The new, improved, revised, edited, and generally improved version of The Forgotten (Alastair Stone Chronicles, Book 2) will be released within the month. As a teaser, here’s the all-new first chapter!

(Alastair Stone Chronicles, Book 1)

Chapter 1

Alastair Stone felt the doctor’s gaze on him the moment he entered the office. Its intensity was almost a physical thing. He couldn’t blame the man, not really: it was hardly an orthodox course of treatment, calling in an occult expert to examine an eight-year-old girl.

Next to him, looking hunched and stressed and somehow diminished, was the girl’s aunt. Nancy McClain was fortyish and comfortably chubby, with bad skin and an expensive skirt suit that somehow didn’t quite fit her properly. She kept glancing at Stone as if she wanted nothing more than to take his hand and squeeze it. To Stone’s relief, she had so far refrained from doing so.

The doctor didn’t rise from behind his desk. He too was in his forties, shrewd-eyed and harried-looking. He probably had too many cases to handle any of them with more than the minimal amount of attention, but gave the impression that he at least tried. He looked Stone up and down, then glanced at Nancy. “Ms. McClain. How are you?”

“Holding up,” she said, voice quavering a bit, hands clutching at the strap of her leather bag. She had heavy dark circles under her eyes. She indicated Stone. “This is Dr. Alastair Stone. He’s the…expert I wanted to bring in to talk to Madison. Dr. Stone, this Dr. Eric Barnett. He’s…looking after her.”

Stone nodded and offered his hand. “Doctor.” He kept his voice even. This was no place for his usual sardonic charm. He’d even worn a suit, as opposed to his more typical black T-shirt, jeans, and ubiquitous black overcoat. He didn’t think he would be any help in this situation, but at least he could give these people the courtesy of appearing to take his involvement seriously.

To be fair, there weren’t too many situations where an eight-year-old girl murdering her mother by stabbing a pencil so far into the woman’s eye that it pierced her brain didn’t require a certain degree of seriousness.

The doctor hesitated a moment, then rose and shook Stone’s hand, eyes narrowed. “Dr. Stone. I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so, but I want to be up front with you. I was against this course of action.”

“Of course you were,” Stone said, nodding. “I understand.” In truth, he felt the same way. It was a horrific situation, but horrific situations were happening all over the world, every day. It didn’t mean that the occult was involved. He was convinced that the girl had simply snapped her tether. That happened too. It was particularly unfortunate when it occurred with someone so young and innocent, but in his experience, the universe rarely had much sympathy for either youth or innocence.

“I want him to talk to her,” Nancy McClain insisted. The murdered woman had been her sister, a single mother raising Madison with no help from the girl’s absent father. “I know it might not do any good, but I’m willing to try anything at this point.” She looked as if she might begin to cry, and rummaged in her handbag for a tissue.

Dr. Barnett managed not to look either uncomfortable or skeptical. To give Nancy a moment of privacy to get herself back together, he turned his attention back to Stone. “I must admit, you’re not what I expected.”

Stone smiled a little. “You were expecting someone a bit more—unusual.”

“That’s…one way to put it,” he said. “You do come highly recommended, though. I checked your credentials before allowing this. I had no idea they even had an occult department at Stanford.”

“We are rather small,” Stone admitted. He’d been surprised a few days ago when Nancy McClain had shown up in his office on campus and made her entreaty. Apparently one of the administrative assistants was a friend of hers, and had pointed her at Stone when, after a few drinks, the topic had turned to things like demonic possession. It had taken some convincing on her part, but finally Stone had agreed to talk to the girl if Nancy could get permission from the appropriate people. He figured there was no way any self-respecting physician or psychiatrist would allow someone like him anywhere near a fragile young patient.

Apparently, though, either Nancy’s skill at persuasion exceeded Stone’s estimation, or else the doctors on the case were more desperate than they were willing to admit. Either way, he’d gotten the call early this week, and a packet of papers had arrived by overnight mail a day later.

“You’re familiar with the case, I take it?” Barnett asked, glancing down at a thick folder on his desk. Several similar folders were stacked off to the side; Stone thought he might be correct about Barnett’s caseload.

He nodded. “I read through the information you sent me.” The details had made for an uncomfortable read: the little girl had apparently gone into her sleeping mother’s room and, with no hesitation, taken a sharpened pencil and jammed it into the woman’s eye so hard that it had pierced not only the eye but the brain, almost to the back of the skull. They hadn’t found her until the next day, when the mother hadn’t shown up for work nor the girl for school. When Nancy McClain had gone in to check on them, she’d found Madison seated on the floor next to the bed, nearly catatonic. When asked what had happened, she’d said, “I hurt Mommy,” and then broken into sobs. “No sign of any prior indications that something like this might occur, yes?”

“Not that we’re aware of,” Barnett said, opening his folder. “According to her teachers, friends, and Ms. McClain, she seemed to be a normal, healthy, happy little girl up until two weeks ago.”

Nancy swallowed and dabbed at her eyes, nodding. “She was. I tried to visit when I could, since Amy worked so hard just to make ends meet. She and Madison got along great. Amy was always bringing home little things for her, doing her best to give her a happy childhood. She even got her into a ballet class recently, which Madison had been wanting for a long time. I can’t see how—” She dissolved into sniffles again. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right, Ms. McClain,” Barnett said gently. He looked at Stone again, his expression stern. “I want you to understand before we go in, Dr. Stone, that I can’t allow you to do anything to upset Madison. No talk of demons or ghosts or whatever it is you people talk about. If I think she’s getting too agitated or uncomfortable, I’ll end the interview immediately. Understood?”

“Of course,” Stone said.

“All right, then. Please come with me.” He rose and started toward the office door.

Nancy rose as well, but Barnett came around the desk and put a hand on her arm. “Ms. McClain, I think it might be best if Dr. Stone and I talked to Madison alone.” The door opened and a nurse entered. “If you’ll go with Nurse Edmunds, she’ll take you to a place where you can observe. All right?”

Nancy nodded, still looking miserable, and allowed herself to be led off. She paused in the doorway, turning back toward Stone. “Please, Dr. Stone. If you find anything—”

“I’ll let you know, of course,” he assured her.

She nodded again and she and the nurse exited. When she was gone, Barnett paused. “Dr. Stone—”

“I know. You think I’m a fraud, and that this is pointless. Frankly, I do too. It’s much rarer than the general public believes, to have the occult involved in situations like this.”

Barnett looked like he was about to say something, then visibly switched gears. “Erm. Yes. But—”

“But I agreed to humor Ms. McClain as a favor to a friend, and unless you see any harm in my chatting with the girl for a few minutes, it might be best to just do it and get it over with, so you can move on with your treatment.”

“All right, then.” Barnett seemed relieved at Stone’s pragmatism. “Let’s go.”

Stone’s first impression of Madison McClain was of abject misery. The room Barnett led him to was decorated with brightly colored posters, soft furniture, and cheerful stuffed animals. The little girl, dressed in a pink My Little Pony T-shirt and red jeans, sat curled up in an armchair, clutching a tattered stuffed zebra. She didn’t look up as the door opened.

“Hello, Madison,” Barnett said, his low voice full of kindness. “How are you today?”

“Okay,” she murmured into the zebra’s stuffed flank.

“I’ve brought someone to talk with you,” he said. “Will you talk with him?”

She shrugged, still not looking up. “I guess so.”

Barnett motioned for Stone to take the chair next to Madison. With a glance that clearly said remember what I told you, he moved over and settled into another chair out of her line of sight.

Stone did as directed, taking a deep breath. He had little cause to interact with children, and he wasn’t entirely certain how to begin here. With an eye toward what was obviously a one-way mirror on the other side of the room, he smiled and said, “Hello, Madison. My name is Dr. Stone. You can call me Alastair if you like. I’m pleased to meet you.” He tried hard to maintain the same even, gentle tone Barnett had used.

Her eyes came up. They were blue, sunken into deep hollows. “You talk funny,” she said.

He chuckled. “I’m sure I do. I’m from England. Do you know where that is?”

She shook her head and clutched the zebra tighter.

Stone studied her for a moment, then switched to magical sight. Her strong, solid aura was streaked with darker spots—clearly she was troubled, which wasn’t at all unexpected. He would have been more surprised if her aura didn’t show any disturbance. “Is it all right if I ask you a few questions?” He continued watching her aura, examining it for any changes as they spoke.

“I guess so.” There was no animation in her voice at all. She sounded beaten. It was a tone of voice that Stone, even with his self-imposed ignorance about how children behaved, was sure should never come from the mouth of someone this young. Not in a proper world, anyway.

He leaned forward a little. “Who’s your friend there?”

She hugged the zebra tighter, as if expecting Stone to try to take it. “Stripey. My…my mom gave him to me when I was little.”

“I see…” he murmured.

“I…hurt her.” The little voice was full of misery. The dark spots in her aura shifted and roiled, clouding its brilliant gold.

He paused. Why did I agree to this? “Madison…can you tell me about what happened? I know that Dr. Barnett’s probably asked you before. But can you tell me, too?”

Tears swam in her eyes. She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, sandwiching Stripey close. “I don’t remember…” she whispered.

“You don’t remember?”

She shook her head. “That’s what I told Dr. Barnett.”

He focused his scrutiny further, hoping to see anything odd about her aura. He’d dealt with possessions before—usually some rogue spirit that had been summoned to the material plane and couldn’t find its way back home, so it attached itself to a convenient body for a while. But possessing spirits always left signs in the host’s aura: usually a second, fainter echo of another aura. Hard to spot if you weren’t looking for it, but Stone knew what to look for. He saw nothing. “Can you tell me anything you do remember?”

“I had a bad dream,” she said, head buried in Stripey’s neck. It was hard for Stone to make out what she said; he tuned out everything in the room except the little girl in front of him.

“I see…” he said softly. “I have those sometimes, too. What sort of bad dream was it?”

“I don’t know.” She sniffled. “I got up to go to the bafroom. I had to pee.” At that point, she began to shake. “Then I don’t ’member anything until…until…”

“It’s all right,” he said. “Take your time.” Her aura was a mess now, the dark spots rising up to nearly blot out the normal gold. Clearly, her thoughts were agitating her. Behind her, Barnett started to rise from his chair, but Stone waved him back down.

Madison pulled in a deep, shuddering breath and met his eyes. “I…I was standing next to Mommy’s bed. She had something in her eye. There was…blood.” Without warning, she leaped from her chair, flinging Stripey aside and launching herself into Stone’s lap. Her back shook as she dissolved into tears.

Stone, startled, for a moment did nothing. He glanced up at Barnett (help me!) and hesitantly put his arms around the little girl, feeling her wracking sobs. “Shh…” he whispered. “It’s all right…” Of course it’s not all right. You murdered your mother and you don’t even remember it. How can anything ever be all right for you again?

Barnett got up from his chair and put his hand on Madison’s shoulder. “Come on, sweetheart. That’s enough for now. I’m sorry if Dr. Stone upset you. I’m sure he didn’t mean to.”

“Of course not…” Stone said. He allowed Barnett to lift Madison from him, continuing to watch her aura for changes. For the briefest of seconds he thought he caught a glimpse of something—a sort of red flaring around the edges of the gold—but then it was gone.

Barnett carried Madison toward the door, which had opened to admit a nurse. As they reached it, the little girl raised her head and met Stone’s eyes over Barnett’s shoulder. “I—I lied…about not ‘membering. I watched it…” she said in a small voice. “I watched it…like I was in a robot. But I couldn’t stop myself. I tried, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry, Mommy…I’m sorry…” Then she broke into sobs again. Barnett handed her to the nurse, who carried her out. The door closed.

Stone stood, running a hand back through his hair. He watched the closed door and said nothing.

“Well?” Barnett asked, turning back to him. “Did you get any insights?”

Stone shook his head. He had to give the doctor credit for the fact that the question sounded reasonable, not sarcastic. It was more than he got from most “professionals.”

He sighed. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“So, you’re saying that she’s not possessed by a demon or something? I can set Ms. McClain’s mind at ease about that?” That time, a little bit of the sarcasm did get through.

“Doctor,” Stone said, shrugging, “I study the occult. I don’t practice it.” The lie came easily, as it always did. “Based on what I’ve studied about so-called possessions, this doesn’t look like one. I’m inclined to believe that this case is more related to your expertise than mine.”

Barnett looked troubled, but didn’t reply.

“What I wonder, though,” Stone continued, “is why you allowed me here at all. I understand that Ms. McClain requested it. But you could easily have turned down the request as preposterous—which is what I expected you to do when she approached me. The fact that you did allow me here suggests that you might be at a loss about how to classify her case, or proceed with her treatment. Is that true?”

Barnett’s gaze came up sharply, as if he hadn’t expected Stone to catch on to that. For several long seconds he said nothing, then he sighed, opened door and motioned Stone out. “I’ll admit it, Dr. Stone—I and my colleagues are stumped. This isn’t a typical case by any means. I can’t discuss the details with you, you understand, but I will say this: we haven’t been able to find any of the indicators that usually lead to such a violent outcome. Literally everyone we’ve talked to in this little girl’s life tells the same story: she was happy, well adjusted, and adored her mother.”

Stone’s mind went back to that brief flare of red around Madison’s aura. Had he really seen that, or was it just a momentary glitch? “I wish I could be of more help, Dr. Barnett. Even if only to help Ms. McClain to put a supernatural explanation out of her mind.”

“What do you suppose she meant, ‘I felt like I was in a robot’?” Barnett asked suddenly. “She’s never said anything like that before.”

“I thought you might know.” He followed Barnett back to his office. Through the door’s small window, he could see Nancy McClain sitting in a chair in front of the desk, waiting.

Barnett paused before opening the door. “We’ll have to do some more tests. Again, I can’t discuss details with you, but that does provide a bit more insight—it sounds as if she thinks she was in some sort of a dissociative state. We see that sometimes: a person will feel as though they’re watching themselves do something without any conscious control.” He sighed again, opening the door. “It’s something, anyway, so your trip wasn’t a complete waste of time. I appreciate your coming by, Dr. Stone.”

Stone said his goodbyes to Nancy McClain and got out of there. He didn’t think she would call him back; in fact, he suspected that her calling him at all was a last grasp at an unlikely straw.

But as he headed back to his car in the light rain, he couldn’t get Madison McClain’s face—and her aura—out of his mind.

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