Speak of the Devil

Speak of the Devil

by Shari Shattuck

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Overview

Greer Sands has a unique talent for seeing glimpses of the future and reading people’s auras, especially those of her friends and neighbors. While at her friend Jenny’s baby shower, Greer is overtaken by a terrifying premonition of a devastating wildfire.
 
The frightening vision is broken by Jenny, asking Greer to predict the gender of her unborn child. Greer envisions a lovely baby girl, but she also sees black wings hovering over the mother: wings that mean danger, even death. Who would want to harm Jenny?
 
Meanwhile Greer’s son Joshua is using his own unique talents to try to help his new friend Simon, but a dark figure seems intent on destroying him. Together Joshua and Greer need to follow the clues in their visions—and their hearts— to stop the impending evil before everything they love goes up in flames.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101024706
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/02/2008
Series: A Greer Sands Novel
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 456 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Shari Shattuck, a novelist and actress, is the author of multiple novels in several series, including Invisible Ellen, Becoming Ellen, and Loaded. She has modeled for prestigious print media outlets and has appeared in more than two hundred stage, film, and TV productions. Shattuck lives with her family in California.

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Acknowledgements

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Praise for Eye of the Beholder

“Fast, furious, and impossible to put down.”

—George Shuman, bestselling author of 18 Seconds

 

“Shattuck’s thrilling, danger-filled page-turner has unforgettable characters that linger in the reader’s memory long after the book is finished . . . a breath of fresh air.”

Romantic Times

 

“This was the kind of book you just can’t put down.”

Affaire de Coeur (Reviewer’s Pick)

 

“Shattuck’s vivid descriptions of psychic phenomena are intriguing. Her characters are believable, and although she offers many possibilities, the reader is never sure who the villain is until the very last pages. The crimes portrayed in Eye of the Beholder are heinous and despicable, but the brutal revenge enacted at the end is more than satisfying.”

The Strand Magazine

 

And for Shari Shattuck’s other novels

 

“Exploding like a string of firecrackers let loose beneath one’s feet, Shattuck’s debut novel keeps the reader deliciously on edge.”—Publishers Weekly, on Loaded

 

Lethal is fast-paced, edgy, and extremely sensual.”

—Romance Junkies

 

“Unlike many heroines . . . Cally Wilde is a fully formed, strong, and engaging character throughout this fast-paced and suspenseful mystery.”

Booklist

 

“Complex and totally entertaining.”

—Fresh Fiction, on The Man She Thought She Knew

 

“Shari Shattuck scores a big hit with The Man She Thought She Knew. Smart, fast-paced, and sexy, this book kept me riveted to my seat.”

USA Today bestselling author Julie Kenner

Also by Shari Shattuck

Eye of the Beholder

SIGNET

Published by New American Library, a division of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Printing, September 2008

Copyright © Shari Shattuck, 2008

All rights reserved

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

 

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this
publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission
of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are
the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance
to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or
locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

eISBN : 978-1-101-02470-6

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via
any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable
by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not
participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your
support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

Oh, my Calee, I wanted to give something to match your joyous spirit and your inimitable comedy, and I will, I promise, but for now, I give you this. I hope you enjoy the funnier bits. I love you, Mommy.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A million thank-yous to:

 

Laura Cifelli, your kindness and intelligence amaze me, and you make me laugh.

Paul Fedorko, you are the rock of confidence: What would I stand on without you?

Creason Moss, wisdom and kindness seldom touched a teenager as much as they have you. Lucky, lucky me.

Joseph Stachura, you are my ever-present strength and joy.

All the smarter-than-me editors at NAL, you make me look like I passed tenth-grade English.

The many firefighters whose lunches I interrupted to pester with questions about arson for not having me arrested on suspicion.

Captain Anthony Williams, whom I accosted in line at See’s Candies on Valentine’s Day, and who provided me with so much crucial information. (I hope your wife enjoyed the orange creams.)

The friends I quizzed about banking, building, and business, su knowledge es mi knowledge.

 

Sure, I could have done it without all of you, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun, the punctuation would have been horrible, and most of it would have been wrong.

Chapter 1

The fierce wind swept across the dusty, faded green sage, bending brittle branches and tugging roots from the parched earth. It pushed ruthlessly at the skeletal leaves of the sycamores in the dry riverbed as it threw its vicious weight against the arid hills of Angeles Crest.

Every year it came, sweeping the heat in from the desert to Los Angeles with punishing, dehydrating gusts. After almost six months without a drop of rain it came, turning the landscape into acres of kindling, vast swatches of dry brush leading to heartier fuel: drought-weakened trees and countless homes.

Greer Sands stood at the window, watching the wind blasting the distressed foliage. In the room behind her, friends were celebrating the expected birth of a new child, laughing and sharing their wisdom. Greer felt drawn away from them, pulled instead toward the unstable weather outside. It was impossible for anyone who lived in fear of fire to ignore the threat of those winds, but for Greer it was something more.

All her life, she had seen glimpses of the future. She had felt the undulations of the natural world playing through her body, and these winds strummed a melody both forlorn and ominous. She was filled with a feeling of vulnerability. Greer bowed her head in acknowledgment of the power and fury she perceived and then exhaled the shakiness that had possessed her.

“Greer,” called her friend Whitney’s voice behind her, “are you okay?”

Whitney and Greer had met nine months before when Greer moved into a home pocketed in the national forest above Los Angeles in the ranch community of Shadow Hills. Whitney was a full-bodied, dark-haired beauty of forty, who was half-Native American. As a Cree Indian she was given a name with each stage of life, and looking at her glowing smile now, Greer thought again that the Elder who had bestowed on Whitney the name Shiny Girl had captured her very essence with those two words.

When they’d met, Whitney had accepted Greer’s sixth sense without question, and she could see that Greer was awash with something now. Greer smiled back at Whitney and hastened to reassure her. “I’m fine. It’s just this wind—it’s hard for me not to listen to it.”

Whitney nodded, easily understanding the submerged meaning beneath her friend’s surface explanation. She moved closer and asked in a quiet voice, “Everything copacetic?”

Focusing on the question brought a quiver to Greer’s breastbone. She placed a palm flat against it and half closed her eyes, letting the quiver expand until she could read it, see it as a color or a shape. It glowed in her mind’s eye, like a huge cloud of light, multicolored, with dark impenetrable sections. “I don’t know,” Greer said slowly. “I can feel something huge. . . .”

“Oh my God, how cute is that!” came a voice from the sofa behind them. It was accompanied by oohs and aahs, in a range of soprano notes.

Happily distracted, Greer and Whitney turned to admire the blue sleeper that their friend Jenny was holding up over her swelled stomach. Even seven months pregnant, Jenny looked sexy. Her Hispanic heritage was serving her well through her pregnancy, her golden skin glowed with a sunny flush, and her extra weight only served to flatter her natural curves.

“Oh,” she beamed, “Lewis is going to love this. He so wants it to be a boy.” She smiled a little sadly. “I wish he was here.”

“When’s he coming back?” asked Mindy, the party’s hostess. She was a small, energetic woman whose lifelong association with horses had given her that happy, weathered look that comes to those who experience much of their life from the back of a horse under an open sky, laughing heartily all the while. The creases on her face were fixed in a smile.

“Three weeks, I hope,” Jenny said wistfully. “The building should be finished by then, but they just keep having delays with the permits. Every time they finish a stage, they have to wait for the inspector to sign off, and he takes days to get out there.” She sighed again. “He wouldn’t be there at all, but he couldn’t turn down this huge contract.” After a few years of struggling, her husband, Lewis, had finally hit the big time with his contracting business, and though Jenny was enjoying the financial fruits of his labors, she wasn’t too keen on the cost of his absences.

“Has Lewis built an apartment building before?” Mindy asked.

“No. Condos, yes, but this is the first multistory building he’s contracted. He hated going away right now, but it’s a three-complex deal and the next two are back in LA County.”

“Score!” Mindy laughed. “Pretty soon I’ll be lodging horses at your ranch!”

“Let me get used to having one horse first. I always promised myself I would get one when I could afford it, so I let you talk me into taking him, but King is a good bit more time-consuming than I expected. Especially with Lewis gone.”

Greer rejoined the small group and sat down on an ottoman that had been pulled up to complete an informal circle. “Well, Bakersfield isn’t that far. He can be back in, what, three hours if he needs to be.”

“And he’s made it back at least one day a week,” Jenny said. “I know he worries about me, and I just wish he could feel every kick like I do.”

Mindy’s voice dropped to a sarcastic growl. “Wait ’til you go into labor. You’ll wish you were the one kicking him, wearing steel-toed boots.”

The group of women shared a laugh that cut off abruptly as the kitchen door swung open and a man entered the female population. He was large and burly under his cowboy hat, and he stopped when he saw the dozen women looking at him expectantly. His eyes scanned the room, and then turning his meaty palms up he asked, “What?”

The women burst into laughter again, and Mindy got up and crossed over to her husband.

“I’m sorry, honey. It’s not you—it’s just your timing. I think everyone’s met my husband, Reading, except you two.” Mindy pointed to Leah and Greer. “Reading, this is Whitney’s new neighbor, Greer.”

“You have a lovely home,” Greer said, gesturing to the spacious vaulted ceiling of the ranch house before reaching out to shake hands. As her soft skin met his rough fingers, a distinctly unpleasant jolt went through her fingers. It didn’t travel up her arm, as sometimes happened when she met a person intent on harm, but the jolt caused her to look more deeply at the man. His eyes were guarded, but she sensed nothing more.

“Nice to meet you too,” Reading was saying. He released Greer’s hand and she wondered if her reaction had been a residual effect of her overall unease.

“And this is Leah Falconer, Jenny’s best friend and our local bank manager,” Mindy was saying proudly, laying an affectionate hand on Leah’s shoulder. The conservatively dressed, aristocratic brunette shrugged herself politely out from under it. Greetings were exchanged, and then Mindy asked Reading if he would like a glass of wine.

“No, thanks anyway. I’ve got to go out and hose off a couple of the horses, they get overheated in this infernal wind.”

When Leah asked politely about how many horses they had at the ranch, Reading told them a total of twenty-one. Only five, he explained, belonged to him and Mindy; the rest were boarded.

“I told you about Mindy and Reading,” Jenny told Leah with mock exasperation. “Remember? This is where I board King. I bought him from Mindy.” Leah and Jenny’s friendship had happened upon them quickly because of a shared harrowing experience that had preempted the usual years of trust building. The result was that they seemed as though they’d known each other for far longer than a few months, but details sometimes got lost.

Reading nodded. “She found you a real sweetheart too. You want me to give King a hose-down?”

“Yes, please.” Jenny looked relieved. “I worry about him so much in this weather.”

Leah squinted her intelligent eyes at Reading and asked, “Don’t you worry about fire?”

“Don’t even say it!” shrieked Mindy. “It’s our worst fear. We have all kinds of evacuation plans, but it would not be easy. Basically we have friends with ranches down in the flats where we would relocate the horses if they were in danger.”

Greer grimaced and said to Reading, “I don’t know how you can stand to work outside in this dry heat.”

Reading looked at her with a glint of devilish humor in his eyes as he surveyed the room full of women. “Well, today, it’s either heatstroke or estrogen radiation.”

With that, he waved a hand at the laughing women, kissed Mindy, and headed out. Greer watched him go, wondering what the pain in her hand when she touched him had meant. Once or twice before, a chilling sensation had traveled to her heart when she’d come across someone intent on harm, but she hadn’t made the connection until later. She didn’t read men very well, never had, and this sensation had been different, localized and quick, definitely not pleasant. But that wasn’t consistent with a person who would willingly spend time in heat like a furnace blast to make sure that horses, some of which didn’t even belong to him, were more comfortable.

Greer sat back and sipped at her soda, letting the soft feeling of female company hold her in its sway. A feeling not unlike weightlessness came over her as she watched Leah and Jenny together. They were so different, Jenny with her street style and toughness, with her wavy hair caught up in a casual ponytail, and Leah in her perfectly pressed silk blouse and tailored gray skirt, her short, dark hair stick straight and severely styled. Yet they were so often together now. Only nine months ago, things had been very different for Leah. She had been lucky to survive that difficult time, and Greer often worried what lingering scars it would leave.

“I’m betting it’s a girl,” Whitney said. And with a pleased smile, she pulled out a pink wrapped gift and handed it over.

Jenny looked very touched when she removed the lid of the small white box and gazed down on a child-sized silver bracelet with a single turquoise stone banded in silver.

“Oh”—there were tears in Jenny’s eyes as she looked up at her friend—“you made this, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and I can make it bigger as she grows.”

“What if it’s a boy?” Leah asked Whitney.

Whitney waved a hand airily. “I’ll turn it into a tie tack.”

Jenny put her hand over her stomach with a small exclamation. “Oh my goodness, she didn’t like that,” she said with a smile. “I’m sure it’s a girl. See here.” Much to the other woman’s surprise and consternation, Jenny took Leah’s hand and guided it along her stomach, pressing down. Greer and Whitney exchanged a look of guarded amusement at Leah’s scandalized face. Leah was alarmed by familiarity in general, and her mouth had gone tight with discomfiture at having her hand pressed against another woman’s abdomen. “See,” Jenny was saying as she guided Leah’s hand along, “there’s her tiara, and over here, that must be a high heel.”

“It’s a pointy little thing,” Leah agreed, smiling fixedly. Greer wondered if, after the trauma Leah had been through, she would ever be able to enjoy even the most innocent physical contact without a repulsive knee-jerk reaction. When her hand was released, Leah pulled it back and straightened her blouse before entwining her fingers tightly in her lap as though to keep anyone else from snatching up one of her hands again. Greer was pleased to see Jenny note this, and she watched as Jenny placed a hand momentarily on Leah’s knee for a casual pat—not too long, just a short firm pat and a distinct removal—to break the barrier once more, to keep the wall of separation from strengthening. Leah’s grip on her own hands relaxed, as Greer had known it would.

“I think we should ask Greer if it’s a boy or a girl,” Whitney said with a sly smile.

“Oh, that’s right—you’re psychic!” Mindy gushed.

Greer squirmed. Her ability to sometimes perceive future events had never sat very comfortably on her, so she had always kept it to herself, but several months ago, when she’d first moved into Shadow Hills, premonitions had assailed her, and when Whitney’s daughter, Joy, had disappeared, she’d made the choice to use her gift openly to try to find the teenager. Surprisingly, her son, Joshua, had begun to have visions at the same time, and it was his talent, and perhaps his special connection to Joy, that had located her in the end. But Joshua had been afraid of what was happening to him, and he and his mother had kept his abilities secret from all but a few of their closest friends, pretending that it had been Greer’s skill alone that had saved Joy. After that harrowing and very public incident, Greer had been swamped with requests and offers, some of them quite lucrative, to do readings, but Greer had never taken money for her unbidden talent. It was something that she had grown up with, come to accept, but it was interpretive at best, and she was not comfortable with being paid to make predictions—even if the images were clear—when it was still only her best guess as to what they might mean.

“I told you before,” Greer said, “I’ve never done that and, please, I don’t want you painting the nursery pink or blue based on a feeling I might get. . . .”

“Oh, please,” Jenny pleaded, cutting her off. She had asked before, but Greer had flatly refused. Now Jenny had a room full of enthusiastic women on her side.

“All right,” Greer agreed reluctantly. “But only if everyone in the room makes a guess. We can write them all down and see who was right later. You cannot take my impression as final.” Greer had some feelings that were vague and some that were undeniably distinct. Then there were the visions, which were as clear as watching a moving picture, but once again open to interpretation. She had no idea what she might see today.

“You said you knew Joshua was going to be a boy,” Whitney challenged.

“That was my own son! Every woman has a feeling about their own child.”

“And fifty percent of the time,” Mindy chimed in, “they’re one hundred percent right!”

“Okay, Greer goes last. Everyone else make a line.” Leah, always the efficient manager, stood up and took control. “Mindy, can you get me a pad of paper and a pencil? I’ll keep the list. I’ll start with me, because I already went, and I say, ‘girl.’ ”

The ladies all lined up and took their time rubbing Jenny’s surrendered belly like a crystal ball, doing different bad impressions of stereotypical fortune-tellers. Greer pursed her full lips into a puffy moue so her mouth resembled a round, overstuffed, pink satin cushion; this was exactly why she had never advertised her ability, though she knew this was all meant in fun.

As she waited her turn, Greer’s grass green eyes floated around the handsome room. The rough pine beams of the ceiling and the comfortable mission-style furniture all pleased her aesthetically. Her gaze landed on a lovely landscape painting over the stone fireplace, a peaceful mountainous view; it looked vaguely familiar.

“Mindy,” Greer asked the smaller woman, who had just proclaimed Jenny’s child a bucking-bronco-riding cowboy and come to sit near her, “is that a painting of one of the canyons near here?”

Mindy’s eyes followed Greer’s gaze. “Oh yeah, that’s one of R. J. River’s paintings. I’m surprised you haven’t met him. He’s a friend of Whitney’s, a local Native American artist. Very active in the conservation scene. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Very,” Greer agreed. “Which canyon is it?”

“It’s a view from up above the dam. I don’t know the name of it, but I just love his work. I own three of his paintings.” She smiled proudly.

Greer left the group to their fun and went to stand in front of the painting. She imagined that she did know the spot. The artist had captured that luminous quality of the light just before dusk that makes it so easy to fall into the feeling of the place. Greer relaxed her eyes and let her mind wander over the sensation of the picture rather than observe the paint and the artist’s technique.

It happened before she could even sense it was coming. Without warning, the picture before her became real, the greens and golds leapt to life, and then, in a flash that Greer could actually feel on her face, they burst into flames. She stepped back suddenly from the painting, raising one hand protectively to block the heat, but the image had cooled to green again and only the canvas hung on the wall in front of her. Or, no, there was something else: Even with her eyes open, something lingered, an image, like a ring from a flashbulb.

Trying to steady her breathing, Greer leaned against the back of an armchair and closed her eyes. There was imprinted, as though burned on her retina, a distinct object, an old-fashioned key, blackened by fire.

Greer searched through her body for a feeling connected to that image to give her a clue what it meant. But before she could locate anything, Jenny’s voice called out from behind her, “Greer, your turn!” and the image faded as suddenly as it had come.

Greer spun around; she had forgotten that she was in a room filled with women who saw only the objects struck by light in the field of their vision. She tried to smile, to recover quickly, but she saw Whitney’s face tighten in concern at her own expression.

“You okay?” Jenny asked.

All the women were looking at her quizzically. Greer took a deep breath and smiled. “Oh sure. It’s just the heat—I felt a little light-headed for a minute,” she lied.

Whitney frowned. She had not bought it.

Throwing Whitney a glance that she hoped would read as I’ll tell you later, Greer crossed over to the sofa where Jenny was lying with her tummy exposed like the back of a baby whale cresting the sea. Greer sat down on the coffee table facing her and took three deep, cleansing breaths, willing the shock that she had felt at the vision of fire to calm and leave her body so that she could get a clear reading, if one came.

Greer rubbed her hands together to make sure they were warm, placed them flat on Jenny’s belly, and closed her eyes.

Immediately an image came to mind. A girl, definitely a girl, with dark hair and shining eyes, was walking toward her with sunlight glinting off her thick, long hair. The picture was so stunning and charming that Greer laughed out loud. “She’s going to be a beauty,” said Greer, and most of the women clapped their hands and cheered. Only Mindy and another woman who had guessed male booed. “It’s funny,” Greer went on when they quieted. “I see her grown up, about fourteen. I think . . .”

But Greer forgot entirely what she was about to say. Over the image that she held in her mind, so beautiful and blissful, had come another. It was Jenny’s face that leapt into Greer’s mind, and her expression was as far from happy and sunny as was possible. In Greer’s vision Jenny’s face held a look of sheer terror, her eyes darted everywhere as though looking for some way of escape, and over her, blotting out all else, hovered crow black wings.

Greer had seen those wings before, she was sure of it. What did they mean to her? Where had she seen them? She forced herself to focus on the feeling they gave her and remember it. Yes! She had seen them before in another work of art, been struck by their perfection as a metaphor. They had been on an angel. Huge black wings on an angel of terrible and final beauty.

The angel of death.

Chapter 2

The gusting wind on Joshua’s face made him feel as if he were halfway through the cycle in a clothes dryer and it was set on high. As he pushed up the new trail, he thought, “Mental note to self: Only hike before the sun is up.”

Greer’s son, Joshua Sands, was a tall, strong eighteen-year-old with a love of nature he had inherited from both his parents, but mostly from his father. To hike willingly in this weather seemed like an act of insanity to most people, but for Joshua, a day without time alone in the outdoors was the crazy maker. He paused and finished off the first of two large water bottles that he carried in his small backpack. He supposed he was sweating as fast as he was drinking, but the air was so dry it left no evidence of perspiration on his skin.

The trail switchbacked and then passed mercifully under a large grove of shady oaks. Joshua took off his hat to let the wind into his hair. Hot as it was, it relieved him somewhat. As he walked, he watched the trail under his feet with interest. There were many dusty footprints in the few places where the ground was loose enough to show an imprint. Work boots, it looked like, various sizes; a group had passed by here not long ago.

He also looked for signs of wildlife. He knew that the animals would be driven lower this time of year, looking for any water they could find. He saw the dried scat of coyote, bobcat, and deer, but none of the animals showed themselves in this heat.

After fifteen minutes of gentle but steady incline, he emerged on the lip of the canyon into the glaring sunlight. From here he could see almost all the way back down into the valley. Pausing to get his bearings, he noted that the national forest area was behind him, and the populated Los Angeles suburbs of Shadow Hills and Sunland lay stretched out before him, just beyond the ridge that blocked his view of the Two-ten freeway a few miles away. To his right, the hills rose, steep and greenish brown, covered with the natural brush and scrubby oaks that made this place so beautiful. To his left was a sight that sobered him: The entire top of a gently sloping mountain ridge had been sheered off and was nothing but a dusty, lifeless swath of dirt. From this viewpoint Joshua could see the gigantic land movers mowing down more living earth, five of them spewing black smoke, moving in a line, remorselessly leveling out the peaks and curves of nature’s hand. To the far right of this gaping wound stood the frames of a hundred houses, built with mere feet between them like huge boxes shelved in neat little rows; the space between the rows was barren and brown, ready to be paved with shiny black asphalt, leaving the ground nowhere to breathe.

Along that tight grid of streets, spaced maybe fifty feet apart, there stood the tall, naked arms of streetlights. There would be thousands of them by the time the gigantic development was finished, and each home—spurred by its owner’s fear of the dark—would have its own exterior lighting. The overall effect, here on the edge of a national forest, would be an inverted bowl of light that never dimmed, shrouding the night sky from view. Joshua had seen it before, this side effect of civilization: They were stealing the stars.

A sadness that was all too familiar gripped Joshua. Trying to focus on the positive, on the people who would fill those houses with laughter, who would plant new trees and hopefully teach their children to love the natural world the way his father had taught him, Joshua turned away and went on.

According to his trail map, in about a half a mile this path should meet the fire road, which would take him back down where he had parked his car on Osborne Avenue. He was a good bit west of his own neighborhood, but he’d been curious to explore this section of the county as it was all connected by high trails back into the canyon where his own home sat nestled in a copse of pines at the end of a short dirt road. That would be too far to hike on a day like today, so his goal was to reach the fire road near the top and get an overview of the lay of the land on the far side before doubling back.

Another twenty minutes and half a bottle of water brought him to that perch. He had expected to meet no one in this heat, one reason he had decided to risk it, so he was surprised to hear voices and the scrape of tools as he crested the trail onto the wide dirt road.

It was a work team clearing underbrush back from the edge of the firebreak, composed of a senior fireman and about ten young men, all in their teens from the look of them. They were a mix—Hispanic, black, white—but they all had a similar look, the expression that came from fear heavily disguised as indifference and spite. Joshua recognized the group immediately as detainees from the probation fire camp just down the road from his home, a juvenile detention center where young males convicted of everything from misdemeanors to felonies spent time working off part of their sentences. He’d run into them before, maintaining trails or clearing brush by the side of the roads, and he’d always received that same blank, soulless stare when he’d tried to look friendly.

Nonetheless, Joshua smiled at the closest boy in acknowledgment as he passed him. The young man leaned on his shovel and did not register any sign of response. It was as though Joshua were invisible.

As he drew level with the guard, Joshua nodded his head and paused. “Hello. Bitch of day to be working with a shovel.”

“Could be worse.” The fireman, who was lanky and weathered, smiled with movie-star white teeth at Joshua.

“Can’t really see how.” Joshua grimaced as a blast of air toasted his skin, making his lips feel like jerky.

The fireman laughed. “It could be this hot and the hills could be on fire.”

“Good point.” Joshua extended a hand. “I’m Joshua Sands. I live up the road from the camp, off Silver Line Creek.”

“Bob Pariche. You’ve got one of those cabins tucked in that canyon? Nice,” he commented after Joshua’s nod. The hand that took Joshua’s was calloused and rough with work. His eyes flicked back to his young laborers. He called out to the boy Joshua had passed, “Simon, good job with that section. You can take a five-minute break, rehydrate, and then, since you finished first, you can use the weed whacker on that section over there. Take the fire extinguisher and watch out for sparks. Okay?” As he addressed the boy, his voice was both firm and polite. There were assorted calls of “No way” and “That sucks” from the other boys. Apparently, using the gas-powered tool was a reward of some kind. Joshua ventured a guess that the supervisor was one of those rare people who—even faced with the reality of seemingly unbeatable odds—really try to make a difference. From the way Simon reacted, surly, but with his gratitude sneaking out in a suppressed twitch of a smile, it apparently pleased the boy that he had garnered a fractional recognition.

Joshua watched the boy named Simon settle down on the dirt and pull out his water bottle. He appeared to be looking out over the view, but Joshua could see Simon watching him from the corner of his eye.

And then, before Joshua looked away, the boy was no longer alone. At least, he was still sitting alone, but he had a visitor that only Joshua could see. Just over his left shoulder, the figure of a man had appeared, dark gray and hunched menacingly toward Simon. Joshua, who was getting used to the sudden appearance of images that were unseen to everyone else around him, was taken aback by the aggressiveness of the figure. He had seen, in the few months since his gift had begun to develop, many such visions. Sometimes they came when he looked for them, but mostly they appeared to him at random moments, over friends and strangers alike, but they had all seemed passive or protective. This was something altogether new. The male figure glared hate-fully down at Simon.

“Damn it,” Joshua muttered under his breath as he was overwhelmed by the sensation of being knocked down by a crashing wave. The instinct that he must somehow protect this boy was all-consuming and unwanted. It was bad enough that he saw these images, but it felt cruelly unfair when he sensed that he was expected to do something about them. He knew that he was the only one who could see the danger literally hovering over Simon, which left him trapped into making a decision. At eighteen and headed for college, Joshua felt he had more than enough to get on with just figuring out what to do with his life; adding on feeling responsible for helping people he didn’t even know really sucked. “Damn it,” he sighed again, but with resignation.

Joshua walked several yards in Simon’s direction and came to a stop a few feet away from the teenager, who was sitting on the ground, his shoulders slumped forward in a petulant slouch. He said nothing to the boy, just scanned the hills, half looking for the trails that would lead over the next range into his own, more familiar extended backyard.

Joshua didn’t look at Simon directly, but he could see the figure, fading now but still present over the boy’s left shoulder. And then Joshua almost jumped as he saw something he had never visualized before.

Another figure had revealed itself to him, an animal. This was a first for Joshua, and he had to turn and look directly at it to make out what it was. When he did, he almost laughed. It was a small dog, of indeterminate heritage, which was barking with silent fury almost comically at the fading threatening figure.

Simon, of course, was oblivious to Joshua’s visions, oblivious to the presences that were attracted—maybe even attached—to him. Joshua hadn’t figured out yet what exactly his visions were. It had been only a few months since this second sight had interrupted his senior year at high school, and he was still struggling to interpret their meanings, but across the board the people had been blissfully ignorant of the otherworldly activity around them. Even his mother, Greer, who had very accurate visions of her own, did not share his particular ability. She saw colors and images—she called it energy—around people. Joshua saw human shapes. And they usually turned out to represent people whom either he or the subject had known and who had died.

Slightly unnerved and appropriately uncomfortable at addressing a juvenile delinquent with whom he had absolutely no previous connection, Joshua made a feeble attempt to open a conversation. “You think that’s Little Tujunga Canyon over those hills?”

Simon looked equally unnerved to be spoken to, so much so that at first he merely stiffened as though bracing to ward off a blow, but then he shrugged, glanced uneasily up at Joshua, and mumbled, “Don’t know.”

“Yeah,” Joshua pushed on as though he had received an interested reply, “I think it must be, because the Two-ten runs parallel to that ridge behind us, and the canyons connect down toward it.” He nodded knowingly without looking at Simon for a few seconds, then squatted down to be more on the same level with the other boy, pulling a number of prickly hitchhikers off his socks as a pretense. Both the animated dog and the menacing male figure had disappeared. “You live around here?”

That brought a snort of unamused laughter from Simon. “Temporarily,” he said bitterly.

Not knowing what else to do, Joshua ignored the attitude and went on as though having a friendly conversation. “Where do you usually live?”

Joshua thought that the boy would not answer, but then, “Sunland,” came the disinterested reply.

“Oh, so in the general vicinity anyway,” Joshua said, still floundering. What was he doing? What could he do? It seemed apparent to him that this kid had a very negative influence around him, but hell, you didn’t have to be psychic to make that guess, seeing how Simon was wearing a work suit and digging up shrubbery after an hour’s hike uphill on one of the most unpleasant days of the year while his detention officer looked on.

“I live just over that mountain there,” Joshua told Simon, who glanced at the indicated landmark and then busied himself with the cap of his water bottle. A minute crawled past them. “Well,” Joshua straightened up, not having any other bright ideas. “Try to stay cool.”

Simon looked up at him briefly with a mixture of disdain and curiosity and then stared off again into the hazy distance.

“See ya.” Joshua turned away, expecting no response, but he was surprised again.

“What’s your name?” Simon asked flatly, as though he didn’t care one way or the other whether Joshua answered.

“Joshua.”

“I’m Simon.” The younger boy’s eyes met Joshua’s for the briefest moment, but Joshua got the feeling that it had cost him an effort to do even that.

“Nice to meet you, Simon,” Joshua said, and walked away.

Backtracking to the head of the trail he’d come up, he nodded at the fireman as he passed him, calling out, “See you down the hill!” before he increased his stride, aware of the resentful yet apathetic stares on his back as he went. He worked his way back down to the shade of the oaks, then found a log to rest on, and took from his backpack a small leather notebook and a pen.

Opening to a new page, he wrote, Simon, age about sixteen, male over left shoulder. He paused for a moment to think about it; then, smiling, he added, Small mongrel dog, very animated, between the image and the subject. Now came the hard part. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on the images he’d seen, and as he did, he tried to do what his mother had advised him to do, to see what kind of feeling he got from the images.

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