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Hold Back the Dark

Hold Back the Dark, April 2018
Bishop Special Crimes Unit #6
by Kay Hooper

Berkley
Featuring: Katie Cole
304 pages
ISBN: 0425280950
EAN: 9780425280959
Kindle: B073TJ7PQY
Hardcover / e-Book
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"Can the evil in Prosperity be destroyed?"

Fresh Fiction Review

Hold Back the Dark
Kay Hooper

Reviewed by Debbie Wiley
Posted April 12, 2018

Romance Suspense | Thriller Paranormal - Supernatural

The Special Crimes Unit (SCU) is accustomed to unusual cases but they've never experienced a summoning like this. Something is calling various psychics to the town of Prosperity, NC, where their psychic abilities will be put to perhaps the strongest test of their lives. The SCU wasn't specifically summoned by the force, but they felt the psychic blast and the local police force has requested their presence. Can they uncover and help stop the force driving residents to suddenly attack and kill others?

HOLD BACK THE DARK is the sixth book in the Bishop Special Crimes Unit series (and eighteenth in the overall series) and is probably best enjoyed in the context of the series as a whole. We get to reconnect with many of the characters we've grown to love over the course of the series. It's going to take a joint effort if they are going to stop the evil that threatens Prosperity. If you need to refresh your memory or are new to the series, there is a helpful list of characters with a brief bio that includes which books they have previously appeared in.

One of the things I love about Kay Hooper's books are the characters and how they work together and this is clearly evident in HOLD BACK THE DARK. Each book features different psychic pairings and we see how the various powers enhance and support each other. In HOLD BACK THE DARK, SCU Chief Noah Bishop has to rely on individuals who have turned down working in the SCU and so we get a better glimpse into the struggles the characters face coping with abilities that the general public doesn't understand. Most of the story centers around Reese and Hollis, although Dalton Davenport's history is particularly heart-breaking, making his current success even more rewarding.

HOLD BACK THE DARK ended before I was ready to let go of the characters, but I'm sure we'll visit with them again in future books. Kay Hooper is one of my long-time favorite authors and an immediate must-read for me as soon as each new book comes out. If you love paranormal and thrillers, don't hesitate to give Kay Hooper and HOLD BACK THE DARK a try.

Learn more about Hold Back the Dark

SUMMARY

A town in the thrall of evil. A summons that can’t be ignored. The SCU returns in a nail-biting novel from New York Times bestselling author Kay Hooper.

The Chosen have been warned. Powerful psychics across the globe have gotten the same eerie and insistent message: Go to Prosperity. Because in this small North Carolina mountain town, madness has taken hold…

Trapped in a nightmare they can’t escape, the residents of Prosperity are killing one another, waking up with no memory of the monstrous acts they’ve committed—or the reasons why. Chief Deputy Katie Cole knows that whatever evil is afoot is beyond her expertise, and beyond the understanding of Sheriff Jackson Archer. They need help.

The Special Crimes Unit is called in for its specific brand of investigation, to aid the Chosen as well as the once-peaceful mountain town. It will take all the agents’ training, all their experience, and every extra sense they can call on to get to the bottom of things in Prosperity. And as a sinister pattern begins to emerge, even the most experienced and hardened SCU agents must brace themselves for a flood of darkness unlike any the world has ever seen…

Excerpt

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.

– Dante Alighieri

One

Tuesday

October 7

Olivia Castle had experienced some monster headaches in her time, but this one, she felt sure, was about to make her head quite literally explode. It had come out of nowhere, as if something had just yanked her head into an invisible, tightening vise without warning. A vice with teeth. In pain, queasy, and shaking, she managed to lever herself up from the couch, holding one hand against the head she was sure was about to fall off, and hardly spared a moment to wonder why she'd been on the couch.

Work. She should have been at work.

Shouldn't she be at work?

Had she come home for lunch? She didn't remember.

Her head hurt too much to keep thinking about that.

She made it to the kitchen by holding on to various pieces of furniture as she passed, fighting nausea and accidently grabbing Rex's tail when she gripped the edge of the sink.

"Waaaurr!"

"Sorry, sorry," she muttered, the headache so bad by then that her cat's cry sounded like a dozen angry crows, her own quiet voice sounded like booming thunder in her head, and even her vision was affected in some way she didn't understand; she couldn't see the pleasant coastal Vermont view normally visible from this window. She couldn't see any real view at all.

She was seeing colors she was reasonably sure didn't exist in nature. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Moving, swirling, like colorful smoke driven by a capricious breeze, opaque and translucent by turn. And everything was so damned bright. "Shouldn't sit on the counter. How many times have I told you. Didn't see you, pal. Oh, damn, what is going on?"

There was a large economy-sized bottle of an OTC painkiller near the sink (just as there was one in just about every room of her small house, and in her purse, with a box of extra bottles in the storage closet, in case the zombie apocalypse came without warning and all the pharmacies got looted before she could get to them). Olivia closed her eyes against the unnatural brightness, fumbling the bottle open while bitterly cursing childproof caps foisted upon people who had no children, fumbled just as blindly for a glass and the faucet, and managed, finally, to swallow about eight pills, hoping she could keep them down long enough to do some good.

"Prrupp," Rex said.

"I know it's too many, you don't have to tell me that." She stood there, eyes still closed, still hanging on to the edge of the sink with one hand and her head with the other, trying to breathe normally despite the pain keeping all her muscles rigid and snatching at her ability to breathe at all, her stomach churning, the weird colors still swirling even though her eyes were closed, wishing pain meds took effect faster. Like immediately. It would have been nice, she thought, to just take a shot of morphine and become unconscious for the duration. But she'd discovered the hard way that both the law and doctors frowned on patients self-medicating, far less walking out the door of any hospital, clinic, or pharmacy with their own supply of morphine or any other industrial-strength painkiller and, besides, they said it was only migraines.

Only migraines. Only migraines. Jesus. Even though no migraine remedy known to medical science and quite a few exotic possibilities Olivia had experimented with herself had so much as touched her periodic killer headaches.

She fumbled blindly for the bottle again.

"Waauurr!"

"All right, all right. I know there hasn't been enough time. But if the pain doesn't stop soon, I'm gonna take more. Shit."

A moment later, Rex hissed.

Olivia managed to pry her eyes open no matter how much the ungodly brightness all around her hurt, and squinted at her cat in surprise. Because Rex didn't hiss, or at least never had. But as she focused on her rather odd-looking cat, his brindle/tortie coat at odds with the brilliant blue eyes of a Siamese, she realized even through the bright, swirling colors she was still seeing that Rex was scared.

Really scared.

And Rex didn't scare easily. Or ... at all.

He was staring past her into the space behind her, the kitchen and den, and his pupils were so narrow his eyes looked incredibly creepy, like the unnaturally blue eyes of a snake. The fur along his back was standing straight up, and his tail was about three times its natural size.

At the same time, Olivia began hearing a strange rustling sound. At first it sounded like dry leaves skittering along pavement, which was weird enough to hear inside her house with no pavement around. But then she realized it was ... whispering. Lots of voices. Lots and lots of voices. Whispering.

It was coming from behind her.

Olivia did not want to turn around. Her mouth was dry despite the nausea, her skin was crawling unpleasantly, the pain in her head was getting impossibly worse rather than better, and she was afraid if she turned to confront an axe murderer, she'd beg him to just cut off her head and be quick about it.

Axe murderer. Idiot.

Not an axe murderer, of course. Not anyone.

Not any one ... thing. Because she heard more than one whisper, many whispers, countless whispers. And she didn't know what they were saying, but she had the eerie feeling they were all whispering the same thing. The same words.

Still holding the edge of the sink with one hand, Olivia turned slowly to see what so frightened her cat and was making her own skin crawl in a sensation she'd never felt before.

"Oh, shit," she whispered.

The headache that was still hellishly painful didn't seem such a big deal now. Because despite all the swirling colors nearly blinding her, she could see, very clearly, why Rex was afraid. Every sharp object in her kitchen and den, every single one from every kitchen knife and fork she owned to three letter openers, two scissors, two box cutters with razor blades visible, the iron fireplace poker, half a dozen pens and twice that many sharpened pencils, floated in mid air. Different levels, some low, some as high as eye- level.

With their pointy ends aimed right at her.

And they were all whispering.

"Waaurr," Rex muttered, his voice unusually quiet, questioning.

"I'm not doing it. I'd know if I were doing it, right? I always know. I have to concentrate to do it. I mean, unless I'm mad. Angry, not crazy. Though maybe crazy too. Because this has never ... And, anyway, even if I'm mad, I don't ... know how ... to make anything ... whisper."

Or how to stop it when she instinctively tried, an effort that was definitely not rewarded.

Unconsciously, both her hands lifted to her head, pressing as if to hold something in, because the headache suddenly grew horribly worse, impossibly worse, dragging a guttural groan from somewhere deep inside her, and through the bright swirl of colors that was beginning to truly blind her, she could still see all the scary-sharp weapons floating inexorably toward her.

Whispering.

What was whispering? Inanimate objects couldn't communicate, right? Not like this, at least.

The pain edged into agony, but even so she heard as if from a great distance her own shaking, pleading question.

"What? What are you saying? What do you want of me?"

And from the same great distance, she heard the whispered demand that made no sense to her.

Prosperity. Go to Prosperity.

They were still floating eerily toward her, all the pointy things that promised even more pain if they came much closer, and hard as she tried, Olivia couldn't do anything about it, couldn't stop it, couldn't see anything but them or hear anything except for that whispered demand.

Go to Prosperity.

Go to Prosperity.

Olivia heard one last thing: a moan of agony escaped her, and then everything went black.

* * *

Tuesday

October 7

Logan Alexander considered himself a man of hardheaded practicality, which to his way of thinking was ironclad proof that the Universe had a twisted sense of humor. Because he was also a medium.

A medium.

And he hated being a medium. He hated being called a medium, being dragged from peaceful obscurity into an unwelcome spotlight of sorts, what he was and what he could do named if not understood, word spreading among those who scorned with suspicion and those who believed or desperately wanted to. Both always, always finding him eventually and making his life hell so that he'd have to pull up stakes again, usually in the middle of the night, and find another place to live, in another town or city or state where he could be anonymous again, just another stranger and left in peace. Until the next time he was found, and the lost ones began to seek him out again.

Not the "Can you contact my Uncle George and ask him where he hid all the family money?" sort of questions that only made him impatient. Those were relatively easy to either avoid or else respond to with some bullshit answer that would satisfy the sort of people who would even ask that kind of silly question.

It was the truly lost ones that got to him, the religious who had lost their faith and needed proof of some kind of an existence after death. The parents hollow-eyed and haunted in a very human sense by the inexplicable and heartbreaking disappearance of a child. The widows and widowers bereft by the loss of the other half of themselves. And others, so many others, lost people who were desperately hopeful that he could help them.

He hated it.

But what he hated most about an ability way too many people with no understanding of what they were talking about called a gift or a curse (as if it could be anything so simple as either) was that he had absolutely no control over it. And he had been told by someone who did understand and should certainly know all about it that the "door" most mediums opened in order to communicate with the dead was, in him, always open.

Always. Or, hell, just missing entirely.

And also that mediums naturally attracted spirits. Whether they wanted to or not.

He didn't talk to the dead, certainly not willingly. They talked to him. Anywhere. Everywhere. No matter how hard he tried to ignore them. Persistent, insistent, often desperate. Dogging his steps. Showing up in different places. Making it impossible for him to go out to dinner, or to a theater and enjoy a play or movie. Impossible to attend a party, or even to date – or at least date the same woman more than once.

He'd learned that lesson the hard way, with too many first dates ending with a woman eyeing him uneasily because he'd spent too much time sending brief, fierce glares at nothing she could see past her shoulder or over her head, or at the empty chair at their table. Most were either too kind or too wary to say it aloud, but at least one date had told him frankly that she didn't see the sense in a second date since it was obvious he had more baggage than she did and she wasn't getting any younger.

And the last time an instant physical attraction had cut an evening short for energetic (if not desperate) sex in his bed, the lady had left before dawn, grabbing up her clothing and bolting after waking to find him sitting up in bed having a whispered but clearly angry argument with someone named Josephine.

His bedmate's name wasn't Josephine, he was wide awake – and as far as the lady could see, nobody else was in the room. So she snatched up clothing and ran.

Logan had not blamed her a bit. He was just grateful that she hadn't called the police to report an escaped lunatic.

At least a few before her had done something of the sort over the years, reporting him as potentially dangerous, or mentally ill, or just a man who had frightened them in an age when police were finally paying more attention to that sort of thing, leaving him to spend time in this jail or that "detention room" or in some clinic or other while the police and sometimes doctors got things sorted out to their satisfaction in the quest to determine whether or not he was actually a danger – to himself or others. Sometimes there were fines, sometimes an order for a psychiatric evaluation.

All because he could see and talk to the dead.

They stole any chance he had of living a normal life, these spirits, and while his sympathy was sometimes roused by a particularly sad or frightened spirit killed in some brutally unfair manner and desperate for his help, he seldom could do anything to help them, and that only added to his resentment.

At least most of them had had a shot at a normal life, before whatever unfair act or illness or accident had put them in the ground. Logan, on the other hand, could hardly get a normal day to himself. Impossible to do everyday normal things. Wherever he went, whatever he was doing, there was at least one dead person anxious to talk to him.

Like now. He was just blamelessly walking in the park near his current home in San Francisco, needing some morning air before he returned to the freelance IT work he did from his home office, because of course he couldn't work in a normal office setting with people all around him.

Besides, even the living had begun to wear on his nerves after a while.

Maybe especially the living.

He'd just wanted some air, that was all. And there was a dead guy walking beside him. Talking to him.

"She didn't mean to poison me, I'm sure," the older gentleman of about sixty was saying earnestly, for about the third time.

Logan paused on an arched footbridge and leaned his elbows on the wooden railing, gazing down at the happily burbling, manmade creek. A quick glance had shown him no one else was near, but he still kept his voice low; bitter experience had taught him that, as with dates, office jobs, and lovers, speaking aloud in public to people only he could see whenever normal people were within earshot too often meant a quick trip to the nearest loony bin, or at least a night in a cell.

Adding insult to injury, the cells too were always filled with dead people. Usually far more hostile than his living cell-mates.

"Listen, buddy – "

"My name is Oscar."

Logan didn't bother telling him names didn't really matter. "Oscar, I don't know if your wife poisoned you – "

"My girlfriend."

Logan send him a glance, mildly surprised, but shrugged. "Whatever. I don't know if she poisoned you, but if you're looking for justice, I can tell you from experience that cops take a dim view of dead witnesses communicating through mediums, and judges take an even dimmer view. And I've had more than my fair share of time on a shrink's couch, thank you very much."

"But – "

"Were you buried or cremated?"

"Cremated."

"Then you're really out of luck."

"The medical examiner took samples. Of ... of everything. I saw him." He sounded, suddenly, a bit queasy.

Logan felt the first flicker of sympathy, even though he didn't want to. This wasn't the first spirit who had shared details of his own autopsy. That had to be unnerving, to say the least, watching your own body being opened up on a slab.

"Must not have been anything conclusive enough to interest the cops," he said.

"But that's the thing." Oscar sounded near tears. "They were convinced. They arrested her. They're going to put her on trial for murder. And I know she didn't poison me. But my wife hired a P.I. and he's come up with a theory of how and why she could have done it, and I know he planted evidence and other stuff the police believe, or maybe they just slipped me the poison and made it look like she did. I think they're in it together, my wife and her P.I., because I've seen them together, and I just — "

"Oscar, what do you want from me?" Logan tried his best to keep impatience out of his voice.

"My girlfriend doesn't deserve to go to prison. She didn't do anything wrong. She didn't poison me."

"And how do you think I can prove that?" A glance showed him that Oscar was looking even more miserable.

"I don't know. All I know is that it isn't fair – "

"Life isn't fair, buddy. Why should death be?" But then the way Oscar's voice had broken off tugged at Logan's attention, and he looked at the spirit again.

The spirit named Oscar seemed to be enveloped in a strange, multi-colored aura, all the intensely bright colors swirling and dancing around him.

Logan didn't see auras.

"What the hell?"

Oscar shook his head slightly, as though trying to throw off an unwelcome distraction, while at the same time his expression was straining as though trying to hear something. And then he looked frightened. "I ... I don't ... I don't ... Oh, damn, there won't be time. Promise me, Logan. Promise me you'll come back here and help me prove Lucy's innocent."

"Come back from where? Oscar – "

"Prosperity. When you come back from Prosperity."

A weird sensation of unease was beginning to crawl over Logan's skin, unfamiliar and distinctly unpleasant. And his head had begun to pound. "What are you talking about, Oscar? I'm not going anywhere. My job – "

"You have to take a leave or quit or something. You have to go to Prosperity, Logan. You have to help them." Now he looked terrified. "We'll all be in danger if you can't help them stop it. The living and the dead."

Logan wondered abstractedly what sort of danger could or would trouble a spirit. Before he could even form the words to ask, Oscar and his rainbow aura vanished like a soap bubble.

Decision out of my hands, Logan told himself with relief, ignoring the stab 0f guilt.

"Nothing I could've done anyway," he muttered, straightening and turning to head back home.

After only two steps, he jerked to a stop and stood very, very still, only his eyes moving as he scanned the park in front of him.

There were people moving around, just as there had been before. Couples holding hands, dog walkers, a couple of guys tossing a football and another two throwing a Frisbee. There were a few people on benches or just leaning up against a tree here and there with a book or tablet or laptop. Normal, even on a slightly chilly but sunny October day.

What wasn't normal were the others.

The spirits.

They looked as real as the living, not transparent. But as his gaze rested on them one by one, he saw them shimmer almost like heat off a pavement or a jittery image on a computer or special effects in a movie before becoming solid again. And every single one of them was just standing there, utterly still.

Turned toward him.

Staring at him.

That was new. That was ... different.

Logan turned in a slow circle, scanning as much of the park as he could see from his position.

They were everywhere. Dozens. Scores. More.

A lot more. More than he'd ever seen in one place. Ever.

As he completed the slow circle, he started in surprise to find one of the spirits standing only about three feet away. A woman. Too young to be dead, though people did die young and, anyway, he had learned that he didn't always see spirits as they had appeared at death, but at some earlier stage of their lives. And he almost never saw what had killed them, spared at least that horror of nightmares of the living dead haunting him.

He had no idea why.

He didn't care.

All he knew was that he was far colder than the October day, cold down to his bones, that the unpleasant crawly sensation roving over his entire body was getting stronger and more unsettling, his head was really hurting now, and a very strong sense of foreboding gripped him.

"No," he said softly.

"You have to go to Prosperity," she said, her voice a bit hollow and distant, as they were sometimes. Her face was without expression, which was something else that was occasionally true of the spirits he encountered.

This time, the total lack of expression on her face and in her voice was creepy as hell.

Trying to hold his voice low and not betray to the living around him that he was a madman who saw what they didn't, that they were moving blithely about among spirits, too many spirits, nothing normal about that even out on the paranormal fringes of his reality, he said, "I don't have to go anywhere. Leave me alone."

"They need you. We need you, Logan."

They always knew his name. It had always bugged him.

"Tap another medium," he advised her. "It's got to be somebody else's turn."

"You have to go. Please, Logan. It's so important."

"What – " But the half-formed question was never finished, because the spirit faded away quickly and with an eeriness he'd never seen before, like she just became smoke dispersed by the slight, chill breeze.

It was a long moment before Logan could force himself to scan the park as he had before. But when he did, he saw no spirits. Only the living, going about their business as they probably did every ordinary day of their nice normal lives.

"Goddammit," he whispered.

The day felt colder than he knew it was.

* * *

Tuesday

October 7

Reno Bellman was congratulating herself for what had so far been a successful brunch date. She had not, after all, absently told her date Jake Harper any of the bits of information that had floated through her mind like flotsam on a calm sea since they'd met at this sidewalk café more than an hour earlier. She hadn't reminded him not to forget his mother's birthday next week, or told him his treasured high school football championship ring was not gone forever but had instead rolled under his night stand, or even that he was going to get that promotion he was anxious about.

She didn't mention any of those things. Instead, she had chatted casually just as Jake had, on the safe topics generally reserved for a first date. Likes and dislikes, the undoubtedly miserable winter looming ahead for Chicago and how the Cubs had done during the season. They both tacitly avoided politics and religion, those trickier subjects more suited to later – if there was a later – when disagreements would either be handled amicably or else judged to be insurmountable differences.

Everything was fine, just fine, so when she became conscious of a rustling sound like dead leaves skittering over pavement, she glanced around in surprise. This sidewalk café was moderately crowded for a Tuesday morning in October, but nobody else seemed to see or hear anything unusual, and she couldn't see any leaves or anything else skittering past.

Reno was about to just chalk it to up to her generally heightened senses when the rustle of dry leaves became instead whispering. Whispering by many by voices. Or by ... something else. Something tugging at her with increasing insistence, causing the fine hairs on the back of her neck to stir and the skin all over her body to go unpleasantly pins-and-needles. Her head began to hurt. Badly.

"Reno?"

At first, it was only whispering, just sounds that seemed normal and ordinary, the background hum of a busy city neighborhood. But then, slowly, she believed she detected a sort of pattern to what she was hearing. And then words. Words whispered by many voices, all saying the same thing.

"Reno – "

"Hush," she said absently, all but forgetting her date in the need to concentrate on listening. What was it? What were they saying? She wasn't sure at first, but gradually some of the static faded, and she was just able to make out words.

Words that gradually became clearer.

Come ... come to ... come to Prosperity. They ... need you. We all need you. You have to come to Prosperity –

"Reno?"

She never found out if she might have heard something more, an explanation, a reason, something she could glean safely and peacefully, in warm daylight and without fear, without being touched by violence, because in that moment Jake reached across the small table and laid his hand over hers.

Before she could warn him.

So he was yanked with her into the hellish maelstrom of a vision.

And this one was bad.

Anyone could have been forgiven for believing that where they were was, literally, hell. Or, at the very least, some acid trip or horror movie version of hell. All the worst bits of Revelation and Dante's Inferno, with even scarier stuff added in for horror fun.

The air was full of a horrible smell and choking ash, and as Reno stood there looking around, trying to tell herself that this was no worse than other visions had been, it became worse.

It became a lot worse.

The ash in the air thinned out enough to allow her to see more of her surroundings. Unfortunately.

The heat was searing, the rotten-egg smell of brimstone acrid, and the ash from unseen but roaring fires drifted down – and drifted up – and drifted sideways. The alien landscape, as far as the eye could see, was a sickly reddish brown, with jagged rocks that looked razor-sharp and thick, muddy streams slopping between the rocks, and here and there a stunted, twisted tree, bare limbs charred and bent downward in defeated submission.

And ... the creatures. Dozens of them, more, dotting the raw landscape as far as she could see. Crouched and standing, still or swaying back and forth, with a few curled up on the rocky ground making pitiful soft noises that were awful to hear and impossible to ever forget.

They might once have been human but looked deformed now, bodies twisted, limbs partially missing, their faces skewed, almost melted, the features blunted or open or missing. Some of them looked skeletal but with burned flesh clinging to bones, crackling sounds audible as they shifted and turned.

To stare at Reno and her forgotten companion, or to listen if they had no eyes, or maybe just obeying the blind and deaf but primitive sense of an unusual presence and possible threat in their horrific reality.

"What is this place?"she demanded of the nearest ...creature.

It did not answer, but cringed away as a shadow detached itself from a towering, jagged rock and stepped forward, toward Reno. She recognized it only because she had heard of Shadow People, beings from the spirit realm, or even deeper and much further away, that may have once been human in some distant past.

But now, from everything she had heard whispered on what some wryly or mockingly called the psychic grapevine, the current thinking was that they were simply the human- shaped utter blackness of everything wrong, twisted, sick, perverted, and evil, the psychic spillover of horrors poured into a creepily recognizable shape. Pure negative energy. As if they had been feeding for eons on the evil emotions and evil acts committed by humans.

And maybe they had.

Some people had called them demons.

This one made itself taller, elongated, towering over Reno and the stunned, terrified date she had completely forgotten about.

"Neat trick," she said to the Shadow creature, tilting her head slightly to look up, but not otherwise moving. "Now answer my question. What is this place?"

"Hell," it answered in a croak.

"No, this isn't hell," she countered immediately. "Been there."

A laugh like dry kindling scraping together came from the Shadow. "This is your earth, Reno," it said in that scratchy, unused voice.

She had been holding fear at bay, most of a lifetime of practice allowing her to keep it out of her voice and expression, because she knew that whatever and wherever this place was, she was here only in spirit. It was a vision. And in her visions, she had discovered, the bad ones at least, any fear from her gave the various ... beings ... she confronted power over her. And sometimes made it more difficult for her to escape the vision if things got dicey. But when the towering Shadow said this was earth, she felt a genuine jolt of horror.

"What are you talking about? Some kind of war is going to do this?" The ugly landscape all around her certainly could have been the seared devastation of some insane nuclear conflict.

Without the creatures, at least.

Or maybe with them too.

"Not that kind of war. Not soldiers in uniform fighting for flag and country, dying on battlefields." The Shadow creature's voice was still inhuman, yet managed to be mocking as well. "A different struggle. Too much evil building unchecked for too long. Darkness. Hunger. Need. Gathering. Growing stronger. Upsetting the natural balance."

Trying to think clearly, Reno said, "I would have thought you ... creatures ... would love that. Why show me? I'm shown things I can change, always."

The Shadow laughed again, weirdly both scornful and anxious. "This is something you need to change. Need to stop ... if you can. To prevent if you can. Hold the line. Better for all if the boundaries between our worlds, our realities, are ... maintained. An occasional portal or door opened here and there is one thing, releasing pressure, easing the strain. Natural. Normal. The way things are supposed to be.

"This ... is something else. A dead and burning earth is no more use to us than it is to you. And if you die, if you are destroyed, so are we. We need the chaos of humanity, the destructive fear and evil you create. The negative energy. We need to ... feed. To exist. We balance you. The Universe demands balance. Go to Prosperity, Reno. The very earth there is ready to heave itself open. To spill out evil even we can't absorb. Can't control. You must stop it."

"What, alone?"

"There will be others. Those who need to be there with you are being called. Some already on their way. Balance, Reno. We all need balance if we're to survive."

Reno had more questions than she could count, but as quickly as the vision had begun, it was over. And she was sitting at a small table at a sidewalk café on a cool Chicago morning, breathing in fresh air, the weak October sunshine making her blink.

She felt the deathgrip on her hand abruptly released, and looked up to see her date lurching to his feet. His face was pasty-white, and though he tried several times, he was clearly unable to say a word.

Dammit, there goes another potential boyfriend.

"It's okay, Jake," she said wryly. "I don't expect to hear from you again. As for this little ... adventure ... I'm sure you'll be able to explain it away somehow."

"You're crazy!" he finally yelped.

"I expect that'll do,"she murmured.

And, as he hurried away without a backward look, almost running, she called after him, "No, really, I'll take care of the check." And then her worser self reared its head, and she shouted, "And don't forget your mother's birthday next week!"

By then, he was definitely running.

The shout made the pain in her head worse, but she decided it had been worth it.

She was being stared at by others at the café. She could feel it. But Reno ignored them all. After most of a lifetime, she'd gotten pretty good at that. No use trying to control what she couldn't.

She summoned a waiter with a glance, asked for the check, then asked, "Can you give me the time?" She wasn't wearing a watch.

The young waiter looked at the large watch on his own wrist and replied, "It's eleven-forty-five, ma'am."

"Exactly?"

"Yes, ma'am. Your check, ma'am." He looked after her hastily departed date, clearly somewhat indignant on her behalf.

Reno didn't notice. She glanced at the total printed on the check and placed several bills in the folder, covering the meal and adding a generous tip, then closing it and returning it to him. "Keep the change."

"Thank you, ma'am. More coffee?"

She looked up at him, saw him, and blinked. "No. No, thank you. I'll just sit here a bit if that's okay." Less than half a dozen of the sidewalk tables were occupied by now, in the lull between the departure of early brunch customers and the next wave of people wanting actual lunch. An exodus that had apparently happened during her vision. Which had, she estimated, lasted little more than five minutes. Time was always different in a vision.

"Of course, ma'am." He silently retrieved her date's cup, saucer, water glass, and napkin, flicked a few invisible crumbs off the table with the napkin, and just as silently went away again.

Reno reached up to rub one temple briefly, then dug in her casual purse, produced a small bottle of OTC painkillers, and swallowed several capsules with a sip of water.

"Prosperity," she murmured.

After a thoughtful moment, she reached again into her bag, this time for her cell phone, grateful not for the first time that she was one of the few psychics able to depend on having a charged phone for a reasonable amount of time, just like a normal person. She could even wear a watch when she wanted to, something else many psychics couldn't do because of how they used energy.

Someone had told her once it was because she was wholly a receiver, her own energy not the sort that would blast outward and interfere with electronics of any kind.

Whatever. As long as it gave her an edge.

She keyed in the single pre-programmed number and leaned back in her chair, staring at nothing as she waited for him to answer.

"Bishop."

"Hey, there, it's Reno. Funny thing happened at brunch today," Reno said. "Thought you might be interested."


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