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BABYLON ROAD: Book I of The Babylon Road Chronicles

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK I:

BABYLON ROAD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Kate and Mallory: Strange and beautiful friends on this strange and beautiful journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.

-Buddha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MISSING PERSONS

It is estimated that upwards of 2,300 people go missing in the United States each day. As of December 31, 2012, the National Crime Information Center (N.C.I.C.) reported 661,593 Active Missing Persons Cases. While a great number of these individuals are eventually located, many are not…

IDENTITY: St. John, Karen A.

AGE: 34

SEX: F

MISSING SINCE: 09/28/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Brentwood, CA.

OCCUPATION: Police Officer, City of Brentwood, CA. *unpaid leave as of 07/28/2012

NOTES: Ms. St. John’s last known location was her condominium in the 3100 block of N. Richardson Drive, Brentwood, CA. Her partner (Ms. Stacy Wilmington) reported last seeing Ms. St. John at 11:30 PM. When Ms. Wilmington woke at approximately 7:00 AM the next morning, Ms. St. John was not present inside the residence. Her personal effects were found inside the home. Having been placed on suspension by her employer, City of Brentwood Police Department, Ms. St. John was awaiting an ethics hearing on allegations of prescription drug abuse. Ms. Wilmington has stated that Ms. St. John had reported trouble sleeping prior to her disappearance. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: Richman, Joel P.

AGE: 62

SEX: M

MISSING SINCE: 10/12/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Dallas, TX.

OCCUPATION: Certified Public Accountant

 NOTES: Mr. Richman, a Certified Public Accountant for the city of Dallas TX., was reported missing by his supervisor when he did not report for work following the weekend. A thorough inspection of his home revealed no signs of a struggle or foul play. Mr. Richman’s personal effects were found inside the home. Records show that Mr. Richman has lived alone since the time of his wife’s death in October of 2007. Co-workers and friends reported no suspicious behavior leading up to the time of Mr. Richman’s disappearance. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: Lybeck, Kelvin T.

AGE: 36

SEX: M

MISSING SINCE: 08/10/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Chicago, IL.

OCCUPATION: Attorney – Specializing in Family Law

NOTES: Officially listed as WANTED, Mr. Lybeck disappeared on 08/10/2012 while en route to Cook County Detention Center, Chicago, IL. Mr. Lybeck is a native of Phoenix, AZ. He was arrested at approximately 9:30 AM on 08/10/2012 in connection with the homicide of Ms. Susan Roberts, a resident of Chicago’s West Side. It is believed that Mr. Lybeck may have returned to the State of Arizona. He is known to have many personal connections within the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, and may be residing in the suburb of Glendale, due west of Phoenix. Persons coming in contact with the suspect are strongly urged not to confront him. He may be armed and should be considered extremely dangerous. Any information on the whereabouts of Mr. Lybeck should be immediately referred to the nearest law enforcement agency or the local Federal Bureau of Investigation Field Office at the number(s) listed below. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: Perry, Susan A.

AGE: 61

SEX: F

MISSING SINCE: 02/01/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: San Jose, CA.

OCCUPATION: Unemployed

NOTES: Ms. Perry was reported missing 02/01/2012 when she failed to meet with her Probation Officer at a Court Appointed Hearing. Upon inspection of Ms. Perry’s apartment, officers found no sign of a struggle. All personal effects were found inside her home, including documents pertaining to the scheduled hearing, leading investigators to believe that Ms. Perry’s disappearance was not the result of a planned departure. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: Yakamoro, Lucas T.

AGE: 27

SEX: M

MISSING SINCE: 03/13/2012 – 04/01/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Bakersfield, CA.

OCCUPATION: Unemployed

NOTES: Mr. Yakamoro was reported missing on 04/01/2012 after failing to pay his weekly rental bill at the Trade Winds Motel, located in the 2100 block of Centurion Ave., Bakersfield, CA. Inspection of the motel room revealed extensive drug paraphernalia most commonly associated with Methamphetamine and Narcotics activity. There have been no further leads in this case. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: Ramsey, Lindsey C.

AGE: 17

SEX: F

MISSING SINCE: 05/30/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Interstate 78 Exit 14-C, NJ.

OCCUPATION: Student

 NOTES: Last observed via surveillance camera at the “Gas-N-GO” rest stop on Northbound Interstate 78 Exit 14-C, NJ. The subject did not appear to be coerced or threatened as she completed her purchase and returned to her automobile. Activity pulled form subject’s credit card did not show any additional activity after departing her last known location. The automobile in this case, a 2011 black Lexus sedan with New York plates has yet to be recovered. This case remains active. ***A STATEWIDE AMBER ALERT HAS BEEN ISSURED***

IDENTITY: Post, Beverly A.

AGE: 65

SEX: F

MISSING SINCE: 02/17/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Pittsburgh, PA.

OCCUPATION: Widow

NOTES: Mrs. Post was reported missing on 02/17/2012 by Mr. Elton Saxton (Mrs. Post’s next door neighbor). He has stated that he often checked-in on Mrs. Post after the death of her husband several years earlier. Upon inspection of the home, there appeared to be no sign of a struggle. Mrs. Post’s personal effects were found inside the home. Interviews conducted with friends and neighbors revealed that Mrs. Post had discussed no plans to travel in the near future. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: McCoy, Gavin B.

AGE: 34

SEX: M

MISSING SINCE: 10/08/2012 – 10/17/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: San Diego, CA.

OCCUPATION: Sargent, United States Army *_Retired_

 NOTES: Ret. Sargent Gavin McCoy was last seen leaving an appointment at the Veterans Affairs Hospital of San Diego at 3350 La Jolla Drive, San Diego, CA, on 10/08/2012. He did not report for a follow-up appointment on 10/17/2012. He was officially reported missing to San Diego Law Enforcement Officials on 10/20/2012. Inspection of his most recent address turned up no sign of Ret. Sgt. McCoy. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: Shanning, Rory L.

AGE: 12

SEX: M

MISSING SINCE: 09/04/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Auburn, CA.

OCCUPATION: Student

 NOTES: ***AMBER ALERT ISSUED FOR THE FOLLOWING COUNTIES: PLACER, NEVADA, EL DORADO, SACRAMENTO, YOLO and SOLANO*** Rory Shanning was reported missing from his home in Auburn California on 09/04/2012 by his mother Lisa. His mother states that she went into his bedroom at approximately 6:45 AM to wake him for school. Upon entering his room, she found his bed vacant. Investigators immediately issued a warning utilizing the amber alert system. A thorough inspection of the home showed no signs of foul play. The Department of Child Welfare has been involved in the ongoing investigation as they have an established history with the family during the time leading up to Rory’s disappearance. They initially became involved following the accidental firearm death of Rory’s older brother Timothy. Both Placer County Law Officials and a Spokesman from the Federal Bureau of Investigation are reporting that both parents have been questioned and neither are currently being held as suspects in their son’s disappearance. A widespread search has yielded no signs of the missing minor. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: Vandross, Chad R.

AGE: 21

SEX: M

MISSING SINCE: 02/24/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: St. Louis, MO.

OCCUPATION: College Student

 NOTES: Varsity Linebacker, Chad Vandross, a first string linebacker for University of Missouri St. Louis, was reported missing by school officials as of 02/24/2012 when Mr. Vandross failed to appear for scheduled classes and football practice. His family has launched their own independent investigation into the disappearance of their son, citing their frustration with school and local law enforcement officials who have suggested that Mr. Vandross might have left of his own accord. Upon inspection of Mr. Vandross’s apartment, his personal effects were recovered. There appeared to be no sign of a struggle. This case remains active.

IDENTITY: Walker, Standolyn E.

AGE: 41

SEX: F

MISSING SINCE: 10/01/2012

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Norman, OK.

OCCUPATION: Etiquette Instructor

NOTES: Ms. Walker was reported missing by the Department of Family Welfare after her elderly father, age 86, was discovered unattended to inside the family home. Ms. Walker had been the primary caregiver for her ailing father since he suffered a stroke in July of 2009. An interview conducted with Mr. Walker’s Social Services Advocate, found that it was unlike Ms. Walker to leave her father unattended to for long periods of time. An interview with Mr. Walker was conducted as to the whereabouts of his daughter. No useful information was ascertained. As of this point, the investigation remains active. No leads have yet proved to be useful in this case.

IDENTITY: Singer, Owen J.

AGE: 17 *_at time of disappearance_

SEX: M

MISSING SINCE: 10/08/1994

LAST KNOWN LOCATION: Waterbury, CT.

OCCUPATION: Student

NOTES: ***AMBER ALERT SYSTEM PRE-DATES THIS DISAPPEARANCE*** Owen Singer, age 17, was reported missing by School Officials after failing to appear for classes at Miles C. Gorman High School. When Waterbury Police Officials visited the home, they found the subject’s father, Owen Singer Sr., in an what was described as an ”altered” state of mind. It had previously been reported that Mr. Singer Sr., suffered from substance abuse problems following the death of his wife several years earlier. Mr. Singer was held by officials for questioning and subsequently released. An extensive search into Mr. Singer’s daughter Emily the year prior, have failed to result in at concrete evidence of either child’s disappearance.

At some point following police interrogation, the Sr. Mr. Singer committed suicide by hanging himself in the family garage. Officials located his body shortly after returning to the home to question him further in the disappearance of his son. No further developments have been reported in the disappearance of Owen Singer Jr. or his sister Emily. This case remains active.

This case remains active…

This case remains active…

This case remains active…

THE MAN FROM NOWHERE

Dark thunderheads crossed the evening sky. They swallowed up the crimson orb of the setting sun in the west.  The man, who held no identity other than his name and a few surviving memories before his time in the desert, watched as the sky darkened before him. A ring of sand as white as bone spread out beneath his feet. Flecks of Obsidian, forged in the furnace of the universe, were sprinkled across the landscape. He drew in a deep breath but the air did not fill his lungs in the manner it once had. Lungs, heart, kidneys and brain were no longer a part of what he was. He belonged to the territories and all of their dark wonders belonged to him.

As he breathed in, the distant cry of thunder blossomed over the thin horizon. He exhaled and lightning flashed. Static filled the air and the distant cry of a lone coyote beckoned to him in the fathomless moonscape set out before him. He shared the same pang of hunger that resided in the animal’s gut. He cried with the arid soil of the desert, aching for the nourishment of a passing storm.

Where had he come from?

He could not recall.

The fleeting memories of his previous life no longer mattered. He had closed his eyes on one world and awakened in the soul of another. He was now a creature he did not fully understand. He was a man without origins to claim him. The setting sun gave way to the infinite galactic wash overhead. With the passing of day came ascension to something more than the earthly bonds of man. He stood alone, exposed to the vast empire before him. He was a king without a crown, a soul with no past or future. He existed only in the moment of the present. He was the man from nowhere. He belonged to the desert and the long shadow of the territories beyond.

CHAPTER 1

YOU ARE HERE

The words blinked on and off like one of those giant applause signs hanging over the audience bank during the live taping of a sitcom. Karen had been to one of those once – nothing big like Friends or Seinfeld – just some free pilot that didn’t take. If memory served her right (and it usually did) she and Stacy had both been suffering from an excruciating hangover that morning. It was a bout of illness only rivaled by the wrath of the headache she suffered now.

YOU ARE HERE

The sign continued to blink, unrelenting as it filled the dark space with its diffuse red glow, punctuated by intervals of the soft black curtain that filled an otherwise empty space. Karen sat up and felt her hip dig into something cold and solid like concrete. She shifted her weight onto her right side as tendrils of her hair fell all along her bare shoulders.

YOU ARE HERE

That same flashing declarative was now beginning to throb inside her skull. She stood and tried to focus. She could not.

Where was Stacy?

She didn’t know.

Where was she for that matter?

The question was lost. She was floating in the void, disconnected from the world outside this darkened space.

“Hello?” She asked. Her voice echoed in the unknown. The air was cool and stagnant. That echo served as the only indicator that she was in an enclosed space at all. She wanted to call it a room but a room was too confined a term for where Karen St. John was now.

I am here.

She thought and actually let out a short burst of a laughter at the absurdity of the situation.

Could she be in jail?

Once, she’d nearly been arrested in Tijuana during a weekend gone awry. That had happened years ago during her sophomore year at UCLA. She had been young and unable to hold her liquor. She had still been clinging to the notion that all women went through their sexual lives faking orgasms, convincing themselves that they weren’t repulsed by men that spread their legs and filled them with that little invasive member of theirs.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” Her voice was barely her own. It sounded as if it were being unleashed from the end of a long, dark hallway.

YOU ARE HERE

The words continued in that same never-ending rhythm.

“Where is here?” She posed the question to an unknown companion. Her voice had a distant tinny quality that eluded reality. It danced along the thin line that exists between dreamscape and nightmare. She walked toward the sign and realized that her feet were bare. She tried to remember where she’d left her shoes. Stacy was apt to be a real bitch if she got up in the middle of the night and tripped over them.

Karen approached the flashing red letters, feeling concrete press cold against the soles of her feet. The air rushed over her bare arms, sending little rivets of goose pimples running up to the nape of her neck. In some ways that was more unsettling than waking in a strange place, more alarming than the flashing red sign. She felt exposed, vulnerable to the unknown.

Vulnerable to the things lurking in the dark.

“Somebody tell me just where the fuck I-!” She came to an abrupt stop just below the flashing red letters. Her nose went in first, bending sideways and then snapping back as the soft flesh gave way to the firm cartilage beneath. Her neck cracked, followed by her spine. She let out a wail and sat down hard. Her cries echoed out like the caw of a passing flock of crows. She rolled into the fetal position, not realizing that her wallet, keys and cell phone had all gone the way of her shoes.

White hot jets of pain rocketed through her skull like fireworks on the Fourth of July. She let out a second cry that was clotted with blood and streaked in agony. The taste of iron ran hot and thick down the back of her throat. Her eyes grew into murky pools that skewed the darkness. Still that goddamned sign continued to blink on and off in endless succession:

YOU ARE HERE

YOU ARE HERE

YOU ARE HERE

2.

There was no sign where Joel Richman was. Had there ever been one, it was long gone, stripped away with the rest of the room. The only piece of furniture in the space was a single dirty mattress lying on the patch of green shag carpet – carpet like the stuff that had been in his mother’s house until the day she died. Like the carpeting in his mother’s house, this too had that same worn look, the kind of thing that becomes unavoidable with time.

People weren’t the only things that aged.

Quickly approaching sixty, this was a truth Joel knew all too well. He stared up at the ceiling and blinked. There was a large arachnid water spot that had crept out of the corner and spilled onto the center of the bowed sheetrock. A few remnants of popcorn plaster still clung to the roof. It did not immediately occur to him that this was not his bedroom. Things had a way of looking different in the fresh light of day. One often took notice of life’s subtleties when you had eight hours of sleep to fire up the old thinking cap. He sat up and that’s when he realized everything was amiss.

If there had been a sign over Joel’s bed it would have blinked: YOU ARE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE.

He hadn’t actually come from Kansas, but that was beside the point. The only thing that mattered now was figuring out where exactly he was and how he had ended up there.

“Donna?” He inquired. Donna had been dead for almost three years, but he asked for her just the same. It had become a visceral reaction – an unavoidable constant in his life. She had died in her sleep, but she had only been fifty five for Christ sake! The doctor’s claimed that her heart had given out. They said that it had been sudden and she’d probably gone without realizing what was happening to her. Joel liked to think that was how things worked, but who really knows? Fifty five still seemed awfully fucking young for your life pump to just cut out on you.

Donna did not of course answer, and neither did anyone else for that matter. Joel was alone, clad only in a pair of khaki shorts and a T-shirt like a castaway on a desert island. The room was tiny and hot. Near one of the water spot’s enormous brown fangs, was a hole in the ceiling. It looked as if it might have held a ceiling fan at one point in time. A fan would have been a welcomed surprise considering the air was roughly the consistency and temperature of tomato soup.

“What in the Hell…?” Joel got up onto his knees and turned toward the glare coming from the front window. Paper thin curtains sloppily concealed the view. They hung there like wet sheets on a clothes line. It was a windless day and the slivers of light that came through the holes in the sheet were so still that they could have been perfectly engineered laser beams.

He reached into his pocket in search of his glasses. A stigmatism and a case of near sightedness that had seemed to catch on after his fortieth birthday, almost made them a necessity nowadays. His fingers tapped out against the bottom of his right pocket. His glasses weren’t there. He went to his left pocket and found them – much to his relief – but no wallet or cell phone lay in the place where they should have been. No car keys either for that matter. He’d been stripped, as Donna might have said if she weren’t resting in a cemetery plot back in Dallas.

Was he still in Dallas?

He hadn’t yet made it over to the window, but his first guess was no, he was not in Dallas anymore. Gut instinct and a general swell of doom told him that much.

The front door was unlocked, standing ajar only about a quarter of an inch. He wondered just how long he’d been out, and then decided that too did not matter. The only fact that mattered was that he was here now.

He went out onto the second story balcony and looked down onto an empty parking lot. The asphalt was ancient and looked to have undergone a patch work of repair jobs since the late seventies or there about. Faded white lines stood in a Herringbone pattern that pointed away from the balcony and out onto the end of an empty street. Beyond the street was a cluster of buildings that had been cut by the afternoon glare. Joel took off his glasses, wiped them with the front of his shirt and placed them back onto the bridge of his nose. The parking lot was still there, the town, even the rippling heat waves and the sun flare that reflected off of corrugated tin roofs in the distance. Beyond that, pale mountains rose up toward the afternoon sky. Joel scanned the disquieting hundred and eighty degree view in front of him. The only thing between the mountains maybe twenty five – maybe even as far out as fifty miles off – was the desert. Sleek and imposing, the desert stood a prison with distance as its only means of confinement.

“I am here.” He said to himself. His voice dissolved into thin air as the words parted from his lips. He was at the cusp of a starting line, what race he was meant to run, he hadn’t a clue. Only the inclination that it would be long. Long and hard.

3.

Kelvin Lybeck was seated upright, though not of his own choice. He had been put there. He couldn’t remember any more and even that much was a stretch. He thought he remembered white gloved hands but he couldn’t say for certain. In fact, he couldn’t really be clear on much of anything before waking up in the front pew of what he could only assume was a church. He brought his head toward the roof and a hard spike of pain drove its way down through the back of his skull and into the rail of his spine. His hands flared out with his fingers curled away from his palms in a hard spasm. He let out a sharp cry and a flock of birds that had been nesting in the rafters, scattered and flew out through a hole in the roof near the altar. The pain dispersed through his body like Fire Ants exiting all his nerve endings. By the time he was able to catch his breath, sweat was draining off his brow. It was hot but even hot was an understatement. Despite most of the windows being busted out of the place and a scattering of holes that made the roof look like Swiss cheese, the temperature still swelled to well over a hundred degrees. The air over Phoenix often climbed into the triple digits during the summer months.

“Phoenix?” He said, bringing his right hand up to massage the back of his tender neck. “How did I get back in Phoenix?” Things were starting to come to him again, his last known location for one thing. He had been in Chicago tending to business of a rather serious nature before this place. It had been in the high nineties in Chicago – no picnic by far – especially when you factored in that bastardly humidity. This was not Chicago heat. This was desert heat, hot and dry, the kind of heat that will suck the marrow right out of your bones if you aren’t ready for it.

“Hello?” He spoke again, twisting the upper half of his body, mindful of his neck. The back pews of the church were empty, an unsettling vision if ever there were one. For a long moment he just stared out through the open set of doors at the head of the vestibule. The stagnant air filled the place and wrinkled the long view of the open desert, making Kelvin feel like he were the last dutiful parishioner of God left on Earth.

He stood. His legs quivered in a sickly sort of way. He needed water. He could feel his body shriveling like a raisin from the inside out. He looked around at the empty church and a wash of fear came over him for the first time since waking. He was alone and in a foreign place. There might be others. In fact there were almost certainly others, even out on the edge of no man’s land. It was hard to get too far in America without bumping into someone these days. The thing you had to worry about was not the if but the who you were apt to run into.

He started down the aisle toward the vestibule. His head and neck continued to throb something fierce but he found that he could walk alright.

Thank God for small favors.

He reached up and undid the top clasp of his blue collared button up. A white undershirt lay sticky against his chest. He continued working the buttons as he reached the front door. The threshold radiated with the dry desert heat. A long dirt parking lot sprawled out in front of him, disappearing into the desert and the distant mystique of the blue tinged mountains that lay far beyond.

He reached the fifth button on his shirt and stopped. His thumb began to quiver and the dull pain in his head and neck turned into nauseating surprise.

Blood.

The solitary realization came down on him like a leaded weight. He forced himself to continue unbuttoning his shirt, pulling it from the belted waistband of his pleaded slacks. It draped down over his hips, rumpled and stained with the sprawling crimson butterfly that emerged from a cocoon just below his sternum. He let out a weak cry of shock as the shirt fell open wide. A bloody handprint stood out clearly against his right shoulder. The blue shirt hung limp like dead flesh from his shoulders.

“Jesus Christ!” He exclaimed through trembling chords. “What… what… what… happened?” That same torturous stutter that had made him the object of torment as a child, returned with a vengeance.

Behind him the church stood tall. White chipped paint that was decades away from care, broke free in a light breeze and was carried away into the desert. Kelvin turned back to the church. A crucifix clung precariously to the front of the steeple over the vestibule. He took a step back. The remains of the empty parking lot crunched beneath his feet. Behind the church, a wink of sun caught his eye. He shifted his attention and squinted, moving away from the building he’d awakened in. The thistle glare of sun grew into a cluster. There was more than this crumbling church. There was a town and where there was a town, Kelvin assured himself, there were sure to be people.

4.

There was a telephone. It sat on the end table, cherry red with a rotary dial. Sue dropped her eyes to it and checked for a cord. There wasn’t one. It was like some kind of cruel joke. It sat there gleaming in the sunlight and looking like new but there was no damned cord and no hope that it would be a lifeline to the outside world.

She pulled herself into an upright position on the couch and stared out at the bright red plastic box in the middle of an otherwise sparse and aged room. She’d woken up once already and then drifted back into the abyss of sleep, not quite ready to come to terms with the strange reality that was now inescapable. She drew in a deep breath that felt full and peculiar. There had been a pressure in her chest when she woke before. It was probably the throngs of an Angina attack. The fucking doctor had been right about that after all, though she hated to admit it. A copious drinking habit and smoking like a chimney wasn’t the most admirable of habits when you were nineteen, it was abysmal at fifty two, especially when you considered the extra hundred pounds she’d been hauling around since the mid-nineties.

She rubbed the sweat from her forehead and gave a giant heave up and into the middle of the squat little living room. A long case of rickety stairs stood at her right. It slunk its way up to a second story. Most of the rails had been punched out of the banister like a set of missing teeth. Dusty rectangles donned the walls where old photographs and paintings had once hung. She went to the end table and stared down at the toy telephone. A rotary dial had become such an antiquated piece of technology, yet this one looked like it had come right out of the box no farther back then yesterday. She picked up the receiver and held it to her ear. No dial tone. She hadn’t expected to find one but she spoke into it anyway.

“Hello?” There was no response. She dropped it back down into its cradle and went over to the front picture window. The glass had been busted out of its rickety wooden frame. A few scattered teeth still clung to the casing. Sue looked down and noted that there were no shards at her feet. She peered out through the open hole and saw that there were none to be found outside on the sidewalk either.

Somebody cleaned up.

She thought with an unsettling sense of clarity. She turned back to the sparsely decorated room behind her and honed in on the darkened staircase. Someone had brought her to this house and that someone could still be inside with her – watching her. She looked around for something to fight off a potential assailant with. The end table seemed the logical choice, especially since it housed nothing more than a plastic box with an equally useless ear banana cradled atop it. She took two steps toward the table. That’s when the useless plastic box started to ring.

5.

Luke Yakamoro didn’t wake up immediately, despite being sprawled on the middle of the sidewalk. He had been carefully placed beneath the shadow of the Empire Theatre’s dilapidated grand marquis. It housed a billboard that had once featured the jewels of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Films like: Gone with the Wind and Giant. Of course, these details eluded the twenty seven year old punk rock enthusiast from Southern California. Luke might have remained asleep until the sun had a chance to push back the shadow enough to leave him with a rather nasty sunburn, but the red rotary telephone put an end to that. He rolled onto his side and came to as the nerves in his right foot scraped against the blazing pavement. He sat up suddenly and was overcome by a state of vertigo. He promptly plummeted back to the ground, narrowly avoiding a concussion.

Ouch!” He cried, clenching his eyes shut and shaking the remnants of sleep from his pulsing head. In the not-so-far distance, the phone continued to ring. Closer in, a car door opened and Luke was able to hold off the tilting horizon just long enough to make out the shape of a woman stepping out of an old wood panel minivan. His head was spinning with the surreal feeling of the moment. In the distance was that telephone. The sound of its chime drawing him up from the sidewalk, calling him forth, into the strange place before him.

6.

The guy on the sidewalk was a twenty-something and relatively cute. Lindsey was always on the lookout for good-looking guys, even when she shouldn’t be – like when she was driv-!

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” She screamed three times in instantaneous succession. She’d drifted off at the wheel just as her father had warned her she would if she wasn’t careful. She reached for the steering wheel, gripping the hot plastic rim hard enough to leave her knuckles white and shaky. She pulled them away at once. “What?” she asked to no one in particular. Gone was the cool caramel interior of her father’s Lexus. Gone were her sunglasses and iPhone, and gone was her purse, containing half a month of untouched birth control, her Neman-Marcus card, a Three Musketeers candy bar and the two tablets of E from a party in Westchester the week before. “This isn’t my car.” She said, sounding indignant. Was it possible to get thrown from one car into the driver’s seat of another? Lindsey wondered. If it were plausible, then this was an accident that was destine to land her on one of those Believe it or not TV shows that played on all the stoner channels. Lindsey herself had been known to watch a few such shows from time to time.

The new car smell of her father’s Lexus had been replaced by a rotten stench. From the look of the interior, it looked like sour milk had been used to braise the shredding seats of the minivan for a good decade or so. Lindsey forgot all about the twenty-something on the sidewalk and turned back to the foreign car that she had been ready to pilot right out of this deserted wasteland. The Lexus wasn’t the only thing that had mysteriously disappeared. The Long Island Expressway had also vanished. Barney’s would have to wait. Lindsay had fallen asleep at the wheel and though she hadn’t killed anyone… at least she didn’t think so, she had surely taken a wrong turn before reaching the Holland Tunnel.

CHAPTER 2

From twenty thousand feet, the nameless cluster of buildings was little more than a single strip cutting through the red-orange landscape of the desert. There were no roads leading in or out. The main street bled out near the old church at the eastern end of the unincorporated area and met the same fate a half mile away, just past the nondescript brick building that marked the border of civilization to the west.

From ten thousand feet, not much in the view had changed. The shabby tin roofs gleamed in the sun and individual buildings began to take shape. Closer, at just a thousand feet, tiny people moved like ants. They emerged from buildings and cars, stopped and stood in the street and then turned to each other in confusion and disorientation.

Falling down to street level, the wisps of red desert and creosote brush grew in detail. Chipped paint and aging gray wood replaced the rusty tin roofs. Signs marked some of the buildings, other’s remained barren, perhaps some of which had once been homes and modest two-story walkups. Each one looked to have been well cared for at one point in time. Now their doors cracked open and strangers stumbled forth, taking in their new surroundings and neighbors with suspicious glances and awe struck amusement.

Where am I?”

What is this place?”

Who are you?”

How did I get here?”

The same questions played on a continuous loop all across town. In the backdrop of their confusion, was the rejoicing sound of a telephone. Someplace near the thirteenth ring, people began to wonder where it was coming from. They formed into groups and droves, moving toward the quaint little two story house that was currently being occupied by Susan Elizabeth Perry, last known address: San Jose, California.

2.

Karen found her way into the lobby of the theatre. A pair of rubber soled sandals waited for her just outside the door leading into the single screening room where she’d woken. She slipped them on. They were a perfect fit.

Strangely convenient… too convenient.

In front of her, what looked like newspaper was strewn across the lobby. A great art deco staircase wound its way up toward a second story mezzanine. The gold leaf that had been meticulously painted around the ornate banister was still mostly intact. Her nose had stopped bleeding and the blood that had drained down the front of her tank top had begun to dry into a hard crust. Her head was a constant throbbing thunderbolt, but the pain soon faded as she looked through the filthy glass doors at the front of the lobby.

The street in front of the theatre was filled with people, all of whom looked almost as badly banged up as Karen St. John felt. She grabbed a heavy brass handle and watched the somber looking crowd as they passed by in a daze.

Had there been an earthquake?

She wondered. Earthquakes were a common enough occurrence in Southern California, but the confusion that always accompanied them was usually nominal. This felt different. For one thing, Karen couldn’t seem to remember much of anything before waking in the empty space with the flashing red sign overhead. For another, it didn’t explain how she’d come to end up alone without any of her identifiable possessions.

Out on the sidewalk, a lean Asian man with a dark new-wave style Mohawk rose from the pavement like a zombie in a post-apocalyptic world. Now there was a scary thought. Could something like that have actually happened? Karen’s better judgment told her no. A girl who looked all of sixteen crossed the street and knelt down to help the man to his feet. Zombies, Karen decided, were not likely to be inhibited by such a kind nature. She opened the door and a wave of heat doused her like the blast from a furnace. She winced and stepped onto the sidewalk.

“Who are you?” The girl asked as Karen emerged. The Asian man stood beside her with dark eyes and long sleeves of ornate tattoos that cuffed at his wrists. The girl wrinkled her nose at Karen. “-And what happened to your face?” Karen touched her tender nose. Little flecks of dried blood rubbed off onto her fingertips like gold dust. If anyone looked like a zombie, she decided that it was her and her alone.

“I’m Karen.” She said, brushing the crusted blood against her cut-off cargo shorts. “Where the hell are we?” Both man and girl looked about the strip with the same expression of confusion. There was a steady trickle of people meandering their way down the middle of Main Street in front of them.

“I don’t know.” The man replied absently. He scratched at his elbow. Karen glanced down at his tattoos and could make out the faint outline of track marks that had bled through the ink. Her years as a probation officer with the Brentwood P.D. had shown her many such marks, usually the result of heroin use. “Looks like Barstow.” He turned back to Karen and caught her the second before she had a chance to dart away from the scarlet letter that he’d pricked across his forearm. He folded his hands across his chest and gave her a stony look.

“Is that where you’re from?” She asked, looking for a deterrent. “Barstow?”

“No.” He lied. “I’m not really from any one place, but I’ve been through there a few times. It looks a lot like this place.”

“Yeah, well my dad drug me on the road trip from hell a few years ago.” The girl said, rolling her eyes in typical teenage fashion. “He said he wanted us to see the Grand Canyon the old fashioned way. He rented this big stupid green motor home and drove us all the way out to Arizona. There are a lot of places all across the Southwest that look just like this shithole.” In the distance, the telephone continued to ring, but Lindsey Ramsey wasn’t concerned with that. She was still much too worried about what had become of her father’s blessed Lexus.

“What’s your name?” Karen asked. Lindsey wiped nervous tears from her cheeks.

“Lindsey.” She said with a trembling voice. “I’m not supposed to be here.”

“None of us are.” The man was quick to remind her. He kicked one foot out into the sun. The black sole of his flip flop began to heat up. “-And you?” Karen asked, turning toward him. She made a conscious effort to avoid glancing down at his arms this time.

“Luke Yakamoro.” He grumbled. His hands were holstered against his hips and his mind had begun to turn to the sound of the telephone, distant but unrelenting. “Think maybe we ought to follow the rest of these guys to the sound of that phone?”

“Why?” Lindsey asked. The tears had overtaken her. Karen reached out and touched her shoulder. The once pampered trust fund child from Long Island was starting to crumble.

“Because it sounds like someone’s trying to get in touch with us, and I for one would like to get the fuck out of here before nightfall.” Luke noted, impatiently at that. The idea of watching the sun set over the secluded ghost town was enough to replace confusion with fear.

“I won’t argue that.” Karen said, taking Lindsey’s hand and helping her into the street. The three of them joined the ranks of the nameless, bound for an elusive telephone where an unknown caller was waiting for them to answer.

3.

Joel came through the front door as part of a group of twelve that gathered at the back of the living room. Sue didn’t take notice of any of them. She stood absolutely still, perched over the phone with a white silk scarf draped limply around her neck. Not so much as a whisper of a breeze touched the afternoon heat.

“Well answer it!” Somebody snapped. The audience fell quiet once more. Everything seemed to be swallowed up by the ring of a distant caller. More people poured in through the front door and others came through the kitchen at the rear of the house. They all had the same uniformed look in their eyes. They formed a small circle surrounding Sue and the telephone. It was as if some hidden partition held their curiosity at bay. They all wanted to know who was calling but they also knew that it was not their call to answer. That was a duty that fell onto Sue and Sue alone. She had been the first. It had begun ringing in her presence and this ramshackle house belonged more to her than to anyone else. Joel felt for her. He broke free from the circle of onlookers. A reluctant feeling came down over him as he breached the perimeter. It was an unspoken agreement. In stepping forward, he had volunteered himself up as a sacrificial lamb.

“Are you alright?” He asked, placing a hand on Sue’s shoulder. She turned slowly with her long gray hair spilling over her shoulders. It struck Joel that the look in her eyes wasn’t one of fear or even surprise. She was looking at him for reassurance. He gripped her shoulder tighter and gave her a silent nod. There had been an unspoken understanding between the two. She put her left hand on the receiver. The glint of a diamond on her ring shone brightly as it caught the sun and winked up at the gathering crowd. She lifted the phone from its cradle mid-ring and put it to her ear. There was a breathless moment all throughout the house. She greeted the caller with a customary hello.

4.

Joel squeezed her shoulder and Sue knew that no one else was going to do what needed to be done. She dropped her hand to the cradle and picked up the receiver. It felt light in her hand, as if it wasn’t really there at all. She put it to her ear and waited. The line was clear, almost too clear in fact. Not a single trace of static existed, only the flat silence that permeated the line tethered between two strangers.

“Hello?” She inquired cautiously.

“Hello Sue.” The voice of a man came through the line. His tone was polite, indifferent to her and the situation at hand.

“Who are you? How did you know my name?” There was a low rumble amongst the crowd as they picked up on the single side of the conversation.

“My name is Adam.” His reply was calm and unapologetic.

“Where is this place?” She inquired.

“It’s the place where you are.” Adam told her very matter of fact. Sue looked around the crowded living room. Strange faces stared back at her with eyes that craved answers. She felt the bubble of frustration rise up inside her.

“And where the hell is here exactly?” She snapped. Adam maintained his constant cool. Sue decided that anyone that had the audacity to hold a town full of people hostage was not going to be easily moved by such minor displays of emotion. In fact, he would probably revel in her frustration.

“This place is what you make of it. It is your nightmare or your dreamscape, your salvation or your damnation. The decision is yours and together you must decide which fate to choose.”

I don’t want a smart ass answer!” She howled. A few staggered back as she slammed a balled fist down on the end table.

“ I’ll be in touch Sue. Good bye.” -And with that, as unexpectedly as the conversation had begun, it came to an end. There was no click on the other end of the line when he severed the call. That same flat silence filled the receiver and Sue knew that he was gone. She held it next to her ear a moment longer and then gently set it back down into its cradle.

“Well?” Russ Condon, a rather unsavory mechanic from Gallup New Mexico, was the first to speak up. “What was that? What did he say?” Sue turned to Joel with her brow furrowed in a stunned question mark.

“He told me his name.” She began, relaying the conversation to the others one piece at a time.

5.

Kelvin sauntered down the main drag not long after Sue’s call with Adam had concluded. He could see that a crowd had gathered at the front of a small house that lay up ahead just past the theatre. Part of him was glad to see the group of people gathered there, most of whom looked just as rattled if not more so than himself. The other part of him was hesitant to venture further. He slid a hand down over the chest of his blue button up shirt. The undershirt beneath was saturated in a crust of dried blood but miraculously none had managed to seep through onto his top layer. How did that happen anyway? He couldn’t quite wrap his head around something like that – then again he couldn’t quite wrap his head around much of anything at all.

A group of stragglers took up at the back of the crowd. They passed beneath the sagging marquis of the aging theatre and stepped into the blinding light that filled the wide, dusty street. From a block behind, Kelvin thought that he made out a man and two women, one of which looked to be soaked in blood all down her front. He felt a little more at ease. He inspected the buttons on the front of his shirt once more and tucked it carefully back into his beltline.

The unnamed town looked more like a long-forgotten film set than an actual town. Most of the buildings had been stripped of any indication of their former purpose. A scattering of cars from all eras dotted the desert beyond the main thoroughfare. Not a single one of them looked like it had been in working order for the last decade or so. Sheets of what appeared to be newspaper were littered over much of the sidewalk and street, but they weren’t quite newspaper. They were blank.

Oops, looks like somebody forgot to put ink in the printer at the Times.

Kelvin thought, trying to lighten his nerves. It only made him feel restless. The New York Times like the rest of the world was now out of his grasp. The air was listless, not a breeze within ten miles of town. Glimpses of distant blue tinged mountains peeked through the gaps between houses and buildings along the street. The shadows which had been at a high noon position when Kelvin awoke in the church, were now beginning to creep from the crevices and bleed across the sidewalk. Late afternoon would break the heat, but it would also bring darkness and that was the kind of thing that brought on a whole new level of concern into play.

He pushed back the thought of nightfall and came up at the back of the group. People – forty or more at least – were crammed into the front room of that little white house. Kelvin came up alongside one of the stragglers from the theatre and leaned in.

“Hey, what’s going on?” He probed. Luke kept his gaze fixed on the crowd ahead and shrugged.

“I dunno. There was a phone ringing in there.”

“A phone!” Kelvin let sweet relief wash over him. “Hopefully somebody can get us the hell out of here before it gets dark.” Luke turned to him with wide and deeply troubled eyes.

“Unless it’s the guy who brought us all here. Maybe he’s just calling to taunt us, let us know that he’s watching. Maybe he just wants to let us know that help isn’t coming.”

“Cut it out!” Karen hissed. Lindsey was leaning heavy on her chest. Her body quivered from the long stream of tears that trailed down across her face and dissolved into the cracked pavement. “She’s already scared shitless without you helping her along.”

“Good.” Luke said. “She should be scared. All of us should be scared. We’re stuck in the middle of the desert with no discernable way out.” Lindsey continued to wail. A collection of large sterling bracelets jingled along her wrist, mimicking the rhythm of her tears. From the look on Karen’s face, Kelvin could see that she wanted to slap the Mohawk right off the top of Luke’s head. Had she not been supporting the full weight of the frightened girl in her arms, he thought she would have taken a shot at him.

The house began to clear and people spilled into the street.

“What happened? Who was on the phone?” Luke was prodding for details from everyone who passed by.

“We’re fucked. That’s what’s up.” Terry Spaulding, a podiatrist from Key West snapped as he brushed the sweat from his leather tanned forehead. He wiped his hands across the front of his Tommy Bahama polo.

“Well that’s refreshing.” Luke said. “Thanks for the tip asshole!” The disgruntled foot doctor raised a middle finger high into the afternoon sky as he kicked at the dirt along the broken curb.

Kelvin scanned the faces of people pouring from the house. His initial estimate of forty or fifty had grown upwards of sixty by the time they began to thin out into the street. They kept coming out of buildings, like clowns spilling out of one of those little cars at the circus. He was grasping at the features of the strangers that passed. He was looking for any semblance of familiarity that might remind him of how he’d arrived at this lonely desert outpost. There had to be some common denominator that had caused such an unexpected convergence, but what? If it were there, he didn’t see it.

“What are you looking for?” Karen asked. Kelvin turned to her, a little ashamed that his desperation was so apparent. He hadn’t made it through life by wearing his heart on his sleeve.

“Just… anything.” He shrugged. “Anybody that I might recognize.”

“You mean anybody that might give you a clue as to why we’re here?” She said. Lindsey had managed to pull herself together enough to sit on the curb and battle the tears on her own for a little while.

“Something like that.” Kelvin shrugged. “There’s got to be a reason we’re all here together.”

“Not if some psychopath just randomly picked us up along the way.” Luke chimed in. Kelvin looked out at the crowd that mulled about in small clumps for nearly a block in front of the house.

“No.” He said. “There’s got to be a reason. There’s always a reason.”

CHAPTER 3

Sue and Joel stood over the telephone as the living room emptied around them. Joel rubbed at the scruff of a five o’clock shadow that had begun to sprout across his jawline. He wondered how long it had been since he last shaved. From the feel of it he thought two, maybe three days.

“I don’t understand.” He said, pacing the length of the room.

“He said this place is what we make of it.” Sue repeated, recalling the conversation that was still fresh in her mind.

“That still doesn’t explain a whole helluva lot.” Joel replied.

“No.” Sue agreed, running her hands through her hair. “But I don’t think he means to hurt us.” She had the peculiar tone of somebody touched by a moment of divinity.

“He doesn’t have to hold a gun to our temples to hurt

us.” Joel warned.

“What do you mean?” She ran her finger along the dust coating the end table. A deep cherry lacquer gleamed through in her finger’s wake.

“A group of people in the middle of nowhere with no food. No water. That seems like a recipe for disaster in my book. Don’t you agree?”

“We don’t know that for sure.” She said.

“You ever read Lord of the Flies? It doesn’t take a whole lot to send a group of strangers – or even friends – over the edge.” She didn’t press him on the point, mostly because she thought he was right, at least partly. Even if Adam had left them adequate food and water, it was only a matter of time before people started getting restless. In Sue’s experience, once you crossed that line, there was little you could do to turn the boat around.

“Is that the phone?” A man’s voice inquired. Luke stood in the open doorway leading out to the street. Both Sue and Joel turned to him and his three companions.

“If you mean the one with the man of few words on the other line, then yes. It is.” Joel grumbled. His irritation was apparent. Sue quietly wondered how long it would be before the balding CPA from Dallas lost his temper.

“He told me his name. He introduced himself as Adam.” She offered, still frustrated by the lack of answers the conversation had provided her with. She thought it sounded like a trivial detail, but there hadn’t been a whole lot more to tell.

“Adam.” Karen repeated. She had made a conscious effort to try and wipe as much of the blood away as she could from her upper lip and cheek. It was still smeared all down the side of her neck and into her modest bank of cleavage. Sue looked at her with pity. Suddenly the craving for a cigarette and the familiar clank of ice cubes in a cold drink didn’t seem like such big problems Sue thought, considering.

“That’s right.” Sue nodded.

“What else did he say?” Kelvin asked.

“Not much.” Sue shrugged and walked back to the couch and sat down. She regretted having ever answered that damn telephone in the first place. People were already looking at her like she was some kind of oracle. She worried that it wouldn’t be long before they expected her to hold the key to their collective salvation.

“So no one’s coming for us then?” Lindsey was once again fighting back tears. Karen touched her forearm but Lindsey pulled away. “What are we going to do? How are we going to keep ourselves alive out here?!” She demanded an answer.

“I don’t know, but wasting all your energy on tears is probably not the brightest idea, you ass!” Luke snapped. Sue looked at him peculiarly. It wasn’t his lack of compassion that struck her. It was the look in his eyes. There was something hidden behind those dark eyes. It was a kind of panic, the kind known to addicts of all walks of life as a craving. Plain and simple. His life had been interrupted in more ways than one. Waking in a strange place was bad enough, waking in a strange place without the necessary coping mechanisms was quite another.

“She’s right… Well partly right anyway.” Kelvin kept his arms crossed tightly against his chest.

“How so?” Joel took a step toward him.

“We need to figure out how we’re going to keep ourselves alive out here. Whatever this Adam has planned for us, I very much doubt he went through all the effort to drag us out here just so we drop dead from heat and dehydration.”

“And what makes you so sure about that?” Luke asked.

“Because it doesn’t make for a very good show.” Karen replied. “There’s a reason he picked this place, probably because it’s secluded, not because there’s nothing here to keep us alive. Going through the effort of dragging us all out here just to watch us drop dead one by one, wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a method to everything, even madness.”

“A desert is a prison with no walls or fences.” Joel mused, mostly to himself.

“Huh?” Luke began scratching at his forearm again, though he made a consorted effort to keep the track marks concealed from the others. Joel pressed on.

“He drug us out here. I don’t doubt that much. Now there are only two good reasons to incarcerate someone. Either you want to protect the rest of the world from them, or you want to protect them from the rest of the world.”

“Isn’t that kind of like… you know… the same thing?” Lindsey asked, wiping away her smeared mascara with the back of her wrist. The sterling silver bracelets rang out like sleigh bells as she dropped her hand back into her lap.

“It depends on which side you’re on.” Kelvin entertained, but he could see that her mind had already moved on from the question.

“What are you saying? You think this guy might be trying to protect us from the outside world, like some kind of quarantine or something?” Sue asked. She was standing again, the idea of relaxation permanently vexed from her mind.

“I remember…” Kelvin began to speak. His words broke away like waves cresting along the edge of a peer.

“You remember what?” Karen asked.

“Nothing.” He buried his hands deeper into his armpits.

“That doesn’t sound like nothing to me.” Joel took another step toward him. He had one eyebrow raised in a suspicious way. “What do you remember?”

2.

He wasn’t sure if the images even qualified as a memory. Now that he thought about it, they felt more like a vivid dream than a tangible experience. He had been in the arms of men… or at least what he thought of as men. The image had been clouded, the way he thought of abductees describing alien encounters. Kelvin Lybeck had been somewhat skeptical of such close encounters, but he understood how people could confuse an intense dream state for an actual experience. Joel urged him to speak. He closed his eyes and tried to recount what it was that had happened to him prior to waking in the church.

Hands beneath his body.

There had been no pain, only the dull sensation of hands on him as he was lifted onto something – a chair? Maybe a gurney, that part was too cloudy to pull anything concrete from. They had been wearing masks. Their hands seemed strategic as if not to touch him beyond the extent that was absolutely necessary.

“It’s more fragmented than anything else.” He finished off with, afraid of giving too much credibility to his claim.

“That’s more than I remember.” Karen shrugged.

“Me too.” Luke agreed.

“I was headed into the city.” Lindsey said. “To go shopping.” She closed her eyes in an attempt to jog her memory.

“Of course.” Luke rolled his eyes.

“Oh shut up.” Karen sighed. “Go on Lindsey. What else do you remember? Do you remember what city you were shopping in?” Lindsey nodded and brushed her bangs out of her eyes.

“Yeah. I had been shopping in Newark that morning. I was headed back into Manhattan. I wanted to stop by Neman’s.”

Ohhhh, Neman’s! How nice for you.” Luke couldn’t help but douse her with sarcasm.

“If you interrupt her one more time, I’m going to take you outside and knock you flat on your ass.” Karen warned. He let out a chuckle.

“You think so, do you?” He baited her.

“If she can’t, I’ll be more than happy to help out.” Sue offered. He went quiet.

“Anyway, I don’t remember much more. I was headed into the city and I stopped for gas. My dad’s kind of an asshole when it comes to his car. He’s like fanatical about not letting the Lexus dip below a quarter tank, like it’s going to fall apart in the middle of the freeway or some shit.”

“Do you remember anything about the gas station? Anything out of place, anybody who might have seemed a little off?” Sue was working a theory.

“No.” Lindsey shook her head and began picking at her cuticles. “I don’t think I…” A burst of memory came back to her.

“What?” Karen asked.

“There was a woman there. Maybe not even a woman at all. I don’t actually know if she was there or if I maybe saw her somewhere else along the way.”

“What did she look like?” Sue was hovering right over her now. Lindsey looked up at her with tear filled pools in her eyes.

“I don’t know. I just – it’s hard to explain, but something about her was familiar. Like we knew each other from someplace.”

“Was she older, younger? Tall? Fat?” Sue knelt down in front of her now.

“I can’t remember!” Lindsey snapped. “I wish I could but I can’t!”

“It’s okay.” Karen consoled her. “Just remembering there was someone there is a whole lot more than the rest of us have got to go off of.”

Outside, the shadows continued to grow long, branching out from the sidewalk and reaching into the street. Most of the others had stuck close to the front of the house, but a few had begun to explore out toward the church at the east end of the street. Sue turned back to the telephone and leaned over it.

“Do you think Adam will call back?” Joel inquired.

“He said he would be in touch.” She replied. A feeling deeply embedded within her made her believe that this was true. She wasn’t sure what side of the game Adam was playing, but all else aside, she did believe he was a man of his word.

Barry? Barry? Has anyone seen Barry?” A woman called somewhere out on the street.

“What now?” Luke asked, rolling his eyes. Sue could see that he was really jonesing for whatever was the drug of his choice.

I’m looking for Barry Masserelli? Has anybody seen Barry? He was right here a second ago. He was just right here!” Sue went to the window and looked out. The sun was still clearly visible in the sky but it had begun its descent below the roof of the Empire Theatre.

“What’s wrong?” Karen asked, joining her at the window.

“I don’t know.” Sue shrugged. “Maybe nothing, but the sun isn’t gonna hold up in the sky forever. Another couple of hours and it’s going to be dark out and I for one don’t care to see what this place looks like after nightfall.”

“Agreed.” Karen said stoically. A woman in her late-sixties continued to look through empty windows along Main Street in search of the elusive Barry. All the while the shadows crept further into the street.

“Great.” Luke sighed. “I hope to God that old lady isn’t senile. If she is, she won’t have to wait for Adam to finish her off. I’ll do the deed myself.”

3.

Barry Masserelli had been a handsome crane operator in his mid-thirties, born and raised in Queens. He had been nice enough to comfort the sixty five year old widow by the name of Beverly Post from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. She’d woken on a tattered leather recliner in what had once upon a time been a United States Post Office. She had been frightened out of her mind to say the least. Thankfully Mr. Masserelli had been placed on the floor of what he could only speculate had once been the Post Master’s office. Only a tall rusted filing cabinet stood guard in the corner. Its drawers had been knocked and Barry made a quick note that the thing was empty before aiding the distraught woman in the adjacent room.

“I don’t know where I am! Oh God, I don’t know how I got here!” Beverly wailed. She’d watched her husband of thirty six years go the way of Alzheimer’s and it hadn’t been pleasant. Now she tasted the disorientation and confusion first hand and it was even worse than she’d imagined.

“It’s okay. You’re gonna be fine.” Barry had assured her, even before a formal introduction between the two had taken place. Beverly had sobbed in his arms for a good five minutes, asking him several times whether or not he was actually real. He had kindly assured her that he was, each and every time. Her tears had dried by the time the telephone started to ring. They left the post office together and had both been relieved to see the others gathering in the street. There was safety in numbers, that’s what Barry had said.

There’s always safety in numbers.

Now however, it seemed as if Barry had spoken prematurely. Beverly searched the sea of unfamiliar faces for her one familiar companion.

The Empire stood tall before her, spurring a walk down memory lane. Frank had taken her on a date to a place almost identical to that back in the late sixties. Barry had asked what it was they had seen and Beverly tried to think, indecisive if it had been Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or in the Heat of the Night. She was fairly confident that it had been Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because she had always loved Spencer Tracy. As she turned back to explain her innocent crush on a much older man, Barry Masserelli was gone.

“Has anybody seen Barry? She continued to ask to no avail. Blank faces stared back at her, either not interested in helping or rendered emotionally unavailable by the trauma of being plopped down in the middle of nowhere. “He was right here.” Beverly felt the general unease work its way up inside her again. She had known the crane operator from Queens New York for less than an hour, but she knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t the type to abandon an old woman – especially one in such a fragile state of mind. “Please! Somebody help me please!” Her voice began to quiver. “Won’t anybody help me?”

“What seems to be the problem?” Gavin McCoy was the first to step forward. He was wearing one of those green T-shirts bestowed by the United States Army, though his career in the Army was now well into the rearview mirror of his past.

“Yes!” Beverly took his hands. “Yes, I was just talking to a man – he’s from Queens!” She added this last part in a deliberate attempt to remind the man in front of her that they all came from someplace. They had all lived lives before the desert.

“Maybe he got tired of listening to you harp and he went back to New York!” Someone called out. A few laughs scattered through the crowd. Beverly was on the verge of breaking, and the former United States Army Sargent thought it wise to keep her focused on the task at hand.

“You were calling for Barry. That’s his name I take it?” He asked softly.

“Yes, that’s his name. He was right here. I was in the middle of a conversation with him and when I turned back he was just… just gone!”

“Could he have stepped away for a moment?” Beverly sensed the condescension that was so often apparent in conversation once you reached a certain age.

No!” She shouted with conviction. A few more of the onlookers stopped their mulling about and turned toward her. “You aren’t listening to me. None of you are listening to me!” The voice that had been on the verge of shattering moments earlier was now as strong as a granite edifice. “He didn’t wonder off anywhere. He was right here. I turned away for two seconds and when I turned back he was gone. It was like he just vanished right off the face of the Earth!” A veil of total silence befell the onlookers. If one of them could be grabbed up in broad daylight, then perhaps Adam was even more dangerous than any of them had imagined. “Now tell me, how does a thing like that happen?” It was a question to which the former Army Sergeant had no good answer.

4.

What unnerved Gavin the most, was the way no one stepped forward to help the woman, not even when her voice began to quake and tears splashed across her face. He knew the others were distressed, he was distressed himself. Three tours in Iraq and a fourth in Afghanistan should have left him well trained for the unexpected, but this was different. During those other tours there had been a goal – an objective, however convoluted it might have been – he had at the very least had some vague notion of what he was doing there. There was no rhyme or reason to this new outpost. What he did still understand was common decency. He stepped forward and offered Beverly his assistance, not so much because he wanted to, but because he knew no one else was going to. Now she grabbed his attention, adamant that people were disappearing into thin air. In truth, Gavin wasn’t buying it, but if four tours in the War-torn sandbox of the Middle East had taught him anything, it was not to write out any possibility without first investigating.

“Beverly, I am listening to you. I’m just trying to understand.” He stayed patient.

“What’s there to understand?” She asked. “He was here and now he’s gone. He’s just… gone!” Seeing that further progress wasn’t going to be possible with Beverly alone, he turned to the crowd in search of assistance.

“Well?” He asked. “Did anybody else see this guy? Did anyone see Barry?” Blank, uncooperative eyes stared back at him. What were they afraid of? He thought about it for only a moment and then he knew. They were afraid of the same thing people were always afraid of when you got right down to it. They were afraid that if they corroborated Beverly’s story, they would be pegged on one side of the fence with no way to get back across. “C’mon.” Gavin pleaded. “Somebody had to see this guy. He couldn’t have just vanished.”

In the midst of the crowd, a meek hand rose up over the ranks of pale faces and glazed marble eyes.

Finally.

Gavin thought, now we’re getting someplace. The raised hand seemed to repel the others. The crowd moved aside, revealing a small clearing where a boy of no more than thirteen stood.

“Okay.” Gavin said, posting his hands at his hips. He hadn’t liked the way the others stood back from the boy as he opened himself up. That was the kind of behavior that was driven by fear. “What’s your name son?” The kid looked around nervously before speaking.

“Rory.” His voice was barely audible. Gavin tried to cast off a confident smile, but it was fractured in a way that made him look like he was trying too hard to play it cool.

“Rory what?” He asked.

“Rory Shanning.”

“It’s good to meet you Rory. I’m Gavin McCoy. What’d you see?” The boy looked as if he was on the verge of tears and the crowd wasn’t making it any easier on him. Gavin came down off the sidewalk. The onlookers parted like the Red Sea, allowing Gavin clear passage. “It’s okay.” Gavin knelt down in front of him.

“There was a guy with her.” He said, trying to hold himself together. Gavin thought about what it had been like to be at that uncomfortable age of transition. Standing out when all you wanted to do was blend in.

“Do you see that guy now?” He asked. Rory gave the group a cautious glance and then shook his head, eyes lowered to the pavement.

“No. Not anymore.” There was a low, disquieting rumble from the gathering. Gavin placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Okay Rory.” He thought of the other boys Rory’s age. Kids whom had held the world on their shoulders in war ravaged countries. He saw the same look in the kid’s eyes now. “I want you to stay with me, okay?” He whispered, meeting the boy squarely in the eyes. He saw the flicker of relief in the Rory’s face. It wasn’t that either of them thought the others to be capable of any real danger, but it was nice to have someone to cling to, even if there wasn’t actually safety in numbers as the late Mr. Masserelli had claimed.

5.

The six of them came out of the house and walked over to the place where the former Army Sargent, the old woman and the boy were seated on the cracked stretch of sidewalk. Joel stood over them. His lanky frame partially blotting out the sun. The three on the sidewalk looked up at him, winking one eye closed with their hands drawn up like visors over their faces.

“Hello.” Joel nodded.

“Hi there.” It was Gavin who responded, the unofficial spokesman for the smaller of the two groups.

“Joel Richman.” He said, offering his hand like a politician. Gavin looked at it a moment, stood and then took it in his own.

“Pleased to meet you Joel. I’m Gavin, this is Beverly and this here is Rory.” Beverly and Rory both remained faithfully silent at Gavin’s side.

“Did you lose somebody miss?” Joel asked, turning his sights on Beverly.

“Yes.” She said before Gavin could persuade her otherwise. “The man I woke up with.” She turned to Rory and blushed with embarrassment. “Well… not that I went to sleep with him… We just woke up in the same place you know?” Joel nodded, knowing exactly what she meant. “I was just talking to him and then he was gone. Poof! Vanished into thin air!”

“Beverly…” Gavin whispered to her in such a tone that made her reconsider her story.

“Well, we don’t exactly know just what happened to him. Do we Rory?” She gave the boy a friendly wink. Rory looked as if considering the possibilities made him sick. He wasn’t so sure he actually wanted to know what happened to Barry Masserelli. More often than not, when people went missing, they had a bad habit of turning up as a pile of sun-bleached bones or maggot food as Rory’s older brother Tim had liked to so colorfully put it in perspective.

“Is it possible he just wondered off?” Joel asked. Beverly looked at Gavin and then to Rory, both of whom were watching her carefully.

“Yes. I s’pose it is.” She shrugged. “I don’t even know how we all got here in the first place, but I guess anything’s possible if you really think about it.”

“What do you think happened?” Joel asked. He was still fixed on Beverly. She didn’t just think Barry Masserelli had wondered off. He wanted to hear her say it. Gavin intervened before she had a chance to reply.

“Why are you so interested in what happened to this guy?” Joel shrugged. He took off his glasses, wiped the lenses against the waistband of his shirt and pointed to the shadows spreading out at their feet.

“It’s gonna be dark soon. I don’t know about you, but I’d just as soon be inside when that happens.” He leaned in close, as if to whisper only to Gavin. “-And if that guy did just happen to vanish into thin air, I think we’d better get ourselves behind closed doors before the sun creeps down much further into that western stretch of sky over there.”

“Do you have some place in mind where we can all go?” Gavin relented. Joel thought about the motel. The place had been a rickety old skeleton to begin with, but even that might have been alright if there had been so much as locks left on any of the doors.

“I do.” Karen raised her hand. The blood on her face was now little more than a red hue beneath her swollen nose.

“Alright,” Gavin said. “Lead the way.” Karen nodded. As easily as that, the group of six became nine.

CHAPTER 4

They weren’t the only ones who sought out shelter in the old Empire. The lobby was swarming with people. The walls and floor were littered with blank sheets of newspaper. Luke picked up a fold, flipped through the empty pages and then crumpled it into a ball and tossed it aside.

“Well so much for the sports section.” He muttered unpleasantly.

“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a sports fan.” Karen said.

“What would you have pegged me?” He asked. She smiled.

“I dunno. Arts and leisure?” She turned back to Gavin. “Do you think this’ll do?” He shrugged, giving the place the once over.

“I think this place is probably as good a place as any.”

“All the seats are gone on the bottom floor. I don’t know what the situation is like up on the balcony.”

“Whatever it is, it’s not going to be the Ritz.” Luke chimed in again.

“Oh what’s wrong princess? You look like you’ve slept in your share of back seats and U-Haul trucks.” Sue jabbed at him.

“A few.” He admitted, playing his cards close.

“I thought so.” She said. “I was something of an Aerosmith groupie back in the late seventies. You have that same look about you.” He let out a spry burst of laughter that couldn’t be helped. The aging woman before him dressed more like Stephen Tyler than one of the women fighting to get into his dressing room.

“Yeah.” Luke shook his head. “I might follow a few bands but my daily routine doesn’t include trying to grab hold of Stephen Tyler’s trouser snake.”

“Don’t knock it till you try it.” Sue elbowed him with a sly wink.

“Should we go stake out our claim?” Beverly asked, putting her hands on Rory’s shoulders. She hadn’t any grandchildren of her own. She’d had a daughter, Stephanie, but a drunk driver put an end to that chapter of her life back in 1987, when Stephanie was a mere seventeen. Rory gave her an indifferent nod. “What section will it be? Front and center or upper balcony?”

“No balcony.” Gavin interjected.

“He’s right.” Kelvin agreed. “This place is about a hundred years old as is. Even if that balcony is still in decent shape, and I doubt very much that it is, you get too many people up there and the whole damn thing is likely to come crashing down.

“Oh.” Beverly went pale at the thought. “I didn’t think about that.”

“It’s okay.” Gavin told her. “We’ve all just got to get in the habit of viewing things with a little more caution from now on. If there’s a serious accident we can’t just run off to the nearest Emergency Room.” That was an issue that was going to become relevant in very short order if things persisted, and Gavin had a feeling they would.

“We’re also going to have to find something to eat and drink before long too.” Lindsey added. She was fidgeting with the sterling loops around her right wrist.

“Well if need be we can go a couple of days without water in this heat, maybe a week without food if we keep our physical activity down to a minimum.” Gavin was thinking aloud.

“A couple of days without water and then what?” Rory marveled. “What happens then?”

“We’re not going to have to worry about that.” Gavin replied, messing his hand through the kid’s hair. “Okay?”

“Okay.” Rory agreed, but only through a paper thin trust.

2.

“Jesus! You woke up in here?” Lindsey poked her head into the darkness.

“Yeah.” Karen said, rubbing at the goose flesh of her bare shoulders. The air inside the screening room was cool, though the place was lacking the steady hum of an industrial air conditioning unit. “Watch out for the walls, they’re really hard. My nose can attest to that.” Sue put a hand on her shoulder.

“Noted. Thanks for the tip.”

“This place is so creepy. I can’t sleep in here.” Lindsey said. The strain of the day was wearing on her. She in turn, was wearing on everyone else.

“Would you rather go back out there and sleep in the street?” Luke asked. She didn’t bother responding. They both knew the answer was no.

Footsteps fell heavy on the balcony above their heads. Silt and dust came down out of the joists and cracked plaster like ribbons of sand running through an hour glass.

“Come on.” Kelvin said. “We should get up as close to the front as we can. If there’s a side exit we should camp nearby in case we need to get out of here in a hurry.”

“That’s a good plan.” Joel agreed. “What are you, some kind of engineer?”

“Nope.” He replied. “I wanted to be an architect but my dad pushed me into the family business.”

“What’s that?” Sue asked.

“I’m a lawyer.” He replied.

“Ahh.” Sue said with a clever smile. “The exit makes sense then. Lawyers are always looking for a quick escape route.” Gavin let out a hearty chuckle in the dark. “Don’t get me wrong.” Sue defended. “I love lawyers. Hell, my first and fourth husbands were both lawyers!”

“Thanks.” Kelvin said flatly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

At Karen’s insistence, they felt their way along the wall. Shreds of silk wallpaper dotted a pattern beneath their fingertips like brail. They reached the foot of a large stage and Karen’s shins dug into the first riser leading up onto the elevated platform.

“Ouch!” She said, more out of surprise than any real pain.

“What? What is it?” Lindsey asked. She sounded like she was ready to turn and run blindly into the unknown if need be.

“Nothing.” Karen replied. “It’s just a stage. I think.” The diffuse red glow of the YOUR ARE HERE sign blinked on and off far behind them. An army of deeply silhouetted humanoid shapes were visible in the dark. In the distance, the hum of voices congregating in the lobby and balcony became a comforting static hum.

“You think you can get up onto it?” Kelvin asked.

“Yeah.” Karen felt along the edge. “There are stairs here. I’m going to go up first, just to make sure it’s safe.”

“No argument there. It’s your theatre.” Sue said.

Karen scaled the short flight of stairs and stepped out onto the groaning planks of the elevated platform. With hands held out in front of her (she wasn’t taking any more chances) she shuffled her feet across the floor carefully. A few loose boards groaned with age but they felt solid enough once she eased her whole weight onto them.

“Well?” Luke called out after her. Karen rolled her eyes and considered guiding him in the direction of every loose board she could find.

“I think it’s safe. Just watch your step when you come up. No guarantees.”

“You sound like a used car salesman.” Beverly told her. “You aren’t going to try and sell us a lemon are you?”

“I feel a little like one I’m afraid, but I’ll try not to steer you wrong.” Karen could hear them mounting the stairs and crossing the stage behind her. Her fingers brushed against Lindsey’s arm and she let out a surprising yelp.

“It’s me.” Karen said. Lindsey calmed. Karen took her hand and guided her toward center stage. The others joined them one by one, forming a large circle reminiscent of years spent around the bond fire at summer camp.

“Dammit!” Joel slapped the stage with the palm of his hand.

“What?” Karen asked.

“The phone. We didn’t think to bring the phone. What if Adam calls again and there’s no one there to answer?”

“Then he’ll call back.” Sue replied sharply. “Or let somebody else answer his goddamned call! There are over a hundred people here. Who the hell made me the switchboard operator?”

“Adam did.” Joel replied. Sue and Joel had approached as everyone else backed away. He was calling for all of them, but it was Sue he had picked to serve as their messenger.

“Sue-” Joel tried to plead his case but she would not hear it.

No!” She snapped. “I am not going to be responsible for waiting by the phone for that lunatic to call. If he wants to talk, then let him come to us.” Joel was silent. “I’m through discussing this.” She slid across the stage and away from the group.

“That’s all fine and good.” Joel said stoically. “But I don’t think our friend is quite done discussing things with you – with any of us. Not by a longshot.”

3.

Night crossed over the desert in a flat dark line that swallowed up the red-orange landscape. It remained undisturbed by anything until it crossed over the dilapidated steeple of the unnamed church at the far east end of town. The darkness crept along steadily, long after the last of the castaways had sought out shelter for the night.

A little over half of the current population – fifty seven to be exact – were held up inside the Empire. Another twenty or so were occupying rooms at the two story motel where Joel had woken up earlier that afternoon and another twelve had come across the small pantry at the far west edge of town. Those whom had uncovered this little jewel had gorged themselves on an assortment of canned goods without consideration for the rest of the general population. One such glutton was Chad Vandross, a college linebacker from the University of Missouri. He had awoken on the greasy slab of an ancient mechanics garage that afternoon. As night swept in, he ambled across the pantry as the last of the sun slipped below the hazy mountains. The aisles were already littered with people, most looking like mice scavenging the kitchen floor in search of crumbs. At six foot six and just over three hundred pounds, Chad was not intimidated by the territorial looks of the others in his company.

He settled into one of two aisles with what looked like a jar of pickled okra. Texturally it was a nightmare, but it was food and it did the trick of quenching his hunger well enough. A few slices turned into half a jar and half a jar turned into an entire urn before he fell asleep sometime just shy of ten that night. By two thirty, his stomach woke him with the sensation that it were about to claw its way out of his skin. He rolled onto his side as a bout of cramps overtook him. Sweat rolled down his brow and drenched his shirt. He was going to shit. Whether he wanted to or not, the pickled okra had gotten the better of him. His first inclination was to locate the nearest bathroom and promptly utilize it to its fullest potential. Then he felt the cold, dirty linoleum against his cheek and he remembered where he was. It felt like a nightmare of the worst kind, one he could not escape. He looked up and saw the front window tilting in his vision. In the middle of nowhere, the general bathroom etiquette tended to be the pop and squat method. The only rule was: You don’t shit where you eat. Chad had to laugh at the irony of his predicament. If there had ever been a time for such an expression, he was living it now.

He crawled his way to the front of the pantry, only stopping twice to let the worst of the cramping pass. The second time had been a call too close for comfort. A few of those whom had still been feasting when the sun went down, were scattered near the front of the building. The moon was just over two-thirds full in the black, silken sky. It provided enough light for Chad to navigate his way around those still sleeping without disturbing them. He reached the front door and tried to stand. Two heavy wood planks with large rectangular windows encompassing their upper halves, stood between him and freedom. It felt like the fifty yard line of the championship game. Someone had the good mind to set the lock before passing out. Now Chad wished they hadn’t. He fumbled with the latch, managing to finagle it open just as his sphincter seized up on him. The door came loose and a rush of cool air filled the store as he fell out onto the dusty step. He let out a clumsy sigh and then picked himself up and hustled his way around the corner of the building while fighting to bring his pants down over his hips. He fell forward and felt his face grade hard into the sand.

No! No! No!” He cried, feeling the muscles in his groin give way. The sensation that followed was hot and unpleasant. Shit trickled down his inner thighs and he had to thrust himself over onto his backside to avoid a direct hit. He held himself up in a crab-like position and let nature take its course. He breathed a sigh of relief, and for the first time since waking, was reminded of just how good it felt for something to work out in his favor.

Coyotes called out to one and other in the distance. Chad had always found their music haunting, like the sound of damned souls calling up from the fire pits of Hell. All the same, their call was welcomed tonight. Not even the toughest of scavengers could make it in the desert without water. Chad squeezed out the last of the unpleasant surprise from his system and lay there a minute with his panting chest raised toward the sky and his blue jeans tangled down around his ankles. The air was cool on his exposed flesh. A light breeze moved across town like some ghostly apparition. It was the first breeze they had been blessed with since early afternoon. Chad began to relax as it passed over him.

The call of the coyotes was growing closer. He had been pleased. Their presence proved there was water somewhere out there in the desert, but he lacked any interest in thanking them in person. He hitched up his pants. Little driblets of shit stuck to his thighs. Tomorrow he would find water and providing there was enough of it, the first thing he would do would be to bathe.

The heavy wood slabs that served as doors for the pantry were wide open before him. They clapped against the face of the ancient brick building as the breeze passed. Had he left them that way? He was almost positive that he had not. Chad had been in such a hurry that he was barely been able to unlock one side, let alone both. Never mind, he told himself. There were other people in the store with him, others who were gorging themselves on the same shit he had been eating. Surely he wasn’t be the only one struck down by a sudden case of the runs.

“Hello?” He stood at the dark opening, barely leaning across the threshold. The moment was coated in a general feeling of unrest. The atmosphere was somehow different from the rest of the day. “It’s just a door you stupid fucker.” He berated himself, a job that was more often than not tasked to his absent fraternity brothers. Sometimes back at school, members of one fraternity would break into the house of another.

He stepped inside the pantry. The awful heat had not been stinted by the presence of a breeze, and now – more than ever – he was sure that something was not right. He felt his way along the wall for a light switch and found none. Electricity was a luxury that the old Chad had taken for granted. Now he would have considered giving his left testicle just to watch the room open up into that soft yellow electric glow. “Somebody say something!” He raised his voice. There was a shaky quality that would have landed him a serious ass kicking had he been the brunt of some stupid frat joke. The coyotes drew closer. Their night serenade broke across the open wind. They were the desert dwellers, the ones who ruled this part of the world. They were not bound by the rules of Adam’s games. “Hey!” His voice grew shrill. The panic running through him made the shit on his thighs seem like the icing on the cake. “Goddammit, somebody say something!” No one answered him. At his back, the big plank doors slammed shut with a thunderous clap. He screamed a childish cry that echoed through the front room. Once again, there was only silence. Chad realized as the hair on the back of his neck pricked up, he was being watched. He understood with alarming clarity, that he was being hunted.

4.

Sleep was eluding Karen. Forty five minutes on the hard plank floor of the ancient stage had been all she could manage. When she woke, reaching for Stacy and finding only empty space, it all came down on her again like stones falling from the sky. YOU ARE HERE blinked far ahead of her and though the words were blurred in a dreamlike state, she knew that the sign’s message read clear enough. No matter where she went or what else she did in her life, she would always see that sign, taunting her in ways she did not yet fully understand.

The theatre balcony creaked and groaned with the collective breath of the sleeping mass strewn across its bow. Lindsey rolled onto her side and brushed Karen’s wrist. She should have felt some solace in the idea of having a group who understood what she was going through, but she did not. Out here, on the stage, hidden by the dark, she was all alone. She brushed the mess of dirty brown ringlets from her face and sat up. The room was cool and stagnant. The inhabitants of the theatre had not changed the humidity level so much as an iota. She considered this detail only for a moment before the dizzying pain of her throbbing nose took over and sent her head reeling. She craved so many of the luxuries of home: her bed, her bathtub, her wife and the current front runner, the little amber pill canister containing half a dozen Vicodin that were stored at the back of her sock drawer. Stacy didn’t know she’d gone back to the pills, or at least she didn’t let on if she did. She thought a single beer qualified you as a full blown alcoholic, God bless her! The thought of home brought tears to her eyes and Karen wondered when and if she would ever see it or Stacy again.

Something clanked high up in the balcony like the sound of metal on concrete. It dissipated with minimal disturbance, but it was enough to remind Karen that the theatre and the desert outside its walls, were real. Every last miserable detail of it was real. Beverly let out a long strained cough someplace in the darkness and again Karen’s mind turned toward the ocean of unanswered questions. The man whom Beverly had first joined – Barry Masserelli – had still been missing when they had settled into sleep around nine thirty. Karen doubted that he would resurface at all, let alone alive, if they did happen across him.

I turned around and he was gone. He was standing right there and then he wasn’t!

Karen hadn’t very much cared for that version of things, mainly because she thought Beverly was right. Some of the others, namely Luke, had been skeptical of her story, but Karen had believed her and not just because she thought Beverly was still pretty with it for a woman pushing into her golden years. She believed her story because everything about this place was strange. Why should vanishing into thin air be any less plausible then waking up in an unknown location? After all, isn’t what Beverly described exactly what they had done? – vanished right out of their rightful place in the world?

She struck the idea from her mind. Some thoughts, she decided, were better visited with the fresh light of day upon them. Karen shifted onto her side and decided to make an effort to catch up on sleep, however futile an attempt it might be. Almost immediately the beating drum of her bladder began to pound. Once that started, she was apt to lie there all night without so much as a single wink of sleep. She got up and decided to make a go of the bathroom before things got too unbearable. Her legs were weak like the wilted stems of a Daffodil under the June sun. She tried to steady them beneath the weight of her body. They had agreed to stay in pairs, even if it meant a quick trip to the shit can. The obvious choice for a potty-partner was Lindsey. She had clung to Karen from the get-go and she would be less confrontational than any of the men. Men never liked being woken up, least of all when it included accompanying a full-grown woman to the bathroom. Those who didn’t mind… Well Karen didn’t like to think about those with a fetish for the, shall we say: the fringes of the erotic?

“Lindsey?” She whispered, shaking the girl’s shoulder. “Lindsey, are you sleeping?” Out from the long arm of night, a hand suddenly wrapped around her wrist and squeezed tight. Karen spun round, wielding back a fist that was ready to strike her unknown assailant.

“Yeah, she’s a sleep. It’s the middle of the fucking night, we’re all asleep.” Karen’s fist remained tightened, but she relaxed a little, recognizing the voice at once.

“Luke.” She said, sounding flat.

“ Where do you think you’re off to? -And what do you think you’re gonna do with her? You think maybe it’s time for a little curious-coed action?” Now her fist tightened again and she was sure that she was going to hit him. Then she thought of poor sleeping Lindsey and the rest of the theatre. She didn’t doubt she could hold her own in a fight, especially a fight with a junkie who had to be nearing the verge of withdrawal that afternoon, but there were others to consider.

“I have to…” She resisted, tried to pull away from him. He tightened his grip on her. “I have to go pee.” She admitted, childlike.

“So you thought you’d just bring Lindsey along for the ride and maybe see if nature takes its course?”

Stop it!” She hissed. “What in the hell’s the matter with you? Why are you such a… such a cunt?!” She’d always detested that particular vulgarity. Out of all the words in the English language, she was most repulsed by that conglomeration of letters. Luke let go of her hand and she heard him try to stifle a snicker in the dark.

“Alright then. You wanna go potty, I’ll take you potty.” He agreed, standing.

“No really, that’s okay. I’d rather use a tampon made out of broken glass.” She assured him. Still, he persisted.

“Ah, you’re alright, Karen.” He said with a hearty laugh. Had Karen somehow worn through his obnoxious façade with rank sarcasm? If so, she’d done worse things in her life. She figured she could put up with Luke Yakamoro if she had to… temporarily anyway. “C’mon, I’m up already and I could drain the snake if you’re going that way.”

“Great.” Karen said, stepping over Lindsay and moving toward the left wing of the stage. Luke’s hand was clasped loosely behind hers. They exited toward the back of the building, slipping further into the realm of shadows that seemed to creep out from every discernable angle.

5.

The Empire could have doubled as an off-Broadway playhouse with the size of its stage. Luke’s only point of reference was the blinking red light of the sign that twinkled like the light of a distant galaxy light years in the opposite direction.

“Watch your footing.” He warned, keeping one hand flush against the wall, as not to stray too far off course.

“I know.” Karen brushed him aside. He was going to have to pick and choose his battles carefully with this one. He could see that. They had gotten off to a rocky start. Luke had played his usual part in that. He wasn’t beyond admitting his mistakes… at least inwardly. He supposed he had been short with Karen because she brought him back down to reality. Waking up on a strange sidewalk hadn’t been as alarming for him as it might have been for most. He had been waking up on sidewalks, park benches, backseats and third rate motel room floors since he was sixteen. In fact, he had almost felt normal again. Karen reminded him of that quite innocently enough. She had been looking at the track marks on his arms and that had done the trick. Like a runaway semi coming full force around a blind corner, Luke was reminded that the summer of his careless youth was far behind him. He could run away from a dead mother and a nonexistent father, but there was no running from himself. It was disparaging to think that even out here, on the edge of the world, he could not free himself from the heavy stones of burden tied around his ankles.

“There should be a light somewhere around here.” He said, thinking aloud.

“Be my guest if you wanna go off on your own and give it a look.” Karen replied, pushing onward.

“I just mean there’s that sign back there. It’s all lit up like a goddamned Christmas tree. The juice for that thing’s gotta be coming from somewhere.”

“It might just be running on batteries.” She suggested. That was a possibility Luke had already considered.

“Maybe, but if it’s just on batteries, then sooner or later it’s bound to run out. That doesn’t sound like a mistake this Adam character would be dumb enough to make.” He waited as Karen considered.

“That’s exactly why there isn’t going to be any light switch, at least not one that works.” She replied.

“How do you figure that?” Luke asked.

“He got us all here somehow. He’s dropped us right down in his own little version of Mayberry and I think that if he wanted us to have light, he would have turned on the power, don’t you?” In truth, Luke no longer knew what to believe, but he didn’t have to worry about trying to explain that for much longer. Karen stopped.

“Why’d you stop?” He asked.

Shhh! Do you hear that?” Her voice peaked in a way that caught his interest.

“Hear wh-?” He stopped and listened with his ear cocked against the wall.

“What the hell is that?”

“It sounds like somebody’s out there… It sounds like… like they’re calling for help.”

6.

Chad stumbled up from the pantry with his hands cupped over his mouth as he called out to anyone who might hear him. The sky overhead had turned starless. The gentle night breeze had grown to a monstrous gale. The dust cloud towered over the desert floor, moving fast and leaving nothing untouched in its wake.

“Is anybody there?!” He called out. There was something waiting in the road up ahead, beyond the theater and out toward the old church where the steeple rose above everything for a fifty mile radius. “Help! Please help me!” His words were drowned out as a metal oil drum tipped over and went rolling across the street in front of him. Chad ducked into an alleyway behind the theater and clasped his hand over his face. He was being watched. He kept glancing back over his shoulder. The thing which waited for him inside the pantry was moving in on him, he could feel it. “Somebody help me please!” He cried out. The sand was choking him, coating his mouth and the back of his throat. It occurred to him that he was going to die like this, up against some long-forgotten building in some long-forgotten outpost in the middle of nowhere. In the morning the others would wake and maybe some of them would notice his absence and maybe they’d write him off the way they had written that Masserelli guy off. His disappearance had been jarring but it hadn’t stopped the world from going round and neither would Chad.

The loose oil drum clanged against the side of the building, but Chad didn’t even bother looking up. The wind whipped against the back of his neck and he wondered if it would ever stop. A door suddenly opened and a body fell heavy onto him. Chad unleashed a shrill scream into the tangle of arms and legs caught in the narrow alley.

Get off me!” He screamed. “Get off!”

“It’s alright!” A woman cried. “You’re okay!” Chad ceased his fight and opened his eyes beneath the shield of his hand. The outline of two people – what looked like a man and a woman – were anchored next to him.

“What’s your name?” The man inquired.

“Chad, and I’m sure as hell glad to see you both. Are there others?” Karen and Luke exchanged a silent glance before Luke spoke again.

“Where did you come from?” He asked. Reluctantly, Chad told them his story.

7.

The storm drew some of the weary out of their sleep and others were awakened by the low murmur that rose up from the foot of the stage. From inside the confines of the old concrete building, the wind howled through the groaning rafters of the Empire’s shell. It served as a reminder that there was a world outside of the stagnant old theatre. There was life on another level. It was fierce and untamed, raging onward totally beyond their control.

“So you didn’t exactly see anything then?” Joel asked. He was seated squat with his back up against the far wall. Unseen by the others, he continually adjusted and readjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose. It was a useless task but one that made him feel at ease just the same.

“I saw enough to know that they were there one minute and gone the next.” Chad’s reply was defensive.

***

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BABYLON ROAD: Book I of The Babylon Road Chronicles

When one hundred six strangers wake to find themselves in a nameless desert outpost, all of them are left to wonder how and why they have ended up in such a place. By the end of the week, there will be fewer than twenty souls remaining. With the emergence of a mysterious figure the castaways know only as Adam, the desert begins to reveal itself as a dark and wondrous empire. Babylon Road is a supernatural thriller, which uses the starkness of a desert canvas to paint the journey of a lifetime. The first installment of Noah Brown's seven-part supernatural - thriller series, a tension driven plot and cast of unique characters create a spellbinding momentum that is sure to keep the pages turning. Previously released as a fiction blog, one reader described it as Lost meets Stephen King.

  • ISBN: 9781311078926
  • Author: Noah Brown
  • Published: 2016-06-20 01:20:09
  • Words: 107158
BABYLON ROAD: Book I of The Babylon Road Chronicles BABYLON ROAD: Book I of The Babylon Road Chronicles