WICKED GAME (written with Lisa Jackson)
Kensington, Genre: Suspense (February 2009)
ISBN-10: 1420103385 ISBN-13: 978-1420103380
Read an Excerpt
St. Elizabeth's campus
Midnight. . . .
Mother Mary, help me!
Oh, please . . . save me!
The girl rushed headlong through the maze and rising mist. She stumbled, her face grazed by a poking branch.
“Damn.” Clapping a hand to her cheek, she instantly felt the warmth of blood welling against her fingers. It spurred her onward. She kept running, moving, breathing hard. Her calf muscles ached, her lungs burned and still the midnight rain washed over her, cold and cruel.
This is wrong. Oh, God, so wrong.
It shouldn't be this way! Couldn't!
Glancing over her shoulder, she listened hard, deafened by her own heartbeats. She wasn't lost. She knew where she was. She knew the twists and turns that would take her to this maze's center and once there, she believed there was another exit-maybe two-though it had been so long since she'd seen them. She thought for an instant that she might be leading him to her own doom, to a trap of her own creation. She just had to keep moving, recalling twists and turns . . .
But it was so dark.
And he was getting closer. She could feel him. As if his breath were already brushing across her skin.
Fear clutched at her throat and she nearly slipped around a corner of shivering laurel. He knew about her and now was running her to ground.
How had he known? When she'd spent so many years - her entire life, it seemed! - learning the truth herself.
Then foolishly she'd goaded him. Dared him. Brought to the maze by her own invitation as she'd hoped to learn more; to expose him. She'd believed she could turn the tables on him, avert the very doom she now faced. But things weren't going as planned, she thought, her shoes slipping on the long grass. Somehow the hunter hadbecome the hunted.
But how could he know about her. . .unless. . .unless he was one of them?
She heard something. A noise. . . a sibilant hiss. . .
The hairs on the back of her nape lifted.
What the hell was that?
She froze in place, hands up, as if to ward off danger, body quivering, poised on the balls of her feet, softly panting. He was here! Close! He'd already entered the maze. She could hear him now easily, as he was making no effort to disguise his approach.
Her heart knocked painfully against her ribs.
Was he alone? She thought he was alone. He should be alone. She'd set this up so he would be alone, but now she didn't know.
Didn't know anything.
That's where the fear came in because she always knew.
That was her gift.
And maybe her curse.
That's why they hadn't been able to keep the truth from her. That's why she'd found out who they were, and who she was, even though they'd tried hard to keep her from learning.
For her own safety, they'd said.
And now. . .now she was beginning to understand what they'd meant.
Because of him.
She strained to listen, her heart quivering, her fear mounting. He was walking through the maze. Unhurried. Undeterred. Making all the right turns. Were there more than one set of footsteps? Someone else? She couldn't be sure.
And she couldn't stay where she was. She glanced upward over the tall hedge and saw, as the clouds shifted over the moon, a shaft of the palest light. It threw the bell tower of the church in stark, ominous relief, and near it, just to the south, the roof line of the convent.
She'd seen those landmarks a hundred times before.
Heart thudding, her bearings now intact, she slipped through the hedges. Stealthily. Edging onward, around a bench and a sharp angle, toward the center of the maze, toward the statue.
She'd always been slightly leery of the ghostly Madonna, but now she wanted to reach it with all her heart. Her need to find it was like a hunger, something she could almost cry out for if she dared on this dark, evil night.
Or, so she prayed. Her veins felt filled with ice, freezing her so thoroughly it felt as if her blood might solidify.
Silently rounding a final corner, she stopped suddenly as the statue of Mary aburptly appeared, its arms uplifted, greeting her in pale white. Accompanied by the quake of the branches and the musty smell of dead leaves and mud, the statue shimmered ghostlike.
At sight of it she drew a sharp breath and stumbled backward, nearly falling. A tiny stick snapped beneath her shoe.
She glanced backward fearfully, crouched, poised like a hunted animal. Had he heard? Behind her, through the night dark maze, she heard his progress. Steadfast. Onward. Skirting corners without hesitation. His footsteps echoed the beats of her own heart, knelling her doom. Swallowing, she licked her lips nervously as she forced her legs to move forward. One corner . . . a length . . . another corner.
Where the hell was the exit?
Had she missed it?
She wanted to cruy out in fear and frustration as she was forced to backtrack, knowing he was nearer, feeling him close enough that her skin quivered.
There was no opening, no parting of the thick branches.
Panic tore through her. There had to be a way out, a place to hide, a way to get the upper hand . .. Oh, God.
And still he came.
His footsteps loud against the muddy ground. Determined.
Where? Where the hell was the opening?
She hurried along each of the back walls of shrubbery, running her hands through the leaves, searching .. . searching . . . Head pounding, heart thrumming wildly, her ears seemed filled with the roar of the ocean, the battering of the sea against distant cliffs . . . though she was nowhere near the ocean in this closed labyrinth. But it had always been this way. She had always heard these oddly familiar sounds, always sensed a remote place with thick salt air . . .
But here she found no opening. No escape. Nothing but thick, unbroken branches.
She swallowed hard against her fear. This was it. There was no escape.
Kneeling at the statue, she mouthed, “Mother Mary, save my soul. . .”
She hadn't been good.
Oh, God no.
But she wasn't all bad, either.
Behind her, she heard him move ever forward. No rush, no rush at all.
He knew he had her. Terror crawled up her spine.
She kept silently, desperately praying, again and again, Mother Mary save my soul. And then another voice. Deep. Rough. Echoing hollowly through her skull: She can't help you. You have no soul to save.
Were they his words? Was that his cruel voice inside her head?
She thought with sudden clarity: I'm sixteen year's old and I am going to die.
How stupid she was to have goaded him - teased him? Dared him.
What had she been thinking?
This was crux of her problem: Not only could she see the future, she sometimes tried to change it.
And now he was going to kill her. In the middle of this maze, in the cold of winter, he was going to end her life. Desperately she slipped on hand into the pocket of her jacket, curled her fingers over the jackknife hidden within.
With all her strength she prayed for her life, her soul. Above her pulsing heart she heard the hunter's footsteps. Nearer. Relentlessly closer. She rose, turning, facing the yawning opening in the thick shrubbery, the only means of escape. From the depths a dark figure appeared.
Her beginning and her end.
“Leave,” she ordered, holding up the knife.
He kept walking.
“I swear I'll kill you.”
A slow, self-satisfied smile slid across his face. You think you invited me here, whore, when it was I who found you, who hunted you, who will do the killing. He didn't say a word, yet his voice reverberated through her brain.
“I'm not kidding,” she warned, brandishing her small blade, the jackknife she'd stolen from her father's drawer.
Nor am I.
She lunged. Driving the knife downward, intending to slice into his abdomen.
Quick as a snake, he coiled strong fingers around her wrist and bent her hand backward.
Pain screamed up her forearm. She cried out and fell to her knees.
Her gaze clashed with his.
Strong fingers bent her wrist back.
“Stop!” she yelled.
Breath hissedthrough his teeth. With a sharp twist he snapped the bones in her wrist.
She cried out softly. The knife fell from her nerveless fingers. His dark eyes were lasers as he snatched it up and drove forward, jamming it between her ribs. “No more,” he rasped.
She clawed at him but it was no use. Meeting his gaze, she whispered, “This is just the beginning. . . “ and saw his face contort with rage as he shook his head violently, thrusting the knife deeper.
The night swirled around her. She crumpled to the ground at the feet of the statue, aware that her attacker was staring down at her, his teeth bared, his breath visible in short puffs that dissipated as she gazed upward, the lifeblood pooling out of her.
Then she lay still as death at the feet of the Madonna. He backed out of her ever-narrowing vision. Clouds shrouded the moon. Few stars were visible. The Madonna's arms stretched upward to the heavens. Somewhere, far in the distance, it seemed a bell tolled.
I am a sacrifice, she thought.
Then darkness descended.
St. Elizabeth's campus
Midnight. . .
Kyle Baskin held the flashlight under his chin, beaming its illumination upward, highlighting the planes and hollows of his face.
“Bloody Bones entered the house,” he whispered in his deepest, most ghoulish voice. His eyes darted around the circle of boys seated on the ground at his feet, their scared faces turned up earnestly. “Bloody Bones crossed to the stairs. Bloody Bones looked up and could see the children through the walls.”
“Like X-ray vision?” Mikey Ferguson squeaked.
“Shut up.” James, his older brother, threw him a harsh look.
The branches overhead shivered. There was a moon but it wasn't visible over the height of the maze's hedge. Only the faintest trickle of light wavered through the leaves.
“I'm on the first step,” Kyle intoned, hesitating for maximum effect. He gazed acrossthe beam of the flashlight at the kids he and James had brought to the center of the maze. They were supposed to be babysitting but that was boring as hell. “I'm on the second step.” He drew a shaking breath and said slowly, “I'm on . . .the. . .third step. . .”
Mikey shot a look of terror over his shoulder and edged closer to James whose smirk was fully visible to Kyle.
Tyler, that little piss-ant, started to snivel.
“I'm on. . .the. . .fourth. . .step. . .”
“How many steps are there?” Mikey cried, clutching at James' arm.
“Shut the fuck up.” James tried to shake him off.
“I wanna go home!” Tyler wailed.
“I'm on. . .the fifth step!”
“I'm calling my Dad.” Preston, the overweight prick, clambered to his feet, his normally toneless voice quaking a bit.
“The phone's in the car, moron.”
“I'm on the sixth step, I'm on the seventh step, I'm on the eighth step!” Kyle declared in a rush.
The boys leapt to their feet as if yanked by strings, crying, heads jerking around, searching vainly for escape but the hedges loomed, branches sticking out like skeletal arms.
Kyle's voice dropped to a whisper. “I'm on the ninth step. . . .”
James started to worry a little. They couldn't have these dumbasses charging off in all directions in the dark. “Siddown!”
“I'm on the tenth step. . .and now I'm walking down the hall. . . .I'm outside your door. . . I'm pushing it open. . . .cree----eeaa--kkk!!!”
It sounded sorta dumb, James thought, the way Kyle did it, but it sure as hell did the trick. The kids started running around like Keystone Kops, shying away from the dirty old statue of that lady, screaming and blubbering. James and Kyle started laughing. They couldn't help themselves. That ratcheted the boys to near hysteria, and Mikey stumbled right into the statue - the idiot - and knocked the damn thing to one side. The bulldozers had been at the site. The school was being razed and they were taking down the maze as well. That's why Kyle had come up with the idea in the first place. One last spooky hurrah where they could scare the snot out of the little kids.
“Moron, you knocked over the old lady,” James said in a long-suffering tone.
He went to pick up his younger brother while Kyle corralled Tyler and Preston who were crying like the babies they were. Mikey had practically turned to a statue himself. He stood frozen, staring. He slowly lifted one hand as James approached, pointing toward a mound of earth that had humped up when the statue tilted.
“Bloody Bones,” he whispered, his finger quivering.
James looked in the direction he was pointing. From the ground a skeletal human hand lay upturned, its bones both dirty and oddly white, its fingers reaching upward, as if for help.
James' eyes bugged out. He started shrieking like a banshee and couldn't quit.
Kyle gazed on in raw fear. “Shit,” he quavered.
Little Mikey grabbed James' hand and hauled them both out of the maze. The rest of the gang thundered behind them. They all ran for their lives, the cold touch of Bloody Bones feathering their napes all the way.
I feel it . . . that change in the atmosphere, subtle but strong, like the slight tremor of a gentle earthquake with its aftershocks. I know what it means.
I knew it would happen.
Flinging off the covers of the old bed, I listen to the howl of the wind as it rushes from the west, driving inland, churning up the water. I don't bother with clothes as I open the door from the old keeper's quarters that lead into the lighthouse itself. Quickly I take the circular stairs, running up their rusted steps, ignoring the metal as it groans against my weight.
My heart is pumping and all the restlessness I've tried to contain, the impulses I've kept at bay are now set free.
The stairs curl more tightly as I ascend upward to the landing where the once-vibrant beacon lies dormant, its huge lens giving off no illumination, warning no sailors of the impending shoals.
I fling the door open and step onto the weathered grating. Rain spits from clouds roiling in the heavens, wind tears at my hair and the night is dark and thick with winter. A hundred and thirty feet below, the surf churns and boils in white-capped fury around this small, craggy island that has been abandoned for half a century.
No one inhabits the island.
The lighthouse is off-limits to the public, guarded judiciously by the coast guard and a tired, twisted chain link fence as well as the dangerous surf itself.
A few have dared to trespass.
And they have died in the treacherous currents that surround this sorry bit of rock, once called Whittier's Island, but now, referred to by the locals as Serpent's Eye. If only they knew how close to the truth they were.
Even in the darkness, I turn and view the mainland. I know they're there. I've taken as many as I can. Their fortress can be breached, though I bear the scars of battle and I must be careful.
Tonight, no lights glow from their windows. The forest covers them.
As I face the sea, I tilt my head, lift my nose to the wind, but I smell nothing other than the briny scent of the Pacific crashing a hundred feet below. I close my eyes and concentrate. As the wind tosses my hair into my eyes and my skin chills with the frigid air, the blood in my veins runs hot.
I imagine the scent of her skin. Like a rain-washed beach. Tantalizing . . .
I can almost smell her. Almost.
Even without her scent, I now know where she is. I've learned of her by another who has unconsciously shown me the way.
It's time once again, to right an age-old wrong.
This time, there will be no mistake.
A frisson slid down Becca Sutcliff's spine. She inhaled sharply and glanced behind her. The girl at the counter of Mutts & Stuff slid her a look from the corner of her eyes. “You okay?”
“Someone walking on my grave, I guess,” Becca murmured.
The girl's brows lifted and Becca could practically read her mind: Yeah. Right. Whatever. She rang up Becca's purchases and stuffed them in a bag. Thanking her, Becca shifted the packages she was already carrying to accommodate them. Yes, she was filling a need, shopping like it was an Olympic sport, a result of the messy, lingering aftermath of unsettled feelings that still followed from her split with Ben. And now Ben was dead. Gone. Never to come back. And it all felt. . .well. . .weird.
She headed back into the mall, slightly depressed by the cheery red and pink hearts in every store window. Valentine's Day. The most miserable day of the year for the suddenly single.
Okay. She wasn't completely unhappy. She'd known for a long time that she and Ben weren't going to make it. They'd never been in love. Not in the way she'd wanted, hoped, planned to be. When she'd learned he was seeing someone else, she was angry. At herself, mostly. She couldn't really even recall what had triggered their marriage in the first place. What had she wanted? What had Ben wanted? Had it just been timing? A sense that, if not Ben, then who?
Then she learned he'd died in the arms of his new love. Heart attack.
Gone, gone. . .gone.
She was still processing. Still getting used to the fact that he'd left her for another woman. Left her. . .when she'd still believed that maybe, just maybe, there would be that chance for them. That chance to start a family. Have a child. A child of their own. A child of her own. . .
The window of Pink, Blue and You, a combined baby and maternity store, materialized in front of her. She'd stopped into it earlier and picked out a gift for a pregnant co-worker. It was a fine torture to be inside. She wanted a baby. She'd always wanted a baby. Her insides twisted with the memory that she'd lost an unborn baby a long, long time ago.
Yet, at times like this, the pain returned, as fresh and raw as when she'd miscarried.
Tears hovered behind her eyes. But she wasn't going to break down, for God's sake. Not now. She'd grieved far too long as it was. She held the stupid tears at bay, turning her face away from the display of pastel pinks and blues and lemony yellows. Was that why she'd married Ben? To have a baby? To replace the one who'd been taken from her?
Becca told herself to get over it. She'd asked herself the same question countless times, had toiled and fretted over the answer. But it was all moot now. Ben was gone. And he'd left his twenty-two-year-old new lover pregnant, something he'd never wanted with Becca.
“I don't want children,” he'd said. “You knew it when you married me.”
Had she? She didn't remember that.
“It's just you and me, Beck. You and me.”
Maybe she had married him to have a child. Correction. To replace a child.
Maybe she'd made up the 'I love you' parts. Maybe she'd just wanted the whole thing to be so much prettier than it was.
“Damn it all.” She had no time to walk down this lane of self-pity. It was over. O-V-E-R! She turned away from the window. No need to torture herself further. No need at all.
A food court was on her left and she glanced over as she headed the other way. But as she tried to hurry on, her vision grew blurry, forcing to slow down and finally stop short. Her pulse was suddenly rocketing. Damn. She was going to faint. She'd been this route before, more times than she'd like to admit. But it wasn't really fainting. No. More like. . .falling into a spell. A wide awake dream. But it hadn't happened in years. Not for years!
Why now? she asked herself a half-second before a sizzle of pain shot through her brain. She staggered and fell to her knees, packages tumbling from her arms. Becca bent her head, instinctively hiding her face from curious onlookers, one last moment of clarity before the vision overcame her.
In a transformation that was both familiar and feared, Becca was no longer at the mall, no longer feeling the wrench of loss of her baby. No longer in the real world but in a watery, insubstantial one, a world that had plagued her youth yet had been curiously missing and distant for most of her adult life. . . .until now.
In front of her, a short distance away, a teenaged girl stood on a headland above a gray and frothy sea, her long, light-brown hair teased by a stiff breeze, her shirt and jeans pressed to her skin from its force, her gaze focused across churning waves toward a small island, blurred with rain. Becca followed the girl's gaze, staring past her to the island as well, a forlorn, rocky tor that looked as inhospitable as an alien planet. The girl shivered and so did Becca. The cold burrowed beneath her skin and gooseflesh rose on her arms.
The girl was familiar. So familiar. . . . .
Becca stared at her hard, putting a physical effort into it.
Is she someone I know?
Becca struggled to remember. Who was she? Where was she? Why was shepulling Becca into her world?
Distantly, she felt the lightheadedness, the clammy warning that she was about to pass out. No, no, no! Caught between the two worlds, her body failing in one, her mind desperately searching for answers in the other, Becca focused on the girl.
“Who are you?” she called but the rising wind threw the words back into her throat.
The phantom girl took a step forward, the tips of her boots balanced over the edge of the cliff. Becca reached out an arm. Her mouth opened in protest.
Was she going to throw herself to her death?
Becca lunged forward just as the girl turned to face her. Instead of a profile shot, Becca caught a full-on view of her face. “Jessie?” she whispered in shock.