Jodi Picoult

 

Salem Falls

A Short Synopsis

Jack St. Bride was once a beloved teacher and soccer coach at a girls' prep school - until a student's crush sparked a powder keg of accusation and robbed him of his career and reputation. Now, after a devastatingly public ordeal that left him with an eight-month jail sentence and no job, Jack resolves to pick up the pieces of his life. He takes a job washing dishes at Addie Peabody's diner and slowly starts to form a relationship with her in the quiet New England village of Salem Falls. But just when Jack thinks he has outrun his past, a quartet of teenage girls with a secret turn his world upside down once again, triggering a modern-day witch hunt in a town haunted by its own history…

What others are saying about Salem Falls…

A Booksense 76 Pick.

A featured selection of the Literary Guild.

“Genuinely suspenseful, remarkably original.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Salem Falls is one of those books you can't put down. On every page there is a twist, a revelation, a surprise, a pay-off, placing it firmly in the category of Page-Turner —It has romance, heartbreak, mystery, spookiness, and even a good dose of moral dilemmas - everything a good novel needs.”

—Ann Hood, Providence Journal

“Secrets, slowly revealed, are what makes this novel compelling. —Right when the reader feels she has figured out all the mysteries and tied up the last loose string, Picoult leaves one final surprise for the last paragraph.”

—BookPage

Book club discussion questions for Salem Falls

  1. This book is billed as a Y2K update of The Crucible. In what ways is there a witch hunt in the town of Salem Falls? What sparks the conflagration, and what feeds the fire?

  2. Is it possible to distance oneself from one's past? Which characters in the book support this claim? Which refute it?

  3. What is the significance of the title of the book?

  4. Should the citizens of a town have the right to decide who lives there?

  5. Picoult tells the story of Jack's life backward, to the moment of his birth. How do these flashbacks affect the present-day story, and why did she choose to do this?

  6. Is it possible, in your opinion, to reinvent yourself?

  7. Should a verbal accusation of rape be enough to get the judicial wheels turning? Explain, using the examples of both Catherine Marsh and Addie Peabody.

  8. What is the significance of having Jack be a trivia expert?

  9. Gillian says on page 64, "Think how powerful you felt tonight, healing someone. And then imagine how powerful you'd feel if you could ruin someone's life."Do you agree? Are the most powerful people the ones who have the ability to influence others' fate? Explain, using the examples of Amos, Gillian, Jack and Addie.

  10. To what extent is this book about spirituality and religion, and its abuse?

  11. Is it witchcraft that brings about Jack's downfall? Or something else?

  12. In what ways does Jack's relationship with Addie save him? In what way does it lead to his destruction?

  13. Compare the father/daughter relationships of Addie and Roy, Gillian and Amos, Charlie and Meg, Matt Houlihan and Molly, and Catherine and Reverend Marsh. How does the bond formed between parent and child influence each of their actions?

  14. What does Jordan McAfee learn from his client?

  15. Which character most deserves pity in this book? Why?

 Salem Falls

An excerpt from Salem Falls

Gillian dreamed that the doorbell was ringing. She was in bed, so sick she could barely lift her eyelids, but whoever it was wouldn’t go away. After eons she managed to swing her legs over the side of the bed. She stumbled down the stairs and yanked open the door. Standing there was her father, holding a gun. “Gilly,” he said, and then he shot her in the heart.

She woke with a start, sweating, and pushed back the comforter on her bed. It was still early–barely 6:30 in the morning–but she could hear voices rising from downstairs. Moments later she inched toward the kitchen.” All I’m saying, Tom, is that I live here for a reason,” her father said.

He was talking to Whitney’s dad. Peeking in, Gilly saw Ed Abrams, too, and Jimmy from the pharmaceutical plant.” I don’t see how we can do anything about it,” Tom answered. “Noticed you didn’t invite Charlie Saxton to this tete–a–tete, either.”

“Charlie’s welcome to join me anytime, so long as he checks his gold shield at the door.”

Ed shook his head.” I don’t know, Amos. It’s not like he’s made a move.”

“Who?” Gilly said, coming out of her hiding spot and entering the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee with the aplomb of a woman twice her age, and slid beneath her father’s arm. “Morning, Daddy,” she said, kissing his cheek. “Hi, Mr. Abrams. Mr. O’Neill. Jimmy.” The men muttered greetings, turning their eyes away from her pajamas: a baby–doll T–shirt and a pair of her dad’s boxers. A thin line of powder–pink skin showed between the sagging waistband and the hem of her shirt. “Who hasn’t made a move?”

“This,” Amos said suddenly. “This is why we have to take the first step.” He grabbed the edge of his daughter’s T–shirt, wrinkling it in his hand, so that it pulled tight across the buds of her breasts. Gilly froze, caught somewhere between absolute humiliation and the strange power she had knowing her body could keep these men in thrall.

Tom O’Neill stood up. “Count me in.”

Ed Abrams nodded, and so did Jimmy.

Amos walked the men out, talking quietly in a voice Gilly was not meant to hear. Something had happened, though; something she meant to find out. She waited for her father to return. “Daddy, aren’t you going to tell me what’s going on?”

Amos stared at her for a moment before finding his voice. “Let’s get you dressed,” he said simply, and he took her hand and led her upstairs.

Charlie Saxton jumped as the door to his office burst open. Standing on the threshold, fuming, was his resident registered sexual offender, Jack St. Bride. A step behind, his secretary shrugged. “Sorry, boss. I tried to get him to wait but–”

“I’ll take it from here. Mr. St. Bride? You want to come in for a minute?” He gestured at the chair opposite his desk as if St. Bride were any visitor, instead of a man so angry Charlie could nearly see steam rising from his skin. “Now. What can I do for you?”

“Everyone knows,” St. Bride said tightly.

Charlie did not pretend to misunderstand him. “The list of registered offenders is public. If a resident comes in requesting it, I have no choice but to hand it over.”

“How many?”

“How many what?” Charlie repeated.

“How many people have asked to see the list, since my name’s been on it.”

“I’m not at liberty to–”

“Just tell me. Please.”

Charlie pursed his lips and stared at the ceiling, at a crack that marched across it like a panoramic peak of mountains. “None that I know of.”

“That’s right. No one would know I was on that list at all, if it weren’t for one of your own officers.”

The detective rubbed the bridge of his nose. Goddamn Wes, anyway. “We have protocols at the department, Mr. St. Bride, and it’s always a disappointment to hear that a staff member hasn’t followed them.”

“A disappointment.” Jack looked into his lap, and when he lifted his face again his eyes were shining— with fury, or with tears— Charlie didn’t know for sure, and wasn’t certain he wanted to know, either. “This little disappointment of yours… it’s going to ruin my life.”

Charlie refrained from saying what he wanted: that St. Bride had ruined his life all by himself. “I’m sorry, but it’s not within my power to keep rumors from spreading.”

“How about vandalism, Detective? Can you stop people from painting on my door, little messages about how I ought to leave?”

“You can file a complaint, but I’ll tell you now that the chance of anything coming of it is awfully slim. “Charlie looked the other man directly in the eye.” No one in this town can force you to move out of it. No matter what they say or do, it’s your right to stay if you want to.”

At that, St. Bride’s shoulders relaxed just the slightest bit.

“Unfortunately,” Charlie added, “it’s their right to say and do whatever they want to try to change your mind.”

“And if they hurt me… if they send me to the hospital, or worse… is that what it will take to get you on my side?”

“I’m on the side of the law. If it comes to assault, they’ll be punished.” Charlie twisted a paper clip in his hands, until the heat that came from the motion snapped it in two. “But that goes both ways, Mr. St. Bride. Because I’m going to be watching you, too. And if you so much as look at a teenage girl in Salem Hills, you’ll find yourself moving out of town as quick as a sheriff’s patrol car can take you.”

St. Bride seemed to crumble from the inside out, like a building Charlie had once seen blown up in Boston. First the eyes closed, then the shoulders dropped, then the head bowed— until it seemed to Charlie that all he was looking at was a shell of the man who had walked in on such a rush of anger. This man is a criminal, Charlie reminded himself, although it felt as though he was staring at something with feathers and webbed feet and a bill and insisting it was a dog. “Is that clear?”

Jack did not open his eyes. “Crystal.”

Amos Duncan banged a hammer on the pulpit at the front of the Congregational Church. The buzzing in the filled pews stopped instantly, and attention turned to the silver–haired man.“Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for coming on such short notice.”

He surveyed the crowd. Most were people he’d known all his life, people born and raised in Salem Falls like himself. Many worked at his plant. All had been summoned to the town meeting with a hastily photocopied flier, stuffed into mailboxes by enterprising young boys who had been willing to earn a few dollars.

In the rear, Charlie Saxton leaned against a wall. To keep the peace, he had said.

“It has come to my attention, “Amos began,” that there is a stranger among us. A stranger who slipped into our midst under false pretenses, and who even now is waiting for the best moment to strike.”

“I don’t want no rapist living here!”called a voice from the rear of the church, quickly seconded by a buzz of support.

Amos held up his hands for silence. “Friends, I don’t want one living here either. You all know I have a little girl. Hell, half of you do, too. So which of us is going to have to suffer before action is taken to drive this man out?”

Tom O’Neill stood up. “We have to listen to Amos. It’s not like we don’t have proof… this is a man who served jail time for the assault of a minor.”

Charlie sauntered down the aisle. “So what are you guys gonna do?”he said, all innocence.” Shoot him in front of the O.K. Corral? Challenge him to pistols at dawn? Or maybe you’re planning to just burn down his place when he’s conveniently in it?”He reached the podium and gave Amos a stern look. “It’s my job to remind you that no one’s above the law. Not St. Bride, and not any of you.”

“We’ve got righteousness on our side,” someone yelled.

“We’re talking about innocent children!”

A woman in a business suit popped out of her seat. “My husband and I chose Salem Falls as a place to raise our family. We moved here from Boston because there’s no crime. Because we could leave our door unlocked.” She looked around the room. “What kind of message does it send if we’re not willing to preserve that ideal?”

“Beg pardon.” All eyes swiveled to the left side of the church, where Jordan McAfee lazed in a pew. “I recently moved here, too, to get away from it all. Got a son about the same age as most of those daughters you’re worried about.” Finally, he got to his feet, and walked to the front of the church. “I support Mr. Duncan’s initiative. Why, I can’t even count the number of crimes that might have been avoided if the trouble had been nipped in the bud before it even got started.”

Jordan stepped up to the podium, so that he was standing beside Amos. “What do I think we ought to do? Well, lynch him. Metaphorically… literally… it doesn’t matter which. Do whatever it takes, right?”

There were murmurs of assent, rolling like a wave before him.

“One thing, though. If we’re going to be honest, now, and we start taking care of business this way, we’d better get used to a few changes. For example, all you people out there with children, how many is that?” Hands crept up like blades of grass. “Well, I’d recommend you go home and start spanking, or doing a time–out, or whatever it is you do for punishment. Not because those kids have done anything wrong, mind you… but because they just might in the future.” Jordan smiled broadly. “For that matter, Charlie, why don’t you come up here and start cuffing, oh, every fifth person. Figure sooner or later they’re going to get into trouble. And maybe you could just do a computer check of license plates in the town and issue tickets at random, since someone’s going to be speeding eventually.”

“Mr. McAfee, “Amos said angrily. “I believe you’ve made your point.”

Jordan turned on him so quickly the bigger man fell back a step. “I haven’t even begun, buddy,” he said softly. “You can’t judge a man by actions he hasn’t committed. That’s the foundation of the legal system in this country. And no pissant New Hampshire village has the right to decide otherwise.”

Amos’s eyes glittered. “I will not stand by and let my town suffer.”

“This isn’t your town. “Yet he knew, as did everyone else, that that wasn’t true.

Gillian sat cross–legged on her bed in her robe, her hair still damp from a shower, as she fixed her makeshift altar and considered what she had learned that day.

By this afternoon, the rumor had spread through the school: the dishwasher at the Do–Or–Diner had raped some girl back where he used to live. It was what her father had been talking about with her friends’ dads; it was why she’d been told she couldn’t leave the house after sundown. Gilly thought of Jack St. Bride, of his gold hair falling over his eyes, and a shiver shot down her spine. As if she would ever be afraid of him.

It made Gilly laugh to watch the townspeople scurry like field mice before a storm, hoarding bits of safety to last them through this latest crisis. They all thought Jack St. Bride had brought evil, single–handedly, to Salem Falls, but it had been here all along. Maybe Jack was the match, setting fire to the straw, but it was unfair to lay the blame at his feet.

More than ever, he needed a… friend.

Gillian loosened her robe, and lit the wick of the candle before her. “Craft the spell in my name; weave it of this shining flame. None shall come to hurt or maim; hear these words and do the same.”

She was warm now, so warm, and the fire was inside her. Gilly closed her eyes, smoothing her palms up from her own waist, cupping her breasts in her hands and imagining that it was Jack St. Bride touching her, heating her.

“Gilly?”A quick knock, and then the door opened.

As Gillian’s father walked into her bedroom, she pulled the edges of her together, holding it closed at the throat. He sat on the edge of the bed, inches behind her. Gilly forced herself to remain perfectly still, even as his hand touched the crown of her damp hair, like a benediction. “You and those candles. You’re going to burn this place down one day.” His hand slipped down to her shoulder. “You’ve heard by now, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

His voice was thick with emotion. “It would kill me if anything happened to you.”

“I know, Daddy.”

“I’m going to keep you safe.”

Gilly reached up, twining her fingers with his. They stayed that way for a moment, both of them mesmerized by the dancing flame of the candle. Then Amos got to his feet. “Good night, then.”

Her breath came out in a rush. “‘Night.”

The door closed behind him with a soft click. Gilly imagined the fire again, consuming her. Then she lifted one foot, inspecting the sole. The cuts she had made last week were still there, a thin spiral on the arch, like the soundhole on a violin. There was one on her other foot, too. She reached into the pocket of her robe for a penknife; traced the seam of the skin to reopen the wound.

“This is the bathroom, “Addie said, blushing faintly.

Jack smiled. “You don’t have to give me the grand tour. Really.” It had been some time since she’d had to share her space. Add to that the forced intimacy in a relationship still so new Jack could still see the shine on it, and he could not help but wonder if taking her up on her offer to share her home was a tremendous mistake.

“This, “Addie said, her hand on a doorknob,” is Chloe’s room.”

It was the only room in the house Jack had not seen. And as Addie slowly opened the door, he also realized it was the only room in the house that was not neat. Toys littered the floor like landmines, and clothes were draped over the back of a chair. A poster of a boys’ band that hadn’t made a record in nearly a decade was taped to the wall, peeling from one corner. On a shelf sat a parade of outgrown teddy bears, missing eyes and frayed at the limbs. The bed, a confection of pink ruffles, was unmade, as if Addie slept in it from time to time–a thought that tugged at Jack, but seemed less heartbreaking than the alternative: that in the seven years since her child’s death, Addie had simply left this room as a shrine.

Still, it was only a bed, and linens could be changed. Toys could be put away. “I could stay here,” Jack suggested. “Give you a little more privacy.”

“No. You can’t.” She stood beside the chair, smoothing her hand over the fabric of an impossibly small white shirt.

“Addie–”

“You can’t,” she repeated. “You just can’t.”

“All right,” he said softly, understanding that this was a line he could not cross. He followed her out and closed the door quickly, thinking all the while of Pandora’s box: of what he had let loose by breaching the seal of this room; and of hope, which might still have been trapped inside.

“Come on,” Gilly urged. “What’s he going to do? Attack us right on the counter?”

“My dad would kill me,” Meg said.

“Your dad will never know. Come on, Meggie. Do you want to be the kind of person who hides in the back when everyone else is fighting the dragon, or do you want to be holding the sword?”

“That depends. What’s my chance of being burnt to a crisp?”

“If he molests you, I will selflessly throw my body over yours as a substitute.”

Meg shook her head. “I don’t even want him to know what I look like.”

“For God’s sake, Meg, this isn’t even about him. I’m thirsty, is all. He probably won’t come out from the back. We’ll see Crazy Addie and get our milkshakes and go.”

Slowly, Meg backed away. “Sorry, Gill. My dad said I shouldn’t.”

Gillian fisted her hands on her hips. “Well, so did mine!”But Meg was already halfway down the street. Smarting, Gilly pushed inside the diner. It was virtually empty, except for an old fart at the cash register who was hunched over a crossword puzzle. She sat down and rapped her nails impatiently on the table.

Within moments, Crazy Addie came over. “What can I get for you?”

Gilly glanced at her dismissively. She couldn’t even conceive of living a life so small that you’d grow up in this nothing town and work and die there. Who looked at the bright ball of their future and thought, Oh, one day I want to be a waitress in a totally dead–end job.

“A black and white shake,” Gilly said, and then, from the corner of her eye, saw Jack come down the hallway from the bathrooms carrying a large trash bag.

He didn’t notice her.

“Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not hungry,” Gillian murmured, and walked out. The sunlight was blinding; she stumbled before slipping along the edge of the building, where a fence cordoned off the green Dumpster. Jack was moving around in there; she could hear metal clanging and the rustling of plastic as trash was hauled over its wide lip.

Gilly sucked her lower lip between her teeth, to give it some color. She unbuttoned her jacket, then slid the zipper of her cropped sweatshirt low enough to show the rise of her breasts. Walking to the gate, she waited for Jack to notice her.

He did, after a minute, and looked away.

“Hey,” Gilly said. “What are you doing?”

“Skiing the Alps. Can’t you tell?”

Gillian watched his muscles flex as he lifted another bag of garbage high. She thought about him pinning her, grabbing her wrists in his hands. She wondered if the girl he had raped had liked it, even a little.

“Food’s a lot better inside,” Jack said.

“I’m not hungry.”

God, his eyes were a color blue she’d never seen. Dark and smooth, like the inside of a fire. There should have been a word for it— Jackquoise, maybe, or–

“Then why did you come here?”

Gilly lowered her lashes. “To ski, of course.”

He shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe she was standing here in front of him. It only made her more determined. “Bet you were the kind of kid who used to poke crabs on the beach to get them moving,” Jack mused, “even if it meant they might snap.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means stick to the bunny slope, Gillian,” Jack said flatly.

Her eyes darkened, caught somewhere between tears and rage. Jack started to leave, but Gillian was blocking the exit. For an uncomfortable moment they danced around each other, Jack unwilling to let his body brush up against hers; Gillian unwilling to let him go.

“Gillian.”

At the sound of another voice, they jumped apart. Wes Courtemanche rounded the corner, dressed in uniform. “Something tells me your father wouldn’t be delighted to find you standing back here.”

“Who died and left you king?”Gillian said testily. But she stepped away so that Jack could get by.

“Going home now, aren’t you?”Wes said to the girl.

“I’m not afraid of you. I’m not afraid of anyone.” As if to prove it, Gillian turned on her heel, passing close to Jack. She blew a kiss as she sailed by, a gesture meant for his eyes only that might have been a promise, or might have a threat.

Gilly could not get Jack out of her mind. She relived the moment outside the diner a hundred times, playing different scenarios like a slide show–things she should have said and done instead, images of Jack grabbing her and kissing her so hard her lips bled. Every time she stumbled over the part where Jack had treated her like a child, her stomach clenched, and she’d start to cry, dying a hundred deaths all over again. A moment later, she’d be spitting mad, itching for the next opportunity she might have to show him she wasn’t a child after all.

Her father had kept a hawk’s eye on her all afternoon and evening; then he’d gone running and made her swear she would be there when he got home. Now she was drowning her sorrows in the emotional angst of Sarah McLachlan and painting her fingernails blood–red, when the phone rang. “Gil,” Whitney’s voice came on the line. “What time tonight?”

Gillian sighed. She didn’t want to deal with her friends right now. She didn’t have want to do anything but figure out how to keep her father from being such a warden, so that she could make Jack see what he was missing. “What time for what?”

“I could have sworn I put down April thirtieth on my calendar.”

Understanding bloomed., “Oh, Beltane,” Gilly said.

“How could you forget?”

Gillian hadn’t forgotten, exactly; she’d just been preoccupied with Jack. Her coven had made plans to meet in the woods behind the cemetery, at the base of the flowering dogwood tree. Meg was bringing Georgia fatwood to light a bonfire; Whit had been given the task of sewing herb sachets to hang on the tree as gifts to the God and Goddess, and Chelsea was going to figure out some kind of maypole. Gilly’s job had been the Simple Feast, the sharing of food and drink within a circle that had been cast.

Her father would kill her if she sneaked out of the house.

“Eleven,” she said into the phone. “Be there.”

They attacked him from behind. Jack had no sooner stepped out of the small halo of light cast by the lantern hanging beside the door than he was grabbed, his arms pinned behind him while fists slammed into his ribs, his belly, his face. Blood ran down his throat, tinny; he spat it back at them. He struggled to find their faces, to mark them in his mind, but they were wearing stocking caps pulled low and scarves tugged high; all Jack could see was an ocean of black, a series of hands, and wave after wave of their anger.

Addie brushed out her hair, then sprayed perfume onto her wrists and knees and navel. Jack had been gone a while, which was strange; even stranger, she could hear an occasional crash.

She stepped to the bedroom window and pulled back the Swiss organdy curtain. It was dark for eight o’clock, and at first she could not see Jack at all. Then a foot appeared in the yellow periphery cast by the porch light. An elbow. Finally, the entire body of a man, dressed in black, his hands bright with blood.

“Jack,” she gasped, and she reached underneath the bed for the rifle she kept there. She had used it once in twenty years–to shoot a rabid coon that had wandered into the yard where Chloe was playing. She loaded it on the run, hurrying downstairs, and threw open the front door to fire once into the night sky. Five faces turned, then ran off in disparate directions into the woods behind her house, tracks spreading like the spokes of a wheel.

On the gravel, in a boneless, battered heap, lay Jack.

He coughed, his lips pulling back to show teeth shiny with blood. “No,” he grit out. “Noooo!” His cry bent back the young grass lining the driveway; it shouldered aside the violet clouds and left the moon to shiver, bare–boned. “Jack,” Addie soothed. But his voice rose, until it was an umbrella over Salem Falls, until people on the far side of town had to close their windows to the sweet night air just to block of the sound of his pain.

Jack woke to find Addie curled beside him, her hand clutching a washcloth that was spreading a water stain over the comforter in the shape of a bell. He came up on one elbow, wincing at the ache of his ribs, and touched the side of her face. When she didn’t stir, he carefully levered himself off the bed.

What might his life have been like, if he’d had someone like her standing by his side during the nightmare in Loyal? What if he’d served his time, but met her every Tuesday night in the common room where inmates could face their visitors over long folding tables, under the watchful eyes of the guards? What if he’d had Addie to come home to?

He paced through the dark house, wishing he could do for her all she’d done for him. Thanks to Addie, Jack no longer spent time reviewing his mistakes. He had put them into a box, and shut the lid tight. Addie, though… she sorted through the box daily, holding up each memory to the light like an heirloom, even though it made her bleed inside.

He found himself standing in front of Chloe’s bedroom door.

Within minutes, he had stripped the bed of its sheets and covers, removed the posters from the walls. He stacked Chloe’s toys in a box he’d found in her closet. If he could just clear out the constant reminder of what Addie had lost, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard for her to look forward rather than back.

“What the hell are you doing?”Addie’s voice throbbed, as if she’d taken a punch.

“Cleaning up. I thought, if you didn’t have to look at this every day–”

“That I wouldn’t see her face first thing when I wake up in the morning, anyway? That I don’t know her by heart? Do that you think I have to look at a… a hair clip to remember the person I love the most in the world?”

“Loved,” Jack said quietly.

“That doesn’t stop, just because she’s not here anymore.”

“Addie, I didn’t do this to hurt you. If what we’ve got means anything… “

She turned her face to his. “You will never, ever mean more to me than my daughter does.”

Jack reeled back, her words more painful than any blow he’d felt that night. He watched her fold herself into the pool of linens, her spine rounding. “What did you do with it?”she said suddenly.

“With what?”

“The smell of her. Of Chloe.” Addie scrabbled through the sheets and pillows. “It was here; it was here just this morning… but it’s gone now.”

“Sweetheart,” Jack said gently. “Those sheets don’t smell like Chloe. They haven’t, in a very long time.”

Her hands made fists in the fabric. “Get out,” she sobbed, turning her face away as Jack shut the door softly behind him.

Once, on a Girl Scout campout, Gillian had built a fire. While the other kids were busy making their S’mores and singing Kumbayah, Gilly had fed things to the flame: sticks and pine needles and shoelaces, bits of bread and pennies and even a hapless toad. She had been mesmerized by its greed, by the way it devoured everything in its path. She’d stared at the bonfire and thought: I don’t have a heart. I have one of these inside of me.

Tonight’s bonfire was smaller… or maybe she was bigger. She stood holding hands with the others around it. But they were no longer Gillian, Chelsea, Whitney, and Meg. Goddesses all, they were a coven. And she was their High Priestess.

The wind, ripe with Spring, slipped between Gillian’s thighs like a lover. It was her only covering; her clothes lay in a pile by the dogwood. When she’d said that she wanted to be as pure as possible, the others had been surprised. But Whitney had whipped off her shirt. Chelsea shivered in her bra and panties. Only Meg, self–conscious, was fully dressed.

Gilly met the eyes of each of the others. Did they feel it? Never had her body buzzed like this. She tilted her head back, casting her voice into the night sky. “Guardians of the watchtowers of the east, where Sun, Moon, and Stars are born, I do summon, stir and call you up!”

The words wrote themselves, drawn from her heart like a ribbon. “Travel over our skin like a whisper, caress us. Bring us imagination; teach us to dance. Blessed be.”

The others swayed slightly. “Blessed be,” they repeated.

Whitney turned, her face glowing. “Guardians of the watchtowers of the south, passionate and hot, I do summon, stir and call you up. Share your heat with us, make us burn inside. Blessed be!”

“Guardians of the watchtowers of the west,” Chelsea continued, “the blood of the earth, I do summon, stir, and call you up. Let your mystery flow over us. Blessed be!”

Finally, Meg spoke. “Guardians of the watchtowers of the north, night of cool magic, I do summon, stir and call you up. Bury us deep in your soil, give us the power of earth and stone. Blessed be!”

Gillian knelt before the altar and touched the incense burner, the water, the earth, and then sliced her hand through the flames of the bonfire. “I do cast out any and all impurities both of the spirit and the world. As I will it, so mote it be.” Then she smiled. “The circle is perfect.”

She walked to the tree beside the dogwood, a pillar of a pine. God knows how, but Chelsea had managed to affix long streamers of ribbon from a branch nine feet off the ground. Gilly picked up a silver ribbon, and smoothed it between her breasts, over her belly and thigh. She arched her back, and the other girls were transfixed–channeling a spirit was one thing, but here Gilly was shifting shape, turning into a siren as if she had done this a hundred times before. “Now,” she said softly, “we celebrate.”

Jack wiped the back of his mouth with his hand, but it took him three tries before he could connect. He canted back in his seat, only to realize his stool didn’t have a back. The next thing he knew he was staring at the pitted ceiling, flat on the floor of the bar. “Marlon,” he yelled, although the bartender was ten inches away. “I think I may be getting a little drunk.”

Marlon snorted. “Einstein,” he muttered.

Jack staggered to his feet— something truly commendable, since he couldn’t sense anything past his knees— and hauled himself up by yanking on the rungs of his stool. He peered into the empty insides of his whiskey tumbler. “Jus’ one more,” he said, pushing it toward Marlon.

“Sorry, pal.” Marlon scrutinized Jack, assessing just how bad off he was, and apparently decided he was just about as bad as they come. “Hand over your car keys.”

“Don’t have any.”

The bartender nodded. “Good thing. How much trouble can you get into walking?”

Jack staggered up from his stool. “Trouble,” he said, “is my middle name.”

Charlie Saxton opened the door in his bathrobe. “You may be the richest guy in this town, Duncan, but that doesn’t mean you own the civil servants. Whatever it is can wait until tomorrow.”

He started to close the door, and was stopped by Amos. “For Christ’s sake, Charlie. I just came to pick up my daughter. She isn’t back yet, I take it?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

The absolute calm in Charlie’s voice frightened Amos to the core. “Meg invited her to a movie. Your wife… she went with them.”

“My wife is upstairs, asleep,” Charlie said. “Meg told me she was staying over at your house.”

“Charlie–”

But the detective had moved away from the door to grab his radio. Amos stepped inside the foyer, and Charlie met his sober gaze. “It’s Saxton,” he said, when dispatch picked up. “We’ve got a problem.”

Wes was in his cruiser, wishing for a cup of coffee, when the APB came through. Two, and possibly up to four teenage girls missing. They could have been anywhere at all. Christ, that was a recipe for all hell breaking loose, especially with a rapist in town.

He turned on his silent blue lights and began to prowl slowly, ten miles an hour, through the back streets of Salem Falls. He had just turned the corner by the local bar when he saw something moving jerkily along the edge of the road. Something rabid— every now and then the department had to shoot a coon— but no, it was too big for that. A deer?

Wes angled the car so that the beam of blue light caught the motion in its crosshairs. “I’ll be damned,” he said softly, and parked his car.

Jack heard Wes swear, heard his boots hitting the pavement as he strained to catch up. He ducked into the woods behind the town cemetery, hoping to lose the policeman in the dark. He ran for five minutes, until he was certain he was safe; and then wandered through the woods, not sure of where he was or how he would get back to town.

When he paused to catch his breath and his bearings, he heard it: laughter. All the Greek myths he’d taught at Westonbrook came back in a flood, of Apollo chasing Daphne and Artemis running with her bow. And then, as if he’d dreamed her, he saw the goddess herself— a flash of white skin silvering through the trees, her heels tripping on the air, her hair flying out like a banner behind her. Jack was momentarily confused: she was naked, like a nymph, but she seemed to be singing to him like a Siren.

Suddenly he realized that there were four of them, some in clothes and some without, and that the girl he’d been staring at was calling his name.

He heard the sound of sobbing first.

Charlie had caught plenty of that sound during his career on the force–what you hoped to be an animal with its leg trapped in a forked branch always wound up to be something far more human and heartbreaking. He forced himself to stop and listen more carefully, and then took off at a dead run toward the south.

Meg’s orange anorak was a flag, and with energy he didn’t know he possessed Charlie sprinted closer. Four girls were huddled together at the gate to the town cemetery. Their hair was straggling free of their combs and clips, and any one of them would be horrified to be seen in public looking the way they did, but Charlie counted them all in one piece and breathed an internal sigh of relief.

Meg, Whitney and Chelsea were gathered around Gillian, who was crying. They hugged and soothed her, but she was inconsolable. In fact, Charlie had seen grief like this only once that he could remember–when he’d had to break the news to the survivor of a car crash that her two year old had not been as fortunate.

His daughter spotted him. “Daddy,” she said, and threw herself into his arms.

“Ssh. Meggie, honey, it’s going to be all right.” With his girl tucked close he approached Gillian. “What happened?”But none of the four spoke.

Charlie squatted down at Gillian’s side. “Honey,” he said, his careful eye noticing, now, the blood streaked over her shirt; the hastily mismatched buttons. “Are you all right?”

Her face came up, white and stained with tears, like a web of scars. Gillian’s throat knotted visibly, her mouth twisted as she forced her voice free. “It… was… him.”

Every muscle in Charlie’s body tensed. “Who, honey?”

“He raped me,” Gillian sobbed, the words shredded raw. “Jack St. Bride.”