Someone followed her.
Someone she couldn't see or hear through any normal means, but whose presence fairly vibrated across her psychic senses.
Someone whose mission was death.
The wind stirred, running chill fingers across the back of her neck. Nikki shivered and eyed the surrounding shadows uneasily. She'd never been afraid of the dark before—had, in fact, found it something of an ally, especially in the wilder days of her youth. But tonight there was an edge to the silence, a hint of menace in the slowly swirling fog.
People disappeared on nights like this. At least they did here in Lyndhurst. She returned her gaze to the slender figure just ahead. This was the fourth night in a row Monica Trevgard had come to the park after midnight. So far, it was to do nothing more than sit on a bench for an hour before slowly returning home.
Nikki had no idea why. If the teenager had a reason for coming here, she sure as hell hadn't found any evidence of it. Her actions to date made very little sense. The only child of one of Lyndhurst's—and possibly America's—richest men, Monica had spent most of her life rebelling against her family and their wealth. And yet, ironically, it was only thanks to her father's money that she was free to walk the streets tonight. Though nothing had ever been proven, it was a generally conceded fact that John Trevgard had at least one judge and several police officers on his payroll.
Nikki smiled grimly. Trevgard would probably have been better off keeping his hand in his pocket and letting his only child spend some time in jail. Maybe a day or so locked behind uncompromising concrete walls would shock some sense into the girl.
It sure as hell had with her.
Shoving cold hands into the pockets of her old leather jacket, Nikki let her gaze roam across the fog-shrouded trees to her left.
He was still there, still following her. The man with darkness in his heart and murder on his mind. Not her murder, not even Monica's. Someone else's entirely.
She bit her lip. With two knives strapped to her wrists and her psychic abilities to fall back on, she was well enough protected. At least under normal circumstances. But the man out there in the darkness was far from normal, and something told her none of her weapons would be good enough if he chose to attack.
Maybe she was as mad as Monica. Four women had already disappeared from this particular area. She should play it safe and go home, let Jake take over the case. A teenager looking for trouble was going to find it, no matter how many people her father hired to follow and protect her. Only Jake had enough on his plate already, and his night sight wasn't particularly good, anyway. The sound of running water broke through the heavy silence. Though the fog half-hid the old fountain from sight, Nikki knew it well enough to describe every chipped detail, from the wickedly grinning cherub at the top to the embracing lovers near the bottom. It was amazing what became interesting when you had nothing else to do but watch a teenager watch the water.
Only Monica didn't stop at the fountain.
Didn't even look at it. Instead, she glanced quickly over her shoulder, a casual move that raised the hairs on the back of Nikki's neck.
Monica knew she was being followed. Tonight, she didn't just wander. Tonight she was the bait to catch the watcher.
The bitter breeze stirred, seeming to blow right through her soul. Nikki swore softly and ran a hand through her hair. It was nights like this, when she was caught between common sense and past promises, that she really hated being psychic. Had it not been for the gifts warning that death would claim Monika's soul if she weren't protected tonight, Nikki would have run a mile away from here. But she couldn't stand the weight of another death on her conscience and had no real choice but to follow.
They neared the far edge of the park. Streetlights glimmered, forlorn wisps of brightness barely visible through the trees and the fog. Nikki's unease increased. Monica wasn't heading for the street or the lights, but rather toward the old mansion on the far edge of the park. The place had a reputation for being haunted, and though she didn't particularly believe in ghosts, the one night she'd spent there as a kid had sent her running from the place. Ghosts may not exist, but evil sure as hell did. The mansion was steeped in it.
Monica squeezed through a small gap in the fence and cast another quick look over her shoulder. There was no doubt about it—the kid definitely wanted to be followed. Nikki stopped and watched her walk up the steps to the back door. Common sense told her not to follow. Psychic sense told her danger waited inside. She clenched her fists. She could do this. Had to do this.
She stepped forward, then froze. No sound had disturbed the dark silence. Even the breeze had faded, and the fog sat still and heavy on the ground. Yet something had moved behind her. Something not quite human.
Throat dry, Nikki turned. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a hint of movement—a hand, emerging from darkness, reaching out to touch her...
Yelping in fright, she jumped back and lashed out with kinetic energy. Something heavy hit a nearby oak, accompanied by a grunt of pain. She stared at the tree. Despite the sound, there was nothing or nobody at its base.
Something had to be there. It didn't make any sense—bodies just didn't disappear like that. She swallowed and ran trembling fingers through her hair. Disembodied hands couldn't emerge from the darkness, either.
Had it just been her imagination, finally reacting to the overwhelming sensation of being followed? No. Something had been there. Was still there, even if she couldn't see it. Not that that made a whole lot of sense. She turned and studied the dark house. Trouble waited inside that place. But so did Monica.
She climbed through the fence and ran across the shadowed yard. Edging up the steps, she slipped a small flashlight from her pocket and shone the light through the open doorway. The entrance hall was small, laden with dust and cobwebs that shimmered like ice in the beam of light. Faded crimson and gold wallpaper hung in eerie strips from the walls, rustling lightly in the breeze that drifted past her legs. The house really hadn't changed much in the ten years since she'd last been there. Motes of dust danced across the light, stirred to life in the wake of Monica's passing. She directed the beam towards the stairs. Monica appeared to have gone upwards. Up to where the evil lived. Gripping the flashlight tightly, Nikki walked through the dust towards the stairs. The air smelled of decay and unwashed bodies. Obviously, it was still a haunt for those forced to scratch a living off the streets. It was odd, though, that there was no one here now—no one but Monica and whoever it was she'd come here for.
A floorboard creaked beneath Nikki's weight, the sound as loud as thunder in the silence. She winced and hesitated. After several heartbeats, someone moved on the floor above. It wasn't Monica. The footfalls were too heavy.
Reaching into her pocket, she turned on her mobile. If things started to go bad, she'd call for help. Trevgard might not like the publicity a call to the cops would raise, but if it meant the difference between life or death— her life or death—he could go to hell.
The staircase loomed out of the shadows. Nikki shone the light upwards. Something growled; a low sound almost lost against the thunder of her heart. She hesitated, staring up into the darkness. It had sounded like some sort of animal. But what animal made such an odd, rasping noise?
One hand on the banister, the other clutching the flashlight so tightly her knuckles began to ache, she continued on. The growl cut across the silence again.
It was definitely no animal.
She reached the landing and stopped. The odd-sounding snarl seemed much closer this time. Sweat trickled down her face. The flashlight flickered slightly, its beam fading, allowing the darkness to close in on her. Nikki swore and gave it a quick shake. The last thing she needed right now was the light to give up the ghost. Being stranded in total darkness was not a prospect she looked forward to. The light flickered again, then became brighter. She moved on but kept close to the wall, just in case. At least she could use it as a guide, even if the peeling remains of the wallpaper felt like dead skin against her fingertips.
The hallway ended in a T-intersection. Moonlight washed through the shattered window at the end of the left-hand corridor. On her right, there was darkness so complete it almost appeared solid. Monica was in there somewhere. Of that she had no doubt. But that odd sound had come from the left. Whatever it was, she had to check it out first. There was no way in hell she'd run the risk of being attacked from behind in a place like this. She turned left. Two doors waited ahead. One open, one closed.
Was it just fear or instinct that warned against entering either room?
The wind whispered forlornly through the shattered window, accompanied by a low moan that raced goose bumps across her skin.
It was definitely human more than animal. And it wasn't Monica. The teenager still waited in the darkness of the right corridor. Edging forward, she peered around the door frame. Nothing moved in the moon-washed darkness, but something was in there, nevertheless. The sense of malevolence was so overwhelming she could barely breathe.
So why do you not turn around and run?
The thought whispered into her brain, feather light but hinting at anger. Nikki froze, fear squeezing her throat tight. Just for an instant, her mind linked with another. She tasted darkness and concern and the need to kill. This was the man she'd half seen near the fence—the man who'd followed her through the fog.
Turn around and leave. You cannot help the child now.
No. Why could she hear this man's thoughts? Telepathy had never been one of her talents, even though she'd been able to receive Tommy's thoughts well enough. And who the hell are you to tell me what to do?
I merely try to save your life. You will not like what you find. Not in that room, and not with the teenager.
Yeah right. Who was this weirdo? A would-be prophet of doom? I have never run from anything in my life, and I don't intend to start now.
The lie gave her courage. She took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
* * * *
Michael Kelly hit the fence in frustration. The little fool had entered the room, despite his warning. Perhaps because of it.
She knew danger waited—he could taste the fear in her thoughts, despite the distance between them. So why wouldn't she run? Why did she continue this fruitless quest for the teenager? Given the strength of her psychic talents, she had to know the child was well beyond salvation. He let his gaze roam to the far end of the house. Hidden by the darkness, evil waited for his next meal, ably served by his young companion. Unless he intervened, Nikki James would become the fifth woman to go missing in this area.
Had it been anyone else, he wouldn't have particularly cared. His task here tonight was to trap and kill a murderer, not save lives. But her abilities added a dangerous dimension to his task. It was for those abilities, more than her blood, that Jasper hunted her.
He turned and walked to the end of the fence. The sudden movement caused pain to shoot through his head, but he resisted the urge to rub the lump forming near his temple. He had deserved that, and more, for being so careless. But he just hadn't expected the fool to use her kinetic abilities against him. Why he hadn't, he couldn't say. He smiled grimly. Maybe senility was finally setting in. He stopped and studied the houses opposite. Like the area in general, the homes appeared deserted, forgotten. Yet several of the nearest were occupied; he could see the slight haze of life through the walls. Though he couldn't actually enter the main buildings, such restrictions didn't seem to hold when it came to garages. If he could find a container of some kind, he could siphon the gas from the cars. Michael glanced back up to the house. Jasper hated fire. Feared it. It might be enough to save Nikki James.
* * * *
The room smelled awful—a putrid mix of stale urine, excrement and death all rolled up into one breath-withering mix. She cupped a hand over her nose and mouth and tried not to gag as she swept the flashlight's beam across the room.
Something shied away from the light's touch—a hunched, humanoid shape that smelled like death. Nikki backed away. She didn't know what hid in the shadows and didn't really care to find out. She'd learned long ago that some things were best left unexplored; this was certainly one of those times. Perhaps if she closed the door, the thing would leave her alone. She knew from past experience that all the doors in this old house creaked; it was one of the things that had spooked her as a teenager. At the very least, it would give her some warning if the thing decided to move. She half turned away, then stopped. A prickle of warning ran across the back of her neck. The shadows parted, revealing a mass of hair and pale, na**d flesh.
It was definitely human. And yet not.
Fear slammed through her heart. What the hell ... ?
The grotesque figure lunged at her. Stumbling backwards, Nikki threw out her hand, thrusting the creature away kinetically. It slammed into the back wall, grunting in surprise. No sooner had it hit the floor than it was scrambling to its feet, its agility surprising. Glimpsing movement to her left, Nikki whirled. A second creature ran out of the shadows, its face a mocking image of humanity. She reached again for kinetic energy. The heavy steps of the first creature were an express train drawing close. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck. She thrust the second creature back through the doorway, then flicked a wrist knife into her palm. Spinning, she met the charge of the first, stabbing at it wildly. The blade cut through its skin as easily as butter and her fist slammed into the creature's pale flesh—flesh that was as cold as ice.
Nausea rose, tightening her throat. Nikki swallowed and tried to back away, but her feet wouldn't move fast enough. The creature lashed out, connecting hard. The blow flung her backwards. Her back hit the wall, and for a moment she saw stars. Blood spurted from the creature's wound, spraying hot droplets across her face. Nikki gagged, scrubbing at it with the sleeve of her jacket. The creature made a second grab for her. Dropping the flashlight, Nikki scrambled away, but it caught her shoulder and pulled her back. Talon-like fingers tore into her arm, burning pain down to her fingertips. She gasped, fighting the sudden wash of nausea. The creature snarled; its breath was fetid, full of death, full of decay. Nikki shuddered and slammed the heel of her hand into its face. For a spilt second, its hold weakened. She reached quickly for kinetic energy. A sliver of pain ran through her mind, a warning that she was pushing her psychic strength too far. She ignored it and forced the heavy creature away from her. It flew across the room and smashed through the window, tumbling out backwards with a guttural cry of surprise.