Jogging down the wooded trail, Angie Morse occupied her mind by composing her obituary. It wasn’t as dark an idea as it might sound, as a career counselor at the university had recommended the exercise not three weeks earlier. The intention was to discover what she wanted to do in life by imagining its summation at a hopefully distant end.
It all started out easily enough. She’d been an overachieving Midwesterner who’d attended college in Providence, Rhode Island right after high school. Her first semesters at the university had been impressive, but she’d suffered an academic slump her junior year and had qualified for postgraduate studies only through titanic efforts as a senior. Listening to her running shoes softly pounding the trail’s moist dirt, Angie decided that no real obituary would mention that last part. She’d graduated on time and was now completing a master’s degree in history, but of course that was where things got a little difficult to describe. After all, that part of her biography currently resided in an unknowable future.
Angie knew where she’d like her career to go, but the details of how to get there were more than a little frowsy. Many of her college classmates had landed solid corporate jobs, but despite her academic and research acumen, Angie hated the idea of spending her entire day in an office. Besides, what was the point of getting an advanced degree just to end up where she could have gone a year before?
No, the standard route wasn’t for her, but neither was the path to a doctorate and teaching in a classroom. Not yet, anyway. She was young and healthy with the entire world in front of her, so field work held a genuine attraction. And even though her future remained maddeningly indistinct, she knew it somehow involved solving the riddles of history through a combination of dogged research and gritty rooting about in the untraveled and forgotten regions of the globe. In other words, exactly what she was doing at that very moment.
The trail took a turn just then, pulling her deeper into the woods. It was October, but the trees were still covered with leaves that had taken on the seasonal reds, oranges, and yellows that she’d so enjoyed during her five years in New England. The forest undergrowth was still green, and it would be many weeks before the damp soil finally froze for the winter. Angie sweated inside the black nylon of a full-length top and bottom, but she’d need its protection once she turned off the trail. The outfit was left over from a brief stint with the university’s orienteering club, a group of woodsy athletes who used maps and compasses to navigate pre-arranged courses through the region’s rocky forests. She’d met them at the start of her freshman year, when she’d joined so many clubs that her ever-fretting parents had asked if she might be overextending herself.
The thought of her mother and father brought up a part of the obituary she hadn’t considered before: Her future survivors. That segment was exceptionally vague, and lay on the other side of many planned adventures in arid deserts and steamy jungles. Angie supposed her life story would include a loving husband—he’d better be, and he’d better not die before her—and perhaps one or two children. Despite a recent outbreak of weddings among her departed undergraduate classmates, Angie was in no hurry to tie that particular knot. Her most recent relationship was more than a year in the past because it had ended so badly, and she’d found her graduate work more than took up the slack. Besides, even though she was average in both height and build with dark brown hair, eyes to match, and a face that everyone said was pretty, no guys were currently pounding on her door.
Guys? Now that she was twenty-three, she suspected that term was rapidly changing to ‘men’ and was just beginning to ponder how she felt about that when the device in her hand gave off a single loud beep.
Angie glanced at the cell phone’s screen, where a satellite-generated map of the area displayed her planned course. The next leg of this particular trek flashed rhythmically, indicating that it was time to leave the trail, but Angie had spent so much time in the woods recently that she’d already known the turn was approaching. Although she had developed an almost instinctive feel for the ground, and was usually within a few miles of habitation, she still hadn’t forgotten the danger of getting lost out there. The small backpack that had bounced against her for the last two miles contained a detailed topographical map and a compass in case the phone lost its signal. It also held a bottle of water, energy bars, bug repellant, and a flexible brimmed hat.
In addition to all that, a thin can of potent pepper spray was tucked into one pack strap where she could reach it in a hurry. It was a gift from a fellow grad student named Scott who had refused to continue helping research this project unless she agreed to take it on every one of her trips into the woods. Angie had scoffed at his concern, having gone on so many of these forays alone, but took it anyway because it was light and because Scott was such great help.
The ground just off the trail dropped into a shallow bowl with clear water and floating leaves pooled at its center. Lichen-spotted rocks poked up here and there, and a few thin trees stood vigil around the tiny pond. She angled around it, walking quickly on the brim until reaching the spot on the other side that would put her back on course.
The trees got thicker soon after that, larger growth surrounded by everything from slowly yellowing ferns to bushes taller than Angie herself. In no time at all she was completely swallowed by the woods, and yet felt no real concern. Even as a new arrival in the region years before, she’d taken long walks in the forested areas near the university and had always derived a feeling of serenity as a result.
Even so, she kept her eyes moving and her steps as quiet as possible. If she was going to encounter any trouble out here, it was best to do it on her own terms. Angie had grown skilled at looking between the trees while in motion, and had discovered that this technique allowed her to piece together partially obscured objects at some distance. It was reassuringly similar to her research work, when she would take a diary entry here and a newspaper clipping there and slowly assemble a complete picture of an event far in the past.
The sun was high in the sky and easily penetrated the trees, and so she made good time covering the remaining distance. Birds chirped softly in the branches overhead, and the undergrowth finally grew thick enough that she had to gently shoulder her way through. The soft needles of an evergreen brushed her cheek, and thorn-covered shoots tugged at the orienteering suit’s fabric, but she soon sensed an expected rise in elevation. The high ground that had literally brought her there.
Angie pushed the last branches aside when she arrived at the destination, her heart jumping with adrenaline even after so many disappointments. She considered this particular site to be a long shot, but like so many of the others it required a close examination. Standing there looking up, Angie allowed herself a modest hope that this one might finally be the end of the quest.
Rising up in front of her was a low hill covered with rocks, leaves, and several trees. She focused on the last of those, as their trunks were so wide that their estimated age would disqualify the location. Even so, there was a natural rock formation at the top of the hill that Angie found intriguing, and so she shrugged off her pack and opened it. Reaching in, she pulled out a taught rectangle that resembled a small picture frame and held it up at arm’s length toward the hill. It actually was a picture of sorts, as a transparent sheet of hard plastic inside the frame sported the ghostly image of an old photograph. The image itself was translucent, so she could compare its features to the terrain she was searching.
The picture was of a similar hill, almost devoid of trees, with a neatly shaped stone obelisk at its top. The pillar’s wide base gently tapered to a rounded peak, and strange markings could be made out on the side that faced the camera. A young man with a moustache stood leaning against the stone on one arm, smiling at the camera, and if he’d been normal height the stone would have been roughly twenty feet tall.
Angie matched the opaque slope printed on the plastic to the ground above her, repeating an old orienteering admonition.
“Don’t fit the ground to the map. Fit the map to the ground.”
She stared through the composite image for some time, ignoring her own advice and trying to envision some way that the erosion of the years and perhaps even outright vandalism could have altered the stone. In the end the trees defeated her as she knew they would, because they were simply too old not to have appeared in the original photo.
Becoming aware that she’d been holding her breath for some time, Angie exhaled with regret and knelt to return the frame to the pack. Straightening and sliding her arms through the straps again, she stared at the hill one last time before swiftly walking away, shoving the branches and vines aside in annoyance and talking to herself again.
“Plenty of other spots left.” She forced herself to slow down while resetting the electronic navigator to take her back to the car. “It is out here. And I will find it.”
“Now that’s a lot of red.” Angie recognized the voice behind her without turning from the laptop. Her friend and helper Scott Lambert placed a small cup of coffee on the old metal table before leaning in to look over her shoulder. Drinks and food were not allowed anywhere in the university’s special collections library, but it wasn’t the first time he’d broken that rule for her.
The room was buried two stories inside the earth, but overhead lights provided plenty of illumination. Tightly packed bookcases stretched away from the wall where Angie sat studying, many of them laden with some of the university’s most valued items. Of the school’s numerous libraries this one was the most secure, with two floors above ground and several below. Angie had worked there as an undergrad and was well known to the staff and guards, and so was allowed the special access she needed to conduct her research. While other visitors were escorted to bare rooms to view the materials they’d requested, she routinely took the service elevator down into the depths of the building to work.
That night she’d been reviewing the map of her search, a satellite image of the terrain north and east of Providence. After identifying the regions most likely to contain the obelisk, she’d pinpointed all of the spots that matched the historical description of its location. The hill itself was neither large nor tall, so there were many stretches of high ground where it might exist. She’d marked these with small transparent squares and then colored them with a light red as each one proved empty. When she changed the image’s resolution to display the entire area in question, it morphed from a scattering of pinkish boxes to a dark red smear running north and east of the city.
“Yep. Lots of red.” Angie took the cup of coffee in both hands and leaned back in the hard metal chair. She arched her shoulders, hearing tired joints pop inside the large sweater she’d brought as protection from the subterranean chill. The underground stacks were climate controlled to protect the collection, but somehow the rooms always felt dank and cold no matter what time of year.
“That means lots of progress, then.” Scott gave her shoulder a brief, supportive squeeze before sliding a nearby chair up close, but not too close. For all the familiarity of the shoulder squeeze and his priceless help on this project, Angie held few illusions that he might someday act upon his obvious attraction. Despite his drive and intelligence, Scott was one of those guys who took forever to make a move. All of the course work for her degree was completed, and now the squares were slowly filling up, so his time for asking The Question was rapidly running out. Even if he managed to do it now, there would be little point to dating because whether she found the obelisk or not, her time in Providence was coming to a rapid close.
Oddly enough, Scott should have been her type. They both loved history and had taken many of the same classes the previous year, he as a newly-arrived doctoral student while she pursued her master’s. He wasn’t bad looking, either; just a shade taller than Angie, he wore round-lensed glasses all the time but carried it off well. He had a thick head of light brown curls that he kept cut relatively short, and spent enough time at the gym to be both slim and strong. He sometimes showed a wry sense of humor and had proved to be a good listener, and even though Angie didn’t really want him to ask, she did wonder why he never had.
“Progress.” She shrugged inside the sweater. “Yeah. I like that. Don’t they say negative results are still results? So if that’s true, every block I check off brings me closer to the one I want.”
Scott reached over and maneuvered the image on the laptop’s screen. “Amazing how much of that ground is still woods.”
“Kinda the point, isn’t it?” Angie replied in a tired voice. “The site would have vanished forever if someone had built on it.”
“Not what I meant.” In addition to his baffling failure to ask her out, Scott also possessed a marvelous knack for overlooking Angie’s occasionally barbed comments. “Your job would be a whole lot easier if you only had to look at a nice, narrow greenway running a certain distance from here.” He manipulated the screen’s cursor to follow the main tracks going north, and then the freight lines heading east. “But look at all this undeveloped ground on either side of the tracks. Reservation land, rights of way, state parks. Lots of places where that settlement could have been. You’d think after all these years more of that land would be developed.”
Angie knew this was his indirect way of saying he doubted she’d find the obelisk, but was in no mood to accommodate it.
“Lucky for me it’s not. But I don’t have to comb every inch of forest near the tracks, either.” She clicked on a tab that was almost always open, and a digital version of the original photograph popped up. Rising ground, trees, the man with the moustache, and the tall stone. “Every description of the settlement says there was a hill just like you see here, but with enough level ground for huts and animal pens and a big open area for their gatherings.”
“Dancing around that evil maypole.”
“And other crimes.” They both smiled, having conducted so much of the research together. A tiny village had sprung up around the obelisk during the early colonization of what would later become the state of Rhode Island. The authorities in Providence had been compelled to remove that settlement due to allegations of unacceptable behavior ranging from lewd dancing to worshipping the devil. “The historical descriptions of the site gave me some very specific things to look for: The hill, a flat area big enough for their homes and whatever they were dancing around, and a stream close by that could handle small boats. And since the photo was taken by a railroad worker—”
“I know.” Which wasn’t quite true. Angie had discovered the photograph in that very library, while researching the private rail lines that had once wound through the region. It had been curled up in a box that contained the archives of a defunct train company that had been subsumed into the current passenger and freight lines near the capital. In the picture, the young man with the moustache wore a tool belt and held a hardhat crooked under one arm, but nothing directly linked him to a railroad. He wore jeans over work boots, and his t-shirt sported the logo of an underground Boston band that had been popular in the seventies.
She continued insistently. “And since the photo was taken by a railroad worker, that means the location can’t be too far off from the existing tracks.”
Inside the pale wall next to her, a pipe of some kind started a gentle pinging. She sipped the coffee and then continued the list of reasons that had become almost a litany. “It can’t be too far from Providence, either, because the raid force took between three and five days to march out to the village and back, on very poor roads. Depending on which account you read.”
“Funny how the details get so fuzzy in those reports. You’d think the God-fearing citizens of Providence would have been prouder of wiping out such a nest of evil.”
“All the more reason to want to find it.” She leaned back again, her eyes no longer seeing the computer. “They reported the obelisk was etched with demonic script, but never stated its exact location even though that was common knowledge at the time. People looking for a party were always slipping off to visit that village, which makes me wonder if the accusations of Satanism and dancing were just an excuse to wipe out a rival settlement.”
“That would be a nice capstone for your thesis, wouldn’t it? Probably catapult you into a life of fame and fortune.”
Another gentle goad from her helper. Her thesis paper on the sometimes-uneasy relationship among the dissenters who had founded Rhode Island was already completed, and could have been turned in months before. Angie wanted to give it a special boost—like finding the obelisk worshiped by a settlement destroyed by the authorities—that would raise her profile in an overcrowded field.
“Gotta do something to get Oliver Price’s attention, don’t I?” Oliver Price was a multibillionaire historian who lavished funding on a small army of experts who did for pay what Angie was now doing for free. They roamed the planet’s most remote regions, seeking the lost places and the forgotten lore that were the stuff of her dreams.
The two of them sat in abiding silence for a few moments, and when Angie’s eyes returned to the room she was surprised to see Scott regarding her with something akin to concern.
She gave him an impish smile before asking in a disarming tone, “What?”
“Nothing.” He dropped the uneasy expression. “It’s just that with all the different stories about that site, there’s one consistent thread that’s always bothered me: The Indians hated the place and never went near it.”
It was late when Angie finally left the library. She stopped just outside, enjoying the building’s stone railing and the view of the university commons at night. An ornate iron fence supported by brick columns surrounded the fields and trees where she had spent so many afternoons as an undergraduate. The tall main gate stood locked not far from her, its black rails adorned by the university’s symbols. It was only opened twice a year, once to let the incoming freshmen enter and once to let the graduating seniors depart. The gate’s handles were iron rings hung from the mouths of regal lions, and they’d always reminded her of the doorknocker on Scrooge’s house in A Christmas Carol.
Just then, for no good reason, she remembered that Scrooge’s first encounter with Marley’s ghost is the translucent image of his dead partner’s face superimposed on that very doorknocker.
Smaller pedestrian entrances stood open on either side of the gate, leading to spreading lawns and massive buildings topped with tall chimneys and sharp eaves. The university spread all around for miles, modern structures mixing with architecture at least a century old. The historian in her inhaled it all, and only the chilliness of the night air made Angie start moving in the direction of her car.
Providence is an old city, and like so many other old cities it started out as one thing and morphed into several others as time went by. Angie knew that much of the original settlement had stood right where she was walking, on a sprawling hill that now looked down on the city center just across the narrow Providence River. She also knew that the earliest inhabitants of the hill had buried their dead on their own property until many of those family plots had been moved to a common burial ground. Legend had it that some of the tenants, unwilling to part with their ancestors, had merely removed the markers and kept their departed loved ones nearby.
Many of the sidewalks around the university were paved in red brick, with saw-toothed openings around the bases of towering trees. Unseen roots had pushed some of the bricks upward so they stood canted and uneven, as if the ancient trunks had just burst from the ground. Old houses were common in this neighborhood, some sporting brass plaques describing their role in historical events or the names of famous people who had lived in them. Illumination was provided by fluted lamp posts crafted to resemble the old gaslights that had once dotted the area. Marvelous wrought iron fencing, stone water fountains, aged statues, and other signs showed that this was a place that had seen millions of people come and go.
Not many of them were out at that hour, but it was a college campus and so lone figures and small groups shared the street as she walked. Some were returning from the nearby restaurants, bars, and coffee shops while others appeared to have just come from the gym. Angie smiled when she passed a low stone bench, tucked inside a nook formed by yet another old fence, on which sat a pair of young lovers in a tight embrace. The smile vanished when she thought of Derrick and how that had all ended. His office had been just a few blocks from there, and she remembered her first visit at the start of her senior year. Scattered, frightened, and beginning to wonder if she was actually losing her mind.
He’d quickly assured her that was not the case, circumspectly describing other clients from the student population whose stories made her feel sane just by comparison. It hadn’t hurt that Derrick was tall, slim, casually dressed, and utterly disarming. She’d only gone to a few sessions with him before feeling a calm she hadn’t known in over a year, and he’d pronounced her cured. Not even cured, really; he’d insisted she was merely the victim of overwork and a mild attack of panic every now and then.
If they’d only left it there.
Angie’s reverie was interrupted by a sensation that she knew well but couldn’t describe. It was that animal, eyes-in the-back-of-the-head feeling of being watched, and it had grown stronger since she’d started spending so much time in the woods. Plenty of people were still around and so she wasn’t really concerned, but she also wanted to identify whoever or whatever was finding her so interesting. Angie shifted the laptop bag and began rummaging in one of its side pockets as if looking for something, slowly turning in place until facing in the opposite direction.
The street rose above her, curving uphill for a short distance until it disappeared in the crest, and she was surprised to see that there was no one there. Cones of light from the streetlamps cut the darkness, and even the shadows of the clapboard-covered houses weren’t enough to truly hide someone. Angie lifted her gaze into the trees, thinking that she might have mistaken a bird or an animal’s scrutiny for that of a human’s, but saw nothing. The wind gently tugged at branches that were already shedding their leaves, and stars blinked down through the spaces they’d left behind.
Unconvinced, Angie tilted her head and unfocused her eyes in the way that Zoe had once tried to teach her, to catch the blinks and eddies of a world that Zoe insisted was all around them. Her old roommate believed that sensations such as déjà vu and the feeling of being watched came from crossing a supernatural plane in just the right way. She was now a business consultant on the other side of the country, and even though she’d transferred to a western college at the end of their sophomore year, they’d stayed in touch and often spoke on the phone.
Thoughts of Zoe, Derrick, and the chaotic period of her life that had begun with the departure of the former and ended with the disappearance of the latter were enough to make Angie refocus her eyes. Zoe didn’t talk as much about the supernatural as she once had, but it had been her overriding passion their freshman year. And Derrick . . . for the first time in months, Angie allowed herself to wonder just what had happened to him.
A patrol car from the campus police rolled up over the hill and slowly came toward her, and so she shouldered the bag and started walking again.