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Sleeping With Fear

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년:
2007
출판사:
Random House Publishing Group
언어:
english
ISBN 13:
9780553586008
시리즈:
Fear 3
파일:
EPUB, 377 KB
다운로드 (epub, 377 KB)

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年:
2007
语言:
english
文件:
EPUB, 346 KB
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年:
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语言:
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文件:
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Sleeping with Fear





New York Times bestselling author Kay Hooper returns with a relentless thriller that brings her readers face-to-face with fear itself. In this terrifying new novel, a psychic special agent finds herself caught up in a tangled web of secrets, lies… and evil.



Riley Crane woke up fully dressed, a gun under her pillow, and covered in blood. Even more frightening, she didn’t remember what happened the night before. In fact, she barely remembered the previous three weeks.



An ex-army officer, now a federal agent assigned to the Special Crimes Unit, Riley was a chameleon—a clairvoyant who could blend in with her surroundings, be anyone or anything she chose to be. The SCU’s expert on the occult, she’d been sent to the beachfront cottage on Opal Island by her enigmatic chief, Noah Bishop, to investigate reports of dangerous occult activity.



But that was three weeks ago. Now she’s awoken to discover that she’s got a sexy new man in her life and an unreliable memory, and that the clairvoyant abilities she’s always depended on to protect her are MIA. Worse yet, with SCU resources stretched thinner than ever before, Riley is alone and without backup, feeling her way through a deadly game of blindman’s buff, where no one around her is quite who or what they seem. And a bizarre murder is only the first jarring reminder of how high the stakes really are.



Bishop wants Riley off the case. So does powerful local D.A. Ash Prescott. Both her old retired army buddy Gordon Skinner and Sheriff Jake Ballard believe she can catch a vicious killer. But one of these four men knows exactly what’s going on in this coastal community, and that’s knowledge Riley desperately needs. For what Riley can’t remember is more than enough to cost her her life. This time evil isn’t just closer than she thinks—it’s already there.





SLEEPING WITH FEAR





Kay Hooper





A Fear Series Thriller

Book 3 in the Series



Copyright © 2006

by Kay Hooper





Dedication





For my sister Linda,

because the title wo; rked so well





• 01 •





Even before she opened her eyes, Riley Crane was aware of two things. Her pounding head, and the smell of blood.

Neither was all that unusual.

Instinct and training made her lie perfectly still, eyes closed, until she was reasonably sure she was fully awake. She was on her stomach and probably on a bed, she thought. Possibly her own bed. On top of the covers, or at least not covered up.

Alone.

She opened her eyes a slit, just enough to see. Rumpled covers, pillows. Her rumpled covers and pillows, she decided. Her bed. The nightstand, holding the usual nightstand accessories of lamp, an untidy stack of books, and an alarm clock.

The red numbers announced that it was 2:00 P.M.

Okay, that was unusual. She never slept late, and she never took naps. Plus, while either a headache or the smell of blood was not uncommon in her life, the two together were setting off alarm bells in her mind.

Riley concentrated on listening, her unease growing when she realized that she could hear only on the “normal” level. The faint hum of the air-conditioning. The muffled rumble and crash of the surf out on the beach. A gull screaming as it flew past the house. The sort of stuff the usual everyday sense of hearing could glean automatically without any added concentration or focus.

But nothing else. Try as she might, she couldn’t hear the underlying pulse of the house that was made up of things like the water in the plumbing and electricity humming in the lines and the all-but-imperceptible shifting and creaking of seemingly solid wood and stone as wind blew off the ocean and pressed against the building.

She couldn’t hear any of it. And that was bad.

Taking the chance, Riley pushed herself up on her elbows and then slid her right hand underneath the pillows. Ahhh…at least it was there, right where it was supposed to be. Her hand closed over the reassuring grip of her weapon, and she pulled it out, giving it a quick visual scan.

Clip in, safety on, no round in the chamber. She automatically ejected the clip, checked that it was full, and slid it back into place, then chambered a round, the action quick and smooth after so many years of practice. The gun in her hand felt comfortable. That was right.

But something else was very wrong.

She could see the blood now as well as smell it. It was on her.

Riley rolled and sat up in a single motion, her gaze darting around the bedroom warily. Her bedroom, something she recognized with a sense of familiarity, the reassurance of being where she should be. And it was empty except for her.

Her head was pounding even harder from the quick movements, but she ignored it as she looked down at herself. The hand holding the gun was smeared with dried blood, and when she shifted the weapon to her other hand, she saw that it was as well. On her palms, on the backs of her hands, her forearms, even, she saw, underneath her fingernails.

As far as she could tell, there was no blood on the covers, the pillows. Which meant all the blood on her had dried before she had apparently fallen across the bed fully dressed and gone to sleep. Or passed out. Either way…

Jesus Christ.

Blood on her hands. Blood on her light-colored T-shirt. Blood on her faded jeans.

A lot of blood.

Was she hurt? She didn’t feel any pain, apart from the throbbing headache. But she did feel a cold, growing fear, because waking up covered with blood could not, by any stretch of the imagination, possibly be a good thing.

She got herself off the bed, a little stiff and more than a little shaky, and moved on bare feet out of the bedroom. Quickly but cautiously, she checked her surroundings to reassure herself that she was alone, that no immediate threat existed here. The second bedroom was neat as a pin and looked as though it hadn’t been used recently, which was probably the case; Riley seldom had the sort of guests that required an extra bedroom.

Checking out the remainder of the house was quick work, since most of it consisted of a large open area that was kitchen, dining area, and living room. Clean, but slightly untidy, with books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, and DVDs stacked here and there. The usual clutter of everyday life.

It looked like she’d been using the small dining table as a work surface, since place mats were pushed aside and her laptop carrying case was on one of the chairs. The computer wasn’t out, which told her only that she probably hadn’t been working on it recently.

The doors were closed and locked. The windows were also closed—it was hot in summer along the South Carolina coast—and locked.

She was alone.

Nevertheless, Riley took her weapon along when she went into her bathroom and checked behind the shower curtain before she locked herself in the relatively small room. Then she suffered another shock when she looked into the mirror above the vanity.

More dried blood was on her face, smeared across her cheek, and some appeared to be matted in her pale hair. Thickly matted.

“Shit.”

Her stomach churned, and she stood there for a moment, eyes closed, until the nausea passed. Then she laid her weapon on the vanity and stripped to the skin.

She checked every inch of herself and found nothing. No injury, not even a scratch. It wasn’t her blood.

That should have been reassuring. It wasn’t. She was covered with blood, and it wasn’t hers. Which left her with a hell of a lot of unsettling, potentially terrifying, questions.

What—or who—had bled all over her? What had happened? And why couldn’t she remember?

Riley looked down at the crumpled clothing on the floor, then at herself, pale gold with her summer tan, her skin unmarked except for the dried blood on her hands and forearms.

Forearms. Somehow or other, she’d literally been up to her elbows in blood. Jesus.

Ignoring all the training that insisted she call the local authorities before doing another thing, Riley got into the shower. She made the water as hot as she could stand and used plenty of soap, scrubbing away the dried blood. She used a nailbrush to reach the dark slivers of dried blood underneath her fingernails and shampooed her short hair at least twice. Even after it was clean, after she was clean, she stood under the hot water, letting it beat against her shoulders, her neck, her still-sickly pounding head.

What had happened?

She didn’t have the faintest clue, that was the hell of it. She had absolutely no memory of how she’d gotten herself covered with blood.

She remembered lots of other things. Almost all the important stuff, really. “Your name is Riley Crane,” she muttered aloud, trying to reassure herself that something wasn’t terribly wrong. “You’re thirty-two years old, single, and a federal agent assigned, these last three years, to the Special Crimes Unit.”

Name, rank, serial number—more or less. Knowledge she was certain of.

No amnesia there. She knew who she was. An army brat with four older brothers, she’d grown up all over the world, had a rich and varied education, a wide range of training of a kind few women could claim, and had been able to take care of herself from a very young age. And she knew where she belonged, in the FBI, in the SCU. All that she remembered.

As for her recent life…

Christ, what was the last thing she remembered? She vaguely remembered renting the cottage, sort of remembered settling in. Carrying boxes and bags from the car. Putting things away. Walking on the beach. Sitting out on the deck in the darkness at night, feeling the warm ocean breeze on her face and—

Not alone. Somebody out there with her. The vague, fuzzy memory of quiet voices. Hushed laughter. A touch she felt, for a fleeting second, so strongly that she looked down at her hand in bemusement.

And then it was gone.

Try as she might, Riley couldn’t remember anything else clearly. It became a confusing jumble in her head. Just flashes, most of which made no sense to her. Faces that were unfamiliar, places she didn’t remember being, random snatches of conversations she didn’t understand.

Flashes punctuated by jabs of pain in her head.

Blaming the headache for the huge blank space that was her recent past, Riley got out of the shower and dried off. It was just the headache, of course. She’d swallow a few aspirin and get some food into her system, some caffeine into her veins, and then she’d remember. Surely. She wrapped a towel around her and, picking up her weapon again, returned to the bedroom to find fresh clothing.

It struck her, as she opened drawers and checked the closet, that she had been here awhile. She really was settled in, far more so than was her habit. This wasn’t her usual living-out-of-a-suitcase jumble. Her clothing was fairly neat in the drawers, hanging in the closet. And it was more than beach vacation clothing.

Casual stuff, yes, but several dressy things as well, from nice slacks and silk blouses to dresses. Even heels and hose.

So, okay. She was here to work, that had to be it. The problem was, she couldn’t seem to remember what the job was.

Riley opened one drawer and pulled out an extremely pretty, lacy, sexy bra-and-panty set, and felt her eyebrows rising. Not her usual stuff at all, obviously new, and there was more in the drawer. What the hell kind of job was she here to do, anyway?

That question echoed even stronger in her mind when she also discovered a garter belt.

A garter belt, for crying out loud.

“Jesus, Bishop, what’ve you got me doing this time?”





3 Years Previously




“I need somebody like you on my team.” Noah Bishop, Chief of the FBI Special Crimes Unit, could be persuasive when he wanted to. And he definitely wanted to.

Riley Crane eyed him, her doubt and her wariness obvious. Knowing her background, he understood and had expected both.

She was interesting, he thought. Physically not at all what he’d expected: A bit below average height and petite, almost fragile in appearance, she didn’t look as if she could throw a man more than twice her size over her shoulder with little apparent effort. Large gray eyes that were deceptively childlike, gazing innocently out of an elfin face that was quirky and intriguing and infinitely memorable without being in any way beautiful.

Fascinating that such a face belonged to a chameleon.

“Why me?” she demanded, straight to the point.

Bishop appreciated the directness, and answered matter-of-factly. “Aside from the necessary skills as an investigator, you possess two unique abilities I expect will prove highly useful in our work. You can fit yourself into any situation and be anyone you choose to be at any given time, and you’re clairvoyant.”

Riley didn’t bother to protest. She merely said, “I like playing dress-up. Playing Let’s Pretend. When you live in your imagination as a kid, you get good at stuff like that. As for the other, since I haven’t gone out of my way to advertise—just the opposite, in fact—how did you find out?”

“I keep my ear to the ground,” Bishop replied with a shrug.

“Not good enough.”

“I’m building a unit around agents with paranormal abilities, and I’ve spent a great deal of time these last few years…casting out lines. Quietly alerting people I trust, within law enforcement and outside it, as to the sort of potential agents I’m looking for.”

“Psychics.”

“Not just any psychics. I need exceptionally strong people who can handle both their abilities and the emotional and psychological hardships of the work we do.” He nodded to the scene just past her. “It seems fairly obvious that you can handle the sort of extreme stress I’m talking about.”

Riley glanced back over her shoulder, where the rest of her team was working in the rubble of what might or might not have been a deliberate explosion. The victims had been located and carried—on stretchers or in body bags—from the scene hours ago; now the army investigators were searching for evidence.

“I haven’t been doing this particular sort of thing for long,” Riley said. “I tend toward investigative work, sure, but my last job dealt with base security. I go wherever I’m sent.”

“So your CO told me.”

“You spoke to him?”

Bishop hesitated only long enough to make it obvious, then said, “He’s the one who got in touch with me.”

“So he’s one of those trusted people you mentioned?”

“He is. The friend of a friend, more or less. And open-minded to the possibilities of the paranormal, a trait not terribly common in the military. No offense intended, obviously.”

“None taken. Obviously. What did he tell you?”

“He seems to feel that your talents are being wasted and that he can’t offer you the kind of challenges he believes you need.”

“He said that?”

“Words to the effect. You’re on short time, I take it, with a few weeks left before you re-up. Or not.”

“I’m career military,” she said.

“Or not,” Bishop said.

Riley shook her head slightly, and said, “Offhand, Agent Bishop, I can’t think of a single reason why I’d want to exchange the military life for one with the FBI—however specialized your unit is. Besides, even if I do get an occasional hunch, it never makes a difference in the outcome of any given situation.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“No.”

“We can help you learn how to channel and focus your abilities, how to use them constructively. You might be surprised at just how much of a difference that can make—in any given situation.”

Without waiting for a response from her, Bishop opened the briefcase he carried and extracted a large, thick manila envelope. “Take a look at this when you get the chance,” he said, handing it to her. “Tonight, tomorrow. After that, if you’re interested, give me a call. My number’s inside.”

“And if I’m not interested?”

“Everything in there is a copy. If you’re not interested, destroy it and forget about it. But I’m betting you’ll be interested. So I’ll stick around for a few days, Major. Just in case.”

Riley stood gazing after him for a long moment, tapping the envelope against her hand thoughtfully. Then she locked it in her vehicle and got back to work.

It wasn’t until much later that evening, alone in her small off-base apartment, that she discovered Bishop hadn’t been entirely truthful. One thing in the envelope wasn’t a copy.

She had half-consciously steeled herself before opening the envelope, partly because common sense told her the sort of thing she was likely to find and partly because her extra sense was tingling a warning as well—and had been from the moment she’d first touched it. But years of disciplined living, particularly in the military, had taught her a fair amount about concentration and focus, so that she was usually able to damp down those distracting feelings until she needed them.

Until she was ready to focus on what she saw when she upended the envelope onto her desk.

Copies, yeah. Copies of hell. Autopsy reports—and autopsy photos. Crime-scene photos. Not just one crime, but half a dozen. Murders of what appeared to be healthy young men. Brutal murders, cruel and bloody and savage.

Without looking through the autopsy reports, Riley nevertheless knew the murders had taken place in different cities and towns. She knew all the victims had known their killer. She knew only one killer was responsible.

She also knew what Bishop intended to do in order to catch that killer.

“So that’s why me,” she said to herself. A challenge? Oh, yes, definitely. The challenge of a lifetime. A deadly test of her skills. All of them.

She reached out slowly and picked up the single object from the envelope that was not a copy. It was a coin, a half-dollar. Nothing, apparently, unusual about it at all. Except that when she touched it, Riley knew one thing more.

She knew what would happen if she refused Bishop’s invitation.

In the end, there wasn’t a great deal to think about. Riley found the card with his cell number on it and placed the call. She didn’t bother with pleasantries when he answered.

“You don’t play fair,” she said.

“I don’t play,” he replied.

“Something I should remember, for future reference?”

“You tell me.”

Riley closed her fingers over the coin in her hand, and sighed. “Where do I sign up?”





Present Day




It didn’t take Riley long to get dressed. She avoided the lacy underwear and pulled on the plainer and more practical—and more comfortable—stuff she usually wore, then found jeans and a cotton tank top. She didn’t bother to dry her short hair, just finger-combed it and left it to dry on its own.

Barefoot, she went to the kitchen and set up the coffeemaker, then rummaged around until she found some aspirin. She swallowed them dry with a grimace, belatedly discovering orange juice in the fridge to wash down the bitter aftertaste.

The fridge was well-stocked, which again raised Riley’s brows. Generally speaking, she was a take-out girl, not much given to cooking more than eggs and toast or the occasional steak.

Her stomach rumbled, telling her she hadn’t eaten in a while. That was something of a relief, actually, because it also offered a possible reason why her senses were so muffled: There was no fuel in her physical furnace, an absolute necessity for her to function at peak efficiency.

It was her own individual quirk; most of the SCU agents could claim at least one such oddity.

Riley fixed herself a large bowl of cereal and ate it leaning against the work island in the kitchen.

Her weapon was never out of reach.

By the time she’d finished her meal, the coffee was ready. She carried her first cup with her as she went over to the ocean-side windows and the glass doors leading out to the deck. She didn’t go out but opened the blinds and stood drinking the coffee as she scanned the grayish Atlantic, the dunes and beach.

Not a lot of activity to be seen, and what was there was scattered. A few people stretched out on towels or beach loungers, soaking up the sun. A couple of kids near one sunning couple building a peculiar-looking structure out of sand. One couple strolling along the waterline as small waves broke around their ankles.

The beach between Riley’s small house and the water was empty; people here tended to respect the boundaries of public/private beach access, especially at this less-populated end of this particular small island, and if you paid the higher bucks for oceanfront you generally had your little piece of the sand to yourself.

Riley returned to the kitchen for her second cup of coffee, frowning because her head was still pounding despite aspirin, food, and caffeine. And because she still couldn’t remember what had happened to leave her covered in dried blood.

“Dammit,” she muttered, reluctant to do what she knew she had to. As with most agents in the SCU, control was a big issue with Riley, and she hated having to admit to anyone that a situation was out of her control. But this one, inarguably, was.

At least for the moment.

Leaving her coffee cup in the kitchen but still carrying her weapon, she searched for her cell phone, finding it eventually in a casual shoulder bag. One glance told her the cell was dead as a doornail, something she accepted with a resigned sigh. She found the charger plugged in and waiting near one end of the kitchen counter and set the cell into it.

There was a land-line phone on the same end of the counter, and Riley stared at it, biting her lip in brief indecision.

Shit. Nothing else she could do, really.

She finished her second cup of coffee, perfectly aware that she was stalling, then finally placed the call.

When he answered with a brief “Bishop,” she worked hard to make her own voice calm and matter-of-fact.

“Hey, it’s Riley. I seem to have a bit of a situation here.”

There was a long silence, and then Bishop, his voice now curiously rough, said, “We gathered that much. What the hell is going on, Riley? You missed your last two check-ins.”

A chill shivered down her spine. “What do you mean?” She never missed check-ins. Never.

“I mean we haven’t heard a word from you in over two weeks.”





• 02 •





Riley said the only thing she could think of. “I’m…surprised you didn’t send in the cavalry by now.”

Grimly, Bishop said, “I wanted to, believe me. But aside from the fact that all the teams were out and hip-deep in investigations they absolutely couldn’t leave, you had insisted you could handle the situation alone and that I shouldn’t be concerned if you were out of touch for a while. Any of us going in blind didn’t seem like the best of ideas. You’re one of the most capable and self-sufficient people I know, Riley; I had to trust you knew what you were doing.”

Almost absently, she said, “I wasn’t criticizing you for not riding to the rescue, just sort of surprised you hadn’t.” Which told her that he himself was undoubtedly “hip-deep” in a case he was unable to leave; whatever she’d told him, Bishop tended to keep a close eye on his people and was rarely out of touch for more than a day or two during an ongoing investigation.

Then again, he also likely would have sensed it if she had been in actual, physical danger. Or at any rate had certainly done so more than once in the past. He was like that with some of his agents, though not by any means all of them.

“And, anyway, I’m all right,” she said. “At least…”

“What? Riley, what the hell is going on down there?”

His question made her grimace half-consciously, because if Bishop didn’t know what was going on here, she was most likely in very big trouble.

How on earth had she managed to end up in a situation deadly enough to cover her in blood and apparently trigger a short-term memory loss and yet still manage to conceal what was happening from the formidable telepathic awareness of the SCU chief?

Perhaps the memory loss had something to do with that? Or maybe the same thing that had triggered the memory loss had thrown up some kind of block or shield? She didn’t know.

Dammit, she just didn’t know.

“Riley? You didn’t believe there was a risk of violence, at least according to what you said when you did check in. No suspicious deaths, no one reported missing. I got the impression you were half-convinced it was just a series of pranks. Has something happened to change that?”

Avoiding the direct question, she asked one of her own. “Listen, what else did I say?”

For a moment she didn’t think he was going to answer, but finally he did.

“Since you arrived at Opal Island three weeks ago, you’ve filed only one formal report, and that one was seriously lacking in details. Just that you’d settled in, you had a reliable contact in the Hazard County Sheriff’s Department, and that you were confident you could successfully resolve the situation.”

Riley drew a breath and said casually, “The situation being?”

The silence this time was, to say the least, tense.

“Riley?”

“Yeah?”

“Why did you go to Opal Island?”

“I…don’t exactly remember.”

“Have you been injured?”

“No.” She decided, somewhat guiltily, not to mention the blood. Not yet, at any rate. She thought she might need that later. “Not so much as a scratch, and no bump on the head.”

“Then it’s likely to be emotional or psychological trauma. Or psychic trauma.”

“Yeah, that was my take.”

Being Bishop, he didn’t waste time exclaiming. “What do you remember?”

“Getting here—vaguely. Renting this house, settling in. After that, just flashes I haven’t been able to sort through.”

“What about before you left Quantico?”

“I remember everything. Or, at least, everything through the close of the investigation in San Diego. I got back to the office, started in on all the paperwork…and that’s pretty much it, until I woke up here a couple of hours ago.”

“What about your abilities?”

“Spider sense seems to be out of commission, but I woke up starving so that probably doesn’t mean anything. I dunno about the clairvoyance yet, but if I had to guess…” She knew she had to be honest. “Not exactly firing on all cylinders.”

Bishop didn’t hesitate. “Go back to Quantico, Riley.”

“Without knowing what’s happened here? I can’t do that.”

“I don’t want to make it an order.”

“And I don’t want to disobey one. But I can’t just pack up and leave with this—this huge blank place in my life. Don’t ask me to do that, Bishop.”

“Riley, listen to me. You’re down there alone, without backup. You can’t remember the last three weeks. You don’t even remember what you’re there to investigate. And the abilities that could normally help you focus on and sort through undercurrents aren’t available to you—either temporarily or permanently. Now, can you give me a single reason why I should ignore all that and allow you to stay there?”

She drew a breath, and gambled. “Yeah. One very big reason. Because when I woke up today, I was fully dressed and covered with dried blood. Whatever happened here, I was up to my elbows in it. One call to the local sheriff and I’d probably be sitting in his jail. So I have to stay here, Bishop. I have to stay until I remember—or figure out—what the hell’s going on.”





Sue McEntyre wasn’t at all happy with the local ordinance that kept dogs off the beach from eight A.M. until eight P.M. It wasn’t that she minded getting up early to allow her two Labs a good long run on the beach, it was just that big dogs—hers, at least—would have been happier if they’d been able to get out into the water a few times during the day as well. Especially during a hot summer.

Luckily, there was a big park skirting downtown Castle with an area complete with wading pond where dogs were allowed off-leash anytime during the day, so at least once every day she loaded Pip and Brandy into her Jeep and off they went, across the bridge and onto the mainland.

On this Monday afternoon, she didn’t expect it to be crowded; summer visitors tended to be baking on the beach or shopping downtown, so it was mostly locals who used the park, and most of them for the same reason Sue did.

She found a space closer to the dog area than usual and within minutes was throwing a Frisbee for Brandy and a tennis ball for Pip, giving all three of them plenty of exercise as she threw and they happily fetched.

It wasn’t until Pip abruptly dropped his ball and shot off into the woods that Sue realized a section of the fence was down and that the bolder and more curious of her two dogs had seized the opportunity presented.

“Damn.” She wasn’t too worried; he wasn’t likely to head toward the streets and traffic. But neither was he at all likely to respond if she called him, especially since he loved exploring the woods even more than running on the beach and had perfected the art of going suddenly and temporarily deaf when his interest was engaged.

Sue called Brandy and clipped a leash to her collar, then set off in pursuit of her other dog.

One would think it would be easy to see a pale gold dog in the shaded woods, but Pip also had the knack of making himself virtually invisible, so Sue had to rely on Brandy’s nose to find her brother. Luckily, it was a common enough occurrence that she didn’t have to be told what to do and led her owner steadily through the woods.

This patch of woods was fairly uncommon in the area, consisting as it did of towering hardwood trees and fairly dense underbrush rather than the more usual spindly pines in sandy soil. But since it was also less than a mile from downtown Castle, it was hardly what anyone would have called a wilderness.

Sue and her dogs had probably explored every inch in the five years she’d lived on Opal Island.

Even so, she would have avoided the big clearing near the center of the woods had Brandy not been leading her straight for it. She’d heard the talk about what had been found there a week or so ago and didn’t like the realization that what had seemed to her just an interesting jumble of boulders providing a seat to pause and enjoy the quiet of the forest now had a possibly more sinister purpose in her mind.

Satanism, that’s what people were saying.

Sue had never believed in such things but, still, there was no smoke without fire, hunters weren’t allowed in these woods, and why else would somebody kill an animal—

Pip began barking.

Conscious of a sudden chill, Sue picked up her pace, almost running beside Brandy along the twisting path to the clearing.

Anybody who would butcher an animal out in the woods for no good reason, she thought, probably wouldn’t hesitate to kill someone’s pet, especially if it was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Pip!” Not that it would do any good to call him, but she was desperately afraid suddenly, afraid in a way she’d never been before, on a level so deep it was almost primal, and that terror had to be voiced in some kind of cry.

It wasn’t until much later that she realized she had probably smelled the blood long before she reached the clearing.

She and Brandy burst into the clearing to find Pip only a couple of yards in, standing still and barking his head off. Not his happy I’m-having-fun bark, but an unfamiliar, nearly hysterical sound that spoke of the same primal fear Sue felt herself.

Holding the whimpering Brandy close to her side, Sue went to Pip and fastened his leash to his collar blindly, her gaze fixed on what was at the center of the clearing.

The seemingly innocent jumble of boulders was there, no longer innocent but splashed with blood, a lot of blood.

Sue paid little attention to the rocks, however, nor even noticed that there had been a fire built near them. Her gaze was only for what hung over them.

Suspended by ropes from a sturdy oak limb, the naked body of a man was only barely recognizable as such. Dozens of shallow cuts all over him had bled a great deal, turning his flesh reddish and, clearly, dripping down onto the boulders.

Dripping for a long time.

The ropes were tied around the wrists, both of them tied together and stretched above…above the…Except that the wrists weren’t stretched above the head.

There was no head.

Sue turned with a choked cry and ran.





It took considerable persuasion, but in the end Riley prevailed.

In a manner of speaking.

Bishop agreed not to recall her, but he wasn’t willing to leave that open-ended. It was Monday afternoon; she had until Friday to “stabilize” the situation—by which he meant recover her memories of the last three weeks and/or figure out what was going on here. If she couldn’t do that to his satisfaction, she’d be recalled to Quantico.

And she was to report in every day; one missed report, and he’d send in another team member or members with orders to pull her out. That or come himself.

She was also to send the bloodstained clothing she’d awakened wearing to Quantico for testing immediately; Bishop would send a courier within a couple of hours to pick up the package. And if the results showed human blood, all bets were off.

“You think it could be animal blood?” she asked.

“Since you went down there to investigate reports of possible occult rituals, it may be more likely than not.” Bishop paused, then went on. “We’ve had a number of these reports across the Southeast in the last year or so. You remember that much?”

She did. “But nine times out of ten, there’s no real evidence of occult activity. Or at least nothing dangerous.”

“Nothing satanic,” he agreed. “Which is always the idea feeding local hysteria, that devil worshippers are conducting robed rituals out in the woods that involve orgies and sacrificing infants.”

“Yeah, when in reality it’s almost always either pranks or just somebody jumping to conclusions when they find something on the weird side while out taking their daily constitutional.”

“Exactly. But once the gossip gets going, such incidents are blown out of all proportion, and fear can stir up real trouble. Sometimes deadly trouble.”

“So I came down here to investigate possible occult activity?” Riley was still struggling to remember and still trying to reconcile the clothing and underwear she’d brought along with what sounded like a perfectly ordinary investigation—for her, at any rate.

She was the go-to girl of the SCU when it came to the occult.

“The possible beginnings of occult activity,” Bishop said. “A friend and former colleague of yours got in touch. He didn’t want us down there openly and, in fact, lacked the authority to ask us to get involved, but he had a very bad feeling that whatever’s going on in Castle and on Opal Island is both serious and more than the local sheriff can handle.”

“So I’m here unofficially.”

“Very unofficially. And on the strength of Gordon Skinner’s request and your confidence that his instincts were trustworthy.”

“Yeah, Gordon has a rep for hunches that pay off. I always figured him for a latent precog. And he’s not a man to jump at shadows.” Riley frowned to herself. “I guess he got in his twenty and retired just like he planned. To Opal Island?”

“So you said.”

“Okay. Well, Gordon’s definitely somebody I can trust. If I’m here because of him, it’s a cinch I’ve spent time with him over the last three weeks. He can fill me in.”

“I hope so. Because you aren’t there undercover, Riley. You haven’t hidden the fact that you’re an FBI agent. As far as the locals are concerned—including the sheriff, since you checked in with him when you arrived—you’re on Opal Island on vacation. Taking some accumulated leave time after a particularly tough case.”

“Oh,” Riley said. “I wonder if that was smart of me. Being here openly, I mean.”

“Unfortunately, I have no idea. But it’s clearly too late to second-guess that decision.”

“Yeah. So I picked the island for a vacation spot because my old army buddy Gordon retired here.”

“It gave you a legitimate reason to be there.”

Riley sighed. “And that’s all you know?” His silence spoke volumes, and she hastily added, “Right, right, my fault. Should have reported in. And I’m sure when I remember why I didn’t report in, there’ll be a good reason.”

“I hope so.”

“Sorry, Bishop.”

“Just be careful, will you, please? I know you can take care of yourself, but we both know investigations that turn up genuine black-occult practices or some other variation of evil go south more often than not. Usually in a hurry.”

“Yeah. The last one involved a serial killer, didn’t it?”

“Don’t remind me.”

She wasn’t all that happy to have reminded herself, because that memory, at least, was quickly all too clear. She had come within a hair of being that particular killer’s final victim.

“I don’t like any of this, Riley, for the record,” Bishop said.

“I know.”

“Remember—you report some degree of success by Friday, or I pull the plug.”

“Got it. Don’t worry. I’ve got Gordon to watch my back, if necessary, while I figure out what’s going on.”

“Be careful,” he repeated.

“I will.” She cradled the receiver and stood there for a minute or so, frowning. Her headache was finally easing off, but although the pounding was somewhat muffled now, so were her senses.

She refilled her coffee cup, then rummaged in the pantry for the high-calorie PowerBars she tended to buy by the case. It was normal for her to carry at least two of them in her purse or back pockets at all times; if she didn’t eat something about every hour or two, she simply couldn’t function at peak efficiency.

Psychic efficiency.

Several of the other SCU members envied her the high metabolism that enabled her to eat anything she wanted—and rather astonishing quantities of it, at that—without gaining an ounce. But they also understood the downside. It was not always possible for Riley to eat enough or often enough during the course of a busy investigation to continually provide fuel for her abilities, and at least once it had nearly cost a life.

Hers.

She ate a PowerBar with her coffee and placed two more in the shoulder bag she had found. She checked the contents of the purse, just on the off chance that something unusual might trigger her memories, but everything looked normal.

She tended to travel light, so there wasn’t much. Keys to her rental car and this house. A small pocket phone/address book. Tube of lip balm; she wasn’t a lipstick kind of girl. Mirrored compact with pressed powder that was barely used, because she wasn’t a makeup kind of girl either—unless the situation called for it. Billfold with cash, credit cards in their protective case, and her driver’s license; her FBI I.D. folder and badge would be in her nightstand, or should be, since she was technically off duty.

She went and checked, and it was.

Returning to the main living area, Riley turned on the TV to CNN to check the date and find out if she’d missed anything crucial in the way of world news.

July 14. And the last clear, solid memory she could claim was somewhere around June 20, at Quantico. Paperwork at the desk, nothing unusual. Feeling a little drained, which was normal for her following the conclusion of a tough investigation.

And then…nothing but flashes. Whispers in her mind, snatches of conversation that made no sense. Faces and places she thought she knew but couldn’t put names to. Feelings that were oddly unsettled and even chaotic for a woman who tended to take a reasonable, rational approach to life….

Riley shook that off and frowned at the TV. Okay, so she wasn’t doing so hot. How went the world?

One earthquake, two political scandals, a celebrity divorce, and half a dozen violent crimes later, she muted the set and returned to the kitchen for more coffee.

Same old, same old.

“I can’t just hide in this house until it all comes back to me,” she muttered to herself. For one thing, there was no guarantee it would; short-term memory loss linked to some kind of trauma wasn’t all that uncommon, but in a psychic it could also be a symptom of bigger problems.

Bishop hadn’t needed to remind her of that.

For another thing, nothing here was sparking her memory. And she needed information, fast. Needed to have some idea of what was going on here. So the most imperative order of business was, clearly, contacting Gordon.

She took the time first to bag the clothing she’d been wearing and managed to find what she needed to construct a decent package for shipment back to Quantico. And she did another search through the house, this time looking intently for anything unusual.

Aside from the sexy underwear, there was nothing she considered unusual. Which meant that she found nothing to either answer any of her questions or raise more.

By the time she was finished with the more thorough search, she’d also eaten another PowerBar and her headache was all but gone. But when she attempted to tap into her extra senses, she got nothing. No deeper, more intense connection to her surroundings that was her spider sense.

As for her clairvoyance…

She was stronger with people than with objects, so it was difficult for her to be certain that extra sense was out to lunch when she was in the house all alone—

The doorbell rang, and Riley’s first reaction was an intense suspicion that came from both training and a lifelong addiction to mystery novels and horror movies.

A visitor just when she needed one was not a good sign.

She took her gun with her, held down at her side until she reached the front door. A small clear-glass viewing panel in the solid wood door allowed her to see who was on her porch.

A woman in a sheriff’s deputy uniform, no hat. She was a tall redhead, rather beautiful, and—

“I don’t know, Riley. We just don’t see this sort of thing around here. Peculiar symbols burned into wood or drawn in the sand. An abandoned building and a house under construction both burned to the ground. That stuff we found out in the woods that you say could indicate someone’s been performing—or attempting—some kind of occult ritual—”

“Leah, so far it’s just bits and pieces. And weird bits and pieces at that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean something’s not adding up.”

The flash of memory vanished as quickly as it had come, but the knowledge it left her with was certain.

Deputy Leah Wells was her “reliable contact” inside the sheriff’s department.

Riley stuck her automatic inside the waistband of her jeans at the small of her back, then unlocked and opened the door.

“Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Nothing good,” Leah replied grimly. “Sheriff sent me to get you. There’s been a murder, Riley.”





• 03 •





Do you think it was a good idea to leave your door unlocked?” Leah asked a few minutes later as she drove the sheriff’s department Jeep toward the middle of the island and the bridge that would take them to the mainland.

“Like I told you, a courier should arrive in the next hour to pick up that package I left just inside the door.” She had made a quick call to Bishop to alert him to the location of the package.

“You could have left the package in your rental car.”

“Yeah. But doing that was a bit too…visible for my taste.”

Leah sent her a glance. “I probably shouldn’t ask, but—”

“Did it have anything to do with what’s going on here?” Riley shrugged. “Maybe. I’ll know more when Quantico reports back. At least, I hope so.”

She had debated, but in the end Riley decided against confiding her memory loss to Leah. Not yet, at any rate. She was independent enough that even Bishop had never been able to match her with a permanent partner, and that independence demanded that she keep her current vulnerability to herself as long as possible.

Plus, it was quite simply a reasonable precaution until she could wrap her mind around whatever was going on here.

Leah sent her another look. “You know, you’ve been awfully secretive the last week or so.”

“Have I?” It was more an honest question than a mere response, something Riley hoped the other woman wouldn’t pick up on.

“I’d say so. Gordon thinks so too. He thinks you’ve either found something or figured out something that’s making you very uneasy.”

“He told you that?”

“Last night in the shower and again this morning at the breakfast table. He’s worried about you, Riley.”

Of course. Gordon always did love redheads; that’s why I can trust Leah. They’re involved, and he vouched for her.

Aloud and somewhat offhandedly, she said, “Gordon’s worried about me for years.”

Leah grinned faintly. “Yeah, he’s mentioned that a few times. Says you keep digging when any rational person would throw away the shovel. That’s why he wanted you here—even knowing he’d worry the whole time. And now we’ve got this murder. I’d say the stakes just went up, and maybe we’ve all got something to worry about.”

“Is the sheriff sure it’s a murder?”

“I’m sure—and I’ve never seen a murdered body before, not outside the textbooks. Believe me, Riley, it’s a murder. The guy’s hanging from a tree over that possible altar in the woods. And he didn’t hang himself.”

“Who’s the vic?”

“Well, we don’t exactly know yet. And it may take a while to find out. There isn’t—he doesn’t—his head is gone.”

Riley looked at the deputy, conscious of a cold finger gliding up her spine. There was something eerily familiar about this. “And it wasn’t found nearby?”

Leah grimaced. “Not so far, when I left. We’ve been searching, but it’s just a little patch of trees, you know that, and I’m guessing that if we haven’t found it by now, we won’t. Not in those woods anyway.”

Nodding, Riley turned her gaze forward again. There was something nagging at the back of her mind, but she had no idea if it was a memory or some bit of pertinent knowledge.

Or something utterly irrelevant and useless, of course, which was what lots of nagging things tended to be.

“Leah, the sheriff still thinks I’m here on vacation, right?”

“Far as I know.”

“Then why call me to a crime scene?”

“Apparently he knows you’re with the SCU. And he considers this a special crime, being as how we haven’t had a murder in these parts for, oh, a decade or more. Deaths, sure. Even a killing or three, but not like this, not anything like this.”

Riley wasn’t very happy about the sheriff’s knowledge, although she also wasn’t surprised. Of course he had likely checked on her, and any law-enforcement officer at his level could easily learn that she was assigned to the Special Crimes Unit.

That should, however, be all he could learn.

Before she could ask, Leah said, “From the way he talked, I gather he doesn’t know what your specialty is. The occult stuff, I mean. Because this one has to be occult-related, and he didn’t say that was why he wanted you at the scene. Just for your general expertise in investigating crimes. All he knows is that you’re an FBI agent working with a unit that uses unorthodox methods to investigate unusual crimes—and this one is definitely unusual.”

“He knows I’m psychic?”

“He doesn’t believe in psychics. But there’s an election coming up in the fall, and Jake Ballard wants to be reelected. What he doesn’t want is to be accused by the voters of not taking advantage of any possibly helpful source in investigating a brutal murder. An FBI agent staying in the area has to be counted as an excellent source, no matter which unit she belongs to or what extra senses she claims to have.” Leah shook her head. “I assumed you two had talked about stuff like that.”

“Why?”

“Well, it is the normal sort of chitchat for two cops on a date.”

Oh, shit.

“Then again,” Leah continued, clearly oblivious of having delivered a shock, “it seems you ex-army types tend to talk less than the rest of us, at least about your work. I’ve been sleeping with Gordon for nearly a year now, damn near living with him, and he still won’t tell me what wakes him up in a cold sweat some nights.”

“He doesn’t want you to know the ugly stuff,” Riley murmured. “Things he’s seen. Done.”

“Yeah, I get that. Still feels like he’s shutting me out of a very big part of his life.”

“Past life. Over and done with. Let it go.” Riley forced a smile when the other woman looked at her. “Advice. I know you didn’t ask, but I’m offering anyway. The monsters under the bed and in the closet? Leave them be. If he wants to show them to you, he will. But that may not be for a long time. If ever.”

“And it isn’t about trust?”

Riley shook her head. “It’s about scars. And about giving them time to fade. Twenty years of scars aren’t going to fade in a hurry.”

“If at all.”

“Well, good men tend to hold on to their bad memories. I’d be a lot more worried about him if he didn’t wake up sometimes in a cold sweat.”

“You know what he’s been through,” Leah said.

“Some of it. Not all of it.”

“But they’re his stories. He has to be the one to tell me.”

“That’s the way it works. Sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. I get it.”

Riley thought the other woman probably did get it; she was a cop and even in this small coastal town would likely encounter a few horror stories of her own during the course of her career.

Starting, possibly, with what she’d seen today.

A silence fell between the two women. Riley wanted to break it, but there didn’t seem to be any good, reasonably casual way to guide the conversation back to her date or dates with the sheriff.

Dates? Jesus, what on earth had possessed her to do that?

With a reliable source inside the sheriff’s department, it didn’t seem likely that she’d gone out with him on a fact-finding mission, especially since he knew who and what she was. What he wouldn’t confide professionally he wasn’t likely to confide personally, not if he was like most of the cops she’d known.

Was it personal? Had she set aside the training and preferences of a lifetime to go out with a law-enforcement officer while she was investigating occurrences in his town?

Investigating, possibly, him?

What would have compelled her to do something so out of character for her? With her busy life, she barely dated at all, but to date someone during an investigation—

A sudden, uneasy suspicion surfaced in her mind as she abruptly recalled the fleeting memory of quiet voices and a lingering touch out on the deck of her house.

Surely she hadn’t…surely to God she hadn’t gone further than a few casual dates? She hadn’t taken a lover. No. No, that would be so totally out of character it was unheard-of for her.

But. What if? In a situation so torn by uncertainty, how could she discount the possibility?

And, most important of all, what if neither her memories nor her clairvoyance kicked in when she saw the man again? How was she supposed to fake her way through that?





The woods were dense enough that getting a vehicle to the clearing near the center was virtually impossible. So Leah parked her Jeep near the other police vehicles, and they got out.

Riley had another flash of memory, and said, “Somebody’s dog found the body, right?”

“Just like one found all that stuff in the clearing last week,” Leah confirmed. “Different dog, though.”

Riley paused to study the break in the fence, ignoring a bored deputy stationed there to prevent the idly curious from entering the woods at this point. It wasn’t a particularly strong fence, meant more as a border delineating the park from the woods than a barrier to hold a determined animal in—or out.

She frowned as she half-turned to look back at the area used for local pet owners. “Odd,” she murmured.

“What’s odd?” Leah asked.

Riley kept her voice low. “Rituals aren’t meant to be public. Especially occult rituals, and even more especially if you mean to sacrifice something or kill somebody. You don’t want outsiders watching or even knowing what’s going on.”

“Makes sense.”

“Yeah. So why choose this place? There are patches of woods farther from town and much more private. Forests with a lot more acreage that would offer far greater secrecy. Places where a fire wouldn’t be seen. And where local dog owners don’t bring their pets every single day.”

“Something special about this patch of woods?” Leah guessed. “You did say that group of boulders looked like a natural altar. Or something old that was used a long time ago. Maybe that’s it?”

“Maybe.” But Riley wasn’t convinced. Still, she continued with Leah through the break in the fence and into the woods.

She was trying very hard to focus and concentrate, to settle and ground herself so she could get through what lay ahead without making a fool of herself. Or betraying herself.

Professional, that was the ticket. Cool, detached, and professional. Whatever the reason she’d dated Jake Ballard, he would expect her to behave like a professional at a crime scene, however unofficial her presence.

Riley remembered all that sexy underwear, and winced.

Christ, she hoped he expected an FBI agent and not a lover.

Surely she’d remember if she’d taken a lover in the last couple of weeks.

Surely.

“Grand Central Station,” Leah muttered as they reached the clearing.

There was plenty of activity, all right, and Riley was aware of a fleeting, though resigned, wish that she had been able to see the scene before it was trampled by many feet. Trained feet, for the most part, but not specially trained. And it showed.

Rather than join them, Riley stood where she was at the edge of the clearing, her hands in the front pockets of her jeans, and just looked for several minutes. She ignored the uniformed deputies and technicians moving about, ignored the snatches of conversation she heard, closed out everything except the scene of a murder.

Leah had been right: No one could see this and not know they were dealing with murder.

Riley looked at what the killer had left. At the headless body that was still hanging by its wrists, at the blood-spattered rocks below. At the evidence of a fire nearby, which a technician was currently photographing.

It all looked…familiar.

“Riley, thanks for coming.”

She turned her head at the sound of his voice, holding on to her professional detachment with an effort. It was a nice voice. It was a nice package, of the tall, dark, and handsome variety. With piercing blue eyes thrown in just for gilding.

Okay, so he was gorgeous. Maybe that was why she’d dated him.

Sheriff Jake Ballard wore his uniform with an air that said he knew he looked good in it. He walked with an authority that wasn’t quite a swagger. And he had the sort of smile—even here and now—that nature had designed to charm the female of the species.

Riley was hardly immune.

“Hey,” she said. “Nice goings-on in such a pretty little town.”

“Tell me about it.” He shook his head, adding, “Sorry to pull you out of your vacation, but, frankly, I wanted an opinion from someone who probably knows a lot more about this sort of thing than any of us.”

“And you thought I might?”

He looked sheepish, and Riley tried not to believe it was because he knew it was a good expression for him.

“Okay, so I checked up on you when you arrived. I didn’t mention it later because…well, because I thought you’d tell me about it in your own time.”

“It?”

“The Special Crimes Unit. It isn’t exactly a secret in law-enforcement circles, you know. I made a few calls. And learned a bit more than the standard FBI line of bullshit double-talk.”

Taking a chance, Riley said, “You don’t believe in the paranormal.”

His eyebrows lifted. “Is that a problem?”

“Not for me, no. It’s the sort of thing we run into more often than not.”

“I imagine you would.”

“But if it isn’t something you believe in, then how much value can my opinion have?”

“You’re an experienced investigator, and your unit deals with murder on a regular basis. Yes?”

“Yeah.”

“I believe in that. Your experience. That’s enough for me.”

Riley looked at him and tried to find a memory, a single memory.

Nothing.

As for her clairvoyant sense, it was as absent as her memory. All she knew was what her usual but slightly dulled senses were telling her. He was gorgeous, he had a nice voice, and he was wearing Polo cologne.

“Riley, I need your help,” Jake Ballard said. “Or at least your expertise. I can call your office, make it official so you’re on the clock. No need to waste vacation time.”

She hesitated, then said, “If you make it official, my boss will probably want to send another agent or two down here. We seldom work alone.”

The sheriff grimaced. “That, I’m not so crazy about. A major FBI presence wouldn’t sit well with the civic leaders. If we scare away the summer visitors…”

He didn’t have to complete that sentence. Towns like Castle and Opal Island weren’t as dependent on summer dollars as the northern coast areas were; winter this far south was mild and brief, and visitors came year-round. But the summer season still produced the most income through higher rentals and for other area businesses.

Her voice mild, Riley said, “Well, I imagine my boss will be okay if we keep this semiofficial.” Yeah, sure he will. Bishop is not going to be happy that we’ve got a murder now. And why the hell hadn’t she mentioned that fact when she’d called him back to explain where the package for the courier would be found?

Man, what is wrong with me?

“I can explain the situation,” she continued, pushing her way through uncertainty, “and I’d be on the books as an adviser to your office, not an investigator.”

“Suits me,” he said promptly. “Look, the doc wants to cut down the body—”

“No.” She softened that with a smile. “It would really help if you could clear most of your people out for a bit. Not long, just a few minutes. I’d like to wander around, take a closer look at the scene before anything more is changed.”

“For the psychic vibes?” His voice wasn’t—quite—mocking.

“For whatever I can pick up,” she returned pleasantly.

He eyed her for a moment, then shrugged. “Okay, sure. My forensics team has done all they can do, and God knows we’ve got plenty of shots of the scene. But the people I’ve got combing the woods aren’t done yet.”

“No reason to call them in. I just need the immediate area around the body clear.”

He nodded and stepped away to begin issuing orders to send his people temporarily back to their vehicles.

Leah, who had stood silently nearby, murmured, “What I can’t figure out is if he really wants your help or just wants a reason that Ash can’t argue with to keep you close.”

“Mmmm,” Riley said.

Who the hell is Ash? she wondered.





• 04 •





It was one of the bloodier scenes she’d been called to.

With the deputies and technicians out of the way and only the sheriff and Leah watching from the path, Riley moved slowly around the clearing, concentrating on opening up all her senses.

It wasn’t easy to focus with so many questions tumbling in her mind, but she gave it her best shot.

The smell of blood was strongest, and she needed no enhancement of that particular sense to tell her so. There was plenty of the stuff, after all, splashed about.

Directly beneath the hanging body were the boulders. Which, if one could feel playful at so gruesome a scene, could have best been described as a chair for a giant. Well, a fairly small giant, anyway. Because the “seat” of that chair, while about four feet wide and three deep, was only as tall as Riley’s waist. But the “back” of the chair was close to seven feet tall, as wide as the “seat,” and only about a foot thick.

It didn’t really look like a natural part of its surroundings, Riley had thought the first time she’d seen it.

Ah—a memory.

She had been here with…Gordon. That was it. He’d brought her here not long after she’d arrived on the island, because—

“…and the boys thought I’d be the one to show it to, probably because of the stories I’d told ’em about my great-grandma being a voodoo priestess.”

“That’s bullshit, Gordon.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t know that. Big black man from Louisiana talking ’bout voodoo, who’s gonna call him a liar?”

“I am.”

He laughed, a deep, booming sound. “Yeah, but you’d call St. Peter a liar if he introduced himself at the pearly gates, babe.”

“Let’s not discuss my religious beliefs, Gordon. The boys told you they’d found the bones here? On this rock?”

“Yeah, right here. A circle of bones strung together on fishing line and layin’ over an upside-down cross made out of—”

“Riley?”

She blinked and looked at the sheriff. “Hmm?”

“Are you okay?”

She wanted to swear at him for breaking the thread of memory, but all she said, calmly, was, “I’m fine.” It was gone, dammit, the scene frozen in her mind as though she’d hit PAUSE on a DVD. And fading by the second.

“You looked sort of spaced-out there for a minute.” He sounded concerned.

Standing slightly behind his shoulder, Leah rolled her eyes.

“I’m fine,” Riley repeated. She turned her gaze back to the boulder chair. The seat was roughly the right size and height for an altar, she thought, considering it. The back would be an unusual feature for an altar—unless it could be used in some way.

She took another step toward the boulders, closing her mind to the bare and bloody feet dangling above them.

She was no geologist but recognized granite when she saw it. What she wasn’t sure of, what was difficult to make out, was whether there were distinct patterns among the spatters of blood on the rocks, especially the relatively flat surface of the tall, upright boulder. Was it sheer carnage, or was there a message?

“Will you give me access to the crime-scene photos?” she asked the sheriff.

“Of course. You see something?”

“Hard to tell with so much blood. Using digital photos and pattern-recognition software might help.”

“We have that,” he said somewhat uncertainly.

Riley glanced at him. “If not, I have a friend at Quantico who’ll take a look, quietly and quickly. No problem e-mailing him the relevant photos.”

Jake frowned, but said, “I’d be okay with that.”

She nodded and kept her attention on the boulders for another minute or two. It was a bit like one of those trick 3-D pictures, she thought; if you stared at it long enough, you saw—or thought you saw—something hidden within the confusion.

The question was, what was she really looking at?

She turned away from the boulders, still reluctant to concentrate on the body, and walked out about four feet. There was a faint white line on the ground. She followed it in a slow circle around the boulders. All the way around.

An unbroken circle, or had been before many police feet had trampled the area.

Riley knelt and touched two fingers to the white line, coming away with fine grains sticking to her skin.

“We’re having that analyzed,” Jake told her.

She glanced at him, then touched one finger to her tongue.

“Jesus, Riley—”

“Salt,” she said calmly. “Ordinary, everyday table salt. Or possibly sea salt. It’s supposed to be purer.”

Leah said, “You knew what it was.”

“I suspected.” Riley stood up. “It’s sometimes used in occult rituals. To consecrate the area inside the circle.” An area which included the boulders, the hanging body, and the fire.

Jake was still frowning. “Consecrate? You mean make it holy? Because there’s nothing holy about this.”

“That depends on your point of view, really.” Without giving him time to respond to that, Riley added, “A circle of salt is also used as protection.”

“From what?” he demanded.

“A threat or perceived threat. And before you ask what kind of threat, the answer is, I don’t know. Yet.” She smiled faintly. “All this is only preliminary, you have to understand that. First thoughts, hunches, instincts.”

“And no inside knowledge, huh?”

Riley felt everything inside her go still and chilled, but she held on to her slight smile and waited.

“I mean, if the paranormal is your thing, then you must know more than the rest of us about this sort of shit.”

She didn’t let her relief show, and acknowledged to herself that it was extraordinarily draining to keep up her guard and try to behave normally when she was constantly digging for memories, for knowledge, for answers.

And, more often than not, coming up empty.

Still coolly professional, on the outside at least, she said, “The paranormal as defined by the SCU has absolutely nothing to do with occult or satanic rites or practices. That is a totally different thing, not grounded in science but in belief, in faith. Just like any religion.”

“Religion?”

“To most practitioners, that’s what it is. If you want to understand the occult, that’s the first rule: It’s a belief system, and not inherently evil in and of itself. The second rule is, it’s not a single belief system; there are as many sects within the occult as there are in most religions. Satanism alone has at least a dozen different churches that I know about.”

“Churches? Riley—”

She interrupted his indignation to add firmly, “Practitioners of the occult may be nontraditional and their rites and habits blasphemous from the viewpoint of the major religions, but that doesn’t make their beliefs any less valid from their own point of view. And believe it or not, Satan is rarely involved—even in Satanism. Nor is any sort of sacrifice, barring the symbolic kind. Most occult groups simply honor and worship—for want of a better term—nature. The earth, the elements. There’s nothing paranormal about that.”

Usually, at least.

“And the SCU?”

“The SCU is built around people with real human abilities, abilities that are, however rare and beyond the norm, scientifically definable.” If only as possibilities.

He shrugged off the distinction, saying only, “Well, call it whatever you like, you obviously know more about this shit than the rest of us. So you think this is somebody’s idea of religion?” He waved a hand back at the carnage behind him. “This?”

“I think it’s too early to make assumptions.”

Jake gestured again toward the hanging body. “That’s not an assumption, it’s a murder victim. And if he was killed in some kind of ritual, then, goddammit, Riley, I need to know that.”

Still reluctant, she turned her attention at last to that victim.

Riley had seen corpses before. In war and in peace. She’d seen them in the textbooks, in the field, at the body farm. She had seen corpses so mangled they barely looked human anymore, destroyed by explosions or dismembered by an arguably human hand. And she’d seen them on the medical examiner’s table, laid open with their organs glistening in the bright, harsh lights.

She had never gotten used to it.

So it demanded even more concentration and focus, even more energy, for her to study that dangling body.

Yet, at the same time, once she began studying it, she found herself moving closer, circling it warily. Absorbing the details.

He was naked and virtually covered in blood. There were numerous shallow cuts all over his torso, front and back, all of which had undoubtedly bled for some time before what looked to her to be the final cut and ultimate cause of death.

Decapitation.

Out loud, slowly, she said, “I’m no M.E., but I think the cuts on the body came first. That he was tortured, maybe over a period of hours. And that his head was hacked off while he was hanging here.”

“What makes you sure of that?” Jake asked.

“The amount of blood on the boulders directly below him; it probably came mostly from the shallow cuts, and there’s a lot of it. The spray pattern out in front of his body, on the rocks and on the ground, looks arterial to me. His heart was still beating when his throat was cut. I think somebody was behind him, probably standing on the tallest boulder, and grabbed him by the hair. Then—”

Leah made a choked sound and hurried back up the path away from the clearing.

Riley gazed after her, then looked at Jake and grimaced. “I forget some cops aren’t used to this sort of thing.”

He was looking a bit queasy himself but didn’t budge. “Yeah. Okay, what else can you tell me?” He considered, then added, “If somebody was standing on that tallest rock and had to keep his balance while he—he sawed off a head—he must have held on to something. Or somebody else held on to him.”

“It takes some strength to decapitate by sawing or hacking, even with a sharp knife or other tool,” she agreed. “Especially with the vic’s arms in the way so that he had to reach around them for at least the first part of the job. Keeping his balance would have been tricky.” She circled behind the tallest upright boulder and studied the ground intently. “No sign of marks left by a ladder.”

“Just don’t tell me the guy levitated or something, okay?”

She ignored that. “Your forensics people have been all over this, right?”

“Like I said. Pictures from every angle and samples of everything.”

At the side of the larger boulders, a cluster of three smaller ones made it quite easy to climb up onto the seat, and it was likely many a hiker in these woods had done just that over the years.

Riley hesitated only a moment, but since she had picked up absolutely nothing clairvoyantly, she had to conclude that all her psychic senses were AWOL. Touching the blood-spattered boulders was unlikely to change that.

Probably.

She drew a breath and climbed up onto the seat so that she could look at the slightly curved top edge of the back, unwilling to admit to herself that she was glad even the usual five senses seemed to be functioning at less than accustomed norms.

The smell of blood and death would have been overpowering.

It occurred to her only as she was standing there on the blood-spattered rock that she might well be wearing the same shoes—casual running shoes—that she’d likely been wearing the day before. Or the night before. She had awakened barefoot, but there had been no blood on her feet, she remembered that much.

What if there was blood on these shoes?

She hadn’t thought to check.

Man, I’m losing my mind as well as my memory. Why the hell didn’t I check my shoes?

“Riley?”

Pretending that her stillness and silence hadn’t lasted too long, Riley rose on tiptoe in order to study the top of the tallest boulder. “If he stood up here, it doesn’t look like he left any helpful traces.”

“Yeah, that’s what my people said. No marks from a shoe or any forensic traces at all. Including blood. All the blood went on the flat rock you’re standing on or got splashed on the upright part of the taller rock, but not a drop hit the top.”

“Odd.”

“Is it? That rock’s not really close to the body and, as you said, most of the blood on it is from drips that fell straight down.”

“Yeah, but that’s the thing. He should have struggled. If the body had been moving at all, I’d expect to see at least a few droplets of blood on that top edge.”

“Maybe he was drugged.”

“That’s certainly possible.” But why torture somebody who isn’t conscious of what you’re doing? Unless maybe the shedding of blood was the point…. “I assume you’ve requested a tox screen?”

“Definitely. The blood and tissues will be checked six ways from Sunday.”

“Good enough.”

Riley turned on the seat to study the body from this closer position, trying not to think about whether her shoes had had blood on them before she’d climbed up here. Because they certainly did now.

Since the body was hanging directly above the front edge of the seat, her position put her roughly at eye level with the small of his back. She studied the distance between the body and the tallest boulder, and said slowly, “Balance had to be a real problem, if the killer was standing up there. He also had to lean forward quite a bit in order to reach the vic.”

“He could have pulled him closer,” Jake offered. “At least long enough to get the job done.”

“But then the vic’s head would have been pulled behind the arms, and there’s no arterial spray to indicate that happened. All the evidence says his head was forward when his throat was cut, or at least between his arms, not pulled back behind them.”

Jake studied the body and boulder for a long moment, then cleared his own throat. “See what you mean. The doc says same as you, by the way—that the head was hacked off, front to back. Of course, by the time the killer was working on severing the spine…”

“He probably did have the head pulled back toward him,” Riley finished. “But by then the heart had stopped, so the blood was no longer spraying.”

She stood gazing at the body, trying to concentrate, to focus. But it was something other than deliberate thought that made her step forward and lift her arms, not touching the body but stretching upward to measure how high she could have reached.

As she did that, it occurred to her with cold realization that if she had been standing here, reaching up like this, possibly holding this man’s body in a better position for his killer to cut his throat, blood would likely have spattered her clothing and hair and covered her hands and forearms.

All the way to her elbows.





The forensics people were back, carefully cutting down the body, by the time the search teams finally called it quits. If the severed head was in these woods, they reported, then it was buried or otherwise well hidden, and where there were signs of fresh digging the searchers had discovered only two beef bones and a rawhide chew toy.

“Oh, Christ,” Jake muttered when that news was relayed to him. “You don’t think somebody’s dog carried off the head?”

Riley, who had just fished in her shoulder bag to produce a PowerBar, paused in unwrapping it to say, “I doubt it. A feral dog or a very hungry one, maybe, but somebody’s pet would hesitate to consume human flesh. As a rule, anyway.”

Jake stared at her.

“Cats will,” Riley clarified after taking a bite. “Once we’re dead, to them we’re just meat, apparently. Dogs are different. Maybe because they’re domesticated. Cats really aren’t. They just want us to believe they are.”

Leah laughed under her breath. “Cat person, are you?”

“Actually, I like both.” She looked at Jake, who was still staring at her. “What?”

“Talk about jaded. How in the hell can you eat right now?”

“It’s for energy.” The new voice spoke matter-of-factly. “She has a high metabolism, Jake. No calories, no energy.”

“I knew that,” Jake said. “What’re you doing here, Ash?”

“What do you think? I wanted to see the crime scene while it’s still relatively…fresh.”

Ash. Riley turned her head to watch him approach, again digging for memories and again finding none. Absolutely none.

He was about the same height as the sheriff, which made him around six feet. Dark like the sheriff. But that’s where any similarity ended. In comparison to Jake Ballard’s polished handsomeness, this man was almost ugly.

He had broad, powerful shoulders that seemed to strain the fabric of the very nice suit he wore, as though the covering were something not quite natural for him. His very dark hair was fairly short and not at all tidy, his chiseled face was deeply tanned, and his nose had been broken, Riley thought, at least twice.

He had high cheekbones, slanted brows that lent him a sardonic expression, and hooded, very, very pale green eyes that threw both danger and something enigmatic into the mix.

And where charm came off Jake Ballard in almost palpable waves, this man was radiating something else entirely. Something almost primal.

When he joined them, standing nearest Riley, he touched her lightly, his large hand sliding down her back to rest near her waist in a gesture that was curiously possessive.

“Hey,” he said.

Riley, not a woman to be possessed, would have protested. Except that the instant he touched her, a hot shiver started somewhere near her toes and spread upward through her entire body in pulsing waves until she felt like she herself was radiating something primal.

Heat. Pure heat. And she recognized the sensation, even if the degree of it was rather astonishing.

Oh. Oh, shit.

She had taken a lover. Only it wasn’t the sheriff.

“Hey, Ash,” she said calmly, and bit into the PowerBar.

She needed energy. She needed all the energy she could get.

“I would have called you,” Jake was saying to Ash. “But I knew you had court, so—”

“Postponed,” Ash said, looking at the sheriff. “Besides which, murder ranks higher on the list of my priorities than breaking and entering. That case can wait.”

He had a beautiful voice, Riley thought. Deep and rich and curiously fluid. Probably handy for a lawyer. Which, she assumed from the conversation, he was.

Jake grunted. “You usually work from reports and crime-scene photographs.”

A prosecutor, I’m guessing.

“This is something special. Obviously.” He had turned his gaze to the center of the clearing, watching as the headless corpse was zipped into a black body bag. “No idea who he is?”

“Not so far. We fingerprinted him first thing, but his prints aren’t in the database.”

“And no sign of his head,” Riley said, feeling she would be expected to participate in the conversation.

“To delay identification, maybe?” Ash suggested.

Frowning, Jake said, “Take a look around you. If somebody just wanted somebody else dead and not identified, leaving a headless corpse in a ditch or thrown into the ocean makes sense. But left in a fairly public area, strung up and tortured over an altar and inside a circle of salt?”

“Salt?”

“It’s used in some occult rituals,” Riley said.

Ash looked at her. “Yesterday you seemed pretty sure that whatever’s going on around here had nothing to do with the occult.”

Oh, shit. Was that a professional opinion, or just pillow talk? And would I have told you the truth, whatever I believed?

Not that she could ask, of course.

Instead, calmly, she said, “Well, that was before this happened. And Jake’s right—this is a very public way to leave a murder victim if all the killer wants is to delay identification. Whether or not it’s some kind of occult ritual, I can’t say. Yet, anyway.”

One of his slanted brows rose. “So Jake asked you for help? Officially?”

“Not exactly. Not officially.”

“She has resources I don’t, Ash,” Jake said.

“She’s on vacation.”

“I’ll make sure she doesn’t lose vacation days helping with this.”

“She’ll do just that if she’s in this investigation unofficially, on her own time.”

“At least you’re admitting there’s something to investigate.”

“A murder, Jake. Whatever all the bells and whistles are, it’s just a murder.”

“You don’t know that. I don’t know that. Riley can help find out what it is or isn’t.”

“If you need help, ask for it officially—through the FBI. Let them send an agent down here.”

“They have an agent down here.”

Riley was suddenly aware that the hand still touching her back was exuding tension and…something else, something more she could feel but not quite get a handle on. Danger? Warning?

She stepped away from that hand abruptly and turned to face the two men, conjuring a pleasant smile. “Still here, boys.”

Ash was expressionless, but Jake pulled on his sheepish face.

“Sorry, Riley, but—”

“Don’t talk about me as if I weren’t,” she added gently.

Evenly, Ash said, “You’re here on vacation. To rest and relax, remember? After a year of tough cases, you said, the most recent of which nearly got you killed.”

“I didn’t say it nearly got me killed,” she objected, hoping to hell she hadn’t. “I said it was rough and it was a close call. But obviously not too close, since I don’t have a mark on me.”

She offered that deliberately, watching him for the slightest reaction. And—dammit—saw a disquieting gleam in those green eyes.

A familiar gleam.

The shower stall was full of steam—the whole damn bathroom, in fact—by the time they turned the water off and made it to the bed.

“We’re getting the sheets wet,” she murmured.

“Do you care?” His mouth trailed down her throat and between her breasts. “Shall I stop?”

His hair was just long enough for her to get a handful and force his head up so she could gaze into those green, green eyes.

“Stop and I’ll shoot you,” she said huskily.

He laughed and covered her mouth with his, and that glorious heat began to burn….

“No,” he said. “You don’t have a mark on you. Still, you came here on vacation.”

Damn memories, rearing their heads at the most inconvenient moments. Riley cleared her throat and forged ahead. “I’ve had almost three weeks, good food, lots of rest and walks on the beach. I’m fine, Ash.”

“And I need her help,” Jake said flatly. “I’m not too proud to ask, Ash, whether you are or not.”

“It’s got nothing to do with being too proud.” He kept his gaze on Riley.

Half under his breath, but loud enough for them all to hear, Jake muttered, “I know what it’s got to do with.”

Riley jumped in before the tension she could feel in Ash made him say something he might later regret.

“Look, I’ve said I’ll help if I can. And I will. So there’s nothing more to be said about it. Right?”

“Right,” Jake said immediately.

Ash took a moment longer, holding her gaze with those vivid eyes, then smiled. “Sure,” he said. “I think the three of us can work together. Professionally.”

Riley smiled back. “I’m sure we can.”





• 05 •





Gordon rubbed a big hand across his bald head and stared at Riley. “Say what?”

“My memory of the last three weeks resembles Swiss cheese. Lots and lots of holes.”

“The other part.”

“Oh, that. I woke up this afternoon with dried blood all over me.”

“Human blood?”

“Dunno yet. Probably hear from Quantico tomorrow.”

“And you can’t remember how you got blood all over you.”

“One of the holes, yeah. And it’s really bothering me, especially since we have this tortured and mangled body, which was apparently tortured and mangled in about the right time frame.”

“I can see how that’d be a worry,” he agreed.

They stared at each other, Gordon leaning back against the side of his boat and Riley sitting on the bench across from him. The boat was tied up at the dock behind the small house Gordon owned on the mainland side of Opal Island; he kept himself busy as well as made extra money taking fishing parties out onto the Atlantic.

“Not that I think for one minute that you’re capable of doing that to somebody for no good reason,” he said.

Wryly appreciative of the qualifier, she said, “But what if I had a good reason?”

“Out of the war zone?” He shook his head. “Nah. Not your style. You might get pissed and come out swingin’, but nothing more, not back here in the world.”

“I am an FBI agent,” she reminded him.

“Yeah, so you’d shoot somebody. Maybe. If you didn’t have another choice. We both know you’re capable of that. But torture and decapitation?” Gordon pursed his lips, his broad brown face considering. “You know, I don’t see you doing that even in wartime. It takes a certain cruelty, not to mention cold-blooded ruthlessness, and you never had either.”

Riley was reassured, if only partly. Gordon knew her, probably, as well as anyone did, and if he said killing someone like that was not in her nature, then he was very likely right. She didn’t think she was capable of it either.

But.

“Okay, so if I didn’t do that to the guy, then why did I wake up covered in blood?”

“You don’t know it was his blood.”

“But what if?”

“Could be you tried to help him at some point. Went to try to cut him down before you realized it was too late.”

“And then just went home and fell asleep, fully dressed and still covered with blood?”

“No, that doesn’t sound likely, does it? Not for you. Not if you were in your right mind, anyway. Something must have happened in between. A shock of some kind, maybe. You sure you didn’t get a bump on the head, something like that?”

“No lumps or bruises that I could find. Woke up with a hell of a headache, though. You know what that usually means.”

He nodded. “Your version of a hangover, minus the booze. You’d been using the spooky senses.”

“Apparently.” He’d known about her clairvoyance for years, believed in it utterly because he’d seen again and again what she could do, and had kept her secret.

“But you don’t remember what they told you?”

“Nope. If they told me anything.”

“Must have been something bad. Bad enough to take away your memory, maybe?”

“I don’t know, Gordon. I’ve seen some pretty lousy things. Horrible, sick things. It never affected my memory before. What could have been so bad, so totally shocking, that I couldn’t bear to remember it?”

“Maybe you saw what happened out there in the woods. Hell, maybe you saw somebody conjure up the devil.”

“I don’t believe in the devil. Not like that, anyway.”

“And maybe that’s why you don’t remember.”

Riley considered that, but shook her head. “In addition to some lousy things, I’ve also seen some incredibly weird things, especially in the last few years. Off-the-chart scary things. I don’t believe any occult ritual would actually conjure a flesh-and-blood devil complete with horns and a pitchfork—but I don’t know that I’d be all that shocked if it happened right in front of me.”

Gordon grinned. “Come to think of it, you’d probably just wonder how they managed to get the guy in the rubber suit so fast.”

“Probably. It is mostly smoke and mirrors, you know, the seemingly supernatural occult stuff. Usually.”

“So you’ve told me. Okay. So you saw the murder out there, and something about it caused the amnesia. That’s the most likely explanation, right?”

She had to agree. “Yeah, I guess. Which makes it imperative for me to recover those memories ASAP.”

“Think the killer might know you saw something?”

“I think I have to assume that until I have proof to the contrary. And finding that proof is not going to be a lot of fun, since I don’t have a clue who the killer might be. Worse yet, the spooky senses seem to be out of commission, at least for the moment.”

“No shit?”

Riley shook her head. “No shit. I should have been able to tap into something at the crime scene; that sort of situation, with everybody tense and upset, is always where I’m strongest. Or always have been. This time, nothing. Not a damn thing, even when I touched those rocks.”

“So you’re hunting a killer in the dark.”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Gordon brooded. “A killer who might know, or at least believe, that you saw something out there. But if he does know you saw something, or even suspects you did, why let you run around loose? I mean, he’s killed pretty brutally already. Why let you live?”

“I don’t know. Unless he had damn good reason to be sure I wouldn’t be a threat.”

“Like, maybe, he knew you wouldn’t remember whatever it was that you’d seen?”

“How could he know that? Amnesia isn’t something you can deliberately cause, at least not as far as I know. And the SCU has studied this sort of thing, for years now. Traumatic injuries, especially head injuries, have all sorts of consequences, but amnesia other than very short-term isn’t especially high on the list. Besides which—no bumps or bruises, let alone anything severe enough to be termed a head injury.”

“Very short-term amnesia?”

“It’s fairly common after a traumatic injury to not remember the events immediately before it occurred. But that almost always means a gap of hours, not days—and almost never weeks.”

“Okay.” Gordon brooded some more. “Long shot, maybe, but what about another psychic?”

Riley winced. “Christ, I hope not.”

“But it’s possible another psychic could be affecting you?”

“Just about anything is possible, you know that as well as I do. Another psychic might have picked up on the amnesia, or even known about it in advance. Hell, maybe caused it. Or at the very least be taking advantage of it.” She drew a breath and let it out slowly. “I can tell you this much. If there is another psychic in this, he or she has the upper hand, at least until the fog in my head clears and I can use my own abilities.”

If I can. If I can.

“Don’t much like the sound of that, babe,” Gordon offered.

“No. Me either.” It was Riley’s turn to brood. “Leah said you two thought I had been unusually secretive lately.” The deputy had dropped Riley off and then returned to the sheriff’s department, since she was on duty for another hour.

“Well, more than I liked. It was me brought you down here, after all. I been feeling responsible.”

“Don’t.”

He rolled his eyes, a characteristic gesture Leah had probably picked up from him. “Yeah, yeah.”

“I mean it. And, by the way, I haven’t told Leah about the memory loss. I trust her, it’s just…”

“I know what it’s just,” he responded. And he did know. Fellow soldiers understood the need to guard vulnerabilities in a way few civilians ever could. “I’ll keep the secret if you want, but I think she can probably help. ’Specially if—”

Riley eyed him, seeing in that suddenly impassive face a lot more than most would have seen. “Especially if I don’t remember my obviously hot social life these last weeks,” she finished.

“So you don’t, huh?”

“Not much of it, no. I gather I dated Jake Ballard, at least for a while. And that I’m currently involved with Ash. Ash what, by the way? I haven’t heard his surname used.” The very question struck her as almost comical.

Almost.

Gordon’s brows climbed into his nonexistent hairline. “Prescott. Ash Prescott. District Attorney for Hazard County.”

“Jesus. What was I thinking?”

“One of the things you didn’t share,” Gordon informed her politely. “Mind you, I wasn’t surprised when Jake talked you into going out with him. He’s got the knack. Far as I could tell, though, it was just a couple dates—and then you met Ash. You and him surprised me.”

“Why? Because of me, or because of him?”

Gordon gave the question serious consideration. “Well, it’s not what I’d call normal for you to bed down with a man you’ve known no more than a few days.”

Riley winced. “That fast? Christ. We weren’t subtle about it, I gather.”

“Subtle?” He laughed. “In case you didn’t see it today, the man usually drives a Hummer, Riley. A bright yellow one. Pretty damn obvious parked outside your place overnight. And people on this island do love to talk.”

“Great.” She sighed, debated briefly, and decided not to ask Gordon if he was privy to any more particulars of the intimate nature of her relationship with Ash Prescott; that was something she’d need to find out for herself. Instead, she said, “But he surprised you?”

“Gettin’ involved with you so fast? Yep.”

“Why?”

“Hard to say, exactly. He’s not a man to let much show, but I wouldn’t have said he was all that susceptible to a pretty woman, ’specially living in a beach community with plenty of flesh on parade most of the time. I mean, you’re a fox, any man with eyes can see that, and hot as hell when you put your mind to it, but I doubt that was it.”

Riley ignored the blunt assessment of her charms, which she had heard before from Gordon and other army buddies, to ask, “Did I do that? Put my mind to it?” She had to ask, in light of all the sexy underwear she’d discovered among her clothing.

“I saw you a few times dressed up a bit more than usual, but like I said, I don’t think it was looks that got to him. And I’d say he was the one went after what he wanted. Didn’t need any encouragement at all, far as I could tell. And he has the rep for gettin’ what he wants. Still, I’ve only lived here a couple years, but I can’t remember Ash ever gettin’ involved with a summer visitor before. So visibly, anyway.”

“Maybe he was in the mood for a fling.”

Gordon shook his head. “If you was to ask me, I’d say he wasn’t the type for a fling. Neither are you, if I have to remind you.”

“Well, apparently that’s what I’m doing,” she muttered.

“Flinging. With a man whose last name I couldn’t remember.” Gordon pursed his lips in another characteristic gesture. “You didn’t remember him or Jake, huh?”

“No. At least…I had a flash of memory after Ash joined us at the crime scene. But do I remember meeting him or Jake? Dating them? No. There are faces in my mind, but neither of theirs showed up until they did.”

“And you don’t remember anything you might have found out investigating the situation here?”

“I don’t remember the situation. Or, at least, I’m having to piece together what I do—did—know.”

“That is definitely not good.”

“Tell me about it.” She sighed, then straightened and added, “And I mean that, Gordon. Tell me about it all. Everything, starting with why you called me down here, what’s been happening here, and what I’ve told you since I got here.”

“Filling in the pieces. Hoping something will wake up your memory?”

“I’m counting on it. Because Bishop will expect a report every day—and if I can’t convince him I’ve got a grip on things here, he’ll pull me by Friday. Maybe sooner, considering there’s been a murder now.”

With another sigh, Riley added, “Besides all that, apparently I have another date with Ash in about two hours. Dinner. It would be nice if I could remember what we’ve talked about so far, so I don’t repeat myself. Also nice if I could remember why I started sleeping with the man, since from the little I do remember, I doubt he’ll be content with a good-night kiss at the door.”

“I gather you don’t want to either confide in him or raise his suspicions by suddenly goin’ coy?”

“No to the first because…because I don’t know where he fits in all this, not yet. As for the other part, playing coy wouldn’t exactly be in character for me, now, would it? Unless—I wasn’t being somebody else here, was I, Gordon?”

“No, you didn’t see the need. Just being yourself and on vacation, picking this place to visit an old army buddy, seemed to be the best choice. You were here openly, an FBI agent, so why dress it up and make it look more fancy than it was?”

“Makes sense. Keep it simple whenever possible.”

“Which is what you did. No, babe, you were just being you, and playing coy is definitely not your style.”

She nodded. “So I get to feel my way—you should pardon the pun—through a relationship I don’t remember starting.”

Gordon eyed her. “And?”

He knew her too well. “And I can’t rely on any of my senses. Any of them, not just the spooky ones. Everything’s gone…distant and blurry. For the first time in my life, I don’t have any kind of an edge. And it’s scaring the hell out of me.”





Given her druthers, it certainly wouldn’t have been Riley’s choice to keep a dinner date with Ash that evening. She had suggested that helping investigate a grisly murder should probably take precedence over her social life, but as Ash had calmly reminded her, there wasn’t a lot she could do until the body was autopsied and forensic evidence tested—neither of which was a specialty of hers.

Jake had suggested they brainstorm at the sheriff’s department, but Riley had been forced reluctantly to agree with Ash that endlessly speculating wouldn’t be very productive without facts and evidence in hand.

Best to get a fresh start early tomorrow.

Which meant, of course, that she had to get through tonight, feeling her way semiblindly through the nuances of a relationship that had been one of lovers, apparently, for the better part of two weeks.

Passionate lovers, if her physical reaction to Ash and her single flash of memory were anything to go by.

As she got ready for Ash to pick her up just before eight, Riley wasn’t all that worried about her ability to behave as he would expect her to during the date. That was the easy part, at least for her. She’d always been able to fit herself into any situation, to look and act as though she belonged no matter what was going on inside.

In this case, what was going on inside was more at odds than usual with her composed exterior.

Butterflies.

Big butterflies. With claws.

The entire situation made her profoundly uneasy, because it really wasn’t in character for her to get personally involved with anyone in the course of an investigation, far less tumble into bed with a man when she hadn’t had time, surely, to judge his character.

“Just tell me he isn’t evil, Gordon.”

“He’s a prosecutor, Riley, in a small Southern beach community. How evil could he be?”

“Oh, man, don’t ask that question. The worst serial killers I’ve ever known operated out of small towns.”

“Maybe so, but I doubt Ash is a serial killer. Mind you, I’m not sayin’ the man doesn’t have a few rough edges. And talk is, he raised some hell as a kid. But he’s respected around here, I know that much.”

“The last serial killer I knew was respected. Before everybody found out what was in his basement.”

“You been around way too many serial killers, babe.”

Probably true, that.

In any case, what Riley had admitted to Gordon was also true. She was scared. Despite the cool and confident exterior she was adept at showing, there was a very large part of her that wanted to crawl into bed and pull the covers over her head, hoping to wake and find all this just a nightmare. Or to run back to Quantico, her safe haven.

Not that she could do either, of course.

Nope, not Riley Crane, sensible, rational, trustworthy professional that she was. She’d stay and see it through, finish the job she’d started, soldier on—and all the other clichés. Because it simply wasn’t in her nature to crawl into bed and pull the covers over her head.

No matter how bad things got.

So when the doorbell rang just after seven-thirty, she drew a deep breath and went to greet Ash with a smile and total serenity.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” he responded. And wrapped both arms around her, lifting her off her feet to kiss her. Right there in the open doorway, for God and all of Opal Island to see.

So much for privacy. So much for serenity.

Riley suspected that all her bones were melting. She also suspected that she didn’t much care.

When he raised his head at last and lowered her back to her feet, Ash said a bit roughly, “I’ve been wanting to do that all day. Just for the record, you seem to have become a habit with me. I didn’t sleep at all last night after you kicked me out.”

I kicked you out? Why on earth would I do that?

“I didn’t kick you out,” she murmured, reasonably sure she wouldn’t have.

“Maybe not literally, but the result was the same. Instead of spending the night in a warm bed with a warm woman, I ended up alone with whiskey and an old movie. I thought we’d gotten beyond that, Riley.”

She took a chance. “Beyond what?”

“You know what I’m talking about. If all I wanted was a dinner companion and an hour of sex afterward, there are willing women in my life a lot less complicated than you are.” The statement was utterly matter-of-fact and without conceit.

Hmmm. Wonder which complications he’s referring to? Wonder who those other women are? And maybe I’m not a fling?

She didn’t know how she felt about that. Hell, she didn’t know how she felt about any of this.

Ash went on, “Look, I respect this need of yours for space and time to yourself. I get that, I really do. We both know I’m a prickly bastard and pretty much a loner myself. All I’m saying is the next time you decide you want to sleep alone, a little more warning would be appreciated.”

I must have had someplace else I needed to be later last night. Note to self: obviously something last-minute, or else I would have headed Ash off long before bedtime. Wonder what it was? Did I know there was someone in danger? That something bad was going to happen? And if I did…

Why didn’t I confide in you about it, lover?

“Sorry. And noted, for future reference,” Riley said, wondering when her own arms had wound themselves around his neck. Since they were already there, she didn’t bother to remove them. “I missed you too, by the way.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” He kissed her again, briefly but with just as much intensity. “We could skip dinner.”

“Not unless you prefer your women nearly comatose,” she said, feeling on safe ground here. “I’m starving.”

He laughed. “Then we definitely need to get you fed, and I’m not in the mood to cook tonight. Ready to go?”

Guess that explains my well-stocked kitchen. He’s been cooking here.

She didn’t know how she felt about that either.

“I’m ready,” she said.





• 06 •





Five minutes later, they were in his very large, very yellow Hummer heading toward the bridge to the mainland, and Riley had to agree with Gordon’s assessment of the highly visible appearance of Ash’s highly visible ride. Plus, the very low speed limit on the island allowed people sitting on their porches and decks or strolling the walkways beside the road to not only get a good look at the vehicle but recognize who was riding in it.

People waved. And called out hellos to both her and Ash. He didn’t stop the truck at any point, which at least allowed Riley to merely smile and wave in response to those greetings from strangers.

Well, at least there was never anything secretive about the relationship. Points for that, I guess.

But there had been secrets in the relationship, obviously, since she hadn’t told him the truth about why she’d needed him to leave early the previous night. Unless he had known and was lying about that…

Don’t borrow trouble, goddammit. He doesn’t know you’ve lost your memory. So he isn’t lying. About that, anyway. But something else is going on here. Because apparently you didn’t tell him the truth about why you asked him to leave early, and you don’t know why you failed to do that.

Then again, perhaps she really had only wanted time to herself, and the fact that something had obviously happened later on had been sheer coincidence.

Nah. She really didn’t believe in coincidence.

“You’re very quiet,” Ash said.

“That scene in the woods today.” Riley shrugged, ruefully aware that “shop” talk was what sprang most readily to her mind whenever she needed something to fill the silences or the blanks. “I’ve seen a lot worse, but…it never gets easier.”

“I was hoping I’d never see anything like it again,” Ash said. “I got more than my fill of murder scenes in Atlanta.”

Which told Riley that he had, clearly, lived and worked in a large city. Most likely, of course, as an attorney of some kind. Interesting that he was here now. Career setback, or a deliberate choice?

“Murder happens everywhere. Unfortunately.”

“True enough. But this kind of murder? You seriously think we could have some kind of occult nonsense going on here? A ritual murder?”

“I think that’s what it looks like. At first glance.”

Ash frowned. “You still have doubts, don’t you? Despite what you said today.”

Riley hesitated, then spoke slowly, trying to weigh each word and wondering if she was making a huge mistake in confiding anything at all to this man, even if he was her lover.

Maybe because he was her lover.

“I think—I know—that true occult rituals, especially those ending in murder or any other kind of actual sacrifice, are very, very rare. Especially the sacrifice part. A lot more rare than some of the media would like people to believe. Rare as in virtually nonexistent.”

Ash nodded, frowning. “I remember. The vast majority of occult groups are completely harmless, you said.”

So we have talked about this. Good. I think.

“Right. Their rites and practices are merely the…trappings of their religious faith. Most such ritua