erniewhiting@centurylink.net

                                                            “Outlaws And Allies”

                                                                by Ernie Whiting

                                                                    Chapter Six

            Freedom.

            God, it was great! Even though that watchdog Vance was around here somewhere, hidden among these happy, noisy throngs of men, women and children at this carnival, Murphy still felt as though he had been released. He couldn’t see Vance anywhere, of course, but he knew he was somewhere close by. He had  to be. Didn’t he? He suddenly wondered with the faintest flicker of hope. Aw, hell, of course he is, he dejectedly thought a moment later. After all, there was no way they would allow Murphy to wander around on his own and possibly escape; and it seemed to him that it would be easy enough to do in this crowd, too, but still that flicker of hope was snuffed like a candle.

            How the hell could someone as big as Vance manage to melt into the background and become invisible? Murphy couldn’t help wondering. Well...for one thing, the man was extremely well-trained in covert surveillance; it was his job  to be able to melt into the background--to almost change colors like a chameleon, or change like a shape-shifter, and observe from concealment--and Vance struck Murphy as being the type of operative who really enjoyed his job.

            Or maybe they were trying to psych him out; maybe they were just letting him think  he was being observed, and in reality there was no one around to watch him. That could be it; it was possible that they were just playing with his head and relying on Murphy’s own fear to keep him in line. The ever-present temptation to cut and run was great, but the last thing he wanted was to take a chance on winding up with a bullet in the back of his head, or a garrote cinched tightly around his neck like a twist-tie on a garbage bag. After a further, careful, and considered nanosecond of reflection, Murphy wisely decided not to push his luck.

            He shifted the shoulder straps on his black nylon rucksack to settle its weight more comfortably across his back. The bag was filled with supplies and his instruments, which had been returned to him from the evidence room: his athame, his censer, his incense, black candles, and all the rest. And as he took in the sights and sounds of his surroundings with a sigh of relief and a slight wince at the gunshot wound in his arm, he wondered what was going on here; it looked like some kind of an open-air market or something, only it was a lot bigger and a lot more festive. And noisier, he added with another slight and sudden jump. He wished they’d cut it out with that damn shooting  over there at the south end! Every time he thought of skipping out, someone would pop off a round and scare the hell out of him, and would effectively trash any further thoughts of escape.

            For a while.

            But before attempting any escape, he first wanted to get something to eat. You can’t run on an empty stomach, you know, he told himself; he hadn’t eaten anything since last night, and it was mid-afternoon now. And the smells of all that food cooking over open fires--chicken, pork, venison, and beef, all roasting and sizzling over open flames and adding their scents to the pines, firs and the faint suggestion of rain--were making his mouth water and his stomach growl. It was definitely  time to get something to eat.

            And while satisfying his hunger, maybe he could get a line on where Betatron was located.

                                                                           ***

            “Betatron?” he said. “Naw, they’ll never  open it, not after what happened there.”

            “Well, I heard they were trying,” Murphy said to this new acquaintance, speaking around a mouthful of roasted chicken as they walked. He had not yet bothered to wipe the barbecue sauce and meat juices from his mouth. “I thought maybe I could get some janitorial work there, or something.”

            With a wry grin and a slight shake of his head, he said, “Fat chance.” 

            “How come?”

            “I guess you’re not from around here,” the acquaintance said. “The place has a fuckin’ curse on it. Or it’s haunted. Either way, there’s no one running it--it’s been shut down and abandoned for years. But if you really want to know where it is...” And then he provided excellent directions.

                                                                           ***

            The first thing he noticed about Betatron, as he gazed at it in the late afternoon light, was the cold sense of absolute dread that seemed to be emanating from it. As he stood at its main entrance gate, with his fingers clutching at the chain-link and his face resting gently against the wire, the mute, tombstone-gray concrete buildings seemed to stare back at him with darkened windows that looked like the black, empty sockets of a skull. A ten-foot-high fence that was topped with razor wire, and had once had some five thousand volts running through it, surrounded the entire complex.

            But everything here looked dead now.

            With the tall grass and weeds creeping out of the forest and moving in to take over the complex, and with a chilled wind at his back, it made him think of an abandoned old mausoleum in one of those classic Universal Studios monster movies back in the 1940s; of those scenes of a dry, dead cemetery landscape where the curling, thick white ground fog would slowly and silently creep in, and was deep enough to conceal something with fangs and claws just beneath your line of vision. He thought of those scenes where you kept yelling uselessly at the screen, trying to get the soon-to-be victim to turn and run and get the hell out  of there--and of course, the victim couldn’t hear you, which made his or her situation that much more terrifying. All you could do was sit and squirm helplessly in your seat as you watched with your eyes wide in terror, and then turn away from the screen and cover your face...and hold your breath while waiting for the inevitable screams.

            But he knew there were no such things as monsters. There were no vampires or werewolves, or restless ghosts that haunted these abandoned grounds.

            What kind of modern-day, conceivably real monster would wander around a high-tech place like this? he asked himself after a moment’s reflection. What kind of monster would stay in a place of dull concrete, rusty wire, dried wood, dusty gravel roads, and dried grass and weeds? What kind of...entity  would one find here, in this abandoned place where people once had simply followed their orders and thought nothing, absolutely nothing, of working with tons of radioactive material and waste--materials that had the potential of wiping out an entire population--all in the name of “the good of the country?” More importantly, what kind of people could work in an industry where one accident or one breakdown could very possibly result in the destruction and permanent contamination of an area the size of northern California by way of a meltdown, as long as there was a quick buck to be made while claiming to be doing it for “economic self-sufficiency?” What kind of true believers could possibly promote, build, and run a place with that kind of massive and permanent destructive potential in the names of “energy independence,” “patriotism,” and “national security?”

            He thought of Dachau.

            Now there’s  a cheery thought, he told himself. Now that he thought it over it a little more, this place really did  look kind of like an abandoned World War II death-camp; and there really wasn’t a whole helluva lot of difference he could see between the employees of a death-camp and the employees of fission reactors, whose sole by-product was the weapons-grade fuel that was used in the manufacture of nuclear warheads.

            Aw, who gives a fuck, anyway? Murphy thought. He didn’t care about any of that shit; he was here to do a job, to win his freedom, and to absorb the power here for his own.

            Not necessarily in that order, of course.

            He pushed aside the rolling chain-link gate, and stepped onto the accursed grounds of the Betatron Nuclear Power Station.

                                                                           ***

            He tried the Administration building first. He had to start somewhere; and this was the closest place anyway. He pushed though the swinging double glass doors and stepped inside, and almost immediately the sense of dread that he had been feeling outside swelled inside of him like a black wave of nausea. God, this place is creepy, he thought as he sniffed at the stale, still air. And then he thought, No, it isn’t creepiness; it’s the power of Satan. He continued to tell himself this, but somehow it didn’t alleviate the devil worshiper’s uneasiness. The sunlight dimmed and faded as he went deeper, and as he walked down the corridor he was once again reminded of abandoned death-camps like Dachau and Auschwitz, Buchenvald and Treblinka. The more he dwelled on the thought, the more he expected to hear the wailing moans and the rattling leg-chains of the restless dead as they shuffled toward him with thin, colorless, outstretched arms, beckoning to him.

            Cut that shit out, he told himself. There ain’t no proof that any of that ever happened anyway; it’s all just a bunch of liberal Jew bullshit. Besides, Satan will protect me. Just keep your mind focused on the job at hand, dammit.

            He stopped for a moment in the gathering darkness and slipped his pack from his shoulders, wincing at a twinge of pain in his wounded upper arm. Squatting with it resting in front of him on the concrete floor, he opened it and reached inside, and took out a plastic flashlight--one of those cheap, nearly disposable things that one could find at any discount store. They may as well be disposable, he thought, when you considered their durability. He closed his bag again and switched the light on, and swept its beam toward the darkened corridor that lay before him. Nothing much to look at, really, but...but nothing. There was nothing here. He was sure of it. It was quiet in here, too, as oppressively quiet as any empty, abandoned building; if there had been something in the darkened corridor before him, he certainly would have heard it. And if there was something down there, he certainly ought not to be squatting here like someone taking a dump, figuratively caught with his pants down.

            He quickly straightened and raised the flashlight, and carefully peered down the hall again.

            Nothing. Nothing but darkness and silence.

            Get on with it, he told himself, it ain’t getting any lighter outside. And besides, all that power is down there, just waiting for you to claim it as your own.

            He slung his pack over one shoulder and started down the corridor. His footsteps were silent, thanks to the rubber soles of his hiking boots, and all he could hear as he passed down the corridor was his own soft breathing. And the farther down the hall he went, the stronger the feeling of dread grew. He tried to suppress it by keeping his mind on the final reward, by thinking of how powerful he could become, but still the uneasiness increased.

            Wooden doors with wired, dual-pane glass windows were on either side of him, and stenciled on the glass in simulated gold letters were the names of various administrative departments; personnel, payroll, management, and others. He tried each door as he approached it, and found each to be unlocked. The doors swung open silently, and he would take one step inside and sweep the flashlight’s beam around. Finding nothing, he would step back out, close the door, and move on to the next until he finally reached the end of the corridor.

            He was standing at the head of a T intersection. Which way to go? he wondered as the sense of dread increased even more. God, what the hell am I doing here, anyway? he asked himself as he wiped nervous sweat from his forehead and face with a trembling hand. He felt as though he were an Egyptian grave-robber, probing the depths of a pyramid in search of golden treasures...and then he wondered with a sick grin if the ghost of Boris Karloff might suddenly leap out at him from around a darkened corner.

            Something behind him breathed.

            He spun and dropped into a sudden crouch with his back to the wall, and froze in wide-eyed terror as adrenalin surged into his bloodstream. Something was in here with him, something breathing softly and stealthily. He shined the beam down the corridor as a whine of panic escaped him. He took another harsh breath and held it, and listened carefully, but now all he could hear was the beating of his own racing heart as it pounded in his chest like a Cheyenne war drum. Then he spun around to his right, almost falling backward and catching himself just in time as he breathed in ragged, terrified gasps, and shined the light down that way. Again, he took a breath, held it, and listened carefully.

            Still nothing.

            There’s nothing here, he finally told himself. He slowly and silently let his breath out. What he had heard was merely his own breathing, echoing from the concrete walls as it had gradually grown harsher and harsher, while the sense of dread had continued to creep over him like a huge, black tarantula. He forced a soft chuckle as he straightened from his crouch. Del, you asshole, he thought with a self-conscious grin, you’re turning into a real chicken-shit wuss.

            There was nothing here--nothing to indicate that any curse had ever been cast. At least, no curses as Murphy defined them. There were no traces of black candle-wax, no ashes of incense, no chalk markings on the floor, no inverted pentagrams or crosses, no blood, nothing. If a curse really had  been placed on this complex, the ritual had not been conducted here.

            Okay, he thought. He started back toward the entrance, and with each step he could feel the sense of dread lift away from his shoulders as he approached the main doors. If he were going to put a curse on this place, where would he do it? He thought it over for a few moments, and by the time he reached the door and stepped outside into the fresh air he had the answer: the containment dome. That’s  where the guts of the place would be; the containment building was the black heart of any nuclear reactor. He could see the radioactive core in his mind’s eye as a glistening black organ, pulsating obscenely and reaching out with its writhing veins and arteries, like tentacles, to circulate its malignant energy like poisoned blood.

            And it was all his for the taking. Waiting for him.

            Come to me, Murphy, he could hear it whispering seductively inside of his mind as it delicately stroked his psyche with an oily black tentacle. Come to me, down here in the darkness; I have something for you.

            Taking a deep breath, he turned and headed with increasingly mixed feelings for the containment building.

                                                                           ***

            There was a chain on the main door, a thick chain and a good, heavy padlock. Murphy rattled it in frustration. Shit, he thought. Fuckin’ shit. Now  what? He looked around for a moment, and spotted a nice big rock. Smiling to himself, he approached it and thought, This oughtta do it. He picked it up in both hands and carried it back, then bashed it against the lock. One strike, a second, and on the third the hasp broke and the lock hung uselessly. He pulled the chain through the handles of the twin doors and let it drop to the ground with a metallic rattle, pulled one door open, and stepped inside.

            God,  it’s cold in here! he thought as that sense of dread suddenly washed over him once more. It was like passing through a portal between different dimensions; like suddenly stepping out of a temperate climate and into the Antarctic. Immediately, his breath became visible as white puffs of vapor, and he shivered uncontrollably. The place was saturated  with power; a cold, black energy that permeated the very walls and air of this mausoleum. Anyone else would have turned and left right now, and even Murphy gave it some consideration for a moment; that feeling of dread in here was a thousand times stronger than it had been in the Administration building. But still he preferred to stay--now he almost had to force  himself to stay--because he wanted the Power. He was like an excited and nervous child who wanted to pick up a rattlesnake or a black widow spider in his bare hands to prove how brave he was, and keep it in a box or a glass jar to use in mean-spirited delight to frighten other children. He wanted to see their faces and watch them jump in terror when he lifted the lid and thrust the box or jar toward their faces with a sudden bark of a shout.

            Their fear would make him powerful.

            He removed the small pack from his back, opened it, and withdrew his flashlight again. He thumbed the button and swept the beam around the inside of the building, and continued on.

                                                                           ***

            Keeping one hand on the metal guardrail and shivering in the cold, he slowly followed the catwalk that encircled the containment building. It was dark in here; too dark. He could see the sunlight coming in through the door that he had propped open with the stone he had used to break the lock, but the farther inside he went the fainter it grew. Nor was the flashlight’s beam broad enough for his satisfaction; because of this, he was caught off-guard when his hand came in contact with the slime. It felt like cold mucus. With a grimace and a groan of disgust, he quickly pulled his hand from it and wiped it on one leg of his jeans. He shined the light on the rail and saw that it was coated with the stuff; a pale, grayish-green slime that felt like snot and smelled like decay, and dripped slowly from the railing. With another sound of disgust, he kept his hand away from the rail and walked carefully, guiding himself with the flashlight’s narrow beam and following the mesh walkway.

            He reached the opposite side. The diameter of the building was a couple hundred meters, maybe a little less, and at this opposite side he found a metal ladder that led into cold darkness, both above and below. There was more of that putrescent slime coating it, dripping from the rungs in long viscous strands, and it silently fell in globs into the pitch-black depths. With another grimace of disgust, he grasped the side of it with one hand and shined the light upward. He could see nothing in those distant black shadows; the beam dispersed and faded into the darkness. Then he shined it downward; the core had to be down there below him, of course--at least, it used to be--so that was where he would go. First, he slid the rucksack from his shoulder and reached inside of it, and withdrew a long and thick black candle. He set the bag down and reached into a pocket, and withdrew a plastic butane cigarette lighter. He lit the candle and knelt on the catwalk with one knee, and pressed and twisted the candle hard against the metal mesh, squeezing enough of the wax through it so that it would stand upright. Not only would the candle provide a little light, but it would also provide him with a trail back to the exit. Holding the light upside-down in one hand and shining it downward so he could have some idea of how far he was going, and trying to take it easy on his wounded arm, he slowly and cautiously began to descend the ladder.

            God, this sucks, he thought as he slowly took one step down after another. This climbing around in the dark on this cold, slippery, smelly ladder really and truly sucked, major league. The slime grew thicker and colder the farther down he went, and it had a smell like a freshly ruptured abscess that filled his nose and lungs, and stuck in a glob at the back of this throat. And the farther he went, the more doubtful he became. Is all that Power down there really worth the bother?

            Yes! he thought. It has  to be!

            (you sure about that, del?) his little inner voice asked.

            Well... He began to have his doubts, and without realizing it he began to slow his descent.

            No doubts! He almost shouted at himself in the darkness. Don’t you doubt, damn you, he told himself as he continued downward. Doubting will weaken your resolve and your faith. Never doubt your faith in the Dark Lord! Just keep moving, and don’t think about it, and you’ll be fine. Just fine.

            With a sudden and piercing screech, something flew at his face from out of the darkness on leathery wings. Murphy cried out and threw a hand up in front of his face to ward the thing off; at almost the same time, his feet suddenly slipped out from under him. With a strangled whine of terror, he clutched at the slippery ladder with both hands, dropping the flashlight, and scrambled for a foot hold on the rung. He thought for certain that he was about to fall to his death, but a moment later he managed to regain his footing. For several long minutes he just stood there, panting to get his wind back and squeezing his eyes shut, and sweating nervously in the pitch blackness and desperately clutching the cold, slimy and foul-smelling ladder to him as though it were a savior from Heaven.

            He finally looked up, wondering if he should just get the hell out of here, and all he could see was darkness. Then he looked downward, and saw nothing but more darkness. How much farther is it? He never did hear that flashlight hit bottom; he suddenly felt like a first-time spelunker, swaying gently in the middle of a mountainous cavern a thousand feet from the entrance overhead and a thousand feet above the stalagmite-covered floor below, suspended by nothing more substantial than a fraying rope and ready to fall to his death, to be impaled on a stake of lime and calcium. Well, he would never find out anything if he just continued to stand here, he figured, so he took a deep breath and took another step down, and another...and his foot hit the concrete floor.

            What the...are you kidding  me? he asked himself. He almost laughed at himself with relief. Here he was, scared shitless of falling, and he had been only a couple of feet from the floor.

            So why hadn’t he heard the flashlight hit bottom?

            He stepped away from the ladder and wiped his hands off on his jeans again, then set the bag down on the floor. He dug around in it again and withdrew another black candle, and lit it with his cigarette lighter. Still kneeling on the floor, he looked around for the flashlight for a moment, but he saw no sign of it. What the hell happened to it? He began to wonder if someone down here had caught it, and was now playing with him. Or maybe some thing  had caught it; something small and scaly, and vaguely humanoid, snickering behind one reptilian paw. Here’s your flashlight, Mister Murphy, it called out tauntingly in his mind. You want it back? Come with me into the darkness and get it.

            It’s really amazing how the mind can play tricks on you, when you’re alone in the dark, Murphy told himself. He tried to shrug off his paranoia, but a trace of it stuck in a far corner of his mind. Perhaps to blossom later. He’d have to watch that; this place was really beginning to get on his nerves, and he had to be careful.

            He let some candle wax dribble onto the floor, then he pressed its bottom against it and held it for a moment as the melted wax solidified and held the candle in place to serve as a trail marker. He reached into his bag again and extracted another candle, lit it from the one on the floor, then straightened once more and held it high as he slung the bag over a shoulder.

            He wasn’t certain of which way to turn now. He raised the candle a little higher and strained his eyes in the darkness, but he could see nothing. He finally stepped away from the ladder and slowly strode toward what he thought might be the center of the room, and with perhaps a dozen steps or so he came up against a short concrete wall that was maybe four feet high. He laid a hand on top of it and immediately yanked it back as he came in contact with more cold putrescence. Trying not to touch the stuff--he was already coated with it from the ladder, but why get more of it on him?--he carefully leaned over and held the flickering candle forward to peer downward into the darkness.

            Someone down there, with a tiny light, looked back up at him.

            With a sudden sharp gasp and a heart racing in terror, he lurched back out of the stranger’s line of vision. He snuffed his candle as he quickly turned and dropped into a crouch, and cowered against the wall. This place is supposed to be empty! he told himself. It’s supposed to be abandoned! Who the hell was down there? Oh, God, I...I’ve got to get out of here, man, this...this place is just too fucking much! It ain’t worth it!

            And then something else suddenly occurred to him, and with a scowl he thought, Wait  a minute...

            Slowly and quietly, he straightened and cautiously peered over the wall again. Now he could see nothing. He waited for a long moment, then slowly brought his butane lighter up and over, and lit it. The light below reappeared. He grinned once more at his own foolishness, then hawked a wad of phlegm from the back of his throat and spat it toward the light. The sounds echoed from the curved wall; there was a soft accompanying bloip! and the light ruptured into a thousand ripples. There was nothing down there but water; the light and the figure down there were nothing but his own reflection. Just as in the Administration building, the only source of the sounds was Murphy himself. Del, you really can be an asshole at times, he chided himself with a crooked grin.

            Water?

            With a sudden wave of realization and excitement, he thought, This is it! Hot damn, this is it! Like a grave robber plundering a burial site, he had found his long sought-after treasure at last--this was one of the storage pools where they had once kept the radioactive fuel rods.

            He had found the heart of Betatron.

            He eagerly set to work. Guided by the compass he had pulled from his bag, he started at the north and lit and planted four more black candles, moving clockwise. Three of them--north, east and west--he planted on top of the short wall, but he planted the southern candle several feet away in order to make room for himself inside of this lopsided circle. Next, he reached into his rucksack for two sticks of chalk--one white, so he could easily see the circle itself, and the other red, for the color of blood. These two circles he drew on top of the pool’s edge, one at a time, starting at the north. After completing this task, he took up his athame. Holding it in both hands with its point toward the sky, high above his head, and with his voice echoing from the curved concrete walls, he intoned, “Hail Satan, Lord of Darkness! I call upon you to be here now, to witness this rite and to grant me the dark power to do your will! And by your power I cast and consecrate this Circle!” As he spoke these words and lowered his arms to point the knife at the north candle, he suddenly realized he had a bit of a problem; in order to cast an effective Circle, he had to walk around the inside  of it so that he would be protected from any outside forces that might try to interfere, and so that he wouldn’t be crossing its barrier and thereby diminishing its power. But on the other hand, there was no way in hell  he was going to stand on top of the edge of the storage pool and walk around it in this uncertain, flickering light and take a chance on losing his balance and falling in. He had no idea of how far that fall might be, nor of how deep the water was, and while he told himself that he had the utmost faith in what he believed he also liked to believe he possessed a certain amount of common sense. So instead of doing things properly, he stepped outside of where his circle would be and drew its invisible line from one candle to the next.

            He lay the dagger on the pool’s edge, using the short wall as his altar, and picked up his censer–a large, hollow brass ball suspended from a brass chain, that he had stolen from a Catholic church. He poured in an ounce or so of graveyard dust powdered incense--he chose this blend not so much for its supposed properties, properties with which he was unfamiliar, but rather because he liked the name--and lit it with a wooden match. Once it began to spew billowing clouds of white smoke, he carried this in both hands by its chain, swinging it to and fro in a mad parody of a Catholic priest, and walked around the outside of the circle once more as he chanted his invocation a second time. Once this task was completed, he reached into his bag again and withdrew a small black iron cauldron that was maybe six inches across and about as many deep. Into this went some wood-chips, a squirt of cigarette lighter fluid, and a flaring wooden match. The fluid caught with a soft whoomph! Holding the cauldron above his head at arm’s length, he called out to his dark master once more: “Hail Satan, Lord of Darkness! I call upon you to be here now, to witness this rite and to grant me the dark power to do your will!” He placed the cauldron on the pool’s edge, picked up his athame and slipped it into its sheath at his hip, and waited.

            While he waited, he thought. He thought about the power of Satan, and what he could do with it. If he could absorb the power here and use it for his own, why, there was probably nothing  that he couldn’t do. And the first thing he would do is kill Vance. He would blast him to pieces, thereby assuring his own freedom, and then he would probably go after those who had sent him here. He’d fix those Christians at Alpha & Omega, those fucking pigs who sent him out here under the threat of a death sentence; he’d fix them good, and pay them back for arresting him and for threatening his life. Goddamn religion freaks, he thought, always talking so self-righteously about peace and love through one side of their mouths, and then condemning you through the other side and burning people alive or hanging them.

            There was no answer to his invocation. What was he doing wrong? What had he forgotten? He thought for a moment. The crucifix! That’s  what he was forgetting! He reached into his bag again and withdrew one of two crosses--this one a plain, black wooden cross--and went to place it upside down at the northern candle. He returned to the other side of his circle and intoned again, “Hail Satan, Lord of Darkness! I call upon you to be here now, to witness this rite and to grant me the dark power to do your will!”

            Still nothing.

            He was beginning to think that maybe this really is a waste of time after all; maybe it really is all bullshit. With growing uncertainty, he raised his athame again and pointed it in both hands toward the sky. “Hail, Satan!” he shouted. If he had to, he would stand here all fucking night  and call upon his dark lord, or maybe camp out here and call upon him until he finally got a response.

            He took another deep breath and shouted, “Hail, Sat--”

            “You  miserable  little  shit...”

            Murphy screamed, and flinched so violently that he nearly dropped his athame. He quickly spun around with his back to the storage pool, and tried to determine where that low, deep, lion’s growl of a voice had come from. He could see nothing; the flickering orange light from the cauldron and candles didn’t extend far enough into the darkness. His eyes were bulged in terror and his breath came in gasps, and sweat flowed from every pore as his heart pounded. “Who’s there?” his terrified voice demanded.

            Oppressive silence, impenetrable darkness, and dim, flickering candlelight answered him.

            He knew it hadn’t been his imagination this time. Maybe what he had heard in the Administration building hadn’t been his imagination, either. The sense of dread, the sounds, perhaps they hadn’t been all in his mind after all; maybe it wasn’t his mind that was playing tricks on him in the dark, but something far more tangible.

            “Who’s there?” he demanded again, and his echo returned to him from the curved walls. His voice was nearly a piercing scream. “Who’s there?

            Again, there were only silence and darkness, and dim flickering light.

            He was beginning to think that maybe it really was  just his mind fucking around with him again; prolonged darkness and silence and isolation could do that to you. But that voice had sounded so real, so goddamned real... He didn’t know what to think now, other than that he wanted to get the hell out of here. “Lord Satan,” he whined. “Oh God, please, dear lord Satan, protect me...”

            “Miserable little shit,” the contemptuous voice rumbled again...and then it laughed a dry, hollow laugh that echoed from the shadowy depths of this nuclear mausoleum. “Neither your Satan or your God can protect you now; this is my  domain...”

            Murphy spun around again, and his blood ran like ice water through his veins. The voice had come from behind him; not from the storage pool itself, but from something floating above  the pool, on a level with Murphy himself.

            Fighting down his panic, he asked, “Wh...who are you?”

            Murphy could almost see the cold, malignant grin as the disembodied growl of a voice replied, “Use your imagination.”

            Oh, dear God, he thought. I can’t handle this, I just can’t handle it... He slowly reached for his bag, hoping that whatever this thing was couldn’t see him. He’d had enough of this place; he was getting out. Now.

            “Going  somewhere, Delbert?”

            With a short, panicked scream, Murphy tried to run for the ladder. He slipped in the cold, viscous pus that coated the floor, and fell back on his ass and hands, coating both with more necrotic slime. He turned over onto his hands and knees and tried to scramble away, and the thing in the darkness reached out and took hold of one ankle in a soft, cool grip. Murphy screamed again as it pulled at his leg, and he yanked his foot out of its grasp and tried to get to his feet once more. Gasping and crying, with his breath turning to white puffs of cold vapor as he tried to gain his footing, he slipped again. He fell flat onto his belly with his arms and legs splayed out, and the concrete floor kissed his lips with more of that foul-smelling pus and mucus. With an effort, he got to his feet and tried to run for the ladder. The candle was still burning there, marking his way out; if only he could stay on his feet, he would soon be safe. Slipping and sliding, and falling and rising to his feet, he ignored the agony in his wounded arm as he managed to work his way to the ladder. On his knees, he grabbed one side of it and pulled himself to his feet, and--

            --the naked woman was there, standing next to it. It took him a moment to recognize her as the woman whom he had sacrificed only a few days ago. Her sparkling blue eyes were glazed over with a milky film, and her blonde hair hung limply about her shoulders, and a ragged, gaping red wound pulsated between her breasts, causing the dagger there to twitch with each movement.

            “My Prince Moloch,” the corpse said with a flat, moist and dead voice as she began to shuffle toward him with outstretched arms. “Remember me?”

            “GAAAAAHHHD!!” He lunged for the ladder. Spurred on by sheer terror, he actually made it up a couple of rungs before the corpse’s hand lashed out and caught him by his belt buckle. She looked up at him and smiled a dead and empty smile.

            “Ssssweet Prince Moloch,” she hissed with a flat, dead imitation of desire. “Come back; I have something for you.” She began to pull him down.

            “NO!!” He tried to break away from her hold, but he couldn’t; he pushed up and away from her with both legs, and each time she would pull him back down. She pulled at him once more and tore him away from the ladder; he fell and landed flat on his back, just missing the candle. It was too bad he didn’t land on top of it, because if he had he would have snuffed out the light and he mercifully would not have been able to see what happened next.

            “My sweet prince,” she said again. “Don’t you want to make love to me again?” She stepped over him so that she was now standing astride him. “I have something for you.”

            He stared up at the corpse in mute horror, and then he saw the snake. The glistening black head of a hooded cobra squirmed its way out from the corpse’s vagina; its malevolent little eyes glared a bright red, and its jaw opened in a vicious grin to reveal two small, gleaming white fangs that dripped blood and venom. It lashed out at him like a bullwhip and shot between his legs to sink its fangs deeply into him, just behind his scrotum. He screamed a wild scream, and it bit him a second time, bit him hard, and he screamed the high-pitched scream of exquisite, consummate terror.

            He didn’t know how he did it, but he got away from the corpse and onto his feet. Nearly leaving the rucksack behind--To hell with it! he thought at first, and then made a wild grab for it--he lunged for the ladder and scrambled his way up, hanging onto his bag by its shoulder straps. A massive, dull throb of pain pulsated in his crotch and spread throughout his penis and testicles like a slow-moving poison, but he ignored it as he continued up.

            That cool, dead hand reached out from the darkness and grabbed his ankle again. With another madman’s scream, he yanked his foot away and kicked at it, and climbed for all he was worth.

            He reached the catwalk where his candle stood, still burning. Ignoring all dangers of slipping and falling, he ran as fast as his feet could carry him. Might slip and fall? A corner of his mind asked. Slip and fall, and splatter his skull? That would be a relief  compared to what waited for him below. But if he were unfortunate enough to merely break his neck and be rendered paralyzed from the neck down, and still alive...

            He slammed his shoulder against the door, and suddenly he was outside in the fresh, cool evening air. But still he ran; he ran until he thought his heart would burst. He couldn’t get far enough away from that place, and he couldn’t do it fast enough. He didn’t even bother to look over his shoulder to see how far he had gone; he just kept running and running, until he could finally run no farther. Panting like a dog, he finally collapsed on the ground, rested his back against a tree, and cried. He cried in relief at being out of that place, and he cried in terror at the thought of that...that thing biting  him.

            Then he remembered the cigarette lighter in his pocket. He reached for it, then unzipped his trousers and pulled them down to inspect the wound. He spun the wheel and the gas caught, and he checked himself for damage.

            Nothing.

            There was nothing there. No wound, no swelling, no bruise or other discolorations...not a mark.

            He sobbed in relief.

            But his relief was short lived as another thought came to him; he had failed in his mission. Not only would he not absorb any of the power of that curse, but his mission was a failure. And Vance was still out there, somewhere, and he would have to report to him. If he didn’t, Vance would come looking for him.

            But all was not lost, not just yet; he still had one slim chance. He was supposed to get rid of the curse, true, but no one said how  he was supposed to get rid of it. As long as he was responsible for its removal...if he could just find the witch who had originally placed that curse on Betatron, and force her  to remove it, they would still have to let him go. And a good place to try looking for her would be at the carnival. I’ll just hang around there and ask around, and see if she shows up, he told himself. She’s got to show up, sooner or later; she’s got to.

            One way or another, he was going to keep his end of the bargain, and win his freedom.

                                                                   Chapter Seven
 

 

            The afternoon was cool and moderately overcast. A gentle breeze whispered through the redwoods and the underbrush as it came in from the northwest, and the cloud-filtered light made the colors of the woods stand out in rich hues of green, brown and reddish-brown, and gray. It was perfect weather for...

            Carnival time!

            Every month, on the day and night of the full moon, there would be various gatherings of people from the surrounding homes, small villages and communes which would get together for open air farmers’ markets to sell homegrown produce, homemade clothing, wine, jewelry and other goods. Much like the Full Moon circles that the witches attended, it was a good time for people to get together and visit with each other, and to catch up on what was happening in everyone’s lives. But at the solstices and the equinoxes, and at the halfway points between each changing of the seasons, there were big three-day gatherings of people from all over the Allied territory and even some points beyond. This carnival was the beginning of a three-day festival in celebration of the Sabbat some called Lammas--the halfway point between the summer solstice and the fall equinox. Several bands were playing while a number of minstrels wandered from stand to stand, and roving magicians would move from one cluster of children to the next, entertaining and amazing young and old alike. Booths were set up for fortune tellers who were dressed like Hungarian gypsies and reading Tarot cards, tea leaves, palms and crystal balls, and trying to charge fifty dollars a shot. Trying, because many people here no longer dealt in cash, although there were some outsiders who attended these carnivals and who still spent much of their time in the cities where cash was always needed. But the majority of Territory residents nowadays were involved in the transition from the monetary to the barter system; and while there was still some cash floating around out there, it was not prized as highly as it once had been. (Valerie knew that the fortunetellers were fakes; if they were legitimate, they wouldn’t be charging money for their services. They would be encouraging their customers, as Valerie had done many times before, to go out and do something  helpful for someone.) The air was alive with the smell of fresh bread, pastries and barbecued meats, and there was music and friendly conversation, and there was merry laughter everywhere.

            Working the crowds was a spry but elderly man with long white hair and a trimmed beard, who could be seen carrying a canvas bag filled with fresh loaves of bread slung over a shoulder. In one hand he held a long loaf from which he would tear generous chunks, approach potential customers, and pass them out in the hopes of selling some. “Fresh, oven-baked bread!” he called out, and at one point both baker and customers had nearly been run over by a shrieking and laughing swarm of children with painted faces as they ran pell-mell through the crowds. “Made with the finest secret ingredients--get it while it lasts!” People tried the free samples, and whatever those “secret ingredients” might have been, they certainly made the customers hungry enough to want to buy a lot more. It sold quickly.

            Gunshots could be heard off in the distance. Not shots of anger or warfare; it was the militia’s monthly shooting contest, where prizes were awarded for first, second and third place winners. And the militia was made up of both men and women. There were no cash prizes; the first place prize was a solid gold shooter’s medallion, with a blue-and-red ribbon and encased in a glassed-in wooden frame, to be proudly held along with bragging rights, until the next contest when someone else might win it. Fifty pounds of venison made up second prize, and a twenty-five pound turkey was third. And there was a prize for last place, too: 100 paper targets, each bearing a different picture of The Enemy--faces of major figures in the Foundation for Law and Morality. No one really wanted to take last place (it was a rotten job, but someone had to do it), but getting the opportunity to vent one’s last-place frustrations at home by shooting up those hated faces--and thereby greatly improving one’s aim in the process--took much of the sting out of it. Poor old Charlie Merrill had the dubious distinction of taking last place last month; right now, he looked as though he would probably walk away with that fifty pounds of venison.

            The weapons were of a wide assortment: Winchesters and Marlins, both bolt-action and lever-action; there were military-styled semiautomatics, like Springfields and Colt AR-15s and a variety of Valmets; there were semiautomatic copies of and fully automatic authentic Soviet-made AK-47s; there were semi-auto Fabrique Nationale rifles  and German-made Heckler & Koch 91s and 93s, and Israeli-made Uzis and Galils. On the pistol range, there were revolvers and semi-autos, ranging from the Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special to the .50 Israeli-made Desert Eagle and everything in between, and in every caliber. There was also an archery range, set up with targets set at distances from fifteen to eighty meters, and people could compete with either longbows or crossbows. First, second and third place prizes were awarded here, too, for these “silent snipers,” and it was interesting to note that here the women’s skills far exceeded the men’s. A Lakota woman named Claudia Archer held first place for the last six months.

            Valerie and Jasmine were both dressed in faded blue jeans, dark brown moccasins, and brightly tie-dyed t-shirts. Over hers, Valerie wore a fringed buckskin jacket that was held closed by a narrow belt and decorated with intricate beadwork on the pockets, while Jasmine wore a black leather blazer. Both of them wore their silver-ornamented Triple Moon leather headbands with their dark hair loose and flowing; they also wore brightly sparkling silver rings and bracelets, and Jasmine wore small silver hoop earrings. She was carrying the string bag and Valerie carried the canvas one, and both were filled to the brim with goods for which some had been traded, and others purchased with cash (Valerie had sold twenty pounds of deer meat for a hundred dollars). Hand in hand, with their fingers laced together, they strolled casually through the aisles that wound their way through and around the various stands and temporary shops as they checked out what all else was for sale, and occasionally they picked up a fragment of a nearby conversation. “Betatron?” a voice had said, and when Valerie drew within range she heard only, “Naw, they’ll never  open it, not after what happened there...” “Well, I heard they were trying...” before the speakers moved off and got lost in the crowds. She thought nothing of it. They stopped here and there to admire fresh produce, tasted some free samples of cured and dried meats, and examined leather goods and a wide variety of jewelry. Jasmine commented on the craftsmanship of rings, bracelets, chains and necklaces.

            “Wow, these are pretty!” she said in admiration as she examined a collection of American Indian jewelry that lay displayed on a large square piece of blue velvet that lay upon a heavy wooden table.

            “Thank you,” said the slim, attractive Lakota woman who stood behind the table on which her work rested. She picked up a ring and handed it to her. “Try this one on; I just made it last night.”

            Jasmine accepted the ring as she set her bag on the ground, then slipped it onto the ring finger of her left hand. She spread her fingers and admired it. “This is really nice,” she said as she noticed how the intricate designs seemed to shift and swirl as the angle of the light changed with each movement of her hand. In the center of the ring was an oval-shaped piece of dazzlingly buffed turquoise. “This is amazing. How did you get it to reflect the light this way?”

            The woman grinned. “Trade secret,” she replied. “If I told everyone how I did it they’d all be making their own jewelry.”

            “I can imagine. I make a lot of my own stuff, and I don’t like to let people know how I did it, either. I’d love to take this home and try my hand at it.”

            “You can,” the woman said, and grinned at the surprised look on Jasmine’s face. “For a hundred dollars.”

            Jasmine grinned, too. Regretfully. “Not today, I’m afraid,” she said. She gently pulled at the ring to remove it. “Oh dear.”

            The woman behind the table raised an eyebrow.

            With a crooked and embarrassed grin, Jasmine said, “I can’t get it off.”

            “Right,” the woman said with a patient smile. “That’s only the hundredth time I’ve heard that today. People who try on rings always  say that.”

            “No, I mean it.” She started to worry. “I can’t get it off.”

            “Oh, come on, Jasmine,” Valerie said calmly. “Don’t screw around.”

            “I’m serious, Valerie,” she said, staring with ever-growing concern at the ring. “I can’t get it off!” She tugged harder, twisting it back and forth, and her look changed from worry to panic as her efforts to remove the ring increased. “You don’t happen to have a hundred dollars, do you?”

            “Jesus, Jasmine!” Valerie said. “Why did you have to--” She sighed and growled in exasperation. “Here, wait a second.” She set her own bag on the ground and took her hand. “You lean back, and I’ll pull.”

            “Relax,” the woman said, now convinced that the ring really was stuck. “I’ve got something that’ll take it right off.” She reached under the table and withdrew her security system–an unsheathed and razor-edged Bowie knife, which she held firmly in one hand. “This’ll do it. One chop, right about here, just below the knuckle.” She indicated the proper area with the knife’s tip. And then she looked up to see the horrified looks on their faces, and waited a moment for any further reaction. Finally, no longer able to suppress her grin, she reached under the counter once more and produced a small jar of petroleum jelly.

            The two Witches stared at her for a moment, and then Valerie burst into laughter.

            Jasmine gave her a “How can you laugh at a time like this?” look, and then dabbed a finger into the small jar, smeared it all around the ring’s band and kept working at it, and a moment later it slipped right off. She breathed a deep sigh of relief. “There we go,” she said.

            “Thank God,” Valerie added.

            “I’m sorry about the fuss,” Jasmine told the woman. “God, this is so embarrassing...”

            Still grinning, the woman said, “Hey, don’t worry. Sometimes they really do get stuck; that’s why I keep the jeweler’s little helper around.” She accepted the ring and wiped it off. “Besides, smearing this stuff on it makes it sparkle more anyway, and makes it look that much more attractive.” She looked at them again as she replaced the ring. “Sorry about the knife--but I just had  to see the look on your faces.”

            Jasmine was not in the least bit amused as she wiped her hand off on the towel.

            Valerie chuckled once more and nudged her lady. “C’mon, Jas, where’s your sense of humor? You do get to keep all your fingers, after all.” And then she noticed the t-shirts that hung on wire hangers a few feet away. “Are those yours also?”

            “Uh huh. My husband does those.” She looked at Jasmine. “Want to try one on? They don’t get stuck.”

            This time even Jasmine managed to work up a smile. “Thanks; I think I’ll pass this time.”

            Valerie grinned at her partner’s embarrassment. She nudged her and said, “Go on, go ahead.”

            “You first.”

            “What’ve you got?” she asked the jeweler. She did need a new nightshirt, she remembered.

            She turned and took down a few. “All kinds,” she said. She laid them out on the table on top of the jewelry, displaying the different colors and designs. “This one is my husband’s favorite design.” She slipped her hand under the dark blue shirt so they could get a better look at the artwork. Painted on it was a black and silver wolf standing on a hilltop, with a silver pentagram above it. The wolf’s eyes were of pale amber.

            “Hey, this is a beauty,” Valerie said. “Sierra would love it.”

            The jeweler smiled at the compliment, and looked from the shirt to Valerie. She noticed the color of her eyes and looked at the shirt again, then at Valerie once more.

            Valerie folded the shirt and laid it aside for purchase, then looked at some others. Among them she found a pale blue shirt with “Hawaii!” emblazoned across the front, and below there was a palm tree with a topless hula dancer in a grass skirt standing beneath it, frozen in the middle of an island dance. “Hey, this is cute!” She held it in her fingertips by its shoulders, and held it against Jasmine. “What do you think? You like it?”

            Jasmine grinned. “Yeah! It’s neat!”

            “Great,” she told the jeweler. “We’ll take this one, too.”

            “You buy two and you get a third one for half price.”

            “Cool!” She looked around for a moment longer, then one more shirt, still hanging in back, caught her eye. “Oh, yeah, that one--” she pointed “--that one right there.”

            The woman took down one more shirt. It was dark red and there was a black design of an Indian warrior sitting atop a horse. Clutched in his upraised fist was not a war lance, but an M-16; below was a logo that read “Red Power!”

            Something struck a chord inside her. Her eyes flashed like those of a cat that had just spied an unsuspecting mouse, and she said, “Yeah, perfect!” with a growing smile that looked almost predatory.

            She handed Valerie the shirt. “Ah,” she said approvingly. “This one is my grandmother’s favorite.”

            “Oh, yeah?” Jasmine asked. “I take it she’s still a spry old radical activist or something?”

            The Indian woman smiled at Jasmine. “Actually, she’s a medicine woman,” she said. “She’s usually very quiet and mellow and calm--very proper and traditional, y’know? She never gets worked up over anything anymore. But the first time she saw that shirt...” She gazed at it and thought back, fondly remembering her reaction, and her smile grew into a grin. “She said it reminded her of the old days of Wounded Knee Two, back in ‘73; that was before she became a medicine woman. She helped not only to hold off over a thousand federal marshals and FBIs and National Guards for over two months, but she also helped to sneak supplies in through their lines during the night.” Then she looked at Valerie. She didn’t think there would be too many whites that would want a shirt like this; with her dark, tanned complexion and her manner of dress, she thought she might possibly be Indian. But because of her uncanny amber eyes, she really couldn’t tell–so she was prompted to ask with a slightly puzzled look, “You’re not Indian, are you?”

            Thoughts of Jeff Hastings and that night so long ago, when he hypnotically regressed her to Sand Creek, suddenly flitted through her mind. “I guess I used to be, a real long time ago,” she said with a slight reflective shrug. Returning to the here and now, she added, “But as the old saying goes, being Indian isn’t a matter of what’s in your blood--it’s what’s in your heart. Or something like that, anyway; I wish I could remember who first said that.” She dug into her pocket. “What do I owe you for the shirts?”

            She totaled them up. “Twenty-five bucks.”

            “Sold!” She dug into the pocket of her jeans and handed the money over, took all three shirts, and put them in her bag. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.” She offered her hand and they shook. “My name’s Valerie Ryan, and my wacko girlfriend here is Jasmine Tanaka.”

            “I’m Gina Windsong,” she said as she shook her hand. As she shook Jasmine’s she said, “I’m pleased to meet you. And if you ever want to buy anything else, I’m here every month.”

            “Good deal,” Valerie said. “We’ll see you next month, then.”

            Jasmine picked up her bag and said, “Sorry about the mess with the ring.”

            Gina laughed. “Don’t worry about it. One of these days you’ll have to show me some of your work--I can probably sell it for you.”

            Jasmine grinned. “Yeah, maybe so.” She and Valerie hoisted their bags to their shoulders and started off. “Take it easy, Gina.”

            “You too, guys.”

            As they moved off, Valerie leaned in close to Jasmine and said, “I think she likes  you!”

            Jasmine laughed and waved her off as she said, “Get outta here!”

                                                                           ***

            Dressed in faded blue denim bib overalls, a purple tie-dyed t-shirt and her smoky-gray aviator-style sunglasses, Sierra approached a stand where fresh huge bunches of purple grapes were being sold. The slender silver-haired woman behind the stand on which they rested smiled at her in recognition. “Well, hello there, Sierra! How’ve you been?”

            “Fine, Sonja!” She removed the shades and slipped them into a front pocket of her overalls. “How’s the grape business?”

            “Doing just fine, thank you. Can I interest you in any?”

            “Well, maybe one.”

            Sonja gave the child a puzzled look. “Just one?”

            “Yeah; I got a trick to show you, and all I need is one.”

            “Okay, let’s see it.”

            Sierra pulled a fat purple grape from a bunch close by. She took a step back and held the grape in one hand, moving it slowly up and down to judge the proper trajectory. Then she tossed it high into the air, tilted her head back and let her jaw open. She wavered slightly, forward and backward, and a little to her right. The grape reached its zenith, began to descend, and she quickly moved under it to catch it in her mouth. It landed with a thump against the back of her tongue.

            Sonja laughed and clapped her hands. “Bravo!” she said. “You think you can do it again?”

            Sierra chewed, smiled and said, “Prob’ly not.” She turned her head aside and spat a couple of seeds onto the ground.

            Sonja laughed again. “Well, shoot,” she said. “A once-in-a-lifetime trick like that shouldn’t go unrewarded.” She picked up a fat bunch of grapes and slipped them into a paper bag. “Here; these are for you. Enjoy!”

            Sierra beamed at her in surprise. “Thank you!” she said.

            “You’re quite welcome. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see your folks at the meeting last night; on the other hand, I hear you guys held a special ceremony..?”

            Sierra grinned, then cast a quick look around to be certain that no one was watching. Then she pulled the silver pentacle with its amber center from beneath the neck of her shirt and showed it to her. “Look at what they gave me!”

            Sonja’s eyes widened in surprise and delight. “Hey, that’s beautiful!” She leaned forward and lowered her voice a little. “You have to remember not to show it off to too many people, though, okay? There are still a lot of crazy people around who would get the wrong idea.”

            “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

            Sonja grinned again. “Where are your folks, anyway? You didn’t come here all by yourself this month, did you?”

            “Oh, they’re around here somewhere; they’re always  wandering off and getting lost. I guess I’d better go find them before they get into trouble.”

            “Okay,” Sonja said with a chuckle. “You take care, okay? And don’t forget to tell them I said hi.”

            “You got it!” She gave her a thumbs up, and then strolled off, munching grapes and checking out the rest of the stands.

                                                                           ***

            They found Sierra eating grapes and watching a juggler juggle five tennis balls, keeping them all circulating in the air and delighting his audience. Sierra tucked her bag under one arm and clapped and cheered with the rest of the onlookers.

            “So here  you are,” Valerie said, and then grinned widely when she noticed the face painting. Her nose had been painted black, and underneath it were drawn long black whiskers that extended to her cheeks. “Well, look at you! You look like a big ol’ cat.”

            Sierra curled her fingers and playfully clawed at her. “I’m a mountain  lion!” she said with a merry snarl.

            “Been having a good time?”

            “Oh, yeah! This is great! Want some free grapes? Sonja gave ‘em to me. She also says hi.”

            “Sure, thanks. That was nice of her.” Valerie knelt in front of her, and Sierra pulled a grape from its bunch and popped it into her mouth. “Mmm, good grapes. Sonja’s got the best grapes in town.”

            “Listen,” Jasmine said, “it’s getting cold and a little dark. Are you guys about ready to head for home?”

            Sierra’s face fell in sudden disappointment. “Aw, do we have to go already?” She enjoyed these carnivals immensely, what with all the fascinating sights and sounds; and the chances to get together with so many of her friends and go tearing around and having a grand old time didn’t come along that often, so she really hated to leave. But she also had to look at the situation realistically, and she knew that she couldn’t stay out here all night. “I suppose so.”

            “Oh, don’t look so sad,” Valerie said sympathetically. “After all, we still get to come back for a couple more days to check on other stuff we might need.”

            “And autumn isn’t all that far away, either,” Jasmine added. “So we can come back then, too. Okay?”

            Sierra’s face brightened. “Cool!”

            On the way to the small horse-drawn wagon, they picked up another loaf of French bread and a barbecued chicken so they could have another snack on the way home. When they reached their horse-drawn wagon Sierra was the first inside, scrambling up the side to settle down in the back. Her folks passed the bags up to her and she settled them inside a long wooden box that rested behind the wooden bench seat, and then the two adults climbed in. Valerie took the reins, and Jasmine settled next to her and began tearing apart the barbecued chicken and handed out pieces along with chunks of fresh bread, and they sang Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” together, over and over again, around mouthfuls of food as they rode back home.

                                                                           ***

            All was dark, peaceful and quiet. The only sounds inside the cabin were the soft crackling of the dying flames in the fireplace and the soft, regular breathing of the two women who lay sleeping underneath the huge skylight. The video system had long since been turned off, and Sierra lay sleeping in her own private room.

            Valerie bolted upright and sat in the dark silence. For a moment, all she could hear was the pounding of her own heart that sounded like the thundering of the hooves of a hundred horses. It was that damn dream again. Only this time, for a fleeting moment, a man’s face hung before her...blond hair and beard, and raging blue eyes that were filled with maniacal hatred and lust. Leaning over her with one hand crushing her throat and his legs between hers, he was dressed in blue (denim? maybe a uniform? certainly not one of the Holy Guards), and he was raising a bayonet that was clutched in one fist, ready to...

            She looked at Jasmine and saw that she was still sleeping peacefully, completely undisturbed by the sudden movement next to her. She fought to hang onto the memory of the dream, but it slipped away from her once more, like smoke through her fingers, and the images dissolved into nothingness...and then there was just the rustling of the gusty wind through the trees outside. And a very dull and non-frightening fragment of a conversation that echoed through her mind, only a few words that had said, “Naw, they’ll never  open it...”

            She looked out the window at the lashing trees and rubbed slowly at her bare arms to ward off a sudden chill; it was unusually cold for this time of year. Weird weather, she thought, and then wondered for half a second if it meant anything. Brushing off the thought as nothing important, and careful not to awaken Jasmine, she peeled back the soft warm bearskin and rose naked from the bed. With a shiver, she slipped into her “Red Power!” shirt. The room had grown chilly, and she reached toward the foot of the bed where Jasmine’s blue satin kimono lay, and slipped it on over the shirt. As she tied the sash at her waist, she went silently toward Sierra’s bedroom and eased the door open, and quietly stepped inside to approach the bed where her daughter lay sleeping peacefully. The girl, nestled within her own new nightshirt, had kicked her covers off. Apparently she had been too warm earlier, beneath a dark blue and unzipped nylon-and-down sleeping bag, but now the fire was dying in the fireplace and this room, too, had grown cold, and she occasionally shivered in her sleep. Valerie pulled the cover up and tucked it under her chin, then sat carefully on the edge of the bed. She leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “I love you,” she whispered. “Gods, how I love you.” She sat for a few minutes, watching her sleep, and suddenly she wondered what she would do if anyone ever tried to harm Sierra.

            She would kill them, of course.

            There were some people who made pretentious claims of great threats, mostly to show off how tough they were and to hide their insecurities; these were braggarts who made boastful threats, like “I’ll cut off their balls and feed ‘em to them,” or “I’ll cut their guts open and feed ‘em to the fucking vultures--and that’s just for starters,” or other equally graphic and disgusting threats. But none of that went through Valerie’s mind; as any mother wolf would do to protect its offspring, she would do her best to kill any attacker, or die trying. Just kill them, with whatever it took.

            Simple as that.

            She slowly rose from the bed and went to put another log on the fire, then returned to the bed and kissed Sierra once more. Then, as quietly as a spirit, she went back to the main room, leaving Sierra’s door open.

            With only a soft whisper of satin to indicate any movement, she went over to the fireplace and added more fuel to its dwindling flames. As she silently placed another log on the grate, she happened to glance up to where the pair of katanas hung above the mantle, crossed diagonally to form a horizontal X. She slowly straightened, and took down her own sword. She gently pulled it from its black wooden scabbard, and the stainless steel blade flashed like a band of quicksilver across her dangerously narrowed amber eyes. Nobody touches my kid, she vowed. Nobody.

            She slid the sword back into its scabbard. She hung it back on the wall against Jasmine’s blue velvet-covered scabbard, and quietly returned to bed. She slid out of the kimono and pulled up her shirt a little so that she could comfortably sit cross-legged for a moment, thinking. Open it? she wondered, suddenly recalling that fragmented bit of conversation as she gazed once more at the lashing trees outside the window. Open what? A new shopping mall? Some god-awful tasteless tourist trap? Another link in a fast-food restaurant chain of frozen pizzas, barf-burgers, and greasy, pukey french fries?

            Or maybe a grave?

            Get a grip, girl, she told herself, there’s nothing out there. No bogey man, no werewolves, no Kharis the Mummy reaching out to strangle her, and no Frankenstein’s Monster lumbering after her with murderous intent.

            So why did she feel like she just got paid a visit by the Grim Reaper?

             “Are you okay?”

            She jumped with a gasp at the sudden sound. She turned quickly with a pounding heart, and found Jasmine looking at her sleepily, raised up on an elbow with the bearskin sliding down to expose her bare shoulders. She sighed softly in relief. “Sure, I’m fine,” she whispered in reply. “Just checking on Sierra. I’m sorry I woke you.”

            “S’okay...” She lay back down and gently pulled Valerie with her, and snuggled up against her. “C’mere,” she whispered, “I’m cold.” She slipped an arm around her and wedged a leg between hers, and with a sigh she went back to sleep. Valerie slipped an arm around her shoulders and held her close, and then closed her eyes.

            But sleep didn’t return to her for the rest of the night.

To be continued


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