CHAPTER ONE

MASSACHUSETTS, Sunday Night

YUSUF LAID HIS KNIFE on the counter. Temptations of the West had lured his Brothers into wicked acts, and now his hands were stained with murder.

He ripped and dampened a wad of steel wool from a tattered wrapper he found in a dusty cupboard, muttering words of repentance while he scraped off the crusted blood he had left too long. He raked with steady strokes until steel gleamed, reflecting sun rays with blinding streaks. A bucket half filled from the outdoor pump set in the kitchen sink. He rinsed the blade in the pail, stirring the water like a lamb stew.

The cabin should have been vacant until the warm months. Set back from a little used road between Boston and Worcester, it was an ideal location to squat until his part of the mission was complete. He had ditched a stolen car in a distant woodland and hiked twelve kilometers back to the cabin where he had stored provisions to last a week; he could live on much less, like he had while training with mujahedin—Brothers of the Eastern Flame.

Treetops rustled in a stiff gust and dried leaves slid across the floor when the back door blew open. The breeze smelled like moist earth. Not like Cairo where the air could choke you.

Yusuf braced against the frame, pulling the door where it stuck. Rough wood snagged the sleeve of his jacket. His forehead pressed against the glass pane as he glared at the distant mound where soil and brush had settled and animals had grown more curious. His tongue clucked with disappointment about his carelessness. He had accomplished so much in past months. He should have completed this small task with greater resolve. Perhaps his Brothers had correctly named him, The Arm. He had once heard them speak of him as a “man of lesser intellect.” No matter what they believed of his mind, he was clear about himself and knew he would not come out of this alive.

Tomorrow I will fix.

Hide the truck parked alongside the cabin, run it into the ravine and cover it with brush.

Dig a deeper grave.

Again the door blew open as if God had whispered permission.

Once a source of peace, a mural of Paradise on the salon wall of his family home in Giza could have been photographed where he now stood—a landscape of heaven—full of life, with more greens than he could have imagined. “They live in Paradise, and look what they do.”

Angry. Bitter. More determined than ever. Something happens to me and it becomes stronger than myself.

The sudden blast of a horn exploded the silence.

Yusuf scrambled across the room and peeked out the front window as tires crunched on the gravel road. A small SUV with Connecticut plates parked at the deck. A hard crash, and another, as something heavy hit the steps.

The driver called out, “Hey, buddy. Give me a hand with these tools.”

Yusuf hid behind the front door, pressing against the wall—the knife with the polished blade clenched in his fist.

###

CHAPTER TWO

CONNECTICUT, Sunday Night

KATE KASABIAN SHUDDERED with a chill. Maybe it was the weight of the comforter rising off her body that woke her. Perhaps it was the sudden cold spilling onto the other side of the bed as if someone had crawled in. “Todd?” Her whisper was so soft she barely heard it herself. “You’re back?” She rolled on her side half asleep, slipping her arm outside the down quilt. Her hand traced his shoulder and slid up the back of his neck. Her fingers combed through his hair with gentle strokes like so many times before.

The bedroom was too quiet. No fabric rustled with her movements. No psychic voices played in her head.

No lover sighed at her touch.

Her eyes shot open.

Todd!

Her body lurched against the mattress as if her soul had crashed into her physical self. She bolted from the empty bed, sprinting so fast to escape she stumbled against the door.

“What the hell!”

Kate stood shaking in the hallway, her arms hugging herself as she stared into the dark room looking for movement. Listening for breaths.

Pain stabbed her left temple, the first sign of migraine. Her fingers pressed against the throb as she ran downstairs. “Todd, is that you? Damn you if it is.” A room-to-room search proved fruitless. Windows and doors remained secure and nothing had been disturbed.
She’d rather face a room of demanding clients than confront a paranormal pest alone in the dead of night, though that wasn’t always her way. She once was so brave. So confident. So sure of her supernatural skills. That old Kate had been gone so long, she scarcely remembered her. She inched back upstairs, gripping the rail with hands that had touched spirit.

I felt his hair. Wavy. Silky. His body pressed against me. I know what I felt.

A red scarf nearly tripped her when she crossed her bedroom’s threshold. Must have fallen when I bumped the door. She snatched it from the floor, glared at her hand and wiped her palm with harsh strokes to scrape off uninvited energy. Scraping. Scraping. More than was needed. Spectral light gleamed with each stroke as if sparking off fingers of steel. She shook her head to sever the psychic connection and drew an energy shield around her while murmuring, “White light. White light.”

Clutching the door frame supported an illusion of sanctuary. She leaned inside and flipped a switch; the room seemed harmless in light. Tucking her hair behind her ears was a lame attempt to regain control. She returned the scarf to the belt tree hooked behind the door, inhaled a deep breath to fuel her courage and tiptoed across the carpet. Her head snapped to one side where she saw movement. A silk Chinese wall hanging rippled in the stirred air though no one was there. She grabbed the quilt, flipped it onto the floor and felt the mattress in slow, smooth circles.

The spot where she had lain remained warm.

The other side felt cold—colder than the room.

A trace fragrance lingered on the sheets with the chocolaty musk of a Ralph Lauren body spray Todd often wore.

“If you’re coming back, then dammit, bring your body and use the front door.”

She backed away from the bed, grabbed a blanket from the guest room and headed downstairs to the living room couch. Her phone sat on the coffee table at arm’s length, a fireplace poker propped beside her.

Curled into a tense ball, she clutched the blanket to her chin. What the hell was that about? His attempt to make amends? It wasn’t a dream. Most of the time she knew the difference and of this she was sure. The ghostly visit was alarming—and strange enough to post on her website, Dreamwatch.com … true paranormal experiences of ordinary people.

The way people used Dreamwatch was nothing like Kate had imagined—a registry for premonitions to warn of disaster—grounding a plane before faulty wiring failed, evacuating a town before a mudslide smothered it, closing a bridge before it collapsed. But it decided what to be when it grew up and the result wasn’t earth-changing like she had hoped. People wrote about shared dreams, saving themselves from harm, and more than a few visitations by loved ones back from the dead.

Except for purple business cards printed with white Gill Sans type, Kate did nothing to promote her site, yet visitors found it like sinners flocked to a confessional. Friends and family called them crazy and most feared they were. They craved validation from anyone who might believe their story, because they hardly believed it themselves. Something had happened to them, mysterious and frightening. Something bigger than they were. Something bigger than all of us.

The sudden fragrance of flowers in winter …
Movement in another room when home alone …
Or the spirit of an absent lover lying in your bed, so real you could smell his cologne and feel his hair between your fingers.

A shiver ran down her arms, so intense not even pure light could warm them.

Damn. This wasn’t supposed to happen anymore.

###

CHAPTER THREE

Monday Morning

AN EERIE THUNDER seemed to cut through all of creation. A frightening metallic rumble sounded like mountains collapsing or earth’s crust breaking apart. The vibration trembled through Kate’s body, scaring her like a feral cat caught in a storm. She bolted to the picture window to confirm the nearby traprock range remained standing and was stunned to see it unchanged. Not even a tree branch lay on her lawn. But, it was so real.

Can reality crack? Did I hear myself pierce the other side? What did I see?

Sleeping on the couch had been quite comfortable until the apocalyptic weather front smashed her dreams into fragments, recall and interpretation now made more difficult.

Kate rubbed her eyes and squinted as daybreak colored the walls a soothing rose-pink. She loved her little house on Summary Road. She had to. It was all she had left since Todd Avery stormed out two nights ago with most of his belongings, that, and her guilt for not loving him enough. More guilt. Just what I need. Feeling Todd’s presence last night stirred sentimental longing that surprised her. She sat on the sofa’s middle cushion and mindlessly picked at her hair to unravel snarls one by one. I love him. I love him not.

She might have said yes to his proposal in a month or a year, but her heart wasn’t there yet. Careening toward her thirtieth birthday a mere nine months away, not even desire for children had swayed her to accept his ultimatum: Marry me or I’m outta here.

Damn him. She might have said yes next week.

Though she didn’t believe he’d leave forever, it was looking like he had. Okay. Clean slate. Been here before. In love and out. Hired and laid off. Counting savings, pinching pennies. Not so bad. I’ve been through worse.

Todd had planned to finish a family room in the basement, maybe rebuild the utility shed into office space, big plans for her and her house. She tried not to dwell on him, but she had to decide about their planned vacation to Prague.

A departure date in five days would be a week since he’d left, which should be enough time for him to chill. Yesterday she poked with voicemail, asking where to forward paper mail, but he didn’t return her call. Her choice should be obvious, yet apprehension smoldered deep inside, deeper than her bruised heart.

She must decide by tomorrow and hoped for a sign. A helpful sign. A useful sign. Not a spirit slipping between the sheets scaring the willies out of her.

Ask for guidance and let it go. Trust fate.

Kate turned on the four-cup coffeemaker on top of the crammed kitchen counter after maneuvering it around a container of wooden utensils, strategically placed between the electric outlet and the sink’s faucet, where a feng shui consultant advised a barrier. She was good at constructing barriers. Bad at making commitments. Forming protective walls was her nature, like the crab symbol of her Cancer sun sign. Another reason she should go … to crack her self-imposed shell. Life had become too cozy, but that was Todd, easy, predictable and oh so comfortable.

She passed through the back room, a sunroom in name only, draped a shawl across her shoulders and stood at the screen slider where the veil between here and there seemed most thin. Morning mist masked the forest preserve that bordered her lot. Southwest winds could carry the sound of traffic on the interstate, while gusts from the east amplified train whistles from across town. When the air was windless, like now, the silence seemed unnatural. Like a movie scene on mute. Not nearly as creepy as hearing the killer’s footsteps, the thumping music of a hungry shark or alien eggs hatching in a distant planet’s dark cave. Still eerie because the lack of sound defied reality, and skirting the fringe of reality held far less appeal than it once did. Yet, the forest drew her. If she didn’t resist, it would pull her psyche into the otherworld. She rubbed her arms as last night’s cold clung to her skin.

Danger is close.

She stared at the tree line as if it were meaningful, as if in her dream she’d wandered there, seen something there—as if she should know about it but had forgotten. Her psychic vision had become as foggy as the trees. Faded, as if she used Photoshop to adjust transparency to forty percent.

It’s what you asked for.

She poured a mug of coffee and set it on the back porch table, grabbed her Nikon and clicked half a dozen shots of the hazy landscape growing more ethereal as warm daylight met cool ground air.

Kate transferred the photos to her iMac, opened them in the editing program and clicked through a slideshow. “Nice.” Someday she’d use them to dress her website. Forget the forest. Don’t get distracted. She stored the images in a new folder titled Spooky Forests, but even as she typed, spooky didn’t seem ominous enough to describe her feelings. She moved the cursor to open the thesaurus, knowing she could easily spend half an hour searching for a more accurate term. She had to decipher the dream and the pall it left behind—and she had to get it right. Was she drawn to the forest or warned away from it? Did she dream of her forest or a forest? The slightest error could result in danger … in death. Stop.

###

KATE HOPED to knock off her to-do list by early afternoon, beginning with positioning images in the medical center brochure. With those files in production, she’d be clear of work commitments and free to travel. Her client’s final copy changes were due the next day, so tomorrow became her milestone. Finish and bill the brochure. Decide about Prague.

With Todd’s unexpected exit, Kate finally understood her brother’s hit-and-run strategy with the women in his life. What would Jack do? If his vacation plans veered off-road, he’d have steered onto Plan B. He seemed to have a strategy for everything. Navy. College. U.S. Marshal Service. FBI. Made Mom and Dad proud—unlike her three-year curriculum in a non-accredited art school. She’d supported herself, self-employed for three years, and they still didn’t understand what she did, but then, they didn’t ask.

At 7:00 a.m. Jack was sure to be back from his run, showered, dressed and on his way to work.

He answered his cell phone on the second ring. “Kate? What’s wrong?”

“Todd’s gone.”

“Again?”

She flapped her arms like a flightless bird. “No. Still.”

“I know. You told me on Saturday.”

“But—”

“I can’t talk now. Call me if something important happens.”

Kate ignored the dial tone and continued the conversation as if Jack were supportive and sympathetic—as if he were still listening. “I think Todd wants to come back but doesn’t know how, so his spirit came to smooth the way.” She imagined Jack affirming that her idea was clever and perceptive. “I thought I’d stopped that extreme paranormal intrusion, the scary stuff like visits from spirits and ghosts and real life drama. I thought I’d sealed the door to the other side, ever since … well, you know. I can’t bear the responsibility.

“But it’s happening again. I don’t know who or what will creep into my dreams, and I don’t want them hanging around my house.” She cinched her shawl tighter.

Be calm. It won’t be more than you can manage.

Back at her computer with a second coffee warmed in the microwave, she checked e-mail and her site’s form mail. With work slowing, redesigning and maintaining Dreamwatch.com had become her only diversion.

Prague will change everything.

The Dreamwatch mailbox held one new message, a familiar plea. “I had that dream again. What does it mean? Please help.”

That dream had been submitted by Evelyn, screen named LittleEv, a forty-year-old mother of three who lived in South Carolina. Not a stranger. Their online friendship began the week Dreamwatch went live. They hoped to meet one day. Kate knew her and the woman couldn’t be more normal. LittleEv’s disaster premonitions—Katrina, Haiti, Japan—were spot on. As accurate as her own, before she stopped them.

Guilt for not responding knotted at the base of Kate’s skull. LittleEv’s first message about the vision was still in her inbox after two weeks. Two dreams in two weeks. She rubbed her neck as she opened the original form mail and read it again—like she did almost every day.

Hundreds of dazed people stagger up concrete steps from underground. Drooling. Vomiting. Mouths foaming. Their clothes stink of urine. People drop to the street, twitching and jerking, screaming they’re blind, pupils constricted to pin holes. They lie on the ground unable to breathe while police rush into tunnels wearing gas masks that hide expressions of fear.

People panic. I see lights everywhere, a sparkly bridge and orange tree leaves. The only name I get is Charles Charles. I hear it twice. I don’t know why.

I sense flowing water like in a river or stream, or through a pipe or hose. Could that symbolize something passing through a confined space like trains moving through tunnels or cars on bridges?

I’m frightened and don’t know what to do. I feel this is a premonition of a future event. What does your sixth sense tell you?

—LittleEv

The threat of LittleEv’s vision deserved more than a guess at its meaning, and the doubled name confused interpretation even more. What did it mean? There was a time she would immediately understand complex symbols and meanings, but Kate couldn’t dissect the vision any better than the day she first read it.

Insight will come when least expected. Words in your head.

She should have sent a polite “Thanks for your story, but I’m concerned it may incite …incite some—” Some heinous thing. She could have filed it with the others, forgotten it or tried to, but the vision didn’t fade from her thoughts.

Kate’s recent dreams confused her, so how dare she attempt to explain LittleEv’s? Her own clairvoyant visions made even less sense. Fire and bridges and snow in September.
She underscored a phrase in her dream journal and added punctuation. Snow in September??? Doesn’t happen in Connecticut, nor in Prague. That wasn’t a sign she needed. It must represent something else. Something white? Pure?

Words in her head answered with clarity.

No. Something chilling.

~ end of chapter three ~

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