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Hannah Brewster splashed the accelerant around the inside of the small cabin, working feverishly because time was running out. She was certain now that the demon would come for her that night. He had been stalking her for weeks.
She had spent many agonizing hours trying to decide what to do. In the end she had finally understood that she had no alternative but to destroy her creation. It was her only hope of keeping the promise she had made all those years ago.
She set the empty container down on the floor next to the door and picked up the box of matches. She was surprised to see that her hands were once again steady, just as if she held a brush and stood in front of an untouched canvas. Tonight she would paint a picture with fire.
Afterward they would say she was crazy, that she had finally gone over the precarious edge that separated sanity and madness. But the truth was that her mind had not been this clear in a very long time. She knew exactly what she had to do.
A few weeks ago, when the monster had come to the island the first time, she had tried to convince herself that she was hallucinating. Again. These days the past came and went in visions that were so real she often got confused. It had been twenty-two years, after all, and everyone claimed that Quinton Zane was dead.
But two weeks ago she had spotted him again. She had tried to convince herself that she could not trust her eyes. But that night she had sensed that she was being watched. She had known then that she could no longer deceive herself into thinking that she was hallucinating. The truth was always shatteringly clear at night.
At midnight she had picked up a brush, her hand firm and steady, and begun to paint her final picture. She had continued painting every night until her creation was finished.
And then she had waited for the demon to return.
For the past several days she had made the long walk into the small village every afternoon to watch the ferry dock. She stationed herself inside the shop that sold herbal teas and studied the handful of visitors who arrived. It was February and still quite chilly in the Pacific Northwest. At this time of year there was never more than a handful of tourists.
She had spotted the demon immediately, even though he had tried to disguise himself with dark glasses, a stocking cap and a black parka. He could not fool her. She might be plagued with visions, but even her hallucinations were clear and detailed. She was an artist, after all.
Quinton Zane was after the secret she had kept for so long. He was relentless. Now that he had found her, he would not stop until he forced her to give up the truth. After he had gotten what he wanted from her, he would kill her. She wasn't afraid of dying. She had, in fact, been contemplating the prospect of making the final transition ever since Abigail had died. That had been just before Christmas. But she had made a promise twenty-two years ago and she had done her best to keep the vow.
The real problem was that she feared she was not strong enough to resist Quinton Zane. The bastard could make you believe anything he wanted you to believe. She had fallen under his spell once and paid a terrible price. She could not risk getting sucked back into his web. She had a duty to protect the children. She was the only one left who could warn them.
The odor of the accelerant fumes was almost overpowering. It was time.
She struck one of the matches. When the flame was steady she stepped outside and tossed the match through the doorway of the cabin.
For a few seconds nothing happened. Unnerved at the thought of failure, she plunged her fingers into the box for a second match. At that instant the fire exploded, roaring to life. The wild flames illuminated the interior of the cabin and her final painting in a hellish light.
She watched the inferno through the doorway, studying the image with a critical eye. She had been forced to paint the picture on the wall because she had not had a large enough canvas.
The fire devoured the cabin and the painting. The heat was intense. Instinctively she moved back several more steps, welcoming the chill of the night air off the cold waters of Puget Sound.
She stood, transfixed by her act of destruction. Scenes from the past and the present fused in her mind. She thought she heard children screaming but she was certain that was a memory, not her present reality. There were no children nearby. She had chosen the cabin because of its remote location. She had been aware that her nighttime habits would disturb neighbors, even here on the island, where eccentricities were not only tolerated but also expected. Abigail had been the only one who understood and accepted her weird ways.
So, no, there were no children screaming. But her heart was pounding and her breath was tight in her chest, just as it had been that dreadful night all those years ago.
She watched the fire and waited. She was certain that he would soon appear.
Quinton Zane emerged from the dense shadows of the thick woods that surrounded the cabin. It was as if he had walked straight out of one of her paintings, straight out of the past, straight out of her nightmares.
She could not let him touch her. He was too strong, too powerful. If he got his hands on her, he would force the truth from her. She might be crazy, like everyone said, but she knew how to keep a secret.
"Stay away from me," she warned. She was amazed at the calm fortitude in her voice. "Don't touch me."
But Zane broke into a run, moving toward her. His tall figure and broad shoulders were silhouetted against the storm of flames just as they had been that long-ago night when she had watched him stride through the burning compound.
He was strong. He could easily outrun her. She would not stand a chance.
He was calling to her now, telling her to come to him, promising safety, security and an end to the visions, just as he had promised all those years ago. But she knew he lied.
She made her decision.
"You were a fool to come back," she shouted. "The key belongs to the children. Did you really think that they would forget what you did to their families? You're a dead man. You just don't know it yet."
She turned and fled into the night. Footsteps pounded behind her.
The edge of the cliffs was lit with moonlight and fire. She had walked to that edge many, many times in the years she had been living on the island. So many nights she had stopped there, looked down at the dark, deep water far below and thought about how easy it would be to take one more step.
In the past she had always turned back. But not tonight. A sense of deep certainty came over her.
She realized somewhat vaguely that she was still holding the box of matches. She would not need them anymore. She tossed them aside and kept going until there was nothing but air beneath her feet, until she was flying away from the demon.
The last thing she heard was Quinton Zane's scream of frustrated rage. She knew then that she had defeated him, at least for the moment. It was up to others to stop him. She had kept her promise and she had sent the warning. She could do no more.
She knew a split second of peace.
The dark sea took her.
"You saved my life, Mr. Salinas," Virginia Troy said. "I'm embarrassed to admit that it took me this long to track you down so that I could thank you. Embarrassed to tell you that I came looking for you now only because I need your help."
"No need to apologize," Anson said. "I was just doing my job that night. You were a little kid caught up in the craziness. There was no reason you should have come looking for me as an adult."
The last time he had seen Virginia Troy she was a child of nine, one of the eight children trapped in the blazing barn. He'd used his vehicle to crash through the locked doors, tossed all eight kids into the SUV and reversed out of the inferno, a hound out of hell. Shortly after he had gotten them all to safety, the barn had collapsed in on itself.
He'd saved the kids but he and the local firefighters had not been able to save all of the adults. Virginia Troy's mother had perished, along with several other people.
Quinton Zane had kept the women away from their children at night. They had been locked in separate quarters. Zane had torched the entire compound before he vanished. It was a miracle and a tribute to the first responders that several of the cult members had made it out alive. The following morning, when they had surveyed the ruins, it was clear that Zane had not intended for any of his followers to survive. Each one was, after all, a potential witness.
"I have never forgotten what you did that night," Virginia said. "Afterward my grandparents tried very hard to erase that part of my past. The stress of losing my mother and finding themselves stuck with the task of raising me eventually broke up their marriage. My grandmother still won't talk about it. But for the rest of my life I will remember that you saved all of us who were locked up in that barn."
"Can't blame your grandparents," Anson said. He was aware of a great heaviness settling on him. "There was a lot of pain going around. You lost your mother that night. They lost a daughter."
Something about the bleak tone of Virginia's voice told him that she wasn't only mourning the loss of her mother all those years ago. He had a feeling that she carried another kind of burden as well. He recognized survivor's guilt when he saw it because it was close kin to the kind of guilt he felt when he looked back on that night. He had not been able to save everyone in Quinton Zane's compound.
For a while he and Virginia sat quietly, facing each other across the desk. He did not try to restart the conversation. Once upon a time he had been a cop. He understood the value of silence.
A mid-February rain beat steadily, lightly, against the windows. He had lived in Seattle for several months now, but this was his first full winter in the city. He was starting to think of it as the Season of the Deep Gray. The skies were overcast most of the time, and when the sun did make short, fitful appearances, it was low on the horizon. The weak, slanting light was often blocked by the gleaming new office towers. The boom in high-rise construction in recent years had created dark canyons in much of downtown.
It should have been depressing, he reflected. Instead, there was a sense of energy about the city. He had been surprised to discover that something in him responded to the vibe. He wasn't the only one. The region was home to innumerable start-ups. The new gig economy was going full blast. Businesses of all kinds were enthusiastic about setting up shop in the city. New restaurants and coffeehouses opened every week.
Seattle was infused with a frontier spirit. That was as true now as it had been in the gold rush and big timber eras. But these days there was a hell of a lot more money around. That, he told himself, ought to be good for the investigation business-the business in which he and two of his foster sons, Cabot and Max, were engaged.
His job was to ensure that Cutler, Sutter & Salinas prospered. When the door had opened a short time ago, he'd hoped that the representative of a corporation or maybe a lawyer needing discreet services for a wealthy client would walk into the office.
Instead, Virginia Troy had entered the small reception lobby, bringing with her the long shadows of the past.
He hadn't recognized her, of course. She had been one of the youngest kids he brought out of the burning barn all those years ago-a wide-eyed little girl so traumatized by the events that she had not even been able to tell him her name for several hours. Cabot, who had been orphaned that night, had supplied him with Virginia's name.
Virginia was thirty-one now. No wedding ring, Anson noted. That did not surprise him. There was a cool reserve about her. She wasn't exactly a loner, he concluded, rather someone who was accustomed to being alone. He knew the difference.
She was the kind of woman who caught a man's eye, but not because she was a stunner. Attractive, yes, but not in a standard-issue way. She wasn't one of those too-beautiful-to-be-real women like you saw on TV. Instead there was something compelling about her, an edge that was hard to define. Probably had something to do with the bold, black-framed glasses and the high-heeled boots, he decided.
Most men wouldn't know how to handle a woman like Virginia Troy. Sure, some would be damned interested at first, maybe even see her as a challenge. But he figured that, in the end, the average guy would run for the hills.
A short time ago, when she had walked into the room, she had taken a moment to size up everything in sight, including him. He had been relieved when he and the expensive new furniture appeared to have passed inspection.
Although his name was on the door, technically speaking he was the office manager, receptionist, researcher and general gofer. Max and Cabot were the licensed investigators in the firm. Both had complained mightily about the stiff rent on the newly leased office space, as well as the money spent on furnishing the place, but Anson had refused to lower his newfound standards of interior design.
Before embarking on his career in office management, he had never paid any attention to the art of interior design. But after hiring a decorator and immersing himself in the finer points of the field, he had become convinced that the premises of the firm had to send the right message to potential clients. That meant leasing space in an upscale building and investing in quality furniture.