into an exhibit. Hypnotic, haunting man, dressed in black, surrounded by swirling shadows. She'd highlight his incredible eyes, give him a murky past and a vaguely occult ancestor. Any female viewing him was bound to be as mesmerized as she'd been when she'd met him.
Intriguing though it was, the idea shattered with the next blast of wind.
Good, because she really didn't want to think about Rogan or the circumstances of their first meeting. That would lead her back to the conversation she'd just had with her ex, which would lead her to Rogan, and on and on.
Determined to break the cycle, she went to the fridge for a soft drink. She was debating her choices when Boris growled.
Bumping the door closed with her hip, Jasmine surveyed the darker shadows. "Please tell me that wasn't a threatening sound."
The dog gave a sharp bark.