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"ALLIES"

by Ernie Whiting

Part 9

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

The heavy chain was secured around her waist, and her hands were cuffed to it at her sides. A hard shove in the back with a rifle barrel nearly caused her to stumble down the stairs. "Keep moving, witch," Greene snarled. She was escorted into the living room and shoved into a chair. She glared hatefully at the sergeant, and then her eyes roamed over the destruction in her home. Hurt and rage filled her, fighting each other for dominion.

"Private, go tell the Colonel we’ve got her."

The young private who had found Valerie went outside to carry out his order, and as he did his mind raced. Why hadn’t she killed him? She’d had him dead in her sights, and then he had heard her say she can’t, and then she had put the rifle down and had allowed herself to be taken. It didn’t make any damn sense.

He had to see her again. Even though she had been ready to kill him, he felt that he must see her. For one reason, she was intoxicatingly beautiful. He supposed that all witches were, and that must be why it was so easy for them to snare men’s souls. But his main reason for wanting to see her again was that he wanted to ask the seditious and murderous witch why she had spared his life.

"Colonel? We have the witch in custody."

Warren positively beamed at the news. "Good!" he said, briskly rubbing his hands together. "Excellent work, Private. Where is she?"

"In the living room, sir."

Warren headed for the house in a brisk walk, pausing at the door to allow the private to open it for him. He breezed inside, and his eyes fell immediately on Valerie.

Sergeant Greene shot to his feet. "I caught her, sir!" he announced, almost excitedly. "She was just about to--" and Warren cut him off with a short, abrupt wave of his hand.

The Witch and the Priest studied each other in silence, fear and fascination as each instantly recognized the other. Dear Goddess, it’s him! she thought. By the Gods, it really is him! And at the same time, Warren thought, Dear Jesus, protect me from Satan’s whore!

"Hello, Priest," she said at last. "It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?"

Yes, it has, was his first thought. And then an unexpected and horrifying realization suddenly consumed him. She knows! Dear God, she knows about my Vision! How could she know? Why would the Lord--

Could they have actually lived before? he asked himself as he suddenly remembered that night in George’s bookstore. And almost immediately he answered himself: No! Not in Spain or Germany, or anywhere else, because the idea of reincarnation was absolutely preposterous. It was more than preposterous--under Christian law, the very idea of reincarnation simply was not allowed. And that was why he fought it so hard, and refused to call it a past-life memory; it was because it was not of the Bible, and because it violated the very foundation of Christianity itself. People were not reborn into physical life, he reminded himself; they either went on to eternal Paradise at the foot of the Lord after living a righteous, proper and God-fearing life as mandated in the Bible, or they suffered in Hell for all of eternity for denying the Savior and His laws, and for turning their backs on Him.

She was a far more powerful and dangerous witch than all of the others that he had hunted down and captured, or killed, he told himself; there could be no other explanation of how she knew what was in his mind.

Then he noticed the curious looks from the other men. They were waiting for him to speak. And while he had to say something to counter her charges, he tried to look calm yet puzzled by her remark. "We’ve never met before," he said at last, his voice soft and confident.

"Of course we have," Valerie countered. "In Bavaria, and in Spain--at my execution. Surely you remember that."

His heart froze in terror at this second psychic blow. We can’t have lived and met before! Confronted again with this possibility, the concept struck him with yet another, almost physical, blow. No! He didn’t want to admit it; he was loathe to admit it, he was afraid to, but...but how else could she know of him and his Vision? Certainly the Lord wouldn’t have let her know...

"And I’ll bet you remember what I told you then, don’t you?"

Oh, God! No! She can’t know! She can’t! She can’t! SHE CAN’T!!

Satan had planted her in his brain. That was it! The Devil had planted her in his brain, and…and he had given her the ability to read his thoughts! That’s surely what his idols Cotton Mather and Matthew Hopkins would have said, and if it was good enough for them, then it was certainly good enough for Elias Warren.

The idea of the Devil giving her this kind of power over him absolutely terrified him.

In the momentary silence, the other soldiers cast their eyes from Warren to Valerie and wondered what was going on between them.

"Sergeant Greene," he said at last, "escort the prisoner down to the basement and chain her. Take her clothes--she may have some magical amulet that might help her escape. I’ll be down shortly to begin the interrogation."

***

She hung in chains, naked and shivering from cold and terror. Links of stainless steel had been looped over two steel hooks that had been screwed into one of the ceiling beams that ran the length of the cold, damp cellar, and suspended her with her arms widespread above her, keeping her feet just inches from the ground. Warren had been very specific about this: she was not to touch the Earth. He had read accounts of condemned witches who, back in the old days, had wanted to touch "Mother Earth" (what a silly and stupid term they used!) just one more time before dying, but he knew the truth. He knew! He knew, as had the righteous prosecutors back then, that if they touched the ground they could suddenly change their shape and escape; they could turn into crows and fly away, or...or turn into ghastly, venomous serpents that were as quick as lightning and could slither away to safety through the small holes in the solid brick and stone walls. Or they could call upon Satan himself to destroy the righteous. What other reason could there really be for wanting to touch the Earth?

Her clothes lay in a pile nearby, and on top of them were the headband that Jasmine had given her, her silver-and-obsidian pentacle with its leather lace now torn, and the wolf’s-tooth earring that had been ripped from her right ear. The lobe was caked with flakes of dry blood, and bloody red welts from the lashes of Warren’s riding crop arose on her back, thighs and buttocks. A larger red welt from an open-handed slap rose on her face, and blood trickled from one corner of her mouth.

Warren’s eyes kept wandering down to the tattoo that lay high on the inside of her thigh, and as he surreptitiously squeezed his erection through his pocket once more he told himself this was yet another sign that she was in league with the Devil. It was a Devil’s Mark, the stigmata diaboli--a scar or a birthmark--or a tattoo--placed there by Satan himself. It was even in the shape of a witch’s familiar--a snarling and demonic red dragon, which made it doubly significant. It would have been even more significant to find a Witch’s Mark--a nipple-like protuberance from which familiars could suck and nourish themselves. But since the two terms were frequently used interchangeably, Warren could use either of them in his report, and it would be up to his superiors to interpret it any way they chose. Corporal Anton Willis, under Warren’s orders, had jabbed the tattoo with Warren’s personal steel bodkin, an instrument that had been called a "witch pricker" during the days of the Inquisition. It was a replica of the fifteenth century torture device that resembled a long ice pick, and had been used to test such marks. A true Devil’s Mark was insensitive to pain, and back in the old days a false bodkin--one with a hollow handle and a retractable spike held in place by a weak spring--had been used by self-appointed witch-finders to press harmlessly against a mole or a scar or a birthmark of an accused witch. Since the accused felt no pain, she was judged guilty of having been the voluntary recipient of a Devil’s Mark. After the arrest and execution of every suspect, all of the property of the accused (and of particular interest was the land) was officially seized by the Church, and a moderate reward was paid out to the interrogators who had hired themselves out to the Church.

Warren’s witch pricker was no fake.

A long line of blood ran the length of Valerie’s leg, and her sharp, agonized scream had echoed from the damp, stone walls of her cellar. "Don’t let her false screams fool you, Corporal, this clever witch feels nothing." He relished seeing evil being held so completely helpless. Not for the sexual thrill it gave him--the existence of which he denied, of course, as he continued to squeeze his hard-on through his pocket--but because it was what the Lord wanted.

Warren didn’t actually take part in the interrogation himself. He never did. Interrogation was also known as "The Question," a term that he had discovered during his studies of (or perhaps remembered from the days of) the Spanish Inquisition, and he found that he immensely preferred this term over "interrogation" because the latter carried with it a somewhat negative connotation. Questioning had been an accepted practice of the secular arm of the Church’s Inquisition, and Colonel Warren saw no reason why he couldn’t use the same terms and practices himself. Torture was never used, neither by reference nor by practice; but people could be "questioned" for hours and even days at a time by the use of slow crushing of different extremities, dislocation of major joints, partial drowning, blunt instruments, hot coals, branding irons, sharp blades, partial strangulation, whips, spikes, sodomy, rape, rape with barbed- or razor-tipped objects (both vaginally and anally), or by any other available means for obtaining confessions. But Christians never tortured anyone; not in medieval Europe, not in seventeenth century Massachusetts, and certainly not today in this enlightened early twenty-first century America. They merely "questioned" them.

Corporal Willis--all six-foot-seven and some three hundred and fifty pounds of him, with closely cropped blond hair--wore his sleeves rolled to his massive biceps, and his coat was hanging on the back of a chair. He lashed out again with Warren’s riding crop, and raised another red welt across one breast.

Valerie screamed.

"Confess!"

Outside, Private Logan--the young man who had found her--cringed inwardly when he heard her screams. This isn’t right, he thought. Dear God, put an end to her pain! Let her pass out, or die! Please, Lord, make this madness stop!

Again the crop lashed through the air with a whoosh, and again there was the smack of it connecting with bare skin. The scream came out in words. "God damn you, Priest!" She tried to lurch toward him, and she spat bloody saliva in his face.

Hatred flared in the Colonel’s eyes. He wiped his face with a white handkerchief and nodded to the corporal to continue. Three more rapid blows, and there was one long scream of agony. "I’ll fucking kill you, you bastard!" she roared. "I’ll fucking kill you!"

He stared into her eyes with a cold, thin smile on his lips. "Who will kill whom, you foul-mouthed Devil’s whore?" he asked.

And then the entire house shuddered. It was only for a moment, and Warren stepped back involuntarily. There was fear in his eyes, and his heart suddenly pounded hard in his chest.

Willis felt it, too. "An earthquake," he muttered, trying hard to conceal his own fear. "This area has lots of them."

"Yes, of course," Warren agreed quickly. "Must be."

Willis quickly glanced around the basement for a moment to make certain it was safe for him to continue, and then lashed out again. But this time there was no response from the prisoner.

"She isn’t dead, is she?" Warren didn’t want this to end too soon; she had not yet confessed, and the stake was still waiting for her.

"Unconscious, sir," Willis replied. "Shall I revive her?"

Warren watched her for a moment. "No," he finally sighed, "we’ll continue later. Take a break."

"Yes sir." He went to the table and set the riding crop down, then picked up his jacket by its collar.

Warren approached the unconscious woman and studied her. Such a beauty, he thought, and housing such evil. His eyes roamed over her bruised and bleeding body, taking in every detail. He squeezed his erection again, and fought against the urge to climax in his shorts. He would come later, maybe, when he was alone...and then afterward he could beg the Lord to forgive him.

He turned on his heel and hurried out.

Corporal Willis also watched her. When the door closed, he approached her. No one else was around, except for that stupid little private out in the hall. If the corporal were quiet enough, Logan would never hear a thing out there.

It had been a long time since Willis had a woman. Not since the time he’d had the honor of being in on a major prostitution arrest. Major...hah! That was a laugh. One hooker. But that didn’t matter. He’d managed to get a whore off the streets, and that was the important thing. And she had acted so frightened, as if a whore would ever be afraid of anything. Not as long as she was doing the Devil’s work of corrupting men, she wasn’t afraid! "Please, corporal," she had pleaded, and for a moment she had almost convinced Willis of her sincerity. "Please, don’t arrest me. My children...what will they do? I don’t make enough money from my job to support them...please, don’t jail me."

"Well, I think we can work something out," he had told her, knowing full well from all the Guardian briefings he had attended that prostitutes never had children. If they weren’t corrupting good men, then they were out smoking dope and getting abortions, and committing murder against innocent pre-born babies.

He took her into the back seat of the police cruiser and raped her.

"Can I go now? Please?" she had begged him when he was finished.

"Hell, no. You’re under arrest for prostitution and for attempting to seduce a Holy Guard. Trying to bribe me with sex isn’t going to work."

He smiled fondly at the memory. Yeah, that had been a long time ago. Too long. And now the opportunity was presenting itself again. He had been hoping that the Colonel would leave him alone with the witch.

Willis moved in front of her and slowly opened his trousers, and let them slide to his ankles. He positioned himself between Valerie’s legs as he slid his hands over the smooth, satiny skin of her buttocks, and down the backs of her thighs and between them. He stepped in closer, smiling with anticipation.

"What the hell do you think you’re doing?"

Willis’s head snapped around to find Private Logan staring at him in shock and disbelief, and his face suddenly turned red with both embarrassment and rage. "None of your damned business! Get out of here!"

"No!"

His eyes flared against the defiance of Logan’s reply. "I gave you a direct order, private! Get out of here! Now!"

"No, I will not!" He raised his rifle. "Get away from her."

Willis was shocked. "How dare you--"

Logan pulled back on the charging handle of his M-16 and let it snap back into place, bringing a round into the firing chamber. "Get out! Get out of here or I’ll kill you! I won’t let you do this!"

Willis looked into the eyes of the private and saw that the man was deadly serious. "I’ll get you for this," he said as he pulled up his trousers.

"We’ll see about that."

He fastened his trousers shut, zipped up and buckled his belt, and left with murder in his eyes.

When he was gone, Private Logan stepped forward. He wanted to loosen the chains, but they had been tied securely in place. These things must be strong enough for a gorilla, he thought. What does the Colonel think this woman can do?

Valerie groaned softly.

Logan stepped over to the small table that stood a few feet away. On it were a glass pitcher of water and a drinking glass from which Willis had been drinking. He filled the glass and took it to her, and raised it to her lips. "Here, drink this," he said softly. "Not too much..."

Water trickled down her chin as she took a few small sips. "Thank you, Private...Logan..." she whispered weakly.

"How did you know my name?" he quickly asked with fear in his voice. He suddenly wondered if she might really be in league with Satan, and that maybe she had read his mind. If she could get into his mind, even in this weakened state, then what could she do if...

She heard the tremor in his voice, and she wondered what dreadful and nonsensical stories Warren had been using to fill his head with such fear. She indicated with a slight movement of her head as she replied, "Your name tag."

Logan glanced down at it and saw his name, upside down from his point of view, in black letters against a gray, rectangular patch of cloth on his right breast pocket. He slowly and smiled self-consciously at his own foolishness.

"Why are you helping me?" she asked, weak yet genuinely puzzled. "Don’t you know it could be dangerous for you?"

He relaxed a little, and he began to believe that her concern for him was genuine. He smiled a weak smile and said, "Well, if you promise not to tell anyone, I sure won’t."

She managed a small smile of her own, despite the split in the corner of her lower lip.

"This isn’t right," he went on. "Holy Guards are supposed to help people, not...not do this..." He helped her with another sip of water. "Why didn’t you kill me?" he suddenly asked

"I couldn’t. None of this is your fault, and I can’t kill an innocent person just to save my own life. As soon as I saw you, I felt that you weren’t like the others."

"What about the other soldiers? When you were escaping from Colorado?"

"They gave me no choice; they meant to kill me. But you’re different."

Logan sighed. "You know, you could end all of this if you would just confess."

"There’s nothing to confess to. And even if I did, it wouldn’t change a thing. Warren means to kill me, and he won’t let anything or anyone stop him."

"I don’t understand. Why..?"

"The Colonel and I go back a long way. He’s hounded me for hundreds of years."

She must be delirious from the pain, he thought. Lord, I can’t blame her. "It doesn’t make sense. How can that be?"

"It doesn’t matter," Valerie replied. "Private Logan, I want to thank you for your kindness and your help, and I wish to the Goddess I could return the favor. All I can do is advise you to get out of here. You must get out of here."

Goddess? he thought, puzzled. What... Instead, he finally said, "I can’t desert my unit."

"Jimmy," she said, looking directly into his eyes, "get out of here. Leave the Guardians; terrible things will happen if you don’t. If you won’t do it for yourself, then do it for those who love and care about you. Get out of here, and go as far and as fast as you can." Her eyelids closed and her head fell forward as she passed out.

Logan returned the glass to the table and took one more look at the nearly dead woman. He wished desperately that there was something more he could do... He picked up his rifle, slung it over his shoulder, and quietly left the room. As he went in search of Colonel Warren, he suddenly stopped and looked back at the closed door. Then he looked at his name tag again. His last name was printed there, plain as day, but...how did she know his first name?

He found the Colonel sitting in the living room, reclining in a comfortable chair with a glass of Valerie’s wine in his hand. Resting open on his lap, on top of his Bible, was his copy of Malleus Maleficarum.

"Colonel Warren?"

He looked up to see who was addressing him. "Yes, Logan, what is it?" He returned to his book and sipped at the wine.

"I went down to check on...on the prisoner, to see if she had come around. I found..."

Warren looked up again, slightly annoyed at this interruption of his reading. "Found what, Logan?"

"This isn’t easy, sir... I...well, I found Corporal Willis..." he sighed, trying to calm his nerves. He didn’t like the idea of reporting acts of misconduct by fellow Guardians, especially when it was said that it is impossible for Holy Guards to be guilty of such a charge because of the nature of their work; they were doing the Lord’s work, and anything done in the name of the Savior was right. And Logan didn’t like thinking about the consequences of making such a report. The ostracism from his fellow soldiers, the lack of faith he would have in them if he needed their back-up in a life-threatening situation, and the harassment that he and his entire family would have to endure... But, damn it, he had to report this. It was the right thing to do. And he also knew that he wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt that he would feel if he didn’t make the report. "He...was about to take advantage of the prisoner, sir."

"Oh?" He didn’t bother to look up this time. "How so?"

"He...he was about to rape her, sir. I stopped him."

"You stopped Corporal Willis from raping the witch?" Warren asked. He didn’t seem especially disturbed at the thought of one of his men committing such an act.

"Yes sir."

"Hmm..." He turned a page and continued to read. "I don’t imagine you’ve made a friend out of him."

"But sir! I--"

Warren looked up at him again, and Logan could tell from the look in his eyes that he was not in the least bit interested in his report. If anything, he looked suspicious, like he might be thinking that it would be a good idea to have someone keep an eye on this private for a while. "Your report has been duly noted, private. You may return to your post."

Logan couldn’t believe this! How could his commanding officer allow such an immoral act from one who was supposed to protect morals?

"Yes sir," he said at last. He turned and started back for his post, and decided that, regardless of the penalties he might suffer if he were caught, he had no other choice but to desert as soon as he could.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

There was a little-used dirt road that continued on up from the main highway and circled around to end almost at the front step of the commune where Oscar Corey lived. Keller, in the newly-repaired Charger, remembered that the road itself existed because he had been this way a couple of times before on smuggling runs several years ago, but at the time he hadn’t been aware that this area even had people living in it. It also looked as though no one else had ever found it; after so many years, the place had changed so much that he could hardly recognize it himself.

He stopped the car at an apparent dead-end and got out. "I know it’s around here somewhere," he said.

"What’re you looking for?" Dutch asked.

"Here, come on out and help me move some of this stuff around."

"What’re you doing?"

"There’s a road around here somewhere," Keller replied. "If I can just find it..." He and Dutch searched through some of the shallower underbrush for several minutes, and then Dutch found the old wooden gate that had been hidden by the tall weeds, ivy and bushes. They pulled it open and drove through, then went back to close it. The road had rarely been used because it was in such poor condition, so someone had put up a gate with a sign that read "Road Closed." In time, and from lack of up-keep, the sign eventually had been blown down by the changing of the seasons, and the gate itself had almost been completely reclaimed by the forest. Keller had found it one day quite by accident, and had remembered where it was just in case he someday might need it as an escape route.

He didn’t dare take the road any faster than ten miles per hour because of the low hanging branches that were scattered along nearly it’s entire length, and because of the numerous holes that could destroy the Charger’s suspension. He finally stopped the car near a cluster of trees that wouldn’t let him go any farther.

He had told Dutch all about Oscar and Karen and the others, and he looked forward to seeing them again. He especially looked forward to seeing Valerie again, but there was still that feeling that kept gnawing at a corner of his mind. Something was wrong here, he had been dead certain of it, but now that he was here he expected things would be okay. "Hey, Oscar!" he shouted as he and Dutch walked across the small clearing toward the porch.

"Keller?" asked Karen. "Is that you?"

"Guilty as charged. This is my old buddy Dutch--" He broke off when he saw the look on her face.

"Keller, thank God you’re here! There’s been soldiers everywhere, and they’re headed for Valerie’s place!"

Oscar joined his wife on the porch when he heard the familiar voice. "They’ve been out at Scott Preston’s place to question him," he said as the other two men quickly drew near. "They threatened his little girl, man. They threatened his kid! Scott thought Valerie was staying here, so he sent them off to the Ryan ranch; he thought the place was empty. My God, Keller, if they find her they’ll kill her!"

"Jesus," Keller said. "Oh, shit. Oscar, do you have any weapons?"

"Just a couple of crossbows inside. What with all the damn gun control laws, I figured they were more practical. They’re not much in the way of firepower, but I guess they’ll have to do."

"They’re good enough for now," Keller said as he checked his Desert Eagle. "You carrying, Dutch?"

"You should know better than to have to ask, son," Dutch replied. Tucked into the left-side waistband of his jeans he revealed a Reuger Redhawk .44 Magnum with a stainless finish and walnut grips, and distributed throughout his pockets were six fully loaded speed loaders. He flipped open the pistol’s cylinder to check its status, confirmed it to be loaded, and snapped it shut again with another flip of his wrist.

"All right. Oscar, get on the radio and let the rest of the people around here know what’s going down, and see if you can get us some help. We’re gonna head on out there and see what we can do."

"Okay, you got it."

***

Oil lamps hung from nails that had been driven into the wooden wall studs, casting eerie flickering shadows on the stone walls. Valerie still hung from the center beam across the ceiling, barely conscious. The left side of her face was bruised and there were fresh welts and red rivulets of blood on her bare skin, and her entire body was shivering uncontrollably from the cold and the dampness that permeated the underground room.

But she was no longer afraid. We’re all going to die someday, she told herself as she remembered the fusillade of shots that had broken out above her head when she had tried to defend her home. And to fear death itself--even meaningless death--is useless. It should be avoided as much as possible, of course, but not feared. There were worse things in this world than death--Warren himself had taught her that just within the last few hours--and she vowed that she would never again be afraid to die.

She no longer screamed when Corporal Willis lashed at her with the crop. Her eyes screwed shut and the muscles in her jaw would tighten, grinding her teeth when the lash landed, but she did not scream. She would not. She occasionally opened her eyes to stare coldly at Warren, and it was her silent, unflinching gaze that now frightened him. He was certain that the witch was using black magic on him in one form or another. But every so often a question would come back to him, asking him why, if she is such a powerful witch, doesn’t she use her magic to free herself? It was because...he had to think for a long time (something he hated to do) to come up with a satisfactory answer...it was because she wasn’t touching the ground, that’s why! And then he would repeatedly push the doubts out of his mind whenever the questions arose again.

"Tough witch," he said as he watched her now unconscious form. "Most witches break within the first fifteen minutes." He turned to Willis. "How long have we been here?"

Willis glanced at his stainless steel digital wristwatch. "About three hours, sir."

"Amazing," he said as he turned to gaze at her once more. "Satan himself is here, keeping her silent." He smiled a thin, razor-like smile. "Well, we’ll change that soon. Even Satan won’t be able to keep his whore silent when we take her to the stake."

"Stake?" Willis asked with a smile. He had been expecting a firing squad. "It’ll be just like the good old days, won’t it, sir?"

The question reminded Warren of Spain and the curse. "What do you mean by that?" he asked suspiciously.

"Only that, uh...that was how they used to get confessions from witches before, sir. And that there wasn’t any of this nonsense about the rights of the accused. I mean, we know she’s a witch, so why should we even go through all the bother of a trial and waste the taxpayers’ money when we can deal out justice right here and now?"

Warren watched him with that cool, suspicious look. He agreed with Willis one hundred percent, but still the corporal sounded like he was sucking up to him. He didn’t trust Willis; he didn’t trust any enlisted man. Unlike the officers, enlisted men--and especially draftees--were considered to be of an inferior breed. The fact that Warren had once been an enlisted man himself, though, somehow escaped his memory for now.

"Go out and see to the stake. I’ll be out shortly."

"Yes sir."

Alone with Valerie again, Warren stepped closer and held the tip of his riding crop under her chin, and lifted her head. "You will confess this time, you God damned witch," he said, his subdued voice a combination of venom and silk. "I don’t even care to save your worthless, miserable soul, if you even have one; but you will confess to your crimes before you burn. The Lord commands it."

Valerie slowly opened her eyes and looked into those of the Colonel. It took a few moments for her vision to focus, but once it did she stared directly into the reflecting black pools of Warren’s pupils. In them she could see something; she flicked her eyes back and forth, and in each black liquid orb she saw a small scene, and as she concentrated on it she suddenly found herself falling forward--or was she being pulled inward?--into the blackness of his eyes and becoming an active part of that scene. She suddenly found herself sitting astride a big black horse as it reared away from the flames that had suddenly sprung up before them, and then turned and bolted. Gunshots rang out with a surreal reverse echo as bullets tore the air near her head with a buzz of a thousand raging hornets while she moved in rhythm with the horse, hanging onto its long black mane and squeezing her legs against its ribs as the sounds of its hooves pounding against the dirt path thundered in her ears. They dashed together, weaving perilously down the winding dirt road, and leapt unharmed over burning barriers as they raced away...

And then she was back in the cellar, chained helplessly before Warren. Her eyes focused once again as she stared coldly at him. "You lose, Priest," she said in a hoarse, dry whisper.

He leaned forward a little bit, threateningly. "What do you mean?" he growled suspiciously.

"I’m going to kill you, you bastard," she whispered weakly. "You hear me? You lose!"

Warren stepped back, not understanding. What was she babbling about? How could he possibly lose? It was not he who now hung naked and chained in a cellar, bruised and bleeding. It was not he who shortly would be taken away to the stake to be burned alive. But there was something unsettling in the way she looked at him, and in the quiet conviction in her voice... It wasn’t an empty threat, and it wasn’t a warning. It was a statement of fact.

A sudden chill of intense dread and fear ran through him. She’s using magic on me, he thought. He clenched a gloved fist, drew it back, and sent it smashing into her face with a sharp crack, breaking her nose. He turned away from her. "We’ll see who loses, you Devil’s whore." He headed for the door. "Willis!"

***

"This will be the first time I’ve ever seen a witch-burning," the soldier said to his partner.

"Same here. Boy, now that’s the way to handle witches." He raised a cigarette to his lips and suddenly his body stiffened as his eyes went wide in surprise.

"Hey, what’s the matter?" asked the first soldier as his partner suddenly slumped against the wall, and began to slowly slide to the ground. Then he noticed the growing dark stain on his chest, and the barbed head of a hunting arrow that protruded from it. "What the hell..?" he said as he tried to hold him up. "Shit!" He turned to shout for help, and a second arrow flew seemingly from nowhere and lodged in his throat. He fell against his partner and tried to call for help, but the blood welling in his throat choked him off. He silently joined his partner on the ground.

A large battery-powered spotlight was slowly sweeping the area in front of the house, making its silent rounds. It revealed nothing out of the ordinary, always keeping watch. Until its glass cover shattered and the light went out.

"Okay," said an irritated voice, "what the hell’s going on now?"

"Hey, I don’t know," said another, defensive voice. "It wasn’t my fault!"

"Did I say anything was your fault?"

"Well, shit," said a third voice, "maybe it just overheated or something. They just don’t make these things the way they used to."

"Boy, that’s for damn sure..."

As the soldiers talked back and forth in the darkness, unable to see the hunting arrow that had destroyed the spotlight and trying to explain what happened, two shadowy figures ran in a crouch from the edge of the woods to the darkened side of the house. Each figure was carrying a crossbow.

"Hell of a lot quieter than the ol’ .44," Dutch whispered.

"Yeah. Too bad reloading’s such a bitch, though." He wished he had a pair of leather gloves; the low-tech wooden crossbow had a 150-pound pull to it, and he had to slip his foot into a stirrup at the end to hold it still and to get the proper leverage in order to cock it. The high-tension string felt as though it could cut through his fingers.

Crouching in the shadows up against the house, Keller cautiously took a quick look inside a window. "Where do you suppose they’re keeping her?" he asked, now scanning the grounds as they reloaded.

"We’ll have to ask." Dutch also scanned the room as well as he could through the tattered lace curtains, and listened carefully. As near as he could tell, there was no one there. Keller handed him his crossbow and put both hands to the top of the window and pushed it open while Dutch went back to watching the grounds. Keller went in and dropped into a crouch, and took another quick look around. He was relieved to find the room was indeed unoccupied. "Come on in," he whispered. The two weapons were handed in and Dutch followed them a moment later. They found themselves standing in the kitchen. Keller motioned with the crossbow. "Living room’s that way." They started for the door, then froze as they heard a voice coming toward them. They stepped back to either side of the door and Dutch switched off the light. They held their weapons ready, and waited.

"Gomez get me this, Gomez get me that," it complained as it neared the door. "Man, just once I’d like to tell that pendejo shithead to just fuck off..." The door opened. "...gets some rank under his belt and he thinks he’s running the whole damn outfit..." the voice continued to grumble. A hand reached around for the light switch. "...people keep turning the damn lights off around here..." He stopped when he found a crossbow pointed at his throat.

"One sound," Keller said softly, "and it’ll really be lights out."

"Come on in, friend," Dutch invited with a friendly whisper. He took hold of his uniform and pulled him quietly into the room. "Maybe you can help us. We’re looking for a friend of ours--maybe you’ve seen her?"

The soldier nodded, his head moving no more than a quarter of an inch--that was all the room that the arrow’s tip allowed.

"Smart man," Keller said. "I told you you had to be smart to be a Guard. Didn’t I tell you?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you told me," Dutch replied. To the soldier: "Where is she?"

"The cellar," Gomez replied, eager to be of assistance. A razor-sharp arrowhead, backed up by a potential of a hundred and fifty pounds of thrust gently pressing under the soft part of the jaw, is quite an incentive to be helpful. "She’s in the cellar. I swear to God, she’s in the cellar. Just don’t kill me."

"I’ll think about it," Keller said. He removed the arrow from its target, and the Guard relaxed slightly--and then he rammed a fist into the soldier’s stomach, doubling him over. He brought the stock of the crossbow down on his head. Dutch caught him before he fell noisily to the floor, and eased him down. Keller shut off the light again and opened the door carefully. He peered through just a crack, at first, and gradually pushed it wider until he finally stepped into the room, which turned out to be as unoccupied as the kitchen had been. The curtains had been drawn across the windows to keep the night chill out, and they also prevented anyone outside from seeing in. He motioned to Dutch, and they made their way to the stairs. They kept close to one wall, hoping to avoid any creaky boards in the steps. They reached the stone floor at the bottom at last, and approached the closed door. They listened carefully, hearing nothing. They gently pushed the door open and went inside.

"Oh, my God," Dutch said in a shocked whisper, and Keller was stunned speechless.

Valerie was still hanging chained to the ceiling. One side of her face was swollen and bruised, and there were open red cuts and welts lashed on her tanned skin. For a moment, they thought she was dead. They rushed toward her and went to work on the chains. Instead of having been locked in place, they were merely tied, but it was like trying to untie four Gordian knots. Keller wrapped his jacket around her once she was freed, and they eased her to the floor. "Valerie?" he said, gently holding her face in both hands. "Talk to me, kid. Come on, please, talk to me."

Her eyes opened slowly, painfully. It took a moment for them to focus. When they did she smiled faintly. "Hey, Garrett," she whispered. "It’s about time you showed up." Her eyes shifted over and she recognized Dutch. "What d’ya say, Dutch?"

"Don’t try to talk," he told her. "We’re going to get you out of here."

"I’ve got to get to the attic first," she said as she began to struggle to her feet. Free from the chains at last, she was already drawing energy from the Earth and gaining strength. "I need to..."

"Forget the attic; we’re getting out of here now."

The door suddenly opened, and Keller reacted purely on instinct. He leapt at the lone soldier who had come in as adrenalin poured through his veins, and everything was bathed in a red haze. He grabbed the soldier by the jacket and threw him violently against the far wall. Judging by the look in Keller’s eyes, the soldier thought this must be one of the witch’s demons sent straight from Hell to aid her. Keller hauled back a fist and sent it smashing into the soldier’s face again and again. The soldier started to slump to the floor, and Keller hauled him back to his feet, slamming punches into his face and abdomen, splitting his lips and quite possibly rupturing several internal organs. His knee came up into the soldier’s groin, sending an explosion of agony through his every nerve, and the soldier slumped limply to the floor, either dead or unconscious. Keller didn’t care which.

Valerie stared at him with a mixture of awe and horror in her eyes. She had never seen someone beaten to death before, and for the first time she realized just how dangerous a man Garrett Keller could be.

He saw her looking at him, and he looked back at her. "What?"

The cards were wrong, she thought as she suddenly remembered the Tarot reading in Tony’s home from seemingly so long ago. She remembered thinking that the card of The Lovers may have represented herself and Keller, but after seeing this side of him she was convinced that, even if she had never met and fallen for Jasmine, there was no way she could spend the rest of her life with this man. She would be glad to have him as a friend, but not as a lover; she would never be able to live with such uncontrolled rage.

With a shudder, she went to where her clothes lay and dressed quickly while Keller and Dutch watched the door. She retied the leather lace on which her pentacle hung and slipped it over her head, then donned the headband and slipped the wolf’s tooth earring into a pocket.

"Jesus, boy, did you have to make so much racket?" Dutch asked as Valerie dressed. "We’ll be lucky if we don’t have the whole damn bunch of them coming down."

They managed to get to the attic without running into any soldiers, and hidden safely in a desk drawer where she had left it was the Book of Shadows. Mixed with a pile of clothes, she found a worn brown leather jacket that she slipped into, and then she stashed the book under it. Keller was guarding the door while Dutch kept watch at the window. "Where the hell did they all go?" he wondered. "Oscar said there were more men than this."

"Don’t knock a good thing, man," Keller replied. "It’ll make it that much easier for us to get out of here."

"Lieutenant!" a voice shouted from outside. "Two sentries are dead! I just found them outside the kitchen!"

Valerie looked at Keller, then at Dutch, and then at Keller again. Two more dead. It made her wonder more and more just what the hell kind of a man Keller was.

He returned her look, his face expressionless, and said, "Must’ve been your chicken salad."

***

Enraged by the deaths of the two guards, Warren and Willis descended the cellar stairs. Not only were they anxious to continue putting Valerie to The Question; Warren wanted to find out from the witch who was responsible for the deaths. With fire in his eyes and his loins, Warren pushed the door open.

She was gone.

There was a pile of chains on the floor where she had been left hanging, and in a far corner of the room laid a soldier, badly beaten and bleeding. There were no signs of forced entry.

"God!" Warren and the corporal rushed to the fallen man. "Private!" Warren barked. "What happened? Where’s the witch?" Even as he spoke he saw that the soldier was dead, his glassy eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

"Dear Lord, what happened to him?" Willis asked, terrified.

Warren turned to face him. "Satan was here!" he told him. "The Devil himself was here in person and did this! The witch couldn’t touch the ground, so she called upon her dark master--and this is the result! Now do you understand how dangerous she is? Now do you understand why she must be destroyed?"

"But Colonel," Willis said, "why didn’t she escape when we were tor--I mean questioning her? Why didn’t Satan help her then?"

Warren stared hard at him, but inside his mind was reeling. Why hadn’t she? He knew the real reason, but again he averted his eyes from the truth and embraced his comfortable lie.

He grabbed Willis by the coat. "Are you doubting the evidence of your own eyes?" he shouted. And then another idea came to him and he went on: "The Lord was protecting us, that’s why!"

So how come the Lord didn’t protect that poor bastard? Willis asked himself as he gazed once more at the dead soldier. Must not have been a very good Christian, maybe. And then he remembered how he had almost raped the witch, and the thought of it and the sight of this dead soldier now made his gonads shrivel in terror at what could have been.

"Get a team of men and search the house and grounds. Let me know when you find her."

"Yes sir!"

"And have someone take care of this man."

"I’ll see to it personally, sir." With that, Willis hurriedly turned and left.

How could this happen? Warren asked himself. The witch had been in his grasp, right here in his very fist! Chained above the ground and unable to move! Yet she had managed to escape. He had been so close to finally putting an end to her--all he had needed were just a few more minutes.

And now this had to happen!

Damn it!

He would catch her again. He would catch her again, and this time he wouldn’t let her out of his sight for a single moment.

Not until she was dead.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The young man was walking slowly by the large, well-lit church that faced Pioneer Boulevard, listening to the passing traffic and the voices and music that came from inside the large, red brick building. Sounds like they’re having a fuckin’ good time in there, he thought cynically. He stopped for a moment in front of the plain, short set of concrete steps that led up to the entrance, and tried to peer inside through the open double wooden doors out of a perverse sense of curiosity. Almost as if he had been waiting for him, a man in a very expensive-looking blue three-piece suit suddenly stepped from behind one of the doors and appeared in the doorway. "Hey there, brother!" he greeted with a wide, orthodontically corrected, and sparkling grin and a strong Southern accent. "How y’all doin’? I couldn’t help but notice you standin’ out there, lookin’ inside an’ all alone. I’ll bet you’re wonderin’ just what’s goin’ on in here. Well, I’m really glad you asked, ‘cause we’re spreadin’ the word o’ God here tonight!"

You’re sure spreading something, the young man thought. You ought to be using a shovel.

"Now, you’re lookin’ a little hungry and a little thirsty, so why don’t y’all come on in and have somethin’ to eat?" He took the young man’s sleeve in a firm grasp and guided him inside. "A little food for the belly is always good, but food for the soul is even more important. Have you heard the Word o’ God today? Come on in, boy, don’t be shy!" He led him over to a huge buffet table that was heavily laden with food. "Come on over here and eat, boy. Check this out--we got steak, we got lobster, barbecued ribs ‘n’ sauce, we got these li’l shrimp cocktails--they call ‘em shrimp cocktails ‘cause they’re so damn small--yuk! yuk!" Here he gave the young man a good-natured and not-too-gentle slap on the back. "Here--" He reached into a silver ice bucket and withdrew a tall green bottle. "--have some champagne. We got some of these here watsits...canapés, I think the French call ‘em." The way he pronounced the word, for a moment the young man thought he had said "canned apes." "And we got some of this here caviar. I never touch the stuff m’self," he went on, suddenly dropping his voice conspiratorially. "It’s Russian, y’know. Looks like li’l black fish eggs, if you ask me." He spread some of them on a small cracker and nearly shoved the entire lot into the young man’s mouth. "Now, you’re wonderin’, I’ll bet, ‘What am I supposed to do in return for all this?’ Son, you don’t gotta do nothin’ for us. But there’s somethin’ y’all gotta do for yourself. Man’s a sinner, y’know; that’s why people are hurtin’ so much. That’s why there’s so much confusion and wonder and doubt. That’s why there’s so much loneliness in the world. Well, we’re in the business of savin’ sinners—sinners just like you. The Lord can make all that pain and hurt and confusion go away, but y’all gotta ask ‘im to do it. Now, y’all just come on over here and kneel with me." He took the young man’s arm and yanked him down. "Now, y’all repeat after me"--he looked skyward--"Jesus Christ, am I in trouble!"

Jesus Christ, the man thought, eyeing the grinning suit and wondering about its sanity.

"Jesus Christ, I need your help!"

The young man tried to remove his arm from the suit’s grasp.

"Jesus Christ, you gotta forgive me my sins!"

Jesus Christ, the young man thought, you’re a wacko!

"Jesus Christ, you gotta come into my life and take it over!"

The young man looked around. Where’s the fire exit?

"Jesus Christ, tell us what to do! We’ll be waitin’ for your answer. A-men!" He turned to the young man, grinning broadly. "Now, don’t y’all feel a whole lot more better?"

The young man shrugged slightly, as much as the grasp of the grinning suit would allow, and smiled a nervous little smile. "I guess so..."

The suit helped him to his feet. "So how does it feel to be saved?"

"Okay, I guess," the young man replied, more than a little bewildered.

"Praise God, another saved soul!" the grinning suit shouted. It escorted the young man toward the door. "Now, the Lord wants you to go out there and spread the Word o’ God to everyone you know. Will y’all do that for Him? And by the way, on your way out, why don’t you leave a little hunnerd dollar donation at the door so we can send some canned milk an’ rice to the li’l children in Ethiopia? Hallelujah, praise God!"

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

The soldier made the mistake of going alone up the stairs to the attic. The old saying about curiosity being fatal to felines may or may not have been true in general, but it certainly seemed to be the case for a soldier who wanted to go wandering about on his own to get a better look at a "witch house." Keller met him just inside the door with the butt of his crossbow, brought it slamming down on the back of his head, and then dragged him inside. He tossed the soldier’s M-16 and its three spare 20-round magazines to Dutch, and took the Beretta 92-F and its two spare 15-round clips for himself, then peered around the doorway to see if anyone else was coming. "All clear," he whispered, and the three of them started quietly down the stairs.

***

"Continue the search," Warren ordered.

"We’re searching the area right now, sir," said Gutierrez, Warren’s personal aide.

"Good." He rose from the chair and set his wine glass down on the table next to it, then picked up his Bible and Malleus Maleficarum and started for the door, followed by an entourage of four soldiers. There were the sounds of diminishing footsteps crossing the floor and porch, and then the room was silent.

Keller cautiously went down the stairs, listening carefully before each step. He was followed by Valerie, and Dutch came down behind her. They went across the room and to the windows. Peering between the torn curtains, Valerie said, "Shit, they’ve got the place surrounded."

"Can’t really tell how many of them there are," Dutch said. "But as long as we’re real quiet, we might have a chance of getting out of here."

"Let’s head back for the kitchen," Keller suggested.

"Hell of a time to be thinking about food, ain’t it, boy?" Dutch asked with a wry smile.

Keller gave him a dry, unamused look.

Dutch grinned at him. "Just tryin’ to keep you loose, son. Let’s go."

From inside the kitchen, they scanned the grounds behind the house. There were two more soldiers who stood about halfway between the house and the edge of the forest, examining the wires that led from the house and into the woods. The other floodlight had been set up to illuminate the front of the house, and its beam couldn’t reach around the corners; and thanks to the thick cloud cover, the back yard was in almost total darkness.

There was no one else out there.

"Can’t very well sneak out of here if we open fire on those guys," Dutch whispered as he slung the M-16.

"Our best chance--hell, our only chance--is to head into the woods and go for the river," Valerie advised.

And there was only one way to get there. Keller sighed resignedly as he and Dutch raised their crossbows. It was time to kill again. "Got ‘im on the right."

"Got ‘im on the left."

***

"They look like power cables of some kind," one of the four soldiers was saying as they examined the cables.

"Where do they go?" asked a second.

"I don’t know--let’s take a look. Frank, you and Pete stay here." He and the second soldier began following the cables with their flashlights guiding the way. After some fifteen minutes of picking their way through the darkened woods, and tripping over undergrowth and cursing, they found themselves standing near Valerie’s pool. They shined their lights up at the waterwheel that was spinning from the force of the waterfall. "How nice," said the first soldier sourly. "How very fucking nice. Free electricity."

The other soldier thought it was a pretty neat idea. What he said, however, was, "You’re lucky the Colonel doesn’t hear you talking like that."

"Hey, if he saw this I don’t think he’d mind. I mean, look at this! Power companies are losing money because people like these damn hippie terrorists set up their own sources of electricity. That’s why we have to pay more for our energy bills; to pay for the increasing cost of nuclear plants that these hippies are dodging. They’re a bunch of lousy fucking goddamn terrorist thieves!"

Come to think of it, it wasn’t a very loyal thing to do these days, the other guard thought. "Yeah, I guess you’re right. Let’s go back for Pete and Frank, and they can help us tear this thing down."

When they returned to the edge of the clearing, they saw a large man bending over the other two soldiers, who were unmistakably dead. A woman could be seen walking toward him, about half way between the house and the kneeling man. "What are you doing?" shouted one of the soldiers as Dutch looked up. The latter raised the M-16 and fired, taking both men down. Keller had just started from the house after Valerie, and almost immediately after the sound of the gunfire three more soldiers came around the corner of the house; two dropped to one knee while the other remained standing, and all three fired. A spray of bullets kicked up dirt and grass in front of Valerie’s feet, and for a moment she stood frozen, not knowing which way to turn. Dutch returned fire in three short bursts as Keller fired from his position with the Beretta, and one of the kneeling soldiers fell. Another burst from the remaining soldiers broke Valerie’s paralysis; she dove for the ground, and the Book of Shadows fell from her jacket. Another burst spat dirt in her face, and she pushed herself to her feet. Still not certain of where to turn for cover, she instinctively ran back to the house--a place that had always offered her safety. Dutch and Keller gave her covering fire, but she knew she had made a mistake in not continuing for the woods.

And then Dutch surprised her. From his position he ran, firing with the M-16, and grabbed Valerie’s book from the ground. Keller fired at the soldiers again, giving Dutch the chance to run for the woods, until the Beretta’s slide locked open with the magazine empty. The soldier who had been standing was now crouching behind the body of his fallen partner, and he, too, was hit. But more Guards were arriving to help them as Keller popped the empty clip out of the Beretta and slammed in a fresh one, and thumbed the slide release to bring a round into the chamber. He grabbed Valerie’s hand and pulled her to the window and helped her in as Dutch continued to fire from the woods, scattering the soldiers and emptying the rifle. Keller dove in behind her and rolled to his feet, his breathing harsh and heavy from the adrenalin overload. "Shit, we’re in it now."

"At least Dutch managed to get away," Valerie said, coming up next to him.

"He’ll be back. I just hope he makes it here with the cavalry in time."

"So what do we do ‘til then?"

"Beats me, darlin’. I’m open to suggestions."

***

"Colonel," a voice could be heard saying outside, "the rest of the men are back with the witnesses."

Keller glanced at Valerie. "Witnesses?"

"For my execution, I imagine," she replied.

The rest of the men are back, Keller thought. Shit, how many of them are there? And how the hell do we tell Dutch?

"We’ve got the witch trapped in the kitchen, Colonel," Sergeant Greene told him. "All the windows are covered, and the only other way out is through us."

"Obviously," Warren said scornfully. It was his unit’s fault that they nearly got away in the first place, so now he regarded all of these incompetents with disdain. Then, to the two prisoners in the kitchen, he called out, "There is no way out for you. Throw down your weapons and come out with your hands raised."

"I don’t suppose we’ve got much of a choice, do we?" she asked Keller.

He held the Beretta and the one spare clip. Only a total of thirty rounds left for it, plus the Desert Eagle. The odds for escape were not good. "Not unless you can think of something in the next ten seconds or so." He hesitated a moment, wondering if surrender was such a good idea after all. But as Valerie had said, they didn’t have much of a choice. "Okay!" he shouted to the Colonel. "We’re coming out!" He pulled the door open at the bottom with his foot and slid both handguns out across the back porch, then stepped through the open door with his fingers laced on top of his head. He was followed by Valerie a moment later, and they were met by ten soldiers with rifles and pistols aimed at them. Two men broke away from the group to clamp handcuffs tightly on their wrists, and they yanked them painfully behind their backs.

"So," Warren said, pleased. "The witch and her familiar. Very good."

"The what?" Keller asked him.

"Be silent, demon from Hell!"

Keller scowled at him in bewilderment. Then he looked at Valerie, as though she might provide an explanation. Valerie looked back at him and shrugged. And then he looked back at Warren again, and suddenly he just couldn’t help it; he smiled and asked, "You’re really not the sharpest knife in the drawer, are you?"

Warren nodded to Greene, who quickly brought up the butt of his rifle and slammed the side of it against the side of Keller’s head. An explosion went off inside his skull, and the next thing he knew was he was being pulled up from the ground. The two soldiers behind him dragged him to his feet. He shook his head to clear it, and that made the pain even worse. Still, with blood running down the side of his face, he said, "You’re going to pay for that, motherfucker."

Greene hit him again, this time in the stomach. Keller would have dropped again if he hadn’t been held in place. "Got anything else you want to say to me?" he asked with a growl.

Valerie tried to jump between them. "Coward bastards! Leave him--"

Warren slapped her across the face, bringing a yelp of pain from her as his hand connected with a large, purple bruise. "Take them inside and throw them downstairs," he ordered, "and post guards outside of the door. Perhaps later these two will be willing to confess their crimes. I want to give them some time to consider their options."

Dragging Valerie and Keller, who was gasping painfully to catch his breath, the four soldiers took them inside and to the stairs of the cellar, and shoved them roughly down the stone steps. The door slammed shut with a loud bang, leaving them in darkness.

At the foot of the stairs, Valerie struggled to her knees. "Garrett? Are you okay?"

"I’ve been better," he groaned in reply. He rose slowly to his feet and took a few deep breaths. "I’m tellin’ you, I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch." He walked slowly across the room and leaned against the wall, which had a small window just above ground level, and slid slowly to sit on the floor. Valerie went to join him; she leaned against the wall with one shoulder and peered out the window. Something flashed through her mind as she studied the cloudy night sky, something about...and then it was gone.

"Why’d he have us thrown down here?" Keller asked, genuinely puzzled. "Why doesn’t he just go ahead and kill us?"

"It’s part of his waiting game," she replied distantly as she continued to gaze out of the window. What the hell was it that kept eluding her memory? "He likes to sit back and gloat over his little victories like this. He enjoys letting the fear build up in his victims before he kills them."

"You seem to know this little sweetheart pretty well."

"Yeah, well...I’ve been through this before. Remember?"

Keller sighed deeply, and winced in pain. "That guy really is unbalanced, you know." He gently rested the back of his throbbing head against the wall with a groan. "I’m not sure of how people get that way, but he’s gone totally around the bend. I’m talking bars in the windows here." He took another deep breath, and this time the pain wasn’t so bad. "Oh well, at least this gives us a little time."

Valerie finally pulled her eyes away from the window and looked down at him. "Time for what?"

He looked up and batted his eyes at her with a boyish smile. "Why, to plan an escape, of course."

***

Jasmine Tanaka was getting ready to cast a Circle, but somehow things just didn’t seem to come together. Something didn’t feel right. The candles were all in place on the floor, her small altar was set up with candles, chalice and censer, and her own athame lay upon the small table. She was planning to establish a psychic contact with Valerie. She was pretty sure she could do it, and with an impish grin she thought that maybe she would send her one more really good orgasm--while hoping that she wasn’t out in public someplace, so maybe this wasn’t such a hot idea after all. She had been looking forward to this since she had awakened and found her note. But now, for some reason, things just felt all wrong and disjointed. Her fingers paused at the top button of her blouse, then fastened it closed again. She went over to her small dresser, reached toward the wall behind it, and took down her katana. She held it in both hands and slowly drew the gleaming steel blade from its scabbard. She ran her thumb across its keen edge, testing its sharpness, then swept it from side to side a couple of times, listening to it slice through the air with a sharp hiss. She nodded to herself in satisfaction, and then slid the sword back into its scabbard. She laid the weapon on her bed, and then began to disrobe.

There was a sudden loud pounding at the front door downstairs. Jasmine slid back into her blouse and went down to the shop to see who it was. Peering through the glass door as she held the shade aside with one finger, she saw a large man with graying blond hair and a matching beard. He was holding his left arm, and even in this dim light she could tell he was bleeding. She unlocked the door and let him in. "What happened?" she asked, her voice filled with concern.

"Gunshot wound," the man replied, his jaw tense.

"Gunshot? How’d it happen?" Probably forgot to unload before cleaning, was the first thought that went through her mind, and then she felt a little guilty about making such an assumption about a total stranger. She was trying hard to overcome her old prejudices concerning males and guns and phallic symbols, but she despised guns as being tools of nothing but violence. And neither was she real fond of their owners. (An acquaintance of hers once asked, "What’s a stronger phallic symbol of violence--my gun or your sword, with which you not only impale people, but also hack them to pieces?" She had replied by fixing him with a scowl and an unvoiced, Touché, you miserable... Grumble grumble grumble...)

"A shoot-out at the Ryan place--there’s a squad of Feds crawling all over it."

"The Ryan place? You mean Valerie’s place? Tall girl with dark hair and amber eyes?"

Dutch looked at her in surprise. "You know her?"

"Yeah, well...we met," she replied. This must be one of her friends that she hadn’t yet met. It wouldn’t be Keller, would it? "Is she okay? Is she--"

"I don’t know. We gotta get some help up there. Do you have a citizen’s band or a short-wave radio somewhere?"

"Yeah, there’s a C.B. in back. Come on, you can make some calls while I patch you up."

***

"Man, doesn’t it figure that we’d get stuck with guard duty?" the young private bitched. "They’re going to have a real, honest-to-God witch burning over there, and we get stuck out here watching the damn trucks."

"Aw, quit complaining, Andy," said another private. "All you ever do is complain. Complain, complain."

"Well, why not?" Andy countered. "I’ve got a right to; I’m always getting shafted like this."

"You’re paranoid, you know that?" said a third soldier.

"Paranoia," said the second soldier eerily. "Oooweeeooo!" He raised his hands and slowly wriggled his fingers at him.

"Fuck you, Lenny," Andy said. "And you too, Francis."

"Andrew!" Frank said in mock horror. "Such language! Does your mother know you talk like that? Not to mention Colonel Warren?"

"Oh, please--don’t mention Colonel Warren!"

"How about all three of you shutting the hell up?"

The three soldiers froze, staring wide-eyed at each other. Where had that last voice come from? Before any of them could reach for a weapon, there was the unmistakable sound of a rifle bolt being drawn back. And it came from very close by. "Now, why don’t the three of you just turn around nice and slow, and put your little hands up on the side of that truck? ‘Cause if you don’t, me and my buddies here will fuckin’ blow you apart."

The three soldiers did as they were told, and a moment later they were surrounded by five Rebels who were wearing bandannas over their noses and mouths, just like Jesse James’s Gang, and carrying a variety of weapons. The man who had spoken was carrying a sawed-off twelve-gauge Mossberg 835 pump-action shotgun, which--at this close range--would quite effectively splatter Andy’s head all over the side of the van. The Rebel next to him came forward and pressed the barrel of his Uzi carbine against Lenny’s cheek. The other three Rebels carried a Heckler & Koch MP-5 automatic carbine, a Springfield G3 semiautomatic rifle, and a Colt AR-15. "Your boss has real sloppy security, y’know?" said the Rebel with the shotgun. "Only three of you to guard these trucks. Tsk, tsk."

"Y-y-y- you...you’re under arrest," Andy stammered uselessly. "You...you men better put your weapons down, because you’ve just fallen into a trap. This area is sus...surrounded by Holy Guardians."

"And you must play a really shitty game of poker," said the man with the Uzi. "You couldn’t bluff your way out of a pay-toilet." He motioned to two of his buddies, and they disarmed the soldiers while the shotgun and a pair of semi-autos never wavered from their targets. "Okay, now let’s unload these trucks. And as for the three of you--" He turned to address the soldiers again. "--strip."

"What?"

"Are you assholes hard of hearing or just plain stupid?" the Rebel with the Mossberg asked, his tone cold. The muzzle of his shotgun pressed firmly against the side of Andy’s head. "I get really mad when I have to repeat myself."

The three soldiers stripped quickly down to their skin, and then they were gagged and their hands were cuffed behind their backs to the rear bumper of the now empty weapons truck. "Okay, let’s get out of here." And as quietly as they had come, the Rebels disappeared back into the darkness of the forest.

***

Oscar and Karen were among the witnesses who had been rousted out of their homes and brought to the Ryan ranch. Scott and Maggie Preston were there, too, along with their daughter. Children from all of the families in the area had been ordered there so Warren could make a strong impression; to demonstrate to them by forceful example, so that there would be no doubt in their impressionable young minds, precisely who was in charge, and to teach them to not only respect but also to fear authority. In all, some fifty people had been brought here to witness the execution of the witch Valerie St. James. And they all wondered if the gunfire coming from the other side of the house a short while ago had been an early execution or a prologue of things to come.

"My God, Oscar," Karen said in a shocked, subdued voice. "How can they do something like this? This is America, for God’s sake!"

"Not any more, it isn’t," Oscar replied.

"I can’t believe this is happening," Scott said to a stranger who stood next to him. "I just can’t believe it. They threatened my kid today; my kid! Then they threatened her again, if I didn’t come out here. They were going to kill her! My God, this is insane!"

"I wish I had a gun," Maggie muttered to the stranger’s wife. "God knows I’ve always been against them because they scare the hell out of me. But this is too much--these Nazi bastards have got to be stopped!"

"Mom, what are they gonna do?" Lori asked with a voice that trembled in terror. "I’m scared."

Maggie knelt next to her and held her. "I don’t know, sweetheart," she said, knowing full well what was about to happen. She just wasn’t sure if she should tell Lori. God knows the child has a right to know what’s going on, and she has a right to know what type of people had usurped her right to control her own life. But how was she to explain such atrocities as this to a ten-year-old girl?

"Mommy," Kelly asked her mother, "are they gonna hurt Aunt Valerie?"

"I’m afraid they are, punkin."

"Why?"

Karen sighed in fear and bitterness. "Because she’s different."

"Is that all? But I like her!"

"Well, the government people don’t want you to like her."

"How come?"

"Like I said, honey, because she’s different." She could suddenly feel her rage toward the Foundation growing even stronger, and it came out in her voice. "Because she has the guts to be different."

Kelly considered the information available to her, and drew her own conclusions by saying, "I think the government sucks."

***

Valerie and Keller were sitting quietly, side by side, in the darkness when the door above opened. A long rectangle of flickering lamplight fell down the damp stone steps, and several soldiers could be heard coming down. Valerie’s stomach twisted into a nervous knot. Keller felt it, too, but he wasn’t about to let the soldiers know he was scared. He was determined to be defiant to the end.

Colonel Warren, with a thin smile on his lips, was the first one down the stairs. Corporal Willis was with him, carrying a portable cassette tape recorder. Keller’s eyes locked onto his and he thought, You’re next, asshole. Try to rape a friend of mine, will you? And then he wondered where that thought had come from.

"Have you thought over your situation?" Warren asked. He motioned to Willis, who switched on the recorder.

"What the hell do you think we’ve been doing down here, you dumb fuck?" Keller muttered.

Willis was about to stop and rewind the tape, in order to delete the obscenities, but Warren motioned for him not to. "Let it run," he said. He wanted everything on tape, all of his polite inquiries and all of her foul responses; he wanted plenty of evidence to prove that he had offered her every chance to repent. Turning to Valerie once more he said, "You know, things would go a lot more easily for you if you would confess." He looked almost pleadingly at her, putting on a show for his troops. "I’m trying to save your soul, Miss St. James. Won’t you let me do that for you?"

She knew what kind of an official record he was trying to make with the tape recorder, and she was determined to monkey wrench the hell out of it. "Gimme a break, Warren," she said dryly. "You’re going to kill us anyway."

Warren turned slightly toward his corporal. "We can strike that later," he said.

"As you said just a little while ago, at this point you don’t even care to save my ‘worthless, miserable soul.’ You should take some memory courses or something."

He glared at her, despising her for her defiant attitude.

"You want an official record?" she asked. "Okay, I’ll give you one. For the record, the name is Ryan. Valerie Ryan." She watched him for a moment, then added, "Come on down here for a second."

Warren got down on one knee, holding the tape recorder close to her, ready to hear her confession. It was always so much better when the witches confessed, he told himself. When they confessed he took it as a confirmation of his absolute knowledge that he was doing the right thing. That was how it had been with many of the others. With the proper persuasion, almost all of them confessed. But when they didn’t, such as had been the last case, then he had to console himself with the fact that the prisoner was probably guilty anyway, and he still had done the right thing. After all, if a person is innocent of a crime, he remembered hearing long ago, then he is not a suspect. And if she had not been guilty, then she would never have been under arrest in the first place.

It was always better to have that confession.

Valerie stared into the blackness of his eyes. "You make me want to puke, Priest," she told him. "You and your self-righteous, intolerant attitude. There’s no way you’re going to get away with this."

Warren wanted to savagely rape her, slit her open with a bayonet, and then wipe the soles of his boots on her corpse. God, how he hated her!

Valerie smiled a thin smile of her own. "You lose, Priest."

Warren slowly straightened, and looked down on her with cold hatred. He wanted to spit on her. He wanted to beat her and rape her. He wanted to kill her.

And, by God, he was going to.

"Take her outside."

To Be Continued


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