The Power (Chapter Five)

Cassie opened her mouth to speak, but Nick was going on.

"You know, when I first saw you I thought you were just ordinary," he said. "Then I started noticing things about you – your hair, your mouth. The way you kept on fighting even when you were scared. That night when Lovejoy was killed you were scared to death, but you were the one who suggested we look for the dark energy, and when we were out at the burying ground you kept up with Deborah." Nick stopped and grinned ruefully. "And with us guys," he said.

Cassie felt an answering smile tug at her own lips; quickly suppressed it. "Nick, I …"

"Don't say anything yet. I want you to know that I – felt bad about how I treated you when you came to ask me to the dance." His jaw was tight, and he looked steadily at one particular flower on the upholstery of the couch. "I don't know why I did it – I've just got a lousy temper, I guess. I've had it so long I don't even think about it anymore." Nick took a deep breath before continuing, "See, I've always hated living with Deb's parents; I always felt like I owed them something. It put me in a permanent bad mood, I guess. I felt like my mom and dad screwed up somehow, getting themselves killed in a hurricane so their kid had to be supported by other people. It made me hate them – and my aunt and uncle, too."

Nick stopped and shook his head thoughtfully. "Yeah, especially Aunt Grace. She talks about my dad all the time, goin' on and on about how reckless he was, how he didn't care who he left behind, that kind of crap. It made me sick. I never figured it could be because she missed him."

Cassie was fascinated. "Is that why you don't like magic?" It was a blind guess, but he looked at her, startled.

"I don't know – I suppose it could have something to do with it. I resented the rest of the coven because I felt like they all had a better deal than me. They all had at least a grandparent, and I just had my dead parents that screwed up. And they were all so damn cheerful about it – like Conant. He – " Nick paused and glanced up at Cassie wryly. "Well, maybe the less said about him, the better. Anyway, I know the truth now. My parents didn't screw up, and if I screw up I can't blame them anymore. I've got only one person to blame – me. So I'm sorry about the way I acted."

"Nick, that's okay. You did take me to the dance."

"Yeah, after you came back and asked again. That took guts. And after I took you we went to Number Thirteen and you got hurt." The corner of Nick's mouth turned down. "I couldn't do anything about that. It was Conant who saved you."

A memory of the smoky thing at the Halloween ceremony, the dark form that had risen out of the Samhain fire, flickered through Cassie's mind. She shoved it away, feeling panic rise in her chest. She didn't want to think about Black John now – frightening though he had been as a smoky figure, he was more frightening by far as a man. His eyes . . .

"Cassie." Nick's strong fingers were wrapped around her wrist. "It's okay. You're okay."

Cassie gulped a deep breath and nodded, her awareness returning to the dim room. "Thanks," she whispered. It felt good to have Nick's hand on her arm: warm fingers, firm grip. It steadied her. And, God, she'd needed somebody to hang on to, for so long . . . She remembered sitting in Adam's car, aching with the need to hold him, to be held. And knowing that she couldn't, that she never could. Cassie had that same ache now, and Adam was completely lost to her. How long did she have to live with the empty feeling?

"I know," Nick was saying in a low voice, "that you're not in love with me. I know I'm not him. But, Cassie, I like you. I like you a lot, more than any girl I've ever seen. You're so decent to people, you're not hard, but inside you're tough as Deb. Tough as me, maybe." He laughed shortly. "You haven't kept a grudge against anybody in the Club, no matter how they treated you in the beginning. Deb was really surprised about that. And in the end you've made them all respect you. The Henderson brothers never fell for a girl before, but they don't know if they're on their heads or their feet anymore. I think they're going to make you a pipe bomb for Christmas."

Cassie couldn't help laughing with him. "Well, I guess that's one way to get rid of the problem."

"Even Faye respects you," Nick said. "She wouldn't have tried so hard to destroy you otherwise. Look, Cassie, I can't explain what it is about you – you're good but you're tough. You can take it. And you've got the most gorgeous eyes I've ever seen."

Cassie felt the blood rising to her face. She could feel his eyes on her, and she was the one forced to study the wallpaper. The hot, strange feeling inside her was stronger every minute.

She was thinking about that first week of school, when Deborah and the Henderson brothers had been teasing her, playing keep-away with her backpack – and suddenly a brown arm had reached into her field of vision, catching the backpack, saving her. Nick. And about how nice he'd been in the boiler room when she'd found Jeffrey's body, how he'd held her and said, "Steady, steady." His arms had been solid and comforting then. Nick wasn't intimidated by anything. She liked Nick.

But liking wasn't enough.

Cassie found herself shaking her head. "Nick – I'm so sorry. I can't lead you on …"

"I said I knew you weren't in love with me. But if you just want to give it a try – I'll be there when you need somebody. We could have some fun," he added, as lightly as she'd ever heard Nick speak. "Get to know each other."

Cassie thought about how annoyed she'd been a while ago that Adam wasn't here at Diana's. She didn't have the right to demand Adam like that – and it was dangerous. I'll be there when you need somebody. How could Nick know how important that was to her?

She looked up at him, and in a voice she herself could barely hear, she said, "Okay."

The mahogany eyes widened slightly in surprise – which by Nick's normally expressionless standards translated into astonishment. A wondering smile curved his lips a little. He looked so happy that Cassie felt herself drawn into it. Why could she never resist smiling back at him?

"I didn't think you'd go for it," he said, still wonderingly.

Cassie laughed, but blushed harder. "So why did you ask?"

"I figured it was worth asking, even if you told me to get lost."

"Nick." Cassie felt something strange. "I wouldn't ever tell you to get lost. You're – well, you're really special." She didn't know how to say what she meant, and the words caught in her throat anyway. Her vision was blurring, swimming. She blinked to clear it and felt tears spill. And then Nick moved toward her and somehow she was in his arms, crying on his shoulder. Nothing had ever been so comforting as that gray-wool-clad shoulder.

She sniffled and she could feel him leaning his cheek against her hair. "Let's just give it a try for a while," he said softly. And Cassie nodded and let herself rest in his arms.

It was dark when she let Nick out the front door. Diana was upstairs; Chris and Doug had left a long time ago. Cassie felt uncertain and shy as she tapped on Diana's door.

"Come in," Diana said, and Cassie did, remembering the first time she'd tapped on this door and come into this room, the day Diana had rescued her from Faye in the science building. Then, Diana had been sitting at the window seat, surrounded by a whirling crowd of rainbows. Now Diana was sitting at the desk with a pile of papers in front of her.

"So what happened?" she said, turning around.

Cassie could feel the heat in her cheeks. "I –  we – we decided that we would give it a try. Being – well, sort of being together, I mean."

Diana's lips parted. She looked into Cassie's eyes, as if searching for something there. "You what?" she said, and then she caught herself. She looked at Cassie for another long moment. "I see," she said slowly.

"You're not mad?" Cassie was trying to figure out what was going on behind those emerald-green eyes.

"Mad? How could I be mad at you? I'm just – surprised, that's all. But don't worry about it. Nick's a nice guy, and I know you won't hurt him. You know how special he is."

Cassie nodded, but she was startled to hear her own words on Diana's lips. She hadn't known Diana knew.

"No, I think it's a good thing," Diana said firmly, pushing the papers out of the way.

Cassie breathed a sigh of relief. Then she looked at the papers Diana had been examining when she came in. They were old and yellowing, covered with thick strokes of black writing in columns. The writing had some odd curlicues in it and little punctuation that Cassie could see, but it was legible.

"What are these?"

"Black John's personal papers. Letters and things – we gathered them all up when we started looking for the Master Tools. I was looking through them to see if maybe I could find some weakness that we can use against him, to fight him. That's how we found out where to look for the crystal skull in the first place; he wrote a letter about it to one of Sean's ancestors and we found it in Sean's attic. Not giving the exact location of the island, of course, but giving some clues."

"I didn't realize he would trust anybody enough to give them clues."

"He didn't. Apparently, he was planning to go back and get the skull, either to use it or to put it somewhere safer, but he died before he could do it."

"He drowned," Cassie murmured, turning over a small rectangular paper in her fingers. It was printed Massachusetts-Bay Colony, 8 dollars. Good grief, it was money, money from the 1600s.

"You said that before," Diana said, eyeing Cassie thoughtfully. "I wondered then how you knew."

"What? Oh, I guess one of you told me." Cassie tried to think. "Maybe Melanie."

"Melanie couldn't have told you. None of us could have, Cassie, because none of us ever knew it. You're the first person who's suggested he died at sea."

"But . . ." Bewildered, Cassie searched her mind, trying to think where she'd come up with the idea. "But then how . . ." Suddenly she knew. "My dreams," she whispered, backing up to the bed. "Oh, Diana, he's been in my dreams. I dreamed about drowning, about being on a ship that was going down. But it wasn't me, it was him. It was Black John."

"Cassie." Diana came over and sat down beside her. "Are you sure it was him?"

"Yes. Because it happened again today, when I saw him at the cemetery. I looked into his eyes – and then I felt myself falling. Drowning. There was salt water all around me, and it was cold. I could taste it."

Diana put her arms around Cassie's heaving shoulders. "Don't think about it anymore."

"I'm all right," Cassie whispered. "But why would he make me go through that? Why would he put it in my head? Is he trying to kill me?"

"I don't know," Diana said, her voice unsteady. "Cassie, I told you before, you don't have to stay here – "

"I do, though." Cassie thought of her grandmother, and words echoed in her mind. There's nothing frightening in the dark, if you just face it.

The ocean was dark, dark as midnight underwater, and cold as hematite. But I can face that, Cassie thought. I refuse to be afraid of it. I refuse. She pushed the fear away from her and slowly felt the trembling inside her steady.

My line has the sight and the power, she thought. I want to use that power to stand up to him. To face him.

She drew away from Diana. "I think you've got the right idea tonight," she said, nodding at the papers on the desk. "You go through those, and your Book of Shadows, and I'll keep going through mine." She looked at the window seat where the red leather-covered book lay beside a block of multicolored Post-it notes and a scattering of felt-tip pens and highlighters.

"Have you found anything interesting so far?" Diana asked as Cassie settled into the window seat with the book on her lap.

"Nothing about Black John. In the beginning the spells seem to be pretty much the same as yours. But everything in it's interesting, and who knows what's going to turn out to be useful in the end," Cassie said. She was determined to get familiar with the range of spells and amulets in the book, to learn as many as possible of them and to at least know where to find the rest. Still, it was a project that would take years, and they didn't have years. "Diana, I think we'd better talk to the old ladies in town – soon. Before – well, before anything happens so we can't talk to them." She met Diana's eyes grimly.

Diana blinked, taking in Cassie's meaning, and then nodded. "You're right. He's already killed four people, at least. If he thinks they're a threat . . ." She swallowed. "We'll talk to them tomorrow. I'll tell Adam when he calls – he's supposed to call me when he and Deborah get through shadowing Black John."

"I hope Black John doesn't know he's being shadowed," Cassie said.

"I hope so too," Diana said quietly, and bent her head over the papers again.

The meeting was held the next day on the beach. Faye didn't have a chance to veto the location because Faye wasn't there.

"She's with him," Deborah said briefly. "I followed her this morning – Adam and I flipped for it last night. She met him at that same coffee shop where they met yesterday – "

"Hang on, hang on," Laurel said. "You're getting ahead of yourself. What coffee shop?"

"I'll tell it," Adam said, in response to Diana's look. "Yesterday we went out of the cemetery and followed – Mr. Brunswick. That's a joke, by the way."

Diana nodded. "I used to do a little oil-painting, and Brunswick is a kind of paint," she told Cassie and the group. "Black paint."

"Very funny," said Cassie. She was sitting beside Nick, a new position, and one that made her slightly self-conscious. She was very aware of him, of his arm beside her. If she leaned a little to the right, she could touch him, and it was comforting. "I wonder what he did with the real person who was supposed to be principal," she said.

"I don't know." Adam couldn't have helped but notice who she was sitting by, and the new expression in Nick's eyes, a sort of protectiveness. Right now Cassie could see his blue-gray gaze flicker toward Nick, looking him up and down narrowly. It wasn't a friendly look. "I don't know how he managed to get the position. I don't know why he would want it, either." He glanced at Nick again and opened his mouth, but Diana was talking.

"Go on with the story. Go on, Adam. Tell us what happened when you followed him yesterday."

"Huh? Oh, right. Well, he left alone, in a gray Cadillac, and we followed; Deborah on her bike and me in my jeep. He drove into town and went to the Perko's Koffee Kup there – and guess who drove up a few minutes later?"

"Wearing a black lace minidress and looking really perky," Deborah put in.

"Faye," Diana whispered, looking sick. "How could she?"

"I dunno, but she did," Deborah said. "We watched her through the window, and she went to his booth. He's a living, breathing man, all right – he was drinking coffee. They talked for about an hour. Faye was prancing and tossing her head like a little filly in a show. And he seemed to like it – anyway, he was smiling at her."

"We waited until they left, then Deb followed her and I followed him," Adam said. "He drove to a summer cottage on the mainland – I guess he's rented it. He stayed there all night, I think; I finally left around one in the morning."

"Where did Faye go?" Melanie asked Deborah.

Deborah made a face. "I don't know." "Why not?"

"Because she lost me, okay? Riding a Harley isn't exactly inconspicuous. She started going through red lights and suddenly making U-turns, and in the end she lost me. You want to make something out of it?"

"Deb," Cassie said. Deborah scowled at her, then rolled her eyes and shrugged.

"Anyway, this morning I waited outside her house, and she went back to meet him. They had a booth at the back, though, not near a window. So I went inside, but I really couldn't see what was going on. I think she gave him something, but I don't know what."

"Wonderful," Suzan said, and Deborah glared at her.

"I mean, wonderful that she's – what do you call it? In league with him. Is anybody going to eat that doughnut?" Suzan daintily shook off powdered sugar and bit in.

Laurel murmured something about white sugar being worse than rat poison, but she didn't have the energy to say more.

"It's good," Suzan said indistinctly. "The only thing it's missing is cream filling."

"I think we'd better go talk with the old ladies," Cassie said. "With Adam's grandmother, I mean, and Laurel's grandmother and Melanie's great-aunt."

"Today's a good day," Melanie volunteered. "Every Sunday afternoon they get together and have lunch at our place: a kind of tea, you know, with sandwiches and little cakes and stuff."

"That's right," Cassie said. "My grandmother used to go too."

"Cakes?" said Suzan, looking interested. "Why didn't you say so? Let's go."

"Right – no, wait," Diana said. She looked around the group. "Look, it's probably pointless to ask this, but did any of you take the piece of hematite out of Cassie's room?" Everyone stared at her, then at each other. Everyone except Cassie and Laurel. Heads were shaken, and all the faces wore the same look of puzzlement.

"Somebody took the hematite?" Deborah asked. "The piece you found at Number Thirteen?" Cassie nodded, unobtrusively studying the other members of the Circle. Adam was frowning, the Henderson brothers looked blank. Sean looked nervous, but then Sean always looked nervous. Melanie seemed troubled, Nick was slowly shaking his head, and Suzan was shrugging.

"I didn't think anybody would admit to it," Diana said. "But I suspect that's because the person who took it isn't here. She's at Perko's Koffee Kup." Diana sighed. "All right. Let's go to Number Four."

Cassie had been getting quite familiar with Melanie's house since her mother had been taken to stay there. The house was in the Federal style, very similar to Cassie's grandmother's, but in much better repair. The white clapboard walls were freshly painted and everything inside had a shipshape, tidy look. Great-aunt Constance was sitting in the front parlor with old Mrs. Franklin, Adam's grandmother, and Laurel's Granny Quincey. She didn't look at all pleased to see the eleven of them crowding in the parlor door.

"Great-aunt Constance? Can we talk to you?"

The elderly woman turned a cool, disapproving eye on Melanie. She was thin and regal, and in her high-cheekboned face Cassie could detect some resemblance to Melanie's classic beauty. Her hair was still very dark, but maybe she dyed it.

"Are you here to see your mother?" she said, spotting Cassie in the group. "She's fast asleep right now; I really don't think she should be disturbed."

"Actually, Aunt Constance, we came to talk to you," Melanie said. She looked at the other women in the parlor. "To all three of you."

A line appeared between Great-aunt Constance's eyebrows, but the short plump woman sitting on the sofa said, "Oh, let them in, Connie. Why not? There you are, Adam. What kept you out so late last night, hm?"

"I didn't realize you noticed, Grandma," Adam said.

"Oh, I notice more than people think," Mrs. Franklin chuckled, picking up a cookie and popping it into her mouth. Her gray hair was piled untidily on her head in braids, and there was a disorganized air about her that contrasted with the austere white and gold parlor. Cassie liked her.

"What's going on, Laurel?" a quavery voice asked, and Cassie looked at Granny Quincey, a tiny woman with a face like a dried apple. She was actually Laurel's great-grandmother, and she was so little and light she looked as if a puff of wind would blow her away.

"Well – " Laurel looked at Adam, who spoke up.

"Actually, it has something to do with what my grandmother asked me. What I was out doing last night. And it has to do with something that happened a long time ago, right around the time all of us kids were born."

Great-aunt Constance was really frowning now, and Granny Quincey's lips were pursed together. Old Mrs. Franklin was chuckling, but she was looking around the room in a way that made Cassie wonder if she'd really heard her grandson.

"Well?" Great-aunt Constance said sharply. "Explain yourself."

Adam glanced back at the rest of the Circle, all of whom were beaconing their support, silently electing him spokesman. He took a deep breath and turned back to the old women.

"What I was out doing was shadowing our new high-school principal, Mr. Jack Brunswick," he said. The name elicited no reaction. "I think you might have known him under a different name." Utter silence.

"The name we're all most familiar with is Black John," said Adam.

The silence was shattered as Great-aunt Constance stood so abruptly that one of the fragile willow-patterned tea cups dashed to the floor.

"Get out of this house! Get out!" she said to Adam.