© By Gary L Morton
Gray dust and crumbling flakes of ash coated the sun-dried turf. It lifted in fine clouds as he walked past the burial mounds. Halting at the edge of the sandstone cliff, he stared at the neat row of small hills running behind the caked mud flats that had once been Deep Woods Lake. In the old days, they’d been forested and topped with rock shelves and boulders. His Mohawk ancestors had used them as signal hills. Now they were dry and barren, and the stones were hot enough to bake corn bread.
Turning left, he studied the largest of the burial mounds. The entire sacred structure was slowly sinking - dropping into a surround of cracked mud, tall grass and timothy. Its grassy side had burst, and from a distance, it appeared as a huge tear. Sand, sparkling minerals and colored stones showed in the gash. Other things were partially obscured by the sand - bones, skulls, jeweled items that shimmered and larger sacred objects.
The sight fascinated him, and then a sudden wind sighed at cliff-side. His vision, his parched throat and lungs felt sucked dry. He was left in a hollow and abandoned state - suffocating, though painlessly. Dizziness staggered him and he stumbled at the edge of the cliff. Withering heat consumed his flesh and his throat began to ache with thirst.
His moccasins moved slowly, precariously along the edge of the cliff. Beyond the sheer drop, the torrid sky stretched to the horizon like a sheet of flame. Below, the dried lake billowed up dust clouds like dragon's breath or netherworld smoke signals.
Reaching the mound he stared at the cracked mud and shivering weeds at its edge. A skeleton part way up the gash drew his gaze. Its jaw hung open in what seemed like hideous laugher. A ring glittered on its hand and he could see that it remained there because in life the medicine man had wired it right through the bone. The other fingers of this skeletal hand were open and the arm was outstretched. Just beyond it in the spilling sand, a rattle protruded. This sacred object was armored with turtle shell and well preserved; the leather, handle and beads were like new, but the feathers on the tassel were slightly chewed and ragged in places. Painted shells patterned out a special face, one that his tribe recognized as the rainmaker.
Deep waters stirred in an inner mirage. He saw the face of the rainmaker breaking on the surface. Then the rattle reappeared and he longed to touch it, though he knew it was forbidden. Thirst came again, and with it blindness. A ghost awoke within, propelling him forward. He felt sand slip between his fingers, and then the weight of the rattle was in his hand. When he shook it, the sound was of falling rain … a gentle and steady sound, which was followed by thunder.
The darkness of the dust-smoked sky moved like the shadow of a great wolf. His feet began to stir in light steps of the dance and heat lightning flashed each time he shook the rattle at the sky.
His motions grew furious as he danced at the edge of the cliff. Messages of old puffed up on the signal hills. The tribes and the drums were calling for a rainmaker.
Below, in the dry lakebed, the mud flats began to split. Earth and sky rumbled like a voice of dread. Darkness consumed the day, but there wasn't any rain.
Rick's tongue slid slowly under crusted lips. Fine blond sand blew on the pocked asphalt ahead and his tinted glasses failed to filter out the white glare of mid afternoon. A glance at the energy gauge told him he had about one kilometer of juice remaining. Since he was approaching a long hill, he decided to roll up to the crest and park on the roadside while the solar cells recharged the Sun Cobra's engine.
Dust blew in fiercely and swirled in harsh heat at the top. The idea of stopping there seemed like a mistake. Then moments after he parked, the wind died down and he got out and walked under a sky of hot brass to the trunk. A bubble of sour air washed over him as he opened it. The metal door of the interior storage box felt like an oven pan.
His fingers deftly spun the combination - then the panel slid left. Inside a large bottle of water rested on weatherproof red felt. It shone like an enormous jewel.
Rick knew he was close to town and a water refill, but he still poured himself only half a cup. Old habits were hard to break. The water refreshed him and his mouth and lips came unglued. He could see his faint reflection in the metal; his tongue slithering across his full lips and the permanent expression of deep deliberation his tanned face conveyed.
Snatches of dust blew in as he locked up. He shielded his face as he walked to the roadside, heading for a hybrid oak clinging to the sandy earth just over the crest. Walking into its shade, Rick sat on a slate boulder thrust out from the soil. Parched bug-chewed leaves rustled like leather on a low bough. He gently wiped the grime from his eyes before looking out at the valley. Heat and glare billowed, but the pale color of the sky showed through. He saw something he hadn't seen for many kilometers - patches of green and blue. The green being farmland, acres of forest and trimmed parkland on the edge of a small town.
A clock tower rose at the centre of the town amid some other tall structures. He knew the town was Tiverton - his destination. Backed by the hot horizon it shimmered, almost like a desert mirage, and adding to the effect was the sight of a small blue lake just west of town. The banks circling it were long and smooth like the rim of a wide bowl, and off to the north he could see the remains of a sister lake. It appeared to have dried up completely, but the blowing dust made the bottom impossible to see, so it was hard to tell.
From a hilltop glance, Tiverton appeared to have a much better chance of survival than many other towns. But that really depended on the drought. Some people said there would be no relief this time. It hadn't rained in nearly a month and the sun grew fiercer by the day.
Near the bottom of the hill, a crossroad branched off to the south. He could see a speck moving on it. It appeared to be a man walking. Heat waves passed over the road in liquid distortion, warping the image. Then the man reappeared and took a few more steps before dropping to a sitting position on the shoulder.
"Probably been taken by heat stroke," Rick thought as he got to his feet. Turning, he walked to the car. The gauge said he had enough of a recharge to get into town so he started the engine and rolled down to the crossroad. The man's blue shirt showed in the glare just up the road so he swung into the dust, drove up and stopped. He could see that the shirt was part of a mailman's uniform and that the man was of Chinese Canadian extraction.
"Need a lift?"
The mailman looked up. "Are you an angel or is this for real?"
"It's for real."
Sweat drops as large as tears ran on his broad face, but he still had the strength to rise and get in the open door. He sighed. "Boy am I glad to get out of here."
"How'd you end up on foot way out here?"
"My mail car broke down about 4 kilometers back. I don't have my phone because the town has confiscated them all as part of the emergency plan. Not a single vehicle came down this road all morning."
"I got water if you need it."
"I drank water on the hike. It's the direct sun that put me down. I can last till we get into town if you want to head back."
"I actually am heading into Tiverton. I saw you from the hill so I turned this way to pick you up."
"Sure would’ve looked funny if I'd died of stroke just outside of town."
"I've seen it before. Seen whole towns dead. There are more bones than weeds lining the highways."
"Bad isn't it? I mean the dust bowl. I've been in Tiverton through the whole thing. We thought we were immune before this wave came in."
"I know the feeling. I'm from Tweedsville originally. The drought came on bad there, starting two years ago. We thought we could fight it but we didn't have the lakes and water sources like Tiverton. Everything dried to the bone. Trouble is that by the time we knew we'd lost, too many people had died. I had a wife and a baby daughter. We were set to leave then some rain came in the spring season. We held on but the heat came back in a killer wave."
"Your wife and kid?"
"They died in the hospital. I was sick but hung on."
"Sorry to here that, man."
"Name's Rick, Rick Shelley."
"Sure. I'm Jim Wong. Tiverton's pony express."
"You know that it's the water that kills you. Once it dries up to a point it's impossible to keep what little there is clean. Few survive once flies and bacterial infections set in during a heat wave."
"We've taken just about every precaution we can. There isn't a lot of livestock now so the problem of manure pollution of the water isn't as much of a danger. Tiverton is mostly a vegetarian town. We're heavy into vegetable crops and other organic stuff."
"I know. My brother Sam has a farm outside of Tiverton. Says he's fighting a hell of a drought. Needs all the help he can get."
"Ah, so you're Sam Shelley's brother. I should have guessed. Guess I didn't because your hair is golden and his is dark. He's always laughing like a clown of sorts. You got that serious look, like you faced off with trouble starting on the day you were born. Looks like it didn't beat you down, like it did to the rest."
"It sure tried hard. It beat my family into the grave, and left me in a burning ghost town."
"Your brother needs manual labour right now. There's a big system for irrigating the crops without waste of water. It's hard to get parts these days so men have to assist in many fields. He'll sure be happy to see you. I mean because you're his brother, and because you're in such good health. So many people are weak and disabled nowadays. Just can't work at all."
The highway into town followed a long slow drop into the valley green belt. As the car rolled along, the dust clouds that always gathered just above the fenders vanished. Ditches of sand flattened and became shoulders tufted with tall grass. Asphalt ahead grew smoother and soon the glare of the sun was replaced by the dappled shadows of leafy maple boughs. They passed two boarded-up motels and a junkyard before houses appeared. The first were cottages, fortified from the heat and jacketed with solar panels. Wild weed gardens and parched grass marked the yards, and the bright sunshine and ghostly emptiness conveyed a familiar feeling. It was born of a world where most people slept during the day and worked at night; a form of abandonment that comes about when the heat bakes the life out of the land.
Some crumpled sheets of reflection paper blew over the road like yellow tumbleweeds as they reached the core. They rounded a bend and the old brown sandstone buildings at the town's centre showed. These aged structures were the civic buildings and the post office was among them. It rested next to the town hall and had a parkette at the front. The few people sitting in it were the only people outdoors. Sidewalks were empty.
"I better get off at the police station. It's at the end of this main square. They can go out and get the mail car. I plan to go home. Maybe you want to wait. I'm on the other side of town. The road there leads out to Sam's place, so I can show you the way."
"Sounds fine to me."
Rick pulled in at the station and he got out and stood in the shade cast by the old stone building. Jim went inside, and during the ten-minute wait, Rick glanced about the downtown. His stomach grumbled again and stung his throat with acid. The upset and heat muted his hunger. An open variety store was just up the street, but he decided not to stock up on anything until he was sure of his exact needs.
After five minutes, an officer emerged from the station. He walked at the head of a group of eight men. They looked emaciated, ragged and poverty-stricken. One of them sucked on a burning marijuana cigarette and none of them said anything as they walked across the square and entered a dilapidated building. A banner that’d been hung like a flag over the door said - Employment Office.
Sunburn seemed to show stronger on Jim's face when he emerged. He looked weak and walked with a slight limp. He grimaced mildly as he spoke. "Nausea is getting the better of me. I'm going to sleep it off at home. I just phoned my daughter, Kim. She's waiting for me and she'll take you out to the farm. I didn't mention it earlier but she does some work for your brother. I don't know if he told you but the farms are now cooperative affairs. Most of the original owners still run the show. Kim has several fields of her own. She's real proud of that."
"Sounds great. I'd like to meet her. Let me help you in and we're off."
Jim's house was of the white saltbox style, but stronger with wind support and invisible solar banks. It had a wide willow-lined driveway with parking spaces for several vehicles. An old dusty mail car took up one of these spaces.
His daughter burst out of the shade as they drove up. She dashed to the driveway to meet them and Rick got a neat picture of her as she hurried around to the passenger side. She wore jean cut-offs and a tank top on an hourglass figure. Her features were of the extremely feminine Oriental variety. She had long straight hair and a ponytail but no makeup or jewelry. Obviously upset, she yanked the door open and pouted as she reached in and hugged her father.
"You look feverish," she said as she released him. "Let me help you out."
Jim did look feverish. He groaned as he got out. Without introduction, Rick also popped out.
A strong breeze blew down the drive, killing some of the effect of the heat. Jim was explaining what happened as Kim listened impatiently.
"I'm calling the mayor and demanding that they return your phone. They must be crazy to have taken it in the first place."
Rick stepped in. "If you don't mind my asking. Why would they confiscate phones in the first place?"
Jim's eyes switched between Rick and his daughter. "This is Rick," he said. "And this is my daughter Kim.
They shook hands lightly, and she held on as they did. "Thanks so much for saving my father."
"I was just driving by on my way into town, so I picked him up."
Kim turned back to her father. "I want the phone back in your mail car before you go back out on the road."
"I don't know. They're adamant that the field workers need extra phones out by the remains of Deep Woods Lake. It has to do with a wild animal roaming out there. The thing howls like a devil and the crews won't go out to the remote fields unless they have phones to call in quick help."
Kim frowned and pulled back her windswept hair. "There isn't any wild beast. I've been out there and haven't heard a thing. The last time I used my gun was more than a year ago to scare off a bear."
"I think it's just superstition," Jim said. "By the way, Rick is Sam's brother. He should have the pull to get us a phone. I'm going inside to rest. You can show him the way out to the farms. Talk to Sam about the phones when you get there."
As Kim helped her father into the house, Rick stepped under the willows and stared out at the hot meadow. Long grass ran off into heat shimmies and near the tree line, the haze rose to the sky. Cumulus towers were parked on the horizon like great ships, and as a whole, the rolling cloudbank resembled a monstrous sponge sucking up precious water in evaporation from the land. The meadow was browning and dying and it was a familiar picture. He'd seen a few years of these heat waves elsewhere in the province. They nearly always broke to cooler spells. But sometimes they didn't. And when that happened, whole towns and valleys perished.
Kim called to him and he saw her up on the porch holding a tray. He walked up slowly and sat with her there, sipping a cold drink.
"We'll go out to your brother's right away," she said. "Dad seems fine. He just needs rest."
Rick nodded and they said little else as they exchanged glances. He found Kim warm and attractive but a touch on the vulnerable side. She confirmed that feeling by suddenly snatching his empty glass and marching back inside. A minute later she emerged carrying a backpack and they went down the drive to his car.
The only paved road to the farms wound around the shore of Lake Wolverton. Putting aside the heat, the scene was idyllic. Wind whipped up small waves on the teal waters, froth broke on long stretches of sand and stony shore, and areas of marsh were spotted with geese and ducks.
Rick found the scene entrancing; his eyes kept straying off the road. "I'm surprised to see so much valuable waterfront property and not even a squatter on it."
"Most of that beach-front appeared over the last three years," Kim said. "Evaporation cut the water level some. Squatters usually gravitate to areas that have been developed and abandoned. Not many head this way. Our population has actually grown, but most of the new people live in housing we built near the fields."
"Why does that lake stay wet while its sister dried up completely?"
"That's because the sister isn't from the same family. This one is more than stream-fed. It has strong underground sources."
"What is it you're doing for Sam, anything specific?"
"I'll be working for him. Wherever he needs me. I have experience with the newer irrigation equipment, plus I have my health. I saw some of the general labor they were picking up at the town employment office. If they were a sample I'd say he needs a healthy man with muscles."
"Those were probably transients you saw at the employment office. The labor they do doesn't even cover their housing and food costs. This town has a few thousand people who are disabled or partially disabled. Due to the heat waves and resulting bacterial infections, they have a greatly reduced life span. We don't leave housing empty. The spaces are opened up to transients. They do some work but the real bulk of the labour is done by healthy members of the co-operative."
"Guess I'll be doing real work. But that's okay. It's better than standing around, worrying about the heat."
"You have a car. I need you to work with me. The last while I've been using my father's extra mail car and borrowed labour."
"What is it you do?"
"I have my own fields, controlling and producing organic crops. Mine are the most remote fields. Including some of the land over by the dead lake, where the wild beasts are supposed to be roaming. They're automated fields - irrigation equipment of the newer sort. But it's not fully functional so it requires some work."
"It's a deal then. I'm experienced in repairing that sort of equipment. If I'm going to work here, I might as well do what I do best."
Kim smiled broadly. "Okay - it's a deal. Just remember that you're committed. I say that because we won't be out there long before other members try to steal you from me. There's a shortage of skilled workers here, like everywhere."
Rick saw fast running shallow water below as they crossed a bridge, then the road turned away from the lake and entered a long stretch of open fields. A wide variety of crops showed in numerous fields, including hay, corn, assorted vegetables and potatoes. The fields had attached cottages and some livestock, mostly cows and horses. A few farmhouses, barns and silos appeared then they passed through a deep, forested ravine and emerged approaching a large ranch-style spread.
On Kim's signal, Rick turned in, went up the drive and parked with several other cars under a huge rain roof. Massive shade trees covered the grounds of the main house and a number of people were socializing on a terrace.
"I haven't seen Sam in over ten years," Rick said.
"You mean you two didn't get along?"
"We got along but lived separate lives. We kept in touch. Right now, he's on a guilt trip. The heat killed us off in Tweedsville - my wife and daughter died. He thinks the deaths are his fault. Keeps saying he could have got us out sooner. He's wrong of course. The decision to stay was a mistake most of the people in Tweedsville made."
"It's nobody's fault. Heat tragedies are everywhere. Some of my relatives and my brother died, too. But not in Tiverton."
"Maybe we'll win the battle here."
"As well as mentioning the phones, I want to get you one of the better cottages. Sam has one open on Wolverton Lake. It has a beach area and fertile land we could develop."
Kim stayed close to Rick and helped him settle into the cottage on Wolverton Lake. He began to work with her on the crops at night. On day four, he picked her up well after nightfall and they headed off to service three fields. The first two assignments went quickly and uneventfully. They headed out by the dead lake to work on the third.
Mixed crops of vegetables had been planted in segment number ten, which was one of the most remote fields. It needed the least attention of all the fields and they drove out expecting to do little other than check the water/nutrient charts.
Rick had the radio on the local station, which displeased Kim, and she switched it to loud pop music as the car turned down the winding gravel road. Open pasture showed between patches of forest and they saw the rays of the rising moon streaming through a line of firs. The moonlight worked to soften the night, slightly illumining the boughs and the duff of the forest floor. It reached inside the windshield, throwing a tint on Kim's long hair as she turned to speak to him.
"So how do you like Tiverton? I mean so far?"
"It's not as nice as Tweedsville, when my wife and daughter were alive. But it's better than any other place I've been. Some places were just failure and death. Down in Quinte I spent a year working with broken men on various projects that failed. The local government was like a dictatorship. That was bad. Most of those men would’ve been better off dead. The body lives on when the spirit is broken. Here I've got you for a partner on the job and that makes it a lot better."
"You mean because I'm a woman?"
"I mean because your soul didn't evaporate into the heat. You're alive and expect something more than your own survival from life."
"Ever see the old TV shows, the big expectations people used to have?"
"I have, and I've seen some of those old people killed by mobs. I was in Brighton when they got Mel Andersen. He was 85 years old. Used to be the president of Mercurcor, a big-time greenhouse gas polluter. He managed to hide there under an assumed name for two decades. Never did get to trial. The mob tore him limb from limb."
"I'm glad I've been here all my life and didn't see the killing. In the USA it was a bloody civil war of sorts."
"Yeah, and big expectations from life led to it. People of that period cared only about themselves. They knew they were killing future generations with greenhouse gases and pollution. They poisoned their own children and just didn't care. We're lucky to have a portion of the civilized world left."
"History says a lot of people cared, and a lot of people just didn't know what was happening. Even more were powerless against a corrupt system."
"I think they knew. Most of those who cared didn't care enough - not enough to fight back. They kept issuing warnings and demonstrating peacefully. They should’ve known the world offers only death and revenge when it goes off its axis with pollution. Now we have the killer weather, but in some ways, the world is better. Every town that survives does so because people do care and cooperate, and they reach out to work with other towns. The survivors are all people who have formed genuine social units."
"I agree, and the dead aren't just due to the weather. In most cases, they tried to keep society functioning under the old models of resource destruction and naked capitalism. It didn't work for them. The days of corporate chieftains, greedy dictators and hijacked democracy are over. The new laws of nature quickly weed those sorts of systems out. Everyone has to play a caring role for society to work."
A bright spotlight on the field monitoring post showed as they turned out of the trees. Rick drove slowly up the dirt drive and stopped under the light and a swirl of moths. Remaining silent, they got out and Kim ducked back as Rick swept cobwebs away from the door. They went inside, turned on the lights and the computer monitor. Kim checked the screen map of the field.
"Four more days and a work team has to come in to pull weeds. Looks like the system is working nearly perfectly. There are two rows that we'll have to do manually a fair distance out."
Back outside they went to the shed and opened up. A full tank of feed water stood in front of two empties and a tow motor. Rick banged the side then turned to Kim. "I can pull it out. Let's not bother with the tow. Just lead the way."
The spotlight and the moonlight provided enough light so they didn't use the floodlights. Rick looked down at the straining muscles on his thighs as he began to pull the tank, and then back up at Kim's graceful form walking slowly ahead on the narrow sand path. The leafy green of the vegetables, the plastic shielding of the feed system and the damp odors of growth gave him a pleasant feeling. It made him forget the exercise and the heat. He was happy enough to start whistling.
At the trouble spot, Kim brought out the nozzle. On one row, they managed to unplug the system, but the second was a no-go so they took the time to spray each plant individually. A half-hour later, they were just finishing up. As they prepared to walk, back with the tank a strange sound echoed in the night. It was a distant howl, but not of a dog. It sounded almost human and seemed to convey an emotion that existed somewhere between blood-thirst and fright.
"What was that?" Rick said, staring over the field toward the source of the sound
"Don't know," Kim said. "It must be that howling we've been hearing about. It's been spooking the workers for the last couple of weeks."
"Yeah, that's right. When I heard the story, I assumed it was just a wild dog. But that's no dog. Has anyone tried to trace it to the source?"
"No. They're too afraid."
"I guess we should check it out."
"The dead lake is in that direction. It may be some kind of sick animal if it's coming from there."
A second howl echoed as Kim spoke and Rick looked in the direction of the sound again. Sickly yellow haze bearded the full moon. Its face was growing brighter as it rose, adding a glow to the soft earth under their feet. To the north, the crop UV filters curved like long segmented worms over the rows of plants. The field came to a dark end at a ditch. Scrub and an abandoned rail line stood beyond it.
"I want to take a look," Rick said. "It could be something that’ll damage the crop equipment."
"Okay, let's go."
They began the trek over the field with Kim leading the way. Rick followed, feeling anxious. Expecting at any moment to hear another monstrous alien cry. None came - they leapt the ditch in silence and found themselves climbing the bank to the rail line in unnatural quiet.
"Spooky out here, isn't it?" Rick said.
Kim turned and looked down the line. Rusted metal shone faintly and vanished into a dark wall of foliage fifty feet away. "There should be at least some night buzz. Whatever that cry was it sent the wildlife into hiding."
"Maybe we got a problem. I mean in that we aren't smart enough to hide."
"Stop trying to scare me." She punched him in the shoulder, and the moonlight reflected in her brown eyes as she grinned. "The lake is off the line, just around that bend ... or what's left of the lake. We can take a look, but unless things have changed we won't be able to see anything but mud flats and blowing dust."
Foul breeze-born odors of the mud flats came on strong as they reached the bend. Rick coughed. It smelled like the worst seafood market in the country. Kim sniffed, as though the odors were a personal thing, thrown at her by some unseen and rude stranger. Putting her right hand on her tilted hip, she scrutinized the line of sumac and trees. "The Point is just through those trees. We used to swim there when the lake was alive. It runs a fair distance out, so if there's anything to be seen we'll see it from there."
As they descended into the sumac, Kim gasped and jumped. Rick caught her as she stumbled back, and he got a view over her shoulder of a snake sliding quickly through some rocks. They waited for it to disappear into the weeds, and then they moved on.
The moon showed as a bright coin behind the last line of trees. They swept some brush aside as they passed through, then they were facing the Point. Lumpy ground populated with boulders, thistles and tufted grass stretched before them. The remnant of a shore of crushed rock and driftwood remained at the edge of the mud banks. Out on the lake the clouds of dust had settled, allowing a view straight across to the hills and stars beyond.
There wasn't a drop of water left in the lake, just dried bottom mud, lifeless reed stubble and the odd object protruding in the dark. Heat and blowing dust had done such a thorough job that the bottom had been leveled into a huge rippled disc. Nearly everything had been buried by the shifting sand and mud. Moonlight opened it to view, and it was a weird scene. They looked around a bit more before their eyes fell on a huge object that stood to the north, just off the point's end.
"What's that thing?" Rick said.
"Beats me. Looks like some kind of boat wreck that's been uncovered."
To get a better look they followed the path out to the end of the point. It was crusted with leaves, twigs and dust and wound into the darkness cast by a line of huge boulders. They emerged facing a carpet of moonlight that ran across the lakebed, seeming to end at the mysterious structure.
At first glance, it had the appearance of a boat wreck. A series of ribs rose around a square central edifice. Yet the structure was almost certainly made of metal or stone. So it wasn't a boat but some strange ark or temple that had existed all along at the lake bottom.
Rick hopped from the edge of the turf to the stony shore. Turning, he reached up and caught Kim as she followed. Swinging her around he put her on her feet and she turned and faced the lake.
The driftwood massed at the shore was so bleached it looked like bone sculpture glowing in the moonlight. Pieces were scattered on the stones and all the way out to the ark-like structure. The lakebed was dry sand and mud in that stretch. They could see no boggy ground.
"I can't picture any animal emerging from that thing," Rick said.
"Neither can I. Maybe it attracted a wild dog or a wolf through its odor. I think this horrible smell is more than just the mud."
"Guess we need a closer look."
They took a few apprehensive steps across the rippled sand and once they were sure they were on solid ground they walked ahead confidently. Humps of mud-sunken driftwood, masses of tiny shells fused like concrete and clumps of desiccated weeds formed obstacles in their path.
As they grew closer, the ribs gleamed even brighter - almost a sparkling look. They stopped at the first one, which tapered like a tusk and rose just above their heads. Dried mineral salt coated most of its surface, creating the gleam. Patches of dried algae clung to all of the tusks and hung like cobwebs in places. The central structure resembled a large box or coffin that rose five feet above the surface. A similar mineral substance coated it, giving it a jeweled or metallic gleam. It was impossible to know how much of it was submerged.
Rick was definitely spooked, and he felt Kim squeeze close to him as they walked under the tusks. Reaching out, he touched the wall, and then pulled his hand back as some of the loose substance fell to the mud. A tiny carved symbol showed in the cleaned area. This interested him so he picked away more of the salt scales and studied the image he'd uncovered.
Kim knocked the area with her knuckles. "I think it's made of wood that's become petrified. It must be older than even the lake. Otherwise it would have rotted."
"I don't think it can be that old. Most lakes in this part of Ontario are four to six thousand years old. That image is definitely an Indian thing. It resembles some of the older paintings of coyote. This segment shows a beast like coyote, a fire symbol and something being sacrificed."
"Do you suppose this whole structure is a work of ancient native art?"
"Looks like it. Maybe more - an entire story is underneath the salt."
"What do you think is inside it?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's a tomb. It's definitely an archaeological find. We shouldn't really be touching it at all."
"We should get out of here. This place makes my skin crawl."
"Doesn't seem to be much else we can do."
Though the discovery of the ark was an amazing accomplishment, Rick found himself turning to leave with the feeling that their investigation had been inconclusive if not outright unsettling. Remaining silent, they headed back to the point, getting a short distance before the wind sighed and lifted.
They heard paws beating a fast tattoo on the mud and halted with the sensation of something fast and nearly invisible sweeping past them. Then a gust ripped around the point, playing through the boulders like an off-key violin stroke. The force nearly bowled them over and as they regained their balance, they heard a howl. It had obviously come from the ark, yet when they looked back, they saw nothing.
Without saying a word, they began to run, and didn't stop until they were off the point. Jogging down the tracks, they got back to the field and halted at its edge. Winded, Kim leaned against him. She hugged him and breathed deeply.
"What do we do now?" she said.
"I think I saw a ghost animal pass us back there. And that howling is from it. The shape was like a large coyote of some sort. We'll report the find to Sam and let him decide what should be done. That's if he believes us."
The Town Meeting
Frightening tales of supernatural occurrences came on the coattails of the ark's discovery. Sam and the town brought their best people in to look at it, and they found it to be strange but lacking in supernatural emanations. Rick continued working with Kim at night and the heat wave roasted the land for a few more days. They did not encounter anything else strange and the animal ghost they'd seen began to seem like a distant delusion of moonlight and firewater.
Mayor Arnie Gus got involved and took over the ark investigation. Shortly after that, they found themselves driving into Tiverton for a town meeting. The gathering was to be about the ark and strategies for dealing with the lingering heat wave.
Snapped branches caused a delay on the road. Rick pulled up late. Tiverton's town hall was a heavy edifice composed of the same rough-hewn sandstone blocks that made up the other civic buildings at the centre of town. It had been rebuilt after meeting head on with a twister and was broader and stouter because of it.
Sunset light fell on a crowd of townspeople gathered at the front parkette and steps. The scene had a glow of summer beauty that made forgetting the heat almost possible. They could see a farmer, Carlos Rivers, gesturing and talking excitedly to a group of field workers. Behind them, a group of town officials walked up the entry steps to the hall. Kim's father was among them and on seeing him her face shrank to a pout.
"Looks like my dad isn't talking to us."
"We're late. He couldn't wait any longer, that's all."
"He strongly disapproves of us staying together at the cottage."
"Stop worrying. After he hears some of the scary stories people are telling, he'll approve of you being with a man every place you go."
"What do suppose they'll do about it? What can a town do about supernatural stuff?"
"Beats me. You know the key players here better than I do."
"Looking at the players, my guess is that since Mayor Gus and his mighty force of three police officers have seen the ark, they aren't likely to believe stories about ghosts, demons and animal sacrifice. There’ll probably be a lot of talk to calm people down, then all they'll do is continue to watch the ark and hunt for poachers."
Rick eased the car into a space near the parkette. They got out and strolled under the trees. Sunlight mirror-flashed through the boughs and sprinkled shadows on the dead grass. Following the walkway, they reached the steps. The crowd was moving inside, and it looked to be about four hundred people, which was a heck of a lot for a town meeting.
On the inside, most of the seats were taken. Overflow people stood in the side aisles and at the back. Air conditioning brought the temperature to a tolerable level, but it was still hot. And hotter up on the platform as the officials there already had sweat polishing their faces. These dignitaries included Mayor Gus, his three councilors and Kim's father. Police Chief Sawyer sat with the tiny group of ark archaeologists, and it was the fire chief, Chris Hassan who was at the podium and in control.
Hassan did the introductions, drew some applause and launched into a speech on dealing with heat emergencies and water contamination. Since the townspeople had heard all of this before, he nearly put them to sleep. It was also very uninspiring to find that there weren't any new tactics in heat defense. Praying for rain was about all a person could do.
Mayor Gus was a better speaker. A wrinkled man with a huge jaw and gangly frame, Gus exuded personal warmth and that appeared to be the root of his success as a politician. Being a smart cookie, he didn't hog the platform. Instead, he told the crowd that the details on the ark and strange occurrences would be revealed by townspeople who had experienced the events. That got him some applause, and he continued by pulling out an old pair of glasses to read the first name on the speakers' list.
A farmer introduced as Jose San Martin rose to talk about livestock deaths and strange occurrences. Jose was a short swarthy man with a winning smile. His warm expression switched to one of painful remembrance as he began to speak. "All of you know I'm the only farmer in Tiverton still specializing in livestock. Though a number of you have experienced equipment and barn damage, I'm the only person who's suffered killings from poachers. It is certain that there are violent trespassers, but who or what they are isn't known. I can tell you how my bull was killed and maybe you'll understand just what I mean.
Last Saturday I was up in the late hours, working outdoors as usual. I took the tractor over to the west perimeter and began an inspection to make sure manure containment was secure - as per the clean water rules. The summer night was miserably humid. Nothing out of ordinary, so I was surprised when Rowdy, my hound began whining and baying. I tried to calm him and he responded by sitting in the grass. He stayed quiet for a minute then his eyes started to roll. He let out a loud howl and bounded off in the direction of the house and barn. Figuring he'd heard something, I got on the tractor and followed. When I got there, Rowdy was baying in the dark near the barn.
I checked the house first to make sure my wife Ellen was okay. It was locked up but after I yelled, she let me in. She slammed the door as I entered and told me that something was in the barn. It had just got in there and had made noise like something wild and dangerous. Maybe a wolf or a bear. At least it was big enough to scare the daylights out of the animals.
She looked jittery and scared, too. I didn't hesitate, but got my Colt shotgun out of the lockup in the cellar and went out to the barn. The dog was still howling outside and the lock had been torn off. I used my pocket organizer to turn on the lights then went in cautiously, noting a repulsive odor like dead fish and that the dog wouldn’t follow me.
Some of the cows had gotten out of their pens. They were very restless and noisy but otherwise they were okay. I checked everywhere, even looked to the rafters, but saw no intruder. Eventually I reached the bull's pen near the back, entered and found my prize bull dead in the straw. Blood had pooled around him. Bear-sized claw marks were on his side and his head was completely gone.
I looked twice when I saw that. I just couldn't believe it. Not only was the head gone, the cut was a clean swipe. When my astonishment passed, I noticed a big hole bashed right through the wall.
For some moments things started to get to me - strong odors of blood and stale urine, dryness in my throat. Sweat and gooseflesh covered me, my hair stiffened and I could hear the dog barking and the wife yelling. My head got so light I fell on my knee next to the dead bull. Some moments later, I recovered, got up and went over to the hole. I peeked into the dark then I crouched and passed through it.
I rose in a defensive posture and tried to look around. Some light filtered out from the barn, but the sky had gone totally dark. The few faint rays of light there were seemed to vanish into a trough of black night.
Though I had a really bad feeling about it, I still moved forward. A hot breeze touched me as I reached the nearest tree. It came with a rustling sound in the bushes that led me to turn left and nearly fire.
There was some movement in the foliage from a vague shape that was human and not an animal. The figure vanished and I felt some tiny raindrops hit me. At that point, it dawned on me that it was pitch dark because rain clouds had rolled in. I looked up quickly, saw the underbelly of cloud cover and felt mixed emotions sweep me. I was scared to death and at the same time, I felt like shouting with joy over the raindrops.
Then the moon suddenly broke through the clouds, I saw a man ducking out of sight and fired. This was a shotgun blast. It tore up the bushes and though it couldn't have missed, it had no effect. Almost like I'd shot a ghost and the projectiles had simply passed through it.
The man continued to move away from me on my left and he looked back just before he disappeared. Moonlight caught his features and the sight of them nearly turned me to stone. It was a dead face, almost like a skull. Dried and wrinkled flesh, and some kind of war paint marked it. The hair was braided and the eyes were radiant like cat’s eyes when they catch the light. He looked like an Indian warrior come back from his grave, and he seemed real and not just a poacher wearing a mask.
I lowered the gun as he faded into the dark. In the moonlight, I could see my arms and that the raindrops dribbling on them weren't water, they were droplets of blood. That was shock enough. Horror and confusion swelled with the heat in my head and I blacked out. Next thing I knew my wife had me in the house. The police arrived shortly after and as the news reports say, they think a wild animal and a poacher got on the grounds. But I never saw any wild animal or tracks, and that poacher looked like he was from a cult of devils."
People began to shout questions. Jose looked nervously at the restless crowd and before he could select someone, Mayor Gus took the microphone. "There are going to be questions and more speakers on this at the end of the meeting. Before that happens you are going to be informed on our town investigation of the mysterious ark found in the dried bed of Deep Woods Lake."
Rick put his arm around Kim and pulled her close. "What do you make of Jose's report?"
"We saw a ghost of our own, but it had no extreme effects. Jose may have encountered more than a poacher. It gives me the creeps. Someone extremely cruel and dangerous is out there."
"What’s the motive for stealing the head of a prize bull?"
"I'm not sure. Use it in some wicked ritual . . . or maybe sell it as an aphrodisiac."
A willowy redhead named Lynn Meyers took the podium after being introduced as the town's only archaeological expert. She made nervous gestures with thin hands and spoke with a weak voice that tended to fracture. "There are a number of thorny issues around the ark. The first is that it is technically the property of the federal government and we have no real power to investigate. Since we are studying it, we could end up in trouble if it gets damaged. It will likely take the federal government months to respond, and that is why the town has initiated a preliminary look.
Please stop laughing, people. Don't forget about the national crisis the federal level is dealing with. I do have some results from our first look at the artifact and I hope you don't find them humorous.
In examining the tusk-like objects surrounding the ark, we find them to be an ivory-like material. We are not sure how they were formed. An animal bearing such a tusk would be bigger than a house. We can't prove they were carved either, and we are awaiting results on tests done to the surrounding mud in hopes they will give us a clue.
The central box is another conundrum. We couldn’t chip off a fragment with the toughest tools. Initial chemical tests on a tiny area failed to identify the substance or its age. It resembles petrified wood, though it would be an unknown type if it is that. The images on its surface were carved at a time when the substance was softer. They bear a likeness to Cree, Iroquois and Mohawk work, but are substantially different, indicating an unknown tribe. A story is told by the images though we haven't unraveled it yet. It has to do with a rainmaker and a series of sacrifices he makes.
The box is hollow. Sonar tests show nothing inside it at surface level. It runs deep into the lakebed, meaning it is mounted on a column. Objects of its type have never been seen in burial mounds. We don't know whether it is a coffin or a totem object of spiritual magic. Since it exists at the bottom of a glacial lake, it may have been carried there by a glacier. If that is the case, it is the oldest significant find in existence in regards to native culture in North America. Without a doubt, it is priceless. In the future, when the weather settles and world travel resumes at a busy pace, the ark could be a major tourist draw to this area.
To finish let me say that we did study it at night, and though local supernatural occurrences are attributed to it, we found no evidence of that. The find may have inspired unethical people, who are using it to cover their own dastardly actions. At present, we have roped off the point to keep the curious back and we will be returning from time to time to conduct minor tests. We are asking people to please keep away from the area."
Polite applause rose as Lynn Myers returned to her seat. It was obvious that some people in the crowd were not convinced by her statement in regards to supernatural occurrences. They were standing and waving desperately, trying to get questions in as Mayor Gus came back to the front. He silenced them with a gesture and looked to Police Chief Sawyer. "If there are culprits out there, Chief Sawyer is going to bring them into custody. Right now I want to bring him up for a question and answer session."
Rick felt Kim nudging him. "Looks like my land may be valuable."
"You mean you own that field by the point? I thought the co-op owned it?"
"I bought it from them two years ago. I also own the forested area near the ark and the point."
"You better watch out, Sawyer will see you as a suspect in the supernatural occurrences."
"Why would he think that?"
"You could gain from it. If the place becomes legendary it’s you who profits."
Their whispering got buried as Dan Sawyer's voice boomed over the speakers, and Sawyer didn't deliver a speech but opened saying he welcomed any evidence on recent criminal happenings. The first person to respond was the local exterminator, Anna Polee, and she excitedly stated that she had evidence proving the ark to be an alien spacecraft.
"I'm going for a walk," Rick said. "I can't stand an hour of this. Want to tag along?"
"No. You go. I'm going to collar dad and see if he wants to talk."
"Sure, go ahead. I'll be back before the meeting's over."
Rick eased his way down the aisle and exited the hall through a fire escape that had been propped open at the side. He emerged in a wide empty alley running between the hall and the post office. Lights from the front partially illumined the alley, revealing it to be a dead end. Turning right he strolled toward the lights and the parkette, kicking up pebbles as he went.
Stagnant night air assaulted him like sticky flypaper. He stepped under the maples and passed a handful of teens gathered at a bench. The faint din of the hall crowd and the PA could still be heard. Checking his watch, he decided he had time for a short walk around town.
A night bird caroled as he cut across the empty square. The slow humid breeze lent the quiet streets the ominous airs of a ghost town. Stores had been shut up neatly and circular patterns from the lamps pooled on the sidewalk. A number of taller, widely spaced streetlights glowed like phosphor, adding to the lonely feeling.
Summer heat still radiated from the store walls and the concrete. It brought moisture to his skin and he swept damp locks of hair from his forehead. Since the heat wave had blown in, he'd had the daily sensation of being browned in a very large barbecue.
A derelict car sat out front of Andy's Hardware. Feeling queasy, he wiped the dust off its fender and sat for a few minutes, reflecting as he studied the window display. The solar weed clipper and the miniature cultivator were brand-new. A rack of refurbished tools sat behind them. The tools had flaws and chips but they meant more to him than something new would. Everything had value in current culture. Products were made to last for resale. It was universally accepted that belief in throwaway things led to belief in a throwaway environment. Yesterday people had disposed of everything. They nearly disposed of the human race ... and one concept Rick couldn't grasp at all was the one of disposable cars - the pollution machines people used to purchase every few years. Rick's Sun Cobra had been designed to last a lifetime. It’d taken nearly all of his savings to purchase it, and since it guaranteed him work and the ability to flee killer heat waves, it was worth it.
There were a couple small problems with the engine of late and he remembered passing a garage a block from the square. Stopping by to ask a couple of questions would be a good idea. He noticed his reflection as he got up. In the glass, he looked much better than he felt. In his travels, he'd seen many men that looked like ghosts while they were still alive. Shoulders bent, pushed by the wind and heat like tumbleweeds. It hadn't happened to him and he hoped it never would.
Rick headed for the garage. He saw hungry bugs swirling under the neon lights of the station as he walked around the corner. A big rig sat at the dusty pump area. The stocky driver stood beside it chewing on a tobacco stick.
"Where are you headed?" Rick said as he walked up.
"West … at least I'm trying to head west," the driver said, one eye closing to a suspicious slit.
"Problems with the rig or is it the roads?"
"Both. Those last windstorms caused tree falls. I got detoured this way and got lost on the back roads. A crazy man nearly ran me off the road back by that dead lake. I had to stop here to check the suspension."
"Did you get his license number?"
"He wasn't driving. This nut was chasing a woman right down the road. Nearly put me in the ditch when I swerved. Some kind of domestic dispute I think. I didn't stop."
"Think you'd know them if you saw them again?"
"Maybe not. I got just a flash look. Tall blond woman, chased by a guy dressed like a cigar store Indian - a pretty ugly Indian if what I saw of his face was accurate."
"You should report it to the police."
"No way. I'm carrying a big load for the government and I'm not going back to that lake to see more strange lights and crazy people. I'll be heading west and I won't be stopping. You report it."
"There aren't any strange lights out there. Those are spotlights for the night workers in the fields."
"I passed the spotlights. The strange lights came before them and the near accident. They looked like blue balls of fire floating across the lakebed to the hills. I saw a flash like lightning, too. I even stopped on the roadside and got out to see if it would rain. It didn't and I got edgy and drove off."
A minute later, the rig was refueled. Rick got a drink from the machine and sipped it, watching as the driver pulled away. The guy's story had him so puzzled he didn't bother to talk to the station staff about the Sun Cobra. He just walked away shaking his head. When he got back to the town square, he found Kim waiting for him at the edge of the parkette.
She looked pale but radiant in the semi darkness. A calm romantic mood had replaced her earlier restless state. Taking his hand, she glanced back at the small gathering of teens near the hall steps. "Let's go over there and talk," she said, pointing at the trees.
They passed the dry fountain and went around some lilac bushes to an isolated picnic table. "I had a few words with my father," she said. "It looks like you were right. He's forgotten about old fashioned morality and only seems to be worried about my safety."
"Really. Then here's to safety."
They embraced, kissed and were drawn into something more. Her passion eclipsed his rambling thoughts. Forgetting himself, he reached up and began to caress her breasts, and she moaned softly as he lifted the fabric and began to kiss her nipples. He felt them harden in his mouth and the touch of her fingertips as they slipped over and closed on his erection. The heat was now like a fire; its smoke rising as dizziness and ecstasy. He longed for completion, and then he heard the chatter of people and realized that the hall was emptying. They broke apart and quickly rearranged their clothes.
Most of the townspeople lingered and gossiped in the parkette, but Kim didn't feel like socializing so they slipped through the trees to the car. Remembering the truck driver's story, Rick decided to a take a detour out past Deep Woods Lake. The cruise was down an empty highway past a line of roadside lights that grew thinner and vanished just outside of town. He slowed the car as they entered the narrower section of blacktop near the dead lake. His headlights tunneled into deep darkness but revealed little other than asphalt and the silhouette of the brush lining the roadside. The car rolled ahead for a quarter kilometer more, then Rick spotted skid marks, slowed and stopped on the shoulder.
"Grab the flashlight from the glove compartment," he said. "We'll take a look around."
They got out, finding their surroundings cloaked by heavy night. Most of the road was plunged in darkness. In the distance, the indigo sky stretched over the bleak lake like a lightly spangled flag. Just back of the shore a soft fan of light from field spotlights back-lit a section of forest and revealed a hazy portion of the point.
Kim flicked the flashlight on and shone it on the road. They were facing back toward the skid marks but couldn't see them. A sweep of the beam from one gravel shoulder to the other revealed nothing other than a few tall weeds.
The chatter of crickets drifted in the air and they heard another buzz that grew in intensity as they walked down the shoulder of the road. Kim turned the beam left toward the noise and after several more steps, a bulky outline showed in tall roadside grass. A cloud of flies hovering over it created the buzz.
"Looks like someone dumped a sack of garbage," she said.
Rick remained silent for a moment. She moved the beam and he saw a faint trail of red in the grass. "It's not trash. It's a body. Hold the light on it while I check it out."
Kim followed him for a few more steps. She held the light steady as he got up close. He leaned over, batting at the flies. "There's a lot of blood and it's a woman. I think she's been hit by a car. Wait a second. Her hair is gone! There's nothing but blood! This woman has been scalped and she's unconscious but still alive. Let's get back to the car and phone for help."
They dashed down road and Rick waited impatiently while Kim made the call. "An ambulance is coming straight out. It'll be a few minutes," she said.
"I better get back and see if there's any way we can help her," Rick said. Then he looked up and saw lights rising at the point. They were bright blue balls and fiery, just as the truck driver had said. Rising in the heat, they drifted off toward the distant hills and vanished.
In the Hills
A crazy dream about headless animals and tomahawks raining from the sky caused Rick to roll out of bed at noon. He thought about waking Kim but she appeared to be in deep sleep so he didn't bother. The air conditioner sputtered softly, covering the jangle he made while grabbing a bite in the kitchen. As he finished his juice, he looked out at the blistering day. Hazy clouds drifted in the sky, giving the sun the look of burnished metal. Bright sunbeams penetrated his thoughts and an idea rose.
He closed the front door quietly as he left, and as soon as he hit the walk radiation from the blazing sky touched him. In moments, he was sweating, even though he was standing in the shade. He aired the car out, but the hot upholstery still stung him as he got in.
Rick planned on researching the path of the strange lights of the night before, and that meant exiting the Tiverton green belt and heading over to the hills in back of Deep Woods Lake. The lights had moved in that direction and dropped at about the centre point of the hills. If they were anything more than an atmospheric effect, some evidence would be there.
He pushed the Sun Cobra to higher speeds and just beyond the last green belt cottage, the land slowly became parched wilderness. Evergreens held up surprisingly well in this area. All else was dying. In one long stretch the trees and foliage had been burned off. Even the road was smoke blackened and blowing with ash. Rick recognized it as the result of a controlled fire set to create a ring of protection around the green belt. When the rain came so would the lightning and forest fires. The tinderbox wilderness would burn.
He passed land that’d been fertile farmland in the past. Heat wasted, it’d grown over with scrub, wildflowers and weeds. These meadows were mostly dead. The evergreen scrub had gone rust colored and spots of disease covered even the hardiest weeds. In the back of his mind, he pictured the old native inhabitants of this land as they chanted for rain. He could see their dismay as those dances got answered by a hot hand of doom that seared and wilted everything. They would’ve frowned and muttered as the crops died. Hating the curse as their livestock perished. Hope must’ve vanished when the water sources dried up. Fear and panic would’ve set in as people began to drop from stroke and bacterial infections. Some of them would’ve hung on stubbornly until they died. In the end the rest likely fled, most of them dying on the trails. And then it happened again, only yesterday.
The heat waves often caused whole families to succumb to madness and delirium. Men thought it was raining when it was only a mirage. They'd wander and die in the fields and on the roadsides; bones picked clean by the ravenous flies.
People longed for rain and begged for rain. They cursed the stubborn sky that would not obey. With their last breaths, they'd whisper a plea for rain. But the only raindrops that fell were tiny tears on the cheeks of the grief stricken and dead. Like other legends and gods, the rainmakers had died long ago.
The dead meadowland ended at skeletal forest lining the edge of the hills. It was rough going on the road in this section as ruts, rocks, deadwood and weeds nearly choked it off. At the second hill, he got out to drag a branch aside. The exertion dizzied him and his head spun slightly as he gazed up the hillside. A shelf of dead turf hung precariously above. It was lined with deciduous trees that were so broken they looked like they'd been blasted by dynamite. Above them, an even deader scene rested in sunlight and silence. He knew nothing could be living on the boulder-strewn top.
By the fourth hill, the road became impassable and he had no intention of going in farther on foot. He turned the car around and as he did, he noticed green hillside just beyond the blockage. A glimpse through the web of boughs revealed sparkling water and fluttering insects.
Rick stopped and got out. He knew that an underground water source had to be the reason for the green strip. Deciding to investigate, he cut through some dead brush and found himself near the bank of a stream.
A dragonfly buzzed him. He walked down a ways, staring at the running stream, moss and water bugs as though they might be a mirage. A healthy willow towered over other dead trees and as he passed it, he saw a shack nestled in some trees on a ledge above.
A packed earth path angled up the steep side to the shack. Rick climbed it at leisure, rising in the filtered glare to the open sunshine above. At the top, he stepped out at the shack's rear. Thick weeds and grass surrounded the structure. He could see that it’d been a solid cabin at one time. The tough weather had stripped its paint and left the boards bleached and swollen. Rusted siding of the type used on walls composed a dented and dipping roof.
It was a shabby deal in general but there were signs of recent habitation. A compost mound and trash stood at the side, releasing an odor of tea and rotten vegetables. Flies assaulted him as he passed it.
He moved around to the front and another overgrown lot. A deadwood fence marked the perimeter, and beyond it, he could see a dirt road heavily choked by growth. The front door was ajar so he walked up and knocked gently. When no one answered, he pushed it open and looked inside.
The interior was musty and dark. Some light filtered in at the windows, which were covered by heavy sheets of opaque brown plastic. As his eyes adjusted a one-room cabin was revealed. A single table and chair, an icebox, and a bed in the back corner made up the furnishings.
He blinked as he studied the bed. There appeared to be someone sleeping on it. He stepped in thinking the person to be a woman. Then the body rolled over and he saw that it was an old man - an Indian, with a deeply creased face and braided gray hair.
"Are you all right?" Rick said.
"About as all right as a person my age gets."
"You don't look too well."
"I haven't looked well for years. In this heat who would? Who are you, anyway? No one's been out here in more than four years."
"Name's Rick. I'm from Tiverton. We've been seeing some strange lights in these hills. I came over to investigate."
"I'm Bill Brant. Lived out here all my life. When the others decided to move, I remained so I'd die near the burial grounds. As far as the lights go, don't bother to investigate. Go back and keep inside when you see the lights."
"I have to know what the lights are."
"The lights are evil. If you attract them they'll strike as lightning and steal your spirit. I know because they took my grandson."
"If his spirit is gone, then where is his body?"
"Taken by the rainmaker and scattered into the wind as blood and ashes."
"That's not possible."
Rising on the bed, the old man exposed stained teeth as he laughed. His watery brown eyes mocked Rick from the gloom. "My son did a rain dance out at the mounds. The lightning took him and the rainmaker came to me. This rainmaker has risen from the dead and he’s as old as Coyote. He showed me his spirit house rising in Deep Woods Lake. His rain will be the blood of the living and the dead. He took my grandson and he’ll take all men when he brings his storm."
"If that’s so, why didn't he take you?"
"I've been saved because of the rattle," he said, nodding towards a feathered rattle on the table beside him. "My grandson found it in the burial grounds. It provides protection but its powers can't be fully harnessed unless the Great Spirit enters its owner. My grandson tried to dance away the evil of the rainmaker and failed when the spirit abandoned him. Now he's dead and the rattle remains with me."
"Can I borrow that rattle - just to study it?"
"No. I’m charged to live and pass it on. If the Great Spirit returns, he’ll dance and destroy the rainmaker. If he doesn’t return I’ll have no one to pass it to and the end will come in a rain of blood."
The Garden of Night
Rick stepped out of the car in Sam's driveway. Kim followed and they stood by the hood. He spotted some deflation of the right tire, kicked it and sighed. Turning, he saw Sam walking down from the house. A light breeze cooled them as they waited. A night bird filled the air with lonely cries, and as Sam grew closer, Rick noticed that his characteristic smile was missing. A new troubled look as dark as his hair governed his face.
"You don't look happy, brother," Rick said. "It must mean more problems from the direction of the ark."
"It is. The police had to push back a mob the other night and cordon the area off. Later it rained near the ark. The rain came again last night."
"Rained?" Kim said. "There wasn't any rain. We were in the fields nearly all of both nights. It was dusty and dry."
"It rained, but only at the ark in the small area of lakebed around it. The police can't keep the crowd away now. They're there twenty-four-seven, staring at that damn thing, and stirring up all sorts of trouble. Some of them want to attack it while others want to harness its powers to make it rain. It's for sure that they aren't doing any work. At least half the co-op members are out there right now."
Kim frowned. Her nose twitched. "I've been keeping Rick away from the ark. We spent the last two days with each other. Good thing it wasn't a week or the whole world would’ve changed. I suppose we better go out and see what we can do."
Sam pursed his lips as he thought something over. "I'm going to drive out, too. I really need to see some rain."
An unknown light source back-lit the sky in the direction of the hills. Spreading from it, a luminous stain poured through the cloud cover over the dead lake. It melted the darkness at the lakebed and ark, creating a peculiar glow that grew in intensity just off the end of the point. Dust motes sparkled with near magic effect in the dusty air and the ark itself gleamed like a gem.
A stranger effect than the lighting surrounded the ark itself. Plant life had sprouted where only mud crust had existed two days before. This growth was nothing short of incredible. Ferns and tufts of grass had reached a height of two feet in one day and other smaller plants bloomed with fragrant white flowers. The new greenery was thickest at the edges of small pools of water, and under the orange radiation from the sky, the surface of these pools shimmered with gold. The largest of the pools was right near the ark and they could see a gaggle of town officials standing there staring into it.
"I rubbed my eyes and it's still there," Kim said. "I guess it must be real."
"The genetic properties of that plant life must be something new - and invaluable. Let's go over and see what's up."
Stepping through the roadside grass, they tried to decide on the best approach. From their spot on the shore, they could see the point. Spotlights mounted in the trees illumined most of it, including a shack that’d been recently constructed and several portions that’d been cleared of scrub and deadwood. A crowd of workers and townspeople had gathered at its end and police had roped it off at the shoreline. Two officers stood on the lakebed side of the rope, blocking access to the ark.
Driving around to enter near the mob didn't seem like a good idea. They locked up the car and went down the steep bank to the lakebed. The walk out enhanced the otherworldly feeling created by the brightened sky. It grew with every step and became paramount when they reached the ferns and the first pool.
Fascinated by the water, they stared at the glazed reflection of sky on its surface. Subtle ripples appeared as the colored backs of turtles appeared. Near the middle, they splashed under.
"There shouldn't be any turtles," Kim said. "I remember seeing thousands of them marching across the road when the lake dried up. They all went to the sister lake and ponds near it."
"Maybe some of them trekked back."
"In one day?"
"Hey, there's Sam over by the ark. Looks like he beat us here."
They felt the delicate brush of ferns against their legs as they strolled to the ark. Sam, Lynn Meyers and Mayor Gus met them at the tusks. The mayor's face was puckered with wrinkles and discontent, like the last couple of days had aged him greatly. With Lynn Meyers it was the opposite. The find was a big thing to her and she was in her element, growing younger instead of older.
"Welcome to the Twilight Zone," Lynn said.
"You mean welcome back," Kim replied.
Mayor Gus cleared his dusty throat. "Sam says you were talking to an old Indian in the hills. Do you think he could read some of the artwork on the ark?"
"Bill Brant is his name. He probably could read the art, but he's a crazy old doomsayer. He has a magic rattle he says protects him and he's afraid of the ark. Says it's the abode of an evil rainmaker."
Lynn raised her eyebrows in interest. "The images do tell the story of a rainmaker and it did rain right here at the ark. So far we can interpret some of the story. The rest of it is done in symbols belonging to an unknown tribe that appears to predate all others. My students are on the other side of the box there, finishing photos and sketches of it all. We're nearly done, but at present we're stumped. We do plan on sending copies of the sketches to experts that may be able to read them and let us know what is happening here."
Kim appeared puzzled by Lynn's statement. She glanced at one of the sketch artists standing near the north corner of the box. "Do you really expect to solve this with an academic answer? I can't imagine any expert even believing us when it comes to the sudden greenery, strange lights and rain."
"You do have a point. That's why we wanted to know about this local Indian Rick found. If he’s remained near the burial mounds he's likely an old medicine man."
"He is," Rick said. "But maybe we should use our heads before we bring him in. How about the date of this story on the ark. It must be something that took place long ago?"
"No. It's not a time capsule story. The events written on it are taking place right now, using art and symbols from long ago. It tells the story of a rainmaker doing certain things and gathering power and ritual objects. Yet we don't know the ultimate goal of it all. One drawing shows the ferns around the ark. Another the lights. The pools and turtles are on still another. Then there are the older images that we can't read. They are in symbols and hidden from us. I believe they depict events, or else power objects the rainmaker must gather."
"It all sounds impossible, doesn't it?" said Mayor Gus. "Trying to govern that mob is impossible, too. So far, we haven't even seen a rainmaker. Unless he's that evil poacher some people have encountered."
"I think I'll talk to Bill Brant again," Rick said. "Other than just watching as things unfold, he's about the only lead we have."
"Sounds good," Lynn said. "I'll get some copies of the sketches you can take out to him."
Sam joined Rick and Kim as they walked through the ferns to the shore. They stopped halfway to watch the turtles swimming in the pool. Rick looked back at the ark and a young redheaded woman taking photos. "I didn't see Sawyer around," Rick said. "I wanted to ask him a few questions about Brant and the burial mounds. Like whether there's a local history of strange stuff."
"There's a history," Sam said. "See that shack near the end of the point. That's Sawyer's new command post. Take a walk over if you want."
"I'll wait at the car," Kim said. "I don't feel like talking to Sawyer. I've always hated the man."
"No problem," Rick said. "I won't be long."
Rick got halfway to the point and thought about turning back. There were hoots and catcalls from the mob and they pushed forward at the rope. "Rain, is it going to rain?" one man shouted loudly and continuously, until Rick shouted back that he didn't know.
Getting through the mob was also difficult. The police helped him past the rope then the people jostled him and surged around him. He remained silent as bad breath, insults and questions got in his face. Fortunately, they did not stick with him but put their attention back toward the ark as he passed through. It was a short walk down the path to Sawyer's command post. And when he reached it he found the door open with Sawyer sitting inside on a chair by a portable fan. He had his rifle on his lap and if anything, he looked bored.
That boredom lifted when Rick asked if there'd been a local history of strange occurrences. Sawyer ripped into the subject like a professional taleteller, reciting spooky facts about local houses, strange disappearances and lights near the burial mounds. According to Sawyer the locals had always been afraid of the First Nations people, especially old Brant and other medicine men. Most of that fear had ended three years ago when the heat forced them to move to a healthier area further north. No one knew that old Brant was still around, but Sawyer speculated that even if the mob found out, they would be too afraid to go over and cause him any trouble.
By the time Rick left, twenty minutes had passed and his head was full of details that seemed irrelevant. He'd heard a lot of crowd noise while listening to Sawyer and now he saw that it had been the reaction of the mob as Lynn Meyers and Mayor Gus returned with the sketch artists. They were arriving at their cars near the command post and the mob was still surging around them
Since he had to cut over the lakebed to his car, he decided the time was right to get through without many people noticing him. He went down to the ropes and one of the officers blocked him. Only Sawyer could let him through according to the cop, so he turned back toward the shack.
Sawyer was outside now but he couldn't help as he was busy throwing two men he'd arrested into the back of his cruiser. "Just walk around the long way," Sawyer said. "I'm sure your girlfriend will wait."
Rick did that, following the taillights of Sawyer's cruiser down the road a stretch before cutting into a dark swath of weeds to an area of abandoned shoreline. He began the walk along the stony shore but didn't get far before bright lights rose and the mob started shouting. Stopping next to a boulder he looked back at the people on the point then out at the ark and the descending lights.
They came to ground like strange balls of fire and disintegrated in implosions of blue light. It took a moment for his eyes to readjust, and when they did he saw shadows draping a ghostly male form. This ghost wore native ceremonial dress, and as he moved through the ferns, flashes of light flickered from the large gemlike stone he carried. Stopping at the edge of a pool he held it chest high and let its light dapple the surface of the water. The gem also lit his face, which from a distance seemed sunken and tinged with blue-black.
It was the lingering image of his skeletal face that awoke the point crowd from its state of amazement. Dave Castle from the hardware store shouted, "He looks evil!" Then a person near him yelled, "Hey rainmaker, you gonna make it rain tonight?"
At the pool, the rainmaker remained unmoved. He showed no sign of being aware of the people and that agitated some of them. The shouting mob surged forward to the rope and town's two police officers held out their arms to block them.
That action stopped everyone but Castle. He managed to squirm left and vault over the rope's post. He began a dash across the flats. An officer turned to pursue him, then he turned back to stop more people from surging through.
Rick watched as Dave Castle sprinted to the edge of the ferns. A glance back to the rainmaker showed him absorbed in his gem and the pool. As Castle approached slowly, the rainmaker reached out and lightly tossed his gem into the water. Brilliant beams flashed up into the night, and they were followed by moments of absolute darkness.
It was almost like reality switching on and off. There were gasps in the crowd and Dave Castle continued to walk through the ferns. He was saying something to the rainmaker but Rick heard only garbled words. This time the ghostly Indian did notice and respond. He turned to Castle, pulling an object from his pouch as he moved.
The close-up of the rainmaker's face had an immediate hair-raising effect on Castle. He stopped in his tracks and began to back away. Fright lit his features.
Loose feathers, beads and rawhide strings showed as the rainmaker raised his rattle. He began to shake it slowly and his lips moved in an ancient chant. An almost imperceptible shifting of his feet marked the beginning of his dance, and the effect was immediate and powerful. Heat lightning flashed in the sky. Shadows swept down like vultures.
Scared out of his wits, Dave Castle began to run back to the point. The crowd there was also starting to retreat as the people backed away from the shoreline.
Turning to the four winds, the rainmaker continued his dance. Shakes of his rattle sent gusts roaring in the trees at the shoreline near Rick. Lightning flashed again, highlighting Castle as he raced out of the ferns. A swing of the rainmaker's arm sent thunder rolling, then a black bolt shot down and the mud around Castle curled up in a wave of lava and fire.
Blast furnace heat consumed Castle as he flew forward into hellish distortion and curtains of flame. He emerged with his hair on fire and the flesh of his face swelling outward like a hot balloon; a moment later it exploded from his skull in a hideous display of blood and savaged tissue.
Thunder rolled again as Castle vanished into an eruption of steaming mud. Then the sky began to calm and it started to rain softly.
The panicked crowd noticed that the rainmaker had somehow vanished along with Castle. Then they observed something else - the rain was red, filled with drops of blood.
Chaos ensued as people screamed and ran. Blood smeared on their faces as they tried to wipe away the drops. It was too much for even the police. One of the officers collapsed on the shore, while the other stood babbling with blood dribbling on his lips.
Concerned about Kim, Rick pulled his eyes from the point and began to run across the lakebed. Gusts of wind gave him great speed, and when he arrived he was relieved to find her standing on the dark shore with Sam. She looked stunned but she was dry, having been out of the range of the rain. He embraced her and felt her shiver. He knew that she'd seen the same hideous death he had.
Clouds blew across the sky in dappled steam patterns that coalesced as a fleece of fool's gold in the sunset light of the horizon. Rick sat chin in hand at the picnic table, viewing an isolated stretch of Wolverton Beach. The picture was almost tropical, like deserted island shores. Kim moved in the scene, and she was naked, walking carefully over the gray stones to the edge of the water. Streaks of perspiration glistened on the small of her back and buttocks; the evening being so humid that faint wisps of steam rose at her feet.
He watched as she splashed out in the shallow water, then he stripped off his shirt and brushed his sticky hair back with his fingertips. Swimming overhand, Kim broke the smooth blue surface farther out. Beyond her thick columns of haze hid most of the far shore.
Stray sunset beams swept the mist like divine searchlights, revealing strips of shoreline. Haze blew like faint smoke in the filtered light, creating sketches of a strange netherworld. Perhaps a place in the future the miserable heat wave had created. In that torrid land the burning sun existed as the only god; a deity of flies and vultures that had ascended and burned off the roots of his life. His wife Ann and baby Susan were gone. Now he had Kim and the evil eye aimed flash fires at his life again. It raised demons as it cracked the earth, and they brought shadows of death by delirium. Even the ark and the ghostly rainmaker were products of the evil eye. And if they weren’t, then they were preordained by some elder spirits … tricksters who had known that a time would come when only demons and rainmakers would survive.
Rick's head cleared as he reached the shore and dived into the water. The cool splash led to fifteen minutes of playfulness with Kim, then they emerged dripping and she yelped as the sharp pebbles bit into her softened soles. Jumping to his hips she let him carry her to the grass. She wrapped her wet body around him and kissed him before they toweled off, and as the heat began to rise on their skin again they returned to the picnic table and the shade.
A message waited on Kim's pocket phone, which she picked up as Rick opened the cooler. The interruption left him standing, holding dripping cans of juice in his hands, listening to a recording of Lynn Myers talking in near hysteria about an attempt to blow up the ark.
They didn't want to leave the beach but Meyers left them with little choice. Fortunately it was only a ten-minute drive. Sunset colours were fading to twilight on the point as Rick turned into the widened parking lot. He powered down, they got out quickly and strode towards Police Chief Dan Sawyer's makeshift command post near the point's end.
Sawyer had driven his cruiser all the way out and he had its red spinner on as he stood beside it exchanging heated words with Lynn Meyers. More bright lights were flashing out by the ark, and they were spotlights held by Sawyer's two men. They illumined Chris Hassan, the town fire chief, as he arranged some bulky objects by the ark walls.
Sawyer and Meyers fell silent as they stepped up. Kim was the first to speak. "Who came up with this explosion plan?"
"It's my idea," Sawyer said, looking almost surreal in the sweeping lights. "The town council didn’t approve it - they can't do it legally."
"I don't approve either," said Lynn. "Legally or illegally."
"Neither do I," Kim said. "You can't set off charges next to my land without notifying me well in advance."
"What about the feds?" Rick said. "If you blow up an archaeological find that belongs to them, they'll have you arrested."
"That's not true. I have the power to declare a local state of emergency under federal law. And I have done so."
Rick frowned. "Those powers are only supposed to be used to deal with weather-related disasters."
"Yes, and this is one. The heat has caused Mayor Gus and his council to go soft in the head. Donny Armstrong is leading a spooked mob around town and they're threatening to take matters into their own hands. If I don't act to end this the social order will break down completely."
"I know about Donny Armstrong," Rick said. "But there's no guarantee that blowing up the ark will stop him. You may be dynamiting the ark and the social order."
"Chris isn't laying dynamite sticks out there. These are special charges for a controlled explosion. The fury of the blast will implode the ark, reducing it to pebble-sized fragments. Take if from me. That spook medicine man is going to pay for his crimes in this town, because we're going to blow him to kingdom come."
"So, it's revenge is it?" Rick said.
"If you people try to stop us you'll be arrested and jailed. Now clear back off of this point. We're blowing that thing before nightfall."
Sawyer drew his Glock pistol. His pupils flashed with red reflections from the spinning cruiser light and his thin lips firmed up and formed an arrogant grimace. Rick decided they better pull back. He nodded to Kim and she took Lynn's arm. They walked away in silence, but near the car Kim started to curse under her breath. "I hate that man. I opposed the decision to put him in as police chief."
"He's going to destroy a priceless find," Meyers said, still partially in shock over the turn of events.
"We'll watch it from the highway," Rick said.
Night closed like a hood over the last of twilight as they pulled off the roadside. A small spotlight remained lit out by the ark, but the men had left. Rick spotted them over by the command post, preparing to detonate. And he knew the blast was coming when Dan Sawyer and Gus ducked down behind the cruiser. Chris Hassan held the detonator behind the shack.
The initial explosion came as a powerful yellow flash, and the blast itself had a miniature nuclear look to it. A column of brilliant dust rose at the ark and hung high above it for several seconds. Like a strange tornado, it rolled in on itself, the collapse initiating a terrible rumble and a second explosion. This thunderous blast shot up like an incredible series of fireworks that rained stones, earth and other flaming debris down on the lakebed and the point. As the last streamers fell, darkness and dust settled in, hiding the ark from view.
The rolling dust sped the arrival of complete darkness, but they could still see the lights on the point. Sawyer, Gus and Hassan had come out of hiding and they were trying to see through the cloud with binoculars.
"I hope that bastard is happy," Kim said.
"I'm sure he is," Rick said. Then ferns came into view in the settling dust.
"Looks like they failed to destroy everything," Lynn said.
And they had. More of the scene cleared, showing the plant life and pools intact. Moments later the outline of one of the tusks appeared, then the ark itself showed. It didn't appear to have a scratch on it. The explosion had failed to destroy it. It had failed to do anything other than raise dust.
Though it seemed bizarre and unbelievable, Rick couldn't help but grin. Kim broke away from him and began to whoop with laughter. Lynn Meyers stared but didn't move … an owlish look of amazement on her face.
An animated argument broke out between the men on the point, and it got interrupted by large objects raining down from the sky. Several of them crashed near the command post, and after a quick look up the men ran for cover inside. None of the objects landed out on the highway, but some fell close enough to be identified. They were birds. Gulls to be exact. Sawyer's explosion had somehow led to a rain of thousands of dead gulls.
Dan Sawyer's failed explosion led to a loss of confidence in his abilities as police chief. By the next day, Donny Armstrong and his mob had control of the town. As Sawyer cruised about the countryside trying to rally support, Rick decided to head off in a different direction. That being back out to Bill Brant's place. He took Kim and the sketches with him, and they found Brant in much better health and willing to help.
The old Mohawk stood in the tangle of weeds at edge of the rise. "We have to go to a spot over there," he said, pointing off into the distant hills. "My people have known about those images for hundreds of years. They exist in cave paintings at the underground Wolverton stream. Recently my grandson did some work on them. He said he translated the images in his own paintings at the cave mouth."
"We really need to find a solution in the interpretation," Kim said. "Since the explosion, Donny Armstrong and a mob have taken control in Tiverton. They're meeting at the town hall right now. Probably coming up with plans even crazier than Sawyer's."
"I don't think there is a solution to the rainmaker," Bill said. "It's more like he's a solution to us. People like Armstrong and Sawyer only aid him."
"Let's go," Rick said.
Brant nodded then a frown creased his brow. He appeared to be contemplating something he couldn't quite explain. They walked silently down the rise to the car and as they wound their way out of the tinderbox forest, they saw smoke from a forest fire raging in the distance. Strong winds carried the blaze away from Tiverton; it moved east like a hungry predator, soon to devour farms and greener lands with its fiery fangs.
A trip through the hills took them to the location Brant had pointed out. He told Rick to slow as they approached the turnoff. Acres of dead meadow ran to either side of the old road. Faint tire ruts were all that remained of it, but the track was smooth. Rick turned in and rolled slowly down it, heading for an area of dead forest at its end. As they grew closer to the trees, the magnitude of the heat devastation became apparent. A jungle of sticks and straw gleamed under heat-magnified sunlight, and in many places it had banked into reefs of debris. Only the largest trees remained standing, though they were also dead. Shattered trunks and stumps were all that was left of the rest.
A solid line of debris blocked the track into the forested area, and the road came to end at a helter-skelter tumble of sun-bleached logs. At that point a limestone outcropping rose from the meadow and Rick stopped in its shadow.
Kim looked back at the old Indian, and he broke his silence. "The cave entrance is on the other side of this rock. We won't have to go in far. My grandson's paintings are near the surface."
A blaze of sun lit the dead land as they trekked over the outcropping. Rick struggled with a heavy canvass pack and trailed the others on the clay path. Kim was in front of him, carrying the folio of sketches and a camera. Bill Brant walked in the lead, carrying only his pouch.
A boulder chiseled into the shape of a Mohawk bear's head marked the mouth of the cave. The opening itself had been enlarged to a rectangular shape, giving it the appearance of a mineshaft. They moved down the outcropping and Rick dropped his heavy pack as they paused at the entrance.
"We'll need lights, but we won't need any of those tools," Bill said. "We're not going in deep to the risky sections."
"Doesn't matter. If an emergency does come up, I want to have the tools to get us out."
Though they had to enter by ducking through in single file, the interior immediately widened. The first hundred feet of the slight incline came with a low ceiling, but after that it reached a height of seven feet.
The temperature drop was at least ten degrees and that provided tremendous relief. Yet the place was still dusty and dry like a mine. Even the slightest movement set huge dust motes floating in the beam of Rick's lamp.
The floor suddenly leveled off at a wide section and the lamp revealed paintings on the coarse stone walls. These ran on for a distance in a broken mural style and farther down heaps of bones were scattered beside them on the floor.
"Many animals retreated here and died. My grandson cleaned up the skeletons. Probably a lot of smaller beasts are still alive in the lower portions."
"What would they live on?" Rick said.
"Listen carefully, tell me what you hear."
"A faint rushing sound. Maybe wind or water."
"It's both. There are caverns and an underground stream nearly as big as a river below. It's the source that keeps Wolverton Lake alive. The original paintings are down below, but we aren't going to try to go down there. That would be a major effort even for the best of cavern explorers. The paintings here are copies my grandson made. He took nearly all of the major features and used a system he invented to interpret the unknown symbols."
"If it's all here, putting together the unknown elements of this sketch should be easy."
"Maybe not that easy. We'll see."
Rick dropped his pack in the centre of the floor and walked over to the wall. A huge painted eagle rose beside Kim as she placed her lamp and folder of sketches on the floor.
"Something about this place gives me the creeps," Rick said, turning to Kim. "Those stalactite knobs belly in the centre. Maybe this portion of roof is unstable. Let's do this fast. I light up the sketches, Bill finds the relevant portions of painting, and you take the photos."
"Sounds fine," Kim said. "Show him sketch one while I load the film."
Rick pulled out a small flashlight and shone the beam on sketch one. The image on the heavy paper looked like a cross between an animal likeness and a math symbol. Bill squinted at it with watery eyes, and then he carried the lantern as he walked along the wall. Kim followed with the camera and about ten metres down Bill squatted and drew an invisible circle with his finger. "Guess it's an older version of the Mi'kmaq symbol for a child," he said as Kim moved in to take the photo.
They had the photos inside of twenty minutes but waited while Kim made a small set of test prints. "They look okay," she said. "We'll blow them up on a tablet at Rick's place to piece it all together."
Bill nodded, Rick picked up his pack and they turned to leave. Kim flashed her light down the tunnel, they took about five steps then they heard a morbid howl echo through the cave. It was a beastly cry that invoked images of a prowling predator.
"That's the same howl we heard the night we found the ark," Kim said. "It has to be that animal that raced by us then. The rainmaker's invisible pet."
Rick patted her on the shoulder. "Let's get out of here before it comes up from below."
Bill seemed reluctant. He didn't move. "Hold on," he said. "That howl is similar to a coyote cry, and I think it came from the entrance, not below."
"What choice do we have," Rick said. "There's no other way out unless we go deep underground. And speed wise we couldn't escape it anyway. I have a gun in my pack. If it's at the entrance we'll confront it there."
Moving slowly through the dusty darkness they made their way to the entrance. Kim shone her beam about nervously, sweeping it into every dark area. But they saw nothing other than dust motes, lumps of rock and bones. A distant pinhole grew to a doorway of sunlight and at that point the cave narrowed. They would have to file out.
Rick dropped his pack and they switched off their lights. He'd already drawn his gun, and it was a snub-nosed Remington with a computerized ammo attachment. "I'll leave the pack here and go first," he said. "If anything tries to block us I'll shoot it."
"Wait," Bill said. "I want to try something." He undid the clasp of the pouch he wore at his side. Pulling out a black cloth bag he opened it, revealing contents that looked like gold dust. Scooping out a large handful, he opened his upturned palm and blew long and hard, sending a cloud of the stuff sailing toward the sunlit entrance. Particles glittered and spun as they traveled into the beams. These were light like seed fluff and they stayed afloat. Air currents carried the cloud out of the cave and the particles drifted at the mouth. One spot remained clear of dust, and a shape was revealed - it was a large body, an invisible animal form crouching in wait.
It suddenly moved and paced toward the entrance. Rick raised his gun and fired two shots. The projectiles hit the creature's shoulder and created a dizzying flash of silver light and sparks. No wounds appeared but the predator turned its head, revealing a canine maw with huge rippling teeth and eyes like bright ice. A moment later it roared and leapt away from the entrance, its shape flowing like that of a large coyote.
"It loathes being seen," Bill said. "Coyote spirits are like that."
Rick stared at his gun like it was a useless lump of coal. "Think it's safe to exit?" he said.
"Somewhat safe," Bill said. "It will be watching, but it won't attack if it means giving up invisibility. Your gun won't stop it if it does."
They moved forward toward the exit, and Bill took the lead this time. Moments later they emerged in the sunlight and looked around. Rick saw movement like wind in the grass on the rise, and it was quickly gone.
"Let's keep moving to the car," Bill said. "We won't be safe until we’re out of here."
This time they walked quickly, in spite of the heat. Rick felt sweat bead on his brow and he kept checking his back. As they descended to the car a dead tree suddenly crashed in the forested area and they heard an animal snort. More debris cracked as it raced off to the south. Moving quickly Rick packed the stuff in the trunk, and then they were off, speeding down the dirt track to the highway.
Foam-capped waves rolled in softly near Rick's cottage on Wolverton beach. Bill sat next to him at the picnic table and they both watched as Kim delicately carried the sketches, photos and an eighteen-inch display tablet back to the cottage. She returned with a cooler, her hair lifting and flying in the wind as she walked barefoot on the path.
"So what do we tell Lynn Meyers and Mayor Gus?" Rick said.
Bill shrugged. "We need to come up with a plan to stop the rainmaker and pass that information to them."
Kim placed the basket on the table. "Let's have a quick recap, Bill, and see if we can figure anything out."
"Good idea," Bill said. "Keeping it simple and not picking at details may help. The ark images show Coyote, the rainmaker, the ark rising, the townspeople, the grasses, ferns, water, turtles and a series of tasks and animal sacrifices and ceremonies with power objects. Rain is depicted but often as blood. According to the cave paintings, our rainmaker wears the ancient symbols of life and death. He has come back from the dead. In the depictions of ceremonies, the end of the chain or goal is to raise the dead in the burial hills surrounding the lake. He will give them life by stealing it from others through his rain of death. He is even staying alive himself in the same way. The man you saw killed by his lightning in fact had his life force stolen by the rainmaker. Most troubling are those images of the dead rising. His tribe rises from the dead, and the final ceremony he must perform shows his rain dance sending a rain of death across the lands to gather the life force he needs."
"In other words," Rick said. "He plans on killing us all with some kind of rainfall of death. Could he possibly do that?"
"The images on the ark line up with what the rainmaker told me when he visited me in spirit form at my cabin. He can make it rain. He has Coyote, an ancient Indian god as his assistant, and you've already seen him kill. Whatever the magic is it raised him from the dead. Without a doubt we’ll all die and soon, if he finishes."
"What's left for him to do?" Kim said.
"The ceremonies involving the power objects are probably completed. He had to make it rain and then make it rain blood and that is done. The symbol of death appeared a couple times over images of men and he has killed. The last image before his final rain dance shows a foreign tribe making a sacrifice to him. The people of Tiverton would be that tribe and as far as we know there hasn't been a sacrifice. We must make sure it doesn't happen."
"What about his final rain dance?" Rick said. "Can that be stopped?"
"In all magic there is counter magic," Bill said. "The image of two rattles is there on the ark. One is the rainmaker's rattle of death and the other is the rattle of the Great Spirit. I believe the second rattle is the one that I have. But I can't use it because the image shows the counter magic as a dance by the Great Spirit. If the spirit dances, the power will somehow end the rain of death and destroy the rainmaker. Our only hope is to stop the sacrifice. I don't know of any magic that will return the spirit to earth to take human form and dance. If I did I’d be as powerful as the rainmaker. My grandson already tried and died when the spirit refused to enter him. There’s one symbol in the depiction of the spirit in human form that I couldn't interpret. Perhaps if I could figure it out we'd have an answer."
Rick started to speak then Kim's phone jingled out a tune and he stopped as she answered. Clicking it off she looked to the others. "Dan Sawyer has gone missing. Gus needs our help. They're going to search the woods south of Deep Woods Lake. They found his cruiser on the roadside near there."
"Bill can wait here," Rick said. "Knowing Sawyer, my guess is he's either up to no good or he's come to a bad end."
Rick reluctantly left the cottage to aid in the search for Sawyer. Kim sat silently beside him as he gunned it down the empty stretch of highway to the Deep Woods turnoff. The dirt road came to an abrupt end at a ditch and windbreak of tall firs. Mayor Gus and about twenty men, all of them armed, were already there. Beyond them, through gaps in the firs, sunlight baked an area of dried deciduous forest. Tree falls blocked much of it and just at a glance, Rick could sense the hostile spirit that governed it. In any prolonged search, they'd be more at risk of losing people than of finding anyone.
Rick parked among the line of vehicles then fiddled with his pack while Kim jumped out and went ahead of him. By the time he reached the group conflict had developed between Kim and some of the men.
"You should mind your own business," Al Rourke said. "We need these guns. The rainmaker might be out here."
"You won't shoot the rainmaker," she said. "Once you fan out in there you'll shoot each other."
"She's right," Mayor Gus said. "The weapons are to remain here with me. George and I will stay behind and keep in touch through the handsets. If at any time weapons are needed, George will carry them out. Ronny is designated as the canary. He's got a touch of asthma and is the weakest. When he reports signs of fatigue you all turn back."
Al nodded, and some of the others grumbled, but in spite of their objections they filed up and handed in their guns. Gus laid them out in a neat row in the shade of the firs, and then he sat on a log and watched as they shouldered their packs and walked to the other side of the ditch.
They spread wide, entering the forest wherever obstructions were the least. Deciding to stay together, Rick and Kim took a position at the southern end of the line. It proved a wise choice. They ducked around a section of loose brush that’d been blown into a barricade and found the dry bed of a stream. Following it they were able to move some distance quickly. In spite of that a proper search was impossible. Huge trees lined both banks - dead as scarecrows they creaked in the hot breeze and blew with fading cobwebs and dry rot. On most of the stretch fungus-covered logs clogged the forest …many of them bursting with spores and mould that filled the air with dust motes and a foul odor.
A tumble of boulders marked a sharp turn of the streambed, and as they rounded the bend they were greeted by a human skull grinning from a clump of crisp weeds. A clearing in the forest stretched behind the skull and it was mostly open and carpeted with wind-beaten brown grass.
They walked up to the skull then stepped over it into the clearing. It was empty but a few trees sprinkled its far end and one of them stood next to a mound. It looked quite odd, having no limbs but a fattened trunk.
Sun glare put spots in their eyes as they moved across the field. In the back of his mind Rick saw the ugliness of scorching summer rising as another skull. He wished he hadn't come out on this search. Dead lands were too depressing and Police Chief Dan Sawyer was a person he didn't want to find alive or dead. His gut feeling was that Sawyer had perished, though he didn't realize just how close he was to the truth of that feeling. It rose up like a cliff only a moment later as Kim said," Oh my God - that's a corpse fastened on that tree!"
Rick's eyes went to the mound and to the tree, but sun glare and spots washed in and he saw little other than a dark patch near the top. "I can't see. We'll have to get a little closer," he said. Then he got on his handset and called Mayor Gus. "We found something out here. South end of the line. Follow the streambed. We're investigating it now."
Kim grimaced and turned away. "I can't look at that horrible thing. It's doing stuff to my mind."
But Rick's vision hadn’t settled and he continued to step forward. His brow was in a tight squint and in the haze the sun seemed almost in eclipse. The corona blinded his view of the top, but the bottom was visible. Stripped of branches and bark the partially rotted tree trunk had been carved with totem-like images. A pattern resembling bird tracks stretched up from the withered weeds. Larger and more intricate carved feathers were above it, ending at an owl-like face that was hideously distorted. Rings of rot formed a division and the higher section was smooth and stained red.
His focus returned and he could see that the darker patch contained a body. Lashed to the pole with numerous strings of leather, it was naked from the chest up and covered with reddened sores. Flesh puffed up blue like a rubber mask covered the face, the eyes were swollen closed and a wig of dark feathers crowned it.
Rick was sure it was Sawyer and that he'd been dead for some time. Then he saw the swollen lips move and realized that Sawyer was still alive. The vision caused him to quiver with horror; being alive in such a state was so ghastly that he couldn't stand to look any longer. He knew how Kim felt. A wheel of sun glare spun to splashes of blood in his mind. Shaken, he turned away and nearly vomited.
Gus and some of the others were walking into the field, and he saw Kim dashing to them. A few words were exchanged then he saw them look to the totem. Confusion ruled their brows; he knew they weren't quite sure what they were seeing. Only Gus stepped forward, walking toward Rick and the totem. His mouth opened in surprise and shock, and he nearly dropped the rifle he'd been holding lamely at his side. Gus took a few more steps then he shivered in the heat and a mixed expression of horror, pity and revulsion warped his face.
But Gus didn't turn away; his arm came up slowly with the rifle and before anyone could say or do anything he opened fire on the totem.
Blood showered in the sunlight as the bullets impacted on Dan Sawyer's chest and head. Then Kim gasped and Gus collapsed slowly into the dry grass. Rick and the other men ran to him. "Let's get him out of here," Rick said. "We'll come back later and cut the body down."
They stopped briefly at the cottage, talked to Bill then left to visit Sam. Keeping the farms running remained a problem and the social visit was shortened as Sam was called out on business. Left behind, they sipped drinks on the patio and talked little. Kim wanted to shake off the grisly images of Dan Sawyer's death and her face remained troubled as she stared at the darkening horizon. Inky patches at the tree line frightened her and the rolling waves of heat distortion kept folding the scene into a rippled wall of dead flesh. She was beginning to recover when they got a call from one of Mayor Gus' staffers.
His voice carried a strong sense of urgency as he informed them of an emergency meeting in town. The rest of his message convinced them that the rainmaker and the curse of the ark hadn’t faded. "Sawyer's death has panicked the town," he said. "Now Donny Armstrong has found out about Gus firing the shots that finished him. He's made the news public. Though in his version it’s cold-blooded murder and not a mercy killing. Chaos is the controlling force here. Gus says it's impossible for us to warn people about the rainmaker's plans."
Though it was short notice they left immediately, heading for town at high speed. The car hurtled through hot sooty darkness and burst into bright highway lights ten minutes later at the bend leading into town. Rick slowed on spotting a roadblock ahead. Sawhorses and pickup trucks formed the barrier beside the turnoff into the Lakeside fuel station.
Slowing and rolling onto the shoulder, Rick turned into the station lot. The entire area ahead was congested by diverted vehicles and people that’d emerged from them. About twenty cars were parked in the open field beside the station and a noisy crowd had gathered out front of the variety store.
Several armed men loitered near the garage doors and four more thugs walked around the pumps to approach the car. Garish light from the big station sign glossed their sweaty faces as they walked up. Three of the men were burly and unshaven. They wore rumpled work clothes and the apparent leader, a tall gaunt man, wore a summer suit. His eyes were big though shadowed and hungry for trouble.
"Those are some of Donny Armstrong's friends," Kim said. "Keep the engine running and don't get out."
Stepping up next to the window, the lean leader glared in at Rick. He didn’t bother to holster his handgun.
"What's going on?" Rick said. "We were called into town for an emergency meeting."
"Meeting's been cancelled by the new police chief."
"Really. Who is the new police Chief?"
"How'd he get the job?'
"We voted him in."
"Yeah," Kim said. "How'd you vote, by firing shots in the air?"
"What's done is done, and you two have the same choice as the others. Either side with us or be arrested."
"Before I side with Donny Armstrong I want some idea on what he plans to do. Sawyer already tried using force on the rainmaker. It didn't work. We need intelligence and a plan."
"Donny's got a plan. The rainmaker came to him in a dream. Told him what to do. I don't know exactly what the plan is but it's already in motion. It's supposed be a deal that saves us all. The rainmaker is going to make it rain everywhere this time."
"Where exactly is Donny? Why isn't he here?"
"Donny's in town right now. He's gone in with a few men to arrest Mayor Gus for the killing of Dan Sawyer. Gus will be taken to the police station. The two remaining officers that served under Dan will be ordered to stand down."
Rick raised his eyebrows slightly and he didn't reply. Instead, he hit the window control, rolling it up. Caught by surprise the gunman tried to stop the glass from closing and nearly got his fingers jammed in it. He pounded it with his left fist as Rick hit the shift, then the car lurched forward, brushing him aside.
Following a clear path through the pumps, Rick accelerated as guns fired from behind. Slugs and a shotgun blast hit the rear windshield and were deflected by the Sun Cobra’s weatherproof glass. The crowd ahead dispersed in panic and more gunmen charged out and fired as they raced past the pumps. Gunshots continued to slam the car like sledgehammer blows, but Rick managed to turn out to the open highway and they were free and racing off in the insect-swirling lights.
"They aren’t following us," Rick said.
"They'll call ahead to Donny and see what he says. He'll know we're coming."
The first stretch of houses flew by, then faint smoke blew across the road and a denser cloud drifted through a field by the old dance hall on Water Street. The odors of a house fire blew in as Kim lowered her window and they suddenly spotted thick tongues of flame and soot licking beyond the rooftops on the next block. Turning in the direction of the fire, they encountered a gang of teenage kids running across road.
"Think those kids started the fire?" Rick said.
"No. They're terrified, running from something else. I'm pretty sure those flames are from Gus' house, too. Maybe Donny wants to kill him, not arrest him."
The car squealed into a turn, headed directly for the fire. The street had large yards and new houses of the simple brick and frame variety. Only one burned and it was completely ablaze, spitting dragon's breath from shattered windows and the front door. It looked to be abandoned and though neighbouring houses were endangered by the blaze no one was out on the lawns.
"It's Gus' house," Kim said as Rick slowed and stopped at the edge of the property.
Dogs barked furiously in nearby homes. Hungry flames licked at the tall firs in Gus' yard and Rick's guess was that if they ignited the fire would spread and burn a few more houses down. A ball of fire suddenly blew through the roof, sending ashes raining down on the yard. They drifted in hellish light illuming the grass and began to land on the windshield.
"Gus can't be in there," Rick said. "Everyone in this neighborhood is out. They must've left for the meeting or else were scared away by Donny and his men."
"The rest of the people would have got to the Town Hall for the meeting," Kim said. "If Gus is under attack my guess is he ducked out and is at the police station with the town's two remaining officers. Donny likely set the house on fire as a revenge thing. It's his style. He's the only person in town meaner than Dan Sawyer was. That's why people didn't vote him in as police chief in the first place."
Rick backed up then turned and drove right up on the lawn of the next house. Jumping out he ran to the bay windows at the front, grabbed a stone from the garden and smashed out the glass. Two collies that’d been barking inside jumped through the break and ran off into the night.
Back in the car he hit the accelerator and headed for the town square. Lights were out in the houses on the adjacent streets and his guess was that they were mostly not home or were pretending not to be home. Going in on the main drag would be risky so he drove around to a side street and crawled up, coming to the corner near the hardware store. Nosing out with the headlights off, he looked in the direction of the hall and saw a mob milling out front. More of Donny's armed men were in control. They roamed in the parkette and though the hall was lit its doors were blocked by four men.
"Looks like they've penned their opponents inside," Kim said. "Back up before they see us. Gus might not be in there. Circle around and check the police station first."
They rolled down a bumpy alleyway, keeping the lights off as they tried to get a spy's view of the street. The alley broke onto the sidewalk a half block from the station and they spotted activity near it. Four huge trucks blocked the street out front and Donny and his armed men were behind them. On the other side of the road the lights in the station were off, meaning Donny had cut the power or else the officers inside were keeping it dark to avoid bullets.
Before Rick could backup into the alley, Donny spotted them and began to run down the street. The hot breeze blew his red hair had into wild tufts and his impish face twisted into a nasty mask of dust and perspiration. He stopped before running clear of the last truck and raised his shotgun to fire.
Rick accelerated and the blast took out a mailbox as the car bounced down the alley in reverse. The right rear fender took a nasty scrape on a garbage bin, but they made it out and sped away.
Rick glanced at Kim, noting the fury on her face. "It looks like Armstrong just got there and he's tied up in a standoff. He may not have the back exit of the station covered yet. I'm going to try driving around."
Speeding around on the side streets, Rick got to the blocks behind the station. He followed an alley at the rear of the shops and knocked the headlights off. At its end they could see the back wall of the police station. The building was plunged in darkness and a lone car was parked near the door. Two large men lurked behind the fogged windshield.
"Two of Donny's men," Kim said.
"Yeah. It means Gus must be trapped inside. He can't escape when the police vehicles are in the lot over behind Donny's barricade. I'm going to try something."
Switching the headlights on, Rick accelerated into the street and breezed past the parked car. His wheels released a short screech as he turned in at the side of the station. Tire ruts, thick grass and thistles filled the narrow space between the buildings. Bushes and a flower garden blocked the track at the front. Beyond the foliage, lights flashed from Donny's barricade.
"Toss me the flashlight in the glove compartment," Rick said as he stopped by the side window. A moment later, he was blinking the beam at the glass.
"They’re pulling in to block our exit," Kim said, and then the station window slid open and Bill's face showed in the beam of the flashlight.
Gunshots whistled off the side of the Sun Cobra. Bill ducked back then reappeared, and Gus showed beside him holding a shotgun.
"How many people are in there?" Rick said.
"Five of us," Gus said. "Two officers are guarding the front and my wife is with me. We can't shoot our way out, but we do have flash grenades that can stun an entire crowd. Dan brought them in for crowd control just before he died. Problem is we can't get near the doors or windows to throw them. Maybe you can do it."
"I'll try. Toss them."
"They're out of the car, coming up after us," Kim said.
Catching the package, Rick handed it to Kim, looked in the mirror and hit reverse. The car tore up weeds as he zoomed towards the two approaching gunmen. Caught off guard, they dropped their weapons. Desperately retreating they lunged over the hood of their car to safety.
Rick braked and they were jolted as they bumped the front of the other vehicle. "Get behind the wheel," he said. "I'm going to try to use these flash bombs."
A quick switch of seats, then Rick opened the package and studied the flash bombs. He found the design simple. Each had a computerized timer and an enable switch. He looked to Kim. "Accelerate straight ahead through the bushes and garden. Turn for the road and barricade and I'll open the window and bounce one of these under the trucks to Donny."
Sweat glued Kim's bangs to her forehead. She grimaced like she was about to murder someone, then she hit the accelerator. The car raced down the narrow space, rocked on a bump at the end and slashed through the lilac bushes. Its wheels slid and threw dirt as they crossed the flower garden, and the swerve out to the road became more reckless as Kim tried to dodge a lone gunman running straight for them.
The fender grazed him and he tumbled toward the sidewalk, then they were at the barricade of trucks and she braked. Rick managed to bounce explosives under the belly of a truck. He thumbed the window closed as the sudden stop knocked him forward.
They skidded to the end of the barricade and spotted Donny Armstrong moving into kill position on the sidewalk. He dropped to one knee and was about to open fire with a launcher when the stun bombs suddenly blew. A curtain of yellow light flared up from the barricade of trucks. It released tremendous force and an ear-splitting roar of sound. Shock waves swept the street. Glass shattered, rubbish flew, doors pounded on their hinges, and as the explosion died Rick tossed two more of the devices down the sidewalk.
He held on as Kim sped forward. She slowed and swung around, putting them in the face of the second explosion. Donny Armstrong and five of his men were backing off, then they were bowled over and tumbling in shock starbursts.
Kim hit the breaks. The gunmen were down and out. Some sprawled in the street, others in the grass. The town's two remaining police officers rushed out of the station, followed by Bill and Mayor Gus.
Gus and the two officers dashed around the barricade but Bill headed straight for the car and quickly got in the back. "We've got to get out to the ark to stop the sacrifice," he said.
"Donny sent people out there?” Rick said.
"He sent people out to do the sacrifice. We picked it up on the radio. It may be too late to stop them."
"The road's barricaded. I don't know how to get out of town."
"There's another way," Kim said. "It’s a side road. It won't take us all the way. We'll have to jog the rest of the way in on the trail."
Twilight hues melted to satiny black in the sky. Stars glittered and an ordered alignment of the planets brightened. Red spokes of light emanated from Mars and spread to a haze of light showing just beyond an upcoming break in the trees.
Kim's feet pattered close at Rick's rear, but Bill had fallen far behind. Rick's feet were light and pumping with great strength. He felt charged, feeling the spiritual energy of the planetary powers suffusing his flesh.
The path suddenly widened at a break in the brush and the shoreline of Deep Woods Lake appeared. A huge fir rose in the moonlight on the bank and they stopped beneath it to rest. Kim threw her hands to her knees as she stooped to catch her breath. Rick had control of his breathing, but he felt like gasping as he looked out from the shore.
The ark's carvings were lit up like silver filaments and the box was blinding bright. The beams it spread in a fan to the lakebed and the point illumined the area like a strong form of starlight. Just over the ark, a long intense beam curved to the sky in tracer fashion, training on the belt of planets. It existed as the last link in the chain, though at an earthbound position.
A flicker of firelight drew Rick's eyes from the dazzle of the ark to the point. A bonfire burned at its end and a rabble of faces swam in the drifting smoke. This crowd formed a half moon around a few shadowy figures moving next to a four-meter-high protrusion of gray stone. The firelight created a play of distorted shadows on the rock wall, touching the scene with a sinister effect that strengthened as he distinguished one of the shadows as falling from a man holding a long knife.
Echoes drifted across the lakebed, re-mixing the crowd noise to a strange blend, like the roar from some distant stadium event. Though individual voices couldn’t be distinguished a sense of pandemonium was conveyed - a scene of evil was being played out and with great speed.
"I think we can still get there in time to stop it," Rick said.
A rustle of foliage startled him. Turning he saw Bill jogging out of the trees. Catching his breath quickly the old Indian gazed open-mouthed at the ark and said, "Have you spotted the rainmaker?"
"No, but look at the point," Rick said. "The mob has a ritual of some sort underway."
"If the rainmaker hasn’t arrived the sacrifice isn’t complete."
Rick leaped to the lakebed, Kim followed then Bill. Being the superior runner, Rick quickly left them behind. The mud flats pounding under his feet were dry and cracked and the celestial illumination pooled on them like water in some places. It was almost like he was running on the moon, only gravity had thickened to slow him.
Getting to the point was taking forever. He entered an area of rustling ferns that gleamed with silver knife-edges and slapped at his thighs as he dashed through them. The high bank of the point rose like a shell curl beside him. Ahead it sloped, became almost level with the stony shore and turned gently to the firelight and the crowd.
The general clamor of the mob lifted like a slow bellow from the throat of some mad underworld behemoth. He began to pick up the cruel shouts of spectators. Shadows rose as wicked caricatures of giants on the rock backdrop. Within the flow of shadows he saw murky visions rising - evil spilling like black water across the centuries and continents. The planets, the stars, the flickering flames swirled in his mind and grew to a hideous vortex. Then his feet began to fail him - like they were made of lead. He slowed, finding that a foul powdery taste had settled on his tongue. Spasms kicked in his stomach and the muscles locked, forcing him to his knees at the edge of the sand.
Something vast and black spread paralyzing wings across his mind. He was going under, and then he heard Kim's gentle voice and felt her hand on his shoulder. Her touch was tremendously warm and soft; it spread through him like healing magic and broke the spell on his mind. He looked up into her eyes at a special radiance that he hadn't seen there before. It strengthened him enough that he rose and turned to face the point.
Just beyond the shore the mob had fallen momentarily quiet and the planets hung in temporary suspense as the largest of the Baker brothers appeared. He brought a bound woman from behind the fire then led her through the parting crowd and up the slight incline to a patterned circle at the edge of the rock wall. The blindfolded the victim was identifiable as Melanie Kemper, daughter of a grocery store owner in town.
Her hair had been braided; coloured strings of wooden beads decorated her neck. A long ceremonial dress dropped from her hips to the ground. Reddened skin and welts showed on her lower back, indicating that she’d been injured in some type of preparatory ritual.
"They don't look merciful. They'll turn on us if we try to reason with them," Kim said.
"I know. But we might be able to stop them. They've prepared the victim in a certain way so the sacrifice must be a ritual. If we interfere with its execution, it might not work. Stay here for a moment. I'm going to try to creep up on them."
Rick moved silently in the semi darkness, but he didn't get more than a few steps before a brief cry came from his rear. Turning quickly he saw Kim and beyond her on the flats Bill was tumbling into the ferns. Something large and invisible rippled through the greenery, moving in to attack him again. Knowing it had to be the rainmaker's coyote Rick began to run to Bill's aid.
Kim ran with him and as they approached, Bill was on the ground and being shaken. The beast had bitten into his shoulder and from the movement Rick was able to generalize its position. He dived and felt a solid hit. The creature howled as he threw his arms around it, then it threw him off and leaped away.
It had felt smooth, dry and muscular, like a very large snake. A creepy sensation that caused his hair to rise to tufts as he rolled to his feet. He could see Bill on his knees, bleeding heavily from his shoulder. Bill grimaced then opened his pouch with his free hand and began blowing clouds of his special dust into the air. It glittered magnificently in the light from the ark and as it spread it revealed the coyote crouched in the ferns. Blood dripped from its maw and its eyes showed like burning coals. It stirred and began to move forward and this time it seemed unafraid. Rick was the target and he was ready as it ran up and jumped. Ducking back he threw it over him, feeling the rip of claws. As he spun around and staggered, he saw Kim striking at it with a large piece of driftwood.
It snarled and turned on her, but she stood her ground, a strange power radiant on her face. Fear showed in its eyes and it began to back away. She charged at it and it drew back further, turned and fled towards the ark.
Bill held his bleeding shoulder and groaned. "The point," he said. "Get over there and stop them now!"
In the excitement Rick had forgot about the sacrifice. Kim was stepping back to aid Bill so he turned and ran for the point.
He saw shadows swarming on the wall as the excited mob surged forward. A knife blade flashed in the circle like some strange stroke of the hand of time. Sprinting hard along the pebbled shore, he turned, dashed through a fringe of tall grass and plunged into the mob.
The crowd didn’t part willingly, but the power of his surge knocked people aside and he managed to wedge his way to the middle. A thin wall of excited spectators still blocked him. He got pushed from behind, jostled, elbowed at the side. A furious woman turned and yelled. Spittle sprayed from her lips, her twisted face had a green pallor yet her eyes burned with reflections of fire.
Rick staggered back a couple steps. The wall of flesh began closing in on him. He saw no escape then he noticed a high boulder to his right. Turning in that direction he socked a big man who was about to swing at him with a chunk of stone. The man went to his knees and Rick used him as a stepping-stone as he jumped for the rock. Catching the edge, he kicked away hands grabbing at his legs and pulled himself up.
At the top he rolled on his side and caught his breath. The crazed mob was shouting from below. He saw another man on the rock, though he stood at the front staring down at the ceremonial circle. Rising slowly, Rick targeted the man then rushed him - sending him flailing into the crowd.
Standing at the edge, he focused on the circle below. Veils of smoke darkened as dizziness swept his mind. The shadows on the wall formed an evil face. He saw drops of blood and heard a woman scream. Then the large man looming over her came clear; he held a knife, ready to plunge it into her chest.
Though Rick's head was spinning, he stepped back then ran forward and jumped. Sailing over the crowd and through rings of smoke he slammed into the target. Hitting the huge Baker brother was like hitting a fat slab of hanging beef - a hard blow that took the wind out of Rick as he took the big man down for a crash against the chunks of rock at the edge of the circle.
Rick rolled back in the dirt, twisting his neck horribly. He managed to throw himself into a sitting position and he remained like that as he gasped for air. Smoke stung his nostrils and choked him. Bullets of pain exploded up his spine to his neck and his vision was momentarily electrified. A waterfall of light rushed then vanished into the roar of the crowd. He leaned forward and moved on his knees while rubbing at his eyes with his hand. His vision cleared to a blur and he saw blood. The body of the girl lay prone before him in the circle. A dagger had been planted in her chest and thick blood oozed at the spot.
Crawling to her he seized her arm and checked for a pulse. "She's dead," he said.
No one spoke. Reflections of fire burned in feral eyes as the crowd watched him. He stared open mouthed at soot-streaked faces. The night masked them with shifting shadows and he knew that their peeling lips and parched throats thirsted for blood more than water. "I hope you've got what you want," he said.
But he was talking into silence as heavy as lead . . . then the thunder boomed and the mob screamed with joy. They forgot about him as they began to dance madly around the circle and the corpse.
Nerve pain bit like rows of fangs at Rick's back and chest. Drained, he rose and staggered into the crowd. Pushing his way through he reached the shore and halted, taking deep gulps of the smoke-free air. The pain began to subside and there was another rumble of thunder. Fog cleared from his vision and he saw Kim hurrying across the mud flats toward him. Her face was troubled and when she reached him she embraced him, brushed his hair back and ran her fingertips over the bruises developing on his right cheek.
"I couldn't stop them."
"The thunder already told me that."
"Not well. There's too much bleeding and it's getting into his lungs. He can barely talk. He needs a doctor."
"Pretty soon we may all need doctors."
They looked up at the gathering clouds. The planets were obscured, yet an eerie haze of light still filtered through. Another low rumble shook the point, seeming to come from the ground and not the sky.
Kim bit her lip. "I'm not sure if it's a storm or a quake that's developing."
"Let's get back and check on Bill. Then we'll decide what to do next."
The glowing ark began to shift colors. Drifting from silver to red it caused a visible change of atmosphere as they dashed to Bill. He hadn't moved but remained at the edge of the ferns where Kim had left him. His head lolled but he managed to look up as they approached.
Kim had used a strip of cloth from his pack to bind his wound and it was heavily soaked with blood. His lips moved as he tried to speak. Choked syllables were all that came out. Putting a hand on his uninjured shoulder Kim tried to calm him. "He's been trying to tell me something, but he can't get the words out."
Rick saw Bill's hand moving weakly, clawing at the dust. The rattle rested on the lakebed beside a sketch Bill had scratched in the mud with a stick. "What's that drawing he's made?"
"It's of the one symbol we couldn't translate. He drew that while you were gone and kept pointing to it and me - like he's trying to tell me what it is."
Rick reached down and picked up the rattle. Its handle felt cool to the touch, but no magic seemed to emanate from it. "That symbol is tied to the rattle. If he's figured out what it is we might be able to use it to stop the rainmaker. Maybe we can get him to write his message in words in the dirt."
"He's going under," Kim said. She slapped his face gently, and then cushioned his body as he collapsed back into the ferns. Exasperated, she looked up. "He's out, and in this heat he'll stay out."
A bitter expression formed on Rick's face, then the sky behind him became active and he turned. Rings of red light expanded as they pulsed through the clouds in a hypnotic fashion. Dark roiling mist fringed the pulses and a high shriek of the wind warned of the approach of a terrible storm.
The storm's evil eye morphed into a bright orange ball of gas and it drifted down in a parabolic path to the ark. Thunder rolled across the mist-smoking hills like a tune of ancient drums and ended in a terrible boom as the luminous ball touched the lakebed.
Tendrils of gas wound like snakes in the light as the orb dissipated. The rainmaker emerged from the smoke, his skeletal face partially hidden by full paint and ceremonial dress. He walked at the edge of a pool that shone with the color of blood and for the first time his coyote became visible in the light; his jacket of fur aglow with a hellish aura as he followed his master.
The din of the shouting mob on the point echoed over the lakebed, but the rainmaker ignored them as he turned to the ark. He walked through the ferns into the brilliant glow. Rays blasted his skeletal form and the light bent and formed like a headdress of rainbow colors around him. At the ark wall he knelt and took an object from his pouch. It was dark as night and appeared to be a stone or puzzle piece. He pushed the piece into an indentation in the wall, there was a blinding flicker and then darkness descended on the entire area.
Rick grabbed Kim's arm. As his eyes adjusted, spinning clouds showed in the sky and shouts of terror from the point came to his ears. A long slow rumble followed and the ground began to rock. As he held Kim and tried to remain standing an incredible explosion took place at the ark. It went up like fireworks and lava. When the plume of flame died, a column of black liquid shot up.
Huge cracks and steaming fissures split the ground, sending Rick tumbling with Kim in his arms. The force of the explosion was so great that the gush of liquid raced up into the clouds for ten long seconds before it stopped abruptly, leaving nothing but a small bit of boiling liquid pouring near the hole.
The ark had been blasted into oblivion. Light streamed in from the hills. On the point the awed crowd stared up at the storm clouds, anticipating that the liquid would begin to shower down. But none of it did, and a second explosion of liquid followed, ringing the earth like a gong. This flow ended, and then there was silence
Rick pulled Kim with him as he slowly got to his knees on the shaking ground. He watched the terrified crowd of people at the point as they screamed at the sky. Saying nothing he drew Kim close, feeling great strength flow through him from her touch. He looked in her eyes and found that the magic he'd been unable to find in the rattle shone in them.
"I love you," he said.
And as she began to whisper a reply, another blast of liquid shot up from the hole.
Thunder and lightning smashed the area like a fist and dark rain streaked in the sky, slashing in on the point crowd in strong winds. Dreadful cries of pain echoed and the boiling end came for the townspeople as the raindrops burned into their flesh. Rick saw smoke rising from the panicked mob, and hissing bodies that were melting like wax. A tall man threw himself from the rock wall, his flesh falling away like burning rags, leaving nothing but a skeleton to bounce on the ground below. Faces poured with blood and horror and when they could no longer scream they dropped like broken birds.
The rain didn’t fall on the lakebed and one small group managed to dive off the bank at the point and get out of range of the drops. Burned and in agony they were stumbling over the flats toward the ferns.
A peripheral flash drew Rick's gaze back to a pool of water near the blasted ark. A web of shadows and tinted light from the hills lent an alien appearance to the area. The rainmaker and his coyote were there in the grasses and ferns, stepping slowly toward the wounded people.
He stopped, looked toward Rick, then turned and began to approach. As he moved a beating of invisible wings filled the air. Across the flats, the earth began to boil and creatures started to rise -- skeletons, corpses, and the dead monsters of the lake dripped with ancient mud. Lightning and thunder boomed in the hills and Rick knew that more of the dead were rising by the thousands in the burial mounds there.
Kim clutched his arm; her head nestled on his shoulder. "This must be the end," he said. "His people are rising and he's seeded the clouds. As the rain moves across the land it’ll kill us all."
"Should we run?"
"I don't think we can. I have the rattle so I'm going to try to use it. Wait here. I'm going to approach him. If it doesn't work we'll try to escape."
"Don't," she said, but he eased her away, rose and paced toward the rainmaker. The ancient Indian stopped in the ferns, and behind the running paint, new veined flesh was forming on his face. Off to his right the people who’d escaped the point were releasing their final screams as the walking dead fell upon them. Vile rot-dripping mouths snapped hungrily into living flesh and the sight of it sent Rick's mind whirling. Images of thousands of dead faces soared across his mind, mingling with his memories of the living. A waterfall of earth poured. Bodies spilled as an endless stream of the wretched dead returned to life.
"No!" he said, seeing the rainmaker's face swimming at the centre of a ghastly flow of death. He grasped the rattle and held it up.
"Yes," the rainmaker replied, his voice a long hiss. He lifted his rattle and began a slow dance.
Rick heard the rattle beat like the sound of falling rain. Jaws clicked, skeletal corpses crunched the bones of victims. A storm and the rain were descending. He was about to collapse, then a memory flashed in his mind. He saw Bill and the drawing in the mud. He remembered Kim saying, "He drew that while you were gone and kept pointing to it and me - like he's trying to tell me what it is."
Falling to his knees, Rick turned. Kim's eyes flashed in the dark as she approached, and he saw the power of the spirit in them as he lifted his arm and tossed the rattle. It tumbled in air and in that long slow moment, its secret rose like an eagle in his mind.
The final symbol was of a woman. And the woman was Kim.
She reached out and caught the rattle. White light showered down like rain and coalesced in a glowing aura around her. Spun by the silk of the glow a painted mask gained definition and opacity as it covered her charged features. At her feet the sand fused to smooth glass, and at her first movement a cool wind rushed through the ferns.
The coyote howled. The rainmaker wore a cloak of night as he danced furiously, and in the chaos beyond his rattle, his army of the dead marched in all directions toward the shore.
A cocoon of powerful light surrounded Kim as her limbs moved slowly in the first steps of a graceful dance. Pulsing and replicating, the spirit face on the mask radiated copies that trailed every turn of her head.
Stunned, Rick rose, feeling a cool breeze touch him. At his back the rainmaker, darkness and the dead closed in. He turned, seeing the creeping shadows and twisted figures approaching. A corpse with a sucking mouth and eyes of pulsing blood reached for him and he lunged, shouldering it down. Bones, rot and rags, it spilled into the dirt. But more were walking in on stiff legs so he drew back in self-defense again.
Rick took a deep breath, knowing it would be impossible to fight them all. He prepared to strike, and then as his fist snaked out and connected with a corpse, it began to rain … heavy rain; big wet drops that splattered on his face as he staggered back. The purest most refreshing rain he’d ever experienced. His vision blurred; water poured over his nose and lips. Rainbows and dawn-bright lights ignited in his mind and he could see the walking dead taking their last sodden steps and then falling. The raindrops tore at them, creating craters and exploding flowers of decay. In moments they were bursting and sinking into the earth like melting sludge.
Storm clouds raced across his mind. Moonbeams and visions burst through from an image of the spirit mask in the sky. Rick found himself carrying Kim's limp body to the stony shore. Her flesh felt cool and her features were drained. She mumbled something feverish about the crops as he put her down in the grass.
Spring water gushed steadily, rising high in the air where the ark had stood. It ran through the cracks in underground streams as it filled the deeper parts of the lake bottom. Nothing remained of the rainmaker, his coyote, the risen dead or the people who'd been at the point. Debris and driftwood bobbed in the gushing water and Rick could see Bill where they’d left him in the ferns.
He walked out to rescue Bill. The clouds were gathering again, and he felt a spirit walking near him in the moonlight. Halfway there he saw Bill's face sweeping across the clouds.
The old Indian had died, so Rick left him there for burial by the spirit waters of the lake. A ghost remained and he heard the sound of Bill's rattle as he returned to Kim. She had silver raindrops and a gentle smile on her face, but she was still unconscious so he picked her up and started on the long walk down the path to the car.
The trees shivered with raindrops, and he knew it would continue to rain and the rain would fall everywhere.
The drought had broken.
© By Gary Morton
Officer Donner booted an empty mace can and watched it rattle out of the dusty alley. His reddened nose twitched at the scent of something vile then he stepped out, kicked the can into the gutter and scanned the empty street. Something dark and fleeting passed in the corner of his eye; he spun left quickly and yanked an Ingram semi-automatic from his hidden holster.
Fast on the trigger, he nearly opened fire; it clicked in his mind that it was nothing. The movement belonged to a torn black flag fluttering from a window post. The black anarchist shade had led to his quick reflex action.
Soiled candy wrappers, cigarette butts and leaves spun up in a dust devil sweeping the lonely concrete square across the road. The street itself had deteriorated to a stretch of shattered windows and abandoned cars. He noted that the center of it had already been swept, meaning a riot sweep team had forced all civilians and protesters out.
Feeling glum but confident, Donner stepped around a wrecked car and began to march up the road. On his fifth step, he slipped and nearly went down. "Shit," he said, noticing that he'd walked through a pool of glistening oily liquid - spattering the gooey stuff halfway up his tall black boots.
Pulling a soft rag from his pack, he bent over to clean the crap off. Close up he noticed drops of blood. That froze him for second then he straightened up, and was about to take a second look around when he felt a tug at his cape.
Spinning on his heel, he ripped the cape from the offending fingers and found himself looking down at a bloodied face. The young man was on his knees and his swollen lips were moving as he tried to plead for help. Only no words were coming out - just some sort of sticky gurgle. His T-shirt had been badly torn and he was crawling in shards of broken glass. Filth jelled his dark hair and vomit and blood leaked at the corners of his mouth. Gas and pepper spray had turned his pupils to spreading black holes; a grimace of agony came and went like a ghost on his face.
Donner felt little sympathy for him; he spotted an anti poverty fist-sunburst graphic on the T-shirt and got angry. Lifting his heavy boot he slammed it into the guy's face.
"Another protest punk down and out," he thought as he continued down the road. "If he doesn't choke to death he'll have learned his lesson. This is the zone - the no protest zone - the brutality zone … anyone who enters it leaves sympathy behind."
Wind dusted in from the alleys. A cloud of black CS gas drifted at the intersection so Donner put on his gas mask. He heard the distant ringing of a flash-bang grenade. The sound indicating fighting several blocks south. He gathered that the gas had simply drifted a long way off course on the wind.
Donner walked through the cloud, looking like a hybrid of a cop and a robot. His thick lips formed a faint smile inside his mask. Donner loved the black version of the tear gas; once you had a solid cloud of it formed, it would drift on and on. Unsuspecting morons were often caught by it and put down.
Two more empty blocks passed, leading Donner to a dead end, and there he climbed a mesh fence and walked through a vacant lot. His heels crunched on thistles and broken chips of stone. Another fence and the tall walls of Sandpoint rose in the distance. The guard tower showed as a squat beast in the gloom. He could see a column of vehicles approaching on the road. A personnel carrier, jeeps, police cruisers, canvassed trucks and buses containing the shackled prisoners were entering the old military complex they were now using to house and torture political prisoners.
Everything came to a halt at the gate. During the delay Donner reached the road, hailed a fellow cop and jumped into the back of his cruiser. On the inside he got out and crossed the square to command headquarters.
A screw-faced guard barred the door and he told Donner to wait, so he shuffled about impatiently on the cobblestones. Pulling a cigar from a foil pack in his breast pocket he watched as the prisoners were escorted from the trucks. Voices echoed and faded into the high stone walls. Some of the detainees were still chanting defiantly in spite of the gassing, others shivered with nerve reactions to the gas and were too weak to walk. Many more were bleeding, choking and vomiting. And who really cared. Donner sure didn't, and he figured that those sorts of people didn't have enough sense to care about themselves or they wouldn't be here.
On the inside, Donner told the commander he'd come to identify a prisoner and pick up another cop being held in protective custody. Both were wanted for questioning.
The commander, Major Bush, refused to cooperate. Which was just as Donner expected. Re-lighting his cigar, he told Bush to phone his superiors and he'd find that clearance had been granted. Then he waited; knowing Bush would look up in surprise when the clearance came through. Most of the higher-ranking men just never got it - couldn't figure out how Donner outranked them when he was only a riot cop. And that was because Donner wasn't genuinely a cop; he was Secret Service (SS), planted in with the police. His boss was the Man - and his job was to see to it that protesters got hurt and hurt bad. Only one crime was certainly on the books; acting against the New World Order which consisted of the Big Banks and the wealthy one percent of humanity that controlled the planet, space stations and the moon.
A severe expression of distaste developed on Bush's rugged face as he spoke on the cell phone. He emphasized it further by slamming it shut, tossing Donner a pass from his drawer and saying - "You know what you're looking for - find your way around."
Donner tossed Bush a mock salute and ignored his cursing as he turned and walked out. He'd never actually been inside Sandpoint but he’d played a role in refurbishing the mothballed base. A few weeks back, with a few other SS men, he'd used a computer map to lay out the temporary prison for use in the fight against this latest series of planned anti global order protests. There'd been some cheating as they used the plans from an old German concentration camp as a model.
Emerging in the square, he scratched his itching head. He could see drifting mist melting to wet prints on the coarse stone walls. The blur of sun seemed a match for his thinking. Things came together slowly - he'd ordered Gallagher held in special detention and he supposed that his other man would be in with the general crowd of prisoners in one of the interior courts.
Off to his left the doors to one of the decommissioned hangars were ajar and a group of regular police officers were marching in. Hurrying over, Donner tagged in behind them. He watched as they turned right and went through a rusted door with a faded sign marked CUSTOMS. A tarnished turnstile was directly in front of him and beyond it shackled prisoners had been tossed into taped-off areas on the pocked cement floor. Military guards and cops walked about in the yellowed light filtering down from the stained skylight.
Groans, agonized moans and the gruff voices of the police were about the only sounds, and then screams began to reverberate. The guards in the north corner had begun dragging a prisoner by his dred locks while an obese state trooper beat at the bottoms of his bare feet with a baton.
Donner grinned as the stick of high impact plastic lay in with heavy smacks; the new batons were cool. In appearance they resembled oak baseball bats and were just as effective when it came to breaking legs, shoulders . . . faces, balls.
"I want your fucking name!" one guard hollered as the shakedown continued. And at that point Donner saw the prisoner's face. Eyes lighting up with surprise, he immediately jumped the turnstile and marched over to the trooper using the baton.
"Hey! What the fuck do you think you're doing, man! I have a request in for a prisoner of that description. His name is Jimmy T. He should've been delivered to me!"
"You're just another fucking cop, pal. You can wait for your turn at him."
Donner frowned. His smaller right eye and hawkish nose twitched, his lips tightened then his baton came out at gunslinger speed. He delivered a hard jab to the obese trooper's breadbasket. Spittle flew from worm-white lips as he crumpled and stumbled.
The guards stared in surprise, the trooper released an anguished cry and a soldier stepped up. "What was that for?"
"That was for breaking the rules. File a police brutality complaint if you don't like it. I'm Donner, here with a special pass - check with Major Bush if you want. That prisoner is one of two men I want delivered to our command post over in the zone."
"If you want him you can have him. We'll have him deloused and sent over."
"Good, I'll leave my delivery instructions at the gate."
The halls in the special lockdown shone with fresh polish. Donner's heels clicked like hammerheads as he passed the rows of cells. The tall black guard in the lead stopped at the last set of bars and turned. "This is it," he said.
Donner peered into the dim space and saw Gallagher slumped on a bench. His riot uniform was badly rumpled and he was puffing on a thin cigarette.
"You got poor posture for a cop," Donner said.
"And bad manners, too."
"Yeah - well, I'm supposed to be a cop. You just said it. So why am I locked in here with that piece of shit?"
Donner looked across the cell. One of the protesters, a big brown one, had been locked in with Gallagher -- and it looked like either Gallagher or the guards had beaten the shit out of him. Pounded his face to scabbed liver, pepper-sprayed him and left him slumped in a corner chair.
"Sorry about that," Donner said. "You're supposed to be in protective custody. We want you over at zone HQ to answer a few questions, and then you're out."
Donner drew the heavy bar back and opened the rooftop door. He had a sort of crude patio set up here at SS zone headquarters. This was his lair and he'd selected it for the bird's eye view of some of the streets being policed.
He stepped out figuring there wasn't much to view today. It was a gloomy afternoon and smoke from protesters' bonfires drifted over the mottled rooftops lower down. He heard the sound of distant shouts and traffic. Tied with the view the noise seemed unreal - dream sounds - like another world existed below in time that’d gone gray.
A paddy wagon cruised up the empty street. Donner watched as it halted out front. Officer Gallagher and Jimmy T emerged with the guards; they'd be up in a minute and with that in mind he lit a cigar and sat near the railing. "How to handle this," he thought. "Get Gallagher's story first, and then the kid's. Out of it I should be able to gather why cops and protesters are claiming Butch Cooper is out there somewhere in the zone."
Jimmy T had to be brought out to the patio in a wheelchair. His swollen feet were bandaged and he wouldn't be walking on them for a long time. Gallagher looked pretty slimy - in appearance and attitude.
"So who wants to question us?" Gallagher said.
"Shit, Donner. You could've questioned me at Sandpoint. I need to go home and clean up. If I don't get the grime from those scumbags off me I'll likely come down with hepatitis and Aids."
"You probably had both for a long time," Jimmy T said.
Gallagher tightened his knuckles. "Mind your manners, boy."
Donner frowned. "You too, Gallagher. We've got more than one wheelchair in this place."
"So what happens to me?" Jimmy T said.
"This is about Butch Cooper. You both told people you saw him out there in the zone. I want you to answer questions about that. Then you go the hospital and charges against you are dropped."
"That's right, let the scumbag off," Gallagher said. "What about me? What compensation do I get for being held illegally?"
"Just a kick in the head. Same as you give out. Now let's get down to business. By now you've probably figured out that I'm with the SS. My job with the organization over the last few years has involved surveillance and military actions to block Butch Cooper and his protest affiliates. We've believed all along that Cooper and his band of anarchists are the board of directors, secretly organizing and planning actions for numerous other protest groups in the anti global order movement. Cooper went missing a year ago. His body has disappeared, but we are sure he is dead. The question we are working on is - who murdered him? Many rumors out there are to the effect that police killed him. We're now sure that union leaders did the job in cooperation with other kingpins in the protest movement, and we want to get charges on these people. Only right now we can't even investigate because reports have come in that he’s alive and is here in the city. Those reports are traceable to you two. Gallagher, you filed the police report on it that changed our investigation from murder back to surveillance on Butch Cooper. Jimmy T's confession mentioning seeing Cooper in the fighting has been used to support the Gallagher police file. This whole thing screws me royally. We'd made progress and we were prepared to go ahead with murder charges against a number of individuals. Now I got orders to keep tabs on the activities of a dead man. Which isn't possible."
"Come on, Donner. Get it straight. Would I file a police report saying Cooper is alive if he’s really dead?"
"Both you and Jimmy T were under heavy stress and exposed to things like tear gas that are known to impair vision and cause hallucinations. I want to tape both of your stories and from them we'll be able to demonstrate that you were under duress. As for the Jimmy T, he may simply be lying. The protesters may want us to think Butch Cooper is alive."
Jimmy T coughed. "I hope you aren't planning on framing me in this murder?"
"Of course not, and it's important that you be completely honest for these tapes. Neither of you have to worry about the press getting your testimony. It's a top secret thing that can't be used against you."
"Now I get it," Gallagher said. "You want to destroy my credibility as a cop. That's why you put me in with that creamed punk at Sandpoint."
"Not at all. We just want to say you were under stress. What you'll get is time off and a bonus to aid you with your medical bills. We feel a long vacation in a warmer climate would speed your recovery. Same goes with Jimmy T. We don't know who did it, but he's been a victim of police brutality and should be compensated."
Gallagher chewed on Donner's words. "Doesn't sound too bad. All right, I'll give you my story."
"Okay, the recording begins. Go ahead."
"I'm not lying. I did see Butch Cooper on day one. We'd cleared most of the front line protesters off with tear gas, tasers and rubber bullets when the orders came in to go down hard on a union march. A lot of the men disagreed with that order. The reason being that a splinter group of anarchists called the Black Bloc was trashing stores at the edges of the zone. Nothing was being done to stop them. For some reason the big shots wanted them to get away with it. Maybe to make the protesters look bad in the press.
We pooled our forces at the head of Sanderson Blvd., massing about 200 men, horses and an armored personnel carrier. A giant crowd of unionists approached in the distance and at first we were laughing like hell at the silly costumes some of them wore. They were dressed like animals and birds and stuff with taser and rubber bullet protection vests built in.
So it was fun at first but the humor died when some SS guy circulated a false report stating that three riot cops had been murdered by union terrorists on the south line. We were to expect the same sort of violence. It was only later that we found out the report was false.
Basically, it worked to pump us up and turn us mean. Once we were grouped the armored carrier moved forward and we had a man on the platform firing a high-speed hopper gun of paint pellets filled with pepper spray. Those things rain down on a crowd and don't seem to hurt until the burning starts and people scream like hell.
Tear gas was next and we started by firing low, bouncing a few canisters and grenades off heads and picket signs. The rest we fired high and strategically in order to build a local gas cloud of the white-gray variety. Def-tek 38 caliber weapons firing rubber bullets and chemicals ripped the crowd and we aimed for faces. Even from a distance I could see blood spurting as the projectiles gouged into cheeks and noses.
Once the cloud was up we rolled in with it - horses charging right in to build panic and chaos. Baton men started to break up human chains by pulling off masks and kerchiefs and pepper spraying the idiots straight in the face. After that the tasering and clubbing began and we had special spine whipping and face slamming tactics for the reporters present. Generally we busted their equipment and them.
I got involved in scuffles and inhaled some of the gas. A hysterical woman pulled my mask off. It didn't stop me. I continued to fight, pausing to vomit occasionally. In less than an hour we turned about four hundred people into piss-pants sacks of weeping human rubbish and made two hundred arrests. I was still active on front line cleanup at that point and ended up chasing some of the unionists down a side street.
These 2nd level union guys hadn't been on the front line and the cowards had kids and babies with them as they tried to flee to safety. About ten of us pursued them up the narrow street firing tear gas and rubber bullets. We got one of them out front of a smashed mall, pepper spraying him and his baby as he tried to get in his car.
People from the mall started yelling and booing so we turned and fired on them. Tear gas canisters crashed right through the glass doors and panic followed. At that point an anarchist punk appeared, threw a heavy stone and got me right in the shoulder. It hurt like hell and I stood there grimacing as the other men ran up the road in pursuit of more unionists.
That blow really pissed me off and I saw the punk taking off toward an alley and pulling a black bandana up to hide his face. Orders were orders but at that point I decided to break them and forget about the union goofs. I took off after the punk, hell bent on the notion of getting hold of him and breaking every bone in his body.
Of course it was just my luck to charge into an obstacle course of trash heaps and oil puddles. I jumped a spilled trashcan, slipped on a slick, did a running dance and crashed into a stack of heavy drums. They came down on me as I fell and they stunned me even further. I was lucky to avoid serious injury.
I began to crawl free of the tangle but I didn't get far. The punk had heard me fall, smelled blood and returned. "Pay back time," he said then he bounced a drum off my legs. A rain of boots followed that and during the exchange I managed to grab his foot.
He went over backwards and though I could barely move I forced myself up. Grabbing my baton I got to my knees and threw myself forward - coming down as hard as I could, I managed to whip him across the pelvis and breadbasket.
We both lay there in the rubbish in a sort of who would rise first challenge. I won it, managing to get partly up to fire some pepper spray at him. That sent him rolling in agony and gave me time to rise. And when I was up it was with a whisky bottle in one hand.
I shattered its base and prepared to ram the rest into his face. At that point I regretted spraying the little slime ball because he couldn't see me to beg for mercy. My knees buckled to go down with the blow and it was then that Butch Cooper appeared.
It was unmistakably Cooper - the trademark scar on the right cheek, iron jaw, blazing blue eyes and burglar black cat outfit. He was armed with street weapons - a mask and gas gun and a length of pipe strapped to his leg.
I'd seen his mug on the news enough times to know he was real, yet I also knew he'd disappeared more than a year ago and was not thought to be in the city. Yet he was present and he'd been in the fighting, too - his boots were spotted with blood and his face was bruised and sickly green.
The whole thing seemed weird - the clouds of gas floating up the alley and whirling in wisps around his electrified short hair. I stood frozen with a gasp on my lips and the broken bottle in my hand.
It was Cooper who broke the silence. He said, 'Tell Donner I'll be seeing him around.' That's all he said. He didn't try to help the kid and he wasn't afraid of me either. He just turned and disappeared in the gas cloud.
I stood there another moment then I started seeing evil inhuman faces in the shifting gas. A horrible burning odor filled my nostrils. It was like the burning of something straight from hell - corpses, mold, rotting wood, rust and ashes. My skin and scalp crawled and I turned and ran from there."
Donner stopped the recording and gave Gallagher a look of raw skepticism. "I'm amazed that anyone would’ve believed that story. You were obviously hallucinating. I'm also not impressed by the fact that you didn't have the guts to fight Cooper."
"And you would have the guts, Donner?"
"Of course I would. I've been in a number of scraps with Cooper. Plus there's more I haven't told you. Fact is I know he's dead because I found his body. It was during an action in Germany. We were following Cooper's gang using a helicopter with a super spotlight. It lit up the alleys like daylight and blinded anyone that looked up. We jammed their cell phone frequencies and over the course of an hour we tracked them and sent in men to pick them off as the group splintered. By midnight we had about half of them but we couldn't get Cooper. He simply vanished in a maze of alleys and we went over and over the territory and found nothing. Finally I went down on a ladder and walked in alone.
This wasn't a job for you, Gallagher. It was dark. Motherfucking dark, and I was vulnerable. Couldn't even use my flashlight. I did get jumped at one point but I had my protective gear set to emit gas automatically. I thought it was Cooper and I really pounded the guy - but he went down too easy so I knew it wasn't Butch.
I looked him over quickly then gagged him and marked him for pickup. After that I got lost, spending more than two hours in that territory. My phone got caught by our own jamming so I couldn't make contact.
Any other cop would've been killed, yet I managed to take out a couple more of Cooper's men. Then I found the body. He looked pretty bad and when I checked his pulse, he was dead. He'd been beaten to death with some sort of club and there were traces of pepper spray on him. Whoever did it set it up to look like a cop murder.
That didn't help because later when the body disappeared I had to answer all sorts of questions. They thought I killed him, and they didn't like it because they wanted Cooper alive. They were going to have him testify at some international tribunal and thought I killed him because he knew too much.
Of course I didn’t' kill him, and later when we went over the scene we found new clues pointing to union goons as the hit men."
Jimmy T frowned, his darkened eyes running like grease prints. A feral light shone in them as he spoke. "You're about as believable as Gallagher. If you weren't a cop you'd already be in the electric chair."
"You'd like that wouldn't you. And how about you? How believable is that crazy story you handed in?"
"You want the truth. Okay, but don't complain if you don't like it.
First piece of news is that I have little in common with Butch Cooper, union rioters or even anarchists, though I understand their beliefs. I'm an independent street person. I hitched in from Oregon with my friend Danny. We're from the HellRaisers Gang.
We believe the monster corporations have already destroyed the world. All that can be done now is raise hell and chaos to make the masters and their slaves uncomfortable. The way we see it, Butch Cooper and his legions of utopian dreamers just can't see that it's all over. Protest and reform can't save a dead world.
Creating a riot was the plan we had in mind the other day before we encountered Butch Cooper. We had it in mind but we didn't start out anywhere near the police lines. Danny thought it would be better to have some fun so we left the cops having a gas with the others at the various fronts while we ran with renegade Black Bloc anarchists. Working with them we trashed everything in sight - display windows, newspaper boxes. We put our message up with spray paint and black flags - started rubbish bonfires.
Later a rowdy local gang of university kids joined up. They were less political so we split from them. We began by trashing food outlets because we were hungry. But that didn't go all that smooth because I was getting tense with Danny over his trying to tie us to this horny blonde named Mary.
I prefer other men so I hated her at first. But when she came up with this plan for a 3-pronged raid on a huge variety depot, I started to like her. We ran in with masks and bandanas up and started throwing things around. The customers and staff ran out so fast it was like we were high-class terrorists. This big cigar-fat store manager was the only guy with the guts to fight us and he paid for that - Danny kicked him in the balls then we chased him around like a screaming chicken, bashing him with clothing racks, plastic baseball bats - all sorts of stuff.
The rest of the gang ignored that and got wise, stealing jewelry and electronic gadgets. Danny advised me to let them do the work - then if they didn't get busted, we'd steal the stuff from them later.
There was a lot of horsing around at that point. We passed a joint and Danny and Mary went tumbling through a big heap of clothes. A few of us jumped in after them. We rolled around then laid there laughing our heads off.
None of the clothes in the store were worth taking so we laughed even harder when Mary started talking about stealing some. Then she said she meant as disguises. The cops would be around soon, looking for rough and dirty looters, so suppose we packed up our grubbies and appeared in our Sunday best.
Danny nudged me and winked, giving me the drift that he wanted to play along so he could watch the girls undress. We did that and by the time we were finished we looked worse than we ever thought possible. I had on these shiny polyester pants and pointy shoes with an alligator pattern. Mary looked like return of the nerd girl, except that her horny smile and big slutty brown eyes gave her away. Danny was the funniest - he looked like a geek from the old movies.
We decided to get out of there. When we ran back outside ordinary pedestrians were gone and the riot lines were getting closer. Groups of gas-blinded vomiting protesters stumbled by. Then the cops showed - formations of them wearing flak and riot helmets.
Basically our ruse worked. We'd moved quickly down the road to the steps of an Anglican church and stashed our clothes and the stolen stuff inside under the pews. The girls sang a horrible school song that sounded like a hymn and we were grouped there singing it as the parade of cops arrived.
These cops looked worn and frazzled - eyes getting tired and beaten. I was tapping a tambourine nervously as they aped us over and I saw it in their eyes that they didn't suspect us of being anything more than what we looked like. Some of them inspected the damage on street. Others asked us a few questions. When they got to me I gave a phony name and pointed at the people gathering at a bonfire up on the next corner. "The looters are in that crowd," I said.
The head cop believed my tip and before long they were massing in the center of the street. They formed a riot phalanx of about 12 across and 3 deep, then they began advancing up the street, beating their batons against their shields, grunting and chanting in unison. The people milling around the bonfire at the corner were completely stunned by it. All of them froze and watched, but not for long as concussion and stun grenades suddenly flew from the cops, hitting the area with brilliant light and frighteningly loud explosions.
A lot of people fled but there were many who fell stunned and didn't get away. Those ones got turned into hamburger as the grunting cop phalanx turned into a huge pounding machine.
Danny found this disgusting and before long we'd crept up at the rear of the cops, watching them clean up. We waited for an opportunity. That came when two cops went into a busted-up store a good distance from the main body of men.
We peeked in and saw them looking down at a guy lying in the spilled goods. He was undergoing some sort of uncontrolled spasmodic movements. Looked like someone hit by nerve gas. His condition seemed to stupefy the cops and while they were confused we got behind them. Danny bashed one from behind with a section from a metal rack and I tripped the other one as I pushed him forward.
One cop was knocked out cold. The other went down on his face and when he rolled over his faceplate was cracked. Danny lunged and went down on him, bashing him all over with his length of metal. In spite of that the cop was surprising tough. He managed to throw Danny off and rise with his baton.
I was afraid he’d yell so I backed off and prepared to run. That never happened; instead a brawl erupted with him and Danny throwing each other around the store. They moved slowly to the back in this duel and finally Danny tried to escape out a back door. Only the cop got him from behind. He pushed him so hard he went for a tumble out into the alley.
I ran back up as the cop went out after him. From the doorway I saw him clubbing the crap out of Danny as he lay there twitching in a puddle. Then a moment later I saw the cop stop and stare at a person stepping out of the shadows.
That person was Butch Cooper - dressed in black and holding a long club he'd stolen from a cop. The light seeping in there was dim - Cooper looked amazingly sinister and strong and his skin seemed tinted green like he'd died of poisoning or something. Yet he was still walking around.
His appearance frightened the cop and at first he backed off. Then when the cop saw him backing into a corner he lunged.
This fight was no contest. Cooper threw him over and proceeded to bust him up bad. He smashed his faceplate and face. Hammered him into a brick wall then body slammed him and put hard boots to his groin.
The cop squirmed as Cooper dragged him down the dark alley. It was so dim that at first that I couldn't see much in there other than swimming shadows. Yet if I saw nothing, it wasn't that way for the cop - whatever he saw made him scream like a madman. These were the most terrifying screams I've ever heard, and I could see vague misty shapes like tentacles and twisted human forms gathering around Cooper and the cop.
Moments later the other cops rushed in and put me down. They ran down the alley to rescue their buddy - but they never found him. There was nothing there - no Cooper, no body. And I had to spend hours and hours under questioning, trying to convince them that I had no idea what happened in there. How in the hell could I explain how people just disappear?"
Donner stared at Jimmy T, like he couldn't quite believe the story had ended. He wiped the gathering sweat from his forehead and raked his oily hair with his fingers. "Kid, you're one crazy fuck to tell that story in the first place. The cops that bought it are even crazier. You expect me to believe that Cooper and a bunch of ghosts or monsters are dragging people off into the Twilight Zone?"
Gallagher grinned. "Guess Cooper won't be easy to find if he's out there."
"Shut up, Gallagher. Just shut the fuck up. Cooper is dead. He can't be out there. It's just a question of whether this kid is on drugs or lying."
"Wait a second," Jimmy T said. "I never said Cooper wasn't dead or that he's in the Twilight Zone. I said I saw him out there in the zone - the Brutality Zone. He looks like he is dead, and some sort of evil comes with him. Anyone he gets hold of gets dragged off into some part of the zone that people can't find. I believe it, and once I recover I'm never going back out there. I'm getting out of this city."
"Cooper was asking about you, Donner," Gallagher said. "You better not go out there. If he gets you he'll drag you into that place. The kid heard the screams - don't let it happen."
Confusion swept Donner's face, and then his expression turned to anger. He snapped his phone open and hit a key. "Guards, get up here right now. I want these fucking idiots thrown out of here. You got that?"
The wind howled through the city scrapers like a haunted stray dog. Donner knew its gusts would soon be filled with the whimpering of protesters. Wiping dust from his faceplate he watched the lines of riot police march down a narrow corridor toward a huge open section of the street. Hundreds of the toughest breeds of protesters were massed there and the image was of a broad human mural patched with the red, white, blue and black of bandanas, costumes and placards. All of this blurred by the drifting smoke and gray weather.
Orders had been to forgo the use of teargas as it was too windy and there were reports of canisters of nerve gas being mixed in with the supply. Donner had no use for orders; shielding his eyes from the glare he watched the lines close, and when the clash was just about to begin he gunned his bike and rolled forward. Once in range he dismounted, pulled a special launcher from his shoulder and loaded the gas grenades.
His aim was high and accurate. The first grenade flew over the crowd and bounced off a building wall. He scattered more shots to the perimeter, rolling them off the curbs and garbage bins. Lowering his barrel, he lobbed some into the center of the crowd.
The gas fizzed up and the riot lines began breaking up the human chains - to make sure things got out of hand he fired several more grenades straight into the front lines. One ricocheted off a helmet, another took a protester down, and the rest disappeared like stones in the sea, only to bubble up a moment later with smoke.
Tall office buildings lined the wide section of street and in spite of the wind a heavy cloud of gas billowed up. Most of it hung in place and whirled as the alleys slowly sucked it up. The scene was now one of violence and brutality; the protesters had panicked and the riot cops were reacting with extreme force. A whole line of people who'd tied themselves together were getting kicked and beaten, and they shouted and screamed as they went down. None of the police even stopped to untie them; instead they stomped over them and charged into the rest of the crowd.
Two Secret Service men dressed as riot cops emerged on a balcony and began to sweep the crowd with a heavy spray of rubber bullets. At the same time another line of riot police began to toss flash bang grenades as they moved in with horses at the rear of the crowd.
A hellish scene of screaming, spattering vomit, blood and confusion developed in the square. Wounded people tried to scatter in all directions, growing even more desperate as the horsemen rode in. Alleyways were the only avenues of escape and there were four of them - narrow and gushing with windblown teargas.
Police managed to move in to block three of the alleys and the fourth was near the front where nearly everyone was down. A few people had smashed storefront windows and dashed indoors to escape, but police had pursued them. Generally it looked like a massacre. Donner saw maybe two cops pick up minor injuries while the main use of the protesters' bandanas was now to sop up blood and tears.
He considered hopping on his bike and driving away; then his eyes flashed to a female protest medic trying to aid some of the downed people by washing off pepper spray with a backpack water gun. Three cops moved in swinging batons at her. A figure in black suddenly emerged from the smoke and drove a fist straight into one of the men's faceplates. It shattered and he went down and out cold.
The other two cops turned and fired pepper spray - a direct hit, and it did nothing to stop the assault. Donner saw the man pull a pipe from his leg and lash out. The hit was on the canister of pepper spray, which exploded in the cop's face and sent him reeling back.
A second pipe blow sent the cop tumbling, and then the guy in black lunged and took out the last of the three cops with a body blow. He then ran across the square and leapt like a cat up the side of a building. The SS officers launching the rubber bullet attack were up there and they swung down with their clubs trying to stop the man from getting over the railing.
It didn't work; a taser shot bounced off him, he swung up hard and battled them on the balcony. Blood flew as he bashed one officer's head on the railing. Moments later, both men got checked over the railing and fell into the street.
Taking hold of the high-speed gun, the rebel began to rain rubber bullets straight into the police lines. Horses bucked, cops were thrown - other officers fell to their knees as the shots got them in the back.
Donner's momentary stupefaction vanished. He pulled out his binoculars for a closer look. The man's kerchief had dropped, allowing a reasonably clear view. A flash grenade went off at that moment and a bright image was superimposed on Donner's retinas. Then he choked and dropped the glasses. They clattered on the road beside him and he stood there with an open mouth.
The protester firing from the balcony was Butch Cooper. No doubt about it - the distinctive eyes and jaw were something that couldn't be mistaken. Yet it couldn't possibly be Cooper because Cooper was dead. The memory ignited deep inside Donner's brain; he had Butch Cooper down in that alley in Germany. After a long fight he smashed him and booted him - picking up everything he could find to bash him. Blood poured at the corners of his mouth, filling it with the taste of hot metal as he killed Cooper. And kill him he did; he fractured his skull - he broke his neck and every bone in his body . . .
. . . and there he was, standing like a picture of strength on a balcony. But not for long, because a second later he jumped into the street with the power of an Olympic athlete and ran off into the smoke. Cooper turned and fled down that fourth empty alley, with no one on his tail.
Donner's head stopped whirling and for a moment his thoughts froze like ice. When his head cleared it was in a sudden flash of anger; he jumped on the bike, gunned the engine and raced up the street. His wheels weaving around bodies as he made his way to the alley mouth. When he got there he stopped and looked. Tear gas was rolling for a long way down but it was mostly clear of debris, so he gunned the engine again and raced forward.
He saw no sign of Butch Cooper or anyone else. About halfway down the long alley a trash heap blocked his path. Braking, he killed the engine and dismounted, being sure to look around quickly for any ambush by Butch.
He didn't want his view clouded by a helmet so he took it off and left it on the bike. So much sweat poured on his face that he had to sweep it off to see. No one was behind him; beyond the trash heap, the alley continued on to the next street. Another section of alley forked off to the right of the heap.
For an unknown reason he believed Cooper had taken the fork. Working around the heap he stepped out and looked down it. This was a dead end deal; wide with some sickly trees weaving thin branches above the rubbish. Chipped brick walls with dust-streaked windows showed here and there. An old structure rose at the dead end; factory or warehouse, he wasn't sure. A bleak atmosphere cloaked it; he looked up at the smoke blowing over the roof and spotted a black cloth covering one of the windows.
That was the clue he needed; stepping forward carefully, he approached the rear door. Lumpy concrete broke up and tall weeds choked his path, whipping his legs as he forced his way through. Sweat poured on his back - the image of Cooper's dead body kept rising in his mind. He tried to rationalize it but he couldn't. He considered the possibility of a twin, then struck the idea down - simply because he knew Cooper so well. He'd had him under surveillance for years.
Suddenly Donner stopped and shivered all over. He remembered Gallagher's warning, and knew it was correct. If Butch Cooper was in there he'd somehow come back from the dead. Unless he'd never been dead. Maybe some miracle of modern medicine had saved him. A lot of international big shots had wanted him alive to testify, so maybe they used some super treatment to revive his body and mind.
The more Donner considered it the more he believed it. His shivering stopped as he reached the door. Then he heard some noise above and stumbled back as quickly as he could. He looked up and saw a bird taking flight, and when he lowered his gaze Butch Cooper's face appeared in one of the ground floor windows.
He'd opened it and was grinning as he looked out. His skin was greenish and deathly just as Jimmy T had said. Donner also noticed tiny drops of blood dripping with the sweat from his chin.
Cooper's deep voice echoed in the alley as he spoke. "I've been waiting for you, Donner. We've all been waiting for you here in the zone."
Donner felt himself losing it. "You're dead Cooper! You're fucking dead! I killed you and you deserved it! All those years - you rallied people against the state. You warped their minds. You ruined them, you put them in jail, killed them. Cops died because of you - you murdered the innocent so I murdered you."
"Well that's funny, Donner. I don't feel dead. I also remember things well enough to know that it wasn't me. It was you, Donner! It was always you! We had rules. We played the game a certain way. My people and the cops didn't get killed then. Don't you remember that it was you who changed things? You created the violence, you created death and you created the brutality zone. You did it because you're a fucking piece of shit, Donner. The fate you deserve is one worse than death!"
"Worse than death, Cooper! I'll show you worse than death! Because I'm coming in there to finish you and whoever you're with!"
"Go ahead and open that door, Donner. Do it and know that you opened it a long time ago. You created the zone. You unlocked the beast in us all. There comes a time when a father has to return to his children."
Donner felt his head grow so hot with hate he thought it would explode. "Fuck you, then. I'm just going to leave you here. I don't have to go in there and you know it!"
"Is that right, Donner. So what are you going to do when I testify? Haven't you figured it out - they kept me alive, they put me back together and now I'm going to sing like a canary. Your people will hang you, Donner. You know it and I know it. So walk away with the noose around your neck."
His face twitching with rage, Donner drew his semi-automatic and opened fire. Bullets shattered glass and the rotten sill but Butch was gone.
Fear vanished as the adrenaline flowed; Donner was pumped up to kill now. He ran fast for the door and started booting it. On the fourth kick it flew open and Donner moved off to the side.
Dust and stale air rushed out but Cooper didn't follow. A quick reload then Donner took his gun in his left hand, ran to the opening, jumped and rolled.
He came up in dust and darkness, and spun around firing bullets into the gloom. Then he burst forward and got his back to a wall.
As his vision cleared he saw an enormous empty warehouse, mould-eaten floors and sweating walls. Wide wooden pillars stood here and there. Cooper could be behind any one of them. He thought that at first - then he suddenly realized something.
A smart cookie like Cooper would've let him bust in and then would’ve simply jumped out the open window. He was probably out there laughing at him right now.
All the windows but one were boarded. He ran across the creaking floor and looked out into the gloomy alley. Just as he'd suspected Cooper was there. He stood in the weeds with a grin on his mug. And his face wasn't greenish but pinkish white; he looked healthy and young like the old days.
"You should've known that nothing mortal could’ve put me back together. Don't you remember how bad you beat me? It's the spirit of the zone, Donner. The brutality zone put me back together because it never really wanted me - it needs you because you belong. So I made a trade. It's you for me. And I hope you enjoy yourself because eternity is a long time."
"You want to play head games!" Donner yelled. "Eternity is now, so eat lead!"
He opened fire and as flame licked the barrel the window suddenly vanished. He saw boards in front of him and nothing else. Then he spun around and saw an eye shrinking into a wall of oozing blackness. A scraping sound came from deep in the warehouse, and it was followed by the heavy thudding of hooves. He saw the rotted floorboards breaking up. Twisted forms were rising from every dark niche in the room, and with them came horrible odors of blood, ashes and decay.
Black earth crumbled from deformed hands, ravaged faces and gaping mouths. A huge thing like a cross between a pit and a vortex whirled in the center of the room and the maggot-dripping monster emerging from it was the most terrifying creature of all.
Bullets flew as he emptied the clip, but they had no effect, except that they seemed to ignite the walls with flames. He saw a vista of fire and the morbid creatures belonging to it . . . rolling smoke and the crowds of some dead zone; mobs he could never put down. And they were coming for him.
Donner cowered and struggled as something rising from the earth threw wet tentacles around his legs. He felt his bladder empty and when he saw the flaming eyes of the creatures approaching he began to scream. His voice was full of terror and it was full of hate. He knew that Butch Cooper had made the trade. Out there in the alley, he was walking away from the brutality zone.
---The End ---
© By Gary Morton
Deliveryman's eyebrows shot up.
Paranoia and suspicion clouded his craggy features. "I can't make no delivery like that," he said.
A grin crawled across Icehead's face, one cold enough to kill bugs with its slimy intent. "This is Jay's Health Food. There is no delivery we can't make."
"But this order says King Flame's Underground Party when King Flame is dead? Maybe some people think he's still with it, but take it from me, he's history."
"Can't be, I got a call from the King an hour ago. We're supplying his party with bean curd of the ganja variety, with maybe a little crack surprise in the middle. A good customer like King Flame, we can't let him down - besides, he's already paid by cash delivery."
"You were knockin' it in Tahiti last week, Guess you didn't hear about Flame. If you did you'd know he couldn't make no phone call."
"You're right, I didn't hear. What's the score on last week?"
"It was Saturday night and I had a concession for a house party he was cookin'. The call for delivery buzzed in at 10 p.m. and yours truly hit the road. It was the usual. Flame's people had a newly built and empty house in Scarborough rented for the blast. There were two hundred bodies already there when I arrived so I had to duck a block on foot. I hit the crowd and the first thing happens is a couple wannabes come onto me. I could barely hear what they were sayin’. King Flame was doing his DJ screaming over ten foot towers in the back yard. Some of that offbeat hip-hop stuff was hammering my ears like fists and bubbler girls were crazy dancin’ all over the place. Came a sudden break in the music and a wannabe gave me the what-yuh-doin'-here-whitey shit. It was obvious that he intended to burn me for the package. He flashed a piece and I saw one his pals getting ready to duck in and boost the package. Now, you know that everybody hip knows about the delivery man. No one hassles the delivery man, no matter what he looks like, no matter what's goin' down. But this wannabe wasn't hip. Maybe he knew who I was, maybe he didn't. Maybe he was just jonesing, but I pulled a Ruger and told him: I'm on special delivery, health-food package for King Flame. Now stay the fuck back or I'll blow your head off! Then he laughed and slapped his hip and said," They goin' find yuh on the junk heap."
"Yeah, so after you pulled the trigger, then what?"
"Then this bubbler wearing only a bikini bottom and pink ankle socks starts screeching at me for getting the wannabe's brains all over her. But the upshot is that the body was quickly dragged away by Flame's bouncers and I was escorted inside. Now at this point I should mention that I’d been hearing words about King Flame. Words that tend to make ordinary working-class clowns like you and I shudder. Rumor was that Flame was using some zombie drug made from Haitian fish bones. All the people in his inner circle had piped up with it and were like strange air heads. Another guy named Jazzcan told me that Flame had these metal rings fixed in his dick and was a crazy pervert. But I've never let rumors get in the way of a delivery. I was taken through to the back patio where an area was Plexiglassed off and Flame was inside playin’ DJ. He looked normal -- eyes of ganja fire … couldn't see his face for the coils of hair, a crass shirt with a trim of flowers-and-tiger pattern, and the usual fire-red pants. He had some dancers around him and I couldn't really see where they looked any more like zombie air heads than anybody else. Although, I must say, I was nonplused by the male dancers wearing black spandex shorts. So I gave him the package, checked-out his wall of enamel grin and left. Only I wasn't even at the door when a wall of flames took out the patio. The partiers exploded too, and I ducked under the porch while the panic spread. In a minute the whole house was on fire and I popped up and found myself running across the lawn with a bunch of screaming human torches. A lot of roasted meat got left behind on that lawn, and most people think I was cooked. Everybody knows that Flame was cooked because he opened the package. So now do you get it, Icehead?"
"You delivered a fire bomb."
"Right, and it was carefully set up. Flame was turnin’ too many people into airheads. And believe me; we're talking about someone clever who did it because they used us too."
"We're not bein’ used now and I know what's in the package. Somehow King Flame was cleverer, because he escaped. Maybe he faked his own death. Either way he's a paying and reputable customer, so you can make the delivery."
Jay's Health Food had been under surveillance for six months, and during that time Deliveryman had never been spotted entering or leaving. Down in the connecting sewer he took the package from a disaster-proof safe and followed the damp tunnel, booting a rat aside as he reached the exit. He popped open the runoff grate, slammed it and went down the alley. There were no windows so his eyes darted to the rooftops, where he saw nothing unusual. His car was parked among a fleet of stripped wrecks and wedged against a battered wall. Popping the trunk, he took out two radial tires, and then he jacked-up a heap of twisted metal and installed them.
It was a gray day, dull and ordinary, maybe a little too hard and cold, just like Deliveryman. With his baseball cap, sleeveless jean jacket and faded Levis he could almost be invisible inside of a day like today. He was used to a world where everything was the same and stretched on forever like the brick buildings in the housing projects where he grew up. The only time it was different was when he was running or fighting for his life. Not that Deliveryman believed in violence; in fact he believed in peace and love. Saw peace and love in a dream once, Deliveryman liked to say. I believe in it, like God it's out there somewhere.
Snapping a rag from the backseat he wiped the ash off the windshield. The old taxi always made him feel good; it was a metal chameleon he’d reworked from one sort of wreck to another. It always came out of the crunch to live again; like a human body it had replaced every one of its cells over the years.
The V-8 roared to life, an ancient CD of The Sisters of Mercy began to blare, and with his package safe in the backseat, Deliveryman eased up the alley to its throat. Turning onto the narrow street he got the feeling that he was driving into wasteland sadness … the gray day a smoky memory that was saying everything had happened yesterday. Life is over but you live on rocking to the grind of rusty steel. It gave Deliveryman the creeps; it was how a zombie airhead might feel. The wall of guitars sound lifted him some, and then he decided to get into the spirit of the delivery and switched to deafening volume and a hip-hop radio station. Big distorted words challenged the sky but the negative feelings stuck. Putting his mind to the task at hand he cut through the heart of Toronto, heading for the small Carib neighborhood where he assumed King Flame's party had to be. There was no address on the package; there never was - to be the delivery man you had to know your way around. Gut feeling told him this was no party set out in the suburbs or in a warehouse club. This was something voodoo tinted, at the heart of the people of the West Indies. And there were strong roots in Toronto, running all the way back home, as King Flame would say. Deliveryman had to admit that was true, half of the people of the Caribbean were in Toronto every summer for the Caribana festival. There was something there, a connection bigger than what meets the eye.
Just as images of the festival were parading in his mind he spotted Jazzcan strolling out of a music shop. Jazzcan had been a top festival organizer, Black Stalin's North American manager and a close associate of King Flame. Only now, there was something odd about him. He wasn't around much any more; his photo was out of the in papers. It was like he'd somehow gotten disconnected from the world, yet was still partially in it. Jazzcan wasn't an airhead, it was hard to say what Jazzcan was; he went in bare feet and sandals when it was cold, had a jacket like a spray-painted alley wall, wore dark shades and carried a gnarled walking stick. His build was strong. Jazzcan never in his life cut his hair.
Deliveryman pulled over and got out, suddenly recalling that Jazzcan was also a person who knew; he turned around and walked back to Deliveryman even though there was no way he could've spotted him without eyes in the back of his head. Jazzcan looked burned out, like he'd finally smoked ganja so powerful it'd faded him body and soul. He was only half there - like a ghost.
"All right, Deliverymon," Jazzcan said. "Thought you were on yuh knees, beggin' Marley to open the gate?"
"Nope, I escaped the flames. Got a delivery today. King Flame's Underground Party. Know where it is?"
Jazzcan shivered like he'd been run through, and it wasn't cold out. He took off his shades and scratched his head. Instead of pupils he had tiny silver skeletons. His wide mouth quivered. "Fonny thing, a spliff ago I thought King Flame was burned and burning. Now uh know he's waitin’ for you, and maybe a little bit o' soul. Party's by the Crossroads Disc Shop - but don't go mon. Bury that package. Flame is using a cross of voodoo, run while yuh legs work!"
"I can't run. My reputation's at stake. Look, maybe he's evil, but he's your old pal. Hop in and I'll take you along."
Jazzcan dropped his walking stick and backed away thunderstruck as it clattered on the sidewalk. "Go to that blackest rap, and smoke that evil smoke. Nevuh, nevuh, mon!"
Three passes of the Crossroads Disc Shop gave no hint of the party's location. The shop wasn't open and other than posters, there was nothing but a shining aluminum skeleton in the window. On the fourth pass, Deliveryman got frustrated and gunned the engine. In that brief moment an alley mouth ringed with flame appeared and quickly vanished. A wall of blackened brick remained. Deliveryman jumped at the wheel, an irrational idea invaded his mind as he zipped around the block. He floored it for the fifth pass and drove straight at the wall. There were flames and tormented faces in the smoke; he shot right through and saw a cloud of brick dust and windshield diamonds fly. The taxi was totaled, yet he was only shaken up. A sign said Tube Bottom Road. Checking behind him he saw the package safe in the back. The rear of the car was wedged into a wall of gloom hard as stone, and there was no hole in it.
The door creaked and fell off as he stepped out and a rat bit his ankle. He stamped on it and it squealed hideously as it scurried off. A haze like concrete dust obscured his view of the road, but he could see well enough to spot garbage heaps dripping with spitting rats.
In no time, the rabid things would be on him. He ran to the trunk and forced it open. Snatching a flame-thrower, he moved forward and sent a stream of fire into the first garbage heap. It tore into flame and several fiery rats trailed smoke as they leapt at him. He batted them away with the canister and stamped at them, but they continued ducking in and out and snapping their huge teeth. If anything the fire had made them ornery.
Bleeding bites were on his shin; making his way back to the trunk he got out the fire extinguisher and opened up. The effect was immediate; the rats iced and hissed through split faces as they burst to heaps of blood crystal. Whooping and dancing, Deliveryman killed all the rats near the car, then he pulled out a spliff of sugar-sweet Trinidadian and chewed on smoke clouds as he watched the rest of the rats retreat out of sight into their heaps of filth. Moments later it was quiet and he could see a few million fearful and red rat eyes watching.
After flipping the roach he clipped the extinguisher to his belt and took out a shotgun. It was a twelve-gauge Remington with assault grips, and extra rounds studding the side shotshell carrier. He checked the package; fortunately, none of the rats had chewed on it. Wondering what King Flame was doing living on a hidden street full of rats he pressed ahead.
Hill-sized trash heaps were all around. He could see no sun and the impression was of already being underground. Pungent odors of scorched garbage were enough to kill any party here, so he figured there had to be a clear area somewhere up ahead. But instead of a house he came to a wide mound of rubbish that blocked the whole road. A living and heaving mound of scrunge. Areas of green that resembled damaged lung tissue pulsed. Water the color of piss poured from a snout of soaked, compacted newspapers. Maggots the size of penises writhed in rolling lumps of char. A mass of pop cans made a crude skull.
This was no party animal and no hallucination either. Sometimes after supertoking, garbage would flutter and move, but now he was seeing a huge throat of tarpaper open in the head of the thing. Retreating wasn't a sound game plan and he did not intend to wait to see what the thing would do. Dropping the package, extinguisher and shotgun he yanked out a hunting knife and scrambled across an apron of wattled cardboard slicked with sewage. He spotted what he believed to be a vital point in the beast's anatomy, but before he could lunge a tail of melted tires and shards of colored glass lashed over the body. After diving across a bed of rotted plaster, he sprang to a ledge of sheet metal. Then he flipped forward as a great fist of tar and Coke cans struck at him.
Now he could see the violet pulse of the jugular and a pulp of throbbing heart. Success was only slashes away. A sticky tongue whipped over his head as he charged. Ducking and diving hard he managed to connect and sever the vein. It was like slicing a plastic sewer pipe, vile brown fluid erupted as he tumbled back into a trash earthquake. Leaping from hold to hold mountain-climber-style, he managed to escape the death throes of the beast.
Beyond the trash heaps he found an open stretch of fissured road. There were gaslights, but their orange glow barely seeped into the cottony grayness shrouding everything. Human figures were taking shape out of a haze, so he halted and studied them. They had a dead shamble like early-morning derelicts, but better light revealed them to be cold, dead zombies. Peeling, leprous skin that was white as snow, blackened bone and greenish gangrenous meat poking out of moldered clothing. Slime, rot and shoe leather fell as they walked.
Retreating was his best option, but he absolutely refused to duck back into rat-infested trash heaps. Taking the shotgun, he got a firm hold on the assault grips. Sweeping the gun from side to side and sighting, he waited as the column of the dead approached. They were coming up on him like he wasn't even there, and at the last moment he fired. The first shot carried two ashen zombies into a wall, the bodies throwing off a chunky mat of rotten flesh that crawled and slid like slugs on the scarred brick. The mostly intact heads fell to the asphalt and split as easily as soft melons. Unfortunately, the blast had failed to halt the others, so continuing with a succession of fast shots he emptied the carrier and slicked the road with a gore stew like tyrannosaurus puke.
Finally, he realized there were too many zombies to kill and began to scale the wall with the gun and package fixed to his belt. He got up a few meters before they got to him, and he watched as the column passed. They hadn't been attacking at all and they disappeared in the gloom without taking note of him, going to a place Deliveryman was sure he didn't want to know about.
Deliveryman had a strange feeling, although gravity was normal it felt like he was walking straight down on the wall of a pit. Ugly headless things shifted and dog-big insects scurried at the edge of the gloom. They were like hallucinations that had him looking around so much he couldn't make any progress, and then he found that if he kept his gaze straight ahead they melted to mist. Marching like a soldier he went a mile to the end of Tube Bottom Road and there he found a sign that said THE UNDERGROUND and steps going down to a subway tunnel.
An abandoned piece of subway would be good for a party, he figured, provided it was fixed to be cleaner than the rest of Tube Bottom Road. A stash he'd kept in a subway as a teenager came to mind, and as he was remembering he slipped in a pool of blood and went flying down a wheelchair ramp that was as slick as Godzilla's tongue. He did a wild pirouetting dance as he stumbled out on an immense floor. It was a surface that resembled rusted stone or acid-eaten steel. The ceiling was cavern-high and discolored with mold that hung in shapes like Gothic arches. It was the emptiest dungeon in the world, a place where you could kill a person with the loneliness of a word. In the distance, a black arch radiated rainbow colors around a huge vault door.
Deliveryman stepped up to the door and eyed the gold demon's-head knocker. It was as big as his own head with features of shimmering wickedness. As he reached for it the thing spoke. "Who seeks entrance?"
"Deliveryman, package for King Flame."
The demon's head suddenly spouted fire and Deliveryman was engulfed. He staggered back but wasn't burned. "You haven't lied. You may enter."
Thunder ripped into him as the huge vault opened a crack. He passed through, hearing his bones rattle. King Flame was waiting, and except for smoking dreadlocks he was normal in appearance. "How goes it, Deliverymon?" King Flame said, his hands out for the package.
"Hey, I don't see any party. Don't see much of screw all 'cept you Flame?"
"Things good and dead here, Deliverymon. Dead to the bones."
"Thought you were dead. Why are you still taking deliveries?"
"This is the only one, Deliverymon. The head who cooked me is in the package."
King Flame looked somewhat dead, somewhat solemn and somewhat satisfied as he opened the package. As he removed the contents, he grinned his better days grin. Deliveryman stared with disbelief at the shrunken head King Flame held before him. It was Jazzcan's head, desiccated, nose-ringed and with red feathers in the coils of hair. Sticky blood and meat hung at the neck.
"But I just talked to Jazzcan," Deliveryman said. "He gave me directions."
King Flame laughed a throaty laugh, and the sound pealed loud in the underground. "Uh ghost mon, uh ghost! Was his soul you had," Flame said, holding up a foil packet.
"I don't get it. How could Jazzcan's soul be a packet of rock?"
"Little arrangement I made with the underground. I toke Jazz's soul then mine goes up in smoke at the party. Mine's in the spliff here."
"You mean I delivered you your own soul?"
"No mon. Is a package for King Flame, the big King Flame. He's comin’ up now. Check it out!"
Deliveryman's vision suddenly cut through the gloom. A pit with the flesh tones of an obscene orifice appeared behind King Flame. Fire and smoke licked up in tongues, horned creatures half-human and half snake slid at the lip. Faint strains of pandemonium echoed in the cavern, and there was the boom of an approaching giant. With every step there were wails of death, the sound of millions being crushed underfoot. Deliveryman's mouth fell open and he looked back to King Flame's mad grin. He'd delivered all right, and this time he hoped there'd be no tip.
--- The End ---
© By Gary Morton
* This story takes place at home. The description is of the house and its residents.
Think I Saw a Shadow
Mid October and fall sunshine’s delicate warmth lifts city spirits. The sky is light blue. Soft white clouds drift imperceptibly … and on the beach, waves of metallic green surge with the southern breeze.
In a stroke-weakened left eye I see a world that has darkened. There’s slight pressure in my head, and I fight for balance and relief from the panic of sudden illusion.
When I open my right eye I see vigorous women, teens … jogging, cycling, rollerblading, strolling on the waterfront. People of Toronto and a peaceful warmer autumn … then dust rises with smoke on the trail. It blinks my better eye shut and I race off seeing something dark shimmer again … a premonition of a graveyard world, on an easy fall day.
I step in off the alleyway in the sunny tints of late afternoon and open the old and creaking wooden gate. In the dappled shade of four big trees I look around the backyard.
A huge silhouette falls across most of the yard. It hangs there like a web of shadows or a decrepit tarp. Then I see Shadow my black cat sitting on top of a mound of junk. His eyes glow … straight black lines center his yellow stare … and without a hint, I see his intent.
He bounds down, leaps on an old table beside me and meows. Then he suddenly arches his back and hisses at something in the yard.
So much stuff is strewn there that it’s hard to see anything other than shifting shadows and clutter. After a moment something does move. I see a liquid shadow at first, then quicksilver darkness, a black flash followed by a dry slithering sound in crackling leaves.
Disbelief fades as I realize that something definitely moved behind the barrels and sped out of sight. It appeared only in my stroke-blinded left eye. When I closed it the yard looked normal.
It could’ve been an illusion, but not if Shadow saw it, too.
It Must Be Hiding
I hurried up the fire escape to my second floor deck and sat there spooked, looking over the yard. Something ugly was hiding in that damn junkyard. But where would it hide?
“Peter,” I muttered. “I hate that filthy old landlord. He’s turned this place into a freaky fun house of antique rubbish.”
The biggest hiding spots were two wooden sheds constructed from discarded boards and old doors. One of them built against the trunk of a huge sumac tree. Both had tarnished padlocks, and clutter on the roof … mounds of tick-eaten wood, tin, pipes and wheels up there. A door hole in the side of one shack served as an opening for dozens of huge spiders at night, but it was too small for something large.
The weeds had all died so nothing could be hiding in them unless it had dug a hole in the dirt. In place of a lawn a stretch of old carpet covered the duff in the center of the yard. I could see suspicious bulges there.
Two large barbecues sat next to a rusted piece of iron railing that had bicycles tied to it. Next to them the trunk of the old maple rose, ringed inside a three-foot high well-like circle of old stones, bricks and rotted slabs of deadwood. I had the feeling that a sinister new tenant could be residing there.
A three-legged rusted wheelbarrow filled with wood chips and dirt shielded a dark corner near the maple tree and fence. Free camouflage existed everywhere near that tree. Maybe something could hide up in dense layers of withering leaves. Studying all four trees I noted the items Peter and tenants had attached to the trunks … owls, a rubber cobra, an ancient push lawnmower, a lizard, old rusted pans, a decaying piece of armor, a skull, a plastic cow. A plastic Christmas tree stood at the foot of the maple, and the larger tree’s wind vane swung above it. The wind vane being a pink plastic swan with a black propeller that creaked as it spun. A bat on a wire moved below it.
The cat fluffed his tail and hissed again. He crouched on the fire escape, looking at the general yard. But I saw nothing moving. Boxes of crap and a mish mash of junk showed everywhere … things like an old mesh dog cage, piles of old sinks, wooden barrels, a heap of rusting bicycles and parts behind a railing marking what used to be a garden … a scattering of rubber tires, old toys, a piece of broken stained glass window, heaps of plastic flowers and Peter’s horrible teddy bears.
A number of hideous maggot things could’ve been breeding in those old rotten teddy bears or even the decaying Santa cap hanging from the fence. Over by the table a stuffed penguin stared idiotically from a toy car … cute little bears hung in baskets on the fence. Three Oktoberfest teddies sat in a planter on the tree … and scariest of all was a rag doll sitting inside a rubber tire on the garden fence. It may have once starred in a Stephen King story.
It was a sure thing … something wicked had this way come and nested down there. I saw it and it wasn’t an animal or a snake … when I caught a glimpse of the thing it shifted outline, size and silhouette like some kind of shadowy demon. It was hard to pin down, other than to say that it existed and the gut feeling was of an evil presence.
A puff of moths suddenly shot up like a geyser from a hole in one of the old wooden barrels. My cat Shadow leapt at them as an entire heap of garbage rocked. I ran down the steps, grabbed him and went back up and inside. I could feel my skin crawling as I put the cat on the table and steadied myself against a rising panic attack.
Peter and His Brother
The night was nearly sleepless and featured a multitude of haunted nightmares. Something dragging on the roof was a recurring theme, and when I woke I was often dreaming of being in the grave instead of bed. A spotlight suddenly shone on me and I rose with a startled shake.
The light was a sunbeam; it was near noon on Saturday. I heard the side gate slamming shut and knew that it had to be either Peter or James going into the backyard. Shadow bounded past me as I opened the deck gate. I followed him down with the idea of hurrying to the front to grab my Saturday paper. I saw the landlord’s van over the fence in the lot and as soon as I hit the junkyard turf, there he was. Old hunched and wrinkled Peter wearing his cap and flannel work shirt, and he was pulling a kid’s wagon stacked high with stuff. An old plastic light-up Santa sat on top of the pile.
I could see fresh heaps of new rubbish, and it bothered me so much that I forgot about being spooked a day earlier. Taking a step I tripped over a beat-up hot plate and grease lacquered microwave he’d dumped by the walk.
“So Peter, I see you’re working.”
“I’m cleaning up,” he said. “The fire inspector is coming on Tuesday. A very bad person phoned the inspector.” Turning, Peter started muttering curses at the door to the basement apartment.
I frowned, noting that what Peter called cleaning up involved bringing more trash in rather than taking any out. “Hum, fire inspector,” I said. “I think you’re in trouble Peter. There are too many fire violations. You have to fix that leaking roof. The ceiling in my kitchen is collapsing.”
“My heart,” Peter said. “It’s bad. I can’t do too much hard work. Empty this wagon for me. I go to see my brother.”
I emptied the wagon, finding the bottom of it filled with heavy rocks. Constantly bringing in piles of rocks was another of his personality malfunctions. He’d come to your door to offer you rocks and he had rocks on the roof lining the fence of his deck. Possibly even more rocks were in his head.
The cat and I watched with irritated faces as Peter said hello to his teddy bears … each one of them having its own name. He tipped his cap at the Oktoberfest bears then climbed the fire escape. I noted that he was carrying a crazy-looking clown doll.
Then he stopped at my deck and yelled down. “I hang the clown here!”
“No,” I said, and then I dashed up. “I don’t want a clown that hangs from a pink parachute. It doesn’t look good.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll put it on the roof.” He went up the rickety wooden steps that led from my deck to the rooftop gate. Peter saw those steps as his stairway to heaven. A way to his brother and piles of heavenly rooftop junk.
He’d turned the roof into two sundecks. One was his and the other belonged to the tenants, except that the gate was nearly always locked, so only Peter could get in. The woman on the top floor could get on the roof through a bubble skylight, but she never used the deck.
Everything had rotted up there. On the angled section the shingles had shrunk and warped to such a degree that it looked like a hundred years of drying and mummification. The flat portions were worse … so much busted flat roofing and it needed work or the whole thing would collapse down on my kitchen. And of course he had lawn chairs and an assortment of other stuff on that weakest portion of the roof.
Peter’s brother was an item of debate among the neighbors. He’d tell everyone about visiting his brother on the roof. Some people thought he had a crazy brother living behind the rooftop fence. But I’d been up there … and there were sun umbrellas and toys and stuffed animals. At the highest point a picture of Jesus remains illumined 24 hours a day. East of Jesus a wooden toy devil with outstretched arms and a necklace of rosary beads faces the heavens.
I wondered exactly what Peter worshiped. He called a picture of Jesus his brother, and he had a skull painted black and hung on a chain on the rooftop gate. The wooden devil was also his brother, so technically he had two brothers. Biblically Jesus is not a brother and neither is the devil.
I came back from the front with my newspaper, hearing Peter banging on metal objects and singing songs in Greek up on the roof. It was weird. I wasn’t sure if he was singing, chanting or praying …perhaps all three. And what were the songs about? He’d lived in Cyprus many years ago and he’d told me his job in the civil war had been poisoning guard dogs belonging to the British. Later he worked with the army when they’d taken a monastery, and he had an assortment of pipes and metal pieces that he banged to send signals of a sort. Those sound items he’d replicated on a tree in the backyard and on the roof, and often he’d get to banging out crazy percussion on the metal. Below in the backyard it was to stimulate his memory of days gone by. Above on the roof it was a crazy occult religious thing of his invention that involved songs and chants.
That top deck had been an item of wonder among the tenants. There were days when he forgot to close the gate and we went up and drank beer. I remember talking to James and Dianna up there. Peter had odd things like a toy tractor, fake birds, busted pieces of iron railing and an old ship he’d made of discarded wood chips … but the items of conversation were the normal things.
An ashtray was filled with ancient cigarette buts. He had his incense burner on a round patio table that was surrounded with chairs tilted down and derelict. There was a chair for a child near the fence and a small barbecue. Dianna said it creeped her out, but James and I speculated as to Peter’s sanity. No one went up there but him. If he sat there alone, he probably imagined that others were with him at that table … smoking, eating from the barbecue … perhaps he saw a child over in the small chair.
It was all food for thought and I felt a bit lost in reflection as I picked up the cat. Then suddenly I saw it again … the new resident of the yard. It was close … and shot out from behind a stack of rain-bleached boards … like it was going to rip my leg off. In my blinded left eye I saw liquid darkness morph to a hideous head and fangs … the thing had a huge melting jaw, blood on its twisted lips and a drip of ooze like fear running. Being dog-bit would be bad enough but this sucker was beyond rabid. It shot into my brain like poisonous serum and I knew it wanted my body and what might remain of my mind after paralysis set in.
I staggered back. My cat Shadow hissed and ripped a piece out of my arm as he leapt free. Then fear became amazement. The beast ducked away quickly from Shadow. It was afraid of my black cat … but it sure as hell wasn’t afraid of me. I wondered about Peter as I went up the steps. Should I tell him that something dangerous had got into the yard?
Creeping up the deck steps I peeked through the rooftop gate. Peter was at the top. His arms were raised and I heard shouting. “Strike him down, my Brother! Strike this crazy man down!”
In this case his brother appeared to be a black wooden devil icon he was facing. Moments later he lowered his arms and headed for the gate. I waited on the deck as he came down, noting the ugly scowl on his face. Lately that look had become nearly permanent … like natural meanness or the look a person has when they’ve eaten something foul and it keeps coming up.
“Everything alright up there?” I said.
“Yes. I pray to my brother. Someone called the fire inspector on me. Someone crazy! So I pray for this crazy man to be struck down.”
“Hum,” I thought. “If this crazy man comes into the back yard he probably will be struck down. Or else half the neighborhood will be struck down … because most of them have complained about Peter at one time or another.”
The Ceiling from Hell
At 3 am, an Ozzy Osborne CD climbed to high volume in the backyard. I knew it was James, the musician living in the back basement. He often returned with friends late at night, drank beer and played his guitar or CDs.
I opened the door to the deck and the cat bounded over the gate and disappeared in inky darkness as he ran down the fire escape. I opened a beer and reluctantly followed him down.
James was in a bitter mood. Shadows from the alley spotlight melted on his face and long dark hair. He looked stoned and the darkness magnified his resemblance to Ozzy Osborne. His temper flared. “There’s nothing in this place but junk!” he said. Then he grabbed an old futon bed-board set and tossed it over top of Peter’s little shack. Turning back, he picked up the old microwave oven and hot plate Peter had left by his door. Carrying the junk up the fire escape to the top he tossed it to the cement walk, smashing it to pieces.
I looked at the wreck then stumbled into a big pile of dirty dishes next to one of Peter’s shacks. The rot on them had rubberized. I watched as they rocked and fell and I felt like breaking them all, but I didn’t want to touch them.
Instead, I sat in a lawn chair and waited for James to calm down. His girlfriend sat silently in the shadows. My cat Shadow watched from other shadows, and in my murky left eye I saw a different sort of shadow hanging by the tree. It existed in a beam of the night light where no shadow should’ve been.
The music gained volume … another set of heavy metal songs filtered by James’ old CD player. In the corner of my eye I watched the shadow morph to something bigger then move into the tree over the gate. Moments later it slipped down the wall near some hanging wiring and crept around and through James’ open door. I saw the cat show his fangs as it disappeared into the basement.
The music died out and the night got quiet. James started talking about his apartment. “The basement is a wreck. I have one good room left,” he said. “Peter hasn’t fixed anything for years and his front section of the basement has piles of junk rotting in it.”
Taking a slug of beer James stared up at the tree, seeing part of that same permanent web of gloom that hung over the backyard in the daytime. “I need help to get that thing out of there,” he said.
“What thing?” I said.
“I’m talking about my bed, the double futon. I haven’t used it in months. The ceiling went rotten in the bedroom and it leaked, ruining the mattress. I can’t carry it out by myself.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it tomorrow.”
“No, let’s do it now.”
“Uh, I really don’t want to go in there now.”
The entrance to the basement was like a dark cave existing under my deck. Water and cobwebs dripped from a high ceiling even though it hadn’t rained in a while. Some of Peter’s scavenged paintings showed in the dim light as I followed James down wooden steps to his apartment. The main room was like a music studio and open with no shadows, but my feelings changed when I got to the bedroom. Odors from the rotting carpeting stung my nose. I could see the old soaked mattress. It looked nasty, wet and heavy. Then James turned on a chandelier and the bedroom light and I caught sight of the ceiling.
It sagged so low and deep that I stepped back out the door, fearing imminent collapse.
But James walked in and started shifting the bed, apparently unafraid of the malignant pregnancy above him.
I’d heard of the landlord from hell and the tenant from hell, but figured that it would take both and a big smoke cloud of black magic to create such a phenomenon of slimy decay from a simple ceiling. To allow that ceiling to exist Peter had to be worse than the landlord from hell … like maybe the devil really was his brother.
In a way, the bulge resembled a shark’s belly … but not quite, because it had some patterns like a tropical fish … one that’d been dead long enough to host the growth of numerous parasites.
A skin-like gray substance hung and fluttered like cobwebs in the east corner. Silvered stalactites formed a jagged row of shark’s teeth near the center. Fluorescent green goo pulsed in a gash where a board had broken through peeling paint. Splits in the drywall had leaked plaster that fused with mould to create white foaming orifices and spots of blackened decay that had rounded like mushrooms. The leakage dripping to James’ bed ran red and rust like blood and corrosion.
I was amazed to see the ceiling light still working … though it didn’t resemble a light any more. It was weak and had the effect of a morbid eye sunk into a mass of swollen rot and webbing. The glass from its cover had cracked leaving broken shards protruding while the remaining bare bulb and spots of glittering rot worked to blind me.
“I bet Peter doesn’t want the fire inspector to see that,” James said.
“Yeah, because it looks like fifty people bled and died in the room above you.”
“Peter says the shower leaked and damaged the ceiling.”
Foul fishlike odors reached the bottom of my stomach with the force of sandpaper. I choked up acidic bile and had a sudden vision in my half-blind eye. A maggoty shadow moved inside the womb of ceiling rot. It struck me with sudden fear that faded to numbness in my legs and a hair-raising gross out in the rest of my body.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I said. “Let’s toss this mattress quick.”
James nodded and I went in with my head down. I grabbed the bottom part of the mattress and found it so slimy that I lost my grip. I didn’t want to touch it again but fear of the ceiling gave me the strength to seize it and begin pulling it out. We climbed the stairs with fumes strong as fingers poking our noses and eyes … moved through the alley darkness to the street and dumped the foul mattress with Wednesday’s garbage.
Heading back inside my skin crawled and itched. “Think I need about three showers,” I said. Then I grabbed the cat and went back upstairs.
Another day … blinding autumn sun, dusk that fell quick as a knife. I got busy on the net. During a pause in browsing I looked up and had the feeling that something was off. It was quiet, too quiet. It’d been that way for a week. The other tenants used to make a fair bit of noise. Lately I hadn’t seen any of them other than James late at night. Now the place seemed more than haunted. I heard the odd door slam, peculiar hushed voices and little else. Noises a reclusive ghost passing in the hall could’ve made.
Shadow was scratching by the front door of the apartment. He never went out that way so I walked over and turned on the hall chandelier. Some type of black bug was there and the cat was knocking it about. It was probably the biggest, ugliest bug in the city… a black beetle with huge protruding eyes, and tough, too. It buzzed angrily at Shadow like it wanted a scrap and he answered by seizing it with his fangs and tossing it against the wall. I moved in to squash it but failed. It hopped aside then Shadow seized it again and this time he ate it.
The little beast didn’t want me to get his bug. He took it in a long gulp, then his eyes popped and he started to choke. Long hacks followed like the bug was trying to fight its way out. I picked him up and patted his back to ease the coughing, but even with that, it went on for five minutes.
Finally, the bug was digested. I frowned. “Now the place is infested by monster bugs,” I muttered. Then I heard a scream. Not a loud scream but a muffled scream, like the person had been partially gagged or silenced and was in a state of terror.
I opened the door cautiously and Shadow ran out. Across the hall the door to the small front apartment stood open. When I knocked it opened more. The tenant, Stefan wasn’t in.
It was a peculiar scene. The place was in disarray and there was a smear on the floor where something had been dragged. The stain was red to spatters of black, forming a twisting path out to the hall and stairs. I turned on the hall light for a closer look then went back in Stefan’s apartment.
Grime-blackened curtains were billowing in a foul wind from the street. It rose and fell and I heard bizarre noises below. At the window I saw a shadowy figure moving rapidly at the front. A raw scraping noise came from the side alley leading to the backyard.
An unwanted vision rose in my mind. I knew the tenant, Stefan, hated Peter. When he moved in he tossed Peter’s trash apartment décor and repainted the place. Stefan put in simple furniture then. But now the place looked like another of Peter’s mad palaces, with moldy carpeting tossed over the hardwood and kitsch paintings and knickknacks cluttering the walls. I picked up an animal carving and studied it. It was so old the wood had blackened and warped. It was impossible to guess what animal it was … and it gave me the shivers because it reminded me of that shadowy thing I’d seen in the backyard. A chill hit me, I thought it moved in my hand and let go of it … leaving it to bounce away on the floor.
The room felt like a bad omen so I slammed the broken door and left. I went down the stairs wondering. The front hall of the house was Peter’s kitsch curiosity shop. A wide hall with a high ceiling that would've been attractive had he not filled it with clutter. Colored lights and strings of lights were plugged in around a wall cabinet filled with mismatched pieces of crappy art. A statue of Jesus stood at its center. The rest of the hall was a muddle of paintings and hangings … brass plates, naked cupids, stands of plastic flowers, an antique rifle, and a gold birdcage with a fake parakeet inside. He had an aquarium filled with rubber bugs, lizards and shells. Teddy bears in pots and a big Santa doll in a sleigh worked to complete a dusty nightmarish tone.
There were two apartments on the ground floor. Neither of the tenants answered when I knocked so I went to the front. The door was a glass and silver one that once belonged to an ice cream parlor. I got a good view of the front yard from it … but saw no one out there.
I stepped into the front yard and looked around. Some strings of lights illumined the area and highlighted sprays of plastic flowers. Peter had plastic flowers in wooden barrels. A fifty-year-old rusting baby carriage was filled with more flowers. There were piles of rocks and deadwood, a horseshoe fastened over the door, a construction of tiered birdhouses filled with flowers and tiny teddy bears. Light from the street was blocked by a berry tree, bushes and a fence made of deadwood, segments of bent, rusted railing and tall weeds.
A shadow moved on the lower portion of the roof above the door. I stepped back quickly and saw that it was Shadow my cat. I’d accidentally shut him in Stefan’s apartment so he’d gone out the window. He crouched beside a ceramic roof bear, then I saw his eyes and fangs flash as he hissed.
Another shadow was moving near the side alley. I stepped over and it was gone in a flash, but I did see something oozing over the gate to the back yard. In the alley a dark drag marking ended at a basement window. I crouched to look and found the window locked. The light was out.
I returned to the front door. Shadow had jumped down and I was about to reach for him when a figure suddenly appeared in the dark beside me. It startled me. I stepped away, and then saw that it was Peter. He’d come up the steps from the front basement.
Even in the dark, I could see how dirty he was … like he‘d been digging for coal or something. And his pockets bulged. It looked like they were full of sticks.
“Come in the house, I show you something,” he said.
A serious frown pinched his blackened face. I followed his hunched figure inside to his cabinet of ornaments. He stopped and pointed to two tiny teddy bears in baskets. “My babies, my babies!” he cried. “Stefan, hurt my babies. He’s crazy in the brain, that man.”
“They look alright to me,” I said.
“They are okay. But today when I come, I found them upside down in their baskets. Other things were touched and a vase of flowers is missing.”
“Where is Stefan?” I said. “I heard a scream. Now I see his door has been left open.”
“That crazy man! I pray to my brother to strike him down! Soon it will be quiet here. The people are mostly quiet now. It’s better for my babies. They sleep well and quiet tenants don’t use too much water and electricity. The bills I have to pay … heat, water and electric. It’s better for the house to be quiet and dark.”
“Quiet and dark! It already is quiet and the back of the house is darker than parts of the moon. If you want to save money try turning off some of the lights you have at the front and on the front roof. The other tenants can’t be using much power. I haven’t seen any of them around other than James once in a while. What happened to them?”
“The house is light and dark. The back must be dark. My brother wants it that way. And quiet … the tenants gave me the rent for this year. Now they are sleeping. Stefan is sleeping with them now.”
“If you say so,” I said. Then I went back upstairs, wondering about Peter and his babies. “Maybe his madness has finally driven the tenants out,” I thought. “Maybe something far worse is going on. Maybe the other tenants are nuts, too, and somehow in this with him. Maybe that shadowy demon got them and they’re more than sleeping.”
I returned home in the early afternoon, thinking it another day in a long string of sunny days. Each of these days had been tarnished by the landlord and the new threat in the backyard.
I’d work on my computer or try to enjoy the weather. Then the hammering would begin. Hours of banging, and the first three days were out on my deck. Peter was building a new set of stairs from my deck to the roof. His stairway to heaven; it allowed him to come up the stairs to my deck and then he could take his new stairs to the roof, his two sundecks and his gods and demons.
Nails were his specialty, he hammered about a thousand into the new stairs and he was around the house building railings and doing other noisy stuff. Neighbors yelled from their yards and windows for him to cut the noise. But he plunged blindly onward with the hammer, cursing the fire inspector for ordering repairs.
The backyard would’ve provided some relief, but that was killed by fear of the new inhabitant. I wouldn’t even go down there without Shadow. And it must have looked odd to see me carrying a black cat with me everywhere.
Finally, the noise was too much and I went down and talked to James in the back yard.
“I just got back from up North,” he said. “But I can’t have any friends over. Peter’s always here, hammering.”
“He’s driving me nuts,” I said. “The fire inspector didn’t order those particular repairs. He only has to clear out junk from the hallways and stairwells. Peter’s working on some master plan of his own. The roof is rotten. Dust is falling on me while he walks around up there, so why is he building new steps up to it?”
“I’ve never seen this back yard look worse,” James said. “Years ago this was a beautiful place with rose bushes and flowers. Now there’s scrap everywhere and the trees are overgrown, making it dark even in the daytime. He took out the lights, so it’s pitch black at night.”
“Yeah, I use my own spotlight hook-up now. I’m wondering what he’s doing up there on the flat-roof? All that banging and he hasn’t taken any shingles or roofing stuff up. I keep hearing noises at night, like something dragging. None of the other tenants seem to be around any more. I find that suspicious.”
“Maybe he’s building another one of those shitty junk houses up there and the raccoons moved in. We should check it out some time.”
“Think I’ll take a look up there after dark. Peter always leaves at dusk.”
But of course, I never did get to checking out the roof after dark. Instead, I was on the phone and the computer. Drank some beer and passed out dead tired.
Late at night the weird noises started. The cat jumped on me and I sat up, finding that I’d passed out on the couch with all my clothes on. I went to the window and saw nothing in the side alley. My cell said 2 am so I knew it wasn’t James as he partied nights usually after 3 am.
I probably wouldn’t have suspected anything much if it weren’t for the constant humming sound. It was a low hum that rose and fell, almost like an engine sound … intense and irritating but subdued … from the south corner of the ceiling. Meaning it had to be coming from the roof.
A moment later, I heard footsteps and scraping above. Someone or something was up there so I walked through the apartment and went out on the deck. The rooftop gate sat in blue-black darkness and silence at the top of the stairs. The noises had subsided.
I went up with the cat behind me, pushed Peter’s skull and chain aside and opened the gate. Peeking inside I saw a floating area of darkness backlit by the sky. Returning with a flashlight I entered. Flicking it on, I saw something move and nearly jumped out of my skin. But it turned out to be the cat in ahead of me so I calmed down and looked around. The flat portion had fresh patches of tar, which I avoided. I gathered that Peter had been attempting to fix some of the holes, and that something had been up there making those holes.
The skylight reflected a cloudy sky. A torn flag fluttered on the fence. A toy clown shifted in the wind by the creaking railing. The sweep of my flashlight beam illumined old lawn furniture and decaying sun umbrellas. When I swept it over the angled portion leading to the higher deck I spotted a large hump in the rotted shingles.
“Hum, that thing wasn’t there before,” I thought as I stepped closer.
The thing was a giant cocoon of rotted shingling and tarpaper covered with festering nodes of roofing slime. It was about the size of a human body and that aroused my suspicion. Picking up a piece of deadwood, I began to poke at it. In most areas the tar had hardened, but in one spot the stick went through into something soft. When I pulled it out, I saw blood at the end.
Remaining calm while feeling like either fleeing or throwing up, I peeled a piece of shingle back. That released an explosion of gas and foul liquids that sent me reeling on my heels. I dropped the light, scrambled to pick it up and put the light beam back on the cocoon. I saw maggoty ooze and a piece of cloth. It was part of a shirt. Inspecting it with the stick, I realized that it had to be one Stefan’s shirts. He was the only tenant who dressed that loud.
“Peter said he was going to get Stefan for calling the inspector,” I muttered. “Looks like he got him and turned him into a giant pile of maggots.”
Pulling out my cell phone, I looked up Peter’s number. I assumed calling him would be safe because his home residence was a few kilometers away and he wouldn’t be able to get here to confront me. I planned to ask him a few pointed questions.
I punched the talk button and waited. A moment later the call went through and my hair stood up broom straight, because I heard a phone ring at the top of the roof.
I cancelled the call instantly and waited. Nothing moved up there. I waited five minutes more, hearing only the creaking of old wood in the wind. Stars and faint light glowed at the top so I decided to check it out and went slowly up the next set of steps. I moved the light around, saw something shadowy move near the east fence and ducked back.
The light was by the south fence. I crept over, seeing Peter’s picture of Jesus and his little devil illumined by a night light. Now he had a tiny Plexiglas construction built around them to protect them as a personal shrine. A motor hummed though I couldn’t see one, and a brass vase produced a light mist that drifted like smoke.
Some other large objects near the east fence caught my eye. My beam flashed in my cat’s eyes. He was already over there, standing on what looked to be a weather-beaten coffin.
I walked over and found three grave-battered coffins. Two closed and one open … all of them dirt-crusted like they’d been freshly pulled from a graveyard. I moved my beam to the open one. A fully clothed body was inside. Moving the light up to the face, I saw that it was Peter. His eyes were closed but he wasn’t dead, he was sleeping.
Clicking off the light I moved away quickly and headed for the stairs. I got down the first set then heard a bang behind me as I headed for the gate. That caused me to slip right into the wet tar, and before I could get out my foot went crashing through the roof.
I was stuck there in the dark, trying to pull my foot up without making any noise. A damn splintered board had caught my ankle, making it more than difficult. Maggots touched my flesh, and then I heard noise above. The glow of a brighter light appeared at the top. I saw Peter and something else … a massive shadow … big enough to be a bear moving or more like sliding beside him. They turned at the top of the steps and I saw its face. It was feral and demonic, with fangs and hellish red eyes that moved in transformation with the rest of its shifting form.
They were about to come down but Peter, being near blind, couldn’t see me. He turned and the thing followed him over to his shrine.
Knowing they might not be out of sight for long I worked to get my leg loose, finally pulling so hard I put a bad cut in my ankle. Wet tar sealed the wound as I got free and headed for the gate.
I shut the gate and the cat and I went down the steps and into my apartment. Locking both doors I went into the bathroom to work on cleaning the wound. Then the phone rang. It was Peter.
“Is everything okay there at the house?” he said.
“Yes, everything’s fine. Why do you ask?”
“One of the other tenants complained about noise on the roof. You weren’t on the roof were you?”
“No. I’ve been sleeping. No one’s up there.”
“Okay, I’m just checking. I have to make sure my brother is okay.”
I hung up, and I thought about calling the police. But I didn’t. They’d never believe murder had gone on up on the roof without me knowing about it or being a part of it. They’d think I was in on Peter’s crazy deal … a nut talking about teddy bears, shadows and maggoty monsters.
Stairway to Heaven and Hell
Peter left the roof at the first sign of the morning sky. He chanted a weird verse as he passed but he didn’t try to enter my apartment. I believed he was satisfied for the moment. I saw Venus above and watched his hunched form move slowly down and out the back gate. He took nothing with him and no creatures followed. It gave me the feeling that only Peter could leave … his ghastly beasts were rooted here at the house.
Looking at the calendar, I realized it was the end of October. Halloween had arrived and I had entered into the witch’s zone at midnight with the ugly roof find. If the day progressed in the same fashion, it would be deadly.
At least I was still alive. The other tenants had perished, except for James, as he may have headed back up North before they got him.
My first piece of luck had been my black cat. Then I’d managed to escape from Peter and his beastly friend. But it was all very tiring and in a sense, too much. Thinking that perhaps it was the end and I no longer cared; I fell asleep and got lucky with a strange dream.
The dream delivered understanding of the bizarre happenings, disappearances, Peter’s madness and the shadowy apparition roaming in the backyard.
Weird dreams had disturbed my sleep from the beginning and I’d always believed the decrepit house was haunted. The haunting seemed to be by some hidden spirit. A silent and frightening phantom that opened doors, rapped on the walls and moaned occasionally. It struck mostly in dreams.
Haunted dreams always started with doors swinging mysteriously open and strangers coming in. The voices of a young man and others were in the dreams and I’d often get up to confront the intruders and find no one there. The bothersome spirits never fully appeared in the house, but when I went out on the deck, I’d see an apparition of a witch-like woman sweeping up leaves.
This time it was different. I woke on my bed and was surprised to see the furnishings altered. A large box set with drawers sat on the coffee table. I opened a couple drawers and found objects that resembled cigars, a twisted gold ring and some personal items I couldn’t identify. The set had animal carvings and twisted faces that weren’t from this world. Yet they seemed very real and genuine.
Red curtains fluttered on a tarnished moon and the room was thick with damp odors. Tall leafy plants stood near the window and broad fernlike greenery blocked my view of the couch. I spotted the cat sitting at the bottom of the bed and he was staring at something at the far end of the couch. I strained to see but saw nothing other than plant leaves and blur. Closing my right eye I looked with my left. A man came into view … or rather a being similar to a man. He was emaciated and wearing ragged clothing … the frightening aspect being his face. His right eye was gone and his skin had melted into a hideous web of exposed flesh. Gouges in the flesh resembled acid burns more than death’s decay.
He was an apparition or evil spirit of some variety, but he wasn’t a ghost. I realized that this being had never been human even though I took him as male, and I don’t think he knew I could see him. He sat there in silence, showing no reaction or movement. Like a wicked chameleon confident in his dead-man’s camouflage.
I woke up in a fog then began to think. It all seemed to come together. The long-term presence of ghostlike beings in the house indicated some connection with a spirit realm. The rest had to be a colossal accident. Peter really was the landlord from hell. Years of rot and his collection of every old artifact and odd piece of junk combined with his eccentricities and the construction of the rooftop shrine had created the right conditions. His stairway to heaven was the lightning rod that strengthened the haunting of the house. He’d unwittingly created a crossover point to some ghostly realm. The old metal pipes he banged on the tree and the songs he sang in Greek to his brother on the roof, plus the positioning of every kind of crazy idol, symbol and rusted antique must have created alchemy of mold and decay. He’d done the job by pure accident, and now he’d gone mad. Perhaps contact with the monsters had cinched the deal, and the day that wicked shadow demon crossed over to the back yard was the day he lost his mind.
Dealing with Peter was one big problem. Another was the deadly black apparition he’d brought in. I had a theory on that fanged shadow, and a plan to test it out.
I kept an eye out for Peter all day, but his van didn’t show at the back. When the sun began to fall I stepped out on the deck holding a ball of string. I closed the door so the cat couldn’t get out then fastened one end of the string to the screen door. A test pull opened it but I closed it quickly to keep the cat inside.
Leaves were falling and swirling in a light breeze. The dying rays of the sun filtered through in dusty beams. The yard had its usual rust and musty smell; an abandoned atmosphere strengthened by occasional gusts of wind and the creak and rattle of boards and debris.
I walked down the fire stairs unwinding the string as I went. Once in the yard I walked over to the alley gate and looked back. It was certain the shadow demon was lurking somewhere, waiting to strike, but I couldn’t spot it.
I took a walk around like Peter would do … picking up a couple rotten teddy bears to say hello, sorting some old boards, rattling the lock on the gate, looking at the decaying contents in a number of old barrels. Nothing seemed to be happening so I stopped, leaned against the tree and kicked up some leaves.
It struck with lightning speed; a mound of leaves exploded and some plastic crates and a gasoline can got knocked aside by a force of darkness that felt like sizzling wind. Its rush at me seemed both predatory and desperate, like I’d always been its chosen prey. I saw the warped fangs and burning eyes rise out of a head that spun and enlarged like a twister.
In an instant, I was thrown against the tree and in spite of the shock I knew I was being swallowed, like a person going into the belly of a snake. I did try to strike out and in doing so pulled the string I’d set.
An overwhelming force took my head. My skull and mind fused as I went through a warped black hole. A wall of screeching sound ripped me like I was in an MRI scanner that had gone off the rails. Both eyes went blind then filled with a continual swirl of shadows and dark smoke. I was tumbling out of the sky toward a misty place and saw fragments of a strange scene. It was a world where everything had been destroyed … a planet resembling a huge junkyard. I was headed towards a spot with endless rows of broken gravestones and bubbling earth … skeletal figures creeping in long grass and murk … hundreds of ancient coffins like the ones Peter had on the roof but these were strewn near open graves.
Cloudy faces appeared … worm-eaten and earth dripping … broken bones protruding through rotted cloth and flesh … this was a planet where the dead had risen from the grave … and the corpses hadn’t been human in life either.
Claws of pain tore at my legs, I thought I was finished, and then everything swirled in choking smoke again. I had the feeling of being sucked down a huge drain. I hit the ground and found myself thrown into a pile of Peter’s junk. A rusty nail punctured my leg. My shoulder got bashed by an old sink, but I still got up quickly, and saw that my plan had worked. The cat had got out and chased the beast off.
Being out of breath and still unsteady on my feet I sat in a chair by the fence. I checked the bleeding on my leg then I saw the cat going up the fire escape as the shadow demon slipped onto the roof.
Darkness swept in fast like a blinding curtain closing. I went up and turned on my outdoor light then went down and sat in the backyard with a beer. I had to think it out and though my theory had proved correct, I still couldn’t believe it. This house was a crossover point, but not to our spirit realm. The connection was to another world; a repulsive junkyard planet where the dead had risen.
My experience showed the travel to be mostly one way. If I’d gone all the way through I would’ve been killed or driven mad by the undead apparitions populating that place. It could’ve happened that way to other tenants and they returned as corpses in coffins. If not then maybe Peter killed them and stuffed them in coffins he brought back.
Peter must’ve transformed a weak connection to that world of the undead and trash into a powerful one. He remained alive but mad and was now a servant of that junkyard realm. His mistaken magic had somehow kept him functioning as an eviler incarnation of his former self.
Swallowing the last of my beer I decided that the whole thing creeped me out royally. I went up the steps planning on going in for the night … then a haze of light showed above. Something was happening on the roof.
Climbing the steps I found the gate unlocked. The first deck was mostly dark so I opened the gate just enough to slip in. Yellow light glowed above and I could see a human shadow elongated against the fencing. He was moving and dragging something heavy.
It was hard to see so I listened. Leaves rustled and lifted in the wind. I heard street sounds, birds, night sounds, and the voices of children out for Halloween. Then I heard humming … the same low hum that bothered me constantly in my bedroom.
I went up the final steps quietly; just enough to see … and what I saw was Peter. He’d somehow got up there and what he’d been dragging was a body. It was a woman and he was hauling her up with a rope to hang her off one of the center beams running over top of the deck. Peter’s toy devil with the rosary beads was framed behind them and a coffin sat under it. I could see that coffin shaking fiercely. It hummed, and I wondered what in the hell could be in it.
Then the body twisted slowly on the rope. I saw a fire department badge on the woman’s shirt and gulped.
Peter turned quickly. Ghastly light caught his widening eyes. Dried mud and traces of blood formed thick swirls on his forehead and under his eyes. He wore a crown of autumn leaves and sticks on top of his cap and big fisherman’s boots on his feet.
“You’re insane,” I said. “You killed the fire inspector and the other tenants.”
“No. I don’t kill her!” he shouted. Then he pointed to his toy devil. “I prayed to my brother to strike her down. Now she’s dead because she had to die. She ordered me to remove my brother’s home from this roof.”
“What about the tenants? Why did you kill them?”
Peter’s eyes lit up and became the orbs of a fiend. He seized the corpse’s shoulder and rocked it on the rope. “My brother is hungry. He has to eat, and he likes eating people. Come now to see my brother!”
I didn’t answer, but stared in shock as he turned and stepped over to the coffin. It sprang open at his touch and a gross shape began to ooze out. It was hard to believe a coffin could hold something so big. It kept pouring out; rising and growing in white folds like a huge maggot. When it reared up fully I saw a face form … the same fanged and hideous style of face as that of the shadow demon.
“Now you meet my brother!” Peter shouted. He reached down and picked up a crowbar, then began to shuffle toward me. I backed down the stairs. Peter’s shadow and the colossal maggot moved behind the fence. They appeared at the top of the stairs then descended. The maggot oozed slowly in the lead, followed by Peter and the dark form of the shadow demon.
I retreated into the backyard, backing against the alley gate as the maggot shook the fire escape and slithered down. Peter remained near the top watching and my cat fled into the bushes.
I was on my own against this ungodly thing and decided to take the coward’s way out and escape. But the back gate wouldn’t open. Peter’s lock was on it. I had a key but no time to use it, so I ducked across the yard.
The maggot dripped buckets of hot slime as it hit the autumn duff. Leaves and junk snapped to its sticky electric body as it approached me. I tried to jump to the other gate but tripped in the dark, and then with no close escape I got up and started circling the yard with the maggot beast close behind.
It gained mass and slowed down … the hideous thing sucked in everything it passed … pieces of metal, boards, bricks, toys and other debris sank into its flesh and formed a coat on it. Debris ran with a long trail of sizzling ooze behind it.
Seeing my chance, I ran for the west gate, got the key in and managed to get out. The automatic spotlight in the parking spaces came on and I saw a pile of broken stones just as I tripped over them.
I fell hard and found myself watching from the ground as the maggot rose and swelled through the gate. It was about to collapse on me, then it began to glow, radiantly bright. Smoke rose in oily black puffs and curls, its flesh hissed and boiled with pus eruptions, then a spasm hit its widening mouth and fire flew, singing my face and hair. Its eyes smoldered, brightened like black stars and then it came apart … a sloppy gassy explosion of flaming white fat and burning junk swept the alley and parts of neighboring yards.
Blinded and batting out small fires on my clothes I stood up and staggered, believing I was running into the alley. But I went the wrong way and as my vision cleared I heard the gate slam. I was back in the yard and Peter and the shadow demon were a few feet away.
The cat leapt out and hissed, blocking the shadow demon’s attack … and that brought Peter into action. He swung his crowbar at the cat and missed. Then the cat ran for cover with Peter following him into darkness and rubbish. The second ghastly brother slipped closer, preparing to strike. In my blind eye, I saw the fangs rising up and the whirling maw widening.
And in my good eye, I saw my cat Shadow race out from behind the maple tree.
Peter lunged at him and tripped on a fallen piece of board. He tumbled forward just as his monster struck. And it swallowed him instead of me.
The force sent me back against the fence, knocking teddy bears and dust loose. I saw Peter as he was sucked into the vortex. His feet kicked and he went in up to his waist in a dark pool, then there was an explosion of wind as he disappeared in spiraling shadows.
Small fires flickered like candles in the yard. Leaves blew and spun in dust devils. The trees rocked and dead branches fell … gusts sent cans flying and the old wheelbarrow moved on its own.
I put the fires out and silence fell on the backyard. The full moon rose behind a pumpkin shade of haze. Halloween partiers passed in the alleyway. I had that sudden warm feeling that October and blowing leaves can bring, and I looked over a yard filled with light. The sticky web of shadows had left with Peter and his brothers.
I planned on chopping the rooftop devil down. Breaking the magic would leave Peter stuck on the other side. I went up to the roof and found the coffins and bodies gone, like they’d never been there. Some of Peter’s junk had vanished, too … like anything he’d collected from that realm had been returned.
The wooden demon remained with its arms outstretched to sky … but it no longer frightened me. Instead, it seemed like I’d only dreamed of evil.
I had a small saw in my hand and I looked up at the demon again. Then I heard teenagers screaming in a car passing on the street below. My memory slipped into phantom dreams of Halloween … and when they passed I couldn’t quite remember why I was on the roof.
I headed back down to my apartment and slept for long hours. In the morning, the house and the yard were silent. No tenants, no ghosts … but I did see a shadow … moving quietly by some heaps of junk in the back yard. --- The End ----
© By Gary Morton
Memories of garage sales are often friendly images of sunny Saturdays in summer, perhaps strolling on a morning-bright city street and stopping to buy some needed item. In younger days when I lived in small town Canada, such sales were the fruit of a Sunday drive on dusty county highways. We bought things like hand-me-down clothes, tools, battered toys and baskets of strawberries and corn. I still have an old grainy Polaroid photograph of my first wife out front of a sale held in a bleached rural garage.
Odors of tarred gravel roads used to rise to my nostrils when I thought of garage sales, but that was yesterday and this is today. Now thoughts of garage sales summon a demon to mind. This thing is a genuine nightmare that walks in images of gloom and the damp soil of open graves. It is more than recollection; it is here in reality in this city every night. Call it the boogieman if you're a kid or a shambling corpse if you're an adult. No matter what you call it or what you know it will still be somewhere in the dark day and night on an evil mission to satisfy its peculiar form of hate.
If gloom lingers in place of sunshine in my thoughts, I suppose the reason is that I have held a garage sale nearly every weekend this summer and it has been the darkest and hottest summer in recorded Toronto history. On Saturday mornings, I rise early and wait for the sun. Each time a smoke-shaded wall of cloud inches in from a heat storm on the bruised horizon.
Only the pale glare of the sun gets through and I'm suffering in it now as I remember and consider the black reputation of this part of town. It could be that the long shadows of dark days can create evil or that the electricity rising in overwhelming heat is a force that leaves people fast on their beds and uses the stolen energy to bring something else to life. Aberrant weather that is prolonged just might open doors to ghostly worlds. I can't really say what it is that powers the supernatural.
Here it's a ghoulish child killer that's loose on the night streets, and this one is sure to claim more victims as the police are everywhere and yet haven't any power against it. I do have evidence but they wouldn't believe me if I told them. They'd probably think me crazy and arrest me. Though it is the truth and it has to do with my garage sales.
The strange events began on that second Saturday sale of mine, when the air was so hot, heavy and dirty. It made me choke as it scratched into my lungs with dead fingers of static and dust. I'm just past middle age now and I've been scarred and bruised by an unlucky life, so at my best I usually still feel somewhat lousy. In that weather, my hair and whiskers felt like an itching bur patch wanting to be torn out.
Superstition filled my mind in that gloom. Everything seemed like a sign of biblical proportions and the day definitely did open with a bad omen. My sale had barely started and I was already at the curb sparing with a fatuous city inspector.
"You had a yard sale last week," he said. "If you're using this place as a store you're in violation of city bylaw 20086C."
"I'm well aware of bylaw 20086C. If you look at the sign on the maple tree it says garage sale. The law allows each resident to have two garage sales per year. Last week it was a yard sale so I'm entitled to this sale and one more garage sale."
"Just watch yourself or you'll be ticketed," he said. He shook dripping sweat off his jowls and popped his head back into the air-conditioned interior of his city car.
"Bastard," I muttered as his wheels spun up dust.
"What did you say?" Jen Lu said as she stepped up.
"Muggers, Jen. Muggers meaning what a scorcher it is today."
"It certainly is. I need a fan for my porch. I don't have the air conditioning out there."
"I've got fans galore, Jen. Just follow me to the garage and you can pick an ace one from my selection."
She did follow me down the drive - slowly, with her pesky little poodle, Bambi nipping at my heels nearly every step of the way. The asphalt had softened to the point that it sank with my footsteps and I couldn't use my cane at all. It was with great relief that I entered the semi darkness of the open garage.
Jen Lu stopped and stood beside me, staring with wide brown eyes at that great collection of junk -- an assortment so awesome that even Bambi was muzzled by it. My garage is a large one. So old in fact that it was originally a barn. Over about a hundred years it went through various renovations to become a more modern home of dust motes. I have a whole wall of tools for sale, and just about every sort of garden implement.
"Where do you get all of that stuff?" she said.
I shrugged. "There are many items that were already inside when I bought the place, and they've been there for decades. Dick Black, the previous owner, didn't use the garage at all. Much of the antiques remain from some other owner from way back. I believe his name was Dovecraft or Lovecraft - something to that effect. I have racks of dishes and stuff at the back. I collect this merchandise from all over the neighbourhood. In that way I'm a collector of sorts and I never throw anything out. People buy the strangest things. Often I've spent Sundays at the Rosedale Diner; enjoying diner and a few drinks with money I got from the sale of some odd piece that turned out to be rare or antique."
"I think I prefer your yard sales," Jen Lu said. "Your garage is creepy."
"Sure it looks creepy, but I can assure you that it's been swept clean. There are no cobwebs or rodents in my place. I keep it sharp as a store."
"Okay, so which aisle is the fan in?"
"Oh yes, fans. You're in luck because I have a pile of them right here by the door."
It was a sale. I polished up a battered fan for Jen and sold it to her for five bucks. As she walked away, I figured I'd begun the day with a smooth transaction. Yet that wasn't the case, because as she reached the end of the drive Bambi went nuts and nearly broke off the leash as she tore at the pant leg of another customer.
Bambi looked rabid or something. Jen had to scoop her up and the dog still foamed and snarled as she carried it off.
At least this guy was a gentleman about it. All he did was grunt, look down at his frayed cuff and then back up at my cardboard sign.
I stood watching from the garage doorway, trying to get a handle on him. The man was like a tramp in that he wore a frayed cloth coat in high summer. Yet he was unlike your usual tramp as he wore a wig. He was the only bum I ever saw with fake hair and it was cheap - a matted high comb back he must've found in the novelty bin at Honest Ed's Discount Store. It combined with his mould-wrinkled face to create a person of unidentifiable race and culture. Most striking was his nose - it being a gross lump shot through with blue-black spider veins, indicating that he had enough of a drinking problem to have died in the gutter a few times.
Somehow he had managed to climb out of the gutter this day but he hadn't cleaned himself up. His work boots were sodden and mud covered, and under the open coat he wore a sort of gardener's outfit of green that had turned mostly to gray and stains.
My sign only had two words on it, yet it took him a minute to read it. So I figured he was either blind or hung over. When he did turn and come down the drive a slight and sinister breeze blew. The lilac leaves seemed to shiver like they were cold or something and to make things worse I could smell this guy before he even got near me.
It wasn't a pretty smell. Once I poisoned a bunch of rats in the garage and when I opened up the smell was so foul I couldn't eat for a day. It took nearly a week to air the place out. He smelt like that -- like death. And as he came down the drive with slow steps I had the feeling of watching a scene from a zombie movie.
My hair bristled as he stepped up to me, yet I didn't let him phase me. I still acted like a salesman.
"You need money at this sale, pal," I said.
"I got money," he replied. "Lots of money."
Growing cataracts obscured his eyes and his teeth were rotten. He had a voice like his tongue was jammed in his throat. For a moment, I didn't reply but just stared. I'd seen tobacco stains before, but I could've sworn that his teeth were outright loose like piano keys in his mouth.
"Anything in particular you want?"
"Just to look around."
I waved an arm and he walked inside. He didn't look at any of the new stuff, only the ancient junk. And he had a way of pulling things out of the piles like he knew exactly where they were all the time. I watched him walk over to the darkest corner and lift something out that looked like a rope. For a moment I trembled in the withering heat; it really gave me the creeps watching him. Being trapped inside with him would be nothing short of terrifying.
When he came back to the door he was carrying an old skipping rope. "I'll buy this," he said. "How much?"
"Er-ahh, five dollars will do."
"Okay," he said, then he pulled out a wad of bills. There was no organization to the way he'd rolled them and in the wad, I saw everything from fifties to old obsolete one-dollar bills.
He shambled away in the heat shimmies of the overcast day and I saw him cut down a path in the vacant lot three houses away. I really wondered who he was and in the end I decided that he must be one of those people with a freakish illness. Like the one that makes kids look like deformed freaks. Except that his disease made him look like he'd just risen from the grave.
It had been headline news. The neighbourhood buzzed with the conversation of frightened parents all week. A little French girl, Lisa Landry, had been killed up by the Taddle Creek schoolyard. Detectives were part of a heavy police presence on the streets, yet in spite of that I hadn't thought much about it.
Only in the dreary weather of another Saturday morning did I find myself considering the issue. She'd been strangled by an unknown item they thought to be a thin rope or thick wire. It was a terrible way to die and the horror of it seemed to consume me as I crossed the back yard to the garage. I thought I could smell those dead rats again and the foul odor brought the skipping rope I'd sold to Mr. Death and Disease to mind.
At the garage doors the bagel I'd gobbled for breakfast sank like a hot stone into the pit of my bowels. My intestines felt like another variety of skipping rope - one trying to break free of my body.
My head spun and I think I would've blacked out right then if it weren't for the sight of Danny Swartz coming up the drive. This was all three hundred pounds of him with his heavy brows and cheeks adding another few pounds. He was an awesome vision and in spite of his size he walked like a human hammer, trying to head-butt the world out of his way.
"You look worried?" I said as he lumbered up.
"Yeah. A big oak branch fell on my fence. I need a chainsaw."
"Geeze, Danny. With the kind of gruesome stuff that's been happening this week, I don't know if I should sell anyone a chainsaw."
"Your sense of humour is sick. Have you got that saw or not?"
"Okay. I have one. But it isn’t the latest and greatest."
Five minutes later Danny Swartz was walking away like a sort of hurried rhino, swinging a dusty chainsaw. I ended up staring out at the empty street, thinking it odd for a Saturday. Very few people were out early and the usual crowd of noisy children wasn't there at all. It was dark and breezeless, an atmosphere most people would find unsettling and depressing. But I didn't. Instead I smiled. And the reason was that I hate kids. On the weekdays noise from the daycare a couple houses away drives me nuts, and the little devils are always making fun of my cane and limp and snatching stuff from my sales. A world without the lice-crawling little brats was my kind of world. I felt that maybe the killer had done us all a favour if he was keeping them locked in their houses.
I know it sounds bad for a person to hate kids, but you have to keep in mind that I'm a guy with a background of three failed marriages. There never were any kids and I've not learned to like them. As I age there seem to be more and more things that I don’t like. Getting older isn't getting better; it is everything getting worse. Business is my way of shutting out the world. With just a garage sale I can count money and items and be busy enough that I don't think of anything else.
The rest of the morning was peaceful and quiet -- no milling crowd or huge sales of lesser items. Those who did show were nearly all middle-aged and they bought big-ticket items. I sold a lawnmower to Joe Singh and a trunk to Alice Manson. Larry from the pizza joint bought an antique cabinet radio. All of them mentioned the killing and how the neighbourhood was going to the dogs. Larry seemed happy in a way as a week ago there weren't any cops around during the late night. Now that they were out in force he felt protected.
I felt protected, too. Sure it was hot dusty and dark and there weren't even birds singing. But I was beginning to like this new quiet neighbourhood. At least I was up until noon when Mr. Death and Disease showed.
He came when no one else was around and he was dressed the same but looked uglier. The bit of comic effect he'd had on his first visit was gone. This time the guy was just plain vile, and when he said he just wanted to look around again, the sight of the tobacco mush rolling in his mouth nearly made me vomit.
A foul odor rose from him and clung to me as he passed. As he rummaged through the junk at the back I felt relieved to have him at a distance.
I wondered what nutty thing he would buy and wasn't a bit surprised when he came up with an old rusted shovel. It was bent and nearly eaten through, yet he grinned as though he'd found a great prize. They say money isn't clean but the bills he paid me with looked like they'd been dug up from the city dump. As he walked away the stench hit me so hard I couldn't breathe. I had a terrible feeling of being strangled in rising fumes of death and garbage.
On the fourth Saturday, the interior of my garage was brighter than the sky outside. Light that did get though was pollution filtered, creating an amber haze. The city inspector had already done a drive-by to intimidate me and I felt relieved that he hadn't stopped.
Pretty women seemed to be the order of the morning and I’d been ogling a few of them as they moved about inspecting the goods I'd lined on the grass beside the drive. I look better than I feel, so I still do okay with the ladies, and I suppose I'm lucky in that my sex drive has not evaporated with the rest of my health. It's still mostly look but don't touch for me. After three failed marriages I've learned to keep to myself.
My only big sale was to Mary Michaeledes. She bought a chipped study desk for her little girl, Janine. It was during my conversation with her that I learned of the latest killing.
"It was late last night," Mary said. "It isn't even in the news yet. Danny Schwartz’s little boy, Jimmy was murdered. Beaten to death right in the park with a large thing like a shovel. Whoever did it is sick and cruel. They don't know how a ten-year-old like Jimmy got outside that late. Most of us are going to make our kids sleep with us now so they can't possibly get out."
"It's a damn shame," I said, shaking my head. "They've got patrols all over the place and a thing like this happens. I don't know what to say to Danny."
"Oh, you won't have to say anything. He was taken away this morning. He's cracked completely. Just mumbles and cries."
Mary left in a hurry like she wanted to get back to her little girl. I started feeling queasy as I watched her go up the street. A large object like a shovel killed him she'd said. And hadn't I sold Mr. Death and Disease a shovel. "Naw, just a coincidence," I decided. Mr. Death and Disease wouldn't be strong enough to beat anyone to death. A creepy person like him wouldn’t have been able to lure a ten-year-old boy like Jimmy outside and Jimmy could have just run away if there had been an encounter.
Being a businesslike person I decided to tag Mary's desk for delivery and pulled out my red marker. I didn't have a scrap of paper so I needed to grab one in the garage. Those supplies were stacked all the way at the back behind solid shelves of junk. It was hard to see there so I turned on the floodlight.
The beam was so bright it hurt my eyes. It did a great job of illumining the garage and the reason I didn't use it during a sale was that it also spotlighted flaws and all of the dust, dirt and grime. Stains and cobwebs can kill a sale so it's better if people don't see everything.
I stepped behind a heap of canvass bags and went around the shelving. The light filtered through but the air was full of dust. Pausing, I studied an old television set that had somehow got put back there. It looked saleable so decided to move it out later. When I looked down the aisle for the paper shelf I noticed footprints on the dusty wood floor. There were a lot of them and they weren't my own familiar prints.
I scratched my head. Customers didn't rummage around so far back. Someone must've got into the garage. Yet that wasn't possible when I kept it locked up tight during the week.
I followed the footprints to the end of the aisle. They turned behind some plastic drums and ended at the back wall there. At that spot there was a barely visible doorframe and a latch. It was unhooked so I simply pushed and watched as the door swung open. Stepping through I found myself in the narrow space between the garage and my back fence. Beyond the fence there was a ditch full of weeds, a section of the park and a path leading up the hillside to the old graveyard.
It really did perturb me that someone else would know about a secret door in my garage. One I hadn't known about myself. As I stood there wondering who it could possibly be a strong odor rose to my nostrils. Looking down I saw some loose earth at my toes.
"Mr. Death and Disease," I thought. "That's his revolting odor. No wonder he isn't around today. He isn't buying anything because he’s simply sneaking in and helping himself."
I decided I would fix his wagon by simply putting the inside latch back in place, and I was about to step back inside when I saw a person moving on the hillside path. I pulled my glasses from my pocket and tried to get a better look. A frown crossed my brow as I recognized Mr. Death and Disease.
He was going up and not down, so he wasn't coming my way. I followed his progress as he made his way to the top. Just before he went over and out of sight I thought I saw something else in a gap in the pines … something ugly like a large scarecrow, with a skeletal frame and frightening skull-like features. Yet it wasn't a scarecrow because it suddenly moved and disappeared behind the trees.
Possibly, I'd witnessed some sort of heat hallucination. No person could look like that. On the other hand, no person could look like Mr. Death and Disease either. Yet he was for real.
As I went back in the door a wicked case of the creeps crawled over my whole body. I just hoped I would never see Mr. Death and Disease again.
Low clouds like dark chunks of sponge drifted overhead. It was Saturday again but not much of a day for a bake sale. I say bake sale because the city bylaws didn't allow me to hold another garage sale.
I've never baked a thing so the supply placed out at the front was stuff I'd purchased at the Gay Maples Donut Shop. I had a cooler of ice with bottled lemonade and pop, too. My business plan was to fish for big customers by talking to people I knew as they came by. If any of them happened to need any particular item I would take them back to the garage.
It didn't take all that long to set up. I actually felt satisfied for a moment. Annoyance quickly replaced that mood as the city inspector drove up. This time he got out of his car and walked over. "Well, a Saturday morning bake sale," he said, patting his large shirt-bursting belly.
"Lovely day for one, isn't it?"
"Certainly is a day like an oven. Say, did you bake these goodies yourself?"
"I did -- and I was up half the night putting the finishing touches on some of these little beauties."
"That good because if you had bought them elsewhere you'd be reselling baked goods without a license."
"Seems there's a law for everything these days."
"Yep, there is -- including a law that says your garage is to stay closed today."
"No problem. This is a bake sale. If you really want to help you could buy something."
"Buy. I'm afraid not. But I do want a few samples. I wouldn’t want you to be selling anything unhealthy."
I watched glumly as he wolfed down four free samples and drank a bottle of lemonade. Just to make conversation I asked him why the street was so dead on Saturday morning. He burped grossly and replied saying, "It isn't even eight o'clock for one thing. Another reason things are quiet is that another kid has been found dead."
"Not murder again! How did the kid die?"
"Sergeant Mohikbar told me they can't find a cause of death. Wasn't a mark on him but his face was ghastly like he was frightened to death."
"Frightened to death? But that's not really possible is it? Something must've been done to him."
"All I can say is that I was there when they found the body late last night. I caught a glimpse before they bagged it and that kid's face was as white as one of them powdered donuts. Looked like someone sucked the soul out of him. Vampire or the bogie man got him."
"There aren't any vampires. You must know that?"
"I used to think that way. Don't any more."
"Vampires, how nice," I muttered as the inspector drove away. Generally I had no feelings for any dead kids. But I did like to talk to the neighbours and held some feelings for them. Lately things had been getting so dark and offbeat it was like the whole community was descending into Hades. I concluded that this kid killer was just plain overdoing it. The guy had to be a bizarre psychopath and a terrorist. One victim every few months would've been more than enough to keep me happy.
Sipping a cold beer I'd loaded into a pop bottle, I studied the dust drifting in the vacant lot up the road. The clouds were low and oppressive like a sinking gravestone. My knees felt weak so I sat on a book box and munched a donut, and as I swallowed it I felt about as empty and useless as the hole in the centre.
Drowsiness near sleep had settled on me when a loud fluttering of wings roused me. I realized that the noise came from the direction of the garage so I got up quickly and went down the drive. Four screeching crows were flying up the treetop and as I stopped at the door, I heard a heavy thump and stuff falling inside.
A strange feeling came over me as I opened up. I could feel a spirit moving in my garage and it was something evil that I'd never felt before. It spooked me yet I wasn't that frightened. I still went in and looked around.
Thick dust swirled in the air. In spite of it I found the problem in moments. A whole series of upper shelves had collapsed at the back. Yellowed newspapers, rags and twigs from a bird's nest had toppled down.
I walked up to the mess and out of curiosity picked up one of the old papers. It was the Toronto Star dated June 5th, 1954 and the headline read - Madison Murders Unsolved. I squinted at the text, which was barely legible. I did make out enough to get that it was a story about a series of child killings that had happened in the area back in '54.
One of the killings had been done with a skipping rope, another with a shovel. There were six victims in total. I gulped and a terrifying sense of confusion rose as I read more. I thought of Mr. Death and Disease then I noticed a light and stopped reading. The back door was open; meaning someone might be in the garage.
I rushed to it finding wet footprints in the dust. They were edged with red like blood so I took the last three steps to the door very slowly. More blood covered some old newspapers in a recess there, like a bleeding body may have been stored there then carried out.
The door was ajar so I looked out, finding bloodstains on the grass and the board fence. Whoever it was had gone over the fence and across the park to the hillside. I decided to follow but first I got some rags and wiped up the blood on my property. When the garage was locked up, I walked around to the park.
The street was still empty and so was the park. Not a soul in sight and it made me wonder if some sort of evil spell had been cast. I had the feeling that a thousand eyes were watching me from behind darkened windows. Since I'd seen Mr. Death and Disease up on the hill I decided to check that area.
Swings creaked eerily as they rocked in the breeze. The wind hummed strangely through aluminum slides. Oil black clouds were rising beyond the hilltop as a thunderstorm approached. I knew it would be another of the recent electric storms as my body hair was already bristling.
The hill path wound beside the park and one fork of it led to the decrepit old Towns Graveyard at the top. An orange heat flash raced across the sky as I began the climb and I was sure I saw a figure moving in some pine scrub higher up.
Strong wind created a vast symphony as it shook the foliage. Random gusts of light rain came in like percussion. I don't know why I pressed on but I suppose the desire to get to the bottom of things still outweighed fear.
The branch to the top was nearly choked off by thistles, burs and sumac. I moved up it slowly, my eyes darting suspiciously to every shadow and wind-rocked bough. I definitely didn't want a sudden confrontation with Mr. Death and Disease so I halted at a huge mud puddle and then cut left behind some rotting logs. I came over the top under the cover of sumac. From there I peaked through the leaves at a vision of windswept weeds and broken stones.
The graveyard's only stone angel had fallen and behind it an obelisk pointed crookedly at the storm rising on the horizon. It was hard to see anything in detail on the darkened hilltop. Rainwater had already formed puddles in some of the sunken lots and thick tangles of weeds played tricks on the eyes. I stepped left to a spot where I could see a long way through the yard and from there I spotted human movement. It was definitely Mr. Death and Disease walking in the stones at the far end.
As I focussed on him I thought of the paper dated 1954 and the bloodstains. Water suddenly tumbled into a puddle in front of me, hairs rose on the back of my neck and for a moment my whole body seemed to shake.
Mr. Death and Disease was slightly bent and moving from side to side in front of one of the gravestones. He held a stick resembling a divining rod in his hands. Small objects swung on nearly invisible strings attached to it.
There are people who want bizarre rituals performed at their graves but this looked more like necromancy, and a man who could double for one of the dead was performing it.
He wasn't looking my way at all so I crept forward across the sodden ground and got behind an elm tree in the middle. From that spot I could see at lot better. Mr. Death and Disease dripped with rain and the rod was really a gnarled branch. Stripped of leaves and bark it was hung with tiny mittens. These mittens were fat so I assumed he'd filled them with some concoction of spice or magic herbs.
I could hear him mumbling an evil prayer as he waved the stick over the grave, and this went on for some time before he stopped. Not taking any chances, I ducked back, only peeking out again when I heard a click. The stick was lowered now and I could see him setting the tiny gloves alight.
They burned furiously at first then began to smoke. He repeated pretty much the whole ritual over, swinging the burning mittens this time - an effect that was definitely evil. I knew something obscene was burning inside those mittens, as the odor of the smoke reaching me was foul.
He stared at the grave and never looked back, not even once. Perhaps that was part of the ritual, yet at that point I didn't look at the grave. My eyes kept following the trailing smoke from the rod. I felt a spiritual power rise in the graveyard and for an instant, the tree shook with more than wind, like some unseen giant had boxed it. Then it settled and my eyes went to the grave, which was definitely stirring.
It had an old and crooked gray stone with an inscription that was nearly weathered off of it. The ground before it was mounded with weeds and broken sod. Tears in the sod were irregular and bursting with soft earth, as if this grave had opened before and was doing so again.
Maggots and root filaments spilled out as the sod split wide. Fingers of bone appeared in the crack and when that happened my mouth gaped wide enough to be a second opening grave.
I could see rotted flesh and a silver ring on the struggling hand. A blackened arm laced with remnants of muscle followed then a big lump of red clay popped aside and a skull appeared. Pieces of a cap and scalp clung to it though the face was rotted off. Broken teeth grinned demonically, red light shone in the eye sockets -- horror and a fear that it would spot me led me to duck back behind the tree.
Rain showered across the treetops and a second gust spooned the water down on me. I felt terribly agitated and fought to keep my teeth from chattering. Leaning into the tree trunk I eased around and looked again.
The skeletal ghoul had risen completely. It towered to a height of seven feet on the grave mound. Wet earth and a thick ooze of decay and mud dripped down from the frame of swollen bones. Without a doubt, it was the most frightening thing I had ever seen. Even monsters in zombie movies were mild stuff compared to it.
An aura of great power surrounded its ravaged body, but the real shock came from another aspect of it. I could see obscene decorations hanging from it and as more mud slipped away, I saw that they were items from my garage. It wore the skipping rope as a necklace and the shovel was fastened to its left arm. The light in its eyes came from pieces of fluorescent plastic. A pair of garden shears hung from its shoulder and what looked like tiny scalps hung from its hipbone. When I looked down, I saw that it wore a torn pair of my old work boots. Newspapers and rags wadded in its rib cage and heavy twine binding its bones held it together.
Mr. Death and Disease was still using his smoking rod and the ghoul began to follow him as he stepped through the graves. They were moving away from me over the wet ground to a break in the trees on the hillside.
I was too frightened to come out of hiding and remained frozen there for a few minutes. It was the ghastly fumes from those burning mittens that finally brought me around, and when I did step from behind the tree, they had gone down out of sight.
Foolish curiosity got the better of me again and I crept over and looked down, seeing Mr. Death and Disease and the thing moving through the park. Heat flashes lit the sky, illumining two police officers sitting in a cruiser on the park bridge. They were pale and stiff with blank hypnotized expressions on their faces.
I knew then that I couldn't stop the ghoul that Mr. Death and Disease had raised. Trying to talk to the police would be useless when the creature could simply hypnotize them. And if they found evidence from my garage, they would charge me.
As I walked back across the graveyard I was quite sure that the monster had detected my presence all along. Yet it had left me alone.
A bit of thinking and I knew why. It knew I couldn't stop it and it also knew that I was a soul brother of sorts. I hate kids like it hates kids. I'd seen those tiny scalps on its hipbone and they hadn't horrified me. I'd been thinking that perhaps this beast was just the kind of exterminator the neighbourhood needs.
They say that everyone has a skeleton in the closet. I guess with me it’s in the garage.
© By Gary Morton
Tommy stumbled, trying to clear his murky vision -- trying to remember how he got out on this slippery concrete ledge, then the depth of the cityscape overwhelmed him and he began to stagger and lose his footing. Sheets of reddish rain swept him closer to the edge; below rust-colored water swirled into the sewers.
Polluted runoff spilled down on his face, he spat and screamed as he slipped. Darkness and a fantastic sucking noise consumed him as he tumbled, then thunder boomed, emptying his head as he woke.
A heat lightning flash lit the window like the poof of a giant camera. It faded as the thunder rumbled again. A heavy downpour had skinned the window with dirty tears. The day beyond it was clouded and dim like a block of salt.
The alarm rang; Tommy popped out of bed and went to the bathroom. A splash of cold water did nothing for him and he stood there staring at his tanned face and crooked nose. It was like seeing himself for the first time, and he wasn't all that fond of his close blue eyes, chin mole and other hints of weak character. He was proud of his strong build and shoulders, but not of his low hairline or the way his head seemed to press forward, like he was a sort of in-your-face type of person.
His mind slipped back into fog as he stepped into the kitchen. He grabbed the mail from the inside slot then he opened the side door without thinking and got hit by a wet blast. The paper was in plastic wrap against the wall, and as he reached for it the door flew out of his hands and wind threw him back.
Five minutes later, he had black coffee and toast and was quietly cursing as he tossed the outer sections of the paper away. The sports section was semi-dry; he opened it and began to read about the city's hockey hopes.
Concentration slipped away to unrelated daydreams, and as he sipped his coffee his mind went to thoughts of Linda and his upcoming wedding. Worried thoughts mostly. Thoughts that made him gnaw on his sore tongue. He wanted a perfect wedding and the rain irritated him. He hadn't considered the possibility of rain before. Storms on their magic day would spoil the photo shoot in the High Park garden and just about everything else. His suit could get wet and that would be horrible; he was a perfectionist when it came to that -- the suit was already prepared and in the closet, wrapped in no less than three protective bags. He'd gone to the trouble of renting the yacht club for the reception, and that seemed like a bad idea now as visions of waves and pelting rain grew.
There were other things to consider -- certain relatives hadn’t been invited, and he feared they’d show up anyway. And they were nuisance relatives that would say embarrassing things -- people like Aunt Jesse and that horrible Cousin Bobby and his family of Hamilton hillbillies.
It all weighed on his mind like a natural part of the gloomy day. He reached for his mail thinking of life as something created by an ill-mannered mortician.
The first letter was from his employer - The Ministry of the Environment -- and he opened it quickly, thinking that perhaps they’d come through with a bonus after all. His eyes scanned the page, and then scanned it again. A layoff notice. Disbelief settled on his troubled brow for a moment then anger began to rise as he noticed that Jackie, the union steward had signed his okay to the document.
"We must inform you that the Provincial Government of Ontario has passed new legislation removing environmental protection from hospital waste and blood disposal. This new legislation legalizes the disposal of medical and other blood products through use of the sewers. As a result your position as a disposal technician is now redundant . . ."
"Redundant," he whispered . . . realizing that his occupation no longer existed. And what about his seniority? They could’ve transferred him.
The black rain swept from the window and into his head, casting his perfectionist order into a flood of dark confusion. It forced him to his feet, but he couldn't walk because if he wasn't going to work, he didn't know where to go. He groaned at the thought of telling Linda's parents he was unemployed.
Both his fists came down hard on the table. His coffee and plate went to the floor and shattered. Swearing softly he decided to go down to the ministry and confront them on it.
Racing to bedroom, he got dressed. His low brows and glowering expression staring back from the mirror - he looked ready to butt heads, like a human battering ram. He ran to the door, then he went back to the bedroom and grabbed a comic book. Tommy always read a comic on lunch and in his order of things it was a routine he couldn’t break.
He dashed down the walk to the car, the wind buffeting his umbrella. Popping in, he turned the key and listened as the old Chevy coughed and died. Ten more attempts failed. The useless beast wasn't going to start. It made him so mad he started pounding the steering wheel in an uncontrollable rage.
A bus spattered the window with mud as it passed; it stopped at a shelter 100 metres away. Jumping out he raced for the stop; seeing the last of four passengers go in as he was coming up at the back of the bus. Suddenly the tires spun on a wet pizza box in the road, throwing it straight into his face.
Tommy kept running, trying to punch the taillights of the bus as it pulled off, but he missed, slipped and went down.
He felt no pain, but when he rose, he saw that he'd torn the knee out of his pants and mud and cardboard had fouled his suit.
The downpour put a damper on boiling anger, leaving him in a state of confusion and nerves. His thoughts were so fried he couldn't sit still enough to take a cab or transit. In a state of grim frustration, he plodded forward into the sheets of dirty rain. Totally soaked, he arrived at the ministry disposal building and walked up to the security check. He showed his pass and stared in amazement as the guard refused to allow him in --- on the grounds that he'd been terminated.
Tommy bit his lip and walked away calmly in the pouring rain; and as soon as he was out of the guard's sight, he ran through the evergreens to a side door and used his key to gain entrance.
Since the building was pretty much deserted, it was easy to move around. He headed for personnel and stopped at the door. Sylvester Johnson, Human Resources was the title embossed in the bronze plaque.
An itch crawled on Tommy's soggy skin; he felt like bursting in and strangling the bastard. Both Sly and the union steward were either going to cooperate with him or face the hard rock music of knuckles.
He tried the knob; the door eased inward -- Tommy threw it open the rest of the way, rushed in and found himself standing in an empty office. He clenched his fists as he looked around at four bare walls, then he heard footsteps behind him, turned and saw two burly mulatto security guards.
They rushed him and a struggle ensued; Tommy's mighty fists missed on every punch and in a matter of two minutes he was being disposed of on the front steps. Picking himself up from the gravel he wiped the blood from his lips and started walking home.
He didn't care about the rain anymore as the agony of job loss was eating at him. For others it would only be the agony of losing a paycheck. But Tommy had loved his job. Blood disposal was a job with a set routine that he enjoyed. He'd worked in a beautiful white protective suit, and his self-image was of Mr. Clean aiding the city by seeing that horrid hospital waste was properly eliminated. He'd handled a lot of the 2,150,000 yearly tons of medical waste requiring special handling and treatment before disposal. Yellow bag waste that often needed incineration. Lately it had included drums of waste and blood suspected of carrying streptococcus pyogenes -- the flesh-eating bacteria.
He'd also been the star of the ministry's films on the disposal process and a top employee. It seemed impossible that he could be redundant. And what about the blood -- the contaminated stuff, with god knew what body parts in it -- all of it going into the sewers? On a rainy day like today it was possible that it would wash up and infect the city with a flesh-eating plague --- or rats would feed on it and spread disease and plague.
It was madness but it was the truth and his ruin, leaving him with nothing to do but walk home and wonder how to break the news to Linda.
As he came up the sidewalk on Brock Avenue wind-rocked maples spattered him with fat drops. To avoid being splashed by the cars he walked on the grass; each step squeaking on the soggy ground. At the house, he saw that the side door had blown open. Water and twigs were spread across the kitchen floor. Slamming the door angrily, he walked to the bathroom to get a mop.
His suit went in the laundry hamper; he toweled himself dry and put on jeans and a Molson T-shirt. The chill was still penetrating to his bones so he decided to have soup and lemon tea to warm up.
Campbell's chicken soup steamed in front of him. He put a spoon to his lips as he picked up the rest of his unopened mail, then he spit the soup out as it burned his tongue. The torn layoff notice was still on top and he read it once more, carefully -- then he threw it on the counter. The next letters were bills. With all the things he'd been charging for the wedding, he was afraid to open his credit card bill. It went unopened to the counter.
The odor of expensive perfume came from the next letter. And he smiled as he saw that it was from Linda. She's sent me more romantic ramblings, he thought. How nice. Then he opened it carefully with his gold opener, being sure he didn't tear anything. He planned to keep the letter for posterity, in the future family album.
Tommy eyed the stationery -- nothing romantic about it. Just a sheet of cheap white paper.
I've talked it over with Mother and we have decided that marriage just isn't the right thing to do. You are only a government worker and may not be able to keep me in the luxury I am accustomed to -- and Mother keeps going on about how dreadful it would be if I were to fall into poverty.
I want you to think about this, so I have decided to cancel the wedding and our date on Friday. It might be better if you don't call me for a couple of months.
Tommy had been swallowing a spoon of hot soup as he read and it went sour in his throat and burst like pepper fire. He felt his heart spasm, choke up with blood and rise as a horrible unwanted belch.
He couldn't believe it; Linda who had loved him so truly, and made all those philosophical speeches on true love, could send him such a crass and mercenary Dear John letter and sign it, Thanks, Linda.
His spoon clicked as it fell back into the bowl; he tossed the letter away like it was a bomb that might go off. Then he stared at it, his face a screw of agony.
Minutes passed, he didn't seem to be breathing. It was like Linda had turned him to stone and outside the sky was weeping on his behalf. Beyond the window dark clouds drifted, sending down wind and passion that threatened to enter and destroy him. And he had no defense other than to lock his mind and refuse to think about it.
He shuffled to the bedroom and dressed; the white calm of a waxed corpse on his face as he combed his hair. The many photos of Linda on his dresser were now blanks. He couldn't see her at all.
Wind whistled around the high-rises and rushed in the alleys and treetops. The rain drummed on sheds and parked cars and splashes were thrown by the fast traffic. Wet tires hissed as the whole world tried to drown him and speed away. They ran him over, they ran everyone over, and they didn't care about anything on the edges of their narrow line of sight. People not in their immediate transactions were manikins and disposable. And Linda was the same as the rest of them -- a simple decision, labeling him not up to standards had killed his future and self-worth. They'd all deserve it if they died in a plague -- every single one of them.
Tommy reached Linda's house, but didn't go up the walk. Instead he crossed the street to a parkette and stood beneath a rain-shivering oak tree. The house was large, with an open front porch and separate stone garage. In spite of the size it seemed toy-like and fragile beneath the rolling storm clouds. It was so dark he could see in lit windows. He'd never known which window was Linda's room, and spying didn't tip him off. No one showed at the curtains; he was left standing there in the drizzle for half an hour, fighting off memories of sunny days with Linda by counting the blooms on the garden trellises and hedges.
Icy water ran down the small of his back. He shook his wet body, and when he looked back to the street two elderly ladies in a black sedan were pulling up. Linda's emaciated mother emerged at the front door. Tommy moved closer to the tree and she didn't notice him as she came down the walk.
The car drove away, splashing through a huge puddle, and as Tommy watched the muddy waters recede and ripple, he decided he had to talk to Linda.
He crossed the road, thinking of himself as more than just a mud puddle people could drive over. And now with the sight of Linda's mom's wrinkled and heartless face fresh in his mind, he felt certain that she was behind the break-up and Linda hadn’t wanted it at all. Only yesterday Linda had been testifying to her love on the phone, and he kept a close enough eye on her to know there was no one else. The old bag must've been at work, using her witchery to get him tossed in the scrap heap.
Hope strengthened Tommy's steps as he reached the walk, then wind and wet leaves tore down from the eves like nature itself was trying to keep him away. He slipped off the sidewalk into the grass, where he halted for a moment as he picked lilac blooms from the hedge. Fighting the blow, he got to the door and hit the bell.
Linda answered almost immediately; and she looked angelic. Loose dark curls framed a pear-shaped face. Her nose had the delicacy of fine soap and her soft blue eyes and pursed lips seemed to ask for a kiss.
She said nothing as Tommy smiled and held out the dripping flowers, then as he leaned over to steal a kiss she stepped back and slapped him viciously.
"You beast," she hissed, her face looming from a tunnel of hatred. "Don't hand me your soggy garbage. Where’d you sleep, in the sewer? Get out of here and don't come back again. Jim Bono is picking me up in a few minutes, and if you aren't gone when he arrives I'll have you thrashed."
The sound of the slap and her voice echoed in an empty chamber. It seemed to travel a great distance and return as a roar -- devoid of feelings and familiarity. Continuing as a dead echo, it faded in his mind like a sigh passing in an empty wooden drum.
Black gloom entered him and his lips firmed -- as the last pieces of his perfectionist's world shattered, so did his humanity. Predatory instincts swept him, and as she moved to slap him again he stepped forward and mashed the flowers in her face.
A muffled scream was rising. Crowding her, he seized her throat and squeezed -- forcing her back to arm's length as she thrashed and kicked. His grip tightened and he stared with popping eyes as he shook her. The nastiness on her face slipped to fear, then pain, choking agony and the certainty of death. And he loved it and savored every millisecond of her horror, his face finally twisting to a warped and satisfied grin as she expired.
Linda collapsed to the floor. His hands slipped from her as she fell and he stared down at her head as it lolled on his wet feet. Flower petals were mashed in her nose and her eyes were open. She’d become repulsive; he hated her so much he kicked her aside.
Guilt began to rise, he gulped as fear of disgrace, and jail flooded his mind. The shakes hit him. He couldn't decide what to do. Then he remembered that Jim Bono was on the way.
Behind him rain continued to shower and the streets were empty. He seized the body but couldn't pick it up as the limp limbs kept slipping from him. Getting a grip on her arms and chest, he pulled her back and got the door shut. He dragged her down the walk and across the road. He looked around in the park and spotted a green storage box. It was unlocked and had nothing in it other than some earth and sticks so he dumped the body inside and closed it.
He was barely finished when Jim Bono pulled up in his hybrid. Ducking behind an oak, Tommy watched as he got out. Bono snapped open a big blue umbrella and started up the walk. He looked almost like a movie star – perfectly cut suit and causal grin. It suddenly occurred to him that the perfume on the Dear John letter must've been a gift Linda got from him. Tommy could barely stop himself from going after the guy. At least he knew Bono would never have her now.
A sudden brilliant idea flashed in his mind and he hurried to the storage box and opened it. Shoving Linda's head down he grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked it out, then he hurried across the road in a crouched run. Bono was just getting to the porch bell, and as he pressed it Tommy eased the car door open and shoved the hair under the seat. Getting back to the parkette was more difficult. He had to sidestep puddles and pray that Bono wouldn’t turn around.
He made it and kept going through the parkette, jogging in the rain and not stopping until he was at home. The exhilarating action had him wanting more -- an hour later he returned. Bono had left and there wasn't any activity at the house. People were passing on the street now and he had to keep ducking out of sight for an irritating twenty minutes before he got a chance to get to work. He threw the box open, dragged the body out and quickly slid it into the huge environment disposal bag he'd brought. The thick and clouded yellow bag hid the body well but it didn't hide its shape. Stuffing he'd brought worked to eliminate that problem. Using a heat seal, he closed the bag, then he clipped it to the cart he'd brought.
Tommy left the park at the east gate and moved down the side street with some confidence. With the huge Ministry of the Environment letters stamped on the package he was pulling, no one would be suspicious. On many occasions he'd moved similar packages, though at those times he hadn't known exactly what was inside. There was even some relief and satisfaction in it -- he was back on the job and he had Linda with him. That was all he'd really wanted anyway -- he'd wanted to own her. Though it would’ve been better if she could still talk to him. As a waste manager, Tommy knew that it was a case of being properly contained in life. Bono was going to be arrested for the murder and properly contained in jail, and she would be properly contained and by his side for eternity.
The rain let up and the sky brightened to an inspiring white glow. Almost like the storm in his life was ending. He could see his tiny house ahead and it felt like home again. He sighed with wet relief, and then his heart nearly shot out of his mouth as a white truck honked and pulled over.
The windows were wet and dirty; Tommy's hands started to shake and a withering feeling rose as the door opened. Then he saw that it was his old pal Lester and calmed down.
"Yo, Tommy. I've been looking for you."
Tommy stared, not knowing quite what to say. Lester was dressed in greens like a high school janitor, and his sunken eyes and thin lips made him look like an evil sort of one from a low budget horror flick. "You working at the school?" Tommy said.
"School," Lester said. He laughed. "No but it's like that -- I got my own disposal company now. Started it a couple years ago after the bastards at the ministry fired me. Look at my truck."
Tommy looked back to the truck and noted the lettering on the door. LESTER B. BROWN, WE CLEAN DISPOSE OF HAZERDOUS WASTE.
"Say," Tommy said. "You've done well. But you may be in for hard times. We all got laid off down at the ministry. The government changed the disposal laws and we're all screwed. This package I'm pulling is my last load then I'm through."
"I know all about that," Lester said. "I've got the disposal contract now."
"Wow! Will you be hiring any of us?"
"Not many, Tommy. I use prison labour. I got a contract with two of the provincial prisons. That's what really happened. The government likes the idea of profiting from cons. It's a growth industry -- just keep jailing poor people and you got convict gold. I do need one good man, though. There’s still a fair bit of stuff that convicts can't be trusted with so I got a site set up over by the east waterfront. It has a small incinerator and a straight line into the sewer. That's why I came looking for you. I figure you're a boy who has the qualifications and can keep his mouth shut. I'll pay you ten percent more than the ministry paid if you can run the site and do things my way."
"You don't have to ask twice," Tommy said, offering a handshake. "Damn right I'll do it."
The storm seemed to be a never-ending blow. It rocked the house for most of the evening. Tommy found that he couldn't eat and he was too agitated to watch TV or concentrate. At about ten he threw aside a copy of Sports Insider and went into the bedroom. He'd always had trouble sleeping, but knew from experience that he’d eventually drift off if he got in bed.
Under the covers, he stared up at the shadows moving on the ceiling. The wind rushed, whistled, and started eating at him the way it ate at the rest of the world. A strange feeling of discomfort came over him and combined with terrible guilt feelings. As long as he'd been in the process of disposing of Linda he'd felt fine. Now that she was safely stored in the garage, his conscience had come back to life. Dark waves and voices passed from the edge of sleep --- murderer, murderer was a constant whisper in the wind. Thoughts of his love for Linda started to return like an inner tornado, threatening to tear him apart. Her face whirled on the ceiling like an angel and when he closed his eyes he saw an expression of her beautiful innocence.
Tommy shot up in bed -- tears streaming down his cheeks. He took his head in his hands and started rocking back and forth. "I can't stand it. I can't stand it," he muttered, then he jumped up and dressed.
He didn't bother to take an umbrella. The cold drizzle and foggy night cloaked him like an old friend. Brown water rushed from flooded sewers, and he walked through it, stamping on floating trash. It was almost like the sewer was calling to him, touching him like an old friend. Tomorrow he’d begin feeding it with blood again and perhaps then he could be happy. There was just one detail to take care of and that was Linda.
Darkness shrouded his mind completely. He saw the ministry looming like an evil castle. His thoughts rushed with the rusty rain and sewer water for two long hours. Streetlights illuming his house woke him to reality and he lifted his hands and watched the rain wash the blood from his fingers -- seizing the heavy drum he'd rolled across town he pushed it the rest of the way into the garage.
Tommy closed the door and flicked the light on -- Linda stood in the corner, neatly packaged. Only the packaging was showing signs of sogginess and leakage. A problem the drum would fix. Rolling it to her side he lifted it up straight then used his special tool to pull the lid.
Air whooshed as the seal broke and the lid popped to the side. The interior was spacious, as the drum was a large container. Red blood shone at the bottom. This particular container was of a special variety holding blood that might carry the flesh eating bacteria and other deadly bacteria. That knowledge didn't bother him because he knew how paranoid they were at the ministry. He was about 99.9 percent sure that the blood was just ordinary harmless blood.
Turning back to Linda, he adjusted her packaging, then he carefully lifted her and slipped her into the drum. Blood swirled up to her chest -- in her folded position she was an easy fit.
Tommy paused for a moment, staring at her lovingly before he sealed the drum tight and went through the long labored process of rolling and pulling it up to the bedroom. After that he took a quick shower and got in bed, finding that he could drift off easily with Linda at his side.
Dreams rose immediately and in spite of his exhaustion they were peaceful. He drifted in calm tropics, on a raft, exchanging pleasant words with Linda. Deep sleep took him for a time, then a loud buzz pierced the air. The phone; he shot up in bed, twisting his sore neck. His fingers were so stiff he could barely pick up the receiver.
Lester's voice droned; Tommy covered the earpiece and groaned. "What time is it?"
"5 a.m.," Lester said.
"Why are you calling me now?"
"Bad news or good news, Tommy, old friend. Depends on how you look at it. I just got a call from my man inside government. They’re coming to the demo site for an inspection today at 1 p.m. The minister of the environment and the Premier are going to show. It was supposed to be a surprise, but my man got worried and called. They want it to go smoothly, using it publicize their new disposal policy. Of course I’ll just happen to arrive at the same time to use the opportunity to plug the company on the air. My contact says we got to make sure it looks clean and that we don't mention that most of the disposal work is now done in prisons. They don't want to highlight that."
"Lester, don’t worry. I did all the government films on disposal. I know how to set it up to impress people. I'll go in early, warehouse most of the big drums and set up a stack of 2 litre aluminum cans and yellow bags. That's the way we do it in the demos. They must be filled with lemonade and oatmeal -- not blood. When the cameras arrive I'll be outfitted in a white body suit and I'll make them stand back while I work. We'll let them film me while I dump some small bags into the incinerator access funnel. When I start dumping that'll be your cue to move to the camera and start talking about how safe the whole process is."
"Great. I knew I could count on you."
The last of the storm clouds were drifting over a vacant lot behind the site as Tommy completed the cleanup. A hot sun was rising and sweat poured on his brow. Stepping into the shade of the warehouse he tried to phone Lester and left a message when he couldn't get through. Tommy was mighty pissed at Lester – he’d arrived to find that he was the only genuine worker at the site. The others were just delivery guys who brought in waste and left. Tommy wanted at least two assistants present for the inspection.
Stepping forward and shielding his eyes, he did his own preliminary inspection. Drums were now out of sight in the warehouse, except for the one containing Linda, which stood in the furnace building in the demo area. He wanted her at his side and the special drum was ideal as a prop. There was some leakage where the stacks had stood -- a problem a wheelbarrow of sand would take care of nicely. The rest of the place looked ship shape. The storage sheds were freshly painted and the waste house was nicely packed with properly tagged drums, yellow bags and cans. He'd done a check of the computer database and quickly updated the files by creating a matching system file for every one listed as delivered to Lester in the Ministry files. It looked good enough to fool even snoopy reporters.
Heading down the walk to the demo area, he suddenly realized that it'd been hot in there when he set things up. He shook his head as the double-layered metal doors slid open, then he went through the final door into a heat wave. Damn, he thought. It's well above room temperature, why didn't Lester follow regulations and install air conditioning?
Likely no one would notice -- it was just his habit to aim for perfection. He slipped into his suit figuring the inspection was fixed anyway so there was nothing to worry about.
For about ten minutes, he went through his routine -- carefully removing yellow bags from a trolley, checking the tag on a large computer screen on the operations panel, then carefully walking to the disposal area and dropping the bag down the incinerator tube. The two litre cans were a different animal; on those he opened a seal and poured the pink lemonade in them down a tube to the sewer. Of course they were only demo cans, the real articles were huge drums of blood and waste and they weren't poured down a funnel but straight into the sewer through a huge opening cut through the central floor in the warehouse.
The whole routine had a good feeling to it. Satisfied that all would go well he removed the suit and placed it in storage. Then he returned to the area and stood beside the drum and Linda.
Heat reddened his cheeks as he studied the clean demo setup. In spite of his efforts something nagged at him. An unsettling feeling -- like something filthy and unseen lurked in the room. He looked up at a high window and frowned at the dust drifting in a sunbeam. The thought hit him that a sunbeam needed dust to be seen. If that was true then the whole world was imperfect, a dirty place where he’d never be happy. He longed for another time or another place -- a clean and green world where the sunshine was pure. And the dream image began to rise in his mind. An oasis, an island, and Linda splashing fresh water at him as they frolicked on the hot sand. He smiled as Linda's face drifted up close; then he felt agony as it drifted right through him -- he couldn't touch her and he wanted to touch her. He wanted to feel warm and not forever cold. All of his romantic memories of Linda began to sweep in -- they danced in the dusty sunbeam, and in his mind, and they eluded him.
Tommy covered his eyes; sunspots swam in his head. The sweat on his neck and arms grew cold and clammy. He felt like a snake-bit loser at the bottom of some musty pit -- or like he was almost dead and would die if he didn't absorb some genuine human contact and warmth.
A sudden injection of loneliness and death staggered him; he threw his arms wide and stood there huffing, his face puckered like a fish.
Stumbling to the toolbox he seized his opener, went to the drum and began to remove the seal.
As the lid lifted he heard the liquid bubbling -- a soft boiling sound. He pulled it loose and stepped back as steam and bright red drops spattered out. A drop hit his cheek and ran down to his lips -- burning with incredible warmth.
Tommy licked it up and decided its salty warmth was the feeling he sought. He stepped closer. Looking into the drum he saw Linda's corpse moving in the frothing blood. The bag had been eaten away completely -- and she looked alive. Her hair was wild -- wet red tentacles. Her face sunken and spotted with silver decay. Red-flecked green slime tinted her open eyes -- a sheen that appeared to be dead and eternal. He could see a special light in her pupils -- shining full of the emotion and love he lacked. A bizarre certainly stole into his mind -- he knew that if he could hold her, the light would enter him.
Tommy put a leg over, watching the blood leap and hiss as it touched his flesh. The warmth spilled through his entire being like strong wine. Intoxicated by it he climbed the rest of the way inside, and as frothing blood splashed up to blind him he pulled the lid back in place. Fire leapt in his heart now and as it burned, he seized Linda and pulled her to him, holding her close as his thoughts slipped into flames and oblivion.
As time passed the fire softened and the flames died down; Tommy had a vision in the warm darkness and it was of Linda and her love. He embraced her many times, tasting wet lips that felt swollen by passion and warmth. It really was heaven but the power of heaven began to fade and he could see it fading. He dreaded a return to dry existence and ordinary places. The dull torment of his everyday life had no appeal.
A tingling in his ears spoke to him, and he began to find meaning in the waves of needle and pin feelings sweeping up his legs. A voice of the blood itself was whispering to both of them -- imparting the truth. When the others came and peace was broken he was to rise -- to rise and contaminate them … and in destroying them, he would perish himself and have freedom. In the end the only world remaining would be in the power of the blood.
He’d fallen limp and could feel his flesh splitting, rotting, moldering and growing into new shapes. A slow tingle drifted from head to toe and numb thoughts sent his mind dropping into the dead electricity of sleep -- and it was an echoing voice that woke him. There were other voices -- ringing in hot tunnels. Tormenting him with needle jabs to the brain. He tried desperately to focus and make out the words.
"Tommy, Tommy" --- people were calling his name. Then time passed and he heard hypocritical laughter and footsteps near the drum.
Lester was speaking -- a strange memory snaked across Tommy's mind. The Demo, Lester must be giving the demo he was to supposed give. He understood now but it didn't matter -- hunger and death were what mattered -- and his limbs and distended belly ached for both.
They were closer -- moving right beside the drum and he could sense the blood racing in their veins. It was blood that had been trapped for too long and longed to be free.
Lester was saying --- "Oh, that drum. No, it's not all waste. It holds fluid used to dilute some of the yellow bag material. --- The premier wants to inspect the contents. Why certainly. Step right over guys. I'll remove the lid and you can take a look."
Tommy heard the seal popping, saw light and a wide face looming for a moment, then the steam and the blood ignited and he felt himself rising like magma from a volcano. An attached Linda flew with him, out into the sunny world to feed on the screaming head of the struggling thing they’d seized.
--- The End and the Beginning ---
© By Gary Morton
Alice walks in meekly giving me the self-conscious frown kids carry when their self-esteem has been crippled by the bad role models of older generations. A screeching bitch of a mom is somewhere behind that frown, so is an abusive father, drunken aunts and a high school teacher who bites his pencil and stares at her breasts.
Sure I'm an old geek, but I wish people wouldn't project the ugliness of others onto me. I do little other than run this curiosity shop and my charms and amulets have done a lot of good for the kids in the New Town area. I put the sparkle in their eyes and the shine on their …. whoops! Now I see that I really am an old fool. Her eyes are sparkling but not her amulet, because it’s missing.
Guess the older generations have another chance, but she doesn't because I nod and tell her that I can't just give her another -- the original is hers, and its luck and power are tied to her. She must find a way to recover it.
A good kid she shakes her head yes and turns … leaving beauty trailing in my mind as she walks away. It’s so great to be young and have rosy cheeks, tears like diamonds and pigtails that bounce even when you’re sad.
But what the hell, the dust and parchment of age have claimed me -- I'd be better off dead - would be dead if the slam and jangle of the door didn’t always put my mind to work.
Missing amulet? -- I keep track of my stock so this does intrigue me and I stare into the polish on my curiosity counter. But being careful this time -- I can see whole worlds in the polish, only it's like jumping into a lake and last time I nearly drowned. Choking and spitting -- next thing I knew it was the hospital with Doc Weaver calling the damn thing a stroke.
Tramp clouds stole the gold of the afternoon sun as they drifted over the rippling waters of the Trent River. Crabgrass, thistles and sunflowers reached mutant heights, stirring in mock awareness amid the heaps of rusted auto wrecks near the stony shore. The first evening shadows hooded the forest wall of maples and pines in the valley. Vampire-big mosquitoes swirled at the edges of sunny clearings, and behind the tallest oaks, the sun-brilliant scrapers of New Town rose.
The residents had banned autos, bringing peace to the valley, and here just outside of town the roads were cow paths dug by human feet and the heavy equipment moving up to new developments on the river line. The kids approached the river on the widest of these roads, Alice walking in the lead, sometimes playfully balancing herself on the fallen trunks of blasted trees and the heavy ruts of dried mud the tractors had left. Three boys - Johnny, Chet and Grant - followed her to the trail, paying more attention to their own horseplay than to her.
They halted at the riverbank, staring down at the foaming water for a moment before Johnny pointed to a barely visible trail in the sumac and signaled the others to follow. Shadows crossed their brows like hunter's camouflage as they pressed ahead and their attitudes appeared serious as the trail broke into ferns growing at the edge of a block of pines. Trooping off like soldiers, down the widest row, they cut to the heart of the pines and then through a wall of prickly brush. Johnny held the branches back as the others ducked through and seconds later they were all standing in a circular clearing. A fire pit of huge slate boulders rested at its centre. Deep matted grass and flattened spruce boughs surrounded it. A wrecked Ford languished in the shade, serving as a rain shelter outfitted with bedding and a stereo.
Gold flashed on Alice's amulet, her big eyes sparkled with interest. She kicked a cow skull through some thistles and hopped up on one of the pit boulders. "Wow! This must be where you sacrifice to your wolf god!"
"Nope," Johnny said. "My parents are herbalists and vegetarians. This is my secret spot where I come to barbecue beef, hamburgers and hotdogs. Alice, consider yourself privileged to be told about it. Heck, with every girl in New Town having the hots for me and my parents being nuts -- this secret spot means life and death."
"That's right," Chet said. "Johnny has revealed a big secret to you so how about revealing something to us in return?"
"Like what? I don't keep secrets?"
"I heard you got a secret tattoo under that tank top. How about taking it off and showing us the design."
"Sorry, but the design just don't feel like revealing itself today."
"Doesn't piss me any," Johnny said. "My mom's also a nudist. Sometimes I see sag in my dreams."
"How dare you compare me to your mom's sag."
"Prove you got something better," Chet said.
"Please," Johnny said. "I have my reputation to think of -- people will be saying I've lost the power if a rumour hits the streets that I'm begging girls for boob shots."
Grant tossed a heap of kindling on the fire --- he paused. "I'm interested in the power, not boobs. How about you and Alice telling us what these powers are?"
"Certainly," Johnny said. "Let me begin by saying that I don't personally believe Alice has any powers at all. She's one of those phony high school witches. This wolf fang I’m wearing is deadlier than any sort of witchery. Should I choose I could use it and incantations to call up the evil revenge of the wolf god. The way it works is that if I name you your worst nightmare takes the shape of a wolf and comes to finish you. I can also become a werewolf if I want."
"Don't use it on yourself or a sag-boobed vegetarian wolf will chase you," Chet said, inspiring an outburst of laughter.
"That's how ridiculous it is," Alice said. "Even if it were true your wolf fang only has two real powers while my amulet has three. Should I need protection, I can use the incantation to call up three forces of evil -- First I can ask that you be buried with the dead. Should the person I’m fighting happen to be dead or something, then the amulet will send forth the thing from the river bottom. If the thing from the river bottom is not powerful enough I can go all the way with a special incantation that will cause Godzilla to walk and crush the enemy."
There was silence as Alice finished, then anger faded in Johnny's hazel eyes, his cheeks pinked and he suddenly exploded --- convulsions of laughter shaking him as he fell to his knees. "Godzilla walks," he choked, tears beginning to pour from his eyes. He began to pound his fists on the grass as he continued to howl. "Ha! Godzilla -- I saw him on monster tube the other night. Even in the new short version you still see the big zipper."
Now Alice was pissed -- her eyes reflecting the sunset and the flames Grant had rising. She held her amulet like she was about to use it.
Then Grant spoke and Johnny's laughter subsided. "Whether Alice's amulet has powers or not, it’s still valuable. I propose that we solve this problem in a way that will verify the truth. I got a pack of cards in my bag. Let's have a little game of strip poker between you two. Rules are lose a hand and you doff an item of clothing -- once you get down to the necklaces you’ll have an option -- doff your underwear and walk back through New Town in the skin or hand the necklace to the winner instead. In this deal should Alice decide she can't part with the amulet, Chet and I win as we get to see what we want. Whoever wins the necklaces will own them and have a chance to test their powers."
"Great Idea," Chet said.
"Okay," Johnny said. "If Alice is game I’ll play. But my rules are no crying when you lose."
Alice looked at all three guys. Her anger became calculation. "Count me in."
The game had progressed evenly and with a bit of a surprise. As it turned out both Alice and Johnny had been wearing swimming suits beneath their clothing and they were now stripped down to the bare essentials. Grant dealt the deciding hand --- a strong fire now rising and crackling in the clearing, the flames highlighting Chet's drooling chin as he watched Alice.
Johnny's pupils expanded as he stared at his cards. Alice frowned as he pulled one card. She drew two and hid her emotions as she studied her hand. They laid them out silently and Grant squinted in the firelight. "Three kings for Johnny, three queens for Alice."
Alice grimaced - Johnny grinned - Chet began to wheeze and Grant looked to Alice, his eyes signaling that he expected obedience to the rules.
Her hand touched her top then the amulet.
"No," Chet said. "Toplessness is legal now. You can't get in trouble for it."
"You'll have to walk through New Town," Johnny said, his grin swimming with victory, as he knew Alice would never do it.
A light wind tousled the willow tops in the graveyard. Johnny and Grant stood in the ferns, gazing through the iron fence at two somber workers dragging a coffin over the grounds. They took it up to the icehouse and returned through the stones. Using a rope and a winch they removed a third coffin and carried it off. Their last trip was for their digging tools then they disappeared up the main road leading to the storage building.
"Why do you suppose they dug those three up?" Grant said.
"Don't know. Maybe they were ordered exhumed by a court."
Bushes rustled behind them and they turned quickly, Johnny's leather shirt and fang necklace catching sunbeams. He squinted into the sun, spotting Chet emerging at the end of the forest path. Chet wore a big thin-lipped grin, and his gray eyes were alight with mischief.
"Did you give her the note?" Johnny said.
"Yeah, I saw her coming out of the curiosity shop in New Town. I think she wanted to buy another amulet but couldn't afford it. She swallowed the bait and will be out here before sunset. She says to tell you you're a bastard."
"Bastard, eh," Johnny said, his eyes going back to the graveyard. "Say, I just got a great idea. Our note says she has to walk a blindfolded zigzag through the graveyard and meet us at the icehouse before we'll give her a chance to win back the amulet. Those three graves they just opened are exactly on the path. We could each hide in a different grave and when she gets close, jump up and scare the boobs off her."
"Wow, what a great idea," Chet said. "I'm going to jump up and steal a feel if she passes me."
Alice came up the path at eight and found the cemetery gates closed by an iron lock a jackhammer couldn't break. Evening was still golden on the graveyard hill and twilight haze dusted the stones with life. A host of stone angels offered protection should she decide to walk through. As a counter force, the icehouse stood in long shadows on the hilltop -- a squat work of evil and jail for the dead, it promised to spit forth greater pain than any pranks the boys could plan. A beard of shadow reached down from its stone walk, touching a line of huge black obelisks. Mostly regular stones spotted the grounds below the obelisks -- it didn't look like it would be a hard walk even wearing a blindfold.
She prepared to climb the gate then she halted. Smoke clouds were blowing under the icehouse door and drifting down into the stones. The image of Johnny, the abominable fool, burning a corpse to scare her came to mind, then she threw her purse around the back of her neck and grabbed a cross bar to pull herself up. It took all of her strength and she nearly tore her crotch on the spikes at the top. As she went over she slipped, crashed down in the grass and rolled to the side of a small stone. Rising, she swore as she saw a grass stain on her butt, then she froze as a voice echoed through the stones. It was Johnny's voice, sounding amplified by some sort of speaker or megaphone, demanding that she put on the blindfold.
Pulling a strip of violet cloth from her purse she tied it around her head. She cupped her hands over her face for a moment as she said the incantation for the amulet. “. . . and bury the first one with the dead," she whispered as she pulled her hands down. She thought about what the old man had said as she began to take careful steps -- the amulet and its powers were tied to her, so she hoped it would work without being around her neck.
Chet rested on a mat of pine needles at the bottom of his grave. He shivered, the whole thing starting to irritate and spook him, then he heard Johnny calling for the blindfold. His blood immediately caught fire and he flew to his feet for a look over the lip of the grave. The last rays of the sun were angling off the marble in such a way as to blind him. Patches of twilight revealed nothing. He couldn't see Alice at all and above something dark roiled in the sky.
Ducking back down he decided she had to come his way. It wouldn’t take more than a couple minutes. And the atmosphere wasn't scaring him but he was sure it would terrify her. He'd just wait till he heard her approaching, then he'd jump up and take a real long feel of those breasts.
Slowing his breathing he tried to listen -- but instead of Alice's footsteps every sound in the world came to his ears. He heard the willows rustling, the iron gate slamming in the wind, strains of distant music, crickets, crows and his own heavy heartbeat. A minute passed -- he was sure he heard the tap of a footstep, then something scraping and something larger dragging on the ground. It was positively creepy -- he had to hand it to Alice, she was smart enough to play their game -- making weird noises to scare them, too.
A gross burp echoed and he grinned and crouched, preparing to leap. The scraping was heavy now; a second and it would be over the grave, so he stole the moment and leapt up over the lip. He saw two big men swinging a corpse. It flew straight into him, carrying him back to the bottom of the grave. A second body flew down, and a third, leaving Chet winded under what felt like a hundred sacks of slimy cold potatoes. Then the shovels started, earthworms hit him in the face and he let out a last tiny gasp and rattle. . . .
His eyes were blind and he could feel the maggots spinning in his brain, forming a new arrangement and hideous thoughts. A light flashed and a memory carried in the charge -- he'd been swimming on that day long ago and now he'd been down here in this frozen pocket for who knew how long. Water, bile, and algae rushed in his lungs and throat -- then the pain of having once been human passed and he rose to the power of slime and the call of the amulet.
Blackened hands and bloated flesh rose to the surface and he pulled over the logs to shore. There he crawled like a swollen dog, the odor of his corruption nearly killing the frogs on the sand. In his dim mind he saw the graveyard, pictured an open grave and felt the need for burial. There were people gathered under bright spotlights and moths swirling as he rose to his feet and sloshed through at the edge of town. He watched them scream and run and he couldn't care. Stray dogs howled in the streets, crows screeched in the air, cats hissed in the alleys and an old man at the gas station fell dead at the sight of his spotted face. Passing through the auto wrecks and in the woods he heard a funeral march, the music pouring from the iron bars of the gate and the icehouse on the graveyard hill.
At the gate he seized the lock and watched with a water-fattened eye as it became rust and crumbled, then he went inside, hearing the sound of water and rot slosh in his heavy boots as he walked to the grave. He neared the lip and saw a frightened boy leap up from below. A spark ignited in his mind -- "My Son, my Son," he rasped through reedy vocal cords, then he embraced his son, holding him as he screamed and struggled -- holding him so they could fall together to burial and the grave.
Johnny leapt from the grave, heading for the icehouse, fingering his neckline and wolf fang as he walked. Weird sounds and screams had been drifting in the graveyard. It looked like Alice knew how to play freaky games just like they did. If that was the case, he wasn't going to hang around in a grave and be her next sucker. Besides, he had a nice little treat in store for her.
Iron on oak, the icehouse doors loomed over him. He stood on paving stones, his feet hidden in the smoke streaming under the crack. He'd dropped the key in the grave so he raised his hands and used the power of the wolf to move the hinges. They opened slowly, creaking, wood splitting as the locks snapped. A fire burned inside -- black braziers smoking with flesh and charcoal to either side of a stone slab and coffin.
Turning, Johnny looked to his rear, deep into the graveyard. It was too dark to see Alice. It was too dark to see anything other than the moon rising at the treetops. He knew she had got past Chet and Grant. Perhaps she was hanging out down by the obelisks. No matter, his game wasn't the childish sort of Chet and Grant's. He wanted the amulet and he knew beyond any doubt that if he wanted to keep a witch's amulet and make it work, then he had to burn the witch.
The pyre had been prepared. He walked into the icehouse and pulled a torch from an iron cup in the limestone wall. It ignited in his hands. Walking to the coffin, he used his left hand to throw the lid open. A garish waxen face caught the torchlight and the horrible stench of a body not fully embalmed came to his nostrils. He inhaled deeply then set the torch back in the wall and went in deeper to get the flasks of oil he’d stored.
Perfumed scents of oil sweetened the rot of death. Johnny soaked the corpse thoroughly and used the torch to ignite it -- magnificent flames rose on the burning body, the heat forcing him to step back from the slab. Another fire began to burn in his mind. He kissed the wolf fang and whispered the incantation, then he turned to face the graveyard as the transformation began.
His hair whitened, lengthened and thickened like weeds. Great strength rushed to his hands, forcing them to bend and grow. Blood rushed in his limbs, his chest expanded and fire began to gather behind his eyes.
As his nose lengthened his night vision came to him and he spotted Alice way down by the gate. It had somehow been thrown open and she was running for the forest path.
Thought she could get away, the little fool. A growl rose in his thickening throat. He decided to wait a few moments for the transformation to finish, and then the power of the wolf would carry him to her.
A sudden thunder drew his eyes to the treetops, and as he looked the ground began to shake. Beyond the tree wall the night sky had risen like a giant. A cloud mass swirled behind some huge thing as it approached. On the ground the wind had died. Choking smoke rose around him, a terrible roar shook the stones, earthquake convulsions knocking some of them down.
Thundering feet came into view at the gate, the repercussions threatening to topple the icehouse. Johnny rushed out as a slab fell behind him and crushed the coffin. He went down the crumbling hill, but even with wolf paws he was unable to keep his footing. Mud took his legs and he slid, landing back in the open grave he’d just left.
At the bottom he whimpered like a frightened dog and stared up, then he hissed as he saw Godzilla rising. The massive feet came down right next to the grave, shaking cold earth in his eyes, and when his wolf vision cleared he saw the enormous head and dagger teeth.
Godzilla roared mightily and reached down to seize him. He had no angle of escape, but could only howl --- and before the big jaws closed on him he saw the rubbery neck. Just like on monster tube- he was sure he could see the zipper.
--- The End ---
© By Gary Morton
Stars vanished in a violet explosion, causing him to roll and moan, then a new dream began. Eddy knew he was dreaming; he often did. This was a lousy dream, one of those repeating dreams he hated. He struggled to wake, but without success - the effort another phase of the nightmare.
The lights were bright and everyone he admired looked on, only he couldn't see them - he couldn't see anything but glare. It was the sort of awareness a paranoid schizophrenic person gets - everyone was there and god he wished they weren't. They had to know he in no way deserved the award he was about to receive.
Eddy had his clothes on this time, but he wished he hadn't worn such a huge pair of soiled running shoes with his suit. If he’d shaved and taken a bath, it would’ve been better too. Naturally, it was too late to run to the can; he was up and his name was ringing in his ears. Why did the guy have to shout so loud?
A face showed and it wasn't Robert Robinson this time. "Who in the hell is it?" he thought. "Or who in the hell are they?" By they he meant that a sort of shape shifter from hell was presenting this year's Nebula Award. The face shifted rapidly and some visages were of writers that died years ago.
Gulping visibly, Eddy began to walk. The glare didn't blind him and there was some relief in that . . . what really knocked him out was the shape shifter. It was switching through a bunch of B-movie zombie bodies that looked too real to be hallucinations. He feared insanity - maybe his mind had snapped. The setup sucked, lights hot enough to melt his runners, and the cheap rubber soles made a horrible sucking noise as he climbed the three large steps to the platform. Turning, he saw some faces grinning through the glare. All eyes were on his feet and that caused him to smile nervously as his cheeks reddened.
Blood dribbled from the corners of the shape shifter's mouth as he said a few words in a distorted monotone. Eddy picked up the words visionary and brilliant as his eyes focused on the award. He’d won with his first story. It was a gadget story he sort of borrowed from one of his pals, and to his dismay, this year's award had been redesigned to look exactly like the ugly contraption in the story. A piece of junk really. He’d forever be explaining it to others and he doubted many of them would believe it was an award and not something he'd welded together in a junkyard.
At one time Eddy had been critical of gadget stories and tales that predicted the future. Leonardo da Vinci would always be remembered for predicting the airplane, but who would remember forty thousand science fiction writers for the gadgets they had predicted first? Only a minute ago he’d believed awards to be surrogates when it came to fiction; forget to reward yourself by writing what you really want to write and you’ll forever seek rewards from others. Now his views had changed and his fears were gone. He decided to say a few words.
He looked to the audience and had to pause to wipe tears from his eyes; tears that were an effect of the lights and not his emotions. "Some people can predict the future," he said, then shouts cut him off and faces loomed up. It wasn't an audience of writers after all, but a gang of reviewers and critics. The sort of people who wouldn't let you say a word without tearing it down.
One of them was his high school English teacher, Ms. Mansion, and she mounted the stage, waving his old report card, yelling, "Eddy Dash couldn't have written that story! Here are his marks! He failed high school English at Trent!"
Eddy's head began to spin, Ms. Mansion snatched at the award and they began to fight over it. Pulling back, he knocked the shape shifter and got free of her. She came at him again and he got her with a vicious kick to the shin, causing her to howl. He grinned, unable to stop himself - he'd always wanted to give her that kick. "That one's for everyone you made me hate!" he screamed. Looking to the audience, he saw people in shock. Obviously they believed he was out of his mind. "She made me hate everyone, really she did," he whined. And it was true; there were no writers he hated more than ones he'd studied in school. Like most English teachers, Ms. Mansion dissected everything, killing the mystery and the story, turning exciting authors into pieces of grammar.
A flash brought him back to reality. It was the shape shifter, he'd transformed to a weird version of one of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. He raised a weapons arm that reminded Eddy of Judge Dredd and fired. Flaming oil shot out and hit Ms. Mansion, burning her like she was a wax witch.
Eddy faced the shape shifter and shook. Now the thing had a dark robe and a golden mask; the weapons arm still up. "You wrote a story about the future?" the shifter said.
"I didn't write it. I stole it from Steve," Eddy said, beginning to weep. "I can't write about the future, I can't write anything. It's the others who can predict the future."
"A Dweller from the future will be talking to you Eddy. You have done well," the shifter said. "But the others haven't been honest." He turned to face the gasping crowd. "You fools!" he shouted. "Don't you know the future is something you will not predict?" He lifted his weapons arm and sent burning oil streaming into the crowd. Horrible screaming began; blood, fire and smoke fanned up and roared.
Eddy shot up in bed and cradled his head in his hands. Not that guilt dream again. It had repeated about a hundred times, and had something to do with his failing creative writing. God he hated it. Damn, failing creative writing, and in Canada, where anyone who could write a paragraph passed. He'd never get over it.
His erection was staring him in the face so he covered it, wondering if he wasn't becoming just a little perverse. Was seeing people fry giving him a rod or was it Ms. Mansion? He hoped it was seeing people burn up.
The clock was at ten but it looked more like night outside. He went to the window naked and glanced down, and then he jumped back. It looked like a crowd below. Deciding to get dressed he went to the closet and fished through the heap; he kept summer shorts and T-shirts in a pile so getting dressed would be easy. Eddy was lazy; he never wore long pants in the summer because they were too hard to put on. Eddy Dash -- even his name seemed wrong, like it described someone exciting rather than a person considered a dreamer and mentally slow. Looking in the mirror he saw a slim young man with prominent cheekbones, a sharp nose and a mop of blond hair; he wore an earring but it didn't make him appear effeminate. Young and handsome perhaps, but the difference was there in his eyes. They always looked strange and otherworldly like he was hooked on some powerful drug. The drug was his mind, which had always been off balance, hooked on dreams.
Ten minutes more and he'd miss breakfast at the Emerald Hotel across the street. Stepping back to the window, he looked down to check the crowd, and found that it wasn't a crowd. The people were shadows. If you could call them that. Forms moving slowly, rolling and shifting like tumbleweeds, most of them not connected to any real objects. Flecks of light drifted hypnotically like snowflakes and he thought of winter, remembering Christmas. The shadows were his cousins carrying gifts. He saw Mary standing under the big tree in the town square. She was beautiful, flowing hair and eyes that glittered with dreams like his own. Pain ripped at his heart, because Mary had drowned, and he was alone. Even his cousins hadn't spoken to him since Uncle Jack had decided to disown him. Now he had the graveyard flowers, the sound of the river and the screech of tires from the accident that executed his parents and brother -- all of it flowing past.
"Not that dreaming while I'm awake shit again!" Eddy thought, pounding the wall. He recalled the disadvantages. It was a condition he sometimes got. Dreaming was a condition he always had. Usually it was daydreaming when he was awake. Normal concentration was something he lacked and because of it he was out of work, collecting medical welfare. Things other people called simple tasks were too much for him; he couldn't even go fishing without cutting his finger while hooking the bait. He always got to dreaming about something else and his drifting mind bungled the task.
Depression of the suicidal sort was the result, so instead of finding success in life he graduated from high school to welfare and a tiny apartment on Brightsville's main drag. It wasn't good for the old self-image, and when it did occasionally emerge from behind the wall of dreams, he saw himself as a loser.
The hicks at the restaurant thought he was gay and Eddy reflected on that as he went out the door. Since he was handsome and young the hicks were probably more like wishing he was . . . hicks would screw anybody - man, woman or thing - they just wouldn't admit to it. Being the only guy in the county without a car didn't help much when it came to getting a reputation for dating women and he knew that wouldn't change - he hadn't been in a car since the day his parents died in the crash, or out on a date since Mary died. And he wasn't gay; he was a sort of loner - a guy with only one friend. Even a person with a handicap would get some kind of work in a small town, because of the buddy factor. Eddy knew that but it was of little help; he disliked other men. They weren't like him so he shut them out.
The door creaked open on blowing shadows and an empty street -- ghost town airs. Eddy was afraid to step outside. Malformed dark clouds scudded under a stone-gray sky. He pictured himself choking to death in shadows that were really poison gas, then he stepped out and looked around. No one was on the street, and the shadows did feel hot when they touched him, like he was getting sunburned or something. Some pickups parked up by the Emerald meant the restaurant was full of older hicks. They were the only guys who still favored pickups.
Old creeps or not, Eddy was still hungry and the Emerald was the only place where he didn't have to pay. He did some dishes sometimes and he’d promised old Jake he'd keep an eye on the place from his window and report if he saw anybody spray-painting JEW BOY on the windows again. Some of the hick boys didn't like Jews and Jake wasn't a Jew . . . but what could they do when there were no real Jews around to pick on?
Going in the front door would draw all eyes to him so he headed down the alley and went to the service entrance at the back. The door was open so he went in, glancing at the kitchen as he passed. A fat woman was in there instead of the regular cook, but that didn't interest him so he went straight to the main room, stopping by the jukebox for a look-see. Maybe he'd eat in the kitchen if the customers were too ugly.
A country version of Only the Lonely was ending. Dan Montana, Joe River and Missy Marshall were sitting at a table by the window. They stared through the glass at the shadows. Red splotches like birthmarks or acid burns marred their faces. The other patrons, older geeks Eddy didn't know by name, had their chairs arranged so they faced Joe.
Missy suddenly came to life, her knuckles flashed as she caught a bug running across the table. It was a roach. She ate it, licked her lips then her expression deadened.
Joe turned his face from the window. "Fine weather today," he said. "The Dweller will be rising early. Guess I better go over to the park and supervise the work."
"Who does he want now?" Missy said.
"Plenty to choose from," Joe said. "Maybe I'll get Jake and let him make the pick."
It was like they’d dreamed they were zombies and it’d come half true. Eddy stared as Dan Montana picked something black and gross from a plate of fries and began to munch on it. A homely woman with a fright wig of lifeless blond hair was coming over to the jukebox so he figured leaving was the best idea. Taking a step back, he knocked over some empty bottles, then froze as everyone looked his way.
"Hey kid!" Joe yelled, rising and knocking over the table. Eddy gulped. He saw something shiny - a brand-new Ruger shotgun Joe had been holding on his lap.
The blond woman suddenly bared her teeth and lunged so he turned and ducked out the door, hearing the gun blast as he moved. Blood painted the wall and the woman's headless body crashed at his heels. One quick look at the corpse and a jawbone embedded in the broken floor and he took off like a cannon shot.
Swirling shadows made it nearly impossible to see anything in the alley. Dizzied by the furious motion, Eddy ran on, stumbling and tripping until he ran out of breath. He leaned against a graffiti-scarred wall, his head spinning, his lungs aching. Moments later he fell to his knees, hallucinating.
The walls of the alley melted; he found himself in a shimmering tube, facing a panel of electronic instruments. A golden face appeared on a screen and began to speak, but the words slurred, he didn't get the message except for the last two sentences, which were - "You must stay alive! The Dweller needs you!"
As swift as it came the illusion vanished. Eddy looked down the alley, feeling refreshed. No one was out back of the Emerald; it looked like the creeps were either slow or they weren't going to give chase. Rising and running he got back to Main Street and checked the front. The pickups were still there and no one was outside.
Not sure what to do, he ran for his apartment with the idea of barricading himself inside. Reaching the top of the stairs, he threw the door open, saw someone standing there and swung, catching the guy with a hard punch. The guy went down and Eddy realized he'd just hammered his pal, his only friend, Steve.
Steve looked up from his knees, his blond hair tangled, and his baby face desperate. "I hear the voice, I hear it," he said. "Don't hit me."
"What voice?" Eddy said.
"You must not be one of them," Steve said, getting up. He rubbed his sore jaw. "It's the rest of the gang I'm talking about. I just ran a half mile to get away."
"No. You mean our people are nuts too? It's the hicks I'm running from. They tried to shoot me."
"Something happened early this morning," Steve said. "I was sleep walking. Woke up out on the sidewalk and saw other people, sleeping on the road and grass. Brown shadows were blowing and there were no morning sounds, then some kind of light exploded right through the ground and woke everyone."
"Funny," Eddy said. "Nothing happened to me. I had that same old nightmare about winning an award with your story."
"We're different though," Steve said. "I got the weird sleep disorder and you're dream crazy. I think whatever changed people was fed in through their dreams or their thoughts and we opted out because we're not normal."
"Could be. But I did hear a voice telling me to stay alive."
"Can't be the same one. The other voice split the town in half. It's a death voice. Our younger friends think they have to kill the adults and the adults think they're obeying a creature called the Dweller."
"We better find out if it's only in Brightsville." Walking to the far wall, Eddy grabbed his dresser and wheeled it over by the window. He opened the door behind it and went into the next room, which was his computer room. He had the computer hidden because he didn't want the welfare department to find it and declare it an asset. He also didn't want them to find out it was a source of income, loaded with game CDs that he rented to the downtown kids.
"This is definitely no time for playing games," Steve said, his pale blue eyes widening with disbelief.
"I figure the modem's safer than the phone. You should know how to use it, being that you're a computer nerd?"
"That's hacker," he said, sliding out the keyboard. "We're not nerds now. People on the Internet are considered real hip. There are cyberpunks and even girls on-line now."
"It's just a plot by Microsoft and Apple. A way to get people slaving on computers by making it look hip. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned values -- like believing in just doing nothing and bumming around?"
"Old-fashioned values are out. Modem games, perversion and programming are in. Say, according to the weatherboard it's a sunny day everywhere except in Brightsville. Looks like normal messages on the Trent U board. I think it's safe to talk to someone there. Only Brightsville has been shadow bombed."
Steve was about to key in when the screen went blank, then they heard a blast. A second blast blew the window out in the room behind them.
Eddy spun around and saw splinters of wood and glass nailed into the wall. "Take the stairs to the back," he said. "Get ready, go!"
They flew out and across the room, just getting out the door as another blast came through. Eddy bounded down the stairs, threw the back door open and found himself facing a sixtyish shotgun-toting redneck. He snatched the barrel before he had a chance to aim and whacked him over the head with the butt. The guy went down, Eddy kept the shotgun and they ran between the sheds and over to the next street.
People were out front of Montana Hardware so they ducked into an empty barbershop. Catching his breath, Eddy studied the shotgun; it was new, a Remington with a fancy catch for extra ammo. "I haven't felt this way since the last time the Cross Gang chased me."
"You better be ready to meet the Cross Gang again, because they've taken the lead of the high school kids and the battle against the adults. Most of the fighting is going on out by the quarry."
"Shit," Eddy said. "I got them and the hicks after me the first time by making a speech in favor of gun control. Now I'm going to have to blast them with a gun."
"Oh-oh," Steve said. "I hear someone in the alley."
Ducking behind a coat rack they watched as a rifle-toting man appeared. It was Abe Hardcastle, the high school principal; he wore a tattered suit and blood, dirt and whiskers added an edge to his pinched expression. Hardcastle was a Reform Party official and had taken time to counter Eddy's high school speech on gun control. He likely would have shot to kill even yesterday. Messing with him wasn't a good idea.
Hardcastle spotted the partially open door of the barbershop, raised his rifle and fired a shot through the wood. A mirror and bottles of tonic exploded; Eddy ducked to the right then back as a bullet shattered the window.
Hardcastle was marching straight for the entrance so Eddy went down and rolled on the floor. A hard boot knocked the door open; Hardcastle showed, his aim ready, his huge jaw set -- and Eddy fired . . . both barrels flaming. The recoil pounded back and the blast hammered Hardcastle; his midsection crumpling, becoming a flying shower of dark gore as his body went out to the street. He got cut right in half - his legs did a dance into some garbage cans and his upper chest and head caught on a parking meter and hung there.
Steve jumped out through the broken window and looked down the street at the hardware store then waved for Eddy to come out. Eddy staggered out, still shaken by the recoil and what he'd done to Hardcastle. A couple guys were running up from the hardware so they took off, headed over toward the town square.
Bullets whizzed through the maples as they ran across a lawn. Lilac hedges, a rubbish heap and an old shed put distance between them and their pursuers. Eddy ducked behind a broken foundation wall in a vacant lot. Steve followed and they waited.
"Looks like they're not following," Eddy said. He looked at the shed, the milkweed, thistles, crabgrass and broken stones. It seemed like the world was on a tilt, except for the shadows it was a cloudy summer day. "If this was one of your stories what would be the cause of this?"
"Doesn't work like a story because there has to be an explanation for it and supernatural Cuthulu or zombie explanations don't cut the mustard as far as real science goes."
"It has something to do with the future because the voice I heard came with a dream of the future. I didn't see much, a golden mask . . . the sort of video their equipment displayed was almost like reality. Maybe it's fifty years from now."
"Fifty years isn't much in time. It has to be more -- the distant future. I think there will be nothing but imagination then. We're nearly through harnessing just the physics side of nature. Most new discoveries help free the mind and imagination. The end is the human imagination free of nature's limitations -- godlike beings. If the future is screwing with us now it's them - the gods doing it."
"I can't believe we become gods. Extinction is what I believe in. The reason is that humans aren't full emotional beings. We don't have enough feeling to care. All Hardcastle had to do was change a bit and I killed him like nothing. It's not just this town, the whole world was going to hell for a long time and the people just didn't care. A true emotional being would suffer. Toys like cars and televisions are what they've always cared about."
"You're deluding yourself with your beliefs. You saw a future so believe it. We somehow overcome our flaws."
"Okay, people of the future have caused this. So what next?"
"We observe the adults. See if we can get a look at this Dweller guy."
Eddy grimaced. "Man, watching folks that want to blow us away isn't going to be easy."
"There's a lot of activity near the park and the town square, and we can get good cover there."
"Okay, I don't like it, but let's give it a try."
Summer dust blew up on a hot wind and pop cans rattled. They passed a mound of rubbish and went through a screen of reddening sumac. A statue of Lord Simcoe with a fountain and flower garden was on the edge of the school grounds. Beyond the school a street of factories and warehouses separated it from Hepburn Park and the town square. The sun glowed behind veils of haze, a blind eye lost in its own dreams, and the odd beam lanced through, adding a knife-edge gleam to the drifting shadows.
Trent High was usually open for summer school and the pool. Today it looked deserted, with no cars in the parking lot. They crossed the football field, spooked by the eerie eclipse-style daylight. Steve found himself looking around too much and finally he began to run, headed for the main building, an ivied university-style quad.
Eddy got ahead; he halted at the arched entrance to the quad. "If we run straight in we could be spotted from all four directions."
"Gotcha," Steve said. Dodging left they ran to a window. Forcing it, they climbed into a chem lab. The sports complex and pool ran underground, beneath the quad. Cutting to a stairwell they went down to the gate. A magnetic pass was needed and they didn't have one so Eddy simply kicked out a six-foot window beside the door.
Following a vestibule they got to the pool and began to pass it, headed for the exit on the other side of the quad. A rank odor and dead silence gave them an uneasy feeling. Slime of some sort shimmered on the water so they walked up to the glass for a better look and saw something surfacing. It was a corpse, just rising, its face battered, swollen and blue. The green-tinted water was still clear enough for them to see bottom, and it was as full as a morgue slab after a chainsaw massacre. Bodies and torn body parts floated everywhere. It became obvious that the slime was blood turned green.
"Man, let's get out of here before I throw up," Steve said.
"Not so fast. The killers might be around. We got to duck ambushes."
Looking left and right, they went up to the ground floor and out the door. Dust blew in the arch and they stepped into it, making sure they checked their backs. The field at the center of the quad was now visible and it wasn't clear. Two ragged men stood by a fountain.
"Oh, great," Eddy said. "It's the fucking killers."
"Yeah, and they look like two swamp mutants. Say, those are axes they're carrying."
Eddy frowned, his mouth quivered. "I can just shoot them." He moved to reload and found that he couldn't open the ammo catch. The two men were walking now, coming out of shadows and swirling dust like it was a tunnel from the extinct future Eddy believed in. He stared and froze for a moment. Blood, sweat and dirt coated the men's faces, they wore uniforms of a savagely torn green material that showed they had been janitors before being reincarnated as subhuman losers. Scariest of all was the way they limped on bloodstained legs; it meant they were so bloodthirsty they had wounded themselves with their axes.
"Run," Eddy said, "back inside, it'll be easier to get away."
Flying in, they dashed up the stairs and down a long hall to the engineering department. A crash echoed up as the men burst into the school.
"Try to load the gun," Steve said. "I'm going to search for weapons."
Ducking behind some lockers, Eddy struggled with the catch. Figures the guy would fix it so only he could open it, he thought, then it popped open. Amazed by his luck, he cocked and reloaded. Pointing the gun he tested the sight and found himself aiming at Steve as he came around the corner carrying an iron bar.
Steve dodged to the side. "God, I thought you were going to spray me."
"I got it reloaded, but the idea is to try and sneak out. I really don't want to mess with guys that dangerous."
"If the pool is a sign, they've been favoring the basement. Let's take the top floor back to the exit stairs."
One hall from the exit they ran back down to the basement, grabbed a row of lockers and sent them crashing to the floor. Then they ran back up to the top, down to the end and down the stairs to the exit. They assumed the janitors would head for the noise, but they failed to rise to the bait. Both of them were at the doors, and the tallest guy was already swinging his ax at Eddy as he charged down the stairs.
Eddy ducked the flying blade and Steve dodged and tumbled. There was a crash as Eddy smashed into the lockers, then a boom as his Remington shotgun misfired, and another wham as the ax followed through and bit into the boiler room door. Steve's metal bar bounced on the floor, and from his knees he saw the first janitor catch the misfire blast. It got him in the upper body, kicking him right through the Plexiglas doors . . . sending him into the dusty wind like a gory scarecrow spit from a monster exhaust fan.
The second janitor lifted his ax to strike, his face a hostile mass of fresh scar tissue. Steve knocked his bar as he tried to reach it and it clanged on the steps. He heard Eddy moan then he saw the ax coming down. Scrambling left he managed to snatch the bar and get out of the way.
Glancing off the stair railing, the blade hit the stone floor. The force of the blow staggered the janitor and he stepped back, holding the ax with shaking hands. He growled, his scars purpling as he prepared to strike again.
Afraid to engage in close combat with such a freak, Steve simply stepped back, mustered all of his strength and threw the bar. Gleaming, it connected with the janitor's throat, knocking him back. He staggered, choked, spit blood and then charged, tripping over Eddy as he tried to get to Steve.
A blackened hand reached for Steve's feet, he leapt over the janitor and seized the other ax, which was still embedded in the boiler room door. It came out easy, but Steve was trembling so much he could barely lift it. Knee-shaking fear, the black magic of terror was crippling him. Eddy was stunned so he knew he couldn't count on him . . . he had to swing and total the guy before he got up. But he couldn't stomach killing someone with an ax. It was more like he could only tremble. Then the janitor got to his knees and the fear turned to a power that brought the ax down on its own. It got him in the back, a gross crunch, and Steve staggered back, staring at the blood oozing up from the punctured lung and spleen.
Squirming, choking grossly, the janitor died. Eddy got to his feet and studied the carnage. He wiped tears from his eyes with a shaking hand. "I think my ribs are broken from the recoil," he said. "Jeez, this is no gods from the future. This is brain damage, like these people fried themselves with poison or got a new strain of disease."
"How do you explain the Dweller?"
"We don't even know what the Dweller is . . . maybe he's just the ugliest of these creeps."
Crossing the road they went into weeds and bushes, then up on the railroad grade and looked down at warehouses and factories. Litter rattled as it spun on the stones in the lot below. The street was deserted, just a couple of abandoned cars.
"These people do no regular work, that's for sure," Eddy said as they descended.
Steve nodded. "I have a hunch that they don't clean anything either, meaning the Laundromat should be empty. We can check the square and the park from its roof."
Weeds and long grass grew out of cracked concrete and the wind whistled in the warehouse alley. Here the day seemed empty, lonely enough for ghosts, and Eddy wished it really were that way. It would be nice to see Mary's ghost wandering in the dust, maybe wearing the faded red dress she used to wear.
They saw a farm truck pass up on Dundas Street and slowed. Stopping near the end of the alley, they moved up to take a look. People were moving down by the square but no one was in the Laundromat. Another truck passed then it was clear and they ran across and entered by way of a side door. Going out the back door they climbed on some barrels, swung up on the first roof then climbed the fire ladder to the top.
Odors of tar, vegetables, gasoline and corpses were in the air and the wind was gusting. They got to their knees near the edge and crawled through the tarred stones. Using a large air vent for cover they looked down at the square.
"Unreal," Eddy said. "We're watching a rerun of Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
"Yeah," Steve said, "but this remake would be better titled Invasion of the Zombie Clutzos"
The sun glowed behind the clouds, adding an eerie orange tint to the gray day. Cars were parked everywhere, but not in the proper spaces and they were banged up. Farm trucks loaded with melons, spuds and vegetables circled the summer open-air market - most of them parked on curbs or partway up the steps to buildings. People, all of them adults, wandered aimlessly in the market - their legs wooden and their faces blank. It was business as usual except that no one was actually buying anything. No one was saying anything either and they paid no attention to the corpses scattered in the dirt. These were people who were deteriorating - rotting. Some still looked clean and normal, but most were at some ugly stage of decay. Clothing soiled, shirts untucked, ties askew. At least half of them had blood oozing from battered faces and untreated wounds. One woman had her bruised breasts hanging out and the old man next to her carried his false teeth in his hand. On the north side of the square gasoline was spilling across the concrete from the self-serve and although strong fumes were rising, no one noticed them. Mayor Billy Johnson and the police chief stood near the corner on the steps to the theater and they held rifles. Blood stained the steps and bodies blocked the entrance behind them, which indicated that a massacre had gone down during a run of the new Arnold Swartzenegger flick. A larger crowd milled in the park, many of them trampling the flowerbeds by the square. The Dweller was supposed to be in the park somewhere, but the mix of trees - oaks, maples, elms and willows - blocked their view.
"See anyone from my family there," Steve said.
"No," Eddy said. "And there won't be any from mine because I don't have a family. Unless it's my uncle and cousins, and they were zombies before this even happened."
"What we're seeing makes sense in a way," Steve said. "You likely don't see it in zombie movies, but if you started to deteriorate the first things you'd lose would be fine skills like driving skills. Most of the people have simply injured themselves in fender benders and falls and left the injuries untreated."
"Man they're ugly, but I guess one of the great things about being human is that it doesn't take much to turn you into a horrible piece of shit. I would never want anyone to see me like that, maybe I should shoot myself before it happens."
"Oh-no," Steve said, lurching forward. "That's my father down there by the gas station - bleeding badly from the chest. I've got to get down and rescue him." He got up, exposing himself, and it was fortunate that no one looked up at the roof.
"You can't rescue him. Think, man - that's not your father anymore. It's something else."
"No! There are no real zombies. Whatever he has is a disease. I can get him to Toronto and treatment before it's too late."
"How? If you go down there they'll tear you apart. Even if you succeed I can't let you transport an infected person to a city."
Steve looked to the square and back to Eddy. Wind whipped his hair and desperation contorted his face. His hand flew to his head, thumb and index finger to his temples. He drew back. "Don't try to stop me!" he yelled, then he ran for the fire escape.
Eddy chased him, but he ran like a champion and was down in moments. Following him farther meant certain death. Eddy remembered the dream voice telling him to keep alive and it jogged his preservation instincts. Walking back to the edge he looked down and saw Steve running across the road toward his father. There weren't many freakos near the gas station but several had spotted him and were turning to look.
The day was so dark now the scene was nightmarish, much more like a dream than reality. The unreal shadows kept shifting, and he saw Steve reach his father and touch his shoulder. His father turned to face him and growled, loud enough that Eddy heard it up on the roof. Then he was on Steve like a rabid animal, sinking his teeth in his neck.
Steve yelled and struggled, managing to throw his father to the ground. An army of zombies moved toward him now, but only three were close. Deciding to take a chance, Eddy lifted the Remington, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger. Even from the roof the blast was powerful, it took the three zombies out and carried the spray of blood with it as kicked up asphalt and went on to wound several more.
Steve was racing back now, but the sheriff and the mayor had spotted the action and were running from the theater with their rifles raised. One shot rang out then a blue Ford suddenly careered in from a side street. Tires squealed as the driver dodged some people and parked cars. Going over a curb with a bang the vehicle got on track and headed straight for the mayor and the sheriff, who turned and looked just as they were mowed down.
Growling zombies converged on the car from all directions, and the driver had boxed himself in . . . he banged a couple of parked cars then reversed out, knocking several zombies down. It looked like the vehicle was going escape the square, then blue-faced Dan Montana stepped from behind a melon truck and took the windshield out with a rifle blast.
Blood and glass flew, reversing out of control the car went off the road and through the front window of Bradshaw's candy store. Eddy saw a guy jump out the passenger door. It was John Beck, a pitcher on the high school baseball team, and no doubt he'd been obeying the Voice Steve had mentioned. John fired at the approaching creeps with a pistol, killing a few before he ran out of ammo. His expression went from maniacal to grim as he threw the gun and charged. He socked the first few creepoids hard, knocking them down, but then big Dan Montana moved in and slugged him. John staggered back and the others were on him before he could recover.
Eddy froze, the scene sickened him. Snatches of sound from the growling zombies carried up to him on the wind. They tore and bit like rabid dogs. John howled, wild screams of pain, then a zombie chomped into his throat and blood jetted from the jugular as he was silenced. They took John the rest of the way down, continuing the cannibalistic attack. It was really too gross and Eddy found himself going numb, getting a flashback of an old B-movie . . . faces full of ketchup, green slime in their hair, the bleeding body writhing like a loose rag doll. A grinning zombie rose, liquid fat dribbling from his lips as he held a string of sausage pulled from the gutted corpse. Eddy came back to reality. He lifted the Remington, sighted and fired both barrels, a blast that kicked everyone flat to the ground.
Only a blood pancake remained as Eddy ducked back. He peeked out again. The rest of the zip-brains didn't know where the shot came from, but now he could hear Steve yelling from below. "Motherfuckers!" Eddy said, then he scooped up Steve's metal bar and went down the fire escape.
Steve was at the bottom, struggling with a huge sucker of a zombie. Moving in from the rear, Eddy swung the bar and crushed the guy's skull. He fell to the pavement like a heavy sandbag.
Eddy's eyes went to the blue face of the dead man.
"I'm okay," Steve said. "Dammit, we've attracted the whole gang."
An army of zombies movied across the square. "Let's get behind the gas station," Eddy said. "If my plan works we'll escape by way of the rooftops."
"Roofs are the best idea," Steve said as they ran out. "Those warpos likely aren't well enough to climb."
Dodging the first cluster of zombies, they raced straight out into the square and turned left, headed for the gas station. A hand snatched at Eddy's shirt as he passed a parked car. He beat it back with his gun, acutely aware of the fact that he would be a goner if any of them held him for long. He led Steve wide of the spilled gas and around back. Glancing around, he saw an alley running between two warehouses on the other side of the fence.
They jumped the fence, got to a fire escape in the alley and ran up the steps. Near the top they halted. As Eddy had hoped, they could see over the station roof. Zombies were gathering at the front and a huge crowd was heading over from the square and the park. A rifle shot pinged in the alley and they ducked.
"He's right by the pumps," Steve said. "See if you can plug him."
"That guy couldn't hit a barn door," Eddy said as a second shot hit wide, then he stood and fired a shot at the pumps. It took four men down and sent a severed arm to the top of the sign, but it didn't ignite the gasoline as he had hoped and he had also missed the guy with the rifle.
More wild shots came as Eddy reloaded, he took aim again, and then a stray bullet near the pumps lit the gas. Flames leapt up silently, a hungry roar rushed with them as they grew. People near the station were instantly consumed and the conflagration reached deep into the square, making torches of most of the approaching zombies.
Eddy and Steve ran to the warehouse roof and away from the heat. The firestorm nearly got them, and it was fortunate that the wind was strong and in their favor. Heat seared their faces and they ducked back farther, watching the fireworks as the pavement near the pumps rocked with a series of blasts. Flaming bodies and liquified asphalt sailed over the station, human torches stumbled in the square. Two flatbeds and a Toyota blew up - a concatenated blast that sent flying debris ripping into several zombies and melons rocketing through what remained of the windows in ZELLERS.
There were still a lot of zombies who weren't killed, and they were stupefied, showing no reaction at all. Some of them were at the edge of the fire and had burned legs, hands and faces. They should have been screaming and running, but instead they strolled, feeling no pain, not even bothering to pat out the flames on their smoking clothes.
Nearby buildings were catching fire, but the warehouse had been spared. The fire was shrinking back from the square, spitting out little heaps of fried bodies as it moved. Black smoke blew steadily from the pumps and faces and windows glowed with hellish light. It was certain the wind would spread the flames, eventually destroying most of the town.
"Fire hypnotizes them," Eddy said, turning to Steve, who was grimacing as he checked a burn and a bad bite on his arm."
"What if I become rabid?" Steve said.
"You probably won't. They all turned at once, remember?"
"Yeah, so let's get into the park now that they're out of it. This Dweller guy is the root of this evil. We got to find out what he is."
Eddy led the way as they climbed down on the far side. Steve started to jog toward the square and Eddy caught him and stopped him. Sharp eyes were the name of the game and he didn't want Steve dashing into a trap. Coming out of the alley they met with a crawling corpse. Its whitened tongue protruded past withered lips, enough of the face remained for them recognize it as Mayor Billy. He growled low and snatched at their legs.
Steve ducked back. "Looks like they will still attack."
"He's blind," Eddy said. "The flames didn't affect him. We better watch out for that."
Zombies in the square were falling, collapsing from smoke inhalation. Cutting directly through it wasn't a good idea so they turned and went through the market. Burst melons and spilled tomatoes squished underfoot. Chins' theater was ahead and it would be possible to avoid the smoke by walking through it to the back. The alley there was next to Hepburn Park.
Bodies were scattered out front, mostly teenagers who had been shot by the sheriff and his pals. A grim Arnold Swartzenegger, holding a weapon that resembled the RPG from Duke Nukem 3D, looked down on the scene from a huge poster.
Steve covered his eyes and they walked past and toward the entrance. "I don't want to know who they are," he said. "It's less painful that way."
Eddy glanced back. Dark smoke, shadows shifting over fire, blood and wreckage. He knew who they were; they were everybody - extinction come true, and Steve thought men would be gods.
Shotguns had shattered the glass doors. They walked straight in to the empty lobby. Popcorn crunched underfoot and they could hear the movie playing. Eddy swung the doors and they stepped in cautiously, seeing car-chase action on the screen and death in the seats. Bodies were draped over the rows, Eddy saw a bloody finger sticking out of a box of fries and a couple who looked like they'd been making out before a gallon of ketchup had hit them.
There was so much blood they didn't want to touch anything, and it was so unsettling they just remained silent and walked to the curtains. Eddy was about to part them when light flashed on the other side. It meant someone was opening the exit door. He tapped Steve on the shoulder then parted them a sliver and peeked through. Mary was standing in the doorway, alive, and she didn't appear to be a zombie. Silky blond hair, blue eyes sparkling and that old cynical look of hers, like she'd suspected everyone might be zombies all along.
She stepped back and the wind suddenly blew the door shut. Eddy came unglued, burst through the curtains and hit the bar handle . . . but it wouldn't open, the door had locked. He pounded it with his fists then Steve pulled him away.
"You losing your mind! There are only zombies out there."
"No, it's Mary! Mary's out there!"
Steve's eyes softened. "You know Mary's dead. It's just the stress, causing you to see what you want to see."
"What I saw was too good to be a hallucination."
"Okay, but let's not rush out there. Remember your own advice."
Eddy tried the handle again. It squeaked but didn't catch so he began to pump it up and down and managed to open it. The wind was forcing it shut so he put his shoulder to it and it flew open and banged against the side wall. Smoke rushed in with the wind so they stepped out and covered their eyes as they jogged to the park.
Black smoke was billowing from the roof of the old post office and the wind was whipping tentacles of the smoke down into the trees. The roar of the gusts and fire was frightening, but they were safe in the park where things weren't dry enough to burn. The people had cleared out of the park and were in the square staring stupidly at the conflagration. Eddy scanned the trees and flowerbeds trying to catch sight of Mary, but saw no one at all. He did notice something large at the center of the park that hadn't been there before so they headed in for a closer look.
Eddy felt lightheaded, slightly ill. Sweat and soot clung to him and his empty stomach churned. He thought of how nice it would be to go skinny-dipping with Mary down at the canal, and the memory hit him with so much power he saw it like a mirage. He shook his head. "Maybe I am seeing things," he said.
"I must be seeing them too, because those stones weren't there before," Steve said.
They stopped and stared. The trees at the center of the park were gone and a huge pile of boulders stood there. Standing stones were at the perimeter of it, like the townspeople had been in the process of building a version of Stonehenge out of shopping-mall marble.
Moving out of the trees they circled the heap of the stones and came to a cavelike entrance. At first they saw nothing then a patch of color flashed in the darkness.
"Somebody's in there," Steve said.
"That was part of a woman's dress I saw. Mary must be inside."
"No. Don't go in. It's some kind of trick of this Dweller. Once you're in there he'll have your hide."
"It doesn't matter. We're going to die anyway. I want to see Mary before it's too late."
Stinging tears came to Eddy's smoke-red eyes. He wiped them away and ran to the entrance. Glancing back, he saw that Steve wasn't following, then he plunged into darkness and tripped. A rock banged his knee and he stopped, gasping. Moving slowly he headed down on a slope toward a very faint light. The tunnel took a sudden turn then the light brightened. The walls ahead glowed red and the floor changed to blue, almost like carpeting. Phosphor light cast the colors, and patterned illusions on the stone.
A low whistle of wind in the cave caused him to shiver, then he rounded a bend and came to a door. It was silver and in place of a handle it had a heavy plate with the image of a human hand stamped on it. He put his palm on the plate, heard something click, then saw it open.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the blue lights. A cavernous room loomed beyond the door, circular with flashing instrument panels, like it was the master control room of a nuclear power plant or a space ship. Awed by the discovery, Eddy stepped inside. Before he could look around, he heard the door shut behind him.
Spinning back, he shoved the door, but it wouldn't budge. Pacing the room he looked for another exit. A narrow hall showed at the side of a tall instrument panel and it led to another area. Eddy headed down it and entered a huge room. Glittering cylindrical cocoons lined the walls and an embossed control panel was at the center. As he walked up to a cocoon he heard a door open behind him. Turning he saw a stocky figure walking out of a haze of blue light. The being was humanoid but not human, its body and features were lumpy and blue, its lips black and twisted. Oval eyes brimmed with alien intelligence and strange understanding, like it was a creature that felt your pain, even if it did plan to eat you.
Eddy knew this thick-skinned creature was the Dweller, but now that he'd found him he didn't quite know what to ask. He felt only fear and mild loathing. He watched with a quivering lower lip as the Dweller grinned. Pointed teeth and a melting green mucous membrane showed. Eddy trembled as the Dweller raised a powerful arm, then when he saw that the open blue hand was lined with filaments and electrodes he raised his shotgun.
Paying no attention to the threat, the Dweller stepped forward, reaching for the weapon.
Shaking, biting his lip, Eddy pulled the trigger.
Fire licked from the barrel, then time slowed. He saw the Dweller's hand detach itself at the wrist and float to him. A powerful grip, cold electrodes and a paralyzing charge took him. Blinding light hit his eyes, then the flash faded and he saw the shotgun blast connect. The Dweller's head and shoulders vanished in a nova of blue-black blood. Deadly force threw the headless body against the door and the recoil knocked Eddy back into one of the cocoons.
Blue light shone through, cold pain making him numb, then his view was from above like in a dream. He saw the shotgun going to the floor and his body banging into a cylinder. Across the room the Dweller's headless body was fizzing up yellow blood and mist as it melted to lumpy clay. The detached hand floated away from his head and touched the cocoon above his body. It was feebly trying to hold it shut, but it failed and the front swung open. Mary was inside, a metal helmet fastened to her head.
Sunlight flooded in; Eddy found himself in Hepburn Park. The day was a scorcher, people were strolling by and he saw a kite soaring above the willows. Turning, he saw Mary and looked her up and down, at the nice curve of her thighs, her red shorts and tank top. She smiled and they embraced, kissed. He held her and she whispered in his ear. "I saw people in the future," she said. "People who wanted to see the past. Do you know how they did it?"
"No," he said, caressing her shoulder, letting her voice touch him more than her words.
"They found that they couldn't physically enter the past. But they could enter by dreams. It's the mind that is constant. Think of it - if you could enter someone's dreams, say Plato's dreams, you could learn a lot about history just from that."
"Whose dreams did they enter?" Eddy said.
"Your dreams," she said.
"What?" he said, pulling back. His vision blurred and he no longer saw Mary. He saw the twisted lips of the Dweller and began to struggle, but he couldn't break free. A sharp pain told him the powerful hand again had hold of his temples.
"They entered your dreams," the Dweller said, his voice deep and distorted. "Your dreams and the dreams of some others. And they made a mistake. The theory didn't work as expected. They altered history, creating several holes that must be patched."
Eddy stared into the Dweller's wide blue eyes. "My dreams. Why me?"
"Not because of who you are now, but who you will be when you're older. History is merciless, if I do not correct it, it will self-correct in ways that are too horrible and cruel for the human race to imagine. I exist because people in the future are too kind, they can't kill even one man - they are truly emotional beings - creatures of love. Yet there was one man who created me and I am the Dweller who is not even a dream and does not exist. Brightsville is a town that I am patching. Most of the people here should not have been born, so I am destroying them. The bodies in the cocoons are a few people who died when they should have lived. Some of the survivors will remember me, that is why I look like a monster. When the authorities investigate the calamity here they will not believe stories of monsters and zombies because you will tell them you believe a poison of some kind got in the town's water supply. You will remember everything because we cannot risk touching your mind at all."
"Why should I help you?"
"Because there is no other way, because I am returning Mary to you, and because a being who destroys himself as part of his work does not lie."
"Okay, I'll do it, but I find it hard to believe there couldn't have been a cleaner way. Couldn't you have teleported the people away or used some other method?"
"No. It is taking incredible amounts of energy just to return a few people. I had to weed out the mistakes, so I entered their dreams and changed their reality. What you must do is close the cylinder you knocked open and then run out. I wasn't allowed to read your mind, so I made a mistake. I didn't think you would shoot me. To help me finish my work you must see that all the town's records are destroyed. Burn any remaining churches and government buildings and destroy any identification found on the corpses. Do what you can."
Eddy had one more question, but it never got out. Abruptly, the scene changed and he was on his knees beside the open cocoon. The Dweller's hand slipped from his temple and fell to the floor in front of him. As it vanished in mist, he stood up and closed the cylinder door. He took a quick look around, then he ran to the hall and found an open passage leading up into the park.
The light blinded him, he emerged staggering, fireworks exploding in his eyes. Even the trees looked to be on fire, then his vision began to settle. Smoke rolled over the town. The sun was out and Mary stood under a maple tree. She was weeping, so he ran to her and embraced her.
"It's so terrible," she said. "Nearly everyone is dead."
He held her tighter, caressing her. Glancing up he saw Steve coming through the trees. "It is terrible," he said, and she couldn't see that he was smiling.
Other full length fiction by Gary L Morton, available via web lookup in print and eBook