Welcome to the Resistance.

 

"ALLIES"

By Ernie Whiting

Copyright (C) Ernie Whiting, 1993

bloodyvisigoths@charter.net

Chapter One

"Suspects who are innocent should (be protected by the Miranda ruling). But the thing is, you don’t have many suspects who are innocent of a crime. That’s contradictory. If a person is innocent of a crime, then he is not a suspect."

U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, III
(Quoted in a Los Angeles Times Editorial, October 9, 1985)

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Exodus 22:18

 

She suddenly lurched upright with a scream caught in the back of her throat. The covers fell away from her breasts as her heart pounded furiously within her chest, almost as though someone was banging with the bottom of their fist against one end of an empty fifty-gallon drum, and her pale, clear amber eyes were wide as she sat frozen in terror. Her head snapped left and right in panic as she quickly assessed her surroundings--and then comprehension suddenly washed over her like a tidal wave. Realizing she was holding her breath, she let it slowly escape in a long, soft sigh as she slowly ran her fingers through her long, rich, midnight hair. Nightmare, she thought with a slight groan as she slowly massaged her temples. That damned nightmare again...

Sitting naked in bed, and suddenly realizing there wasn’t much more to protect her than the darkness and the silence, she felt exposed and vulnerable. Defensively, and in need of warmth and comfort, she pulled the covers back up to cover herself.

"Valerie?" asked a sleepy male voice. "You okay?"

She gasped softly, and her horror-filled eyes bored into his; and almost as quickly, they relaxed as recognition dawned on her. "Yeah," she whispered in reply with another soft sigh. One hand brushed her dark bangs up and away from her forehead, where they flopped back into place. "Yeah, I’m okay…"

Tony Nichols raised himself on his elbows and watched her for a moment with bleary eyes. "What’s the matter?" he asked, his voice soft and dry and sleepy.

"Dream..." Why she was whispering, she didn’t know; there was no one else in the small, one-bedroom house, so it wasn’t as though she would disturb anybody. "I was just having a bad dream."

"You want me to get you something?"

Valerie St. James cast him a quick, sideways glance. Pills, she thought, always with the damn pills. If the Foundation suspected drugs in their place, they could seize all of their property and toss the two of them into jail, where they could wait for as long as a year for their arraignment. With the Foundation for Law and Morality now securely in power, and thanks to this hysterical and on-going "war on drugs," the government’s eagerness to use the federal asset forfeiture laws had intensified to a level that was beyond deplorable. Suspect had at last become synonymous with convict, and all it took these days to ruin someone’s life and to have the authorities seize and sell all of their property was nothing more than an unsubstantiated accusation, made by an anonymous source.

Not that she was prudish about drugs. She enjoyed a good marijuana buzz on those increasingly rare occasions when she could get one; but she didn’t like pills. To her, pills and coke and all of its derivatives, and injectable drugs were definitely bad news. She believed that if junkies really wanted to kill themselves, they ought to hang themselves with their tourniquets rather than raise a vein with them; it would be a quicker death, and no one would have to clean up the acrid puddle of vomit that they left behind.

"Let me go get you something," he said with a sigh of his own. Hell, he was already awake; he figured he might as well get her a little helper. He climbed from the gently sloshing waterbed and put on a brown robe to ward off the bedroom’s chill, then went into the living room. He removed a false light switch in the near wall and set it aside; inside the small niche, where a functioning switch had once been housed, there was now a small plastic sandwich bag that contained half a dozen bright red capsules. He removed the thin brown rubber band and shook one out, thought for a moment, and then shook out one more for himself. He closed the bag, replaced it and the phony switch, and then went into the kitchen for a glass of water.

When he returned to the bedroom, he found Valerie sitting up and hugging her knees to her chest, her forehead resting in the crevice between them as her naturally feathered and layered dark hair, parted slightly off-center, swept across her brow and cascaded about her shoulders like a rich, dark waterfall. Her head snapped up when he entered the room, and for a moment her amber eyes were once again filled with fear. The first thing he thought was that she looked like some kind of a pagan goddess, what with that midnight hair and those almost hypnotic amber eyes that seemed to shine in the moonlight, and her fit and sculpted figure. Sometimes she reminded him of something that would be more at home in a forest; there seemed to be a certain wildness about her at times, with toned muscles that rippled barely hidden beneath soft skin.

But now she was afraid. She was terrified by something, and he felt an instinctive urge to protect her--but he didn’t know how he could protect her from her own subconscious.

As he sat on the edge of the bed, Valerie quickly snatched at the two capsules and downed them in a single gulp, then went for the water. Tony watched her for a moment, and then sighed in mild exasperation. Oh well, he thought, maybe two reds could protect her from the terrors of her own subconscious.

"You want to talk about it?" he asked at last. He took the empty glass from her slender, trembling hand and put it on the table on his side of the bed, next to the small, FM radio. He turned it on, dialed in on an officially approved mellow rock station, and set the volume on low.

"I...I was being dragged through a street somewhere," she said as she leaned back. Hugging the covers around her once more, she grimaced slightly at the taste of the chlorine and God knew what other chemicals that allegedly purified the water. "People were stoning me and calling me a witch, and there was someone...a priest…who was dragging me to a stake to be burned. He kept waving a Bible and yelling ‘Repent!’ and shit like that."

"Oh, yeah?" he asked. "Maybe it was something you ate. Pepperoni pizza does that to me sometimes."

She cast him a cold and furtive look, and fought down the urge to call him a lout; the last thing she needed from him was another argument. "I’ve had this dream before, lots of times," she said at last. "I just thought it had finally gone away." The more she thought about it, the more the memory made her want to run on; maybe by talking about it she could purge the fear from her soul for a while. At least for the rest of the night, she hoped. "It started when I was about seven or eight, and I was about fifteen the last time I had it. It used to really scare the hell out of my folks when I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and screaming bloody murder. They took me to a friend who used to be a psychologist…" She thought for a moment. "…yeah, I was about eight at the time, and he told my folks that I just had an overactive imagination. He said that the best thing I could do would be to quit reading about witch trials." As she remembered, she could see the dubious look on her mother’s face when the psychologist had spoken with her. There was something in her eyes that said she knew what the real cause was, but she had never come right out and said so.

"Strange thing for a kid to want to read about," Tony said.

"That’s what the shrink thought, too. He thought it even weirder when I told him that I’d never even heard of witch trials, let alone read about them." She sighed softly. "It’s strange, though..."

"What is?"

"The first time I had that dream was the day I..." She sighed heavily. "This’ll sound nuts, but…it was the same day I got thrown by a horse, and I conked my head on the ground. Ever since then, I’ve been having this damned nightmare...and at the same time, I’ve..." She was a little reluctant to go on. "...I’ve had this way of knowing about things before they happened."

Tony regarded her with an eyebrow that was raised in doubt, but she didn’t notice.

"It still happens, sometimes. Like, I’ll be doing something and I’ll suddenly get a flash of a friend or someone that I haven’t seen in a long time. Every time something like that happened, the person I was thinking about would either call me up on the phone, or just happen to be in the neighborhood and would drop in."

"Sounds more like a coincidence to me," Tony said with smiling skepticism.

"I used to think that, too, at first. But it happened a lot, and with different people. And as a kid I used to know what my folks got me for my birthdays just by touching the packages."

For a long moment she thought about her parents. It had been so long ago when her father had been killed and her mother had taken her to her uncle Vincent’s ranch. FLM storm troopers had killed him, along with her mother, during the battle less than a week later.

"When I was about eleven or twelve, I once went with Uncle Vince to an antique shop and almost got us busted. I saw this really old roll-top desk, and I went over to it for a closer look. I touched it and I felt a...a combination of such violence and dread and malice...and sadness. It was so strong that I thought it’d spark my hand; I had to bite my lip to keep from screaming. Later I asked the owner of the shop where it had come from, and he told me that he’d heard it used to belong to a man who had murdered his wife and her lover. The poor guy had sat at that desk and wrote a suicide note, and then blew his brains out."

Tony had been quietly listening to her, looking into her eyes. "You’re psychic?"

She shrugged slightly. "I guess. Flashes seem to come to me when they want to. When I try for them, most of the time nothing happens." She smiled weakly. "I guess I’m just not very good at it."

"Jesus, I hope the Foundation doesn’t find out about you. They’d probably offer a reward for your head on a pole or something. Or have you burned at the stake again."

She looked at him with a raised eyebrow, and then a skeptical smile. "Again?"

He smiled a tiny, mildly self-conscious smile at what he silently admitted was a rather silly comment. "I’m just saying the authorities consider psychic phenomena and other related matters to be the same thing as black magic. Ever since the Plagues, the FLM has been running this country like it was fucking medieval Europe. If I were you, I wouldn’t talk too loudly about being psychic."

Valerie snuggled a little farther back into the soft, warm comfort of one pillow with a deep sigh as dozens of thoughts swirled through her mind. The Plagues, she thought. The Foundation for Law and Morality referred to the worldwide biological war as "the Plagues" because of its biblical connotation. As a child, she had heard family discussions about how the government had devised programs for the development of various strains of diseases; in particular were diseases similar to AIDS, which specifically attacked and destroyed the immune system in order to leave the victim defenseless against the most harmless of diseases, and thereby insuring mass death. Only instead of through the exchange of body fluids, these diseases could be passed along as easily as the common cold.

More thoughts about the Foundation, out there protecting people’s morals, swirled through her mind. Protecting, hell, she thought. What they really do is thump their Bibles and legislate their own brand of morality, and anyone who disagrees with them is just plain out of luck. The anti-abortion laws, and prayer in the public schools, and creationism replacing evolution in their science classes...not to mention that fanatical "war on drugs," she thought again in disgust, which had finally resulted in an Executive Order combining law enforcement with the military. The FLM had taken this idea--originally conceived during the Nixon administration and seriously considered by the Reagan administration--and had employed it to its fullest extent. Nowadays, in the Foundation’s perpetual state of national emergency, the military was used not only for a literal war on drugs but also in the much more encompassing and bona fide war on crime.

Members of her family had seen it coming for a long time. Valerie had grown up in an open-minded and politically-oriented family, and she could remember listening in on all the dinner-table discussions when she was a small child; and as children are frequently inclined to do, she had begun to adopt her parents’ politics and attitudes. On that single occasion when she had cautiously broached the subject with her young friends, most of them had scoffed at her with a vicious cruelty that was either inborn in some children or learned from their parents--she wasn’t sure of which. It had been one of her first lessons in politics, and as the years passed by Valerie had still kept a wary eye on political activities--but in recent years she had decided to keep her opinions to herself and not get involved. It was safer that way.

"Listen, why don’t you try thinking of something other than your nightmare?" Tony suggested. "Try counting sheep or something."

Yeah, maybe so, she thought. She rolled onto her side with a grunt and a sigh, and tried to distract herself from thoughts of the FLM by concentrating on the good memories of her family. Unfortunately, even here her thoughts took another wrong direction, and instead of remembering sunlit days and laughter she found herself remembering their deaths at the hands of FLM soldiers.

Holy Guardians, as the law enforcement troops were frequently called, had shot her father and brother in the back during a massive demonstration at a nuclear power plant. Michael St. James and five hundred other people--including his son Timothy, who was among the women and children--had tried to shut down the newly-constructed Betatron Nuclear Power Station by sitting in front of the main entrance gates and blocking the vehicles full of men and equipment that had attempted to enter it. It had been an entirely non-violent demonstration, and they thought they would be successful; but most of the people there hadn’t studied their history too well, and weren’t really prepared for the Government’s habitual reaction to non-violent protest.

First had come the tear gas, after only one order to disperse. Men, women and children ran in panic, blinded by tears in their burning eyes and choking with constricted throats. A few people had tried to pick up the canisters and had attempted to throw them back at the soldiers. The State press, which had been called out with the FLM troops, took pictures of "terrorists throwing projectiles at the authorities," and in what was eventually ruled to be self-defense the State mercenaries had responded by firing into the crowd. Michael and Timothy St. James had been two of the sixty fatalities. Valerie’s mother, Alexandra Ryan St. James, had taken her and fled to the northern end of Mendocino County, to the ranch of her brother Vincent. It was a perfect place in which to hide; lush greenery spread out in all directions, and the mountains and hills had made it nearly impossible to move the large mechanized transports of the Foundation authorities in their search for escaping seditionists.

The Foundation troops had not expected much resistance, and the battle had been bloody. Valerie had been not quite thirteen at the time, and she had wanted to stay and fight alongside her family and friends. Her mother and uncle, of course, wouldn’t allow it. Alexandra and Vincent had put her on a horse out in the barn; while Ryan kept his rifle trained on the door Alexandra had told her, "Go to Oscar Corey’s house, you’ll be safe there. He knows how to get in touch with other resistance members."

"I can’t leave you here!" Valerie had cried, not wanting to let go of her. "I can’t!"

"Shh, honey...don’t cry. You have to be brave. And I want you to remember this." She gazed steadily into her daughter’s amber eyes with her own. "If you ever need our help--I mean really need us--you call, and we’ll come. That’s a promise." She kissed her quickly and said, "Blessed be. Now go!" She swatted the horse hard on the rump, and the horse took off down the dirt path with Valerie hanging on as tightly as she could, blinded by tears. Alexandra St. James knew that her daughter had inherited her psychic abilities, and she didn’t want that legacy to be ended here.

Valerie remembered that piercing, searing pain that lanced through her chest at the moment her mother was shot. She remembered the blows she felt as her uncle fell under the rifle butts of four FLM soldiers whose ammunition had run out. The pain had been so intense that it had nearly caused her to fall from the horse. But she held on more tightly and rode on, with tears streaming down her face. From that moment on, Valerie St. James hated the Foundation for Law and Morality, and everything it stood for. She hated it for killing her family and she hated it for destroying her life, and as a twelve-year-old girl she thought only of revenge. Not mere justice; she wanted cold, soul-gratifying vengeance. Oscar Corey had managed to smuggle her to Denver, to soothe her rage and anguish, and had left her with friends to keep her out of danger. Oscar had brought her out here so she could regain her perspective and to keep her out of danger, and to help make the pain go away...but the problem was, the pain never really went away. Now, some ten years later and living with Tony in this small suburb outside of Denver, Valerie still wanted to kill the people who had shattered her life and destroyed her family; the question was, could she?

She yawned again.

"How’re you doing?" Tony asked.

"I’m fine..." she replied with a deep sigh. "I just hope I don’t dream again. I thought I was finally over it..." Her voice trailed off.

"It’s okay," Tony said as he curled up behind her. "You just relax and get some sleep."

"Mhmmm..." As she began to drift off, she could still see and hear the sounds of the battle at Ryan’s ranch; she could hear the sounds of horses’ hooves in her ears as she raced down the path, leaping over a startled soldier. There was something familiar about his face, but that was probably just her imagination. In those black fatigues and helmets, they all looked pretty much alike.

Then she saw the attic--the one room in the entire house that she had never been allowed to enter. "In time," Alex St. James had told her. "There are things in there that’ll be yours someday, but you’ll have to be patient." She could see the inside of the room now, filled with books, shelves, boxes, crates...and a large wooden trunk with a shiny lock which held it shut. Got to get into that attic, she thought drowsily. Got to find out what’s in that trunk. Something for me, but...

Sleep finally overtook her, and as she drifted off she was dimly aware of the dull pain in the back of one thigh. The bruise that appeared there, when she had been struck in her dream by a flying stone, would be gone by morning.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

It was cold and gray in the late afternoon, and ready to rain. But neither that nor the public burning of rock and roll albums, tapes and compact discs could stop Valerie from getting her shopping done. The owner of the record store was outside, swearing and screaming at the FLM troops in protest as two of them--dressed in Kevlar vests, black fatigues and wearing German-made Heckler & Koch MP5 machine guns slung across their backs--restrained her while the other two splashed gasoline all over most of her inventory and set it alight with a wooden match. The Beatles were not alone this time, as they had been once, due to a misunderstood comment from one of the members about their group being more popular than Jesus; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Doors, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, copies of "Woodstock," Cheech and Chong comedy albums, and scores of others--all declared by the Foundation to be seditious and drug-inspired--went up in noxious black clouds of smoke. Distorted by the rippling waves of heat, some of the onlookers shouted angrily in protest while others--the vast majority, who were also waving placards that were covered in Bible passages--cheered and chanted in an almost sexual frenzy, "Burn the filth! Burn the filth! Burn the filth! BUUURRRN!!" Hoping that no one would pay any attention to her (she didn’t want to get roped into a discussion of what was taking place, because one never really knew where someone else stood on such issues anymore), Valerie had to edge her way carefully around the noisy crowd of spectators to make her way into the market. German-made machine guns and German-styled helmets, she thought, glancing once more over her shoulder at the Foundation soldiers as she passed through the automatic doors; looks like they won World War Two after all.

She and Tony usually couldn’t afford to spend too much money on food, since gasoline was over five dollars a gallon and their energy bills were rising constantly--as was their rent, only in smaller leaps--but Tony had been unusually lucky at the weekly poker game the night before. Valerie usually disapproved strongly of his weekly gambling because of their increasing bills, but this time she had encouraged him to go, saying she had a strong feeling that it was going to be his night for cards. He had come away from the game almost four hundred dollars richer, so they had decided that this time they could splurge. After setting aside most of the winnings for rent and utility bills, Valerie had actually gone so far as to buy some cake mix--with icing!--an extravagance they usually could not afford.

Exiting the store, loaded down with two heavy bags of groceries and noting that the crowd had finally dispersed, she slowed her pace for a moment as she cast a quick glance at the molten remains of the records. With a very slight movement of her head, she shook it sadly--and then hoped that no one had noticed her. She glanced around quickly, saw that no one was observing her, and then she walked briskly to the small, battered, piss-yellow Ford station wagon, figuring that the record store owner was going to have to put in a lot of extra hours to pay off her fine for carrying that kind of music. She rested one foot on the sagging bumper to support one of the bags on her knee, leaning it against the other, and dug into a pocket of her heavy, over-sized Army surplus jacket for the keys so she could unlock the hatch. As she did, she happened to look up again and spotted the "Whitman’s Used Books" sign across the street. "25% Off On All Used Books," the sign continued to proclaim, in smaller black letters beneath the name of the store. She stood frozen, staring at the sign. A gentle breeze teased at her hair, and a large raindrop went splat! against one of the bags, staining it an even darker brown. Another hit the bridge of her nose, but she didn’t notice. There was something about the store that she found compelling, almost forcibly drawing her to it. Without taking her eyes from it, she opened the hatch and deposited the groceries, then slammed it shut and headed across the street. Maybe I can find an interesting book or two before that place gets its inventory reduced, she thought. But on another, almost subconscious level, she knew it wasn’t books that had suddenly captured her interest.

The small bell tinkled over the doorway as the door swung open on slightly rusty hinges, and Valerie stepped into the dim warmth of the bookstore. She looked around for a moment, and wondered where they might be.

Near the door was an old wooden desk, behind which a small, middle-aged man with oily dark hair and a heavy paunch was sitting. Too many bread-and-mayonnaise sandwiches, she thought. The damn stuff looked like it was coming out through his hair.

He was in the midst of examining a strip of paper that fed into an old mechanical adding machine when he thought he felt someone watching him. As he glanced up his glasses slipped part way down his nose. He pushed them back up with one finger, said "Afternoon," and returned to his adding machine.

"Hi," Valerie said pleasantly. "How’re you...today…" Her voice trailed off as the man’s action of returning to his bookkeeping seemed to say, "Go look around--I’m busy."

Above the desk was a directory that listed book and magazine subjects on one side and corresponding aisle numbers on the other. Having to start somewhere, Valerie went to the science fiction section first. She tried to walk quietly across the wooden floor, but the heels of her boots still made hollow, resounding sounds. She examined the shelves and found this section to be nearly empty. They certainly weren’t here, she figured. She didn’t exactly know what she was looking for, but she knew they were around here somewhere...

She wandered slowly through the other aisles, looking through history books, travel magazines and drug abuse material--mostly Foundation publications on marijuana, "The Devil’s Weed"--and noticed that nearly all of the latter category had been written in the early 1930s, when Harry Anslinger had been head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. Jesus, she thought, talk about ancient ideas! She wandered on around to the other side where the religion section was and found that the shelves here were sagging from the weight of so many books. They sure wouldn’t be here, she told herself as she began counting titles. Looks like whoever owned these books before really followed in the footsteps of so many electronic evangelists, she thought. Selling religion for money. She thumbed through one of the books, and her hand suddenly flew to her mouth to stifle an outburst of laughter. The previous owner of this volume had taken a black pen and blocked out several letters on each page; those that remained spelled out a number of original and highly amusing obscenities. She put the book back with a grin, then stuffed her hands into the deep pockets of her jacket and continued to wander around some more.

At the far end of the aisle she saw a narrow, winding staircase. That’s where they are! She figured the place was probably off limits, but...

"Sir?"

Down at the other end of the aisle, the man behind the desk looked up, pushing his glasses up the oily bridge of his nose again. "Eh?"

"Is it okay to go upstairs?"

"What?"

Louder: "Is it okay to go upstairs, or is that off-limits?"

"Just a lot of stuff to be burned. Go on up if you really want to. Mind the spiders and mice."

Spiders and mice? Changing her mind was out of the question. Oh, what the hell, she thought, I’m bigger than they are anyway. She started slowly for the wooden stairs. They creaked noisily under her weight, and a couple of them sagged in warning of possible collapse, but she was determined to go on. She didn’t really have any choice; she had to go on, because they were up there, waiting for her. Slowly and carefully, she went on up.

The narrow corridor was flanked on both sides by more shelves, with peeling old paint and laden with dust. Thick cobwebs decorated some of the shelves, while others fell silently apart in dust-laden corners. This is where they are, she thought as she sniffed at the musty smells of dry rot and mold. A single, dim, twenty-watt bulb lit the hall, casting more shadows than it was supposed to disperse. It felt much warmer up here, too, and as she took off her jacket and slung it over her shoulder, Valerie thought that this place was an excellent firetrap.

The books up here were of a completely different nature. "Parapsychology Today," was the title of one book; she examined them as they sat on the shelves, straining her eyes slightly in the weak light to make out the titles. "‘Man And His Symbols,’ by Carl G. Jung," she read softly to herself. "‘Your Erroneous Zones,’ by Dr. Wayne D. Dyer... ‘Introduction To Yoga,’ by Richard Hittleman... Hmmmm, sugar-free and non-fat yoga, I hope... God, girl, you’re such a wit..." More titles... "‘Born Again,’ by Hans Holzer..." She slipped the jacket from her shoulder and draped it over one arm, then took the book from the shelf and leafed through its yellow, brittle pages. She found that it was a book dealing not with the radical Christian movement and it’s Foundation, but rather with reincarnation. All of these books, and so many more like it, were going to be burned, she thought sadly. The book and the knowledge of its fate brought back vivid memories of last night’s dream, but this wasn’t what she had come looking for. Maybe she could save it by slipping it into a pocket of her jacket... Naw, I’d probably get caught and wind up in jail, she thought. What’s the penalty for stealing a book like this? She started to put it back when something caught her eye. In the space where the book had been she saw a part of something yellow resting behind the rest of the books, and she thought, Here they are! She pulled a few more books out to make room for her hand, reached in, and immediately yanked her hand back with a suppressed "Oh! Shit!" as she felt something--either a spider or a cockroach--skitter across it. With a shudder of revulsion, she hurriedly rubbed the back of her hand against her jeans (God, she could still feel those creepy little legs crawling across her skin!), then looked in more carefully. She reached in again, hoping she wasn’t disturbing an entire nest of the damn things.

It was a deck of Tarot cards. The seal of the box had never been broken. She opened the box and took out the cellophane-wrapped cards. "I’ve seen these before," she said to herself, and tried to remember where and when. But all she could see in her mind’s eye were the cards and a dim room with a fire in the small fireplace. And another person...a blonde woman sitting across from her and smiling. The face seemed familiar, yet it was no one she knew. She couldn’t remember ever having seen these before, but they looked so familiar...

She slid the cards back into their box and replaced the books, then went down the stairs. As she approached the desk, she held up the deck and asked, "How much do you want for these?"

The man looked up once again. "What?"

This guy must be deaf or something, she thought. She spoke a little louder. "I said, how much do you want for these?"

"You want to buy those?" the man asked, somewhat nervously, as he eyed the Tarot cards.

Kinda slow, too. "Yes. How much?"

He thought for a long moment, watching her...studying her...wondering what kind of a woman would want to buy occult objects, and suspecting he already knew the answer. Slowly, unnoticed by Valerie, his hand slid under his desk and pressed a button. From a nearby corner above her, a concealed security camera began videotaping her.

"Uh, fifteen dollars."

"Fifteen bucks!? You were gonna burn ‘em, fer chrissakes! How the hell can you charge fifteen dollars!?"

Startled, the man flinched backward. How dare she act like this! Proper women were supposed to be polite and lady-like and cooperative, and not at all like this...this troublemaker. He hated women like this. He had never been good at confrontations like this, and he had to force himself to be more assertive. "Fifteen dollars," he said as his heart raced wildly. "Take it or leave it." There! That ought to show her!

Valerie glared at him in menacing outrage. Yet she also managed to control her anger. She had to control it, because she had to have these cards. She could have simply stolen them... No, she couldn’t. She couldn’t, because she honestly believed that stealing was wrong. Besides, she reminded herself, she figured she’d probably get caught somehow anyway. She’d probably look like she was trying to skulk out of the store with a huge, dark cloud of guilt hanging oppressively over her head, pointing a cumulus black finger of accusation at her. Otherwise, she would have snatched the book, too. No, it really was best to be honest.

Grumbling imprecations under her breath, she reached for her wallet and opened it, and inside she found a worn twenty-dollar bill that had somehow escaped her notice earlier. She handed it over to him, and he returned five dollars. She put the bill in her pocket along with the cards, and turned to leave.

"Wait a second, I have to give you a receipt."

"I don’t want it," she snapped as she headed for the door. Y’goddamn little crook, she added silently as she shrugged into her jacket.

"Business law says I have to give one with each purchase."

"I don’t care; I don’t want it."

"Well, what am I going to do with it?"

She placed her hand on the doorknob, then turned to face him with a cold smile. "Use your imagination," she told him, and slammed the door behind her.

He sat there for a moment, staring at the closed door, and another moment later he realized he had just been insulted. How dare she! he thought. He quickly got to his feet and looked out the large front window to watch Valerie make her way across the street, moving slowly between the cars that crept by. He saw her get into a small yellow station wagon, and then he went back to his desk. I’ll show her!

That was just one of the nice things about so many security cameras being everywhere; not only were they good for security, he told himself, but they also came in handy for when people--like this woman, for example--came in to buy any questionable books or other materials. He knew that the Foundation frowned on people keeping these kinds of things around, but keeping an eye on people like her always helped to supplement his income. He liked to think he was on good terms with a colonel at the Guardian Building; in truth, he had once almost been arrested for possession of subversive literature. But not only had he managed to talk his way out of jail, he had even convinced the colonel that this was a perfect way of "stinging" heretics and possible radicals who were looking for contraband material. And after a moment’s thought, the colonel finally agreed with him, and had decided to let him keep his subversive books.

I’ll show her! he thought again as he reached across his desk for the telephone.

***

When the Foundation for Law and Morality had first seized power, their main concern had been maintaining law and order. The best way to do this, they had decided, had been to take over the US Departments of Justice and the Treasury, and then every agency under their jurisdiction, so the logical choice was to first take possession of the main offices, all of the equipment, and the complete files of the FBI and the IRS. From there all of the major branch offices of these two organizations had also been taken over and converted into regional Guardian headquarters, thereby insuring their hold on as much information on the American public as possible. After that, it had been a simple matter for the authorities to convert local law enforcement offices into FLM offices. The end result had been the complete takeover and militarization of all investigative agencies at every level.

There was one such small local office outside of Denver that was staffed with about seventy people. Inside, there were dozens of black-clad troops wearing side arms who walked up and down the short corridors on their various missions. Most of them were taking reports to and from other offices in the building--reports on burglaries, automobile accidents and thefts, protesters, suspected heretics and subversives, and dozens more. A couple were taking reports to the "morgue"--a term which had been borrowed from the press, and which originally had been used to name the storeroom where newspaper and magazine publishers had kept old copies of their publications. The Guardian Building’s morgue was used exclusively for filing and storing highly sensitive and top-secret execution reports. Other soldiers were standing about and socializing, and trading stories about their own personal experiences and satisfactions with their line of work.

At the front desk, one of the phones rang. The desk soldier lifted the receiver, punched the flashing line three button, and said, "Guardian Building one-one-five. Corporal Ross speaking."

"Yes, hello. I’d like to speak with Colonel Warren, please," said the faintly distorted voice on the other end of the line.

"State your name and the nature of your call."

"I’ve been promised anonymity," the voice said. "Just tell the colonel this is George from the bookstore. He knows who I am. I have information regarding a possible witch."

The corporal checked the readout on the caller I.D. One could never be certain whether or not somebody was making a prank call. It happened often. Usually it was kids, having some fun at the expense of the authorities; there were always people out there who had no respect for The Law and those who enforced it. But information on a witch was something that was very rarely called in, the corporal thought as he entered the number in his computer. If it wasn’t a crank call and he didn’t report it, he could wind up in some considerable trouble. "One moment, please." He put the man on hold and checked the results of his computer search. Sure enough, there was the verified number. He pressed a button on his intercom.

"Yes?"

"Colonel Warren, there’s a George from Whitman’s Used Books on line three to speak with you in regards to a possible witch. He says you know him."

"Thank you." He punched his own flashing line three button and lifted the receiver. "Yes, George, what is it?"

"Colonel? There was a woman in my shop just a few minutes ago who I think might be a witch."

Warren sighed with slightly strained patience. A witch, he thought. Not too many people believed in or reported witches these days, but this suspect might be investigated and perhaps even charged with some other crime. Anyone who could lead somebody into believing they were a witch must certainly be into something illegal, and it could be worth an investigation. But, he thought with another sigh, it was probably just some punk rocker; there were still a lot of them around, sad to say. Young and dirty punks who insisted on "doing their own thing," as they liked to call it, rather than conforming to the boundaries of a normal and decent society. It was probably just some kid dressed in black with a weird hairstyle. "A witch," he said. "What makes you think she’s a witch?"

"She bought a deck of Tarot cards," George replied.

Warren sat up a little straighter. It still irritated him to know that someone was in possession of such things, since they had been outlawed by the Foundation under the new anti-witchcraft laws. But Warren reminded himself of his deal with George, and he forced himself to be calm. Besides, any and all arrests with his name on the booking sheets as commander of the local office always made his record look good. Maybe someday he could finally get out of this piss ant little office and get into a Regional headquarters, where his full talents could be put to good use.

"I didn’t have them on display or anything, sir," George went on. "Honestly. They were upstairs and out of sight, and I was going to burn them. She must have known they were there. She demanded that I sell them to her."

If she’s really a witch, why didn’t she just steal them? Warren wondered. "Can you describe her?"

"Better than that," George replied. "I have her on video. I also saw the car she was driving."

"You’ve done very well, George," the Colonel said, using much the same relaxed tone he used when rewarding his dog. "Stay where you are; I’ll be there shortly."

"Yes sir. I’ll be right here."

Warren hung up his phone and pressed his intercom button. "Paul, have someone get my car ready. I’m going out for a drive."

"Yes sir."

Warren looked down at the book he had been reading, and closed it with a soft thud. The title, in Old English script, was stamped in silver on the black leather cover. It was an old copy of Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of Witches.

No, there weren’t very many people nowadays who really, truly believed in witches. But Colonel Warren was one who did.

***

The rain came with a vengeance. The heavy downpour fell in a mad rush, threatening to flood the streets and making driving almost impossible. The windshield wipers on Colonel Warren’s police cruiser clicked back and forth in a vain effort to keep his visibility clear while Warren himself sat behind the wheel with the heater on full, watching George through the large shop window. Such a repulsive little man, he thought. He really enjoys informing on his fellow citizens. George was a frequent caller on the anonymous tip phone lines. Anonymous, hell; not so anonymous with caller I.D. A witch, indeed, Warren thought skeptically. Some girl comes in and buys a deck of Tarot cards, that doesn’t make her a witch. Although the charge could stick, if properly handled. Most likely she was just some teenager looking for cheap thrills, that’s all.

He hated the idea of stepping out of his nice warm car to walk through the bitterly cold rain, avoiding the many puddles, to go into the Whitman’s Used Book store. Informants are low people, but they’re useful, he thought. Without people like George, our job would be a lot tougher.

Reluctantly, he opened the door and stepped out into the rain.

***

George had been sitting behind his desk, nervously wringing his hands as he waited for the Colonel’s arrival. George had always been a nervous man, and dealing with soldiers of the Holy Guard made him even more nervous. But at least he was a good American doing his patriotic Christian duty, he told himself, and he knew that he would receive his well-deserved reward in Heaven, and probably even a little something extra in his mailbox. Sometimes it was fifty dollars, and sometimes it was a hundred. Every little bit helped.

He looked out through the window and saw Colonel Warren, dressed in a black, visored cap, uniform and raincoat. The only color on him was the white of his collar, the silver eagles on his cap and epaulets, and an American flag patch on each shoulder. On each patch were the familiar stars and stripes, but superimposed on them in the center was a large black crucifix.

Looks like a tall, thin rat, George thought as the Colonel approached the door, with those beady eyes. He never would have said so to the Colonel’s face, of course; he didn’t want any trouble with him. No one did. George may have been a fink, but he wasn’t stupid.

"Good evening, Colonel Warren. How are you, sir?"

"Fine, George. Just fine," Warren replied as he closed the door against a gust of wind. "You mentioned something about a possible witch earlier."

"Yes sir," George said. He reached under his desk and withdrew a videotape cassette. "I have her picture right here." He plugged it into a VCR, which was hooked into a small television under his desk.

With a polite yet bored expression, Warren stepped around behind the desk and looked at the small color screen as George pressed the "play" button. The picture rolled for a moment with a little bit of visual static, and when it cleared Warren’s eyes widened as his stomach suddenly dropped. The room seemed to reel around him, as though he was riding on an unbalanced merry-go-round, and he clutched at George’s desk for support.

George looked at him nervously. "Is there something wrong, sir?"

Warren took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trembling nervously and trying to steady himself. He reached forward and pressed the "pause" button, freezing the picture that clearly showed a close-up of the woman’s face. "Do you know who this woman is?" his voice rasped.

"No sir."

"She didn’t happen to mention a name or anything?"

"No sir, she didn’t. Do you know her?"

Warren’s mind went back to the night before, to the recurring dream he had, and that unrelenting, echoing voice from...

No. Not a dream, he told himself. The idea of a mere habitual dream was a thought and a lie planted in his mind by Satan trying to trick him. Oh, Satan was clever, so very, very clever, and there were so many ways in which he could disrupt the Lord’s work. But he couldn’t fool Elias Warren. No, it hadn’t been mere dreams that had been plaguing him for so many years; and it certainly had not been any echoing memories from a previous life in the distant past. They had been visions, he told himself. Visions from God, in which he had been presiding over the trial and execution of a witch. He’d had these visions before, many times, but they had occurred a long time ago and when he had been spiritually weak, and subject to Satan’s trickery. And at the time, he had believed that, indeed, they had been nothing more than mere dreams. Frightening dreams, to be sure, but still just dreams. But in later years, he had come to convince himself that these visions had been messages from God, and warnings of the existence of witches--and these visions had become his driving force to uncover and prosecute as many of those witches as the Lord would allow.

But now, standing in George’s bookstore and with this woman’s face before him, he discovered with a sudden and terrifying realization that there was something dreadfully different about this one.

"A curse on you, priest!" said that haunting voice from his past, just before the woman had been consumed by the flames. "We will meet again, you and I. In another life and time, we will meet again...only next time it will not be me who burns!"

It was her! Dressed differently, yes, but the face and the hair and the eyes--those demonic amber eyes, like those of a wild animal--were the same!

Was it possible that she had come back?

He looked at George. "You say you saw her car?"

"Yes sir. A small yellow station wagon."

"What kind?"

"Oh, gee, what was it?" he muttered to himself as he rubbed his chin.

"Hurry it up, man!" he snapped, startling him. He wanted to grab him by his jacket and shake him. "I haven’t got all night!"

"Umm...uhh...a Ford, I think. Yes, it was a Ford!"

"Say nothing of this to anyone," Warren told him, forcing himself to be calm. "For your own safety. You’ve been a great help."

"Is she a witch?"

Warren nodded slowly. "Yes," he said as his voice dropped to a foreboding whisper. "Yes, I believe she is."

George gasped. Oh, my God! he thought. A real live witch had been in his store! He remembered the way she had spoken to him earlier; she had muttered something under her breath when he charged her for the cards. Had she put a curse on him?

"Do you think she put a curse on me?" he asked, his own frightened voice a near whisper. She might have left some demon here to spy on him.

Warren studied this insignificant little man for a moment, then said, "I doubt it. But then, it wouldn’t hurt you to spend a little extra time in church." He looked him in the eyes. "I would say you’ve had a close call." It was always a good idea to throw a little scare into people like this, just to keep them in line.

He looked at the screen again, then popped the tape out and slipped it into his pocket. "Yes, you’ve been very helpful tonight. And you’ll be finding something extra in your mailbox tomorrow."

"Yes sir! Thank you, sir! God bless you, sir!"

Warren turned away from him, went to the door, and stepped once more into the cold night rain. It was still falling hard as he turned up his collar; and as he looked into the black night sky with fear in his eyes, he silently said to himself, God help me.

 

 

Chapter Three

The small living room was lit by two oil lamps, which rested on the low coffee table in front of the sofa, and by two more oil lamps that rested on end tables that stood at each end of the sofa. The television was on, set inside of a false fireplace and facing the sofa, and on top of the wide mantle there rested a stereo receiver with a compact disc player; the two speakers rested on small high shelves in opposing corners. Near the front door was a recliner chair, covered in worn and slightly cracked brown vinyl, and opposite this was a swivel-rocker covered in blue-gray material of an indeterminate nature. Next to the doorway that led to the short hall, on the other side from the wall switch where the reds were stashed, stood an old-styled, gas wall furnace. There was also a slight, lingering smell of marijuana in the air.

Valerie and Tony had just finished an after dinner joint, and were relaxing, talking and listening to the news. The newscasters--one male, one female, both dressed in gray, both blond, both grinning empty-headed grins--had covered topics from the Plagues and the apparent recovery and slowly growing population ("Praise the Lord," the woman had said, softly yet conspicuously) to the arrest of two environmental terrorists, who had been caught pulling up survey stakes in the middle of Yellowstone National Park, where a lumber company was building yet another logging road so they could clear-cut another section of forest; and from the celebrations of the fifth anniversary of Congress overturning Roe v Wade to the increasing numbers of starving, new-born children being found abandoned in trash dumpsters ("Where the hell are the ‘right-to-lifers’ when that happens?" Valerie had once asked scornfully); and from the continuing war on drugs to the continuing war in the jungles of Central America, where "Communist forces are still executing our Christian brethren in an effort to spread Satanic atheism throughout the world," as the male reporter had read. According to an article Valerie had once read in an underground newspaper, it was right-wing government troops--sponsored and supplied by the Foundation--who were shooting dissidents and the indigenous, whose only crime was in trying to resist further subjugation.

Valerie gazed at the screen with a dark expression. God, this is such shit, she thought. News, my ass; it’s just more of the same old Foundation propaganda. These reporters sound no different from televangelists.

She suddenly shivered as an icy hand squeezed her heart.

"What’s the matter?" Tony asked.

"I don’t know." She looked nervously around the room and slowly rubbed her arms through her gray wool sweater. For a moment, she felt as though the priest had stepped from her dream and was coming toward her, with a Bible in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. "Must’ve been a draft or something."

"I didn’t feel anything."

"Must be nerves, then," she said, and then wondered what she might have to feel nervous about.

"Oh, hey. I just remembered: Jeff Hastings and a friend of his are going to be here in a little while. I asked Jeff if he could maybe put you under and get to the bottom of this nightmare of yours."

Anger began to well within her once again as she thought, Nice of you to consult with me first, and then began to do a slow burn. What right does he have to go calling people over to mess with my mind? And to not even ask me about it first? And with some stranger hanging around? Typical macho male horse shit, she thought. What am I, some piece of property or something? It seemed to her that he was always doing something like this, and she was getting tired of the arguments. Christ, if it isn’t his damned gambling, then it’s bringing people over when all she wanted was a nice quiet evening at home... Man--even sex with him was getting to be more and more one-sided; she was tired of being harpooned almost every night, and the last good orgasm she’d experienced had been self-induced. He was always... Aw, shit. Well, he’s concerned, she silently admitted with a sigh, but damn it, she wished to hell that he would just once check with her first before doing something like this... She had thought seriously about leaving him on several occasions, but where could she go?

Tony glanced at his watch. "As a matter of fact, they ought to be here any minute. I hope you don’t mind... Val?"

"Hm? No, it’s okay," she lied. "What does Jeff know about hypnosis? And who’s this friend of his?"

"I don’t know."

Terrific.

"But if Jeff knows him, then he must be okay. And as for his knowing how to hypnotize people, I heard he learned it from his dad, who used to be a shrink."

Well, that certainly qualifies him, she thought. "How well does he know this other guy?"

"I don’t know."

This just keeps getting better and better, she thought with a sigh. "Great," she said softly.

"Hm?"

"Nothing."

The scent of patchouli incense soon replaced that of the grass, and shortly after that there was a knock at the door. Tony answered it and found two men standing on the porch. Jeff Hastings was a little under six feet tall, and was thin and had sandy blond hair that was tied back with a rubber band. He was dressed in faded jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a blue work shirt covered by an old Army jacket to keep the rain off, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses to which some small drops of rain clung. The other man was slightly over six feet tall and wore black Western-styled boots, dark blue jeans and a black leather blazer. He had hair as dark as Valerie’s own and a little on the long side, and a moustache that curled slightly downward at the coroners of his mouth. He had an unnerving, piercing look that seemed to see through people, and very few had the nerve to steadily return his gaze. Except for the expression in his eyes, Valerie thought he looked a little like a young, dark-haired Robert Redford.

"Hi guys, come on in."

"Hi ya Tony, Valerie... I want you to meet a friend of mine. Keller, this is Tony, and that’s Valerie."

"Hi," Keller said, ignoring Tony for a moment to focus his attention on Valerie, and his warm smile softened his features.

Not bad, she thought off-handedly as she returned his smile. I’ll bet he doesn’t treat women like chattel.

Jackets were shed and hung near the wall furnace to dry. "Keller’s an ex-business partner of mine. We used to work together until I decided there were safer lines of work to get into."

"Oh, yeah? I thought you said he could be trusted." She and Jeff grinned at each other. She had liked Jeff immediately since the first time they met, and the two would frequently kid each other. She turned to Keller and asked, "So what kinds of work are you into these days?"

"All kinds." He spoke with a low, relaxed voice that had a very slight southern accent.

Tommy Lee Jones soundtrack, Valerie thought with an inward smile. Louisiana, I’ll bet.

"Yeah?" Tony asked, trying to divert Keller’s attention away from his woman. "A sort of, what? Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none?"

Keller shrugged. "Pretty much."

"You been at it long?" Valerie asked.

He shrugged again. "A good while, I guess."

And you’ve never been caught? she was about to ask, then thought better of it. For a few moments the room was uncomfortably quiet. Getting this guy to talk is like prying open an oyster with your fingernails, she thought. What’s he got to hide?

"Valerie, ol’ buddy, did Tony tell you why we were coming over?"

She turned to look at him. "Yeah; I didn’t know you could hypnotize people."

"Sure--it’s part of my hypnotic personality."

"You mean, when you walk into a room you put people to sleep?"

In the background, Keller grinned.

"Keep it up, girl, and when I have you under I’ll make you dance like a chicken."

Valerie laughed. "Okay, truce."

"I still say this hypnosis stuff is a lot of bullshit," Keller said as he settled into the recliner chair with a creaking of vinyl.

Jeff grinned. "My dear friend, the uncompromising skeptic."

"No, I used to be a skeptic," Keller said with a slight smile. "Nowadays I’m a cynic; I’ve graduated."

"Right," he said with a soft chuckle. "Valerie, come on over here and have a hit off this, and lie back." He produced a small hash pipe from his shirt pocket. "It’ll help you to relax." He lit it for her, and she hit long and deep on it. Exhaling, she lay back on the sofa. Jeff turned down three of the oil lamps to small blue dots and held the fourth, turned down not quite as low as he sat on the edge of the sofa. He held it before Valerie’s gaze. "Okay, all you have to do is just relax," he said as he began passing it slowly back and forth before her. "Relax completely, let all of those tensions flow out through your feet and your fingertips, and just watch the flame. Look at the colors, and how they blend together... Concentrate...watch the blue arc turn to yellow...watch the blue arc..." His voice was getting softer and softer, and Valerie’s eyes followed the lamp. The hashish did make it easier for her to relax; there was that, and the fact that she trusted Jeff. She had known him for a little over a year, and he was about the only one of Tony’s friends that she really liked.

She watched the flame as it moved slowly from side to side, and soon all she could see was the blue arc of the flame as the rest of the darkened room faded from view in a field of tiny, vibrating red spots that shimmered in the dark.

"You hear only my voice," Jeff said softly. "You see only the blue flame. But your eyes are getting tired, so tired. You want to keep them open but you can’t. Let them close. You are so, so tired..."

Watching the scene before him, and because of the grass he had smoked earlier, even Tony felt a little like going under. He leaned back in the rocker and snapped his eyes wide open, and shook his head to clear it. Keller was watching with keen interest from across the room, shifting slightly in the worn brown vinyl recliner, and showed no signs of wanting to go under. As he watched, absent-mindedly stroking his moustache, he suddenly saw her for a brief moment dressed in black velvet and white lace. Have I maybe met this lady somewhere before? he wondered. He didn’t think so...

Valerie’s eyes slowly closed.

"When I count to three you will be in a deep, comforting sleep. One...two...three." She sighed deeply and was completely relaxed.

"Raise your right hand if you hear me."

Her right hand slowly came up.

"Good. You can put it down."

It went down.

"You are going into a very deep, relaxing sleep. You can feel yourself sinking into the sofa, sinking deeper and deeper, and you feel warm and safe. Nothing can harm you. Sink deeper and deeper..." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He watched Valerie for a moment, then very carefully took her wrist and checked her pulse. It was slow and regular, as was her breathing. "Now, Valerie? We’re going on a voyage through time. You are perfectly safe; nothing can harm you. It’s all in the past, and the past cannot come back to harm you. We’re going back ten years. Think back, now. Ten years. Where are you?"

Valerie was quiet for nearly half a minute. Then, in a faint voice she said, "I...I’m at my Uncle Vince’s ranch."

"What are you doing there? Do you live there?"

"Yes... We’re harvesting crops..."

"What kinds of crops?"

"Corn...tomatoes...beans, string beans...pot..."

Keller smiled to himself as he was suddenly reminded of the time he had tried going into his own private marijuana business. It was in an effort to become self-employed, as it were, by getting out of the smuggling-for-hire biz; but there seemed to be someone out there who didn’t want him to retire just yet. Keller’s entire crop had gotten wiped out. He had borrowed a lot of money to get his own business going, a lot of money from some people for whom he had done some highly illegal jobs. People who could be very dangerous if they thought they were being ripped off. So in order to pay that money back, he had to spend the next six months of his life working for those people for free--which meant he had to go back into smuggling. Evidently, that was the price for being too good at what he did.

"Your Uncle Vince," Jeff said, disrupting Keller’s thoughts. "Is he your father’s brother or your mother’s?"

"My mother’s."

"Tell me about him. What’s the last thing you remember about him?"

"He...he’s fighting with soldiers...oh God, Uncle Vince! They’re beating him! They’re killing him! God, Uncle Vincent!" She began to rise from the sofa, and her voice was rising to near hysteria. "Uncle Vince!"

Jeff held her down. "It’s okay!" he said, calmly but forcefully, and gently yet firmly pushing her back. "It’s all right, we’re not there anymore... We’re not there anymore. We’re going back further, much further back..."

Valerie slowly relaxed and lay back.

"We’re now going back to a time before you were born into this life; we are now back in a time before you were known as Valerie St. James. Tell me what you see."

Valerie lapsed into silence again, this time for over a full minute. The muscles of her face seemed to shift and change as she took on another personality. At last she whispered, "Wasichun."

Jeff and Tony stared at her, and then at each other. Even Keller sat up a little straighter, and puzzlement was plain on their faces. Jeff asked, "What do you mean?"

"Soldiers," she whispered. "Many soldiers..."

"Where are you?"

There was another short moment of silence before she finally replied. "Outside my tipi," she said in the same soft whisper. "There are soldiers everywhere...horses are running...there are gunshots..." Tears formed in her eyes and began to trail from their corners, and her voice tightened. "Women and children are screaming and crying," she sobbed. "The soldiers are killing us..."

"Why?"

"I don’t know." She sniffled once and regained her composure. "Yesterday one of the soldier chiefs told us our warriors could go hunting for buffalo, so most of them are gone. We are friendly Cheyenne; we want to be friends with the white people! We were told that as long as we fly the flag of the Great Father in Washington soldiers would never attack us. We are gathering under the flag, and still they kill us! Why do they do this to us?"

Something tugged uncomfortably at Keller’s memory. There was something he had read once... To Jeff he said, "Ask her what’s the name of their chief."

"Can you tell me your chief’s name?"

"His name is Motavato," she said in a choked voice as she wiped the tears from her eyes with both palms. "The whites call him Black Kettle."

Keller sighed deeply, his suspicions confirmed.

"Ask her what the date is," Tony suggested.

"November twenty-eighth, eighteen sixty-four," Keller told him. "It’s the massacre at Sand Creek, Colorado. One of the blacker chapters of American history that never seems to get mentioned in the public schools." Pre-Foundation history books could still be found out there, if one looked for them hard enough...she must have read about it somewhere else before... He sure as hell didn’t believe it had anything to do with reincarnation. These memories were just fantasies. They had to be.

"Listen to me closely," Jeff told her. "We’re going further back in time. We are no longer in the Indian village, we are going much further back. Can you tell me who you are now?"

Her face seemed to change again as yet another personality manifested itself in her body. Her hand raised to brush a strand of hair from her forehead and her face wore an expression of bewilderment. "Que quiere usted?"

Jeff leaned back, and with a surprised look he asked Tony, "She doesn’t speak Spanish, does she?"

"Not that I know of. I’ve never heard her speak it."

I don’t think so, Keller thought skeptically. There could be a dozen logical and rational explanations for this. He...just couldn’t think of any.

Jeff looked back at the sleeping figure on the sofa. "Speak English, please. I don’t understand Spanish."

"What do you want?" the girl asked. It was not a demand; it was merely a polite and curious question.

"Please tell me your name."

"I am Elena Carrera."

"Where are you from, Elena?"

"Viella."

"Where is that?"

"The north of Spain, of course," she said with a curious smile. "Do you not know where you are?"

Jeff smiled. "I’m a stranger here. Can you tell me what year it is?"

Her smile widened even more. Not only did he not know where he was, he didn’t even know what year it was. Out of politeness, she replied, "It is the year...of our Lord..." she sounded a little disdainful of that phrase "...fourteen-hundred and ninety."

"Elena, I want to assure you that you are perfectly safe; you are among friends here, and there is nothing that can harm you. What’s done is done. Can you tell me, please, how you died?"

The woman’s smile slipped away as she remembered. "I was burned at the stake."

***

"Dear God!" the young woman screamed as raw terror twisted her face. "I was helping the child, not harming her!"

"Be silent, lying witch!" the priest shot back. "You were condemning her immortal soul to Hell!"

The thick, bristly hemp rope bit into the flesh of her wrists as she was led staggering in exhaustion along the muddy road that wound its way through the small Spanish village. The other end of the rope was tied to the saddle of the priest’s horse, which nearly dragged the dark-haired woman along the road. She screamed and cried, and fought desperately to free herself from her captors as the mob of surrounding villagers threw mud and stones at her while shouting curses and demanding that she redeem her soul.

"Why are you doing this?" she cried as the icy night air burned in her raw throat. "The child was ill! I was only trying to help her!"

The priest quickly turned in his saddle and lashed at her face with his riding crop. A streak of bright, glistening red appeared across her cheek. "I said be silent!" he roared. "We will not be tricked by your lies! You were seen in the forest with her; it was you who made her ill with your curse! And you were going to damn her as one of the Devil’s own!" He gave the horse a sharp jab in the ribs with the heels of his boots, and the animal lurched forward to pull the woman into the mud once more, where she was dragged writhing and screaming in the filth and slime. Mud and manure plastered her dark brown hair to her face; her white dress, now stained with wet brown, stuck to her like a second skin. She tried in vain to get to her feet so that she could use her arms to try to wipe the filth from her eyes and mouth while the mob continued to curse and assault her; when she finally managed to struggle to her feet, a large stone flew from the crowd and struck her in the back of one thigh, causing her to stumble and fall into the mud once again.

Burning torches illuminated the icy night. They waved near the woman’s face, singeing her hair and blistering her skin, while the children waved crosses and brooms and spat on her. They, like their parents, wanted to see the evil destroyed; they knew she was evil because their parents had told them so.

The priest’s horse broke through the mob of angry men and women and children. They parted slowly before it like a sea of hate to reveal what the woman previously could not see. There was a large pile of straw, branches, firewood and broken furniture; she recognized the furniture and clothing as her own. Sprouting from the center of this mound was a square platform, and standing erect through a hole in this was a tall, thick stake.

"Dear God, no!" she screamed, her shrill voice nearly piercing the eardrums of the closer bystanders, almost like an ice pick. She tried to dig her heels into the slick mud, as though this small amount of extra leverage might help her hold the horse back, but it was all in vain. She screamed again, fighting hysterically and trying to release herself from the rope that bit into her wrists. There were no words left in her now; there were just the pure animal screams of a woman who was about to be burned alive.

The priest--who was also the local magistrate--climbed from his horse and was quickly joined by three other men. Together they dragged the woman, who was now reduced to biting at her executioners, and tied her wrists to the stake with her arms bound high above her head. In an extra effort to degrade her, the priest tore the wet and stained dress from her to leave her standing naked at the stake, bound with thick ropes and spattered with mud. She fought and thrashed at her bonds, but eventually she slumped against them as the fight finally drained out of her. She was exhausted and aching from the bruises that had been inflicted on her from being dragged and pelted with stones, and her wrists were raw and bleeding. Rivulets of red, looking more black against her pale skin in the firelight, ran the length of her arms. "Listen to me, please..." she sobbed.

"All we want to hear from you is your confession!" shouted the priest, his face a mask of self-righteous wrath. The torch he held threw flickering orange light on his face to reveal his sharp features, and some detached part of the woman’s mind told her he resembled a smug-looking rodent with a piece of discarded bread crust. "Confess to the crimes of witchcraft and heresy, and beg the Almighty Lord to forgive you! The noose will be quicker than the flames! Confess that you are a Devil worshiper, and save your soul!"

Certain that the woman could not escape from her bonds, the other men backed away and held their torches high to illuminate the grisly scene. "Any last words, witch?" the priest asked. "This is your last chance to save your immortal soul, if not your earthly life."

She would have collapsed from terror and exhaustion had the ropes not been holding her to the stake. She sagged against the restraints, all of the fight now drained out of her. She wearily raised her head, with her wild, dark hair partially concealing her face and with trails of tears shining on her face. She gazed in defeat at the crowd, which had fallen silent and was waiting for her to speak. Her eyes--a bright, clear shade of pale amber, like those of a forest animal--roamed over the hateful faces of children and adults that were so eager to see her die. "What have I to say?" she asked, her voice raw and hoarse. "Is this how you repay someone for helping one of your children?"

"You were condemning her immortal soul to Hell!" the priest shouted, cutting her off. "You were—"

"Shut up, Priest!"

The crowd was shocked into silence.

Something had come over her...or perhaps had taken possession of her. She was no longer afraid; instead, she was suddenly enraged. She stared hard at him for a long moment, and suddenly she seemed to know him. "No escape next time, witch!" his voice echoed from the depths of her memory as she... She could not remember where or when, but somehow she knew him.

"You are about to kill me in the name of your Savior, and you ask me if I have any last words! Why won’t you let me finish? Are you afraid of me? Even now, as I am tied here?" She regarded him with a cold and contemptuous smile. "Don’t worry, you will be rid of me soon enough."

The crowd was aghast. No one had ever dared to speak to a priest, a man of God, in such a manner! The mob was convinced that this was a further sign that she was in league with the Devil.

"All you people call yourselves good Christians," she said with a derisive sneer. "You read your Bibles and pray in your churches...but how many of you came to me when your children were ill?" She paused for a long moment, watching them as many shifted uncomfortably. "You asked for my help and I gave it...and I never passed a collection plate before you! Many of you came to me for advice when your crops failed, and you came to me to have your fortunes read..."

The priest looked sharply over his flock as the woman spoke these words, and few dared to return his gaze.

"But your priest tells you that it is wrong for you to come to me for help," she continued. "That it is evil that I try to help you because I am an outsider, and because I do not share in the beliefs of your Church. He calls me a Devil worshiper and a witch. How many of you have I harmed? I can tell you know the answer to that as well as I do. But because I cannot be controlled by your Church I have been condemned to die in the name of your Savior. You have all been taught to believe the lies that your Church tells you, and it used your fear to--"

"Enough blasphemy!" the priest shouted. "She tries to trick you with the Devil’s words! Do not listen to her!"

"I’ll be back!" she shouted to the crowd. "When you are all dead and gone to dust and bone, I will come back!" She looked directly into the priest’s hate-filled eyes. "A curse on you, Priest! We will meet again, you and I. In another life and another time, we will meet again...only next time it will not be me who burns!"

Some of the crowd appeared to have lost its lust for bloodshed, and those people merely stood silently as the woman’s words sank in. They remembered how she had helped them, and they supposed that perhaps they should do something to stop this. But what could they do? If they took any action to stop this madness, they too would stand accused.

But the vast majority paid no attention to her, and again they began shouting for her death. Even the children joined in the shouting as her words were lost on them. They were not interested in words; they had come to watch the witch burn.

The priest threw in the first torch. The fire caught in the dry straw and spread quickly, its smoke wafting up to ride the night wind. "Confess!" the priest shouted again as more torches flew like fireflies attracted to the flames. The blaze grew larger and stronger, and gray smoke drifted upward from the inferno and was blown into the faces of the onlookers, causing their eyes to burn and water. People coughed and moved from one side to the other so they could watch, but the smoke seemed to follow them as the wind shifted. The priest shouted something about the devil guiding the wind so that the good Christian people would not be able to see the evil witch die. "The Devil wants no witnesses to his failures!" he shouted.

She would not scream. The flames crept closer and closer, and she could feel their heat against her skin, but she would not scream. She could smell her hair as it began to singe, and still she would not scream. She would not give them the satisfaction. Instead, she silently swore once more that she would return from the dead, she would meet the priest again, and--

***

"Why?"

"The Priest. The priest of our village said I was a witch. All I did was help cure a child of a fever that would surely have killer her," she explained. "I mixed an herbal brew and cast a Circle for her in the forest, and by sunrise her fever had broken. For this"--and here her voice suddenly chilled--"and because I was not a member of their Church, I was accused of witchcraft."

"That’s it," Tony said. "This is the nightmare she told me about."

"Holy shit," Jeff said softly. "Then it wasn’t just a dream; it was a real past-life experience!"

Keller shook his head. How easily they can be fooled, he thought. "It’s just a dream, man," he said. "This is no proof."

Sweat had broken out on his brow. He was scared and excited at the same time, knowing that he had just seen and heard the most incredible things that he had ever experienced. He was afraid to take Valerie back any further, but the possibility of finding out how many times she had lived was too tempting for him. "Let’s go further back, okay? We’re going back--"

"Hey, don’t you think this is enough?" Tony asked, concerned.

"We’re going back further," Jeff said, ignoring him. "Back to a time before you were known as Elena Carrera. Please tell me who you are."

Once more, Valerie’s face changed in character as yet another personality came through her. "Ich heisse Gretchen," she replied. "Und wie heissen Sie, bitte?"

There was a stunned silence in the room. And now the question on everyone’s mind was...

"I know she doesn’t speak German," Tony said in awe.

But Jeff did. "Ich heisse Jeff. Where are you from, Gretchen?"

"München, in Bavaria."

"Can you tell me what year it is?"

"Dreizehnhundert und sechsundvierzig."

"What the hell was all that?" Keller asked.

"The year she lives in--lived in--is thirteen forty-six," Jeff told him.

Naw, Keller thought with growing uncertainty. No way.

"Gretchen," Jeff said, "mein freunden sprechen nur Englisch. Wollen Sie, bitte, auf Englisch sprechen?"

"Sehr gut."

"You say the year is thirteen forty-six?"

"That is correct," the woman on the sofa replied, still retaining her German accent.

"Gretchen, how did you die?"

She was quiet for a long moment. At last she said, "I leapt from a cliff to escape being captured by the witch-hunters."

"You took your own life?"

"It was either that or be tortured and beheaded. I was not going to let myself be captured."

"Then you were accused of witchcraft. Why?"

"A group of us was arrested in the woods while we were celebrating Hallows."

"Hallows? What’s that?"

"It’s the Harvest Festival. In our Circle, it is the coming of Winter, when the Mother Goddess rests and the Father God comes to provide us with game when the weather is too cold for growing crops."

"You were not worshiping the Devil?"

She looked puzzled. "Devil?" she asked. "Was ist ein...oh, you mean the Church’s Devil? Certainly not! We do not believe in such a horrible and preposterous thing! Except," she added a moment later, "perhaps, for the Devil that tells the Christians to hunt us down and kill us."

"What do you believe in?"

"Nature," Valerie/Gretchen replied. "The duality of Nature, and that all acts of love gain favor with the Goddess. We believe in kindness and compassion, and in the practice of magic to help our loved ones and the needy."

"And for this you were arrested?"

"I was the coven’s priestess. We all tried to explain, but the Christian priest would not listen to us."

"Sounds like religion hasn’t changed much in nearly seven hundred years," Tony remarked softly.

"You said you escaped from your captors," Jeff said to her. "How?"

"We broke and ran in all different directions before they had a chance to bind us. I have no idea of how many--if any--escaped. I had run off alone, with three men chasing me. I fell and twisted my ankle, and I knew then that I was about to be caught. I managed to get to my feet again and I hobbled my way to the edge of a cliff...and I had to make a decision. I had heard stories about what had happened to people who were accused of witchcraft, and I decided I was not going to be taken. Then I turned again and...consigned my soul to the Goddess." As the image of the three men hung in her mind she scrutinized the face in the middle; it was the same face that appeared over a hundred years later in Spain. "Next time!" he had shouted, pointing at her and placing his curse upon her as she fell toward the massive boulders and sharp-edged rocks below. "No escape next time, witch!" Why? she wondered. She didn’t know him, nor had she ever seen him or any of the hunting party before... Why had he cursed her?

"You don’t think she’s just imagining all this?" Keller asked, not quite sure of what to believe. Not only had he never believed in reincarnation, he also didn’t believe in God, Heaven, Hell, Santa Claus, the bogeyman, the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin. All that religion stuff was just a crock of shit, and so were ESP and Ouija boards and reincarnation. There just wasn’t anything to it.

But on the other hand...

What about that time when...jeez, when was it? Five or six years ago, at least. Michael and Jesse had been on their way to see the Baron about a job, and they had wanted Keller in on it. The Baron had half a ton of goods that needed to be moved from Chicago to Philadelphia, and he would have paid each man $25,000. It was a simple job, really, just a simple night flight to the outskirts of the city with the chopper’s running lights off. Keller had done dozens of jobs like this one. But for some reason, he hadn’t wanted to go this time; something hadn’t smelled right, but he wasn’t sure of what. He had worked for the Baron before, and the Baron had always paid him off quite handsomely; the Baron could be trusted. But there was still something that was nagging at him, telling Keller to stay the hell away from this run. He had tried to warn Jesse and Michael, but they laughed at him and told him he must be getting old or something. Maybe so, Keller had replied, but something is all wrong here, guys, don’t do it. They went anyway, and wound up landing in the middle of an ambush. The Baron had been caught and bought, and for a reduced sentence he was to hand over three professional smugglers. The soldiers had killed only two, and since the original deal had been for three the Baron himself had been used to make up the difference. He was shot on the spot.

Smuggler’s instinct, that’s all, he told himself.

But what about that other time, when--

"I don’t think so," Jeff replied, breaking into Keller’s train of thought. He turned to Valerie and said, "Listen to me very carefully now. It is time for you to come back up through the years. I want you to return to the year twenty-oh-nine. You can feel yourself floating upward in the darkness...you are now Elena Carrera and you are floating further upward, gently upward...you are coming toward the light; the darkness is slowly giving way to the light. Do you see it?"

"Yes." A soft whisper.

"Come further up now. From Spain to Sand Creek, and from Sand Creek to the present. You are still rising, and the light is much closer. You are now know as Valerie St. James, and you can feel the sofa under you now, can’t you?"

"Yes," Valerie replied, and her voice was stronger.

"When I count to three you will awaken. You will feel refreshed and mellow. One...two...three."

Her clear amber eyes fluttered open as she took a deep breath, and then let it out in a long sigh. She recognized Jeff immediately. "My God," she said. She had heard stories about people supposedly having lived once before, but three times? And meeting the same people in two of those lives? It was just too hard to believe.

She could still see the face of the priest before her. "What did I ever do to him?" she asked.

"To who?"

"That bastard who called himself a priest." The first time they met, he had placed a curse on her, vowing that they would meet again. The second time, she had cursed him. Would they meet again? Or was it all simply a series of dreams, as Keller’s skepticism suggested? The latter sounded more logical and acceptable to her. And more comforting, too.

But what about the foreign languages she spoke? She couldn’t speak Spanish or German, and she sure as hell couldn’t speak Cheyenne...

And then she felt that cold hand of terror clutching slowly around her heart again.

"I wish I knew what to tell you, kid," Jeff said.

"Well, look at it this way," Tony offered. "It’s all in the past, right? And the past can’t come back to hurt you."

"Yeah," she said uncertainly. She sighed deeply, and then forced a smile. "Yeah, I guess you’re right."

***

Shortly after Warren’s visit to the bookstore, rapidly printed posters began to appear all around town. They were nailed to telephone poles, stapled to grocery store bulletin boards, and slipped under wiper blades on car windshields with the urgency of a major manhunt. The posters consisted of enlarged photocopies of Valerie’s picture, made from a print taken from the videotape, and the legend below offered a substantial reward for any information that could lead the Foundation to this dangerous and seditious practitioner of the Black Arts. Below the reward offer was the informers’ hotline phone number.

At 12:45 that night, Warren had been in bed for less than half an hour, his mind in turmoil and in terror. His portly wife lay next to him, snoring gently and dead to the world. But the Colonel was unable to sleep; he kept thinking about the witch’s curse, and every few minutes he would cast a quick glance at the telephone that rested next to his side of the bed, expecting it to ring. Every so often he would lift the receiver and listen to the dial tone, just to be certain that the line was working.

He put the receiver down as he had a dozen times this evening, then rolled onto his side. It won’t ring tonight, he told himself. Maybe tomorrow or the next day, but not tonight.

The phone did ring, and he snatched at it. "Yes?"

"Colonel Warren? Private Dirksen here."

"Yes, what is it?"

"We’ve just gotten a possible lead on this witch. A woman just called a few minutes ago, from 12012 Walnut Avenue. She thinks this witch might be her next-door-neighbor."


To Be Continued

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