The Captive (Chapter Six)

They drove to the school. Despite the tension between them, the night seemed clear and cool and filled with magic, and the gym was transformed. It was so big that it seemed part of the night, and the twinkling lights woven around the pipes and girders overhead were like stars.

Cassie looked around for any other members of the Circle. She didn't see any. What she saw were outsiders looking in surprise at her and Adam. And in the boys' eyes there was something more than surprise, something Cassie wasn't at all used to. It was the kind of openmouthed stare guys turned on Diana when Diana was looking particularly beautiful.

A sudden warmth and a glow that had nothing to do with Suzan's artistry swept over Cassie. She knew she was blushing. She felt conspicuous and overwhelmed-and at the same time thrilled and excited. But through the wild mixture of emotions, one thing remained clear and diamond-bright within her. She was here to play a part and to keep her oath to be true to Diana. That was what mattered, and she clung to it.

But she couldn't just stand here with everyone staring at her any longer; it was too embarrassing. She turned to Adam.

It was an awkward moment. They couldn't sit down together in some dark corner-that would never do. Then Adam gave a crooked smile and said, "Want to dance?"

Relieved, Cassie nodded, and they went out onto the dance floor. In a matter of seconds they were surrounded by other people.

And then the music started, soft and sweet.

They stared at each other, helplessly, in dismay. They were in the middle of the dance floor; to get out they would have to forge their way through the crowd. Cassie looked into Adam's eyes and saw he was as confused as she was.

Then Adam said under his breath, "We'd better not be too conspicuous," and he took her in his arms.

Cassie shut her eyes. She was trembling, and she didn't know what to do.

Slowly, almost as if compelled, Adam laid his cheek against her hair.

I won't think about anything, I won't think at all, Cassie told herself. I won't feel. . . But that was impossible. She couldn't help feeling. It was dark as twilight and Adam was holding her and she could smell his scent of autumn leaves and ocean wind.

Dancing is a very witchy thing-oh, Laurel had been right. Cassie could imagine witches in ages past dancing under the stars to wild sweet music, and then lying down on the soft green grass.

Maybe among Cassie's ancestors there had been some witch-girl who had danced like this in a moonlit glade. Maybe she had danced by herself until she noticed a shadow among the trees and heard the panpipes. And then maybe she and the forest god had danced together, while the moon shone silver all around them….

Cassie could feel the warmth, the course of life, in Adam's arms. The silver cord, she thought. The mysterious, invisible bond that had connected her to Adam from the beginning… just now she could feel it again. It joined them heart to heart, it was drawing them irresistibly together.

The music stopped. Adam moved back just slightly and she looked up at him, cheek and neck tingling with the loss of his warmth. His eyes were strange, darkness just edged with silver like a new moon. Slowly, he bent down so that his lips were barely touching hers-and stayed there. They stood that way for what seemed like an eternity and then Cassie turned her head away.

It wasn't a kiss, she thought as they moved out through the crowd. It didn't count. But there was no way that they could dance together again and they both knew it. Cassie's knees were shaking.

Find some people to join-fast, she thought. She looked around desperately. And to her vast relief she glimpsed a sleek auburn crop and a head of long, light-brown hair interwoven with tiny flowers. It was Melanie and Laurel, in animated conversation with two outsider boys. If they'd seen what happened on the dance floor a minute ago…

But Laurel swung around at Adam's "hello" and said, "Oh, there you are!" and Melanie's smile was quite normal. Cassie was grateful to talk with them while the boys talked about football. Her lightheartedness, inspired by the magic of the dance, began to return.

"There's Deborah. She always gets one dance in before heading off to the boiler room with the Hendersons," Laurel murmured, smiling mischievously.

"What do they do there?" Cassie asked as she followed Laurel's gaze. Deborah was wearing a black micro-mini and a biker's hat decorated with a gold link bracelet. Her hair was mostly in her eyes. She looked great.

"Play cards and drink. But no, not what you're thinking. None of the guys would dare try anything with Deb-she can outwrestle them all. They're just in awe of her."

Cassie smiled, then she spotted someone else, and her smile faded. "Speaking of awesome…" she said softly.

Faye had on a flame-colored dress, sexy and elegant, cut in her usual knockout style. Her hair was black and glossy, hanging untamed down her back. She was like some exotic creature that had wandered onto campus by accident.

Faye didn't see the three girls scrutinizing her. Her entire attention seemed to be focused on Nick.

Cassie was surprised Nick was even here; he wasn't the type to go to dances. He was standing by a blond outsider girl who looked frankly spooked. As Cassie watched, Faye made her way over to him and placed a hand with red-tipped fingers on his arm.

Nick glanced down at the hand and stiffened. He threw a cold glance over his shoulder at Faye. Then, deliberately, he shrugged her hand off, bending over the little blonde, whose eyes widened. Throughout the whole incident his face remained as wintry and remote as ever.

"Uh-oh," Laurel whispered. "Faye's trying to hedge her bets, but Nick isn't cooperating."

"It's her own fault," Melanie said. "She kept after Jeffrey until the last minute."

"I think she's still after him now," said Cassie.

Jeffrey was just coming off the dance floor with Sally. His expression was the exact opposite of wintry; he looked as if he was having a wonderful time, flashing his lady-killing smile in all directions. Proud, Cassie thought, to have the Homecoming Queen on his arm. But it was funny, she thought the next minute, how quickly people stopped smiling when they ran into Faye.

Jeffrey tried to hustle Sally back onto the dance floor, but Faye moved as quickly as a stalking panther and cut them off. Then she and Sally stood on either side of Jeff, like a big, glossy black dog and a little rust-colored terrier fighting over a tall, slim bone.

"That's stupid," Laurel said. "Faye could have almost any guy here, but she only wants the ones who're a challenge."

"Well, it's not our problem," Melanie said sensibly. She turned to the outsider boy beside her and smiled, and they went together onto the dance floor. Laurel looked nettled for an instant, then smiled, shrugged at Cassie, and collected her own partner.

Cassie watched them go with a sinking heart.

She'd been able to block out Adam's presence for the last few minutes, but here they were alone again. Determinedly, she looked around for some distraction. There was Jeffrey-he was in real trouble now. The music had started, Faye was smiling a lazy, dangerous smile at him, and Sally was bristling and looking daggers. The three of them were standing in a perfect triangle, nobody moving. Cassie didn't see how Jeffrey was going to get out of it.

Then he looked up in her direction.

His reaction was startling. His eyes widened. He blinked. He stared at her as if he had never seen a girl before. Then he stepped away from Faye and Sally as if he'd forgotten their existence.

Cassie was dismayed, confused-but flattered. One thing-it certainly got her out of her present dilemma with Adam. When she turned and looked into Adam's eyes, she saw he understood, without even nodding.

Jeffrey was holding out his hand to her. She took it and let him lead her onto the dance floor. She cast one glance back at Adam and saw that his expression was a paradox: acceptance mixed with something darker, more disturbing.

It was another slow dance. Cassie held herself at a decent distance from Jeffrey, staring uncertainly down at his shoes. They were dark brown loafers with little tassels, the left one slightly scuffed. When she finally looked up at his face, her awkwardness vanished. That smile was not only blinding but openly admiring.

When we first met he was trying to impress me, Cassie thought dizzily. Now he's impressed.

She could see the appreciation in his eyes, feel it in the way he held her.

"We make a good couple," he said. She laughed. Trust Jeffrey to compliment himself in complimenting her. "Thank you. I hope Sally isn't mad."

"It's not Sally I'm worried about. It's her." "Faye. I know." She wished she had some advice for him. But nobody knew how to deal with Faye.

"Maybe you'd better be worried too. What's Diana going to say when she finds out you were here with Adam?"

"Diana asked me to come with him, because she was sick," Cassie said, flaring up in spite of herself. "I didn't even want to, and-"

"Hey. Hey. I was just teasing. Everybody knows Di and her prince consort are practically married. Although maybe she wouldn't have asked you if she'd known how beautiful you were going to look."

He was still teasing, but Cassie didn't like it. She looked around the dance floor and saw Laurel, who winked over her partner's shoulder. Suzan was dancing, too, very close with a muscular boy, her red-gold hair shining in the gloom.

And then it was over. Cassie looked up at Jeffrey and said, "Good luck with Faye," which was the best she could offer him. He flashed the smile again.

"I can handle it," he said confidently. "Don't you want to dance again? No? Are you sure?"

"Thanks, but I'd better get back," Cassie murmured, worried about the way he was looking at her. She managed to escape his restraining hand and started toward the sidelines, but before she could get there another boy asked her to dance.

She couldn't see Adam anywhere. Maybe he was off enjoying himself-she hoped so. She said "yes" to the boy.

It didn't stop with him. All sorts of guys, seniors and juniors, athletes and class officers, were coming up to her. She saw boys' eyes wander from their own dates to look at her as she danced.

I didn't know dances were like this. I didn't know anything was like this, she thought. For the moment she was entirely swept up in the magic of the night, and she pushed all troublesome reflection away. She let the music take her and let herself just be for a while. Then she saw Sally's face on the sidelines.

Jeffrey wasn't with her. Cassie hadn't seen Jeffrey in a while. But Sally was focused on Cassie specifically, and her expression was venomous.

When that dance was over, Cassie evaded the next boy who tried to intercept her, and headed for Laurel. Laurel greeted her with glee.

"You're the belle of the ball," she said excitedly, tucking her arm through Cassie's and patting Cassie's hand. "Sally's furious. Faye's furious. Everybody's furious."

"It's the magnet perfume. I think Suzan used too much."

"Don't be silly. It's you. You're a perfect little-gazelle. No, a little white unicorn, one of a kind. I think even Adam has noticed."

Cassie went still. "Oh, I doubt that," she said lightly. "He's just being polite. You know Adam."

"Yes," said Laurel. "Sir Adam the Chivalrous. He turned around and asked Sally to dance after you left with Jeffrey, and Sally almost decked him."

Cassie smiled, but her heart was still pounding. She and Adam had promised not to betray their feelings for each other, not by word or look or deed-but they were making a horrible mess of things tonight on all fronts. Now she was afraid to look for Adam, and she didn't want to dance any more. She didn't want to be the belle of the ball; she didn't want every girl here to be furious with her. She wanted to go to Diana.

Suzan arrived, her extraordinary chest heaving slightly in her low-cut dress. She directed an arch smile at Cassie.

"I told you I knew what I was talking about," she said. "Having a good time?"

"Wonderful," Cassie said, digging her nails in one palm. She opened her mouth to say something else, but just then she glimpsed Sean making his way toward her. His face was eager, his usually slinking step purposeful.

"I should have warned you," Laurel said in an undertone. "Sean's been chasing you all night, but some other guy always got there first."

"If he does catch you he'll be all over you like ugly on an ape," Suzan added pleasantly, rummaging in her purse. "Oh, damn, I gave my lipstick to Deborah. Where is she?"

"Hi there," Sean said, reaching them. His small black eyes slid over Cassie. "So you're free at last."

"Not really," Cassie blurted. "I have to-go find Deborah for Suzan." What she had to do was get away from all this for a while. "I know where she is; I'll be right back," she continued to the startled Suzan and Laurel.

"I'll come along," Sean began instantly, and Laurel opened her mouth, but Cassie waved at both of them in dismissal.

"No, no-I'll go by myself. It won't take a minute," she said. And then she was away from them, plunging through the crowd toward the double doors.

She knew where the boiler room was, or at least where the door that led to it was. She'd never actually been inside. By the time she reached C-wing she'd left the music of the dance far behind.

The door marked custodian's office opened onto a long narrow room with unidentifiable machinery all around. Generators were humming, drowning out any other noise. It was cool and dank… spooky, Cassie thought. There were NO smoking signs on the walls and it smelled of oil and gas.

A stairway descended into the school basement. Cassie slowly went down the steps, gripping the smooth metal handrail. God, it's like going down into a tomb, she thought. Who would want to spend their time here instead of in the light and music up in the gym?

The boiler room itself smelled of machine oil and beer. It wasn't just cool; it was cold. And it was silent, except for the steady dripping of water somewhere.

A terrible place, Cassie thought shakily. All around her were machines with giant dials, and overhead there were huge pipes of all kinds. It was like being in the bowels of a ship. And it was deserted.

"Hello? Deborah?"

No answer.

"Debby? Chris? It's Cassie."

Maybe they couldn't hear her. There was another room behind the boiler room; she could glimpse it through an archway beyond the machines.

She edged toward it, worried about getting oil on Laurel's pristine dress. She looked through the archway and hesitated, gripped by a strange apprehension.

Drip. Drip.

"Is anybody there?"

A large machine was blocking her way. Uneasily, she poked her head around it.

At first she thought the room was empty, but then, at eye level, she saw something.

Something wrong. And in that instant her throat closed and her mind fragmented, single thoughts flashing across it like explosions from a flashbulb.

Swinging feet.

Swinging feet where feet shouldn't be. Somebody walking on air. Flying like a witch. Only, the feet weren't flying. They were swinging, back and forth, in two dark brown loafers. Two dark brown loafers with little tassels.

Cassie looked up at the face.

The relentless dripping of water went on. The smell of oil and stale alcohol nauseated her.

Can't scream. Can't do anything but gasp.

Drip and swing.

That face, that horrible blue face. No more lady-killer smile. I have to do something to help him, but how can I help? Nobody's neck bends that way when they're alive.

Every horrible detail was so clear. The fraying rope. The swinging shadow on the cinder-block wall. The machinery with its dials and switches. And the awful stillness.

Drip. Drip.

Swinging like a pendulum.

Hands covering her mouth, Cassie began to sob.

She backed away, trying not to see the curly brown hair on the head that was lolling sideways. He couldn't be dead when she'd just danced with him. He'd just had his arms around her, he'd flashed her that cocksure smile. And now-

She stepped back and hands fell on her shoulders.

She did try to scream then, but her throat was paralyzed. Her vision went dark.

"Steady. Steady. Hang on there."

It was Nick.

"Breathe slower. Put your head down."

"Nine-one-one," she gasped, and then, clearly and distinctly so that he would understand, "Call nine-one-one, Nick. Jeffrey-"

He cast a hard glance at the swinging feet. "He doesn't need a doctor. Do you?"

"I-" She was hanging on to his hand. "I came down to get Deborah."

"She's in the old science building. They got busted here."

"And I saw him-Jeffrey-"

Nick's arm was comforting, solid. "I get the picture," he said. "Do you want to sit down?"

"I can't. It's Laurel's dress." She was completely irrational, she realized. She tried desperately to get a grip on herself. "Nick, please let me go. I have to call an ambulance."

"Cassie." She couldn't remember him ever saying her name before, but now he was holding her shoulders and looking her directly in the face. "No ambulance is going to do him any good. You got that? Now just calm down."

Cassie stared into his polished-mahogany eyes, then slowly nodded. The gasping was easing up. She was grateful for his arm around her, although some part of her mind was standing back in disbelief-Nick was comforting her? Nick, who hated girls and was coldly polite to them at best?

"What's going on here?"

Cassie spun to see Adam in the archway. But when she tried to speak, her throat closed completely and hot tears flooded her eyes.

Nick said, "She's a little upset. She just found Jeffrey Lovejoy hanging from a pipe."

"What?" Adam moved swiftly to look around the machine. He came back looking grim and alert, his eyes glinting silver as they always did in times of trouble.

"How much do you know about this?" he asked Nick crisply.

"I came down to get something I left," Nick said, equally short. "I found her about ready to keel over. And that's all."

Adam's expression had softened slightly. "Are you okay?" he said to Cassie. "I've been looking everywhere for you. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. Then Suzan said you'd gone to look for Deborah, but that you were looking in the wrong place." As if it were the most natural thing in the world, he reached out to take her from Nick-and Nick resisted. For a moment there was tension between the two boys and Cassie looked from one to the other with dawning surprise and alarm.

She moved away from both. "I'm all right," she said. And, strangely, saying so made it almost true. It was partly necessity and partly something else-her witch senses were telling her something. She had a feeling of malice, of evil. Of darkness.

"The dark energy," she whispered.

Adam looked more keen and alert. "You think-?"

"Yes," she said. "Yes, I do. But if only we could tell for sure…" Her mind was racing. Jeffrey. Jeffrey's body swinging like a pendulum. "Usually we use clear quartz as a pendulum …"

She snatched Melanie's necklace off and held it up, looking at the teardrop of quartz crystal.

"If the dark energy was here, maybe we can trace it," she said, fired with the idea. "See where it came from-or where it went. If you guys will help."

Nick was looking skeptical, but Adam cut in before he could speak. "Of course we'll help. But it's dangerous; we've got to be careful." His fingers gripped her arm reassuringly.

"Then-we have to go back in there," Cassie said, and before she could change her mind she moved, darting into the far room where the feet still swung. Nick and Adam were close behind her. Without letting herself think, she held the crystal up high, watching it shimmer in the light.

At first it just spun in circles. But then it began to seesaw violently, pointing out a direction.