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Passing an abandoned old brick mill, slowing at the four-way, and then taking the left fork towards the oddly-shaped hill, Tyra Dove was suddenly struck by an uneasy intuition that she should turn back right now. She took her foot off the gas and looked around at the stark countryside. On both sides of the road, the trees seemed to be leaning in towards her and rattling their branches.
This forbidding sensation had struck her as soon as the hill had loomed into view, and now, engine idling, Tyra gazed at it with a sense of apprehension. As its name suggested, Saddle Hill was flat-topped, with a slight dip in the middle, its slopes covered with thick woodlands, and wispy sheets of mist hanging eerily around its base.
Get a grip!
Tyra was not a woman who scared easily, and whenever danger threatened she had trained herself to bite back the fear. She had known true terror only once in her life – and she was determined that she would never experience it again. That fateful night six years earlier when Tyra had been a naïve young coed, had left her with a constant, simmering anger which she could drag up to the surface at will. All she had to do was think of the many subjects she now wrote about for The New England Crucible – rape, human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual objectification, discrimination in the workplace – and if she dwelled upon them long enough, she would soon be spitting proverbial fire. Her passionate feminist views were almost an obsession, and combined with her unerring nose for a good story, had also helped her to become one of the Crucible’s most popular investigative journalists, as well as one of Boston’s most prominent activists.
Now, as Tyra advanced once more along the empty country road, she thought back to the lunch date with her old college friend Susan Arquette, which had resulted in her being out here in rural Massachusetts on this chilly Friday afternoon.
Susan had contacted Tyra because her younger sister Paige, a smart and attractive girl who was embarking on a promising career in television, had gone missing whilst on route to visit their parents’ house in the Berkshires.
“We have a traditional family Sunday lunch once a month,” Susan had explained. “I was already there when Paige called in to say she was running a little late and that she was on I-90, just west of Springfield. Then her signal started to break up and she didn’t call back. Since then, we’ve tried calling her several times a day, but her cell is off the grid. It’s been four days now Tyra, and I’m really worried. Paige isn’t the sort of person to just drop everything and run off. She loves her job and has a good circle of friends. I’m afraid something has happened to her.”
“What about the police?” Tyra had asked.
“We filed a report and they said they would circulate her picture, but they also told us that as Paige is an adult, there is a standard waiting period before they will conduct a more widespread search.”
Tyra had nodded thoughtfully. “And you think I might be able to trace her when the authorities can’t?”
“I read your columns, Tyra,” Susan had replied. “I know how you love to get your teeth into this type of thing.”
Tyra had to admit that she was intrigued, and Susan was right – Tyra had successfully managed to track down an abducted girl once before. In this case though, there wasn’t much to go on, and apart from Susan’s concerns, no evidence of foul play.
After promising Susan she would do what she could to help, she had called her good friend Laurie Bass, a postgraduate student at Boston College, and in Tyra’s view, the most efficient and resourceful researcher in the city.
Based on the scant information provided by Susan, Laurie had checked with the Department of Telecommunications and had quickly identified a cellular black spot located at a place called Saddle Hill, which was situated just off Interstate 90 – in the same area where Paige had last made contact with her family.
Laurie had then set about digging up as much background information about Saddle Hill as possible. She had learned that in the late nineteenth century, after seams of copper had been discovered within the hill, a mine had been established not far from the small hilltop village of Foley. For a short while the mine had flourished, but then something strange and macabre had happened. According to local records, the woods on Saddle Hill had historically been regarded as ‘sacred ground’ by a series of witches covens dating back to the seventeenth century. There was nothing going on up there when the mine was founded, but a few years later a new coven took up residence. Shortly after, two local girls went missing, and coincidence or not, in a frenzy of mass hysteria the good folk of Foley took it upon themselves to hang six alleged witches in the woods. Not long after, resources had dwindled and the mine had closed. Most of the villagers had then left, believing that the sudden downturn in luck was due to a curse put on it by the witches before they were put to death.
Then Laurie had hit upon an intriguing news article. Booker Hall, a country house up on the hill, had recently been purchased by a mysterious occultist who called himself Valentine Vang. The report had been sensationalistic in nature, suggesting the possibility of a modern day coven existing on Saddle Hill.
From here however, Laurie’s trail had gone a bit dry. Skilled researcher though she was, Laurie was unable to unearth any further details about this man. He clearly valued his privacy because try as she might, Laurie could not find one single picture of him.
Tyra wasn’t sure if Vang was actually doing anything wrong, but she did have her journalistic intuition and it rarely let her down. She fully intended to find out what was happening up on that hill – and hopefully find Paige Arquette as well.
So here she was, easing her Buick Enclave along a winding country road towards the ominous shape of Saddle Hill.
Her cell flashed on the dashboard and Tyra touched the receive icon.
“Hi Tyra, just checking to see if I could reach you,” came the voice of Laurie Bass.
“Almost there. What’s going on?” Tyra said.
“I’ve been surfing the net for hours and still nothing else out there about Saddle Hill or the enigmatic Valentine Vang. I’ve been cross-checking for links with Satanists, Wiccans, Gnostics, Neo-pagans and any other cults I can find, but no dice. This guy’s independent and extremely reclusive. So I started working on a different tack and began looking at missing persons cases related to the Foley area, and guess what? I found a report describing the case of a young woman called Sadie Finch. About two years ago – the same year Vang moved into Booker Hall – Sadie was reported missing by her husband – he had last heard from her while she was driving west on I-90.”
“In the same area that Paige Arquette made her last phone call?”
“Uh-huh. Missing posters were put up, the usual, but after a while the case went cold. A year later, Sadie’s husband spotted a picture of her on the internet. She had been photographed at a country fair in Lattingdon – which is the nearest town to Foley – and she was with another man.”
“So she ran away with somebody. It happens.”
“Yes it does. Anyway, the husband hired a private detective to track her down, and it turned out she was now living in Foley village. When the husband went there to confront her, Sadie told him that she was devoted to the new man in her life – a farmer called Everett Gamble – and that she wanted a divorce. Still nothing unusual there except for a few points. When Sadie went missing, she had only been married three months and according to the husband, they were happily in love. She was also a lively and talkative woman but this time her husband had found her to be subdued and quiet. Another thing that shocked him was her appearance. She usually wore fashionable hairstyles and the latest clothes, but now she was wearing a frumpy frock and her now-blonde hair was in plaits. But the part that the husband found hardest to swallow was the age difference between Sadie and Gamble – she was twenty-three and he was sixty-four.”
“Again, not unheard of,” Tyra said.
“True, but apparently she wasn’t in it for the money. Gamble had a modest farmstead on Saddle Hill and was not a wealthy man. Anyway, the husband was convinced that she has been ‘influenced’ in some way. He went to the police in Lattingdon and they went to see Sadie, but she was adamant that she wanted to continue with her new life. Still unconvinced, the husband asked the private detective to investigate further, and he uncovered some pretty weird stuff. It seems that Gamble ran quite a strict household – and had some unusual methods for maintaining discipline, some of which the detective managed to get on film.”
Tyra frowned. “What kind of methods?”
“Well,” Laurie cleared her throat. “For example, he once whipped her with a belt in the open air while she was dressed only in her underwear – in the presence of a male neighbor.”
Tyra felt a familiar stab of indignation as Laurie continued. “On another occasion he left her tied to a tree in the woods for a whole night, and on another, the detective secretly photographed her hanging out the laundry – stark naked. One can only guess at what went on behind closed doors.”
“And yet she told the police she was happy?”
“Yup. The husband didn’t buy it either, so he went back to Foley and forcibly took Sadie back with him. Two days later however, Sadie returned to Gamble who then had a restraining order placed on the husband.”
“And you think a similar thing may have happened to Paige Arquette?” Tyra asked.
“It’s circumstantial, I admit, but both Paige and Sadie were happy, independent career women before they both disappeared in the same area – and one of them has apparently been mysteriously transformed into an abused, subservient housewife.”
“And maybe there’s a witches coven up on Saddle Hill.”
Tyra chuckled. “It’s a stretch, Laurie.”
“Might make one heck of a story though.”
As he paid the taxi and stepped out into the driving rain, Alex Mundy was beginning to wonder if this was really worth the aggravation. The tip-off that Tyra Dove had a secret researcher had come from a photojournalist that had worked with her before. And that this researcher’s exclusive information had been instrumental in Tyra’s meteoric rise to fame, had come as no surprise to Alex.
When Tyra had first arrived at The New England Crucible, she had been regarded by most of the established staff writers as something of a novelty. They all knew the story of how she had been abducted by Dalton Gibbs, a mentally disturbed vagrant who got his sexual kicks by humiliating pretty young women. Tyra had later bravely volunteered to act as the bait when the police finally apprehended him, and as a result, had been dubbed by the media as the Springfield College Girl. She had gone on to attain a degree in journalism and had then started writing for a small-scale women’s interest magazine. She certainly hadn’t set the journalistic world on fire and appeared to be coasting on her limited celebrity status. Then, a year ago, she had tipped off the police about a human-trafficking ring, and once again the Springfield College Girl was in the spotlight. This was followed by a string of similar scoops, all involving women’s rights, and Tyra was suddenly hot property. Inevitably, the major newspapers were now clamoring for her services and somewhat surprisingly, she had opted to join the Crucible.
Her arrival in itself hadn’t unduly interested Alex at first. He was the paper’s leading investigative journalist with his own weekly column, and although Tyra wrote the same type of material, her feminist topics did not clash with Alex’s.
Life started to get complicated for Alex however, after he was first introduced to Tyra. He didn’t remember seeing any news pictures of her, and because of her reputation, he had been expecting a frumpy, unattractive lesbian type. He couldn’t have been more wrong! He could still clearly remember the way she had energized the room when the editor-in-chief had presented her to the staff. Tall and lean, with sharp, intelligent, dark eyes, and gorgeously full lips, she took all the attention in her stride – and she was getting plenty of it.
Alex had discreetly studied her as she had chatted with her group of admirers, male and female. He had tried to visualize what she might look like under that sensible charcoal gray suit. She didn’t look like she had much of a rack, but Alex reckoned her butt would be tight and firm. He’d had a sudden vision of her kneeling before him, taking his cockhead in between her plump lips, and in that moment he decided that he simply had to have her.
Now, as he pulled up his collar and joined the other pedestrians hunched against the rain, he flinched inwardly in recollection of that disastrous night when he had tried to ask her out on a date. Alex Mundy’s reputation as a ladies’ man was unrivalled at the Crucible. He knew he had the looks and the style, and he was certainly not short on self-confidence.
He had been prompted to make his move a couple of weeks after her arrival at the paper. He had been drinking with a group of reporters at a local wine bar when Tyra had walked in with the Crucible’s fashion editor. As the two women had seated themselves, conversation had briefly stalled at Alex’s table as the men watched her hungrily. Then the comments had started.
“Damn, she is hot.”
“You know who she is?”
“Sure I do. That’s Tyra Dove, the Springfield College Girl.”
“She’s at the Crucible now, right Alex?”
“Look at those legs. They say she’s a fitness freak. I bet she’s great in the sack.”
“Forget about it. I heard she’s a dyke.”
“Ever seen her with a guy, Alex?”
“It doesn’t matter, I’d pay to watch her getting it on with a another girl.”
“Maybe the blonde is fucking her.”
“Nah, look at those lips. She likes her cock alright, it’s just that she thinks her shit doesn’t stink. Broad like that’s not going to put out for just anyone.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t asked her out yet, Alex,” one of the guys from the Globe had said.
Aware that his drinking buddies were aware of his lady-killer notoriety, Alex had replied, “I’ve thought about it, but to be honest, I prefer to have tits on my bitches.”
He knew it had been a lame response. The truth was, he had been anxious to talk to Tyra ever since her arrival, and the reason he hadn’t, he was forced to admit, was that she somewhat intimated him. This unexpected reaction to her presence both worried and annoyed him – Alex Mundy, philanderer and legendary womanizer, could not be seen to be afraid of a woman!
Then the Globe guy had said to him, “You know what? That babe is such a class act, I’m not sure even you’d manage to get to home base.”
Alex had looked around the table as they had waited for his response. The challenge had been laid down and his reputation was on the line. He had downed his drink and had said, “Like I said, she’s not really my type, but if I get a date, dinner is on you guys. Agreed?”
“Go get her, stud!” the Globe guy had smirked.
Alex had sauntered as casually as possible over to the two women. “Gemma, how are you?”
Gemma Stevens, the fashion editor – a stylish blonde who made no secret of her distaste for Alex’s misogynistic behavior – had nodded politely, while Tyra had given Alex a curt glance. Up close, she looked more radiant than ever, her cheeks flushed with a healthy reddish hue, as if she had just been working out. Alex had felt his stomach tighten.
What the hell is it about this woman?
Alex had given Tyra his most charming smile and had said, “I’m afraid it’s been a bit hectic and I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself. I’m Alex Mundy.”
Tyra had accepted his hand graciously enough, and after an exchange of glances with Gemma, had agreed to his request to join them. The rest of the conversation hadn’t gone as he had hoped, however. After some initial pleasantries, Alex had – unusually for him – begun flirting a little too obviously, and to his horror, his advances were met by a growing amusement from the two newswomen. Too late, in his haste and misplaced self-confidence, he realized that he had set himself a trap. It quickly became apparent that Tyra was going to reject him, and yet with the guys watching, he couldn’t simply accept defeat and walk away. To make matters worse, Gemma Stevens was a notorious gossip – he should never have put himself in this position in front of her! Even if he was to lie that he had secured a date with Tyra, the office would very quickly know the truth.
Finally, in desperation Alex had made a clumsy attempt at asking Tyra out on a lunch date. Thinking about it now, he would never forget the delighted look on Gemma’s face as Tyra had politely turned him down. In retrospect it would have been better if Tyra had been offended – at least then he could have pretended that he had been deliberately crude to her.
Sure enough the next day, word had spread rapidly around the Crucible. Apart from a few friendly jibes from the guys, nothing much was said about it, but they all knew, and to himself at least, Alex’s stature was in tatters. Over the following weeks, Alex had avoided being in the same vicinity as Tyra but his resentment had only increased as he had observed from a distance how popular she was becoming.
Then, three days ago, came the hammer blow. The editor-in-chief had called Alex into his office and gently informed him that his column was being moved to a smaller and less prominent place in the paper – to make way for Tyra’s. Her work was receiving far more interest in the letter pages, his boss had explained, although he did reassure Alex that his own output was still highly valued.
For a man with an ego as sensitive as Alex Mundy’s, this was the final straw. In his mind, not only had that bitch destroyed his playboy reputation, but now she had humiliated him professionally. Furious, he had stewed for a day, considering his future. It was then, out of the blue, that the photojournalist – who was evidently also not a Tyra Dove fan – had told him about the secret behind her success.
The best way to track this girl down, Alex had learned, was to find her in a coffee shop, not far from Boston College which she attended. This was now Alex’s third visit in as many days, and all he had to go on was the girl’s name, Laurie Bass, and a rough description – ‘cute, bookish, with gloriously long red hair, and a huge rack of tits’.
He ducked into the coffee shop and quickly glanced around at its arty décor. The place was quiet at this early hour, but Alex’s heart jumped as he spotted a cherub-faced redhead curled up in an armchair by the window. She had a delightful little frown on her face as she studied her MacBook, and if this little honey was indeed the one, then he might just end up getting an added bonus from his voyage of discovery.
He hung up his coat, put on his best strut, and when he was settled at a table, glanced over at her. To his surprised delight the lovely little minx couldn’t take her eyes off him! He suppressed a grin as his damaged self-belief surged back with a vengeance. He gave her a nod and she flushed and averted her eyes. Alex took the opportunity to give her a quick appraisal and he liked what he saw. She was wearing ass-hugging maroon leather pants and a beige, woolen sweater which did nothing to hide the shape of her ample assets. She had taken off her ankle boots and he saw that pink socks covered her small feet. After a moment, she looked back across at him, made eye contact again, and her pale, freckled skin turned bright pink.
Oh yes! This is going to be easy!
He felt a stirring in his cock as he prepared to make his move. This delectable young morsel was about to become his gateway into the private world of Tyra Dove.