Moonlight Virtual Mystery presents a Worldwide FIRST: A reader’s choice virtual story, written in REAL TIME.
Join us for the next twelve weeks as we journey into the world of mystery, write and reveal a short story together––with your input. Each week, one of our twelve award-winning authors will take the lead, chapter by chapter.
Leave comments or questions, suggest the direction you’d like to see the story take, and share the journey with us. Your comments may win you entries in our $100.00 Quarterly Giveaway, so interact with us.
The more you share and interact, the more entries you can earn. So let’s embark, because…
By Casi McLean
“Stop. Dear Lord, please…make them stop.” Annabelle clenched her fists, pressing fingernails into her palms. She squeezed, tighter…tighter, until she felt sure the tips pierced into her skin. The pain distracted her from the incessant murmurs that hummed every time she had a thought of her own, and helped her validate some sense of reality beyond the strange phenomenon and eerie voices that had shadowed her for the last few weeks. Eyes shut, she sucked in a long breath then released the air in a slow stream, praying the whispers would disperse. When the room silenced, her resolve intensified. Again, she tapped on her keyboard, refusing to stop before her final chapter found its end.
Finally. Breathing a sigh of relief, she closed her laptop and ran a finger across the cool, streamlined case. A few days of editing and her manuscript would sail through cyberspace to Maddie. Her editor loved Darkness Awaits insisting the fresh storyline would hit the New York Time’s Bestseller list within days of publication. Annabelle agreed––at first. But for the first time in her career, she no longer cared. The book could fade into oblivion in some dusty old library, or wither with age locked inside a forgotten trunk in a neglected attic, preferably one far away. As long as she no longer sensed the anguish of the mysterious characters or felt trapped within the town limits of Mystic Harbor.
With every other manuscript she’d written, an odd melancholy befell her as she typed the words, “The End.” The feeling, a mixture of elation upon completing a novel and sorrow at having to leave a setting she’d grown to love, lingered until a new manuscript tugged her away into another world. Still, she missed her characters––her heroes, heroines, and even her villains––as much as she grieved over the loss of an intimate friendship.
But this story differed from anything she’d written before. At first she assumed the whispers a manifestation of her vivid imagination. She’d always lived inside the souls of her characters. So much so, she believed her muse to be her partner in crime. Annabelle wrote by the seat of her pants, never knowing where her tales would take her until the words streamed through her fingertips, tapped into her keyboard, and magically appeared on her screen. But Darkness Awaits had more than a mind of its own. From the first paragraph, the story tumbled forward like a waterfall rushing downward. The characters manifested as if they stood before her with vivid descriptions and clear-cut personalities. The words bubbled inside, assuring her of an easy manuscript with a storyline developing as if the events occurred in real time.
Maddie, her editor couldn’t get enough of the tale. “I love this. When can you give me a finished draft? We have to get this published before Halloween.” She insisted, and tightened the deadline.
It wasn’t until the manuscript reached a mid-point that Annabelle began to sense an unnatural presence pushing her forward. A love for writing had enchanted her for as long as she could remember. Evan as a small child, she dictated stories to her mother who would religiously chronicle every word her daughter uttered. The tales provided them both with endless bedtime stories.
As time went on, a writing career etched into her destiny with an enchantment reaching far beyond fairytales. When she learned to write the stories she loved, Annabelle kept a journal, taking note of each family excursion with intimate detail, real and imagined. Each destination spun passionate accounts then tucked them into the corners of her mind.
But in her sixteenth year, her father booked a trip to Mystic Harbor and since the first time she saw the tiny haven nestled into a mountainous backdrop of snow-topped peaks and lush, green forests, the vista beckoned her return.
The ambiance captivated her and provided a perfect setting for a teenage romance, but Preston Honeywell, a hot hunk working the docks, mesmerized her. His sweaty, sun-drenched biceps glistened as he tugged ropes and hauled sailboats to tether. For four glorious vacation weeks, their summer romance blossomed, only to be ripped apart when her father’s holiday ended and the family returned home.
When the opportunity arose to visit the enchanting inlet again, the prospect thrilled her. The past twelve years had changed her dramatically, and she felt sure her paramour had surely moved to some unknown destination, married, and settled into a comfortable life. But what if? Imagining him in his awesomeness, standing on the dock, waving to her sent a warm tingle trickling down her back to settle between her thighs.
Finding new fodder for her novels fed an insatiable thirst, but Mystic Harbor fulfilled more than a quenching of her creative desires. Preston. Could he still live in Mystic Harbor? And what if they’re seductive connection still lingered in him as well?
Finding Preston took little ingenuity. And the fact he remained in that tiny town, unmarried, and extremely interested in having a drink to catch up, beat the odds. But the moment their gaze locked, Annabelle’s heart pounded so hard she felt sure he’d notice her trembling. Not only was the inexplicable connection still tethered, the emotion escalated into a physical attraction that soared off the scales.
Only a few weeks into her research, their relationship flourished––the likes of which Annabelle only experienced in her romantic mystery novels. Hell, Preston had her feeling elation she never knew existed.
Was it destiny that brought them together, or fate that lured them into the clutches of pure evil? If Annabelle had never met Preston twelve years ago, would she have ever ventured back to Mystic Harbor? Maybe not, and she certainly wouldn’t have agreed with Preston to explore that spooky, old, deserted cabin halfway up the mountain.
“Security in numbers, Babe.” He smiled that infectious grin she could never resist. “Come on. It’ll be fun. I’ve never had the nerve before, but mysterious, eerie stories are right up your alley. What do you say?”
“Sure. Let’s go.” S U R E, the worst four-letter word she’d ever uttered, because that day everything changed.
By Maureen Bonatch
Glorious shades of red and gold trailed the sun as it set. Long quivering shadows cast across the still water of the harbor and descended with the flowing orb to the depths to rest for the night. Annabelle traced the crudely carved initials with her finger. Preston had whittled the jagged heart with the Swiss army knife he was never without to declare their binding teenage love in the old wooden bench on the dock during their summer romance.
Her seat facing the dock was familiar, but the memory of how she’d ended up at her favorite thinking spot was not. She remembered meeting Preston this morning to hike the mountain to the cabin. She’d brought coffee. The memory of the way her belly fluttered when his gaze found her and how he smiled wide enough to awaken his adorable dimples was strong. Nothing was clear after that.
The sharp splinter piercing her palm restored reality. Annabelle opened her hand to study the blood surrounding the tiny piece of weathered wood jutting from her flesh. A crumpled parking ticket and newspaper clipping fell from her clutch to rest on her thigh. Droplets of her blood further tainted the disturbing headline. The anniversary of the three women who’d gone missing over a decade ago coincided with the date of her return to Mystic Harbor. The normally serene townspeople were as restless for answers to the tragic mystery as the murmurs in her mind. They wouldn’t forget, and it seemed that neither could she.
Startling waves crashing together with a violent slap drew her undivided attention. Usually the rippling water soothed her frazzled thoughts, but not now. The serene waters bubbled and grew choppy even as the boats sat silent and still at the empty dock. The whispering she’d hoped to escape when she typed the last words in Darkness Awaits awoke to resume shouting in her mind.
She pressed her hands over her ears as if that could shut out the urgent murmuring. The whisperings grew more insistent and leaked out to surround her. They echoed back and forth from her mind to the animated water with only one recognizable word, Preston.
Annabelle lost interest in deciphering the desperate murmurings and focused on the shadow floating through the churning water to the surface. The strange phenomenon occurring since she returned to Mystic Harbor made her question her beliefs about everything and everyone. Although she’d never seen a ghost before, and despite writing extraordinary stories, she didn’t believe in them. But what rose from the water defied all rational explanation. The implausible image was more terrifying than anything the voices could utter.
A translucent woman rose from the water. Rivulets of fluid dripped from the tattered cloth sleeves covering her otherworldly form. Skeletal fingers reached toward her.
Had her story somehow released what had been confined to her mind?
Annabelle froze at the sensation of fingers intertwining with her own. Two other ghostly women shimmered from the depths to flank each side of the apparition. All three turned to point a shaky, bony finger past her.
She screamed and twisted to her right, tugging her hand for release. Instead of encountering another ghostly form, she met Preston’s concerned stare. The rapid beating of her heart assured her that she was still alive, for now, but she couldn’t say the same for whatever sought her from a watery grave.
A flicker of hurt flashed across his dark chocolate brown eyes and he released his grip. He ran a hand through his thick, wavy hair in his classic nervous gesture. “I yelled for you from the parking lot but you didn’t answer. What’s wrong?”
Gaining confidence from Preston’s presence, she pointed toward the water. The surface was as smooth as a mirror. “I, the…”
“Why did you run off today? I know the cabin freaked you out, but why did you go to Chief O’Brian? He was concerned about you.”
“Chief O’Brian?” The last remnants of the light of day faded and the pole light above them flickered and illuminated. It highlighted the angles of his striking cheekbones and the dark circles that had appeared under his eyes in the past few weeks. Although the women she’d seen, dreamed or imagined looked and felt almost as real, as Preston.
Had she fallen asleep and the three women were part of a waking dream? Was she even awake now? It was as if her past, present and future started and ended at Mystic Harbor. The thin line between reality and the stories she immersed herself in waivered and blurred when Preston squeezed her hand. She didn’t pull away this time and let his touch help ground her to reality. Though he was always gentle with her, his bulging biceps from years of manual labor confirmed he could easily crush a woman’s throat.
She gasped at the frightful thought that came with the memory her subconscious buried. The face of the woman in the water matched the one she’d seen this morning. The eerie image peered from the tattered remnants of the curtain fluttering around the broken glass at the cabin window when they stepped on the porch. Annabelle turned and fled just like all those years before.
She didn’t remember her visit to the police station today; instead she recalled the time she was there twelve years ago. The day she was going to meet Preston at the cabin all those years ago, but she never made it. She’d turned and fled when she heard a woman scream.
Why did Preston suggest returning to the cabin? Did he see the woman? She didn’t ask him today. Perhaps she was afraid of his answer. There was no use denying it any more. Returning to Mystic Harbor wasn’t her choice. Something else had drawn her here and sank its clutches into her mind once she entered the town, prohibiting her from leaving.
Perhaps it was the same reason Preston never left. She couldn’t keep running. Something needed her to discover what everyone else missed, even if it meant breaking her heart. Otherwise she might lose her mind, if she hadn’t already.
By Emma Kaye
“Hey,” Preston’s voice lowered to a soothing rumble. “You okay? What happened to your hand?”
Annabelle twisted her palm down to avoid his gaze, but he took hold of her injured hand and brought it to his mouth. After a quick kiss to the side of her thumb, he studied the tiny drop of blood and the splinter at its center.
She ignored him and scanned the water for any sign of the women who’d stared at her only seconds ago. Nothing. Just like any memory of how she got here.
“Sit still. I think I can get it.”
“It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.” What were the ghosts trying to tell her? Was it a warning?
Preston’s warm breath bathed her hand, raising goose bumps up and down her arm and snapping her attention back to him. He wasn’t going to… Yup. His teeth scraped the fleshy part of her hand below her thumb. How did he manage to make pulling a splinter into a sensual experience that she wouldn’t mind repeating?
With a wide grin that set off his dimples and did crazy things to her equilibrium, he spit out the little sliver of wood and then wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her against him as he leaned back on the bench. “Do you remember the first time I brought you here?”
She settled against the warmth of his chest with a sigh. Oh, yeah. She remembered. And suddenly she knew that whatever was haunting her, it had nothing to do with him. It just couldn’t. “I was so nervous.” She laughed. Their first date had been anything but smooth ’til that point, but man…the boy could kiss. “Did you know that I’d never been kissed before that night?” she asked, confident he’d had no idea. She’d put on a good show, no matter how freaked out she’d felt inside.
“Yeah, I knew.”
She smacked his shoulder. “What? No way. I totally pulled it off.”
“You puckered up like you were sucking on a lemon and squeezed your eyes so tight I was afraid you’d hurt yourself.”
“I did not!” She frowned as Preston went into a fit of laughter. He poked her gently until she gave in and joined in his mirth. “Okay, so maybe I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was only sixteen.”
“What’s important is that by the end of the month, we both knew exactly what we were doing.” His gaze fell to her mouth and she licked her lips in anticipation.
Before she could lift her chin to meet him for a kiss, the voices returned, their tormented whispers clouding her mind. She bent forward, head in her hands. This had to stop. She couldn’t take much more.
Preston leaned forward, one hand on her back, worry in his voice, “Annabelle? What’s wrong, babe?”
“Headache.” She forced herself to sit back and smile. “I-I’ve been so absorbed in my story, I think I forgot to eat today. Sorry.”
“I thought the book was done already.”
She forced a laugh. “The book isn’t done until Maddie tells me I can’t make any more changes. My editor,” she explained when he looked confused. “I was up half the night revising.” She’d known who the murderer was from the second she started Darkness Awaits, but certain clues had turned up in the actual writing that indicated his innocence. Her subconscious had picked a different killer, she just hadn’t figured out who yet. Maybe that’s why the voices wouldn’t go away. She needed to solve the mystery.
“And I dragged you out to the cabin at first light. Damn. I’m sorry. You should have told me you didn’t feel up to it. Lets go get you something to eat.”
She nodded and stood with him, stuffing the newspaper article and parking ticket into her purse as she rose. Those were worries for another day. She couldn’t deal with it tonight, whatever she’d done in those missing hours had worn her out. She considered skipping dinner and heading back to the little cottage by the water she’d rented for the summer, but Preston seemed bent on feeding her.
He kept his arm around her as they strolled off the dock and back up to Main Street. He steered them toward Sarah’s, a cute little café with outdoor seating. Twinkling Christmas lights hung in the trees gave it a romantic, festive feel all year round.
“Hey, Sarah,” Preston said when they reached the hostess desk. “Any chance we can get a table outside, maybe near the rail?” He tilted his head toward a likely table for two in the corner.
“Sure can, sugar,” Sarah responded. “Anything for you.”
Annabelle bristled. Was this lady for real? Her eyes popped open wide as Sarah leaned over the stand to pass Preston a pair of menus, displaying an almost obscene amount of cleavage.
To his credit, Preston didn’t stare. He took the menus with a smile and gestured for Annabelle to precede him to their seat.
Sarah sniffed, but led them to the table he requested.
“Perfect.” Annabelle smiled sweetly at Sarah, who tossed her hair and went back to her spot to greet another couple.
“I know how much you like to people-watch. I figured this seat would work.”
A few sips of water helped calm Annabelle’s nerves so she could indulge in her favorite pastime while they waited for their meals.
Thankfully the voices receded enough to let her enjoy her chicken salad. The sweet burst of grapes and crunch of almonds mixed with chicken hit the spot. The glass of chardonnay didn’t hurt in lightening her mood. She soon fell into a dazed stupor as the exhaustion of the day hit her hard.
Annabelle jumped. “Sorry, what?” She shook her head, trying to shake the fog from her brain.
“I asked what happened with O’Brian. You freaked him out so bad he came after me.”
“After you? Why?” What could she tell him, that she didn’t remember seeing her old friend? He’d think she’d lost it. Maybe she had. Seeing ghosts wasn’t exactly evidence of a sound mind.
He narrowed his eyes. “Oh, come on. You know why.”
The bitterness in his tone snapped her out of her haze. “No, really. What did he say?” What the hell did I do?
“He wanted to kick my ass for upsetting you. Not that he needs an excuse, he’s had it in for me ever since you chose me over him. He’s never gotten over you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re friends.” Sure, Max had asked her out that first summer, but she’d already started dating Preston and Max took the rejection in stride. They’d stayed friends and talked on the phone on occasion. On the rare occasion he came to her town, they’d meet for dinner. That was it.
He snorted. “Friends, my ass. You may be friends, but he most definitely isn’t.”
“Ever met his wife?”
“Yes.” She rubbed at her aching temple. “Well, never in person. But we’ve talked plenty of times.”
“She’s pretty. Long, light-brown hair. Hazel eyes. Just a bit over five feet…” He looked at her expectantly, eyebrows raised in that way he had.
“What are you getting at?” A chill ran down her spine. So what if Preston had described her to a T? That just showed that her looks were average—not that she needed reminding.
“You know what? Never mind.” He stuck the bill and a handful of cash on the table, using the bud vase and its one, perfect red rose to weigh it down. He stood and held out a hand to her.
She shoved her chair back and her purse fell off the back, her wallet and everything in it tumbling out. The newspaper article fluttered to the ground at their feet.
The faces of the three missing young women—all with long, light brown hair—stared up at them.
By Sharon Buchbinder
Preston bent down and picked up the clipping, its ragged edges stained brown. A cloud of sadness passed over the sunshine of the day. Those young women. “A damn shame about those girls.” He glanced up at Annabelle and snagged her gaze. “Nearly broke my heart when I heard they’d gone missing.”
The love of his life’s expression shifted. “You knew them?”
“Well, not in the Biblical sense. They came here with their families like you did, ya know?” He pointed at the girls one by one, going from left to right. “This one’s Lindsey—last name starts with a C, Carter? Cartwell?” He moved his index finger. “The one in the middle is Kelly Adams—easy to remember, first man and all that. This one, with the big smile, that’s Jessica Bonneville. I remember her last name because of the car. Great fun-loving girls. Gone. A real tragedy.”
Annabelle’s eyes narrowed and she asked in a low voice, “How did you know them?”
Whoa. I didn’t see that coming. She’s jealous.
“Hey, I confess, Max made the green-eyed monster come out in me, too.” He reached to pull her into a kiss and she stepped back. “Babe, what’s wrong?”
Her voice dripped with suspicion. “How is it possible that you were acquainted with all three of the missing women?”
Shaking his head, “Not women. Barely eighteen, fresh out of high school. The police called them the ABC girls. To me, that demeaned them, turned them into objects. They were vibrant, beautiful. I will always remember them laughing and joking with their families—that’s how I met them. Down on the dock, at the boat rentals. Same way I met you.”
“Did you date them, too? Make them think you only had eyes for them?”
Surprised at the ferocity in her voice, he reached for her ice cold hand. “Babe, you’re freezing. Honest, you have to believe me. You are the one, the only one for me.”
She frowned. “Did the police interview you?”
“For hours,” he nodded, recalling his time in the windowless room with the metal table. “I wasn’t even in Mystic Harbor when they went missing. I was at boat shows with Al, the owner of the boat rental company. He needed me to help him load and unload the boats and hand out brochures.”
“Lucky for you.” she said with a touch of sarcasm.
It wasn’t like his sweet gal to behave this way. She was never snarky, never nasty, always sunny and kind. What the heck was wrong with her? He had to get this straight with her, right now. He admired her determination and grit, but this time her stubborn perseverance on this line of questioning might get in the way of their relationship. Bad enough he’d been under a cloud of suspicion from the police. He didn’t need it from her, too.
“Listen to me, Annabelle. Please. I got enough of those comments from your not-so-secret admirer Max. He kept trying to prove I was actually in town, that the videos of the events had to have been doctored. He’s still got it in for me.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences, Preston. I have to ask. How is it that every time you were out of town, a woman went missing?”
“You’re right, way too coincidental. I was the easy target. Too easy. Max wanted to put me away and say he cleared the three cases.”
She licked her lips and locked gazes with him. “What do you think happened?”
He took a deep breath and blew it out. “Did you ever hear of the Divine Brilliance Cult?”
She frowned. “Aren’t they out west? In Oregon or California?”
“Yes, but they started under a different name. They used to be called PPC, short for the Polyamorous Polyglot Church.”
Her beautiful hazel eyes widened. “Weren’t they in the woods north of here in an old mining camp?”
“Exactly. They lured young women to the cult by sending good-looking guys into town. They’d chat the women up, tell them their aura was dark, a sign of impure thoughts. Then they’d invite them back to the camp for an evening of ‘deep spiritual cleansing’ by the cult leader.”
Her long fingers flew to her lush, kissable lips. “Omigod! I remember them. A movie star handsome guy tried to pick me up here.” She pointed back at the place they just left. “Before it was Sarah’s. When my parents showed up, he disappeared.” She shuddered. “I was so relieved. He gave me the creeps.”
“Not all the girls had your good intuition. Several families hired a cult deprogrammer to get their daughters back. When the IRS became interested in the so-called church, they pulled up stakes, left town, and changed their name. I suspect those missing girls are out west, still with the cult. A lot of lives were destroyed by that group, families’ devastated”
She squeezed his hand. “You sound as if you speak from personal experience. Did you lose somebody to them?”
“You could say that.” How could he tell her his mother and father had sold all their belongings and given everything to the cult leader? Preston had refused to go with them, but his little brother, Matt, that was another story. The kid had no choice. He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too upsetting.”
“Why didn’t the police go after the cult?”
“That’s the same thing I asked your buddy, Max. He stonewalled me and said he was asking the questions.”
She straightened her shoulders and tossed her hair back, the spark of determination back in her eyes. “Then maybe I should make a run at him? If he’s any kind of police officer, he should pursue all the clues—even in cold cases.”
“Oh,” Preston laughed. “Watch out, Max. Detective Poirot is coming after you.”
She grinned. “That’s Miss Marple to you.”
Grabbing her around the waist and pulling her close, he whispered in her ear, “If I’m a lucky man, you won’t be a Miss much longer.” He sealed her lips with a passionate kiss, hoping to lose himself in her arms. Perhaps just for one day, he could push the dark thoughts down, the ones that rose every time he thought of Lindsay, Kelly, or Jessica. Annabelle’s warm response helped him forget the whispers that haunted him from the shadows and woke him up nearly every night. No. That was all in the past. No good would come out of bringing up decades old family dirt. No good at all.
By Kathryn Knight
“Stay with me tonight,” Preston had murmured, his lips grazing her ear. A thrill of pleasure had shivered up her spine, and for a moment, she’d considered allowing him to convince her. Even now, as she tossed beneath the sheets in her own bed, a part of her wished she had, if only to lose herself in his arms for a while.
But escaping reality was not an option right now—too much was at stake, including, it seemed, her own sanity. The voices had started up again not long after they’d left the restaurant, not as demanding but still persistent, like tendrils of smoke floating through her mind. These women wanted—needed—to be found, and somehow, they seemed to think Annabelle was the one to do it.
Then there were the faint warning bells chiming in the back of her head when Preston had avoided her questions about the cult. She blew out a frustrated breath, staring out into the darkness. No way could Preston be involved in the disappearance of those women. He was kind and gentle. To her, anyway. But how well did she really know him? Sure, they’d been inseparable for those four weeks, wrapped up in their teenage romance, devastated at the thought of their impending separation. That had been twelve years ago, though, and because of the way everything had ended, she really had no idea what he’d been up to since then. And now, while their chemistry still burned bright, he was acting a bit cagey when it came to those intervening years.
On top of all that, she still remembered little after fleeing from the pale face in the cabin window. She needed to get some rest tonight, because tomorrow she was going to sort this out. First, she would return to the cabin—alone, this time—and find the courage to go inside. Clearly, it was somehow a part of this, and she was going to have to tamp down her fears and look for clues. After all, ghosts couldn’t actually hurt her, right?
And after that, armed hopefully with some kind of new information, she was going to see Max, and figure out a way to get him to tell her what happened during her visit this morning, without actually admitting she couldn’t remember. She didn’t want the entire population of Mystic Harbor thinking she was crazy. With a heavy sigh, she flipped to her side, willing sleep to reach up and take her.
The last traces of pink faded from the sky as she trudged up the mountain. A backpack bounced against her shoulder blades, its solid weight a welcome reassurance. She’d channeled her courage, but that didn’t mean charging up to the cabin unprepared. Inside the pack, she had snacks, water, a Swiss Army knife, a hammer, pepper spray, and her phone. She wasn’t sure any of the weapons would be of use against a violent spirit, but it couldn’t hurt. Plus, the members of that cult had been very real—and it was possible one of them, or some other unhinged predator—still lurked in these woods.
The trail opened up, revealing the abandoned cabin, and her breath caught. The old structure slumped into the mountain, tired and sagging, and yet somehow menacing as well. The windows were mercifully empty, but they seemed to watch her approach, the jagged shards of glass still clinging to the frames winking in the sunlight.
No screams filled her head, but her heart slammed against her ribcage. Adrenaline poured into her veins, begging her to turn and run. With a shuddering breath, she paused, gripping the straps of her backpack with damp palms. Go back, the voice in her head commanded, and this was her own voice, the authoritative rumble of common sense.
Pushing it away, she rolled her shoulders back and lifted one foot, her sneaker hovering over the swayed porch step for one tense moment. Then she climbed up to the porch, the ancient boards groaning beneath her weight.
Fear coursed through her as she stood before the door, rivulets of sweat sliding down her neck. Swallowing hard, she reached a hand toward the knob and closed her shaking fingers around the rusted knob. It turned beneath her palm easily, coating her skin with red flakes that reminded her of blood. Silence spun out, the only sound the rush of her heartbeat in her ears. Even the birds had ceased their musical trills.
The creak of the door swinging open seemed to echo through the still air, and she blinked as she peered inside, her eyes adjusting to the dimly lit interior. Nothing moved, and she took a few hesitant steps into the room.
It was just one large, crude space, filled with the remnants of broken furniture and piles of garbage and leaves. A filthy mattress lay in one corner, swollen mounds of gray foam bursting from gaping holes. Dented beer cans and faded food wrappers lined the floor, and a thick candle squatted on an overturned plastic milk crate. A charred circle filled with stones and sticks outlined the remains of a long-ago fire.
As her gaze traveled around the room, strange marks on the far walls snagged her attention. Symbols? Words? It was hard to tell from this distance. Squinting, she took a few steps forward.
A sharp slam rang out behind her, and she whirled, a scream tearing at her throat as she stared at the closed door. She scrambled backwards, away from it, tripping over a metal bucket and falling to the floor with a bone-rattling thump. With a whimper, she whipped her backpack off and clutched it to her chest, as though it were a shield.
Beyond the roar of her throbbing heart and her ragged breaths, another sound began to emerge: a chorus of frantic whispers, rising and falling in unintelligible torrents. Tremors wracked her body as she whipped her head around, searching for the source, fighting the urge to squeeze her eyes shut and curl into a ball.
The air in front of the door shimmered, and inky shadows began to stretch and lengthen. Dark wisps solidified to form a trio of murky figures with grasping fingers and long, gauzy hair. Empty black holes stared out of gray, agonized faces.
Their sinister pleas grew to screeching wails, and Annabelle moaned, rocking on the floor. Trapped. How could she have been so stupid? Panic stabbed at her as she searched for a way to escape. Keeping her eyes on the terrifying images, she pushed herself unsteadily to her feet. The windows. They were already broken, she would launch herself out of one. The glass would likely cut her, but the idea of plunging through the filmy specters to get to the door was unthinkable.
The one in the middle reached out an arm, and a clear sentence reverberated through Annabelle’s mind. Help us.
She gasped, hugging the backpack to her chest. Licking her dry lips, she whispered, “I’ll try.” The words seemed deafening in the dim room.
Annabelle nodded, unsure whether they could even see her with their sightless eyes. But maybe the message got through, because the apparitions began fading, tearing apart like smoke.
As their forms dissipated, a chill filled the space they’d inhabited. Ducking her head down, Annabelle thrust the backpack out in front of her and lunged toward the door. Icy air swirled around her, but nothing solid blocked her path, and she grabbed the knob and flung the door open.
She stumbled onto the porch, into the light, her chest heaving, one last phrase rising in her head.
Don’t trust him.
The smell of the water, the sounds of laughter, sneakers crunching through the fallen pine cones on the way to the beach mixed into a familiar, sensuous concoction Kelly Adams associated with summers spent in Mystic Harbor. Waking up to complete silence confused her. Looking out the wavy glass window in the bedroom she shared with her sisters, Kelly saw a brilliant, sunny day, the blue sky so bright it had to be late morning.
Bounding out of bed, the empty great room was at once lonely and welcoming. She’d never been left alone in the cabin before. A note taped to the coffee maker provided the explanation.
We’re headed to the loathsome flea market and decided to let you have your way this time. Don’t go to the beach alone. We’ll be back in time for dinner at the lodge. Fish fry tonight! Love, Dad
Smiling at the note, Kelly knew what it had cost her father to leave her alone. He was super protective of all his girls, but especially of Kelly, his oldest. There was a special connection between father and daughter, almost psychic, and from the time Kelly was a toddler, she could feel what her father was feeling.
“Uh oh, Kelly and Roger are having a brainwave conversation,” her mystic grandmother would say. “You can almost see them reading each others minds.”
“Ma, do you mind?” Roger Adams asked.
He didn’t want to feed into his mother’s hocus pocus hogwash, even though, frighteningly, it had proved to be true. His oldest daughter had a way about her – she let him know what she was thinking without speaking. The thoughts weren’t like spoken words. They were more like feelings he could hear in his head. Kelly confided in him that it was the same for her – she knew what he was thinking. They dealt with the possible weirdness by politely keeping their distance and not intruding on private thoughts. Only on matters of mutual concern did they use the ability.
Once Kelly reached puberty, Roger tried zealously to guard his daughter’s privacy. But from time to time, especially if she experienced fear or danger, Roger intervened. It was simply easier for the family to stick close together. Allowing her this one-time chance at freedom would be a test of sorts. If all went well, he’d back off in the future.
A bakery box with Kelly written on it, and a silver metal thermos stood off to the side of the coffee maker. Popping open the top of the thermos, Kelly smelled hazelnut flavored coffee, her favorite. She’d started to drink coffee last fall, and now that she’d graduated high school, was already hooked and couldn’t function without it. With a mug of coffee and an apple strudel on a paper plate, she sat at her usual place at the table, looking out over the water. A distant radio played familiar tunes, and a misplaced seagull, too far inland, cried out a sad song. Even the smells were heady – a slightly salty, fishy amalgam, with coconut oil and bacon frying made her smile.
A day of peace and freedom stretched out before her. Although Roger had suggested that a beach outing was acceptable if she could find a companion, Kelly had no desire to go. The beach was more fun with her sisters. They would lay side-by-side on an old blanket their grandmother had provided for sunbathing and watch the boys while reading teen magazines. The adults were amused, explaining they had done the exact same thing in their youth.
A picnic basket packed with cold sodas, bologna sandwiches, and little bags of potato chips helped to fend off hunger. There was always dessert, too: cupcakes or cookies, or peeled oranges. Their mother said she enjoyed packing lunches for her daughters. They were growing up so fast and would soon be out on their own. Roger shuddered when she said it.
“I don’t even want to think about the girls leaving.”
“We’re not normal,” his wife, Beverly replied, laughing.
“Why not? We love our family,” he retorted.
After she finished eating, Kelly got dressed for an afternoon on the porch. A used-book sale at the Mystic Harbor library provided stacks of books that would get the family through a lazy summer. She chose a mystery – her favorite, and a white cat, a cat ghost perhaps? graced the cover. The book, a tall glass of ice cold soda, and she was ready.
The porch was arranged for relaxation, providing log-constructed furniture piled high with overstuffed pillows, rockers for reading, and even a swing. Kelly loved the swing, also made of logs, suspended from the ceiling by heavy chains. She placed the glass of soda on the ledge of the half-wall surrounding the porch, and opened the book.
Immersed in an eerie tale of activity in an abandoned house, she didn’t notice that dark clouds had slid into place, obscuring the sun, or the cessation of laughter and music from the beach when everyone took cover from impending weather signaled she was really alone. It wasn’t until the familiar crunch of shoes on fallen pine cones that she looked up from the pages of her book and gasped when she saw him watching her.
“I’m sorry I scared you.”
Pinpricks of fear traveled across her face, trembling lips making it impossible to speak right away. Tall and muscular, the stranger didn’t get in that shape from working out at the gym. His body was that of a guy who did manual labor – she remembered her male cousins helping her father cut down trees and the banter about the difference between gym muscles and the kind achieved from swinging an ax.
He stood on the other side of the porch railing, his hand on the ledge near her glass, looking at her, waiting.
“What do you want?”
A crack of thunder made her jump, and then the inevitable rain drops, the first few coming down in spurts, and then a torrent. He ran around to the steps and climbed to the porch, uninvited, but she didn’t know how she could refuse him shelter.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, shaking the water from his hair, laughing.
In seconds, he had gotten soaked. She could smell him, something fragrant, perhaps the fabric softener he used, and something acrid that heightened her awareness. Maybe it was his deodorant, or something he put in his hair. The odors made her more conscious of his physicality, and the intimacy of it further served to petrify her. Something scratched at her from the inside, a warning perhaps, or just common sense. For a moment she considered jumping over the half-wall and taking off toward town. The impulse was buffered by her need to feel like she wasn’t a kid anymore.
“Do you have a towel I could use? I’m really sorry,” he said.
Heart beating faster, she didn’t want to go into the cabin with him lurking right outside of the door. She decided she’d close and lock the door, no matter how silly or paranoid it appeared.
Even thinking she could pretend to call for her mother might keep him in line, if there was a need.
Finally, standing from the rocker, she moved to the door, trying to appear more confident than she felt. She reached for the handle on the screen door, ready to jump inside and slam the heavy door shut, and just as she did so, in one step, he grabbed the door above her head.
The rain held off until the Adams had finished browsing the vast flea market, and were sitting in the café preparing to order lunch.
“We timed that perfectly,” Beverly Adams said, taking menus for everyone.
“You’re not kidding,” daughter Theresa replied, pointing out the window. “The driveway is already a river of mud.”
Handing a menu to her husband, a stab of fear cruised through her body when she saw the tortured expression on his pale face.
“Roger, what is it.”
“We need to get back to the cabin,” he said, standing up. “Now.”
Renee Canter Johnson
Mystic Harbor, with its mountainous peaks rising above the beach cocooned in its lap, was prone to flash flooding. During harsh storms, rain rushed downward as it raced for the sea, taking everything loose with it—plastic chairs, fallen limbs, seat cushions, cans and bottles—in its descent. This tempest has risen quickly, and the streets were already littered from the deluge.
Roger Adams corralled his wife and two youngest daughters into the beaten-up Jeep Wrangler, although they complained about being torn away from their prospective lunch. Beverly jerked her head at their hungry girls. “Really, Roger, this is too much. You’re going to have to give Kelly some time to herself sooner or later. When we get back to the cabin and you discover everything is fine—”
“I’ll drive you to the best restaurant in Mystic Harbor, or arrange a clambake at the beach. I just have this feeling…” He rubbed his head as he maneuvered around trash can lids and water jugs that had washed out into the parking lot from the café’s holding bins.
Theresa and Mary Lou poked each other. “I just have this feeling…” they mimicked in unison.
“Knock it off girls,” Roger warned. “You can poke fun at me tomorrow, but right now, I’m not in the mood.”
Beverly frowned. “Don’t snap at them. We’re all just a little tired of this…” She whipped her hand around in the air as though snatching words from it. “…this thing…this cosmic connection between you and Kelly.”
“Psychic,” he corrected. “Cosmic pertains to the galaxy. Psychic pertains to the spiritual realm, telepathy, clairvoyance.” He tried to keep his voice calm, but it was useless. The sensation that his oldest daughter was in trouble had him in its vice grip.
It was the most traumatic he’d ever experienced. She’d been alone in her room, playing dress-up, when she was only about four years old. Unwrapping a butterscotch hard candy from the pocket of an old coat, she’d tossed it back and sucked it into her windpipe.
There’d been no noise as her breath failed to make its way passed the blockage. Quiet. Still. No yelling. Nothing. Yet he’d felt it. His heart had thundered him into action and he’d burst through her door, performing the Heimlich maneuver just in time to save her life.
It was this same urgency that spurred him through the mud, kicking the Jeep in and out of the road as he swerved around obstacles. His pulse raced with its need to get to her, to save her. A limb blocked a section of the road. Putting the vehicle in park, he got out and tried to drag it away, miring in the mud up to his ankles, though his attempts were useless. It was stuck, and so was he.
Assessing it, he quickly decided on another way across. “Hold on,” he ordered as he drove the Jeep up and onto it. The front wheels bit into the bark, making a connection until they rolled over it, and landed with a clank as the undercarriage snagged on the log. Its back wheels caught, refusing his forward command, and it seemed they were stuck for good. Spinning, one try after another got them nowhere.
Mary Lou squealed, and Theresa whimpered as mud and gravel kicked up from the squalling tires.
Beverly grabbed the overhead handle with one hand, braced herself with the other against the dashboard. “Stop it,” she said. “You’re frightening the children.”
He felt it more keenly then. A sharp blow to his heart ceased his forward motion. His foot left the gas pedal as he grabbed his chest. The only sound for a few seconds was the swishing wiper blades as they raked back and forth across the windshield.
Beverly shook him. “Roger. Roger speak to me.”
He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t speak. It was if someone had squeezed his aorta shut and his blood had stopped flowing through his veins. Finally able to whisper, he uttered one word. “Cold.”
The feelings abated. Whatever sensations of telepathy he’d had from Kelly’s birth until that moment dissolved with the embankment along Muddy Fork. Roger understood what the other three in his vehicle had not right then.
It was only afterwards, after he’d rocked the Jeep while he cried and wailed and begged it to comply, after it obeyed, and they’d climbed the steeply rutted driveway and reached the empty cabin, that they all realized what his torment had foretold.
Annabelle wrestled with her conscience, but in the end, her duty to the three young women who’d beseeched her to find them pushed her onward. Canceling plans to go to the beach with Preston, she telephoned Max.
“O’Brian speaking,” he snapped into the receiver.
“Hi Max. It’s Annabelle. I need your help.”
His tone quickly changed. “Annabelle? Yes, of course. Is something wrong?”
She knew better than to blurt out a litany of questions over the telephone. Max O’Brian would likely tell her anything she wanted to know if she went about it in the correct fashion. If not, she’d get nothing from him. “I’ll tell you all about it at lunch if you can get away.”
Without hesitation, he agreed. “Sure. How’s noon at Sarah’s Café?”
“Perfect. I’ll stop in early and get us an outside table.”
Chief O’Brian arrived promptly at noon. She watched him stroll along the boardwalk, flirt with Sarah, whose attempts at revealing cleavage were not as lost on Max as they had been on Preston, and then approach her table. Rising, she gave him a quick hug, exchanging brief greetings to both Max and Sarah.
Standing proprietarily beside the chief, Sarah eyed her with suspicion as she offered up the menus. “Today’s lunch specials are popcorn shrimp and crab cakes. Both come with two sides, just like a good crime case.” She poked Max in the arm and giggled.
Annabelle glanced over the choices. “I’ll just have a house salad, thanks.”
Max bit his lip. “Can I get a mixture of both the shrimp and the crab cakes?”
Sarah leaned across the table, lifting a brow over her left eye. “You can have anything you want, Sugar. Which of my sides can I bring ya?”
Max clearly enjoyed the attention Sarah bestowed on him in front of her. His voice became smoky. “Let’s make it hot today…say…fries and baked beans.”
“Hot for you, and cold salad for Annabelle. Got it.”
Annabelle wondered if Sarah’s glare was aimed at her personally, or if it was just disappointment in her lunch order. Nevertheless, she gave her a tepid smile.
Max waited until Sarah was out of earshot. “What’s up?”
“I’ve had something on my mind lately, something I can’t seem to shake. I’d really appreciate your input. In fact, I’d be…grateful.”
Max brightened as color swept his cheeks. One hand nervously smoothed the hair back from his forehead. “Grateful, huh? Of course. Anything.”
“What can you tell me about the three women who disappeared from Mystic Harbor who’ve never been found?”
Max shrugged. “Nothing new. We’ve been dragging those files out at least once a year, trying to find something…anything. It’s like those young ladies just disappeared off the planet without a clue.”
“No clues? No fingerprints? No tire tracks? No gut feelings?”
“Funny you should mention gut feelings.”
Sarah returned, placing filled iced tea glasses by their rolled cutlery. “Oh, thank you,” Max said as he looked up.
Annabelle hoped he hadn’t lost his train of thought. She tapped the back of his hand with a delicate touch of one forefinger. “Why is that odd? Does someone have a gut feeling about the case?”
His head tilted to one side as though he was remembering details from the distant past. “One of the girls’ dads had some kind of psychic connection to his daughter. His wife hasn’t been the same since it happened, naturally, but blames herself for stalling her husband.”
Annabelle’s heart plummeted into her stomach. Perhaps that cord had somehow shifted from him, to her, in the afterlife. “Psychic connection? What do you mean?”
He jotted a few numbers from memory onto a napkin. “Listen, I deal with hard, cold facts. This…mumbo jumbo…whatever you call it…doesn’t make sense to me. If you can make sense of anything she says, you’d be doing me the favor.”
Annabelle looked down at the scribbled name attached to the phone number: Beverly Adams.
by Alicia Dean
Preston poured wax onto the cloth and pressed it to the boat’s hull, buffing in circular motions. Waxing by hand was more time-consuming and difficult, but an electric buffer didn’t quite do the same job as he could do by hand. Besides, he loved the smell of boat wax—the fresh scent with an underlying oily chemical. He also loved the satisfaction of revealing the brilliant shine in small patches. Although his arms and back ached for days afterward, the pride that accompanied the pain made it worthwhile.
A shadow fell across the hull, and he looked over his shoulder, squinting against the bright sunlight, to find a man standing behind him. He blinked as he rose to his feet.
No…it couldn’t be.
He hadn’t laid eyes on his brother in twelve years. Matt had been eleven when their parents spirited him off to join the cult. The young man standing before him had Matty’s dark hair and brown eyes, had the same features in an older face. Disbelief froze Prestong for a few moments, then he stepped forward and gripped Matthew in a bear hug. “Matty? My God, it’s really you. What are you doing here? Where have you been?” He barely kept himself from adding, Are you still with that demented cult?
Matt didn’t return the hug. He waited patiently until Preston released him, then scraped a hand through his hair and gazed around as if in a stupor. He was tall, taller even than Preston, and muscled. Not the little runt Preston used to torment one day and defend the next.
Matt shoved his hands in his jacket pocket and hunched his shoulders as if cold, in spite of the warm day. “I…I’ve been here the whole time. In the woods.”
Preston frowned. “What do you mean? In the woods all these years? That makes no sense.” Was it possible? Had the cult remained in Mystic Harbor but stayed low key this entire time? “Where are Mom and Dad?”
Matt blinked a few times, frowning as if not understanding the question. “They…left. I stayed.”
A horrific thought hit Preston. His mouth dried, and his throat worked as he tried to speak. “Matthew, look at me.” When his brother didn’t comply, Preston dropped the wax cloth and took Matt by the shoulders, shaking him gently. Matt’s unfocused gaze went to Preston. “Matty, did you have something to do with those girls who went missing?” He held his breath as he waited, not sure if he truly wanted his little brother to answer.
Annabelle played with the strap of her purse, gathering the courage to knock on the door. Why was she so hesitant? Beverly Adams was nothing more than a grieving mother and widow. Nothing to be frightened of. But it wasn’t Beverly who scared her. It was what Beverly might reveal that had her hand trembling so badly she could barely lift it to press the bell.
A woman opened the door and, for a moment, Annabelle believed that nothing sinister had happened to Kelly Adams after all. She’d simply been living right here in the house where the tragedy took place and was now standing before her.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
When the woman spoke, Annabelle realized she’d been staring open-mouthed for several moments. She also realized it was not Kelly Adams, but her mother, Beverly, who stood in the doorway. The mother-daughter resemblance was striking.
“Hello, yes, I’m Annabelle Fisher. If it’s okay, I’d like to ask you a few questions about Kelly.”
Her expression closed. “Are you a reporter?”
Anabelle didn’t want to be turned away before she had the answers she’d come for. One thing might make this woman open up to her. She gave it a shot. “No, I’m not. I’m a writer, but I’m not doing a story on the missing girls. I’m checking into them because I believe they are…visiting me. I believe they want me to solve their disappearance.” She bit her lip and played her final card. “I think I might have a psychic connection to them.”
The woman’s expression changed to one of relief and hope that made Annabelle feel guilty. She couldn’t promise Beverly she would find out what happened to her daughter, and that’s what the woman wanted most in the world.
Beverly smiled and opened the door wider. “Please, come in.”
Annabelle stepped inside, and Beverly led her across the foyer into a large sitting room where she offered her a seat on a worn, floral sofa.
“Would you like something to drink? I have tea. I might have a soda. Or, I can make coffee.”
“Iced tea would be wonderful, thank you. Two sweeteners, if you have it.”
“Of course. I’ll be right back.”
Beverly disappeared through a swinging door and Annabelle studied the room. The home was spacious and too luxurious to accurately be referred to as a cabin, but since it was a log dwelling on the lake, it was stuck with that moniker. Time and lack of upkeep had tarnished the splendor, like a grand lady who’d withered from loneliness. Annabelle tried to imagine what Kelly had encountered that day, and where it had happened.
“It was right over there. By the fireplace.”
Anabelle jumped. She hadn’t heard Beverly return, but it was as if she’d seen inside Annabelle’s mind, as if Beverly Adams had a psychic connection to her as well.
Beverly set a glass of tea in front of Annabelle, not bothering with a coaster, which was apparently her normal MO based on the rings staining the faded wood of the coffee table.
Beverly pointed to the north wall. “When we arrived home, Kelly was gone. The only thing left of her was a pool of blood.” Her voice was strained, but she didn’t cry.
Annabelle took a drink of her tea. “Why did you stay here, doesn’t it bring back awful memories?”
Beverly sat on a matching chair next to the sofa and clenched her hands together in her lap. “It does, of course. But if my husband had a connection to Kelly here, I keep hoping I will too. He’s gone now, but for him, and for me and her sisters, I can’t rest until I know what happened.”
“Was Kelly friends with the other girls? Lindsey Cartwell and Jessica Bonneville?”
“They were what you might call summer friends. I moved here permanently after Roger died, but we used to only spend summers in Mystic Harbor. Kelly met Lindsey and Jessica the summer she turned twelve. They would play together each season after that. Until…” Tears shimmered in her eyes, and she cleared her throat. “Until they all disappeared. I always found that strange. They weren’t together, yet they all went missing at the same time.”
Yes, strange indeed. But that wasn’t the only thing strange about the situation. How am I linked to the missing girls? How is it possible I’ve actually seen them? “I know this must be difficult for you, but can you tell me about the day Kelly disappeared?”
Beverly took a deep breath. “My husband and my other two daughters, Mary Lou and Theresa, went out for the day. We were sitting down to lunch when Roger suddenly had a horrible feeling about Kelly. We raced back to the cabin. When we went inside…” Her voice trembled, and she wiped her eyes. “When we went inside, Kelly was gone. Not a trace except the blood. The police tested it. It was Kelly’s.” More tears welled and spilled down her cheeks. “She can’t possibly still be alive…there was just too much blood.”
Annabelle placed her hand over Beverly’s. “I’m sorry.”
Beverly nodded. “Roger died of a heart attack two years later. He never got over losing Kelly. Their connection was strong. More than that of a father and daughter. They were…linked somehow.”
Annabelle asked a few more questions, but nothing Beverly said got her any closer to unraveling the mystery. She stood. “Thank you for your time. I’m sorry to stir up painful memories.”
Beverly stood as well. “Oh, honey. You didn’t stir up the memories.” She gave a small, sad smile “They’ve never left me.”
Annabelle didn’t know what to say to that. She understood. The woman lived with her loss every moment of every day. “If I have more questions, can I call you?”
“Of course.” She headed toward the door but paused. “Oh, one more thing.” Opening the drawer of a side table, she retrieved a paperback, then extended it toward Annabelle. “I doubt it has any significance, but this is the book Kelly was reading that day.”
Annabelle took the book from her. A few rust-colored spots dotted the black cover. Annabelle shivered…Kelly’s blood. In the foreground was a white cat amidst the gray background image of a large, eerie-looking house. The title and author name were in the same stark white as the cat. When Annabelle read them, icy fingers trickled over her spine, and her knees buckled. “Darkness Awaits,” she whispered hoarsely. “By Ella Benna.”
“Yes.” Beverly’s concerned face swam in a haze of gray. “What’s the matter?”
“Darkness Awaits. That’s the title of the book I just finished. It’s with my editor now.”
“Oh. That is a strange coincidence. But books often share the same titles, right?”
Annabelle nodded. It took her a few moments to speak. Her lips were numb, and her teeth chattered uncontrollably. “Yes, but my story was about events that took place in an abandoned house, like this one.” She tapped the cover. “And, a recurring presence that appeared to the characters was that of a ghostly white cat.” The last similarity was more difficult to verbalize. Saying it would make it all the more real, render her unable to deny the significance. “And the author name.” She swallowed, her throat tight and raw. “Ella Benna. The same letters of my name. It’s a scrambled version of Annabelle.”
By Tamara Ferguson
Distractedly, Annabelle stared upward at the sky as she walked outside through the doorway of Beverly Adams’ cabin. What had been a sky of cerulean blue when Annabelle had arrived had transformed and become strangely overcast, with dense low-hanging clouds wrapped around the mountains like heavy mist.
Annabelle shivered, making her way down the steep path leading back to Mystic Harbor, trying hard not to feel overwhelmed as she searched her mind for some reasonable explanation for what had just been revealed.
She’d thumbed through the hardcover, but it had been difficult focusing on the words inside, and when Annabelle had asked if she could borrow the book for a few days, Beverly had offered no resistance whatsoever.
As a matter of fact, the expression on Kelly’s mother’s face had been decidedly hopeful, obviously convinced that Annabelle herself could be instrumental in discovering what had happened to her daughter, as well as the other two girls. Annabelle would compare the story from inside the hardcover to what she’d just handed over to her editor.
It wasn’t unusual in Mystic Harbor for shifting winds to arise due to a sudden storm coming in, and the sense of being confined in a living corridor was pervasive as Annabelle made her way along the darkening path. Instead of traveling toward town, she veered to the left, walking on the trail that led to her cabin. With all the distractions during the last few days, she’d found herself completely without staple items like coffee, bread and cereal this morning.
But it looked like groceries would still have to wait until tomorrow, she decided as the wind gusted harshly against her face, leaves and debris spinning in its wake. The rain began coming down hard, drenching her from the start.
Finally, she slammed her way into the cabin, closing and locking the door against the wind. The first thing she did was light a fire in the fireplace before discarding wet clothing in the bathroom and pulling on comfortable sweats.
After hanging the clothes to dry, she made her way into the living room again, pulling out the book from inside her waterproof backpack, and making herself comfortable in the rocker near the fire.
Thumbing through the book, she read through some of the story. Although there was some resemblance to hers, the wording and style of writing was completely different. Plus the story was broken up and appeared to be disjointed.
Wait a minute. There was something strange about the book with the thickness of the pages. It almost looked like…
Yes, with a gentle tug the pages easily separated on top, like an envelope, and Annabelle slid out a long list, written in unfamiliar writing, with names, dates and even some social security numbers.
Or so it appeared.
And then she noticed that almost the entire book was like that. Carefully, she pulled out the list from the beginning of the book, stunned to see the dates on the page. Seventeen-seventy-six? No way, it couldn’t be.
Ella Benna, she thought about it again. It was a scrambled version of Annabelle, and it’s funny how she’d noticed that immediately, almost as if…
A memory flashed through her mind, and Annabelle found herself inspecting the binding of the book.
And there it was, just like she’d known it would be. Pulling out the pendant hidden in a flat box slipped behind the spine of the book, she attached the chain around her neck where she instinctively knew it belonged. Fingering the shiny silver moon, she held it in her hand, studying it carefully.
An inscription was carved into the back:
~Annabelle, only you can destroy the evil~
How had she sensed that the pendant was there?
Suddenly, she knew with certainty that the woman who had raised her had not been her mother, because Annabelle remembered a tale about fate, one that a soft feminine voice had warned her might happen if she wasn’t prepared to face the truth.
The story of how darkness awaited.
Unless she escaped.
Annabelle closed her eyes, willing herself to ease the pain from the past. Dimly, she recalled being pulled, half dragged through the woods as a very young girl. It had been a woman tugging her hand, reassuring in soft dulcet tones, that Annabelle would be safer away from her.
Annabelle’s eyes sprung open, suddenly remembering the last of the words her real mother had spoken while handing over this book.
Take this Annabelle. Inside are the names of every cult member from around the world, along with the names of the women they’re responsible for sacrificing. If Divine Brilliance is not disbanded, they will come for you as a guardian, to serve along with your brother, and it will be too late. You’ll be trapped.
Only you have the power to stop their evil.
How had Annabelle been separated from the book? Another memory came to her, this time from a dream—of the woman she’d known as her mother, handing over the book to someone at the pier when she’d been helping Annabelle escape the island.
So that’s most likely how the book had ended up in the Mystic Harbor Library, and eventually been available for sale. Her psychic connection had probably drawn Kelly to the book.
A sudden knock on the front door had her jumping from the chair to her feet. Who would be out in this kind of weather?
Maybe it was Preston, she thought, feeling slightly guilty. She’d promised to call him and possibly meet him for lunch, but instead she’d been on her way to the Adams’ place.
A loud voice resounded from outside the door. “It’s Max, Annabelle. I wanted to make sure you’re okay. I’m still worried about what happened yesterday.”
“Max?” she asked uncertainly, unlocking and opening the door. He had the strangest look on his face, so she continued, “What are you doing here in this kind of weather?”
Instead of answering, he forced his way through the doorway, and Annabelle’s eyes went wide when Sarah followed him inside, wearing a mocking smile on her face.
Raising a brow, Annabelle looked at Max first and then at Sarah, as they stood in front of the burning fireplace. “What’s going on?”
Annabelle held a hand to her forehead as the voices returned, abruptly becoming louder. Not good. Beware.
Max said harshly, “I knew it was a matter of time. I kept in touch. I visited you. I always had my eye on you, watching and waiting. I knew Mystic Harbor would pull you back because of your roots.”
And it suddenly came to her. “You’re my brother,” Annabelle admitted dully.
Sarah laughed rather maniacally, rolling her eyes. “She’s the guardian? She knows nothing about us. How can she be the one? It should be me.”
Max muttered, sounding impatient as he glanced at Sarah. “You know the guardians can only be direct descendants.”
Sarah answered, “What difference does it make, direct or not? I am a descendent.”
Annabelle sighed heavily. “So that’s what’s happened. Tell me, why is it that there haven’t been any more deaths on the island?”
“Says who?” Max answered. “Who better to cover up any missing bodies than the police chief in town? I tried to pin those three murders on that idiot Preston deliberately. I couldn’t take a chance on killing him. The last thing I needed on my record was another unsolved murder, and I knew he rarely left Mystic Harbor and people wouldn’t let it go if he disappeared. You turned to him when you were sixteen, and I can’t believe you came back and did the same thing, after I’d been going to so much damn trouble to make sure I kept in touch with you.”
Annabelle’s blood ran cold, thinking that this man—this thing—was actually her flesh and blood. How had she never sensed the evil lurking inside of him until now?
Max answered her question as if he’d read her mind. “We’re connected by blood. I have some slight psychic power over you, you know.” Max continued talking in a voice that curdled her blood. “Mystic Harbor was where Divine Brilliance was born, hundreds of years ago. Everyone on this island is more or less related, that’s why we’ve had to relocate many of our members. No children were being born. We needed fresh blood.”
Despite what was happening, Annabelle was still curious. “So your cult was responsible for the deaths of those three girls? But why?”
“That’s how we recruit women members,” he answered.
“Virgin members.” Sarah showed her satisfaction, wetting her lips with her tongue, glancing at Max with a look that was obviously provocative.
Annabelle’s stomach rolled.
Max continued, “We watch and wait and initiate our men by assigning each of them to one of the unattached females who show up in Mystic Harbor. It’s not an accident that so many women arrive at the island like they do. If the male is persuasive enough, the woman will usually go along with him. They consummate their relationship on sacred ground.”
Annabelle had another unexpected vision of the past. “The cabin. That’s sacred ground?”
Max smirked. “Ah, you remember a few things after all. If the woman refuses to be broken willingly, our men show their worth as a member. We each gain our psychic power from the virgin sacrifice.” He smiled slyly. “Sarah lets us know when the women arrive in town. We’re more selective about girls with families during this day and age, since the publicity from the incident twelve years ago disrupted our breeding program. But almost everyone eats at Sarah’s restaurant. It’s how we’re able to choose our targets.”
“And we have ways to control them when they eat at the restaurant.” Sarah added, giving Annabelle what appeared to be a malicious smile.
Anabelle blinked. “You drugged me? That’s why I couldn’t remember anything yesterday. But why?”
“You were starting to remember more than you should. You might have discussed some of your memories with that stupid Preston. That’s why we’ve been watching you today.”
Annabelle wasn’t understanding the situation completely. “So what exactly do you need from me?”
Max shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing after we produce our heirs. Monogamy isn’t a requirement for either men or women once you’re a member.”
Annabelle’s mouth dropped open. He didn’t mean…? She felt sick to her stomach. He was her brother.
The voices in her head returned, and it was at that moment Annabelle realized that all this time they’d been guiding her. Warning her.
Protecting her from the evil that was yet to come.
Her mother’s voice shot through her mind clearly. Only you have the power to disband them.
But how? Annabelle considered frantically, her hand gripping the moon pendant she’d just hung around her neck.
“It’s time for us to return to the cabin and consummate our relationship,” Max said, wearing a strange smile. “Come along with us quietly, because if necessary, we’ll drug you.”
by KIM HORNSBY
Annabelle had the beginning of a plan. It wasn’t much but it would buy her time and if she could think of the end to her plan, she might very well be the one to disband this heinous cult.
It wasn’t feasible to suddenly pretend to go along with Max and say she wanted to join the cult. He knew she wouldn’t approve of murder, for any reason. Buying time was her best option. Thankfully, Max listened when she produced her argument against consummating their relationship tonight.
“I might already be pregnant,” she lied.
Max pierced her with an incredulous gaze, chin down, eyes hooded.
“And if I am, you’d wait nine months to find out the baby isn’t yours.”
Max grabbed her arm roughly and closed his hand tightly. “Preston?”
She nodded, trying to keep the smile from escaping her lips. “You know we’re close, Max. It’s entirely possible I’m pregnant now.”
“She’s lying,” Sarah said, her eyes suspicious slits. “They aren’t that close. I’m sure of it.”
Annabelle let the words sink in with Max, a man she refused to think of as a brother.
He looked from Sarah to her and at that moment, Annabelle knew she’d found the chink in Max’s armor. “You wouldn’t know for nine months.”
“I’ll get a pregnancy test,” Sarah offered.
“Too early to tell,” Annabelle said. “Preston and I were together two nights ago. Seven days, at least, is needed.”
Max looked deflated, like his evil plan had hit a wall and now he was just some crazy-ass cult member. Which was what he was to Annabelle. Even though his actions terrified her, she had to remember he was just a person.
Max’s expression was pinched in frustration as he grabbed the closest thing and threw it. The vase smashed against the wall and shattered, Sarah jumping at his display of fury.
“This is very bad news for you, Sister.” Max closed the distance to Annabelle. His face was now inches from hers, his eyes crazed. “Now we have to keep you under lock and key for five days.”
“Preston will wonder where I went.” She hoped.
“I doubt that. Preston is in the town jail, under suspicion of murdering three girls. I just brought him in with enough evidence to put him away for good.” He grinned. “I love being the police chief right now.” He looked to Sarah and they smiled.
Anabelle tried to not reveal her shock that Max had Preston locked up. She’d have to think of something else, call his bluff. “What about the evidence we have to tie you to the murders?”
“You’re lying.” Max didn’t look convinced.
“Not everyone in your cult stayed true to their oaths.” Annabelle hoped that Max would read something into what she’d just said because she had no idea what she meant by those words.
Max let out a string of swear words and closed his eyes. Sarah waited, her smug expression now gone.
Annabelle’s hands were in her pockets, her sweaty palms wiping on the lining . “Your plan to produce an heir is full of problems, Max. I may not even be able to conceive. Have you thought of that?” When no one spoke, she continued. “It might take years. Do you plan to lock me up for years, because there is evidence out there to tie you to the cult murders? You don’t have that kind of time.” The rain beat hard on the metal roof, making conversation more challenging.
“You have nothing.” Max turned to Sarah who was waiting for orders. “Ask Matt if he searched his brother’s sailboat.”
Sarah disappeared out the door into the rain and then there were only two people in Annabelle’s cabin.
One psychotic cult leader and one scared lady.
A bed stood in the center of the old cabin with red satin sheets and coverings that made Annabelle think of blood–the blood that had been spilled to insure the longevity of this satanistic cult.
“This bed seems like overkill,” Annabelle tossed a look to Max that would hopefully hide her fear. They weren’t here to have sex. Not tonight.
Max had brought her to the sacred ground, the old cabin as a prisoner. Here, she’d be hidden for the days leading to when a blood test could be taken for pregnancy.
They weren’t alone at the cabin.
When they’d arrived, Annabelle in handcuffs behind her back, a group of men in red robes had been waiting for them, presumably to watch the consummation. When Max had pushed her inside, announcing the ceremony was postponed, Annabelle saw questions on the men’s faces. She also saw familiarity. Most of these men were from Mystic Harbor–businessmen she recognized from around town.
“She might be pregnant,” Max explained, “and if that’s the case, we have a month to wait,” Max growled as he gestured for everyone to leave.
Anabelle didn’t want to think about what Max intended to do if she was pregnant and then had to remind herself that there was no way she was carrying anyone’s child. But, as long as Max thought there was a remote chance, she was safe. The lie had bought her time to think of how to get out of this nightmare.
Max’s phone rang and he was temporarily distracted while Annabelle searched her terrified mind for a solution to this. She had several days now and had to think that something would present itself between now and Friday.
She and Max were alone in the musty old cabin with leaves and paper garbage on the floor. Mouse droppings covered every surface. A broken couch with springs showing through and an old armchair were the only furniture now besides the brass bed, which seemed strangely out of place. Was Max going to keep her here for days, and if so, wouldn’t his wife wonder why he hadn’t come home? The cabin was illuminated by a circle of candles around the bed, probably in preparation of the ritual that had been planned tonight.
“Well, then get some people over there to search for that list,” Max said into his phone.
Darkness had set in, and in the candlelight, Annabelle watched Max as he took a length of rope and a roll of duct tape from a backpack by the door. He crossed the room and pushed her into the armchair. After securing a plastic tie around her feet at the ankles, he roped Annabelle to the armchair.
“This will keep you secure for now,” he whispered.
Annabelle had been talking non-stop since they left Mystic Harbor. Mostly about how she hardly remembered their shared mother. Her mother was the woman who’d raised her, a woman who would be arriving tomorrow in Mystic Harbor. Even though this wasn’t true, Annabelle was trying to show Max she was not a part of his cult. “I’m not the guardian. I went on to have a different life. Mom will worry when she can’t find me. She’ll go to the real cops, not Mystic Harbor buffoons. Mom will never stand for this.”
“Our mother is dead. She was a traitor to Divine Brilliance.”
Max meant their biological mother who’d handed her to another woman the night Annabelle escaped. This news made Annabelle sad even though she’d just learned her mom was not the woman who gave birth to her.
“My real mother is a force to be reckoned with and she’ll have the FBI here by tomorrow, looking for me.” Annabelle hoped something sank in that he wouldn’t get away with this.
Max held the duct tape in his hands. “She’ll have to go through me first to file a missing person’s report.” His smile was pure evil and Annabelle shivered. She was glad her mother wasn’t arriving in Mystic Harbor this week but still hoped someone out there might notice she’d disappeared from the town.
Only you have the power to stop their evil.
The words lingered in the forefront of her mind as Max taped her mouth shut. But how? Did she have power? Max had eluded to a psychic power he had over her, but did that mean as siblings she also had power over him?
As he finished roping her to the chair, Annabelle concentrated very hard on gaining control of Max’s thoughts. She dug deep into her mind to imagine gathering Max’s free will in a net and having control of his thoughts. Her eyes rolled back in her head and her breaths came out raspy. From far off, she heard Max’s voice protesting. “No!”
He had put up a wall around his mind, but Annabelle imagined kicking the wall down like it was plastic building blocks. It worked. She got in.
Let me go, she said over and over. Let me go. You will untie me. This is futile. Let me go. This will never work.
Max sank to the edge of the couch, his head in his hands, sweat forming at his hairline. “She can’t be doing this,” he whispered. “I have the power, not her. I did all the work, the training, the preparation, not her.”
Annabelle continued her mental onslaught. “Let me go. You are weak. Let me go.”
A white cat appeared at the broken window behind Max and the momentary distraction snapped the connection to Max’s thoughts. She tried again but failed.
The cat stepped carefully through the broken window, Max oblivious to the intruder when his phone rang again. He walked to the door with the phone at his ear. A moment later, he shot a glance back towards Annabelle fearfully and disappeared out the door. She listened for a clue to what he was doing but heard nothing, except light rainfall on the tin roof.
The cat, now inside the room, stepped gingerly towards the circle of burning candles and Annabelle thought it unusual for a cat to be in the woods on a rainy night. It wasn’t even wet, from the looks of it. There was something strange about this cat, not just the pure whiteness of the animal but it’s eyes seemed to be glowing. Was it the candlelight? Annabelle watched the cat jump through the line of candles, spring to the bed and lie down. As a novel writer, Annabelle couldn’t help but remember her latest novel, Darkness Awaits, with a ghostly white cat. Was this just a coincidence?
It could have been the dim light in the cabin or it could have been lack of food, but Annabelle suddenly felt faint and thought the cat had become a woman. A woman who was now lying on the bed, her hair a mess of seaweed, her face deathly white. Then, the apparition was gone, and the cat jumped from the bed. It tipped over a candle, jumped up on the window sill and disappeared out the window. The tipped candle spilled wax on the wooden floorboards and when a slight breeze blew through the cabin from the broken window a pile of leaves ended up near the candle and quickly caught fire.
Anabelle let out an anguished scream against her taped mouth. If this place went up in flames, she’d die. Maybe that was how she was destined to stop their evil. By not being alive and producing the heir. Thoughts of being burned alive had her terrified as the burning leaves ignited a twig, and another twig. The floor was covered in dry forest debris.
The small fire was enough to make the edge of a dry floor board catch and with another breeze from the window, soon the couch was on fire. Only five feet from her chair, the musty old piece of furniture went up like the tinder it was. Annabelle’s face felt hot from the flames, her heart beat hard against her ribs, her screams changed to moans as she sat there useless, watching the fire spread and overtake her side of the cabin.
When the flames approached her feet, Annabelle watched, useless as the fire licked at her shoes that were thankfully wet from walking the rain-drenched path an hour earlier. The plastic tie that held her legs together melted immediately. Soon, her pants would be on fire and then her legs.
“No! No! No!” she screamed against the duct tape. She tipped forward, toward the fire and managed to get up on her feet. She hobbled with the chair away from the blaze but her jeans had caught fire and the flames licked at her legs. In another minute, her legs would be engulfed in the flames. She pressed against the wall to extinguish the fire on her pants. The pain of the flames on her skin was excruciating. Pressing her legs against the wall, she was able to smother the fire. She had to get outside. To the rain. Her hands were still handcuffed behind her back and the armchair was not coming off unless she got her hands free. And she could not open the door without hands.
The cat had gone through the window. It was big enough for her and the armchair if the glass was broken.
With only seconds to spare, Annabelle hobbled through the fire to the window. She turned to bash out the glass with the wooden edge of the chair and leaned back to fall outside. The chair broke the fall to the ground below.
Annabelle looked up to see flames licking the window now. The fall had knocked the wind out of her and she lay on the chair, her head tipped back, watching the fire overtake the cabin. One of the wooden armrests had broken in the fall, loosening the rope and she scrambled out and stood up. Now she could get to the town, even if her hands were cuffed and her mouth was taped.
She had to free Preston before anything happened to him. Where the hell was the path that led back down the mountain to town?
Looking around, she saw the white cat at the trail head, as if waiting and took off running. The voices in her head floated through her sub-conscious suggesting she hurry.
Sprinting down the trail in the light of the blazing cabin, Annabelle could only hope that no one was headed back up the path towards her. No one from the Divine Brilliance Cult. Her legs were singed from the flames, but she pushed the pain aside as she navigated the trail to town, just behind the cat, who seemed to know exactly where they were going.
Only once did Annabelle turn around to see the cabin was now completely smothered in orange flames licking at the darkness, sparks drifting up towards the rainy sky. Watching the cabin burn, Annabelle could have sworn she saw the bodies of young women dancing in the flames like a May Day celebration. They came and went, drifting in and out of the inferno’s blaze. Then the bizarre apparition was gone, leaving her to wonder if she’d actually seen ghosts in the fire.
Half way down the hillside, the rain let up, but the forest was drenched, a fact she hoped would save this area from a raging forest fire. She pushed on until the town was in sight. Where would she go once she arrived in Mystic Harbor? She couldn’t go to the police. Where had Max run off to in a hurry? Did it have to do with searching Preston’s sailboat?
The harbor lay in front of her, the town beyond, and when the cat headed for the docks, Annabelle followed. Staying in the shadows, Annabelle made her way to the water. The handcuffs dug into her wrists but at least she was mobile.
On the far side of the bay were the docks where boats came in with goods for the town and just in front of her was the dock configuration where Mystic Harbor residents kept their recreational boats. Preston lived on a 32-foot sailboat he’d named The Office, tied up at the end of one of the closest docks. Annabelle glanced to see if a light had been left on and noticed movement near the boat. She ducked behind a parked car and watched. It looked like Max and another person were searching Matt’s boat. Maybe looking for the evidence she’d alluded to.
She couldn’t run up and confront them. Not cuffed, with a duct taped mouth. Getting Preston free seemed to be the best course of action, then leaving town as soon as possible. But if her destiny was to put an end to this cult, she couldn’t exactly run off to save her own skin. She had an obligation, but what did that mean? There was no way she was going to have a baby with Max and no way she could kill someone. If there were cult members close by, she didn’t have a chance of defeating all of them in a fight to the finish. How was one person supposed to bring down Divine Brilliance?
Annabelle ran towards town, making a beeline for the jail. The front door was locked probably because both Mystic Harbor Police were on the dock searching Preston’s boat. She rounded the building foolishly hoping for a window or a way to get in. Coming around the corner, Annabelle ran straight into a tall man who grabbed her around the chest and quickly put a hand to her mouth, then realizing the duct tape, let go.
“Annabelle. It’s me, Preston.”
She whirled around to see Preston and a younger version of Preston standing in the shadow of the jailhouse.
“He got you too?” Preston carefully pulled away a corner of the tape from her mouth.
“He took me to the cabin. Now, he’s searching your boat.”
Preston looked as serious as she’d ever seen him. “This is my brother Matt. He sprung me from jail. It’s a long story but let’s get a key and take those handcuffs off.” He turned to Matt who took off in the direction they’d just come.
Annabelle nodded to Preston. “Max is part of Divine Brilliance. Apparently, he’s my brother. I need to produce an heir to his cult.” Her words came out breathlessly. Urgently.
Preston didn’t look surprised, only disgusted. “Matt was in the cult with our parents. They escaped years ago but Matt was caught. He came to me recently to help get him out. We’re trying to secure evidence that Max is mixed up in the murders of those young women.”
“And more murders, apparently. Not just Mystic Harbor,” she said. “This cult is everywhere.”
“I know. I took the book from your cabin, Annabelle. The one with all the names inside. Darkness Awaits. It’s hidden on my boat. We need to get that before Max finds it and destroys the one thing that could bring this cult down.”
Matt handed his brother the key and then the cuffs were off. Annabelle put them in her pocket. “Just in case,” she said to both men.
They took off running towards the harbor.
The cat was nowhere to be seen when the docks were in sight. Preston’s plan was to run on his boat and overtake Max, but police carried guns and Annabelle reminded him of this as they approached the dock.
“I’ll be careful, Darlin’,” he said. “Matt, you go first and pretend you’ll help Max look.”
Matt nodded. “And then what?”
“Just distract him for a minute.
Annabelle had an idea. “I’ll get my car in case we need to take off quickly.”
Preston nodded, and Annabelle took off towards her cabin, which thankfully was not far. It was Sunday night and the town had all but shut down. As she ran, Annabelle looked up the mountain towards the old cabin and was relieved to see the hillside was not on fire. Hopefully, today’s rain had kept the flames from spreading.
Once back at the harbor, Annabelle parked her car, pocketed the keys, and stared down the length of the dock wondering what was going on in that sailboat. She hoped to see Preston emerge with Max, the gun digging into his back. Driving just now, she’d seen the police cruiser doing nightly rounds over by Sarah’s café and hoped Max was now alone on the sailboat.
When Preston did not emerge, Annabelle made the decision to sneak up to the boat to see what was going on. The Office was tied up at the very end of an arm of the main dock. The rain started up again and pelted the dock. Annabelle’s shoes squished as she walked and shivering had her teeth chattering.
When she got close enough to see in a sailboat window, her heart jumped in her throat. There was a gun to Matt’s head, Max holding the gun, and Preston with his hands in the air facing them.
The voices in her head told her to be careful. She could surrender herself to Max right now if he would let the two brothers go free. That seemed like the only option until the white cat passed her and walked up to a window. In that instant, Preston took advantage of the distraction and dove on the gun. Max yelled, and Matt ducked. A shot rang out.
Annabelle jumped onto the boat and crossed the deck to look down the staircase where three men lay. Matt stood first, grabbing at Preston who was on top. Preston slumped in Matt’s arms, blood covering his chest. Max grinned from the floor.
The book Darkness Awaits lay on the table. Max had found it. Seeing the gun in Preston’s hand didn’t calm Annabelle’s fear that he’d been shot. She flew down the few stairs, grabbed the book, then took the gun from Preston whose chest and shoulder were covered in blood.
“Call 911 Matt,” Annabelle said, holding the gun on Max. “Tell them to send an ambulance and the state highway patrol, not local police.
Max stood. “You won’t shoot anyone. You haven’t got it in you, Annabelle.”
“I’ll happily pull the trigger on you Max, now get out there on deck before I shoot that place between your scrawny legs.” Annabelle backed up the stairs while Matt called an ambulance. She heard the words “Shot in the chest,” “blood,” “hurry.”
Max raised his hands in the air jokingly. “My deputy will come first. And how do you know I don’t own the highway patrol? Divine Brilliance is everywhere. You won’t get away and no one will believe you over me.”
As Annabelle stood on the deck, distance between herself and Max, the voices in her head whispered “Let’s get him. We’ll take him down.”
“Put the gun down, Annabelle, and hand me the book.” He nodded to her left hand that held Darkness Awaits.
She felt a pull to do what Max said and tried to resist his suggestion. Too late. Her arm lowered, the gun now aimed at the deck. No! She imagined a wall up around her mind and fought to keep Max out.
He walked towards her to take the gun, but she raised it again.
“Back up to the railing. My trigger finger feels suddenly twitchy.”
Just then, the cat, now on a cushioned bench, let out an other-worldly noise, startling them both. The ocean off the starboard side roiled like a geyser was about to blow. Bubbles swirled, a whirlpool the size of a car carried water downward, and then spray burst from the center. A column of black water rose and the ghostly form of three women began to take shape . Their hair and bodies mixed with the moving water, but their faces were clearly those seen in the posters around town twelve years ago when Kelly Adams, Jessica Bonneville, and Lindsey Cartwell went mysteriously missing.
They didn’t speak. They didn’t need to. Their mesmerizing power drew Max to the side of the boat. “No, don’t make me,” he cried, his face a contorted jumble of terror and desperation. “I didn’t do it. Others did.” He stepped up on the bench seat next to the railing. A stream of dark water reached out for Max. He leaned back but the pull was too strong. Without realizing what she was doing, Annabelle willed him to fall over the railing. He fought her control.
“Without me, the order will die.”
Annabelle’s moon necklace levitated from her body, bidding her to step forward. It was then Annabelle realized what she was meant to do. How she could save the world from this evil cult. With one clear thought, she followed the moon necklace to Max. She lifted the gun and with one small push Max was over the railing and into the swirling mass of water as it consumed him. The column of water collapsed to the now calm ocean’s surface.
The ambulance siren stopped suddenly and when Annabelle looked up, she saw paramedics running down the dock towards the boat. She tucked the book into the waistband of her jeans and wiped the gun of prints, then threw it over into the dark water.
Darkness Awaits. Indeed, it had been waiting. For justice.
Watching Preston carried off the sailboat on the stretcher, Annabelle was relieved to see that he was not only alive, but conscious. He’d lost a lot of blood, from the looks of his shirt and Matt ran along the dock with the stretcher. Annabelle wasn’t far behind. Preston heard a paramedic say gunshot wound in the shoulder. If that was so, he’d be one lucky man tonight.
The police cruiser showed up just as they began to load Preston into the ambulance. Even in his state of pain and trauma, Preston called Annabelle over.
“Is Max dead?”
“I think so. Ghosts took him into the ocean and he disappeared,” she said.
“Tell them Max shot me, then jumped overboard when he realized we had evidence to bring down Divine Brilliance. Give the book to the FBI. Wipe your prints off the gun.”
Annabelle nodded. “Done.” She kissed his cheek and then he was loaded into the ambulance. “Hang in there. I love you, Preston.”
The deputy who showed up next was from the highway patrol stationed outside town. Annabelle hoped he was not under Max’s thumb and part of the cult. Just in case, she’d be careful with her answers tonight and keep the book hidden. She intended to tell the truth about Divine Brilliance, the whole truth, as she knew it. Her first call as soon as she could get to a phone would be to the FBI.
With the book now in the waistband of her pants, Annabelle had the most important evidence against Divine Brilliance she could imagine.
Annabelle and Preston sat on her front porch looking out at the charming view of Mystic Harbor. Matt kayaked just off the beach, enjoying the freedom to do things that weren’t allowed in the cult. He’d spent his whole life a terrified prisoner, much like many of Mystic Harbor’s residents. Max’s psychic hold on them no longer dictated their sorry lives and the FBI had sent in agents to question the sixty residents of Mystic Harbor who’d been mind-controlled by Max. Much to Annabelle’s surprise, Preston had been working with the FBI, undercover, to take down the cult.
“Did Matt know you were with the FBI when he came to you?”
“No one knew. I couldn’t even tell you and believe me, I wanted to.”
“It’ll be a long road back for your brother, but he can do it.” Annabelle had become fond of Preston’s brother in the last few weeks and was thankful he wasn’t going to be charged for his involvement in the cult. Preston had bargained for that. And was driving him to the city for counseling every week.
Preston looked to the white cat on the railing. “I guess you have yourself a cat,” he joked, his arm still in a sling from shoulder surgery, weeks ago.”
Annabelle chuckled. “Not just any cat,” Annabelle said. She had her suspicions as to who the cat was to her, and ultimately to Max, but she’d never tell. The town already had heard enough of an incredible story to digest about a cult, murders, Annabelle’s legacy and the police chief being the head of it all. Not to mention Sarah, who was in jail for multiple charges of all kinds of things. “That cat saved my life. Several times.”
“I hope your mother likes cats.” Preston said.
“Oh, she’s not going to stay with me much longer. She’s moving in above the Café in a few days,” Annabelle said, thinking of her mom’s new adventure. “I never though my ability to communicate with my mom was so strong but when she showed up saying a little voice in her head told her to get to Mystic Harbor, I was shocked.” Annabelle was thankful the voices in her head had finally stopped with the death of Max.
“Your Mom and Beverly will make great business partners. One wants to cook, and one only wants to run the restaurant.” He chuckled. “And Beverly makes chili like no one’s business.”
“Her baking is going to make this town fat.” Annabelle recalled the scones sent over this morning from the restaurant.
“Including me.” Preston patted an abdomen that lay as flat as a washboard.
“I’m glad they changed the name to Bev and June’s Cafe.” Annabelle smiled. “After all that’s happened, it feels like a fresh start for the whole town.” She thought back to that night on the sailboat when the ghosts of the murdered girls took their victim and how the necklace stood away from her neck, leading her.
When Max’s body was found a day after his suicide, or that was the story that was circulating, his cause of death was a plain and simple drowning. No foul play, just remorse for a life in Divine Brilliance, a cult that was now under investigation, thanks to the town hero, Preston.
The bodies of three women had been found close to Max, in a rotting wooden box. The bones and fabric remnants inside the box were the only remaining evidence that Kelly Adams, Jessica Bonneville and Lindsey Cartwell had once spent carefree summers at Mystic Harbor. Beverly had handled the funeral arrangements, along with Annabelle and her mother. Closure had finally come.
Preston took Annabelle’s hand with his good one. “I will never forget that moment when you swooped in to my galley, picked up the book with all the names of Divine Brilliance members, grabbed the gun, and took control, telling Matty to phone the ambulance. You are one kick-ass woman.”
“I was furious that someone in my blood line had shot you.” She held his hand to her lips, kissing his knuckles.
“Technically, I think I might have shot myself in the fight for the gun. Regardless, I owe you my life. And a lot of other people do too. I’m going to spend the rest of my days proving how grateful I am to you.”
“I’m looking forward to that.” She smiled and held up her left hand to see that she truly was engaged to this man she’d loved for a decade. “Bringing down Divine Brilliance was a collaborative effort and I’m glad I played a part.” She rubbed the inscription on the back of the moon pendant.
~Annabelle, only you can destroy the evil~
No one needed to know that Annabelle’s real kick ass moment came when she was given the opportunity to send pure evil to its fate.
Seeing her moment, she’d pushed Max over the edge to the Darkness Awaiting below.
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(1) Casi McLean––January 15––19
(2) Maureen Murray Bonatch––January 22––26
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