erniewhiting@centurylink.net

 

"Outlaws & Allies"

by Ernie Whiting

Chapter Ten

It was maybe an hour after sunrise, and already the carnival was once again in full swing. Warm sunlight was breaking through the trees, warming those who were lucky enough to keep themselves in the sun, while in the shade it was cool and breezy, bordering on cold. Customers were once again wandering through the aisles and among the booths; people were buying and selling, talking and laughing and trading, and in the background more distant voices shouted and called out to one another.

He stood with folded arms just beyond the west end of the carnival's main avenue, leaning with his shoulder against a tree while carefully scanning the carnival from behind dark glasses. Not only had he found himself a pair of sunglasses (he thought they made him look a little like Don Johnson's character from the old "Miami Vice" TV show), but now he was also wearing a black, duck-billed cap under which he had tucked his long hair. And, to play it even safer, he had turned up the collar of his denim jacket in an effort to further conceal his features.

I don't see him anywhere, he thought. He was pretty sure Vance wasn't around; pretty sure, but not totally convinced. Murphy had come here early and had been watching people as they slowly streamed in, and none of them looked even remotely like the SS Guard. With a thin, hopeful smile, he thought that maybe he could sneak out of here. Perhaps he could slip unobserved into a tent, stay there for a while and kill some time, and then once he felt the coast was clear he could sneak out the back to get the hell out of here. Or maybe he could just turn and slink quietly into the woods. Who would notice? The more he thought about it, the more tempting the idea became.

"Hey!"

Murphy flinched violently at the sudden voice and at the finger that jabbed repeatedly--and painfully--at his wounded arm. With a racing heart, he spun left and then right, and then a little farther to check behind himself.

It was just some kid. He was maybe thirteen or fourteen years old, and was dressed in battered jeans and an equally battered pair of black-and-white Keds tennis shoes, a faded and torn Metallica t-shirt, and an over-sized black motorcycle jacket. With his stringy, shoulder-length and greasy black hair, he looked like an under-sized heavy metal rocker, or one of Murphy's former coven members. Or like a cross between a strung-out sidewalk surfer twit from Encino and a black widow spider.

The Satanist found his voice. "What?" he croaked.

"There's some dude over there"--he motioned with a thumb toward a barbecue pit not far away--"who wants to talk to you, dude."

Murphy cleared his throat. "And I'm supposed to believe you?"

"Hey, I don't give a shit if you don't believe me or not, man," the kid said, affecting an accent that was a combination of snide punk and southern California Val Speak. "The dude gave me twenty bucks to tell you to go over there. He also says if you don't, he's gonna kick your ass."

Oh, yeah? Murphy thought with anger rising in him. Anyone who made such threats against him just didn't know what kind of power they were screwing around with. You don't go up against someone who has the power of Satan on their side and get away with it.

With a cold scowl and a threatening snarl he said, "What dude?"

"Big motherfucker; looks like a pit bull on steroids."

Oh dear God, his little inner voice whined. His stomach churned, and he cringed inwardly. He took a deep breath to calm himself and said, "Right." He started off, and the kid stepped in front of him. Murphy looked down on him and said, "Now what?"

"Dude says you're s'posed to give me another twenty, dude."

Working up his anger to take out on someone other than Vance, he sneered contemptuously and said, "Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah, man..." the kid said defiantly.

Murphy stepped around him. "Fuck you, punk."

The kid stepped in front of him again, and grabbed Murphy's jacket. "Dude says you owe me another twenty!"

He grabbed the would-be con artist by the front of his leather jacket and yanked him around and behind the tree. He shoved him up against it and grabbed tightly at the shirt and jacket around his throat, twisting them hard in his fist so the leather bit at the kid's throat, cutting off the blood supply to his brain and choking off his air. "Listen, you little shit stain," he snarled through clenched teeth, "if you don't get outta my face, I'm gonna reach down your throat and pull your little dick out through your mouth." He gave him another hard shove. "And while you're at it, you can give me that twenty bucks you said you got!"

The kid's defiant attitude quickly changed to one of fear and victimization. "Hey, man!" he said in a strangled and timid voice. "I'm just a kid! You can't--"

Smiling a cold and malignant smile, Murphy tightened his grip on him as he held out his other hand, palm up.

On the brink of tears, the kid reached into his pocket and took out a folded, crisp twenty dollar bill. Reluctantly, he handed it over.

Murphy snatched the bill from him, stuffed it into his own pocket, and then gave the kid one more hard shove. He turned his back on him, slung his rucksack over his shoulder, and started off for where Vance waited for him.

When he was sure Murphy was far enough away, the kid yelled, "Motherfucker!" Then he wiped his nose on his sleeve and headed off to hustle someone else.

***

Vance was dressed in faded jeans and battered Reeboks, and a long army surplus jacket, all topped by an olive green Marine Corps cap and dark gold aviator-style sunglasses. "Any progress?" he asked before biting into a barbecued turkey thigh.

"Some, yeah," Murphy lied, hoping he wouldn't have to elaborate.

"You care to elaborate on that?"

Shit...

"Well, it's...it's taking some doing, but..." Damn it, what could he tell him? Quick wit was not one of Murphy's strong points.

Vance took a final, massive bite and waited patiently. The barbecue sauce that slowly ran from the corner of his mouth and down his chin looked disturbingly like blood from a fresh kill.

"Look, I can't just go in there and wave my arms and say, 'Poof! It's clean!' I mean, removing a curse takes a lot of preparation, y'know?"

Vance's expression was unreadable behind his sunglasses.

"Preparation," Murphy said again, a little weakly. "I need to get myself centered and together, and--"

"I think you're wasting my time," Vance said, quietly and ominously cutting him off. "I also think you're a fake, but my superiors want you to carry on--so get on with it." He slowly reached up with one hand and took off his dark glasses, and fixed Murphy with ice-blue eyes that reflected a cold sniper's stare. "But if you fail, witch, you die." He stuffed the turkey bone in the breast pocket of Murphy's jacket and gave him a hard pat on his wounded arm. "Understand?"

Murphy winced and nodded in mute fear.

"Good. Get on with it."

Murphy started to back away, and then he turned to leave. He couldn't wait to get away from this killer.

"And Mr. Murphy--"

He froze. Afraid to face him, he turned his head only slightly. "Yeah?"

"Give the kid back his twenty."

***

It was just before sunset when the band arrived, and it took only half an hour or so to set up the drums, speakers, amplifiers, and keyboards again. The stage had been prepared earlier in the week; before it was a small sea of people sitting in chairs and on blankets spread on the ground, and it was surrounded by wind turbines and panel after panel of photovoltaic cells with 12-volt car batteries that had been charging all day. It was festooned with scores of colorful flags that were illuminated by flickering torch light; flags of planet Earth against a field of dark blue, rainbow flags, flags with painted marijuana leaves and the logo "Legalize it!" written below, old and faded Earth First! flags, a solid black flag with a green V emblazoned in its center, US flags with an American Indian superimposed on them, flags of a variety of American Indian nations, and upside-down American flags. Not to demonstrate disrespect for the country, as the Foundation's propagandists claimed they did (and for which the Foundation meted out extreme punishments under the American Flag Anti-Desecration Amendment) but rather in the old international maritime tradition of signifying a ship--or, in this case, a nation--in distress. There was even an old and sun-faded Woodstock flag, from the original concert, that hung outstretched above center stage, and next to it was another American flag; but this one showed the circle of thirteen stars. It flew as a symbol of revolution, as a symbol of the birth of a new nation, and as a symbol of liberty.

Valerie thought it rather intriguing that the first American flag had been made of hemp (so she had heard), and should have upon it a circle of thirteen stars. America had originally been comprised of thirteen colonies, which later became states; interestingly enough, it was also the same number of Witches in a coven, and the same number of lunar months--full moons--in a year. And the stars were all five-pointed--pentagrams, the very symbol of the Craft!--all in a circle, just like the Circle in which Wiccans and other Pagans worshiped. Was it possible that Betsy Ross had been a Witch? Valerie wondered with a grin. Had she been a seer into the future who designed this flag, smiling a little to herself in her lone conspiracy and sewing the stars into place, as an underground message to future generations of Pagans? While the fundamentalist Christian crowd continued to claim that America had been founded as a Christian nation, Valerie thought it possible that it may have far more in common with pot-smoking nature-lovers. It was probably nothing, she told herself again and again. Nothing at all. Probably. Maybe. It was just one of those amusing little thoughts that always made her smile.

The same musicians that had showed up at the anti-nuclear festival not far from Betatron seven years ago were here, along with some new talent. It was like old times; a homecoming, of sorts. They hadn't seen each other in all those years, yet recognition was instant and so were the greetings--the handshakes, the hugs, and the joyous, tearful grins--of old friends from so long ago. They jammed together, to warm up, in new renditions of old popular songs and came up with some fantastic improvisations that would eventually wind up becoming new material, if they could remember it; there were no recorders here. Jasmine, of course, immediately wanted to get behind the massive drum set, and she encouraged Valerie to come up and do a few songs. Valerie gladly agreed and lifted Sierra up onto the stage, and guided her to an area backstage behind the speakers where the music would be directed away from her and therefore not quite so loud.

The energy was already building. It was subtle at first, not much more than a mild sense of expectation, but it quickly grew either because of or with the excitement of the audience. Power was being raised, and it increased exponentially as it reached out to envelop the crowd; to make the crowd a part of the show.

The night was alive with Magick.

There had already been plenty of cheering when Jasmine--with her hair tied into a single, thick and loose braid, and dressed in white shorts, a white tank-top and a white terry-cloth head-band, and leather sandals--settled behind the drum set, and in response she waved cheerfully to the crowd once before donning a pair of ear guards that looked like a pair of large, old-fashioned stereo headphones. She and Valerie had already made their reputations at the Betatron nuclear power station; from then on, Jasmine had always been recognizable as the best drummer that anyone had ever heard, and Valerie was remembered as the owner of the sexiest voice since Grace Slick. That day had also earned her a reputation for being one fantastic guitarist, a reputation that she was trying very hard to quash. She had merely been absorbing the talent that had been infused into it by the instrument's previous owners; the only reason why she had been able to play like Joe Satriani, she had explained, was because it had once been his guitar. (Several months after that concert, and in payment for a Tarot card reading, she had been given a brand new acoustic guitar; she had accepted it graciously and had taken it home, but it lay resting in its dust-covered case, unused. She didn't even know how to tune the thing.)

The cheering shot up a couple more notches when Valerie came out on stage. With her dark hair loose, she was dressed in black riding boots, snug black jeans, a black leather halter top with a plunging neck, and her braided leather Triple Moon headband. Silver light sparkled from her pentacle, and tied around her left arm, above the elbow, was a green silk scarf. She approached center stage where the solitary microphone stand stood, and she seized the mike in one fist. "Merry meet, people!" she shouted in cheerful greeting as she waved with her other hand. "You ready to rock this joint?" And the audience responded with another cheer.

There had been no rehearsing. There had been no discussion of what songs to play, there had not even been any previous meeting between Valerie and Jasmine and the band; they just got out there and greeted each other with warm embraces after their seven-year hiatus, and started in. They needed no rehearsal; all they had to do was go with the flow and let the Magick take them like a raft on a river. Jasmine started in with a steady and rhythmic thumping of drums and a clicking of sticks that was quickly recognized and followed by the guitarist; and then Valerie started in as they began with "Rock This Joint," by Alannah Myles, to get warmed up. Afterwards, after much of the cheering had died down, the magical flow slowed a bit and the band followed it with a slower and romantic "Lover Of Mine," from the same CD.

He watched her with unabashed lust. He had not been able to see her when the singing first started, but once he had heard her singing "Rock This Joint" he wanted to find out who the chick was with the fantastic voice. And when he finally saw her, in the middle of "Lover Of Mine," he was immediately spellbound.

***

Half-way through "Lover Of Mine," Valerie slowed down and then paused as an apprehensive feeling of cold dread momentarily possessed her. It reminded her of that wind-lashed night when she had awakened from that unremembered nightmare. And then, just as suddenly, it was gone. Wondering where it could have come from, and then forcing it out of her mind, she waited a moment and picked up the next line of lyrics to finish the song. She and the band then went on to do Arlo Guthrie's "Coming Into Los Angeles," and she was surprised at how many people--nearly the entire audience--knew the lyrics. Instead of singing them herself, she held the mike out toward the crowd and let them do the singing.

The flow of magic truly felt like a trip down a river. First it was fast, with Grace Slick's "Angel Of The Night," from her 1980 "Dreams" album, to shoot a little excitement into the audience; then it slowed down a little with "If I Wanted To" and "Come To My Window," from Melissa Etheridge's "Yes I Am" compact disc, to give them a bit of a breather--and to leave them wondering what was around that next bend. And then it picked up again with "All American Girl" from that same CD--nothing too tough for experienced rafters and concert-goers to handle--and then rather than slowing back down for another breather, it curved around that next bend and suddenly became a rushing white water torrent; with only a moment's pause they really came alive, with Valerie bouncing and pacing across the stage and twirling the microphone around like a lasso at the end of a rope, bringing the audience to their feet in another wild cheer when they broke into The Who's "5:15" from "Quadrophenia" (and Valerie had Roger Daltrey's growl down perfectly!); and with barely a pause, the flow of energy rushed headlong into the rapids as the band went on to the Who's version of Elton John's "Saturday Night."

***

From the far end of the carnival, Murphy edged his way between people and tables almost as though he were in a trance. By the time the band was doing "Saturday Night," he had just about made his way to the final row of chairs behind which scores more people were standing.

He watched the singer for a moment longer, and then asked the guy next to him, "Who's the babe?"

"Valerie Ryan."

She seemed to look kind of familiar, somehow, but the name meant nothing to him. "She local?"

"I guess," the other guy replied. "Local enough to put a curse on Betatron."

Murphy's jaw dropped and his eyes nearly bulged from his head in surprise.

***

At last, they finished "Saturday Night." The audience thought the ride was over; instead, with sweat-matted hair and perspiration running down her face, neck and sides, and with her voice just about gone and the chords standing out on her neck, she and the band virtually blew them off their feet when they did one white water encore with U-2's live version of the Bob Dylan classic "All Along The Watchtower."

***

Torn between staring at Valerie and this man, Murphy's eyes went from one to the other while he tried to control his excitement. On the one hand, he thought that maybe the longer he stared at this guy the more information he could extract from him, as though through some psychic connection; on the other hand, he also wanted to stare at Valerie-not only because he thought she was so drop-dead gorgeous (and he was already visualizing a number of dark and obscene fantasies with her), but also because he wanted to be certain that he would recognize her again the next time he saw her. "Come again?" he asked, trying to sound casual and mildly disbelieving as he watched her slip the microphone into its stand once more.

The guy shrugged. "Buddy of mine heard she's the witch who put a curse on Betatron a long time ago," he said. He had to shout over the cheering and the pleas for one more encore.

Murphy turned to watch him for a moment as he absorbed this unexpected piece of information and amazing good fortune.

"Sounds like a lotta bullshit, if you ask me," he went on, not noticing Murphy's look, "but God, can she sing!"

***

Up on stage, Valerie sipped water from a white paper cup. Turning to the audience with a look of surprised disbelief, she said, "Another encore?"

The audience responded with another roaring cheer.

She turned to the band and covered the mike with one hand as she consulted with them. They quickly decided on a final song, and broke into Jefferson Airplane's song of revolution, "Volunteers," from their 1969 album of the same name. The audience went nuts, cheering and whistling and applauding, and at the end of the song--amidst even more cheering--Valerie thrust a fist toward the sky. "Fight back!" she shouted. "Fight back before it's too late!"

Just when it seemed it couldn't get any louder, the cheering grew not only in volume but also in intensity; someone down near the front of the stage, apparently wanting more music, began leading a cheer that sounded like "Rock and roll!" But on closer listening, it was soon discerned as "Lock and load!"

Valerie slipped the microphone back into its stand. "I want to thank you all for coming," she panted hoarsely as she clutched the mike stand with one hand, leaning on it a little for support. Her other hand brushed her dark hair back over her head, and then she wiped the sweat from her brow with her forearm. "Gifts and jackets and caps can be purchased at the door...and we'll see you at the Equinox. Drive safe...and g'night." With a grin, she waved wearily and backed away from the microphone, and left the stage.

***

Murphy's eyes returned to the woman who was leaving the stage. Holy shit! he thought. That's her! After all his sweat and worry, and after all of his useless plotting of impossible escapes, he had finally found the witch who was going to buy him his freedom. He was going to use her to remove the curse for him.

He grinned his sick, malevolent grin. "Maybe she'll let me sign her up for a recording contract."

For the first time, the other man looked at him. He took note of Murphy's appearance and controlled the urge to move away; this was a good spot from which to view the stage, and he wasn't about to give it up. Instead, he muttered, "Yeah, right."

"Lady with a voice like that needs to take care of it," Murphy said with the kind of repulsive smile that could make even the most stalwart of romantics grow sick at heart. "Needs daily throat massages...from the inside, y'know what I mean?"

The other guy finally had enough. With a sideways glance of contempt, and then with an inward shudder of disgust, he moved away from his long sought-after viewing area, wanting to get away from this walking, rancid ball of dust and dry mucus.

Murphy watched him go, and with a shrug he muttered, "Yeah, well...fuck you too, asshole." He started off toward the stage, hoping to find Valerie again before she had a chance to leave.

And before Vance spotted her...if he hadn't already.

***

With the sweat still pouring out of her and a pale blue terry cloth towel draped over one shoulder, Jasmine was opening her second bottle of spring water. Sitting next to her, and a good distance behind the stage, Valerie and Sierra were sharing a chocolate malt. The cold and the ice cream were a lot more soothing to her throat than iced tea or a cold beer, or even cold water would have been, but in spite of its alleviating effects Valerie still had to speak in a whisper; her throat felt as though she had been swallowing shards of broken glass all evening.

"Boy, are we a mess," Jasmine said. "You can't talk, and I can't move my arms."

Sierra thought about this for a moment or two. Valerie was temporarily unable to issue any orders or commands...but Jasmine still could. And while Jasmine was not capable of enforcing any of those orders, Valerie was. The child thought it over; there must be a way of exploiting this to her advantage somehow... Maybe if she played up to them with lots of sympathy and compassion, and made herself particularly helpful to them, she might possibly get something out of it in return tonight--like maybe another couple of episodes of "Xena" or something.

She noticed Valerie's slight shiver as a cool breeze blew in, and in sign language accompanied by a slightly louder voice she asked, "Do you want me to get your jacket? You look cold."

Gently grasping her water bottle in both hands, and leaning forward with her elbows resting on her knees, Jasmine watched them with a smile in her eyes.

With a grin, Valerie signed back, "I can hear you fine, sweetheart; I just can't talk."

"Oh... You still want your jacket?"

"I think it's time we got home," Valerie signed.

"I agree," Jasmine said. "You need something for your throat, and my arms are killing me. Besides, it's getting cold out here."

They rose and started for their wagon, and once again Valerie was suddenly possessed by that apprehensive feeling of cold dread. She tried to brush it off, but somehow it just would not go away.

***

He watched them as they prepared to leave--the Asian woman, a small child and the witch--and when the kid turned around he was stunned by the resemblance between the last two. He even heard the kid mention the word "mom" once, and from this he concluded that she was the witch's daughter. And then he saw the witch slip her right arm around the Asian woman's waist and pull her close, and the Asian woman responded by resting her hand on the witch's shoulder. Dykes, he thought with a sneer of disgust. Lesbians. Hardly a proper environment for a kid to grow up in, the Satanist judged.

And then, for some strange reason, he was abruptly struck with a strong sense of déjà vu.

He was about to begin following them when he was suddenly interrupted by a powerful hand clamping itself around his upper arm. God! his mind screamed. Damn it--everyone is grabbing or poking, or prodding that wounded arm! Why won't anyone give him a break just once and grab his other, uninjured arm?

He spun around and angrily raised a fist, and--

"You weren't thinking of taking off, were you Mr. Murphy?" Vance asked.

Holy shit! he thought. If he sees them...

"Mr. Vance!" he said in pleasant surprise, and with a forced grin. "Are you still here to keep me company? That's very kind of you..." He rested a friendly hand on his shoulder and nonchalantly turned him away from the two women, not wanting him to see them.

Vance was immediately suspicious. "Report."

"Well, as a matter of fact," Murphy replied, "this time I do have something to report. I've been working and studying, and collecting information, and my report is the following..." His grin disappeared and his voice took on a sharp edge. "Get the fuck offa my case."

They stopped, and Vance's suspicious look turned cold. "You like living dangerously, Murphy?" he growled with that rottweiler's voice.

She was getting away, and Murphy had to get rid of Vance so he could follow her--and with his salvation so near at hand, now was no time to be afraid of the SS Guard. He stepped in front of him, getting Vance to complete his turn away from the retreating women, and faced him with uncharacteristic boldness. "Don't bullshit me, Vance," he growled in return. "I've just got my plan worked out and I know what to do now. And try to keep this locked in that little brain of yours: I'm here under the orders of your boss, the President of the Foundation. If anything happens to me, or if you stop me from doing what I'm here to do, you'll have to answer to him. Do you want that?"

Vance took a step closer, looming before him like a massive glacier suddenly appearing from out of the night. For a brief moment, Murphy knew how the crew of the Titanic must have felt just before they hit. "I could snap you like a toothpick, and no one would ever know."

True, Murphy thought nervously as he fought to control his fear. But he was on a roll now, and he couldn't afford to lose momentum. "Sure, you could do that," he said calmly, "and then you'd have to tell your boss what happened. You want to tell him you killed me just because I pissed you off?"

"I'll tell him I killed you when you were trying to escape."

Murphy smiled a baleful smile. "I don't think so. He wants this plant opened and running, and I'm the only person who can do that for him--and he knows I've got too much to gain by helping him out. Or maybe you'd like to try your hand at it?"

"The prisons are full of witches," Vance replied. "We shouldn't have too much trouble finding one who's more cooperative than you are."

Murphy had to try a bluff. "You won't find another witch who knows more about removing curses than I do. So I'll tell you what, Vance: back off and gimme some breathing room, and I'll remove that curse, just as your boss wants. Got it?"

Vance thought it over. He figured Murphy was probably bluffing, but he couldn't be certain. And then he decided it didn't really matter; once the curse was removed, Vance's orders were to kill him anyway.

"Get on with it," he said. "The sooner we get this finished, the better."

Murphy's malevolent smile widened. "For you and me both."

Vance smiled, too, a little bit. As he turned away and started off, he thought about what a pleasure it would be to finally kill this insignificant little pustule.

***

With Vance finally gone, Murphy quickly went back to where he had first spied the witch, reacquired his target, and followed her and her family from the carnival and toward an open horse-drawn wagon. From behind a pine tree, he watched as the kid climbed up a wheel and over the side, and as the two adults climbed up to share the bench seat. He took another quick glance around to be certain that Vance wasn't nearby, and at the same time he wondered how he was going to follow these people. He had no other choice but to do it on foot. But that didn't matter to him, not now; with that wagon, they would not be moving fast at all, and he would have no trouble keeping up with them. It did, however, look like it was going to be a long walk and a long night, and it looked like he might have to spend the night out in the woods--or try to find his way back to the carnival grounds in the dark with all those animals out and around. But none of that mattered, either, because he was going to follow them straight to their home. He was going to find out where they lived.

Satan was truly with him tonight.

Chapter Eleven

The wind was blowing through the trees, whipping their tops back and forth to brush at the black, starry sky and hissing through their branches to sound more like the rushing of a river. Inside the cabin, however, it was warm and comfortable and tranquil; light flickered from the color TV monitor, and dialogue and sound effects came from the two high-quality bookshelf stereo speakers, filling the house with sound.

Dressed in her amber-eyed wolf t-shirt and sitting cross-legged on the sleeping bag that was spread open on the floor, and with an empty ice cream bowl resting in her lap, Sierra was totally involved in yet another adventure of "Xena," evidently determined to view the entire six-season series within a week. Valerie had managed to pick up this set of DVDs on one of their trips outside of the territory; the discs themselves had been smuggled into the country from New Zealand, and if the FLM had ever seen them this show would most definitely have been deemed not only obscene and inappropriate, but downright seditious. Which, Jasmine thought, would have been a high compliment, coming from the FLM.

These discs, unlike videotapes, were not bootlegged copies; they were unmodified and tamper-proof originals, direct from Pacific Renaissance Studios in Auckland. Which had brought to mind Sierra's annoyance about videotapes that she used to watch on the ancient VHS videocassette recorder. So many movies--including "Dances With Wolves," the "Indiana Jones" trilogy, and the "Star Wars" trilogy--all seemed to have small gaps in the dialogue; one of the characters would be saying something, and then all of a sudden the sound was gone for a quick moment as the lips continued to move, and then the dialogue would pick up again. Other times, the dialogue didn't match with the movements of the speakers' lips, and there was a noticeable change in the sound quality. It was like watching a poorly dubbed movie, or a foreign-made movie with English dubbed in. At the very least, these gaps and changes interrupted the flow of the movie; on a deeper level, Sierra thought that maybe something necessary to the story lines might have gotten lost--or deliberately changed. The dialogue had been so badly butchered that it was hard to tell--especially with the "Star Wars" trilogy--who the good guys and the bad guys were.

Valerie explained that those movies had been taped from television broadcasts, and in the names of "decency and non-violence," the Foundation's board of standards and practices had ordered the networks to edit much of the dialogue.

"They censored the hell out of it," Jasmine had told them, with visible resentment. It was one of those rare occasions when her anger got the better of her. "The goddamn Foundation uses that 'objectionable language' bullshit excuse not only to chop a movie to pieces, but also to change the entire story and message. The bastards..." she had added with a grumble, and Valerie had to take her hand and massage it reassuringly, urging her silently to calm down and relax. Jasmine was a movie purist, and she hated censorship in all of its ugly forms.

Sharing the sleeping bag with the girl, Jasmine was lying belly-down and wearing only her white shorts while Valerie, dressed in her "Red Power" t-shirt, was straddling her and giving her a slow, deep, warm-oil massage, kneading the fatigue and tension from her aching muscles. Jasmine didn't know whether to watch the movie with them or allow herself to drift off to sleep; her body was tired and her mind was drowsy, and the massage felt soooo good...but she also wanted to return the favor--later, after Sierra was in her own bed and fast asleep. As it turned out, however, there was little danger of her drifting off; whenever her eyes closed for more than a few moments, Sierra's giggles, gasps and outright laughter would snap her back to consciousness.

Finally, Valerie straightened and surveyed the empty bowls. "Anyone for more ice cream?" she asked.

***

He spied on them from behind a nearby tree. Gaping at them through the sliding glass door, he excitedly thought, Oh, man! as he watched the witch slowly massage the Asian woman's neck, shoulders, arms and back. The latter didn't seem to be wearing anything. He kept hoping that she would get up so he could be sure, and when she did her back was to him--Turn around, damnit! he shouted uselessly in his mind--as she slipped into a t-shirt. And with a kid sitting right there with them, he thought disgustedly. Damn dykes. That's how they spread, you know, he told himself; they have a kid with some guy and then kick him out, and probably threaten to kill him if he ever shows his face around them again. Or they steal a kid from its family and then raise it up to be as queer as they are, he thought, once again not even realizing just how many beliefs the Satanist and the religious zealots seemed to have in common.

One of the things he had noticed about this place, when he had been checking it out a little while ago, was that it had a lot of windows. Tall, wide windows, through which one could easily see out. And in! he thought with a leer. Maybe they figured no one would come around and bother them, this far into the woods, and that they could afford to leave them all uncovered. Big mistake, girls, he thought. This may not be the big bad city, but you still can't be too careful...

Shivering in the wind, he stepped back from the tree and started to follow the edge of the woods as he circled around the house again. He was tempted to go ahead and break in now to grab the witch. After all, they were just two women and a child, and he could certainly handle a couple of broads and a kid. On the other hand, he had no weapons other than his athame, and he felt that he should be a little better armed than that. And besides, these women looked strong; muscular, but not muscle-bound. He squinted one eye in thought as he considered his options once more, and then decided that maybe it would be better after all to wait until they were asleep, or split up.

In the meantime, he still wanted to watch.

He wished he still had his flashlight, but unfortunately it lay somewhere inside the containment building at Betatron, and he had not picked up another one. Upon further reflection, he decided that it was just as well; if he turned it on now he could very well alert them to his presence. But damn it, it was dark out here! Hell, he could hardly see his hand in front of his own damn face! Well, it's not that dark, he reluctantly admitted to himself. There was a quarter moon out, and it helped to shed a little light; but it still wasn't enough to satisfy him. So, very cautiously, he followed just beyond the edge of the clearing, focusing his attention on Valerie as, framed by one window after another, she moved from the main room to the kitchen. And then he saw her stoop below the counter that separated the two rooms and out of sight to retrieve something, and Murphy rose up on his toes to see what she was doing. He took another step to the side, keeping his eyes on the window, and sidestepped again...and tripped over an exposed root. He fell with a loud thud and a noisy grunt.

***

Valerie's head popped up above the counter under which the small refrigerator/freezer rested, next to the larger freezer that contained the carefully sealed packages of venison. Her amber eyes were alert as she stared out the window for a long moment, listening. The sound was not repeated. She listened for a few moments longer, and then she slowly returned her attention to the freezer. She took out the half-gallon carton of chocolate ice cream and began scooping it into the three bowls, and added to each bowl a fistful of frozen raspberries.

***

"Shit," he muttered softly to himself as he slowly rose to his hands and knees. "Goddamned shit!" He brushed dirt and pine needles and leaves from the side of his face and the front of his denim jacket. He rose to his feet and looked in through the window again, wondering if he had been heard. He saw Jasmine licking something from her thumb as she stooped to put something away. Then she picked up three bowls and headed back for the living room. Tracking her, he followed the forest's edge again to his original surveillance spot.

This wasn't good enough. It was like watching pictures with no sound; a TV with the mute button on. Wanting to know more of what was going on, he decided to take a chance and move up closer so he could listen in. Crouching and carefully checking the ground before him-checking it very carefully, by sweeping one leg before him like an elderly tourist in Florida scanning a beach for coins or lost jewelry with a metal detector--he crept up to the house next to the porch, went down on one knee, and listened at the glass door.

***

"Did you hear that?" Valerie asked as she returned to the sleeping bag.

"Hear what?" Jasmine replied as she and Sierra reached for their ice cream.

"It sounded like a falling body or something." She handed them their bowls as she gazed at the sliding glass door.

"I didn't hear anything," Sierra said, and then popped a spoonful of cold, dark, and creamy chocolate-and-raspberry dessert into her mouth.

"Maybe your wolves are playing around or something," Jasmine suggested.

Valerie thought it over for a second or two, and then sighed as she inwardly shrugged it off. It was probably nothing. She slowly crossed her legs, and then gracefully settled down on the sleeping bag.

***

Wolves? Murphy thought with sudden dread. Wolves?? His heart skipped a beat. With a nervous gulp he passed a trembling hand across his suddenly sweat-dampened brow. Oh, shit...

Now, wait a minute; he hadn't seen any out here (not yet, anyway), and he hadn't seen any on the trail...so maybe they weren't around after all. It still unnerved him, though, to know that there were wild animals out here with great big teeth.

There was little he could do about it, so rather than taking off and risking discovery, he elected to stay a while longer. Besides, Satan was with him, so he was safe. He hoped.

They would have to go to sleep sooner or later. Once they did, he would jimmy open a window, slip inside, and grab the witch at knife point. But rather than waiting next to the porch for them to fall asleep, he decided he would be better off sitting safely in a tree.

***

The wind gusted, causing the tree to sway unexpectedly. He awoke with a start and a grunt, and his arms automatically tightened around the trunk. He had actually dozed off up here, straddling the stout limb and clutching the trunk. He blinked and looked around for a moment, and then focused his attention on the house.

There didn't seem to be any lights on. He took a deep breath and then began to slowly descend, one limb at a time, carefully placing his feet on the closest available branches. Just when he thought he would reach the ground in safety, the final branch gave away beneath his weight with a loud crackling snap! He threw his arms around the tree trunk, hugged it tightly, and avoided a sudden and nasty drop. He glanced downward, saw nothing in his way, and then dropped the last six feet to land in a crouch with a soft rattling clink in the backpack that hung from his shoulders. The sounds weren't loud enough to awaken anyone inside, he hoped, not with this wind and the rustling trees and the thick cabin walls to mute the sound. He straightened slowly, and looked at the house for any signs of activity.

Nothing.

No lights, no sounds...nothing.

Cautiously and silently, he advanced on the house.

He approached the big sliding glass door first. Standing off to the side, he peered inside. All was dark and quiet; the only light inside was that from the crescent, waning moon, which came through the skylight, and as he strained to listen at the glass he could hear nothing. Can't see much of anything from here, he thought. He started to move around to his right, peering in over the bottom edge of the big bay window. He looked inside and then down, and there he saw the two women, snuggled closely together beneath a dark cover and sleeping peacefully. He stayed there for a long moment, watching them with dark contempt. Dykes, he thought again in disgust, and with a stirring in his trousers.

And then he was struck again with that sense of déjà vu...

He shrugged it off. Come on, he told himself, you've got work to do. The question was, how was he to grab this woman and drag her back to Betatron? God damn it, he thought in frustration, he couldn't think of anything.

And then a new idea came to him.

He side-stepped away from the bay window and continued on until he reached the back of the house. He turned the corner, crept sideways a couple more steps, and found another window. Carefully, he peered inside.

A small oil lamp with the flame turned down to a tiny blue orb rested on a table. And next to it, lying on a raised platform bed and full-sized futon pad...

There she lay, wrapped in a dark t-shirt and her sleeping bag, slumbering innocently. There's the little bitch, he thought with a twisted grin. He quickly examined the window. There was little he could see in the dark, but he was able to tell that the window was a slider. No matter; all he had to do was slip something under the bottom, lift, and the window would come free. He hated to use his athame as a burglar's tool, since he had consecrated it to be used as strictly a ritual instrument, but he had no choice. He slipped the blade from its black leather sheath at his hip and very gently slid the tip down the glass to where it met the sliding frame. From the sliding frame he would quietly slip the tip underneath and carefully lift, and...and...

Something wasn't working here. The tip of the knife kept slipping and sliding as though he was pressing it against the sheet of glass itself. He leaned closer to examine the window.

The bottom and top tracks were protected by wide wooden slats that made up an exterior frame. There was no way he could jimmy the damn thing open from out here. Shit...what was he going to do now?

Something rustled in the foliage not far away. At first he thought it might be the wind, but no; this wasn't a breezy rustle, it was more like a short and vigorous shaking. What the hell is that? he wondered nervously as memories of the women's earlier conversation about the wolves flooded into his imagination. Had the sound of that branch snapping beneath his weight attracted it?

As if to confirm his suspicions, a wolf howled not far in the distance.

The girl shifted and turned on the bed. Having been awakened by the howl, maybe? If she decided to get up and have a look outside for a rare and excited glimpse at a forest predator...

He quickly sidestepped away from the window, flattened himself against the wall, and held his breath. Oh, man, he thought. He'd never make it as a burglar; the fear of being caught was just too much for him. He was beginning to think that this whole affair was about to turn into one supreme fiasco.

There was a second howl, much closer this time that was quickly accompanied by the nearby scream of a mountain lion.

Murphy began to panic. I gotta get the fuck outta here, man! he told himself, I gotta--

Something shook the foliage again; only now it was closer, and more vigorous. He glanced around, and for a wild, panicked moment he felt as though he was back inside of Betatron. There was nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. The trees were too far away now, and if that thing out there was a wolf it would have him by the throat long before he made it up a tree.

He dropped into a crouch. Maybe, if he could make himself really, really small, no one would notice him. Yeah, right, he thought. And then he noticed the crawlspace. He slipped his pack from his shoulders and wriggled under the cabin, dragging the pack with him. Maybe if he lay here real nice and quiet, and didn't breathe too hard, maybe the wolves or whatever was out there might pass him by. He crawled farther under the house so no one or nothing would accidentally spot him, and he lay very still.

It was just in time, too. Suddenly he could see, from the chest down, three sets of wolf's legs, trotting back and forth in front of him. Oh God, he whined silently, oh God, oh God, oh God... He dared not move much more than his eyes. He dared not even breathe hard. If he did, they might hear him. He lay like a frightened rodent, holding his breath and feeling his pulse pound in his head and chest.

Something bumped against his foot.

He froze, wide-eyed.

The three wolves continued to circle around the house. One actually stopped and lowered its head, and peered under the floor. Its gray lupine face darted left and right, and then peered at him with pale amber eyes, and its black lips peeled back in a ferocious grin to expose sharp white fangs. The wolf showed no sign of having seen him, though, but that didn't stop Murphy--consumed with terror--from wetting himself.

The other two wolves joined the first one; now all three were looking under the floor and sniffing curiously.

Whatever it was that had bumped Murphy's foot was now moving up alongside him, brushing itself against him. As it did, he saw the wolves suddenly freeze suspiciously--Oh God, they see me! he thought--and then, with their heads still lowered and not taking their sharp and alert eyes off him, they took a slow, cautious, and collective step backward.

He stared at them with sweat beading and running from his brow, and at this moment he wasn't certain of what emotion was stronger in him: surprise at their retreat, or relief. What could they be afraid of that would fit under here? he silently asked himself, and an instant later the answer came to him.

Badger.

Pound for pound, about the meanest little bastard in all the forest. Oh God, he cried inwardly...

The animal continued to waddle up alongside him, and the wolves warily backed farther away.

...and at almost the same moment he thought, Actually, it feels kind of small for a badger. How big--or small--do badgers get?

The animal next to him froze at their movements for a long and uncomfortable moment, and then moved away from him. The wolves tracked it for a few moments with their bright amber eyes, afraid to make any sudden movements, as they continued to slowly back away...and then they suddenly turned as one and scattered like a flock of frightened geese.

Holy Jesus! Murphy thought with a new surge of terror. There's three of them and only one of...it...and they're scared shitless! He waited for a long moment. He was uncertain of how far the animal had moved away from him; it could be right next to him and it might not even be under the house with him anymore. Deciding that he had to make his escape sooner or later--preferably sooner--he slowly and cautiously pulled himself forward on his elbows toward the edge of the crawlspace.

It bumped against him again, and he could feel that animal moving up alongside him in one long caress. Had it been a badger or a rabid raccoon or something worse, wouldn't it have bitten him by now? he wondered. So what the hell is it?

He reached the edge of the crawlspace and looked around carefully. Compared to the shadows under the cabin, the clearing outside looked surprisingly bright; he easily spotted the three wolves as they stood close together at the edge of the woods, some thirty yards away, and they seemed to be conferring with each other with great uncertainty.

The small animal continued to move up alongside him, and then it passed him by-and now he could see it in the dim starlight. It was no badger. Nor was it a raccoon, rabid or otherwise; it was sleek and black, and had twin white stripes that ran from the crown of its head to the tip of its tail. And as the animal moved off with a waddling ripple, it suddenly froze once more and raised its tail. Realization dawned on Murphy just before the thick, warm squirt caught him across his right cheek and the collar and shoulder of his denim jacket.

And then the smell hit him.

"GDYEEAAUGCHH!!! " With his hands flat against the cool damp earth, he thrust himself away from the ground in the world's fastest push-up--

--and slammed the back of his head against the underside of the floor with a resounding thud.

***

The two women bolted upright in bed. "What the fuck was that?" Wearing only sleep-wrinkled t-shirts, they swung their bare legs from under the cover and leapt from the warmth of their bed, and reached for their katanas.

***

With his head pounding in agony and stars still flashing behind his eyes, Murphy scrambled from under the house. He ran toward the woods as he wiped at his cheek, and from the corner of his eye he saw the wolves beginning to give chase. What he didn't see was the way they faltered and stopped a moment later. Caught in a web of indecision, they wondered if they should chase down the foul-smelling intruder or let it escape; they'd had their own unpleasant experiences with skunks before, and perhaps they figured that the intruder already had enough problems. Either that, or they just didn't want to get any of it on themselves. Whatever their reasons, they decided to let Murphy flee into the woods.

Jasmine pulled the sliding glass door open and Valerie leapt outside with her katana raised, checking the grounds at nine and twelve o'clock; Jasmine landed next to her, checking at twelve and three. Neither of them spotted anything out of the ordinary, but that did nothing to assuage their apprehension. With pounding hearts and silent psychic communications, they split up and cautiously made their separate ways around the house.

At the rear of the house, the window next to Valerie's head slid open and Sierra's sleepy voice asked, "What's goin' on?"

Scanning the grounds with sharp eyes, Valerie softly replied, "Nothing, sweetheart. Close your window and stay inside."

"Valerie!" Jasmine's voice called out. "You got anything?"

She said nothing for a long moment. Instead, she continued to scan the clearing and the woods, like a wolf searching for prey, listening carefully.

"Valerie?" she called out again.

She slowly lowered her sword. "All clear!" she called back.

They met up again at the front of the house, and the three wolves that had almost gone after Murphy pranced about them with hyperactive eagerness. They were hoping that the two women had come outside to play with them in the night; there was a human out there that they could have fun chasing.

"I didn't see anything either," Jasmine reported as she--

--and then the wind came up, and caught in her nose.

"Phee-yeeww! Jesus!! " She tried to fan the smell away. "Oh, man! Somebody got blasted..."

Valerie went down on one knee and laid her katana next to her, and began checking the wolves by cautiously sniffing their faces. "Wasn't one of you guys, was it?"

In response, the wolves competed with each other for her attention, excitedly nudging each other out of the way and merrily licking her face as though they were a gang of puppies. In their playful enthusiasm, they almost knocked her to the ground.

Jasmine wrinkled her nose in disgust as she covered her nose and mouth with one hand in an unavailing effort to cut down on the smell. Indicating with her sword, she said, "It smells like it's coming from over there." She started after Valerie, following closely behind her, and the closer they drew the stronger it got. She leaned forward for a closer look, and the smell came up at her and through her hand to punch her in the face with an invisible fist full of sour anal stench. "God!" She reeled backward so quickly she almost gave herself a whiplash. And then with a mixture of repugnance and despair she wailed, "Aw, Jesus! It's under the house! "

"Oh, Christ!" Like the wolves only a few moments before, they quickly backed away from the house. "Are we gonna have to smell that shit all night?"

"Aww, man... What works best on skunk? Tomato juice or vinegar?"

"I don't know," Valerie replied, "I've never had to deal with it before." She shook her head and sighed in exasperation. "Shit..."

Jasmine shivered in the night and slowly rubbed one arm. "Well, it's too cold and too dark to do anything about it tonight. And I don't think it's going to come up through the floor...will it?"

"I hope not." Valerie replied with a dark scowl. "Listen, I'm going to go get a flashlight and make sure there's nothing hurt under there; that was quite a whonk against the floor." She disappeared into the house and came back out a couple of minutes later with Sierra following her. She had slipped into a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, and was carrying a black, four-cell flashlight. She thumbed on the light and dropped to her knees, and swept the beam under the house left and right. Jasmine and Sierra squatted next to her.

She spied a dark lump of a shape. "What the hell...?" she muttered.

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure..." She dropped onto her belly and wriggled half her body under the house with one hand while pulling the neck of her sweatshirt up and over her nose with the other to cut the smell of the skunk. It didn't help any. With a sigh of resignation, she crept forward a couple more feet and reached forward. At first it felt like ordinary nylon and foam rubber; yet at the same time there was such a repulsive psychic feel to it that she just couldn't control herself. "Gyeeuucchh--God!! "

"What is it?" Jasmine asked apprehensively. "You didn't get any on you, did you?"

"No..." Her voice sounded slightly muffled. "For a second it felt like I grabbed onto someone's cold intestines or something..."

Jasmine and Sierra twisted their faces. "Ick!" they chorused.

And then Valerie was crawling backward, coming from under the house and dragging something with her.

"What've you got?" Jasmine asked.

Valerie said nothing at first. With a puzzled, dark and sickened expression in her eyes-and suddenly with that same apprehensive feeling of cold dread that she had felt at the concert--she dropped Murphy's black nylon rucksack at Jasmine's feet. All three of them backed away from it as though it were the decaying and maggot-ridden corpse of a raccoon, or some other forest animal. She wiped her hand on her jeans, as though trying to rid it of slime, and with dark disgust she said, "Must be a new breed of skunk."

***

He was cold, he was wet, and he was miserable. The cold penetrated right to his very core, making him shiver uncontrollably, and the wetness of his clothes kept it there, not allowing him even the tiniest bit of relief. Without his jacket--he had hurriedly peeled it off and tossed it away to rid himself of the skunk smell before reaching the river and plunging into it head-first (although this immersion had done nothing to rid the remaining traces of skunk on his face and shirt)--he felt as though he would freeze to death. He vigorously rubbed his arms for the warmth of friction, but it did no good; he simply had to get out of these wet clothes and into some dry ones. The possibility of illness and perhaps even death from exposure was remote at most, but Murphy thought it was a real one that loomed before him like a dark, ominous shadow.

Just as bad was the sense of humiliation. In the last few days, he had been shot and arrested, and he'd nearly lost his faith while sitting in that damn jail. Then there was his interview with Slogan and Kreuger, and Vance's contempt and soft threats (and how they had all regarded him with such contempt, as if they had any right to be contemptuous, he told himself; they wouldn't even shake hands with him to formalize their deal!), the results of his excursions into Betatron, the damn wolves, his wetting himself, that fucking skunk… All these debasements settled on his shoulders, layer upon layer, like geological strata, and it was all because of that bitch Valerie what's-her-face. It was all her fault--her fault, God damn it! --and by the power of Satan he was going to get even with her!

"What the hell happened to you, man?" the passing stranger asked as Murphy approached the carnival grounds. He was on his way back to a tent from one of the quartet of outhouses at the edge of the clearing, and he couldn't help chuckling good-naturedly at him.

"Shut up," Murphy told him with a growl. He was in no mood to talk to anyone; all he wanted was to find a tent, try to dry his clothes out, and settle down on a cot in one of the carnival's camp tents for some much needed rest.

The man chuckled once more with a combination of amusement and sympathy, and said, "Jeez, you look like you've been having a lousy night!"

"God damn you," Murphy growled as the man's laughter--that mocking and derisive laughter--settled like one more stratum of humiliation on his shoulders...

And then he snapped. The entire mantle of degradation and indignity that had been settling on him finally crumbled and collapsed, and with it crumbled the last vestiges of self-restraint. That taunting and contemptuous laughter pushed him over the edge, and at last he surrendered to the savage Sirens' song of sweet, murderous insanity.

His hand flashed for the athame that hung at his hip. "SHUT UP!! " he screamed. He lunged forward, and plunged the knife into the man's belly.

His eyes bulged in shock as a cold, sharp blade of agony tore through him. It entered his upper abdomen, turned upward, and then thrust through his diaphragm and into his chest. Murphy pulled the knife from him and plunged it into him again and again, thrust after thrust and plunge after plunge. He grunted with effort as he threw his entire body into it in a raging and almost sexual act as the stabbing continued.

And suddenly she was before him, held pinned against the tree, naked and writhing in ecstasy and agony, and bleeding from a thousand wounds. He had a positive hard-on of the purest, blackest, and most exquisite lust and hatred imaginable, and suddenly he increased the speed and rhythm of the knife's thrusts as he found himself approaching a powerful climax. He continued to rape her with his knife, and as he did visions of that Indian woman began to swirl through his mind. Then other images swam and superimposed themselves inside his head; Valerie, the Indian woman, and the man who had laughed at him all blended together like combined images on a movie or television screen. Again and again, he slammed and thrust the knife into his victim until at last he ejaculated in unison with the spurts of the woman's blood.

The man collapsed against the tree, and with a final grunting thrust Murphy viciously twisted the knife inside of Valerie's abdomen until the Indian woman finally dropped to the ground with a huge, soaking red stain growing across his belly and chest. With a choked gurgle, the man slowly fell onto his side at the base of the tree, dead.

Panting and sweating, he slowly rose with the bloody knife still clutched in his hand. He stood back a couple of steps and cocked his head slightly to one side as he regarded the body. It wasn't the witch after all, he discovered; it was just some guy. And then he remembered this guy had made fun of him. Yeah, well, he paid for it, Murphy thought; this'll teach you to laugh at me, you mother fucker.

He raised his hand and wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm. And then he discovered that the knife was still in that hand; he examined it, slowly turning it back and forth, and for a moment a small bit of lucidity returned to him as he realized what he had done. And then it was gone again, drowned out once more by the Sirens' song of hateful contempt, and he smiled a cold, malevolent smile. Consecrated with blood, he thought. He brought the knife to his mouth and slowly licked the sticky warm blood from the flat of the blade and from his hand. Baptized in blood and consecrated with death, he told himself; now it truly is a Satanist's tool.

He stared down at the body again. The shirt was ruined, he noted, and the blood was seeping into his pants. But at least the jacket was still good. He pulled the body forward and peeled the denim jacket off, and slipped it on.

This is all her fault, he told himself again. She was the one who put the curse on Betatron, and that curse had even extended itself to cause him all of his bad luck. Perhaps it had contaminated his aura like some kind of contagion. Whatever the cause of his ill fortune, he vowed that he would force Valerie to remove the curse on the nuke plant; and after the curse was removed, just for hate's sake and for revenge, he would go ahead and rape and kill her kid anyway in a sacrifice to Satan, right there in front of her. He knew Satan would reward him with unimaginable power.

Not a bad fit, he told himself with a slight nod of satisfaction as he settled the jacket more comfortably around his shoulders. A bit on the large side, but what the hell; it was better to be too big than too small.

The shoes fit pretty well, too.

Chapter Twelve

The captain was updating the ship's log when the knock came. He pressed the cassette recorder's pause button and turned to face the open cabin door. "Yes?"

"Sir?" said the first mate as he stood framed in the oaken doorway. His hands rested on either side of it, steadying him against the slight pitching of the sea, and there was an urgent look on his face. "I think we're being followed by some more of those damn eco-freaks."

"Oh, no," he groaned. He rested an elbow on his desk and rubbed his forehead as he felt another headache coming on. Twenty miles off the coast of northern California, west of the small coastal town of Stewarts Point, these people had plagued them only the day before. "Ah, shit, not again."

Decades ago, there used to be numerous environmental groups that would go out onto the high seas and hassle whalers and tuna fishers, and nuclear and toxic waste dumpers. Others had done the same to ranchers and wolf-hunters, lumber cutters and strip-miners. While the captain had never met with any of the latter, he had seen some of the ocean-going activists himself, and he had heard the stories of other whalers and fishermen. There were scores--hell, hundreds--of stories about how these eco-freaks used to pull up next to the ships in their little motorized rubber Zodiacs and deliberately block the sailors from off-loading their cargo or from harvesting whales, or from casting their drift-nets to snare dolphins, sharks, turtles, and thousands of other forms of marine life in their search for tuna. Many of those little rafts got sunk under the falling drums of toxic waste; others were impaled with harpoons fired from cannons when they deliberately interposed themselves between the whaling ships and the whales, while still others got tangled in fishing nets; of the latter instance, there were at least a couple of incidents where protesters had drowned. The survivors had filed civil and criminal suits against the individual captains who allowed these outrages to occur; they also filed lawsuits against the individuals that carried out these actions, and against the companies that owned these ships for hiring such disreputable individuals. Taking them to court had cost the shipping companies dearly in time and money, and the publicity of these suits had won sympathy for the environmentalists and their cause. Such actions and lawsuits had been common during the mid- to late-1970s, when environmental actions had been popular, and to a certain extent they had even been effective. Endangered species began to make a slight comeback, and nuclear power companies had been vilified in public for dumping their waste into the oceans, and were forced to discontinue. While it couldn't be said that the oceans were being cleaned up, at least their continued pollution had been slowed greatly; and as a result of this concern for the environment, such tourist activities as whale-watches, coastal cruises, and museum and aquarium tours positively exploded with new popularity. People were informing and educating themselves, and for the first time in years they began to feel hopeful about preserving what was left of their environment.

And then the bio-war broke out, and quickly after it--like yet another Black Plague--came the Foundation for Law and Morality.

After the Foundation had seized power, direct environmental action was re-named "environmental terrorism," and was subsequently banned by federal law. Anti-pollution lawsuits disappeared from the courts, and lawsuits that had been filed on behalf of those previously endangered species were quickly dismissed in favor of the whalers and fishermen, ranchers and loggers, and had been thrown out by conservative fundamentalist judges in order to make time and room for the prosecution of what they considered to be real criminals-drug users and small-time dealers, political dissidents, and Foundation resisters. The remaining non-violent people who had formed the environmental groups, once respected by most of the public as heroes, were now regarded by the State as being no better than common outlaws.

"Aw, shit," the captain muttered again, and then he pressed the stop button. He rose from his desk and reached for the jacket that was draped on the back of his chair.

Up on deck, and standing at the rail, he raised his binoculars to his eyes. He spotted the ship almost immediately. It was about fifteen hundred meters off the starboard bow, and one of the first things he noticed about it was that it wasn't the same ship as before. Whereas the last ship had been a three-master with full sails, looking like an eighteenth-century schooner, this looked long and sleek and modern. There was only one central mast; the sail was tucked and tied in, and the roiling of the sea behind it indicated that it was also propelled by powerful engines. "What the hell is that?" he muttered to himself.

"I dunno, sir," the first mate replied, watching with his own glasses, "but I get the feeling that it ain't up to any good."

The captain was looking for a flag. He found it. It was solid black with a wide, olive green V in the center.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" the first mate asked.

The captain thought for a long moment, and suddenly he was reminded of a bit of World War Two history.

In the European theater, there had been thousands of resisters--patriots, French and Norwegian underground resisters, Italian partisans, and Jewish groups--who had fought against the invading German forces, either in well-organized groups or in small cells. There had even been lone individuals, all in hiding and fighting for themselves and their families and their countrymen. It was said that a lot of these people used to go around in the dead of night spraying "V"s on everything--the V for Victory against the Nazis--as a morale-booster.

"So what's it mean?" the first mate asked again.

"Solid black flag? Green V?" All he could do was use his imagination. One thing was certain: these people obviously were not from the recently outlawed Greenpeace, or any other peaceful group. These people were... Aww, hell, the captain thought, they're probably just another bunch of long-haired hippie fish-huggers.

But there was something about the sight of that flag that made him feel...uneasy.

A pair of boats launched from the far side of the ship. Not those motorized rubber Zodiacs, either, the captain noticed; these things were much bigger. As they approached, he quickly recognized them as Cigarette 35s--fast, sleek powerhouses, capable of hitting speeds in excess of sixty knots with horses to spare. Cigarettes had been popular with island drug smugglers during the late 1960s and early 1970s because they maneuvered like Italian sports cars, and there wasn't much out there that could catch them.

The two boats pulled around to the ship's prow some thirty meters out and chopped their power, coming to a stop with their engines idling. As they bobbled slightly in the small waves, a man in one of the boats raised a bullhorn to his lips and spoke.

"You are illegally fishing in Allied Territorial waters. You are ordered to immediately cease your activities and leave these waters."

The captain and his first mate grinned dark, bristly grins. "You've gotta be shitting me," the captain said with a chuckle.

"If you do not comply with these orders, your ship will be boarded and seized. This is your only chance to comply peacefully."

"Give me your radio," the captain said to his mate. He took it and raised it to his lips. "Vasquez? Send two men forward with rifles." With a grin, he said, "Now, let's let them wait a minute or two, like we're thinking it over." He continued to hold the radio as though he were conferring with someone. "How the hell do they expect to board and seize this ship?" he asked. "What a bunch of dumb fuckers."

"Maybe they'll try to climb up on a daisy chain or something," the first mate replied, and they both chuckled. "And then they'll pelt us with flowers and love-beads."

Within a minute, two men came up bearing rifles; a bolt-action Weatherby Mark V Fibermark and a lever-action Browning 81. Both weapons had telescopic sights.

"Let's see if you gentlemen can put out those Cigarettes," the captain said.

The two shooters took their positions on either side of him and raised their weapons. As they worked their actions to bring rounds into their chambers, the two speedboats suddenly gunned their engines and peeled off in opposite directions. The rifles fired anyway, tracking the retreating boats. Bullets whizzed over the heads of the pilots and smacked into the water, missing the quickly departing Cigarettes by only a few feet.

The men on board the fishing trawler laughed uproariously. "Let's hear it for 'flower power,' huh?" the captain said.

Satisfied, they all stood down and returned to their previous posts, and the captain returned to his cabin to add another entry to the ship's log.

***

The two-man crews of the Cigarettes climbed back on board after securing their boats. "Sons of bitches!" one of the men said. "Goddamned stupid sons of bitches! We gave them a chance to leave peacefully, and they wouldn't go for it. Damn it!"

The captain sighed wearily, and shook his head in reluctant acceptance. The captain of the fishing trawler had made his decision; he and his crew would have to suffer for it. "Call Farrell; it looks like he's going to finally get his shake-down run."

***

In the dark of night and with a waning moon, the ocean looked like a huge, black, glistening oil slick. The fishing trawler had silenced its engines and laid anchored for the night, and now two men were patrolling the decks; at port and starboard, they scanned the waters with starlight amplifier binoculars, looking for the possible return of that ship they had chased off earlier. All appeared to be quiet and peaceful, and completely deserted.

Four kilometers off the starboard bow, the glistening black steel behemoth rose silently from the cold depths like an elusive creature from a Scottish loch. As it slowly moved forward, gaining little by little on the unwary trawler, its conning tower sliced through the surface like the dorsal fin of a shark; and on each side of that black steel fin was painted an olive green V.

The submarine had been..."appropriated"...by Captain Chris Farrell and his crew when they had unanimously decided to take a non-approved leave of absence from the Foundation's navy. Escaping from the base at San Diego, it had sustained some major damage when a pair of Foundation destroyers had gone after it with depth charges, and four men had been killed. Jettisoning the bodies and trailing oil, Farrell had managed to convince the skippers of the destroyers that the sub had been sunk, and then he had taken it north at nearly a snail's pace in search of an Allied port on the craggy coast of northern California to which he could surrender the ship and make his proposal. Repairs had taken more than a year, but now it was fully functional and fully armed, and part of the Allies' arsenal.

***

The sonar man rose from the galley table with a steaming white mug of coffee. Break time was over, and it was time for him to go back to work. Carrying the coffee mug with him, he headed out the hatch and along the narrow deck, and suddenly the deck dipped under him for a moment, shifting with the sea. Hot coffee sloshed over the rim of the mug and onto his hand. Leaning with his hip against the rail, he quickly and delicately switched the mug from one hand to the other--first grasping it by the top, then by its bottom, and then at last by the handle again--trying not to burn his fingertips. "Damn it!" he hissed as he shook the hot liquid from his nearly scalded hand. Shifting away from the rail and regaining his balance, he finally continued to make his way slowly back to the sonar room.

Setting the mug down next to the headphones, he examined his burning hand; it was red in spots, but nothing more serious than that. With a sigh, he settled once more into his padded swivel chair, donned the phones, and rocked back. Almost immediately, he frowned at something. He leaned forward and adjusted a dial on his scanner, and then frowned a little bit more. He twisted the little black plastic knob back and forth and that strange noise continued, slowly growing louder and stronger.

He leaned to one side, reached for the portable radio, and signaled the captain with a pair of short bursts of static as he thumbed the transmit button twice. "Sir, this is Abbott down in the radio room. Did those eco-freaks from this afternoon show up again?"

"Haven't seen 'em. What's up?"

The sonar man sighed. "I don't know. It's probably nothing; just signal noise or something. But you might want to come down and give a listen."

"On my way."

He had already been on his way there. He was going to see Vasquez in the engine room, and the radio room was between them, and he arrived within a minute. He found the sonar man still listening through the headphones and frowning in thought. "What've you got?" he asked.

The sonar man pulled off the phones and handed them to the captain. "Doesn't sound like any damn fish I ever heard."

The captain slipped his own walkie-talkie back into the bracket that hung on his belt, donned the headphones, and listened for a moment. It was a peculiar hissing sound that seemed to be getting louder and louder. Being a former Navy man himself, he recognized the sound almost immediately.

"Oh, shit," he said, just before the torpedoes hit.

***

The first pair, side by side, were a direct hit amidships. The night sky and the black sea were lit up with bright orange, and the shock wave shattered the silence of the night as the trawler heaved upward in the middle, broken in two, as though kicked by an angry god. The sea rushed in, flooding the engine room and tilting the aft section downward, and then the prow tilted up as the forward half of the ship began to sink. Screaming in panic, some of the men scurried like rats to the highest point while others ran for the lifeboats. Abbott frantically signaled a mayday for any ships that might be in the area--he didn't even know if there was any power to run the radio, but he at least had to try--and then without waiting for an answer he yanked off the headphones and tossed them and the microphone away before bolting up on deck to join the rest of the escaping crew. Working frantically, they cut the lines and dropped the boats into the water, and then quickly leapt over the rails and desperately swam for them.

Then the second pair of torpedoes hit. Each locked onto a remaining half and slammed into it, finishing the job. The separate halves of the ship blew up, and fragments of them fell from the sky to float on the water like bits of balsa wood and Styrofoam. Larger pieces floated for only a moment, and then sank to the ocean's floor.

Cold and wet, and shivering uncontrollably as he huddled beneath a blanket, the trawler's captain sat forward in one of the lifeboats and watched helplessly in mute rage as the remains of his ship disappeared beneath the surface. Long-haired hippie fish-huggers, he had called them, armed with daisy-chains and love beads. Sons of bitches! he silently railed. How could they do something like this? They were peace-freaks, for God's sake! They were environmental wackos, they were throwbacks to the Summer of Love, they were pacifist cowards, they were...they weren't supposed to behave like this! They weren't supposed to fight back!

A few moments later even the white foam disappeared as the roiling slowed and stopped, and the sea was peaceful and quiet once again. The captain shivered again, and this time it wasn't just because he was cold. Jesus Christ, he said to himself as a cold fist of fear clenched around his heart. Jesus H. Christ, what the hell have we gotten ourselves into?

***

Satisfied for now, the glistening black steel behemoth with the green V on its dorsal fin slipped silently below the surface of the cold Pacific once again, to patiently await the next call to hunt.

Chapter Thirteen

They slept late the next morning, not rising until well after sunrise. Sierra was still asleep in her room, but Valerie and Jasmine-still in their wrinkled nightshirts and a little sleepy, and with their hair still uncombed-were sitting on the sofa with the contents of the black bag still scattered before them on the coffee table; the rucksack itself sat in a flaccid pile on the floor next to the table. They had been left here last night after a grimly curious inspection by lamplight, and now the two women continued to study them in the light of day.

With a dark scowl, Valerie muttered under her breath, "What the hell kind of sick-o shit is this?" She hadn't really been expecting an answer to her question; she already knew it. She just couldn't believe that anyone would want to have anything to do with this sort of thing.

Rather than touching the objects, she pushed them around and flipped them over with the tip of a plastic disposable pen. She had received enough of an unpleasant surprise last night when she had dragged the bag out from under the house, and handling it had made her want to scrub her hands clean with lye and a wire brush. "Why the hell would anyone leave this shit under our house?"

Jasmine placed a steaming cup of coffee near Valerie, and raised the other to her lips for a sip. "Maybe they left it as some kind of a message," she replied, "or maybe some fundamentalist left it as a frame-up or something. I guess even in these parts there could be some Christian Supremacist assholes who want to frame or hassle us."

"Most likely a Christian Supremacist would have burned the house down like it was a Planned Parenthood clinic," Valerie replied as she continued to gaze at the diabolical artifacts that lay before them. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jasmine set her cup down and reach for one of the long, fat black candles. She shuddered at the thought of someone deliberately soiling themselves by touching any of this stuff.

With the back of a fingertip, Jasmine nudged the candle first one way and then the other, rolling it back and forth, and then did the same to a couple more. "These haven't been used yet," she observed. Then she picked up a black wooden crucifix, and noticed as Valerie instinctively moved away a little bit. She slowly turned it over in her hands to examine it. The Christ figure had been replaced with one of the Devil; the eyes were bright red and glaring with hate, and the feet were a pair of cloven hooves. And instead of a crown of thorns, the figure wore on its head a pair of horns, sprouting like small twin stalagmites from just above the forehead. The implication of this artifact, of course, was that Satan was the true victim; the leader and savior of Satanism, along with all the practitioners of this innocent religion, had been victimized and expelled from Paradise, and had been crucified by an oppressive state. And was still suffering for it. Suffering, but certainly not powerless, as evidenced by the fierce and malevolent grin that the figure wore.

Jasmine shook her head slightly with a mild snort of contempt. "What a bunch of bozos," she said softly. "These people are either extremely sick individuals, or they're a bunch of malignant bastards. Take your pick." She put the cross down, and then reached for the black, fist-sized leather pouch.

"You keep touching that stuff, you're not touching me tonight," Valerie warned. "Not without scrubbing your hands first with lye and a wire brush."

One corner of Jasmine's mouth curled up in a mischievous smile, and she slowly reached for Valerie's bare thigh with a clawed hand. Valerie yelped and leapt to her feet, and dashed around the end of the sofa. "God dammit, don't you smear that shit on me!" she snarled with a clenched fist. And then, reluctantly, she began to smile just a little bit in spite of herself; she knew that Jasmine was just teasing her, but...well, damn it, she still didn't want to be touched after she had been handling those objects.

Still smiling herself, Jasmine picked up the leather pouch. "Let's see what we've got in here," she said. It was held shut by a leather drawstring; she pulled its mouth wide open with her index fingers, and she peered inside. "God!" Her hands flew apart and she dropped the pouch as though it had delivered an almost electrical shock of revulsion. She had momentarily forgotten that she might awaken Sierra with her outburst. "Shit!"

"Shhh..." She glanced toward Sierra's room to make certain that her door was still closed, and then she started to come around the sofa again. "What is it?"

She was almost tempted to leap up herself, and put the sofa between herself and the bag. Staring at it with a sickened expression she said, "It's full of...my God, it's got a dead bat in it and a smashed and dried frog...a decapitated squirrel and a dead lizard, and what appears to be a skeleton's finger..." Then her expression changed to one that went beyond mere disgust. "And a used condom, among other things..." She gingerly picked the pouch up by its drawstring, handling it with thumb and forefinger as though she were handling a dead rat by its tail, and jerked it up and down until it was shut. "Come on," she said as she began to clear the coffee table by putting everything back into the black nylon day pack. "Let's take this shit outside and burn it. And bring me some lye and a wire brush."

***

Even Jasmine had been left with the feeling that her hands were unclean, and after scrubbing them vigorously with a variety of cleaners and a sturdy brush she went with Valerie and Sierra to the river for a leisurely swim. They returned to the house around an hour later, naked and each with a towel slung across a shoulder, and with wet hair combed out. They dressed quickly; they had stayed at the river longer than they had planned, swimming and playing with a couple of the wolves, so they had to move quickly in order to hit the carnival for a few more needed supplies and then to begin making their rounds with the variety of patients they had been seeing. The wolves wanted to come along, and Valerie had been tempted to have them come along for comfort, if for no other reason, after dealing with the Satanist's bag of ritual tools; instead, she had them stay behind. Unfortunately, the sight of a pack of timber wolves loping through the woods was still a little unnerving to most faint-hearted humans.

Doctor James Patrick Bennet ran the local clinic. When it came to trauma, obstetrics, and emergency medicine, he was the first choice for treatment. He was a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Medicine, and had been further trained quite literally under fire in Forward Surgical Teams--FAST units, for short--in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia, El Salvador, and South Africa; later he had gone on to supervise in a number of teaching hospitals and emergency rooms, from Los Angeles to New York. He also wanted to continue and expand his practice in the treatment of degenerative diseases--cardiac disease, cancer, arthritis and others--and in viral and bacterial diseases, but there was precious little literature available to him. Mail service had been cut off to the Allied territory, so materials such as medical textbooks and journals had to be smuggled in. Unfortunately, such materials occupied considerable space on board transport vehicles; and the priorities for now were still for defense over research. Trauma and communicable diseases, self-defense and military intelligence, and equipment were all high priority, but for good or ill about the only medical literature to get smuggled through on even a semi-regular basis dealt almost exclusively with trauma.

Another problem he had was that he was not able to reach all of the widely scattered patients which needed his services, and many of his patients were unable to travel the considerable distances to get to his clinic. Roads were rough and unpaved, and frequently rutted by the repeated passage of wooden wagon wheels. When the weather was good, they proved to be of little bother; when the weather wasn't so good, they turned to mud and became more of a problem.

As a result of these travel problems, many people tended to seek out the more non-traditional forms of treatment that were readily rendered by the two Witches who lived in an isolated cabin out in the woods instead of inside or near one of the many slowly growing communes that dotted the Territory. And their fees were pretty reasonable, too; frequently they would leave it up to the patient and what he or she felt comfortable with paying, while on other occasions that fee was waived with the recommendation of going out and doing something helpful for someone, or to simply return an unpaid favor. Many of these patients would pay in food, produce, or free labor or hardware; it had been from grateful patients that Valerie and Jasmine had received most of the solar equipment that powered their house.

Along with running the Thomas Paine Memorial Library, Valerie and Jasmine worked in conjunction with Dr. Bennet. They saw his patients at home for follow-up care when the doctor himself was unavailable, and reported their progress to him at his clinic at the end of the day. If a bone had been broken, Bennet would take x-rays and set it, and apply the cast; if they could not travel to his clinic for x-rays, which occasionally was the case, he would make a house-call, set the bone by palpation and then apply the cast, and hope for the best. If someone had undergone surgery or was suffering from a severe laceration, Bennet would perform the procedure or sew up the laceration; Valerie or Jasmine, or both, would stop by a day or two later, either at the clinic or at the patient's home, and provide follow-up care by performing informal healing rituals. Lighting some candles and burning some incense, they would lend some of their energy to promote healing by holding their hands a few centimeters above the patient and directing the flow of energy. The same was true with patients who were suffering either from disease or infection, and what surprised Bennet the most was the fact that, on the average, after a visit from the two witches such injuries and diseases would usually heal and disappear in about half the normal time. One of Bennet's patients had been the victim of an unprovoked knife attack; Bennet had sewn up the laceration and bandaged it at the clinic the same day when Jasmine and Valerie had been visiting there, and they had performed a healing ritual after the procedure. Bennet had figured it couldn't hurt, and after the ritual he had told his patient that the stitches should come out in about ten days. What had astounded him was when he had gone to check on his patient at home a couple of days later, to examine the wound for possible infection; the laceration had become a pink scar, and the sutures had been ready to come out.

The patient load was light today. After a quick stop at the carnival grounds for some supplies, they went to pay a follow-up visit to Jason Chen and his family; Jason thought he had thrown his back out while chopping wood a couple of days ago, but the pain had felt much sharper than a strained muscle normally would. From Sheila's description, when she had come to Valerie and Jasmine for help, Valerie suspected something more serious; possibly a ruptured disc in his lumbar spine. While the two witches had alleviated much of the pain on their first visit, they and his wife and his eight-year-old daughter had still encouraged him to see Doc Bennet. He said he would, once the pain had been reduced a little more.

"I know it hurts like a sonofagun," Valerie was telling him as he lay on his bed, "but we're not futtzing around anymore." She turned to Sierra. "Would you go out to the wagon and make some room, please? And bring one of those loose planks to use as a backboard; we're going to have to take Jason to the clinic."

"Sure," Sierra replied.

Wanting to do something other than to watch her father suffer, Jason and Sheila's daughter Chrissie said, "I'll help," and she accompanied Sierra outside.

***

Bitch, Murphy thought as hatred rose once more in his soul like bitter black bile. The bitch. I'm gonna git that bitch, and all that power is gonna be mine. I'll show her who's got the power! Her and Billy, and Mike and Jimmy, and that snot-nosed punk Bobby, I'll teach him to hit me in the face, that little fucker, little school-yard punk finkin' on me to the teacher... He grinned a horrible grin as he thought back on all of his childhood enemies, combining past and present in a swirling, demented vortex of hatred, as he clenched his teeth and twisted his fist into his palm. And then I'm gonna get Vance and Slogan, and that Kreuger dude... I'm gonna get 'em all, man...make 'em all suffer...

He had lost his bag at the witch's house last night, and everything in it. Good thing he never left his athame inside; it was always with him, always hanging on his right hip. No one recognized it as a ritual dagger; everyone who had spied it assumed that it was just a regular knife, one that could quite effectively end just about any argument. Or discourage one, for that matter. It also helped whenever he needed free goods, like the candles he had stolen from the candle maker. Actually, Murphy hadn't needed the knife for that; all he had needed were cunning and stealth. When the candle maker had turned his back to him to help a customer, Murphy had unobtrusively and quickly grabbed as many candles as he could--regardless of colors--and stuffed them into his pockets. He had needed ritual tools, and this was about the best he could do.

After reacquiring his targets at the carnival grounds, he had followed the slow-moving wagon on foot, staying off the road and keeping himself concealed in the shadows of the forest. It had been a long walk--four or five miles--and after some three or four hours of stealthy pursuit, ducking behind trees and dropping below bushes when necessary, he finally had the opportunity to sit and rest when the wagon had come to a stop outside of this small homestead. The two women and the child had gone inside a short while ago, and now there was nothing else for him to do but sit and wait. He had no idea of how long it would be before he finally managed to grab Valerie, and he didn't know how he would do it; all he could do was follow them from place to place, and hope for the best.

It was the daughter who emerged from the house, accompanied by another dark-haired girl of about her age and size, and the two of them went around to the back of the wagon and climbed in.

He had no idea when or even if the opportunity might ever arise again. It was now or never, and he decided to go for it.

As the two kids crawled around in the back of the wagon, pushing things to the sides, he cautiously stepped from the woods and ran quietly in a semi-crouch across the dirt clearing. He pulled his athame from its sheath at his hip just before jumping up into the wagon.

She didn't know why it should be coming from out of the clear blue sky, but suddenly all of Sierra's senses went on full alert as a sense of dread laid its cold hand on the back of her neck. At the same time she thought she heard something soft and stealthy coming from behind them, and an instant later the wagon bounced slightly just as she began to turn around. But it all happened too quickly; before she could complete that turn, Murphy grabbed Chrissie by clamping a hand over her mouth and held the point of his dagger at the child's throat. Sierra's eyes widened in shock and terror, and she started to gasp in a deep breath to be released in a shrill scream--

"One sound and I'll kill your friend!" he hissed in a fierce whisper.

--and the scream died in her throat.

"Now, you just come over here and sit down, and stay real nice and quiet," he said as he slowly removed his hand from Chrissie's mouth so he could take the reins, "and you'll both be fine. We're just going for a little ride."

Sierra wasn't about to do anything to cause her friend to be harmed; she dared not cry out or cause a struggle. While both children were beginning to cry silently in fright, a part of Sierra's mind was telling her not to panic. She knew there would be a better opportunity for them to escape, sooner or later, so she decided to wait and hope before acting. She quietly did as she was told, and encouraged Chrissie to do the same.

With a soft twitch of the reins, he drove the horse and wagon gently out of the clearing and into the woods, where he reined to a stop a moment later, hidden in the shadows and the shrubs.

***

Jason groaned once the girls were outside. "God, I feel like such a damned idiot," he said. "I've been living out here for years, chopping my own wood and hauling lumber and building corrals and barns, and I've never had anything like this happen before. Is this a sign of old age or something?"

"Naw," Sheila replied. "More likely, it's a sign of luck."

Jason regarded her with surprise and disbelief at her apparent callousness. "Luck? "

"Yeah; you're lucky this never happened before."

He started to chuckle softly, and then a sharp twinge in his back quickly made him change his mind. "Terrific," he said with a wince and a groan. "I'm lying here in agony, and my wife is cracking wise."

"With egg-ceptionally good humor, I might add," Sheila said with a smile. "Get it? Cracking wise, egg-ceptionally...?"

Jason groaned again, but they couldn't tell if it was from the pun or from the pain in his back. "God," he said, "oh God, the pun in my back..." His own chuckle brought on another sharp twinge, and made him wince again.

Valerie approached him where he lay on his bed. "Well, let's see if we can get you rolled onto your side; then we can get the backboard slipped under you. I've got your shoulders, so you just relax. Jasmine, you take his hips. And Sheila, can you go outside and see what's taking Sierra so long?"

"Sure." She went out the door, and it was only a moment before she returned. Very pale and noticeably tense, she said, "They're gone!"

"What? " Valerie and Jasmine both turned to her as they eased Jason down again.

"Sierra and Chrissie--they're both gone! So's the wagon!"

What the hell? Valerie thought as she and Jasmine both rushed for the door, consumed with disbelief and worry. "Sierra! Chrissie!" They stood outside for a moment, unsure of what to do; they could hear a gentle current of air hissing through the treetops, and birds could be heard singing not far away, but there were no answering shouts. The wide open space in front of the Chen's homestead was deserted.

"Sierra! Chrissie!" their voices called out again.

"Sierra!" Valerie called. "You'd better not be playing around, or there's going to be...to be hell t...to pay..." Even as she spoke these words she realized that Sierra wouldn't pull a stunt like this; even though she was only seven years old and occasionally liked to pull harmless pranks on her parents, she was far too trustworthy to engage in something this irresponsible while out on their follow-up rounds. Worry and concern twisted inside her like a writhing serpent, and then that concern began to transform itself into trembling fear.

"Where could they be?" Jasmine wondered worriedly. The fear in her eyes matched that which twisted inside of Valerie. "We never even heard anything; it's like they just disappeared!"

What the hell is happening here? Valerie asked herself with ever-increasing anxiety. This can't be happening, it just can't...

"You go get their horse and check down the road; I'll go on foot and check around here." And then she was off and running into the woods, and wishing she had brought some of the wolves with them.

***

He sat with them in the wagon, peering through the foliage and silently watching the women while holding his hostages, and listened with a cold smile as Valerie and Jasmine shouted questions to each other. He could tell they were afraid. Good, he thought. You damn well better be afraid. Then he saw Jasmine run for the corral to get the horse while Valerie took off for the woods, moving behind and away from the concealed wagon. A moment later, Jasmine was seen galloping down the road the other way. Sheila stayed at the house and went inside to be with Jason.

He waited another five minutes to be certain that the coast was clear. He didn't want to stay here too long; Valerie might double back and come this way and find them, and if he took off too soon he might run into Jasmine somewhere down the road. He could hear Valerie somewhere in the woods behind him, shouting for the kids; the shouts sounded as though they might be growing a little fainter, which meant she was moving farther away. Good, he thought. He waited until her voice was no more than a distant call, like the faraway cry of an eagle.

With one arm around Chrissie's shoulders he held the knife at her throat, and with his other arm firmly around Sierra's waist, keeping her firmly in his lap, he clutched the reins tightly in his fist. He twitched them again with a soft cluck of his tongue, and the horse and wagon began to slowly and quietly move deeper into the shadowed woods.

***

Flashlight beams, like blades of light, crossed as they sliced back and forth through the night-shrouded forest. The three women had been searching the woods until well after dark with no intention of giving up until both children had been found, sweeping the area and calling out for the kids. Each hour had passed like an eternity, and they had been growing more and more frantic until Jasmine suddenly found one of them wandering along the path, crying in fright. The voice calling out "Mommy!" had sounded much like Sierra's, but it was Chrissie who was found, trembling and crying in near terror.

"Chrissie!" Jasmine called out. She rushed to her as she called out to the others. "I've found Chrissie!" She stooped and picked her up, and held her close. "Are you okay? Where's Sierra?"

The child nodded silently, and then gasped and sobbed.

Sheila and Valerie were suddenly there, with relief and worry battling within them. Sheila took the child with a sob of her own. "Sweetheart, what happened? Where did you go?"

"Chrissie," Valerie said, "where's Sierra?"

She sniffled once and wiped at her eyes as she regained a little composure, and with a slightly choked voice she replied, "A man took her..."

A new pang of terror thrust its way like a blade into their hearts. "A man?" Jasmine said. "What man?"

"I don't know," she replied. "Some man...he says for you to take the curse off..."

"Curse?" Valerie said, and even before the child continued she knew what Chrissie meant. Just when she thought that cold, sinking feeling of dread couldn't get any worse, it would plummet to a new depth.

"Off the nuke plant," Chrissie replied. "He says he'll let her go if you take the curse off the nuclear plant." With her eight-year-old command of English, she pronounced nuclear as "nuke-you-ler."

"Take the curse off Betatron?" Jasmine asked with frightened and incredulous eyes. She looked at the child for a moment longer, and then her eyes turned toward Valerie. "But why the hell would anyone want that curse removed?"

The fragment of conversation that had invaded her dreams that first night after the carnival echoed through her mind. "Naw, they'll never open it, not after what happened there..." "Well, I heard they were trying..."

God damn them! she thought, and for a brief moment she felt the same way she did that day she killed the bear; filled with both rage and terror. "The FLM bastards want it open! And they'd even go so far as to threaten a child to get what they wanted!" She shook with fury. "God damn them! " She started down the path to Betatron in a blind rage.

Jasmine stopped her. "We have to go home first. We can't go in like this; if we're going to stop these fuckers once and for all, we'll need weapons."

Valerie turned back to the child. "Chrissie, how many other men were there? Was there anyone else with him?"

Somewhat more calm now, she replied, "There wasn't anyone else; it was just a blond man by himself."

The Satanist's bag that they had found under the house suddenly came to mind; it had to belong to the kidnapper. The son of a bitch had been under their house last night; right beneath their floor, right under them, defiling the sanctity of their home and listening to their intimate conversations with hateful glee while making his obscene plans.

Neither of them had ever felt more violated.

That goddamned Foundation, she thought. Only the Foundation for Law and Morality would employ a Satanist--one of their own worst enemies--to help them achieve their goal. There was no level to which they would not stoop to get what they wanted.

"Okay." Then, with grim determination, she said to Jasmine, "Right--weapons. Let's nail this son of a bitch."

part 6

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