Nellie Cavendish has very good reasons to seek out her roots, and not only because she has no memory of her mother and hardly knew the father who left her upbringing to paid caregivers. In the eight years since her twenty-first birthday, very odd things have begun to happen. Crows gather near her wherever she goes, electronics short out when she touches them, and when she’s upset, really upset, it storms. At first, she chalked up the unusual happenings to coincidence, but that explanation doesn't begin to cover the vivid nightmares that torment her. She can no longer pretend to ignore them. She has to find out the truth. And the only starting point she has is a mysterious letter from her father delivered ten years after his death, insisting she go to a town called Salem and risk her life to stop some unnamed evil. Before her thirtieth birthday.
As a longtime member of the FBI's Special Crimes Unit, Grayson Sheridan has learned not to be surprised by the unusual and the macabrebut Salem is different. Evidence of Satanic activities and the disappearance of three strangers to the town are what brought Salem to the attention of the SCU, and when Gray arrives to find his undercover partner vanished, he knows that whatever’s hiding in the seemingly peaceful little town is deadly. But what actually hides in the shadows and secrets of Salem is unlike anything the agents have ever encountered.
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He passed her on one of the back streets of downtown Salem, and if Geneva Raynor hadn’t been relaxing her shield for a bit so she could send out a few cautiously probing telepathic tendrils, she would have completely missed him. A hunter, recently down from the mountains even though it was still very early, and ...
Oh, God, oh, Jesus, what coulda done that? I never seen so much blood, so much ... What kind of animal coulda ... And all that on the rocks ... all them symbols or signs, like witchcraft ... but in blood, I know it was in blood ...
His horror was such that Geneva could hardly sort through and try to get a location from his scattered thoughts, and what she got was maddeningly uncertain, a vague direction at best.
Still, she waited only until he was well past, then wandered in the opposite direction, pausing now and again against every instinct screaming at her to hurry in order to point her camera and click to capture a beautiful bit of scenery.
Or whatever. She didn’t give a damn about the scenery.
She didn’t want to take the time to go back to the B&B and lose her camera; for one thing, she’d need it. And for another, from everything she’d heard before arriving in Salem, and since, the town militia was uncanny in how swiftly and thoroughly they “took care” of little problems. Like a murdered and mutilated human body.
Possibly, she reminded herself, knowing that whatever the hunter had seen might have been something else. Maybe.
But probably he’d seen just what he thought he had. Hunters knew what dead game looked like, after all, even if it had been torn to shreds.
There had been three dead human bodies, to date, if her information was correct; she had no reason to doubt that info and every reason to trust it. And she had certainly found no trace of the three missing persons she’d been sent here to ferret out. She was very good at her job; if they had been here, she would have found them, likely in the first few days but certainly in the last two weeks. They were gone. And by now, Geneva didn’t expect to find them, alive or dead.
But this one ... If this was a fourth missing person ... then she had the chance to see at least what the hunter had seen, get a step or two ahead of all this for once.
So she made her way from town, her pace lazy as she looked around, as usual, for what might make a good shot. She was casual when she began to follow one of the trails that led, seemingly straight up a mountain, as she had done fairly often in the last couple of weeks. But this time Geneva didn’t remain on the trail long; she didn’t want to be observed by anyone in town heading in a particular direction. And she was very much aware that as soon as the hunter calmed down, or perhaps sooner, he’d be reporting to a person in authority what he’d seen — and then the militia would be on the job.
Forcing herself to think slowly and clearly even as she used saplings and sometimes harsh bushes that didn’t spare her hands to help her to climb the slope, her legs already starting to burn despite a superbly conditioned body, Geneva wondered if a fourth person had, in fact, gone missing while she’d been here in Salem. There would have been no way for Bishop to let her know. Not, at least until he sent her partner in.
Friday or Saturday, most likely.
Until then, she was on her own. Today was Tuesday.
Geneva kept looking around, trying to find the landmarks she had gotten somewhat fuzzily from the hunter. She was able to pick out one giant boulder and another odd-shaped tree, and as soon as she knew she was in the right general area, she concentrated and opened up the lone spider sense she could claim.
At first there was nothing, and Geneva silently cursed the camera that seemed to be catching on every branch and bit of undergrowth, knowing it was a distraction she didn’t need. She paused a moment in the steep climb toward ...
The spider senses varied within the members of Bishop’s unit, some able to enhance all their normal senses, and some only one or two. For Geneva it had always been scent. No matter how hard she tried, she could not enhance her sight or hearing. But her scent ... that she could do.
With a vengeance.
Blood ... blood ... blood ...
She tried to breathe through her mouth, which was easy in one way because she was getting winded from the long, steep climb, and more difficult in another way because the smell of blood was so strong she could taste it now, thick and coppery. And even without enhanced senses she could hear the buzzing of flies ...
Geneva closed her mind to that. She kept climbing grimly, until the sapling she’d grasped to help pull her along snapped forward and propelled her into a small clearing so quickly she was barely able to keep to her feet.
Blessed with a cast-iron stomach and a seasoned agent besides, Geneva didn’t immediately lose her breakfast. But her enhanced sense of smell told her the hunter had, and she tried not to think about that, tried, now, to shut down the spider sense.
Not that she could. Once triggered, it was a wayward thing with a mind of its own, the team members who used it had decided. Unlike the truly psychic senses that could usually be cut off by erecting a shield, the spider senses were just ... there. Once turned on, it was impossible to turn them off. They were just raw nerves exposed to the air, gradually ebbing over minutes. Or hours.
Grimly, Geneva breathed through her mouth, trying to ignore the thick feeling of scent even there, and stood right where she was, studying the scene carefully.
A dump site. Not a murder scene; for all the blood and viscera, and there was a lot of both, the ground around the ... remains ... wasn’t soaked, and that told her this victim had been killed somewhere else.
The worst of the butchery had been done afterward, and here, long after his heart had stopped pumping blood.
Victim. Male; he was naked, and nothing had been done to mutilate his genitals. She noted that dispassionately, just as she mentally checked the box beside Not sexually motivated.
Young but no child; from what she could see of bony shoulders and upper chest, her guess would be in his twenties. After that ... All she could do was note details. Arms and legs had been slashed repeatedly, some shallow cuts and some showing white bone. His chest and midsection had been opened, the breastbone and ribs broken outward, and with great force. That could be done by an expert with the right tools, she knew, but this ... this didn’t look like anything she’d seen, not in textbooks, not at the body farm, and not at any crime scene or dump site she’d witnessed until now.
Almost as if he’d swallowed some kind of explosive device, though she saw no signs of other damage such a device would cause. Just those out-ward bent, splintered ribs and breastbone.
Virtually all of his organs appeared undamaged, yet had been cut free of the body and now lay alongside it in a way that looked to her eye more hurried than carefully staged.
And his head ... his skull ... looked as if it had somehow ... burst open under the same extreme force that had broken the breastbone and ribs outward. Shards and fragments of bone from the skull were also angled outward, some bent, some broken, white in the morning sunlight with only a patch or two of scalp still clinging to bone.
His brain was gone.
It was difficult to remain dispassionate at that, but she mentally checked another box in her head: Something I’ve never seen before; no idea what caused it.
Geneva forced herself to look carefully, still not moving closer, and saw no sign of that organ anywhere.
There were several boulders not much larger than basketballs around the body that looked as if they had been rolled from somewhere else and placed there, a few clearly pried loose from dark earth still clinging to them. Placed carefully, she thought, to surround the body. That much was staged. A hasty effort to make this look like something occult or satanic? And on bared areas of gray granite, probably in the victims’s blood, were signs and symbols. Like an ancient language. Or the scribbling of a toddler.
Geneva didn’t recognize a single one of them as having any kind of meaning, occult or otherwise. And though she might not be the SCU’s expert on the occult, she was familiar with the basics, as all Bishop’s agents were.
The clock in her head was ticking away the minutes she likely had before the militia arrived. And it was ticking fast. She grabbed at the camera, grateful for it now, and began skillfully photographing the scene.
She was no crime scene tech but, like all of Bishop’s people, she had spent some time working with the best specialized teams at Quantico in order to learn skills she might possibly need in the field. And that practice of their unit chief’s, arming his people with as much knowledge and experience as possible on a wide variety of skills, had come in handy more times than any of them could count. Because you never knew what you would need in the field until you were there.
She moved as carefully as possible, trying to leave no evidence that she had been there, circling the scene but staying well back, placing her feet wherever possible on rock or some other surface that would not leave traces.
They don’t use dogs to track. I don’t think they use dogs. Never heard of that, and I would have. I think. Surely would have picked up on it somehow. Maybe. Dammit.
Two weeks here and she knew so little.
It probably took no more than five minutes, though alarm bells were already screaming in her mind, before Geneva finished to her satisfaction. Then she carefully backed away, chose a different direction that would take her well away from the town before she’d have to angle back toward it, and she began to make her way back down the mountain. She went cautiously, leaning on all the woodscraft she knew, pausing now and then to listen, to strain her eyes looking around through the dim forest. And then she went on.
The smell of blood she’d resolutely closed her mind to had gradually faded away. As for the rest ... she didn’t need to see the pictures she’d taken to remember every horrific detail.
She was perhaps fifteen minutes and quite a distance from the dump site before she paused near a thicket of brambles, used a piece of dead limb to dig a hole in the ground, and lost her breakfast. When she was done, she carefully scraped the dirt back over the hole, then pulled a thicket of brambles over it.
She stood back, studying the area critically for a long moment to make certain there were no signs of her passing this way. And then Geneva adjusted the camera strap on her shoulder and continued to angle on down the mountain, toward one of the narrow but well-used trails that would take her to the town of Salem.
* * *
It was storming. The storm had come out of nowhere, according to the bewildered weather guy on TV, and seemed isolated over a very small area. No snow, but a sporadic icy rain mixed with sleet. And thunder, which was rare with winter storms. He couldn’t understand it. Nellie Cavendish turned him off with a faint sigh. Of course it was storming.
It always stormed when she was upset.
Especially this upset.
She left the light on in the bathroom because she hated the dark, and lay back in the surprisingly comfortable bed. Leo licked her hand, and she gently pulled at her dog’s short, silky ears as he lay alongside her. He knew she was upset.
It was storming, after all.
“I won’t dream,” she murmured, to him or to herself. “Not tonight. “I’m so close now. Surely I won’t dream.”
Maybe he knew she would dream. Nellie didn’t have the sort of connection with Leo to be sure what he knew or didn’t know except when it was obvious. It stormed when she was very upset, very nervous or very anxious. After five years with her he knew that and tended to stick even closer than usual.
He knew they were on a trip, and normally Leo enjoyed travel. Exploring new places with new things to smell was fun; that was the sense she got from him. But not this time. He had been uncharacteristically subdued all the way here.
Then again, maybe it was just this motel.
She had spent the last two nights at this very unsettling and weirdly familiar roadside motel about ten miles away from Salem, trying to get up her nerve to actually drive into town. It had been the closest lodging she’d been able to find not actually in the town – the only lodging, really, within at least thirty miles, which was weird.
No weirder than the rest of this, she supposed, but ...
It was almost as if the town wanted to be hidden.
Her car’s GPS system hadn’t had a clue, and neither had the maps app on her cell, so she’d had to rely on some pretty old, many-folded maps of the kind still sold at many gas stations. And even then she’d found herself stopping often to ask where she was on them (since roads and highways had been added everywhere since the maps had been printed) and how to find Salem. The directions she had followed had consisted entirely of physical landmarks such as an ancient tumbledown barn just off the highway, a lone pancake house that appeared to have gone out of business a considerable time previously and, at the off-ramp itself, what looked like a truckers’ gas station and café actually called Mama’s Good Food.
Mama’s cooking didn’t appear to be a very strong draw. Nellie hadn’t seen a single truck or, for that matter, a car at the café, even though a blinking red neon sign in the window, a few dim places in its tubing adding to the weirdness, had declared the place to be open.
It was hardly inviting. Nellie hadn’t been tempted to stop.
Miles off the highway ramp she had been somewhat reassured to discover that her interim destination, recommended by a helpful man at a gas station several hours before, was neat and in good-repair. The neon sign indicating The Raven Lodge had not been missing any of its illumination, blue letters shining brightly like the beacon it was no doubt designed to be to draw in weary travelers for a brief respite from their adventures in the middle of godforsaken nowhere.
A single crow had been perched on the sign, and had watched Nellie’s arrival with bright eyes. Weirdly appropriate, even though it was a crow and not a raven. And she didn’t even know if she could have explained the difference. Just that she knew this was a crow, because she saw them all the time.
She had deliberately avoided looking at it as she checked in and parked near her room, carrying in her bags herself. And she hadn’t looked out to see if the crow lingered.
They almost never did once she got inside.
Since then, she had mostly stayed inside. A couple of other guests had come and gone for a single night, which had been reassuring, but not much; Nellie had seen them only in passing, and they’d had the glazed-eyed look of exhausted travelers just looking for a place to rest for a few hours before moving on in their journey from somewhere to somewhere else.
It was a lonely place. Still, Nellie really wasn’t all that worried about anyone bothering her. She had her gun. And Leo. Not many people were willing to mess with a ninety-pound Pit bull.
Or even a little woman holding a gun with very expert ease.
No, the Raven Lodge, despite it’s somewhat eerie isolation, was to all appearances safe enough, neatly-kept and maintained as though someone cared; she’d seen a gardener working, and there were at least two maids who took care of the rooms.
So. It was a place to pause for a day or three and think about this, which was why she had stopped instead of pushing on when she was so close. To think. To walk Leo — always within sight of the motel — and to ask herself again and again if she was making the biggest mistake of her life.
A place to pause and consider, that’s what she had needed. And never mind that there was always a crow visible somewhere when she took Leo out. Sometimes more than one, always watching her with their small, black, eerily intelligent eyes.
She ignored them.
Because this was a good place to stop and think, without distractions, feathered or otherwise.
It had this fairly comfortable bed, after all, complete with a snowy white duvet cover freshly bleached instead of the mystery bedspread of many hotels and motels made infamous by unpleasant stains hidden by dark, busy floral prints. There were plenty of good pillows and warm blankets, plenty of hot water in the shower, and plenty of towels. The heating system worked efficiently without sounding like a jet taking off just outside the window. Both satellite TV on a seemingly brand-new flatscreen and the WiFi password she’d been given at check-in for her laptop worked with no problem at all as long as she remembered not to rest her fingers or hands on the laptop for any longer than necessary.
They tended to go dead on her if she wasn’t careful. Even if they were plugged into an electrical outlet. Even if she wore her gloves.
There was no food service or restaurant on site or nearby, but there were vending machines in a central niche where the ice machine lived, and a fair selection of those, even providing sandwiches and microwavable soup and other meals. She had both a coffee maker and microwave in her room. And, anyway, it beat driving all the way back to Mama’s.
So a good place to pause. To think.
But she had still dreamed the first night here. And last night. The same horrible, inexplicable dream that woke her with a scream of terror tangled in her throat, locked behind her gritted teeth. And so tonight it was storming, the rumble of thunder rolling and rolling and rolling as if seeking a particular path through these old mountains and valleys. Or a particular thing.
Dumb. Dumb thought. Turn out the lights, the TV, listen to the storm – and imagine it’s hunting you. Oh, yeah, that’ll lead to a restful night.
Leo licked her hand again, and Nellie murmured to him soothingly, then closed her eyes in determination. The storm was not hunting her. This little motel was perfectly ordinary and perfectly safe, and she could sleep easily.
She told herself that over and over.
And she almost believed herself.
* * *
It was never the same, Nellie’s dream – and yet it was. The same terror and shame and confusion. The same overwhelming sense that this wasn’t her, that she was watching someone else do these inexplicable, sickening, unspeakable things.
It was always in the woods, dense woods like those that surrounded this isolated motel. There was always a big fire, a bonfire, with shadowy figures she could never quite make out throwing more branches onto the fire to keep it burning high and hot.
She could never tell if it was a mist or smoke that made it difficult for her to see clearly, but she never could. The brightness of the bonfire, the shifting human shapes of shadows. Smoke or mist swirling, distorting everything.
There was always chanting. Words she could never make out, or maybe a language she didn’t know. Or maybe she just didn’t want to understand what they were saying, because something inside her, inside the sane her, didn’t want to understand. Smells she didn’t want to identify because ... because. Things she didn’t want to look at, to see.
Even glimpses were bad enough. Because she thought there was a body lying prone on a big, flat rock, blood dripping, shining in the firelight, and it didn’t even look human anymore.
Who had done that? Why?
They were all around her, moving, perhaps dancing as they chanted. In the shadows mostly but occasionally a flicker of the bonfire would catch the gleam of eyes or the wet maw of an open mouth chanting.
Chanting ... something. Slowly at first, softly. Then louder. Faster. Frenzied.
And then there was her. As if she stood back and watched, she could see herself. Or someone that appeared to be her, which was what she desperately hoped was the truth. Not her. Just someone who looked like her. Dressed in some filmy white dress with layers and bits that fluttered as she danced and whirled. Barefoot, her hair lose and whipping about. Layered or not, the dress was nearly transparent, more obviously so when the layers and bits lifted and shifted with her movements, and it was utterly clear she was naked underneath it.
It made her want to turn away, to writhe in shame and disgust. Because she, that other her, that stranger, was wild, pagan, and dancing with total abandon, out of control, growing more frenzied as the chanting grew more frenzied. A shadowy partner danced with her near the bonfire, a partner who was clearly male and clearly aroused as well, because he was naked.
She couldn’t see his face because he was wearing some kind of mask, but the firelight glinted off sweat-slick muscled flesh as he danced with a grace that was riveting.
That was what Nellie hated, that she couldn’t look away, couldn’t turn away and run from this. She stood frozen, somehow apart from what was happening or wanting to be, staring, watching herself — watching that stranger that looked like her – behave in a way she never had, never could, in some kind of ceremony or ritual or, hell, just insanity, and what she felt even over the disgust and shame and bewilderment was this awful certainty of ... inevitability.
It wasn’t a dream. Wasn’t a nightmare. It was something else.
It was something real.
And it terrified her.
The chanting grew louder, the shadows in the background moved with more frenzy, she moved with more frenzy, and then she started taking off the filmy white dress, the sheer layers of it falling away from her, her sweating face twisted in an expression of lust, and the naked man was reaching for her, his hands grasping –
And she woke with a cry, sitting up in bed, Leo whining anxiously beside her..
She wrapped her arms around him and held on to his warmth and strength, his reality, knowing she was shaking and frightened. She could still hear the thunder, softer now as the storm wandered away, its task finished.
It had found her.
* * *
Outside the odd little motel, the crows gathered, as they did every night since Nellie had arrived. Oddly silent for birds that weren’t usually.
Two. Four. Ten. Finally a dozen in all. A couple perched on the motel’s sign. Others perched on tree branches, a few on the old three-rail fence that fronted the motel’s property and was supposed to be decorative.
Some of the crows looked up as thunder rumbled in the distance, but their attention never strayed far or for long from the motel room with the curtains drawn.
The one with her inside.
They were silent, the crows. Wings flapped occasionally, but no normally raucous caw of sound escaped any of them.
They just watched. And waited.