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Carnelian, California . . .
Blood dripped from the bottom of the laundry cart.
Ambrose Drake flattened one hand against the wall to keep himself on his feet. He was back in the underwater world. That meant he was dreaming again. He struggled to focus on the glary aura of the figure pushing the cart toward the swinging doors at the far end of the corridor. Was that what a ghost looked like?
"What's going on?" he said.
The words came out in a slurred, raspy jumble that he knew probably made no sense, assuming he had managed to say them aloud. It was hard to talk underwater. He thought he had been getting better at navigating the strange atmosphere down here below the surface, but either he had been fooling himself or he had regressed, because tonight he was having trouble just staying upright.
And what the hell was he doing on his feet? He was supposed to be in bed.
Shit. Was he sleepwalking again? That was not good. It meant the nightmares and hallucinations were getting worse. But did you know if you were sleepwalking? That didn't sound logical. If you were aware that you were walking in your sleep it meant you were awake. Didn't it?
Or did it mean you had slipped over the edge of sanity and fallen into the abyss? Maybe his worst nightmare had finally become his new reality.
The rattle of rubber wheels on the tiled floor distracted him. The glowing figure propelling the cart was leaning into the task now, picking up speed. Seconds later cart and ghost vanished through the swinging doors.
That seemed to indicate the figure had heard the question and had reacted by leaving the scene as quickly as possible-which led to another disturbing conclusion. Maybe the ghost with the laundry cart leaving a trail of blood drops on the floor was real. You could never be sure when you were in this deep.
"Am I awake or asleep?" he mumbled. "Only one way to find out."
He took his hand off the wall, pushed aside the hallucinations, and managed another couple of steps forward. His progress was complicated by the fact that the corridor was drenched in underwater shadows. He finally realized what was wrong. The window in his mind was open. That explained why he had seen a glowing ghost pushing a laundry cart.
"I really do not need this."
It took some doing, but he succeeded in shutting down his aura-reading vision. He was back in his normal senses now. The eerie, murky shadows disappeared. The hallway was abruptly illuminated in the light of the overhead fixtures.
Okay, he was not dreaming and the window was closed, but something was very wrong. He did not have overhead fixtures in his bedroom.
A whisper of horror sent a jolt of panic across his senses. He had walked out the front door of his house and into an unknown building. The damned sleepwalking was going to get him killed. Another terrible thought struck-was he in his underwear? Please don't let me be strolling through some strange place in my underwear.
He made himself look down and was overwhelmingly relieved to discover he had on a pair of pajama bottoms. Or was he still dreaming?
"Shit. Wake up. Wake up."
This time he was sure he had spoken aloud. The sound of his own voice was reassuring. It drew him back toward the surface. He rubbed his eyes and tried to make sense of the white walls of the hallway and the cold white tiles underfoot.
A murky memory swept back, bringing in the tide of semi-reassuring reality. He was spending the night in the Carnelian Sleep Institute in an effort to get control of the nightmares. He should be in a bed. There ought to be a lot of wires attached to him. What the hell was he doing out here in the hallway?
He had heard a woman scream. That's why he was standing barefoot in the hall. The answer to the mystery was in the laundry cart. He had to find it and look inside.
He lurched forward a few more steps and nearly lost his balance. The problem with staying upright was a new one. He had always taken his fast reflexes and excellent coordination for granted. After the spell of amnesia eight months ago, both had actually improved. His sleeping habits had gone to hell, but he was faster and quicker than he had ever been. Tonight, though, it was all he could do to keep his feet under him.
He steadied himself, but the sudden change of position caused him to look down again. This time he saw a crimson rivulet trickling under the closed door of a patient room. Maybe he was still dreaming. Still sleepwalking.
To test the theory, he leaned down to take a closer look at the blood.
"Mr. Drake, what are you doing out of bed?"
The stern masculine voice was familiar. Dr. Conrad Fenner, the director of the Institute. He sounded seriously agitated. Alarmed. Furious.
Startled, Ambrose lost his balance altogether and pitched forward. He would have fallen flat on his face if his reflexes hadn't finally kicked in. About time.
He landed on one palm and a knee and instinctively started to get back on his feet. His fingers skidded through the little river of blood.
"Get up, Mr. Drake," Fenner ordered. "You should not be out here. We must get you back to your room."
"Something's wrong," Ambrose said, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper. "I heard a woman scream."
"No, you did not," Fenner said. "You are dreaming. Sleepwalking. Here, let me assist you."
Ambrose started to tell him about the blood on the floor but was interrupted by a sharp stinging sensation in the curve of his shoulder.
"What?" he mumbled.
He wanted to ask another question, but he was going back down into the depths, and this time there were no shadows. No light at all. A great weakness was overtaking his senses. He was vaguely aware of Fenner urging him to his feet and steering him back to his own room.
"Hurry," Fenner snapped. "I can't carry you."
The next thing Ambrose knew he was slumped in a chair. Fenner was leaning over him, working swiftly to clean his hand, the one that had slipped into the crimson stream.
"Blood on the floor," Ambrose said. He stared at his fingers but he could no longer see the red stain.
"There was no blood," Fenner said. His authoritative tone was infused with anger and anxiety. "It was just a dream, Mr. Drake. Trust me, you won't remember it in the morning."
When he was finished, he helped Ambrose get out of the chair and stumble onto the bed.
The darkness was closing in fast, but Ambrose managed to open the window in his mind one more time. Fenner's aura pulsed in a way that indicated he was telling the truth. He was certain that Ambrose would not remember what had happened tonight.
"A woman screamed," Ambrose said, not because he believed he could convince Fenner of that fact but because he hoped repetition would anchor the memory in his brain. "A woman screamed. A woman screamed."
"It was just a dream," Fenner insisted. "You experienced a brief sleepwalking episode. Nothing more. You won't remember a woman screaming."
The last thing Ambrose saw before he fell into the oceanic trench was the small indicator light on the camera that was aimed at the bed. It glowed bloodred. That was good, he thought. In the morning the video recording would tell him the truth.
If he woke up.
Carnelian, California. Six weeks later . . .
The snakes spilled down the old staircase, coiling, unfurling, seeking prey. Pallas Llewellyn's fingers flew across the page of her sketchbook. She had to work quickly. She could not risk remaining in the trance too long. It was like dropping into a dream-in this case, a nightmare-an interesting place to visit, but you would not want to live there. Her greatest fear these days was that she would slip into her other vision and get trapped.
And yet there were too many times now when she could not resist the temptation to slide into her enhanced vision. She needed to see the images concealed in the small storms of energy that she frequently stumbled into.
She had gotten much better at controlling the automatic drawing trances; at least, she told herself she had more control. She saw things when she was in this other vision, sometimes terrifying things-snakes falling down a staircase, for example. But there were answers to be found here, too. It was the promise of discovering the secrets concealed in the visions that was irresistible.
The snakes were closer now, reaching for her. If she had any sense she would get out while the getting was good. Her intuition was shrieking at her.
As if detecting her presence, two of the snakes stretched out to grasp her and draw her deeper into the trance. She could have sworn she heard them hissing. That was new. In the past the visions had never had an audio component.
"Okay, okay, I'm gone," she gasped.
With an effort of will she came out of the trance, riding a senses-disorienting wave of panic charged with a giddy thrill. She had done it. She had once again leaped into the abyss and made it safely back to the surface.
The triumphant elation receded swiftly but the panic did not. It was growing stronger. She realized she was too close to the scene. She needed to put some distance between herself and the now-invisible snakes spilling down the staircase.
She snapped the sketchbook shut and tossed it and the pencil into the well-worn messenger bag. Later there would be time to try to interpret whatever the episode of automatic drawing had revealed. The answers might elude her, though. They often did. Her intuition told her there were truths to be found in the pictures she created while she was in her other vision, but she was still learning how to see those truths. She had discovered she needed context in order to figure out what she was looking at.
Her pulse was still beating too rapidly. She cradled the messenger bag in both hands, holding it as if it were a shield, and headed for the front door of the abandoned asylum. Her instinct was to run, not walk, to the nearest exit, but running was not a good idea. There were too many obstacles in her path, and she had never been the most coordinated person on the planet.
She had always been easily startled. For as long as she could remember, the tiniest flicker of light or the slightest sense of movement at the edge of her vision had been enough to make her flinch and send her veering off-balance. The unfortunate tendency to overreact to the slightest surprise had gotten markedly worse after the amnesia episode seven months ago. She had learned to compensate by moving slowly and deliberately whenever she was in unfamiliar surroundings. The ruins of the old asylum definitely qualified as unfamiliar. The hidden storms of bad energy were scattered everywhere.
The bones of the Carnelian Psychiatric Hospital for the Insane still stood, surrounding her on all sides. The four-story structure had been constructed of stone and stout timber, but the interior, now sunk in an eternal gloom, had been slowly crumbling for decades. She was forced to scramble through a minefield of broken chairs, rusted bedsprings, sagging doors, shards of broken glass, and the discarded medical equipment of another era.
The scene came straight out of her nightmares. At least this time the place wasn't on fire. She probably ought to see another therapist about her little obsession with scary old buildings, but she craved answers, and she had concluded no therapist could provide them. She also knew she would not be able to let go of her morbid fascination until she got the answers she needed.
She was halfway through the rubble of the hospital lobby when a figure detached itself from the shadows and came toward her, blocking the path to the door.
Focused on escape, her senses still in an adrenaline overload, she yelped in alarm, swerved to the side, and tried to change course. Her intention was to steer a path around the stranger, but the sudden move caused her to stumble into a three-legged table. It toppled under her weight. Of course it did. Sometimes she wondered if every stick of furniture in the world was out to get her.
She knew she was going down. She thought about the jagged chunks of glass that littered the floor. This was going to be a bad fall. She could only hope the messenger bag would protect her from the worst-case scenario.
The man who had been in her path was suddenly at her side. A strong hand gripped her forearm, steadying her.
She was shocked by the speed with which he had moved. It was as if he had known she was going to change course and run into the table.
"It's all right," he said. "I've got you."
The physical contact sent an electrifying jolt of intense, intimate awareness across her senses. Maybe she was still in the automatic drawing trance. Maybe this time she really had stayed under too long.
"Let me go," she screamed.
She was amazed and reassured when the earsplitting cry escaped her throat and echoed through the ruins. In her dreams she was always voiceless.
"Shit." The stranger released her, clamped his hands over his ears, and took several steps back. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to talk."
Freed, she headed for the front door again. She reached into the messenger bag, groping for the Taser she had carried religiously since Lucent Springs.
She managed to grab the electroshock weapon, but in her frenzy she dropped it. The stranger scooped up the device. Simultaneously he used his free hand to keep her from tripping over a door that had come off its hinges and was now on the floor.
Another flash of breathtaking intimacy rattled her nerves. She had never experienced anything like it. She froze, frantically trying to figure out what was happening. Before she could recover from the shock, the stranger released her and stepped back.
"We're getting off on the wrong foot here," he said. He held the Taser just out of reach. "If you'll give me a minute, I can explain."
He was still between her and the door. She launched herself at him, hoping the head-on attack would catch him by surprise.
He didn't appear surprised, but he moved out of the way.