In this sequel to the paranormal bestseller Fallen Elements, revisit familiar characters and meet new ones in a world rife with dark magic and spellbinding twists.

 

Elise Sullivan had always managed to balance the demands of her work and the challenges of being a single mother to a headstrong teenager. She and her daughter Bailey had made a life filled with good friends and dedicated family. But something is wrong with Bailey. The once vibrant and outgoing girl has begun to withdraw, and Elise sees her struggling more with each passing day. Determined to help her daughter, Elise embarks on a journey that will change her understanding of the world, her place in it, and the fate that awaits them both.

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Prologue

   It was a bright, cold day in Accident, Maryland. Detective Sergeant Stephen Rakowitz hurriedly drank the last of his coffee before exiting the unmarked police car. He pulled his black parka on over his gray suit jacket and, feeling a gust of cold air settle into his bones, zipped the coat up to his chin.

   The sergeant yawned as he approached a state trooper. Pulling his identification from his coat pocket, he held it up for the trooper to inspect. “Rakowitz, nine-henry-thirteen.”

   The trooper looked at the identification and then at the sergeant before writing the information down on a roster sheet and waving the man on.

   Sergeant Rakowitz ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and made his way up a winding concrete walkway to a two-story red brick home. A creak escaped from the narrow wood slats of the small porch as the sergeant walked toward the front door.

   As he entered the house, a familiar face came into focus in the dim light of the entryway. “Bates, what’s happening here?”

   Detective Nathanial Bates was a slight, thirty-something man with thinning brown hair and a ruddy complexion. “Morning. It looks like a double homicide, but no weapon, no sign of forced entry.” Bates took a deep breath. “Just two bodies.”

   “Local authorities here?”

   Bates nodded. “County Sheriff’s Deputy was the first on the scene. Came over to check on the family when the husband’s work reported him a no show.”

   “Did he touch anything?” Rakowitz unzipped his coat and pulled a small notepad from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He had been with the Maryland State Police for over fifteen years and in the homicide division for the past seven. He had grown up in Garrett County and, though it was a rural western area of the state with fewer than forty-thousand residents and limited resources, he had found – for the most part – the county officials to be thorough and conscientious in their work.

   Bates shook his head. “Nope. Got to the kitchen, saw the victims, and called it in. The trooper found him waiting on the front porch about ten minutes later.”

   Rakowitz stopped writing, covered his mouth, and attempted to quietly burp. The taste of stale coffee coated his mouth. “Crap.” He patted down his coat pockets. “I left my mints in the car. You got anything?”

   Bates smirked. “You need mints or an antacid?”

   Rakowitz rolled his eyes. “Why, do you have one?”

   Bates’ smirk turned into a full-on smile. “Nope, but I thought you were supposed to be laying off the coffee.”

   “How do you know it’s coffee?” The sergeant looked incredulously at his colleague.

   Bates pointed to the sergeant’s white, button-up shirt. “You spilled.”

   Rakowitz looked down. “Damnit.” He quickly buttoned his suit jacket. “Anyway, walk me through it.”

   “CSU should be wrapping up shortly in the kitchen.” Bates began flipping through his notebook. “It looks like that’s the room where the two victims were killed. CSU is setting up smaller grids throughout the house – mainly near entryways and first floor windows – and will check for fingerprints, footprints, fluids, etcetera.” The man took a deep breath before continuing. “The trooper and deputy did a sweep to make sure there weren’t any stragglers.” He glanced up at the sergeant. “Everything looked good.” He thumbed through several pages before continuing. “The victims are Samuel and Vivian Toland. Married.”

   “Excuse me, Detectives, the kitchen is yours.” A man wearing a navy blue jacket with the letters ‘CSU’ across the left front pocket waved the detectives into the kitchen.

   Rakowitz wasn’t sure what he had expected to see, but the sight that awaited them took his breath away. A man and woman were seated at a small kitchenette table. The woman was slouched forward, her forehead resting on the tabletop, and the man sat with his head tilted unnaturally far back.

   The positioning was odd enough, but it was the amount of blood that surprised the seasoned detective. Mr. Toland’s chest appeared to have exploded from within, drenching the ceiling and walls in blood and fragments of bone and tissue. Opposite to her husband, Mrs. Toland didn’t appear to have a mark on her.

   “What the hell?” Rakowitz looked expectantly at the CSU technician. “What caliber weapon did that?”

   The technician’s brow arched as he massaged the palm of his hand with his thumb. “Why do you assume he was shot?”

   Rakowitz had worked with enough CSU technicians over the years not to take the you should never make assumptions conversation bait.

   “Pardon me – what did that to him?” Rakowitz gave Bates a knowing wink.

   The technician looked back and forth between the two detectives and flexed his fingers several times before clearing his throat. “We don’t know yet. We’ll need to run additional tests back at the lab.” The man pointed to the blood stained ceiling. “Given the trajectory of the spray, we would expect to see an entry wound in line with a 10-gauge shotgun fired at close range through the victim’s back.”

   “So something just shy of an elephant gun?” Bates interjected.

   “I don’t know if that’s the case,” The technician corrected.

   “So, what’s the problem?” Rakowitz was getting impatient and could feel his shoulders tightening by the second. “No gun residue, no shells, what?”

   “No entry wound,” the technician said plainly. “Not so much as a scratch on his back.”

   Rakowitz looked out the top of his eyes at the technician. “Are you trying to get one over on us?”

   The technician frowned. “I assure you I would –”

   The detective waved the man off. “Yeah, yeah, all business. I get it.”

   Rakowitz walked over to Mr. Toland. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the man’s neck. “His neck is broken.” He pointed to the vertebra nearly protruding from the front of Mr. Toland’s throat. “Did this happen before or after he died?”

   The technician held his hand out in front of him, his eyes narrow as he studied his palm.

   “Hey? Everything okay?” Bates asked.

   The technician hesitated and once again flexed his fingers. “I – sorry.” He looked at Bates. “I broke my hand in a car accident when I was a teenager and for some reason its aching.”

   Rakowitz and Bates looked at each other and then back at the distracted technician. “Sorry,” Bates offered.

   “What?” The technician looked at the two detectives. “It hasn’t bothered me like this in years.”

   “I’m sure it’s the cold,” Rakowitz offered, his patience coming to an end. “So, the broken neck?”

   Before the technician could respond, a faint buzzing came from his hip. Excusing himself, he pulled his phone from the clip on his belt and left the kitchen.

   Bates walked around the table and, bending over, studied the man’s shoulders and upper back carefully. He was wearing a thin, beige pajama shirt, and it was absolutely spotless.

   “What do you make of it?” Bates asked.

   Rakowitz’s brow furrowed. “Whoever did this was truly and deeply fucked up.”

   Bates chuckled. “I can always count on you to state the obvious.”

   Rakowitz slipped his notebook back into his jacket pocket. Crouching down on his haunches, he tilted his head to the side and peered at Mrs. Toland. The woman’s eyes were closed and her lips set in a thin line.

   “Time of death?” Rakowitz heard Bates ask as the technician entered the kitchen.

   “Given body temperature and rigidity, I estimate between ten last night and one this morning.”

   Rakowitz stood up. “And the broken neck?”

   “Hard to say without a full autopsy.”

   Rakowitz frowned. “Care to wager a guess?”

   “No,” the technician said plainly.

   A throbbing spread from the sergeant’s temple across to the center of his forehead. He hadn’t had a migraine in over a year, but knew the ache was the beginnings of one. He had stopped carrying his medication and hoped the headache, and the nausea that always accompanied it, would hold-off until he could wrap-up the scene.

   Massaging his temple with the heel of his hand, Rakowitz closed his eyes and took a deep breath before addressing Bates. “Have we heard back from the husband’s work about next of kin?”

   “No. Let me give them another call.” Bates left the room, and Rakowitz took the opportunity to look around. The kitchen was modest, with beige linoleum floor, simple oak cabinets, and a white porcelain farmhouse sink.

   The nicest item in the kitchen was the double door stainless steel refrigerator. The detective could hardly see the appliance, though, for all the photos and magnets plastered to its front. His eyes scanned the trinkets and snapshots, stopping on a 3x5 photograph attached to the refrigerator with a Baltimore Orioles Cartoon Bird logo magnet.

   A chill ran up the back of Rakowitz’s neck, pushing the pain at the center of his forehead outward. “Bates!” He pulled the photo off the refrigerator, sending the magnet skittering across the floor. “Bates!”

   The two men nearly collided as Rakowitz rushed from the kitchen. “Christ, Steve, what’s all the yelling?”

Rakowitz held the photo up for Bates to see, watching as the color drained from his colleague’s face.

   “Where’s the kid?” Rakowitz took a deep breath.

   Bates snatched the photo from Rakowitz and quickly turned it over. “Kaylee, Momma, and Daddy, Deep Creek, Summer two-thousand and six.” He looked up at Rakowitz, eyes wide. “Shit, Steve, she looks maybe one here.”

   A wave of nausea washed over Rakowitz and settled as a sour knot in his stomach. “So, we have a three or four-year-old girl, brown hair, brown eyes, around three feet tall?” The stabbing pain in the center of his forehead rapidly branched out and over the top of his head. “Get an AMBER Alert out, now.” Bates rushed from the room.

   Rakowitz squinted against the sunlight coming through the narrow window over the kitchen sink. As he turned his head away from the blinding light, he saw the county deputy cautiously peering into the kitchen. Pushing back against the onslaught of nausea the migraine was blanketing him in, the sergeant’s vision blurred as he took three aggressive strides toward the unsuspecting deputy.

   “They have a daughter, Deputy.” The detective stood toe-to-toe with the man, seething. “I thought the trooper and you went through the house?” Not waiting for a response, Rakowitz pressed his chest into the smaller man’s. “You didn’t notice a kid’s room or photos?!”

   The deputy’s eyes were wide, his breath coming in short bursts. “We – I was moving quickly, just trying to make sure the assailants weren’t still here.”

   Rakowitz stretched his neck to the left, willing the tension and anger from his body. He had to think straight, and wanting to beat the crap out of the deputy and trooper didn’t leave much space for reasonable thought. He would have the deputy and trooper’s jobs for this oversight.

   “Get the troopers from out front. I want a full sweep of the house. Let’s make sure she isn’t still here.” He shuddered at his last words. If she were still in the house, the odds were they were looking for a body.

   The deputy hesitated, and the sergeant glared at him. “Is there a problem?!”

   “I – I just feel sick.” The deputy wrapped his arms around his midsection.

   Rakowitz’s eyes widened. “Oh, you’re sick?” He circled the deputy. “By all means, why don’t you go rest on the dead family’s couch while we do your job for you!”

   Barely had the words left the sergeant’s mouth before the deputy bent over and vomited, a combination of coffee and chunks of pancake covering the floor.

   “Jesus, you’re contaminating the crime scene!” Rakowitz pushed the disoriented deputy out of the kitchen.    “Get your shit together, and get on that search!”

   “But – I –” The man wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand.

   Rakowitz put his finger in the man’s face. “Crossroads’ moment for you, Deputy – either man-up or start looking for a new job.”

   Grimacing, the deputy stumbled from the kitchen. Rakowitz followed and walked toward the door leading to the basement. He just opened it when he felt Bates’ hand on his shoulder. “The alerts out.” He looked down the narrow stairs. “I’ll come with you.”

   Shaking his head, Rakowitz flipped the light switch next to the door, the single overhead bulb casting the stairs in a yellowish hue. “No. Coordinate the ground and second story sweeps. I’ll cover the basement.” Bates hesitated before nodding and disappearing outside.

   Rakowitz pushed his jacket behind his gun holster, released the leather safety strap, and rested his hand on the 9mm pistol’s handle. The stabbing pain in his head migrated down the back of his neck. He squeezed his eyes shut for several seconds to focus, opened them, and took a tentative step down.

   Reaching the bottom of the steps, Rakowitz scanned the room. A washer and dryer sat to his left, and a small coffin freezer hummed from across the room. The basement wasn’t finished, and the cinder block walls did little to warm the damp space.

   Turning to walk back up the stairs, the sergeant’s eye was drawn to an oversized water heater that stood in the far corner of the basement. The light from the stairs did little to illuminate the farthest reaches of the room, so Rakowitz retrieved a small pen light from his coat pocket. Shining the narrow beam of light on the heater, a quite whimper reached his ears.

   At first, he thought he was hearing things. Occasionally, the migraines gave him auditory hallucinations, but those were usually a buzzing or low hum in his ears. Now, standing in the dimly lit basement, he was certain the whimpering was real and coming from behind the hot water heater.

   Pulling his gun, Rakowitz leveled the weapon at the heater. “Police, come out with your hands where I can see them.” He began counting to five in his head, losing count between three and four as an onslaught of stabbing pain peppered the back of his eyes.

   Pressing the heel of his hand to his right eye, Rakowitz kept one eye and the gun fixed on the corner. “Now, god damnit! And consider this your final warning!”

   The whimpering stopped and seconds later was replaced with a muffled cry. The sergeant’s shoulders stiffened, and the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. His pain addled brain finally caught up, and he rushed toward the sound.

   Holstering his gun, Rakowitz got down on his hands and knees. He clutched the pen light between his teeth as he crawled behind the heater’s cylindrical metal tank. The light brought into focus the dirtied, tear stained face of Kaylee Toland.

   Rakowitz carefully reached for the child and pulled her out from behind the heater. Kaylee began to cry uncontrollably, and her face reddened as large tears covered her cheeks. The sergeant’s arms shook as a fresh wave of nausea cascaded over him. He stumbled toward the stairs and with pure determination fought back the urge to vomit as he ascended to the main floor.

   “Bates! Bates!” The loudness of his own voice was like shards of glass ricocheting back and forth inside his head.

   “Wha –” Bates stopped dead in his tracks and for a moment looked as if he might not move again. Then as quickly as the shock of seeing the unkempt girl clinging to Rakowitz had rendered him speechless, the man moved. He pulled his suit jacket off and, taking Kaylee from Rakowitz, wrapped the child up in the jacket.

   Rakowitz retrieved his cell phone and called for an ambulance. Bates was careful to avoid the scene in the kitchen as he carried Kaylee into the living room. “Shh, it’s going to be okay.” He gently rocked the still whimpering girl in his arms. He stopped and, feeling a rush of warmth from his nose, held his hand up to his face.

   “What the hell?” Bates looked at his blood covered hand and, dabbing at his nose, was surprised at the amount of blood flowing. He hadn’t had a nose bleed like this since he was a child.

   “Ambulance is on its way.” Rakowitz sat down in an overstuffed leather recliner across from Bates. “I almost missed her.” He closed his eyes; the light coming through the living room windows was so bright, it was making him feel dizzy.

   “You okay?” Bates’ brow furrowed with worry as he retrieved a hankie from his back pocket, hoping to stem the flow of blood from his nose.

   Rakowitz narrowly opened his eyes. “I should be asking you that.”

   Bates held the hankie to his nose and gently rocked Kaylee in his arm. “Damnedest thing.” A moment later, Kaylee fell silent, her body relaxing into the detective’s chest as she fell asleep.

   Rakowitz opened his eyes and, for the first time since entering the house, could fully focus. Rubbing his hands over his face, he felt the tension in his back and shoulders lessening. Resting his elbows on his knees, he studied the sleeping child.

   “I pray to God she has family.” He slowly stood up, grateful for the reprieve from the pain that had all but consumed him moments before.

   Bates wiped the last of the blood from his nose and tucked the ruined hankie into his back pocket. “She’s alive, and that counts for something.”

   Rakowitz walked toward the front door, his eyes lowered. “That’s a depressingly low bar to set.”

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